About the book
He made her a crown of stolen moments and rested it on her head with a kiss...
Beatrix Risewell, daughter of a renowned outlaw, is in a bind.
When her father’s men steal from the wrong nobleman, Beatrix finds herself negotiating her freedom with the most unusual Marquess. And she’s the bargaining chip.
Callum Ahern, Marquess of Bellton, is burdened with precious cargo: his late mother’s wedding diadem. Assaulted by a band of thieves, his only hope of reclaiming it comes in the form of an unexpected hostage: the beautiful daughter of the outlaw that ambushed him.
Trapped between social rules and their burgeoning feelings for each other, Beatrix and Callum must overcome not only a brush with death but also their past.
The red thread of fate connects them all, and when Beatrix’s father comes out of hiding to save her, he holds the spinning wheel: a twenty-year-old secret, from the night Beatrix was born…
A bitterly cold wind howled its way through the village, banging against any loose shutters and knocking at the entryways. Now and then, an unbarred door flew open, only to be slammed shut by a frigid occupant inside. Though only a few hours past midday, the dark roll of clouds overhead belied the appearance of the coming dusk. Days of pelting rain had dampened both structures and spirits alike, and a thick paste of mud and slosh floated above the cart trails and footpaths.
Huddled in the vestibule of the darkened blacksmith shop, one bedraggled man waited. He stomped his feet to keep the blood moving in them as he clutched firmly at the cloak fastened beneath his chin. The hood provided only the barest defense against the cold and wind, but its true purpose was served.
It concealed his identity from anyone who might chance to look his way.
Looking down at his disguise, the man sneered at the cheap cut of the blouse and overcoat, the faint smell of camphor and body stench in the threadbare cloth. He somehow managed to ignore the urge to retch in disgust at the thought it was touching his skin. These were the only garments he could procure at such short notice, and though they would serve their purpose, he longed for a lengthy scalding in a soapy tub to rid him of their filth when this was over.
A sudden movement of black against the gray outdoors caught the man’s eye. He looked out, but spotted no one. A few moments later, he imagined he saw another movement, but he couldn’t be sure this time either. The man began to grow anxious, certain that someone was nearby and having their fun with him. He kept his eyes fixed on the area in front of the shop, intent on not being taken by surprise.
He nearly screamed when a hand clapped his shoulder from behind. Whirling around, he scowled at the other man’s confident expression.
“Didn’t think I’d show, did ya?” the second man asked, taking in the sight of the other man’s haggard appearance. “And what’s all this ya wearing? You look like something a fish might have spit upon the shore! Fairly well smell like it, too.”
“Never you mind my appearance!” the man barked. “You’re late!”
“Eh, you’ll find that timepieces don’t mean much in my world, not unless I’m lifting them off a dainty and selling ‘em for a good price.” The newcomer shrugged as though that explained all. “Now what’s this business of yours that’s got you asking around for Prince Aaron?”
“Ah, a prince, is it?”
Aaron only shrugged again, smiling broadly, before saying, “I figures ‘tis the closest I’ll ever get to court unless I’m being read me charges before they hang me. There’s no harm in laying claim to a title of me own! ‘Sides, I’m truly a prince in the circles I travel in, ‘tis why you sought me out. What’s this work you’ve got for me?”
The man looked about again to be sure no one was near, then reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a small purse of coins.
“I need someone to disappear,” he explained, holding the purse just out of reach.
“If this person is you, then ‘tis done!” the rogue joked, eyeing the purse and already judging the weight of its contents.
“Don’t be ridiculous! Of course I don’t mean myself!” The man took a deep breath to steady his nerves, then said, “I sought you out because you are rumored to be the best. You charge a hefty price, to be sure, but there will be no mistakes, no missteps. And most of all, no connection to myself.”
“Aye, all of that’s true,” Aaron said with a confident nod.
“And I take it you have no qualms about carrying out the most heinous of deeds? One that would turn the stomach of any man with the merest sense of morality?”
