A poorly sprung mail coach lurched and rattled into the yard of the
White Bear Tavern and Inn near Fiddler-on-the-Sea, a tourist destination
on the coast northeast of London in 1792. The driver swung to the
ground, opened the coach door, and lowered the steps. Lone passenger
Miss Nicole Waltham peered out of the darkened coach. The morning’s
molten sun burnt through the clouds in streaks.
A low-hanging ground fog surrounding the inn did nothing to lighten her
mood. She gave her hand to the driver as she stepped to the ground. Her
gaze wandered over the surrounding bleak landscape with growing dread.
“Miss, it’s been raining, and there’s mud puddles everywhere. Be
careful. If ye’ll wait where ye are, ye can follow me into the inn
after I fetch your corded trunk and valise from the boot.” The driver
disappeared in the fog.
She wrung her hands and waited.
The driver called from the back of the coach, “I’ll soon have yer
baggage sorted out and take ye into the White Bear. It’s respectable.
No need to worry. I’ll introduce ye to Mrs. Carter, and ye can wait
there until yer people come for ye.”
He came around the coach carrying her baggage.
“There, that’s sorted. I’ll just leave yer baggage here.
I’ll be back quicker than a cat can lick its whiskers.” He turned
and went behind the coach again.
“Thank you,” Nicole called after his disappearing backside.
Still standing next to the carriage, now with baggage at her feet, she
stared off into the distance. A short six months ago, she had servants
to command and never knew a time when she wanted for anything.
Today told a different story.
Her fiancé had abandoned her. Her father, whether through his bout of
melancholia or shame, deserted her on the last stop into London. Aunt
Helena had agreed to take them into her home but not before writing to
her father in which she lectured him on his sins through a five-page
missive. Nicole’s pride refused to let her remain in her aunt’s
house any longer than necessary.
Aunt Helena had made it obvious she took her in as a charitable act but
did not appreciate having an impoverished relative foisted upon her.
Nicole shook her head trying to be rid of her gloomy musings.
She had agreed to be a companion to Lady Annis Scott, a widow in poor
health from an apoplexy. Her son Lord Robert Scott had procured the
services of Miss Nicole Waltham from the Melrose Agency in London. She
expected her employer to send a cart to meet her, and at the sound of
someone coming around the bend in the road, she turned and craned her
neck in anticipation. To her dismay, a speeding curricle and four were
bearing down on her. Stunned, she did not have the presence of mind to
move. The curricle continued at its reckless pace, missing her by
The vehicle ran through a large mud puddle in front of her sending a
shower of dirty water, drenching her from head to toe.
Her mouth opened in surprise. “O-o-o-h, mercy me, of all the…”
Words failed her as she held her dripping hands away from her clothes.
She stomped her foot and stared after the rapidly disappearing curricle.
“Just look at my clothes! They’re ruined. Of all the harebrained
creatures… Oh, what am I to do?” she called to no one in particular,
The driver came from the direction of the inn and glimpsed the young
woman. “Upon my soul—just look at ye. Well, I’ll be a jiggered.
This way, oh, my, miss.
Let me take ye into the inn. Mrs. Carter will look after ye. She’ll
know what to do. Now don’t ye fret none.
She’ll have ye cleaned up in no time. I’ll take yer trunk in, and ye
can change yer clothes.”
The coachman hurried through the hall of the inn to the back parlor with
Nicole trailing. She looked over her shoulder and saw a woman come out
of the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. Mrs. Carter hurried after
them and called to the coachman as they entered the parlor.
“John, what’s the meaning of this? And be quiet. I have people
sleeping. Just look at my floors. There’s mud all over my clean
Nicole turned toward the woman stepping into the parlor.
The portly innkeeper stopped short when she took in Nicole’s
condition. “Well, I hope I never. Whatever happened to the young
“Sorry, Mrs. Carter. I had to take the young lady somewhere.”
“Mrs. Carter, can you help me? An idiot whipster flying over the rise
in the road splashed mud over me from head to toe, as you can see. Today
is my first day as Lady Annis Scott’s companion. I can’t go to her
looking like this.” On the verge of tears, Nicole sniffed and took a
“Of course, you can’t, my dear. Now calm yourself. I’ll bring hot
water so’s you can clean up. You can change your clothes in here.
There’s a lock on the door. We’ll have you neat as nine pence before
you know it.”
Nicole touched her auburn hair and felt the sticky mess. “My hair, oh
my hair. It must have a bucket of mud in it.”
