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When Rackley was 14 years old, her mother, who suffered from depression, contracted pneumonia, and left the mansion to receive treatment. From then on, Rackley took over the management of the household in her mother’s stead.
For eight years, from the age of fourteen.
During that time, she never left the mansion for a single day.
Other young ladies would go to their southern estates in winter and return in spring, and sometimes they wouldn’t go home for days when attending balls that lasted until dawn. However, Rackley was not allowed such liberties.
The poor Winner family’s estate was barely enough to maintain the mansion that had been handed down from their ancestors. This meant there wasn’t enough money to order new dresses for Rackley to wear when attending social events.
Furthermore, Count Winner was a strict and conservative man, who wouldn’t allow an unmarried young lady to spend nights away from home.
Feeling suffocated, the obedient Rackley never defied her father’s words.
In fact, she had always been busy looking after the household in place of her ailing mother, as well as frequently visiting her. She did not have the time to enjoy freedom like the young ladies from other families.
That was the life of Rackley Winner.
However, she would later realise that even that time was happier compared to the life that awaited her after her mother’s passing.
The time of parting came.
Her mother, whom she thought was holding on, gradually grew weaker and eventually passed away.
After the funeral, Count Winner suggested that Rackley visit her aunt, Violet Fitschell, for a while. Rackley was slightly touched by this, as she thought her father did not care about her.
One of the few people Rackley could rely on emotionally was her Aunt Violet.
During her mother’s illness, Rackley had kept in touch with Violet through letters. Violet was also the only person who sent her flowers in celebration when Rackley experienced her first menstruation to ease her panic.
Thinking that her father wanted her to find solace with her aunt after losing her mother, Rackley headed to her aunt’s house.
After leaving the capital and travelling for two days, she arrived at her aunt’s house in the countryside. Listening to stories about her mother’s childhood, Rackley found much comfort.
However, even the rest was uncomfortable for her. Knowing that the household couldn’t function without her, Rackley couldn’t bear the anxiety and returned to the mansion after just a fortnight.
But in the meantime, her place had disappeared.
The changed mansion was filled with unfamiliar servants.
In truth, Count Winner was not skilled in business. The family had been sustained by the dowry that Rackley’s wealthy mother had brought when they married.
With no money, they could only employ a butler, a cook, and a single maid. Although they had a carriage bearing the Winner County’s crest, they could not afford to hire a dedicated coachman. In the end, all the Count had was the mansion handed down from his ancestors, and they only used a portion of it to manage it with a small number of staff.
Recently, the Winner County’s investments had begun to bear fruit. Thanks to this, the constant frown on his face had disappeared. However, the returns on his investments weren’t enough to make such drastic changes to the mansion.
Upon seeing the drastically changed mansion, a surprised Rackley entered, and the new servants, recognising her as Count Winner’s daughter by her red hair, rushed to call the butler.
As she stood in dismay at the entrance, Count Winner appeared with an unfamiliar woman and a boy.
In the mansion’s central hall, where the unfamiliar servants and the butler were all watching, Count Winner introduced the two to Rackley.
“Greet them, Rackley. This is Rowena, your new mother. And this is your brother, Edward Winner. From now on, you are family, so get along well.”
Rackley stared at the boy, speechless.
The woman had black hair, but the boy had the distinctive red hair and green eyes of the Winner family. The red hair and green eyes inherited from Count Winner were proof of the family bloodline.
Rowena casually draped her shawl over her shoulders like a lady of the house, nodding her head in greeting.
“Nice to meet you. You can just call me Rowena.”
“Rowena, as the mistress of Winner County, you should be called ‘mother.’”
“Let us take it slow. We have plenty of time ahead of us. Edward, say hello to your sister.”
“Nice to meet you. I am Edward Winner.”
The boy, who had a handsome face that could be called a young gentleman, was at eye level with Rackley.
She felt as if lightning had struck right in front of her, a sudden shock. Her mind turned white as she instinctively understood the situation before making a rational judgement.
Her hands, clasped together, tightened.
“…How old are you?”
She managed to speak, suppressing her trembling heart. Fortunately, her agitation was not revealed.
Rowena glanced at Count Winner, and he answered.
“He’s 15 years old, the eldest son of Winner County.”
He would have been conceived when Rackley was seven years old. It was also the year her mother’s depression worsened, and she had to see a counsellor.
What was even more shocking was the count’s expression.
Count Winner, with a face full of pride, patted Edward’s shoulder heavily. It was the face of a father with a dependable son, a face he had never shown her before.
