Paris, France 1815
The Rue de la Peroux, a Gentlemen’s Club
“Vin rouge, s’il vous plait,” Arthur Derwin, the Marquess of Blackfort, said to the waiter in a low tone. It had been a few days since he had last visited his club, being far too busy with his fencing and other pleasures. Now, it felt good to sit in a warm armchair by the fireplace, other men of means surrounding him, and his friend, John Hartnett, Earl of Reyton, sitting just across from him.
“Your French is coming along nicely, Arthur. Why, you could almost be mistaken for a Frenchman!”
Arthur smiled, his grey eyes lighting up with mirth. “Despite France being a rather more fashionable nation, and despite the improvement in my linguistic skills, I do not think I would like to be confused for anything other than an Englishman.”
John laughed. “You are ever the cynic, my friend, and I must confess, I approve wholeheartedly.”
The waiter returned and handed the wine glass to Arthur on a silver tray. He grasped the stem, saying, “Merci”, before taking a long sip.
“Long day, Arthur? Disappointed at your defeat this morning?”
Arthur threw his best friend of many years a dark look. “I will not lose the next time we go head-to-head, John. I just did not expect that little trick of yours.”
John laughed again, throwing his blond curls back and leaning deeper into the velvet armchair. “Yes, I like to keep my pockets full of little tricks when I’m fencing. So, even the next time we battle, you may lose once again.” Arthur grumbled.
John took a sip from his brandy glass and glanced around him. “I keep wanting to come back, and yet, I must say, that the crowd in here rather bores me. We are the youngest here by what seems like decades!”
His voice had lowered into a conspiratorial whisper. Arthur looked around him. It was true. While he loved the calming elegance of this old Parisienne gentlemen’s club, the patrons seemed to be aging before his eyes. Old, wizened characters read their newspapers or books through spectacles; their shoulders hunched over.
Some even dozed lightly in corner chairs, and Arthur wondered why they ever bothered coming at all.
He thought of his father for a moment, wondering how he might be bearing up these days back in England. His father was nearing the age of these men, and while they had written copiously over the last three years, Arthur had not returned home, and so had not seen his father in a very long time.
“You are right. But we will grow old someday too, will we not? Then it will be us slumping in our chairs, shakily sipping our whiskeys, with young men like us whispering about us on the side.”
John chuckled. “I quite like the sound of that. Once you reach a certain age, I suppose you no longer care about what you do. You wish only to please yourself and follow your own pursuits. That reminds me, how are your parents faring? When did you last hear from them? I sometimes wish you would accompany me back to England.”
Arthur tensed. Any mention of returning to England always made his muscles clench. He had no intention of ever returning, for it was no longer his home, despite loving and missing his family dearly. He had often asked them to come to visit him in Paris, but it had never been the right time for them.
He cleared his throat, realizing that his voice was just a little thicker than before. Perhaps the old men are making me think of Father? “I heard from them two weeks ago. They seem to be doing well, but I can barely read the letters now without throwing them down in frustration. All they seem to care about is me finding a match. They do not understand that it is not possible.”
His hands balled into fists and laid sternly on the armrests of his chair. John watched him for a moment, tilting his head. “Yes, I know, my friend. I understand. I think it is simply the way of the gentry. My mother discusses similar matters with me. We must marry well and produce heirs. That seems to be our lot in life.” John took a large swig of his drink. “But you know that I would rather sit idle in this beautiful city than go through all of that nonsense. Fencing, good conversation, good port, good food, that is what I enjoy in life. Women only bring heartbreak.”
Arthur nodded. “I am in full agreement.” Both knew heartbreak intimately, but no one more so than Arthur. He could not let the past and its humiliation go, and so he had fled to France to get away from it forever.
In England, it had been like wading through a heavy mist. The embarrassment and pain were just too great. John had been a good friend and had followed him in his escape. They had spent the last few years traveling, learning French, meeting more amiable, less restrictive people, and of course, fencing. It had been Arthur’s saving grace in many ways.
However, a thin layer of cynicism and bitterness had become part of his personality, which he now wore as a trophy. The past had changed him and hardened him in a way he liked. He would not be so misled again and played like a fool. He would live a life of his own and refused to need a woman to complete his happiness.
While they both sat silently together, drinking, with their thoughts swirling about them, the waiter arrived again with the silver tray. Arthur was about to place his empty glass upon it when he noticed an envelope. “There is a letter for you, sir,” the young man said with a heavy French accent.
