About the book
For life and death are one, even as he and she are too...
To Lady Lorelie Ashbridge, life as one of the most eligible brides is anything but wanted.
Left in the care of her brother after her parents' death, she can't help but resent her family's legacy: a decades-old feud with the Earldom of Rinehorn.
Being the Earl of Rimehorn, Rufus Godfrey quickly realizes, is a lot harder than he could have ever imagined. Especially when the title comes with additional baggage: the obligation to hate the family of the woman he's secretly in love with.
However, like a rose among thorns, their hope for a shared future is clipped abruptly. When Lorelei is pronounced dead after a terrible accident, all that remains of her is a single handkerchief with her blood on it...
It was late and the flickering flames from altar candles cast shadows in the gloomy darkness. The harried figure slumped over the casket breathing in the scent of cedar and stale air. His voice – torn and raw – echoed softly into the deadly silence of the empty chapel. “She shouldn’t have died. She should still live.”.
The click of a boot echoed in the aisle, and a second voice replied. “I think that too, strangely. And I also think that you should not be here to say so.”
Silence. The eerie sense of impending danger filled the nave , like a violin string hums a warning note. The clacking heels of booted feet continued its echo down the aisle in slow measured steps, Then abruptly paused. With the soft metallic hiss, the accusing Earl of Bronzedale drew his sword from its sheath. Its thin blade whispered through the air as it traced an arc, then fell quiet by his side.
The Earl of Rennford remained vigilant by the casket and did not acknowledge the intrusion.
“Scoundrel,” the Bronzedale hissed again. “You defile this place by walking in it! You should not be near her! My sister would still be here, if you had not…if you did not…”
Rennford turned around. “If I hadn’t what?” His tone was dull, devoid of all emotion. It was the voice of a man who has suffered much and kept on suffering, and did not care too much anymore if he lived or died.
“You dare to ask that, here?” Bronzedale spat. “In this sacred place, hallowed by her body, you dare to still tell your foul-mouthed lies?”
Rennford took a step away from the casket. The click of his boot-heel echoed off the wall, and the candle-flames wavering as he moved. The whole church seemed to hold its breath, the sound echoing off the stone walls.
“I am not the one who is telling lies,” he said wearily. His voice was soft, too tired and hurt from anger. “For perdition’s sake…put up your sword! Can you not see the truth of this? That this has all gone too far now?” he demanded. “You still truly want this feud between us, when you see what it has cost?”
The Earl of Bronzedale stepped back a foot. The sound of his riding-boots clicked on the flagstones.
“You say that?” he demanded after a moment. “You, of all people? You think that it has gone too far? You do not know how far it can go.”
“Is that a threat?” the Earl of Rennford asked into the quiet.
“It’s a promise.”
Rennford made no answer. He stayed where he was, silent, while the boots of William Ashbridge, Earl of Bronzedale, echoed down the nave, the click of his boots fast with his defiant, angry steps. The door opened, its motion wavering the candlelight in a gust of sudden air. Then it slammed shut behind him.
When the church was quiet again, Rennford turned back to the casket. He bent over it, looking down. He spoke in a voice that throbbed with sorrow; that reached into the heart and twisted it with pain.
“My dearest,” he whispered. “My love. You are gone, and still they cannot see the truth. I am sorry… I am so, so sorry.” He cried. “If you are watching me, if you can hear, then know: I love you.”
He stood where he was, and then, so tenderly, he reached down and rested his hand on the top of the casket. His sob choked back into his throat, its sound echoing and making the candles tremble with uncertain light.
Then Rufus Grayleigh, the Earl of Rennford, turned away and walked blindly down the nave into the darkness outside without a star. Leaving the chapel and its occupant behind in silence.
Six Months Earlier
“Lettie, did you need to make my corset so tight?” Lorelei Ashbridge asked rather desperately. Her blue eyes were crinkling with the pain and from the bright sunshine that poured through the long French windows of Bronzedale Manor. She gasped as Lettie grunted with the effort of pulling on the laces.
“No, My Lady. I reckon I don’t,” Lettie replied dourly, loosening them slightly. “But it is the fashion, I did hear.”
“A fig to fashion! We’re in the country! And I really would like to breathe.” Lorelei raised a brow and regarded her maid with a cool glance.
