About the book
Her disguise is her lifeline...the stars in her eyes are his...
She must do it. There is no other way and her future depends on it. She may not know a whole lot about the outside world, but Lady Regina knows the pages of her books. And she also knows, that her disguise as a cook is the only thing keeping her alive.
When his daughter goes missing, Marcus Fitzgerald, the Marquess of Talverton, runs. He runs as fast as his legs can carry him, desperate to find her before he loses her too, just like her mother. Still, finding her in the arms of a very peculiar, very beautiful cook is both a surprise and a revelation.
They know it's wrong, yet their love blooms below stairs, where titles are stripped and hearts are bared. But truth weighs heavily on their shoulders. Regina's pursuers will stop at nothing to return her to an inescapable reality: she's but a mere pawn in a game that started before she was even born, and Marcus can do nothing to stop it. Or can he? And at what cost?
The library was an enormous space with towering, beautiful bookcases that stretched up towards the ceiling, each one filled to the brim with all kinds of books from adventure novels to romance, cook books to history. Sometimes it seemed as if there wasn't a single book this library didn't have, and even after all these years there was always something new to discover. It was a haven in this big, empty house; a place to hide away and spend hours in peace.
This was Regina's favourite place in the entire world; tucked away in the cushioned window seat with a book in her lap, a cup of tea on the tall, narrow table beside her. Here, nobody bothered her. She was free to read and daydream for as long as she liked, without worry of Papa's criticism. She knew that he didn't like the books she read, seeing them as unfit for a lady; but even he respected that while she was in this spot, she was to be left alone.
The best part of all? The view. The estate seemed to stretch on forever, lush grass and perfect trees visible from every angle. The trees, all evergreens so that they were beautiful even in winter, offered shade from the hot days, and safety from the rain when the weather was poor. They stood tall and elegant, not a branch out of place; birds fluttered from one to the other, their sunny chirps drifting through the open library window.
Blackbirds hopped across the grass, their perfect black bodies soaking up the sun. Despite having such dark feathers, the afternoon sunshine seemed to glitter as it bounced off of their wings, and it was wonderful to watch. Regina had always found them stunning, despite Papa's insistence that they were nothing but an ugly nuisance. Papa didn't understand the beauty of nature, didn't appreciate the wildlife in their own garden.
Elverston was a beautiful place to live, but her parents only cared about the money that came with being Baron and Baroness. It was a shame, Regina always thought.
Idly, she flipped to the next page in her book - some history book dating to the sixteen hundreds, although in truth Regina hadn't been paying all that much attention. Fiction novels were so much more interesting, but she tried to at least keep her reading material somewhat varied, if only so Papa wouldn't give her too much grief. It was always you won't get a husband with your head stuck in the clouds, or, nobody will respect a woman who daydreams like a little girl.
Perhaps he was right. The real question was, did Regina care? Not particularly. Who needed marriage and a husband, when she was just fine on her own? Besides, if she were to marry, then she would marry somebody who loved her as she was, flaws and all; not somebody who wished to shape her into somebody else.
With a roll of her eyes, Regina turned back to the window. Oh, there was the gardener and his son now, kneeling in the grass while they tended the flowerbeds. Regina had always loved the sunflowers most; they were so tall and majestic, bright yellow flowers turned toward the sun. The gardener, Martin Lovell, plucked weeds from the earth with strong hands, tossing them into a wheelbarrow by his side.
Meanwhile his son, a young boy named Randall of only twelve, watched with rapt attention. It was sweet, how much love he had for his father's work. Too many people looked down on the likes of gardeners and maids, but Regina thought that what they did deserved respect. Mr Lovell kept their gardens beautiful, even in the face of terrible weather and destructive wildlife. Even now, she could see the care in which he took while working, the long-practiced precision. Randall must have understood it too, for she had never seen someone so enraptured.
"Maybe I should step outside too," she considered for a moment. The sun was high and bright, casting soft light across the patio outside. It splashed across the window too, warming her skin and turning her dark hair golden-brown. The thick strands were always loose, spilling across her shoulders and the pillow behind her head. Yes, a walk outside sounded rather lovely, didn't it? Perhaps she could even say hello to Mr Randall and ask him about his family. She had heard that he was expecting another child soon, and his wife was due at any time.
