Money did not grow on trees. If sovereigns should, however, suddenly decide to sprout on shrubbery, they would not select Miss Ada Westlake's orchard. Apples barely grew on the stunted, runted, unpruned branches, much less money. In fact, Ada thought she'd be lucky to find enough fruit, after the bugs and the birds, the village brats and the various blights had wreaked their worst, to make preserves for the winter. She would have been content with enough apples for a pie or two, or even a tart.
Nevertheless, a coin had definitely struck Ada on the brow. She rubbed her forehead with one mittened hand and the silver coin with the other, looking up through the nearly bare branches. She spotted a shriveled apple or two, good enough to feed her pony or Uncle Filbert, but no orchard elf guarding a golden hoard. Ada had to smile at her own musings, that whereas she was not quite willing to barter her own unborn children for a sack of coins, she'd be perfectly willing to trade her sister-in-law Jane for a shilling. The fairies could have Jane's uncle Filbert for free. Ada shrugged and tucked the coin into her pocket.
Determined to retrieve the few salvageable apples on the upper branches, Ada pulled her pony around so the rickety wooden cart was directly beneath the tree, then she hiked up her skirts to clamber onto the back of the cart, without the least fear of being tumbled off. The old gray-muzzled mare had already gone back to mashing an apple between her nearly toothless jaws, her eyes closed. Lulu was not going anywhere until suppertime.
Hefting the long, forked stick she'd been using to rattle the gnarled trees into giving up their meager harvest, Ada batted at the highest branch she could reach. A handful of apples did tumble down, some even landing in the cart, one particularly wormy specimen managing to brush against Ada's cheek. She jumped back, scrubbing at her face with the now grimy mitten, then gave the branch another vigorous shake. This time the ancient apple tree showered her with leaves, twigs, a caterpillar--and a cascade of coins. A leather pouch fell at Ada's feet. The forked stick fell to the ground. Ada nearly fell off the back of the cart.
Sinking to her knees, she gathered the fallen treasure onto her faded skirts. Gold, silver, pounds, and pence--why, she calculated there must be a fortune here, and more in the still heavy, ripped leather sack. Ada leaned back against the wooden slats of the cart, careless of splinters in her heavy woolen shawl, careless of crushed apples under her half-boots. She did not even hear the squirrel scolding at her from the nearby branches.
A fortune, in her nearly barren orchard.
A fortune, in her nearly bankrupt fingers.
A fortune. But not her fortune, of course. There were, regrettably, no fairy godmothers, no pots at the ends of rainbows and, most definitely, no money trees. Ada tugged the scarf off her head, letting her light brown curls fall down around her shoulders as she began to transfer the coins from her skirt to the red silk square. What there were, she acknowledged, were smugglers. With Lillington so close to the Dover coast, and with times so hard, free trading was a common, accepted occupation for the local population. Westlake Hall's orchard must have served as a storeroom for barrels or as a shortcut for the packhorses. Either the landsmen had left the sack of money here as payment to the seafarers, or the gold was to recompense the Westlakes for the use of their land.
The problem was, Ada did not find smuggling an acceptable practice, not at all, not with her brother Emery serving on the Peninsula. Some of the so-called Gentlemen's profits undoubtedly found their way into needy local coffers, but the bulk of the blunt, Ada was certain, went to the French. The French were not buying bread and milk for their hungry children, which was the Lillington residents' rationale; they were buying guns, weapons to shoot at other Englishmen, at Emery. No, Ada could not accept trading with the enemy, and she would not permit her lands--Emery's lands--to be used for such a purpose, not even if the payment fell at her feet like manna from heaven.
She'd simply have to return the money. Ada did not even peek into the pouch to see how many coins were left inside. She just folded the small sack into her scarf with the rest of the money, lest she be tempted even more than she was, to keep some of it, any of it.
Ada was sorely tempted indeed. Lud knew she could use the funds as well as any freebooter could. With this much cash she could purchase new tools and breeding stock for the home farm, new roofs for the tenants' cottages. Goodness, if the farms saw an income, she could finally fix the roof at Westlake Hall itself, so they could use the upper floors again, before they fell in on them. She could finally pay off some of her profligate elder brother's debts, and see Rodney's expensive widow Jane installed at the dower house, along with Jane's freeloading uncle Filbert.
