About the book
You often meet your fate on the road you take to avoid it…
Left on the doorstep of the Reeves’ manor as a babe and with only a pendant to remind her of her deceased parents, Eugenia Betham has been Lady Helena’s lady’s maid all her life.
Though vexed with his stepmother about her unforeseen decision to commence marriage discussions with the Reeves family, Maximilian Fernside, Duke of Bromenville, vows to be the perfect gentleman. What he never accounted for is Lady Helena’s beautiful maid.
But as both Eugenia and Maximilian soon realize, truth is a peculiar thing. Eugenia has been living a lie all her life and two strangers with power in their hands just might hold the key to the riddle.
He was only six years old when Augusta came into his life. For nineteen years he tolerated his stepmother’s caustic interference, and upon his father’s death, Max Fernside became the Duke of Bromenville.
Presently, his only curse was she was still alive.
Whenever the Dowager’s icy pale blue eyes met his calmly, she fully expected him to comply with her demands – “wishes” she called them. Underneath her quiet demeanor and coolly polite façade lay an iron will and a tongue that could flay a porcupine.
This evening, Max tried to keep his expression calm and neutral, when in fact it craved to convey a heavy scowl. He gazed across the formal dining room table at the meddlesome old bat, and once again tried to rein in his temper. When I’m ready to marry, I will let her know.
He finally had enough of her nagging.
“I believe I have told you before, Duchess,” he slammed his fist on the table, “I’m am not currently prepared to marry.”
She cocked an eyebrow and snorted. “Of course, you are not.” She laughingly shook her head. “You are far too busy playing with your horses and visiting your friend, the Viscount Mallen.” She returned her attention to her dinner plate.
Maximilian gripped his knife and fork, all but bending the soft silver with his fingers. “The horses earn their keep with the tens of thousands of pounds they bring in every year. And my friend is my affair, not yours.”
Augusta sniffed. “I am merely trying to secure you a wife, Maximilian, so you might have an heir to follow you. Like it or not, you are old enough to cease your childish games and settle down to perform your duties.”
She faced him, narrowed her eyes, and continued. “You have sown your wild oats with that girl long ago; it is time for you to become a proper Duke.”
He tightened his jaw. “I certainly know my duties. One of them is to marry and beget an heir.”
“Do you? Sometimes I wonder.”
Maximilian glanced at the third family member at the table, his half-brother, Wilmot. The weedy-looking young man pretended not to listen to the near argument and ate his roasted pheasant, drank his wine in gulps, and kept his head down. He had rounded his narrow shoulders and slumped in his chair, a trait that never failed to express his discomfort or feelings of awkwardness. The Duke did not dislike his younger half-brother, nor did he feel any affection for him, either.
“Wilmot,” his mother barked. “Sit up straight and behave like a decent human being while at the table.”
The young man did not glance toward the Duchess, but he did mutter, “Yes, Mother,” under his breath and straighten his spine. His lanky brown hair tumbled over his eyes as though he wanted to hide, and his gaze flicked everywhere, never still.
Maximilian despised the way Augusta treated her only son, a mixture of an iron rod and spoiling him rotten. In her eyes, the eighteen-year-old Wilmot could do no wrong, and yet she nit-picked him nearly to death. Often, Maximilian wished he could pull his brother away from her influence, yet recognized that the time for that was long gone.
Though not yet forty, Augusta’s brown hair, which she kept coiled in a tidy bun at the nape of her neck, had begun to grey. Her plump, soft figure spoke of her years dining excessively on sweetmeats and delectables. Ever since she married Maximilian’s father, he had never gotten along with her. When he was young, she frightened him. As he grew older, she bounced between annoying him and boring him silly.
“I have taken the liberty of inviting Lady Helena Reeves to Bromenville,” Augusta went on after sending her son an icy stare. “As you know, she is the daughter of the Earl of Whitington. Her breeding is impeccable and her reputation flawless. She is a good match for you.”
Maximilian ground his teeth as he sipped his wine. Do not rage at her, do not shout. It is what she is waiting for. “Indeed?” he asked politely, flashing her a mirthless smile. “I suppose I should thank you for taking the trouble.”
