Her First Desire - Cathy Maxwell

Chapter One


March 1815

. . . he has passed from this life on earth to his reward in heaven.

The words leaped off the page at Gemma.

Someone had died?

And then, she read who had died.

Her legs buckled beneath her. She collapsed onto the desk chair.

She’d been sent to fetch a scrap of paper so that her late husband’s sister-in-law, Lady Latimer, and her friends, who were playing cards in the front sitting room, could keep tally of their scores. They were a gathering of elegant magpies who seemed to enjoy making Gemma hop up to do their bidding. After all, as that most pitiful of all creatures, a penniless relation, she existed to do nothing more than to be of service.

The letter had been shoved into the back of the desk drawer and Gemma had pulled it out thinking that here was something useless that could be used versus taking a fresh page.

She hadn’t expected it to be addressed to her . . . or to have been opened.

Dear Mrs. Estep,

You and I were introduced when you paid a visit to your uncle Andrew MacMhuirich some months ago. It is with a heavy heart I undertake the tragic duty of informing you that he has passed from this life on earth to his reward in heaven. I hasten to tell you that he did not suffer but was taken in his sleep.

He shall be missed by our small community. The Garland has been a mainstay in Maidenshop, the center of all goings-on. We shall not know what to do with ourselves without Old Andy, as he was affectionately called.

If I may be of service to you in your time of grief, please know I am your most humble servant.


The Reverend Gerald Summerall

St. Martyr’s Church

Maidenshop, Cambridgeshire

15 November 1814

Gemma stared at the elegant, mannish script, trying to make sense of it all. Her uncle Andrew had died? He had been over sixty, but had been a robust man, a busy one. They had just started to connect as family and now, he was gone. That he had not suffered was comforting to know. He’d been her only living relative. There was no one else.

She reread the date. 15 November 1814.

For several heartbeats, she couldn’t breathe.

She’d already had too much of death over the past two years: her father, then that wee being whose heart had not lasted past a week, and finally her wastrel of a husband . . .

Each death had thrown her life deeper into chaos.

And now she’d lost Andrew, who had been kindness itself when she had so needed a friend. He’d been gone . . . what?—she did a mental count—for at least three months? What must Reverend Summerall think of her? He’d written and she’d not made any reply.

Worse, she wouldn’t have known at all if she’d not come upon this letter by mistake.

The back was addressed to her, care of Lord and Lady Latimer. Someone had broken the seal, read the contents, and stuffed it into the desk drawer without one word. Her uncle’s death had been dismissed—and for what reason?

Gemma looked around at the room’s new furnishings. The drapes, the carpets, the overly ornate furniture. It had all been paid for with her father’s money—money that by all that was fair was hers. However, the law had handed it over to her husband, as had been her father’s wishes.

Then, when Paul Estep had died, he had left no will. Scoundrels rarely did. The law had further tricked Gemma by granting what was left of her fortune to Reginald Estep, Lord Latimer, her husband’s brother.

Men had done this to her, she realized. Men had conspired together for reasons of gender alone to rob her of what should have been hers.

“Gemma, where is that paper?” Lady Latimer’s petulant voice commanded from the adjoining sitting room. “We wish to be on with our game, not sitting here waiting on you.”

“Maybe she is tippling,” another female voice said. “You know how the Northerners are.” Her silly remark was met with giggly agreement because they had all been growing rosy-cheeked off the butler’s special punch.

Gemma tightened her hand into a fist around the letter. Their husbands would never disgrace them by dueling over another man’s wife. Their husbands were alive so they had a place in society. Their husbands saw to their bills.

Those women believed they were superior to Gemma in every way because she’d made the error of falling for Captain Paul Estep’s handsome face and believing his lies, including the vow