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  • The Marquess’s Forbidden Love

Prologue

London, Walter Manor

March, 1818

Henry Walter, Marquess of Brackenridge, was looking at a food menu, and he felt like he was going cross-eyed. He had agreed to host a ball at his house in London on High Street, and now he wondered if it was a bad idea. He had absolutely no idea about how to run a household. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. His mother had always taken care of things for his father, and then after she died, the housekeeper had managed things.

Now his father had left him to go on a country traveling journey, and the housekeeper was ill. Henry would have to sort out his plans for a ball on his own, with only the help of the other servants. He hoped he didn’t mess it up and make himself a laughingstock, just as the Season was starting afresh and would soon be in full flow.

“Sirius!” he called, hoping to alert his butler to the fact that he was in need of refreshment, as well as garnering any advice the man could offer. The door opened, but it was not the butler who entered; it was his father.

“And a good afternoon to you, Henry,” his father greeted him. Henry grinned and stood up, moving to embrace his father. Edward Walter, Duke of Brackenridge, was still in his prime. Only fifty-six years of age, he had graying hair at the temples but a strong, stout figure, and he had taken to traveling more now that Henry was beginning to take over most of his duties. They had never stood on ceremony with one another, and so they would hug each other after long absences when none of the servants were in view.

“Father, do sit down. Sirius!” Henry called again, and this time, the young butler opened the door.

“Yes, my Lord and Your Grace?” Sirius bowed his head respectfully.

“Do bring some refreshment, Sirius. My father has just returned, and I was not told.” He lifted a brow at his butler, who was still learning the ropes of butlering after being promoted from the position of head footman.

His father laughed and waved a hand in the air. “Do not blame him, Henry. I wanted to surprise you.”

“The refreshments are already on their way, my lord,” the butler assured him.

“Ah, thank you, Sirius,” Henry answered. “You have done well.” He nodded his head, and Sirius left the room, the blush of embarrassment slowly receding from his cheeks.

“It is good to see you behind that desk, my son. I hope you are not too overburdened, for I’ve come to speak to you about something.”

“Oh?” Henry’s eyes glanced at the menacing menu on his desk. “No, not overburdened, although there is a ball this evening, which all the servants are currently preparing for.” He smiled, hoping to show his father he could handle the work.

“Excellent, excellent. I had heard; that is why I came back early, so that I might see you and give you a bit of advice.”

Sirius returned, looking far more serene as he carried the silver tray of tea things with equanimity. Henry waited and watched while Sirius poured the tea and left the two of them to their discussion. Henry took up his teacup and took a sip, watching his father, wondering what was so important to make him return so early from his trip.

As he had done when Henry was a boy, his father folded his hands across his belly and furrowed his brow in thought. It meant something serious was coming, or rather, something of some delicacy. Henry tensed, hoping, whatever it was, that it wouldn’t affect the course of the ball. There had already been so much work done.

“Henry, my boy, I am very glad to see that you are now taking your duties seriously. You have left behind your rebellious tendencies and will make a fine duke one day. I can see it now.”

Henry chuckled. “I hardly like to think that I was so rebellious that fulfilling my duties now is such a great change.”

“Well, more rebellious than your mother desired, to be sure,” his father replied with a wide smile, swirling his spoon in his tea. He cleared his throat. “Now that the Season is fully upon us, I was hoping that you might start turning your thoughts towards matrimony.”

Something about the word “matrimony” made Henry’s chest tighten, but he smoothed his worried expression. “I see now why you have come. But I’m not holding the ball this evening to search for a bride, Father. I merely wanted to celebrate the return of some of my friends from their country estates and make my mark upon society early in the Season.”

His father nodded, “Yes, yes, of course.” He finished his tea and then said, “You know, Henry, it is something to consider. One cannot plan such things or avoid them. It is bound to come upon you when you least expect it.”

Henry frowned. Was his father speaking of finding a suitable woman for his wife?

“I hope you haven’t anything up your sleeve, Father. I already have much to do, with my new responsibilities. My mind has not turned in that direction just yet,” Henry countered.

Standing up, his father straightened his waistcoat and laughed. “I shall see you this evening, Henry. I will go and rest now. I am glad you are organizing the ball, for it is a good thing to make fine connections during the Season. You must get to know your peers, of course. Just remember, don’t shut anyone out just yet. You can’t really plan for affection to happen. You will ask some young ladies to dance tonight, will you not?”

“Yes, Father. I am the host. It would be terribly rude of me if I did not.”

“Good. Then your mother and I have raised you well.” He went to the door and paused, holding it open slightly before he turned back. “She would have loved to see this, you know. You, growing into a man.”

