There could surely be nothing worse than having been born a woman, Chloe Muirhead thought with unabashed self-pity as she sucked a globule of blood off her left forefinger and looked to see if any more was about to bubble up and threaten to ruin the strip of delicate lace she was sewing back onto one of the Duchess of Worthingham’s best afternoon caps. Unless, perhaps, one had the good fortune to be a duchess. Or else a single lady in possession of forty thousand pounds a year and the freedom to set up one’s own independent establishment.
She, alas, was not a duchess. Or in sole possession of even forty pence a year apart from her allowance from her father. Besides, she did not want to set up somewhere independently. It sounded suspiciously lonely. She could not really claim to be lonely now. The duchess was kind to her. So was the duke in his gruff way. And whenever Her Grace entertained afternoon visitors or went visiting herself, she always invited Chloe to join her.
It was not the duchess’s fault that she was eighty-two years old to Chloe’s twenty-seven. Or that the neighbors with whom she consorted most frequently must all be upward of sixty. In some cases they were very much upward. Mrs. Booth, for example, who always carried a large ear trumpet and let out a loud, querulous “Eh?” every time someone so much as opened her mouth to speak, was ninety-three.
If she had been born male, Chloe thought, rubbing her thumb briskly over her forefinger to make sure the bleeding had stopped and it was safe to pick up her needle again, she might have done all sorts of interesting, adventurous things when she had felt it imperative to leave home. As it was, all she had been able to think of to do was write to the Duchess of Worthingham, who was her mother’s godmother and had been her late grandmother’s dearest friend, and offer her services as a companion. An unpaid companion, she had been careful to explain.
A kind and gracious letter had come back within days, as well as a sealed note for Chloe’s father. The duchess would be delighted to welcome dear Chloe to Manville Court, but as a guest, not as an employee—the not had been capitalized and heavily underlined. And Chloe might stay as long as she wished—forever, if the duchess had her way. She could not think of anything more delightful than to have someone young to brighten her days and make her feel young again. She only hoped Sir Kevin Muirhead could spare his daughter for a prolonged visit. She showed wonderful tact in adding that, of course; as she had in writing separately to him, for Chloe had explained in her own letter just why living at home had become intolerable to her, at least for a while, much as she loved her father and hated to upset him.
So she had come. She would be forever grateful to the duchess, who treated her more like a favored granddaughter than a virtual stranger and basically self-invited guest. But oh, she was lonely too. One could be lonely and unhappy while being grateful at the same time, could one not?
And, ah, yes. She was unhappy too.
Her world had been turned completely upside down twice within the past six years, which ought to have meant, if life proceeded along logical lines, as it most certainly did not, that the second time it was turned right side up again. She had lost everything any young woman could ever ask for the first time—hopes and dreams, the promise of love and marriage and happily-ever-after, the prospect of security and her own place in society. Hope had revived last year, though in a more muted and modest form. But that had been dashed too, and her very identity had hung in the balance. In the four years between the two disasters her mother had died. Was it any wonder she was unhappy?
She gave the delicate needlework her full attention again. If she allowed herself to wallow in self-pity, she would be in danger of becoming one of those habitual moaners and complainers everyone avoided.
It was still only very early in May. A largish mass of clouds covered the sun and did not look as if it planned to move off anytime soon, and a brisk breeze was gusting along the east side of the house, directly across the terrace outside the morning room, where Chloe sat sewing. It had not been a sensible idea to come outside, but it had rained quite unrelentingly for the past three days, and she had been desperate to escape the confines of the house and breathe in some fresh air.
She ought to have brought her shawl out with her, even her cloak and gloves, she thought, though then of course she would not have been able to sew, and she had promised to have the cap ready before the duchess awoke from her afternoon sleep. Dratted cap and dratted lace. But that was quite unfair, for she had volunteered to do it even when the duchess had made a mild protest.
“Are you quite sure it will be no trouble, my dear?” she had asked. “Bunker is perfectly competent with a needle.”
Miss Bunker was her personal maid.
“Of course I am,” Chloe had assured her. “It will be my pleasure.”
The duchess always had that effect upon her. For all the obvious sincerity of her welcome and kindness of her manner, Chloe felt the obligation, if not to earn her living, then at least to make herself useful whenever she was able.
She was shivering by the time she completed her task and cut the thread with fingers that felt stiff from the cold. She held out the cap, draped over her right fist. The stitches were invisible. No one would be able to tell that a repair had been made.
She did not want to go back inside despite the cold. The duchess would probably be up from her sleep and would be in the drawing room bright with happy anticipation of the expected arrival of her grandson. She would be eager to extol his many virtues yet again though he had not been to Manville since Christmas. Chloe was tired of hearing of his virtues. She doubted he had any.