Alone. Unwanted. Unloved.
Amy Fraser is not unaccustomed to being alone, but the death of her beloved sister leaves Amy reeling as she struggles to come to grips with her grief. How could she possibly fulfill her sister’s deathbed promise to watch over her brother-in-law?
Eager to obey his beloved wife’s last wish—to watch over Amy—James is not about to kick her out. But Amy is desperately in need of some discipline and guidance. Though James is quick to put the willful Amy over his knee and correct her defiant behavior, neither is prepared for the affectionate intimacy that blossoms between them. Or the lustful turn that their intimacy soon takes.
Can devotion replace protection and foster love, or will their promises break in the face of adversity?
In the late February lamplight over the tea table, Amy Fraser’s face was a little patch of stark white under the softly gleaming auburn of her hair, which was braided very plainly about her face. The rest of her was a dark blur of mourning clothes. Durable still, the heavy blacks had been bought for the death of her parents nearly two years before and were now too tight and just a little too short, for the eighteen-year-old had grown significantly since then. The skirts showed off her ankles beneath three layers of petticoat, like a younger girl’s, and she wore them with considerable embarrassment. She was tired, and her wide, sensitive mouth drooped a little as she stared blankly at the cup and saucer in her own hand. She had not been to the funeral that morning, but had been forced to stay home with Mrs. Ashfort while all the ladies of the Ashforts’ acquaintance expressed their condolences.
James, Amy’s brother-in-law, had gone to the funeral, and now he sat to her left, his grim face and bloodshot eyes testifying to more than one night of weeping since his beloved Flora had closed her eyes for the last time. Flora had begged Amy to take care of him, and Amy considered him now, wondering how she had dared to agree to that foolish request. Take care of James! Flora might as well have set her to take care of the Prime Minister or some all-powerful djinn from the Arabian Nights for all the opportunities James gave to be comforted. Yet Amy, on her knees, had said yes, yes of course, as she wiped a spot of blood from her precious sister’s cheek.
“That is how you take it, Amy, with milk?” Mrs. Ashfort’s voice cut unpleasantly across Amy’s unhappy reverie and made the girl startle. Her harsh Manchester accent still sounded strange to Amy’s ears after the years she’d spent at school in the south, losing her own Scottish brogue. When Amy didn’t immediately respond, Mrs. Ashfort nodded impatiently at the cup. “You take your tea with milk? Is something wrong with it?”
Amy blinked. “No, Mrs. Ashfort.” She took a deep swallow of the hot, strong India tea and managed a meager smile. “Thank you.”
“Eat a biscuit,” Mrs. Ashfort ordered sternly. “You look like to faint.” She was not a very tall woman, nor was she fat, yet somehow she gave the impression of being substantial, and Amy had once seen her intervene to carry a heavy coalscuttle up the stairs for a struggling parlor maid. Her dark, imposing brows made her look as severe and intimidating as her son. Yet her features might have been called handsome, and there was sometimes a glint of wry humor in her black eyes, though not often.
“Let her be, Mother,” James said in a low voice, though he did not lift his gaze from the rug. “How is she supposed to look today?”
Mrs. Ashfort pressed her lips together and tossed her head, and to propitiate her, very mechanically, Amy ate a hard biscuit, coughing a little at the crumbs. She certainly had no desire to make Mrs. Ashfort any more displeased with her. Everything Amy did, said, or was, displeased Elizabeth Ashfort, who considered her late daughter-in-law’s sister too frivolous, too Scottish, too mannered, or most bluntly, “a bit daft.” Before Flora’s death, when Amy’s presence in the house had only extended to school holidays, Amy had been a bit amused by the dry old woman. Now, with Flora gone, it was James’s house, and his mother was the lady of the house. She could make Amy’s life unpleasant.When he had drunk a cup of tea, James stood up, buttoning his black frock coat closed. “I am going back to the mill. Amy, come down to my office in the mill yard at quarter past seven.” He frowned briefly at the windows, where the gloom of evening was already beginning to gather. “Have a servant walk with you,” he added.
“Yes, James,” Amy said in a little voice, sounding unusually meek. She supposed, at last, it was time to talk about her future. Amy’s parents were gone, and now her sister was gone as well. Though she had family on her mother’s side, they were stern Hebridean Scots; her father had been the last of his line. And though Amy had a small inheritance from a great-aunt, her father had died at the low ebb of Fraser fortunes, and left his daughters with debts that James Ashfort had stepped in to pay. There was a little money, but not much. Probably not enough to secure any kind of advantageous match. Amy was well, if somewhat erratically, educated; she supposed she might become a governess.
She passed the hours before her appointment with James under Mrs. Ashfort’s eye, working on her embroidery while that woman knitted yards of impossibly delicate lace with an implacable face. Amy was exhausted and wished she might rest, but did not wish to rouse Mrs. Ashfort’s disdain by confessing her fatigue, and so at seven when she pulled on her shawl and followed the servant just down the little alley and through the mill yard, her steps were slow and her face very wan. James was not in his office, but on the floor of the mill supervising the shift end, his clerk informed her, and so Amy sat down to wait.
