About the book
He had loved her from the sidelines all her life…
Miss Claire Rowley is perfectly aware of the scornful looks that follow her wherever she goes. Determined not to let society hold her back, she dreams of one day becoming an accomplished architect.
Oliver Slade, Duke of Minbury, owes everything to his deceased parents’ closest friends. A debt he feels he’s repaying with betrayal when he falls hopelessly in love with the one lady who is entirely off limits: their own daughter.
With a substantial dowry to her name, Claire has suitors hounding her like prey. And amongst them all, a single hunter lies in wait. Determined to heed her heart’s cry, Claire rushes to Oliver. The only thing she finds is a note tied to a rock on a bed of broken glass. The same rock that just might pull her to her death.
It was a rare, quiet evening in the London townhouse occupied by the Duke of Minsbury and his elder sister, Suzanna Slade.
With the Season in full swing, their lives had been caught up in a whirlwind of morning jaunts, afternoon tea, soirees, and balls—all of them enough to drive a sane man to the brink of insanity. Ladies, on the other hand, seemed to absolutely thrive in the chaos, as exhibited by the sight of his sister seated on a chair by the window, calmly turning the pages of a book, the lamplight turning her hair a deep, burnished color.
Oliver, on the other hand, was caught up with business reports, in addition to requests for riding habits, day gowns, and bonnets. His steward, Smithson, was standing beside him, his face appropriately devoid of emotion.
After all, it was not the place of the servants to comment on their masters’ affairs.
He glanced up from the papers to find his sister’s green eyes on him, sparkling with laughter.
“I am glad to see you find some sort of sordid amusement in my predicament,” he sighed helplessly, putting the papers aside.
“Not at all, brother dearest,” she demurred. “It is just that I have never before seen you so flustered. It is quite the novel picture.”
“It will take a while for the ships to come in,” he muttered, picking up another sheaf of papers. “I have the blueprints for a new design but it will take quite the sum to be able to replace the old ones.”
Suzanna wrinkled her nose delicately.
“But the old ships are needing more repairs after each voyage,” she pointed out. “The money could be put to better use buying new, stronger, and faster ships.”
It was not rare for the siblings to discuss business affairs with each other. After their father died, Oliver had taken it upon himself to maintain the family’s businesses and estate as best as he could. His relationship with his older sister had always been loving and he relied on her wisdom and wit as he navigated the waters of the aristocracy.
As a lady, Suzanna had never had to worry about the same things her brother did. Her role in Society was vastly different but then again, she had never felt the pressing need to go along with the whims of Society in general. She much preferred to stay by her brother’s side and assist him in any way she could.
At a young age, she had been put in charge of his entire household—a task she took to heart.
“Until you can find a suitable wife to run your household,” she had told him with that twinkle in her eyes. “Until then, I shall manage the household for you and you need not worry that brilliant head of yours over it.”
And she did a rather fine job of it, Oliver agreed. The townhouse was always ready whenever they descended for the Season and their country home—Minsbury Park, his ducal seat—was run smoothly. In all the five years since Suzanna took over the reins, he had never seen as much as a speck of dust or a smudged fingerprint on the furnishings and he never had to worry about meals, even when they had guests to entertain.
“Perhaps,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “It is not the ships that are bothering you but something else.”
Oliver flushed a little, opening his mouth to shoot back a witty reply when it happened.
The loud sound of breaking glass tore through the otherwise peaceful scene, accompanied by Suzanna’s horrified scream as bits of broken glass rained on her.
“Suzanna!” he yelled, his heart caught in his throat at the sight of his older sister on the floor, surrounded by broken glass and bits of the window. A rock lay a short distance from her.
Somebody has thrown a bloody rock through the window!
He rushed to his sister who had curled away from the window in an effort to protect herself. Her green eyes were wide with surprise and fear, igniting an intense fear in him.
“Are you hurt?” he asked her.
She shook her head slightly.
“No, I—I think I am perfectly fine. A little dazed, perhaps.”
He looked her over cautiously as Smithson stepped noiselessly over the broken glass. There were shards that clung to her rich brown hair and her deep velvet dress but there was no sign of bleeding on her person. Aside from her slender frame shaking with fear, she appeared to be perfectly fine, as she claimed. Oliver let out a sigh of relief before a deep anger arose in him.
Without another word, he strode out of the study, flinging the door open as he rushed to the streets, his eyes searching for the culprit who dared to attack his home. Marley, the Slades’ loyal butler, hurried after the Duke with Smithson hot on his heels.
The streets were dark and quiet, with no sign of the perpetrator. Oliver ran down to the corner but still, there was no sign that anyone had been there.
It was as if the culprit had disappeared into thin air.
Frustrated, he strode back into the townhouse and into his study to check on his sister once more. Mrs. Downe, their old housekeeper, had helped Suzanna to a chair and was by her side with a steaming cup of tea to calm her nerves. Chastity, one of the maids, was sweeping the debris from the carpet while some of the men immediately boarded up the gaping hole in the window.
