Estelle almost jumped out of her skin when a footman appeared, seemingly from nowhere.
“He offers his apologies for seeking you out here, but it appears he has urgent business that cannot wait. Will you follow me please?”
She had completely forgotten about the calling card he’d left in the front hall a week back.
Solicitors never brought good news, not in Moonlight Falls, where death, debt and damning gossip were understood to be daily perils.
Dear lord, she prayed everyone was safe.
“Miss Murphy? Angus Cressingham, at your service.”
“I am sorry to trouble you like this,” the solicitor continued, “However I have urgent matters I must discuss with you.”
That took Estelle by surprise. “My Father?”
“If you please.”
The governess swallowed, wondering what on earth her Father had to do with anything. Normally she wouldn’t divulge his name to anybody, but since this solicitor clearly had some business with her, it became apparent that she hadn’t a choice.
“Venture… Lord Edmure Venture.”
She had been so exhausted after her ordeal that day that Estelle had practically collapsed as soon as the household maids had finished making her ‘presentable’.
His gaze was strangely empty and confused.
Estelle swallowed the dryness in her mouth, but she could only shake her head at the question in his eyes. She did not know why, but her words simply refused to fall in the august presence of this man.
He only stared outside, his face pale and sombre as the clouds hanging ominously beyond the glass pane.
“Nothing God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, but you, of your own will, did it! You loved me — then what right had you to leave me? What right?! I never even told you—“
“I take it that gypsy wench left you behind, too. It seems that she expected me to believe I am your… father.”
“Well, while it’s entirely possible that I am your father by blood, I am not by name and that’s all that matters in this world. I suppose she had dozens of bastard brats running around the country. Well, know this: I have not one word of comfort for you.”
In her own heart.
“What is your name?”
“A gypsy name for a gypsy bastard. How cruel you’ve been — cruel and false!”
He laughed bitterly before continuing to shout at the inanimate surface.
“And I suppose you’ll want me to educate her too, you hateful gypsy bluestocking!”
Fortunately, he seemed to come to his senses almost immediately.
The Lord finally conceded.
“But only as a house-maid. You shall have your lessons in secret. Do not presume to tell the household staff who you are, child, or, I assure you, the consequences will be grievous.”
“You are nobody, girl, nothing – a motherless gypsy foundling I pulled from the roadside on which you were begging. That is who you are and what you will tell anyone who asks. You are not my daughter, I am not your father, and we will never speak of this again.”
No one would ever think to leave her behind again.
But even to this day she had never been able to sit through a storm without crying out for her mother in fear.
Because every time thunder crashed or lightning shot through the sky, she would re-live the despair she had felt the night her mother had abandoned her on the dark steps of the orphanage, alone and afraid.
Yet despite all those years of hardwork and self-discipline, it seemed that she and her mother had not led lives too dissimilar, afterall. No more so than now, when she was sat here, terrified at the possibility of being with child.
Bad blood breeds bad blood.
Those words haunted her now, more than ever.
“Thank you,” he said. “It is just a formality that I ask you, however one must be certain of these things.”
His tone betrayed a gravity she had not experienced personally.
“I am sorry to be the bearer of such grave news. I am afraid Lord Venture passed away last night.”
Words. He was saying words.
And yet she heard nothing.
She blinked. Focused.
“He took ill last month. It was thought to be consumption, though the doctors could do nothing. It took him very quickly. More quickly than most.”
“I— I see.”
The title bewildered had her, but Estelle’s mind was too stunned to form a response more complicated than that.
Why would he?
He hadn’t thought of her for the last ten years. He had rarely thought of her when she had lived in his house.
She said, after she had collected herself once more.
“Is there anything… anything I can do?”
“I must own that sharing the news of your father’s untimely death is not the only reason for the hastiness of my visit today. There is… another pressing matter.”
What more could there possibly be?
Her father was dead. She was… alone. Completely alone in the world.
Edmure Venture had been a cold man. Indeed, he had been cold to her for a large portion of the time she had lived in his household; he had refused to discuss any memories of her mother, refused to acknowledge her as his daughter for her entire life.
She owed him everything.
She owed him her life.
She was… deeply saddened.
“After going through Lord Venture’s will and testament several times, I have come to the unmistakable conclusion that he… well, Miss Murphy, he has left his entire estate and considerable fortune to his closet living relative.”
“That is to say, you, Miss Murphy.”
“Please understand, Miss Murphy, this has come as quite a shock to me as well. I had no idea Lord Venture even had a daughter, and I have been his solicitor for over thirty years!”
Estelle almost choked.
“There must be some mis—”
“This hereby decrees the honourable marriage of Miss Luminista Murphy to Lord Edmure Venture on January 4th, year of our Lord 1815. There is a marriage license, also.”
“I… July 12th 1815.”
“Thank you. Now, I must inform you that I have found no trace of a record of a divorce.”
The solicitor continued.
“You are a Venture by both blood and name. Since the latter is all that matters legally, there is absolutely no problem.”
But Estelle was hardly listening. Her father’s voice. Her father’s words. She didn’t understand. Surely if he had married her mother, he should have known Estelle wasn’t his bastard child. He should have known she was his daughter.
So why had he refused to admit it?
“Although you will now live in his home, have access to all his land and estates in the country and, under my supervision, be given an extremely generous allowance each month, there is one… issue.”
Estelle waited for him to continue. She had no idea what was going on. She had no idea who in hell she was. No idea how to go about processing all the information she had been told in the last five minutes. So she just waited.
He attempted to gauge her reaction. She sat motionless.
“Miss Murphy, if you are not married within these six months, all of Lord Ventures’s estates, and his money, will be passed over to the nearest male relative. The grandson of Lord Venture’s great-paternal uncle.”
The governess could only shake her head. The thought of going back to that house… the thought of running that house after she had practically been a servant there for ten years….
“I— I don’t want it. I don’t want any of it! I never… I never asked for this.”
“It is rare to see somebody so upset by the thought of an inheritance. But please do not despair. I will make all the arrangements as far as I am able. I will do my best to help you in any way I can, Lady Venture.”
“It’s going to be fine—”
Her head spun.
“You are mistaken, sir! I am not who you think I am, there is —there has to be— a mistake!”
“Madam, you are beginning to look quite ill, please—”
“Somebody has made a mistake! I can’t— I’m not… I’m not…”
Her last thoughts were of those papers, those damning papers, fluttering around her.
A/N: I know what you’re thinking… I’m officially obsessed with flashbacks. And also – I mentioned the solicitor in chapter 23, for those who had forgotten!