Henry nodded, trying to push down the clench of pain the memory of his late mother produced in him. It had been four years now, but it still felt as though it had just happened. He stood up, determined to put it from his mind and focus on the ball ahead that evening. He took up the menu again, scanned it, and made a few quick decisions.

“Those will have to do,” he told himself, and he left the study to find Sirius again.

A few hours later, Henry was standing at the entryway to his home, greeting his guests as they arrived. He had been to other people’s balls before, of course, but he had never hosted one of his own, and it seemed as if an endless parade of guests was pouring into his home. He was greeting, shaking hands, bowing to ladies, and keeping all the different names and titles in his head as best he could. At the end of all the greetings, he felt almost dizzy.

He had a great urge to take himself to the library, shut the door, and pour himself a hearty glass of port, but he knew that he must steel himself and be a good host. One ball was enough for the Season, and then his duty would be done. He would be able to make the right connections, celebrate with his returned friends, and that would be that. Then, he could go back to being a normal member of society and simply enjoy the Season’s many balls instead of hosting them.

“Ah, Henry, it has been too long!” Henry looked up to see his good friend William Godfrey strolling in through the door as if it was his own home. That was William’s way and always had been, though Henry hadn’t yet mastered that skill.

“Godfrey, good to see you, old friend.” He shook William’s hand warmly and then said under his breath. “I think you’ve saved me from simply running away. I didn’t realize a ball meant welcoming so many guests.”

William laughed. “Well, when you’re the one greeting them, it seems as though a veritable army has arrived on your doorstep. I remember my mother going to bed with a very large pot of tea at the end of such evenings. She told me just how harrowing it was.”

“Well, then I’m glad you’re here. I haven’t seen any of the others just yet.” Henry looked back at the empty doorway.

“They’ll be along. We gentlemen like to appear fashionably late. It makes us seem all the more mysterious.” William’s blue eyes twinkled, and he strode past Henry towards the ballroom and the sound of music. “Come along now, Henry, we wouldn’t want the eligible young misses to be waiting for us too long.”

Henry grinned. William always made everything seem better, and tonight was no exception. Once inside the ballroom, despite the size of the crowd, he could breathe a sigh of relief. His servants had done a marvelous job, and the ballroom was decorated just as his mother would have liked it, despite the sick housekeeper. No doubt, Mrs. Heady had shouted her instructions from her bed, and for that, Henry was grateful. He didn’t want to fail today, not at the beginning of the very important London Season.

Once they had glasses of champagne in their hands, Henry and William surveyed the crowd. The dancing hadn’t yet begun, and Henry knew he would have to find a partner to lead everyone in the dancing, but he wanted a few more moments to compose himself. He turned to his friend. “How was the countryside then, Godfrey?”

“Excellent, excellent.” William nodded. “Good for sport and the hunting, but I was eager to come back. I always miss the energy of London.”

Henry rolled his eyes. “While I was stuck here, wishing that I could be at the Surrey estate, whiling away the hours with such pleasurable pastimes instead of planning a ball.”

“Growing jaded, my friend?” William asked with a wry grin. “What ails you?”

Henry shrugged. “Nothing. It’s just time to take a rest, perhaps. Father is happy I’ve put aside my “rebellious ways”, yet I think that taking things over from him has meant more work than I expected.”

“Something’s missing. Perhaps a wife?” William grinned.

“Hardly. No time for that.” Henry smiled and turned back to the crowd, where his eyes lit upon a young girl with lovely brown hair and a pale pink dress. “Well,” he said, which was all he could say since he couldn’t take his eyes from her.

“Yes, well,” William replied. “I see that you perhaps are making time for such thoughts as matrimony just now, my friend. Go on, ask her to dance the first dance with you as host. Even though I’d noted her as the most beautiful among the ladies this evening, I shall accept my defeat from you.” He sighed, and Henry chuckled.

His legs began to move of their own accord, and before long, he found himself standing right in front of the strange young woman, interrupting her conversation. He bowed his head.

“Do forgive me for the interruption, Miss…?”

“Cecilia Cooper.”

“Miss Cecilia. I only meant to come and introduce myself and ask you to dance with me to open the ball, if you would be so inclined.” He bowed his head. “I am Lord Henry Brackenridge.”

Cecilia giggled, and he looked up, surprised at how much he liked the sound of her laugh. Young, feminine, innocent. “Of course, I know who you are, my lord. You are our kind host. And I am most happy to accept your kind invitation.” He held out his hand, and she took it. Together they sailed to the center of the ballroom, letting everyone know that the dancing was about to begin.

The first set was then announced, and other couples took their places by their sides. In a moment, the dance began, with a slow and stately rhythm. “You are a vision, Miss Cecilia.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“Please, do call me Henry.”

Cecilia blushed, and Henry chided himself for being too forward. “Forgive me. I am not used to hosting such events, you see. It is my first time.”

