Two Years Previously
Rain lashed heavily against the roof of the coach and the wind buffeted it, causing it to jerk and shake, but they charged on. The coachman yelled at the horses over the rumble of the storm, their hooves kicking up water as they pulled the rickety wheels across the cobbled roads.
Still, inside the coach, the mood was merry and the air filled with love and laughter. Twenty-year-old Lydia and her parents were on their way home after visiting her cousins, where they’d had simply the best time.
“And Cordelia claiming she will never marry, for she needs no man!” Lydia’s mother—the Duchess of Dorset—wiped a tear of laughter away from her cheek, sighing as she caught her breath. “I’ve never seen that brother of mine look so horrified in all my life.”
“No, I don’t think Uncle Matthew found it quite so amusing,” Lydia said, although she, too, could barely stop the giggles from coming. “Although I suspect that’s why she said it at all; she’s such a scamp when it comes to such things, always teasing.”
“She will be the death of him,” the Duke, Lydia’s father said, shaking his head. “I fear his heart will give out long before she has a chance to admit her folly.”
“Nonsense,” the Duchess replied. “Matthew is made of tougher stuff than that. And he knows as well as we do what his—oh!”
Lydia cried out at the same time as her mother, a hand flying to the wall of the coach in order to steady herself.
“What was that?” she cried, wide-eyed.
“My apologies,” Andrew, the coachman, called over his shoulder, practically screaming to be heard over the racket of the storm. He tried to keep the gaiety in his voice, but Lydia detected a hint of concern. It was the storm—it had to be. “Road’s a bit uneven, that’s all, and what with this weather . . . Will try and keep her straight enough. Not far to go, now.”
Laughter echoed through the interior once again, the Duchess chuckling at her fear, but this time it was tinged with unease. Lydia noticed that her mother still clutched to the seat, the color in her cheeks having paled a shade, even as she tried to feign amusement.
“And then Cordelia proclaimed that she could do a job as good as any man!” Lydia said, eyes sparkling. “And that she would flourish as a duke or an earl and positively flounder as a duchess or a countess.”
She looked at her parents and grinned, trying fruitlessly to return the conversation to the jollity of moments before. No luck. The mood had shifted and now the harsh weather and the roughness of the ride seemed to penetrate the very coach itself.
“Well, it’s a good thing she won’t have to face such hardships,” the Duke said with a sigh. “While I don’t doubt some women are perfectly capable, it’s rather unfair to put members of the fairer sex under such pressure, don’t you agree, darling?”
But the Duchess’ words were cut off by a loud bang and a sharp judder. Something had gone wrong, terribly wrong, and Lydia gasped. She spun around to look out of the window, her heart racing. They weren’t on the road anymore.
The Duchess instinctively put an arm out in front of Lydia as if to protect her. The coach shuddered and rocked, and the coachman yelled out frightfully.
“What’s happening?” Lydia called, her voice high with terror. But Andrew didn’t answer her; he was too consumed in trying to calm the horses.
“Whoa, there. Whoa!”
Lydia looked around in a blind panic, and she saw the fear written across both her parents’ faces, too. Even over the sporadic cracks of thunder and the pelting rain, she could hear the whinnying of the horses as they pulled and wrenched themselves apart, as fearful and uneasy as she.
“Whoa, all right, easy,” Andrew cried, desperately trying to regain control, but the sheer and utter terror that ran through his voice told Lydia he was failing.
Everything seemed to slow, and then there was only silence. Lydia could see her mother shouting something at her, her father gesticulating wildly, but none of it was getting through. None of it made sense.
All she could hear was the thudding of her own heart, the rushing of her own blood. She turned to watch out of the window, her chest heaving.
“The cliff,” she cried, turning to her mother and then back again, though she could not hear her own words. “It’s fast approaching.”
The coach lurched again, and they were off the cliff edge, flying through the air, their speed keeping them upright. Lydia yelped as her mother threw herself across her lap and yanked at the latch on the door, throwing it open and making the coach swerve and jump in the air.
It snapped back against the wall of the coach, slamming against it and then falling away. They were in the air, heading straight ahead, but falling as they went.
It all came flooding back then, in one big whoosh of noise and chaos. Below them, Lydia could hear the roar of the sea, rushing to them. She could hear the screams of the horses, of the coachman, of herself.
Time slowed, and Lydia took in everything, her senses on high alert.
“Come on, come on,” the Duke growled as he scrambled at the latch on the other door, but it was stuck firm. He slammed a fist against it and again, the coach juddered in the air. “Damn you!”
If they did nothing, soon they would smash into the rock face ahead of them. Soon, they were going to die.
Lydia looked at her mother. The fear had gone from the Duchess’ eyes, to be replaced by a serene calm, an acceptance of what was happening. She put a hand against Lydia’s chest as they hung, seemingly still, in the air.
Then she spoke, and her soft words echoed ghostly over the deafening noise. They were words Lydia would hear in her dreams for the rest of her life.
“Look after Angela and William. We love you all dearly, and we always will.”
With that, she felt a hard push against her chest and then she was falling, falling, no longer in the coach but in the cold air, her gown billowing out around her, the fear snatching at her scream and leaving her silent as she watched the coach above her.
Is this it? Is this how I die?
