About the book
A Visccount...a lady's maid...a love that was never meant to be but always will...
Dedicated lady's maid Eva Peaton knows that her feelings for her employer's betrothed are wrong. And yet, when her last opportunity to be near him arises, she can't help but grasp it: she dresses up as a lady and dances just once with him at a Masquerade ball.
Percy Wheeler, Viscount of Archdale, has always been a man of duty and honor. Still, how is he supposed to uphold those values when the mysterious lady he danced with at the Masquerade occupies his thoughts despite the existence of his betrothed? Especially when he discovers who she really is.
Though they vow to stay away, Eva and Percy gravitate towards each other, a mix of profound guilt and heart-stopping love that burns them. But someone knows, and when someone knows, they always tell. Eva goes missing, and all she leaves behind is a letter telling Percy, nothing was ever real...
“You can do it. Just set your mind to it, Lady Patricia,” Eva said with enthusiasm.
The young lady drew her eyebrows together and set out to hit the heavy boxwood ball with the mallet.
Eva bit her lip and curled her fingers into a fist as she watched the lady hit the ball and—
“Dratted ball,” Lady Patricia called out and stomped her foot.
“My Lady, do not use such language,” Eva said in alarm and looked around. To her great relief, there was nobody in the vicinity to have heard the lady’s outburst.
“Excuse me, Eva. You are right. Let me start once more.” She stood, rumpled her nose as she had a moment ago, stomping her half-boot onto the sandy ground, and exclaimed, “Pooh. What piffle.”
Eva broke into laughter, joined swiftly by Lady Patricia, who was highly amused by her own wit.
“You are terrible, Lady Patricia,” Eva chuckled.
“I wish you would not always call me Lady Patricia when we are alone, Eva. I wish you’d call me Patty.”
Eva shook her head as she marched toward the ball, taking the mallet from the young lady’s hand. A stiff breeze blew into her face, and a strand on of her long, black hair blew into her pale face. She tucked it carefully underneath her straw bonnet and went on. The hem of her long, light-blue round gown dragged slightly on the ground.
I shall hear about it from Mrs. Martin later today, when I return to my chamber. She is always so very upset with me when I dirty my attire, even when I tell her that Lady Patricia enjoyed an outdoor activity, as she so often does. One would think that as lady’s maid, I’d be excused from such severe scrutiny—but no.
“Eva, do not ignore me,” Lady Patricia said in a slightly whiney voice. She was a young lady of nine-and-ten, having just come out the previous year. And yet, at times, Eva thought of her as a much younger lady for she could be a little impertinent—the fate of many a child of Society, especially when one was the only girl, as well as the youngest child.
However, despite her infrequent bursts of insolence, Eva adored Lady Patricia. She’d been in her employ for three years, having first served as a housemaid before becoming her lady’s maid. Of course, they’d known one another for much longer than this, ever since Eva and her brother had moved to the beautiful Fangdor Estate ten years prior.
“I do not ignore you, My Lady. But I must remind you that it’s not proper for me to call you by that name. I am a lady’s maid—you are the daughter of the Earl of Fangdor. You know it isn’t proper.”
The younger woman rolled her bright blue eyes at her.
“Yes, I know. One must be prim and proper forever and always, lest one be looked on with disapproval.”
Eva shook her head. Lady Patricia was certainly suffering a bout of her mischievous behavior today, but she didn’t mind. She knew this was just a small flaw in the young lady who was otherwise a lovely person.
“Such is the world we live in,” Eva replied and placed the mallet by her ball.
“You’ve been my dearest friend and companion since I can remember. It is so strange that I cannot request you call me by my name.”
Eva turned her head and raised a hand to shield her honey-colored eyes against the sun. “You do recall the lecture I received from Mrs. Martin last year when I dared to call you Patricia, without your title?”
“It set her bristles up swiftly, I recall.”
“It surely did, and I do not care to see it repeated,” Eva said with a smile. “Besides, if Reuben heard me calling you Patty, I would wish for a lecture from Mrs. Martin.”
Lady Patricia grimaced. “You are right. I would not wish to send you into that kind of peril.” She paused and pressed her heart-shaped lips together into a thin line. “Your brother is ever so stringent when it comes to proper etiquette. Not that you are not, but he is ever so severe in his devotion to it.”
Eva couldn’t help but nod at this. “He is. But he’s had to. Our only way to escape the poorhouse was for him to take a good position in a noble household, and to achieve this, he had to learn to conduct himself properly. And he had to teach me. After all, a miller’s son and daughter aren’t usually brought up to know how to behave in a household such as yours.”
