The Countess’ screams reverberated off the manor’s walls, seeming to fill every room with the echoes of her agony. Keith Wilkinson, the Earl of Ramsbury, paced outside his wife’s room, his gut clenching with anxiety, though it was not only for fear of his wife’s wellbeing.
He could not shake the feeling of foreboding that hung over his head like a storm cloud. He knew he should be happy in that moment. His first child was about to be born after all.
It should be a day of celebration. A Christmas miracle. Yet, he felt far from joyful.
“Darling, you will never believe the strange conversation I had at the market today…”
His wife’s words from that day, over a year ago, rang through his head as if she had only spoken them to him the day before. She had told him of an old woman who had given her a prophecy. One that claimed that his barren wife would bear a child…and that that child would be his family’s ruin.
“Is not that silly, darling? To think, after ten years, that we would even have a child at all.”
Yet, his wife’s screams ringing through their home were proof that the first part of the woman’s prediction had come true.
Which also means that the other half could come to pass.
Suddenly, Meredith’s screams stopped. Keith froze in his pacing and stared at the doors, his heart hammering wildly in his chest. At length, one of the doors cracked open and a maid who had been assisting with the birth poked her head out.
“My Lord, I have been told to inform you that you may come in now.”
Hesitating just a moment, he gave a curt nod and moved with purposeful steps into the room. The maid stepped aside to allow him to enter, and he paused, once he had crossed the threshold, to gather his bearings.
The room had been darkened, the curtains drawn over all of the windows, and a fire roared in the hearth, making the space stifling despite the freezing temperatures outside.
Another maid and the midwife bustled about the room, their work not quite done as they began to clean up and care for mother and child.
Slowly, Keith made his way closer to the large bed opposite him. In the center of the plush mattress, propped up by pillows and bedding, lay his exhausted wife.
She cast him a soft smile as he neared and raised her hand, reaching for him, though he could see the simple motion required effort on her part. He closed the distance between them and sat on the edge of her bed, taking her hand in his.
“Sweetheart, you look pale,” she chuckled. “Was the birth so trying for you?”
She was teasing him, but he could find no humor in her words. His mind was still racing with his dreadful thoughts and fears, but he did not want to confess them to her.
Forcing a smile, he replied, “I am just happy to see you well, my dear. No one told me how difficult it would be to hear you in such pain, and all the while I was unable to comfort you.”
“That is sweet of you,” she murmured.
Out of the corner of Keith’s eye, he saw a figure approach the bed. Turning, he found the midwife smiling with a small bundle in her arms. His heart jumped in his throat as she bent over to hand the baby to Meredith.
“Is she not perfect, Keith?” his wife asked, glowing with happiness, as she pulled the blanket covering the baby to the side so he could see the infant’s face.
He gazed down at his daughter, but he did not feel the tenderness which he knew a father should feel when seeing his newborn child for the first time.
There were only fear and anxiety as he stared down into her tiny pink face. She appeared so innocent and harmless, and yet…
This small thing is to be our ruin!
“Keith? Darling? Are you all right?”
His eyes shot up and met his wife’s concerned gaze.
“I…I am,” he nodded, forcing his lips to curl into a tight smile. “She is beautiful. Truly.”
His wife’s expression lit up with joy once more as she turned her gaze back down to their baby. Keith felt his own smile dip when Meredith’s attention was off him.
As she cooed over the child, Keith’s mind scrambled to come up with some way to save his family before they faced a ruin he could not foresee.
“Keith, darling, come sit with us.”
Glancing up from where he stood, staring into the fireplace, Keith met his wife’s eyes from across the parlor. She was sitting in a cushioned armchair, a blanket tucked in her lap, looking much recovered, despite having given birth just the day before.
Their baby rested in a bassinet beside her chair, sleeping soundly beneath the candlelight softly glowing from the Christmas decorations adorning the parlor.
Slowly, Keith made his way to the chair next to his wife and sank down into its seat. He did not look at Meredith. He simply could not.
He could feel her eyes on him, however.
“Keith, is everything all right? You have been acting strangely all day.”
“How do you mean?” Keith still would not look at her, his eyes darting around the room.
“You have been very distant,” she said. “You have not even held Hope yet.”
He gripped the arms of the seat so tightly that his knuckles turned white.
“Meredith…we must talk about the baby.”
Tension thickened the air around them.
“What do we need to talk about?” she asked in a small voice.
Finally, he forced himself to turn and look at her.
“It is about what that old woman told you a year ago.”
Meredith’s eyes widened in instant shock and disbelief.
“Keith! You cannot possibly still be holding onto that? It was ridiculous. A crazy old woman ranting nonsense…”
“She was right, though, was she not?” he snapped back. “Ten years, Meredith. Ten years we tried to conceive before we lost all hope. We were convinced that you were barren, and then some old woman approaches you and predicts that you will soon be with child…”
“It was just a coincidence,” Meredith hissed, her eyes flashing defensively. “Nothing more.”
