About the book
She had his heart before he could say no...
Used to watching life pass her by from behind the glass of her window, Miss Astrid Dawson is shocked when her usually overprotective father announces that she must marry a man she has never met before.
Conor Foster, Earl of Middleborough and proud owner of gentlemen's club "The Arc”, finds out the hard way that no one can be trusted. When he catches his solicitor trying to steal from him, he is of a mind to report him. Until Mr. Dawson proposes a deal: his daughter’s hand in exchange for his freedom.
When a murder takes place inside the Arc, all clues point to Conor being the perpetrator.
Desperate to save the husband she finds herself falling in love with, Astrid does something outrageous: she disguises herself as a common waitress and infiltrates the business of Conor’s biggest rival…
It was Friday evening, and business was booming at The Arc.
Conor Foster, Earl of Middleborough, looked around his establishment with satisfaction. Every table was full tonight. Gentlemen sipped from glasses of brandy and scotch as they examined the cards in their hands and placed their bets.
This is exactly what I dreamed it would be, Conor thought as he gazed around the club. Ever since the day it first occurred to me to open The Arc, this was the picture I had in my head. He couldn’t help feeling a surge of pride and satisfaction now that he had seen it come to life. It was, he imagined, what watching the birth of a child must be like.
“Thirsty?” came a voice from behind.
Conor turned to see the roguish smile of his good friend, Henry Wilson. Henry had a glass of scotch in each hand, and now he pushed one toward Conor.
Conor accepted the drink gratefully and took a sip. “Good scotch.”
“Isn’t it?” Henry asked, delight manifesting across his face. “I do love a good scotch.”
“We’re selling this tonight?”
Henry nodded. As Conor’s business partner, one of his responsibilities was sourcing the liquor they served. Henry’s stake in the club was small compared to Conor’s, but Conor had to admit he was very good at what he did.
He took another sip of the scotch and surveyed the room again. “The gentlemen seem to be enjoying themselves,” he remarked.
“Have you made the time to sit down with them?” Henry asked.
Conor shook his head. “You know perfectly well that I don’t do that.”
“And you know perfectly well that I think you should,” Henry persisted.
“Why?” Conor asked. “Why should I, when I have you to do it for me? You’re much more sociable than I am, Henry. You’re more than capable of checking in with our patrons and ensuring that they’re having a good time. You don’t need my help.”
“Not for the sake of the business,” Henry said. “For your own sake. People talk about you, Conor.”
“People talk far too much,” Conor said.
“Be that as it may. All it would take would be a few smiles, a ‘few how do you do’s, to show the clientele that you’re friendly and happy they’ve chosen The Arc.”
“Don’t ask it of me,” Conor said. He was happy to be the owner of this club, and he enjoyed spending time here, but surely a man should be permitted a business enterprise without having to put on a public face?
The worst thing about being an earl is being forced to smile and make nice with the public so often. At least here, in my own club, I should be permitted to relax and to be myself.
It wasn’t that Conor disliked the patrons of his club, or that he didn’t wish to spend time around people. But he was, by his nature, a quiet man, and it wasn’t his way to say much to others. Henry was far more skilled at socializing than Conor was.
And so, let it be Henry’s responsibility, Conor thought. He’ll do a better job of it anyway, and he’ll enjoy it besides.
He held up his glass, which he had emptied. “I’m going to go and get another drink,” he said. “Can I get you anything?”
“No,” Henry said. “I ought to go and make the rounds, if you’re not going to.”
“Good man,” Conor said.
Henry rolled his eyes, but he returned Conor’s smile and moved off toward a table full of regular patrons where the card game was usually quite high stakes.
Conor took his glass to the bar and leaned against it, patiently awaiting the attention of his bartender. When the man saw him standing there, he hurried over, dishrag in hand. “Lord Middleborough. My apologies. I didn’t notice you.”
Conor waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve told you, I’m sure, that serving our patrons is more important than rushing to tend to me.”
“Yes, My Lord, of course.”
