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Chapter 1

 Samuel

“You need not worry, Your Grace. I’ve gone over all of the preparations myself to ensure everything is in order,” Samuel stated, sliding the coat over the duke’s arms. “It will be quite the affair.”

“I have complete faith in you, Samuel. I am sure everything will be exactly as it should.” The duke was gazing into the looking glass as he spoke, examining the coat Samuel had selected for the evening. He seemed pleased with it, which was enough for Samuel.

As for the rest of the evening . . . well, it had taken quite a bit of time and effort for Samuel to get everything in order, considering all the people who had to be invited and the many elements to be coordinated for the evening. The staff had been prompted to ensure the estate was looking its best. The cooks had been informed of the menu for the small dinner party due to take place prior to the ball. Additional staff had been brought in to assist with serving drinks and such. The musicians had been hired and acquainted with the performance area.

Samuel was grateful that he’d managed to get all the invitations out in time to receive the responses. It was to be a large social event, and the duke had personally requested that many noble families from as far away as Glaston should attend, as well as the cream of Society from London and elsewhere. As such, Samuel’s work had been cut out for him, and it was with a sense of relief and satisfaction that he could declare the guest list complete.

A knock sounded at the door, and Samuel hurried to open it. One of the servant girls was standing at the door.

“Yes, Clara?” Walter was still glancing in the looking glass, so it was Samuel who addressed her with a polite but firm tone.

“Cook is ready with the meal, sir. And it is only a short time until the dinner begins.” She always seemed so young when she spoke, though Samuel knew she was nineteen. For him, there was something about the softness of her face and the demure way she looked at the ground when she spoke that differentiated her from the other servants.

“Thank you,” he replied, and she curtsied before turning away from the door.

“We will need to hurry. Our dinner guests should be arriving soon,” the duke replied, having heard the brief conversation with Clara.

“It should be a fine dinner, Your Grace. I have set Cook to prepare all of your favorite dishes, and a few new ones that are proving quite popular amongst the gentry now,” Samuel replied with a smile.

“I am sure it shall be excellent. As always. Cook never disappoints.” The duke smiled. “There is a perfectly good reason why I have kept Eliza on all of these years.” Samuel gave a smile in response.

“You never wanted to let Eliza go after all those years she was with your father, Your Grace. Even if we’ve had to hire another cook to help her complete some of the work.”

“Aye, there is that as well,” the duke replied. “And you always see to all of the other important things very efficiently as well, Samuel.”

Samuel thought about how much time it had taken him to arrange for the musicians for the coming evening. After all, the orchestra the duke had used for the last ball had been engaged elsewhere, and Samuel had been obliged to find another. Still, the musicians he’d hired seemed excellent and ready for the evening, and he was pleased he had been able to take care of the problem without having to bother the duke.

To hear that the duke completely trusted him to arrange everything and ensure the evening went smoothly made Samuel feel proud. He had earned his position as the duke’s majordomo, and Samuel proved his worth with every social event the duke hosted. Or at least, he sought to prove his worth and earn the high praise he regularly received from the duke.

“Might I ask, Your Grace, why you are hosting such events so frequently lately? Four in these past two months.” The duke sighed, glancing in the looking glass as Samuel straightened his collar. He was silent for a long moment, and Samuel wondered if he would answer at all. But then the duke spoke, keeping his gaze trained on the glass before him.

“I get lonely, Samuel. This grand estate that my grandfather and his father before him once filled with children grew empty during my father’s tenure, and it is emptier still on my own. Hosting these parties brings people together and allows me to enjoy myself in a large company for a few hours, at least.”

“I am here always, Your Grace.”

The duke turned from the looking glass toward Samuel, and Samuel could see the kind look on his face.

“Yes, I know, Samuel. And I appreciate that greatly. You have always been a great help to me. And I think of you as more than just my majordomo. You are the closest thing I have to a friend.” If Samuel had felt proud before, he felt even more so now. It truly was an honor for the duke to view him as a friend. Even with everything they had been through together, Samuel had never known for sure what the duke thought. Still, Samuel was very clear about his role.

“You are the best friend I have, Your Grace. You have been since we were children. I recall many long summer days playing together in the yard.” Of course, back then, Samuel had not referred to the duke as ‘Your Grace’ or by any other title, but as ‘Walter.’ It had been appropriate enough while they were children, but that had changed when they came of age, of course.

“Aye, I remember those days as well,” the duke replied fondly. “Ah, to be so young again.”

“It was quite fun, wasn’t it?”

“And my father having the responsibility of the duchy was a benefit as well,” the duke gave a smile, which Samuel returned.

“You have done an excellent job, Your Grace.”

“Thank you, Samuel. I appreciate your faith in me. However, I know there is much I have not done that my father would have accomplished.”

“Your father would have been very proud of you for what you have achieved,” Samuel countered, but the duke did not respond.

“I am glad you think so,” he said finally.

“Definitely,” Samuel affirmed.

“You are the most trusted member of my household. I do hope you realize that.”

“I thank you, Your Grace. I always strive to do my best for you, and that shall not change. And the fact that you value me so highly is everything I could hope for. I assure you that I do not take my position lightly, and that I will always work hard to be whatever you need me to be.” The duke nodded and glanced back into the looking glass, lost in thought. Samuel, likewise, fell silent.

He knew Walter trusted his judgement in many things. After all, the duke often asked what Samuel thought, not only on general matters but on estate matters as well. Samuel had always felt flattered when asked to discuss such matters with the duke, and even more so when the duke chose to actually follow through on his recommendations. But still, he never forgot just how important his actual role was. Or his place in Society.

“There are rumors, Your Grace,” Samuel began, suddenly remembering what he had heard amongst the other servants.

“Oh?” The duke seemed distracted, still lost in his own thoughts. Samuel hesitated to say anything, but it really was best if the duke knew what his own staff, and others, were saying.

“There are rumors that you are hosting all of these parties in order to find a wife.” There was silence for a moment, and Samuel wondered if the duke was upset with him for speaking of such a rumor. But then he turned toward Samuel with a serious expression.

“And what do you think of these rumors?”

“I do not know what to think, Your Grace. I do not wish to pry into your affairs.”

“You never pry, Samuel. In fact, there have been times I have wondered if you have any curiosity at all.” The duke smiled, and Samuel could not help but smile back. “I have heard many other rumors about myself and have been surprised that you have never questioned them.”

“It is not my role to question what you do. Or how. It is my role to ensure you are ready and prepared for the day, every day. And to take care of your affairs as needed.”

“And I appreciate that greatly. I appreciate that I am always able to count on you to take care of whatever I need, and never to gossip about it.”

“I never would, Your Grace.”

“In this case the rumors are correct,” the duke replied. “I have indeed been looking for a wife.” The admission was surprising to Samuel. He had thought the duke was happy with his life as it was. Yes, he had said he was lonely, but he had never let on that he was seeking a wife. “I thought that . . . perhaps a wife would make my days a little less lonely.”

