About the book
They met and his love roared louder than the beasts haunting her...
For half-blind maid Lenora Foster, life in the service of the Duke of Brackhill is everything she’s ever known. Having experienced the mocking glances of the ton due to her disability, she keeps herself isolated in the darkest corners of the manor.
Pressured by his family to produce an heir, Adrian Sullivan, Marquess of Galdhor, finds himself attending a lackluster ball at Brackhill Manor. That is until he bumps into a peculiar maid with an eyepatch spying on the attendees.
With his heartbeat whispering Lenora’s name, Adrian fails to realize that someone knows. And someone who knows always tells.
Life in the service of the Duke of Brackhill is everything Lenora Foster has ever known. And within a few days, she is pronounced dead…
It was a grand thing, Lenora thought, to live in the manor of a duke.
It was a grand thing to have the freedom to move about the manor, to see the well-appointed bedrooms as she made up the beds every morning and to smell the fine foods each time she visited the kitchen. To think that people lived like this! Lenora found it delightful to handle the fine clothes worn by the family she served. What must it be like to wear these clothes, to feel these fabrics against your skin all day?
Lenora did not dream of wealth. But she could not deny that the trappings of wealth were appealing.
Her own bedroom was at the very top of the manor, on the highest floor, tucked away under a vaulted ceiling so that she could only stand upright in the very center of the room. Her own clothes were simple muslin frocks. But every day she was permitted to visit the most beautiful rooms in the manor, and to clean and hang the most beautiful clothes.
Lady Katherine’s garments were especially fine. There were new gowns every week it seemed, and as the older gowns shifted to the back of Lady Katherine’s wardrobe, Lenora hoped that someday one of them might be given to her as a gift. She was only a chambermaid, it was true, but Lady Katherine had been known to bestow fine things on the maids before. Even one of the scullery maids had been given a silver comb that Lady Katherine no longer fancied.
But it was a vain hope, Lenora knew. Lady Katherine disliked her and always had. She was more likely to give a gift to one of the horses in the manor stables than to Lenora.
The truth was that most members of the household disliked Lenora, or at the very least, avoided her. She wasn’t sure what the reason for that was. It was certainly possible that they were simply avoiding her because they knew Lady Katherine didn’t approve of her. Lady Katherine was the daughter of the Duke of Brackhill, the Lord of the Manor, and she was known for her volatile temper. None of the household staff wanted to be on the receiving end of one of Lady Katherine’s fits, and if that meant staying away from Lenora, it was probably a small price to pay. Lenora couldn’t blame them.
There was, however, another possible cause for their avoidance. Lenora knew how uncomfortable people found it to look her in the eye.
Lenora herself had long since adjusted to the way her reflection looked. It wasn’t so bad to be blind in one eye, she thought, to have one eye that was milky white in color and useless. After all, her other eye was a bright green that she liked very much. She also liked her dark brown hair, which fell in waves to the middle of her back when it wasn’t carefully pinned up beneath her chambermaid’s bonnet. But for those unused to looking at her, Lenora knew, the eye was troubling. She usually wore an eyepatch to keep it covered as she went about her work.
She woke early, when the sun was still low in the sky, as was her habit. Rising before the other members of the household allowed her a few extra minutes at the start of the day to look out her window and to dream. The window was low to the floor, thanks to the size of the room—too low for a chair or a window seat. But Lenora could sink to her knees before it and look out at the duchy below her. It was a beautiful view, one utterly unequalled anywhere, she was sure, and she relished her time alone to take it in.
She sat and watched the sun rise, thinking about what today would bring. Lady Katherine’s ball was fast approaching, and there would be twice the usual amount of work, she knew. The lady’s maid, Isabel, would have need of her. Lenora was excited about the prospect of tending to Lady Katherine’s gown, which she had no doubt would be one of her newest and finest. It was likely to be one Lenora had never seen before, which was always a cause for high spirits.
If only she could attend the ball herself…
It was a ridiculous idea, a foolish fantasy. And yet, how could she help allowing herself to dream? How lovely it would be to dress in something fine like Lady Katherine did, to have her hair styled, to be guided around the dance floor by suitor after suitor in search of her hand. Lady Katherine would have her pick from among dozens of eligible bachelors.
And this would be only the first of several balls!
Lenora did not want to be envious of her Lady. There was no point to those feelings. As a chambermaid in a wealthy home, she was unlikely ever to marry. The Duke would not like his servants distracted with such things as courtship and child rearing. If she were to take a husband, she would very likely lose her position. And any man interested in her, a girl with no means, no titles, and one blind eye, would surely belong to the very-lowest class. She would be lucky to end with a roof over her head at all.
No, balls were not for her. It would be better to keep her attention where it belonged, on her responsibilities. As long as she kept the manor clean and didn’t shirk her duties, she would be able to stay on as a chambermaid to Lady Katherine for years to come.
And she would be able to witness the balls. That in itself would be a treat.
She changed out of her dressing gown and into one of her pale-yellow muslin dresses. She had sewed the garment herself, out of material the Duke had provided, and she was proud of the design. It was simple enough not to anger Lady Katherine, who hated to see Lenora in possession of any sort of finery, but it was well made and flattered Lenora’s figure. Carefully, she pinned her hair up, making sure it was secure enough that it wouldn’t fall out while she worked, and put her bonnet over it.
A good chambermaid was never seen, and Lenora strove to be a good chambermaid. She waited in her room until she saw Lady Katherine emerge from the front doors of the manor and climb into a carriage. Where is my Lady off to this morning, I wonder? There was much yet to do before the first ball, which would take place tomorrow night. Surely Lady Katherine was needed at the manor for fittings and other preparations?
But Lenora did not mind her absence at all. Having Lady Katherine out of the manor would make it that much easier to get the day’s work done.
She descended the stairs and made her way to her Lady’s bedchamber. The bedclothes were in disarray, as usual, and Lady Katherine’s breakfast tray sat on the floor. Lenora had almost trodden in bowls of porridge on several occasions before mastering the habit of sidestepping the tray. Now she breezed past it as easily and gracefully as if she were dancing and set about the task of straightening up the bed.
Lenora took pride in her work. Lady Katherine might not like Lenora, but she would never have cause to complain that she was derelict in her duties. The room would be immaculate by the time Lenora was finished. When the bed was in perfect condition, she drew the curtains open to allow the day’s sunlight to warm the room. She would return to close the curtains in the evening so that her Lady might sleep peacefully.
She scrubbed the floor carefully, as she did every day, so that Lady Katherine would never suffer from dirty feet. She carried the chamber pot downstairs for the scullery maid to tend to and exchanged it for a bundle of coal. Back up in Lady Katherine’s chamber, she arranged the coal in a neat pile for lighting that evening.