Keith shook his head. “No. No, I do not believe it was. I believe the woman was telling you the truth of our future. This child will grow up to somehow ruin our family before she turns eighteen…but you will die before you can witness that.”
Meredith’s breath caught in her throat as she stared at her husband.
“Keith, please, be reasonable…” she pleaded in a forcefully calm tone. “I know you are inclined to certain beliefs, but you cannot let those superstitions cloud your judgement right now.”
Keith could not deny her claim, though it irked him that she would so easily dismiss his concerns. He would readily admit that he was a superstitious man, just as his mother had been, but he firmly believed that there were forces at work in the world that could not be explained away by logic and reason.
In his mind, it was better to err on the side of caution than to dismiss the possibility of the supernatural altogether.
“Your own mind is being clouded by your motherly affection for the child,” he replied sharply. “If there is any chance that old woman’s words could be true, we must do what we can to protect ourselves from the dire fate she laid out for us.”
“What are you thinking?” Meredith asked, her tone cautious. She reached out her hand to grip the bassinet protectively. “Keith, what are you planning to do to our daughter?”
He released a heavy sigh. “I have no intention of hurting the child, so you may put that fear to rest.”
Meredith did not appear to relax at all at his admission. In fact, her fingers tightened around the bassinet.
“What do you intend, then?” she demanded to know.
Keith hesitated, not wishing to hurt her or earn her wrath, but feeling as though he had no other choice to keep them all safe.
“We shall send her away to Wales. To your sister.”
“No!” Meredith instantly cried, causing the baby to stir, though she did not wake. “You will not take my baby from me!”
“Meredith, I am doing this for your own good…”
Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears as her face turned red with her rage.
“Keith, you are being ridiculous! Hope is not a curse! She is a blessing! A miracle! You cannot send her away because you are scared of the insane words of a stranger!”
“This is not a discussion!” he barked, startling her, if her wide eyes were any indication. “I understand your urge to keep the child close to you, but if she is to be our doom…”
“She is not just a child,” Meredith spat. “She is our daughter! Why can you not say that? Why can you not say her name, or even look at her? Are you truly so afraid of your own flesh and blood?”
“It is my duty to protect this family and its legacy,” he insisted. “From any threat, including my own flesh and blood.”
Meredith’s lip trembled as she stared at him and he could see the hope dimming in her eyes as her tears broke free at last and began to fall. It tore at him to see her so distressed, but he would not let his resolve waiver.
I am doing this for her as much as I am doing it for my family’s sake.
“So, you will banish our daughter,” she spoke softly and with a finality in her tone that he knew meant she realized there was no fighting his will. “Will I be permitted to see her?”
Shaking his head, he said, “No. But you may write to her, if you wish.”
Her expression was filled with such heartbreak, for a moment he felt himself faltering. Clenching his jaw in determination, he held her gaze as she took time to let his words sink in.
“Will she ever be able to return?” Meredith’s voice was so soft, it was barely more than a whisper.
“When she is eighteen, and the threat she poses has passed, she may return,” he answered.
“Eighteen?” Meredith muttered in a dejected voice. “I will not be allowed to see my daughter until she is eighteen? She…she will be all grown up…”
“I know that what I am doing to you is terrible,” Keith said with a nod. He shot a glance toward the bassinet and felt anxiety twist in his gut. “But this is for the best, I assure you.”
She did not look as though she believed him, but she did not say anything for a long moment. At length, she turned her gaze back to the baby, her cheeks wet with her silent tears.
“Very well,” she murmured. “I shall not argue further. She will go to Wales.”
Her easy acquiescence surprised him. Though he knew his word would be law, he had expected her to try a little more to convince him to keep the child.
“I am glad that you are seeing things my way,” he nodded.
She shot him a vicious look. “I do not see things your way, husband! I will never see things your way, but I know that if Hope remains here, you will always look at her with fear and suspicion. I will not have my daughter grow up seeing her father’s resentment and mistrust every day of her life.”
Her words hit him like physical blows, but he told himself she was merely lashing out in her pain. She would see reason, in time, and understand that his actions were for the good of all of them.
She will forgive me. When the girl has grown and Meredith is still here to see her, she will forgive me.
Pushing to his feet, he gazed down at his wife, who now refused to look at him.
“Write to your sister,” he instructed. “Tell her of our plan, and to expect the baby within the month.”
The color drained from Meredith’s face, but she kept her lips a tight line, no doubt to hold back the tirade she wished to unleash on him. After several moments of heavy silence, she slowly nodded.
“Very well, husband. If that is your wish.”
Keith released a breath of relief and offered her a soft smile.
“All will be well,” he assured her. Then, glancing toward the baby still asleep in her little bed, he mumbled, “I will not let our daughter be our ruin.”
