About the book
Even a sunken ship leaves behind a trace. This one did not...
Dahlia Lovell, willful daughter of the Duke of Cottleroy, can only watch as her father uses her as a bargaining chip in his umbrageous business deals.
Roger Kingman, ex-Navy Captain and impoverished Duke of Shelthom, is haunted by the unsolved mystery surrounding his parents’ death at sea. His demons are silenced when he meets Lady Dahlia, who holds the key not only to his heart but also to the unexplainable circumstances of his parents' demise.
With a suspicious fire breakout and a ghostly island shrouded in mist, Dahlia and Roger must employ every ounce of their wit in order to reclaim their lives and rescue Dahlia’s brother, whose fate seems grimmer by the second…
Lady Dahlia Lovell picked up her skirts and ran after her brother, Aaron Lovell, Marquess of Bochil. She wore an old homespun skirt and tunic she had sneaked out of the poor box. She loved guesting on Bochil Island, her brother’s estate. Her governess, Miss Emma, and her two younger sisters were visiting the market at Cottleroy, their father’s main holding. With no one to oversee her, she could romp as if she were one of the tenant farmers’ daughters.
She had more freedom than a farmer’s daughter, if truth be told. For such a young woman would be busy at chores from morning to night, with little time for running across the fields where the sheep had lately grazed.
Panting, she caught up with Aaron. Her senior by four years, Aaron was down from Oxford for the summer break.
“Will you become as stuffy as our father when you leave Oxford next year?”
“Probably even stuffier But I don’t think you will ever settle down.”
“I hope not. I want to live on the little island that father gifted to mother. I shall raise rabbits and will catch fish in the sea.”
“No vegetables?” Aaron’s eyes twinkled with amusement.
“Only for the bunnies. You know they are not my favorite.”
Aaron tousled Dahlia’s already mussed hair. “No, you would live on fruit.”
“Is the big log still across the brook? We had so much fun playing at quarterstaves and pretending to be Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. The old log was perfect to serve as the footbridge.” Dahlia looked wistfully toward the copse of trees where the little brook wound toward the sea.
“We had fun until you fell in, Daffodil Dilly. Then we both caught it when I brought you back to the manor house, dripping wet.”
Dahlia laughed, as much at her brother’s pet name for her as for the remembrance. “We had to do Latin conjugations for days, until Father caught wind of it and said they would be bad for my eyes and complexion.”
“No such reprieve for me,” Aaron returned. “I think I got your share. It is a good thing I started Oxford that fall because I don’t think I would ever have reached the end of them otherwise.”
“Let’s try it again,” Dahlia begged. “Just for old times’ sake. I bet I can make you fall in this time!”
Aaron pretended to be stuffy and judgmental. “I am sure that a scholar such as myself should not encourage my younger sister to act like a hoyden. You know what they say about crowing hens.”
“No one will see,” Dahlia wheedled. “Come on, Aaron! It will be fun.”
“Very well,” Aaron relented. Taking out his belt knife he quickly found two saplings, cut them down and stripped the extra leaves away from them. This created two light poles.
At the brookside, they found that the old log had been replaced recently with a narrow footbridge. It was so new that it still lacked railings.
Dahlia bounced up and down on it. “Perfect!” she declared.
Aaron laughed. “To look at you, anyone would think you were twelve, instead of a lady with four seasons behind you.”
“Today,” Dahlia announced, “I am not a lady. I am Robin Hood, and you shall not cross my bridge without paying toll, Friar Tuck.”
“As I recall, it was Robin who took the wetting,” Aaron teased. “Are you sure of your role?”
“I’ve not the girth or appetite to be Tuck.” Dahlia declared.
“Oh, ho! So I am the one with the habit of gluttony!” Aaron challenged. In truth, he was a slim youth. He needed still to pad the shoulders of his jackets a bit to meet the current fashion, but was rapidly growing into being a well put-together young gentleman.
The staves were light and supple. Aaron had chosen them carefully so as not to task Dahlia’s strength. They played for quite some time, and Dahlia managed to get one or two good taps past Aaron’s guard.
“You’ve been practicing,” he said. “How did you ever manage?”
“I’ve been teaching Violet. Rose simply turns up her nose and says she has better things to do than collect bruises.”
