About the book
Even in the face of death, he wouldn’t denounce their love…
Lady Bellinda Ayles has made a mess of all courtship offers she has ever received. Feeling the pressure to marry, she is set up with one of her childhood friends, but he is nothing like she remembers him.
Octavius Wyndham is to be the next Marquess of Hartlon. His father’s failing health means he must find a wife, but his timid spirit proves crippling when trying to court. Until his reunion with a lady from his childhood changes him forever.
When anonymous notes start arriving, Octavius is forced to face a part of Bellinda’s tumultuous past. A part that might bring his undoing. When she goes missing, splinters of wood stained in blood are his only leads. For Bellinda has been receiving letters too. Letters that promise her death...
Lady Bellinda Ayles found herself spun around with some vigor as the young Viscount of Thornberry, Joseph Repington, twirled her around the dancefloor to the sounds of the Scotch Reel. One of her favorite dances, she often found herself disappointed with her lackluster partners. They’d follow the steps with little enthusiasm, turning the entertaining, fun-filled dance into just another bland exercise in this never-ending marriage mart.
Lord Repington, however, seemed as committed to making dancing enjoyable as she was. In fact, she considered agreeing to a second dance, should he ask. Her mother, she knew, would be both scandalized and excited all at once, given that a second dance meant there was genuine interest.
Well, at least I am interested. Lord Repington is much less dull than the other lords I’ve had to put up with, despite his receding hairline.
Once more, she felt herself twirled with some strength, the ballroom zooming by her.
“You are a marvelous dancer,” Lord Repington said as they moved across the dancefloor.
Bellinda grinned at him. “As are you. Much lighter on your feet than some of my previous dance partners, I can assure you.” She glanced at Lord Benningsford who was partnered with her friend, Miss Sarah Cates.
Following her gaze, Lord Repington smiled. “Old Oliver is not the lightest on his feet, I take it?”
“Lord Big Foot? No, certainly not. My left toe can tell you that particular tale. It is still in severe distress after our adventure at Almack’s last week,” she said with a light, ladylike giggle which caused him to chuckle. She looked up at him with a smile on her face. It was one of the things she liked about him, the fact that he was taller than her. An attribute difficult to find when you are a lady that stands half an inch above all the other ladies. He grinned at her.
“I shall remember that nickname next time I see him at Brooks. Perhaps that will teach him not to be dancing with the young lady I am courting.”
She blinked her eyes at him in mock surprise.
“So we are, at last. I was beginning to fear I might turn into an ape-leader before you asked my father for permission.”
They danced their way around the ballroom once more. Indeed, were already courting, of course, albeit in an unofficial manner.
“You? An ape-leader? Never. If it was not me, some other lucky lord would surely be courting you. You, Lady Bellinda, are in no danger of ending up on the shelf.”
Bellinda smiled. She was glad to hear it. Even though she was only nine-and-ten years old, this was her second Season. Thus far, she’d found herself lacking an offer of marriage. She’d vowed to her mother after the last Season ended without one that she’d find a match this time. Alas, she had not. So far, every lord she’d been introduced to turned out to be either a dandy, a rake, or a dullard. None of which she could tolerate in a man. Or in anyone, for that matter.
She did not care to keep company with a man who had more interest in fashion than she did, nor one who could not keep his eyes off the other ladies while dancing with her. Worst of all were the dullards who could not keep up a meaningful conversation.
Faith, if I wanted to be bored to tears by a male unable to converse, I might as well have stayed home with little Linus. At least my baby brother is cute and shares his candied fruits with me.
She’d all but given up on the idea of finding a man without the help of a matchmaker, when she’d been introduced to Lord Repington, early on this Season. Unlike the other lords, he’d turned out to be quick-witted with a sense of humor. He did not even seem to mind her occasional biting remarks, a definite plus, for she found it hard to control her tongue. And he was a good dancer, unlike Lord Big Foot.
To think I nearly declined to meet him because he has less than a full head of hair. All the fun I almost missed over such a trivial matter.
