A/N: I'm very, very sorry. And I'm going to direct a little more of my apology to beauty0102 who emailed me a few times asking when the next chapter was coming out. To which I said "sometime this weekend hopefully." Well, that was probably two years ago. So, without further ado, here is what you've all been waiting for with my sincerest apologies for its tardiness.
And please leave a review, I love hearing what people think! Also, it gives me incentive to write ;)
Sara could almost see what Becky was thinking as her dear friend blinked, then blinked hard once more to see if she was imagining things. The look on Becky's face was almost comical, but then, Sara was sure that the same expression was on her own face.
Becky slowly reached a frail looking hand towards Sara's cheek. Had Sara been a true lady of the peers, she would have been revolted to the core and either would have slapped the offending hand away or reared back. But Sara did neither. She instead welcomed the cool hand upon her cheek, despite the filth, and let her tears flow.
"My god…Miss Sara, we all thought you be dead!"
Through her sobs, Sara reached out and hugged Becky close to her. It had been so long that she'd seen a friend and with it came the sense of once again being connected to the world. A muffled cry came from between the two young women and Becky quickly pulled away. Gently pulling back the tattered blanket, Becky revealed an angelic face of a young baby, albeit an angry one. Sara looked questioningly at Becky, then to the child.
"Minchin let me have the baby at the school, but I had to leave a few days after. She wouldn't have a 'caterwauling' thing in her household." She rocked the baby in her arms and made little hushing sounds that made the baby show a gummy smile.
Sara was in awe, she hadn't seen a baby this close in years, the last being in India where the women weren't embarrassed to be holding a child. In London, women didn't carry a child around unless they couldn't afford a Nanny. Slowly reaching out with a gentle hand, Sara brushed her fingers along the fine silky hair that covered the baby's head. Just the thought of Becky having to raise this child alone on the streets made her throat clog with anguish.
Becky smiled shyly and seemed almost uncertain of the words she spoke next, "I've named her Elizabeth Sara Woodstock… You being the best person I ever did knew; kind, gentle, smart, beautiful…I wanted her to be like you."
Swallowing hard, Sara wiped the tears from her face and a brittle smile split her lips. She whispered a quiet 'thank you' and tentatively stroked the girl's head again.
Becky returned the smile, relieved that Sara wasn't outraged, although a small part of her chastised her for even thinking that Sara would be mad at having a servant's child named after her. "Elizabeth was my mother's name." She looked down into her daughter's face and continued, "I'll be calling her Liz."
"I think she'll be perfect, Becky."
Hope filled Becky's eyes and she leaned forward as if to see the truth in Sara's eyes, "Do you really think so, Miss?"
Turning back to the garden gate, Sara led her dear childhood friend towards it. "I know so."
Once within the walls of the garden, Sara carefully locked the garden door and turned to face Becky. Everything seemed so surreal. She could scarcely believe that she wasn't dreaming, so unreal it was that Becky stood before her. "I can't believe you're here."
Laughing, Becky agreed, thinking the whole time that if this was a dream, she'd make it a good one at least by enjoying her time with her old friend. "How did you come to this place, Miss?"
Becky shook her head, "You'll always be 'Miss Sara' to me. You're my friend, but you deserve the respect a Lady should receive."
Sara smiled, knowing that this age old argument was futile to continue. It was always the same. She led the way through the garden. Long established plants bloomed and released their heavy perfume into the air, adding to the fantasy. Reaching for a large bloom, Sara plucked it and absently twirled it between her fingers. "I live here now. Or at least until I move on. I was brought here by a gentleman."
A shocked look crossed Becky's features and her gaze flew to study Sara. Her friend didn't seem at all upset, but she could think of no other reason for Sara to be here. "Oh Miss, I had hoped that you hadn't had to resort to that sort of thing. I heard Miss Minchin cut off all hope for you by sending out notices saying that you were unsuitable for any household of the class…" A blush covered Becky and embarrassed, she turned away as her imagination took flight.
Sara burst into laughter, "It's nothing at all what you think it is, Becky. He is a very respectable man, as is his step-father, Lord Stonebrook." She cocked her head to the side and thought a moment, "You may have actually seen Lord Stonebrook before, he's Lottie's father."
Recognition of the man in question lit up Becky's eyes and she nodded exuberantly, "Yes! A kind old chap, if I remember correctly. Though he appeared sad whenever he saw Lottie, must be a lot of her mother in her."
Elizabeth began to fuss in Becky's arms and her cute little face screwed up as she readied herself for a wail. "Oh, is there a quiet place about? Liz is hungry and I have to feed her."
Nodding, Sara led the way back into the house, briefly introducing Dorris to Becky before heading for a quiet lounge room.
