About the book
He needs to find her before it’s too late. Before she disappears forever…
Sophia’s life changes rather quickly. After she’s sent to live with her extended family and cruel uncle, she never expected the abuse that would follow. Desperate for a taste of freedom, she runs away for just an hour, stumbling across a well-bred and charming Duke; the only one who can save her from demise…
Duke Henry needs to marry. Fast. Forced to find a suitable match in order to claim his inheritance, he decides to focus on just that. Until he meets a woman in need of saving, a beautiful and delicate wallflower who won’t even look him in the eyes…
Determined to reveal her identity, Henry does everything in his power to find Sophia. But what he finds is worse than he expected. And he needs to act fast, before he loses her forever…
Sophia galloped through the woods as the wind whipped into her face. Her long, black hair whipped behind her after she’d released it from the confines of the bun she usually wore it in. It was unheard of, unacceptable even for a lady to ride alone and with her hair in so wild a state. However, as she so often did, she’d snuck out and ridden away after her parents departed for dinner. And now, it was just them, her and Oliver, her horse. Nobody could see. She was truly free.
Not that her parents would have minded. Her clandestine rides, unaccompanied by the usually ever-present chaperone, weren’t exactly a secret between her and her parents. While her mother didn’t approve, she turned a blind eye. Her father, the more indulgent of her parents, would not only let her get away with them, but he also sometimes supported her in her activities.
Today, for instance, he’d whispered in her ear as he bade her farewell for the night and advised her to visit the saddle room if she intended to ride as a surprise awaited her there.
And what a surprise it had been.
A beautiful new saddle with her initials burned into it had hung there, in place of the old, worn one. Of course, he hadn’t given her the saddle solely to use during her night rides. She was meant to use it when the two of them went hunting next.
Sophia smiled as she thought of the many hunts she and her father had gone on over the years. Being an expert at shooting bow and arrows wasn’t the sort of accomplishment that would get a lady a husband, but it was one of their most cherished activities.
She knew that her parents were lenient beyond belief compared to some of her friends. Other ladies of the high society would be threatened with a stint at finish school or sent to their chambers indefinitely for defying convention and riding unaccompanied.
But then again, her parents allowed her to get away with a great many things – because she was their only child. They’d tried for years to have a baby, but until Sophia’s arrival, they’d been burdened with nothing but stillbirths and lost pregnancies. The same was true after Sophia’s birth. As such, both of her parents allowed her freedoms usually unheard of.
She inhaled the fresh evening air. A hint of pine wafted into her nose, and she found herself momentarily reminded of the previous Christmas Eve when she and her mother decorated the whole house with holly, mistletoe, and ivy.
Up ahead, they came to a fork in the road, and she slowed her horse.
“Left or right, Oliver? What’d you say?”
She patted the horse’s black flank. Left led back to her home. By rights, she ought to have turned back because she’d been riding for a half-hour already, and Mrs. Lewisham would soon want to call her for supper. However, to the right, a lovely wide path led to Lordendale Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in Hertfordshire. Under the bright light of the moon, it would look lovely and peaceful.
She glanced left and right and then directed Oliver toward the lake. There would be no harm in visiting the lake for a few minutes. She’d just claim she’d gone for a walk, as she so often did.
I do not like lying to Mrs. Lewisham or Mama, but I can’t give up these evening rides. It gives me such a thrill to be out in nature.
She galloped along the path she’d ridden not too long ago with her father as they went hunting for pheasant and came to a stop when the glistening waters of the lake came into view. As her boots hit the ground, Sophia jumped down, and mud splattered up her green riding habit.
Ignoring the mishap, she turned and ran a hand along the lovely leather saddle, the gift her father hinted at. She rode so often with him that her old saddle was already worn. This new one was shiny even under the stars, and the smell of new leather emitted from it still. How she looked forward to using it when she and her father rode out next to go hunting.
This is why I do not wish to go to London. There’s no hunting in the city – lest one wishes to hunt for a man.
And for the time being, hunting for a man was the farthest from her mind. At nine-and-ten, she was still far enough away from the dreaded shelf to push off the idea of courting, though she knew her mother was eager for her to make a match.
While her horse stood behind her and grazed on a patch of grass in the corner, Sophia stood and looked out over the water. The moon and stars reflected on the surface of the water, and the oak trees in the distance weaved peacefully back and forth. It was a quiet, quaint night, and if she could have, she would have remained here for hours, allowing her thoughts to travel.