For she truly enjoyed his company, especially when dancing. To her disappointment, the Scotch Reel ended, and she found herself coming to a stop before the Viscount. She was about the curtsy and thank him for the dance, content with having to wait for the next ball to spend time with him again, when he stopped her.
“Would you perhaps consider sharing the Quadrille with me? It is the next dance and my favorite.”
Bellinda stopped, the smile momentarily disappearing from her face. She’d dreamt of him asking her for another dance but now that he was, she found herself almost vexed. She glanced at her mother who was seated at a table near the dancefloor. Beside her was the mother of her friend Sarah Cates, who was presently returning to the table. Her mother sat with her lips pursed as she observed her daughter.
“I would love to, My Lord,” she replied as they went to line up.
She smoothed down her gown, a round robe of pale crimson which was ornamented around the bottom with a golden embroidered border. Her strawberry-blonde hair was hidden, save for a strategically placed curl, under a matching turban. She knew the color of her bespoke gown and turban complemented not only her pale skin but also her bright-green eyes.
Due to her tall stature, many of her gowns had to be specially fashioned, a fact she both loved and despised. She envied the shorter girls for their delicate natures. However, gowns tailored to her willowy frame also made her the envy of the ton.
“It looks as though Lord Big Foot is taking a small break,” Lord Repington whispered into her ear, pointing at his friend who sat rather uncomfortably at a table nearest the orchestra.
“And I am certain Miss Cates’s toes are grateful.” They shared another chuckle, although Bellinda felt a small pang of guilt for her catty remark, for she happened to know that Sarah was very fond of Lord Benningsford.
To her relief, Lord Repington sensed her unease.
“I will say, Oliver may not be the best dancer, he is however, a loyal friend.”
Bellinda nodded, “Indeed, I found him quite the kind man.” It was true, out of all gentlemen she’d encountered this past Season, he’d been among the most pleasant. Dull as an old, rusty kitchen knife, but thoughtful and considerate, nonetheless. “In fact, I believe he might be quite the good match for my friend, Miss Cates.”
“Is that so?”
“Indeed, they share a rather peculiar hobby. Bird watching,” Bellinda found herself at ease with the young Viscount, a feeling she’d not previously experienced with any other young man.
The Viscount broke into laughter. “By Jove, a match made in heaven, indeed. For I know Oliver loves nothing more than an afternoon spent watching the geese fly south. Or north.”
“Wherever they might fly,” she said with a smile.
“Well, our friends might be a wonderful match, but what of us? Do you think you can withstand the pressures of a second dance?”
The music had started up and they joined the formation.
“I should imagine so, My Lord. As long as you do not step on my toes,” she giggled once more, in as ladylike a manner as she could.
“Heaven forewent! Never. I intend to be named best dancer of the 1814 London Season.”
With that, the music grew louder, the dancing started, and Bellinda allowed herself to fall into a blissful state as he once again led her across the dancefloor in as capable a manner she’d ever experienced.
After they had talked and danced their way through most of the Quadrille, Bellinda found herself utterly captivated by the Viscount.
He is so charming, and such a smooth dancer. And handsome, despite the lack of luscious hair. Perhaps at last I have found someone who could truly be….
“Faith!” She exclaimed, for due to her inattention she’d not focused on her footing and managed to tangle her feet up with the Viscount’s. She struggled to regain her balance, reaching her hands out to him but failed to grasp on to him in time. Her feet slipped forward, and she found herself suddenly airborne, a shriek escaping as her bottom hit the floor with such force, a pain shot up her tailbone all the way up her spine.
For a moment, she remained there, on the floor, the wind knocked out of her. A hot sensation overcame her, and she closed her eyes wishing the ground might swallow her right up. Knowing she could not remain on the floor indefinitely, she opened her eyes and found Lord Repington peering down at her.
All the charming twinkle had gone out of his eyes, and his formerly captivated expression had made room for embarrassment.
He is ashamed of me. For me. What a disaster, what an utter disaster.
