About the book
What happens, when the bane of your existence is your own past?
Secret letters...pieces of paper carrying desires, sadness, and agony. For the rebellious Henrietta, the letters she expected meant the beginning of a new life, a chance to make her dream come true and access to higher education.
When those letters return to her unanswered along with threats from an unknown adversary, Henrietta is terrified to share her secret with her husband, the powerful Marquess of Peterborough. Living in a hateful, narrow-minded society, Henrietta must uncover the truth on her own, not knowing friend from foe and trusting no one.
Alone and unprotected, she has no idea who her enemies are or what they want from her...
The angry patter of rain against the window matched his mood. Patricia left and took their son with her. Why? He watched dark clouds enshroud the sky and heard the sudden gusts of wind rush across the field. The mind-numbing sounds and sights of the storm drifted him away…again.
A penny for your thoughts?” A sweet voice chirped at him. Ewan turned away from the window to smile warmly and shook his mane of, oft times, unruly chestnut hair.
“I fear you will not be richer for the knowledge,” he replied. The storm beyond the window had reached a near-disturbing crescendo but inside the parlor, a fire burned hotly on the hearth. It created a sense of security inside the manor house despite the pelting rain outside.
“Permit me to judge, shall we?” Patricia replied sweetly, venturing closer. He could see she was yearning to be touched, if only by the tips of his fingers. Fully pivoted, Ewan studied Patricia’s delicate face, his smile faltering only slightly.
“Are you well?” he asked and stepped toward her with some concern. “Would you tell me if you felt something was amiss?”
It seemed that in the flickering light of the candles, she had paled significantly but it was difficult to be certain with the shadows.
“Yes, of course,” Patricia replied quickly and shifted her eyes downward, attempting to shadow the lie from her eyes. “And I tell you all. Do you doubt me?”
“Trisha, my love…”
“Ewan,” Patricia sighed gently, approaching him awkwardly. She stood before him, her pale fingers extending toward his face and the Marquess was forced to meet her eyes. In spite of the annoyance which had plagued him, he softened beneath her kindly gaze and they stared at one another silently for a long moment. “I am well, I promise you. There is nothing to fear, though I know you worry regardless. I worry too—this is new for both of us.” Her smile was broad and genuine, her blue eyes twinkling sweetly as she again looked down, but Ewan knew this time, she stared at her swollen womb.
A scream pierced his visions, blood-curdling and terrifying. He remembered that sound as if it were yesterday. He saw her pale face, scared and ghoulish. He heard her pleas and felt his heart break all over again.
He turned, realizing it had not been a scream after all. Someone was calling his name, and Patricia and their son were gone again.
“Ewan, you must stand away from the window! The trees threaten to crash through the panes without a moment’s notice.” The voice did not resemble the twittering chirp he had ringing in his ears still. Ewan felt his jaw lock, but he did not move himself, nor did he indicate he had heard his father. He wished to cling the final wisps of his reverie, but it was too late for that now—the Duke of Everly, Phineas Clark had smashed any fleeting illusion of contentment Ewan had managed to conjure.
“Did you hear me, Ewan?” the Duke insisted. “Stand away from the window!”
“I could not help but hear you, Father,” Ewan sighed, reluctantly turning to regard his elder. “You have a voice to raise the dead.”
The Duke scowled slightly at his son’s almost petulant tone, but he did not comment on the words.
“Come away from the glass,” Phineas said again. “It will grow worse out of doors before the storm calms.”
“I am unafraid of a small bit of rain, Father.”
“Ewan, must you always be contrary? I speak only from concern.”
A touch of guilt sparked through the Marquess’ chest and he did not protest again. Instead, he heeded his father’s warning and moved further into the parlor to claim a seat upon one of the winged chairs overlooking the hearth.
Ewan knew his father was not at fault for his son’s melancholy, yet that did not stop the Marquess from feeling a deep resentment, a need to lash out at anyone who dared approach him.
