Gentle Reader, I hope you enjoy this new twist on how Audrey and Richard meet. Feedback is greatly appreciated, as it fuels the fire to continue writing! I will try to update this story as often as possible.
Staring down at the stenographer's pad on her lap, she mentally checked her figures. Though she never excelled in mathematics and despised accounting in all forms, she knew that the numbers on the page before her fell painfully short of the desired goal. A million pounds, while a huge sum of money to most Brits, was merely a drop in the bucket to the blue-blooded fforbes-Hamilton's. She'd contacted every living relative, no matter how distant, in the hopes of securing the funds necessary to hold on to her precious Grantleigh. But time had officially run out. The bank examiner had established a firm deadline for receipt of monies owed. And for the first time in her thirty nine years, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton was unable to deliver that which was expected in the name of her revered country estate. She had failed. Grantleigh Manor would be placed upon a dreaded auction block and sold, along with most of her family heirlooms.
Tossing the pad on the sofa, she sighed heavily and ran her fingers through her blond bobbed locks. She tucked her legs underneath her, adjusting her plaid wool skirt slightly as she stared into the fireplace. The flames in the grate were beginning to die down. It was late. The clock in the hall had chimed minutes before, signaling the arrival of a new day. Sleep was a commodity that rarely came to her of late and ushering Midnight politely into her drawing room was now common practice. Glancing down at her precious pooch asleep in his basket beside the hearth, she was thankful that the tiniest member of her family could rest comfortably amid the chaos that had swirled around her over the past month. Just a couple of weeks and they would find themselves among the ranks of the Britain's homeless. Audrey's eyes traveled around the perimeter of the room that had become her sanctuary. The art and furnishings surrounding her mimicked those found in the rest of the manor—refined, elegant pieces. All but the hideous lamp that Marton insisted they place atop the massive library table in front of the windows. It was tacky and distasteful, and for a split second Audrey smiled, as she considered the lamp to be nothing more than an extension of her recently deceased husband. After several minutes of silent inventory of her family's possessions, she stood and yawned, determined to fall into bed before the clock chimed again. Bertie raised his head and regarded his master for a moment before returning to peaceful doggy dreams. She closed the door to the drawing room noiselessly then slipped quietly upstairs into her suite.
Alone in her four poster bed, Audrey tried desperately to turn her brain off. But it wasn't to be. So many memories of her life at the manor. So many details and loose ends to tidy up before handing over the reins to the new owner. How would she ever be able to do it? How could she simply slip a key into the hand of a stranger and walk away? A hand that most likely won't understand the joys of farming, the satisfaction of duty and the sanctity of honor. Four hundred years of ffobes-Hamilton's, working to carry on a staunch tradition…now to be turned into a circus by some nouveau riche foreigner or would-be pop star. And what of her devoted staff? Grantleigh had been a source of wealth and well-being for the modest community for well over four centuries. Arnold Plunkett, her dear friend and the family's most trusted solicitor, promised that he'd secure lodgings and employment for each and every person displaced by the sale of the manor. And now, devastatingly, Audrey would have to add her name to that very list.
Her mind turned cartwheels as she listened to the odd creaks and rattles of the old estate. The sounds had increased and magnified over the last weeks, making sleep near impossible. She wanted to blame stress—that of surrendering to her worst fear in losing the manor. But if anything, Audrey was honest—sometimes brutally so. And she knew she couldn't lie to herself about this. Something was missing. Well, someone actually. Marton. Her husband of eighteen years…and not one of them very happy. A distant cousin, Marton fforbes-Hamilton had been the only male heir to inherit her beloved Grantleigh. Oh Marton! Why? Why did you do this to me? She'd loved him once, as a young girl. She'd fallen hard when at the age of fifteen, Marton lavished his charming attentions upon her, twirling her round and round the Great Hall on the night of the Summer Hunt Ball. A man of twenty-two, Marton relished nubile young maidens. A fetish which, unfortunately, he was never able to resign despite a marriage license and gold band. Yet sleeping beside him night after night had given her a strange sense of security. Not a feeling of love or caring as one might expect from a spouse. Quite the opposite. A security that the one thing she held most dear, her childhood home, would stay firmly in her grasp.