From the corner of her eye she saw her mother and Sarah, both of whom had jumped up and stared, as did everyone else in the room, or so it appeared. She’d be the laughingstock of the entire ton come tomorrow.
To her relief, Lord Repington did not simply turn and walk away. No, being the gentleman she thought he was, he stepped up, forcing his embarrassment aside, no doubt. He leaned forward and reached a hand out to her which she took with gratitude.
“Thank you,” she muttered quietly, just loud enough for him to hear.
A smile flashed across his face. “I guess from now on I shall have to call you Lady Foozler Foot,” he winked at her.
She gasped at the comment for she knew he was only half joking. Around her, people giggled, and she felt a wave of anger overtake her. Pushing his hand away, she rose under her own power and smoothed down her gown. She righted the turban which had been knocked sideways and faced him. She steadied her voice as she stared him down.
“I might have fallen tonight, but I will rise in the morning with my dignity intact. Which is more than can be said for your vanishing hairline.”
She took great pleasure in the fact that not only did several people laugh out loud at her remark, but also at the Viscount’s beet-red face.
He thinks he can humiliate me? A man has not been born yet who can take me on.
With her head held high, she strut out of the ballroom, utterly pleased with showing the high and mighty of society that nobody humiliated Bellinda Ayles.
Two Years Later…
“Are you quite sure, Papa? I have not seen her in years, what if she has changed?” Octavius Snowden, the current Earl of Mortimer, sat beside his father’s sickbed. He crossed his legs, his forehead furrowed.
“I am, Octavius. You got along famously, and I am sure you will still. The passage of time does not undo a connection between two people, and you two had a strong one.”
“When we were ten, perhaps. I am certainly not the same person.”
His father chuckled, but the sound changed into a whine as he winced and then a cough overtook him. Octavius jumped out of his chair and helped his father lean forward, a position that always helped ease the terrible coughing fits he suffered through. Once his lungs settled, the old man leaned back and wiped his mouth, attempting in vain to hide the blood spatters on his handkerchief.
“Shall I call the physician?”
“For what? So he can tell me I am getting worse yet? No. I know that on my own. The less I see of the wretched man, the better.”
Octavius sighed. He knew very well that his father did not mean it. Indeed, he was rather good friends with Doctor Weathers, the town’s physician. He simply did not like seeing the look of resignation in his old friend’s face when he was examined. Dr. Weathers was not a good actor and his patient’s prognosis was always told first by his face, and then his words.
For his father, James Snowden, Marquess of Hartlon, the prognosis was grim. Diagnosed with a lung ailment, his condition had grown more and more dire over the past few weeks. So much so that he was getting his affairs in order. Among the affairs he wanted to settle before departing this realm for the next, was the matter of Octavius’ marital status.
As the only living son of the family, it would be up to him to wed and produce an heir in order to ensure the family line. It was not as if Octavius was opposed to finding a wife. Not at all. Alas, he had suffered from terrible social anxiety for all of his life and the thought of being in a crowded room, especially a ball, caused him to panic, making it difficult to meet an eligible young lady.
Of course, he’d thought there was time. Time to overcome his anxiety, time to engage a matchmaker to find him a suitable match without having to venture out into the world he so longed to avoid. But he’d been wrong. He looked at his father, so thin, gaunt, and pale. No. Time, Octavius had to admit, had run out.
As if reading his son’s thoughts, the old Marquess pushed himself up and turned his head.
“Bellinda will be good for you. You will see. She was when you were children, and she will be again.” His father’s voice was growing weaker day after day and the strain in his tone was easy to hear. “A man needs a wife who can complement his strength and make up his weaknesses. Bellinda will do that. Just like your mother has done for me.”
A smile washed over his wrinkled face at the mention of his wife. “Your mother,” he said, his voice tinged with nostalgia. “A true diamond of the first water.” Suddenly he turned and grasped Octavius’ hand. “You must promise me, son, you must promise me to always look after your mother when I am gone.”
Octavius covered his father’s hand with his own. “Of course, Father. Always. Do not fret for single moment. Mama will always be well taken care of.” He forced a smile upon his face. “But do not worry. You will be here for many a year to ensure that yourself.”
