Indelible Memories – Estelle’s Story
The Matriarch has spoken and what a glorious story she tells!
Three quarters of a century in-between.
Jerry Reid. Roland Ascot. Harry Bennington. We’ve met the men throughout the eleven books in the Indelible Love series. “Reid” how they come to win Estelle’s heart and hand.
This is the last story in the Indelible Love series. What a thrill ride it has been for all us Reiders. You can’t miss this last story. It’s truly the sweetest one of them all.
(Here is an excerpt from the book)
“Estelle? My love?” At my old age, it shouldn’t make me so damn giddy to be able to call my wife, my love, but it does. To think that stern Duke Bennington was giddy would make all my cronies laugh their arses off. I’d become a damn fool over a woman.
“Did you have something to say or did you need to practice my name to keep Alzheimer’s at bay?”
“You always were a cheeky one.”
Every time she smiled, she added another day to my life. I fell in love with her smile when I first met her. More than seventy years later, her smile still makes my heart beat as if I’d just ran the 100-meter dash.
“Well? Did you have something to say?”
“Your beauty blinded me for a moment there, my love. I’d forgotten why I called you out.”
“Harry,” Estelle gave me her no nonsense tone. “At our age, when you say things like that, I don’t know if you’re serious, or seriously ill. Don’t kid.”
“Where’s your sense of humor, Woman?” That look told me to get on with life. “Do you have it in you to take one last trip to London?”
“London? Why, what’s wrong?”
“I think Michael needs us.”
“Of course, Harry. He’s the last of our grandchildren to get married. We need to help him any way we can.”
“I’ll fuel up the plane?”
“I’ll get our bags ready.”
I brought this woman into my arms to make sure this was all real. “I thank God every single day for you. I never thought we would be possible.”
“I surely wasn’t thinking I’d outlive two husbands and marry for a third time. It was a complete surprise when you showed up in our backyard and demand that I marry you.”
I grinned. “That was the best damn decision of my life. I have to thank your family and mine for all the behind the scenes work, but it was all me where our wedding was concerned. I knew you’d be mine one day before I died.”
“I cannot concur, Husband. Not to sound so cynical, but another marriage was not on the horizon for me. How the hell did our grandchildren come up with this idea?”
“It appears Michael reached out to Chloe, and then the two reached out to Jake and Emily. From there, it became a Reid-Bennington family project.” I watched my wife pack two small bags for us. “Tell me, Estelle. Why did you refuse my first and second offer of marriage? Was it only because of Jerry or was there something I could have done to change your mind?”
Estelle looked up and thought about her answer. “How about you sit and listen while I talk and pack? Let me tell you what happened from the day you met me to the day I married Jerry.”
“Damn. I’m bloody glad I lived long enough to hear this story.”
“Do you remember when we first met?”
I raised my eyebrow and showed her my disapproving duke face. “Do you want me to recall what you were wearing and what your hair looked like? I could, you know. I remember it like yesterday.”
“All right. Let’s head back to just before my eighteenth birthday when I walked into your summer home.” Rather than pack, Estelle sat across from me and started her story. “My family was wealthy, but nothing like your family. Before we arrived, all my parents could talk about was you and I becoming betrothed and that made me already dislike you. The last thing I wanted to do was marry—you or anyone else. I wanted to attend the uni and have a career. I didn’t want to be like the other girls and settle down with a family just yet.”
“And yet you did with Jerry. What the hell did he have that I didn’t?”
“Persistence!” Estelle exclaimed. “Had you shown me a little more interest, Jerry would not have so easily won my hand.”
“What in the devil are you talking about, woman? I chased after you like a dog in heat. I made a complete fool of myself that week at the house party.”
“But then you all but forgot me.”
“I think you’re getting this story all wrong. Let’s go back and recreate what happened, my love. As far as I remember, I chased after you with all my might and you kicked me away for that damn commoner.”
Estelle laughed in challenge. “All right, Husband. Let’s reminisce, honestly, and shall we place a little wager?” I nodded in agreement. “If after recalling our youth, you were wrong, you can finish all the packing.”