“You are doing very well, my lord. I know that everyone will be talking about this ball for weeks on end. And do not worry about your hosting skills. I have heard you are a very good conversationalist.”

“Especially amongst the ladies,” Henry heard William say from nearby, and when Henry threw him a dark look, William winked.

Cecilia giggled again. “Yes, I have heard that as well, my lord.”

Don’t blush like a fool. Don’t blush like a fool.

    He took Cecilia’s gloved hand as they spun around one another. “Well, it is not difficult to make good conversation with a woman so beautiful as you.”

    Cecilia grinned, and the dance soon ended. After she curtsied, she said, “Your manners are impeccable, my lord. I shall spread the word, shall I?” She lifted an eyebrow, and when Henry didn’t respond, she left and entered the crowd again.

    At the refreshment table, he met a smiling William. “Well, how did it go? I’m certain your father will be very happy to see you’ve been dancing with one of the Cooper daughters. They are an excellent family. I think Mr. Cooper has done a bit of business with a lot of the gentlemen here. And yet, I don’t see him anywhere. Nor do I see his eldest daughter. Oh, look, there’s your father now. I assume he saw everything.”

    “It was fine, but no thanks to you, edging into our conversation with your nonsense.”

    “Only factual, my dear friend. You have always been very charming to the ladies.”

    Henry rolled his eyes again. He watched Cecilia from across the room as she accepted another man’s offer to dance. He hadn’t considered marriage, not just yet, but after a lovely dance with a cheerful, confident, young woman, he was warming up to the idea.


Chapter 1

Henry and his father were in the library, and Henry was at the window staring out into the starlit night. The one thing he did enjoy was that balls lasted a long time, and the merriment was long-lasting. Especially after he met Miss Cecilia Cooper. He’d been able to dance a second time with her, but that was all that propriety had allowed.

“So, my boy, did you have a good time? I’d say from my perspective that your very first ball arranged all on your own was a success. Your mother would have been very proud of you.”

Henry turned from the window and smiled. “Thank you, Father. Yes, I would definitely say it was a success. I had an enjoyable time. And yourself? I know that Baron Rosterford was here, but I didn’t see the two of you clash heads, not even once.”

“Ha! Perhaps we’ve put our bad blood behind us.” He shook his head. “No, I simply steered clear of the man. I didn’t want to ruin your first foray as official host.”

“Thank you.” Henry sunk into the closest armchair with a heavy sigh. He was tired, but he couldn’t stop thinking of Cecilia. Her sparkling brown eyes had been so full of mirth and young energy. Her wit, her kindness; she was everything a man could ever want.

“You are thinking of that Cooper girl, aren’t you?”

Henry sat up and stared at his father in surprise. “How on earth could you possibly know that?”

His father chuckled. “I may be getting old, but I’m not blind. I saw the two of you together. It was just as I’d hoped. You asked other women to dance, but I could see the look in your eye when you were dancing with Miss Cooper. She is a lovely young woman.”

“She is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, Father,” Henry replied, a little embarrassed that he sounded as thrilled as a young schoolboy. He cleared his throat and looked away. “Kindest too. Interesting. Fun.”

“Well, meeting a woman like that is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Henry. You shouldn’t let the opportunity slip by, even if you aren’t ‘ready for matrimony’, as you say.”

Henry folded his hands, and he put his elbows on his knees. “Father, I barely know the woman. I have only just met her.”

His father shrugged and said, “But as I said, this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity. You do remember you are twenty-seven years of age, correct?”

He grinned, and Henry shook his head and chuckled, leaning back. “Yes, Father. I am not so old that I don’t remember my own age.”

“Good then. You have a title and will receive an even greater one upon my death. You have an image to maintain, Henry, and a wife of good standing will help you do that. It’s even better if you care for her, as I did for your mother.”

Henry groaned. He knew it was true, and he was intrigued by Cecilia, but he didn’t like to be pushed. He couldn’t imagine that anyone did, really. “Do you not think me a proper gentleman yet, Father? Is there really no more time for me to think about the matter?”

“Cecilia Cooper is a very eligible young woman. She will certainly be swept up by someone else if you dawdle.” His father stood up. “I am off to bed. I shouldn’t have stayed up as late as I have, but I did want to have this chat with you. Think about it, Henry.”

His father walked to the door, and Henry asked, “Do you think I should make an offer for her hand, Father? Do you think it wise that I do so after only just having met her? That could be a dangerous game to play.”

“Take a chance, Henry. I know that you have not had such good luck in the past, but the past is over now. Besides, you could simply ask to court her, with the idea that it will end in matrimony.”

Henry nodded his head, and his father left the room, leaving Henry to his own thoughts. He never thought of his past much, for it made him feel like a fool. He had thought himself in love with a woman named Sarah, daughter to an earl. She’d flirted, and he’d flirted. They’d danced and talked. They’d even courted for a time.

