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Chapter 1

Maeve

Sussex, 1813.

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

Maeve looked up from the writing bureau she was working at. It was her favorite position in which to write, flooded with the early morning light. She sat at the desk with the quill in her hands as she turned to greet the bearer of that familiar voice.

Her mother was hastening into the room rather nervously, repeatedly pushing back the brown tendrils of hair behind her ears. Maeve had seen this action often enough over the years to recognize it. Usually, it meant her mother wished to speak of something she did not find it easy to talk of.

Maeve lowered the quill as her father followed her mother into the room. Peter closed the door tightly and glanced to the windows, clearly checking that what few servants they could still afford to keep at the house were not near enough to overhear them.

“What is wrong?” Maeve asked, pushing away from her desk and standing to her feet.

Gwen pushed her hair back behind her ears another time before fiddling with the skirt of her empire gown as she took her seat. She looked to her husband, clearly eager for him to be the one to do the talking.

“Someone say something, please,” Maeve said quietly. “You are scaring me.”

“It is nothing to be fearful of,” Peter assured her, moving toward her with outstretched hands. He took one of her hands in his own and steered her to sit on the settee beside her mother. “We merely wish to talk about our situation.”

“We talk enough of it as it is,” Maeve said miserably, looking back at her writing bureau thoughtfully.

The dwindling finances of the Earl of Nightburn after his rather odd investments was much talked of at present. Her father was suffering from these whispers, but their finances were suffering more.

Maeve rather hoped she could do something to help her father and mother, but what could she do? She longed to make money through her writing. There were great publishing successes, after all, but who would want to publish her? Few ladies ever saw their names in print.

“Your mother and I have agreed on a course of action we think could be for the best.” Peter sat in the chair opposite them, steepling his hands together as he peered at Maeve. Those cinnamon-colored eyes were so like her own, and Maeve found herself staring at her father, waiting for him to say more. “We think it best that you go to London.”

“L-London?” Maeve stammered, sitting so far forward that she nearly fell off the settee. Her mother reached for her arm, urging her to sit back again.

“Hear us out, sweetheart,” she pleaded kindly, trying to smile, though it did not last long. “Were we able to afford it, we would all go, but it is not possible. You could go and stay with your brother. His training is complete as a lawyer now, and he has the finances to look after you under his own roof.”

“You mean . . .” Maeve glanced around the room. Even from where she was sitting, she could see the signs of disrepair in Nightburn Manor. The floorboards were starting to fracture, and the windows let in the slightest of breezes, but she had not realized the situation was so dire.

They wish to send me away.

“Can we not afford to keep me here?” Maeve asked quietly, looking between her parents.

“It is not that,” Peter said softly, his smile genuine. “We want the best for you, and a good marriage is the best for you. What is more, if it was a very good marriage, then it could certainly help to increase our standing once again.”

“Oh . . .” Maeve stared back at her father as the realization clicked into place.

They are putting their hopes on me to rescue their fortunes, but not through writing and publishing my work, through selling my soul to a man, to be married.

She swallowed hard around a lump in her throat, startled by the sudden feeling that lodged there.

“It would be a joyous time for you, sweetheart,” her mother said eagerly, reaching for her another time. “Don’t you see? You could attend grand assemblies and balls. What excitement! You can go to the theater, and concerts too.”

Maeve found herself smiling a little. Her mother certainly painted an exciting picture. And such an eclectic place as London could certainly be inspiring for her writing.

I might even meet publishers in London.

“Well, it does sound rather exciting,” Maeve said, thankful when that lump softened in her throat.

“I am relieved you think so,” Peter said with a sigh and sat back in his chair. “We have talked to Leo too, and he approves heartily.”

“He does?” Maeve said, feeling her happiness begin to grow. If her brother had already approved such an idea, then it would surely not be long before she could go to live in London.

What an exciting world it would be! She wouldn’t have to worry about picking herbs from the garden to help the one maid they still had in the mornings, ready for cooking supper that night. Neither would she have to worry about hiding her writing away from prying eyes. In London, she could attempt to find a new life. One where she could be a writer.

If publishers accept the fact that I am a lady.

“This is wonderful news indeed,” Gwen said, clutching Maeve’s hand. Maeve smiled as she looked at her mother clinging onto her in such a way, seeing her relief. “I was worried you would not wish to go.”

“Of course, I wish to. It will be a thrilling time.”

“Thank goodness,” Gwen said with a sigh. “It is important you have a life in the social Season, Maeve. There is nothing quite like it, and if you are fortunate enough to catch the eye of a wealthy man . . .”

“Who will accept you with a small dowry, I might add,” Peter said distractedly.

“Not now dear.” Gwen waved his words away with a swipe of her hand, making Peter smile and shrug.

“Then everything will be well. You will be secure and have a comfortable life ahead of you,” Gwen said with glee, still holding onto Maeve’s hand.

Secure indeed.

Yet Maeve wasn’t thinking about catching the eye of a possible husband. She was trying to think about how she could orchestrate meetings with great writers and publishers when a thought struck her.

Leo is a lawyer.

Her brother was certainly welcome at ton events, being the son of the Earl of Nightburn, but he would hardly be free to attend every event, nor would he always be available to chaperone her.

“Mama.” Maeve turned fully to face her mother. “What of a chaperone?”

Gwen’s excitement instantly dwindled.

“Oh, well . . .” She turned to Peter, evidently looking for an answer. “We cannot afford to send a maid, can we?”

“No,” he said morosely, steepling his hands together another time. “We cannot.”

Maeve’s shoulders slumped as she turned back to face her writing bureau. The brief taste of excitement had been wonderful, but it was about to be left unsatisfied. Then, the sight of those papers blotted with writing and notes put an idea in her head. There was only one person she ever let read her writing, and that person certainly would be excited by the prospect of living in London for the Season.

“What of Chloe?” Maeve asked quickly, turning back to face her parents.

“The daughter of Baron Maywood?” Peter said, sitting forward a little.

“Yes. What would be better than going to London with my closest friend? She and I could chaperone one another. What do you think?”

“It could work perfectly.” Gwen nodded in thought, speaking slowly. “But could it be done? Would Baron Maywood let her go?”

Peter stood to his feet and began to pace across the room.

“I do not know,” Peter said after a minute. “Maywood’s finances are hardly better than my own at present. He may like the idea, but then again, he never seems in a hurry to let his daughter wander far.”

“But I could ask, could I not?” Maeve said, moving to her feet. Her father turned around, revealing a smile.

