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Love's Price

By:Cheryl Holt

Love's Price (Lord Trent Series) -Cheryl Holt,



PROLOGUE

Farnsborough, England, 1810...

“What are you saying exactly?”

On hearing the question, Miss Peabody stared across her desk at twin students, Helen and Harriet Stewart. The two sisters had attended her school since they were small girls, so she supposed she ought to have felt some sympathy over what she was about to do, but she had a profitable business to run.

The facility wasn’t an aid society for paupers.

She was a tad anxious about the information she had to impart, but she kept her expression carefully blank. It was the aspect of her position she most loathed, dealing with the family dramas that clouded the lives of her pupils.

As headmistress, she had a duty to break bad news from home, and there was no easy way to convey catastrophe. A clean, brisk airing of the facts was always best.

“I’m saying,” Miss Peabody replied, “that you won’t be able to continue your education here.”

Helen frowned, gaping at Miss Peabody as if she’d spoken in a foreign language.

“Why?”

“Because neither your tuition nor your room and board has been paid in over a year. As I’ve often explained, we don’t accept charity cases. You’re aware of the rules.”

“Grandfather would have paid,” Helen loyally declared, “if he hadn’t been so sick all those months before he passed away. He probably didn’t realize the money was owed.”

“Perhaps,” Miss Peabody allowed, “but he didn’t pay, so the issue is moot.”

“You know that we’re waiting for Grandfather’s will to be read and probated. The bank draft should arrive any day.”

“The will has been read,” Miss Peabody tersely announced.

“And...?”

“You have no inheritance.”

Harriet gasped. “Grandfather didn’t provide for us?”

“No.”

“He swore he would. Last time I talked to him, he swore it to me.”

“Apparently”—Miss Peabody shrugged—“he forgot to make the necessary changes to the document.”

“But our Uncle Richard will be happy to—”

“I have corresponded with your uncle. He declines to cover the fees for the coming term, much less the arrears.”

“Why would he do that to us?”

“I’m not a clairvoyant, Miss Stewart. I couldn’t begin to guess.”

While she pretended lack of knowledge, Miss Peabody knew the reason. She wasn’t surprised by Richard Stewart’s decision, but it irked her that she had to be dragged to the precipice of a conversation she was determined not to have.

For pity’s sake, Helen and Harriet were sixteen years old. Their mother had died when they were babies, and at the earliest opportunity, they’d been shipped off to Miss Peabody’s school. They’d never been invited home for Christmas or summer holidays, had never received familial visitors but for the annual trek made by their grandfather.

Surely they understood why their relatives had always ignored them, why their kin had forsaken them. Why should it be Miss Peabody’s job to shatter their illusions?

“Are we to go to Brookhaven then?” Helen asked. Brookhaven was the Stewart estate.

“I don’t believe so.”

“What are we to do?” Harriet queried. “What has our uncle instructed?”

“He has written you a letter.”

Miss Peabody had peeked at it, and she’d been disturbed by its cold tone. Though she could be ruthless herself when the situation called for it, the content was unduly harsh.

She retrieved the letter and handed it to Helen, watching silently as Helen perused it. Soon, Helen scowled, evidence that she hadn’t had a clue as to the truth.

“What does he say?” Harriet leaned toward her sister, trying to read over Helen’s shoulder.

“He says we’re not welcome at Brookhaven.”

“Not welcome?” Harriet was aghast. “But why?”

“He suggests that we travel to London and throw ourselves on the mercy of the...the...Earl of Trent?”

“Why would we do that?”

“He claims Lord Trent is our father.”

“That’s preposterous,” Harriet protested. “Our father was a gentleman farmer.”

“Uncle Richard insists not. He maintains that it’s time for Lord Trent to support us—rather than the Stewarts.”

So, Miss Peabody mused, they didn’t know. No one had ever told them.

Both girls turned to Miss Peabody, their identical gazes dismayed and perplexed. With their striking emerald eyes and golden blond hair—hair that was the color of ripened wheat—they were very beautiful, and purportedly, the spitting image of their aristocratic sire.

