Someone to Hold
After several months of hiding away, wallowing in misery and denial, anger and shame, and any other negative emotion anyone cared to name, Camille Westcott finally took charge of her life on a sunny, blustery morning in July. At the grand age of twenty-two. She had not needed to take charge before the great catastrophe a few months before because she had been a lady, Lady Camille Westcott to be exact, eldest child of the Earl and Countess of Riverdale, and ladies did not have control over their own lives or need to. Other people had that instead: parents, maids, nurses, governesses, chaperons, husbands, society at large—especially society at large with its myriad rules and expectations, most of them unwritten but none the less real on that account.
But she needed to assert herself now. She was no longer a lady. She was now simply Miss Westcott, and she was not even sure about the name. Was a bastard entitled to her father's name? Life yawned ahead of her as a frightening unknown. She had no idea what to expect of it. There were no more rules, no more expectations. There was no more society, no more place of belonging. If she did not take charge and do something, who would?
It was a rhetorical question, of course. She had not asked it aloud in anyone's hearing, but no one would have had a satisfactory answer to give her even if she had. So she was doing something about it herself. It was either that or cower in a dark corner somewhere for the rest of her natural born days. She was no longer a lady, but she was, by God, a person. She was alive—she was breathing. She was someone.
Camille and Abigail, her younger sister, lived with their maternal grandmother in one of the imposing houses on the prestigious Royal Crescent in Bath. It stood atop a hill above the city, splendidly visible from miles around with its great sweeping inward curve of massive Georgian houses all joined into one, open parkland sloping downward before it. But the view worked both ways. From any front-facing window the inhabitants of the Crescent could gaze downward over the city and across the river to the buildings beyond and on out to the countryside and hills in the distance. It was surely one of the loveliest views in all England, and Camille had delighted in it as a child whenever her mother had brought her with her brother and sister on extended visits to their grandparents. It had lost much of its appeal, however, now that she was forced to live here in what felt very like exile and disgrace though neither she nor Abigail had done anything to deserve either fate.
She waited on that sunny morning until her grandmother and sister had gone out, as they often did, to the Pump Room down near Bath Abbey to join the promenade of the fashionable world. Not that the fashionable world was as impressive as it had once been in Bath's heyday. A large number of the inhabitants now were seniors, who liked the quiet gentility of life here in stately surroundings. Even the visitors tended to be older people, who came to take the waters and imagine, rightly or wrongly, that their health was the better for imposing such a foul-tasting ordeal upon themselves. Some even submerged themselves to the neck in it, though that was now considered a little extreme and old-fashioned.
Abigail liked going to the Pump Room, for at the age of eighteen she craved outings and company, and apparently her exquisite, youthful beauty was much admired, though she did not receive many invitations to private parties or even to more public entertainments. She was not, after all, quite respectable despite the fact that Grandmama was eminently so. Camille had always steadfastly refused to accompany them anywhere they might meet other people in a social setting. On the rare occasions when she did step out, usually with Abby, she did so with stealth, a veil draped over the brim of her bonnet and pulled down over her face, for more than anything else she feared being recognized.
Not today, however. And, she vowed to herself, never again. She was done with the old life, and if anyone recognized her and chose to give her the cut direct, then she would give it right back. It was time for a new life and new acquaintances. And if there were a few bumps to traverse in moving from one world to the other, well then, she would deal with them.
After Grandmama and Abby had left, she dressed in one of the more severe and conservative of her walking dresses, donned a bonnet to match and comfortable shoes since the sort of dainty slippers she had always worn in the days when she traveled everywhere by carriage were useless now except to wear indoors, took up her gloves and reticule, and stepped out onto the cobbled street without waiting for a servant to open and hold the door for her and look askance at her lone state, perhaps even try to stop her or send a footman trailing after her. She stood outside for a few moments, assailed by a sudden terror bordering upon panic and wondering if perhaps after all she should scurry back inside to hide in darkness and safety. In her whole life she had rarely stepped beyond the confines of house or walled park unaccompanied by a family member or a servant, often both. But those days were over even though Grandmama would doubtless argue the point. Camille squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and strode off downhill in the general direction of Bath Abbey.