“I confess, it thrills me to see how excited you are by this idea, Maeve,” he said, clasping his hands together.

Not for the reasons you think, Father.

Maeve stopped her eyes from turning back to the desk another time. It was a secret she would have to keep. Her parents hardly thought highly of her efforts to be published. After all, had they not said again and again that few ladies were ever thought good enough to be published?

“I am very excited,” Maeve declared, barely able to stand still. “May I go to ask Chloe today what she thinks of the proposal?”

“You may.” Peter nodded in approval. “If she says yes and her father consents, then we have an accord. You and Miss Green will be going to London.”

* * *

“Good lord, Maeve. Is all well? You have run into my house so wildly you would think the path to my door was on fire!” Chloe giggled as Maeve hurried into the room.

She caught sight of her reflection in the hall mirror as she hastened inside, noting just how her excitement had transformed her appearance. Beneath her bonnet, brunette tendrils were beginning to escape their pins, and her normally pale cheeks were flushed pink from the excursion of racing to Chloe’s house. Her tall frame was tipping so far forward in her attempt to reach Chloe, that her shawl kept slipping from her shoulders.

“Nothing is wrong, Chloe. I have wonderful news! At least, I hope you will agree it is wonderful.” As Maeve reached her friend, the two of them clasped hands warmly, holding onto each other. They always greeted each other in such a way.

“Come this way, then, let me hear it away from listening ears,” Chloe whispered, nodding her head at the butler, who was closing the front door after Maeve’s arrival. With the movement, the black curls that framed her face bobbed.

They hastened into a sitting room where Chloe’s father the baron sat by the fireplace, reading his paper at such an inclined angle that his boots were propped on a nearby stool, with a greyhound by his side resting his head on his master’s knee.

“Ah, Lady Felton,” the baron said, sitting up a little and lowering his paper. “How do you fare today?”

“Well, indeed, my lord,” she said, hurrying to curtsy to him before turning back to Chloe. “I have news. Great news, I hope. Chloe,” she said, keeping her focus on her friend, “my mother and father are to send me to London for the Season. I am to keep house with my brother, in Gracechurch Street, and it is my dearest hope that you will come too.”

“Me?” Chloe said in amazement, her jaw-dropping. “You wish me to come?”

“I do. If it is agreeable to you, and, of course, you too, my lord,” Maeve said, hurrying to turn her focus on the baron. “I would dearly love you to come, Chloe. We can chaperone each other at events and attend occasions of the Season that we could not do here. What do you think?” Maeve had spoken so quickly in her excitement that she barely noticed Chloe and her father glancing at each other across the room.

“Father? What do you think?” Chloe asked, wringing her hands with nerves as she stepped toward him. The man smiled a little, lowering his paper further.

“I’m intrigued to hear what you think first, Chloe.”

“What do I think?” Chloe laughed, placing her hands on her hips. “What lady would not want to live in London for a few months?”

“Just this morning you were saying what delightful music the birdsong was in the country,” the baron said with a laugh, gesturing to the windows with his paper.

“I may have said so,” Chloe agreed, “yet I’d wager a good concert would have equal merit. Plus, I have heard enough birdsong to last a lifetime, but I have not been to a concert before.”

Maeve giggled at her friend’s wit, beginning to see that her plan was just possible. Maeve could escape to London, and Chloe could come with her.

“You wish to go then?” the baron asked Chloe.

“I’d love to! It is a dream of mine.” She fell silent, shifting her weight between her feet nervously as she waited for her father’s answer. Maeve found herself doing the same thing, fiddling with the gloves around her wrists, impatient to have an answer.

At last, the baron smiled, looking between the two of them.

“If you wish for it, Chloe, then how can I say no?” He opened the paper up again. “We’ll make the arrangements, and you can enjoy your time in London. I can enjoy some peace here too,” he added the latter statement as a tease, making Chloe wave a hand in her father’s direction.

“I do not talk over much, Father.”

Even Maeve lifted her eyebrows, questioning such a statement, urging Chloe to turn a playfully narrowed glare on her before she relented.

“Maybe I talk a little too much,” she said, following the words with a giggle. “Where are we to stay?”

“My brother’s rooms. He has lodgings in the city, and the rooms are certainly large enough to accommodate the three of us,” Maeve said excitedly. “What do you think?”

“We would be staying with Lord Felton?” Chloe asked, her eyes lighting up for a second before her smile faltered. “Do you think he will be able to put up with the two of us talking for hours on end?”

“He’ll need a strong constitution,” the baron’s wit was heard across the room, earning glares from the two of them.

“We are not so very bad, Father,” Chloe said pointedly.

“You were the one who brought it up.” He laughed as he turned his focus to his paper.

“What shall we do when we are in London?” Chloe asked, turning back to Maeve. “Will there be balls and assemblies every night?”

I hope not.

Maeve kept the thought to herself. She wished she could tell Chloe her true thoughts, but with the baron sitting so close, it was impossible just then.

I hope there will be time to meet people, other than just those who frequent assemblies every night. I wish to meet writers! Great names of great talent, and, of course, publishers.

“We’ll see,” she said eventually, watching as Chloe practically bounced on the balls of her feet with delight. “Only one question remains, then,” Maeve said, clasping her gloved hands together. “When shall we go?”

Chapter 2

Maeve

“I remember going to London for the Season when I was your age,” Gwen said wistfully as she helped Maeve to pack. “What a joyous time it was. Balls, assemblies, new faces, happy people everywhere.”

“It is nice to see you smile so,” Maeve said sweetly as she pulled some of her gowns out of the wardrobe and laid them out on the bed, where her mother was sitting. Gwen picked up each dress one at a time, folding them carefully before laying them in one of the portmanteaus.

“It is nice to have a reason to smile,” Gwen said as she laid a hand on the gowns.

Recently, Maeve had seen how much their money troubles had upset her mother. Where Peter was able to always find a laugh and a reason to smile, Gwen worried more. Even now, she fiddled with one of the gowns incessantly before lifting her head for Maeve to see there were tears in her eyes.

“Mama! What is wrong?” Maeve cried, reaching for her mother’s hand.

“I am sorry. I am being silly.” Gwen sniffed and tried to stop her tears from falling, waving a hand in the air as if dismissing her own foolishness. “It is your clothes, Maeve. I wish we could have bought you some new things to take to London.”

“Mama, do not worry about such things.” Maeve knew the best way to cheer her mother’s spirits was not to dwell on the bad but to be happy. She leaned forward and kissed her mother on the cheek before moving to stand again and hurrying to pack. “I hardly care for such things, and you know I am not one to follow fashion so closely. For instance, who would wish to wear those ornate feathers in their hair as some do in London?”