18 years later
Her heart thundered in her chest as her stomach churned with anxiety. Staring out through the carriage window, she could not help the worried thoughts that zipped through her mind so quickly. She could hardly keep up with them.
What if they are displeased with me? What if I am not what they expect?
And then, there was the most nerve-wracking question of all, one that had haunted her since she had found out that she would be traveling to London…
What if they send me away again?
Hope’s hands twisted in her lap as she watched the city of London pass by her carriage window. She had never been to London before, and it was larger than she had anticipated. Intimidating, in truth.
It was so different from the small village she had grown up in in Wales. Just thinking about the village made her homesick, and she wished her aunt had been able to accompany her on her journey. She had been instructed to return to her parents alone, however, and her dearest Aunt Beatrice had been left behind.
“Do not be nervous, my dear. My sister, your mother, loves you so very much. You will find a good home with her and your father.”
Her aunt’s parting words rang in her head, but they did not offer Hope the comfort they should have. Despite her aunt’s insistence that her parents loved her, she had always doubted their affections, having never met them, nor witnessed any attempt on their part to claim her.
It filled her with a strange desire to please them and prove them wrong for having sent her away as a baby, yet at the same time she wished that she could order the carriage turned around so she could return to Wales and the life she had always known.
With a sigh, she dropped her head back against the seat and prayed the whole ordeal of meeting her parents for the first time would go smoothly.
A short time later, the carriage turned into a short drive that led up to a grand looking townhouse. When the vehicle came to a stop, Hope stared out the window and found she was unable to move. Even when the footman opened the door for her to exit the carriage, she sat frozen in place, terrified of what waited for her in that house.
“My Lady?” The footman’s tone was concerned when she remained still for several long moments. “Are you…are you well?”
Blinking, she stared at the footmen.
No. I am far from well. I am upending my life for two people who did not want me to begin with.
She did not say those words out loud, however.
Instead, she delicately cleared her throat and answered, “I…I am quite well, thank you. Just gaining my bearings.”
The footman gave her a sympathetic look, and she realized he must know who she was. Which meant he likely also knew what her parents had done to her.
Hope’s cheeks burned with embarrassment as she took his hand and let him help her out of the carriage. She had not considered before that her abandonment was not a secret to everyone.
What must people think of me?
Straightening her shoulders and raising her chin, she was determined not to let anyone see her anxiety and hurt. Her aunt had taught her to be proud, and she would not let the uncertainty of her new life take that from her.
When she reached the front door, it was opened for her by an older man in a butler’s uniform of black coat and trousers.
“Welcome, my Lady,” he said with a bow as she crossed the threshold. “I am Mr. Wiggins, your family’s butler. We are all so happy to have you back with us.”
She offered the butler a small, shy smile.
“Thank…thank you,” she murmured.
He extended his hand. “If you would follow me, Lord and Lady Ramsbury are waiting for you in the drawing room.”
Hope’s heart raced as she followed the butler through the foyer and down the hall. He stopped at a closed door and opened it announcing her arrival before stepping aside to allow her to enter first. Hope’s steps were hesitant as she made her way into the room, unsure of the reception she would receive inside.
The two people who were supposed to be her parents were standing in the middle of the room, waiting for her. She slowed to a stop before she drew close to them, suddenly nervous that they might try to touch her, or embrace her. When her eyes fell on Lady Ramsbury, she felt a little startled at how closely the woman resembled her.
Tall and slim, with auburn hair, the Lady’s features were nearly identical to her own, save for her eyes. While Hope’s eyes were a deep blue, Lady Ramsbury’s were a light green. She was smiling at Hope, her eyes shimmering with clear, but tentative excitement.
The man standing next to the Countess did not look nearly so pleased to see Hope. He was shorter than his wife, and rounder, with brown hair and blue eyes that matched Hope’s own. He was regarding her with a calculating glint in his eye, as if assessing how best to deal with her.
“Oh, my darling girl,” Lady Ramsbury murmured, taking a cautious step forward. Hope forced herself not to flinch back. “It is so good to see you again after all this time.”
Remembering the manners her aunt had drilled into her, Hope dropped into a clumsy curtsy.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Lord and Lady Ramsbury,” she said.
Raising back up to her full height, she met her mother’s gaze and saw a flash of hurt cross her eyes.
“Oh, my dear, you do not have to be so formal with us,” the woman said, her tone strained as she tried to maintain a pleasant demeanor. “We are your parents, after all.”
Though technically true, to Hope they were virtual strangers. Her mother had written to her over the years, but that hardly lent itself to creating a deep and personal relationship between them. She did not know how to act around them, and could not bring herself to relax as Lady Ramsbury requested.
A tense and awkward silence fell between them. Hope let her gaze flicker to her father, but his expression remained cool and impassive as he regarded her. She dropped her eyes from him, unnerved by his scrutiny.
“Shall…shall I show you to your chambers?” her mother asked tentatively.
Hope nodded immediately, grateful for the opportunity to leave that room.
