Awakened Redemption English Regency

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Preston Mallory hires Elyse Brigham as a nursemaid for his son. Recovering from an abused past, she begins to open her heart to him until she discovers Preston's true identity. Betrayed, she flees to London and Preston follows hoping to mend things. His plans are thwarted when his former fiancée is murdered. With plenty of motive and no alibi, he's arrested. How will he prove his innocence and convince Elyse to forgive him?

Elyse has nowhere to turn and believes the Almighty has forsaken her. As her life unravels, a new foundation and path are laid before her if she has the courage to forgive and cling to a forgotten faith.

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A mistaken identity & murder put a child at risk, while a couple struggles to trust & love again. #AwakenedRedemption

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Awakened Redemption

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Awakened Redemption

Chapter One
Cambridge, England, 1815

Her life needed to change—most ardently.

Perhaps today could be a new start if she made enough at the market. Elyse Brigham gulped as her steady heart thumped faster in anticipation and hope. It was just after sunrise. Vendors already lined the street preparing their precious goods to entice would-be buyers. Wagons and carriages rolled down the road crunching loose dirt and pebbles beneath the wheels. Horses clipped-clopped in various directions, snorting and breathing heavy from long rides into Cambridge.

Her stepfather halted the rickety old wagon as the wheels squeaked to a stop. While he set the brake, Elyse jumped to the ground and hurried to the back. Thick aromas of cinnamon and apples clung to the air, reminding Elyse of her beloved mama. Tears singed her eyes as she blinked them away. It had been five long years. One would think she would be over missing her mama by now. Fresh coffee drifted around them, stirring her empty stomach with longing.

“Gel! I ‘spect ye to be useful today,” Avery Croxton’s slurred voice called out to her. Elyse didn’t respond as her stomach coiled. She hoped he would take himself off somewhere and leave her in peace. He always took every farthing she earned and would go drink himself into a stupor. If she resisted him, he would beat her.

“I promised to meet a gent down the street.” He grunted, hauling himself down from the wagon, huffing as if the slight move had winded him. “Do not be gettin’ into any mischief whilst I am gone.” He stumbled over a rock and murmured incoherent curses as he grabbed his shin.

“Better not hold out your earnings.” He strode to her and wagged a crooked finger in her face. She wrinkled her nose at the stench on him. “Remember what ‘appened last time.” Avery glared at her with his chin set at an angle and his balding brown head tilted. “I shall do it again an’ will not think twice.”

“Yes, Papa,” Elyse dropped her head in a humble gesture.

Satisfied, he moved on. Elyse waited until his swaying gait disappeared in the growing crowd before turning her attention to her surroundings. She sighed with relief and allowed her shoulders to relax. Conversations buzzed around her and drifted further down the street like rumbling voices mingling to create one continuous sound.

Elyse gathered a few bargello patterns she had sewn earlier that week and separated them into piles of lines, diamonds, florals, and plaids. Wealthy people threw away all kinds of fabrics and materials that Elyse found useful. The market came once a week to Cambridge, but she and her stepfather managed to participate only twice a month. The demand for Elyse’s patterns had risen over the last half of the year, and she hoped this day would be no different.

A tiny child with dark curly hair toddled over to the vendor beside Elyse where the wonderful smells had enticed her all morning. She scanned the area for an adult, but no one seemed to notice him wandering off by himself. A gentleman conversed across the street, buying a block of cheese. She wondered if the child belonged to him.

“Good day, Miss Brigham.” A high pitched voice demanded Elyse’s attention. She turned to see the familiar face of a regular customer.

“Hello, Mrs. Lancaster.” Elyse smiled, clasping her hands. “How may I help you on this fine morning?”

“My sister visited me a few weeks ago and loved the new patterns I bought from you. I have received so many compliments that I am here to buy more.” Mrs. Lancaster leafed through the stack of floral prints. “I want something similar to what I bought last time, but perhaps a different hue.”

Mrs. Lancaster was a stout woman who could not move with the same agility as Elyse. Her reticule strings were wrapped around her thick wrist and kept falling in the way. Elyse touched her arm. “Allow me. I know just what might suit you.”

The woman swung her head up at the same time Elyse bent forward. Her wide straw bonnet almost accosted Elyse in the forehead. Completely unaware of the near mishap, Mrs. Lancaster smiled, a dimple showing in both cheeks. “Lovely. You have such excellent taste.” Her brown eyed gaze crawled down to Elyse’s dress and back up again. “In bargello patterns.”

