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A War of Wills

By Becky L. Meadows

CHAPTER ONE
 
 Crosses on tombstones wavered toward her as she made her way through
the church graveyard. A crowd of people, all dressed in black, were gathered
in a group, their eyes staring forward. Ashlee moved slowly toward them, her
eyes wandering warily over their backs.  Some of them turned toward her,
their stares sending shivers up her spine.  Her emerald eyes grew wide as the
people parted, making way for her to walk between them.  Their stark-white
faces nodded in approval as she picked her way. The path they cleared
lengthened and grew narrower the more she walked, so she stepped up her
pace, her breath beginning to come in short gasps as beads of exhaustion
broke out on her forehead. "Hurry! She's waiting for you." She turned to see
a man's mouth widen in a glittering smile, and her heart began to thump with joy.

She could see the focal point of the group now, the end of her long journey.
She began to run at full speed, her long, dark curls flowing down the back of
her full-length white nightgown. Suddenly she found herself facing a large
wooden box. She ran her index finger over its metal trim before she drew
back her hand, her gasp echoing with horror. It was a coffin.

"She's waiting for you," the crowd mumbled. Ashlee put her hands to her
ears to drown out the wailing of the onlookers. She heard a soft creak. 
Someone had opened the lid. Her eyes fell on the milky face of the person
inside the coffin. The woman's lips were pale, her dark curly hair spilling
over the white pillow under her head. Ashlee's heart beat with terror as
recognition dawned in her eyes. "Oh, mother, no! No! Don't leave me!"
she screamed.

The sound of her own voice shrieking in her ears roused her and she sat up,
her breast heaving, her lungs fighting to take in the air her fright had stricken
from them. Her eyes flew wildly around the small room. Tears streamed down
her cheeks; she wiped them away with her fingers as her mind struggled to
bridge the gap between dream and reality. "Oh, God," she murmured, her hand
flying instinctively to her chest. A heavy sigh escaped her lips as she realized it
had only been a dream.
 
Seventeen-year-old Ashlee Winthrop glanced at her surroundings, the thin,
narrow bed on which she lay, the small wooden table with one weary candle,
her black hooded cloak on the end of her bed. Candlelight danced across the
splintery walls of the room, painting large shadows on the wall surfaces. The
room began to sway and Ashlee gripped the edges of the bed, a knot of
discomfort in her stomach. She had never realized just how unsettling riding
on a ship could be, not until she had begun this voyage to England. Her
stomach still had not reconciled to being on the ship, even after sailing for
days on end during this early fall of 1882.

She sat up and put her feet on the floor of her room, the cold cutting
through the remaining clouds of her dream and bringing her soul back to
reality. Fresh tears cut damp paths down her cheeks as memories of the last
time she saw her mother flooded her mind.

"I love you, mother." The whisper had rolled off Ashlee's tongue, the
syllables barely echoing enough for her to hear them herself, but they had
accomplished their task. The words made Nitasha Winthrop's eyes spring open,
green globes that ferociously scanned the room of the small New York City
tenement for the source of the voice, her vision glancing off the splintery
walls of the room not more than a few feet from the bed she lay in. In the
flash of a second they lit upon the speaker.

"Ashlee, there you are." Nitasha's voice quavered in her weakened state. "I
was wondering where you had gone."

 "I had just stepped into the living room." Ashlee looked into her mother's
green eyes that so closely mirrored her own. Nitasha's eyes, however, had
lost their youthful shine; the industrial fumes that had stolen her power to
breathe had also faded her best asset. Now, a sickness that wracked her body
with searing coughs staked a claim to her very soul.

Tears cut wet paths down Ashlee's cheeks as she looked into the eyes of the
woman who had brought her into the world. She wiped them quickly away with
the edge of her hand. She knew she could not let her mother see her crying
like this, but seeing this shell of her mother before her made the huge lump
in her throat impossible to swallow. Yet she wanted more than anything right
now for her mother to have a peaceful passing. She swiped a strand of her
long, dark, curly hair from her face and felt cold dampness on her normally
warm, full lips as she placed them on her mother's cheek.

"You're a sweet child, Ashlee," Nitasha mumbled, reaching up, and Ashlee
felt her mother's hand tremble against her cheek as Nitasha wiped away a
teardrop Ashlee had missed. "I've always known that. You are the best thing
God ever gave me."

