Unlocking her Delicate Heart (Preview)


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Chapter One

The Duke of Bedford, Charles Russell, paced the floor of the huge drawing room in his home at Woburn Abbey, in the county of Bedfordshire. Beneath his feet, the soft, plush pile of the carpet bowed under the pressure of his weight, leaving small indents where his shoes had been. His mother, the dowager duchess, had changed the subject of light conversation they had been having that morning after breakfast, and once more raised the question of his future. 

The obvious absence of any future wife in his periphery was her main concern. Charles had grown tired of the same reiterated subject, and given other, more pressing dealings he had presently addressed whilst in London, had enjoyed the reprieve. Having returned to the Abbey only a few days before, it hadn’t taken his mother long to return to the subject. The pacing assisted him in maintaining his patience, and as his mother warbled on, Charles had the good manners to remain silent.

“You must understand my position, Charles. It is not just about your future, but the future of the entire family, not to mention the continuance of keeping the Abbey in the family line. I can see that you are tolerating me once more, but you must understand that this is not particularly enjoyable for me, either. I have worries of my own. Would you truly prefer your title to be handed off to some distant cousin that we barely know of? Some stranger whose political ideals and desires for the future of the dukedom we cannot ascertain?”

“We have gone over this multiple times, Mother,” Charles replied with a strained patience. “You are well aware that would not be the case, and yet you continue to use this argument to pressure me. You know as well as I that Robert is next in line.”

“Robert is not cut out for the title, Charles. I have told you that. The war has scarred him, and I can well imagine him relinquishing such responsibility if it became necessary that the dukedom be handed down to him.”

Charles understood his mother’s concerns, and to a certain degree, she was not wrong. Robert, his younger brother, had returned from the war an entirely different person than when he had departed. Leaving the family home to offer his services as a soldier, he had been carefree and high spirited, with a spring in his step and an unrealistic optimism for life. Mainly, he had wanted to do his part for his country, although his departure had also been to do with his slight resentment of Charles himself. No longer satisfied to live in his brother’s shadow, Robert had been determined to make a name for himself in his own right.

Their mother’s clear favouritism of Charles over Robert had always irked his younger sibling, though the brothers had never come to blows over it. Charles was their mother’s favourite because he reminded her of her deceased husband, their father who had been dead for nearly ten years now. It was true, Charles had indeed inherited his father’s thick black hair and handsome features. He was even similar in build, for his father had been a broad and strong man. Robert, on the other hand, clearly took after their mother’s side of the family, for though he was by no means unsightly, Charles had always attracted more attention from the fairer sex. Robert was also more slender, even though he was strong. While Charles had always been well aware of the favouritism, there was little he could do about his mother’s proclivities. 

On Robert’s return, however, though he had climbed through the ranks to become a captain and had an outstanding service record, it became quickly evident that his easy-going spirit had been replaced by a heavy pessimism. Death had changed him, and according to his many lectures on not taking life for granted, it appeared that Robert had seen a lot of it.

“You cannot know that for a certainty, Mother.”

“No, I cannot. Yet, nor can I say with any certainty that it is not a possibility, and in that way, Charles, I am wary of leaving such things to chance. Besides, if Robert were to receive the title at your death, assuming you live a long and full life, he will be close to old age, himself.”

“I do not see your point.” Charles stopped pacing and turned to look at her. “Who is to say that Robert will not produce a male heir to carry on the lineage? Is that not your wish, that the family name retains the title of the dukedom?”

“You’re trying to change the subject, Charles. Your father was good at doing the same. He rarely succeeded in distracting me and nor will you. Do you not desire to produce an heir? Would you not want your own son to take on your title and carry on your name? I cannot comprehend you, Charles, for in my experience, it is the desire of most virile men. What is it that you have against marriage?”

“I have nothing against marriage, Mother. Nor is it anything to do with my lack of virility. It is simply that your idea of a marriage partner differs greatly from mine. I do not want to be pushed into being attached for a lifetime to someone I neither love nor care for, and I resent your doing so. You’re pressing for this union between Lady Beatrice Howard and myself only because her father is the Earl of Suffolk. The woman is quite frightful, not to mention spoilt.”

