About the book
What happens when the Beauty and the Beast are the same person?
Disfigured. Beastly. Undesirable.
Words that have followed Lady Ruth Glowbrand ever since a fire took her mother and left her own face scarred forever. Shunned and held at a distance by the ton, she has resigned herself to a life of exile. For who could ever learn to love someone such as she?
Disheartened by the loveless arrangement that is his parents' marriage, Kenneth Cragshade, Marquess of Goldclaw, has high standards and an eye for beauty. Which is why, once he meets Lady Ruth, he cannot help but be shocked by the scar marring her face. Or the way his heart pounds when he discovers the woman beneath it.
With their walls crumbling more and more each day that passes, Ruth and Kenneth dare hope that happiness is finally within their grasp. A happiness that is violently torn away from them when Ruth falls in a mysterious, deep sleep. And this time, not even the kiss of her Marquess can wake her...
Twilightfare Manor, 1802
She ran along her family’s beautiful, lush green lawn and looked up. The sun shone in her clear blue eyes. It was impossible to see the shuttlecock that was flying through the air, having been hit with force by her younger sister just a moment ago. Ruth swung her racket through the air, hoping to connect with the shuttlecock, but missed. Instead, the racket flew out of her hand and somersaulted through the air, coming to a stop on the lawn between herself and her Sophia.
“Horsefeathers!” At once, she slapped a hand in front of her mouth and looked around for Mrs. Hascomb, their governess. She did not permit any such language from the two young girls and was always quick to chastise them.
Fortunately, the woman was entirely unaware of the outburst as she was seated in a chair under her parasol, fast asleep in the sunshine.
“Ruuuth! Can’t you at least try to hit it properly?” Her sister whined and stomped her feet in frustration. A moment later she threw her racket in the air with force, sending it flying through the afternoon air. Her beautiful blonde hair bounced as she stomped angrily, her pale cheeks turning red. Ruth shook her head. At eight years old, her sister tended to behave much younger than her years, while at aged ten, Ruth was quite the opposite. She had what her mother called an old soul.
“Stop upsetting yourself Sophia, it is only a game,” she said as she approached her sister, stopping only to pick up both rackets. She reached her hand out, attempting to entice her sister to take it back. However, she was in no mood and instead plopped on the grass in the most unladylike manner.
“It is not a fun game if you don’t try to play properly. We haven’t been able to keep it in the air more than three times in a row because you keep dropping the shuttlecock.”
Ruth shrugged, as shuttlecock was not her favorite game and she only played it to please her little sister.
“Then let us play something else. How about seesaw? Or hide and go seek?”
Her sister shook her head, her blue eyes full of dejection. Ruth had a good idea that this tantrum wasn’t about the errant game at all. No, her sister was upset for other reasons altogether.
“This is not fair. Yes, I declare it is entirely unfair. We should be at the seaside with all our cousins and friends, not stuck in Coventry. There isn’t even a lake nearby!”
Sophia sighed heavily. This was of course the real reason for her sister’s malcontent. Ruth sat down beside her sister, making sure her gown did not smudge in the grass, and rubbed Sophia’s arm.
“It is not, but it cannot be helped. Grandmother is too ill to go to Bath this year and Mama has to look after her.”
“We could have been sent with Aunt Viola. It isn’t right that everyone is at Bath and Brighton, swimming and frolicking while we have to remain here.”
“We can’t leave Mama here all alone. With Papa in London for Parliament, she’d be here all by herself. That wouldn’t be very nice, would it? Besides, we can go to the seaside when grandmother is recovered. We will all go.”
Her sister lay back in the grass, looking at the sky.
“And what will become of us in the meantime? I am tired of all our games; I wish there was something different we could do.”
Ruth was about to suggest they take up water coloring when her sister sat up with a snap. A grin spread on her face and at once, Ruth knew there was mischief on her sister’s mind.
“Ruthie!” She nodded, “I know just what adventure we should undertake.”
Hesitantly, Ruth tilted her head, her thick brown hair falling to one side. “You do?”
“Let us venture into the wine cellar.”
Ruth shook her head, sending her hair flying around her face.
“No! We are not allowed in the wine cellar. Papa will be ever so mad.”