Lettie chuckled, her heart-shaped face crinkling in a smile that looked not even slightly repentant. “My Lady, I reckon you’re right. Nothing better than good, fresh air. Just as well we’re out here in Bronzedale.” She relaxed the strings a little, tying them up neatly.
“Yes,” Lorelei replied, while straightening up and throwing her a reproachful glance. “It is, isn’t it? And tonight’s the Spring Ball. I really hope that all will go smoothly.” She looked into the mirror, tucking a strand of pale brown hair behind one ear. She had cause to be worried.
The Grayleighs would be attending the ball as well.
They were enemies of all the Ashbridges of Bronzedale, or so her brother, the earl of Bronzedale, would insist almost daily.
Lettie’s well-muscled shoulders lifting uncertainly. “No idea, My Lady. We can hope. It’s a fine evening – so warm and sunny!”
“Yes, it is,” Lorelei replied, looking out over the estate that basked in the sunshine. Lettie didn’t come from nearby Wardfield village, which was why she didn’t understand the problem. The Grayleighs could not be relied upon to keep peace.
I wish they could. This has been going on for too many decades!
Lorelei sat down at her new carved dressing-table, waiting for Lettie to dress her hair. A Londoner by birth, Lettie had a thick Cockney accent and a memory like a sage when it came to pictures of hairstyles from the London Women’s Gazette. It was the main reason the Earl of Bronzedale, had insisted on taking her into their household specifically for his sister.
“Shall I do your hair, milady?” Lettie asked.
Lorelei nodded. “The chignon, I think we said? Yes, please. And maybe with some decorated pins? I think they would go rather well.”
“As you wish, My Lady! As you wish.”
As Lettie worked, Lorelei looked at her own face in the mirror. A long oval face, with wide blue eyes, a slight nose and high cheekbones, she had to admit that her appearance was not displeasing. Especially in the pale blue dress of spangled muslin, ordered specially for the occasion.
Then why do I feel so sad?
There was no point in trying to enjoy herself. What was planned as a fine evening would more than likely end in a fight?
The Grayleighs never let the annual ball go well.
She felt Lettie stand back, and she looked up at her own pale brown hair, studying the style. It was a loose, modish style, the length pulled back and rolled under, the front part left to fall in artful disarray around her face. It was decorated here and there with crystal pins, the light catching from them like it did from the brilliants sewn onto the dress. Like the gown itself, they were a gift from her brother, William. The extravagance of it all struck Lorelei as painful.
All this, for an evening that will likely end with shouting.
She sighed again and pushed back her chair to stand. “Thank you, Lettie. You did a grand job with my hair. Go and enjoy your evening.”
“Thank you, My Lady!” Lettie said, clapping her hands, pleased. She, too, would be attending the ball later on – the whole town of Wardfield was invited, and that meant everyone, from all trades.
Lorelei watched her maid go, feeling strangely wistful. She, at least, would be able to do as she pleased that evening. She’d doubtless enjoy herself, dancing with whosoever took her fancy, spending the whole night in the hall until morning.
She has more freedom than I do.
William would be there, making sure she didn’t talk to anyone connected to the Grayleighs. And he would certainly insist on an exit before midnight – it would be most unseemly for the most noble family in the district to be seen capering about at dawn!
Lorelei leaned back on the wall, watching how the sunlight slanted low over the garden. Soon it would be night.
And then the ball will start.
She paced to the window, her silk shoes silent on the carpeted floor. In the hallway, she heard her brother. His slightly imperious voice rang out down the wooden-floored space.
“And, Dellford…do make sure all callers are diverted until tomorrow morning. I will not be receiving anyone before ten.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
Lorelei shut her eyes briefly. She was sure William would be coming to escort her down to the coach, and she knew that she wouldn’t be able to put a cheery face on over her misgivings, no matter how she wished to.
I hope he can behave himself and not pick fights with the Grayleighs again.
That was what had happened last year, more or less. She couldn’t help but hold William responsible for the annual chaos, though she knew it was disloyal of her to think that. Everyone knew that William was determined for a horse bred at Bronzedale stables to win in Newmarket.
But did he really have to taunt the Grayleighs with it?
She shook her head. It might not have been purposeful, but that was exactly how the argument last year had started.
