About the book
For the fruit, which is forbidden, is the sweetest of them all.
With the most disastrous coming-out ball the ton has ever seen, Susana Alvin, ward of the well-respected Duke of Bainton, must face not only her guardian’s fury but also the dawning realization that she might remain a spinster forever.
William Nielson, former captain of the Royal Navy, is hard-pressed to admit that his feelings for his brother’s captivating ward have shifted in a tremendous way since they were children.
Forced to endure grueling lessons to turn her into a proper lady and conflicted about her feelings for William, Susana finds her escape in the form of a charming suitor who has come to sweep her off her feet.
But the devil comes as everything you’ve ever wished for, and Susana and William just might be fighting a losing battle. For their enemy holds not only power but also precious knowledge of who Susana’s parents really are…
After her coming-out party in March of 1812, Susana Alvin's bosom would be the talk of London society.
Attired in one of the most splendid, pale blue silk gowns money could buy, with white feathers in her hair and jewels on the toes of her shoes, Susana clutched a cup of ice—shaved ice, flavored with syrup, and colored an appetizing shade of red by hibiscus petals and roses. It was a charming refreshment and one of her favorite things to eat.
Just a few hours into her coming-out party, people were already gossiping in hushed voices. She had consumed one ice already and was well into her second. It was not proper for a lady of breeding to eat so much, and in public no less, but Susana could not help herself. It was beyond delicious, and such a rare treat.
“You would think she had been half-starved,” Lady Dillinger murmured to her friend, Lady Grainger. They were older in years than Susana, and thusly thought themselves blessed with a divine right to judge others without hesitation.
“It is turning her lips an alarming shade of red, would you not say? Why, she looks as though she has smeared rouge upon her mouth. It is most distracting.” Lady Grainger chuckled cruelly, but Susana paid them no heed. This was a party in her honor, after all, and she was determined to enjoy it. Ice and all.
“I wonder the Duke does not stop her, before the color stains.” Lady Dillinger tutted, both of them casting disapproving looks at the young lady.
“I should say it is a matter of indulgence, judging by the way she is devouring it,” Lady Grainger interjected.
“It is such a pity when young ladies are indulged,” Lady Dillinger agreed.
The Duke had invited seemingly everyone in England to the party, and the club they had hired for the event—Almack's, of course—was full to the brim with revelers. The early spring weather was changeful, mild during the day then cold at night, so the fires had all been lit and stoked, but the temperature that evening stayed comparatively warm. Consequently, the air inside the club was close, and far too hot, with far too many people all pressed in together.
Susana felt faint already, despite the cooling refreshment of her icy treat. To put the ice down was to eschew her only physical comfort, and though she might have benefited from taking some air, she was obliged to be sociable and could not yet find the time to graciously escape to the balcony for a few moments.
Everywhere she turned, someone was eager to engage her in conversation, for the Duke of Bainton's ward had, heretofore, been a mysterious creature, oft-sheltered and seldom seen, and all of London society wanted to unearth her mysteries.
Even rumors about her had been scant, for the Duke was of unimpeachable moral character, and would say but little of his ward in public. Consequently, Susana had become an enigmatic figure, indeed. All that was known of her, was that she had red hair, and the most unfortunate freckled skin, but that she was otherwise, to hear the Duke put it, “lovely to look upon, indeed.”
From this remark, it had been supposed that the Duke might marry her himself, but the Duke had put all such suppositions to rest by declaring adamantly that he was through with marrying, after the untimely death of his beloved wife.
“I would not say she is anything remarkable,” one of the younger ladies, Lady Bernadette, the daughter of Lady Moleston, remarked to her two companions: Lady Igraine and Lady Lucille. All three had recently enjoyed their own entrances into society and did not like the scent of fresh competition for the eligible gentlemen hereabouts.
“I was thinking quite the same thing, Lady Bernadette,” Lady Igraine murmured. They were making little endeavor to be discreet, much to Susana’s embarrassment.
“All of this hullabaloo, over a rather strange creature.” Lady Lucille giggled. “Why, she almost looks as though the Duke had been hiding her beneath a rock, would you not say?”
“You are awful, Lady Lucille!” Lady Bernadette shrieked delightedly.
“Perhaps he kept her in such secrecy because he knew she ate like a prize sow,” Lady Lucille continued, at Susana’s expense. The three ladies erupted into raucous laughter, making Susana’s freckled cheeks burn.
The coming-out party of the mysterious ward was one of the most-anticipated events of the season. Everyone who was anyone was in attendance to meet Susana, to speak to her, of course, and cast their aspersions. The mothers and fathers wanted to see whether she was marriageable, whether she would do credit to the Nielsen name, and whether she could navigate the turbulent waters of London society as deftly as did the Duke of Bainton and his younger brother.
The daughters of the ton, however, wished to look upon their new rival and measure themselves against her. Meanwhile, the sons were keen to catch a glimpse of the enigma, to see if she was fair enough and charming enough to engage in a dance.
“There is a peculiar beauty about her,” Lord Exford said to his acquaintance, Captain Jeffers.
“It is a shame about her freckles, for I imagine she would have a smooth complexion if it were not for them,” Lord Exford replied.
“Will you engage her in a dance?”
Lord Exford shrugged. “Perhaps. I shall see how I feel after one or two more snifters of brandy. I may be able to look beyond the Celtic demeanor of her after that.”
For her own part, Susana did not care so much about how she was received, but more about doing credit to her guardian, the Duke. The Duke had taken her in as a small child and had been very generous in rearing her as one of their own family. He was not loving or kind, but, as the Nielsens had no girls of their own that generation, seemed to feel she could be an asset to the family by marrying advantageously, as the Duke was quite socially ambitious.
Consequently, he had taken pains to mold her into a genteel young lady who would be attractive to the aristocracy, perhaps even to someone of the royal peerage—for the Duke of Bainton was not a royal duke, though wealthy and powerful in his own right. Though his treatment of her had been harsh at times, she wanted to thank him for all his generosity by coming out graciously, and by being an asset to the Nielsen family, rather than a liability, as a ward was often assumed to be.
So it was that Susana suffered that night in late March, scarcely able to breathe for the overwhelming press of bodies in the ballroom in Pall Mall, clutching at her ice with pristine white silk gloves on her hands. She feared the syrup might stain them, but she could not set it down now.
An elderly woman dressed in lavish mourning black was talking to her, the words washing over Susana in waves. She could scarcely focus on what was being said, and, it hardly seemed to matter. The less that she said to these people, it seemed, the more charmed they were by her.
“What do you make of this season’s fashions? Do you agree with my sentiments regarding ribbons?” The elderly woman stared at her expectantly, a fan bobbing in front of her pruny old face.
“Um… yes, I quite agree.” She did not know what she was agreeing to, for she had not been listening. But it seemed to please the elderly lady well enough.
“A lady’s figure should be kept discreetly covered.” The elderly lady nodded, arching an eyebrow as she looked upon the daring cut of Susana’s neckline.
“Hmm? Oh, yes, of course,” Susana replied, lowering her spoon to take up another mouthful of ice. It tapped the glass bottom with a tinkle that sounded as if she wished to make a speech. The ice was gone. She looked down at the empty vessel in horror. “Excuse me, Lady… Linnet, I must attend on an urgent matter.” She was struggling to remember all these names.
“As you prefer,” Lady Linnet replied, pursing her wrinkled lips.