Although Regina loved the library and the books and the quiet, it wasn't perfect. She couldn't live in this one room, as big as it was, without growing bored eventually. So she set aside the tea, downed the last of her tea, and turned to go-
Only to hear skittering footsteps against the wood as a tall, willowy maid drifted into view. She was one of Papa's newest hires, and apparently nobody had let her know not to disturb Regina while she was in her reading nook.
Although, Regina reminded herself, you're technically not in the nook. You're standing in front of it.
The maid's dark hair was pulled into a frightfully tight bun, but it didn't take away from the softness of her face. She couldn't have been any older than Regina herself, seventeen or eighteen at most. "Miss," she piped up, taking an awkward, hesitant step forward. "I'm sorry to disturb your reading, but the mail arrived late today and I thought you'd like to read yours." She stuck out her hands, which held a slender envelope titled Lady Regina Costigan.
Oh. A letter for her? "I don't receive many letters," she replied. A long, brunette curl fell into Regina's eyes and she brushed it away to better study the letter. The handwriting was unknown to her. It was elegant and sloping, and just like every other noble's handwriting that she had ever seen. It gave away no secrets. "Do you know who it's from?"
The maid shook her head fervently, cheeks stained pink "No miss, I'd have to open it to know and I'd never do such a thing." The poor woman was clearly nervous, and Regina's heart ached for her.
She knew better than anyone that Papa could be a harsh employer, but sometimes it was difficult to remember because he was always so kind to her.
With a sigh, Regina took the letter. The envelope was thick and expensive, whiter than the usual yellowed parchment. She knew, without asking, what that meant. Instead of opening it, she turned to the maid and said, "I don't believe I caught your name?"
She ducked into a curtsey, so low that it looked as if her ankles might simply snap in two. "Cecilia Philips, miss."
"Cecilia," Regina repeated, "please call me Regina, I can't stand all the formality of miss and Lady." Her nose crinkled at the words. "I'd much prefer if you could simply call me by my real name. Could you do that for me?"
"Oh, but formalities are there for a reason, miss. I wouldn't want to disrespect you." Cecilia's blue eyes narrowed, and she cast her gaze nervously aside. "I just arrived here earlier this week, and your father - Lord Costigan, that is - has made sure to tell me he won't tolerate disrespect of any kind."
Of course, what had Regina just been thinking? Her hands ran lightly over the letter, feeling the grooves that the ink had left in the paper. She was no more looking forward to reading it now than she had been upon first seeing it. "Cecilia," she said carefully, not wishing to cause offence to her or Papa. "The thing with my Father is that he doesn't seem to understand that most people are, in fact, good. He only says those things because he assumes the worst; but you seem like a lovely woman, and you've no reason to fear him."
Cecilia only winced, her blue eyes momentarily flickering up. "Miss-"
"Please, just call me Regina." She smiled in the hopes of easing the harshness of her tone, letting Cecilia know that there really was no reason to be concerned. "I'm not like my father, I promise. Now, I suppose that I should let you get back to your work. Thank you for the letter." The letter that she was in no rush to read.
Cecilia ducked her head in another half-curtsey, and then promptly fled the room. It was a shame, that Papa put the fear of God into so many of his staff; most of them were perfectly well behaved, and downright lovely. If only he saw that, too. Well, she might have tried to bring it up to him if he ever paid attention to a word she said. Regina loved him, of course, but he had been acting even more odd these last few weeks than usual.
Well regardless, Regina had a different matter to attend to first; the letter. There was only one reason that people ever sent her letters, and it was always the same thing - it was the beginning of a new social season, and the ball invites were being sent in droves. "I thought people had given up sending me these," she murmured, rolling her eyes. Apparently, she was wrong.
Upon opening the letter, she was met with more of that same elegant, looping handwriting. It could have belonged to any one of the dozen Lords that used to send her these so frequently, back when she was young enough to still be a novelty, and yet just old enough to start attending these events.
