The Hidden Heiress by Penny Fairbanks
The heat of midsummer wafted in through the open double doors of Attwood Manor. Hugh peered out to the circular front drive at several carriages already sagging with luggage. A shiver of excitement shot down his spine. He smiled at the chaos of preparation and goodbyes surrounding him in the foyer of his grandparents’ home.
A new adventure awaited him and Hugh could not wait to finally embark upon it. He could not wait to rid himself of the stuffy Society he had endured during his two Seasons. The first had been bad enough, though he had remained optimistic that perhaps he had just not been able to meet the right kind of people. His second Season had confirmed that perhaps the kind of people he wanted to know did not really exist, at least not within his rank.
“Pardon me, sir,” a footman huffed as he narrowly missed swiping Hugh with the corner of the cumbersome and heavy looking box he carried. Hugh nodded and smiled at the servant, noting a bead of sweat slowly trickling down his temple. He certainly did not envy any of these footmen the task of loading luggage for the Harcourt family.
Hugh turned on his heel and looked up the grand staircase to see more footmen hurrying down, bearing the many belongings that would be making the journey across the ocean with them. He turned in a slow circle, watching his family offer their temporary farewells.
A strange partly melancholy and partly exhilarated sensation washed over him from head to toe. In fact, it almost did not feel like he even stood in this room in his physical body, but that he observed from somewhere up above in a different plane of existence.
Hugh lifted a hand and scratched forcefully at the stubble along his jawline, as if checking to be sure that he had not in fact become an apparition at some point during the madness of packing. He had never taken a trip of this magnitude before.
The United States of America. What would it be like? What would he do there? Who would he meet? He prayed to at least have some fun before coming back to his vapid life in England and resuming that all-important task for any heir—finding a wife.
At least he had one good friend who held similar views—Christian Wright, the Viscount Addleford and oldest son of the Earl of Farwell. He had invited Hugh to visit his American mother’s side of the family. Since the Harcourts and the Wrights had grown close over the course of their eldest sons’ friendship, they had all agreed that the rest of Hugh’s family should come as well and make a big trip of it.
He scratched his jaw again as another line of footmen filed past, carrying more luggage than should have been possible. Then again, it would be a long holiday and they would need plenty of clothing and accessories and personal items to sustain them in this strange new world. As one footman strode by with a case dangling from each hand and two more tucked under his arms, Hugh couldn’t help chuckling at the realization that his family also expected to return to England with many souvenirs.
“Goodness, Hugh, I am not used to seeing you looking so dazed,” a light voice called from just behind him.
Hugh turned toward the sound to see his beloved older cousin Beth approaching with her equally beloved nine month old baby Ernest on her hip. She offered Hugh a small, teasing smile and gently patted her son’s back in a soothing rhythm. The poor little chap looked quite overwhelmed by all the commotion, and rightfully so. He had two fingers in his mouth as his large brown eyes darted around, trying to follow all the activity.
“He must still be traumatized after another terrible Season,” cousin Sophie, Beth’s younger sister, added with a chuckle as she joined their conversation.
“You are not wrong about that,” Hugh laughed. He and Sophie exchanged commiserating smiles. Being the same age, they had made their debut at the same time and had spent much of their Seasons navigating the intricacies of London life together.
“I am simply excited to start this journey,” he continued, an unexpectedly serious note in his voice. “I need a respite from all this.”
Beth nodded, her expression falling. “Of course I understand.”
Despite the differences in their temperaments, he and Beth had always been very close. Over the years, he had told her all about the many things that displeased him with Society in general as well as his experiences among the ton during these past two years. Having faced her own struggles after making her debut—though for very different reasons—Beth certainly appreciated Hugh’s desire to get away. Though even if she had not, he knew that Beth’s kind heart would have listened and supported him regardless.
“Our dear Ernest will miss you,” Beth added. Bringing focus back to their family’s newest addition was always guaranteed to lighten the mood.
“Will he?” Hugh cooed. He reached his arms out and Beth angled herself so he could take the little boy in his arms. “Will you miss your big cousin Hugh?” he asked again, peering down into Ernest’s face before planting an enthusiastic kiss atop his bright red head. Laughter burst from the baby’s small body and temporarily muffled all the other clattering noises in the foyer.
