One Year Later
Eugenia glanced up, immediately searching for the notable in the room whom the footman had addressed. Shaking her head, smiling a little, remembering how long it took her to get used to be called ‘My Lady’. Now, some time past her wedding ceremony to Maximilian Fernside, the Duke of Bromenville, she now had to get used to being called ‘Your Grace’. “Yes?”
“His Grace, the Duke, has asked me to find out if you are ready for your riding lesson.”
She smiled. “Tell him I will be right down.”
The footman bowed and left the solar, where she sat with her personal maid, Deryn. After learning she was the long-lost daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Dentonshire and wore the title of ‘Lady’, Eugenia immediately took Deryn from service in the kitchen and elevated her to the position as her personal maid. Deryn had much to learn, but once she got over her terror of Maximilian, who tended to pop in and out of the lessons, she learned at a rapid pace.
Eugenia stood. “Now while I am gone, I want you to practice your writing. You are doing quite well, but you have been misspelling. Study the primer, all right?”
Deryn looked at her, most of her shyness from her kitchen days gone, with a smile. “Yes, My – er, Your Grace.”
“I am having trouble remembering it, too,” Eugenia said, laughing. “Do you want me to say hello to Mr. Oldman for you?”
Deryn ducked her head, blushing furiously. “You know about that?”
“About your secret meetings in the garden at night? Yes, I do. Do not worry, Deryn, he is a fine young man, and I fully approve of you seeing him. I will return in a few hours and will need you in my chambers to help me change from my riding lesson.”
“Be careful, Your Grace,” Deryn called as Eugenia walked toward the door. “Do not fall off like you did last time.”
Eugenia glanced over her shoulder, rolling her eyes. “Thanks.”
Making her way down the castle stairs toward the stables, Eugenia still had to get used to encountering servants who bowed or curtseyed to her. At first, when she began using the title of ‘Lady’, it went to her head. It was not that long ago when she had been the one to curtsey, then finding herself more highly born that she could imagine, she craved seeing the deference paid to her. Then she grew annoyed with it and wished the servants would cease. She now accepted it. She was the Duchess of Bromenville, and the staff would become both offended and surprised if they were not permitted to give her her due.
Maximilian awaited her in the stable yard where a groom was holding the reins of the horse for Eugenia’s lesson. He was an older, experienced hack, a gelding that Maximilian rode often and could be trusted not to buck, rear, or run away with her. The groom bowed as she approached and smiled at her. Maximilian, as always, gave her that special look, a cross between love and utter and absolute adoration she knew, and she returned in full.
“Are you sure you do not want to ride sidesaddle?” Maximilian asked. “Proper ladies do.”
“That is how I fell off, Max,” she replied. “Riding astride is safer and more comfortable.”
Maximilian glanced at the attending groom and bent to murmur in her ear. “I do want children, you know.”
“If you do not get them,” she whispered back, “it will not be because I straddled a horse.”
Unbelievably, Maximilian blushed to his hairline. Eugenia giggled as he harrumphed, trying to maintain decorum in front of the help. He coughed into his hand. “All right, then. Put your left foot into my hand. When I toss you up, throw your right leg over the saddle.”
Taking a deep breath to quell her case of nervousness, Eugenia took a long moment to gaze at the quiet gelding. He chewed on his bit and yawned, as though bored with the whole proceedings. Encouraged, she gathered her skirts in her hand. Deliberately wearing an oversized dress without petticoats, she hoped they would cover her legs while in the saddle. “I am ready.”
“Now put your right hand up on the pommel.”
It was a stretch, as the gelding was tall, but she managed it. Putting her foot in Maximilian’s hand, she held her breath as he lifted her into the saddle. Having been on the back of a horse a few times before under his tutelage, she still found being up so high strange. But she loved it. Patting the quiet horse on the neck, she said, “Now what?”
Maximilian helped her put her feet in the stirrups. “For now, Ian here will lead the horse while I instruct you. Sit up straight.”
She obeyed him, and discovered that when she did so, she fit nicely into the saddle. Ian began leading the horse in a wide circle while Maximilian called out instructions. “Move with him, feel how his legs move, watch straight ahead and not the ground, otherwise that is where you will land.”
“This is easy,” she called to him.
“The instant you think so, that is when you hit the ground,” Maximilian said. “Dismounting at a high rate of speed is not the point here. Relax your body, no, do not squeeze your legs, keep them straight and relaxed. Good. That is right.”
After about thirty minutes of Maximilian telling her how to sit, how to hold her shoulders – “Why are my shoulders important?” “Because proper shoulders keep you balanced. Balanced means staying in the saddle when your horse does the unexpected.” – Eugenia wanted to go faster.