A sudden wave of nostalgia overcame Eva when she thought of her father. What a good, kind man David Peaton had been, what a wonderful father to both her and Reuben. She recalled the day they lost him, more than ten years ago. An awful accident had claimed her only living parent—after consumption robbed her and her older brother of their mother the previous year.
The sound of a carriage barreling up the driveway drew her out of her thoughts, and she looked up. Lady Patricia had already walked toward the edge of the pall-mall court to see who was about to arrive and gasped when the carriage stopped.
Eva peered at the coat of arms on the side of the carriage. It was gold, signifying generosity and elevation of the mind. On it, she spotted two symbols: A centaur—the symbol of eminence in the battlefield, and a torch—a symbol of zealousness and life.
“I do not recognize the coat of arms. Who is it?”
Lady Patricia’s eyes narrowed further as she glared at the carriage. “It is that horrible Percy Wheeler. You know of him. The Viscount of Archdale, who has been making my father’s life a misery with his attempts to push him out of his business.”
Eva gulped at the sound of the name. She had, indeed, heard much about the Viscount, and none of it had been good.
“Why is he here, I wonder?”
Her friend twirled around, her eyes filled with a fiery rage.
“Surely to taunt Papa over the loss of his cargo from India. He’s come to gloat, I know it.”
Eva shook her head. “I cannot imagine anyone would gloat over such a tragedy. The storm took down the entire ship and every man and mouse along with it. It was a disaster. So many lives were lost. He cannot come to express his joy of that. Or is he so terrible a man?”
Lady Patricia shrugged. “I do not know him personally, to judge his character. During the last Season, I know that he did not dance once at either of the balls I saw him at, nor did he engage in civil whiskers when anyone attempted it. Not that I was one of them. He and I have yet to be formally introduced. A circumstance I hope will never come to pass.”
Eva watched as the carriage door opened and a gentleman stepped out. From a distance, it was difficult to make out any more than his tall, broad-shouldered figure. He wore a pair of beige breeches and a black coat—despite the August weather—along with a top hat. From his elbow swung a cane. It had to be adorned with some gemstones, as it reflected in the afternoon light.
Blond, wavy hair peeked out from underneath his hat, and he walked in a self-assured, confident way that drew her attention. She knew Lord Archdale was her employer’s biggest rival for the tea and spice business. In fact, between the two of them, they controlled almost the entire market in England. Ever since Lord Archdale entered the trade several years ago, he and Lord Fangdor—as well as the latter’s business partner, the Marquess of Hartington—were engaged in a bitter rivalry for control of the market.
A month prior, during an unseasonably choppy passage, a famed East India Company vessel had floundered and sunk in the Indian ocean, leaving no survivors. So many souls were lost that day, Eva could hardly fathom it. Along with the many lives, all the cargo aboard the vessel sunk to the bottom of the ocean—a disaster for Lord Fangdor’s business.
Surely, the gentleman hadn’t come to gloat over this. It would be unconscionable. Lady Patricia stood, her jaw clenched, her hands curled into tight fists as she watched the gentleman enter into Fangdor Hall.
“That wretched man. That louse. How I wished he had been aboard the ship and sunk with it.”
“Lady Patricia, that is cruel and so unlike you,” Eva said, highly alarmed by the outburst. Her friend turned, her face entirely pale due to mortification of her own words.
“I am sorry, I ought not to have said it. And I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it in the least. It is just that I can see how dispirited Papa and Lord Hartington were at the loss of the cargo and how unhappy Papa has been ever since. We even departed London before the Season was over, as you well know.”
Eva sighed but nodded. It was true, the London Season had only just ended, but the entire household had returned from London in the middle of May, two months prior, after news of the wreckage reached Lord Fangdor.
“I understand your father has been upset. Reuben told me how very worried he is over the business and everything else.”
Lady Patricia nodded but did not avert her eyes from the front door, even though Lord Archdale had already gone inside and his carriage was presently moving down the driveway where it came to a stop beside that of Lord Hartington, who’d come to call on the Earl earlier in the day.
“It cannot be good that he’s here, certainly something sinister is afoot,” Lady Patricia. Eva took a step and gently touched her arm.
“There isn’t anything we can do about the matter now, not until he departs. Come, let us continue our game. I am eager to emerge victorious today, as I am rather fond of marzipan.”
This drew the young lady’s attention. “Marzipan?” She stuck her tongue out. “What a vile concoction. My mouth is glued together even when I think of it.”
“I know you quite despise it. I, on the other hand, adore it. And the agreement was the winner would purchase for the loser the sweetmeat of their choice. So, I must buy you a week’s worth of candied lemon peel, you must present me with marzipan. That is the agreement, and the agreement must be abided by.”
