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Healing the Endearing Marquess – Preview

Chapter 1

            Graham Evans, Marquess of Bolingbroke, took a deep breath in and let it out again slowly. His mount, Gypsy, whinnied and tossed her mane, happy for the chance to stretch her legs and enjoy the outdoors. Graham reached down and patted her chestnut neck. She neighed again and started to trot, willing him to give her her head and let her run. It had been a long, hard winter, and Graham knew she was eager to get out of the stables.

          A ride through Osterley Park had been just the ticket. He had been spending much of his time indoors in recent weeks. He had been called upon to tend to his father’s responsibilities after a prolonged illness had kept him abed for several weeks. But on this glorious spring day, his friends had set upon him in his study and talked him into taking a ride with them.

Graham smiled at his friends riding beside him. They were a boisterous group of young men, four in all including Graham. As the eldest of the group he had acted as the voice of reason on many occasions.

          Graham relished the cool breeze blowing in his face, the last of the winter briskness holding on before succumbing to the warmth of spring. Soon the buds would open on the trees, and spring would be in full swing. He gazed at the sprawling lawns and neat graveled pathways as they trotted along. The expansive park with its towering oaks was a popular place for couples to go courting. Graham loved this place. He had grown up riding and walking here with his family and friends.

          “​Look at us, handsome as we are! We shall all be snatched up and married by the end of the summer if we are not careful! Mark my words, gentlemen, Osterley is full of scheming young ladies looking for a good match,” James Canon exclaimed. His outburst drew a laugh from the group. James was the most outgoing gentleman in their circle of friends. He ran a hand through his short blonde hair and turned his freckled face to the sky as if to catch all the sunshine he could. Known for being something of a ladies-man, James had also acquired a reputation for being a card-shark and for drinking a little more than was good for him.

          “​Any woman who chose you for a bridegroom would deserve what she got!” Andrew piped up. Although he would be embarrassed to admit it, he envied James his charisma and easy manners at social gatherings. He was a more bookish sort, and would rather spend his time cataloging plants than practicing the more manly arts such as pugilism or fencing.

          “​I wouldn’t mind being ‘caught’ by a beautiful young lady this season, no matter what you all say,” Daniel interjected. He was by far the most handsome of the four, but his charm lay in not knowing his beauty. He was not a vain man, which is why he and Graham had been friends for so long.

          “​You are young, my friend. There is plenty of time to seek a wife after you have finished at Oxford,” Graham chimed in. He treated Daniel like a younger brother, having no siblings of his own. The young man had been at quite a loss when he first arrived at Oxford, and Graham had taken him under his wing.

          Daniel nodded and sighed. Graham tried and failed to keep a smile from playing at the corners of his mouth. “I do believe our friend has been struck by Love’s arrow, do not you agree gentlemen?” Graham let out a mischievous laugh. “Who is the lucky lady, Daniel?”

          Daniel blushed, “I don’t know,” he said sheepishly, shrugging his shoulders. He was easily embarrassed, making him easy prey for his friends.

          “​You don’t know?” James steered his mount towards Daniel and rested his hand on his shoulder as he pulled up next to him. “My good man, how can you not know?”

Daniel shrugged again, “I saw her walking out of church a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to get an introduction. She is a goddess, a positive Venus.” Daniel sighed.

          James burst out laughing. “You were right, Graham! Struck by Love’s arrow. My condolences, my good man.” He laughed again and raised a flask that was likely filled with brandy and took a long swig. He spurred his horse and caught up to Andrew, who was riding a few paces ahead.

          “Take it easy, James! You’ve been drinking steadily all morning,” Graham chided. James saluted him and placed the capped flask in his jacket pocket, patting it on the outside as if to promise he would not touch another drop for the duration for their ride. Graham smiled and took back the place at Daniel’s side that James had so forcefully pushed him out of. “Don’t worry, Daniel. I’ll help you find out who this Venus is,” he promised.

          Daniel nodded and thanked him. They trotted over a rise, their voices and laughter echoing across the bright green grass of the park. James was singing a popular tune at the top of his lungs, causing all sorts of ruckus.

          A flash of blue caught Graham’s eye from across the lawns, not a hundred yards away. He heard a trill of laughter as a group of three strollers came out from behind the trees and into the sunshine. First, a couple in their mid-fifties appeared. The woman walked beside her husband with her hand cradled in the crook of his arm. Trailing behind them was a young woman dressed in soft blue, her face buried in a book. Something about the way she moved made him give her more than a passing glance. After a few moments, she lowered her book, placed a slender finger between the pages to save her spot, and quickened her pace to catch up with her companions. She took the gentleman’s free arm and entered into their conversation, smiling as she went.

          She must have heard James’ obnoxious tune and looked up. Blonde curls framed her fair face, and for a moment, her eyes met Grahams’. Her gaze seemed to penetrate his soul. It was as if the world stopped spinning, frozen in time as they looked into each other’s eyes.

          The moment ended. She lowered her eyes and kept walking. Graham reined in Gypsy forcefully, something he had never done. He spurred her sides to get her to turn around, so he could follow this young lady who had cast a spell over him. He must meet her before she disappeared among the trees once more. Gypsy reared her front hooves slightly at the rough treatment and pawed the ground in protest.

          “Come on, Gypsy!” he whispered harshly and pulled the reins hard to the left. Gypsy reared up in earnest, squealed, and pawed the air with her front hooves. Graham fell backward. He put his right arm our to try and catch himself, but as he hit the ground, he heard a loud ‘crack’ as the bone broke. A searing pain shot through his forearm, but he had no time to wallow in pain. As he hit the ground, Gypsy took off at full gallop. His world sped by as Gypsy raced across the lawn. His foot was caught in the stirrup and try as he might, he could not get it loose. He held his broken arm as best he could and called out to Gypsy as she dragged him across the park.

          I’m going to die. The realization knocked the wind out of him. All because he had let his head be turned by a woman. For an eternity he was dragged across the grass, trying to stay conscious so that he might have a chance to free his foot from the stirrup.

Finally, Gypsy was caught and brought back under control. By the time Graham was freed, he lay unconscious.

 

Chapter 2

            Lady Arabella Weaver turned her head sharply at the sound of a horse’s scream. She watched as it reared and pawed the air, throwing its rider off its back. Her hands flew to cover her mouth as the horse dragged its’ rider across the lawns.

          Arabella sprung into action. Without thinking, she clutched her skirts and ran towards the unfortunate gentleman and his mount. The gentleman’s friends gave chase and caught up to the mare to stop her. Before they could reach her, however, the man’s foot had become untangled, and he lay still on the ground. For a moment Arabella feared the worst, but when she reached him, she saw his chest rising and falling. She sighed in relief and knelt beside him.

S​he touched his arm gently, “Are you alright, sir? Can you hear me?” she asked.

He stirred, opening one eye at a time. He tried to lift his head, grunted in pain, and let it fall back to the ground.

          “​Lie still. I can help you. Here.” Arabella used her handkerchief to gently dab a nasty gash that began on the right side of his forehead and ended above his left eye. He watched her, bleary-eyed.

          “​You’ll be alright,” she tried to comfort him. “That’s likely to scar, though.” She motioned to his head, and another grunt escaped his lips. It was then Arabella noticed he was cradling his arm. She bent and tore her petticoat’s lower hem, creating a long strip about six feet long.

          “​By God, is he alright?” her uncle exclaimed as he and her aunt walked up. Her aunt stayed back a few feet, as she was known to faint at the sight of blood.

          “​Help me sit him up, Uncle,” Arabella instructed. He quickly came around to the young man’s head and placed his hands under each shoulder.

          “​Do you feel able to sit up?” she asked the gentleman. He nodded. Her uncle lifted, and she helped steady him. He shook his head slightly to clear it.

          “​Thank you,” he said. He sucked in a breath when he moved his arm.

          “​Here, I’ll make a sling for your arm. Can you move it?” she asked.

          “​No, I think it’s broken,” he replied.

          S​he nodded and gingerly wrapped the cloth under his forearm, trying to stay clear of the break, and up around his neck. She tied the ends of the fabric around his neck, making sure to not make it too tight. For a split-second, their eyes met, and she realized their foreheads were almost touching. Arabella blushed and backed away.

          “​There,” she said, her voice shaking ever so slightly. “That should keep it steady until you get home.”

          He seemed to be more aware now, which was a good sign. She looked into his eyes once more, noting how the blacks of his eyes had almost swallowed the blue. She had expected as much. Arabella moved around to his back and placed a hand on his shoulder.

          “​I’m going to check your head, is that acceptable?” she asked.

          “​Yes.”

          S​he placed her fingers on the back of his skull, feeling for fractures. She could feel nothing except a knot forming at the back of his head.

          “​You’ve likely suffered a concussion. Is there anyone who can help you home?” she asked. Just then his friends arrived, all on foot. One of them had captured his runaway steed, and she was still quite agitated, pawing the ground sidestepping on nervous feet.

          “​My companions will assist me,” he replied. He tried to stand, and with her uncle’s help, was able to come to his feet. One of his friends came to his side and placed an arm around his middle to steady him. He led him to one of the mounts and helped him into the saddle. His horse would not be fit to ride for some time, she guessed.

          One of the gentlemen turned to Arabella and her aunt and uncle and thanked them for their help.

          Arabella nodded, “You’re welcome.” she replied. “Please, move slowly on your way. He shows signs of having suffered a head injury.”

          “​Thank you, we most certainly will,” he replied. He bowed and turned, placing his hat back on his head.

          And with that, the gentlemen set off at a leisurely pace, waving goodbye.

          Arabella and her aunt and uncle turned and headed in the opposite direction.

          “​I must say, my dear, it was lucky we were passing when we did. I don’t know how you do it. I’d be a heap on the ground if I had to tend to wounds such as those.” Her aunt shuddered and closed her eyes as if to keep out the memory of the broken man lying on the ground.

          “​You would have done what was needed if I had not been present.” Arabella laughed. “I do hope he’s well. He’s broken his arm, I do not doubt that. He’ll not be riding for quite some time.”

          “​Worse luck, that,” her uncle chimed in. “He’s a fine figure of a man. Do not you agree, Arabella?”

          She blushed slightly. “​Yes, I suppose he is.”

-​———

          “​Mother, it is my arm that is broken, not my legs,” Graham snapped. He had now recovered his faculties to the degree that his mother’s hysterics were beginning to annoy him. When they had arrived at the front door and his parents had been alerted to his condition, his mother had sent out two footmen to carry him to his room. He had refused, and instead Andrew and Daniel had helped to steady him. He intended to keep his last shred of dignity intact. Graham could have kicked himself as he lay there on the ground being cared for by the woman who had distracted him in the first place. He already felt a fool for spooking his horse and allowing himself to be thrown. He had felt the best course of action was to say as little as possible while she performed her ministrations to avoid making an even bigger fool of himself. Thankfully Gypsy had not injured herself, but he would have a lot of work to do to earn her trust back.

          Andrew and Daniel helped him up the marble staircase as James and his parents, Hugh and Juliana Evans, trailed behind. James recounted the story of what had happened, embellishing the tale as he went. Graham rolled his eyes but said nothing to correct him, being in too much pain to care. His father’s cane clicked on the marble with every step, reminding Graham of the sickness that had prevented his father from attending to the estate these last months. He again berated himself for his foolishness. How would he manage the estate for his father now? Even though his father had improved in recent weeks, he was still in no condition to take over from Graham.

          They finally reached his rooms where Andrew and Daniel deposited him on a lounge chair. He lay back on the cushions, closing his eyes against the throbbing in his head and arm. A footman had been dispatched to retrieve the doctor the moment the group appeared at the front door. Even so, it would be some time before the doctor would arrive.

          His mother fluttered around him, uttering all sorts of nonsense about his impending death. He ignored her hysterical chatter.

          W​hen the doctor finally arrived, Graham had James escort his parents out of the room. He wanted to spare his mother the distressing sight of his arm, taking great pains to keep it covered. The doctor took the makeshift sling from around his neck and peeled back the cloth that had stuck to the dried blood covering his forearm. Graham sucked in a breath but made no outcry.

          After cleaning the superficial wounds, the doctor examined the bone. Graham gritted his teeth at the slightest touch or movement.

          “It is indeed broken, but in only one place as far as I can tell,” the doctor announced. “I’ll need to reset it.”

          “​Do whatever is required, doctor,” Graham said. He was given a strop to put between his teeth to bite down on. Andrew and Daniel helped hold him steady as the doctor got into position. Graham’s muffled screams could be heard through the door as the doctor pulled and prodded the bone back into place. When the ordeal was over, Graham had passed out from the pain. Andrew helped the doctor move him to the bed and remove his tattered shirt. He came around a few minutes later, exhausted and miserable. The doctor made a draught of laudanum for him to drink that would numb the pain and allow him to rest. Graham drank it down in one gulp, scrunched up his face at the bitter taste, and fell back on the pillows. He was asleep within minutes.

          Andrew and Daniel silently left the room after gathering their coats.

          “​How is he, doctor?” Juliana asked, wringing her hands.

          “​He’s resting now. I’ve reset the bone, and it should heal in about eight weeks. I suggest he stay abed for a few days. He took a hard fall and may feel a bit dizzy if he tries to walk on his own too soon. I suggest procuring a cane for him to get around in. lest he gets dizzy.”

          “​Of course,” Juliana replied.

          “​It may not be a bad idea to hire a caretaker to assist him,” the doctor suggested as he put his coat on and prepared to take his leave.

          “​We’ll do whatever needs to be done to make sure he makes a full recovery. Thank you again for coming so quickly, doctor.” Juliana said as she showed him out.

          “​Of course, my lady. My lord.” he nodded towards Hugh and Juliana and departed.

          Juliana closed the door and returned upstairs to her sons’ room. She took a deep breath before she turned the knob and entered. A lone candle burned on the bedside table. The flame cast dancing shadows across her sons’ face, and as she made her way to his side she could see he was in a fitful sleep. She sat down in a chair that someone, most likely Graham’s valet, had thoughtfully placed there. She watched his chest rise and fall, just as she had done so many times when he was a baby. A tear streamed down her face. Although she rarely let him see her concern and affection for him, today had broken her. She could have lost him today, a mother’s worst fear.

          “​You’re going to be well,” she whispered, more to reassure herself than to comfort him.

 

Chapter 3

            Arabella rushed into the front room of her aunt and uncle’s home, slamming the door behind her.

          “​What in heavens’ name!” her uncle exclaimed at the loud noise. “What has gotten into you, my dear?”

          “​I found an ad for a nurse in today’s newspaper! I need to answer it right away.” Arabella went to the writing desk and took out a piece of paper. She untied the strings of her bonnet and reached for the inkwell and quill.

          “​Who is it for?” her aunt asked.

          “​It is to care for a member of the Duke’s family. It doesn’t say who, but I assume it’s for the Duke. I hear he has not been well for many months now.” Arabella did not care who the patient was. This was work, and she needed to do her share to help provide for them all. Ever since her parents, Lord and Lady Weaver had passed away, life had been difficult. Her aunt and uncle had graciously taken her in after the accident that had killed her parents shortly after her eighth birthday. They had cared for her as best they could, but her life had not been the pampered one she was accustomed to.  Although she was a lady by birth, her father’s debts were so great, no inheritance had been left for her.

          A​s a penniless lady, she had to either stoop to find work or starve. As she was fond of eating, she opted to work. She even enjoyed it. Nursing the sick brought in wages as well as a sense of purpose. Her easy-going nature and compassion made her ideally suited to the job of a nurse, and her patients loved her for it.

          “​Should you not think about this for a moment, my dear? Hounslee is a grand house and you would need to move there while you nurse the Duke. It is much too far to go back and forth every day,” her aunt objected.

          “​Aunt Helena, we need the money, do we not? You both have taken such good care of me these last ten years. I want to contribute. I have not had work for six months. I cannot sit by and let this opportunity pass me by.” Arabella turned back to the writing desk and began writing feverishly. She must act quickly before the position was snatched up by someone else.

          “​I hope you know what you’re doing, my dear. We will miss you,” her aunt went on.

          “​Oh, Auntie. I’m not leaving forever,” she said, standing to wrap her arms around her. “But you do agree we need the income? And I will come to visit. Just listen to me,” she said, laughing at her confidence. “I haven’t even been hired for the position yet. We will discuss it further when, and if, I receive the position.” Arabella waved off any further objections and sat back down to finish answering the advertisement.

          Her aunt nodded and retreated back into the kitchen.

          Her uncle Jacob sat and watched her write for a moment, puffing at a pipe contentedly. She was like a daughter to him and his wife as they had been unable to have children of their own. He and Helena had married against her parents’ wishes. He was a member of the lower class, a tailor by trade. Helena was a lady who had fallen in love and married below her station. She had been cut-off by her parents, but her sister Grace had kept in contact, even after her marriage to Lord Charles Weaver. They had visited often at Sutton Manor, the Weaver’s estate. When their niece was orphaned, they hadn’t thought twice about taking her in.

          “​There,” Arabella said proudly. She blotted the letter before folding it and addressing it to Hounslee. “I’ll just step out and post this.”

          Her uncle smiled and nodded. “I hope you get the position, my dear. I can see that it would make you happy, and it may afford you a look into the world you were born into.”

S​he turned then, looking at him with a look of profound distaste on her lovely features. She came and sat next to him on the couch.

          “​Why would you say that, Uncle?” she asked.

          “​I just mean you must miss your old life. Your aunt and I have always tried to provide whatever you needed, but I know my work as a tailor doesn’t come close to affording you the luxuries you were used to. His eyes were downcast, polishing the wooden pipe with his jacket as he did any time he was thinking.

          Arabella stayed his hands and made him look at her. “I don’t regret coming here, Uncle. You know I love you and Auntie dearly as if you were my parents. Of course I miss Mama and Papa, but I don’t miss the life I came from. I’m blessed to have had such family as you to care for me all these years. I like being able to care for people. It makes me happy. And it makes me happy to be able to make my own way in the world. I know I’ll never be wealthy doing what I do, but it makes me feel productive. “Don’t ever think that I would trade the life I have with you and Aunt Helena. Now, I must be off before the post office closes.” She gave him his usual peck on the cheek, snatched up her shawl, and was off in a flurry, just as she had come in.

          Uncle Jacob shook his head and smiled to himself. He was proud of the woman she had grown into. She had become a kind, compassionate, and independent young woman. A sadness washed over him. Soon she would marry and be taken from him for good. A woman of her beauty and character would not be single for long.

-​———

          The next day brought good news. The Duchess of Bolingbroke had personally answered her letter, offering her the position. Arabella hurried to dress and prepared to leave for the initial interview at Hounslee Manor. Her aunt and uncle waved from the doorway as she set off with a carpetbag holding two outfits and a few belongings, all she owned in the world. Her aunt’s eyes welled with tears as they hugged one last time.

          “​Don’t forget your dear aunt and uncle, now,” Uncle Jacob teased.

          “​You’ll be in our thoughts and prayers, my dear girl,” her aunt said, tears streaming down her face.

          Arabella smiled and laughed at their antics, “I’ll only be a few miles away. I will come to visit you whenever I can. You’ll see.” She gave them each a peck on the cheek and set off for the six-mile walk to Hounslee.

          Her spirits were high as she walked in the sunshine, surrounded by a cool breeze, to the Hounslee estate. She had never been to the grand house before, but she was optimistic as she listened to the birds chirping merrily in the trees and enjoyed the first buds opening their petals on this fine morning.

          She arrived at Hounslee by noon and was shown into the parlor.

          “​The Duke and Duchess will be in to receive you momentarily,” a footman bowed and left her, closing the door behind him. She looked around the spacious, sun-filled room and sighed. She would like working here.

          The door opened a few minutes later. The Duke and Duchess of Bolingbroke walked in, and introductions were made. They sat down near the fire and the Duchess rang for tea.

          “​Thank you for coming so quickly, Miss Weaver,” she began. Arabella did not correct her in the use of ‘lady’ before her name rather than ‘miss’. It was a title that she rarely used. And she certainly did not want to start the interview off by correcting her employer.

          “​It was my pleasure, Your Grace.” Arabella bowed her head slightly.

          “​Where did you receive your training?” was the next question from the Duchess. The Duke seemed content to sit back and listen to the ladies talk. Arabella guessed that it was the Duchess she must impress, rather than the Duke.

          “​I began working with our local physician two years ago and found that I enjoyed helping people. I nursed Mrs. Smith after she had complications with a difficult birth. I have been taking care of people ever since,” Arabella replied.

          Tea arrived, and the Duchess poured, handing Arabella the first cup. It had been ages since she had taken tea from such a fine piece of china. The memory of afternoon tea brought a tear to her eyes. Being in this grand house reminded her so much of the home she’d lost. She quickly pushed the memories aside in favor of the task at hand.

          “​You seem qualified enough for the position. What we need is someone to help him move around the house. You will also need to help him with writing letters and the various duties he needs to perform to keep the estate running in an orderly fashion. Are you able to do this?”

          “​Of course, Your Grace. May I ask, what is the Duke’s ailment?” Arabella looked to the Duke and seemed somewhat puzzled, noting that he was not in a wheelchair and had only had the assistance of a cane when he walked into the parlor.

          “​Oh, no. You are not here to care for the Duke. It is our son, Marquess Graham Evans. Come, we will introduce you to him.” the Duchess explained. They rose, and Arabella followed them from the parlor and into the sitting room across the hall.

          Arabella sucked in a breath when they entered the room. It was the man from Osterley Park!

          “​Are you well, Miss Weaver?” the Duchess asked as they walked over to Graham, who sat in a chair near the window, a book open on his lap. Graham looked up as they neared, and recognition sparked in his eyes.

          “​You’re the lady from the park,” he said, in a very undignified fashion. He caught himself and closed his mouth lest it hit the floor. “I mean, how do you do?” He smiled warmly and tried to stand.

          “​Please, don’t get up on my account. I see you have broken your arm after all. I’m sorry about that.” Arabella came forward and curtsied.

          “​Won’t you sit down?” he offered. She nodded and took the seat next to him.

          Juliana and Hugh stood back, somewhat dumbfounded at the easy manner in which the two young people had addressed each other.

          “​I take it you two have met?” Juliana asked, becoming uneasy at their informal manner.

          “​Mother, Father, this is the woman I told you about. The one who came to my aid after the accident. She was very kind,” Graham beamed at her.

          “​I did what a thousand others would have done,” Arabella replied, her hands folded decorously in her lap.

          “​I wouldn’t be so sure,” Graham argued. “It is not many people who know what to do when faced with injuries such as I sustained that day. I am in your debt.”

          Arabella waved off his praise and turned to the Duke and Duchess once again, “All I can say is, I would be honored to be of any assistance Lord Evans might need.”

          Juliana spoke up, thinking to dismiss the girl before any further damage could be done. Their immediate closeness had set her on edge, “I don’t think…”

          “​Well, I for one would be happy to receive the help,” Graham cut his mother off. “I have a great deal of work piled up from the last week and will need help writing missives and getting around this house.”

          It was Juliana’s turn to cut him off. “But my dear, will she be able to wheel you around? You’re not a small man,” She argued, grasping at any straw that would render Arabella unsuitable for the position. She should have asked for an older woman, someone who was married or a spinster.

          “​I’m stronger than I look,” Arabella smiled to reassure her.

          “​Well, it seems all is settled,” Graham replied, smiling at her. “You’re hired.”

          Juliana mumbled something incoherent at Graham’s pronunciation. She had been having second thoughts as the two chatted. She could tell Graham was attracted to the girl, and she wanted to remove her from the house as quickly as possible before any feelings could develop.

          “​My dear, should we not continue with the interview? We had barely begun when we came in to introduce you…” Juliana began.

          “​No mother, she will do splendidly. Do not you agree, Father?” Graham asked, never once taking her eyes off of Arabella.

          “​I do indeed,” Hugh affirmed. “Come, Juliana, let us leave the young people to get acquainted.” Hugh laced his arm through Juliana’s and nearly dragged her from the room. They turned and watched as Graham and Arabella sat, quietly talking near the window.

          “​I don’t like it,” Juliana said.

          “​Don’t like what?” Hugh asked. “He is a smart young man. He won’t allow himself to get entangled with a nurse.” He turned to leave.

          “​Did you not see how they took to each other?” She hissed, following him away from the doorway so as not to be overheard. “She is a beautiful young woman, and ambitious, by all I can see. What if she gets it in her head that she wants to be more than just a nurse? What if she sees an opportunity to trap a rich young man for a husband?” Juliana asked, jumping to the worst of conclusions.

          “​Do stop worrying, Juliana. She’s here to do a job, not snatch a husband. Why can’t women be more like men?” he asked teasingly. “Now, come along and leave them be. Why don’t you order some tea for them?” he suggested and walked back to his study where he had been reading the newspaper before Arabella had arrived. Juliana huffed in a very unladylike manner and stormed off. She would not be ordering them tea.

 

Chapter 4

            Graham stretched his left arm over his head and sighed. He took care to keep his right arm as still as possible as he got out of bed and padded over to the window. He had been despondent the last week. The day after he had broken his arm, the doctor had come back to make sure that the bones were still in the correct position. The swelling had gone down enough for him to put a cast on his arm.

          The process had by no means been as excruciating as when the doctor had reset it the evening before, but it was still painful as the doctor wrapped strips of cloth dipped in starch and egg white around his forearm. He had been forced to keep still for several hours as the cast dried and hardened.

          I​n the days that followed, his mother and the doctor had demanded he remain in bed to speed his recovery. He had been slightly dizzy every time he stood up, thanks to the crack he had taken on the back of his head. As the days rolled by, he became more steady and was able to be pushed around the house in a wheelchair his father had procured for him. More distressing than the pain that throbbed through his arm was the boredom he faced. There were only so many hours of reading that a restless young man, accustomed to being out of doors, could take.

          Then Arabella had swept in and changed everything. She had been with them for one day, and already he was in better spirits.

          He took a deep breath of fresh air from the open window and smiled. He rang for his valet and quickly dressed. His man helped him down the stairs to his wheelchair and wheeled him into breakfast. Arabella was waiting by the window, having already breakfasted with the servants, hours before. She was lovely in a plain white cotton dress, her hair pulled back in a chignon, with a few curls framing her face. His heart skipped a beat at the sight of her.

          “​Good morning, Miss Weaver,” he greeted her.

          “​Good Morning, my lord,” she turned toward him and curtsied.

          “​I wish we didn’t have to be so formal. ‘Graham’ would do just fine for me.” Graham teased, having had this conversation with her the day before. He was surprised by how easily they had formed a friendship. He was usually distrusting of women, especially in his circle. He always has a niggling suspicion that his mother was trying to set him up with eligible young women. Ninety percent of the time he was correct. With Arabella he felt he could be himself.

          “​You know it would be improper for me to do so, my lord. We shall not discuss it any further. We have more important things to do today.”

          “​I don’t know why you refuse to take your meals with me. It seems inconvenient for you to go downstairs for your meals. I’ll speak to mother about it,” Graham decided.

          “​Please don’t, my lord. I sense she is already annoyed with me.” Arabella replied.

          “​Nonsense. She’s thrilled to have you, just as I am. Father is quite taken with you, too. ‘Fine woman,’ he said to me yesterday.” Graham mimicked his father’s voice, coaxing a smile out of Arabella. “That’s high praise for him.”

          “​Well, I’m certainly glad of the compliment,” she laughed. “Even so, I have a feeling your mother is not as happy with my presence as you think she is.”

          “What nonsense!” He waved her off as tea was poured and served to them both. “Mother is the one who hired you,” he said in disbelief.

          “​With all due respect, you are the one who hired me, my lord.” Arabella corrected.

          “​Well, even so, it was Mother’s idea. Now, we shall have no more of this. You’re here to help me feel better, and this conversation is making me feel worse.”

          “​Very well,” she laughed. She sipped her tea as he ate his breakfast. He was so handsome, with his short dark hair and strong masculine chin. Her insides seemed to melt every time he looked at with those deep blue eyes of his. She willed herself to stop that train of thought. He would never think of her in that way. She was too far beneath his station. Even though she was a lady by birth, she did not have a fortune to go with it. It was what roused her suspicions about the Duchess’ dislike for her.

          “​Shall we go?” He could tell she was deep in thought, having said little while he ate.

          “​Of course,” she replied, and the footman pulled out her chair so she could stand. She took over the wheelchair, steering him towards the study.

“​Let us not go into the study quite yet. I could use some fresh air, and I think you could, too,” he suggested.

          “​As you wish,” she replied. She stopped to gather her shawl and to request a footman help maneuver the wheelchair down the front steps. Lord Evans walked down the steps with the support of the footman. It was something he was loath to do in front of Arabella, but he acknowledged that another fall would not help his recovery. Soon he would insist on getting rid of the wheelchair altogether, but for now, it reinforced his need for Arabella, so he would go along with it.

          He sat back down in the chair, and she began to push him down the long straight gravel path leading away from the house. He motioned for her to take a smaller winding path off to the right that led to a large pond full of trout. It was one of his favorite places to go, somewhere he had long used as an escape from his mother’s prying eyes, cut off as it was from the view of the house by a copse of trees.

          “​Tell me more about yourself, Miss Weaver,” he said. He motioned for her to stop and come around to the front of the chair so he could see her.

          “​What would you like to know?” she asked. She walked to the water’s edge a few paces away, her hands clasped behind her back. She gazed out at the calm water, rippling as fish jumped out to feast on the insects hovering above the surface.

          “​Where do you live? What are your parents like? Do you have siblings? That sort of thing,” he prodded.

          “​I live just a few miles from here with my aunt and uncle. My parents were killed when I was eight, a carriage accident,” she replied matter-of-factly, although a tinge of sadness came to her eyes.

          “​I’m sorry,” he said, sorry to have raised the subject.

          “​Thank you. It was a long time ago, almost eleven years now.” She looked out over the water again. “My aunt and uncle have been so kind to me, loved me as if I were their child. Not everyone is so lucky as to have relations such as mine.”

          “​Yes, I suppose you’re right.” Graham paused as he remembered something about a crash back when he was an early teen. Something about a Lord and Lady being killed in a crash when their carriage overturned on a stormy night.

          “​Your surname is Weaver?” he asked.

          “​Yes,” she replied, turning to face him.

          “​What was your father’s name?” he asked, starting to put the puzzle pieces together.

          “​Lord Charles Weaver. Why?” Arabella asked, confused by his train of questioning.

          “​Then you are a lady. Why didn’t you tell us that before?” he asked. It made no difference to him, but it might to his mother.

          “​I didn’t think it mattered. Yes, I have a title, but my father’s fortune was much reduced. I have no inheritance. We were never able to find a will after he passed,” she explained. “Now I’m just a penniless lady who has to work for a living. I am not ashamed of that. I enjoy hard work, and my patients are my life.”

          Graham nodded. “Nor should you be ashamed. You’re a hardworking, kind young lady. There is more to be said for an upright character than fortune. That’s what I believe, anyway.”

          Arabella smiled her bewitching smile. In the circles he ran in, he could never tell if a woman was sincere or not. But Arabella’s eyes told him everything he needed to know. She was without malice or dishonesty. In all his years, he had never met another woman like her.

          “​Well, I think we’ve had enough fresh air for now. Should we not get you back inside and start your work for the day?” she asked.

          “​I suppose so,” he muttered. He felt like a schoolboy going back to class. But no matter. He would be with Arabella, and that alone made his tasks a joy.

-​———

          The next few weeks seemed to fly by. Graham made a steady recovery with Arabella by his side. She was very adept at helping with his tasks, and he craved her company. He found himself inventing extra tasks just so he could spend more time with her. Her easy charm made it easy to confide in her. She was a lovely woman, on the inside as well as on the outside. She had proven her kind nature by being willing to help anyone in need, not just himself. He had seen her on many occasions helping one of the servants, holding doors for them, or chatting companionably away with the lowliest of them, as though there were no classes or stations. He smiled to himself as he thought of all her excellent qualities, gazing at her as she wrote a letter he was dictating.

          S​he looked up and caught him watching her when he did not continue with his sentence.

          “​My lord, we will never finish this letter if you keep pausing like this,” she teased. Their manner had become even more relaxed in recent weeks. She had become more comfortable around him as the days passed. He still could not get her to call him Graham, however. On this one social rule, she would not budge.

          “​Let’s take a break and order some tea,” he suggested. He was able to get around without a wheelchair now. He stood and stretched his back, sore from the many hours they had spent answering letters. Graham knew she had to be tired as well after barely moving from her spot at the desk for the last three hours. They made a good team.

          “Very well, but we must finish before the day is out. Your tenants are depending on you,” she replied. She stood as well and went to the window. She opened it slightly and let the breeze blow in.

          He rang for tea and joined her at the window. He stood behind her, a little closer than was deemed proper. He watched the leaves blow in the wind and wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms. His heart skipped a beat at the thought. If only she were of a higher station, then nothing would stand in his way. He recalled the conversation with his mother shortly after Arabella had started as his nurse.

          “​She is not suitable, Graham. A woman of her station has no right to play on the affections of a man such as you.”

          “​Mother, she has no such designs on me, I can assure you,” he had reasoned with her.

          “​It is not her I’m worried about, not at the moment, anyway. It’s you. I’ve seen the way you look at her, son. She is nothing! She comes from nothing! I cannot believe I am obliged to have this conversation with you. Can’t you see? She can never be the kind of wife you need.”

          Until then, Graham had not let the thought of matrimony enter his head. But from that point, he began to think. Is that what he wanted from Arabella? To marry her, build a life together? He had only known her for a few short weeks. It was at that moment he realized, yes, he could see himself married to her.

          He looked back up at his mother, who was pacing in front of his wheelchair. Arabella had gone to visit her aunt and uncle for the day to make sure all was well with them. Juliana had taken the opportunity to confront her son.

          S​he saw the smile spreading across his lips and knew what it meant. “No,” she said in disbelief. “You cannot be serious, Graham. She is from a lower class. Her uncle is a tailor, for heaven’s sake!”

          “​But she is a lady, Mother. The daughter of Lord Charles Weaver,” he pleaded. He couldn’t care less about her title.

          “​She’s the daughter of an Earl who was up to his eyeballs in debt. She may have a title, but she hasn’t a penny to her name. You know that, Graham. She is not a suitable match for you.” Juliana put her foot down. She would not stand by and watch her son marry a lady with no money.

          He dismissed his mother’s concerns as frivolous and continued spending as much time with Arabella as possible. His mother took a long time to warm to people. He knew that in time she would come to value Arabella as he did.

          He returned to the present, looking down at Arabella, her silken hair pulled back just as it was every day. He could see her profile as she looked out at the grounds, breathing the fresh air in deeply. He stepped a little closer, the tendrils of her hair brushing his chin. He placed his hands on her elbows in an intimate embrace. She sucked in a quiet breath, surprised by his closeness.

          She side-stepped him and went to the fireplace, “Please, my lord. It is not proper.”

          “Arabella, please.” Graham came around the couch and closed the distance between them. Just then, the footman came in with the tea, and he stepped away.

          “Pardon me. I have a headache and should lie down.” Arabella excused herself and left the room, too overcome to act rationally. Graham let his arms fall to his sides. He felt desperate. Soon his cast would be removed, and she would leave. He left the tea untouched and went for a stroll around the grounds. He had to find a way to keep Arabella here, and fast.

———-

          Juliana hurried away from the door of the study as the footman brought the tea from the kitchens. She had seen the whole exchange and was seething with anger. She headed towards the library were her husband was reading the newspaper.

          “You won’t believe what I just saw!” Juliana began, without so much as a greeting. She paced in front of him like a deranged lion in a cage.

          “Whatever are you talking about, my dear?” he asked, folding up his newspaper and uncrossing his legs.

          “Graham and that woman were standing this close to each other,” she held up her hand with her thumb and forefinger inches apart. “He cares for the girl, I know. But I didn’t realize it was this serious. What are we going to do, Hugh?”

          “Do? I don’t see the need to do anything. Graham is obviously quite smitten with her. She’s a good woman.” He made to continue reading his newspaper as if the matter was settled and the discussion over.

          Juliana’s mouth dropped open. She sputtered, unable to find the words to combat her husband’s apparent descent into madness. How could he be encouraging this?

          “​I cannot believe I am hearing this!” Juliana exclaimed, finally coming to a standstill in front of her husband. “Have you gone mad? Our son cannot marry the daughter of a tailor.”

          “​The niece of a tailor,” Graham corrected. He couldn’t help the smile that played at his lips. It brought him some satisfaction to see his wife so fluttered.

          “​I do not care what. She. Is. Not. Suitable.” She accented the last four words, hoping that the sentiment would finally sink into his brain.

          H​ugh stood up then, “My dear, what is the problem?” he asked, becoming annoyed with her persistent dislike of Arabella. “When I die, Graham will inherit one of the wealthiest estates in the country. He has more than enough money for the two of them.”

          Juliana placed a hand on her forehead, a headache forming behind her eyes. “It’s not just a question of her having no money,” she hissed in exasperation. “Although that is a valid consideration. She has not been brought up in polite society as Graham has. She has been raised among the lower classes. She doesn’t have the breeding or experience needed to be the wife of the future Duke of Bolingbroke.”

          “And I see no reason to discourage him. She is a lovely young lady who would do him good. He’s never taken to the fine ladies you throw his way.” Hugh went to the tea tray and poured himself a cup of tea. He took a bite of a scone and placed it on the saucer.

Juliana turned on her husband, “How can you accept this?” she seethed.

          “​’How could I’?” Hugh turned to her once again, able to walk without his cane, another sign of his improving health. “She’s a good woman, Juliana. Would you rather he spend his life with a selfish, shallow young society lady or a lady of character like Arabella? I know which one I would choose for him. Don’t you want our son to be happy?” Hugh waited for her reply, hopeful she would see the error of her ways.

          S​he shook her head. She turned on her heel and made to storm out of the room. But before she made it to the doorway, she stopped and turned to face him again. “There is some consolation. Graham will have his cast removed in a few days, and then Arabella will go.” She turned and left the room.

          H​ugh sighed, sad that his wife only seemed to care about things that did not matter. “Well, Graham. I hope you have more fortitude than I had.” He shook his head, remembering how his parents had pressured him into marrying Juliana. She had been the obvious choice for the next Duke. But he remembered his first love, a woman not unlike Arabella who had matched him in heart and spirit, if not in fortune and station.

          He went to the window and watched as the rain began to fall outside. What would his life be like now if he had followed his heart rather than his head? Perhaps his son would know what it meant to love someone in a marriage, rather than simply exist in a marriage of convenience. If he had the chance, he would encourage Graham to make a different choice.

 

Chapter 5

            Arabella waited outside Graham’s door nervously. The doctor had come today to remove the cast from Graham’s arm. The Duke and Duchess waited with her, Hugh pacing back and forth, and Juliana staring off into the distance at nothing in particular. It had not escaped Arabella that the Duchess never looked in her direction. For the last three days, Juliana had neither spoken nor looked at her.

          Arabella wondered at the Duchess’ sudden coldness. She had never been overly warm towards her, but she had at least been courteous. Had one of the servants had reported their moment of impropriety? She had not heard anyone come into the study during their moment at the window, but now she wondered.  She felt ashamed for allowing Graham to stand so close, but she had relished the moment. Her heart still raced at the memory.

          The door opened and the doctor came out, his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

          “​You can come in and see him now,” he announced. Juliana and Hugh went in, but Arabella thought it best for her to wait outside until invited by the Duke or Graham. She knew no such invitation would be issued by the Duchess. The doctor followed them into the room, but a moment later he reappeared.

          “​He is asking for you, Miss Weaver,” he said.

          S​he stood and followed him into the room. Graham was beaming. He was trying to move his wrist, albeit clumsily, as if his arm was asleep. He scratched at the flaking skin. Arabella was surprised to see how different it looked from his other arm. He had lost a lot of muscle over the last eight weeks, and his skin was an odd yellowish color. The skin was flaking and dry from the weeks that it had been confined to the cast. The smell was horrid, but she said nothing as she came to stand a few paces behind the Duke and Duchess. She watched him, moving his arm without pain and beaming up at her. She was sad he no longer needed her. Her heart clenched. She would have to leave now. There was nothing to keep her here. She tried to stop the brimming tears from falling down her cheeks.

          “​Well, it seems you’ve made a full recovery, son!” Hugh slapped him on the back good-naturedly.

          The doctor nodded. “Well, almost.”

          Juliana looked up sharply. “Whatever do you mean?”

          The doctor was taken aback by her harshness but recovered quickly and continued to explain. “The muscles of Lord Evan’s arm have weakened. He will have to work to regain the use of his limb. He’ll have to re-learn how to write, bring a fork to his mouth, squeeze his hand open and closed. Everything.”

          Juliana’s face fell. “You can’t write, my dear?”

          Graham stood and went to his writing desk at the other end of the room. “I can’t even hold a quill!” he beamed. His attitude was far from what would be expected after such a diagnosis. Arabella smiled slightly. Perhaps she would be needed a little while longer after all. She quickly wiped the smile from her face as Juliana looked at her for the first time that day.

          The doctor nodded, “It will take some weeks, even months, for you to regain the muscle control in your right arm. I’ll show you some daily exercises you can do to help speed that along, but I am afraid you won’t be able to write for some time.”

          H​ugh nodded and addressed Arabella, “Well, it seems we will need to retain your services for a while longer, Miss Weaver. That is, if you are willing?”

          “​Of course, Your Grace,” she replied.

          Juliana turned again to her son, “We must celebrate. I’ll have cook prepare your favorite meal and then perhaps we can call on some friends this evening. Lord and Lady Bolton have been asking after you. They’re holding a small party tonight and have asked us to be there. Now that your cast is off, there is no longer any need to refuse invitations.” Juliana simpered. “Arabella, you may leave us now.”

          Arabella looked up, hurt by the way Juliana had dismissed her. She nodded dutifully, curtsied, and turned to leave.

          “​No, wait. Thank you, mother, but I think I would rather have a quiet evening here at home. Arabella, please join us for dinner,” he said. She smiled, curtsied again, and left the room. She didn’t want to know what his mother was thinking. All she knew was the way Graham made her feel. She didn’t want to leave and was glad at the turn events had taken.

S​he walked slowly back to her room, climbing up to the third floor where the servants slept. Her room was small but cozy. Not quite as small as the kitchen servants’, but not a luxurious haven either. It had been the old governess’ room. It had a bed and a writing desk and chair, and it had a window that overlooked the grounds with its rolling hills and lush forests. She would miss this view when she finally did return home, but for now she would soak up every moment she could in this grand house.

          The thought occurred to her that the longer she stayed, the harder it would be when she did have to leave. She knew she could not remain indefinitely. She slumped down onto her chair after closing the door. Graham had fought for her to stay today, but what would happen when he had regained the full use of his arm and no longer needed her? She was sure that Juliana would dismiss her the moment she saw that Graham could complete his duties without her. The thought saddened her all the more.

          S​he stood and decided to ready herself for dinner that night. She would enjoy the time that remained to her here, not wallow in her sadness. When she did leave, she would look back on this time as one of the best of her life.

 

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Chapter 1

The cold was finally starting to leave, but a sudden burst of wind made Alice shiver. Tightening the shawl around her shoulders, she unconsciously sank further into the bench from where she looked over the small garden behind the townhouse.

“What are we going to do now?” Josephine asked, the worry trickling in her voice.

“I’m not sure,” Alice confessed.

It had been her duty for eight years to have answers to Josephine’s questions. For eight years, she had tried to calm her sister’s worries.

After their mother had died, it had fallen to Alice, a child of merely twelve years then, to care for Josephine. With five years between them, the Earl of Drakemyre had expected his eldest to do her part.

“I never imagined this would happen,” Josephine said, her eyes bloodshot and wet, her nose cold and red.

“Nor did I. But father is gone now. Despite everything that had happened, we needed him. And now I am not sure what to do. But I promise you this, I shall make every effort to take care of you,” Alice promised, although it felt hollow. Making a promise that she likely could not keep was done only for the sake of cold comfort.

“Are we expected to pay his debts?” Josephine asked.

The question hung in the air. For three days, neither woman had dared to ask it. It seemed insensitive somehow. Was a young lady in mourning allowed to worry about such things?

Alice had been trying not to think about it. She didn’t want to acknowledge the debts. If she pretended they did not exist, she would not have to take responsibility for tracking down those owed by their father. She would not have to find out just how much he had borrowed.

Ambition was a blessing for many, but to their family, it had been a curse. The Earl of Drakemyre had fallen time and time again for his quests for fortune. But wealth had continued to allude him in that he had only his inheritance and position to show for it.

Every conquest he attempted seemed to fail. And now his daughters were left to clean up after each of them.

“I think it is possible. They have not come back to me yet to discuss it, but it will likely impact our inheritance,” Alice answered.

“I thought as much,” Josephine sighed, her shoulders slacking beneath her loose, black hair.

Alice looked at her sister, a mirror of herself. The same black hair, the same hazel eyes, the feminine form of their father’s chin. They had so little of their mother in their appearances, but they had all of her heart.

“Don’t worry, Josephine. We’re going to be alright,” Alice said, trying to encourage her sister.

She placed a hand of comfort on Josephine’s shoulder and gave a brave smile. Trying to convince herself that they really would be alright, Alice made every effort to turn cheerful.

“Will Charles help us?” Josephine asked.

“I’m certain that he will,” Alice answered, too quickly.

In truth, she had no knowledge as to their cousin’s intentions. Now that he was to inherit the estate and their father’s title, Charles could do whatever he wanted.

He had been helping their father, which gave her a bit of comfort. At least he had shown respect for the Earl. In addition to being overly courageous as their father had been, Charles had been trying to help him through the debts.

Bearing all of this in mind, Josephine hoped that they would be shown a similar grace.

“You don’t think that he’s going to kick us out, do you? Now that he has the estate?” Josephine asked.

“I honestly don’t know. He may do as he pleases. But we shall not end up homeless. I promise you that. You know that I am going to ensure that you are looked after, Josephine. Please, do not worry yourself on that matter. There are many other things in this world to be concerned about and this is the last of them,” Alice said.

“But how can it be the last of them? If we are forced into the street, of course I ought to be worried,” Josephine said. “So should you.”

Alice glanced away again. So much for all of her attempts to bring encouragement to her sister. Josephine was willing to admit what even Alice wasn’t.

“Yes, I suppose that’s true. But I don’t like to think of it. Our cousin will take care of us, he has to. As the new Earl of Drakemyre, he will want to have a good reputation. He will look after us,” Alice said, more to herself than to her sister.

“What if he tries to marry me off to one of his friends?” Josephine asked, worry peppering her voice.

That truly made Alice smile and she looked at her sister with a hint of amusement.

“Don’t worry about that. I have to marry before you do and you know that I should never allow him to trade you like that. You haven’t even entered society. I promise, you will be kept safe from having to marry any of his friends for now,” she promised.

Josephine did not appear convinced. Her hazel eyes shone with the same fear and anxiety that they had for days. It was almost enough to make Alice wonder if her cousin would really do that.

As two unmarried young women, they were certainly at risk for someone trying to use their desperate situation for their own gain. More than likely, the offers would begin soon, coming from men who knew that the young ladies had so few other choices.

But Alice tried to maintain her confidence. She could avoid all of that. She could make certain that Josephine wanted for nothing. She simply hadn’t yet determined how.

With nothing else but worry between them, Alice wrapped an arm around Josephine’s shoulder and pulled her close. Her sister leaned in, accepting the bit of comfort.

“I just don’t know how it all came to this,” Josephine said, her voice betraying the tears that threatened.

“Me either. But we are going to figure it all out. We have to. And we will. I’m not going to let anything happen to you. Have I ever let you down?” Alice asked.

“Never,” Josephine sniffed.

“And I never will. We may not have Father anymore, but we have each other. You are not going to live a life that wants for anything. I will make sure that you are provided for,” she declared again.

Josephine nodded against her, accepting the consoling comments. Even if Alice didn’t know how she would live up to her promises, she knew that she would find a way.

She would always find a way to take care of Josephine.

The door from the townhouse opened behind them and the two young women turned.

“Lady Addington? Your cousin is arriving. I thought I ought to let you know,” Miss Stafford said, softly.

The housekeeper had been immensely caring in the midst of their tragedy. Alice was always grateful for her, but these days it had been a step above and beyond. A bit of kindness when they needed it the most.

“Thank you, Miss Stafford. We are coming,” she said, releasing Josephine from her grasp.

They stood and followed Miss Stafford inside, where the warmth hit them in the loveliest of ways.

“Right, let us greet him when he reaches the door,” Alice instructed, wanting to continue instilling proper etiquette in her sister.

When they reached the door, Charles was just entering.

“Ah, my cousins,” he greeted, kicking the crusted dirt from his boots.

Alice tried not to cringe. The dirt must have been there for at least two days since the last rain. It would have been nice if he had cleaned them prior to entering the home he was inheriting.

The home that had been theirs all their lives.

“My lord,” the young women greeted in unison, curtseying before the new Earl.

Charles held his head up high in a display of pride that he now had such a tremendous position. Indeed, he had known for some time that he would inherit the title from his uncle, but now that it was his, Alice saw that he wore it well.

“I am glad to come and see you both. Are you well? I know this is a most grievous time for you,” he said.

It was a polite thing to say and it gave Alice some comfort that he might be good to them. In truth, she had not known him all that well and few people had ever spoken of his reputation.

When they had been young, there were times that they played together as children, but as they aged, he had far more important matters as a young man. Since then, Alice knew him only for the work he did with their father.

“Yes,” she sighed. “It has been extremely difficult. We know that there are better days ahead, but our father was a good man. We miss him very much,” she confessed.

“I imagine you do. I always enjoyed working alongside him. To know that he is now gone is extremely disappointing. I can only hope to do his name and title honor by bringing further respect to the position,” he said.

“Thank you for that. I am certain you shall do a tremendous job in his stead,” Alice said.

“Well, as it happens, I do have a few matters to discuss with you. May we sit in the parlor?” he asked, gesturing in that direction.

“Certainly,” Alice nodded, giving way for him to lead.

She looked at Josephine who trailed behind, keeping quiet to allow Alice all of the decisions and speaking. Josephine had been livelier in times past, but these days, Alice was concerned for her. There had been too much tragedy.

When all were seated, Miss Stafford brought the tea and they drank it while continuing polite discussion about the weather and the horses at the country estate. Charles commented on the gardens and Alice responded about the gardenias.

In all, it was the sort of conversation that she knew was leading up to something far more difficult.

“Now, I suppose we must attend to the real business at hand,” he finally said.

“Yes, I think that would be good,” she replied, relieved that her waiting was coming to a close.

“Your father and I had been working on a new business endeavor. I am sure he never mentioned it, but the first shipment has just been sent to us from the West Indies,” he told them, only glancing their way now and then.

Alice had not heard any detail of this, but had known that their father had begun a new investment. It seemed as though everyone was trying to get things from the West Indies these days. If it had been promising for so many others, Alice hoped that it would be for them as well.

“What sort of shipment?” she asked.

“Tobacco. The finest tobacco. The region we are working with is magnificent and you cannot imagine what a fortune this will be, should all go well,” he said, reassuringly.

“What is it that you plan to do with it?” Alice asked.

An amused smile played on her cousins lips and she felt the small hint of condescension.

“Why, sell it, of course,” he replied.

That had not been the answer she was looking for, but realized it was not something to bother him for further detail on. Alice knew that he would be selling it, she simply wondered to whom and where and when.

But those were details for the men to work through and she remained confident that Charles knew what he was doing. He had always been bright, from what she remembered. And if there had ever been any sort of reputation she ought to have known for him, it was that.

“What of the money from the sales?” she pressed, realizing that this was the question she truly needed answered.

“Well, there will certainly be plenty of it. You know that your father had a great many debts,” he said, looking as though he felt bad bringing it to their attention.

“Yes, we know,” she said stoically, not looking at Josephine.

“With the sale of this tobacco, those will all be paid off. There is going to be enough that we can still keep the two of you above scandal, the debt collectors will be paid, and there should be enough to have more shipped. That, of course, will allow us to continue going,” he said.

“Continue going?” she asked, needing clarification.

“In the future. Pay all of the bills that will come next. Your food, your clothing, everything. This endeavor shall keep us all afloat. You needn’t worry about anything else,” he guaranteed.

It was quiet when he stopped talking and Alice suddenly noticed the little sounds around the room. The crackle of the fireplace, the ticking of the clock, the creaks in the floor outside the room where Miss Stafford was busy arranging things.

It was maddening to hear those little things when her thoughts were otherwise busy.

“So…” Josephine began to say. Alice saw her sister second guess her words.

“Yes, Cousin?” Charles asked, prompting her to speak the thoughts.

“I only wondered, you will make sure that some of the money helps us?” she asked.

Charles looked at her in surprise and…hurt? As if he could not believe she would even ask the question.

“That is the most important thing of all. I will not leave the two of you to suffer in poverty,” he promised.

Alice felt her sister release the breath she had been holding in. And then she felt her own escaped.

They were going to be alright. Without their cousin, without the tobacco, without his help, they would stand to lose everything.

Chapter 2

The port was near at hand and James was relieved to know that he had finally arrived. Home was near at hand and Adelaide was within his reach.

