About the book
If loving you is a sin, I will gladly become a sinner...
There are a few rules at the center of each family that should never be broken, and Lady Venessa Wilson has lived her life knowing that to be true. Until she breaks the most important rule of all: she falls for her cousin's betrothed.
Alexander Crowle, Duke of Glottenham, has always been a man of duty. Dedicated to running his Dukedom as efficiently as possible, he adopts a similar stance when it comes to marriage: he may not be in love with his betrothed, but she is the right choice. That is, until he meets her cousin.
Forbidden but uncontrollable, their feelings bloom in secret. But life is a game, and when one breaks the rules, one shall suffer the consequences. Venessa and Alexander have broken too many rules to count, but someone has been counting for them. From the shadows, hidden under a dark, hooded cloak.
The servants had spent all day organizing everything for the extraordinary engagement party. The entire Mansion had been cleaned from top to bottom, until every single inch of the place was sparkling clean. Extra care had been taken to make the public rooms — the drawing room, dining room and sitting rooms — look perfect. Then there were the cooks, who had spent the entire day planning the most beautiful evening meal, and the gardeners who had insured that the gardens leading up to the Mansion were spotless.
For Alexander Crowle, Duke of Glottenham, this was supposed to be one of the most important days of his life. Secondary only to the wedding itself, the engagement party was a lavish way to make the relationship official, while letting everyone know that he planned to marry Kathryne Pinkerton. Yet there was no joy swelling in his chest as he watched the maids scurry about, no excitement building at the knowledge that tomorrow, Kathryne herself would be here.
Rather, he simply wanted the whole thing done with so that he could spent the rest of the week by himself. Alexander had always enjoyed his own company, grown used to it since his parents passed and he had this big, lonely Mansion all to himself.
"Your Grace?" a tentative voice asked from behind. He turned to see one of his maids, a small woman named Alice, hovering by the sitting room door. "Everything's in order, Your Grace, and the last of the cleaning is done. I popped in on Cook, too, and she says everything is on schedule. They'll start cooking first thing in the morning."
Alexander still couldn't muster up any excitement about the whole thing. He only nodded, feeling a dull hollowness open in his chest. "Thank you, Alice. Please make sure that everyone is out of the way by six o'clock tomorrow, when our guests will arrive."
Alice ducked her head in an awkward nod — but she didn't leave right away. Instead she hovered, lip caught between her teeth. "I'd hate to speak out of turn, Your Grace, but you seem… well frankly, you don't seem all too enthusiastic. Is something the matter? If something isn't up to scratch, I can—
"It's fine, Alice." Alexander couldn't help but wince at his own tone, wondering if he had snapped too hard at the poor girl. She was only doing her job, after all. In a softer voice, he continued, "I'm sure everything is perfect, as it always is. I simply have… other things on my mind." It wasn't a complete lie. It wasn't as if he could outright say that he didn't want to marry Kathryne; he couldn't admit that this wasn't a marriage of love, but carefully planned convenience.
Alice only hesitated a moment longer, before she nodded and scurried from the room. No doubt running back to the other maids, to tell them all about how odd the Duke was acting. Not that he could blame her — he had been acting odd, ever since the engagement. He had proposed to Kathryne during a quiet afternoon together; there had been no show to speak of, and he had kept things simple. It had felt odd then and it was odd now, to think about that day.
Lush green grass and tall oak trees provided shade from the hot sun. The sky, clear and blue, was speckled only by the faintest of fluffy white clouds. Good weather was so rare in England, and so Kathryne had insisted on enjoying it while it lasted.
Now, as they wandered through the copse of trees, side by side, she hummed softly to herself. Her voice was beautiful; like soft honey dripping from a spoon. She let her hands trail across the tall bushes as they walked, plucking a hydrangea flower and tucking it behind her ear.
Any sensible man would be delighted to spent time with Kathryne. She was sweet and well mannered, not to mention she had a laugh like sunlight. Yet when Alexander watched her from the corner of his eye, he could muster up only the briefest, passing fondness for her. She was kind to him, but they weren't in love.
Which only made what he had to do even harder.
Kathryne's gaze flickered up to him as she caught him staring. Perhaps she misinterpreted his look, because a soft blush overtook her features. "Your Grace?" she asked softly, "Is something the matter?"