Ashlee looked into her mother's face, noting the dark lines under her eyes
and the withered look upon her brow. Nitasha Winthrop was a rose in winter, a
mere specter of the robust woman who had steadfastly raised her only child
alone by working in a sweatshop in New York City.

"I wish I had more to leave you, Ashlee," she said, her cracked lips moving
with the words, and Ashlee leaned over and gently placed one finger against
her mother's lips to stop the words that cut through her heart.

"You have given me everything, mother," Ashlee replied, placing her cool
hand on her mother's sweltering forehead. Nitasha was burning up with fever.
If  the heat upon her hand had not told Ashlee this, the blaze burning in her
mother's delirious eyes would. Ashlee's eyes became green, glistening pools
as tears welled up through her aching soul.

Nitasha placed the palms of her hands on the damp bedsheets and pushed
herself upright. She turned her eyes to the young woman at her side, and
Ashlee winced as the fire in her mother's eyes burned into hers. Nitasha's
eyes grabbed hold of Ashlee's heart and shook it fiercely.

"You remember what you are to do after I die?" The words sent a shiver of
sorrow down Ashlee's spine, but her mother gave her no relief. "You remember,
Ashlee?"

"I remember what you want me to do, mother."

"You will do it, then? You will do as I ask?"

"Mother, please, I don't want to go there. I don't belong there. I belong
here."

"No, you don't!" Nitasha growled the words with a ferocity that made
Ashlee's heart cower. "You don't belong here! You are far better than this
place. I will not see you rot in a common factory like I have!" The anger in
Nitasha's eyes was overwrought by an engulfing sorrow that emerged as a
parade of tears rolling from the older woman's eyes. She clutched her hands
together and rolled them over and over in her blanket-covered lap. Her eyes
entreated the young Ashlee even as her words beseeched her.

"Ashlee, you must listen to me closely," Nitasha muttered, her voice barely
above a whisper. Ashlee pulled her eyes up from the wooden floor below her
feet. "You must have better than I had, Ashlee. You must not stay here. You
must go to Lord Weston at Collinwood Manor. It is where you belong. It was my
great-grandmother's home, so it is fitting that you return there." Nitasha
reached out to touch one of Ashlee's long curls cascading down around the
young woman's shoulders, then leaned back against the pillows on the bed as a sigh
escaped her lips. "I have already made the arrangements."

"You have?" The slight glimmer of hope in Ashlee's eyes dimmed.

"Yes. I sent a letter to Lord Weston. He is awaiting your arrival. He has
promised to see you continue your education and to find a good man to love
you."
 
"But mother, it isn't time yet," Ashlee began, but this time it was
Nitasha's turn to raise one finger and place it against her daughter's full
lips.
 
"It will be soon. Now, promise me, Ashlee, that you will do as I ask.
Promise me you will go to Collinwood Manor."

"Mother, I...." Ashlee's words were interrupted when her mother's body was
consumed with a non-stop, barking cough. She put her arm around the woman's
shoulders, but the sound continued to erupt from Nitasha's throat and chest
until she turned blue from lack of oxygen. Ashlee held her mother tightly in
her arms until the coughs died down and Nitasha sank back, exhausted, on the
stark white pillow.

"Do as I say, Ashlee," Nitasha began, her eyes opening and looking wildly
around the room to find her daughter's white face. "Promise me!" The coughs
again took possession of Nitasha's body, but this time they did not stop.
Sobs racked Ashlee's body as she sorrowfully watched her mother's body spasm.
Then, silence followed. Nitasha had once again sank back on the pillow, but
this time her green eyes glazed over and stared blankly at the wall beyond.

Ashlee's sobs echoed through the strangely silent room. She clutched her
mother's rapidly cooling hand to her breast. "I promise, mother," she
mumbled, reaching to place her lips against Nitasha's cold cheek. "I
promise."
 
Ashlee bit her full, pink lips as the sound of her promise rang in her ears,
her dark brows furrowing. She had made the promise to her mother only a few weeks
before, but it seemed like years ago. Now, no matter how distasteful it might
be, she would keep it. Her face whitened as the ship lurched over another
ocean wave.

