About the book
“There was nowhere I could go that wouldn't be you…”
Lady Grace Birks, daughter of the Duke of Leosted, would like nothing better than to spend the holidays with her nose stuck in one of her novels. However, her plans are quickly ruined when her father forces her to spend Christmas with a man she despises: her very own betrothed.
With their last encounter a complete disaster, Blaise Keats, Marquess of Kirlow, is certain that he and Grace will never get along. With his responsibilities weighing heavily on his shoulders after his father’s passing, he knows this betrothal is sure to drown in misery. Until the day he finally sees Grace again, that is.
Led into a false sense of security by their budding feelings for each other, Blaise and Grace forget that even roses have thorns. Thorny vines that tighten around Blaise’s neck when Grace goes missing. Punished for sins that were never his own, his only clue is a trail of sapphires marked in blood.
At five-and-ten years of age, Blaise Keats could think of a dozen things he would rather be doing than staying at Leosted Manor for the summer.
“There’s nothing to do there,” he protested as the carriage bore him and his family south. “Why can’t the Duke and his family come to our estate instead?”
“You know perfectly well why,” his mother said. “The Duke and his family spent last summer at our estate, and it’s only right that we should take turns. It’s our turn to travel to them this summer.”
“I don’t understand why we have to spend every single summer in their company anyway,” he said. “I had hoped to spend time with Percy this summer.”
“You see plenty of your friends during the year,” his mother said. “You’ll survive a couple of months without Percy for company. And to be frank, that’s another reason for us to go to Leosted Manor rather than hosting them at our home. You spent far too much time last summer away from the Manor with your friends. Our guests saw too little of you. It was inappropriate.”
“They bore me,” Blaise said. “The Duke has you and Father for company, and as for his daughter… she’s a child.”
“She may be a child now,” Blaise’s mother allowed. “But you know full well that an arrangement has been made between our family and hers. One day, the two of you are to be married.”
Blaise couldn’t imagine that. His family had been spending summers with the Duke of Leosted and his daughter for the past seven years, ever since Lady Grace’s birth. When he thought of her, he imagined the six-year-old child he had known last summer, not a young lady he might one day marry.
Then again, it was difficult to imagine marrying at all. The only thing Blaise really wanted to do was to spend more time in the company of his friends. He knew that Percy would be spending his summer exploring their local town, riding his horse, and hunting with his father. Blaise would rather have done all of those things than to waste his days in stuffy old Leosted Manor trying to find ways to pass the time.
“I expect you to be friendly to Lady Grace this summer,” his mother said. “Do your best to forge a connection of some kind with her.”
“That’s impossible,” Blaise said. “Even if she weren’t a child, all she wants to do is read.” He remembered well the past summer and the way Lady Grace had spent day after day in the Kirklow Manor library, pulling down one book after another. He had been certain that she wasn’t actually reading them—surely a six-year-old child couldn’t really read?—but she had sat with them for hours, turning the pages, and she never seemed to grow bored.
“Why couldn’t you marry Tom or Reginald to her?” he asked. “They would be a better match.”
Tom, Blaise’s next eldest brother at age three-and-ten, looked up. “Don’t look at me,” he said. “This is your burden to bear, brother.”
“Stop that talk,” their mother scolded. “To wed the daughter of the Duke and unite our families is no burden, Tom. It is an honor. Blaise should be proud to be tasked with such an important responsibility.”
Blaise shrugged and sat back in his seat, gazing out the carriage window at the passing countryside. It was difficult to imagine taking pride in a situation in which he had no choice. The Duke of Leosted and his own parents had made the arrangement to unite their families years ago, shortly after Lady Grace’s birth. Blaise had been only eight years old at the time. He had no clear memory of his life without Lady Grace’s presence. She had always been there, a presence waiting for him in his future when the two of them were old enough for one another.
Reginald leaned forward. He was ten years old, and the middle child of the family. “I will marry Lady Grace, Mother,” he volunteered. “I think she’s pretty.”