“Merci,” Arthur said and took it. “From my family.” He looked up to see John smile and then return his gaze to the fire.
Arthur opened the thin letter. It was rather short for a letter from his family. Usually, they were happy to fill pages and pages with reprimands and news from England. But despite its brevity, the words on the pages sent ice through his heart.
We implore you to come home as soon as possible. Your father is gravely ill, and the doctor says he will not live out the rest of the week. Come as soon as you can.
Arthur leaned over the railing of the Nightingale, a ship that ferried passengers across the English Channel. The scenery was lovely, with the gray, swirling waters, and the orange setting sun in the distance, hovering above the straight line of the horizon, but Arthur’s mind was elsewhere. He had left John back below deck to sleep off his seasickness, and he wandered onto the deck, hoping the health-giving sea air would restore his spirits. But he was worried.
His father was gravely ill, and while he had sent a message home to England to alert his mother of his impending arrival, he did not have time to wait around to make sure she had received it.
He and John had rushed back to their rooms to find a carriage to the coast and book passage across the Channel. It had taken far longer than he’d wished, and the urgency of his journey made it ever more expensive. The guards at the coast had checked his papers and questioned him about his comings and goings. He had wanted to yell in frustration.
All the time it was going on, he couldn’t help but feel a sea of regret wash over him as he thought about the last time he’d spoken to his father. Arthur had been in a desperate hurry to leave England as soon as he could. He remembered stomping around his father’s study, waiting for him to return home, his anger and energy rising to a peak.
He recalled the pain of the past so vividly, even now. Olivia Chester, beautiful, intelligent, and mesmerizing had been his betrothed. Everyone was enthralled by her, and he had loved her more than life itself. He thought he knew her better than anyone, and he could not believe his luck when she had accepted his proposal. But then, one day, a letter had arrived from her, stating that it was over between them. She gave no reason, nor did she apologize. Later, he had discovered, to his immense embarrassment, from the gossiping old Lady Cavendish that she had engaged herself to a much older gentleman, a duke, with much greater status and wealth than he. The truth had hit him hard in the chest, and he was left reeling. Olivia Chester had only agreed to marry him for his money, and when another opportunity arose for even greater wealth, she took it without a second thought.
He had been so confused at the time. He had thought he knew her very well, and that their intimacies had been true, yet she had disappeared from his life so suddenly, and he had never heard from her again. He remembered the day he’d heard the news; he’d been out in the streets of London. It was as if everyone’s eyes were on him, as he moved in a dream-like state through his familiar haunts. No one was there to console him, aside from his friend John, and his own family, especially his sister Stephanie.
Everyone else of his acquaintance found him merely an object of interest to gawk at, using his embarrassment and pain for their own twisted amusement. After a few weeks, he had been unable to bear it any longer, and had approached his father to inform him of his imminent departure.
When his father arrived in the study, he had eyed Arthur’s pacing figure with curiosity, until Arthur blurted out. “Father, I must leave. I am for Paris, as urgently as I can book a passage. Ryeton will ride with me. You cannot say anything to me that would convince me to stay.”
His father, Arnold Derwin, Duke of Blackfort, was a subtle man. He didn’t raise his voice, and moved quietly and smoothly, as if each moment in life was a measured decision. He watched his son critically. “I see. This is due to Olivia, I presume?”
Arthur had kept up his furious pacing, unable to sit still or think straight. “Yes, you cannot imagine my humiliation. I can go nowhere without someone watching me with pity or even amusement!” His voice had raised slightly. He was so incensed by the reaction of society. “Olivia has left me bereft. I no longer trust women or the decisions I make with regards to them.”
“Olivia Chester is a foolish woman, her hands outstretched to grab greedily at any of the passers-by who came within her sphere. She has misled us all. But, my son, it does not mean all women should act thusly. You should not feel you must extricate yourself from London due to one woman’s foolish and cruel actions. Stay for me, my son. This is your home. We love you.”
Arthur remembered the way his father’s face had looked when he had spoken to him: pained, strained, and disappointed. But, in the heat of the moment, Arthur hadn’t cared about that. He just wanted to be free. His pain was too raw, and not even his father’s desire for him to stay had been enough to keep him tethered to Blackfort. But he had lowered his voice to a calmer level. “I simply cannot, Father. The pain is too great.” He paused, swallowing with sadness. “I must find my life elsewhere. I do not feel England can be my home anymore. You are my home, Father, and so are Mother and Stephanie, but England is not.”
