Cornwall’s chief benefit seemed to be that one did not require to board a ship to visit it.
Genevieve struggled to find another reason for acclamation. Certainly, this thunderstorm did not improve it. The carriage inched over the muddy lane, as rain pummeled the meager selection of grass. Foamy waves crashed over the shore, as if believing the storm were not providing sufficient water. In truth, the storm sufficed in horribleness. England might have imperfect weather conditions, but it did not suffer from droughts.
“Tomorrow we’ll visit the beach,” Mama declared.
Billy scrunched his small forehead. “What if it’s still raining?”
“We shall take umbrellas.”
Genevieve questioned that an umbrella would be a hindrance to this rain. No doubt, the rain would merrily pummel the umbrella to pieces.
“You needn’t look glum, children.” Mama glanced at Mr. Ackley, the gray side-burned vicar who’d helped arrange this accommodation and was accompanying them to their new cottage. “This is a holiday.”
“Of course.” Genevieve attempted to smile, even though this was no holiday, no matter how valiantly Mama declared the contrary.
“I don’t like the beach,” Billy announced. “The waves are scary.”
“Nonsense,” Mr. Ackley said. “All little boys here like the beach.”
“I’m not from here,” Billy pouted. “I’m from Cumberland.”
“People travel far to come to the beaches here,” Mr. Ackley said.
“Billy is fond of forests,” Mama said apologetically.
Billy nodded solemnly. “Forests have frogs.”
There was silence, as Mr. Ackley pondered this fact.
Normally, one didn’t abandon one’s house and hurry across the country. Moreover, nobody, even the most fun-loving and whimsical, characteristics unlikely to describe her parents, moved across the country and changed their last names.
But it had happened. Mama had informed Billy and Genevieve they would now adopt the surname “Potter.” Genevieve knew the reason. She’d heard the late-night whispers between her mother and father, and she’d seen the panic in their eyes.
Apparently, debt was the only thing in her parents’ possession, and unfortunately, matters were not alleviated by its vast abundance.
The carriage swerved, then stopped, and Mama eagerly opened the door. They disembarked and stared at a small cottage. The white paint covering the stone exterior was so dull, it practically melded with the cloudy sky. The tiny window frames were painted a playful teal, though playfulness was not the emotion reeling through Genevieve’s body. It was the roof though which caused Genevieve’s heart to stop: it was thatched, a structural success architects had spent centuries surpassing. Genevieve longed for the modern Georgian columns of her family’s manor house.
Tears ambushed her eyes, but she fought the urge to succumb to them. Instead, she raised her chin, as if it were perfectly normal to move from a marvelous manor house in the Lake District, equipped with enormous windows overlooking verdant mountains, speckled with wildflowers, to a tiny home with tiny windows that overlooked a gray sky.
Mr. Ackley flashed a beatific smile. “You’ll like Ocean Cottage. There’s a path behind the cottage that leads to the water. Cornwall is the most beautiful place on earth.”
“How nice,” Mama said politely, her gaze on the ocean beyond.
“My wife will call on you tomorrow, after you have time to get settled.”
Mr. Ackley’s gaze drifted to Genevieve, and she stiffened.
“I might bring my son.” Mr. Ackley leaned toward her. “He’s of marriageable age.”
Mr. Ackley paused with the flourish of a magician, releasing doves into the sky, confident of his audience’s surprise and enthusiasm.
Neither emotion soared through Genevieve. No doubt, her eyes didn’t glimmer, and her cheeks didn’t flush, and Mr. Ackley let out a disappointed sigh.
“He is hoping to become a bishop one day,” Mr. Ackley said.
“Ah.” Genevieve gave a polite nod.
Mr. Ackley was silent, as if waiting for Genevieve to mention an ambition to organize church flower competitions, sing in a choir, and sit on hard pews for extended periods while gazing adoringly at her husband.
Mama cleared her throat. “Genevieve, please help Sally unload the trunks.”
At least, Mama would throttle any innate matchmaking instincts: a husband might discover they were here under an assumed name.