Yet it wasn't just any invite - no, this one was personally written to her and her alone.
Dear Lady Regina Costigan,
I am hosting a ball in two weeks, and I would be honoured to personally invite you to attend. I know you do not often respond to these invites, so I thought that if I were to send you something more personal, you may be more inclined to accept. I would truly love to see you there, along with Lord Costigan of course, as it has been a long time since I have seen you attend any of these social events.
I have to wonder why you refuse to go. Do you not enjoy dancing? Or perhaps it is because when young men and women like ourselves attend, it is with the expectation of finding somebody to court? You are unmarried, I understand, but still young enough to find a husband in your own time. Perhaps that time will come at the ball - should you decide to come.
Please, at least think on it. I would so much love to see you there.
Lord Hamilton Keiler, Duke of Barmsfield.
The Duke of Barmsfield was sending her personal letters now? They had met once or twice, years ago when Regina had attended her first social season and been cornered by a group of men who had clearly had too much wine. Lord Keiler had swept her away and promised to keep an eye on those horrid men for the rest of the night; but she had only seen him a handful of times since, and Regina no longer attended balls, preferring the solitude behind the estate's protective gates.
With a sigh, she let the letter drift to the table at her side. What could she make of this? Most of the men - especially the men of Elverston, who lived nearby - had long ago stopped sending letters and requests, once they realised that each one went unanswered. It was almost a shame, not because she missed the letters but because she know how many men and boys she had disappointed over the years.
Well, that was in the past. Why was Lord Keiler sending her letters now, after all this time?
If there was one thing that Marcus detested, it was people that messed around with other's feelings. When someone decided to do so with Evalyn, well, God help them.
His daughter was only ten, and now she was crying in his arms while he gently soothed her with a hand combing through her thick, cinnamon coloured hair. She buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed, clinging to him so tightly with her little hands that he could hardly stand it. Her little nails dug into his skin as she nestled closer, like she was attempting to simply become a part of him.
"It's all right," he murmured, pressing a kiss to the top of her head.
She smelled of lavender soap and chocolate cake, which incidentally she had been eating at the park only ten minutes before. Evalyn still had crumbs clinging to her hands as Marcus had scooped her up and shuffled inside the carriage. "He talked about Mama!" Evalyn mumbled into his shirt, "he was mean about her!"
"I know," Marcus mumbled, "it hurts me too." Even now, in the safety of the secluded carriage as it clattered down the road, Marcus couldn't get the memory of it out of his mind. People so rarely spoke of Esther any more, and she had simply drifted to the back of people's memories - except, apparently, for the lovely young man who had not-so-kindly reminded not just Marcus, but also Evalyn, that she was no longer of this earth.
This was why he had Evalyn home schooled. It was why he hated going out unless necessary, why he dreaded being recognised as the Marquess of Talverton. Nowadays, he was remembered as Marquess second and widower first, the poor unfortunate Lord who's wife had died and left him to raise his daughter alone.
Evalyn's sobs had reduced to stifled hiccups, her tears continuing to stain Marcus' white shirt. The carriage bumped over the road and Evalyn jostled in his lap, but it only served to make her shuffle closer. "Why was he so mean about Mama?" she muttered, taking in a ragged breath that left her hiccupping and crying.
God, it hurt to see Evalyn this way. The last time she cried so hard she had been barely three. It wrenched his heart and made tears of his own spring to his eyes, but he fought them down for her sake. "Some people are just cruel for no reason," he murmured. Unfortunately, there were plenty of people that fit that list, and almost all of them were people in power. Not this man, though; he had simply been someone that Esther in her younger years, and thought it appropriate to say cruel things now that she wasn't here to defend herself.
The carriage continued to clatter down the road, and Marcus turned to see their home in the very distance. The tall roof peaked out from behind towering trees, although from this distance it was little more than a speck against the horizon. Even so, the sight allowed his nerves to calm, and he took a moment to gaze at the tall, slender pines as they passed.