Suzanna looked up at him with worry in her eyes and he shook his head grimly.
“Milady,” a small voice murmured from the side.
Suzanna turned to find Chastity bobbing a little, holding out a piece of crumpled paper. “’Twas tied to the rock,” she explained.
He watched as his sister unfolded the note, her face turning a ghastly white as her eyes scanned the missive.
Ignoring the debris, he stepped over to her and took the note from her hands.
The paper was nothing fancy, made of rather low quality, and bore no significant markings that might identify where it had come from. However, scrawled across the slip were five words that inspired a sense of foreboding in his heart.
Next time, I won’t miss.
Two Months Earlier
Claire Rowley, the eldest daughter of the Viscount of Ranhold, closed the book with a soft sigh as she stared out the great bay windows of the library in the Ranhold House.
Winter was making way for spring and in a few more weeks, the warmer weather would make the roads to London passable once more, heralding the coming of the Season. With it, the members of the peerage would descend upon the city for a few months of balls, parties, and revelry, before summer called them back to their country homes.
Lady Catherine Delaney, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Rathbourne, had been in rapture when she described her first Season.
“Oh, there is nothing quite like it!” she had said, her blue eyes shining. “So much to see and so much to do. And so many handsome young men to dance with!”
Claire had watched as she giggled and sipped her tea to mask the lovely blush that spread across her cheeks. By the end of summer, Lady Catherine was married to Lord Huxley.
Oh, how lovely it would be to go to London, she mused.
She sighed and leaned her cheek on her hand. She had heard many fascinating stories about the city—of the great buildings and cathedrals, of Bond and Regent Streets packed with the ladies of High Society as they shopped for the latest fashions, of elegant townhouses that lined Mayfair.
“You can buy anything you want and need in London,” Lady Suzanna Slade once told her. “The city has everything and even—” she winked at Claire “—things you have absolutely no use for.”
“One would think that your sole purpose for venturing into London was to drain our assets,” her brother, Oliver, had remarked with a wry smile, earning the laughter of his sister.
Of course, Claire was not oblivious to the true goal of the London Season. Young ladies of her status were expected to dedicate their efforts to one thing and one thing only during the Season, and that was to find a suitable match that one could learn to live with and one that her family would approve of. Marriage was a purely transactional event and disappointment was its most expected outcome.
In truth, she had her own reasons for wanting to go to London and none of them included bonnets and gowns and fripperies. Neither did she dream of wrangling a marriage proposal from various prospects of the fashionable elite, although, she supposed it would not be too hard if she put her mind to it.
No, what Claire wanted more than anything else was to see London in all its beauty. She wanted to be able to see the great cathedrals and the grand buildings. She wanted to walk along the streets and see the beautiful townhouses where the ton held breakfasts and tea parties. She wanted to stand in awe of the architectural marvels she had seen in her books, to soak in their history, and admire the genius that produced them.
And then, she wanted to create her own marvels, too.
Unlike most young ladies, she had no interest in bonnets and gowns and baubles. She had spent countless hours studying these buildings and was quite knowledgeable in architecture. Her sketchbooks were filled with her own designs and notes, garnered from years of studying these beautiful, beautiful structures.
She sighed as she stared out of the window to the thawing snow beyond. She knew that passions and hobbies of that nature were generally frowned upon in Society and there were very few who would look kindly on a young lady with such unladylike pursuits. If she let on, she could be labeled as a bluestocking and be struck off the lists of elite dandies on the lookout for a biddable wife.
Claire snorted delicately at the notion of her as a biddable wife. There were certainly more things to life than being relegated to the mundane duties of the ladies of her time. Although she was well-acquainted with running the household, she hardly thought that it was the only viable pastime for a lady.
That, and child-rearing, and holding innumerable balls and parties.
“I could not be threatened to live out such an existence,” she told her father one afternoon in his study. “That would feel like the very end of my life—to carry on as if one had no other passion besides what Society dictates of me.”
“Then you must learn to defy Society,” her father had said with a twinkle in his gentle brown eyes. “But to do that, you will first need to learn its rules so you can become adept at breaking them!”
Claire shook her head at the memory of her father’s words. He was a wise man and indeed, he was well-versed in the art of breaking the rules without seeming to.
“There you are! I have been looking all over the house for you!”
Eyes blue as the summer sky twinkle mischievously from a delicately gamine face framed by dark, wavy locks so very similar to her own. Her younger sister, Beatrice—or Trixie, as they all called her—was the spitting image of their late mother, while Claire took after their father with her curvaceous body and olive skin. Both sisters were of a similar temperament, as well, crackling with fire and wit, although Claire was not as brazen as her younger sister.
Trixie, for lack of a better term, was a veritable hoyden.
Both sisters were well-educated with tutors hired to specifically help them with their studies. However, the younger Rowley was rarely inclined to sit for long hours, bent over her books, and was prone to mischief.
Nonetheless, they both loved each other dearly and very rarely came to disagreements.
