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Rated: ASR · Sample · Romance/Love · #2286142
Juliet is confronted with meeting the man who now owns her family estate.
THE HATCHER SISTERS LOST THEIR FATHER, their brother, their mother and their home. Now they live on the charity of aunts and uncles willing to take them in. So when Lady Rasburn, their aunt, introduces Mary to Nicholas Green, her intentions are obvious. After all, who better to marry the man who now owns Oaksworth, their former home, than her. Except, Mary wants nothing to do with the quiet countryside.

Juliet knows accepting Mr. Green's proposal would destroy her older sister's spirit, so she does what any caring sister would. She tries to tempt Mr. Green into offering for her instead.

NICHOLAS GREEN THOUGHT HE HAD LUCKED INTO a diamond in the rough when he purchased Oaksworth. Only a day's journey from his mills in Nottingham, the estate was everything he thought he'd need. Except, the county's residents are not so keen to welcome the man they see as responsible for ruining the lives of a beloved local family. When Lady Rasburn offers to introduce him to his niece, he sees an easy solution to his problems.

Mary Hatcher is everything the rumors suggested: beautiful and accomplished, any man would be proud to walk into a room with her on his arm. Yet, it is her sister his thoughts begin to dwell on.

But the choice of who to marry is only the beginning. Juliet and Nicholas both have their own pasts to grapple with before they can find happiness together.

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         Juliet lifted the hems of her skirt to step over the stile, pausing to inhale deeply. Home, her heart sang. Many claimed to love the noise and bustle of London. Others pledged their hearts to the salty air and waves of Brighton or the healing waters of Bath. Not her. Juliet’s heart and soul were complete now that her muddied boots had crossed onto the land her family had held for generations.
         She shifted her basket to her other arm, glanced over her shoulder at the footman accompanying her, and continued forward.
         Undoubtedly, her aunt would chide her when the footman explained her whereabouts this morning. Lady Rasburn could never understand. Her husband employed a steward to care for their lands in his time and Lady Rasburn had employed her own secretary to visit the tenants and see to their needs. Juliet suspected the excess in wages and limited interest in estate management was why her aunt’s widow’s portion was so small, not that she would say such to her aunt. Her cousin did a much finer job of running her uncle’s estate in Herefordshire since he inherited. He had been a great help in the years Juliet’s family had sought to turn the estate around after her father’s death and debts left them teetering on the brink of ruin.
         If only Arthur’s death hadn’t sent them spiraling into the abyss.
         They reached the Smythe home and Juliet did not hesitate to rap her knuckles on the simple, but sturdy door. It swung open a moment later and Mrs. Smythe’s eyes widened in surprise. “Miss Juliet!”
         Juliet gestured to the basket she held. “I brought some jellies for the little ones. May I come in?”
         Mrs. Smythe stepped back, brushing her hands against her apron and patting stray hairs back into place. “You did not have to do such a thing, miss. I never thought to see you after-”
         Juliet waved her free hand as she set her burden on the table in the common room. “I am visiting my aunt and heard of Elizabeth’s accident. I thought I might visit her and brighten her day a bit.”
         “She’s resting just now, but I expect she’ll wake soon, if you wish to stay. I have some biscuits made just yesterday, if you’re hungry, miss.”
         Juliet readily accepted and settled herself on the nearest chair. They spoke shortly of how the three children had grown, “they’re helping the Harolds replace their fence, they will be sorry to have missed you” and how the planting season had gone, “Mr. Smythe bought a new blade, because the old one could not hold its edge, and it made the work easier”. They spoke of everything, skirting around the awkwardness of Juliet’s unnecessary presence and the reason for her absence.
         When Elizabeth did begin to stir, her reaction to Juliet’s presence erased any doubts Juliet had for arriving on their doorstep. Elizabeth was quick to tell Juliet everything she had missed in her four month absence. "I would have won the race if Billy had not cheated," the girl explained. "He knew about that rabbit hole and did not warn me!"