“It is the height of fashion!” Gwen said eagerly.

“Yes, but it does also make a lady resemble a cockatoo.” Her words brought a hearty laugh from her mother, dispelling the tears. Pleased with her triumph, Maeve collected her jewelry box from her desk, peeling back the lid to look inside. The jewelry was simple, but it was all she needed. “I do not need fine or expensive things to be happy, Mama. I am happy with what I have.”

“I know,” Gwen said with a sigh. “Since you were little, you have always been happy as long as you had access to paper and ink.”

“True.” Maeve turned to the notebooks and errant scraps of paper beside her jewelry box, collecting them together.

“Never have you been so happy as when you are lost in your own world of creation. It is something I envy you for.”

“You do?” Maeve said, looking up sharply to see her mother was staring into the distance.

“The ability to escape the woes of the world by the imagination alone? Oh, yes, it is a thing to envy. A great thing indeed.” Gwen seemed to brush off her sadness, turning back to look at Maeve with a sudden smile. “Come, pass them to me and I’ll help pack them for you.”

“Thank you,” Maeve said, passing the notebooks into her mother’s hand. As she stood beside Gwen, helping her to pack, Maeve resolved on something.

Her writing was not only a way for her to escape the woes of this world. It could be a way to help her mother and father escape such troubles permanently. To help them though, she would have to be artful in her trip to London.

“Who knows, Mama,” Maeve said, returning to her desk to pack her inkwell. “Maybe my writing can help more than just me to escape.”

“Sweetheart, it’s important to me you enjoy your time in London, that is all.”

And that I find a husband. Maeve kept the thought to herself. She was leaving today and did not wish to cause any arguments by suggesting she had other ideas.

“I hope you will continue your writing for your sake, but that is all it must ever be.” Gwen’s words caught her interest, making her pause with the inkwell.

“What do you mean?” Maeve asked slowly.

“Well, that is all a lady’s work can ever be, is it not? Private. Not many ladies are published.” Gwen’s words cut deeper than she could have realized.

Maeve stood perfectly still, staring down at the inkwell in her hands. They were feminine and slender, just like her build. The idea that someone would reject her work based on the fact she was a lady made her fingers clench around the inkwell.

What is the difference between a man’s name and a woman’s, anyway?

“Now, pass me that inkwell. The carriage will be ready for your departure soon,” Gwen said, beckoning Maeve toward her.

Maeve passed over the inkwell, determined to do what she could for her parents, despite the worries that plagued her mind.

* * *

“London! Is it not everything you imagined it to be?” Chloe asked, peering out of the window of the carriage as they swayed back and forth.

“It is,” Maeve said, finding her nose wrinkling a little.

“Look at these fine buildings.” Chloe gestured out of the window. Maeve finished retying her bonnet under her chin, knowing they had to be nearly there, as she leaned forward, looking out of the window.

They were passing grand buildings, some fine and Palladian in style, with such white pillars and vast windows that they glistened. Yet there was also a darkness that hung about the city.

“Yes, they are fine, but one has to squint to see them through this smog,” Maeve said, sitting back again.

“It is merely a cloudy day, it will pass.” Chloe spoke with confidence, sitting back in the carriage as well. “I’ve heard several stories of the fashions in London. Such finely dressed ladies that people turn and stare.”

“Speaking of which, look!” Maeve gestured out of the window at a passing couple.

The gentleman and lady were clearly of significant wealth, not just judging by their clothes, but also by the maid and footman who followed them, carrying boxes and bags of purchases that had obviously been made that day in the shops.

“Oh, my, look at her,” Chloe said, sighing in admiration.

Maeve smiled, for the lady was dressed well, with such a fine flowing pelisse that her figure was flattered perfectly. The pastel blue shimmer of the gown seemed to glow too, despite there being little sun that day.

“I think there will be enough fine clothes to observe and admire that could even satisfy your insatiable appetite for fashion,” Maeve said, teasing Chloe and earning a playful tap around her arm.

“Who could not stare when there are such ladies to stare at?” Chloe said, sitting back in the carriage once again. “So, you know I wish to observe the fashions here in London, what do you wish for, Maeve?”

“Well . . .” Maeve was debating what to reveal of her plan when the carriage abruptly thudded. She clutched the side of the carriage as Chloe did the same. Their smiles vanished as the carriage came to a hasty halt with a loud clunk and the whinnies of panicked horses filling the air.

“What was that?” Chloe said, looking back and forth.

Maeve abruptly stuck her head out of the carriage to see that the driver and footman were climbing down from the front.

“What has happened?” she called to them.

“Apologies, my lady,” the footman said, hurrying to their side and opening the carriage door. “It seems we are stuck.”

As Maeve stepped down, she saw the problem instantly. The wheel was caught in such a deep divot that no matter how much the driver urged the horses forward, they could not get out of it.

“We shall have to dig our way out, and it may take some time,” the footman explained as Chloe stepped down too.

“We’d best roll up the sleeves of our spencer jackets then, Maeve,” Chloe said with wit, earning a laugh from Maeve. Yet the footman was clearly not used to such jests as he looked at her quizzically.

“How near are we to Gracechurch Street?” Maeve asked, looking at the bags at the rear of the carriage.

“Two streets over, I believe,” the footman said, pointing to the end of the road.

“Then we shall complete the journey on foot,” Maeve said, walking to the rear of the carriage.

“On foot? Maeve!” Chloe hastened after her toward the back of the carriage. “We cannot walk the streets alone in London. What would our fathers say?”

“They are not here for their opinion to be heard.”

“I can imagine what it would be well enough,” Chloe pointed out with a wry smile.

“Chloe, we are both tired after our long journey. We need a good rest, and the quickest way there will be on foot. What do you say?” Maeve asked as she gestured for the footman to unlatch the bags. He did as she asked as Maeve waited for Chloe’s answer.

“Well, I suppose we could.”

“Excellent! Let us go. It is only two streets along.”

The two set off in the direction the footman had pointed out, but after they’d walked two streets along, Maeve’s feet came to a firm stop. She looked between street signs, her brow creasing as she realized the problem.

“I think the footman must have got his directions wrong,” she murmured, turning back and forth.

Chloe struggled with her bags, dropping one to the floor as she stopped at her friend’s side, her eyes going wide.

“Are we lost?” she asked, her voice pitching high.

“No, we are just . . .”