“A wife would be good for you, Your Grace. A duchess would be a big change for the estate and would definitely bring you great happiness.”

“I hope so,” the duke replied.

“There are many eligible young women who would be pleased to be your wife.”

“Aye,” the duke acknowledged. “But I have yet to find one I want to be my wife.”

Samuel gave a small smile. He could see why the duke would want to be careful of who he chose to be his wife. He would want someone who was equal to him, and not only in power and title. After all those years together, Samuel knew position in Society mattered little to Walter. No, he would want a wife who could be his equal in every other way. And it was what he deserved. But to find that amongst the nobility would be a feat indeed.

“I am sure there is one who shall be the perfect fit for you.”

“I hope you are right, Samuel,” Walter replied, though he sounded somewhat wistful. “Love is crucial in a man’s life, Samuel. Understand that. I thought I could do without it. That it was unimportant. Or that I would get to it later in life. I was so very wrong on all counts.” Samuel did not respond at first, and Water forced him to meet his eye. “I mean it, Samuel. I am looking for love now, but I should have done it long ago.”

“Perhaps it is important for you, but it is not something I require. My life is quite full as it is, Your Grace.”

“Ah, but Samuel, love gives you something to live for. A special someone to spend your life with. To care about you and be there for you when you need them . . . it is truly a wonderful thing.”

“Perhaps,” Samuel allowed, though he wasn’t sure he truly believed any of it. What good would it to do have someone there constantly, watching his every move? He had an important job, and nothing could ever be more important than that.

“Do not wait as I have, Samuel. Find yourself a young lady to love and care for as well.” At that Samuel smiled and gave a slight nod, though he saw no point in the entire experience. Yes, a wife in the house to care for him might be nice, but his life was quite comfortable. And what need had he of a wife when he had all the staff to support him? His meals were provided and his rooms were cleaned. Everything was fine. He had no need for love, and most certainly no need to be married.

“Let us start with finding you a duchess,” he replied, and the duke shook his head gravely.

“I do not know if it is even possible.”

“We will keep looking until it is,” Samuel promised, and the duke gave him a small smile. If the duke wanted a wife then Samuel would do everything he possibly could to make it happen. Though, judging by the rumors he had been hearing, he would likely be needed to keep some of the young ladies away from the duke rather than introduce them to him.

“Well, I do believe I am ready.”

“You are, Your Grace.” The duke gave him another smile.

At that moment they heard the door open downstairs as the guests began to arrive.

“And none too soon, either. It is time for our dinner to begin.”

“I shall make sure that everything is prepared for the ball as well,” Samuel promised, hearing the voices of several guests as they entered the front hall.

“I am very grateful for you, Samuel. You are a great benefit to me. Not just as my majordomo, but as a confidante.”

“Thank you, Your Grace. You are ready.”

“And you, Samuel? Are you ready for the ball?” Samuel glanced in the looking glass himself, taking in his dark brown hair, combed back in a sleek manner. It looked just as it had this morning when he had gotten himself ready for the day before breakfast. The suit he wore was well tailored to his tall, thin frame, and the overall look complimented his green eyes and tan complexion.

Looking into the glass with Walter at his side called to mind another ball. One from so long ago that Samuel had very nearly forgotten about it. The two had been but children then, and it had taken a great deal of persuading to convince his mother to allow Samuel to go to the ball at all.

The duke had been able to persuade her, however. Walter had always been able to get his father to let him do whatever he wanted, and Walter wanted to see the ball. So, the duke had agreed to let him come for an hour. And, of course, Walter wanted Samuel there as well.

“Do you think you boys are ready?” the duke asked with a smile as he looked at them. Walter stood up straight and brushed the shoulder of his fine jacket. Samuel had been given a suit of Walter’s to wear for the occasion, and he was pleased at how fine he looked in the mirror. The two could have been brothers, considering how well they looked beside one another.

“I am, Father,” Walter replied. “And Samuel looks excellent as well.”

“Aye, I do believe you both look nice. Now, remember you are only to attend for an hour. Margaret will come and fetch you after that.” The boys nodded solemnly, and Samuel knew his mother would not be even a moment late. It had taken enough convincing to get her to agree to a single hour, after all. She said they were both much too young for balls.

“Now, let us descend,” Walter stated with a mighty air, repeating the phrase he had heard his father say on occasion. The duke laughed and led the boys toward the stairs, where they could see guests already beginning to arrive.

“You are welcome to any of the foods you like, and you may occupy the far corner of the dance floor. But you are not to get in the way of the dancers, mind,” the duke informed them. “If you cause trouble, I will not be able to allow you to attend in the future.” The two boys nodded solemnly, and the duke entered ahead of them.

Walter and Samuel looked at each other and smiled, more than ready to enjoy whatever it was about these things that everyone seemed to like so much. Food, dancing . . . there had to be something to it, right? Why else would the duke hold so many balls? And why else would so many people always attend?

Samuel smiled at the memory. That first ball had not been at all what they had expected. It wasn’t as much fun as they had thought it would be. The food was good and had included all of the dishes they loved best and were only able to get on special occasions. They had quite stuffed themselves. Luckily, Cook had been prepared for that and had made extra, laughing as she said, ‘I know I shall need twice as many of the tarts and jellies if these two shall be there. Or the guests shan’t get a one.”

But they’d also made a bit too much of a nuisance of themselves in their corner of the dance floor and had gotten a stern look from the duke stopping. He had given them an indulgent smile at their contrite expressions, which immediately made them feel better. At least they would not be in trouble.

There wasn’t much to do, though, and they had wondered why the adults seemed to like such things so much. The one hour they’d been given was quite enough.

When Samuel’s mother came to fetch them, the boys had made a half-hearted argument for more time, but she was firm. She had allowed each boy to select one more cake from the table, and had then herded them upstairs, where they were quickly prepared for bed.

Now was different. Now, there were many things for Samuel to enjoy about such an event. Though, if he was perfectly honest, he still found them a trifle boring. He did not dance, and instead would follow Walter, or find a place out of the way to watch what was happening. A smile lit his face, however, as he thought of the fact that Cook was still making those same tarts and jellies.

Samuel shook himself out of the revere. For now, he was ready. Hopefully, there would be a new young woman at the ball who would catch the duke’s eye and be a good fit as the duchess. Samuel was pleased with the duke’s appearance, and that was good because the ball was about to begin.

Chapter 2

Hannah

The pictures all around her were so beautiful that she couldn’t help but stop to stare. And the longer she looked, the more she saw. More details. More colors. More—

“My lady! My lady!” The abrupt voice broke through the pleasant dream, and the vison of the art museum shattered as her eyes fluttered open.

“Drat.” The word burst out of her, and she immediately knew she shouldn’t have said it. As only Martha was present, there was no true harm in it. Martha would not be offended or upset with her language the way her mother would have been.

“Oh, I am sorry, my lady,” Martha said as Hannah sighed, glancing toward the window as she tried to cling to the happy feeling of her dream.