It was nearly a quarter of an hour before James came in, and when he did, he started and seemed not to remember having ordered her to be there. Amy’s eyes flashed with annoyance as she perceived that she was forgotten, and she rose. “If you are not ready for me, I will return to the house,” she said with a marked coldness.
“Stay,” James said plainly, and even in her irritation, she could see that he was as tired as she. He sat down at his desk, rubbing his forehead with his palm while Amy settled back into her chair. “Your mother’s brother has written,” he said finally and straightened up, reaching into a pigeonhole of the desk to find the letter. “He says that in return for the income from your annuity, he is willing to shelter you in his family’s home on Grimsay, in the outer isles.”
“Oh,” Amy said flatly, since James seemed to expect her to say something, and Amy could not think of anything at all to say about that—at least nothing that would not sound ungrateful and childish. But even the name of the island, Grimsay, seemed to suggest plain oatmeal, harsh winds, and long hours of dour sermons. That was, she’d understood generally from her mother, what the place had been like, and it was why Mrs. Fraser had been only too happy to live in Edinburgh with her husband.
On seeing that Amy wasn’t going to say anything more, James continued, “He’s a sharp fellow, and I suspect seventy pounds a year is a greater inducement to him than family duty. I can’t see, either, what kind of marriage prospects you’d have out there. But his home is open to you, nonetheless.”
Amy nodded mutely. Was that the end of it then? To be sent up to the wind-scoured islands her mother had fled for a better life on the mainland? The end of all her father’s plans and hopes, all her education? But there was nothing she could do about it, and so Amy kept silent.
“My home,” James said finally, “is also open to you. I cannot pretend my mother has any desire for a companion, but your presence may do her good, if you can learn to be docile. You must not expect to lead an aimless, idle life under my roof–”
At the injustice of that, Amy’s eyes, ordinarily of a soft blue-gray, went icy with fury, and an involuntary noise escaped her. How could he speak so? Amy had spent the last three weeks serving Flora every moment, sleeping at the foot of her sister’s bed, and trying to soothe every pain until the last, too great to be borne, ended all the pain forever. “If I’ve deserved that reproach, then I ought to go to Grimsay, indeed!” she flared.
James pressed his lips together, but did not reprove her temper. Perhaps he, too, remembered what Amy had been doing. Instead he said, in a somewhat gentler tone, “You have been a good—a good girl, Amy, but you are an emotional creature, and you require discipline. You cannot be permitted to let grief overmaster you. Tell me how you passed your days at school?”
“At school? In study, I suppose.” Indeed, Amy supposed it more than knew it, for while her school had been very strict and exacting, their curriculum had been narrow and not particularly inspiring of careful study.
“I mean how did you pass your hours? At what hour did you arise?” James continued, more or less patient.
“Oh…” Amy sighed. “We arose at six and made ourselves and our bedroom ready for morning inspection, breakfasted at six-thirty, said devotions…” She ran through a minute schedule in a sort of weary drone, for the girls at her school had been regimented down to quarter hours for much of the day, and were whisked from piano practice to language lessons to calisthenics with little or no leisure. “And at six-thirty we had to answer for our infractions to Miss Cabot, then dinner at seven, and silent study until the bell rang for bed at nine o’clock.”
“I see.” James seemed a little taken aback at the volume of information his inquiry had produced. “Did you like it there?”
Amy looked up at him, not having expected such a question, but his dark eyes were honestly interested, and so she said, slowly, “I hated every moment there.”
James nodded. “They weren’t particularly delighted by your presence, either, if the letters Miss Cabot sent to us over the last two years were anything to judge by.”
She gave a little, muted sigh at that and carefully refrained from rolling her eyes. “I only wanted to go out and breathe the air.”
“You were given ample opportunity for breathing during the day, were you not?”
Frustrated, Amy shook her head vehemently. “There was always somebody around, watching, and frocks to keep clean. I couldn’t smell the rain on the old blackthorn or feel the light on my skin.”
“Celtic raptures are all very well, Amy,” James snapped, exasperated, “but you’re not to dismantle barred windows to go for walks in the middle of the night!” He drew in a deep breath, and seemed to deliberately pause to regain his composure, then he said, “In any case, the school seems to have at least accustomed you to keeping regular hours. I will make up a similar plan for you to keep while you are in my house, when I have spoken to Mother about what kind of work she has for you to do. You may take time in making your decision between my home and your uncle’s, but as long as you are here you are my responsibility and my ward, and you will comport yourself obediently or be corrected. Is that understood?”
James’s voice was, in its way, as markedly Yorkshire as his mother’s, though somewhat more cultured. When he was stern, it seemed to declare itself more forcefully, even his syllables sharp and irritated in that brusque Northern manner. It was hateful, Amy thought, and she had to take time to force herself to speak. “Yes, James,” she answered. Amy had not always gotten along well with her brother-in-law, and had bitterly resented the scoldings he gave her when letters from school made Flora cry with vexation that her little sister had been so naughty. Flora—if perfect deportment now could take away one iota of pain that Flora had suffered, Amy would have gladly submitted to the strictest of regimens from then until the end of time. At the thought, her throat grew thick with tears. Flora would never again cry for anything, and neither, Amy vowed fiercely, swallowing, would she. She would bear the Ashforts’ constraint as well as she could, for now. She felt crushed and battered by sorrow and severity, and rather morbidly self-pitying.