“And if you are wrong, Wife, you will tell me that you love me more than Jerry or Roland.”
Now, my wife was laughing hysterically. “Game on, Harry.”
“Mother! I don’t want to marry this Harry Bennington.”
“I don’t care what you want, Estelle. You will marry him. He’s going to be a duke! What English girl doesn’t want to become a duchess?”
“That’s enough, Estelle. I want to see a smile on your pretty face the entire week we’re here. If Harry doesn’t work out, there are future earls and barons in this group. Why I was told one of the princes might attend the Bennington house party.”
I decided there was no point in listening to Mother speak. She wasn’t listening to me so why should I give her the same courtesy? In this day and age, I couldn’t believe how old-fashioned she was. So many women attend unis here and in America. I should have applied to an Ivy League college in the States rather than the ones here. Then, I could get away for a few years. Though, in reality, neither Father or Mother would allow me to move away. That would be scandalous in their minds.
“Do you remember Harry Bennington, Stella?”
“Not really, Mother. Is he someone I should remember?”
“He’s the duke’s son. He was always such a handsome and well-spoken boy. I thought you might remember who he was.”
“I’m not crazy about being here, Mother. We were invited to two other house parties; why’d we have to come here? We could have gone to my best friend, Lottie’s party. Hers would have been more fun. I would at least know somebody there.”
“I think, for your sake, this is the better one to attend. Who knows? You might become a future duchess after this weekend.”
My parents, especially Mother, wanted me to get married rather than attend more school. They claimed it was highly improper for a woman to be too smart. She’d never get married if she was smarter than her husband, according to Mother.
I thought that was a ridiculous and old-fashioned way of thinking. We were in the twentieth century. Who went around prohibiting their daughters from getting an education? As much as I didn’t want to, I had no choice but to come here; I might as well enjoy myself.
“George. Penelope.” My parents received a warm greeting from His and Her Graces Bennington. “Oh my goodness, is this Estelle? You’re even more stunning than I remembered. I assume you are not married?”
“What?” I asked in shock. “Why would you believe I was married?” The way I said that word was rude; Mum was horrified. If I didn’t want a scolding from either parent, I needed to change my attitude. “Oh, no, Your Grace. I don’t plan to marry until after I’ve finished my studies at University College of London. I may even do post-graduate studies in the States.” I’m unsure if anyone else heard Mum groan, but I sure did. I considered that a huge victory. I was onto her matchmaking schemes. She was not marrying me off this weekend or any weekend soon.
“Good afternoon,” a handsome boy/man about my age greeted us. His eyebrows slightly arched, in a pompous sort of way as he faced the duke and his wife.
“Harry,” Her Grace spoke with affection. “Let me introduce you to the Cowper family. This is George and Penelope Cowper and their lovely daughter, Estelle. Isn’t she beautiful?”
A round of hellos passed back and forth.
“Harry, you’ve grown into the most handsome of young men. Why you’re a spitting image of His Grace. You’ve grown so tall.” As expected, Mum was superfluous in her compliment.
“Thank you, Mrs. Cowper.”
“Harry,” his mother said, “I’m sure Estelle knows no one this weekend. Why don’t you show her the grounds and introduce her to the guests your age? Estelle just told us she’s attending UCL. You may see her on campus.”
Something about Harry was too aloof for me. Maybe it was the duke-in-training aura, but he wasn’t warm and inviting in the very least.
He put out his arm without saying a word and expected me to hold onto him as if he was my savior. He had another thing coming if he thought I was one of those simpering misses.
“Hi Harry. I’m Estelle.” I introduced myself and placed my hand out so we could shake hands as the men did.
Harry’s quick glare turned into an impassive stare. My hand obviously dumbfounded him because he stood, watching to see where my hand would go.
Who was this girl holding out her hand, asking me to shake it? Did she not realize who I was? I was the future Bennington duke. I did not go around shaking hands with women.
