Conquering an Alluring Heiress by Meghan Sloan

 

Chapter 1

 

 

A Tragic Letter

 

 

 

Clara drew in a sharp breath, suddenly aware of a strange ringing sound in her ears. Though she was comfortably seated she found her fingers scrabbling to find purchase on the table to keep her from toppling to the floor. Across the polished oaken expanse, she watched as the finely-dressed pale gentleman regarded her with a dispassionate gaze.

 

 

 

“I…I do beg your pardon, Mr Finch,” Clara breathed. “I do believe I may have misheard you. Would you mind repeating what you just said?”

 

 

 

The man sniffed through his thick, bushy moustache, giving Clara a cold look up and down. Under normal circumstances she would have a fair guess what he was thinking—just like any proud middle-class fellow, he was likely either leering at her body or sizing up just how rude he currently felt like being to one of her station.

 

 

 

But then, these were anything but normal circumstances.

 

 

 

With a hearty harrumph, Mr Finch spoke again in a slightly more insistent voice. “As I previously verbalized, Miss Clara, you are the natural daughter of the late Duke Lionel St. George. As such, you stand to inherit a portion of his estate.”

 

 

 

Clara felt her world threaten to shrink away into blackness. Her eyes leapt about the Fitzroy family salon for something stable to alight upon. But though the room had been such a familiar sight, not two moments before—to the point of debilitating boredom, really—the ornaments and furniture that she had spent her youth dusting and polishing now seemed entirely alien to her.

 

 

 

Taking a deep breath to steel her nerves, she instead locked her eye back on the gentleman across from her. When he had knocked at the door of her employer and asked to speak to her, of all people, Clara had taken him first for a constable, though his appearance immediately refuted this judgment.

 

 

 

Dressed modern if not extravagant fashion, Mr Finch had the salt-and-pepper hair and the thin, ink-stained fingers of a secretary or banker, and a pained expression to match this assessment. Indeed, he had a severe face, if not an unkind one—a hard youth spent at Saint Julian’s had been a good education in telling the difference between the two.

 

 

 

Clara found herself so engrossed in the sight of the man before her, and so lost in the sheer impossibility of the news he bore, that she nearly jumped out of her chair in surprise when he cleared his throat once again.

 

 

 

“I see,” she managed to say at last.

 

 

 

Foolish girl, she chastised herself, wincing. You’ll need to say more than that, or he will take you for a simpleton!

 

 

 

“You…are not unwell, are you, Miss?” Mr Finch asked, though he did not move from his position with legs crossed in one of the Fitzroys’ antique wooden chairs. “If you are infirm, it is feasible for me to return at a later hour.”

 

 

 

“No, no, thank you, sir,” Clara stammered. “It’s just…well, this is rather a lot to take in. To suddenly find out that I had a father—a lord, you said?”

 

 

 

“I did not, but that may be inferred by His Grace’s mode of address.”

 

 

 

“And he died?”

 

 

 

“Indeed,” Mr Finch said, unblinking. “His Grace’s expiration was as recent as it was tragic.”

 

 

 

Clara reached to scratch her head in confusion, then stopped herself—Mrs Worthing, the housekeeper, had rather savagely tried to break her of this habit, calling it unclean. Their mutual employer, Mrs Fitzroy, tended to agree and had a tendency to look at Clara out of the side of her eye as if she were covered in filth.

 

 

 

Clearing her throat instead, she asked in a shaky voice, “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand the last part. I am his ‘natural daughter’?”

 

 

 

The slim man stole a glance at his pocket watch, then snapped it shut with a purposeful twitch of his moustache. “Perhaps it would be suitable for you to read the letter with which I have presented you. I understand His Grace explains the circumstances a bit more fully therein.”

 

 

 

With another shock, Clara suddenly remembered the sealed envelope on the table before her. She had been so addled by the situation that she had forgotten it entirely. With shaking hands, she picked it up and examined it once more. On the front was written “Clara,” and on the back, it was sealed with a dried blob of dark blue wax.

 

 

 

I’ve never opened a letter addressed to me before, she thought, fingers brushing against the stiff, brilliantly white paper. Much less one sealed by a Duke!

 

 

 

Casting nervous glances to Mr Finch, who continued to be most unhelpful in his dedicated apathy, Clara carefully opened the envelope and withdrew a single folded page covered in looped, flowing handwriting.

 

 

 

“To My Dearest Daughter:

 

 

 

“I imagine this letter must come as something of a surprise. I can only beg your patience as I relate this story that by all rights you should have known all your life.

 

 

 

“Twenty-four years ago, I engaged in a secret liaison with a maid in my employ named Sara Barstow. She was a wonderful young woman, and apart from the impropriety and the tragedy that followed our entanglement, I do not regret or recant one ounce of the affection she and I shared.

