A Duchess Beneath the Mask Preview

A Historical Regency Romance Novel

About the book


When two souls fall in love, there is nothing but yearning to be close to the other...

Blaming herself for her mother's untimely death, Lady Hildred Hale has but one thing to look forward to: a masquerade ball, her final chance to share a kiss with the love of her life before being forced to marry another.

After receiving word of his father's passing, Stephen Welter, newly appointed Duke of Eldridge, is called back from active military duty to assume his ducal duties. Including finding a suitable wife.

As love blooms between Stephen and Hildred, the mask she donned to reach him, ends up driving them further apart, even as their worst fears take flesh and blood. For dangerous is the honest man who lies without a mask.


Chapter One


Hildred looked out of the window of the coach, heart thudding. She could see how fast they were speeding past the trees and bushes. The road was slippery and wet, the rain driving down against the thin wood sides of the coach. They were going too fast, far too fast.

“Slow down.” she screamed. They were skidding, sliding, slipping, the coach wheels slewing on the wet cobbles as they hurled themselves into the turn.

She felt herself slide onto the floor, screaming as she and her mother were thrown together against the side door. The coach was filled with noises—the rattle of the wheels on the wet stone and the clatter of the horses’ hooves on the cobbles and her scream as she fell. She tried to get up, but the coach was rocking and shaking and it was impossible to get up again.

Hildred tried to struggle onto the seat, hauling on her mother’s shoulders to pull herself up. What had started off as a tiring trip on a wet day had turned into unbelievable horror as their horses bolted down the road towards the village.

Hildred remembered how her mother, the Duchess of Clanleigh, had insisted on this trip, saying that her daughter needed a new gown.

“I don’t want a new gown, Mama,” Hildred had complained. She hated gown-fittings and she didn’t want to go to London. She would have much preferred to be at their beautiful country house, enjoying the warm months, running about in the garden, or with her friends and horses.

“You don’t have something suitable for a Duke’s daughter—your clothes need to be fashionable. This is your coming out, Hildred,” her mother had insisted. “You’re a seventeen-year-old noblewoman. It’s only right for you to be wearing gowns that are suitably fashionable.”

Hildred had closed her pale brown eyes and sighed. She hated arguing—she wanted everything to be nice and calm and for people to get along with each other. She had agreed, just to avoid a scene. She tucked a strand of brown hair behind one ear, feeling downcast about everything.

“Yes, Mama. Let’s go.”

They had taken the coach after luncheon. It was raining, but not as much as it was now.

Hildred looked out of the window. She was finally sitting up, but the coach was still hurtling ahead and she stared out in absolute horror. She could sense, rather than see, an obstacle up ahead.

“Stop!” she screamed.

But the coachman clearly couldn’t hear her, and he clearly couldn’t stop, even if he wanted to. The coach plunged ahead, and Hildred remembered screaming again before everything faded into black.


Chapter Two


Hildred looked out at the coastline. The water was sparkling blue, the sand of the shore a grayish-yellow. The scene was so beautiful—inspiring and magnificent, with white gulls soaring against the pale sky and white breakers that curled against the gold shoreline. She could smell the salt in the air. But somehow the beauty just made her feel sad.

It was so hard to feel happy, after what had happened to her. It was three years since the death of her mother, and she was not often sad—frequently, she was just angry. Seething, bitter anger simmered below everything she felt—which was very little. It was so hard to feel anything at all, so that even the anger was good… anger and rage were what she felt every time she thought of that coach accident, three years ago—and they were, thankfully, feelings. She had been numb for so long.

“My Lady?” her maid said gently, bringing her back from contemplating the coast and her memories. Maddie was the only person who could still make her smile.

“Yes?” she asked softly. “Are you going to fetch my gown for dinner?” It was only midday, but perhaps Maddie was thinking about dinnertime. Hildred herself wasn’t thinking about anything at all.