I stared at her thinking it would frighten her enough to pull back her hand. She showed no fear. What a daunting woman.
To beat her at her own game, I extended my hand, grabbed a few of her dainty fingers, that weren’t wearing gloves, pretended as if I was going to shake them, but instead, kissed them. Her sparkling blue eyes grew with the length of my kiss. What we were doing right now was scandalous. Had I done this back in my parents’ generation, her father would have demanded I marry this chit. Normally, the thought of being trapped into marriage would have had me running back to my London hideout. However, with this woman, the thought of being “trapped” was intriguing. In fact, I might even welcome it.
My lips finally let go of her fingers and exclaimed, “It’s lovely to meet you, Estelle. It’s not every day I meet a girl who comes to our house party dressed in trousers and wishes to shake my hand.”
I thought I might have glimpsed a blush. Somehow, she was able to turn that blush into fire. With an indignant tone she answered, “There was no dress code stated on the invitation. If you expected women to come dressed in their come-out party attire, perhaps you should have put it in writing?”
I schooled the chuckle that arose. From the little I saw, I knew laughter would only fuel her fire. However, I wouldn’t let her talk to me in such a haughty tone. She needed to be put in her place.
“Polite society assumes that ladies, who of course are of the upper class, wear dresses to a gathering. It doesn’t have to be your wedding breakfast attire, but this is a gathering of the upper crust. Yours might be one of the few non-titled families attending this weekend. My parents must be very fond of your parents.” That would make her understand her place.
“Pompous arse!” She didn’t even have the courtesy to whisper those words so others wouldn’t hear. She spoke loudly and clearly. “Excuse me, Your Highness. I think the cooks and maids are searching for their missing staff. I better go see to my duties so you’re not inconvenienced in any way.”
This impossible woman walked away from me. I couldn’t believe her high-handedness. Who did she think she was? Even princesses didn’t treat me this poorly.
As I watched her short, curly black hair bounce away from me, my pride wouldn’t allow me to chase after her. No matter how much this woman intrigued me, I wouldn’t fall prey to her games. I’d met plenty of girls who played all sorts of games to leg-shackle me to them. I would propose to the woman I wanted to marry, not to a woman who forced me to the altar.
Who in blazes did this guy think he was? Did he think I’d be impressed because he was titled? Sure, he was handsome, and sure, his house was grand, but his pompous attitude didn’t do it for me.
“Hello. I’m Roland Ascot. How do you do, Beautiful Lady?”
UGH! Another one of these silver-tongued men. He was probably titled and in need of a wife who’d add to his coffer or help advance his station.
“Hello.” I answered without much enthusiasm.
“How do you do?”
“I’m a little irritated right now, but give it a few minutes and I should be back to normal.”
He was trying hard to hide his amusement, but he wasn’t succeeding. “Well, Miss I’m-a-little-irritated-right-now-but-give-it-a-few-minutes-and-I-should-be-back-to-normal, do you have a shorter name?”
I had to hand it to him. This Roland Ascot had a great sense of humor. The giggles came out without my consent. “It’s nice to meet you, Roland Ascot. I’m Estelle Cowper. My friends call me Stella.”
“Stella is much more beautiful and a hell of a lot shorter than the name I thought was yours for the weekend.”
“Do you have one of those long names and titles like the rest of the gentlemen here? Am I to call you Your Grace, or Earl of some place, or Baron of some sort?”
“There are two other Roland Ascots before me, but I’d prefer you just call me Roland. In fact, for a woman whose beauty could launch a thousand wars, you may call me whatever you please.”
“You are quite the charmer, Roland Ascot III. I think I may tease you all weekend and use your full title.”
He placed his hands over his heart and said, “You honor me, Mademoiselle.”
Now this guy, with his sense of humor, I wouldn’t mind getting to know!
I was no idiot. I saw what had happened to Harry Bennington. I watched their entire exchange with a great big smile on my face. The future duke was too haughty for his own good. Nobody liked the attitude. In these modern times, men went to school to get an education so they can make something of themselves. A diploma wasn’t just for show, and a title meant very little.
