RAVENSWOOD SERIES, BOOK 3, BEN’S STORY
Lady Jennifer Arden and Ben Ellis know that a match between them is out of the question. Yet their hearts yearn for the impossible. Discover a new heartwarming story from New York Times bestselling author and beloved “queen of Regency romance” Mary Balogh.
Left unable to walk by a childhood illness, Lady Jennifer, sister of the Duke of Wilby, has grown up to make a happy place for herself in society. Outgoing and cheerful, she has many friends and enjoys the pleasures of high society—even if she cannot dance at balls or stroll in Hyde Park. She is blessed with a large, loving, and protective family. But she secretly dreams of marriage and children, and of walking—and dancing.
When Ben Ellis comes across Lady Jennifer as she struggles to walk with the aid of primitive crutches, he instantly understands her yearning. He is a fixer. It is often said of him that he never saw a practical problem he did not have to solve. He wants to help her discover independence and motion—driving a carriage, swimming, even walking a different way. But he must be careful. He is the illegitimate son of the late Earl of Stratton. Though he was raised with the earl’s family, he knows he does not really belong in the world of the ton.
Jennifer is shocked—and intrigued—by Ben’s ideas, and both families are alarmed by the growing friendship and perhaps more that they sense developing between the two. A duke’s sister certainly cannot marry the bastard son of an earl. Sometimes, however, love can find a way.
There were not many opportunities to spend time alone at Ravenswood. Not now that he was a guest here, anyway, with a child to look after and amuse. He was always surrounded by family and guests. Not that he was complaining. It was all very pleasant, and he was glad he had come. But occasionally he craved some time alone. He had grown accustomed to his own company at Penallen. And he needed to think clearly about this infernal letter.
He stepped out through a door that led directly from the east wing, in which the nursery rooms were situated, into the courtyard and stood for a moment under the shade provided by the peaked roof over the pillared cloister, which ran about the inner perimeter of the courtyard. He drew in a deep breath of fresh air perfumed with the scent of roses and feasted his eyes on the bright, sunlit lawn beyond the shade and upon the sparkling water droplets that formed a rainbow above the fountain in the rose arbor.
He was about to step out into the sunshine when his eyes focused upon the still figure of a man standing under the roof of the cloister directly across from him, outside the west wing. He was that burly footman or servant or assistant or whatever he was called who was assigned exclusively to the care of Lady Jennifer Arden, Lucas’s sister. The man carried her heavy wheeled chair up and down stairs, in and out of doors, on and off carriages, and then carried her to sit in it. She had suffered some debilitating illness when she was a young child, and it had left her crippled. Sure enough, her chair stood empty beside the man, which presumably meant that he was about to return to the house for her. Perhaps she too intended sitting in the arbor for a while. Ben would have ducked back inside before she arrived, but he could see that it was already too late. The man had caught sight of him and had turned his head rather sharply to glance to his left.
Ben looked in that direction too and saw what the man was looking at. Lady Jennifer Arden was walking in the shade over there with the aid of heavy-looking crutches. She moved with an awkward, bobbing gait. She would not be pleased to be seen by a near-stranger, Ben thought with a grimace. He felt deeply embarrassed himself. But it was impossible now to duck back indoors and pretend he had not seen her, for her man’s sharp glance seemed to have warned her that they were no longer alone. She stopped walking and looked across the courtyard directly at Ben.
Damn and blast, he thought as he stepped out into the sunlight and strode with a boldness he did not feel across the grass toward her, skirting the rose arbor as he went. Why must one’s behavior always be dictated by good manners, though? She would probably have been as relieved as he if he had scurried away.
“We had the same idea, I see,” he said when he was close enough not to have to raise his voice. “Fresh air and the seclusion of the cloisters after a busy afternoon of visiting.”
“But it was a very pleasant afternoon,” she said. “Gwyneth’s family are lovely people. I love their Welsh accents. I look forward to hearing Sir Ifor play the organ at church.”
“He can bring tears to your eyes,” he said. “Happy tears.” She had not moved since she spotted him. It must be uncomfortable for her standing there in one place, too embarrassed to continue her ungainly walk but not close enough to her chair simply to sit down. “I did not realize you can walk.”
“If you call it walking,” she said. “But I like to take some exercise whenever I can—against the advice of both my aunt and my physician.”
Her aunt, Lady Catherine Emmett, her father’s sister, lived with her. They seemed very fond of each other.
“I will leave you to continue your walk, then,” he said. “I beg your pardon for having disturbed you. I did not realize you were out here.”
