About the book
"You’re my world and I’m incapable of not loving you.”
When her mother sneaks inside her bedroom at night and begs her to flee, Lady Rhodeia wastes no time. With only a small bundle and the clothes on her back, she runs away, hoping against hope that her betrothed won't ever find her.
There are two things Emmet MacLachlan, Marquess of Maynardshire, hates above all else: the Season and matchmaking. Furious at his meddling mother, he hopes a night ride will calm the beast in his gut. Until he finds an injured woman in the middle of a storm.
With Rhodeia's true identity hanging above them like the executioner's ax, Emmet is determined to escape with her to Scotland and start anew. A plan that quickly goes sour when Rhodeia's father announces a bounty for her. And unbeknownst to them all, the beast that claws at Emmet's gut has flesh, bone, and a heart made of stone.
Rhodeia placed her feet onto the cold floor of her chamber. The fire in the grand fireplace was out; only remnants of smoking embers remained. It would be hours before one of the maids would sneak into the room to relight the fire. She jumped out of her high four-poster bed and rushed to the window. Standing on her tiptoes, she glanced outside.
The garden of Alerdine Manor was cloaked in darkness and only the waning moon illuminated the landscape around the manor. She smiled. This was her favorite time of day, or rather, night. Long before the sun chased away the shadows of night and before the servants made their way through the various chambers to help the occupants ready themselves for the day.
Rhodeia donned her riding attire and shoes before slipping out of her chamber and down the stairs. As she ran, she made sure to side-step the wooden stairs she knew were bound to creak beneath her. Her heart beat faster and faster as she neared the back door. She was about to reach for the back door when—
“Lady Rhodeia,” a voice whispered, and she spun on her heels. Her heart dropped for a moment, but then she saw who the voice belonged to, and peace settled in her once more.
“Sophie. You have risen early.”
“As have you, my lady,” her trusted lady’s maid said with a smile. She held up Rhodeia’s plaid shawl, the same one she always wore when she went on these ventures but hadn’t been able to locate this morning.
Sophie stepped toward her and placed the shawl over Rhodeia’s wispy chocolate-brown hair and tied it under her chin.
“There. I had taken it yesterday to mend the hole, along with the other items that needed fixing. I was on my way up to return it to your armoire, but I saw you rushing down the hall and thought you’d require it sooner rather than later.”
Rhodeia smiled at the young woman before her. Sophie McKey was her most trusted confidant within Alerdine Manor. She’d arrived years prior and started as a scullery maid. Rhodeia liked the young woman’s quiet nature and kind smile. Soon, the two struck up a close friendship, and Sophie became Rhodeia’s maid.
Sometimes I wish she were not a maid, or that I were not the daughter of the Marquess of Alerdine, for it would be such a joy to be able to venture out into the world with Sophie, to attend balls, or to go into town together as friends, not as high-born daughter and maid. Alas, my father would never approve of any such ideas. He is ever so rigid when it comes to the separation of the classes.
Her father, the Marquess, was already rather vexed by his daughter’s close association with the maid as well as her friendly nature when it came to the servants in general. He did not believe a lady of her standing ought to converse quite so much and quite so freely with the servants. He found it inappropriate. But then again, her father found a great many things in life vexing and unseemly.
She reached out and squeezed her friend’s hand.
“Thank you, Sophie. You take such good care of me. I wish you could ride out with me this morning.”
Sophie chuckled. “I would decline even if I could. I venture to say I’d fall off the horse within a moment of mounting it. If I even managed to mount it at all. No, I shall remain here with my feet firmly on the ground and attend to my duties. Now, you had best rush away before the rest of the household wakes up.”
Rhodeia nodded and turned toward the door. After looking left and right, she dashed across the garden. She raced past the washhouse and down the path toward the stable. The fresh, crisp air wavered into her nostrils, and there was a sweetness in the air she could only smell so early in the day. This early in the day there was still promise and hope in the air. The day ahead could bring anything.
The stars lit her way to the stable, where lanterns illuminated the stable yard. She stopped and ducked behind the large front gate. It stood open already as stable hands walked the horses toward the paddocks for the day. Pulling her cloak closer around her and her shawl further into her face she crossed the cobblestone and dove into the stable where her horse, Shadow, stood in his box.