The two families – hers and Grayleighs – had a rivalry centering on the horse-breeding world. Both families governed earldoms that bordered on each other’s lands, both owned terrific stables, and both had produced winners for Newmarket in different years. The feud between them went back to her great-grandfather’s day, when Alton – her great-grandfather – had bet against one of the Rennfords. And, when her great-grandfather, the earl of Bronzedale, hadlost, he’d taken a vengeance which ended in tragedy.
Challenging the then Earl of Rennford to a race had been a last-ditch attempt to win back his money. Her great-grandfather could not have foreseen that the man might have taken a fall from his horse, killing him instantly. Despite the fact that he couldn’t possibly have known, her great-grandfather was accused of murder. The angry Rennfords had never believed that it was an accident.
And so, the feud was born.
“It came out of nothing!”
There were no witnesses, but she believed the story that it was an accident. The field where they raced – the commonage between the two estates, just north of the Wardfield village – was notoriously uneven and full of bad obstacles. The worst crime her ancestor could be accused of was happening to choose to hold the race there. She was convinced there was no more to this feud than that.
And human arrogance and stubbornness for carrying it on.
“Sister?” a voice called from the hallway. “Are you ready to leave yet? You look exceptional!”
Lorelei had to smile. William was a kind person, if somewhat self-important. She looked up at him where he stood in the corridor. She had to acknowledge that he also cut a handsome figure. Tall, lean and with high-cheekbones, he was a very nice-looking man. His brown hair was brushed to impeccability, his tall hat atop it. His dark eyes lit when they looked at her, making her smile.
“Truly! If Mrs. Epworth knew how becoming that dress would look, she’d have made a career at court as dressmaker to the Queen.”
“Thank you, brother!” She smiled. “You look well, too.”
He was dressed in black, with a high white cravat at his neck, after the London fashions. All in all, he looked far too stylish for Wardfield, but that was typical of him. He insisted on living the London life, even though he spent increasingly more time here at Bronzedale House than in London, called here by his duties in managing the estate.
“Should we go to the carriage?” he asked. “Mr. Winfield is waiting.”
“Thank you, yes.” She said. “I’ll just get my coat.”
Reaching for her light evening cloak, she wrapped it around her shoulders over the spangled dress and headed to the waiting coach.
Wardfield Hall was loud. That was the first thing she noticed on entering the hot, crowded space. It was packed with people, and she could barely think or hear for the noise of talk and laughter.
And it’s over-hot.
It was overly-warm with all the villagers packed into such a small space – though the village hall was not a small one
Lorelei looked around the hall, feeling a little desperate. She was about to ask William to escort her out onto the terrace to get some fresh air, when she noticed he’d already disappeared, swallowed up by a meeting with some business-partner or other. She thought she spotted him, halfway down the hall, standing in the midst of a group of men, talking and smiling.
That’s a fine thing. Leave me here in the sweltering heat, if you will!
She looked away. She didn’t even want to be here! She cast around, looking for someone to talk to.
On the other side of the hall, she spotted the Grayleighs. She knew it was them, because she could see the head and shoulders of the eldest son – the new Earl of Rennford – sticking out above the crowd. His name was Rufus She watched as he took a glass of ale from the refreshments-table, tipped his pale-haired head back, then his took a sizeable swig of it,
She felt her cheeks flush, and she looked hastily away.
A tall, well-built man, Lord Rennford was, in body at least, not unlike the big brutes from her nursemaid’s tales. He had broad shoulders, a slim waist and muscled thighs that must have made him good in the horse-races, that is, if a horse could be found for such a tall, big-framed man. Not that Rufus Grayleigh was bulky, not exactly, but he was well-built and strong-looking.
And, she thought with another blush as she looked hastily away, of all the things she should be thinking about him, complimentary thoughts were not one of them.
Another blush, and she looked hastily away.
All the same, she couldn’t help watching him. He was standing with a group of people, some of whom she assumed were his family. He was laughing and joking, a constant smile on his face, and his posture relaxed and easy. A young girl of perhaps her own age, with pale brown hair and a heart-shaped face, stood at his side. She seemed quiet and a bit serious, though she did laugh at what was evidently a funny anecdote.
That’s his sister, I think. Lady Odette.
She looked across at a dark-haired lady who stood opposite him. The lady was dramatically elegant, with a flamboyant gown of russet silk. Her hair looked dark and was arranged in an elaborate but classic style. She spoke with an imperious expression, but grinned at Rufus.
