Gloucester, July 1794
“This is hopeless.” Margery Derrington closed the lid on the third trunk she’d searched in her great-aunts’ attic. Though they’d accumulated a great many things in nearly seven decades on this earth, not one of them was valuable enough to save their little family from financial ruin. Even piling all of it together wouldn’t be enough.
Aunt Eugenie, her aunt with the most common sense, looked around the cramped space with a grim expression. “How many trunks are left?”
“Just two,” Margery said, pushing herself up from the floor and moving to one of them. It was small, and unless it held some priceless jewel her aunts had somehow misplaced or forgotten about, Margery couldn’t imagine anything of value fitting inside of it.
“I’ll try the other trunk. We’re bound to find something. Don’t lose faith, Margery.” Aunt Agnes turned and scooted to the last one, which was considerably larger than the one sitting before Margery. With sparkling blue eyes and a charm to match, Aunt Agnes possessed enough optimism and cheer for all three of them.
Margery opened her trunk and stifled a groan at its contents. Papers. Stacks and stacks of what looked to be ledgers. She rifled through them, finding nothing but the mundane accounting of her great-grandfather.
“I suppose I must consider marriage.” She’d reached the age of four and twenty without having to submit to matrimony, but it looked to be her only alternative unless they wanted to surrender the modest town house in their quiet little Gloucester neighborhood.
“Now, Margery, don’t be a defeatist,” Aunt Agnes said sternly. “We’ll come up with something, won’t we, Genie?”
Aunt Eugenie made a noncommittal sound as she continued going through the large trunk she’d been searching with Agnes.
Margery cringed. The last time her aunts had “come up with something” was the reason they were in their current mess. Financial investments were not their area of expertise. “Please don’t.”
Aunt Eugenie’s excited inhalation drew Margery and Aunt Agnes to stop what they were doing.
“What is it, Genie?” Aunt Agnes turned and leaned toward her younger sister, trying to peer into the trunk.
“My goodness, Aggie, do you remember this?” Aunt Eugenie pulled a book from the trunk. Bound in dark brown leather, the tome appeared quite old. The spine was scuffed and the edges frayed.
Aunt Agnes scooted back to her former spot and gasped. “Is that what I think it is?”
Aunt Eugenie grinned as she set the book on the floor and opened the cover. “The Ballads of Sir Gareth.”
Sidling up close to Aunt Eugenie, Aunt Agnes touched the first page. “I haven’t seen this in decades.”
“Since we were children,” Aunt Eugenie said.
Margery set her trunk aside and went to kneel beside Aunt Eugenie. “What is it?”
“A medieval manuscript,” Aunt Agnes said. “It’s about the tales of Sir Gareth, one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table.”
“He has to complete a series of quests so that he may marry Blodwyn. The other knights—and King Arthur of course—provide assistance.” Aunt Eugenie pointed to an illustration. Full of brilliant color and accompanied with precise, beautifully written text, it depicted a knight kneeling before a king, beside whom stood a young woman.
“Is that Blodwyn?” Margery asked, instantly enthralled with both the detail of the work and the stories.
Aunt Agnes nodded. “And her father. My favorite tale is the one where Gareth defeats a boar. The beast is so fierce in the picture.”
Aunt Eugenie flipped ahead to the image Agnes had described, but Margery wanted to see the entire book.
“Wait, I want to look at it,” Margery said.
Aunt Eugenie smiled. “Of course. We got a bit excited. Our father used to read this book to us when we were children.”
Margery reached out. “May I?”
“Certainly, dear.” Aunt Eugenie slid it over in front of her.
Margery closed it so she could savor it from the beginning. Faded remnants of the title were all that remained on the cover, but it was printed in vibrant letters on the first page. “You said this is medieval?” Margery had never heard of The Ballads of Sir Gareth.
“Yes,” Aunt Agnes said. “Or so Father said.”
It certainly looked and smelled old. The pages were made of vellum, and the style of calligraphy appeared medieval, but what did Margery know? Only one thing really mattered. “Is it valuable?”
Her aunts exchanged looks. “I don’t know,” Aunt Agnes said. “But I remember Father telling us about a collector in Monmouth.” She tapped her finger against her chin. “What was his name?”
“Alexander Bowen,” Aunt Eugenie said. Her mind retained all sorts of details, which made the sudden appearance of a potentially valuable manuscript perplexing.
“You didn’t remember this was here?” Margery asked. If it was valuable, it could’ve saved them months ago.
Aunt Eugenie pursed her lips, her silvery eyes dimming. “No.”
Aunt Agnes patted Aunt Eugenie’s shoulder. “Don’t fret about it. I didn’t remember it either. The important thing is that we have it now. We shall have to contact this fellow in Monmouth.”
“I’ll do it,” Aunt Eugenie said, “after we finish going through these last trunks. There’s no telling what else we might find.”