Conor set his glass down. “I’d just like another scotch,” he said. “Whatever you’re serving today, it’s quite good. I hope you’re letting the patrons know that.”
“It’s the usual scotch, My Lord,” the bartender said.
“Yes,” the bartender said. “Mr. Wilson has been using the same supplier for months now.”
I haven’t given Henry enough credit for everything he does around here, Conor thought as the bartender refilled his glass. Finding such high-quality scotch and keeping it regularly in stock, without my even having to be involved in the decision…perhaps I should increase his stake in the company.
It was something he had thought about every now and again. When The Arc had first been opened, Conor had put up the bulk of the startup capital. He had included Henry with only a very nominal buy-in because he knew his friend was more adept at managing a business than he was.
And because he has more time on his hands. The responsibilities of my title do not leave me free to spend much of my day at The Arc.
The agreement, when they had opened the business, was that Conor would own eighty percent of it, and that Henry would own twenty. They would split the proceeds accordingly. And so, they always had.
But Henry had been doing such a good job with his responsibilities that Conor felt inclined to revisit that old agreement. It wasn’t as though he needed the money, after all.
I will discuss it with my solicitor, he thought to himself. We’ll take a look at the books, at how much this club is actually earning from month to month, and make a decision about what is practical going forward. I would love to be able to offer something more to Henry than what he’s getting now.
He would be meeting with his solicitor next week. They could discuss it then.
The thought of a meeting with his solicitor gave Conor a pang of dread, though.
It wasn’t that he feared receiving bad news about the financial solvency of his business. The Arc was doing well, and Conor knew it. All the evidence he needed was right in front of him. The place was full of happy patrons having a good time, just as it was every night.
And it wasn’t even as though Conor depended on the club’s success for his own financial wellbeing. He was an earl in his own right, and his title and taxation responsibilities meant that his pockets were never empty. He had started the club not because he needed a business to keep him afloat but because he had thought it might be fun.
So, he didn’t fear what his solicitor might say to him about his books when they met tomorrow. It was the man himself that Conor didn’t like.
Tobias Dawson had rubbed Conor wrong from the moment the two had first met. He was an unpleasant, weaselly, sycophantic little man, and Conor had the feeling he enjoyed the fact that he was solicitor to an earl more than he cared about doing his job well.
He had thought, on more than one occasion, about firing the man and finding someone else. But a few things always stopped him.
For one thing, no matter how much Conor didn’t like him personally, Tobias Dawson was good at his job. He was clever and quick, and he offered good ideas. His suggestions had more than once helped to expand the business. Conor knew enough to know that it would be ill conceived to throw away good help just because the source was such an unpleasant person.
And then there was the fact that it simply wasn’t in his nature to terminate anyone’s employment. Conor hated confrontation, and the idea of taking Tobias aside and telling him their work together was at an end put a very sour taste in his mouth.
I have no idea how I’ve gotten a reputation for being cold and unforgiving, he thought, sipping his scotch. He knew that was the way the rest of the ton saw him. He had received plenty of intimidated looks in his time. And Henry had told him, too, what guests at the club tended to say about him behind his back.
You need to mingle with them, Henry urged. You need to let them see the real you.
But Conor always declined. Truth be told, he wasn’t overly bothered by his reputation. It just didn’t make a lot of sense to him. When had he ever been cold to anybody? Was it really just because he didn’t go out of his way to socialize?
These people will find anything to gossip about, he thought. There was some disdain in that thought, he recognized, but really. They sat here in his club, drinking his scotch, confiding in his best friend that they found him standoffish. It was just plain rude, wasn’t it? And they said he was the socially inept one!
There were some who might think that being social, being friendly, was an inherent part of being an earl. After all, Conor’s presence was expected at parties and social events. He did have to mingle with other members of the ton on occasion.
But he also had to collect their taxes. It was incumbent upon him, as Earl of Middleborough, to collect money from people. And that sort of thing made it difficult to make friends, even if you were naturally inclined to be social.
It’s really for the best that I’m able to keep my emotions out of my interactions with others, Conor thought. The last thing anyone needs is a sentimental tax collector. I would fall apart the first time I had to take money from anyone, and that’s no way to run things.