“Father let you?” Aaron parried a shrewd tap that nearly connected with his shoulder.
“Father doesn’t know. Please don’t tell him. We use the long gallery on rainy days and slip away to the park when it is fair.”
“Oh, Dahlia,” Aaron chided her. “It is no wonder that you are twenty years old, and soon to be twenty-one, and not a husband in sight.”
“Perhaps I shall not have a husband. I shall become a famous authoress or do great works of charity.” Dahlia missed her next stroke in the sparring pattern, tangled her feet in the hem of her petticoat and wound up in the brook.
Aaron fished her out and helped her wring at least some of the water out of her skirts. Then they sat on the little bridge and dangled their feet in the brook.
“When will you go back up to London?” Aaron asked.
Dahlia made a disgusted face. “Tomorrow. Father has some sort of business meeting over which I am to preside.”
“I believe I shall come with you,” Aaron said. “I want to take some of my prize ewes to the shepherd who pastures our show flock in Green Park. The bell ewe is expecting a new baby,.”
“I would if it didn’t mean presiding over Father’s stuffy business dinners. Perhaps I will be able to borrow a new book or two from the Reading Room.”
“Has Father caught on yet that the librarian is slipping Greek and Latin in with your novels?”
“Thank goodness, no. Otherwise I would get no practice at all with you away at school and me supposed to be out of the classroom.” Dahlia sighed. “Life was a lot less complicated before being presented.”
“You looked forward to it, as I recall,” Aaron commented.
“I did, until I realized that my feet hurt after hours of dancing, and the brilliant conversations I had hoped to have mostly centered around the weather.”
They talked on for a time, enjoying the sunshine and each other’s company. Aaron doted on his younger sister, and Dahlia adored her big brother. In recent times they had little time together.
When Dahlia’s skirts had dried out sufficiently to escape notice, they walked arm in arm back to the manor house where Dahlia would dress in proper attire for dinner, and Aaron would have a few words with his man of business.
Little did either of them know but the humdrum existence they currently enjoyed was about to change drastically.
Roger Kingman, the Duke of Shelthom, crushed the sheaf of bills in one hand and clutched at his aching head with the other. Herbert Cantor, his manservant, gazed at him with worry, then began to pick up his coat and boots, preparing to brush them.
“Don’t worry with that, Herbert,” Roger said. “I daresay all my things are going to the auction block before the day is out unless I can come up with a way to fob off the tradesmen. I lost at cards last night, and I am punting on River Tick as they say. In fact,” he dropped his head face down onto his desk and mumbled to its surface. “You should probably go down to wherever it is that people go to gain new positions and put in an application, for I will not have so much as a farthing to pay your salary after today.”
“Now, then, Your Grace,” Herbert said, “it cannot be so bad as that. And I’m sure you’ll come about soon enough. It is true, though,” he commented, “that it would be the better part of wisdom for you to stay out of the gambling hells for the next few months.”
Roger groaned. “If I do that, then how shall I regain my losses?”
Shaking his head, Herbert shook out Roger’s inexpressibles. He spotted the large wine stain that was not there when he helped the Duke don the scandalously-tight breeches the night before. “I’m sure I don’t know, Your Grace. But are not the assizes due in a fortnight?”
“Fortnight...by Jove, I think that you are right. By then all of the estate’s accounts will also be due. Jeremy has let me know that if I make another withdrawal, we shall all be living on porridge throughout the winter.”
Roger dropped the bills and fisted his two hands in his hair, causing his unpowdered locks to come loose from their normal queue.
“You must think me a poor creature, Herbert. And you need not Your Grace me when we are in private, as we are now. Since I’ve come home, I’ve had nothing but people tip-toeing around me and bowing and scraping. I’m fair sick of it.”
Herbert was not only Roger’s manservant but had also been his batman on the continent during the skirmishes with Napoleon. Herbert had come to the estate with his mother, a Scottish woman who was some sort of distant poor relation. She had been employed as a companion to Roger’s mother. The boys had tumbled out of trees together, gone fishing in the estate streams, learned to ride; and to shoot under the tutelage of the estate gamekeeper and Roger’s father, the late Duke of Shelthom. But that was before Leonard, Roger’s older brother and the heir, had come down with cholera.