James strode through the entrance to his house and walked briskly to the salver of letters and invitations he'd received. He flipped through them and tossed most of them back to be dealt with later. He had no patience at the moment, his head was pounding from lack of sleep and all he really wanted to do was go to bed.
Robert had pressed him again into coming to the dinner that weekend with the Carrisford's. James grinned, another such reminder lay on the salver, that one he tucked into his jacket pocket. He had loped up half the stairs to the second floor before he heard it. Two girlish giggles.
He shook his head, positive that he was hearing things. Pausing in his steps, he listened, waiting for it to happen again. He was not to be disappointed. Again two peals of laughter came forth. Sliding his hand down the smooth banister as he descended, James quietly walked towards the private drawing room where he could distinguish Sara's giggles…and someone else's. He was quite certain that Dorris hadn't giggled like that for at least a decade so that ruled her out. So who was Sara entertaining?
He reached for the door handle and rested a hand on it for a moment, deciding whether he should intrude or not. He obviously paused too long for Dorris rasped his knuckles with a ladle and chastised, "I thought you were past eve's droppin', James."
James could feel the heat rise up to his cheeks and he straightened his full six foot two inch frame indignantly. "What are you on about Dorris?"
"The lady's friend, Becky, she's feeding her daughter. With all the experience with the ladies you've had, there's no need for you to go in and see two more. Besides, haven't you heard of knocking?"
"In my own house? I had no idea, Dorris, that Sara was entertaining a guest." Not the complete truth, but he still hadn't known that the guest was feeding her child…and in front of Sara no less! He said this indignantly, but he still couldn't diffuse the heat in his cheeks. This was his home, he could do as he wished!
Dorris smirked but said no more on the matter, instead changing the subject. "I thought I heard you come in. And no hello to me I see."
James watched as she sauntered back to the kitchen, her large body swaying rather smoothly, surprisingly, as if to unheard music. He followed her and stood awkwardly in the door for a moment before letting childhood behaviour kick in and seated himself at the rough kitchen table. "Dorris? Will this Becky be staying for a visit?"
Again, Dorris smirked, "I'd say, indefinitely."
"Who is she?"
Dorris began stirring a large pot, tasted the substance, then added some dried herbs. "I'm not sure if it is my place to say, it's best you ask Sara. Or better yet, Becky. It is safe to say, however, that this Becky has put a new spark in our Sara."
James looked back through the door he'd entered through, in the general direction Sara was and tapped the table with a finger lost in thought. Dorris noted this and turned away with a smile. It was good to have her boy thinking of other things. War was best left at the battlefield no matter how many scars one carried with themselves.
Sara smiled and giggled as Becky winced then pulled the babe away from her breast. "No one ever told me it'd hurt this much!" Nonetheless, a look of awe crossed her face as she looked down at the baby in her arms.
"Oh Becky, I wish I'd been there to help you through with everything. I can only imagine how horrid it must've been." She lifted her feet up and rested her chin on her knees, hugging her legs close. Very much a childish action, but she didn't seem to care.
Becky watched Sara under hooded eyes, not at all certain of who this person was. She knew it was Sara, but it had been so long since she'd seen her friend…what had she gone through? She reached over and patted her friend's hand, "It wasn't all that bad." An understatement to be sure, she'd had to have her baby in the basement closet lest she wake any of the girls; a strap of leather between her teeth and an old skirt to muffle her cries. She'd been fortunate that the cook had been so kind and knowing.
Sara sighed again and tucked a loose strand of light brown hair behind her ear. Becky decided she looked rather down despite having everything now. Or at least, everything that Becky could imagine.
"Something wrong, Miss?"
Large grey eyes looked up at Becky then back down to where she was picking at the hem of her dress. Such expressive eyes. Becky cocked her head to the side and studied the girl – no, woman – before her. Something had definitely changed her from the free spirited person she knew before, and it all showed in her eyes.
"I was just wondering…the father…"
"Of Liz? He doesn't know that I'm here..."
"Oh? What's his name?"
Becky's mind whirled. She couldn't give the real name…nor did she want to, she was too ashamed to tell even Sara, her dear friend, the truth. "It's Gregory. He's the footman in the house next to Miss Minchin's." It wasn't the entire truth. But close enough to it, the bastard who'd done this to her was no better than a footman, he was lower! Scum!
"Do you love him?"
"Love? Gregory?" She fell silent. Yes, it was quite possible she did. He had been with her from the beginning or this ordeal. Supporting her when no one else did, it had been him, she'd ended up turning to for a shoulder to cry on when the burden seemed to get too heavy.
Forcing a smile to her lips, Sara's demeanour brightened and she sat back in her seat all proper. "Nevermind. Come, I'll introduce you to Dorris properly, the cook and housekeeper, and then we'll run you a hot bath."
