About the book
Vengeance, thy name is love...
Lady Myra Walsh is a lady with a proper upbringing and impeccable character. Which is why she has a hard time understanding how could her father offer her hand in marriage to the most reclusive, ill-fated member of the ton.
Despite his young age, Ewan Griffith, the Duke of Tarnton, has already suffered enough. With both parents and a limb lost to an accident, he has closed himself off, earning the title of the "Recluse Duke". Until he meets one Lady Myra.
Unexpectedly, both Myra and Ewan realize they have more in common as tentative friendship blooms into powerful love. Love that's painted red; the same color as the missing ruby from the day Ewan's parents died.
“Ewan, sweetie! Don’t run too far. And mind the mud with your new shoes!” the Duchess of Tarnton called after her son.
“Oh, let him run, my dear,” the Duke said, beaming proudly at his child, who was at that very moment scrambling up a small tree. “These rains have finally relented after a fortnight of dreariness. I’ll buy him a hundred pairs if he were to soil those in celebration of seeing the sun once again!”
The Duchess laughed, swatting her husband’s arm playfully with her fan. “And have our son grow up to believe that riches are gathered up like so many fallen leaves? I’d rather put him in sackcloth than have him believing that all our blessings are so readily come by.”
“Excellent point, my dear,” the Duke said, his usually jovial expression turning grim for a moment. “I shall be sure to whip him with a hickory branch if he muddies them.”
“Oh, stop it, you!” the Duchess exclaimed, laughing boisterously now at her husband’s jest. “Can we not find some comfortable middle ground? Be mindful of your shoes, but have a tiny bit of fun?”
“I think that’s plenty for a boy of eight to handle,” the Duke agreed, taking his wife’s hand and leading her to where their carriage was stopped for the horses to drink. “And I know poor Miss Graves is glad of the reprieve today, after being held captive in the house with Ewan for so long due to the weather. I’m equally pleased to have the both of you accompany me today, that it’s made me rather silly.”
“I love it when you’re silly,” the Duchess said, smiling at her husband adoringly. “It’s what I first loved about you. You were such an important man already when we met, yet you were not like some men, sour-faced with your jowls hanging to your lapels. Then and now, you know how to see the lighter side of things. It’s precisely how I want my children to grow up, not with parents who send for them to be marched in and inspected at the end of the day, but as a loving family who does a great many things together.”
“While having the most joyful time of it!” the Duke agreed before kissing his wife sweetly on the cheek. “But we do have to continue on now. I must bring this parcel to my solicitor before the end of business today, and then you wish to stop in and see my brother’s wife.”
“Yes, the poor dear,” the Duchess said somberly. “She is the only woman I know whose happiness in marriage has rivaled my own, but to lose her husband so soon after they wed… I cannot bear to think on it for too long.”
The Duke cleared his throat, masking a sudden choking feeling from emotion. “Yes. My younger brother was my fondest playmate, a brother by virtue of our parentage but my dearest friend by virtue of his wonderful qualities. Some days I wake up and it still doesn’t feel real despite the year that has already passed.”
“Oh, Richard, I’m so sorry,” the Duchess said, sliding her hand into the crook of his elbow. “If it grieves you to talk about it, then we won’t bring it up.”
“No, it’s all right,” the Duke said sadly, looking down. “And I might as well speak on it now so that I can be in good spirits for Mariam.”
The Duchess rested her head against her husband’s shoulder for a moment, then smiled up at him. “That is another of your never-ending admirable qualities.”
“What is? You’ll have to be more specific,” he teased, trying to sound jovial again.
“That you did not wash your hands of Mariam after Nigel’s death. There are plenty of men who would have sent her home to her family, permitting her to live out her days as their burden until they could manage to foist her off on some other husband.”
“Never,” the Duke replied firmly, shaking his head as if banishing the thought from his mind. “I could never treat someone who mattered so much to my brother in such a manner. Besides, Nigel would haunt me from the grave. He bade me promise to look after Mariam from his sickbed, and I will honor his dying wish until I cannot do it anymore.”