“Fancy a drink?” the Duke asked, nodding toward Vernon who stood nearby, awaiting direction.
“A scotch, Vernon.”
“At once, Your Grace,” the butler answered sonorously, shuffling away to oblige the request.
“Ewan, your mother and I are deeply concerned for you.”
The Marquess cringed inwardly, unsure he had the gall for such a conversation that afternoon. It was one he had endured numerous times over the past months, yet it never grew easier to hear. He had almost learned to anticipate that the discussion would eventually trail that direction, but he remained hopeful at times that it would not.
“Father, I would prefer not to travel this road with you again today. I was quite happy alone in my thoughts before you arrived.”
“Such is the problem, my son. You are far too often alone with your dismal thoughts. It puts quite a damper on the household.”
Ewan’s brown eyes flashed with indignation.
“Perhaps the household should do as I wish and maintain their distance. I would not want to infect others with my trivial grief after all. As I said, I was perfectly well alone here before you opted to interrupt.”
Phineas frowned, reaching to accept the glass from Vernon as the old servant placed the drink in his hands.
“Ewan, please, be reasonable,” Phineas grunted, casting his glass aside without so much as a sip. “It has been quite nearly a year since—”
“Father, I implore you again not to dredge this to the surface today. I have not the disposition for such things.”
“It is not I who carries this heavily, Ewan! Every step you take, every look you give—they are laced with a deep sorrow which seems apparently endless. Frankly, we are at our wits’ end with you.”
Ewan gritted his ivory teeth together, willing himself not to say something which would ignite an argument with his father. There was little he could say that would simply make the matter disappear.
“Ewan, you must say something,” the Duke insisted. “I will not have you moping about the manor. It is destroying you and I long for the witty son I raised, not this…”
Phineas waved his hand as though he was at a loss for words as if Ewan was a vagabond who had fallen into the manor quite by mistake. The Marquess bristled, unhappy to be reminded he was not the same man he had been. He did not need to be told. He knew he lost a part of himself, a part which he would never get back.
Certainly not with an unsupportive father and begrudging household. Would they rather I leave so that I take my cloud of despair away from the sunny walls of Nightingale?
“Forgive me, Father,” the younger man retorted with uncharacteristic causticness. “Does my sadness affect Mother’s galas?”
“There is no need to be belligerent, Ewan,” the Duke growled, his patience expired. “I have come to you as an ally, not an enemy. Your mother and I only have your best interests at heart. You know she refrains from hosting social functions, lest the jovial spirit affect you.”
Ewan could not suppress the grunt of dubiousness which he released loudly and rudely.
“How kind of you, Father,” he intoned. “Your concern is noted—as always.”
There was a long silence, but Ewan did not bother to look at his father. He could envision Phineas’ reproving look in his mind’s eye. Ewan had come to know it well.
It seemed a lifetime ago that the men had shared a bond stronger than the hardest of diamonds. The Duke and his son had been inseparable whether in business or social affairs, their conversations light hearted and never burdened with the pain that plagued them now. On occasion, when images of Patricia did not plague him, Ewan thought of the hunting trips which had once been the tradition of the Peterborough men and it filled him with a different kind of longing.
Matters are different now, Ewan thought firmly, dismissing the wave of regret in his gut. I am not the same boy who idolized his father. Any sense of wonderment died with Patricia…and our son.
Ewan jumped as a warm hand closed around his shoulder and he looked up toward his father in surprise. He could not recall the last time his father had touched him. In fact, he could not remember the last time he had had contact of any kind with another person.
“You will persevere, Ewan. You are a Clark. Our bloodline is strong and proud.”
“And if I do not?” Ewan replied, misery tinging his question. “What then, Father?”
He was unsure if it was meant to sound as plaintive as it did, but he could not retract the words once they had been spoken.
“You shall,” Phineas vowed. “Your mother and I will not see you fail.”