“Especially since you are about to win,” Lady Patricia winked.
Eva shrugged her narrow shoulders, “I cannot deny a certain advantage.”
“Having your brother teach you is surely a help,” Lady Patricia teased her as Eva marched back to her ball, the mallet swinging in anticipation.
“It is one of the few times he and I can engage with one another without tension nor talk of the past, it seems,” she sighed.
Eva and Reuben had never been particularly close. She considered the significant age difference between them a factor in the matter. At nine-and-twenty, Reuben was eight years older than Eva. They’d had three other siblings, two between them and one, a little girl named Daisy, after Eva. All three had succumbed to consumption over the years, leaving only the two of them.
I always thought we should be closer as brother and sister because of this, but somehow, since Father died, Reuben fancied himself more of a second father to me than a brother. I do recall the times before all of these calamities destroyed our family. He and I used to be much closer, and there was an ease between us—I miss it. I always shall.
She pressed her lips together deep in concertation and swung her mallet. It connected with the wooden ball, producing a popping sound. The ball rolled down the court much faster than she’d anticipated but slowed enough to make its way through the metal goal posted at the end.
“Faith, yes!” She jumped up in the air once and spun to her friend, who stood and clapped her gloved hands together.
“Marvelous, very well done, Eva. I shall send for your marzipan as soon as we get back into the house, and we can enjoy it this evening in front of the fire.”
“The fire?” Eva asked. “Is it not too hot to light the fire? I am nearly melting as it is.”
Lady Patricia waved her hand. “That is because you insisted upon wearing that dreadfully thick gown. No wonder you are hot. I know, we shall go to my chamber and select a few gowns for you.”
Eva shook her head. “No, I cannot accept that. You gave me your old pelisse and two bonnets just a month ago.”
“So? I have a great many gowns and shawls and all manner of adornments that I do not want nor need. Meanwhile, you have perspiration pouring down your face as though you were a miner, not a lady’s maid.”
Eva was about to protest, for she was quite sure her face didn’t show a hint of glistening, but she knew there was no arguing with Lady Patricia. Once she set her mind to something, she’d do just as she pleased. And the truth was, Eva, did need more suitable attire for this unusually hot summer.
She sighed in resignation. “Very well, I shall accept your kind offer.”
“Good. We shall go at once. Let us race back to the house. Whoever arrives last must read to the other this evening.”
Without waiting for a reply, Lady Patricia rushed forward toward the house. Running was not an activity befitting a young lady, and Lady Patricia knew this very well. However, she had little care for what was proper and often did as she pleased.
Left with no choice, Eva picked up her gown and sprinted after her, the dry grass crunching under her shoes. She’d almost reached the gazebo, the mid-point between the pall-mall court and the house, when the young lady ahead of her suddenly stopped and bent over. She rested her hands on her knees and appeared unable to catch her breath.
Alarmed, Eva picked up speed just as Lady Patricia turned to her. She reached up and yanked her straw bonnet off her head, exposing her light-blonde hair to the afternoon sun, and then, without warning, fell backward and landed with a thud in the grass.
Percy stepped inside the grand manor and looked up at a large Grecian statue before him. He recognized it as Zeus and snickered in the direction of Henry, his valet.
“Eclectic taste Lord Fangdor has, do you not agree?”
Henry assessed the room and nodded, a smile on his face. “Indeed, I see Spanish tapestries on the upper level, and he certainly enjoys paintings.”
This could not be denied, for landscapes hung on every wall in the hall. Upstairs, portraits of long-deceased ancestors lined the halls beyond the landing—not unlike at Percy’s own home, Harford House.
Percy tapped one foot on the black and white marble floor.
“Are you quite nervous still, Percy?” Henry asked.
“I am. I confess, I am. I haven’t the slightest idea why I’ve been called here. Lord Fangdor and I have nothing whatsoever to discuss. At least I thought so. And Lord Hartington and I haven’t exchanged a civil word in some time, either.”
“It is understandable, do you not think? After all, you’ve taken much of their business. And then, the unfortunate accident with the ship.”
Percy smiled. Henry was always the voice of reason, the one who’d try to make sense of whatever quandary Percy found himself in. It seemed to Percy that Henry possessed a certain amount of common sense and understanding that he himself lacked. But then again, Henry always had to look out for himself for most of his life, while Percy had everything—his title, lands, and wealth—handed to him by accident of birth.
Indeed, his business, the P.W. Spice Company, was the first and only true achievement for which he was solely responsible—and his premier source of pride.