Forgetting what had moments before occupied her thoughts, Becky bounced a little in her chair in anticipation.
Sara rose smoothly from her own seat and threw the doors open into the hall.
James startled at the sudden bang. He looked down the hall and glimpsed Sara coming his way, she was looking over her shoulder. His eyes brightened and he went to go greet her, then he caught glimpse of her friend following behind. He backed away.
"I can't be seen here! I'm a Lord!"
Dorris raised her brows in question. "This is your house, you may be as you please. Besides, I'm sure people've seen you in much worse condition and places."
"But what will this girl think? Me consorting in the kitchen?" He looked around, panic stricken. He had never heard of a Lady by the name of Becky. But that was easy to understand as few Ladies ever gave out their real name. Or perhaps 'Becky' was merely a nick name. "And why on earth is Sara bringing her to the kitchen!"
The old cook shrugged, "Likely need something for the babe."
James felt like smacking himself on the forehead. He wanted to make a good impression for Sara's sake. He didn't want her to be embarrassed to introduce him to her friend.
Sara stepped into the room, and Dorris noted with a large amount of amusement, that James noticeably straightened in posture, while at the same time managing to somehow shrink into a corner.
"Whatever it is you're making Dorris, it smells wonderful!"
"I apologize, I didn't introduce you fully before." She pulled her friend fully into the room, "This is my dear friend, Becky."
Becky smiled shyly and bobbed her head politely, all the while gently bouncing Liz in her arms. Liz's eyes lit up as she saw the cook and her mouth opened wide in a gummy smile.
Dorris swooped in and scooped Liz out from Becky's arms. Sara and Becky laughed as the babe giggled at the silly faces the old cook made. Becky watched with amusement, then at ease that nothing ill would happen to her child in Dorris's experienced hands, her eyes wandered around the room and fell on the sharply dressed man standing in the shadows.
Her face fell.
Sara noticed Becky's sudden quietness and turned to see where her friend looked.
James sighed and stepped into the light. He could see the look of horror on the girl's face. True, she looked more like a pauper than any Lady he'd ever seen, but her reaction to him spoke numbers.
"Forgive me for startling you, I was just discussing my plans for dinners next week with Dorris."
Sara whirled and exclaimed happily. If she was flushed before with the excitement of a babe in the house and her dear friend at her side, she positively glowed now at seeing James. She grabbed hold of his hand and dragged him towards Becky.
"Becky, this is James."
Colour returned once Becky had a good look at his face, and she curtsied politely. She was relieved to note that Sara was too enamoured in this man to have noticed her momentary distress. And for that, she was greatly relieved.
"Dorris, I was wondering if you could have some water sent up for a bath for Becky."
While Sara had her back turned to both James and Becky, James took the moment to study Becky. Her initial reaction had had him thinking that she was shocked to see a gentleman in the kitchen, but after seeing him up close, she'd relaxed. So it wasn't the fact that it was a man of the peerage in the kitchen that had distressed her, but rather his face. He'd never met the girl before, which meant that her reaction was for a man whose face was similar to his own. Robert's.
What the devil was going on here? Becky clearly recognized him, or rather, someone who was similar in face. He excused himself gruffly and stormed out of the kitchen and out of the house, his bed and weariness forgotten.
The three ladies watched him stomp off with confusion, then they as one turned began collecting hot water for a bath.
Sara held little Liz in her arms, only a little discomforted with being responsible for the baby. She'd held numerous babes in India, but this one seemed more fragile, perhaps because Liz was so much younger than the one's she'd held before. Liz stared up at her with clear blue eyes, Sara made a goofy face garnering a gummy smile.
From behind the privacy screen, Becky sighed deeply and sunk further below the hot water. "Oh Miss Sara, I would never have thought that I'd ever have such a luxury as this." Her hair curled into ringlets around her face from the steam of the bath. Sara noted with surprise how much it softened Becky's normally harsher face.
Lifting baby Liz to her shoulder, Sara went to her armoire and flung the doors open. She had by no means a large wardrobe, but to her it was more than enough. She bounced on her toes, kissing Liz's head every now and then, and quietly looked over the dresses that hung there. James had procured a number of dresses, all which had to be fitted for her by Dorris, where they came from Sara hadn't a clue. She had adamantly told him, however, to stop bringing them to her after the first dozen for she had no use for so many.
She fingered a solemn, but rich burgundy coloured dress and pulled it from the armoire. She studied it and deemed it worthy and hung it over the back of an upholstered chair for Becky. The warm colour would brighten Becky's face considerably. And with a little fixing with the hair, Becky would look beautiful. Something that Sara was sure that Becky had never felt before.
