About the book
He felt the fires of her love and let them burn him...
Lady Esther Lockmore has always had big dreams in life.
Dreams that are crushed once she finds out about her father’s betrayal. As he gambles away all of their fortunes, she’s soon left with but one choice: charm the richest suitor to keep her sisters out of harm's way.
Wherever Hugh Warriver, Duke of Hallowbinder, goes, rumors run rampant. Rich, handsome, and the most eligible bachelor of the season, there is no shortage of noble ladies vying for his attention. But thee’s only one he has eyes for: a beautiful lady, he quickly notices is rather peculiar.
Love seldom mixes well with corruption. Caught between a rock and hard place, Esther’s choices culminate in one single moment: Hugh discovers she only ever approached him for his wealth and their love was nothing but a lie.
Tears streamed down Lady Esther’s face as the carriage pulled away from Harcourt Manor and out onto the main road.
Her lady’s maid, Amelia, reached out and rested a hand on top of hers. “Take heart, My Lady,” she said. “After all, this was only your first courtship, and you’re still very young. It won’t be long before you capture the attention of another gentleman.”
Esther shook her head. “There’s no one else like him, Amelia. No one else in the world.”
“You told me yourself, many times, that one gentleman is just as good as another,” Amelia said.
“But I was wrong,” Esther said. “I believed that his standing in society was what mattered most about him, but there’s so much more to him than that. And now…” She let out a dramatic sigh. “I was about to say that I would never see him again, but it’s worse than that, isn’t it! It’s ever so much worse. Because not only will I see him, I’ll have to watch him marry someone else! How can I bear it?”
“You mustn’t dwell on him, My Lady,” Amelia said. “Let him fade from your thoughts. Forget him, if you can.”
Esther shook her head. “How am I to do that, Amelia?” she asked. “These past three months have been the most emotional of my life. I never expected that anything like this would happen. I never expected that I would fall in love.”
“Young ladies fall in love when they attend their first Season,” Amelia said wisely. "It happens. You are certainly not immune to that, My Lady.” She reached into her pocket and produced a handkerchief, which she handed to Esther. “Everything will be all right. You’ll see.”
“I’ve been happier this Season than ever before in my life,” Esther said. She dabbed at her eyes carefully. “Isn’t that strange? I never thought my life was lacking anything before. I always thought I had everything I needed.”
“I told you otherwise countless times,” Amelia reminded her. “I told you, didn’t I, that you couldn’t ignore love?”
“Don’t scold me, Amelia,” Fresh tears cascaded down Esther’s cheeks. “I know you’re older than I am, but this seems a very cruel time to remind me of your wisdom.”
“I don’t do it to be cruel, My Lady,” Amelia said gently. “I do it to show you that I know what I’m talking about. To show you that you can and should have faith when I tell you that love will find you again. The pain you’re feeling today won’t always be so fresh and raw. One day, you’ll be able to remember this fondly.”
“I don’t think I will,” Esther said. “I wish I had never known him at all!”
“You don’t mean that,” Amelia said. “Think of the good times you had this Season. Think of how it felt to be courted. You enjoyed it while it was going on, even if it hasn’t ended as you would have hoped. You wouldn’t change that, truly, would you?”
Esther sighed. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I really don’t, Amelia. Because the truth is that it has been wonderful. That’s part of what makes it so painful now to see it coming to an end.”
“Of course,” Amelia said. “I would be surprised if you didn’t feel that way. You’ve felt love for the first time, and have known what it is to be loved. That’s a difficult thing to say goodbye to. It’s intoxicating. It feels as if the world is coming to an end.”
“Yes,” Esther agreed. “That’s exactly how it feels!”
“But is the pain so awful that you would prefer never to have felt the good things that came before it?”
“I would prefer to have the good things without any pain,” Esther said, deliberately sulking just a little bit. She was gratified when Amelia laughed.
“There you are,” Amelia said, patting her arm. “I knew your strength and good humor would get you through this, My Lady. You’re going to be all right.”