A lump formed in Ewan’s throat and he blinked several times, deeply concerned that tears would fill his eyes, humiliating him further before the Duke.
“I will retire to my chambers,” Ewan said abruptly, rising and shaking his father’s comforting hand from his body.
“We have not yet had supper,” Phineas proclaimed. “I will not have you failing to eat above all else.”
“I will have Anna bring something to my room.”
Yet Ewan did not permit his father to speak again, his long legs taking him from the parlor toward the center stairs and away from the reminder that there was a terrible reality about him.
It was much easier for the Marquess to lose himself in the memory of his late wife, the musical timbre of her voice, the guileless blue of her eyes. He wished that his parents would leave him be but lately, it seemed impossible.
He entered his spacious apartment, closing the door firmly in his wake before moving toward the fireplace. The cold had seeped into the belly of the manor, slowly like death’s stealthy hand. Summer had gone before anyone had truly taken note and all which remained was the reminder that the anniversary of Patricia’s passing loomed directly ahead.
Our son would have celebrated his first birthday in a week’s time. Perhaps Patricia would have been with child again by now.
It was an abysmal game to play, one which never had a pleasant end, but it did not stop Ewan from wondering what could have been if he had not lost his wife in childbirth.
He whirled to stare at Anna who stood in the doorway, her face pale yet relieved.
“Have you taken leave of your senses?” Ewan snapped at the servant. “You cannot simply walk into my chambers without announcing yourself!”
“I rapped, My Lord. Several times.”
Ewan had not heard a sound, but he knew he oft became so consumed in his own thoughts, he alienated the world around him.
“Anna, you must not barge into my quarters,” he reprimanded her but his voice gentled. The maid was one of his more favored and she did not often make mistakes, particularly not ones of a privacy nature.
“What is it you have come here for?” he demanded.
“Allow me, My Lord,” Anna offered. She hurried forward to light the fire, but Ewan sensed that she was purposely avoiding his gaze.
“Is something troubling you?” he asked slowly. It was not that Ewan deigned to involve himself in the servant’s woes, but he was unable to suppress the idea that Anna’s presence in that moment had been ordered by the Duke.
“No, Lord Peterborough.”
“Are you certain? You seemed relieved to see me when you entered.”
Deliberately, she pivoted, her motions slow and calculated.
“You may be frank, Anna. I will not be angry.”
“I feared the worst, My Lord.”
Ewan’s eyes widened in shock. It was not the response he had expected. He had thought that Anna would simply confess that she had been sent in as the Duke’s spy, that his father had sent her in to ensure he ate something.
“The worst?” he echoed. “What is the worst?”
She dropped her head in shame.
“Forgive me, My Lord.”
Yet Ewan realized he was less angry than intrigued by her words.
“You did not answer my question. What did you fear?” he asked but as he did, he suddenly realized what atrocious notion the maid had concocted in her own mind.
“Please, My Lord, I do not think you the type of man capable of such a sinful act—”
“You thought I would take my own life!” he gasped, his eyes nearly bulging from their sockets.
“Forgive me, Lord Peterborough!” Anna squeaked but Ewan was no longer minding the servant.
He turned to look at himself in the glass above the toilet, his jaw firming as he did. No wonder they worry for me. Staring back at him in the mirror was a man he barely recognized, a dark stubble encasing his face, mimicking the darkness in his heart. He looked unkempt, dirty almost, his shirt untucked around the breeches. Ewan tried to recall the last time he had bathed or been shaved but he could not. He had lost so much weight, his face appeared hollow, gaunt.
“My Lord, may I fetch something for you to eat?” Anna breathed, perhaps hearing his innermost thoughts.
Anna scurried from the room, leaving Ewan alone with his reflection.
Would Patricia recognize me if she saw me today or would she take me for a transient sleeping in the manor?