“What brings you to this gathering? Are you here with a chaperone?”
“Would you run for the hills if I told you I was here alone?”
“Absolutely not. I’d ask you if you’d like me as a poor substitute for a chaperone.”
Her giggles were like a symphony playing the greatest concerto. I longed to make this woman giggle the rest of her life.
“What do you do, Roland Ascot III? Why are you here?”
“You first, Beautiful.”
“I’m here against my will. My parents are friends with His and Her Graces and thought it would be a sin to refuse their invitation.”
“Well, I, for one, am pleased your parents forced you here against your will. Otherwise, I would have been bored out of my mind with all this formality. You’re more entertaining than the circus act they have in the gardens.” As soon as those words popped from my mouth, I realized they weren’t the most complimentary. I wondered if she’d banish me like she banished Harry to his schoolroom.
Surprisingly, Stella Cowper giggled even more. It turned into a boisterous laughter that was even more melodious than her giggles.
“How can I possibly compete with a man breathing fire, or a woman walking from a high rope? You honor me with such compliments and flattery. I think I must watch out for you. You might seduce me before the weekend ends.”
“Hell yes!” I spoke too loudly. Our laughs attracted the wrong attention. I saw His Pompous Arse walk our way.
“Miss Cowper? May I walk you to tea? Your parents asked that I escort you.”
This haughty Miss was about to excuse me again until I spoke of her parents. Her face told me she wanted to tell me to go to hell, but she was respectful enough to abide by her parents’ wishes.
“I’ll see you around, Mr. Roland Ascot III.” She waved good-bye while Roland smiled like a besotted idiot. I saw the fun the two of them were having. She spoke to him, giggled for him, and laughed with him. All I received was an expletive and the back of her gorgeous head. I’d show Roland whose party this was, and who had the ultimate power.
“Here we are,” I led her to Mother’s favorite sitting room. She always claimed it was bright and airy, and had the best view of our land. “Tea is set outside on the balcony.”
“Thank you.” With a polite nod, she sat in the chair I held for her.
I understood this woman enough to know she was not about to pour tea for me, so I waited for the staff to do their duties and leave.
“Enjoy, Miss. Cowper. My staff worked hard to make sure you’d be pleased with the offerings at the Bennington House.”
She nodded once again and sipped her coffee with a look of surprise.
“How did you know I preferred coffee? I despise tea,” she let me know. I watched her take a small bite of the pound cake, and wanted to kiss the crumbs off her lips. This woman was innocently sensual.
“Does the coffee meet with your approval?”
She nodded. “It’s delicious. Who’s the purveyor? I must ask Father to procure some for our humble, untitled, family.”
This time, her sweet smile told me she spoke in jest. Perhaps this woman needed a cup of coffee and a pound cake to soften her.
“The coffee comes from Africa, but was brewed in the way the Turkish like to drink their coffee. I’m sure the duke wouldn’t mind opening his larder for the poor,” I jested right along with her. I, too, was rewarded with a giggle. “I think I might have placed my large foot in my small mouth earlier. If you’d allow me, I’d like for us to start again.”
With her lips embracing the china, those big blue eyes looked up from her coffee cup. I would have bartered my future dukedom to transform into that china cup. “Please,” I requested. She nodded her consent and gave me the opportunity to correct my earlier mistakes.
“My name is Harry Bennington. I am a third-year student at UCL, studying economics and politics. My parents earlier stated that you’re attending the same school? How very avant-garde of you. You must be incredibly bright to have been accepted into UCL.”
“Is that a sly way of complimenting yourself, Your Grace?”
This was the very moment I knew I wanted this woman—for life! One-and-twenty was too young for a man to marry, but as soon as my studies were done, I’d marry Estelle Cowper and make her my duchess.
“If the title fits,” I continued the joke. “What made you continue your education? Why put yourself through the obvious discrimination and deal with pompous arses who’ll look down upon you because you’re a woman?”
