Gabriella gazed around the large manor with wide eyes, clutching the doll to her chest. She was scared, even though she had been in this place before. It had only been once, though, and her mama and papa had been with her.
Tears filled her eyes immediately at the thought of her mama and papa. There was a strange ache in her chest that she could not explain. It was always there as of late, but sometimes it felt sharper.
This was one of those times.
She did not want to be here. She wanted to go home, back to Spain. Nothing bad had ever happened to her there. England was proving to be a place where only bad things seemed to happen to her.
At only five years of age, Gabriella was not only left all alone in the world, but she was intimately familiar with the agony that was death and loss.
“My Lady, there is nothing to fear,” her governess, Miss Hilda, said.
The woman stood next to her and was holding her free hand. “The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire are good people. They will take excellent care of you.”
Gabriella knew the governess was simply trying to comfort her, but her gentle words did not assuage the little girl’s worries. Everything was changing so fast, and it was overwhelming her. She could not predict what was going to happen next.
Gabriella and her governess did not go further into the manor. They stood in the foyer, but Gabriella was not certain what they were waiting for. Suddenly, a man walked up to them, as if out of nowhere.
He bowed to Gabriella and said, “My Lady, we are so happy to have you here with us. The Duke and Duchess are waiting for you in the parlor. Please, follow me.”
Gabriella glanced up at her governess with uncertainty, but Miss Hilda smiled, her blue eyes crinkling in the corners.
“Come, my Lady. We do not want to keep them waiting.”
When her governess began leading her after the man, Gabriella did not resist, but her heart was pounding painfully in her chest. She bit her lip to keep from crying, even though tears pressed against her eyes insistently.
Reaching the parlor, the man leading them stepped aside and allowed them to enter first. Miss Hilda took Gabriella inside, and they stopped just over the threshold. There were people inside the room waiting for them.
Gabriella recognized them from her one other visit to this place, and she recalled liking them. A lady and a gentleman both stood and came closer to her, smiling gently. Behind them stood two older girls and a boy with dark green eyes.
She felt a small amount of relief at the sight of the boy. His name was Owen, and they had had fun together when she had visited with her mama and papa. He grinned and gave her a little wave, and it was as though a weight pressing on her chest lightened.
“It is so good to see you again, Lady Gabriella,” the gentleman said, dropping to his knee in front of her. “Do you remember me?”
Slowly, Gabriella nodded. “Yes, I do. You are my papa’s friend.”
The gentleman’s smile turned sad. “Yes, that is right. I am the Duke of Devonshire, but you may call me James if you like.”
“Oh, your Grace, she should use your title,” Miss Hilda said, her tone concerned. “It is only proper.”
The Duke looked up at the governess and kindly replied, “I assure you, Miss Hilda, it is quite all right. The poor thing has been through so much, I do not think we need to overly concern ourselves with formalities at present.”
Miss Hilda looked as though she wanted to argue, but of course she would not dare. Pressing her lips together, she nodded.
“Yes, your Grace.”
The Duke returned his attention to Gabriella. “I know you must be very confused right now, and probably frightened. I would like you to know, though, that we will take very good care of you. I promise.”
Gabriella blinked. “Are you . . . are you going to live with me?”
The lady stepped forward and bent at the waist, so she was closer to Gabriella’s level.
She softly said, “Gabriella, my name is Claire, Duchess of Devonshire. I know you want to go back to your home, but I am afraid that is not possible. You will be living with us now, dear.”
Gabriella gasped. “What? I . . . I do not want to! I want to go home . . .”
“We know,” the Duke assured her in a gentle tone. “I am so sorry, but it is as the Duchess said. You simply cannot go back.”
Gabriella’s lip trembled, and she squeezed her governess’ hand in distress.
“Oh, sweet girl, do not be upset,” the lady next to the Duke said. “We promise we will make you feel right at home here.”
Gabriella’s emotions came flooding to the surface in that moment, and she burst into tears. Sobs wracked her small body, and she shook her head.
“No! I want to go home! Take me home!”
The Duke and Duchess both moved to comfort her, hugging her and cooing soft words. She lost hold of Miss Hilda’s hand as the governess stepped back, and that only upset Gabriella more.
“Sweet girl, all will be well,” the Duchess tried to assure her. “Please do not cry. We know that it will take some time to get used to life here.”
“We will do everything we can to make this transition easier for you,” the Duke added.
Their words did not make Gabriella feel better, but she knew that if her mama and papa were there, they would want her to be more grateful.
But they are not here. They are gone. Forever.
“Your Grace, might I offer a suggestion?” Miss Hilda said in a polite tone.
The Duke and Duchess both looked up at her.
“Yes, anything,” the Duke nodded. “How do we make this easier for her?”
“When Lady Gabriella is overwhelmed by emotion, it is usually best to give her space,” the governess instructed. “It can often make it worse for her to have people hovering around her when she is in such a state.”
“You expect us to leave the poor child to cry alone?” the Duchess asked in bafflement.
Miss Hilda nodded. “I know it goes against every motherly instinct you possess, your Grace, but I implore you to take my advice in this. Lady Gabriella often just needs time to collect herself, and she will seek comfort when she is ready for it.”
The Duke and Duchess exchanged a look, but then very hesitantly rose to their feet and stepped away from Gabriella.
“Should we leave her by herself?” the Duke asked with a furrowed brow.
The governess nodded. “We can simply step into the next room. That should be enough space for her.”
With a dejected sigh, the Duchess turned to the three children hovering behind them and said, “Come along, darlings. We must give Lady Gabriella a moment.”
Through her tears, Gabriella watched as the two older girls moved to obey their mother. They cast her startled looks of concern as they passed by, but did not say a word.
Gabriella glanced back to Owen, who remained in place, watching her intently.
“Owen, sweetheart, come along,” the Duchess called.
“Can I stay with Lady Gabriella, mother?” Owen replied, though his eyes remained on Gabriella.
“We must give her some space,” the Duchess replied. “Leave her alone for the time being, please.”
Owen looked like he wanted to disobey, but at length released a heavy sigh and began walking toward her to follow his family. When he was close enough to touch, she reached out and grabbed his hand. She did not know why for certain, but she did not want him to leave her.