“What is it, Martha? It is quite early. Why are you waking me already?” Her voice came out slightly sharper than she had intended. She rubbed her eyes to clear them.

“I’m sorry, my lady,” Martha repeated again. “Your father has asked for you. He would like you to join him for breakfast at once.”

“Oh, bother. What could he possibly want?” Hannah wondered aloud, but she hurried out of bed anyway. If her father was calling for her, it was best not to keep him waiting.

As Martha helped her dress, Hannah tried to remember if she had left her pencils and drawings in the parlor again. Her father always hated it when she did that. It was proper for a lady to dabble in some drawing and to have pretty pictures to show off to potential suitors, but he did not care for Hannah’s devotion to her art.

She sighed, hoping she wasn’t rushing just to get yet another lecture. But then, what else could it be? She had done nothing of note that was especially good. At least so far as she knew.

“There. I am presentable for breakfast,” she said finally, and Martha agreed. She might as well get whatever the matter was over with. At least then, she might be allowed to go into the gardens to draw. If she had to be up so early, she would make the most of the beautiful light and the dew on the flowers outside.

As she gazed into the mirror, trying to prepare herself for whatever she was about to face, Hannah realized was a more pressing issue to handle first. “Oh, Martha!”

“Yes, My lady?” Martha stopped and turned back from the door.

“I am sorry if I am short with you this morning. It is no fault of yours.” Her contrite expression was enough, and Martha smiled indulgently in response.

“Was it a very good dream?”

“Oh, the best,” Hannah replied, and for a moment, she was lost in the memory of it. “I am a little worried also as to what my father may want from me.” Her brow furrowed.

“I am sure it is all right, My lady. And you do look lovely. He will have no complaint about that.” Martha was always confident in her job, and she always did it well.

“You always do a wonderful job of getting me ready, Martha,” Hannah spoke up. With another smile from Martha, Hannah decided it was time to go.

Another glance in the looking glass, a hand smoothing her hair, and she headed down the stairs toward the dining room. Outside the door, she paused and took a deep breath to prepare for whatever was about to confront her.

As soon as she walked into the dining room, she felt more at ease, however. Her mother was sitting to the right of her father, and that meant that whatever was happening could not be all bad. Her mother would not be here if he was truly upset with her. Father did not care for the way that Mother always defended Hannah when he was attempting to scold her. He preferred to do the scolding alone and allow Mother to come to her after to soothe ruffled feathers.

“Ah, Hannah, come in.” Father seemed pleased this morning, she noticed. As he cut into his eggs to take a bite he even seemed to be smiling slightly.

“You sent for me, Father?” she asked, uncertain whether she should take a seat or wait to be addressed again.

“Yes. There is something we need to discuss.”

“What is it?” she asked, venturing forward to the seat that was now being pulled out for her. She nodded her thanks to Edward and sank into the chair.

“We have been invited to a grand ball at Barrowclough. You are expected to attend with us.” The tone was calm. Her father continued to eat his breakfast, barely even glancing in her direction.

“A ball? The duke has held four such balls in the past few months. Why is it so pressing that I should attend each one?” She knew her voice was louder than it should be and that her father would not appreciate it, but still, she could not help it.

“This is a very important occasion,” her father replied, his voice still even and relaxed.

“It may well be an important occasion if the duke were to host a single ball in such a short period. But to host four in such short succession implies they most certainly are not important at all. I would much prefer to remain at home.” Hannah presented her case, though she knew that father would not approve. And her mother was giving her a look that said Hannah should probably keep her opinions to herself.

“Absolutely not. You shall attend the ball with us,” was the indignant reply.

“Father—” she began in a gentle tone.

“No. That is my final decision on the matter. You shall attend the ball.” He was firm this time, his mouth set in a hard line as he finally looked at her. There would be no mercy from that corner.

“Mother—” she began instead, but her mother shook her head, though with a gentler look than her father.

“It is important that you attend, Hannah,” her mother replied gently.

“Why does it matter so much that I attend yet another ball thrown by the duke?” she insisted. If she was already going to be in trouble, she might as well make her opinion known.

“Why—” her father began, but her mother stopped him with a touch of her hand.

“A duke would be a fine husband, Hannah,” her mother replied, her voice soft yet again, as Hannah grimaced. Yes, of course. That was always what it came to. They did not care for anything save finding her a rich husband. A “good match” they called it. But the truth of it was they wanted to marry her off to someone wealthy because it would reflect well on them. It had little to do with her or ensuring she would be comfortable or happy.

No. They had no care at all of her being happy with a husband. And she sighed at the thought, and the idea that she would ultimately be forced to marry and could only hope the marriage would be pleasant. To hope she would actually care for the husband her parents chose for her was expecting too much.

“You will attend, Hannah.” Her father’s voice was firm, and a glance at her mother said that she was just as firm, though her remained softer than her husband’s.

Hannah inclined her head in agreement and resigned herself to the fact. No matter how much she wished to stay home with Martha, and her paints, it was apparently not to be. She would be forced to attend this new ball, and the one after that, and the one after that. She sighed again.

No doubt the duke would continue to throw these balls regularly for the foreseeable future. Unless he found a wife. Then she could only hope the entire process would end. Until her parents found another potential match for her. Then there would be never-ending “opportunities” to be thrust into his presence as well.

It would never end until she was wed.

“Yes, Father,” she allowed, and he seemed satisfied with that.

“Good. Now, we shall enjoy our breakfast. I expect you to prepare well for this evening.”

“Yes, Father,” she said again, looking down at the plate that had been placed before her. Even her favorite fruits did not look so appealing now, as she thought of the ball this evening and the goal her parents had set of her catching the eye of the duke. No, this would not be a pleasant evening. But perhaps she could enjoy herself until it was time to leave.

Luckily, her father allowed her to do as she pleased for the rest of the day, and she was able to spend it in the gardens. Martha even left her alone, except to bring her tea. And to fetch her when it was time to begin preparing for the ball.

“My lady? I have your gown prepared.” Hannah sighed in frustration—the light was just perfect to see the delicate petals of the roses in the garden in detail—and set down her brushes. If she was late her father would be very unhappy. It was not worth upsetting him when she would still be required to attend the ball anyway.

“I am ready, Martha,” Hannah replied, rising and straightening her skirts for the walk back to the house. Patrick had come out with Martha and was now gathering her painting supplies. “Thank you,” she added, and he gave a small nod, taking them back inside through the kitchen door. It was easier when her father didn’t actually see her art things, as he did not approve of them.

As she entered the bedroom, she was pleased to see that at least the gown chosen for her to wear was one she liked. The blue matched her eyes well and complemented her red hair. At least it was a sight better than the pale pink one she had worn to the ball last summer. That one had definitely not shown her at her best.

In fact, she had disliked it so much, she had sent Martha to have it turned into rags as soon as she had returned from the ball. Just to ensure she would never have to wear the dreaded thing again. What had her father been thinking by having such a dress made for her?