Lord Fangdor and Lord Hartington, owners of the Sweet and Spice Company, were his only true rivals. Thus, it had greatly startled him to receive an invitation from them to present himself at Lord Fangdor’s home.
“I suppose they see me as a rather unpleasant thorn in their side. I must say, I can hardly be blamed for the fact that I am a better businessman than the two of them.”
Henry shrugged, “That is true. However, I doubt they see it in that particular way.”
Before Percy could say anything else, footsteps approached, and the butler—a surly-looking older man named James—returned and indicated Percy was to follow him.
“If you will, his Lordship is awaiting you in his study. Your man is welcome to wait downstairs. I will have a footman escort him.”
Percy gave his valet a nod, and he stepped away. He wished Henry could have accompanied him. He and Henry had both a professional connection and a personal one. Henry was the illegitimate son of Percy’s uncle. Banished from the estate as a child, he and Percy maintained their connection due to a clandestine friendship between their mothers.
Once Percy succeeded his father as Earl, only a year after the death of Henry’s father, he’d taken Henry into his employment, thus securing his position in life. While theirs’s was an unusual arrangement, it suited them both well, for Percy knew that one could never truly trust anyone—except for one’s family.
Percy made his way after the butler down a narrow hallway adorned with many more landscapes, and then they stopped outside the study.
The butler opened the door, stepped through, and stood at attention.
“My Lord, Percy, Viscount of Archdale.”
James stepped aside, and Percy marched forward, ensuring his shoulders were tilted back, and his head held high. He had to exude confidence, even though he couldn’t help but feel the opposite in reality.
“Archdale,” the Earl greeted him with one hand outstretched. “Good of you to come. You’re familiar with my associate, Maxwell Aubert, the Marquess of Hartington?”
The younger man stepped forward and extended his hand, which Percy took with some hesitancy. He knew Hartington, of course. He was a member of the House of Lords, the same as Percy and the Earl. To say they were friendly with one another would be a stretch.
Hartington smiled, but it was the sort of smile that refused to reach the eyes, the kind that let the recipient of it know there was no sincerity in it, and they’d much rather be left alone.
He responded in kind. The Earl, meanwhile, appeared quite cheerful. His greying, brown hair hung into his face, and his blue eyes sparkled with a hint of excitement. Excitement for what Percy didn’t know, and he experienced some hesitancy in consulting his imagination.
“Archdale, good to see you,” Hartington said, and stepped aside.
“Please, take a seat,” the Earl indicated the chair to the right of the mahogany desk. The effort to fill the study with as many awe-inducing pieces as possible had succeeded, that Percy had to admit. The chandelier alone was so impressive it wouldn’t have been out of place at the palace.
“Cognac? Sherry? A glass of port?” The Earl offered, strolling to a cupboard in the back of the study upon which an assortment of bottles stood.
“Cognac, if I may.”
“Good choice,” the older man replied. Percy furrowed his eyebrows.
This is most peculiar. These men are my greatest rivals. And rivals who’ve very recently taken a devastating loss to their business. So why did they ask me to come? Hartington appears sufficiently nettled by my presence, but Fangdor appears in high ropes.
He took the glass when the Earl offered it and crossed his legs as he waited in anxious anticipation.
“Well, there is no use dragging out the purpose of our business. I am sure you are surprised I invited you.”
“You could say so, yes. I thought it was a trap at first. I frankly expected an assault on my way here,” he replied. The Earl laughed, but Percy’s statement hadn’t been entirely in jest. While rooted in their businesses, the rivalry between them had spilled into their interactions in the House of Lords, and often, even their social interactions were affected.
“You need not worry. It would not serve us well to see you harmed, Archdale. On the contrary, the opposite is true.” The Earl grew serious and nodded at the Marquess to take over the conversation.
“Yes, well. I will start by saying I was against this invitation. Against the scheme as a whole, if I’m honest, but we haven’t a choice. You heard what happened to the Akacia, I trust?”
Percy shifted in his seat. The sinking of the Akacia had been the subject of much conversation. Percy could still hardly think of it without feeling ill. More than 500 souls were lost that day, and not all of them were strangers.
“I cannot imagine there is a man alive in England who has not. Or anywhere in the world, for that matter. A tragedy.”
Hartington squinted at him as though he didn’t quite believe the statement to be true.
“Yes, a great tragedy it was. But, for you, it was almost fortunate.”
Percy gasped at the statement. Anger built up inside of him, and he was forced to wrap his fingers around the edge of the seat to divert it.
“It pains me that you should think me so callous as to find any joy in the loss of so many men, women, and children,” he replied.
