About the book
She was the only wish his soul could make…
Obedient and responsible is all Lady Odile Walker has ever been. With spinsterhood approaching fast and her father's health failing, she makes a life-changing decision: she agrees to marry the most disreputable gentleman in order to spare her little sister.
In the eyes of the ton, Frederick Pinkerton, the Duke of Oldingham, is more of a mystery than an actual person. Used to his solitude, he is more than a little surprised when a gentleman walks up to him and offers him his niece's hand in marriage.
Just as Odile and Frederick get a taste of happiness, shadows with a thirst for vengeance rise from the ashes of a case that Frederick would rather erase from memory. Dipped in scandal of years past, there is something about this letter that Odile knows all too well...
Odile looked across at her sister, trying to still the worry in her heart. She was in the drawing room, the candlelight soft on the wallpaper and touching the dark wooden furniture with pale highlights. She studied the curly blonde hair and blue eyes of Harriet, who watched her and waited for her decision.
Odile ran a hand through her own dark hair, tense and anxious. Her head pounded with the weight of what she was deciding. She had already concluded that there was only one course of action, but saying it would make it true.
“Yes,” she said at last. “Yes, you shall go to London.”
They looked at each other. In the silence of the room, the only sound was the fireplace as the ashes shifted and settled, a small, crinkling sound that would otherwise have been barely noticeable.
“But…sister,” Harriet murmured. She was looking up at her with wide eyes and sounded frightened. “I’m scared. And you said we couldn’t afford it.”
Odile let out a long sigh. “I did say that. Yes. But as it is, I was talking to Mr. Murray and he says that we are not as badly in debt as I believed.”
At least, that was partly true. She had talked to the butler, who also took charge of the household accounts, and they had together decided that all the excess they had should be spent on a proper Season for her sister. It was getting increasingly necessary, Odile thought. Their uncle would take over the house—should their father pass away—and he was not known for his generosity.
One of them had to wed before that happened.
“Are you certain?”
“Yes. Definitely,” she said, forcing a strength to the statement that she did not feel. She was far from certain, but she did know one thing—it was essential for her little sister to have the best possible Season and a chance for a good match. This might be the last thing that Odile could offer her. She had no idea when their wealth would diminish altogether.
Odile had managed the estate in all but name for the last four years, since their father’s illness became worse, making it impossible for him to continue running it. She did not relish the thought of their uncle—who was known, if jokingly, as the least-generous person in London—taking over the task.
“Oh!” Her sister’s expression changed from fear to delight. “Well, then, hurray! I am so excited!”
Odile smiled. The brightness in those bright blue eyes was the one thing that made all of this worthwhile. “I’m glad,” she said firmly. “And now, let’s go upstairs. There are some copies of the Gazette there, and we can look at the pictures and decide how the gowns should look.”
“How many will I have?” her sister asked, eyes wide and round.
“Um…five, maybe,” she said, feeling queasy. Where had that number come from so suddenly? Odile hadn’t thought about it at all. At almost a guinea a gown, that was probably about what they could afford, but only just.
“Five? Really?” her sister stared at her. Her blue eyes were wide as plates. Odile grinned.
“Yes, five. Four of muslin and maybe one of silk. We shall have to talk to Mrs. Huddersley about it.” She referred to the seamstress who made their clothes.
“Odile? Really? Five, and almost all of them muslin. Oh! I am so excited,” her sister said, her voice soft with wonder and bafflement.
Odile looked at the Gazette with her sister for a few minutes, then went across to her bedchamber and sat down on the bed, feeling worry weigh on her shoulders like a gray cloud. She ran her fingers through her hair, trying to calm down.
“What can we do?”
She looked at her reflection in the mirror. Her own green eyes studied her, their depths watchful. She could see the signs of worry and care that years of being in charge of the estate had set there. Odile had taken the weight on herself of taking care of everything. She was only four-and-twenty years old, but she thought the fine lines on her forehead and at the edges of her pale pink lips made her seem older.
Choosing to have a Season for herself this year, or to let her sister go instead, had been hard, but the end choice had been obvious. She had to put her sister first. It hadn’t really even been a choice; more like an instinct, something she couldn’t help herself doing. It had been like that always. Ever since her sister had first come into her life. She recalled that day so plainly; the small bundle her father brought downstairs, so wide-eyed and so helpless, as if she herself was bewildered to be brought into the world.