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, attempting to gather his wits about him. For one long year he had mourned the death of his wife and child and yet each day did not heal the gut-wrenching agony which filled him. When he opened his eyes again, a blank, broken man returned his stare as one question echoed through his mind in the most reasonable fashion.
For what else do I have to live for without Patricia?
It was not the first time he had entertained such a morbid thought but, in that moment, as he peered at the stranger before him, he was consumed with the desire to end his own life.
I will see you again, my love, he vowed quietly. You and our son.
Henrietta’s index finger trailed along text, her stormy blue eyes taking in the words as quickly as her mind could absorb them. She did not notice that the single candle flickering nearby was nearly extinguished, and her irises were straining against the darkness.
The flame sputtered out, startling her. Abruptly, she sat up and looked about her bedchambers in surprise. She had done it again, losing all sense of time and space to these contraband books, which she was forced to smuggle inside her family home in Bryne.
The fire in the hearth had also sputtered down to a few smoldering embers, letting the cold creep in. Here, inclement weather snuck up the coast in the colder months, after Summer’s heyday had faded, bringing snow and bitter rain. She ought to have been looking forward to winter games and revels, but it meant only one thing to her—greater caution in reading her books by night, lest her father catch her.
Getting out of bed and crossing the room, she reached up to grasp the matches. She was about to strike one, to get the fire going again, when a loud knock came at the door.
She rushed back and dived beneath the covers, foolishly clutching the matchbox in her hand. She didn’t care who found her with matches—it was the book she was worried about.
“Miss Oliver! Are you well?”
“Yes, yes.” Henrietta was relieved that it was only the maid.
Tapping lightly on the door, Molly’s voice quavered, “May I enter?”
“Yes.” Henrietta sighed reluctantly. There was no point in dismissing her—the abigail would only fret and likely tell her mother in the morning if Henrietta resisted.
Molly entered. With feigned cheer, Henrietta said, “You see? There is nothing of consequence happening in here.”
Molly tiptoed into the room She saw the fire had got out and was aghast that she permitted this to happen. Instantly, she rushed toward the hearth and added several logs to the fire. Henrietta held her breath hoping Molly wouldn’t seek the missing matches. To her relief, the last of the embers caught the dried wood without incident, and Henrietta sat back against the pillows.
See, Molly, nothing amiss here.
It was ridiculous, really, having to sneak about in her own home lest one of the servants betray her secrets to her father, but Henrietta could do little about it. It was Aaron Oliver’s home, he was the master, and he couldn’t have been clearer on that matter.
How could she explain to her father that that this house was not the infantry. General Oliver had very specific ideas of how not only his house should be run but also the place his daughter held in said house.
As though I am a child…
“Do you require anything else, Miss?” Molly turned her attention to Henrietta.
“That will be all, Molly.”
Molly slipped toward the door, but through the shadowy light, Henrietta thought she saw the maid eye her peripherally. In her haste to return to bed, she had only half-covered the book with the coverlet. Molly had seen it.
I do not suppose I could be fortunate enough for her to have overlooked it. She knew the answer. The servants in the household were specially trained to keep an eye on Henrietta’s insubordinate acts. They would sooner tattletale on her than risk Aaron learning the truth on his own. The staff quickly learned her father was not one to have an easy demeanor. If they could find a way to circumvent his fury upon them, they had no issue nor regret handing Henrietta to him.
Henrietta did not fault them as much as she should. She wished it were not so, but she did understand why, and it made her feel very much a prisoner in her home.
“Good night, Miss.”
For a fleeting moment, Henrietta considered begging Molly not to disclose what she had seen, but she knew how such a conversation would conclude. Molly would agree to remain silent, tell Aaron anyway, thus causing Henrietta to resent her.
“Good night.” Henrietta knew she wouldn’t get much sleep tonight, and in the morning, she would be forced to deal with her father’s wrath. The door closed softly, and Henrietta turned her head toward the text which lay at her side. She considered hiding it, but seeing The Royal Society of Medicine journal, she just had to reached for it once more.
