Someone to Hold Page 1

Author: Mary Balogh

Series: Westcott #2

Genres: Romance , Historical

One

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 or need control over their own lives. 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 nonetheless 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 in 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, and donned a bonnet to match. She put on 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. Finally taking up her gloves and reticule, she 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.

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