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Once a Duchess

By:Elizabeth Boyce

 Once a Duchess
 
 
Elizabeth Boyce
 
Chapter One
 
 
1813
 
Isabelle Jocelyn Fairfax Lockwood, the former Duchess of Monthwaite, knelt on the stone hearth and prodded the weak fire in the grate of her small cottage in southern Leicestershire. The flames gave a half-hearted attempt to brighten before they settled back to a feeble glow. She blew into the coals. Again, the flames briefly intensified. She held her hands out for warmth, their cracked skin pained by the January chill.
 
“Another bit o’ peat, do you think, Mrs. Smith?” asked Bessie, Isabelle’s lone servant and companion.
 
The middle-aged woman’s round cheeks were pink from cold, she noted with a pang of conscience. Bessie wore stout wool stockings under her dress, a shawl, cap, and fingerless gloves. Isabelle wore much the same; her attire was of only marginally better quality. She felt chilled, but she knew the cold did not seep into her bones the way it did Bessie’s. It wasn’t fair to make the woman suffer on account of Isabelle’s thriftiness. “Certainly.”
 
She rose from the hearth and picked up the dress lying across the back of a chair in the cottage’s parlor. It was a fine gown at odds with the humble abode: sky blue silk with silver embroidery down the long sleeves and around the bottom hem, and seed pearls adorning the neckline. It was a heaven of luxurious elegance, a dress fit for a duchess, and it had several small moth-eaten holes in the skirt. Isabelle had cursed under her breath when she discovered the damage this morning. She had so few nice things left to her name, she’d be damned if this dress would feed those insidious creatures.
 
She settled into the chair near the fire, took up needle and thread, and began carefully repairing the fabric.
 
“Wouldn’t you like me to do that for you, ma’am?” Bessie hovered beside her, one hand extended. “Such a lovely thing. Where’ve you been keeping it?”
 
Isabelle flinched inwardly. It was foolish of her to have the dress out where Bessie could see it. She ran the risk of spoiling the false identity she’d cultivated to escape notoriety. “Mrs. Smith,” the parson’s widow, had no business owning such an extravagant gown.
 
She should have sold it with the rest, she chided herself. Goodness knew she needed the blunt. Alexander was late with her allowance — again. The last money her brother sent in October was nearly gone.
 
But sentimentality had gotten the best of her. Everything she owned now was simple, serviceable, sensible. She had precious little left to remind her that she was a gentleman’s daughter and, for a short time, a noblewoman.
 
“No, thank you,” she said, pulling the gown against her stomach. Isabelle cast around the immaculate cottage for something to occupy the maid. “Do you have any mending of your own?” she asked.
 
Bessie frowned thoughtfully, deep lines marking her cheeks. “My nephew did drop off a few shirts when he brought the peat on Monday.”
 
“There you are.” Isabelle smiled brightly. “Go ahead and see about them.” She watched the maid disappear into her small bedchamber. The door shut.
 
Foolish, stupid girl, she chided herself. If she weren’t cautious, Bessie would discover Isabelle’s true identity. The past year had passed in peaceful anonymity. Her only correspondents were her brother and her last remaining friend, Lily. They both knew to address their letters to Mrs. Jocelyn Smith.
 
Isabelle stroked her hand down the gown’s limp sleeve, the embroidery’s ridges a textural contrast to the slippery silk beneath. She’d never worn the dress. It was a winter gown, suited for a fête in London. That party never came.
 
What had come was her mother-in-law Caro, hurling accusations of adultery against Isabelle and Justin — while Isabelle was still bedridden with a broken rib.
 
What had come was Justin’s disappearance. She never saw or heard from her friend again after Caro came to Hamhurst.
 
What had come was Marshall, confused and angry. He asked her over and over whether she had betrayed him. But what was the word of his wife of only months, compared to the wisdom of the woman he’d known all his life? He believed the worst, that Isabelle was the fortune-hunting, title-hungry jezebel his mother had always known her to be.
 
What finally came, after months of agonizing uncertainty, was the divorce.
 
• • •
 
Isabelle stood on the walk in front of the village’s little posting office, clutching the letter from her brother. Finally, her allowance. She tore it open as she started toward the mercantile where the owner would exchange a bank draft for currency. There remained no money to purchase peat for the fireplace, nor tallow candles, or Bessie’s wages — or much food, for that matter.

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