“No one else knows I am here either,” she told him. “But please do not leave on my account. You came out for some air and some time to yourself, and I have finished my walk for today. I will go to my room and rest for a while, something Luc and Aunt Kitty believe I am doing now.” She nodded toward her silent footman, who wheeled her chair toward her.
“Perhaps we could both sit in the rose arbor for a while,” Ben said. “This fine weather could break at any moment and should be enjoyed while we have it.” He could have bitten out his tongue as soon as he had made the suggestion—purely out of good manners. What if she accepted? What the devil would they talk about?
She looked out into the courtyard after she had sat down and handed her crutches to her servant. “This courtyard exudes beauty and peace,” she said. “Yes, Mr. Ellis, do let us sit for a while. Will you wheel my chair there, if you please? Bruce, I will not need you for a while.”
The man inclined his head and disappeared.
And there went his half hour or so of solitude, Ben thought ruefully as he wheeled the chair close to the fountain and the trellises loaded with roses around it and sat on a wrought iron seat. And there too went his chance to ponder his letter and decide once and for all what he was going to do about it. Damnation! Of all the people currently at Ravenswood, Lady Jennifer Arden was the one with whom he least wished to find himself alone.
He was not sure why. She had done nothing to provoke his discomfort. He had grown up in an aristocratic house as a member of the family, after all. He was accustomed to mingling with people from their world, though he did not really identify with it. The fact that Lady Jennifer Arden was the sister and granddaughter of a duke and a woman of privilege and probable wealth ought not to bother him. He was not intimidated by her looks. She was not a ravishingly beautiful woman or even particularly pretty. She had a narrow face, distinguished by prominent cheekbones, a straight nose, and a firm jaw—a proud, aristocratic face, its classical lines somehow accentuated by the fact that she always wore her dark red hair smooth and shining over the crown of her head, though it was dressed in softer curls at the back.
She was rather thin. And crippled, of course. It occurred to Ben that perhaps it was that last fact that made him uncomfortable. He always felt self-conscious whenever he was in her presence, wondering what he would say to her if he had to say anything at all, and how he would behave. He was afraid he might be over-hearty. Or over-solicitous. No one else treated her any differently than they would if she were perfectly able-bodied. He had kept his distance from her in the past couple of days without fully realizing he was doing it. He had done the same thing on previous occasions when they had been in company with each other. He had spoken with her, but never at any length.
Now politeness had trapped him into being alone with her and forced to make some sort of conversation with her. He felt self-conscious, not least because she was going to be alone with him, and she must surely be uncomfortably aware of the fact that he was not really of her world, that he was not a legitimate member of the Ware family. He did not even bear their name.
“I beg your pardon if you have found my daughter’s behavior offensive,” he said. “I have tried to explain to her that your chair is not a novelty vehicle invented to give rides to a child. But… Well, she is three years old and—”
She surprised him by laughing and holding up a staying hand. “Mr. Ellis,” she said. “I have two nephews and a niece in addition to Luc’s babies—my sister’s children. Each of them in turn had to have rides on my chariot when they were infants. Sometimes I had more than one of them at a time on my lap. Once, I can remember, all three of them climbed aboard until my brother-in-law took pity on me. But I was never offended. Quite the contrary, in fact. It feels good to be a favored aunt when I cannot actually romp with the children. I have been charmed by your daughter’s requests for a ride. She is as light as a feather on my lap, you know, and sits very still. She has the prettiest curls. Please do not forbid her to ask again.”
“It is kind of you to call her demands requests,” he said. “She inherited the curls from her mother, who always hid her own in a ruthlessly tight bun.”
“That must have been a shame,” she said.
“It made practical good sense,” he told her. “She needed to keep it out of her face. The weather was often very hot in the Peninsula, and she was a washerwoman.”
There was a brief, startled silence. Or so it seemed to Ben. She was too well-bred to show it openly.
“She went to war with her first husband,” he told her. “He was a private soldier with the foot regiment in which Devlin was an officer. The wives of the enlisted men had to compete in a lottery to be permitted to go, but those who won a place were expected to make themselves useful. There was always a great need for washerwomen.”
“You were her second husband, then?” she said.
“Third,” he said. “The other two died in battle. It was a common theme during the wars. Most of the women stayed with the army once they were there, and many married multiple times. I was Marjorie’s third husband. She died when the regiment was fighting and slogging its way over the Pyrenees into France with the rest of the army. The conditions in the mountains and the weather were appalling and brutal. Winter was coming on. She was tough but not tough enough after she took a chill.”