“I don’t know,” Esther said. “I think you’re right that I’m glad to have experienced love. But when I think of what he must be thinking about his time with me…it just makes me want to curl up and hide! He must think so poorly of me.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Amelia said. “We can never really know what others are thinking or feeling, My Lady, and it does us no good to guess.”
“This doesn’t feel like a guess,” Esther said. “Did you see the way he looked at me yesterday as he was leaving? And the worst part of all is knowing that I deserve his disdain! All the terrible things he must be thinking about me—he’s exactly right to think them.”
Amelia shook her head. “Be kinder to yourself, Lady Esther,” she said. “This was your first courtship, after all. Even if it was mishandled, you're hardly the first young lady to make the mistakes you made. If anything, it’s he who is in the wrong for not being more understanding of your situation and your inexperience!”
“Oh, Amelia,” Esther sighed. “You would take my side no matter what I had done, wouldn’t you?”
“I would,” Amelia agreed stoutly. “But that doesn’t mean that my opinion ought to be disregarded, My Lady. I feel that any sensible person would be on your side.”
“I can tell you that my parents certainly won’t be,” Esther said miserably, leaning back in her seat. “They’ll be furious that I spoiled my chances at marriage.” She laughed ruefully. “To think that the one thing they’ve said to me all Season long was that I shouldn’t ruin my prospects! Over and over they said it, and over and over I took offense. It felt like such an insult that they thought they needed to tell me not to ruin things, that they were so certain I would. And now, in the end, it turns out they were right! I have ruined everything.”
“You’ve done nothing of the sort,” Amelia said.
“But you know that’s what they’re going to say,” Esther said.
“They may, My Lady,” Amelia agreed. “But you must pay them no mind if they do. Remember, I’ve been with you all Season long, and I can see no point at which you acted in a way your parents would not have approved of.”
“If anything, the problem is that I did too much of what they would approve of, isn’t it?” Esther asked.
“A problem for which you can hardly be blamed,” Amelia said. “You are young, Esther, a fact you often seem not to remember.”
“I'm not that young,” Esther objected. “I’m twenty years old, Amelia, and you yourself are only four-and-twenty. You act as if you’re old enough to be my aunt sometimes, but you’re more of an elder sister.”
“That’s true,” Amelia said. “And as a servant, I have no personal experience with the challenges of being a lady. But I have had my share of romantic affairs. I do know a thing or two about what that’s like. You did what you thought was right, Lady Esther. You and I discussed it many times.”
“And every time, you told me I was wrong,” Esther sighed. “I should have listened to you, Amelia, and not to my parents. If I had, this might have ended differently.”
“You can remember that when your next suitor comes calling,” Amelia said.
Esther shook her head. “I can’t imagine being courted by anyone else," she said. “I’ll only be able to see the ways in which he doesn’t measure up.”
“You’ll get there,” Amelia said.
"I don’t know if I even want to get there, Amelia,” Esther said. “I thought I was mere weeks away from being married.”
“I know you did,” Amelia said sympathetically. “Marriage will happen for you, My Lady. I’ve no doubt of that.”
“Can I tell you the strangest thing of all, Amelia?”
"You can tell me anything,” her lady’s maid said. “Surely you know that, My Lady.”
Esther nodded. “I always thought I knew how I would feel when the time came for me to marry,” she said. “I thought I would feel proud. Accomplished. As if I was in control of the situation. I thought it would feel like I had mastered something.”
“And it wasn’t like that?” Amelia asked.
Esther shook her head. “Just the opposite,” she said. “I’ve never felt less in control—of my feelings, of my future. And yet I liked it! I’ve never been happier! I would never have imagined that it would be that way.”
“You were in love,” Amelia said gently. “We all lose control of ourselves when we fall in love.”
“Well, perhaps if I’d maintained more control of myself, I wouldn’t have lost him,” Esther said.
“If you had maintained control, I doubt you would have fallen in love in the first place,” Amelia pointed out.
With a sigh, Esther buried her face in her hands. “Don’t think that I don’t see how silly I'm being," she said. “Our time together is over, and he is to marry someone else, not me.” She shook her head. “He could admire me, or he could think I’m the worst person I’ve ever known, and what difference would it really make?”