Augusta stiffened at the veiled insult but did not otherwise react. Instead, she picked up a morsel of pheasant with her fork and chewed it delicately. “They will be here in three weeks. I will also plan a grand ball, in honor of your fiancée, while she is here.”
“I do not recall agreeing to marry her.”
“Do not be absurd, Maximilian,” Augusta said, still inside her chilly calm demeanor. “You are the catch of the kingdom. Every peer’s eligible daughters are swooning over you and hope to catch your eye. I have merely saved you the trouble of meeting them all.”
Maximilian carefully set down his knife and fork, seething inwardly. “I will permit this ball of yours to continue forward, Madam. I will meet Lady Helena Reeves, and I will treat her as is her due with politeness. I will not, however, permit you to choose my wife for me. Are we clear? Should you take it upon yourself to publicly declare her my fiancée, I will embarrass you at the ball by announcing to everyone present that you selected her, and I refuse to marry her.”
Augusta’s pale eyes narrowed. “Thus, you would publicly shame Lady Helena?”
“No. You would publicly shame her. Now if you will excuse me, I have things I must attend to.”
He rose, stalked out of the dining room, and felt her disapproving eyes on his back. The attending footmen bowed as he passed them, their powdered wigs in place, their black and silver livery impeccable. Maximilian learned long ago that displaying his anger toward his stepmother resulted in cold, sardonic forgiveness that somehow seemed far worse than a shouting match. During his teen years, he often provoked her and roused his father’s anger. Before he died, the old Duke all but begged him to treat Augusta well, and Maximilian did honestly try.
“It is difficult sometimes, Father,” he muttered under his breath as he continued across the vast stone castle. “Though I wish unto heaven you had never married her.”
Maximilian glanced up, discovering that during his inner turmoil, he had almost walked right over his steward, Nigel Curry. The man had just stepped out of his office when the Duke nearly bumped into him while talking to himself. “Ah, Nigel. So sorry, I was not watching where I was going.”
“No problem, sir. May I assist in any way?”
“Not unless you can turn back time.”
Maximilian shook his head, grinning faintly. “Never mind. I was headed to the stables. You may accompany me, if you like.”
Maximilian had inherited not just his father’s wealth, vast estates, and titles, he also inherited the service of what he suspected was the realm’s most competent steward. He had known Nigel all his life, and under his leadership, the dukedom ran more smoothly than one of the prized Bromenville horses. Never had a problem come up that did not get immediately resolved once Nigel discovered it. Though Maximilian might have liked to call him a friend, Nigel kept their relationship at a firm and polite distance.
“How is the bay mare?” Maximilian asked, half turning toward Nigel as they crossed the castle’s bailey. “Is her foal nursing well?”
“Yes, indeed. Both are eating their heads off. However, I am not so certain this foal is up to Bromenville standards.”
“Oh? Why do you say that? I thought his conformation was excellent.”
Nigel made a yea-nay gesture. “In many ways, yes. But his near fore fetlock has a slight twist that may not be fixable as he grows. It was hidden in the straw when you last visited.”
Maximilian’s grandfather built the huge stable complex behind the castle’s high walls, and his father added to it over the years. While many horses, including the valuable Bromenville stallions, were housed in the castle’s stables as they were during medieval times, most were stabled outside it. With the decline of criminal activity and the cessation of Scottish raiders crossing the borders to steal horses and cattle, the Bromenvilles built the stable blocks without fear of the horses being stolen in the night.
The late summer sun began its descent over the Yorkshire moors as the two men walked into the stable yard. Grooms hurried about their work, hand exercising horses, washing sleek hides, mucking stalls, and laying down fresh straw. Maximilian’s grandfather built the huge buildings in a double rectangle, while his father added several more stables in an outer ring. Beyond them stood the barns for hay and straw, tack and harness, the carriage house, and other storage barns.
Maximilian headed toward the foaling stable set aside for mares to deliver their babies, while the others housed non-pregnant mares, younger unbroken horses, stallions, and the less valuable hacks and carriage horses. Each stable building was governed by a head groom who watched over both horses and grooms.
Maximilian greeted the bowing man with a smile. “Fergus, I just wanted to check on the bay. Nigel says she is doing well.”