He could picture her face, the brightness of her smile, the warmth of her eyes. He would see all of it once they reached land.

It took another fifteen minutes or so before James was walking down the wooden plank to the ground of England. He looked in every direction, but could not find Adelaide with his eyes.

“Waiting on your woman?” Glendale asked, placing a gruff hand on James’s shoulder.

“She’s probably just late. It’s hard to say when a ship will arrive. She knew only that it would likely be this morning sometime,” he excused her.

“This morning? It’s evening,” Glendale laughed.

“You’re right. I’m a fool for thinking she would wait here at the docks. I’ll head into town and find her at her home. No sense in waiting here,” James said, feeling ridiculous for having expected her to wait.

Adelaide was hardly the sort of woman who was going to sit in the breeze for a day. No matter how she may have longed for James to finally arrive, she would not put herself in such a position of discomfort.

Again, he considered the fact that a ship was unpredictable and most likely, she hadn’t even expected him to arrive that day.

With all of these thoughts in mind, James hailed a coach and hoisted him bag into it. Giving the driver the address of his own home, James decided to take care of leaving his things there before making his way to Adelaide’s family estate.

“Mother,” James greeted, wrapping his arms around Lady Hastings.

“My boy, you’ve returned to me,” she grinned, patting his cheek with her frail hand.

His mother appeared aged even further than when he had left. Although she had been older than most when she gave birth to him, James was still often surprised that she appeared to be growing old so quickly. His heart nearly broke with the knowledge of her dwindling youth.

“I could not stay away from you, Mother,” he said.

“How are the West Indies?” she asked, leading him to sit across from her in the drawing room.

“A vision. I should like to stay there for all time. The people, the food, all of it makes England appear rather dull,” he chuckled, running a hand through his hair as if tugging at the memories he had made.

“You must feel very fancy now that you are a man of the world, all traveled and experienced,” Lady Hastings commented.

“Hardly. I wish I could say that, but as it is, I am just glad to be with you now,” he said, remembering himself. No matter how he had enjoyed the adventure, he was back with his mother and would soon be back with Adelaide.

“Are you staying long?” his mother asked, as if reading his thoughts.

“I think it best that I make my way to Miss Hatfield’s estate quickly. The poor dear probably doesn’t even realize that I’m here,” he said, feeling the itching beneath his skin to see the woman he loved.

“Well, don’t let me keep you. I shall be here when you return. I’m going to head back to the country with your aunt soon, but wanted to be here when you returned,” his mother said.

“I am glad for it. I’ve missed you,” he said, meaning it with all his heart.

“And I, you,” she replied.

James departed his mother’s home and made for the place he wanted to be more than anything.

It was a short drive to Adelaide’s family estate, but the sun had nearly vanished by the time he arrived. The day had been long and full, but wonderful.

Her home was illumined before him, as if it had been waiting for his arrival all this time.

All but bounding to the main doors, he grasped the knocker and gave two forceful thuds. As he waited for someone to come to the door, his heart stirred within him.

But he had to wait only a moment before Mrs. Hudson pulled back the door and revealed the coziness inside.

“Y-Your Grace,” she greeted in surprise.

“Mrs. Hudson, how lovely to see you,” he smiled.

“We were not aware that you would be coming,” she said. “Would you like to come in? I shall call for my lord.”

“That will suit me very well, Mrs. Hudson,” he said.

The housekeeper led him to the parlor where James sat in the quiet for a short span before he heard voices in the hall. It sounded like an argument of some sort. The voices were hushed, but familiar.

Adelaide and her father.

Once more, James felt all of his happiness swell within him.

The door to the parlor opened and in she came.

Adelaide.

Slender and beautiful, a petite frame with large, doe eyes and a pert little mouth. Everything of English elegance was wrapped in this woman.

“Adelaide,” he whispered, using the familiar of her given name.

“James,” she said back, her voice less sure.

For a moment, her eyes darted back behind her, out of the door. James wondered if her father was going to join them for tea.

“Please, sit,” she instructed, entering the room herself.

There was a strange hesitation in her steps, but James was not surprised. It had been nearly two years since he had stood before her and he knew that his appearance was rather rugged from the sea.

He ought to have cleaned up better before coming. If only he’d been patient, he could have had his face shaven clean the next morning rather than sporting the short bristles that emerged from it now.

“Forgive me for coming right away. But I had to see you. I could not wait any longer. My dear, I am finally home. After the journey I have had, it is my pleasure to be home once more and to be in your presence,” he said.

“James, Your Grace, I am delighted to see you as well,” she smiled, politely.

“You needn’t call me by any title. Although I shall always deem you to be my Duchess, that is not for propriety’s sake. But when I had to leave and spend time at the plantation, I could not help thinking of finally marrying you when I returned. That day has come, Adelaide,” James said, his voice catching.

“You have returned. It took a very long time, James,” she said, almost appearing frustrated.

“I know. But we knew that before I left. When my father passed, I had little choice. I am so sorry, my dear. I know that our letters were hardly enough. Not compared to being with one another. But wait until I tell you about all that I have done,” he said.

“What have you done?” she asked, leaning back on the settee and searching his face.

“I have taken my father’s tobacco plantation and turned it into an empire. We are the best, fastest growing, highest quality there is,” he said, excitedly.

James thought back to the day he had said goodbye to Adelaide. It had taken place in this very room. His heart had ached for the loss of his father, for having to leave the woman he loved behind.

I promise I shall return. We will marry as soon as I do, he had promised.

And I shall long for that day. Please, James, don’t stay long. You know that I want to marry you. I would marry you today. I would come with you, she had replied.

The West Indies are no place for a young woman like you. But I shall be home soon. I promise.

She had looked very much the same that day as she did now. Her eyes wide in wonder at him. Her face full of wanting to say something, wanting to tell him to stay.

“What is it?” he asked, knowing that she would demand they marry immediately.

“James…”

“What is it, Adelaide?” he asked again, a smile playing at his lips.

“I have something I must tell you,” she said, her face taking a sour turn.

Suddenly, James was not so certain he knew what to expect from her. Something was different. Her eyes had gone from wide with surprise to a new and apparent unpleasant thought.

“James, you did not return quickly,” she said.

“It has not even been a full two years. You know how long these things take,” he justified. “Did you expect me to be gone mere weeks?”

“I expected you to make me your priority,” she fired back, those doe eyes suddenly venomous.

“But you are,” he replied, confused. “That is why I went. To build a life for us. We have a title, we have wealth, we have a future. Our children will want for nothing.”

Adelaide scoffed.

“Our children? And how old am I to be when I have children?” she asked.

“You are nineteen, my dear. I think there is still plenty of time,” he laughed. “We may have them right away upon getting married. I cannot wait to see you as a mother.”

She breathed in sharply through her nostrils and glanced up at him only with her eyes, her face still trailing to the side.

“James, I am not going to marry you,” she said in a flat, monotone voice.

The words pulsed in his ears, but James did not comprehend them. A prickling sensation ran along the lengths of his arms and he felt the hairs stand as if rising to attention.

“What did you say?” he asked, his voice sounding underwater.

“I am not going to marry you. I am engaged to another man. One who did not leave me behind,” she said, a haughty note ringing through the words.

“You…you are engaged? To another man?” he asked, his breath shallow and labored.

“You expected me to wait forever? I think that was very foolish of you. Lord Avenwood was entirely displeased with how you treated me. And he knows what men do when they run off to the Indies,” she said.

At the hint of accusation, James’s jaw clenched tightly.

“And what is that?” he asked in a terse manner.

“He said that the women there are exceedingly beautiful heathens. And I am not surprised that you would stay for two years, abandoning and forgetting me. You ran off to those women,” she said.

“You know that is never true,” he insisted, his voice rising in pitch.

“You can’t expect me to know anything. Uncouth business practices and foreign women. That’s what everyone knows,” she said, although the truth was written all over her face.

Adelaide wanted to believe it. She wanted to think that James would be unfaithful to her. Believing such a lie would give her an excuse to marry another man.

She had accused him of misbehaving in business, but that was not the untruth that wounded him. Although it could destroy his reputation in society among his customers, it did not hurt half so much as calling him unfaithful.

“You really think I would do that? Tell me honestly, is that the sort of man you have seen of me?” he asked, leaning forward and holding her eyes captive.

Adelaide was hesitant and swallowed in the knowledge that she was trapped.

“Men change,” she whispered.

“But I never have. You know it. You are choosing to believe this lie. Perhaps you even made it. But you know, in your heart of hearts, that I would never do what you have accused me of,” he said in a frighteningly calm voice.

She looked away, unable to maintain the lie while they still eyed one another.

“What has Lord Avenwood promised you? What sort of life is going to give you that I could not?” he asked, leaning back and accepting the reality of her betrayal.

“A good home, a position, and freedom from scandal,” she said.

“Scandal,” James scoffed. “You mean the scandal of my unfaithfulness. This thing that you made up is what you expect him to keep you from?”

“Do not accuse me of being a liar,” she said.

“Then do not lie,” he shot back, once more allowing his voice to grow in volume.

James was not proud of himself, but he could not hold back much longer. Adelaide had said everything she thought might justify her actions, but he would never accept her words.

“I have not changed. I am the same man that I always was. But you are quite different, my dear Adelaide. You have allowed yourself to sway with the wind towards a man who knows nothing of me. Or maybe it is quite the opposite. Maybe you wished for a match while I was gone and found someone willing to believe that I had left you,” he said.

“Whatever happened, you are not the woman that I said goodbye to, the woman I promised to marry.”

With that, James stood. Adelaide remained seated, the shame bolting her to the settee.

“I wish you all the best with Lord Avenwood. It is a shame that you shall not be privy to my fortunes and my empire, but I suppose I am glad that I learned your true character now. I wish only that I had not wasted two years of my life longing to return to you,” he said.

With those words, James walked out of the parlor and into the hall where Adelaide’s father stood, frozen in place. His eyes were a mix of fury and apology, as if unsure whether or not James really was the man his daughter claimed him to be.

But there was no reason to convince him and no need for the polite niceties of society.

Instead, James walked past the man and pretended the hallways was barren. After all, there was little point in pretending. Nothing in the world was so bleak now as the heart he had saved for Adelaide.

Nothing was worth wasting his time, hoping that she might take it all back.

Chapter 3

Alice looked at the papers spread out before her on the desk of the study. Charles had brought them after a couple of weeks had passed.

They meant nothing to her. Was she supposed to understand these?

“What is it? What are they all about?” she asked.

“Your father’s business. The ship coming from the West Indies,” Charles said, his face serious.

Alice felt her breathing grow difficult. She knew that the news must be bad, but she was still waiting for Charles to tell her exactly what had happened.

“Was the tobacco not good?” she asked.

“There is no tobacco. The ship was lost. We have no idea where it may have gone. There is nothing left,” he said, straightforwardly.

The reality sunk into her bones and Alice felt numb for a moment.

“That cannot be,” she said.

“It is. It happens all the time,” he sighed, leaning back in the leather chair that had once belonged to her father.

“I cannot believe that. If it happens all the time, no one would risk doing business there,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“Ha, really? This business is golden when it goes well. Any man would be a fool not to take such a risk. Your father would have made a fortune, or rather left you one. But these are the risks that come with such a reward,” he said, brushing it off.

“How can you behave like this is nothing?” Alice asked.

Charles smirked, again with that hint of pride that she was not so sure she liked.

“Because it was always a risk. We cannot lose heart because of this,” he said.

“But I have nothing else. Josephine and I have no hope without this,” she said, her pulse quickening with every word she spoke.

“That’s nonsense. We are going to find a solution for you,” Charles said.

“What sort of solution? The last of our inheritance was tied up in that business. We owe my father’s debts. What are we meant to do?” she asked, the words feeling thick on her tongue.

“You needn’t get upset,” he said.

“But we must find a solution,” Alice said, now turning to practicality. She stood and began to pace the length of the study.

“There has to be a way that the ship can be found. Surely the men on board have families. The men will have gone to them,” she said.

“The men are…do you know what it is for a ship to be lost at sea?” Charles asked.

“Yes, of course I know,” she said quickly, waving him away. “But it is tragic. And while I am sorry for them, I also cannot help but be sorry for Josephine and myself. Forgive me if that is callous, but I promised to provide for her.”

“Yes, I understand the difficulty you face. Please, do not think that I don’t recognize that. But you also must remain confident and assured that we are going to find a solution,” Charles said.

“Please, tell me what sort of solution you believe we may find,” Alice begged, continuing to walk from one side of the room to the other and back again.

“I can think of an easy solution,” Charles said, capturing Alice’s attention.

“What is it?” she asked, desperately. Her feet turned in his direction and she stood in place, hope welling in her heart.

“Well, I can see to your comfort. We can clean up your father’s mess,” he said.

“You will provide for us?” she asked, curious what he meant.

“If you marry me. I promise that I will take care of you and Josephine if you just agree to be my wife,” Charles said.

It took a moment for Alice to realize that her jaw had slackened. But when she came to her senses, she snapped it shut again.

“F-forgive me. I am extremely taken aback,” she said, rather boldly.

Alice would not look at Charles, but she sensed his eyes on her. Perhaps she had insulted him, but for the moment, she could not bring herself to care.

The suddenness of his desire to marry her was somewhat overwhelming. Although what she knew of Charles was decent, she had never expected this. She never would have thought that he might have such feelings for her.

And Alice could not deny that it made her uncomfortable to learn that he did.

“Is it really so surprising?” he asked, the edge in his voice alerting her that she had, indeed, offended him.

“I never imagined that you might have feelings for me,” she told him.

“Why shouldn’t I? We are cousins. It would be mutually beneficial. You and your sister would be looked after and I would have a most beautiful and agreeable wife. I can see nothing about this that would be such a shock to you,” Charles stated as if it were the most obvious thing in all the world.

“Yes, we are cousins. But we have had little contact in these recent times. You have worked alongside my father and we have passed one another, but with so little communication,” she pointed out.

“We have needed none. We have shared our glances, said out niceties. Do you mean to tell me that all of it was just to torment me?” Charles accused.

Alice gasped. How could he think that of her? She had never meant to show any interest in Charles. He had been fine enough in helping their father, but marriage had never crossed her mind. To learn that he had thought of it before now was somehow rather disconcerting.

“I never had any intention of tormenting you. What I mean is that I had no knowledge of your feelings towards me. I wish that you had shared them with me before now,” she said, honestly.

“But I have had no occasion. I thought it was clear,” he said.

“It was not,” she replied, having no other words to utter.

“Well, now it has been made clear,” Charles sighed.

“Clear, but I am still confused. Do you really believe that this is the best option that we have? My sister and I are not looking to marry just now. We want to be in control of our own lives, to marry for love-”

“And why should you not love me?” Charles demanded, turning on her with an anger she had never seen before.

Alice stepped back, thinking she could not have any more surprises than she had already face with him.

“I-I don’t. You are asking me to marry you, but do you mean that it is for love?” she asked, trying to discern the thinking of her cousin.

“Of course it is. You have every reason to love me, to look up to me and admire me. I am the Earl of Drakemyre now. I have a title, I have wealth from my own father who was wiser than yours in his investments. I am a bold, strong figure,” he insisted.

Alice was immediately put off by the ways Charles was speaking so highly of himself. Insisting that he was her ideal husband was one thing, but for him to list attributes about himself that should cause her to love him?

It only proved to leave Alice with an unpleasant feeling twisting in her gut. She could not understand why he would be so obtusely arrogant as this.

“I am sorry, but I have no love for you. And when I marry, just as I hope for my sister, it shall be for love. As my mother and father did. We played as children and I have seen you with my father. I am grateful for your willingness to take care of us. But none of that changes my heart,” Alice told him.

“Your heart is wrong,” he growled.

“Then it is wrong. But it is the only thing I have left to guide me and I must follow. I shall find ways on my own to support Josephine and myself. I shall see to it that she is well-matched,” Alice declared.

“And how do you expect to do that? How are you going to overcome all of the misfortunes that have befallen the two of you? You have nothing to your name,” he spat.

“No, but I have my own wits and abilities. I shall seek employment. It may not be so grand as tobacco from the West Indies, but I am certain that I can find something,” Alice said, making up the plan as she went along and believing herself capable in every way.

Charles let out a sharp laugh at her expense.

“Employment? You are going to seek employment? What makes you think anyone is going to employ you?” he asked.

Alice turned her face away, cheeks burning with anger that he would mock her like that after a proposal.

“Truly, it amuses me that you would imagine yourself suited for something like that. More than likely, you will fail and come begging me to marry you and save you from your destitution,” he continued.

“You needn’t say things like that. I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” Alice said.

“Yourself, maybe. But you have more than yourself to think about. What of your sister? Do you expect her to just get by on the efforts you make? What if you cannot find placement anywhere? Do you not know how difficult it is? There are many women out there who are far more suited to the task,” Charles said.

Alice could read in his face that his pride was deeply wounded. In return, he sought to wound hers. Charles would not easily give up on his sudden whim of marrying Alice. But he had not taken kindly to the fact that she had refused him.

“I would much rather be in charge of our destinies,” she said, straightening her back and holding her head high.

“Well, isn’t that something? You think that you are in control of anything? You know, when you fail, I am going to be the only chance you have left. Think about that. You may be refusing my kindness now, but you shall come to depend upon it later,” he taunted.

“I never meant to offend you. I mean only to take care of myself and my sister,” Alice said, calmly.

“As do I. It is your stubbornness that is making it unlikely that you shall be able to fulfill whatever promises you have made to Josephine. If you think through it, you shall come to realize that you are deeply mistaken,” he said.

“Please…” Alice breathed, holding up a hand to him and closing her eyes. She tried to steady her heartbeat, but it was racing with anger that he would treat her so rudely.

“You really mean to refuse me?” he demanded.

“I do. It is nothing against you as a man, but I wish to take my chances in the world,” Alice decided.

“Then you are making a mistake. But I suppose it is yours to make. I just hope that Josephine does not pay the price for it,” he said, standing and readying himself to leave.

Alice stayed quiet as Charles walked past her, maintaining his own steady pace. It was clear that he was filled with anger and resentment towards her for the rejection, but he did not wish to show it.

As he stepped through the frame of the door, Charles turned back once and looked at Alice.

“You cannot expect me to wait forever for you to change your mind,” he said. “If you come to your senses, you had best do it quickly.”

Charles turned back and exited without any further ceremony. Alice was left behind, standing uncomfortably. That exchange had not gone how she might have pictured it.

Alice collapsed onto the settee for a moment, glad that Josephine had not been there to see the full conversation. Her sister would likely have been horrified at their cousin’s offer of marriage. It was the very last thing that either of them would have wanted.

Still, Alice was glad that he had the sense to offer her instead of Josephine. If he had made a proposal for Josephine, Alice would never have forgiven him.

But there was still the matter at hand of having to actually secure employment. And for all his rudeness, Charles was right about a few things.

It was not going to be easy by any means. Alice had not had to work for money before and although she had always been a good student and enjoyed keeping her mind busy, she was unsure if she could find a position that suited her.

With no recommendations to her name, how was she supposed to convince anyone to take her seriously and give her a position?

Without any further ideas, Alice realized that she would have to take time to think and pray about it all. Knowing that there was not much time before the debt collectors would call, she deemed it appropriate to make her way to the church and beg the Lord for answers.

“Miss Winston,” she called. “Please have Mr. Peet ready a carriage.”

“Yes, Lady Addington,” Miss Winston replied.

Before long, the carriage had been brought around and Alice was taking her leave from the estate. She was uncertain where her sister might be, but she knew that everything would be fine there for now.

It was only her mind that was ill at ease. It was only when she looked to the future that everything appeared bleak.

But once she reached the church, Alice was convinced she would find clarity. She would find peace. She would find whatever it was that the Lord had in mind for her.

Chapter 4

James had made his decision. Firmly.

He would never love again.

It had been two weeks since she had broken his heart. Two weeks since Adelaide had made her shocking revelations and he had learned that everything that he had once hoped for was now out of his grasp.

He would not have his bride.

Sitting in the study, James brooded over his work, determined that he could focus on it and it would make everything better. It had to make everything better.

In the midst of trying to distract himself, James was startled by the sound of an ugly shriek, followed by the screams of a few of the maids.

“Constance!” he shouted, standing and running from the desk and through the hall until he found the source of the commotion.

“Your Grace!” Constance shouted back, closing the distance towards him.

Rather than allowing her time to tell him what happened, James eyed directly past her and see the figure lying on the ground.

Frail.

His mother.

“Mum!” he exclaimed, falling to his knees by her side.

“James,” she whimpered.

“What happened?” he asked, cupping her cheek in his hand and laying a hand on her arm.

But he did not give her time to answer, either. His thoughts were in far too great a rush for that.

“Constance, send for the doctor. Mother, please, are you alright?” he asked, trying to focus his thoughts and attention in one place.

“Yes, yes. I am fine. You needn’t worry. I was just walking through the hall towards your study and I took a tumble,” she said.

“Where do you hurt?” he asked.

“My hip,” she winced, placing a hand to her left side.

“Allow me to help you up,” James insisted.

With the assistance of two of the maids, he began to lift his mother, but she cried out in pain all over again.

“Let me sit,” she urged, allowing them to guide her to a sturdy chair nearby.

“Oh, Mother, I am so sorry,” James said, his words panicked.

“You did nothing. It’s not your fault. It could have happened to anyone,” she said.

But James knew that was not true and he knew that his mother was just trying to make him feel better. In truth, his mother was weak in body and he should have taken better care to prevent things like this from occurring.

“Mum, you’re going to be alright,” he said, again and again, with great affection.

His mother tried to console him in response, telling him that she was fine, but once the doctor arrived, they saw the extent of her injury. Suddenly, they could not deny it.

“Her hip is broken. And it appears that a rib has been cracked as well. A nasty fall, by all accounts,” Doctor Ambers revealed, a slight wince in his own face.

The Doctor had been a good friend of the family and it hurt him to see Lady Hastings in this state. Particularly without a husband to be with her.

“Oh, Mother,” James said, shaking his head in dismay.

“I shall be fine, James,” she said, trying to remain strong.

James had seen his mother try to be strong through incredibly difficult circumstances. But this was not one of those. This was a time when she would not be able to maintain her strength, for it had already failed her.

“I recommend that you remain in a wheelchair, Lady Hastings. Otherwise, you shall be confined to your bed or the sitting room with no option of moving,” the Doctor said, a comforting smile on his face.

“Well, we cannot have a lack of movement,” she said, grinning back.

“Certainly. So, I must insist on the chair,” he said.

Doctor Ambers had given his mother something for the pain, but James saw how it drained her to maintain any sort of cheer. Nevertheless, she pushed through, pretending the pain was not so bad when he saw that it was far worse than anything she had ever experienced.

“How long do you expect her to remain in the chair?” James asked.

Doctor Ambers looked at him with hesitation and then placed a hand on James’s arm to lead him away from his mother.

“Your Grace, in situations with broken bones, it often takes many months for recovery. But in your mother’s case, I cannot guarantee that she shall ever make it out of the chair,” he whispered, concern peppering his voice.

“Is it so bad as that?” James asked, his eyes feeling the pressure building behind them. He had not thought his mother’s condition to be this bad. Frail and aged, yes. But an invalid?

“I fear it is. Take good care of her and insist that she remain in the chair at all times. If she tries, for even a moment, to be strong and get up, she may do greater damage and cause things to become far worse,” he said.

“I understand. I shall ensure that she remains in the chair and does not try to push herself beyond that,” he promised.

“Very well, then. I shall come back in a couple of days to check on her and see how she is progressing. Should you need anything in the meantime, please inform me,” Doctor Ambers said.

James said his farewell to the Doctor and returned to his mother’s side. She was resting now, thanks to the medication that she had been given. It relieved him to see this as his mother frequently pushed herself to the point of exhaustion.

Making his way to the library where he could relax with a good book, James thought about his plans.

He had intended to return to the West Indies as soon as possible, had even sent a letter just this afternoon regarding his work there. It was a less painful option than remaining in England where the woman that he loved was marrying another.

But this event might have changed everything and he had to decide what he now must do.

Could he really leave his mother in this devastating time? There was no chance of that. He would feel terrible, but more than that, he was far too worried for her.

Although she could stay with her sister, James knew that it was not ideal. This had been her home. This estate was where her heart remained and it was only after the loss of his father that she had spent time with his aunt.

Loneliness had driven her there, but if he stayed behind for a while, she might not have to face that. She could stay at the estate with James and they would both be content.

Well, perhaps not overly content. Not with all of the rumors that were being spread about him.

Then again, that might have been another good reason to remain in the country. Staying in his county seat would mean that he could stand up for himself and show that he was not running rampant in immoral liaisons.

James plopped himself into a chair in the library. He grabbed a book that he had not read yet, but had wished was with him while he had been away all that time.

Opening to the first page, he made every effort to train his eyes on the text that was there before him. Yet, somehow, none of the words made any sense at all.

James thought further about his options.

Yes, it would be good to remain in England for now. But if he planned to do so, he would have to keep busy. He would have to prove himself a serious man of his work and, thus, remove all trace of rumor simply by showing his true character.

But if he stayed so busy as that, he would hardly be the company that his mother clearly needed. Would it entirely defeat the purpose of his plans to remain behind? Would he do her any good at all?

James considered what his other options might be and came to the conclusion that there was only one thing for it.

He would have to stay, but he should also hire his mother a companion. Someone who might spend time with her and help to keep her company when he was out or busy with other things. She would need a friend to remain at the estate with her so that she did not get bored or be anxious on her own.

It could work. He thought it might be an idea to revisit once he had recovered from the initial shock of his mother’s injury.

For now, he tried once more to focus on the book.

There was nothing for it. The book meant nothing to him just now, not with his mind so ill at ease.

“Constance,” he called, as he was so frequent to do.

The housekeeper came swiftly to the library and entered just as James was standing to put the book back on the shelf.

“Your Grace?” she greeted.

“Would you mind calling for the driver?” he asked.

“Certainly, Your Grace,” she replied, taking her leave.

It was not long before James arrived at the church. A place where he could find peace, a place where he could pray about all of the things that were troubling him.

James arrived at the small building. It had been two years since he had lived in England, but even then he was often at his townhouse.

This church had been one he had not visited as frequently as he might have liked. But now that he was here, it was an ideal place to sit and pray.

Inside, it was dim and small, but clean. The Reverend was not present, but he did see the figure of a woman a few rows up, praying as well.

James looked at the otherwise empty space. For some reason, he felt drawn to sit near another person. Certainly not too close, but close enough that he might not feel so alone.

Finding his way to the pew behind her, James took his seat, just a little bit off to the left.

It was then that he noticed, despite the woman having her head covered in a neat, straw hat, that she was crying.

For a moment, he opened his mouth to speak a word of comfort, but then thought again. He might startle her. Furthermore, she may not want his company or his comfort. She had come to the church to be alone, after all.

James closed his eyes and hung his head in his hands, trying to focus on his own prayer. He, too, had come to the church to be alone. Only God was to be his comfort just now and he did not mind that.

However, the sounds of the woman’s weeping were a poor distraction for him. One that moved his heart to try and offer some sort of comfort.

Pulling the handkerchief from his breast pocket, James stretched it out to the lady.

“Here, I believe you need this more than I,” he said, his words sounding loud against the quiet of the church.

The woman froze at the sound of his voice, but turned only enough to nod in appreciation and take the little piece of fabric from him.

“Thank you. You are most kind,” she said.

“It is nothing. I would not be a gentleman if I left you to your sadness and offered nothing,” he laughed lightly.

It elicited a small chuckle of appreciation from her as well, but then the laugh turned to a choke of emotion.

“Forgive me, I must seem like quite a fool just now,” she said, regret filling her tone.

“Not in the least. I think any man or woman who comes to the church to handle their difficulties is nothing but wise,” James said.

“Yes, I suppose that is true. Am I correct in thinking that means you are wise as well?” she asked.

James let out a full laugh, not caring about the quiet of the church.

“I can hardly think myself wise. I may try, but I assure you that I have done a great deal of late to prove otherwise,” he confessed.

“Then that is another similarity that we share,” she replied, all amusement gone from her voice.

James studied the back of her head. The hat covered all but a little of the pitch dark hair that must have covered her head. He saw only a fraction of her neck and cheek, but she continued to face forward.

From what little he saw, and from the musicality of her voice, he thought that she must be quite young, but he knew that he could easily be mistaken on that. Women were difficult to discern unless their faces were in full view.

“I can assure you that you have not lacked wisdom nearly so bad as I have,” he said, offering her a bit of condolence by shaming himself.

“Oh? I think I could prove otherwise,” she chuckled in reply.

“Imagine. Going away for work only to return and find that the woman I intended to marry has found another. Then, just as I intended to leave again for my business, my mother is terribly injured. I was a fool to believe that my intended would wait for me and even more foolish to think I could leave my mother behind again,” James said, hoping that she took comfort in his pain.

“That is a very sad tale,” the woman said, managing to be both sensitive and also matter of fact. “But I fear that I am able to outdo you.”

“Enlighten me,” he offered.

“Imagine the death of your father meaning that you lose everything. Imagine he made many mistakes. And your only way out is to marry someone you could never love. You refuse, but in doing so you potentially destroy the future for yourself and your sister. I think that would be a foolish thing, indeed,” the woman told him.

James considered it for a moment. It was something that he would never have to worry about. He had inherited his father’s title and position. Nothing would ever be taken from him.

But for this poor woman, that was quite the opposite.

“That is a tragedy,” he said.

“Yes, it is foolishness,” she replied.

They were quiet for a moment and James realized that, already, his mood was lighter. Strange, as he had come to pray and be alone, but God had provided someone who might share his burden for a moment.

“Anyway,” she said. “I ought not to remain too much longer, but I have more prayers to pray.”

“Then I shall not keep you,” he said. “I have an appointment in town soon, but I am glad to have spoken with you and to be able to have a brief time in prayer as well.”

“Here,” she said, handing the handkerchief over her shoulder.

“No, please. Keep it. You need it just now,” James said.

“Thank you. For your handkerchief and your kindness,” the woman said.

“Certainly. And I do wish you well with your situation,” he said.

“I wish you the same,” she replied.

James left her to herself and prayed for a few moments, asking God to settle his spirit. He prayed that his mother might recover quickly and be back to her old self. With every word he uttered, he felt his spirit lift.

But soon, James left the church, stopping once to glance at the strange woman he had spoken with.

He did not wish to interrupt her again, but he was glad that she had lightened his mood in their brief chat. Each of them in a terrible state of emotion, but each of them able to perceive it for what it was and speak easily of the circumstances that seemed to crush them.

James turned and left the church, hoping that the rest of the day would be a little bit brighter.

Chapter 5

The day was drawing near that the debts would be called in. There was little time left for waiting.

Alice took in a deep breath, leaning back against the settee. Josephine had gone out for a walk with one of the maids, but Alice had not been feeling up to it. More than anything, she just wished for a rest.

Closing her eyes, Alice tried to picture the future. Herself as a governess or a housekeeper or some such. Josephine trying to find a husband but having a reputation as the daughter of a debtor.

Was there any real hope for either of them?

Alice stood as Charles entered the room. She had known he would come by again soon, but when she had seen his carriage coming towards the townhouse, it had grieved her.

“Cousin,” she greeted, curtseying.

He bowed in reply and made his way, comfortably, to one of the other chairs in the room.

“I wished to speak with you about the upcoming matters,” he said.

“Certainly. Would you like some tea? Have you eaten?” she offered, attempting to be a good hostess despite the tension that lingered between them.

“I have eaten and I do not need tea,” he said in a sharp way.

Alice could tell that he as still offended by her refusal and she felt that it was not going to lighten anytime soon.

Charles had pride and she had wounded it. She felt like a fool for not having expected this. Nevertheless, she had been unprepared and it was not until she had time in the church to speak with God and the other man that she found a bit of peace about it all.

“Alright, then. What shall we discuss?” she asked.

“The debts are going to be called in soon enough. I have looked over your father’s estate and all of his resources. I am afraid that you are going to lose nearly everything. Perhaps we shall be able to keep this home, but certainly nothing more,” Charles told her.

It had been the very thing that Alice had feared. If they were able to keep the townhouse, that was more than she had hoped for, but it still left them without much of anything.

And if Charles was the new Earl of Drakemyre, did that not mean that the townhouse would belong to him now? That he could decide whether or not they were allowed to live there?

“Alright. So we have nothing else?” she asked, maintaining her composure.

“No. Nothing. That is, you have nothing but my offer. It still stands, should you choose to accept it. You know that I will not turn you away,” he said.

Alice looked away and smoothed her dress, a nervous habit that distracted her from the difficulty of the situation.

“I am afraid that my answer must remain the same as it was before. I cannot marry you,” she told him.

“Truly? You have not changed your mind?” he asked, the wounded pride appearing more as a gentle hurt.

His demeanor had changed on the matter and that helped Alice to feel somewhat more comfortable in his presence.

“I fear that I have not. I should like to be friends and cousins, but I cannot marry you. I would still like to seek work,” Alice told him, prepared for any backlash or mocking that he may unleash upon her as he had the previous time.

“Then I understand that you have made up your mind. I shall not continue to press the matter,” Charles said.

His words acted as a balm to soothe Alice’s anxious soul. Charles was composed and understanding, entirely different from how he had behaved previously. She wondered if, perhaps, all he needed was time.

Now that he had been able to think through everything, he understood that they would not have made a very good match anyway. Sad though it was that he should be rejected and Alice should be left without so much assistance from him, it was better for them both.

“Thank you for being so understanding,” Alice said. “have been looking at advertisements for positions. Most likely, I should like to work as a governess. But if I end up finding a position as a housekeeper, I would accept that as well.”

There was a glimmer of something in Charles’s eye that Alice could not quite place. She imagined that it must have been compassion or empathy, but the hint of a smile he gave did not quite fit either of those emotions.

“You should like that sort of work?” Charles asked.

“I think being a governess would be a dignified enough duty. I know that there is not the level of respect for the position that there ought to be, but Josephine and I were always rather fond of our governess, Miss Poppelwell,” Alice said.

“Ah, yes. Miss Poppelwell. I do remember her, actually. At times when I would come and see your father. Do you know, she chased me off from you more times than you are apparently aware of?” Charles asked.

Alice looked at him with wide eyes.

“Truly? She did?” she asked.

“Yes. Not that it matters, anyway. You have no love for me and she had nothing to be afraid of,” he said, cutting the bitterness from his voice and speaking as soothingly as he was likely able.

Alice was quiet for a moment, knowing that His remark still rank of his upset, even if he was handling things far better this day.

“I am very sorry for having hurt you,” she said.

“Think nothing of it, for I have all but forgotten. It is what it is and we must move on,” Charles said.

Alice nodded, thankful that he wished to move on from it as well.

“I fear that I was rude. I meant not to disrespect you. I was rather taken aback and I think that my demeanor was not what it ought to have been,” she confessed.

“Forget it,” he said, sounding as though he truly wished for her to move on and leave the conversation behind.

Alice agreed that it was best they not talk about it any further, but rather move on to discuss the rest of their plans.

“Well, then. That is what I intend to do. I know that it shall not provide a home for Josephine at the moment, so I am still trying to decide exactly what I must do for her,” Alice said.

“I have had a thought in that regard as well,” Charles said. “And this is one that I think you shall approve of.”

“Please, do tell,” Alice urged, thankful that he had thought about it at all.

“Well, my mother could use some company in the city. It would be an ideal time as it is during the season and it means that Josephine will be seen by many. She can be a part of polite society and still have a roof over her head,” he suggested.

Alice was delighted by the idea. If their aunt would take Josephine in, they really would have an ideal option for the two of them to continue living their lives without having to worry about a home. Charles seemed more than happy to arrange it all which gave Alice an even greater semblance of peace.

“I should be ever so delighted if you are able to arrange that,” she said.

“Then consider it completed. I shall speak with my mother as soon as possible and make sure that she has a place for Josephine. I know that she will. I’ve mentioned to her that you might need something temporary. But now that you have agreed to one of my suggestions, I think that I can make it all work out,” Charles said.

Alice felt bad about his comment. He was still hurt that she had not agreed to another of his suggestions, the one about them marrying. But she stood firm in the knowledge that she had made the right decision.

His little remarks at times certainly proved to make her feel terribly guilty, but she knew that she had not handled things very well and that her poor cousin had been hurt by her actions and her words.

Perhaps she was working to make it right, but she could not blame him if there were still little cuts now and then.

“I am ever so grateful to you for arranging this. It is an ideal option for Josephine and for me. She is going to enjoy spending time with our aunt, I’ve no doubt about it,” Alice said.

“Yes, my mother is quite lovely and she shall make every effort to get Josephine taken care of in society. She shall wander about with the very best, the most beautiful, the wealthiest,” he said.

Alice considered that and, for a moment, disliked the thought. She wanted Josephine to be comfortable living a simple life as well. But still, if it improved her prospects in finding a match, could it really be all that bad?

“Well, thank you again,” Alice said.

“It is nothing but my duty,” Charles replied.

Alice thought about duty and what hers was now. As she took care of Josephine, she had a great many things that she needed to ensure were put into place.

But in the midst of all of that, she thought about the duty that she would have one day to marry as well. If it ever came to it, she would have to choose for love rather than the provisions being offered by their cousin.

And certainly, she would never be the sort of woman to promise herself to one man and then choose another. Not like the woman spoken of by the man in the church.

It had been such a strange interaction, one so unexpected. Still reeling from it, Alice thought about how hurt the man must have been when he learned that his intended had moved on.

She would not put herself or Charles in the position of having to face such a thing. And if she were to find a match soon, she would want it to be a man like the one in the church who had been so kind, offering his handkerchief so freely.

She felt the wad of it in her bodice where she had tucked it upon departing from the church. It needed to be washed and cleaned from all of her tears.

But Alice had been dealing with far more pressing matters and simply hadn’t given it to the housekeeper yet.

“Anyway, I suppose I ought to depart,” Charles said, cutting through the silence that had settled between them.

“Oh, yes. Well, thank you for speaking with me,” she said.

“Think nothing of it. And I shall keep my ears open for any positions. I think I have just the sort of resources for finding you a position out of the city. You know, now that I am a man with a title I interact with many great men of England. Some of them have daughters and I imagine they are going to be in search of a governess,” Charles said.

“You think? Oh, that would be ever so lovely,” Alice said.

“Then I shall make every effort to find you a position amongst them. Give me some time, but I will do what I can to make it work. And if you are working out of the city and Josephine is still here, I think everything will be alright. My mother will take good care of her,” he said.

Alice agreed, but that did not make it any easier in her mind that leaving Josephine behind was a good idea. No, it would be entirely too difficult. But she had to think about what was best.

At first, Alice had thought about renting a small cottage for Josephine while she worked, but she would still have time in which she had no money to pay for it and it would be difficult to do much of anything to help her sister.

This suggestion form Charles would provide the ideal solution to their problem. Josephine would be looked after while Alice worked and saved some money.

Then, the two could be reunited very quickly and everything would come back together. They would share a home again. It had to work out.

Charles stood and made for the door of the parlor and Alice saw him out.

“Thank you again. And also…I am very sorry for my rudeness previously,” Alice said, feeling the need to apologize one last time.

“I told you to think nothing of it,” he said in a flat voice. “I will do whatever I can for you and your sister. That is my duty and it shall be done.”

“Then you are truly a good man,” Alice said.

“You must remember that. In case you ever change your mind. Remember that I am a good man,” Charles said.

Alice was speechless as Charles turned and left the house for his carriage. It appeared as though he still expected her to consider his proposal even though he had offered her other option and agreed to help with the ones she had decided on.

It would not grow any easier being around him if he continued to hope that they might one day share a home and family. But Alice had made up her mind and she knew that Charles would come to respect it in time.

But for now, Alice went back inside and sat on the settee all over again. Josephine would be back soon.

Alice suddenly remembered the little bulge in her bodice again. She fished out the small piece of fabric and told herself to make sure she got it washed soon.

Looking at it closely for the first time, she saw a small insignia on the handkerchief. Strange that she had not noticed it before.

More than ever, she realized that it had been kind of the man to give it to her. If it had some symbol of his, then he must have been quite intentional about having it.

Yes, he had been a generous man. And despite all of her senses, Alice could not seem to forget that.

A Graceful Swan for the Fearless Marquess – Preview

Chapter 1
Silence filled the air, ringing loud with the eeriness that came with new places, untraveled territories. The only problem was; this path was not new. It was one Sebastian Longcross had traveled several times over.
It was the road that led to home. Perhaps it was his gloom that made it all so strange. He had never been so sad, to return home.
Yes, it had been over a year since he last went down this path, a year since he last saw his family. He still remembered this course like he did everything else that mattered to him.
The trees he was all too familiar with, the rocky terrains, the hills, the rivers… they were all there. Just as he had left them, just as he remembered. When he finally reached the manor where he had lived most of his life in, his family would be there awaiting his return too, arms open wide to welcome him home.
Alas… it would not be the same.
His demeanor dampened even more as the carriage that was bearing him home, took the last turn that would lead them into Widmore. He swayed with its motion, taking great care to remain on his seat- not that it was hard to do, the coachman was proving very careful with his riding.
When they had righted once more, he adjusted his suit and stared out the window.
Soon, they would be in the heart of the village. Only a few moments left until he had to face his family. His mind was plagued with thoughts on how the reunion would go- with plenty of other thoughts too, many of which he might never tell another soul.
It had been plagued since he had received the letter two months ago. Of course, he had packed up his things and left for England immediately. There had been no time to tarry.
The seas had been kind on most days and the sail had been impressive. They had made good time and in less than two months, Sebastian had found himself on English shores.
His old life was over- this he was certain of. Everything changed the moment he read those words. He now had a new life, new responsibilities. Shoes that he was afraid were too big to fill. Yet, he could only try and hope not to fail.
Sebastian Longcross had the type of childhood every second heir in this era had- growing up knowing that he came second. He was the one they would fall back to, in the case that something went wrong.
It had never bothered him. Though he had known that his duties and responsibilities differed from that of his elder brother, his parents had tried their best to show both sons, equal love.
Yes, they had taken the same lessons, been invited into the same meetings- still, Sebastian had constantly been reminded of the fact that he would never have to take on the mantle unless his older brother was found wanting.
He had been just fine with that. As they grew into men, Sebastian had come to realize the bigger blessing that was. While Hanson, his beloved brother, had to remain in Widmore and rule alongside his father, he had been free to go on a grand tour that had lasted four years.
The plan had been to be gone for five. See the world in its entirety. Then, he would return to rule as Marquess of Northcott. It had been a beautiful thought, and he had enjoyed every moment of his freedom.
Until something had gone terribly wrong.
Though Sebastian had been trained to take his brother’s place if the need ever arose, he was aware that the likelihood of that happening was quite slim. No one had wanted for it.
No one in the family he knew and loved. They had believed that Hanson would live long and old, and rule as Duke when their father went to eternal rest. Everyone had been pleased by that thought. Everyone.
A terrible thing that fate had other plans and life had its way of proving it was beyond human control.
That letter he had received… one he still had in his hand this moment, he held everywhere he went, had contained a short, precise and entirely heartbreaking message.
Hanson was dead. His heart had failed him. He was found in his study at the townhouse in London, his soul given.
Sebastian had to return home as he was now the only heir. He would have the time to mourn his brother, yes. Then, he would have to step into the shoes Hanson had left behind, and carry on as his brother had so faithfully done.
Sebastian was yet to mourn, but his soul grieved already. A part of him hoped it was all a lie. A very ludicrous one to lure him home… after all, his birthday was near, was it not? Perhaps, his family simply wanted him home, so he would celebrate with them.
Yet, even as that thought crossed his mind, he felt the sharp pain like a stab in his heart. It made him wince. A voice, mocking, laughed in his ears… he was simply deluding himself.
Deep down, where there were no doubts or denial, he knew his brother was gone. Also, in that very place for clarity and critical thoughts, Sebastian knew that Hanson’s death had been no stroke of a poor heart.
His brother had been murdered.
Sebastian had made a vow that he would not mourn, not until he brought the murderer to justice. How he intended to do it, he knew not. All he knew, was that it would be done.
Hanson had been a wonderful man, a great son and an amazing older brother. Older by three years, he had held Sebastian’s hands when they were only little lads, taught him all he knew about hunting and fishing. Climbing trees and swimming rivers.
Hanson had made Sebastian laugh even when tears filled his eyes and had remained by his bedside every time the woes of ailment plagued him and he had needed to be nursed to health.
When they became men, Hanson had taught Sebastian all he needed to know about life, as he saw it. He had shared his experiences, his dream, his hope… They had been more than brothers, they had been the best of friends.
The first year of the grand tour, they had been together. It had been the best year of their lives. Away from all the duties back at home. Free to do whatever it was they wanted… they had felt like birds in the skies, with feathers to fly wherever fit their heart’s desires.
After Hanson had ended his tour and returned home, he had kept writing to Sebastian. A good number of correspondences, defying time and distance. Their love had been pure, it had been strong, it had held.
The grief of his death weighed heavily on Sebastian’s heart. It was like a fresh sore that would not heal soon. Sebastian welcomed its pain. He would hold it dear until he found who had done this wicked thing.
It would be his reminder to never give up, no matter how hard it got.
There was no inkling that there had been foul play, except the gut feeling in Sebastian’s throat that he could not shake away, no matter how hard he tried.
The physician had said there had been no sign of struggle, or poison… Hanson had died a peaceful death. So, it could only have been his heart.
Sebastian did not agree. He had known Hanson. Lived with him, breathed the same air as him. He knew his brother had a strong heart. One that could not have given up only after twenty and eight summers of good work.
No. Impossible. Someone had done that. Why? He knew not. How? He would know soon. Who? That too, was his duty to find.
That was the true reason he was returning home. Yet, it was a secret he would keep to himself, for this was something he needed to do alone.
Hanson had been killed in London. Whatever Sebastian needed to find, it was to be found in London. It was a good thing he had arrived just in time for the season.
Though they should be mourning, Hanson had been dead five months, and it was another month until the season would begin fully. Now that he was heir, it was only expected that he took a wife as quickly as possible.
Hanson had had no wife until his death. The implication of that was that he had no son, no heir whatsoever. If something happened to Sebastian, their lineage would be gone…
He knew all these things, he understood it. There was no time to tarry.
He would take a wife, and he would sire an heir. It was what his parents would ask of him, his people, and he would not deny them. It was only the start of many other sacrifices that would follow.
Only, Sebastian was a man who believed in love. The past years on other sides of the world, different people, experiencing their culture, had given him an entirely different outlook on life.
He wanted more than a marriage born out of duty. He wanted more than a union of obligation. His only fear was, that it would not be found in three months of the season.
However, he could only try, could he not?
Finding love, while finding a murderer would pose a difficult task to accomplish, but he was Sebastian Northcott. Very little proved impossible for him to do.
As for the shoes he had to fill… he would never compare to Hanson and he never wished to. He would do his best by his people, make his parents proud. All the lessons he had learned, he would call to remembrance and put into practice.
When he left America, he had kissed his freedom goodbye. He was a new man now, a man on a mission.
The silence faded as noise from the village began to stream into the carriage.
Knowing that the time had come, he pushed his head out the window and began to wave at the villagers; children, their mothers, maiden, and gentry. He was their heir now. The one who would become Duke in good time.
Their warm welcome, their happy smiles, their reference, all filled his heart with emotions so warm, they almost drove away from the chill he had been cloaked in for a while now.
Sebastian cherished it, glad for the moment. As they left the village behind, he settled into his seat once more and prepared his mind for the meeting to come.
In no time, the carriage rolled to a stop.
Finally, he had arrived home.
Gracefully, he stepped down from the carriage. His limbs ached to be stretched after being held stiffly in position for days, but he knew there would be time for that later.
Stilling his mind one last time, he turned and looked upon the assemblage that had gathered to welcome him home.
Of course, leading the charge were his mother and father.
It was always like this whenever he returned home. Only, next to his parents, used to be Hanson. Always.
The trees, and hills and rivers might have remained the same, but Hanson was gone. His family was now incomplete.
The pain in his heart went deeper, making the sore hurt even harder.
Nevertheless, Sebastian forced his lips to curve in a smile; howbeit a sad one. Then, he began his ascent to where his parents waited.
There was silence as he climbed the stairs. When he finally reached his father, he sunk into a bow.
“Father…” the duke of Widmore would not let him finish. He held his son up, drawing him into an embrace instead.
Sebastian had sworn he would shed no tears. He had believed it an easy feat to manage. Yet, as his father’s arms gathered around him, sharing all the warmth and love in his heart, Sebastian felt the flood gather around his eyes. Holding them back proved harder than any duty he had ever fulfilled.
“Welcome home, son! You have no idea how happy we are to finally see you. It has been trying times indeed. Now that you are home with us, we can rest easy and continue to mourn our beloved in peace.”
“Father…” he wanted to speak, but he had no words. He had prepared for this, gone over this meeting countless times, thought of a million reactions and responses. Yet, all he could do at that moment was hold on to his father and try not to cry before all the people here.
So, he nodded and took his time to pull himself together. When he was confident he could handle his emotions once more, he pulled away and went to his mother.
Tears had already filled her eyes and her black garment, a sign of her sorrowful heart. He wouldn’t let her say anything. He simply took her into his arms. She was still as petite as he remembered her, as she had always been. She easily fit in, her head stopping at his chest.
When Sebastian felt his shirt grow wet, he held her even tighter.
“Mother, I’m here. I’m sorry I did not come earlier. I’m sorry I have not been here to hold you and comfort you. But, I’m here now.”
She began to shake her head, wanting none of his guilt.
She pulled away eventually to look him in the eyes…
“Don’t you go speaking as though you could have controlled this any more than we could have. We could have done nothing… all of us put together. Hanson had been alone in London, with no one but staff for acompanion. Those staff brought his body, lifeless, back to us. Yes, you were away, but just as you have been for years, living your life. We were away too. There was no way we could have known that such a thing could happen. So, my dear…” she reached up to cup his cheeks, her voice tender, her eyes soft.
“I do not wish to hear any nonsense that expresses regrets. He is gone. We could not have stopped him from doing so. Only the good Lord knows best. All we can do now is mourn him, miss him and try to move on with our lives. It is what he would want, you know. Hanson? He would want us to be happy.”
And because that was true, for the first time since Sebastian received that news, he let himself breathe. Deeply, free from the weight of guilt he had placed upon himself.
Nodding, he held his mother gently and dropped a tender kiss on the fore of her head.
“We will be that… happy, once again. I promise you.”
It was not the end of the sad, teary reunion, Sebastian knew. Nevertheless, it was enough for now.
So, he let his mother go and he went round, accepting condolences from staff and extended family members that had gathered on his behalf.