Grateful to be excused from the lady's presence, she slipped away between the bodies to find another ice. Otherwise, she was certain to faint.
As she went, weaving between gentlemen in military dress—friends of the Duke's, no doubt—someone grabbed her arm. A vile rebuke rose up in Susana's throat, for she had accepted that she might be treated like property in certain ways by certain people, but she would be damned if she would let a person's rank permit them to violate her person in any way—whether it was a grab of the arm, or anything else.
She whirled, her cheeks puffed up in righteous indignation, her immaculately groomed brows drawn down over flashing green eyes, but the words died in her throat when she met the smiling face of William Nielsen, the Duke's younger brother, and the person dearest in the world to her heart.
“William!” she cried, shoving past someone to throw her arms around him. “Oh, my dear brother, how I've missed you!”
“You did not think I would miss your coming-out party?” William grinned, and took a step back. “Let me look at you, little Susie. Why, if I am not mistaken, you look half a lady!”
“Only half?” she said, feigning a pout. “I let your brother do all sorts of horrible things to me, so that I would look fully a lady.”
“With a face like this,” said William, touching her cheek, “you may wear whatever dress you like, but you shall always be a little chickadee.”
“And you! You have become quite the gentleman!” said Susana, surveying him from crown to toe. A strange feeling came over her as she scrutinized William's person. He had been away for some months at sea, a member of the Royal Navy as all the Nielsen men were, and had obliged her by coming to the party dressed like a proper military gentleman.
His coat was deep blue, with gold braiding intricately stitched all over, which set off the golden, sun-kissed highlights in his lovely mahogany-colored hair. The blue of his coat made his chocolate-colored eyes look almost black. He had grown leaner and stronger since she last saw him, and something about the look in his eyes made it seem as though he had lost his juvenile mischief.
Indeed, Lord William Nielsen had become a true gentleman, and the shine of his black military boots told her so.
“I have done my best not to grow up quite so much,” said William, offering her his arm. “But six months on a battleship... it does affect a man, whether he wants it to or not.”
“Oh, Will, was it very awful?” Susana said, slipping her hand about his arm. William had always been hearty and much larger than she, but Susana could not help noticing that his arm was bigger than before, and much harder. Like an arm of stone. Her heart fluttered in an alarming way, and she gave Will's bicep a discreet squeeze.
“Yes,” he said simply, looking distant for a moment. Then, he seemed to come back to himself, and gave his head a shake. “But, Susie-chickadee, let us not talk of such things. Tonight is a celebration of you, and your entry as a member of polite society!”
“I am not sure how polite they are,” Susana muttered, hoping that Will was the only one who heard. She could not forget their secretive taunts. “But, it is quite a celebration. For such a solemn man, your brother has quite the talent for organizing social gatherings.”
“Indeed he does,” said Will. “Where is old Richard, by the way?”
“Much to his regret, he could not attend.” Susana frowned a little. “His health has been troubling him this winter, far worse than usual. He is ill in bed with a terrible cough.”
“Poor bastard,” William said under his breath.
“Will!” Susana laughed, aghast. “Such a thing to say of your own brother!”
The handsome young sailor only shrugged, letting Susana lead him to the refreshments, where she chose another glass of ice. Several pairs of eyes flickered at her in disapproval, and Susana keenly felt their gaze.
“This is my third cup,” she confessed to William in a low voice. “But I fear if I stop eating it, I shall faint. It is so unbearably hot in here!”
“You must realize that the ice is spiked with cordial?” Will snickered. “Not only will they think you a glutton, but a drunk as well!”
“But I cannot even taste it! Are you sure?” Now that he mentioned it, Susana did feel a trifle merry.
But she hardly had time to worry about it, for at that moment, a string quartet had assembled at the far end of the ballroom and were plucking and tuning their instruments in preparation for the first dances of the night. Mutters of excitement rippled throughout the crowd, and Susana hurried to finish her ice, for she knew she would be expected to dance, and dance, and dance.
All of London's most eligible bachelors were in attendance—as well as many of London's less-eligible bachelors who had, somehow or other, incurred an invitation either by relation or by default.
“Come, give me your first dance!” William said, leading her to the dance floor.
Susana had promised her first dance to half a dozen different gentlemen, not at all considering the logistical implications. Her chaperone, an easily distracted young woman by the name of Emilia, had vanished almost as soon as she had made her entrance into the party, leaving her to contend with all of this by herself.
Where can she have disappeared to? She scoured the crowd, just in case she happened to spot Emilia, but the woman could still not be found. Very well, then I shall have to manage alone. Besides, now she had William to aid her.
Overwhelmed by the number of people and the press of conversations, she had found herself inundated. Presently, however, she forgot about all of them, as she smiled and nodded and let William lead her to the floor, handily ignoring the other gentlemen who had begun to stalk her, to claim their dance.
While it might have been said that Miss Alvin was lacking in some of the finer social graces, everyone in attendance that night was forced to admit that she was a formidable dancer. Once the music began, the lovely young girl with the fiery red hair and awkward country charm, transformed into a whirling bluebird of enviable grace and skill.
The first few hours had been painful and awkward and had left a poor impression on the general public regarding Susana’s suitableness as a prospective wife and member of the London elite. But now, every young gentleman to take her hand in the opening reel found himself bewitched by her impish smile, her quick little feet, and her apparent ability to execute every dance with utmost precision and attention to detail.
Susana had danced at smaller functions before, but this was her first time truly dancing in such a grand public arena. She drank in the admiration like the parched earth sipped in a summer rainstorm. Moreover, she knew this fresh admiration would please the Duke of Bainton immensely, which was all she desired in order to call the evening a success.
Between the cordial, the dancing, and the complimentary glances that settled upon her, a potent sort of magic came over the young lady, wherein nothing could go wrong at all.
Until the first set of dances ended, and they were all called to dinner.
Oh goodness… The very moment she stopped dancing, the heat of the room reasserted itself. Susana felt her knees start to quiver, but before she could seek out a cold drink or some fresh air, she was beset by half a dozen young gentlemen. Some of them were sincerely offended by her forgetting to give them the first dance, while others only wanted to play at being offended, to give them the pretext to talk to her.
“Excuse me, gentlemen… I really must—” She struggled to draw breath as a cold clamminess crawled up her spine.
They ignored her words, a press of them cornering her, led by one Mr. Bradley Payne, a talkative man of means with no breeding whatsoever, who tracked Susana with eyes like a hawk.
“My, my, Miss Alvin, you are slippery this evening!” said Mr. Payne. “You promised your first dance to me, but before I could find you, you went off with Lord William!”
“Well, I… I…” Susana hesitated, as she tried to find an answer, but the men were not there to listen to what she had to say for herself. They enjoyed the sound of their own voices far too much.
“And before Payne even arrived at the party, you had promised the first dance to me!” cried another of the young men, though she could not remember his name.
They began to clamor amongst themselves, huffing and puffing and showing off in front of the pretty girl. And Susana, who truly felt as if she would faint if she stayed in the room another moment, took advantage of their inattentiveness. She slid along the wall, and crept away below eye-level, resurfacing near the stairwell, where she paused for air, gripping the banister for support.
“Are you well, dear Susie?” William had reappeared at her side and proffered her another cherry ice.
“Oh, Will, you are a treasure!” she sighed, taking the glass from him gratefully. “Always looking out for me. Why, I should be lost without you.”