“Here you go.” Elyse ignored the subtle hint that her taste in clothing was quite lacking. “This one is a lavender and sky blue hue that should do nicely.”

“Why, yes, I believe it shall.” Mrs. Lancaster examined the pattern closely. She lifted it higher. “Such lovely colors.”

“Kent!” a man yelled. “Kent, where are you?”

Elyse peered around her customer’s wide shoulders to see a dark haired gentleman frantically searching about. He bent to look under wagons and carts. His brows furrowed and a dent marred his forehead.

“Goodness, but people are quite rude these days.” Mrs. Lancaster glanced behind her, clucking her tongue and shaking her head.

“Kent, answer me!” the man shouted. His eyes registered on something near the vendor next to Elyse.

“I shall take twelve,” Mrs. Lancaster announced, reaching into her reticule. “How much will it be?”

“Two shillings.” Elyse shifted to see the vendor next to her loading goods on a customer’s wagon. Where was the babe she had seen earlier? Her heart raced as fear for the child loomed in a sudden dread.

“Here you are, my dear.” Mrs. Lancaster held out the coins. “I shall be sure to send more customers to you in the future. I have not found such talent as yours in all of Cambridge.”

“Thank you, I appreciate it.” Elyse smiled, holding out her hand to receive the coins Mrs. Lancaster dropped into her palm. Slipping them into her skirt pocket, Elyse was startled as sudden movement came toward them. Mrs. Lancaster screamed in fright, moving to the side.

“Whoa! Whoa!” A man chased a wayward horse careening down the dirt road. The reigns flapped loose around the animal’s neck, close to entangling its hooves. Someone managed to grab the reigns, but couldn’t hold the strong beast. Bucking her back, the horse looked wild as if she wanted to throw the empty saddle. She kicked. The missing child teetered on unsteady feet near the hysterical mare, his innocent eyes wide and in shock. Frightened by all the commotion, the lad lifted his hand to his mouth and wailed, a piercing cry that rang throughout the street.

“Kent!” The man Elyse had noticed before ran toward the child, but the horse jumped between them, her hind legs bouncing closer to the babe.

“Whoa, girl!” coaxed the other man who had been chasing the animal. “Easy, now.”

Elyse froze, realizing she was the only one close enough to save the child. Memories of her mother being thrown from a saddle slashed across her mind like a double-edged blade.

“Kent, do not move,” the man ordered from the other side. With slow and steady movements, he reached out to the mare. The animal reared back and side-stepped closer, her front hooves pawing the air.

Elyse gulped, set her mind on the babe and lunged for him. The horse kicked backwards as the child screamed. Swooping the babe in her arms, Elyse gathered him against her and rubbed the back of his head as he burst into tears. She pressed him against her, covering his head and trying to comfort him. He shoved two fingers in his mouth.

A moment later the horse was caught. Her heart still beating unsteady, Elyse willingly surrendered the little lad to the gentleman calling his name. As her senses came rushing back, Elyse fled the scene to seek a bit of privacy. She hid on the other side of her stepfather’s wagon and bowed her head against the hard wood, hoping everyone had already forgotten about her. She stayed that way for several minutes, waiting for them to lead the horse away. Her pulse continued to race, and she took deep breaths, willing it to ease into a steady beat once again.

Elyse wrapped her arms around her middle, blocking the unwanted images of the mad horse from her mind. She swallowed the nausea threatening to overpower her. As murmurs began to die, Elyse sighed and emerged from her crouched position. Everyone seemed to have forgotten her as they moved on. Feeling better now, she lifted her head and moved toward the back of the wagon.

Her foot slipped against something hard, knocking it over. Puzzled, Elyse glanced down. Her stepfather’s jug of gin lay by the wagon wheel. A flood of relief gushed through her as she realized the cork still sealed it tight and none had spilt. She bent to pick up the jug with a heavy heart. It would take him no time at all to miss his gin. He would soon return for it.

“A little early for gin, is it not?”

Elyse froze. The rich texture of a gentleman’s voice floated to her ears—the same voice that had called out for the child, only now he sounded less frantic. Familiar discomfort swept away her regained confidence. She forced a calm smile and turned. “On the contrary, my stepfather would disagree with you, and I am quite certain he shall soon return for it.”

Her stomach tightened in a tangled cord at the sight of the tall man with wavy dark brown hair lying upon his neck. His intense walnut-colored eyes stared at her with genuine curiosity. There was a mysterious arrogance about him, as well as a friendly nature in his smile. The small child now sat on his hip calm and quite content. Elyse relaxed, trusting in the child’s instincts toward the man.