“My darling,” she smiled as she pulled open his box and ran her hand along his long, graceful neck. He was a large horse, taller than any she’d owned before and imposing-looking from a distance. His black mane hung wild against his dark coat.
“Well, good morning, Lady Rhodeia. Such a lovely sight so early in the morning.”
Rufus Galway, the stable hand longest in the family’s service, stepped into the box. He carried Shadow’s heavy leather saddle in his hands and Rhodeia grinned at him.
“You’ve been expecting me, I see.”
“I saw you crouching behind the gate a few minutes ago and figured you’d be wanting to ride. I haven’t seen you much this past week, and I was beginning to worry.”
She sighed deeply and stepped aside as he heaved the heavy saddle atop the horse’s back. While he worked to secure the saddle, she pulled her gloves out of the pocket of her riding habit. She did not enjoy putting them on before riding as her riding habit was made of wool, which was already rather warm, especially when sprinting from the manor to the stable. The gloves, made of heavy leather, caused her to grow even hotter but she needed them for a good grip on the reins.
Once Rufus secured the saddle, she held on the reins with her left hand and grabbed the stirrup iron with her right. She placed her left foot into the iron and reached up to grip the saddle. Rhodeia leveraged her weight and pulled herself up until she was securely in the saddle. She shifted, placed her right leg in front of herself over the top pommel and the left under the left pommel and into the stirrup.
“I wish you would allow me to assist you when mounting the horse,” Rufus said with some despair in his voice. She smiled down at him as he looked up with wide, green eyes. Some days, his eyes appeared so bright and green she almost felt as if she could see his Irish home in them.
“I am quite capable of mounting the horse myself, Rufus. But you are kind to offer. You are always kind. I hope you know I am grateful for all you do.” She dropped her voice. “And for keeping these excursions a secret.”
He winked at her. “As far as secrets go, there are worse ones a lady could have, Lady Rhodeia. Now, shh.” He placed his meaty finger in front of his mouth and led Shadow out. After looking left and right, he walked them down a narrow passage and out through the back of the stable.
“Now, enjoy your ride, my lady,” he said once they cleared the building.
“I shall,” she replied, and within a moment, Shadow was galloping down the path toward a clearing and into the woods beyond.
The early morning air whipped into her face. In the distance, the moon sank lower and lower, and the sun rose gently. The sky, so dark just minutes before, changed colors. Blue and orange bled through the darkness. Rhodeia knew she had perhaps an hour before she had to return to the manor. If she didn’t, she’d be spotted, that was for sure. If not by one of their own servants or stable hands then by someone cutting through their estate, as the neighbors were in the habit of doing. More than enough time to enjoy this morning ride.
A bunny hopped across the path up ahead and cleared the way just before Shadow thundered along. She directed her horse through the woods and out the other side, where they sprinted down a field. To not tire him out entirely, she switched from a swift gallop into a trot and closed her eyes. Birds flew up ahead and sang as if to greet the new day while the sun continued its ascent.
“Freedom. This is freedom, Shadow. I wish I could ride with you every morning and every afternoon. I wish I would never have to endure the days at Alerdine Manor in the company of my father. It is awful of me to say, I know. He is my father and I love him, but his company can be so vexing.”
She was in the habit of talking to Shadow as if he were a loyal friend and understood what she said. She knew he did not, but sometimes she needed to allow her frustrations to come out. It wasn’t as if she could tell anyone else about her worries and troubles.
Sophie was the only one who truly knew how much Rhodeia disliked her new role in life. Ever since her coming-out ball the previous year, she was no longer considered a child. The freedom she’d enjoyed up until then was a distant memory. Now, all that mattered to her father was finding a suitable match for her.
Since her coming-out ball, her days were filled with endless discussions about who might be a good match and who might be willing to court her in London this Season.
The Season is almost upon me once more. Faith, how I despise it. There is nothing I want less than traveling to London to spend another Season dancing with any lord my father sets on me. And Almack’s… What a terrible place it is. Not even the food is enjoyable. I suppose even if it were, Father would not let me eat too much of it, lest I grow too wide and ruin my looks.
