Excerpt: A Modest Independence

Excerpt: A Modest Independence

Book 2: Parish Orphans of Devon

London, England
February, 1860

Jenny Holloway raised the hood of her wool cloak up over her head. It was snowing in London. Little flurries that fell to the ground, disappearing in the icy black slush that was soaking through the hem of her sensible skirts as she stood outside the Fleet Street law offices of Mr. Thomas Finchley, Esquire.

She’d visited the unassuming building several times before and had no good reason to hesitate. It wasn’t as if she was paying a call on a former beau, nor even on an estranged friend. Mr. Finchley was neither of those—not to her, at least. He was only a solicitor.

More to the point, he was her solicitor. Which made this a business matter.

She stiffened her spine and made her way up the steps to the front door. A brass plaque fixed beside it bore the names of both Mr. Finchley and Mr. Keane, the solicitor who shared his offices. It was the latter who greeted her when she rang the bell.

“Miss Finchley!” Mr. Keane’s thin face lit up in recognition.

Miss Finchley?

Jenny blinked. Had Mr. Finchley told Mr. Keane that she was his sister?

“Do come in out of the cold.” Mr. Keane opened the door wide, standing back for her to enter before shutting it behind her. He assisted her out of her wet cloak. “Finchley is occupied with a client. I daren’t disturb him. But allow me to offer you a cup of tea.” He turned to address a weedy-looking young clerk hovering nearby. “Tea, Mr. Poole! And here. Put the lady’s cloak by the fender to dry.”

Jenny removed her bonnet and gloves, permitting the young man to take those as well.

“Is your brother expecting you, ma’am?” Mr. Keane asked.

Her brother. How absurd. The two of them looked nothing at all alike. She was tempted to correct Mr. Keane, but common sense kept her silent. There was no good reason to destroy whatever fiction Mr. Finchley had woven on her behalf, especially if it had been spun to protect her reputation. Besides, she wasn’t likely to see Mr. Keane again after today. By this time tomorrow she’d be on board a steamer bound for Calais.

Providing Mr. Finchley cooperated, that is.

“He was aware I’d be arriving in London this week,” she said, “but we hadn’t yet fixed upon a day for me to call. I daresay I should have made an appointment.”

“It mightn’t have done you any good.” Mr. Keane ushered her up a narrow staircase and down an equally narrow hall to a small anteroom. It was warm and snug, equipped with a set of comfortable-looking chairs and a low wooden table. “Do have a seat. Your brother shouldn’t be too much longer.” His head tilted slightly at the sound of a raised voice drifting through the closed door of Mr. Finchley’s office. “I’d give it another ten minutes.”

Jenny lifted her brows. She couldn’t make out the words being exchanged behind the door, but the raised voice was definitely female. She reminded herself again that Mr. Finchley’s affairs were none of her business. Even so…

But she didn’t have time to ponder, for at that very moment the door to Mr. Finchley’s office burst open. Shrill words, no longer muffled, spilled out into the anteroom.

“You’re ever cruel to me. Trying to punish me. To deny me the things I want most in life. It’s your way of getting revenge on me. Don’t say it isn’t.” The woman gave a dramatic sniffle. “If you cared for me at all, you’d increase my allowance. It’s the least you owe me.”

“I don’t owe you anything.” Mr. Finchley’s deep voice was quiet, his words hardly audible.

You ruined my life!” The woman’s voice elevated to as-yet-unreached heights as she at last emerged through the open door of Mr. Finchley’s office. She was garbed in a fashionable silk and velvet afternoon gown, a velvet-trimmed hat perched atop a head of impressively coiffed mahogany curls.

Jenny stared at her. She’d half expected a cheaply clad young tart. Instead, Mrs. Culpepper was a mature woman. A beauty, to be sure, but not one in her first bloom.

“And what are you looking at, madam?” She seared Jenny with a poisonous glare. “I’ll thank you to keep your eyes in your head.” She sniffled again, though Jenny could see no evidence of tears, and with a swish of starched petticoats, marched from the room.

Jenny waited for Mr. Finchley to storm from his office and follow after her, but there was no sign of him. Perhaps he didn’t care enough about his relationship with Mrs. Culpepper to try and salvage it.

He certainly hadn’t cared when their own friendship had fallen apart last October.

“I say,” Mr. Keane muttered in embarrassment. “Where has Poole got to?”