Owen’s brows rose in surprise, and he looked toward his parents as if for guidance. The Duke and Duchess in turn looked toward Miss Hilda.
The governess was taken aback by Gabriella’s actions.
Slowly, she asked, “Do you want Lord Owen to stay with you, my Lady?”
Gabriella nodded, but did not speak. She clutched Owen’s hand more tightly and squeezed her eyes shut as tears continued to dribble down her cheeks.
“Very well. As you wish, my Lady,” Miss Hilda said. Turning to the others, she followed them out of the room, leaving Gabriella and Owen alone together.
Almost the moment they were all out of earshot, Owen asked, “Why are you crying so much?”
She was so startled by the question, her tears actually stopped for a moment as she gazed up at him, wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
“I am . . . I am crying because I am sad,” she murmured.
“Because you have to live here now?”
“Yes . . . and no. That is not the only reason I am sad.” She dropped her gaze again and scuffed the toe of her shoe along the rug they stood on.
Owen was silent for a heartbeat of time, and then, in a soft voice said, “You are sad because your mama and papa are dead.”
His words felt like a blow to her stomach. Whenever she thought about her parents, or whenever someone brought them up to her, she would immediately start to cry and sometimes was not able to stop for hours.
Strangely, she did not feel like crying anymore. Owen’s statement made her sad, of course, but she stared at him, holding his gaze instead of collapsing into a blubbering mess.
“Yes,” she nodded. “They . . . they are dead.”
She had never spoken those words out loud, and she hated how they tasted on her tongue. Like the horrible boiled cabbage Cook would make that was somehow always bitter. Gabriella did not like saying those words because it made her parents’ deaths all the more real.
“I am sorry,” Owen said, his green gaze brimming with compassion and his tone dripping with sincerity. “That must be a terrible thing to go through.”
“It is,” she whispered. She felt the tears pressing against her eyes once more. “And now I am being told that I cannot go back home. That I must stay here.”
“Here is not so bad,” Owen attempted to assure her. “This is my home, and I like it here very much. You will like it too, I think.”
She shook her head. “No, I won’t! My mama and papa are not here.”
There was another stretch of silence, and Gabriella glanced up to see if she could tell what he was thinking by his expression. It was all scrunched up and thoughtful, and she wondered what he would say.
His lips suddenly turned up into a beaming smile.
“Gabriella, you should not be sad, or scared. This is your home now. We are your family, and I promise I will do everything I can to protect you from anything or anyone that might mean you harm.”
Gabriella could not help but grin softly at his dashing promise, even if she did not fully believe that he could fulfill it. Still, it was nice to know someone cared that much about her. She had not thought she would find anyone to care for her well-being nearly as much as her mama and papa. She was not sure that Owen did, but she thought he would try.
“Can we be friends?” she asked in a timid tone.
Owen’s eyes lit up with obvious excitement.
“Of course!” he exclaimed. “I would like to be your friend very much.”
Her own smile widened, and she felt a little lighter as she gazed into his pretty green eyes.
“I want to help make you happy here,” he declared. “You need only tell me what you need, and I will make certain that it is done.”
Gabriella giggled. “That is a very big promise. Are you certain you can do that?”
He nodded and puffed up his chest proudly.
“Absolutely I can,” he assured her. “I am to be the next Duke of Devonshire. There is nothing I cannot do!”
He was enthusiastic, kind, and funny. She liked him and was finding that the pain inside her that seemed a nearly constant thing had faded a bit in his presence.
Miss Hilda had told the Duke and Duchess that Gabriella would approach people for comfort when she needed it. She wanted Owen to offer her that comfort. She wanted him to tell her everything would be all right, and that she had nothing to fear so long as he was with her.
Gabriella wanted Owen to stay by her side forever, and in that moment, she determined that whenever she needed comfort, he would be the person she would always turn to.
As the carriage bounced along the road, Gabriella’s heart beat wildly in her chest with excitement. She gazed out the window, watching the English countryside go by, and a smile curved her lips.
Eight years is such a long time to be away from home.
As much as she had loved Scotland, she had desperately missed her guardian, James. She fingered the small curtains of the carriage window as she recalled how much she had opposed the idea of attending school up North. She had only been thirteen, and had been moved far away from home before.
It had been a frightening prospect to be sure.
“You will receive a marvelous education, my dear,” James had said, when she had initially balked at the idea. “It will be very good for you to experience some of the world outside of this house.”
“But . . . but James,” she’d replied, her bottom lip trembling. “Why must it be Scotland? Do you wish to be rid of me?”
His eyes had widened with alarm. “Goodness, no. That is not it at all. I believe Scotland will prove a more soothing environment than say France or Germany. And it is still close enough that I may visit now and again without too much fuss.”
At the time, his promise to visit had given her little comfort. Yet now she could see he truly had her best intentions at heart. She would not trade her time in Scotland for anything, though she was more than happy to finally return home.
I will see James, and the twins and their families, and . . . and . . .
She could not wait to see Owen. Of all her family, she thought she might have missed him the most. It would be a relief to behold him with her own two eyes again. She thought of the last letter she had received, after he had gone to join the war in France.
James had written to her telling her of Owen’s decision, and she had immediately composed a letter begging him not to go. She had ended the missive with a simple plea that he consider what was truly at stake if he went to fight across the Channel.
You will surely die.
Her words had been smeared by her tears, but she had sent the letter anyway. He had responded to that first letter, but it had turned out to be the only response she had ever received from him.
I am not as true a man as I believe myself to be if I do not take up arms for the glory and security of England.
Those words had stuck with her long after she had read them, and she still had his letter tucked away in her belongings. She had written to him again after that, but he had never responded. Had it not been for James reassuring her that Owen was alive and well, she would have believed him dead on some bloody battlefield in France.
Gabriella shook her head hard to dispel the horrible thought. None of that mattered now. He was alive, and she would see him soon.
Releasing a sigh of contentment, Gabriella let the curtain fall over the little carriage window, then sat back into her seat with a sigh. She wondered what the first thing she should do when arriving at Devonshire Manor.
For certain, she would greet her family and hug them all around, but then she thought she might reacquaint herself with the estate. She was certain that there had been changes since she had been gone. She also longed to go for a ride across the wide field toward the back of the property.