That must be his mother, Lady Rennford.
She wasn’t sure what to think of her. Instead of concerning herself with her further, she turned her attention to the rest of the room, when a single note from a whistle started, followed by a cacophony of sounds, the chamber orchestra started as quietly as they could to tune up.
The music was starting and couples were forming in rows down on the dance-floor. It was a country air, and she had little idea of how to dance to it, but the townsfolk knew, because they were already gathering, ready to dance it with relish. She watched for a while, wondering if she would risk William’s disapproval and join them. A lively sort, Lorelei loved dancing, and it didn’t matter to her if it was a country reel or a courtly Sarabande. It mattered to others, though, William always said pompously.
She wondered idly if it would matter to Rufus. He seemed a country gentleman. She glanced back, just to see if he had already finished quaffing his ale.
When she looked back, his eyes caught hers.
It was only an instant, and she looked hastily away, but her cheeks were warm.
I should go outside.
The music was lively and lilting, the rhythm throbbing and pulsing in her blood. Her heart was racing, and her body felt warm. She stepped hastily out of a side-door and into a quiet field.
What is happening to me?
She leaned back against the wall, shutting her eyes a moment. The look Rufus had given her – long and considering – had felt strange, almost as if it reached out and touched her own soul.
Rubbish. It was just a look! Looks don’t do that. Not in real life.
She fought down the sweet feeling that flooded through her heart, heating her cheeks as she thought of Rufus Grayleigh. She couldn’t afford to feel like that. Not for a moment.
She stayed where she was, leaning on the wall. She took slow breaths of sweet countryside air. It smelled of grass and dew and evening. The sun was setting, and the fields were tranquil and at peace. She let her heart calm, and then turned around to walk into the hall again.
Just as she was about to go back in, she heard a voice from the door behind her.
“Good evening, My Lady. May I join you out here?”
She stared up, giving a little gasp of alarm. The voice was that of Rufus Grayleigh.
Rufus stared down into the face of the young lady before him. He drew a deep breath. He was powerless to resist those big surprised eyes.
“I apologize,” he said, remembering his manners as she gasped. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
She looked up at him, replacing the surprise in her pale blue eyes with a quizzical look.
They were the pale blue of a sky on an early summer day. He found himself staring into their depths; so sweet and compelling that he felt as if they might drown his soul.
“Why do you say that?” she asked, breaking his focus. “Do I seem scared to you?” The question was mild but held a biting edge.
He wet his lips. He seemed to have dug himself into a corner already, and he’d spoken only a sentence!
“Um…well, no. Not really,” he murmured, looking down at his feet awkwardly.
He felt queasy with uncertainty, wishing he could dig himself out of the hole in which he seemed to be steadily burying himself. He risked meeting her eyes. When she looked up into his face, he thought her eyes lit up briefly with a spark of laughter.
“Why say that, then?” she asked. “Do you usually start conversations in so confusing a way?”
Her smile seemed as soft and warm as an embrace. She laughed delightedly, and he felt a big silly grin spread across his face and hastily bit his cheeks to stop it.
I must look like a complete fool!
“Well, then,” she said, turning partly away and regarding him over one shoulder, mouth lifted at the corner, and a teasing smile on her lips. “I suppose we ought to go inside. It wouldn’t go well for either of us, would it, if it was known that you’d sneaked up on me unchaperoned?”
Her brow lifted, as if her words were a challenge, albeit a teasing one. He shook his head, trying to think of something to say that would answer it.
“Apologies, My Lady. I had no desire to disturb you. I came out here to take the air. It’s rather hot.” He dabbed his forehead to illustrate the point; it was damp with perspiration.
She turned back to face him. “It is, isn’t it?” She smiled. His honesty was disarming and, combined with his evident attraction, it made her feel more well-disposed toward him.
“It assuredly is,” he said. “The place is packed! I do think the mayor might consider building a bigger hall. Or using another venue for this event.” He adjusted his necktie.
Lady Lorelei raised a brow. “Of course, not if the venue were inside any of the local noble houses. The local gentry can’t even get through the evening without slaughtering one another.”
It was a barb, mildly tossed. Rufus grinned. “I think that’s true. For which I apologize, My Lady.” He bowed low.