Her actual destination, however, was a house on Northumberland Place, near the Guildhall and the market and the Pulteney Bridge, which spanned the River Avon with grandiose elegance. It was a building indistinguishable from many of the other Georgian edifices with which the city abounded, solid yet pleasing to the eye and three stories high, not counting the basement and the attic, except that this one was actually three houses that had been made into one in order to accommodate an institution.
An orphanage, to be precise.
It was where Anna Snow, more recently Lady Anastasia Westcott, now the Duchess of Netherby, had spent her childhood. It was where she had taught for several years after she grew up. It was from there that she had been summoned to London by a solicitor's letter. And it was in London that their paths and their histories had converged, Camille's and Anastasia's, the one to be elevated to heights beyond her wildest imaginings, the other to be plunged to depths lower than her worst nightmares.
Anastasia, also a daughter of the Earl of Riverdale, had been consigned to the orphanage—by him—at a very young age on the death of her mother. She had grown up there, supported financially but quite ignorant of who she was. She had not even known her real name. She had been Anna Snow, Snow being her mother's maiden name—though she had not realized that either. Camille, on the other hand, born three years after Anastasia, had been brought up to a life of privilege and wealth and entitlement with Harry and Abigail, her younger siblings. None of them had known of Anastasia's existence. Well, Mama had, but she had always assumed that the child Papa secretly supported at an orphanage in Bath was the love child of a mistress. It was only after his death several months ago that the truth came out.
And what a catastrophic truth it was!
Alice Snow, Anastasia's mother, had been Papa's legitimate wife. They had married secretly in Bath though she had left him a year or so later when her health failed and returned to her parents' home near Bristol, taking their child with her. She had died some time later of consumption, but not until four months after Papa married Mama in a bigamous marriage that had no legality. And because the marriage was null and void, all issue of that marriage was illegitimate. Harry had lost the title he had so recently inherited, Mama had lost all social status and had reverted to her maiden name—she now called herself Miss Kingsley and lived with her clergyman brother, Uncle Michael, at a country vicarage in Dorsetshire. Camille and Abigail were no longer Lady Camille and Lady Abigail. Everything that had been theirs had been stripped away. Cousin Alexander Westcott—he was actually a second cousin—had inherited the title and entailed property despite the fact that he had genuinely not wanted either, and Anastasia had inherited everything else. That everything else was the vast fortune Papa had amassed after his bigamous marriage to Mama. It also included Hinsbury Manor, the country home where they had always lived when they were not in London, and Westcott House, their London residence.
Camille, Harry, Abigail, and their mother had been left with nothing.
As a final crushing blow, Camille had lost her fiancé. Viscount Uxbury had called upon her the very day they heard the news. But instead of offering the expected sympathy and support, and instead of sweeping her off to the altar, a special license waving from one hand, he had suggested that she send a notice to the papers announcing the ending of their betrothal so that she would not have to suffer the added shame of being cast off. Yes, a crushing blow indeed though Camille never spoke of it. Just when it had seemed there could not possibly be any lower to sink or any greater pain to be borne, there could be and there was, but the pain at least was something she could keep to herself.
So here she and Abigail were, living in Bath of all places on the charity of their grandmother while Mama languished in Dorsetshire and Harry was in Portugal or Spain as a junior officer with the 95th Foot Regiment, also known as the Rifles, fighting the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. He could not have afforded the commission on his own, of course. Avery, Duke of Netherby, their step-cousin and Harry's guardian, had purchased it for him. Harry, to his credit, had refused to allow Avery to set him up in a more prestigious, and far more costly, cavalry regiment and had made it clear that he would not allow Avery to purchase any promotions for him either.
By what sort of irony had she ended up in the very place where Anastasia had grown up, Camille wondered, not for the first time, as she descended the hill. The orphanage had acted like a magnet ever since she came here, drawing her much against her will. She had walked past it a couple of times with Abigail and had finally—over Abby's protests—gone inside to introduce herself to the matron, Miss Ford, who had given her a tour of the institution while Abby remained outside without a chaperon. It had been both an ordeal and a relief, actually seeing the place, walking the floor Anastasia must have walked a thousand times and more. It was not the sort of horror of an institution one sometimes heard about. The building was spacious and clean. The adults who ran it looked well-groomed and cheerful. The children she saw were decently clad and nicely behaved and appeared to be well fed. The majority of them, Miss Ford had explained, were adequately, even generously supported by a parent or family member even though most of those adults chose to remain anonymous. The others were supported by local benefactors.