She had not cared about anything else after that. Harriet had become her whole world. The death of their mother had been a massive wounding for them both, but Odile had Harriet, and from then nothing had mattered.
She knew she had to do everything to make Harriet’s coming-out beautiful and successful. Her sister was just sixteen, and she deserved the best possible Season. It would be her first, while Odile already had two, and those not successful. She was choosing between another for herself, or a coming-out for Harriet, and the choice was clear.
She stood, drew in a deep breath, and went downstairs to find Mr. Murray. He would be able to send to the village for fabrics, and they would begin the work of making the gowns and organizing the trip to London.
Odile stood in the hall at Almack’s, looking out across the ballroom. The floor was brightly polished, the shine of it dazzling to the eye, sparkling under the light of a dozen crystal chandeliers. She had already been to the place a dozen times that Season, but she still felt sick with nerves.
She was not here to take part, but simply to chaperone Harriet, who was dressed for the ball. She herself had a much plainer gown. She would rather not have come, but there was nobody else to chaperone Harriet, and she would rather do it herself—her protectiveness would not let her send Harriet alone. She waited on the stairs, watching the ladies in white gowns and the gentlemen in dark jackets as, somewhere at the back, the musicians were tuning up, ready to play a dance.
She glanced sideways at her sister. Harriet was standing beside her, the long white satin gown reaching her ankles, the waist high and defined with a silk band. Harriet looked frightened. The neck of the gown was square and low, the skirt floaty and soft. There were ribbons and lace in her hair and her skin was so pale in the candlelight. Her blue eyes were wide with fearfulness.
“There are so many people there,” her sister whispered. “I always hate having to go in like this.”
Odile smiled. “I believe we need to. It wouldn’t be much good if we stood out here. We can’t really dance in this hallway.”
Her sister giggled. “You’re right. Imagine that,” she looked around, twirling in the corridor. “Look at me! Dancing in the hallway!”
Odile grinned, then gently but firmly took Harriet’s hand. “Come on, then. We should go in. I have our passes somewhere…” she paused, reaching into the drawstring reticule that hung from her arm. She was wearing a plain cream gown, the one she had worn for her own Season last year. It was made of muslin, the neck low-cut and round, the waist high and the sleeves long. It was serviceable and elegant, and with her hair arranged elaborately on her head, she thought it looked stylish, if a little overly sober. She had a little drawstring reticule on her arm in white silk.
Odile found the passes—two pieces of paper with their names printed on them, signed by one of the ladies who regulated all entrance to Almack’s. The passes were extremely hard to get, since one had to either know one of the ladies who issued them, or they could be purchased for a fee. That, in itself, was one of the expenses that came up each Season.
Odile handed the passes to the footman, and he handed them to a colleague on the front step, who announced them.
“Miss Odile and Miss Harriet, daughters of the Baron of Staveley.”
Everybody stared up.
Gripping the balustrade with one hand, with the other Odile held her sister’s hand, feeling her warm fingers through the thin gloves. The gesture was as much to reassure her sister as herself. She waited for the strange spell to wear off the guests, making them turn away, falling back into talking as if nothing happened.
The heads would turn away—they always did. Odile reckoned it took people three seconds at most to forget about what a stranger was doing and fuss about the impression they were making themselves.
“Sister, there are so many people…” her sister whispered in her ear. “I hate this and I can’t go in.”
“Yes, you can,” her sister reassured her swiftly. “We don’t really need to do anything, not really. We just need to stand about and talk to people, and then somebody will come up to dance with you. Just wait and see.”
“All we have to do is wait,” she said patiently. “Elmore is here. He’s going to dance with you.”
“Yes!” Harriet grinned. “Yes. He is. I cannot wait to see him.”
She could not help but smile at her younger sister. Elmore, Baron Bromford, was a very nice, handsome young man who Harriet had met almost instantly at her first ball. He was shy, kind, and good-natured, and as far as Odile could see, Harriet was deeply in love already. Her face lit up at the very mention of him.
Odile would be more than happy to ensure their father approved the match.
She watched as Elmore came across the floor, as she knew he would, the candlelight shining on his brown hair. He looked as handsome as ever in his gray jacket, his breeches a darker gray, and Odile was so pleased to see him greeting Harriet. She watched them, saw him bow and take her hand and lead her out onto the floor.
She felt her own heart suffuse with love for them both.
She let out a long sigh and looked around the hall.