Alas, she knew she had to get back. She’d been away too long as it was and–
“Over here!” A man’s voice drifted to her, and she squinted to where it had come from. Alas, she couldn’t see. The lake bent around to the left, and trees obscured her view. The faint flicker of torches was visible amid the trees, and soon, another voice joined and then another.
“Someone’s inside!” A deep male voice called out, and then the sound of people rushing into the water followed. A knot formed in Sophia’s stomach as she considered what to do. Someone might be in trouble. The road narrowed near the lake, and this would not have been the first time an accident was forced there. Locals had no trouble navigating the road, but strangers often underestimated the space allowed them.
She stood from one foot to the other. It would be highly improper to show herself without a chaperone, but at the same time, if there had been an accident and help was needed, she could not stand by. Sophia pressed her lips together and shook her head. Determined, she placed her foot into the stirrup and mounted Oliver again.
“Come, good boy. We have to help. I’ll take my punishment if I must, but if someone comes to harm when I could have helped, I’d never be able to live with myself,” she declared and dug her heel into the horse’s flanks. As they flew down the path, the lights of the assorted torches guided her way. Her heart dropped when they burst through the clearing and came out on the road.
There had been an accident, a terrible one. In the shallow water, just off the road, lay a carriage on its side. The huge wooden wheel stuck in the air and spun in the wind. Two men were atop the carriage, and a third had halfway disappeared into the interior of the carriage; only his legs were visible, secured in place by the other two men. On the riverbank, a fourth man bent over a cloaked figure – the coachman, no doubt. His uniform made it clear. Another man lay beside him, of this one, only the feet were visible as the men had covered the body with a coat. She shuddered as she realized these men – the one under the coat certainly – were dead.
“What happened?” she called out, and the man looked up. She recognized him at once. He was the miller’s son, one of her father’s tenants. Even in the light of the torch, she could see that he paled when he saw her. Sophia jumped off the horse and hurried toward him just as the boy got up. He couldn’t be more than a few years older than her.
“Lady Sophia, you ought not to be here. You ought to return home. This is no place for a lady,’ he stammered.
“I was riding. What happened? Can I help? I can ride back to Saxby Manor and fetch–”
“Balderdash!” One of the men called from behind, and her head snapped around. There, atop the carriage, the miller stood and stared at her open-mouthed. “Get away, Lady Sophia,” he shouted and leaped off the carriage and waded through the water.
What was the matter? Why was everyone so horrified to see her? It wasn’t proper for her to be here unaccompanied, but such a reaction–
“Michael, take her away,” the miller called to his son, but just as the boy stepped forth to lead her away, she saw movement behind the miller. His companion, the one previously half disappeared into the carriage, emerged accompanied by much grunting and groaned. When his form became visible, she saw that he’d heaved someone out of the carriage. It was a lady.
“No,” Sophia mumbled when she recognized the drenched puce-colored gown. “No–” She rushed forth past the horse and surged into the water as the turban tumbled from atop the woman’s head and splashed into the dark water below.
Her heart dropped to her knees as hot tears filled her eyes. This couldn’t be… but it was– As the men heaved the body down, she recognized the golden adornment on the black carriage. It sparkled in the moonlight still.
“Mama!” She cried out and was about to rush to her when the miller opened his arms and stopped her.
“Lady Sophia, it’s too late. They crashed. They were submerged too long. It’s too late,” the older man said soothingly as the water reached up to Sophia’s waist.
“No–” she muttered as the men carried her mother to the shore, and she realized… the miller was right. It was too late.
Her mother was dead. And when she looked back at the carriage, the man’s words hit her hard. They had been submerged for too long. Her eyes traveled back to the bodies on the roadside. They. The man beside the coachman was her father.
They were submerged.
They couldn’t be saved.
They were gone.
Her parents. Gone. Forever.
Six months later…
Sophia made her way down the stairs of her home, her black dress sweeping across the marble floor, when she spotted Mrs. Lewisham coming toward her.
“Lady Sophia, you look lovely this morning, but why the black dress? The mourning period is over now. Surely you cannot wait to get back to wearing your pretty dresses?” The woman smiled at her, but her dark eyes were weary.
Sophia shook her head. “I cannot, Mrs. Lewisham. I put on the Pomona-green round dress I used to love so much; you know the one? With the poofy sleeves?”
“Aye, the one your mother brought back from Edinburgh last year. You look lovely in that one. A true diamond of the first water, I declare.”
Sophia shook her head. “You are very kind, Mrs. Lewisham. In any case, I couldn’t bear leaving my chamber. It felt ever so wrong. Can you understand that?”