“That you would,” he agreed, grinning at her. “You dance so well... I had almost forgotten how good you are.”
“And you, in your military boots, dance like an elephant!” Susana teased, grinning back at him. “I don't suppose your sea legs are very good at the reel anymore?”
“No, it shall be a while before I am re-accustomed to walking on dry land,” Will admitted. “I am sorry to have disappointed you on your special night.”
“I never said you disappointed me, dear Will, and even if you had—I could forgive you anything but murder for bringing me this ice!” Susana sighed, and tipped a spoonful of the sweet and invigorating ice between her lips.
“Come to dinner, you silly chickadee,” said William, offering Susana his arm. “You had best not have any wine, or you will be well and truly inebriated before the first course is cleared. Richard will already have quite a lecture prepared when hears that you snubbed half a dozen men for the first dance—”
“And that I ate too many ices, addressed a duchess as countess, that I laughed out loud multiple times, and that I danced with you twice as much as any of these other wolves,” said the girl, enumerating on her fingers each of her sins. “Surely there are others, but I cannot yet think of them. Offending people happens all too easily, and often by accident, I fear.”
“So long as you are doing your earnest best, no one can blame you for anything,” said Will. “Well, Richard might, but Heaven knows I shan't. Your flaws are among your best qualities, in my opinion.”
Susana looked sharply up at William, trying to discern whether he was teasing her. But he looked at the ground, his lips settled in a soft half-smile, and he seemed so very genuine about his comment that Susana nearly wanted to cry.
“And... what flaws might those be?” she prodded, for William's opinion meant more to her than the word of God Himself.
William opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the final dinner bell, and the sudden press of the crowd all heading for the dining-hall.
Susana and her companion were swept up in the tide of humanity, and Susana stumbled a little, clutching precariously at her life-preserving ice. As they walked, she turned to William again, eager to revisit the thread of their conversation, preferably in this more intimate moment between them, rather than at the dinner table, where they should be under intense scrutiny by the assembled.
She clutched at his arm and tried to re-pose her question, but someone in front of her stopped short, and with just two steps, Susana stumbled into them, and upset her ice all over the front of her frock, her bosom, and her face.
She uttered an involuntary cry of surprise, which, of course, drew everyone's attention. And there she stood, with red droplets sticking to her lashes, and the sweetened ice chips decorating the entirety of her décolletage.
Her dress bore a fantastic, pinkish-red stain from breast to navel, and her gloves looked like they had been worn to butcher a few strawberries. Most comical of all, though, was the way her chest held the bulk of the ice, as if it had been transferred to a second vessel, rather than spilled.
A moment of silence passed, so tense it made Susana's head ache, and she could not move. Not even William knew what to do, or say, until suddenly, someone laughed.
At first, it was just a nervous titter from somewhere on her right side, followed by someone else who issued a loud guffaw. Susana laughed nervously, but the crowd around her had begun to point, to stare, to jeer, to cackle, with the women hiding their mouths behind their hands and fans, and the men shaking their heads and holding their bellies. It was then that the magic wore off Susana, and she realized that she had made a complete fool of herself. These people were laughing at her, not with her.
In private, she could have laughed off the accident; but in that moment, her clumsiness on display for all the world to see, Susana felt like a prize donkey. Her cheeks burned even redder than the cordial spilled down the front of her dress. Tears pricked her eyes with the mocking laughter and a rising chorus of ridicule and derogatory remarks.
“A most improbable person, indeed.”
“Why, they never should have let that country mouse out of her room!”
“A regular blowsabella!”
“What was the Duke thinking, bringing that to London?”
In reality, it all happened in the space of a minute or so, but to Susana, it felt like a lifetime. At last, she found her wits, and, without wondering what the proper response would be, she turned round and shoved her way to the stairwell. Taking the stairs two at a time, and tripping once, she skinned her bare arms on the carpet. The stumble compounded her embarrassment and shame tenfold, until she finally was out in the street.
Humiliated and disoriented, she bypassed the carriage entirely, not wanting the footman to see her in this condition. William’s voice called out behind her, but she paid it no heed. She could not. Instead, she ran as fast as her legs would carry her, until she reached the Duke of Bainton’s house. There, she flung herself inside, and collapsed in the foyer, bawling into her ruined gloves until the housekeeper came to investigate the commotion and sent her to bed.
The Duke of Bainton was young, comparatively speaking. Ten years William's senior, the Duke was only eight-and-thirty. Yet, because of his life’s tribulations, the Duke was long past his prime.
He walked with a cane, dependent upon it to remain mobile, because of his horrific war injuries. He was thin, nearly to the point of feebleness, from frequent illness, and his skin was pale and sallow. And to make it that much worse, his hair was thinning on top. The overall effect made him seem older than he was. He might have been pathetic—might have been—were it not for the Duke of Bainton’s extraordinary poise, dignity, and imposing personal presence.
Though William Nielsen, by that time, probably weighed twice what his brother did, he was afraid of Richard. He always had been. As boys, Richard had been his idol, and winning his approval, and Susana’s, was all that he had ever wanted. And Richard made such a task almost impossible by practically never approving of anything.
Though Will had mostly grown out of his idolatry toward his older brother, he still admired Richard in many ways, and, despite his poor physical condition, he feared Richard's wrath.
William knew that Susana had far more to fear in the days following her coming-out party than he did, but he still anticipated some of Richard’s ire falling upon his own head. Richard had always disapproved of how close Will and Susana were, and whatever iniquities he found in Susana seemed to be equally William’s fault as they were hers.
The morning after the disastrous party, William sat at breakfast with his brother. Richard’s complexion was ghastly white, and there were dark circles under his eyes. His mustache, however, was trimmed to perfection, and each hair that remained on his head was combed and patted into place with pomade.
Despite his recent illness, he was fully and splendidly dressed in a jacket, waistcoat, and trousers. The only outward sign of his condition, other than his pallor, was the fact that he took only broth for the morning meal, while William took a hearty plate of sausage, muffins, syrupy prunes, and boiled eggs.
The two young men had scarcely spoken yet. The Duke was temperamental under the best of circumstances, but Will had learned over the years not to speak to him before he’d had at least two cups of tea. The silence was pregnant, but William was content to eat and be quiet, until Richard was the one who broke the silence.
“Where is Susana?” said the Duke, dabbing at his lips with a napkin.
“Oh, uh... in her room, I suspect,” said Will. “Why?”
“Less than twelve hours have elapsed, yet I have already received half a dozen notes from our associates here in London, informing me of last night’s events.” The Duke turned his unsettling, icy blue gaze on William. “What have you to say on this matter, brother?”
“Oh, uh...” William cleared his throat. “What have the notes been saying, Richard?”
The elder brother sat back in his chair and removed from the inner pocket of his jacket a sheaf of papers. He set them down, selected one, unfolded it, and read aloud:
“Your Grace ought to be informed that his ward, one Miss Susana Alvin, made a spectacle of herself at last night’s function, in more ways than one. I shall leave the particulars to her to relate to Your Grace, but Your Grace must be advised. It does not bode well for her social standing.”
Richard quirked his brows pointedly and set the note aside. He picked up another one and unfolded it with even more deliberate care than the previous. He cleared his throat, coughed a little into his handkerchief, and read aloud:
“As we have known one another for many years, Bainton, I write to you as your friend to inform you of your ward’s deplorable conduct during her coming-out party. I regret that you were not in attendance, as your presence may have had some tempering effect on her slovenly ways.”