 

 

 

“As Fate would have it, Sara and I conceived a child. Tragically, I did not become aware of this fact until after she had died in childbirth and given her baby—our baby—to St. Julian’s. That baby was you, Clara.

 

 

 

“I know that a better man would have taken you in to raise as his own rightful progeny. But I had a growing family of my own, and I knew my wife would never agree to taking you in. And as my integrity proved to be as low as my station was high, I ultimately chose to leave you in the care of the Sisters of the orphanage.

 

 

 

“I know no words can excuse my neglect, but I want you to know that I have regretted my decision for these many long years since your birth. I can only hope that sharing some small piece of my family’s fortune—our family’s fortune, Clara—can in some way make up for leaving you alone for all these long years. For you to be well taken care of and no longer alone is my final wish on my deathbed, and my most fervent.

 

 

 

“—Your Loving Father, Lionel St. George”

 

 

 

This final word was marred by a tear that rolled down Clara’s face and splashed across the page. With a frustrated bite on her lip, Clara blotted away this tear and rubbed her eyes on the sleeve of her maid’s uniform. She took a shaky breath, then stared once more at the words, uncomprehending.

 

 

 

This cannot be right, Clara breathed. I am an orphan, a child of the London streets. All this time I had a mother and father—a true mother and father?

 

 

 

Though she had but three-and-twenty years, Clara had always felt the years passed her by with a cruel slowness. She had spent so many long, long months and years under the cruel care of the Sisters of St. Julian, and her deprivation and misuse at their hands were replaced with deprivation and misuse on the streets of the city when she turned fifteen. Clara had been a strong, canny young woman to evade the pimps and robbers, but that feat had cost her almost every last piece of innocence and goodness that the nuns had not beaten out of her. Even her previous six or seven years’ employment at the Fitzroy household, which had seemed positively blissful by comparison, now soured in her mind.

 

 

 

All my life I have worked and fought and toiled. And now I find all of it was needless? Had one man been kinder, one woman less callous, I might have been spared every last lash and curse?

 

 

 

Hot tears of anger rushed to her eyes once more. All at once, she was furiously angry, though she could not quite determine at whom her anger was directed.

 

 

 

This strange Duke, her true father who had loved her mother and claimed to love her, yet had abandoned her to the cold streets all these years?

 

 

 

His noble wife—a cruel, sinister woman, Clara was instantly sure—who had prevented her from growing up in a loving family?

 

 

 

This strange lawyer named Mr Finch, who in less than ten minutes had upended everything she thought she had known about herself?

 

 

 

Of course, she had long carried a burning brand of anger in the name of the Sisters of St. Julian, but now it burned hotter still, furious at the sheer purposelessness of her years of struggle.

 

 

 

Clara started as another harrumph reverberated through the room like a tennis ball bouncing across the table.

 

 

 

Face calm and collected despite his obvious impatience, Mr Finch moved to rise as he said, “As I said, I would not be opposed to revisiting your domicile if you need any additional time, Miss, or require any assistance reading the words in—”

 

 

 

“No!” she blurted, clutching the paper more tightly. Seeing Mr Finch’s eyebrow arch at this outburst, she sat back in her chair and paused to consider her next words carefully.

 

 

 

Trust your instincts, Clara, said the small voice in her head that had always kept her company on her lonely nights and threatening days. They’ve kept you alive. This man may be rich and intelligent, but he’s no different than all the sharps and swindlers in Camden Town.

 

 

 

“No…no, thank you, Mr Finch,” Clara said in a more measured tone, folding her hands in her lap with a renewed sense of confidence. “But I do have some questions, sir, begging your pardon.”

 

 

 

Mr Finch hesitated for only a moment before he settled back in his chair and tented his fingers expectantly, still and quiet as a corpse.

 

 

 

“What can you tell me of His Grace—my father?” she asked, trying to ignore how loudly her heartbeat thundered in her ears. “You said he died recently?”

 

 

 

“Indubitably. His Grace perished after a sudden illness, I fear. Typhus, if you must know,” Finch said with a bloodless frown on his face. “He scarcely had sufficient time to sort out his affairs—including those that pertain to you, Miss—before he succumbed.”

 

 

 

“And what of his family? The letter mentions a wife, and…?” Clara trailed off.

 

 

 

The lawyer waited a long moment for her to finish her thought before, with a slight twitch under his right eye, he answered, “Lady Mary passed away three years ago, I fear. Their children still live, however, including the new Duke.”

 

 

 

Clara leaned forward in her chair, feeling her breath come more quickly once again. “My brothers and sisters? Or—no, half-brothers and half-sisters?”