In truth, he had been known to waive taxes for people on rare occasions. He had more than once deliberately skipped over a poor, unmarried young mother struggling to make ends meet or a family supporting an elderly parent.
It wasn’t the sort of thing that could be done too often, lest the royals above him notice something was amiss. But as long as he made up the missing money from his own coffers, there was no reason not to give people a break every now and again.
And they say I’m cold. Really!
He drained his drink and stood up, ready to leave the club for the day. He didn’t generally like to spend a lot of time here. It was a good place to stop in and have a drink, and he liked to see that his project was operating smoothly, but Conor would never be one of those people who spent hours and hours at The Arc. This was a place for socializing.
Perhaps that’s why I built it. Perhaps I wanted to fulfill some need to have a social element in my life without actually having to do any socializing myself.
That was a deep thought, and not one Conor cared to sit and untangle here and now.
He found Henry Wilson seated at a card table with five other men and rested a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I’m leaving,” he said when Henry looked up.
“You’re leaving already?” Henry frowned. “You just got here.”
“I’ve had a couple drinks. I’ve seen that things are going well. I’m ready to head back home.” There was a cigar and a newspaper awaiting him there, as well as the privacy and quiet of his own personal library. Conor would always prefer those things to the mad bustle of The Arc.
“Won’t you sit in for a hand before you go?” Henry asked, gesturing to the table.
“No, thank you. You know I don’t enjoy gambling.”
One of the men at the table muttered something under his breath to another man—a pointed comment about Conor’s unwillingness to join in, no doubt.
But Conor didn’t care. He had given these people a place to drink, a place to sit and play cards, a place to socialize. He didn’t owe them anything more. Certainly, he didn’t owe them any of his own time.
He inclined his head to the men around the table, hoping they would feel some shame for the way they had spoken about him.
But knowing them, they probably wouldn’t.
Conor’s route home took him right past the Angry Boar pub. There was a part of him that would have liked to go out of his way to avoid the sight of the place, but there was another part of him—the more dominant part, as it turned out—that was averse to making any such concession to the Angry Boar or its owner, Killian O’Flannagan.
Why should I go out of my way? he asked himself, unable to keep from descending into moodiness as he passed the establishment that was The Arc’s biggest rival. I opened my business first. And I’m not the one trying to sabotage him.
It really was hard to believe the lengths O’Flannagan seemed willing to go to in order to sabotage The Arc. Business rivalries were nothing new, and Conor had expected that sort of thing when he had first opened The Arc. But O’Flannagan had made it personal.
He had nearly made it past the Angry Boar when he heard a door swing open. He closed his eyes, knowing already what he was about to face, wishing he could just get this over with.
“Middleborough!” a shout came from behind him.
Conor steeled himself, then turned slowly. O’Flannagan stood in the road behind him, hands on his hips, eyes narrowed. He was a strong, burly man, and he probably thought himself physically intimidating, but Conor was not afraid of him.
O’Flannagan would never be bold enough to start an actual fight, he thought. He fights with words, and he fights in secret. If he were to confront me physically, he might lose. He’d never take such a chance.
“What is it, O’Flannagan?” he asked.
“What are you doing outside my establishment?” O’Flannagan asked. “Spying?”
“Don’t be a fool. I’m on my way home. It’s nothing more sinister than that. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way.”
“I can’t have men like you lingering around my pub,” O’Flannagan said.
Conor raised his eyebrows. This ought to be rich. “Men like me? And what does that mean, may I ask?”
“Everyone knows about the way you are with women,” O’Flannagan said, his voice gruff. “You make them believe you care for them. You persuade them to come home with you. Then you abandon them.”
“That’s a really sickening thing to say,” Conor said. “I’m almost impressed.”
“How many have you left with child?” O’Flannagan asked.
“I’m going to go now,” Conor said.
“I heard you had at least three bastard children around the city,” O’Flannagan pressed.