“Very well,” James said, and he rose, taking Amy’s hands to help her do the same. He retained possession of one of her hands and tucked it into his arm, keeping the girl close at his side as he led her out into the mill yard and back to the house. It was freezing cold, and now there was sleet coming down. Amy turned her face into James’s arm almost involuntarily, trying to keep the icy stuff out of her eyes and mouth. James led her carefully into the house and, when they were home, placed her directly in front of the fire to dry.
Over dinner, Mrs. Ashfort made James talk business and update her on the mill’s workings, but when that was done, conversation fell off and there was silence as Amy poked at a thick slice of mutton joint on her plate, trying to eat as little of it as possible until Mrs. Ashfort finally noticed and scolded her into finishing it. After the meal was done, they all retired to the drawing room, and Amy was allowed to sit with her beloved King Charles spaniel, Montrose, at her feet, accepting from the dog all the affection she would never again receive, she thought morosely, from another person, now that Flora was gone.
But not for very long. Then James said decisively, “Amy, you ought to have an early night.”
It was a testament to how tired she was that Amy did not protest at that. Besides, she needed him in an agreeable mood. She rose without complaint and came to stand in front of him. Quietly, she said, “Brother…if I do go to Grimsay, may I leave Montrose here, with you? I… I am only not sure they would treat him well, and I know he would serve you faithfully.”
Mrs. Ashfort gave a dry, unpleasant laugh. “Not sure they’ll feed the animal? Better wonder if they’ll feed you, child. Scots,” she snorted.
It was too much to be borne. Amy’s head was flung back, and she turned on the woman with flashing eyes, fists tightly clenched at her sides. “Montrose was the last puppy my father ever bred, Mrs. Ashfort, and Papa fed him gravy beef by hand. Scots are not all the same.”
“Oh, your father was always the fine gentleman, with very liberal notions indeed,” Mrs. Ashfort returned sarcastically. “For all the good that did him. If my James hadn’t—”
“Mother! That will do.” Though James’s voice was not very loud, it was stern enough to cut his mother off immediately. He fixed Amy with his dark eyes. “You may keep the dog here if you wish,” he allowed curtly.
“Thank you,” Amy murmured, and paused for a moment in confusion. Before Flora’s death, when visiting the family, it had been her habit to curtsy to Mrs. Ashfort, and then kiss Flora and James good night. But without Flora, they both seemed strangers. Yet, James had spoken for her, and on impulse, Amy dipped her head to press a kiss to her brother-in-law’s cheek. He allowed the kiss, inclining his head slightly at her approach, but gave no other notice to the caress. Amy, feeling a blushing uncertainty, quickly moved to curtsy to the gimlet-eyed Mrs. Ashfort, and then hurried upstairs, grateful for the end of the day and the brief respite of sleep.
* * * * *
“That girl is laced too tightly,” Elizabeth Ashfort said decisively, as soon as the girl in question was safely upstairs.
“Mother,” James sighed. “Please be kind to her.”
“I’ve been nothing but kind to her,” Elizabeth returned sharply. “She’s not kind to herself with such fine lady fasting and crushing her ribs like that. Do you really think it’s wise to keep her here, James?”
“Flora gave her into my charge,” James said in a flat, heavy voice. Though genuinely fond of his mother, he wished she were not so suspicious and harsh at times. She had been the same way with Flora when James had first married her.
“The girl’s never been anything but pampered a day in her life,” Elizabeth said. “She’ll be a great deal of trouble.”
“She’s willful, but she isn’t bad-hearted,” James said firmly. “You can teach her to be useful. I will not neglect my duty to Flora’s sister now that Flora cannot see me do it. I have made it clear that she is expected to obey and work patiently while she is here. Find Amy some tasks to do, and I will see that she does them.” He rose and walked to the window, staring out into the darkness through the sparkling frost patterns on the glass.
Elizabeth gave a sharp, irritated sigh. “It will probably be more work teaching her to do something useful than to do it myself.”
“Probably,” James said. “But you will do it all the same, Mother, for my sake.” As I do for Flora’s, he concluded mentally. It was only that which sustained him now. Flora, gentle and merry, had been the light of his existence, and the memory of his duty now served as a kind of moon—a silvery reflection of her golden warmth.
“And what when it’s time for you to marry again, James? It’s very well to grieve, but you won’t be in mourning forever. What lady will like to come into a home with not just your mother, but your dead wife’s sister in it?”
James gripped the windowsill tightly, his knuckles whitening, to try not to shout at Elizabeth. “I will certainly not neglect my duty to my wife on grounds that her successor would not approve.” He shook his head wearily, then pushed himself upright and turned around, forcing a dim smile. “Amy isn’t the only one who needs an early night tonight,” he said, and approached Elizabeth to kiss her cheek. “Good night, Mother.”
His mother’s worried gaze followed him halfway up the stairs.