About the book
He held her in his arms and the traitors in her head fell silent...
Miss Isolde Gordon’s life is relatively simple.
Having grown up in the shadow of her glamorous cousin, she has resigned herself to a life of solitude. Until she attracts the attention of someone she’d never dare dream of.
For Jonathan Allen, Duke of Ekhard, being back in England means the resurgence of painful memories. When a Christmas ball finds him dancing with his best friend’s sister he realizes not only that his wounds are still fresh, but also that he is undeniably attracted to her.
After a riding accident leaves Isolde injured, Jonathan comes to a startling conclusion: the thought of losing her is too much to bear. When her father announces her betrothal to his business partner, Isolde is left with a terrible choice: marry him or see her whole family ruined.
And then, the fates deliver the final blow in the form of a terrible rumor: Jonathan has been playing her for a fool all along...
Isolde watched as the couples twirled across the dance floor to the sounds of the quadrille. She knew every step–every movement–even though she had not danced it herself in some time. Her feet tapped along to the sound of the music and she bopped her head to the rhythm. From the dance floor, her closest childhood friend, Miss Olivia Brown, smiled at her.
Olivia was paired up with Lord Canterbury who could not take his eyes off her. No wonder, Olivia was a true beauty, with fair skin and golden locks. She had it arranged in a splendid half-up, half-down style which looked striking with the pale-blue crape dress she wore. You couldn’t tell now, as it was pinned up, but the dress had a lovely train.
Olivia’s mother, the Lady Conner, had recently purchased an entirely new wardrobe for her daughter, in an effort to attract a suitable husband. Not that Olivia needed the help. Isolde knew her friend had no shortage of eligible lords looking to court her, although she had yet to show interest in any of them.
Lady Conner was particular in the kind of man she wanted her daughter to attract. Being of noble birth was a given, but she wished for a wealthy man, one high up in the peerage. Preferably a Marquess or Duke, such as Lord Canterbury, an Earl in line to inherit the title of Marquess from his father.
Isolde knew that her friend did not much care for titles or wealth. She was, like Isolde, a romantic at heart and wanted a man who loved and adored her. Isolde smiled. If Lord Canterbury’s gaze was anything to go by, he certainly adored Olivia.
Suddenly, Isolde felt a jolt of melancholy overtake her. She looked down at her own dress. It was pretty, but much plainer than her friend’s. The simple white-satin gown was worn with a burgundy spencer which, according to her lady’s maid, complemented her brown eyes. She wasn’t quite certain this was true, for her maid had a habit of saying all manner of things to make Isolde feel better about her appearance. In fact, her maid, Molly, had lately been imploring Isolde to request a new wardrobe as well.
Thus far, Isolde had declined. She knew her father, Viscount Lincester, would have bought her any dress she desired. She preferred to wear simple gowns that allowed her to blend in, rather than stand out the way Olivia did. She would not want to be the center of attention. The thought of the eyes of an entire room being on her made her shudder. No, she was quite happy in her plain gown, seated in the back of the room.
It allowed her to feel content while still watching the proceedings. Mostly content. She had to admit she felt a little jealous at the way Lord Canterbury gazed upon her friend. She wished sometimes she had someone look at her that way.
Beside her, Olivia’s mother, Lady Conner, was engaged in a lively conversation with her cousin, the Countess of Buxby. Lady Buxby was on an extended visit from her home in Yorkshire and appeared to much enjoy the sound of her own voice. Isolde had been ignoring the chatter in favor of the soothing sounds of the music, but she could not help being drawn into the conversation now.
“Lady Conner, Miss Brown looks rather lovely tonight. And Lord Canterbury must agree, for this is the second dance he’s shared with her tonight,” The old Countess commented as they watched the couples dance. Lady Conner beamed.
“It is indeed. The Viscount was rather cross with me when I procured an entire new wardrobe for her, but I told him it would be well worth it. And I was correct. He shall have to grovel before me when Lord Canterbury makes an offer!”
The two women giggled, their hands discreetly in front of their mouths. Isolde smiled politely when the Countess caught her eye and focused her attention on her. Isolde shrunk back a little, not eager to make conversation.
“Do you not enjoy dancing, Miss Gordon? I have not seen you on the dance floor once tonight,” the Countess asked while polishing her looking glass.
Isolde chewed on her bottom lip. Before she could answer, Lady Conner, who served as Olivia’s and her chaperon tonight, spoke up.
“Miss Gordon has not yet been asked, unfortunately.”
“Faith!” the Countess exclaimed as though a death had been proclaimed. “I am ever so sorry. Here, why don’t you take a turn around the room? You’ve been sitting in the corner hidden behind two old crows yakking along all night, it is no wonder no one has asked you to dance. Let them see you, someone is bound to ask you for a dance. Over there, you see Lord Gray is looking rather miserable and lonesome, why don’t you take a walk by his table? Shall I accompany you?”
Isolde pushed her chair back in a hurry. “That is ever so kind of you, dearest Countess. It is rather stuffy in here and I believe taking the air might do me good.”
The Countess looked at Lady Conner, who shrugged. “It may do. Shall I come along?”
Isolde shook her head, “I am quite fine, Lady Conner. I will walk the gardens for a while. In any case, I believe my dear friend may require your attention more so than I at this time.” She looked back at the dance floor where the couples were still engaged in the quadrille.
Lady Conner smiled widely at the sight of her daughter with the dashing young Earl
“Quite right, Miss Gordon, quite right.”
Isolde rose, smoothing her dress down as she stood. She walked a few steps and exited the door closest to her table when she heard Lady Conner’s voice. She spoke quieter than usual but still loud enough for Isolde to hear.
“Poor child, this is not the first time she hasn’t been asked to dance. Every ball I’ve taken her to has been the same. She sits alone and won’t even take a turn around the room unless my daughter or her cousin accompanies her. The only time she gets to dance is if a young lord has been encouraged to ask her, or one of the older lords takes pity.”
Isolde froze where she stood and turned her head to hear better.
The Countess sighed, “What a pity. She is rather a plain girl. Does her Mother not attend to her wardrobe? Much can be done with a little sprucing up of the attire and the hair. It may improve her confidence, for she’s awfully quiet and withdrawn. It’s difficult to attract attention when you hide.”
“The Mother passed away in childbirth when Miss Gordon was but a small child. She has been raised by an elderly governess who knew nothing of style. I have tried to be an influence, but it is useless. Miss Gordon seems utterly uninterested in improving her appearance. If you ask me, she’s resigned to being on the shelf.”
“What a shame.”
Isolde felt tears spring into her eyes.