“Rowena is now in charge of Winner County’s household, so you should prepare for marriage. There will be no more shame in attending a party with a protector who doesn’t even have a title. From now on, Rowena will help you prepare for your marriage, so be careful not to cause any more gossip.”
“Yes, leave it to me. I will find a suitable husband for Winner County.”
The person Count Winner disdainfully called a title-less gentleman was her cousin from her mother’s side, Daniel Holton. Whenever Rackley attended a party and Count Winner was busy, she had asked for help from her mother’s side, who Count Winner disliked.
But Rackley was more shocked by another word.
Rackley had always thought that she would inherit the county. She was the only child after all.
Although it was rare for a woman to inherit a title, there had been precedents. And Count Winner had not mentioned the existence of a younger brother all this time.
Her misunderstanding was justified, as she had not known about the existence of an illegitimate brother.
“That’s right; you should start preparing for marriage too.”
It felt like the ground was crumbling beneath her feet.
Suddenly, too many things had happened.
Her role had been taken away in an instant. The days she had spent striving to make the county succeed had been scattered in vain.
Though Count Winner was the first to mention marriage, Rowena’s influence was evident behind it. Rackley was no longer needed in Winner County.
As Rackley stood there, biting her lip, the butler stepped forward.
“Your Lordship, the young lady must be tired from her journey. Please allow her to rest for today.”
“Ah, I had not thought of that. I should have taken care of you. Rackley, you can go to your room now.”
“…Yes, then I’ll be going.”
Rowena’s voice was gentle and kind, as if talking to a child.
As Rackley slowly ascended the staircase to the second floor, she heard Rowena’s voice from behind.
“Ah, guide her to the new room. Her previous room is now Edward’s, the successor.”
The butler, Jean, had never guided Rackley before, but today he silently led the way.
As they passed the room her late mother had used, the door was open.
Rackley stopped in front of the room, overwhelmed by the unfamiliar scent.
Her mother’s room, which had preferred calm, tidy, and subtle patterns, was now decorated with garish colours. The room looked crude with too many colours, and the heavy rose scent from within was so intense that it made her head spin.
The elegant scent of her mother’s room was completely gone.
Rackley’s legs gave way, and she grabbed the doorknob, feeling dizzy and closing her eyes tightly.
Jean stopped but did not turn to look at Rackley.
“Count Winner has known Rowena Harkle for a long time. The late Madam also knew about the existence of young master Edward.”
Rackley’s eyes burned, and she bit her lip hard.
She must not cry.
She could not show her tears here.
“I apologise for not informing you earlier.”
Rackley finally understood.
A considerable sum of money was sent to Lady Harkle each month under the guise of a donation. When Rackley suggested reducing the donations due to their meagre household budget, Count Winner strongly objected.
At first, he cut off her curiosity by saying it was none of her concern, and later, he explained it as a debt to be repaid to the family.
So, she thought there was a story only her father, the Count, knew. As he was not the type to share details even if she asked, she put her curiosity aside.
Because they were family.
At the beginning of the year, during the Winner household gathering, relatives always tried to push their children as successors and eagerly sought faults in Rackley while speaking ill of her.
Each time, Count Winner defended her, saying she was doing well and not to mention it.
‘It wasn’t because he trusted me.’
She thought it was because Count Winner believed in her, but that was not the case.
After the death of the Countess, he had used Rackley as a shield to bring in his legitimate son.
Under inheritance law, illegitimate children are not recognised as heirs and are excluded from titles and inheritance. However, if the legal wife dies and a lover is taken as a stepmother, the illegitimate child is also recognised as a legitimate bloodline.
In other words, Count Winner had been waiting for his wife’s death and hiding his son all along.
From the beginning, he never considered Rackley as his successor or even as his child.
If he at least thought of her as a child and held affection for her, he couldn’t have acted like this.
He would have considered how much pain she would suffer when he brought Lady Harkle and her son.
“Ellyne… What about Madam Joel?”
As she asked about the names of the servants who had stayed by Rackley’s side during difficult times, Jean sighed.
“Lady Harkle dismissed her, saying they lack dignity.”
A dark shadow crossed her face.
“…There shouldn’t be enough money in Winner County for all of this.”
“Recently, the profits from the investment in the Raba Trading Company have come in greatly. Ah, and Mr. Daniel Holton asked to be contacted when you return.”
“I understand. I will do it later.”
Hesitating, Jean began to say, ‘And…’ then continued.
“I’ve been promoted to head butler.”
Jean blushed, pleased with the news. The misfortune of the young lady he served did not matter to him. Becoming head butler as the number of servants increased was a more important issue for him.
Rackley felt what human nature was like that day.