“I’m afraid not, Reginald,” their mother said. “In order to properly unite our families, Lady Grace must marry your father’s eldest son and the heir to his lands and title.” She shot a glance at Blaise. “As Blaise well knows. This is not a matter that can be negotiated. There is only one viable option.”
Blaise sighed. “You and Father should not have made this arrangement without consulting me,” he said.
“You were a child, Blaise. Ought I to have asked an eight-year-old boy for his opinion on the matter?”
“This is why arranged marriages are a terrible idea,” Blaise said. “Everyone should have some say in who they are to marry.”
“Blaise, for God’s sake,” his mother said. “The way you carry on, one would think you were the first person in the world to ever have an arranged marriage.”
“Well, nobody else I know has one,” Blaise said.
“I highly doubt that’s even true,” his mother said.
“Percy has two older brothers. He is hardly in the same position you are.”
“I don’t see why I should be punished for being first born,” Blaise said. “It’s not my fault I’m the eldest.”
“Blaise,” his mother said. “Someday, when you’re a bit older, you’ll understand that none of this has been done to punish you. Your father and I were trying to help you when we made this arrangement. We want to see you happy and successful. And we want you to prosper from a union with the Duke of Leosted and his family. This is a good thing. It will benefit us all.”
“I still say it’s unfair,” Blaise said.
“Well, say what you like,” his mother said. “But I expect you to devote more time to getting to know Lady Grace than you have in years past. She is old enough now for the two of you to become a bit better acquainted. I want to see you spending time in her company.”
“She’s only seven,” Blaise protested. “What am I to do with a seven-year-old girl?”
“You manage well enough with your sisters.” Blaise’s mother indicated Margaret and Cleo, aged seven and five years respectively. Margaret had watched their entire conversation with wide eyes, clearly fascinated by her brother’s grown-up concerns. As for Cleo, she had been asleep with her head on Reginald’s shoulder for the past hour.
“Margaret and Cleo are different,” Blaise said. “At least they like to have fun. I can play hide and seek with them, or we can run around in the yard and have footraces. Lady Grace doesn’t like to do any of those things.”
“She’s a young lady,” his mother said. “She’s the daughter of a duke.” She turned to her own daughters. “Perhaps the two of you might learn something from Lady Grace’s example this summer,” she added. “You ought to spend more time with her too, Margaret.”
Margaret nodded, her eyes bright. “I want to be friends with Lady Grace,” she said. “Is she really my age?”
“You know she’s your age,” Blaise said, his frustration with his family now extending to his sister. Ordinarily, he got along very well with Margaret, but today it felt like everything was an irritation. “You’ve spent every summer of your life with her.”
“I know that,” Margaret said. “But I don’t remember how old she was.”
“She’s the same age as you are,” Blaise’s mother said. “In fact, the two of you were both born in the month of December.”
“Wow,” Margaret said.
“And when Lady Grace and Blaise marry, she’ll become your sister,” their mother went on. “Won’t that be lovely?”
“Yes.” Margaret looked over at Cleo. “I’d like to have a sister my own age.”
Thankfully, the carriage pulled to a stop. Though Blaise wasn’t excited to be arriving at Leosted Manor, he didn’t think he could bear any more talk of his marriage to Lady Grace. At least he would be able to get away from his family for a while.
They all got out of the carriage. The Duke was waiting for them. Standing beside him in a pale blue gown that matched her eyes, her black hair falling in curls about her shoulders, was Lady Grace.
Blaise’s father strode over to the Duke and bowed. “Your Grace. Thank you, as always, for your hospitality.”
“It’s a pleasure to see you and your family again, Lord Kirklow,” the Duke said. “We’re so pleased you’re able to be with us for another summer. I trust your journey was pleasant?”
“Pleasant enough, thank you,” Blaise’s father said.
“My staff will take your things to your rooms for you,” the Duke said.
“Perhaps my daughters and I will retire to freshen up,” Blaise’s mother said. “We’ve had a long journey.”
“Of course,” the Duke said. He beckoned to his butler. “Carlton will show you to your rooms. If you’d like to meet us in the sitting room whenever you’re ready, we’ll have tea.”