Is it not enough that I know I am plain? Must it be confirmed in such a cruel and public manner? I wish I had stayed home. I do not know why I agreed to come to this deuced ball. I know hardly a soul, and I knew from the start no one would ask me to dance.
She did not enjoy attending social functions for exactly this reason. Mingling with the other young ladies of the ton made her feel worse about herself than she already did, for it reminded her of all she lacked both in looks and confidence. She came to these balls because it was expected of her. She’d much rather have spent her time in the stables with her horses, or in her father’s library.
Although, if she was honest with herself, there was one other reason she came here. She did not like to admit it but she did carry a glimmer of hope that one day, someone might see that there was more to her than just the quiet girl who sat in the corner. Someone who might take an interest in her and discover what was beneath the timid exterior. She knew the chance of that happening was slim, and that Lady Conner was right. She had resigned herself to her fate. With a sigh, she shook away the sadness and carried on walking.
Isolde collected her pelisse and was almost outside when she passed the supper room. Suddenly, the thought of a piece of dry cake made her mouth water. She would get cake and a cup of Negus, and enjoy it outside away from the crowd.
She stepped into the supper room, leaving her pelisse on a chair by the door. She surveyed the delicacies displayed. In addition to dry cake and bread and butter, an assortment of sweets was on offer. On the other end of the room she spotted a table with steaming tea and assorted drinks, among them her favorite–Negus. She poured herself a cup and sat it down while cutting a piece of cake which she placed on a handkerchief.
Isolde was about to add a piece of marzipan to her plate when she heard a gaggle of voices approaching. She looked up and froze.
Before her were Miss Frances Portsmouth and Miss Hester York, along with another young lady she did not recognize. Isolde could not stand either of them for they were terrible, vain girls who enjoyed nothing more than to ridicule her. Her father had attempted to forge a friendship between her and them, but they had found her odd and boring.
What never seemed to bore them was their love for tormenting her. Isolde felt cold sweat break out on her forehead and her hands began to shake. The Negus swerved back and forth in the cup, dangerously close to spilling.
“Oh la! Look who it is! Miss Isolde Gordon. My, your hands are shaking, my dear. Are you exhausted from all the dancing?” Frances said, a smirk on her face. She stood with her arms crossed in front of her chest and stared Isolde down.
She wanted nothing more than to run, to get out of here and away from them, but they stood in such a way that the door to the supper room was blocked. Isolde looked at the lovely carpeted floor wishing she could melt into it at once.
“You were asked a question, Miss Gordon. Are your hands shaking from exhaustion of dancing?” Hester chimed in, causing her two friends to giggle with glee. “Have you lost the power of speech too? You know, Frances? I don’t recall her dancing at all tonight, do you?”
Isolde glanced up without fully raising her head. The plate and cup weighed heavy in her hands and she longed to set them down. Frances tapped her chin with her gloved index finger.
“I do not believe so, dearest Hester. No. Oh la, perhaps it is because…” she paused and then lowered her voice to a hiss, “no one ever asks you to dance. Poor dear.” She turned to the third girl, whom Isolde did not know.
“I am rather rude tonight, am I not? I have failed to properly introduce you. This is my Cousin, the Countess Droben. Lady Droben, this is Miss Isolde Gordon. Viscount Lincester’s daughter. She’s destined to be on the shelf and turn into an old spinster.”
“How very unfortunate,” the Countess said, although her tone carried spite, not pity.
Why are these ladies so mean? I have done nothing to them. I do not bother them, I stay out of their way. Why must they torment me so? Oh, where is Lady Conner? For once I should need her and she is nowhere to be found.
“Miss Gordon, perhaps you did not hear it when Miss Portsmouth introduced her Cousin. She is a Countess. Thus…” Hester stopped speaking and looked at Isolde with her eyebrows raised.
Of course. As one below the Countess in precedence, Isolde had to curtsy. She awkwardly crossed one leg in front of the other and bent her knees while attempting to keep the cup and cake upright. She failed. Her hands were shaking so badly that at last, the Negus spilled over the edge, causing a rather large spill on the carpet.
Isolde, horrified by her error, rose at once in order to remedy the mess. She turned to set the cup down and found herself slipping in the spill. She tumbled forward and, in an effort to keep from falling, she dropped the plate with the cake, causing it to land on the floor where it shattered into pieces.
“Faith! The beautiful plate! Don’t you know how much that costs, you clumsy fool?” Frances shouted, louder than she needed to. Almost at once, a maid appeared. She pushed past the three girls who were still blocking the door and surveyed the mess.
“I am ever so sorry. Please, let me…” Isolde sat the cup down and attempted to help the maid who waved her away.
“Do not touch the shards, Miss, lest you…”
“Ow!” Isolde exclaimed for she had already attempted to pick up a piece and had cut herself. Blood dripped from her index finger and she swiftly placed it in her mouth to keep from making a bigger mess. Tears sprang into her eyes, both from the pain and the humiliation. The three ladies laughed, hands in front of their mouths.
“You see! This is why she will end up an old maid! She can’t even eat a piece of cake without destroying all the furnishing. Can you imagine any lord wanting to wed someone as useless as her?” Frances said between fits of laughter.
Isolde could no longer control herself. She broke into sobs at the mean insults at her person. She wanted to run, wanting nothing more than to hide, but she could not for the door was still blocked. They were not done tormenting her. In fact, she was certain they enjoyed her tears.
“What is this commotion about? Make way!” A booming, deep voice sounded from the door. At once, the trio dispersed and through her tears, Isolde saw a tall, handsome man with long blond hair appear. His countenance was one of concern. He looked at her and stepped toward her.
“You are hurt, let me…”
“I am quite all right,” she said through sobs. “Excuse me.” She rushed past the man and the three ladies who had finally stopped laughing. The appearance of the young man had stopped their laughter but the cruel way with which they had treated her had left its mark on Isolde.
She ran out of the room, down the grand hallway and to the door that led outside. She rushed outside and down the stairs when suddenly she slipped. She was not sure if it was frost on the steps or the remnants of the Negus she’d stepped into earlier, but she flew into the air and fell backward and landed on the stone steps. She yelped with pain.
What a disaster, what an utter disaster I am! The girls are right and so are the Lady Conner and her cousin. I am useless. Plain and useless and I shall never find anyone to care for me. Look at me! An embarrassment.
She cried hot tears as she remained sitting on the stairs.
“Miss! Faith, are you injured?” A familiar voice sounded out from behind her. She turned and through the curtain of tears she saw the blond-haired lord who had come to her assistance in the supper room. She wiped her eyes and tried hard to suppress any further tears. He was beside her in a split second.
“Can you stand?” He squatted next to her.