“Morals is only somethin’ you can afford if you’re monied,” Aaron replied as casually as if discussing the price of soup bones. “The rest of us? We’d slit our own mothers’ throats if it meant we go to bed with a full belly. What is this heinous crime?”
The man seemed to pause, weighing his words as though he might back out. For a moment, he seemed to wrestle with his cause.
“Good sir,” Aaron assured him, “yer payin’ me that purse there for me trouble, whether ya hire me or not. You might as well tell me the task so I can get on with it and earn the rest of my pay.”
“You’re right,” the man said. “I need you to abscond with someone.”
“Sorry? Abscond? Yer gonna have to speak more plain than that, I fear.”
“Kidnap. Run away with. Remove. Understand?” The man glowered at Aaron, still darting his eyes this way and that to ensure they were not overheard. Another fierce howl of the wind assured him that no one would venture near them without cause.
“Ah, ya want me to get rid of yer wife’s lover then, eh? Is that it? Some fool has made you a cuckold and ya want him gone!” Aaron laughed heartily at the notion, his thick black hair falling in his eyes as he looked at this simpering man who so obviously detested both Aaron and his actions.
“No! And if you half knew the entire story, you’d shut up your trap and do this task without compensation!” the man roared, ignoring his own fears about detection.
Aaron stopped cold. It was his turn to glare at this stranger, the man who was so obviously frightened of being found out. For a moment, it seemed as though Aaron might turn on his heel and reject the proposal, but then again, the other man seemed just as likely to turn tail and run. Quietly, the rogue nodded and thought through what must be done.
“What makes this ‘removal’ so detestable in your eyes then?” he asked.
“I cannot say. But you will understand when you complete the task.”
“Ya know, I was only making jest about slitting our mothers’ throats! There’s things even I will naw do for money!” Aaron hissed.
“If you knew the full of it, you’d beg me to let you do this. That is all I can assure you. But it is of utmost importance that this be done. Lives may well depend on it,” the man assured him, but Aaron was already shaking his head.
“So I’m to steal something, but I know not what—”
“Precisely,” the man interrupted.
“What do I do, grab the first thing my eyes light upon, toss it in a sack, and fling it in the river? Is that what yer after?” Aaron needed to hear the man confirm the darkest of requests.
“I don’t care how you get rid of it, just so long as you do. Again, it is vitally important that you do this. You cannot possibly understand how grave the situation.” The man looked him in the eye, imploring him to understand.
“You may be the darkest of any scoundrel I’ve ever come across!”
“I assure you, that is not the case. That is so far from it that I take full offense at the accusation!” the man said, but there was nothing haughty in his tone now. His anger put aside, there was even the faintest glimmer of shine to his eyes, as though tears may spill forth at any moment.
“What’s so important then? Tell me plain, or I walk away with yer coins there, and may chance leave you with a blackened eye just for fun.”
“I cannot tell you all without putting myself in the way,” the man said, sighing sadly. “Only please trust that this payment was only for getting you to meet me here. I’ll pay it again four times over should you follow through.”
He held out the small cloth bag and let it fall into Aaron’s outstretched hand. At first, Aaron was taken aback by the weight of it. This payment alone was surely more than he could steal in a year’s time. But then his eyes happened to affix on the purse itself, its fine cloth and excellent stitching, the small tassels at the ends of its silk cord that tied it shut.
This was no poor man’s purse.
Aaron narrowed his eyes. “Ya might pass for a common idiot in this getup yer wearin’, but you don’t have me fooled. What’s yer true name then?”
“I cannot divulge that,” the man said, growing fearful now that his disguise had been uncovered. “But I can promise you payment in full the moment the job is complete. Here. This is the name and the place. Can you do this or not?”
Aaron took the folded paper and opened it, scanning the words written in a very fine hand. “Tis lucky for you I can e’en read this, ya know. You took a real chance hiring an outlaw and expecting him to read.”
The man sighed impatiently while his criminal contact perused the paper, weighing his decision with the same gusto as he weighed the many gold coins in his hand. Aaron pushed down the rising nausea and finally nodded.
“Yeah, I can do it. Tell me the particulars.”