She had always loved to ride as a child, and James had been more than happy to accommodate her. In truth, James had always doted on her in a special way. She knew it was because she was an orphan, and he wanted her to be happy despite her loss.
I cannot even remember my mother’s face, nor my father’s voice.
It was a sad truth, but one she simply could not help. She had been so young when her parents had died. Though she felt their loss and had a few, vague memories from the short years they had been together, she had had to rely on James to tell her about them.
James had always been willing to speak of her parents. Her beautiful Spanish mother had fallen deeply in love with her strong English father, and they had married more quickly than what was technically appropriate. Yet, by all accounts, they had been happy and had settled in Spain for the first few years of Gabriella’s life.
Perhaps we should have stayed there. Nothing bad happened to us while we were in Spain.
Her parents had died in a terrible carriage accident not long after they had moved to England. She remembered feeling a bitterness toward the country for several years of her childhood, blaming it for taking her parents from her.
Yet, without England, I would never have met James. Or Claire. Or Owen.
And she could no longer imagine her life without Owen in it. He had been her rock as she had adjusted to life at Devonshire. Her best friend and constant companion.
He had been her greatest support, and when Claire, his own mother, had died when Gabriella was eight, she had done everything she could to return the favor.
She felt a pang of sorrow in her chest at the thought of the late Duchess. She and Owen had grown closer as a result of his mother’s death, each painfully and intimately aware of the pain of such a devastating loss.
As the carriage rumbled along the road, she could not help but wonder if Owen would be there already. In his last letter to her before she had left, James had indicated that Owen would be arriving home soon as well. She was at once ecstatic and nervous to see him again.
It had been so long. The last time they had been face-to-face, they both had been children. She would be returning home a woman, and he a man.
In the back of her mind was a nagging worry that he would not wish to be friends with her anymore. After all, he would need to begin thinking about finding a wife, just as she needed to consider her options for a husband. If they were both preoccupied with seeking out matches, they might not have as much time for each other.
The idea worried her. She did not want her friendship with Owen to change, but she had to acknowledge that it likely would. They were not the same people they had been the last time they had seen each other.
He was an experienced soldier who had been through war, and she was an educated young lady who had learned to take care of herself.
What if we no longer like each other?
She shook her head firmly. No, she would not think like that. She would remain optimistic and hopeful that, even after all these years, their friendship would remain as solid as it ever had been.
By the time they finally turned onto the drive of the estate, she was filled with determination to show Owen that they could be as great of friends as they had been when they were young.
She was momentarily distracted by the familiar sight of the grounds, however, and she gazed out the carriage window with a wide smile.
It was possibly even more beautiful than she had remembered. The large lawns were lush and green, and the grove of trees surrounding the property was as inviting a sight as it had been when she was a girl. She could not wait to go and explore those woods and reacquaint herself with their secrets.
Memories rose in her mind as she took in her childhood home. Gabriella could almost see her younger self playing across the lawn, running and laughing with the other children as if they had not a care in the world. She, Owen, and his sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, would often make up games to play outside when the weather was good.
When the weather was not good, they used to explore the parts of the manor that were not often used. They had uncovered secret nooks and crannies, and even a few hidden tunnels. They kept everything they found a secret among themselves and used the passages and compartments as hideaways from the adults of the house.
Gabriella giggled and wondered if they had truly managed to keep those places a secret, or if James and the staff merely indulged in their lighthearted whims. Regardless, her childhood at Devonshire Manor had been a blessed one.
Another moment more, and the manor itself came into view. Her breath left her in a rush and her heart sped up with excitement.
The main part of the house was large and square, with a gray tiled roof and tall windows all along the first floor. There were two attached wings that were not as tall as the main part, but they were matches in stonework and color. It was a grand manor, possibly one of the finest in all of England.
Gabriella was willing to admit she may have been somewhat biased in that opinion, but she did not believe that made it any less true.
The carriage rounded the circle drive to come to a stop in front of the main entrance to the manor, she let out a gasp of delight to see James standing on the stone steps leading up to the house, waiting for her.
She hardly gave the footman opening her door a chance to do his job before she flung herself from the carriage and rushed to James’ outstretched arms like she was a little girl again.
He hugged her tight and planted a kiss on the top of her head.
“Oh, how I have missed you, my sweet girl,” he said, giving her one last squeeze before taking a step back so he could look at her.
“You could not possibly have missed me as much as I have missed you,” she teased.
His smile was broad. “You are a vision, my dear. No longer the adorable little girl you were when you went away. You are a beautiful young woman now, and I can hardly believe it.”
She beamed at his praise. Gabriella took him in also, and thought he did not appear all that changed since she had last seen him. His dark hair was still thick and wavy, his hazel eyes still full of mischief.
He had put very little weight on his tall, muscular frame in the years she had been gone, and, in truth, the only real indication that he had aged at all was a slight graying around his temples.
“Come,” he declared, taking her hand and sliding it into his elbow as he turned to face the manor. “I have tea waiting for us in the parlor. I want you to tell me all about your trip, and how you fared in Scotland.”
He led her into the manor, through the opulent foyer with its tall ceiling and marbles floors, and into the front parlor where a tea service was set up in front of one of the large windows overlooking the lawn. James assisted her to her seat, and then settled into his across from her.
“Now,” he said, nodding to the maid standing nearby to pour them their tea. “Tell me everything you can about how you blossomed into this refined lady I see before me.”
“The journey home was a smooth one,” she said brightly, “and Scotland was marvelous. You were right to send me there. The education and experience I gained are invaluable. I must admit, though, that I am happy to be home at last.”
James let out a sigh, as though relieved. “I am happy to hear that your time there was worthwhile. I did not want you to think I was simply abandoning you to the wilds of the North.”
Gabriella shook her head. “I never thought that. Not once, I promise. I know you were overwhelmed, caring for four children after Claire passed, but it never crossed my mind that you were trying to just get rid of me.”
He reached across the table and patted her hand affectionately.
“You are such a blessing, my dear,” he said. “I could not imagine being luckier than I am with you, Owen, Elizabeth, and Mary.”
She knew that was not completely true, though in that moment he may have believed it was. It would have been better had Claire still been with them. Gabriella felt her smile tighten as sadness cut through some of her happiness.
She missed Claire terribly. She could not imagine how much James missed her.