“You are a rare gem indeed, Husband,” the Duchess said in earnest. “I thank God for you every day, for you and Ewan and for any other children He may see fit to bless us with.”
“That knowledge fortifies me in ways you will never know,” the Duke said sweetly before kissing the Duchess softly. “But enough of this solemnity. This is a day to celebrate the sunshine! Ewan, hurry now, we must go!”
At the sound of his name, a small boy of eight scurried down from his nest in the branches of a tree and jumped the last few feet to the ground. He brushed the dust from his clothes and shook the leaves from his reddish-brown hair before racing back to his parents.
“I’m here, Father!” the boy said happily.
“Are you certain?” the Duke asked, squinting his eyes at the boy. “Darling, wasn’t he taller before he climbed that tree? You don’t suppose he left some of himself up there, do you?”
“I can only hope so,” the Duchess said, trying to sound serious and nearly failing. “At the rate he’s growing, if he doesn’t leave part of himself lying here and there, we’ll never find garments to fit him!”
Ewan laughed at their game then took his parents’ hands. On a count of three, his parents on either side of him swung him high in the air, delivering him to their waiting carriage by lifting him over and over in this manner. They climbed aboard and were well on their way into London from their estate in Tarnton when their journey took a decidedly evil turn.
“What’s happening?” the Duchess asked as the driver gave a shout and the horses neighed loudly.
Before the Duke could think of a reply, the door to the carriage was yanked open. A masked rogue, clearly doing the work of a highwayman, stared inside the carriage in surprise.
“What are the lot of ya doin’ here?” the man demanded, clearly unnerved by the faces looking back at him.
Before anyone could speak, the Duchess let out a cry of fright. In an effort to prevent her from drawing anyone’s notice, the robber withdrew a pistol from his pocket and pointed it at her. Instead of silencing her shrill scream, she only cried out even louder.
The sound of the pistol going off shook the carriage. The Duchess slumped against the wall of the carriage, her eyes fluttering closed as a rivulet of blood ran down the bodice of her gown.
“You monster!” the Duke roared, his hands outstretched like a lion’s claws, aiming for the robber’s neck.
A second shot dispatched him as well.
In his haste, the robber rifled through the carriage as quickly as he could, intent on stealing whatever he could find of value. Ewan remained pressed against the seat, his thin legs pulled up against his chest as he quaked with fear.
Cursing under his breath at this poor turn of events, the robber abandoned his search and pulled the unconscious driver from his seat. He climbed up to the driver’s box and flicked the reins to urge the horses on.
“Ewan… my son…” the Duke breathed, his eyes only slits as he strained to focus on the child, “you… you must get away… you… jump—”
“I won’t leave you, Father!” Ewan cried, clinging to his father as tears mixed with the Duke’s blood. “All will be well, you’ll be all right!”
“No… Ewan. You must… get away—” the Duke said, breathing his last.
Ewan cried out, even as the carriage swayed beneath his small feet and he struggled to keep himself upright. The speed was dizzying, and he was unaccustomed to traveling at this pace.
“I will, Father,” Ewan promised aloud. “And I will go for help! You’ll see, you and Mother will be all right!”
At that, he opened the door to the carriage and looked out, his young bravery leaving him in an instant at the sight of the road below. The carriage was moving so fast that the grass was only a blur of earthen color, and he could not fix his eyes upon a single spot.
Just as the boy thought to take a breath and leap, the carriage jolted to the side, flinging him out the door. He fell to the ground as pain shot through his tiny body, the wheel of the carriage crushing his leg as it rolled over him. He could not even find the air he needed to scream, but thankfully, the blow to his head where it hit the road sent him spiraling into a heavy darkness.
Lady Clifton poked her head into the library for good measure, and Myra was fortunate enough to glimpse her mother’s sudden movement before the woman could spot her. She pressed herself back against the high-backed chair and attempted to make herself unseen, but it was not to be.