She shook her head and glanced down at the beautiful blue dress before her. Yes, this one was certainly much better. But then again, her mother had selected it. Of that she was certain.

“Did Mary have a chance to mend the hem from the last ball?” She ran her hand over the bottom of the dress as Martha nodded.

“Aye, My lady. She mended it well.” Hannah nodded as she examined the dress and found no sign of the tear. It seemed she was always finding little things about her dresses. A small tear she could not remember having made. Or worse, a spot of paint. Her father was always upset if there was the least thing wrong with her dress and getting even the smallest drop of paint on them was the worst thing she could do, or so it seemed.

She sighed and allowed Martha to assist her with removing her old dress and slipping on the new one.

They were both silent for a long moment as Martha straightened the dress and buttoned it. Though Hannah stood before the looking glass, she chose not to look at herself. She glanced instead at the floor, waiting for Martha to finish.

“Why do you look so sad, My lady?” Martha asked gently, her hands light on Hannah’s shoulder as she swept her mistress’s hair up.

“Hmm?” Hannah looked up, startled. “Oh, it is this business with the duke. Father wishes me to make a match with him.”

“Would it be so terrible to marry the duke?” Martha ventured. “I have never heard bad things about him. He is a respectable man. Well educated. And charming as well. Handsome to boot, if what the other servants have said is true.”

“Aye, he is all of that, judging from what I have seen, and heard as well,” Hannah agreed.

“Then what is the matter?” Martha asked, seeming confused. She paused in her work, meeting Hannah’s gaze in the looking glass.

“I am not interested in marrying the duke. He may well be a fine man, and for someone he shall make a fine husband, I am sure. But that someone is not meant to be me,” was her firm reply.

“Why could it not be you, My lady? It would be an excellent match for you. You would be well taken care of, and the duke should be a good friend to you.” Martha gave her a soft smile, and Hannah knew that the girl meant well with her comments. She genuinely thought those things were enough to be happy.

“It is what any lady of my station would wish for,” Hannah agreed. “But it is not what I wish for. I wish for more than to be well taken care of and to have a good friend in my future husband.” Martha looked even more confused at that.

Hannah sighed. She knew any lady would be pleased with the man Martha had just described. A handsome, charming, well-educated, kind, respectable husband who would care for her and become a good friend over time. It was what her mother would wish for her—while her father was more concerned with the fact that the duke was a good match in terms of his wealth. But it was not what she wanted. Was what she wanted so strange?

“I wish for love. Real love. Not friendship.” Hannah sighed at the thought of giving up what she wanted most.

“Perhaps you would come to love him, my lady,” Martha added, though she seemed unsure as to why it should matter. Not for the first time Hannah wondered if Martha would be getting married sometime in the future. She had never discussed it with the girl, but it seemed Martha had a rather pragmatic view of what marriage should be. Perhaps she would one day enter into a marriage of convenience herself.

“I do not wish to ‘come to love’ anyone,” Hannah replied adamantly. “I do not believe in it. Do we ‘come to love’ our fathers and mothers? Do we ‘come to love’ our brothers and sisters?”

“We come to love our friends, my lady,” Martha supplied.

“Perhaps we do,” Hannah allowed, “But that is not what I wish for in a husband.”

“What is it that you wish for?” Martha seemed confused.

“Love,” Hannah replied with conviction. “Real love. An instant connection and an overwhelming passion. Don’t you want that?” She had thought it was something everyone wished for, but the look on Martha’s face said perhaps not.

“I do not believe it exists, my lady, “Martha shook her head. “This overwhelming love that you speak of. If it does not grow over time, then where does it come from?”

“It is instant. Love at first sight.” Martha fell silent a moment, focusing on her dress, and Hannah wondered just what the girl was thinking.

“Love . . . it does not work that way, My lady. I do not think it does.” This was said with another shake of the head.

“I believe it does. That it will. When I meet the one who is meant for me . . . I will just know it. In an instant.” Martha was silent again, and Hannah knew the girl did not agree. However, Hannah was determined. “What of your family, Martha?” It was the first time she had ever asked the girl about her past. Hannah wondered at her lack of interest now. “Did your parents love each other?”

“Aye, my lady,” Martha’s eyes seemed to cloud for a moment. “That they certainly did. If there was one thing that our house did not lack, it was love.”

“See there? That is what I would like for myself.”

“It is a lovely goal, my lady, but my parents did not have that love when they wed.” Martha seemed to hesitate, as if uncertain how much to reveal of her own family, but finally she spoke up again. “My mother was a poor seamstress, and my father was a sailor. When they wed it was for far more practical reasons than you speak of. My mother’s family needed to marry her off to improve the family situation. My father accepted the meager dowry they offered because he wished for a wife to make his home more pleasant when he was there.”

“How did your parents come to love each other so much?”

“Father was injured. He could not return to his ship and had to take on work in town. Being around one another so much . . . it gave them the opportunity to find that love in one another.”

“Well . . . it is a lovely story. But it is not what I wish for. Not what I would have for myself.”

“What of your own parents, My lady?” Martha seemed to regret the words as soon as she said them, looking quickly at her hands as she continued to pin up Hannah’s hair.

“I know well that my parents do not have the sort of love I wish for myself,” Hannah acknowledged. “They seem to care for one another well enough. But it is not what I want. That kind of affection would not make me happy.”

The duke was a fine man, and for someone he would be an excellent match. But he was not the right match for Hannah.

If only she could convince her father of that. He seemed determined that she should catch the eye of the duke and marry him. And to tell her father she was seeking an instant love, a man who would be more than just a “smart match” . . . it was impossible. He would never understand.

“There now, My lady. You are just about ready.” Now Hannah glanced at the mirror. Yes, the blue dress was an excellent choice. She did look quite nice. Though she wondered at all the effort put into the process, and it must have shown on her face. “Perhaps the duke is not the one for you. But perhaps the one who is will be there,” Martha ventured, and Hannah brightened at the prospect.

“Perhaps he shall be.” The smile seemed enough for Martha because she received one in return, and then Martha continued to work on her hair. Pulling it up off the back of her neck always made her look her best. And though she had no idea how Martha did it, in just moments, her hair was piled artfully on top of her head.

On second thought, perhaps it would be best if Martha did not marry. Who else would ever be able to do her hair so quickly and so prettily? And, even more importantly, who would she ever be able to sit and talk to in this manner about love and things? Certainly not the other servants.

“There now, you look quite lovely, as always, of course,” Martha told her. But she was not quite done. Martha now returned to straightening and primping her dress, fussing over each tuck and pleat of the skirt, where Hannah would have simply left it alone.

It seemed to take forever before Martha was finished, but now Hannah focused on finding her true match, which made the time pass much faster.

There would be a great many people at the ball. The duke always invited guests from quite a distance, and it was possible that someone new would attend. Someone who would be everything Hannah hoped to find in a husband. And she could only hope they would be well-connected enough to please her father’s desire for a wealthy match. She could not bear the thought of finding her perfect husband and being forbidden to marry him.