She was in awe, sometimes, of how much work it took to restore Lady Katherine’s room to its proper condition each morning. Not that the work was difficult or unpleasant—but there were so very many things that needed to be done! She thought of her own room and the scant amount of work she put into keeping it in shape. She had no heavy-patterned drapes that needed to be tied back each day. Her darkness came from the simple fact of the sun going down at night. She had no fire that required coal to be carried up each morning. She kept herself warm with a quilt she had sewn from scraps.
Sometimes she thought it might actually be more difficult to live Lady Katherine’s life, to need as many things as her Lady did in order to feel content. Lenora woke up feeling happy almost every day with nothing more than her few meager possessions and a little space to call her own. She certainly didn’t need a chambermaid to come in and restore things for her every day.
But then, she supposed, it was lucky that Lady Katherine did feel the need for a chambermaid. If she hadn’t, Lenora would be without work.
She finished setting Lady Katherine’s chamber to rights and went down to the kitchen to see about getting something for breakfast. She would have many other responsibilities to tend to as the day went on, and it would be a good idea to get something to eat while she had the opportunity.
The path to the kitchen required her to pass through the main foyer, and as she approached, she saw that the Duchess was standing at the door and speaking to somebody. Lenora waited on the landing, hoping the Duchess would move on. Her Grace had never seemed quite as ill disposed toward Lenora as her daughter was, but Lenora knew the Duchess was far from fond of her. Today could go from busy to miserable in a hurry if the Duchess spotted her.
“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times,” the Duchess was saying. “White roses. Not pink. Take them back. I won’t pay for them.”
“Your Grace, begging your pardon, but there ain’t a white rose in the city,” a voice replied. Lenora leaned out over the bannister, trying to see who was there, and spotted a young man in the attire of a delivery boy. He held a bundle of roses of palest pink. “This here might be the closest you’ll find.”
“I tell you, I won’t pay for them. Take them back or scatter them in your privy, if it pleases you, but we won’t have them here.” The Duchess slammed the door in the young man’s face and whirled around. “Lenora! What are you doing?”
“I’m on my way to the kitchen, Your Grace.” Lenora inclined her head slightly, hoping the Duchess wouldn’t realize she had been eavesdropping.
“Well, come with me,” the Duchess said. “That oaf of a delivery boy failed to bring the white roses we need for Katherine’s ball tomorrow, and now we need to rethink the decorations. I’ll need your assistance in the ballroom.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Thinking sadly of breakfast, her stomach complaining with hunger, Lenora followed the Duchess into the ballroom. Always ornate and beautiful, the room had been elevated to reflect the magnificence of the occasion. White tulle hung from the sconces and white tapers sat in the manor’s finest candlesticks around the room.
“We’ve done the whole thing in white!” the Duchess fretted. “I simply don’t see how we can be expected to make a change now.”
Lenora waited quietly.
“White for purity,” the Duchess said sadly. “White for Katherine’s purity. And now what will her suitors think?”
That was a question. Perhaps Lenora might be permitted to answer? “Another color might pair well with the white,” she suggested. “You could accept the pink flowers and use them to complement the white.”
“Pink!” the Duchess spat. “Pink for passion. Pink for lustfulness. It would be a scandal! Only a foolish girl like you would think such a thing appropriate.”
Lenora fell quiet again.
“I suppose we might have purple flowers,” the Duchess said slowly. “Purple for royalty. That might do. Yes... purity and royalty. That would reflect well on Katherine.”
Lenora nodded respectfully.
“Run along and find that delivery boy,” the Duchess said imperiously. “Tell him purple flowers will be acceptable. But nothing cheap, mind! Hydrangeas. That would be lovely.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Lenora retreated from the room. She looked longingly at the kitchen as she ran through the foyer, but there was no time now to stop for something to eat. She would have to hurry if there was to be any hope of catching the delivery boy.
Thankfully, she found him just a short way down the road. He was walking slowly, kicking rocks as he went, and he seemed to be in a foul mood. “Boy!” she called after him.
He turned. “What you want, miss?”
“To deliver a message from My Lady. If there are no white flowers to be had, she says that purple will do. Hydrangeas, if you are able to get them.”
“Begging Miss’ pardon, but this job has been more trouble than it’s worth for what the Lady pays,” the boy grumbled.
“I understand,” Lenora said. “But I hope you’ll bring the flowers, nonetheless. It’s me she’ll punish if they don’t arrive.”
He nodded. “She’ll have her flowers. But she’ll have to find someone else to deliver them to her next time.”
That was all very well. Lenora thanked the delivery boy and headed back up to the house, relieved that she’d been able to make the necessary arrangements.
“Lenora!” a voice called as she went by.
She turned. Jimmy Bates, the stable hand, was leaning on his pitchfork. “Hello, Jimmy.”
“Where are you running off to this early?”
“I’m running back, not off.” She told him the story of the flowers and her pursuit of the delivery boy.
Jimmy laughed. “God forbid we have the wrong color flowers at the ball and Lady Katherine’s suitors think she’s a woman of loose morals! The ton would be scandalized.” He forked up a little hay and dropped it into one of the stables. “Have you eaten anything today?”
“You worry too much, Jimmy,” Lenora said, warmed nonetheless by his concern. Jimmy was one of the only people at the manor who seemed to care for her well-being. The two had grown up side-by-side; he working in the stables and she in the house, and now they were as close as brother and sister. If there was one person in this place Lenora could turn to, it was Jimmy.
But she couldn’t tell him everything. Right now, for instance, she didn’t want him to know how hard she’d been working this morning, that she hadn’t yet had a chance to take her breakfast. She was ever fearful that Jimmy would become angry at the way the Duchess or Lady Katherine treated her and let them glimpse his true feelings. If that happened, she knew, Jimmy would lose his position. He might end up out on the street. And she would never see her closest friend again.
“I don’t worry too much,” Jimmy countered. “I worry a proper amount. I worry that they work you ragged and that nobody in that manor is ensuring you ever get a decent meal. And I’m right, am I not?”
She sighed. “You see too much.”
“I spend my days with horses,” he said. “It has made me perceptive. Come into the stable.”
She followed him in and made the rounds, moving from horse to horse, stroking their long noses, offering up handfuls of oats. “Hello, Chester,” she said, nuzzling her forehead against the nose of her favorite horse. “You’re looking beautiful as ever.”
“You may well call him so,” Jimmy said darkly. “He nearly kicked me this morning when I was cleaning his pen.”
“Chester! You didn’t. You bad boy.” She shook her finger at him and turned to Jimmy. “You’re not hurt, are you?”
“Only my pride,” he said. “He knocked me down into the hay. Here.” He fished in the pocket of his apron and pulled out a carrot and a piece of bread. “Eat these.”
“Jimmy, I can’t take your food.”
“I’ve eaten already. The bread is left over from my breakfast, and the carrot is meant to be for Chester. Eat.”
“We can’t have you swooning from hunger in the parlor in front of the Duchess, can we?” He pressed the food into her hands. “Although perhaps that would awaken her to the fact that you need to be fed from time to time.”
