County Durham, England
A child’s squeal rent the air, making Gabriel Kirkwood, Marquess of Darlington, pause in his hammering. Two small boys ran toward the open doorway where Gabriel was repairing the broken hinge. They stopped short, the taller boy ramming into the shorter one, whom he was chasing.
“Beggin’ your pardon, my lord,” the younger boy, named Matthew, said, looking up at Gabriel with wide blue eyes.
“Careful there,” Gabriel said with a smile as he glanced down the corridor over their heads. “Don’t let Mrs. Armstrong catch you running inside.” The overseer of the Institution for Impoverished Women, which everyone referred to as Hartwell House, expected order and discipline.
Matthew looked over his shoulder while his older brother John shook his head. “We’re careful, my lord. She’s busy,” he added, as if to prove their diligence.
“Good.” Gabriel went back to his work and finished hammering the new hinge into place.
“What’re you doin’?” Matthew came up beside him, his curious gaze riveted on Gabriel’s repair.
“I replaced the hinge so this door will close properly.” Gabriel stood back. Hartwell House had been converted into the institution some fifteen years ago when the owner and his wife, the Armstrongs, had started taking in impoverished women, many with small children and no way to feed them. The only alternative for most of them was a workhouse, and that was no place to raise children, not if you wanted to spend time with them. Hartwell House allowed mothers and children to stay together, to build a life—together. “Go on, give it a try and see if I did a good job.”
The boy shot him a dubious glance, and Gabriel nodded in encouragement. The lad swung the door closed, slamming it in his brother’s face.
Giggling, Matthew put his hand over his mouth.
Gabriel kept himself from laughing. “Looks like it works fine.”
The door pushed open to reveal the glaring eyes of John. “You didn’t have to shut it in my face.”
“I didn’t mean to.” Matthew looked up at Gabriel. “I’m glad you fixed it. It was too loud in here the other night.” He made a face, then walked out of the room, which was the women-only dormitory.
Gabriel looked to John. “Why was it too loud?”
“Cryin’, because someone died.” John made the statement without a shred of sadness, which pulled at Gabriel’s heart. What sort of tragedy had this boy already endured to be so unmoved by death?
Or, perhaps more accurately, the perspective of mortality had not yet visited the child. It wasn’t until Gabriel was ten and he lost his mother that the unmanageable grief of death had forever altered his view. Life was precious and could change—or be gone—in a moment.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Gabriel said softly.
“There you are.” Mrs. Armstrong’s lilting voice carried down the corridor. “You boys are late for your midday meal. Get on with you, then.” She arrived at the dormitory and gave them a warm but firm stare.
They didn’t spare a parting glance for Gabriel, telling him just who held the higher rank here at Hartwell House—and it wasn’t a marquess. Suppressing a smile, Gabriel turned to the formidable woman who ran the institution. Tall, with brown hair that was beginning to gray at the temples and a thin mouth that might have been cruel if she didn’t laugh so much, Mrs. Armstrong was the heart of this place, especially since her husband had passed away the year before.
“I hope they weren’t bothering you,” she said, eyeing the door.
“Not at all. They were helping, in fact. It occurs to me that I could teach them some useful skills. If you think they’re old enough.”
“I do, and that would be wonderful.” She beamed at him. “You and the marchioness are so lovely with all that you do for us here. I’ve been meaning to ask—and I hope you don’t think me too forward—if her ladyship is all right. We haven’t seen her in nearly a fortnight.”
“Has it been that long?” Gabriel realized she hadn’t come with him the last few times but hadn’t counted the days. He read the concern in Mrs. Armstrong’s eyes and sought to put her at ease. “Poppy is fine, thank you. Just busy with things at home.” Gabriel didn’t know if that was true. He’d find out—Mrs. Armstrong’s worry was now his.
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said. “The children miss her.”
A sharp pang sliced briefly through Gabriel’s chest. Of course they did. Poppy spent most of her time here with the children, reading to them, playing with them, teaching them while their mothers sewed or worked in the garden. Hartwell House provided opportunities for the residents to work and earn money in the hope that they would eventually be able to leave and have their own household. Since he and Poppy didn’t have children of their own, she enjoyed spending time with the youngest residents. She would have been a wonderful mother, but after nearly three years of marriage and no pregnancy, it seemed that was not to be.
Gabriel shook the thought from his head. “I heard someone died.” He hoped the boy was mistaken, but the dark shadow that fell across Mrs. Armstrong’s eyes told him he wasn’t.
“So sad, but not surprising, unfortunately. The girl was so undernourished. Not really a girl, I suppose.” Mrs. Armstrong shook her head, then frowned. “No, she was a girl who’d been about to become a mother.”
Gabriel’s breath stuck in his lungs as a tremor of dread snaked through him. Oh no…
He recalled the young woman—the girl—who’d arrived several weeks ago. She’d been nearly starving, and Mrs. Armstrong had done all she could to help her. “The babe?” Gabriel asked.
“Stillborn. The mother fell into an exhausted sleep and never woke up.” She glanced toward one of the beds. “Already filled her space, though.”
It was hard to think of that as a bright spot, but what else could the woman do? This was her life—assisting those she could and letting go those she couldn’t.
Gabriel couldn’t help but think of his wife, of his beloved Poppy, and their inability to have children. And how bloody grateful he was for that. For knowing he’d never lose her the way that poor girl had died. Or the way his mother had died. Or his older sister. Or Poppy’s mother. All around him, women died in childbirth, and he had every expectation the same would happen to Poppy.
He couldn’t bear the thought of it.