“It matters to you because you care for him, My Lady,” Amelia said quietly. “It matters because you want him to care for you. Even though you’re not to be married, his opinion probably matters more to you than anyone else’s in the world right now. It’s normal that you should feel that way.”
“But I’ll have to let that go,” Esther said firmly. She was determined to put this unfortunate incident behind her, difficult though she knew it would be to do so. “I want to find love with someone else eventually, even though it seems impossible right now.”
“That’s good, My Lady,” Amelia said encouragingly. “It’s good that you’re able to foresee a future where you’ll be able to do that.”
Esther nodded and turned to look out the window of the carriage. The truth was that it didn’t seem possible at all. It seemed like an insane daydream, like hoping that she would one day be able to fly. How could she fall in love again the way she had this time?
And do I truly even want to fall in love again, when I know that doing so would mean saying goodbye to the love I feel today?
Three months later…
“Esther, for goodness’ sake, stop admiring the gowns and come down to dinner!”
Esther sighed as her mother’s shrill voice cut through her fantasies. She had been imagining herself in the lavender ball gown she was currently examining, turning in the arms of an incredibly handsome but faceless gentleman.
The gowns just arrived from the seamstress’s shop this afternoon, she thought sourly. Of course I want to admire them!
But her mother wasn’t the kind to put up with flights of fancy. Esther had learned from a young age that practicality was what her parents valued. And that meant getting downstairs promptly at dinnertime so the food wouldn’t get cold, even if she had a collection of beautiful new gowns to look at.
Regretfully, she hung the lavender gown up, knowing that she wouldn’t see it again until she unpacked her trunk. Her maids would be packing her things while Esther ate her dinner. When she came back upstairs afterward, all these lovely new gowns would be hidden from view, and she wouldn’t have the chance to look at them again for days.
But I need to be practical. I need to be the daughter my parents want me to be. And what they want is someone who can focus on what needs to be done and not be distracted by lace and ribbons.
Esther had always prided herself on being that person. And now, heading into her first Season, she was confident that her practical nature would serve her well.
Her parents were already seated at the dinner table. Esther joined them, and they both fixed her at the same time with penetrating stares. Neither of them spoke.
“What?” Esther asked, after waiting a moment to see whether they would tell her what was on their minds.
“You’re leaving tomorrow for my sister’s home,” her father said.
“I know that, Father.” It was a strange thing for him to declare, as if it was new information. Esther’s trip to Harcourt Manor had been a long time coming. Her parents and her Aunt Tabitha had been working together to plan for it for over a month now. The very gowns Esther had been upstairs admiring had been designed for her first Season, for which she would be staying with her aunt.
“Before you go,” her father went on, “we need to discuss what’s expected of you while you’re there.”
“I’ll make you proud, Father,” Esther assured him. “I’ll be gracious to Aunt Tabitha.”
“It's not that old crone we’re concerned about,” Esther’s mother spoke up.
Esther’s eyes widened. She knew that her mother and her aunt weren’t on the best terms, but she had never known her mother to speak quite that harshly.
“Anastasia,” her father said firmly, “there’s no need for that kind of language.”
“She very nearly refused to take Esther in for the Season, Adam,” Esther’s mother said. “She’s selfish and awful, and you know it.”
“Be that as it may,” Esther’s father said, “she did agree to take Esther. And we must be thankful that she’s done so. Remember that she’s all alone, with a daughter of her own to guide through the Season.”
“Eugenia,” Esther’s mother scoffed. “I wish her luck with that one. It’s hard to imagine Eugenia catching the attention of any gentleman, and especially not when our Esther is in the room.”
Coming from her mother, that was high praise indeed, and Esther decided to take it as such. “Thank you, Mother,” she said. “I’m pleased to hear you have such faith in me.”
Esther’s mother’s face twisted in consternation, and Esther felt pleased. Her mother hadn’t meant to pay a compliment at all. Her focus had been on insulting Eugenia, not on flattering Esther. The compliment had been entirely accidental. But she couldn’t very well say so now. Though she knew it was wrong, Esther took pleasure in thwarting her mother like this.