“Now, dear, we’ll wash it, and you can dry it by the fire. It’s so
thick that even if Lady Scott’s man comes for you before it dries, we
can make a bun at the nape of your neck. No one will ever guess what
happened. You get out of those muddy clothes, and I’ll get the hot
water.” Mrs. Carter hurried away.
Nicole looked at herself in a tarnished piece of a mirror leaning on the
fireplace mantel, and her heart sank. At her wit’s end and with
nowhere else to go, she could not lose this position. “I’ll not go
crawling back to my aunt. That is not an option.” She crossed her arms
and stomped her foot, then brushed a tear away and paced the floor. The
drying mud was making her clothes stiff and sticky. If Mrs. Carter did
not hurry, she soon would be unable to move.
A short way past the bend in the road, the curricle and four pulled to a
stop. The reckless whipster turned his rig and headed back to the inn. A
tall, inebriated man stepped lightly from the curricle and entered the
inn. Swaying somewhat once inside the door, he glanced around the
darkened room. Nothing but the ghost of old ales greeted him.
Dressed in a careless fashion, his once mirror polished hessians were
mud splattered. He draped his many caped greatcoat in a slapdash fashion
over a chair and threw his gold trimmed hat on the table. A diamond pin
held his loosely tied cravat in place. Shaking loose the ribbon that
held his dark hair away from his face, he stumbled into the hallway
leading to the inn’s parlors.
“Innkeeper! Innkeeper! Where the devil is everyone?” the young man
called and pounded his whip handle on the table in the hall. Not one to
wait long, he sauntered down the hallway in search of Mrs. Carter.
Glimpsing her with a brass water can and a towel going through a
doorway, he followed down the hall and pounded on the door.
“Mrs. Carter, do you have the young lady I splashed? Is she hurt? Very
careless of me. Open this door. Where is everyone?” He continued to
rattle the door with his whip handle.
“Get away from the door. How dare you? You cannot come in here. I’m
not decent. You have a nerve showing your face after you nearly killed
me.” The young woman’s angry words penetrated the closed door.
Mrs. Carter quieted the young lady. “S-sh, my dear, that’s
“I don’t care who he is. Someone should take a whip to him!”
The coachman stepped out of the shadows and sidled between the door and
the young man. He cleared his throat and removed his hat. “Begging yer
pardon, my lord, but Mrs. Carter is attending to the young lady you
splashed. They’re trying to repair her outfit. I’m afraid it looks
hopeless. She can’t attend ye now.” The coachman blocked the way
between the young man and the door.
“I want to apologize. Dashed awkward. I didn’t notice her until it
was too late. Why the deuce was she standing in the middle of the road?
On my way to Southend, trying to break Woodrose’s record. Is she
hurt?” He sighed and all of a sudden slouched on the nearest bench.
The coachman continued to stand with his hat in his hands staring at a
point on the floor. “No, sir, just angrier than a swarm of bees. She
wasn’t in the road but standing beside the coach. Ye missed her by
“Well, what’s to complain about? A miss is a miss, after all. A
little dirt hurts no one. May I at least speak to the innkeeper?”
“If ye wouldn’t mind going back into the tavern, my lord, I’ll get
her for ye.”
The young man watched the coachman depart before he returned to the
tavern. He chose a table nearest the bar and sat with his long legs
sprawled out and his head resting on his uplifted hand. While he waited
for Mrs. Carter, he dozed and then awoke with a jerk when he heard her
clear her throat. He looked up from under half-closed eyes.
“Lord Montagu, how may I help you?”
“I wish to apologize to the young woman whose costume I muddied. I
must make amends for this unfortunate accident.”
“Your lordship, with respect, now is not a good time. She’s
dreadfully upset. She’s trying to make herself presentable. You
understand, she’s going to your aunt’s as her companion, and this is
her first day. I recommend waiting until she calms down before
“Yes, I understand. If you would be so kind and oblige me, please
secure the young lady’s soiled clothing on the pretense of having them
cleaned. Give them to me, and my man’ll take care of the chore.”
“Very good, my lord. I’ll take care of it.” She bowed and hurried
back to Nicole.
Lord Montagu received the wrapped bundle from Mrs. Carter a short time
later and left the inn.
A carriage arrived a short time after the reckless whipster left. It
surprised Nicole to find a coach waiting to take her to Lady Scott’s
home. Usually, an employer sent an ordinary cart to fetch an employee,
but Lady Scott sent her old-fashioned traveling coach, a much more
comfortable conveyance. She’d made Nicole wait nearly two hours, but
this did not annoy Nicole. In this instance, it had given her time to
make herself presentable and catch her breath.