Why the devil was he telling her all this? They were not the sorts of things one told a lady. He had not talked much of his years in the Peninsula even with his own family, and he was sure Devlin had not either. Or Nicholas. Was there a sort of defiance in his telling, as though he were thumbing his nose at any preconceived ideas she might have of him? As though he were telling her he was not ashamed of who he was or whom he had married? It had never occurred to him to be ashamed. It had never occurred to him either that he might be carrying about a grudge against the world or some part of it. It was not a pleasant thought that perhaps he was. He ought to be making light conversation about the roses and the sunshine. How had this started anyway? With her comment on Joy’s curly hair?
“I am sorry about that,” she said. “Did she leave a family behind in England?”
“None,” he said—and his thoughts touched by natural association upon the letter in his pocket. “She never knew either of her parents or anything about them. She grew up in an orphanage in London. She married a fellow orphan when she was about sixteen.”
“I believe, Mr. Ellis,” she said, “she must have been very fortunate to meet you after being widowed for the second time. You did not put her child in an orphanage.”
He gazed at her in some shock. “She is my child too,” he said. “She is ours. She was the joy of our lives.”
“Joy,” she said and smiled. “How lovely. You chose the name quite deliberately.”
And that was it for that topic. Unsurprisingly, he was not feeling any more comfortable with her despite the beauty of their surroundings and the normally soothing sound of the water gushing from the fountain and the heady summer scent of the roses. Perhaps the only thing to do was confront his discomfort head on.
“Do you walk every day?” he asked her.
“I try,” she said. “I made the resolution soon after the passing of my grandparents earlier this year that I would make the effort, that I would boost my energy and spirits by doing something each day to make myself stronger and more healthy. More active. More…cheerful.”
She was always cheerful. It was something he had noticed about her when he met her last year—though there had been the exception of the days following the death of her grandparents this year, of course. He had noticed her cheerfulness again after her arrival here with her aunt. She almost always spoke with smiling animation. Her eyes frequently sparkled. She gave the impression of perpetual happiness. But it had occurred to him more than once that surely no one could be that cheerful all the time. She least of all. The dreadful and crippling illness she had suffered early in her life continued to affect her. She was more or less confined to a chair. She was unmarried, probably as a result of that fact. He estimated that she must be in her early to mid twenties. He believed she spent most of her life at a country home with only her aunt for company. She might have legions of friends in the neighborhood, of course. Lady Catherine Emmett was certainly a sociable woman and was always cheerful herself. Yet…
Well, he had found himself wondering if Lady Jennifer Arden’s habitual brightness of manner was something of a mask behind which the real person hid. It was none of his business, of course. Besides, did not all people wear masks to varying degrees? Were there any people who opened themselves up fully to the scrutiny of the whole wide world without keeping at least bits of themselves hidden safely away inside?
“Has life been depressing for you in the last few months, then?” he asked. Lucas and Pippa had lived at Amberwell with her for a few months after their marriage and had intended going back there after the christening of their twins. But the death of the duke had made it necessary that they remain at Greystone to assume their new duties as Duke and Duchess of Wilby.
“A little confining and monotonous,” she admitted after thinking about it for a moment. “A mourning period ought not to be like that. Not, at least, for elderly people who lived long, full lives. It ought to be full of happy reminiscences and laughter instead. Many people would look upon me with horrified disapproval if I said that aloud to them, of course. It would suggest that I did not care. I did. My aunt feels the same way, even though my grandparents were her parents.”
Silence—not of the comfortable sort—threatened to descend upon them again.
“Will you ever be able to walk without your crutches?” he asked.
“Alas, no,” she said. “For many months when I was a child I was confined to my bed. My legs were paralyzed. So was the rest of me for a shorter while. I recovered my general health over time and the paralysis went, but it left my right leg bent out of shape and my foot and ankle twisted. The leg did not grow to match the other.” She smiled. “I suppose I am blessed to be a woman. A long skirt hides a multitude of sins. I was given the crutches to help me move very short distances with the bad leg raised out of the way. It is a convenience for which I am thankful. But it does not enable me to walk. My right leg soon aches too much when I have to hold it off the ground. But my physician is strongly of the belief that I will do further damage by trying to walk on both legs. He has warned me not even to try. I do it anyway. Sometimes the longing to stand upright, on both feet, to see the world as others see it, is quite irresistible. And sometimes I just need to defy the wisdom of those who love me. Love can occasionally be a bit smothering.”