She shuddered at the idea of having to go to London in a fortnight, but there was no way around it. For a moment, she slowed Shadow further and looked into the distance. The moon disappeared entirely and the last of the stars faded away as the sun took its rightful place in the sky.
Alerdine Manor lay but a short carriage ride from London, a couple of hours, perhaps. Still, when the Season was upon them, they always resided in London instead of in the country. She looked around. Scotland lay to the North, Wales to the west.
“If we left now, we could be far gone before anyone noticed. What do you say, Shadow? Would you like to ride the Scottish Highlands? Or the Welsh shores?” She smiled at the thought but then patted his long neck. “I suppose not. I suppose that is a dream we never shall make a reality. Come on, let us return before our absence is noticed.”
With a heavy heart, she turned the horse around and galloped back to the stable, leaving behind her taste of freedom.
She left her horse with Rufus and dashed back to the manor. Her heavy riding habit was so long in the front to provide her with proper coverage while riding, it hindered her progress. She yanked up the hem with her long, slim fingers.
Up ahead, Alerdine Manor rose, many of the windows now open to allow fresh air to chase away the scent of the burnt-out fireplaces. It was a grand estate, among the most beautiful in the area. York Place perhaps rivaled Alerdine Manor in size but certainly not in style.
She came up to the back door and snuck up the servant staircase.
Sophie would arrive at her chamber shortly with a pitcher of water and a wash ball to help her get ready for the day. They’d both pretend Rhodeia had just risen, all the while keeping the secret between the two.
She wandered down the empty hall toward her chamber, a smile on her face as she thought of how long she’d been able to keep this glorious secret when suddenly—
“Oh!” A hand wrapped around her wrist and yanked her sideways into the library. She struggled to free herself but found the grip on her wrist ironclad.
“Let go of…” She called out, but she got no further as another hand clasped over her mouth, and she was pulled back into the dark of the library. Her eyes were wide with panic as she realized there was nothing at all she could do. She was at the mercy of her assailant.
Emmet Broward jumped out of the carriage the moment the horses came to a halt. His feet landed on the graveled walkway outside of his childhood home, Maynardshire Hall. He craned his neck as he took in the stately home he’d not set eyes on in almost ten years.
Nothing seemed to have changed at all, at least not at first glance. The rose bushes still bloomed along the low stone wall, which stretched along the home’s front façade. Their sickly-sweet scent bothered his nose and he rubbed his beard as if that might stop the smell from settling there.
He rolled his shoulders back to release the tension from the long journey and twisted his neck back and forth until a satisfying pop sounded.
Emmet was about to take the stone steps up to the manor when the large double doors flew open, and a figure appeared. He stood for a moment and took her in. Small, thin, and pale, she didn’t seem to have changed at all these past ten years.
“Emmet!” She called and hastened down the stairs. Her gown, a refined sky-blue silk design with shining white lace, sparkled as she rushed toward him.
He opened his arms wide and received his mother for the first time in a decade. The top of her head reached to his chest as he suddenly remembered just how fragile and dainty she’d always been.
“Mother,” he stepped back and beamed at her. Up close, the passage of the years was visible on her face. Her bright blue eyes nestled in a bed of fine lines that also marked the corners of her lips. And yet, there was something about her he found much lighter than when he’d left her. It was as if a terrible burden was lifted off his mother’s shoulders.
Father. It is my father. The burden of my father and his horrid, haughty ways has been lifted from her. It is awful of me even to think this as he was my father, but the truth is his death was a blessing upon her. I felt so when I first received her letter six months ago, announcing his passing, and it is even more evident now that I can lay my eyes on her.
To think that his father passed away almost a year ago was startling. However, given the length of time it took for letters—and people—to cross from England to India, it was not a great surprise.
“You are here at last. I could not believe it when the messenger arrived yesterday to tell me you docked in London. Why did you not ride straight here?”
Emmet shrugged and released her from his embrace. “It was late, and I was rather fatigued, and so I stayed the night at an Inn in the city.”
He didn’t want to tell her the truth. He dreaded returning to Maynardshire, even with his father gone. His departure caused such an uproar, and he’d left on such unfavorable terms that coming back, coming home, did not feel right.