But then, one day, he’d gone to ask Sarah’s father for her hand in marriage, and he was refused. Sarah had already accepted someone else, a much older and wealthier man. Henry had been crushed. He had been only twenty-one, but it felt like the end of the world. Now that he was older and time had helped to ease some of his wounds, he could see what had happened. Sarah might have cared for him, but she didn’t love him. When he’d seen her again after her engagement, she’d barely spoken to him, as if he’d been some idle pastime she could throw away in a moment when something else better happened along.

But right from the first moment, he could tell Cecilia was different. She was at least genuine. He thought of William and his plans for marriage. Or any of his friends for that matter. None of them had yet proposed to anyone, despite their regular appearances at various balls during the Season. Many of the mothers had their eyes on his group of friends, and he had witnessed countless attempts to get them hitched, but none had succumbed yet. Was he really so strange that he must hurry to the altar?

In his mind, Henry flicked through the women he’d asked to dance that evening. There was Lady Barnaby, Miss Devon, Miss Layton, and then, of course, Miss Cooper. All of them had been lovely, but there was just something about Cecilia that really caught his eye. And her charms had not gone unnoticed by the other gentleman either. Even William had asked her to dance at one point and had come back grinning. Perhaps his father was right? The longer he dawdled, the greater the likelihood that another man would be very happy to take his place and ask her father for her hand in marriage.

He sat for a little while longer, sipping at his glass of port, trying to picture a future in which he was married, living the life of a duke, living the life his father wanted for him. He admitted that he enjoyed the feeling of renewed hope Cecilia had awakened inside of him, when he’d spent so many years feeling bitterness and resentment against the institution of marriage. He thought about what tomorrow would bring, and he tried to think of the right words, but eventually his fatigue took over. After a little while, he himself went up the stairs, plans growing in his mind to pay a visit to Mr. Cooper in the morning.

* * *

“How did you sleep, Son?” his father asked him from his seat at the breakfast table.

Henry pinched the bridge of his nose. He had been awake practically the whole night wondering if his father was right. He knew it was usual in their circles, but was it wise to ask for a woman’s hand when he’d only met her on one occasion? This was when he needed William with his brazen honesty and wry humor. William would know what to do, but likely, it would be the opposite of propriety or sense.

“Not that well, I’m afraid.”

“You’ve been thinking of going to the Coopers, haven’t you?”

“Again, how have you developed this sudden ability to divine all my secrets, Father?”

“This is hardly a recent development,” he chuckled. “I am your father and thus know you well. Besides, I was also a young man once. I know what has been on your mind.”

“Well then, yes, it was on my mind.” Henry sat down in the chair at the end of the table, his plate filled with meat and eggs. He stabbed a fork into a sausage, angry that he was so transparent. Even Miss Cecilia had seemed to know everything about him when he’d not heard of her before.

She was lovely, to be sure. And they were able to engage in interesting conversation, and she had a sharp wit. She didn’t seem daunted by the prospect of a ball or dancing with a marquess. She was elegant and lovely. These were all good things. All things that would make her a good marchioness. But to ask for her after so short a time?

“Stop making such a racket under the table, Henry,” his father said from behind the newspaper. Henry hadn’t realized his leg was bouncing underneath the table from nervousness. He had already made his decision last night, but in the cold light of morning, it was a tricky thing. Could he really do this?

“Sorry.”

“You’re going, aren’t you?”

Henry sighed as he buttered his toast. “I suppose I am.”

“Good, then.”

His father shook the newspaper, and Henry knew that he was going to do it. He was going to speak to Mr. Cooper. It didn’t mean there was a surefire engagement, especially if the girl was already spoken for, but it would be good to meet the man and see if he was even interested in accepting Henry’s proposal. His father left him in quiet contemplation for the rest of breakfast, but he made his goodbyes when Henry stood to leave.

“I think it a good choice, Henry. Best of luck to you.”

“Thank you, Father. I certainly hope so.”

Even without admitting it, he had asked his valet to help him to dress with care that morning. He didn’t explain why, but he knew that he would eventually come around to the idea of visiting the Coopers. In the hallway, when Sirius handed him his gloves, he took a deep breath to calm his nerves. Today was the day.

Perhaps the first day of the rest of my new life.

“Good day, my lord. Your carriage is ready.”

“Thank you. And a good day to you.”

The door opened, and Henry stepped out to make a choice, for better or for worse.


Chapter 2

“I apologize once again, that I couldn’t call upon the dressmaker. There just simply isn’t the money for it.” James Cooper, patriarch of the Cooper family was sitting in the drawing room with his two daughters, Beatrice and Cecilia. Beatrice thought he looked tired and worn, but it had been that way ever since they had started to have money troubles. It weighed on him like a heavy stone on his shoulders.