And of course, they possessed the birthmark just above their left wrists that was in the shape of a figure-eight. It was referred to as the Mark of Trent and cited as proof of paternity by his cast-off children.

Lord Trent was England’s most notorious roué, and it was impossible to count how many women he had seduced.

As a young debutante, the twins’ long-deceased mother had succumbed to his charms, and now—all these years later—her sins were coming home to roost. Helen and Harriet would bear the brunt of her folly.

“Since we can’t go to Brookhaven,” Helen said, “may we stay here?”

“No.”

“Where are we to go?”

“You should follow your uncle’s advice,” Miss Peabody responded, “and contact Lord Trent. What other option do you have?”

“Are you mad?” Harriet rudely snapped. “Can you actually expect us to tot off to London and knock on the door of a strange nobleman we’ve never met?”

“Don’t take that attitude with me, Harriet.”

“You never liked us,” Harriet charged, leaping to her feet and pointing an accusing finger. “You’re being deliberately cruel.”

“Sit down. We will discuss this calmly, or we won’t discuss it at all.”

Harriet appeared eager to quarrel, but Helen grabbed her arm and tugged her to her seat. Harriet was hot-headed, volatile, and prone to trouble. Helen was the peacemaker of the two, the pragmatic sister, the sensible sister.

“Is my uncle’s revelation true?” Helen asked. “Is Lord Trent our father?”

“It has been the rumor,” Miss Peabody said.

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“It was hardly up to me to inform you.”

“No, I suppose not.”

Helen peered at her lap, thinking and pondering, while Harriet fidgeted.

“What would you recommend?” Helen ultimately inquired. “If you were in our shoes, what would you do?”

“I’d probably go to Lord Trent.”

“And if we don’t wish to? What then?”

“You might stop at the rectory and talk to the vicar. He might help you to locate a position.”

“A...a...position!” Harriet sputtered. “Doing what?”

Helen shushed her and pressed, “If we don’t want to do that either?”

“Then...I haven’t the foggiest idea what will become of you.”

“May we remain here briefly—to plan and regroup?”

“I’m afraid not. While we were chatting, your bags were packed. They’re in the front foyer. I’d appreciate it if you’d leave before the other students return from their walk. I won’t have a big fuss made over your departure.”

The callous comment set a spark to Harriet’s temper. She jumped up again. “You old witch! You’ve never—”

“That’s enough!” Miss Peabody seethed. “I’ve been more than patient, but your tenure at my school is ended. I bid you good day.”

For a moment, Helen stared and fumed, then she stood and took her sister’s hand.

“Come, Harriet, let’s go.”

“Helen, don’t let her get away with this. There must be something we can do.”

Helen glanced over, searching Miss Peabody’s gaze, finding naught but firm resolve.

“No,” Helen said, “there’s nothing we can do. Let’s go!”

Without another word, and no murmur of farewell, Helen spun and led her furious sister from the room.





CHAPTER ONE

London, May, four years later...

“We won’t be hiring a companion for me after all.”

Helen Stewart stared at Miss Miranda Wilson, the woman seated across from her, and she forced a smile.

“I see.”

“We appreciate your coming by for an interview.”

“It was my pleasure,” Helen lied. “If you change your mind, please contact my employment service.”

“We won’t change our mind. Now...if you’ll excuse me?”

Miss Wilson stood, signaling that the appointment was concluded, so Helen stood, too.

“Are you sure I shouldn’t speak with Lord Westwood?” Helen asked. “He’s the one who contacted Mrs. Ford and requested she send someone over.”

“Lord Westwood is busy. He instructed me to deal with this matter for him.”

“Well then...thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Helen studied Miss Wilson. She was a tad younger than Helen’s age of twenty, and she was petite with light brown hair and pretty gray eyes. At first glance, she looked pert and amiable, with a turned-up nose and dimples on her cheeks. But on closer inspection, there was a brittleness about her that had Helen breathing a sigh of relief that the job was being withdrawn.

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