About the book
Their love was like coals, deep-burning and unquenchable…
Even love has an expiration date, especially one that is unrequited.
In the service of the Fitzgerald family since birth, Ophelia Travers has been in love with the Marquess of Alden all her life. After suffering through years of rejection, the arrival of a charming new servant marks the end. Ophelia is determined to leave the past behind.
Marcus Fitzgerald, the Marquess of Alden, was taught that he deserves the best. Resolved to maintain his family's stellar reputation, he cuts Ophelia out of his life.
However, his worst fears become reality when his mother starts receiving threatening letters. Amidst a wild goose chase to get answers before the culprit acts on their threats, Marcus risks losing not only Ophelia but also his very own identity. His mother has been running from something terrible. And it finally caught up.
Ophelia Travers came running across the grounds of Westdale Manor, heading for the stables. It had taken her most of the day to finish her work, and now the sun was going down, but what little time she had to spend with her friend, she would take.
Marcus Fitzgerald, Marquess of Alden, was just dismounting his horse, but he looked up at the sound of his name. To Ophelia’s consternation, he did not look especially pleased to see her.
“What are you doing down here, Ophelia?” he asked her. “Aren’t you supposed to be helping in the kitchen?”
Ophelia scowled. “I don’t live in the kitchen, you know,” she said. “Besides, I’m finished with my work. The supper is prepared, and there’s nothing else to do until it has been eaten. And even then, most of the clean-up work falls to the scullery maids.”
“You speak so disparagingly of them,” Marcus noted. “I thought you had friends among the scullery maids.”
“I do,” Ophelia said. “I have friends of all stations and classes, as you yourself know well enough.”
Marcus closed his eyes. “Ophelia,” he said.
“Are we not friends, Marcus?” she pressed.
“Friends, yes,” he agreed. “But it cannot be as it was when we were children. Surely you must understand that.”
“I don’t see why not,” she said. “You are my oldest friend in the world, Marcus, and am I not yours?”
“You are,” he agreed cautiously.
“Then tell me what the problem is.”
He turned away from her and led his horse into the stable.
She trailed after him. “You’ve been avoiding me,” she accused. “Ever since your twenty-fifth birthday.”
In truth, it had been going on for much longer than that. Ophelia had been only fifteen, and Marcus eighteen, when she had first noticed him beginning to put distance between them.
Before that, they had been the best of friends. As young children, they had played together in the gardens when the weather was fair, and on rainy days, they had explored the Manor together. Ophelia had loved to come up with games of pretend for them to play together—they had imagined that they were held captive by dragons, or that they were powerful wizards.
When they had gotten a little older, their time together had changed, but it hadn’t disappeared. They had spent their afternoon playing cards, and Marcus had taught Ophelia to play chess. He had liked to joke that she would never be as skilled as he was, and she had been determined to beat him someday.
Of course, there had always been walls between the two of them. Ophelia lived and ate with the servants. Her mother had been lady’s maid to Marcus’ mother, Clementine, Duchess of Westdale. But Ophelia had always thought of those differences as something for the adults to concern themselves with. They had never impacted the way Marcus had treated her.
At least, not until he had turned eighteen.
Ophelia hadn’t said anything to him at the time. She had been sure that if she gave him time, he would remember their friendship and return to her.
But he hadn’t. They had only grown more distant.
“I feel as if you’ve been trying to end our friendship for years,” she said to him. “Is that the truth?”
“Why would I want to end our friendship?” he asked her.
“I don’t know why,” she said. “Perhaps you think poorly of me.”
“You know that I don’t,” he said.
“I don’t know what you think,” she corrected. “You and I haven’t had a conversation about our thoughts since I was fifteen years old. Even on the day my mother died, you never asked about how I might be feeling.”
“I did,” he protested. “I asked you whether you wished to stay on and serve in Westdale Manor. I arranged for you to have a position here.”
“You would have done as much for any servant,” she said.
He said nothing.
“And what about our chess games?” she protested. “We haven’t played in months. Not since your birthday. Is five and twenty years too old to play chess?”
“No,” he said. “You know it isn’t that, Ophelia.”
“Then what is it?”
He sighed. “It’s not appropriate for you and me to be friends as we once were,” he said. “You must know that. You are a kitchen maid, and I am the Marquess of Alden.”
“But that’s always been true,” Ophelia said. “I was always the daughter of a maid. You were always the son of a Duke. And you never minded. You said that I was clever and witty. You thought I was pleasant to be around. Are those things no longer true? Have I changed in some way that has made me ill company?”
“You haven’t,” he said. “Of course not.”
“Then tell me what’s changed,” she persisted.
With an exasperated sigh, he turned to face her. “Nothing has changed, Ophelia,” he said. “That’s the problem. Don’t you see? Nothing has changed, except for the fact that you and I have grown older. We can no longer pretend that the social differences between us amount to nothing. We can no longer pretend that you are my equal.”
Ophelia felt as if he had slapped her.
“You’ve always been so kind to me,” she said. “You’ve always acted as though the stations we hold in life didn’t matter.”
“But they do matter,” Marcus said. “I have responsibilities, Ophelia. Duties to my family. I am my father’s only son and heir, and someday I will be the Duke of Westdale. And you—”
“I’ll only ever be a maid,” Ophelia said quietly.
“It doesn’t change what I think of you as a person, Ophelia,” Marcus said. “I still think you’re a kind and clever young woman. I’m still glad to know you, and glad that you’re a member of my household.”
“You really shouldn’t call me that anymore,” he said. “I’m a Marquess. It’s not right that you call me by my given name.”