Lady Scott’s servant led her to the coach and helped her inside. When
she sat on the bench, he put a traveling rug made of sheepskin over her
knees. This unheard of consideration eased a few of her fears. She
pulled the rug closer around her and enjoyed the little luxury. The
servant tipped his hat, put up the steps, and closed the door. As the
coach moved away from the inn at a neat pace, Nicole leaned back and
sighed. She let her mind wander into the past when she would not have
considered this a luxury.
The coach brought Nicole to Lady Scott’s door a short time later,
apparently only a short distance from the inn. She looked out the window
of the carriage at a large, square, three-storied home with dormers and
a huge bay window. The house was an off white with blue shutters. Ivy
curled around an ornately carved oak door at the entrance. Rose bushes
in full bloom punctuated the large well-maintained gardens surrounding
the front of the house. Nicole gazed at sea gulls soaring overhead in
the gentle breeze.
A groom appeared and opened the door of the carriage, then lowered the
steps. Nicole stepped out and walked to the door.
The butler answered her knock at once and looked her over. “May I help
“I’m La…er…Miss Waltham to see Lady Scott. Lord Scott sent me.
I’m to fill the position of companion.”
“I’ll tell Lady Scott you’re here. Please remain in the foyer,”
the butler said in clipped tones, then allowed her to step inside and
retreated down the hall.
Nicole looked around the foyer with its high cornice ceilings. A dogleg
staircase rose to the first floor landing just below a large
stained-glass window. Not sure what else to do, she sat on a bench and
She wondered idly if all butlers were related. Lady Scott’s butler
could have been a relative of her old butler, Biggers. They had the same
straight as a poker posture and were full of dignity, giving the
impression no one coming to the door was worthy to enter. They always
seemed to go bald for some unknown reason, and one never could decide
what color their eyes were.
The waiting played on her nerves. Nicole bit her lower lip and looked
around the hallway. Everything appeared clean and well appointed, and
the smell of the sea breeze coming through the open windows was
comforting. She hoped she could get on with Lady Scott. If she lost this
position, she had no choice but to return to Aunt Helena’s home.
Neither of them wanted that. She took a deep breath, let it out to the
count of five, and turned when she heard the butler’s footsteps
“Lady Scott will see you now.” The butler motioned for her to follow
him down a narrow pine paneled hallway darkened by age.
When they entered the sitting room, Lady Scott sat by the French doors
gazing out on the garden. She sat awkwardly upright in an invalid’s
chair with two large wheels in back and one small wheel in front. There
were hand cranks attached at the front of the chair, and it had a
reclining back and adjustable foot rests. When she turned her chair
around, Nicole saw someone she recognized. High cheekbones, piercing
eyes, and sharp nose reminded her of Aunt Helena.
The light of recognition dawned in Lady Scott’s piercing blue eyes at
the same time. She looked to be in her late seventies, and her gray hair
was pulled tight in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her skin looked
paperthin, and her gnarled left hand lay in her lap.
Nicole swallowed hard and wondered if she had jumped too soon at this
offer of employment. She had been to parties at Lady Scott’s in London
with her father and aunt when she had her first season.
“That will be all, Corbin.” Lady Scott waited for the butler to
close the door and motioned with her finger. “Come here, young lady,
and let me get a look at you. My eyes are not what they used to be.”
She looked Nicole up and down before nodding.
Her intense blue eyes found Nicole’s face before she crossed her arms
over her chest. “Just as I thought. What flummery is this? Are you not
Lady Nicole Waltham whose father is the Marquess of Beverley?”
Lady Scott’s eyes flashed in demand of an answer.
“Yes, ma’am, but there is no flummery. I am here to be your
companion. Lord Scott hired me from the Melrose Agency in London.”
“Why are you taking a position so beneath you?”
Lady Scott observed her with narrowed eyes.
Nicole had no trouble telling from her demeanor that she would be
satisfied with nothing but the unvarnished truth. “I’m forced to
seek employment out of necessity. I find myself charged with providing
for my personal welfare.”
“How can that be? Are you in disgrace, or on the outs with your
father? A love affair gone wrong, no doubt. Your father is one of the
wealthiest men in England.”
“Was the wealthiest. I’m embarrassed to tell my story. Since I will
dwell under your roof, I understand you wanting the whole sad tale of
our downfall. You must have heard of my father’s misfortune?”
“No, I have not. I live here instead of in London for that very
reason. I do not wish to listen to the latest.