She hit the water with a thud, and then plunged into its depths, the bitter icy cold stealing her breath. She opened her mouth to gulp in the air, but all she got was a mouthful of salty, grimy water.
She tried to cough, to choke it away, but only succeeded in inhaling more water. She tried again, her panic making her gasp and her gasp making her take in more of the filthy water. Finally, she gave up.
She opened her eyes and let the water take her. It was too surreal, a nightmare she couldn’t wake up from, and as the last wisps of breath left her body, she found she didn’t even want to wake up.
Around her, bits of broken wheel, a strip of rope, the personal effects of her parents, floated peacefully through the water, air bubbles running up from them where they had landed, the noise and the turmoil and the terror forgotten already.
Lydia Stanley closed her eyes, lay back into the water, and drifted off into the darkness.
It didn’t feel how she fancied death would feel. The pulling, the tugging, the sudden rushing air—none of it was how she thought it would be, on the occasions she let herself imagine.
She could hear the shouts in the distance, calling to her, begging her, and Lydia turned to them, trying to understand, trying to hear.
“Lady Lydia! Lady Lydia!”
That’s when the pain hit her, the blistering agony across her left cheek, the heavy ache in her arms, and she was flung back into her body, back to reality. She rolled over onto her side and spluttered, coughing up sea water and watching it puddle on the sand.
“Atta girl,” she heard someone say—a man, and one she knew, though couldn’t place. “Get it all up now.”
She opened her eyes to a bleary scene: the shore—a mix of sand and stone; Andrew—falling back against a rock, spent and bleeding from several wounds; the dark shadow in the distance that she refused to let herself see. Not yet.
“What . . .” She tried to speak but was overtaken yet again by racking coughs. She bent double, leaning heavily on her elbow as she retched.
“We fell into the sea,” Andrew explained, his voice heavy with exhaustion and weariness. “Away from the . . .” He indicated vaguely in the direction of the dark shadow, of what she had been avoiding looking at. “That’s what saved us both.”
She nodded mutely, gathered her strength and her will, then forced herself to turn and look at the wreckage.
A whimper spilled unbidden from her lips. The coach had crashed against the rocks, smashing into a thousand pieces. And there, just in view, were two very still dark figures, bent and contorted around the jagged rock surface.
“No, m’lady,” Andrew cried with a renewed energy. “Don’t look.”
But it was too late. The image was seared into her mind, and it would stay there for the rest of her life.
“You saved my life,” she said, the numbness mercifully flooding her body as she turned back to look at him. “You pulled me from the water.”
“I only did what anyone would have done,” he said with a shrug. His legs were splayed out in front of him, his shoulders sagging. “And if she hadn’t pushed you out . . .”
“Mother.” Lydia breathed the word rather than said it, her eyes closed against the pain. But it wasn’t enough, the agony and the anguish found a way through.
The tears began to fall, burning against the damaged flesh on her face, but she didn’t care. If it burned enough, perhaps it would drown out the pain she felt inside.
Andrew shuffled along the ground until he sat next to her, and he put his arm around her, whispering into her ear.
“I know, lass. I know. But we’ve got to hold it together now. We’ve got to keep going. You need to think of Lady Angela and Lord William, now.”
Of course. The realization dawned on her. She would be the head of their household now. She would have to look after her sister, barely sixteen, and William, only just twelve. She would have what her cousin Cordelia claimed to have wanted—the duties of a duke, at least until her brother came of age. And all because . . .
She glanced once again at the wreckage, unable to stop herself, and let out a loud and ugly sob. She truly didn’t know if she had the strength to carry on.
Humphrey peered out of the window as the coach pulled up in front of the house—his house, or soon to be, if his father had his way.
It was an imposing building. The gray brick was reminiscent of a castle’s coldness, even against the brightness of the drapes and the pretty flowerbeds planted in an attempt to make the place look cozy. There were eighteen large windows on the front of the house alone, and no doubt the same number at the back.
The smooth roof was interrupted by regular dormer windows. To Humphrey, they had always looked like eyes, staring down at him, seeing into his very soul, his thoughts and his feelings. He shook his head of the fancy—how his father would disapprove if he knew of his son’s wild imagination.
Humphrey felt the knot of tension tighten in his stomach, twisting and turning and churning. He had no desire to become the Earl of Somerset, or to live here. He only wanted to be free and to travel, to live his life in the way he chose, not anyone else.
“Is everything all right, my lord?” the coachman asked, pulling open the door and gazing in at Humphrey.
“What? Oh, yes, quite all right. Why?”
“It’s just we’ve been stopped for ten minutes now, my lord, and you haven’t got out yet. Don’t mean to speak out of turn, but the horses could do with walking cool.”
“What?” he repeated, feeling lost at the coachman’s words. And then he understood and he stuttered his apologies. “Oh, yes, of course, yes. I’m sorry. I . . .”
He trailed off and then clambered awkwardly out of the coach. He stood on the gravel path, just at the bottom of the four stone steps leading up to the double oak doors, as the coach trundled away behind him. He thought, briefly, how apt it was, that he was there, left to his fate and with no hope of escape.
“If only I were ready,” he muttered under his breath.
Humphrey Berkeley, second son of the Duke of Wiltshire, had recently turned twenty-eight years old, and he was soon to become the Earl of Somerset. He stood tall amongst his peers, with hair the color of chestnuts, curls of it peeking out from under the brim of his hat.