The gentleman dressed fashionably in a white linen shirt and tan trousers that enhanced his muscular thighs. He wore tall black boots that shone bright in the sun, a short waistcoat over his shirt with a double-breasted riding coat that was long-tailed in back and had large lapels around a white cravat. His shoulders were massively wide, his posture upright. Heat crawled into her face as Elyse realized she stared at him. She looked away.

“Were you…wanting to pick out some patterns?” She pointed at her needlework.

“Actually I wanted to thank you for risking your own safety for my son.” His gaze dropped, roaming over her black skirt and charcoal blouse. Discomfort seized Elyse at the reminder of her oversized and outdated clothing. “I am sorry to see that you are in mourning.”

Elyse tensed, every fiber in her body grew taut like an ancient statue brittled with cracks. Well aware of how people perceived her, she turned and stared down at her patterns. The colors blurred together as she searched for a plausible response, but nothing came to mind. Her stepfather brought home her clothes, saying a lady friend of his donated it to her after seeing her in the worn rags she had outgrown. She had tried to mend them, but her tailoring skills were quite lacking. Bargello patterns were all she had managed to teach herself.

“I am sorry.” He shook his dark head and held up a free hand. “I should hold my tongue more often. Please forgive me.”

“There is naught to forgive.” Elyse ventured to meet his gaze and found his intense expression full of sincerity and inquisitive curiosity. It had been too long since anyone of the opposite sex had looked at her with anything other than disdain. It was refreshing.

“I am completely in your debt for saving my son’s life.” He stroked the child’s back. “And then I insult you by bringing up an inappropriate subject. I must beg your pardon. I have recently returned from the Continent where I fought in the Napoleonic War, and I must admit that I have become unaccustomed to appropriate topics of conversation in female company.”

Eager to change the subject, Elyse picked up the nearest pattern. “Are you interested in any of my bargello patterns?”

“What are they for?” The gentleman glanced at the square cloth, idle curiosity in his tone and expression.

“Mostly on furniture as a type of upholstery for decorations. They can be used for a number of things.”

Another potential customer browsed through her piles, lifting a pattern and turning it over to study it.

“Pret-ty, Papa.” The child pointed to the pattern and her attention shifted to the man’s son. Elyse’s discomfort eased as the lad looked up at his father with trusting adoration, knowing he was well loved and cared for. She longed to be so innocent again. His shiny brown eyes were dark and full of joy.

“It is nice, is it not? I would say that the lady does fine quality work,” the man said, looking at his son.

“I am not a lady, sir.” Elyse lowered her eyes, afraid to allow his misconception to linger. “My name is simply Elyse Brigham.”

“Pardon me for not properly introducing myself. I am Preston Mallory.” He tilted his head toward the child and grinned with pride. “And this is my son, Kent.”

“How do you do, Kent?” She held her hand out to his son, hoping he would allow her to touch him. Small children fascinated her. She loved their baby fat and their wide, adorable eyes.

Kent clapped his palm against hers and giggled.

“This is how you shake hands.” She took his small hand in hers and shook it properly.

He stared up at her in confusion. “Chake ‘ands.” Kent flashed a wide smile, two tiny teeth shining in the front.

“My name is Elyse. Can you say it?”

“E-lis,” he shouted, clapping.

“Very good.” She ruffled his curly brown head.

“Recently we moved into a cottage in the country.” Mr. Mallory leaned forward to gain her attention and lowered his voice. “One thing I have noticed is that we could use some colorful patterns like yours in the cottage. You see, I have no wife to oversee such matters. I tend to overlook obvious details.”

“Your wife…” She fumbled, wringing her hands in distress as her gaze met his in sympathy for their loss. Memories of her mother came flooding back. The loneliness…isolation…pain. “I am sorry.”

“Do not be.” His voice hardened with offense, and he tensed. “I take care of him. And it is not so bad that it is only the two of us.” His eyes shifted to his son. She hoped he would offer more, but he fell silent.

“I did not mean to offend you.” She stepped back and clasped her hands.

“Elyse!” She jerked at the sound of her stepfather. A familiar heaviness settled in her chest.

“You ‘ave spent enough time with this gent. If he buys naught, he can move on.”

Mr. Mallory turned.

Avery Croxton stood with his hands on his hips and his round belly protruding from the rest of his thin frame. His clothes were soiled and wrinkled. Was there ever a moment when he didn’t embarrass her? She couldn’t think of one. Elyse lowered her gaze and backed away from the gentleman.