“Not sure where we are? I rather think a simpler way to say that would have been to say we are lost!”

* * *

Benjamin

“Damn,” Benjamin muttered as he lifted the pocket watch out of his waistcoat to check the time. It was a fine thing, engraved with his family’s crest across the gold case, and with his father’s name emblazoned along the bottom. Benjamin smiled, as he always did when looking at the watch, before his eyes alighted on the time. “I will be late,” he muttered angrily and pocketed the watch again.

He was never late. It was a rule he had with himself to always be on time, but today there was nothing he could do. He had set off late from home, and so much traffic was about that day, it was increasingly difficult for the carriage to move at any great speed.

They slowed down considerably as they turned corners, urging Benjamin to lean forward and look out of the carriage window. With a little luck, he may be able to abandon the carriage entirely and make it to his lawyer’s office faster on foot.

As his eyes danced across the street, moving from house to building, to passing ladies and gentlemen, who nodded and smiled at each other, his focus landed on a rather unusual pairing. Two ladies were standing at the side of the road, with no footman or maid to accompany them.

The shorter of the two, with black hair, was turning her head back and forth, talking quite a lot, possibly bemoaning the weight of the bags they were carrying as she dropped one of the cases at her feet with an exaggerated sigh. It must have been for comical effect for her friend turned around and laughed heartily.

Benjamin was rather struck by this friend. Tall, slender, and with fine brown hair tucked away under a pretty bonnet, she was easy to notice in the street. But what caught Benjamin’s interest the most was her eyes and how they lit up as she laughed. She had an unusual beauty about her, with a particularly broad smile, which made Benjamin smile too.

For some reason, all worry about being late to see his lawyer fled his mind. Instead, Benjamin tapped on the wall of the carriage, urging it to come to a stop. The carriage pulled up a little in front of the ladies he had been staring at, allowing him to jump down from the carriage and hurry toward them.

The taller of the two, the one who had caught Benjamin’s eye, hadn’t yet noticed his approach. She seemed far too absorbed in searching the road signs.

“Perhaps it is this way,” she said, gesturing down a street.

“Good day to you, ladies.” His voice was smooth as he bowed to the two of them. The shorter lady hurried to curtsy to him, but the taller turned and looked at him with more than a little suspicion, her brows furrowed. “I couldn’t help noticing you seem rather lost. Can I help you in any way?”

“Well, we . . .” The shorter lady went to speak, but the taller spoke quicker.

“No, thank you, sir, we can see for ourselves.” The lady’s voice had an imperious note to it that made Benjamin smile again.

He had never been one for admiring a damsel in distress. He infinitely preferred a capable lady who wished to take care of herself, and this lady’s answer had put her firmly in this category.

“Thank you for your kindness in offering your help,” she said politely, “but we are not in need of it.” She curtsied quickly and turned her head away again, angling to look down the road.

Benjamin struggled to stifle his laugh. There was something to admire in the lady’s behavior, but there was also something amusing. If they told him the direction in which they were heading, it would be easy for him to point it out to them.

“You may not be in need of my help, but I should like to give it all the same.” Benjamin’s words had the lady turning back to face him, with one of her eyebrows lifting as she stared at him. It was as if she wasn’t sure what to make of him and was eying him carefully. “If I cannot point you in the right direction, then may I offer the use of my carriage instead.”

“Your carriage?” the shorter lady repeated, turning to look at her friend with clear hope in her eyes.

“I see you have bags to carry, after all.”

“Bags, yes, but we have arms with which to carry them well enough.” The taller lady’s response had her friend hiding her own laugh behind her hand. “I thank you again, stranger, for your kindness, but it is one we do not wish to accept. Good day to you.” She curtsied another time and looked away, urging her friend to do the same.

“Then I wish you well, ladies.” Benjamin bowed and tipped his hat as they glanced over their shoulders back at him. “I pray you find where you are looking for soon.”

Benjamin couldn’t help it when his eyes lingered on the taller lady for a little longer. Her beauty was of such an unusual kind that he rather wished he could stay and find another reason to talk to her, but it was not to be. He had offered his help and she had politely turned it down, with wit too. He smiled at her, rather relieved to see she returned that smile, even if it was a brief thing before he headed back to his carriage and climbed inside.

He tapped the wall and continued on his journey to his lawyer’s house, but he was distracted. Every few minutes he thought back to the meeting with the mystery lady, and he rather wished he had found a way to help her and her friend after all.

Chapter 3

Maeve

“Does your brother live in the tallest building in London?” Chloe asked as they heaved the trunks through the doorway of the building and peered up at the stairwell above them. “I swear, each flight of these stairs seems akin to a mountain climb to me now.” Chloe sighed for emphasis, pulling a small laugh from Maeve’s lips.

At least we are here at last!

Maeve was secretly overwhelmed by her relief. There had been a moment in the streets of London where she had been cursing her own foolishness for thinking they could find their way in a city that neither of them knew. She was just about ready to abandon their endeavor and return to the trapped carriage when she spied a small sign perched high above the entrance to a tiny street. The lane was so narrow, it was hardly surprising they had walked past it three times without seeing it.

“You know Leo,” Maeve said as she moved toward the stairs. “In some ways, he is not the most sociable of souls, for he infinitely prefers his books.”

“He’s not the only sibling to prefer them,” Chloe teased, making Maeve smile another time.

“I imagine he has chosen these lodgings to make it as difficult as possible for friends to come to call,” Maeve said in jest as they began to climb.

As reluctant as Maeve was to admit it, the climb was becoming increasingly difficult and cumbersome. With the staircase a large spiral affair that kept bending back on itself, it was a difficult climb with the heavy trunks that they had already lugged and dropped so many times that the portmanteaus were now dented. Maeve was not fond of admitting weakness, but she was happy to admit on this occasion that she was looking forward to sitting down.

“Does he live at the very top?” Chloe bemoaned after some minutes of silence, which was only disturbed by their heavy breathing and trunks knocking against the banister rails.

“I fear he does,” Maeve said, struggling to lift her trunk another time. “Here it is.” When they reached the top, she and Chloe thankfully dropped the cases on the landing, both puffing heartily.

Maeve glanced at her friend to see her cheeks were red and the hair that had escaped from her bonnet had rather run wild. She smiled at the sight, thinking that she must look rather similar.

“At least we are here at last,” Maeve said, tapping on the door.

“Does your brother have a footman?” Chloe asked hopefully, looking down at the bags.