His eyes, a somewhat darker shade of brown, sparkled with life and energy, telling tales of his need for adventure, and his reluctance to settle into a life in England. It was not that he disliked England—far from it—but rather, his desire to see the world overrode any love he felt for his home country.
He’d had a good run, though. He lost his mother at the tender age of ten, and that had been tragic, of course, but he had since been granted the opportunity to discover himself. As a second son, he was not put under the same pressures as his elder brother, and he’d spent years traveling the world instead of learning how to run an estate.
Perhaps, he thought, if I’d spent a little more time learning then I wouldn’t be so filled with dread now.
“There you are!”
Pulled out of his reverie, Humphrey looked up at the door, mouth hanging open and blinking in surprise. His father had pulled it open in annoyance.
“You were supposed to be here half an hour ago,” the Duke said with a scowl.
“Yes, I’m sorry about that, we got held up at—”
“Well, nothing can be done about that now. Don’t just stand there like a fool, boy. Come on in. It is your home, after all. Or at least, it will be very shortly.”
Boy. Humphrey gaped. It didn’t matter how old he was, his father always knew how to make him feel like a five-year-old. The Duke chuckled at his reaction and turned on his heels, marching across the marble floor of the entrance hall, expecting Humphrey to follow.
Humphrey took a deep breath to prepare himself, then trotted up the steps and followed loyally. He may never see himself as an earl, but he knew it was good of his father to pass the title on to him.
He wanted to make the Duke proud for once, even if he had no idea how to do the job that was asked of him.
“Most of the rooms are still locked up,” the Duke said over his shoulder, the heels of his shoes clipping neatly on the floor as Humphrey scampered to keep up. “The maids I sent over have done the basics, but when your own staff arrive, they’ll need to give the place a thorough going over.”
“Yes,” Humphrey said, looking around him, part in awe, part in fear.
They walked past the carpeted staircase and the rich mahogany bannister that lined it. They ignored the doors to their left and right—each delicately carved with different hunting scenes. They passed the portraits of long-dead family members, all seeming to peer down at Humphrey in eager anticipation—and heavy expectation.
They headed straight for the back of the house, where Humphrey knew the study to be. As a family, they had spent time at Somerset Hall during the summer months, enjoying the vast gardens and the rooms so filled with natural light. Though all that had stopped when the Duchess died, Humphrey remembered the building well—both the good parts and the bad.
“Brandy?” the Duke asked, barging into the study and going straight to the cabinet. He pulled out two crystal tumblers and filled them halfway, without even waiting for a reply. When he turned, he thrust one at Humphrey with a wide grin.
“I must say,” he said, taking his son in, “you look positively burnt.”
“Burnt?” Humphrey held the glass in both hands and blinked rapidly.
“Yes. Burnt. Blackened. Overcooked. Like the maid has left the pig on the spit for too long.”
“Pig on the . . .”
Humphrey frowned and looked down at himself. He supposed his years of travel had darkened his skin somewhat but burnt and blackened seemed a little far-fetched. He preferred to think of caramel as being a closer description, or perhaps bronze.
“Exactly!” The Duke, still grinning, raised his glass as though in a toast, entirely oblivious to the fact that he had insulted his son. “In fact, your tan is a great indicator that you’ve had enough adventure for a lifetime—and not a moment too soon, neither. Once you’ve resettled, you’ll take on the Earldom.”
“So you explained in your letters,” Humphrey said, trying to force his frown away. He couldn’t let his father know his concerns.
“Indeed. Naturally, you’ll have the opportunity to ease yourself back into English life, but as soon as you’re ready—and don’t let that be too long, Humphrey—I shall pass you the title. Your brother may inherit the Dukedom only after my death, but there is no reason for me not to pass on my secondary title as an earl to you now.”
The Duke looked eagerly at Humphrey who, in turn, forced an encouraging smile to his lips. His father looked positively ecstatic about the idea, and Humphrey was loath to ruin it for him.
But, as soon as I’ve resettled . . .
He didn’t want to resettle, and he didn’t like the thought that his adventures were over. He wanted to return to India—his home for the last six months. He wanted to explore Africa. He wanted to discover more of the world than he already had. England had nothing to offer him but boredom, pressure, and work.
“Sit down, then,” the Duke said, looking at Humphrey as though he was quite mad. “We’re not going to do this standing up, are we?”
“Yes,” Humphrey replied, then shook his head. “I mean, no, I’ll sit down.”
The Duke sat in what would soon be Humphrey’s seat, while Humphrey took the guest chair, feeling as childlike and tongue-tied as ever.
“It’s about time someone was in charge of this place again,” the Duke said, leaning back in his chair and crossing one leg over the other, letting his ankle rest on his knee.
“Yes,” Humphrey said again.
He was finding it difficult to speak, and he knew he had his nerves to thank for that. He wondered how it was possible for a man to be so open and eloquent in one country, only to turn into a gibbering wreck whenever he returned home. No wonder his brother thought him entirely incapable.
I am incapable when it comes to all this.
“You’ll have to employ your own staff, as I have already said. I might be able to spare a maid or two, perhaps a footman, just to get you going. And you already have your valet, of course.”
“Of course,” Humphrey replied, smiling weakly.