Bombay was his home now and had been for seven years. He tended to his grandfather’s spice business there and found it exhilarating and exciting. A life he’d grown to cherish. Having to leave it behind to take up the title of Marquess of Maynardshire was the last thing he wanted to do. Alas, he had no choice.
“Well, I suppose you are here now, and that is all that matters. Please, let us go inside. You…” she stopped and scrutinized his appearance. The disapproval on her face was enough. She did not appreciate what she saw. “How are you dressed? What is this attire?”
She pulled with one fragile hand on the loose sleeves of his silk kurta. He rose to his full height and pulled his kurta so it lay straight. As was tradition, it reached almost to his knees. His legs were in a pair of fitted churidar. He preferred the more loosely fitted dhoti but knew it would alarm his mother even more than his present attire.
“This is a kurta. I had it made just before I left, thinking I would need it for the summer. I did not know I was to return to England so unexpectedly.” He turned back and forth so she could admire the fine material and pretty wooden buttons that fastened the garment in the front. He knew she did not approve of it at all but could not help himself.
“Kurta? Why are the sleeves hanging as they are? Do they not have buttons in India? No cufflinks?” She shook her head and eyed him up and down. The moment her gaze fell to his shoes, she gasped.
He grinned, although a part of him feared a case of apoplexy was about to occur at the sight of his highly decorated mojari sandals.
“Are they not splendid?” He pulled up the hem of his churidar so she could appreciate the elaborately-designed footwear. “It is made of tanned leather. The uppers are decorated with brass nails and some shells. I adore the mirror pieces. Do you suppose they will be quite envious of me at Almack’s when I present myself next Wednesday?”
“Almack’s? You will not go anywhere in public dressed with these…. slippers. Emmet. You must have forgotten all about English fashion during your time in India. This attire might be acceptable in the Far East but certainly not here.”
“Do not judge so hastily, Mama. I’ve brought you a pair. And a Sari. It is made of golden silk. You will see how comfortable these clothes are once you try it, I assure you.”
Her pale face grew redder by the moment, and Emmet’s grin grew wider and wider. He always loved to tease his mother, but today, there was something else mixed in with his good-natured jesting. There was some resentment he could not quite keep from bleeding into his words.
He didn’t want to be here. Other than his mother, there was nothing here but bad memories. If Emmet had his way, he’d scoop up his mother and bring her to Bombay with him to live out the rest of their lives there in peace. That would, of course, never happen. His mother was too fond of London and the many social activities she’d filled her hours with during her long, loveless marriage to the late Marquess.
No, the Dowager Marchioness of Maynardshire would never leave England under her own steam. And he could not return to India alone. He was now the Marquess of Maynardshire, responsible for their estate as well as his grandfather’s spice business. He’d have to manage both, somehow.
“Never! I will never dress like a savage. And neither should you. You are a peer of the realm now, you are expected at the House of Lords, and you certainly cannot go there dressed like…”
“They are not savages, Mama. I’ve lived among them in India for seven years and I assure you, I’ve never met kinder, more hospitable people in all of my life. I beg of you, refrain from speaking so poorly of them.”
His mother’s shoulders drooped as she sighed. “Let us not quarrel so soon after your arrival home, Emmet. I’ve looked forward to seeing you so much all of these months. Let me enjoy having you home.”
He softened toward her almost at once, for he too had been looking forward to seeing her. The journey from India had taken him four months, a stroke of luck for often it took quite a bit longer. Securing passage on one of the East India Company’s merchant ships could be difficult, especially at short notice.
I was lucky to have made so many good friends in my time in Bombay. Otherwise, I might have had to wait to book passage, and with the approaching monsoon season, I might have been delayed another six months at least. However, it would not have been the worst thing to happen.
The truth was, he’d considered telling his mother he was unable to secure passage and would have to wait for some time before returning, but the guilt at this very idea ate him up almost the moment he’d considered it.
She needed him. He knew this. Their steward, Mr. Corbin, was a capable man, but he was also an older man who could not be expected to take on the estate’s affairs for an extended period without the Marquess to guide him.
As it was, the distance meant he’d arrived home just after the end of the one-year mourning period, so at least he would not be expected to don black attire to signal his mourning to a man he despised. It would have felt awful to have to pretend as though he cared. He was sure all of London remembered the falling out between himself and his father for it had been quite a public event.