“Lovely.” Blaise’s mother started to follow Carlton away, but before she left, she leaned in toward Blaise. “Speak to Lady Grace,” she hissed.
Blaise suppressed a sigh. He had no desire to engage the girl standing before him in conversation. But his mother would be asking his father later if he had complied with her wishes, and he knew it was best to do as she had asked and avoid any later recriminations.
“Good day, Lady Grace,” he said, bowing slightly. “It’s a pleasure to see you once again.” He couldn’t help remembering as he spoke that Margaret had confessed to not remembering Lady Grace’s age. Surely Lady Grace would have no clear memory of him.
She curtseyed. “Welcome to Leosted Manor, My Lord,” she said. “We’re so glad you could be with us for the summer.”
Her parents must have told her to say that.
There was no way she had thought of such a statement on her own.
Still, she had gotten his name right. She appeared to know who he was. And that was rather impressive for such a young girl.
But what was he going to do with a whole summer in her company? His parents were asking too much, expecting him to spend every summer with her. It was bad enough that he would someday be forced to marry her. Couldn’t he at least have these few years to himself before that day arrived?
He had done his duty. He had spoken to Lady Grace, as his mother had ordered. Now he addressed the Duke. “If you don’t mind, Your Grace,” he said, “I’m a bit exhausted from the journey. Perhaps I’ll skip tea, and take a nap instead.”
“Of course,” the Duke agreed. “Do you recall where your room is?”
“Is it the same room I stayed in the last time I was here?” He knew it would be. He had been given the same room every time he’d visited Leosted Manor. The one good thing about being a guest here was that he was the only member of his family who wasn’t required to share a room. He knew that his sisters and his brothers enjoyed the vast suites they shared with one another, but Blaise wanted nothing more than a little privacy.
“I’m sure your things are already up there waiting for you,” the Duke said. “Will we see you for dinner?”
“Yes, Your Grace.” He might be able to get away with a nap right now, but his parents would never forgive him for missing the first dinner of the summer.
He made his way into the Manor and up the stairs that led to the familiar bedroom, wondering what Percy might be doing right now. Something exciting, no doubt.
And meanwhile, Blaise was stuck here with no one for company but his siblings and Lady Grace.
It was going to be a very long summer.
Fifteen Years Later
“Grace, put that book down now and come with me. Your father has made a hire.”
Grace marked her place carefully in her book and set it on the table beside her, then rose to her feet. She had recently passed her twenty-first birthday, so she had known that this day was coming up quickly. Still, she couldn’t help feeling a bit nervous. The person she was about to meet would, if all went well, be with her for a long time.
“Have you met her, Mrs. Stone?” she asked anxiously.
The housekeeper smiled. “I haven’t, but I trust your father’s judgment. He hasn’t made a bad hire since I’ve been in his service. Just look at how long most of the staff have been with us here at Leosted Manor.”
That was true. Most of the staff had been in place longer than Grace could remember. His father’s employees were very loyal to him, and to the family, and he repaid their loyalty in kind. Grace couldn’t remember the last time there had been a new hire.
But now that she was of age, she was in need of a lady’s maid. In fact, the filling of that position had already been put off for several years too long, because Grace had been so attached to her childhood governess. But this year her governess had been ready to resign her post, and everyone had agreed that it was time for a change.
Grace and Mrs. Stone made their way into the sitting room. Her father sat opposite a plain-faced, simply dressed young woman.
“Grace,” her father said as she entered the room, “This is Veronica Hughes. Miss Hughes, my daughter, Lady Grace.”
“My Lady,” Veronica said, rising smoothly to her feet and sinking into a curtsey. “I look forward to serving you.”
“Is this your first position, Veronica?” Grace asked. She was surprised at how youthful the woman looked—likely only a few years older than Grace herself.
“Yes, My Lady,” Veronica said.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll do very well,” Grace assured her, wanting to make her feel at ease.
“Thank you, My Lady,” Veronica said.
“You will report to Mrs. Stone, Veronica,” Grace’s father said. “She will show you to your quarters and help you to get settled in. Your duties will officially begin tomorrow.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Veronica said. “I thank you again.” She curtseyed once more and left the room, Mrs. Stone following behind her.