“She is an only child. What do you expect?” the dowager huffed. “I am certain, after some time, you will teach her the proper way in which to behave.”

Charles heaved a sigh of frustration at her relentlessness. “Further to that,” he continued, “I have more important obligations to be concerning myself with. Marriage is hardly of importance when I am needed in London on such business that shapes the state of the country. There is still a threat that communications will break down. I know the war ended last year, and thank goodness it did. I can only hope that eighteen-fifteen will be a year of celebration for many years to come. That being said, one cannot be too careful.”

“You’re now making excuses, Charles. Your father was a duke also, and I remember his responsibilities well. He still made time to marry and produce two sons. You don’t have the luxury of such distractions. Time waits for no man, and if you’re not careful, it will be too late.”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Mother. I’m only twenty-five, not fifty! There’s still plenty of time. Plenty of time for my responsibilities, and plenty of time to find myself a wife that I desire.”

“You are wrong, Charles. There is never plenty of time. It’s clear you are thinking only of yourself. Only twenty-five you may well be—I however, am most certainly not. I have invested a lifetime of attention and care, not to mention an expensive education, raising you and your younger brother. It only seems fair that I receive some compensation for all of my efforts. Do you not think I may desire to see my first grandchild before I pass on?”

It was the same ploy she used on each occasion, only worded a little differently—her usual emotional blackmail to garner his pity. It didn’t work, for all he saw were tricks to pressure him further to do as his mother desired. Perhaps, had she narrowed her focus on any other suitable candidate for a wife, Charles would not be so utterly opposed. He couldn’t understand why it must be Lady Beatrice Howard. He had met her on several occasions, both at dinner parties and other societal functions, and she hadn’t acted in any way that had impressed him.

There could be no argument that Lady Howard was aesthetically beautiful. Slender in form, she held many a gentleman’s attention with her pale skin, dark hair, and blue eyes. Charles, however, was evidently more astute than those who were easily flattered by her flirtations, and it had been clear to him for some time that her beauty was on the surface only—a façade to lure one in. Perhaps there was no façade at all, perhaps she had just been fortunate that she was beautiful. He hadn’t needed to spend too much time in her company, though, to see the ugliness beneath. Her snobbery presented more prominently than most, and he had overheard her demean the lower class often. Even the servants in her own home were targets, and she found it great sport to entertain the company she happened to be in by humiliating and denigrating them in their absence. 

Charles had also been informed from other quarters that her clear desire was to climb the social ranks. No doubt, his mother and her father had conversed on the benefits of such a connection as a marriage bond, and yet he still could not understand why his mother would choose her above any other. It made little sense, and he had been determined to discover if there had been another reason for his mother’s relentless pressure. To date, he hadn’t uncovered anything untoward.

Robert came strolling into the drawing room, a paper in one hand and a pipe in the other. He had grown a moustache since his return from serving in America, and Charles wondered if it made him feel more sophisticated. It was finely sculpted to link up to his sideburns and Charles couldn’t deny that it rather suited him.

“Apparently,” he said nonchalantly, still reading the paper as he entered the room, “the French frigate La Méduse has run aground. Four hundred passengers had to be evacuated. Really, what a disaster. You would have thought, with the length of time the French have spent sailing ships, they would learn to keep their boats in the water.”

It took a moment of silence, for neither Charles nor the dowager duchess responded, for Robert to cock his head from behind his paper and regard them both with an expression of wonder. 

“Oh, I do beg your pardon. Have I interrupted something?”

“Nothing you haven’t heard before,” Charles sighed.

“Don’t be like that, Charles,” his mother scolded. “This is hardly a matter that deserves such dismissiveness.”

“What matter?” Robert enquired.

“The need for Charles to find himself a wife,” the dowager replied sharply. “I feel as though I am talking to myself at times. He knows well how important it is to me, for I would like to meet my grandchild before I meet my maker.”