“Papa is in London and Mama is occupied with grandmother. And Mrs. Hascomb -” She nodded toward the still sleeping governess. “Nobody will know. It isn’t locked.”
Ruth bit her bottom lip hard. The wine cellar was never locked. It was assumed that Sophia and Ruth would obey their father’s orders not to go into the wine cellar unless accompanied by an adult. Usually, that would be the case, but she often found herself led astray by Sophia who was by far the more mischievous one of the two. Ruth found herself often unable to resist her sister’s ideas, although this particular one made her feel more uncomfortable than usual.
“I don’t know, Sophia. It seems rather dangerous to be going down there. And there is nothing exciting to do there but look at barrels upon barrels and bottles.”
Her sister grabbed her wrist. “But Ruthie! We can play hide and go seek! It will be a delight to play it down there instead of up here in the boring garden.”
Ruth pursed her lips. She loved hide and go seek. It was among her most favorite games. And playing it in the dark, mysterious wine cellar was appealing.
She nodded at last. “Very well. Come, let us go!”
Sophia jumped up and took Ruth’s hand, together the two girls ran toward the wine cellar at the back of the house.
“Faith, it is dark!” Sophia complained after they’d managed to make their way down the steps and into the cellar. It was cool down there, and Ruth rubbed her hands along her arms. She felt along the ledge by the steps for the matches, knowing just where her father kept them.
“Fetch me a candle, Sophia,” she said, and her sister obeyed. Carefully, she lit the match and then lit enough candles to allow them to see around the cellar. The wine cellar consisted of two rooms. One smaller in the front by the staircase, and a larger one further back through a narrow passageway. Most of the wine was stored in the back area on large wooden shelves that held the barrels. The front area by the stairs contained additional barrels, as well as a small table where her father would occasionally host wine tastings.
Sophia clapped her hands together, her pretty round face looking even lovelier than usual in the gentle candlelight.
“How thrilling it is! Now, come Ruthie. You count to ten and I will hide.” She pushed her sister gently to make her turn toward the wall where dozens of barrels were lined up against it. Obeying, Ruth closed her eyes and counted loudly from then. When she got to five, she heard a rather concerning bang as well as a shattering of glass and turned.
“Sophia? What has happened?”
“Nothing!” Her sister’s voice came from far away. “I tripped and broke a bottle. It’s rolled under the barrel. Wait. Don’t turn!” Ruth stayed where she was, listening to her sister move around.
“Oh no! I’ve dropped the candle now too. It’s rolled under the barrel as well. I have to fetch another.”
Ruth frowned. This did not sound promising. “Is the candle out?”
“Course!” Her sister replied. “I got another one. Start the count again.”
It is just like Sophia to drop her candle. She is such a clumsy girl, and a gabster, to boot.
She smiled. Ruth adored her sister, as overly dramatic and upsetting as she could be. She was her dearest friend and Ruth imagined it would always be this way. With a chuckle, she started to count back from ten once more.
When she was done, she at once rushed toward the back area, knowing her sister was sure to have hidden there. She much preferred the hide portion of the game while her sister loved both. Ruth knew she should slow down and pretend as though she could not find Sophia, but she was not in the mood to procrastinate, as she was eager to hide herself.
“Ready or not, here I come!” She called out in a sing-song voice and peeked behind barrels. For a moment, she thought she spotted movement in the front room and turned. However, there was nothing to see there but the dust particles which floated through the air in front of the candles. She turned her attention back to the task at hand and a moment later saw her sister’s dress poke out from behind a barrel. She rushed over to it and pointed at Sophia with a giggle.
“Faith! You are good!” Sophia rose, grinning. “Now you! Go hide.”
She turned where she stood and Ruth rushed around the room, looking for a good hiding spot. The space between two barrels near the edge of the room proved a good spot for her and she squeezed in, sitting with her back against one barrel, her feet pulled up in front of her. She’d just heard her sister count down to one when a strange smell tickled her nose. It reminded her of the day Mrs. Norris, their cook, had forgotten about a loaf of bread in the oven and it had burnt, drenching the entire servant area in thick smoke that even made its way up into the residential parts of the house.