“I advise you to visit all your tenants when you take the title—introduce yourself and whatnot. It’s always good to be approachable and friendly, and they’ll ultimately thank you for it by paying their rent on time and looking after the properties. That’s what we care about, after all.”
“Yes,” Humphrey said, his heart racing at the thought. How could he possibly do this? He took a large gulp of his brandy then sucked in the air to cool the burn in his throat.
“And then there’s the matter of the new lands to the east. This estate bought the land, so this estate is, obviously, responsible for its upkeep.”
“To the east? You mean the Duke of Dorset’s land?”
“Oh, of course!” the Duke sang, his smile still wide. “Given you were on your travels, you won’t have heard the news.”
“Old Dorset is not experiencing financial troubles, is he?” Humphrey asked, his interest piqued now.
“Goodness no, nothing like that,” the Duke said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Or at least, not in the way you think. No. He’s dead.”
Humphrey almost spat his brandy across the desk. His father always did have such a matter-of-fact way of putting things. He swallowed, trying to regain his composure.
“Dead?” Humphrey repeated.
“Yes, terrible tragedy, it was. He and that beautiful wife of his died in an awful coach accident. Rumor has it that the lines tethering the horses snapped through wear, and they went flying off the cliff edge. I would have blamed the blasted coachman if it were up to me, but the family are apparently still close to him.”
Humphrey didn’t quite know what to say. He hadn’t really known the Duke or the Duchess, but he was acquainted with the eldest of their children—Lydia, if he recalled correctly.
“Indeed,” the Duke continued as though Humphrey had given some sort of answer. “The daughter is running things now, until young Lord William comes of age, and I must say, she’s not doing too bad a job at all. Early on, she sold a fair chunk of their land to finance them while she learned the ropes, as they say, but now the Duchy seems to be running quite smoothly. And we—or rather, the Somerset Estate—made a purchase.”
“Not the eldest daughter?” Humphrey asked with a frown.
“Of course, the eldest daughter. Do keep up, Humphrey. Really, I’m beginning to wonder whether all that travel has addled your brain.”
“No, it’s just that I wasn’t expecting it to be her, that’s all.”
“Because she’s a woman?” the Duke tutted. “Highly unusual, I know, but not all ladies are as daft as that sister of yours. Your mother was as clever as they come.”
“I know,” Humphrey said with a sigh. “Of course not.”
He was not averse to admitting a woman may know her way around business. And yet, whenever he thought back to the Lydia Stanley he had met, he remembered a vapid, silly thing who cared only for beauty. She lacked in both personality and intelligence, resting on the laurels of a pretty face. He couldn’t pair the memories of her with the woman his father now described.
“Very well,” the Duke said happily. “Now that’s sorted, I’ll let you settle in, reacquaint yourself with the house.”
Humphrey looked up at his father in alarm. Does he mean for me to stay here?
“Don’t look so horrified, boy,” he said, blinking down at his son. “All will be well. I suggest that, when you have the time, you familiarize yourself with the ledgers and check through the correspondence.”
The Duke got up from his seat and strode to the door. He stopped with his hand on the brass knob and turned back. “Oh, and do come and visit us soon at Wiltshire Manor. I know your sister in particular would dearly love to see you.”
Then he was gone, and Humphrey sat back in his chair, breathing a sigh of relief.
He ignored his father’s advice, studiously avoiding ledgers and letters. He couldn’t face all that, not yet. Instead, he wandered around the corridors, poking his head into this room and that.
Most of the furniture had been covered in dust sheets, and he could see immediately how much work there would be for the maids. He would have to sort that soon, he supposed—employing staff.
He had no idea how he would approach the task ahead of him, no idea if he could even do it. He didn’t have the first clue on how to run an Earldom, and he wasn’t entirely convinced he knew how to stay in the same place for so long. He was so used to wandering the world’s passageways that those in the house felt stifling.
“Is there anybody home?”
Humphrey stopped his walking and tilted his head at the voice. Then he laughed and ran to the corridor, leaning heavily over the railing and looking down. There, a face tilted up to greet him. It was his oldest friend, James Lancaster, the Viscount Brighton and heir to the Earl of Nordshire.
“James!” Humphrey ran down the stairs and threw his hand out. James took it with a slap and shook vigorously, clasping Humphrey’s hand in two of his own.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t Wandering Tom returned. I’d heard a rumor you were in town and I just had to come see for myself.”
“The one and only, in the flesh.” Humphrey laughed, stepping back and opening his arms to put himself on display. “Have you missed me?”
“Terribly so,” James said dramatically then looked around him with a nod of approval. “Nice place.”
“Hmm, well. It’s nice, yes, but I’m not sure about all that comes with it.”
“Ah, yes, the dreaded title,” he said, still looking around. “I suppose we’ll all have to face our fear of that one eventually.”
“Indeed. How are you, anyhow?”
“Parched,” James said, turning his smile on Humphrey. “I’m assuming you’ve filled the decanters already? It would certainly be first on my list.”
Humphrey chuckled. “Actually, Father saw to it before my arrival. Come, we’ll take a brandy or two in the study, and you can tell me all about what you’ve been up to.”
“Because I’m the one who has been off on exciting adventures, yes,” James said dryly.
He was a handsome man of twenty-seven, with hair the color of sand and eyes that glimmered like emeralds. He was a tall fellow and he held himself proud, always exuding confidence and suave sophistication.