“Slovenly!” William cried. “Who sent that? I will have a word—nay, several!” He reached for the note, but the Duke whisked it out of his reach.
“Our Susana has always been in want of greater discipline when it comes to her personal tidiness. It is a stretch of the imagination to call her slovenly, William, but my—! My mind does run riot, trying to intuit what this girl has done to receive such an evaluation on her first night in society!” The Duke leaned away from William and rested on the arm of the chair with an air of feigned nonchalance, his eyes narrowing. “What do you know of this?”
William set his jaw. “I know that Susana is a lovely girl with a good heart, and that she tries her best to fit in with these ridiculous society people. I also know that the harshness of their evaluation neither surprises me, nor strikes me as accurate!” Finally, he met his brother’s eyes. “I will not enumerate every little thing to you as some kind of inventory of her perfectly ordinary, human imperfections. It is your own fault for setting such high expectations.”
“How dare you!” the Duke bellowed with a voice far too broad and commanding for one so thin and ill. The sound resonated in the breakfast hall, and made William jump a little in his seat.
“How dare you impugn the honor of those in attendance last night by suggesting that their accounts—all of which corroborate one another—are somehow falsified? That there is some sort of conspiracy of society against your precious Susana? And furthermore, how dare you insinuate that any of it is my fault, when I have never done a thing in my life without first calculating it to be of maximum benefit to this family?” Richard’s mustache quivered with his righteous indignation. “I took in that ridiculous little girl at your behest, William, and you must answer for her!”
“You speak as if she has chewed your favorite pair of slippers, Richard. She is a lady, not a dog! For the love of God!” William cried, throwing his hands up.
“Do not blaspheme in my house,” Richard said severely, pushing himself back from the table. A servant stepped forward to hand him his cane, and to assist Richard in rising to his feet. “Go fetch her, and the both of you will meet me in the blue parlor in fifteen minutes’ time. I’ll not take no for an answer, and you let that girl know that if she refuses to cooperate, I will turn her out and have her sent to the workhouse. Is that clear?”
William, seething with anger, could not muster a polite or pertinent response.
“Is that clear?” Richard cried, thumping his cane against the floor with each word. “If you think that you are beyond my jurisdiction because you are my brother—”
“Yes, yes, all-powerful Ra'jah Sultanate Master of the Empire Richard Francis Nielsen, Duke of Bainton,” William said, barely suppressing a roll of the eyes. “I will fetch our sister immediately.”
“Do not refer to her as if she were my blood relation. She is not. And, sometimes, I suspect, neither are you.” With that, Richard left the breakfast room, his steps slow but dignified, his chin held high, and his manservant nearby, should he falter.
William watched him go, somehow both disgusted by his brother’s irascibility and infirmity; and also impressed by how commanding and decisive Richard was. He was ever the lord of the house. William envied it, in a way, for though he was a strong and capable young man in the early years of his prime, he could seldom so much as decide what to eat for breakfast.
The young and noble naval officer rose from his seat, once Richard’s uneven steps were out of earshot. Two at a time, Will took the stairs to the second floor, not wanting to further aggravate Richard by making him wait. He knocked on Susana’s door, and pressed his ear against it to listen for her response.
‘Go away!” Susana all but shouted. “Leave me alone! I am going to stay in here until I die!”
“No, you will not, for my brother is most displeased with you, and I have a sneaking suspicion he will chop down the door himself in order to remove you, if he must,” said William.
Susana shuffled about inside for a few moments, then opened the door by an inch, peering out at William.
“What do you want?” said she. Her voice was thick, most probably from crying.
“Richard must speak with you presently,” said William. “I have not seen him this upset since the Pollard children let their dogs loose on his quail.”
“Oh, no,” Susana moaned, sagging against the door frame. “I cannot face him like this, William. I feel like such a fool!”
“I care not if I am the only person in England who says it,” said William, pushing the door open a bit wider. “Miss Susana Alvin, you are no fool!”
“William, you are too good to me!” the girl wailed, hiding her face in her hands. “I did everything wrong last night, did I not?”
“Well,” said William, “more or less, yes, but—”
“But—” William took her wrists in his fingertips, marking how warm and slight they were, meaning to take her hands away from her face. It made him feel strange, however, to touch her in such a manner. Abruptly, he let go, in the interest of maintaining as much of his comportment as possible.
“But I have met women—and men—with impeccably perfect manners, who have the blackest and coldest hearts of anyone I have met, regardless of class. And you, my dear sister, have the warmest and kindest heart I have ever met, of any class.” William tucked a finger under her chin, raising her face to look into her eyes.
And all the kind and encouraging words he had meant to say went straight out of his head. In his absence at sea, Susana had gone and become utterly beautiful. He had never noticed it until now, their faces mere inches apart, with her looks full of innocence and distress.
Her eyes were green, shot through with gold and brown, and so luminescent they reminded him of a tree canopy in a young forest, shot through with sunlight, and just as sparkling. Something about her face had changed, too. Her cheeks had lost the fullness of girlhood, while her lips had gotten plumper. Freckles scattered across her nose and cheekbones, and William smiled, admiring each one from his close proximity.
She was small and delicate compared to his height and brawn, and for this he felt the urge to defend her, as he had always done. But her demeanor was also remarkable, her spirits high, and her heart pure. It only increased the protective sentiments of bygone years, making him wish he could spare her from his brother’s imminent lecture, if only to cease her apparent distress and stem the tears that glittered in her eyes.
“Are you thinking ill of me, William, after all?” said Susana, breaking his reverie. “You have gone so quiet.”
“Never, Susie. Now, come, we must go to Richard in the parlor,” said the young man, shaking his head. “His usual foul temper is compounded by illness, you know, so beware. Make haste. I will meet you there.”
Without waiting for a reply, William turned and skipped down the stairs, his thoughts perplexing him. He wondered whether all brothers had a moment in which they viewed their sisters as beautiful, as they grew older together. Or, perhaps, there was simply something wrong with him. Susana was not his sister by blood relation, but she had lived with the Nielsen family as his sibling for some thirteen years. Maybe that made his assessment less strange. She had become a beauty, there was no denying it.
Although, to hear Richard tell it, that would not do her any good toward the prospect of marriage. After the previous night’s follies, she had made herself woefully ineligible to everyone in England, even all of Europe, if the gossipmongers had their way.
Richard had taken a seat in the blue parlor in a wing-backed chair near the fire. He was reviewing some papers with deep concentration, and did not look up when William entered, and took a seat on the small couch across from him.
“Where is that girl?” Richard muttered into the papers.
“She will be along in a moment,” said William. “You ought to know, Richard, that she is as distraught as you are.”
“I can hardly believe it,” Richard scoffed, finally sparing his brother a glance. “If she had the barest notion of what has happened—of how vitally important last night really was to her social status—well, then the incident never would have happened!” The elder brother turned his head, coughing delicately into a handkerchief.
“Are you quite sure you have the strength to scold her?” William drawled. “I fear you may suffer an apoplexy with your health so far diminished.”
“Your concern is touching, my dear little brother, but I think I shall manage,” said Richard, tucking the handkerchief back into his pocket. “Ah, here she is! The wretched little barnacle herself.”