“There you are, Myra. What have I told you about hiding in here? We have guests, my dear!” Lady Clifton said, the exasperation of having to hunt for her daughter without end evident in her tone.
“I’m sorry, Mother. But my new book is too wonderful! I cannot simply put it aside and spend the entire evening sitting at cards or playing the pianoforte for Father’s guests.”
Myra brushed a lock of her long-brown hair out of her eyes and smiled up at her mother, hoping her plea and her pleasant smile would serve to thaw her mother’s heart. It was not to be.
“Then it will be equally wonderful tomorrow. Come! Put it aside and return to our guests!” Lady Clifton ordered firmly.
“All right,” Myra groused, standing up and placing her book carefully on a table nearby. “But when I am a famous, sought-after author, you shall be very sorry about the things I write about you in my book.”
She lifted her nose into the air and sniffled disdainfully, causing her mother to laugh.
“I shall take my chances with my reputation against your mighty pen. Go on with you,” Lady Clifton said in a somewhat kinder voice as she fastened the escaped lock of Myra’s hair back into place, “and be sure not to mention the writing around Father’s guests. You know people do not find that an admirable trait in a young lady.”
Young lady, Myra thought miserably.
Who cares if Myra is a proper young lady? None of the characters in the books she loved so dearly worried about what was proper or suitable. Instead, they took off on valiant adventures, the heroes and heroines overcoming insurmountable odds to save their family fortunes, right the most egregious of wrongs, or protect the country they loved so much. No one in those books cared if a hemline was lowered or a hair was out of place.
Instead, Myra knew she was destined to be crushed beneath the weight of propriety. Her father, the Earl of Clifton, had already entertained several offers of marriage from men of suitable fortunes and rank, though their own wealth hardly eclipsed that of her father. That was the reason for the Earl’s insistence on a second Season for Myra, to show that he was in no hurry to marry her off. Now, at the age of twenty, her prospects were fewer than they had been before, a fact that suited her just fine.
“Remember, the Viscount of Windermere is also here this evening,” her mother said in a low voice, interrupting Myra’s thoughts as they descended the staircase. “He is quite an ally in both business and political matters, so it is vital that you make a good impression on him.”
“Is Father marrying him then?” Myra asked, but Lady Clifton frowned.
“Do not be impertinent, Myra,” she snapped before attempting to smile. “Besides, the Viscount is already married. It is his son that interests us.”
Interests you, perhaps, Myra thought darkly, though she didn’t say so.
The footman opened the doors to the drawing room when Myra and Lady Clifton approached. Within, a handful of guests were already seated around the large room. Its high ceilings allowed the heat of the summer’s evening to drift overhead, and the large windows were opened a little, inviting the faintest breeze into the room. Myra’s younger sister, Emily, looked up from the pianoforte with a relieved smile, then stuck her tongue out at Myra in secret before smiling again. Their brother Rowland turned to look at her from where he leaned against the mantelpiece, a pinched expression of disappointment on his face.
“Ah, there you are. Lord Weatherall, Lord Windemere, you remember my daughter, Lady Myra Walsh,” the Earl said, rising from his chair and taking Myra by the arm as she entered.
“Certainly, Lady Myra,” a rather pudgy old man said without bothering to stand. “I have not seen you since the Pembroke’s garden party.”
“He means three years ago,” Lady Clifton whispered in Myra’s ear.
Myra nodded pleasantly. “It has been quite some time, indeed,” she acknowledged before turning to some of her parents’ other guests.
“And are you still studying painting?” Lady Dowell asked from where she sat beside her aging husband.
“No, My Lady. You might have me confused with someone else, perhaps?” Myra said, looking to her mother for help. Lady Clifton only pressed her lips together in a grim smile.
“How odd, I was certain you were the one who went abroad to study painting—oh wait, that was my niece,” the older woman said absently. “No bother, I’m sure you have many interests to pursue.”