Even the least detail-oriented of men was apt to be startled if a vicar read a different surname during a wedding service than the one to which he was accustomed. No marriage would be legal if the vicar did not state the bride’s correct name.
Genevieve helped Sally haul the last pieces of luggage from the carriage and placed them on the doorstep. Normally, Genevieve didn’t carry luggage, but nothing now was normal.
Mama thanked Mr. Ackley, then she removed a key from her reticule and unlocked the door.
They stepped inside.
“Well, this cottage is most adorable.” Mama’s voice wobbled, perhaps from resting her gaze on a puddle spreading on the drawing room floor.
“You’re correct.” Genevieve strode gamely through the cottage, opening each cupboard until she found a vase she could place underneath the leak.
The wooden floorboards groaned as she strode over their surface, as if shocked the cottage hadn’t been abandoned.
An odd musty scent Genevieve hoped was merely mildew pervaded. She would have to do a careful exploration of the windows tomorrow.
She hugged her mother. “It will be fine, you’ll see.”
“A brilliant place for a holiday,” Mama declared.
“Indeed,” Genevieve said, and Mama beamed.
In truth, the seaside had seemed unnecessary when one lived in the Lake District. There, one had access to both water and mountains. Genevieve ignored the sudden pang of homesickness and smiled brightly.
“I don’t want to be here,” Billy pouted.
Genevieve knelt down, so she was at her younger brother’s eye level. “It will be fun.”
“It’s small,” Billy said. “And there’s rain inside.”
“Well, tomorrow, we’ll fix the leak. We’ll make the cottage ours. Do you think you can help me find the leak?”
Billy widened his eyes, then nodded.
“Wonderful.” Genevieve smiled.
“You’re a good daughter,” her mother said.
Genevieve kissed her cheek. “Everything will look nicer in the daytime. It just needs a bit of sunshine.”
Mama nodded her head, and Genevieve hoped she was correct, and they hadn’t just relinquished everything they’d ever known for a ramshackle cottage filled with small, shabby furniture.
“You should have another season,” Mama said mournfully.
“I don’t mind.”
That, at least, was true. Genevieve had been a wallflower, an occupation she suspected would be duller next season. Only Portia and Daisy remained unmarried. Portia’s family planned to remain in London during the autumn, hopeful Portia would secure a proposal then. Daisy also remained unwed, but since she was confined to her chair, she was an infrequent companion at societal events.
“You should marry,” Mama said. “You should be caring for your own family, and not mine.”
“You’ll always be my family,” Genevieve said, but Mama scurried from the room.
Genevieve helped Sally, focusing on finding new homes for each object. She moved methodically, despite her quivering fingers, despite her tightening chest, despite her careening heart, until everything was unpacked.
Perhaps tomorrow, she would feel settled.
Despite England’s many geographical variations, England had reached perfection in only one region: Cornwall.
Sebastian had noted this indubitable fact on previous occasions, but some things should be repeated, just as ministers were prone to remark multiple times upon God’s goodness.
Soon, Sebastian would be in Cornwall, even if now he needed to content himself with being in Hampshire, ensconced in the garish crenulated manor house he’d inherited from his second cousin along with his title.
“You’d like me to burn these invitations?” Mr. Hawthorne asked skeptically.
Light shone through the library’s stained-glass windows, turning Sebastian’s estate manager’s face an unpleasant compilation of purple and scarlet.
Sebastian resented Mr. Hawthorne’s display of dubiousness. He shrugged. “Or answer them first, but only to send my regrets.”
Mr. Hawthorne sorted through various gilt-edged vellum. “You won’t attend any of these events?”
“Hmph.” Mr. Hawthorne frowned, then proceeded to pace the oriental carpet.
“This is no occasion for hmphing. This is the end of summer, and I will spend it in Cornwall. This is not a time to be in some confined space in Hampshire.”
“Most people would not consider castles to be confined spaces.”
“Most people do not know the wonders of the ocean.”