“You knew that this is my favorite place in the entire estate,” Claire replied, patting the seat beside her. “Besides, it is much too cold to be out. Now, do tell me why you have been searching all over creation for me.”
Trixie pouted in such an unladylike manner that it wrung out a helpless smile from her older sister.
“I do wish you would accompany me for a jaunt outdoors. I believe that staying indoors all week will have me shriveled up into a disgusting prune!”
Claire wrinkled her nose delicately at her sister’s complaints. Trixie could never be cooped up for too long indoors or her unbridled spirit would chomp at the reins in a desperate attempt to break free, resulting in more widespread damage.
“I do not know how you do it, Claire,” she bemoaned. “I am so weary of staying indoors, I fear I shall fall ill!”
“You will fall ill and catch your death of cold if you go out in such weather,” Claire told her with a wry smile. The snow had not completely thawed out yet and although the weather had grown warmer, it was still too cold to be romping about outside.
And why ever should she risk freezing herself when she could sit in the warmth of the library, perusing her beloved books and drawing sketches of towering edifices and grand houses?
“By the way, His Grace and Lady Suzanna will be coming over for afternoon tea,” her sister reminded her, clapping her hands in excitement.
Claire smoothed her skirts and grinned. “I doubt they will want to come over so often if you keep badgering them, Trixie.”
“Oh, I shall keep badgering them until they come!” Trixie grinned.
“Well, since you are so intent on inviting guests to our home, maybe you can help me with preparing for their arrival?”
The unladylike expression on her sister’s face was enough to entice a tinkling laugh from Claire.
“Do I have to?” the younger Rowley moaned, as if Claire had asked for a pound of her flesh and then some.
Claire smiled at her sister and tapped that pert little nose with some affection. “Not if you don’t want to, dearest.”
She stood up and brushed her skirts, thinking of the beautiful Lady Suzanna and her younger brother, Oliver, the Duke of Minsbury. They were both dear friends and in a way, part of the family.
After the late Duke and Duchess of Minsbury died in a tragic carriage accident several years past, their children had been left in the care of the Rowleys, who were their closest friends and neighbors. She and Trixie had grown up with Lady Suzanna and His Grace, the Duke of Minsbury.
Lady Suzanna was older than Claire by five years and by all accounts should have been comfortably married off. She had a sizable dowry that many gentlemen considered tempting and she was exceedingly beautiful with dark brown hair and a pair of green eyes framed by lashes that Claire secretly envied. Her manners were impeccable and she conducted herself in a way that the dowagers and chaperons of the ton could find no fault in.
However, Lady Suzanna was also possessed of a rather fiery temper—one that her deceased parents and inevitably, her guardians, also indulged. If she was of the mind to be a spinster and spend the rest of her days in Minsbury Park, there was no one who would contradict her decision, least of all her younger brother.
“I have absolutely no idea how you manage it all, Claire,” Trixie muttered, trailing after her sister as they selected the tea and scones that would be served for their guests. “On the other hand, I am content to be of assistance to your endeavors and provide entertainment for our esteemed guests.”
Her older sister just laughed and shook her head. For all her self-deprecation, Trixie was gifted at the pianoforte and when their mother was alive, she had played quite often for their guests.
With the Viscountess gone and Claire yet to be Presented to the Queen, Ranhold House had seen less guests and gatherings.
The only exception, of course, was the Duke and his sister, but they were more family than guests.
After carefully choosing the china and making sure everything was in order, Claire and Trixie proceeded to the entrance to await their arrival. Claire took one look at her sister and subtly tucked a wayward lock of hair, earning her a grateful smile. She shook her head and looked out to the path, where a stately carriage, bearing the crest of the Duke of Minsbury, had pulled up to the front of their home.
His Grace and Lady Suzanna were just alighting from their carriage when the sisters both ushered them inside, Trixie absolutely bouncing with excitement at finally having guests to divert her from her boredom.
“Goodness, another winter and Trixie will almost be as tall as I am,” Lady Suzanna remarked. She turned to Claire and greeted her warmly. “And dear Claire…my, you are quite ready for your coming out!”
Claire blushed at the mention of her presentation to Society. “It all depends on whether Father will allow it,” she demurred.
“Of course he will,” Lady Suzanna assured her. “You are already eight-and-ten. There are others younger than you who have already been Presented to the Queen. Unless,” she smiled at her, “it is not to your liking?”
“Oh no!” Claire shook her head. “I would love to see the city.”
“Me, too!” Trixie chimed in.
Her older sister laughed. “Very well then, you should learn to behave yourself or we will be thrown out of London within a week.”
Claire sneaked a peek at the Duke, who was standing behind his sister, observing the entire affair with a soft smile on his lips. At twenty-two, he was tall and broad-shouldered with dark hair. He was quite handsome with green eyes and she had often heard other young ladies and their mamas remark that he was quite a “catch.”
They ushered their guests to the drawing room, where the tea was promptly served with plates of freshly baked scones and jam.
“Upon my word, Theresa makes the best scones in the whole of England,” Lady Suzanna smiled, biting delicately into her scone.