“Here, sir!” Mr. Keane’s clerk trotted down the hall, a silver tray in his hands.           

“Is that tea?” Mr. Finchley at last emerged from his office. He was dressed in a well-tailored black suit, his frockcoat worn open to reveal a single-breasted waistcoat draped by the gold chain of his pocket watch. He looked calm and composed. Perfectly at his ease. One would never know he’d just been engaged in a heated altercation with a woman.

Well…perhaps his dark brown hair was a little mussed. As if he’d lately run his hands through it. Other than that, he looked as ordinary as ever.

If one could ever call Thomas Finchley ordinary.

Jenny clasped her hands tight in front of her. She’d hoped that when they met again, she’d be indifferent to him. That she’d feel nothing at the sight of his handsome face and figure.

Not that most people would have described Mr. Finchley as handsome. Bookish, maybe. Or scholarly. A gentleman with a weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Someone to confide in. To solve one’s problems, for a fee. Not a man to make a woman’s heart beat faster.

Jenny’s heart didn’t seem to understand that, the treacherous thing. It was thumping quite madly. As if it were only yesterday he’d laughed with her and danced her around the parlor in Half Moon Street. As if he’d never lied to her. Had never played her for a fool.

It was those eyes of his that caused her such alarming palpitations. So worn and wise—and so much older than all the rest of him. As if they’d seen everything, experienced everything. They weren’t the eyes of an overworked solicitor. Not any that she’d ever seen. No. Thomas Finchley had the eyes of a weary angel.

All he need do was look at her and her pulse lost its rhythm.

But he wasn’t looking at her now. He didn’t seem to notice her at all. His attention was entirely fixed on the dratted tea tray. A typically selfish male, only bestirring himself at the prospect of food and drink. But then he turned his head and those light blue eyes met hers. His gaze was solemn behind the lenses of his silver-framed spectacles and…not at all surprised.

He’d been aware of her the whole time. He’d known she was there, even as Mrs. Culpepper stormed from his office. Possibly even from the moment Jenny had first crossed the threshold.

Was there anything Thomas Finchley didn’t know?

She moistened her lips. Her mouth was dry as the Sahara. She couldn’t summon the barest croak. Not that there was any need for speech. The silence between them spoke volumes. Indeed, the very air seemed to echo with the last words she’d uttered to him. Words to which he’d offered no response.

What sort of man are you?

“Put the tray down in my office, Poole,” Mr. Finchley said. And then: “Miss Holloway? Will you join me?”

“Miss Holloway?” Mr. Keane’s eyes darted from her to Mr. Finchley and back again. “Oh dear, and to think I’ve been addressing you as Miss Finchley.”

“One name’s as good as the other.” Mr. Finchley motioned toward his office door, a hint of impatience in the gesture. “Ma’am?”

Jenny smoothed her skirts. This was business. Strictly business. “Yes, of course.” She walked past him to enter his office, careful that her gown didn’t brush his legs as she went by. She wanted no illusion of intimacy between them. They might have met before—might have dined together and danced together—but they were as good as strangers. The Mr. Finchley she’d known last year had been an illusion. A convenient mask behind which the real Thomas Finchley hid himself to achieve his ends.

Who the real man was, she neither knew nor cared.

He shut the door behind her. “For what it’s worth, I never claimed you were my sister. I simply refrained from correcting Keane’s assumption.”

“Would it have been so scandalous for an unrelated female to call on you as I did last October?” Jenny hadn’t had much choice at the time. There had been no one else to turn to after the Earl of Castleton had dismissed her from her position as lady’s companion to his niece, Lady Helena.

“Not scandalous, no. Only out of the ordinary.”

“And, therefore, worthy of remark.”

“Precisely.”

She cast a cursory look round his office. It was large and fairly well organized. A monstrous barrister’s desk formed the heart of it, its surface covered in neat stacks of papers and rolled documents tied with ribbon. The walls were lined with bookcases filled with row upon row of leather-bound books, their gold-stamped spines unreadable behind closed glass doors.

“You arrived in London only this morning,” he said.

It wasn’t a question. She answered it nonetheless. “I caught the early train from Abbot’s Holcombe.”

She’d spent the past three months living with Mr. Thornhill and Lady Helena at Greyfriar’s Abbey, their isolated estate on the North Devon coast. Neither had expected her to remain on in her role as Helena’s companion. Certainly not after Helena had settled a generous sum of money on her.

