"Charity! Charity! Where is that blasted girl?"
Grace Morcroft turned away from the window to see her mother enter the parlour, agitatedly twisting her hands in front of her as she searched for her favourite child. There was nothing unusual in this at all; Charity had always been the cause of much hand-wringing. It was not in her nature to think to inform other people of her decision to go somewhere or meet someone, she simply did it and left them to worry over her whereabouts.
This time, however, Grace was able to help Emilia in her quest.
"She has gone into the village with Charles," she told her, her eyes drifting back to the window. She could just see the carriage disappearing through the open gateway. Her mother arrived at her side just as the gatekeeper swung the large wrought-iron gates into place. "She said something about purchasing a hat she saw in the milliner's window."
"A hat?" Emilia exclaimed, moving to sit down in one of the armchairs by the fire. Grace hid a smile as her mother's hands immediately began fidgeting in her lap. "Does she not know of our financial situation? She is determined to see us destitute before the year is out! If only Edward was here to deal with her…" As usual, at the mention of her departed husband's name Emilia's bottom lip trembled slightly and tears came to her blue eyes.
"Father has been dead for two years now, Mama," Grace said as gently as possible. "There is no need to upset yourself so whenever he is spoken of. And if he were here, we would have no fear of poverty."
Emilia snorted. "If he had taken the trouble to end that blasted entail, we would have no fear of poverty at all. As to my grief, well, two years is no time at all! I am sure your father would have been distraught to realise you thought so little of him! And you, his favourite child!"
"I thought more of Father than I have of any other man – no, person – of my acquaintance," her daughter answered softly, eyes firmly fixed to the horizon for fear that she too might begin to cry. "I still do. But he would not want us to grieve so deeply for him we forget to live our own lives." She made the effort to paint on a bright smile as she turned to gaze at her mother. "And on the subject of Charity's hat – well, you need have no qualms about the expense, Mama. I think she had convinced Charles to fund her purchase. He was quite insistent about accompanying her."
Emilia visibly relaxed at the mention of the cousin who had inherited Morcroft Hall on the death of her husband. "Ah, Charles is a good man. It is so kind of him to allow us to stay here with him."
"Yes, it is. He is a good man, I agree," Grace said. She edged towards the parlour door, feeling an escape was necessary before she was forced to listen to more of her mother's complaints. "And Charity is able to command his favour almost as well as she commands yours, Mama."
She was halfway down the passage towards the entrance hall before she heard her mother's indignant snort at her last remark, and laughed quietly to herself. Emilia herself steadfastly refused to acknowledge that she favoured Charity, but no one else even tried to deny that it was the case. When it had become clear that no son would be forthcoming, their mother's attention had turned to the daughter who was unquestionably the prettiest of the lot. She was convinced that under her tutelage, Charity would be in a position to secure a rich husband and therefore the lifestyle they were accustomed to. Charity would be the saviour of them all.
Although this behaviour could have been construed as a slur against the attractiveness of Emilia's other children, Grace was simply thankful that she had not been singled out by Emilia. Her mother's fussiness and constant interference would have driven her to distraction, she knew. Grace was the only Morcroft girl to take after her father - she had his thick dark hair, the green-flecked brown eyes fringed with dark lashes, and his long, lithe figure - and Edward in his turn had doted on her. He had tried to end the entail only in the hope that he might be able to nominate her as heiress, but the legal complexities had prevented that. Grace was not overly distressed by this; she wanted more from life than money and a crumbling house. She wanted an adventure. Alongside the physical traits she had inherited from him, his influence had ensured Grace knew her own capabilities and made her fiercely independent and not-at-all ladylike, so much so that her mother had despairingly decreed her to be unmarriable and given up any hope of finding her a suitable husband at all.