“Yes, Papa.” Her shoulders slumped forward.

“Gel, I told you to stay away from the gents, and I mean it. Do not make me ‘ave to beat some sense into ye.” He swaggered toward Elyse, raising his voice. “Where’s my gin? I left it ‘ere someplace.” He looked around, scratching his balding head.

“I put it in the wagon,” she said through tight lips.

He grabbed his jug of gin and pointed at Mr. Mallory. “Are ye buying somethin’ or not?”

“I have not made my selection, yet.” Mr. Mallory’s jaw tightened as he shook his head. He raised an eyebrow looking at Elyse. “I would like you to show me some more patterns, please.”

She hesitated, giving her stepfather a nervous glance before digging into a different pile.

“Mean man, Papa,” Kent clutched his father’s shirt, his gaze shifting over his father’s shoulder.

“’Tis all right. Papa will protect you.” He gave his son a reassuring pat on the back, wrapping him in a shielding embrace.

Satisfied, Kent laid his head on his father’s shoulder and watched Elyse sort through her patterns.

Eager to keep her stepfather’s wrath at bay, she turned to Mr. Mallory with an air of business. “What kind of furniture would you like to use them on?”

“Four wooden chairs at my kitchen table,” Mr. Mallory said.

Avery popped the cork to his jug and gulped a few swallows of his precious gin. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

Elyse cleared her throat in discomfort. “The line or plaid patterns might be more appropriate for a gentleman.” She laid them side by side for comparison.

“Gel, if he buys naught, tell ‘im to leave.” Avery stalked away.

Her fingers trembled as she laid out more patterns, hoping Mr. Mallory would find something that appealed to him, and he would forget her stepfather.

“How do you tolerate him?” Mr. Mallory didn’t bother hiding his displeasure. “The man is utterly incorrigible.”

“He is all the family I have.” Elyse shrugged, avoiding his gaze. “My mother passed away five years ago and no one else offered to take me in.”

“Please forgive me. That was not well done of me.” Mr. Mallory pivoted on his back foot and ran his fingers through his dark hair. “Something must be done. You cannot continue being subjected to him.”

“As my stepfather, he is my legal guardian.” Elyse looked down the street where her stepfather had disappeared into the crowd. “I cannot imagine what else could be done.” She closed her eyes, helplessness filling her with a familiar ache. “Or I would have already done it.” Tears threatened to surface, but she blinked them back, determined not to cry in front of this gentleman.

“Miss Brigham, I would like to help you. ‘Tis the least I could do for your saving Kent’s life.” His voice softened and he stepped closer. “Will you at least look at me?”

She didn’t want to see the certainty that would burn in his expression. A man like Preston Mallory could control his own destiny. He had every reason to feel confident. He could change what he didn’t like, while she lived at the mercy of her stepfather.

“Miss Brigham?”

In spite of her own reservations, hope rekindled in her heart. She lifted her eyes to his, drawn to him like a bird to the sky. He shifted Kent in his arms and covered her hand with his. Her heart pummeled against her ribs.

“I have an idea. Since I need a nursemaid for Kent, perhaps you are the right person for the position. It should be someone I trust.” Mr. Mallory arched an eyebrow. “Someone like you…a woman who would risk her own life to save a child she does not even know. A person cannot find better credentials than that.”

She swung her head back. Elyse knew she stared at him with her mouth gaping wide open, but she couldn’t help it. Was he offering her a position to come into his home and personally tend to his child? Her stepfather would never allow it. Still, hope soared in her heart. She clenched her teeth, fighting an inner battle. No, she mustn’t allow herself to hope for the impossible. The let down would be unbearable.

“I do not believe...” Kent opened his tiny mouth into a yawn and snuggled closer to his father’s chest as he regarded her with curious, sleepy eyes. A yearning so deep and troubling alarmed her, and she backed away shaking her head. “You offer me a wonderful temptation, but I am afraid I cannot accept.” She bit her bottom lip and linked her fingers in front of her, twisting her wrists back and forth. Elyse wanted to agree to his offer. Everything in her wanted to believe she could escape Avery Croxton, but he had spoiled every attempt in the past. Why would this time be any different?

“Why not?” Confusion clouded Mr. Mallory’s face, and she almost reconsidered.

“You met my stepfather.” Thoughts of her stepfather’s displeasure and doses of his beatings made her resolve strong. “He would never allow such a thing. Who would be at his beck and call?” She touched Kent’s arm. “Besides, how will I manage my broken heart once I become attached to Kent and you remarry and I will no longer be needed?”