“I believe I can, yes.” She attempted to rise but a sharp pain raced through her back.
“Let me assist you,” the man said and wrapped an arm around her to help her stand.
Isolde’s tears stopped for the sheer shock of having a man she was not related to touch her in such a way. He helped her up the steps and to a bench on the porch. The pain in her back ebbed away somewhat as she sat.
“May I see your finger?”
She let him examine her finger. As he did, she noticed how very blue his eyes were. So much like the ocean but with a sparkle as though she was looking into the stars. He wrapped a handkerchief around her finger. The sensation of his hand on hers made her shudder, but not in an unpleasant way.
“It is not too bad a cut.” He looked up at her and she became very aware of how her tear-stained face had to look. The carefully-applied powder was surely ruined.
“It might be improper to say so, Miss, but I could not help but overhear some of the unkind things the ladies said to you. And I am certain what I heard was but a small fraction of what they said.”
Isolde swallowed hard. She had been utterly humiliated. What cruel irony it was that a handsome lord should pay attention to her when she was near ruined with embarrassment. Of course, a handsome lord such as him would not otherwise have paid attention to her.
“It is quite all right, my Lord. It is not the first time and it will not be the last. I am usually much more composed. My Father always taught me the best way to deal with ladies such as these is to remain composed for they will eventually see the virtue in my endurance.”
He frowned and looked out into the night, then shook his head. “I do not know who your father is, but I must respectfully disagree. When assaulted in such a vile manner it is imperative to defend oneself. Next time it happens, let them see how cruel they are, let them get a taste of their own medicine.” She noticed that he had balled his hands into fists in anger. The knuckles turned white in a hurry.
“Promise me you will not let ladies such as these cause you so much pain again. You deserve to be treated with respect for you appear to be a fair and kind-hearted young woman. Do not let them tell you otherwise.”
Isolde’s mouth fell open for she had never received such advice from a stranger with such compassion. Whoever this young lord was, he appeared genuinely concerned for her.
“I promise,” she said quietly. “I am sorry, but I do not believe we have met.”
A slight smile appeared on his lips. “I am…”
“Oh, Faith! There you are!” The door burst open and Olivia appeared, Isolde’s pelisse draped over her arm. “I went to search for you and came upon the commotion in the supper room. They said you rushed outside without your pelisse. You must be frozen to the bone.”
She rushed to Isolde’s side and draped it around her. Only once she was done did she acknowledge the young man.
“Oh, excuse me. I did not mean to …”
The man rose and bowed to both of them.
“It is quite all right.” He looked at Isolde, a warm smile on his face. “Now that you are properly attended to, I shall take my leave.” He opened the door and was almost inside when he stopped and turned back.
“Do not forget your promise.”
“I will not forget, my Lord.”
With that, the stranger entered the house and left.
“Who was he? What promise? And what happened to you? You look a fright.”
Isolde’s eyes were still fixed to the door where the young man had disappeared. She tore her gaze away and faced her friend whose fair face was marked with worry.
“I fell and he assisted me. I did not even discover his name.”
She looked down at her index finger which was still wrapped in the man’s handkerchief. She unwrapped it and took a closer look. It was made of fine muslin and had beautifully-decorated edges. In the middle, the letter E was embroidered. E? She frowned and found herself looking out into the night, just as he had done. The handkerchief in hand she closed her eyes and thought of the young man who’d come to her rescue in more ways than one. Her heart beat faster as she thought of the way he’d wrapped his arm around her to help her up.
She could not help but wonder, Who was this stranger? And would she ever see him again?
Jonathan sat behind his father’s heavy oak desk, and rubbed his eyes as a yawn escaped him. He had not slept well the previous night as the events of the ball and his encounter with the young lady had kept his mind occupied. Even now, when he should be attending to matters of his estate, he kept thinking back to last night. Rage built up inside him when he thought of the three young ladies’ behavior. To taunt someone so mercilessly as to reduce them to tears….
The poor young lady. I hope she has recovered from the incident. Why did I not ask her for her name so I could call on her? She seemed familiar, so did many of the lords and ladies at the ball and yet I spoke to hardly any of them. The only time I felt comfortable with anyone was with the young lady.
He sighed heavily when a knock on the door drew his attention. Hastings, his estate steward, entered the room. Jonathan was still in shock over how much the man had aged since he’d last seen him. Jonathan had been away for almost ten years, but Hastings appeared to have aged many times that. He walked with a beautifully-carved walking stick, a gift from Jonathan’s father. His hair was entirely white and his face lined with deep wrinkles.
“Good morning, Your Grace. I hope you had an enjoyable time at the ball last night. Were you able to surprise your friends as planned?”
Jonathan groaned at the question and shook his head. He’d returned from India less than a week before and decided to surprise his closest childhood friends, Mister Eric Gordon and Mister Thomas Brown, by attending last night’s ball. Given that both were keen on balls and the life of each party, he’d been certain they would be there. Oh, what a reunion it would have been! But he’d found neither in attendance.
“Evidently, both are out of town, thus my surprise was an utter failure. As for the ball itself…it was rather unpleasant. I had quite forgotten how catty the ladies of the ton can be.”
He shook his head as the incident came back to his mind. “There was an unpleasant incident that, I’m afraid to say, has only furthered my dislike for these types of events, Hastings.”
Hastings pressed his lips together before speaking again.
“How very unfortunate, Your Grace. Perhaps when your friends return to town you may feel different?”
“Perhaps.” Jonathan shrugged. He had sent word ahead via letter that he was returning to England after his journey overseas. He’d hoped to see them at the ball, or at least be able to reconnect with some of his neighbors. But shortly after arriving he’d witnessed the young lady’s distress and it had put him out of the mood for a ball entirely.
“Has Your Grace had a chance to survey the paperwork I left?” He walked as though his feet were weighted down and sat on the red-velvet covered chair as soon as Jonathan indicated for him to do so. He plopped rather than sat as Jonathan heard the old man’s knee joint pop.
Jonathan sighed. “I have. And I understand little of it other than the tenants are behind. Is the estate in trouble?”
Hastings swayed his head back and forth.
“Not quite. Your Grace’s fortune is not in any danger. But, since Your Grace’s Father separated from the sugar plantation in the Caribbean, there has been a reduction in income. In addition, the annuity to Your Grace’s Mother in Scotland further reduced your fortune.”
Jonathan frowned. “I am certain my Father provided my Mother with only what she asked for. And she would not ask for outrageous sums, she is a modest woman, Hastings.”
Hastings, an older fellow who much believed in the old ways of the world and stood hesitantly in the face of change, sighed heavily.