Ada raised her face to the weak autumn sun, enjoying the warmth on her skin and the air castles in her imagination. In her daydreams she saw her older sister Tess, dressed in pretty gowns and new bonnets, waltzing through a London Season, finding a gentleman worthy of her special nature. Tess's beau wouldn't mind that Ada's sister was somewhat... vague, to be polite. No, he would not even notice, Ada decided in her dreams. He'd simply cherish dear Tess and scoop her away to his magnificent castle, at the other side of England, with any luck.
As for herself--Ada came back to earth with the thud of another apple hitting the ground. No, she would not paint herself a rosy future, for there was no fortune, no repaying a wastrel's gaming debts, no refurbishing the manor or wardrobes. Perhaps when Emery came home he could take up the reins of the baronetcy, take care of Tess, take Jane to task for her extravagance. Then Ada could take up her own dreams again. Until that time, when Napoleon was finally defeated, she would simply muddle through.
Ada stowed the bundled scarf under the bench of the pony cart and encouraged Lulu to head for home. She was quite good at muddling, in fact. Didn't she have enough apples for both preserves and a pie?
While Lulu plodded along, still munching, Ada considered how she was to return the money to the smugglers. Well-bred, proper young ladies were frankly not on terms with men of that calling. The Westlakes might have fallen on hard times, but not hard enough to force Ada into the company of criminals and cutthroats. Still, she was determined to put the ill-gotten gilt back into the smugglers' hands--hands that were soiled with the blood of brave English soldiers--along with an admonition to keep off Westlake property, or else. Or else what? she wondered. Or else she would pelt them with rotten apples? Set her elderly servants after them, armed with pitchforks and brooms?
Botheration, Ada swore, wishing once more that her brother were here. Emery would know what to do. Even Rodney had been a dab hand with a pistol, when he wasn't too inebriated to aim straight. A young female without masculine protection was not likely to be an effective deterrent to anyone.
She could, of course, ask her neighbor for help. Charles Harrison Ashford, Viscount Ashmead, would come to Ada's aid at the drop of a feather, or an apple. At least he would have, before their argument yesterday. Chas was the kindest gentleman of Ada's acquaintance, her confidant, comforter, and estate-adviser since Rodney's demise. He was the best friend Ada had ever had, until yesterday. Now, just when she needed his support the most, Chas might never speak to her again, just because she'd turned down his latest offer of marriage.
Even Lulu was pulling in the direction of the Meadows, Chas's estate, where they so often stopped, and where the grooms lavished attention on the old mare.
"Not today, Lu," Ada told her, tugging the reins back toward the homeward path. "Maybe never."
She sniffled, from the chill in the air, Ada told herself, not because she felt bereft of her bosom bow. She'd begged him not to offer again, not to destroy their friendship with a proposal she could not accept, but he'd gone and done it anyway, the clunch. Chas had been so angry with Ada that he'd stormed out of Westlake Hall's shabby sitting room, shouting, "If you cannot see fit to entertain my honorable offer, dash it, perhaps you should not be forced to entertain me!"
Everyone had heard him, of course. Her old butler, Cobble, just shook his bald head, and Tess had patted Ada's hand, leaving plaster-dust fingerprints behind. Tess was sculpting yesterday.
Rodney's widow, Jane, however, was angrier even than Chas. "You'll never receive a better offer, you fool," she'd shrieked, "not stuck here in the back of beyond, and not with your managing ways. Why, even if you were not too clutch-fisted to pay for a London Season, you'd never catch the eye of a more eligible parti. Of any likely gentleman, by all that's holy, not even with my sponsorship and connections. For the life of me, I cannot understand why Ashmead even bothers with you. Your looks are barely passable. Your coloring is deplorable. Your shape is boyish, your manners are hoydenish, and your breeding is mediocre."
Jane was the granddaughter of a duke, which fact she never let anyone forget, nor that she had married a mere baronet far beneath her. Jane would have demanded her sisters-in-law address her as Lady Westlake, if she thought for an instant they would obey anything she had to say. Tess and Ada were generally in the habit of ignoring Jane and her constant complaints, but Ada had been trapped in the drawing room, stunned by Chas's furious, noisy departure.