She shut her eyes, wishing she wasn’t in Brighton, that they weren’t taking a holiday by the coast, that she could just go and hide where nobody could tell her what to do.

“No, My Lady. I thought you might want to prepare. Miss Olivia is coming to call today.”

“Olivia is coming?” she jumped up, feeling a flicker of excitement. “Well, let’s get ready.”

“As you wish, My Lady. Let’s get your hair arranged nicely, then.” Her maid gestured her to the chair by the dressing table. Hildred came and sat down, letting her maid arrange her hair.

Olivia was Hildred’s best friend. She was so pleased that her friend’s mother had insisted that Olivia should come to Brighton, too. It was good, Hildred thought, to have a change of scenery and good to have Olivia here, too. She waited for her maid to finish, not really watching how she arranged her light brown, straight hair. She didn’t really care what she looked like—nothing was going to make her look better anyway, she thought sadly.

 She hated the sight of her own big wide eyes, her pale brown hair, her oval face with its soft cheeks. She hated everybody at the moment—even her brother, Radford, who had come down to Brighton to join them.

Only Maddie and Olivia could touch her heart through the wall of anger and pain around her.

“Is Lady Hildred here?” the butler called.

“Is Olivia here already?” Hildred murmured. She glanced at Maddie, who finished draping a shawl about her shoulders, and then she ran through the door.

“Olivia?” she called, running down the long stairs and into the hallway. They had rented lodgings in Brighton—a beautiful house, small and elegant, with wrought-iron handholds on the stairs and tiles in the hallway. She spotted Olivia waiting in the doorway, wearing a sprig muslin gown. She had a bonnet on, but her beautiful pale hair was in ringlets around her face, her soft white skin shaded from the sun by a wide brim.

“Hildred,” Olivia said, looking up at her with wide blue eyes. Hildred felt her heart lift, seeing her friend. She was very fond of her. They had met during Hildred’s first Season, when she had been so sunk in pain and sorrow that she had been unable to make real friendships with anybody.

“Are we going to go out?” Hildred asked, feeling a sudden wash of hopefulness. She really wanted to try and enjoy herself, to have her mood lifted by being with Olivia.

“I think so. Papa suggested we try a dip in the sea. I think it would be refreshing—it’s what we’re here for, after all.”

“A dip in the sea.” Hildred put her hand up, shocked. Then she laughed. “It’s true—we are in Brighton.”

It sounded like a wonderful idea—she hoped that doing something she’d never done would touch her, would make her feel something at last. The thought of actually being in that raging blue ocean was both exciting and frightening.

“Well, quite,” Olivia said primly. “Now, let’s go.”

Hildred nodded, took her cloak from the peg by the door and draped it around her shoulders. It looked to be cold outside. She tied her bonnet on—it was grayish silk, to go with her gray-spotted white gown.

They walked down to the quayside, arm-in-arm. Olivia had brought a chaperone. She was a woman about Hildred’s father’s age, wearing a black gown and white apron. She followed behind them, not really talking to either of them. She was struggling to keep up as the two young women hurried down the street and Hildred felt bad for making her walk so fast.

“What about…” Hildred gestured behind them.

“Never mind her.” her friend chuckled, “It’s her job to keep up. Father would never stop shouting at her if she let us out of her sight.”

Hildred tried to forget about the woman—after all, Olivia was so bright and funny it was impossible not to be swept into her good-humored chatter. She clutched her cloak tightly about her—the wind was getting stronger as they rounded the bend in the quay—and gripped Olivia’s arm. She still felt sick if something went fast, and even the whip of the wind was frightening in its way.

“Are we really going to swim in the sea?” she murmured. It was cold out here, and the waves would be strong. She felt scared.

“Of course,” Olivia said, as if she hadn’t noticed Hildred’s fear.

“Are we going to go in at the bay?”

“Of course,” Olivia replied again. “And we’ll go in one of the bathing carts. Look. There.”