It had seemed an age before his Father replied in his calm voice. “Well, then. If that is how you feel, I cannot stop you. Go and be happy, my dear son.”
“Thank you, Father. I shall write, I promise. I do not wish to separate from you, but this is how it must be.”
“So be it then. Goodbye, Arthur.” And then Arthur had left the study, packed his bags, kissed his mother and sister, and left with John on his way to his new adventure. At the time, it had felt so liberating, as if he were releasing the shackles that had held him tightly for so long. But now, as he stared into the foamy sea, imagining his father lying pale and white upon his deathbed, it made him feel sick to his stomach. He chided himself for his selfishness and foolishness. If only he had returned with John to visit occasionally, then perhaps he would not have missed the last years of his father’s life.
John emerged from below deck and appeared at Arthur’s side. He was silent for a moment before he said, “Are you thinking of home?”
Arthur replied, “Yes, at long last, I think of home, and the many regrets I have to lay at my feet. If it were not for my past selfishness, I might have been there to experience my father’s waning years with him.”
John nodded, and then pulled out a pipe. He lit it with difficulty, and Arthur smirked at the sight. “Your tobacco habit does not seem to suit the sea air.”
“Blast this breeze. I had hoped it would help me with the seasickness. It has abated a little, but I know it will return with a fiery vengeance.” John replaced the pipe into his pocket, clearly nonplussed.
“Come now, old Derwin, you have no regrets.” John said, trying to cheer his friend. “We left with beautiful plans for adventure and travel, and we have accomplished them. I say it has made us better men. There was no possibility that you were going to survive in London, with everyone watching every move you made.”
Arthur returned his eyes to the sea. “I suppose it would be better if I had never met Olivia at all. She is the cause of this mess.”
“Women are dangerous creatures, my friend. All the poets will tell you that.” The two men watched the sunset over the portside in companionable silence.
It had been three days since the start of Arthur’s journey, and he feared he might be too late. The carriage ride from Dover had been abominable, but now he finally stood just outside of Blackfort Manor, his eyes roving over its familiar angles. Normally, the sight might have refreshed him, but he could think only of his father’s dwindling time, and so he hurried to the front door, depositing his coat and hat into the surprised hands of the young footman posted at the door.
“Mother! Stephanie!” He called into the house. Normally, he knew his mother would not have approved of such rude manners, but he was tired, hungry, and in desperate need of forgiveness. A beautiful Stephanie rushed down the stairs and into his arms. She has grown so much! And I have not been here to see it.
Once he pulled away, he saw her tear-stained face. “Brother, we are so glad you have come. Mother is with father in his room.”
Arthur swallowed painfully, gripping his sister’s shoulder. “Am I too late?”
She shook her head, and he rushed up the stairs to his father’s bedroom, bursting in through the doors to find his weeping mother. He rushed forward and she clung to him, a handkerchief at her eyes. Behind her, he spied the thin form of his father as he lay under a thick blanket. He let his mother go and sat nearby his father, wishing he were in a dream. The strong, confident man of his youth had now been reduced to a wan, sickly figure, laboring for breath. His mother, Lady Susan Derwin, placed a hand on his shoulder.
“He has waited for you, my dear son. I will leave you two alone.” He did not reply but placed a hand on hers as it slipped off his shoulder. He heard the light movement of her skirts and the shutting of the door. The room was heavy with silence. Words he wished to say clung tightly to his tongue and would not come forward. Tears pricked at his eyes, but he refused to let them fall. He had to be strong.
He reached forward to lean on the bed. “Father, I am here. Finally, I have come to see you. I am sorry it has taken so long, that it has taken your illness to bring me back into England. Forgive me, Father.”
He bowed his head and listened to the unsteady rhythm of his father’s breath. He did not know if he expected a response, but his father’s hand twitched near his arm, and Arthur looked up to see his father’s face turned towards him, the kind gray eyes watching him closely. His voice was hoarse and trembling as he said, “Arthur, my son? It is so good to see your face.” He paused and coughed roughly for a few seconds. His whole body racked and heaved with the movement, and it tore at Arthur’s heart.
“There is nothing to forgive, son. I only wish you to be happy.” He smiled weakly, and Arthur reached for his hand.
He was about to reply, but then he saw his father’s eyes close and a last shaky breath leave his body. Arthur’s shoulders sank, and he laid his head in his arms on the bed. His dear father, the man he had punished for years without intention, had expired minutes after his arrival. He was grateful for one last moment with him, but he could not help the rage that now filled his heart.
