There was nothing worse than being forced to accept the unhappiness of one’s child.
When they’d been small, Violet reflected, she could almost always make everything right again. A kiss on a skinned elbow, a stern talk about the importance of studying for exams… She’d known what to do, and more importantly, she’d known how to do it.
But when her child wasn’t a child any longer, and his happiness lay so tightly in the palm of someone else’s hand…
She looked up at Benedict—her second son, the one who looked so breathtakingly like his father—and in the space of a second, she saw his heart break.
“What do mean, she’s gone?” he demanded.
Violet swallowed. The day before, Sophia Becket, their recently-hired lady’s maid, had resigned her position. Violet hadn’t wanted her to leave; she was a lovely young lady, honest and honorable, with an innate sense of kindness that, sadly, few possessed.
But it was obvious that she and Benedict had tender feelings for one another. And if Sophie had felt that she had to leave to protect her honor, Violet could not stand in her way.
“Just that, I’m afraid,” Violet told her son. “She’s gone.”
Benedict stared at her in disbelief. “And you just let her go?”
“It would hardly have been legal for me to force her to stay.”
“Where did she go?” he instantly asked.
“I don’t know. I had insisted that she take one of our coaches, partly because I feared for her safety but also because I wanted to know where she went.”
Benedict slammed his hands on her desk, causing her to jump in her seat. “Well, then, what happened?”
“As I was trying to say, I attempted to get her to take one of our coaches, but it was obvious she didn’t want to, and she disappeared before I could have the carriage brought ’round. I had assumed,” she added, as delicately as she was able, “that the two of you had had a falling out.”
“Oh, Jesus,” he muttered, raking his hands through his hair. Violet had never seen him so distressed. The agony in his eyes hurt. She felt it in her chest, a mother’s pain for her son.
Then, astoundingly, he said, “No lectures on blasphemy just now, Mother. Please.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
He closed his eyes for a moment. “Where am I going to find her?”
“I don’t know, Benedict. I wish I did. I quite liked Sophie.”
It was true. And in another world, nothing would have made her happier than to see them wed. But Sophie was a lady’s maid. And Benedict was the son of a viscount. Violet wouldn’t have stood in the way of a match, not if it was truly what Benedict wanted, but if they married…
It would be hard. Society was rarely kind to rule-breakers.
“She’s Penwood’s daughter,” Benedict said suddenly.
“I suspected something like that,” Violet murmured. It had never quite made sense that Sophie was the daughter of servants. She spoke too well, even for someone who claimed she had been allowed to take lessons with her mother’s employer’s children. And the other day Violet had heard her muttering in Latin.
She looked up at Benedict. “Illegitimate, I assume?”
Violet opened her mouth to speak, because a spark of hope had begun to flare in her heart. There might be a way to make this work. It would still be difficult. Both of them would have to want it—truly, madly, from the bottom of their hearts. They would have to love each other in a way that disdained society, threw caution to the wind, and—
Whatever else she might have been thinking flew from her mind. The door to her office came flying open, slamming against the wall like an explosion. Francesca, who had obviously been running across the house, skidded into the room, crashing into Violet’s desk, followed by Hyacinth, who crashed into Francesca.
“What is wrong?” Violet asked, rising to her feet.
“It’s Sophie,” Francesca panted.
“I know. She’s gone. We–”
“No!” Hyacinth cut in, slapping a piece of paper down on the desk. “Look.”
Violet saw immediately that it was a copy of Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers. She snatched it up before Benedict could get to it and read, her heart sinking with every word.
La, but such excitement yesterday on the front steps of Lady Bridgerton’s residence on Bruton Street!
Something about the Duke of Ashbourne, something about Penelope Featherington… Violet skipped ahead, impatient to get to the pertinent section.
… a woman was accosted right in front of the townhouse by the Countess of Penwood, who lives three doors down. It seems the woman, who This Author suspects was working in the Bridgerton household, used to work for Lady Penwood. Lady Penwood alleges that the unidentified woman stole from her two years ago and immediately had the poor thing carted off to jail.
This Author is not certain what the punishment is these days for theft, but one has to suspect that if one has the audacity to steal from a countess, the punishment is quite strict. The poor girl in question is likely to be hanged, or at the very least, find herself transported.
“What is it?” Benedict whispered.
She handed him the paper, unable to give her feelings a voice.
“Jail?” he said, the word barely more than a breath.
“We will see her released,” Violet vowed.
But Benedict was already out the door.
“Wait!” she yelled, dashing after him. “I’m coming, too.”
He stopped short. “You are not coming. I will not have you exposed to–”
“Oh, please,” she returned. It was sweet that her boys wanted to care for her, but she could be quite useful in such a situation. “I am hardly a wilting flower. And I can vouch for Sophie’s honesty and integrity.”