Hildred stared at the horse-drawn contraptions. From where she stood, up on the hilltop, the beach was a wide expanse of yellow sand. There were carts parked on it, facing the sea, about a dozen of them, Hildred thought. They looked like coaches, but again, nothing like, as they were closed on all sides and square. There was a door in the front and the back of the box, and as she watched, one of the little house-like constructions was backed out into the sea. She held onto Olivia’s arm, feeling a sudden nauseous wash of terror—the horse was going to bolt. There was going to be an accident.

But nothing happened.

A little door on the sea side of the coach opened and someone stepped out. This far away, the person just looked like they were wearing a close-fitting shift in a pale color.

“Probably naked.”

What?” Hildred felt her face go absolutely red. Her nauseating terror was gone, replaced with shock that was so funny, too. She stared at Olivia, in horror. She was grinning, though, disbelief making her smile.

“Men sometimes swim naked,” Olivia said, raising her shoulders in a shrug. “Some do, anyway. Maybe we’ll see one.”

“Olivia.” Hildred exclaimed. Then they both burst into giggles. They clung to each other, laughing and giggling, and only straightened up when the dark-clothed woman caught up.

“We should go,” Olivia said quickly. “We need to get back before dinnertime.”

Hildred nodded, and they hurried down the quay and to the shoreline, where the bathing-machines were waiting to drag them out into the ocean.

At the thought of getting into one, Hildred paused, but she had to do it. She decided she had to face her fear and get into that coach and let it drag her into the water.

She stood there, watching the bathers—they were so far out that she could really only see their heads and torsos, and not in detail—and she wondered idly if there were any men among them, and if there were, if any were naked.

She might as well see one now, because it wasn’t likely—with two Seasons gone and barely any dances, never mind any interest—that she was going to see a naked man in her lifetime. She found her mind sneaking back to Stephen, her brother’s friend. She had fallen in love with him when she was ten and he was five-and-ten. He had left, joining the Army and taking a tour of duty. She hadn’t seen him for years. She wondered where he was now; and then found her attention drawn to her friend, who was talking to the man who was standing near a bathing cart.

“A dip for two people,” Olivia said briskly to a man who stood beside the unoccupied contraption. The man took her coins and bowed low, grinning broadly.

“Of course, My Lady. Mr. Leybridge at your service, My Lady.”

“Well, help us in,” Olivia said, sticking out a hand loftily. He took her hand obediently, helping her up the steps and into the coach door. Hildred hung back, waiting for her friend to climb in. She felt a twist of excitement in her belly, fear and anticipation all mixed up in that one feeling as she stepped up into the coach.

“We’ll need those things Mrs. Newbury has,” Olivia said dismissively, pointing at the older woman who waited for them at the door. Hildred reached out and took them from her politely. She frowned at her friend, who motioned for her to come inside.

“They’re our shifts, of course,” Olivia explained, with an air of impatience. “We need something to wear into the sea. We shan’t be naked, even if that man over there will.”

What man?” Hildred asked, interestedly. She shut the door and looked at her friend, one brow raised.

Olivia chuckled. “I don’t know. There is bound to be a man here. And maybe we’ll see him naked.”

The joke made Hildred laugh happily. She nodded and watched Olivia, waiting to see what she had to do next. Her friend leaned against the side of the coach, bracing herself. She tried to find somewhere to grip onto, but there was really nothing inside. It was a wooden box, the wheels sticking out on either side, and one tiny window was all they had for light to come in. Hildred felt frightened. It was dark, but the sunshine leaked through the gaps and she could see her friend illuminated where she stood by the wall. She went over and stood beside her, terror gripping her.

“Now, we have to change into our shifts.” Olivia gestured to her buttons. “Unbutton me, will you?”

“Yes, certainly,” Hildred said, going over to undo her buttons. She felt a bit shy—even this was far beyond anything she would usually have done. She waited patiently while Olivia undid her buttons, too. They were standing in their shifts together. She looked at her feet. She felt impossibly shy.