She knew nothing of this Lord Weston, or his manor house. She had heard her
mother speak of Collinwood Manor when she was a child, but Nitasha had only
briefly mentioned it. Ashlee's mind conjured up images of a large mansion
estate, with stables and horses. She had read about such places in the small
school she attended each day while Nitasha worked in the factory beside it.
Perhaps living at Collinwood Manor would not be so bad. After all, her mother
had said she had notified Lord Weston about Ashlee's arrival.

She glanced around her room on the ship. The walls seemed to creep closer
and closer. She blinked her long, dark lashes and shook her head to clear her
mind, but the feeling of being trapped in the small room continued to plague
her mind. Perhaps some fresh air might help. She hesitated as she began to
rise from the small bed. The ship's captain had warned her there were only a
few women on this ship; the rest of the crew was comprised of sailors. Her
eyes fell on her cloak; nobody could see her face when she wore it and the
hood. She could explore without anyone knowing she was a woman.
 The cabin door creaked as she eased it open. She could see shadows of the
flickering candle flames along the walls. She heard voices traveling down the
hallway, becoming louder, and she realized someone was approaching. She
ducked back into the small alcove in front of her cabin door, leaned back and
blended in with the dark shadows. The voices came closer, then stopped a few
doors down from the crouched Ashlee.

"I don't have the patience to deal with the likes of him," one of the voices
said. "I have no idea how he got his money, or how his family ever got money,
but there's no doubt he has money from the way he treats people. Why, he just
runs roughshod over them. He has no respect whatsoever for the common man."

"Oh, come now, sir, surely that is not so," another voice replied. "Yes,
I've had to deal with him a few times myself, and of course I will have to
again on this trip, but I've always managed to get a fair shake from him.
He's a businessman through and through, that's all. He's efficient."

"Well, that does not excuse his lack of respect. I would have thought a
blue-blood like him would know how to speak to a lady. I heard him tell Lady
Katherine that she had no idea what music was. I thought she would surely
slap him!"

"Yes, but I have heard Lord Weston has quite a reputation with the ladies!"
the other man said, and the sound of his laughter bounced off the wooden
walls and made its way to Ashlee's ears.

"I have heard that as well," the other man said. "Even so, he is a crass
fellow! One time he angered me so much I thought about challenging him to a
dual, but I know what a fine shot he is. I might be silly, but I'm smart!
Nevertheless, I would like to see the arrogant oaf get his just due someday."

"All in due time," the other man muttered. "First, we need him to agree to
this business deal. One thing about Lord Weston, he may be arrogant and
aloof, but he's sharp as a tack! He hasn't gotten where he is for lack of
brains. We could use his money. But now, let's get some sleep. We can work
out the finer details in the morning."

Ashlee heard someone fumbling with a door key, then two doors slammed. She
slowly emerged from her hiding place in her doorway to stand in the hall, her
head lowered, her eyes staring sightlessly at the ship's wooden floor. Lord
Weston! Surely there could be only one! These men must have been discussing
her soon-to-be guardian, but what a picture they painted! She swallowed a
lump in her throat as her eyes filled with tears. She put her hands over her ears to
push the thoughts from her brain, but they rushed through as water rushes over a
falls. She felt dread start at the tips of her toes and creep its way up her
legs which began to wobble, all the way up to her arms which began to ache,
on up to her already tearful eyes.

She slowly walked up a splintery set of stairs until she saw the stars
shining from above. She had reached the deck of the ship. The wind's arctic
fingers crept down the front of her cloak; she stopped and felt a wisp of
warmth as she rubbed one bare ankle over the other. She raised her clutched
hands to her lips and blew warm breath on them, then lowered her hands and
raised her eyes to the moon, a white half-circle, above. Her mother had
always told her wishes on the moon come true. Her lips parted to speak, but
the words she had heard spoken below put a halt to any she may have uttered.

Who was this man who was to become her guardian?

CHAPTER TWO

"Bloody hell!" The words, slung against the walls of the large room, bounced
off each other until they fell on the ears of the gray-haired man standing
before the young man who had uttered them.
 
"I beg your pardon, sir," the older man mumbled, looking down at the floor
as the tall, raven-haired man in front of him stood up from the desk in such
a huff the chair behind him crashed to the polished wooden floor. "It can't
be as bad as all that. It might be nice to have a new face around the old
place."
 