         Juliet offered the expected sympathy and shared stories of her own adventures, in a more animated manner than the stories necessitated. Eventually, she checked the watch she carried and reluctantly began her farewells.
         Mrs. Smythe escorted her part way from from the house, her hat and gloves in hand as they walked the path to the garden. “The new master seems inclined to continue what you started, miss,” she said, speaking with confidence. “When he spoke to Mr. Finn after the last harvest, he was all compliments to the changes you made.”
         Juliet twisted her fingers, grateful the subject had finally been spoken of. “He is kind, then?” she asked.
         Mrs. Smythe’s lined face grew deeper furrows as she grinned. “He is, miss. He’s mighty busy, so he sent a Mr. Yates to act as bailiff, as he is not an experienced man yet, but he sees to our needs. He was quick to repair the roof for the Brooks when the storm blew that branch into it.” The older woman reached out and grasped Juliet’s hands. “We were all sad to see you go, miss, knowing how hard you worked for us, but we are blessed with another master that cares almost as much.”
         Juliet squeezed the woman’s hand. “I am pleased to hear it. I have worried much this past year how all of you would fare.”
         Her spirits lifted, Juliet settled her empty basket in the crook of her arm, still trailed by her aunt’s footman, and began along the path home. Her feet ached from the exercise and she laughed to herself. It seemed her months of staying with family in Warwickshire and Suffolk had depleted her stamina for such a task.
         To her delight, the miller’s wife was driving the cart into town and slowed when she recognized Juliet. Juliet embraced her and the offer of a ride for the rest of the way. She curled her toes to ease the ache in her feet as Mrs. Brynn rattled on about her husband’s recent illness. Juliet smiled to herself. Mr. Brynn was not ill half as often as his wife claimed, but good-naturedly put up with her clucking and concern about overworking himself.
         Juliet left her with a promise to stop by again, though her heart lurched at the thought. She did not think she could visit the mill and the village without being drawn toward Oaksworth manor itself. The Smythe farm had been safe, lying at the very edge of the estate’s boundaries and offering little temptation.
         A maid opened the door when she reached her aunt’s home and took Juliet’s pelisse and bonnet. Juliet hurried upstairs to the room she shared with Mary, her oldest sister. The maid followed her to help her out of her walking dress and boots and into a dress and slippers more appropriate for a day of waiting for callers. Her hair required only a few pins repositioned and she was ready.
         Lady Rasburn and Mary already sat within the parlor, Mary’s calm voice reading the latest novel from the lending library while their aunt sat in her usual chair beside the fireplace. Mary’s gaze flickered toward Juliet when she entered, but her cadence did not falter. Juliet quickly crossed the room and kissed her aunt’s cheek.
         “We feared you would be late,” her aunt chided and Mary left off her reading. Lady Rasburn was a petite woman, not so dissimilar from Mary, but her presence was grander. She had been a handsome woman in her youth and had no little influence when she supported her husband's political career while he held a seat in the House of Commons before he inherited and she began her reign over his estate. Even earning the title of dowager baroness and removing herself to the modest house left to her by her grandmother had not erased the air of command.
         “Mrs. Brynn gave me a ride for the last mile and saved me some time,” Juliet admitted. She sat near Mary.
         Her aunt’s eyes narrowed. “Where did you go that would you need a ride for such a distance? Surely you did not visit Oaksworth after I asked you not to!”
         Juliet squared her shoulders and met her aunt’s frown with a small smile. Her aunt would know of her morning ventures whether she admitted them or not. “I visited one of our old tenants. Vincent told me about his sister’s fall and I wished to see her. Mrs. Brynn came upon me as I walked home.”
         “Why ever would you do such a thing? They are no longer your concern. Who is this Vincent that he should bother you with such things?” Lady Rasburn responded, waving a hand dismissively. “At least you returned in time. I expect to have an important visitor today and I would be very vexed if you were not here to be introduced.”