“Off we go,” Olivia shouted, and the coach set off, rattling and jostling with great slowness across the sand. At first, Hildred felt impossibly frightened. Then, she just felt amused. Somehow, the fact that the coach was laboring across the sand with such great slowness simply struck her as so very funny—she had been terrified, expecting the fast, frightening ride like the coach-trip down here, which had been horrible and scary. This was just something to enjoy, something to laugh about.

“This is so diverting,” she said to Olivia, looking across at her friend, hoping that she would see the funny side, too.

“It’s just the trip. The real diversion is to swim,” Olivia said.

Hildred nodded, looking away. She wished she could be more like Olivia. Not her looks—though her friend was so beautiful that Hildred sometimes felt like staring—but her nature. Olivia was never scared, or even uneasy about anything. She was so confident, so amusing, bold and daring, too. She wasn’t like Hildred, who was afraid of everything—or so she felt, sometimes. She was sure she was boring and that made her feel even more shy and withdrawn and scared.

“Here we are. Now, we have to open the door,” Olivia said suddenly, as the contraption halted.

Hildred shook her head, terror filling her. She couldn’t go. She could hear the crash of breakers, and there was water coming up under the door. She stood with her back against the door, heart thudding, eyes wide as she stared across at the water coming through.

“I don’t think I can do this, Olivia,” she whispered.

Either her friend hadn’t heard her, or she had and was going to answer something, but then, suddenly, the door was opening and the bright light shone through, the sunshine blinding as it sparkled off uncountable miles of glittering ocean.

“No,” Hildred whispered.

It was terrifying. There was only water to see for miles—so much water, stretching out without a shore to spot anywhere. It was also, she had to admit, impossibly beautiful. She stared across the glittering, endless expanse of water. It was rising and falling as if it breathed, as if it was a beautiful living creature.

“Let’s go,” Olivia yelled, stepping out into the sea.

“No,” Hildred said. Her voice was too tight with terror to come out as anything but a soft gasp. Then Olivia was plunging off the side and into the sea. She went in up to her waist.

“It’s cold,” she screamed.

Hildred ran to the door. “Olivia. Hang on,” she shouted. She would save her. She would not let another person come to grief because of her. She stepped out into the sea.

“I’m not drowning, silly,” Olivia giggled. She splashed her with water. “It’s only waist-deep.”

“Oh.”

They looked at each other and Hildred tried to stand still, but it was so cold. The water was gripping her round her waist, her skirts heavy and clinging, and she clung to the side of the bathing cart. She was so scared. The water felt impossibly soft, like satin, as it wove around her. It felt so strange. She was leaning back against it, feeling it able to hold her weight. She was more curious now.

 A wave came towards them and she shut her eyes, screaming. It slammed into her, soaking her up to her neck and she screamed again, but this time it was a scream of real joy. She hadn’t screamed in years and it felt good. She was letting out all that rage and terror, shouting it into the ocean. She stood, waist-deep in the sea, her tears salt on her face, gulls circling overhead. She could hear their cries and she cried, tears running silently down her cheeks.

“Come on,” Olivia called. She was lying on her back, the water lifting her and bobbing her along. “We don’t have much time before we have to go back.”

Hildred nodded. She sniffed, tears running down her face. She was smiling, too. She was laughing. She could feel. For the first time in years, she was really feeling. Perhaps it was because the ocean didn’t mind—it wasn’t afraid of her fear. It wasn’t angered by her anger. It was too big to be anything but present as she kicked and screamed and cried.

And so, she could also laugh.

“This is diverting,” she shouted to Olivia, who was floating along on her back, staring up at the sky.

“I’m trying to relax,” Olivia objected pettishly. Hildred would have been upset—a moment or two ago, she would have been so hurt that she would retreat into instant quiet. Now, she ignored Olivia’s grumpiness, enjoying herself too much to let it bother her.