“All is well, Father,” Beatrice said, rubbing a hand on her chest. When it was cold out, it pained her, but it was getting better now the spring was slowly coming. “We have plenty of fine dresses. There is no need to worry.” She lifted the teacup to her lips and savored the warm liquid as it slid down her throat. It was her only solace lately, as she’d been sick all winter and couldn’t seem to easily shake off the chest cold. “And it is not as if I need any new dresses. Where am I going?” She coughed as she tried to smile.

Cecilia scoffed. “Do not be so cynical Beatrice. You will be ready to go to the next ball, I am sure of it. Now we have had more warm, sunny days, you are looking better than ever! Even the doctor said that the warmer weather will be good for you.”

Beatrice turned her green eyes to her bright and cheery sister, by far the prettier of the two of them, and she wished for a long minute that she could be just like her. However, the world had not been kind to her, and she was sick more often than not, and it limited her life so much. She just wanted to be free and happy and more beautiful, but that just wasn’t to be.

“That is true, Beatrice,” her father added, trying his best to look cheerful. “And I’m just so sorry about the dresses because the dressmakers are always ready at the beginning of each London Season to create a fresh set of dresses for all the eligible young ladies. You will have to wear what you have, but I don’t want that to ruin your chances of finding a good match.”

As if I would find a match even if I had the most beautiful dress in the world.

“Father, please don’t worry,” Cecilia said. “No one will notice. We can even make slight alterations to the dresses, so they look new.” Cecilia’s smile was quavering a little because Beatrice knew that it wasn’t true. People always noticed everything. She had heard about town that she was being named an invalid or a recluse; it was hard to keep it straight. It made her wish to stay inside forever and never go to another ball again to be among those gossips. Besides, Cecilia was far more the social butterfly than she ever could be. She preferred to stay at home and to write.

“Please. I don’t want you to get your hopes up about my illness. I will go to a ball once I feel well again.” She looked down at her hands. She had felt for so long that she was letting everyone down, especially her father. She knew he needed the money from her marriage after his business went under. It was her duty after all, and she couldn’t perform it. She wasn’t sure she even wanted to get married, for there were simply too many societal rules to follow, and she couldn’t remember them all.

Cecilia frowned. “I will not hear of this hopelessness, Beatrice! You will get well. You must believe it, for how else will you get better?”

Beatrice narrowed her gaze. Her sister was the most fun and the most beautiful, but she was also the one who sometimes thought the world too perfect, and that it could just somehow be made better with a little bit of thought. “Cecilia,” she began in a low voice, but her father interrupted her.

“Cecilia, tell us how your evening went. Tell us about the ball. We are sorry we could not accompany you. You know how I’ve felt about seeing my old business partners since the struggles began.”

He hid behind his teacup, but Beatrice knew what he was doing. He was ashamed of himself, but he didn’t want it to show. Beatrice herself felt ashamed that she couldn’t accompany her sister, as last night she’d still felt too tired to attend. She didn’t think she would look fresh enough either, having not slept well in the past few nights. She leaned back and breathed out slowly, trying to release the tension. Cecilia forgot the argument she was about to have with her sister and smiled widely. “It was perfectly pleasant, Father. I’m very glad that I went, and Aunt Molly was very kind to act as my escort.”

Beatrice was certain Cecilia was lying on that score, for Aunt Molly was hardened and bitter and a very unpleasant person to attend any social occasion with. That was the best part of Beatrice’s illnesses during the winter months. She didn’t have to spend very much time with Aunt Molly.

She added, “Do tell us more, Cecilia. I can tell you’re holding something in. You look positively gleeful. Besides, since I can’t ever go to balls myself, you must fill me in on all the details.” She crossed her arms, knowing she was being rather vindictive, but she couldn’t help her dark mood.

“You should be happy for your sister, Beatrice,” her father said sternly, and she closed her mouth. He was right.

Cecilia didn’t seem to notice for her joy was too great. “I spoke with Marquess Henry Walter. He is a very handsome young man, very kind and attentive. We had wonderful conversations, and we shared two dances.” She held up the number two with her fingers.

“A marquess?” Her father was practically trembling as he put his teacup down and faced his youngest daughter. “You danced twice with a marquess . . . the host of the ball?”

“Yes, Father.” Cecilia’s smile faltered a little. “Was I wrong to do so?”

“Not at all!” he laughed. “In fact, you have done more than well. Just imagine, my dears, if Cecilia marries this man, then all our troubles will be over!” He clapped his hands with glee, and Beatrice winced. While her father was very kind and loving and cared for them, she hated the fact he was so concerned about money, he was almost too earnest about his daughters finding partners. More so than a parent would normally be. If her mother was still alive, she wondered what she would think of all this.