“I believe my sister is aware of her daughter’s prospects,” Esther’s father said. “She knows better than to aim too high when it comes to Eugenia. Eugenia will be fortunate to make a match at all.”
Esther's mother smiled icily. “Tabitha knows that, of course. That’s why she doesn’t want Esther there, you mark my words, Adam. She doesn’t want Eugenia to be overshadowed.”
“Mother,” Esther interrupted. “I'm sure there will be plenty of gentlemen at this Season’s events for both myself and my cousin. There will be no need for us to compete. We can both be successful.”
“Ah,” her father said. “But this is what I wanted to discuss with you, Esther. When I spoke of expectations, I did not mean to tell you to be polite to your aunt—I have no doubt that you’ll do that.”
“Then I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Esther admitted. “What are your expectations, Father?”
Her father sighed. “The finances of Cliffdall are not what they once were, I’m afraid. The Earldom finds itself in debt.”
“We’re in debt?” Esther frowned. She hadn’t known. “How did that happen?”
“It happened because your father is a shameless gambler,” her mother said.
Her father shot a glare in her mother’s direction. “And your mother is a profligate spender,” he said, looking pointedly at the jeweled necklace she wore.
Esther clapped a hand to her mouth. “All those fine gowns,” she said. “They must have cost a fortune. How could we afford such a thing, if we’re in debt?”
“We increased our debt slightly for the sake of your first Season,” her father explained.
“You shouldn’t have,” Esther said, feeling horrible. “I have plenty of gowns I could have worn.”
“You needed new things,” her mother insisted. “It’s not enough for you to capture the attention of any old baron, Esther. This is what your father is trying to explain to you. You must set your sights on someone truly advantageous, someone who can help us salvage Cliffdall from the dire straits we’re in.”
“Someone very wealthy, in other words,” Esther said.
Her father nodded. “I’m pleased to see you’ve understood the situation so quickly,” he said. “I do regret to ask this of you, Esther, but at the same time—”
“Don’t regret it, Adam,” her mother said firmly. “She’s a part of this family, is she not? She’s always benefitted from the money we’ve had. And now that we’re struggling, she’s in a perfect position to do her part to help us.”
Esther nodded. She had always known that this was the role she would play in her family—to marry well. And though she hadn’t known of the Earldom’s financial troubles, she had always imagined that she would want to seek out a wealthy match when the time came for her first Season.
But of course, if Father could be in such terrible financial trouble, any gentleman could be. She would have to do her best to assess the gentlemen she’d be meeting to make certain their wealth was intact.
But Esther knew she would be able to do that. She was clever and alert, and she knew it. She would gather the information she needed from any gentleman who took an interest in her before returning his interest in any way.
“Don’t worry, Father,” she said confidently. “You can count on me.”
“I know I can,” her father said. “You’re charming, clever, and beautiful—everything a gentleman could want. I have no doubt that you’ll be able to capture the attention of the most eligible gentlemen this Season.”
“Just make sure the one who courts you is the right one,” her mother said. “The most well-off, and the one with the best reputation. You mustn’t trust your aunt to help you when it comes to this. She doesn’t have your best interests in mind.”
“Unfortunately, I have to agree with your mother,” her father said. “Tabitha will be out to procure an advantageous match for her own daughter at any cost, and if that means misdirecting you, I don’t doubt she’ll be willing to do so.”
“You don’t have to worry, Father,” Esther said. “I won’t be misled. I know what I’m looking for in a gentleman.”
“Tell me, then,” her father said.
Esther nodded and recited the qualities her parents had reinforced to her for the past several years. “A gentleman with a high rank,” she said. “An earl, ideally.”
“An earl certainly,” her father corrected. “Nothing less will suffice.”
“Or a duke,” her mother put in.
“Or a duke,” her father allowed, making it clear in his tone that he was only humoring his wife. Esther wondered what that meant. Did he not believe there would be any dukes available for courtship this Season? Or did he simply think her incapable of attracting their interest?