Chapter 2

“Oh, goodness! So lovely! Is it not?”
Liliana Swan shook her head as she looked up at her sister, her lips stretching into a happy smile.
“Yes, Nora. It looks very lovely. I believe it brings out the color in your eyes, and it compliments your skin so well.”
Nora gave into a squeal accompanied by a happy dance that had her skipping around the same spot.
“Thank you, sister! I knew this shade of yellow was the right color. I’m going to look absolutely beautiful at the ball tomorrow. Like a dream, I tell you. A fairy tale.”
“That, I have no doubt about,” Liliana answered, enjoying her sister’s excitement.
With the smile on her face, she went back to her embroidery, leaving her sister to admire herself in the mirror. That was Nora. Ever happy, a little too loud than was considered proper for a lady, and very outspoken too.
She lived with no apologies and did whatever it was she felt like. Perhaps, it helped that she was their step father’s favorite, so that meant she could always get away with disobeying the rules.
Not that Liliana minded though. She loved her sister dearly and wouldn’t have her any other way. Nora was the thunderstorm. She was the soft drizzle, or perhaps the rainbow that came after a storm.
Whatever it was, they were perfect together, like two peas in a pod. Not surprising, considering that they shared a womb and looked almost exactly alike.
Only those who were truly close to the family could tell them apart in an instant. Although, one who was a little more confused, simply had to watch the two of them for a while to tell. Their contrasting demeanor was all the telltale people ever needed for clarity.
Beyond that, when it came to physical attributes, save for the varying length of their hair, and the different pitches their voices naturally took, if one looked carefully enough, they would easily distinguish Nora’s amber, from Liliana’s setting sun eyes.
As for the height, body size, skin color, their oval-shaped face, thin lips, and puckered nose- all of that was the same.
A few people said Liliana walked more gracefully than Nora did, but that was only due to Nora’s flighty nature. When her beloved sister was aware that she needed to obey the rules of propriety, she was as graceful as the Swan she was, even more so.
“Are you done with your dress, yet?”
Nora called out once again, distracting Liliana from her thoughts. She stopped her needling and looked up at her sister.
“Almost. Just a few more stitches and it would be ready for wear.”
“I think it is wonderful that you sew so well, Lilly. I can’t wait to try on this dress you’ve made for me,” she sighed dreamily, bringing the dress to rub against her cheeks. “It looks so beautiful, I want to sleep in it forever! Nevertheless, I must wait for you, so that we do our fittings together.”
“Only a little while more, Nora. You’ll see.”
“Alright, Lilly. I shall wait patiently, then. Perhaps, I would amuse myself with some pastries from the kitchen while I do so. You will be done soon, will you not?”
Liliana nodded, the small smile never leaving her face.
“Certainly. Steal some biscuits for me, would you?”
Nora’s face went pink with her guilt, even as her eyes twinkled with mischief.
“Who said anything about stealing?”
With those words, she skipped out of the room.
As she left, Liliana caught their maids heaving a sigh of relief. Not that it indicated any ill thoughts, quite the opposite. Nora was simply so given to theatrics that she brought everyone to exhaustion with her energy.
Ah… but Liliana had lived by her side for eighteen years and she had grown accustomed to every side of her sister. Nora was only a sweet, carefree child. It was why she always took Evie’s biscuits and caused the elderly woman to follow her about the house, scolding her.
It was a sport for Nora and in truth, it was always fun to watch for everyone knew that Evie didn’t mind Nora taking the biscuits at all. It was the only reason she went through the trouble to make some every day.
What they didn’t know though, was that Evie gave Liliana a jar full of biscuits every other day, as Lilly was her favorite twin whom she loved dearly.
Complaints? Lilly had none whatsoever. Evie’s jar of biscuits was akin to a jar of goodness.
“You really do sew well, my lady. Only, I wish you do not have to go through so much trouble. The master does not like it, you know. He can afford the best of seamstresses for you and Lady Nora.”
That was Rachel, her maid.
“Thank you, Rachel. Nevertheless, I never get quite satisfied with anything that was not made by my mother or myself. Well, mother is gone now and this is all I have left of her. Making dresses, they make me feel closer to her. As though she is still here with us.”
Her mother had been a seamstress when she had been married to her father. It had been necessary to make enough money so that their family of four could get by, as their father, the second son of a viscount, a clergyman, and a teacher, had had very little fortune to his name.
After her father had died and her mother had remarried Lord Rothwell, their stepfather, she had continued to make dresses, but only for herself and her daughters. Lord Rothwell would not allow otherwise.
Unlike her father, her stepfather was a wealthy man. A marquess with a lot of fortune to call his own. He provided every need for them, making sure they wanted not.
Even after her mother had gone to join her father in sweet rest, Lord Rothwell had continued to provide still. He was a wonderful man, indeed. Even more wonderful, for letting her continue her mother’s art.
Every time Liliana sewed, she felt her mother’s presence… guiding her, her words, teaching her. Yes, there were memories and things that her mother had owned, lying around the house, here and there.
Though it had been three years since her death, Liliana still missed her terribly, and nothing made her feel closer than carrying on with an art that her mother had loved so much. It had been her essence, after her two children and her dear husbands.
It was just as well, that Liliana was as blessed as her mother was with the gift. Perhaps, someday, if she married a man who would allow her, she would be a seamstress indeed.
If not, then she hoped she would have many daughters for whom to make beautiful dresses.
Finally, she finished the last stitch and as she dropped her needle, she held up the dress to examine her handiwork. It was perfect.
There was to be a ball on the evening of the morrow. The duke of Widmore, her stepfather’s distant cousin, was throwing a ball in honor of his son’s return and of course, in celebration of his twenty-fifth birthday.
Their family had been honored with an invitation and since she and Nora would finally be entering society this season, their step-father had decided this would be a good way to start.
Good thing it was, that it was a masquerade ball. It meant that there would be some mystery left to them, still. That which would be revealed at the start of the season.
Her eyes squinted as she looked at the work she had done, more critically. It was beautiful as it was, but the perfectionist in her had to make certain that there were absolutely no faults.
Nora had chosen a yellow gown, but she had decided to go with a dress that was midnight blue. The embroidery was full of stars… she wished to look like a dream. A beautiful sky, on a beautiful night.
Deep down, she also wished to honor the memory of Late Lord Hanson. It might have been months since he was laid to rest. Yet, it was no secret that the family was still in mourning and they would be formally, until the sixth month.
Liliana reckoned that it was perhaps, the reason why the ball would be a masquerade one. It would not do well to attend in happy colors, with no respite to their grief.
The door opened then and Nora entered, a happy grin on her face.
“I got the biscuits, sister!” she paused when she saw that Liliana was finally done with the dress.
“Oh, Lilly! Finally! Oh my, it is utterly beautiful. Hurry up now, let’s try it on and see how we look in them. I am certain we are going to steal many hearts. Do you think we would catch the marquess’s attention? I hear he’s a fine man,” her sister giggled as she finished.
Nora’s giddiness was communicable, no doubt, and Liliana soon found herself caught on the excitement.
The mention of the marquess made her think. She had met with Lord Longcross before. Many years ago, when her mother had married Lord Rothwell.
She had been only twelve summers then… a child. Yet, she had sensed the kindness and warmth in his eyes when they had been introduced. She had felt it in her heart.
Six summers since then. She wondered if the Lord had changed much, especially after being away for that long. She wondered if he was still kind and warm, or if the world beyond had changed him.
This thought plagued her as they got into their dresses. When they were done, they looked at their reflection in the mirror.
Liliana was awed by what she saw. The dresses fit perfectly and they looked utterly beautiful.
“Absolutely lovely.”
They both turned around at the voice that had just sounded. It was Lord Rothwell who had just stepped into the sewing room.
Liliana felt her cheeks grow warm, and she knew that Nora was just as pleased at the approval in their step-father’s eyes. Nora adored the man. She had found an intimacy with him that she had never shared with their true father.
Liliana minded not one bit. In their own way, Nora and their father had loved each other. They had simply been cut from different cloths.
Dipping into curtsies, the girls acknowledged his presence.
“Father!” Nora chimed
“Father,” Liliana repeated.
“My darlings… you two are going to be the belles of the ball tomorrow, you’ll see. Goodness! How fast they grow. I remember the first time I set my eyes upon you, you were no more than eleven summers. You could not reach my waist even if you tried. Now, look at you. All grown, and as beautiful as the rising sun. Come, come.”
They walked to him happily, for Lord Rothwell was a kind man and he had only ever shown them love and warmth.
When they reached him, he kissed them both on their heads and requested that they sat.
They did just that. He followed, and when they had all settled, he began to speak.
“It is just as well that I met you in this manner. I am now more convinced than ever, that you two are ready for what is to come next. You are women now, no more girls. And as is expected of every woman, the time has come when you must find your husbands and start your own family, in your own home. The season is nigh, as I’m sure you are aware.”
It was Nora who answered. “Yes, Father. It beckons.”
“Ah yes. You are also aware that you shall finally be entering society?”
Liliana replied this time. “Certainly. We shall be debutantes.”
“That is right. In a fortnight or two… I shall introduce my pride to society. I get teary-eyed, just thinking about it. It shall be such an emotional moment for us all. I wish your mother were alive to witness the joy. She would have been so proud. Prouder than I am.”
There was silence as he paused. The mention of their mother caused a shift in the atmosphere and the ache in Liliana’s heart deepened. It had never gone away. Some days were simply better than the others.
“You have been very good children to me. If you were my own seeds, I could not have asked for any better, and I could not love you more.”
“Thank you, father. You have been ever kind and wonderful. We would never be able to repay your goodness.”
“Oh no no, Liliana. I do not consider it a debt. All I did, I did out of love. For your mother, and for you two. It is what she would have wanted. What is expected of me, what I swore when I agreed to take her as my wife. I shall continue to take care of you, protect you, which is why we must have this discussion.”
That got Liliana’s attention. She had known that her step-father had come on a mission. Now that that had been confirmed, she was curious to know what it was.
He continued, answering the questions in her mind.
“As you know, I could never send you away. This is your home and you are welcome to stay as long as you want. Nevertheless, you must know that the age which you both are now, is the prime of a woman. Her peak. If you must find a husband, you must seize the opportunity of this season and secure an engagement before its end. Hopefully, even a marriage. For the life of comfort I have given you, it would be my happiness to see you both married to men who will continue to afford you that comfort. Men of title, or solid reputation, men of wealth. Do you understand?”
Nora nodded eagerly, too eagerly. Liliana gave two curt nods, her mood dampening. She was certain this conversation would not end well. She could sense it and her gut hardly ever lied.
“Good. I am glad. You must do all you can to get a husband this season. It is all you have. Many ladies debut when they are younger. Seventeen summers, some sixteen… by twenty, your era would be over and the time for a new wave shall come. I shall hate for you to have to wait for so long or miss this chance. You must make do with what you have now. I am confident in your capabilities. You shall continue to do father proud, shall you not? Remember, this is all for your own good.”
“We understand, father. I promise you, I shall be married by the time the season ends. To a wealthy Lord, no less. You will see.”
Liliana watched her sister as she spoke with such conviction. She knew Nora meant every word. She knew her sister would do everything in her power to make their stepfather happy.
For the first time, Liliana wondered if that was a good thing… and if it wasn’t, what did that mean for her sister?
“And you, Liliana?”
Cut out of her thoughts, she turned to her step-father.
“My lord, I have heard your admonition and shall do as you say. Although, these things are beyond human control. Nevertheless, I promise to try.”
Lord Rothwell’s face grew wide with a full-fledged grin. “I knew I would not be disappointed. Once again, you have made me happy, dear ones. God bless your sweet souls. I shall leave you be now. Perhaps, the ball tomorrow shall be a good opportunity for you to begin to practice your charms. Your governess has made me understand that she had equipped you with all necessary knowledge of courtship behavior.”
Liliana and Nora shared a look, then turned to their stepfather, nodding.
“Ah, very well then. I shall trust you lovelies to impress me with your good behavior.’
He rose to his feet then, and the ladies did the same, sinking into curtsies as he turned to leave.
He paused halfway, turning his head so he could gaze upon them once more. “Liliana?”
Her eyes widened in response.
“You have done beautifully well with the dresses, yet again. Well done.”
Her lips spread in a warm smile and she watched him until the door closed behind him, wondering what to make of what had just happened.
Would she be able to fulfill her step-father’s wishes?
She knew Nora bore no notions of love. Her sister loved a life of comfort. She had always made it clear that she would marry for convenience. However, Liliana was different.
She loved love, believed in it and all her life, she had only ever wanted a marriage like the one her mother and father had had. One filled with love, respect, peace, and happiness.
Wealth had mattered little. They had gotten by just fine, and they had been happy, truly happy.
The kind of love that was needed to have such a marriage, Liliana feared that it could not be found in three months.
If she did not… did that mean she would have to settle for a life of convenience? And hope to grow in love?
Lord, she hoped not. She had watched her mother after her marriage to Lord Rothwell… though she had only been a child but she had been able to tell. Her mother might have loved Rothwell in her way, but she had been happier with their father.
Liliana knew that forever was too long a time, to live that way.

Chapter 3
The weather was quite chilly that evening. The wind floated in swift harmony, its melody so sweet that it left the trees little choice but to sway to its tune.
Although it sang a song of melancholia- or perhaps, that was simply Sebastian’s mood reflecting in the evening atmosphere- the trees still danced eagerly, as though understanding the meaning of every note.
The sky was fully lit tonight. It was as though the heavenly bodies were aware that there was an occasion and they had gathered to witness it. The stars twinkled and the full moon, right in their middle, seemed all that the night needed to shine.
His mother had declared that there would be no need for lamps to light the path for their guest since the moon provided that much, but she had requested that they are placed all the same. ‘’For beauty’’ she had said.
She had really gone all out for the ball tonight. In her words- it had to be an affair fit for a double celebration- his birthday and his homecoming.
Sebastian was in no mood for celebration. He did not think it fair that only months after his beloved brother’s cold body had been laid to rest, there would be music and dancing in the ballroom below as though they did not still mourn.
It was not fitting to Hanson’s memory, but there was little say he had in the matter. This ball was as necessary as his coming home had been. It had to be done, either way.
At the very least, his mother had accepted his request to make it a masquerade. He knew he would survive better through the night if he did not have to wear a false smile throughout the event.
He would rather hide his gloom behind a happy mask. Ah yes. He would feel better that way.
He continued to look down through the window from the hallway up the stairs. People had begun to arrive over an hour ago. In no time, his presence would be requested.
Good thing the guests seemed to have respect for the dead. Most of them had come in beautiful dresses as would be expected for a ball such as this, but these dresses were mostly in dark colors. It was a thought Sebastian found himself grateful for.
Not to mention, the music that had been wafting through the air from the ballroom was one of solemnity. None of the jingling tunes he had feared would be played.
It was a ball, yes. A beautiful one at that, for his mother never threw any less. As much as he would be celebrated tonight, it was comforting to know that the memory of his late brother would not be so disregarded with loud music and fast dancing.
The mood had been set and when it was time, he knew he would join the ballroom, less dreary than he had been over the past few weeks of preparation.
“Oh, there you are!”
The voice was none other than his mother’s. He did not turn. At the huge window where he stood, it was easy to watch the guest as they arrived one by one.
When he moved from there, he would have to move to the ballroom and remain atop the stairs a while, to watch for himself what it was like in person.
His mother came to stand by his side. As though understanding his demeanor, she went quietly and looked out the window a short while with him. That tender moment ended when she placed a soft hand on his shoulder.
Gone was the cheery tone with which she had called out to him.
“We miss him too. We all wished he was here. Alas, he is not and we must continue forward. It is what he would have wanted. You have no idea how hard this has been for me as a mother. I cry every night, barely managing to get a wink of peaceful sleep without having dreams plagued with memories of him. Yet I awake the next morn and go about my household duties as though I had had blissful sleep filled with the sweetest dreams.” She paused as a heavy sigh slipped past her lips.
“’ Tis all a farce, my love. Nevertheless, I cannot afford to crumble in their presence any longer. Tonight, son, we merry. The pain will get easier with days. Not today, but eventually. Now, enough of that moping. You have guests who have gathered on your behalf. It is rude to keep them waiting. Come.”
Sebastian drew in a deep breath and looked at his mother, really looked at her. Guilt overwhelmed him. He had been so caught up in his grief since he arrived that he had failed to consider how much pain his parents were going through, especially his mother.
She had only ever loved them dearly, both her sons. Yet, she had had to bury one of them… watch him lyinglie lifeless. It could not have been easy.
He could see that now. The tired lines, the dark circles around her eyes, the hollow in her neck. She had become lean, paler, yet she managed to hide all of that behind a smile or two, being so busy fooling everyone.
The sorrow in those eyes, the sadness surrounding the edges of her lips. His mother had been hiding so much pain. He could imagine that she felt even more than he did.
If she could put her grief behind all in a bid to do what was best for their family, then he could do the same, too.
Being back here in Widmore had been harder than he had imagined. He had been so sad and quiet, mostly keeping to himself. He still would not visit his brother’s grave, and settling into his brother’s duties had proved difficult.
No surprises there, he had not exactly been trying. They would leave for London in a few days. How did he hope to find his brother’s murderer if he could not get a hold of himself and his emotions?
“I…” he released the breath he had been holding in a deep sigh. “I am sorry, mother. I did not realize that I was being selfish in my grieving. Of course, you hurt as much as I do, even more. You have been strong, mother. You and father both… I suppose, a part of me remained in denial as I journeyed, hoping that I would return to meet Hanson in flesh and blood.”
“Alas, you did not and it is only just now that you are letting yourself accept the truth and mourn him when we have had months to get accustomed to the truth of him being no more.”
“Precisely.”
His mother had always been so wonderful, sensible and understanding. Of course, there were days when she was demanding and more. Nevertheless, she was lovely.
Now, they faced each other. Her hand moved from his shoulder to cup his cheek in that affectionate way only she could have with him. Her other hand joined in no time.
“There is no rush. Take all the time you need. Nonetheless, as you do, never forget that you are still living and you must tend to matters of the living. This…” she withdrew her hands to make a circle.
“All of these are our legacy. The family, your people, there shall be no one to cater to them when your father and I are gone. This is your duty.”
“I understand mother, I apologize. I shall join the crowd now. You only need to give me a minute. Will you be by my side?”
“For as long as I live.”
With a kiss to his cheek, his mother walked away smiling. It was perhaps, the third time since his arrival that he had seen a smile reach her eyes so.
When she was gone from the hallway, he remained to prepare himself for what was to come. The talk with his mother had done a great deal. He would be meeting with people he had not met in a while.
Many who would be happy to see him, yet unable to hide their sadness at his loss. Thank God for masks. He would be just fine.
Removing the mask from his pocket, he took one look at it and finally wore it around his head.
Taking another deep breath, he started to walk to the ballroom.
His mother was waiting at the door that led into the large hall, just at the top of the stairs. Her back was turned to him, yet she felt his presence before her eyes found him.
She turned the moment his eyes laid upon her and her face lit up in a genuine smile once more. She waited for him to cover the three-feet-distance between them.
Her hand was waiting and she easily tucked it around his.
“Have I told you how handsome you look tonight? The maidens are all going to be fawning over you. I daresay, there shall be a contest to gain your attention tonight.”
He chuckled at this, glad at his mother’s attempt to make him laugh, although he knew there was an even more serious message lying underneath all of that. He ignored it though. There would be time for that discussion later.
“And you, mother, are the most beautiful woman in this room tonight. I do believe I shall be the envy of many men. One man, I am very certain. He appears unable to stop sending me death glares at the moment.”
His mother followed his eyes to his father’s who was down the stairs.
She laughed when she saw the look in his father’s eyes.
“Ah… you flatter me, son. As do your father with that oh so dreadful glare. The man does not like to share at all.”
“If only I could lay blame to him. It is the heartache one must suffer for marrying a woman of unmatched beauty.”
His mother was grinning wide and his heart warmed at the thought that even for this moment, he had caused her true happiness.
“His Lordship, Lord Longcross, Marquess of Northcott, heir to the duchy of Widmore and her Ladyship, Lady Leighton, Duchess of Northcott.”
Sebastian and his mother nodded at the announcer in acknowledgment and when the entire room turned to look up at them, they began to descend the stairs.
Though he had settled for a full mask, his mother simply had a flimsy feather over her eyes. Unlike himself, she had perfected the art of wearing a natural mask over her face. She needn’t hide behind another.
Sebastian hoped though, that for tonight, his mother would enjoy true happiness… as true as it could get.
“It’s going to be a lovely night, Sebastian. I can feel it.”
Those were the last words she said to him personally before they got swamped into the sea of people who were eager to meet him.
The next hour was filled with introductions, and heartfelt condolences, in addition to birthday wishes- all of which Sebastian accepted as heartily as he could.
There were several ladies too of course, all of whom his mother particularly wanted him to meet. Many of them were in masks just as flimsy as his mother’s. It was just as well. Their beauties were too potent to be kept hidden.
In fact, with the soft music playing beneath all of the conversations, Sebastian found himself relaxing into the night. These were his people. People of Widmore and Northcott. He could allow himself one night with them.
Moments like win flew, and in no time, he had to cut the cake that had been made in his honor.
Everyone officially wished him a very happy birthday- once again. And after the cake had been cut, his mother and father stepped up to him.
“It seems only yesterday that you were christened before family and dear friends. I cannot believe it has been twenty and five years since then.” That was his father. His voice was solemn, though the smile on his face was amiable.
The duke had found no need for a mask, all his emotions had been left on display all night and Sebastian had read joy, pride, a little hint of sadness, and relief.
“Time does fly, does it not?”
“Like the kite, you often pursued when you were naught but a wee lad.”
Sebastian smiled as memories returned. It was a sad smile, for those kites… he never pursued alone. Hanson had shared every memory. But, it was not a night to be sad, was it?
Yet, the irony was not lost. Only a few months ago they had mourned death, now they celebrated life. This was the existence’s entire essence. To be born, to live and to die.
Sensing the change in the atmosphere, his mother quickly took charge. She gestured at someone who happened to be Renley, the butler. Renley marched forward with a soft pillow on which laid a crossbow.
It was one Sebastian instantly recognized. Their family came from a long line of hunters, men who were known far and wide and with pride, for their hunting talent that was unmatched by many other clans.
The crossbow was their family’s symbol… their heirloom and it had been passed from generation to generation six times. His brother Hanson had received this when he reached eighteen summers, as the heir.
Now that Hanson was gone and he was the only heir left, it was only traditional that it came to him.
Sebastian swallowed hard as he took the beauty in. It was a beautiful crossbow carved by the finest of craftsmen. One that had survived the years. Sebastian almost felt unworthy.
His mother took the beautiful piece from Renley and handed it over to his father, who held it out to him.
“Here you go, son. You are all we have left now and it rightfully belongs to you henceforth.”
It was overwhelming. His chest grew tight from all the conflicted emotions he felt. Most of the crowd had busied with their chatter, still, he was aware of many more eyes on them, watching this precious moment.
Reaching out, he accepted the bow from his father. It was very lightweight, he knew because he had held it several times… yet, it weighed a ton in his hands.
Sebastian knew it was the weight of the responsibility that had just been formally handed down to him. A testament of actuality.
As customary, he picked an arrow from the quiver another servant held out to him and turned to face the bull’s eye that had been kept in place. Taking his stance, he prepared to take his first shot.
He stood steady on his feet, his eyes on the target as he stretched the strings. Deep, steady breaths filled his lungs and when it was certain he could not take anymore, he released- both his breath and the arrow.
He kept his eyes on the arrow, the silence that had dawned ringing loud in his ears. Like a stroke of lightning, the arrow landed right on the bull’s eye, sticking firmly.
Cheers of applause erupted from the crowd and Sebastian threw up the hand that held the bow. The cheering grew and his parents gazed upon him with admiration and nostalgia in their eyes.
Nodding, because he understood the emotions they were experiencing, he dropped his arm and took a bow.
And so it was, that the traditional handover was completed.
He had watched Hanson do this and never in his wildest thoughts, had he reckoned that he would ever get to do the same.
It was all so surreal and as the noise quieted, he finally caught his breath, his heart receding from its stampede.

Chapter 4

Liliana had been to quite some balls before. Maybe no more than three or two but enough to become familiar with such events. Yet, she had never experienced anything like what had just happened.
She had been captivated by the moment it had begun, aware that something very significant was about to take place. She had watched the duke hand over the crossbow to the marquess. She had watched the marquess take his shot.
It had appeared such a simple moment, yet something deep in her stirred, affirming that it was much more than that.
“Father, that means something, does it not?” That was Nora. She had wandered off the moment they entered the ballroom, but it appeared she had found her way back to her family.
“Yes, my dear. It is the tradition of the Leighton family. Now, Lord Longcross has been declared the rightful heir to all of these. The crossbow is the family heirloom and he had performed the rite of acceptance.”
Liliana’s ears were perked in attentiveness.
“This is done every time there is a new heir?”
“When they come of age, yes. The late marquess was given the crossbow when he became eighteen summers. It is the customary age for one generation to hand over to the next.”
“I see… does it have to be on a birthday?”
“It usually is, yes. Although, if it had not happened so that the marquess’ birthday fell in time, I suspect they would have done a private ceremony, nevertheless. It is a very significant tradition, you see.”
Liliana nodded and from the side of her eye, she could see Nora mirroring her movement.
The conversation ended then, but she did not take her eyes off the marquess.
She had not been introduced to him formally, of course. They had arrived late and until now, there had not been time to meet with the marquess personally.
She knew her stepfather would achieve that feat before the evening ended. He was family, after all. Yet, even as she watched the marquess from a distance, something about him pulled her in.
It was the strangest thing she had ever felt and she could not fathom why he had such an effect on her. Once, he had caught her watching. Since she had tried to be discreet about her staring as much as she could, but she could not help it.
She could not even see the man behind the mask… only his eyes, and his lips. All else remained a mystery.
Yet, from his tall physique and the rumors, she could tell that he was a handsome man. The ladies had been fawning over him all evening.
It was good to know that the years had been good to the Lord. She wondered if he would remember her- yet, that would be almost impossible as she had settled for a full mask despite pleas to go for something more in fashion for ladies.
Because she would not budge, Nora had reluctantly picked a full mask, herself. She entertained fancies that the mask would make it even more difficult to tell them apart.
The notion of being confused for one another was something that had always thrilled Nora. For whatever reason, Liliana seemed unable to wrap her head around. Herself? She cared little for the confusion.
She would rather be Liliana and be recognized for being Liliana. Perhaps it was because Nora was so good at pretending to her, and had gotten both of them in trouble countless times over the years for that act.
Whatever it was, Liliana could not be bothered about their resemblance tonight. She was simply glad for the mask as well.
“Father has gone to bring his Lordship. Oh, the other ladies here shall be green with envy when they realize we have close ties with the golden heir.”
Liliana turned to look at her sister, wondering what she was rambling on about. The words slowly replayed in her head, understanding dawning. It was only then that she realized that while she had been lost in thoughts, her stepfather had left their side.
Good thing that Miss Humphrey, their governess had agreed to serve as chaperone tonight. Not that she was doing much of a work where Nora was concerned.
As if confirming her thoughts, Nora squealed again, all giddy.
“There they are. They come already, Lilly. See for yourself, I was right. Oh, the ladies are already beginning to stare. We shall be the talk of the town by the morrow, I tell you. I shall wait until the introductions are over, then I shall be gone on my way. I bet you, if I can charm him, he shall come after me.”
Sometimes, Liliana wondered how two people could have spent every living moment together for so many years, yet, could not be more different from the other.
“You’re not supposed to wander off, Nora.”
“Who cares? It’s a masquerade ball. I can do and be whatever strikes my fancy. This manor is a beautiful one. Perhaps, you shall explore with me, little sister?”
For most of it, Liliana knew Nora said many things in a bid to jest. Still, she was aware of the many mischievous her sister had in her.
“We are to be in our best behavior, remember? This isn’t home, sister. You must behave as any proper lady would. It is the least you can do for father, considering all of the ridiculous amounts he has put into our education.”
The mention of their step-father was all Nora needed to become sober- for the moment.
It was a good time, for her father arrived with the marquess then and of course, his mother flanked by his side.
“Your Grace, my Lord, you must remember my daughters. Liliana and Nora Swan. They are all grown now, so I understand the confusion. They were only girls the last time you set eyes upon them.”
“That was at your wedding to their mother, was it not? Oh no… I do believe I met them at the funeral too.” It was the duchess, with a cheery smile on her face which quickly downturned at her mention of the funeral.
Liliana understood. It could not have gotten easy yet. Not quite.
The girls sunk into deep curtsies, acquiescing to the authority the duchess commanded effortlessly.
“Nice to meet you, my lady,” they chorused as they rose to their feet.
“The pleasure is utterly mine, dears. That, I assure you of. I still am sorry about your mother. I know now that the pain never goes away. Nevertheless, I hope the years have been kind to you and my cousin?”
“Certainly, your grace. Father has been only ever gracious. As for the pain, it grows daily. You must accept our condolences too, your Grace. It is a terrible thing, the loss you have suffered.” Said Nora.
Liliana was utterly impressed by her sister. Ah… why was she astonished? Nora had a talent for the theatre. When it came to theatrics, she did so effortlessly well.
“Of course. It is with joy in my heart that I welcome you. I am happy you were able to make it here. Your father tells me you are to enter society this season?”
“Yes, your grace,” that was Liliana.
“An excellent decision. You are two beautiful ladies well in your prime. I am confident that you two shall have no trouble finding suitable suitors. Your hearts are as lovely to know, as your faces are beautiful to behold.”
Their response was the crimson stain upon their cheeks. Liliana decided at that moment, that she liked the duchess. She dared to look her in the eye then and their gazes met and held.
A silent communication passed. It was an unexpected thing but it happened anyway. The duchess nodded solemnly and Liliana knew that she understood.
She had seen the depth of Liliana’s best wishes, she knew that Liliana truly understood her pain, and she had welcomed her well-meaning thoughts.
The knowledge of that felt completely satisfying for Liliana.
There was a cough then, and that was when they all turned to behold the marquess. He had been all but forgotten. Quick as ever, Lord Rothwell rose to save the day.
“Lord Longcross, you must become acquainted with my daughters once again. Lady Liliana, and Lady Nora.”
Lord Rothwell introduced them without indicating who was who.
Lord Longcross took the hands they held out to him one by one and dipped in a flawless bow to kiss them each.
“Nice to meet you, my ladies.”
“My Lord, the honor is ours,” they chorused, dipping into curtsies, themselves.
When Liliana felt his cool lips against her gloved hands, her whole body warmed.
She withdrew her hand the moment she could and as he rose, their eyes met…
Her throat suddenly felt clogged and she followed his gaze until he righted on his feet. Her chin had to go up for he was almost a foot taller than she was, howbeit, she minded naught.
Goodness, but he was such a handsome man! He had hair like the darkness of midnight. Today, he wore black formal attire, the only items of color being the white shirt and white cravat which complimented his other choice.
He had grown broad and sturdy, yet graceful. It was a thing to wonder about. What had he been up to in the years he was away?
After her appraisal, she gazed upon his face again. It felt somewhat discomforting, unable to see the man behind the mask. All that was left visible to her were his eyes… they were almost violet, just like his mother’s.
They were so lovely to look upon.
Liliana wondered if she would recognize him if she ever met him again- if he would recognize her. They were blind to each other, as it was.
Why did it matter, anyway? Why was she so intrigued by his person?
Well, she reckoned it was because she could not forget that small moment of kindness they had shared at her mother’s wedding, but it had been so long ago.
For the life of her, she knew naught of the marquess, beyond what everyone else knew. Perhaps, others were just as intrigued as her. He was a mystery and all the many books Liliana occupied herself with when she was not sewing, had grown her a penchant for mystery.
“Something tickles your mind, my lady? I am happy to answer whatever questions it is that you may have. Pray, ask away.”
Liliana felt her cheeks grow hot and she knew that she had been flushed with crimson tides. The urge to palm them overwhelmed her but she resisted.
Ah… she had been caught staring too much.
“Oh, my Lord… it is nothing of importance, I assure you. It is only, I imagine that you must have seen so many things in the outside world. The knowledge that you hold puts me in marvel, is all.”
He smiled… she couldn’t see the smile but she felt it all the same, and she instantly felt better.
“Perhaps, if you still have a dance to spare, I could apprise you with some of that knowledge as we waltz, my lady.”
Had he just asked her to dance?
Liliana’s eyes widened as she turned to look at her step-father and her sister.
They nodded eagerly, their happiness evident.
She returned to Lord Longcross and stole one look at the duchess. The duchess herself looked pleased.
Liliana felt warmth once again. This time, it reached her heart.
Blushing now, she lowered her head, remembering all the lessons Miss Humphrey had given to them. Not that she had to try hide, it seemed to come naturally.
“Well, I do believe my dance card is free for the very last dance…”
“Then if you would grant me the honor, I shall return to take your hand.”
The honor would be hers, for he was the marquess and future duke of Widmore. Liliana said nothing of it though, she simply dipped into another shallow curtsy and murmured,
“It would be my pleasure, my Lord.”
“Very well, then. I do hope you enjoy the affair until then. Uncle James? I have been meaning to have a word with you. Shall we?” it was directed at Lord Rothwell who nodded eagerly.
Afterward, Lord Longcross turned to them once more. “Ladies, if you would excuse me, I beg my leave.”
They nodded, and with a bow, he walked away with their step-father, his mother following.
“I do believe, dear sister, that the Marquess has taken an interest in you. I would wager ten pounds that he is at this very moment, trying to get Father to confess which twin you are and request rights of courtship.”
“Oh, Nora! Stop the nonsense! It is nothing of sorts. As you well know, Father had business ties with the Leightons. Beyond that, they are family indeed.”
“Ah, yes, yes. Be that as it may, I do maintain my stand that that private meeting is regarding you. You shall see. It is only a matter of time before father returns, and he shall affirm it with his own lips.”
Nora was teasing her, she knew. Yet, Liliana found herself liking the thought that his lordship had called her step-father away to discuss her. Nevertheless, it could not be true, could it?
They were barely acquainted with one another. He could not have picked an interest so soon. It was rather impossible.
“Oh, it’s the fourth dance, dear sister. I see Lord Wembley making his way to you now. Oh, and there is Lord Ramsey. It is just as well. We shall enjoy this dance and afterward, you shall waltz into midnight with your fine gentleman.”
Liliana shook her head at her sister, a giggle escaping her lips beside herself.
Before she would turn to look at the men Nora had mentioned, they were standing in front of them. Taking their hands, they let the gentlemen lead them to the dance floor.
Liliana remained amiable through it all, but the marquess never left her mind.


His Cinderella Governess – Preview

Chapter 1

It was not quite noon on a Tuesday, and the staff of Stanley Hall had been in a frenzy since before dawn.

On any given day, there was plenty of work to be done, but this day, in particular, required special preparation.

The Lady of the house, the Countess of Canwick, and her daughter Arabella were returning from London, where the seventeen-year-old had made her social debut.

Lydia took a deep breath as she caught sight of her reflection in her bedroom window. Her brown hair was swept back into a modest bun.

She had rather enjoyed the absence of her stepmother and stepsister, and the small freedoms their absence had afforded her. Things most girls her age took for granted, such as wearing their hair in elegant curls, for those were luxuries not afforded to Lydia Stanley.

Her round gray eyes were lined with thick lashes that were a bit darker than her hair. Her lips were small but full in a delicate heart shape that she imagined she must have gotten from her mother.

It was hard to say for sure as it had been such a long time since she had even seen a painting of her mother.

She hurried out into the corridor toward the other side of the manor where her half-brother’s room was located. He was a bright boy for the age of seven. A fact of which Lydia was exceedingly proud since she was his acting governess.

He also shared their father’s brown hair and contemplative gray eyes, which might have contributed to the Countess’ general distaste for their presence.

Make no mistake, the Countess of Canwick made a respectable effort to dote on Walter. He was, after all, her anchor to her late husband’s estate.

Walter was born seven months after the Earl passed away, and Lydia felt instantly bound to him as her only living blood relative. After he no longer needed a wet nurse, the Countess made Lydia responsible for the majority of his care.

“Walter?” She called out to him as she reached his doorway. “Are you almost ready?”

The boy was grumbling as he struggled with his cravat, tugging frustratedly at the crooked knot. This was something the two of them had been working on together for a while, but he hadn’t quite gotten the hang of it yet.

“Use the mirror, Walter,” Lydia calmly pulled the knot apart and led him over to stand in front of the large hanging mirror positioned over his dresser. “Remember the trick I showed you?”

She stood behind him, bent down to his level, and held up the tie for him to grasp.

“Stretch your cloth in front of you with one end in each hand to find the midpoint,” she reminded him. “What do you do next?”

His brow furrowed as he pinched the middle of the length of cloth. “I wrap it around.”

“Show me.”

He did as she said.

“What comes next?” she pretended to try and remember.

“I make an X and then three pleats.”

“That’s right,” she smiled. “Let’s see then.”

He concentrated on his reflection. “Then I loop around and pull.”

By the time Walter was born, Lydia had already been moved from her original room and relocated to the opposite side of the manor where the servant’s quarters were located.

Her step-mother made it clear early on that if she wanted to receive the inheritance her father had set aside for her, she would be expected to earn her keep until her twenty-first birthday, at which point, it would be released to her.

Lydia watched intently as Walter’s fingers looped the tie around and cautiously pulled the knot tight, executing it perfectly. Her heart grew warm, watching his face light up as he realized his small victory.

“I did it!” His eyes grew wide with delight.

“I told you that you could,” she pinched his cheek softly. “A perfect triangular knot; all by yourself.”

“How come I can only do it while you’re watching?” Walter tilted his head, his eyebrows drawn together in an all too familiar questioning expression.

“Because to do anything, you must first believe you can do it,” she stood up straight. “On days when you don’t believe in yourself enough, I will be here to believe in you until you do.”

He rushed forward and threw his arms around her waist, and she embraced him for a moment before patting his back and returning his focus to the task at hand.

“Get your hair combed,” she urged.

The boy obeyed, hurrying over to his dresser to grab his comb, which he dipped into the wash water he had used for his face. Lydia had no room in her heart for resentment toward Walter.

On the contrary, when he no longer needed a nurse, she was happy that her stepmother made her his governess. Nothing pleased her more than playing a vital role in his upbringing.

She saw so much of her father in him, not only on the surface but also in his kind nature and mild temperament. In a way, being close to Walter made her feel like her father wasn’t altogether gone from this world.

Once his hair was combed, they walked together toward the main staircase that led down to the foyer where all the servants were bustling around, making second and third rounds to ensure everything was polished and perfect.

“Can you recite your French lesson for me?” she raised an eyebrow as they made their way down the stairs.

“Bonjour,” he began.

“And if it is evening?”

“Bonsoir, Madam,” he responded with a wide smile.

He went on to recite several phrases that may be used in polite conversation. Lydia clapped excitedly. “What about Latin?”

Walter’s face grew serious as he began dramatically reciting a biblical passage he had been memorizing.

“You are such a good boy, and I am very proud of you.”

As they reached the bottom of the staircase, Lydia knelt down to look him in the eye.

“You don’t need to be nervous. You’ve studied hard, and you know your lessons well.”

“I know,” he said, holding his head a little higher.

The entry hall floor was tiled with black and white marble that matched the marble pillars surrounding the greeting room.

The main entryway facing the grand staircase they had just descended had a massive vaulted ceiling where once hung a brilliant crystal chandelier.

Stanley Hall boasted two beautiful stories of elegant architecture complete with ornate crown molding. The Countess’ expensive taste in fashion had a draining effect on the estate, and the crystal chandelier was eventually sold.

After all, she couldn’t allow herself or her daughter to be seen in public wearing the same gown twice.

The housekeeper, Tabitha Marsh, scurried past carrying a vase filled with large cabbage roses. The bundle of flowers made her seem smaller than she was as she peeked out from behind the red bouquet, her eyes wide and alert.

“Pardon me, Miss Lydia. The carriage has been spotted.”

Placing her hands on Walter’s shoulders, Lydia looked him over once more for good measure. Noting that his face and hands were clean, his shirt was tucked in, and his hair was combed, she nodded, satisfied that her stepmother had nothing specific to criticize.

The two of them hurried out to the square where everyone was lining up to receive the ladies of the house.

Lydia sighed deeply.

It’s been so peaceful and quiet with the two of them in London. She felt a whisper of guilt pass through her at the thought of just how much she had savored her stepmother’s absence.

It was the first time since she could remember that she and Walter had been able to exist without constant rebuke and customary scorn from the Countess.

Stanley Hall was a beautiful manor, even in its current state, and Lydia had a deep love for her childhood home.

Most of the time, the halls and corridors reminded her of a happier time when her father was alive, a time when she felt worthy and loved, before she had to learn the harsh realities of the world.

The manor stood majestically on a hill amidst green moors that stretched out in every direction. The house itself was surrounded by a border of ancient towering elm trees that adorned the entire perimeter.

After a few minutes of waiting, the dark carriage became visible as it approached, it’s lanterns still burning from having begun its journey in the early hours of the morning or late hours of the previous night.

The horses whinnied as they brought the carriage around the circular drive, where they stopped at the center, in front of the square.

The elderly coachman stepped down, his body stiff from age and spending so many hours seated. Straightening his hunched posture, he opened the carriage door and held out his hand to graciously assist his passengers.

First, the Countess of Canwick, Margaret Stanley, and then Miss Arabella emerged from the darkness. No one in the square dared to speak before the Countess, who glided over to where her son stood waiting.

“My beautiful darling boy,” the Countess squeezed his face, bending down to kiss his cheek. “Oh, how I’ve missed you.”

Walter looked around at the staff as his mother made a show of embracing him. He knew his mother cared far more for Arabella than she would ever care for him.

He found her occasional displays of affection unsettling but endured them with as much grace as he could.

Lydia occupied her mind with thoughts of when Walter would come of age and finally realize he was the one that held any real power in the house, being his father’s only male heir.

She smiled at the thought, wondering what Margaret would do when that fateful day finally arrives. Arabella was easy for the Countess to control through fear.

Walter was different. Lydia knew it was in his nature to question things and doubted very much that he would stand for her manipulative tactics when he had a choice in the matter.

For the time being, he stoically tolerated her insincere excitement. But Lydia knew it was only a matter of time before he grew into an intelligent and decisive man.

“Have you practiced your French and Latin?”

The Countess stood upright and squinted quizzically. Walter responded first in French and then recited his Latin lesson.

“What about your arithmetic?”

Without any hesitation whatsoever, he recited his multiplication tables until his mother held up her hand, signaling for him to stop.

“That’s very good, darling.”

The Countess of Canwick’s smile vanished, and her face relaxed to its natural scowling state as she greeted her stepdaughter.

“Lydia,” she said flatly.

Walter’s mother, Margaret Stanley, was a thin woman with sharp severe features. She wasn’t ugly by any means. She could even seem beautiful when she was pleasant.

Although Lydia rarely got to see that side of her stepmother. She and Arabella both had beautiful blonde hair and emerald green eyes. Although Arabella seemed oblivious most of the time, Margaret’s gaze was cold and calculating.

She had a gift for making a person feel inferior with a single glance.

“Lady Canwick,” Lydia dipped into a slight curtsy, bowing her head. Margaret hardly acknowledged her before continuing on toward the house.

“How was London?” Lydia followed a few steps behind Arabella, who was close in tow with her mother.

“We caught wind of some exciting news,” Arabella looked back at Lydia with a bright smile. “Arthur Gibbs, the Viscount of Ranton, has recently bought Cold Creek Manor!”

“That house has been up for sale for ages,” Lydia commented.

“I know,” she wrinkled her nose.

“We met Lord Ranton in London, and he promised he was going to bring friends with him when he comes to oversee the renovations on the house. Just think of all the eligible bachelors to be met at his social functions.”

“That is exciting news,” Lydia smiled politely.

“You would adore Arthur, he’s quite witty and entertaining, to say the least,” Arabella turned and took Lydia by the hands.

“Please,” Margaret scoffed. “Lydia wouldn’t be able to keep up in conversations with people of social standing. She would likely have no idea what anyone is talking about.

“At any rate, Lord Ranton’s thriving social life will serve to find a match of a more appropriate station.”

“I thought the Gibbs family was fairly well regarded,” Lydia regretted offering her opinion the moment it escaped her lips.

“Not that anyone asked for your thoughts on the matter, but Lord Ranton is only a viscount. I am the Countess of Canwick, and Arabella is my daughter.

“She has the opportunity to marry someone of equal or higher standing and certainly isn’t concerned with the Gibbs family.”

She made a sour face and waved her hand as she made her way to her room.

Arabella pressed her lips together, her eyes glazed over in a sheep-like contentedness as she drifted toward her own room.

As soon as their doors closed behind them, Lydia and Walter made their way back down to the bottom of the stairs, where they looked at each other.

She gave an impish smile, which he returned.

“What should we do now?” She folded her arms.

“Can we go visit Roderick?”

His brow furrowed. Roderick was Walter’s pony, whom he regarded as his best friend. That is, besides Lydia. He was a strong, even-tempered creature who was every bit as fond of Walter.

 “Of course,” Lydia put her hand on the boy’s head.

“No more lessons today?”

“I think you’ve been quizzed quite thoroughly, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he let out a relieved sigh, and the two of them headed out toward the stables, with Lydia feeling her heart heavying by the minute as it always did when the Countess was home.

But her life was what it was… and nothing seemed liable to change any time soon.

Chapter 2

“As soon as I saw it, I knew…”

Arthur’s eyes were alight with excitement.

“I have never been one to believe in destiny. But it was as if the walls themselves were calling out to me.

“In my mind’s eye, I could see my children playing in those rooms. Walking in through the front door, it didn’t feel like I was in a stranger’s house. It felt like coming home.”

“You don’t have to sell it to me, Arthur,” Henry Radcliff, the Marquess of Whitecroft, son and heir to the Duke of Yeaton, smiled as he looked out the window, “I am already quite looking forward to seeing your new project.”

“It was an impossibly unique opportunity. A townhouse less than half that size in London would have cost twice as much.

“I’m telling you, it’s positively massive, and the grounds are filled with potential,” Arthur Gibbs gestured wildly as he described his new home.

“The garden has been completely neglected, and there are, of course, the renovations I was telling you about earlier. I’m a bit nervous about that if I’m completely honest. I don’t know much about architecture.”

Arthur was tall and lean with vibrant red hair, a fair complexion, and lively blue eyes that always seemed to be on the lookout for a possible spontaneous adventure.

The two of them had been friends since their early boyhood, and there was never a secret between them.

Although, over the last few years, the two had spent less time together since Arthur was mainly concerned with parties and courting, and Henry had always been the more studious of the two.

“Don’t worry, I think you’ll rather enjoy overseeing the renovations,”

Henry looked at his old friend from the opposite carriage seat.

“In fact, I think the chance to put your creativity to work on a house where you will plant roots of your own will only give you a stronger sense of pride.

“Something like that gives you a chance to make an imprint on the house that future generations of your family will have a unique appreciation for.”

“What a lovely thought,” Arthur looked out the window. “I don’t deny a level of excitement at the thought of raising a family in a home I had a hand in designing.

“Although, honestly, even when walking through the house in broad daylight, I couldn’t help but feel that the previous occupants had left an imprint, as you say, of their own.”

“You don’t mean…” Henry’s blue eyes shot a skeptical look at his friend.

“Yes, Henry,” Arthur leaned forward. “It looks like every haunted estate we used to tell stories about as children.”

Henry resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Arthur…”

“Wouldn’t that be fantastic?”

A wide smile spread across Arthur’s face, revealing the dimple on his right cheek.

“I rather hope it is haunted. Wouldn’t that be an interesting adventure? Arthur Gibbs and the Haunting of Cold Creek Manor does sound appealing.”

“It would be. But I’d prefer it started after my visit is over.”

Henry had just celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday a few days prior. Of course, he jumped at the chance to leave London for a holiday in Canwick with his good friend, Arthur.

It would be a welcome reprieve from the endless pestering from his father.

His father, Amos Radcliff, the Duke of Yeaton, was a good, honest man but a stern fellow with a strong sense of tradition.

Most of the Radcliff men were married with several children by the age of twenty-five. He felt that Henry was somehow falling short of the expectations set by society for noblemen of his age and character.

Lord Yeaton was also troubled by the fact that his advancing years may not afford him time with his grandchildren. Henry’s childhood seemed to come and go rather quickly, and he felt he never got the chance to enjoy it.

As a father, he spent a great deal of energy and expense, ensuring he grew up with a proper education and impeccable manners.

He also wanted to make sure Henry knew how to handle the family’s finances and ensure the continued wealth of their family line.

He had never been extremely fond of Arthur Gibbs, who, while engaging and charismatic, was a bit unrefined for someone of noble birth.

However, they did agree on one thing; courting was a luxury set aside for the young, and Henry was quickly advancing beyond that.

Arthur was still going on about their upcoming adventures.

“Canwick is like a proverbial gold mine for men of our stature. The previous generation of the region has been blessed with a great many daughters but not nearly as many sons.

“I’ve been told there is a surplus of beautiful young women and a tragic lack of bachelors to attend them.”

“Ah,” Henry narrowed his eyes. “Now I see the true reason you chose to come here.”

“Oh, come now, Henry,” Arthur leaned back. “Surely you must enjoy the company of beautiful girls. I know I’m certainly looking forward to sitting back and letting them gather around to woo me for a change.

“It will be a pleasant contrast to London’s social scene.”

“Please, Arthur. It’s not as if you lack attention from women in London. They’ve simply become used to your theatrical manner of conversation.

“Whether or not they are beautiful and whether or not they are pleasant company are completely separate matters altogether, my friend. You seem like you would be perfectly content to marry any girl who possesses a lovely face.”

“I don’t deny that.”

“And you don’t see the folly of marrying a girl solely based on her appearance?”

“Not at all.”

“I can just imagine you choosing a wife from a painting without having met her at all.”

Arthur crossed his arms. “And what, pray-tell, is wrong with that? I can think of little that would make me happier than to have a dainty wife with whom I am awestricken at the sight of every day for the rest of my life.”

“You should be careful, my friend,” Henry shook his head. “I would hate to see you unhappily married. After all, like you said, marriage is for the rest of your life.”

“So?”

“Just how long do you suspect those dainty features to retain their charms? Time will not respect the soft flesh of youth. Rather, it ravages us all, some more quickly than others.”

“Why do you have to point out something like that? Something like aging cannot be controlled or changed. At least if I have a pretty wife, I can enjoy looking at her while we are young.”

“And what if she has a horrid disposition?”

Henry tilted his head.

“Imagine someone who disagrees with everything you say. What if she grows irritated at the very sight of you every time you enter the room? You’ll have to live with that, regardless of how agreeable her face might be.”

“I feel like you are referring to your own parents. Doesn’t your mother get an exasperated look on her face when someone asks your father a question?”

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “It’s as if she had already decided that what he had to say was unworthy of attention before the words even passed through his lips.”

“A man of noble birth should never speak ill of his parents. However, yes. Their personalities do clash horribly. They had a very short courtship I’m told, and my mother often cautions me on marrying too hastily.”

“While your father, on the other hand, pushes you to settle down as quickly as possible. I suppose growing up and seeing firsthand how miserable two people can make one another could make one hesitate to consider such a commitment.”

Henry’s mother was a strong-willed woman. While intelligent and warm, she was a force to be reckoned with. Lady Marion Yeaton was not the type of woman to keep silent if she believed an injustice was being spoken in her presence.

Her husband, who had always believed women to be soft and somewhat inferior creatures, was often put in his place by his wife, who refused to let such things be said in front of her son.

His father often told Henry of how Marion’s fiery red hair had grabbed his attention when she was introduced at a ball in her hometown of Talard.

He was entranced by her beauty, and after one dance with her, he entered into negotiations with her father, who arranged the marriage.

While the fiery color of her hair might have faded over time, the fire in her personality only intensified. Her version of their meeting, as told to Henry, was far less romantic, and she made no secret of the fact that she was opposed to marrying at seventeen.

However, it was an impressionable age, and she did as her parents told her, because that is what good children are supposed to do.

She always urged Henry to think for himself, and he felt empowered by her support. Regardless of the fact that his father was the one with authority over his future and finances.

The best thing he felt he learned from his mother was a respect for women as individuals.

This was not something that was spoken about at length in public as it was not a popular opinion. But he was grateful for the perspective she had afforded him, nonetheless.

“Miserable is a strong word. But I do want something different for myself.”

“So, you do plan on marrying then?”

“Of course.”

“Soon?”

“Arthur, I’m in no hurry,” Henry looked out the window at the blue sky. “I’m quite content to wait for the right woman.”

“How will you know her when you meet her?”

“I’ll know,” Henry raised an eyebrow. “I imagine it will be much like the first moment you saw Cold Creek manor. What was it you said? The walls called out to you and it felt as if it was destiny?”

“Describe her to me, then. So that if I see her first, I can introduce you.”

“How would I describe someone I’ve never met?”

“How will you find her if you don’t even know what you’re looking for?”

“Very well,” Henry shifted his weight. “She’s kind and gentle. She’s fond of children and animals, and they are fond of her. She isn’t prone to dramatic outbursts and doesn’t need to be the constant center of attention.”

“Her face…” Arthur gazed dreamily into his mind’s eye, “…is that of a rat terrier.”

“Laugh all you want,” Henry chuckled. “But I find that people grow either more or less attractive as you get to know them.”

“What will you do if she never shows up?” Arthur grinned. “Won’t your father be upset that you’re not fulfilling your duty to produce an heir?”

“I will handle that problem once it arises.”

Arthur laughed and shook his head. “I suppose you’ll just let your father choose a wife for you.”

“Certainly not,” Henry’s brow furrowed. “I would never trust my father to make a decision like that for me.”

The carriage finally stopped, and Arthur practically leaped out to look up at his manor. He held the door open for his friend, who followed close behind.

The two men looked up at the majestic structure, taking a moment to let it all soak in before looking at one another and smiling impishly.

“Oh yes, Arthur,” Henry conceded. “I would be shocked if there isn’t at least one ghost wandering around in there.”

They laughed and hurried up the stairs and into the foyer. Maple leaves were still scattered on the marble floor, and there was a strange chill hanging in the air.

“Duncan, you need to get the fires going. If this is to be a home, it has to feel like one,” Arthur rubbed his hands together.

“Already on it, my lord. Matthew should be coming in with firewood any minute,” Duncan, Arthur’s valet, took his hat and nodded.

“Good man.” Arthur and Henry continued into the drawing room. “All the furniture is being imported from France. It’s going to be a tasteful blue.”

“Hopefully, your future wife likes blue,” Henry blew a puff of dust off the mantle over the fireplace.

“If she doesn’t, then I’ll sell it and give her whatever she wants.”

“As long as she’s pretty?”

“She will, without question, be the most stunning creature in Canwick,” Arthur flashed a confident smile as he turned back toward the doorway leading to the foyer.

Henry shook his head, and they returned to the entryway. Two grand staircases curved around both walls, meeting the second floor at opposite ends of the room.

Arthur and Henry explored every corner of the house while Duncan followed along, writing notes of everything Arthur said needed done in each room.

“The bedrooms on the West side of the manor are all in perfect condition. The kitchen and dining room will need renovating as well as the servants’ quarters. I have to talk to the builders who will be arriving shortly. Perhaps you’d like to assist?”

“Actually, I was thinking I’d like to go out for a ride,” Henry looked out the window at the acres of green grass stretching out toward the west.

“It’s been ages since I went for a ride in the country, and after being cooped up in the carriage, I think a little outdoor excursion would be divine.”

He left, allowing the countryside’s fresh air to clear his head. Of its own volition, though, his mind kept returning to the conversation he had with Arthur.