Lady Ramsbury appeared relieved. “Follow me, then.”
She moved to walk past Hope, who quickly turned to follow her. Lord Ramsbury did not join them, but Hope truly was not concerned by that. She had the sense he was not particularly happy to see her.
Perhaps he is always off-putting and aloof? It is not as if I have any idea what he is truly like.
Her mother had mentioned her father time and again in her letters, but she never went into great detail about the man, nor gave any indication that he missed his only daughter.
Hope decided she would worry about him at a later time, as her mother led her out of the room and toward the grand staircase in the foyer. First, she needed to try to get to know the woman who had made some effort to stay in touch with her throughout the years.
As they began ascending the stairs, her mother glanced back over her shoulder to gaze at Hope.
“You know, I have been waiting for this day for years now,” she confessed in a soft tone. “Ever since you left here, I have counted the days until your eighteenth birthday.”
“Truly?” Hope murmured as Lady Ramsbury turned away again.
If you missed me so terribly, why did you not send for me sooner?
She gave her head a sharp shake, banishing the bitter thought. Though she had never been given a true explanation as to why she had been sent away, she had always gotten the sense from both her aunt, and her mother’s letters, that her banishment had not been Lady Ramsbury’s idea.
“Of course,” the woman replied as they stepped onto the second floor. Turning, they continued up another flight of stairs. “You must know, darling, that despite our separation, your father and I have always loved you dearly.”
A small whisper of doubt tickled the back of her mind, but she forced it away. She let silence fall between them as they made their way to the third floor of the house. When they reached the landing, a single door faced them.
“Here we are,” her mother said, a note of excitement slipping into her tone. She opened the door with a flourish and stepped aside to let Hope enter first.
Crossing the threshold, she came to a sudden stop and stared in disbelief. They had entered a large sitting room, with a marble fireplace, lush furnishings, and windows that nearly reached the ceiling and allowed sunlight to stream into the space. Across from her was another door, open this time to reveal an even larger bedroom beyond.
“What…what is this?” Hope asked, recognizing it was a rather silly question. She did not know what else to say, though, as her shock at the sheer size of the suite appeared to have stolen her wits.
“These are your new chambers,” her mother declared, clapping her hands together. “Do you like them?”
Hope was certain her collection of rooms was bigger than the entirety of the cottage she had shared with her Aunt Beatrice in Wales.
“Do…do these take up the entire floor?” she gasped.
Her mother nodded. “As a matter of fact, they do. We thought you would appreciate the space and privacy. Especially as you…adjust to life in London.”
Hope swallowed against the thick lump that was forming in her throat. She was feeling overwhelmed by everything she had encountered so far; London, her long-absent parents…the ridiculously large rooms that would now be her own.
“Thank…thank you,” she stammered, her cheeks reddening with her growing anxiety.
There was another beat of silence before her mother said, “I thought you and I could go out and do a little shopping. You will need new dresses for the London season, and…”
Hope whirled to face the woman. “Oh, please…not today.”
The words tumbled from her mouth in a rush she could not stop, startling them both.
“That…that is alright,” her mother nodded at length. “You must be tired. It would be better to get some rest, yes?”
Hope released a sigh of relief. “Yes, thank you. I am sorry, there is just so much for me to take in. I do not know if I can handle much more today.”
Her mother’s lips tilted up at the corners, but she could not hide the flash of disappointment in her gaze.
“There is no need to apologize, my dear,” she insisted gently. “I was not thinking of everything that you have been through already. We can save the shopping for another day. I will leave you now so that you can relax and familiarize yourself with your rooms.”
Hope forced a grateful grin. “I do appreciate your understanding.”
“Of course.” Her mother gazed at her a moment, lingering in the room. At length, she released a heavy breath. “Well, then, I will be going. If you need anything, do not hesitate to call.”
Hope nodded. “I won’t. Thank you.”
With one last, long look, her mother finally turned and walked out of the room. Hope watched her go, not moving from where she stood until the door shut firmly behind her. Once she was alone again, she released a heavy breath and felt her shoulders sag.
That could have gone…worse.
It could have gone better, though too. She had expected awkwardness, but she had not fully realized just what it would mean for her to reunite with parents who were almost complete strangers to her. She did not know what to think of them, and worried what they thought of her.
Chewing her bottom lip nervously, Hope began to explore her new rooms. They were truly beautiful and spacious, but they did not feel like home. She moved from the sitting room into the bedroom, with its rich furnishings, large windows, and oriental rugs, never having felt more out of place in her whole life.
Her aunt’s home had been small, but warm and inviting. Her parents had sent them plenty of money through the years to provide Hope with every comfort, but her aunt was a simple woman and Hope had grown to share her simple tastes. She had been a loving caretaker who had provided Hope with a cozy, comfortable home. In comparison, the large townhouse felt a little…cold.
I am too afraid to touch anything for fear of breaking it.