“Thank you, Father,” Grace said. “She seems like a wonderful choice. I’m sure everything will go well.” She smiled at him and turned to leave, thinking to return to the book she had been reading. She had been at a particularly engaging part of the story.
“Hold on a moment, Grace,” her father said, holding up a hand.
“Sit down,” he said. “We need to discuss something, just the two of us.”
“What is it, Father?” she asked, taking a seat. “Are you well?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “But I do worry about you, Grace.”
“About me?” She frowned. “But what’s to worry about?”
“You’re a young lady now,” he said. “It’s getting to be time you were married.”
Grace’s stomach dropped. In her heart, she had known this moment would come, but she had pretended to herself that perhaps it wouldn’t, that maybe her father had put it from his mind.
“Father,” she said, choosing her words very carefully. “If you’re talking about the arrangement you made with Lord Kirklow…”
“Lord Kirklow has died,” her father said.
She was stunned. “What?”
“I received notice of his death just a few days ago,” her father said. “His eldest son has assumed his title.”
“Lord Kirklow, now,” her father said. “The new Lord Kirklow.”
“And does he…” She shook her head, trying to understand what she was thinking. “Has he said that he’s ready to marry?”
“I haven’t heard from him directly,” her father said. “But now that he has come into his title, his mother and I have agreed that it’s time.”
The surprises just kept on coming. “You’ve been in contact with her? I thought you hadn’t spoken to her in years.”
“It’s true that we’ve been out of touch,” her father acknowledged. “I’m sure you recall the last summer they spent here with us.”
“I don’t know how I could forget it,” Grace murmured.
It had been the summer of her seventeenth year. As usual, their parents had spent the summer contriving situations that would force Grace and Blaise into one another’s company. And, as usual, both Grace and Blaise had done their best to avoid those situations.
To Grace it had become a sort of game at that point. She had tested herself to see how long she could hide in her room or in the library without someone coming to find her. She had escaped into the romance novels she loved to read, fantasizing about handsome gentlemen who would sweep her into their arms and make her feel loved and cared for.
If only I could have been engaged to that sort of gentleman, and not to him.
Blaise had avoided her that summer by sneaking away from his parents and into town. She had no idea what he did there, nor did she want to know. She was sure it had been the kind of thing she would want no part of.
Strangely, though she and Blaise had always despised one another, it was their parents who had brought the matter to a head. Blaise had announced at breakfast one day that he would be spending the day in town, as he so often did, and her father had erupted.
“You’re never around,” he had raged. “You’re meant to marry my daughter, and God only knows what you’re getting up to in town.”
Blaise’s father, the Marquess, had responded with equal fury. “Are you accusing my son of improper conduct?” he had demanded. “If you are, you had better say what you mean and be clear about it.”
“He ignores my daughter,” Grace’s father had said. “I assumed his behavior toward her would improve as he matured, but now I despair of him ever maturing!”
“Well, perhaps things would be better between them if your daughter wasn’t so standoffish,” the Marquess had said. “She never says a word to anyone, and she goes out of her way to leave a room that has anyone else in it. Her nose is always stuck in a book!”
The argument had continued to build until the two men were on their feet, shouting at one another in a most undignified fashion. At length, the Marquess had gathered up his family and marched out to the carriage house. Grace had retreated to her room and watched from the window as their carriage had pulled away down the cobblestone drive, and had wondered whether she would ever see any of them again after a fight like that.
Four years had passed since that time, and there had been no word of Blaise and no word of Grace’s engagement. She had begun to allow herself to believe that it might be canceled, though she had not dared to ask.
But now it seemed that she had been wrong. Her father was still set on her marrying him. And if he was to be believed, the Dowager Marchioness felt the same way.
Her father spoke again, jolting her from her reverie. “I heard from Lady Kirklow just a few days ago, as I said,” he told her. “She informed me that her husband had died, and she told me that she thought it was time you and her son tried to reconcile.”
“And you support that?” Grace asked incredulously. “You were so angry with him when last we saw him, Father. I thought you despised him.”