The firm set of her mouth told Margery how disappointed she was in herself for not recalling the existence of this book. But then Aunt Eugenie had been acting rather depressed of late. She took the downturn of their finances as a personal failure, and hated the thought of Margery having to marry to save them from ruin. Oh, she wanted Margery to marry, but for the right reasons—for love.
Margery stroked Aunt Eugenie’s arm. She didn’t want her to feel bad, not when they finally had something to perhaps be optimistic about. “Where did your father get this?”
“I don’t know. It’s been in the family for as long as he could remember.”
Margery turned the page, taking in the meticulous drawings and rich color. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and its age only increased its attraction. To think of the effort it had taken to create, and the fact that it had survived for centuries, was awe-inspiring. It had to be worth something.
Aunt Agnes seemed to read her mind. “This is going to solve our woes. Margery dear; you won’t have to marry.” Aunt Agnes had never married. She’d fallen in love with a gentleman who’d been promised to another. When he’ offered to make Agnes his mistress, she’d accepted—to Aunt Eugenie’s horror. During the twenty years that Agnes was his paramour, the two sisters didn’t speak, only reconciling after he died.
“Unless you want to,” Aunt Eugenie said, with a disapproving glance at Aunt Agnes. Aunt Eugenie had also fallen in love, but she’d married her gentleman. However, her husband hadn’t shared her emotions and had soon taken a mistress. He’d died five years into the union, leaving Eugenie alone, childless, and at the mercy of his creditors. Despite this, she still believed in marriage, provided one found the right man. Margery doubted such a person existed.
Aunt Agnes smiled and winked at Margery. “If she falls in love. And even then,” she shrugged, “she needn’t give up her independence if she doesn’t want to.”
Aunt Eugenie lifted a brow and peered at her sister. “So that she, too, can worry over finances in her golden years?”
Margery returned her attention to the book. Marrying for love didn’t interest her. Love didn’t interest her. Life was far easier to navigate if she kept that sort of emotion at bay. She’d buried her sentimentality deep after her parents had died, but had allowed a gentleman to court her five years ago. When he’d learned of her less than favorable financial circumstances—even when they hadn’t been bankrupt, they’d never been more than mildly comfortable—he’d disappeared like a plate of Shrewsbury cakes at teatime. That had ensured that she kept herself from getting too close to anyone besides her aunts. They’d taken her in after her parents had died in a carriage accident when she was ten, and they were the only people she trusted. Everyone else she’d met had wanted something from her or expected her to be someone she wasn’t. She was quite content to remain unmarried and take care of her aunts.
Aunt Agnes sent her a giddy smile. “Only think of what might happen if this book could finance a Season.”
Margery’s head snapped up. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This book may be worthless.” She fervently hoped that wasn’t the case. Just as she fervently prayed she’d never have to endure a Season. She couldn’t think of anything she’d rather do less than parading around in search of a husband.
Aunt Eugenie tucked a wayward gray strand of hair into her cap. “Help me up, dear. I’ll start drafting that letter while you two finish up.”
Margery stood and helped her aunt, who was taller than her by at least two inches. Aunt Eugenie smiled down at her with love in her gaze. “It’s going to be just fine, Margery. In this instance, I wholly support Aggie’s dogged optimism.”
Aunt Agnes made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort.
After Aunt Eugenie had departed to write to the collector, Aunt Agnes went back to the other trunk to complete her search. “Did you find anything?” she asked Margery.
“Just accounting papers.” Margery went to help Aunt Agnes. “What’s in there?”
“Hats and . . . this.” She held up a headpiece with a half-dozen feathers in a rainbow of garish colors.
“Did that belong to you or Aunt Eugenie?”
Aunt Agnes stared at it bemusedly. “I’m not certain.” She set it aside and rifled through the remaining items. “Nothing valuable in here, I’m afraid. Ah, well, the book will come to our rescue.”
Margery wished she could feel as confident that things would be so easily solved. “We’ll see.”
Aunt Agnes gave her a scolding look. “Now, Margery, you mustn’t be pessimistic. Things will work out. We’ll take a nice little jaunt to Monmouth to see this fellow, he’ll give us an enormous sum for this book, and all will be well.”
“And if it’s not?”
“Things always work out, dear.” Aunt Agnes’s eyes widened briefly. “Oh! I nearly forgot. Mr. Digby will be arriving in town in the next few days.”
The gentleman had come to town last month, and Margery had met him at the local assembly. After dancing with her once, he’d affixed himself to her side and asked to call on her. She’d politely declined. He’d seemed a decent enough fellow, if a bit awkward, but she wasn’t interested in another courtship. “I didn’t know he was coming.”
“We didn’t tell you, dear. You seemed so uninterested in him.”
Margery’s gentle rebuke hadn’t stopped him from writing to her. After receiving three letters over three consecutive days, Margery had asked her aunts to keep from giving her any others should more arrive. “I gather he’s continued writing?”