“Indeed, yes, Your Grace,” Fergus replied with a hint of a Scottish accent. “I am pleased with her progress, despite her difficult delivery.”
He led them down the spotlessly clean brick aisle, passing rows of stalls, still speaking. “As you know, this was her first bairn, Your Grace, but she is a good mother. The wee colt is smaller than I would like, however.”
Many of the stalls they passed held curious occupants, who stuck their heads over the wooden half doors as though inquiring who entered their domain. Maximilian rubbed noses as he passed, never failing to delight in these stunning creatures. If his forebears had not started this extensive horse breeding, he knew he would have.
“Small is not always a bad thing,” he said as they stopped in front of the bay’s stall. “This colt’s sire was a bit on the small side when he was born, yet grew into himself. Perhaps it is in his bloodline.”
The new mother turned her head from her full manger, chewing her hay, her dark eyes bright with interest as she gazed at the men. Her colt, as dark a bay as his dam, had three white stockings and a narrow blaze down his face. He tried to hide as Maximilian entered the stall, but he caught and held the foal in a firm grip. Carefully, he picked up the colt’s right front leg to examine.
“You are right, Nigel.” He released the foot but not the colt. “We will have to watch that as he grows. He is still a very nice colt, what?”
“Yes, indeed, he is. With that flashy coloring and good bone, he will still make a top-notch riding horse.”
Maximilian spent a few moments rubbing the colt all over, lavishing affection on the newborn, asking the baby to accept his touch without fear. He grinned up at the other men. “I like him. He has a wonderful attitude.”
Fergus nodded. “I suspect the groom that looks after this mare is in love with him.”
“There is a great deal to like,” Nigel said.
Maximilian released the colt, who immediately trotted around to his dam’s other flank and tried to suckle. “Let’s hope that fetlock straightens out,” he said as he walked across the roomy stall toward the door. “If not, he will still make a nice gelding I can sell, even if I cannot get as much for him.”
“The Bromenville name will add pounds to his price,” Nigel said as Fergus closed and latched the stall door.
Fergus bowed as Maximilian and Nigel left the foaling stable. Although there were no issues, Maximilian enjoyed walking around the structures, checking on his horses, asking questions of the grooms, feeding the animals treats of carrots or apples. By the time he finished his rounds, full dark had fallen. The nearly full moon rose, casting a faint yellow glow across the trimmed grass.
“You may go if you wish, Nigel.” He paused to gaze out over the moors. “I want to enjoy the evening for a space.”
“Of course, Your Grace.” Nigel bowed and walked away, headed toward the castle.
Maximilian felt the stillness of the moors around him. He climbed a low hill away from the castle and the stables. He drifted away from the lights and the noises as the grooms settled the horses in for the night and found their own dinners.
The evening’s peace filled him, spread through him and lifted him into a joy tinged with sorrow. His father’s death was still fresh enough that he continued to grieve for the man he loved and admired. He recalled walking hand in hand with Sophia on evenings like this, quiet walks with murmured conversation and chaste kisses.
Bitterness rose to squash his happiness. He also remembered how she swore to love him until death, then abandoned him to marry her lover without even telling him goodbye. Maximilian gazed up at the stars, thinking about her. Beautiful, as kind as a dove, with green eyes that sparkled when she smiled. Yet, beneath her beauty lay a heart of stone that he had no idea existed, and, despite his exalted rank in society, she chose another.
“I still love you, Sophia,” he said to the stars. “God help me, but I do.”
Eugenia leaned against the townhouse window, fingering a pendant on a fine gold chain that hung about her neck and gazing down at the muddy London street. The drizzling rain continued to fall, streaking the glass. Below, horses walked and trotted through the slop, pulling fine carriages and laden wagons, often splashing muck onto annoyed pedestrians. Umbrellas sprouted like mushrooms after a rain like this, and Eugenia amused herself by counting how many people turned and shouted curses at drivers in the wake of getting splashed.
Her mistress, Lady Helena Reeves, had gone with her mother to shop, leaving her maidservant to look after her rooms and clothes. Eugenia had finished her work cleaning Lady Helena’s chambers, caring for her clothes, maintaining the hearth fire so the rooms did not grow damp and chilly. With all her work completed, she stole a few moments to herself until Lady Helena returned.