Twenty One Years Later…
Callum paced outside the door to his mother’s chambers, staring at his own reflection in the dark polished marble floor as he walked. The hard surface altered his reflection, expanding his tall frame until it stretched out before him. His brown eyes shifted grotesquely in his face with every movement, although his golden-red hair was plainly visible.
The bottom of his boot appeared to blot out his own distorted face with every step, and it seemed fitting. He wanted no one to see his misery, to try to console him now. He knew too well what others would say: at least the disease has taken her quickly, at least you’re already a man of property and title and not some lost little boy, at least she died in the comfort of her family home and not in some far-flung colony of your father’s.
None of that mattered to Callum. Their words—and he’d already been subjected to them—were hollow attempts at easing his pain. In truth, there was nothing about his mother’s passing that would do anything other than rip through his heart and leave him to bleed out.
Despite the hushed tones and the whispered conversations, Callum knew that his mother’s time was short. He’d watched the disease take hold and seen the treatments leave her weak and thin. No matter how his concern grew, though, she had always brightened at the sight of him.
“My dearest boy!” she’d always say when he came to take his meals at her bedside, often dragging a second chair over for his adoring father. “Whatever have I done to have such a wonderful family?”
Now that he had come into his own title and lands, Callum Ahern, Marquess of Bellton, had moved back into the Duke and Duchess of Tarnton’s estate to be with his mother, Lady Jane Ahern. His own property would wait for him for as long as he wished, but he knew these days were to be her last.
Callum stopped his pacing when he heard the latch of the door. He looked at the physician’s grim face and hurried close.
“Anything?” Callum asked, knowing the answer even before the physician shook his head.
“As usual, there is nothing more I can do,” he replied in a weary voice. Callum noted the dark circles beneath the man’s eyes from where he’d stayed so late and arrived again so early this morning. “It is only a matter of time now, I’m afraid.”
“I see,” Callum said, the breath going out of him once again. “But is there anything you can do for her suffering?”
“She won’t hear of it! I’ve all but begged, but Her Grace insists upon being of clear mind until… until the end. She refuses all medicines that might ease her pain but put her in a state of near unconsciousness.” The physician looked at Callum earnestly and said, “Perhaps she’ll take your advice on the matter? I can ease the pain with a very simple, very common treatment, but perhaps she’ll listen if you ask it of her?”
“I’ll try my best, but my mother is known throughout the countryside for her stubbornness,” Callum said lightly, attempting humor to mask his deep grief. “If you may, leave the bottle with her lady’s maid and I’ll implore my mother once again.”
He shook the physician’s hand and waited until the older man’s footsteps had stopped echoing through the hallway. Callum breathed deeply and attempted a smile, then pushed open his mother’s door.
As he entered, his mother’s maid looked up and moved away from the bedside, but not before brushing fresh tears from her eyes and dabbing at her nose with a handkerchief. Callum understood the sentiment all too well. He, too, had wanted nothing more than to succumb to the anguish that his mother’s illness had brought on them all.
“My dearest boy!” Jane managed to whisper as she slowly turned her head towards him. Even that motion pained her, and she gritted her teeth to keep from crying out. “You’ve come to visit me again!”
“Of course, Mother. I thought we might play at some cards today, unless you’d rather hear all the news of the ton,” Callum said brightly, walking over to the window and lifting a small gaming table he’d had brought up. “How about piquet?”
“No, the rules are too complex for my tired mind, I’m afraid,” his mother slowly replied. “I should think just talking to me would do.”
“Certainly!” Callum answered with a false exuberance before settling himself in the chair and looking at her. “First, I’ve only this morning learned of an upcoming marriage. You’ll never guess who it might be.”
While his mother struggled to think of a name, Callum continued to grin, feeling every bit the fool. How could he smile and talk of such things like a dolt, things he’d never cared a whit for himself, when his mother was so pained? Simply knowing that it took her mind elsewhere for a brief while was good enough to spur him on, though.
