First Chapter Friday with Caroline Warfield

The Forgotten Daughter - 1/27/2022

When the old Earl of Clarion leaves a will with bequests for all his children, legitimate and not, listing each and their mothers by name, he complicated the lives of many in the village of Ashmead and beyond. One of them was left out. She is the third of The Ashmead Heirs.


Fanny’s worthless father forgot her entirely. The earl’s steward plans to make it right if only he can avoid falling in love with her while he does.

Frances Hancock always knew she was a bastard. She didn’t know her father was an earl until her mother died. The information came just in time. She and her mother’s younger children were about to be homeless. She needs help. Fast. What she wants is a hero.


Eli Benson, the Earl of Clarion’s steward, took great pride in cleaning up the mess left behind by the old earl’s will. When a dainty but ferocious young woman with the earl’s hair and eyes comes demanding help, his heart sinks. She isn’t in the will. She was forgotten entirely. And the estate is just getting its finances back in order. But he knows a moral obligation when he sees one. He may not be her idea of a hero, but people count on him to fix things. He’s good at it. Falling in love with her will only complicate things.


Eli will solve her problems or die trying. It may come to that.



First Chapter


The Road from Manchester to Ashmead, May 1818

Gripping a reticule containing proof of her parentage, Fanny considered that Mam may have been right to try to shield her from the circumstances of her birth. But here she sat in a coach of the Royal Mail rocking back and forth as it careened down the road on her way to confront the Earl of Clarion and her future. Frances Hancock—Fanny to those who cared—always knew she was a bastard. Her mother’s husband made sure of that. She didn’t know her father was an earl until her mother died.

Her stepfather, Horace Rundle, no use to anyone and half crazed on gin, croaked in the gutter outside the Happy Cock public house ten months after Mam passed. It took Fanny another month, six visits from credit collectors, and damage to the remaining inventory in the back of the shop to fully accept the degree to which the reprobate had bled her grandfather’s drapery store dry. She and her two younger siblings stood on the brink of homelessness and hunger. Fanny knew that she had to find this earl and demand his aid, no matter how many dire predictions Mam had uttered over the years.

Never one to sink under troubles, Fanny went to work immediately. The information she found scribbled on a scrap in her mother’s sewing box identified the man as The Earl of Clarion. She visited the reading room of the Royal Manchester Institution and learned that his primary estate lay near the village of Ashmead. And so, it was to Ashmead that she aimed herself like an arrow of righteousness.

Anxious about the coming conversation, she kept her mind busy and at ease by spinning plots for another book, for Fanny Hancock was a writer. As she often did, she entertained herself by studying her fellow passengers and trying to decide what sort of characters they might make in one of her books.

She scrutinized the man across from her under lowered eyelids. Tall, irritable, and whip thin, his collar button looked fit to choke him. Useless as a hero. He might, she thought, serve as a cruel and moralistic director of a charity school if she had room for one in her current book. She may have to save him for later. She closed her eyes and tried to envision the hero. Neither of the other two passengers, a portly business man and an elderly woman on her way to visit her daughter, would do. There had been a rather good-looking gentleman demanding service with a thoroughly haughty voice at the last change of horses. She had taken note of his golden hair, broad shoulders and air of command. Yes, she could use that. But this time she planned to make the hero an earl. Even if Clarion refused to help her, he might serve as inspiration. Perhaps this book would sell, and God knew they needed the money. The last three had not.

The last change went smoothly enough, and Fanny actually slept. She awoke with a start when the coach stopped in Ashmead to make its mail drop, one so brief that she had little time to clamber out. She almost didn’t make it. The driver tossed her portmanteau from the top and pulled the coach out on a shower of road dirt, leaving her standing in front of another inn alone, blinking sleep away. The Willow and the Rose appeared respectable; some they had passed hadn’t. She dusted herself off, picked up her portmanteau and entered.

An elderly gentleman with a friendly face took her coin and handed her a key. Though she saw concern—and curiosity—in his eyes, he had the courtesy not to comment on her age, criticize her solitary state, or ask about her business in Ashmead. Perhaps her book needed a kindly innkeeper. Fanny certainly needed kindness, and would, she suspected, need it even more before she finished her task.

