The fifth and final story in the unforgettable Brittler Sisters Series, Noelle is a grand adventure of quirky romance… and baking. 😉
Book Five in The Brittler Sisters Series
Noelle Brittler’s task is simple. Marry and marry well.
Emboldened by the successful marriages of her four elder sisters, Noelle is determined that she will have nothing but perfection in a suitor. She lives her day-to-day life, planning parties, organizing charity events and taking slow, wistful turns around the garden, burdened with dreams of a future that she feels is slipping away from her.
Kenneth Black is anything but perfect. Destitute from a young age, Kenneth has managed to make a name for himself. His Bakery, La Petite Paradis, is frequented by adverse clientele. He feels that even the wealthiest of lives can be made a little richer with the taste of something sweet.
When Kenneth rescues a young, attractive woman from a terrifying encounter, he never expects to find himself presented with an invitation to one of the most coveted events of the year— a 50th birthday celebration for the girl’s mother, one Samantha Brittler.
The Brittlers are notorious amongst the lower class for their wealth and standing. While Thomas Brittler, the owner of Brittler Steel, is a self-made man, just as Kenneth is, Kenneth is under the impression that he would not be welcomed at this event as himself, the lowly town baker.
Aided by the intoxicating Miss Noelle Brittler, he adopts the character of a well-known architect. Their plan seems to be working well, that is, until certain costly items begin disappearing beneath the noses of the many wealthy guests in attendance. There are cries of theft and everyone is looking for someone to blame…
As tensions rise and passions come to fruition, the pressure is on to find the thief and clear his name. He can’t have Noelle, but he’d sooner be tossed out on his ear than let her think him a thief.
Take a sneak peek at Chapter One!!!
Noelle heaved a sigh as she clambered from the Brittlers’ family carriage and stared down at its rear left wheel, which had sunk to its bearings in thick, dark mud.
The day hadn’t gotten off to a very good start. Firstly, she had been forced to sit through a deadly dull lecture provided at the courtesy of her father’s sister, who was visiting from England.
“Well, dear,” the woman had begun, squinting across the breakfast table to the place where Noelle sat, her fork halfway to her lips. “What are we going to do with you?”
Noelle raised her eyebrows at her aunt. Aunt Meldrid was a straight up-and-down, beanpole sort of woman with an incredibly long nose. Something, Noelle supposed, must come in handy, as she spent so much of her time poking it into other people’s business.
Noelle popped her fork into her mouth and took her time chewing, doing her best to ignore the steady tut-tutting that was issuing from across the table.
“It’s just you now, dear,” said Aunt Meldrid, still tutting and eyeing Noelle in the way one might examine a sprout in the garden tray that was refusing to grow. “Isn’t it about time you settled down? I wish you would let me set something up with Arnold’s great-nephew. He’s close by and,” she added, her bony cheeks pinching together as she grinned, “I’m told he’s quite proficient at the clarinet.”
Noelle had groaned at that point and glanced toward her father, who sat at the head of the table, his great fluffy mustache bristling behind his newspaper as he attempted to contain his amusement.
“Auntie, I hardly think that ‘proficient at the clarinet’ ranks very high on the list of qualities one might desire in a prospective husband.”
“Alright,” said Aunt Meldrid testily, sitting back in her seat and looking quite disappointed. “Why don’t you inform us what sort of qualities do merit recognition on this fabricated list of yours?”
Noelle choked on her eggs.
“Yes,” agreed her father cheerfully, slapping his paper down onto the table and turning toward Noelle with an entirely unhelpful amount of interest. “Do let’s hear what my delightful daughter requires in a suitor.”
Color flooded Noelle’s cheeks and she glared at her father, who still looked as though he were refraining from laughter with immense difficulty. “Is this relevant?” she asked him through gritted teeth.
“Oh, I should think it’s highly relevant,” said Aunt Meldrid. “How else would we ever manage to delve into the depths of your rather opinionated young mind?”
Noelle set down her fork and folded her hands in her lap, praying for patience. “Well,” she said, choosing her next words with care, aware that Aunt Meldrid would be analyzing each of them for a flaw that she could nit-pick to death. “I would say that kindness would have to be at the fore of the list.”
“Is that so?” said Aunt Meldrid critically, as though she didn’t think that kindness would be at all the sort of quality worth mentioning. “Will your future husband use his kindness to provide for you and your future children?”
