Surrey, England August 1815
Four plus six plus eight plus seven plus one plus one plus one, mark down eight, carry the two...
Elizabeth Hotchkiss added up the column of numbers for the fourth time, came up with the same answer she'd come up with three times before, and groaned.
When she looked up, three somber faces were staring at her—the three faces of her younger siblings.
"What is it, Lizzie?" nine-year-old Jane asked.
Elizabeth smiled weakly as she tried to figure out how she was going to put away enough money to buy fuel to heat their little cottage that winter. “We, ah... we haven't much in the way of funds, I'm afraid."
Susan, who at fourteen was closest in age to Elizabeth, frowned. "Are you absolutely certain? We must have something. When Papa was alive we always—"
Elizabeth silenced her with an urgent stare. There were a lot of things they'd had when Papa was alive, but he'd left them nothing aside from a small bank account. No income, no property. Nothing but memories. And those— at least the ones Elizabeth carried with her—weren't the sort that warmed one's heart.
"Things are different now," she said firmly, hoping to put an end to the subject. "You can't compare the two."
Jane grinned. “We can use the money Lucas has been stuffing away in his toy soldier box."
Lucas, the only boy in the Hotchkiss clan, yelped. "What were you doing in my things?" He turned to Elizabeth with an expression that might have been termed "glowering" had it not been gracing the face of an eight-year-old. "Is there no privacy in this household?"
"Apparently not," Elizabeth said absently, staring down at the numbers before her. She made a few marks with her pencil as she tried to devise new methods of economy.
"Sisters," Lucas granted, looking excessively put out. "I am plagued with them."
Susan peered at Elizabeth's ledger. "Can't we shuffle some of the money about? Do something to stretch it a bit further?"
"There's nothing to stretch. Thank goodness the rent on the cottage is paid, or we'd be out on our ears."
"Is it really as bad as that?" Susan whispered.
Elizabeth nodded. "We've enough to last the rest of the month, and then a bit more when I receive my wages from Lady Danbury, but then ..." Her words trailed off, and she looked away, not wanting Jane and Lucas to see the tears pricking her eyes. She'd been caring for these three for five years, ever since she'd been eighteen. They depended on her for food, shelter, and, most importantly, stability.
Jane nudged Lucas, and then, when he didn't respond, jabbed him in the soft spot between his shoulder and collarbone.
"What?" he snapped. "That hurt."
" 'What' is impolite," Elizabeth said automatically. " 'Pardon' is preferable."
Lucas's little mouth fell open in outrage. "It wasn't polite of her to poke me like that. And I'm certainly not going to beg her pardon."
Jane rolled her eyes and sighed. "You must remember that he is only eight."
Lucas smirked back. "You're only nine."
"I shall always be older than you."
"Yes, but I shall soon be bigger, and then you'll be sorry."
Elizabeth's lips curved into a bittersweet smile as she watched them bicker. She'd heard the same argument a million times before, but she'd also spied Jane tiptoeing into Lucas's room after dark to give him a goodnight kiss on the forehead.
Theirs might not be a typical family—it was just the four of them, after all, and they'd been orphans for years—but the Hotchkiss clan was special. Elizabeth had managed to keep the family together five years ago when her father had died, and she was damned if she'd let a shortage of funds tear them apart now.
Jane crossed her arms. "You should give Lizzie your money, Lucas. It isn't right to hoard it away."
He nodded solemnly and left the room, his little blond head bowed. Elizabeth glanced back up at Susan and Jane. They were also blond, with the bright blue eyes of their mother. And Elizabeth looked just like the rest of them—a little blond army, they were, with no money for food.
She sighed again and leveled a serious stare at her sisters. "I'm going to have to marry. There is nothing else for it."
"Oh, no, Lizzie!" Jane shrieked, jumping out of her chair and practically clambering across the table to her sister's lap. "Not that! Anything but that!"
Elizabeth looked at Susan with a confused expression,
silently asking her if she knew why Jane was so upset. Susan just shook her head and shrugged.
"It's not that bad," Elizabeth said, stroking Jane's hair. "If I marry, then I shall probably have a baby of my own, and then you get to be an auntie. Won't that be nice?"
"But the only person who's asked you is Squire Nevins, and he's horrid! Just horrid."
Elizabeth smiled unconvincingly. "I'm sure we can find someone besides Squire Nevins. Someone less... ah... horrid."
"I won't live with him," Jane said with a mutinous cross of her arms. "I won't. I'd rather go to an orphanage. Or one of those horrid workhouses."
Elizabeth didn't blame her. Squire Nevins was old, fat, and mean. And he always stared at Elizabeth in a way that made her break out in a cold sweat. Truth be told, she didn't much like the way he stared at Susan, either. Or Jane, for that matter.
No, she couldn't marry Squire Nevins.
Lucas returned to the kitchen carrying a small metal box. He held it out to Elizabeth. "I've saved one pound, forty," he said. "I was going to use it for—" He swallowed. “Never mind. I want you to have it. For the family."
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