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The Journey to Welbourne Manor

The Journey to Welbourne Manor

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Published by Bookworm-93

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Published by: Bookworm-93 on May 25, 2010
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07/21/2010

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The Journey to Welbourne Manor 
Chapter One
“And you say she’s chaste?” Lord Bainbridge’s voice burbled in the back of his throat. Behind her, out of her uncle’s line of vision, the horrid old baron stroked a gnarled finger across Emma Lawson’s shoulder blade. “I’ll not take her unless she’s a virgin.”Emma shuddered even as her uncle bridled in indignation. “By God, the girl is granddaughter to an earl,gently born and raised, Bainbridge.” Uncle George sneered down at the older man. “If you doubt myword, we’ll have the doctor in to prove it.”Now Emma glared at her uncle. The baron prodded her again, poking her ribs as if she were a marketsow he was testing for plumpness. She smacked his hand away. “I’ll thank you to keep your hands toyourself, sir.” Rounding on her uncle, she allowed him to see all the hurt and bewilderment churninginside her. “Surely this is a jest, sir? I know we’ve had our disagreements, but you cannot think I wouldwish to wed this…
him.
” She gestured helplessly.Her uncle stiffened. “Quiet, Emma. You’ll do as you’re told.”“But I—” She drew a deep breath. “My aunt would never countenance such a match.”“Who do you think first approached me, missy?” Lord Bainbridge flashed his stained teeth at her in agrin. “Quite a logical thought, it was. Poor woman’s got two chicks of her own to consider. Launchingthem into society will prove expensive.” He raked his gaze down the front of her. “It’ll also prove to be asight easier once she’s removed a beauty like you from their proximity.”Desperate, Emma grasped at her only straw of hope. “If money is the issue, Uncle, then you know I’ll behappy to help! In fourteen months I’ll reach my majority. If only we wait, I could—”“Enough!” Her uncle had gone a brilliant shade of red. “Bainbridge has an ancient title, a respectableestate and deep pockets. It’s a fine match. You’ll make it and be grateful.” He turned away. “We’vedetails to discuss. Go on to your room now.”“But—”“Go!” In the six months she’d lived with him, Emma had never heard such a tone from her mild-mannered uncle. No—it usually fell to his wife and occasionally to his daughters to torment her. Fightingtears, she backed away.“I’ll have your answer now, Bainbridge,” she heard her uncle say as she reached to pull the door closedbehind her. “I’ve need of the money. If you don’t want the chit, I’m sure I’ll find someone willing to agreeto my terms.”Emma froze. Leaving the door opened a crack, she strained to hear the baron’s reply. “Oh, I’ll have her,”he avowed, “once we’re sure she’s intact.” There was a slight pause and she could imagine the twistedanticipation on the old man’s face. “I’d heard the rumors about your troubles. Whispers of badmanagement and failed investments are circulating, but no one is quite convinced.” He gave a rustycackle. “This ought to do it, though. You must truly be in a mess, to be in such a hurry to sell the girl.”Footsteps sounded in the room and the door was pushed decisively closed. Shaking, Emma turnedaway. Her legs gave way and she pressed her spine against the door frame, sinking slowly to sit on her heels.
 