Herbert just sighed and shook his head. “Roger, you are not in such a sad case as all that. But I will own that since your parents and your older brother passed, and you were forced to give up your Commission, you’ve not been yourself. And I am sorry if being formal is hard for you, but in truth I’m afraid that if I am not, I will forget. I’ll own that I, too, long for the days when we were just ‘Rog’ and ‘Herb’, but things do change over time. It can’t be helped.”
Roger swallowed hard. Leonard, his older brother, had been primed to take over the estate. But he had taken ill shortly after the early spring rains had washed through the barnyards and into the kitchen gardens. That was in March of 1814.
In April of 1814, shortly after Napoleon had signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Roger had received word that his parents were sailing to Paris to attend the court of Louis XVIII and to finally conduct some long-delayed business. Roger had sold his commission, and he and Herbert were to have joined the Duke and Duchess on the return trip. Roger received word that instead of a pleasant journey home, the ship carrying his parents and all those aboard had gone missing.
It was now August of 1817, and the grief was still a knife in his guts. The days when he and his friend had roamed the estates, playing at highwaymen and nobles or pretending to be King Arthur’s knights, were long behind them both, but how he longed for those simpler times.
Roger straightened out the rumpled duns and laid them back on his desk. His man of business, Jeremy Sharp, had accosted him before he could even partake of breakfast. He had given Roger a thorough lecture that included words like, “profligate ways” and “your father would never…,” “your brother would have had better sense,” followed by the crowning glory of the genteel tirade, “I’m glad your mother, the Duchess, isn’t here to see this.” Then the elderly solicitor had withdrawn with grave dignity. Jeremy had been both his father’s and his grandfather’s man of business and was prone to take liberties when talking to Roger, whom he remembered as a reckless boy.
And that, Roger thought to himself, is the problem with inheriting a house full of old family retainers, even though he couldn’t argue that he had played ducks and drakes with his family fortune.
He had no idea where the money was coming from to pay the staff, but he knew he couldn’t let them go. Most had been on the estate long before he was born. They were as much a fixture as the chandeliers in the ballroom or the post and beam barns that housed his racing horses.
More than that, their housing and meals were part of their income. Many would have nowhere else to go. He had paid his debt of honor, as gambling debts were called, the night before, so he didn’t have that hanging over him, but he had borrowed heavily from the household accounts to do it. Now, he had on his desk all the bills from the butcher, the baker, and candlestick maker, to say nothing of the fodder for his cattle or the staff’s weekly stipends.
“Herbert, I fear I am a poor creature or at least an indifferent businessman.”
“Never say it, Roger. You just have a problem with cards. And while you are an excellent judge of horseflesh, you are not well-versed in the underhanded ways of racehorse owners and riders.”
“Is that why I lose so often? I thought I was quite losing my touch.”
“No indeed, Sir. That stallion you bought last month is as fine as has ever walked.”
“But now I have to feed him, and he didn’t even place in the last race he ran, which now diminishes his value at stud. My old friend, you are an excellent diplomat, but I am in a tight place, make no mistake of it. Whatever shall I do?”
“I am sure I don’t know, Roger,” Herbert said, “but I am told that one way for a gentleman to successfully recover his losses is to marry an heiress.”
“Herbert! What sort of man do you take me for?” Roger protested.
“I am sure I don’t know, Your Grace,” Herbert repeated with deliberate emphasis on the Your Grace and held a studiously blank expression in spite of the twinkle in his eye, “perhaps one whose pockets are to let?”
“I will just take these things to be washed, then I will see about getting a nice pot of Chamomile tea and those excellent biscuits that you fancy. Then you can rest, because I see the signs of one of your sick headaches coming on. I am sure that you will be able to think of something as soon as you are feeling better.”
With that, Roger’s manservant picked up the soiled clothing from the night before and retreated below stairs to commiserate with the butler and to let the cook know that the lord and master of the house was going to require a bit of cosseting.
Too tired, hungover and heartsick to argue with his friend and manservant, Roger flopped on the bed and buried his face in the pillow.
Sally, the head maid who had worked her way up from the scullery and remembered Roger as a little lad, took the clothing from Herbert and clucked her tongue over the state of the trousers. “He does not do anything by half, does he? I will have little trouble with the dogs’ paw prints, the grass stains and the mud, but that wine stain might not ever come out.”