         Juliet raised an eyebrow and dared a glance at her sister. “Oh?”
         Mary ignored Juliet’s attempts at silent conversation and Juliet repressed a sigh.
         Lady Rasburn nodded eagerly. “Indeed. It is the very reason I summoned you to Northamptonshire.”
         This was news to Juliet. Their aunt’s letter arrived nearly a month ago, requesting Mary and Juliet come to visit her. She spoke of the fair and the first assembly of the season; she mentioned feeling a bit of loneliness; not once had she mentioned anything about a visitor. She had mentioned a few childhood friends that would return during the summer breaks, but none of those would require an introduction.
         “We shall be very pleased to greet any guest of yours,” Mary answered for them, offering their aunt her sweet, serene smile.
         “Of course you shall,” Lady Rasburn snapped, though there was no ire behind it. “I was quite pleased when the gentleman expressed his desire to meet you.”
         Now both of Juliet’s eyebrows raised, but again her glance at Mary remained unanswered. Mary would betray nothing in company and, despite the familial relation, Lady Rasburn counted as company in her sister’s world. Mary’s love of laughter and her teasing humor only ever emerged when she was certain nobody but one of her sisters might overhear. Juliet supposed it was a skill they taught at the school Mary attended before their father passed away, for Juliet could never quite master being two completely different people.
         A gentleman caller would undoubtedly be intended for Mary, Juliet mused. By the blush on Mary’s cheeks as she opened the novel again to fill the silence, her sister suspected the same. It wasn’t just that Mary was the eldest or Lady Rasburn’s favorite. By any standard, she was the most accomplished of the three sisters. All three of them had been taught at home by their parents during their childhood, as their peers were. Their father even encouraged them to sit in on some of his lessons and discussions about history and literature with Arthur before Arthur was sent to school. Mary left for her school in the same year, with plans for Juliet to follow the year after. Except, Juliet fell ill and her parents put off her entrance to school for a term.
         Then the winter came and influenza swept through the county. It brought down many in its wake, including their father. Mary returned from seminary at the end of her fourth term and did not go back, but she had learned enough. She walked with an ethereal air, her sewing and embroidery skills were enviable, she could play the pianoforte and sing well, she ate daintily, danced beautifully and smiled in the way only an accomplished lady could.
         She attempted to pass her lessons on to her younger sisters, of course, but Mary had been trained by masters and Juliet and Tabitha had to give much of their time to other things than learning accomplishments only needed in parlors. Officially, their uncle, who held the estate in trust until Arthur came of age, and Arthur ran the estate, but they did so by correspondence. So the day to day management of their small estate and farm fell to the womenfolk.
         The footman, newly relieved of his baskets and back to his job at the front of the house, entered to announce Mrs. Moore's arrival. Mrs. Moore made her greetings to Lady Rasburn, then Mary and Juliet, before taking the seat nearest to Lady Rasburn and beginning to share the contents of her son’s most recent letter. Mrs. Moore was their aunt’s dearest friend in town and rarely did a day go by that the two matrons did not come together to share every event and rumor that occurred since the previous day.
         Mary set the novel aside and rang for the maid to bring a fresh tea service. Mary had taken over hostess duties, claiming the role of Lady Rasburn’s companion for their visit, a role Lady Rasburn was content to let her fill. It allowed her to retain her status as mistress, but delegated the work to another.
         Just as the tray arrived, another visitor was announced, this one Mrs. Lewis, the rector’s wife. She chose to sit between the younger and elder party after her greetings and turned her attention toward the sisters as she accepted a tea cup from Mary. “It is lovely to see you again,” the older woman said. “When Mrs. Moore told me both of you had arrived in Buxtonbury, I knew I had to call.”
