Chapter 1

Gripping her son's hand tighter, Sophie guarded them against the rain that pelted down on her black umbrella. The vicar had no umbrella and stood in the rain as he read the burial sermon. Two men stood by, waiting for it to be over, so they could start their work of filling the grave of her husband.

Consumption had finally claimed him as she knew it would. It had still been a shock when it had happened, as if she'd never truly been convinced it would. Alfie was gone, and the emptiness of the thought ached in her heart. She'd loved her husband. He'd been kind.

How was it that the awful ones lived and the loved ones didn't? How was that fair? How was a gentle man like Alfie taken when such an awful man like Lord Aberley lived and breathed every day.

Sophie shunted the thought of her ex-husband from her mind and held her son tighter. What was the point of being bitter? Lord Aberley had, for whatever else he was, given her the most precious gift at all, and the divorce had led her to a man who she had truly loved, and who had loved her in return.

Many had seen her second marriage as proof of how far she had fallen—marriage to a penniless and failed musician. Their marriage had been bought, but it had nonetheless been a successful one. With the money he had been paid to give her child a name, they had set up the music equipment and supplies store in Holborn. It had afforded them two rooms not far away and, as it turned out, quite a happy existence.

Alfie had thrived with a childhood surrounded by music and gentle love. This was the first blow in his life and he looked up at her with those icy blue eyes she loved. "We will be alright," she said with a sad smile. "We knew this day was coming."

"Won't he be cold down there?"

"Your father is in heaven now. He will never be cold again."

Alfie wasn't aware that Doug had not been his father, even though his dark hair and icy eyes showed there was no paternal link between the two. But she wasn't prepared to discuss his true heritage with the boy. It was better this way. Better a lost father who loved him than knowing he was the issue of a cruel, monstrous man.

"Come, my love, it is time to go," she said and stepped away. It did seem cruel to simply leave Doug behind, but they had to. Doug was gone and there no point pretending that wasn't true. In a way, him gently slipping away had been merciful. The disease had been cruel in the end and his suffering was over now.

The shop needed to be opened. It had remained closed too often in the last few weeks. Along with the funeral costs, their finances had been severely taxed.

The hack waited for them as instructed and took them away from the cemetery. It was a long ride back to Holborn and they sat in silence. The rain mostly hid the city away. The streets were clear and most of the noise was gone. The weather suited mourning. Almost as if the whole city felt the loss of a lovely man.

With a sigh, Sophie held her son to her. They would be alright. They had the shop, their rooms and enough money for Alfie's schooling. There was nothing they particularly needed. They would simply go on.

The hack dropped them off in front of the shop and Sophie pulled the brass key from her reticule and unlocked it. Her black skirts dripped water on the wooden floorboards as she and Alfie walked in. Alfie ran into the back where he had his nook where he liked to be. Mourning left him uncertain and at times needing solitude.

Unpinning her hat, she placed it on the coat rack and returned to the door to turn over the 'Closed' sign. There wouldn't be a great number of customers today, but she ached for normalcy, and being in the shop was as normal as things were.

With a broom, she swept the floor and dusted the sheet music. Instruments hung from hooks along the windows. It was a bright shop, situated on a corner. In winter it was cold with the sheer number of windows. There was a price for the brightness, but Sophie preferred it that way.

"Everything is in order, Mrs Duthie," said Mr. Lawrence, who stood in his dark suit behind his mahogany desk in the large, dark office Sophie had never liked. She'd spend too many times in here doing unpleasant things. The solicitor that had seen her through her father's death, her marriage and divorce, and now the death of her second husband. "You simply need to sign here."

Leaning over, the crinoline of her mourning dress shifting and signed her name with the pen Mr. Lawrence held out to her.

"Everything is in order. The shop and all its content are yours, provided you pay the rent in a timely fashion."

Mr. Lawrence had a tendency to state the obvious, as if it would never occur to her to pay the rent—as if it had never occurred to him that she had been paying all the household bills for a good six years.

"Thank you, Mr. Lawrence," she said, still grateful to the man, because he offered his services at a discount rate due to the lowered nature of her circumstances. Lord Aberley divorcing her had drawn the man's pity and he had kept her as a client even when she had practically nothing to pay him with.

He smiled tightly as he withdrew the document. "You are free to marry again if you wish, and as per your instructions, your son is now the primary beneficiary of your will in case something lamentable were to happen." Her will also made provisions for his care. Her experience in life had thought her that she had to be proactive in caring for the people around her. Too often, she had been buffeted by other people's intentions for her.

"No, I think I am done with husbands," she said with a tight smile.

Mr. Lawrence blinked. He didn't understand that a woman would choose reduced circumstances and limited means above what a husband would provide for her. "You are still very young."

"I don't feel so young just now."

"I am sure you will feel differently given time."

She doubted that, but there was no point telling Mr. Lawrence. To him, like most others, a husband was the only means to improving one's life, and to provide care. Unmarried women, and widows, were a sheer nuisance on society.

Things were different for her now. The stigma of her divorce wasn't gone, but she was now a widow rather than a divorcee.

"Thank you so much for your services, Mr. Lawrence. As always, you are invaluable."

The man smiled. As pompous and arrogant as he was, he did have a kind heart and she was the beneficiary of that charity.

"I had better get back to Alfie."

Yes, of course. Mr. Lawrence was also one of the few people who had known that Sophie had been with child prior to her marriage to Doug Duthie. And Doug being the lost and lonely soul he had been, had had no one to notice or comment that his wife's child had come rather early.

From being strangers, they had grown to enjoy being parents together. The marriage bed was increasingly a place for sleep only as Doug's illness developed. Sophie had accepted that. It did, however, distress Doug more, but there was little he could do to remedy it.

Saying goodbye to Mr. Lawrence, she left his office, hoping it would be quite some time before she needed to see him again. The man was still annoyed by Lord Aberley's flat refusal to provide any support to her after the divorce, but Sophie was still adamant she didn't want any of his money—or anything else. It was a period of her life she would rather forget. For a short time, she had had every mean, every luxury in the world, but that did not make for happiness. She had been so young and hopeful at the time, she hadn't understood that Lord Aberley hadn't come like some prince in a fairy tale to whiskey her away to a beautiful and luxurious life. The true nature of their marriage hadn't become clear to her until after the wedding. Lord Aberley had not been there by his own free will. His intense dislike for her had quickly become apparent. Most of the time, he flatly refused to acknowledge she was even there.

She still didn't know the details of what had happened, but Lord Aberley had entered the marriage under duress, but very shortly after his sister had died in childbirth, he'd filed for divorce.