"Speak for yourself, Jennings," the younger man muttered, his face dark with
anger. "Why was this put in my lap? Why must she come here? Aren't there any
other relatives around?"
 
"I don't believe so, sir," Jennings replied, his hands clasping an envelope
behind his back. "At least not according to the letter."
 
"Let me see the bloody thing, then."
 
Jennings produced the ragged envelope from behind his back, and Lord Brandon
Weston jerked it from his hands, his dark brows furrowed, his cheeks a
flaming red. He shook a letter from the envelope and read aloud:
"My Dear Lord Weston: I regret that I must ask this of you, but as you are
the last remaining relation of our family, I have no choice. I have a lung
disease which, as you read this letter, is stealing my life. I cannot die in
peace, however, until I know someone will be available to see after my
daughter, Ashlee. She is a spirited girl. My dream is for her to be
introduced into English society, where she can take her rightful place as a
distinguished member of our family, much as my great- grandmother Weston, who
eloped from England with her fiance. As much as I would like to say I have
provided her a quality education, I was only able to do so much on my limited
income...."

Lord Weston wadded the letter up into a ball and slung it across the room of
the large study. It bounced off one of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and
landed silently on a large velvet rug.  "Why do people who have done nothing with
their lives expect to be rescued by those who have?" Brandon demanded, pursing
his lips in anger. He patted the side of his black riding pants with his hand, his cool
blue eyes settling on Jennings who cowered before him. "Tell me about this orphan.
I assume there is no way I can decline this 'honor'?"
 
"With all due respect, I don't believe so, sir," Jennings mumbled, shuffling
his feet on the floor. "The poor woman has already passed away. She was
buried about a week ago, according to the gentleman who made the arrangements
in New York. For some reason we did not receive this woman's letter until
today, and it was written more than a month ago. According to the end of the
letter..." he motioned toward the letter lying in a crumpled heap on the
floor..."this young woman should be arriving on shore within a day or two."
 
"A day or two? A day or two? This is the most ludicrous thing I have ever
heard!" Lord Weston screamed. Jennings watched as he clutched his fingers
into a fist and pounded the top of the large wooden desk. "How in God's name
has this happened?"
 
Jennings crumbled under Brandon's steely blue gaze. "If I may ask, sir, just
why are you so upset about this? There is ample room here for the young lady,
and, if I may say so, sir, she is in need of family after her mother's
death."
 
"Ah, you servant types," Brandon said, and ran his fingers through his
sleeked-back, straight black hair. "You all do stick together, don't you?" He
took several deep breaths while Jennings watched warily to see what this more
than six-foot tall, stocky man might do. Lord Brandon Weston was not known
for controlling his temper; on the contrary, he was quite well known for not
being able to control it. Often his servants would scurry off like frightened
rats when he went into a rage, and more than one found themselves
accidentally on the wrong end of a flying mug. Yet he was also known for
being a most agreeable fellow in front of company, or if he were accompanying
a member of the opposite sex to a social affair, and there was no shortage of
those chances for the Lord of Collinwood Manor: His large, striking build,
accented by his black hair and sapphire blue eyes, made most women catch
their breath at first glance.
 
Now, however, Lord Weston was so angry he could feel heat burn from his
stomach all the way to his cheeks. "I do not need this right now," he said between
tightly clenched, white teeth. "Not now." He turned his gaze toward Jennings. "Just
how old is this waif? Six? Eight? Or is she just a baby still?"
 
"She's seventeen, I believe, sir."
 
"Seventeen? And she has no suitor, no husband? You mean I've inherited an
ugly old maid?"
 
"Her mother explains in the letter, sir. She did not wish the young woman to
stay in New York, but to return to her homeland so as not to meet the same
fate her mother did. The woman asks in the letter that you find her daughter
a fitting place in English society, and a good suitor."
 
"Let me see if I understand this," Brandon said, his lips curved in a
sarcastic smile. "I'm to take this twenty-year-old woman, introduce her into
English society and find her a husband. Her mother apparently could not find
this young 'lady' a suitor, but I am supposed to. I wonder what this waif
looks like. I cannot work miracles, you know. I have much more important
things to attend to than playing Cupid." He walked around the end of the desk
and faced Jennings directly. "Her mother, this dying woman, was a member of
our family through her great-grandmother, who deserted our family generations
ago to win her fortunes in New York. Unfortunately, she found no fortune; instead,
she found poverty. And now, generations later, I am to make up for this."