“Well, I believe you started that rumor yourself,” Conor said. “And I think you know as well as I do, that it isn’t true. But I don’t have to prove anything to you, O’Flannagan.”
“You do if you’re going to be lurking outside my pub,” O’Flannagan said. “You’ll frighten away my patrons. And frankly, I can’t have violent criminals who pose a risk to my clientele here.”
“Now I’m a criminal?”
“The prices you charge at that club of yours certainly are.” O’Flannagan said the word club as if it were a poisoned dart. “You’re doubling what your liquor costs before you pass the prices along to your customers. I don’t know how you can sleep at night.”
“You have a nice day, O’Flannagan,” Conor said, turning and heading up the road, away from the Angry Boar and toward his manor.
“Don’t come around here again!” O’Flannagan hollered after him.
It really was exhausting living with a business rival like Killian O’Flannagan. I’d be just as happy never to converse with that man again, Conor thought. He’s certainly the one behind the worst rumors about me.
Like the one about his having inappropriate interactions with women. What a thing to say! What could have caused O’Flannagan to even think of it? Nothing could have been further from the truth, of course. Conor couldn’t even remember the last time he’d spoken to a woman.
And this is almost certainly why, he realized gloomily. Of course, no members of the ton would want to entrust me with their daughters, not if this is the nature of the conversation around my name.
O’Flannagan’s motive had likely had nothing to do with curtailing Conor’s social opportunities. Conor thought it much more likely that his business rival had merely wanted to make women feel unsafe spending time at The Arc.
It is a rare day that we see a female customer, Conor realized. If that was his plan, it’s working. Women looking for a place to go and socialize will skip The Arc entirely. Any man taking his wife out will go to the Angry Boar instead.
It infuriated him that O’Flannagan’s underhanded strategy was working.
And it frustrated him, too, to realize what this meant for his own social prospects. Conor was not a man who enjoyed attending balls and parties, and he had no way of knowing how long this rumor about his alleged womanizing ways had been circulating.
But even though he didn’t like to attend functions, it had always been his intention to settle down one day. To take a wife, and to raise a family.
How am I going to find someone who wants to pursue a life with me now? he wondered. Any woman I meet will assume I’m after her for nefarious reasons. No one will ever get close enough to me to discover what I’m really like, to actually fall in love.
Would he ever marry?
Right now, walking up the road from his confrontation with Killian O’Flannagan outside the Angry Boar, it seemed unlikely.
So maybe he should try to publicly deny the rumors O’Flannagan was starting. Maybe there would be something to be gained by confronting them head on and letting people know they weren’t true.
No. I don’t care what people think. If they want to indulge in stupid gossip, if they want to believe everything they’re told about a man with absolutely no evidence so be it. Let that be their problem. I’m above all of this. I’m the Earl of Middleborough, for God’s sake.
And besides, The Arc had never been intended as a place for women. O’Flannagan’s tactic of scaring them away was virtually meaningless. The Arc was a gentlemen’s club. There was a reason Conor had never taken special note of the fact that all their patrons tended to be men.
And some of the things O’Flannagan had said might be considered flattering, if looked at in a certain light. He had claimed that Conor was inflating his prices beyond what was justifiable, which was false, but if Conor’s other business rivals got wind of that rumor…well, who knew what might happen?
Maybe they’ll raise their own prices to a level that drives down their business, in an attempt to keep up with what they believe I’m doing, Conor thought. Or maybe they’ll lower their prices as a means of competing with me. Either way, it could hurt their businesses.
He would never go out of his way to damage anyone else’s business prospects. He wasn’t Killian O’Flannagan. But if people made the decision to buy into idle gossip and used what they heard to determine their business strategies…well, it wasn’t Conor’s responsibility to make sure that nobody ever did anything stupid, was it?
Let the people believe whatever they wanted. If Killian O’Flannagan wanted to fit Conor for a black hat, that was just fine. He would wear it happily so long as his business continued to prosper, so long as his Earldom continued to thrive.
Still, he thought as he reached the walkway leading up to his own front door. It’s very unpleasant to be yelled at in the street. I wouldn’t be sorry to see an end of that.