“She never tries to stop me from eating,” Lenora said. “She doesn’t notice that I haven’t had anything, that’s all.”
“Well, she should notice,” Jimmy said. “If I had maids and servants, my first act every morning would be to serve them a banquet.”
Lenora laughed. “A banquet! For servants!”
“And why not? Don’t we enjoy fine things as much as anyone else? Haven’t we the right to full stomachs?”
She shook her head. “Your dreams would better befit a prince than a stable boy, Jimmy.”
“And you? What do you dream of?”
“I? Nothing. A ride on Chester, perhaps.”
“I don’t believe that,” Jimmy said. “There must be something you want. Something you wish for. You can tell me, I won’t laugh.”
“Of course not,” Lenora said. “You would never laugh at me, Jimmy. I know that,” she sighed. “But dreams are a far cry from reality.”
“Meaning what, exactly?”
“Meaning I don’t want to forget who I am. I don’t want to forget my station and my duties and allow myself to dwell in the realm of fantasy.” She finished her piece of bread and brushed the crumbs from her dress. “Thank you very much for the breakfast, Jimmy, but I must return to the manor before I’m missed.”
“I suppose so,” Jimmy agreed. “If you can get away this afternoon, perhaps I can saddle up Chester for you.”
Lenora shook her head sadly. “You know we aren’t allowed.” Chester belonged to Lady Katherine. Lenora knew her Lady would have a fit if she saw a chambermaid riding her horse.
On her way back into the house, she almost collided with Mr. Henderson, the butler.
“Will you mind where you’re stepping?” he complained. “I’ve just finished washing all this silver, and if I trip over you and drop it, I’ll have to take it back and do it again.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Henderson.” Lenora took one of the boxes of silverware out of his hands. “Where does this need to go?”
“To the dining room, of course,” he said. “We’re already laying the tables for tomorrow night. Thank heavens the Duke only has one daughter.” He shook his head. “Some households go through this affair five times!”
Lenora laughed. “Lady Katherine is as much work as five young ladies in any other manor,” she pointed out.
Mr. Henderson laughed. “Still your tongue, before the Duchess hears you.”
“And I’d better get back upstairs before she sees us together, as well,” Lenora said. “I would hate to cause trouble for you, Mr. Henderson, and you know she’ll be upset if she sees you speaking to me.”
Mr. Henderson shook his head. “She can be upset all she likes,” he said. “The Duke will never let her send me away. I’ve been serving at Brackhill Manor for almost fifty years.” He settled his boxes of silverware on one of the many long tables in the dining room. “Don’t you worry about me, Lenora,” he said. “Her Grace might be able to influence the rest of the staff into avoiding you, but she can’t influence me.”
“You’re very kind.” She favored him with a smile. After Jimmy, Mr. Henderson was the member of the household she felt closest to. If she’d had an uncle, perhaps he would have been like Mr. Henderson.
Lenora left the dining room and made her way back toward the stairs, hoping to reach the second floor of the manor unseen and unquestioned, but again, her hopes proved to be in vain.
It was the Duchess again. She came sweeping down the stairs looking very put out of countenance. “My chamber hasn’t been tended to!”
“Yes, Your Grace, I apologize.” Lenora bowed her head. “I’m on my way there now.”
“I can’t wait all day, you know,” the Duchess said. “I need you in the ballroom all afternoon. When the flowers arrive, we’ll be making arrangements, and the floor needs to be scrubbed. And then I’ll want you in the kitchen, assisting the cook.”
The kitchen. She could finally get something to eat, something more substantial than a few bites of bread and a carrot. “I’ll hurry,” she pledged.
“It’s very disappointing not to have one’s bedchamber in good condition,” the Duchess said. “I expect better of you, Lenora.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“I wouldn’t want you to get carried away with the idea that your position here is guaranteed,” the Duchess said warningly. “We can find you a new situation, if you don’t feel able to keep up with the work that is required in a manor such as this. The Duke deserves to be surrounded by none but the finest servants. I would hate to think that number no longer includes you.” She raised an eyebrow.
“I’ll do better, Your Grace.”
“See that you do.” The Duchess marched past Lenora and into the ballroom.
Lenora scurried up the stairs before the Duchess could return to scold her again. It was utterly unjust, she thought. She had been delayed in her work by the Duchess herself. When was she meant to have set the bedchamber to rights? She could only be in one place at a time.
At least she felt secure in her position. The Duchess might like Lenora to think that she could be dismissed from the manor but, much like Mr. Henderson, Lenora felt confident that the Duke wanted to keep her in his employ. As Lord of the Manor, his decision was what counted. His wife had no power to overrule him.
She entered the Duchess’ chamber and set about straightening things up. This room was always tidier, and therefore less work, than Lady Katherine’s. The breakfast tray was on the bedside table instead of on the floor, and the bedclothes were already lying neatly on the bed. Lenora had only to straighten and tuck them and to shake the pillows back into their proper shape.
When she was finished, she allowed herself a moment to sit at the Duchess’ vanity table and run her fingers over the fine things there. Hair combs, powders, a lacy fan... Lenora closed her eyes and imagined preparing for a ball. What would it be like to have her very own lady’s maid to pin up her hair in the fashionable style, to powder her cheeks, to lace her into a corset and help her into a dress? To be escorted on the arm of a gentleman, someone who would look at her as if she were the most beautiful star in the sky?
Lenora knew that such dreams were impossible for her. What she had said to Jimmy was true. She did not want to dwell in fantasies.
But oh, they're such lovely fantasies!
She rested her fingers on her Lady’s possessions for a few moments longer, wondering whether the Duchess ever stopped to appreciate how fortunate she was to own such beautiful things. Then she stood up, brushed the dust from her dress, and left the room, pulling the door closed behind her. If she was very quiet, perhaps she would be able to stop in the kitchen now and find something hot to eat.
The front doors of the manor had been flung open wide. Lords and ladies from all over the realm made their way up the stairs, through the foyer, and into the ballroom. Lady Katherine, already on her third turn about the dance floor, glowed in a pale-ivory gown and sparkled up into the rapt gaze of one of her guests.
“He would dance with her all night if he could,” Lenora murmured.
No one responded, of course. Lenora had secreted herself away in the kitchen so she might have a front row seat to the evening’s events. Being in the kitchen meant being able to watch all the guests arriving in their finery, but it also meant she was surrounded by the kitchen staff, none of whom were bold enough to actually dare speaking to Lady Katherine’s barely-tolerated chambermaid.
Lenora did not blame them a bit. If tonight went well, Lady Katherine’s disposition might be pleasant enough tomorrow. But if things went poorly, she would no doubt be in a terrible temper. None of the staff would give her any reason to single them out as targets for her anger.
For now, at least, it was clear that Lady Katherine was having a lovely time. The dance ended and almost immediately another young man appeared at her elbow, holding his hand out to her. Lenora ached to leave the kitchen so that she would be able to see more of the ballroom than just the doorway, but she dared not.
