Destined to Last

By: Alissa Johnson

Prologue


The Countess of Thurston was perfectly aware that it was most unseemly for a lady to run in public. Which was why she chose to step briskly—very briskly—across Benton’s small snow-covered town square.

“Lady Katherine Anne Beatrice Cole!”

The countess was also quite aware that it was unseemly for a lady to raise her voice in public, but every mother had her limits, and her five-year-old daughter, Kate, had an astonishing talent for pushing her past those limits. Lady Thurston had turned her back for only a moment in the shop to greet Mrs. Newman, and when she had turned round again, Kate had vanished.

What had followed was a frantic search of the shop, the two neighboring shops, and then the town square, where she had finally spotted Kate’s little blonde head peeking out from over a row of decorative evergreen hedges.

Lady Thurston had managed to control her pace, but restraining her voice had been quite beyond her. Fortunately, by the time she arrived on the other side of those hedges and found Kate seated next to another child on a bench, her fear, and the accompanying temper, had eased enough for her to speak in the moderate tones far more suitable for both a woman of her rank, and for reasoning with an impetuous and impossibly stubborn child.

“Katherine Cole, how many times have you been told you are not to run off without permission?”

Kate cocked her head, her light blue eyes squinting in thought.

Oh, good heavens, five-year-olds were so literal. “I am not in search of an exact number, Kate. The point I am making is that you know better. You shall not be allowed to play the pianoforte tonight.”

Kate’s mouth fell open. It was, for her, the most grievous of punishments. “But, Mama—”

“No pianoforte,” she repeated. “If it happens again—”

“But I had to go,” Kate insisted, and pointed at the other child on the bench. “I saw Lizzy. She might be five.”

Lady Thurston took a deep, calming breath and then, for the first time, took a very good look at the small child next to Kate. The girl did appear as if she might be near to five years of age. She had sweet brown eyes, hair that was in desperate need of a wash, and the sallow complexion of one who had recently suffered an illness. She was bundled in an old but warm-looking coat two sizes too big. And the remainder of her was covered in rags—even her feet, the poor dear.

Not a local child, Lady Thurston decided. She knew all the children in Benton, and she made certain all of them had decent clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet…All but her own, it would seem. Kate’s feet were bare except for stockings. Lizzy was holding her boots.

“Why are you holding Kate’s boots, dear?”

“I weren’t stealing ’em,” Lizzy proclaimed with a slight lisp. She tossed down the boots. “I weren’t.”

“She weren’t,” Kate echoed.

“She was not,” Lady Thurston corrected before stooping to pick up the discarded shoes. “Here now, they are Kate’s to do with as she pleases. Do you want her to have them, Kate?”

Kate nodded. Which did not surprise Lady Thurston in the least. The child adored giving presents and would have jumped at the chance to replace Lizzy’s ragged footwear.

She held the boots out to Lizzy. “Where are your parents?”

“In heaven,” Lizzy replied, snatching the shoes back without further argument.

“I am very sorry to hear it.” She watched a moment as the girl fingered the soft leather. “How did you get here?”

“Puck brought me. I’m to wait for him here. Well, there,” she amended, pointing to an alley between the modiste’s and the booksellers. “But I like it better here.”

Of course she did. The bench, unlike the alley, was warmed in the sun. “I beg your pardon? Who did you say brought you?”

“Puck. My friend.”

“I see.” Puck? That couldn’t possibly be a real person. Lady Thurston turned to scan the square and surrounding shops. No one appeared to be looking for the child. A pang of anger and sadness clutched at her chest. The poor darling had been abandoned, like as not. It was an all too common occurrence.

She crouched down in front of the girl and spoke gently. “I think, Lizzy, that it would be best if you were to come to Haldon with us for a time. I shall ask one of my footmen to wait here and bring…er…Puck along when he arrives, and then we shall see what is to be done.”

“Haldon,” Lizzy repeated. “The big house what everyone here talks about?”

“The very one. Would you like that?”

Kate tugged on her sleeve. “Mama?”