He made his way inside and up to his library. Closing the door behind him, he took a seat in his favorite old armchair, tipped his head back, and sighed. What a day it’s been.
Lately, it seemed there were more and more like this.
Had he taken on too many responsibilities? Was that the problem? Maybe allowing Henry to take over a greater share of The Arc would solve that for him. He would be able to spend more time alone with his books.
At least they never let me down. At least they never accuse me of being something I’m not.
But maybe Henry was right about one thing. Maybe Conor would have to start socializing a little more with the patrons at his club. Let them see, even if he didn’t care about proving anything to the general public, that he wasn’t the monster Killian O’Flannagan was so obviously trying to paint him as.
No. I shouldn’t have to do that. I don’t care what they think either.
Was that true? Conor examined his thoughts, searching for hurt feelings, for wounded pride.
He found none. He didn’t care about the way others perceived him. He noted that fact with some defiance. O’Flannagan had probably intended for his rumors to be hurtful, but Conor hadn’t been hurt by them. Not on a personal level, at any rate.
No, all he cared about were the practical effects.
So. What were the practical effects, then?
The Arc relied on the repeat business of members of the ton. It was a place for upper class gentlemen. And Conor knew all too well that nobles could have delicate sensibilities. If they learned something about Conor that they didn’t like, it might drive them to abandon The Arc as a place to spend their time.
And if they did like The Arc’s owner, they would be very likely to continue giving him their patronage.
I don’t care what they think, Conor thought in frustration, but I need them to like me. What a situation.
He didn’t want to waste his time trying to earn the approval of shallow people. I wish my clients could just be people who choose The Arc because they like its atmosphere, he thought. I wish they could just prefer it as a place to drink and a place to spend time, without needing to be impressed by my character. Isn’t that the more logical approach?
But there was nothing logical about some people. Some people would follow rumors, follow crowds, make decisions in flighty and senseless ways that had nothing at all to do with fact.
The answer came to him, suddenly and crystal clearly, perhaps because it was what he had already been thinking about all day long. Henry. Of course. Henry is the solution to everything.
People loved Henry already. The Arc’s regulars were always thrilled to see him. Henry put people at their ease. He was likable. He was unthreatening.
Nobody will ever accuse Henry of being caught up in anything nefarious. The idea was laughable. It’s so simple. We’ll make him the public face of The Arc in my place.
Let Killian O’Flannagan try to start a vicious rumor about Henry Wilson. Just let him try! Nobody would believe a word of it. Henry was too nice.
It’s perfect, Conor thought. I’ll be able to spend less time at the club. Henry can have a greater financial stake as compensation for taking on this extra work. And O’Flannagan will have his legs cut out from under him.
All that remained was to discuss the practicalities of the matter with his solicitor.
Very pleased with the solution he’d devised, Conor sat back, picked up his cigar, and lit it.
I can’t wait to tell Henry, he thought as he took a puff. He’s going to love this.
Astrid Dawson sat in the window of her bedroom, gazing down at the city street below and wishing desperately to be out among the people.
The house she lived in with her father had seemed so big when she was a child. Back then, she could spend days running around, engrossed in her own imagination, without ever getting bored.
She had pretended to be a princess, dressing in her finest clothes and dancing in her father’s library, envisioning a beautifully appointed ballroom.
At other times, she had pretended to be a knight, inventing valorous quests that had taken her throughout the house.
But now she was older, twenty-one years of age, and her imagination was no longer enough. She needed more.
If only Father would let me out of the house, she thought despairingly. If only I could attend a party…perhaps meet an interesting man…
But it was a daydream, nothing more. Astrid’s father was nothing if not protective. One day, she supposed, he would allow men to come over and seek her hand in marriage. Without my input, most likely. Without my even getting to meet them or develop feelings for them.
As protective as he was, she had no doubt that her father would marry her off to somebody safe. But would he be interesting? Would she be able to like him?
There was no telling.