“Father,” Cecilia said sharply, “Why are you getting suddenly carried away? It is not as if the man has made me an offer, and we only met last evening! You cannot think so!”

He chuckled. “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few weeks’ time and after a few more balls, he comes to ask me for your hand. Do not deny your charms, my dear! Every man who sees you and speaks with you would be happy to ask for your hand.”

Beatrice looked away towards the fire. It was morning time, but they always kept the fires going for her. She was always meant to be kept warm. Even now there was a blanket over her legs. When she had first gotten sick, she began to fight against all the attention, for it was constant and simply too much. She had given up a long time ago and simply endured it now. It was far easier than trying to fight her father’s insistence.

As she listened to her father’s excited voice, she could feel the tears building in her throat. The pain was getting worse now. She thought that she had hardened herself enough over the years to stop expecting things. She was sick, and as far as she could see, sick is what she would remain, at least until the weather warmed up. Everyone knew of her sister’s charms, and she wondered what life would be like if she wasn’t sick.

Would my father give me compliments like that if I was well? Would I have men asking me to dance or even thinking of proposing?

“Well, all I’m saying is do not get your hopes up. Please, I beg you,” Cecilia said interrupting Beatrice's thoughts, her hands clasped as if in prayer when Beatrice turned back to them. She had pushed the feeling of tears away, and she could now try to smile and be happy for her sister. It would be good if she married, for then her father would at least return to the man he once was.

They could laugh and enjoy life again, as they had before everything became so difficult, so entwined with money.

Beatrice had decided long ago that she hated money. It made complete fools out of formerly sensible men, and her father was no exception. It also trapped her in a small world she couldn’t escape. She had to marry wealth, or else they could be destitute, or she might be stuck in a sick bed for the rest of her life. Neither of those options were very enticing.

“I think you are being very sensible, Cecilia.” Beatrice looked to her father, who was on the brink of saying something else, and she said, “It isn’t seemly for a woman to push a match, Father. We must let things take their course. I am certain the marquess found Cecilia perfectly lovely, but we mustn’t hinge all our hopes upon him coming to marry her and solve our financial difficulties.”

He nodded, as if he understood, but she could tell he was only half-listening. He’d leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers, touching the tips of them to his lips. His mind was whirring with plans; she was sure of it. And he wouldn’t stop until he got what he wanted.

“Father,” she began again, hoping to contain his excitement about his daughter’s future marriage plans when the footman came into the room.

“Mr. Cooper, Misses Cooper, there is a gentleman here to see you all. A Lord Brackenridge?”

All three of them stared at the footman as if he had spoken in a different language. “Lord Brackenridge . . . Lord Brackenridge is here?” her father spluttered.” He stood up and began to pull at his waistcoat. “A young man or an old one?”

“A young man, sir. He is waiting in the guest drawing room. Shall I tell him you will be with him shortly?”

“Yes, please do,” her father said, and once the footman left, Cecilia squealed and picked up a teaspoon and stared at her reflection, her hands frantically moving about her hair and her eyes scanning her dress. Beatrice stood as well, pushing her blanket to the side. She looked down at her own gown. She didn’t dare pick up the teaspoon, for she knew what her reflection would say.

She was ill and fatigued. The fever of the winter was loosening its hold, but it still left its effect on her. Idly, one hand moved to her hair, where she felt the soft curls at the base of her neck. She stared at Cecilia for a moment, jealous that her sister looked so lovely and healthy while she must always look pale and drawn.

Her father was laughing. “You tell me not to get my hopes up, and then you frantically check your appearance, my dear, as soon as Lord Brackenridge’s name is spoken.”

Cecilia paused her moments and frowned. “I at least waited until the footman had left. And I have not yet prepared my full toilette! I haven’t yet washed my face in milk. I will not look the same as I did last evening!”

“None of us do, Cecilia. Well, my dears, shall we go?” He held his hands out for his daughters to grasp onto, and Beatrice slid her arm through his.

“Are you certain you wish Lord Brackenridge to see me, Father? I am looking ill of health. I would not wish to scare him off with my appearance.”

“Oh, pish! Beatrice, you look perfectly well. Please say you will not abandon me when we are about to meet such a personage. I find I am all aflutter this morning. I was much bolder last evening.”

“Your sister is right, Beatrice. We must all of us, as a family, greet our important guest.” He nodded his head, and together, the three of them passed out of the upper drawing room and left to greet Henry Walter, Marquess of Brackenridge. Beatrice was nervous, and her heart was in her throat, but she felt a little tinge of satisfaction. She was eager to lay her eyes on her future brother-in-law, who perhaps might be their family’s savior.