The old woman gave a short nod. “I can. When my William passed, I felt it near impossible to come out of mourning. One grows so used to it. It’s almost like it wraps one in armor. Every morning, you put on the same black clothing, do the same things, and act the way it’s expected. It’s safe. But it’s a false safety, for it must come to an end. And for a young one such as yourself more so than for an old lady like me.”
Sophia smiled. She loved Mrs. Lewisham dearly. She’d been their housekeeper for so many years. Sophia couldn’t imagine Saxby Manor without her. She’d been her mother’s lady’s maid and had taken the post of housekeeper when the previous lady passed away suddenly. Ever since then, she’d run Saxby Manor with a firm but kind hand. To Sophia, she’d always been so much more than a housekeeper.
Lacking siblings or any close family nearby, Sophia found herself much closer to the family servants than usual. None of her friends considered their servants anything more than a convenience to be replaced when needed. To Sophia, they were part of her extended family. Her parents hadn’t just been lenient with her; they’d also not abide by the strict separation between nobility and those below stairs. She knew it hadn’t been their intention, but the way they ran their household had ensured Sophia received some much-needed support these past few months.
For they’d been dark months. She hadn’t left her bed for three weeks after the death of her parents, and ever since then, she’d kept to herself. Her uncle, the new Duke of Saxby, had visited Saxby Manor several times and called on her, but thus far, he hadn’t moved in – a circumstance that would change this weekend. He’d surely expect her to be out of mourning, too, as he was. Or would he?
“I don’t know, Mrs. Lewisham. Perhaps six months was not long enough for me to mourn. Don’t you think I ought to stay in mourning for another six? Half a year for each parent? Do you think my uncle would allow it?”
The old woman placed a hand on her arm, rubbing it gently. “I can’t speak to what His Grace will want you to do, Lady Sophia. But I should think your parents would not want that. If nothing else, they’d want you moving forward with your life. I’m sure your uncle will want you to come to London with him when he goes back. Meet a few eligible gentlemen?”
“I’m in no mood to meet anyone, Mrs. Lewisham.”
“Well, you say that now. But it’s your uncle’s responsibility to find you a match, and you never know, meeting the prince you’ve been dreaming of for so long might just restore your happiness.”
Sophia sighed. She did not care to go to London, not even if the man of her dreams waited there for her. She couldn’t picture herself dancing or going to the theater, let alone laugh and smile again.
“I can’t see ever being happy again. How can I smile and think about a future when my entire family is gone?”
The heaviness in her heart hadn’t lightened in the past six months. If anything, it grew even worse. Nights were the hardest. She’d lay awake, looking at the moon and the stars that sprinkled the sky, and imagine her parents. She hoped they were up there somewhere, looking down on her and watching out for her.
“Lady Sophia?” Mrs. Lewisham’s gentle voice drew her out of her thoughts. “You’re not all alone. You’ve got me, for one. And your uncle, as I said.”
Sophia resumed the walk down the stairs and indicated Mrs. Lewisham to follow.
“My uncle has paid me no mind these past few months, and I fear what he has planned for me. I hardly even know him.” She let her hand glide along the railing as she walked and, at the bottom of the steps, made a turn to the drawing room. It was curious; nothing appeared to have changed in the house. Marble statues of Greek Gods remained as majestic as ever in the hall. The paintings collected from the finest artists on the Continent and the realm hung on every wall, and her mother’s beloved Spanish tapestries also remained.
And yet, the collectors of these pieces were gone. Their life now but a memory. Their legacy was preserved in the things they’d loved. As she passed into the drawing room, she glanced at the pianoforte in the music room beyond. She hadn’t played in months, for her fingers refused to play anything but mournful tunes. It sat under a sheet to protect it from the gathering dust. Dust that no doubt also gathered in her mother’s private drawing room, her father’s library, and his study. However, that would soon be used again.
“Has my uncle arrived?” she asked absent-mindedly as she peered up at a painting of her parents that hung above the fireplace. They looked so young, so regal in their wedding attire. Her mother’s blonde hair looked almost golden against the blue backdrop, and her father’s pale skin and reddish-brown hair stood in stark contrast.
“He has,” Mrs. Lewisham replied. “An hour ago. He’s gone to the stable yard to inspect the condition of his horses. Although I think I hear him now.” The housekeeper walked to the window and looked over the garden that sprawled before them, and nodded. “There he is. Shall I tell him you’re awake?”