A moment later, Lady Katherine was swept out of sight by her new dance partner.
Lenora, who had been crouched low to peek through the keyhole in the kitchen door, stood up straight and almost backed into the cook.
“Mind your step!” The cook was carrying a large platter of boiled chicken and had to perform a little dance to evade Lenora. “If you knock over the chicken, girl, you’ll answer to Her Grace! I’ll not take the blame for your oafishness.”
Lenora apologized, wishing as she did so that there was somewhere—anywhere—unobtrusive and out of the way in the manor where she could have enjoyed the sights and sounds of the ball. Returning to her own room wasn’t an option, to be sure. Not only would she miss all the excitement, she would also be too far from the rest of the house to hear a summons if her service was needed.
She was, in truth, glad to have the excuse to remain in the main part of the manor rather than retreating to her chamber. It would have been natural for her to do so. She was predisposed to want to be out of the way—or perhaps years of being barely tolerated by the Ladies of the house and the rest of the staff had made her that way. Now, with the manor filled with members of the ton, the last thing Lenora wanted was to be seen.
But she did want to do a bit of watching.
After all, for as much as she loved the finery enjoyed by the Duchess and Lady Katherine, she rarely saw fashions chosen by ladies outside her own home. But tonight was different. She lowered herself to the keyhole again in time to see two ladies in bright gowns, each on the arm of a gentleman, making their way through the foyer.
“Personally, I would never have hydrangeas at my daughter’s ball,” one of the ladies was saying. “I feel they’re a very low-class flower. Very common.”
“Oh? And what would you have chosen, pray?” the other lady asked.
“Something exotic,” the first lady responded. “Something my guests would never have seen before. Something to catch their notice and set them talking.”
The second lady shook her head. “You’ve much to learn about making an impression on the peerage, Madam. You may have married into a title, but your thoughts are those of a commoner. Flowers like the ones you describe would steal attention away from the Lady of the ball. Lady Katherine should be the true flower at this party. The hydrangeas will set off her beauty without distracting from it.”
Lenora heartily agreed with the second lady. Although she and Lady Katherine had never been and would never be close, it was impossible not to notice how lovely she looked tonight. Every time she whirled in front of the open door to the ballroom, passing within Lenora’s line of sight, she caught Lenora’s notice.
Her blonde hair had been pinned elaborately up on top of her head and decorated with a pearl inlaid comb that Lenora had never seen before. It must have been acquired specifically for this ball. The hairstyle showed off Lady Katherine’s long, slender neck and seemed to add a few inches to her height. Her gown was somehow both girlish and alluring, flowing simply and smoothly from her waist to the floor like falling water. It fanned ever so slightly when she moved.
And she had been given a necklace to wear for the occasion. The ruby at her throat was the only color she wore, but it was a large gemstone and was sure to draw the eye of everyone who saw her tonight. Lenora knew for certain that this gem had not been in the manor before tonight. The Duke must have given it to his daughter.
It all came together to make a lovely picture, and the lords in attendance were definitely noticing. Dozens of eligible men had come tonight, in the company of their mothers and sisters or else on their own.
Some of them didn’t have a chance, though, Lenora thought. The Duchess would never accept a match for her daughter unless he was high ranking. The Lord and Lady Harreton had brought along their son, who Lenora knew would someday inherit the rank of Baron from his father. She was surprised they had even been allowed in the front door. Mr. Harreton had no hope of wedding Lady Katherine.
She heard the music change and knew that Lady Katherine’s dance partner must have changed as well. Who would claim her hand for this dance? It was a spirited number and would not afford much opportunity for conversation, but Lenora did not think that would deter many, if any, of her suitors.
Or would she have remained in the arms of the same man? That seemed unlikely. Lady Katherine would want to be seen—to be desired—by as many men as possible. The more men she danced with, the more men who would think they had the chance to be chosen as her husband when the season came to an end. And that would mean that Lady Katherine would have many options.
Though it would be the Duke who would make the final decision as to who should have her hand, Lenora knew that he would deny his daughter, and her mother, nothing. Whatever the women decided would be permitted.
Lenora stared hard across the now-empty foyer toward the ballroom, trying not to blink. There were so many people here! How many of them harbored hopes of winning Lady Katherine, she wondered, and how many were in attendance merely to take in the spectacle, to enjoy the wonderful food and ensure that they had all the gossip?
The lady who had been criticizing the hydrangeas surely belonged to this second group. Lenora had noticed what her companion had said about her having been a commoner until she married a titled man. As a new member of the peerage, she would be on the outskirts of a party like this. Lenora wondered if she realized that simply by being here, she opened herself up to being gossiped about just as much as the ladies of the manor had by inviting people in. She felt for the poor lady, who mightn’t yet understand what it meant to be a member of the social elite.
“If you’re going to stand there, at least help,” the cook snapped at Lenora. “Don’t just block the door. This is my kitchen.”
She was right, Lenora knew. “How can I help?” She didn’t want to be banished from the kitchen, sent up to her room, unable to see any more of the ball. She wanted to know what was happening. Some ladies, she thought, would have confided things in their maids. Some ladies would have told their maids who they’d danced with, who had worn what, how the food had tasted. But Lady Katherine was not that kind. She would sooner don Lenora’s muslin dress and clean her own chamber pot than actually start a conversation with her.
The cook shoved a cloth into Lenora’s hand and pointed to the sink. “Wash,” she instructed.
Lenora took her place before the sink full of soapy water and dishes and began to scrub. It was an unusual chore for her, and not one she minded at all, although she knew that the kitchen staff who spent hours every day with their hands in the water developed dry skin and aching cracks on their knuckles. For a one-time chore, though, it was nice. The water was warm and soothing, and Lenora quickly established a rhythm. Scrub a dish, dip it, scrub it again, hand it along to be dried. The task allowed her mind to wander.
What would happen when Lady Katherine was married?
Well, presumably she would be leaving the manor, taking up residence in the home of her new husband. But what about Lenora? Although she helped with chores throughout the manor, she had always been Lady Katherine’s chambermaid first and foremost. Would she accompany her Lady to her new home?
Doing so would mean leaving the manor. Leaving the Duke and Duchess behind.
She would have no qualms about bidding the Duchess farewell. Her Grace had always hated Lenora, after all, and had made no secret of it. Everything that went wrong in the manor could be blamed on Lenora, in the Duchess’ opinion. Even the fact that there were no white roses to be had for tonight’s ball had somehow caused her ire to be directed toward Lenora.
But the Duke had always been kind to her, if distant. Lenora liked serving him. To leave his household with Lady Katherine would be a definite disappointment.
And then there was the fact that she would be losing the only home she had ever known. How would she say goodbye to her little chamber, the only place that she had ever felt belonged to her? She had spent so many hours tucked away beneath the vaulted roof sewing new dresses and staring out the window. What if she was forced to say goodbye to the manor? She would never see her room again.