Her cheeks were flushed, Ben saw. Undoubtedly she was as unaccustomed to talking about her disability as he was to speaking about his years in the Peninsula. But yes, he decided, her habitual cheerfulness was definitely something that concealed a deeper anguish. It was actually admirable that she made the effort to walk, hopeless though it seemed and against the explicit orders of her physician. He guessed she did not wish to impose her disappointments and frustrations upon the family that loved her. So she bore them alone and exercised her little rebellions in private. Yet she had confided some of them to him. Just as he had confided some of himself to her. It was easier sometimes to talk to near strangers, of course, and he and Lady Jennifer Arden were essentially just that.
He should have left it there. He should perhaps have suggested that they go back inside especially as the sun was shining down directly upon them and she was not wearing a bonnet. But he continued speaking. “There must be other ways to experience movement and to feel alive and free,” he said.
“Must there?” She smiled again.
“Have you ever ridden a horse?” he asked.
“No!” She laughed. “Of course not.”
“Driven a gig or any other one-horse vehicle?” he asked.
“No.” She laughed again.
“Learned to swim?” he asked.
“Good heavens, no.”
“Worn any sort of brace on your leg or any specially designed shoe or boot on your foot to bring the length of your affected leg more in line with the other?” he asked.
“Enough!” She was still laughing. “I am coddled, Mr. Ellis. Loved. Held very dear. Protected. Encouraged to rest, to avoid any great exertion. Only when I go to London for parts of a spring Season do I get to go places and do things, though my aunt is forever fearful that I will over-exert myself and suffer a relapse. Last year I actually attended a ball and a garden party and visited a number of galleries. I was even at Almack’s the night my grandfather suffered his heart seizure—the day before Luc married Pippa. But…no. The answer to all your questions is no. Here I sit, and here I will probably sit for the rest of my life, though not as a permanent fixture in the Ravenswood rose arbor, I hasten to add. It is not so very bad, you know. One adjusts to the realities of one’s life.”
He did not believe her. Not entirely, anyway. There was a certain wistfulness in her efforts to walk.
“Perhaps in the next few weeks while we are both still here,” he said, “I can look into ways of bringing something new and challenging into your life to help lift your spirits.”
What the devil was he suggesting? From being uncomfortable with her crippled state, he was now to wage a one-man crusade to save her? He was embarrassing himself. It would serve him right if she gave him a sharp setdown.
Her eyes sparkled at him instead—and fine eyes they were too. They were light brown, chocolate with cream stirred into it. “So, by the time I return to Amberwell, I will be able to ride my own horse and drive my own carriage and swim like a fish and walk elegantly without my crutches?” she said. “Perhaps even waltz at the ball on the evening of the Ravenswood fete? But no, alas. That at least will not be possible. I am in mourning.”
It was not a sharp setdown, but she was laughing at him nevertheless.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, straightening up on the seat. “I did not mean to mock you.”
“I did not take your suggestions as mockery,” she told him. “You are a dreamer, Mr. Ellis. So am I, though I believe my dreams are more of the airy variety while yours are more practical—even if they are impossible to bring to reality. I would find life insupportable, I believe, without dreams.”
She raised her hands palm-up to the sky, and he noted the thin wrists and the expressive hands and long, elegant fingers with their perfectly manicured nails. She raised her face too for a moment, her eyes closed. She inhaled slowly.
“Thank you for suggesting that we sit here for a while, Mr. Ellis,” she said. “I was not really ready to go back indoors when you came outside. I was disappointed when I thought I must. This little interval has been heavenly. However, I will go inside now if you would be so good as to push my chair or send Bruce to my assistance.”
He was being dismissed. But with tact and kindness. She had a lady’s way of smoothing out awkward moments and rough edges. He stood and moved behind her chair. He must be very careful to stay as far away from her as possible for the remainder of the time they were both here. She must consider him an idiot at the very least.
“I have never been allowed to drive any conveyance,” she said. “I daresay Luc and Aunt Kitty would have a fit apiece if I so much as suggested it. Would you, Mr. Ellis?”
“Have a fit?” he said. “I do not expect I would. I would not know how.”
“Shall we try it one day?” she asked. “Do you have a suitable conveyance here?”
“Yes,” he said. “Are you sure, though?”
She laughed. “You are not going to turn craven and back out now, are you?” she asked him.
“No,” he said. And he laughed too. “But please do not spring the horses the first time.”
“The horse,” she reminded him. “You said a one-horse vehicle. I promise. I will wait until the second time.”
He felt a bit dizzy as he wheeled her chair inside and found that her servant was waiting a short distance away to take her wherever she wished to go. What the devil had he suggested? Or was it she who had suggested it? Had it been merely a joke? Lucas and Pippa would have his head. So would Lady Catherine Emmett.
Probably Devlin too.