Chapter 3

Walter

          The room had been decked out quite well. The ballroom always looked spectacular on such evenings, but Samuel had seen to it that things were even more grand than usual.

          Everything had been polished until it gleamed. The musicians in front of the dance floor were already playing, and he was definitely pleased by the music, though he did not recognize the men. He would have to ask Samuel about that.

He glanced around again and smiled at the number of people in attendance. It seemed that everyone he had invited had accepted, and the ballroom was filled with beautifully dressed ladies and gentlemen milling about.

As Walter and Samuel strolled through the doorway, all eyes turned toward them. The men nodded or bowed and then quickly turned away, trying to pretend they were not staring, though Walter knew they were.

The ladies, on the other hand, were more obvious. Each curtsied low and bestowed a brilliant smile on him. A few turning somewhat coquettish after that smile. Others were more brazen as they stared back at him.

There was no shortage of beautiful young ladies. And Walter had no doubt that any one he chose would be more than happy to dance with him. More than happy to be his wife as well. But he sighed. None of them attracted him in that way.

Yes, they were lovely. They were, by turns, kind, humorous, gentle, and so much more. But none were quite what he hoped the future duchess would be. And so, he merely smiled at them and made small talk before moving on to the next guest.

It was not what he had hoped for, but it was a way to fill the empty space of his days, and to keep his far too empty home full of people.

Samuel

The duke had told Samuel he could mingle on his own, but he preferred to stay close, in case anything was needed. It also gave Samuel a chance to converse with the guests and get an idea which ones might be a good match for the duke.

“It is a lovely evening, is it not?” He smiled at the young lady beside him and agreed.

“It is quite. Have you traveled far to come here?”

“We are from quite a distance, but I am in town visiting a friend, and we were invited to attend with them.”

“We are glad to have you.” He noticed the duke was moving on to another guest and made his excuses to leave. As he approached the duke again, Samuel glanced around the room. There were many few noble families present, and several young women he recognized well enough to point out. “The young lady in the pink dress before you is Lady Elizabeth, daughter of the Earl of Kensington. Her grandfather fought in the war. And I do believe her elder sister is married to a lord.”

“Ah, Lady Elizabeth,” the duke bowed to the young lady, kissing her hand, and she blushed and smiled, offering a deep curtsy in return.

“Your Grace, I thank you for the invitation.”

“It is wonderful to see you, I do hope you are enjoying yourself.”

“I am, indeed, Your Grace.” A few more moments of small talk, and the duke made his excuses and moved on again.

“In the green dress there is Lady Rebecca. She is the daughter of the late Earl of Martindale. Beside her is her sister, Lady Catherine, and her brother, Lord Matthew. He is set to take the earldom when he comes of age this summer.”

“My lady.” The duke bowed his head to the eldest daughter first and then her sister, following this with a bow to their brother. The soon-to-be earl bowed low in response and formally presented his sisters. He was young, but it was clear he knew the proper way of things.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace. We are honored to have been invited.”

“It is my pleasure to have you, of course,” the duke replied.

As they were walking away from the family and Samuel began telling the duke about the young woman before them—My lady Eliza Montgomery, eldest daughter of Lord Clarkson, granddaughter of General Gavin Montgomery, who fought in the war and was considered a hero—duke stopped and turned to him.

“Whatever are you doing Samuel?” he asked, confusion on his face.

“I am trying to keep you informed of the young ladies who have gathered here tonight.” As Samuel looked about the room, he could that there were a great many more than there had been at the last ball. And certainly, many more than had been present at the duke’s first ball.

Samuel assumed it was because of the rumors. He couldn’t be the only one who had heard that the duke was seeking a wife. Certainly, many of the young ladies here today were hoping to catch the eye of the duke and become that wife. However, Samuel wanted to be sure that the lady the duke chose was worthy of him.

At his admission, the duke laughed outright. Loud enough that several of the nearby ladies and their families stopped to look in their direction. Everyone smiled of course, but Samuel could tell they were confused as to what was happening.

“You needn’t worry about me, Samuel. If I wish to seek a wife I shall find one for myself. I appreciate your care and support in this, but I do not need your advice on the suitability of the young ladies here tonight.” Walter’s voice was firm, though it was also clear that he took no offense in Samuel’s meddling.

“I would not wish you to find a lady who is not worthy of your attentions, Your Grace,” Samuel replied. There was a long silence where the duke only looked at him with a strange expression, and Samuel wondered what it could mean.

“Samuel, you know you can call me Walter? We grew up together, for goodness’ sake.” Ah, that again. He shook his head and offered a small, indulgent smile. This came up quite often, and each time Samuel gave the same response.

“I know my station, Your Grace. And calling you by a proper title is a part of that, especially at an event such as this.” The duke looked like he wanted to say more but shook his head and let the topic go, for now. Samuel doubted very much it would be the last time the duke brought it up.

For now, however, he returned to the original topic they had been discussing. A potential wife.

“Every young lady here is of the nobility. Any would be a fine match.”

“Perhaps, Your Grace, but there are some who may be a better match than others.” The duke simply laughed again.

“Perhaps you should be looking for a match for yourself, Samuel. Do not worry about me.” A match for himself, if he were so inclined, would not be found here. The ladies in the ballroom did not want to marry a majordomo. And Samuel would never presume to speak with them anyway, not unless it was alongside the duke.

“Your Grace—”

“Go. Enjoy yourself. Get to know people. Find yourself a wife. I shall be just fine.” He was about to protest again, but the duke had already wandered off, introducing himself to another young lady—Lady Catherine, daughter of the Earl of Corsan. Her mother was descended from a baron—and leaving Samuel behind.

As Samuel glanced around, he wondered what the duke truly expected him to do. He could speak to these people, yes. They would be polite to him, knowing he was the duke’s right-hand man. But he was not one of them, and he never would be.

His job was not to mingle, but to ensure that everything went well. He would never be a part of the nobility but would always be a commoner. They would always see him that way, and he knew the truth of his position.

Not that it had ever bothered him. He was comfortable with his place in life. Happy to be of service to the duke. But it meant that once the duke had left his side there was very little for Samuel to do.

With a sigh Samuel wandered toward a corner of the room. Somewhere he could keep an eye on everything and, hopefully, step in if anything went wrong. Of course, things very rarely went wrong. The most likely course was that the ball would eventually end when the musicians ceased to play. The worst thing that had happened at any of the previous balls was that a young lady had turned her ankle and needed to be escorted to a seat. And Samuel had ensured she was comfortable until her carriage could be brought around.

As he took his place near the wall this time, however, he noticed a young woman standing nearby. That was not so common on this side of the ballroom. Most young ladies would stay close to the opposite end, hoping to catch the eye of a gentleman so they could be asked to dance. This one seemed different, however.

Her gaze was not on the ball, nor any of the guests. Nor was it even on him as he approached her, but rather it was on the painting before her.