And she would never see Jimmy again, or Mr. Henderson the butler. The only people, Lenora thought, who truly cared for her. She couldn’t possibly do without them.
She felt sure the Duke would never dismiss her from his employ. But what if he decided she could be of more use as a lady’s maid to his daughter?
Of course, Lady Katherine will never want me for her lady’s maid, Lenora thought. That was certainly the truth. Lady Katherine despised Lenora. She would be almost as distraught as Lenora herself if the Duke suggested Lenora as a lady’s maid for her.
There was probably nothing to fear.
Lenora finished washing the dishes in the sink. She stepped back toward the door and the keyhole, moving quietly, hoping not to attract attention and be assigned another chore. She wanted to peek out again, to see who was arriving now and whether she could catch a glimpse of Lady Katherine.
Her Lady spun past the ballroom door, held in the embrace of a lord Lenora did not recognize. She saw that he was tall, strong looking, with soft mahogany hair. He was incredibly handsome. Would this gentleman be the one to claim Lady Katherine’s hand? Lenora only saw them for a moment, but that was long enough to register the way Lady Katherine was looking up into her partner’s eyes. She was captivated, Lenora realized. Whether by his looks or his conversation, Lady Katherine was completely mesmerized.
Lenora had never seen her Lady look like that before.
She’s chosen, Lenora thought, watching her sail out of view. She’s made her choice. She will ask her father for a marriage contract with that gentleman, whoever he is. And the Duke would acquiesce. He would never deny his beloved daughter. The rest of the balls might as well be cancelled. The rest of the suitors might as well go home now. The decision was as good as made.
And, Lenora had to admit, Lady Katherine had chosen well. The gentleman really was astonishingly good looking. She would admit to wondering whether Lady Katherine would have taken anyone—no matter how unattractive, ill mannered, or dull he might have been—as long as his wealth and station were pleasing to her. But she seemed to have found a good match.
Suddenly wanting no further part of the ball, Lenora retreated from the knot in the wood, thinking to retire upstairs to her room. She had seen what she had come to see—the guests in their beautiful attire, the dancing, the decor. She had enough memories of the ball tonight that she would be able to reconstruct it in her head for weeks to come. She would be able to dwell comfortably in daydreams of balls, balls that she had been invited to attend. She would be able to imagine dancing across the floor in the arms of a gentleman like the one Lady Katherine was with right now.
It was enough. She didn’t want to watch the ball end. She didn’t want to see all the lords and ladies leave. She didn’t want to see how much time Lady Katherine spent with the gentleman she’d chosen.
Why did she suddenly feel so sad?
“Lenora,” the cook snapped, “take this platter out to the dining room.”
She blinked. “What?”
“You heard what I said. Dinner will be served shortly, and it’s time to prepare the table. Take the soup. And mind you don’t spill any, Her Grace won’t like that a bit.”
“But—” Lenora shook her head. “I can’t take the soup to the dining room.”
“And why not, may I ask?”
“They’ll see me.” Her fingers flew automatically to her eyepatch. “The guests will see me.”
“The guests know there are servants in the house,” the cook said. “Someone has to take the food out.”
“You know Her Grace won’t like to know I’ve been down here.”
“A thing you perhaps should have considered before spending all evening down here.” The cook thrust the soup into Lenora’s arms. “Take it out now. If you go quickly, you may avoid being seen. If you tarry, the guests will begin making their way into the dining room and you’ll be sure to be noticed.”
There was nothing to be done. Lenora edged her way out into the foyer, hoping desperately that she would not be seen. Fortunately, it seemed that no more guests were arriving, at least for the moment. The stream of lords and ladies that had been flowing from the manor’s entrance through the foyer and into the ballroom had slowed to a trickle. Lenora hurried across the foyer and into the dining room, hugging the soup to her chest.
Although the doors between the dining room and the ballroom stood wide open, affording the people in each room a perfectly good view of the other, Lenora knew that if she stayed close to the walls she wouldn’t be seen. It was a difficult decision. She longed to stand in the center of the dining room, where the view would be best, and take in the sight of the ball. The urge to retreat to her room had not left her, but the ball was right there before her. Surely a little peek couldn’t hurt anything?
No, she must complete the task she had been sent here for. If the Duchess were to see Lenora right now, she might be upset at her presence, but she would understand that Lenora had been sent to deliver soup. She would not be angry. But if she were to find Lenora standing like an oaf and staring at the ball, it would be a different matter altogether.
Lenora settled the soup gently on the table, pleased with herself for not having spilled a drop. The cook had filled the serving dish all the way to the brim. Lenora allowed herself a moment to lean over and inhale deeply. The soup smelled spicy and delicious, but not as wonderful as the stews she often made at the end of a night’s work with leftover ingredients from the family’s supper. Evening Stew, as the cook called it, was prepared in the largest kettle in the kitchen, and any member of the staff was allowed to help themselves to a bowl before retiring. It was Lenora’s favorite part of the day.
This soup was a different matter. It had been prepared, Lenora knew, with the aim of impressing the ton. It was French, probably, and something nobody here would have tasted before. An exciting experience for the assembled lords and ladies. But it would not be filling, nor would it be a comfort.
For the first time all evening, Lenora realized, she was not envious of the attendees of the ball. They would have this soup, and that was very fine. But she would have the cook’s stew tonight, and that was better.
A bell rang somewhere in the house indicating that it was time for supper. The guests would be making their way into the dining room momentarily. Lenora knew it was time to go. She retreated quickly into the foyer. She would return to her room now and stay out of the way for the rest of the night.
But as the guests began to file from the ballroom into the dining room, Lenora found that she couldn’t tear herself away. She had never seen such a lavish supper before. She stood in the foyer, hidden behind the door frame, peeking around it to see what would happen now.
The lords and ladies seemed to know where they were meant to sit. Lenora saw Lady Katherine take her seat between two gentlemen. Neither was the handsome lord Lenora had seen her admire during their dance together. Perhaps that was why Lady Katherine looked so put out of countenance. Lenora imagined she had harbored hopes of being seated beside that gentleman.
Where was he?
She realized that she couldn’t locate him anywhere. Had he left the ball? He wouldn’t have done such a thing, would he? It would be terribly rude to leave before supper was served, and he would cause himself to miss out on all the fine foods being offered. Hadn’t he found Lady Katherine appealing? He must have been interested in winning her hand if he had attended her ball and danced with her. Where could he be?
She craned her neck, trying to see farther into the room without making herself visible to the guests within. Could he have seated himself at the very end of the table, perhaps?
But no. He was not there.
The dishes had now begun to be passed, and there was still no sign of Lady Katherine’s chosen lord. Lenora found her attention pulled away from that mystery as the covers were removed from the platters, exposing chicken and venison, fish and prawns, tartlets and cakes. The lord at Lady Katherine’s left side solicitously served her from each dish that passed their way. He was a simpering fool, Lenora thought. Couldn’t he see that Lady Katherine was hardly looking at him? She felt a bit embarrassed for him.