I best read it while I still have it at my fingertips. She curled her body sidewise to peruse the fascinating articles inside. If Father gets his hands upon it, it is as good as destroyed.
She hoped that would not occur. Henrietta had borrowed the copy from Dr. Ranstandt, and he had been reluctant to part with it.
“While I admire your desire to learn, Miss Oliver, I daresay your father does not share your enthusiasm on the matter. If he should learn from where you are receiving this literature—”
“He will not!” Henrietta swore. “I would never betray your confidence.”
The surgeon had relented. He didn’t know the true reason for Henrietta’s interest in his collection of pieces, and she feared, if he ever learned the truth, he would side with her father. Still, she did not wish for Aaron to destroy another item belonging to the good doctor. Henrietta dismissed the notion and focused her eyes. She vowed to hide the periodical well and return it, unscathed, to Dr. Ranstandt. She would worry more earnestly about her father in the morning.
While Henrietta didn’t recall the hour at which sleep claimed her, she did know the rather rude awakening she received as the blankets were yanked from her body.
“Up you go!” Aaron Oliver barked as his daughter stared at him with bleary eyes. “I expect you in the dining hall in no more than ten minutes.”
Without awaiting a response, he turned and stormed from her bedchambers, the Royal Society of Medicine journal in his hand.
Egad! What have I done permitting myself to fall asleep without securing the periodical?
She slowly grew aware of Molly standing nearby. Henrietta swallowed the angry words that threatened to flow from her lips. Silently, she slipped from the bed and moved toward the vanity where she reached for her hairbrush.
“Should I brush your hair, Miss?”
“I believe you have done enough, Molly. You are dismissed,” Henrietta replied impulsively. She reminded herself again that the servants were not to blame.
“I…yes, Miss Oliver.”
Molly hung her head in shame, backing away from the countertop and Henrietta sighed.
“Never mind. Here.”
She handed the silver-handled brush to the maid, and Molly hurried forward to accept it.
“Thank you, Miss,” she murmured, apparently taking the gesture as a sign of forgiveness. Henrietta did not respond, but she eyed Molly warily in the glass as the maid began to stroke at her fine, blonde hair.
“He is quite angry, is he not?” Henrietta asked.
“Yes, Miss.” Molly’s voice was barely a whisper and Henrietta heard the regret in her tone.
“Only fifty strokes,” she instructed the abigail. “I do not wish to incense him further.”
Molly nodded, brushing with more vigor and Henrietta idly wondered if she knew how to count or if she merely guessed her way through the brush strokes by habit. When the servant had finished, Henrietta’s hair gleamed like spun silk, and she moved toward the armoire for a dress she hoped would placate her father—if only slightly. After Molly secured the corset, she donned a simple garment of blue and paused to glance at herself in the mirror once more. She looked very much the proper lady her father demanded of her, the mane of dark-honey tresses pinned neatly to the sides of her elegant crown with gold combs. The strands spilled over her shoulders, cascading down her back to land gracefully about a cinched waistline. Eyes of cerulean blue shone brightly back, intelligent but shadowed, anticipating the stern discussion which awaited her in the dining hall.
“Miss, forgive me, but it has been longer than the ten minutes you were allotted.”
Henrietta had not needed to be reminded. Like Molly, she was painfully aware of the time sliding away.
She turned from the glass and made her way from the bedchambers toward the staircase, measuring her breaths. She found her parents in the dining room as her father had said.
“Sit down,” he told her curtly without preamble.
Attempting in her futile way to alleviate the mounting tension inside the house, her mother chirped, “Good morning, darling. Did you sleep well?”
Henrietta slipped into her place, noting with some annoyance how Seth leered at her as he held her chair. He was a troublesome employee of the household, Henrietta’s least favorite and she wished that he were not always so near. Of all the butlers, the General had over the years, Seth was the youngest, and had become his favorite. Therefore, he remained steadfastly at the General’s side, much to Henrietta’s added chagrin.