By the time they passed the gates to the estate, Evalyn had started to calm. She wiped at her blue eyes with chubby hands and slid from Marcus' lap to peek out of the window too, and a small smile crossed her face.
"Do you see that spot over there?" he asked, gesturing to the little cabin that acted as the gardener's home. "That used to be a gazebo, and your mother and I used to picnic there all the time. She used to love strawberry tarts, and no picnic was ever complete without one."
Evalyn sniffled, scrubbed at her eyes with tiny fists. "Why did you get rid of it?"
Ah. Sweet Evalyn, always curious. At least now she was distracted enough not to cry. "Well, we hired a live in gardener and he needed somewhere to stay. Besides, by then we had already found an even better picnic spot, behind the house by the little pond."
Evalyn settled back into the seat; although by now the house was fast approaching, its white walls and huge, rounded windows quickly creeping into view. "Can we have a picnic today, Papa?"
Oh, he wished they could; but the life of a Marquess wasn't always easy, and there was much to do this afternoon. "We already ate at the park, love," he said quietly, "maybe another time, all right?"
For one horrible moment he thought Evalyn might cry again; but she only sniffled and sank deeper into her seat. She relaxed when Marcus ruffled her curls though, and a smile crept onto her round face.
Then it was time to leave the carriage, for it had rolled to a stop outside the entrance. The coachman helped Evalyn down the steps, practically having to lift her up and deposit her on the ground, but the last of her tears were over because she only giggled and grinned.
Inside, the foyer was cold and empty, but a fire had been lit in the living room and Marcus eagerly turned to warm his hands by the mantle. "What will you do while I work?" he asked Evalyn kindly.
She only shrugged, dropping onto the nearest armchair and reaching for the heavy orange blanket tossed over the back. "Mrs Allan wants me to read between lessons, and she even picked out a book! Then I'm going to play dolls in my room and they're all going to have a tea party."
Marcus couldn't help but smile. "That sounds lovely," he murmured in reply. Although he had wanted to enjoy today, it had been a disaster - first, it had been far too cold for the park, and then that brutish man had been cruel about his beloved Esther. She hadn't been perfect in her youth, which was why they had taken so long to marry... well, it was too late to do anything about it now. "Papa has to work in the office for a while," he said to Evalyn, who had made herself quite comfortable in the chair. "If you need anything, call for me or the maids, okay?"
Oh, how easy it was to be a child; she bounced back so easily, as if the last half an hour had been nothing but a bad dream. He couldn't help but smile as he leaned down to kiss Evalyn's forehead. When he straightened, she was beaming up at him with a grin of her own.
Marcus didn't like to leave Evalyn by herself, but at ten years old she was already capable of handling herself. The most mischief she ever got up to was spilling her drink or bothering the maids while they worked. Unfortunately, Marcus had bigger matters to attend to than Evalyn distracting his staff.
The study was a huge, wide room filled mostly with bookshelves, although there was a broad wooden desk facing the North part of the gardens. From here, he could see everything from the iron gate in the distance, to the rose gardens to his left. From this angle, he could see how the shrubs twisted and turned to create almost a labyrinthine structure, the bright red roses cutting through the sea of green. They were Evalyn's favourite part of the entire estate, and when Marcus saw it like this he couldn't blame her.
Shaking his head, Marcus turned back to the tasks at hand. First, letters. There were so many that it sometimes took days to sift through them all, finding out what was important and what could go unanswered. At the top of the pile was an envelope addressed to him in a beautiful, looping script, and Marcus felt his heart stutter.
It was an invitation to a ball, written to him by the Duke of Barmsfield, Hamilton Keiler. With a scowl, he scrunched it up and threw it aside. If the Hamilton had a problem, well, he could take it up with Marcus later.
He hadn't attended so much as a local dance since Esther died, and he wasn't going to start now. Not even for a friend.
Regina tucked the letter into her pocket, feeling the coarse paper tickle her leg. Later, she would decide what to do with it - truthfully, the answer was probably to throw it into the fire or the bin, leaving it unanswered like to many in the past. Whoever Lord Keiler thought he was, he was not so important as to make Regina break her rule of no dances.