Grace mused over this as she opened the heavy oak door and walked outside onto the drive. A small smile formed at her lips as she realised that despite her mother's disbelief, she could be the saviour of the family. It had always been suspected that Frank Metcalfe, for some unfathomable reason, held her in high esteem, and events since her father's death had proved these suspicions correct. Every Tuesday for the past year Frank had called at Morcroft Hall to request permission to ask for Grace's hand, and every Tuesday at Grace's behest Charles Morcroft refused to grant it. Emilia did not know whether to be angry or relieved about this - while it was true Frank had more than enough wealth to keep them all comfortably, his inheritance had come from his grandfather, who was in trade. Emilia wanted more than a trader's heir for any of her children, no matter how well-mannered that heir was; she wanted titles and family seats in the country. But at the very least she wanted them to stay in Morcroft Hall.
That was one sentiment that Grace could agree with. She loved her home, and had been greatly upset by the thought that she would have to leave it after her father died. The large old house hidden in a corner of the English countryside held all her memories of Edward and of her childhood. She had played hide and seek in the lush green grounds with her sisters and climbed each and every one of the trees in the orchard, ruining countless gowns in the process. She knew every inch of their land intimately and did not want to see it in the hands of a stranger, even if he was in fact family.
Grace's expression grew thoughtful as she considered this. Charles Morcroft had no family of his own to speak of; he was not married, his own parents had died many years previously and he had not been blessed with siblings. He had become heir to Morcroft Hall by virtue of a long-established entail which saw the estate pass to the closest male relative on the death of the current occupier, and had arrived four months after Edward Morcroft's death to meet a distraught widow and four young women concerned about what was to become of them without their father's guiding hand. Being a good man at heart, he had instantly insisted they remain in residence for as long as was necessary - after all, such a large house would be a lonely residence for one man, and they had inherited enough from Edward to not become a burden on his own expenses for some time.
But he was not completely selfless in his generosity, Grace suspected. All men required a wife to provide a heir, and she fancied that Charles imagined one of the girls would do him very well. Not Faith, for she was too old, and not Grace, for she was too unmanageable. But Hope, perhaps, or Charity…Grace thought that certainly if her mother had any say in the matter it would have to be Hope. She had lofty plans for Charity and would not be easily dissuaded from their pursuit, although certainly all indications seemed to suggest Charles favoured her. He was forever providing Charity with a vast selection of new gowns, pretty little trinkets and copious amounts of pocket money to fritter away. And Charity, of course, enjoyed every moment of the attention.
Grace, meanwhile, was allowed to be alone with her thoughts. She was happiest when wandering aimlessly around the grounds, pondering over the various newsworthy matters she had heard discussed in town, or sitting in her father's study with her nose buried in one of the large, leather-bound volumes that filled the shelves. She found the idea of life outside of Bilton, the small village three miles away from Morcroft Hall, fascinating; as the most intelligent of Emilia's daughters Grace had longed to continue her education once their governess had been dismissed, but her mother had not allowed it. Grace already had too many dangerous ideas about a woman's station in life, Emilia had said in one of the many arguments with Edward on the subject; to encourage her further would be sheer folly on their part.
So Grace taught herself about the ways of the world. She read her way through her father's collection of books, then started to work through them again when that became necessary. Charles had the newspapers brought up from London and she pored over each page with an eagerness that both surprised and amused him. At the age of twenty-three, she was more widely read than some of the most important men in the country, but it did not matter - Grace knew her opinions would never be heard by anyone who mattered. That was the lot of a woman in these times, she thought; they were to be seen and not heard.
She also knew she would never be married but that thought did not distress her nearly as much as it did her mother. She did not believe in love. It did not, she thought, bring happiness, it was simply an emotion that forced one to make compromises. Grace did not want to compromise any of her beliefs. She did not want to be a wife, and she definitely did not want to submit to the control of a man. If that meant living a simpler life without the frivolities of jewels and ballgowns then so be it. Her father had made her see she could be more than just a decoration on some man's arm - she would not be satisfied with life as a beautiful prize.
How this would be possible for a young woman in a small village in nineteenth-century England, Grace did not know. But she intended to find out.