Maeve only had time to bite her lip in answer, for she feared having to give the truth. Leo might have been doing well as a solicitor without their father’s support, but London prices were hefty, and most of his money went on renting his rooms. She knew he could not afford much in the way of staff.

“Well . . .” she murmured, just as the door opened.

“Maeve!” Leo’s voice was sharp.

“Leo.” Maeve turned to look at him with a smile.

“God’s wounds, I thought you must be lost in London, you are so late. Come in, come in.” He beckoned them in with an anxious wave of his hand. The anxiety was something Maeve and Chloe were used to these days. It prompted them to exchange a knowing look at his words. “Why are you so late?”

“Our carriage got stuck,” Chloe said pointedly, “and your sister decided we could complete the journey on foot. That was before she realized that London was bigger than we thought it to be.”

“Ha!” Leo laughed heartily and reached for their bags.

“I didn’t expect us to get lost,” Maeve tried to explain herself, just as Leo picked up one of the bags. “Let me, Brother.”

“Nonsense, Maeve. I have welcomed you to my home, and whilst I might not be able to afford a butler to greet you, I shall certainly greet you well myself.”

Maeve smiled at his kindness. She adored her brother. Even after he had moved to London, the two had stayed closely in touch through their letters and his visits back home. She knew him completely, which meant she also knew his wish to be abundantly kind to everyone sometimes resulted in incidents of his peculiar brand of clumsiness.

“At least let me help,” she pleaded, trying to take one of the smaller bags.

“Nonsense, I’ll balance them on my head if I have to,” Leo declared with a smile and took the small bag from her. So laden up was he, with a portmanteau tucked under each arm, he had to throw this small one over his shoulder before turning and walking into his apartments. “Come in, come in, I’ve had tea set up so long waiting for you, the kettle will have to be boiled again—oh!”

“Leo!” Maeve saw the problem seconds before it happened, but it was too late to stop it.

In Leo’s determination to help them, he hadn’t realized that Chloe had balanced a small reticule on top of her portmanteau. By lifting the two of them up together, the reticule had slipped out and fallen to the floor. It landed directly where Leo wished to put his foot, causing him to slip.

A cacophony of wood and leather thudded loudly against the wooden floorboards, dully echoing around the room. Chloe covered her eyes with her hands, and Maeve reached toward her brother, seeing him sitting amid the chaos.

“Ow!” Leo said after a moment, and Maeve sighed with relief to hear he didn’t sound truly hurt.

“Felton? What’s all this noise?” a voice called from the other side of the room.

There was something in the tone that was familiar, urging Maeve to look up from her brother. She quickly surveyed the rooms to see they were in a vast entrance hall, Palladian in design. At the far side, there was a wide bay window that looked out over the streets of London, almost as tall as it was wide. In the middle of the room stood a circular mahogany table, decked with so many books they were nearly spilling off the top. On either side of the room were tall doors, leading to different ends of the apartments.

Through one of these doors stepped a tall figure, so familiar to Maeve that had she still been carrying one of her bags, she may have dropped it.

“Ah, I see you are up to your usual tricks, Felton,” the man declared with a laugh as he hurried forward.

Maeve didn’t have time to collect her thoughts and help Leo herself. One glance at Chloe showed she was suffering equal surprise, her eyes wide.

The man before them was the same one who had stopped in the street and offered to assist them. Maeve had been wrongfooted by the event. The stranger had certainly seemed nice enough, but she was no fool. Accepting a lift from a stranger? Ridiculous! They had no idea who he was or what he was capable of.

Perhaps he is no stranger after all . . .

Maeve looked over the man with interest as he pulled the bags from Leo and helped him to his feet. Despite the extravagance and the sleek lines of the black tailcoat he wore, suggesting he had some wealth to his name, he showed no reticence at the idea of helping out with physical labor.

“What made you think you could carry all this alone?” he said with a laugh as he tossed one of the portmanteaus over his shoulder.

“Ambition,” Leo said with a smile as he took the gentleman’s hand and was pulled abruptly to his feet. “Allow me to introduce you. Sister, Miss Green. This is why I am afraid I could not come to meet you this evening. My client, and my very good friend here, required my urgent professional attention. This is the Marquess of Lestenmeer, son of the Duke of Suffolk, his lordship Benjamin Strickley. Lord Lestenmeer, these are the ladies who will be staying with me for the Season. Our good friend, Miss Chloe Green, daughter of Baron Maywood, and my sister, Lady Maeve Felton.”

Maeve was so startled that she didn’t remember to curtsy until she felt Chloe step on her foot, urging her to do so. Maeve hurried to curtsy deeply, before she dared to lift her eyes to survey the marquess another time.

He is a marquess!

Lord Lestenmeer seemed to find good humor in her surprise. He was excessively tall, and from this lofty position smiled down at her, barely taking his eyes off her long enough to glance at Chloe, before those blue eyes returned to her. There was something in his smile she found rather enchanting. He was so handsome, Maeve longed to know his thoughts and what made him smile so.

“It is a pleasure to meet you both,” Lord Lestenmeer said, hazarding a bow despite still carrying the cases. He didn’t allude to the fact that they had met merely minutes ago. “I welcome you both to London. I hear from your brother, Lady Felton, that it is your first visit to the city.”

“It is,” she said, clearing her throat and struggling to keep her composure.

Oh, my goodness, I was incredibly rude to a marquess. The son of a duke, no less!

With her face blushing red, he could be in no doubt of what she was thinking, nor her embarrassment, something which seemed to amuse him all the more because he could not stop smiling at her.

“Let me help with the bags, Felton,” he said, turning back to Leo and picking up another.

“My lord! I couldn’t ask you to do that.” In Leo’s attempt to help the marquess, he nearly fell over again, making the marquess laugh and Chloe titter under her breath. “Miss Green . . . perhaps I should pick up your reticule before I trip on it another time.” Leo picked up the reticule and handed it to her, and she thanked him quickly. “Now, my lord, I cannot not ask you to do this—”

“Nonsense.” The marquess turned and pointed to a door. “Are we taking the bags this way?”

“Yes, we are, but . . . my lord!” Already Leo was running after the marquess as he took off in that direction. Maeve’s eyes shot down, to see Leo was about to trip on the narrow rug that led through the doorway.

“Rug, Leo,” she called to him. He tripped on the edge, but thanks to her words, managed to catch himself and hold onto the doorframe.

“Thank you, Maeve.” He nodded before running after the marquess again.

“I see your brother has not changed,” Chloe said with a giggle as she looped arms with Maeve.