“Certainly, why only yesterday I chanced upon a shop that had—” Myra began, but her mother interrupted.
“Myra has spent a great deal of time studying literature with her governess,” Lady Clifton said. “She has spent an inordinate amount of time studying the classics in both English and French, and she has even accomplished some readings in Greek.”
Myra cast an incredulous glance in her mother’s direction. To embellish the truth was one thing—after all, Myra’s fondness for books could be mistaken for studying literature—but she had never read a word of Greek in her life! What was her mother thinking?
Rowland scoffed loudly at their mother’s statement, earning a piercing glance from her before his father intervened.
“But never fear, my daughter has a balanced sense of how much education is too much, her mother has seen to that,” the Earl said. “I’ve never thought it a good thing for young ladies to waste away their youth in studying, either.”
“Quite so,” the old Lord Weatherall said, puffing out his chest as he leaned back against the sofa. “A young lady of breeding needs nothing more than to know her letters and sums so that she might oversee her household, and know her name that she might sign her marriage contract. Anything more than that is simply taxing on her feeble countenance for no added benefit.”
Myra’s hands balled into fists at her sides, a movement that her mother noted and thwarted with a delicate pinch to her elbow. She glared at her mother with indignation, and had half a mind to flee the room for the comfort of the library once more.
Instead, Myra sat down on a chair like a dutiful daughter and tolerated even more insults heaped upon womenkind as a whole. Their ways were overly simple, their attempt at understanding world events was pointless, their concern with fashion was proof that they were too silly to comprehend important matters… the litany went on unabated.
And through it all, Myra sat, absorbing the remarks and the chuckles at ladies’ expense, but seething inwardly.
“You do realize that you are a woman and therefore the recipient of their jeers?” Myra asked her mother once their guests had mercifully departed. “Why must we sit like simpletons while men deride us for being less intelligent and less capable?”
“It is the way of things, my dear,” Lady Clifton said patiently as she sat down in a chair nearby, weary from their gathering. “And the sooner you come to accept your place in it, the better off you’ll be. Your father will come to a decision soon about your future husband, and then you shall finally find your place in the world.”
“But how am I supposed to believe that my place in the world is merely as some man’s wife when I know what men think of ladies?” Myra argued, tears of frustration threatening to spill over.
“My dear! What is all this about?” Lady Clifton asked, taking Myra’s face in her hands and looking at her kindly. “Is this because of your books? Those stories you’ve been reading?”
“No, Mother. It’s because I have a mind that functions quite well, yet I am supposed to pretend for the sake of society and fine manners that it does not,” Myra said, floundering to explain herself.
“Myra, look at me,” Lady Clifton said, her concern for her daughter evident in her eyes. “All will be well. You have worn yourself out with worry when there is no need. I daresay, your father will have made all the proper arrangements by the end of the month, then you shall have a marvelous courtship for the rest of this Season and a lovely wedding by September. You are merely fretful for what may happen, but there is no need to be.”
“How come Rowland does not have to marry? And certainly not to a young lady of Father’s choosing?” Myra shot back.
“Ah, but he does. It is only an illusion that men are so carefree, a lie that they like to tell themselves. Rowland is only four-and-twenty, there is ample time for him to encounter a suitable young lady who meets our approval.” Lady Clifton kissed Myra’s cheek and smiled. “See? He is every bit the prisoner to his title and wealth as you are, if that brings you any comfort!”
Myra scowled at her mother’s attempt at humor. Though Rowland certainly did have some constraints upon him, it was nothing compared to the wretched fate of being a suitable young lady.
Ewan watched from the window as a flock of ducklings waddled behind their mother, ready for their first swimming lesson. He had been watching them for a matter of days, intrigued by their activities as they strutted about on the grass, inspecting this new and exciting world.
It had worried him for days on end that one of the ducklings—always the one at the rear of the line, as though the others would not permit it to take their place—had a strange sort of gait about it. Everywhere the line of soft, dazzling yellow fowl went, it hurried to keep up as it bounced along rather than walk like its brothers and sisters.