“One would think that you came here explicitly for that,” her brother teased her. Oliver sipped his tea and smiled at the sisters.
They all laughed at his remark and Lady Suzanna declared jokingly that she would snatch Theresa from the Rowleys if they failed to invite her regularly for tea.
“Of course, you have to send me these scones every once in a while, too,” she smiled.
“Well, why don’t you just move in?” her brother snickered.
She raised a delicate eyebrow in response. “Well, I would if I was sure you would not burn Minsbury Park to the ground within a week without me looking after you.”
Oliver laughed and held his hands up in surrender. “Touché.”
They were still laughing and enjoying their tea when the footman came in to inform them that Lord Rowley had summoned them all to the study.
“All of us?” Claire asked, her brows knitted in confusion.
The footman nodded his head. “Lord Rowley was quite specific in his instructions, milady.”
Lady Suzanna stood up and smoothed her skirts. “Well, then, we should not keep Lord Rowley waiting.”
“I agree,” Oliver nodded his head, his features more somber. There was no trace of the earlier laughter in his eyes as he felt the gravity of the situation. “It is not so often that Lord Rowley would summon all of us to his study.”
It remained unsaid that the last time all four of them had been summoned to the Viscount’s study had been to discuss the death of the Viscountess and to read her last will and testament.
The study of the Viscount of Ranhold was a sight that Oliver held close to his heart, as was the man seated behind the hardwood desk, bent over several scattered papers. In more ways than one, Eberhard Rowley acted as his father and showed him the ropes of business. As his own father and the Viscount were partners in many ventures, Oliver was grateful that the Viscount was there to patiently guide him until he learned well enough to manage on his own, even encouraging his ideas as he would his very own son.
There was nothing that Oliver would not do for the Viscount and his family. He regarded the older man as his father and the girls as much a part of his own family as his sister.
As he stood there before that familiar desk, along with his sister and the Viscount’s daughters, Oliver could not help the deep foreboding that crept into his heart. It had been so long since he had felt it—more than five years, to be exact, when he and Suzanna first learned of the tragic demise of both their parents.
He tried to blink but somehow, he once again saw the drawing room of Minsbury Park, saw Suzanna as she sat with him nervously. He saw Lord and Lady Rowley approach them with much sorrow in their eyes as they broke the news to him and his sister…that there had been an accident and their parents were no more.
“Father, is something amiss?” It was Claire who first broke the pervasive silence that enveloped the room, dark brown eyes shining with worry. She was wringing her hands anxiously, a habit that Oliver had seen on several occasions.
It was her soft voice that broke through his thoughts, tethering him back to the present.
He longed to hold her hands and provide her some measure of comfort but had to restrain himself in the presence of many. Not only was it highly unanticipated but it might even be considered inappropriate, as they were not related by blood and Claire was an unmarried young lady.
The Viscount closed his eyes and took off his spectacles, setting them aside. When he opened them again, his dark brown eyes, so very similar to Claire’s, were filled with sorrow as he looked at each and every one of them.
“My children,” he sighed, his voice breaking.
Trixie suddenly rushed to him and hugged him tight, to the surprise of all those present. “It’s all right, Father. Whatever it is, it will be all right with all of us,” she murmured into his neck.
“Oh, my dearest girl,” the Viscount hugged her back. He pinched her cheek lightly. “Now, you’ve got me all soft when I need to be strong.”
Oliver smiled slightly. “It is not so bad to be soft in front of our dear ones,” he said.
The Viscount nodded. “You are wise beyond your years, Your Grace.”
Oliver started to protest at the formal use of his title but the Viscount only smiled subtly at him. He closed his mouth and nodded imperceptibly back at the older man.
It had been an agreement between the both of them when Oliver and Suzanna came of age—he would refer to them by their titles so that they would never forget it and their parents. Although they were both under his care, Lord Rowley never wanted them to forget that they were the children of the Duke and Duchess of Minsbury and they were to be accorded all the respect that came with their birthright.
Lord Rowley smiled at Trixie again before he straightened himself and faced them. “Word has reached me that my only sister, Amelia, passed away last week.”
Silence descended over them once more. Claire covered her mouth as tears streamed down her face. Trixie buried her face in her father’s neck and hugged him tighter.
How their father must be hurting with this news!
Aunt Amelia was the Viscount’s only sister and living relative outside of Claire and Trixie. From all accounts, they both shared a very loving relationship and maintained correspondence even after Aunt Amelia married an extremely wealthy man. Aunt Amelia had been much older than the Viscount and in many ways, she stood as his mother when their own mother died before Eberhard turned ten. Their bond was further strengthened when Amelia, who had no children of her own, took it upon herself to assist his own children, Oliver and Suzanna, upon the death of his wife.
She had been a loving presence in the midst of their grief and provided the feminine support his girls needed when they lost their mother.
“As you well know,” the Viscount continued, “my dear sister was widowed and had no children of her own, which was why she dedicated all her love on all of you.” He took a deep breath and smiled sadly. “As it stands, all of her vast wealth—including that which she acquired during her marriage—has been passed down to me, her only sibling.”