“And so I did, at the time,” her father admitted.
“Then how can you possibly want me to marry him?” Grace asked. “How can you want to see me married to someone you hate so much?”
“I remember what it was like to be a young man,” her father said. “I remember how easy it was to make impulsive decisions, to do things without thinking through the ramifications they might have or effects on other people. I don’t want to hold this young gentleman responsible for the rest of his life for things he did in his youth.”
She felt desperate. “Is there nothing I can do to persuade you?” she asked. “You know how much I dislike him, Father. I always have. Truly, I want nothing to do with him.”
“Grace, you must understand that it’s high time you were married,” her father said. “You don’t want to wait too long and reach an age at which you’re no longer appealing to a gentleman.”
“I’m not saying I don’t wish to marry,” she protested. “I’m happy to marry.” Though years had gone by, she still daydreamed about finding a romance like those she read about in her books. “It’s him I object to. Not the idea of marriage.”
“We would insult Lord Kirklow by ending your engagement,” her father said. “The entire purpose of this arrangement was to bring our families together.”
“Father, I can’t marry him,” she said. “I just can’t. I hate him. He hates me. The idea of spending my life in his company, of going to live in his house—I can’t bear it. Please don’t make me.”
She was throwing herself upon his mercy, and she knew it. Her father had always been very generous and kind to her. She was his only child, and he doted upon her. Grace knew that was partly due to the fact that her mother had died when Grace had been a baby. Her father felt the need to provide the affection of two parents.
But there were some things a father could never understand, and at such times, Grace felt the lack of her mother. A mother would have understood her reluctance to marry a man she despised, her wish to wait for a man she could actually admire.
Her father merely shook his head. “I’m sure that you will learn to respect and appreciate your husband-to-be in time,” he said. “He may not be your cup of tea, Grace, but after all, he is not a cruel man.”
“He’s never been particularly kind to me,” Grace grumbled. She knew her father had a point, of course—there were many men in the world worse than Lord Kirklow. But was a lack of actual cruelty the most she could hope for in a husband?
Don’t I deserve to have a husband like the gentlemen I read about in books?
It seemed the answer was no. Her future seemed to stretch out before her like a road from which she had no hope of deviating. Her father clearly had no intention of letting her change her course.
There was nothing she could do.
“Will we be returning to Leosted Manor for the summer, then?” she asked resignedly. “Or will they be coming here?”
“Neither,” her father said.
Grace frowned. “Neither? I don’t understand. You said that we were to reconcile. How are we to do that if we don’t get together again?”
Surely he doesn’t mean for me to marry Lord Kirklow without even spending any time getting to know him again first?
What if the first day they saw each other was their wedding day?
“You misunderstand me,” her father said. “I do think it’s important that you see each other again. But I also think it’s best that we don’t wait for summer. After all, it’s still several months away, and we don’t want to waste time.”
“Then what are we going to do?” Grace asked.
“Lord Kirklow and his family will be traveling here and staying with us for the Christmas holiday,” her father said. “You will be married at the start of the new year.”
Blaise drained his drink and set the cup down on the table. “I probably ought to get back home,” he said reluctantly.
“Oh, come on,” his friend Percy laughed lightly. “Stay for one more drink. You don’t need to hurry back so quickly, surely?”
Blaise glanced out at the gathering snow. He knew his mother would be growing worried about his absence. Ever since the unfortunate death of his father, she had been much more protective of her children than she ever had in the past.
And Blaise could understand that. Her grief was terrible, he knew. She had lost her husband. He was saddened by the loss of his father, of course, but his mother had been left alone in the world. Her five children were grown and would soon be leaving her as well. Of course she wanted them home with her as much as was possible.
“I’m afraid I can’t do it,” he told Percy. “Not tonight.”
“Will you at least be out again tomorrow night?” Percy asked.
Blaise smiled. “Of course I will,” he said. “You know I couldn’t possibly spend an evening pent up in Kirklow Manor with nothing fun to do at all. With only my brothers and sisters for company.” Though he liked his brothers and sisters, they were no match for Percy when it came to having a good time.