“She did not sleep at all!” the General roared. “She remained up all evening perusing material she has no business reading!”
“Father, if you—”
Aaron raised his hand and shook his head warningly.
“I will not hear it, Henrietta! I have endured too many of your promises to cease already.”
“I have never made any such promises!” she cried out indignantly although she knew he would never see it in such a way.
To his mind, I did vow to stop simply because he demanded I do so, but I will never stop! Not until I—
“Henny,” Tabitha Oliver murmured kindly, casting her irate husband a nervous look. “What have you done now?”
“I was merely reading.” Henrietta protested although she knew she did much more than read. Yet, this was hardly the opportunity to explain her dreams to her parents, not when Aaron’s face had grown unusually red with anger.
“Who is giving you this to read?” Aaron demanded to know. “I will have him run from Bryne for indulging your fanciful notions.”
“What is the harm in her reading, Aaron?” Tabitha muttered although she knew precisely why Aaron glowered. It was not a new subject in the Oliver household, but it was Tabitha’s meek attempt to keep the uneasy peace within the walls of the house.
Futile attempt, Henrietta thought with some contempt. Oh, how she wished her mother was stronger, more firm against her husband’s overbearing ways. Another one of Henrietta’s farfetched dreams was that Tabitha would one day straighten her spine and demand Aaron speak to them not as soldiers in the battlefield but as the wife and child he presumably loved.
“As if you do not know what tripe she consumes,” Aaron scoffed at his wife. “Medical journals. Science periodicals. She has impossible ideas in her head—”
“They are not impossible!” Henrietta immediately regretted the words. The look in Aaron’s eyes was terrifying. She darted her gaze away.
“Something must be done about this,” Aaron rasped, pounding his fists on the table. “I will not stand for your constant disobedience, Henrietta!”
“Forgive me, Father,” she replied automatically even though she was insincere. She only wished for the diatribe to be finished so that she might find a place to escape privately.
“Your apologies are false,” Aaron growled. Through the corner of her eye, Henrietta saw Seth nodding in agreement. She scowled at him furiously, but Seth’s eyes were fixed faithfully on Aaron.
“SILENCE!” he howled. Henrietta again dropped her eyes. It had been a long while since she had heard him so angry.
“Aaron, you need not shout.” Tabitha was wringing her hands as she always did when such situations arose. “I am certain that Henny is contrite—are you sorry, dear?”
Henrietta looked down and mumbled. “I am. Truly.”
“No,” Aaron hissed, his tone more reserved now. “That will not do, not this time.”
Henrietta felt pins pricking down her spine and she just kept staring at him, contemplating what would happen to her this time. His blue eyes were blazing with determination, and she had a terrible feeling.
“Father…what are you saying?” His silence was far worse than his raised tones. That familiar half-smile, mirthless and cold, formed over his lips.
“I daresay,” he drawled slowly. “You will find out soon enough.”
With that, he rose from his seat at the head of the table, his breakfast untouched, and stormed from the room, Seth close at his heels.
“Oh dear,” Tabitha moaned. “Why must we fight at every meal?”
“You need not fret, Mama,” Henrietta spoke softly. “All will be well soon.”
“I do hope you are right, darling. I cannot bear this endless tension hanging over us like a fog. I cannot breathe!”
“I agree,” Henrietta replied, but her mind was on the veiled threat her father had made.
He has plans for me, ones which will undoubtedly quash my dreams.
“Eat, dear,” Tabitha encouraged her gently. “You cannot endure your father’s temper on an empty stomach.”
I also cannot endure Father’s temper if I am not around. Again, she prayed for the mails to arrive. She was waiting for word from numerous places, any one of them could be the key to her escape.
God willing, I will be free of Father before he doles out whatever punishment he concocts.