“Be that as it may, the real issue is the lack of rent and tithe paid by some of the farmers.”
Jonathan narrowed his eyes. “Is this not why we employ an estate steward? To ensure such issues are attended to?”
Hastings nodded, “Of course, Your Grace. If you would like to look over the correspondence here and here,” he shuffled pages around the desk, “You will see what is owed.”
Jonathan picked up a sheet and his eyes bulged.
“Jones has not paid a tithe or rent in six months? And Forester in eight? And there are more! Hastings, I do not wish to be blunt, but what have you been doing since my Father passed away and I was in India?”
The old man cleared his throat, “I apologize for disappointing you, Your Grace. “
Jonathan shook his head. “My Father always spoke of you with the highest regard, but I must admit that I do not see much evidence of your abilities as Estate Manager. True, my finances are not in disarray, but the number of tenants that have not paid rent, the outstanding tithe …”
He shook his head and looked from the papers on his desk to the old man whose lips quivered.
“I have done my best, I assure you, Your Grace. The Duke, the previous Duke, had been quite withdrawn for some months before he passed away. I have been unwell myself and my wife…” The old man swallowed hard. “It has been difficult.” Tears welled up in the old man’s blue eyes.
I have upset him. Why did I have to be so harsh with him? I have been gone a long time, and many things have changed. I should not have been so demanding. He is an old man, after all. Why must I be so forward sometimes?
“Hastings, I am only trying to understand the problems so we can address them.”
“Yes, Your Grace. I have not done as thorough a job as I have in the past. I must admit, I have not the energy I once had. And the farmers know that fact. Some of the farmers have taken advantage of the situation. Knowing that there was no lord in residence, with Your Grace far away in India, made some of them rather keen to take advantage.”
“Jones has always been a cocky one. Stiffing us on his tithe and trying to shave off parts of his rent. I recall him well. I assume he is the ringleader among those who have not paid?”
Hastings nodded. “He is indeed.”
“I shall speak to him myself and ensure he knows there is once again a Duke of Ekhard in residence, and that such behavior will not stand. Neither will disrespect to my steward. You speak with my voice when you speak to these tenants, and I will ensure he knows that. “
The old man nodded. His grip tightened around his walking stick.
“That is all, Hastings. Go home and attend to your wife,” Jonathan said, releasing the man from his duty for the day.
“Yes, Your Grace.” He rose with some difficulty, which made Jonathan feel even worse. He had grown so old and he’d been in charge of the running of the estate for several months, since the sudden death of Jonathan’s father in the summer.
“Hastings?” He called the man when he had almost reached the door.
“Yes, Your Grace?”
“I apologize for my harsh words earlier. I have been overwhelmed with responsibility and I should not have turned my frustrations on you. You have done your very best, I am certain.”
A slight smile appeared on the man’s face and Jonathan caught a glimpse of the man he remembered from his childhood. The regal, always-in-control Estate Manager who’d taken charge of the lands with a firm but fair hand. In truth, Jonathan would do well to aspire to follow in his footsteps as much as in his own father’s.
“I thank you, Your Grace. I do admit it has been taxing, but it is good to have a Duke seated behind this grand desk once more.”
He departed, leaving Jonathan behind in the office that had been his father’s for so many years. With a sigh, Jonathan rose and decided to attend to matters of the estate.
Jonathan rode his beloved horse, Jora, through the forest, after paying a visit to his delinquent tenants. The shock had been great upon their faces when they saw the Duke. His father, while kind and diligent, had not often met with his tenants. On St. Stephan’s day he would take Jonathan and his older brother, Charles as well as their three sisters, Mary, Charlotte, and Lorraine, to hand out gifts, but that was the only time of year his tenants saw him face to face.
Jonathan intended to change that. The way of old often was not the right way. In fact, the incident at the ball last night had proven as much. He found it appalling that young ladies were expected to always maintain a pleasant countenance even when faced with such vile assaults as he’d witnessed yesterday. He truly hoped the young lady would keep her promise and stand up to these wenches next time.
He sighed and inhaled the fresh November air. The scent of pine cones lingered in the air. Oh, how he loved the forest. It was one thing he’d missed while in India, the chance to ride through the forest. He hadn’t done so in many years. The last time he could remember riding through these woods was just before he’d departed. He’d spent the afternoon with Eric and Thomas, as the forest connected all three of their estates.
By Jove! I am mere miles from Roselawn Manor. I shall ride there and inquire when Eric may return. Since my surprise did not work out, I may just as well let him know I am here. Yes. I will leave a message with Hector, their butler.
Jonathan rode out of the woods and into a clearing at the end of which rose the beautiful Roselawn Manor. Three stories tall, with beautiful statues perched along the roof, it was built during Queen Elizabeth’s reign and had an attractive charm that his estate, Chesterton Court, lacked.
Jonathan approached the house and halted his horse. He rushed up the steps to the front door and knocked. Shortly thereafter, a butler opened. Jonathan frowned for he did not recognize him. The old butler, a grumpy yet charming man named Hector had always cut an intimidating figure when he was but a boy. This new butler was younger, dressed in a crisp uniform and a stern expression upon his face. Of course, unlike Hector, he did not recognize him.
“Good morning,” he presented the butler with a calling card. Upon seeing his titled, the butler stood even straighter than he had before.
“Good morning, Your Grace. Lord Lincester is out of town unfortunately. He won’t return for another week.”
Jonathan nodded; it was no surprise. The Viscount, an investor in a chain of coffee houses, had always traveled for as long as he could remember.
“That is quite all right. I am aware the Viscount and Mister Gordon are out of town. I wondered whether you know when Mister Gordon might return.”
The butler nodded, “Mister Gordon shall be back this afternoon, should you like to call again.”
Jonathan grinned. This afternoon! What good fortune. He would indeed call again.
“That is wonderful news. Please let him know that I have returned and I shall be calling on him this very evening.” He paused as he did not know the butler’s name. He always prided himself at learning the names of the staff. “I do not believe I know your name. I was familiar with Hector, who used to be the butler here.”
The man stood; lips pressed together for a moment. “I am North. I was under butler when Your Grace was last here.”
“Good to meet you, North. Say, what has become of Hector? Is he retired?” North shifted from one foot to the other, uncomfortable.
“Hector has taken a position at Ludlow Manor. Has been there a good number of years.”
Jonathan’s eyes widened. Ludlow Manor was the home of Baron Balwick, Lord Lincester’s brother. It seemed rather unbelievable that Balwick had the audacity to poach his own brother’s butler. Quite the scandal, in fact.
He thanked North and returned to his horse which was being attended to by one of Lord Lincester’s footmen.