“He never does.” Maeve was distracted. She was rather busy thinking of that handsome smile that had just disappeared into the other room. There was chatter in the other room as the bags were deposited, and then Leo and the marquess returned.

“Now, tea,” Leo said, clasping his hands together. “Then we shall have our meeting in full, my lord.” He nodded his head at the marquess, showing he had not forgotten the matter of their business.

“Please, do not rush on my account. Let us have that tea first.” The marquess seemed unperturbed by their business being delayed. When Leo beckoned for Maeve and Chloe to follow him into an adjoining room, the marquess gestured politely, urging the two of them to go first.

Maeve struggled to meet his gaze, certain her face had never been so red in her life. As they moved into the sitting room, Chloe looked around, admiring the airy space and quickly absorbing Leo in talking of his pride in obtaining the lodgings. As Chloe sat down beside Leo, it left an open space beside Maeve on a Chesterfield settee. One she found was quickly taken by the marquess. Even when Maeve jumped, startled by his willingness to come so close after she had been so rude to him, he simply smiled all the more.

“How was your journey?” Leo asked after he called the one maid he had to refresh the water for the tea.

“Long,” Chloe answered before Maeve could. Together, they took off their bonnets and spencer jackets. “I am glad we are finally here. I was beginning to think we would spend all night walking these roads in search of this place.”

“We found it eventually,” Maeve said, to which Chloe rolled her eyes.

“More by luck than design, I think.”

Leo jumped to his feet once more, collecting their spencer jackets and their bonnets.

“Leo, you do not have to do that,” Maeve pleaded with him, but he was already half out of the room.

“Nonsense, you are my guests, and I want you to be welcome,” he called over his shoulder, so busy sorting the jackets in his arms that he wasn’t looking where he was going.

“Door!” Maeve called to him, seconds before he walked straight into it.

“Ow,” the marquess said with a wince beside Maeve. “Felton, one of these days, I hope you look where you are going.”

“You know me by now,” Leo said, glancing backward momentarily before opening the door and stepping through. “I rarely do.”

“I had noticed,” the marquess said. As he spoke, he looked down at the rug beneath the coffee table between the two settees. Evidently seeing it was folded at one end and likely to trip up poor Leo on his return, the marquess bent down and set it straight.

It was such an act of kindness that Maeve stared at him, openmouthed for a second before her guilt grew. Glancing back at Leo to ensure he would not return for a second, she leaned toward the marquess, deciding it was best to talk now whilst they had a little privacy.

“I am so sorry, Lord Lestenmeer, for what happened earlier today,” she said in a rushed whisper.

“Whatever for?” he asked, leaning back on the settee and placing his arm across the rear of the cushion.

“I was incredibly rude!” she pointed out, at which Chloe nodded from the opposite settee. “I can see you nodding,” Maeve said, glancing her way.

“I was agreeing with you,” Chloe said smiling as she began to arrange the teacups for them all.

“Please, do not apologize,” the marquess said with a laugh. “Believe me, I respect you for what you did.”

“You do?” Maeve said in surprise, aware that the marquess hadn’t blinked as he looked at her. There was an intensity to his gaze that she rather liked, but it made her so self-conscious that she squirmed in her seat.

“I do,” he confirmed with a slow nod. “I could have been anyone, and it is only pure chance that I am a friend of your brother’s. I could have been a cruel man indeed and welcomed you into a carriage with unsavory intentions.” He shuddered, as if the mere idea horrified him, pulling a laugh from Maeve. “You did the right thing, Lady Felton.” He added the last words in a whisper, leaning toward her so that only she could hear him.

He came so close that Maeve could smell the scent he wore. It was unlike the scents she had known gentlemen to wear in the country. This scent was more exotic, it had spices, cinnamon, and honey to it. She rather liked it, but when Leo returned to the room, she snapped back, hoping their proximity had not been noticed.

“Good lord, Maeve,” Leo called as he stepped into the room again, “you have brought so many bags that I missed this one.” He hefted another, smaller trunk.

“That’s the most important one,” Maeve explained as she took it from him. “It has my books.” She took it onto her lap and flicked the lid open to reveal all the books. Beside her, the marquess’ eyebrows shot up.

“I see you are an avid reader like your brother,” the marquess said, sitting forward to read the spines.

“She doesn’t just read, she writes too,” Leo said as the maid returned with their tea. “Ah, there’s the tea. Allow me, Miss Green.” He took over her responsibilities at the tea tray, pouring for them all. He spilled a couple of times, and Chloe went around, mopping up the spills behind him.

“You write?” the marquess asked quietly, so that only Maeve could hear him. It wasn’t so much that they were talking of a secret, but he appeared to want to talk in private with her about the matter.

“I do,” she confessed, keeping her eyes on the books. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt rather nervous admitting such a thing now.

“Then I look forward to talking about your writing with you,” he said, as he accepted a teacup from Leo. “Shall you be attending many events of the Season?” he asked.

A few . . .

Maeve still wasn’t sure what sort of commitment she would give to assemblies and balls. If she could find a way to socialize with the literary world more than the world of the ton, then she certainly would.

“Oh, yes, they intend to,” Leo said, gesturing between Maeve and Chloe.

“Good,” the marquess declared, smiling on Maeve another time, “then I look forward to seeing more of you.”

The words piqued Maeve’s curiosity. She couldn’t help wondering why the prospect of seeing the marquess another time excited her. She decided to hide the excitement by sipping her tea and praying Leo would attend his business meeting with the marquess soon. At least then, she would be forced to stop staring at that rather handsome smile.

Chapter 4

Maeve

“What world are you writing of today? Is it some fantastical place deep within the countryside, with fairies and such creatures that bewitch the mind? Or is it this world? I’d rather the former.” Leo was rambling as he dropped down into a chair beside Maeve’s.

She smiled as she looked up from the writing bureau and closed her notebook, hiding her work from view. As she hid the pages, Leo’s thin lips pouted, showing his disappointment, and his brown eyes narrowed.

“It can be read when it is finished, but it is not finished yet. Now, go over there so I can work on it again,” she said playfully, pointing to another chair in the room.

“I am afraid I cannot go because I have come to give you news.” He sat so far back in the chair, it creaked painfully, and Maeve winced, fearing the chair would break underneath him. “We have been invited for dinner to Lord Lestenmeer’s house.”

“We have?” Maeve dropped the quill in her hand, splattering the blotting-pad with ink. She hastened to clean up the spill, getting ink on her fingers, before returning her gaze to her brother.

“We have, all three of us, and I have accepted on your behalf. We leave in half an hour.”