Mr. Hawthorne halted his vigorous trudging over the carpet. “You spend much time amidst the waves. You might injure yourself one day.”
“Hogwash,” Sebastian said. “Forgive my language.”
Mr. Hawthorne gave a pained smile, perhaps not actually laced with poison, but wilting all the same. “Lady Letitia was most eager for your return.”
Sebastian shuddered. “Is she back from Vienna?”
“She called on the manor house on multiple occasions with her mother.”
“Blast it. I suppose Lady Letitia’s transferred her affections from Lord Metcalfe, now that he’s found himself a wife.”
Mr. Hawthorne coughed. “Besides, I am afraid you cannot visit the cottage. Your new tenants have begun their lease.”
“New tenants?” Sebastian frowned. “I didn’t know anyone had moved out.”
“No one has,” his estate manager said. “But the cottage on the shore was unoccupied.”
“You let Ocean Cottage?” Sebastian rounded his eyes.
“Yes.” Mr. Hawthorne nodded with a casualness unsuited for the delivery of tragic news.
“But you’re not supposed to let Ocean Cottage! I just purchased that!” Sebastian leaped from his seat, not minding the manner in which his chair scraped over the three-hundred-year-old wooden floorboards, conscious only of the vile thumping of his heart.
Mr. Hawthorne blinked, and it occurred to Sebastian that his demeanor might appear overly forceful.
Sebastian breathed in, then out.
It was simply a cottage.
Sebastian’s heartbeat quickened, and his fingers developed an odd propensity to shake, as if they thought themselves in the center of an earthquake.
“But where am I supposed to change my clothes? Where am I supposed to sleep?” Sebastian demanded. “Ocean Cottage is by the shore. That’s why it’s named that after all. Dashed good name. The sort of name that explains what a place’s chief purpose is. None of that Lily Cottage or Gardenia Cottage nonsense.”
“One could argue those places have an abundance of the aforementioned flowers,” Mr. Hawthorne said.
Sebastian blinked. “Hardly an important fact. What does a gardenia even look like?”
Mr. Hawthorne drew his eyebrows together, as if similarly flummoxed by the question.
A tornado seemed stuck in Sebastian’s chest, and he blew air from between his lips. He attempted to emanate calm, but when he spoke, each word was unnaturally clipped. “How long is the cottage let for?”
“Indefinitely, Your Grace.”
Indefinitely. There could not be a crueler word in the dictionary. One might as well say “without hope.”
Sebastian glowered. His estate manager didn’t seem cognizant of the horror Sebastian was experiencing.
“You may recall I wrote about the fact in a letter to you.”
“While I was in Cumberland?”
“Indeed, Your Grace.”
“Oh, I didn’t read those,” Sebastian said impatiently.
Mr. Hawthorne remained irritatingly silent, as if he were a judge, confident amidst arguing solicitors, histrionically inclined witnesses, and the spurting of opinions from curious onlookers, that only his action ultimately mattered.
And Mr. Hawthorne had already acted: he’d let the cottage.
Sebastian narrowed his eyes. “You needn’t be smug.”
“I would never dream of such a thing,” his estate manager assured him.
“I doubt that. Besides, those letters were awfully dense, with the words crisscrossed and written diagonally.”
“I was attempting to conserve money, Your Grace.”
“I have plenty of money,” Sebastian said. “What I don’t have now is a cottage by the ocean.”
“Your Grace, you have an enormous castle. It is much admired and receives visitors regularly.”
“Who admire the Jacobin style,” Sebastian said. “I know. I’ve been on one of those ghastly tours. So many pontifications about windows.”
“The windows are most interesting.” Mr. Hawthorne retained a peeved expression.
Perhaps Sebastian should have read those letters. But he’d had plenty of other things to do. He’d assisted the Duke of Ainsworth in capturing a criminal. And he’d been wounded one night, while posing as a highwayman. Perhaps everyone had told him it was a graze. There’d been blood, and he was dashed certain his blood was supposed to stay on the inside of his body.