His father gave him a weak nod of the head. “Of course, of course.”
They did this. Pretended he was not in the final stages of his illness. Acted as though he was about to recover as if by magic and rejoin the world of the living. It wasn’t just Octavius—his younger sisters, Sophie and Annamarie, did the same whenever they came to see him. The only one who did not pretend was their mother. Always a resolute, practical lady, she did not act as though there was a future for her and her husband still, at least not in this world.
I suppose we all manage in our own way. We all find ways to make his imminent departure bearable in our minds and hearts.
It only took one look at his father to know that his departure was months, perhaps weeks away. That meant soon enough, he would be Marquess of Hartlon. He dreaded the thought. He would have to attend Parliament, perhaps even speak in front of his peers. There would be invitations to court, to balls, and to dinners. The idea alone gave him heart palpitations.
By Jove, how he wished that his older brother David had lived. He would have been a much better Marquess. Alas, David had died at age ten-and-five, in a riding accident, making nine-year-old Octavius the heir.
The trajectory of his life changed severely after the death of David. Until then, his education had been up to a kindly governess. As the heir, David had been raised to confidently handle his Peers and tenants. Something that came naturally to his outgoing brother. As the younger brother, Octavius was expected to pursue a career in the military, or clergy. Something more suitable for his painfully shy and timid character. However, that all changed the day his brother passed.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door and a moment later, his mother entered, a note in her hand. The sight of his mother always filled him with warmth and comfort. She had been a reassuring, comforting presence in his life, despite her practical nature. Even though she was older now, she still emitted the same confidence and grace she always had. Although in recent months, her beautiful face had been marked with worry lines.
“A messenger has just come with a letter from the Earl of Windshire.” She made her way to her husband’s side, taking a seat on the side of the bed opposite Octavius. His father’s eyes lit up at the mention of his friend’s name.
“Have we now? Good news, I hope?”
Lady Hartlon nodded. “Indeed. He informs us that his wife and their daughter will be departing Windshire Manor imminently. We can expect them to arrive by week’s end.”
“Glorious news!” Color returned to his father’s face and he sat up straighter. “Please have the best rooms made up, my dove. I remember little Bellinda used to like the room overlooking the lake; she liked the swans if I remember. And the Countess likes the East room, due to the light.”
“I remember, my darling,” his wife said, clasping his hand.
Octavius saw the way the two were looking at one another, and seeing his father’s sudden bout of strength, decided to leave them be.
His parents so rarely had good times, good moments these days. His father was always too weak to converse with and grew tired ever so fast. When there was a moment where his vigor returned, Octavius liked to make sure it was his mother who benefited from it. After thirty years of marriage, he felt it was only right that she should be given the opportunity to build a few more pleasant memories with her husband.
Excusing himself, Octavius rose. “I shall speak to Mrs. Havisham. I will let her know which rooms to prepare for our guests.”
His father looked at him, a sparkle still in his eyes. “Thank you, son. You will see, this is wonderful news, indeed. I just know you will be ever so pleased when you see Bellinda again.”
With that, Octavius departed the room, leaving his parents to gaze at one another as he closed the door behind him.
After sending for the housekeeper, Octavius sat in the library and looked out over the vast estate. Right outside was the lake, his favorite part of grounds surrounding Hartlon Manor, his ancestral home. There were always ducks, swans, and turtles on and around the lake. Being around the lake always gave him a sense of peace. As did being in the library. He enjoyed the tranquility of both places, far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city.
“Excuse me, My Lord,” the housekeeper’s soft voice drifted to his ear. He turned. Mrs. Havisham, their housekeeper since he’d been a small boy, was a lovely woman. She was older now, rotund with a red face and gray hair which she always kept in a tight bun at the back of her head. Even though she was older now, she still had the same jolly face he’d loved so much as a boy.
“Yes, Mrs. Havisham?”
As the old woman stepped closer to him, the keys which she kept on a chain around her waist jingled as she walked. “You called for me?”