“We can go back when the man fetches us,” Hildred said.

She thought that Olivia hadn’t heard her, because her friend stayed where she was, eyes closed, face as relaxed as sleep. Hildred looked away, staring across at the horizon. It was so still, though the sea around her heaved and moved unendingly, the gulls crying overhead. It was so beautiful and she wanted never to forget the way she felt as she stood there, hearing the sound of the gulls and feeling cold water on her skin and sunshine on her face.

“We have to get into the cart before he can fetch it,” Olivia said, standing up, suddenly replying. “The reason for the bathing box in the first place is so no men see our bodies.”

“Oh. Yes, of course.”

She stood and got back into the bathing box, holding out her hand so that she could help Olivia to get up. Her friend swung up lightly and they stood in the cart, dripping and wet, the door closing out the sight of the sea.

Hildred looked at Olivia. She was shivering. Her feet were soaking, water running down her body and onto the floor, her hair was wet. She could feel her own hair plastered to her face, and she was freezing cold, her skin wet and her body weighed down by the soaking wet fabric that clung to her chest and legs.

“Ready, My Lady?” the driver called through the wooden walls. He must have been watching to see them clambering in.

“Yes. Let’s go,” Olivia called back indifferently.

The bathing machine set off, setting off back across the wet sand. Hildred felt concerned for the horse—it was hard work, pulling a coach at the best of times, she would imagine. With sand resisting each step, it must be impossible. She was distracted from the thought as they rolled up the bank.

“Oh, that was a real diversion,” Olivia murmured. Her long hair was hanging down her back, soaking wet. Her shift was wet, her pale skin covered with droplets. Hildred nodded, looking out through the window where she could just catch a glimpse of the sea.

It was so much more than a simple entertainment. It had cleansed her, inside and out.

She leaned back against the wall, her skin cold and her body shaking. Her heart was soaring and she felt herself smiling. Whatever her father or anyone else said, she would never forget how it had felt to stand in the ocean and be able to laugh.


Chapter Three


Hildred sat at the table, looking where her brother Radford sat talking with her father. She thought he looked relaxed and happy.

It was so good to see Radford. He’d just finally come back from India, where he was stationed with the East India Company. His handsome face was wreathed in smiles and he was tanned, his dark hair not in as strong contrast with his skin as usual. His blue eyes—like their father’s—were bright above his smiles.

“Son, I declare. What an experience,” her father said, chuckling. Radford had clearly been telling a funny story. It was rare for him to express his humor, but he was keen-witted and astute.

Hildred wondered how it was that Radford always managed to make their father laugh. She sometimes wished that she could make him laugh like that herself—but today, she didn’t mind too much that she couldn’t. She looked down at her plate, smiling to herself. She had so many wonderful things to think about, following the sea bathing.

Her attention wandered from her brother to the people who sat opposite her.

“Oh, I couldn’t bear to dance with him,” Olivia joked to her mother, who was seated across the table. Hildred looked sideways at her friend. “He has no sense of timing. I hate waltzing with someone if I just know they’re going to get their feet under my own.”

They were talking about the upcoming Season, and how Olivia would be coming out. Hildred pushed aside the retort that flashed into her mind, that at least Olivia was planning on having dances. She herself had attended two Seasons and only had a dozen dances.

The thought was fleeting—she was so fond of her friend, that it didn’t really bother her that Olivia was so confident and carefree. She just wished that she could be braver.

Hildred felt her head turn towards the other side of the table, where somebody’s loud laughter drew her attention.

“Oh, Papa. You know I wouldn’t do that,” her brother chuckled from down the table, where he sat with the Duke of Clanleigh, their father. “You know I’m awful aboard ships. I spend the entire journey sick in my bed.”

Her father was laughing with his head tipped back, a big grin on his wide face. “Oh, son. I think it cannot possibly be that bad. Can it?”

“Believe it.”