For the next hour, Callum regaled his mother with all the gossip he could find, and some which he himself had concocted just for her. What harm would it bring if the woman went to her grave believing a few sordid tales that hadn’t been truthful? If it gave her any relief, he would smear his own name!
Finally, the Duchess lifted her hand for him to stop. “My son, there is an important matter to discuss…”
“No, Mother. No important matters today! That’s for financiers and solicitors to worry about. You and I shall only discuss frivolous things that make us both laugh!” Callum joked, pretending to evade her words.
“No, my boy. This is too grave a matter to leave to others.” She smiled though, and Callum noted how her eyes were still bright, still seemingly full of mischief, even in her state.
“All right, Mother. What is it?” he asked, breathing deeply to calm the sad tremor his voice.
“Your future,” she whispered back, closing her eyes briefly and trying to recover an ounce of strength. “You are not married…”
“Oh dear! I’m not? Then who’s that woman who shares my bed and has already borne me four children?” he teased, but Jane shook her head slightly. When he saw how it hurt her, Callum grew serious. “I’m sorry, I’m only teasing you. But yes, you’re quite right. I have not yet married.”
“I know I will not be here to see that day, but I want you to seek a bride. You deserve every happiness, and…” His mother paused as a desperately weak cough escaped from her lips, then said, “…and you will make a fine husband for any lady.”
“Mother, I know these things,” Callum said softly. “I’ve only come into my own property last year, and already the matrons of the ton are shoving daughters and nieces in my direction. One hapless young lady was literally shoved so that she might fall in front of me!”
Jane smiled thinly. “You jest again.”
“I swear, I do not! The poor girl fell to the ground, but I was so surprised I jumped back a pace. Fortunately, Sir William jumped in to help her to her feet before I could recover myself, but alas, now they’re to be married next month.”
“Son, don’t make me waste the breaths I have left chastising you for lying!” Jane managed to say.
“Yes, Mother,” Callum said, trying to look ashamed of himself but failing. He sighed, then said, “But I know that your heart’s desire is to know that I am happily wed. I give you my solemn vow—not with a laugh or a jest, but with my most sincere heart—that I will find a wife when the time comes, and we shall name our first child after you. Even if it’s a boy! No, don’t look at me like that, I’m not playing now. All right, fine, we’ll change his name to James.”
The Duchess smiled at her son, and Callum took her hand as he leaned forward in earnest.
“Mother, I must offer you a deal. If I’m to give up my carefree ways and shackle myself to a wife at your request, you must give me something in the bargain,” he said, the tears beginning to fall as he turned serious. “Please let Dr. Preston give you something for your pain.”
Lady Jane closed her eyes and frowned, unable to argue. She opened them again and attempted a look of firm disapproval, but Callum pressed on.
“I know you are only refusing so that you can be lucid until the end,” he whispered, “but Mother, it’s time. You need not suffer on our account. You did not raise me to be so selfish as to think only of myself, to keep you in pain so that I might speak to you and laugh with you a while longer. Think of it as yet another gift to me, heaped on all that you’ve ever given me… please don’t remain in this agony on my account, or Father’s.”
His mother leaned back against the pillows even further, then nodded slowly. The relief from acknowledging the pain and accepting whatever relief the physician might provide was visible on her face. Callum squeezed both of her hands gently in his own and smiled.
“I promise you, I will do as you ask. I will seek a wife and marry before the next year is out. I only grieve that you will not be with us when that day comes, but you have my every assurance that it will be so.”
Jane opened her eyes and pointed to a gold inlaid bureau across the room. “Bring me the case,” she said.
Callum looked to where her thin hand gestured, then crossed the room to retrieve his mother’s jewelry chest. The opaline and gold case was heavy, but he lifted it and brought it to the chair where he’d sat. Kneeling at her bedside, he looked to her curiously before opening the case.