“Richard, really!” William cried, leaping to his feet.
“That is quite all right, Will, I am sure I deserve it,” said Susana, hanging her head as she shuffled into the parlor. She pulled a chair over and sat between the two brothers, looking pale and small in her dressing-gown, with dark circles around her haunted, sleep-deprived eyes.
Richard folded his papers and fixed Susana with a stare, his features neutral, but his eyes flashing with anger and disdain. “After all I have done for you,” he growled.
“I know. I am sorry!” said Susana, dabbing at her tears with a handkerchief. “I did not mean to—”
“Not nearly sorry enough, if you have yet to die of shame!”
“This has gone far enough!” William jabbed a finger at his brother’s chest. “Say what you need to, Richard, and do what you will, but you will maintain common decency with this young lady. She may have made a faux pas or two, but she does not deserve this onslaught of verbal abuse. I will throttle you myself if you continue like this. See if I don’t! I care not if you are ill or a war hero or a Duke—you will be civil, if not kind, to this lady.”
Richard looked up at his brother, and to Will’s deepest shock, he smiled. “Very good, Master William,” he said. “Be seated.”
Dumbfounded, William sat back down as near to Susana as he could be. He reached out and took her hand, which was soft and cold and small, the delicate fingers twitching nervously in his grasp.
“I have had multiple notes from friends and associates of mine, detailing your ridiculous and uncouth behavior from last night,” said the Duke, brandishing the letters to punctuate his point. “I will spare you the pain of recounting the incident in detail, for several of these friends of mine are avid gossips who seem to have been taking notes throughout the evening. You have thoroughly embarrassed me and the family name, and, what is more, you have ruined your own chances of receiving a decent proposal of marriage this season.”
“Oh, Richard, I am so very sorry!” Susana cried again.
“And you shall soon be sorrier. I will not say you’ve been ruined, Miss Alvin, but something very like it. London society does not forget easily. You will forever be known as the girl who ate so many cordial ices that she bathed in one during her coming-out party.” Richard shook his head and tutted.
“But I—” she tried to speak, but he cut her off.
“From the day that William found you and brought you home, I have exerted my every last ounce of effort to rear you into a proper young lady who would bring honor to the Nielsen name. But I see, now, that I have failed utterly. Every lesson I have tried to teach has ricocheted off the thickness of your head. Every grace I intended to bestow has been cast aside for your own ideas of wildness and frivolity. I have seen new meaning to the phrase, casting pearls before swine.”
“Richard,” William growled in warning.
“And while my brother’s staunch, chivalrous defense of your character is, no doubt, charming, it is misplaced. William, you ought to spend your energies finding yourself a wife. Unmarried at eight-and-twenty is hardly fitting for a Nielsen.” Richard’s mustache twitched. “Goodness knows I tried to relieve you of that burden, but God also saw fit to recall my beloved Amelia to Heaven, as well as our only son. My only legacy now may be improving the family’s status, which the both of you seem determined to undermine at every opportunity. Susana, by making a fool of herself. And you, William, by undertaking to be a naval surgeon, of all things, and not bothering to marry. It is—”
“I will marry when I see fit,” William interrupted, “and I hardly think that one night of social misfortune has ruined Susana forever.”
“No, it shan’t, because I have a plan,” said Richard, folding his delicate hands upon his knee. “If our mother taught me anything, it is social grace, and I think I may know how to salvage Susana’s reputation—and, by extension, our own. But, Susana, you must cooperate.”
“As you wish, Richard. I will do anything you ask,” said the girl, trying to hold back her tears, clutching at her handkerchief. “I am so sorry to have embarrassed you.”
“Save your breath for worthier pursuits. You can say nothing to ingratiate yourself to me, until you have secured a marriage proposal from someone of the royal peerage. I shall be satisfied with nothing less!” Richard spat, coughing again with the force of his words. “Oh, this dratted cough.”
“You ought to go back to bed—” said William, rising from his seat yet again. He sat back down at a forceful wave of his brother’s hand.
“I am not yet fully an invalid, nor will I ever be. I shall die before I am committed to my bedchamber like some old dowager,” muttered the Duke. “Susana, I am sending you back to Silkstone for the rest of the season.”
The girl’s eyes bulged a little, for such was practically unheard-of after a girl’s coming-out. Then again, a disaster of Susana’s proportions was likewise unheard-of.
“When I am well enough, I shall make your excuses to society. We shall tell them that you have been unwell and must return to the country to recuperate your strength.”
“But Richard, that is a lie,” said Susana. “I am perfectly healthy.”
“Ill health is the only plausible excuse for last night,” the Duke rebutted, with a look of indignation. “I should not be surprised if you really are ill. So you shall go to Silkstone to recuperate, and keep away from polite society for the rest of the season. I have determined that it is your want of proper feminine influence during your formative years, which has rendered you so willful and wanton.”
“I do not mean to be,” Susana murmured miserably.
“Therefore, I will be making an inquiry to a close personal friend of mine, the Dowager Duchess of Boroughbridge, to ask if she would condescend to spend some time with you. She may be able to refine your manners and attempt to instill in you a modicum of poise and gentility. For she is among the finest of any ladies I have ever met, with unparalleled manners and grace. If anyone can save you, Susana, it is she.”
“But when may I return?” Susana covered her mouth immediately after asking. “That is, the country is so dull, and I—”
“You have no right to object to the dullness of Silkstone when you would otherwise be facing the dullness of the workhouse!” said the Duke sharply. “However, my own social ambitions are ever at the forefront of my efforts. I am not going to all this trouble for you out of the goodness of my heart, you see. You will thank me by securing a proposal from someone of good breeding and high standing—next season, at a reprise of this party. And next season, you will redeem yourself, Miss Alvin—so help me—or I will disown you entirely, as I should have done thirteen years ago.”
Susana was visibly disturbed by this proclamation, but also had not the nerve to speak out. Her eyes bulged, and she looked as if she wanted to be sick, but she kept her handkerchief against her lips and only moved it to say, “Very well, Richard.”
“And you,” said the Duke to his brother, “you will accompany her to the country for a time. You may not have been the object of ridicule last night but being in attendance and dancing with Susana all night, you have certainly made yourself look a bit silly by proxy. You could do with some time in the country as well, dear brother, and perhaps you can take some lessons from the Dowager Duchess, as well.”
“I will do nothing of the kind!” Will spat. “Your ambitions for social grandeur have clouded your thinking, Richard, and it pains me to see it. You have characterized Susana and myself in a most uncharitable light, and I shudder to think what might happen if either of us were to sneeze in public without your consent. I find it all utterly ridiculous.” The young sailor stood and touched Susana’s arm. “Come, Susie.”
“Ridiculous it may be, but this is the world we live in,” said the Duke. “And it is my prerogative, as the Duke of Bainton, to do as I please with you and your property, William. So, you may choose between my so-called ridiculous plan, or being disinherited and turned out on the street.”
“It is no choice at all,” said William.
“No, indeed,” said the Duke. “Gather your things. You both shall be taken to Yorkshire by carriage tomorrow morning.”
William said nothing and led Susana out of the parlor. As they ascended the stairs, Susana faltered a little, and Will caught her in his arms. His protective heart leapt to hold her, so small and sweet and pure.
“Are you all right?” said Will, looking her over in concern.