It was full of people, and most of them were making their way onto the dance floor, moving over in a sea made of dark coats and pale gowns. She leaned back on the wall and watched them. Odile had always enjoyed being outside the scheme of things. Since she was a child, observation had become her strength. She had not yet met anyone who appealed to her—besides, she barely had any time to consider a match. She was too busy for courtship, and she had to admit that none of the young men who had approached her had caught her fancy even a little. They were silly, selfish, or cruel, in her opinion, loudmouthed or sullen or critical. She had not met any who she thought were better company than she had right now, standing here by herself.
“Odile,” an older woman greeted her. Odile smiled at Lady Alston, a friend of her family. She was perhaps ten years older than her own mother would have been, and she’d always looked kindly on Odile and Harriet, always asking after their health whenever they were in London, and calling frequently at the house.
“Lady Alston,” she greeted, dropping a low curtsey. “How do you do?”
“Well, thank you. And I can see you do well, my dear. You look so beautiful! You must be turning heads tonight, with that fine hairstyle. It suits you quite wonderfully.”
“Thank you, Lady Alston,” Odile said. She felt a little sad. She hadn’t turned any heads—at least, not as far as she knew—but she was touched that Lady Alston thought she might. She looked up at the ceiling. The kind words had touched nerves that she didn’t even know were bruised.
“And your father? He is a bit better, I hope?”
Odile looked away, not wanting the kindly older woman to see the look in her eyes when she replied to her. “I think perhaps a little,” she said.
She was deeply worried for her father. He did not look well at all; at least not in her opinion. He had looked very ill when she saw him that evening, and for the last few days he’d barely eaten. It had taken her an hour to make him eat half a bowl of gruel. Caring for him was draining her—not because it was hard, but because it took so much strength from her to look into his haggard face and smile, hiding her concerns.
“My dear, you are a wonderful daughter,” Lady Alston said.
Odile didn’t try to hide how much that remark touched her when she replied to Lady Alston. “Thank you. It means a great deal to me that someone says that.” Her voice wobbled.
“Now, my dear,” Lady Alston said, squeezing her fingers. “Don’t be so sad. Things will turn out for the best, you know. They always do.”
Odile smiled at her, wanting to ask her what she meant, but she had walked away. Odile heard her talking to a tall older man, who nodded and smiled and listened to her. Odile looked away, back across the ballroom.
The dance had finished and Odile spotted Harriet, walking towards her. She felt her lips lift in a grin, unable to feel anything but joy when she saw her sister’s soft cheeks pink with happiness.
“Sister? We were considering going out onto the terrace to take the air. Would that be all right? I mean, without someone to chaperone us?” She looked at Odile, wide-eyed.
Odile felt a frown crease her brow. She was genuinely not sure. When she saw Elmore watching her, a mix of confusion and happiness in his eyes, she agreed.
“Yes, Harriet, of course you may go. I’ll be at the refreshments table, should you need me.”
She saw them smile shyly at one another, and she watched them go, hand in hand, outside. She was sure that they were probably going to talk, and possibly to steal a kiss, but she wasn’t about to tell anyone, particularly since Harriet’s family approved the match. Or, she thought with a small smile, they would. As soon as she could tell their father.
She stood by the refreshments, feeling a strange mix of joy and sadness. She herself had never been courted, but she did not begrudge Harriet—she wanted her to have this. She had no idea what she was going to do, but her sister’s safety meant more to her than anything else.
And they would need to be safe. Her uncle, who would become the Baron should her father pass away, was a cruel, pitiless man. She knew from speaking with the housekeeper, who remembered them both from when they were young, that her uncle was liable not to give a penny to them for clothes or parties. Her father had emphasized that he was concerned for them and wanted them out of the house before his cousin took over.
“And so, I need to wed soon.”
She spoke aloud, the noise of dancing and talking too strong for anyone to overhear. She accepted some cordial and sipped at it, watching the dancing.
When Harriet came back in she was silent, but her blue eyes glowed with a brightness that only came from loving someone. Elmore stood beside her, his hand in hers, and Odile knew that they were both floating in the haze of their love. She felt her heart twist with joy.
The ball wore on, and Odile was feeling tired by the time the musicians were finally packing away their things and the footmen were helping people into cloaks and coats, ready to brave the cold air of the nighttime streets.
“Odile,” Harriet whispered when they got into the coach, ready to leave. It was the first thing she had said to her since coming back in from outside.
“What is it?” Odile asked gently.