One of those benefactors, Camille had been amazed to learn, though not of any specific child, was her own grandmother, who for some reason of her own had recently called there and agreed to equip the schoolroom with a large bookcase and books to fill it. Why she had felt the need to do so Camille did not know any more than she understood her own compulsion to see the building and actually step inside it. Grandmama could surely feel no more kindly disposed toward Anastasia than she, Camille, did. Less so, in fact. Anastasia was at least Camille's half-sister, perish the thought, but she was nothing to Grandmama apart from being the visible evidence of a marriage that had deprived her own daughter of the very identity that had apparently been hers for longer than twenty years. Goodness, Mama had been Viola Westcott, Countess of Riverdale, for all those years, though in fact the only one of those names to which she had had any legal claim was Viola.
Today Camille was going back to the orphanage alone. Anna Snow had been replaced by another teacher, but Miss Ford had mentioned in passing during that earlier visit that Miss Nunce might not remain there long. Camille had hinted with an impulsiveness that had both puzzled and alarmed her that she might be interested in filling the post herself should the teacher resign. Perhaps Miss Ford had forgotten or not taken her seriously. Or perhaps she had judged Camille unsuited to the position. However, it was, she had not informed Camille when Miss Nunce did indeed leave. It was quite by chance that Grandmama had seen the notice for a new teacher in yesterday's paper and had read it aloud to her granddaughters.
What on earth, Camille asked herself as she neared the bottom of the hill and turned in the direction of Northumberland Place, did she know about teaching? Specifically, what did she know about teaching a supposedly large group of children of all ages and abilities and both genders? She frowned, and a young couple approaching her along the pavement stepped smartly out of her way as though a fearful presence were bearing down upon them. Camille did not even notice.
Why on earth was she going to beg to be allowed to teach orphans in the very place where Anastasia had grown up and taught? She still disliked, resented, and—yes—even hated the former Anna Snow. It did not matter that she knew she was being unfair—after all, it was not Anastasia's fault that Papa had behaved so despicably, and she had suffered the consequences for twenty-five years before discovering the truth about herself. It did not matter either that Anastasia had attempted to embrace her newly discovered siblings as family and had offered more than once to share everything she had inherited with them and to allow her two half-sisters to continue to live with their mama at Hinsbury Manor, which now belonged to her. In fact, her generosity merely made it harder to like her. How dared she offer them a portion of what had always been theirs by right as though she were doing them a great and gracious favor? Which in a sense she was.
It was a purely irrational hostility, of course, but raw emotions were not often reasonable. And Camille's emotions were still as raw as open wounds that had not even begun to heal.
So why exactly was she coming here? She stood on the pavement outside the main doors of the orphanage for a couple of minutes, debating the question just as though she had not already done so all yesterday and through a night of fitful sleep and long wakeful periods. Was it just because she felt the need to do something with her life? But were there not other, more suitable things she could do instead? And if she must teach, were there not more respectable positions to which she might aspire? There were genteel girls' schools in Bath, and there were always people in search of well-bred governesses for their daughters. But her need to come here today had nothing really to do with any desire to teach, did it? It was… Well, what was it?
The need to step into Anna Snow's shoes to discover what they felt like? What an absolutely ghastly thought. But if she stood out here any longer, she would lose her courage and find herself trudging back uphill, lost and defeated and abject and every other horrid thing she could think of. Besides, standing here was decidedly uncomfortable. Though it was July and the sun was shining, it was still only morning and she was in the shade of the building. The street was acting as a type of funnel too for a briskish wind.
She stepped forward, lifted the heavy knocker away from the door, hesitated for only a moment, then let it fall. Perhaps she would be denied the employment. What a huge relief that would be.
© Mary Balogh