Now, the day Ewan had feared for the tiny duck was here. It would face the peril of the riverbank with its one lame leg. It would either swim with the others or drown—or if it could not, it would be cast out and left to be eaten by the foxes.
Ewan leaned farther forward in his chair and caught sight of the farmer’s son who had been assigned to keep watch over the little family of ducks. That had been a strange conversation indeed, but the promise of silver coins had ensured both the lad’s cooperation and discretion about the task. The boy stood ready with a net, intent on scooping up the poor lame duckling should swimming prove to be impossible.
“What are you looking at?” a woman called out behind Ewan, and he raised a hand to stop her.
“Shh, come and see,” he said in a whisper, never taking his eyes off the little flock.
With a rustling of her skirts, the woman crept closer until she stood directly behind Ewan’s chair. She inhaled sharply then seemed to remember herself.
“Oh, how lovely,” she whispered in reply. “Is it their first excursion to the water then?”
“Yes,” Ewan answered. “Today will be the full test, I’m afraid.”
“But what is that horrible boy doing? Does he intend to capture one?” the woman said, panic evident in her voice.
“No, I sent him to watch over that small one there. There’s… something wrong with its leg,” Ewan said, faltering at the last part.
“Oh, Ewan,” the older woman said sadly, pressing her hand to his shoulder.
“Do not worry, Aunt Mariam,” he said, still keeping watch on their progress to the water’s edge. “I am not upset, I only mean to ensure it does not come to harm.”
“And what will your boy there do if the poor creature cannot swim? Hmm? Nature must take its course, I’m afraid.”
“No, he will take it home with him and care for it, then either benefit from the eggs should it prove to be a girl or benefit from the fathering of other ducks should it prove to be a boy,” Ewan replied confidently.
“That’s my darling nephew,” the woman said wistfully, “always thinking of others first… even the tiniest of creatures.”
The woman left Ewan at the window and sat down on a sofa, settling in while he continued to keep watch. Soon enough, he clapped his hands and gave a surprised cheer.
“The little thing has done it,” he said, turning and looking at his aunt with a proud, almost triumphant look. “It is apparently only the land that causes the duckling trouble. It took to water like… well, a duck!”
His aunt laughed with relief. “Good, now come away from that window and have a proper visit with me. It’s been weeks since I’ve seen you since you insist on shunning the Season again this year.”
With no small amount of effort, Ewan stood up from his chair by bracing his hands on the arms and pushing himself up. He reached for his cane and gripped it tightly before taking a step, ignoring the footman whose only function was to ensure that Ewan did not fall in his attempts at walking.
“How is the pain today?” his aunt asked gently. “I know it is often worse with the rains.”
“Yes, ‘tis true,” Ewan said, finally lowering himself to the sofa beside her. “I would make a terrible farmer, for the coming of storm clouds sends me into fits of rage rather than serve as a welcome sight for the sake of my crops.”
“At least you are able to make merry about your predicament, rather than letting it turn you bitter,” she said with a hint of sarcasm.
“I don’t know, I rather think I’m as bitter as the next old fool who cannot walk from here to there without the help of a nursemaid, a porter, and this damnable cane,” Ewan said, flinging the stick to the sofa seat beside him in disgust.
“Is that why you refuse to accept all of the invitations you receive?” Lady Garrett asked knowingly. “Because you’d rather not appear with your cane or your elderly aunt in the role of nursemaid?”
“That is part of it,” Ewan confessed. “But I also have no interest in the amusements of the ton. Balls and dinners and parties where we all pretend to be superior to everyone else give me no pleasure.”
“That is not all that goes on at these events,” Lady Garrett said reproachfully, though she did not attempt to persuade him further.
“Quite right, I’d almost forgotten about the time-honored tradition of dressing in one’s finest and merely… walking,” Ewan said, cocking an eyebrow at his aunt.