Five thousand pounds, to be precise.

Helena called it a modest independence. To Jenny it was an absolute fortune. “I saw no reason to delay,” she said.

“Quite.” Mr. Finchley went to the tea tray. “Will you sit down?”

Jenny took a seat in one of the upholstered chairs opposite his desk. She arranged her skirts about her legs, ignoring the brief twinge of self-consciousness about the age—and relative plainness—of her woolen gown. It didn’t matter one jot whether or not it was as stylish as that worn by his last client. She hadn’t come to London to engage in a fashion contest with a high flyer.

Mr. Finchley poured them each a cup of tea, not bothering to ask how she took hers. There was no need. They’d shared countless cups of tea during their brief acquaintance.

“Thank you,” she said.

Mr. Finchley inclined his head. “I trust Thornhill and Lady Helena are well?”

“They were in excellent health when I left them.”

He sat down behind his desk. “And Mr. Cross? How is he adjusting to the new mistress of Greyfriar’s Abbey?”

Neville Cross was yet another resident of the Abbey. A childhood friend of both Mr. Finchley and Mr. Thornhill, he’d suffered a head injury as a boy that still affected his speech—though not, Jenny suspected, his reasoning.

“He’s quite well.” Jenny took a delicate sip of her tea. “He and Helena get on famously.” She hesitated before adding, “But it can be a bit trying to live with a newlywed couple. The pair of them are in their own world much of the time. One feels like an intruder.”

A vast understatement.

What one felt was inadequate.

She’d never been the sort to pine after love and affection. She was too sensible. Too pragmatic. But being in Helena and Mr. Thornhill’s company day in and day out—seeing the little touches they shared, the whispered confidences and private glances—had begun to make her feel a certain emptiness. A lack of something in her life.

No doubt Mr. Cross felt the same.

“Is that why you left in such haste?” Mr. Finchley asked.

“You think my decision to come to London was hasty?”

“Wasn’t it? You might have stayed at the Abbey through the winter. Lady Helena has made it quite comfortable, I understand.”

“Indeed, she has. It’s filled with fine furnishings now and there are new draperies, paint, and paper on the walls. You could have seen the improvements yourself if you’d come for Christmas.”

His expression was unreadable. It registered neither embarrassment, nor regret. “Business has been unrelenting of late. I made my excuses to Thornhill.”

“Is that all that kept you away? Business?”

“What else?”

She shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t know. I thought, perhaps, you may have some other reason for avoiding a visit to Devon.”

“I’m not Thornhill, Miss Holloway. I don’t enjoy tormenting myself with the past. To me, North Devon is no different from Sussex or Cornwall.”

Jenny’s conscience twinged. In all the many hours she’d fretted over Mr. Finchley’s failure to join them for Christmas, she’d never once given a thought to his childhood connection to the region. She’d assumed that she was the reason he hadn’t come to Devon.

Only now, seated across from him at his desk and surrounded by all the manifestations of his profession, did she comprehend the inherent selfishness of such an assumption. She wasn’t the center of Thomas Finchley’s world. Far from it. She was just an unremarkable female he’d known for a brief moment in time. Neither rich, nor beautiful, nor even particularly sweet-tempered. Merely a friend of a friend of a friend. A connection so tenuous it hardly merited thought.

“I have no good reason to avoid visiting Thornhill and Lady Helena,” Mr. Finchley continued, “save the demands of my clients.”

“Your clients appear to be excessively demanding.”

Another gentleman might have flushed at her words. Mr. Finchley only looked at her, his countenance solemn and possibly a little tired. “You’re alluding to Mrs. Culpepper.”

“Do you have many other clients who accuse you of ruining their lives? It doesn’t seem a good business practice.”

“Mrs. Culpepper is a special case.”

Jenny raised her teacup back to her lips. “She’s very handsome.”

And there it was. The slightest hint of red on Mr. Finchley’s neck, just above the line of his black cravat and starched white linen collar. A blush so faint she might have missed it if she wasn’t looking. “Miss Holloway—” He started and stopped. “I wouldn’t read too much into what you overheard.”

“I’m simply making conversation.”

He shook his head. “Why are you here?”

“For my money, naturally. I thought that was plain.”

“Yes, but…it’s snowing out. Not ideal weather for making the journey to London. You’d have been better off delaying. Whatever you wish to do with the money Lady Helena has given you can surely wait until spring.”