Henry was determined that he should wait until the right woman came along. And if she never did, so be it. He could live his life as a bachelor if it meant avoiding the arguments and anger.

It was a better option.

And perhaps, it was the only option life would present him with.

Chapter 3

Walter was contentedly brushing Roderick, with the stable hand standing by to watch over him.

“Joseph, do you suppose you could watch over him for a while if I went out for a quick ride?”

“Of course, Miss Lydia,” Joseph nodded as he dumped a bucket of water into the trough. “I’ll be coming back and forth between here and the well, but he’s a good lad. I know he won’t be any trouble.”

“Walter, you’ll be good and listen to Joseph, won’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Walter looked back over his shoulder.

She saddled up Lady and set off on her ride, imagining as she often did, that she was riding towards some unknown destination, never to return Stanley Hall.

She would go somewhere far beyond the reach of the Countess and never look back. She told herself that one day, it wouldn’t be a fantasy.

One day, she would turn twenty-one, and her stepmother would give her the money that her father had set aside for her.

Perhaps she would use it to buy a modest little cottage somewhere in the country. She would have a few chickens and perhaps a milking cow.

It may not sound like much for someone born into nobility, but it was the most she could hope for. After all the years of abuse, it was a wonder she was able to muster up the dream of a better future at all.

The sunshine melted over her skin, and Lydia drank in the sweet perfume of the afternoon air. Lady trotted over the moor and seemed to be enjoying the warmth of the day just as much as she was.

Lady was a healthy chestnut brown with a long flowing black mane. She was aging gracefully, as far as horses were concerned. She was always loved and well cared for, which must have contributed to her longevity.

Lydia gave thanks often that Lady was the one thing Margaret hadn’t taken from her after her father died.

During her darkest times, especially the days following her father’s death, Lydia found that the only reprieve from the pain of his loss was found in her time spent caring for her horse.

Lady would never judge her or tell anyone her secrets. She was someone Lydia knew would love her unconditionally, regardless of whether she was happy or sad.

Even on days when she suffered the indignity of being screamed at in front of the house staff after being accused by the Countess of lying or her disrespectful tone, Lady was there for her.

Lydia was convinced that animals were far more intelligent than they were given credit for. They can sense what you’re feeling even if you don’t show any emotion at all.

Love was a precious commodity after losing her father. She was no longer allowed to socialize with anyone except the servants at Stanley Hall.

There was a relatively high rate of turnover at the manor since the Countess frequently accused members of her staff of stealing and would garnish their pay for anything that went missing.

The only one who stayed on was Tabitha Marsh, the housekeeper. She was a short woman with a round face and a motherly disposition. She was hired when Lydia was small and was always regarded by Lydia as family.

Tabitha often told Lydia that the only reason she stayed on and put up with the Countess was to make sure nothing worse could befall her.

Over the years, the Countess had tried hard to train the girl not to stand up for herself, so the old housekeeper felt it only right to stay behind and try and counter whatever damage she was able.

Tabitha made sure Lydia knew that what was happening to her was wrong, and society would most likely be on her side if she decided to rise up and make her situation known.

But she couldn’t defy Margaret and risk never seeing Walter again. It was a fear greater than losing her inheritance.

Both scenarios were threatened on a regular basis any time the Countess sensed a hint of rebellion in the air.

 Arabella didn’t have a mean bone in her body, but she, like everyone else, lived in fear of her mother.

Even though she was the only person her mother treated with an ounce of genuine affection, she was made to believe that she was only valuable if she could marry someone wealthy with a good title.

Arabella turned a blind eye to her mother’s treatment of the staff and Lydia. Having grown up accustomed to the mind games and general cruelty, she simply accepted the reality of the situation and didn’t question it.

Lydia had been so excited to find that her father was marrying someone with a daughter who was only two years younger than herself. The thought of having a sister filled her with joy, and upon meeting her, she adored her immediately.

Even after everything, she had no room in her heart for malice when it came to Arabella. None of what the Countess had done was her fault, and Lydia knew no one could do anything to make things any better for her.

But it couldn’t be denied by anyone that Arabella was tightly in the grasp of her mother and always had been.

Lydia remembered a time when she used to have friends— other young ladies of the ton. They used to come over and picnic out in the fields, running and playing chase.

But Margaret stopped her from seeing them years ago. The time for tea and cakes with friends was a thing of the past, and the Countess never failed to remind her that with her father gone, she was nothing special. Lydia secretly used to hope to see her friends when out riding.

However, she never once ran into anyone. Sometimes she would think about them and wonder where they were and what they were like now that they were grown.

Lydia knew it was likely they were all married by now. Perhaps they were raising children of their own and enjoying Sunday picnics with the other families of the ton.

Did they think of her? Did anyone wonder what had happened to her after her father died?

Lydia silently crossed herself. It was not anyone’s responsibility to look out for her.

She tried her best to grow beyond any capacity for bitterness toward the world, trusting that all things happened when and as they were meant to.

Surely her experience being forced to live under the Countess’ authority had taught her something; long-suffering perhaps. She had found a calmness, an inner strength that made her sure she could survive anything.

She could be treated cruelly and remain kind to those around her. Most of all, she had patience… patience that gave her a threshold for emotional pain.

One that most people her age would never have to experience.

A bird in the underbrush panicked at the sound of Lady’s hooves approaching. As it flapped violently to escape its hiding place, Lady reared up, startled by the sudden commotion, and sent Lydia crashing toward the ground.

Trying to land on her feet was a mistake. One which she realized the moment her ankle twisted, and intense pain shot up her right leg.

Though the grass had somewhat cushioned her fall, the moist earth beneath allowed her feet to sink into the mud.

The bottom of her simple gray dress and her hands were quickly getting dirty as she tried desperately to balance on her good leg. Thankfully, Lady didn’t abandon her entirely.

As soon as she realized she’d lost her rider, she circled back around the clearing, but still refused to go near the underbrush where the bird had flown from.

“Oh, good grief, you silly thing.” Lydia tried to take a step forward but immediately knelt down, realizing the injury to her ankle wasn’t going to allow her to chase her horse around the clearing.

“Come on, sweet girl.”

Lydia clicked her tongue and reached out, but Lady seemed committed to keeping her distance from the bushes.

The sound of another rider coming through the trees made Lydia hold her breath.

No. Her blood ran cold. Being seen like this, on the ground, in the mud with her hair a mess, felt like a fate worse than death. What if they recognize me?

A black horse with a shining coat emerged from the tree-line carrying a smartly dressed man with dark wavy hair. Lydia limped to her feet, folding her hands and lowering her gaze.

Just when she thought things couldn’t get worse, now she was here unchaperoned with a stranger.

She winced in pain and lost her balance, falling back to the ground as gracefully as she could.

“You’re hurt,” the man’s voice was deep and gentle.

He dismounted his horse, and as he came nearer, Lydia could see his face more clearly.

A chiseled jaw framed his full lips and strong chin. His eyes were blue but seemed dark and mysterious, almost analytical in their movement.

“I’m alright, my lord,” Lydia smiled. “My horse has never been the skittish type. A little bird flew out, and she lost her composure. Everyone is entitled to a bad day, I suppose.”

“I suppose so.” He walked toward Lydia, whose eyes were wide with worry as she gestured to her horse.

“Could you please?” Lydia implored.

“Of course,” he nodded, before turning his attention to Lady.

Cautiously, he walked toward her with his hand outstretched in a gesture of trust. “Easy girl.”

He softly rubbed her forehead and took the reins that were now dangling. Lydia watched every movement of his hands. His touch looked gentle, and Lady seemed less nervous, closing the space between them willingly.

With Lady’s reins in hand, the mysterious stranger then returned to Lydia, who was still sitting down.

“Are you alright?”

“I think I’ll be okay. I just need a moment to get my balance, I think.”

“Here,” He reached his hand out, and she accepted it, getting to her feet and trying to hop toward her horse, causing herself to nearly fall again.

“The shoes I wore are not suitable for this terrain,” she laughed nervously.

He said nothing but simply smiled. Taking her hand and helping her back into her saddle, he begged pardon.

“Forgive me.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said, smoothing out her dress. “I should be able to make it home now.”

“It would be no trouble to see you safely to your door,” he replied.

“You’re very kind, but that won’t be necessary,” she assured him.

“It wouldn’t be honorable to let you ride off alone in your current state.”

“I should not have been out alone in the first place,” she sat tall and confident, twisted ankle aside. “I certainly shouldn’t be escorted home by a gentleman, unchaperoned.”

“I understand your concern, but I can’t help but worry that you’ll be thrown again. I could not bear to hear later that you were found with further injury.”

“Lady is usually very well-behaved.”

“As you mentioned before,” he reached up and stroked Lady’s neck. “But as you said, everyone is entitled to have a bad day once in a while.”

“She rarely throws me, I assure you…”

“I insist,” he smiled, and she felt her defenses lower.

“Very well,” she relented against her better judgment. “Thank you.”

“I’m merely doing what any decent person would do in the same situation. I am Lord Henry Radcliff, Marquess of Whitecroft,” he bowed.

She hesitated before responding. If she were to introduce herself as Lydia Stanley, the Countess would find some way to make her life miserable for the foreseeable future.

“Miss Marsh. Miss Lydia Marsh.” Surely Tabitha wouldn’t mind her borrowing her last name under the circumstances.

Lord Whitecroft flashed a smile that made her heart flutter as he led Lady forward to take the reins of his own horse in his other hand, leading them out of the clearing.

“Where is your home, Miss Marsh?”

“Stanley Hall, where all the elms are gathered on the hill just past the moor,” she pointed in the direction of her family home.

He led on, and she thought about how different things would be if her father had still been alive. She would have been a distinguished lady, and this would have been the perfect beginning of a beautiful love story.

But she wasn’t a lady. Not anymore.

“Do you ride often?”

“Every day, if I can help it,” she smiled. “I’ve had Lady since I was a child, and I think this was only the fourth time she’s thrown me.”

“You sound like a true horsewoman,” he said over his shoulder. She blushed.

“That’s the highest praise I’ve received in a long time.”

“Well deserved, I’m sure.”

“I don’t know how well deserved it could have been. If you hadn’t come along, who knows how long I would have been out there trying to get her to come to me.”

“Nonsense, I’m sure you would have rescued yourself in no time at all.”

“I highly doubt that. Although it’s kind of you to say so.”

She watched her father’s house slowly come into view, remembering how her heart used to overflow with joy at the sight of it.

Now she always dreaded going home, unsure of what torments her stepmother had in store for her.

“Do you have any other interests besides riding?” Lord Whitecroft asked.

“I enjoy reading, if I have time,” she couldn’t help but enjoy the sound of his voice. She had never had a gentleman of status engage her in conversation.

“That’s wonderful. What are your favorites?”

“I have a small collection of French Poetry, as well as a shelf devoted to the classics. But I confess, I do have a secret love of modern Mystery.”

“Have you read the works of Angus Whitfield?” he asked.

Lydia’s eyes widened at the mention of the name of one of her favorite mystery authors, but she remained calm and poised.

“I have,” she swallowed. “I rather enjoyed the short stories he published about the mysteries of Italy.”

“Ah, yes,” Henry agreed. “Those were some of his earliest works. I’ve been looking for a copy to add to my collection. I think I enjoyed The Curious Case of Wilhelm Green the most.”

“That one was quite suspenseful.”

Lydia felt silly in thinking to herself how hard it was for her to sleep after reading that book.

As they approached the house, she could see Helena, who was Arabella’s lady’s maid. She was unhurriedly bringing in a basket of carrots from the garden when she looked up and saw them.

Looking panicked, she ran inside, most likely to inform the Countess that a man was escorting Lydia home. The time for pleasant relaxed conversation was over, and there was no telling how this transgression would be received.

Chapter 4

When he first saw her, Miss Marsh reminded him of a little gray bird that had hurt itself flying into the window of his London townhouse.

He remembered the bird being a bit dazed as it fluttered weakly in his hands. As he picked it up, inspecting its legs and wings for any breaks, he could feel it breathing, fearful of his touch.

Once it realized he meant no harm, the bird relaxed and simply looked up at him until it was able to reorient itself before flying away.

Her hair that had been pinned up in a loose bun was now falling in wavy strands around her face. The afternoon sun caused her fair skin and gray eyes to shine like stars, and every time she spoke, he could hear the smile in her voice.

It was hard not to keep turning around to look at her. Every time he glanced back, he thought of how much she looked like a painting.

Henry was making a conscious effort not to ask Miss Marsh a hundred questions. Propriety dictated that he kept his comments confined to the weather.

But he couldn’t help but inquire about her interests and hobbies. So often, conversation was wasted on filling what would otherwise be an awkward silence.

But he longed to hear her speak; about her life, her thoughts, her likes and dislikes. So overwhelming was his curiosity about this stunning creature whom he had discovered, that he felt he could have continued talking with her for hours if circumstances allowed.

But that was not the case.

Surely his father would be thrilled to hear that he had become interested in calling on a young lady. He might have some negative comments about the nature of their meeting, but those concerns would likely be laid to rest once he met her and saw the dignity with which she carried herself.

True, she had been out for a ride in the countryside all on her own. She was obviously aware of societal expectations about such things, but she also seemed to possess an underlying defiance that he found refreshing.

This was a quality he believed his mother would appreciate and enjoy at length, should they get an opportunity to chat.

He tried not to think about his conversation with Arthur. Concepts like destiny and love at first sight were childish notions, certainly not forces that an educated gentleman of his character believed in or wanted at work in his life.

And yet, he was completely captivated by her. He struggled to keep his eyes forward as he led the horses, speaking to her over his shoulder about books and riding.

The small talk was only scratching the surface of the things he wanted to know about her. In less civilized times, deeper, more meaningful questions could be asked.

But here and now, he was confined to keeping the conversation superficial.

He wished the distance to her home was greater. If that were the case, it would have given him more time with her.

However, he knew the longer they were alone together, the greater the doubt that would be cast on her character. He had no desire to damage her reputation, in spite of his selfish desire to extend their conversation.

Her injury was obviously causing her significant pain, as was evident by her inability to stand even as she insisted on being left on her own. The fact that she shared two of his greatest passions for reading and horseback riding, only added to her subtle allure.

She was wearing a simple gray dress, which was lucky, considering she had fallen into the mud. His insistence on helping certainly seemed at least mildly vexing to her.

However, she was gracious, remaining calm and poised throughout the entire ordeal, which Henry found surprising.

He had always tried to maintain that no two women were alike. But in his experience, thus far, the women he had encountered in London seemed rather fragile and were prone to getting emotional quickly when trouble did arise.

It was as if they wanted to be viewed as fragile, delicate things. This did give some credence to his father’s view of women. Generally, they were happy to accept the help of anyone willing to offer assistance with any issue at hand.

Henry, being his mother’s son, obviously wanted to believe women were more capable than people were led to believe, but he had often found himself disappointed.

As Stanley Hall came into view, he asserted to himself that this would be the perfect time to introduce himself to Miss Marsh’s family, affording himself the opportunity to call on her again.

A servant girl out front spotted them and scurried inside, presumably to inform the Lady and Lord of the house that Miss Marsh had been delivered safe and sound. They had most likely expected her back much earlier and were probably worried sick.

Soon a fair-skinned woman with graying blonde hair appeared in the doorway. Her dark opulent gown flowed back as she swept into the square to meet him.

A beautiful girl dressed just as elegantly in bright pink followed behind her mother. The younger girl had golden ringlet curls that bounced as she glanced around.

A small dark-haired boy dressed in a fine suit rushed up, and the older woman caught him by the collar of his shirt, pulling him back. His eyes were wide with worry, but he wrinkled his nose, looking up at his mother in an irritated fashion.

“Oh, good heavens. What happened?”

The lady of the house looked at Miss Marsh and the mud around the bottom of her dress. This woman was attractive for her age and obviously put a great deal of time and effort into her appearance.

Her face reddened ever so slightly, and her eyebrows drew together. Pursing her lips, she took a deep breath, as if attempting to calm herself.

“Forgive me,” Henry bowed. “I am Lord Henry Radcliff, Marquess of Whitecroft. I was out for a ride when I found Miss Marsh, who had been thrown from her horse. She objected, but I had to insist on making sure she got home safely.”

The woman’s expression softened, and she put on a superficial smile, glancing at Miss Marsh and then at her own daughter.

After meeting the lady of the house, her stubbornness made more sense. Even though Henry was second-guessing his choice to bring Miss Marsh home, he maintained a confident outer appearance.

He could only hope that his explanation would prevent the woman from scolding her daughter too severely.

Since Miss Marsh had seemed fairly anxious about how his company would be perceived, it would be a shame for her to be punished when he was the one that had insisted.

“Oh my… Miss Marsh!”

The lady of the house looked at the girl who now seemed stiff and nervous atop her horse’s saddle. Blinking as if hoping to conjure a tear to her eye, the woman continued.

“Thank goodness you’re alright. Little Walter would have been devastated if anything happened to his governess. We all would have.”

Governess? Henry thought. Her manners and the way she spoke certainly seemed to be more of what would be expected from a daughter of the house.

“I am the Countess of Canwick, and this is my daughter, Arabella,” she reached her hand out, and Henry took it, bowing shallowly before taking Arabella’s hand and doing the same. “Are you visiting family here in Canwick?”

“A friend, actually,” Henry smiled. “The Viscount of Ranton, do you know of him?”

There were few in high society who didn’t know of Arthur. If they hadn’t met him personally, they should at least know him by reputation.

Arthur was one of those people about whom everyone had a strong opinion. There were some that found him unrefined. Ever since he was a boy, he’d had a hard time sitting still, as if he had more energy than could be contained in his body.

Henry found it a complement to his introverted nature. Arthur most definitely contributed to improving Henry’s ability to engage people in conversation.

While his mother was quite fond of Arthur, his father had always found him annoying.

“We met Lord Ranton in London,” Arabella said, trying to suppress her excitement. “Has he moved into his manor yet?”

“He is overseeing the renovations as we speak. He’s very excited to make Cold Creek Manor and Canwick his home.”

“Oh, won’t that be lovely?”

The Countess shot a pointed look at her daughter, and Henry couldn’t help but sense that hers and her daughter’s opinions of Arthur seemed to differ.

“Lord Ranton is a lovely gentleman. We can’t wait to attend the ball he’s planning once he gets settled in. He seems like he would be such a fine host.”

“Indeed, he is,” Henry folded his hands behind his back and pressed his lips together.

“Throwing social functions is one of his greatest passions, and it shows. He spares no expense to make every event more memorable than the last.”

This was something that was quite true of Arthur. What his excessive energy caused him to lack in social grace, was made up for by his hospitality.

When he organized a social event, he made sure to invite only the most distinguished youths of his generation and made sure they all had a wonderful time.

“We are so indebted to you for rescuing our governess. You and Lord Ranton simply must come and have dinner with us. It would be wonderful to catch up.

“It was just a stroke of luck that we were having Arabella debut when we did. We had considered doing it last year, but it was right that we waited until she turned seventeen.

“The extra year really gave her a chance to put the proper polish on. We are so proud of her accomplishments.”

Arabella blushed and smiled sweetly.

Oh, Lord.

Henry thought back to his conversation with Arthur. This girl was very pretty, but her vacant expression was concerning.

I am going to have to make sure that Arthur is on his guard around these two. He is looking for a pretty wife, and the Countess is no-doubt the type to be looking for a son-in-law with a pretty inheritance in his future.

Poor Arthur won’t stand a chance against a pair of big blue eyes like hers.

“I’m sure Arthur and I would be honored,” Henry circled around to help Miss Marsh down from her horse.

A short stalky woman rushed up to put her arm around the girl and helped her off to the door.

The little boy, who oddly bared a greater resemblance to his governess than the Countess and her daughter, wriggled away from his mother and came close to hug his governess.

“I’m okay, Walter,” she whispered. “Be good now and go stand next to your mother.”

The boy frowned but obeyed.

“It was a pleasure meeting you, Miss Marsh.”

When Henry spoke, the woman helping Miss Marsh turned around with a bewildered look on her face.

“The pleasure was mine. I thank you for your assistance, Lord Radcliff,” Miss Marsh seemed to rush through her statement. Henry assumed she must have been in a hurry to get the weight off her ankle.

The Countess kept glancing toward Miss Marsh as if anxious for her to go into the house. “Can we expect you and Arthur this coming Friday around four o’clock or so?”

“That sounds most agreeable,” Henry said as he mounted his horse. “I look forward to it.”

Something was odd about this family, but Henry reserved judgment. Surely, he couldn’t judge the Countess after only just meeting her.

He had been warned by his mother not to make up his mind about a person after a single encounter. However, his father had always told him to follow his instincts, and he couldn’t help but sense that something was amiss.

On his ride back to Cold Creek Manor, he was elated. Governess or not, he had met the most interesting girl he had ever encountered.

It would be best not to mention his interest in her to Arthur or anyone. It was a single meeting, and Henry was determined to keep his wits about him.

The last thing he needed was for word to get back to his father that he was calling on a governess.

A Sea Rose for the Duchess – Preview

Chapter 1

Amersham, England.

She was quite a vision. Even with her back turned against the group that accompanied her. They were only a handful. Two maids, the footman, and a guard. She never went anywhere without them.

They could see the tension in her squared shoulders and stiff spine – straight as ever, the embodiment of nobility. Yet, it had been a while since they saw their lady hold her head up. She was almost always this way, these days – head bowed.

Long black hair that shone in the sun and moonlight with a sheen worthy of marvel, complimented the black dress that adorned her frame, forming curtains around that lovely heart-shaped face. One that many men pined for.

They knew her sorrow and hated to see their lady this way, but there was nothing to be done. Nothing that they had not attempted. Nothing that had borne fruits.

 Her anguish hung over her like an invisible cloak, it drew lines of sadness on her mouth and put a wetness in her eyes. If only, they knew a way to take those away.

Her pain was their pain, for they, too, mourned. And in their private chambers when they were allowed to, they wept. Silently for their beloved master and mistress, the kindest souls they had ever met, gone too soon, and so cruelly.

The unfairness of it all drew dark drapes down, around their outlook on life. All of it was bleak.

She had chosen a black dress today – like every other day since that dreadful news arrived. It was plain and very different from the usual style of ruffles and ribbons that she had once been accustomed to. She did not mind, one bit. In her thoughts, this was more of her fashion.

The drab clothing, the dull color- it mirrored the state of her heart, the deep sadness that plagued her. The unending ache that would not go away.

They had sworn that she would feel better as the days rolled by. That the pain that festered like an open sore in her heart would heal slowly. They had spoken falsehood.

Either that or they were simply quite ignorant of the sorrow that loss was.

She took in a deep breath. The streams in her eyes flowed.

Aware of the company she had, grateful that her back was against them, she lifted the kerchief she held clutched in her fingers and dabbed slowly, quite discreetly at her eyes.

They hated to see her cry, and today, she was in no mood for their scolding or pleas. She simply wanted to be left alone. So that the silence that echoed in her heart, would fill her ears.

As she put her kerchief away, her vision cleared and she took another long, hard look at the graves that laid before her. The epitaphs read,

“Duke of Amersham, His Grace, Raleigh Emmelstone. He was the noblest of men.”

“Duchess of Amersham, Her Grace, Cecilia Emmelstone. Fair, but fairer even, in the heart.”

 The engraver had done a great job crafting such beautiful resting places for her beloved parents. The words that had been written were not hers. She had been too distraught to craft such simple, but beautiful words.

When she had finally come to after denial had passed and acceptance had dawned, she had finally inquired and her maid had told her her Aunt was responsible for them. She would hold her dear to her heart- always.

It had been two months since a messenger rode into Emmelstone Manor like a storm was on his tail. His urgency had worried everyone, but the moment Odelia had laid her eyes upon his face, fear had ceased her heart.

She had known instantly. How she had, remained a mystery to date. Yet, she had felt it in her heart, and she had known why a chill had befallen her all day.

Nevertheless, she had hoped and prayed that she was wrong. Fervently and desperately prayed.

Until he finally spoke. Those words spilled out like poison. The kind that ate one’s blood. Odelia heard it all as he explained.

Her parents had been returning from a trip to London. A bad storm had met with them. Their carriage had lost its balance, a wheel, and eventually… her parents and the coachman had lost their lives.

They had been found only after the storm had passed and people had dared to venture out of their homes, but it had been too late. Terribly late. There was nothing that could have been done for them.

Odelia had heard of houses crumbling, the bricks falling apart into a pile of rubble. She had never imagined what it would feel like, trapped in an edifice like that.

That day, she had known. Her world came crumbling down, heavy bricks hitting her soul and heart until she too crumbled from the pain. To the ground, she had fallen. Her despair, deep.

It seemed a long time since then. Almost like a year without her parents. The ones who put joy in her heart. The smiles that were lost to her forever. Yet, the pain, still fresh in her heart, made it seem like it was only a night ago.

She could not say goodbye. Not yet. She had tried very hard, but the words would not come out. She was past hoping that it was all a terribly wicked jest and that her parents would walk in the door with their arms open to receive her into their safety and warmth.

That was never going to happen, she knew that now. They were gone for good. Yet, she could not say goodbye.

Just then, a sudden chill filled her bones, rushing down her spine like she had just been bathed with cold water. A small look up at the skies showed that it was not a strange thing.

The clouds had gone dark, and the blue sky was beginning to disappear behind them. The trees swayed in the rhythm of a sudden wind that had picked up, and the dry, fallen leaves rustled in its wake.

As though in confirmation of her thoughts, a deep rumble bellowed and a flash of lightning whipped across what little blue was left to see. Before she would drop her head, her maid, Leah, was by her side.

“My lady, I’m afraid a storm is coming. It is a long ride still to the manor. If we do not want to be caught in its havoc, then we must begin our return. Right this moment.”

She could hear the fear in Leah’s voice, she saw the meaning in the vivid green eyes that the maid had. Odelia understood. A storm had taken her parents, and it would be foolish to risk letting it take her too.

Suddenly weakened, too tired from the emotional turmoil she had been subjected to in recent times, a deep sigh slipped past her lips. It was ladened with pain.

She turned to her parents’ graves and cast one long last look. She would return another day.

Heaving another sad breath, she began to rise from the stone that had served as her seat. Just as she did, the chill came again and she shivered.

Leah was quick to drape her cloak around her. Odelia welcomed the warmth it brought and, with her fingers, gathered the thick velvet closer around her. Yet, the chill remained in her bones, and something nagged at her heart.

This chill, she had felt it before.

It was not from the cold. It was from dread. It was the same she had felt on the day of her parents’ death.

Was it a bad omen? A sign of something terrible to come? What more could happen? She had already lost the people dearest to her heart.

Rising fully to her feet, she turned and began to lead the way out of the cemetery. Leah fell in step behind her and as she reached the rest of her companions, they let her go first, falling into step with Leah.

Just as her feet proceeded to take the last step out of the graveyard grounds, tall, dark shadows fell over her.

Her first reaction was fright. Eyes flying wide open, she stepped back out of impulse and looked up into the menacing glares of men who were almost twice her size.

A lump formed in her throat and with great effort, she swallowed it. Remembering who she was, she found the courage to speak.

“We want no trouble, good sirs. We have simply come to mourn our loved ones. Please, be gracious to step out of our way and we shall continue as we were.”

One of the men scoffed and the other curled his lips into a snarl. Odelia had never seen a more frightening smile. Aware that this was no accidental encounter, she started to withdraw slowly.

“What do you want?” she asked again, her voice less brave this time. The men moved forward, covering the distance she had put between them.

“Well, milady… is that not obvious? We want ye. And ye shall have to come with us.”

The accent was thick but it was definitely not British. These were not English men. Who had sent them and what could they possibly want with her?

“What do you want with me? I have done nothing to no one.” Her heart had begun to hammer against her chest, and she cursed herself for not being brave enough.

She did not want these men to see her fear. To know it. Between herself and her guard, they would put up a good fight. The coachman would do well for himself. However, she had Leah and Helen. She could not afford to put them in harm’s way.

The one with the menacing glare chuckled. His eyes were as black as his soul. An ugly gash slashed from his temple to his cheek. It looked to be the mark of an ax. More than anything, it spoke of how dangerous this man was.

For all her training, Odelia had never fought men like this.

“You ask too many questions for someone that’s about to be a prisoner. I best teach you how to shut your mouth.”

He raised his hand then, but before he would bring it down, her guard intercepted him. The coachman went for the other man and a fight broke out. More concerned about the women with her, Odelia turned to them, frantic.

“You two, go now. You must run. As fast as your legs can carry you. Do not stop for anything. Do you hear me? Run hard till you can get help. Then come back for me.”

The fear in their eyes haunted her, and she hated that she was putting them through such danger.

“My lady, what nonsense do you speak? You too must come with us. We must keep you safe,” Leah cried.

“No! That would be foolish. It is me they want. If I come with you, then they would come after us, and you two might get hurt. I cannot bear the weight of that guilt on my conscience. Please, listen to me and go. Go. Now!”

The chill was gone, replaced by a hot fire burning in her veins. Somehow, Odelia knew that she might never see these two women again. From the look in their eyes, she knew that they knew it too.

She did not understand a thing about this. Who those men were or why they were after her, but this was not the time to ponder. She had a duty to her staff, all of them, and she would see that they escaped this safely.

“Go now!” she cried again, pushing them hard this time.

Helen broke into a sob, and Leah followed. Then for one last time, they crushed her into a tight embrace.

“Oh, my lady! Please fight. We shall find help and come back for you. We promise. We can’t lose you too.” That was Helen.

Tears filled Odelia’s eyes, threatening to fall but she held them back. If not for anything, for them, she had to be strong.

She relished the hug for a moment, but aware of the fight going on not far off, she broke it and pushed them again, harder this time.

“I’ll come back to you. I promise. Now, go!” She didn’t believe it herself, but she hoped that she would keep her promise. She was a woman of her word.

This time, they listened and, as she had instructed, they picked up their skirts and began to run, as hard as they could, as fast as their legs could carry them.

It was just in time, for as Odelia turned around to assess the situation behind her, she felt a brute strike land against her temple.

The last thing she remembered feeling was the pain that simmered through. The last sight she beheld was her guard and coachman, sprawled on the floor, injured.

Then, her world went blank.

Chapter 2

Somewhere in Spain…

Odelia woke up with a throbbing pain in her head. She had grown quite accustomed to waking up this way over the past few weeks, yet she wished she did not have to.

As she struggled into a sitting position, the first thing she realized was that there was no feeling of movement around her.

It was strange. As strange as waking up on a ship at sea, after that attack at the cemetery, had felt.

As her eyes adjusted to the darkness of the poorly lit room, she whipped her head around, taking everything in. The walls were still wooden, just like the floor, and outside, she could hear torrents of rain beating down hard on the earth.

Nevertheless, it was clear that they were no longer at sea. They were now on dry land.

How had she slept through it all? She could not remember leaving the ship or being carried out, just as she had not been able to remember entering, or being carried in.

They must have drugged her meal with some sort of substance. One more potion than the one they’d been using to keep her weak and drowsy. It had been her punishment for attempting to escape.

She had lost the sense of time and could not fathom how long it had been since the capture. When she first awoke, she had been scared but at the same time very angry, and intending to break her way free.

She was frantic by not knowing what had happened to her staff. If the girls had made it out safely. If her guard and coachman were still alive.

She hoped the men had let them be, after capturing her.

After her anger dissipated, she began to devise means of escaping the moment she felt well enough. She must have suffered a terrible concussion, for it took a while. On her third day, she awakened with her strength returned.

She managed to break free, easily wearing off the rope that had bound her wrists together.

She had made it past the two men that had been positioned below deck, to keep her in. However, as she got to the deck, she met many more men who were more than willing to return her to the basement.

This time, the ropes were made tighter, and the men were doubled. She had given up any plans of flight, anyway, aware that they were in the middle of the sea with no land in sight, and she could not swim to save her life.

Not to mention, she was not good enough to take on so many men successfully. She had counted about twelve of them. Too many for a woman like her. So, she had accepted her fate- for now.

No one said a word to her, no one tried to explain anything to her. Most thankfully, no one tried to touch her. For that, she was very grateful. She was no naivete. She had heard of men like them and what they did to ladies like her.

It hadn’t taken long to figure out that they were drugging her meals. Still, she had been unable to refuse to eat. If the drug didn’t kill her, hunger would.

She was also wise enough to know that the men needed her alive, so whatever they were drugging her with was not intended to kill her. With that in mind, she had continued to eat.

The days seemed endless and the nights dragged on for too long. She was mindless, most of the time – too weak to think well or do anything else, for that matter.

The few times she had felt a semblance of herself, she had tried to think. To figure out who was behind this and what they hoped to gain. It had been futile.

 She had not an inkling who would choose to harm her this way, or what justification they may have for their actions. Her parents had been the kindest people she had ever known, unable to cause anyone harm, what’s more, make enemies.

She had led a quite sheltered life up until now. Having only debuted a year ago, she had had little opportunity to make enough friends or foes of her own. It was maddening as it was confusing.

What did anyone want from her? And at such a time like this when she was not done mourning her dead? Well, at least, she was on dry land now and could resume plotting her escape.

She looked around her once more, her insides twisted, crying tales of hunger. It would appear that she had not eaten for a while. How long had she been sleeping? A day, two?

How long had they been in this place that looked like an old, abandoned barn? Most importantly, where were they?

She would stop the meals, and deal with the hunger. She would be better off weak from that, than drowsy. Though she had no idea where they were, she was certain that, if she ran hard enough, she would be able to get help.

Suddenly, the door opened and, as little light filled the room, the noise from the storm intensified. Things went back to what they’d been when she heard the hard slam of wood against wood.

Two men, whom she recognized from their build and stance as the same men who had captured her, sauntered into view and stalked to sofas far away from where she was.

They seemed oblivious of her presence, as though she didn’t matter. It was just as well, Odelia thought. And it was also just as well that the only candle that afforded the room light in the darkness caused by the storm, was far away, shrouding her in darkness.

She could see her captors, but they could not see her, not clearly.

She went deathly quiet, unwilling to provoke their awareness of her. Perhaps, if they thought her still asleep, they would feel free to speak and divulge information that would be vital to her plans of flight.

In no time, deep voices filled the room, and she commended herself for her quick thinking.

“Ah… Rigard, this storm is hellish. It’s been hours now, and it still will not let up. I hate this place. Ye know how much I hate being holed up. I wish it would just stop, so we would make our next move.”

The soft light helped her identify the speaker as the one without a scar.

Now she knew the name of the man that had frightened her the most – Rigard. Somehow, she found it suiting for his character.

“Normin,” Rigard began… “Ye are simply afraid of the storm. Ye have nae problem with being holed up. All these years and one would think you’d have grown into enough of a man to slay yer fears. It’s a good thin’ ye know how to slay men.”

Normin grimaced, not taking the jest lightly.

“Every man has that which he fears. Storms are terrible and speak of bad omens, I tell ye. Too many things could go wrong in a torrent like this.”

“At least, we were granted a safe voyage from England. We are safe here. No harm will come to us, Normin, and if it does, we shall fight back.”

Seemingly comforted by that, Rigard’s furrowed brows melted away, and he bobbed his head in agreement.

“Of course, dear friend. Y’er right.”

Silence reigned as both men retrieved their pipes and began to smoke. The smell of smoke filled the air and lingered, floating over to Odelia. It stung her nose and tried to elicit a sneeze, but she struggled to hold it in.

They were starting to get comfortable – they had to continue to believe her asleep.

“The lass seems to still be asleep,” Normin said.

Ah… finally, they were speaking about her. Straining her ears, Odelia listened more attentively.

“I’m glad that she will be off our hands soon. She is too much trouble. Thank goodness we brought those potions with us. I didn’t know the last one would knock her out so badly. It’s been three days.”

Three days… they had been on land for three days.

“’Tis for the best if ye ask me. I cannot believe she managed to take down Autis and Harson. How in the wicked world does a woman of her status learn to put up such a fight?”

“I hear that she was the pride of her parents and they denied her nothin’. They must’ av hired someone to teach her to defend herself. ‘Tis the only explanation.”

“Hmmm. Ye know, somehow, I admire her. She has spine, that one. Not somethin’ ye see in many women.”

Rigard simply chuckled. “She’s a lovely thing. Any man with eyes and blood in his veins can see that. But the master was clear in his orders. She is not to be touched or harmed.”

“Lucky bastard! No wonder he’s gone through so much trouble to have her. Not many heiresses are as beautiful and strong-willed.

“I only hope he does not break her so… Part of her allure is her spirit. Without that, she shall become a shadow of herself.”

There was a moment of silence as Rigard regarded Normin pensively.

“Still quite the poet I see. A pity, luck did not smile on us. If ye had been born into a finer home, ye would have made quite the scholar, my friend.”

“Ahh… Alas, I was not, and wishful thinking never did any man any good. ‘Tis only to put a damper on his mood.

“The last letter received says the master shall be here soon and she shall nae longer be our problem to worry about. Drink up, my friend. We are about to get paid for a job well done.”

Rigard fetched a bottle of rum and, after he filled their cups, they began to drink.

Odelia welcomed the silence. It gave her the time to think clearly and put all that they had said together.

One thing was certain: they were no longer in England. She also now knew that a man called master had hired these men to capture her. They had said something about her being an heiress.

Was this why? Had someone desperate enough to lay claim to her inheritance, decided to strike now that he knew of her parents’ death? It was the only reason she could think of, and that would mean that she had done no wrong to deserve this.

They had said this master would be here soon, and they had been quite confident about the fact that he would take his time to break her. What did it mean to break someone?

She was certain she never wanted to find out. She waited in silence, biding her time as the men drowned their senses in fermented wine. If she had any luck, they would loll to sleep, and that would be her chance of freedom.

She tugged on the ropes that had her hands bound – they were firm and she knew that she would have no luck loosening them like the last ones. It was just as well, she had something else.

With great effort, she reached her hair and retrieved a clip. It was one of her favorites because it was, in fact, a weapon. Sharp as a blade, small enough to serve as a decoration. It was the shape of a butterfly and would easily be overlooked as an item of fashion.

Her father had purchased it from a merchant who brought strange items from China, and it had quickly become Odelia’s favorite.

She began to work on the ropes and, in no time, she was cut free. It was just as well, for, by the time she looked up, the men were already half asleep.

This was it, this was her time to act. Somehow, she knew that if the master caught her here, she would bid her freedom goodbye forever. She could not afford that.

Noiseless and agile as a cat, she rose and began to find her way to the door. The storm was beginning to let up, but its noise still filled the barn. Perhaps she shouldn’t be running while being hungry, and mindlessly in the rain, but she would not miss this chance. Never.

Her heart hammered in her chest and the hair on every part of her body stood in fear. Her ears perked up, straining for the slightest indication of danger and she kept her eyes alert.

Carefully, she reached the door. As quietly as she could manage, she pulled it open, all the while looking behind her to make sure that those men were still asleep.

One delicate step, another, then another, until finally, she was out of the barn. She turned to close the door, shutting the very little space she had stepped out of.

She could not have taken the risk of opening the door any wider, lest the light poured in and woke them from their slumber. As the door shut close, her heart leaped for joy. She had accomplished this first feat. Now, the hardest part had come.

She turned to look around, searching for a way out, though blinded by the rain. She found nothing, not really. Just trees and tall grasses. Pathways she wasn’t certain would lead to escape.

Nevertheless, she had to try, didn’t she? She hadn’t made it this far to give up. Making up her mind quickly, she lifted her skirts and began to run.

Her skirts, soggy from water, threatened to weigh her down, but she would not have it. With fierce hands, she ripped some of the inner fabric away. Relief surged through her blood as she felt lighter. Finding more strength, she quickened her pace.

Her limbs ached, so did her stomach and her head. She was in no position for such adventure but there was no alternative. So she kept running, changing paths at every turn, hopeful that she was not simply going in circles.

Soon, heavy footfalls began to thud behind her. They were on her trail. Of course, she had expected them to follow. Silent pleas began to spill from her lips and her heart prayed desperately for a miracle.

A house, a village, a cave – anything that would afford her shelter from her pursuers.

The rain thudded even heavier, clouding her site, but she ran still. She could not stop. Never. Odelia struggled, she gave it her all. Howbeit, she lacked sufficient strength and soon, she began to grow weary.

Her legs slowed down, her head pounded, her ribs closed in on her, desperate for air. The footfalls drew closer. They were near. She could not afford to stop, she thought to herself.

All of this. It could not have been in vain.

She heard them closing in on her. Tried as hard as she did, she could not go any faster. She was weak. Spent. And she would pay the price for her weakness.

Tears streamed down her face as the candle of hope went out. She came to a stop and the footfalls that were right behind her did the same. Doubling over, her hands rested against her knees and she tried to catch her breath.

Nothing was done, nothing was said for a long moment. Until another person joined them. This time, the footfalls did not halt. One of the men marched straight to her and yanked her up by the arms.

She winced, feeling a bruise form, but she held her whimper in. They might have won this chase, but she would not give them the satisfaction of cowering before them.

“You stubborn wench! I shall teach you a lesson for your disobedience!” he thundered, lifting his arm.

As those hands raised to strike her, something snapped inside of Odelia. With a force whose source she could not fathom, she yanked herself free from his grip.

He reached out to catch her, but she simply backed further away. Then, he began to yell something. Something she couldn’t hear, not with the rain deafening her. Why did the rain suddenly sound so loud?

Nevertheless, she could see him reaching for her, and she would not allow it. Not again.

She took one more step backward and as she did, regret filled her. The earth slipped from under her feet, throwing her to the ground. It happened like lightning.

One moment, she was standing on two feet, the next, she was slipping and falling… falling off something, into something, and the sound of the rain, kept ringing louder. All her attempts to latch on to something proved futile. She was moving too fast.

That was when it finally became clear… what he had been yelling…

“Stop! There’s a cliff behind you!”

Of course… she was falling off that cliff. The rain had not gotten louder, it had simply been the sea beneath, bellowing in her ears.

Oh… why was fate so cruel? Why had she fought so hard, to go so easily? Well, at least now, she would be joined with her parents.

That thought gave her peace as she plunged into the water, and the dark tides buried her deep within.

Chapter 3

Spanish waters – en route to Italy

It was a fine day. That very much was certain. After the storm that had threatened to tear the ships apart just the day before, one would think that the skies would be bleak today.

Ah, but it was not so. Captain Arnold Reynes felt his lips perk up in a smile as he raised his face to the heavens and breathed in the air that smelled of sea salt. This was perhaps one of his favorite things about the sea.

The air. It always felt so pure, unadulterated. There was no air as clean as sea air and that was not up for dispute.

He opened the eyes that had fluttered closed as he had filled his lungs and gazed up again. He had never seen the sky so blue. Not in a long while. And the clouds, so white – it could be compared to nothing.

The sun peeked from behind a very large cloud, brightening the sky. Its lucent hues colored the sky with golden streaks, making the day completely perfect.

The soft breeze caught in his hair and brought it to his eyes.

Absentmindedly, he brushed his hair away, tucking it behind his ears. It was beginning to grow too long again. He was long overdue for another cut, but lately, he had not felt the will to put his golden locks to the razor.

Strange, as it was already past the length he often kept it. Perhaps, he would simply find a band with which to be knotting it, so that it wouldn’t get in the way all the time.

Deciding that that was a good idea, he continued his admiration of the fine day. His hard, long fingers wrapped around the railing and held on firmly. Finally, he tore his gaze away from the clouds and down to the sea.

There was no evidence of the wicked storm. None at all. Today, the sea was at peace, as if it had never known war. It was just as well. His men had worked all night, trying to make sure that their lives didn’t end with the ship.

As wonderful as life at sea could be, it was just as dangerous. The tides were not always kind and the billows, many a time, rose too high for comfort. Nevertheless, it was all part of the exhilaration that came with such a life.

Living on edge for most of your days, feeling the freedom that came with being in the middle of nowhere, knowing you could steer the ship in another direction and end up in a completely different destination than that which you had had in mind when you set sail.

Knowing no other responsibility than that to your crewmates, and what family you may have back at home. Having no need to behave so properly, taking great pains to observe propriety and not feeling the weight on your shoulders, the eyes of society on your back, watching, waiting for you to make that one mistake that will haunt your days forever.

Ahh. Indeed, the sea had its disadvantages, but he would choose it over and over again, for the advantages it came with. Besides, what other choice did he have? He had found his love for the sea when he had been only a child of eight years old.

Joining the King’s Navy at only eighteen years old had been a dream come true. When he had finally left the service to begin his privateer business at twenty-four, Arnold had known that this was what he would do for the rest of his life.

The day he acquired this ship, his beloved Sea Rose, was the happiest day in his entire life. Never had a man felt more fulfilled. She had called to him, as though she had been specially made for him. He had known that she was the one upon first sight.

Every time he took her wheel to steer, they blended like one. They were one. Sea Rose was his one true love.

He knew how that sounded… if Mannington heard him, he’d call him a lonely man. Mannington would not be wrong and he knew this, for Arnold was as lonely as one could get.

Perhaps, that was why he loved the sea so much. It kept him away from the reality that he had no one to go home to. No wife or child waiting for him. No family who waited for his return. It was just as well.

He had made the sea his home, and he was grateful that he did not have to worry about anyone back in England whenever he was away on business.

Don’t you?

His heart dropped in silence, and when he felt the fading ache rub against his ribs, he knew he was lying to himself all over again.

He wanted all of those things too. However, he had accepted that a man like him could not have them… did not deserve to. He refused to dwell on them.

Jarring his mind away from the saddening thoughts, he began to look around. They were passing the shores of northern Spain. Soon, they would reach the port where they might stop for rest and new supplies.

It would be a while before they made it to Italy and back to England, escorting that merchant ship to ensure the safety of its merchandise. Everyone would want to cherish what little land time they would manage to get in-between.

His eyes continued to roam, taking in the cliffs and white sand… That was when it caught his eye.

He had almost looked it over, but it glistened, reflecting the sun so perfectly, that it cast golden rays across the sea.

A treasure…

Ah… it was not unlikely to find one every now and then on a voyage. But he was not in the business of hunting for treasures – that was the pirates’ business. He had no intention of stopping for anything.

With that in mind, he tried to look away but could not bring himself to. Whatever it was, shone so brightly. If he wouldn’t stop for it, perhaps it would not hurt to take a closer look and see the object behind such twinkle.

Lifting the wooden spyglass he held, he set the frame around his eye and took a good look.

What Arnold found, startled him so much, that the spyglass nearly dropped from his hands. Believing that he had not seen clearly, he wiped his eyes with a kerchief, brought the spyglass to them and took another look.

When he was met with yet the same view, he finally accepted that his eyes could not be deceiving him. He might have had a long night, but he had a very restful morning. His eyes could not be tired.

However, just to be certain, he looked around his ship. He easily spotted his first mate, Mannington. Quickly, he beckoned his mate and friend.

“Mannington. If you would spare me a moment. Please, do come over.”

Mannington did not hesitate to halt in his steps and change his course. Soon, he was by Arnold’s side.

“You called, Captain?”

“Yes. I did. Take this, Mannington and follow the line my finger is making. Pray tell, what do you see?”

He relieved himself of the spyglass and handed it over to Mannington who eagerly received it, without question. The first mate raised the spyglass to his eye and as Arnold pointed in the direction of the sparkle, and Mannington did as instructed.

Arnold knew that he had not seen wrongly the moment Mannington’s jaw dropped.

His first mate removed the spyglass. With eyes wide from surprise, he turned to Arnold who nodded, then, he took another look. Two looks sufficed.

“My goodness! Captain, that’s a woman!”

“Thank the heavens you see it too, Mannington. I was afraid my eyes were playing tricks on me. It is nice to know that I was not wrong.”

“But… how did she get there?”

“I suppose that is a question that we shall ask her to answer.”

Arnold took the spyglass and took another look. This time, he looked more closely, regarding the small frame for any sign of life. The way she was sprawled, her dress stained with dirt so much that it blended into the dirt, did not hold promises of life.

He didn’t know the woman, but for some reason, Arnold found himself hoping that she was safe. Even more strange, he began to feel a stirring of anger deep in his belly. Anger at whoever had done such a cruel thing to a lady.

“The dead cannot speak, my lord.”

Arnold was about to respond when something caught his eye.

A movement. It was her hands. Her hands were moving. She was alive! Hope bubbled inside of him and spilled into a huge smile.

“It would appear that we shall get our answers, after all, Mannington. She is alive!”

He was pushing the spyglass into Mannington’s hand the next moment and yelling for the other mates to let down a boat.

“She’s alive? But she looks…”

“I saw her hands twitch, Mannington. Man the ship. I’m going for her.”

With that, he was gone from Mannington’s side. By the time he reached the mates that had obeyed his orders, the boat had already touched the water. Calling on two of them, he said,

“Humphrey, Olsen, come with me. You shall row the boat.”

Like Mannington, they obeyed without questions. It was one of the reasons Arnold loved his crew- their obedience. No, it was not born out of fear. It was born simply from trust.

They trusted him to make the best decisions and he had never let them down.

In no time, the three men were in the boat and rowing to the shore. As they arrived, Arnold jumped out and went for the woman. His heart was nearly brought to a stop when he came to kneel beside her. She was young. So young.

She could be no more than twenty years old. Despite the bruises on her face and arms, he could tell that she was lovely to behold. From the dirt that painted her body and dress, he could tell that she had been washed ashore.

From her attire, he could also tell that she was English and high born. More questions arose in his mind.

What was an English lady doing on Spanish shores?

Olsen came to kneel on her other side. The captain and his mate shared a look. Upon Olsen’s nod, Arnold pressed his clasped hand to her chest and began to pump.

He had done this plenty of times. He had had to learn as part of training for the navy. He had also had plenty of practice, one too many times when his crew had met trouble at sea and some men had taken too much water.

He pumped as softly as he could, aware that she was delicate. As he did, his heart sent a fervent prayer up above that they had not found her too late, and that her lungs could still recover.

Time seemed to stretch into hours. He kept pumping, but she would not come to. His hope began to diminish. Had he really seen her hands move? Or had he simply been too desperate for a sign of life, that he had imagined things?

Oh Lord, please let her be alive, he pleaded one more time.

As though the heavens had opened and his prayers had gone up without distraction, the lady twitched and coughed out her first mouthful of water.

Joy ran through his body, filling every inch of him. Eyes wide, Arnold looked up to Olsen who reflected the smile on his face.

Encouraged by her response, he continued to pump, and she continued to cough until there was no more water left to exhale. She laid asleep still, but he was glad that the worst was over.

Wanting to waste no more time, unaware of how long she had been out in the cold, he gathered her into his arms. She was so cold, that the chill sunk into his skin.

Nevertheless, it was not the cold of death. It was simply from being in the sea for too long. As he took her back to the boat where his men waited, he spotted the object that had captured his attention.

It was a locket around her neck. Finely crafted and made from pure gold. Definitely highborn, he thought to himself.

The rowing back to the ship was very quiet. As he stepped on the deck once again, the lady in his arms this time, his mates gathered around, curiosity etched on their faces.

Arnold felt embarrassed for the lady. He wondered how she would feel when she awoke and learned that so many men had seen her in this state. A good thought settled in his mind then, and calmly but firmly, he said to the men,

“You all may leave. Only Mannington should stay behind. We shall take care of the lady.”

Their response was swift. One by one, they all turned to leave until the crowd fully dispersed. When they were only two left, he knelt to the ground and carefully put the lady down.

Mannington came to kneel at her other side. He threw his captain a look of awe. Arnold simply shrugged in return. Then, his attention was back to the lady on the floor. Lifting his hand to her cheeks, he began to tap as softly as he could.

That was when her eyes fluttered open.

She came to, very slowly. They backed away as she rose to sit. Arnold watched her carefully, understanding the raw, unguarded emotions that flashed across her face.

First, pain. As she looked around, taking in her surroundings- confusion. Then, her eyes fell upon Arnold and Mannington, and he knew he was not mistaken, he saw fear.

The intensity of that emotion shook his core, so hard that when she began to scramble away, he was hopeless to stop her.

He recovered soon enough and as softly as he could, he began,

“My lady, you need not be afraid. We are good men. I am Captain Arnold Reynes and this is my ship, the Sea Rose. I am a privateer and I am escorting a vessel to Italy.

“I have just found you, lifeless on the shores of Spain, and I thought to bring you to my ship, where you will be safe and have a chance at a full recovery. Once again, I give you my word that no one here will cause you any harm.”

As he finished, he waited, patiently – he was a very patient man. He watched her again, easily seeing through her emotions. He observed as she struggled to make sense of his words, to understand them, accept them, believe them.

He saw as her fear began to wane, as her guard began to wear off. It made him happy. She trusted him – for now. Over the days that she would have to spend with them, he would try his best to gain that trust completely.

“Captain Reynes?”

Her voice was not at all what he had expected – meek, feeble. Ah, no. It was firm, yet soft. It spoke of a strength that laid beneath. Oh, but she had to be strong to survive the tides.

“Yes, and this is my first mate, Kenneth Mannington.”

She looked at Mannington then and regarded him as carefully as she had regarded Arnold. She nodded in acknowledgment and returned her gaze to Arnold.

“You said you had found me lifeless, and saved me?”