If it were not for a woman who had tricked him into loving her, and for his own desire to escape ridicule, he could have spent more time with his father, while he was still a healthy man. His fists clenched and he sat back in the chair, watching his father’s body. Olivia Chester was not worth losing the last three years of his father’s life. What a waste. His heart hardened even more, and he swore he would never love again.
One Year Later
Lady Vanessa Fitzgerald sat in front of her vanity as her lady’s maid fixed her dark hair into a becoming mass of tamed curls. Pearls were interspersed throughout, and she smiled at her reflection. “Really, Esther, you have such a way with hair. I refuse to attend any balls without you by my side for the preparations!”
Esther, a girl only slightly younger than Vanessa, beamed at her mistress. “Thank ya, milady. I do try me best. Ya look lovely, if I do say so meself.” Vanessa caught Esther’s eyes in the mirror.
“Thank you, Esther. I think I am just about ready.” She stood to gaze at her light, white gown in the tall mirror by her doorway. She smoothed her hands over it. “Father was so generous to have bought me this gown for the ball tonight. It is the most beautiful white muslin I’ve ever seen.” She turned and looked at the back of the dress. It was just what she wanted and had been hoping for. Balls could be stressful affairs, and everyone wanted to look their best.
She had been looking forward to the elder Countess of Reyton’s ball for weeks now, and now her best friend, Lady Stephanie Derwin, had told her she would be there after a year away from society. She was looking forward to seeing her again. It made her tremble, hoping that she would look better, as if she’d accomplished something in the past year.
Vanessa frowned at her frame in the mirror. She was far too thin for her own liking, and this had always bothered her. Many other women had beautiful curves and rounded faces that reminded their beholders of women in famous paintings, but she did not appear that way, and wished she could remind others of great art. However, she approved of her dark hair, and the pearls within it glowed in the candlelight. That made her smile again.
“Esther, I think that will be all for the evening. I will tell you everything that happens tonight if you so wish it.”
Esther smiled again, then curtsied before leaving the room. Vanessa took one more turn to assess her dress, and then took up her bag and shawl, and left the room to meet the carriage downstairs.
Once in the carriage, James Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kinsworth and Vanessa’s father, spoke volubly about the forthcoming evening. “Vanessa, each ball is a chance for you to show off your best qualities. You must find a potential suitor. You are twenty years of age, and it will soon become unseemly for you to remain unattached, especially as the daughter of an earl!” Vanessa sighed, and pinched herself to keep from screaming. She refused to let her father’s continued reprimands ruin the upcoming evening with her dear friend.
She took a breath then said calmly, “Father, I will do the best I can. But perhaps your daughter is not as skilled at attracting men as other women are.”
She hadn’t meant to say that, but she felt a little satisfaction at the way her father’s cheeks flushed red in frustration. Her mother leaned forward, disapproval on her face. “Vanessa! Do not be vulgar. You are just as beautiful as any woman at the ball. You could attract any man! You actively work to refuse their advances, for your mind is full of painting and Lord knows what else!”
Her father grunted in agreement. Vanessa smiled to herself. Her thoughts were full of anything and everything that would give her freedom and pleasure. Forced into merriment and conversation with dull men was not her idea of a pleasant evening. She would rather be locked in her studio at her parent’s home, whiling away the hours, as she let the paintbrush take her on its own journey.
Sadly, though, this was her duty. She knew it well and wished she could perform it to her parents’ satisfaction. She leaned forward and gave her mother’s hand a squeeze. “Father, Mother, I do apologize. I will do my best to be kind and amiable this evening. That is the least I can do.”
Her father appeared satisfied and no more was said until they reached the house of the Countess of Reyton. It was the older woman’s birthday, and Vanessa had met her son, the Earl of Reyton, on numerous occasions, but a few years ago, he had left for France along with Stephanie’s brother, Arthur, now the new Duke of Blackfort. Therefore, she had not seen him or Lord Blackfort for a very long while.
As she entered the ballroom and her shawl was relinquished, her heart fluttered with exhilaration. She had never been to the Hartnett’s large estate before, but it was lovely. The ballroom was filled with crystal, from the chandeliers to the thin, glittering champagne flutes that lined the drinks tables. Light music floated through the air from the musicians in the corner, and a table of food was piled high on the other side of the room. The couples were the most mesmerizing of all, for their feathers, muslins, and silks swished with elegance as they spoke, danced, and moved about the room.