“Very well, Mama. Let us go inside. I am quite famished. I don’t suppose the cook would be able to serve some traditional Indian cuisine?”
“If you do not stop your jesting, Emmet, I shall have to banish you to the guest cottage,” his mother said with a smile. As they made their way up the steps, she grew serious again. “You will have venison for dinner and hare. And vegetables from our garden. I do not want to hear any more of your Indian preferences. You are an English lord, and you must act as one. I will send for the tailor to come and make you new clothing.”
He grunted. Of course, this was to be expected. There was no way he would have been able to rejoin society dressed in his preferred attire. However, he had no intention of giving up his preferred style of dress or food entirely. He was not the man his mother once knew. He wasn’t the same man who’d served three years in His Majesty’s Royal Navy, nor the man who’s set sail to India so many years ago.
He was changed, and she’d have to accept it.
As they made their way into the manor, he looked around and marveled at the familiar space. Enormous marble statues stood on either side of the grand staircase that led to the upper chambers. A heavy, red carpet lined the stairs while tapestries hung from the easternmost wall.
“They are magnificent, are they not?” His mother said with pride.
Emmet swallowed. They were. They also looked as though they might have cost enough to feed a family in Bombay for several years. His mother, he realized, hadn’t changed much at all. She still had the same expensive taste she’d always exhibited. He was certain she still spent her days in London, shopping and taking tea with her friends.
“They are,” he said. He knew better than to criticize his mother’s spending habits since shopping was the only thing that made her happy during those long, lonely years at his father’s side.
“I bought them just last month,” she said. “On Oxford Street. The vendor had them sent in from Spain.” Suddenly, his mother paused and turned toward him. As she fingered her pearl necklace, she looked up at him. “You will not believe who I was with when I found them.”
He squinted at her, his head cocked to one side. “Who?”
“The Dowager Marchioness of Leesdale. And her daughter-in-law, Lavinia.”
Emmet froze in place at the mention of the name belonging to the woman he was supposed to marry years ago. “Lavinia?”
His mother smiled from ear to ear. “Indeed. And wouldn’t you believe it, she is a widow now. Entirely available once more.”
As his mother turned and continued her ascent up the stairs, Emmet staggered forward and clutched onto the staircase’s adorned iron railing.
Lavinia—he’d loved her so ardently, so feverishly, he’d sworn he would never love another. He’d promised he would banish her from his heart and mind. And he thought he had succeeded.
At the mention of her name, he could not help but wonder—was he really over their love? Or had he buried his desire and his love for her all of these years?
As he struggled up the stairs behind his mother, Emmet realized that returning home brought with him many more challenges than he’d ever expected.
Rhodeia woke on her birthday to see the most welcome sight sitting beside her bed—her beloved mother. She sat quietly with a piece of embroidery in her lap and looked up when Rhodeia shifted under her bedsheets.
“Mother,” she said with a voice still drunk on sleep.
“Happy Birthday, my darling.”
She sat up and swung her legs out of bed and her mother at once wrapped her arms around her. She placed a kiss on Rhodeia’s temple.
“I wanted to be the first to wish you a happy birthday, my little girl.”
“And to make sure I do not venture out on my own again,” Rhodeia added with a smirk.
“I do not mind you sneaking out of the manor, just as long as you are careful. For, as our little mishap last week showed us, you have grown careless. You cannot allow your father to catch you. You know this.”
Rhodeia yawned and stretched her arms to chase away the sleepiness from her limbs. It was true, after her last excursion on Shadow, her father very nearly caught her. Had it not been for her mother’s quick action, her father would have seen her. She’d pulled her into the library and out of her father’s path just in time. He was not often in the habit of rising early, and when he did, he hardly ever made his way into the east side of the manor where Rhodeia’s chamber was. He had that morning and the near discovery put such a fright in his daughter, she’d not dared sneak out again since.
Although it was true, she’d planned to do so this day. Now, due to her mother’s diligence, Shadow would have to remain in his box. At least until the afternoon.
“I know, Mama. I promise to be more careful. Although I suppose I will not have to worry about it much longer as we go to London so very soon. I shall not see Shadow at all unless Father lets me return home for the occasional break from the ton.”