“Half an hour? Leo, you are maddening. You must know Chloe and I need longer to get ready.” Maeve huffed for dramatic effect as she stood to her feet. She turned, ready to run off and find Chloe, when Leo reached for the discarded notebook on the writing bureau, clearly itching to read it. “So sneaky,” Maeve reprimanded, snatching it before Leo could take it, hurrying off, with Leo’s laughter following her through the corridors.

“Chloe?” she called out to her friend, tapping on the door of the chamber that had been assigned to Chloe for their stay.

“Come in,” her friend called back.

Maeve opened the door to see Chloe was laying out her gowns. She was admiring a couple of them and fiddling with a small hole in a third, clearly realizing it would need to be mended.

“I hope we are invited to an event soon, Maeve.” Chloe sighed with the words. “I have spent so long fixing some of these dresses, I hope the work will be worth something.”

“Then you are in luck, for we are going to dinner tonight at the Marquess of Lestenmeer’s house.”

“Tonight?” Chloe said in amazement. “When?”

“In half an hour. My brother is not the best for timekeeping. Come, let us help each other change.” Maeve closed the door and hurried to help Chloe.

The two talked excitedly about the night ahead as they arranged Chloe’s hair and chose a pastel green gown for her to wear. Once she was ready, they moved to Maeve’s room to help her change. An ivory white gown was selected, and Chloe stood behind Maeve, fixing her hair into a chignon flanked with curls that framed her face becomingly.

“I wonder why the marquess has invited us tonight,” Chloe said, humming a happy tune as she worked.

“He is clearly Leo’s friend as well as his client,” Maeve explained, reaching for her jewelry box and searching through what trinkets she had. Ordinarily, she didn’t mind the rather plain jewelry she owned, but at this moment, she rather wished she had something a little more special, in the hope the marquess might notice her a little more.

Why should I think such a thing?

Realizing what she was doing, Maeve pushed the jewelry box away, startled at herself.

“I think the marquess’ invitation has more to do with you than your brother,” Chloe said with a giggle, breaking off from her humming.

“What do you mean?” Maeve asked, snapping her head up to meet Chloe’s gaze in the mirror.

“Oh, so innocent, are you not?” Chloe declared playfully. “Please, Maeve, you cannot have been so blind as to not notice how much he was staring at you yesterday. Almost as much as you were staring at him.”

“I was not staring!” Maeve said quickly.

“Very well, ogling.”

“I was not doing that either!” Maeve shook her head, causing Chloe to hold her head still.

“Hold still, or your hair will fall down, it is nearly finished.” Chloe continued placing the pins, while Maeve chewed her lip.

“I was not staring, or ogling, or anything of the kind,” she said, aware of the tremble in her voice.

“You do not think him handsome, then?” Chloe asked quietly. “Poor man.”

“Of course, he is handsome.”

“So, you did like the look of him?”

“Chloe!” Maeve said, widening her eyes when Chloe laughed. “You are too good at wheedling secrets out of me.”

“The last time you and I had a secret was many years ago, I am sure of it. I see no harm in it, Maeve. He is a handsome man, and he clearly admires you too. So far, there is a liking between you, is there anything so wrong in that?”

“I . . .” Maeve struggled to summon an answer.

No, there is nothing wrong in that.

Yet her mind was working quickly. He was a marquess, and she was the daughter of an earl who had fallen from fortune. There could never be anything but respect between them.

Besides, I have not come here hunting a suitor, as my parents wish me to do. I have come to seek another kind of future entirely.

“He is merely showing respect to the sister of his good friend, that is all,” Maeve said in dismissal as she reached for the jewelry box another time.

“Think that, if you like,” Chloe said with a giggle. “I choose to think something else entirely.”

Maeve ignored her friend as she stood to her feet and turned to look in the mirror. Her gown was of a pale blue that flattered her figure well. It was not of the highest fashion, as they did not have the money to spend on such things, but it was elegant in its simplicity, with its wide neckline and three-quarter sleeves.

Turning her focus on Chloe, Maeve saw her friend had opted for something more fashionable. The gown was ivory white with lace around the hem and short, capped sleeves. Maeve smiled at the sight, knowing that it would not be long before Chloe retrieved her sewing kit and made some more amendments to their gowns, now she had London to inspire her fashion sense.

* * *

“God’s wounds, Leo,” Maeve muttered as her brother escorted her and Chloe up the steps of the manor. “Where on earth did you find a friend like Lord Lestenmeer?”

“It is a rather grand house, isn’t it?” Leo asked.

“Rather!?” Chloe spluttered. “In the same way that the starry sky is rather beautiful, or that fire is rather hot. Yes, it is rather grand.”

Maeve and Leo laughed heartily at her words.

“To answer your question, Maeve, we met at an assembly and became friends. Once he heard of my business, he said he wanted a lawyer he could trust. I have a feeling that being the son of a duke can make him a target for some unscrupulous lawyers, many of whom are simply out for a large commission,” Leo whispered as they reached the top step.

The son of a duke!

Maeve was reminded how far above her Lord Lestenmeer was, just as Leo tripped on the top step. She and Chloe, on either side of him, were able to stop him from falling with their linked arms.

“Nearly, Leo,” Maeve said under her breath.

“It would not be the first time I’ve done that. I nearly fell face-first into the butler the first time I came here,” he said, bringing a laugh from the two of them.

As the doors were opened, Maeve found the beauty of the building only increased. The hall was decked with black and white marble tiles, flanked by white busts and Romanesque statues, amongst which stood the marquess, hurrying forward, his broad lips and chiseled features so reminiscent of those statues that Maeve did a double-take, looking between them.

“You’re here at last,” he said warmly, welcoming them with a bow. Maeve’s eyes danced over the suit he wore for the occasion; midnight-blue complemented the lightness of his eyes perfectly. She was so distracted in admiring his good looks that it took Leo bowing beside her to remind her to curtsy. “Come, this way, dinner is almost ready to be served.”

“You are eager tonight, Lord Lestenmeer,” Leo said as he loosened his arm from Maeve’s. She was glad for it, as it allowed her to look around the room with ease, admiring each marble statue.

“I am looking forward to hearing of your guests’ view of London. Tell me, are you both enjoying it so far?” he asked, looking between the two of them.

“It is rather smokey,” Maeve said with a wrinkled nose.

“I think it beautiful,” Chloe declared wistfully. “Not that we have seen much of it yet.”

“True,” Leo agreed. “I think Maeve has only looked up from her books long enough to see that it is a smokey place before returning to her reading.”