"Not at all." A lie. He turned his gaze straight ahead, taking a moment to admire the clear sky, the soft light warming the grass that spread out all around them. They had strayed from the pebbled path, but he didn't remember when. "Just thinking, is all."
Kathryne hummed in response. Her hair was a soft, reddish brown that seemed to glow brighter under the sun. Now it looked almost as red as the ruby necklace hanging from her throat. When she flicked a loose strand away, it shimmered half a dozen different shades.
He really should have counted himself lucky, and Alexander was a smart enough man to understand that. Even if he didn't feel the same. Kathryne had a sensible head on her shoulders too, otherwise she wouldn't have agreed on their little dates around the garden. How long had it been now, since he first asked to court her? Three months. No, four.
Kathryne nudged his shoulder with her own, a curious smile settling onto her lips. "If something is wrong, you can tell me," she murmured. "I know that three months isn't a long time for us to be together, but I consider myself your sweetheart. More than that, I'm your friend."
Oh. So it was three months, then. Alexander felt his chest stutter at the thought. Was it terrible, that he couldn't even remember when this had all started? Well, regardless of that he had Kathryne's attention now. He was all too aware of Alice, their chaperone for today, lingering just within earshot somewhere to their left. He paused, sucked in a deep breath, and prepared for what was to come.
"Kathryne," he said slowly, the use of her first name startling them both. Alexander's pulse roared in his ears — not from fear of rejection, but acceptance. This was the moment, and he couldn't turn back now. Every social circle that Alexander knew of expected the two of them to marry. The hierarchy of social standing demanded it. They were the only two eligible people in Town, the only two their age from the same social class, and so it was dictated by everyone that they should be together.
Kathryne simply watched him quietly, her chestnut-brown eyes curious.
"Kathryne," Alexander tried for a second time, "I understand that we haven't been courting for very long, but I think it's time to ask. We've spent a lot of time together over the last three months," thank goodness he knew the timeframe now, "and I think it's time that we went a step further." He reached out to take her hand, feeling the clamminess of his own skin. Yet Kathryne didn't seem to notice, an eager little smile twitching at the corner of her lips, and it spurred him on. "Kathryne June Pinkerton, would you marry me?"
For a long moment, nobody spoke. She looked up at him with wide, doe-like eyes, lips parted in a silent gasp. Her hair rustled in the breeze, as did his, and it seemed like the only sound in the whole world. Then she blinked, and something in her must have snapped into focus because her entire face split into a beaming smile. "Oh, Alexander, of course! I'd be honored."
A flash of movement told him that Alice had meandered closer, no doubt eager to know what was going on. He ignored her, although the way she was practically vibrating in excitement was admittedly rather distracting.
"Is it all right to call you Alexander?" Kathryne asked, snapping him from his thoughts. She looked up at him eagerly, those dark eyes sparkling.
"Of course," he replied kindly, "we are engaged now, aren't we?"
"That we are. Oh, we'll have to arrange an engagement party, and I'll have to tell my family — Mother will be so pleased, don't you think? — and I'll have to tell Vanessa too, I always tell her everything first."
Alexander felt his stomach sink. He had only just asked, and already she was making plans? Didn't she want to, well, enjoy the moment?
Evidently not, because she was already listing everything that needed doing. "Oh, but I'm sure your servants will do an excellent job of hosting the engagement party," she said softly. "And it will be so lovely to see so many people wanting to congratulate us."
"Actually," Alexander replied softly, and guilt twisted in his gut, "I was hoping for a smaller gathering. Family and friends, only enough to fit around the dining table."
Kathryne's face fell, her eyes dropping to the ground.
Perhaps Alexander was only projecting his own doubts, but he had to wonder why it mattered so much to Kathryne if they had a big gathering or not.
Since then, Alexander hadn't much time to speak with his fiancée. There had been family to talk to and invites to send, not to mention how much preparation even a simple meal with loved ones took. Combined with his usual duties as the Duke of Glottenham, and he had been run off his feet trying to keep up. The letters had started building up in his study, left unopened, and he had passed up three dinner requests at various Lord's households. Although, they had all been exceedingly understanding when he told them he was engaged.
Now, it was finally complete. Alexander stared into the fire, feeling his stomach squirm with every wave and roll of the flickering flames. He took in a breath, ran a hand through his dark locks, and turned.