She stood in the middle of her new bedroom and gazed around, feeling an imposter, stepping into someone else’s life. Her chest tightened and she felt a wave of homesickness overwhelm her. Blinking back sudden tears, she turned and blindly ran back out of her rooms and into the hall.
She desperately needed air. Making her way back down to the first floor of the house, she snuck through the hallways, careful not to make any noise as she searched for the kitchen. Someone would notice if she walked out the front door, and she was not interested in being escorted anywhere.
Hope just wanted to be alone.
It was sometime before she managed to find a stairway to the lowest level of the house, where the kitchen was located. There were very few people below, and she was able to slip unnoticed out of a door that opened onto a cobblestone drive. When she was out in the open air, she felt some of the tension leave her shoulders.
Double-checking that no one was following after her, Hope hurried up the drive and through a large gateway to walk the streets of London blissfully alone.
“I am so thrilled that we could meet like this, my Lord. I had begun to lose hope of this ever happening, but your mother was adamant that it would.”
Allan Edington, the Marquess of Pembrooke, gazed at the woman sitting across from him, trying his hardest to keep his expression from showing his absolute boredom.
Lady Christine, the latest in a series of hopeful matches his mother had hoisted on him, was pretty with blonde hair and sparkling green eyes. He was certain many other gentlemen would trip over themselves trying to win her favor.
He, however, was not one of those gentlemen.
Her charm ended with her pretty face. Her personality was dull, and she lacked any kind of true wit. He supposed it was not really her fault that she was so boring, as most young ladies of the ton were not raised to be interesting.
She, like most of those who had come before her, had one simple goal in her mind and that was to become some rich Lord’s wife.
Unfortunately for her, that rich Lord will not be me.
He forced a polite smile, and nodded in response to her words.
“Yes, well, my mother can be very…persuasive.”
She had brow-beaten him into attending the meeting with Lady Christine, even going so far as to arrange their setting of the tearoom so that he couldn’t escape the obligation. His mother was determined he should settle down and start a family, whether he liked it or not.
He shot a look toward the nearby table his mother occupied, as if on guard, pretending to read a book. He would rather be reading one of his beloved romance novels than listen to Lady Christine. Allan knew, though, that his mother was not truly reading, but hanging onto their every word.
As much as he loved his mother, and he did as any good son should, her overbearing nature was a constant annoyance that often made things between them tense.
She arched her brow but did not turn her gaze from her book. Allan fought the urge to roll his eyes as he returned his attention to Lady Christine.
“Will you be attending Lady Walden’s soiree later this week?” she asked, her tone far too cheerful for such a mundane question.
Allan shook his head. “No, I declined her invitation as I have another engagement that day.”
Her face momentarily fell with her disappointment, but she quickly rallied and pasted her sugar-sweet smile back in place.
“Oh, well that is a shame. It should be a rather interesting gathering if Lady Margaret is there. You of course have heard the rumors that have been flying about her, have you not? Why, it is rather shocking and I would hardly believe it myself if I did not know her quite so well…”
She prattled on about Lady Margaret’s perceived slights against society, but Allan stopped listening. He gazed around the crowded dining room with a sigh, in no way interested in her gossip, though she would been more than willing to share all that she knew for the past hour.
Lady Christine is not a great keeper of secrets, it seems.
Frustration bubbled up in Allan as the woman continued talking, completely oblivious to his growing ire. That was the problem he continuously encountered, though. The women his mother forced him to socialize with were never actually interested in him, they were only ever interested in his title and wealth, and in cases such as Lady Christine, the sound of their own voice.
As if she could sense his growing frustration, his mother turned her head to shoot him a look of clear warning. He met her gaze and held it defiantly, not bothering to hide his displeasure. In fact, he hoped she could see clearly how very uninterested in Lady Christine he was.
His mother scowled, and he knew she understood him quite perfectly. Turning his gaze back to Lady Christine, he saw she remained oblivious to the battle of wills that had just taken place next to her. Allan could not actually be sure she had stopped talking long enough to breathe since she had started her pointless story.
I am sure that she will make some gentleman a very lovely wife…I should release her so she can go and find him.
“My Lady,” he said, interrupting her continued speech. She blinked at him in surprise, falling silent. “I am sorry to cut you off in the middle of what I am sure is a fascinating account of Lady Margaret’s shortcomings, but I just remembered another engagement I must be getting to.”
Lady Christine gazed at him in confusion, and then there was a flash of frustration in her eyes that she quickly hid under a wide smile.
“Oh, are you certain my Lord? We were having such an enjoyable time.”
Allan crooked a brow but offered what he knew was a charming grin.
“I am afraid that it cannot be helped. Believe me, it pains me to have to leave you so soon, but…duty calls.”
Before she could voice any objection, he pushed to his feet. Meeting his mother’s narrow-eyed glare, he winked then reached into his jacket to pull out a small wad of money. Raising his arm, he signaled their waiter over.