“Wonderful,” Percy said. “I thought we might try the new gentlemen’s club. You know, the one around the corner from here.”
“Is it open?” Blaise asked. “I hadn’t realized.”
“I believe they just opened to customers this week,” Percy said. “I’ve had an eye on it, of course. We don’t want to be the last ones to visit, do we?”
“Of course not,” Blaise said. If there was to be a popular new club or pub in town, he and Percy would want to be some of the very first among its clientele. They would want to familiarize themselves with the place, make their judgments, and move on by the time it was discovered by the rest of the ton.
“I’ll be there,” he assured his friend, rising to his feet. “We’ll meet here tomorrow at eight o’clock, if that’s agreeable to you, and walk over together.”
“Perfect,” Percy said. “Get home safely in that snow.”
Blaise nodded. Fortunately, he didn’t have far to go. Kirklow Manor was right on the edge of town, an easy walking distance from the pub. In the spring or summer, it would have been a pleasant journey.
The snow did make it a bit more troublesome. He pulled his coat tight around his body as he walked, but he couldn’t prevent some of the gathered snow from leaking into his boots. By the time he’d arrived back at the Manor, his feet were wet and he was shivering.
He walked into the Manor and was greeted by a flurry of activity.
Servants were rushing around, their arms full of linens. All the doors, including the door that led to the servants’ wing of the Manor, stood open. From somewhere unseen, Blaise could hear his mother’s voice, barking orders.
He reached out and caught his sister Cleo’s arm as she hurried past. “What’s going on?” he asked her. “Are we being robbed?”
“Nothing like that,” she said. “We’re packing.”
He frowned. “Packing? What do you mean?”
“Mother says we’re going to spend the Christmas holiday at Leosted Manor,” she said.
His jaw dropped. “Are you serious?”
“That’s what she says,” Cleo said. “I’m as surprised as you are. I never thought we would go there again. The fight between Father and the Duke was pretty bad, wasn’t it?”
“It was terrible.” Cleo would have been only five-and-ten years old at the time, so he wasn’t surprised that she doubted the accuracy of her memory of the situation. “I’ve never seen Father as angry as he was that day. Do you remember the carriage ride home? He spent the whole time berating the Duke and saying that he would never spend another day in the man’s company.” He shook his head. “Why on earth are we going back?”
“You’d have to ask Mother,” Cleo said. “She hasn’t told us anything, apart from the fact that we should all pack our things and be ready to leave in the morning.” She started away. “I should get back to it.”
“Cleo,” Blaise said.
She turned back toward him.
“Does this have something to do with Lady Grace?”
Cleo shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “But… that seems like a safe guess to me.”
Blaise swore under his breath and set off in the direction of his mother’s voice.
He found her on the second floor, standing outside of Reginald’s bedroom and calling orders to him.
“One trunk, Reginald,” she said. “You’re not going to need two. We’ll only be there for a month, for goodness’ sake!”
“Mother?” Blaise said.
She turned to face him. “Blaise, thank goodness you’re home,” she said. “I’d feared you would be out all night with that friend of yours.”
He didn’t know why she disliked Percy so much—he never had—but now was not the time for that same old tired argument. “Mother, what’s going on here?” he asked. “Cleo says we’re going to Leosted Manor for Christmas. Is that true?”
“Yes, it’s true,” his mother said. “So you had better get to your room and start packing. We leave first thing in the morning.”
Blaise shook his head. “There is no way I’m going,” he said. “You can’t possibly expect me to do that.”
She turned slowly to face him.
Blaise couldn’t help taking a step backward. His mother could be a fearsome woman when her mind was set. Even now, at the age of nine-and-twenty, he was hesitant to cross her.
“The decision is made,” she said firmly. “I have already written to the Duke of Leosted, and I’ve had a letter from him in reply. We’re expected tomorrow evening. The whole family. That includes you, Blaise.”
“But why are we going back there, after all these years?” he asked. “I thought we had cut ties with the Duke for good. I thought we would never have to see them again.”
His mother shook her head. “I don’t know what made you think that,” she said.