He was something of a ladies’ man, knowing how to win a woman over but rarely keeping her on side for long—much to his father’s chagrin. Thanks to his upbringing, he wanted for nothing and knew he never would, and that brought out something of a cad in him.
Still, he was an affectionate man, when it came to Humphrey, and they had been friends for so long that Humphrey knew it could never be anything but that. James was also in line for an Earldom and he was as reluctant as Humphrey.
“Your father still hasn’t passed it on, then? Your title?” Humphrey asked over his shoulder as he poured the brandy. James had settled himself into the armchair.
“Goodness, no,” he said with a snort of humor. “And I have even less interest in it now than I did before you left.”
“Shame,” Humphrey said, handing him his drink.
“It’s not a shame. I’m still too busy basking in being a free man to worry about the estate and all that comes with it.”
James snorted again, this time with an ounce of outrage mixed in. Humphrey was disappointed. Although he knew his friend wished for anything but an Earldom, he had hoped James would be someone he could turn to for advice in the coming months.
Lord knows I need someone.
“Don’t look so worried,” James said, and Humphrey started at the idea that he could be so easily read. “I mean, how hard could it possibly be?”
“That’s a good question,” Humphrey replied, staring down at the reflection of the crystal on the surface of the brandy.
“Right, enough of this,” James said, knocking back his brandy and slamming the glass down on the side table with considerable force. “Let’s go out.”
“Out?” Humphrey asked, looking up at James as he leapt to his feet.
“You promised to introduce me to your sailor friend, remember? Seems now is as good a time as any, and it might help pull you out of your doldrums.”
“So I did,” Humphrey said, gulping down the last of his own brandy. “And good news—there’s a tavern right on the dockside.”
“You see, the . . . the . . . the thing is, Lady Lydia, as much as I admire what you are doing here for . . . for your family, I’m not sure . . . I mean, what I’m trying to say is that I could never take you away from your family, and yet I could never imagine myself living this far south.”
Lydia sighed, letting Lord Henry Twinkle, the latest in a long line of unsuitable suitors, talk himself half to death even though she wasn’t truly listening. He hadn’t even come fully into the study, preferring to stand in the doorway and make his excuses. She sat on the high stool, her back ramrod straight and her hands curled together in her lap, gazing through the gauzing muslin covering the window.
She couldn’t bring herself to look at him, to meet his gaze. His sniveling irritated her at best, even though she had known this was coming—the stuttering excuses, the pleading to be released by her, as if she was some sort of cage he needed to escape from.
Lydia couldn’t remember how many suitors had, in the last year, stood in the same place as Henry Twinkle currently stood, making the same justifications he was making. They were never cruel, always stating some version of it’s not you, it’s me, and they were often so flustered that Lydia found herself feeling almost sorry for them.
But no. She knew the real reason, deep down. Their excuses were just that, and Henry Twinkle was no exception. Nobody wanted to be with her because of her disfigurement—and she couldn’t blame them for that.
“The thing is, Lady Lydia,” Henry said, “I’m a man of the north and I know how much you love your home here.”
“Of course,” she replied, forcing herself to sound bored, even if she was incensed inside.
At twenty-two years of age, Lydia Stanley’s life was entirely different from how she had ever imagined it would be. She was a tall, slim girl with hair so blonde it was almost white, and her skin had a porcelain-like quality to it. Her lips were a perfect pink, shaped like the most delicate of rosebuds, but it was her eyes that were the most striking. While every other part of her face was pale and subtle, her eyes were a shock of bright blue, ocean rich and full of life.
Her beauty had always been the thing she prided herself most on, so much so that she had more or less forgotten to embrace other parts of herself—intelligence and wit and humor seemed so unimportant when pitched against her looks.
And yet all that had changed when, two years ago, she had been involved in a coach accident with her parents. The scar that ran from her jaw all the way to her hairline had become silvery white, surrounded by a deep pink that never seemed to fade. It shimmered in the light, and when she smiled, it seemed to flash across the room, marring her otherwise perfect visage.
Her beauty had been ripped from her that day, as had her youth and her happiness. She’d had to learn quickly, taking over the Duke’s duties until her brother came of age, and learn she did.
It was then that Lydia began to embrace those characteristics she had buried so deep. She turned from a vacuous vessel of beauty to a fierce young woman of great intelligence. She became a force to be reckoned with in their community, a proud and strong herald of their Duchy, and she had learned to be suspicious of men’s motives.
She did not hide from who she had become, nor was she ashamed of her scars. Rather, she did everything she could to show off the damage on her cheek, and where once, her eyes had struck people with awe, now their strength struck them with fear.
“You do understand, don’t you, Lady Lydia?” Henry asked, looking at her hopefully.
“I understand,” she said. She knew exactly what he was thinking, and did the thing that would prove it.
She turned and smiled at him, feeling the pull of her damaged flesh as it tightened across her cheek. She kept her smiles for certain occasions only, knowing that this made her scar all the more pronounced. A smile like this, for Lydia, was no longer a sweet thing, but a threat or a warning. It was not a smile of happiness or warmth, but a reminder of what and who she was.
Henry’s gaze flickered to her cheek and then back to her eyes, a look of panic running through him, and he visibly gulped. Lydia scoffed quietly, shaking her head. She was right.
“Yes, Lord Henry, I understand perfectly well.”