A pair of young women, about Astrid’s own age, made their way down the road, giggling together about something. Astrid ached to join them. If only I could have a friend, someone to laugh and gossip with…
It wasn’t as though she had never been invited to parties before. Astrid herself held no rank or title, nor did her father, but as a solicitor he served plenty of noble families, and on occasion had been included on guest lists. And sometimes those invitations included his daughter as well.
But even on the rare occasion that Tobias Dawson attended a party, he never, never brought Astrid along. He seemed to think that something regrettable might happen if she were allowed out.
Astrid supposed it was the loss of her mother that had made Tobias so uptight. Caroline Dawson had died years ago, in childbirth. Astrid had never known her, but she knew her father grieved the loss still.
A knock came at the door, bringing Astrid to her feet. She crossed the room and opened it.
Her father stood there in his finest suit. “Astrid.”
She embraced him. “You’re home. How was your day?”
“Tiring,” he said, leading her from her bedroom and toward the dining room. “Exhausting, to be true. Why do people employ a solicitor, I wonder, if they’re not willing to listen to advice?”
“Who did you see today?” She loved hearing stories of her father’s work.
“Today it was Lord Chauncey Farnsworth,” he said. “You remember who he is?”
“A baron, isn’t he?” The name sounded familiar, but Astrid had trouble placing exactly why she knew it.
“That’s right,” her father said. “The man can’t keep his financial affairs in order, and of course he blames me.” He sighed. “He wouldn’t have problems if he had done as I suggested in the first place. But now he says it’s my fault he’s lost money, and that he’s going to hold me legally responsible for his losses.”
Astrid gasped. “He can’t do that!”
“I’m afraid he can,” Tobias said. “He may only be a baron, but he’s a member of the ton, and I’m just a commoner. My word won’t stand against his in court.”
“This is going to court?” Astrid couldn’t believe it.
“It will, unless I agree to pay what he’s demanding,” Tobias said. “And I haven’t got the amount he’s asking for, so of course he’ll have to pursue court filings if he hopes to get anything from me at all.”
“But I don’t understand,” Astrid protested, feeling dizzy. “How can he come after you for money you don’t even have?”
“He doesn’t see it that way,” Tobias says. “All he sees is that he entrusted his finances to me, and now his accounts are failing. He hasn’t thought about the fact that I don’t have the money to bail him out. He hasn’t even connected his own actions with his losses.”
They had reached the dining room. Astrid sat down at the table. Ordinarily she would have gone to the kitchen to get the soup she’d had simmering for the past hour so that she could serve herself and her father, but she was too distracted and upset by the story he was telling. “What’s going to happen?” she asked.
“I may have to sell my business to get the money,” Tobias said. “I may have to sell our home.”
“But where will we live?” Astrid’s whole world felt as though it was crashing down around her. She had never been in financial trouble before. Her father was not a wealthy man, to be sure, but they had always had more than they needed thanks to his hard work. To think that one baron could ruin them like this over a foolish misunderstanding—it was nauseating.
She thought of her mother, who had once lived in this house too. Even though Astrid had never had the chance to know her mother, she had always felt connected to her through their shared home.
Her mother had decorated this place, Astrid knew. She had chosen the furnishings. She had hung the curtains herself. There was a burn on the wood floor in the kitchen that Tobias told her had been caused when Astrid’s mother had spilled boiling water.
Everything here was a connection to a past Astrid would never know, to a mother who would never embrace her and tell her she was proud.
They couldn’t allow Lord Farnsworth to take that away. Especially when her father hadn’t done anything wrong.
“Father,” she said. “What are we going to do?”
“If we could get the money together somehow, we could pay him off,” Tobias said. His voice was thoughtful, but Astrid heard the undercurrent of anxiety below the careful consideration. He was worried.
It was her job to ease his worry. That was what a dutiful daughter ought to do. “I can sell my jewelry,” she suggested. The jewels she had were inherited from her mother, and Astrid was loath to part with them, but keeping the house was more important.
Her father nodded slowly. “That’s a possibility,” he said. “Though, of course, I would prefer it if you didn’t have to. Perhaps we could get a good price for Bartholomew.”