The world beyond her home was an intimidating place, full of strange places and even stranger people. Papa had always warned her about being too trusting; he valued her safety and her happiness, the caring father that he was, and he was right in one obvious sense; men never wanted anything good from women like her.
Footsteps in the library silenced Regina's thoughts. For a moment, nothing happened and Regina thought that she had imagined it all - but then she realised no, the person had simply stopped walking just around the corner, where the tall bookcases overshadowed their presence and hid them from view.
"Is someone there?" Regina questioned, tilting her head to better see. It didn't matter, because the person was still a mystery. "You can come over, if you like. I'm not doing anything important." She had given up on the peace of her reading nook, now that it had been ruined by Lord Keiler's strange letter.
A face appeared first, peeking around the corner of the bookcases and offering a nervous smile. Cecilia. Somehow she looked even younger than before, her face flushed pink and eyes downcast as she slowly shuffled forward. "Miss," she murmured - and then shook her head with a frown. "I mean, Regina. Lord Costigan has requested your presence in the drawing room, and he asked me to fetch you. Is that... all right?"
Oh, her nervousness was so painfully endearing that Regina could hardly stand it. She offered a reassuring smile, although she wasn't sure that it helped at all, and took a step forward. "Did he say what he wanted? I swear, he's been avoiding me lately and he hardly ever asks for me during the afternoon." It was odd indeed, although she felt a little flutter of relief that he finally wanted to talk to her again. She missed their long conversations by candlelight in the evening, and sitting beside him while he read poetry.
Cecilia bit down on her lip, hard enough that it looked painful. Then she looked away, offering only a narrow shouldered shrug in response.
Regina's heart stuttered. That wasn't wholly convincing. With a frown, she took another step forward, bare feet silent on the wood. "Cecilia," she said softly, "if there's something you need to say, please say it."
Cecilia, bless her, didn't answer at first. She continued to chew on her bottom lip, a frown spreading across her pretty features. "It's nothing Miss, I just overheard... never mind."
Well, now she simply had to know! Regina found herself fidgeting with the letter inside her pocket, fingers toying with the bent corner; it was an anxious habit that she had picked up from Papa years ago. "Please, Cecilia. Now you have me worried - is it Papa? I know he can be harsh sometimes, but he only says what he does because he cares."
As if she hadn't already been red enough, Cecilia's face flushed bright scarlet as she raised her hands in defence. "No, no! Your father has done nothing wrong, Miss Regina, nothing at all. It's only that... well, I've noticed that he has something of a habit of talking to himself, is all, and I couldn't help but overhear him talking before I knocked to enter."
Regina quirked a brow, but held her tongue. It was true that Papa did often talk to himself when he thought he was alone; it was funny sometimes, the things he said. Mostly it was nonsense, random snippets of inner thoughts that meant little without context but allowed a quick laugh. So why did poor Cecilia look so frightened?
She parted her lips to ask as much, but Cecilia beat her to it. She was positively scarlet now, but once Cecilia started talking it appeared she couldn't stop. "He mentioned the Duke of Barmsfield, Miss, and I think he plans for you two to marry!" Her eyes snapped wide, horror washing over her face. Where she had once been cherry red, she was no ghostly pale. "I'm sorry, I've said too much - please forgive me, Miss."
Regina wanted to comfort her, but she stood frozen. That couldn't have been right, Papa would never marry her off for no good reason. He was kind, and fair, if strict sometimes... why wouldn't he have brought this up before? The obvious reason was that there was a mistake, of course, and Cecilia had simply overheard something she hadn't understood.
"Please, Miss, don't be angry-"
"Cecilia," Regina cut in, although her mind was still whirling and in truth, words were a struggle. "I don't believe that you were listening in on Father intentionally, but it was still out of line. Please, don't do it again." She fixed her expression into one of cool composure, but it felt odd. Unnatural. Her features naturally wanted to relax into her familiar smile. "Are you sure that what you heard was correct?"
Cecilia only offered a nervous nod, and a few strands came loose from her tight bun. I'm positive, Miss."