“Can we try a trot?” she pleaded.
Maximilian shrugged and gestured to the groom. The man immediately began to run, and the gelding broke into a trot to keep up. Eugenia, feeling like she was tossed around like a sack, thumped up and down in the saddle. “Stop,” she shrieked then laughed “Oh, my.”
Now I know why men worry about women riding astride.
But she still was determined to stay out of that wretched sidesaddle. “I guess I need more practice before we trot,” she admitted.
“You are doing great,” Maximilian told her. “You have a natural sense of balance. But learning to ride takes time. Once you get the hang of it, we will move forward to other things like trotting.”
As they spoke, the Royal Mail coach drawn by its team of six trotted down the long drive. Eugenia sat atop the gelding, occasionally patting his neck and watching as Maximilian walked forward to meet it. The driver handed down a packet of letters to him, tipped his cap, then turned the team around. Walking slowly back toward her, Maximilian sorted through them. “There is a letter for you,” he said.
She reached down. “May I have it please?”
Maximilian frowned. “Not while on a horse, Eugenia. While you are riding, all your focus must be on your mount. While you are distracted, your horse knows it and can take advantage if it wants to.”
“You mean he will know when I am not thinking him or riding?” Eugenia felt astounded.
“Yes. I discovered that the hard way a time or two in my youth. Now, to dismount, put your weight in your left stirrup, swing your right leg over the cantle and slide down.”
As Eugenia slid down, her skirt slid up, much to her mortification. Maximilian shook his head and muttered something about a mounting block. Fortunately, the groom was on the far side of the horse and did not see her lengths of bare legs. Straightening her gown into proper folds, she took the letter Maximilian handed her.
“It is from the Reillys,” she exclaimed.
“The cook and butler in the Whitington residence,” she explained, opening the envelope. “They raised me as their own.”
Reading, she told Maximilian what was in the letter. “They send their felicitations on our wedding,” she said, “glad I turned out to be gently born and hope we can visit when we next come to London. Max, I do wish we could have them here.”
“And throw Mr. Simmons into the street?” he asked. “If I know people, they are happy where they are and uprooting them will not make them any less happy. It might have the opposite effect. We will be in London often enough, believe me. You can visit them anytime you wish.”
As the groom led the horse into the stable to be unsaddled and brushed, Maximilian grinned down at her. “Before we are forced to return to our guests, including your parents, I think this is a good time to give you my wedding present.”
Eugenia smiled up at him, puzzled. “But you gave me a wedding present. The diamond necklace belonging to your mother.”
“Ah, but that was my public present,” he said, grinning. “This is my private gift.”
“I had no idea there were such.”
“That is because you never married me before.”
Eugenia tried to wither him with a disparaging look but grew too excited about a present to do so. “Where is it? In your pocket?”
His coat and trouser pockets did not bulge, so she wondered if perhaps it was small. A ring perhaps? She adored rings, now that she had one – her wedding ring – and craved more. As she had been raised a servant, she was still adjusting to the fact that she had wealth and could buy whatever she wanted. He grinned at her as he watched her inspect him, waiting for him to reveal her second wedding gift.
Finally, she put her hands on her hips. “Stop teasing me,” she ordered.
Maximilian whistled sharply. Confused, Eugenia continued to gaze at him until movement from the stable caught her attention. Fergus led a tall bay horse with flashy stockings and a narrow blaze toward them. Eugenia recognized the horse immediately – the bay colt she fell in love with when she first arrived on the Bromenville estate with the Whitingtons. Back then, he was a gangly infant with ears too big and long legs. Now he was a handsome yearling and beginning to round out into the adult he would soon become.
“No,” she gasped, disbelieving. “Max. Is he –”
“Yours,” Maximilian replied, still grinning. “Yes, he is.”
Fergus led the colt up to her, bowing, and grinned almost as wide as Maximilian. Eugenia rubbed the colt’s nose and face, delighted at how he lipped her hand gazing at her with bright liquid eyes. “The lad remembers you, Your Grace,” Fergus said. “No doubt bonded with you during all the times you came to play with him.”
“You think so?”
“I do indeed. Horses remember everything.”
Maximilian stepped up behind her. “Now, you will not be able to ride him for a few years,” he said. “He has to finish growing, then complete his training. Meanwhile, if you work hard at learning to ride, you will be ready when he is.”
“Oh, Max, thank you,” Eugenia exclaimed, overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude. “I will work hard, I promise.”