Hartington shrugged his broad shoulders and took a sip of his sherry. His deep, brown eyes never left Percy’s face.
“We lost our entire cargo, of course. Several months’ worth of tea and spices. Sugar, as well. It almost crippled our business.”
“I am sorry to hear it. While I strive to succeed, I do not like doing so at the expense of others,” Percy replied. With every passing moment, he wondered more and more just why he was here. Was it so that Hartington could scold him for their rivalry and Sweet and Spice Company’s misfortune?
“Be that as it may, we find ourselves at point nonplus. We will recover eventually. Our customers are loyal, and they understand our situation. In the meantime, our options are limited. We can either raise our prices to make up for the loss or close some of our shops at the expense of our employees. Or…”
“Or?” Percy shifted again and took a swallow of cognac, staring at his opponent as he did.
Hartington sucked in the air but then shook his head. “I cannot, Fangdor, I simply cannot.”
The Earl placed his glass down, leaned forward, and intertwined his long, wrinkled fingers. His lips twitched behind his white beard. It was trimmed rather closely to the face and invoked sudden envy in Percy. He’d aspired to a beard just like it, but found himself clean-shaven once more thanks to Henry’s unsteady hand.
“Or, we can reach out to our greatest competitor and see if an agreement could not be reached. An agreement that would benefit us all.”
Percy stared at the man. What was he suggesting?
“Pray, am I to understand you seek to reach an agreement with me to help you in some way? How? Do you wish to purchase some of my stock? For we could certainly agree on that if you are willing to pay a fair price.”
The Earl shook his head.
“No, My Lord, you misunderstand my intention. I did not want to purchase your stock. Instead, I am asking you to consider a partnership.”
Percy sat in complete silence. A partnership. He’d never considered such an arrangement, and he wasn’t quite sure how it would benefit him. But, it had to be said, his business was already the most lucrative one, and with Sweet and Spice unable to meet their demand, his wealth would soar.
“Forgive me, Lord Fangdor, I do not see how this furthers my business in any way. Although I see the benefit to you.”
“You see, Fangdor? He does not care about anything but his interests,” Hartington scoffed.
“It is in your interest, Lord Archdale,” the Earl said, ignoring his partner’s outburst. “For, you know that between the two of us, we are essentially splitting the market. The other businesses in our trade cannot compete with either of us. Yet, the two of us constantly harm one another by attempting to outbid the other, marking down prices, offering specials. Tell me, does your bottom line not hurt, given the number of special sales you must offer, whenever we lower pricing on a certain product?”
Percy scratched his chin. It was true, he lost a great deal of income whenever Sweet and Spice placed any of their products at a discount.
“I’ll say your cardamom special cost me a pretty penny. And it wasn’t the first time. Go on, how would such a partnership work?”
The Earl beamed at him, encouraged by the interest.
“Well, Hartington and I thought if we merged the businesses, we would essentially have no rivals. We could set our pricing, we could split the cost of imports, and since we would control the market, we’d all see a rise in profits.”
Percy considered this. It was true, running his business on his own was a chore. While he was proud of it, it took up a lot of his time. If it weren’t for Henry and his assistance in both the running of the estate and the trade, he’d never see sunlight. And yet—
“What about profit? Now, on my own, I naturally have 100 percent of the profits to myself. Am I to cut this down to 33 percent with the both of you taking in the bulk of our profits?”
Harington smiled at this, and this time, it was genuine.
“You are cleverer than I thought. I’d hoped you might agree, but you figured us out rapidly. So, no, we thought of a different split, 60 percent to us and 40 percent to you.”
Percy was about to protest, as this did not seem like a fair arrangement to him, when the Earl cleared his throat so noisily, it was quite obvious he did so for attention.
“Archdale, there is another part to our proposal. I understand you may not see this as a good offer right now, but perhaps after you hear the rest of it, you will. In addition to the joining of the ventures, I would also like to join something else. Our families.”
Percy’s jaw grew slack and dropped open.
“Indeed. I want to arrange for a union between you and my daughter, Lady Patricia. Thus, while the current arrangement might not seem favorable to you, you’d stand to make great gains in the future. While my title and this property will go to my eldest son, Patricia—my daughter—stands to inherit a large portion of my holdings. They are not in entailment, fortunately. She’s to become a very wealthy lady once I am gone. Among the holdings I willed to her are a vineyard, a cottage in Newcastle and another in Portsmouth, and substantial wealth. Of course, there’s also the dowry.”
Percy sat back against the chair, now completely unsure how to react to this. Was the Earl making him an offer to marry his daughter? How could this be?