This time, Regina didn't even try to remind Cecilia to use her given name. She let out a dull sigh and ran a hand down her face in an attempt to clear her mind of thoughts and her features of their harshness. There was still no way that this was what Papa planned, but Regina supposed that she would find out soon enough if this was real or not. Anxiety threatened to rise in her chest but she fought it down. "Thank you Cecilia, you may go."
The poor girl wasted no time in turning heel and skittering from the library. She kept her head bowed the entire time, and vanished as quickly as she had arrived.
Which left Regina alone with her thoughts, and they swirled half formed in her mind until her head ached, and she was left wondering just what was going on. What if Cecilia was right? What if Papa really did plan to marry her off to a Duke? She was only eighteen for goodness' sake, and never once had Regina shown inclination towards wishing for a husband.
No, she told herself sternly, stop being silly. This is just a simple misunderstanding and it will all be sorted if you just talk to Papa.
With that in mind, Regina steeled her nerves and forced herself to go downstairs. The long, winding hallways took her to the grand staircase, where she found herself staring into the foyer. The doorman was there and he offered a nod of his head, but said nothing. He was a man of few words, and Regina appreciated that. She smiled as she passed him, and then turned the corner to find herself outside the drawing room, staring firmly at the door.
Only now did she feel the full effects of her nerves, anxiety climbing up gut, making her throat go dry. She could hardly think for the heat rising up her neck, the worry clouding her mind. Yet when she called out, somehow it was clear. "Papa? It's me."
She slipped through the door as silently as possible, her bare feet sinking into the plush carpet. Green eyes flickered about the room, taking in the familiar blue walls and the empty fireplace, and she shivered. "Why is the fire not lit?"
Papa sat at the table by the window with a tray of tea and biscuits. He had already poured two cups, and the other sat across from him. Waiting for her. "The tea will warm you, if it's too cold," he replied kindly, gesturing to the seat.
The table was an old wood-carved piece with intricate swirls climbing up the legs; a gift from Mama for their eighth anniversary, according to Papa. Sitting here had always been a privilege, kept for special occasions like visits from distant family or old friends they hadn't seen in years. But Papa was sitting here now, with no guests in sight. How odd.
It was enough to make Regina's stomach turn as she settled opposite him. Papa was a small man with a shock of blond hair just like Regina's own, but the similarities ended there. His skin was rich and warm, barren of any freckles or blemishes; his shoulders were broad and strong, his body stocky in the way that commanded attention. Regina, however, had been gifted with dense freckles splashed across her cheeks and the kind of slenderness that often made people assume that she was frail.
She watched as Papa reached for his tea, taking a delicate sip before setting the cup back into the saucer. The maids had used the expensive china, little pink cups with white and blue saucers, all patterned with a frilly, lacey sort of look at the rim. "You must be wondering why I asked you here," Papa said with a smile, "but it's good news, I promise."
"Oh?" Was all Regina thought to say. She thought of Cecilia, and the Duke of Barmsfield, and wondered how that could be good. Perhaps she really had been wrong.
She knew, as soon as Papa replied, that wasn't the case. "I've been speaking with Lord Hamilton Keiler, the Duke of Barmsfield, and we have come to something of an agreement. He wishes to marry you, and I have agreed."
"This can't be happening," Regina murmured, "why would you agree to this? You know I don't wish to marry, I don't care if he's a Duke! Did you know that he sent me an invitation to his ball? I received it just an hour ago."
Papa's expression remained impassive. He didn't frown or scowl, didn't so much as offer a nod of sympathy. Yet he did reach out his hand to squeeze Regina's. "I know this is sudden, but you're eighteen now and you've made no attempts to find a husband. You refuse to attend social gatherings and you shot down my offer to arrange something, do you remember?"
Yes, she surely did. He had offered, once, to arrange something between herself and some distant Duke, but Regina had told him in no uncertain terms that it was not going to happen. Papa hadn't brought it up again... until now.