“Odile! He wants me to go with him to his home. He wants me to…to…” She was weeping, tears of joy pouring down her soft cheeks. Odile reached for her hand, knowing that her own eyes were damp, too.
“Sister! I’m so happy for you. I couldn’t be happier, truly. That is the most wonderful news. The most wonderful.” She could barely speak. It was what she had wanted, why she had come here to London in the first place, why she had insisted their father make a morning-long coach trip down to the townhouse
Harriet would soon be married, and safe with the Baron at his home.
Nobody could harm her.
Odile shut her eyes, leaning back on the cushioned wall of the coach, the road bumpy and making the coach lanterns jolt as they went along. She barely noticed. All she could think about—all that mattered to her—was that Harriet was safe.
As soon as they got home, she hung up her cloak and asked the butler for her father’s state of health.
Odile looked at her father. He was sitting up in the chair that Mr. Highbury, the physician, had recommended for him—one that was wide but high-backed, so that he could be supported when he sat in it. He was facing the window, but Odile could not fail to notice the gray color of his cheeks. He looked exhausted.
“Father? Would you like something to drink?” she asked him softly.
“No. No…thank you, Odile,” he whispered. She looked into his face, which was tinged with blue at the temples, and felt her stomach tighten. She wished he hadn’t made the journey back to Staveley Manor—or, having done so, that he had not done it in one morning. He would have done much better to take it slowly, going a few hours in the coach at a time.
But now he was back.
She sat down by the chair and took his hand. It was icy. She pretended not to notice. His fingers had been this cold for months—maybe even for years. She had become used to it and never commented on it now. It was something to do with his circulation—the physician had said as much—though he didn’t know exactly what it was.
“Father, you will be well enough to attend the celebrations?” she asked softly.
He looked at her and in those pale eyes, she could see that he knew he would not be able to. But he would try, like he always did, to please them.
“I will try,” he said.
When had he ever done anything else?
Odile was crying. She didn’t want him to see, so she stood, going towards the window. She faced out, looking over the garden. The lawn was pale green, the sky raining down gently on the grasses below. Odile wished she could hold back her emotion enough to thank her father, but she could not find any more strength in that moment.
She sat with him for a while longer, then excused herself and went upstairs. The reading room was warm and she drew out a chair, sitting down. She was exhausted. She had spent the last two weeks planning the preparations for Harriet and Elmore—the celebration would be here, at the Manor, and then they would depart, traveling down to his manor which was, thankfully, only a day away on the main road.
She was relieved that they were to live so close.
“Miss?” a maid called her softly. “Miss Harriet was looking for you. She’s downstairs.”
“Thank you, I’ll be down in a moment,” Odile said softly. She stood and leaned back against the bookshelf by the window, giving herself a moment longer to collect her thoughts and regain her equilibrium.
She didn’t want to let Harriet see how tired she had become.
“Sister?” Harriet said when she walked into the room where she waited. Her sister was dressed in a white gown with little green patterns. Her eyes widened as she saw Odile. “Am I to have the gown fitted today? And I was talking to Mr. Murray about the luncheon. Will Father be able to eat something, do you think?”
Odile frowned. She didn’t know what to say. She and her father had tried their best to hide the depth of his illness from Harriet. Whenever he saw her, he would be sure to be sitting up in his chair, and he tried to time the visits for after he had eaten, so that there was some semblance of health in him. She thought about her answer.
“Father will probably rest during most of the luncheon,” she said carefully. “But he will be at the church—he insists on it.”
“Oh, sister…” Harriet took her hands, looking into her eyes. “I am so happy. You have been so kind to me. You have organized the whole thing. I appreciate it so much!” She was crying, her cheeks wet. Odile drew her against herself and held her tight, her own eyes soaked with tears.
She went upstairs again as soon as Harriet was safely in the drawing room and discussing her gowns with the seamstress. She was to have two new gowns made—one for the ball that would be after the ceremony, which she would wear to her new home, as well as her wedding gown. Odile sat on the little chintz-covered chair in her bedroom and looked out of the window over the lawns.
Out there, the rain had stopped, and little drops sparkled on the lawn. She found herself wondering about her own future. She would be left here in the house with her father. Could she manage to make a way for herself between that time and when her father passed away? She had no idea. She knew that, while he was alive, there was no way she would be able to attend parties or receive visitors since taking care of him took up her entire day.
“Miss Odile?” Mr. Murray said, coming in. “There’s a letter for you. From London.”