He nodded. “The Countess of Windshire and her daughter will be arriving by week’s end. I’d like you to make sure that the East room is readied for the Countess. And whatever room has a nice view, for the young lady.”
A smile flashed across her face. “Young Bellinda? What a joy. We’ve not had the pleasure of seeing her in years. Are the lads coming also?”
Octavius shook his head. He hardly even remembered the boys. They had to be near adults now. Save for the youngest, whom he’d never met at all.
“I do not believe so, no. Only the Countess and her daughter.”
If she found this news disappointing, the housekeeper did not let it show.
“Very well, My Lord. How long might we expect the Countess of Windshire and her daughter to stay with us? It’s only because of the supplies, you see. With Lady Annamarie and Lady Sophie away for the week we’ve reduce the order and…”
He raised a hand and nodded. These were matters usually attended to by his mother, but with his father as ill as he was, much of the running of the household had fallen to Octavius.
“I understand, Mrs. Havisham. The truth be told, I’m not quite sure how long they’ll be staying. I would plan on several weeks,” he shrugged. Truly, he had no idea.
A smile played around the old woman’s face, revealing deep laugh lines around her mouth.
“It will be like the old days, with young Miss Bellinda around again, I reckon. What a wildfire she was. My, to think all these years have passed.”
Octavius nodded as the housekeeper departed. Indeed, it had been a long time. Once upon a time, the Earl of Windshire, his wife, and children had come to spend each summer with them. Their daughter, Bellinda, was only a year or so his junior and thus they’d spent much time together. He had vague but fond memories of the young girl. Mrs. Havisham was right; she’d indeed been a wildfire.
He’d looked forward to their summers together each and every year, until the year David had died. That year, he’d been sent away to Eton to receive an education befitting a future Marquess. Being raised and educated by an elderly governess simply did not do anymore. Thus, he’d found himself seeing less and less of Bellinda and her family until the visits had entirely stopped. He had not thought of her in many years, not until his father had proposed that they court. As he thought back to the time he’d spent with her, his father’s words echoed in his mind. A wife needs to make up for her husband’s weaknesses. He scratched his chin.
She brought out a more adventurous side in me, that much I know. Is that what father was thinking of when he proposed that we court?
Indeed, the more he thought about it, the more he was certain of his father’s intention. Being as shy and reluctant to meet people as he was, coming by a good match in the conventional way had been a troublesome thought for him. He would never dare ask a young lady to dance, nor to take the air, let alone make an offer. And, truth be told, many a young lady would not care to court a man as quiet as he.
He sighed and rose, about to make his way to the stable to take his favorite horse out for a ride through the woods. He loved the smell of the forest, the peaceful sounds of the leaves in the breeze. With Bellinda coming to the Manor, who knew just how much peace he was left to have?
Octavius was about to turn out of the library and down the grand staircase, when a scream pierced the evening air.
“Help!” His mother’s voice could be heard bellowing down the hall. “Help! Quickly!”
He turned, his heart beating out of his chest as he broke into a run. Octavius raced around the corner and stopped outside his father’s chamber where his mother stood, her face full of panic.
“It is your father!” she called as he rushed past her. Once inside the room, he stopped, cold sweat running down his spine.
For there, face down on the floor, was his father, blood running from a wound on his head. With his knees wanting to buckle beneath him, Octavius rushed to his side and knelt down, his heart beating with fear as he reached out to touch the man who’d been his pillar of strength for so long.
He could not already be gone, could he?
“It is not fair, Father. It is not right. I shall not go.” Bellinda stomped her feet on the marble floor in her father’s study. Her heart beat fast and she felt anger burn inside of her. This was just unacceptable.
Her father, meanwhile, sat quietly behind his desk. He crossed his arms in front of him as he watched her.
“Are you quite finished with your tantrum, then?” He tilted his head to one side and examined her as if looking at a piece of art he was about to acquire.
“It is no tantrum. Do I not have a right to be outraged when my life is being decided for me?” She turned and looked from her father to her mother, who was seated in the armchair by the fire. “Mother? Have you nothing to say about this?”