Naturally, this drew the attention of the owners of Attwood Manor, known to most of the world as Lord and Lady Welsted. They were simply Grandpapa and Grandmama to Hugh. They abandoned their conversation with Weston, Beth’s husband, and Hugh’s mother. The baron and baroness wore smiles full of adoration directed toward their first great-grandchild.
“Are you feeling better now, darling?” Grandmama asked as she brushed a finger against Ernest’s fluffy cheek. The baby rewarded her with a beaming smile that was mostly gums save for two ambitious bottom teeth just poking through.
Grandpapa attempted to smooth the ruffles of his great-grandson’s fiery hair before chuckling with a defeated shrug. He turned his gentle, wise eyes to Hugh instead.
“Best of luck on your journey, my boy.” He patted him on the shoulder, measured as always, a trait that neither Hugh nor his own father had inherited from the current baron. “I pray that you have many enlightening and thought-provoking experiences.”
Hugh nodded, feeling the weight of his grandfather’s words settling deep into his chest. “I am praying for the same. I feel that I am stagnating here.”
After slipping Ernest out of his arms and into her own, Grandmama offered Hugh a warm, hopeful smile. “One never knows what might be around the corner—or a boat ride away. Life has many ways of surprising us.”
“It certainly does,” Beth chimed in, gaze fixed on her precious son.
Hugh nodded again, the inevitability of their American adventure looming over him. If anyone knew the truth of that statement, it would be his grandparents. They had their own remarkable love story, and they had guided all five of their children through their own challenges. Now, they had seen Beth, their oldest grandchild, happily married and a mother herself. If they still had faith in his ability to achieve the same, surely that must mean something—though he certainly did not plan on accomplishing that goal in New York. He simply hoped that he would find a refreshed mindset and some new, interesting perspectives.
“Thank you, Grandmama, Grandpapa. I will miss you both terribly. Are you sure you do not want to come with us? Lord and Lady Farwell are so fond of you,” he prodded, displaying his most charming smile.
Grandmama laughed and shook her head vigorously. This greatly amused little Ernest, who did his best to catch the dangling gray curls that swished about. “Good heavens, certainly not. We will miss all of you as well, but your grandfather and I are long past our days of travel by sea.”
“Indeed. In fact, even travel by carriage seems to disagree with my aching bones more often than not,” Grandpapa added. “Besides, we have this little fellow now.” In a rarely seen expression, the older man grinned down at his great-grandson. He lovingly pinched the baby’s chin in his fingers which inspired more laughter from Ernest.
Before Hugh could good-naturedly goad his grandparents again, he felt a sharp tug on his right coat sleeve. He looked down to find Hayes, his youngest sibling, peering up at him with furrowed brows that really did not suit a twelve-year-old boy.
“Hugh, we need to finish up and start our journey or we will put our whole schedule in jeopardy. We still have a long way to go to get to Liverpool,” Hayes announced, firm and serious.
Hugh gently grasped the back of Hayes’ head in his large palm and offered him a loving smile. How on Earth had his only brother turned out to be the complete opposite of Hugh and Papa?
“Come now, Hayes, there is no need to be so serious. We are going on a trip! It is meant to be fun!” Hannah called over her shoulder as she floated by with her ever-present smile.
“I must say I agree with Hayes,” Helen added from her post by the door as she watched the last few suitcases make their way out to the carriages. “It will not be terribly fun if we miss our ship and have to delay our whole journey.”
Hugh glanced between his two sisters, wondering again how they could be such opposites as well. Where Helen, just two years younger than Hugh, was practical, fourteen-year-old Hannah always seemed to have her head in the clouds.
“I am surprised at you all,” Weston called, his expression jovial as always as he made his way to Beth and slipped his arm around her waist. “Do you really think that Aunt Winnie hasn’t meticulously planned all this down to the last detail and built in extra time for your shenanigans?”
The foyer filled with the sound of laughter, Papa’s the loudest of all. Always strong and energetic, he strode across the room with confidence toward his two sons and easily scooped Hayes in his arms. The boy’s stoic expression transformed into a wide smile.
“Papa, put me down,” Hayes whined through his giggles. Even he could never resist their father’s antics for long.
“I am afraid I cannot do that, my boy,” Papa said in his loud, clear voice. “Very soon you will be almost as big as me so I must take advantage while I am still able.”