She peeked out from the barrel and gasped. There was indeed smoke drifting into the room coming from the front wine-tasting area. She moved and squeezed herself out from behind the barrels. When she stood, she realized that the smoke was traveling with alarming speed and the temperature in the room had risen.
“Sophia?” She called out, suddenly fearful. “Where did you say the candle rolled?” Sophia did not answer at once, she was standing with her face against the wall, counting still.
“There’s a fire! Sophia, come quickly. There’s a fire in the wine-tasting area.”
“What?” Her sister turned and looked at her with a frown on her face as if the information did not quite make sense to her. “A fire? But the candle was out and…” She shrieked at the sound of wine bottles exploding from the heat.
Just then, flames shot out; the barrels were now on fire. Ruth grabbed Sophia by the arm.
“Quickly, we must get out and sound the alarm. Come!”
Her sister was frozen in terror at the sight, but Ruth knew there was no time. She yanked on her sister’s arm, dragging her out of the room.
“Ruthie, I’m scared!”
She turned and placed an arm around her sister. “Come, we must get past before the flames get larger.” She felt the heat in the room intensify. She flinched as more bottles exploded, sending glass flying in every direction. Beside her, Sophia screamed.
Without thinking, Ruth pulled her sister through the narrow passage and into the room, gasping as she entered. The smoke was so thick it was impossible to see anything. With horror, she saw that one of the chairs used for the wine tastings had also caught fire. The dry wood burning at a terrifying speed.
There was a bone-chilling sound of creaking amidst the crackling of the fire, but she didn’t know what it was. With haste, she pushed her sister forward.
“Along the wall! Feel your way along the wall to the stairs.”
Whimpering, Sophia went in the direction she’d been pushed. Ruth followed. Suddenly the creaking sound intensified, and she realized with stark horror that the wooden shelves which had held up the barrels were breaking.
“Sophia! Run!” She yelled into the smoke and a moment later, the shelving structure gave way. Barrels rolled down from the burning shelves, several smashing as they hit the ground. Others, to her dismay, rolled forward and blocked her path to the stairs. She attempted to push a barrel out of her way but found herself not strong enough.
“I’m trapped, Sophia. Get help!” She called but there was no answer. Or if there was, the sounds of the roaring fire were too loud for her to hear any reply.
Did Sophia make it? Or was she crushed, laying injured beneath the barrels?
For a moment, time seemed to stand still, but then as if by miracle, the sound of the cellar door opening drew her attention. Sophia had made it out. The sudden rush of fresh air seemed to stoke the fire as the flames shot up higher, further igniting the wood structures and barrels in the room. Ruth stood with her back against the wall, watching as everything around her seemed to catch alight. She shivered, even though it was burning hot in the room and sweat ran down her body.
I will die here. I cannot get out; the barrels are blocking me. Even if Sophia brings help, it may be too late. I will die!
The realization was even more terrifying than the fire around her. A coughing fit overcame her, and she sunk to the floor unable to remain standing for a moment longer. Closer to the floor, she found breathing was easier and thus, she decided to lay down as flat as she could, her face pointed to the concrete floor. She breathed slowly, using her sleeve to cover her mouth as she prayed for rescue.
“Ruth?” Her name found its way to her ears and she forced her eyes open only to shut them again with fright.
Flames. They were everywhere now. She wasn’t sure how much time passed. The heat was so intense she could hardly breathe and when she did dare take a breath, it was as if she were inhaling flames directly into her lungs. Her skin felt as though it were on fire.
“Ruth?” The voice sounded again. “Call out!”
Mama! It is Mama. She has come for me. I will be safe now!
The sound of her beloved mother’s voice gave her the strength to sit up. “Here!” She called but it was only a croak that came out. Still, it was enough for her mother.
“Stay there. I will get you!”
A moment later, a figure came through the flames. It was her mother. She looked like an angel from heaven in her white dress and blonde hair. She moved one of the heavy barrels blocking her path aside with strength Ruth never thought her mother possessed. Then she was beside her, draping a wet piece of cloth over Ruth’s hot body. Her mother lifted her to her feet.
“Stay by me, we will get out.” The fire was so close now it licked at Ruth’s body, but her mother pushed her forward. They were almost at the door when –
“Go!” her mother pushed her forward with such force, Ruth tumbled and fell. A deafening sound filled the air and her mother screamed. Ruth turned and saw with horror how the beams from the ceiling, all of them on fire, had crashed down, trapping her mother beneath them.