She paid for one night, telling him vaguely that she wasn’t sure how long her business would take. She failed to mention that she had no money for additional nights. No money for her return fare either. She counted on the earl providing that much at least. The Mail had been more expensive than the stage coaches, but much faster. She’d left Wil, who was only twelve, in charge of Amy and the store. She couldn’t stay away more than a day or two.

As the innkeeper led her to her room, the clock in the entranceway caught her attention. Not quite noon on a Sunday morning. She had time. She chucked her portmanteau and was soon out the front door. Ashmead seemed peculiarly quiet, but she supposed many were at church.

Will the earl be at services?

She hoped to find him home, but, then, she hoped he wasn’t so much of a heathen that he would fail to take responsibility. A man who impregnated an innocent, as her mother had been, and abandoned her probably lacked a moral compass. Fanny planned to force him to find one.

She walked right and then right again at the first intersection, following the directions the young woman in the public room had given her. Crossing the bridge as directed, she trudged uphill toward Clarion Hall back straight, an inferno in her heart, determined to make war if necessary to get help for Wil and Amy’s sake.

***

Eli Benson smiled from his pew at Saint Morwenna’s Church in Ashmead on a sunny Sunday in May, a man at peace with his world. He beamed at the congregation in the old Saxon church, several of whom he had cause to assist in the previous year. It had been difficult, and his accomplishments were a source of pride. He had much for which to be grateful.

Several years before, the previous earl shocked Ashmead with a scandalous will in which he stripped his son and heir, Eli’s employer, of everything not covered by the entail. The rest he left in specific bequests to his by-blows, listing each of his illegitimate children and their mothers by name.

The bequests enriched some, embarrassed others, and complicated the lives of many. He impoverished his son, left his only legitimate daughter (whom he labeled “defiant”) nothing at all, and humiliated his wife. The widowed countess refused to accept the insult. She and her accomplices compounded the earl’s mischief by ruthlessly defrauding both the estate and the would-be heirs.

Eli’s brother Sir Robert Benson, former soldier and veteran of Waterloo, along with the new Earl of Clarion, uncovered the mess. Their heroic efforts had identified the perpetrators, confronted would-be kidnappers, and captured a murderer, but it fell to Eli to sort out the details.

Serving as the Earl of Clarion’s land steward, and solicitor—the combining of duties itself a cost cutting measure necessitated by the straightened circumstances of the estate—Eli dug into the complex and convoluted mix of petty spite and fraud, while stabilizing the finances of the current earl. He took pride in a job done to his satisfaction and, if he might say so, remarkable in its speed and thoroughness.

He may not have been the hero of the saga, but he certainly facilitated happy endings for many.

Alice Wilcox, the tailor’s daughter, got five pounds and a pearl necklace. It was taken as an insult by tailor Wilcox who promptly put mother and daughter out. Charley Granger, who always knew he was a bastard, got the title to three of Ashmead’s shop buildings that had been paying rent to the earl. He sold them for a pittance, skipped town soon after, and died in a bar fight in Liverpool, the money gone. Little Willy Hammond got fifty pounds, the sum pocketed by Walter Hammond, the father raising him. A schoolteacher three towns over got a valuable racehorse. Twelve others got different commercial property, cash, trinkets, the odd bit of furniture. One got a rocky farm in Scotland. Eli’s brother Rob (half-brother as it turned out) got the prime piece of property, one of the earldom’s minor estates. Every blasted one got the earl’s green eyes and auburn hair—Caulfield family traits. The whole town pretended to miss it until the will came out and then they couldn’t.

The minister’s booming voice reached the end of the sermon, and the congregation rose. Eli opened his hymn book to “God Our Help in Ages Past,” caught sight of Prudence Granger, Charley’s mother, in her much-patched Sunday gown, and cast a prayer of thanks heavenward. If they hadn’t uncovered the fruits of dishonest dealing, Eli would not have been able to help her. He wouldn’t have had a job at all.

Conveying property to heirs should have been a simple affair. The widowed countess and her minions set out to rob every one of them, creating fraudulent copies of the will, skimming funds, substituting cheap jewelry, and so on.