“I’m going to pay a call to those tenants.”
“Indeed, Your Grace? I should perhaps inform you that they are a nice family. Mr. Ackley, our contact there, assured me they were most respectful.”
“All families are nice. Or should be nice. That’s no concern of mine. My concern is my cottage.”
Sebastian departed his library and informed his valet to pack his clothes with the utmost haste.
Soon, he marched from the castle, armed with a large valise, enjoying the sound as the heavy front door slammed behind him. The problem with butlers was that they were always opening doors. Some days, Sebastian simply wanted to slam a door. This was decidedly one of those days, though unfortunately, slamming a door would not fix the problem of the people in his cottage. He strode to his stables, ordered his groom to prepare his chaise, then departed. Sebastian had looked forward to returning to Cornwall all year. He’d only been to the cottage once, and he’d managed to avoid seeing a single inhabitant in the remote location.
The place was perfect. He wasn’t going to be forced into some posting inn, or worse, instilling the interest of every matchmaking mama in a one-hundred-mile radius who would arrange balls and picnics, dinner parties and walking excursions, all in the hopes of distracting him from his goal: rest and relaxation.
Once he sorted this triviality, everything would be perfect. Cottages were not filled with large staff, and he could put his legs on the tables without the silent scorn of footmen and Mr. Hawthorne.
None of his servants thought he should be in his position. Second cousins of dukes weren’t supposed to inherit dukedoms. They were supposed to mention their ducal relative while drinking at public houses, as a bit of trivia for the barmaid, who would know better than to ask if they’d visited the ducal estate.
Sebastian had spent months eagerly anticipating spending time on the waves in Cornwall. He was confident he wouldn’t be disturbed by senior servants wanting to speak about estate business or minutiae in planning festivities he didn’t desire to have, but which his estate manager was convinced would be good for maintaining his reputation with Cornwall’s elite. He refused to give up his stay at the cottage for dinners with Lady Letitia and other members of the ton, no matter if the cottage was already rented to someone else.
Sebastian hurried from Hampshire toward Cornwall, stopping briefly at posting inns. The nights lacked comfort, the inns chosen for their location than any pretense at sumptuous surroundings, until the scent of salty waves filled the air.
Though Genevieve had hoped she’d succeeded in fixing the leak, last night rain had tumbled from the sky, trampling the thatched roof. Today, ominous dripping accompanied the occasional clinking of Mama’s knitting needles.
Genevieve placed a vase onto the floor.
The cottage’s walls might have lacked the height of her former manor house, but Genevieve was short. She needed a ladder. Genevieve strode toward the door, nearly colliding with Billy.
Her younger brother’s eyes sparkled and shone. “We have a visitor!”
Genevieve blinked. “A visitor?”
“A man pulled his chaise in front of the cottage!” Billy shouted, running about her. “And he stepped out.”
“Is that so?”
“Was it Mr. Ackley?” Mama asked, not halting her embroidery.
Billy shook his head in a knowledgeable way. “Mr. Ackley is old. This man was not.”
“He has a nice tailcoat,” Billy remarked. “Many buttons.”
Mama frowned and halted her rhythmic stitching.
The ton possessed nice tailcoats, but no one was supposed to know their location.
“The buttons are shiny,” Billy expanded. “And he’s wearing a top hat.”
“You must be the most observant six-year-old child there is,” Genevieve said.
Billy’s chest broadened. “He’s coming to this cottage.”
Mama and Genevieve exchanged glances. Mama’s face had whitened. Mama’s face was perpetually whitening, no doubt whenever she thought of the creditors. Father was in London, attempting to procure funds and see if anyone wanted to take on the expense of managing a large manor house in the middle of nowhere with a long-ago-destroyed topsoil unsuitable for anything except the occasional amble.
Since no joyful letter had arrived proclaiming the presence of a buyer, Genevieve suspected no such miraculous occurrence had happened.
Perhaps the miraculous occurrence would never happen.
“It’s probably someone about the property,” Genevieve said. “Perhaps even someone to fix the leak.”