Another yawn came and Audrey finally felt her body begin to relax. As she drifted off, she replayed the conversation she shared with Marjory earlier that evening…
"Come on, Aud. You gave it your best. I hate to see you torture yourself." Marjory settled herself on the loveseat opposite her best friend as Brabinger, Audrey's butler, served her another brandy.
"I'm not giving up, Marjory. Not yet. The race is not over until midnight tonight." Audrey answered, perusing stacks of memos and documents scattered on the sofa around her.
"Do you honestly think you can secure another two hundred thousand pounds in the next five hours?" Marjory checked her watch.
"I'm not afraid of hard work." Audrey responded with a firm nod. Silence filled the drawing room for a few minutes before Marjory spoke again.
"Don't you get tired?" She asked, swirling her brandy cautiously in her snifter.
"Tired? Of what?"
"Of being you."
"Of being me? What on earth do you mean?" Audrey stopped shuffling papers for a moment, examining her friend with a hard look.
"I mean, don't you ever wish that you could be someone else?"
"Heavens no. Why would you ask such a thing?"
"Well, look at you. You're Audrey fforbes-Hamilton. You are on guard and on display every day of your life. You wake in the morning and spend every waking hour trying to preserve and better the family name. Must get awfully exhausting."
"It's my life's work. It's all I know. It's all I want to know."
"But certainly there are times you'd like to just run away from it all?"
"Not really, no." Audrey turned her attentions back to her paperwork.
"Never?" Marjory pushed.
"Marjory, what exactly are you trying to say?" She asked, scribbling down figures with a hasty hand.
"I think you need a holiday, Aud. You haven't stopped from the moment you buried Marton. You've become obsessed with this little project of yours."
Audrey raised her head and glared at Marjory. "Little project? Is that what you think this is? I am trying to save my life and livelihood and the one thing that means more to me than God and Country and you flippantly refer to it as a 'little project'?"
"Oh Audrey, I didn't mean it that way." Marjory tried to regain a verbal foothold, but she knew it was too late. She crossed a line and knew Audrey would not be reasoned with.
"I've worked tirelessly day after day for a solid month and you think this is some sort of hobby?" The hurt in her voice was more than evident and Marjory was certain she could see the beginnings of tears forming in the corners of her friend's eyes.
"But I was—" Majory tried to interject.
"Just leaving. Brabinger, please show Ms. Frobisher to the door." Audrey stood, her tall frame rigid, and exited the room with hostile deliberation.
The clock downstairs chimed and Audrey knew she'd lost again. One a.m. and she was now further away from dreams than before. In thirty days time, she'd lost her husband, her home, and now, quite possibly, her best friend. Maybe Marjory was right. Maybe I do need to get away. She knew in her heart of hearts that Majory was only interested in her well-being, even if her words were less than succinct in delivering such sentiments. She'd fought tooth and nail to the bitter end, but it wasn't enough. Close, but not enough. It was time to wave her starched, monogrammed white flag in a show of surrender and defeat. A call to Arnold at first light would set the unmentionable course of events into action. Turning onto her side, she lay in that comfortable, familiar position that always seemed to induce sleep. She tucked her hands neatly beneath her pillow and sighed heavily. In a few hours the countdown will begin, she considered. And in a week's time, I'll no longer be the lady of the manor.
Brabinger consulted his pocket watch for the third time before glancing up the staircase. A puzzled looked upon his face, he shook his head with an air of confusion and climbed the stairs. It was not like her to be late for breakfast, especially when she'd given special instructions for the morning's menu. With a sigh, he turned and made his way down the long corridor, stopping at the door of her suite. Giving several light taps, he called her name, announced himself and asked if she would be down for breakfast. To his surprise, he received no response. He gave another series of polite raps and waited. Still no answer. Gently, he turned the knob and peered cautiously into her room. The bed was neatly made, all pillows fluffed and blankets folded. Two small cream colored envelopes sat side by side, propped against the base of the lamp on the bedside table. Upon closer inspection, Brabinger found a note bearing his name, with the other addressed to Mr. Plunkett. Quickly he slid an aged finger under the sticky seal and removed a small embossed notecard bearing her initials: AFH.