It must be difficult, she imagined, to have to win the affections of a lady such as Lady Katherine. In all the years Lenora had served at the manor, she couldn’t recall Lady Katherine showing genuine affection for anything. But the poor man continued to make every effort.
If I could choose any role for myself at this ball, she thought, it would be to take these poor unfortunates aside and make them aware of the fact that they hadn’t been chosen. Someone ought to let them know, truly.
Soon every plate had been filled and the nobles had begun to eat. Lady Katherine ate daintily, hardly moving any of the food on her plate, and Lenora thought she understood why. The Duchess would have instructed her to be delicate during the supper, to take ladylike bites and show that her appetite was birdlike. The lords would find her delicacy appealing. And indeed, the gentleman at Lady Katherine’s left looked down at her fork, then said something and laughed gently. Lady Katherine blushed delicately up at him.
There’s no denying that she is lovely, Lenora thought.
Would the man who won her hand, her heart, come to realize how unkind she could be? How cruel? And if he did, would such a thing even matter to him? Lenora had a feeling that kindness was not a quality highborn lords necessarily sought in their wives. The Duke did not seem to mind the fact that the Duchess was cruel to her staff, after all. Although, Lenora reflected, it was possible that he was unaware of it. Her personality always seemed to change around her lord husband.
Before long, Lady Katherine had stopped eating entirely. She set down her fork and turned her full attention to the gentleman at her right. The gentleman to her other side looked irritated. He tried a few times to capture her attention, but she looked his way only long enough to be polite before turning back to her preferred dinner companion. Still, Lenora thought, she did not seem captivated by this gentleman. Not the way she had on the dance floor, when she had been partnered with the handsome lord who had since vanished.
Lady Katherine picked up her goblet and took a demure sip of her wine. Her eyes flickered to the doorway. Her eyes met Lenora’s
A few droplets of wine landed on the fine ivory sleeve of her gown and she let out a cry of outrage and dismay.
Shocked and horrified, Lenora backed away from the door. This would be considered her fault, she knew. She should never have been standing there, should never have been watching the meal. She had upset her Lady. She had to get back to her room, and quickly, before Lady Katherine sent the Duchess out here to reprimand her.
But as she hurried away from the door, she turned and collided with someone.
“I beg your pardon,” she said automatically, her horror multiplying. Now she had collided with one of the guests! She should have stayed upstairs all night. Coming down here had been a mistake. She should have known something like this would happen.
“It’s quite all right,” said a man’s voice.
Lenora looked up.
Her heart sank like a stone.
The gentleman with whom she’d collided was none other than the mysterious lord with whom Lady Katherine had been dancing. The lord she had been looking at with such admiration. Lenora had thought he’d gone, and yet here he was.
He will certainly tell her about my fumbling, she thought despairingly. There would be no hope, now, of avoiding punishment for her actions.
“May I inquire as to your name?” the gentleman asked.
She didn’t dare speak to him. She couldn’t even look at him. What a disaster tonight had turned out to be!
“My apologies,” she mumbled, and ran off toward her room before anything else could go wrong.
Was there anything in the world more tedious than a ball?
Adrian would vastly have preferred to be at home. He preferred to spend his evenings reading, tending to his horse, Gibraltar, or in conversation with his uncle about world affairs. His idea of a good time was certainly not this sort of affair. In truth, he had only attended the event at all at his lady mother’s insistence. The Dowager Marchioness Galdhor could be quite insistent when it came to such matters.
“Handsome and intelligent you may be, Adrian,” she allowed. “But you must know that appearance isn’t everything, and that brains can take you only so far in this life. You are nearing thirty years of age. It is time for you to wed.”
Time to wed! It sounded like such an ordeal. What would Adrian’s life become with a wife to care for? The hours of solitude he so enjoyed would evaporate like so much dew on the grass. He would never have a moment for his thoughts again!
He had tried to convince himself that he was wrong in his assessment. A wife could be a comfort. It might be pleasant to have someone else about the manor, someone new to talk to, someone he could even grow to love. Perhaps she would offer him stimulating conversation. Perhaps she would be gentle and kind.
But one dance with the Lady Katherine McLean had dashed his hopes in that regard.
There could be no doubt that she was lovely. She was slender and fair skinned with pale blue eyes and blonde hair that was almost golden. She danced gracefully and smiled prettily and was very becoming indeed in her ivory ball gown.
But she was so tiresome!
She seemed to be incapable of conversation. He had tried asking her whether she was enjoying her ball, but she had merely beamed up at him and said “Oh, yes!” He had then waited, expecting that she might return the question or ask him one of her own, but she seemed to have nothing to say.
Had all the others found it so excruciating to dance with her? They couldn’t have, Adrian reasoned. A couple of lords had even gone back for a second round. They must have enjoyed her company. Or perhaps they were merely so desperate to win her hand in marriage that they would have suffered anything.
Suffer through it, he ordered himself. Soon enough you will be able to go home and tell your lady mother that you made your best effort here. It wasn’t as if there were no other young women in the world. He would find a wife somewhere else, and that would please his mother. And Lady Katherine would choose from among her dozens of suitors. Everyone would be happy in the end.
In the end, maybe. But first, Adrian would have to endure the rest of this interminable ball.
The supper bell chimed, and the rest of the guests began to make their way slowly from the ballroom into the dining room. Adrian held himself back. There would be a clamor, he hoped, to claim a seat next to Lady Katherine, and if he could manage to absent himself for a few moments, he would avoid being seated beside her. He didn’t think he could bear sitting through an entire supper trying to make conversation with her. She was so difficult to talk to. She had absolutely nothing of interest or import to say.
She is a flower, he thought. Lovely and vibrant, but what you see is all you get. There is nothing more to her.
Rather than proceed into the dining room and take a seat near Lady Katherine, Adrian stepped out into the garden for a breath of fresh air. His mother would think him very rude for failing to respond promptly to the supper bell, he knew. But his mother would also be appalled at the fact that he was choosing not to spend time with Lady Katherine when time had been offered. What ails you, Son? she would ask him. Don’t you want to wed her?
He didn’t. Not a bit. Marriage itself he would learn to accept, even to embrace. But not with this lady.
The garden was well appointed and well-tended, if a bit gaudy—someone had filled it with stone statues of cherubs, which Adrian found off-putting. But he was, for the first time all evening, alone, and that was certainly a relief. Even when he hadn’t been forced to make awkward conversation with Lady Katherine, it seemed there had always been someone eager for his attention. Lord Harreton had talked for what felt like hours about having known Adrian’s father, a subject Adrian was none too eager to discuss. And then, as if that hadn’t been bad enough, there was Mr. Gregor Pelham, son of the Earl of Montrose, who had served in the military at the same time as Adrian and seemed to enjoy comparing war stories.
Adrian flatly refused to discuss the war with any of these people.