“William, I confess, I was so nervous to face Richard that my knees have turned to aspic!” the girl said with a bewildered laugh. “How one man can be so fearsome yet so weak in form, I will never know!”
“He does have a gift for it,” William muttered. “Well... there is one upside to spending the rest of the year at Silkstone.”
“What is that?” Susana held his arm as she ascended the last of the stairs, and Will could feel her unsteadiness. He clasped her hand a bit tighter.
“We will be able to ride whenever we please, and I shall finally beat you at racing!” cried William, laughing. He had hoped to cheer her with this, but Susana only forced a smile, and nodded. The seriousness of the situation had evidently begun to dawn upon her. It had on William, too. His brother did not make threats idly. Susana needed to prove herself or be turned out. And besides that, William had a sinking sort of feeling in his belly that, all talk of horse-racing aside, this summer in the country would not be as simple and carefree as either of them would have liked to think.
And he was right. They did not yet know it, but that night at Susana’s coming-out party had changed their lives forever, and it would be many months, or even years, before William or Susana would know carefree simplicity again.
The sunset upon Silkstone Manor was a splendid sight, indeed. As the carriage came around the bend in the gravel road, Susana could see the hill upon which the enormous country house sat. The house itself was thrown into shadow by the brilliant sky behind, glowing golden and deep pink, shot through with the lavender streaks of nightfall snagged upon wisps of cloud.
“We are hardly ever here in the springtime,” Susana remarked, as they drove past a line of pear trees in full bloom. “How lovely!”
“Indeed,” said William, relaxed back into his seat across from her, his eyes dark and flashing, and fixing her with a queer expression.
“You have hardly said two words to me since we left London, Will Nielsen,” said the girl, folding her arms, one brow quirked in irritation. “Have I upset you?”
“On the contrary, my good sister, your presence is a balm on my troubled spirit. It is Richard who has disturbed me.” Will looked out the carriage window, unsmiling. “While I have no doubt he has your best interests in mind, this all seems rather an excessive response to a single night of social blundering. It rather makes me question his mental state.”
“William, you mustn’t speak so unkindly of Richard,” Susana chided as gently as she could. “While I know Richard bears no love for me, he has always shown me a certain... generosity.”
“And now, he treats you as some kind of pawn,” growled Will. “It does not seem right to me, that he would have you marry someone of the royal peerage, or else turn you out into the street.”
“Do you really think he would?” Susana bit her bottom lip, twisting her fingers together anxiously. “I know that the Duke is a very serious man, but I cannot take such a threat seriously. It is a bit ridiculous. After last night, I do not care how long I spend at Silkstone. No royal shall ever want me.”
“Exactly,” Will muttered, and settled into a moody silence that stretched on and on until the carriage reached the driveway summit in front of the manor.
Susana had rather hoped that her personal embarrassment would serve as punishment enough, but Richard’s threat was beginning to seem more serious, and Will’s mood was further troubling her.
As they disembarked the carriage and settled in the parlor for tea and refreshments, Will’s mood grew darker and more withdrawn. And while Susana had surmised by now that the situation was dire, there seemed more than that on her beloved brother’s mind.
“Are you worried about Richard’s health?” Susana prompted, sipping her tea. “You know he is as tenacious as he is mean, he will be all right.”
“Yes, I know,” said William. “I am in a queer sort of mood, Susie, please pay it no mind. I did not sleep well last night, and... well, truth be told, I am worried, but not about Richard. I worry for you.”
“For me?” Susana laughed a little. “Oh, I will be all right, William. It is nothing to be so morose about.”
“If Richard decides to turn you out, there is nothing I can do to stop him,” said the young man, shaking his head. “I will do all I can to help you, Susana, but if the Duke of Bainton is determined to deliver you to an ill fate, then he will.”
Susana drew herself up in indignation. “Well, I care not for your tone, William James Nielsen! You act as if I have no say in my own fate, but perhaps my part is greater than you think. Why, perhaps I shall become such a wonderful, splendidly-mannered lady that I shall secure a proposal from the Crown Prince himself.”
With that, Susana stood and strode across the room. Mid-stride, William said her name, “Susana,” and she paused, sparing him the smallest glance over her shoulder.
“Yes?” said she.
“You are going out for a ride, aren’t you?”
“Well...” Susana twitched her shoulders. “It is a fine evening, and I am sure my pony could use the exercise, and—”
“If you go unchaperoned, Richard will certainly hear of it,” Will cautioned.
“You will not tell on me?” Susana whirled and glared at him.
“Of course not,” Will scoffed. “But you know he will hear of it, all the same.”
“Well... well...” Susana fidgeted a little. “Well, then, oughtn’t you to accompany me, like a gentleman?”
“I thought you were cross with me,” he said with a barely-concealed smile.
“I am,” she muttered. “But the only remedy for me is a ride on the moors at dusk, Will of Bainton, and you will come with me or I will go alone, I care not.”
“Fine, fine.” Will hopped to his feet. “I should hate to see you sent to the workhouse over a horseback ride.” He fell in step beside her and offered her his arm. “I never could understand why the Duke always thought you were such a bother... until now.”
“You are horrid to me!” Susana cried, but she took his arm, nevertheless. Not because it was proper, but because holding Will’s arm made her feel a certain way. As if she were wrapping a warm blanket about her shoulders during the first snow flurries of winter.
She felt that certain way all the way out to the stables. As eager as she was for a ride, it was difficult to let William go. She had come to associate him with comfort and protection, and to release his arm now would have meant shedding that security, however temporarily.
However, as they saddled the mares in a hurry and raced against the darkness, the angles of his profile against the sunset’s glow made her insides all ticklish and warm. His musical laughter made her laugh, too, and she was deeply pleased to see him lifting out of his sour mood. Watching him sit astride his horse, so gallant and strong, made Susana feel a bit dizzy—a bit silly—and she wondered at the meaning of such strange feelings. She had no such feelings for Richard, yet Richard was as much her brother and guardian as William.
They rode until darkness finally fell, with Susana following the sound of Will’s voice across the fields, and the percussion of his horse.
“You will lead me astray; I am certain of it. Riding in the dark—whatever next? Perhaps you are every inch the rogue Richard believes you to be.” His pleasing tenor lilted with laughter as he teased her.
“Would that I was. Then I could understand his disapproval of me,” she replied, chuckling. “If he thought spilling a cup of ice upon myself was an embarrassment, maybe I should do something more worthy of his ire.”
Now far removed from the site of her epic personal disaster, they made light of her foibles. And, as the night chill set in, and they could no longer see far enough to ride, they returned to the stables. There, Susana took the saddle off her beloved pony, and Will came over to lift it off for her. Standing so close to him, a sudden thought came into her head, unbidden. I might like to kiss you.
Now Susana was at a loss, for William had always been her only friend and closest confidant, but she could not express such a thing to him. The words would not come. And even if they did, what if he hated her for it? Or worse, what if he laughed?
I must keep such ludicrous ideas to myself. She blamed it upon the fresh air and the excitement of the ride, creating such unusual thoughts. And yet, she could not help but steal a few more glances at him as he stowed away the horses’ accoutrements with the aid of the stable master. She liked that he preferred to do things by himself, instead of relying upon help. It made him seem so much more masculine, somehow.
After returning indoors, they had a quiet supper, talking and laughing later still into the evening. More than once, upon seeing the candlelight sparkling in her adoptive brother’s eyes, Susana had that wild urge again. What on Earth has come over me? She could not comprehend it.