“How are Elizabeth and Mary?” she asked, deciding she needed to change the subject before she could not hide her emotions from James.
“They are quite well,” James replied, his chest puffing with fatherly pride. “Mary is with child again!”
“Oh, that is wonderful!” she declared, clapping her hands together in delight. Elizabeth and Mary had married young, at the age of eighteen, but by all accounts, they both seemed very happy with their lives and well settled into their marriages.
“I have more good news,” James said, his grin turning impish.
She furrowed her brow. “What is it?”
“Owen is coming home for certain.” He leaned back in his chair and appeared to wait for her reaction.
Her eyes widened and her lips parted. “He is? When?”
“Within the next couple of days.”
The shriek of excitement that flew past her lips was completely involuntary, but she could not have stopped it if she tried.
James chuckled. “I thought you would be excited by that bit of news.”
“Oh, I am,” she declared. “I must confess, I have missed Owen terribly and have been so worried about him. I am so relieved to know he will be home, safe and sound.”
James nodded. “It will be good to have him back, just as it is good to have you back, my dear.”
Gabriella was suddenly so full of excitement that she did not think that she could sit there a moment longer. She needed to do something; find a way to burn the excess energy coursing through her.
Pushing to her feet, she said, “I am sorry, James, but would you mind terribly if I excused myself? I have so much I want to do now that I am back.”
He raised his brows in amusement. “I imagine you do. What is the first thing you plan to tackle?”
As much as I want to focus solely on Owen, there are other dear friends I wish to see again as well.
“I would like to write to Lady Madeline and invite her to visit, if that is all right?”
James nodded. “Of course, it is all right. Go and write your letter. I warn you, though, I will demand your attention again sometime soon. We still have much to catch up on.”
She hurried around the table to lean down and press a kiss to his cheek.
“Of course,” she replied. “I promise, once I am settled, you and I will spend hours talking, just the two of us.”
“Thank you, my sweet girl.” He smiled and waved her away.
Gabriella grabbed up her skirts, turned, and practically skipped from the room as she was unable to contain her complete and utter joy.
Before the sun had stretched far enough across her room to fall on her bed, Gabriella’s eyes opened. She sat up, feeling wide awake and refreshed. Throwing the covers off herself, she got out of bed and rang for her lady’s maid to help her dress for the day.
She was excited to explore the grounds, just as she had longed to on her journey from Scotland. Gabriella wanted to spend the day riding and walking, and also finding any of the staff that remained from her childhood and greeting them.
Once she was dressed and ready, she hurried from her room and down to the front parlor. She stepped over the threshold of the door and smiled softly.
James was sitting by the same window from the day before, drinking tea and reading his morning paper.
Moving across the room, she said, “I thought I would find you in here. Your morning ritual is just the same as when I was a girl.”
James looked up from his paper and offered her a wide grin.
“Good morning, my sweet girl,” he greeted. When she beamed at him, he continued, “You appear quite cheerful this morning.”
“Of course! I am home at long last. Why would I not be cheerful?” She moved to his side and dipped down to place a kiss on his cheek.
“What are you up to today, my dear?” he asked, flattening out his newspaper as she settled into the seat across from him.
“I thought I would go for a ride,” she said, plucking a biscuit from a plate sitting in the middle of the table. “Then, possibly a walk. I want to reacquaint myself with the estate.”
James grinned at her and nodded. “That sounds like a very enjoyable day. Do not make plans for your evening, if you can. We will be entertaining guests for dinner.”
Gabriella raised her brows in interest. “Oh? Who are we hosting?”
James did not answer right away and his expression turned cautious. She narrowed her eyes in suspicion.
“James? What is it?”
He released a sigh and met her gaze with a small, guilty smile.
“One of the guests will be Lady Marianne Hawthorn.”
Gabriella vaguely recognized the name, but she could not recall ever meeting the lady herself. As she gazed at James, though, she could tell Lady Hawthorn’s invitation to dinner was significant.
“Is there something you wish to tell me, James?” She held his stare unflinchingly.
He chuckled and shook his head. “I could never hide anything with you, my sweet girl. All right, here it is. Lady Hawthorn is a lady of great renown, and a widow in her forties. I am very seriously considering marrying her.”
Gabriella was shocked. He had given no indication in any of his letters to her that he was thinking of taking a new wife. While surprised, however, she was also happy for him.
James had spent so much of his life caring for his children, Gabriella included, that he had not spent much time focusing on his own needs. She was not even certain that he had taken the proper time to mourn Claire after she had died. He had thrown himself into the task of helping his children cope with her loss, so much so that he never truly resolved his own pain.
This was a good thing. His interest in Lady Hawthorn meant that he was finally considering his own happiness. It was long overdue, in Gabriella’s opinion.
“Well that sounds lovely,” she said with a smile. “I look forward to meeting her.”
James released a sigh of clear relief. “That is so good to hear. I must confess, I was worried about telling you of her.”
Gabriella frowned. “Oh? Why would you worry about telling me?” Surely it would be more of a burden to tell his flesh and blood children.
“I know that change frightens you,” he confessed. “I did not want you to be nervous or uncomfortable in your own home.”
Unfortunately, that made absolute sense. Ever since her parents had died so unexpectedly, Gabriella did not handle sudden change in her life well. It was one of the reasons she had been so resistant to go to Scotland in the first place.
Still, she did not want him to think her fear of change should ever be cause for him not to seek out happiness.
Reaching across the table, she laid her hand on his and smiled at him encouragingly.
“My fears are irrelevant to your happiness,” she said. “You have done your duty to me, Owen, and the girls, and you have done it well. It is well past time you decided to do things for yourself.”
James’ smile was grateful. “I cannot tell you what it means to me to hear you say such things. Thank you, my sweet girl.”
“No thanks are necessary,” she assured him. “After everything you have done for me, I should be the one thanking you every single day. I look forward to meeting Lady Hawthorn tonight. If you are so taken with her, I am sure I will love her immediately.”
His look of excitement made her heart swell, and she was glad she could put his mind at ease in this. Whatever it took, she would work to ensure that James found his happiness.
She would not let anything get in the way of it.
After finishing tea with James, Gabriella wandered out to the stables to order her horse readied for that ride that she so wanted to take.