You have decided I am more repulsive than profitable.
“Well, that . . . that’s good,” he said, throwing her a weak smile. “Good day to you, then.”
“Good day, and please do not darken my doorstep again.” Lydia turned her full glare upon him, her smile faded but her eyes full of fire. “If you are not man enough to admit the truth about what you fear, you are not man enough to be welcomed into this house.”
“But . . . I . . .”
“Good day, Lord Henry,” she repeated, firmer this time, widening her eyes and daring him to reply.
He merely nodded, then turned on his heels and scampered from the room like a frightened mouse.
Lydia watched him go with a clenched jaw, then slipped down from her stool and slammed the door closed in frustration. She stared at the wood for a long moment, her chest heaving with rapid, angry breaths.
She had so much to offer a marriage. Admittedly, beauty was no longer a factor, but there were so many ways she could enrich someone’s life—both physically and emotionally.
And so many ways someone could enrich my life, too.
She leant against the door, her brow heavily furrowed, and sighed deeply. How she missed being the silly young girl who dreamed of nothing but love and romance. Her life had become a heavy burden she struggled to shoulder alone.
To have someone to share it, to enjoy it with, and perhaps, one day . . .
No! She couldn’t allow herself to think like that. Love, as it turned out, was not for her, no matter how much she had imagined it as a child. No, she had a duty, and she would do as her mother had asked on that fateful day. She would look after her brother and sister.
Lydia wandered over to her desk and began, quite without thinking, rifling through papers and letters, trying to find something to take her mind off everything. That’s when the door opened and in sauntered her sister.
“Lord Henry looked as though he were in quite a hurry,” Angela said in her usual bright manner. “Did he have somewhere important to be?”
“He’s probably off to see some pretty slip of a thing,” Lydia muttered to herself, not raising her eyes from the papers in front of her.
“Whatever do you mean?” Angela asked, approaching the desk.
“I mean,” Lydia said, looking up at Angela, “that he is yet another man unable to handle my hideousness.”
“You are not hideous,” Angela replied. “You are very beautiful, and you know it.”
There was a measure of weariness in her tone. She often repeated those words, even while Lydia knew the truth. Lydia pushed her lips together to stop herself from barking out with harsh laughter. Her poor, dear sister had no idea how the real world worked, but she was grateful, at least, that she tried.
“It matters not, anyhow,” Lydia said, lowering herself into the wooden chair. “I have long given up on my own prospects, but you, my dearest sister, have so much yet to come.”
“Oh, don’t be like that, please, Lydia,” Angela whined, but Lydia only looked up at her and grinned.
“When the season starts next week, you’ll have your debut—and about time, too. You’re eighteen now, Angela. It’s time we found you a good match.”
Angela shrugged, and although she feigned a pout, Lydia could see the excited smile beginning to form at the edges of her lips. Angela could not wait to be the belle of the ball and dance the night away.
She and her sister couldn’t be more different. Although Angela was similar to Lydia in build—tall and slim—her hair was a dirty blonde rather than a white blonde, and her eyes were a deep and smooth chocolate brown.
Where Lydia was fierce, Angela was shy, coy even. She had a gentle nature and was soft-spoken. Her desire to learn was strong, as was her intelligence and wit—when she was brave enough to show it. But above all, above all that, Angela Stanley adored her sister like no other, and she would do whatever she could to ensure that Lydia was happy.
“Oh! I almost forgot,” Angela said, pulling a letter from the folds of her gown. “This arrived this morning. It’s from William.”
“What does it say?” Lydia asked, eyeing the missive suspiciously. She was as close to her brother as she was to her sister, but seeing him always reminded her of the sheer size of her task—helping him become a duke and a gentleman.
“Read it yourself,” Angela said, thrusting the letter at Lydia.
Lydia suppressed a sigh and took it from her, watching her as she opened up the thick cream-colored paper. She read quickly, her eyes darting along the lines of neatly formed letters and words.
“His handwriting has improved, at least,” she murmured. When she reached the end, she frowned and looked back up at Angela. “He wants a holiday from school.”
“Only for two weeks,” Angela replied. “He knows we’ll be in London for the season and he’s eager to see us. What do you think?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Lydia said, a little taken aback. It was altogether safer with William away at school.
“It would be a great opportunity for us to spend time together again, like we used to. Don’t you remember the long days the three of us would spend together? I miss it dreadfully, and I know dear William does too.”
“Of course I remember,” Lydia replied. “But things were different then. His schooling is of the utmost importance. He cannot simply take a holiday because the fancy takes him.”
Though she would never admit it, Lydia longed to agree to William’s request. She remembered their days together with as much fondness as Angela.
And yes, it was true that his schooling was important. But that wasn’t the real and true reason Lydia was reluctant to say yes. She already had far too much to deal with, and raising a boy into a man felt like an impossible task. He needed a father, not a sister acting as one!
She sighed and let the page float down to the desk, then left the room without another word.
“Well?” Angela asked, following her out into the hallway.
Lydia picked her traveling cloak from the hook by the door, shrugged it on, then turned and smiled at her sister.
“We’ll talk about this later,” she said. “I’ve just remembered. I must visit poor old Tom.”
“The gardener?” Angela looked confused and Lydia fondly remembered the days when she, too, didn’t really follow the goings on of the house.