She stopped fidgeting her hands and leveled her chin, boldly meeting his gaze. Sometimes fear of her stepfather seemed to be the only encouragement she needed to face others. While she might later be sorry that she didn’t take this opportunity, if this one decision protected her from further wrath, it would be worthwhile until a more permanent solution to her situation became available.

“I would wager, Kent would likely become more dependent on you than the other way around.” He looked down and rubbed his son’s curls. Kent now dozed comfortably in his arms.

Her stomach twisted into knots as doubts flitted across her mind. What if this turned out to be all she had hoped for? She would have a chance to be in a safe place where she wouldn’t be beaten by a drunken fool who imagined her offenses. Her mouth watered at the thought of decent meals with juicy meat. If she wasn’t forced to hand over every shilling to her stepfather, Elyse would be able to afford a nice gown. Perhaps she could attract a husband who would protect her.

“You have not even inquired about a wage.” Mr. Mallory pressed her.

Elyse blinked as his words penetrated her mind and settled in her heart, hope bridging her broken dreams. She hesitated as curiosity nagged at her.

“I am quite prepared to give you fifteen shillings a month. That is nine pounds a year, including free room and board, and all your meals.”

Elyse gasped, her mouth dropping open. In a moment of realization, she covered her mouth. “I long to say yes, but I fear he will never allow it.” She shook inside at the tempting thought of being set free.

“If I can convince him to give his permission, will you accept?” Mr. Mallory tilted his head as he regarded her and scratched his chin. “I am quite persuasive when necessary, but I do not wish to force you into a position you do not want.”

“You misunderstand me, sir.” Elyse shook her head, trying to calm herself. She needed to think of the proper words to convey her feelings without further offending him or appearing ungrateful. “I would be thrilled to accept your offer. I have tried to take other positions before, and I suffered his wrath. Even if I work for you, I would still be under my stepfather’s guardianship.”

“I see.” Mr. Mallory shifted Kent’s sleeping form to his other shoulder. His gaze slid over her attire, once again. Heat crept from her neck to her face. She could feel his pity. He probably thought this new opportunity would buy her decent clothing and change her circumstances, but Elyse knew better. Avery wouldn’t allow her to keep any of the money. He would gamble and drink it all away, but the thought of being free from her stepfather’s presence was a risk worth taking. Wasn’t it?

“I shall speak to him.” Mr. Mallory raised an eyebrow. “I have no cook. Would you mind preparing meals as well?” Kent stirred in his sleep and his father bounced him.

“Of course. Whatever you need.” She nodded, watching him. Elyse had never seen a man so at ease with a small child. He amazed her, much like an enigma. Compared to her stepfather, Mr. Mallory had probably made his wife feel very blessed. Elyse figured she would never marry. She had no dowry and no title. Without beauty, not much else would attract a husband. How many times had her stepfather shattered her dreams by reminding her of all that she lacked? But now, her lot in life could change.

“Pick out four of the same pattern for me,” he interrupted her thoughts.

“What size and what colors do you need?”

He shrugged. “Just cut something to the average size of table chairs. As for color, it does not matter. I trust that whatever you choose, will be perfect.”

“I have horrible taste. I happen to prefer black and most people have a problem with that, you know.” Elyse leaned forward and indicated her skirt for emphasis.

“Then my cottage shall be the first decorated in mourning attire.” He grinned, not the least dissuaded from his purpose.

“I shall do my best.”

“Good. Judging by your sample patterns here, I believe you have something excellent for my new little cottage. And I shall speak to your stepfather straight away concerning the position we discussed.” He tipped his hat in a parting nod and disappeared into the crowd that filled the street.

Bewildered, Elyse stared after him and wondered how her stepfather would react. Elyse smiled knowing the dilemma that her stepfather would soon face. Not one of those other positions had ever been for nine pounds a year, including food, room and board.

* * *

Preston found Avery Croxton sitting on the rail of a wooden bridge overlooking the river with his jug of gin. He wore the same sour expression he had earlier. Lifting his jug, he gulped the gin. It dribbled down his chin where he wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“What you wantin’ now?” Avery called as Preston approached.

Unable to decide which smelled worse, Avery Croxton or the fish below, Preston wrinkled his nose. He glanced over at the sparkling water and concentrated on how the sun glistened upon the surface like white crystals. He took a deep breath, determined to keep his temper in check no matter how the man tried his patience.