“I’ll read it later, Mr. Murray,” she said wearily. “If you could put it on my desk?”
“Yes, Miss,” he said. He placed it on the little desk in the corner of her room and departed softly. Odile looked at it, seeing with just a glance that it was from the solicitor in London. She was definitely not going to read it right now.
She went downstairs to the drawing room, deciding to read and to take a rest before anyone called her to take care of her father.
The next day dawned with sunshine pouring between the clouds. Odile hurried up to her sister’s room. Harriet was already dressing, her maid carefully helping her with the flower wreath for her head. She waited, watching proudly as Harriet stood before the looking glass and smiled broadly as Odile came in behind her.
“Sister…I don’t know what to say.”
Odile shook her head, her own eyes bright with tears. “You don’t need to say anything, sweetling,” she said softly. “You just need to be happy. You look so beautiful.”
She reached for her and they hugged, and Odile felt those firm arms around her and her heart ached. She stepped back, giggling.
“I’m squashing your gown.”
“Oh, sister,” Harriet giggled. “You needn’t worry. I am sure it will recover quite well.”
Odile nodded and she studied her sister, noting again how beautiful she looked.
Her pale blonde curls were arranged high on her head, decorated with a white ribbon. Her gown had a low oval neck and a lacy skirt falling from a high waist and the sleeves ended at her elbows, showing her well-formed, pale arms and hands. She looked lovely and seemed to glow with a gentle softness.
“You look beautiful, too, sister,” Harriet said as she watched her. Odile grinned.
“I’m glad. Thank you, sister.” She looked down at her hands, resting on the pale green gown she wore. She had not wanted to spend money on something for herself, but Mrs. Huddersley had insisted, and she had made this gown for her. It was lovely, if made with old silk that had faded.
As Odile went down to wait with the others, she caught sight of her own reflection. Her brown hair was piled up on her head, showing off her long neck, and her wide eyes stared back at her, worried and afraid. She couldn’t help thinking about her own future and worrying about it.
She heard Mr. Murray in the hallway and hurried to where her father was standing—yes, standing—by the door. She hadn’t seen him on his feet in months and she ran to his side and took his hand, helping to hold him upright.
“This is my daughter’s wedding day,” he said as Mr. Murray helped him into the coach. “The least I can do is walk to the coach.”
Odile felt her heart ache.
She and Harriet climbed in after him. Harriet held his hand mutely the whole way, eyes full of care and warmth at seeing him.
Odile waited while the coachman helped Father out on the other side. He insisted on walking to the church. She could hear his breathing, rasping and tight, and she knew that he was going too far. She walked behind him, watching him with Harriet. She felt so proud of them. She loved them so dearly.
She followed them into the church and slipped into a pew, then she watched as Elmore took her sister’s hand so tenderly, and then turned back to the front of the church.
The ceremony was short, but beautiful, and Odile couldn’t help crying as she sat and watched, and later crying as she stood and watched the two of them walking down the aisle together.
“It’s a beautiful wedding,” Mr. Murray whispered to her as they went out of the door of the church to see Elmore depart with Harriet in the big coach back to their estate. She smiled at him fondly. The whole staff was there—besides a few relatives and friends, they made up half of the guests.
“It is,” she said.
Her father slept in the coach on the way back to the house. He insisted on attending the dinner. She knew how pleased Harriet was to have him there, and how worried she was, too. She was grateful that he had attended, but she also worried—as Harriet did—about the toll it was taking on his strength.
“Go to bed, Father,” she said gently as the last course was served.
“Yes, daughter. I think I shall.”
Odile felt relieved. He had been sitting there for too long and she knew he must be exhausted. She could see the tension in his neck and shoulders and his hands were freezing.
“Goodnight, Father,” Harriet said. He had managed to stand, and Odile was grateful when his manservant rushed forward to help him up as Harriet stood to kiss him goodnight.
Odile leaned back in her chair, watching her father go up the stairs with worried eyes.
The rest of the guests departed slowly, and Odile tried to forget her worry as she went out to the steps to send them off.
“Oh, sister!” Harriet said, as they stood on the steps together, waiting for the coach to be readied. “You will visit often, won’t you?”
“As often as I may, Harriet. You can be sure I will.”
“Good,” Harriet said, and reached down and embraced her. Odile squeezed her firmly to her chest and then waved as the coach drew out of the grounds, carrying Harriet and Elmore away to their new life and leaving her in charge of Staveley Manor.
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