“He’s sick,” Lydia explained, doing up the buttons on her cloak. “I shall visit his home by the docks.”
“But what about William?”
Lydia already had the door open and was trotting down the steps, on her way to the coach house.
“I’ll deal with it later,” she called back over her shoulder. “Don’t fret about it, dear sister. Everything will be just fine.”
“I’ve always had a special fondness for Dockside,” James said wistfully as he and Humphrey wound their way through the tight streets. “Something of the debauched about it, don’t you think?”
“Debauched might be a bit strong,” Humphrey said with a chuckle. “Just because it’s not the wealthiest part of the world, it’s not necessarily corrupt.”
“True enough,” James conceded with a tilt of his head. “But you’ve got to admit—this is where all the fun takes place.”
Humphrey shook his head but didn’t deign to reply. While he enjoyed spending time in Dockside and had good friends there, he didn’t use the place in the same way that James seemed to, flaunting his wealth and mocking the poor.
The mud on the narrow streets had hardened with the sun, although it was rough and uneven thanks to the hooves of horses and the ruts caused by cartwheels. The buildings, almost uniformly wooden, were pushed together in long terraces and all looked in need of repair.
Despite that, it was a warm and friendly place—if you knew the right people. Those who lived there wore colorful clothes and laughed often, creating a jovial atmosphere that Humphrey had a fondness for.
They came out of Petty Lane and turned onto the main stretch in front of the docks. The road was much wider here, allowing for travelers and tradesmen to stack their wares, ready for shipping. Even now, there were three boats moored, thick rope tying them to the iron bollards sunk into the dockside.
They tipped and waved as the water gently sloshed against the wall, and all around them, sailors shouted and called, and passengers waved their goodbyes to loved ones.
“I do hope this sailor friend of yours can get me on a boat, too,” James said.
He longed to travel, as Humphrey had, but his father had been against it from the moment he suggested it.
“With money, you can do anything, my friend,” Humphrey said with a chuckle.
“That’s just it—Father has refused me the money. I guess I’ll have to find a way to earn something of my own.”
“God forbid you should actually have to find your own way in the world,” Humphrey teased, raising an eyebrow at his friend.
Where the ladies of the narrow streets behind them were dressed in bright reds and blues and greens, the workers who dashed across the docks wore browns and beiges. It always made Humphrey imagine they had taken the very essence of the docks—the mudded floor, the murky sea, the wood of the boats—and painted it over themselves, from hat to shoe.
It was far more likely, of course, that the work was dirty. But of the sailors Humphrey had met, he knew that they absorbed the work into their very lives, the sea being the only mistress they loved. It suited them, and they grew to match the dockside itself.
“Which tavern?” James asked, turning to look at the row of buildings facing the water.
There was a mix of buildings, some trading goods that came off the ships—tobacco and coffee and tea. There were a few different taverns, too. And built on top of each were houses, often added after the fact thanks to a lack of housing in the area.
“That one,” Humphrey said with a nod of his head.
“The Old Barge. Of course. The most respectable of all the Dockside taverns.” James stated sarcastically.
Humphrey threw him a disapproving glance. “We’re here to see Joe, remember? Not to visit the dancing girls.”
“Dancing girls? Me?” James put a hand to his chest and feigned outrage, before bursting into laughter.
“I’m serious,” Humphrey cried. “I shan’t introduce you if I cannot trust you.”
“You’re absolutely right,” James said, pushing his lips together in a pout and nodding. “I will be on my very best behavior.”
Humphrey eyed him warily but then said, “All right. Let’s go. He’s certain to be there at this time of day.”
As they approached the tavern, Humphrey saw a well-dressed lady leaving one of the houses. He paused and watched, intrigued to see a woman of status in such a village. She wore a gown of dusky pink, so clean, by comparison, that it almost glowed, and her light blonde hair was adorned by a matching pink ribbon.
He was about to ask James about it, to find out if he knew her, but then she looked up, and Humphrey gasped.
Lady Lydia Stanley.
“Now there’s a waste of a pretty face, if I ever saw one,” James muttered into Humphrey’s ear.
Humphrey turned his head briefly to look at James’ grimace, brow furrowed, then turned back to Lady Lydia.
“Whatever do you mean?” he asked.
“That scar,” James replied as if it were perfectly obvious. “Such a beautiful young thing, and now she’s entirely ruined. Makes me shiver just to see it.”
Humphrey didn’t reply, not trusting the words that would come out if he did. In truth, he hadn’t really noticed the scar. Of course, he had seen it—it was obvious enough—but he hadn’t considered it. Not really. It was not that which had drawn his attention.
It was the pride with which she carried herself and the steely determination in her eyes that he had noticed. Before his travels, she had been so . . . wispy. And now, she seemed fortified, strong. The scar across her cheek was the least of the changes her accident had wrought.
Lady Lydia seemed an entirely different person, and Humphrey found himself intrigued. For the first time in his life, he wanted to know more about her.
“Let’s go over and wish her a good day,” Humphrey said, starting off across the road without waiting for a reply.
James reached out and grabbed his arm, halting him.
“Must we?” he asked, like a child who had been asked to greet an elderly aunt who smelled of boiled cabbage.
“Yes,” Humphrey said firmly, shooting James a look. “It will only take a couple of minutes, and then we’ll go meet Joe.”