 

 

 

Mr Finch sniffed, “Young Master Christopher, your younger brother, has inherited his father’s title and lands, though due to his juvenescence he remains under the guardianship of a certain friend of the family named Mr Morton. Ladies Helena and Judith are about your age and married shortly after growing to womanhood. They naturally live with their husbands, but still reside in the vicinity.”

 

 

 

Clara shook her head, trying to puzzle out the man’s impenetrable language. I have a brother, then. And sisters! So many nights she had lain awake in the orphanage dreaming of such a revelation. She used to wonder if she had parents or siblings alive somewhere in the world, and what sort of people they might be. Now that the reality was staring her in the face, she felt positively overwhelmed by all the sudden reversals in her circumstances.

 

 

 

A chilling thought came to her mind: her father claimed it was his wife who prevented him from taking in his bastard daughter, yet that wife died three years ago? Was he more worried about his own reputation in life than he let on in his letter, then?

 

 

 

Remembering another detail that had jumped out at her, Clara pointed at the letter and gave Mr Finch her most earnest expression, the one she reserved for pleading with landladies and moneylenders. “Father wrote something about a fortune in his letter. Er, His Grace, I mean.”

 

 

 

The man nodded ever so slightly. “As I said, His Grace the current Duke of St. George naturally inherited his father’s house and the largest portion of his estate. But yes, in addition to being granted the surname St. George, some portion of the St. George inheritance has been reserved for you, Miss Clara. Pursuant to the late Duke’s final wishes, I have been charged to maintain this money in an account at the bank on your behalf, and to make myself available to discuss all matters fiduciary and…”

 

 

 

But Clara’s mind had flown her too far to hear the continuation of Mr Finch’s oration. Instead, it cast her back once more through her hardscrabble upbringing.

 

 

 

Every apple I filched when I could bear my hunger no longer, every miser and slumlord who tried to squeeze my last penny from my exhausted fingers… she thought, eyes growing wide with wonder. I wonder if I shall ever go hungry again, now?

 

 

 

“Now, if you will excuse me, Miss,” said Mr Finch, rising from the chair and straightening his jacket. “I have a considerable amount of other business today. If our affairs here are concluded, I would prefer to make our egress post haste.”

 

 

 

“Wait!” she cried, rising from her chair on trembling legs. Mr Finch looked at her expectantly.

 

 

 

“What…what is to become of me now?” she asked as her arms fell helplessly to her sides. “I don’t…am I…?”

 

 

 

The slightest crack formed in the lawyer’s stern façade. “Did His Grace not include that information in his letter…?” he muttered to himself with a small glare crossing his brow.

 

 

 

Then he shook his head and looked Clara in the eye once more. “Until such time as you are wedded, the Duke wished for you to reside at the St. George residence. I am to conduct you there anon, if you are ready.”

 

 

 

Clara blinked. Surely I am misunderstanding this strange gentleman once again…?

 

 

 

“Unless of course, you wish to remain here in the employment of this family, I suppose,” Mr Finch said with rising impatience. “In which case I shall make my departure to inform His Grace, amend the terms of the previous Duke’s will, and proceed—”

 

 

 

“No!” she interjected with a suddenness that surprised her. “I…I would very much like to come to the…to my family’s…er…”

 

 

 

Mr Finch gave a tiny sigh before he straightened and bowed shallowly. “Very good, Miss. As soon as you are ready, then.”

 

 

 

“Why, I’m ready now!” Clara said with a touch more steel in her spine than she felt.

 

 

 

He raised his eyebrow at her once more. “You do not need to have your possessions packed, or bid farewell to your employers? Or,” he harrumphed again as he gave her another quick up-and-down, “perhaps change your clothing?

 

 

 

Clara glanced down. With a rush of red coming to her cheeks, she realized she felt a surge of embarrassment at the maid’s uniform she had worn throughout her last several years of employment.

 

 

 

“Yes. Er, of course,” she mumbled, smoothing her skirt with one hand. “I will…tend to those affairs, then. Quick-like, sir.”

 

 

 

Mr Finch clicked his heels together and gave her another bow, then walked out the door, leaving her alone in the salon.

 

 

 

Clara stood there in the silent room for a moment longer. She knew she needed to make her preparations, or at the very least determine what those preparations might be so she could begin making them. Dimly she was aware of just how little time it would take to change into her only other dress, bid farewell to Sophia and Glenys, and arrange her meagre possessions—assuming she wished to keep them at all, of course—but surely she should take care of it regardless, so as not to keep Mr Finch waiting.

 

 

 

Instead, Clara found she was unable to restrain one last flight of her imagination. Once she stepped out that door, the world would be forever transformed for her.

 

 

 

I awoke this morning to just another day as a maid, she reflected with awe. Now it is scarcely noon, and not only do I have the family I have so desperately wished for all my life, but I may never need to work another day in my life.

 

 

 

A smile came to Clara’s face, the first in what felt like a very long time.