Aunt Agnes replaced the various items in the trunk. “Oh, yes. Say what you will, but he’s quite charming on the page.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Margery didn’t remember him that way. He’d talked to her about animals and the weather, and all manner of mundane topics without once endeavoring to determine her interests.
“It’s a shame you don’t like him. His family is well-respected. I believe his grandfather was a knight or some such.”
“Yes, but how is his fortune?” Margery asked drily. She found it a bit odd that he wasn’t in London for the Season if he was searching for a wife. If he was without funds, he would soon vanish like her previous suitor had.
Aunt Agnes tapped Margery’s arm. “Oh, stop. Not every gentleman is concerned with a young lady’s fortune. I’m not familiar with his financial state, but it’s quite possible he simply liked you, dear. Now, help me up.”
Margery stood and helped the still beautiful woman to her feet. Though approaching seventy, Aunt Agnes looked far younger, with her porcelain skin and her ready smile. While her sister was quite tall, Aunt Agnes was more petite.
“Not every gentleman is as heartless as Jennings was five years ago. Genie is hoping you’ll give Digby the courtesy of an audience.”
Margery stifled a groan. “I don’t want to encourage him. I don’t want to encourage anyone.”
Aunt Agnes nodded, her eyes sympathetic. “I understand, dear. Perhaps we should just travel to Monmouth to see Mr. Bowen about the book.”
“Forgo a letter, you mean?”
“No, we’ll still post the letter, but it will inform him of our arrival for an appointment—in say, three days. That will expedite the process of selling the book with the added bonus of saving you from Mr. Digby’s attentions.”
Margery felt a pang of guilt. Mr. Digby wasn’t a bad sort; he just wasn’t the sort for her. Who was? Did she even have a “sort”? “We’ll leave tomorrow?” Margery asked.
“The day after, I think. I daresay Harker won’t be able to prepare us for the journey that quickly.”
Harker, their housekeeper, cook, and ladies’ maid, was a gem, but to say she was overworked was an understatement. Margery looked forward to when they could hire someone to lighten her workload.
“The sooner we can sell this book, the better.” Margery bent down and picked it up. She caressed the worn leather and felt a jolt of sadness over having to part with something of such beauty and value, especially if it had been in the family for a long time.
Aunt Agnes’s blue eyes brightened with purpose. “I’ll speak with Genie.”
Margery was grateful for her understanding. “Thank you.” She looked down at the book and flipped to somewhere in the middle. “I can’t believe you both forgot about this.” Reverently, she stroked the page and drank in the gorgeously meticulous illustration.
“It’s extraordinary, isn’t it?” Aunt Agnes asked softly. “Though we haven’t looked at it in years, it’s a piece of our shared past. Genie and I had so many years apart and this reminds me of the time before, when we were young and innocent. I admit it will be a touch difficult to let the book go.”
Margery raised her gaze to her beloved aunt’s. “You don’t have to. I don’t want to ask it of you.”
“You aren’t.” She reached over and patted Margery’s hand, her fingers lingering over Margery’s knuckles. “You know that Genie and I would do anything for you, including selling a silly, old book.”
Margery tamped down a burst of emotion. “I feel precisely the same.”
“Yes, but you agree that marrying someone like Digby isn’t nearly as easy as selling a book. Our sacrifice is far less intrusive. It’s scarcely a sacrifice at all.”
“I would marry him, or someone else, if it was our only option.”
Aunt Agnes shook her head firmly. “It isn’t.” Yet. The word was unspoken, but it hung between them like a living, breathing animal. Margery was going to do everything in her power to ensure that never came to pass—she didn’t want to sell herself, even for financial security.
Margery’s gaze dropped to the book once more. The illustration of a knight slaying a boar was so vivid. She traced her finger along the edge. Centuries had passed since the person who’d drawn this had toiled over its creation. How long had it taken? Where had this story originated? Who had written it? She hoped Mr. Bowen could answer these questions in addition to providing the text’s value. He was a collector himself. Would he offer to buy it? Were her days with this book, already too short in number, limited to single digits?
“Margery, why don’t you take the book to your room?” Aunt Agnes suggested. “I can see you long to peruse it at length.”
How well her aunt knew her. Margery closed the book and hugged it to her chest. “Thank you.”
As they left the attic, another, more disturbing thought encroached. How many days did she have left with her aunts? When they were gone she would be truly alone in this townhouse—if she were lucky. If she were unlucky, she could be alone and destitute.
No, she wouldn’t think like that. This book was going to change their fortune and she’d do whatever necessary to ensure they lived in at least a modicum of comfort. Maybe they’d move out to a cottage in the country. Yes, she could see herself living a simple life, even after her aunts were gone.
Determined, she made her way to her room and vowed to keep them all safe and happy.Return to Lady of Desire