“Fine. But you do know there are much prettier girls to talk to, don’t you?”
Humphrey saw James’ distaste in the thin line of his lips and the shadow beneath his eyes, but he didn’t protest any further.
“Lady Lydia,” Humphrey called out as they trotted across the road, quick to catch up with her and her chaperone.
They seemed to scamper quickly, the skirts of their gowns kicking out as they went, their hands clasped in front of them, each with a reticule dangling from a wrist.
“Lady Lydia,” he tried again, just as he neared them. He stopped and chuckled, catching his breath. “I thought it was you.”
Lady Lydia still didn’t seem to notice his arrival. Her chaperone—a short young lady with dark hair and none of the presence of Lydia herself—stared at him open-mouthed and nudged Lydia with her elbow.
“What is it—oh!”
She looked from her friend to Humphrey and very briefly to James, her eyes wide with surprise. He could tell just from her expression that it was rare for anyone to stop her in the street—and even rarer for a man she had once known, before he went off traveling.
“Lord Humphrey! You’re back in the area. How lovely.”
Her words were simple, polite. She didn’t sound particularly overjoyed to see him, nor as though it was indeed lovely that he had returned. He didn’t suppose she would have reason to think any of those things, but he still couldn’t help but feel a vague sting of disappointment.
He had been so intrigued by this new and improved Lydia Stanley that he reasoned she would also be intrigued by him. But she most evidently was not, and given the unyielding, determined way she held herself, he wondered idly whether she ever found anything interesting.
“Yes. Actually, I only arrived home this morning,” he tried, offering her his warmest of smiles.
“We’re fortunate to see you so soon, then.”
Though she was polite, she did not smile in return. She raised her eyebrows, as though expecting more from him, and he found himself momentarily tongue-tied. She was so incredibly different from how she once was, and he was eager to know more. He just wished he knew how he could discover it.
“Lady Lydia!” James said brightly over Humphrey’s shoulder.
Humphrey had to stifle a giggle. The distasteful glare she gave James was proof enough that she had heard rumors about his poor behavior and his lack of decorum.
“Don’t you look delightful today,” he said.
Humphrey heard the mocking tone and hoped that Lady Lydia hadn’t noticed. But the way in which she narrowed her eyes told him she had understood his jibe perfectly well. Again, Humphrey controlled the twitch at the corner of his lips.
“I must say, it’s somewhat of a surprise to see you here, in Dockside,” Humphrey said. “Are you planning on doing some traveling?”
“No,” Lady Lydia replied, with a humorless chuckle. “Goodness, no. Far too much to do here, unfortunately. I have been visiting an employee of mine. He’s sick, unfortunately, but I think he will pull through it.”
“Good,” Humphrey said, his voice high with surprise at her words, an employee.
He marveled once again about how different she had become, how mature and articulate. The conversation fell into silence. Humphrey saw Lydia’s companion shifting on her feet, although Lydia herself held still and unwavering.
He so dearly wanted to talk to her, to find out what had changed and what was different. He wanted to learn more about her and what she did. And even as he thought all this, he couldn’t work out why he wanted that.
“Well, as lovely as it has been to catch up, we’ve got an appointment in the tavern,” James said, once again over Humphrey’s shoulder, but this time pulling at his arm as well.
“Good day to you both,” Lady Lydia said, nodding politely and turning away from them.
Humphrey watched them go for a moment then joined his friend, who was already marching towards the tavern.
“The ale is calling,” James said over his shoulder. Humphrey chuckled then jogged to catch up.
The tavern wasn’t too far away, at the end of the block. It was a corner building, and so two of its walls were covered in large windows. Even though it was daytime, Humphrey could see the flicker of candlelight in the windows and, in the distance, the warm orange glow of a fire.
He knew they would be engulfed in noise as soon as they entered—from the broken but playable piano in the corner to the chatter and excitement of the patrons.
“It’s hard to believe she’s the same Lydia Stanley I knew years ago.”
“Indeed,” James said, his hand against the swinging door of the tavern, ready to enter. He half turned back to Humphrey. “She’s been running that estate all alone since the accident, and though she has gained respect for her strength and ability, she has also engendered fear.”
He pushed open the door and they were consumed by the sound and the warmth, the mood of the place instantly lifting the spirits Humphrey had realized needed lifting. He blindly followed James to an empty table in the far corner—small and round and in the perfect spot to have a good view of everybody else in the room.
James raised his hand to signal the innkeeper then ordered two pints of ale without even asking Humphrey what he wanted.
“Fear?” Humphrey asked, having been stuck on the word since James uttered it at the entrance.
“You said she engenders fear,” Humphrey said.
“Oh, we’re still talking about her.”
“Yes,” Humphrey said, feeling his irritation rising. “What did you mean?”
“Well.” James shrugged. “All men fear her now on account of that coldness you witnessed today, and of course, because of that awful scar as well. You’d think she’d go to some sort of effort to hide it, wouldn’t you? It’s nauseating.”
“Perhaps you ought to just stop talking now,” Humphrey replied, scowling at James.
If he thought he was irritated before, now he felt it tenfold. He couldn’t quite work out why. She meant nothing to him, and she never had, yet hearing James talk about her with such disrespect incensed him. He closed his eyes and sighed.
Humphrey Berkeley, your travels have really turned you soft.
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