“Mama!” She called and attempted to walk back through the smoke.
“Do not turn back. Go. Go now!” her mother shouted. For a moment she could see her face through the beams. She was on her side, her eyes wide with terror but when she saw Ruth, a serenity seemed to fall over her.
“Go, my love. I will be fine. I love you. I will see you very soon!”
Ruth did not want to leave, but she knew she had to. She had to get more help, otherwise, her mother’s life would be lost. She felt her way along the wall to the stairs and ran as fast as she could. As she broke through the door and into the afternoon air, she knew she was safe.
It wasn’t until she saw the horrified faces of her sister and the governess, who’d rushed to help that she realized – her clothes had all but burnt off her body and her brown hair was entirely singed black.
“Mama…” she said but before another word could pass her lips, her eyes rolled back in her head and the entire world went black.
Twelve years later…
Ruth sat at the pianoforte with her eyes closed and let her fingers dance over the keys. The melody filled the room and a sense of peace fell over her as it always did when she played. She smiled to herself, aware that anyone looking at her would be most perplexed at her strange appearance. Such a serene look on a face as damaged as hers struck people as odd; she knew it.
However, she did not care. Not when she had her music and the comfort it provided her. When she played, be it the pianoforte or the harp, or even the cello, her worries, and fears of the future drifted away, taking with them the horrible memories of her past.
“Ruth?” The warm voice of her father drifted to her ear, severing the connection between her and the music.
She stopped playing and turned to him. Her father, the Duke of Twilightfare, looked at her with a loving smile. He always looked at her that way, as if he saw her - the true her - not the scarred young woman that most other people in society saw. It was one of the things she loved about him the most.
“Papa, I did not see you there.”
“I know. You were lost in your music, as always.” He pulled a chair beside the instrument and sat. “I hoped to have a conversation with you if you can spare the time.”
“Of course, Papa. I was just playing a little, that is all. I will confess to being surprised at seeing you, as I was not expecting you to return from London until the day after tomorrow.”
“I have returned early and with good cause. It is why I wished to speak to you.” He paused and she braced herself as she could never tell if her father was being serious or mischievous. When he spoke again, it was with some hesitation. “The three of us are to go on a journey.”
Her face lit up then. “A journey? I know you received a letter from our uncle, Lord Dorset, earlier today. I also received one. Are we to visit him in Shropshire?”
The mere thought of visiting their aunt and uncle, the brother of her late mother, at their estate in Shropshire delighted her. Their estate was home to a lovely vineyard and located in a valley surrounded by beautiful rolling hills.
She would spend hours upon hours walking, often without seeing so much as a single person. Even when she did encounter a resident of the village, everyone was always pleasant, nobody looked at her with the horrified expressions she was so familiar with.
If only I could explain to anyone how much that means to me. But then, what I really love about Shropshire is how close I feel to my mother. She grew up there, her spirit lingers in every corner. I can feel her presence beside me wherever I go. Shropshire is the only place on earth where I can truly feel at peace and remember her as she was: happy, cheerful, and loving. Oh, Mama…. What I wouldn’t give for one more walk in those hills with you.
She could not wait for another visit there and looked at her father, ready to inquire for details, but then she saw the expression on his face.
His eyes, as blue as that of his daughters, had a look of reluctance in them. The same look he always had when he was about to disappoint her.
“We are not going to Shropshire, are we?”
He shook his head. “Not right now. I am sorry. I have spoken to your uncle about your spending Christmastide with them and he has agreed. But for the time being, I’m afraid our journey will take us elsewhere.”
She tilted her head to one side and waited.
“We are to go on a visit to the Duke of Goldclaw’s estate.”
“We are to go to Portsmouth?” Ruth exclaimed with some dismay.
“You truly are a marvel. I never could memorize all of the Peers of the Realm and their home estates.”
She shrugged. Their governess always took great care in teaching both her and Sophia the titles of all of the most important and influential dukes, marquess, and earls. In their society, it was considered becoming of a young lady to be able to recognize and place any high-ranking lord they might encounter. Less importance was placed on viscounts and barons, but Ruth could name all of those as well.
