The carriage was quiet as we left port. We had been dressed in the same clothes that we wore weeks earlier for the funeral. Mama looked as if she had hardly slept a wink since we laid dear Pa to rest. His drinking had gotten the better of him towards the end. He drank himself to the verge of illness. His doctor said that he had tuberculosis and that he wouldn’t survive the month. I didn’t make it in time to say goodbye.
We had left Rosslare Harbor on Thursday. It took us a week to reach the British port of Fishguard. It would take us another four days to reach our destination of Avebury Manor. I hadn’t unpacked my things since I arrived home. I had to help Mama pack the family. She couldn’t afford the house after burying Pa. Her brother, Uncle Matthew, was the Earl of Cork. He was readily awaiting the entire family to come and live with him. He even begged Mama to pay off Pa’s debt. As much as she wanted to, she could not agree to do so. Pa had already promised me as a way to pay off his debts and secure protection for our family.
Pa was a salesman. His business ventures were notorious for failing. His last attempt was selling King James’ Bible. He put us so far in debt that I had no choice but to leave for Dublin. I had worked in a factory processing woolen fibers into linens. My dearest brother, Johnny, was sent to work with the Tin Smith in our village of Blarney. We barely scratched a dent in his drinking and spending debts.
My six siblings were strewn about the interior of the carriage. Johnny rode alongside the carriage, his normally cheery face so stoic. Mama held the youngest, Keegan, close to her chest as he slept. I had missed his birth, and subsequently his birthday too. Bridie picked at my cuffs as she chatted to herself. She was just barely three years old, and I doubt she would remember Pa. The twins, Aiden and Alastar, were separated. Aiden sat atop the carriage with our driver while Alastar sat next to me, staring out the window. My dearest Maggie, with her mop of curls pulled into tight braids, sat across from me, picking at her fingernails and trying not to cry.
Everybody, except for the babies, was devastated by Pa’s sudden death. It meant that they wouldn’t just lose Pa, they would lose me as well. Our family was falling apart and there was nothing I could do to fix it. I could feel Mama’s gaze as I watched Bridie. I knew what she wanted to say. She wanted us to go back, to be a family together in Cork. We could not be what we were anymore.
“Imogen, look at me please?” Mama begged, trying not to draw attention to the others.
I met her gaze, and I already regretted it. She was crying, the evidence plain on her face.
“We don’t have to do this. We can turn back, have your Uncle forward him the money to pay off the debts. We can go start anew with Matthew and Elise. We can be free.” I shook my head as I fought my own tears.
“You know we can’t, Mama. My bed has been made, and now I must lay in it.” I whispered. “No more talk of this, Mama. We must make these next few months good for the children.”
I had met my betrothed only a few times before. Granted we were children, he seemed kind. My Pa took my sister Odette, god bless her soul, and I on long trips with him. It gave Mama a chance to relax just a bit with a few less children. I later learned that the point of those trips was to introduce Odette to her future husband, Derek.
Odette had passed when she was nine from smallpox. Mama was not a stranger to death. Her first born, Jack, had barely survived the birth. He only lived a week. Odette was born just a few years later, but just as sickly as Jack was. We were surprised she even lived to nine years old. Just a year after I was born, my mother had her fourth baby, Matthew. He died shortly before his first birthday. Mama was grateful for all the children that survived.
We made it to Neath by night fall. The children had grown restless of the carriage and we needed a descent night’s sleep if we were to make it the next few days of our travels. We needed to make it to Newport by tomorrow evening. Mama would want to rest on Sunday, but there were no Catholic churches to attend.
We were able to find an inn that would take us but cost us a significant portion of our budget. Uncle Matthew was most generous with his coin purse. Mama was his only and beloved sister. After Pa’s death, I learned that Uncle had been tirelessly trying to pay off his debts, but Mama refused.