Giggling as a workman in heavy dark wool clothes slipped in the mud and fell, yelling curses, Eugenia glanced from him to the sight of the Whitington’s now mud-spattered carriage arriving, drawn by four sleek black horses. With her mistress returned, Eugenia turned away from the window and used her mistress’s looking glass to inspect her hair and clothes. Her thick dark hair, braided in the back but long enough to hang over her shoulder, still appeared as neat and tidy as when she brushed and braided it that morning. Her bodice held a small smear of dirt, which she quickly wiped away.
Smoothing her skirts and petticoats, Eugenia stood, expectant, in the middle of Lady Helena’s bedroom, waiting. Lady Helena, around her own age of nineteen, usually rushed straight to her chambers after such trips, excited to show Eugenia what she purchased. This late afternoon day was no exception. Lady Helena burst into her rooms, happy and elated, already talking before she even stepped completely over the threshold.
“Eugenia, guess what?” Lady Helena gasped, her wide smile glowing with excitement.
Eugenia dipped into a quick curtsey, then asked, “What, My Lady?”
“A letter came while we were out,” Lady Helena exclaimed. “You are not going to believe who it is from.”
The young daughter of the Earl of Whitington danced around the room, her thick auburn hair bouncing with every happy stride. Eugenia, observing the liveried footman in the doorway with his arms heaped with packages, took them from him and set them down. She gave him a quick smile before gently closing the door.
Lady Helena, having flounced upon her great bed, scrunching the pink and green coverlet and disrupting the mountain of pale green pillows, giggled and laughed as Eugenia picked up some of the packages to open as her mistress spoke. “Tell me, My Lady,” she said, “I’m dying to know.”
She sat up, patting the bed beside her inviting Eugenia to join her. Eugenia obeyed her, still holding the half-opened package and sat gingerly on the edge.
“It is from the Dowager Duchess of Bromenville,” Lady Helena said, moaning happily. “An invitation to meet her stepson, the Duke of Bromenville and talk – marriage!”
Eugenia gasped. “No. Truly?”
Lady Helena impulsively hugged her. “I am so excited, Eugenia. To talk marriage with the Duke of Bromenville himself. Do you know he is the most eligible bachelor in the entire realm? Wealth uncounted, privilege uncounted, breeder of the best horses in England, and it is said the Prince Regent is a personal friend of his.”
“Yes, I have heard of him,” Eugenia said, her own excitement growing.
Lady Helena grasped her hand. “Do you know I saw him once? It was at a ball hosted by that boring old Marquess of Westwood. He is so handsome, Eugenia. Tall with blondish hair, the deepest blue eyes you have ever seen. I think I will swoon when I tell you about his broad shoulders.”
“Oh, please tell me,” Eugenia exclaimed, then giggled.
“But if I swoon, I cannot tell you.”
The pair held each other, laughing until Eugenia clasped her young mistress’s hands and gazed earnestly into her green eyes. “Please, you will take me with you?”
“Of course. I could never leave you behind. You are not just my maid, you are my friend, too.”
Eugenia bounced up, holding the package to her chest. “I am so happy for you, My Lady. I know the Duke will take one look at you and fall instantly in love.”
Lady Helena sobered. She glanced down at her fingers entwined in her lap. “You know I have always wanted to marry for love, Eugenia.”
“I know. But you are a high-born lady. You have been prepared to marry whom your parents chose for you your entire life.”
“This is true. I know everything there is to know about running a wealthy household, from accounts to sewing my husband’s clothes to hiring servants.”
She stood up and paced slowly to the window Eugenia had stood beside, and stared down, even as Eugenia had done. “But what do I know of love? Marriage is not just about accounts and needlecraft. It is also about bedroom secrets, childbirth, growing up and growing old.”
Lady Helena gazed at Eugenia with tears standing in her eyes. “What if I love him, but he does not love me, Eugenia? What if he, for all his handsome looks, is a lout who beats his wife? What if I die giving birth to his child?”