At the very least, he could check on the state of things himself before everyone arrived. He wandered to the drawing room first, where he was greeted by the familiar sight of the pale-green wallpaper and the enormous, elegantly designed fireplace in the middle of the back wall. It was unlit currently, but with its while marble mantlepiece, carved to look like tall pillars, it was still magnificent to look at. It had been cleaned today, along with every other inch of Alexander's home, and the marble was so white that it seemed to gleam in the sunshine filtering from the adjacent window.
He couldn't find anything to complain about, really — which was good, because he knew how much Kathryne's father loved to complain. If there was a single thing out of place, a single spot of dust on a table or a rug an inch out of place, Lord Pinkerton would be the first to point it out.
But, just like Alice had promised, everything was perfect. It should have been a relief, and yet Alexander couldn't fight the growing anxiety in the pit of his stomach. It grew with every passing second, until it took up every aspect of his thoughts. Nobody said being engaged was easy, but he had never anticipated it to be this horrid. This frightening.
Well, he had until tomorrow before there was any point in worrying. The thought wasn't as soothing as he wished it was, and it only left him feeling more hollow than ever. The engagement party itself didn't mean a thing — they were already engaged, and this was simply for show — but there was something about it that just felt too… official. Like this was the true turning point in his life, the sign that everything was about to change.
Alexander shuddered, but he stuffed down those feelings and forced his back straight, head high. This was what everyone expected, and it was best for both of them. Himself and Kathryne. Perhaps this arrangement wasn't perfect, but nothing ever was.
Yet as much as he hated to admit it, Alexander couldn’t fight the nagging feeling in his chest; the feeling that things weren’t going to be so simple. He wondered, if only for a second, if this really was the right decision after all.
Kathryne Pinkerton didn't want to marry the Duke.
Well, that wasn't entirely true. He was handsome, with his flowing brown hair and those pale-green eyes, which always seemed half lidded in thought. He had a strong jaw that many men would envy, but a softness in his cheeks that made him seem younger than he really was. Not only that, but he was tall and broad shouldered in a way that filled out all of his shirts, shoulders straining the fabric nicely.
But being attractive wasn't the only thing that the Duke was. He was also kind, in his own sort of way; it was a rare side of him that few were lucky enough to see, considering his tendency to keep to himself and rarely venture beyond the walls of his own property, save for the yearly balls he was expected to attend. He was gentle, too, when he needed to be — and harsh when it was necessary. There were many sides to Alexander Crowle, some Kathryne knew she had yet to see, and she admired that about him.
It didn't change the fact, though, that they were only engaged because it was necessary. The other Lords and Ladies expected it, because they were the only young people of status who weren't either already married, or engaged. Choices were thin, and in a world where young women were expected to marry and have children no matter what, Kathryne knew that Alexander was her best — if not only — option.
The thought always left a sour taste in her mouth, so she focused on the good things, instead. As she sat perched on the end of her four-poster bed, hands twisting around the soft fabric of her blanket, she thought about all of the good to come out of this engagement. There were worse people to marry, of course. Alexander was calm and down to earth, and he never got unnecessarily angry. They would have the loveliest children, with her rich, red-hued hair and his beautiful green eyes. Kathryne would be a Duchess, a thought which made her chest stutter in barely contained excitement.
Hadn't that been her dream, ever since she was a little girl?
"Lady Pinkerton?" a voice called from outside, followed by a sharp rap on the door, "your mother wants to see you downstairs."
Ah. With only a day to go until the engagement party, she supposed it made sense that Mother was nervous. There were only two reasons that Mother ever wanted to see Kathryne; because something was wrong, or because she thought something was wrong.
"Thank you Tanya," she said softly, dismissing the maid with a wave of her hand that the girl couldn't even see. Then she rose to her feet, a soft sigh rising in her throat, and trudged downstairs to where she knew Mother was waiting.
Pinkerton Manor — where Kathryne had grown up was enormous — not as massive as Alexander's Mansion, perhaps, but beautiful and expansive in its own right. She had to wander down the long and twisting halls, wandering past rarely-used rooms and doors locked to keep in the heat — and keep out the dust. Then down the grand staircase she went, shoes clicking on the wood, before coming to the wide foyer where the entrance stood.
Then it was a simple matter of steeling her nerves, turning left, and slipping into the sitting room.
Mother sat not on one of the two settees by the fireplace, but at the round table by the window. The tall-backed seats made Mother look even smaller than she really was, the top of her head barely touching the top, but she looked no less demanding for it. In fact, with her back straight and eyes narrowed, she looked more regal than ever.
