The Redemption of Julian PriceBy: Victoria Vane
Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, 1807
TINY RIVULETS OF PERSPIRATION trailed a path down the shallow valley beneath Henrietta’s bodice. She shifted in the pew, her underskirt clinging to her thighs. It had been the warmest August she could recall, but this day seemed the most stifling of them all. The church was crowded, airless, and growing increasingly oppressive as the vicar of St. Michael’s droned on about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego while mopping his brow with a limp handkerchief.
In the pew directly in front of her, Julian Price tugged on his cravat and mumbled a curse. “Bloody hell, I’m roasting alive. Thomas,” he whispered to the boy beside him, “do you really suppose it can be any hotter than this in the pit of hell?”
“If you don’t reform your ways,” Thomas retorted, “you will surely find out.”
Julian seemed to take particular joy in taunting the vicar’s son, but Thomas always accepted his friend’s jibes with equanimity. Although Julian and Thomas were chalk and cheese, they were still the best of chums. If it wasn’t for Thomas, Julian would probably never have set foot in church.
Henrietta coughed to disguise a giggle, but the scathing look from Mama told her the subterfuge had failed. She passed the remainder of the sermon watching Julian fidget until the congregation stood for the Lord’s Prayer. The vicar had hardly murmured the final amen before Julian burst from the pew and bolted for the door, ripping at his neckcloth.
“Where are you going in such a fury?” Henrietta’s brother, Harry, called after him.
“To the lake,” Julian shot over his shoulder. “Come with me,” he cast a defiant look at Harry and Henrietta’s mother, “if you dare defy your dear mama.”
“Heathen boy,” Mama murmured with the special glare she reserved solely for Julian. “He’s become an abominable influence on Harry.”
“It’s hardly Julian’s fault, Mama,” Henrietta protested.
“I supposed it’s only to be expected.” Her mother’s ample bosom rose and descended with a heavy sigh. “That uncle of his is an absolute disgrace as a guardian. He always was a ne’er-do-well.”
Henrietta had never seen Winston Price, but whispered tales of his debauchery circulated frequently, growing more sensational with every mention of his name.
Although they’d spent many summers past enjoying Price Hall’s fishing lake, Harry and Henrietta had been forbidden to visit Julian’s home since his parents’ passing three years ago. Julian had been away at school in Shrewsbury when smallpox had ravaged the village of Bishop’s Castle, claiming the lives of his parents and baby sister, leaving Julian under the guardianship of his uncle. None too concerned with his responsibilities, Winston had placed Julian in the care of an unsupervised staff of servants. Left to his own devices, Julian had indeed run wild.
It wasn’t that Julian was a bad seed; he just had no one who truly cared about him other than his closest friends, Thomas, Henrietta, and her twin, Harry. The four of them had been nearly inseparable for as long as Hen could remember. Now she feared Mama would force her and Harry to sever the connection with him entirely.
It was shortly after they arrived home from church that Hen and Harry perceived the chance to escape Mama’s watchful eye. The opportunity had come with the arrival of the Ladies Auxiliary for the Michaelmas Fair, of which Mama was the chairwoman. Hen and Harry sneaked away right after tea, safe in the knowledge that their absence wouldn’t be noted for several hours. They set out on foot, passing through the wooded acres that divided the two properties.
The ornamental lake at Price Hall was located on the former grounds of one of the many motte-and-bailey castle ruins that dotted the Shropshire landscape. Old and crumbling, little of the original structure remained, but that had never prevented Henrietta and the boys from laying siege on the invisible ramparts.
Thomas and Julian were sitting along the bank of the lake with poles in hand when Hen and Harry arrived. Sighting his friends, Julian tossed aside his fishing gear and leaped to his feet. “So you came after all? I was beginning to wonder if you would.”