Oh, that voice… it reminded him of cocoa, melted and mixed with honey, ladened with freshly brewed milk. It was quite exotic, and it reached places in Arnold that had not been reached in a while.

However, now was not the time to consider that.

Nodding, he responded. “Yes, my lady. It was the noble thing to do.”

Her eyes welled with tears then and when he felt they would drop, she exhibited great control and reined them in.

“Thank you, good sirs. You are too kind.”

Arnold nodded, his chest constricted from almost seeing her cry. He didn’t like the feeling one bit.

“You are welcome, my lady. We are happy to give you a cabin and some clothes. Also, we have a doctor on the ship who would be more than glad to examine you and ascertain that you have not suffered any severe injuries that may put your heart at risk.

“We still have many days yet at sea, but we shall do our best to take care of you.”

There was a pause as he waited to see if she was following. She bobbed her head once. It was enough.

“Very well then. We shall have a lot to discuss, I’m certain, but I must first ask your name, my lady. If you do not mind.” Other questions may be answered later.

“Mind? Not at all. You saved me, it is only proper that we make acquaintance. Well, my name is…”

She paused. Her brows furrowed into several lines as a small frown stole its way into her features. Again, Arnold waited, patient.

“Well, that is quite odd. I cannot… I cannot seem to remember my name.”

Arrested, Arnold joined her in the frown.

“What do you mean? You must have a name. Everyone does. Where are you from?”

The lady began to shake her head once more, slowly, as if she was finding it hard to believe herself.

“Captain Reynes, I do not quite understand it myself. I cannot recall anything. My head… it feels empty. There is not one single memory. Nothing.

“I don’t know where I’m from. I don’t know my name. I seem to have forgotten everything…” Panic laced her words and took abode in her wide eyes, as realization dawned.

“I can’t remember a thing. I have lost my memory.”

Chapter 4

Pain. It was the first thing she felt when she came to. Prickles of pain all over her body. It felt like she had been beaten all over by a heavy log of wood. The pain stretched from her limbs to her back, reaching deep into her bones.

Her head felt heavy like it had magically increased in size and now weighed twice what it had always had. Then, as her vision cleared, confusion dawned.

She did not know where she was. Or why she was here.

All of it felt strange, yes. She was aware of the oddness, but she didn’t try to consider it, what it meant. She was simply concerned with that moment.

Then, she saw the men. Strange men she was certain she had never met before.

Dread immediately seized her heart. The kind that momentarily chased the ache in her bones away, and filled her with a chill.

Why? Why had she had such a strong reaction to men she had never met? Again, she refused to consider that.

She listened as one of the men spoke. The one that had introduced himself as the Captain. Captain Arnold Reynes. His voice, deep and strong, slowly numbed her fears as his words filled her ears.

And those eyes… how could anyone have eyes so golden? She had never seen anything quite like it. It was as though the sun had given him a gift, and filled his eyes with vibrant hues of gold.

Everything about him was golden. His brows, the thin mustache that lined the top of his lips. The stubble that grazed beneath his jaws and the sides of his face.

If angels were humans, they would look like this captain. Sound like him.

He was so gentle, and as he spoke further, a small smile crept into his eyes and lightened his lips. Somehow, it comforted her. Her fears were soon forgotten and the weight in her shoulders slowly faded, carrying away the stiffness in her spine.

This man was sincere with his words. No harm would come to her under his watch. She was safe. She did not know how she was so certain, but she was. She could not fathom why that knowledge meant so much to her.

He had said she had been found on the shore. Her head ached, so much. And when she tried to think too hard, the pain grew stronger, causing her to wince.

So she did not think. She did not consider what she had been doing, washed ashore… Until he had asked for her name.

She had been ready to answer. Of course, she had a name. Everyone did. She knew who she was, or did she?

The dread that had slipped away began to creep back in as she found herself tongue-tied.

Nothing. There was nothing in her head. No semblance of identity. No knowledge of what was, before now.

She could not remember her name, and when he asked where she was from, she realized that she could not remember that either.

Her heart kicked against her ribs, forcing its rhythm to quicken. The thud grew stronger until she felt her chest begin to ache. The hairs on the back of her neck rose, her palms became suddenly clammy. Even breathing became hard.

Panic. Her nerves were getting the best of her. Had she always been this way? Or was this just a special occasion? How would she know? She could not remember anything. Yet, it could not be possible, could it?

She could not have just dropped out of heaven. She must have led a life before now. A life that she should be able to remember. Why couldn’t she remember?

She thought harder, subjecting her head to more pain. Yet, she did not stop. There was a void. Yes, an undeniable feeling of a wall, tall and strong that she couldn’t get past.

The harder she tried, the more difficult it became to reach past that wall. It only seemed to push her further and further away. Eyes widening, she turned to look at Captain Reynes and Mr. Mannington.

All her efforts had proven futile. The light of hope in their eyes crushed her, as it went out at her words.

“I can’t remember a thing… I have lost my memory.”

It was Mr. Mannington who spoke first.

“My lady, you mean not a thing? Not even your name?”

She shook her head. “Impossible, I know. Yet it feels as though I have not led a life until now. As though I have been born anew.

“Although, I do feel a wall in my head that I can’t get past. I believe that is where my memories are locked up.” She looked from the first mate to the captain of the ship.

“Have you ever heard of such a case? Will I ever remember who I once was?”

He said nothing. Neither did his first mate. Both men simply exchanged a look that carried meaning. When his eyes returned to her, she saw the worry in those depths. The uncertainty. She felt her heart tear in two.

The silence filled her ears, almost deafening her. Then, he finally sighed.

“My lady. Yes, I have heard of such an occurrence. As a traveler, I have been to many places and when one tours as much as I have, they are bound to hear things.

“It is not an impossible occurrence, nevertheless, it is a rare one. I do not know how many who have suffered from memory loss were able to recover. However, I do know that it is possible. Though the chances are quite slim.”

There he went again, with his soothing voice that performed yet another magic. The panic that had held her captive released its hold on her, and her nerves began to settle.

She pondered on his words, trying to hold on to hope. Then, a strangled sigh wrenched free from her lungs, surprising everyone.

“The chances are quite slim…” she repeated, staring into space. “Well, I suppose all I can do is hope then, hope that someday, I shall remember it all? For if I never do, how would I ever answer the questions that are beginning to plague me? Who am I? Where am I from? How do I return home?”

Her spirits downcast, she heaved another sigh. It was all strange. Too strange.

“You said you found me ashore, Captain?”

“Yes, my lady. This…” she followed the finger he held out and saw that it was pointing at a locket around her neck. She had not even been aware of it until now.

In fact, she had not been aware of her appearance, only of the wetness clinging to her skin. That was when she saw the damaged state of her attire.

It unsettled her to think that she did not know how that had happened. The black she was in was clogged with sand, almost turning a dirty shade of brown.

The thought of what she must have gone through, what she must have survived, weakened her with profound sadness.

Tentatively, she reached for the locket and clasped her hands around it. The wall in her head tugged, and she knew that the locket held memories. Perhaps, it would help her break down that wall with time.

“This?” she asked.

The Captain nodded. “Yes. That. It glimmered in the sun. So fiercely that I could not look away. Instead, I took a closer look and what I saw, had me thinking my eyes were deceiving me.

“So, I called Mannington to take a look, and he too affirmed that he had seen a woman. We had thought the worst, for you seemed so lifeless, sprawled the way you were. Thankfully, on another close look, I saw your hands twitch.

“It was how I knew you were still alive. So, I rowed out on a boat with my men and we brought you back here. Thankfully, your lungs had not completely been drowned.

“It is nothing short of a miracle, my lady. I have no idea how long you were in the water or how you survived the storm the night before. All I know is that that locket might as well have just saved your life.”

His words rang loud and clear in her head, and she understood the meaning of them. Once more, she looked down at the locket. It was a bit large, yet it felt surprisingly weightless.

If she had been carried by the water, how had the locket not been lost in it? Captain had said there was a storm… how had she survived the tempest?

Nothing made sense. Perhaps, it was as the Captain had said. A miracle indeed.

“I hope you do not mind if I take a good look?”

He was so polite, and she admired that. Shaking her head, she took the locket off her neck and handed it over to him. He examined it closely, as though searching for something.

Then, finally, he opened it. A small gasp left his lips, his eyes widening as he beheld whatever the locket contained.

“What is it?” Mannington asked, echoing her thoughts.

“There is a name written here. It would appear, my lady, that we have one piece of the puzzle.”

“A name?” Reaching out her hands, she retrieved the locket from him and looked for herself. It was her turn to gasp. Right in the locket, were beautifully crafted letters.

Softly, she called out, “Odelia.”

That was her name. A flower blossomed in her heart, and she knew that it was right. It was her name. Hope soared, as high as her joy did. At least, now she knew her name. She was Odelia.

Oh, only if her family name had been written in the locket too. A seal or something. It would have been so much easier to find her home.

She shut the locket and looked up to see the captain and his first mate smiling at her. They shared her happiness. That much was clear, and it gladdened her so.

“Now that we know your name, I do believe we are a step closer to finding out who you are. From your attire, my lady, and the way you speak, I do believe you are English. I am from England too, as well as more than half of the men on this ship.

“We are a long way from home, and we have a long way still to go. We must escort a vessel and see it safely delivered in Italy. Then, we shall begin our return journey to England. I am afraid my lady, until then, you shall have to remain with us. However, you have my word that no harm shall come to you. I swear it on my honor.”

He was a noble man. That much was certain. Anyone could have found her on that shore… she was glad that it was this man who did. Managing a small smile of her own, she nodded in understanding.

“Thank you, kind sir. For this graciousness that you have extended a total stranger, I too swear that I shall repay your kindness.”

“Oh, my lady, please, no. I do not do this in hopes of a reward. I do it simply because it is the noble thing to do.” He paused then and looked around.

“We have spent too much time here. Forgive my bad manners. Please come with me. First, I shall show you your cabin and ask that the men draw you a bath. Afterward, I shall bring you clothing and a meal. I am certain that you are famished.”

At the mention of food, a rumble growled inside of Odelia, twisting her stomach into terrible knots. Oh yes, she was famished. So much that she felt it in her soul.

She nodded, urging him to continue. He rose to his feet then and handed her his hand which she took.

As those long, hard fingers clasped hers, Odelia felt something move inside of her. He must have felt it too, for he abruptly stopped and stared into her eyes.

The moment was gone as soon as it came, and it was almost like it never happened. Pushing it away, Odelia concluded that she would consider it later.

“Can you walk, my lady?”

He pulled her to her feet then, and as she righted on both legs, her eyes watered, causing her to swoon. His arms were around her in a split second, and she wondered if that was proper in any way.

Yet, the warmth they afforded her stole any word of complaint from her lips.

“I’ve got you. You need a handsome meal and good rest after the ordeal that you have gone through. If you would permit me, my lady. I shall lift you to your cabin. Once you are well fed and rested, the physician will come to examine you and take care of your injuries.”

“I can walk.”

He nodded, respecting her decision. However, as they took the first step, she felt her legs wobble, almost sending her to the floor.

The captain was swift. Before she could protest, she was in his arms. The quick movement spun her senses, making her light and dizzy. She looked up at his face as her consciousness began to slip away. That angel graced her sights one more time before her eyes slipped closed.

The Mystery of the Iron Duke – Preview

Chapter 1

Catherine lifted the gown from her bed – a gift she delighted in greatly – and gazed at the beaded detail. She was surrounded by beautiful gowns in her boudoir, but nothing was so magnificent as this one, and nothing fit her tall, slender frame so well.

The house in London was certainly her favorite. Of all the estates her parents owned or rented, this might be the most exquisite as it gave her all of this space to get ready whenever there was something worth getting ready for. As it was the London season, Catherine knew she was going to spend a great deal of time in here.

Penelope brushed the side of the fabric, and Catherine saw how smooth it was. Perfect for tonight’s ball.

“I cannot help but wonder if it will strike me as so many women say it does. As if, in just a moment, I will see a man and know he is the one I’m to be with for the rest of my life,” Catherine mused.

“It cannot be that simple, my lady,” Penelope replied, ushering Catherine to the mirror so that she might do her hair for the evening.

“Why ever not?” Catherine pouted.

“If it were that simple, then everybody would be falling in love. Every time a ball occurred, men and women would leave completely overwhelmed by their affections,” Penelope reasoned.

“You say they do not?” Catherine asked.

“Well, I can’t say I’ve ever been to a ball. Lady’s maids don’t typically get invitations,” Penelope laughed. Catherine sensed a sadness in her confession.

“True. It is rather unfair,” Catherine commented.

“But when I was younger, we had dances in our town. Not so grand as those you attend, but good nonetheless. And I never did see anyone fall so deeply in love as they always say about these types of events,” she replied.

Catherine considered it as she looked in the mirror before her. With each stroke of the brush, her Venetian blonde hair seemed to glow with a shine. Her emerald eyes looked back at her from a heart-shaped face with a pixie nose.

She had never liked her nose, deeming it pig-like, although others disputed this comparison. Moreover, Catherine could not refrain from noticing how her cheeks were rounded so much before slimming to the point at her chin.

She tried to ignore these things, but it was difficult to do.

“What sort of love do you wish to find?” Penelope asked, playfully.

Catherine wistfully looked into the distance, imagining him.

“Mysterious and brave. Someone I can be intrigued by. I have no desire for the boring sort,” she laughed. “What about you? What sort of man do you prefer?”

“Decent and loyal. Someone who will always care for me, be by my side. I appreciate loyalty more than anything,” Penelope replied, beginning the up-do of Catherine’s hair.

“That is exactly the sort of man you deserve,” Catherine agreed.

“Perhaps you shall find your mysterious beau at the ball this evening. Someone dashing, handsome perhaps?” Penelope suggested.

Catherine opened her mouth to speak in reply, but was cut off by the flurry of her mother entering the room in quite a tizzy.

“Catherine! You must be quick. Hurry, we have an urgent need to get to the ball,” she rushed, pushing Penelope from the chair and digging her hands painfully into Catherine’s scalp to finish the work.

“Mother? Good heavens, what is all this about?” Catherine asked in protest.

“You are dismissed. Go to your room,” her mother ordered Penelope rudely .

Catherine looked at her friend and maid apologetically, and Penelope did as she was told, remembering her place. It infuriated Catherine to see how her parents treated the woman she had grown so close to.

“Mother? What is it that has you in such a rush? I thought we still had more than an hour before we are to depart,” Catherine noted, using this as a means to conceal the agitation she felt towards her mother.

“Do you not think there must be a very good reason for me urging you? My goodness, why are you always so ungrateful? I have an alarmingly wonderful bit of news for you!” her mother announced, all her sentences delivered in the same breath.

Catherine couldn’t understand how alarming news would be wonderful and dreaded to hear what it was that her mother was so overwhelmed by. It didn’t seem as though it could be anything very good at all. In fact, she was already quite alarmed by her mother’s strange behavior.

Lady Abingdon sat her rather plump body on Catherine’s bed as though she were a childhood friend. A bit of pastry was flaked upon her chin, and Catherine debated whether or not to tell her. In the end, she decided to wait until she heard the news.

“Alright then, I am listening,” she said, hesitantly.

“You had better be. Because this evening is going to change the fortunes of this family forever and you are going to make us all very proud,” Lady Abingdon said.

Although her voice was lilting and excited, her blue eyes failed to shine, and she remained vacant as ever.

“And how am I to do that?” Catherine asked with continued anxiety, imperceptibly backing away from her mother.

“You know, of course, that our host for this evening is none other than the Duke of Windermere. He is one of the most powerful men in the whole of England, Catherine! Of course, that is to say, he is shockingly rich! Can you even imagine?” she carried on.

Catherine knew all of this. She couldn’t imagine why her mother was fawning over the fact. It was not as though the identity of the ball’s host had ever been a secret.

“I know he is, Mother. But what does that have to do with all of your sudden excitement?” she asked.

“Oh, Catherine. It is the most wonderful news! The Duke of Windermere has agreed to open discussions about you!” she declared.

“About me?” Catherine asked, utterly confused. What was there to discuss?

“Yes, of course. I have no doubt he would have made me an offer, but I am already a married woman,” Lady Abingdon mumbled, toying with the string of pearls at her neck.

All at once, the realization came to Catherine.

Discussions about her. The Duke of Windermere. A wealthy nobleman.

“Mother, you cannot be serious. You cannot be saying what I believe you to be! The Duke of Windermere? He is far too old a suitor for me. And all of those horrible rumors about him? You wish for me to marry a man like that? What could you possibly mean by all of this?” she pleaded, her voice quaking in horror.

Catherine could not imagine it. The Duke? He wished for her hand? They had never even met! She only knew that no one had seen him in years and that he scarcely ever appeared in society.

For good reason. Because of the shame and drama that had followed him all this time.

“Do not be so dramatic, Catherine. You ought to know well by now that a man like him is quite a catch. Not many young women get the opportunity to be wed to such a man, and your father and I have worked hard to earn you this match,” she replied, casually, yawning and leaning back on the bed.

Catherine was utterly tempted to point out that her mother’s rotund figure was present due to the absence of love in her marriage, that she sought affection through food because of an arranged, calculated match such as this.

But her anger would get her nowhere. Her stubbornness, on the other hand…

“I’ll not do it. I shan’t, Mother,” she declared.

“Stop being a fool, Catherine. He has agreed to a formal courtship, and you shall, of course, enter into it. As I said, this is a gift. One that you would not dare to refuse,” Lady Abingdon said in a warning tone, sitting up straight.

“But, Mother–”

“And he is not so aged. How could you make a remark like that? The Duke is only thirty-something. Perhaps fifteen years your senior. That is nothing,” she continued dismissively.

“Mother, what about the rumo–”

“Do stop it about all those silly rumors, Catherine,” Lady Abingdon hissed. “They were started as a means of revenge by women who were not able to capture his attention. Women whose parents did not love them enough to arrange a match. Are you going to listen to them over your own mother?” she challenged.

Catherine breathed hard through her nose, unconvinced.

She was furious but knew there was little chance to convince her mother what a foolish idea this was. How could her parents be so cruel? How could they do this to her?

“How would you know if the rumors are true or not? Have you ever met him?” Catherine finally dared to ask.

Lady Abingdon looked off to the corner of the room in a standoffish manner. It was evident that she had no desire to reply.

“Your father has dealt with a man of his. Faversham. That is enough. The negotiation has gone very well, and there has been a promise of a great deal of money. It is a very advantageous opportunity for us, and that is all any of us need to know,” she remarked.

“My happiness is not so important as money?” Catherine asked in a small voice.

“Do not work on my emotions. You know how that taxes me so. Can you not just be grateful for this delightful opportunity we are giving to you? Can you not accept what a great joy this will be for us all?” Lady Abingdon manipulated.

“Money is not so important to me, Mother,” Catherine replied quietly.

“Enough, Catherine! That is quite enough, do you hear me? You are to quickly prepare yourself, and you must behave this evening. You shall do your utmost to please the Duke, or you shall face the most devastating consequences from your father, do you understand?” Lady Abingdon warned sternly.

Catherine swallowed hard against the threat and nodded her head softly.

It sounded like the worst of tortures, but there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing that she could say to change it.

She had no choice.

Her mother stood and left the room without another word, having made herself quite clear.

Catherine was relieved when Penelope opened the door, knocking softly as she did. At least Catherine would not be alone at a time like this. At least she would have Penelope by her side, and everything would be okay.

 “My lady, what is it?” Penelope asked concerned, the compassion seeping into her words.

“My mother… She told me that I am to enter into a courtship with the Duke of Windermere…” Catherine answered, trying not to choke on the words.

Penelope gasped and wrapped her arms around Catherine. The two held one another as Catherine began to sob, not believing that this could truly be so.

She told Penelope everything, all of the details of what her mother had banished her into.

It was too much. It was too great a horror to fathom.

“Perhaps he is not so bad,” Penelope tried to comfort her. “Maybe he will even be good, my lady. You never know. It is possible that your mother is right, and they are merely rumors started by jealous women.

“Do not lose heart. Do not grow faint. All will be well. You shall see,” Penelope soothed.

“But what if he isn’t? What if he is really the horrible old man I’ve heard he is?” Catherine wept.

“Then your parents will not arrange for this match after all. They love you, they care for you, and want whatever is best for you. Surely you know that,” Penelope encouraged.

A scoff escaped Catherine’s lips.

“My parents love the idea of wealth and status. That is their passion. Do you truly think they would put me above such a thing? That they would care more about my desires and wants than that? They married one another for the advantage of the match, and nothing more,” she said with anger.

“Perhaps they did, but it does not mean they intend to relegate you to the same fate,” Penelope replied, trying to be positive.

“Thank you for speaking so comfortingly. I cannot believe a word of it, but I do appreciate that you are trying, Penelope,” Catherine sniffed. “You deserve the loyalty you wish for in a husband. Truly.”

It was time for them to leave, and Catherine heard her mother calling for her once more. She knew she must look a terrible fright from all the crying.

“I shall go tell her that you will only be a moment longer. And do not worry, everything will be alright. We can figure something out. Perhaps this evening a better offer might even come along. You never know. Just have hope, my lady,” Penelope urged.

Catherine nodded, wiping away the tears and trying to stop more from falling.

Her maid left the room, and Catherine went over to the mirror, sniffing a few times and attempting to right herself. She took three deep breaths, with each one soothing her more than the last, until she felt she could face the world.

At last, she was ready.

And yet, no matter the calming words of her friend, no matter the hopes she tried to have or the ways she attempted to calm herself, Catherine remained concerned. Her worry would not abate.

At the forefront of her mind were the rumors she had heard about the Duke. He was infamous, and not for anything good. Indeed, the fact was every woman in whom the Duke showed interest had one thing in common.

They all ended up dead. 

Chapter 2

Benjamin’s eyes took in the view from the window. Surrounded by the smell of books in his library, the room he loved most in his London residence, he couldn’t help but indulge in peering out over the city.

He hated being in the city. As much as he loved this home, he could not bear the crowds, the society, the noise of London. He felt choked by every inch of it.

But that was not the greatest thing on his mind that evening. No, indeed it was only a mild thought, shadowed by greater concerns.

Benjamin sighed. He had received yet another marriage proposal. The countless offers were piling up, given by eager parents who would do anything for him to accept their daughter’s hand. Parents who cared nothing for the wellbeing of those daughters but rather craved the wealth and status he offered.

And those daughters were equally eager for it.

This was simply the latest of those offers. He wondered what made this young woman any different from the others. After all, if he was going to accept an offer from someone, how was he to choose?

How was he to decide who he wanted and who he didn’t want? It seemed a ridiculous expectation that he had to choose between them all.

The library door was open, but Benjamin did not need to turn around when he heard footsteps behind him. He knew those steps, and the majority of his other employees were cleaning the estate or baking and preparing the drinks for the evening.

 “Good evening, Your Grace,” Faversham greeted respectfully upon entering.

“Good evening, Faversham. Are you ready for all that lies ahead?” he asked, eyes still trained on the city beyond.

“Indeed. I have something for you,” Faversham replied.

From the corner of his eye, Benjamin saw the salver presented to him. A missive lay atop it, and he sighed, taking it in his fingers. Without a glance, he fiddled the edges of the paper before setting it on the table to his left.

“Could you pour me a drink please, Faversham?” he asked politely.

“Of course, Your Grace,” the valet replied.

He had been an excellent companion. Faversham’s loyalty and dedication to Benjamin, through everything, had been unwavering. Benjamin could hardly understand why. Surely, he was not deserving of so good a friend. And yet, Faversham had stayed with him.

In a brief moment, Faversham handed Benjamin a glass of whisky. He swished it in the glass before swallowing the lot of it. Faversham quickly refilled it, although Benjamin knew he oughtn’t drink too much before the ball that evening. Only enough to find his courage.

He would soon be surrounded by hundreds of guests. It was one of his least favorite things in all the world, having people invade his space. But it had to be done. It was simply the duty of a man in his position.

More than that, he needed the world to know he was not the terror they had come to believe him to be. Whether he desired it or not, the name of his family rested upon the stitching up of his reputation.

A reputation that had left few parents even remotely concerned for the well-being of their daughters.

He would never be such a father, of that he was determined. While Benjamin knew he was destined to be alone, he made the commitment regardless, knowing that no child ought to be traded so selfishly.

“The letter, Your Grace. You do not wish to read it?” Faversham inquired, his voice rife with hesitation.

Benjamin sighed, wondering why he had to think about these things.

“I do not. I know exactly what it asks of me. What they all ask of me. To marry their daughters. Am I wrong?” he shot back.

“No, Your Grace. You are not wrong. But this is from the Earl of Abingdon. As I told you, he has engaged me in the process of obtaining your betrothal to their daughter. It would be ideal if you could read the letter and prepare yourself before the ball,” Faversham suggested.

“There is no need for it,” Benjamin answered him. “Now, do pour yourself a glass and have a seat. There is a long night ahead, no reason to weary yourself now.”

He listened as Faversham poured another glass and made himself comfortable. Benjamin noticed the sky dimming from afar. It would not be long now before guests began to arrive. Within the hour, certainly.

“Oh, London. Why do I always struggle when I am in London? Have you noticed the way this city grows grey when evening falls?” he mused.

“Yes, I suppose it does,” Faversham agreed.

“And the noise? Oftentimes I feel as though my head is ringing with it. As if even within these walls, it cannot be escaped,” he continued.

“Your Grace, if you detest the city so much, then why have we come?” the valet inquired.

Benjamin had been asking himself that very same question time after time since their arrival.

He knew why. He knew what was expected of him. But it didn’t change the fact that he missed the countryside and his trips to Brighton and, best yet, those brief stays away from England entirely.

“It is what the world expects of a duke, Faversham. As I’ve no say in my title, I’ve no say in which aspects of it I choose to honor and those which I should like to ignore. It is my family’s name that depends upon me. So, I must come,” Benjamin conceded.

“I understand, Your Grace. Although, I must say I am sorry you have to endure these things which you hate so deeply. I understand this city is not always kind,” he said quietly.

No, it was not. The vast majority of Benjamin’s experiences in the city had been quite terrible. He was always spoken about, always felt as though he were lurking, unwelcome, through the streets of the city.

He faced stares and gossip and all manner of struggle. When he entered the gentlemen’s clubs, he was treated with dignity and respect on the surface, but he remained certain of all the things that were said the moment he turned his back.

It was horrible to be feared. It was painful. Benjamin wanted to be the sort of man who could easily escape it and do as he pleased with his life.

“And yet, the city is where a man of means must be during the season, surrounded by men and women of all sorts. Engaging and willing to open his home to the very people who seek a friendship based solely on wealth and status,” he continued, grimly, eyes taking in the horizon.

Was he too harsh? Was there some optimism to be found amidst everything he had simply ignored? Could he not try, make any sort of effort, to see the positive in this season?

Benjamin sighed, trying to consider the good. The children and destitute in the streets chose to enjoy themselves, so why could he not? There was so much for him to be grateful for. Truly, he had a good life, all things considered.

But shadows remained, and he had no idea how he was to escape them. Or if he even wanted to.

The shadows didn’t judge him, didn’t fear him.

“Are you ready for the ball this evening, Your Grace? Even with all of the dread you feel, it could be a positive evening,” Faversham remarked as if trying to follow up the attempts in Benjamin’s mind to be optimistic.

“I am as ready as I shall ever be for public appearances,” he replied.

“You have hired the finest musicians. I think it shall be magnificent and your guests will always speak about this night as being a grand opening to the season,” Faversham complimented.

“One can only hope,” he said in reply.

Benjamin had chosen to host his ball right at the beginning of the season to get it out of the way. He had always been a man who tried to finish the dreaded tasks first, so he might be able to forget them and move on. After this, he would attend very few social events.

It was the best idea for him to be able to be rid of everything he did not want and get it over with.

“You’ve had an invitation to the Dowager Lady Kensington’s ball in three days hence, as well as Sir Reginald’s. I think they should all be rather delighted by your presence,” Faversham ventured.

“Indeed, everyone wants a look at the monster,” Benjamin mumbled.

“Your Grace, you are no monster,” Faversham scolded gently.

But Benjamin knew what was said about him. He was no fool. He could not deny a little part of him that knew that, if he had only been a better man, less selfish and hard, those rumors would never have been spoken.

“In any case, I do not know if I shall attend them. Perhaps once or twice per month, I may attend a ball or some other event, but I do not wish to go to two or three each week. You know me better than that, my friend,” Benjamin said.

“You are not a man for London,” Faversham chuckled lightly.

Benjamin nodded in agreement, taking a light swig of his whisky when he watched a carriage pass by. Relieved that they did not stop at his home, he exhaled.

“Indeed, I am not,” he confirmed once more.

“As I said, it is not always a kind place. London can be quite ugly at times. But there are some good things in which you might indulge,” Faversham hinted.

“Such as?” Benjamin asked dryly.

“Well, all of those who seek to have you marry their daughters. They hold you in rather high regard,” he replied.

Benjamin scoffed. “High regard? You mean they want my wealth. They want my title. There is very little regard held when I am desired only to elevate the status of another. I do not see that as much import,” he said.

The conversation was going somewhere he did not desire it to go, and Benjamin distracted himself by watching a few of the young boys, the street urchins, playing with some sort of fabric wrapped up into a ball. Their amusement gave him a sliver of hope for the world around him.

“Surely that is not the truth of all of them. Perhaps there are those who wish it, but others may truly desire that you be a part of their families,” Faversham fancied.

Benjamin felt his blood strengthening in his veins. A strength of frustration and anger, pulsing a little faster.

He tried to continue focusing on the children, tried to contain himself. If only Faversham would stop talking about all of this nonsense, he would be perfectly fine.

Taking a deep breath through his nose, he tried to bear in mind that Faversham simply cared for him and wished to see him happy. A loyal, dutiful man.

He was trying to find the best possible options for his master and believed betrothals to be one of those. Even though they both knew it was a grave mistake, he still sought to try for a match on Benjamin’s behalf.

“I ask that you desist with this conversation,” he said in a steady voice.

“I understand, Your Grace. And if that is what you wish, then certainly we shall cease this discussion. But I still must urge you to consider the courtship with the Earl of Abingdon’s daughter. It would be a very advantageous marriage,” he added, one last time.

With that, Benjamin felt a tightened string snap within him.

Although Faversham was a friend, this was not his place. He ought not to have suggested this or gone so far.

Benjamin turned, looking at his friend and valet for the first time that evening. There was rage within him, which he tried to temper. There was hurt and fury and regret and a whole number of emotions that Benjamin hated to feel and tried not to show.

“I have no interest in being betrothed. Do you hear me? Do you understand? No interest at all,” he said with finality.

Faversham looked at him with hesitant eyes before daring to speak again.

“It shall not be like last time,” he remarked quietly.

The string had gone too tight. Now, rather than a snap, Benjamin felt it break completely.

The memories of everything were too much, and there was nothing for him to do but launch the tumbler in his hand into the fireplace, where it crashed with the loud shattering of glass blown generations before.

The flames licked at the pieces that landed within, and he knew that Faversham would say nothing more for now. But Benjamin could not bear to remain in the room. Not after this outburst.

He turned swiftly, marching towards the door. The sensation of warmth from the firelight caught his face just as he passed a mirror.

A small glimpse was more than enough for him. It caused him to wince, his reflection unbearable to himself.

If he could remove every flame, every source of light, and every reflecting surface, it would not be enough to satisfy him. No, he was not a man for the city. He was a man for seclusion.

Faversham was wrong. He knew it. It would be exactly like last time, and all foolish hopes to the contrary were only a waste of time.

After all, how could he ever be happy in a marriage? How could he prevent another tragedy?

No, if these young women’s parents cared so little for them, he would have to do it. He would have to be the one who worried and was pained by the use of their girls. He would have to be the one who made an effort to look after them. After all, they deserved better.

They deserved better than him. They deserved better than to be forced into marriage with a man who had so many secrets. Far too great. Far too dangerous.

He would never have a happy ending.

Chapter 3

Her feet met the ground, and the coachman released Catherine’s hand now that she had exited. Before her, a grand estate stood tall and opulent in every way.

Lady Abingdon’s jaw fell, and Lord Abingdon wrinkled his small nose in jealousy. It seemed to sink into his round face, and Catherine had to look away.

She took in the view of the home and regretted it immediately. She was not typically impressed by such things, but this home, with all of its grandness and exquisite beauty, seemed to strike her nonetheless.

She simply could not help it. The beauty was more than she had ever seen and, for a moment, she wondered what it must be like to be the lady of a house such as this.

The moment the thought entered her mind, she pushed it away, angry at herself for even considering it.

Catherine knew she was stronger than that, able to see past these things. She would not allow herself to be struck by opulence.

But the balconies jutting out beneath dozens of windows, the intricate carvings, the floral motifs, all of it seemed beyond its time. As if it had been brought back from some beautiful day in the future.

London society always sought to be beautiful, but it was only a superficial sort of beauty. There was never anything behind it or real about it.

Catherine saw others arriving as well and realized that everyone of note had been invited. This was not a simple ball for some of the dukes and earls. This was an event for everyone among the nobility, and there were a few faces that Catherine was shocked to see.

Lord Abingdon seemed to notice the faces as well and proceeded forward in an arrogant swagger that caused his gut to protrude forward. His shoulders hung back as if to elongate his body, but it only made him look apish.

Seeing that they were finally moving forward, Catherine cautiously followed, trying to hide her nerves.

It was not the many faces of nobility that caused her such anxiety but rather the awareness that she was soon to meet a man to whom she was apparently betrothed.

Her mother noticed the gentle fidget of her hands as they began up the stairs to the entrance, and Catherine accepted the glare. She made every effort to right herself, to present herself as elegant and strong.

“Stop slouching. And fidgeting. What is the matter with you? Do you not know how important this evening is?” her mother hissed.

“Yes, Mother. I’m very sorry,” Catherine replied quietly, swallowing the bitter anger she held within.

“Now, when you are presented to the Duke, His Grace, you must be shy and respectful. Flutter your lashes like this,” her mother demonstrated.

Catherine had to press her lips together so as not to laugh at how foolish her mother looked. She did not wish to be disrespectful, but it was quite amusing to see.

“Of course, I shall, Mother,” she promised, though knowing full well she would never behave so falsely.

“You will curtsey, use a soft, breathy voice to greet him by his proper title and press forward when you descend so he might catch a glimpse of your assets,” Lady Abingdon hinted.

Catherine was mortified by this thought. As a slender woman, and taller than most of her peers, Catherine had far less to display in that department. But even if she had, it was improper, and her mother was disgracing her by even suggesting it.

“Stay quiet unless he speaks to you and answer only in such a way that shall flatter him. Make statements such as, ‘my goodness, what a fine home you keep, Your Grace,’ and ‘it is my highest honor to be presented before you,’ and whatnot,” Lady Abingdon instructed.

Catherine nodded, feeling like a fool.

Soon, however, they entered the hall, and Catherine had a little bit more room for freedom as her parents quickly discovered the table filled with pastries and drinks of all sorts.

Now that they were elsewhere occupied, she took a deep breath.

She looked about the room, noting the ample number of young gentlemen and catching the eye of some. It was strange, feeling so on display for all of them to see and notice.

She wondered if this was how it would always feel to be a young woman. As if she was the table full of treats they would like to devour.

Her dance card began to acquire names upon it, and Catherine acquiesced to dance with a few gentlemen.

They all bored her, and she felt that they were quite possibly too youthful to be of any interest to her. While she did not wish for an old man, they seemed young and immature.

The Duke, however, was nowhere to be seen. She heard a few conversations around her mentioning him and the fact that he had yet to come and greet his guests.

“I’ve not seen him yet,” whispered a debutant nearby.

Catherine subtly leaned her body closer, as if uninterested, trying to learn more.

“Do you know what he looks like?” the other young woman asked.

“No. Nobody has seen him for an age. They say he has spent a great deal of time in the country or on brief travels. Probably because of all the shame. After all, he must be quite brave to host this evening when we all know the truth about him,” the first replied.

Catherine glanced at the young women for the first time. It was a quick look, but she saw that the two wore exquisite dresses. Perhaps even more beautiful than her own.

Their faces, however, were piggish. A small part of her felt satisfaction at that. Not because of jealousy, but because of how they spoke of the Duke so rudely.

True, they were the same thoughts she had been having. But she would not go about gossiping when she knew only from the gossip of others. What evidence did they have?

While she dreaded any meeting with the Duke, she knew she was to respect him if she was forced into a marriage.

Catherine’s anxiety intensified then. What sort of a fool was she? Having defensive thoughts for this man? She knew nothing about him other than those very rumors. But was he kind?

There was nothing to tell her. No reputation preceded him in that regard. Was he handsome? Still, she had no knowledge.

Catherine wished she at least knew what he looked like so she might be able to keep an eye open for him. If she saw his face, she might be able to better prepare herself. She could hide for a moment and then come out when she was ready.

“You know that he paid off the constabulary, don’t you?” one of the women said then.

It captured Catherine’s attention all over again.

“For what?” gasped the other.

“For the deaths of all the women. And in his travels, I have heard that everywhere he goes, a body is left behind,” said the first.

Catherine felt her heart pound. It sounded absurd. But what if it was true? What if he really was a monster that was going about killing women at every turn?

“I suppose it is possible. I mean, not that I would ever believe such fantasy, but you have heard what happens to him at night, have you not?” asked the other, sounding as though she very much believed the fantasy.

“Oh dear, what happens?” asked the other, quite dramatically.

“I oughtn’t to tell you, but it is rather awful. He turns into a great beast. Red-eyed and howling, he roams the halls of his residence, seeking the ghost of his first love,” she whispered, just loud enough for Catherine to hear it.

It sounded utterly ridiculous, but…

What sort of man was this that she was to marry? Why had her parents abandoned her to this man?

Panic struck her, but she could not stop listening for more.

“He seeks her ghost?” asked one.

“Indeed. His first betrothed. She mysteriously disappeared. And that is nothing compared to Fiona. Everyone knows he killed her in cold blood,” replied the other.

Catherine tried not to gasp, but her heart would not still.

She had no idea who Fiona was, but these girls seemed to. All of their words erased her desire to remain respectful of her intended. She could bear it no more.

Catherine would have to beg her mother and father, tell them anything that might convince them otherwise.

Perhaps, as the evening wore on, she would indeed find a better match. She could find a man who would keep them satisfied, a man with wealth and a title, but no rumors.

The idea of being with someone whom everyone supposed was a murderer was sheer madness. How could her mother and father expect this of her?

“He hasn’t been to church in ages. If he goes, the Lord might take him then and there, you know. A monster like him? It is only his title which keeps him safe,” noted the other young woman.

“I have little doubt he would be struck. Perhaps he even made a pact with a demon to become like that,” the other sensationalized.

“It is quite possible. Perhaps that is how he communicates with his first betrothed. Or maybe he even collects the souls of those he murders. Oh, do you think it could be so?” surmised one.

It was absolute nonsense, Catherine reminded herself. And yet, despite knowing that, she couldn’t quite escape it all. The fantasy and madness of it was almost palpable, yet that was the very thing that made it believable.

“Who knows. Whatever he is, whatever he does, he is sincerely a murderer, and there is no mistaking that,” replied the first.

“A wealthy murderer. Meaning he can easily capture more women and deal them the same death card until there is simply no one left,” replied the other.

It was too much. Catherine could handle no more. As incredulous as it all sounded, she was unable to abate her fear. This was not the sort of man she wished to marry, and her parents would simply have to accept that!

Looking around the room and seeing Lord and Lady Abingdon distracted by those more important than them, she found a chance to leave the hall, desperately needing fresh air.

It was against protocol and all proper behaviors of society, but she had to escape and was not the sort of woman who would allow herself to be tied by such ridiculous expectations. She had her own mind, and right now, it was determined that she should get away from everyone and everything inside.

Her feet led her to a room where she noted the door to the balcony was open. The air called to her, making her eager for a breath and relief from everything she had just heard.

Catherine glanced into the room to ensure that it was empty and she would not be caught.

If her parents learned she had tried to sneak away during the ball, or that she was found alone without the eyes of society guarding her, she would surely be disgraced. So would they all. Her parents would rebuke her and marry her off in an instant.

But Catherine found the room to be safe. Thankfully, there was no one there. She entered, softly, lightly crossing it to the balcony. The moment she stepped out on it, she allowed relief to fold her.

Her relief was short-lived.

Catherine gasped when she saw a man standing there, giving her a mere glance and an amused expression from his right side. She’d had no idea at all that anyone was out there, and wished she had been more careful and not allowed herself to end up in such a foolish position.

She had been caught after all, and surely this man would be quick to tell her parents about her behavior.

But Catherine allowed herself the briefest of moments to accept that glance from him, and in that time, she drew up her own conclusions about him in return.

“It would seem as though you, too, have decided that it is better to disappear out the window than remain inside with the vultures of society,” he said, rather directly, in a deep, musical voice.

For a moment, Catherine’s breath caught in her throat. She knew not what to say in reply, forgetting her typically witty self.

Despite the poor lighting and the angle at which he stood, it was evident to her that the man was exceedingly handsome.

His hair, nearly black, was gently streaked with greying hairs. His beaked nose, which many would claim to be too large for his face, only enhanced his masculinity.

At that amused grin, Catherine noted the sharp edge of his jaw, another asset to his manly appearance. And was it the lighting or were his eyes nearly black? In a deep, mysterious way?

Not only that, but he was quite tall, which gave her a sense of relief as Catherine was often used to being the same height, or nearly so, as the men around her. Even as she had danced earlier in the evening, she felt like quite the mountain.

At her silence, the man glanced over at her once more, raising his right eyebrow in curiosity, as if to urge her into conversation. But Catherine was utterly caught by the fact that she knew she ought not to be alone with a man like this.

Particularly not one so attractive and foreign to her.

“Oh, yes, of course. Vultures,” she laughed nervously, referring to his earlier comment.

A long pause passed, making her comment seem quite ridiculous, and she was entirely embarrassed that she had chosen to refer back to that rather than move the conversation forward.

 The best thing for her would be to go back inside and return to the dance. And yet, she could not bring herself to do that.

After all, there was something about this man’s presence that both made her nervous and intrigued. And wasn’t that exactly the sort of adventure she might have wished for?

Chapter 4

Benjamin eyed the young woman, unable to stop himself. She was stunningly beautiful, with large, curious eyes that glinted against the light.

But he knew the hall was filled with beautiful women that night. He had very little care for that. After all, what did it matter if a woman was beautiful? That meant nothing at all to him. Surely, what mattered was what she held in her brain.

Intellect was what intrigued him. This shy, quiet young woman had shown nothing of that, thus far. So, he maintained his gaze away from her, continuing to dread entry into the main hall.

But the young woman, nervous though she seemed, did not leave. It intrigued him that she would not remove herself. He simply wished that she would either speak or go.

The evening was such a bore, and he had no desire to go inside, so Benjamin decided there was only one option for him.

He could make sport of this young woman. He could tease her and watch as her vacancy showed. After all, if she was a young woman at the ball that evening, surely she must have been there for no other reason than to secure a match and make her family proud.

“Tell me, what is it about balconies that you prefer to people?” he asked, simply.

“I beg your pardon?” she replied, evidently uncertain.

“Well, something must have brought you out here and away from them. Do tell me, what has you so frightened of being indoors?” he continued.

“What makes you believe I am frightened?” she retorted.

“You are the daughter of a nobleman,” he quipped. “Is it not the duty of all noblemen’s daughters to be shy and frightened, waiting for their rescuer?”

He waited at this, wondering how long it would take her to look at him with fluttered lashes and confess that she longed for a prince to sweep her away. One of her parents’ choosing, of course, because she was a good girl.

“The only thing young women need rescuing from is a society that tells her vultures belong in a dance hall and how it is shameful to depart on one’s own,” she replied, giving him a cocked eyebrow and a tilt of her head.

 Benjamin was surprised by this response. He had not expected her to have any sort of mind of her own. After all, young women were trained well to avoid such a thing.

“And what makes it shameful?” he asked, curious to see what other thoughts dwelt within her mind.

“A vulture may pick its prey at any time, but only so long as he has the approval of a young woman’s parents. It is their deepest fear that if she should depart, she may come upon a swan instead,” she answered him.

Again, he was taken aback. This was a young woman who truly did not wish to be picked apart by society and was willing to share that openly with him, despite the fact that such a thing was frowned upon.

“You do give your opinion quite soundly,” he remarked.

Benjamin could not help but wonder more about what this young woman was like. She had already surprised him, and he noticed she was growing more comfortable than she had been moments before when he first spoke with her.

“If I’m to be told what to say and do, how to dress and present myself, then I must conclude that my opinion is the only thing I have that is my very own. All else belongs to the rest of London,” she confessed.

“All of London? Is there anyone in particular?” he asked.

The young woman looked at him, and he allowed himself to hold her gaze, turning just enough that she could speak directly to him.

“Does not every English girl belong to her parents? And are they not willing and able to exchange her for any goods they see fit?” she challenged him.

Of course. Her parents were the sort who sought money and power. No wonder they brought her here. Perhaps they had even seen him standing out here and sent her. Maybe this was all a ruse to get his attention.

But he couldn’t be sure. He wondered if she was like them and wanted to find out as quickly as possible. He would have to continue in this dialogue until she gave him some sort of answer regarding her own character rather than simply that of her parents.

“And do you not desire to have those things? What young woman could be blamed? The safety and security to be found in a title and wealth are certainly a temptation to any man or woman,” he remarked casually.

“You, sir, have the luxury of saying that. You are a man. But I have been arranged for a courtship at the behest of my mother and father. Without my consent or desire. Wealth and power mean nothing to me when I am stuck being committed to some old duke,” she said bitterly.

“Some old duke?” he asked, curious. A thought began to form in the back of his mind, and Benjamin wondered if she was, indeed, one of the young ladies whose parents had tried to arrange a courtship with him.

“Yes. A man no one has seen for years. Who knows what he might be like. There is no telling, and no one will give me any hint about him other than the terrible rumors I hear,” she sighed.

Indeed, he realized. This must be the young woman Faversham was trying to tell him about before the dance. Either she truly had no idea who he was, or her parents had instructed her to play the fool, and she had gone overboard.

He was not offended by her remarks, but he could not help being amused by them. It was a good opportunity for him to learn more about what was said about him and how she felt. If indeed, they were truly her feelings and not those she was instructed to have by her mother and father.

“Oh dear. That sounds perfectly terrible. An old man?” he began.

“Yes. Something like fifteen years my senior. And a murderer…” she added quietly at the end.

For a moment, Benjamin’s heart broke. The fact that this was one of the only things she believed about him was agony. But he wanted to know more, and he wanted her to realize how foolish all of this was.

It bothered him that he wished for her to think better of him, but perhaps if he could make her the fool for believing such lies, he might find some sort of satisfaction.

“A murderer? What sort? How could he be a murderer and get away with it?” he asked.

“Well, the rumors are unclear. They say he gets away with it because of his wealth and status, but I have heard a great deal of other things as well. All manner of terrifying things,” she said, showing genuine fear.

“Such as?” he asked.

“Why, just this night, I have heard he made a pact with a demon to become a beast in the night. He howls and calls for the ghost of his betrothed, and he leaves death in his wake everywhere he goes,” she told him, trying not to gasp at the words.

“A demon? Leaving death in his wake? He sounds utterly dreadful!” Benjamin exclaimed, dramatically.

“He truly does. I cannot believe my parents wish for me to marry such a man. If even a fraction of the rumors regarding him are true, I shall be dead before the wedding even occurs,” she said.

He ignored the stabbing pain that she believed this about him, but he was not quite finished with making sport of her.

“And then what do you suppose would happen? I mean, if you are killed so terribly soon, if such a thing should happen to you. What would become of you? What happens to his victims?” he asked her.

“Goodness knows! If he calls to them in the night as I’ve heard, howling like a beast, then perhaps he shall keep my soul locked away with all the rest. Oh, it sounds ridiculous, but it is what they all say about him. He is a great beast,” she told him breathlessly.

Benjamin tried not to laugh, but a small chuckle escaped his lips. He closed his mouth tightly and glanced at her properly.

When their eyes met, he noticed the corners of her mouth lilting upwards until she, too, began to laugh.

“Oh, forgive me, such ridiculous gossip that is. As much as I enjoy reading such things, it does make for poor party conversation,” she giggled.

“Does that mean some of your fears are relieved?” he asked, still laughing in reply.

“I have a great deal of fears that have nothing to do with these rumors, but I must confess it does ease a bit of my worry. Thank you for that. I appreciate you helping me to realize how ridiculous and foolish this is,” she told him.

“It is no trouble at all. I am glad you are feeling more at peace about the matter. Although I sense that it will be quite some time before you fully change your mind regarding this match,” he said.

“Yes, it shall. I cannot imagine it will be easy being married off even to a man who is not some wretched beast. I know nothing of him. I do not know if he is kind or generous or anything at all,” she said.

“Are those the things you seek in a marriage?” he inquired.

“Of course. Those and many others,” she replied.

“Tell me then, what are the others? You claim it is not simply wealth and status that you desire, so what is your idea of what marriage ought to be?” he asked.

The young woman sighed dreamily.

“Certainly kindness. And, rare though it is, I seek a husband whom I can love, and whom loves me in return. Not in the fleeting sort of way. Not in the way so many young women seek. But a true, committed love. The sort that lasts through challenges and differing opinions and even the changes of time over one’s appearance,” she told him.

“You have thought about this a great deal,” he noted.

“Well, it is difficult not to think about. As a young woman, I have been trained my whole life to consider what shall be expected of me as a wife. Is it wrong that I allow myself to dream of what I might expect in a husband?” she asked.

“Certainly not wrong, just unusual,” he answered.

“I do not wish for a husband who is simply going to pamper me and bow to my every whim. I wish for one whom I can respect because of the character I see in him rather than a title he holds,” she continued.

“That is a rather different view than what I have heard young women seek,” he confessed to her.

“Perhaps that is because young women are trained not to hope for such a dream. We are raised to seek only fortune and title. So the vast majority of young women train themselves to wish for that because it is believed to be the best the world has to offer us,” she said.

“You truly believe so?” he asked, ever more taken aback by her honesty and opinions regarding these things.

“Of course. I would be a fool to believe that such a match could ever take place. And it is painful having dreamt of something different and knowing I shall never have it.

“Sometimes I wish I could be content with the same things other young women want. I wish I could be content to search for a husband who has wealth and title rather than hoping for love and respect within my marriage one day,” she said.

“You surprise me,” he admitted to her.

“How so?” she asked him, looking at the side of his face that was still visible.

“I have never met a young woman who has thought further on these matters,” he told her.

“Perhaps she was not foolish enough to tell you that she felt such,” the young woman retorted. “Society demands otherwise from us.”

Although it was barely visible, he noted a small shudder in her frame.

“Are you cold?” he asked her.

She looked at him, caught off guard by that simple question.

“Perhaps a little,” she confessed.

Benjamin considered his options. There were a few things he wondered about her still. He could remain outside with her, trying to learn more, or he could ask her to dance.

In reality, she seemed very different from how he might have considered her just a few moments before. She was wise and mature, unlike any other young woman that he knew.

And yet it was clear that her parents— Abingdon, was it? —were only seeking after his wealth and title. Surely she could not have come by her own thoughts so easily. She must not be so different from them as she seemed.

This was all, certainly, a game of theirs. It was likely something they had come up with to engage his interests and create a bond or connection between the two. But he still wished to learn more about her, and this would give him the perfect opportunity.

If they went inside and danced together, he could quickly learn who she really was and how she truly thought about matters.

The apple could not have fallen so far from the tree. Her parents must have trained her very well in preparation for this meeting.

“Would you like to go inside for a dance?” he asked her openly and in a friendly manner.

Benjamin held out his hand to her, allowing her to reply as she wished.

The young woman, whose name he could not quite recall at that moment, looked at him hesitantly.

But after only a moment, she opened her lips to reply.

“Yes, thank you,” she said. Then her soft, elegant hand slipped into his.

A Countess in her Own Right – Preview

Chapter 1

The flames enveloped everything. Mary could hear the screams of her mother and father as the fire spread.

She rushed around the top floor of the house, searching in vain for a way to slow the fire or, perhaps, to escape the house and get her family to safety.

She looked around wildly, catching a glimpse of the grounds surrounding the Earl of Linden’s home through an open window.

The flames had swallowed it, too, and was quickly making rubbish of her father’s land in mere moments. Panic seized Mary, and she raced to the stairs.

Before she could begin her descent, a large, flaming beam fell from the burning roof and crashed in front of her, blocking her access to the lower floor of the house.

She shrieked and ran back the way she came, desperate to find some way to save her family.

It was at that moment that she realized the sounds of the screams had ceased.

She prayed for her family’s safe rescue from the burning wreckage, but in her heart, she knew it was too late.

Just then, more of the roof threatened to cave on the very spot where she stood. She retraced her steps and moved towards her room, hoping the flames had not yet made refuge impossible.

The fire had just begun to climb along her bedroom walls, but there was a clear path to her window.

If she were to survive the fire, she must hope that the trellis outside her window remained intact enough so that she could descend to the ground below.

Coughing, she moved quickly to the open window. With dismay, she saw that the trellis was, indeed, demolished, and would be of no use to her.