Rushing forward, Eugenia fell to her knees at Lady Helena’s feet. She took her hands in her own, gazing up. “You must not think that way, My Lady. You are young, beautiful with the stout name of Whitington behind you. Life is full of risks, but you cannot hide in your chambers throughout your life, afraid to marry for fear you may die in childbirth. You are too strong for that, you know this. Be joyful in your prospects, for I know in my heart you will be loved by your husband.”
Lady Helena’s lips trembled and her unshed tears made her eyes gleam like emeralds in the sunlight. She cupped Eugenia’s cheek in the palm of her hand. “You are a true friend, Eugenia. Do not kneel. Come here and give me a hug.”
Eugenia popped to her feet and embraced her mistress. “I am so happy for you,” she whispered.
Eugenia helped her mistress dress for dinner and carefully styled Lady Helena’s dark red locks into an attractive chignon. Lady Helena had fully recovered her excitement about traveling to Yorkshire to spend a few weeks at the Bromenville estates, and her constant chatter and giggles hampered her ability to keep her head still so Eugenie could properly style her lady’s hair.
When at last the deed had been accomplished, Eugenia inspected Lady Helena’s bodice and gown for any flaws. “I think you are ready, My Lady,” she said.
Lady Helena inspected her face in the looking glass. “I am too pale. Tell me I am too pale.”
“You are not too pale. A high lady is supposed to have white skin. If you are not, then you might be classed as a working woman.”
Lady Helena laughed. “I certainly would not want that. Now go to the kitchen and get your dinner. I heard the cook has been complaining you have not visited her in a while.”
Eugenia frowned slightly, yet humor flashed in her hazel eyes. “I have so. I saw her the day before yesterday, in fact. She fed me so many sweet tarts, I thought I would burst.”
“Go. Make her happy. There is nothing worse in this world than an unhappy cook.”
After Lady Helena left, Eugenia made certain her own hair and gown were impeccable, then went down to the kitchen through the hidden servants’ tunnels. The head cook, a stout matron named Mrs. O’Reilly, ruled her domain with an iron skillet and commanded her small army of assistants, scullions, kitchen maids, and cook boys. Yet, she and her husband, the household’s butler, raised Eugenia as their own.
Mrs. O’Reilly planted her fists on her wide hips and glared as Eugenia emerged into the hot kitchen from a side door. “Where in heaven’s name have you been, child?” she demanded, waving her wooden spoon like a scepter.
Eugenia hugged her and kissed her sweaty cheek. “Mama Reilly, you know I saw you the other day. Will you please stop the drama?”
“Drama, is it? When a woman cannot see the child she raised –”
She halted her harangue when she caught sight of Eugenia’s amused expression and dancing eyes and sighed. “I just miss you, sweetheart. I know your duties to Lady Helena keep you busy, but please try to come by and see me every day?”
Eugenia perched upon a three-legged stool. “I will do my best. How is Papa?”
“He is well, child, misses you as much as I do. After he serves the family supper, stop in and see him?”
“I will try, but you know I must attend on Lady Helena.”
“I do know it. Now, child, I will fix you a plate. Roasted duckling tonight. You are much too thin, you grew too fast for your bones.”
Mrs. Reilly heaped a plate full of delicious food for her, which she took to a small side table and devoured its contents. She had lived in this kitchen, considered the cook and the butler her parents, helped with whatever her little hands could handle. When she was nine years old, Mr. and Mrs. Reilly told her story: she was in truth a foundling.
Nine years before, in the cold of winter, she had been found at the gates of the Whitington townhouse in London. Still swathed in her swaddling bands with her name penned on them, a small pendant with her first initial ‘E’ had been pinned to the cloth. No one knew who placed her there, who her birth parents were, or why she had been abandoned.
Raised by the servants of the household, Eugenia grew up loved and knew no wants save one – to know who her real parents are. However, no one could answer that for her. Thus, she addressed the Reillys as her parents, then was told she would become Lady Helena’s personal maid when she was ten. As the two girls, close in age, had often played together, the situation gave them a special bond of closeness.
“Mama Reilly,” she said, taking her now empty plate to one of the scullery maids. “I have news.”
Mrs. Reilly turned from stirring a soup pot. “What would that be, dear?”
“Lady Helena has been invited to the Duke of Bromenville’s estates.”