Jonathan rode along the main road toward home. He’d considered calling on Lady Conner but decided against it. He’d seen her at the ball very briefly yesterday, but she’d been engaged in conversation with an elder lady and he’d found it inappropriate to interrupt. He’d fully intended to return to inquire about Thomas’ whereabouts, but the encounter in the supper room had thoroughly taken up his time and attention.
Jonathan was so deep in thought that he hardly noticed the carriages and curricles that passed him until one came to a sudden stop behind him. He glanced back wondering why they had stopped in the middle of the road, when the door swung open and a man jumped out.
“Is it you?” a voice asked. He turned Jora around and rode toward the man who now rushed his way.
It couldn’t be! Or could it?
“Gordon? Is that you, old chum?”
“Of course, it is! Who else would be driving in my Father’s carriage?”
Jonathan jumped off his horse and ran toward his friend. He’d hardly recognized him. It had been four years since they last laid eyes on each other.
“Eric Gordon!” The two embraced and slapped each other on the back in greeting. Jonathan marveled at the changes in his friend. While he still had that youthful twinkle in his eyes, Eric Gordon had certainly grown up. There were a few faint laugh lines around his eyes and he was dressed rather dashingly.
“I knew it was you, old chum…” his friend stopped himself, “I mean, Your Grace.”
Jonathan grunted. “Please, do not call me Your Grace. You are my oldest friend. Call me by the name you’ve always called me.”
“I hardly think it’s appropriate to call the Duke of Ekhard ‘ye ole ninny’.”
Jonathan mock punched his friend in the shoulder.
“Zooks! There it is again. ‘Your Grace’. If you feel rather more comfortable, perhaps Ekhard will do?”
“Certainly. I could get used to that. Now, what are you doing here, riding in the middle of the road with your nose up in the air? Fancied a ride?”
Jonathan sighed heavily. “I had unpleasant business to attend to with my tenants. And then I paid a visit to Roselawn Manor to leave a message for you.”
Eric’s brown eyes grew wide. “What good fortune we ran into one another!”
“Indeed! I had a mind to surprise you and Thomas at yesterday’s ball at Curtstone Hall, but my surprise was spoiled as neither of you attended!”
“What a wonderful surprise it would have been! I have just returned from Bath. My Father had an important meeting with one of his business partners and I was required to attend. As you know, my Father is not the youngest and sooner or later I shall inherit the Viscountship, as well as his business ventures.”
Jonathan shook his head. “Business ventures. Things have changed. When I left it was still near unthinkable for a noble to be involved in trade. Trade! Can you imagine? Our grandfathers would turn in their graves.”
Eric laughed and nodded, “And yet, I recall a certain young Earl claiming that nobles becoming involved in business was the way of the future. And you were right.”
Jonathan nodded. He had indeed said so. He felt his merry mood at being reunited with his best friend sour however, at the mention of his former title. He had indeed been Earl of Rotham for most of his life, one of his father’s secondary titles. He’d expected to remain so until his older brother, Charles, took over the Dukedom. Of course, things had turned out differently than he’d imagined. Always perceptive, his friend placed an arm around his shoulder.
“You are rather Friday-faced all of a sudden. Let us not talk of the past. What do you say we meet tonight at Rover’s for a proper drink and welcome? You will have to make do with me, for Thomas is on a visit to London to meet with a matchmaker. He’s grown rather serious about finding a wife.”
Jonathan felt a smile return to his face. “TomTom? A married man? Things truly have changed. And he doesn’t wish to rely on Lady Conner to find the perfect woman for him? How rather perplexing.”
“Indeed! It is not as though Lady Conner has a brash, pushy nature about her. No! The very essence of patience and good taste she is.”
The two laughed together, as they had both had unpleasant encounters with Lady Conner, who was known to be opinionated and unyielding.
“Ah well, we shall reunite with him when he returns from London. In the meantime, I would quite enjoy a good wine with you. Oh, and perhaps a game of whist?”
“We shall! Now, I must excuse myself. I have to return home and refresh myself and then immediately depart once more. I am due to collect, or rather rescue, my Sister from Lady Conner’s supervision and return her to Roselawn with me.”
“Isolde? How is she? I have not seen her since she was a child.”
Eric shrugged, “She is well. Well, she was when I left her in Lady Conner’s care a week ago. In fact, she was at the ball last night, along with Lady Conner and Miss Brown and my Cousin...”
Jonathan raised his eyebrows.
“She was? I saw Lady Conner conversing with an older lady, but I did not see your Sister, nor the other ladies.”
Eric shrugged, “Perhaps they were dancing. Or, knowing Isolde, she stole away to see the stables! You know how she loves the horses.”
“Indeed!” He smiled at the notion of little Miss Isolde Gordon. She’d been such a darling and gentle little girl. Shy and terrified to speak to him–but pleasant and sharp witted, if he remembered correctly. He’d taught her to ride many years ago.
“I shall collect you this night and we will properly celebrate your return! I cannot wait to show you my new phaeton! We shall get to Rover’s in but a blink of the eye! You shall see!”
With that, his friend departed. Jonathan felt his spirits greatly lifted. Having finally found his good friend made him almost forget the events of last night. And while he had vowed to not attend any more balls for the near future, a visit to a gentleman’s club promised to be quite enjoyable.
When he arrived at the crossroad which led to Chesterton Court, a carriage turned to pass him. The Coat of Arms on the side was faded and in need of attention. He narrowed his eyes to see if he could make out whose carriage it was when suddenly his gaze was drawn to the window. A young woman’s face was visible, though she appeared to be sleeping. Jonathan felt his mouth drop open. Her bonnet slightly obscured her face but he felt almost certain that he knew her.
By Jove! It is her! The young lady from the ball. It must be. I did not have hopes of seeing her again, and yet here she is.
He turned his head as the carriage passed him and drove away. Should he follow to inquire her name? Or would it be considered inappropriate? Certainly, chasing down a carriage in the middle of the road in order to obtain an occupant’s name might be scandalous. Yet, if he had hopes of seeing her again, he had no choice. Yes! He would do exactly that.
Jonathan turned Jora around after the carriage which was already quite a way away. He was about to spurn his horse into a gallop to follow the carriage when a curricle raced around the corner and the horses, going at top speed, nearly collided with Jora, causing her to buck. Jonathan, whose attention had been focused entirely on the departing carriage, was taken by such surprise that he lost his grip and felt himself catapulted into the air. He recalled the ground coming toward him at rapid speed when everything turned black as he fell to the ground.
