Montgomery Woodruff scowled at the low, dirty clouds as though they had appeared just to torment him. He tugged at his lapels, jerking his greatcoat close as the wind tried its best to wrestle a way into his inner garments. The end of January had been unrelenting with blizzards, storms and freezing temperatures. Woodruff entered his carriage and yanked at the folded blanket on the seat, his impatience sending it sliding to the floor. With a muttered oath, he arranged the blanket to better suit his needs, ignoring his clerk who stood dithering in the elements waiting for last minute instructions.
Woodruff sent him a withering glare before a curt command from his driver, Sykes, sent the showy black horses away from the three-storey Georgian building to merge with the traffic in the bustling streets of the great Yorkshire town.
Sighing heavily, Woodruff stretched his neck from the starched collar, trying to relax as they traversed around pedestrians and vehicles. Winter gloom and the cold sent most people hurrying home, shop keepers were packing up, women scolded children towards their own hearths while business men headed for the warmth and smoky atmosphere of expensive clubs.
Woodruff grunted, he also should be ensconced in his club, cradling a brandy and discussing world issues, but too many men wanted him for more than his views on politics and such like, no, they wanted much more — money!
He rocked sideways as Sykes guided his ebony beauties out into the surrounding snow-topped countryside and towards home. Home. His precious gem, and the only thing he cared about. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead. He wouldn't lose it, couldn't lose it. He'd sell his soul to keep it.
Drifts of snow driven by the wind and the gray evening light reduced visibility. Sykes slowed the pair, not wanting to damage their legs in the snow-filled ruts. When a figure, robed from head to foot in a dark brown cape, lunged desperately for the nearest horse's bridle, the horses skidded in fright, dragging the person a few yards.
"What in Christ's name?" Sykes cursed, in a mixture of fear and surprise. He reined in hard and applied the brake, halting his horses to an uneasy standstill.
The wild jolting of the normally smooth ride sent Woodruff careening onto his side. He swore violently. "What in hell are you doing, Sykes?"
"You, there!" Sykes threatened the staggering, shadowy figure. "Leave go, before I wrap my whip around yer ear holes!"
For a fleeting moment, Woodruff wondered if he was being held up. His heart hammered, then blood pounded in his temples as his rage took over. How dare someone rob me!
"I must speak to Mr Woodruff!" A woman's voice beseeched from within the capacious hood.
He reached for the door, but it was wrenched opened. "What the …?"
"Mr Woodruff, you must hear me!"
The hooded figure's desperate and needy manner instantly revolted him. "Leave at once! Can a person not travel the roads without assault?"
"Please, I must speak with you!"
"I know you not, Madam."
With a sudden flash of a slim white hand, the hood was thrown back revealing a pale, pinched face with dark and imploring eyes.
Woodruff peered at his former mistress and sighed deep within his chest. It had been a while since he'd sampled her wares. Lately, he'd simply not had the time or energy. "What possesses you, woman, to come out here in the depths of winter and throw yourself in front of horses?"
"You've not been near for months and I'm desperate." Olive shivered as she spoke, but Woodruff refused to offer the warmth of the carriage. To do so would be to accept her as one of his own class and that would never do.
"If you need money, then I'm afraid I only give if I receive in turn," Woodruff sneered at the frail figure. "I assume you have gathered another customer or two by now, to keep you in comfort?"
"I wish I could, but I'm unable." She snorted in contempt. "It's not money, though of that I'm in need too. No, it's something more serious."
"Are you sick? Good Lord, you haven't contracted a disease have you?" Woodruff's skin prickled at the thought.
"No, of course not!" Olive glared. "It's worse than a disease!"
"For God's sake woman! Spit it out. I have no time for riddles!"
"I'm with child! Your child!"
Woodruff fell back in his seat. Ice trickled beneath his skin.
"You think it's mine?"
"I've been with no one else."
"And I'm to believe that, am I? Do you take me for a fool?"
"You know there's been no one else since you came calling. At one stage, you visited every night and during the day at times! How do you think I managed to entertain other men?"
Woodruff grunted. "Go home, Olive. I shall call and discuss this matter with you tomorrow."
She gripped his arm. "You promise?"
He wrenched out of her grasp. "Yes. Now go. I'm late for my dinner." He reached over and slammed the carriage door, forcing her to hurriedly step back into the snowdrift on the roadside.