Becky called softly from behind the screen, "Miss Sara?" she hesitated before saying anything more, "what are your intentions? Are you meaning to stay here forever?"
Showing Liz every little ornament and painting in the dressing room, Sara stilled and thought the question over. "I would like to find some employment to pay James and Lord Stonebrook back for their hospitality. I'm hoping that James will help with finding me employment…perhaps give a reference or something." She added quietly, "Miss Minchin never gave me any references."
Liz solemnly looked up into Sara's troubled face, the babe's expression appearing to be much older than what she was. Smiling softly, Sara brushed her fingers through the silky fine hair and kissed the child's brow, she wished with all her heart that she could guarantee the child have a safe future. "Perhaps we could find work together some place. Surely we can find something!"
Becky didn't say anything, then shyly asked for Sara to rinse her hair. Sara settled Liz in a makeshift cradle and came around the screen and picked up the two jugs of water that had been kept warm beside the fire. Modestly, Becky hugged knees to her chest and bent her head forward while Sara poured the warmed water over her.
"What about you, Becky?"
Waiting for the water to clear up a bit, she wiped her eyes then rested her chin on her knees. "I don't know…I'm sure I could have managed before Liz, even if I was cast out on the streets by Miss Minchin, but now…" she trailed off and shrugged helplessly. "I just need a place where Liz can stay. And I'm not giving her up!" she added vehemently.
"Nor should you," Sara said, as she took another jug of warm water and poured it over Becky. "At any rate, I was thinking of cleaning out the attic for James, as a repayment for his kindness. But for now, just relax and rest up. Something is bound to come our way."
Sara continued rinsing Becky's hair, until the water sitting at the side of the tub was gone. Then she left Becky to dry with a thick drying towel she left.
James threw the doors open to the study, certain that his brother was there as it was his favourite room to relax in. He paused and let his eyes adjust to the dim interior and marched in and looked around, searching for his brother.
"My, that was a fast recovery. I was positive that you'd be out for a good day with the amount of whiskey you drank. Why are you here, James?"
James turned, focusing on the direction his brother's voice had come from. Robert was carelessly reclined in a large chair, his legs stretched out before him and his hands comfortably crossed on his stomach. "Does the name Becky ring any bells?"
Robert frowned and considered the name, "No. Should it?"
"Possibly, if you're the father of her child."
Robert straightened and stood. He glared down at his brother and shouted, "Just what the hell are you accusing me of?"
"I thought it was rather obvious."
"Bloody hell, James, I'm not like that."
"How can you be so sure it's not yours!"
James watched his brother turn red then turn away. He almost missed the muttered words, "I haven't been with anyone for over a year."
James gave a bark of disbelief.
Robert spun on his heal and growled out, "It's true. I haven't…I just…"
He looked miserable. "Sit down James. A lot happened when you were gone." Robert seated himself and buried his face in his hands. James took a seat opposite him and waited patiently for his brother to continue. The last time they'd had any close talk between themselves was before James had left. They had once been close, but James had ruined that when he'd signed up with the military and left his brother in the dust, leaving them both with unsaid words. Robert had been furious, not because they never reconciled, but because he had been afraid that he'd never see James again.
"I married Eleanor shortly after you left. Mother was ecstatic since this meant that I could start having heirs for the Ashcroft title, but I was miserable…just like you said I'd be. I wish I'd listened to you. I really did love her, it's just that she changed after we got married."
James let out his breath. "Why didn't you write me and tell me all this? Why didn't you tell me this when I got home?"
Robert snorted, "And have you rub it in my face?"
"I wouldn't have done that."
Robert stared as his hands and finally said, "I know. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could make it work. But it didn't work out that way. Eleanor was already pregnant when we got married. I didn't know it at the time, but I figured it out afterwards, since the babe came six months after we were wed.
"It was a still born. The mother's cord had wrapped itself around his throat. He was such a strong looking boy, James. He would have been strong." Robert couldn't help the sobs that broke through, it hurt still to have lost so much and that was over a year ago. "Eleanor blamed me for the death of him and locked herself in her room for a week before declaring that she didn't want to see me ever again."
James didn't know what to say, nor knew what to do. After a lengthy silence, he asked, "Where is Eleanor now?"
"Still in the country. Rumours say that she's with her lover. I don't really know though, I don't see her or even write. I don't take up a mistress because I don't want what happened to Eleanor happen to some other woman. Marrying someone in your class just because you're pregnant and not the one you love. I couldn't put someone through that." He looked up at James, "So you see, brother, this Becky cannot have my child."
"I'm sorry Robert...I didn't know."
"I know. And I'm sorry too for not telling you sooner."
James leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. Robert wouldn't lie to him, especially not about this. So who had Becky seen when she had looked at him if not himself nor Robert?