The memories, for him, were still too raw. He could still hear the screams of his friends. He could still smell the blood in the hot sun. How could anyone want to talk about such things at a party? He wished he could have turned his back on Mr. Pelham and walked away from the conversation. Pelham would certainly have deserved such a snubbing. But Adrian had better breeding than that. He stood there and nodded and pretended Pelham’s words weren’t stinging his soul.
I should never have come to this ball, he thought now, running his fingertips over the needles of a pine bush. I should have put my foot down and simply refused. One didn’t have to go to balls in order to marry. He could have found a pleasant enough young lady, spoken to her father, and made the arrangements quickly and painlessly.
Not for a Duke’s daughter, you couldn’t, his mother’s voice spoke in his mind. For a young lady of this quality, some work is required. You had to attend the ball. You know you did.
He knew. But he certainly did not have to like it. And nor did he have to choose Lady Katherine as his wife.
Eventually, he knew he could linger in the garden no longer. The food would have been served by now. He would have to return and make some excuse for his prolonged absence. Fortunately, it would be impolite for his fellow guests to make too many inquiries as to his whereabouts. He could count on them to leave the subject be, he thought, at the first sign of reticence on his part to discuss it. Still, they would be curious, and there were likely to be whispers behind his back.
Adrian sighed. Sometimes the company of his fellow nobles was more than he could stand. Would that there was just one person he could speak openly to, one person whose conversation captured his interest and stimulated his mind! Was that so very much to ask for?
He wandered back toward the manor doors, moving as slowly as he could. He did not relish returning to the dining hall, fine as the food smelled, and facing all the onlookers and their questioning eyes.
The foyer was empty when he entered, empty but for a serving girl who did not seem to be engaged in serving. She stood with her back to him, leaning ever so slightly around the door frame as if afraid to let Lady Katherine and her guests know she was there. Was the girl spying? This was rather intriguing, he had to admit. He had never seen a servant behave in such a way.
He moved toward the door, hoping his presence would not alarm her when he passed.
But suddenly she staggered back from the door as if she had received a shock. She spun around and ran straight into him with a force that actually caused him to take a step back in surprise.
“Oh!” she cried.
He smiled down at her, hoping to convey that he understood, that her haste was nothing to be ashamed of and that she had nothing to fear from him. She stared up at him, her lips forming a perfect “o” shape.
Adrian had to admit, he was stunned by her.
He had never seen a serving girl of such beauty. In part, he knew, that was because of the drabness of their dress. The clothing afforded to the lower classes did nothing to enhance their looks. But this girl’s ardor couldn’t be suppressed by muslin and a serving cap. She was positively lovely, with finely-carved features, high cheekbones, and thick, glossy-brown hair. The only thing amiss in her appearance was the eyepatch she wore over one eye, but Adrian found this intriguing rather than unsightly. It set her apart.
He shook his head at himself. What would his mother say to this? He had been sent to the manor to woo the Lady Katherine, and instead he was looking at the servants!
But for a servant, she was very lovely indeed.
“May I inquire as to your name?” he found himself asking. He could have bitten his tongue. What had possessed him to ask her such a thing? For goodness’ sake, she was as serving girl. She was likely forbidden from even speaking to Lady Katherine’s guests.
And what did he hope to gain by knowing her name? It wasn’t as if he was planning to call on her. The whole thing was ridiculous.
Still, he found, he wanted to know the answer. He wanted to know what name belonged to such a beauty. He wanted to think about it in his mind later as he replayed this night in his head. The guests were tiresome, and Lady Katherine was tedious, he thought now, but at least there was a moment of fun when I happened to bump into—
She still had not answered. She stared up at him, and her eye was wide with fright. Well, he imagined that both eyes probably were. But he could only see one, and it looked fearful enough to serve for both.
“Apologies,” she murmured, and before he could assure her that no apology was necessary, that she had done no wrong, she had run off and disappeared up the wide staircase to the manor’s upper rooms.
How very strange, he thought. He had never met a servant like her. She had clearly been intrigued by the proceedings of the evening. But something must have frightened her. He had no idea what that could have been, what could have sent her staggering so rapidly away from the dining room. Perhaps she was seen.
But why would Lady Katherine be upset to realize that her serving girl was about? That didn’t make sense. Why, indeed, was it necessary for the girl to spy at all? Adrian had seen dozens of servants tonight. They were hardly concealed. In fact, Adrian could see several more of them moving around in the ballroom, tidying things up and preparing the room for the guests’ return after dinner. He knew these servants would be perfectly visible to the guests currently enjoying their dinner as well.
So, he must have it wrong. The serving girl wouldn’t have run away just because her Lady had seen her. There must have been some other cause, mustn’t there? But what?
There was no making sense of it.
Feeling at a loss, he made his way into the dining room and took a seat at the end of the table, thankful that he had managed to keep a good distance between himself and Lady Katherine. He would be free to eat his supper in silence, perhaps, and to think about the mystery of the serving girl.
The supper was wonderful—two full courses, each with a selection of exquisite dishes—but Adrian couldn’t seem to settle into his meal. His mind was busy and active, keeping him far away from the table and the food.
There was much to think about. Much to sort out in his mind. Chief among his concerns was his lady mother, of course. She would be expecting news when he returned home from this ball, and Adrian knew he could count on her to demand a debriefing as soon as he stepped in the door. What was Lady Katherine like? she would want to know, and Adrian would feel honor bound to tell her the truth. Lady Katherine was dull. Lovely, but dull.
His mother would wave this away, most probably, or else she would seize on the compliment. If Adrian thought her lovely, then was there some hope of a marriage contract?
The answer was no, of course, but it would be difficult to say so to his mother. She hadn’t much to do these days, now that she was widowed, and Adrian felt she invested herself far too much in his own doings. She was likely sitting at home right now and trying to imagine the goings on at the ball. And whatever she was coming up with was sure to be a far stretch from the truth.
The trouble, he thought, slicing into a piece of fish with unnecessary vigor, was that she was not wrong. Not really. He did need to marry, and he knew it. As Marquess of Galdhor, it was vital that he produce an heir to his land, his manor, and his title. At present, there was no one else. He had been his late father’s only child. If Adrian failed to produce an heir, the land and the manor would be given to someone else upon his death. It would be as if he and his family had never existed.
That couldn’t be allowed to happen. If nothing else, Adrian wanted to preserve his father’s legacy. There had been a Marquess of Galdhor living in that manor for decades. The line couldn’t possibly be permitted to end with him. It would be a travesty.
Which meant that he would have to find someone. Some lady to marry. But he knew that his mother was anxious for the problem to be solved quickly. And she was correct on that score as well. He was nearly thirty years of age, after all. These things were always better addressed when one was younger. It would be both harder to find a suitable wife and harder to father a healthy child as his years advanced.