“Perhaps,” answered Noelle. She was goading her aunt now. She couldn’t resist. The woman was insufferable. “I also believe that determination is a key concern.”
“Well, now, there’s something I can understand,” grumbled her aunt. She reached forward and took a sip of tea from a dainty china cup, her pinky in the air. “A man must be determined to succeed in every endeavor.”
“Including the winning of a woman’s heart,” Noelle added, nodding her head. Her aunt’s brief expression of approval slid into one of complete exasperation. She opened her mouth to contradict her, but Noelle was already talking over her. “I mean,” she said innocently, “take Father for example…” Thomas’s smirk fell away at once and he gave Noelle a warning look. “He positively refused to hear the word no in his pursuit of our Mother. I do believe he followed her round all of London until she agreed to court him.”
Her father’s shoulders rose in an embarrassed shrug, and he suddenly became very interested in adding sugar cubes to his coffee.
“Round all of London?” queried Aunt Meldrid, and her beak-like nose turned to Thomas Brittler, her beady eyes fixing on him with all the sharpness of a hawk spotting a field mouse.
“Yes, well,” Thomas blustered straightening his collar. “As you know, Samantha was involved in a number of charitable events through the season. I simply desired to accompany her.”
“After she had already rejected you? Was she not otherwise engaged with her duties?”
Thomas’s face grew red; he glared pointedly at Noelle, who grinned, fluttering her dark eyelashes. “What was it you said to her on your first meeting, Father? Didn’t you tell her that…”
“That’s quite enough talk on the subject, thank you very much,” muttered Thomas, leaping to his feet. He cleared his throat and pulled his napkin from his shirt-front. “Yes, I’ll see you both later,” he said, his cheeks still red with embarrassment, and he stomped out of the room.
Noelle tittered and continued with her breakfast, unaware that her aunt’s sharp featured face had turned back to examine her critically. “Another piece of toast?” she said, watching Noelle spread marmalade. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough? Your figure certainly doesn’t need any filling out.”
Noelle scowled at her aunt, then she looked her straight in the eyes and took a defiant bite, making sure to crunch it as loudly as she could.
She frowned at the memory of these callous comments and smoothed her hand over her flat stomach. She wasn’t heavy. Alright, she was a bit fuller around the hips and bosom than any of her three sisters, but they’d always screeched of how they envied her. She looked very like her eldest sister, Dianna, who was blonde and willowy with pleasant curves around her hips. Oh, darling Dianna. It felt as though everything had started with her. Noelle sighed again.
Her eldest sister had been gone for nearly two years, and one by one during that time, her other sisters—Sarah-Jane and Charlotte—had gotten married and disappeared. Well, that was what it felt like. They’d abandoned her to live their own lives with their perfect husbands, leaving her completely at the mercy of her mother, Samantha Brittler, and her Aunt Meldrid, who were practically the same person. Noelle loathed her aunt’s visits, which had become more and more frequent after Charlotte’s wedding in the Spring of 1886. Noelle had the impression that her mother had summoned her aunt so that they could work together to marry her off to whichever suitor they deemed most appropriate.
A sick feeling of ill-usage welled up within her and Noelle snorted. Marry her off indeed. None of her sisters had married just because they had been instructed to, and she was quite determined that she wouldn’t be the one to break the chain.
Flummoxed and irritable, she focused her attention on the problem facing her.
“It’s stuck good, Miss,” said the footman, Kincaid, bending low to give the wheel another fruitless tug. “I’ll need a half a dozen men to help me lift it back….”
Thunder rolled over the skies, making the world vibrate with its throaty roar, and Kincaid’s next words were drowned out. Noelle held a hand over her eyes and peered up the dirt track in either direction as soft raindrops began to fall.
“I suppose we should begin the trek,” she said dispiritedly. “Should we head towards home? Or towards the shops? Which do you think might be closest?” Wind whipped her skirts around her ankles as she spoke.
“Unfortunately, I think we’re about half-way in betwixt them both, Miss,” shouted Kincaid. “I don’t like to leave you alone, but I can’t ask you to ride all that way with me in this weather. Why don’t you wait in the carriage? I’ll bring someone back with me.”
Noelle frowned and glanced into the dark interior of the coach. “It’s a bit of a ways,” she said doubtfully.
“I can manage it, Miss,” said Kincaid, waving his arms and shooing her back under cover. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Kincaid had already slammed the door. Noelle watched him unhitch the horse and tear away into the downpour, her spirits sinking into the dark mud as quickly as the carriage wheels.