Charles nearly rolled his eyes at his mother’s dramatic statement, and as Robert continued further into the room, he dropped the paper onto a nearby table.

“Well,” Robert began, “Mother isn’t entirely wrong, Charles. I don’t see what your problem is.”

“Not that it is any of your concern, Robert, but my problem still revolves around the fact that I have no desire to marry a woman I have no feelings for. Mother’s choice of a wife is hardly fitting, for I can barely tolerate the woman.”

“Lady Howard isn’t all that bad.” Robert shrugged, wearing a slight smirk. “She is at least easy on the eye.”

“Oh, yes, Robert,” Charles replied with sarcasm. “Fine qualities that would ensure a happy marriage.”

“Who said anything about being happy?” Robert frowned with a shrug. “You’re a duke. You only need to make it a marriage of convenience. Produce an heir, and your duty will be completed.”

Charles glared at Robert in stunned disbelief.

“Don’t look at me like that, Charles. It’s a common thing these days. You know as well as I that marriage is more about politics than love, in this day and age. Marriages of convenience happen all the time. Perhaps if you weren’t so protected in your bubble of nobility, perhaps if you had seen the pains of the outer world, you wouldn’t take life for granted. Tomorrow is never promised, and while Mother’s choice for you may not be suitable, you ought to think of all those men that did not come back from the war. All those mothers who will never see their sons again.”

“While I appreciate your input, and the dreadful things you have seen, Robert, I will respectfully tell you that you don’t know what you are talking about. One doesn’t need to go to war to know the dreadful things that happen in the world. Nor does one need to contemplate death on every occasion one makes a decision. The idea that death is around every corner ought not to force a person to make rash decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.”

“I doubt a marriage of convenience would affect you, Charles. You can follow suit of most other nobles in your position and find a mistress to fulfil you, if you truly desired affection.”

“Robert!” the dowager barked at him. “I will not hear such talk in my house. There will be no talk of mistresses, or other women, or any other disgraceful conduct.”

Robert only laughed at his mother. “Come now, Mother. You really ought to keep up with the times. We live in a hedonistic world of pleasure and wanton abandonment. A man can have all he desires if he so wants it. I’m afraid your ignorance of it will not make it go away.”

The dowager pushed herself up from the chaise longue and, grabbing her cane, straightened her back, huffing in frustration. Slender and well-kempt as she was, Charles was also well aware of the inner strength of their mother.

“I will not stay in the company of my own sons if I am to be treated with such disrespect,” she retorted. The dowager turned to Charles with a glare of determination. “This conversation is not over, Charles.” Leaning lightly on her cane, she then stormed from the room, conveying as much disgust as she could muster.

After a moment of silence, and their mother’s complete departure, Charles finally addressed his brother with a judgemental tone.

“You went too far, Robert. There was no reason to be so vulgar in front of Mother. You know how much she detests hearing of all that nonsense.”

“I disagree with you, Charles. One cannot simply avoid the difficult conversations because they make one feel uncomfortable. That is the problem with this family. You and Mother are so blinkered. You live here in your ivory tower, hidden from the real world. You don’t want to hear about pain and suffering and what really goes on. Neither of you have ever suffered any real pain or loss, apart from maybe the death of Father. You’ve never felt the overwhelming and saturating feeling of true misery, and nor do either of you want to. Yet, life is not as perfect as you desire, and I actually feel sorry for you when the time comes for you to experience it.”

“There you go again, Robert, presuming to know all about everything. One doesn’t need to go to war and watch a man’s life pour out at one’s feet to know pain and suffering.”

“Tell me then, Charles,” Robert challenged, “of a time when you have suffered so greatly that you thought your heart may break into a thousand pieces with the pain?”

“I do not have to explain my sufferings to you, Robert.”

“No, and that’s because you cannot,” Robert replied arrogantly. “You cannot win a battle with no armoury, and it’s clear your empty words are for show only. Truly, your haughty attitude is not attractive, and if you determine to find a woman who will show you affection, I would advise keeping quiet of things you cannot understand.”