“You don’t know what made me think that?” He was incredulous. “What about the fact that it’s now been four years since we saw or had word from them? What was I supposed to think?”
“Your father was angry,” his mother said. “And understandably so. But you are still engaged to marry Lady Grace. That arrangement hasn’t gone away just because there was an argument.”
Blaise’s heart sank. He had known, from the moment Cleo had mentioned Leosted Manor, what this must be about. But he hadn’t wanted to believe it.
They had spent the past four years saying nothing of Blaise’s engagement. He hadn’t mentioned it, not wanting to remind his mother of the subject—he had hoped that it would simply never come up again. And though he hadn’t been able to help noticing that she never brought up the matter of him marrying anyone at all, he had seen quite a few young ladies in town that he admired. More than once, he had considered beginning to court someone.
But he hadn’t done it. Every time he had been on the verge of courtship and marriage, something had held him back. It would occur to him that marriage would take away from the time he could be spending exploring the town and having fun with Percy, and he would convince himself that it would be fine to wait one more year.
Marriage was disagreeable enough on its own. But Lady Grace…
She was so dull. Always stuck in her books, never wanting to experience anything of life. When he imagined being married, he imagined a young lady who was vivacious and pretty, who liked to laugh and enjoy herself. Not a stick-in-the-mud like Lady Grace.
“Mother,” he said. “This is not a good idea. Lady Grace and I are not a good match. We’ve never gotten along. You know that as well as anybody.”
“I know it all too well,” she agreed. “But you’re both adults now, and it’s time you got past the petty disagreements of childhood.”
“Petty?” Blaise could hardly believe what he was hearing. “Mother, it wasn’t me who got into such a dramatic fight that the whole family had to leave Leosted Manor in the middle of the night. It was Father. What would he say if he knew you were taking us back there now? He would not approve.”
His mother’s face darkened, and Blaise knew immediately that he had made a mistake, that he had gone too far.
“Don’t presume to tell me how your father would feel,” she said. “It was he who arranged for your marriage in the first place. And I flatter myself I knew a bit more about his intentions and aspirations than you did, Blaise.”
Blaise was ashamed. He didn’t agree with his mother’s decision to take them to Leosted Manor, but he knew he shouldn’t have tried to use his father’s opinions against her like that.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” he said.
“Just go to your room,” his mother said. “We don’t have time to argue about it. Pack what you’ll need for the month of December. When you’ve finished, check on your brothers and see whether they need any assistance. I’ve got to go and help Cleo with her things.”
She hurried away, leaving Blaise alone with his thoughts.
There was nothing to be done but to comply. He trudged off to his room, feeling despondent.
So much for this holiday season.
All the plans he had made with Percy, all the parties they’d hoped to attend—none of it would be possible once he was stuck at Leosted Manor.
And this was just the beginning. He would be expected, on this visit, to finalize marriage arrangements with Lady Grace. There would be no getting out of it this time.
He shut himself in his room. Someone, no doubt one of the footmen, had gotten out his trunk and placed it in the middle of the room. It was already half-packed for him, but whoever had begun the work had left half the space available for Blaise to pack the items of his choice.
As if it matters what I wear when I’m in Lady Grace’s company!
Blaise was someone who took pleasure in selecting the perfect clothing for every occasion. He took pride in his appearance. But he was sure Lady Grace wouldn’t take any notice of what he looked like. Why should she? She never had before.
Besides, what do I care for impressing her?
He went to his wardrobe, pulled out an armload of garments at random, and began to fold them and place them in the trunk.
Maybe if I dress poorly enough, he thought idly, Lady Grace will tell her father to send me away.
But he wasn’t holding out much hope for that outcome. If Lady Grace had planned to send him away, to insist that their arrangement be terminated, she would have done so long ago. It seemed to Blaise that she just didn’t care one way or the other. She had no interest in him at all. He might as well not exist.
Well, at least that would change once they were married. She wouldn’t be able to ignore him when he was her husband.
At least, he hoped she wouldn’t.
He closed his trunk, sat down on top of it, and put his head in his hands.
He had actually dared to believe that this arrangement was over. He should have known better.
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