The man hurried to his side.
“Is there something you need, my Lord?”
Holding out his money, Allan slapped it into the waiter’s hand and replied, “This should cover our table, as well as that lady’s over there.”
He indicated toward his mother, whose face was growing red with fury.
“My…my Lord, this is more than enough to cover both bills,” the waiter stammered.
“Keep the rest for yourself,” Allan said, patting the man on his shoulder. Turning back to Lady Christine, he added, “Good day, my Lady.”
Before she could reply, however, he was already striding across the dining room to make his way out of the tearoom. Once outside, he stopped on the edge of the street and released a heavy breath.
Mother will certainly make me pay for that later.
It was a small price to pay to escape that stifling encounter, however. He gazed around, noting that it was starting to turn into evening. Deciding he could use a drink, he turned and began wandering toward a tap room he often frequented at the end of the street.
I should avoid returning home for a little while…give mother some time to get over the worst of her pique.
Allan knew his rejection of her latest pick for his wife-to-be would not deter her from her goal of seeing him married and settled. If anything, it would likely make her more determined to find someone to bind him with. Many people thought he had inherited his stubborn streak from his father, but the truth was that Catherine Edington, Duchess of Wimbley, was where he had truly learned his bullheadedness.
The question is whose will be stronger…hers, or mine?
Allan was so caught up in his musings that he did not notice the small figure turning the corner up just ahead of him. He collided with the person, and the wind was knocked from his lungs.
“Oh! I beg your pardon,” a soft voice hurriedly said. “I…I am so sorry, I was not watching where I was going.”
Allan glanced down to see a head of auburn hair jumping back from him. He paused, staring into a pair of eyes as stunningly blue as a cloudless sky. His heart beat a bit harder as he took in the beautiful woman he had run into.
Blinking, he realized he was staring at her and had not responded to her stammered apology.
“No…no need to apologize,” he finally managed to say, his voice tight as his mind fought its way out of the confused fog that had settled over it. “I was not paying attention myself, so I am equally at fault.”
The woman was wringing her hands together nervously. She was young and her dress wasn’t what he would call fashionable. It was a little drab, but somehow it did not deter from how naturally lovely she was.
He glanced behind her and saw that she was apparently alone. Allan frowned. It was going to be dark soon, which was an awfully risky time for a young lady to be out and about by herself.
“Miss, where do you come from?” he asked, thinking perhaps he should escort her home.
Her gaze saddened for a moment before she answered, “Wales.”
Fighting a grin, Allan replied, “No, you misunderstand…where are you staying? It is not safe for a young lady to be on these streets past sunset. I would be happy to escort you home if you would like.”
Her gaze widened with surprise. “Oh! I suppose I did not think…back home, I was always…” She stopped and took a deep breath before offering him a sheepish half-grin. “I suppose you must think me terribly naïve?”
He gave her a gentle smile. “Perhaps a little, but I do not mean that in any way as an insult. I would simply advise more caution in the future as you wander these streets.”
Her expression was soft and grateful, and his heart thumped loudly in his chest again. She was oddly charming in an innocent, trusting, sort of way. It was so different from the practiced and jaded charm of the ladies of the ton.
This girl was genuine and displayed her every thought and emotion plainly on her face. He found he rather liked that. It was refreshing not having to guess what was truly going on in her mind.
He realized he was staring at her again and quickly cleared his throat to say, “Would you like me to escort you back to wherever it is you are staying then?”
She shook her head, her smile wide. “That will not be necessary, my Lord, but I do appreciate your concern. It is not far. I will be able to get back before dark.”
He was oddly disappointed that she had turned down his offer. He wanted to spend more time talking to her, which in and of itself was a shocking turn of events.
She gazed around briefly before returning her attention to him.
“I suppose I should be going, my Lord. Thank you again for your concern.” The woman curtsied, somewhat clumsily. Turning, she began to walk back the way she had come.
Allan blinked, somewhat caught off guard by her sudden departure. His mind scrambled to come up with something to say to stop her. Before he could get any words out, however, she had turned the corner and was gone.
Allan stared at where she had vanished from view.
What a wonderfully odd woman.
He could not help the quirk of his lips as he recalled the entirety of their brief but memorable encounter. Allan could not recall ever having met a lady who intrigued him quite so much as that woman did.
I wonder where she has gone to.
For a moment, he was tempted to follow after her, but then thought better of it. That would surely frighten her, which was the opposite effect he wanted to have on her. With a sigh, he decided it was best if he just continued on his way and hope that he happened upon her again in the future.
As he moved along the street musing over the captivating woman, he suddenly realized something and came to a stuttering stop. He had been so caught up in their conversation, he had not remembered to ask for her name. Releasing a groan of frustration, he mentally berated himself.
You fool. How will you ever find her again now!
Mumbling under his breath, he continued on his way, his thoughts focused on bright blue eyes and a sweet, naïve smile.