The weather showed no signs of easing. Noelle fidgeted in the damp interior of the carriage, leaning this way and that to gaze out of the fogged windows. If anything, the clouds overhead grew darker throughout the afternoon as the rain pounded relentlessly upon the roof. Noelle’s stomach gave a low growl.
An hour later, the storm broke like a fever in the night and the clouds split open. Sunlight glimmered down onto the rain-drenched landscape and Noelle had to shield her eyes from the sudden glare. “Really?” she muttered, staring accusingly up into the restless sky, “make up your mind, won’t you?”
Stiff from her long incarceration, Noelle threw open the door and stepped out into the muddy track. The surrounding landscape looked as though it had been sitting on the bottom of a lake. She glared up the road between the large factory fences on either side, searching in vain for a sign of Kincaid’s approach. Nothing. At this rate, she’d never manage to get to the shops and back before her mother arrived home this evening, not unless she was willing to walk the rest of the way on her own.
This particular stretch of road was not one that was usually favored by Manhattan’s wealthier inhabitants. Bordered by high, intimidating fences, it was well-traveled by the factory and mill workers, some of whom were certainly not the friendliest of sorts. Most of them were male immigrants from Germany or Ireland who had traveled to Manhattan in search of work. They were generally built of rough material, their language guttural and their manners crude. But as it was early on a Wednesday afternoon when Noelle had set out, she had never considered the route they had taken as potentially dangerous. Not until she heard the shrill whistle echoing over the damp air that signaled the start of the workers’ lunch.
On the path ahead of her, gates swung open in the fence line and men dressed in grubby work clothes began pouring into the streets. Most of them, Noelle saw with relief, headed toward the high street, no doubt in search of a quick meal in the marketplace. A handful remained behind, perching themselves on curbs and overturned crates to dig their stained fingers into their lunch sacks with dubious expressions on their faces. A small group of two or three meandered towards the carriage.
“Looks like someone ‘ad themselves a lousy morning,” laughed one of them in a thick accent, pointing at the trapped wheel.
Noelle stepped hastily behind the carriage, hoping they would pass by without noticing her.
“Eh, Jeb, look at the size of those caps,” said another voice. “Selling one of them would pay my rent for three months.”
“Aye,” said the Irishman, and Noelle saw three sets of heavy work boots halt on the other side of the carriage. “Aye, it would mine too. It’d be nice to have a wee bit of help now an’ then wouldn’t it?”
“You two keep a look out,” growled a third voice, and to Noelle’s horror, the third man leant down and began loosening the decorative hub caps on the rear left wheel.
“Excuse me!” she huffed, stomping around the side of the carriage. “I’d thank you not to make off with pieces of my carriage. What claim do you have on my hubcaps?”
The third man stood up so quickly that he rammed his head into the door handle. Rubbing it, he turned a furious glare onto Noelle, who realized her mistake as he straightened. All three of the men were large and brawny, and they leered at her with undisguised interest as she took a hasty step away from them.
“I reckon we have more claim on them caps than you do yerself, little miss,” said the Irishman to the left. “When is the last time a pretty thing like you ever lifted a finger to do somethin’ for herself?”
“You out here all alone, sweetheart?” said the broadest of the three men. He was massive, built like an ox, with bloodshot, baggy eyes, and at the moment, those eyes were wandering over her form with lecherous intent.
“No,” said Noelle, glaring at the three men as they slunk towards her. “My man will be back any moment.”
“Yer man? Surely you don’t refer to yer husband as yer man?” said the second man, and he let out a wheezy chuckle.
“Look at her, Diggy,” said the bear-like individual. “Pretty little thing thinks she owns the world. Any husband of hers would be bought and paid for just as well.”
Noelle shook her head in disgust. “Regardless,” she said, taking a few measured steps around the carriage and away from the mangy group, “as I said. He will be back any moment.” She moved gingerly around the patch of mud that had taken her carriage captive and slid into the tilted seat. “Good day, gentlemen,” she added. She made to tug the carriage door shut, but a large meaty hand had taken hold of the handle on the other side, and its owner was holding it fast. Noelle froze as the hugest of the three men bore down on her, smiling in a self-satisfied way as he watched her struggle to latch the door.
“Now then,” he said evilly, “you wouldn’t be wanting to be depriving us of your delightful company, now, would you?” And suddenly, his hand shot out. He took hold of Noelle’s wrist and shoved her forward with enough force to knock her to the floor.