"I'm sure, sir, that if you do not wish the young lady to come here, you
need only say so," Jennings replied, his back stiff, his voice unwavering.
 
"And then what would happen? Would she just happily venture back to New York
on the ship she is already on? What disaster would I have on my conscience
then?"
 
"With all due respect, sir, are you worried about your conscience?"
 
"Enough!" Lord Weston roared, his sapphire eyes flashing daggers at the
elderly Jennings. Jennings had helped rear the Lord of Collinwood Manor since
the death of Brandon's mother when Brandon was only seven, but even then
there had been no doubt who held the reigns.
 
"As you wish, sir," Jennings mumbled, looking down at the large rug covering
the floor of the study. He jumped as Brandon picked up the chair behind the
desk and slammed it to an upright position, the sound echoing off the walls
and tall ceiling of the room.
 
Lord Weston stood stiffly behind the wooden desk, his even larger shadow
enveloping the smaller form of Jennings. "You know my circumstances," he
growled. "You know what I am involved with right now. I do not need some
nosy young woman running around my house with her ears pressed to my doors,
and I cannot send some illiterate American rifraff into English society associated
with the Weston name. I do not have time to deal with this!"
 He strode from around the end of the desk to the two large, wooden doors at
the entrance of the study. He reached to fling one of the doors open, the
sound of it striking the wall behind it echoing down the long hallway, then
turned his steely gaze back to the elderly man still standing in the room.
Lord Weston sighed heavily, his blue eyes fixed to the ceiling. "I will leave
it to you to see she arrives here."

The next evening Ashlee stepped down the slippery plank connecting the ship
to the London dock. The scene before her was almost identical to the one she
had left behind in America. Peddlers scurried here and there to sell their
wares to the groups of sailors setting foot on shore for the first time in
months. The full moon cast the lighting for the scene. As she reached to pull
her hood over her head, she caught sight of an elderly, gray-haired gentleman
in a black coat with tails standing in the middle of the wharf. The man said
nothing to passersby, instead focusing his gaze intently on each passenger
who departed from the ship and walked toward him on the dock.

She started to brush by him when she felt the gentle grip of his fingers on
her arm, and heard his mumbled, "Excuse me, miss." She stopped and turned
toward him. He leaned over a bit to peer questioningly under her hood.

"I am seeking Miss Ashlee Winthrop. Are you she, perchance?"

"I am." She saw the flush of relief cross his face when he heard her words.
Her eyes widened when the elderly gentleman bowed low to her. "I am most
pleased to make your acquaintance, miss." He rose, and gently took her by the
elbow. "I am Jennings, Lord Weston's butler. I will be taking you to
Collinwood Manor."

"I am pleased to meet you, Jennings," Ashlee said with a smile that was
returned by the elderly man. He gently took her by the elbow and led her down
the dock. They stopped beside a large black carriage pulled by two black
horses whose coats gleamed in the moonlight.

"What beautiful horses!" Ashlee's words barely fell on the ears of Jennings,
who smiled. She walked hesitantly over to the pair, and one of the horses
wriggled its ears as she rubbed her hand over their downy noses.

 "Horses are one of Lord Weston's fancies," Jennings replied. "We should
hurry, miss. I have a quick errand to run for the master." Ashlee obediently
followed him back to the side of the carriage, and stepped inside when he
opened the door. Her eyes widened at the sight of the red velvet interior;
she settled herself into the seat facing the front of the carriage, and in
moments she felt the carriage jerk as it began moving.
 
The wheels of the shiny black carriage rustled over the cobblestone streets
of London. Ashlee could see lamps shining from each street corner. A mist had
begun to form, settling in gray puffs along the dark streets. Occasionally
she could make out a person, most often a man, walking along, holding one
hand to his top hat, the other hand usually holding his long, dark coat
closed against the night chill.
 
The carriage came to a stop beside one of the corner street lamps, and
Ashlee heard Jennings' feet drop to the ground with a light thud. His face
appeared briefly at the window beside her before his hand opened the carriage
door.
 