         “We are always pleased to see you, Mrs. Lewis,” Mary said. “I know I speak for my sister and myself when I say your presence was one we sorely missed when we were in Suffolk.” Juliet nodded to offer her support to her sister’s words. Mrs. Lewis had been a great source of comfort and support before their family had left Buxtonbury behind, and even after, by sending letters to ensure they were well.
         “Did I see you already out with a basket this morning, Miss Juliet? You only just arrived!”
         “Yes, ma’am,” Juliet acknowledged. “I had a surplus of jams and preserves from this past winter. I thought to pass them on to some of our old tenants while I was visiting. I was also eager to see for myself that they were doing well.”
         Mrs. Lewis smiled. “That was kind of you. I am certain they appreciated your generosity.”
         “It was in service to me that they took them,” Juliet answered with a laugh. “I did not think much about the amount I had made this winter, and made far too much by rote. I had all the jars, you see, and the cook and I filled all of them before I thought twice about how many might actually be needed.”
         Lady Rasburn sniffed loudly, with a glance in her direction, and Juliet quickly lowered her gaze, blushing. The genteel older woman disapproved of Juliet’s capabilities in the kitchen, arguing it was hardly proper for a gentlewoman to have such skills, even less so to speak of them in mixed company.
         Mrs. Lewis also noticed Lady Rasburn’s subtle rebuke and quickly changed the topic. “Will you be attending the assembly next week, Miss Hatcher?”
         Mary had somehow managed to take out her embroidery and begin stitching without anybody noticing. Juliet had not even seen the sewing bag at her feet moments before. Mary paused in her work to grace Mrs. Lewis with one of her demure smiles. “We are both of us looking forward to it. It will be wonderful to reunite with so many friends after such an extended time away.”
         “And how long shall you be staying? Your aunt told us of your expected arrival, but did not specify the length of your visit. Shall you be here all summer?”
         “We do not have our return planned, as of yet. At least a month, I believe, perhaps longer. We wish to at least be here for the fair. I do not know if I could bear being apart from Tabitha for the entire season, though.”
         “Dear Miss Tabitha,” exclaimed Mrs. Lewis. “How is she?”
         Juliet and Mary shared news of Tabitha’s growth, taller than Mary but not yet as tall as Juliet, and her most recent accomplishments, her drawing skills had been encouraged and improved by their other aunt. They spoke of the excitement of living in a larger town, “two milliners, can you believe such a thing?”. Juliet took care not to mention that Tabitha had undoubtedly taken over the lessons of their young cousins in Mary’s absence or that Juliet spent much of her time working in the small shop that supplemented their uncle’s income as he ventured some of his middling fortune into a new business venture with a respected friend.
         “The seaside in Lowestoft is beautiful,” Mary agreed when the subject was broached, a spark of life escaping through her society mask at the mention of it.
         Before more could be shared, the footman reappeared and every head swiveled to see what newcomer would grace the parlor next. “Mr. Nicholas Green,” he announced.
         Juliet felt as if someone had slipped snow down the back of her collar, so abrupt and intense was the chill that slid down her spine at the name. For a moment, no more than half a breath, she believed there to be no way her aunt would invite the man to call on them. There had to be another Mr. Green that had moved to Buxtonbury during their absence, but the way Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Lewis looked toward her sister and herself, Juliet knew it was not the case. Her aunt had, indeed, invited the fiend into her home and, from the triumphant look in Lady Rasburn’s eyes, he was the important visitor.
         She felt all the rage, grief and hopelessness that had consumed her a year ago when she first heard his name. She knew the moment she saw the toes of his polished boots she could not be in the same room as him without shattering.
         Juliet could think of only one way to escape and, before she could consider the plentiful reasons not to, her tea cup tipped forward. She leapt to her feet as the rest of the women to greet the gentleman, who did not deserve the name, but cried out before introductions might be made. “Oh, how clumsy of me, pray, excuse me.”
         With a hurried curtsy and ignoring her aunt’s palpable disapproval, Juliet fled.

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