Withholding her laugh, she answered, “I don’t want to marry like all girls. There’s so much more to learn. Why settle down at eighteen and never know what life is like outside of England?”
“So it sounds like you’ll study on the continent at some point?”
“I’ll start at UCL, but would eventually like to transfer to a fashion school in Paris. I’d like to design clothes, jewelry, scarves, and belts— anything fashionable.” Her eyes turned dreamy. I’d like to think I put that look on her face, but it was her imagined future that made her this happy.
“That’s a beautiful and lofty goal. Have you designed anything before?” She splayed her hand and gestured to her outfit. “I created this.”
“Ah.” Now I understood why she was mortally offended with my statement. “It’s as brave and forward thinking as the woman donning it. You are fascinating, Estelle Cowper. Tell me more.”
“Well, there’s a lot more, but my parents will hardly allow me to attend UCL. I doubt they’ll allow me to leave for Paris. Speaking of,” she searched the door, “where are my parents?”
“I’m sure they’re having tea somewhere in the house. They’ll be just as well provided for, Miss Cowper.”
“I mean, why aren’t they here? Didn’t you tell me we were having tea together?”
“I believe I told you that your parents asked me to escort you to tea. There were no promises that they would join us.”
One eyebrow shot up. “Your Turkish coffee saved you from an earful, Your Grace. I don’t think this is proper—the two of us having tea and a tête-à-tête on the balcony.”
“Proper? You’re concerned about proper when you wore trousers and a blouse to a duke’s house party? I can’t imagine the look on your parents’ faces when they saw what you were wearing. That outfit, while beautiful on you, is hardly proper.”
No surprise, she was upset—again.
“You come to me with fancy coffee and sweet words, but all your offerings do you a huge disservice!”
Damn. She was mad, but adorable. I had to ask, “How did I do you a disservice?”
“It’s not me you need to worry about. It’s the future lady I worry for, you…you…cad! You sit there and praise my designs and my forward thinking, but in the end, you’re no different from my parents who encourage me to do well in my studies, but dissuade me from attending UCL. You’re all talk, Harry Bennington. Find another woman who’s interested in listening.”
Before she stood up and stomped out, she finished her cup of coffee. Perfect. She was perfect for the role of the future Bennington duchess. I’d found my future in a fiery, dark-haired, blue-eyed maiden. I’d make her mine before this house party ended.
“Jackanapes. Cad. Imbecile.”
Did he think a fancy cup of coffee and some teacakes were going to fool me of his real character? For a brief while there, I thought I finally met someone who understood me. He seemed to be a kindred spirit of sorts. Until, of course, I realized he was no different from all the other men and women. They all thought men and women had roles that couldn’t change. I’d forever be fighting to assert my right as an accomplished human being.
Whatever! I was done with Harry Bennington.
“Stella? Whatever are you doing out here by yourself?”
“Hello Mother. I’m headed to my room is what I’m doing. Why are you not at tea?”
“Why are you not with Harry?”
“You knew?” I accused.
“Of course I knew. Did you think a man like Harry would be in a room with you all alone without asking our permission?”
“Mother.” I was so tired of telling her the same thing. “This is the twentieth century. A man and a woman can have a private conversation without expecting to walk down the aisle. We are friends, though no longer.”
I walked off before she could ask more questions.
“What?” I bit out a little too angrily.
“Whoa, what’s wrong?” Roland stepped into me and pulled a ringlet of hair behind my ear. “That pompous arse bothering you again?” I started laughing hysterically at his statement.
“How did you know?”
“Harry Bennington has that effect on people.”
“And what would that affect be?” Harry asked ominously. Damn. I didn’t know he was nearby.
“Angering women and children.” Roland answered with a straight face. I couldn’t help but laugh again.
“Gentlemen, I haven’t finished my tea/coffee and when I’m hungry and parched, I tend to get a little cranky. Let’s play nice and enjoy our afternoon respite.”
I didn’t care if they followed. I chose to walk toward the garden and join the rest of the party.
