Home > Her First Desire

Her First Desire
Author: Cathy Maxwell

 

Chapter One

 

 

London

March 1815

 

. . . he has passed from this life on earth to his reward in heaven.

The words leaped off the page at Gemma.

Someone had died?

And then, she read who had died.

Her legs buckled beneath her. She collapsed onto the desk chair.

She’d been sent to fetch a scrap of paper so that her late husband’s sister-in-law, Lady Latimer, and her friends, who were playing cards in the front sitting room, could keep tally of their scores. They were a gathering of elegant magpies who seemed to enjoy making Gemma hop up to do their bidding. After all, as that most pitiful of all creatures, a penniless relation, she existed to do nothing more than to be of service.

The letter had been shoved into the back of the desk drawer and Gemma had pulled it out thinking that here was something useless that could be used versus taking a fresh page.

She hadn’t expected it to be addressed to her . . . or to have been opened.

Dear Mrs. Estep,

You and I were introduced when you paid a visit to your uncle Andrew MacMhuirich some months ago. It is with a heavy heart I undertake the tragic duty of informing you that he has passed from this life on earth to his reward in heaven. I hasten to tell you that he did not suffer but was taken in his sleep.

He shall be missed by our small community. The Garland has been a mainstay in Maidenshop, the center of all goings-on. We shall not know what to do with ourselves without Old Andy, as he was affectionately called.

If I may be of service to you in your time of grief, please know I am your most humble servant.

Sincerely,

The Reverend Gerald Summerall

St. Martyr’s Church

Maidenshop, Cambridgeshire

15 November 1814

 

Gemma stared at the elegant, mannish script, trying to make sense of it all. Her uncle Andrew had died? He had been over sixty, but had been a robust man, a busy one. They had just started to connect as family and now, he was gone. That he had not suffered was comforting to know. He’d been her only living relative. There was no one else.

She reread the date. 15 November 1814.

For several heartbeats, she couldn’t breathe.

She’d already had too much of death over the past two years: her father, then that wee being whose heart had not lasted past a week, and finally her wastrel of a husband . . .

Each death had thrown her life deeper into chaos.

And now she’d lost Andrew, who had been kindness itself when she had so needed a friend. He’d been gone . . . what?—she did a mental count—for at least three months? What must Reverend Summerall think of her? He’d written and she’d not made any reply.

Worse, she wouldn’t have known at all if she’d not come upon this letter by mistake.

The back was addressed to her, care of Lord and Lady Latimer. Someone had broken the seal, read the contents, and stuffed it into the desk drawer without one word. Her uncle’s death had been dismissed—and for what reason?

Gemma looked around at the room’s new furnishings. The drapes, the carpets, the overly ornate furniture. It had all been paid for with her father’s money—money that by all that was fair was hers. However, the law had handed it over to her husband, as had been her father’s wishes.

Then, when Paul Estep had died, he had left no will. Scoundrels rarely did. The law had further tricked Gemma by granting what was left of her fortune to Reginald Estep, Lord Latimer, her husband’s brother.

Men had done this to her, she realized. Men had conspired together for reasons of gender alone to rob her of what should have been hers.

“Gemma, where is that paper?” Lady Latimer’s petulant voice commanded from the adjoining sitting room. “We wish to be on with our game, not sitting here waiting on you.”

“Maybe she is tippling,” another female voice said. “You know how the Northerners are.” Her silly remark was met with giggly agreement because they had all been growing rosy-cheeked off the butler’s special punch.

Gemma tightened her hand into a fist around the letter. Their husbands would never disgrace them by dueling over another man’s wife. Their husbands were alive so they had a place in society. Their husbands saw to their bills.

Those women believed they were superior to Gemma in every way because she’d made the error of falling for Captain Paul Estep’s handsome face and believing his lies, including the vow that he would honor and cherish her.

Barstow, the butler, appeared in the hallway door opposite the sitting room. “Lady Latimer is waiting,” he prodded. “You’d need go to her now.”

None of the senior servants hesitated in giving Gemma an order. They realized she had no power. She wasn’t a servant and yet, as an in-law she wasn’t quite considered family, either. She was an unwanted burden.

Pride stirred in her. Her father had been a very wealthy merchant. She had brought a substantial dowry to her marriage. If Lord Latimer would give her even a widow’s portion of what he’d inherited, she could leave.

“Where is Lord Latimer?” Gemma asked, surprised by how calm her voice was because inside, she churned with anger. “I wish to speak to him.”

“His lordship is busy.”

Busy? Reading more of her mail?

“He will see me now.” Grief had beaten her down for too long. She needed to act. She walked to the door, ignoring the calls coming from the adjacent sitting room.

The heavyset butler blocked her passage with his body. “What is the matter with you? I said his lordship is busy. Lady Latimer bid you to bring her a scrap of paper and you shall do so now. In fact, this is nonsense. Give me what you have in your hand and I will deliver it.”

Gemma wasn’t about to let go of the letter. She backed away from him, holding up her free hand to ward him off, and then moved toward the sitting room. Seeing she was going where he wished, Barstow straightened his clothes and retreated, all the better for her.

“There you are, Gemma,” Lady Latimer said peevishly, her mouth full of sweet bread. “I thought you would never return—No, wait, where are you going?”

Gemma ignored the question as she quickened her pace, rushing straight past the tables of card players, and moving toward the hallway door. She was out into the hall before Barstow, who had trailed behind her, apparently to ensure she did as he wished, realized he’d been tricked.

“Stop her,” he shouted to no one in particular since, at this time of day, the sole footman in the house would be in the kitchen flirting with the new scullery maid. And the ladies were not going to move fast, not with all that punch in them.

Behind Gemma, Lady Latimer and her friends were confused. “Barstow, where is she going?”

“Heavens, she looks as if she is being chased by a bear,” a guest boozily observed while another complained of there being no way yet to tally her winning points.

And Gemma felt free.

For the first time since her father’s illness had taken over her life, she was acting on her own behalf. Propelled by anger and her own sense of self-preservation, she raced down the hall to the library. Lord Latimer usually retired there every afternoon when he was at home. The door was shut. She turned the handle. It was locked.

He was in there.

Probably with Mrs. Sutton, the housekeeper. It was well-known that they enjoyed trysts. The only one who didn’t know this was his lady wife.

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