Several days passed as Hope became used to her new surroundings. London was exciting and overwhelming. She had ventured out a few more times, though she did not sneak out again and was always accompanied by a chaperone.
She kept her distance from her parents while she adjusted. In part, she struggled to learn how to interact with them. Her mother made attempts to connect with her, offering to be her escort when she went out, or inviting her to spend time in the garden, but Hope declined each time as gently and politely as she could.
It was not that she did not want to get to know them, particularly her mother, but she was…cautious. A deep dark part of her feared she would grow attached to them, and then they would send her away again.
It was likely an unreasonable fear, but since she still did not know why she had been sent away the first time, she could not be sure that she would not make some error that would push her right back into banishment.
However, she began to feel guiltier and guiltier with each look of hurt that flashed across her mother’s expression when Hope turned her down. Deep down, she knew that the Countess genuinely cared for her and wanted to build a relationship with her. Hope was making that difficult and causing her pain as a result.
Nearly a week after she had arrived at her parent’s house, Hope made the decision to extend an olive branch. As she made her way down from her room one morning, she twisted her hands together nervously as she took deep steading breaths to calm her nerves. Unlike the previous days where she would do all she could to avoid running into her mother or father, Hope began to seek out the Countess.
When she did not find the woman in the parlor, dining room, or library, she made her way out to the glass covered greenhouse that stood next to the perfectly tended garden. The Countess, she had discovered, had a talent for gardening and very much enjoyed spending time with her precious flowers. Hope thought it was an admirable quality for the woman to possess.
She slipped inside the greenhouse as quietly as possible and found the Countess leaning over a row of potted roses. The plants were small, clearly early in their growth, and she was carefully inspecting and trimming off bits and leaves that were browned and wilting.
Hope did not wish to disturb her while she went about her delicate task, so she stood silently and watched the Countess work. There was a confidence in the woman’s movements that Hope had not witnessed in any of the handful of their brief interactions.
Most of the time, her mother seemed timid and hesitant, not only when she spoke to Hope, but when she was around her husband as well.
After several minutes, the Countess tensed, and Hope wondered if she could sense she was no longer alone. Glancing over her shoulder, her mother’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Oh! Darling, I did not hear you come in.” She quickly straightened and turned to face Hope as she wiped her hands clean on the apron she wore. She looked nervous, but offered her daughter a shaky smile. “Is there something I can help you with?”
Hope was feeling a small amount of anxiety as well, but she took a deep breath and met her mother’s gaze.
“I…I was wondering if you were busy today?”
Her mother blinked, her expression one of cautious hope.
“I…I am not busy at all. Why? Is there something you would like to do?”
Hope licked her lips before answering, “I…I have noticed that there is a level of finery in fashion here in London that I do not currently possess. Would…would you be willing to come out to some shops with me to order new dresses? I am afraid I might prove an easy target for tailors looking to take advantage of me as far as prices are concerned.”
Her mother’s face lit up momentarily with unguarded excitement and relief, but she then quickly masked it, though she could not completely rid herself of her smile. Hope’s stomach twisted with guilt, knowing she had deprived the woman of this moment for days.
I wonder if she has wished for this all these years? To have me seek her help with something as ordinary as clothing?
“I would love to go out with you and help you,” her mother gushed. “I have been wanting to acquire you a new wardrobe, but I did not want to get you anything you would not like.”
“That was considerate of you,” Hope softly responded. She felt a pulse of tenderness in her chest and berated herself in her head for causing her mother such grief. “Would you be able to leave within the hour?”
The Countess nodded eagerly. “Oh, yes, that will not be a problem at all. I will just go get cleaned up a bit and meet you in the foyer when you are ready.”
Hope nodded with a small, shy grin and turned to walk out of the greenhouse. She hurried back into the house and up to her room, struck with the sudden desire to look the best she could on their outing as well.
She wanted to keep that pretty smile on her mother’s face for as long as she possibly could.
Several hours later, Hope and her mother were exiting a dress shop, their arms laden with packages. She could not help the wide grin splitting her face as she carried all their purchases in the direction of their carriage. Hope had owned many lovely dresses growing up, but wanting to please her mother, she had allowed the Countess to choose most of the fabrics and patterns, so they were more extravagant than any Hope would have picked for herself…the dresses they had walked out with as well as the even more beautiful ones they had ordered…it was almost overwhelming.
She would look the part of a proper Englishwoman of high class and birth, even if she did not truly feel like one. It was not truly the clothing and baubles that made her feel as though she were walking on air, however. It was her mother.
Hope had not expected for them to enjoy each other’s company quite so much. It was a surprise, albeit not an unpleasant one. She found that the Countess was rather good-humored when she was relaxed and was quick to laugh.
They had a great deal in common as well. They shared a deep love of books, and when Hope confessed to almost always carrying one with her, her mother had not scoffed at her like it was a ridiculous thing to do. She had actually understood why Hope would feel compelled to hold onto a volume at all times.