"Kathryne," Mother said, gesturing to the seat across, "please, sit. There's something I need to ask you before the celebration tomorrow."
Kathryne winced. Although she supposed she should have been grateful, considering that Mother was the one who set this all in motion, she felt a little stir of irritation. What could she possibly need to ask, this close to the engagement party? Yet instead of asking, Kathryne took a seat like the dutiful daughter she was.
"Now," Mother said sweetly, flicking a strand of dark hair from her eyes. Despite being almost fifty, she didn't have a single streak of gray. "I simply wanted to know how you were feeling, dear? An engagement celebration is an important thing, and I know how nervous you get in these social situations." Her brows creased, a sympathetic smile spreading across her lips.
Kathryne hated it. She really did, and she had no qualms about admitting that. She hated how Mother's sympathetic smiles always had a touch of mocking behind them, how her fake concern only ever extended far enough to be worried about their reputation in Town. Forcing a smile, Kathryne offered only a non-committal shrug. "I'm fine," she replied, false sweetness dripping from her lips, "in fact, I'm wonderful. I can't wait for Alexander and me to marry."
Mother's features never changed. She was as impassive as ever, face a blank slate of emotionless beauty. "That's good," she said stiffly, "and yet I couldn't help but notice how the Duke is having a closed circle celebration? Surely he wishes to show off his bride to everyone he can?"
Stomach twisting itself into knots, Kathryne fell silent. "He's a very private person," she replied, forcing her voice to come out even instead of snapping, like she really wanted to. She loved her mother, truly, but she had spent long evenings wishing to get out of this house, to find something — someone — better. Now that Kathryne had that, it was a little easier to deal with overbearing mothers and distant fathers.
Speaking of. "Where's Father, if you don't mind me asking? I thought he would be here too, preparing for tomorrow?"
Mother stiffened. "Yes, well, he's a busy man. I'm afraid even something as important as this can't overshadow his usual duties."
"I know." Kathryne only wished that she could come first for once. That, just one time, her parents could forget about their duties and expectations, and be happy for her. Wishful thinking, perhaps. With a frown, Kathryne sank into the uncomfortable wooden chair and cast her gaze outside.
It was a beautiful day, at least. The sun was so bright it was almost blinding, as yellow as the sunflowers that grew at the back of the Manor. Pale clouds lazily drifted across the sky, but it was clear that today was to be hot and dry. She hoped that the weather remained as good for tomorrow, so that she and Alexander could enjoy the sunshine together.
"Kathryne," Mother snapped, and it brought her attention back to Mother's carefully blank face. "You had better not daydream like that tomorrow. What would the Duke think, if he saw how little attention you pay?"
The scowl that spread across Kathryne's lips wasn't an unusual feeling. Vanessa, her cousin, often said that she scowled so much she was already developing wrinkles on her forehead. It builds character, Vanessa had assured; but Kathryne didn't care. Lips pursed, she asked, "May I go now, Mother? I was in the middle of something."
"Really. Alone in your bedroom, at four o'clock in the afternoon?"
Kathryne's cheeks flushed. Fine. All she had really been doing was reminiscing about Alexander and worrying about the engagement party tomorrow; and perhaps she hadn't been doing anything important, per se, but wasn't she entitled to time alone?
"I only worry that you've been looking forward to this for so long, Kathryne dear, that your nerves will get the better of you." Mama raised a brow, as if challenging her to argue. "I would hate to see this relationship fall through. Alexander is just the kind of man you need."
The kind of man you need to keep you in order, went the unsaid words. Kathryne shifted in her seat, eyes squeezed shut as she tried to block the voice out. "I won't," she promised, "I'm not going to ruin anything."
Not like last time. Not like when she was only seventeen and new to the concept of courting. James Allderdale had been the perfect choice of men; strong and optimistic and just kind enough not to be soft. Or so Kathryne had thought. Yet in the end, he had abandoned her for a thin, straggly little woman who had somehow captured his heart, and left Kathryne's dreams in the dust. She had promised herself, after that, to marry the wealthiest, most handsome man she possibly could — and prove to her family that she wasn't as useless as they all seemed to think.
Shaking her head free of those thoughts, Kathryne went to heave herself upright. The chair squeaked against the hardwood floor as she shoved it back, the sound ringing in her ears. "If you'll excuse me, I have things to do."