But moving quickly did not mean moving tonight. That was the thing he felt his mother might have trouble understanding. Lady Katherine was a good match on paper—the daughter of a duke, an ideal age for bearing children, lovely to look upon, and very well bred. But he didn’t like her.
Surely his mother would understand that?
Of course, his mother and Lady Katherine were only half the problem Adrian faced. Because he couldn’t seem to tear his mind away from the servant girl he had encountered in the foyer. God, she had been a vision. And she had been wearing only that ugly old sack dress, her hair all but hidden away under that cap, her face dirty and partially obscured by that eyepatch. Despite all those things, she had absolutely radiated beauty.
Her eye—the one he’d seen—had been so very alive. It had seemed to sparkle with intelligence, and Adrian had felt as though he was looking through her and seeing straight into her soul. Even though she had hardly spoken at all, he felt as though they had had a conversation. He had understood something by the way she had looked at him, something he was even now struggling to put into words. She had been fearful, he thought, but there had been something more.
Had she admired him? Was that it?
Surely not. A servant girl could never be so bold as to even think of such a thing.
And yet, he had the strange feeling that that was exactly what she had been thinking.
Adrian found to his surprise that he was not wrongfooted or offended by the idea. Not in the slightest. Indeed, there was something intriguing about it. She must be a very unusual girl to have ideas so far above her station. He found himself wondering what she thought about this ball, and indeed, what she thought about the lady she served.
A servant would never dare to speak against her master.
But if ever one would, Adrian thought, this girl would be the one.
Just as the thought occurred to him, a parade of household staff entered the dining room. They positioned themselves around the table and removed the plates from in front of each guest. Feeling suddenly eager, Adrian looked up and down the length of the table, hoping to see the girl with the eyepatch again. But she wasn’t there. He was surprised by the wave of disappointment that washed over him.
He needed to shake this feeling. She was just a servant. She was certainly not the reason he was here, nor was it remotely appropriate for him to be this caught up in thoughts about her.
And yet, suddenly, she had become the most interesting thing at the ball.
Never mind the other ladies, several of whom had blushingly agreed to a turn around the dance floor with him before dinner. And certainly, never mind Lady Katherine, who had looked up at him with those eyes that seemed to have nothing at all behind them. All he truly wanted to see was the girl with the eyepatch, the girl who had bumped into him and run away without speaking.
He got to his feet along with the rest of the guests and returned to the ballroom for the second round of dancing. He had been planning to depart the ball after supper, but suddenly he found that he wanted to stay.
He wanted another glimpse of the girl with the eyepatch.
He took a position near the wall, hoping to remain out of view of the other guests and still be able to keep an eye on the comings and goings. There weren’t many servants in the ballroom, of course, but every now and again one would come in to replace a bunch of flowers or to bring around a tray of drinks for the guests. None of them were the one he was looking for, though.
Well, she had run up the stairs after she had collided with him. Perhaps she had left the party.
He was surprised at how disappointed that thought made him feel. She had been intriguing, but after all, she was just a servant. There was nothing to get upset about.
He looked down. Lady Katherine had found him. She stood at his side, beaming up at him as if she had hand delivered herself to him at his request.
“Lady Katherine,” he managed, a bit taken aback.
“Are you enjoying the ball?” she asked.
He did not want to lie. “Everything is lovely,” he said. That much, at least, was true. “The ballroom is beautifully appointed. Did you have a hand in it?”
“Mother and I have been hard at work for weeks,” she said. “Choosing color schemes, setting the menu—it’s been laborious! But it’s all come together very nicely. I’m so glad you’re having a good time.”
He hadn’t said he was having a good time, nor was he, but he was more than happy to allow her to draw that misconception from his words. “Are you enjoying yourself?” he asked her.
“Oh, yes. It’s very well attended, don’t you think? I hardly expected so many people to come!” She blushed prettily. “It’s a great compliment, of course. I did worry. What if the ball had been poorly attended? Nothing could be more humiliating.”
“Indeed,” said Adrian noncommittally, sipping the drink he held. Perhaps if he grew intoxicated enough, he would begin to find her more interesting. As it was, he was bored and tired. He felt sorry about it—she was being perfectly well mannered, after all, and he didn’t want to disparage her company. But she had yet to say anything of substance to him.
And yet, there she stood, looking up at him anxiously, almost as if she was waiting for something. Expecting something. What did she want?
The song ended and a new one began. Lady Katherine fidgeted ever so slightly. And suddenly Adrian understood. “May I have this dance?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said happily and took his proffered hand. He twirled her gently and pulled her into his arms.
Dancing together meant there was no need for conversation. He would have been happy to continue talking if there had been anything to talk about, but it was clear to Adrian now that the two of them had little, if anything, in common. She was primarily interested in this ball and the number of attendees, her own popularity among the ton. Adrian would have preferred a little more depth.
He hadn’t especially wanted to dance with her either. But this was her ball. He was her guest. And she had clearly wanted the dance. It wouldn’t hurt him to indulge her.
“I’d hoped to sit next to you at supper,” she said as he guided them around the perimeter of the ballroom’s dance floor. “But I couldn’t find you anywhere.”
That was precisely what Adrian had been afraid of. But he couldn’t very well say so to her. “My apologies,” he said instead. “I stepped out for a few moments to take in your lovely garden.”
“Oh,” she said, and her expression was one of surprise. “Are you interested in plants, then?”
“I don’t mind them. And I like a bit of fresh air in the evening.”
“I suppose,” she said. “Personally, I would never go out after dark,” and she shuddered ever so slightly. “That’s when the insects come out.”
“It’s also when the stars come out,” Adrian pointed out.
“But you can see those from the window,” she said.
“Of course.” You couldn’t see stars at all from the window. That was a ridiculous idea. But he had to admit, he wasn’t surprised to learn that Lady Katherine didn’t consider it worth her time to stargaze.
When he married, he thought, rotating them inward toward the center of the dance floor, he would like to have someone who could look up at the stars with him. He would like to be able to show her the constellations. He didn’t relish the idea of spending his life with a woman who never wanted to take in the sky.
The song ended. Adrian stepped away from Lady Katherine and politely applauded the musicians. Then he bowed to her. “Thank you for the dance, My Lady,” he said. “And thank you for the ball. I had a delightful evening.”
“You’re not leaving?”
“Sadly, I must.” He’d had enough. “My poor mother is all alone at home, and I hate to leave her this late at night. I should get home to her.”
Lady Katherine inclined her head. “That must be so difficult for you.”
“What must be?”
“Having to care for your mother,” she said. “Such a sacrifice.”
Adrian didn’t answer. He had conflict with his mother from time to time, of course, but he had never thought of her as a burden. What on earth could he say to such a ridiculous statement?
He bowed to Lady Katherine again and turned to go.
As he headed through the foyer and to the front doors of the manor, he glanced over at the kitchen, hoping one last time to catch a glimpse of the mysterious girl with the eyepatch. But she was nowhere to be seen.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
A Game of Chess with the Marquess is live on Amazon now!