“Why that is excellent news indeed, child,” she began, then froze. “But that means –”
Eugenia hurried to her and hugged her hard. “I know. I am to go with her. They might get married, Mama. If that happens, I will not be back.”
“Nonsense. If our beloved lady gets married to the Duke, then you can request to come here. There will always be a place for you here, child.”
“But what can I do? Become a scullery maid?”
“Perhaps the Countess will arrange a suitable marriage for you, Eugenia,” Mrs. Reilly replied, desperation clear on her reddened face. “There are young and handsome footmen here in need of wives. You could almost take your pick.”
Eugenia glanced away, unhappy to see her adopted mother near tears. “I will try to come back, Mama Reilly. I promise.”
As she hugged the cook and left the kitchen, she felt tears sting her eyes. Why do I feel that I’ll never see this place, my parents, again?
Seated in the castle’s solar, Augusta worked at her stitchery, her mind wandering. Heavy rain lashed the windows while the screaming Yorkshire wind blasted across the moors. Outside of her private apartments, this room was her favorite, and she often spent her days in it. Its walls held ancient tapestries of battles and hunting, while suits of armor from medieval times stood in corners. On sunny days, the many windows encouraged the sunlight to spread throughout. A fire burned on one of the hearths, keeping the damp chill at bay.
Her mouth twisted with petulance as she recalled Maximilian’s threat to embarrass her if she dared to take it upon herself to announce the engagement between Lady Helena Reeves and Maximilian.
How dare you. You impudent little boy.
In her annoyance, she pushed the needle through the cloth too hard and pricked her finger. A tiny well of blood erupted, and she stuck her finger in her mouth and sucked on it. Curse words rose to her lips and hovered, but her intense training as an aristocrat reminded her that proper ladies did not swear, even in private.
“James,” she said, removing her finger from her mouth. “Be a dear and send for my son.”
The footman standing behind her bowed low. “At once, Your Grace.”
Whether that was truly the man’s name or not, Augusta cared not one jot. She called every footman ‘James’ and every female servant ‘Jenny’. She had no idea what their names truly were, and she called only her personal maid by something else – Eloise. Proper ladies of the court had French maids, even if they were not born in France. Eloise may have been born in England, and her birth name did not matter.
“Jenny, I want hot tea.”
Though Augusta did not turn around, she listened intently to make sure she heard the appropriate amount of skirt rustling to know that the serving maid curtseyed properly. If any servant thought that because Her Grace did not look at them and believed she would never know if they tried to get by with anything less than absolute decorum, that servant learned quickly to offer correct respect.
Augusta knew they spoke behind her back and declared she had eyes there, and she also had at her disposal a wide arsenal of punishments if she was not given her proper due as a Duchess. An offending servant might be docked wages, or be discharged, according to her mood and the degree of the offense. Thus, the servants obeyed her with alacrity and seldom failed to deliver her proper deference.
But they offer my stepson the barest respect, and he cares not. Still, they adore him, and my name is defiled.
Augusta sniffed, resuming her stitchery. “Servants should be kept in their place,” she murmured to herself. “They are like sheep and know nothing except how to be sheep.”
Augusta’s hot tea arrived, but her son did not. She sipped at it and discovered it was not at the correct temperature and sent it back. Jenny returned quickly with the fresh cup. Growing impatient, she tapped her fingers along the arm of her chair, her needlework in her lap. “Where is my son?” she snapped to the room in general.
“I do not know, Your Grace,” came the timid reply from the Jenny behind her.
“Well, go find him.”
Staring into space, Augusta listened again to the skirts and the quick staccato of shoes on the stone floor. The door opened and closed as the girl departed with haste.
The minutes dragged on, and by the time the James returned with Wilmot, Augusta felt ready to have James whipped.
I know he spent time chatting up one of the housekeepers rather than follow my command. Insolent creature.
“Lord Wilmot, Your Grace,” he said, bowing as he presented Wilmot.
Augusta knew he laughed at her, she just knew it. But if she ordered James whipped without evidence of his disobedience, Maximilian would be angry. Though she cared little about his anger or his defense of these useless servants, she knew Maximilian always found ways to make Augusta uncomfortable when she made him angry. Right now, she needed her mind clear.
“Leave us,” she snapped.