If that’s what he believes, he’s in for a surprise. I'll bring back the most eligible gentleman, no matter what title he happens to hold. They’ll see.
“You must find out about his land,” Esther’s father went on. “If someone takes an interest in you, ask around at balls and parties and discover what’s being said about him. Your mother is right—do not listen to your aunt. Tabitha will steer you wrong. She’d love nothing more than to see my daughter married to a baron while her own daughter married well.”
“She knows it won’t happen unless she manipulates the situation,” Esther’s mother put in. “Eugenia could never capture the attention of a gentleman who had any other options.”
Esther frowned. Though she knew her cousin was awkward and not particularly engaging or charming, she had always liked Eugenia. They were the same age, and they had been friends throughout their childhood. Aunt Tabitha was scheming and conniving, just like Esther’s own parents, but Eugenia had always been kindhearted. Esther didn’t like to hear her parents speak ill of her.
“I’m sure Eugenia will have a successful Season,” she said, hoping to stop her parents from speaking so negatively.
“As long as her successful Season doesn’t get in the way of your successful Season, I don’t care,” her father said. “The important thing, Esther, is that you make an advantageous match. It’s time you did your part for this family.”
“I will,” Esther said.
“Remember, it’s your little sister who is really counting on you,” her mother said. “Caroline needs you to be successful.”
Esther understood that her mother was playing on her sympathies. Her younger sister was only ten years old, and Esther doted on her. Her concern for the Earldom and for her parents was real, of course, but her concern for Caroline’s future was much more powerful.
“That's right,” her father agreed. “We’re using the last of our money to finance your attendance at balls and parties this Season, to pay for your gowns and position you to find yourself a husband. When Caroline comes of age, we may not have the money we need to give her the same opportunities—unless something changes.”
Esther felt her resolve solidify. Now she truly understood what was at stake. If she married well, doors would open for Caroline’s future. But if she failed, Caroline might never have a Season of her own. She might never marry. She would become an old maid, with no prospects.
I can’t allow that to happen to her.
“Don’t worry,” she told her parents firmly. “I’ll be successful. I’ll bring home the most eligible man of the Season, you’ll see. Caroline will have all she needs.”
By the time Esther returned to her room after dinner, it was just as she had foreseen—all of her things had been packed away. Her lady’s maid, Amelia, was just putting the finishing touches on her trunk.
“Thank you, Amelia,” Esther murmured, moving past the maid to sit on the bed. She gazed out the window at the grounds of her father’s manor, wondering how it would feel to be away from here for an entire Season. It would be the longest she had ever been away from home.
At least I’ll be out from under my parents’ thumbs!
She couldn’t deny that she was looking forward to that part. It would be incredibly pleasant to be away from them, to not have to worry about living up to their nearly impossible standards all the time. And though she would be focused on bringing home a gentleman who would please them, of course, she wouldn’t have them looking over her shoulder the entire time. She would be able to make her own decisions and trust her own judgment.
Amelia closed the trunk and brushed her hands off on her skirt as she stood upright. “May I fetch you a cup of tea before bed, My Lady?” she asked. “It’s very important that you’re well-rested tonight. Tomorrow is a big day.”
“It isn’t that big a day,” Esther said. “We’re only traveling tomorrow. We’re going to Harcourt Manor, and we’ll be seeing Aunt Tabitha and Eugenia. But it’s not as if there’s a ball or a social event tomorrow. I don’t need to be at my best.”
“You may find yourself thinking otherwise when tomorrow comes,” Amelia counseled. “You’ll want to be alert and aware of your surroundings.”
Esther laughed. “Amelia, you act as if I was going to war instead of to my first Season!”
“Not war,” Amelia said. “But a young lady’s first Season can be just as life-altering.”
Esther shook her head indulgently. Amelia was only a maid. She had always had plenty of wisdom to share with Esther, and in general, Esther took her seriously. But this was a little too much to give credit to.