Jane, of course, was not finished. She'd curled her lip at Ada's plain muslin gown. "You have no taste, less style, and your dowry is nonexistent." She'd pointed one trembling--howbeit well-manicured--finger, at the door Lord Ashmead had so recently slammed. "Yet you turned down a well-funded, well-favored viscount!" Jane had ended her harangue with a sob, collapsing onto the sofa with her handkerchief clutched to her breast, her voluptuous, buxom breast. "You are a disgraceful, disloyal chit, not caring what's to become of the rest of us."
Her sister-in-law's uncle, Filbert Johnstone, had nodded sagely. Well, he'd nodded anyway, as much as he could with his shirt points up to his ears and his neckcloth tied higher than his three chins.
The worst of it was, they were right, Ada reflected on her slow, slogging way home. Chas was everything a maiden--or a matchmaking mama--could want in a suitor. He was handsome enough to make serving girls stare, with his fine chiseled features and dark waving hair. His broad shoulders and fine proportions were the envy of every gentleman in the neighborhood. His title was old, his fortune was deep, his acres were vast, and vastly profitable. Beyond those obvious attributes, Viscount Ashmead had impeccable manners--unless sorely provoked--a well-educated intelligence, and the devil's own smile, dimples and all.
Jane was correct, too, that Ada was entirely unworthy of such a paragon's notice. Ada did not have Jane's sumptuous endowments, nor Tess's tall, willowy grace. She was of medium height and medium build, and her hair was of medium light brown. Nondescript described her perfectly, Ada acknowledged. Not only did she not have Jane's golden blond ringlets or Tess's vibrant auburn, but she did not even possess the required porcelain complexion and rose-blushed cheeks, not when she had to help tend the kitchen garden. Chas always defended her to Jane, saying he found her freckles charming, but dear Chas would say that anyway, out of kindness, just as he lent her books to improve her scanty education.
Ada sighed and let Lulu crop at the hedges along the way, delaying her arrival home. No matter how long the journey took--and she could already see Westlake Hall's roof in the distance, missing slates and all--nothing would change. They were right, all of them, from her sister-in-law to the scullery maid: Ada's marriage to Lord Ashmead could have solved all of their difficulties.
Chas was wealthy enough to pay Rodney's debts as a bridal settlement, and oversee improvements to what was now Emery's impoverished estate, all without feeling the pinch of a single penny. He'd see to the tenants, the roof tiles, and Tess. No one at Westlake Hall would have to scrimp and save for the simple pleasures Jane demanded as Lady Westlake's due, such as year-round fires, ample wax candles, open accounts at the shops in Dover. As for Ada herself, she'd live at the Meadows in a style she'd never known, even in her parents' time, with servants tripping over each other to please her.
If that grew tiresome, Chas also owned a London residence, a hunting box in Scotland, and a plantation in the Colonies. Travels, jewels, books, the beau monde, Ada could enjoy luxuries far beyond what the contents of her knotted scarf could purchase, beyond her imagination, in fact. What she'd enjoy most of all, Ada pondered, was never having to count coins again, never having to try to make her ledger books balance, never worrying over the future.
For all those reasons, because marriage to a man like Chas was every girl's dream, Ada could not accept his eminently honorable offer. Jane would never understand that Ada could not repay her friend's gallantry that way, for that's what his offer was: a noble rescue of a damsel in distress. His inherent chivalry, his goodness, his very strengths, made Chas want to extend his protection to those in need. His heart had nothing to do with the proposal.
Ada had to lock her own emotions away, her own dreams unexamined. She also had to bite her lip to keep from weeping. Charity, that's all his offer was, wrapped in the clean linen of friendship, with a scrap of ensuring his succession thrown in. Ada could not accept his largesse.
She liked Chas far too much to burden him with her problems, to tie him for life to a ramshackle family, to accept him for what he could do, not just for what he was. He deserved so much better, like a lady he could love. What if he found her someday, the woman of his dreams, but he was already wed to Ada, with her flighty--to be polite--sister, and grasping sister-in-law, her neglectful brother and rundown estate? Ada would never forgive herself for blighting her dear friend's chances for happiness, and so she would never marry him.
Perhaps when Chas did find his perfect bride, his soul mate, his heart's companion, perhaps then his pride could forgive Ada and they could be friends again.
And perhaps it was starting to drizzle, for Ada brushed away a drop of moisture from her cheek, leaving a trail of dirt through the freckles.