“The promenade is not merely walking,” Lady Garrett began somewhat defensively, but then she stopped. In truth, what else was it but walking about in the lavish gardens for the benefit of being seen by everyone there?
“It sounds like such great fun, Aunt. Perhaps I can acquire a child’s goat cart, only fit to hold a fully grown man? I shouldn’t think anyone would stare or titter behind their fan to see me pulled about by a miniature beast of burden, do you?” Ewan asked, feigning sincerity.
“Ewan, this isn’t like you,” his aunt began sternly. “You’ve never been one to wallow in your own pity and indignation. What’s brought this on? Is it that silly little duckling? The creature is perfectly fine… and so are you.”
“No, I am not fine,” Ewan argued hotly. “I am disfigured and lame. I am unable to do even the most basic of activities that my peers can enjoy. There shall be no dancing at balls, no strolls about the gardens with a demure young lady envisioning courtship, no hunting or riding proudly as I inspect my holdings. I am eight-and-twenty, yet I might as well be fifty years more than that for all that I can enjoy life.”
Lady Garrett was quiet as she regarded her nephew, and Ewan’s anger faded into a hushed shame as the silence between them grew. It was not her fault that he was in this condition, and she had never done anything that brought him undue pain.
“My apologies, Aunt Mariam,” Ewan finally said, looking down at his hands folded in his lap. “My outburst was uncalled for, and I have lobbed my brief anger in your direction.”
“It’s all right, Ewan. These feelings are quite normal, after all.”
“Normal? What would we know of normal?” he asked, laughing lightly. “Normal is growing up with parents and siblings, going off to school and seeking an education, entering business or politics… not sitting idly like a babe in the nursery due to pain and injury, having your poor aunt take responsibility for your upbringing, having no one about you but the servants who are waiting to see if you’ll fall on your face again today—”
“Ewan, that’s enough,” Lady Garrett said in a kind but forceful tone. “You’ve had twenty years to grieve what should have been, and instead, you’ve only become more bitter and resentful with every passing year. It is time to move on and rejoin the world around you. And I have just the solution.”
“You’ve gone mad,” Ewan said after listening to his aunt detail her scheme.
“Hear me out, Ewan,” his aunt persisted. “I’ve met the young lady myself, she is ideal for you. And her father knew your parents well, for what it’s worth.”
“There is no young lady—short of one who’s been taken with the pox, perhaps—who would consider marrying someone such as me,” he insisted. “The fact that you would even suggest marriage wounds me greatly.”
“You’re being ridiculous. How are you wounded by the notion of someone agreeing to marry you?”
“No young lady wants a husband who can barely cross the room to greet her or join her for dinner. It shall not be enough that I can never dance with her, never stroll or visit a museum? That I cannot even walk the aisle of the church on our wedding day?” Ewan demanded, his sadness and anger joining together to cause him to lash out.
“And what if I knew of a young lady who despises those pursuits? What then, young man?” Lady Garrett demanded haughtily. “This particular girl, besides being quite an astonishing beauty, is in possession of a studious mind and has a keen appreciation of literature and the natural world.”
Ewan paused, his retort cut off before he could utter it. A beauty who prefers literature to shopping pastimes? Who appreciates the wonders of nature? He shook his head. Impossible. Though Ewan had not met many young ladies, he had never encountered one who preferred her studies to the gaiety of society events.
“And I suppose this astonishing beauty who enjoys studying and learning is willing to overlook my grotesqueness if it lands her the title of ‘Duchess,’ am I right?” he accused.
Lady Garrett winced. “Now it is you who wounds me with your accusations. I am thinking of your best interests, of your happiness.”
“How odd, those were your exact words when you sent me off to school, remember?” Ewan asked. “And we know how well that unfolded.”
“Children can be quite cruel, yes,” Lady Garrett agreed softly, looking away. “I had no way of knowing that they would torment you for being an orphan and an—”
“And a what, Aunt Mariam? An invalid? Is that the word you thought to use?” Ewan demanded, gesturing to his leg. “I suppose it is a fitting description.”