Robert turned and marched from the room, taking his own haughty attitude with him. Charles, though, remained in the same spot, now feeling a strange sense of sadness. It had little to do with Robert or the conversation that had transpired between them—well, not directly. The conversation had sparked a memory, a memory Charles had managed to keep pushed deep down in the vault of his mind for a long time.

He could see her as plain as though she were right there before him. Her beautiful golden hair bounced on her shoulders as they chased each other around the vast gardens of the Abbey. Her soft laugh danced on the gentle breeze, and led him to follow her as she wove a path through the high hedges that sectioned the garden. When he finally caught up to her, the red blush of her cheeks only enhanced her soft, pale skin.

Jenny had been such a gentle soul. A sweet girl full of kindness, with a smile that brought with it warmth and genuineness. He had fallen in love with her over the years, for he would defy any boy of his age not to do so, and she had eventually told him that she had affection for him, too. Perhaps one day, there might have been a future for them. Maybe, once they had grown, they could be together. It had been all he had ever wanted. Yet, that day had never come. 

Lady Beatrice Howard seeped into his mind in that moment, and while not meaning to do so, Charles couldn’t help but compare the two women. Even with her title, Lady Howard paled in comparison, for beautiful as the daughter of the nobleman was, she couldn’t be more opposite to Jenny if they were night and day. Jenny had been so innocent in her view of others, and even when she received unkindness, she managed to excuse the behaviour rather than be offended by it. Lady Howard, on the other hand, sought out ways to demean others even when they hadn’t wronged her, and even her beauty could not compensate for her spoilt and cruel character.

Yet, this was the woman his mother had chosen to be his wife. A lady who desired to climb the societal ladder, and who would care little whom she might hurt or damage on the way up. Charles could not reconcile his mother’s desires, nor would he be pressured into marriage at this time. In fact, considering the weight of having to make such a decision produced feelings of being hemmed in, of having no choices and little room to manoeuvre. Perhaps it was time for a little breathing space. His mother would not be pleased, given he had not long returned from London, and yet, his time in London had hardly given him time to think, for he had been so preoccupied. Charles suddenly thought of his cousin, John Wise. 

He hadn’t been to see his favourite relative for some time, and perhaps he ought to rectify that. John was older than Charles, and apart from being a good friend in his formative years, he had also been a fine mentor. Charles had always enjoyed his company and his words of wisdom. In fact, their private joke had been that John was wise in name and wise in nature. On this occasion, it may happen that Charles could kill two birds with one stone, for not only would he be able to catch up with his cousin, it would facilitate some time away from both his mother and the Abbey itself.

Two days later, Charles boarded his carriage anticipating the relief his trip would bring. The dowager duchess, as he had expected, hadn’t been pleased at all, and at breakfast, when he had informed her he was travelling to see John, she had reprimanded him for his poor timing.

“Do you really think I don’t know what you’re doing, Charles?” She had scowled at him. “This is hardly the appropriate time to be making sudden trips away.”

“When would be the appropriate time, Mother? When I am due in London for business? When we are once more throwing one of our political balls? Or, perhaps, on the day of my wedding?”

“You mock me, Charles, but mark my words: this situation will not have gone away on your return.”

“I am well aware of that, Mother.”

“Then I urge you to make a decision soon, before someone else makes it for you.”

Even as the carriage trundled down the long driveway, leaving the Abbey and his mother’s pressing demands behind, Charles knew her words had been a threat. How much of a threat, he could not be certain. At that very moment, he didn’t care to consider it. He was leaving the Abbey and any decisions to be made far behind him. They would, as his mother had so succinctly put it, be there waiting for him when he returned.

Chapter Two

Faith Thacker wandered through the wooded area on the outskirts of Ely, the long grass pulling at her dress. With a soft and unassuming smile, she listened with delight to the birds above her, calling to each other in sweet song. The branches of the trees seemed to wave a good morning to her in the soft breeze that tugged gently at her long red hair, and in that moment, Faith had few cares—in the small world she occupied, everything was as perfect as it could be. 