Something in the way her mother refused to look at her alarmed Rhodeia greatly.
“What is it, Mama?”
The woman shook her head. She had the same honey-brown eyes as her daughter and the same dark hair. Rhodeia always thought it curious that she’d inherited her mother’s features, hair, and eyes but not her porcelain skin. Instead, she had the olive skin tone of her father, who was of Spanish descent on his grandmother’s side.
Now, her mother’s kind eyes softened as she rubbed her daughter’s back. “Nothing, just the passage of time, I suppose. Soon you will be married yourself, and then I will be alone.” The sorrow and longing in her mother’s voice pierced Rhodeia’s heart. She knew her mother always longed to have more children, but the difficult pregnancy and birth, which had almost cost the Marchioness her life, meant Rhodeia was an only child.
It is strange. I always considered myself so lucky not to have to share Mama with anyone. Yet what was a blessing for me was a curse for her as she will be so lonely without me. If she had more children, she would be much happier, I know it. Older siblings might have grandchildren by now, and younger ones would remain by her side for longer.
“I shall not marry until I am in love, and as I have not met any suitable gentleman to be in love with, I will be at your side for quite some time,” she promised. However, her words did not comfort her mother at all. The woman rose, her wide hips accentuated her narrow waist. She was a beauty, a true beauty, but her daughter was well aware her mother didn’t consider herself beautiful at all.
“There is nothing I want more for you than to find love. True love,” she said with a voice filled with a strange undertone. Rhodeia was about to ask once more what was causing her mother’s melancholy, as she was sure it was not simply the passage of time. Before she could, there was a knock on the door and Sophie entered with a jug of water in her hands. A wash ball bounced on her chest and continued to bounce even after she stopped abruptly at the sight of the Marchioness.
“I am sorry, Lady Alerdine. I did not know you were here. I can return at a later time.”
“There is no need, Sophie. I just wanted to wish my daughter a happy birthday upon rising. Please, help her get ready. Rhodeia, your father wishes for us to take breakfast this morning. He has a surprise for you. Please join us when you are ready.”
Rhodeia jumped out of bed and watched as her mother left the room, utterly mystified as to what surprise her father might have for her. He was not the kind of man to be thoughtful of things such as birthdays. As she stood and Sophie helped her get ready for her big day, she could not help but feel a little apprehensive about the proposed breakfast.
She made her way down the stairs an hour later. Her hair was pinned up in the simple style she preferred. Usually, she wore her hair pinned up and unadorned unless it was a special occasion. This being her birthday, her hair sprinkled with colorful flowers that complimented her skin. Her gown was one of fine muslin and in a bright, primrose yellow. A train of white silk ran along the back, giving the ensemble a unique appearance.
Whenever she knew she was to take any meals with her father, she made sure to wear something he’d approve of. She’d think of subjects she could discuss without upsetting him or causing upset at the table. A preferable topic that did not include her courtship and marriage.
She took a deep breath and stepped through the open door of the breakfast room, and at once, her father rose. To Rhodeia’s surprise, he kissed her cheek.
“Good morning, Rhodeia. Happy Birthday. Here, sit beside me.” He indicated the head of the table where her mother was already seated to his left. The apprehension rose within her as her father never made a fuss over her. Last year, she did not see him at all on her birthday as he’d left for London the week prior.
“Look, darling. Mrs. Wilcox made lacy pancakes,” her mother pointed at the plate sitting at the table, and at once, Rhodeia’s eyes widened. She adored lacy pancakes, and these even had an intricate floral design she loved even more.
“She is such a sweet woman, Mrs. Wilcox. She told me she makes these for her daughter some mornings as well.” She slid into her chair just as her father grunted.
“I thought I told you not to be so familiar with the servants.” He pulled his chair forward as it creaked across the floor.
“I only spoke to her in passing,” Rhodeia defended herself, but her father raised his hand.
‘I do not wish to argue. It is your birthday.”
The family sat quietly, each focused on the meal before them. Rhodeia’s eyes fell to the many empty chairs at the table.
I always wished I had siblings. A brother, a sister. Someone to share life with. Perhaps Father’s attention would then not rest solely on me. If I had a brother, Father would have an heir and would not be so determined to marry me off to someone wealthy and influential. Alas, Mama could not have more children before or after me, and it cannot be helped.
