Home > Her First Desire(3)

Her First Desire(3)
Author: Cathy Maxwell

“Perhaps you didn’t wish me to challenge your claim on my fortune?”

“It was never your money, Gemma. You were never a consideration for your father or your husband. That being said, my wife and I took you in out of the kindness of our Christian hearts and this is how you repay us? You foolish, foolish girl.”

The magpies tutted their agreement. Of course they would side with him, and the world of man-made laws.

Gemma squeezed her hand around the letter, the weight of frustrated tears behind her eyes, refusing to let them fall. “Give me my portion.”

He snapped his fingers in front of her face. “You’ll receive nothing from me. Now, return to whatever duties my wife wishes of you and in the future, be more appreciative. Without us, you and your precious herbs and spells would be out on the street. Ah, yes, I know what you have been about. Selling potions to houses around the square. I let you do it because several neighbors have mentioned how thankful they are for your help. You may dabble all you wish, until I tell you to stop. Do you understand?”

He referred to the teas, tonics, and salves she made. She’d learned about healing from summers spent with her gran in Glasgow.

Then, leaning forward and in a voice so low only she could hear, “You should also be kinder to me.”

“Never,” Gemma shouted. “You will never touch me.” Nor would she let any other man. She was done with the lot of them.

“Such a pity,” was his response. Nor did he act humiliated by her outburst. Instead, he turned to his wife. “Come, my lady, let us take your guests back to the sitting room to sample more of that punch Barstow enjoys preparing.” He offered his arm to her.

Lady Latimer took it without hesitation, sending a sniff in Gemma’s direction, a gesture immediately imitated by the other ladies. Barstow trailed behind them, one hand on his side where Gemma had viciously elbowed him.

She watched them walk down the hall until they disappeared into the sitting room. They would be talking about her now, listening to Lord and Lady Latimer spread whatever story they wished. They would not be kind to her.

Gemma turned on her heel. She dashed blindly for the back stairs. She climbed as fast as her legs could carry her and did not stop to even draw a breath until she was in the haven of the small room tucked under the eaves. She slammed the door, then opened it and slammed it again harder, knowing no one could hear her here.

The action broke her temper and before she could think, she crumpled to the floor by her miserly cot and gave in to a good cry. She wept bitterly for her father, who had always wanted the best for her as long as she followed his will; she wept for her husband, who had not been the man she’d thought him; she wept for Andrew, who had deserved more than months of silence at the news of his death.

At last, she wept for the child who had once given her hope that she would make her selfish husband proud. Her daughter’s story was deep in her heart and she never shared her with anyone.

She wept until she was spent. Exhausted.

Gemma swiped her eyes with the back of her hand, embarrassed now. She was made of sterner stuff. She came from a long line of strong women and here she’d been wallowing on the floor without pride—

Two knocks were all the warning she received before the door opened and Mrs. Nichols, the housekeeper, entered, followed by the footman. With a nod, she indicated the chair in the room, the chair that kept Lord Latimer locked out. The manservant picked it up and left the room.

Mrs. Nichols stayed, her hands folded in front of her. She was twenty years older than Gemma and a practical Irishwoman.

“I tried to warn you, Mrs. Estep. You can’t fight those who are better than you. We all have to learn our place. Or how to make the best of it all.”

“I don’t believe them better than I am. Or better than you.”

“Then you will be doomed to unhappiness. His lordship instructed me to tell you he doesn’t want to see you in black. You will not be allowed below this floor if you are wearing it.” Having delivered her message, she left the room, closing the door behind her.

Gemma’s spirit stirred.

So Lord Latimer thought her cowed?

From the hooks on the wall, she chose her black gown, one of five gowns she owned. After all, she’d once been a wealthy man’s daughter. She’d barely worn black for Paul. However, she’d certainly wear it for her uncle and as long as she wished—and Lord Latimer could eat pig snouts for all she gave a care.

After dressing, she retwisted her heavy hair high on her head and pinned it in place as if preparing to go out. She didn’t doubt that Lord Latimer was a man of his word. He’d be furious about the black. She just couldn’t give in to him. If she had her way, she’d walk right out the front door and never return.

But where could she go? She had no one. Only her uncle Andrew—who’d once kindly written to her after she’d arrived in London that what was his was hers . . .

The memory of that letter came to life. Gemma had been touched by the sentiment. Andrew had owned a village tavern. She’d been on her way to London to confront Paul and had spent an enjoyable evening with her uncle. He’d told her that if matters didn’t work out with her husband, she could live with him in Maidenshop.

Why hadn’t she returned to him immediately upon learning of Paul’s death? Too much pride, she supposed. In the beginning she’d believed Lord Latimer when he claimed he’d see her taken care of, except living under the eaves of his house and jumping to do his bidding was not what she had expected. She had only herself to blame. It seemed all her life she’d believed, as a gentlewoman, men would take care of her. How naïve she’d been. Especially after her gran had always warned her that a wise woman learned to take care of herself.

And now Andrew was gone . . . but the tavern remained.

What is mine is yours. It was almost as if Andrew whispered the words in her ear.

Gemma fell to her knees and pulled the box holding her most personal belongings out from beneath the cot. She lifted the lid to reveal her mother’s miniature, a ruby ring Paul had given her to pledge their troth, and the stack of recipes and wisdom Gran had given her, recipes that had been handed down from one woman in her mother’s family to another. And there were letters. Gemma always saved her letters.

Andrew’s letter was on top.

She placed the Reverend Summerall’s letter into the box and unfolded the one from her uncle. He’d been a sailor in his younger years and had never returned to his native Scotland, but Gran had always held him dear. That is why Gemma had interrupted her journey to see him and she’d not been sorry. Andrew had written to be certain she had made it safely to London, and then he had ended with the kindest words: We are the last of the MacMhuirichs and all either has of family. What is mine is yours. Never forget I am here.

The tavern in Maidenshop had been a rambling building in a charming village. The air was clear there. Not sooty like London.

And she was his only heir. This letter said as much.

Suddenly, Gemma was filled with purpose. It was a gamble, but she would not stay here waiting for Lord Latimer to try her door.

She’d been cheated out of much in her life because she’d relied on others. Now she was going to rely on herself. She was going to Maidenshop to claim her legacy.

Gemma crammed as much as she could carry into her large valise. The rest was of no value to her. She emptied out her box of treasures and letters and the precious recipes into that valise. She tucked an embroidered bag that held her herbs, teas, and salves into it, as well. Stoppered bottles of tonics would have to stay. She could mix them again.

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