“Why don’t you and Roland join me in the sitting room? It’ll be quieter and I was told that the coffee was delicious.” I continued to walk outside, ignoring the voice behind me. I was almost there when Harry grabbed my arm and asked, “Please?”
What could I do? “Oh, all right,” I agreed, “but only if Roland Ascot III can join us.”
Harry led us all to our unfinished feast.
“Beautiful, you ran off before telling me anything about yourself,” I started the conversation.
“I believe I followed a man who promised me tea with my parents,” she accused Harry while sipping her coffee. I’d never met a woman who enjoyed this bitter drink. Estelle Cowper was no ordinary woman.
“Never follow a duke. He’ll promise you the world, but eventually will do only what he wants. That’s how they breed them.” I spoke in part-jest.
Harry was giving me his stately, duke-worthy glare. “If that’s how dukes are bred, then how are the sons of Barons bred?”
“I thought you were a nobody, like me.”
“I am a nobody. The Ascots aren’t noble by blood. My grandfather earned a barony after fighting in the war. Whoever acknowledges anything less than an earl nowadays?”
“Well, I personally think being titled is ridiculous. A man or a woman should be judged on his or her merit, not birthright.” This woman was one after my own heart.
“You are absolutely correct. I couldn’t agree more.”
“That’s what women say until a dukedom is promised with marriage.” Harry was always so sure of himself. That would be his downfall with Stella.
“Beautiful, I believe this conversation was about you?” I preferred to hear Estelle talk to Harry’s inane gibberish.
“I’ve been accepted to UCL and I hope to attend as soon as this house party is over.”
“Brava!” I congratulated this extraordinary woman.
“That is, of course, assuming my parents will allow me the honor of joining my fellow students.”
“You parents want you married by the end of this weekend and with child by the end of the month?” I kidded.
The smile was unmistakable. “You are all knowing, Roland Ascot III.”
“I wouldn’t go as far as all knowing. Just observant. What do you think of Miss Cowper’s achievement, Harry?” Knowing how old-fashioned the Bennington family was, Harry’s answer was sure to put him on the outs with Estelle for good.
Roland Ascot was as challenging as ever. He was doing his damnedest to put me in a difficult spot with Estelle. I’d show him how we dukes were really bred. “I would love to have Miss Cowper join me as a fellow student at UCL. Then, I could be in her lovely company all the time.” Those words hit all the right notes. Estelle’s eyes widened in surprise. Roland glared at me in disgust.
“I thought you didn’t approve of forward-thinking women? Shouldn’t we all flounce around in dresses and give parties in our London townhouses?” Estelle was ever challenging. That was one of her more exasperating, but adorable traits.
“Can’t I want the best of both worlds? An educated wife who is able to enjoy a hobby, as well as one who could give parties in our London town home and our summer home?”
“You’d approve of a woman studying?”
“I’d approve of her going abroad to study, too. Assuming, of course, that we were married and I went with her. Why we could take a year-long honeymoon on the continent before she started her studies in Paris.”
“You presume too much, Sir,” Estelle whispered. She understood my intentions. Fortunately, so did Roland.
“Maybe. Maybe not. I only speak of what I know I’d like to provide for my bride. If she wished to study, she could. There must be a happy medium, though. She must desire to further our family lineage. That’s a non-negotiable. Do my ideas meet with your approval, Miss Cowper? If you were a miss in need of a husband, would you consider my proposal and think it adequate?”
“I don’t know,” her voice was still lost. “I haven’t ever thought of proposals. I only know of what I’d like for my own life.”
“Well, if you’d accept a proposal like mine, you’d have no worries for your own life or of your parents’ desires. They’d have no say,” I sensed she was about to shut down my idea, so I added, “hypothetically speaking, of course.”
“Those are big words from a man who can’t do everything he wishes. You have no obligations to the dukedom? You can go around throwing out proposals to any woman you come across without approval from your father and grandfather?”
“I can do any damn thing I want, Roland. That’s how we dukes are bred.” I threw his words back at him. That would teach Roland to stop challenging me if he wasn’t ready to fight.