Chapter 3

Her father led the way into the guest drawing room and then moved aside so that his daughters could enter. Beatrice swallowed. This was the most social interaction she’d had in a very long time. A thousand questions plagued her mind. Was her dress too shabby? Was her hair in the latest style? Did her lips at least look pink enough to appear healthy? As they’d walked from the upstairs room, she’d patted her cheeks gently to bring out some color. Despite her father and sister’s kind words, there was no sense in appearing in front of a marquess looking almost like a corpse.

She kept her eyes down as they walked to the room and once her father spoke his introduction, she turned her eyes up and almost gasped. It could have been the fatigue, or it could have very well been the fact that she’d hardly seen another human being outside the house for many months, but Lord Brackenridge was a very handsome man. Incredibly handsome. He was smiling at her father’s words, and nodding his head, and then his eyes turned to her. She felt frozen to the spot, lost in his eyes, which were the clear blue of a lovely summer sky.

“This is my daughter, Miss Beatrice Cooper,” her father said, and when Lord Brackenridge bowed his head, Beatrice curtsied, her arm still in her father’s. She was glad for it, for she was certain she would trip after seeing a face like Lord Brackenridge’s. He had windswept blonde curls, long sideburns, and a straight jaw. His smile was perfect too, with lovely straight teeth, and his manner of dress was impeccable, a perfectly tailored coat hiding strong shoulders and a slim waist. He was every inch the marquess.

She couldn’t break his gaze until he turned to look at Cecilia. “And of course, you already know my daughter, Miss Cecilia,” her father continued. Lord Brackenridge’s face brightened at the sight of Cecilia, and Beatrice looked down and felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment. Of course, he should prefer her sister. Cecilia was all loveliness and health, while she was fresh from the sick room and seemingly always would be. She had to bite back a sigh.

The second she’d first laid eyes upon the marquess in her drawing room, she’d had the greatest urge to call out for her sister to leave the room, so she could speak to him all on her own, without any distractions. The feeling had been so strong, and now Beatrice felt its ridiculousness, and she shook her head, as if ridding herself of the foolish notion. Unfortunately, she thought she had been subtle, but instead, after Lord Brackenridge said, “Yes, of course, lovely to see you again, and to meet you, Miss Cooper,” all eyes turned to Beatrice, who was still vehemently shaking her head.

As soon as she realized what she was doing, she froze, and her cheeks blushed crimson. She could feel the heat in them.

Well, at least the redness will give me the appearance of health. Sadly, I have made myself look as though my mental stability is rather lacking.

While her father and sister looked at her with curiosity, Lord Brackenridge was watching her with a small smile. At least it wasn’t a pitying one, but she still felt humiliated that her guest had observed her shaking her head like a maniac. Silence filled the room, but then Cecilia saved the moment by laughing. “Lord Brackenridge, you are most welcome. Would you like to join us for tea?”

She motioned to the table in the center of the room, and Lord Brackenridge’s eyes lit up. “I would be delighted. If that is acceptable to you, Mr. Cooper.”

“Of course. Please have a seat.”

Her father went to alert the servant to bring tea, and soon the three of them were sitting together around a low table. Lord Brackenridge and her father sat in their own armchairs, while she and Celia sat on the settee together. Nervously, Beatrice smoothed her hands over her skirt, unable to look up any longer, afraid that she would see the same strange look in Lord Brackenridge’s eyes.

How could I have done something so foolish?

She resolved to join in a few more social engagements in the coming week. Perhaps she had been away from the outside world for so long, she couldn’t control her own strange movements in front of others.

“Tell me,” Lord Brackenridge said, clearing his throat, “How have you been since the ball, Miss Cecilia?”

“Well, seeing as it was only last evening, my lord, I am faring quite well, if slightly fatigued. And you?” She laughed, and Beatrice was suddenly jealous of her sister’s confidence. She wasn’t sure she could ever be as confident or as teasing as Cecilia, and certainly not with a man.

He grinned, clearly pleased that Cecilia had deigned to tease him. “I am well, thank you. I had hoped to come today and make your acquaintance, Mr. Cooper. I am lucky that I also was able to make the acquaintance of your other daughter as well. I am sorry, Miss Cooper, that I was unable to meet you last evening.”

Beatrice lifted her eyes and was suddenly lost in his beautiful blue eyes again. He was looking at her now with another smile. His tone was gentle and his voice kind. It seemed unfair that such a handsome man should also be very kind.

“It is lovely to make your acquaintance, my lord,” Beatrice said, and she noticed her father smiling at her ability to remember some social niceties.

“My daughter’s health has not been what it should be of late, but she is recovering nicely.” Beatrice blushed at the look of surprised pity on Lord Brackenridge’s face. He didn’t pity her oddity, but he did pity her illness. She looked away. “Will you be hosting any more gatherings in the future, my lord?” her father asked, and Lord Brackenridge chuckled.