Come, sit, and tell me why I may boast of my good fortune in engaging a
marquess’s daughter as my companion.”
“I’m sorry. I thought everyone knew. As you may or may not be
familiar with my family history…my mother died in childbirth along
with the child, a boy, nearly five years ago. After she died, my father
did outlandish things. He went through over a year of deep depression.
At first, he slept most of the day and night.
Then he went the other direction and suffered from insomnia. He refused
to leave the estate or even go outside our home. When he rode to the
hounds once again, I hoped his depression had lifted. He became more
outgoing, appearing to enjoy life again. Aunt Tess agreed to sponsor me
in my first season, and my father brought me to town. I still had a few
concerns regarding him, but the parties and excitement of my first
season carried me away. When I realized he had run amok, it was too late
to do anything. Until that time, he had a well-run, prosperous estate.
He’d inherited a fortune and made another.
“After I became engaged, everything went from dire to worse.
Inexplicably, he gambled in notorious gaming hells and threw money at
worthless investments. He never gambled before this time, but in doing
so, he forgot about running his estate. And he forgot about me. I
imagine he just wanted to forget everything.” Nicole shrugged and
stared out the window a few moments.
Turning back to Lady Scott, Nicole said, “To make matters worse, he
bet recklessly. He lost fantastic sums of money at a single sitting. I,
along with his friends, tried talking to him. He refused to listen to
anyone. He drank to excess and lost more and more money until he even
began sponging off his friends. That is, what friends he had left. He
was forced to sell our townhouse in London. To avoid debtor’s prison
and further embarrassment, he signed over everything to the men holding
his gambling chits. The men he owed money to confiscated the houses and
land. They sold or auctioned off everything to pay his debts. They even
took the jewelry my mother gave me. I narrowly escaped with the clothes
on my back, and what few clothes I convinced his creditors to let me
“We didn’t have enough money between us to cover our passage on the
mail coach or for traveling necessities. I was forced to swallow my
pride and borrow twelve pounds from my old governess before we could
travel to London. At the last stop into London, my father abandoned the
coach and left me to travel to Aunt Helena’s home alone. He never said
good-bye. He just vanished.” Nicole’s eyes brimmed with tears. She
took a deep breath to control her emotions.
“Aunt Helena didn’t appreciate my coming to her.
She told me I might stay until I found a position, but she could not
afford to take me in for an indefinite time.
I accepted the only position offered, and here I am.”
She shrugged and looked up to find Lady Scott scrutinizing her. “I
prefer that no one be told of my title. I plan to go on as Miss
“It appears you’re unlucky in your choice of relatives. Was there no
one else you might turn to in your time of need?”
“I could have gone to my Aunt Tess. A warm welcome would have been
mine. She lives in Italy, however, I lacked the money to travel there.
My mother’s sister lives in York. I could have gone there if I had
asked. She has six children under the age of fourteen, and my going
there would have posed a hardship. I can’t blame my Aunt Helena over
much. No one wants the responsibility of a female with no prospects.
“At any rate, I prefer to pay my own way. I don’t want to be
beholding to anyone, let alone a relative. I have often observed the
plight of impoverished relatives. If I must work for my room and board,
I prefer to be paid for it.”
“I admire your sentiment and spunk. How old are you?”
“Two weeks ago I turned one and twenty.”
“I didn’t imagine you were that old. You appear much younger. It
doesn’t signify. I didn’t ask for a companion. This is my son’s
doing. I had no way of knowing you were coming until I received my
son’s post yesterday with instructions to pick you up today.
My son is acting as he always has: without consideration for anyone
else.” She frowned and shook her head.
“I hope the scandal doesn’t turn you off my coming here. I’m truly
sorry to be thrown at you without your consent. It never occurred to
“On the contrary, it makes you interesting and warms my heart that I
can pull one over my son. I will be so annoying to two of my other
servants that they will give notice. My son will be called upon to
provide me with two more, which will inconvenience him. It pleases me to
keep him busy and be one up on him.”
She looked at Nicole and chuckled.
“Have you seen your father since he left you?”
“No, I tried to find him in London, but no one I asked knew where he
was. He must be in London somewhere. One day, I believed I glimpsed him,
but the man ran away from me before I could be sure. My time was
occupied with obtaining a position, so I had to give up the search.
I’ve been beside myself with worry.”
Nicole wrinkled her brow and looked at her clasped hands.
“I’m sure he’ll turn up. Try not to worry, my dear. These things
have a way of working themselves out. If he comes to your Aunt Helena,
as he must, she can direct him here.” Lady Scott smiled at Nicole.