“I offered your daughter a position,” Preston said, waiting for a reaction. Stunned silence lingered between them as Avery swallowed another mouthful.

“She is not lookin’ for no position.” Avery’s bushy gray eyebrows knit in one line. His chin drooped into a frown. He spat, barely missing Preston’s shiny boot.

“I need a nursemaid to look after my son.” Preston held the child on his hip, wishing he had left him with Elyse while he made negotiations with her father.

“The gel knows naught ‘bout being a nursemaid.” Avery’s lips twisted.

“She saved his life earlier. She is trustworthy. I think she has a lot more potential than you realize.” He rubbed his son’s head, thankful the child was safe.

“Find someone else. She is not interested.” He set down his jug of gin, giving Preston his full attention.

“I thought you might be a reasonable businessman. I am willing to pay her a decent salary.” Preston kept his expression steady, hoping he had dangled the right hook.

“`Ow much?” Avery’s eyebrows lifted, and he tilted his head, perking his ears. He looked at Preston with skepticism out of the corner of one narrow eye.

“How does nine pounds a year sound? I shall include room and board, and all her meals.”

Avery rubbed his thick stubbled chin. It sounded like glass paper chafing against a piece of wood.

“I do not want her livin’ at your place. ‘Twouldn’t be right.” Avery shook his head. Preston had a terrible feeling the bloke could care less about his stepdaughter’s reputation. He only wanted to use her as a bargaining tool. Still, that was none of his business. He needed to stick to the terms and get the man to agree. “On occasion I shall go to London on business trips, and I shall need her to stay at the cottage with Kent.”

“`Tisn’t right for her to stay there with you.” He linked his fingers over his belly and spit on the ground, his chin set at a stubborn angle. “Even if you will be gone part o’ the day.”

“Plenty of maids and governesses stay in the homes where they are employed.” Preston struggled to keep the malice he felt out of his tone. He swallowed an angry retort and reconsidered his next words. “But I understand your concern. There is a widow who lives nearby. Perhaps I could make arrangements for Miss Brigham to stay with her?” Preston held his breath, working hard to keep his contempt from showing and forced a smile.

“`Twould be fine.” Avery nodded, grunting with approval.

“I mentioned this position to Miss Brigham, but she was concerned about seeking your approval.

Am I to assume we have an agreement?” Preston pressed for a commitment.

“Aye, that we do.” Avery stood and nodded. “She will take the position. Do not doubt my word.” He extended his wrinkled hand with visible dirt beneath his unkempt fingernails. “The gel loves children. Once she knows she ‘as my approval, she will come ‘round.”

Preston hid his hesitation by gripping his hand and quickly releasing it. “One other thing,” he said, pulling out a piece of parchment and awkwardly unfolding it with Kent asleep in his arms. “These are the employment papers I intended to carry to the newspaper. If you and Elyse agree to the terms of the position, I see no reason to advertise. Therefore, I shall write in the yearly wage and sign my signature, if I can have your signature as an agreement?” Preston pointed to a line.

“Sounds fair.” The elderly man nodded his consent.

“Excellent.” Preston didn’t reveal his eagerness as he refolded the papers. “On the morrow when I stop by your cottage, I shall bring these papers and we will seal the agreement.”

“Elyse will be waitin’ first thing in the morn.” Avery nodded, straightening his posture and lifting a finger in emphasis. “See if you can make arrangements for Elyse to stay with your neighbor.”

Feeling satisfied, Preston ignored the inkling of doubt crossing the back of his mind. Miss Brigham had been so certain that Mr. Croxton would not allow her to work for him. Convincing her stepfather had been much easier than Preston expected, but he had been right about the money. A man like Avery Croxton was not about to turn away blunt for his bad habits. He distrusted the man’s toothless grin. At any rate, the arrangement would be better for her and would enable Miss Brigham to be free of her stepfather’s clutches. Tucking the papers away in his pocket, Preston tipped his hat and walked away.

He waited until Avery couldn’t hear him and glanced up at the sky. “Lord, I hope I am doing the right thing. Until now we have managed, but the funds from the sale of my possessions are getting low and I must to find work. I have calculated enough for the salaries of Seabrook and Miss Brigham. We have enough to get by for a year. I pray you will give me favor in this new business venture.”

Now, he needed to convince Mrs. Warfield that she could use the company of a new house guest. The sooner Mrs. Brigham escaped her stepfather, the better. Beneath all the dreary garb she wore was a beautiful woman who only needed a chance to shine.