“Stop the carriage! Stop!” Olivia’s panicked voice drew Isolde out of a deep slumber. When she opened her eyes, she was momentarily disoriented but then remembered where she was. That morning, she and her cousin, Miss Henrietta Gordon, had convinced their chaperone, Lady Conner, to allow them return to Roselawn Manor via carriage, rather than wait for Eric to collect them.
Lady Conner had been rather perturbed by the incident at the ball. Additionally, Isolde’s cousin, Henrietta, who’d been a guest of Lady Conner as well, spent most of the week in floods of tears, owing to a broken courtship. She’d been so distraught that she even missed the ball. The two circumstances led Lady Conner to quickly agree to the suggestion and allowed her charges to depart her supervision by way of their old carriage.
Tired from the ordeal that had been the ball, Isolde had promptly fallen asleep once in the carriage. Now, she found herself awakened in the most unpleasant of manners.
“What is the matter, Olivia? Why the shouting?” She realized that both Olivia and Henrietta were looking out the window on their side of the carriage, mesmerized by something up ahead. Isolde decided to look out her window, but found the view obstructed.
“An accident, Izzy! A rider collided with a curricle and was thrown from his horse into a bush.”
“Faith! How awful!” Isolde had taken several tumbles off her horses over the years, but had been fortunate to never be seriously harmed. She scooted over closer to Henrietta and glanced out the window. The incident had occurred at the fork of the road, quite a way behind them and it was difficult to see.
The curricle was parked on the side and a great many people attended to the man. The man sat on the ground with a beautiful black mare beside him. He appeared unharmed, though required the help of several bystanders to stand. Once upright, he dusted off his trousers and attended to his horse.
“He appears unhurt.” Henrietta commented as the man was helped to his feet. “A relief!”
“A lucky man he is!” Olivia nodded as she leaned back in her seat. “We may press on!” She called out to the driver and the carriage was set in motion once again.
Isolde leaned back, still a little flustered at the sudden excitement. She was looking forward to spending the next few days at home, in solitude. She did not wish to socialize any further, for the previous night had shaken her more than she wanted to admit.
“Are you quite all right, Cousin? How is your ankle feeling?” Henrietta asked when Isolde sighed. Henrietta’s eyes were puffed and red from having spent much of the past week in tears.
“I am rather fatigued. But, I am fine. My ankle aches me some, but I shall soldier on.” She smiled at her cousin, the way she always did when covering up the truth. She was more than fatigued. She was disillusioned with the ton and her role in it, and wanted nothing more than to withdraw from it all. Except, the thought of the young man who’d helped her kept rushing back. She’d thought of him often since they parted. If only she’d discovered his name.
“We have all had a dreadful few days,” Olivia sighed as the carriage made another turn.
“All? I understand Isolde’s predicament and I am of course utterly ruined, but you? What has befallen you? Too many dashing suitors?”
Isolde grinned at her cousin’s remark, for she really did not understand why Olivia felt she was in as miserable a position as them. Olivia glared at Henrietta.
“Oh Etta, must you be so snide? It doesn’t suit you. And yes, indeed it is a suitor that’s causing me a headache.”
“Is it that dashing Lord Canterbury? I overheard your Mother and Lady Buxby fawn over him this morning. Has he asked to court you?”
“He danced with her twice, Etta. I am certain he would have asked to dance again, had it not been for my unfortunate interruption of the night.”
“I just escaped my Mother’s inquisition regarding the good Lord, now I must face it from the both of you?”
“Naturally, he was clearly enamored of you. He could not tear his eyes away from you for one moment. I was certain he would dance right into a pillar, he was so taken by you.” Isolde was grateful for the change in subject.
“Zooks! I should not have agreed to dance the quadrille with him after the cotillion. I have had quite enough. He is rather in love with himself. He spoke of nothing but his many accomplishments on the battlefield against Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo.”
“Isn’t it interesting how many of our young Lords claim to have fought at Waterloo? And each and every one a hero. They would have you believe they are the Duke of Wellington himself.”
“Indeed! And I just happen to know that Lord Canterbury never once served a day in the armed forces at all!” Olivia shook her head in dismay.
“What a shame. He seemed like such an interesting and handsome fellow,” Isolde shook her head while Henrietta looked from one to the other, mesmerized by the conversation and no doubt upset at herself for missing it all.
Olivia groaned, “He certainly thinks he is both the most interesting man and the fairest! Though in reality he has two left feet and bad breath!”
This made Isolde laugh, which was rather unexpected given her mood. Even Henrietta felt herself moved to chuckle. Olivia, however, did not join in the merry mood. When she spoke again, it was in a grave tone.
“He has declared his intention to court me. Mother informed me this morning. He has asked to speak to my Father about it at the earliest convenience.”’
“Has he? How very fortunate.” Henrietta sounded quite excited at the prospect, oblivious to Olivia’s clear distress.
“It is not, for I do not wish to be courted by him.”
Henrietta furrowed her eyebrows. “At least you have a Lord wishing to court you. What of me? I shall become an old maid.” Her lips quivered as she prepared to shed tears once more.
“Faith, dearest Cousin, do not begin this again. It is not the end of the world. At least you have a chance to go to the next ball and find another suitor,” Isolde said. Her cousin glanced at her, her eyes already glimmering with tears.
“No. I shan’t go out in public ever again.”
“I’m afraid you shall have to eventually show your face in public, lest people think we’ve done away with you! Imagine the scandal then!” Olivia giggled, but Henrietta did not see the fun in it at all.
“You see! Even my dear friend laughs at me! Everyone will be pointing and talking behind my back. I’m ruined! Utterly ruined!” She broke into sobs so severe that her entire body shook.
“Etta, I did not mean to upset you. I spoke in jest to make you smile. Usually you enjoy my humor.”
“Today is not a usual day. In fact, I do not know when there will ever be a usual day again!” She dabbed her eyes carefully as not to smudge the powder she’d applied so carefully this morning. Isolde didn’t quite know why she’d bothered, for she was bound to cry and make a mess of it anyhow.
Isolde retrieved a handkerchief from her reticule and handed it to her cousin. Beside her, Olivia sighed and shook her head at their friend’s tragic display.
“It is not as terrible as you make it out to be. Other courtships have failed. Yours is not the first, nor will it be the last. Do not fret.”
Henrietta glared at Olivia. “How do you know? You don’t even want to be courted.”
Olivia shook her head and looked out the window.
“Etta, do you not believe that it is rather a blessing in disguise that it happened before you were wed? Imagine if Lord Hancock had run away with the other woman after you were married. Or after you had children. That would have been a true scandal. As such, it is only a minor complication. Another wonderful match will be found in no time.”
Her cousin’s rapid breathing slowed somewhat.