She made her next decision in mere seconds. With a quick, silent prayer and a deep, smoke-filled breath, she leaped out the window.

Her limbs flailed as she rushed toward the ground. Upon impact, a searing pain shot through her left leg. Mary screamed…

…and bolted upright in her bed, her scream dying on her lips.

She gasped, trying to regain her bearings and steady her racing heartbeat.

It took her a moment to reconcile that she was, indeed, safe in her bedroom, and not still racing against the tragic fire that claimed the lives of her parents and brother one year prior.

A twinge of pain lingered in her left leg, and she rubbed it absently, cursing the horrible nightmares that still frequented her sleep.

She felt she should be far past continuing to relive the horror in her dreams. Wasn’t it enough that she missed her family dearly, without the endless reminder of what happened to them?

Shaking off the remnants of the dream, she swung her feet over the edge of the bed. Part of her wanted desperately to remain in her bed and rest. Despite having a full night’s sleep, the nightmare had robbed her mind and body of much-needed energy.

However, she knew that she had many responsibilities to which she must attend. As much as she wished, she knew doing such a thing would be entirely inappropriate.

Mary gingerly placed her feet on the cool, wooden floor, and the pain in her leg flared. Just then, her lady’s maid threw the bedroom door open, eyes wide.

“Are you alright, milady?” she asked.

“Oh, Susan, thank goodness. Yes, I am fine. Please, do come in,” Mary said, still trembling.

The maid stepped in quietly, closing the door behind her.

“Another dream.” Susan’s words were more of a statement than a question.

“A rather horrific one,” Mary admitted.

Susan crossed the room to the porcelain bowl filled with water sitting beside Mary’s vanity table. Satisfied that the water was clean, she plucked a clean cloth from her apron pocket and dipped it into the bowl.

She walked over to Mary and sat beside her on the bed, dabbing her face with the damp material.

“You look a terrible fright, milady,” she said. “Are you sure you are alright?”

“Yes, yes, please don’t fuss so,” Mary said, more harshly than she intended. She softened her tone. “Thank you for asking.”

Susan smiled, and Mary was relieved that her maid had not taken her abrasive words to heart.

“I could have your breakfast brought up to you if you wish,” Susan said, tucking the cloth away in her other apron pocket.

“That is very kind of you,” Mary said, “but the day waits for no one.” Not even terrified, brand new countesses with wild nightmares, she added silently.

Mary could feel Susan’s sympathetic gaze. This made her aware of the tears that had materialized.

She dabbed at her eyes and drew a shaky breath.

“No, the only thing that can be done is for me to go on as normal and handle the necessary business of the day.”

Susan nodded, still scrutinizing Mary’s features. At last, she crossed the room to Mary’s large wardrobe.

She withdrew Mary’s cane and selected a dark lavender mourning dress. She laid the items carefully on the end of Mary’s bed. Then, she began helping Mary out of her night garments.

When Susan finished, Mary regarded herself in the mirror. She didn’t hate purple hues, but she’d always preferred deep reds and golds.

But that was before tragedy gave her ample reason to mourn for, she felt, the rest of her life.

She frowned at the sight of the cane in her hand, and wished, not for the first time, that her broken leg had healed properly after her escape from her family’s burning home.

It was burdensome enough that the leg still often ached, but the limp with which she now lived was, in her eyes, very unladylike and unsightly.

Moreover, it attracted the wrong kind of attention – the kind that added to the cynics that doubted her ability to be a reliable, trustworthy heir to her father’s title and estate.

She often wondered if a miracle existed that would allow her to resolve the problematical limb. However, she also knew how foolish it was to hold such a wild hope.

Susan smiled kindly at Mary. “Are you ready to go downstairs, milady?” she asked.

“Yes, I suppose I am,” Mary said. She leaned on her cane and walked with her lady’s maid toward the stairs. Her leg ached but she masked her pain as best she could.

Weakness was something she couldn’t afford to show anymore, not even in front of Susan.

***

After escorting Mary to her seat, Susan retreated to the back of the room, should her mistress need her. A footman served Mary breakfast.

Her leg still throbbed, and she winced. It didn’t escape Susan’s keen eyes.

“Should I send for the doctor?” she asked. Mary shook her head firmly.

“No, that is alright,” she said. “I believe I still have some of the medicine prescribed by the doctor who examined me right after the fire.”

“Would you like me to fetch it for you?” Susan pressed. Mary thought for a moment, then shook her head again.

“As I recall, it makes me quite sleepy,” she said, a little wistful. “I might ask for some tonight before bed, though.”

This answer seemed to satisfy Susan. Mary sighed, again doubting her ability to function as a proper countess.

“Could I have a moment of privacy, please?” she asked, and everyone in the room nodded and obeyed.

Left alone with her thoughts, Mary was finally able to let out a deep breath and allow her shoulders to droop.

It was her brother who had been raised and groomed for the position of the Earl of Linden, not her. Although her great-grandfather had ensured that either a male or a female could inherit the title – for fear of having no sons of his own – her brother had been the elder sibling.

With his death, she was made the heiress, and a countess in her own right.

Her father’s role was a rather large one to fill, even for the most prepared gentleman. And her brother had most certainly been that, and more. She could not begin to guess how she could ever hope to properly fill the position.

The tears returned as she thought of her brother. Apart from being the most suitable for the title, he had also been a wonderful brother. He had been very protective of her, and she had loved him fiercely.

Her parents had been very kind and loving, too. For the first few weeks after the fire, she felt at a loss, unable to continue even breathing without them.

Had it not been for her uncle’s unconditional love and support for her during that time, she was certain she would not have survived. Without Uncle Kent, she would have failed in everything, time and time again.

While the emptiness her family’s demise had left in her heart was no secret, she did her best to not say so aloud too often.

She feared persecution by those who questioned her abilities as the countess. She knew her place, and public grieving was improper for a lady, especially one in her position.

It would also serve as fuel for the nay-sayers to perpetuate rumors that her sentiment was only because she was ill-prepared to maintain her title.

Yet now that she was alone, she could not stop the tears welling up in her eyes from falling. And, relishing the opportunity to express her sadness, if only for a brief moment, she allowed herself to weep.

At last, she dried her tears and frowned at her cooling breakfast. While the food was delicious, her emotion had quelled her appetite.

But she knew that fainting halfway through the day from hunger would do little to detract attention from herself. So, she forced herself to eat a little something, albeit without enthusiasm.

As she nibbled at her food, she allowed her mind to wander. For a few moments, she let herself imagine that she was just another normal woman of four and twenty years.

In her fantasy, she was enjoying the life of courting and marrying a handsome young man. She’d always hoped to find the love of her life and live in bliss as a doting wife and mother.

This had been the plan for her life, until she became the sole surviving heir of her father.

Now, the land was all but useless. The fire had destroyed a great portion of it, and the rest was an incredible strain to salvage. Without her family’s guidance, she hardly saw how she could manage to become a proper countess.

She thought again of her uncle, and how grateful she was to him for all the guidance and comfort he gave her.

Her faith in her abilities to successfully grow into her role was little, but her uncle believed in her wholeheartedly. And she believed in him as well. She allowed this idea to give her a measure of comfort.

At last, she pulled herself from her thoughts, pushing her plate aside. Wallowing in her misery solved nothing. There was work to be done.

She called once again for Susan. She entered the room with two housemaids who murmured greetings and cleared away her breakfast dishes.

“Could you ask Johnson to bring the mail to the study presently?” Mary asked.

Susan agreed. “Would you like me to walk with you, milady?” she offered.

“No, thank you, Susan,” Mary said smiling. Susan nodded and left to find the butler. Mary rose slowly from the table and made her way to the study.

She had to suppress a groan with each step, and again she silently cursed her malady.

By the time she reached the room, the butler was waiting for her. He held the stack of mail in his hand, which he pressed against his abdomen as he bowed to her.

“Good morning, milady,” he said.

Mary smiled, taking the letters from the butler’s hand when he rose. “Good morning, Johnson.”

“Do you require anything else just now, my lady?” he asked.

“No, thank you. That will be all for now.”

“I shall be tending to duties nearby, should you need me again,” he said. He bowed again and left the room.

After the butler exited, Mary surveyed the letters. The first, she saw, was from her dearest friend, Beatrice Beaumont.

Smiling, she opened the letter. Beatrice, too, had lost her father, though in the completely different circumstance of a mugging that went wrong while he was abroad on business.

Their shared pain and struggles served to strengthen their friendship and bring them closer together.

Her smile faded, however, as she read her friend’s letter. Beatrice seemed convinced that her father’s death was more than a terrible accident.

She believed that her father had been targeted, with the intent being murder, not robbery. She felt sure that there was some ulterior motive for the crime and had employed investigators to seek evidence of this theory.

Mary could not fathom something so sinister, and she frowned, wondering at the inspiration for such a notion.

Unsure whether she could agree with Beatrice, Mary put aside her letter for the time being. She was not even certain she could say something comforting to her friend’s distressed words.

She decided that she would make a trip to visit her friend and discuss it with her. Perhaps she could help Beatrice see reason and bring her some comfort.

Sighing, she moved to the next letter. It was, she observed, from one of her father’s old business partners in London.

With a deep breath, she opened and read the letter. The very last thing she wanted to do was face her father’s partners just then. There was still so much about his business and affairs that she did not understand. Not to mention all the paperwork in which she constantly felt she was drowning.

Nevertheless, the letter requested her prompt attention to the matter, and she felt it best that she handled it in person.

She rose, tossing the letter onto the desk and stepping out of the study, dejected by her fate. If this was how her life was going to be from now on, then she had better get used to it, fast.

She asked for her carriage to be prepared and, soon after, she was departing for the city of London.

Chapter 2

A loud, aggressive thudding roused Duncan Winstanley, the Viscount of Tornight, from his sleep.

He sat up slowly, peeling a page from a book off his cheek. Disoriented, he glanced around, trying to understand what was happening.

After a brief moment, he realized that he was still in his office. He must have fallen asleep at his desk while studying some of his medical books the previous night.

The banging came again. Duncan recognized that the sound was coming from the door of his office. He staggered around his desk to answer it.

After a clumsy moment, he managed to turn the knob and pull open the door. His father stood poised to knock again, giving Duncan another start.

The Earl of Bellston appraised his son with a critical eye. Duncan glanced down and noticed that he looked a disheveled mess.

He tried in vain to smooth out his wrinkled clothing and smooth back his unruly hair. The older man grunted.

“Well?” he said, glaring at Duncan.

Duncan shook his head. He plastered a forced smile on his face, suppressing a groan.

“Hello, Father. Please, won’t you come in?”

The older gentleman grunted again as he pushed past his son. Without waiting for an invitation, he took a chair on the visitor’s side of the office’s desk.

“What brings you here so early, Father?” Duncan asked, reclaiming his seat.

“Hmph. Early!” his father grumbled, holding up his pocket watch.

Duncan saw that it was a quarter until 9 o’clock in the morning. Wincing, Duncan sat back in his chair, trying to keep his air light, despite his father’s simmering anger.

“Is something the matter?” Duncan asked, taking a different approach to learning why his father stopped by.

The older man looked around the office, a look of mild disgust forming on his face.

Duncan knew that his father detested the fact that his son had devoted so much of his life studying medicine and had chosen a career as a doctor.

However, he believed that the most uncomfortable part of his father’s disappointment lay in the past.

He felt his stomach knot as he waited for the older man to answer his question.

“Duncan,” he began. “Son. I’ve been rather lenient, I think, about this whole…” He raised his hand, gesturing with disapproval round his son’s office. “This doctor business. However…” he trailed off, giving way to a fit of harsh coughing.

Alarmed, Duncan rose from his seat, reaching for his father. The older man waved his son’s hand away. When the fit passed, he continued.

“However, now I fear I must refuse to continue to support your decisions. More specifically, your decision to avoid marriage for pursuing all this.”

Duncan heaved a sigh. He had heard his father’s strong opinions about marriage before, and the last thing for which he was prepared was another lecture on the subject.

He tensed his jaw but remained silent. He lowered himself back down into his chair.

“Support that decision? If your harshness has been you supporting it, I shudder to think of what would happen if you rejected it.”

The Earl stared at his son again. Duncan was surprised to see that his face had softened. He looked almost forlorn.

“Forgive me, Father,” he said. “I am still out of sorts this morning. Please, do continue.”

The Earl regarded his son for a moment, then proceeded.

“My boy, I am ill, and I fear I do not have much time left,” he said in a quiet tone.

Duncan’s eyes widened. He stared at his father for a long moment, trying to understand what his father was saying. Before he could find his voice, his father spoke again.

“Despite our… differences, you are my son. Nothing would put my soul at rest more than knowing that my title and estate were passed down to you, its rightful heir.

”However, until you are married, I cannot be assured that you will produce your own heir to continue our family’s legacy.”

The Earl stopped, another fit taking hold on him.

Duncan exhaled sharply. Despite the gravity of his father’s words, he was furious that the conversation had turned, as always, to the subject of Duncan’s marriage.

“But, Father,” he protested, struggling to keep his voice low and unoffending, “surely you know that many an earl has lived a prosperous, dignified life, without having ever married. It is not as if having a wife is a prerequisite for being an earl.”

The Earl’s face was red, although Duncan could not tell if it was from anger or his coughing spells.

“And surely you know that the legacies of those earls pass off to god-knows-what kind of ruffian once the last rightful heir dies off. And what of the rest of their families, when they lose those legacies?”

“If an earl does not marry, what family is there to consider?” Duncan pressed, determined to stand his ground.

His father did not know that he had his own, private reasons for not wishing to marry, and now was certainly not the time to mention his secret concerns.

The Earl grunted, shaking his head.

“Your mother is lucky to not be here to see your stubbornness,” he said. “She wanted nothing more for you than to live happily with a family of your own.”

Duncan froze at the mention of his mother. Since her untimely death, much of the family maintained a cool distance from him. They made it clear they wanted little to do with Duncan.

Everyone, that is, except for his cousin Theodore – a cousin from his father’s side of the family.

Theodore had been more like a brother to him all his life, and he loved him as well as he would a true brother. However, as Theodore grew into adulthood, he also grew into an affection for gambling.

As much as Theodore enjoyed gambling though, he was not good at it, and had quickly squandered away much of his money.

This, of course, was a secret that Duncan kept strictly between himself and Theodore. Well, and those to whom Theodore lost his gambling bets.

Not only did he love Theodore, but he also knew the shame that this indiscretion would bring to the rest of his family.

Not only that, but Theodore did have a wife to consider, although one would never know it with the way he continued to dig himself into deeper pits with his habits every day.

Duncan himself had even helped Theodore out of a scrape or two, but he was growing weary of doing so.

The Earl took advantage of his son’s silence.

“I was devastated to learn that you wished to learn… medicine…” the Earl said, spitting as if the word was poison, “rather than continue your grooming to inherit my title and estate.”

Duncan knew well how disappointed his father was in him, not just for his chosen vocation, but also for not being more like his best friend, Julius. Julius was an avid hunter, played sports all through school, and had quite the reputation for wooing women.

“Yes, I know,” Duncan sighed, “so you’ve told me. And everyone in the family who would listen.”

“Had you not kept it from me that you were already apprenticing under another physician like it were some shameful sin, perhaps I would not have been so hard on you.”

“We both know that is an egregious lie, Father,” Duncan said. “I hid my apprenticeship from you because you had already made your feelings about me practicing medicine quite clear.

“I hid it because, to you, it was a shameful sin. In fact, the only reason you didn’t cause a bigger scene when you discovered it, is because it would have brought shame upon the whole family in the public eye.”

“I only wanted, as I always have, the very best for you. Contrary to what you may think, I do love you, and I needed to ensure your legacy when I finally do leave this world,” the Earl said, surprisingly calm.

Duncan looked at his father, aghast.

“Yes, Father, you loved me so much that you made a spectacle of your disappointment in my chosen career path in front of the family.”

“The life of a physician is no life for a future earl. Can’t you see that? What would people think? Lord Doctor Bellston, can you imagine it? Or, would it be Doctor Lord?” He scoffed, causing another fit of coughing.

Duncan, furious, ignored the spell.

“I am a joke to you, then, isn’t that right, Father? Well, I think that the real reason you did not wish for me to pursue a career in medicine is because you hate physicians. You feel yourself above them because, in your eyes, any doctor worth his weight in salt could have saved Mother.”

This, the Earl did not find so amusing.

“Hold your tongue, Duncan, before it lashes much more than for what you are prepared,” he said, his voice thick with warning.

Duncan did not heed him.

“I loved Mother dearly, you know that. And I…” Duncan trailed off, barely cutting himself off before he spoke his entire mind.

He wished more than ever to keep his secret fears and concerns from his father. He took a long, deep breath to recollect his thoughts.

“And,” he continued at last, “had you listened to me at all, you would know that the reason I chose to practice medicine was to find a way to prevent many other people from befalling the same fate.”

Duncan’s eyes stung with tears, but he choked them back. For a man to cry, especially in front of his own father, would have been abominable.

“Besides,” he added, “I would have gone completely mad if I had been forced to endure another moment of your ‘grooming’.”

“I did not realize that being my son was such a burden,” the Earl said, true pain in his eyes.

Duncan sighed.

“That is not what I meant. I love you just as I loved Mother, and I am proud to be your son. But, why must being proud mean that I also must not have a dream different from yours? Why can I not build a career apart from the family business?”

His father drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

“I did not come here to argue with you about your career choice again, believe it or not. However, I now fear that the rest of the conversation will be just as perilous. But there is no sense in postponing the inevitable.”

The Earl shifted in his seat and plunged ahead.

“I came to tell you that, with my health in such a decline, I must ensure that all my affairs are in order before I pass on. Those affairs include, of course, securing an heir and making all arrangements official. I intend to do these things as quickly as possible, no matter who I name as heir.”

Duncan furrowed his brow, confused. Who else was there to name as heir?

“I never wanted to resort to threats or the like,” the Earl continued. “Nonetheless, I come to you today with this message.

“If you do not find a wife within six months’ time, I shall strike your name from my will and leave my estate, the family fortune, everything, to your cousin, Theodore.”

Duncan’s face contorted from concern to horror.

“Father, you cannot! Theodore is not…” he stopped himself, perilously close to betraying his cousin’s secret.

“That is… Well, surely you do not think even a viscount capable of stepping outside his door and securing a wife the moment he snaps his fingers?” he tried to speak in jest, but in his flustered state, it sounded weak.

His father did laugh.

“Of course not. However, I do believe that you underestimate the demand for a titled man. Why, do you know how many women live for London Season for no purpose other than snagging themselves a wealthy, titled man?”

“I do. And I also know that those women are shallow, dull, and interested in nothing but the wealth and title of a man.”

“Is there anything else that should be of interest?” the Earl asked, looking genuinely perplexed.

Duncan looked at his father, bewildered.

“Certainly, there is. Love, for one thing.” He rose from his seat and began to pace behind his desk.

“Love! What has love to do with anything?” his father asked, looking more puzzled by the moment.

Duncan sighed.

“You mean to tell me that you did not, in fact, love Mother?”

“Of course, I did. But that love developed after we married, and you came along,” the Earl said sternly, but his gaze dropped from his son’s.

“So, you did not know you loved Mother when you married her?”

“That is far from the point at hand,” his father said, still avoiding his eyes. “We are talking about you, and what you must do to remain my heir.”

“So, you wish me to marry a woman I do not know, let alone love, and then what? What if it turns out that she is barren? Then, all attempts to produce an heir would be for naught, and I would be stuck in an insufferable marriage. Is that about the extent of it, Father?” Duncan asked.

He knew his incredulity was etched on his face, but the conversation had exhausted him too much to mask it.

To his relief, his father did not continue to press the point. Instead, he rose and moved slowly toward the door. Duncan walked with his father to see him out, neither of them speaking until they reached the office door.

The Earl turned to face Duncan once more and put his hand on his son’s shoulder.

“I don’t expect your answer today,” he said. “That would be barbaric of me.”

Duncan exhaled a breath he had not realized was trapped in his lungs. Relieved, he nodded to his father.

“Just remember what I have said, son,” the Earl said, his hand on the door to open it.

Duncan sighed again. He was more fearful than ever of the prospect of marriage and having children, but he could not speak a word of his concerns to anyone.

Even if he did, he would likely become a laughing stock. For the time being, however, the potential ruin of the family fortune and the earl’s title was more important than his fear.

Theodore could not be allowed to inherit everything, and Duncan knew of only one way to ensure that did not happen.

He heard himself speak as though he were a spectator outside himself. He paled as the words passed his lips, but they were out before he regained his body.

“Alright, Father. I… I will begin my search for a wife.”

Chapter 3

Although they traveled towards London mostly in silence, Mary was grateful for Susan’s company.

While she typically did not mind an opportunity to sort through her thoughts, without others telling her what those thoughts should be, she also typically had control over where her thoughts wandered.

Today, however, each thought seemed to have a mind of its own, and each one with more malicious intentions than the last.

What if her leg gave out, causing her to fall face-first in front of these prestigious business men? Should she have sent Uncle in her place?

Mary pressed her hand to her forehead, gently rubbing to try to cease the terrifying mind race. Her cool fingers felt good on her hot, throbbing head, and she closed her eyes.

“Are you alright, milady?” Susan asked.

Mary nodded. “Yes. Just a bit nervous, is all.”

The difficult night’s sleep began to take its toll, and Mary was soon in a doze, despite the jolting from the rough ride. She slept for a brief time, and even her unconscious mind enjoyed the reprieve from her troubles and menacing thoughts.

Then, all at once, she had the sensation of falling.

She looked around her and saw nothing of discernable recognition. She seemed to be falling from a strange hole in the sky and falling toward some unseen location.

She flailed her arms desperately, hoping to grab onto something from which to cling to life, although she could see nothing that would offer her aid.

Suddenly, she caught glimpses of people she knew. Friends, relatives, servants.

At first, she thought them to be falling, too. Then, she saw herself flying past them, ever downward, and noticed that they all seemed to be leaning out of windows. Yet, she could not see any buildings.

She gradually realized that the windows were just that, and they were suspended in the sky among the clouds, not attached to any bricks or stone.

Frantic, she began to reach out and call to them, hoping someone was close enough to rescue her.

None made a move to save her, though. In fact, they all simply stared at her, with blank expressions on their faces. Even her friend Beatrice merely looked down her nose as Mary plummeted.

The clouds parted, and Mary could see a group of people standing around a black drape. No, not a black drape. Part of her father’s scorched land. And not a group of people, but all men.

Men dressed in business attire, all with angry, disapproving scowls. She understood at once that they were not there to save her. In fact, they all seemed anxious to witness her calamity.

She opened her mouth to scream, but a dramatic jolt silenced her…

Her eyes flew open, and she found herself back in her carriage, which was slowing its pace.

She blinked, trying to get a look at her surroundings. She must have slept longer than she realized, because she had already arrived downtown.

“Milady?” Susan asked, her brow creasing in concern.

“The carriage slowing just gave me a start,” Mary said, giving Susan what she hoped was a confident smile.

With a huff to shake off yet another horrific dream, she pushed a few rogue strands of her light-brown hair back behind her ears.

She took a few breaths to calm herself and appear composed when the carriage rolled to a stop, which it did moments later. Forcing a smile, she took the hand of the coachman as he opened the door and held it out for her to take as she descended the coach’s steps.

She gingerly eased her lame leg to the ground, using the coachman’s arm and her cane for support. She silently hoped that she looked far more graceful than she felt while doing so. Susan exited the carriage directly behind her.

Mary glanced around at the doors she could see from where she was standing. She spotted her father’s old office building just ahead on her left.

Determined to not appear as nonplussed as she felt, she moved slowly down the sidewalk and surveyed the other businesses nearby, trying not to let on how badly her leg ached or how dependent she was on her cane.

Susan matched her stride, not touching Mary, but close enough to reach for her should she start to tumble.

The meeting went smoothly enough. A few brief, polite pleasantries, a few documents to sign, and she was on her way. She breathed a sigh of relief as she and Susan exited the building.

Pleased that the meeting had been much shorter than she had expected, Mary decided to pay Beatrice a visit.

After her friend’s letter, she was quite worried and wished to speak to her in person. She had already sent her a missive informing her of her intention when she had realized that the meeting wouldn’t last very long.

When they arrived, Beatrice rushed out of her house and threw her arms around her friend. “Oh, Mary, what a wonderful surprise!”

Mary returned her friend’s embrace. “I am sorry I was unable to inform you earlier of this visit. I do hope that is alright,” she said.

“More than alright, darling,” Beatrice said. “How about we go outside for tea? I know a wonderful little parlor.”

“That sounds lovely,” Mary agreed.

***

Arriving at the tea parlor, with Susan following behind them silently, Mary tried to take no notice of all the people who ceased their conversations and were now staring at her. A year of acting as Countess of Linden had not made her any more comfortable with the attention she attracted in public.

Once the women were seated, Beatrice began talking excitedly, her gray eyes sparkling.

“I cannot tell you how happy I am to see you. What brought you to town today?”

“A loathsome meeting with my father’s old business partners,” Mary said.

“Nothing too serious, I hope.”

“No. Just a delay in the process and some documents to sign.” Mary sighed. “I only wish they could have sent the documents by mail, instead of me having to make the trip here.”

“Oh, but then we would not be having tea right now,” Beatrice said, laughing.

“How is everything going with your affairs?” Mary asked.

Beatrice waved her fan, frustrated. “Oh, lovely. I have received more marriage proposals in the last week than most women ever receive in their lifetime, each one from a man more foreboding and cynical than the last.”

Mary nodded, thinking of all the men who perpetually tried to capture her attention for her title.

She sighed. “And to think, we once dreamed of marrying for love,” she mused wistfully.

“I am afraid that men will never be able to love that which they fear,” Beatrice agreed and then her demeanor changed to nervous as she shifted the subject elsewhere. “So, did you read my letter?”

Mary struggled to suppress a grimace.

“Do you really believe that something like this happened?” she asked.

Beatrice nodded firmly. “Yes, I do. With my whole heart.”

“But who would wish to harm your father? Did he have any enemies?”

“Oh, goodness no. He was very kind and gentle, and everyone he knew liked him.” Beatrice sighed. “In truth, I cannot think of anyone who could possibly have done this.”

“If he had no enemies or adversaries, then why would anyone intentionally do such a thing?”

Beatrice sighed again. Mary thought she looked like she herself was beginning to have doubts.

“I do not know. But there is this man who was referred to me. He is a private investigator, and he discussed a plan with me to search for evidence and information related to my father’s death.”

Mary bit her lip, trying to hide an expression of doubt and alarm. What was Beatrice thinking? And why was she so sure that she was right, when she herself had admitted that her father had no enemies?

Mary saw Beatrice watching her expectantly, tears beginning to fill her eyes. “Please, Mary. Tell me that I have your trust in this. Tell me that you believe me,” Beatrice pleaded.

Mary touched her arm. While she did not completely believe Beatrice’s ideas, she did love her friend, and she hated to see her so distraught. “Of course, you always have my trust.”

Beatrice regarded her for a moment, then smiled weakly.

“Thank you, dear,” she said, sounding genuinely grateful. Having found the comfort she sought, Beatrice straightened her posture and gave Mary a radiant smile.

The rest of their conversation remained of a more pleasant nature, and Mary was relieved.

She could not bear the thought of leaving Beatrice in her previous tumultuous state or feeling like her closest friend did not support her.

She would just have to prepare herself to comfort Beatrice whenever she realized that her father’s death was just as Mary had said: a tragic accident.

At last, the women said their goodbyes and parted ways. Mary hugged her friend again, promising to make arrangements for the two of them to get together again very soon. Then, she and Susan set off to board their carriage.

As they walked, Mary thought back to a conversation she had had with her uncle a few months back.

He had suggested that she marry one of her cousins. His reasoning was that her cousin could take over the family business, leaving Mary free from worries after that.

Mary, however, had rejected the idea. She could not make herself comfortable with the notion of marrying either one of her cousins, because they had been so close growing up.

Not at first, that is. Now, she began reconsidering her uncle’s suggestion.

He was right about relieving her from her worries about her father’s business. It would remove that burden from her, and perhaps take some of the questioning and critical eyes off her, also.

Besides, she could not picture anyone wanting her, now that she was all but lame in one leg.

Absorbed in her nervous state, she continued walking. She paid no heed to how far from her carriage she was moving.

So lost in her thoughts was she that she at first did not hear the commotion behind her. She only turned when she heard the sound of quickly approaching horse hooves that sounded strangely like they were clomping down the sidewalk.

She and Susan both turned, curious. To their horror, they saw that the carriage was, indeed, flying down the sidewalk, and closing in on them.

“Milady, look out!” Susan cried.

Panic struck Mary, and she looked around for any sort of salvation. She saw a doorway, just a step further on her right and with all her might, she jumped toward it.

She scrambled inside and shielded herself just as the wayward carriage smashed into the front window of a store.

Her heart pounded in her ears and she braced herself to be trampled by frightened horses or rolled over by a carriage wheel. Her left ankle screamed, but she felt sure this was the last time she would need concern herself with it.

She was so certain in her fear that she screamed when a concerned voice spoke to her. She turned her head so quickly toward the voice that she worried she had given herself a neck injury to complement her new leg issue.

She looked up, wild-eyed, into the kind, worried face of an attractive, almost beautiful man.

“Are you alright, miss?” he asked, his handsome brow furrowed in deep concern.

She tried to speak, despite quite forgetting where she left her voice. She looked around for Susan who was standing some distance away, shocked, but thankfully unharmed.

“Yes…” she managed. “I… I believe I am alright.”

The man looked down at the leg she was clasping and frowned.

“Here, let me help you inside. You were quite likely injured,” he said, gently offering his hand. “Can you stand?”

“I’m not sure…” Mary began.

Normally, she refused to accept help. Accepting help with her leg pronounced her weakness, and she couldn’t show weakness, not when she was the Countess of Linden.

But something on the gentleman’s kind face chased those concerns away from her mind. Something in his gentle eyes inspired her trust.

“Yes,” she finally said. “Yes, I do believe I am in need of assistance,” she admitted and, at last, she took his hand.

Chapter 4

Duncan’s actions were instinctive as a physician attending an ailing person. However, his mind was reeling beneath his doctor’s instincts.

The woman who had fallen just outside his office was a vision. He admired her dress, noting the fine materials and precise tailor work. There was no doubt that she was of the nobility.

Realizing the lady was watching him carefully, he collected himself. He turned his gaze to examine her for any visible injuries. Besides a few scrapes and her wounded ankle, she seemed alright.

Relieved, he turned his attention to the shattered glass sprinkled all over the sidewalk.

“What happened?” he asked.

He saw the woman regard him fearfully before answering.

“I am not entirely sure. I was walking, and someone lost control of their horses. The carriage crashed into those windows over there. I just found refuge here before the carriage struck me.”

A woman rushed to her. “Milady!” she said in a near panic. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, Susan. I am fine. Oh, no need to cry, I am fine.”

Duncan turned his gaze from the two women and looked out into the street. A small crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle.

The carriage, which had ended up two storefronts down from his office, appeared to have suffered a little damage. It had been carrying no passengers, thankfully. The driver had jumped just in time and had only taken a tumble down the cobblestones.

The poor horses had also avoided most of the glass, but were now spooked and several people were trying to calm them down.

Duncan approached the crowd, glancing around him to ensure that no one else was injured. A few people seemed shaken; others simply curious. Beyond that, no one seemed to have suffered any serious maladies due to the accident.

His own windows had not fully escaped damage, but Duncan decided he could worry about that later.

He walked back to the woman, who had her hands on her cheeks, looking horrified.

“Oh! Look at all this mess!” she said.

“It is a mess, indeed,” Duncan agreed, “but we can hardly fault those poor animals for being spooked sometimes. However, it is far better to have a few windows broken than to see you broken.”

The words were out of his mouth before he realized it. Duncan blinked, telling himself that they were from a physician’s standpoint, not from that of a man flirting with a beautiful woman.

Her cheeks were painted by an unmistakable blush. Duncan averted his gaze and noticed that a cane lay at her feet. He bent down to retrieve it.

“Yours?” he asked, puzzled.

The lady took it from him quickly. “It is, I am afraid. Thank you,” she said, blushing even more.

Duncan wondered what could make her so timid about such a minor thing.

“Please, come inside and let me get those cuts cleaned up,” he said. “I might even be able to offer some relief for that swelling ankle.”

“Surely, that is not proper, good sir,” she said.

Duncan smiled. “It is alright, miss. I am a doctor.”

She gazed around, noticing the setup of his office for the first time. She blushed again.

“Oh, I see now. How silly of me to not have noticed where I landed. Please, forgive me, doctor.”

“Not at all. Now come, let me take a look.”

Duncan escorted the woman inside. She spoke briefly to the still upset maid, Susan, and she took a seat in the waiting room.

He ushered the lady to his examination table and helped her up, ensuring she was comfortable. Then, he began his exam.

“Forgive me for being so curious, miss,” Duncan began as he examined the woman’s leg.

“You wish to know what is wrong with my leg.”

Duncan nodded. “If you do not want to tell me, that is your prerogative. However, I believe it might be helpful in determining how best to treat you.”

She sighed. “A year ago, I fell to the ground from the second story of my home and broke it,” she said, avoiding his gaze.

Duncan was surprised. Such a fall could easily have been fatal. “You are lucky to be alive, miss,” he said.

“Lucky,” she repeated, but it did not sound like agreement.

He sensed there was more to the story but decided against pressing the matter just then. He felt it extremely unlikely that she would divulge much more information to a total stranger, even if he was a doctor.

But he got the impression that they were not exactly strangers, though he could not recall how he knew her.

It was then he realized that they had not exchanged formal introductions.

“It seems that I forgot to ask you your name,” he said, smiling.

The woman looked apprehensive. “And you forgot to give me yours, doctor,” she said, a slight tremble in her voice.

Duncan noticed her nervousness and wondered if he was making her uncomfortable.

She looked at his solemn face and smiled kindly. “I am Lady Mary Hillington, the Countess of Linden,” she said quickly.

Recognition lit up his face. “You mean… daughter to the late Lord Linden?”

“The very same,” she said reluctantly.

Duncan looked at her, surprised. He had heard about her. A woman, with a title of her own. The Countess of Linden was sitting in his doctor’s office, and there he was behaving like a clumsy animal.

“Oh, do forgive me, my lady. I mean…” he floundered and nearly dropped her leg against the hard metal table.

“Now that I have given you my name, it is only right that you give me yours,” she prompted.

Duncan cleared his throat, his charming smile returning. “Yes, of course, my lady. My name is… Doctor Duncan Winstanley.”

Now it was Mary’s turn to pause. “Winstanley. Seems as if I know that name from somewhere…” she trailed off.

Duncan grunted. “I should hope not,” he murmured, remembering his miserable conversation with his father earlier, and changed the subject before more could be said on the matter.

“Now, Lady Linden. Here is what I am going to do. I will clean and bandage these scrapes. Then, we will discuss what to do for that sprained ankle.”

He paused as she sighed with relief. “And after that, I would like to have a deeper discussion with you about your leg.”

Mary’s apprehensive expression returned. “Oh, must we?” she asked.

“I believe you might be interested in what I have to say,” he said, regaining his professional tone.

On the surface, that is. His insides were in utter turmoil. Duncan, a man of science and logic, found that it was his heart that was insistently trying to make its presence known to him.

He was now certain that he had seen her before, but his memory did not offer him more than a vague recollection.

He was aware of the irregularity of her unique situation. A woman of her station was all but unheard of. In fact, she was currently the only suo jure female peer in all of England, which was certainly frowned upon by societal standards.

Yet, he noticed that she carried herself with great dignity and poise, which he found very attractive. He could not imagine what could have happened to this refined woman that caused such a great injury to her leg, but he hoped to find a way to broach the subject and find out.

“Did your attending physician grant any opinions regarding your long-term recovery or options after your… accident?” he asked, hoping that might coax more information about the incident from her.

She hesitated a moment before speaking.

“No. He said that my leg was hopeless, and that the best I could hope for was to use a cane for mobility and a gradual decrease from excruciating pain to a dull ache, likely for the rest of my days.”

Duncan frowned. “He did not recommend that you seek the advice of a surgeon, then?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

This angered Duncan. While he was still relatively new at medicine, he knew that surgery had made great strides in recent decades. He also knew that broken bones were often far from hopeless.

He restrained himself from asking her the name of this ignorant physician, unsure if she would have even told it to him.

Now, it was he who hesitated. He did not want her to think that he thought her dull for believing her own doctor. He just wanted to give her some hope.

He took a few minutes to search for the right words. He noticed that she studied him with interest as he cleaned and bandaged her wounds. He had removed her shoe and stocking, and the intimate contact had brought a flush to her cheeks.

Duncan felt intensely nervous. He was a doctor, but he had never found himself attracted to one of his patients. He had treated many beautiful women, but none of them had made him feel as clumsy as Lady Linden just then.

He silently cursed himself for these feelings, knowing how unprofessional they were. He focused intently on wrapping her ankle with a bandage.

He spared a glance at the lady and saw that she was still watching him with mild intrigue.

“Do you have an interest in learning medicine?” he asked.

“Oh, heavens no. Could you imagine what people would think of me, then?”

“Why? Because a woman of noble birth wished to pursue a career in medicine?” he asked, a defensive tone creeping into his voice.

Mary looked at him innocently. “Because any woman dared to consider such a manly ambition,” she said.

Duncan softened. “Then those people know nothing of the medicine women of which many medical texts speak.”

“I suppose not. But, in high society, any woman who attempted to step into a man’s role would be shunned, even mocked. Especially if she were suffering from an apparent physical deformity.” Her voice dropped to just above a whisper as she spoke.

Duncan realized her discomfort with the subject of her leg. He chastised himself for pushing the subject.

“So, Lady Linden, what brings you into town?” he asked, hoping to distract her from her woes. Instead, she grew paler than ever.

“I had business with my father’s business partners,” she said, trying to look brave.

Wincing, Duncan cursed himself for his utter lack of grace in the company of women. If his father had witnessed this painful exchange, he would have surely given up on his son’s ability to claim a wife, and run straight to Theodore, papers in hand ready to sign.

He turned away from her to collect more bandages. Although he was nearly finished and did not need more, he did not want her to see the wretched humiliation on his face.

She was silent for a moment, and Duncan feared that he had ruined the conversation beyond all repair. When he dared turn back to her, she had a thoughtful look on her face.

“Forgive my hesitation, Dr. Winstanley,” Lady Linden said. “I have just been trying to recall from where I know you.”

The idea of her recalling that his father was an earl terrified him. He hoped that she had only seen him at a social event and was unaware of who his father was.

“Perhaps we met briefly at a ball some years ago?”

“Perhaps,” she mused, “but that does not feel entirely correct.”

His stomach dropped. “Have I ever seen you before in my office?”

“Oh, no. The only physician I have seen since my childhood was… the one who tended me after the accident that injured my leg. And I would surely remember a doctor with as kind a demeanor as yours.”

She seemed hesitant to mention the name of this physician, although he could not imagine why.

“You flatter me, my lady,” he said, dipping his head.

The lady blushed as though she had said something untoward. “Oh, my. Surely, your wife would not appreciate such a remark from another woman.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Lucky that there is no woman in my life with any cause for grievance.”

“Oh,” she said. Duncan wondered at the strange glimmer in her eyes.

“And, do not fear,” he added, “I shall not tell your intended that you complimented your physician.”

“No man would want me with this hideous leg of mine…” she said ruefully. “Doctor, you never did tell me what it was you wanted to say about my leg.”

This time, her subject change did not discourage him. Rather, the news she had just delivered had given him hope.

Suddenly, the idea of courting did not seem so terrible, if it were a woman such as the one before him. He wondered how she had stricken this effect in him.

He tried again to compose himself. He did not know how Lady Linden would receive his words, but he truly felt that he could help.

Moreover, he wanted desperately to help her. He chose his next words carefully, praying he did not offend her.

“I believe that I could re-break the bone and set it, in such a way that it would heal properly.”

Mary looked at him, astonished. “You suggest putting me through all that pain again?”

“I know, it sounds crude. And yes, short-term it would be uncomfortable,” he said, now wishing he could disappear through the floor. “However, in the long-term, it would heal as it should have, and be much less painful.”

She continued to stare at him, her expression unchanging. “I say that sounds like a drastic solution. Would I be able to walk again, without my cane?”

Duncan sighed. “That is not guaranteed,” he admitted. “That would depend a great deal on how you cared for yourself after the procedure.”

“In that case,” she said firmly, “I say thank you for the suggestion, but I must decline.”

His face fell. He knew he had lost any trust she might have ever placed in him. He smiled at her weakly.

“I understand,” he said. He turned from her again to put away his unused bandages, trying to hide his shame.

“Doctor, I can see that you only meant to help,” she said, the warmth returning to her voice.

“I am glad,” he said, daring to look at her face. Her kind smile lit up the room, and he again admired her beauty.

“I am afraid that I must be going if I wish to be home before nightfall,” she said apologetically.

“Of course. I am sorry for having kept you so long. Before you leave, I shall give you an address where you can contact me, should you change your mind about the procedure. Or, should you need my services again.”

Mary smiled. “Thank you, doctor. You are too kind.”

He hastily scribbled his address on a piece of paper and handed it to her. Then, he walked her to the entrance. Her maid came immediately to her side.

“Thank you for taking such good care of me,” Lady Linden said with genuine gratitude.

“You are most welcome, my lady,” he said with a smile.

She offered to pay him and he adamantly refused until she relented. Then, he watched her go, secretly hoping that she would call on him for any reason at all.

A White Rose for the Marquess – Preview

Chapter 1

For Gwendoline, this was an all too familiar scene.

As she sat in the carriage, with the spell of silence thick in the air save for the noise of the wheels, she could not help being taken back to that afternoon, four years ago.

Like that day, a new phase in her life would begin today.

Whatever the next four months brought, a husband or not, she knew that if she had to return to Gelling, she would not be the same woman.

How she knew this remained a mystery to her. Yet, she was as certain as she was of the fact that it would rain tonight. She felt it in her bones, in her heart and in her mind.

Unlike that carriage ride four years ago, she was not alone with her aunt – her uncle and cousin were there with them.

The curtains had been opened the moment they entered the streets of London, so Gwen took advantage of the opportunity and busied herself with the life outside.

She could not believe that she had never been to London. Twenty years old, and this was her first time in the renowned city. Her first time joining the Season too.

To be a debutante at twenty was quite unusual. Many would consider her old, but Gwendoline did not mind, not so much.

It did not matter that she had been given Fiona’s clothes from her first season, which were now out of fashion. Thankfully, they were the right size, as at twenty, Gwendoline had finally grown into the woman Fiona had been at seventeen.

Her cousin was now even taller. She was the primrose of Gelling. Those who knew Gwendoline, called her the daisy.

Pure, lovely, peaceful. Gwendoline believed it suited her perfectly.

It did not matter that Aunt Leah had made it starkly clear where Gwendoline’s place was in the coming season. It did not matter that she barely had any jewelry to her name, compared to the dozens that decorated Fiona’s chest…

Gwendoline was simply grateful that she had finally been given a chance to enter society, and find a suitor for herself. She finally had not been left alone in Gelling with the staff, like she had been left alone for the last three seasons.

She looked up at Fiona who seemed interested in the book she was reading. She had barely lifted her head to look out the window all through the journey.

Of course, there was nothing new to this, where Fiona was concerned. Unlike Gwendoline, this was Fiona’s fourth season. Sadly, like Gwendoline, Fiona was still unmarried – much to her mother’s great displeasure.

Fiona herself seemed unconcerned by it. When she returned from London, she was always more than happy to tell Gwendoline sweet tales about all that had happened during the season.

The men who had tried to woo her, the scandals, the gossip, the balls, the soirees and the elegance that they all brought. She had often said life here in London was different.

Gwendoline could see it already. The streets were much busier. There was barely any expanse of land or field for greenery. Every space that was big enough had been put to use to contain buildings – houses, firms, shops.

“It is quite a sight, isn’t it?” her uncle spoke, breaking the spell.

Gwendoline looked away from the window then, relaxing into her seat.

“Yes, Uncle. That, it is. Fiona has told me tales, but my imagination never conjured anything quite like this. How do you survive here for four months, after living in the quietness of the county for eight?”

Uncle Albert chuckled in that warm way of his. It made Gwendoline smile.

“Dear child, you shall come to understand after spending a few weeks in the city. Everything here is moving so fast.

”By the time you grow accustomed to it, upon your return to the country, all will seem awfully quiet and terribly slow. It will take you some time to settle into the countryside’s air too.”

Intrigued by her uncle’s words, her eyes widened. “Really?”

It was Fiona who answered, finally taking time away from her book. Like always, she had a polite smile for Gwendoline.

“Really, Gwen. Why do you think I often look forward to the season? Life here… it’s different. And the balls? Magical! I am glad that you will get to see it all for yourself, this time.”

The relationship between Fiona and Gwendoline had grown from friendly and easy, to polite and mostly awkward in the past four years. There was no one else to blame for that other than Leah.

She had constantly told her daughter that Gwendoline was not the sister Fiona never had, and would never be. She had taken offence every time she had seen the girls playing together like old friends, and after a good number of scoldings, both girls had grown wary of each other.

Careful, seemed a more soothing word. Yes, they still talked and like Gwendoline had foreseen, she functioned as Fiona’s companion.

Yet, there were boundaries to their relationship, and they were often too careful to not cross those boundaries, lest they sparked Aunt Leah’s annoyance.

So, rather than grin and continue the chatter mindlessly, Gwendoline offered a polite smile in return and said a simple, “Thank you, Fiona.”

Aware of the situation herself, Fiona gave a curt nod and went back to her reading. Once more, silence reigned.

It was like that until they finally came to a stop in front of the Cartridges’ townhouse. Unlike the manor, this was no estate. Yet, the house was just as grand.

It also appeared to be of a more modern architecture, and it bore resemblance to all the other houses Gwendoline had observed on the way over.

One by one, they got out of the carriage and as they came to stand in front of the house, Uncle Albert announced. “Welcome to the townhouse, Gwendoline.”

Gwendoline dropped a shallow curtsy for the man who had kept to his word and loved her like a father. Aunt Leah had not been able to get him to stop, and not for lack of trying.

“Thank you, Uncle. It’s beautiful.”

“It is, isn’t it? Wait until you see the inside.”

And with those words, he ushered them in.

They were all led to the dining room where they settled down to a generous spread of fruit, cakes, bread and stew for supper.

They had begun to eat when Aunt Leah finally addressed Gwendoline.

“So, you have finally come to London. How does it feel? Good?”

Gwendoline nodded, rushing to chew up the bread in her mouth, so that she would swallow.

She knew that this conversation would not end in a lovely manner. Aunt Leah had a way of leaving a bitter taste in Gwendoline’s mouth after every dialogue.

As the lump went down her throat, she answered. “It is a lovely place, Aunt Leah.”

“Of course it is. Not a place for orphans like yourself. Too expensive, if you ask me. You know how much a family has to spend during the season? With the balls and outings and plays and all those beautiful dresses! My goodness.

”We spend twice what we have to spend in the country, if not three times. Imagine adding another mouth to that, and a debutante at that! Lord knows I have tried for you. How many people would do what I have done for a child who isn’t theirs?”

Uncle Albert stopped eating, and placed a hand on his wife’s.

“Leah, this is unnecessary. Leave it be.”

His caution counted for nothing, but Gwendoline was grateful for it anyway. She always was.

Nevertheless, it did not stop Aunt Leah from completely disregarding her husband’s words.

“Oh please, Albert. The girl must be told the truth. We must make her face reality lest she begins to forget her place. She must know the sacrifices we make for her, in order to remain grateful.”

Gwendoline’s heart sank, hurting deeply. Yet, she did not look away when her aunt stared into her blue eyes.

“Your father left nothing but debts for you, you know.”

It was what she had always told Gwendoline, but Gwendoline did not believe it.

She knew her father had been wealthy. Generous too, yes, but too frugal and wise to die leaving his affairs in shambles.

And debts? What debts? Gwendoline never saw her father make many purchases, indulge in luxuries or lose in a hand of cards. He had been no drunkard, or a gambler.

Still, Gwendoline held her peace as her aunt ranted on, even as the fire inside of her came alive and began to simmer.

“My gracious husband managed to pay off all of that debt. And we have had to feed you from our pockets for the past four years. You know how much it cost to launch a child into society? Why else did you think we have waited this long?”

It was to give Fiona a better chance at finding a husband, everyone knew this. Aunt Leah was afraid that if Gwendoline was present at the season, men would go after Gwendoline, not Fiona.

In her aunt’s own words, Fiona was too tall for a woman. Men did not like a tall woman over whom they cannot exercise authority.

That was the way they saw women like Fiona. Stubborn, hard-headed and non-submissive.

Fiona was anything but those. That a mother would think so low of her child would have baffled Gwendoline, but this was Aunt Leah. She was capable of anything.

Aunt Leah continued. “It is because we needed to be certain we had enough money for two ladies. We are trying for you, Gwendoline. And you must show gratitude. Wear Fiona’s hand-me-downs with pride.

”And of course, one more thing you should do to show your gratitude, is to make yourself scarce. At the balls, at outings, at plays… I have said it before and I shall say it again. I do not want you getting the attention that Fiona should be getting.

”This is her fourth season and it would be a shame if she does not manage to secure a proposal before its end. Lord knows I do not understand why it has taken so long,” she muttered the last part under her breath, but everyone heard anyway.

Gwendoline felt Fiona wince by her side, but the girl said nothing.

“This season is for Fiona, Gwendoline. She is twenty years old and not getting any younger. If anything, you should support her, help her shine and attend to her every need so she does not have to worry about a thing other than being beautiful and staying happy.

”In fact, I would like you to start by helping her settle into her chambers. It is the least you can do now, is it not?”

Bowing her head, Gwendoline kept her voice as demure as possible. “Yes, Aunty.”

“Very well. Supper may continue now that all is clear and understood.”

And just like that, everyone went back to eating.

Still, the atmosphere in the room, the tenseness that hung in the air, spoke of what had just happened.

Gwendoline would lie if she said that she was not hurt. From the insult to her parents, to being dismissed as though she was worth no more than a rag. Yes, indeed, she was crushed to the bones.

Nevertheless, years of being told those same words over and over again, had given her a tough skin.

Her eyes did not well with tears. She did not feel an overwhelming sense of sadness and regret. She did not suddenly remember the love her parents had showered her with.

Instead, she had smiled sadly, brushed the hurt aside and managed to eat better than her uncle and cousin.

As the maids cleared the plates, they all rose up. She caught her uncle’s eye as they did and she saw the apology in them.

She shook her head, telling him that he did not have to apologize. It was not his sin. He had done nothing but love her.

He gave a curt nod and the brief, quiet communication ended. Wordlessly, she followed Fiona to her chambers. Later, when she was done helping Fiona settle in for the night, she would find hers.

When they entered Fiona’s chamber, Gwendoline was not surprised by its sheer beauty and luxury. Like Fiona’s chamber in the country house, this was fit for a princess.

Gwendoline knew her chamber would be anything but, and she was fine with that. A good bed and space of her own had become everything and more than Gwendoline needed in the past years.

In the room, Gwendoline helped Fiona undress.

“You do not have to do this, you know,” Fiona said. “I know you are very tired. One of the maids can attend to me. It is why they are here.”

“Your mother would have my eye plucked out, cooked and fed to me for breakfast if she ever finds out I neglected my duties.”

Fiona chuckled. “She may be mean, but Mother isn’t cruel. I do not think she would go that far.”

Gwendoline’s gaze met with her cousin’s in the mirror, and she gave a wry smile. “I beg to differ.”

There was a small pause before Fiona responded.

“She does not have to find out though. I am certain she must be busy settling in for the night herself. Her chamber is all the way over at the east wing.”

“Still, I’d rather not take my chances.” This conversation was not new to either of them. It began the same and ended the same.

Fiona settled in the tub and Gwendoline began washing her.

“I am sorry for all that Mother said to you at supper. She had no right. Those words were too harsh. It made me lose my appetite, and they were not even said to me.”

Gwendoline did not want to be reminded, but she knew she would never forget. When she went to sleep tonight, they would ring in her ears.

“Give it no thought. They barely touched me. Remember the ducks back at Gelling, at the fountain? What they do when you pour water on them? They simply shake it off and continue on their way. Beautiful little things.”

Fiona did not seem to share her humor. Her voice was still sad when she replied.

“You always say that, Gwen. But we both know they are bound to hurt. Mother has to be stopped. It’s just… she won’t listen to anyone. Not even Father.” There was a pause before she continued.

“I wish things were different. I wish we were sisters indeed, that we were closer and we could tell one another everything, anything.”

“Me too. Nevertheless, you have been nothing but kind to me, and I shall not forget your goodness. Still, you do not have to feel the need to apologize on your mother’s behalf. She acts as she deems right, and I cannot fault her for that.

”Beyond that, there is truth to her words. Not many people would make the sacrifices Aunt Leah has made for me. For that, I shall be ever grateful.”

Nothing more was said. All through the rest of the bath, and doing Fiona’s hair, then helping her dress for bed.

As she made her way to her chambers, Gwen thought of how she would miss Fiona and Uncle Albert if she eventually found a husband this season.