When she finished her breakfast, she sat back and considered asking her father’s permission to go riding. He disapproved of her riding alone, but she might be permitted to go with her mother, who on occasion did enjoy a ride. She was about to open her mouth to ask when he cleared his throat and motioned for a footman.
The young man, Stevens, entered with a large box which he sat upon the table with great care as not to knock over the teapot and cream.
“This is for you. Our seamstresses in London made it to my specifications, based on a design from France.” Much of her father’s fortune came from generations past, but he also had an investment in a textile business. He owned one of the largest companies in London, and many of the lords and ladies had their gowns made by one of her father’s employees.
She was not surprised to receive a gown for her birthday—she’d expected one, for she received a new gown every year on her birthday. However, it usually was her mother’s doing. Her mother would go to the London business, select the materials and adornments, and instruct the seamstresses how she wanted Rhodeia’s gown assembled. Her father hardly ever even acknowledged birthdays.
“Father, that is ever so kind. Thank you. I shall save it for when we go to London and wear it to Almack’s.”
Her father shook his head. He was a large, imposing man even when seated. His wide shoulders matched the sharp lines on his face. He scratched his protruding chin and shook his head.
“I would like you to wear it to dinner this evening. We are expecting company.”
His green eyes flashed as he shrugged. “That is another surprise, my dear. Now, run along and take your gown with you. I’d like you and Sophie to take great care when you dress this evening. I expect you to look and act like the lady you are.”
She swallowed and locked eyes with her mother, who sat quietly at the table, her hands wrapped around a now cold cup of tea. She smiled at her daughter, but there was something in her eyes, something so unsettling Rhodeia could hardly look forward to even trying on the gown.
Something wasn’t quite right this day. If only she could figure out what.
“Faith, what a breathtaking gown it is. Your father chose well.” Sophie admired the gown as Rhodeia held it against her person. It was a fine gown, indeed, and if she’d seen it in the window of a modiste in London, she’d have requested to at least try it.
“He will have had one of his employees choose it,” she replied without malice.
The gown base was of misty lavender-colored satin, with a fine white lace layer above. The sheer puffed sleeves gave it a dainty appearance and the beautifully embroidered waistband accentuated her slender shape. Along with the gown, the box contained an embroidered white shawl and a lavender-colored bonnet adorned with large white feathers and a white satin band.
“It must have cost a fortune,” Sophie surmised. Rhodeia could not help but agree with her.
“To think my father selected this. Mama usually is the one who provides gifts and helps with my attire.” She lowered the gown and eyed her friend. “Something is not quite right with this.”
Sophie took the gown from her and loosened the lace ties at the back so Rhodeia could get dressed.
“Why? Do you not think it possible your father changed his mind about the way he acts around you?”
Rhodeia shook her head. “Nothing has changed between us. He is a stern man and rigid in his ways. Even this day he admonished me for conversing in too familiar a manner with Mrs. Wilcox.”
She stepped into the gown. The material was much softer than she’d expected, thanks to a hidden layer of thin cotton within. It lay against her skin as smooth as a glove.
“It must be bribery,” she concluded and attempted to turn just as Sophie pulled on the lace to close the back of the gown.
“Stand still, my lady,” her maid requested as she tied the laces. “Bribery? How do you come to this conclusion?” before Rhodeia could answer, Sophie gasped. “Gracious. You think he is giving you a nice gown so you might be more inclined to entertain the young lords during the Season? So you might choose one of them this year?”
“I think so. Last year, he was eager for me to find a match, but because it was my first Season, he was more forgiving when I did not care for any of the young men I danced with. This year, he has done nothing but tell me that I must marry, that I cannot go another Season without making a match.”
She exhaled and ran a hand down her new gown. She liked her reflection in the mirror.
“I do wonder who this guest is. ‘Pon my honor, if it is a matchmaker, I shall leave the room at once!” She spoke the words with some conviction. She spun around once more to face Sophie, who grunted in exasperation.
“I shall never get you laced in if you continue to move so much.” After a moment, she bit her lips and frowned.
“You don’t think it is a matchmaker, not really? Surely your mother would have warned you.”