"One last thing," Mother interjected. "Vanessa will be arriving tonight, hopefully in time for supper. Your uncle is here on business — something about hosting the year's charity ball, how dull — so Vanessa and your aunt will be coming, too."
Kathryne's stomach flipped. Oh, sweet Vanessa; perhaps once she was here, things wouldn't seem to boring around this big, quiet Manor. With another family member joining them too, the simple engagement party might be a bit more lively. Hardly the bright, busy party she had imagined, but Kathryne knew not to be fussy.
"She should be here by six o'clock."
Kathryne ducked her head in an awkward nod, then turned and darted from the room. Outside, the hall was cool — the floor was tiled, perpetually cold even through her shoes. Even the bright sun that filtered through the tall windows didn't seem to warm those tiles. Shivering slightly, Kathryne let her gaze flicker toward the foyer. It was too early yet for Vanessa, of course, but she allowed herself to feel a moment of relief. This Manor got awfully lonely with only Mother for company, and Father was hardly ever around. She could use the company.
Then she heard the scuttle of feet from down the hall, and turned to see two maids hurrying past. Kathryne stepped out of the way and offered a smile as they nodded in greeting. Then she turned to wander back up to her bedroom, passing through the long hallways, lit only by the odd window and the glowing afternoon sun.
Alone again, Kathryne had too many thoughts. The bedroom door thudded closed behind her, and she collapsed onto her bed with a muffled sigh. She sank right down into the plush mattress, surrounded by pillows and cushions of all shapes. She knew, logically, that many working-class women envied her life. That being a Lady was supposed to be glamorous and exciting. Yet… well, the truth of the matter wasn't so simple; there were complications and intricacies of this life that most people would never understand.
Marrying Alexander Crowle was just one of those things; yet it was a means to an end, an opportunity for a better life, and so Kathryne had eagerly taken the chance that he offered. Things weren't perfect — far from it — but she felt a little twist of excitement in her stomach when she thought of their engagement, their soon-to-be marriage. What would it be like, to be a Duke's wife? Alexander's wife? They weren't in love, and anyone could see that, but perhaps… well, call her naïve, but Kathryne hoped that they could still be happy together.
Vanessa stretched her back as the coachman helped her down from the narrow carriage steps. Her back popped and cracked like a woman three times her age, and she winced with each little crack that itched at her joints. The carriage journey had been too long for her taste, meandering down country roads instead of going through towns.
Then her eyes flickered to the Manor ahead, and all thoughts fled her mind. It was beautiful. The whole building was surrounded by perfectly cut green grass, dotted with magnificent magnolia bushes and small, impeccably kept apple trees. They even grew fruit — tiny red apples that probably weren't good for eating, but looked beautiful nestled among all the greenery.
And the Manor itself. Oh, it was even lovelier than Vanessa remembered. Tall, arching windows let in an impossible flood of light, and she could just picture how beautiful it was from inside, the sunshine casting patterns across the tiled floor of the foyer. It had three stories — because she remembered that the attic was also a floor in itself, as tall as the roof and ceilings were — and with over a hundred rooms, it was a sprawling mass of magnificent stone.
"It looks good," Mama chimed as she came to stand beside Vanessa, "although I don't remember the apple trees."
"They must be new," Vanessa replied softly, "either that, or it's been too long since we last visited."
"Nearly two years," Papa replied guiltily. He glanced to the coachman, beckoning for him to fetch the luggage. "I'm sorry, Dear. You must miss your brother. It was kind of him to let us stay."
To her credit, Mama didn't much look like she missed Lord Pinkerton — Uncle Albert — at all. Her nose scrunched in distaste, but she refrained from saying anything too rude. "He can be a generous man," she offered in reply, "when he wants to be." Then she shook her head, blonde hair ruffling her collar, and stepped up to the door.
Now, Papa was the Earl of Cadworth, and Mama was the sister of an Earl herself; yet Cadworth House paled in comparison to the beauty of Pinkerton Manor. When the doorman opened the doors with a flourish, Vanessa was taken aback by how lovely it looked. Somehow, the Manor was even more perfect inside than it was from the gardens, all sparkling white marble and tile.
Mama squeezed her shoulder as she walked past, perhaps sensing Vanessa's nerves. "You've been here plenty of times before," she murmured, "no need to be so nervous. I'm sure Kathryne is around here, somewhere."