Claire sucked in a deep breath at the news. Aunt Amelia had been ridiculously wealthy when she was alive, although a bit eccentric. She disdained the usual pastimes of other ladies her age—the conniving and condescending dowagers—and stuck mostly to herself in her own manor, emerging only when she wished to visit Ranhold House.
It was Aunt Amelia who first instilled in Claire that just because she was a woman did not mean she could not chase after her own dreams.
“Quite difficult, my dear,” the older woman had told her with a twinkle in her eye. “It will take all of you but not quite impossible, I tell you. Although,” she teased Claire with a light cackle, “you will need quite a bit of money to pull it off.”
Aunt Amelia held quite a special place in her heart and she would never forget the one who first believed in her dreams.
“We are not a very wealthy family but we managed quite well all these years, if I may say so.” The Viscount smiled at them. “Dear Claire is of an age to be married and soon, Trixie.” He held a hand up when his youngest daughter opened her mouth to protest. “With this money, I can set up a sizable dowry for the both of you—enough so you never feel encumbered to make an unhappy match for yourselves.”
He looked both his daughters in the eye. “I just want you both to be happy.”
“Oh Father!” Claire exclaimed, rushing to her father, her tears streaming down her face. “Trixie and I have no problem staying on this estate forever and ever with you!”
“She’s right! I never want to leave!” Trixie spoke in a vehement voice.
The Viscount laughed through his tears and hugged them tighter.
“Oh, my silly little girls. Of course you must leave! You need to go to London for the Season. With this money, you could buy yourselves a new wardrobe that will put you on par with the rest of Society. We could even hold a grand ball for your coming out!”
“What great fun it will be!” Lady Suzanna smiled, wiping tears from her own eyes. “Think of all the balls and parties and soirees we will be attending!”
“You will set the whole of London on fire,” Oliver smiled, even as he felt sad for the Viscount’s loss.
Lord Rowley looked up at him. “I will need to leave posthaste to settle the affairs of my dear departed sister. I trust that I can leave my sweet girls to you, Your Grace?”
“You need not ask it of me, Lord Rowley,” Oliver promised him. “I will watch over Claire and Trixie. They will have the protection of Minsbury, in addition to Ranhold.”
“Thank you so much,” the Viscount beamed at him. “Well then, I need to prepare for my journey. Why don’t you and Lady Suzanna stay for dinner, Your Grace?”
“Thank you so much, Lord Rowley,” Oliver inclined his head.
The older man smiled at him and turned to Claire. “I shall leave you to attend to our guests.”
She nodded and excused herself. As she left, Oliver could not help but follow her silently with his eyes. Indeed, she had grown to be quite a lovely young lady, although she was not what was considered conventionally pretty by the standards of Society.
Claire was possessed of curves that gave her an air of softness. Her olive skin, combined with eyes the color of rich chocolate, gave off an effect of warmth—like she was a gentle flame in the cold winter.
She may not be beautiful according to the standards of the ton but once news of her dowry reached London, he would be fighting to keep the scoundrels from flocking to her door.
Lady Suzanna shot him a strange look and a small smile traced itself across her lips. “Why don’t we adjourn to the library to discuss this at length?” she suggested. “We can wait for Claire and talk more about her coming out.”
Trixie nodded and pressed one more kiss on her father’s cheek before she bounded out of the study to lead the Duke and Lady Suzanna to the library to await dinner.
Oliver shook his head as he followed the younger Rowley sister to the library. Trixie was possessed of an energetic spirit and an infectious laughter that drew in all who listened to it. Even at four-and-ten, she was showing signs of being a great beauty, although she was still forever getting into all sorts of mischief.
A child, he mused. Trixie was still a child.
But her sister was all woman and the prospect of someone else noticing that scared Oliver. Once she made her curtsey, it was practically a declaration that she was open to discuss the subject of marriage.
A short while later, they were joined by Claire, who announced that dinner would be served at seven.
“Come sit beside me, Claire,” Lady Suzanna invited her, patting the space beside her on the elegantly upholstered couch. “We were just discussing the preparations needed before we head off to London for the Season.”
Claire sat down and frowned. “Oh, but I feel that there will not be enough time to prepare.”
“Nonsense,” Suzanna laughed. “There is nothing you cannot buy in London but of course, you will need a new wardrobe for your coming out. Day gowns, riding habits, evening gowns, and oh yes! Bonnets, hats, gloves, and dancing shoes!”
“It seems like you are planning to purchase the entire Bond Street!” Oliver remarked dryly.
“Oh, shush you! What does a man like you know about such things!” Lady Suzanna turned towards Claire and held her hand gently. “Our Claire will have everything she needs to take London by storm!”
“Oh…but you needn’t go through all the trouble,” she told Lady Suzanna.
The Duke’s sister smiled at her. “It shan’t be any trouble at all, my dear. Why, it would be so much fun!”