She had been delighted to find that her favorite black gelding was still on the grounds. The horse had been little more than a colt when Gabriella had gone away, and now was a tall, proud beast that had been properly broken and trained in her absence.
Gabriella had taken the horse out and enjoyed a blissful, invigorating ride around the grounds. At her school in Scotland, riding was a skill encouraged and taught, but students were rarely given the freedom to let their mount have its head when they were out and about. To be able to let her horse run free was beyond thrilling.
It made her that much more appreciative of the life she had at Devonshire. Though it had not always been easy, James had provided her with a loving home and a doting family who adored her. There was little more she could ask for, and she knew so long as she remained with James and his family, she would navigate a safe and prosperous path through her life.
Gabriella spent most of her day outdoors, but returned to the manor when it was time to prepare for dinner. She did not want to be late, and she wanted to make a good first impression on Lady Hawthorn.
She took great care in her outfit for the evening. Her dress was a beautiful pale pink that seemed to make her complexion glow, and she had had her long black hair styled into a fashionable up-do. Gabriella always preferred to wear her hair down, but she knew most of polite society would find that to be a little wild.
When she was ready, she descended the stairs to the first floor of the house and found James waiting in the front parlor for their guests to arrive. He had a glass of brandy in his hand, which made Gabriella arch a brow. James was not a heavy drinker.
In fact, she could only remember seeing him drink when socializing, though never when he was alone, or nearly so.
“James, are you all right?” she asked, crossing the threshold of the room.
He turned at the sound of her voice and froze when his eyes landed on her.
“My goodness, Gabriella. You are stunning.”
She smiled, pleased he approved. “Thank you. I wanted to make a good impression on Lady Hawthorn. Speaking of that, why are you drinking, James?”
He glanced down at the glass in his hand and his eyes widened, as if he had forgotten that he was holding it.
Giving her a sheepish smile, he answered, “I suppose I am a bit nervous to have Lady Hawthorn over. I thought a glass would help calm my nerves.”
She shook her head as she fought a grin. He really was such a precious man. The fact that he was nervous for his lady to arrive was simply adorable.
Walking across the room, she took the tumbler of brandy from him and set it on the fireplace mantle. Turning back to him she straightened his cravat and smoothed her hands along the shoulders of his jacket.
“There is no need to be nervous,” she assured him. “You are a delightful man that any lady would be lucky to have at her side. Everything will be perfectly fine.”
“You truly think so?” he asked, the hopefulness in his tone making her heart twist.
She gazed up at him and smiled. “I do.”
At that moment, his timing impeccable, the family’s butler, Mr. Greene, walked into the room.
Bowing low to both of them, he announced, “Your Grace, your guests have arrived.”
James looked instantly nervous again. Gabriella bit her lip to hide her smile.
“Thank you, Greene,” James said with a nod, his voice slightly shaky. “Please bring them in to join us here.”
Mr. Greene bowed. “Yes, Your Grace.”
When they were alone again, James turned to her and murmured, “I suppose there is no going back now, is there?”
She shook her head in silent agreement.
Standing side-by-side, they waited for Mr. Greene to return with their guests in tow. When he reappeared at last, Gabriella was surprised to find that he did not escort only one lady, but three.
All three dropped into deep curtsies before James, who bowed politely as Gabriella dropped into a curtsy of her own.
When everyone was standing upright again, James said, “Lady Hawthorn, it is so good to see you again.”
The lady at the front of the trio offered him a wide, genuine smile. She was rather lovely, with curly red hair, dark blue eyes, and a tall frame.
“Thank you for your generous invitation, Your Grace,” she replied.
Gabriella thought she had a rather melodious voice, which was pleasing to the ear.
“Allow me to introduce my companions. I believe you know my dear friend, Lady Patricia Kinney, and her daughter, Lady Angelica,” Lady Hawthorn added.
“A pleasure to meet you both,” James said with a polite nod to each of them. Stretching out an arm toward Gabriella, he continued, “May I present my foster daughter, Lady Gabriella Lovitt.”
Lady Hawthorn’s eyes lit up with instant recognition, and she moved closer to Gabriella with an air of excitement about her.
Taking Gabriella’s hands in her own, she said, “It is just a thrill to meet you, my Lady. His Grace has told me so much about you. I feel as if I know you already.”
Gabriella tried hard not to flinch at the woman’s touch.
Maintaining her gracious smile, she replied, “I am very glad to meet you as well, Lady Hawthorn.”
“Were you not the daughter that was sent to school in Scotland?” Lady Kinney suddenly asked in a voice a touch too loud.
Gabriella looked toward the lady and nodded her head. “Yes, my Lady. That was indeed me.”
“Are the Scots truly as brutish as they say?” Lady Kinney asked, catching Gabriella off guard.
What a terribly rude question to ask.
She shook her head firmly. “No, my Lady. I found the Scottish people to be very pleasant. I enjoyed my time there very much.”
Lady Kinney arched a brow. “Well, I am sure that the education was worthwhile. I cannot imagine that it would match the quality of what we have here in England, but you can only ask so much of such a place, can you not?”
Gabriella was rather stunned by the lady’s obnoxious questions and behavior. She spoke in a tone that was at once haughty and demeaning, and Gabriella got the sense that Lady Kinney was talking down to her.
As for the lady’s daughter, well, she appeared to be the exact opposite as her mother in character. She remained quiet, her eyes cast downward, and her cheeks rosy in color.
Lady Angelica was rather lovely, and her apparent shyness only added to her appeal. Her hair was a yellow gold, and she had stunning blue eyes that Gabriella had only caught peeks of so far.
She was petite in frame, but she wore a lovely blue gown that made the color of her eyes pop whenever she looked up from the floor.
Whether he could sense the growing tension in the room or not, James suddenly said, “There are tea and biscuits if you ladies would like something to tide you over until dinner.”
Gabriella stepped aside to let the three pass her. She kept her gaze on Lady Kinney as the ladies were served their tea. She was curious as to what she may say next.
“Oh my, this room is simply divine,” Lady Kinney declared as she gazed around the foyer, her cup of tea in her hand. “I must redo my own parlor to make it look exactly like this one.”
Gabriella frowned. There was something about this lady that she did not like. Usually, she preferred to give everyone the benefit of the doubt when she first became acquainted with them, but something about Lady Kinney was simply rubbing her the wrong way.
