After her mother’s death, Dora is sent to live with her father and his other family. But Dora is mixed race and illegitimate, and her step-mother resents her presence. After her father’s death, Dora is treated as little more than a servant. That does not stop her half-brother from abusing his position and Dora finds herself out on the street and pregnant….
She finds refuge in the local workhouse but when the child is born she rejects him and deposits him at his father’s house, for him to bring the boy up. Dora finds solace in helping in the workhouse infirmary, where she begins to employ the herbal remedies she learned from her mother. The doctors disapprove and other residents accuse her of witchcraft, but a lucky encounter with a philanthropic gentleman opens up the possibility of a new career for her. Can an illegitimate orphan find acceptance at the Nightingale School for Nurses? And will she ever be reunited with her son?
‘Whore!’ The venomous hiss carried all the violence of pent-up hatred. ‘Get out of this house. I knew from the moment my husband forced me to take you in that I would live to regret it. Your mother was a whore and you have turned out to be the same. Bad blood will out!’
‘My mother was not a whore, and neither am I.’ Dora’s voice shook, but it was as much with rage as with fear. ‘She loved my father and he loved her.’
‘She bewitched your father. There is only one name for a woman who seduces a married man away from his family and lives with him in sin, and that is whore. And now you have proved yourself as bad as her. How else do you explain your condition?’
‘I am not the one at fault here,’ Dora cried out.
‘Then who is? I suppose you are going to tell me this is some kind of immaculate conception, that the seed growing in your womb was planted there without your knowledge. That would be to add sacrilege to your sin.’
‘No.’ Dora lowered her voice, ‘I am not such a fool. But the fault is not mine. I was raped.’
‘Raped! Then why did you not report it? Who is responsible? Do you even know his name?’
‘Very well. It was Hector.’
‘Hector! You dare to suggest that my son did this to you?’
‘It is the truth.’
‘You expect me to believe that!’ Mrs Latimer lifted a bell from the table at her side and rang it violently. ‘How dare you make such an allegation? You were brought into this house when your mother died, against my will. But you have had bed and board here, and benefited from the same education as my own daughters, and this is how you repay me?’
A parlourmaid appeared at the door, her expression apprehensive. ‘You rang for me, madam?’
‘Is Mr Hector in the house?’
‘I believe he is in the billiard room, madam.’
‘Ask him to step in here for a moment, please.’
‘Very good, madam.’ The girl’s eyes slid from her mistress’s face to Dora’s and Dora thought she detected a smirk. She had never been popular with the servants, existing as she did in a kind of limbo between their position and membership of the family.
She turned back to Mrs Latimer. ‘I have always done my best to please you. I know you do not want me here, but I have tried to be of service.’
‘Huh! You have always had ideas above your station. But if you have tried to seduce my son …’
‘Seduce him! He is my half-brother!’
‘So we have been led to believe. I have always had my doubts about your true parentage.’
‘My parentage? You know …’
Her protest was cut short as the door opened to admit Hector Latimer. At nineteen years old, he was a pale, languid young man with limp fair hair and very pale blue eyes.
‘You wanted me, mama?’
‘My dear boy! A most monstrous accusation has been made against you by this … this ungrateful girl. I need to hear you deny it to her face.’
Hector’s eyes did not flicker. ‘What accusation, mama?’
‘That you are the father of the child she is carrying.’
‘Child!’ Hector’s gaze switched from his mother to Dora and for a second she saw an expression of shock cross his face. It vanished as soon as it appeared and he turned his eyes back to his mother. ‘Dora is with child?’
‘And she claims that it is mine?’
‘More than that. She accuses you of raping her.’
The blue eyes widened in an expression of injured innocence. ‘Rape! My dear mama! Can you seriously believe me capable of such a vile act? And with … with her, of all people?’
Mrs Latimer smiled indulgently. ‘Of course not. I just needed to hear you deny it in front of her.’ She turned her attention to Dora. ‘You have heard what Hector says? He denies it.’
‘Of course he does!’ Dora said bitterly. ‘And you believe him.’
‘Of course. My son is a gentleman. He would never stoop to such a vile act.’
‘And yet, it is the truth, and I have the proof of it here, in my belly.’
‘Disgusting creature! Get out of this house. You have no place here any more.’
‘But … but where shall I go? I have no other home, no money, no friends who will take me in.’
‘What do I care? You have forfeited any right to my consideration. You have told wicked lies and impugned the honour of my son. You have shown yourself no better than that whore, your mother. Get out, before I call John and William to throw you out.’