“The important thing is when I learned that you were not happy at school, I brought you home at once,” she insisted. “I hired the best tutors for you, scouring the country for teachers who would be mindful of your circumstance but also seek to instruct you well.”
“For all the good it may do us both,” Ewan replied. “The finest education you could procure, wasted on a man who cannot even venture outdoors without assistance.”
“No learning is ever wasted,” Lady Garrett snapped. “The only way an education goes to waste is if the beneficiary chooses to let it fall useless.”
Lady Garrett stood up and held her head up proudly, her shoulders back and her spine erect. She looked down at Ewan with a formal expression, one that belied her love for him in place of insistence on obeying her.
“As you are now of age, I can no longer compel you to do anything you do not wish to do,” she began, her hands folded in front of her. “But I will now be instructing your valet to pack your things for your journey to London. You will remain at my home for the duration of the Season, and you will meet this lovely young lady with an eye for marriage.”
“And if I do not? You said so yourself, you cannot compel me,” Ewan argued petulantly, aware that he sounded rather childish at the moment.
“No, I cannot. But I can give your servants a holiday and send them far from here. Should you refuse to join me, good luck with firing the stove and making your own meals.” Lady Garrett nodded and turned to go, then called out over her shoulder, “I shall inform your valet and your butler that we will be departing for town within the hour.”
Lady Garrett left to see to her hateful task, leaving Ewan fuming. Who did she think she was, coming to his house and ordering him about? The days of his blind obedience to his aunt were long behind him, and he’d given her no cause to treat him thus.
“Except that you have, young man,” Ewan muttered under his breath. His aunt had held up her entire life for him, never marrying again, never seeking to have children of her own, all so that she might put her poor orphaned, injured nephew ahead of herself.
He thought back to every physician she’d dragged him to, some of them on the Continent. Every hospital high up in the Alps that would supposedly be capable of mending the bones that had been shattered beneath the wheels of a carriage, every poultice and powder that was supposed to bring healing… she had tried all of it, never wavering in her belief that Ewan could be whole again.
And despite the pain and disappointment that their journeys had wrought, Ewan had enjoyed their travels. There had been no other children to laugh when he could not run or play with them, no servants clucking their tongues sadly at the boy who could barely stand, no one to mutter “the poor dearie” every time they learned that his parents’ lives had been taken right before his eyes.
For the most part, his upbringing had been simply him and Lady Garrett. Later, she had returned to her life in the city when he no longer had need of her and left him to his bitter solitude. So why was she coming ‘round now, making demands on him that he consider a wife? It made no sense, and he knew there would be no good end to it.
But still… he would do anything for the woman who had taken care of him all these years, the woman who represented all the family he had left. He would do it for her, and then when it did not fare well, he would return to his loneliness and misery at Tarnton at least having tried.
“Stand up straighter, Myra, and at least pretend to smile,” Lady Clifton said through clenched teeth as she approached her daughter.
“I am smiling, Mother. And this is as straight as I am capable of,” Myra replied.
“You must do more to look alluring. You’re hiding over here by the window as though hoping no one will notice you.”
“That is not true. I have already danced with two gentlemen. It is not my fault that there are few gentlemen in attendance this evening, and such a large number of ladies here,” Myra answered, looking around the Admiral’s ballroom and noticing a severe lack of gentlemen.
“It’s true,” her mother sighed with defeat. “Hopefully there will be more gentlemen to choose from at the Abbingtons’ dinner after this.”
“After? Mother, it is nearly ten of the clock already, and we’re to go dine at such an hour?” Myra whined, her weariness getting the better of her.
“It’s quite fashionable, though I agree the hour is too late for my liking,” her mother said close to her ear. “I cannot wait until you’re wed and this game of marriage market is over with. Then I can sit at home with my feet up and my stays loosened for once!”
“Well, I am so sorry for being such a burden,” Myra replied, rolling her eyes.