She cleared her throat and turned, arms folded in her lap.
“I have much to say, Bellinda. Much, indeed. However, your father has deemed it wiser to keep this conversation simple and to the point. And I must agree with him.”
Bellinda could not believe her ears. “You agree? You agree that I should be given away? Sold like a cow? Paired up with some Marquess in the rainy north? Mother, you cannot be serious.” Her parents exchanged a glance and her father shrugged.
“You have had many a chance to make your own luck. This is your fourth Season, Bellinda. And you have alienated every lord we have introduced to you.”
She gasped. “I have not. I simply do not wish to marry any old nobleman that comes around. I want someone I can be happy with. Someone who does not bore me to tears, or treat me poorly. Surely you want that for me too, Father? Mother?”
Her parents once again exchanged a glance. Then, her father motioned to her mother. “Go on then, tell her what you wanted to tell her. It seems you were quite right. She needs to hear the hard truth.”
Bellinda frowned. The hard truth? What nonsense was this? She eyed her mother who uncrossed her arms and stood, walking over to her. As they were face to face, or rather nose to chin, as Bellinda towered over her petite mother as she did most ladies, her mother cleared her throat.
“Bellinda, the truth is simple. There are no more lords willing to court you. You have turned down or humiliated every eligible high-born man that would have been suitable. There are no men left willing to risk even approaching you. You are only lucky the Marquess of Hartlon lives far away and does not socialize in these circles. If he did, I am certain he would have turned down the opportunity to court you, just as everyone else has.”
Bellinda swallowed. Surely this could not be true. Surely her reputation was not so terrible as to chase away every available man.
“Mother, that is outrageous. There must be a man in the ton who is not a bore, or a braggart, or a drunk.”
“Surely there are, but they have seen you treat their friends with such discourse that they will never go near you, not with a ten-foot pole,” her mother’s voice carried an icy tone.
“You find fault with every man I attempt to match you with. Do you know that the matchmaker, Mrs. Gloster, has refused to make any further matches for you?” Her father’s voice was angry now.
“She could not match a cow to a bull, that woman,” Bellinda’s voice rose with outrage. “Look at the men she has tried to match me with. Unsuitable, the lot of them.”
“Perhaps it is you who is unsuitable. Has that ever crossed your mind? Do you understand just how lucky you have been to have such free rein when it comes to choosing your husband? Any other lady would have been forced to marry a man of her father’s choice by now.”
“Which is exactly what you are doing! You are making me court Octavius? Really? I have not even seen him in years. What if he is hideous now?”
Her father scoffed. “Even if he were the hunchback of Notre Dame, he is all that is left. You are only lucky his parents are willing to give you a chance, despite your terrible reputation. If I did not have the long friendship with his father, who knows if they would have agreed to it at all.”
Bellinda felt her breathing quicken as the reality of this situation was become clearer.
“My reputation is not terrible,” she protested.
“On the contrary, my dear. Your reputation is in ruins. Especially after what you did to that poor Lord Wolvesley last Season. Nobody will court you. And soon enough, your behavior and reputation will reflect on this entire family.” Her mother’s voice was increasingly shrill, which only made Bellinda want to increase the volume of hers more. Sensing that the situation between Bellinda and her mother was about to reach unpleasant proportions, her father rose and stepped next to them.
The Earl of Windshire was a tall man and towered over even his daughter. Bellinda looked up at her father, lips pressed together in a pout.
“One day soon your brothers will need to find wives, especially Alpheus. Your behavior will make it nearly impossible to find a good match for them. Surely you do not want to be responsible for their unhappiness.”
“You are ruining the entire family’s reputation,” her mother’s voice rose once more. Before Bellinda could reply, she turned to her father. “I told you we should have ensured that she wed years ago. We should never have allowed this charade to go on. No other lady of the ton has as much freedom to choose a husband as she. And she does not appreciate it. Not a bit.”
“Charade?” Bellinda could not believe her ears. “My desire to wed a man I love is a charade to you?”