He straightened up to find her silent stare upon him. Their eyes met, and he felt, in that moment, as if she’d reached out and touched his heart in a way nobody else ever had.
“It’s not your fault, My Lord. This hateful thing is something we were born into.”
She hates this feud as much as I do.
That was a big surprise he didn’t see coming! He took a steadying breath.
The feud had been the backdrop of his existence – something as sure and established as Mr. Murray’s farm on the hillside, or the Mayor Ramsgate who’d been there since before he was born.
His mother supported it staunchly. She considered them the scourge of existence. And, which was far more shocking for her, they had no sense of style.
He himself had other ideas.
As far as he could fathom, the Ashbridges were just people, very much like himself and his relations.
Not that I’d ever say that to anyone.
At least, that was what he’d felt before he actually met one.
She is the most beautiful lady I’ve ever seen.
Lorelei, sister of the Earl of Bronzedale, had been hovering on the edge of his imagination for the last two years. Since becoming aware of the fact that, finally, he should consider finding a wife in order to secure a succession for the Earldom, he’d been aware of her existence the way he was aware of butterflies – beautiful beings hovering always beyond reach.
“Are you all right?” she asked, frowning up at him. He blinked, returning his attention to the present.
“Um…yes. I mean…no. It’s a bit sunny over here, isn’t it? Shall we stand over there, where it’s cooler?”
She shot him a long look, trying to seek out his motives. He felt a little guilty. He had suggested they move to the shade as a pretext for keeping her out here, alone with him, a moment longer. He shrugged.
“Only if you want to stay, that is. We could always return to the hall.”
“And create the biggest scandal in the history of our respective earldoms by walking in side-by-side? Not very likely.”
He stared, impressed by how quickly her mind worked. He was fascinated with her.
“You’re right,” he nodded. “We ought to go inside one at a time. It was remiss of me to say that. I’ll go first, if you like…? You can follow in about five minutes. Or…”
He frowned as she laughed, interrupting him.
“Assuredly, yes, we could,” she said. “But, Lord Rennford, would not you like to stay out here for longer?”
He gulped. Of all the things he’d imagined her saying, that was so far off the list as to leave him sinking.
“Well…yes,” he managed.
She laughed again. It was a sweet, light sound that enchanted him. It wasn’t in the least bit mocking. He found himself laughing, too.
“I’m afraid I’m a bit on edge tonight,” he admitted. “You will have to excuse me. I’m not always this odd, you know.”
She was looking up at him, big eyes twinkling. He had to laugh.
“Funnily enough, no. I’m not. Do you enjoy these parties?”
She looked away, and he found himself hoping he hadn’t upset her.
“Not usually,” she admitted. “You know…they generally end in a fight. And I hate fighting!”
He could see the intensity of emotion on her face when her eyes met his. Her mouth was tense, her expression tight with sorrow and pain. He found himself agreeing.
“Yes. It is so silly, isn’t it? What good does it do anyone? Hatred has this odd way of growing.”
“Yes!” She nodded vigorously. “I think so, too. After it reaches some level, it takes on a life of its own and starts to fuel itself.”
They looked at each other, and he felt that odd feeling, as if she had unchained his heart and soul. It was only a moment, but it was profound.
He looked at his feet. He was so overwhelmed by the feeling, and by her, he knew that to stay much longer, he would tempted to do something he probably shouldn’t.
Like kiss her.
He could see how pale and full her lips were. When she raised her eyes to his, he found his body aching for a kiss.
He looked away, coughing tightly.
“I suppose I should go in,” he said quickly. “My family will be wondering where I’ve gone to.”
“I suppose,” she echoed. She sounded oddly sad.
They looked at each other again, and before he could think about it, he’d taken her hand in his own, lifting it as if in salutation.
“Good evening, Lady Lorelei,” he murmured.
Then, heart thudding, he was stepping back into the hallway, looking around for his mother and sister, who’d clearly been searching the place, high and low, for him.
Leaving the enchanting lady behind.
Rufus woke early the next morning from a deep and confusing morass of dreams. In them, he’d been confronting shadowy monsters, only to find that at the last minute, the frightening forms had disappeared into smoke and mist. He lay back on the pillows, trying to clear his mind.