“Do the best you can, Sally.” Herbert accepted the tray of biscuits and tea from the cook, and prepared to take them up to his friend and employer.
“Shouldn’t I send one of the girls up with that, Herbert?”
“Not today. His Grace has lost at cards last night and is regretting all the wine he drank. Best I should do it.”
“Rich folks,” Sally commented. “I don’t know if I’ll ever understand ‘em.”
Herbert forbore to correct her. When he was abruptly designated the Duke, Roger had been rich, or at least reasonably well off. There was a time when Herbert saw that Roger had been beside himself with grief, and he feared that the young captain might harm himself. So, it came as a relief when he saw Roger plunged into spending on horses, hounds, cards and an occasional Cyprian. These were all life-affirming pursuits. “The truth was,” Herbert muttered “we all spoiled him, and not one of us had the gumption or the right to rein him in.”
Peter, the butler, raised his eyebrows as Herbert passed him with the tray. “His Grace had a large party last night?”
“Indeed, he did.” Herbert rested the tray on the sideboard in the hall. “And he has been feeling a bit unwell this morning.”
“I daresay,” Peter held open the heavy door so Herbert could pass. “I saw Jeremy Sharp come from his rooms not a half hour ago, and if I’m any judge of facial expressions, he was not sharing good news. Let me know if I can do anything to help, Herbert.”
Herbert glanced at the butler, surprised.
“I remember his Grandfather, Herbert,” Peter commented. “I daresay you do not, he was before your time. Such a mean, miserable man – it is fortunate that Roger is nothing like him.”
“I expect it was his mother’s influence. She had a fine way with the late Duke, as well, and the estate was the better for it. Now, let me get this tray into his room and a little tea in his belly before he has one of his sick headaches. If we can get him to sleep, it will all look better when he wakes up, I suspect.”
“Happens you’re right,” Peter nodded., “Happens you’re right. I’ll pray that it might be so.”
“Thank you, kindly.” Herbert hastened to get the laden tray through the door. Peter had a bit of a religious turn, and it always made him uncomfortable.
“Here you are, sir.” Herbert set the tea tray on the nightstand that was beside the bed. “Drink some of this tea and take a nice nap. We will see what can be done to put things to rights when you are not all bellows to mend.”
Roger gulped down about half the of the cup of tea, then set it down with a shudder. “Gah! That is ghastly. Are you sure you are not poisoning me, Herbert? That would fix up my fortunes right and tight.”
“But would not do a bit of good for the rest of us, my friend. That is just the cook’s good herb tea, and it will help you rest. Eat a little of these biscuits, they will help settle your stomach.”
Roger nibbled a biscuit and washed it down with the rest of the tea before laying back and resting pounding head on the pillows. The tea began to work its way through his system, and Roger’s eyes drifted shut.
Herbert picked up the tray, careful not to allow it to clink or slosh, and slipped out of the room.
Roger heard Herbert quietly closing the door. His head ached, and his heart hurt. Could there be hope for tomorrow?
Dahlia picked up her skirts and ran. She set her stockinged feet, one behind the other and slid across the newly-polished ballroom floor, fetching up with a thud against the wainscoting. Her brother, Aaron, was already piled up there like a loose-limbed bundle of jackstraws. Her younger sisters, Rose and Violet, slid in after them.
Rose looked terrified, but Violet hopped up shouting, “Let’s do it again! Do it again!”
“My Lord! Ladies!” Their governess, the respectable Miss Emma Olbrecht, strode toward them like a conquering general. If an observer had not noticed the twinkle in her eye and the twitch at one corner of her mouth, he or she might have thought the young miscreants were in for a tongue lashing at the very least. “Should your father witness this, he would have apoplexy! Such a sight from gently-born youngsters.”
Miss Emma, as she was affectionately known by her charges, had fled Germany with the Carmelite sisters. She had been a novice at a small, out-of-the-way convent, from whence she and the good sisters had been fortunate enough to escape well ahead of Napoleon’s religious oppression.
Once in England, Emma Olbrecht had taken on the teaching of the youngsters in the household of one Christopher Lovell, Duke of Cottleroy. She had found the work to her liking, and after the death of the Duchess of Cottleroy, she had been more than willing to stay on and look after the Duke’s four children.