“You are right, Isolde, it would have been worse. In that event I would have been Lady Hancock, Marchioness of Hancock with a large estate in Kent, a house in London, staff to wait on me, and enough money to never worry again.”
“And with the stain of a husband who left you for a merchant’s daughter,” Olivia pointed out. The carriage was about to turn onto the sandy road that led to the main house.
“A merchant’s daughter! Can you imagine! Not only have I lost the chance to wed a Marquess, I lost him to a lowly merchant’s daughter. The embarrassment!”
Isolde cleared her throat. She did not want to contribute to her cousin’s misery, but she also did not want to see her continue on in such a state. She was utterly at sixes and sevens.
“A merchant’s daughter she might be, but she is from money. People will talk about that. If nothing else, your loss will contribute to the ongoing discussion over nobles going into trade.”
Henrietta rumpled her nose at the mere notion. “My Father always says nobles shouldn’t sully their hands with trade. Neither should they sully their beds with merchant daughters,” she crossed her arms in front of her chest and stared out the window. She did not see the look of contempt Isolde shot her way.
She loved her cousin, she was one of only three people in the world she truly trusted and depended upon, aside from Olivia and her older brother, Eric. There were days, however, when she truly got on her last nerve. She often had an attitude befitting a Duke’s daughter the way she carried on. In her rant about nobles in trade she’d clearly forgotten that her own uncle was in business with merchants.
Just because Henrietta’s father, Baron Balwick, chose not to dirty his hands with work, did not mean that it was not beneficial. Isolde was not a cruel person so she would never tell her cousin this, but the mere fact that her father was not as wealthy was part of why it had been so difficult for Henrietta to find a good match. There were simply other, higher-born daughters that came with a better dowry.
Isolde looked from her cousin, who was distraught over the end of a courtship, to Olivia, who was equally distraught–because she was fretting over the beginning of a new one. As much as Isolde wished for a kind Lord to take an interest in her, sometimes she felt that being without prospects could have its advantages.
Their carriage arrived in front of Roselawn Manor a few minutes later. To her surprise, she saw their landau outside.
“Has Cousin Gordon arrived home early?” Henrietta wondered as the three jumped out of the carriage.
“It appears so,” Isolde strutted forward, excited at the prospect of seeing her brother. As she came around the carriage, her brother rushed out of the house, still in his traveling clothes.
“Sister!” He was by her side in two strides and lifted her up. He twirled her once and set her back down, both of them smiling. “What are you doing here? I was about to come fetch you and Cousin Henrietta.”
Oh,” he stopped when he spotted his cousin, “there you are! You look glum. What’s the matter? Is the Marquess dragging his feet with an offer? Shall I go see if I can speed things up a bit?” He playfully lifted his fists in the air, mocking a punch. This instantly set Henrietta off once more and she burst into tears. Leaving her cousin behind with a puzzled expression on his face, she rushed into the house.
“What has happened?”
Isolde sighed and shook her head. “The Marquess has run off to Gretna Green with another woman.”
“By Jove! That’s unfortunate. No wonder she was upset. I shall go apologize.”
“It will be best to let her be. It’s been nothing but tears and tantrums the entire week. Some alone time might do her good,” Olivia had stepped out from the shadow of the carriage, her hands buried deep in her silver muff.
“Miss Brown, a pleasure to see you,” Eric said and bowed. “And I am not surprised to hear it. My Cousin has a love for the dramatic. This, however, is most unfortunate.”
Isolde nodded, “Yes, and especially as it turned out that the Marquess had planned the whole thing. He’d intended to only carry on the courtship until he had secured enough funds to take the merchant’s daughter to Scotland to wed.”
Eric squinted and pursed his lips. “A weasel, this Marquess. I should have a right mind to put a facer on him, and I do not speak in jest this time.”
Isolde smiled at her brother’s declaration. One of the things she liked best about him was his ferocious desire to protect his family.
“We shall have to keep an eye on her. She’s taken it awfully hard. She would not even come to the ball yesterday.”
“Cousin Henrietta turning down a ball? She must be in agony. We shall look after her until she goes home, don’t fret. She will be all right. Surely Lord Balwick will find another suitor soon.” He paused and glanced at Olivia who stood quietly, not wishing to interrupt the conversation.
“Miss Brown, would you care to come inside and warm yourself with a cup of hot chocolate? It is utterly freezing here.”
Olivia shook her head, “Thank you for the offer, Mister Gordon. But I do not have the time. I must return home at once.”
“Another time, then” Eric said and bowed again. Isolde detected a hint of disappointment in her brother’s voice, but said nothing.
“I shall see you soon, Izzy,” her friend said. The two girls kissed each other on the cheek before Olivia returned to her carriage and departed.
The siblings entered the house and relieved themselves of their outer layers. The house was cold, although it was not a surprise as they had not been home for some time. The servants would only keep the fire going in the servant areas to preserve firewood.
“Mister Gordon, the fire is going in the drawing room, if you please.” North said as he collected their coats, muffs, and hats.
“Thank you, North. Would you have the cook prepare a few refreshments? Hot chocolate, Sister?”
Isolde nodded, a smile on her face. She loved hot chocolate. “And some dry cake if there is any?” After the butler departed, they walked to the drawing room and sat by the fire.
“I cannot wait for Christmastide. Can you believe it is that time again already?” Isolde loved Christmastide with a passion. She would decorate the house with greenery and wait for the first snowfall year after year. It reminded her of her childhood, when her mother was still alive. Suddenly, the thought of her mother brought back the conversation she’d overheard between Lady Conner and Lady Buxby.
“Do you remember Mother well?” Her eyes focused on the dancing embers in the fireplace.
“Of course, I do. I remember her well. Don’t you?”
She glanced at him, “I have some memories of her, though not many. I remember I used to hide between her legs all the time when we went anywhere because strangers frightened me. I remember walking in the snow, throwing snowballs. One year she helped me build a snowman.”
Her brother broke into laughter, “Yes! I do recall. She tasked me with sneaking into the kitchen to retrieve a carrot for the nose. I was not to ask the cook for it; I was to procure it in a sneaky manner. She wanted to make it a game for me.” The smile faded away and his eyes darkened. “That was the year she died. I remember she was close to her time of confinement.”
“Yes, that is right. That is the last true memory I have of her. I wish I remembered her more.”
Her brother sighed, “I know you do, Sister. But you were much younger than I when she passed. I was already fourteen, you only six. It is no wonder you have such little memories. Say, what brings on this sudden conversation about Mother?”
She shrugged her shoulders, “I did not have a good experience at the ball last night.” She locked eyes with her brother. “Promise me, Brother, that I shall not have to attend any more balls for a while. If Father attempts to make me and I refuse, will you please support me?”