“While my first foray into hosting was not entirely unsuccessful, I think it will be my last time for the Season. I would much prefer to attend events and let others do the hard work.” He grinned, showing his beautiful smile again, and it didn’t escape Beatrice’s notice that his eyes slid to Cecilia when he mentioned the word ‘others’.

So, it is very possible that he will make her an offer, sooner rather than later.

That should have relieved her, but Beatrice couldn’t help the feeling of jealousy that was growing inside her. Would she ever have suitors calling upon her family, come to see her, perhaps even ask for her hand?

The tea arrived, and they spoke amiably for a time. Lord Brackenridge and her father engaged in a bit of discussion of horseflesh, and she and Cecilia spoke in hushed tones. She wanted desperately to ask Cecilia what her thoughts about Lord Brackenridge were, now they had spent more time together, but it was too risky just then.

After a few more minutes, Lord Brackenridge cleared his throat. “Mr. Cooper, I wondered if I might have a few moments to speak alone with you.”

Beatrice looked at her father, and while he was acting very calm, she could read the tiny expressions which showed his excitement. “Is it an important matter, my lord?”

Lord Brackenridge looked a little abashed. “I would say yes, it is important. But I hope it will not be an unfortunate conversation, sir. You have no cause for concern.”

“Well then, of course. Come with me. We shall adjourn to my study.”

“Thank you.” He turned to Beatrice and Cecilia, his eyes lingering on Cecilia just a little bit longer. “Lovely to see you both, ladies. I shall take my leave of you when I’ve finished my business with your father.”

“Until then, my lord,” Cecilia said, batting her eyelashes, while Beatrice settled for a simple smile. Lord Brackenridge bowed again, and then he was gone with her father. As soon as they were out of earshot, she turned to Cecilia, who was looking flushed and nervous.

“Oh, Beatrice, what do you think they speak of?”

Beatrice smiled and grabbed her sister’s hand. She was resolved not to appear jealous in front of her younger sister and focus on the fact that if Cecilia married so high above herself, then they would be comfortable once more. “I think, Cecilia, that he intends to ask father for your hand, or at least for Father’s permission to begin a courtship.”

Cecilia breathed out and began to pace back and forth, ringing her hands. “But it is too soon. Surely, it is too soon!”

Beatrice’s eyes followed her sister’s path across the room. “What do you think of him? He seems like a good man, a gentleman.”

As well as the most handsome man I have ever met, but that is neither here nor there.

“He is a good man. Clever, humorous, kindly. Very handsome, indeed, but. . .” She lowered her voice and stopped in front of Beatrice. “I know very well our family’s needs, and that Father, since mother’s death and the loss of his business, has been like a different man. His thoughts are constantly on the future and our finances. But I cannot, in good faith, feel happy about accepting a proposal so soon. I mean, my Season feels as if it has only just begun!”

She paled, and Beatrice used her calmest voice. “I understand your feelings entirely. I don’t think Father will rush you by any means, even if Lord Brackenridge does ask for your hand today. If you are uncomfortable, you must take your time. But I do think he is a good man, Cecilia. I think he would make a very fine husband.”

Beatrice smiled, but inwardly, she was regretting the fact that she would have no one to come for her, no one to call her own, and she knew it. While one day she might be feeling completely better in body, she was already far too old to be of interest to anyone as a wife. Cecilia, at twenty-one years old, still had a very good chance of finding a good match, and this was her opportunity.

Cecilia took another deep breath, and she smiled. “I feel much better. Thank you, Beatrice. I think I didn’t expect things to happen so quickly. And we might be wrong about the subject of their conversation, but it is good to be prepared. You’re right. Lord Brackenridge is a very good man. He is highly spoken of, even if he has somewhat of a reputation for being a little flirtatious.

“Oh?” Beatrice was amused but not entirely surprised. “It comes as no surprise, for he is quite good-looking.”

“Beatrice!” Cecilia laughed. “You are growing bold. I am happy about it, though. It means you are getting better.” She leaned in and kissed her sister on the cheek.

Beatrice’s next words were interrupted by the brusque arrival of her father with Lord Brackenridge at his heels, looking a little ill at ease.

“My dears, there is news.” Her father’s face was bright with energy, and his hands moved frantically, as if bursting to share his next words.

“Lord Brackenridge has asked for your hand, dear Cecilia, but I have another idea.”

Both Cecilia and Beatrice blushed. Beatrice wanted to back away into the next room. Had her father lost all his social skills? Lord Brackenridge looked pale, as if he wished to reach out and pull her father back into the safety of the hallway. She looked away, so embarrassed that she couldn’t bear to look at him. Cecilia squeezed her hand.

“I told him that I would prefer he offer for your hand, Beatrice, since you are the eldest daughter.”

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