“All of these will belong to your wife. I know they will be nothing compared to her beauty, but she will adorn herself with them whenever you venture out, when you entertain together. But this piece…”
Jane pointed to the lowest drawer and Callum slowly opened it to reveal only one item. It looked like a simple tiara of sorts, something a child might wear while pretending to play at being a princess or fair maiden. It was certainly by far not as opulent as the other pieces she possessed, ones with diamonds and emeralds and rubies. He lifted it out and held it up, smiling at the simplicity of the twisting vines of silver adorned all over its face with small white pearls. Tiny leaves of silver were merely dotted here and there with flakes of gold, looking very much like drops of sunshine on the surface.
“I wore this on my wedding day,” she breathed. “I know you can offer your bride so much more than this, but it would honor my love for your father and my love for you if she might wear it, too.”
Callum brushed at his torrent of tears with his sleeve. “Of course, Mother. I will insist upon it, but rest assured that any woman I marry would be grateful to wear something that means so much to us.”
He turned the headpiece over in his hands, marveling at its understated elegance and trying to reconcile his mother’s choice of ornament. How did it come about that the Duke of Tarnton might marry the daughter of another member of the peerage while she wore something so seemingly ordinary?
As though reading his thoughts, Jane answered his unspoken question. “It was a gift from the person who meant the most to me in the world, my dear governess who’d raised me when my own mother did not survive my birth. More than just my teacher, she had put aside some money for several years to buy it, knowing that someday I would be married and she would no longer have a position in the household. It meant more to me than any jewel in the world because it was given out of selfless love from someone I deeply admired.”
Callum smiled at the image of his mother on her wedding day, dressed finely and marrying well, but still paying homage to one who’d been so important to her. It was exactly the kind of gesture his mother was known for.
“I shall treasure this above all else, Mother, because it mattered to you,” Callum said softly, replacing it in its drawer.
“No, you must take it now. I don’t want anything to happen to it when I’m gone, and there may be those who don’t recognize its value. It could get lost, or discarded for being worth so little,” she explained.
“I will, Mother. I will keep it safe until the day it enhances my own bride’s beauty.” Callum lifted the back of his mother’s hand to his lips and kissed her. “Thank you for such a special gift, you who have already given me everything. It means the world to me.”
“You’re most welcome,” Jane whispered, wholly drained from their conversation. “Callum… son… I believe I’m ready for that medicine now…”
“Father! What are you up to?” Beatrix cried out as she entered the room with more linens. Her father, only recently injured and still recovering, was leaning against a rough wooden chair and using it as a crutch, attempting to reach for his trousers on their peg.
“Be gone, girl!” her father joked. “You’re not supposed to see me like this!”
“What, in your night gown? I dare say, it looks mostly like every other person’s gown. ‘Tis no different!” she said, laughing and coming over to help her old father back to bed.
“No, I meant lookin’ like an invalid. I can’t be seen like this, shaking worse than a half-drowned kitten who’s been plucked outta the well.” He scowled, but then smiled adoringly when he caught sight of his daughter’s worried expression. “Ah, darling girl. You’re too good to yer old da. You shoulda put me out in the street long ago and left me for a beggar.”
“Father, I won’t hear this talk again,” she said, letting him use her shoulder for leverage as he fell back against the straw tick mattress. “You’ve outlived a good number of men by plenty of years, to be sure, but you’re not in your grave just yet! And your leg will never heal right if you don’t stay off of it!”
“And you know this how, Dr. Beatrix?” he teased, a look of blessed relief on his face from easing the strain on his wound.
“That’s right, you and the boys should refer to me by my proper title after all the stitching and mending I’ve done on you lot!” Beatrix laughed again, her bright green eyes as merry as her ringing laughter. “I’ve sewed more people than garments all these years!”
“And not a one of us has been given to the grave thanks to your tending,” her father acknowledged. “But my girl, they’re coming here this day to plan our next hunt.”
“Father, you cannot be serious,” she answered, a look of horror on her face. “You’re not well! You haven’t recovered from the last hunt, and that one involved a lead ball to your leg!”
“Aye, I’m just lucky the idiot was as bad a shot as he was a bad coach driver!” her father said, laughing. “I’m sure he was aimin’ for me head! But dear girl, there’s no gang of outlaws feared as much as we, and there’s no Prince Aaron’s gang without a Prince Aaron presiding over it. It will take nothin’ for one of the men to smell my old age and weakness and seek to take my place. Then where will we be?”