It was because of this knowledge that she’d known at once that visiting the Duke of Goldclaw meant a visit to the seaside town of Portsmouth.
She did not much enjoy visits to the seaside as it was always crowded. People stared at her as though she had escaped from the Royal Menagerie in London.
“We are Ruth. It is a lovely town. You will enjoy it.”
She shrugged. “Sophia will be delighted. You know how much she loves the sea.”
Her father nodded regretfully. “And I know that you do not. I am sorry. Alas, it is an invitation I could not decline. For…” He looked away, fixing his gaze to the family portrait above the fireplace. She turned, looking at the same painting. It had hung in the same place since she was a child, although she’d developed a habit of not looking at it at all. She did not like to be reminded of the life they once had before the terrible fire changed everything forever. She did not like to see her mother, smiling and happy, and so full of life. And she did not like to look at the beautiful young girl she’d once been before the fire robbed her of it.
When he looked at her once more, he cleared his throat. “We are to meet with the Duke’s son, the Marquess of Rotham, to discuss the possibility of a union between our two families, should romance happen to bloom.”
Ruth nodded. “I am sure Sophia will be pleased. For it is Sophia who is the candidate for marriage, I assume.”
“Not necessarily, Ruth. The Duke would like to meet you both and… nothing is set in stone. The Marquess is not in a terrible rush to marry, but if it all works out and he takes a liking to either of you…”
Ruth shook her head. “Papa… Do you really believe a man faced with selecting between Sophia and I would choose me?”
“I am sorry, Ruth. Do not fret. Even if he chooses Sophia, we will find you a husband, too. One day soon the matchmaker will find the perfect match for you.”
“Of course, she will.” She said the words without any conviction, as she had none. The matchmaker, a kindly older woman named Mrs. Stewart, had been trying to arrange a courtship for Ruth for two years now. Not that Ruth ever had any hope for success in the matter. She was quite resigned to ending up on the shelf. After all, who would want someone like her? Someone as disfigured as she was. Without noticing she was even doing it, her hand traveled to the left-hand side of her face. An angry raised red scar started from just under her left eye and traveled all the way to her jawbone. She did not remember emerging from the wine cellar with her hair alight. Nor did she remember how the governess had put it out by rolling her in the grass. She had no memory of any of it. Not until she woke days later in terrible pain and with a ghastly mark on her face.
So terrible was it that there were no mirrors anywhere in their home, but she still knew what it looked like. She could not help looking at her reflection in the backs of the polished silver spoons. No, nobody would marry her. Not for love, anyhow. Suddenly her father pulled her out of her thoughts by placing his hand on her wrist.
“Never forget that you are beautiful in your own way. You have the biggest, kindest heart of anyone I ever met. You are smart, you are accomplished in music and the arts, and you have a beautiful singing voice. All desirable qualities in a Lady.”
“And yet, if ever I find a husband it will not be due to any of them. It will be due to your wealth and title. My husband will not be a man who cares for my playing of the harp or the piano, or my ability to read Latin and Greek. It will be a man who is in need of elevating his family in society by way of marrying a Duke’s daughter. Or it will be a nobleman without a sixpence to scratch together, in need of your wealth.”
“My dearest, if only I could make you see yourself as I see you, and as Sophia sees you.”
I wish he could understand that I do not need his pity or comfort. I am quite resigned to my fate. And yet, he cannot accept what I have known to be true all along. A marriage of love, such as the one he enjoyed with Mama, will never happen for me. In fact, despite all of her beauty, even Sophia will be fortunate to marry for love.
Her father struggled with the unrealistic notion that both his daughters should marry for love, just as he had. He found it hard to accept that most marriages sustained on many things other than love. Duty, responsibility, and convenience were the most common factors.
“Papa, I cherish you and your good heart. You and Mama were truly blessed.” He smiled but there was a sadness in it. The same sadness she always saw when he spoke of her mother.
Before he could say anything else, she decided to change the subject back to the matter at hand.
“When are we to leave?”
He licked his lips, appearing momentarily startled at the abrupt change in conversation.
“This upcoming week. I have already instructed your maid on what to pack. And I was hoping that…”
He got no further for suddenly from outside a bone-chilling shriek shattered the air and he jumped out of his chair, knocking it over in the process.