His warm hand in hers did nothing to calm the swirling anger in Regina's gut. Oh, she wanted to scream - the only thing stopping her was Papa's soft expression as he watched her carefully. Suddenly, tea didn't appeal all that much any more, and she pushed the cup away. "You're acting as if I'm old and passing by my chance to marry," she said coolly, grateful that her voice didn't waver. "I'm eighteen, and plenty of women don't marry for years after."
"And those women are left with the dregs, the men that nobody else wanted. I wouldn't wish that for you, Regina. I love you-"
"I am not going to marry him," she snapped suddenly, and then Regina was on her feet and backing away. Her whole face scrunched as she forced deep breaths from her lungs, but it only served to fuel the fire burning inside of her. How dare he? She trusted him, trusted him to keep her safe and always do what was right. "You know I'm happy here, living with you in my childhood home. Why would you wish to throw me out?"
Father's eyes narrowed, but he never raised his voice. "You're not happy here, not really. Perhaps if it wasn't for that accident years ago, you'd be more open to the thought of leaving."
Regina's heart thundered against her ribs, drowning out everything except for the sound of Papa's voice. "You were the one who told me it was safe here, who always ensured I had everything I needed within these walls. Now you want me to leave, just like that, to marry a man I've never met as if I haven't spent my life ignorant of the world?"
"It's about time that you grew up."
Right. Because the only way to do that, apparently, was to become someone's wife. Regina's stomach twisted itself into knots, and she felt bile threaten to rise in the back of her throat. Yet she swallowed down the urge to be sick, unwilling to show weakness now. "I am not going to marry His Grace, or anyone else. How dare you act as if my accident has any bearing on my desire to remain a free woman-"
"Regina Anne Costigan," Father snapped and oh, she hated when he raised his voice. He watched her calmly, eyes narrowed. "You will do as I say. I am your father, and as far as you are concerned, my word is law. His Grace and I have already decided, and the decision is final. If you do not like it, you can bring it up with him when you meet next Friday. Then you will attend his ball, and your engagement will be announced. Do you understand?"
Regina's entire body was on fire. The flames burned in her stomach, rose up through her chest and lit her entire face alight with horrid intensity. She had never heard Papa speak like this in her life, and it left her burning even hotter. How dare he talk to her like she was a petulant child? Like this was an inconvenience to him, when her entire life had just been flipped upside down. "I don't understand," she barked, "but I don't think you care. If you'll excuse me, I think I'll retire to my bedroom early." It was only late afternoon, but she didn't care; anything to get away from this awful room and Papa's judging eyes.
Barely two steps later, there was a hand on her shoulder tugging her backwards. That hand deposited her back in her seat, before wrapping around her wrist and tugging her back to face Papa. He never let go of her, even when she tried to tug her wrist free. "I'm sorry, Regina," he said carefully, like she was a skittish animal about to flee. "I didn't mean to snap at you, you understand? This isn't easy for me, either."
"If it's difficult for you, then imagine how much worse it is for me," she retorted.
Papa took in a deep breath. When he exhaled, his whole body deflated. "The truth is, Regina, that I don't want this, either. You deserve to marry a man you love, not somebody forced on you; but life is never that simple, you know that."
"I know that there's no need for this," Regina said with a huff. Yet her boiling anger was cooling, and now all she wanted was for this conversation to be over. She stared at her hands, so much smaller and paler than Papa's, and scowled. "I don't want to get married at all, and it isn't just about him. I'm comfortable here; I know the house and the grounds, the people are familiar. I like it here."
"And I'm happy that you're happy, my dear, but you can't live with me forever." Papa's features softened in sympathy, his dark blue eyes meeting hers. "But this is all because of what happened to you as a child. I know you don't remember it yourself, but the effects have lasted all these years."
Papa was wrong in one respect; Regina did remember. The same carriage accident that had taken Mama from her, had nearly killed Regina too. They had only been going for a day trip to the beach; but Mama's idle chatter had turned into screams as a wagon smashed into the side of the carriage; the side Mama had been sitting on. Suddenly everything had burst into chaos and the sound of wood splintering filled the carriage as the door caved in. Regina had been thrown to the side and she fell into the street, left to watch as the entire carriage careened onto its side, and then down the steep slope at the other side of the road.