The woman began monopolizing all attempts at conversation as they sat together waiting to be summoned to dinner. Gabriella pretended to listen to her, but she was growing more and more annoyed that the Lady Kinney was dominating the evening, when James and Lady Hawthorn should be the focus.
At long last, Mr. Greene returned to announce that dinner was waiting for them. James and Lady Hawthorn led their little party out of the parlor, arm-in-arm. The sight eased some of Gabriella’s annoyance.
The pair appeared to be getting along, despite Lady Kinney’s countless interruptions.
Dinner proved an awkward affair. At least, that is how it felt to Gabriella. James and Lady Hawthorn appeared to only have eyes for each other, and since they were seated next to each other at the dining room table, there was little hope of breaking either of them out of their little cocoon.
Gabriella was forced to endure Lady Kinney’s incessant chatter essentially alone. She forced a polite smile and engaged expression, even as the infuriating woman launched into a lengthy complaint about her newest servant who did not properly dust every room’s mantle.
Lady Angelica remained mostly silent throughout the meal. Gabriella could not help but wonder if she was naturally so quiet, or if she was simply too exhausted by her mother’s unending talk to even bother contributing to the conversation herself.
Just as Gabriella was reaching the point where she did not think she could take another moment more of Lady Kinney, Lady Hawthorn leaned in close to James’ side and whispered something in his ear.
He arched his brow and his expression grew thoughtful.
Gazing down at Lady Hawthorn, he said, “Now that does give me an idea.”
Gabriella frowned as James turned his attention to Lady Kinney.
“My Lady, I wonder if I might propose an idea which I am forming.”
Lady Patricia frowned, clearly confused. “Of course, Your Grace. What is it?”
“Well, my son, Owen, is returning home tomorrow. I wonder if I should introduce him to your lovely daughter? I believe they might get along rather well.”
It took a few moments for his words to sink into Lady Kinney’s mind, but once she understood what he was asking, her eyes went wide.
“I think that is a brilliant idea, Your Grace.”
Gabriella stared between James and Lady Kinney in shock. What in the world had they just agreed to? She glanced toward Lady Angelica in time to see the woman swallow hard, her face pale and appearance as shocked as Gabriella herself felt.
Though she could not put her finger exactly on why James’ idea to bring Owen together with Lady Angelica sat so ill with her, something about the scheme felt . . . wrong.
“Excellent,” James said, clapping his hands together. “I will inform my son upon his arrival, and we will set something up.”
Lady Kinney looked incredibly pleased.
Lady Angelica did not.
Gabriella stopped listening to the conversation at that point and grew lost in her own thoughts. Her reaction to the idea of Owen with Lady Angelica was swift, fierce, and negative.
The real question though was . . . why? Why did she feel this way? Why did the idea of him with another woman bother her so?
She had known this was something that would likely happen when they reunited. They would both have to pursue marriage prospects at some point, but it felt too . . . soon. Owen would just be returning home the following day.
Gabriella wanted time with him by herself. She did not want some other woman waiting for him, stealing his attention from her. It had been eight years since they had last set eyes on each other.
Surely they deserved some kind of peace and quiet as they grew reacquainted?
Gabriella shook her head, dispersing her thoughts.
I will have to make every moment with him count, as it appears his time may not be his own soon enough.
Stepping off the ship onto the solid ground of London, Owen Churchill, Marquess of Devonshire released a shuddering breath of relief.
He was finally home.
It had been so long, and there were times he had feared that he would never make it back.
Yet, here he was. Alive and whole . . . at least in all the ways that mattered.
Slinging his bag over his shoulder, he made his way into the crowd choking the harbor in search of his carriage. He had written ahead to inform his father of his arrival, so he anticipated that the Duke had sent someone to fetch him.
Sure enough, the Devonshire carriage with the family crest emblazoned on its doors came into view straight ahead of him. He hurried toward it, eager to get on the road and home to his family’s estate as quickly as possible.
Once he was in the carriage and settled, the driver urged the horses into motion, and they rattled down the cobblestone streets of London.
Owen sat back in his seat and released a heavy sigh. He felt lighter, somehow. He had noticed it the moment he had set foot on solid, English soil. It felt as though he had shed a heavy weight from his shoulders and was leaving the war behind him for good.
If only I could shed the scars inside that haunt me so easily.
He shook his head and glanced out the carriage window as the city passed him by. He could hardly believe he had been away for six years. For six years he had endured war, pain, cruelty, and uncertainty in a foreign land, fighting a conflict he had felt a patriotic duty to join.
I wonder if my father has forgiven me for leaving.
The Duke had been staunchly against Owen joining the English forces in their war against France. They had had a rather large row over the matter. Owen had understood his father’s position.
Owen was his father’s only male heir. He was the sole hope of keeping the dukedom in their family. In truth, the Duke had every right to be angry with Owen’s choice to fight.
Owen, though, had not felt as though he had had a choice. Duty had pushed him to the battlefield, as well as the memory of one of his dearest friends, Johnathan. Having enlisted months before Owen, Johnathan had joined the English troops, but had unfortunately lost his life during one of the bloody battles with the French.
When Owen had received word of Johnathan’s death, his first instinct was to go and fight the French in search of revenge.
As it turned out, revenge was not the best of reasons to enter into a war. Revenge may have gotten him into the army, but his love of king and country had kept him there.
The carriage rumbled along, and Owen pushed the thoughts of the war from his mind. That was over for him now. He needed to find a way to leave that all behind and move on with his life.
His best hope of doing so was at home, in Devonshire Manor. He would be able to heal there, physically, mentally, and emotionally. His father would be there, which would be a comfort.
And his father had informed him in his last letter, Gabriella would be home as well.
He felt a pang of nostalgia at the thought of her. Next to his father, he might have missed her the most. He loved his sisters, of this there was no doubt, and had even managed a visit to Mary while he was in France. He would happily sail to the colonies to see Elizabeth if the opportunity arose, but he would be lying if he said the excitement he felt at the prospect of seeing either of them again was at all comparable to his excitement to see Gabriella.
She had been his closest friend as a child. After she moved into Devonshire, the two had been inseparable. They had done everything together.
Explored the grounds of the estate.
Pulled pranks on the adults of the house.