The storm did not let up for several days, dragging Ewan deeper into his private darkness. Four days passed when the sun finally poked through the horizon. He now felt some semblance of normalcy—or at least the despair he accepted as commonplace.
Suicide was out of the question, although he had been unable to shake the idea from his mind when the bleak moments were unbearable. Patricia’s passing left a hole in his soul— not one he would wish upon his nemesis, let alone the parents who loved him dearly. With the sun’s arrival came a newfound reason to live for.
I cannot go on this way. I am ambling about without meaning, and Father spoke the truth—I do cast a black umbra over Nightingale.
He sent for Vernon, ordered a shave, and asked Anna to draw a bath. Just as both servants scampered away, the Duke appeared on the threshold.
“Good morning, Ewan. You look well.”
“Father, flattery was never your strong suit. What is it?”
“Nothing,” Phineas’ expression hinted there was a great deal on the old man’s mind. Ewan took a deep “now, what” breath.
“I have a matter to discuss with you when you are dressed. Will you join your mother and I for breakfast?”
His impulse was to refuse, but the look he was given implied the Duke fully expected rejection.
For one year he has been waiting for me to heal with patience. I must also make an effort to be successful in overcoming my grief.
Overcoming this notion was inane, nevertheless, Ewan cleared his throat and nodded slowly.
“Yes, Father, but I have only just sent the servants to prepare for a bath and shave.”
The relief in Phineas’ eyes was nearly palpable, but he made no overt exclamation. Instead he said, “We will wait. When you have finished, we will be where I indicated.”
While Phineas retreated into the hallway, Ewan waited for the servants’ return.
There are business matters to attend to. The duchy continues to thrive despite my ineptitude to carry on. Patricia would not know me as this shell of a man. In her memory and our son, I must bear the anguish and do them proud.
He could not say why, after a year nearly to the day of her passing, he had received such an epiphany. Maybe he’d suffered enough, or maybe Patricia was telling him it was time to move on and make the best of it.
The rain must have washed his mourning down, enabling the Marquess to function—but barely. Whatever the reason, Ewan did not question this tentative rebirth. The servants worked tirelessly to make Ewan begin to feel more like the dashing lord they came to admire over the years. He looked in the mirror and he saw his dark eyes seemed less encumbered and his frame less turned in. He desperately needed a few pounds of flesh upon his cheeks, but he did not cringe so wholly as he had days earlier.
I remain here, despite my private hopes that I, too, would be taken away. God has seen me through this and I will prevail, just as Father has said. I am a Clark. It is in my duty to carry forth.
For the first time in twelve long months, Ewan had a dash of hope for the future.
“Ewan!” Prudence, the Duchess of Everly, gasped when he entered the dining hall. “My Son, you look wonderful!”
He managed a small smile for her and walked to his allotted chair, at his father’s right. “Hello, Mother,” he said softly. “As do you.”
He noted the sidelong look the Duchess cast toward his father, but whether it was due to her surprise or not, he could not be certain.
“Indeed, Ewan,” the Duke nodded his approval. “You are in fine fettle today.”
“I am reluctant to say it aloud,” Ewan murmured, sliding into his chair. “But I daresay I am feeling more like myself.”
“Why are you hesitant to say?” Prudence tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. “That is news for the angels to sing from the—”
She abruptly stopped speaking and flushed a deep scarlet.
“Oh, forgive me, darling,” she muttered, her eyes watering.
“Nonsense, Mother.” He offered her another small beam. “In fact, I would like for you to forgive me. I have been incorrigible as of late. You have not deserved the harsh treatment I have bestowed upon you.” His words spilled out in a rush. He knew it was necessary, but it still burned to admit it. Again, his parents shared a look, and with this one, he felt an undercurrent of concern.
“Ewan, you are our son,” Prudence told him gently. “One in great pain, no less. We never did fault you for your grief. It was to be expected. There is nothing for which to be forgiven.”