This was her home, the place where she belonged. The nature around her had delighted her since she was a young child, and even all these years later, seeing as she was nearly nineteen years old, the bird song, the butterflies, and the small flying insects all still fascinated her. On some occasions, it was like Faith was seeing them for the first time, for there always appeared something different about them. 

One might say, looking from the outside, that Faith was alone and led a solitary existence. She had heard such similar whisperings amongst the locals at the village market. Looks of sadness were thrown in her direction as she sold her wares, as though she deserved their sympathy. Faith, however, had never felt either lonely or alone. In fact, she couldn’t comprehend how people could imagine she would. How could one be alone when surrounded by a place that contained such life? 

The cottage Faith had been raised in was set some way into the woods, a small home with a thick thatched roof that her father had built with his own hands. Thatching roofs had been his trade, after all. He had been gone for nearly a year now, and perhaps that was why the villagers offered their sympathy. The death of her father had affected the community, for it was quite small and most of the people who had grown up in it had grown up together.

While there had been offers to take Faith in, she had refused and had remained living in the home her father had built. The cottage held far too many memories of her father, and she simply could not leave, for to leave it would be to lose all those connections to the only parent she had ever had. Sometimes, when she daydreamed, she could still see the large expanse of his back as he cooked them breakfast in the mornings, or his weary but gentle smile at night, when he sat at her bedside telling her stories until she had fallen asleep.

It had been in the living area that he had told her about her mother. The fire had been crackling, flames licking at the dried wood, and she had been sat on his knee, wrapped in his strong arms and snuggled into his warm chest. Faith had just turned seven years old, and her father had told her it was time she knew.

“You remind me of your mother so much, with your adventurous spirit and your fiery red hair,” he had said.

“My hair is not on fire, Papa,” Faith had giggled.

“No, you’re right, my little angel, it is not.” He had smiled tenderly down at her. “Do you know it was this night seven years ago when you came into my world?”

“Yes, because now, I am seven.”

“Indeed you are, and growing so very fast. I wish your mother were here to see what a beautiful gift she gave me. She was so brave when she gave birth to you, but not long after you were given to us, your mother closed her eyes and fell asleep.”

“And she didn’t wake up again, did she, Papa?”

“No, Faith, she did not.”

“Will she ever wake up again?”

“No, she will not. But I think she looks after us all the same. I think your mother is in the wind and the flowers, and all the pretty things in the woods that surround us.”

“And the birds that sing,” Faith had added.

“And the birds that sing.” He had smiled. “Do you know why I gave you your name?”

Faith had shaken her head, eagerly awaiting his explanation.

“Well, I was very sad when your mother went to sleep and didn’t wake up. I knew she had left me with a big job of looking after and protecting you all by myself. I called you Faith so I would be reminded every day to keep my own faith in my ability to be a good father. Do you know what the word ‘faith’ means?”

Faith had once more shaken her head.

“It means to remain loyal. To stick to something you believe in, no matter how hard it gets.”

“Oh,” Faith had replied, not really comprehending his answer.

“You don’t understand right now, but one day you will. It means I will always love you and be there for you, Faith. No matter what happens. You can always trust that I will do my very best to look after you.”

Faith couldn’t deny that he’d kept his word. Her father had loved her with the intensity of both a father and a mother, and in the love and closeness they shared, Faith had been blessed. Her father had done all a man raising a child on his own could have done, and because of that, their bond had been unbreakable.

It hadn’t been long after that night that her father had built her a small shed of her own. Faith had begun bringing home small things she found in the surrounding woods. In the weeks that passed, she had told her father that she sensed her mother either in the thing she had collected or around it and had wanted to bring it home to keep her mother near. Soon, the collection grew, and in her father’s wisdom, he had made her a special place to store her treasures.