Sat and watched the clouds pass overhead, imagining what it was like for someone in another part of the world stopping to stare at the clouds as well.
Those times had been so innocent and precious to him.
Gabriella had been precious to him. He prayed that she had retained some of her sweet innocence and fiery personality throughout the years.
He held onto his memories of her throughout the long carriage ride to the estate. When he finally arrived, he stepped out of the carriage and took a moment just to stare up at the manor. A wave of warmth and familiarity rushed through him, and he felt a breath push past his lips.
Slowly, he made his way up the stone steps to the front door. A footman stood waiting for him and opened the door as he neared. He crossed the threshold into the house and came to a sudden stop.
It was not because he was overwhelmed with emotion at the sight of his childhood home. He was, but what stopped him in his tracks was the sight of a familiar smiling face waiting for him just inside the foyer.
He would recognize her anywhere, no matter how much time had passed.
She stared at him for long, silent moments, her dark brown eyes wet with unshed tears. Owen could only gaze back at her in awe. She had grown into a breathtakingly gorgeous woman.
Her long black hair was thick and shiny. She wore it loose around her shoulders, something she had also done when she was a little girl. She was slim and curvy, and her dark complexion was the only true indication of her Spanish heritage.
Suddenly, whatever invisible force keeping them rooted in place simply staring at each other appeared to snap. Her lips curled into a bright grin, and she ran to him.
Owen did not hesitate. He opened his arms wide for her to fall into, and then hugged her as tightly as he could. She began to sob softly against him, and he buried his nose in her soft hair.
She smelled like flowers and sunshine.
They stayed wrapped in each other for long minutes before Owen finally broke their embrace and stood back so he could look at her.
“My God,” he murmured. “You are a grown woman, Gabriella. I cannot believe that it has been so long.”
“It has been far too long,” she replied softly.
He nodded. “You are right. Far too long.”
Just as he had taken her in, she dropped her gaze from his and swept it over his entire frame. She frowned with concern, which he should have anticipated, and placed her hands on her waist.
“You are so thin, Owen. You have not been eating well, have you?”
He waved a hand dismissively, as though batting the idea out of the air between them.
“I am perfectly fine,” he said. “Trust me. There is nothing for you to be concerned about.”
That was not entirely true. Owen’s appetite had been low for months. The sights of war, of violent bloodshed had proven too much for him. He could not bring himself to eat much of anything, but he did not want to distress her.
Gabriella had a tendency to worry too much about things that were totally out of her control. If she thought he was not eating like he should, she would make it her personal mission to see him well fed. He did not want to put that pressure on her, or on their friendship.
Despite his best efforts at nonchalance, however, Gabriella did not look convinced.
“We will revisit the issue of whether you are eating enough at another time,” she informed him, crossing her arms over her chest.
The next second, however, her expression melted into a grateful grin. “For now, though, welcome home, Owen.”
He knew she planned to pester him about his eating, and would do everything in her power to get him back to normal. The only problem with that, though, was that he was not sure whether he knew what normal was anymore.
“It is so good to be back,” he confessed.
He would have said more, but at that moment, his father appeared at the top of the grand staircase. Owen met the Duke’s gaze with a smile, then was shocked at the sight of his father’s eyes welling up with emotion.
“My boy,” he said simply, hurrying down the stairs with his arms open wide. Owen went willingly into his father’s embrace.
Though the Duke was not as soft nor did he have the same floral scent as Gabriella, Owen took great comfort in having his father’s arms around him.
“It is good to see you, Father,” he murmured.
When the two broke from each other, they looked at each other in silence for long moments.
“You will have to tell me everything,” his father said at length in a low voice.
Owen understood perfectly what his father was referring to, but he was not keen on speaking about the war just yet.
So, he shrugged the request off and replied, “Well, there is little to say about France.”
His father frowned, and it was clear that he did not like that answer. Still, he did not try to force the story out of Owen, which Owen deeply appreciated.
The truth was, Owen did not want to run the risk of tainting anyone in his family with the horrors he had seen and experienced while in France. The memories were not ones which he was eager to revisit, and he did not want either Gabriella or his father to feel even a small part of the pain he experienced on a daily basis.
He would keep from talking about the war for as long as was humanly possible.
A tense silence fell throughout the foyer, and Owen did not know what he was supposed to do.
“I believe tea is waiting for us in the parlor,” Gabriella declared abruptly. “Shall we go?”
Owen was grateful for the distraction and nodded enthusiastically.
“That sounds lovely.”
Gabriella led Owen and his father into the parlor, where a tea service was indeed waiting for them.
Once they were served their tea, they sat around the small table as the room was enveloped in a newer, even more tense silence.
He could tell they were waiting for him to say something, but he remained tight-lipped.
At length, when the silence was almost unbearable, his father ventured to ask, “How . . . how was your journey home?”
“Smooth,” he nodded, careful to keep his words short and vague. “We were lucky to have had good weather for the voyage.”
When he did not elaborate, he could practically see their minds scrambling to come up with more questions for him.
Deciding that he would rather divert the attention from himself for a bit, he asked Gabriella, “Tell me, how was Scotland? Was it as terrible as you always thought it would be when we were children?”
He kept his tone light and teasing, and to his relief, her expression relaxed, and she began telling him all about her experiences up North.
“I was admittedly terrified to go at first,” she said with an openness she had possessed since they were children. “I did not believe that I would gain anything from leaving here, but I was relieved to find the school rather warm and inviting, and the curriculum engaging and challenging.”
She went on to describe her different lessons and experiences, and how each provided her with a plethora of new and exciting knowledge. Owen loved how enthusiastic she was about her education and how she spoke of her time in Scotland with such fondness.
While I, on the other hand, was up to my knees in mud and blood most days, fighting to kill men I did not know before they killed me.
Though Gabriella’s childlike enthusiasm was infectious, Owen knew those feelings had been locked away inside him quite some time ago, never to be unsealed or seen again.
It was getting a little difficult for him to breathe. He did not know what it was for sure, but he was suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to get away and be by himself for a time. In reality, he knew he was going to have to ease back into his own life bit by bit, and it would be no easy task.
He waited until Gabriella had finished speaking, then said, “Would you both excuse me for a bit? I am afraid I am feeling a bit lightheaded. I think I could use some air.”