 He could not help but approach. At first he was concerned that perhaps something was amiss. But the way she looked at the painting told him it was not because she was in distress. It was because she preferred to look at the painting more than anything else in the room.

At her rapturous expression, he turned his own gaze to the painting. It was one of his favorites. With the vast number of paintings hanging throughout the house that was saying something. But this one seemed practically alive in the way the land stretched out and the sea lapped against it. He had spent many an hour examining every inch of this particular painting, and he could not help but speak to the young lady examining it now.

“It is quite something, is it not?”

“Indeed, it is,” she replied, still not looking at him, and he was able to get a better look at her. Lady Hannah. Daughter of the Earl of Compton. His only child. Twenty years old, with a reputation as a beautiful though quiet young lady. Not much was known about her, despite the fact that she regularly attended the social events in town.

For a moment he contemplated how he could introduce her to the duke. She would be a good match. And standing closer to her, he saw she was quite lovely. But she did not even look at the guests behind her or even seem to notice them. Rather, she continued to gaze directly before her, her eyes softening even more as they roved over the painting.

For a moment Samuel simply stood beside her, gazing at it himself, taking in the way the light seemed to reflect off the water. He particularly enjoyed the way the water droplets clung to the sand and pulled back away from the shore but seemed to be moving forward at the same time.

How many times had he just stood and imagined what it would be like to be there? On that coastline. Feeling that warm sun and the gentle lapping of the water. This time, he wondered what it would be like to stand beside this lady on the seashore. Would the beautiful woman beside him be pleased by a real sea or only the one she saw in painting?

The look on her face said she might very much enjoy visiting the real thing, and he could not help but take the opportunity to get a closer look at her. He had, after all, seen Lady Hannah before. She and her family had been to several of the balls thrown at the estate, and he had noticed her at other events the duke had been invited to. But he had not had the opportunity to examine her as closely as he did now.

“It’s beautiful.” The words spilled from her lips softly, almost as though she was speaking to herself.

It took him a moment to realize she was still looking at the painting because he was looking at the way her soft, red hair brushed against her cheek, and the way her bright blue eyes seemed so large, staring in wonder at the painting.

“Indeed. It is quite beautiful. I have always loved the way the light breaks over the water,” he replied, turning his gaze back toward that very thing.

“Oh, it is lovely. But my favorite part is the waves breaking over the sand. The difference in the colors is so subtle and yet . . . you feel as though it is truly water about to rush right over your feet.” There was a soft smile on her lips as she spoke, and she still had yet to turn to face him, but he found he did not mind.

A companionable silence fell for a time. He was not sure how long it lasted, but he found he rather enjoyed it.

“Here, too,” she reached out and brushed a finger an inch away from the surface of the painting, “the sand disturbed here looks as though someone has indeed been standing there. And perhaps they have only just wandered off.”

It was something he had often thought as well. That the painting seemed so lifelike he could imagine someone being right there inside it. But he had not known that others could feel the same way. That anyone else could imagine the life happening within that painting.

It made him like her even more.

“There are other paintings, if you would like to see them, my lady?” he ventured, and she finally turned to face him. Those beautiful, wide eyes met his gaze with a brightness he had not yet seen. And he had thought she was pleased before.

“Oh, I should love to, definitely.” There was no change in her expression as she looked at him, and he wondered if she even noticed that he was not a lord or a viscount, or any other type of nobility. Her gaze met his own, and she never so much as glanced at the suit he wore.

Still, he knew for a fact that she was a lady, and, as such, he would keep an appropriate distance.

“Right this way, my lady.” He held out his arm, and she took it and allowed him to lead her from the ballroom. It only took a quick glance to Clara for her to step in behind them, hanging back out of the way but following to ensure propriety as they made their way along.

Lady Hannah was pleased with everything she saw, stopping at each painting for a long time to examine it. He had never seen anyone who was so interested in the estate’s paintings before. Even the duke barely looked at them. True, they were the same ones he’d passed by every day since he was young, but even then Samuel did not recall him ever caring to give them more than a cursory glance—except, of course, for the paintings of knights that were on the second floor, and those of a few of far-off places gracing the walls of the library. Walter had always loved the idea of traveling to the Continent and perhaps on to India, and the paintings of those places had long attracted his attention.

It was nice to have a few moments to speak with someone who actually enjoyed the paintings as much as he did, and Samuel found himself falling into conversation with her more easily than he would have thought.

“Who is your favorite painter?” she asked suddenly, and he had to think for a moment, examining the painting before him as he did.

“Théodore Géricault,” was the first name that came to his mind. “Have you heard of him?”

“I don’t believe I have,” Hannah replied, though she turned toward him with interest.

“Some of his works are quite grisly, but there’s a realism to them that is intriguing.”

“I have never seen any truly gruesome paintings. Father prefers landscapes if he must have art. Though he does also have a few animal paintings.”

“Do you have a favorite artist?”

“Oh, I am not sure which I prefer most. The artwork at our home is . . . provincial compared to the works here,” she admitted. “This . . . this is something spectacular.” She stopped in front of a painting depicting peasants in a field.

“This is John Crome,” Samuel told her. “It is remarkable. Very real, and while not grim it is certainly not as . . . pretty as some of the others.” Hannah stared at it for a long while and seemed to truly absorb every aspect before she moved on.

“This is beautiful, as well.” She had stopped in front of yet another landscape painting. This one showed a garden filled with flowers. Once again, the use of light was superb and the detailing on the flowers was truly remarkable. “I can never achieve that kind of shadowing.”

“Do you paint?” She looked a little startled at the question, as if she had not intended to say that. But before she could answer, there were footsteps behind them, and they both turned to face the man who had just joined them.

“Hannah, who might this be?” Samuel instantly recognized her father, the Earl of Compton, and gave a low bow in response.

“My Lord, I am Samuel, the duke’s majordomo.” Immediately Lady Hannah looked disappointed, or perhaps discouraged? And the earl immediately looked pleased. Both reactions surprised him until the earl spoke again.

“Perhaps you could introduce Lady Hannah to the duke then,” the earl replied, and Samuel was finally able to place the look on Lady Hannah’s face: misery. And a bit of disgust, though directed toward her father rather than at him. It was apparent that Lady Hannah wanted no part of this introduction, or her father’s interference.

As for Samuel . . . he felt uncertain about the idea of introducing Lady Hannah to the duke. Of course, it was his job to do such things. His job to do as the earl asked, and of course, to find a suitable match for the duke. Lady Hannah would certainly be a good wife. She was smart and beautiful. And she loved art. Though the duke would not care either way about that. It was something Samuel could appreciate, however.

“Of course, my lord. My lady, if you would care to come with me?” Lady Hannah looked miserable but took his arm again and allowed him to lead her into the ballroom. A wistful glance back at the paintings was the last sign that anything was wrong before she adopted the pleasant but rather empty look he had come to recognize amongst most of the young ladies of the nobility.

“I do apologize for my father, sir,” she told him, and he looked at her, startled.