With his youngest still in his arms, Papa made his way over to Mama, who stood at the bottom of the stairs with several sheets of paper in hand. Every footman had paused before her to inform the future baroness of what items they carried so she could check that information against her packing list.
Papa hoisted the small though growing boy higher under his arm as he bent down to kiss his petite wife on the cheek. “Your wonderful mother is ever-prepared after so many years of bearing my nonsense.”
“Winnie, please refrain from throwing Dalton overboard,” Grandmama teased. “But if you must, I suppose I would understand.”
More laughter echoed through Attwood Manor. It was quite the Harcourt tradition to tease each other, so Papa—who’s laugh once again drowned out everyone else—did not take offense at his mother’s words. In fact, Hugh almost felt that this was simply a normal day visiting his grandparents’ home and spending time with his family as they usually did. How could it be possible that they would soon be apart for months when everyone smiled and laughed and joked just like always?
“I am loath to say it, but it is that time,” Grandpapa announced when the laughter finally died away, peering down at his pocket watch with a melancholy smile.
A sudden hush fell across the room as everyone looked around at each other and then watched the last footman carry the final suitcase through the open doors.
“Let’s get into our carriages then, shall we?” Mama said, her command hidden within the question.
The Harcourts and their extended family all filed down the front steps of Attwood Manor. Hugh glanced over his shoulder at the massive building he called home. It rose several stories into the bright July sky, dozens of windows facing out to either greet those approaching or bid farewell to those departing.
Though Hugh and his parents and siblings kept their residence at Lockswell House, just a few miles down the main road from his grandparents’ home, they spent the vast majority of their time at Attwood Manor. They even had much of their personal belongings there. As such, Hugh had always thought of it as the place he loved most, the place he had grown up.
Even while he was away at school, he had been able to visit a couple times a year during his breaks. As he looked up at the grand, welcoming building from the corner of his eye, Hugh could not help feeling that this departure was different. An air of the unknown hung about him. What kind of experiences would he return with? What kind of person would he return as?
Hugh’s family took their places beside their carriages, exchanging their last farewells and hugs with those remaining. Hugh pulled Beth into a crushing embrace that had her wheezing with laughter. When she finally managed to wiggle her way out of her cousin’s grasp, Beth landed a playful smack on his arm.
“Are you sure you will miss me, cousin?” he chuckled.
“Of course.” Beth smiled, though it did not quite reach her eyes.
“Will you tell Rob that the next time I go to America, I promise to take him with me?” Hugh asked. He wished that he could have said goodbye to Beth’s and Sophie’s youngest sibling himself since Rob had always been so fond of him, but he had stayed at home with Aunt Anna and Uncle Noah. He had been so desperate to join his favorite cousin on such an exciting journey. His parents had reminded him that he must return to Eton soon and continue his education. Hugh planned to make good on his promise to Rob as soon as the opportunity presented itself next—perhaps to celebrate his graduation in a few years.
“I will,” Beth promised.“I know it will take much longer, but I am sure he would love to receive some letters from you about all your adventures.”
“And he shall have them, and you as well. You must write me with everything that Ernest does. He will grow and change so much while we are gone. He will already be a year old before we return.”
Beth glanced over to her husband and son who were saying their goodbyes to Hannah. Weston held the baby’s short arm in his hand and waved at his cousin, who found Ernest’s pretend actions to be the most adorable thing she had ever seen based on her cheery giggles.
“You will have your turn soon, I am sure of it.” Beth returned her attention to Hugh, her gaze serious yet soft. “I am certainly praying for it. Now go forget about all that for a while and enjoy yourself in New York.”
“Thank you, Beth.” He gave his cousin one last hug, gentler and more heartfelt this time. Though he was not entirely convinced that he had any hope of making a love match like she had found, it warmed him to know that optimistic Beth was on his side.
After one more round of slightly less cheerful goodbyes, the Harcourts piled into their carriages—Papa, Hayes, and Hannah in one with Mama, Hugh, and Helen in the other, and two more carriages just for their luggage.
As he looked out the window at the long, familiar drive leading toward the tall iron archway at the edge of the property, that earlier excitement simmered inside Hugh’s chest once again. This was no ordinary journey. They weren’t just going to London, or even to Brighton or Bath for a holiday.
A small smile crept across his face. What awaited him on the other side of the ocean?