Claire smiled helplessly as Lady Suzanna and Trixie discussed the exciting details of their upcoming trip. As she watched the two converse animatedly like two birds on a branch, she could not help but think of her own reasons for wanting to see London for herself.
Unlike their country home, London was filled with all sorts of grand buildings that she had only ever seen in her books. To see them for herself, to stand in awe of their presence would be nothing short of a dream come true.
As she thought of all the adventures she would have, touring London and gazing upon these architectural marvels, she could not help but smile widely. How she would love to be able to study them all and incorporate them into her own designs. She could almost see herself wandering the streets of London, her sketchbook in tow as she had her own adventures.
What a grand time she would be having!
Morning dawned bright and early in Ranhold House as Claire and Trixie saw their father off on his journey. Although the Viscount was often away on business trips, parting never felt easy for the small family.
“Be good,” Lord Rowley reminded Trixie, kissing her forehead as he hugged her. “You must study well and listen to your sister.” He turned to Claire. “Mind your sister, for you well know that mischief follows wherever she goes.”
Claire laughed, even as tears gathered in her eyes. “Have a safe trip, Father, and come home to us soon.”
“I will, dear child.” He kissed her forehead and shot Trixie one last warning look. “I expect you to have learned more upon my return, Beatrice.”
Trixie pouted and then got up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “I cannot make promises I will not keep, Father.”
He laughed and patted her cheek. “I knew you would say that which is why—” he turned to Claire and raised an eyebrow “—I have instructed your sister to report to me your progress.”
Trixie let out a sound of dismay, enticing another chuckle from her father as he stepped into the deep blue carriage emblazoned with the crest of Ranhold on the side. Already, the two horses were pawing the pathway impatiently, ready to be off. Once the Viscount was safely ensconced in the confines of the carriage, the coachman gave the command and the horses slowly started down the path.
Claire and Trixie watched as the carriage bearing their dear father slowly meandered down the path. They stood at the entrance of the household, each one silently praying for the Viscount’s safety.
“I pray that Father reaches the estate safely,” the younger Rowley murmured, her hands clasped to her chest.
Claire nodded. “I pray that his journey be smooth.”
Once the carriage had disappeared from their line of sight, Claire gently ushered her sister back into the warm confines of their home, urging her to return to her studies posthaste. Already, Mr. Brickley was waiting for her with a stack of books at the ready.
She glanced up to her older sister with a childish pout. “Must I really?”
“You must or Father will never let you go to London for the Season,” Claire warned her laughingly. “You heard what he said—I must report your progress to him.”
Trixie muttered a soft complaint but was promptly sent by her older sister back to the classroom to apply herself to her studies.
“You know that Father highly values education,” Claire reminded her.
“Yes, I know,” her younger sister muttered in a dejected tone before she followed Mr. Brickley to the classroom.
Once that had been taken care of, Claire wandered back to the library, her mind turning at the possibilities of all that she would do in London. She had read so much about architecture and her heart longed for the day when she would finally be able to see the grand structures she had only ever seen on books worn from hours of perusing their pages. With the possibility of finally standing in front of these great buildings, she found that her excitement had only doubled until she could hardly sit still.
The one thing she could do to contain her enthusiasm was hours upon hours of poring through her folio, making adjustments to her sketches and plans, adjusting them when new ideas came to mind. Indeed, there was very little in this world that could satisfy her ambitious heart and one of those was to finally see her ideas come to life.
But first and foremost, she must learn well and to do that, she needed to see London in all its glory and absorb the glorious art of architecture.
So absorbed was she in her endeavors that she failed to notice the maid that had come to the library to announce the arrival of Lady Suzanna and her brother.
“Oh!” she looked up from her drawings with a flustered look, hastily closing the leather folio as she stood up.
The Duke and his sister were already in the drawing room, sipping tea when Claire arrived.
“I apologize for not welcoming you, Your Grace, Lady Suzanna,” she murmured with a slight incline of her head. “I was in the library and—”
“You need not apologize, dear heart,” Lady Suzanna smiled with a dismissive wave of her fingers. “Besides, we are all family here. ‘Twas Oliver who could not wait to hurry here. You know how seriously he applies himself to his duties.”
Claire smiled a little, noting the slight pink that had risen to the Duke’s collar. “Of course. We are honored that His Grace regards our family so kindly.”
“Now, sit here with me,” the older lady laughed, patting the chair closest to her. “We have plenty to discuss concerning your Presentation to Society.”
Claire took the seat closest to her and poured herself some tea. In all honesty, she could not care less about balls and parties and soirees. Indeed, it all sounded very exciting but her heart yearned to have adventures of a very different sort—one that involved wandering the streets of London, her sketchbook in tow.
“Suzanna has already made her curtsey five Seasons past and she will be able to assist you in this matter with far more efficiency than I could,” Oliver said sheepishly. “I would advise you, however, to not follow her words to the letter, as I have had to fend off a couple of irate suitors merely because she has managed to offend their sensibilities.”