Mama had tucked herself into bed with Maggie and the little ones. Aiden and Alastar were fighting their tired eyelids in their bed while Johnny and I sat chatting by our little candle. Johnny protested this marriage, much like Uncle did. He did not want Maggie to be forced into my position. He knew that if I married, then he would be the next to do so.
“We could run away, farther into Wales. Start anew, you could be a school teacher and I could find a smithing job. You turn eighteen soon, and I’ll be sixteen by the end of the month!” Johnny whispered.
“It’s July, Johnny. I don’t turn eighteen until March, and besides, I will not embarrass Mama and Uncle like that. We both have a duty to this family and I cannot abandon them, Johnathan. I marry this Lord, and I have his future children and that’s the end of that. All I can hope is that he allows you all to visit.” I whispered back, pulling my shawl tighter around me.
“There is no use in fighting this, little brother.”
“What am I going to do without you?” He asked, laying back onto the bed.
“You’ll get a proper education, that’s what. You are next in line for an earldom. You’ll make a good man, and our family proud. You’re going to be the man that Pa wanted you to be.” I expressed.
Pa always worried about his children, especially his sons. He knew that we weren’t educated well. We could read, write and do simple arithmetic. He turned down Uncle when he said that he would pay for the boys’ education. Now that he passed, Uncle would take his liberty to give my brothers a chance to become better men than our father. He would give Maggie and Bridie a better chance as well.
“Get some sleep, Johnny. We have a rather long day ahead of us.” I mumbled, blowing out the candle.
We made Newport in record time, making our trip a day shorter. We arrived to Avebury Manor by mid-day Saturday, frazzled and over-tired. The Duke and his family were waiting for us at the front of the house, with their servants at the wide mouth before the grand stone steps. They looked so unimpressed with our arrival, my heart lodged itself into my throat. This is what I would marry into. Mama leaned across the carriage and pinched my cheeks roughly, to make them rosy when we exited the carriage.
“Trust me, my darling.” She whispered as the carriage came to a jolting halt.
I heard Johnny dismount as the footman jogged over and opened the carriage door. Mama and Maggie exited first. I passed Bridie off to Maggie before the boys climbed out. As I exited, I inhaled sharply. My new family was stunning, standing before me. I surly did not fit in. Johnny moved to stand next to me, taking my hand in a vice-like grip. I gripped back as the footman led us towards the army of people awaiting us. The Duke, I assumed, began to make his way down the steps, grinning from ear to ear. He reminded me of our priest in Blarney. His eyes were soft, nearly gray. His hair was nearly as white as seafoam, and the height of oak tree.
“Miss O’Boyle, I presume,” He took my free hand, placing a chaste kiss to it. I bowed my head before answering him.
“Yes, Your Grace.” I whispered, raising my head to look at him. He smiled at me, his eyes warm like Father’s were.
“Welcome to your home, Miss O’Boyle. We’re so very happy to have you, and your family. Please, come. I’m sure you are all famished. We’ll sit for dinner, and then hopefully you’ll all have time to rest.” He offered me his arm, and I took it.
His family looked like they came from gods. Pristine, to put it plainly, modest, but surreal. Seven children, and a woman who I assumed to be their mother, stood atop the grand staircase to the Manor. I prayed they were kind, or else the next few months would drag for an eternity.
“Breathe, Miss O’Boyle, you’re doing fine. I’m terribly sorry to hear about your father. He was a good man.” I snorted, trying to hide my disdain.
“My father ruined us, or else I would not be here, Your Grace.” I admitted. “But he was my father, none the less.” His Grace smiled, walking past his family and into the foyer.
He led our gaggle through different rooms and halls until we reached a dining area that was the size of our home. I was seated at the middle of the vast table. I would need to put my head on a swivel to see everyone. The rest of the families filed in, taking their appropriate seats. T
here were seven children of my betrothed’s family. It seemed as though the youngest was Bridie’s age, and it varied upwards until my betrothed. My family sat in a row, on the opposite side of the table from me. A very tall, blonde boy came around, pulling out the chair beside me. A girl, who looked very much like him, came and occupied it, offering me a smile.