She lowered her teacup back to its saucer. “It’s not winter everywhere in the world, sir.”

“Ah.” He leaned back in his chair. “You wish to travel.”

“Yes. I wish to…that is…I intend to leave for India without delay.”

If he was surprised by her revelation, he didn’t show it.

She pressed on. “I’ve already obtained my travel documents. The only difficulty lies in my need for ready funds. Since Helena has appointed you guardian over my money, it seems I must apply to you for my needs. Though I must say I find it rather an inconvenience.”

Mr. Finchley continued to look at her, his regard never wavering. “Why India?”

“Am I obliged to explain myself to you? Is that how this works?”

“You owe me no explanations. I’m neither your father, nor your brother to command one. However, Lady Helena has reposed certain obligations in me as trustee—”

“Not because of any concerns about my capacity for managing my own money. You realize that, don’t you? It’s only because I’m her closest friend and you’re Mr. Thornhill’s. She wishes us to get along together.”

“I wish the same,” he said.

“Do you?” After the antics of his last client, she supposed he must expect her to rage at him. To lose her temper and storm about his office. As if she would ever make herself so ridiculous.

“Yes, I do. But you’re obviously still angry with me.”

Jenny’s temper flared. He was so calm. So infuriatingly steady and reasonable. Did nothing in the world rattle his resolve?

Well, he’d soon learn that her resolve was just as unshakable as his own.

“Not any longer,” she said. “Not even then, really.”

“No?”

“If I was angry with anyone, it was with myself. I trusted you too easily.”

“And I breached that trust, did I? Simply by counseling Thornhill on how he might annul his marriage? He was my client, Miss Holloway. He still is.”

“Yes, yes, I understand. The solicitor-client relationship is sacrosanct. But it doesn’t follow that you needed to squire me about town as if you were enjoying my company. To talk with me and dance with me as if you were my friend, when all the while you—”

“I am your friend.”

Jenny was horrified to feel her lips tremble. She told herself to turn the subject. There was no point in confronting any of this head-on. It surely didn’t matter anymore. And yet…

She was incapable of holding her tongue.

“I thought you were,” she said. “But when I looked into your eyes that day outside the house in Half Moon Street, I didn’t see a friend looking back at me. I saw a stranger. A man who would do anything to achieve his ends—and those of his client.”

“I won’t dispute the latter. It’s who I am. My clients must always come first. Before friends and family. Even before myself.” He paused. “I apologize if I hurt you in the process. It wasn’t my intention.”

Her gaze dropped to the contents of her teacup. She didn’t know what to do with his apology. She wasn’t certain he meant it. For all she knew it was nothing more than a gentlemanly platitude uttered to placate her. “It doesn’t matter.” Good lord, now her voice was trembling as well. She cleared her throat, striving to make her next words as brisk and businesslike as possible. “It isn’t as if there’s a need for us to cry friends. Indeed, once you’ve released my funds, I don’t expect we’ll have any cause to see each other again.”

Mr. Finchley was silent for a long moment.

And then another.

Jenny’s stomach tightened with apprehension. “Is there a difficulty with you giving me my money? I don’t require the entire balance. I only need enough for travel expenses.”

“Are these travel expenses for you alone?”                          

“Who else would they be for?”

“You’re a young lady. Surely you’ll wish to hire a companion or a—”

“Hire a companion?” She failed to contain a laugh. “I am a companion. Or, rather, I was. And as for being young, I’ll have you know, sir, that I’ve just passed my twenty-eighth birthday. I’m what society charitably refers to as a dyed-in-the wool spinster. A veritable artifact collecting dust on the shelf.”

“I hardly think—”

“Do you imagine I mind such labels? Not a bit of it. I embrace them. I’ve longed for spinsterhood these many years. And now I’ve been given an independence, I intend to take full advantage of the state.”

“I beg your pardon, but…” Mr. Finchley’s eyes betrayed a hint of exasperation. “You’re no gray-haired grandmother. Unless you mean to announce your age to every person you meet—”

“Perhaps I shall.”

“Miss Holloway—”

“A spinster isn’t so different from a widow, you know. We’re afforded a great deal of freedom in the world. Society will think nothing of my traveling alone.”