He’d come here, thinking he would find himself involved in an argument of some sort related to their imports, and now he was to decide if he wished to marry his biggest rival’s daughter? He stared from one man to the other and found them both looking back at him with anticipation.
“Surely you realize I cannot make such a decision at this very moment. I am… I must…”
The Earl raised his hands. “You wish to take time to consider it. I understand. What do you say, think it over and return here tomorrow with a decision?”
Percy was about to respond when the sound of heavy, rushed footsteps drew everyone’s attention toward the door. A moment later, a knock sounded, and James, the butler, appeared in the doorway, his face pale.
“My Lord, excuse the intrusion, but you must come at once. It is Lady Patricia. She has fainted.”
The Earl stood and staggered forward, shaken by the announcement. He looked up at Percy, but before another word could come out of his mouth, he clutched his chest, and his eyes rolled back in his head as he, too, fainted away from the world.
“No, Papa. No. Please, is he going to live?” Lady Patricia wailed as she sat up in her bed, her face still red from the heatstroke which had felled her earlier in the afternoon.
Dr. Quincy, the resident physician who’d been summoned to tend to father and daughter alike, nodded, but the concern was evident on his face. A deep line dug into his forehead as he considered his young patient.
Eva sat beside Lady Patricia and held on to her shaking hand.
“He will recover, but this is his second attack of apoplexy in the last five years. He must rest. He cannot have any stress whatsoever.”
“It was that terrible Lord Archdale and his visit that caused this. I know it, Eva, I know it. He came and upset Papa, and now this. Oh, faith. No. It was I. It was I and my foolish fainting spell that shocked him after he was already disheartened by the visit of his greatest rival.” Her lips quivered, and tears forced their way out of her large eyes.
“Now, you do not know what caused this. Even if it was the news of your fainting, you could not help it. I should have been more vigilant and ensured you did not stay outside in the hot sun for so very long. It is no wonder you grew ill.”
The physician nodded gravely. “Your lady’s maid is quite right. I’ve been summoned to several homes over the past week due to the unusually high temperatures. You must be more careful in the future, Lady Patricia. A parasol, perhaps, to shield yourself. As for your father, he requires rest and no excitement. I shall return on the morrow to see both of you.”
“Must I remain in bed until then? It seems quite excessive. I feel much better, and I wish to call on Papa. I won’t upset him, I promise. Please. May I?”
The physician, an older, kind-hearted gentleman, turned his thin lips up into a smile.
“I suppose it will not hurt you to see to your Papa. It may cheer him. But no excursions outside, Lady Patricia.”
After giving her word, the physician let himself out of the chamber, and the young lady attempted to get out of her bed immediately.
“I do not believe he meant for you to see him right now. You’ve only just recovered. You cannot get up al….”
Lady Patricia swung her legs out of bed and dangled her bare feet off the ground.
“I cannot wait, I must go. I cannot live with myself knowing I might have caused this dreadful event.”
Eva stepped back and watched as Lady Patricia slipped off the bed and stood—only to stumble forward almost instantly. She jumped forward and caught her just in time to prevent another fall.
“Will you believe me now when I say it is too soon to get up? You are to rest and have a cold cloth applied to your head every ten minutes. And you are to drink and rest. You must listen to the physician, lest you upset your father further by injuring yourself in your quest to see him.”
Eva was not, by nature, a stern woman. She found it exceedingly difficult to speak with any authority, but sometimes she had to—today was such an occasion.
Lady Patricia returned to her bed with surprisingly little protest and dropped back onto her pillow. Eva covered her properly and glanced down at her. Lady Patricia’s face was still red from the sun and would likely remain so for some time. Moreover, her eyes had a glimmer to them, indicating she still hadn’t recovered.
“I was so frightened,” she heard herself say. “Truly, when you dropped to the ground, I thought you had died, and I’d lost my friend.”
Lady Patricia’s hand wrapped around Eva’s arm. “Never. You will never lose me. You are my dearest companion, my only friend. I take you into my confidence constantly, do I not?”
“You do, as do I.”
“You see? So, if you are the only one I take into my confidence, and I am the only one you trust with your secrets, how could I die? It would not be right.”
Eva wanted to argue that her statement didn’t make any sense whatsoever, but she didn’t. For one, she had just suffered from too much sun, and for another, she meant to be sweet—a side of Lady Patricia that Eva cherished above everything else. While she could be impertinent and willful, she possessed a heart of gold and true compassion for those around her.
“You are kind, and I thank you, but you have to rest now. Shall I read to you?”
She shook her head. “No, my head aches me some. But there is one thing I would ask of you. Could you see how Papa is? I cannot go at present, but I also can’t lay here without knowing how he is.”