Hildred looked across at them, trying to catch her brother’s eye. She had been sitting without really talking to anyone for the entire first course and she wished she knew what her father and her brother Radford were talking about.

Her brother caught her gaze and grinned. “Sister. How did you find the town? Is it to your liking?”

“We didn’t really look, brother,” Hildred said, not wanting to discuss the sea bathing in any detail in front of their father. Not because she thought he would disapprove. She knew he liked all too well for her to be involved in anything considered fashionable. It was because she didn’t like sharing her feelings with him—they either made him uncomfortable or made him think she needed help. She had stopped trying to talk to him ages ago.

Her brother must have guessed that there was something she didn’t want to mention openly, because he tilted his head quizzically, then replied with something else. “Papa and I were just discussing my inability to face sea voyages.”

“Oh.” Hildred giggled. “And how do you manage, then? If I may ask?”

Her brother grinned. He had a wonderful grin, did Radford. In appearance he took after their mother—perhaps more than she did herself, Hildred liked to think, though when she saw her face in the mirror she could so easily recognize her mother’s features. That didn’t make anything easier at all.

“I manage somehow. I was discussing my latest voyage back from India. Papa thought that I should consider going with the spice ships, to check that things are being carried out properly. I could never do that much sailing. A voyage every few years is more than enough for me.”

“Is it horrid?” Hildred asked, frowning.

Radford grinned. “It’s not that bad. Not really. I suppose we could ask Stephen, too. He’s been all the way to India, I believe.”

“Stephen?” Hildred felt her heart thump swiftly. She hadn’t seen him in a long time, but her mind held images of a tall, smooth-faced fellow with green eyes, his coffee-colored curls giving him a serious, grave appearance that was backed up by a straight mouth and a thoughtful mien. She had fallen for him when she was ten, but she hadn’t seen him since then.

She had always been fond of Stephen. More than fond.

Her brother nodded. “Yes. I know—it surprised me, too. I always teased him that he couldn’t find an apple on a tablecloth, but apparently he managed quite well. Sorry, Papa,” he said, grinning at their father. “Yes, he’s a bright chap—truly intelligent, actually. But you know what boys will say.”

“Yes, quite.” Her father nodded; his eyes nostalgic. Hildred felt a little uncomfortable—why were boys allowed to be insulting? And Stephen was clever—she knew that all too well.

“Brother, I…”

“Well, the thing that is interesting in that story is that Stephen is in London. We’ll see him soon, probably.”

“He’s in London?” Hildred stared. She felt a flood of feeling wash through her. Yes, they were in Brighton, but they might still see him soon. She couldn’t believe it. Memories of him filled her thoughts—his unsmiling face, his grave stare. As a child, she had made him laugh once, with some comment she made when he was telling a long anecdote. She had never forgotten the way he had laughed, so freely, his smile so warm and happy. She hadn’t realized then that she had fallen in love with him in that moment. She had thought, as she got older, that maybe it was a silly feeling, but now she knew that she had never felt that way about anyone before or since.

“Yes. I suspect that we’ll run into him a lot.”

Hildred raised a brow. She hadn’t known that there had been any plan to go to London. She saw her father frown.

“Son, I shall talk to Hildred later. Have you tried the lemonade?” her father asked, deliberately changing the subject.

Hildred saw her brother grin at her, then turn to take some lemonade. She wished that she could be as confident as her brother. He was so bold and funny. He was eight years older than herself, and he had always seemed to her to be so much wiser and more interesting than she was. She wished he was more often at home, but he spent almost all his time overseeing his own inherited land in Melling, which kept him busy more than his tasks overseeing the family’s accounts and working with the East India Company.

She looked over at her father. He was reaching for the salt cellar. She wondered why he looked so cross. He always looked cross. She couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t looked like that.