“My Lord, where is your dignity? Lady Dahlia, I would have expected this of your sisters, but you have turned twenty! If you do not stop behaving the hoyden, you shall never find a husband!”
“I shall follow the example of Elizabeth Carter and become a bluestocking. I shall write great novels and pithy political commentary and live in the west wing of the manor. I will be the eccentric aunty that terrorizes Aaron’s hoard of brats…”
“Here, now! I am not even wed yet,” Aaron protested. “In fact, I am not even courting. Please allow me to graduate and put my affairs in train before you saddle me with a wife and children.”
“I wish I could go to Oxford, too,” Dahlia sighed. “Well, I will just have to make do with the Ladies Reading Room. It is so unfair that Ladies cannot matriculate.”
“I know,” Aaron comforted, “I will keep smuggling my textbooks and notes home for you.”
“Me, too,” Violet interjected, “Me, too! I like books. You brought me the most beautiful butterfly book, Aaron. And I hatched butterflies in my second-best bonnet!”
“Master Aaron,” Emma reverted to his schoolroom title, “you should not fill their heads with nonsense. A fine mess those butterflies were. They turned out to be moths that got into the woolens. Lady Dahlia, your father expects you at dinner in three quarters of an hour, and you, too, Lord Bochil. Lady Rose, Lady Violet, we shall retire to the school room where our dinner is waiting. If you are extra good girls, I have a surprise waiting for you.”
“None for me?” Dahlia sighed. Miss Emma’s surprises ran to new piano music, books, or recently published broadsides.
“Look under your pillow tonight,” Miss Emma smiled faintly. “You will find a little something – but no peeking until after you have done your duty to your father.”
“Thank you, Miss Emma!” Dahlia rose gracefully to her feet, and gave a hand each to her sisters, leaving Aaron to clamber out of the pile-up on his own. “It will give me something to look forward to while I sit through another deadly dull business supper.”
“I know it is tedious, my dear,” Miss Emma said fondly, “But you are a valuable asset to your father when you act as his hostess. Go now, and dress before you are late. Your abigail is waiting for you.”
Dahlia climbed the stairs to her room with reluctant steps. In truth, she had little desire to attend dinner at her father’s table. She would be reminded, again, that with four seasons behind her and nearing her twenty-first birthday, she was practically on the shelf. But she had little or no interest in the callow youths in her set, and some of her father’s cronies left her shuddering with private distaste. Oh, she was everything proper in public. She was ever the dutiful daughter, the feather-headed, charming young lady.
They were so fortunate to have Miss Emma as their governess. Even though she was not fashionably French, she spoke seven languages and was well-read in both Greek and Latin. Her father had been a doctor on the continent, and English-born Emma had gone into the convent at his death, preferring religious orders to marriage.
Were those skills not enough, Miss Emma also played the pianoforte with some aplomb, was an accomplished needlewoman, and believed firmly that every woman should have enough arithmetic to keep track of what the tradesmen were selling her, as well as being able to read and write fluently.
“Maybe I will become a governess,” Dahlia remarked to her abigail, Suzanne, as that capable young woman brushed out the tresses that were both Dahlia’s crowning glory and her greatest irritation.
“Do you think that is wise, my Lady?” Suzanne deftly shaped Dahlia’s wild, blond curls into an artful crown, with a waterfall of the unruly hair cascading over one shoulder. “Governesses lead an awful hard life, Lady Dahlia. Miss Emma is very lucky to work here, as am I.”
“And I am glad to have you, Suzanne. No one else has such a way with my unruly hair, nor has been able to keep my laces and ribbons in such excellent order.” Dahlia gave her abigail a quick smile.
“Thank you, my Lady,” Suzanne replied, blushing a little at the unexpected compliment. “You have beautiful hair, and it is a pleasure to keep your pretty things in order.”
Suzanne gave a last pat to the curls. “There you are now, Lady Dahlia. Are you ready for your gown?”
At her assent, Suzanne carefully guided Dahlia’s dinner gown over her head. It was an understated pastel-blue watered silk that Dahlia secretly detested. The pale blue made her look washed out and the handmade and carefully-starched lace made her skin itch, especially if the under slip was not perfectly positioned. However, it was one of her father’s favorites. He fondly thought it made her look demure.