“You must be Imogen!” She exclaimed, taking my hand.
“I’m Annabeth, your new sister. I was so excited to hear of your arrival.”
I smiled tightly, allowing her to keep our hands together for a few more moments. The boy, who had taken his seat on the other side of me, made a noise. I glanced at him, biting my tongue due to the look on his face.
“Oh, where is my head! This is Derek, my twin brother. He is your promised.” She explained, causing me to raise my eyebrow at him.
He seemed quiet, unwilling to even look at me. Yet, he seemed loyal to his family, and I could trust that.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you…”
“Derek, please.” He murmured. He turned to me as the servants poured the drinks around us.
“I am sorry you had to come after such horrid news.” I reached for my drink and took a polite swig.
“Not here, sir. That does not need to be mentioned. I promise.” I whispered, turning to face the rest of the crowd.
I could see His Grace smiling at us out of the corner of my eye. How did my father become acquainted with these people? I heard Mama chatting away, entertaining the Duke with stories of our travels, and he graciously listened.
Annabeth was doing the same, telling me everything about the preparations they made for us. I nodded, listening as the servants served our meal. The whole afternoon was honestly a blur. After dinner, we suddenly found ourselves in the drawing room, with the children entertaining themselves in the library. I had a hunch as to what we had to discuss, but what I could not understand was why it could not wait until tomorrow.
“Miss O’Boyle, do you understand why you’ve been brought here?” The Duke asked, clasping his hands together.
Johnny took my hand as I nodded my head.
“I am to marry your eldest son, and in return, you will offer my family protection and help to alleviate our debts.” I answered, looking at the Duke.
He nodded, moving to stand next to his son.
“I wish that circumstances were different, and that this marriage did not have to take place, but unfortunately, fate has played her cards.” The Duke spoke, placing a hand on his son’s shoulder.
“You’ve already introduced yourselves to each other, but I would like to formally introduce you to my son, Lord Derek Goddard, your fiancé.” I stood, bowing my head and doing my best to curtsy. I sat back down, taking Johnny’s hand. He was shaking as much as I was, if not more.
“How long until we marry, sir? I would like to know.” I murmured.
“Your mother and I have discussed this in brief, but we agreed that in three months’ time, the two of you shall be married. At the beginning of October, and then you shall return here and learn your new household.” The Duke announced, offering me a smile.
I looked to my fiancé, hoping that his expression would be somewhat encouraging. His face was stony and unforgiving. He probably hated me for forcing him into this marriage. I nodded my head in agreeance, picking at Johnny’s fingers.
“I have no quarrels, sir. I do however, ask to retire for the afternoon. I need to process what is happening.” I asked, looking back at the Duke. He nodded with a smile.
“Of course, Miss O’Boyle. Derek will escort you to your new room.” He announced.
I stood as Derek moved towards my seat. He offered me his arm, and I took it. We exited the room, which had suddenly erupted in loud whispers. Once far enough away from the drawing room, I glanced at him again.
“I’m sorry for forcing you to marry me.” I whispered. “I know it isn’t what you must have wanted—”
“The only person to blame is your father for offering your freedom to pay for his debts.” He uttered.
“It was utterly reckless of him to force you to watch him destroy your life before your very eyes.”
I bit my tongue as we ascended the main staircase. He had originally gambled away my sister’s, Odette, life. She was fortunate enough to have passed before he had gotten worse. I doubt he remembered her. She was too ill to travel.
“He’s still my father, sir.” I whispered harshly. “I did not have the chance to say goodbye. I was traveling back home from Dublin. Please, have the curtesy to not drag him through the mud.”
We came round to our floor. In our silence, he led me to my new room.
“You will have a lady’s maid assigned to you by the end of the week. Goodnight, Miss Imogen.” He whispered, releasing himself from me.
I watched as he retreated down the hall.