Love's Price (Lord Trent Series)

By: Cheryl Holt

PROLOGUE

Farnsborough, England, 1810...

“What are you saying exactly?”

On hearing the question, Miss Peabody stared across her desk at twin students, Helen and Harriet Stewart. The two sisters had attended her school since they were small girls, so she supposed she ought to have felt some sympathy over what she was about to do, but she had a profitable business to run.

The facility wasn’t an aid society for paupers.

She was a tad anxious about the information she had to impart, but she kept her expression carefully blank. It was the aspect of her position she most loathed, dealing with the family dramas that clouded the lives of her pupils.

As headmistress, she had a duty to break bad news from home, and there was no easy way to convey catastrophe. A clean, brisk airing of the facts was always best.

“I’m saying,” Miss Peabody replied, “that you won’t be able to continue your education here.”

Helen frowned, gaping at Miss Peabody as if she’d spoken in a foreign language.

“Why?”

“Because neither your tuition nor your room and board has been paid in over a year. As I’ve often explained, we don’t accept charity cases. You’re aware of the rules.”

“Grandfather would have paid,” Helen loyally declared, “if he hadn’t been so sick all those months before he passed away. He probably didn’t realize the money was owed.”

“Perhaps,” Miss Peabody allowed, “but he didn’t pay, so the issue is moot.”

“You know that we’re waiting for Grandfather’s will to be read and probated. The bank draft should arrive any day.”

“The will has been read,” Miss Peabody tersely announced.

“And...?”

“You have no inheritance.”

Harriet gasped. “Grandfather didn’t provide for us?”

“No.”

“He swore he would. Last time I talked to him, he swore it to me.”

“Apparently”—Miss Peabody shrugged—“he forgot to make the necessary changes to the document.”

“But our Uncle Richard will be happy to—”

“I have corresponded with your uncle. He declines to cover the fees for the coming term, much less the arrears.”

“Why would he do that to us?”

“I’m not a clairvoyant, Miss Stewart. I couldn’t begin to guess.”

While she pretended lack of knowledge, Miss Peabody knew the reason. She wasn’t surprised by Richard Stewart’s decision, but it irked her that she had to be dragged to the precipice of a conversation she was determined not to have.

For pity’s sake, Helen and Harriet were sixteen years old. Their mother had died when they were babies, and at the earliest opportunity, they’d been shipped off to Miss Peabody’s school. They’d never been invited home for Christmas or summer holidays, had never received familial visitors but for the annual trek made by their grandfather.

Surely they understood why their relatives had always ignored them, why their kin had forsaken them. Why should it be Miss Peabody’s job to shatter their illusions?

“Are we to go to Brookhaven then?” Helen asked. Brookhaven was the Stewart estate.

“I don’t believe so.”

“What are we to do?” Harriet queried. “What has our uncle instructed?”

“He has written you a letter.”

Miss Peabody had peeked at it, and she’d been disturbed by its cold tone. Though she could be ruthless herself when the situation called for it, the content was unduly harsh.

She retrieved the letter and handed it to Helen, watching silently as Helen perused it. Soon, Helen scowled, evidence that she hadn’t had a clue as to the truth.

“What does he say?” Harriet leaned toward her sister, trying to read over Helen’s shoulder.

“He says we’re not welcome at Brookhaven.”

“Not welcome?” Harriet was aghast. “But why?”

“He suggests that we travel to London and throw ourselves on the mercy of the...the...Earl of Trent?”

“Why would we do that?”

“He claims Lord Trent is our father.”

“That’s preposterous,” Harriet protested. “Our father was a gentleman farmer.”

“Uncle Richard insists not. He maintains that it’s time for Lord Trent to support us—rather than the Stewarts.”

So, Miss Peabody mused, they didn’t know. No one had ever told them.

Both girls turned to Miss Peabody, their identical gazes dismayed and perplexed. With their striking emerald eyes and golden blond hair—hair that was the color of ripened wheat—they were very beautiful, and purportedly, the spitting image of their aristocratic sire.

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