The garment’s saving grace was that it was relatively opaque and did not reveal her silhouette, as did some of the fashionable gowns, as well as having well-positioned slits that allowed her to get to the pocket that hung from her inner skirt’s waistband. Since the garment allowed her to have a pocket, she did not need to carry a reticule.
“There, my Lady, you are pretty as a picture. And there is the big clock in the hall striking the quarter hour.” Suzanne stood back to admire her handiwork.
Dahlia met her brother at the head of the staircase and went in to dinner on Aaron’s arm.
As usual, the table was crowded with her father’s business associates. At her father’s left, sat Harry Warwick, Earl of Goldstone. The Earl was a handsome man in his late thirties and was said to be successful in business. The two were in earnest discussion, a conversation that stopped as Dahlia and her brother entered, leading the young woman to suspect that she might have been the subject of which they spoke. As a result, she approached the table with two spots of high color on her cheeks.
Her father and the Earl rose at her approach and Aaron pulled out the heavy dining chair so that she might be seated. “Good evening, Father, I trust your day went well?”
“Well enough, and how was your day, my daughter?”
“Very fine. Aaron and Miss Olbrecht escorted us to the park where we watched the sheep dogs being put through their paces.”
“Indeed? I do trust they did not disturb the cattle.”
“Oh, they were quite skilled, and the cows took no notice of them. It was very pretty how they chivvied the sheep about and got them into their own area without losing a lamb or disturbing a calf. Then we purchased some red herring to eat and returned home to while away the afternoon with some needlework.”
“Quite a pretty domestic afternoon,” Lord Goldstone said. He did not sneer, but Dahlia could almost hear the contempt beneath the suave speech. “I do wonder about the safety of letting a young girl wander about the park with no more company than a stripling lad and a governess.”
“Green Park is quite safe,” the Duke of Cottleroy assured him. “I am certain Dahlia could wander there alone and take no harm.”
Aaron, who was not an indifferent swordsman and was accorded accolades as a pugilist by members of his club, widened his eyes in mock terror. “Oh, but I should be in grave danger should I wander there without my sister and her dragon of a governess. Why, I might be snatched and dragged behind the nearest bush by some stray milkmaid or li – ow!”
“Brother, do mind your language at table. While we are all used to your fits and starts…”
“Sister, you wound me. Would you not defend my honor?”
“No, I would let Miss Olbrecht do it. She has been known to deliver a stern set-down with no more than a lifted eyebrow.”
Someone lower down the table stifled a snicker. Lord Goldstone seemed a bit shocked, and the Duke of Cottleroy looked sternly at his erring offspring. Because he often entertained his business associates at dinner, Aaron and Dahlia were expected to be models of deportment. The two siblings were saved from a lecture, however, for just then the main course was brought in and the soup bowls removed.
They all fell to eating with a will, for the cook had outdone herself. The meat was a leg of mutton with rosemary and it was accompanied by tureen of green peas done up in a savory sauce.
The talk shifted to other matters such as the potential game for the shooting season and whether it might rain later in the week.
Then Lord Goldstone addressed Dahlia. “Lady Dahlia, do you truly enjoy walking in the park?”
Startled, Dahlia glanced up. Lord Goldstone seemed to be watching her like a hawk that has just spotted a mouse. “Why, yes, my Lord, I do.”
“Do you think it wise? Will not such exercise prove injurious?” Lord Goldstone’s eyes glittered oddly in the candlelight.
Dahlia thought carefully upon her reply. “I have it on the best authority that healthful exercise is of great assistance to beauty.”
“Is it indeed so, my Lady?” Lord Goldstone inquired delicately, “Might I enquire as to the authority?”
“It is so written in The Mirror of Graces, my Lord.”
“Pah,” Lord Goldstone turned to The Duke of Cottleroy, “Do you think it wise to allow her to read such things?”
“I have read the work,” Cottleroy said, accepting a fresh glass of wine from the servant at his elbow, “I found it unexceptional and containing directives of some good sense.”
“Do you not find that she is made bold by reading, sir?” Goldstone inquired.
“Goldstone,” the Duke of Cottleroy said patiently, “Since you are not yet a married man, and it is well known that you have no sisters, I will forgive the question. Young girls are lively creatures and the peace of the household thrives upon their having occupation.”