Sophia shrugged. “He will want to speak to me now that he intends to live here. I suppose he will share his plans for me.” She ran a hand along the mantle and rubbed her black gloves together. There wasn’t a speck of dust to be found. No wonder. The maids had worked night and day to make sure Saxby Manor was impeccable for the arrival of the new master.
“Trust that whatever decisions your uncle makes for you will be made with your best interest in mind,” Mrs. Lewisham said, but Sophia only scoffed.
“I can only hope so.”
Mrs. Lewisham placed a hand on Sophia’s arm. “He is your father’s brother. He will want to make sure his only niece is looked after.” With that, the woman left, her heavy-set body moved at a slow but determined pace, and then, she disappeared from the drawing room.
Sophia stepped to the window and looked out as behind her, her uncle’s heavy footsteps entered the house, and his muffled voice joined that of Mrs. Lewisham.
She gulped a lungful of air as she heard him walk her way, and then, as he entered, she turned.
“Sophia, it is good to see you,” he said and scrutinized her appearance. “Still in black, I see.”
She curtsied as was proper, given that he was now the Duke of Saxby. “I am uncomfortable in regular clothing. I have switched to half-mourning,” she said and indicated to the navy-blue lace over her black satin dress. He shrugged and indicated for her to sit.
“If it suits your needs. However, you may soon have to change your attire, I’m afraid.”
She sat and tilted her head to one side as she took him in. He was shorter than her father had been, considerably so. She’d always thought it quite comical how different her father and uncle looked. For, while her father was not only tall, but he’d also been broad-shouldered while her uncle was short and what Mrs. Lewisham liked to call ‘stout.’ He didn’t have her father’s reddish hair. His braids were dark brown, the same shade as Sophia’s inherited from his mother, her grandmother. The lady’s portrait hung in the parlor, and Sophia always marveled at how much she looked like the woman.
“I shall change my attire if you wish, although I prefer not,” she replied quietly.
Her uncle took a deep breath as she tried to remember the last time she’d met him. Two months ago? Three? He’d come to Hertfordshire for the reading of her father’s will and departed almost immediately after that. There’d been no communication until a letter arrived, announcing his intention to move into Saxby Manor.
“It will not be up to you, or me, for that matter,” he said and cleared his throat.
Sophia’s jaw grew slack, and she looked at the squinty-eyed man before her.
What is the planning? Not up to me? Has he found a husband for me already? Surely not.
He slipped forward toward the edge of his seat.
“Sophia. There is something we must discuss. As you know, I attended the reading of your father’s will not long ago, and as the heir, I oversee all of the Dukedom’s financial affairs. As such, I am afraid I have to tell you that my brother has engaged in a lot of mismanagement these past few years.”
Sophia sat up straight at this. “My father? No. He was an excellent landowner. All the tenants loved him. Ask the steward, Mr. Havisham. He’ll tell you.”
Her uncle grimaced. “I have, and it pains me to inform you that Mr. Havisham was part of the problem. He’s been relieved of his position. In addition, I’m afraid I will have to make some drastic changes here at Saxby Manor.”
Sophia swallowed hard. She didn’t like the sound of this in the least.
“What kind of changes?”
“As I said, I plan to move here. As of today, this shall be my only address. I have sold my estate in Devon as well as my London address. We will also sell your parent’s former London home to raise funds.”
“Raise funds? Just how dire are our circumstances?” Her breathing quickened as she thought of the many lavish things her parents liked to buy. She’d never once considered that they might suffer struggles because of it, but now it seemed they’d lived beyond their means.
“They are dire indeed, but I will be able to rectify it. I am sure. However, I’m afraid I will have to make cuts. Lands will have to be sold; rents raised, servants let go–”
“No!” Sophia exclaimed and jumped up. “You can’t. The farmers rely on Father’s rates to keep their properties going. Times are hard. The last drought has all but ruined the–”
Her uncle raised his hand. “These matters do not concern you, Sophia. What does concern you is this. There’s no money for a dowry for you.”
Sophia sucked in a gulp of the warm air, unable to speak. No money for a dowry? How could this be?
“Your father made some unfortunate investments and combined with his allowing tenants to remain on lands they can’t pay for; I’m afraid the Estate is all but depleted.”
“Well, then we must work to make it right. I… you can use my inheritance,” Sophia offered. “As long as you promise not to let go any of the servants. They’ve been so loyal and–”
Her uncle got up and sat beside her. The smell of his peppermint comfort wafted into her nose.
“There is no inheritance, child. In fact, there is so little I cannot afford to keep you here. You… I’ve made arrangements for you to move to your godparent's home in Northumberland.”