Vanessa was always nervous at balls, but this time, after attending two seasons already, it seemed all the more important to present herself as a very well-accomplished young woman. Her hand reached instinctively for her hair. Thank goodness for Esther’s handiwork, she told herself silently.
Her parents left her to her own devices, and she scanned the room, before her eyes alighted on Stephanie. In a moment, their eyes met, and Stephanie rushed to her side, her light-blue eyes dancing with joy. “Vanessa!” she cried, and they clasped hands. “It is so good to see you. I have long waited for this day!”
Tears welled in Vanessa’s eyes. “My dear, I have missed you so! I am so glad for your return. Are you well?”
Stephanie nodded, her beautiful auburn curls bouncing. “Yes, I am very well. It has been a difficult year, and the time away was necessary, but we are very glad for Arthur’s return, as I have told you in my letters. He has been a godsend in these dark times.”
Vanessa smiled. “He must have been a comfort to you all.”
“Yes, but I must say, he has become rather cynical.” She rolled her eyes. “Once I was ready to laugh again, he was not. He has not laughed or even smiled since Father’s death. He is not like he was before, but I suppose it is to be expected, after all that has happened.”
Vanessa nodded grimly. She knew of Lord Blackfort’s broken engagement that had caused his flight to France. That, along with his father’s death, was enough to send anyone into despair. Stephanie continued happily, “But he is here tonight, and it is all due to me and my convincing manner.” She grinned widely, and Vanessa was happy to see her friend back to her old cheery self.
“I suppose you are proud of yourself then, dear sister?” a deep voice sounded, and Vanessa turned to see the Duke of Blackfort standing before them. She bowed her head to him, and he did the same.
“Lord Blackfort, how nice to see you again.”
Lord Blackfort’s grey eyes observed Vanessa for a moment before saying, “The feeling is mutual, Lady Vanessa. It has been a long time, and I know my sister is glad to see you.” Vanessa smiled, grateful for the compliment.
Stephanie replied, “Brother, you are correct. I am very proud of my accomplishment this evening. It is not many who can tear you away from your solitude or your fencing.”
Vanessa considered the man she had known for most of her life. He had always been handsome in her mind, but there used to be a lightness and a humor about him. Now, he was hardened. She could see it in his eyes and the clench of his jaw, but he retained those broad shoulders and the lovely auburn hair she remembered that many a woman might swoon over. Vanessa had known him for so long, but now she realized, she hardly knew him at all.
“Your mother is well, I trust?” Vanessa asked, looking from one to the other of the siblings.
Lord Blackfort said solemnly. “Yes, she fares well for the moment.”
Stephanie started and placed a hand on Vanessa’s arm. “Dear Vanessa, I see Lady Fanning. I must greet all my friends while I am here. I have been longing for the social scene for a long time. You will excuse me, will you not?” She smiled up at Vanessa, and Vanessa laughed.
“Of course! We can talk later.”
Stephanie left, and Lord Blackfort and Vanessa were left alone together, the dancing forming a backdrop. For a moment, there was silence, but then Vanessa asked, “Are you truly doing well, Lord Blackfort?”
Arthur tensed for a moment, and then, to her surprise, responded, “I will admit that it has been difficult. I am a little exhausted with all the work that has befallen me since the death of my father. The pressure and the judgment of my actions, and the rumors, of course. I was not prepared to be the duke so soon, but here I am. And unfortunately, Stephanie and Mother are at my throat almost daily, pressing me to marry.” As he spoke, his eyes moved about the room, watching everyone but her. Perhaps it was because they shared something so intimate.
She felt touched by the gesture, which seemed to suggest he thought her worthy of his confidence. “If it helps you at all, your sister has not stopped badgering me about marriage in her weekly letters either.”
Lord Blackfort laughed drily. “I am almost of a mind to tell her that I am courting someone. At least then I might get a moment’s peace.”
Vanessa smiled. “What an interesting idea. Perhaps I should do the same, so that my parents might also leave me alone for a time?” The two of them locked eyes as if in mutual recognition that the idea could work.
“How about it? You and I pretending a courtship. It might work. It would be safe, and it would keep Stephanie quiet. We know each other so well, anyway,” Lord Blackfort replied. His gaze was a little disconcerting after the previous shifting of his eyes, but Vanessa held it.
