The Unforgettable Hero

By: Valerie Bowman

CHAPTER ONE



London, July 1816


“And they lived happily ever after.” Cecelia Harcourt sighed as she finished writing the words on the paper. She dipped her quill back into the inkpot one last time. The End, she scrolled across the bottom of the page, biting her smiling lip.

“Are you finished, Cece?”

Cecelia spun around at the sound of the young female voice. She’d hidden herself in the servants’ quarters in the attic of the town house. The tiny whitewashed fourth-floor room was the perfect place to conceal her manuscript and her writing supplies from Uncle Herbert. It might smell like dust up here since they’d been forced to let most of the servants go, but the old codger would never climb up so many flights of stairs. And neither would his formidable wife, Aunt Selene.

“Yes, I’m finished, Mary,” Cecelia replied to her twelve-year-old sister.

Mary pushed open the door and hurried over to stand next to the desk, a weak smile on her face. “May I read it, Cece? Oh, please say I may.” Her sister coughed, her thin shoulders shaking.

Cecelia held her breath, waiting for Mary’s coughing to subside. Then Cecelia pressed her palm to her sister’s warm, pale cheek. Mary was so dear, such a sweet girl with blond hair and blue eyes. She looked so much like Mama. Cecilia had inherited her father’s dark hair and eyes. She sighed and blinked away tears. Her parents. If only she could have just one more moment with either of them, but a carriage accident had taken their lives nearly two years ago and ever since, she’d been struggling to keep up a brave facade for her younger sister.

“I’m sorry, Mary,” Cecelia replied, shaking her head. She pulled away her hand, turned around, and hurriedly gathered the pieces of paper. “You cannot read it today. There is no time. I must be at Mr. Cornwall’s by noon and—” She glanced at the small timepiece she’d brought upstairs with her. “Good heavens, it’s nearly noon now. I must hurry.”

A thump that sounded from the corner drew both sisters’ attention.

“Oh, Esmeralda,” Cece exclaimed. “I nearly forgot about you.”

A large brown rabbit sat on a rectangular cushion, blinking at both of them, nose twitching and eyes alert. Cece had saved the baby rabbit when she found her in the park one afternoon while out for a walk. There had been no sign of the mother. Cece had asked Aunt Selene if she might take the animal in and had immediately received a long-winded reprimand about the dangers of getting a dreaded disease from such a creature and the audacity to presume that paying for its food was something Cece should be so bold as to request. Dutifully, Cece had nodded her acquiescence to her aunt and left the baby there temporarily, only to sneak back later that afternoon to scoop up the poor little thing. Now Esmeralda resided in the fourth-floor room upon a cushion that Cece had sewn out of an old gingham gown that no longer fit Mary. The cushion was stuffed with hay that was pilfered from the mews behind the town house. Cece had named a lady’s maid in her novel after the beloved rabbit.

Cece pulled a carrot and two celery stalks out of her long pocket and moved over to kneel in front of the rabbit. “Here you are, Esme.” She turned back to her sister. “Keep an eye on her, Mary, won’t you?”

Mary nodded once. Another short cough. “Yes, of course.”

Wiping her hands on her skirts, Cece turned back to the desk. She gathered the pages of the manuscript that weren’t yet dry and shuffled them into the larger stack. Paper was as dear as gold. A small fortune was sitting in front of her.

“Mr. Cornwall is sure to purchase your novel, Cece,” Mary declared loyally. The girl had slid to her knees in front of Esmeralda and was patting the rabbit on the head while the fat little brown ball chomped on her carrot. “I just know it.”

Cece hurriedly pushed the pages together. A nervous shudder worked its way through her frame. “We’ll see. He was the only publisher who seemed interested in meeting with a lady author, so that’s promising. Though I haven’t yet informed him that my novel is a romantic one. I told him it was an adventure story. Which, of course, is also true.”

Cece didn’t tell her sister that this was her last hope. If she couldn’t find a way to earn an income, Uncle Herbert would force her to marry her hideous first cousin, Percy. It wasn’t enough that her uncle and his wife had taken over her parents’ house. They also wanted the small bit of money that was left and earmarked for Cecelia’s dowry. Her parents had died the year she would have had her come-out. Now, at the age of twenty, she was entirely without prospects. She’d happily give her greedy relatives every bit of the money if it meant staying far away from Percy. But her uncle and aunt were intent upon the match and had been mentioning it more and more of late. The only hope Cece had was to make an income on her own to save herself and Mary.

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