Lady Clifton looked as though she were about to chastise her daughter for her unbecoming rudeness, but instead she squared her shoulders. “Up straighter, there is Lady Garrett now.”
“Who?” Myra asked, looking to the doorway where her mother waved to someone.
“Lady Garrett,” her mother said impatiently. “I told you all about her already. Good heavens, Myra, if you cannot care about your future, at least pretend as though you do.”
Lady Garrett, Myra thought, trying to remember what it was her mother had said earlier that day. Something about having a nephew who was a Duke? It couldn’t be helped, her mother had interrupted a very compelling part of Myra’s book, after all.
“She and I have already spoken a little about a possible match,” Lady Clifton said, linking her arm through Myra’s and leading her toward the other woman. “I will tell you more later, for now, simply be charming!”
No sooner had her mother finished her dire warning than Myra stood before Lady Clifton’s target. She curtsied to the older woman and smiled in what she hoped was a disarming way.
“Lady Garrett, may I present to you my daughter, Lady Myra Walsh,” Lady Clifton began.
“Ah, you are truly lovely, my dear,” Lady Garrett said, taking Myra by the hand and stepping back to see her better. “And such beautiful eyes, almost identical in hue to your hair.”
“Thank you, My Lady,” Myra said, suddenly feeling rather shy. Was she forever to be inspected like cargo coming off a ship from the Far East? Would there ever be a time when someone wished to speak to her for the sheer thrill of conversation instead of eyeing her appearance?
“Tell me, you’ve already had your Season?” Lady Garrett asked, a hint of skepticism in her words.
“She has, but only as her father wanted to delay her leaving us for as long as possible,” Lady Clifton answered for her. “I’ve told him many times, all children must leave the nest someday, but he didn’t want to hear it.”
It took all her strength not to laugh at her mother’s blatant lie, but Myra managed to look docile and polite while the women yammered on about children growing up.
“Now tell us more about your nephew,” Lady Clifton finally said. “I wonder that I have not seen him at any of the events this Season… or last, for that matter.”
“Oh, His Grace is a quiet, reserved sort, not prone to extravagance or lavish affairs,” Lady Garrett began, piquing Myra’s interest. A husband who had no need of parties or boring dinners and endlessly long conversations about pointless topics?
“He does attend at least some events, does he not?” Lady Clifton asked, sounding a little worried.
“I’m afraid his work keeps him far too occupied to leave home much,” Lady Garrett said, though Myra could tell there was something else that remained unspoken.
“When shall our young people meet then?” Lady Clifton asked, wasting no time.
“I had rather hoped His Grace would attend this evening, but his work has detained him. But I will make certain he attends Lord Graves’ ball tomorrow, if that suits you,” Lady Garrett answered.
Lady Clifton beamed, but Myra was left with the rather distinct impression that all of the arranging and discussing was happening without her participation, a fact that suited her quite well. What did one gentleman matter more than the next when they were all equally insufferable?
“Well, that’s just marvelous,” Lady Clifton groused after they’d taken their leave of Lady Garrett. “What is the point in attending these things if the object of our interest cannot be bothered to make an appearance?”
“So are we permitted to skip Lady Abbington’s dinner then?” Myra asked hopefully. Rather than chastise her, Lady Clifton looked sympathetic.
“How I wish we could. But no, once an invitation to dine has been accepted, it is in terribly poor form to cancel, especially at this late hour. Remember that always, Myra,” her mother instructed. “Foods have already been prepared and table seating has been decided. It would throw things into utter disarray to have guests not arrive. Nothing short of a death in the family would be an acceptable excuse.”
At seeing the disappointed look on her daughter’s face, Lady Clifton smiled reassuringly. “But also remember this, the marriage market is not over until there is a ring on your finger. We cannot pin our hopes on a Duke who hasn’t appeared while there are other eligible young men still in play. Perhaps one of them will be at this dinner, and you may catch his eye.”
That is my greatest fear, Myra thought, even though she smiled for her mother’s sake.
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