Mama had been the only casualty, and she had died before doctors could even reach her.
Regina shivered at the memory, and her hands sought out the warm tea despite her uneasy stomach. At least it warmed her somewhat, enough that she didn't shudder any more. "Perhaps I'm not as social as I should be," she agreed reluctantly, "but there are other reasons, too. I don't want a man controlling what I do, forcing me to attend events I've no interest in and dictating who I can be friends with. The life of a Duchess isn't one I want for myself."
Papa squeezed her hand once again, as if it was the only thing he could think to do. Then he sighed, free hand tangling in his greying blond hair. "I didn't want to tell you this," he murmured, "but you deserve to know. I owe a great debt to His Grace, more money than I can afford to give. After your mother passed, I spent a lot of money on her memorial, and her gravestone by the church. You've seen it, Regina, you know how beautiful it is. Hand-carved stone in her image."
Regina swallowed thickly, willing her words to come. They didn't, instead sticking to the back of her throat and leaving her voiceless.
"I got into debt, and as such I needed help to afford raising you on my own; so I asked him for help. And then I kept asking for help, and he was gracious enough to extend his hand to me each time. You see, the debts have been piling up, and His Grace eventually demanded I pay; but even after all this time, I can't pay what I'm owed, so-"
"So you sold me off instead," Regina finished quietly. There was no anger there, just a hollow pit where her heart should have been, and the distant knowledge that no matter what she did, she couldn't change his mind. She wanted to be sick, but couldn't even muster up the energy to care. "You'd send your own daughter to marry a man like him, for a debt?"
"He really isn't as frightening as people say-"
"Nonsense. If he's cruel enough to make you trade your own daughter for your debts, then he's cruel enough to whatever else people say of him." Although Regina hardly ever left the grounds, she knew how to listen. The maids talked, and so did the gardener, and those rumours always reached her eventually. "Nobody knows anything about him, you know. He's a mystery. So how do you know that he isn't exactly what people claim?"
"Because I've dealt with him personally, remember. How else do you think I got myself into debt?"
Regina could only frown. This didn't feel right, and yet she knew that Papa had won this fight. With a heaving breath, Regina dropped her head onto the table and groaned. What was she supposed to do now? There was no choice but to marry him, although the very concept was sickening and she couldn't possibly imagine it.
"I know this is a lot to take in," Papa said kindly. He reached out to touch her shoulder, but Regina flinched away. "Perhaps you should take the evening for yourself, to think? I can have a maid send up supper for you later."
What was there to think about? It wasn't as if there was a decision to be made; Papa had taken the choice away from her, that much was clear. He had already decided, without so much as asking for her input. Scowling, she pushed back from the chair and fumbled to her feet. With legs like lead, she dragged herself to the door. "I'm going to my room," she said softly, "please, don't try to talk to me for the rest of today."
His smile was sweet. Calming. It did nothing to improve her mood. "I'm not the villain here," he said softly, "if you want to blame anybody, blame the Duke. He forced my hand, Regina dear."
Of course he did. What an awful man - but was Papa any better, for letting it happen? All these years, she had trusted him to keep her safe; now look where that got her. Regina felt tears spring to her eyes as she turned from Papa, and she swiped them away with a rough hand.
If Papa noticed, he didn't comment. In fact he said nothing more as she drifted away, slipping silently through the door and into the cold, drafty hall. It appeared that even he had ran out of things to say.
She wandered to her bedroom alone, listlessly traipsing through long, empty halls until she reached her destination. Usually, the sight of her warm bed made her smile; now, Regina couldn't even muster up the energy to care. The fire was unlit, the window open, and Regina shuddered as she crossed the expansive room to tug it closed. It was even colder here than downstairs, but at least she was alone.
Already, the sun was beginning to dim outside. Thick clouds hid it from view, casting the world in a layer of dull grey. It was going to rain, she thought, which only further soured her mood. How appropriate.
With a sigh, Regina dropped onto her bed to stare at the ceiling, and wondered just how long there was until she never saw this bedroom again.
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