Lady Lorelei’s face hovered in his thoughts as the dreams cleared. He remembered her adorable smile, those eyes sparkling with mirth, her soft pink lips. He groaned with longing. He shook his head at himself. Feeling like that was pointless.
He slipped out of bed, trying to push her image to the back of his head.
It’s no good me lying here daydreaming of her. She’s the last person I could bring here.
If he were to choose her as the countess of Rennford, the place would explode with scandal. He reckoned the household staff – who were as invested in the feud as rival cricket-teams were invested in their own side – would all resign.
So, there’s no point dreaming.
He had to be practical. He was the Earl of Rennford, after all. And there was one thing he could usually count on himself to be, and that was practical. He never got caught up in fights or flights of fancy; he was there to guide and manage the estate and make sure that even the poorest of his tenants had a roof and was provided for. And that was all.
My marriage is a matter of politics.
Just sound, logical politics, intended to bring the greatest benefits to his land, his tenants and his family. Why, then, was it that whenever he thought of Lady Lorelei, his mood brightened.
“Makes no sense,” he muttered to himself and reached over to pull the bell-rope, summoning his valet. Wishful thinking never got him anywhere.
“Good morning, My Lord.” A tall, thin man appeared in the doorway, his face seeming perpetually grave.
“Good morning, Mr. Brackley,” he replied. “If you could put out my riding-things? I intend to go for a ride after breakfast. And, for the moment, my gray day-suit.”
“Yes, Lord Rennford”
Dressed in a gray suit of stylish wool, Rufus headed down the hallway to where he could hear the click of spoons and cutlery coming from the breakfast-room. He paused in the doorway as his mother welcomed him with a smile.
“My dear boy!” she gestured to him and he came in, bending and kissing her on the cheek where she sat at her place. “Do sit! It is late, isn’t it?” his mother continued firmly. “But, then, one can be forgiven for arising late after a big event. Not so?”
He leaned back in his seat, feeling a little restless. He met the eyes of his sister, Odette, who was sitting across the table from his mother. She raised a brow and a small smile played on her lips, swiftly hidden so their mother wouldn’t think it was a conspiracy.
“So, my boy,” his mother drawled. “Have an egg. They’re good for you. Mr. Eccles, the physician always says that one should start the day off with a boiled egg. They’re so good for the constitution.” She raised her brow at her daughter, and continued. “Did you have an egg for breakfast, Odette, my dear?”
Odette glanced sideways at her brother, as if seeking assistance. Then she shook her head. “No, Mama. I feel a little nauseous. Nothing bad,” she said swiftly. She looked at her plate. Odette never spoke much, Rufus thought. She watched everything, though, and nothing missed her observant gaze.
“I see,” their mother nodded. She was a beautiful lady, with a fine-boned face, wide dark eyes and abundant hair that had all gone an iron gray that suited her. She had a long neck and a fragile bone structure that belied the iron strength that was inside her. She was also rather flamboyant: wearing a cherry-pink day-gown with a low neck, made of a light muslin. She always dressed well and colorfully.
“You enjoyed the ball?” Rufus asked, changing the subject. His mother smiled.
“Oh, it was delightful! I do enjoy a good ball! Most diverting. You enjoyed it, did you, Odette?” she asked her daughter briefly, then turned to Rufus quickly as Odette nodded. “And you, my son?”
She was looking at him with some intensity, and Rufus shifted awkwardly, not sure what to say.
Did she see him talking to Lady Lorelei? If she had, this question was a primed cannon waiting to go off. His mother’s feelings on the subject of the feud were well-known.
“Um…yes, Mother. It was diverting. There were a lot of people there,” he said, aware that it was a somewhat lame reply. Until he knew what she was driving at, he wasn’t about to say anything that committed him to something.
“But did you meet anyone in particular?” his mother asked pointedly. She turned to face him, gazing into his eyes, and studying his expression. “Any person that appealed especially to you?”
He looked into those dark eyes, so inscrutable and felt even more at a loss as to what to say.
“Um…no…yes…” Rufus shifted uncomfortably in his seat. What in perdition’s name was he supposed to say? What was she asking him? He had no idea where this was leading.
“What Mama is asking,” Odette spoke up quickly, “is if you met anyone you want to marry.” She threw him an encouraging smile.