The Grangers were given false information about the property Charley had inherited and sold it well below its value to a company that eventually led back to the countess. The sharp increase in rents had hurt everyone in Ashmead. The teacher got a broken-down nag, while the prime stock was sold and the proceeds pocketed. The honest value had been repaid. Alice’s pearls proved to be fake; she and her mother were on the brink of starvation until the new earl (or Eli, truth be told) found Alice a teaching position the other side of Nottingham. She was now married. And so it went. Eli’s efforts had put it all to right, even a modest amount for Prudence Granger as Charley’s heir.

Eli’s voice rose on the final notes of the song, humbly aware his accomplishments rested on the heroism of others and on luck. The countess, Eli discovered, had amassed a tidy amount embezzled from the estate for many years before the notorious will. Those funds and the fundamental decency of the current earl provided Eli with the tools he needed to rectify the fraud. Without that, he had no idea what they would have done. He had even made progress in stabilizing the earl’s own finances.

Walter Hammond, Willy’s papa, greeted him effusively in the church yard as he always did. The Reverend Mr. Arthur Styles shook his hand; the vicar’s respect always warmed his heart. Eli declined the regular invitation to dinner at the vicarage, anxious to be back at his place at Clarion Hall. The good will of the people of Ashmead over the entire affair had fallen on Eli for the most part, the earl being in London much of the year and a distant figure in any case.

Paul Farley, the physician, rode with him back through the village, chatting amiably, professional man to professional man until they reached The Willow and the Rose, the inn that had been Eli’s childhood home, where they parted company. Good memories and bonds of family drew Eli to join Farley in the dining room, but he had reports to write, and a career to consider. He rode on.

He tipped his face to the sun as he rode across the bridge and started uphill to the Hall. The last of the heirs had been found and given just compensation. He looked forward to a year as steward without the tedious paperwork that plagued him in previous months, grateful for the opportunities given to him by the earl. A career as a land steward brought prestige and compensation greater than Eli might otherwise have been able to contemplate. There was much to learn, and Eli planned to make the best of it. He looked forward to a quiet afternoon.

The sight that greeted him boded ill for that hope. John, the first footman who served as a sort of under-butler when the senior staff went off to London with the earl, stood on the front steps of the Hall in heated conversation with a slip of a girl.

Eli dismounted instead of riding around to the stables and climbed up to investigate. The girl, a bit of a thing, didn’t come up to John’s shoulder, but she confronted him with a straight back and commanding voice. Though slender, she had the look of someone used to hard work. She wore a plain, rather rumpled gown. He suspected she had been traveling for some time. An unadorned straw bonnet covered her head.

“Is there a problem here John?”

“Aye Mr. Benson. I was explaining to this person—”

“I demand to see the earl,” the chit said at the same time. Face to face Eli judged her to be fifteen or so. She had cheek for one so young.

“May I ask your business with the earl?” Eli studied her closely. Her face had character. He’d give her that. Perhaps she was older than she first appeared.

“Who are you?” she asked, fire flashing from her eyes. Her very attractive green eyes… Oh no.

“Show some respect, girl,” John said. “This is Mr. Benson, the steward. I’ve been telling you—Mr. Benson will see to whatever it is. The earl isn’t here.”

“Steward, is it? Then you’ll have to help me.” Disappointment inched across her face driving the determination to the side, but not away. She glared up at the footman.

“I’ll deal with this, John. Please care for my horse,” Eli said.

She bounded past John into the foyer where she came to an abrupt halt, wide eyes taking in the magnificence that was Clarion Hall’s entrance: the parquet floors, the marble mantle, the gleaming banister curving upward beside carpeted stairs…

She spun toward Eli, that fire raging in her eyes. “The earl will help me. He has to.”

She pulled the ribbon on her bonnet and took it off, shaking her head and loosening a fall of hair. Glorious auburn hair… Oh no.

Eli’s peace had just been upended by a problem—one cursed with Caulfield hair and Caulfield eyes. One encased in the dainty body of a beautiful young woman with the heart of a warrior.

Damn.



Award winning author Caroline Warfield has been many things: traveler, librarian, poet, raiser of children, bird watcher, Internet and Web services manager, conference speaker, indexer, tech writer, genealogist—even a nun. She reckons she is on at least her third act, happily working in an office surrounded by windows where she lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far-flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart.


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