“I’m coming, too,” Hyacinth announced, skidding to a halt alongside Francesca, who had also followed them out into the upstairs hall.The Bridgertons: Happily Ever After
“No!” Violet wasn’t sure who said it louder, she or Benedict.
“I said no,” she snapped.
Francesca let out a sullen snort. “I suppose it would be fruitless for me to insist upon–”
“Don’t even finish that sentence,” Benedict warned.
Violet almost smiled. She hoped that someday he had daughters. He was going be a good father.
“If you want to go, we leave immediately,” he said to her.
Violet nodded. Ten minutes later, they were on their way.
“You should have let him pass.”
It seemed obvious now, but Violet could not help but say it to the warden, who had been intent upon keeping Benedict from visiting Sophie in her cell.
The warden who was now lying on the stone floor, a rapidly-forming bruise on his cheek.
Violet heard Sophie’s voice. Benedict had already run around the corner, so Violet gave a polite, “Excuse me,” then stepped around the warden and followed him on hurried feet. It was an awful place, damp and dark, with a stench that Violet feared would haunt her the rest of her days.
“What are your charges against her?” she heard Benedict demand, and when she saw him, he was glowering over… Good God, was that the Countess of Penwood? Violet knew that she had been responsible for having Sophie imprisoned, but she had known the woman for years, and she could not believe that the snippy, haughty lady would have set foot in such a place.
“Theft!” Lady Penwood said defiantly.
“I can’t believe Sophie would do any such thing,” Violet insisted, rushing to Benedict’s side. “And,” she added, because sometimes such things needed to be said, “I never liked you, Lady Penwood.”
“This is not about me,” the countess huffed. “It is about that girl”—she motioned scathingly to Sophie—”who had the audacity to steal my wedding band!”
“I never stole your wedding band, and you know it! The last thing I would want of yours—”
“You stole my shoe-clips!”
Violet turned back to Sophie, who had shut her mouth into a belligerent line.
“Ha! See!” Lady Penwood crowed. “A clear admission of guilt.”
“She is your step-daughter,” Benedict said menacingly. “She should never have been in a position where she felt she had to—”
But Lady Penwood was having none of that. “Don’t you ever call her my step-daughter,” she hissed. “She is nothing to me!”
Violet attempted to point out that this was quite obviously untrue, but any reply the countess might have made was cut off by the arrival of the magistrate, who was followed by the warden, who was sporting a rather stunning black eye.
“What is going on here?” the magistrate demanded.
Benedict stepped forward, tall and proud, and oh, but Violet could see him as a knight of old, defending his lady’s honor. “This woman,” he said, motioning to Lady Penwood, “has accused my fiancée of theft.”
Violet’s eyes instantly filled with tears, and she realized that she had never been prouder of him than she was at that moment.
It took quite some time to sort everything out, and all might have been lost if not for the arrival of Sophie’s stepsister Posy, who quite dramatically revealed Lady Penwood (her own mother!) as a liar.
Violet was horrified by Sophie’s story. Her stepmother had kept her as a virtual slave, letting her think her father had abandoned her to poverty, when in truth his will had provided Sophie with a modest dowry.
It was at that point that Violet, who had remained silent throughout most of the proceedings, could bear it no longer. As far as she was concerned, Sophie was now her child, and no one treated her children like that.
But Violet didn’t yell; she never had. There were far more effective ways of getting what she wanted, and so she cleared her throat, as if her only care might be a bit of dust in the air, and turned to the countess. “I don’t think it’s terribly legal to embezzle a young woman’s dowry,” she said mildly. She smiled, because even if the countess didn’t realize it yet, Violet was going to trounce her. “Eh, Araminta?”
The countess staggered back, and the magistrate actually gasped. “You’re not suggesting I arrest the countess?”
“No, of course not,” Violet demurred. “She’d likely go free. The aristocracy rarely pays for its crimes. But…” She paused here, to great effect. “If you were to arrest her, it would be terribly embarrassing while she defended the charges.”
“What are you trying to say?” Lady Penwood demanded.
Violet turned to the magistrate. “Might I have a few moments alone with Lady Penwood?”
“Of course, my lady.” He gave her a gruff nod, then barked, “Everyone! Out!”
“No, no,” Violet said, giving him her sweetest smile as she pressed a pound note into his palm. “My family may stay.” She waited until they gone, then murmured, “Now, now, where were we?”
Violet marched up to Lady Penwood, her body thrumming with a strange, tingling power. She was furious, and damn it, she was in charge now.
“My son is going to marry Sophie,” she said, never taking her eyes off Lady Penwood’s, “and you are going to tell anyone who will listen that she was the ward of your late husband.”
“I will never lie for her,” Lady Penwood shot back.
Violet shrugged. “Fine. Then you can expect my solicitors to begin looking Sophie’s dowry immediately. After all, Benedict will be entitled to it once he marries her.”