“I hope that you have enjoyed yourself, my dear,” her mother suddenly said, snapping her from her thoughts. “Is there anything else you want or need? Do not hesitate to tell me; I will happily procure whatever you wish.”
Hope shook her head with a giggle. “Believe me, this is more than enough. I do not know how I will manage to wear all of this as it is.”
“Oh, do not worry about that, darling,” her mother assured her. “During the season, there are so many balls, parties, and soirees, you will soon feel as though your wardrobe is lacking again.”
Hope could not believe how that could possibly be true, but she was excited to find out. She was also rather nervous, if she were being completely honest. Her aunt had warned her that while London society could be glamorous and romantic, it could also be treacherous.
When every well-bred young lady was vying for the attention of the few truly eligible young men, it could often be easier to make enemies over friends. It was not that Hope was particularly worried about snatching the attention of some wealthy gentleman, as she was not all that interested in forming a match. She knew it was her duty, and she would eventually have to play the game to an extent, but it simply had not been a priority at the forefront of her mind.
She just did not want to make a fool of herself.
The two women were closing in on their carriage when a window display caught Hope’s attention. She came to a stop and stared at the most beautiful blue fabric she had ever seen. It was so smooth and rich in its color…just like the ocean.
“That color would look beautiful on you,” her mother said, startling her. She had not realized the Countess had stopped as well. Turning, she met Hope’s gaze. “It matches your eyes.”
“Really?” Hope breathed.
“We should have a dress made for you from it!”
Hope’s heart hammered with excitement at the possibility, but her gut twisted with guilt in the same moment.
“I…I could not possibly…you have already bought me so much…”
And I would never have dared to hope that we would spend this time together…that we would get along quite so well…
Her mother shook her head. “I insist. That color is simply too perfect for you to pass on. Come, let us go inside. I have never been to this dressmaker myself, but I have heard that they are very good.”
Hope did not need more convincing than that. They entered the shop together and met with the seamstress, who took her measurements and quickly sketched out a design that took Hope’s breath away. She stared at the picture in awe as her mother finalized the order and gave the seamstress her deposit.
“Come along, dear,” her mother said with a chuckle when Hope lingered, staring at the dress’ design. “We should be getting back home now.”
Blinking, Hope turned her gaze to the Countess and felt as though she were coming out of a daze.
“Yes, Mother,” she replied, hurrying to follow after the woman. Just as they reached the front of the shop, the door opened.
“Oh, I beg your pardon,” a deep voice said, stepping back out of the way of the Countess. Hope frowned. There was something…familiar about that voice.
Her mother and her boxes were blocking the man from view, but as soon as her mother stepped out through the doorway, a small gasp escaped Hope’s lips.
It was him!
The man she had run into in the street the other day! Her heart began to hammer with equal parts excitement and anxiety. She wondered if he would recognize her, but then realized if he did, he might let slip her secret escapade.
Hope did not know how her mother would react to her sneaking out on her first day in London. She glanced toward the Countess, afraid that the revelation might put a strain on the bond they had been forming throughout the day. Returning her gaze to the gentleman, she found he was starting to turn toward her as her mother passed by him.
I cannot let him see me!
She ducked behind her boxes and tried to hide herself as she made her way out the door. As she moved past him, however, she could not help her curiosity and peeked around her packages, hoping to get just a glimpse of his face.
When her eyes locked with his, she let out a startled squeak and quickly looked away, hurrying forward before he could say a word.
As Hope followed after her mother, she could have sworn she felt his eyes on her and she dared not look back to see if he was really watching her. Catching up to her mother, she felt her cheeks flush when the Countess glanced her way.
“Are you all right, sweetheart?” her mother asked. “You look rather startled.”
Unable to help herself, Hope murmured, “Do you…do you know who that gentleman was whom we just passed?”
Brows furrowed, her mother glanced back over her shoulder before Hope could stop her. She flinched, praying the gentleman had already gone inside and did not see the Countess staring at him. Her mother returned her gaze to Hope and offered a dainty shrug.
“I am afraid I do not know him, dear. He was rather handsome, though, was he not?”
Blinking rapidly, Hope replied, “Was he? I…I had not noticed.”
Her mother gave her a knowing look, but did not say another word on the matter. Hope was grateful, feeling shy and embarrassed to have her mother know a gentleman had caught her eye. Not that he had caught her eye…no, no that was not it.
She was simply curious about him, that was all. It was such a strange happenstance that they would run into each other again, of course she would be caught off guard and flustered by him. Still, she could not help but feel disappointed.
He was really quite handsome. Tall, with dark brown hair, and eyes that reminded her of warm chocolate. His clothes were finely made and tailored, clearly fashionable, and expensive.
Still, despite her disappointment, she determined to push him from her mind.
It was not as though they were likely to see each other a third time.
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