“Society may be disposed to accept it, but there are men—I’ll not call them gentlemen—for whom your advanced years won’t act as a repellent. Without a companion or a maidservant, you’ll be fair game for all sorts of mistreatment.”

“I can take care of myself, thank you.”

“I don’t doubt it. But as a lady, there’s only so much you’re capable of defending against. You simply haven’t the strength. Now, if you were to take a maid and a footman on your travels, then—”

“I’m not hiring a companion,” she said firmly. “Nor am I surrounding myself with a legion of stuffy British servants. I mean to experience the world. To have an adventure. Not to recreate the same tedious environment I’ve been hostage to here in England.”

His brows lowered. “You feel as if you’ve been a hostage? It was my impression that Lady Helena treated you as a sister. A friend.”

“She has. Always. But Helena doesn’t exist in isolation. To everyone else in society, I was only her companion. Not her sister, as you say. Certainly not her friend. When her uncle ascended to the title, he had no qualms about tossing me into the street.”

“Lord Castleton was a blackguard, I won’t dispute that.”

Jenny didn’t know many who would. When Helena’s elder brother, Giles Reynolds, 6th Earl of Castleton, had been reported dead in India, her uncle had not only taken his title, he’d also attempted to take the vast fortune Giles had left to his sister. The means he’d employed to do so had been brutal, indeed.

“But he’s well out of the picture now,” Mr. Finchley said. “Unless something has changed?”

“No,” she admitted. “He’s still cooling his heels at the family seat in Hampshire. He’s made no more threats to any of us.”

“Then you have no legitimate reason to abandon your life with Thornhill and Lady Helena.”

“No legitimate reason?” Jenny was incredulous. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to exist in the background of other people’s lives? To be an afterthought? A nonentity, neither proper lady, nor proper servant? I can count on one hand the number of people who’ve actually seen me, who’ve paid me any attention. It’s no life for anyone, least of all for a woman like me.”

“A woman like you,” he repeated. “Are you so different from every other lady in your position?”

“Look at me.” She gestured at herself with her teacup, causing the contents to slosh against the rim. “I wasn’t created to shrink into the shadows. I’m strong and stubborn and opinionated. I need more from life than a half existence. I need the sand and the sea and the baking sun of distant lands.” She stilled her hand before her tea spilled over and soiled her skirts. “But you’re a man. You couldn’t possibly understand.”

Mr. Finchley leaned forward. For the first time, his face betrayed a flicker of emotion. It was gone before she could grasp it. “I understand more than you know.”

She exhaled, feeling somewhat deflated. Of course he understood. He’d grown up in an orphanage in Abbott’s Holcombe along with Mr. Thornhill, Mr. Cross, and another boy. Helena hadn’t confided the particulars, but Jenny knew enough to appreciate that the experience had been rather traumatic for all of them.

“Yes, well, then you must see why I want to leave this place. I need to experience the world as a whole person. To live among people who never knew me as a lady’s companion.”

“Must you go as far away as India to do so?”

“As to that…” She fidgeted with her teacup. “You did say that your clients always come first, didn’t you? Before your friends or even yourself.”

“It’s the truth, I’m afraid.”

She met his eyes. Her heart gave another traitorous thump. “Am I your client now?”

His regarded her steadily from behind his spectacles. “You are.”

“And whatever I tell you—”

“Anything you say to me will be kept in strict confidence.”

Jenny nodded. She’d thought as much. “You asked me why I wished to travel to India. It’s because I want adventure. To see the world and to live in far-off places. But I have another, far more compelling reason.” She bit her lip, fully aware of the folly of what she was about to confess. “I want to find Giles Reynolds, the missing Earl of Castleton.”

Mr. Finchley didn’t even blink. He knew as well as she that Giles’s body had never been recovered. To this day, Helena still clung to the hope that her brother was alive out there somewhere. “You and the private inquiry agent that Thornhill has already employed.”

“Oh, him.”

“Yes, him. What makes you think you’ll succeed where he hasn’t?”

“Because, unlike that unassuming fellow, I’ll actually be traveling to India forthwith. I won’t be delaying on every pretext, dithering here and there in England to absolutely no avail. Besides, I know Giles. And, if what I suspect is true, that agent will never be able to run him to ground.”

“If the inquiry agent can’t find him, Miss Holloway, it’s surely because he’s dead.”

“No,” Jenny said. “If he can’t find him, it’s because Giles doesn’t want to be found.”

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