“Mrs. Armstrong?” A young woman named Judith who had worked for Mrs. Armstrong as long as Gabriel had been coming here stuck her head into the dormitory. “There’s a new arrival.”
“It never ends,” Mrs. Armstrong said with a shake of her head. She started to turn, but hesitated. “I hope you don’t think me impertinent, but if her ladyship is having trouble because of her condition, I’d be happy to talk with her about it.”
Gabriel blinked at her, not certain what she meant. “Condition?”
“That she doesn’t have children of her own.” Mrs. Armstrong’s voice was soft, her forehead creased with empathy. “You’ve been married, what, three years now?”
“That’s right around the time I realized Mr. Armstrong and I weren’t going to be blessed with children. The following year, we took in our first young woman. Helping her and her young son gave us joy and…purpose.”
A small knot formed at the base of Gabriel’s throat. He swallowed to keep it from rising. “I believe that’s how Poppy feels about coming here—it brings her joy.” And probably purpose. He wasn’t sure.
Mrs. Armstrong’s mouth bloomed into a caring smile. “That’s good to hear. I hope she’ll come back when she’s ready. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
“Of course,” Gabriel murmured.
Alone once more, Gabriel cleaned up his tools and left the dormitory. He’d done all he could today, but there were always things to be done. The building was in sore need of rehabilitation. The roof might not even last the winter.
“You have to let me stay!” A woman’s voice carried from the back corner where Mrs. Armstrong’s office was located.
“I’m afraid we don’t have accommodation for someone in your condition,” Mrs. Armstrong said. “You’re too ill. I’m so sorry. There is a workhouse—”
The sound of coughing filled the air followed by a thump, as if someone had fallen.
“Good heavens!” Mrs. Armstrong declared, prompting Gabriel to stride toward the noise. Arriving at the office, he saw a crumpled form on the floor. Mrs. Armstrong and Judith knelt beside a woman whose coughs faded into a groan.
“Why didn’t you say you were with child?” Mrs. Armstrong asked, aghast.
The woman on the floor answered with a cough.
“Can I offer assistance?” Gabriel asked.
Mrs. Armstrong looked up, relief flashing in her eyes. “Yes, thank you. Can you help us lift her to a chair?”
Gabriel moved farther into the office and looked down at the pale, unkempt woman. Her blonde hair was falling from its pins, and she wore a ratty cloak that opened to expose her clothing, which was dirty and torn. It also didn’t fit well, stretching taut over her round belly.
He squatted down and gently lifted her to a sitting position between Mrs. Armstrong and the other woman.
“Let’s get you to the chair,” Mrs. Armstrong said.
“Why?” The woman tried to shrug her helpers away. “I need to find another place to stay.”
Mrs. Armstrong looked at her with kind determination. “We’ll make room. I’ll give you my bed. You’re not well, and you need to take care of yourself for the sake of the babe.”
“I don’t even want the brat,” the woman said, scowling.
Mrs. Armstrong gave her a serene smile. “You might think that right now, but once you meet the babe, you’ll change your mind.”
She shook her head vehemently. Then promptly dissolved into a coughing fit. “I’ll find someplace else,” she rasped between coughs.
Mrs. Armstrong frowned. “You should stay here.”
Controlling her cough, the woman looked at Gabriel. “Help me up, please?”
Gabriel put his arm around her and lifted her to stand. “I have an empty cottage on my estate. Would you like to stay there until you’re well?”
Rising, Mrs. Armstrong looked at him in surprise. “She can’t be alone. She needs care.”
“You can’t give up your bed, Mrs. Armstrong,” Gabriel said. “I have an empty cottage.”
“I’ll go to care for her,” Judith offered.
Mrs. Armstrong took a deep breath. “That’s very kind of you, Judith. I shall miss you here, but of course you must go. If the woman is set on leaving, and if she’ll have you.” She sent an expectant look toward the pregnant woman.
“I am and I will.” She sniffed loudly, a horrible sound that nearly made Gabriel cringe. “Where is this cottage?”
“I can take you there now,” Gabriel said, glad he’d brought his cart today instead of riding his horse. It was difficult to deliver several sacks of flour on horseback.
“All right.” The woman began coughing again, bending at the waist as she fought to stop.
“You’ll need medicine,” Mrs. Armstrong said to Judith. “And clothing for her that will fit properly.”
Judith nodded. “I’ll go see what I can find.” She turned to leave.
“I’ll pack a basket.” Mrs. Armstrong pivoted toward Gabriel. “You’ll have food and other necessities for them?”
“Of course.” The cottage he had in mind had been vacant since last spring, but a neighbor had kept it clean and in good repair until a new tenant came along. He’d make sure to stock food and linens for them. Plus, he’d ask his steward to have the same neighbor look in on them. Not that Gabriel wouldn’t also check on them regularly. He was keenly interested in the woman and the fact that she didn’t want her baby.
A dream rooted in his mind… A dream he dared not hope for, and yet couldn’t keep from wanting.
Mrs. Armstrong guided the woman to a chair. “What’s your name, love?”
“Come, Dinah, sit until it’s time to go.” Mrs. Armstrong made sure she was comfortable.
Dinah lifted her rheumy eyes to Gabriel. “Why are you helping me?”
“Because you’re in need of help.”
“What about the babe?” Dinah rested her hand on her belly.
“We’ll sort that out,” Gabriel said, cautioning himself to go slow. The woman was sick, and there was no telling what would happen—whether the babe would even survive. And Dinah could very well change her mind after it was born. She’d see its face and count its fingers and toes, and she’d fall hopelessly in love.
Yes, he had a dream, but he didn’t really expect it to come true.Return to The Gift of the Marquess