“There is nothing to apologize for, my lady. And no need to call me sir.” The address was certainly not proper, and he wondered at it, finally deciding that she was looking for a way to be polite, and to address him thus was the only way she could find.

“We were having a lovely time until he stepped in.” Again she seemed frustrated, though he only noticed it in her tone and not her expression.

“It was a lovely time, my lady. I am always pleased to meet another who loves art as much as I do.” By now they had just about reached the duke, who turned toward Samuel’s voice. In fact, he looked pleased to see Samuel with a young lady on his arm, until Samuel stepped forward to introduce her to him. “Your Grace, may I present Lady Hannah. my lady, the Duke of Barrowclough.”

She curtsied low, and the duke responded in kind with a deep bow. It was easy to see he was taken by her. She was beautiful, and her soft address as she greeted the duke was lovely as well. Though he found no trace of the animated young lady she had seemed to be when they looked at the paintings. The duke, however, saw enough to intrigue him and immediately asked for a dance, which the lady graciously accepted.

As he watched them walk toward the dance floor, Samuel felt a slight tug at his heart. It was foolish, of course. She was a lady, and he was a commoner, but he would much rather have kept Lady Hannah to himself. Would much rather have had the opportunity to continue speaking to her about the artwork and to see her face light up as she examined all the details in the paintings, as he himself would do. But it was foolish to think in such a way.

Hannah was a lady. A noble. And he was a commoner. It was not his place to attract her fancy or her attention. It was his place to find the duke a suitable wife. And Lady Hannah would certainly make a fine wife for the duke.

* * *

It did not really come as any surprise to Hannah that her father had ruined her moment of happiness. Finding someone at one of these events to speak to about the artwork was truly remarkable. But, of course, her father would see she was enjoying herself without attracting the duke’s attention and would force her to return.

As she danced, she could not help but look over the duke’s shoulder at Samuel. She had been having a lovely time. Samuel was quite knowledgeable about the paintings in the house, and he had been very nice to her.

Lost in her own thoughts, it took a moment for Hannah to realize that the duke had asked her a question, and a moment longer still to recognize what the question was.

“Do you like the house?”

“It is lovely,” she replied with a smile, trying to make herself as pleasant as possible. It must have been a decent enough answer, for the duke because he gave her a smile in return, and she continued. “The paintings really are beautiful.”

“You enjoy the paintings?” He looked pleased at the thought.

“I do,” her voice was energetic now. “I’ve never seen any as fine.”

“You enjoy art, then?”

“Oh, yes, very much so. I love looking at paintings, and I even do a little myself.” This much was acceptable to admit, and the duke seemed interested.

“What type of paintings do you paint?”

“I enjoy portraits, though I sometimes paint landscapes as well. They are quite difficult. The ones here must have taken the artists a great deal of time to get just so. I can never get the lighting just right.” Talking about art made her more animated, and she found herself speaking more freely with the duke than she might have expected.

“Portraits, you say? Perhaps you would be willing to someday do a portrait of me?”

“Of course, Your Grace,” she agreed, though reluctantly. Still, the smile on the duke’s face seemed genuine and kind. There was no hint of a motive here. Only a man who was interested in their conversation.

“It would be nice to have a pleasant picture of myself. You likely have not made it to the portrait room, but I can assure you that none of them are actually pleasant.”

“I am sure the portraits of your family are quite pleasant, Your Grace,” she assured him, but he gave a small laugh and a wry smile.

“Many decades of portraits of relatives all looking decidedly unhappy, Lady Hannah. I would like to break that line with a portrait of myself smiling.”

“I would be happy to assist, Your Grace.” This time she meant it.

Chapter 4

Walter

Walter sighed again, frustrated, and rose from his desk.

“Is everything all right, Your Grace?”

“Yes, thank you, Samuel. There are some business matters I must see to. Why don’t you get everything set with Cook for dinner? I’ll be a bit longer at this.” Samuel bowed and left the room, closing the door behind him.

As he watched Samuel leave, Walter could not help but worry about him. In fact, he paced the length of his study, contemplating just what he was going to do about Samuel. The two had been together for so long that Walter couldn’t help but worry about the man. Especially since Samuel never seemed to worry about himself.

Still, Walter knew it was strange for a noble to care so much about his majordomo. Even if they had practically grown up together, they were still of very different stations. To care for one of his servants the way Walter cared for Samuel was not only strange but entirely unheard of. For Walter, however, Samuel was the only family he had remaining.

His mother . . . well, he could barely remember her, as he had been only three at the time of her passing. And his father . . . he had tried very hard to take excellent care of his son and raise him all on his own, never remarrying.

And there was certainly nothing Walter could say to fault his father. The man had been quite busy running the duchy but had always had plenty of time to spend with Walter as well. He had always said that his son was the most important thing in his life, and Walter had certainly felt that way.

Samuel was the one who was there for him the rest of the time. He was a kind man, and a dedicated one. He was loyal to a fault and would always sacrifice for himself in order to do as Walter wished or needed. In fact, there were several times when Walter knew Samuel had given up something he wanted in order to make things easier for Walter. And though he had never acknowledged it, he attempted to make it up to Samuel day by day.

 Even when they were younger Samuel had been that way. Always giving up the last tart, offering the best sword when they practiced, giving Walter the better pony to ride—although both ponies had been given specifically to Walter.

There was much Samuel did not know that Walter did. Things Walter’s father had told him before his passing. Another reason to care for Samuel and provide for him the way Walter tried to do.

With that thought, his mind drifted back to one of the last times that he had ever seen or spoken to his father. It had been a very difficult day. Walter had been spending a great deal of time at his studies, to prepare for what was now known to be practically inevitable, though he tried to deny it as much as possible.

The old man lying there, so frail in his bed, did not seem like the strong man Walter had always known. Could this man, wrapped in a robe to cover his bedclothes, be the same man who had always taught Walter to present himself at his best, no matter what?

The thought was fleeting. He did not judge his father for his attire. With how frail and weak he was it was a wonder he could even speak at all, let alone rise from his bed to dress in formal attire that none but Walter and the servants would even see.

“Walter.”

Walter forced himself to meet his father’s gaze, though it was difficult. The worn face was not something he liked to look at, but there was nothing to be done about it. His father was dying, and he would have to come to terms with that sooner or later. And the longer he waited to do so, the less time he would have actually with his father. “I called for you—” He broke off with a coughing fit, and Walter quickly sank into the chair that had been brought to his father’s side, taking his hand.

“Do not worry, Father. Everything will be all right. It will be all right.” The old man gradually gained control again, the coughing fit subsiding, and Walter gripped his hand tighter. “You will not die.”

His father’s mirthless laugh was the first response he received. And then a shake of the head. “This is no time for false hope, Walter. I very much appreciate your trying to ease the pains of a dying man, but there is no hope for me.”

“Father—” His father held up a hand, and he fell silent. Much as Walter might fight it and try to deny it, he knew the man was dying. And he knew that whatever his father wanted to tell him, he would regret it if he never found out.