She shrugged. “You know, I have never thought about it truly before this moment. It seems there would be so much to prepare and plan to successfully accomplish such a feat.” She narrowed her eyes in thought, and then said, “Give me time to think about it. I hate to lie, especially to my dear friend. What will she say if she finds out?”
“There will be no need, Lady Vanessa.” His eyes were brightening as he spoke to her, and Vanessa thought for a moment she detected the shadow of a smile on his lips. “I will write to you tomorrow. We can discuss it further another time.”
Vanessa nodded. “I will look out for the letter, Lord Blackfort.” At that moment, Stephanie returned, and, other than a brief glance at each other, Lord Blackfort and Vanessa spoke no more of their proposed plan.
It was nearing dawn when the Derwin family returned home from the Dowager Countess of Reyton’s gathering. The Dowager Duchess of Blackfort had fallen asleep on Stephanie’s shoulder during the carriage ride, while Arthur brooded, his mind elsewhere. As soon as they entered the house, he retired to his study.
He thought the study would be difficult to make his own, since it held so many memories of his father, especially of their final conversation before Arthur’s departure to France, but he loved it. It was his refuge, and he knew his father had felt the same way. He wanted to spend as much time in it as he could. It made him feel just a little closer to his father, and it kept the world outside at bay.
He shut the door behind him and moved to the side table to pour himself a glass of brandy. There was a fire crackling in the hearth, as the servants had been instructed to always keep it burning. He leaned over the back of the armchair watching the flames dance, his mind growing dark.
Now that his family had made the return to society, he knew it would not end. They would be constantly out and about, and while he knew it greatly improved his sister’s chances of matrimony, he couldn’t help thinking he would always return home from such events in a foul mood, like that which presently had hold of him.
At the birthday ball, John had tried to get him to stay longer, to dance with women, and to have a few more glasses of wine. Stephanie had begged him, but he had had enough. He had stayed longer than he cared to, and he was grateful to be back inside his own four walls again. While Stephanie had returned to her formerly happy self, and his mother had slowly pulled herself together, he couldn’t seem to find his way back to who he once was.
He felt like a dead lump, apathetic, and unfeeling, sorry that his mother and sister had to put up with him. He hoped it would get better with time, but the regrets of the past kept pulling at him and would not let go. Now that he was the duke, his new responsibilities weighed upon him. He had a whole estate to manage, and while his mother was often very helpful, she was inclined to oversee every little thing, and he couldn’t bear it.
She constantly asked him when he would marry, pushing the subject more and more now that time had passed since his father’s death. She seemed to have forgotten all about Olivia and the embarrassment.
The old situation with Olivia brought Lady Vanessa Fitzgerald to his mind. She had grown into a respectable and lovely young woman. Before he left, she had been so young, and now, she was all grown up. He wondered if she really would agree to his suggestion of their pretending to court one another.
Despite a pang of guilt at deceiving those he loved, he hoped Lady Vanessa would agree. It would give them both the peace they desired, as they wouldn’t have to be badgered about matrimony. He knew of the problems it might cause when they eventually ended their alliance, but he didn’t care. All he wanted was to be left alone, and this might be the only solution at present.
He moved to his desk and pulled out a fresh sheet of writing paper. He grabbed ink and pen and, after thinking a moment, began to write. He didn’t want to push her, but this was urgent. He simply couldn’t deal with the situation any longer.
Dear Lady Vanessa Fitzgerald,
I hope you have seriously considered my idea of the imagined courtship. We can arrange a meeting once you give me your answer.
Lord Arthur Derwin, Duke of Blackfort
Arthur drank his brandy and sat before the fire for a while longer, before finally taking himself up to bed.
The next morning, at breakfast, he sat solemnly at the head of the table reading the newspaper. He had laid the envelope for Vanessa by his side and planned to give it to the butler discreetly as soon as he could find a moment.
“Arthur, dear,” his mother began, looking down into her teacup. “Was there anyone of interest at the ball last evening? I saw many beautiful young women, many of whom I had not met before.”
She spoke lightly and casually, but Arthur knew what she was searching for, and it took everything in him not to pound his fist into the table. This is insufferable. He called the butler and handed him the letter, not caring anymore whether his mother saw him or not.
She leaned forward. “What is that? To whom are you writing, darling?”
Arthur tried his best to keep his voice calm. He glanced at Stephanie who was trying to stifle a giggle. “Mother, you must understand that I have my own business. I cannot and will not, tell you everything I do or why I do it.” He was breathing heavily, anger spreading through him rapidly.