“My… my godparents? I don’t–” Sophia knew she had three godparents, as the Church of England required for baptism. Her godmother, Lady Marion, had passed away two years ago from consumption. As for the others, she could hardly remember them.
“Lord and Lady Rochester. Lady Rochester was your mother’s dearest friend. I’ve been in correspondence with them, and they are willing to take on the duties of godparents. They shall be your guardians henceforth. Lord Rochester has very kindly agreed to find you a suitable match among his circles. Someone understanding of the circumstance. I shall provide a small dowry from my personal funds. It isn’t much, but the Earl graciously agreed to contribute to ensuring the best possible match. You are to leave in the morning. Mrs. Lewisham has received her orders and is on her way to packing your things–”
Sophia’s body swayed as she felt a fainting spell coming on. She wasn’t the sort of lady to faint, but this news, this horrifying news, knocked her off her feet. If she hadn’t already sat down, she would surely have found herself sprawled across the floor.
“I can’t leave here. This is all I know. Please, Uncle David… I mean, Your Grace. Don’t make me leave here. I’ll work! I’ll take a position as governess. Lady Martindale is expecting a grandchild at any moment. I can speak to her. Please.”
To her dismay, her uncle got up and shook his head. “I’m afraid not, Sophia. Lord Rochester is expecting you. He will find you a good, dependable husband. You’ll see. All will be well.” He turned and marched out of the room when Sophia found the strength to stand again and hurried after him.
“No, please. Uncle! Please.”
He stopped, and she watched as his hands curled into fists before relacing again. His shoulders shook, and he didn’t so much as turn. Instead, he glanced over his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Sophia. I truly am. But this is the best I can do for you. Please, do not waste the opportunity. Goodbye.”
Goodbye? Does he mean to not even wish me farewell?
She opened her mouth to protest once more but understood it was in vain. He’d made up her mind. He was sending her away. And as she stood, surrounded by the splendor amassed by her parents, Sophia understood that this new life she’d become accustomed to was over – and she was faced with an uncertain future.
“Can you believe this will all be yours one day? Lucky lad,” George Willoughby said as he rode beside Henry along the shore of the North Sea, his eyes cast up at the majestic Glaslaw Castle, Henry’s home.
“Not so lucky as all that,” he replied as a dark-brown curl flew into his face. He swiped it back with one quick movement before grabbing the reins of his horse again. “It comes with a bundle of responsibility. My uncle is endlessly vexed by this matter or that. I wish I could go to sea as you will,” he sighed.
His eyes traveled away from the castle and to the sea, where waves with white caps crashed on the shoreline. His heart filled with longing as he saw a ship in the distance, making toward the Continent.
“If it weren’t for the wretched war, I’d be out there, sailing away. I’d go all the way to the Far East if I could, never to return,” he announced. George chuckled and shook his head, his blond hair whipped into his face by the force of the wind.
“You’re a fool, Henry Charles, a fool. You’ve got a Dukedom at your fingertips, or very nearly. Lands upon lands, riches upon riches, a home in London and another in Edinburgh. Carriages, horses, a castle on the seashore. What wouldn’t other men give to have all of that?”
“I don’t have it though, do I? I have the impressive title, but no lands to call my own, no inheritance to squander,” he complained. Unfortunately for Henry, while he’d inherited his father’s title upon the late Duke’s death three years ago, he hadn’t inherited the lands. His father, always a crafty man with an agenda of his own, had made it so that the lands in freehold went to his uncle, Edward Charles, who was to be the guardian of them until Henry saw fit to marry.
A circumstance that had troubled Henry for some time, as he had no desire to marry. At least not until he saw fit to do so. His uncle, on the other hand, appeared very eager for such a marriage to take place soon, as he didn’t enjoy the task of tending to the vast estate that wasn’t truly his.
“Not yet. But you will. As soon as you find yourself a lass who’ll put up with you, you will. Although knowing you as I do, you might end up having to beg your Uncle Edward for a bowl of soup before you make a match.”
George shook his head in dismay. Henry sighed. If he followed his father’s will and married, he’d be, by conservative estimation, the fourth richest man in the realm.
In contrast, his best friend was the second son of a Baron, destined to make his own path in life – and currently, that path was to join the Royal Navy – a dream that Henry was forced to give up long ago.
It wasn’t so much that Henry wanted to join the Navy; it was more that he had a strong desire to see the world outside of England. And the Navy would allow for that. Alternately, he would have traveled the world on his own, India, China, the Americas – the world would be his oyster were it not for that dreaded fact that he was a Duke. A duke in name only, but a Duke nonetheless. He desired to leave these lands, to travel, but that would have meant shirking his responsibilities – and he would never do such a thing. Being Duke was an honor, even though it was tedious.