Beatrix pulled over the chair her father had leaned on then sat facing him. Her tone was severe but kind as she answered. “Would it truly be so horrible as to not be Prince Aaron any longer? To simply be Mr. Riswell, loving father of Beatrix Riswell, widowed man about the village?”
Aaron looked at his daughter, taking in her earnest expression. He brushed back a strand of unruly brown hair and smiled. “It wouldn’t be ‘bad’ at all. ‘Twould be me worst nightmare!”
“Why, Father? I know your heart and I know the minds of these men. They could carry on your legacy and we could simply take to the countryside, living our days in relative comfort without the threat of the gallows constantly hanging over our heads. You’ve got enough money, have you not? Years of punishing those who abuse and steal from the lowest among us has made you not a wealthy man, but certainly one of comfortable means. Is your reputation as a fearsome villain really so important that you’d continue risking your life?”
“You don’t understand, girl,” he said gently. “When your mother died, I promised myself you would never want for anything. I’m most proud that I managed to educate you, even while raising you with the scum we call a family. But if I stop now, where does that leave you?”
“First, these men are not scum. I never knew my mother, but I’ve had more devoted attention and adoration than any child borne of a nobleman! And, even as you say, the chance to learn when so many children of our station live their entire lives in the weakness brought on by ignorance! It is a gift more valuable than any coin or jewel you manage to take in the night.”
Beatrix looked out the window that overlooked their small village. She smiled as she saw people going about their business, but also felt a pang of regret when she realized that all of their daily chores were within the bounds of the law.
“More importantly, I have everything I could ever want. I have a roof over my head, knowledge in my brain, and a father who would move the river if I told him it was in my way. That is all I want in this world, Father!” she cried.
“My girl, you paint a lovely picture, and I’m grateful to you for it,” Aaron said. “But there’s more to this life we live than having wealth. My girl, before you came along, I was… I was not the man you know me to be. I was a selfish, bloodthirsty cad, the worst kind of criminal who ever—”
“Father! It’s not true, you mustn’t speak of yourself this way!” Beatrix interrupted, but Aaron held up a hand to stop her.
“You must let me finish, girl. Even if it pains you to hear it. I was a ruthless, cold-hearted thief, nothing more. I’ve done horrible things, all for a coin. I could be bought for a price and did vicious deeds as a result. But you changed me, you and your mother. Now, I still do the only thing I know, the only thing I’m good at. But it’s all in service of others, do you see?”
Beatrix was thoughtful, the visions of her father’s gang in her mind. They’d done awful things, to be sure, but there was also an underlying sense of honor to it all. Aaron and his men were quick to spend some of what they’d taken in, whether it be bread from the local baker or cloth for garments from the local spinning woman. The prey they sought was always carefully chosen, and now she understood why.
“I know, Father. You only take from those who have too much.”
“That, of course,” Aaron explained. “But also those who’ve wronged others. The landlord who mercilessly doubled the rent, the lender who sets terrible rates that no man can ever repay. Even the church if they close their doors to the poor, denying the widows a piece of bread and the orphans a pair of discarded shoes. Those are my ‘victims,’ and I’ll make them pay until I’ve drawn my last breath.”
“It’s your last breath that I’m worried about!” Beatrix said, wringing her hands. “Whatever you’ve done wrong in the past, you’ve more than done your penance! You’ve righted those wrongs and have earned your retirement. Can’t you see? Father, I cannot let myself think about the next time Abrahms and Pencot carry you through the door, bleeding as though you’ve been sent to slaughter. Worse, needing a skilled physician but having only me to save you.”
“Daughter, you do a fine job. You’ve helped all of us at one time or another, and we’re all indebted to you,” her father replied. “I do understand your sadness, though. I will promise you this much. I will complete one more hunt with the boys, then I will strongly consider what you ask.”