“I must be allowed to live freely. Last night, I spoke to many people and was as amiable as I could be. I thought I did rather well, considering our circumstances, but there was no one of interest in the way that you mean. You must remember that I have no wish to marry.”
His mother looked slightly subdued, and Arthur nearly returned to his paper, hoping she would remain silent on the subject but instead she said, “It is just that I wish you to be happy, my son. I do not wish to see you so alone and so angry.”
Arthur folded the paper in front of him, laying it loudly on the table. Stephanie jumped. “That could be easily resolved. I shall retire to the townhouse in London and leave you and my dear sister to enjoy one another’s company.”
Stephanie turned to him, her eyes wide. “But, Arthur, you cannot leave me alone. I thought you had come home to stay.” He felt awful for his sister, but the constant harassment was fast becoming unbearable.
“I am sorry, Stephanie, but my mind is made up. I shall pack my things and leave tomorrow morning.”
His mother made a pained sound in her throat and left the room. Arthur rolled his eyes, and, once her mother was out of earshot, Stephanie chuckled. “Arthur, you are very naughty. She is trying to behave, you know.”
Arthur sighed. “I will apologize to her, of course, but I cannot deal with this constant harrying any longer. You too, Stephanie. You must leave me be.”
Stephanie leaned back in her chair in resignation. “Very well. I will obey you, but only temporarily. You must let me visit you in the townhouse. I cannot bear to be here all alone, the center of mother’s matrimonial obsession.”
She watched him for a moment as he drank his tea, and then she sat up again. “Arthur, why do you not go to the townhouse right away?” she asked, grinning. “You wait for a reply to that letter of yours, do you not? Who is it to, then?”
Arthur turned to his sister calmly. “One more question, and any visits to the townhouse will be completely out of the question.”
Stephanie sighed. “Have it your way. You really should learn to liven up a little, though. I told Vanessa last night that you have never been so cynical and hard as you are now. You used to laugh all the time. I hope you can do that again soon. You would make for better company.”
Before Arthur could think of a satisfactory retort, Stephanie was on her way out of the room. He smirked after her. He would miss living with his sister. She was positive, cheerful, and never let him sulk too much when he was in one of his moods. While it always frustrated him at the time, he was grateful to her.
She was right, and he was impressed that Stephanie had worked it out. He was waiting for a reply to his letter, and he hoped Stephanie would not take to questioning the staff about the letter’s addressee. If she did, then his plan would be a shambles before it began.
A few hours later, he sat reading a book, when the butler appeared in the doorway. “The post has arrived, sir.”
“Thank you, Higgins,” he said, ripping open the envelope.
Dear Lord Blackfort,
I would be happy to meet you. Would you be able to come for tea at my home? That way we can discuss the courtship and your plans properly. You may call at any time which pleases you.
Lady Vanessa Fitzgerald
Arthur felt the corners of his mouth tug upward. He’d had a feeling she would agree. They needed only to work out the details, and then it would be official. Well, not quite official, but theatrically so. He wrote back to Vanessa hurriedly, confirming a meeting at her at her home at 2 o’clock the following afternoon.
Once the letter was dispatched, he rushed upstairs to collect the items he would need to move to the townhouse. He knew he would not be able to live there long-term, for his mother would eventually become even more unbearable, calling to visit, sending him a constant stream of letters, and even having friends and acquaintances call to ask him to return home. It would be a nightmare, but a few weeks away from Blackfort would do him good.
He would also write to John, to let him know about his move and ask him to join him in the city. It could be a respite for them both and remind them of Paris.
Paris. What a beautiful city. It had charmed him in every sense of the word. He missed it terribly, and the freedom which had come with it. I suppose I knew this situation would arise one day. Father could not have lived forever.
Sadly, he knew it to be true, but he had seriously considered rejecting the dukedom. It would have torn his mother’s heart to shreds, but what good was a title if you had no interest in living in the country to which it belonged? He felt the familiar, irritating constriction of English noble life, which always made him want to scream or hit something. He spotted his fencing sword in the corner and grabbed it, swinging it into the air, and practicing a few moves.
A bout of fencing would do me much good today. I have need of a little exercise, and some time for solitary contemplation, for I will probably start ‘courting’ a lady tomorrow.
”A Tricky Courtship for the Heartbroken Duke” will be Live on Amazon soon!