While he had no control over the lands that came with the Dukedom, he did have a certain influence over his uncle. When it came to matters of the Estate, he often stepped in to aid farmers behind on their rents, or paupers that came seeking assistance.
Uncle Edward at times thought him rather too kind-hearted, but Henry couldn’t help himself. He felt responsible for those he had less than him, those who struggled. If he followed his desires to depart England, his tenants would have to rely on his uncle for aid. And he wasn’t confident his uncle would always grant it without his influence. He let out a deep sigh, causing his friend to slow his horse.
“Come now, old chum. What is it? Did your uncle set upon you again about marriage?”
“The moment I stepped into the breakfast room. Indeed. It is troubling. Usually, he will let the matter go if I attend a few balls or dinners.” He grimaced and shook his head.
“This time, he’s not letting me be. He claims my illness earlier in the year was acquired quite by design, so I’d not have to go to London for the Season.” He shrugged, but George chuckled.
“Wasn’t it? Acquired by design, I mean? For, I will say, your cough seemed to disappear as if by magic whenever we ventured outside together, my friend.” Another wave crashed to shore, and Henry’s horse, a gelding named Sapphire, veered off the path when the water splashed around his legs.
“Let’s ride up the dunes, the waves are too strong here,” Henry said, and then, “as for my illness, I’ll confess to you and you only that I might have made a trifling cold sound a tad more serious than it was. And I might have furthermore bribed Dr. Stephens with a lovely golden pocket watch to recommend that I remain in Bamburgh rather than undertake the arduous trek to London.”
George broke into giggles and shook his head.
“Quite the clever ruse. If you hadn’t employed it, I’m sure your uncle would have made you take your seat in the House of Lords. Say, why is your uncle here? Doesn’t he hold a place in the House of Commons? Parliament is still in session, is it not? My father has yet to return. We do not expect him home for another couple of months.”
Before the details of his father’s will had been revealed, his uncle, his father’s younger brother, had sought to make a name for himself in politics and ran for – and won – a seat in the House of Commons. A position he’d had to neglect due to the death of his brother and his new responsibilities. Perhaps, Henry pondered, this was also in part why he was so eager for Henry to marry.
“It was to end July 22nd. Still is. Uncle Edward decided it was more important to find me a wife. Not that I’m not happy to see him – if it weren’t for his insistence I marry.” He rolled his eyes as the horses struggled up the sandy dunes. “He’s employed a matchmaker. I’m to meet her tomorrow,” he huffed, eliciting a grunt from George.
“Perdition! A matchmaker? That’s… you have my condolences, for I had to meet with one not long ago, and it was quite dreadful.”
This was news to Henry, who cocked his head to the side. “You? I thought your father wanted you to get a maritime commission first before considering marriage.”
“It was for my brother, Paul. He roped me into sitting with him as the matchmaker went over his options and I couldn’t get away. Truly, I’d rather have joined the battle of Waterloo than sit in on the interview,” he rolled his eyes and Henry chuckled heartily.
“Alas, I failed to make my escape and was thus subjected to an endless array of cards containing the information of various young ladies. So many, I felt as though I had inadvertently stumbled into Mrs. Farnsworth’s finish school on enrollment day.”
“Stop,” Henry said, his shoulders bouncing up and down in amusement at his friend’s picturesque tale.
“No, it is true. It was rather eye-opening. One can say what sort of features one prefers, blonde, brown, black, ginger – and what color eyes. What sort of pastimes the lady ought to engage and, of course, what her dowry is like. Paul was all for it. I, on the other hand, am not inclined to employ such schemes. Fortunately, I shall not be pressured into a marriage I do not want. Not as long as my brother doesn’t stupidly stick his spoon to the wall early.” He grinned, but Henry’s stomach clenched.
He had no younger brothers, or sisters for that matter. And even if he did, he couldn’t pass on the birthright – or as he thought of it, birth burden – of becoming Duke one day. He was stuck with it. What he wouldn’t do was engage in a marriage he didn’t want. Certainly not one selected for him by some wrinkly old matchmaker who cared for nothing but what looked good in theory. He’d courted ladies that appeared a good match. They’d bored him, each and every one.
In the distance, the sound of his Pembroke Welsh corgis barking made him smile. Henry directed the horse toward the retaining wall and glanced down into the keep below. When a shout of dismay traveled up to his ears.