Gabriella’s eyes went wide with alarm. “Do you need anything? If you are lightheaded, you should not go outside alone. I will hel . . .”
He quickly shook his head. “I appreciate the concern, I truly do. But trust me, sometimes I just need to be alone to rein in my stray thoughts.”
Gabriella and his father exchanged a look, and he worried that they would not let him go.
At length, however, his father nodded. “Of course, son. You may be excused. Do be careful out there, though, as Gabriella has said.”
Pushing to his feet, Owen nodded. “I will. I promise.”
Gabriella was staring up at him as she nibbled her bottom lip in a nervous gesture that he recognized from childhood.
“Do not worry,” he assured her. “I will stay within sight of the manor in case something happens. Does that make you feel more at ease?”
She appeared thoughtful a moment, then nodded.
“It does, thank you.”
He wanted to tell her that he would do anything for her, but he stopped himself just in time. He could not let himself slip when he was around her. Out of everyone in that household, she was the least deserving of pain.
She had suffered more than enough in her young life already.
Turning for the door, Owen made his way across the room, but paused on the threshold to look back. Gabriella was watching him go, and when he caught her looking, she jerked her gaze away.
He shook his head with a wry smile.
Still such a mother hen. Still looking out for all the poor, unfortunate souls she comes upon.
It was one of the things he liked best about her, and he was happy to see that it was a trait which she had maintained. She would likely need the patience in the coming months, as he knew he would not be able to keep his demons at bay forever.
Owen tilted his head back and let the warm sunlight bathe his face. He took a deep breath and felt himself calm even more as he walked along the estate’s grounds.
It was so quiet. There was no endless murmur of voices in the overcrowded camps, and no sound of cannon blasts and gunfire in the distance.
The silence was both comforting and unsettling. He was not used to it, and wondered if he would be able to sleep later that night, or if he would somehow miss the constant chaos of the battlefield. The very thought filled him with unease . . . and guilt.
Owen wandered through the large back field of the estate, choosing to veer from the walking path. He had always liked that part of the estate as a boy. It was left a little bit wild, and he had always felt as though it allowed a bit of wilderness into his perfectly ordered world.
Back then I longed for a small amount of disorder in my life. For the monotony of privilege and wealth to be broken up by tastes of the real world outside the boundaries of this place.
Well, he had had more than a taste of the real world. In fact, he had had more than his fill. He shook his head, remembering the person he had been when he had first left Devonshire.
A naïve child, whose idea of war was a boyish fantasy.
The real thing was much more terrible. It was a harsh, brutal experience which had the ability to break a man as much as harden him. Owen was not sure yet what it had done to him.
As he gazed around the vast property that was his family’s land, that feeling of guilt intensified.
I do not deserve any of this. I likely should have died back in France, alongside so many of my brothers-in-arms.
It was a dark, terrible thought that he knew he had to let go of, but he simply could not shake the guilt that had plagued him ever since he left France. He did not understand how he could walk away from the war as he had, when so many other soldiers, including several of his friends, had not.
He stopped and pressed a hand to his forehead. He needed to get a handle on his pain and emotions. It would not do him or his family any good to burden them with his torment.
I must keep it all locked away and pray that I do not scream out loud when the nightmares come.
And they would. It was a rarity that he made through a night without experiencing at least one.
Releasing a deep sigh, Owen turned back towards the manor. He needed to make an effort with his family so that they did not come to feel uncomfortable around him.
When he reached the house, he was overwhelmed with the urge to wander back to the garden. Letting that urge guide him, he entered the extravagant greenery that was still as meticulously kept as it had been when he was a boy. Perfectly trimmed hedges created hidden, private areas where someone could escape to for a few stolen moments of privacy.
It was within one of these concealed spaces that he found Gabriella. He spotted her sitting on a stone bench, an open book in her lap, and came to a stop.
He was stunned anew by her beauty. She was truly breathtaking, especially in her current state, alone and content, her gaze soft as she stared down at the pages of her book. He hesitated to disturb her peaceful moment.
Just as he was about to turn away to go back into the house and leave her to her reading, she glanced up and caught sight of him. Her lips split into a smile immediately, and she closed her book to give him her full and undivided attention.
“Owen! Where are you off to? Come and sit with me.”
He was unable to resist her pull and made his way closer to settle next to her on the bench.
“How was your walk?” she asked. “I did the same when I first arrived, and it was so nice to reacquaint myself with the estate.”
He could not fight his grin. “It was quite nice.”
She tilted her head, her brow furrowing in what he could only call concern. Without a word, she reached out and rested her hand on top of his.
“I know that you have been through so much,” she said in a gentle voice. “You are safe now, though. You know that, do you not?”
Safe from what, exactly? Bullets and cannon fire perhaps, but I am not nearly safe from the darkness of my own mind.
He forced a grateful smile, though, so she would not suspect his torment.
“Thank you,” he replied.
He was genuinely grateful to her for her kindness, but he was not so naïve to think that she could heal him with an encouraging word and gentle touch. “It is good to be back.”
Silence fell between them for long moments. They gazed at each other, and he could practically see her mind scrambling to come up with something to say. He knew it was likely because they had been apart for so long, but it felt awkward to be there with her.
In truth, he was not quite sure how to conduct himself in normal society, let alone one-on-one with the girl who had been his closest friend back when he was innocent and optimistic.
He saw the moment when she appeared to settle on what to say, but he was no longer in the mood to talk. The very idea of idle chatter exhausted him.
“I am rather tired,” he said before she could speak. “The journey home was rather long. I think that I will retire early.”
Her face fell in disappointment before she could stop it, but she quickly masked her expression to one of easy understanding. It was too late to stop the guilt from rushing through him at dismissing her company, however.
Gracious as ever, Gabriella nodded and replied, “I understand. I hope you have a restful night, Owen.”
For a moment, he hesitated to leave her. It did not feel right to walk away from her again after they had been so long apart. But he knew he was not right for her at present.
He needed time to rest and adjust to his new situation. In the morning, he would be more at ease and more capable of being like the carefree boy she had once known.
He would simply pretend he was not broken, so that he did not darken her outlook on the world. That was the absolute last thing he wished to do. With that plan in mind, he pushed to his feet and walked away from her without a backwards glance.
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