If she was lucky enough. She hoped she would be. Despite the heavy hand fate had dealt her, Gwen hoped she would find a man who would love her and marry her.

A man who would take her into his home, cherish her and give her a new family.

A man who she would love as much in return.

This was a fool’s dream, she knew. She might as well become very disappointed, but she would dream still. All else had been taken away from her.

She refused to let her hope be stolen away too.

Chapter 2

Arthur Ainsworth wasted no time in getting off the carriage when the coach rolled to a stop in front of his father’s townhouse.

The speed at which he took the stairs and breezed through the open doors surprised even him, let alone the staff that were in the hallway.

He barely spared them any greeting, his eyes frantically searching the small crowd for a grey old man whom he loved and respected as much as he did his father.

He heaved a sigh of relief as he found the man and went to him. “You have not aged a year, Edwards.”

The old man smiled at him. “And you look like you have been gone away for five, my lord. You’ve grown so much in two years, that I hardly recognized you.”

Arthur sighed, and his nerves instantly calmed. Edwards, the butler and his old friend, had such an effect on him.

Edwards was not only the butler, but also a distant cousin who had served Arthur’s family for many years. Arthur had grown with the counsel, love and doting adoration of this man.

It was nice to know that, despite the many months that had passed, at least Edwards was still there and had not changed.

“How is he?” Arthur asked urgently. “Where is he?”

Edwards’ bright face fell, and Arthur felt his panic rise again.

“He is in his chamber. Where else would he be? And as for the other question… you will have to see for yourself, my lord.”

Arthur’s head bowed and he heaved a deep sigh. He wielded control over his emotions and once he had a firm grip on their rein, he looked up once again.

“Lead the way, old friend.”

Edwards immediately stepped in front and both men began to climb up the stairs.

Even trying as hard as Arthur did to fight it, the fear of meeting his father in a bad condition gripped him still. A part of him rejoiced that his father was alive.

On the journey over, he had hoped and prayed that he would meet his father in good health, not just alive. Edwards’ reaction had crushed that hope of good health.

Now that he knew his prayers had not been answered, he could only hope not to meet the worst.

As though sensing his agitation, Edwards spoke, taking Arthur away from his crippling thoughts.

“You may have grown so much in features, my Lord Highvale, but I am glad you still are the man you were before you left.”

Arthur smiled. “I do believe I am better, Edwards. Those months visiting almost every continent in the world have taught me a lot and I have learned it all. There is a whole world out there. Entirely different, but just as rich in heritage.”

He had been on the Grand Tour for the past eighteen months, and he had enjoyed every bit of it. He had visited Europe, America, the Highlands.

He had been in Asia when the letter informing him of his father’s illness had arrived – Madras, India to be precise.

The letter had spoken of grave urgency, so Arthur had wasted no time putting his Grand Tour to an end and boarding a ship that would bear him home.

Those four months at sea had been unarguably the longest months of his life.

He had not been able to communicate with anybody. He had been deaf and blind to all that was happening back at home, and all he had been able to do was pray – so of course, he had resorted to that.

“My point exactly, my lord. The world out there is so different. I was afraid you would forget the English in you and come back a different man.”

They reached the top of the stairs. Arthur smiled. “I am a different man, Edwards. I feel it in my bones. But for good. I am a better man.”

Edwards nodded. “Good. That is all that matters. Your parents will be happy to see that their boy has fully grown into a man.”

He knew Edwards was teasing, so he chuckled softly. “I have been a man for a long while now, Edwards. Many years before I even thought of the Grand Tour.”

“You will always be a boy to me, until you take a wife and sire your own family.”

For some reason, the thought of discussing siring a family with Edwards, made Arthur flush. So, he simply said nothing, letting that conversation end.

“Speaking of my parents, how is Mother?”

“Your mother is as always. Worried. She hardly leaves your father’s side these days.”

They finally reached his parents’ door.

Was he ready? To face whatever was behind that door?

Arthur drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long stream. He had waited four months for this. He could not be more ready.

He nodded and immediately, Edwards pushed the handle. The door came open, but Arthur did not look up until he had fully stepped into the room.

“Your Graces. Your son, His Lordship, the Marquess of Highvale.”

With a regal bow, Edwards made to leave after the announcement, but Evie Ainsworth, the Duchess of Headley, would not have it.

“Please, Edwards. You are needed. Stay.”

As Edwards closed the door behind him, Arthur stepped further into the room. He finally dared to look up.

Everything else fell away as he saw his father – or more accurately, a shadow of what his father used to be – on the bed.

This was not the worst, Arthur knew. Still, it was so terrible, it broke his heart into a million pieces. Arthur felt the pain as each piece broke.

There was his father, the proud, tall man Arthur had known and admired, lying in that bed, so thin and frail, barely occupying any space.

Oh illness! Woe be unto you!

Unable to help himself, he rushed to his father’s side and engulfed him in an embrace.

“Father. I am sorry it took so long. But I am here now, I am here. We are going to get you well. I will make sure I do that with every breath in me. I promise you this.”

His father held on to him, as tightly as he could, making Arthur’s chest grow tighter. Silence held, so loud that it was almost deafening.

Arthur felt a myriad of emotions come like waves, washing over him, threatening to pull him under, to drown him, but he held firm.

He was a man who could not remember the last time he had shed tears. He was not going to break down now. At least, not in the presence of all these people.

Finally, he pulled away, and went to embrace his mother who was just by the side of the bed.

“Mother, I apologize for leaving you all alone in this. I am here now. You shall not have to do this on your own anymore.”

“Hush, Arthur. You have no need to fill our ears with apologies and swear promises. Neither your father nor I count any grievance against you. You were away on the Grand Tour on our permission, and you came home the moment you received the news.”

Arthur broke away then, relieved by his mother’s understanding. Still, it did not take away the guilt in his heart.

“Yes, that I did. How long has it been? Eight months?”

“Yes.”

Eight long months. Father has been suffering for eight long months.

His father finally spoke. His voice was almost a whisper and it sounded so weak and tired. It made Arthur ache even more.

“It was not always this bad. I have only been bedridden for three of them. We wrote the letter to you as soon as I took ill, for I knew I would be needing assistance to rule Headley.

”The affairs of a dukedom are not something to be handled by a sick man.”

Arthur’s face fell as his guilt ate deeper at him.

His father was struggling with responsibilities and there he was, at sea, shirking his. When he should have been home, helping out.

His father made to adjust to a sitting position and Arthur quickly helped, piling up pillows behind him.

When His Grace, the Duke of Headley, William Ainsworth coughed, Edwards was by his side in an instant with a cup of water.

When the Duke had had his fill, Edwards withdrew the cup.

“Thank you, dear friend,” his father said to Edwards. Edwards simply nodded, returned the cup to the bedside table, and went back to where he had been standing before.

That was when the Duke returned his attention to Arthur.

“I know what you are thinking. As your mother said, you share no blame in this, and I would not let you think otherwise. You are here now, and that is all that matters. My mind is at peace.”

Arthur looked to his mother as his father relaxed into the pillows, trying to catch his breath and regain his energy. Talking had appeared too strenuous for him.

“What are the physicians saying?”

Arthur’s mother sighed, and that was when Arthur noticed the tired lines on her face.

“They are saying that they cannot fathom what is wrong with him. We moved him to London to gain better access to better physicians. We have invited a few from outside of London, they all said the same thing.

”Dr Adley comes to bleed him every now and then, and he has been on some medication which seem to be working better than the others, but that is all. As we all know, we cannot cure an illness we do not know.”

“You say he is better?” Arthur looked at his father once again. If this was better, then how much worse was he?”

The Duchess smiled sadly. “Much better. We have hope that he will only get better still.”

“Hmm,” was all Arthur could manage to say. He returned his attention to his father. “How do you feel now?”

“Weak, tired, but definitely better than I was a month ago. I know that now that you are here, I may just get well.”

“No, no may. You will. I will see to it.”

A wry smile stole across the Duke’s face.

“You seem determined, dear son. Ah, that is a good thing. You have grown so much. You have almost become a man. I am glad. Headley shall have a good ruler in my absence.

”All that is left now, is for you to take a wife. It is past time; do you not think so? You are now twenty six years old. Time is a delicate thing. I may feel better, but I am past hoping to recover from this.”

Arthur was going to refute his father’s words, but the Duke stopped him with a frail hand in the air.

“I am the one in this body, Arthur. You must listen to me. I believe God made me better to keep me long enough to see my heart’s desire happen right before my eyes.

”I only let you go on the Grand Tour after I made certain that you have learned all that you needed to, about Headley and being a good duke. Now, I want to see you take a wife. It is all I ask for.

”Shall you deny a dying man his one last wish?”

“You are not dying, Father. You are simply ill and you shall return to your health soon. And as for marriage…”

Marriage. Arthur had never wanted it. Not after the many examples he had seen in his lifetime.

Yet, he had always known it was one of his duties, and some day it would be required of him.

He only wished that it was not so soon, and that he had more time to enjoy his bachelorhood. Alas, his father was asking this of him on his sick bed.

How could he break the man’s heart? How could he refuse him this sane, unselfish wish?

Heaving a deep sigh, Arthur made the only decision that was there to be made.

“Yes, Father. I shall find a wife.”

The joy that instantly dawned on his father’s face made the sacrifice instantly worth it. And his mother, her eyes twinkled as she said,

“Good thing you are just in time for the season!”

Oh well, Arthur sighed, defeated.

It would appear that he had balls to attend, a wife to choose, and a marriage to plan.

Chapter 3

“I dare say, you are going to be the belle of the ball, tonight, Fiona. Have I told you, you look stunning? Absolutely gorgeous?” Aunt Leah said from where she sat, at the opposite end of the carriage.

Her voice stung Gwendoline’s ears, for she had not stop gushing about how ethereal and gorgeous Fiona looked tonight.

Once again, Fiona replied dryly, apparently getting tired of her mother’s fawning.

“Yes, you have, Mother. About a thousand times now, but who’s counting?” That statement was said with a forced smile that was just as false.

Aunt Leah saw it and recognized it for that it was. It was why she faltered before speaking on.

“Oh well, I suppose I simply cannot get over the fact that you look like a dream! You shall surely turn heads tonight, darling. Even with your mask on. It is why I made one that would cover your face only around your eyes.

”That way, not much of your beauty will be hidden. You shall see, the gentlemen of the ton shall flock your way, like birds to their nests in winter.”

“Thank you, Mother.”

Gwendoline listened and watched the entire exchange with a slight numbing pain in her heart.

Aunt Leah had not said a word of praise to her all evening – not that she had been expecting it. After all, Aunt Leah was not her mother and she had always made it clear that she did not intend to act as one.

Still, it hurt Gwendoline.

Aunt Leah had brought ladies to prepare Fiona for the ball. They had made Fiona’s hair into a very lovely updo. They had adorned her neck, wrist and ears with the loveliest of jewelry, emeralds, bringing out the color in Fiona’s eyes.

And goodness, that silvery dress Fiona had on… it made her look like a dream, indeed.

Gwendoline did not have that big of an imagination, yet she had often imagined that if one of these fairytale princesses walked out of the books in human form, they would look exactly like Fiona did tonight.

Gwendoline had never seen her cousin look so beautiful. Especially with the cosmetics that had been applied to her face. The dark liquid that lined her eyes, the pink blush on her cheeks, and the red balm that she wore on her lips.

Gwendoline had been neglected and left to dress up on her own. She had made do with what she had. An old blue gown of Fiona’s, that was considerably plain. Thankfully, Fiona had worn it only once, so it still shone as though it were new.

Still, the difference was clear. Gwendoline had held her hair up with pins, and she had worn a silver band to hold straying tendrils in place. She had had that band for years, given to her by her father.

Her neck held a tiny piece of jewelry, almost invisible. It was the only thing left of her mother that she had been allowed to keep. She wore it every day, so it was nothing special.

If she were the gentlemen of the ton, she knew that she would pass her over and pick Fiona without a second’s thought.

This was her aunt’s aim, and of course, it would be achieved.

Gwendoline knew that she was an orphan, and that she had no one. She knew that if that terrible accident had not happened, and that unfortunate illness, it would be her family here with her, in this carriage.

She too would look like a princess and the lips of the ones she loved would be filled with adulation for her.

Alas, that was not the case, and yet again, she found herself missing her dead, mourning them.

In times like these, she was tempted to ask why she had been left behind. She refrained from doing so. If fate had left her untouched, then there must be something else in store for her.

She only hoped it was not more pain.

Gwendoline was drawn out of her thoughts when she felt a hand on top of hers. She looked up, and got drawn into those obsidian black eyes of her uncle, that were always kind and warm and affectionate towards her.

“You look very beautiful yourself, Gwendoline. You have always been a beautiful child. It is the kind of beauty that flows from within. So effortless and so graceful. You shall turn a number of heads tonight, I reckon.”

If not for anything else, Gwendoline knew that she must remain grateful for this man.

Her face lit in a small smile and she covered his hand with her free one.

“Thank you, Uncle Albert. You are always so kind.”

“Father is right, Gwendoline. You look so pretty, I am almost jealous. The blue gown was my least favorite, yet you make it look as though it had been sewn just for you. I shall not be surprised if your dance card overflows tonight.”

Now, Gwendoline chuckled and as the sound left her, some of the ache in her heart was released. Her stomach loosened and her chest became free enough for her to breathe again.

“You flatter me, Fiona. Like father, like daughter. Thank you.”

Fiona was going to say something but her mother cut her off. As Aunt Leah’s words filled the carriage, Gwendoline quickly withdrew her hands from Uncle Albert’s.

“You would do well to keep in mind that their words are indeed nothing but flattery, dear child. You are not that beautiful – it is the truth and it has to be said. If you manage to get one name on your dance card, then you must count yourself lucky.”

Gwendoline refused to let her joy be ruined.

“Leah, do not be sour,” said Uncle Albert. “The child is as lovely as a rainbow in summer, and you know this.

”She blooms like a flower in spring and she is as fresh as the air in autumn. I declare she shall be the most beautiful debutante this season. Mark my words.”

Aunt Leah huffed at her husband and looked away, so that her eyes remained on the windows.

“I do not think I have ever heard you sing poetry for me or your daughter – your true daughter. We shall see how she shall manage to draw attention in that dreary mask of hers. We shall see.”

Her uncle would have replied, but Gwendoline hurriedly spoke up.

She did not want to ruin the love between her aunt and her husband, or the peace in the carriage. Uncle Albert was a wonderful man, but nothing saved him from his wife’s wrath.

“I have no intention to outshine anybody, Uncle Albert. It is only my first ball and I simply hope to have a lovely evening.”

It was the truth, and that settled things. This was the first ball of the season, and the first ball of her life – a masquerade ball.

She had her mask in her reticule and was not looking forward to wearing it. It was huge, and a whispery blue, covering almost all of her face.

Alas, she had no choice but to put it on. While she focused on having a lovely evening, she would do well to wear it with pride.

Perhaps, having a mask to hide behind, would prove a good thing.

Finally, they arrived at Lord Pevcolt’s manor. As they alighted from the carriage, one by one, Gwendoline saw that there were so many other coaches lined up and more, taking places behind theirs by the second.

Everyone began to put on their masks, so she took the cue to wear hers too.

“Shall we?” Uncle Albert asked, and when they all nodded, he began to lead the way.

Gwendoline took note of everything. The people who passed them by, chattering and laughing happily, the house which shone from a distance. And the lovely attire everyone was dressed in.

Compared to the dresses she had seen so far, she knew that she was truly dressed down. Nevertheless, everyone seemed happy enough to be here and it was that cheer that she held on to.

As they entered the manor, they were welcomed by the butler and shown the way. As they walked further into the house, the sound of people talking and laughing grew louder, until they finally came into a large hall.

Gwendoline knew instantly that this was the ball room. The ceiling went high, reaching up to the roof and right in its middle, hung a grand piece of chandelier that shone a thousand different colors.

It was simply breathtaking. All of it, was beautiful.

The ball room was filled with people dressed in their finest. The elegance and taste of the house reflected in its guests.

In this large crowd, Gwendoline was aware of how greatly she stood out. She was also aware that no one would easily take notice of a petite young girl, who had never been to a ball before.

“Welcome to your first ball, Gwendoline. This marks the beginning of many more to come. I hope you enjoy grandeur in its finest.”

Gwendoline looked up at her uncle, and her heart soared. She was finally here. After all these years of wondering and waiting. She was finally here. It was everything that she had imagined and so much more.

“It really is grand. I never thought it would be anything like this.”

Uncle Albert laughed at her words, at her apparent awe.

His attention was drawn to something in the distance. Crushed in the crowd and at a disadvantage by her height, Gwendoline was hopeless to see what it was.

“I think that is Lord Henry Pevcolt I see. Take a look, Leah.”

Her aunt stepped forward to peer. She was not as tall as her daughter or her husband, but her height was sufficient in this moment.

“I do believe it is him indeed. I would recognize that bald head and missing tooth even in my dreams.”

It was probably the first time Gwendoline had heard her aunt sound truly fond of someone.

“Well then, we must go say our greetings.” Aunt Leah paused to look at Gwendoline.

“He is an old friend of the family. He was especially fond of your mother and would not cease asking me about you. Now that you have finally come to London, I must make introductions. Come now, before this crowd gets even madder.”

As they began to maneuver their way through, Fiona came to stand beside her and said in a whisper,

“Lord Pevcolt’s ball is always the biggest of the season. You will like him, you’ll see. He was friends with grandfather.

”When you have lived as long as he has, in his words, you learn to enjoy each day as it comes, as though it were your last.”

Gwendoline found herself growing an instant fondness for him, and looking forward to meeting him in person.

Finally, they came to a stop and the crowd before them seemed to have vanished.

This time, Gwendoline did not have to look up, for the man standing before them was indeed bald, old and grey, and very much Gwendoline’s height.

When he smiled, she easily spotted the missing tooth that was his characteristic.

“Your Grace, do you remember me?” It was Fiona who spoke first, grinning widely as she did.

Lord Pevcolt narrowed his eyes and drew his frames closer, so he would take a good look at her. Gwendoline watched, amused as different emotions flickered through those eyes that were almost as grey as what was left of the hair on his head.

There was curiosity, then interest, then amusement and finally recognition. As the last one prevailed, his eyes lit up and his lips curved in a happy smile, exposing the missing tooth yet again.

“If it isn’t Fiona Cartridge, then I shall have to return to my physician and tell him that my sight has gone worse. My goodness. You are as radiant as ever. Thank the Lord you have not grown any taller in the past year. I was afraid I might have to climb on a stool the next time we meet.”

Everyone laughed at this, even Gwendoline. It was so easy to see now why the old man was loved.

“I do believe I remember you singing my praises, last season, Your Grace – as tall as the giraffe and as graceful as the gazelle.”

“Indeed, that you are, my dear, and always will be,” he agreed, taking her hand in his to bestow with a kiss.

He released her hand and Fiona sunk into a very deep, effortless curtsy.

“Thank you, Your Grace. You are ever so kind.”

As she rose, he moved on to Aunt Leah, and took her hand in his to kiss too.

“Leah Cartridge. As beautiful and stern as ever. Smile a little more, would you? The lines around your eyes are beginning to wrinkle from that frown you always have on.”

Gwendoline stilled, waiting for her aunt to have an outburst any moment now. She was truly shocked when nothing like that happened. Instead, Aunt Leah simply smiled and curtsied.

As she rose, she said, “I shall try, Your Grace. I shall try. It is only, when one has not lived for as long as you have, the troubles of life tend to weigh them down.”

Lord Pevcolt smiled, shaking his head as he did. “Dear Leah, when one has lived for as long as I have, they realize that these troubles are often the burdens we tell ourselves we have to bear. It is not so often the case.”

Uncle Albert spoke then, just as the Duke reached him.

“It is always a delight to see you, Your Grace. You have thrown quite a lovely ball, as always.”

Lord Pevcolt had a warm smile and a bob of head for him. Then, he finally came to stand before Gwendoline.

She held her heart in her hands as he peered at her. She wondered what the duke would say about her. This man who had put Aunt Leah down, and had gone unreprimanded.

“Hm… eyes, a distinct blue. Hair as golden as the sun, just like Leah’s. There is only one other person I know with such eyes, two others with such hair.

”I see that Leah has kept to her word. She has finally brought the daughter of Sophia Hathaway to me. Blessed be the day.”

Honored beyond words that this man who had never seen her had recognized her for the resemblance she bore with her late mother, Gwendoline dipped into the deepest of curtsies.

“Gwendoline Hathaway, Your Grace. It is an honor to make your acquaintance.”

As she rose, Lord Pevcolt took her hands.

“You may be hidden behind that hideous mask, but I can see that you are just as beautiful as your mother, maybe even more. And that voice… you sound exactly like her. I wonder if you sing as well as she does.”

He reached to cup her cheek in affection.

“I am so sorry for the tragedy you have had to go through. When the news reached me, I was broken in my soul. I wished to come see them laid to rest, pay my final respects, but my physician advised against such a long journey.

”I too have lost my wife and son. It’s been over twenty years, but the pain is just as new, still as fresh in my heart, every day. May the Lord give you peace and strength, but most of all, may He give you love.”

Gwendoline dragged in a deep breath and made certain that she trusted herself to speak without betraying her emotions before doing so.

“I have no doubt that my mother must have loved you too. Thank you, Your Grace. Your words have indeed given me peace tonight.”

“So like your mother. So much like her. Meek and humble, graceful in speech. Every season I asked of you, knowing fully well that you have come of age to enter society.

”Every season, your aunt told me of how you still mourn, and how you wished for a little more time. It broke my heart, every time. You have no idea how happy I am to finally have you here.”

Gwendoline was shocked by the blatant lie her aunt had told of her absence.

Mourning her loved ones? There was no limit to Aunt Leah’s antics, was there? And how many more lies had she told? To Gwendoline, and about her?

Refusing to cause a commotion, she simply smiled and said, “Time has done some work. Indeed, the pain shall never go away, but life must go on.”

“Ah! That is absolutely right. Life must indeed go on. I look forward to seeing you have your own family.

”Now, to that question. Do you sing? Your mother used to be one of the best singers I had ever known. The whole world went quiet when she sang, even the birds grew green with envy.”

“I… Your Grace…”

She wanted to deny it. But could she lie to this man? How would that make her different from her aunt?

Still, what if she said the truth and it appeared as though she was arrogant?

Uncle Albert solved her dilemma for her.

“She sings better than the nightingale, Your Grace. I have never heard her mother sing but I reckon Gwendoline sings even better. It is always a joy whenever she decides to bestow the household with her sweet music.

”And like her mother, she plays the harp and pianoforte as though she were born doing so.”

Lord Pevcolt clapped happily as his eyes lit up in joy.

“Wonderful! Delightful! In that case, you shall be a dear and sing for us tonight, won’t you?”

Tonight? Her eyes bulged open as fear gripped her.

“Your Grace, tonight?”

“Yes, my dear. You would bless us with your gift, share it with us, would you not?”

“Of course, Your Grace, but… I am afraid I did not come prepared to render any song.”

“You do not need preparation for something you do so effortlessly well,” he argued.

“But in front of so many people… I have never.”

“Well, then, it is a good thing that you have a mask to hide behind now, is it not?” He reached out once more to cup her cheeks.

“You will be fine, dear child. I see things in your eyes, words, emotions that you want to cry out. Take this chance, Gwendoline. Sing.”

Everything seemed to stop then, and she could only stare at this man who was wisdom.

To sing, so freely, all that she had in her heart to pour, in front of all these people who would never know her if she walked past them without her mask, it seemed a liberating thought.

Wouldn’t it be wisdom on her part to accept?

Taking the leap, she nodded eagerly.

“I shall, Your Grace. I shall sing.”

“Excellent! After the third dance, the floor will be cleared and the pianoforte will be brought forth. Then, you can bless our ears with sweet melodies. All will turn out well, dear Gwendoline. You will see.”

He kissed her hand again, and the way he looked at her afterward, told Gwendoline that this man knew so much more than he cared to say. So much more.

It was almost as though, he knew the truth… but, how could he?

Once again, Lord Pevcolt spoke with her aunt’s family and afterwards, they went to find their tables so that they would sit.

Now that everyone was seated, the room did not seem so full, and the dance floor remained bare, for when the dances would begin.

It did not take so long at all, for in few moments the band began to prepare for their first rendition. Aunt Leah was filled with joy as she announced,

“The first dance is about to begin. See the men as their eyes search the room, looking for fair maidens to woo. My sweetness, I do believe I have caught more than a dozen pairs turning in this direction. Fiona, shall I have your dance card? I shall fill the names in myself.”

Gwendoline looked at Fiona who visibly struggled with an eye roll before retrieving the card from her reticule.

“Of course, Mother. As always.”

Oblivious to her daughter’s lack of enthusiasm, Aunt Leah collected the card, still brimming with joy.

“I do hope your shoes are comfortable enough, my dear. Because you are going to have to dance every dance tonight. This season will not pass you by, you’ll see.”

Gwendoline said nothing. She simply occupied herself with sipping her refreshment.

True to her aunt’s words, men soon began to flock to their table, asking for the honor of a dance.

Like her aunt had predicted, most men came for Fiona and those who attempted to look Gwendoline’s way, quickly had their attention diverted. Fiona’s card filled up, while hers laid empty.

Uncle Albert was away, meeting with friends and business associates. Gwendoline knew if he was there, he would fight against the unfairness. Even Fiona seemed disgruntled about it.

Alas, she was soon whisked away, and Gwendoline was made to sit and watch, as other ladies danced with gentlemen.

Aunt Leah completely disregarded her, as though she did not exist. Rather than sulk over it, Gwendoline found herself impatiently counting the seconds to the end of the third dance, when she would be allowed to play.

When the time finally arrived, Gwendoline took a deep breath.

It was time for her to sing.

Chapter 4

Arthur looked at the third lady he was dancing with tonight, his eyes not bothering to hide his boredom or his disinterest.

The two ladies before her had made him feel the same way – indifferent.

He wondered what he was doing here, but one look at his mother who was sitting at the far end of the ball room, looking at him with hope in her eyes, reminded him of the reason.

He was there to find a wife, so that he would fulfill his father’s wish.

The thing was, Arthur had had the past few days to get accustomed to the idea of finding a wife. Yet, nothing had prepared him for this.

The ladies were anything but intriguing. They seemed incapable of holding intelligent conversations. All they seemed able to do, was flutter their lashes, laugh behind their fans and agree with everything he said.

It was enough to make any sane man question his sanity. He supposed he had been away for so long, and had come to forget how demure English women could be.

Perhaps, he was asking for too much, but he knew he would not settle for a wife who would drive him to insanity with boredom. Goodness no.

He wanted, needed a wife who would question him, who would be unafraid to share her thoughts and opinions.

A wife who shared the same passion with him, in areas that piqued his interest. A wife who would be happy to travel at sea with him and see the world at a moment’s notice. Who enjoyed music and art. A wife who was well versed in a number of things.

Not these ladies, these ladies who were too happy to talk about the thread and needle and giving him babies.

“So, you crossed the seven seas, my lord?”

Arthur sighed, but not wanting to be rude, answered that question he had been asked over a hundred times tonight.

“Just five of them. I had the plan of crossing all seven, but I had to be called back home on an emergency.”

When everyone heard, from none other than his mother of course, that he had gone on the Grand Tour, their first question often was, “So you crossed the seven seas?”

At least, Lady Lance had waited a while to ask the question. He suspected it was simply because she had run out of other questions to ask.

“Oh, I see. Do you think you would cross the remaining two? Would you try again?”

He nodded. “Certainly, as soon as all is well and all matters have been rightfully sorted. I shall be on a voyage once again.”

When his father was well enough, and he was married. In a few years, though, for he knew he was not leaving any time soon. Perhaps, his wife would be adventurous enough to want to travel with him.

He hoped she would be.

“You seem to love the sea.”

Love, did not seem right enough to quantify his affections for the sea.

“It calls to me, that it does. I never thought it would feel so peaceful, being in the middle of nowhere, at the mercy of the waves, with only a large expanse of water in sight.”

“I hear people get seasick, and it is often so terrible. I do not think I would want to get on a ship in my lifetime, my lord. I’d rather keep using horses and carriages.”

Arthur let out a grateful sigh as the dance came to an end in that moment.

He released her and dipped into a bow. When he rose, he saw that she too was just rising from her curtsy.

“You dance well, my lord. I do hope you shall fill your name in my dance card yet again.”

Arthur did not think it likely and he was not a man to lie. So, he simply smiled and said,

“You too are a lovely dancer, my lady. And yes, I would suggest that you keep to your horses and carriages. Less chances of ill health that way.”

With that, he took her hand and escorted her off the dance floor. As soon as he saw her safely handed over to her mother, he turned on his heels and began to head for his.

Ever since they arrived at the ball, Evie Ainsworth had been taking Arthur to every family she knew who had daughters ripe for marriage, and introducing him to each one. Even to the point of forcing him to ask a good number of them to dance.

He had had enough and he needed to let his mother understand that he would have no more.

What he intended to do was enjoy the ball with a few old friends who he had run into, and quietly sift through the crowd for a lady who genuinely piqued his interest.

He was almost at their table when Lord Pevcolt, their host tonight, marched to the middle of the now empty dance floor. He was followed by four men who carried forth the pianoforte.

Seeing the instrument was enough to arouse Arthur’s interest. He stopped in his tracks and turned fully to look at the nice, elderly man, and listen to what he had to say.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Lord Pevcolt began. “I trust that you have been having a lovely evening. I assure you, the night is only about to get better.

”We have a special guest in our midst tonight and after my skillful persuasion, she has agreed to sing us a song. Her hands are magic on the pianoforte and many of you have never heard an Angel sing, but after tonight, that will change.

”Ladies and gentlemen, please, join me in welcoming the English Nightingale.”

Lord Pevcolt gestured towards a direction as he finished speaking and every head, including Arthur’s, turned to look at the lady whom he was referring to.

Arthur came to see a lady in a dress the lightest shade of blue. It complimented her skin, creamy but not pale. With her huge mask on, he could only see her eyes, but he knew they too were blue.

And those golden locks that sat atop her head in a mass of tumbling waves, they shone like the sun.

Her eyes widened and Arthur wondered what could be going through her head. She seemed to hesitate for a while, and he was certain that she was nervous.

Not that he could fault her. She had the attention of almost every soul in the room, and Lord Pevcolt had just given her a great reputation to live up to. The voice of an Angel?

A moment passed before she finally began to rise to her feet. As she stood tall, the cheering began. Even Arthur found himself clapping for her.

As the cheer went on, he saw the nervousness slip away from her shoulders. Her spine relaxed and those shoulders did not seem so stiff anymore.

Head high, shoulders squared, she began to walk, as graceful as a deer. As she walked closer to Lord Pevcolt, a small smile formed on her lips and something struck Arthur.

In fact, as he took a closer look at the lady, many things struck him. Her gait, her hair, those eyes. All, with an overwhelming sense of familiarity as though he knew this woman, as though he had met her before.

Yet, as familiar as she seemed, she did not ring a single bell of recognition in Arthur’s head. It was quite baffling.

She eventually reached His Grace and shared a few whispers, meant for only the two of them to hear. Lord Pevcolt urged her on to the pianoforte that laid waiting for her.

The mystery lady took a deep breath as she reached the pianoforte. She released that breath in a slow stream as she sat. Quickly, she ran her hands through the keys, producing a soft, short, lovely tune.

Clearing her throat, she looked around her, at the people who were waiting for her to sing. Arthur waited for their eyes to meet – he hoped for it, but it appeared he was not in such luck.

As the lady finished her sweep, she addressed them all.

“I shall be singing The White Rose, by Alice Cornwall. It is one of those songs that go straight to my heart. I hope it does the same for you.”

Even her voice, soft, tiny and clear, sounded familiar. Still, Arthur could not place where he had heard the voice before. Perhaps, he had been fortunate to make her brief acquaintance before going on his Grand Tour.

Nonetheless, he was very impressed by her choice in music. The White Rose was a classic song. One by the great, late Alice Cornwall. It was such a powerful song that many singers shied from it. Even the opera singers.

How did she hope to accomplish its singing, he wondered?

A hush fell over the crowd like a heavy blanket. And as she plucked the first note of the song, she closed her eyes as though she was reaching deep into her heart, where the emotions lay hidden.

Then, she began to sing.

Alone, left in the wilderness

Untouched, broken, bereft

Yet, she stands tall and proud

Through winter, and spring

All of the five seasons

Her roots go deep into the soil

She knows her home,

This place that has always belonged to her

It knows her too, it tells her story

And anyone who passes and cares to know,

Only needs to ask the earth and they will be told

She is the white rose, not always lonely so

She once had a family, a bush so white and true

They shared love and communion

All roses, with thorns in common

Then that cold winter came, and wiped them all away

One by one, until only this rose was left

It has been years, but she has held on still

This white rose, mocking fate every hour

She is the white rose,

Tall and proud

Tough and strong,

Her strength is likened to none

Beautiful on the outside,

Even more on the inside

She is the white rose

Who has refused to fall.

And for years to come,

She shall stand still

And tell the story of pain,

Loss and victory

The white rose, she reminds me of me

And perhaps, mayhap the white rose is me

It took a while for Arthur, for everyone, to realize that the song had come to an end. That was how immersed they had been in it.

Then, like a broken dam, the flood of applause came pouring through.

Those who were seated rose to their feet and everyone seemed more than happy to clap wildly for the English Nightingale. She had lived up to her reputation and had surpassed it.

Arthur was amazed. It felt like Alice Cornwall had been resurrected inside of this lady. In all of his years, he had never heard the White Rose so beautifully sung.

He was captivated, enchanted and as people converged to meet her, he knew that he too had to make the acquaintance of this woman with the voice of an angel.

The Portrait of a Rebellious Lady – Preview

Chapter 1

“Why are you so utterly obsessed with this idea of Rome?” Mrs. Caulfield asked in exasperation.

Georgette could feel her mother’s eyes on her, wide with frustration, as they had already had this conversation a number of times.

As Georgette remained sitting on the brocade sofa in the parlor, her mother was pacing back and forth. Her fingers played with the pearls around her neck, and her gown swished at its base where it was weighed down by the satin cabbage roses sewn there.

“Mama, it is the place for culture. Everyone says so. The Doyles, the Kingharts, and even Miss Franklin,” Georgette said.

“Ugh, Miss Franklin! What does a governess know of culture? I ought to have known it was that silly woman filling your head with all these ideas of travel and fancy. Can you even imagine it?” Mrs. Caulfield asked, more to herself than to her daughter.

“I do not understand, Mother. Last time we spoke, you said that Father would be thrilled with the idea. And the time before that, you said that it was unlikely but seemed wise,” Georgette reminded her.

It was clear that her mother did not appreciate such a reminder.

“Well then…” she began with a sigh. “I suppose I did say those things, now, didn’t I?” she admitted.

“But you must understand,” she went on, “that pestering me as you do is simply not the way to go about it. The more you press me, the less happy I am about the idea. It seems to me that you already have a culture of independence,” Mrs. Caulfield pointed out dramatically.

Georgette watched her mother continue to pace. With her green eyes, mirroring those of her sisters, she could not help but follow her mother’s movements with curiosity.

She missed the days when she was the one being such an actress. To see it from a grown woman was simply embarrassing.

Even while Georgette made every effort to remain respectful towards her parents, she could not deny that she had lost much of the admiration and respect she had once had for them.

As their situation had changed, and the Caulfields had grown wealthy, she had seen their behavior and values change, their moral integrity plummet.

From loving parents, they had converted into people who would use their daughters for their own financial advancement, and would discard them if they did not comply to their wishes.

It would have seemed an impossibility once. And yet, such change had transpired before Georgette’s very eyes.

Their elder brother, Thomas, had all but abandoned his parents when their status elevated his as well. Christopher, Georgette’s twin, was still very much involved with the family in theory, but he was away at university studying medicine just now.

With their sons doing so well, Mr. and Mrs. Caulfield could only focus on controlling their daughters. Now that Thea and Delia were beyond their reach, Georgette, the youngest, had become the sole recipient of their suffocating attention.

“I suppose I shall speak with your father once more,” Mrs. Caulfield declared, apparently relenting to Georgette’s desires, but in truth searching for ways this request could be spun into something beneficial for her daughter’s future.

“Thank you, Mama,” Georgette said with a relieved grin.

“You are correct that it would be wise for us to expose you to culture and all that, I suppose…” Mrs. Caulfield contemplated thoughtfully.

“It would make you more valuable, to be sure.”

Georgette inwardly flinched at the word ‘valuable’.

“I mean, it will give you something to speak about with potential suitors and they will see something mysterious in you,” Mrs. Caulfield speculated.

This was not a reason Georgette cared to consider. She hated the thought of being a commodity, but their father had spent many years as a merchant, so she figured it was only to be assumed that she would be treated thus.

“Yes, I suppose so,” she managed to reply.

“The only issue, dear, is that I do not think your father will be able to take the time away from his business. You know what an important man he is there. Without him, the entire company might even collapse!” Mrs. Caulfield exaggerated.

Georgette nodded as if genuinely concerned, but she knew the truth of the matter, of course.

Her father was, indeed, vital to the company. However, it was the very fact of him being such a good business man that enabled him to be occasionally absent: he had trained his staff well.

What her father really didn’t want and was therefore hesitant to leave, was to miss out on the recognition of his efforts. The admiration. The praise. The flattery.

He rather enjoyed the gentleman’s club that he often attended with other men of high society. He had even engaged in conversation with a few barons and a duke, he would often remark.

These were the pleasures of his new wealth that caused her father to hate the idea of being away.

If he was not wandering around Cambridge, he was finding his way to London. Anything other than those two cities and he was entirely at a loss for how to flaunt his name.

“Yes, it is a very grave struggle,” Georgette remarked, taking care not to sound caustic – her parents detested the causticity that was sometimes naturally escaping in her tone. It was quite unladylike, they claimed.

She brushed back a strand of dark brown hair that had fallen into her face.

“I know Papa is very important and loves to work hard. But maybe if he was able to get away for just a few days… It might be good for him to take a break.”

Mrs. Caulfield seemed to be considering this. Perhaps it really could be good for him.

“Alright then, I shall discuss it with him again this evening and see what he says,” she finally decided.

Georgette was relieved knowing that her persistence seemed to be proving useful.

If she could truly convince her parents to allow her to travel to the Papal States and Rome in particular, she felt as though her life might never be the same again.

Georgette could not quite explain her reasons for wanting to travel there so desperately. She knew no one from Rome. She knew very little about the Papal States and the duchies of the Italian peninsula, save what she had read about it in books.

But Miss Franklin had described what she saw when she traveled there once before with a former charge. She insisted it was the very place for all young women to go and that Georgette had to experience it immediately.

From that day onwards, Georgette had been obsessed with the thought. All she could think about was going to Rome and seeing the beauty of it.

As the day wore on, Georgette could not control her eagerness. Patience was far from her and she wished only for the moment in which she might hear a definitive answer by her father.

If that answer was an affirmative one, then she would not manage to keep her feet on the ground, for her joy would sweep her away.

Miss Franklin began Georgette’s studies for the day and noticed that there was something quite different about her.

“Oh, Miss Franklin, Mama is going to ask Papa again about Rome!” Georgette exclaimed excitedly. “Can you imagine it? I really might get to go!

”We might finally be able to spend some time away from here and get to see the beauty of everything you have told me about!”

Miss Franklin seemed excited as well. “Truly? You believe we shall go?”

Georgette nodded enthusiastically, knowing that her governess would also be thrilled to chaperone another trip to the country that had quite charmed her. It was not only a treat for Georgette, but for all who would attend the journey with her.

“That is very good news, indeed, Miss Caulfield. Now, we had best put our excitement aside and begin your classes,” the governess instructed, evidently trying to get her own thoughts on the right path as well.

Georgette spent the next few hours working on the French language, and comportment.

She crossed the room several times with a board strapped to her back so that she might remain straight as she walked. It was terribly uncomfortable, but she had grown used to it.

Georgette thought about her sisters, who never had to suffer through these things.

Thea had been married off before the family came into their wealth, and Delia had been cast aside, having become a governess and being considered not worthy of the family name.

Of course, both of them went on to make quite spectacular matches in marriage and lead happy lives.

A merchant’s daughter was now a duchess and a governess had become a countess. If they had both managed such a feat, who would Georgette become?

This thought distracted her, and Georgette failed to realize that she had been trailing a little to the left. Her foot caught and she stumbled forward.

“Oh dear! That won’t do at all, Miss Caulfield,” Miss Franklin tutted.

Georgette released a sigh of frustration.

She didn’t want to marry. At least, not any of the men her mother and father were certain to choose.

She didn’t wish to become a duchess or a countess. Not even a baroness. Her sisters had been fortunate, but their fortune lay in the characters of the men they chose, not their titles.

They were loved and cherished by good men, that was the most important thing. It did Georgette no good to hope that she might stumble upon a man as kind and loving as her sisters’ husbands. No, she was not likely to find that at all.

She didn’t mind, however. Georgette wanted to be an explorer, not a wife. She wanted to be brave and strong and independent.

She was none of those things, really. But the dream was nice enough. And if she was resigned to a life strapped to a board, there was very little to entice her to remain there.

After her lessons, Georgette made her way down the stairs to the dining room where her parents were already seated.

Mr. Caulfield looked up at his daughter curiously, and Georgette could not help but feel as though she was being examined.

She walked in with elegance, the extra flush in her cheeks still visible from having rushed to dinner. She curtseyed before her mother and father before the footman pulled out her chair so that she might be seated.

The dining room was decorated rather beautifully, and although it was dim, her father had done all he could to make the space appear larger than it was.

Their new home was vast compared to the previous one, but it was still an effort to make it appear as grand as others – the houses of the people her parents tried so desperately to imitate.

As Georgette sat silently, wordlessly observing everything around her, she was still aware that her father was watching her.

Finally, he clasped his hands together and cleared his throat to speak.

“My dear Georgette,” he began.

“Yes, Papa?” she replied in a gentle, feminine way.

“It has come to my attention that you are still rather fixated on the thought of a journey to Rome. Is that so?” he asked.

“Indeed, Papa. If you think it would be wise, I should very much like to go, as I believe that it will expand my worldview and increase my value in society,” she told him calmly what she knew he wanted to hear.

He observed her a moment longer before replying.

“Indeed, I believe it to be so as well. While I am not able to spend the entire duration of the journey with you and your mother, I believe it would do well for us all to have a brief stay outside of England and for us to… broaden our prospects, so to speak,” he remarked.

Georgette could scarcely contain herself. Her father had approved! She would finally be able to travel and spend time in Rome as she had been dreaming of! She would be able to see the beauty and the art and the history!

“Oh, Papa, thank you!” she replied, trying with all her might to stay restrained. But she knew that the joy could not be kept from her face.

Her father began to laugh a little as he watched her try to show restraint, but Mrs. Caulfield seemed slightly aloof in her attitude.

Georgette could see that her mother was also looking forward to the trip, but it was simply not in her character to be glad to have worked in support of her daughters.

“So, having said that, my dear, we shall depart in a week’s time,” Mr. Caulfield announced. “I will remain with you for merely a week before you and your mother are left with Miss Franklin as your chaperone. You may stay another three weeks without me.”

Georgette nodded obediently and didn’t speak, not wanting to interrupt whatever he had to say.

She would be spending four whole weeks in Rome! And if she was fortunate enough, she might just be allowed more journeys abroad in the future.

Her heart felt light as it was lifted by the wings of her dream. For the first time, Georgette allowed herself to think of a future where everything was possible.

Chapter 2

Mattia was making his way outside in the hopes that he would find just the right flower to add to the painting.

He had plenty of reds and yellows, but there were no oranges. It was his philosophy that a painting of flowers must also resemble a sky, and this painting was meant to resemble a sunset.

He had done another one like it only days before, with a series of blue and purple flowers imitating the periwinkle of the first moment of the morning, when the sun had lit the distant sky but remained still hidden.

Of course, most people found this sort of thing to be rather foolish, but to Mattia, it made all the difference.

Now that he was continuing to work towards making connections outside of Rome, it was all he needed to convince new patrons to hire him to take on their portraits.

London… It was a place he had always wished to visit. He was finally managing to gain clients there, and Mattia was thrilled beyond belief.

Oftentimes, when the elite of that distant and beautiful city would come to visit the Papal States or Siga, he had indulged in the idea of following them as they returned to England.

He knew that, more than anything, he would love the opportunity to walk those streets, to taste their strange food, and to practice his language skills with them.

But life as an artist was far from simple… and for a man like him, it was simply shameful.

He returned inside his house with the right flower from the luscious gardens, but a servant soon came to announce that Mattia’s father wished to speak to him.

Mattia made his way through the house in trepidation, and reached the study of the Count of Siga, his father.

“What are you doing with your days, I have to wonder?” the Count immediately asked in his deep Italian voice.

Mattia looked down in shame, knowing where this question would lead.

His father was always disappointed in him for wanting to pursue art. Almost as disappointed as he was that Mattia preferred to communicate in English whenever he could, in order to improve it.

“What is this I have heard about you going through town, visiting the art museums, speaking with other wealthy men about the riches of your craft? Do you not know how this embarrasses me?” his father asked in muted anger, his heavy mustache bounding above his top lip as he spoke.

Mattia still did not look his father in the eye. They were the same color as his own, a deep brown. Mattia’s, though, were surrounded by thick, long lashes that oftentimes made him feel as though they belonged to his mother more than to himself.

Mattia had been trying to make new contacts in town that day, which was most certainly the scandal to which his father was referring. He had been trying to get to know some foreigners who were wandering the city and exploring the culture.

But for Mattia, it was the only way that he could find new work. His previous contacts from abroad had had their commissions finished and delivered.

Having completed portraits for a few grand men while they were in Rome, he could only paint their friends only if those friends actually managed to come to see him.

The Count would never approve of him going to London on his own. So, Mattia had no other choice.

Of course, if he simply could not find any new clients, then Mattia would have to follow through with the promise that he had made to his mother a year ago.

He would give up his art and pursue business or anything else his father wished of him. No matter the pain of giving up his dreams, he would have no other choice.

A promise made to his ailing mother was the only promise that Mattia would ever truly hold to. He loved her and he did not know how much longer she would be able to survive with everything that had seemed to affect her health.

Yes, if he did not make the connections he needed by the end of the month, he would move on. He would fulfill the promise he had made to her.

And then he might even manage to make his father proud, hard as this was to imagine.

“Forgive me, Father. It was not my intention to shame you. You must know that. It is just that I love the beauty of art more than I can express, and you know that as well,” Mattia said passionately.

He was accustomed to these talks with his father and not ever really knowing how to proceed in them. No matter what he said, the Count was not appeased.

“And you must know that I am also not a man who wished to give his life to business, but I’ve had little choice,” the Count said sternly.

“This is the path we must follow to become the men we were born to be. Siga and its prosperity is our legacy. Family comes before dreams. Don’t you want to make your family proud?” the Count asked.

“Of course I do, but I don’t see why art cannot make my family proud,” Mattia insisted.

“This is Siga. A place built on art. Why should it be shameful for me to become an artist?” Mattia asked, making sure to use their own language while he spoke to his father about their heritage.

“Because it is not the time for it. You are Mattia Cancio, Nobile dei Conti di Siga. Count Mattia, my only son, the man who will one day become the head of our House and the leader of Siga.”

His father straightened his back proudly. “A Count does not have the luxury of indulging in art and romance and passion. You know better than that. You have a position ahead of you. A legacy.”

Mattia did know better. But no matter how much better he knew, it did not change his longing to paint. It did not change the way it made him feel. Nothing could ever change that.

“You know it is not that we don’t love your art,” the Count added, clearly feeling as though he had wounded his son. “But you can only see it as a bit of fun. It is not a life. It is only… a sort of entertainment.”

“Yes, I understand,” Mattia replied disappointed.

“Now, do me a favor and bring your family a bit of pride by leaving this art nonsense behind us all,” his father urged. “Just let it be a bit of joy that you allow yourself when you have time. But for the sake of your family, stop dreaming of other things.”

Mattia looked away again, ashamed to continue and ashamed to give it up.

What sort of man did it make him if he did not fight for something that he loved so deeply?

It didn’t matter, not truly. His father would be appeased, that much he knew. Nothing in his life was really his own and he would have to change accordingly.

He was the son of a Count: Mattia Cancio, Nobile dei Conti di Siga. The rest did not matter.

“I shall do as you wish, Father,” he replied sullenly.

The Count nodded with satisfaction to this, certain that his son was finally going to forsake the thing that brought him humiliation.

It was good news to him, Mattia knew. But inside his chest, Mattia’s heart broke.

“I am glad that you are understanding. It’s for your own good and the good of this family.

”Make us proud, Mattia. Make us proud and be the man that I know you can be, the man that is strong and brave enough to do great things with his life. A man who is born to be a Count,” his father said with great vigor.

Mattia nodded in defeat, allowing his father to believe that he was content with this solution.

But he wasn’t. And he wouldn’t abandon his dreams that easily.

He had devised one very good plan during his days of pursuing art. Clearly, this idea could be the very thing that enabled him to continue.

Mattia’s family did not know that he had chosen to use a new surname for making his English contacts. This false identity was the solution he needed.

If he was careful, he could avoid being seen by those known to his father and would interact only with the English who came and went. Moreover, searching for clients in Rome instead of Siga, where fewer people were familiar with his outward appearance, seemed part of the solution as well.

They would never know that he was a Count’s son.

It had seemed the best strategy in case of a situation like this, and now, Mattia was glad for it.

However, this couldn’t be a permanent situation. He would still hold to his promise. He wouldn’t be lying to his father forever.

If, after one month, he was completely unable to make himself successful in this work, then he would give it all up as he had already promised to do.

But, if he found himself able to make a life under this new name, he would be a fool not to chase after it, at least for a while, until he thought of a better solution to all this.

“You are dismissed,” his father said, apparently noting that Mattia had remained standing there longer than necessary, lost in his thoughts.

He bowed swiftly and made his departure, returning to the room he used for his paintings. Mattia arranged the flowers and began to put paint on the canvas, hoping that he might finish the piece before the night fell.

It wasn’t that his family had ever discouraged him from painting in general. It was the idea of being a professional artist that seemed to bring them so much disdain.

It was the knowledge that their son wanted to be a great master of the arts that caused them to speak against his efforts.

But when his art benefited their home, or when it brightened up his mother’s room as he believed this piece would, he wondered how anyone could refuse art.

How could a woman like his mother, a woman in great need of all things beautiful, not rejoice in the idea that her son followed his passion for art?

He thought for a moment about his mother and the difficulty of her life.

She tried so hard to appease his father by doing the social things that were expected of her. But over the past month, her health had deteriorated beyond what any of them could have imagined.

She was no longer able to force herself to stand upright through an evening, to keep her legs strong for a dance, to stand and sit and kneel during mass.

It was heartbreaking to see her like this. It was horrible to watch as his mother had become so weak that she spent all her time in bed. She was a woman previously full of life. A woman who loved to eat, but was now scarcely able to keep a bite down.

He worried for her. And no matter how much Mattia wanted to pursue his goals of finding a patron in London and leaving his family behind, he knew that she would be nearly impossible to say goodbye to.

With each stroke of the brush, Mattia whispered life into the painting. The brightness of it would be a good addition to his mother’s wall. It would bring her joy, he hoped.

Enough joy to appease his guilt for pursuing his dreams against his family’s wishes.

With each stroke of the brush, Mattia lost himself in his art, where there was no pain or rejection, only his vision of beauty and his dreams of being free.

Chapter 3

“Oh, Mama, can you even believe it? Look at all these buildings! I can hardly imagine what it must be like to truly live here, to get to see such astonishing places every single day,” Georgette exclaimed, staring out the window of the cab.

“Yes, yes, it is all very well and lovely, but you must contain yourself. Comportment, darling. It is one of the most important things a gentleman looks for when he notices a young lady of breeding,” Mrs. Caulfield reminded her.

Georgette tried to seat herself, to be still and patient. But it was impossible. All the grandeur she witnessed outside of her window was too astonishing to immerse in it fully.

Her father snorted in his sleep then, startling all of them. Miss Franklin made every effort not to laugh. They were a rather odd bunch in the cab.

But before long, they made it to the apartments that they had rented for their stay abroad. Upon their arrival, Georgette was astounded by the welcoming they received from the manager of the place.

The man came rushing out with an assortment of maids behind him and, before the cab even stopped, he was greeting them with a great deal of friendship and passion for his guests.

Georgette could hear the thickness of his accent as he called for the cab to stop so he could greet his most welcomed new friends.

The second the door opened for her father to emerge from the cab, the proprietor of the place they were to stay threw his arms around Mr. Caulfield in a brotherly hug. A rather unexpected one at that.

The man’s bushy goatee and wide grin set against an olive complexion filled Georgette with excitement. It was, however, a bit of a shock when he kissed both her cheeks.

Georgette blushed from the unexpected gesture, but she saw how her father stiffened and it made her want to laugh. When her mother received the same treatment, it was clear to all of them that the Italians were rather a great deal friendlier than they were used to in England.