Eric frowned, “I promise I will do all I can, Sister. But what has upset you so?”
Isolde sighed. “I overheard Lady Conner telling the Countess of Buxby about my lack of maternal influence, in order to explain my plain appearance and lack of a suitor. And then…” Eric inhaled sharply, already enraged.
“That woman. I do not know why Father is so fond of using her as a chaperone for you. You might as well have spent the week we were away with Lord Balwick at this rate.”
“Faith, no! I would much rather put up with the kneeling from Lady Conner than the endless tedium of Lady Balwick.”
Their aunt, Henrietta’s mother, was the very definition of an upper-class noblewoman. Refined, accomplished in her music, as well as needlework–and utterly boring. She would go on monologues about her latest needlework that could drag on for hours, putting to sleep even the most energetic of persons. Between her tedious nature, and Lord Balwick’s menacing one, it was no wonder Henrietta enjoyed spending time at Roselawn as much as she did.
Eric looked in the fire, shaking his head. Isolde decided not to continue the tale of last night for he would grow ever more infuriated and likely seek out Hester York and Frances Portsmouth’s families. She did not wish to draw more attention. Eric would find out eventually anyhow, but she decided that for today, she’d rather enjoy the quiet without talking about the matter further.
“All I ask is that you promise to support my refusal to go to another ball.”
“I shall, Isolde.” He paused when suddenly his eyes grew wide. “Zooks. I nearly forgot. You will not believe who I saw!”
Isolde, her hands now thoroughly warm, sat on the settee, her legs tucked under her.
“Who?” They lived in the country, and the nearest town, Hascombe, was scarcely populated so whoever it was he had met had to be someone rather unusual.
“Take a guess! I’ll say this much! Riding lessons!”
Isolde’s mouth dropped open. “No! It can’t be? Lord Rotham?”
He nodded with conviction, “Indeed. Well, he’s Lord Ekhard now as he’s inherited the Dukedom from his father. Our good old friend, he’s returned. He was at the ball last night, but you must have missed one another.”
“Missed whom, Cousin?” The siblings both turned when Henrietta entered. She’d freshened up and there was not a trace of tears left upon her fair face. She’d also undone her hair so that it was open and loose, the red in stark contrast to the white muslin dress she wore.
“He was just telling me about our neighbor, the Duke of Ekhard. He was at last night’s ball, but I did not have occasion to meet him. In any case, he is quite the adventurer. He’s been away, traveling the world since I was a child. Oh, the stories he must have to tell.”
Just then, one of the footmen entered with the requested hot chocolate and plates of refreshments. Isolde was delighted to see that marzipan was available, her favorite next to dry cake. To her surprise, she watched as Henrietta took not only one piece of cake but two, as well as several pieces of marzipan.
Across from her, her brother raised an eyebrow. It was unusual to see Henrietta indulge.
“What is it? I have had quite the shock this week. Don’t I deserve to make myself feel better, even if I shall regret it later?”
Eric waved an arm, “By all means, do not let me stop you.”
Isolde placed her plate next to her and wrapped her hands around the mug of hot chocolate, which steamed. The scent of the hot chocolate and spices tickled her nose.
“I thought I heard the Duke of Ekhard died not long ago,” Henrietta said as she took a bite out of the cake.
“He did, six months ago it was. The Duke, the new one, just returned from India last week.” Eric drank his chocolate slowly with his eyes closed. He’d done this since they were children.
Henrietta swallowed a lump of cake. “But did you not call him Earl Rotham? How did he go from Earl to Duke? Should there not have been a Marquess in between to assume the title?”
Isolde and Eric exchanged a glance and she shrugged. She knew the story somewhat, but since her brother was close to the Duke, she felt he was in a better position to explain the circumstances to their curious cousin.
“There was a Marquess. Rotham, I mean Lord Ekhard, was the second son. He had a brother, older by ten years, who was in line to be the next Duke. But, he died perhaps a year or so ago. Rather tragic. It was a boating accident that killed both him and his wife. They had no sons, only daughters, and so the title passed to the next in line.”
Isolde felt a sudden wave of sadness for the Duke. To lose his brother and his father in just a year was dreadful. And he’d been so far away he had not been able to go to the funeral. Of course, being a woman, Isolde had not either. She recalled the solemn countenance her father and brother had carried upon their faces when they returned from the burials.
She hated to think of how the poor young Duke must have felt, receiving the news. She remembered him well, for he had been the one to teach her to ride a horse properly. She’d always been afraid of riding, although she’d loved horses all her life. She remembered watching her brother, Olivia’s older brother, Mr. Thomas Brown, and the Duke riding out and wishing she could have done so as well.
She had been perhaps eight years old when he’d seen her lurking in the stables as the three boys got ready to ride out. Even then, she’d been scared of talking to people. The timid nature that had taunted her all her life had made it nearly impossible to speak to anyone she did not know well. However, her desire to learn to ride had won over her fear and she’d asked him to teach her. Which he had.
She still thought of the lessons he’d taught her when she rode out now.
I wonder what he is like now, how the years have changed him. It is hard to imagine as it was fourteen years ago that he taught me to ride. Time has moved so quickly.
“That is rather sad. What a pity to come into such a grand title by way of such tragedy,” Henrietta said as she finished her cake. “I think I would like to take the air; I’ve indulged far too much and the Duke’s story has made me rather melancholy, on top of my own sorrows.” She rose.
“I shall join you, Etta. I’d rather like to put the past week behind me as well.”
The two young ladies left the drawing room to retrieve their outer wear when North walked past them, a tray with the day’s mail in hand. Isolde saw him hand the envelopes to Eric who opened them at once and began to read. He was rather diligent about correspondence.
Molly had already retrieved Isolde’s muff and pelisse when Henrietta rushed back down the stairs, dressed for the cold. She took Isolde’s hand in hers.
“Shall we, Cousin?”
“We shall!” Isolde replied with a grin. She was rather looking forward to a stroll outside.
They had almost reached the door when Eric called out from behind them.
“Isolde! Wait.” There was something uneasy in his voice. Isolde walked back toward the drawing room and saw her brother standing by the settee, an opened letter in hand. She recognized the handwriting as that of her father. Her brother’s countenance was one of regret and dread.
“We have had a letter from Father. Isolde, I must speak to you at once. Please join me in the drawing room. Alone.”
Isolde’s heart beat out of her chest as she took off the pelisse and handed it back to Molly. Slowly, she walked toward her brother, certain something dreadful had to have been written in the letter. With shaking legs, she sat across from him and braced herself.
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