I have been unexpectedly called away on urgent business. I do apologise for not speaking with you in person, but I'm afraid the hour of my departure created quite an inconvenience and I did not wish to wake you. Please see that my other correspondence is delivered to Arnold first thing. I will ring or send post as to the date of my return.
In all his years of service at Grantleigh, Brabinger had never known her to slip away in such a mysterious manner. Urgent business? Could she have possibly found a way to hold on to the manor? He sighed again, fanning himself with the envelope as he made his way back downstairs.
"It's your lucky day, Ms…?"
"fforbes-Hamilton. Audrey fforbes-Hamilton." She fumbled in her purse momentarily then offered the gentleman behind the desk a credit card.
"It's rare that we have cancellations at the height of the season. Especially with all the fresh powder we're enjoying."
"I'm sure your patrons are most pleased."
"Will you be needing any additional keys?"
"No. I'm traveling alone."
"Well, please let us know if we can assist you in any way. And again, welcome to The Grand." The reservations clerk slid a key across the counter in Audrey's direction. He motioned to the Bell Captain and gave a friendly nod.
"Thank you." She nodded back with a half-smile, tucking the credit card safely back in her pocketbook.
Leaving Grantleigh under the cover of darkness, she'd hardly given thought as to where she was going. She had but one force driving her as the sun started to peek on the horizon—get as far away from the estate as possible. Let Arnold deal with the painful particulars. She couldn't bear to watch. The frosty air that met her face as she walked silently from the manor to the Rolls whispered only one destination. And in the course of many hours of non-stop travel, she found herself in the shadow of the Bernese Alps.
The locale was hardly surprising…she and Marton wintered there together for years. The only difference now being that she no longer had to keep her husband's wandering eye in check. Of course, she had no way to pay for her sudden excursion. Audrey couldn't afford a holiday of any kind—especially not a trip to one of the most exclusive resorts in Gstaad. She was broke. It wouldn't be long until she'd be forced to adopt an unlikely country philosophy-getting by one's wits and looks. She certainly had both, though more so with regard to intelligence. Audrey was attractive, but not what most men would consider beautiful. Words like stunning or gorgeous were seldom attached to her. She was pleasant. Nice-looking. And in her mind, utterly undesirable to the opposite sex. In fact, she had no desire for anyone to show her an ounce of interest. She'd played the obligatory bedroom games with Marton, and was in no way eager to find a new bedfellow.
Within minutes she was standing at the threshold of her mountain hideaway. Being a last minute arrival, she'd had to settle for one of the smaller suites with a lesser view—but she was lucky to have anything at all. Her luggage was deposited on the bed and she offered the bellhop a modest tip. The days of flamboyant spending had sadly come to an end and she felt rosy shades of embarrassment on her cheeks. Her life was changing…and not for the better. Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, a woman of striking deportment and class, could scarcely afford to pay attention, let alone any sort of bill. She flopped down on the bed, briefly throwing her gaze at the small clock on the bedside table. The dinner hour was approaching, though she didn't have much of an appetite. Maybe just a small cheese tray and a good bottle of Chianti via room service. She didn't feel like getting all dressed up to dine alone. A day of train travel had made her weary. She sat in silence for a few moments, contemplating her next move. But the silence was soon replaced by a sound so foreign that it took her a minute to realize what was happening. Tears burned hot trails down her cheeks and she was powerless to stop them. From the moment she'd learned of Marton's excesses, the insurmountable debt he'd accrued, and the need to sell the manor, she'd never once allowed herself to cry. Not once. She wore her name and duty like a suit of armor, never revealing to anyone, let alone herself, how desperate she felt inside. And now, hundreds of miles away from Grantleigh she could finally comes to terms with her pain and be that which she was truly afraid to show to the world: a woman with a broken heart.
Hope you enjoyed Chapter One! Would love a review!