“Did you enjoy a pleasant trip, my dear? I’m assuming you came by
mail coach. By the way, do you realize there’s dirt or something on
your left ear?”
Nicole reached up, and a piece of dried mud came away in her hand. She
closed her fist around it and felt her face burn with embarrassment. She
looked for a place to dispose of the dirt, and when she could see no
options, resigned to hold it cupped in her hand.
“A most uneventful trip until I arrived at the White Bear Inn. A
drunken whip splashed muddy water all over me. No one but a bubble
headed brute drives his team in that manner. I had to change my clothes
before I came. I caught a glimpse of his face, and if I ever run into
him again, I hope to give him a piece of my mind.”
Nicole’s anger returned just thinking of the whipster.
“Well, I hope you don’t run into him again or the other way around.
Tell me what shall we do? I’ve never had a companion before this.”
“I hoped you might guide me for I’ve never been one.” Nicole
smiled and sensed a little of her tension leave when Lady Scott returned
her smile with a twinkle in her eye.
“My health has affected my eyes, making it difficult for me to read.
Do you care to read to me?”
“I’d love to. What shall I read?”
“My dear friend Elizabeth de Grey sent me a novel that’s all the
rage in her circle. It’s The Old English Baron by Cara Reeve. If you
don’t mind reading novels with a romantic and somewhat risqué turn,
that is my choice.”
“I don’t mind at all. Shall we begin?” Nicole walked to the door
and threw her dirt into the garden.
She came back to the seat beside Lady Scott, sat, made herself
comfortable, picked up the book from the table, and opened to the first
The next time she looked up, Lady Scott was dozing in the early
afternoon, and her rug had slipped onto the floor. After adjusting the
rug across Lady Scott’s lap, she tiptoed from the room. She backed out
the sitting room door and turned around to find Corbin lurking in the
hall. He showed her to her bedchamber. The apartment was painted a pale
yellow and trimmed in white. A bay window at one end filled the room
with sunshine. The canopied bed had linens of pale yellow trimmed in
antique lace. She was pleasantly surprised at such comfort. After
exploring every nook and cranny, she put her clothes away.
Nicole fell into her chair to rest, leaned back, and as soon as she
closed her eyes, nodded off into a restful slumber. A maid woke her and
said she had less than half an hour to get dressed for dinner. It did
not take her long to get ready with only one suitable, plain black dress
to change into for dinner. She had been adding a scarf or a piece of
costume jewelry to change the appearance each time she wore it. Nicole
made haste to pile her hair in plaits on top of her head and hurried to
the sitting room. She found Lady Scott waiting. “I trust you had a
pleasant nap and are rested from your journey.”
“Yes, my lady. I only meant to rest my eyes for a minute or two, and
the next thing I knew a maid was shaking me. I guess I’m more tired
than I thought.”
“Well, my dear, I believe we did fine for our first day. Shall we go
in to dinner?” Lady Scott smiled and took Nicole’s hand.
After dinner, Nicole and Lady Scott returned to the small drawing room.
Lady Scott sat by the fire, and Nicole picked up her needle and thread.
“Do you get many visitors?” Nicole asked while bending over her
“No, I’m afraid it will not be awfully exciting for you. I prefer to
be left alone. The only people I let visit me are my nephew and my
doctor. My nephew, Lord Montagu, lives a short distance from here. He
should return to the country soon. He’s exceedingly entertaining.
I’m sure you’ll like him.”
“Is your nephew Lord Brandon Montagu?” Nicole looked up from her
“Why yes, that’s him. Do you know him?”
“Merely by reputation. I’m afraid we don’t travel in the same
“By the look on your face, I think you must be familiar with his
reputation. I have to admit he is a bit reckless and head strong. I
blame his father for that. He neglected the boy shamefully.” Lady
Scott shook her head.
“I’m told he’s considered a nonpareil horseman. The way he races
his curricle, I’m always afraid he’ll break his neck. He is forever
doing something outrageous if you can trust gossiping opinion. I have
always had a soft spot in my heart for the boy. He’s more like my son
than my real son is. Brandon visits me more often. He always brings me a
box of Belgian chocolates, my favorite.”
“That’s most kind of him. I look forward to meeting Lord Montagu.”
Nicole bent over her sewing again. She did not want Lady Scott to notice
the disapproval in her face. She had indeed heard of his exploits. None
of them did a gentleman credit.
Excerpted from "Too Hard to Forget" by Amanda Balfour. Copyright © 2016 by Amanda Balfour. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.