“Nothing will change for me,” she said firmly. “Not until I meet the Season’s eligible gentlemen at my first ball. And perhaps not even then.”
“You don’t think so?” Amelia asked.
“I think I’m clever enough to engage the interest of a gentleman without losing myself in the process,” Esther said. “You don’t need to worry about me remaining alert and aware, Amelia. I already know what my goals are for this Season.”
Amelia sighed. “I was afraid of that,” she said. “Your parents told you to find a rich husband, didn’t they?”
“Naturally,” Esther said. “That’s what everyone will be doing. That’s what these events are for—so that gentlemen can find ladies they admire, and ladies can make advantageous matches.”
“And what of love?" Amelia asked.
“Love?” Esther blinked. “What about it?”
“This is your first Season, My Lady,” Amelia said. “You’re still so young. Before you settle into a marriage for financial or social advantage, don’t you think you ought to give yourself the opportunity to find love?”
Esther laughed indulgently and shook her head. “That isn’t the point of any of this, Amelia," she said. “This isn’t some romantic tale, and I’m not the kind of young lady to be swept off her feet by a good-looking gentleman. I’m going into this Season with a purpose in mind, and it’s a purpose I intend to achieve.”
“Don’t you worry, though, that you might be missing out?” Amelia asked. “To marry without ever knowing love…it sounds like a terrible tragedy.”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Amelia,” Esther said. “Come, help me dress for bed.”
She went and stood in front of her looking glass. Amelia moved to stand behind her and began to unlace her gown.
“You’ve never experienced love, My Lady,” Amelia said as she worked. “How can you be so certain that it isn’t something you want in your life?”
“My priority is to provide for my sister’s future,” Esther said. "It's really that simple.”
“But Lady Caroline is only ten years of age,” Amelia pointed out. “Surely there is time. You could take this Season and explore your own desires. You could allow yourself to be courted by any gentleman who catches your interest.”
Esther laughed. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “You're thinking that because I’ll be under the care of Aunt Tabitha instead of my parents, I’ll be free to be courted by gentlemen of whom Mother and Father wouldn’t approve.”
“I'll admit the thought crossed my mind,” Amelia said. “Suppose you take a fancy to a gentleman who doesn’t hold a title that would please your parents—a viscount, perhaps. Suppose he’s handsome to look at, clever, and charming. Shouldn’t you have the opportunity to get to know him better?”
“But why?” Esther asked. “To what end? I could never marry such a gentleman. My aunt may be my guardian for the Season, but my father will have to approve of any gentleman who seeks my hand in marriage. And you know as well as I that he’ll never approve of a mere viscount.”
“I just worry for you, My Lady,” Amelia said, lifting Esther’s gown off and setting it carefully on the bed to be hung up. She helped Esther into her nightgown and began to tie it. “I don’t want you to go to your grave never having known love.”
“Oh, Amelia,” Esther groaned. “I know you mean well, but truly, I can’t believe the things you say sometimes. You must think I’m a simpleton.”
“Love isn’t for simpletons, My Lady. It’s for everyone.”
Esther shook her head. “You know how much I value your advice,” she said. “But you’re a commoner, and the fact of the matter is that there are things you simply can’t understand.”
“And you believe love is one of those things?” Amelia asked calmly.
“Not love,” Esther said. “But the responsibility a young lady like myself has to her family. For someone like me, marriage isn’t a matter of having your heart stolen by a good-looking gentleman. It’s about making moves to position your family well in society.”
“Your parents really do have you believing this, don’t they?” Amelia asked. “That the only thing you should be concerning yourself with is your responsibility to the family.”
“Caroline needs me,” Esther said firmly.
“And what of your parents’ responsibility to you, My Lady?” Amelia asked. “Forgive me for speaking boldly—”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” Esther assured her. “Haven’t I always told you that I welcome your counsel, Amelia? Haven’t I always encouraged you to be forthright with me? We may not agree, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish to hear what you have to say.”