“That box of books, it is your life then, Lady Felton?” the marquess asked as he approached her side. They stood side by side, admiring one of the statues.

“It is, my lord,” she said hurriedly. “Nothing in life can’t be resolved without a good book.”

“Then I’m sure I have enough books to make you smile here.” His words caught her interest, making her turn back to face him.

“It’s true, Maeve. I used to think our own book collection was rather large, but I was wrong. Wait until you see Lord Lestenmeer’s,” Leo said with a whistle of awe.

“Is it so cast, then?” Chloe, on his arm, asked.

“The Bodleian itself does not have as many books, I’m quite convinced.”

Maeve grew so excited by the prospect that she stepped closer to Lord Lestenmeer, something he clearly noticed, for his smile widened.

“I could show you now if you like,” he murmured lowering his voice so only she could hear him.

“I would like that,” she confessed. His smile grew impossibly greater, so much so that Maeve felt rather heated.

“Let us all go,” the marquess said, lifting his gaze to Leo and Chloe too.

“Thank you, but I would love a tour of the rest of the house instead,” Chloe said quickly. Maeve frowned, not missing what her friend was up to. She was trying to orchestrate a way for her and the marquess to be alone together.

“Very well, Felton, why don’t you and Miss Green follow the butler to dinner and show Miss Green the other rooms on the way? I’ll take your sister to see the library.” The marquess’ words were followed by the butler hurrying off in the direction of the dining room.

“Erm . . . you will need a chaperone,” Leo called back, being dragged away by Chloe.

A maid was quickly called for, who hurried on behind Maeve and the marquess as he led her toward the library. She half wondered if he had intended to show her the library prior to their conversation, for as they stepped through the double doors, she found the space was already lit with candles.

“Oh, my,” she gasped at the expanse around her. The finely made library, paneled in dark mahogany wood, was etched with engravings. Some seemed to bear the Duke of Suffolk’s family arms, others celebrated nature, with weaving vines and grapes. Adorning every shelf and surface were books, even the rococo chairs had books discarded on them, including one book that was open on a footstool, as if that was where the marquess had broken off from the page. “My brother was right; it is vaster than our collection.”

“Many years have gone into building this collection, and during my father’s time too,” the marquess explained. It didn’t take long for Maeve to realize that he was following her around the room as she admired it, whilst the maid hung in the doorway, performing her role as chaperone, though she seemed infinitely more interested in the books themselves than the two of them.

“What do you like to read, my lord?” Maeve asked, hovering by the open book.

“Just about anything,” the marquess explained as he picked up a book. “I can enjoy a scientific journal and a thesis of study, but there will always be a soft spot in my heart for works of fiction. Give me a world of invention any day of the week, and I will be absorbed by it.”

“Truly?” Maeve asked, unable to keep the excitement out of her voice. “Do you have a favorite story?”

“My favorite is rather classical,” he said and stepped toward her. “It has also made men laugh at me before, so if I tell you, I must swear you to secrecy first.” When he winked at her, Maeve giggled, rather liking the idea of there being a shared secret between them.

“Then I vow my silence to you.”

“Wonderful,” he said and closed up the book, turning it to her so she could see.

“I do not believe it,” she murmured as she took the book. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream? It is one of my favorites too!”

“It is?” His blue eyes went wide. “Is it the humor or the poetry of the words you like so much?”

“The mixture of the two,” Maeve said eagerly, “and yourself?”

“Undoubtedly, I agree with you. Who could not laugh aloud when Titania professes herself to be in love with a man called Bottom who now resembles a donkey?” At his words, Maeve laughed heartily. “‘What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?’” The marquess’ ability to quote the very lines left Maeve dry-mouthed and eager to prove her own knowledge of the text.

“‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged cupid, painted blind.’”

“How true,” the marquess said with a smile of approval. “You will keep my secret, then? That my favorite is such a foolish yet enjoyable text?”

“Your secret is safe with me.” Maeve placed the book back into his hands. When their fingers touched, she felt a warmth spread through her hand, one that made her look down at the book, breaking the connection of their gaze.

How can such a simple touch have such an effect on me?

“We should return to my brother,” Maeve said quickly. The marquess put down the book and turned to offer her his arm.

“Of course. Pray, tell me this as we return to them . . . what kind of things do you like to write, Lady Felton?”

She took his arm, sliding her fingers to rest in the crook of his elbow. The interest he was showing in her work startled her.

“Rather fanciful, I fear, but very metaphorical. Rather like Shakespeare, the whimsical and the creatures of the night that stand for something else.”

“That sounds like my perfect book,” the marquess said, making Maeve’s chin lift with confidence and hope.

“I would love, one day, to see my own work in a room such as this,” Maeve explained as she gestured to the library shelves. He escorted her out of the room, leaving her to glance back longingly. “Who would not wish to see their name embossed in print, and to know their words could provide both escapism and joy to a reader?”

“An admirable ambition indeed.” The marquess nodded in approval. “I am part of a writing society myself. Budding writers gather together and read their work, sometimes to acclaim, and sometimes to rather assiduous critiques. It is an amusing society to be a part of.”

“Does it accept new members?” Maeve said excitedly, drawing the two of them to a stop in the hallway. “My lord, there is nothing I would like more than for the opportunity to share my work and improve.”

“Ah . . .” His smile vanished. “I wish I could offer you the opportunity.” She had not seen him look so uncomfortable before. He shifted between his feet as if embarrassed to talk of such things. “I have tried many times to persuade the others to accept ladies into the group. Whilst some agree with me, others do not. So far, I am sad to say, it is the naysayers who are winning.”

“I see,” Maeve said sadly, looking down at the marble floor as he escorted her forward once again. “Ladies are not admitted.”

“Unfortunately, no.”

“I wonder at the world, sometimes. Why must a lady’s work be reviled? I’d wager that were a name not attached, a woman’s work could do as well as a man’s.”

“Now that is something I would like to see.” The marquess paused before taking her into the dining room. He lifted her hand from his arm and kissed the back through her glove. It was a simple act, but to Maeve’s mind, it held a beat longer than formality dictated. “I wish you the best in your endeavor, Lady Felton. I truly do.”

“Thank you,” she said, trying to hide the stammer in her voice as she thought of that kiss.

“I am sorry to make you sad by talking of the literary world. Come, have dinner with me, and I shall seek to cheer your spirits this night.” As they turned and walked into the room together, Maeve found herself smiling already, startled to find the marquess had quite the skill at bringing a smile to her cheeks.

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