"Lady Kathryne is upstairs," the doorman said kindly, "Lord Pinkerton and Lady Pinkerton, are in the drawing room. Please, let me lead the way."
It felt a little silly, being led through her uncle's house like esteemed guests. Yet Mama and Papa fell into step behind the doorman without complaint, so Vanessa did the same. The click of her heels seemed to echo throughout the quiet hall — too loud, too eerie in the otherwise perfect silence.
Just when it was beginning to feel like too much, the doorman came to an abrupt halt outside what had to have been the drawing room door. He knocked, waited, and then led them inside. "Earl and Countess Cadworth and Lady Vanessa," he said briefly, then slipped from the room as silently as he arrived.
The drawing room was nice, Vanessa supposed. The elegant white-and-cream decor was a little tacky, perhaps, but it paired nicely with the dark-blue wallpaper to avoid looking too overwhelming. The enormous windows let in plenty of light, even during the evening, and she had to admit that there was something charming about the gaudy black-and-gold fireplace, fire flickering in the depths.
"Ah, my dear sister!" Uncle Albert exclaimed. He pulled himself from his seat to hobble over to her, wrapping thick arms around Mama's shoulders before she could protest. "And little Vanessa. You were shorter, last time we spoke."
She wasn't, but Vanessa declined to comment. Instead she simply offered an awkward smile. "It's good to see you again, Uncle Albert. Aunt Annette."
Annette only inclined her head in greeting. "Our Kathryne is around somewhere. I apologize that she isn't here to greet you. The girl has been distracted lately, and I'm sure she'll be eager to tell you why."
"Oh?" Vanessa asked without thinking. Curiosity struck her, and although she tried to stuff it down, it only made her more eager to know. "Has something happened that I'm not aware of?"
"Plenty has happened, but only some of it is actually important. Kathryne is getting married — to Lord Alexander Crowle, Duke of Glottenham."
Vanessa's cheeks flushed scarlet, a small ‘oh’ of disbelief leaving her lips. She knew that Kathryne had been seeing someone, she said as much in her frequent letters… but a Duke? Well, the concept hadn't even crossed her mind. Then again, considering how few men of courting age there were here, it shouldn't have surprised her quite as much. Kathryne had always been determined to become a Duchess. "Well I think that's lovely," she said after a moment, lowering herself into the nearest seat, "when is the wedding?"
Aunt Annette smiled. "I believe Kathryne should be the one to tell you the details. It's her wedding, after all."
Mama elegantly lowered herself onto the other side of the settee, brushing invisible creases from her skirt. Papa didn't sit, but he did linger behind her with a gentle hand against her arm. "I don't believe it," Mama said quietly, "little Kathryne, getting married? Although I don't suppose she's little anymore."
"She'll be twenty-three in November," Uncle Albert replied.
Aunt Annette's smile wavered. "Twenty-four, Dear," she corrected tightly, "Kathryne will be twenty-four in November." She cast him a narrow-eyed look, one that made even Vanessa shiver. "This is what happens when you spend so much time out of the Manor, instead of with your family."
Vanessa locked eyes with Mama, her brows raised. Although she didn't see this side of the family often, given that they lived several hours away by carriage, she had always sensed that there was something strange about them. To say that Uncle Albert and Aunt Annette were dysfunctional was perhaps too harsh a word, but it seemed they couldn't say five sentences without cross words.
Mama only shrugged helplessly, her expression apologetic. To Uncle Albert, she said, "And where is Kathryne now?"
"Oh," he said distractedly, "upstairs, no doubt. She likes to hole herself in her bedroom or the library for hours at a time. I should send a maid to fetch her—"
"I'll go," Vanessa cut in. Too quick. Too desperate. "I mean, I remember the way, unless she's changed rooms recently?" When Aunt Annette shook her head, Vanessa beamed. "Then I can run upstairs and get her now. I'd like to talk with her anyway." Standing, Vanessa quickly turned and darted from the room.
She hadn't realized just how stifling it was in there, not until she was standing out in the hallway, head pressed against the cool wood of the door. It hadn't just been because of the crackling fireplace, either, but because of the thick, tangible tension in the room.