“Careful, Jeb,” muttered the Irishman. “You don’t know who you might be messing with.”
“Yeah, we best keep moving along,” agreed the other.
“Shut up, both of you,” growled Jeb. “Keep a look out.”
Noelle scrambled away from the bestial man as fast as she could. Reaching the opposite side of the carriage, she fumbled for the handle behind her back, her heart leaping into her throat as Jeb hoisted himself in after her.
He was grinning now, his teeth pulled away from his lips in a malicious snarl. “You’re awful pretty to be left here all on your own,” he murmured, stretching out a hand and grasping Noelle’s upper arm. “What’d you say I keep you company until someone comes to fetch you?”
“Get your hands off me!” The sound was meant to be a shriek, but it came out as a breathless hiss, and it was cut off as Jeb clamped a rough hand down on Noelle’s lips. She bit down. Hard. And tasted blood. Jeb cursed and snapped away his fingers. Noelle filled her lungs and let out a hair-raising shriek.
He was on top of her, his horrible scent filling her nose and then, suddenly, he was gone. Noelle was so startled that she laid still for a full ten seconds, her chest heaving, then she sat up. There was a scuffling sound outside the carriage and Noelle heard an Oof! It sounded as though someone had just punched her attacker in the stomach.
Noelle slid out of the carriage door, her heart still hammering in her chest, and was momentarily confused by the scene before her.
“What’s all this? What’s all this?” said a voice, and the man struggling with Jeb took an abrupt step back. Jeb straightened, looking furious.
“Henry,” he said, turning to face a workman who was clearly a superior of some sort. “I was…” Jeb looked around for his mates, but the two men had already fled. Noelle saw the scruffy pair glance back at Jeb as they turned a corner and vanished down a side street.
There were again three men standing in front of Noelle. One of them, Noelle noticed with a rush of nervous interest, was very handsome. His face was red with exertion, and Noelle blushed as she realized that it must have been he who had pulled Jeb off her. He had to be just over six feet tall. His face was long, and structured as though the Lord had taken it upon himself to paint a perfect jawline. His hair was dark, and, at the moment, his eyes were narrowed in fury. When he glanced in her direction, Noelle felt her breath catch.
“He was attacking her, sir,” said her savior furiously. His dark eyes flashed back onto Jeb. Jeb looked mean. His hair was disheveled, and his face had turned a blotchy purple.
His superior appeared startled. “Is it true?” he asked, turning crinkled eyes onto Noelle. She nodded, tugging at her dress, trying to straighten it. She knew she must look an awful mess. And she noticed, as she lifted a hand to her hair-pins, that her fingers were shaking slightly. She felt numb, and rather cold.
“We’ll see what the constable has to say about this,” said the workman, and he seized Jeb by the collar.
“I ain’t going to the constable, Henry Berkshire, I’ll tell you that,” growled Jeb. He yanked free of his boss’s grip and turned to Noelle. “You ain’t heard the last of me, Miss,” he hissed, and he spat on the ground by her feet.
The man who had saved Noelle moved so swiftly, she nearly missed what happened. One second he was standing three feet away from her, and the next he had wrapped Jeb’s neck around his elbow and pulled him into a headlock.
“I think you owe the young lady an apology,” he said viciously as Jeb struggled.
“Could we have a bit of help over here?!” shouted the workman exasperatedly, waving his hands. Noelle looked around. Their little drama had drawn a small crowd of factory workers down the lane. Two men strode forward and seized Jeb’s arms. He jerked away from them, and lunged at Noelle, who felt her fist fly up as though of its own accord. As her hand made contact with Jeb’s nose, she felt—all at once—a sickening crunch, and a blinding pain in her fingers. Jeb dropped onto his knees, cradling his face in his hands.
“I think you broke it!” he squalled.
“I quite wish I’d done you more harm than that,” Noelle muttered, shaking out her fingers to ease the sharp pain. “Will someone please remove this man from my presence?” She looked up to see every man present giving her a startled look, then, slowly, two men bent down and heaved the hulking Jeb to his feet.
“You ain’t heard the last of me,” he spat again, blood pouring from both of his nostrils.
“Yes,” said Noelle, coolly, “You said that. Unfortunately, I must disagree. Goodbye, Mister Jeb.”
She didn’t pause to watch as Jeb was dragged away from her, still caterwauling to the high heavens.
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The Heart of Hope is a companion tale to Josephine Blake’s, Dianna!