Claire laughed as Lady Suzanna waved her hand dismissively with a delicate snort. “Those sort of men will not bring my heart peace, anyway,” she said. “There is no joy in delaying the inevitable and engaging in idle talk.”
As a young girl, Claire had grown up listening to Lady Suzanna talk of the Season and while it was rather clear that she did have a significant amount of suitors lining up for her hand in marriage, she found none of them to her taste. Of course, since her brother indulged her every whim, she had her say in the choice of her husband.
“In any case,” Lady Suzanna continued, “I have taken leave to invite one of the best seamstresses in London, Madame Woolworth, to begin with your wardrobe. As my brother suggested, we can purchase more in London but you need at least a few items for day dress, and evening gowns, as well as court dress for when you are presented to the Queen.”
The very notion of it all was enough to make her head spin. Although the Rowleys lived rather comfortably and wanted for nothing, Claire was certain that what Lady Suzanna had in mind would cost a staggering amount of money. Even with news of the inheritance from Aunt Amelia, it still seemed a little too much for her.
On the other hand, she did need to be dressed appropriately while she gallivanted around London to explore her heart’s desire.
“Do not fret, Claire,” the Duke assured her. “Lord Rowley and I have discussed this matter beforehand and he agreed that my sister be put in charge of such matters. As men, we are quite helpless on this.”
“And well you know it!” Lady Suzanna laughed. “Of course, we will need to buy dear Trixie a new wardrobe, too. Let it not be said that the daughters of the Viscount of Ranhold have been reduced to a shabby genteel existence in the country.” She looked at Claire and smiled grimly. “You must steel your heart, Claire, for the ballrooms of London are battlegrounds in the sacred quest for matrimony.”
“Oh, but I am not in a hurry to get married!” Claire laughed. “I am sure Father is of the same mind, too.”
“Quite sensible, your father,” the older lady averred. “After all, a woman’s life can be heaven or hell, depending on her choice of husband, and those of us with a choice in the matter should exercise that.”
“’Tis no wonder she is not married yet!” Oliver remarked with a bark of laughter, his green eyes twinkling.
“Lady Suzanna must, of course, marry a man that is worthy of her,” Claire laughed. “Otherwise, what a tragedy that would be!”
“Quite right, my dear. I am relieved you and I are of the same mind about marriage. At least I will not be so worried you would jump at the first dandy to beg for your hand in marriage.”
Claire thought that was hardly possible, since she longed for a man who would not only assure her of a comfortable life, but one she could spend the rest of her life with peacefully.
Of course, he also needed to have a vast appreciation of her own hobbies and interests and she feared that there was a scarcity of men who wanted a lady possessed of a functioning brain.
In any case, her trip to London would not be wasted. She would get to see the buildings she so wanted to, and if she were to meet a man who suited her well and one that her heart could peacefully join in holy matrimony, then all the better.
Oliver smiled indulgently as he listened to his sister prattle on about the intricacies of the Season. The experience was vastly different for ladies, as it was a veritable race to who could snatch the best catch of them all. In fact, he had heard of females resorting to foul schemes to get what they wanted.
“You cannot believe the things these ladies would resort to,” his sister had confided to him after her first Season. “Sometimes, I feel that they would resort to everything short of murder to marry someone they might not even like after a few more years!”
Men, too, often prowled the ballrooms for a biddable wife, preferably one with a generous dowry to aid their flagging fortunes. He had seen his fair share of those kinds of men sniffing after his sister’s skirts—or rather, her large dowry.
Beneath the veneer of respectability, there was a chilling aspect to the London Season, in his opinion.
Fortunately, Suzanna would be there to guide Claire through the quagmire of all of that, although the thought of her with another man did not sit well with him. Perhaps, it was because he had seen her grow up since she was a little girl and in his mind, there was not a man in all of England who deserved her heart and her lifelong devotion.
“I have requested Madame Woolworth to bring the best fabrics,” his sister said, breaking into his reverie. “Sometimes, even the plainest design will be rendered breathtaking if you use the right kind of cloth.”
He watched as Claire pressed her fingers to her temple. “I fear that this is all a bit too much to take in at the moment.”
“My dear, these are but the bare necessities!”
As the girls discussed the “bare necessities” for the Season, he excused himself to retreat to the library and Claire nodded at him. Ranhold House was as much his home as it was hers and she knew that, like herself, the library was one of the Duke’s favorite haunts in their country home.
He walked down the aisles, his hands trailing the spines of books that lined the shelves, noting that a great deal of books on the subject of architecture were missing. He smiled slightly at that.
Claire, he knew, was quite fond of the subject and frequently talked about it. He had guessed at her true intentions for going to London and he had every intention of guiding her to all the architectural marvels her little heart longed to see.
As for Trixie, it would be an effort to keep her out of mischief but the younger Rowley girl had the kindest heart of anyone he knew. Her rambunctious spirit might not sit well with the domineering dowagers of the ton but Oliver always felt that it was the best aspect of her character.