He was a handsome man, of course, not to mention charming. He was kind, and intelligent, and of abundant good humor, too. Perhaps it was only natural for a sister to have such feelings for her brother, if he were as uncommonly perfect as Will? But that hardly seemed the case—marrying one’s brother was practically unheard-of, except for all those crowned heads of Europe whose children were small and sickly.
It is an unnatural idea… It should have nauseated her, but it did not.
Even the notion of sickly children was not a strong enough thought to deter Susana’s mind from her meandering thoughts about Will. Her heart strained at the confines of her chest as she watched him eat dessert. All her muscles trembled as she watched him sip wine and grimly recount tales from his time at war—which he made no secret about editing heavily for her sake. And when he announced that he was tired, and wanted to go to bed, Susana could not explain the tears that formed in her eyes, or the lump in her throat which made her all but whisper a choked sort of, “Goodnight.”
She was cold. So cold. Sick, hungry, and starved.
Papa was a good man and a hard worker, but he gambled too much. Mama had six children to look after. All their livelihood had been packed into a single, rickety wagon to make the long migration from their rural hometown in Upper Yorkshire, southward to London, where Papa hoped to make his fortune. Or, at least escape his many gambling debts.
They had been poor for a long time, and all the children took turns flirting with serious illness. That winter, as they rode south, Susana was ill with pneumonia, and too weak to keep herself in the wagon. As Papa drove the weary mule over a stone bridge, little Susana had fainted. The jostling of the wagon sent her slipping right out the back, taking with her a few of Mama’s prized linen towels, by accident.
It was then that a young William Nielsen was out playing with a few of his friends, rough-housing and throwing snowballs, and they stumbled upon a half-dead, half-starved, frozen little child laying on the banks of a river.
That moment, William became the heart of Susana’s entire world. Her savior. He had knelt at her side and removed his own coat, so he might wrap it about her like a broken bird. His sympathy had been her first hazy impression of him, laced with an earnestness to see her brought back to health.
Commanding his friends’ help, they carried Susana back to Silkstone Manor. When she woke, she had little recollection of her family or where they were going—which was no surprise, given how sick she was. Her name was Susana Alvin, and her Papa and family were going to London, and that was all that she knew.
Richard advertised in the papers in an attempt to find the Alvins, but to no avail. On more than one occasion he threatened to send Susana to the workhouse, but William had always stepped in, having none of it. It was not Susana’s fault that she had been lost, and she did not deserve such a cruel fate as the workhouse.
Nevertheless, Richard maintained his stoical opposition to keeping her at the house, but never found it in himself to send her away. The Nielsen boys had lost their father just a year before, during the French Revolutionary War, and both had shed tears enough. William’s tears over Susana had ultimately earned her the title of the ward of the Duke of Bainton.
The memories recurred to Susana in dreams very often. She dreamed of her family, of her mother and father, of her brothers and sisters. She dreamed of their old home in Upper Yorkshire, which she recalled but dimly, and she dreamed of the day she had been lost, and nearly died. She dreamed of when she woke, and that strange older boy with the handsome brown eyes who had been holding her hand. And his coat about her shoulders.
That night at Silkstone Manor, Susana dreamed of falling again. And, more vividly, she dreamed of the first time she saw William’s face. She woke with tears in her eyes and a strange pain in her chest, which she was certain was not illness… but something deeper.
For one week, she and William had the house—and each other—to themselves.
It was a lovely reprieve. They rode together, ate together, played at cards and music together, they even went out for a hunt together. Essentially, William indulged all of the unladylike pursuits that Susana so treasured, because he did not seem to care a whit whether she sang bawdy drinking songs or did needlepoint, so long as she was happy.
But it could not have lasted.
Just as they were settling into a contented routine, the arrival of the Dowager Duchess of Boroughbridge threatened their peace, and a sinking sort of feeling in Susana’s belly told her that things were about to change.
Susana had a picture in her mind of what a widowed woman of breeding ought to be like: gray-haired, dressed in black, ugly, and dull. She thought the Dowager Duchess would teach her better table manners, or perhaps more suitable topics of conversation, or even how to stifle her laughter in public. Susana thought the Duchess might stay for a few nights, then return to her own nearby country estate, and leave Susana to her own devices for the rest of the summer.
Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
Susana waited in the parlor while William met the Dowager Duchess at the foyer. She stood when she heard them approaching, and prepared to say her greetings, but upon seeing the lady in question, the words died in Susana’s throat.
The Dowager Duchess was practically an angel: a tall woman of less than forty years, with immaculately-coiffed blonde hair. Her afternoon dress was of cream-colored silk and many yards of the finest French lace, accented by half a dozen ropes of pearls about her neck and wrists. She carried herself with impeccable posture and a certain regal stiffness that said she would sooner be carried off the edge of a cliff by the wind than let it compromise her physical bearing. She had a very handsome face, which was smooth and pale and affixed with a very small, agreeable smile, and her slender arm was clasped in Will’s.
For some reason, this last fact made Susana feel a little bit ill. She stared at the Dowager Duchess’s elegant hand, resting on the stiff blue fabric of William’s sleeve, and swallowed the venom that wanted to rise up within her. The Widow smiled at her, and Susana was forced to admit that there was something altogether likable in those eyes.
“Susana, dear, this is Catherine, Duchess of Boroughbridge,” said William, by way of introduction. “Your Grace, this is our dear sister, Miss Susana Alvin.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Alvin,” said the Duchess, proffering her hand and dipping into the most elegant curtsey that Susana had ever seen.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Your Grace,” said Susana, trying to mimic the lady’s curtsey. Susana knew how to curtsey, of course, but could not execute it with near the same level of balletic grace and poise as the storied widow before her.
“Oh, dear, my darling Richard was altogether too generous in describing your want of education,” said the widow, clucking her tongue. “I see we have quite a bit of work to do.”
“I suppose so,” said Susana through gritted teeth. Although she did perhaps want some improvement, she did not need all that much improvement, and the Dowager Duchess looked at her as if she were a piglet squirming about in the mud.
“Well, our dear Duke has arranged for me to stay for some two months, but I am not entirely sure that will be sufficient!” The widow clasped her hands and shook her head. “I suppose we ought to start by my evaluating your manners. I shall simply observe you in your natural state for a day or two, and then the work shall begin.”
Only, it was not a matter of a day or two. Instead, the Dowager Duchess observed her for an entire week, evidently deeming her a woefully desperate case. The Dowager Duchess lived and ate at Silkstone Manor alongside Susana and William, following Susana’s every move. She carried a small notepad and a stub of pencil, making note of every last flaw in Susana’s behavior, seldom verbalizing her thoughts, but only marking them with a tsk, tsk, and a shake of her head.
Susana grew so used to the tsking that it became a sort of metronome about her day. Apparently, everything about her was in need of improvement—from the way she combed her hair, to the way she drank her tea, even to the way she danced, which Susana had thought was her one socially-redeeming quality.
“No, no,” the Dowager Duchess explained. “You dance with entirely too much enthusiasm. It is not proper for a lady to show as much emotion in public, you know.”
“But men show emotion in public all the time!” Susana cried. “Men can laugh out loud, and get angry, and dance however they please.”