He dismounted and looked down into the courtyard and almost fell out of his boots. Down below, Mr. Parker, the gardener, raced across the grass, his hand held high in the air while Daisy and Masters raced after him.
“Parker!” Henry hollered. “Did you bring a bacon sandwich with you again? I warned you the dogs can’t resist the smell!”
The gardener paused and peered up at him.
“I know, Your Grace. It slipped my mind and… No!” he shouted, but it was too late. Daisy had leaped forth and slammed into the back of the gardener’s knees, toppling him forward. The moment Parker landed on the grass, the sandwich flew from his hand and both dogs made quick work of it.
“Faith, look at him!” George roared with laughter as the gardener sat up and brushed the grass from his trousers while the dogs devoured his dinner.
“What did I tell you, old fellow?” Henry called down tears of laughter streaming down his face.
“Your Grace. Call them off, I beg of you,” the gardener pleaded, but Henry knew it was too late. There would be nothing left of the meal but the spinach leaves.
“I do apologize, Parker. Why do you not venture into the kitchen and ask Mrs. Mutter for a bowl of stew and bread? And have her give you a slice of my plumb pudding. Two. To compensate,” Henry hollered while the gardener raised his arms and rapidly dropped them on his sides before hurrying away.
The dogs, meanwhile, finished their meal and then rolled in a beam of sunshine, utterly pleased with themselves.
He loved little more than running through the forest with Daisy and Masters, his two pet corgis. If he wasn’t in danger of running into his uncle, he would have suggested taking them for a run through the marsh; after their hearty meal, they could certainly use it. Alas, they could not. Instead, he pointed toward the path by the forest up ahead.
“Shall we take the long road back to your home?”
George shrugged. “I suppose. I see you’re trying to avoid returning home.”
“For now. Uncle Edward is meeting with Lord Rochester regarding one thing or another, and after they meet, he always has a need for a strong sherry or three.”
George let out a peal of laughter at this. Everyone knew that a meeting with Lord Rochester hardly ever ended well and was most certainly strenuous on the nerves. Rochester, their nearest neighbor whose estate started just beyond the forest, was an irksome fellow of ill-temper. And one Henry was always eager to avoid.
“Did he bring his daughter?” George suddenly asked, drawing Henry’s attention.
“Which one? Hasn’t he got three of them?”
George beamed, “Hester, the pretty one with the thick black hair and blue eyes.”
Henry shrugged. He didn’t know Rochester’s daughters well. They were not of high enough standing to draw his uncle’s attention. Uncle Edward was determined that he marry someone of equal standing, and if he had his way, they would not associate with Rochester in any way – least of all by marriage.
“Jove, I do not know. And I shan’t enquire after any lady lest I remind my uncle of his desire to marry me off Not that he’d forget, anyhow.”
They made a right on the main road when a carriage came toward them. Henry frowned and squinted to see the coat of arms. It was half-blue, half-white with a lion and a dove above a harp. He wasn’t familiar with the coat of arms and doubted it was from the area. One of the things his father always made sure of was that they could recognize the coats of arms of their neighbors – this wasn’t one of them.
As they passed, he caught a glimpse inside the carriage and spotted the pale face of a young girl leaning against the window on a little red pillow. Her hair appeared dark, so dark he would have sworn it was the color of ember. Her skin was as pale as the cliffs he’d seen at Dover. He craned his neck as the carriage passed, and just then, her eyes blinked open, and she sat up. He strained to take a longer look at her, but the carriage passed too quickly for him to see.
“Who was that?” George asked as he rode up beside him
“I don’t know. Did you see her? The girl inside?” Henry asked without taking his eyes off the carriage.
“No, but you certainly did. You’re as wide-eyed as my sisters at the sight of the Twelfth Day cake.”
Henry heard his friend’s voice, but his mind was occupied. Just who was this young lady? Whose carriage was this? And why had she captivated him so?
It must be my Uncle Edward and his constant attention to any young lady in my vicinity that has me so acutely aware of any lady I do not yet know. Well, if she is someone who stays in the area, I am sure he will make it so I’ll meet her.
He shook his head and continued the playful banter with his best friend, and by the time he returned home, he had almost forgotten all about the mysterious carriage and its occupant. It wasn’t until he happened to ride past the same area again on his way home that his thoughts traveled back to the girl and her lovely eyes.
It wasn’t often that strangers appeared in their part of the country. It was a lovely area, and Bamburgh itself saw a fair number of visitors, but the roads near his estate weren’t often traveled on, not unless they were used by his family, Lord Rochester’s, or their tenants.