Eva licked her lips. “I cannot go to your father’s chamber.”
“But you can ask Reuben. He is Papa’s valet. He will know how he is. Please? Will you?”
She reminds me of myself the day I heard Father was injured at the mill. I wished to see him so badly, and yet I was not able to. Reuben refused to let me see him due to his injuries. There is a part of me that, to this day, holds resentment toward my brother for that. He robbed me of my chance to see my father in his final hours.
Eva could not deny her friend’s request, not in light of the events this afternoon. She gave a nod and placed the cloth on her forehead again before departing.
Eva hovered outside of the door, waiting to see if her brother might emerge on his own, but when he didn’t, she hesitantly stepped forward and knocked.
Gently, she opened the door and peered inside. The Earl rested on his bed at the far end of the room, with Mrs. Martin and Reuben on either side of it. Her brother raised his eyes, and when he recognized her, swiftly came toward her.
His hair, as black as her own, hung in waves down to his shoulders and bounced up and down as he went. His deep, green eyes reflected his worry over his Lordship.
“Come, let us step into the hall. We cannot disturb him, he has just fallen asleep.”
She exited and her brother left the door slightly ajar.
“How is Lady Patricia?” Her brother’s deep voice echoed in the vast space, even though he spoke quietly.
“Recovering. She attempted to call on Lord Fangdor, but she grew ill, and thus, I advised her to remain where she was. She asked that I see how her father is doing. Will he recover? Dr. Quincy said he would, but there was something in his tone….”
“That chawbacon,” Reuben replied with disdain in his voice. “I do not trust him. He assured us our mother would recover, and she never did. Never stood a chance. You do not remember as you were too young, but he lied, and then later said he did it out of kindness.”
Eva’s eyes widened. Her brother had a habit of not telling her everything, and then, at the most unexpected times, he would reveal parts of their past she didn’t know about or had forgotten—such as this.
“I thought he was a good man. He did not have to tend to us, he could have sent a surgeon.”
Reuben shook his head. “He had to. The outbreak of consumption at the time claimed too many, he was the only one left. His Lordship told him it was his duty to care for those of us in the village with relatives that were sick. It is his Lordship who is kind, not Dr. Quincy. Either way, I am glad he is gone for the day. As for Lord Fangdor—he is resting. I do not know what will become of him.”
Eva pressed her lips together. The grief and uncertainly marred her brother’s face. The crows’ feet that extended around his eyes like spider’s legs grew deeper with each passing year, but today they were more pronounced than ever.
“Was it the news of Lady Patricia fainting that brought it on?”
Her brother nodded gravely. “It was. Of course, he has undergone a great deal of worry these past few weeks.”
Eva hesitated before questioning her brother further. He took his role as the Earl’s valet extremely seriously and often did not share anything of their interactions, for fear of betraying the Earl’s confidence.
“I heard the Viscount of Archdale called on him today. Do you suppose it was part of the reason for his sudden illness?”
Reuben shrugged. “I should think not. His Lordship was rather enthused about the visit. He is the one who summoned Lord Archdale to discuss a serious matter of…” his words trailed off as he examined Eva’s face with great care. “He has a matter of great importance to discuss with him. That is all I can say at this moment. But, suffice to say, their meeting was cut short due to his attack of apoplexy. The Viscount is to call again tomorrow, however.”
“Even with the Earl so ill?” Eva could hardly believe it. Sometimes it vexed her the way the aristocracy conducted themselves. Surely, the Earl should be given time to recover properly, not to be drawn directly back into affairs of the business. “If Lady Patricia hears this, she will be ever so upset. Can’t Lord Hartington manage affairs with the Viscount?”
Reuben’s eyes flashed, and she knew she’d gone too far. Her brother did not appreciate the Earl’s decisions being brought into question.
“The subject they were speaking of is of great importance. Thus, the Earl is eager to hear the outcome. In fact, when he first woke again, his first question was after Lady Patricia’s health. And the second, was if I could ask Lord Archdale to ensure his presence here tomorrow as discussed. He has not yet departed, as his carriage experienced some trouble on the journey here, thus I was able to relay the message.”
“I know Lady Patricia will want to know why. Say, what did you think of Lord Archdale? Lady Patricia thinks him a terrible man who’s come to gloat over the loss of Lord Fangdor and Lord Hartington’s cargo.”
Her brother shook his head and scratched his chin. A hint of a reddish beard grew there. “I do not have an opinion one way or the other, and neither should you. What the aristocracy does isn’t any concern of ours.”