“Oh! That!” He felt like the curtains had been opened to his mind, dispelling his dark fears. But, then again, the question was still tricky: He had met someone – somebody who fascinated him very much. But if he so much as mentioned her name, then guilt and shame would rain down on his head for at least an hour. He thought of something.
“Um…did you see anyone suitable for me?” he asked, sidestepping the question. His mother shook her head theatrically.
“No, no, no! Dear boy! That is not how it works.” She smiled in frustrated appeal. “My son, I love you like my first-born. But you might take the weight off my shoulders and make my job a bit easier? You could at least look!”
“Sorry, Mother,” he said heavily. He looked down at his plate, waiting for another tirade building up. He didn’t think he could take much more badgering this morning. His sister spoke up quickly, before anybody could say anything else. He cast her a grateful glance.
“Mother was saying that we should organize a ball here, at Rennford House. That way, you can be sure to meet someone that appeals to you. We should invite all the suitable young ladies, which means most of my friends…and then you can take your pick. A proper ball, like in a fairytale!” She smiled in what he thought was supposed to be an encouraging manner.
Opposite them, his mother’s face was stern. If his sister wanted fairytales, he knew his mother’s mind was intent on something far more pragmatic.
“Yes, well. We also need to speak to Mr. Haldon. I wonder about the money spent on it all” She frowned. “Balls are not cheap, you know. And I do wonder about the productivity of the estate this year…”
“Mother, please!” Rufus shifted in his seat. This was one of her favorite themes – the fact that, in her mind, the estate was being badly managed and was not yielding the income it once had. Rufus always experienced it like a personal attack, and he’d do almost anything to get out of it. “It’s a Saturday morning, and it’s not even eleven o’ clock yet.”
“I thought about going riding, later…” Odette spoke up, trying to change the subject.
Lady Rennford shot her a withering look. “That has nothing to do with the topic at hand,” she said frostily. “And, Rufus, if you only wed somebody, you might have enough money to do exactly as you wish with the tenant farms.” She gave him a hard look. “I know you have plans to improve their living conditions, and this is just the way to do it!”
Rufus pushed his chair back. He didn’t think he’d be able to stand much more of this. Could he not just sit at breakfast and have a cup of tea without his mother heaping demands on him?
“Excuse me, Odette, Mother…” he managed to say as he stood up, taking his napkin off his knee. “I feel unwell. I think I will take a walk.”
“Brother…” Odette said, turning to him with her thin brows raised, concerned. He didn’t reply, just hurried through the door and out into the hallway. Behind him, he heard Odette turn to their mother. “That wasn’t fair, Mama…”
At least someone understands.
He should probably go back in again and apologize – at very least, his mother would likely turn her vast energies and ambitions on Odette now, and she would need rescuing. But at the same time, he knew himself well enough to know when he’d had enough.
I need to walk and take time to think.
He headed out of the archway that led to the estate grounds. At one time, Rennford house had been more like a castle: built during the eighteenth century when a bold, fortress-like design was popular. The mock-Gothic arches and courtyards were a testament to his ancestors’ need to project an aura of wealth and influence.
And it seemed to him like nothing had really changed.
He sank down on a bench in the garden. He shut his eyes. He wished he could think of some way to fix all this mess – the feud, his mother’s want for him to wed, his own need to manage his estate to the best of his capacity.
It all came down to the feud.
If the feud could just disappear, then he could at least entertain the idea of marrying the lady he was interested in – Lady Lorelei. He smiled just thinking of her, allowing the worry that possessed his mind evaporate. He recalled her eyes and her way of speaking so succinctly, her smile inviting like a candle burning in the window on a dark night.He wished he could simply ride to her house and call on her, like he could have without this stupid feud.
“Good morning, My Lord…” Mr. Ridley, the gardener, greeted him as he walked down the garden gravel path with a broom. “A fine day.”
“It is, Mr. Ridley.” He nodded, and stood up, feeling restless. If he sat here for much longer, Mr. Ridley would start trimming the edges on the flowerbeds around him, which would mean he was obliged to have a conversation with him. He just didn’t feel up to it this morning.
He headed down the garden towards the wall.
“Dash it,” he said to himself. “I’m going out walking.”
He went in and got his hat, changed his shoes and headed down the path. He planned the route and decided to head to the tea-shop for breakfast in the village – at least there, he would get some peace.
It was as he walked down the main street that he thought he spotted somebody – Lady Lorelei.
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