The carriage lumbered away and he leaned back against the plush upholstery. If she spoke the truth, Olive's news meant another burden he must bear. His fingers in many pies of business brought their troubles. Workers at his mill and factories had gone on strike against the low wages he paid. He refused to be held to ransom, to pay the dregs of society more money and give them better conditions! Oh, no, not he, Montgomery Clifton Woodruff. The thought of the unscrupulous working class bringing his small empire crashing to its knees nearly gave him a stroke. It wouldn't come to that of course! No, he was working himself through some very long days trying to right the situation.
With luck, in a week he would have sold his mill in Halifax and paid off one loan. It made better sense to shift the mill and dabble in other ventures. Roads and railways held his interest, and the navvies, mainly the Irish, working on those particular schemes were glad to have the work, never mind low wages. They possessed no grand ideas to better themselves and that's how Woodruff liked it.
He rubbed his forehead, his mind whirling. His bank manager sent him warning letters each week. He didn't know how he could delay meeting the man much longer, but if he went to him with a plan, then perhaps he had a chance. He could reduce his expenditure some more in some areas...
The carriage slowed to turn and pass through the wrought iron gates of Woodruff House. As always, the manor and surroundings filled him with a surge of pride. He doubted there was a finer home in all of England. He felt nothing for draughty castles and cold palaces, or large impersonal mausoleums pretending to be homes. No, Woodruff House was his ideal place in the whole world. Satisfaction filled him as the carriage drove down the impressive white granite-pebbled drive, bordered by tall graceful silver birch trees.
Movement at one of the windows caught his eye and Woodruff paused before descending from the carriage. Yes, I am home, you lot of lazy good for nothing wasters!
He heaved his considerable bulk out of the carriage and climbed the wide sandstone steps to admire the impressive bronze knocker in the shape of Woodruff's coat of arms decorated on the door. He checked it for smears but found none.
His old butler, Fernly, who'd served Woodruff's father opened the door, his face impassive. "Welcome home, sir."
The heat of the hall swept over him and again he nodded in approval. Divested of his outer clothes, Woodruff marched into the drawing room, hoping to catch his wife and children indulging in careless pastimes. He rubbed his hands together in glee at the thought of catching them out. It was a joy to harangue them for an hour or more on the benefits of their privileged life which he could squash at anytime he chose.
He detested his wife with a passion second to none, and regretted the day he married her. He conveniently disregarded it was her money that drew him to her in the first place. Nevertheless, their marriage could have been a contented one, if she had delivered him the son he longed for. The dreams of filling this house with a dozen, handsome, intelligent sons, and being the envy of all who knew him, slowly eroded with each birth of a girl child. Seven daughters had supplanted the longed for sons. They were the very curse of his life.
No one occupied the drawing room, which nonplussed him at first. Quickly, he turned on his heel and strode into the parlour opposite. It too was empty. Annoyed, he stormed along the polished parquetry floor of the hall to the library. Here at last, he found one member of his family.
Curled up on the sofa, her slippered feet tucked demurely under the long skirts of her lemon organza dress and across from a roaring fire reclined Faith, the fifth and quietest daughter.
"Father, you are home," she said, instantly putting her feet down.
"Have you nothing better to do girl than be idle all day?" He sneered.
Faith rose, slipping her book behind her back. "I've done all I was asked, Father. I've visited the soup kitchens in town with Grace..."
"As if I care about that! Where are those other layabout sisters of yours?"
Faith blinked rapidly. "I believe Heather took Letitia, Phoebe and Emma Kate to the milliners, while Gabriella is out visiting and Grace is in the study."
Woodruff glared at her. "Don't let me catch you reading again. If you can't find something useful to do, then stay out of my sight!"
He crossed the hall and entered the study, eager for a drink. "What the hell are you doing in my study?"
Grace slowly rose from behind the desk, her direct amber eyes meeting his furious scowl. "I'm writing up the house accounts."
"This is my room! The one room in this whole blasted house where I can achieve peace away from tittering females!"
"Very well. I shall continue my work in the library."
At five foot seven, Grace was as tall as he. Both she and Heather were the tallest of the girls and could eye him without having to look up. This annoyed him no end. "I want those accounts reduced, do you hear?"
"I don't think anyone can accuse me of being frivolous."
He stomped to the drink trolley. "When is dinner to be announced?"
"At seven o"clock, as always, Father."
"Well it better be edible tonight. Last night's meal was appalling!"
Grace paused by the door, one slender hand resting upon the brass doorknob. "Every meal in this house is edible, Father."
She left the room before his tirade began.