Amelia nodded. “Then I hope you won’t be angry when I say that your parents are laying at your doorstep responsibilities that should be theirs,” she said. “They were incautious with money, and now they expect you to marry for wealth to salvage their losses. They’ve convinced you that you owe them that. But you don’t. You should have the freedom to marry whomever you choose.”
Esther sighed. “I appreciate how much you worry, Amelia,” she said. “Truly, I do. But what you need to understand is that I want to help my parents. I want to help my family. And I want to make sure Caroline is provided for.”
“And what about the things you’ll be giving up to do it?” Amelia asked.
“I won’t be giving anything up,” Esther said. “This is what everyone will be doing, Amelia. Everyone who attends this Season’s events will be doing their best to make the most advantageous matches they can. The ladies will be seeking the gentlemen who have the titles, lands, and money they desire, and the gentlemen will be looking for the most beautiful ladies. You act as if I’m the only one going in with these aims. But it's not just me. It’s everyone!”
“You don’t think anyone will be looking for love instead of advantage?” Amelia asked.
“What I think is that you've been reading too many tales of romance,” Esther said kindly. “They’ve given you an idea of courtship and marriage that doesn’t match reality.”
“You seem very certain,” Amelia said mildly.
“Well, I’ve been preparing all my life for this,” Esther pointed out. “I’ve always known that when I came of age and it was time for me to marry, this was the way it would be.”
Amelia nodded. “Very well," she said. "I've said what I had to say, and I won’t trouble you further with my thoughts on the matter.”
“You haven’t troubled me at all,” Esther assured her. “I'm always happy to know what you have to say, Amelia. You know that. Your counsel is very valuable to me. My father hired you to be a servant, but you’re the closest thing I have to an elder sister.”
Amelia smiled. “And yet we mustn’t forget, My Lady, that I do serve you. And while I’m grateful that you permit me to speak my mind, eventually our discussions must come to an end and you must do what you feel is right.”
“You have nothing to worry about, Amelia,” Esther said. “Not when it comes to my well-being this Season. I’m more than prepared to do what needs to be done, and I'm sure I’ll be able to do so with no regrets.”
“As you say, My Lady,” Amelia said affably. “Now, about that cup of tea?”
“No, thank you,” Esther said. “I’m already very tired, actually, and I’m sure I’ll have no trouble falling asleep. I only wish that Caroline had been at dinner tonight. I’ll miss her dearly while I’m away.”
“I'm sure she’ll come down to see you off tomorrow,” Amelia said. “She and her governess ate in the nursery tonight, by your mother's instruction.”
Amelia made no further comment, but Esther could see by the expression on her maid’s face what she thought of the fact that Caroline had been kept away from the dinner table on Esther’s final night at home.
Though she agreed with Amelia’s opinion in her heart, she felt a need to defend her parents. “I’m sure they didn’t want Caroline at the table while they discussed financial matters,” she said. “That’s no topic of conversation for such a young lady as my sister.”
“Indeed,” Amelia said. “There are those who might say it’s not an appropriate matter to discuss with one’s daughters at all. But I suppose that’s a matter of opinion.”
“That’s enough, Amelia,” Esther chided. “My parents are doing the best they can.”
Amelia nodded. “Yes, My Lady.”
“All the new gowns are packed?”
“Packed and ready to go.” Amelia smiled, the first genuine smile Esther had seen from her this evening. “They truly are lovely. You’ll turn heads in them. You’re going to make quite an impression on the gentlemen of the ton this Season. I believe you'll have your pick of them.”
“I hope that’s true,” Esther said. “It would certainly make my job easier.”
“I just hope you find happiness with whomever you choose,” Amelia said. “And I hope he treats you as well as you deserve.”
“Thank you, Amelia,” Esther said gratefully. “I’m very glad you’ll be coming to Harcourt Manor with me. It will be good to have someone I can trust at my side.”
Her maid bid her good evening and took her leave. Esther went to the window and gazed out, wondering again what it would be like to spend the next several months away from her parents.
I doubt I’ll find love. Amelia’s ideas are far too fanciful.
But she was sure that, if nothing else, she would find adventure.
The days ahead were sure to be unlike anything she had ever experienced before.
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