She hadn’t known, as she had watched him build it, that the shed was for her, but when it was finished, he had taken her out to it and handed her a small locket. The locket was made of wood, threaded with twine for her to hang around her neck. It was smooth where her father had carefully sanded it to a soft finish, and on the surface was an intricate pattern that he had skilfully carved. As he had knelt down beside her, he had pushed the top part of the locket to the side. The wood had separated, held at the top with a small, bent piece of metal, and inside was a small cavity that held a key—the key to the shed he had built.

“Now you will have a place to put all of your precious treasures, Faith.” He had smiled. “This shed belongs to you now.”

Faith was returning from the shed that morning, her chin raised as the breeze danced upon her soft skin. She lifted her hand and caressed her locket, something she often did on her walks. It remained for her a silent reminder of the fortune she had been given. She may well have lost a mother, and yet she had been blessed with a man who had loved and cared for her with the intensity of two parents.

“Faith,” a familiar voice called out.

She looked over to where the sound had emanated and smiled as Tom Baker walked toward her, his hands laden with a large basket filled near to the brim. Tom was her closest companion, and she knew the basket held a supply of freshly baked goods from his father’s bakery.

“Hello, Tom.” Faith smiled, walking over to him. 

Falling into step, they wandered back toward the cottage together. The smell of the fresh bread made Faith’s stomach rumble, and she couldn’t help but take a deep breath in.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the smell from your father’s baking,” she said with a grin.

“Hopefully you don’t get tired of the taste of it, either.” Tom smirked before flicking his head aside in attempt to stop his wild, brown hair from blowing into his eyes.

“Oh, no. Not ever. It’s always so soft and fresh, with a crust that crumbles all over the place.” Faith smiled widely. “I do believe, if there was nothing else to eat, I would happily live the rest of my days on your father’s baking.”

Faith and Tom had been friends since she was old enough to walk, for given that Tom was a couple of years older than her, he had likely walked before she was born. Both being the only child of their families, they had spent much of their time playing in their gardens over the years. Faith had spent much time at the Bakers’, especially when her father had to work, and Tom’s mother, Anna, had taken Faith under her wing more in the role of a caring aunt than a mother. From two small children, they had come up together as adults, and Tom had grown from a skinny little boy into a swarthy and muscular man, no doubt from all the sacks of flour he had to haul around for his father’s business.

Like many in the small community, Tom and Faith’s fathers had been firm companions for years, and just like Tom and Faith, they had been friends since childhood. The two couples had been close before and after their respective marriages, and it was for that reason that when Faith’s mother had died, the Bakers had been more than supportive to Faith and her father.

Since the passing of her father, the Bakers had continued to ensure Faith was well cared for, and though she sold small trinkets she made and pictures she painted at the small local market, it was hardly enough to get by. The Bakers ensured Faith had enough to eat with a weekly supply of bread, and with the chickens she kept and the small vegetable garden she maintained at the cottage, Faith managed.

In return for the cake and breads that Tom brought her, Faith used the nimbleness of her fingers to mend the Bakers’ clothes. It was the least she could do to repay their kindness. The family ran a busy bakery, and given that all of them rose before dawn to start their day, they were far too exhausted to tend to such tasks as mending when the evening closed in. 

“So, tell me. What treasures did you find today?” Tom asked.

“Oh, you can’t know what I discovered this morning, Tom.”

“No,” Tom chuckled, “not until you tell me, Faith.”

She rolled her eyes at his teasing, for he did enjoy lightly mocking her. “I found a huge gathering of sweet peas. It was in a small clearing that I haven’t visited for a while, but that’s not all. Just a little way past them, were a tiny group of irises. I didn’t take any of those, though.”

“Why ever not?” Tom frowned.

“Well, there weren’t too many. If I took them, perhaps they would not grow again. I couldn’t help taking just a small amount of the sweet peas. There were so many of them, I doubt my taking a few would make any difference.”

“I doubt taking the irises would make much difference either, Faith. Nature, as you know, is resilient in its own ways. You’ve lived in these woods for long enough. In fact, if anyone knows what would grow again, it ought to be you.”

“It just didn’t feel right.” Faith shrugged. “They looked far too pretty to pick. Besides, what if they were the only irises in the woods?”