Dahlia breathed an inward sigh of relief. If her father forbade walking in the park, she would be limited to the townhouse gardens and the long gallery for exercise. And that would be dire.
“All the same, my daughter,” Cottleroy went on, “Mind that you do not walk in the park alone. You must always have your governess, your maid or your brother to walk with you.”
“Yes, Father,” Dahlia said respectfully, with her eyes downcast. Inwardly, she smoldered. What does he think I have been doing?
For the rest of the meal, Dahlia kept her eyes on her plate or addressed quiet remarks to her brother. But she could feel Harry Warwick’s eyes upon her. She chased the peas around her plate with her fork, all appetite gone.
Dahlia was relieved when the main course was removed, and the cheese and fruit platters were brought in and carried around the table. Dahlia managed to slip a whole pear and a small slab of cheese in her pocket, knowing she would be hungry later.
Aaron tapped a finger lightly on the edge of the table to let her know that he had seen the fruit slip into her pocket, and she deliberately switched her desert spoon with the pickle fork – an old signal they had often used to let each other know that something was amiss.
When the dessert was brought in, it was treacle tart – a dish that Dahlia could barely abide under ordinary circumstances. “Father,” she asked respectfully, “Might I be excused? I fear I might have gotten a touch of sun today and I feel a fearsome headache coming on.”
“Why certainly, Daughter. I do hope you will be feeling better soon. Aaron, will you see her up to her room and into the hands of her abigail?”
Aaron rose with alacrity. “I will be glad to. Dahlia, sister dear, would you like my arm to help you up the stairs?”
Dahlia smiled at him sweetly. “I would be most appreciative of the support, dear brother. I fear I shall swoon before reaching the top step.”
Aaron extended his left arm, and she placed her right hand upon it. She leaned lightly on his support until they were in the upper corridor and out of sight, then she dropped her hand. “Oh, thank you, Aaron. I could not bear the gaze of that awful man another minute.”
Aaron looked puzzled. “What awful man? Goldstone? He is a pretentious toad eater, but beyond that I do not know anything untoward about him.”
“Nor do I, but he makes me feel uncomfortable, all the same. The way he stares at me, I feel as if I should go get my cloak and bundle myself out of sight.”
“Truly, Aaron. If it is possible, please do not ever leave me alone with him.”
Aaron was thoughtfully silent for a moment. Then he said, “Well, at least it was not the sight of cook’s treacle tart that turned you missish. Shall I see if I can sneak you up a slice?”
“Aaron, you beast! You know I hate the stuff. No, instead, go back and listen to what they say when I am not there. I do not like it that he is seated so near to Father, nor the tenure of his questions. It is almost as if he felt he owned me.”
“What is it you fear, Sister?”
“I’m not really sure. But odd as it might seem, I feel as if I have fallen into an old ballad – one about a harp made of bone and strung with hair.”
Aaron stared at her, his usual good humor stilled for the moment. “Very well, although I had hoped to use your exit as my own escape.”
“Thank you, Aaron. It would relieve me greatly to know what is afoot. And now, I truly would like to get out of this ridiculous dress and into something sensible. Perhaps I will be able to persuade Suzanne to slip down to the kitchen and get some ginger cookies for me.”
“Ask her to get some for me, too.” Aaron grinned. “I do not fancy treacle tart, either.”
Aaron turned and walked back down the stairs, entering the dining hall just in time to hear Harry Warwick say, “…I believe it would be a sound investment as well as being advantageously placed.”
“And what would you ask as a security, Goldstone?” Cottleroy paused on consuming treacle tart and focused on the younger man.
“Leave to address your daughter in courtship would be enough,” Goldstone said.
Aaron held his breath, scarcely believing what he was hearing.
Cottleroy waved his fork from side to side in a negative fashion. “Let us not talk business at the dinner table. Aaron, my son, did you get your sister settled into her rooms? And will you have some of this excellent treacle tart.”
“My sister is well settled. Thank you for the recommendation, Father, but I believe I am replete.”
“Then we are done here,” his father said. “Let us retire to the small study for brandy. I have a new shipment which I would like for you all to try.”
It was clear that the Duke of Cottleroy favored the Earl of Goldstone, even though he knew that Dahlia did not enjoy the earl’s company. Aaron wondered what he should tell his sister.
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