“I concur.” The Duke patted his son’s hand resting on the table. “You must strike that idea from your mind.”
Ewan exhaled slowly.
“I am truly blessed to call you my parents.” He cupped his father’s hand on top of his. “I cannot imagine what I would have done if I had been alone in this world—”
“You will never be alone in this world.” The Duke cleared his throat and looked at his wife again. This time, Prudence avoided his gaze.
“Which brings us to another matter, Ewan.”
“Phineas, perhaps now is not the time…” Prudence muttered quietly but the Duke only looked at her helplessly.
“If not now, then when? It is done.”
As he studied their faces, Ewan could feel his chest tightening.
“What is it? Is there a problem in the duchy? Has something happened?”
“No, no,” the Duke assured him. “All is well.”
Ewan returned his hands to his lap. “Well? What is it?”
“Darling, before we tell you, you must understand that we have been quite concerned for your health and happiness for some time,” Prudence jumped in as Phineas opened his mouth to speak.
“We did all we could to bring you out of the pit of despair,” Phineas agreed. “You were too melancholic to hear reason. We were very concerned.”
“Yes, I understand,” Ewan insisted. “But what is it you have done?”
Silence. Ewan’s cautious sense of peace dwindling.
“We have arranged for you to be married.”
Certainly, he had misheard the Duke’s words—surely his father wouldn’t be so cruel. Time stood still… The Marquess turned to peer across the table and saw both parents waiting for a response.
“I assume you are jesting with me, testing the waters to see if I have reclaimed my good humor,” he said slowly, unable to comprehend what was happening.
“Ewan, I assure you, if we had foreseen an end of your suffering, we would simply have allowed your grief to run its course.”
“Instead you meddled in my personal affairs? You opted to replace my dead wife with one who breathes?” he growled—totally discombobulated. “What of my son? Have you found someone to replace him too?”
“Ewan, it is nothing as you make it seem!” Prudence shot the Duke a concerned look. “A wife’s job is to care for her husband in his darkest hours. You need someone at your side, someone on whom you can lay your head and unburden your sorrow.”
How was he to make sense of the blow just delivered?
“You would engage a lady to be my in-bed doctor then?” he managed to gasp through his fury. “Perhaps it is not me who has taken leave of his senses—but you!”
He rose from the table abruptly and shook his head vehemently.
“I will not do it,” he snapped, spinning to leave. “Undo the engagement.”
“We cannot do that, Ewan, and you know as much.”
“I did not consent to this!” Ewan howled, pivoting back to look at them in disbelief. “How could you make such a decision without me?”
“We knew precisely how you would react.” Phineas sighed. “Like this.”
“And how was I meant to react, Father? Meekly? Jovially? Please, do tell me what I was meant to say or do, so I might do it. I would not wish for you to think me behaving inappropriately and find some other means to correct me.”
“That is unfair, Ewan!” Phineas snapped. “We arranged this for your own good.”
“And the good of the duchy...you worry about the Clark bloodline.”
“As any man does,” Phineas retorted.
“Ewan, you must not think that this was done in haste,” Prudence insisted, but the Marquess could not bear to look at her. She was every bit as complicit in the matter as her husband.
“I will not see this through!” Ewan insisted.
“If you do not, you will be besmirching the honor of this house,” Phineas told him flatly. “As you well know.”
“It is you who besmirched our honor!”
“If you choose to see it as such, so be it, but all the same, we will be regarded very poorly among our peers. I will not be about forever, Ewan, and one day, you will become the honorable duke. I presume you will do what is right not only for the duchy but for yourself.”
Phineas rose and nodded to his wife. Prudence paused, looking from her husband to her son imploringly.
“Do consider this, Ewan,” his mother murmured; he scoffed with disgust.
“There is nothing to consider,” Ewan snapped. He stormed from the dining hall before the Duke or Duchess could call out.
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