“But you are not a man, are you?” said the widow, patting her hair. “Do not fret, my darling Susana. Dear girl, it is not entirely your fault that you act like a man, having been raised by two of them. But, fret not, the Duke has given me leave to stay for as long as I should require, to mold you into a picture of feminine charm and poise. When I am through with you, darling, you will indeed be fit for a king.”
To which Susana said, under her breath, “One can only hope.”
At last, the Dowager Duchess announced that her tutelage should commence. She spent several days in an ascetic sort of isolation, occupying Richard’s desk in the library and writing, writing, writing. She took hardly any food or drink, only tea and a biscuit here and there, and Susana prayed she would stay there until she starved to death. For while the Dowager Duchess wrote—composing her curriculum, no doubt—Susana had Will all to herself again.
Covertly, they went out to ride, after telling Dowager Duchess they would be out on the moors. This was not technically untrue. They did ride across the moors quite a bit, and even broke at mid-day for a picnic on a hill, surrounded by the wildflowers of late spring. The hillside was bathed in sunlight, with white butterflies flitting all around them.
Soon, Susana forgot all about the Dowager Duchess, and only saw William, who helped her down from her saddle. The Dowager Duchess had begun her regimen by restricting Susana’s diet, and Susana found herself utterly lacking in energy.
“She says that is the point,” Susana muttered, steadying herself against Will’s shoulder as she dismounted. Her cheeks flushed with Will’s hand on her waist. Her head swam, and in spite of herself, Susana hoped she would swoon into Will’s arms. “She says that if I am hungry enough, I shall lose my spirit.”
“What a horrid thing to say,” said William, scowling to himself, and holding on to Susana several moments longer than were strictly necessary to help her off her horse. His gaze roved over her face. “I hope you never lose your spirit, Susie, and I have brought enough food in our picnic today to give you spirit for the next two days. I hope you eat until you can hardly breathe and give the Dowager Duchess all the spirit you can muster.”
Tears sprang to Susana’s eyes with these words, and she did not know why. Will seemed to have the power to bring tears to her eyes rather frequently these days. This was a new development, as he had only made her cry in past years on the very rare occasion he might pull her hair or try to provoke her in some other, older-brotherly way. But William had lost all interest in provoking her since his return from war, and his tenderness toward Susana made her tremble.
Was he always this way, and I simply did not notice? Or perhaps life had softened him? Perhaps, instead of becoming hard and mean like his brother, William responded to life’s trials by becoming more gentle and kind? A tear escaped her eye—for the first time since they came to Silkstone Manor. At least, in William’s presence.
“No one has ever accepted me like you,” Susana murmured, her hand resting on Will’s shoulder. She was still in his arms. The wild urge to kiss him stole over her again, and she resisted, but only just. “You make me feel so strangely these days, Will.”
I hardly know what has happened to me.
“It is the country air. It can have that effect,” he said, tucking a flyaway strand of hair behind her ear. “You are pale, sister. Let me help you sit down.”
“I am sure I can manage,” Susana said, though she let William help her, all the same.
He had spread out the blanket, and lowered Susana to the grass. She reclined slightly, and watched him heft the enormous picnic basket, and set it on the ground. She admired him, everything about him, as he unpacked the lunch—not only because she was hungry, and grateful to him for feeding her, but because he looked so dashing while doing it.
He wore civilian clothes that day, quite casual in breeches and a waistcoat with no jacket, his shirtsleeves brilliant white and glowing in the midmorning light. She noticed his strong jaw and broad shoulders, and the way his hands were so big and powerful, but he handled the fine china plates with utmost care and delicacy. Surgeon’s hands, they were, much to the Duke of Bainton’s chagrin.
William had always had an affinity for medical practice, and though Richard forbade him from becoming a general physician—too common an occupation for a Nielsen, apparently—William had gotten his own way, by becoming a surgeon in the Royal Navy. Richard had been apoplectic with anger, but he could not argue. William was a good soldier, and a good surgeon, and was about to make rank again, after his shore leave. He was not at all warlike, though, and had found a way to go to war without harming anyone. In fact, he healed the damage done by the war, didn’t he?
I do believe I am falling in love with my own brother, Susana reflected, as William served her a plate of cold meat, bread, and lots of butter.
“Richard seemed awfully adamant about having you marry,” said Susana, picking at her plate with one pinkie extended. “Had you, uh... met anyone at my party? Surely it was your first chance to socialize since you came ashore?”
William glanced at her, as he filled his own plate. “Um, no... I cannot say I had met anyone. I was far too busy looking after you, my wayward chickadee.”
Susana smiled to herself. “I am sorry to have been such a distraction to you.”
“Do not be sorry,” said William, touching her shoulder. “I am as happy to do it today, as I was the day I found you. I feel as if God created me, just to look after you.”
“Will! Such a thing to say!” Susana cried, flushing with pleasure. “It is... quite a shame you shall have to look after a wife one day, instead of me. I ought to be green with envy for whomever she may be.”
At this, William fell silent, and uncorked a bottle of wine. He poured it into a glass, and sipped it, his lips pressed together tight.
“It is a shame we are not crowned heads of Europe, who may marry their brothers and sisters as they please. Then you could look after me forever.” Susana chuckled, as if she were only teasing. “But... it would be awfully untoward for us to be married, would it not?”
“Richard would surely burst into flame, he would be so angry,” William mused. “He would never let it happen, even if it were not... untoward, as you say.”
Susana tucked into her plate, feeling queer, feeling as if that spark inside of her that warmed toward Will had just been dimmed. There was still a warmth there, but the tone of Will’s voice made her heart feel quite cold, and she knew in that moment that whatever love she felt for William could never be more than that of a sister for her brother.
Even as her entire body and soul yearned to confess her undying adoration for him, Susana swallowed it, and her appetite waned. She set the plate aside, and forced herself to smile, because if she did not fake a smile, she would cry out and wail until it echoed across all of County York and startled every cow and chicken within reckoning.
“Most untoward,” she murmured. “I think the Dowager Duchess’s restriction is having an effect on me, William. Suddenly I am not hungry.”
“All the better,” Will mumbled. “Members of the royal peerage do not make proposals to ladies like you. The Dowager Duchess shall have to transform you entirely into a different person. She will starve you until you’re nothing but a wisp of air, and just as spiritless. Until you are so fatigued you lose all your sense and all your imagination and are too weak and silly to do anything but sit in the parlor and gaze out the window with eyes like a taxidermic doe.” William threw his plate aside and leapt to his feet, and paced around the picnic perimeter, riffling a hand through his hair.
Susana looked up at him, baffled by this response, then turned to her wine glass and said, “Well, yes, William, as I am not permitted to do anything untoward, I must bend all my energies on becoming more desirable to someone more... toward. You must understand how important this is for me, and for you, and for Richard. I must do credit to the Nielsen name, to honor Richard and all he has done for me... and to honor you, for looking after me.”
“Susie…” He trailed off, as if he wanted to say something but could not.
Undeterred, she proceeded. “I shall find someone else to look after me, so that you may be free to speak to other ladies at parties and suchlike. The Dowager Duchess knows what she is doing, and I... I must trust her, Will, or Richard will send me away, and I will never see you again.” She struggled to her feet, trembling with emotion, and was disappointed that William did not help her. But when she turned to approach him, he was standing some feet away, arms akimbo, staring back toward the house.
“Well, it very well may happen anyway, as I believe the Dowager Duchess is coming this way right now!”
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