He shook his head, puzzled once more, and then directed Sapphire across the glen and toward Glaslaw Castle. The castle rose into the afternoon sky in an eerie yet majestic manner. The oldest structure in the area by several hundred years, it was beautiful to look at, and if it didn’t represent the life Henry so badly wanted to get away from, he might have been in awe of his home as well.
As it was, it was nothing more than a symbol of the future he’d never escape, no matter how hard he tried. He rode across the small bridge that stretched over the moat and into the castle’s keep. At the stable yard, he dismounted and headed toward the front door when the door flew open, and his uncle exited, Lord Rochester at his side.
Henry darted behind a pillar, unwilling to darken his day by having to converse with his neighbor. He peered past the pillar as the two men before him bade each other farewell and leaned against the cool stone as a sigh of relief escaped him.
However, just as he thought he’d escaped his uncle’s scrutiny, a deep, booming voice called out.
“Henry Charles, I see you there, hiding from your responsibility.”
Henry let out a sigh and emerged from his hiding spot.
“As I have nothing but a title thus far and am not in charge of my own lands, it is hardly my responsibility to appease Rochester,” he argued, but his uncle shook his head.
“It is your duty as my nephew and as Duke to assist me when I am caught in such a dreadful situation. And believe you me, any meeting with Rochester is dreadful. I pity his poor wife.” His uncle motioned for Henry to join him, and they entered the interior of the castle. The heavy red carpet swallowed their footsteps as they walked toward the parlor.
“Lady Rochester does always look quite miserable,” Henry admitted as he thought of the raven-haired lady. He’d see her on occasion while out riding, sometimes accompanied by one of her daughters.
“It’s that wretched man. He makes me miserable, and I only have to spend a few minutes with him every now and then. Can’t imagine waking up to his visage every day.”
Henry nodded and stuffed his hands into his pantaloon pockets. “What did he want, anyway?” he asked and slipped into a seat near the fireplace. Even though it was springtime, the castle always remained cold due to an unfortunate draft.
His uncle poured them each a glass of cognac from the sideboard at the wall and handed him a glass, a smirk on his face.
“Wanted to propose marriage,” he chuckled.
Henry’s eyes grew wide as he recalled his conversation with George.
“To one of his daughters?”
His uncle sat beside him; his head wagged from side to side. “No, some unfortunate girl, a relation or friend or whatever to his wife. A Duke’s daughter but fallen from grace, poor as a church mouse and not even a dowry.”
A lump formed in Henry’s throat. Was his uncle considering this? To his great relief, Uncle Edward’s eyes twinkled as he broke into a peal of laughter.
“An impoverished Duke’s daughter – that won’t do of course. And I told him as much. Poor sod. Poor girl. Ah, well.” He waved a hand. “He’ll find some fellow to take her off his hands.”
Henry tilted his head to one side as he remembered the young girl in the carriage. Was she the one Rochester had spoken off? Upon inquiring, his father shook his head.
“The girl he speaks of is from somewhere in the south. He always talks of how the Lord has punished him with only daughters. Doubt he’d have another in his household. Why?”
Henry shook his head. “No reason,” he replied and took a sip of the rich cognac when the butler walked in.
“Excuse me, Your Grace, Mr. Charles. Mrs. Wilcox is here,” he announced, and his uncle beamed.
“Have her wait in the drawing room.” He got up and rubbed his hands together. “Come now, Henry. We have a visitor.”
Henry knitted his eyebrows together. “Mrs. Wilcox?”
“The matchmaker,” his uncle beamed, and Henry’s jaw grew slack.
“I thought she was coming tomorrow.”
“Ah, yes. A little Banbury tale, Henry. I knew you’d try to make your excuse not to meet her if you knew the proper time of her arrival.” He winked and proceeded to the drawing room while Henry stood, pulled his waist coat straight, and closed his eyes.
The last thing he wanted right now was to meet with a matchmaker. However, it seemed his uncle had arranged to, so he had no choice. With a heavy heart, Henry swallowed what remained of his cognac, slammed the glass down, and followed his uncle to meet with the one woman he wanted to see least of all.
However, as he passed the window, he spotted movement on the road between their property and Rochester’s and paused. There, in the distance, was the carriage again, this time, driving in the other direction. Was the girl inside again, he wondered? He shook his head, dismissing the thought. It didn’t matter who she was. He’d likely never see her again. And yet, somewhere inside, a strange feeling spread as though something wasn’t quite as it had always been. As if the very path of his life had already been altered.
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