Billy eyed Genevieve skeptically, moving an eyebrow upward. “You don’t believe that.”
“It’s possible,” Genevieve said, her voice defensive.
Footsteps sounded on the stone, and Genevieve and her mother settled onto the sofa. Genevieve smoothed her dress hastily, as much from nervousness as a desire to look presentable for this stranger.
Genevieve glanced through the window at the approaching figure. Despite the general stinginess of the window’s size, the person was unmistakable.
The smile Genevieve had plastered on her face wobbled, then shook, then toppled entirely. Blood drained from her face, and when Mama elbowed her, no doubt so Genevieve might rise and curtsy, Genevieve battled the instinct to faint.
This was no new servant come to assist with the roof. Nor was this some friendly neighbor, driven as much by curiosity as by the prospect of fresh small talk and the potential of impressing newcomers with his local knowledge and amiableness to newcomers.
This was a duke.
More specifically, this was the Duke of Sandridge. Genevieve had met him over the summer. Her stomach sank, as if determined to succumb to the gravity seventeenth-century scientists had made their life’s work.
“You look pale. Are you well?” Mama asked, even though maternal questions had never been part of their lives before.
There’d always been nannies, then governesses to separate them.
Now there was no one. They’d only been able to take a single servant with them to the cottage, and though Genevieve’s mother declared the separation from everything immaculate and sumptuous and extravagant was temporary—the hushed conversations between her and Papa indicated the opposite.
“Me? Unwell?” Genevieve shook her head hastily, and a lock fell from her chignon. She struggled to fix her hair. “Nonsense.”
Mother sighed, as if already disinterested with her short attempt at maternal qualities.
Footsteps sounded at the door, then pounding.
“Mama! Mama!” Billy shouted. “The strange man is at the door.”
“And so eager to visit us.” Mama gave a benign smile. “We haven’t lost all our importance. Please open it, Billy. Sally has gone shopping.”
The pounding continued, then the door flew open.
Genevieve jumped from the sofa, an athletic feat given its close level to the ground and the unevenly sagging cushions that adorned it. “On second thought, Mama, I feel unwell.”
Mama scrutinized her. “You don’t appear weak.”
“Genevieve’s strong as an ox,” Billy declared. “Everyone knows that.”
Footsteps thundered on the corridor, and this time, Genevieve didn’t need to feign trembling. Dread gobbled her, gnawing at her chest, her knees, her throat.
Though none of Genevieve’s nannies and governesses had felt compelled to issue complaints about Genevieve, considering her adequately gifted in the art of sharing and unlikely to sneak reptiles into their rooms like their naughtiest charges did, the Duke of Sandridge did not share Genevieve’s former governesses’ blithe impressions of her.
It didn’t matter how many people might term Genevieve placid, pleasant and peaceful, nor did it matter how vigorously Genevieve sought to instill similar values in her younger brother. Goodness knew her parents were too occupied with their dwindling coffers to muse over the importance of abstract values, particularly those not aligned with achieving and maintaining wealth. The Duke of Sandridge still loathed her.
He couldn’t know she was here: she had shot him.
The duke was apt to remark upon their past meeting, and Genevieve suspected her mother might find it of interest that Genevieve had met the duke in the past, alone and with no introduction.
But then, one generally didn’t obtain introductions to strange men when one was occupied with taking illicit carriage rides with one’s cousin. It didn’t matter how vital one’s cousin considered the carriage ride, or how convinced she’d been that her betrothed was bleeding in a ditch and might soon start hearing cherubic voices welcoming him to St. Peter’s Gate. Genevieve knew she shouldn’t have accompanied her cousin Juliet on her misguided mission, and even though Genevieve had protected her cousin and her admirably with the use of her pearl-hilted pistol, she doubted Mother would be equally enthusiastic about Genevieve’s aim.
Certainly, the Duke of Sandridge had lacked enthusiasm.
Genevieve’s heart careened in her chest.
She’d shot somebody: a duke.
And now he was in her cottage.