How had her life come to this? Not long ago she’d been happy, the pampered daughter of a dotingfather, with a prominent position in local society and prospects of a fine marriage. Her eyes closed. Evennow, she could not think of Robert without pain, even though she’d endured far worse since hisabandonment.Her father, though, had been given no choice. His heart had failed and he’d slipped away inside a week.Robert’s heart had failed, too, but in an entirely voluntary manner. He’d chosen the pleasures of Townover her, left her alone and waiting—and look where she had ended. Tears began to flow. Now she wasonly a poor relation, and her future—it did not bear thinking about.A sharp tug on her arm shook her from her reverie. “Emma? Whatever are you doing, girl?” Her auntglanced at the closed door. “Is there someone with your uncle?”Emma looked down at the fingers gripping her tightly, then up at the crafty look on her aunt’s face as shelistened at the door—and something inside of her shifted. Robert’s desertion had torn her heart, but this—this betrayal by the very people who were meant to love and protect her—it was turning her soul tostone. Faith and hope withered even as understanding grew. The painful truth shone clear at last. Shewas alone in this world. There was no one to help her, to save her. It was all up to her.Her aunt looked down. Something she saw in Emma’s face gave her pause.“It’s Bainbridge in there, isn’t it?” Suddenly she stood, dragging Emma with her. “Come along.” Shehustled her to the front parlor and thrust her inside. Her two daughters watched, incurious, as Emmastumbled over the threshold.“Daphne, Danae, watch your cousin. I’ll be back in a moment. Don’t let her out of your sight.”Neither girl answered. They were clustered around a set of newspapers spread on a table. Emma threwherself on a settee and tried to think. She must find a way out of this disastrous match.“Why would the Duke of Manning bother to marry Lady Ramsden now?” Danae asked her sister in adeliberately loud tone. She rustled a paper. “After he’s lived with her so scandalously all these years?”Daphne shrugged. “It seems the lady’s every breath stirs a scandal. They say you could paper all of Carlton House with the broadsheets that have been printed of her. And now—” she leaned in to her sister “—it’s rumored that one of her cicisbei is so distraught at the idea of her marriage that he’s castingoff all of his mementos in a private auction. And the grand centerpiece…” Her voice lowered to awhisper, but Emma was scarcely attending. She was too absorbed in her own misery.But Danae’s screech nearly startled her out of her seat. “No! Upon a fan? How—?”“Never mind, I’ll explain later.” Daphne glanced at Emma.“Do you think Emma will be invited to the wedding?” Danae asked in a loud whisper. “I swear, it will bethe event of the year. They are talking of it even in the village. And Lady Ramsden
is
her mother’ssister.”“Of course not, you ninny,” Daphne scoffed. “Mama would never permit it.” She gave a snort. “You canbe sure that she checked to see if Emma had any contact with her notorious family before sheconsented to take her in. I heard Papa tell her that all connections had been severed years ago, whenEmma’s mama died.”“It’s still rather exciting, isn’t it?” Danae said wistfully.
 
“It’s shameful, that’s what it is,” Daphne insisted. “Catherine Ramsden is not the sort of woman you
claim
as a relation, even if she was once a countess. Moreover, Welbourne Manor is the most infamousestate in England. It would be the ruination of any young woman to even set foot in the place.”The scornful declaration caught Emma’s attention. She sat up. Her cousin’s words echoed in her head.
It would be the ruination of any young woman to even set foot in the place.
 And just like that, Emma had her solution. Somehow, someway, she was going to Welbourne Manor.
* * *
They were nearly upon him. Robert Marchwell did not look over his shoulder. By some miracleRowland’s hirelings hadn’t spotted him yet. He knew he must make himself less conspicuous. Heremoved his fine beaver hat and ducked into an alley. At the end he emerged into a back lane, startling alaborer unloading a cart.“A fair trade, good man?” he asked. “My hat for yours?” He tossed the fellow a coin. “And a littlesomething extra to ensure that you never saw me.”Bemused, the laborer handed over his worn hat. Robert placed it on his head, pleased to find it too largeand hanging low over his forehead. He nodded his thanks and entered the open door at the man’s back.“Eh?” He’d found a storeroom and surprised another chap. This one, swathed in a large apron, wasshelving the supplies as they came in. “Who’re you?” the clerk demanded. “What’re you doing?”“A nice brisk business, thank you,” Robert answered affably. “That’s a fine apron, with nice deeppockets.” He tried to wiggle out of his tightly fitted coat. “Will you take this coat in trade, sir? Sewed bythe finest London tailors.” He grimaced. “But you’ll have to help me out of it.”He’d only just got the apron wrapped around him and his precious cargo stored in one those deeppockets when a ruckus sounded outside.“Hey, now!” the laborer protested. “That’s mine! I made a fair trade for it.”Robert was through the storeroom to the front of the building in a flash. He erupted into a busy generalstore, where several of its patrons stared in disapproval of his haste. Smoothly, he stepped behind afabric counter. He snatched off the hat, hefted a bolt of cambric from a shelf and pretended to start insurprise along with the rest of the room when two large men burst through the door behind him. The pair moved through the storefront, cursorily inspecting the clientele before heading out onto the street.Robert grinned. Rowland’s bullies were proving easier to elude than he’d feared. He slipped back intothe storeroom.“Here now, you can’t just come and go back here,” protested the clerk.“I’m off, I promise.” Robert grabbed a pair of stacked crates. “Might I have use of these, though?”The man waved a weary hand and Robert was gone. He kept to the alleys until he was forced to makehis way back to Maidenhead’s main street. Keeping the crates raised carefully before his face, he madehis way east toward the edge of town.A carriage accident outside a posting house delayed him. A crowd had gathered to cheer the shouting,sparring drivers. With careful steps, Robert worked his way through the happy spectators. He’d nearlyreached the middle of the crush when he felt an ominous tingle at the back of his neck.

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