As Maximilian gestured for Fergus to return the colt to his stall, he said, “Now we need to get cleaned up. Your parents and the Whitingtons are expecting us in the drawing room for sherry.”
Walking back to the castle, Eugenia daydreamed of riding her very own horse, and speculated on names. “What should I call him?”
“That is up to you, angel,” Maximilian replied. “He is yours now.”
“I have never named something before.”
“I am certain the right name will come to you. Give it time.”
Entering the castle, Durwin Oldman intercepted them. Given his previous loyal duties as Eugenia’s bodyguard, Maximilian had elevated his position to that of Nigel Curry’s assistant. As Nigel often spoke of retiring from service, Maximilian had decided that Durwin, as Eugenia now called him, would replace Nigel as his steward. Durwin’s normally neutral expression, given his military background, was now pensive, upset. He bowed low to them and waited to be addressed.
“What is wrong?” Eugenia asked, worried. For Durwin to be upset meant bad news indeed.
“Your Graces,” he said. “A courier arrived from London a short while ago. The news he brought – may upset you.”
“What is it?” Maximilian asked, shooting Eugenia a concerned glance, his brows lowered. “Speak, Durwin, we do not kill the messengers around here.”
Durwin took a deep breath. “It seems your stepmother, the Dowager Duchess has died, Your Grace. As did your brother, Lord Wilmot.”
Eugenia’s breath caught and her heart was beating hard. Maximilian’s face had grown pale, and his lips thinned. His deep-sea blue eyes narrowed as they stared at Durwin, and Eugenia noticed his fists clench. “How?” Maximilian asked, his voice calmer than she expected. “Did the courier say?”
“Yes. It appears the Duchess languished in gaol and died of melancholy. That is not entirely unknown to happen to prisoners. Lord Wilmot somehow got his hands on a small knife and opened his veins shortly after his mother passed.”
Maximilian sucked in a long breath. “She controlled every aspect of his life,” he said softly. “He could not live without her.”
“Max,” Eugenia said, wishing she could take him into her arms. “I am so sorry.”
“I am, too,” he said. “She raised him to believe that it was his duty to be loyal to his widowed mother. Wilmot had so much potential if she had just let him be himself.”
After thanking Durwin, Eugenia and Maximilian went to their respective apartments to change. Deryn was already inside and ready to assist her. Eugenia smiled as she thought of the romance blossoming between Durwin and Deryn and knew Maximilian would certainly approve of the match if they wanted to marry.
“Mr. Oldman will go far in Maximilian’s service,” she said. “He is a fine catch.”
Deryn blushed. “I am already in love with him, My – Your Grace.”
Laughing, Eugenia gave the girl a quick hug, then headed down to the drawing room. She found Maximilian already there, talking with her father, the Duke of Dentonshire, and the Earl of Whitington. Her mother, Beatrice, sat with the Countess Whitington and Lady Helena. As the Earl bowed to her, smiling, and the Whitington ladies rose to curtsey, Eugenia once again found the entire scene awkward. A little less than a year ago, she curtseyed to them.
“Mother,” Eugenia said, sitting beside the Duchess. “Guess what? Maximilian gave me a horse as a wedding gift. He gave me that colt I told you about.”
Beatrice smiled. “That means you must learn to ride, dear.”
“Your Grace,” Lady Helena said, excited. “I also have news.”
“Helena,” Eugenia said. “How many times have I asked you to call me Eugenia? We are too close for such formality.”
“Right, I know, Eugenia. Anyway, I am engaged! My parents have contracted my hand in marriage. The banns will be cried when we return to London.”
Eugenia rose and hurried to her friend to embrace her. “I am so happy for you! Who is it, tell me, tell me.”
Helena giggled with excitement. “The Earl of Somerton’s son. I met him at that ball the Prince Regent threw last year, remember? He is young, and dashingly handsome. We danced together that night, and I really like him.”
“That is wonderful news,” Eugenia exclaimed. “Now I get to help you plan your wedding.”
“It is a good match,” the Countess said, smiling at the two of them. “But that means we must return to London earlier than we had planned. I hope you will forgive us.”
Returning to her seat beside her mother, Eugenia met Maximilian’s eyes. He sent her a quick wink, his silent message of love and utter devotion.
How did I get so lucky? I, once a foundling, married the most eligible bachelor in the kingdom.
Feeling blessed and the most fortunate woman on earth, Eugenia discreetly took her mother’s hand. Gazing into those hazel eyes so much like her own, she murmured, “I love you.”
Beatrice squeezed it. “And I you, my precious daughter. And I you.”
Ah, before you go...
Please don't forget to follow me on Bookbub to get all my latest news and updates ♥