“Father, send me in your stead,” Beatrix said, surprising both of them. Her father’s scowl only spurred her on. “To be fair, I know more than most about these hunts, and if the mark is as you say, then sending a simple girl in dire need could be just the ruse that helps pull it off.”
Aaron was quiet, studying his daughter while pondering her suggestion. Yes, there was certainly some merit in having a young girl like herself be the decoy. Who could resist helping a maiden in distress, perhaps one whose horse has thrown a shoe or who’s had to walk a treacherous path in the dark? But Aaron couldn’t bring himself to think of the consequences; if any hunt went poorly or they were double-crossed and found out, it was the hangman’s noose for all of them. Even Beatrix would not be spared, should she be involved.
“I don’t like it,” he said firmly. “Let me see how this leg mends by tonight when the others come over.”
“And if it’s not better?” Beatrix prodded. “You’ll let me stand in your place?”
“May chance. We’ll see,” Aaron said darkly. “But only after I know you’re fully prepared.”
In a week’s time, Callum’s mother had breathed her last and been buried in the churchyard after a brief but tender ceremony. Many people—both from the ton and the surrounding village—had loved her vivacious spirit and generous nature, and as such had come to pay their respects.
The Duke of Tarnton was inconsolable at the death of his wife, even after having so much time to prepare for the loss. Callum spent as much time as he could by his father’s side, but supporting another through their grief took its toll on him. Within days, he decided it was time to return to his estate and see to his affairs.
“Are the horses ready, Barclay?” Callum asked his valet after breakfast the day a week had passed.
“Yes, sir. I sent the request to the stable myself. The footmen will ride with us, and your friend, the Viscount Peter Grain, has offered to ride with our party as far as Starrton, where he will veer off and visit his sister and her husband.”
“Very good, Barclay. Please inform the group that I’ll be ready to leave upon the hour,” Callum said, nodding at his manservant before finishing readying his traveling case.
Callum went to the desk in his quarters and retrieved his mother’s prized hairpiece. Struck once again by its simplicity, he smiled at the notion of his mother pinning it alongside her wedding veil, one of her lady’s maids or aunts attending to her that day.
He thought to pack it in his trunk, but at the last minute, he replaced it in the small wooden case lined with velvet and put the whole case in his traveling bag. Though it was of nearly no value to anyone else, he felt the need to keep it nearby and chose to put it in his own bag.
“Sir, your father would like a word with you before you go. Otherwise, we’re prepared to leave whenever you choose,” Barclay said, reappearing in the doorway. Callum thanked him, then left to speak to his father before departing.
“Father, I’m off now,” Callum said, entering his father’s study and pausing near the older man’s writing desk.
His father looked up at him and smiled weakly. “Will you return soon?”
“Of course! I only need to see to some of my affairs. I’ll come back any time you ask.” Callum’s words caught in his throat, a sudden pain of emotion choking him. “Or perhaps you’d like to visit me closer to town? That would be enjoyable, would it not?”
“Certainly. I shall make plans straight away,” his father assured him. “Son, I… I thank you for spending these last few weeks here. It meant a great deal to your mother to see you for such a long time. And I, as well.”
“Think nothing of it, Father. It does me good to know that we both spent so much of her final days with her. I shall cherish the moments forever.”
“And did she bid you make a promise? Hmmm?” the old Duke asked, raising an eyebrow in question. “Something about marriage?”
Callum cleared his throat and looked away in embarrassment. “That she did. I was not aware you knew of the conversation, though.”
“Indeed. She confided in me first!” his father answered, laughing softly. “But she’s right. Your mother was always right, in everything. She had such a good head on her shoulders, and about this matter in particular. You need to find a wife. Death has a way of making its bystanders feel the passing of time, and I want to know that you are securely wed before I pass on myself.”
“Father, not you too!” Callum said urgently. “I assured Mother that I would seek out a bride, but I cannot endure the pressure from you as well. You have my word that it is now an important matter, but that is all I can promise today.”
“That is a very politic and appropriate response,” the Duke replied before embracing his son. “There is nothing more anyone could ask of you. Only I beg of you, don’t let me go to my grave before this task is complete.”
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