This time she watched them closely as the servants paid their courtesies and left the solar. Wilmot drew up a chair for himself near the fire and flopped into it like a wet sack. She eyed him with disapproval as he merely gazed back at her with his usual lackluster demeanor, his hair once more falling over his brow.
“Sit up straight, boy,” she hissed. “Are you a Duke’s son or a fishmonger? If you cannot keep a straight back, perhaps a rod up it may teach you.”
Wilmot sat up properly, but his sullen expression did not alter a whit. He shunted his eyes to the side, staring at the fire, occasionally flinching as a particularly hard gust of wind rattled the window panes. As always, Augusta felt a strange mixture of love and repugnance when she gazed at her son. He was so unlike his father, she knew, while that repulsive Maximilian was nothing less than the old Duke come alive again. The younger Duke went nowhere without people in the ton remarking on how much alike father and son had become.
“Where were you?” she demanded.
With all the energy of a limpet, Wilmot turned his head but kept his face lowered. “Playing cards with the coachman.”
“How many times must I remind you that you are the son of a Duke, and sons of Dukes do not mingle, or play cards, with the servants or commoners.”
“But he plays well.”
“Foolish boy,” she spat like an outraged cat. “I do not care if he could beat the Prince Regent himself at cards, you will obey me. You stay away from the servants. Do you understand me?”
Wilmot turned back toward the fire. “Yes, Mother.”
Augusta gazed at his profile, wanting to both smack his face until it turned red and hug him until he squeaked in protest.
“Do you want to marry, Wilmot?” she asked, her annoyance unabated and her temper quivering behind her lips.
“Of course,” he replied, not looking at her. “Someday.”
“I must begin searching for a suitable wife for you,” she mused, sipping her cooling tea. But there was no one available to pour her a fresh cup from the pot, as she had dismissed the servants. “Wilmot, be a dear and pour tea for me.”
He rose sluggishly from the chair and walked stiffly to the tray and pot, moving as though his feet were encased in treacle. Though she did not turn her head, Augusta heard the splash as he spilled the tea on the tray and the jarring rattle of the spout against the cup. It dripped tea down the side as he brought it to her. Augusta eyed it with disillusion.
Wilmot slumped back in his chair, and yet another sharp rebuke rose to her lips. Instead of voicing it, she said, “You are eight and ten, Wilmot. You must cease this fascination with card games and grow up. You have a duty to your family. It is high time you understood this.”
“I suppose you have someone in mind.”
Augusta stiffened at his dismissive tone and grew angry when he still refused to look at her. “I have several candidates in mind. I will begin writing the invitations to the various young ladies and their parents to come to the ball. You will have a chance to meet them, and perhaps begin preliminary talks regarding an engagement.”
“I do not want to get married so quickly, Mother.”
Augusta sniffed and once more returned to her needlework. “What you want does not matter to me, Wilmot. Only what I want matters. And I want to see you married to a girl who will match your high station. I will see to it you get what you deserve.”
“Of course, Mother.”
“Leave me now, and send those wretched servants back in. I need someone with some competence to pour me a simple cup of tea.”
Maximilian cantered his favorite mare across the moor, his friend Edmund Felton, the Viscount Mallen, at his side. Behind them, a train of servants and grooms followed, along with Maximilian’s falconer with his merlin on his fist. Mallen’s falconer carried his own personal favorite bird, a peregrine falcon. The rainstorm had passed, leaving behind a fresh odor of heather and a brisk wind.
Solid friends since the two had met at court, Mallen often spent time at the Bromenville estate, hawking, hunting, riding across the moors, or sitting in the castle library sipping brandy and talking. He was a short, stocky man of philosophy and humor, and often thought life was simply a huge jest. Under his mop of dark curly hair, his dark grey eyes often appeared more somber than bright, despite the perpetual smile on his lips.
Mallen eyed his companion sidelong. “I feel there is something upsetting you, Bromenville. Care to talk about it?”
Maximilian reined in at the top of a low-lying hill, gazing back at the servants walking through the wet in their wake. “My stepmother is setting me up to get married.”
“Did she say to whom?”
“Lady Helena Reeves.”
Mallen whistled through his teeth. “I have met her. Very beautiful girl, good family. And young. You could do far worse, my friend.”