Perhaps Kathryne was getting married, but there was more to this story than anyone was letting on. Steeling her nerves, Vanessa turned to the stairs and made her way to Kathryne's room. The room in question was at the end of the East wing, nestled between the library and the spare room that Vanessa often used when she stayed overnight. She knocked twice, then sat back to wait.
It didn't take long for a fair, rose-dusted face to peek through the door. Long, thick curls were down from their usual braid, falling across narrow shoulders. The curls swung and bounced with each movement, and Vanessa couldn't help the stab of envy in her chest. Kathryne had always been the beautiful cousin.
That envy only lasted as long as it took for Kathryne to smile. "Oh, Vanessa! Come in, please." She swung the door open wider, allowing Vanessa access to the enormous bedroom. There was more than enough furniture to fill the space, however — from the four-poster bed with its creamy white sheets, to the massive oak desk in one corner, and the little sitting area by the fireplace. Kathryne beelined right for the nearest armchair, and dropped elegantly into it with a sigh.
Vanessa was a little more hesitant, feeling her heart skip as she settled into the other chair. It was soft, although not as spacious as the ones back home. "Your parents tell me you're getting married," she said immediately, lips spreading into a smile. "You never said in any of your letters! Marrying a Duke, too — how exciting."
Even as Vanessa gushed, Kathryne only managed a weak smile. She shifted in her seat, tugging at the hem of her long, flowing sleeve. "Yes well, it all happened so fast that I don't think anyone had much time to absorb the news, and Alexander only wants immediate family at the engagement party."
Vanessa didn't mean to, but she couldn't help the disappointed little frown that overtook her features. "Oh," she murmured, "how strange. I thought the whole point was to show off the engagement?" At least that was true when two of her friends got married last year — Jasper and Cecilia had thrown the most outrageous party, inviting half of the Town to the Estate for an evening of food, dancing, and wine.
Yet Kathryne smiled, and it seemed a little more genuine this time. "As I said to Mother earlier, he's a private sort of man. Alexander doesn't enjoy being in the spotlight, and I respect that. Although," she added quietly, and a teasing smile spread across her lips, "I would have liked to see what kind of extravagant evening a Duke can put together."
Lilting laughter burst from Vanessa's lips, and she threw her head to the side to try and stifle it. It only succeeded in blonde hair flying into her face, a few strands pulling loose from her intricate bun. Swiping them away, she replied, "Perhaps something quiet is better. More intimate. I haven't seen any of you in so long, and I'm sure Alexander would prefer to get to know the family, instead of weaving through party-goers and having to talk to half the Town."
Kathryne sighed. "You're right," she confirmed quietly. "I won't lie and say I'm not disappointed, but… well, it's what he wants and I can't do much to change that when it's tomorrow."
Vanessa's lips parted, a gasp leaving her lips. "You're celebrating tomorrow? Kathryne! Why didn't you say? If we'd known, we wouldn't have come the day before and not left you scrambling—
"Do I look like I'm scrambling?" Kathryne asked, a smile in her voice. "We're doing just fine; Alexander is the one doing most of the work. And you're welcome to come, of course. If anything, Uncle George's work trip was so well timed. Although, nobody ever did say why he was here."
Oh, their communication skills were awful, weren't they? Vanessa rolled her eyes and sank deeper into the armchair, feeling the pillow behind her tickle her neck. She squirmed. "You know that every two years, someone in the family takes turns to host a family ball? Well it's Mama and Papa's turn this year, and he has some old friends he wants to invite. Friends that he hasn't spoken to in a long time. He thought it better if he saw them in person first, because it feels more, I don't know. Personal?"
Kathryne nodded, a few of those reddish curls spilling down her shoulders. "I remember when Papa hosted one a few years ago. Oh, that must have been the last time that you visited, Vanessa."
Guilt flickered in her chest. Right. Two years ago, in late August, Uncle Albert had hosted the charity ball. Family and friends from all over had attended, and it had been a grand affair. At only sixteen, it had been the first charity ball that Vanessa had attended — in the hopes of finding a husband.
Kathryne frowned, her delicate brows creasing in the middle. She had misinterpreted Vanessa's silence, because she put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and said, "I'm only teasing, Nessa. Sometimes I think that seeing you so infrequently only makes it more fun when we do meet up."
That was true enough. It was terribly boring back home — now that Jasper and Cecilia were married, all they spoke about was babies and romance. It got boring after a while, being the only friend who wasn't courting or married. If she kept this up for much longer, she'd end up a spinster like her elusive Aunt Margaret, who only showed up for family meetings and then vanished again soon after.