“It is simply not how things work. You have been spoiled, ever since you were a child. You could have had your choice of lords.” Her mother shook her head. “What a mess you have made of everything, Bellinda. Such a disgrace.”
With that, her mother shook her head and went toward the door. She stopped and turned, facing her husband. “I trust you will put an end to this. Now, I have packing to do.”
The door closed behind her and Bellinda immediately turned to her father, dropping her voice several octaves to sound as young and innocent as possible. This strategy generally worked well with her father, for it reminded him of when she was but a young girl. From a young age, Bellinda had been used to getting whatever she wanted from her father, and she banked on that happening again today.
“Please, Father. Let me have one more Season. Just one. If I do not find a suitable match by the end of the Season, I will travel to Northumberland and court Octavius, I promise you. Just one more Season.”
To her utter shock, her father shook his head, his expression hardening. “No, Bellinda. You mother is quite right. There are no more chances here for you. You’ve ruined your reputation and I’ve allowed it to happen. You will travel with your mother and court Octavius.” He stopped and then added, “If this courtship also fails, there will be nothing left for you but to move to Brighton. Your aunt Margaret has agreed to take you on as governess to Henry and Elizabeth.”
“Horse feathers!” Bellinda exclaimed. “Me? A governess? Never. And to those devil children. I’d rather go to a convent!”
Her father balled his hands into fists. “I will hear no more of this. It is either wed Octavius or become a governess. Those are your choices. And that is it. Now, as your mother said, there is packing to do, for by week’s end you will be in London no longer. Where you go is up to you.”
Her father pointed at the door, his lips pressed together into a thin line. Her nostrils flared at the injustice of it all. Exhaling dramatically, Bellinda turned and stomped out of the door, making sure to slam it as she left.
Bellinda rushed out of the front door and across the street, using the lion’s-head-shaped knocker to hammer on the door of her friend’s house. A moment later, the butler opened the door. She could not recall the young man’s name for he had just begun his employment.
“I am here to call on Lady Benningsford,” she said, through tears that still streamed down her face. Startled, the butler stepped aside to allow her to enter.
“Lady Benningsford is in the drawing room. I shall ann—”
She pushed past him before he could make his way in to formally announce her.
“Sarah!” She exclaimed and rushed to her friend who was seated on the chaise, working on her embroidery.
“Belle?” Sarah turned and rose as soon as she saw her friend hasten inside. A moment later, Bellinda was in Sarah’s arms, sobbing. “What has happened? What has vexed you so?”
“Mr. Armand, bring us a cup of chamomile tea, quickly,” she ordered the butler who had followed Bellinda into the room, an expression of fury on his face. Sarah was heavily pregnant with her first child and her rounded stomach pushed into Bellinda’s as they hugged.
“Come, sit,” she guided Bellinda to the chaise as if she were a mere child, not a grown woman. “Tell me what happened.”
Bellinda sobbed as she sat. “Papa and Mama are sending me away. Back up North.”
“North?” Sarah sat upright. “What do you mean? Why?”
“They said that there isn’t a man left in London who will agree to court me and that I must return to Northumberland. Father has arranged a courtship with the son of his friend, the Marquess of Hartlon. Mother and I are to stay there for the duration of the courtship. Can you believe it? They act as though I am some Cyprian that can’t find a man but in some faraway land.” To her surprise, her friend sat quietly and said nothing.
“What is it, Sarah? Surely you do not agree with them.”
She sighed as a maid brought in a tray with tea. Sarah poured her a cup as she spoke up. “I wish they would not send you away, for I shall miss you. However, this is not unexpected. I have heard there is reluctance to engage you in courtship.” She sat the saucer she’d been holding down. “Surely you must have noticed the lack of willing dance partners of late.”
Bellinda pressed her lips together. It was true. She had not been asked to dance but by the lowest-ranking lords. Indeed, even that had become rare. She’d found herself sometimes sitting out dances entirely.
“I have. I put it down to them preferring to dance with someone shorter. I thought they must be intimidated by me.”