“I somehow doubt that. They’re not like you, Faith, for there will only ever be one person in the world as unique as you are.” he smiled at her. “I’m certain there are more of them somewhere.”

“You’re probably right. Though I am hardly unique, Tom. Maybe, if I do find some more, I will be satisfied and will feel less guilt in picking them.”

Tom looked down at her with a strange expression. Faith couldn’t know its meaning, yet it wasn’t the first time she had noticed its intensity. In another second, the look had disappeared, and he continued, “I assume the sweet peas are now in a jar of water in your shed.”

“Oh, yes. And when they’re ready, I will dry them out and place them in my book with the other flowers I have pressed. I want to preserve their beautiful colours, and maybe one day, I will have treasures to give to my own daughter.”

“Oh, that reminds me.” Tom suddenly stopped in his tracks. “Here, take this basket a moment.”

He turned and handed her the basket, careful to ensure she had a good grip on it before he let it go. Faith struggled slightly with the weight of it, and she held it high against her slight frame to ensure she wouldn’t drop it. She couldn’t help but wonder how Tom managed to carry such a thing all the way from the village, as she felt the wicker pressing heavily into her breast. He always made it look so easy. 

Tom took a step back and dug his hand deep into his pocket as Faith looked on with interest. Suddenly, he produced a handful of spectacularly coloured feathers, one or two of which escaped from his grip and floated with a soft delicateness to the ground. Tom bent down and retrieved the escaping culprits, eventually turning back to her with his hand aloft.

“I brought these for you. I noted the way they changed colour a little when you move them about.” He took a single feather in his other hand and twisted it back and forth, demonstrating his meaning. “See? Anyway, I thought you would like them.”

“Oh, Tom.” Faith beamed with delight. “They’re beautiful. Where on Earth did you find them?”

“I was down by the river doing a little fishing yesterday evening. They were floating about near the reeds and caught my eye. I brought them home and dried them out by the ovens so I could bring them with me today.” He smiled.

“They are simply perfect,” Faith breathed. “Oh, I cannot wait to take them to the shed, for I know the exact spot I will place them. Thank you, Tom.”

“You’re welcome.” He shrugged with a smile, looking a little bashful. “Here, let me take that basket from you. It’s far too heavy for you to hold any longer.” 

He placed the feathers down the side of the baked goods that had been wrapped lightly in muslin. With a strong grip, Tom took the basket from her with ease, and Faith was able to breathe much easier once more as they turned and continued walking toward the cottage.

“I was wondering,” Tom began as they entered her garden through the small gate. “The summer fair is on in the village in a few weeks. If I can get my father to let me away for a few hours, would you like to come with me?”

Faith nodded eagerly as she pushed open the cottage door and they walked inside. “Of course, I would love to come with you, Tom. I had nearly forgotten it was that time of year again. Here,” she said, quickly clearing the table of vegetables and cloths. “Put that basket there.”

Faith wandered into the back room to retrieve the mended clothes she had finished and brought them back into the kitchen. “These are all done.”

“Already?” Tom looked a little surprised. “I only gave them to you yesterday.”

“They didn’t take long. It was only a few buttons and some holes in the socks.”

“I don’t know how you have the patience.” Tom shook his head. “I think such tiny detail would drive me quite mad.”

“Yes, well, I can’t fling a great big bag of flour over my shoulder.” Faith grinned knowingly.

“I would agree, given that the bags of flour probably weigh the same as you do.” Tom chuckled. “Well, I will be on my way. I’ll see you soon, Faith.”

“Goodbye, Tom, and do thank your mother and father for the bread and cakes.”

“Do I not get any credit for bringing it to you?” He winked.

“You know well how grateful I am for all that you do for me, Tom.” Faith smiled knowingly. “Besides, you’re my best friend—I will always be thankful.”

Once more, that strange look returned before disappearing again in another second. He bid her farewell and quickly turned, walking out of the cottage and down the small path. Faith remained stood where he had left her, and she couldn’t help but frown. Perhaps she ought to just ask him what the look meant, for it had been a more common occurrence of late. She was certain she hadn’t done anything wrong, though his expression hadn’t seemed to be anger. Still, she couldn’t quite understand its meaning, and the not knowing frustrated her a little.