"I'll only be a minute, miss," he said, and smiled at her. "I have to drop
in here a minute to pick up something for the master. It shouldn't take
long."
 
Ashlee looked around her at the darkness of the streets which seemed to
press against the sides of the carriage. "Should I wait here for you?" she
asked, her eyes widening beneath the hood of her cloak.
 
"If you wish," Jennings replied. "I'm sure it's perfectly safe." He noted
the hesitation in her voice. "There's a guard right here on the corner." He
pointed toward a bobby, a man in a police uniform, standing rigidly
underneath the lantern swinging from the post at the corner of the street.
 
"Then I shall wait," Ashlee replied. Jennings nodded, and disappeared into
the darkness.
 
Ashlee leaned back against the red velvet lining of the carriage as a heavy
sigh escaped her lips. She closed her eyes, and suddenly her mother's face
was before her. "It's for the best," the vision whispered.
 
An ear-piercing shriek racked the still night. Nitasha Winthrop disappeared
as Ashlee's eyes flew open. She sat bolt upright in her seat in the carriage,
and pressed her hands to the window as she peered out into the blackness. To
the side of the carriage, on the opposite side of the dark street, she could
make out the form of another carriage and a horse; the horse was lying on its
side, but she could make out the bars that still held it fastened to the
front of the carriage. Above its form stood the shadow of a man, his cape
whipping around in the wind, his arm flaying furiously above the body of the
horse. The moon lit the scene as the horse's head raised and another shriek
pierced the night air.
 
"What in the world?" Ashlee said aloud. The echo of her words in the
carriage was her only answer. The man's arm raised again, the horse screamed
and Ashlee's hand flew toward the handle of the carriage door. She caught her
breath as the cool night air swirled around her; she could feel its dampness
on her cheeks, feel it creep under the hood of her cloak and settle around
her neck. She turned toward the corner, her eyes searching in vain for the
bobby, who had disappeared. Another shriek from the horse brought her rushing
across the street to its side.
 
The horror of the scene made her gasp and raise the back of her hand to her
lips. The man, his back turned to her, continued raising his arm above the
fallen animal, the whistle of his whip cutting through the night air. The
horse continued to struggle on the ground and moan in its attempts to rise.
Welts and streaks of blood covered its side and head.
 
"Stop it!" Ashlee shrieked. Her scream drowned out the sound of the horse's
moans. The man's arm stopped in mid-air as he turned to face her, his face
white with surprise. He abruptly turned back toward the horse and raised his
arm again.

"Can't you hear? I said stop it!" Ashlee yelled again. "Leave that horse
alone!" She took hold of her skirt with both hands and stepped to the side of
the horse and the man who threatened to strike it again. The man's arm swung
down in an attempt to strike the horse, but this time it was stopped by a
small, white-gloved hand.
 
"I wouldn't do that again if I were you," Ashlee hissed through clenched
teeth. Her face had reddened with anger. Her hood had fallen; her dark, curly
hair blew around her in the chilly night breeze.
 
"What?" the man demanded. He backed up a step, and Ashlee advanced more
toward him. His form towered over hers. "You'd better mind your own
business."
 
"I will not stand by while you torture this animal."
 
"This horse belongs to me, and I'll do what I want with it. It's just a
stubborn old nag that doesn't want to work."
 
"This animal needs care, not more beating," Ashlee replied, looking toward
the horse which had struggled to a resting position on its stomach. "Can't
you see how you've hurt it?"
 
"I don't care how much I've hurt it," the man snarled, taking a step toward
Ashlee and raising his arm. He held the whip over her menacingly. "And if you
don't mind your own business, you'll get a whipping as well. You need one, if
you ask me, you and your smart mouth."
 
"I suppose you believe you can give me one." Ashlee's eyes flashed green
icicles at the stranger who towered over her.
 
"I rather think I'd enjoy it."

Their conversation was interrupted by the horse, which moaned and fell back
on its side. Ashlee rushed over to the animal and stooped to hold its head on
her lap, stroking it tenderly.
 
The man stepped menacingly toward her. Ashlee's eyes were focused on the
horse, whose body quivered with pain. The man raised his hand high, holding
the whip above the back of Ashlee, who crouched over the moaning animal.

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