Ruth rose, staring in the direction of the noise. A moment later, Mrs. Worcester, their housekeeper appeared, her face pale with fright. “Your Grace, come quickly it is Lady Sophia!”
Her father paled and his mouth dropped open. “Sophia? What has happened?” The panic in his voice was as clear as day.
“She has fainted, and we cannot wake her,” the housekeeper said. Her father and Ruth exchanged a look. He did not have to say anything for her to know exactly what he was feeling. The memory of that awful day that had robbed him of his wife was surely at the forefront of his mind.
Without another word, he ran outside, following the housekeeper to where his youngest daughter had fallen. Ruth remained behind, her hands shaking, and she was consumed with the fear of having to relive her worst nightmare – losing another loved one.
Kenneth rode his horse, Artemis, across the fields surrounding his father’s estate with his friend, Jackson Lasetter, the Viscount Bronwyn, in hot pursuit.
“Come on, Artemis. Just a little faster. You don’t want to be beaten by Jack’s old mare, do you?”
As if the horse understood his prompt, they speeded up toward the lake on the edge of Goldclaw estate, the finish line of their race. As Artemis leaped over one last hedge and set his hooves down on the grassy ground, Kenneth whooped with delight. He turned his horse to face his friend just as he and his mare, Lottie, came across the finishing line.
“Well, old chum. It seems you owe me one rather fine bottle of brandy from your father’s stash.”
“It seems that way. Unless!” His friend raised his index finger in the air, as he often did when announcing a new scheme. “Unless you allow me to challenge you to a game of billiards. Double the wager.”
Kenneth laughed. His friend was a terrible loser and always had been. They had been the closest of friends ever since their childhood days. Their estates were side by side and thus the two had been close growing up. Once they were old enough, they’d been sent away to Eton together, strengthening their friendship further.
I have to say, I often felt alone as a child, given that I have only sisters and all of them are so much older than I, I’ve been blessed to have someone like Jack in my life, someone of the same age with similar interests. Indeed, if I had the good fortune of having a brother, I’d like him to be just like Jack. What fun that would be.
“As you well know, you stand no chance at beating me at billiards, and I could not relieve your poor father of quite that much brandy anyhow. I’d never find occasion to drink it, either.”
Jack rolled his eyes.
“I know you well enough to know when you tell a fib. Well then. If not billiards, how about a game of darts? At the tavern.”
Kenneth gasped in mock horror. “The tavern? Where the commoners dwell? Have you lost your mind, my man? The scandal if I were seen among the paupers. My dear mama would never recover from the shock. You are quite cruel and inconsiderate of her poor nerves to suggest such a thing,” he said, trying to stifle a chuckle.
His friend shook his head. “You are a jester, are you not? If your mother only knew how much you love to imitate her.”
Kenneth nodded toward the house. “I dare say she suspects I do not quite take her concerns about my activities seriously.”
Jack caught up with him and they rode side by side back toward the grand manor.
“I must say, Her Grace is very concerned with your reputation. I never quite understood her worry. You are among the most respectable young men in the area and I know several noble ladies who have an eye on you for their various daughters.”
Kenneth groaned once more. “I am painfully aware.” He sighed then and shook his head. His mood darkened.
“What is it? You look suddenly vexed.”
“I am not vexed, old chum. Merely somewhat perturbed. The Duke of Twilightfare is arriving today with his daughters.”
His friend frowned. “The Duke of Twilightfare?”
“Yes, did I not tell you? They were due to visit us last month, but the Duke’s younger daughter took ill with a severe cold and thus it was postponed.”
Suddenly remembering, Jack nodded. “Ah yes, I seem to recall. For what reason?”
Kenneth did not answer but only looked at his friend with his eyes narrowed. Their friendship was such that often words were not needed. They understood one another quite well without speaking.
“By Jove, your parents are trying to make a match of you with the Duke’s daughters?”
He nodded then. “That is the intention. My mother has declared that at eight-and-twenty I am old enough to marry and produce an heir to secure the line. An heir and a spare if it can be helped.”
“A tall order, given you are the only son.”