"I think," she said after a moment, "you're right. I do always love seeing you, Kathryne."
"And I love seeing you. Now," she hopped to her feet and extended a hand to help Vanessa, too, "we should probably go downstairs before our parents think we've vanished. Well, if they notice, that is."
Vanessa was certain that her parents would notice if she was gone for too long; but she knew from her eighteen years in this family that Uncle Albert and Aunt Annette weren't necessarily the same. Self-involved was one way to describe it; and as she followed Kathryne downstairs, she felt no guilt for thinking so. She had seen the evidence herself, and it was a fair judgment.
"Marrying a Duke. I don't know how that girl managed to woo the Duke, but I shouldn't complain. It helps, of course, that she's the only eligible woman, so the decision was almost made for us."
They both paused outside the drawing room door, brows raised in question. They were obviously talking about Kathryne's engagement, but… why?
"She should consider herself lucky." It was Aunt Annette's voice, calm as ever. "If there was a single other woman to choose from, I doubt the Duke would have chosen her."
"That's a touch harsh, Annette." Papa's voice now, his irritation barely concealed behind a polite cough. "She's your daughter, be kind."
Beside Vanessa, Kathryne stiffened. She had gone sheet white, her eyes wide like two dark holes in her face. In the dim light of the hall, they were such a dark brown that they were almost black.
So Vanessa made the snap decision to cut the conversation short. She swung open the door and strode inside, towing Kathryne along with her, and they both dropped into the nearest seat — the settee opposite Mama and Papa. "We heard you talking about the engagement," she chirped, "isn't it lovely? The Duke is lucky to have a fiancée as beautiful as Kathryne."
Beside her, Kathryne sent a thankful smile. They locked eyes for a moment, chestnut brown and spring green. Then Kathryne said, "Vanessa is invited to the engagement party tomorrow. So are you, Uncle George, Aunt Julie."
"That's assuming that the Duke allows it," Aunt Annette said calmly, "don't go inviting people without permission, Dear."
Kathryne's scowl was defiant, and Vanessa felt a little flurry of respect for her. "Alexander is bringing a friend, so I should be allowed to do the same. Besides, they're family."
Aunt Annette raised her hands in defeat. She was always so calm and collected, like nothing could ruffle a hair out of place; but this time, Vanessa saw the little downward quirk of her lips. Annoyance, perhaps? Or disappointment?
Silence fell across the room, after that. It seemed that nobody knew what to say, simply waiting for someone else to break the tension. Yet nobody did, and the terrible awkwardness continued for long, horrible minutes—
Until Kathryne bounced to her feet, heeled boots clicking together. "I was going to show Vanessa the gardens! She hasn't seen the new stables yet, or visited the pond since the fish were put in. Vanessa, would you like to help me feed the fish?"
"That's the gardener's job," Aunt Annette cut in, but it went unheard.
"I'd love to," Vanessa insisted, "what kind of fish?"
"Oh, only goldfish, but they've got space to grow really big, and they look beautiful when the sky is clear, because the water almost seems to glitter under the sun."
They wandered off together, arm in arm like they used to do as children, and Vanessa couldn't help but smile. They were probably better to be out of the way, anyway; especially if Aunt Annette was going to talk to her only daughter like that. They wandered outside side by side, enjoying the weakening sunshine as the sky was just barely beginning to darken. It was a peaceful, cloudless evening after a roasting hot summer's day, and it was impossible not to feel more peaceful with the sky overhead and the breeze in their hair.
"Did you really want to show me the pond," Vanessa asked after a moment, "or did you only want to get out of that room?"
She shrugged, a reluctant smile tugging at her lips. "Both?"
"I thought as much."
"It's only that Mama has put a lot of pressure on me to find a husband, and Alexander really is the best. But even now, I can't live up to her expectations. Her standards," Kathryne said the word like it was poison on her tongue. "But I'll be married soon. A Duchess. It won't matter what she says or thinks once I'm married."
Marriage doesn't solve everything, Vanessa wanted to say. That was the opposite of helpful just now though, so she kept those thoughts to herself. Instead she squeezed Kathryne's arm and smiled, a sigh leaving her parted lips. "I'm sure you and Alexander will live a wonderful life together. I'm proud of you, Kathryne."
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