He came upon the large table flanked by several upholstered chairs that a previous viscount had appointed for hours of longer study. He noted the large, leather folio that lay on the worn but polished surface, stamped discreetly with the initials CAR.
Claire Annalise Rowley, he realized. It was Claire’s sketchbook.
He had seen that sketchbook many times and knew that she kept it close to her heart. He remembered asking to see it once, only to be gently but firmly rebuffed.
“I am not ready to show it yet,” she had told him then.
“Then I shall wait until you are ready,” he had told her. “I look forward to the wonders you will create.”
He had respected her decision then and although he wanted very much to peek into her world, he respected her privacy well enough to steer clear of searching through her private sketchbook.
He continued down the library, searching, until he finally came across the book he had been looking for. He smiled to himself and tucked it under his arm as he ventured back to the drawing room, where he found that Trixie had already joined Claire and his sister in discussing the upcoming Season.
“I never thought that there would be so many kinds of gowns and that one would need to wear all of them in just a few months!” the young girl breathed. “Why, London must be drowning in fabric and jewels!”
“Quite so,” Lady Suzanna agreed. “The ladies are forever competing as to who has the best baubles and the most fashionable gowns, that their husbands are forever complaining that their wives and daughters will push them to debt!”
“I do not want to push Father to debt,” Claire muttered worriedly. “And if I were a man, I would indeed be worried if I married a young lady who intended to drain my coffers to finance her wardrobe.”
“Between us ladies, I fear that the men actually take pride in dressing their womenfolk so,” Lady Suzanna shook her head. “If their families were dressed shabbily, it would not look well.” She turned to Claire with a smile. “Which is why you must not be so miserly with your coming out, my dear, or our dearest Trixie will have a much harder time by the time she makes her curtsey.”
The younger Rowley sat in rapt attention as she listened to the two ladies deliberate over which articles of clothing they would have Madame Woolworth make for them posthaste and which ones they would purchase in London. In truth, the sheer amount of clothing that was required of a young lady coming out was quite astonishing.
“I still feel as if it is all a bit too much,” Claire muttered, her hand drifting to her temple as she considered it all. “Maybe we should wait for Father to come home, as I am not comfortable with making all these purchases without his permission.”
“You do not need to worry about all that,” Oliver assured her. “As I said previously, the Viscount and I have already discussed this and I have already given him the estimate of the costs that Suzanna had accrued for her first Season.”
“All this for one season?” Trixie breathed in wonderment. “No wonder they are all in a rush to marry well. Launching a lady could very well bankrupt an entire family!”
“Launching,” her sister muttered, delicately wrinkling her nose. “Why does it make me feel like a ship?”
Oliver let out a sharp bark of laughter. “I have never seen it that way but Claire is right. It does make a lady seem like a ship being launched on its maiden voyage.”
“And with as much pomp and circumstance as possible, too,” his sister agreed with a laughing twinkle in her eyes.
“By the way, Claire,” Oliver said, holding the book up. “I found the book I have been searching for in the library. Would you mind if I borrowed it for a while?”
Claire smiled and dipped her head slightly, the sun catching her dark hair as she moved. “Please do take what you need, Your Grace.”
“Very well,” his sister smiled widely and patted Claire’s hand. “We have stayed long enough and although we need to discuss your coming out ball at greater length, Oliver and I must be off.”
“Will you not stay for luncheon, at least?” Trixie pouted.
Lady Suzanna laughed and patted her cheek. “I know you love having me here but there are errands that need to be done, my dear.”
“You will be back?”
“Why, of course!” his sister laughed. “After all, there is a lot more that we need to discuss!”
“There is more?” Claire muttered bleakly.
“Oh, just you wait, Claire. This is only the beginning!”
Over the course of a few days, the Slade siblings became a regular sight in the Rowley household. Claire, herself, had taken to bringing a journal with her to note all the advice that Lady Suzanna dispensed, taking these matters to heart.
While she learned a lot from her mother and Aunt Amelia, Lady Suzanna was well-versed in maneuvering the social circles of the fashionable elite. She felt that she learned quite a lot listening to her stories and the Duke’s sister had a way of making these lessons rather entertaining.
She learned which people she could safely approach, which ones she should steer clear of, and which ones she should approach with caution. It was enough to make her head ache.
Fortunately, there were times when they did just gather to discuss other topics besides the Season. Trixie, too, would join on occasion, provided that she was done with her lessons.
It was on one such occasion just a sennight after the Viscount left to attend to the affairs of his late sister when the footman came bearing news.
“Milady,” he bowed towards Claire. “A missive from Lord Rowley.”
“Word from Father!” Trixie clapped her hands in excitement. “Will he be back home soon?”
Claire opened the sealed letter, her dark eyes scanning the elegant paper filled with her father’s familiar handwriting. When she looked up, there was disappointment written all over her pretty features.
“Father has been called away on business matters,” she said softly. “It will be several weeks before he can come home.” She turned to Lady Suzanna and the Duke. “I fear we might have to put our plans on hold, Your Grace. We cannot leave for London without Father.”
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