She raised a brow.
Lady Penwood didn’t flinch.
Violet bared her teeth.
Lady Penwood’s eyes widened, and she ground out, “If someone asks me, I will confirm whatever story you bandy about. But do not expect me to go out of my way to help her.”
Violet took a moment to pretend to consider. “Excellent. I do believe that will do nicely.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Benedict?”
He gave a nod, and his eyes met hers with silent tribute.
Violet turned back to Lady Penwood. “Sophie’s father was named Charles Beckett and he was a distant cousin of the earl’s, no?”
Lady Penwood seethed, but she nodded.
And then Violet turned her back on her. It was the gravest sort of insult, even here in a jail. “I’m sure some members of the ton will consider her a bit shabby, since obviously nobody will be familiar with her family, but at least she will be respectable. After all”—she turned back around, unable to resist one last gloating smile at the countess—”there is that connection with the Penwoods. Oh, magistrate!” she called out.
He returned, and she said, “I believe my work here is done.”
“Then I don’t have to arrest anyone?” he asked, visibly relieved.
“It seems not.”
“Well, I am leaving!” Lady Penwood announced. She turned to her daughter with furious eyes. “Come along, Posy! Now!”
Well, now, this wouldn’t do.
Violet turned to Posy and issued an invitation to come and stay with her.
“Posy, you may not go live with the Bridgertons!” Lady Penwood practically screamed.
Violet ignored her. “I believe I will quit London early this season. Would you care to join us for an extended stay in Kent?”
Posy nodded. “I would be much obliged.”
“That settles it, then.”
“That does not settle it,” Lady Penwood snapped. “She is my daughter, and–”
“Benedict,” Violet said, cutting the countess off in a bored voice, “what was the name of my solicitor?”
She looked pointedly at Lady Penwood.
“Go!” the countess spat at Posy. “And don’t ever darken my door again.” She marched right up to her daughter and hissed straight in her face, “If you go with them now, you are dead to me. Do you understand? Dead!”
“It’s all right, Posy,” Violet said softly, linking their arms together. “You may stay with us as long as you wish.”
But Lady Penwood was not going to be defeated without lashing out. She screamed, she raged, she even once raised her hand as if to strike.
“Benedict?” Violet cut in. “How quickly could we be at the solicitors’ office?”
Her son gave his chin a thoughtful stroke, quite possibly to cover his smile. “They’re not too terribly far away. Twenty minutes? Thirty if the roads are full.”
Lady Penwood turned her rage onto Violet. “Take her then,” she spat. “She’s never been anything to me but a disappointment. And you can expect to be stuck with her until your dying day, as no one is likely to offer for her. I have to bribe men just to ask her to dance.”
And then the strangest thing happened. Violet began to shake. All the fury that she had channeled into a cool, bored exterior roiled within her, and when she looked down, her hand was clenched into a fist.
But before she could plant it in Lady Penwood’s face—because there was no way she was going to be able to do anything else—Sophie leaped forward and did the very same thing, sending the countess tumbling to the floor.
“That,” Sophie hissed, “is not for stealing my dowry. It’s not for all the times you tried to boot me out of my house before my father died. And it’s not even for turning me into your personal slave.”
Violet slowly straightened out her fingers, quite unable to believe the violence that had almost taken over her.
“Er, Sophie,” Benedict asked, “what, then, is it for?”
Sophie’s eyes burned. “That was for not loving your daughters equally.”
Posy began to sob, and then finally—finally—Lady Penwood stomped off.
“Well,” Violet declared, trying to ease a bit of the tension, “I thought she would never leave.”
But then, just when she was congratulating herself on keeping such a cool head throughout the ordeal, Benedict came over and whispered into her ear: “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”
“No.” Because he hadn’t. But he was a man now. They never remembered such things. “But I know, anyway.”
“Have I mentioned that you’re the best of mothers?”
She smiled. On the outside, on the inside, everywhere. “No, but I know that, too.”
“Good.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek. “Thank you. It’s a privilege to be your son.”
And that was her undoing.
She hadn’t thought she might cry. The whole day, she’d been calm and controlled. Rather proud of it, actually. She hadn’t even felt as if she were pushing her feelings down, waiting for an appropriate time to let them out.
But now—her tears came pouring forth with a huge sob.
“What did you say to her?” Sophie cried.
“It’s all right,” Violet managed to get out. “It’s…” She threw her arms around her son. There was no way he was getting out of a hug from her now. “I love you, too!”
And while she stood there, enjoying being hugged in return, Posy turned to Sophie and said, “This is a nice family.”
“I know,” Sophie replied.
And it was. It really was. Somehow, all on her own, Violet had managed to raise eight excellent human beings.
Edmund would have been proud.