Kenneth nodded. His status as an only son had been a constant source of frustration growing up. Not only because it meant his parents’ attention was constantly on him, but because the sisters he did have were all much older and this meant he had nobody to share his childhood with other than the friends he made in the area. Above all, the lack of a brother meant his mother had nobody else to focus her attention on when it came to the future. She’d been quite obsessed with his future wife for some years, never understanding that he was in no rush to marry.
“I envy you, Jack.”
His friend chuckled at this. “You? Envy me? What in the world could you envy me for? For as I see it, between the two of us, you are in a much more advantageous position. You are the Marquess of Rotham, one day destined to be Duke of Goldclaw, the largest, wealthiest estate not just in Hampshire but in all of southern England. Your father is one of the most well-respected men in the realm and even the Prinny listens to his advice. I, on the other hand, am heir to a small estate with modest income.”
“It is not all about wealth, status, and influence, my friend,” Kenneth said. They were nearing the house now and time to bid his friend goodbye. Something he was not looking forward to. His parents had been in another quarrel that morning and the atmosphere in the manor was accordingly tense.
“Spoken like a true aristocrat,” Jack chuckled.
“I meant when it comes to marriage. You have freedom. Your parents have not pressured you to marry against your will.”
His friend shrugged then. “It is true, they have not. However, they know that I am not opposed to marrying for duty. I am sure I eventually will. They understand me well enough to know I wish to live my life and enjoy it as long as I can before duty calls. When it does, I will not fight them nor be picky. If I meet a woman I like, I will wed her if she’s considered suitable. If not, I will wed someone the matchmaker finds.” He shrugged as if it were no serious matter at all. On the subject of marriage, the two never did see eye to eye.
“You may regret this attitude one day. What if you are married to a woman and she turns out to be unsuitable, such as if her character and yours clash?”
His friend sighed. They’d arrived at the stables and both dismounted.
“Just because your parents had such misfortune does not mean the same would befall you, or me. My parents’ marriage was arranged, and they are perfectly contented.”
Kenneth shook his head. He could not explain to his friend just how risky a venture it was, to marry for convenience and fortune rather than love. He could never make him understand just how unhappy and miserable his parents were, with one another. For whenever anyone stopped to visit, they were the picture of bliss and perfection.
Seeing the dejection in his friend’s eyes, Jack placed a hand on his back.
“Do not worry. Perhaps one of the young ladies that are coming to visit will be both suitable and the Lady of your heart. And if not, if they are both insufferable, you can always climb out of your chambers window and join me at The Grove for an ale and a game of darts. It might shock your poor mother so much she might give up all attempts at matchmaking, realizing her son is too much of a lost cause.”
Kenneth laughed out loud at this. “She already thinks of me as a lost cause, I’m afraid. But in any case. I had best prepare for the visit. I will take you up on the offer of darts, however.”
“And I shall remind you!” His friend mounted his horse once more and rode off into the distance, leaving Kenneth behind with nothing but the dreaded feeling in his stomach at the thought of the visit.
“Kenneth?” His mother’s voice sounded out from the drawing room. With a groan, he made his way there. To his surprise, both of his parents were seated in the room, albeit at opposite ends. His mother was at the pianoforte while his father was near the fireplace with a newspaper in hand. He glanced up when his son entered and smiled at him.
“Where have you been?” His mother demanded. He shrugged.
“I went on a ride with Lord Bronwyn.” He was always sure to use his friend’s proper titles when talking about them to his mother. The details were important to her and he knew if he did not, she’d only call him out. It was simply easier to avoid such irritations. His father, however, was no friend of such formalities.
“How is Jack?” He asked. Kenneth was almost sure his distinct informality was to vex his mother, but to his surprise, she remained quiet.
“He is well. I won a bottle of his father’s brandy as I won our race.”
His father chuckled. “Well, Lord Caster does have an impressive collection of spirits, that must be said. Perhaps you might not mind sharing with your father once you collect.”
“Of course not. perhaps over a game of chess?”
Father and son were in pleasant conversation when his mother cleared her throat.
“You went on a horse race? Today of all days?”
“Why not, Mother? It is early yet, and our visitors are not expected until much later in the day.”
She shook her head. “Still, you ought to have prepared yourself better.”