“The dukedom is yours, my son.” This was also expected, but Walter had never wanted it to happen this way. Rather, he had hoped that, one day, his father would have decided he was ready. He had hoped there would come a time when his father was still well but ready to step away from the role. Not something like this. “You will be responsible for the estate now. And for the people living on it.”

“Of course, Father. Much as he had not wanted things to happen this way, he was prepared for it. His father had prepared him well to take over the estate and to run every part of the dukedom. He knew every person who lived and worked there. He knew everything it took to ensure they were all taken care of. He was confident he could do it and do it well.

“I have another request to ask of you, Walter.”

“Anything, Father.”

“Samuel. Please, take care of Samuel.”

“Of course, Father,” Walter replied, confused. He would always take care of Samuel. After all, they had grown up close, and it was always expected that Samuel would become his right hand.

“Samuel is very special, Walter. You will never find one like him anywhere else.” Walter nodded because he already knew all of this. He was just confused as to why his father had chosen to spend his last breaths telling him what he already knew. “Trust Samuel, he will not steer you wrong.”

“I will, Father.”

“There is something else, Walter. Something else you need to know.” The man fell silent then, and Walter waited a moment before leaning closer to his father.

“What is it?”

“This is difficult for me to say to you. First . . . I must ask you to teach Samuel. Teach him everything that I have taught you. Teach him to run the estate. To handle all of the important matters necessary to keep our estate running smoothly.”

“I will, Father,” Walter replied again and felt his father squeeze his hand.

“He will learn quickly. He is a smart lad. And he is eager to learn. But he may resist. He is very steadfast in keeping to his place and nothing more.”

“I shall teach him, Father. He will be beside me as I run the estate anyway. He needs to know what it takes to ensure that it continues as it should, in case there is a time when I am not able to do so.”

“Aye, that is so. But there is more to it than that.”

“What is it, Father? You can tell me anything.” There was silence again for a few minutes, and Walter waited, knowing his father had something important to share.

“Samuel—”

Walter was pulled out of his revere by a sharp, stabbing pain in his side. For a moment he thought he could catch his breath, but the pain was intense, and he practically collapsed back into his chair.

“Samuel!” The first call was so quiet he could barely hear it, and he had to suck in a breath before he could call again. “Samuel!” This time Samuel came instantly. In fact, he must have been just outside the door, waiting, judging by how fast he entered.

As soon as Walter saw Samuel, he felt a small smile creep over his face. Something about seeing the man immediately made Walter feel more relaxed, but Samuel looked instantly concerned. In fact, his brow furrowed, and he immediately rushed to Walter’s side.

“Your Grace? You are pale. What is it? What is wrong?” Walter felt bad almost immediately for making Samuel worry so much. After all, it was just a little pain. Nothing he could not handle well enough. Or at least nothing he shouldn’t be able to handle well enough. It was the suddenness of it, he told himself. That was what had caused him to react so.

“It is nothing. It is passing.” Walter attempted to ease Samuel’s concern, though the pain did not seem to be easing at all. And it seemed that Samuel could tell. He took another look at Walter and rushed to the door.

“Clara! Call for the physician immediately.”

“No, there is no reason to make a fuss,” Walter protested, but Samuel ignored him and continued.

“Send Patrick on horseback. We need the physician quickly.” Clara glanced from Walter to Samuel with a nervous look but ultimately decided to follow Samuel’s instructions over Walter’s.

“Yes, sir.” She rushed out of the room, and Samuel turned toward him.

“I really am fine, Samuel,” Walter continued to protest, attempting to rise with as normal an air as possible.

“We are going back to your bedchamber,” was Samuel’s only response, ignoring Walter’s protests. Finally, Walter agreed to go, but only after Samuel picked up the papers from the desk to bring along with them.

“There are things that must be taken care of.”

“They can be taken care of later,” Samuel told him. “We must take care of your health first. It is more important than a few land documents.”

“They have to be seen to now,” Walter insisted instead. “And if I must be kept from doing it, you will have to care for everything in my stead.”

“You will soon be able to care for matters of the estate,” Samuel protested.

“This must be taken care of immediately. I need you to take care of it.” It was clear Samuel was not happy about giving in, but he did look at the papers in his hands once he had settled Walter into his bed.

“I will see to these matters once the physician has come to check on you,” he promised, though Walter knew he would prefer not to. While Samuel knew everything about the duchy, he did not appreciate taking over any of the tasks fully.

If there was one thing Walter never had to worry about, it was Samuel attempting to run the estate alone. At least, not any further than deciding which set of dishes to use for the evening, or perhaps the order of the portraits hanging in the hall.

“I am fine, Samuel. This is all a fuss about nothing.”

“When you called to me it did not seem as though it was nothing,” Samuel insisted, brushing away the duke’s indifference.

“I was startled. There is nothing—” At that moment there was a knock at the door, and Samuel hurried to answer it.

“The physician, sir,” Clara curtsied, and Samuel stepped back to allow the physician to enter the room.

“I was told to come immediately. What seems to be wrong, Your Grace?”

“Nothing is wrong. I am well enough. I am sorry to have wasted your time.” The physician looked uncertain and glanced toward Samuel.

“I do not know what the trouble is. I was not in the room when it occurred. I was outside the study when His Grace called to me. When I entered, I saw he was quite pale and having trouble catching his breath.”

“I would like to take a look, Your Grace,” the physician replied uncertainly.

“I am fine.” Another protest from the duke.

“Nevertheless—”

“You Grace, please.” Samuel seemed quite anxious, but Walter still brushed his concerns away and sent the physician out of the room. It was clear Samuel was still nervous, but he did not say anything further. In fact, he seemed unsure what he wanted to say.

“I am fine, Samuel. Just a little tired now. I shall rest, while you go to the tailor and have a new set of clothes made for each of us. The next ball shall be a grand occasion, and we must both look our best.”

“My clothes are well enough, Your Grace.”

“We’re both on the search for love, Samuel. We need to look our best.”

“Very well, Your Grace.” Samuel gave a small smile, and Walter smiled back at him.

“As for you,” he turned to the physician, “I am very sorry for dragging you from your home for nothing. Samuel can show you the way to the kitchens on his way out. Cook will set you up with a cup of tea and something to eat for your trouble.”

“Thank you, Your Grace,” the man replied and allowed a very reluctant Samuel to lead him back out of the room.

Yes, things were going to be just fine. Walter was feeling better now, though he did wonder what had happened and why he had felt such a sharp pain. He wondered also if the pain would return, or if it was gone for good.

No matter what might happen, he decided to continue with his plans for the rest of the week. There would be a ball that weekend. And Samuel was off to take care of the tailor and the financial matters that needed attending to. Walter would simply take a little rest, and he would be back to himself in no time.

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Chapter 1MaeveSussex, 1813.“Maeve? Put down your ink and quill for a minute, please, we must speak with you.”Maeve

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The Duke’s Writer
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