“I am not ready, Mallen,” he replied, his tone tense. “After Sophia –”
“You must get past that,” Mallen said. “It has been what? Over a year now? That tart was not good enough for you, but you were the only one who could not see it. Lady Helena is a good match.”
“I do not care,” Maximilian snapped. “I will marry when I am ready, and I refuse to permit Augusta to have any say in who I marry.”
“From the viewpoint of a married man,” Mallen went on, a small smile playing across his lips, “being married has its perks. But I can also agree on not letting that old biddy tell you what to do. I can tell you, she does not have your best interests at heart. She has her own.”
“That is exactly what worries me,” Maximilian admitted, watching the servants approach. “What does she have to gain by marrying me to Lady Helena? Everything my stepmother does is suspect.”
“Perhaps she took a handsome bribe to set it up,” Mallen joked, laughing.
“I would not put it past her,” Maximilian replied, also smiling. “She invited the Whitingtons to spend a few weeks with us at the castle. Naturally, she posted the invitations before telling me. I wish I could cancel the entire affair, but that would be the height of rudeness.”
“Just remember no one can force you to the altar,” Mallen said. He pointed to a pair of rabbits frisking in the heather not far away. “If those blokes do not arrive soon, we might miss our chance at a fine rabbit stew tonight.”
Maximilian gestured for the servants to stop, and only the falconer approach. They obeyed him, while the master of birds walked up the hill, a bird perched on each fist. Silent, he lifted them up to their masters, then retreated. Maximilian gently took the hood from his merlin and gazed into its fierce eyes. He stroked his finger down its head and neck, then glanced at the rabbits.
“Off you go,” he murmured and tossed the merlin toward them. Mallen also threw his falcon up, releasing the bird’s jesses. The pair instantly saw the rabbits, who broke and fled for cover of the thickets. But the birds stooped too quickly and brought the rabbits down in a flurry of feathers and fur. Maximilian and Edmund whooped like boys and galloped their horses down the hill.
Dismounting, Maximilian cautiously approached his merlin and encouraged it to perch on his fist. With a piece of meat from his pouch at his belt, he rewarded the bird and straightened. The servants hurried down the hill to take the dead rabbits from them, and the falconer reached for his merlin.
“No, I will keep her with me,” Maximilian said, replacing the hood over the merlin’s eyes. He gave the man the bird long enough to mount his horse, then took the merlin back. “Shall we ride north a bit, Mallen?”
His friend glanced up at the oppressive clouds lurking low overhead. “For a short time, I expect. I do believe we are in for more rain.”
“Then we best not waste any more time,” Maximilian said, urging his mare into a canter. “Two coneys are hardly enough for a decent stew.”
The pair caught three more rabbits, as Maximilian’s merlin missed its quarry when the rabbit escaped into a hole in the ground. She returned to his fist at his whistle, and he rewarded her with a piece of meat. Both handed their birds back to the falconer, then turned their horses’ heads toward the distant castle, high on its hill.
“Make sure those get to the cook immediately,” he told the servants. “My guest at supper wishes for a nice rabbit stew, and that is what he shall have.”
The footmen bowed. “Certainly, Your Grace,” they murmured as one.
Picking up the canter, Maximilian felt the damp chill on his face and knew Mallen’s prediction of more rain in the immediate future was correct. “I will be quite ready for a sherry once we return,” he said. “I do believe it has gotten colder.”
“This chilly this early in the autumn means a cold winter,” Mallen replied. “Mark my words.”
“Your weather sense is incredible, Mallen,” Maximilian commented, dipping his chin once. “Have you ever been wrong?”
Mallen shrugged. “Once or twice. Maybe. When I was a wee lad.”
Laughing, Maximilian failed to notice the half-hidden rabbit warren just ahead of his mare’s hooves. Striking a deep hole, the horse stumbled, pitching Maximilian onto her neck. His sudden forward lurch caught her off balance, and she fell, pitching onto her chest. Legs flailing, she rolled helplessly over her rider. Maximilian caught a fleeting glimpse of the heather rushing to meet his face, then he knew nothing more.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
An Unforgettable Ball at Bromenville Hall is live on Amazon now!