“They are! Because you drive them away. You lash them with your sharp tongue. Bellinda, I know you do not mean to, but you are a brash person with a temper and that scares them away.”
She wiped the tears from her cheek with some anger. “If they cannot handle a strong-minded, quick-witted lady, then the problem is with them, not me. Perhaps they ought to question their manliness, not my character.”
Sarah swallowed and placed a hand on her friend’s. “You recall the few occasions you spent dancing with my husband, I trust.”
“I do, of course. He was very kind.”
“Yet, you bestowed upon him a nickname he cannot shake to this day and refused to officially court him, for you deemed him boring.”
“It worked out well enough for you, that I decided not to court him, did it not? You wed him not two years later.”
Sarah withdrew her hand. “It did. However, Lord Big Foot? Was is necessary?” She blinked at Bellinda, who swallowed hard. She had, indeed, named him that, in jest of course, but the nickname had stuck.
“It was not said in anger. It was…”
“A joke, I know. But often you do not consider your words. They make you look mean-spirited sometimes.”
Bellinda reached for the saucer and took a sip of tea before speaking again. “It is still no cause to say my reputation is in ruins.”
Sarah sighed. “It is not just him and you know it. What about Lord Repington? You ridiculed him for his receding hairline. And poor Lord Wolvesley. He is ruined.”
“Lord Repington made fun of me for falling. As for Percy, I mean Lord Wolvesley, he was vain and had a wandering eye. I was not going to be ridiculed by him. It is not my fault his father took away his inheritance. In any case, he’ll still be a Duke.”
“A Duke without lands or riches.”
Bellinda sighed. “How was I to know his father’s lands were not in entailment? Or that he would … I do not wish to talk about it anymore. Percy will be just fine. So will Lord Repington and…” She stopped. Suddenly, she could see before her eyes the faces of the young men she had courted, officially or unofficially, over the years. She’d been betrothed only once, to Lord Wolvesley, but she had courted other young men.
None of the arrangements had come to anything, for they had all been incompatible with her desires. Sarah was not wrong; she had let some of them down rather harshly and been unkind.
So unkind that I have gained a reputation for being a shrew? So terrible that I should be left on the shelf?
“You have really heard it too, then, that I am not a desirable match to any of them?”
Sarah swallowed, her eyes awash with pity.
“I have. You are my dearest friend, and so I feel I must be honest. Your father is doing you a kindness arranging this courtship with the Marquess’ son. You must go. As much as I’ll miss you, you must. If you do not, if you run afoul of one more nobleman here, I fear it will impact not just you but your whole family. Your father is already being talked about behind his back.”
Bellinda sat up straighter, alarmed. “What is being said about him?”
Sarah shrugged and looked away, out of the window. “That he is weak to allow you to act the way you have. That he has poor judgement. For how can a man be trusted with important matters of state if he can’t be trusted to control his own daughter? How can he be trusted to raise sons of strong character if he himself is so easily walked upon by you? I am sorry to tell you, but that is what is being said.”
Bellinda wanted to cry then, for her parents’ words echoed in her mind. Of course, she knew Sarah spoke the truth. She would know what was being said from her husband, who sat in the House of Lords.
“Do you think I have harmed Alpheus’ chances of success in life? And Clifford? And what of little Linus?” The thought of having inadvertently brought harm to her brothers, the only people she loved more than life itself, made the breath constrict inside her throat.
“No, Bellinda, I do not believe so. Not yet. Not as long as you heed your father’s good counsel now. Make a match with the Marquess’ son, and wed. Stay out of London for a time. They will forget. You know as well as I how our society works. They will find someone else to gossip about. By the time Alpheus is in need of a wife, you will be long wed and perhaps have an heir already.”
Sarah smiled at her and brushed one of Bellinda’s strawberry-blonde curls out of her face.
Bellinda felt a tear roll down her cheek, for it was then, seated upon her friend’s couch, that she realized—her only way to salvage her reputation, and that of her brothers, was to leave. To embark on a journey into the unknown. To make a match with a man she could hardly remember.
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