He shook his head, not quite sure what she was talking about. Luckily, his father kept him from having to reply.
“What was he to do? Read a dossier on each of the ladies? Judith, let us not be silly.”
This was enough for his mother. She turned from the piano and faced her husband with such venom in her eyes, Kenneth felt compelled to take a step back.
“Silly? You call me silly because I care about the future of our only son?”
His mother stood now, one hand on her hip. “All I care about is the reputation of this family and its future. Kenneth must wed unless you would rather your title revert to the crown upon his death because he has no heirs.”
“I will have an heir mother. Please, stop pressuring me. I have not once voiced an objection to the visit of the Duke and his daughters, even though I am in fact highly opposed to the whole idea of a proposed courtship. I have done what you asked, is that not enough?”
She turned to him, her eyes softening. “Kenny…” She shook her head, the use of his childhood nickname causing him to drop his defenses.
“I just want what is best for you, even if you do not always see it. I want to see you secure and happy. Will you not at least promise me to try to like the Duke’s daughter?”
He frowned at the singular use of daughter, as he’d been sure there were two, but he did not want to argue further. He nodded.
“Of course, Mother. I will promise to try to find common ground. But if I do not care for the match, I will turn it down. And I expect my decision to be respected.”
His mother took in a gulp of air, ready to argue once more, but his father stepped in and put an end to the discussion.
“Your decision will be respected. Now, Judith. Ought you not check on the rooms of our guests, to ensure they have been properly prepared? We would not want another mishap as we did when the Countess of Weaverling visited.”
The Duchess’ eyes grew wide, and she turned at once, departing the room without further discussion.
“It is quite unkind to bring up the Weaverling visits,” Kenneth said as he slid into the seat beside his father. He could not help but chuckle, however.
“Ah, it gets her to stop whatever it is she is arguing about whenever I mention it.”
Kenneth shook his head. Some years ago, during a visit from the rich and influential Earl of Weaverling, the maids had accidentally sprayed the room of the Countess with rose essence, a scent the countess despised, even though it had previously been communicated to the staff. The day had gone down in infamy, at least if you took his mother’s word for it.
To his surprise, his father suddenly grew serious. “I will say, she is right about one thing. Marriage is something you must consider for your future.”
“I know, Father. I only wish that she could understand that I do not want to marry by arrangement, but for love. Why is that so hard for her to grasp?”
The older man grimaced then. “It is so hard for her because she never had the good fortune of marrying for love. She was chosen for me and I for her. She never had any happiness in this marriage, neither did I. Our characters are simply too different to ever make a good match. Thus, she does not believe in the notion of love.”
“But you do?”
He chuckled then. “I believe it is possible, yes. For others of course, not for me. You might find a kindred spirit in the Duke, he loved his wife very much, and she him.”
“Well then, I will have a perfect example of true love present to point to,” Kenneth grinned but his father’s visage darkened.
“There is no Duchess of Twilightfare anymore, I am afraid. The poor man’s wife died in a tragic fire. Best not to mention it as it brings back terrible memories, I imagine.”
“That is terrible, indeed. He must be a strong man to have overcome such hardship.”
“The Duke is a kind man. He and I work together frequently in the House of Lords and I enjoy his company whenever I am in London. I dare say, you will find him amenable. And perhaps his daughters, too.”
“Well, with two daughters my chances of finding love are double. I might find it yet, I declare.”
His father’s eyes narrowed then in an expression Kenneth knew well. It was the kind that meant there was something his father was mulling over, something he wasn’t sure he wanted to say.
“What is it, Papa?”
He licked his lips then and leaned forward. “I suppose I ought to tell you the truth about the daughters before they arrive. To avoid any…surprises.”
Kenneth frowned then. Surprises? What in the world was he talking about? He tilted his head to one side, eager to hear what his father had to say, but they were interrupted by a shriek coming from the hall. A moment later, his mother came back into view. Her eyes were wide and her face pale as though she’d seen a ghost.
“This is a disaster. A disaster!”
“What is it?” He jumped up and walked toward her, but his mother turned and rushed out of the hall.
“Look!” She stopped and pointed at the window. Kenneth looked at where she’d pointed, and his mouth dropped open. A disaster it would be, indeed.
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