She glanced back at her friend, who was giggling with her mother. Olivia was two years younger than Hildred and planning to have her formal debut into the ton this year. Hildred could hear Olivia’s mother planning the event and she didn’t want to hear about it. Any talk of the Season filled her with a horrible sense of fear. She had every reason to hate it. She didn’t want to go. She wished that her father would never make her go to another one. She pushed back her chair, about to stand to leave.

“More lemonade?” the butler asked, appearing with the bottle behind her chair. She shook her head.

“Lady Hildred?” a voice said from beside her. “Would you pass me the bread basket?”

“Of course,” Hildred said, hurrying to reach for it. The person who had asked was Lady Ettie, a young woman perhaps Hildred’s own age. She had pale red hair and hazel eyes and a friendly smile. Hildred had never met her before—she had joined the family’s party here in Brighton, and Hildred was pleased that she had.

“Thank you,” Lady Ettie said. She helped herself to a slice, then passed the basket back. “I like it here,” she said. “How are you finding it?”

“Very nice, thank you.” Hildred smiled. She wondered why this young lady, whom she barely knew, was speaking to her like this. It was rare for Hildred to feel at ease with others but she did feel at ease right now.

“I do like Brighton. I much prefer it to London. I hope Papa will bring us to Brighton instead for the Season. It’s more fashionable, actually.”

Hildred nodded. “I think that’s true. I wish that too, really.” She already liked Brighton much more—it had the sea, and there were places where one could conceivably be left alone. In London, people were dragging you to social gatherings, and even if you went to the park, trying to find time to be alone and read a book, it was more than likely that someone would come and disturb you there.

“Well. I reckon we should all try and bring high society here, instead of going to London. Why should we have to go back to the city, when it’s so much more healthful here?”

Hildred agreed, feeling herself drawn into the conversation. She was so busy talking to Lady Ettie that she didn’t hear her father at first, as he pushed his chair back from the table.

“After dinner, do you think you could come to my office?”

Hildred nodded. “Yes, of course, Papa.”

After dinner—there was a delicious trifle and then coffee to be had first—Hildred went up to her father’s office. It was on the third floor, a small room with dark wood furniture and windows that nonetheless offered a fine panoramic view of the sea. Hildred had to deliberately stand with her back to the window to avoid staring out. She faced her father, seated behind the desk. He looked back; pale blue eyes tired.

“Daughter, I am sure you must know why I wanted to speak to you alone here.”

 “Not so. I have no idea at all what you might wish to say to me.”

Her father sighed. “Daughter, I know that you are a good girl. And I commend you. But I must say that it troubles me that you have not had a successful Season in London.”

Hildred felt sick. “Yes, Papa.” She looked at her feet, where they rested on the carpet, her white leather indoor boots pressing into the fabric. Looking down was so much more riveting than anything her father was saying. She didn’t want to hear. She didn’t want to be there.

“I know that you are a good girl and you want to please me. And it would please me so much to know that you are safe. I trust your brother, but he is not as responsible as I might like, and I would feel so much safer if you did not have to rely on his management to keep you safe, my daughter. I trust, but I would so much rather know you are safe.”

“Papa.” Hildred felt a twist of horror inside her. She didn’t want to think about it. She didn’t want her father making provision for her safety. It was too awful, as it reminded her that he, too, was not going to last forever. She didn’t need to know. She had already suffered so much, and she didn’t want to think about losing anybody. She turned around and looked out of the window, thinking about the sea instead.

“I know that you don’t like London, my daughter. But it’s imperative that you go. You must make the most of the chances, because you are twenty years old, my sweetling. You are not a young girl at her debut. You need to try to find a suitable match.”

Hildred could hear the words, but she wasn’t listening. She was staring out at the ocean, where it lapped against the soft white sand beyond the windows. She wasn’t listening anymore.

She would have to go to London.

Her only consolation as she turned around to agree, woodenly, to her father’s words, was that maybe she might see Stephen again in London.

The higher we are placed, the more humbly we should walk

~ Cicero 


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