Hong Kong, 1859
Ralph heard the whispering outside his door. They were wondering whether or not to wake him, as if they believed he were a baby. He’d just turned five and was old enough to understand what the word ‘dead’ meant. He didn’t know why they were talking about it in the same sentence as his father, though. He wished Papa would come home so he could explain it to him. He clutched on to the toy soldier his Aunt Caroline had sent him for his birthday and scrunched his eyes closed. If he could get back to sleep then maybe they’d stop whispering and Papa would come home and they could finish painting his soldiers. The door opened, they must have decided to wake him up. His nurse gave him a bright smile and told him to pack as he was going on a trip to England. He would be living with his Aunt Caroline and her husband. Ralph was confused, he lived here with Papa, and England was far away and very cold and always raining. He and Papa joked about it and sent his Auntie a coat every birthday. Finally he began to cry. He didn’t understand and nobody would explain it to him.
Liverpool, England, 1860
The Countess was cold. It was early February and any hope of an early spring had been dashed by a recent dusting of snow. It looked like the sugar on the top of a cake and crunched musically underfoot. It was also as cold as anything the arctic could produce, and standing on the docks in the bracing wind, so cold she’d given up her tirade as her face was freezing into position. Her husband had been against her meeting the boy from the boat. Her husband, she thought bitterly, had been against having the boy at all. He had gone to boarding school from a young age and it had never done him a lick of harm, he had said. Well, they would have to disagree on that score. The poor orphaned boy had been put into Caroline’s care and the only way to stop Caroline herself from posting to Hong Kong to retrieve him was to meet him at the boat today. Sophie and Caroline had protested against the Earl’s original decree that he couldn’t have a small boy in the house as it would upset Caroline in her delicate state. Caroline had been as cross as crabs and had told him that she was merely pregnant, not ill and perfectly able to deal with little boys no matter what their age. Her meaning had been perfectly clear. The Earl had blanched at Caroline’s use of the word ‘pregnant’ and had stammered and stuttered until his red face had caused Caroline to laugh. Sophie had intervened and announced that she would be taking little Ralph into her care so none of them had any need to worry. Nobody had dared countermand her and the matter was settled. Her husband had been grumbling about the unwashed people she would find waiting on the docks and what would become of her. Sophie was unconcerned, she had been scaring people with a mere raised eye brow since her fifteenth birthday and judging by the nervous glance she was receiving; her imposing figure was having the desired effect today. Beside her, her step son shifted. Better mannered than his father, he had insisted on accompanying her today. Julia had made noises about joining her Mama on the trip to pick up the poor orphaned boy but had decided against it. She had recently given birth and her humours simply couldn’t stand such a journey and the stress that may be involved in such a scene. Although Edward was technically only her step son, he was secretly Sophie’s favourite child. He had insisted on accompanying her on this trip as Ralph was slated to be in his wife’s care. Thus he felt it his duty to meet the boy. Sophie had smiled at his sweetly absurd statement. She knew, and he understood that she knew, that his escort was to see her safe. He was an Adorable boy, far nicer than either of her natural children. Tall, pale and rangy, Edward looked as though somebody had forgotten to colour him in and did not cut an imposing figure. Shy at the best of times, he had started to stammer again on the trip up north as he hadn’t since his father had mentioned his entry to the Lords several years ago. Knowing how nervous the trip into the unknown made him, and that he did it anyway to protect her and his pregnant wife made her proud. Sophie brightened as she spotted two figures walking towards them. The young man was unnaturally grim faced and greeted his mother and step brother with a cursory hug. The small boy by his side was wide eyed and clung tightly to James’s hand as they began to move towards their transport. Sophie’s heart went out to