It was a little before she retired to bed that Faith suddenly fell into a great panic, for in absently reaching to touch her necklace, she realised that it was no longer hanging about her neck. Grabbing the wooden candlestick and using only the small flame that lit her way, Faith moved around the cottage in a panicked attempt to discover where it might be. She started in the kitchen area, for that was the last place she had been. It wasn’t a very large area, and since she kept the kitchen neat and tidy, it was quickly obvious that it wasn’t on any of the surfaces, nor had it fallen onto the floor. 

She turned and noticed the basket that Tom had brought her. She had placed it on the floor near the pantry once it had been emptied, and now, taking it with one hand, she turned it upside down in the hope that anything that might have fallen into it may topple out onto the floor. Apart from some crumbs and small pieces of wicker that had been sat at the bottom, however, nothing else fell from it. 

Taking the candle through each room she remembered entering that day, Faith scoured the entirety of the cottage. It took her some time, for she was careful not to rush. With the limited light that the candle gave her, it would be easy to miss a small, light brown locket tied with twine. Eventually, with a feeling of resigned despair, Faith had little choice but to give up. She had looked in cupboards, opened drawers, lifted rugs, and moved furniture, and yet it was nowhere to be seen.

There was no point in going outside to search for it, for it would be an entirely useless waste of time. If she struggled with the candle inside the cottage, she would be guaranteed no success in the darkness of the night. Faith would simply have to wait until morning, even though as she lay her head down on her pillow, she wondered how she would sleep with such a worry on her mind.

The following morning, Faith rose with the dawn, and before doing any usual chores, lighting the fire or brushing down the rugs, she wrapped a shawl about her and headed straight outside. Following the steps she and Tom had taken, she scoured the ground, pushing back long grass and moving brush aside with her feet. An hour later, and tired from the intensity of her search, she still hadn’t found it. 

There had been little point in retracing her steps all the way back to the shed, for she remembered the exact moment that she still had it in her possession. It had been just before Tom had arrived that she had caressed it, reminiscing about her father on her return to the cottage. With an overwhelming despondency, Faith had little choice but to once more walk back to her small home. Her mind whirred over and over, thinking of all the scenarios that might have occurred. A bird may have swooped down and taken it; magpies were well known for collecting shiny things. Or perhaps the twine had been of interest to some rodent needing some bedding for their nest. Her mind kept going back to the same redundant question. How on Earth had she lost it? It had never fallen from her neck before.

It mattered little now, for however it had happened, it had happened. There was little point considering the how, and much more reason to now discover the where. If an animal or bird had taken it, it could well be anywhere. And if they had not, where on Earth could it have gotten?

“Unlocking her Delicate Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Faith Thacker loves her simple life in the woodland of Ely, with the wildlife as her company. That all changes when she loses the key to her very special forest shed. Heartbroken, the last thing she expected was for gifts to start appearing, along with their mysterious giver. After spending time with the kind Charles Roberts, a strong bond grows between them. However, he is not the man she thought he was…

Can Faith forgive the Duke’s lies and allow him to love her?

Charles Russell, the Duke of Bedford has escaped the burden of marrying and is resting in the countryside to clear his mind. While wandering around one morning, he finds a strange key and decides to discover its owner. When a beautiful young woman appears, he is intrigued and reaches out through small gestures, but when he is caught, he decides to disguise his identity. If only he did not have to urgently leave for Bedford right when he realised Faith was the one for him…

Little did he know, she would soon discover his real identity and things would never be the same…

Charles and Faith are poles apart in status and yet, when two hearts connect, no external forces can stop their love from flourishing. Facing endless social and personal hurdles along the way, Charles and Faith will have to fight for their romance. Will society’s expectations crush their love once and for all? Or will their hearts endure every challenge and bring them even closer?

“Unlocking her Delicate Heart” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

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