“I feel as though she was going to tell me this morning, but then it seems her courage left her.”
Sophie made her way to the armoire and returned with a small box that contained Rhodeia’s most cherished necklaces and adornments. She chose a rivière necklace made of amethysts set in silver as it matched the fabric of the gown.
“Would it not be lovely if the visitor was a dashing lord? A Duke? Someone to whisk you off your feet?”
Rhodeia shook her head. “That’s worse than a matchmaker. I was quite deliberate in my rejection of the lords I met last Season. I felt nothing for any of them, and unless I feel something, I shall not entertain the idea of marriage or even courtship. You see the way my parents are with one another. They do not care for each other, and my mother is unhappy.”
Her friend swallowed. It was one of those times where the difference in their station truly showed. She knew Sophie had opinions on the state of the Marquess and Marchioness’s marriage. All the servants did. Rhodeia knew this because she would at times be privy to snippets of conversation between the servants as they made their way to and from the washhouse or around the stable yard. Everyone knew just how unhappy the master of the house and his wife were.
It was no great secret. And yet, she could not discuss the matter with her friend as it would have placed Sophie in an awkward position.
“I will not marry for convenience. It is love or nothing for me. No matter what my father says.”
Sophie pressed her lips so tightly together they almost disappeared into a thin line.
Rhodeia placed a hand on her friend’s upper arm. “Perhaps it will be the Prince Regent himself, come to ask me to Court in honor of my birthday.”
Sophie chuckled and the two friends moved past their awkward moment. Rhodeia made her way downstairs and stopped outside the dining room from whence voices drifted into the hall. One voice belonged to her father. Deep and confident, he spoke above everyone else in the room. Her mother’s almost inaudible voice spoke, and then a third joined the conversation.
This third voice belonged to another man.
She dropped her shoulders. Her earlier assertion that her father might invite a dashing young lord was nothing but an attempt at jest. She’d not assumed he would do so as it would be a cruel action to take on her birthday. And yet…
“Rhodeia, I thought I heard you walking down the hall,” her father suddenly appeared in the doorway. She looked up at him. His attire was much more formal than was usual for dinnertime. He wore his best waistcoat and a new tailcoat over it. The white shirt and cravat had the appearance of crisp newness.
“Who is our guest?” she asked as she peered past him. Standing in the dining room by the window, deeply engrossed in conversation with her mother, stood a tall blond-haired man. He had a sharp, long chin and a nose that turned up at the end as if looking toward the sky. He was familiar to her, but she could not place him at once.
“Why, Rhodeia. I am disappointed in you. You danced with him several times in London. When you speak to him, please do not let it be known that you cannot remember him. He certainly remembers you very well.” There was a mischievous spark in her father’s eyes that alarmed her more than anything else.
She continued to stare at the man when it came to her who he was.
“The Earl of Carrington?”
Her father grinned. “One and the same.”
She swallowed. The Earl of Carrington was one of the most notorious lords in London. Part of a confederacy of dandies, he was well known to take advantage of young women, only to leave them to fend for themselves when he grew tired of them. The stories and on-dits she’d heard about him seemed to be based more in reality than many others.
Why was he here? Like her father, he was involved in the textile business, but surely that was not why he was here.
She looked at her father with wide eyes and took a step back. It all made sense now. Her father’s joyous mood, the fine gown hand-selected by her father—and the unexpected visitor. Still, she hoped against hope her inclination was wrong.
“Father, why is the Earl of Carrington here on my birthday?”
Her father smiled and wrapped an arm around his daughter.
“Because, my dear, this is my gift to you. I know how you despise the London Season and the marriage mart, so I have taken care of matters for you. You see, my dear, the Earl of Carrington has asked for your hand in marriage. And I have agreed.” He pulled her closer. “Rhodeia, you are to be wed. Now, come with me and meet your husband.”
A wave of nausea overtook her, and she froze in place. Every part of her screamed for this to be a nightmare, for her to wake up—to no avail. Her father pushed her forward with some force, and as she stepped through the doorway of the dining room, the Earl turned and their eyes met.
She recalled the words spoken a little earlier to Sophie. How she would not marry unless she felt something for her intended.
As she set her eyes on her future husband, she did indeed have a strong, undeniable feeling about the man before her.
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