Their horse. “You need him,” Astrid pointed out. “How will you get to work without Bartholomew?”
She did not add that it would break her heart to sell the horse, that she loved him as a member of the family. Now was not the time to be sentimental. She knew better. They had to be practical. It was the only way out of this mess.
“Besides,” she added instead, “I don’t think we’d get very much money for old Bart, do you? He’s not exactly a prize stallion.” It hurt her to speak ill of her beloved horse, but if it kept him from being sold…
Her father sighed. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “I’m sure it wouldn’t be enough money to sway Lord Farnsworth, in any case.”
“How much will he want?” Astrid asked.
Her father named a sum. Astrid felt lightheaded. It was more money than she’d ever seen in one place in her life. She doubted her father had such a quantity, even with his various assets taken into consideration. They could sell everything they had and still not raise the funds.
Her father must have understood the look on her face. “I believe he’ll accept it in installments,” he said. “I just need to get enough together to make a payment, for now. To show good faith.”
“I’ll sell the jewelry, then,” Astrid said faintly. She would have sold everything she owned to get her father out of this mess. The trouble was that she hardly owned anything at all. Her mother’s jewelry was the only thing of value she possessed.
“Don’t do that just yet,” her father said.
“It’s no trouble,” Astrid said. “Truly. I can take it to market. I’m sure I’ll find a buyer there.” Her heart beat a little faster at the prospect of going to market. She had only been a few times in her life, and always with her father for company. To make the journey on her own would be exciting.
But Tobias was shaking his head. “You aren’t going to market,” he said firmly. “If the jewelry is to be sold, I will do the selling.”
Frustration boiled her blood. “I can manage perfectly well, Father.”
“I’m sure you can,” he said with a smile. “But the market is a dangerous place for a young girl. You can understand that, surely.”
“I’m not really a young girl,” she pointed out. “I’m a young woman.”
“The market is dangerous for them too.”
Astrid sighed. He’s never going to let me out of the house, she thought. It felt strange that she could still be bothered by that old complaint when something so much worse, so much more dramatic, had arisen to worry her, and yet she was bothered. She wanted to keep her mother’s house, yes, and she wanted her father out of trouble. But she also craved freedom and adventure.
Perhaps I will go to the market, she thought rebelliously. After all, Father leaves home for several hours every day to conduct business. Maybe tomorrow while he’s away, I’ll sneak out and sell the jewelry. He won’t like it, but I’ll be back before he ever knows what I’ve done.
But she wouldn’t do it. She knew she wouldn’t. Her father had enough to be worrying about right now without having to contend with an errant daughter sneaking out of the house.
He needs to know he can trust me. He needs me to be the one thing in his life he doesn’t have to worry about.
She could be that. She could do that for him. That would be far more valuable than any money she might get for her jewelry.
“Don’t worry, Father,” she said. “I won’t go to the market. I’ll give you my jewelry, and you can decide whether or not to try to sell it.”
“It still won’t fetch the price we need,” her father said.
“It will help, at least,” Astrid persisted.
Tobias allowed a smile to creep across his face. “Your mother would be very proud if she could see you today, Astrid,” he said. “She would be pleased to know what a comfort you’ve grown to be.”
That was what was most important to Astrid—the knowledge that she was a comfort to her father. She hated that he was going through what he was, but she would do whatever was necessary to make things easier for him.
“Everything will be all right,” she assured him. “Whatever the Baron does to us, whatever we have to give up, we’ll be all right. We’ll have each other, and that’s what really matters.”
“That’s very wise,” her father said.
“It doesn’t matter if we have to sell the house,” she said, even though it did. She couldn’t quite keep her voice from breaking as she said it. “It doesn’t matter where we live. We can find another place, someplace not quite as nice.”
But Tobias shook his head. “It won’t come to that,” he said, and there was a fierceness in his voice that Astrid had never seen before. “This was your mother’s house, Astrid. Whatever else happens, I won’t let us be forced out of it. I promise you that. No matter what I have to do, I will keep our home.”
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