From there, they were brought up to the rooms in which it had been arranged they would stay, and Georgette was once more captivated by the architecture and beauty of everything in Rome. It was greater than she had even dreamt of or could have fathomed.

“What do you think of it, Miss Caulfield?” Miss Franklin asked, leaning in close.

“It is magnificent! You told me as much, but I never thought that anything could be as beautiful as all of this,” Georgette declared in reply.

Miss Franklin seemed satisfied by the response, as if she had wanted nothing more than for her charge to be overwhelmed by the beauty. She had been successful. It really was magnificent. Georgette couldn’t deny it even if she had wished to.

After leaving her things in the room that she would stay in, Georgette made her way back down the stairs to the common area where her family had said they would meet before long. From here, they would go out to dine and make plans for the days ahead.

When she reached the common room, Georgette saw that her parents were already in conversation with two men. One of them she recognized right away as the Earl of Rudford. He was rather well known to her sister Thea’s husband, the Duke of Sandon.

Through that connection, the Earl knew Mr. and Mrs. Caulfield, and he was clearly entertaining them well. But the man standing beside him, Georgette could not see, save for the fact that he had thick, dark hair.

But as Georgette came closer, the man’s frame came into view. And then, she saw his face.

He was absolutely beautiful. No matter what she knew proper society would say, Georgette could not take her eyes off of him.

For all of her life, she had wanted something more than being forever restrained to those just like her. And here she was, finding something more, something different than the box of sameness of everyone around her. It was not what she had expected – it was better.

Georgette made every effort to not be noticed by those surrounding the two of them. She could not allow anyone to see her being distracted by a foreign man. But this Italian was like no man she had ever seen, no man she had ever known.

To find herself beside someone so captivating, was a gift.

“Ah, and this is my daughter, Miss Georgette Caulfield,” her father introduced, noticing her presence among them just then.

The Earl of Rudford made to greet her, but Georgette remained focused for a moment longer on the other man.

When he turned his eyes to her, she was held captive. His gaze seemed unable to move from hers as well and, in that moment, the two were completely alone in the world.

But the cold hand of the Earl lifted hers, to bow over it in greeting, and Georgette focused on the older man, the far less interesting one, to greet him in reply. She made every effort to be polite but could hardly control her eyes.

Every time she allowed herself to glance at the foreigner, she noted that he glanced at her as well.

“Miss Caulfield, it is wonderful to see you again. And I must introduce my magnificent new find! This is the next great master, Mattia Ricci, genius of the arts,” the Earl announced enthusiastically.

Georgette curtseyed low and delicately as Mr. Ricci bowed to her in a most gentlemanly manner. He was astonishing, and Georgette wondered how she had never thought that such a man could exist.

The thick lashes that framed deep brown eyes were enough to grasp her attention, but when she saw his strong build, his gentle hands, and the curve of his mouth, Georgette nearly swooned.

“Well, it is an honor to make your acquaintance, Mr. Ricci,” noted Mr. Caulfield who had presumably already been introduced to him.

“The honor is mine, Mr. Caulfield. Your wife and two daughters are quite lovely as well, I must say,” Mr. Ricci complimented, assuming that Miss Franklin was a member of their family as she walked forward.

Georgette could see that her father was also captivated by the young man, as he wanted to impress the artist. It was clear that Mr. Caulfield was enjoying the honor he was receiving as a respected, foreign guest.

“Ah yes, thank you. I make every effort to keep them in their finery. But this is Miss Franklin, she is my daughter’s chaperone,” he noted with a tone of pride.

It was evident to any who met Mr. Caulfield that he was glad for the things that money had bought him. Even the people that it managed to buy.

“Welcome, Miss Franklin,” Mr. Ricci said in a voice that lilted of song. His accent was like a music that Georgette had never heard but found herself desperate to study. Or to sing along with.

She saw that Miss Franklin was charmed as well, although the governess was certainly too old for a man like Mr. Ricci.

Nevertheless, Georgette was glad that everyone seemed so intrigued by him. It meant that her own intrigue would be less likely noticed.

“Miss Georgette Caulfield?” came a voice from behind her. Georgette turned and saw the butler, with a similar lilting accent, coming towards them all with a small silver tray holding what appeared to be a card or letter of some sort.

“Yes? That is me,” she replied. The butler came closer and bowed, holding out the tray for her to take the paper.

Indeed, it was a letter.

“Oh, dear, who is it from?” inquired Mrs. Caulfield right away.

Georgette looked up and shook her head, not knowing, even as she opened the paper.

Her lips parted in surprise, and then mild disgust when she saw that the sender was none other than Michael Thompson, Viscount of Grimsby, the son of the Earl of Compton.

“Well?” her mother prodded.

The Earl of Rudford, Mr. Ricci, Miss Franklin, and Mr. Caulfield all stood watching her for a moment as her mother showed apparent demand.

“If you all will excuse me just a moment,” she said, turning quickly to go to her room and avoid them.

But even as she went, rather quickly, her mother kept pace with her.

“Now, girl, you will tell me who that letter is from,” she demanded.

Halfway up the stairs, and still in view of those in the common area, Georgette turned to her mother.

“Mother, I ask that you do not misinterpret this. It is from a young man from whom I do not have any desire to hear.

”It is a letter from Lord Grimsby, and you are aware that I care nothing for him. I should like to have a moment just to read his letter, but you must know that he is nothing to me,” she said, allowing the full truth to come out so that her mother did not get too excited.

Lord Grimsby was wealthy, titled, charming and handsome… but he was vain and shallow and had very little to offer a woman who wished for more in life than balls and parties.

Still, Georgette knew that if her parents thought the match was an option, they were likely to pursue it. It was far better that she made it plain to her mother now that she didn’t wish for it at all.

“Oh dear,” Mrs. Caulfield said again. “You must read it at once. And reply immediately. Whether you feel anything for him or not, we cannot afford to lose such friends as the family of the Earl of Compton. You will reply to him immediately,” Mrs. Caulfield ordered.

“Mama-” Georgette began to protest.

“Do as I say. You must keep him happy, whatever it is you have determined in your foolhardy mind,” Mrs. Caulfield said sternly.

Georgette was resigned to do her mother’s bidding, despite what she truly wanted. She nodded in agreement and looked back at the group gathered in the room.

While the Earl and her father had returned to their conversation, and Miss Franklin was seated with a book, Mr. Ricci was watching her.

She looked at him with a sense of longing. Georgette knew nothing about him, but she was certain that he would never force her to choose him. He would never be like the wealthy and intolerable scavengers of England.

Georgette made her way to her rooms where she pulled out the letter and read it.

My Dear Miss Caulfield,

I have heard the most terrible news of late, that you have made your way to Rome and are sure to be gone for a number of weeks.

I trust that you are happy about this, but I must confess that I never shall be. Being without you in England is a dreary sort of life.

I do hope that you shall return soon and we might have the opportunity to continue our acquaintance.

I imagine that such an acquaintance would be acceptable to your parents, even if it is not the standard of which my parents would hope for me. Yet even though you are far below my station, and a woman of meager and fresh means, I find that I am utterly devoted to you.

As I have little doubt of your devotion to me in return, I trust you shall write me back to say when you will come to me.

Fondly,

Lord Grimsby

Georgette tried to control the rage that boiled within her upon reading his words.

That he would dare to insult her so fluently even as he asked her to be a part of his life was an unbelievable thing to her. Lord Grimsby was entirely the most generic, overrated, pitiful excuse of a man that she could think of.

Georgette knew that in her return letter, she must be clear about that thought, no matter what her mother wished.

Chapter 4

Trying to make himself interested in the conversation at hand, Mattia listened intently to Mr. Caulfield and the Earl of Rudford.

He focused as best he could. And yet, still his thoughts traveled to the young woman who had just come and gone.

“Ah yes, but do you really think that this is the place for it?” Mr. Caulfield was asking.

“Of course! You are involved in trade, are you not?” asked the Earl of Rudford. “And as a man who has devoted himself to trade, you ought to have a solid understanding of what this state has to offer.”

Mr. Caulfield seemed to be considering it and, while the conversation held no interest for Mattia, he continued to listen anyway. If he knew about Miss Caulfield’s family, he might learn more about her.

“Well, yes, I suppose so,” Mr. Caulfield replied reluctantly.

“After all, travel is good for daughters to gain culture, for wives to have a break from boredom, and for husbands to find financial gain,” the Earl explained.

It seemed to make sense to Mr. Caulfield, but to Mattia it sounded foolish. Yes, if he were to go to London, a large reason would be to gain patrons. But it would be the patrons that enabled him to stay in London and that was really what he wanted.

He wished to see the world for the world’s sake, not for the sake of business.

When the Earl of Rudford had met Mattia at one of the museums just the day before, Mattia had never imagined how greatly his life would be impacted by the meeting. He had by then all but lost hope that his dreams would ever come to pass.

Nevertheless, here he was: not only having found himself a wealthy patron, but a wealthy patron who was also very eager to share his find with others.

The Earl was a man who seemed to have a great appreciation for the arts. This was not something that Mattia had seen often from those who came from abroad. They were generally more interested in appearing knowledgeable and cultured than actually being so.

And yet the most thrilling aspect was that the Earl had then chosen to introduce him to another family that he could paint in the days to come. But this family was not just a simple job for him. No, there was much more to it.

Mr. Caulfield had requested a portrait from him after the strange departure of his wife and daughter. Mattia enthusiastically agreed to do the portrait, but found himself disappointed to realize that the father had no desire to have a family portrait, but rather just the one of himself.

Mattia was shocked at how large Mr. Caulfield wanted the painting to be. Generally, the size of canvas he was asking for was used for paintings of an entire man with a landscape behind him, but Mr. Caulfield wished this size for a painting of only his shoulders, neck, and head. But he would give Mr. Caulfield whatever he wished for.

Truly, however, the real work of art was Mr. Caulfield’s daughter. Miss Caulfield was entirely lovely. When he had first seen her, he thought he was in a dream.

Mattia could hardly believe his eyes. Was this woman a vision? Was she a creature from a painting? Perhaps she was a mythical mirage.

But no, she was real. She stood before him and gave him some sort of new life that he had never known before. This young woman, this Georgette Caulfield, was a living being, one which would ever hold him captive.

He wished for her to return from wherever it was that she had wandered off to. He wanted her to come back, to spend more time with him. He wished to get to know her.

Those large, orb-like green eyes were beautiful. The natural redness upon her cheeks was entirely charming. Her figure was elegant but womanly. And the hair that she tried to keep pinned up, hair nearly as dark brown as his own, seemed so full that it might burst free at any moment.

She would be a delight to paint. She would captivate him in every way if he had the fortune of getting to sketch her onto the canvas and fill in the lines.

Better than any flower or any sky, she was an artist’s dream.

Mr. Caulfield, however, was only going to be in town for a week and, in that time, Mattia was still going to be working on the portrait for the Earl of Rudford and would have time only for the head portrait of Mr. Caulfield. It was a great shame.

How ever limited he was, Mattia was still thrilled by two facts. The first, of course, being that he had found more wealthy English clients. And the second being that this allowed him to meet the young woman with the pink, rosebud mouth.

“I fear we are boring the lad,” Mr. Caulfield remarked then, and Mattia noticed that he was being watched by the two men.

“Oh, forgive me. There are times when I find myself distracted by my thoughts and how I intend to go about my work. I was imagining your portrait, Signor,” Mattia explained.

It was not exactly a lie, as he did often do this, but he also knew that in that moment, it was not Mr. Caulfield he was imagining painting.

“Well, that is a man of hard work, to be sure. My lord, I believe you have found a gem in this artist fellow of yours. Do you think you really can spare him for a few days to paint me?” Mr. Caulfield asked.

“It would be my pleasure to do so. I shall be here a bit longer than you. Not by much, but enough that I am able to delay my own piece by a day or two,” the Earl said generously.

“I am entirely thankful for it,” Mr. Caulfield replied.

Mattia watched the exchange but remained quiet. In some ways he felt as though he was being traded as a commodity among the men. But he could not allow himself to be offended by it.

These were patrons of his now. They were the men who could change his future.

When he had been so close to giving up, Mattia had finally been found by the right man. The Earl of Rudford was the rescuer of his dreams, he was the one who could open the door to the hopes Mattia had for his future.

“Well now, I am afraid that we must be off,” the Earl said then, suddenly realizing what time it was.

“Yes, and we as well. I believe my ladies are ready to dine,” Mr. Caulfield remarked, noticing that his daughter was returning.

Mattia looked at her immediately and noticed that she had a rather ill expression on her face. It was as if she might faint at any moment.

He wondered if something had occurred or if she was much disturbed by that letter she had received.

“We are actually planning to dine out as well. Mr. Ricci has suggested a place that he says will give us plenty of space and privacy with excellent food. Do you wish to join us?” the Earl offered, to Mattia’s delight.

He had chosen a rather small restaurant where they would be able to dine on lovely Italian food.

But it was also a place where he knew he would not be seen by any of his father’s friends or acquaintances. He was known to the owner of the place as the poor artist that he preferred to be known as.

It was hardly that he wished to appear as if in poverty, but Mattia was desperate to not make a name for himself based on that of his father.

He wished to be known for his art, as opposed to his family. He wished to be more than that.

“We should be delighted to join you!” exclaimed Mr. Caulfield.

“Well then, it is settled. The six of us shall dine together,” the Earl of Rudford declared.

Mattia looked once more at Miss Caulfield. He was going to be dining with her. He would be able to get to know her better, surely. This would be a small, quiet dinner and it would enable him the chance to see who she really was.

Taking two separate cabs, one for the men and one for the women, they made their way to the place.

When they arrived, it was clear that Miss Caulfield and her mother were at odds, and Mattia wondered if something had taken place on the short journey, some sort of exchange between them.

Whatever it was, he could sense that she was bothered. But still, whenever they made those brief moments of eye contact, he saw a softness in her.

During dinner, Mattia was asked all manner of questions about Italian art.

“If you want to see the greats, I must recommend Florence. Many will tell you Venice, but Florence is the place for art. The very air you breathe in the city is filled with creativity and excitement. I cannot imagine a man going to Florence and not feeling inspired,” he informed them.

“It sounds magnificent,” Miss Caulfield said, perhaps one of the first times she had spoken during the whole evening.

Her governess nodded as well. “Oh yes, it is quite breathtaking,” she agreed.

“You have been there?” he asked.

Miss Franklin nodded, looking to her employer. Mr. Caulfield was giving her a glare as if to remind her that it was not her place to make conversation at the table. She was a mere employee and had no business speaking out amongst them all.

“Well, I am very glad you have had such an opportunity. I do hope that your charge and her family have the same chance to see that magnificent city,” Mattia said politely.

Miss Caulfield grinned at his use of her word to describe it. He grinned back, hoping that it would go generally unnoticed by the rest of those seated with them. But soon the food arrived and it did not matter.

“That is quite a lot of cheese!” Mrs. Caulfield noticed, looking at the plate before her.

Mattia nodded. He was surprised that she had not expected it. It was not as though the English didn’t have cheese. But then again, he knew that his country’s meals were different from those in England, and he knew very little about their food.

The Caulfields certainly seemed to enjoy every bite, and it made him happy to see.

The restaurant was intimate, lit dimly within the honey-colored walls. Wine was brought out to garnish the meal and it was evident that the Caulfields were not opposed to this. Of course, their daughter and the governess were allowed none.

“You have chosen well for us to dine, Mr. Ricci,” commented the Earl of Rudford.

“I was going to say the very same,” Mr. Caulfield supplemented.

Mattia could sense that Mr. Caulfield was trying to gain the Earl’s approval the entire evening. But as he had been attempting to do the very same for the past two days, he could not judge the Englishman.

It had been simple to enter into conversation with the Earl of Rudford, and once he learned that Mattia was an artist, everything got easier.

But still, he wondered if the Earl would remain in his circle for his artwork, or if he would forget him the moment the portrait was complete. Would he cast him aside and move on to England without another word as so many had done?

Upon the conclusion of the meal, Mattia waited to say his farewells. It was most difficult to say goodbye to the young woman he had just met that very evening who had already become a part of his dreams.

He hoped that he would see her again frequently as he visited the Earl at the apartments, but he could not be sure.

If he was not fortunate enough to see her again, would he really be able to forget her?

A Night Rose for the Duke – Preview

Chapter 1

“Are you certain you do not want me to come with you?”

Eleanor Ashford smiled at the genuine concern she could hear in her brother’s voice. She shook her head as she stopped in her tracks and turned to look at him.

“I am simply going to the market for some shopping, Edwin, not the battleground.”

Edwin Wimbledon cocked his brows in a way that Eleanor usually found charming and completely adorable. His eyes twinkled as he feigned surprise, his voice teasing.

“There is a difference?”

Unable to help herself, she chuckled, shaking her head.

“No, there isn’t, dear brother. However, you must believe that I can fight my battles. Beyond that, no one would recognize me in my veil and drab clothing.”

Edwin said nothing in response. He only took his time to look her over. Then, he smiled in agreement, satisfied by his perusal.

“You are right. No one would recognize you. However, if any problem arises, do not hesitate to call for me.”

Not missing a beat, Eleanor answered, “I won’t, Edwin.”

“Promise me, Eleanor.”

Again, she smiled, as her heart warmed by his affection.

He loved her dearly, she knew this beyond doubt. He had proven it in countless circumstances. She loved him just as fiercely in return.

“Truly, Edwin. I am certain that the people of London have been occupied with better scandals since my departure. Surely, they are not about to start wagging their tongues after so many years now, are they?”

He was going to say something in protest but she stopped him, a polite smile on her face.

“I promise, Edwin. If any matter arises, I shall call for you.”

Edwin covered the distance between them in three strides, and took her soft hands into his. His blue eyes searched her amber gaze.

“Thank you, Eleanor. You know I worry about you for good reason. You have had to suffer too much and if not for me, you wouldn’t be here. I want to protect you at all costs.”

This time, Eleanor smiled as her heart swelled with powerful emotions for her brother. She withdrew one hand from his, and reached up to caress his cheek.

“You worry too much. I am a grown woman now, and I can take care of myself. One who hears you speaking would assume that I am in grave danger.

“Do not be so grim, dear brother. There is nothing they could possibly throw at me that I would not be able to shake off. I am your duck, remember?”

For the first time since this conversation began, Edwin smiled brightly. Eleanor knew that all was well, in that moment.

“You have always been too strong, too stubborn and too wise for your age,” he said. “Fine, you win this round. I shall not stall you any longer.”

He released her other hand and took two steps back, then turned to look at the lady who had been standing beside them, quietly watching the scene unfold.

She was Frances Jones, Eleanor’s best friend and companion.

She was also the woman who her brother was in love with, but was too scared to pursue. However, the way Edwin looked at Frances in that moment, the way he had been looking at her in recent days, assured Eleanor that that would not remain the case for long.

His eyes shone with an entirely different kind of emotion. From the corner of her eye, Eleanor saw her lady’s companion flush pink and look away, breaking eye contact with Edwin. It thrilled her greatly.

She had hired Frances three years ago, when her husband had died. Eleanor had been so lonely, and had reckoned that having a companion would be lovely.

Frances was a baron’s daughter who had been in search of employment at the time. They had immediately liked each other and felt at ease with each other. Eleanor did not have a single regret.

Over the years, the two had come to develop a profound friendship that came with love, mutual respect and care for each other.

The only thing that would remove Frances from Eleanor’s service was marriage. Eleanor liked to think that, when her brother finally grew the courage to court Frances, the lady would remain in her life as more than just a friend. That she would become a sister to her.

The way she saw it, it was a beneficial situation either way.

After all, one of the reasons she had agreed to come to London this season, was to make sure that this summer did not pass by without seeing the both of them happily wedded in holy matrimony.

“Take care of her, Miss Jones,” Edwin pleaded, his voice soft.

Frances could barely hold his gaze as she responded. It was such an amusing thing to watch.

“I shall, sir. However, you more than anyone know that the lady is capable of caring for herself.”

“Yes. Still, it pleases my heart to know that you shall be with her.”

Frances murmured her response. Still avoiding his gaze, she sank in a shallow curtsy.

Edwin bowed in response, though it was completely unnecessary. He waited until Frances had risen, before returning his attention to Eleanor.

“Very well, then. I shall visit my business ventures to see how things are moving. Do not take too long. Night sets too quickly these days and the streets of London have become more dangerous over the years.”

“We shall be back before the sun sets, brother. Have a good day.”

“And you. Farewell.”

As those last words were said, Eleanor spun on her feet and began to head for the large mahogany doors that served as the fore entrance to the Ashford townhouse. Frances followed behind, and so did the other maids that were accompanying them on their journey.

As she reached the door, she paused and drew her veil over her nose. Once she had it arranged carefully and securely, she nodded at the door.

The butler, Mr. Yates, understood perfectly well, and proceeded to open the doors for his lady. Eleanor muttered words of appreciation as she walked past him.

A carriage was waiting by the time she was done descending the stairs. With the help of her footman, she climbed into it.

As soon as the other ladies were seated with her, she gave two knocks against the wall of the carriage. They took off, the horses sending the wheels rolling down the streets as they galloped.

The journey to the market would be a long one, Eleanor knew. Their townhouse was located in a quiet part of London, free from most of the noise and crowds.

It would be some time before they arrived at their destination. Eleanor surmised that it would be good to put it to use and assess her thoughts. The ride would be a quiet one, she knew.

As she looked out the window, taking in the obvious changes that had occurred since the last time she visited London, she acknowledged how grateful she often was for peace and quiet.

Eleanor immensely enjoyed the sound of silence for one reason: she could hear her thoughts, loud and clear.

She could sieve through them, walk through them, untie the knots that left her confused and throw away the things that threatened to make her spirit weary.

As the carriage took them further towards the market, the thought that took the fore post in her mind, was her conversation with Edwin.

Indeed, her brother had had good cause to worry about her wellbeing. Truly, it was not as though she was in any grave danger – certainly not physically. However, there was a great likelihood that she would come to emotional harm.

It had been three years. Three seasons since she last set foot on London soil.

Back home, when she had finally agreed to come to London with Edwin for this season, she had reckoned that she was now strong enough to return to a place that held unpleasant memories for her.

Too many unpleasant memories. The last time she had been in London, she had lost her husband. The only other man, aside her brother, that had truly loved her.

Even as she had mourned, the whispers had reached her. Such a shame a man like the Earl of Grenshire perished in this way. But it serves her right. She deserved it.

Those who had come into her home to share condolences had said spiteful words as they left, believing that the walls did not have ears. Oh, but they did, and they had whispered these words to Eleanor in return.

It had taken little time to learn that these words also roamed the streets of London. The moment she had felt strong enough to make the journey, she had left London for Grenshire, the county where her late husband had lorded over as its earl.

The county which she now oversaw as Lady Grenshire, its Countess.

She had remained in the county for the whole year that constituted her mourning period and after it had ended, she had refused to return to London, had refused to partake in any season for two more years.

Grenshire was peaceful. The people there loved their countess, they adored her and they respected her.

In London, well, she held no one’s regard. The people who lived in London did not give it freely, except when one made them bow by enforcing their power and status.

She was not one of such people to wield her powers that way. So, she had stayed where she was loved.

Her nose itched, and she lifted a hand to scratch it through her veil. She had not worn this veil in two years, it would surely take some time to get accustomed to.

After the mourning period had been completed, she had abandoned her black clothes for other drab colours – shades of brown, grey.

After another year, she had begun wearing clothes that had brighter colours, but not so bright that they called too much attention.

The moment Edwin had succeeded in convincing her to come to this season by his side, she had known that she would not be able to live such a life in London.

Eleanor was aware that a part of her wanted to hide from the people, from their vicious whispers. It mattered little. She was not concerned with defying that part of her.

She simply wanted to have a quiet season. Perhaps attend a few balls, see a few plays and opera performances, take some walks in the park – all the whilst, keeping her identity hidden.

She had made her household understand that, until she was ready to do otherwise, she was not to be called by her name outside of the townhouse.

Nevertheless, she knew that it was only a matter of time before word got around that Benjamin Ashford’s widow had returned to London. When that time came, Eleanor would decide the course of action. For now, she was quite content with living in the shadows.

They had arrived in London only two days ago. As refreshingly different as the air smelled, she could not bite back the feelings of nostalgia that threatened to overwhelm her.

If only Edwin had not requested this favour, so he could properly court Frances, she truly may not have given in. Alas, here she was.

Enough brooding, she chided herself, as the carriage rolled into the market. She was doing more than enough by hiding herself. Since she was here, it would be best to make the most of it.

Certain that no one would recognize her behind this veil, she was sure she could enjoy her time here in London. She had to.

These were the thoughts that remained on her mind as the carriage came to a stop, bringing her back.

As soon as she came to, the noise of the market’s commotion came rushing, filling her ears to the brim. She tore her gaze from the window, noting that she truly had not seen anything, but had simply been staring.

She turned to Frances who was staring at her with curious eyes.

“We are here, my lady.”

She flashed her friend a bright smile in return, eager to ease her worry. Frances knew her well enough to know that she had gotten lost in her thoughts, once more.

“Indeed, we are. Shall we?”

All the ladies were helped down from the carriage by the footman who had ridden alongside with the coachman in front.

As Eleanor’s feet touched the ground, she drew in a deep breath and looked around to take everything in. The stalls, and the stores. Errand boys running around, gentry and other people of status making their purchases.

The market was just as she remembered with only a few differences to mark changes. She was back, and out here, in the open.

A feeling of anxiety tried to rear its head, but she shut it off. None of that, not today, she told herself.

Looking at the servants she had brought with her, she gestured at the whole market, waiting to be explored. And with the brightest smile she could muster, though they wouldn’t see it, she said:

“Ladies, shall we begin?”

Chapter 2

“Your Grace, do you hear me, at all?”

Charles Duncan raised his head to look at the man seated in front of him. There was a pause as he tried to concentrate on the question that had been asked.

He smiled at the young man whom he considered to be his right hand.

“Ah, my apologies, Winston. I got lost in thoughts, trying to decipher what is wrong with these records. Something seems not quite right. It is as though there is a confusion somewhere. I only can’t seem to determine what it is.”

He sighed, rubbing his face with his hand.

He very much disliked it when his accounts did not balance. He knew this was no fault of his accounts’ officer. Someone, somewhere, somehow, must have created the wrong records.

“The ledger, Your Grace?” Kennedy Winston, asked.

Charles nodded his head. “Yes. The total sum here is above two thousand pounds. However, we have spent a sum of over three thousand pounds. I do believe that we must have purchased something that is not accounted for.”

“Have you asked the Dowager Duchess, Your Grace? She may have bought something without your knowledge. You know how women are. Her Grace may have forgotten to mention it to the accounts’ keeper.”

Once again, Charles went into thought as he considered this.

His mother was no frivolous spender, and she never forgot to inform the accounts’ keeper of purchases she made. However, there was always a first time.

Beyond that, with the season around the corner, his mother had been doing a lot of shopping with his younger sister. She loved nice things and, once in a while, fancied spoiling herself.

“You know what, Winston? I believe this the most probable answer. I shall speak to my mother about this. I am certain she will remember easily, if that is the case.

“If it is not, then we may have to bring out all the receipts and make certain the issue is not from the entry.”

“Of course, Your Grace.”

Charles nodded, willing to put the matter aside. However, something remained in his mind, gnawing at him.

It was not a good feeling, and whenever he had such bad feelings, something terrible always ended up happening.

He would know. He had had years of experience to ascertain that it was no fluke. Well, as soon as we are done with this discussion, I will see Mother, he thought.

“You may carry on, Winston. You were saying something before my thoughts stole me away from this meeting.”

“Indeed, Your Grace. I was talking about the Larson investment. The runners from Bow Street have come with their reports. They suspect that Lord Larson is indeed, hiding something. They uncovered details that point to bankruptcy. I asked them to investigate further.”

Winston paused to search his brief bag for some papers. He soon found all that he was looking for, and handed them over to Charles in a neat stack.

Charles accepted them and began to flip through the papers. His eyes widened as he went further.

When he was done, he looked up at Winston. “All of these are reports from the firm. These show that they are in so much debt already.”

Winston bobbed his head, and adjusted in his seat, so he could draw closer.

“The runners say that they have also seen him frequenting gaming halls in the past few weeks. Although, he wears a disguise in an attempt to be discrete. He also hires a coach. It is quite easy to tell it’s him though.”

Charles relaxed into his sofa and place his hand on his jaw. He heaved a deep sigh.

Larson’s firm was a merchant company that dealt in importing furniture and clothing materials from the continent. They had been in the business for decades, and had once been the leading firm.

However, lately, they had been relegated to the background. Now, Charles knew why. Larson was taking out funds, and putting nothing back in.

“Do you think this is how Larson got into so much debt in the first place? He must have gambled it all away. I have never had the chance to play a game of cards with him, but I have heard that he is not so much of a worthy opponent.”

“Word on the streets also says that he is a very proud one at that, a sore loser who does not know when to cut his losses. He must have bet away all of his fortune.

“Quite sad, if you ask me,” Winston said. “He had succeeded in running the firm, and yet ran his family’s heritage to the ground.”

Charles smiled sadly as he remembered his late father. “Father had told me, just before the illness took him away, that the late Lord Larson would have done better leaving the firm in his nephew’s hands. The boy has acted like Father had suspected he would. A shame.”

“What could you do, Your Grace? He came to you with a handsome proposal. I am sure he must have gone to others too. He wants you to invest in a business that has nothing to give in return.”

Again, Charles cracked a smile. It was a small one.

Winston was one of the few people he smiled around. The boy had been in his service for eight years, since he was only fourteen. He ran all of Charles’ errands. He also took care of matters that Charles did not absolutely have to attend to, himself.

Charles was proud of how far they had come. Winston had always been a bright lad, but now, he was so much wiser.

He had also developed an uncanny knack for business. Charles had plans to make him the official manager of his company when the young man clocked twenty-five.

“The proposal was handsome indeed. I never would have had cause to investigate if I had not gotten an untoward feeling about it.”

The same untoward feeling that had led him to find out the truth about his sham marriage, all those years ago.

Back then, he had been ungrateful for it, believing that blissful ignorance would have been the best. He had later realized that learning the truth, was much better than living a lie.

“We shall have to act fast, of course. Make certain that no one falls into his traps.”

He took one more look at the documents.

“For now, we shall wait for more proof from the runners. It is quite clear that Larson plans to use our money to pay off his debts, and perhaps, run away. Not on my watch.”

A sudden thought came to him.

“I believe there is someone else we must bring into this. My brother-in-law, Thomas. Larson went to him with a proposal too, I believe. Thomas is a merchant by blood and bone. He may have better ideas as to how to bring Larson to justice.”

“I agree, Your Grace. As always, a wise decision,” the young man concluded, smiling. It flattered Charles.

“Thank you, Winston. You have done a good job with this one. Are there any other reports?”

“Yes, Your Grace…”

The young man continued, and this time, Charles listened attentively.

They conversed at length about the family business, and also, affairs of his dukedom, Finchester. They were almost rounding off their discussion when his mother stepped into the study.

She had two servants on her trail, and they both carried a tray of meal servings in their hands.

“Ah. I knew you two would still be here, talking away. It has been three hours and not once have you requested for even tea. I decided if you would not come out for a meal, then I shall bring the meal to you.”

Winston rose to greet her, his face lighting up with a smile. It was common knowledge that Charles’s mother saw the baron’s son as hers. He also regarded her as the mother he never had.

He bowed and rose, before going to kiss her hand. “Your Grace, you are far too kind. You look lovely today, as always. Such ageless beauty.”

The Dowager Duchess of Finchester smiled at the flattery. “Charles’ influence on you shows by the day. Only, this one has ceased to put his sweet words to use.”

She eyed him, and he blissfully ignored her. He knew what she was on about. However, today was no day to discuss such things.

The servants came to the table that stood between Winston and Charles, and deposited the trays. After pouring them wine, they curtsied and took their leave.

His mother was about to follow suit when he stopped her, remembering the accounts.

“Mother?”

“Yes, son?”

“There seems to be a little difficulty with the accounts. Something appears to be amiss. A total sum of three thousand pounds and then some change, went out of the purse in the past month. However, this ledger only accounts for two thousand.”

The Duchess’ eyes widened. She quickly came forward to take the ledger from him. A quick glance was all she needed to see the problem.

“Yes. You are right. I see where the mistake is.”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

Charles heaved a sigh of relief. Winston had been right. His mother had made some purchase. She must have remembered now.

“All of the household items we purchased from Mr. Raleigh seem to be less than the amount of the actual purchases. Right here, it says we paid two hundred and fifty pounds for the gas lamps. We paid four hundred, Charles.”

Charles’ brow raised in question. What was his mother on about?

“You mean you did not make a purchase you failed to mention?”

She turned to give him an incredulous look. “When have I ever? Besides, I have too many things already. I have no need for anything new at the moment.”

She continued, “All of the jewellery and clothes I bought with your sister will last me the season. And Thomas took care of them all.”

They had gotten it wrong then. And if his mother was right about Mr. Raleigh, their trusted merchant…

“Mother, if what you are saying is true, this means that Mr. Raleigh has been collecting a particular sum from the staff, but writing something else on the receipts?”

His mother did not reply immediately. There was a pause and she appeared to be in thoughts.

“Or, the servants whom we have been sending to make the purchase, have been hiking the prices for their benefits. We can only confirm this by speaking to them.”

The servants? Why would they? He trusted his household staff and he rewarded them with handsome wages. And Mr. Raleigh had been the family’s supplier for years. What reason would he have to start deceiving them now?

“You are right, Mother. The only way to be sure, is by speaking to them. I do believe the hike was put on several other purchases, so that it wouldn’t be noticed. They all have summed up to a thousand pounds.”

“Too much money for anyone to think to steal, believing it would go unnoticed. But greed knows no contentment.”

Charles could not agree more. He nodded at his mother, and she nodded in return. As she spun to take her leave, he turned to look at Winston who had been quiet all this while.

“We must eat. It seems to me that we have a long day ahead of us. First, we shall go to the market to speak with Mr. Raleigh. Then, we shall go to Thomas. Afterwards, we may meet with the runners.”

It was settled. They delved into the delicious meal of bread and caribou stew. Afterwards, they stepped out of the house to continue this tiring day.

Full and busy it may be, but the emptiness Charles carried inside him failed to be filled. Just as it failed for years now.

He wondered if work was the answer. He wondered if there was any answer at all.

He wondered if he was doomed to forever feel incomplete and unsatisfied.

And so terribly alone.

Chapter 3

The hours passed by quickly, as they moved from store to store, and with every extra moment they spent in the market, Eleanor felt her inhibitions begin to leave her.

By the time the third hour clocked, she knew that she could proudly say that she felt truly free and relaxed.

She had other stops to make before heading back to the townhouse. The library was one of them. Remembering her promise to Edwin, she concluded that it would be best to leave the market, sooner rather than later.

Just as she voiced out this thought to Frances, who agreed, a commotion broke out, catching her attention. Suddenly, everyone was going east, where they could hear the noise coming from.

Eleanor shared an intrigued look with Frances and when her lady nodded, she did the same.

Curious to see what was causing the hullabaloo, they too began walking in that direction. By the time they arrived at the scene, a crowd had formed, obstructing their views from what was truly happening.

Squaring her shoulders, Eleanor held her head high and her spine straight. With that regal tone of command she rarely used, she spoke.

“Excuse me.”

A path began to clear for her upon those simple words. It was the effect of the regal tone, and when they turned to see that she was a lady indeed, more people stepped aside.

This continued until she stood in front of the crowd, and had a clear view of what was happening.

A quick look at the situation was all she needed to understand the matter.

There, was a trader’s store with loaves of bread and fruits arranged in front, in an enticing manner that was sure to draw buyers. In front of the store stood an angry-looking bald man.

A brown apron was tied to his waist. A loaf of bread was pressed in his one hand, while the other hand held on tightly to the shirt of a little boy.

The boy looked not more than ten. His face was set in unremorseful, hard lines, but Eleanor was more concerned about his eyes.

His eyes held fear, pain, and a twinge of tears. This boy was scared, and was simply putting up a façade of bravado.

Sadly, Eleanor was aware that people often saw what they wanted to see. All they would see in this moment, was an unrepentant thief, and not a hungry little boy who had had to steal, for lack of better choices.

“Ye must think yerself smart and fast, eh? Do ye not? Stealin’ mi bread an’ runnin’ off in a hurry, believin’ I wouldn’t catch ye, did ye? After all, an ol’ man like me would never be able to run like a young lad like ye, eh?”

The trader’s hands fisted the boy’s shirt more tightly, drawing him closer to stare at him menacingly. The trader was bent at his waist in a bid to remain at eye level with the boy.

The boy held his gaze, dauntless. Eleanor could see his legs wobble and his hands, which fell at his sides, shake.

She observed his form. He was truly skinny, with delicate bones and little flesh to cover up these bones. His clothes were brown from dirt and his hair, too long from going for a long time without a proper cut.

Her heart flew to her throat, beating fast for this poor child. Something in her gut twisted, but she held her peace, wanting to watch the scene unfold, knowing that she could only step in when the situation truly called for it.

The trader’s bellow shook her out of her thoughts, once more. “Answer me boy! Ye gone deaf? Or mute? Ye an’ yer likes ha’v been stealin’ mi things for too long now. Any more and I might hafta close up and go into the streets with mi family!

“No more! Ye shall be the first one I’ve caught, but I shall do well to make a good example of ye. What do ye suggest I do to ye? Eh boy?”

Still, the boy said nothing. His frown grew harder by the minute. This only angered the trader more.

As the man’s eyes flashed red, he threw the bread aside and lifted the boy up with two hands on his shirt.

The boy dangled in the air, and Eleanor could hear amused gasps around her.

“Ye not gon’ talk? I’ll teach ye how to speak and not to steal again!”

He raised his hand in that moment, and Eleanor could not resist shutting her eyes and turning away as a loud smack sounded in the air.

The silence that had held got disrupted by a loud cheer.

“Serves him right!”

“Hit him again!”

“Damn street urchins!”

“This will teach them not to steal!”

The wave of anger that had begun to rise in Eleanor, pushed higher until it was on the tip of her tongue.

She opened her eyes and looked back just in time to see the trader threatening to strike another slap across the boy’s chin.

She saw a tear drop from the boy’s eyes, but his lips remained set in hard lines. Her heart went out to the poor child.

As the cheers continued, her anger and disgust grew. Such inhuman treatment! How could they not have a twinge of pity for a hungry child?

“Yer a tough one, eh? I shall hand you over to the constables for a proper whoopin’. When they’re done with ye, ye’ll not be able to sit on your behind for weeks, ye’ll see. It’d be a miracle if the skin on yer back don’t peel.”

He raised his hand to slap the boy once more. Having had enough, Eleanor stopped him before he could strike again.

“No more! I forbid you to lay another finger on that child!”

The trader’s hand stopped mid-air and he turned around to look for whom the command had come from.

Eleanor stepped forward, her chin raised.

“Looking for me?” she said calmly, the anger she felt, barely remaining beneath the surface. Only if she had no veil on and they could see her face, they would apprehend how livid she was at this display of unabashed cruelty.

“Let the child go. How much is the cost of what he stole? I shall pay five times for it, to cover for all the losses you might have acquired in the past one week.”

The trader let the boy go instantly and when he fell to the ground with a thud, Eleanor winced.

She would take the boy home, and see to it that any injuries he had would be treated. She would also make sure she offered him a home and employment in her household.

She could not take every child off the street, but she could take a reasonable number. And she would.

She stood her ground, her chin in the air as the trader advanced towards her. In his full height, he towered over her by a couple of inches and he had a strong build that gave him a dominating look.

She was not afraid. If the little boy could stand his ground, so could she.

Besides, he would never hit a woman, all the more, a lady. It was forbidden. Surely, he knew he would pay a dear cost if he thought to attempt it.

“And who might ye be, milady? What makes ye think you have a say in this matter?”

She saw him search her eyes which was the only visible feature on her face. For a moment, her heart flipped and picked up a rough pace. She wondered if he would identify her.

She was quick to see the absurdity of her fear. She had never met this man in her entire life. She would remember, she never forgot faces.

Her voice was firm, loud and clear when she responded.

“My identity is of no consequence to you. Since you decided to take the law into your hands and make a public spectacle of this matter, I do believe it is the concern of every person you have drawn to this scene. Shopping activities have been disrupted and I find this particular spectacle rather unpleasing. I wish it to end.

“Hand the boy over to me, instead of the constables. You get your money and I shall see to it that you never see his face on these streets again.”

“What? Ye think takin’ this one off the streets is gon’ make any difference?”

His words fanned the embers of anger that had begun to burn inside of her. Disgust for this man filled her.

“Give him five pounds.”

Frances widened her eyes in question but she knew better than to question Eleanor in public. So, she withdrew a pouch from her reticule and did as she was told.

The man received the money too eagerly and counted it. When he saw that it was indeed five pounds, his jaw dropped.

“That loaf is worth no more than five cents. This is beyond five times what he stole.”

“I do believe you shall be gracious enough to give out bread to other children like him, who may happen around your store, would you not?”

Eleanor raised her chin proudly. “If our actions can make a difference, even if only for a day, then it is our duty, bestowed upon us by our Lord, to make them so.”

The man was apparently at a loss for words, but Eleanor had no interest in hearing any more words from him. She simply stepped around him and walked over to the boy. He still lay on the ground, looking up at her in awe.

Murmurs rose around them, but she ignored it all. Reaching out her hand, she held it mid-air and offered the boy the kindest of gazes she could. She needed the child to trust that she would not hurt him if he went with her.

She remained that way for some seconds, aware of the hundreds of gazes on her in that moment. It gnawed at her, but feeling slightly protected behind her veil, she managed to keep her anxiety at bay.

Just when she begun to lose hope, the little boy reached out his hand and took hers.

A surge of relief soared inside of her, overwhelming her with happiness. She smiled as she helped him up.

Only, as she straightened herself and turned to go back the way she had come, an unfortunate thing happened.

Her veil fell.

Chapter 4

Shock held her frozen as her face became bare for the whole market to see.

It took her seconds to shake the shock off, reach for her veil, and put it back in place. Nevertheless, those seconds were enough for people who remembered her face to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

The murmuring increased and she could hear people gasp aloud.

“Lady Grenshire!”

An English rose, they’d called her once, and her beauty and grace were admired by many. But then things changed, and she was named a flower poisonous.

A Night Rose, the rumors called her, briary and treacherous, that brought only bad luck.

She turned to look at Frances, whose eyes were wide open in apprehension. Every reasonable thought vanished from Eleanor’s head.

She felt as though she had just been stripped naked in front of all these many people. No matter what they said, she felt she had no thorns to protect her whatsoever.

As she stood, rooted in that spot, she looked around the crowd and saw thoughts of her on their faces. They were unpleasant thoughts, written in their smirks, and frowns, and sneers.

Silently, she sent a prayer up above, wishing that the ground open and swallow her.

Then, she felt something squeeze her hand and she looked down to see the boy she had rescued, looking up at her reassuringly.

He squeezed again as if offering her strength. It was a much-needed gesture and Eleanor welcomed the strength he gave.

As she drew it in, her airway finally cleared and she could suddenly breathe again.

The stale breath left her, giving way for fresh breath to flood her lungs, and she realized that she had not even been aware of the fact that she had been holding her breath.

Alas, now she could breathe and by breathing, she could think. The first thought that came to mind was to leave, with her pride intact.

Deciding to do just that, she squared her shoulders once more, and rose her chin in the air. Then, she began to walk.

She was almost at Frances’s side when the trader spoke again, causing her to halt.

“Lady Grenshire? Cow’s skin! Who would have thought? Ye have returned to London, after all these years, and already taking in strays, milady?”

He scoffed. “Do ye believe that forgiveness will be earned ‘cause of it? That yer sins will be erased?”

His words pierced right through her like a spear, hitting Eleanor where it hurt the most.

Her heart squeezed and her chest tightened. She contemplated the wisest thing to do in this situation, whether to give him a befitting reply or simply walk away.

The words of a man she had loved greatly rung in her ears, and as those words did, she saw his smiling eyes and lips. She remembered the day as clear as sky.

“Don’t get in the mud with pigs, dear Eleanor. They will enjoy it, you won’t.”

Her decision was apparent. She kept her back turned to the trader, unwilling to dignify him with a response.

Just as she was about to resume walking, another voice stopped her.

“That is no way to speak to a lady now, is it? You may be common folk, but surely, you were taught lessons on propriety and basic etiquette, were you not?”

Eleanor’s body turned of its own will to look at the gentleman who had come to her rescue.

There he was, standing tall and proud in all his glory. The most handsome man she had seen in a while.

Her eyes held his for a brief moment, and she saw that clear grey gaze that looked like it held a million secrets. She would know about secrets in a person’s eyes. She saw such reflection in her own, whenever she looked in the mirror.

Her throat suddenly felt dry and as she swallowed, the man broke eye contact and turned to look sternly at the trader.

“What say you, Mr. Rogers? Have you suddenly gone deaf? Mute?”

He started walking closer to them and as he did, the trader took steps back, as if afraid of what this gentleman would do to him.

A hush enveloped the crowd, halting the loud murmurs that had been raging just seconds ago.

The man finally came to stop just two feet away from Eleanor, and five feet away from the trader. This closely, Eleanor could see his features more clearly. His face had hard lines, a chiseled jaw and tight lips.

His eyes were small, and atop his head, sat a mass of neat blond hair which he held tied back. The same blond hair ran down the side of his face along the line of his jaw.

His skin was fair but still darker than hers, no doubt by much time in the sun. This close, Eleanor realized that he was even better-looking than she had presumed.

The fact that she noticed this man in such manner, stirred an uncomfortable feeling within her.

“Your Grace…” the trader stammered.

Eleanor jerked her head in his direction, then looked back at the man. Your Grace?

Indeed, he truly appeared to be a man of high status. The way he carried himself and the way his shoulders stood broad and squared.

It was the posture of a man who knew his worth, the power it brought him, and how to wield that power.

His dressing was also impeccable, in the latest fashion. He wore a pair of grey pantaloons, black hessian boots, a white shirt, grey double-breasted waist coat, and a black tail coat.

His cravat spotted a delicate and skilful embroidery and it was tied in the fanciest of knots. He held his hat in his hand – he had it taken off as he approached her. His other hand held an elegantly carved stick, with a silver crest as its crown.

He pinned a heavy gaze on the trader and Eleanor could feel the man – Mr. Rogers, as he had been called – shrivel beside her. Surely, the identity of this man was well-known and he was well-respected. But who could he be?

“Have you nothing to say for yourself, Mr. Rogers?”

“No, Your Grace, of course not. I apologize. I am aware of the simple manners of the society. I should never have used such language on a lady, how much more, a lady of apparent status. I overstepped.”

All the while, he kept his head bowed, not daring to hold the gentleman’s gaze. It was a wonder that he had managed to utter the sentence without stuttering, or wetting his breeches. From where Eleanor stood, it appeared as though he was fighting a battle against doing just that.

The man seemed unimpressed by the show of ingenuine remorse, as unimpressed as Eleanor felt. Nevertheless, he went ahead to say, “It is not me who you owe an apology to, Mr. Rogers. It is the lady.”

Rogers swiftly turned to Eleanor, and dipped in a very deep bow. Earnestly, he offered his apologies.

“Milady, I do not know what overcame me. That was impetuous and absolutely impertinent of me. I pray thee, forgive my misgivings. It shall ne’er happen again. I was wrong. I offer my sincerest apologies.”

Anyone could see through the farce. Eleanor saw through it most of them all. Nevertheless, she had grown weary of the entire event and wished for it to be brought to an end.

So, heaving a deep sigh, she simply said, “Consider all forgiven, Mr Rogers. All I request is that you remember our business, and feed more hungry children this week. I bid you good day.”

“Most gracious, my lady! You are most gracious. I thank ye!”

Those particular words sounded sincere, but Eleanor could not be bothered to be moved. He was simply happy that he had been left off easily.

Ignoring him, she turned to look at the gentleman who had come to her aid.

The way Rogers had addressed him, let her know that he was a duke. Swiftly, she sunk into a shallow but graceful curtsy.

“Many thanks, Your Grace,” she said as she rose. “You did not have to, but you came to my rescue nonetheless. I shall remember this kind deed. You are indeed gracious.”

For the first time since she set her eyes upon the man, she saw his lips perk up in what she could only hope was a smile – a very small one.

It was gone in an instant.

“I did it not for gratitude, simply for the fact that it was what was right to be done. Sadly, our society loses regard for the women folk day by day. And society comprises of men like Mr. Rogers here.”

He looked at the boy whom she held. Then he looked back at her, and nodded his head in the little boy’s direction.

“A great deed you did, saving the child from the spectacle. The constables’ office is the worst place for children like this to go. No one owns them, so they are treated as nobodies.

“I wish it were not so, yet it is sadly the world we live in. It is something I hope to change in good time, nevertheless.”

There was a pause as he looked at the crowd which had begun to thin out. Then, he returned his gaze to her.

“I had been watching the scene unfold and was just about to intervene, when you did. You meant what you said about caring for the child, did you not?”

Eleanor had been so captivated by his voice and the way his words flowed out powerfully, yet softly, that it took her a moment to process the question he had asked.

She shook her head as she did, bringing herself back to the present.

One look at the boy who looked back at her with hopeful eyes, confirmed the decision she had made in a haste. “Yes. I meant every word of it.”

“Very good then. These streets are no place for a young girl.”

Eleanor was about to counter that she was no girl but a grown woman, but she quickly fathomed he was speaking of the boy she held.

“A girl?” she asked, the confusion in her voice loud.

The man looked at the child once more, and back at her. “Yes. Anyone with trained eyes would see at first glance that that is no boy.

“The bone structure is different, delicate. Facial features are feminine and hair is too long and healthy for a boy to have grown it.”

Eleanor’s eyes widened at this revelation, and she took one good look at the child.

Her eyes widened further when she saw the truth of his words for herself. Ah. Indeed, the gentleman was right.

The girl had done a good job to disguise herself in men’s clothing. Yet, on a closer look, it was obvious. She was a girl, through and true.

A fresh wave of anger surged through Eleanor again. She fought to keep it bridled.

To think that the girl would have had to suffer such injustice! And what if the wrong person had realized that she was a girl child?

It was not spoken of, nevertheless, it was no secret that there were men who derived pleasure from doing evil things to little children.

Indeed, these streets were no place for a girl. More than before, she felt a sense of protectiveness towards this girl. She looked into those blue pools and a message passed between the two of them.

She would protect her. She would keep her in her care, under her wing, and the girl would never have to steal or beg for food for as long as Eleanor had the power to control that.

Eleanor had no children. In all probability, she would never have children, no matter how much this pained her. But she could help children that weren’t hers.

A powerful urge to take the girl into her embrace rose in her, but she dampened it. Later, she promised herself. Then, she looked up at the gentleman.

“That was quite perceptive, my lord. I never guessed it. Thank you. Now, I am even gladder that I stepped in.”

He nodded as he wore his hat. “As I am. I also express admiration for your kind heart. Now, you must forgive me for I am in a hurry and I have to take my leave.”

He looked at the young girl by her side, once again. His eyes reflected the kindness in his heart. “I am to be assured that she is in good hands?”

Eleanor nodded her head. “I shall take very good care of her. I am responsible for her from now on.”

This time, he was the one who nodded. Then, he bent in a bow. After rising, he said, “In that case my lady, I wish you God’s best. Fare well.”

She was charmed, utterly. “Fare well,” she repeated his words.

He cracked a small smile once more, and tipped his hat before turning to go.

It was not until he got onto his carriage, that she realized she had not learned his name.

Oh, so much for the encounter.

Nevertheless, she had thanked him well enough. That was a comforting thought to consider. It was just as well.

The whole scene was over, and now, they could return home. For a moment there, she had forgotten about her trepidation at being discovered. Now that it was over, it came to gnaw at her skin.

She tugged the girl’s hand, eager to be on their way. “Come, child, we must go now.”

With two strides, she joined Frances and her other maids and sent for the carriage to be brought around.

There had been enough shopping for today. Even the visit to the library would have to be postponed. She suddenly felt tired and needed to rest.

More than that, she could not wait to ask the girl questions about how she got to be on the streets in the first place.

They did not have to wait long before the carriage came to where they were. One by one, they were helped in by the footman. As Eleanor climbed, she caught wind of some whispers.

“Wasn’t that the Duke of Finchester? His Grace, Charles Duncan?” It was a woman’s voice.

Eleanor paused mid-way, curious to catch the rest of the conversation.

“Yes. It was. Word has it that he is a fearsome man, and quite formidable to make an enemy of,” another woman replied.

“Oh, but he is handsome, is he not? It’s been two years since he lost his wife. Do you think he may be considering taking another wife this season?” the first woman asked again.

“Who knows? Even if he is, common folk like you and I do not stand a chance. Surely, you know this,” the second answered.

Deciding that she had heard enough, Eleanor took the last step and fully entered the carriage.

When they had all settled in, she gave three knocks, and the wheels began to roll the way home.

Charles Duncan, the Duke of Finchester, she thought. In her mind’s eye, she combined the name with the golden head and those fierce grey eyes.

A flutter in her chest made itself known, but Eleanor decided to blame it solely on the excitement of the day.