Eva pressed her lips together. What could possibly be so very important to draw the Earl’s great rival back so soon after the Earl almost lost his life? She knew these matters shouldn’t concern her. She was, after all, just a lady’s maid, but she couldn’t help being curious. It was one of the weaknesses she’d never been able to rid herself of—this burning curiosity to see the reason behind things.
Reuben placed a hand on her shoulder. “Listen carefully to me, Eva. You must not forget your place in this household. You and I are but commoners who were fortunate to be taken into the Earl’s household in our hour of need. But even though we are now valet and lady’s maid, we are still only Eva and Reuben Peaton—children of a poor miller. As quickly as the wheel of fortune brought us up, it can drop us down again. We must keep ourselves out of their affairs.”
Eva sighed but was not terribly surprised by her brother’s reaction. He didn’t think it wise to meddle in the affairs of their employers and did not like the fact that she was so close to Lady Patricia.
They’d argued over the subject many times, and she’d grown quite tired of it.
“I understand, Reuben.” She bowed her head in deference to him, but he sighed deeply and shook his head.
“This is a gift, this life we now lead. Never forget it. And never forget that while you may think of Lady Patricia as your friend, and she considers you the same—you will never be her equal. You are an employee to her, a servant, as am I. We have nobody but one another, do not forget. Now, I must return to the Earl.”
He started to leave when Eva turned. “What am I to tell her regarding her father? She wishes to see him later in the day.”
Reuben considered this. “Very well. I will let him know when he wakes and send word when he is ready to receive callers. Lord Hartington also desires to see him.”
Without further conversation, he retreated into the Earl’s chamber, leaving Eva alone on the landing. The conversation with her brother troubled her, as they so often did. After more than ten years in the employ of the Earl, Eva considered herself part of the household. She couldn’t imagine ever going anywhere else, serving anyone else. As for Lady Patricia’s friendship, she knew it to be firm and true.
After all, it was Lady Patricia who’d sought out her friendship all these years ago when Eva first arrived at the estate, not even two-and-ten years old. A scullery maid then, she’d encountered the young lady in the garden with her mother, and being lonely as the only child still living at home, Lady Patricia desired a playmate. Thus, Eva’s ascension from scullery maid to housemaid to lady’s maid began.
She’d been at Lady Patricia’s side through many trials. The death of one of her brothers after a fall from his horse, the long illness and agonizing death of her mother from a lung ailment, and her broken courtship with a young duke two years prior. No, she was sure Lady Patricia would be her true friend, at her side, for all of their days.
Eva hastened back to Lady Patricia’s chamber but found her asleep. Realizing her services were not presently required, she made her way down the servant staircase and stepped out of the back door into the garden.
In the distance, the lake glimmered in the light of the setting sun, and Eva took a deep breath of the air, still heavy from the heat of the day. She strolled through the garden. The pall-mall court where she’d enjoyed the day but a few hours ago, lay in the distance.
What a terrible day it had been and what tragedy befell both father and daughter. She shook her head just as she passed the flower garden when an idea came to her.
Lady Patricia adored flowers. With a determined smile, Eva squatted down and picked a collection of camellia, daisies, and lilies, along with some greens for decoration. She rose and was in the middle of arranging the flowers into a pleasant arrangement when—
“Oh, oh no!” She called out in pain and dropped the flowers as she clutched her hand. The skin burnt were something stung her through her glove. Eva frantically surveyed the area and then let out another gasp. A yellowjacket flew directly at her. Wasps terrified Eva more than anything else, and she quickly covered her face with her hands and rushed away. However, the wasp proved tenacious and flew after her.
She removed her bonnet and used it to swat the insect away but to no avail. The wasp buzzed around her head, causing her to run fast until a rock stopped her, and she tumbled forward. Her bonnet flew some distance away and landed in the grass.
“Do not get up,” a deep, male voice commanded. She raised her eyes and spotted a pair of beige breeches rushing past her. “Darn it,” the voice called out, followed by several sounds of something slashing through the air.
Her hand ached where the wasp stung her, and it appeared to swell already, as it usually did when she was stung.
“Got it!” The voice said with jubilance.
Finally, Eva dared to look up properly, the small but deadly menace dealt with. But, as she lifted her head, a male figure cast a shadow on her. It took a moment to realize just who the brave hero was who’d saved her from the wasp, and when she did, she could not help but let out a yelp.
Standing before her, a bright smile on his broad, handsome face, was none other than Lord Fangdor’s mortal enemy. The very reason the Earl had been almost driven into his early grave.
Yes, indeed. The gentleman standing before her, extending his hand, was none other than Lord Archdale—and he was the most handsome, enchanting gentleman Eva had ever laid her eyes upon.
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