“But we’re friends.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” he said. “We can’t be friends anymore. Not like that. It’s not good for either of us.”
“Perhaps you ought to let me decide what’s good for me on my own,” Ophelia said, unable to keep a frosty tone from her voice. “I may not be of noble birth, but I am capable of protecting my own interests.”
He shook his head. “Your time spent with me has given you ideas above your station,” he said. “It isn’t just that you think it appropriate to refer to me by my given name, although that’s certainly troubling enough, but what makes you believe it’s acceptable to leave the kitchen and run down here to confront me? To argue with me?”
“I just wanted to talk to you!” she protested.
“And say what?” he asked. “That you wanted a game of chess?”
“For a start, yes! I don’t see why we can’t continue to play. Or is that above my station too? Are maids not permitted to play chess now?”
“A kitchen maid should not play chess with a Marquess,” he said. “Nor should we be having this conversation.”
“You’re too highborn to talk to me?” she asked.
“To argue with you, yes,” he said. “You’re a maid in my house, Ophelia. Your role is to listen to me, and to serve. Not to argue.”
“Lord Alden,” he reminded her.
“We’ve always spoken to each other as friends, My Lord,” she told him. “We may not have been equals, but we’ve always been that much. Are you truly telling me that our friendship must end now? After all our years together?”
He looked at her, and for a moment Ophelia was sure she saw sorrow in his eyes.
“It’s my fault, Ophelia,” he said. “My fault, for not ending our friendship sooner. For letting you believe that we could continue our friendship into adulthood. I’ve known for years that it would have to end. I should have had the strength to say something to you earlier. I’m sorry for that.”
“All these years,” she said. “Ever since you turned eighteen, I’ve felt you pulling away from me. You’ve been looking for a way to tell me that you no longer welcomed my friendship, haven’t you?”
He looked pained. “Yes,” he said.
“But why?” she asked. “Why now?”
He turned away from her. “I’m old enough to marry,” he said. “I need to be thinking about the responsibilities I have to my family. I can hardly be expected to meet a nice young lady of noble birth if I’m distracted by a friendship with my maid.”
“Why would our friendship be a distraction for you?” Ophelia asked. “Why would the occasional game of chess with me prevent you from meeting and courting a young lady? It doesn’t make sense…My Lord.”
It was strange to refer to him that way. She had never done so before. And it was stranger still to realize that because he had asked her to do so, she was now required to comply.
Yes, they had been friends. But it was clear that they were not friends now. Marcus—No, she told herself, you must begin to think of him as Lord Alden—was much more concerned with his role as a member of the ton than with the friendship that had once existed between them.
She felt as if she might cry. She wanted to cry. How could he have let things between them come to this?
He seemed to see the distress on her face. “Embrace the life you have, Ophelia,” he said gently. “Don’t allow yourself to become preoccupied by things that can never be. You and I were not meant to be friends. I am sorry I allowed it to go on for so long. But now you can find happiness in the life you were meant to lead. You can find friends among your peers. Perhaps you can meet a man and fall in love. And you can find purpose and fulfillment in your work. Those things are important.”
“You’re saying I should just be happy with the life of a kitchen servant,” Ophelia said. “My position in society isn’t good enough for you. I’m not good enough to be worthy of your friendship. But I should be happy with my lot. Is that it?”
“You know that society’s rules are not of my design,” Lord Alden said. “I am not the one who declared that those of noble birth ought to stick to their own kind, and that commoners ought to stick to theirs.”
Ophelia sighed. She hated to see the pain in his eyes, even though his words angered her. “I know,” she said.
“I would remain your friend,” he said. “If I thought it…prudent.”
She didn’t know if she believed that or not. But really, it didn’t matter. The result was the same whether he was telling the truth or not.
Her closest friendship—the only real friendship she had had since childhood—was officially at an end.
Suddenly, she didn’t want to be anywhere near Lord Alden anymore. She didn’t want to look at him and see this young Marquess who she felt she hardly knew, this man who had once been her confidante.
“Thank you, My Lord,” she said. “I’ll leave you in peace now.”
She turned and managed to leave the stable before breaking into a run.
She would be missed in the kitchen tonight after supper, she knew. And that might spell trouble for her in the morning. She had no doubt that Vera, the head cook, would demand an explanation for her absence.
She would just have to come up with something.
Because she didn’t think she could stand to face the other servants now that she had been forced to accept that she meant no more to Lord Alden than any of them.
“You’re late,” Vera said.
Ophelia sighed, tucking a loose strand of hair up under her bonnet. “I know,” she said. “I apologize. I slept poorly.”
“What concern is that of mine?” Vera asked her. “We have responsibilities, you know. The food must be prepared, regardless of how well you’ve slept.”
“I know that,” Ophelia said. She had been working in the kitchen for three years now—ever since her mother had died—and yet Vera still insisted upon treating her as if it were her very first day.
“You missed supper last night too,” Vera said. “We had to serve without you.”
The kitchen staff was certainly large enough to get through one meal without one of its members. Ophelia knew perfectly well that it wasn’t uncommon for people to miss a meal now and then if they weren’t feeling well. And yet she seemed to be the only one who ever got into any trouble for it. “I apologize,” she said.
“Well, never mind,” Vera sighed. “I suppose it can’t be helped now. Go and help Caroline knead the dough for the bread.” She turned away and stalked off to the other side of the kitchen.
Ophelia tied her apron around her waist securely and went over to assist Caroline.
Her fellow kitchen maid looked up at her and smiled. “Don’t mind Vera,” she said. “She’s angry in the mornings. You know that.”
“She also doesn’t like me,” Ophelia pointed out.
“Maybe not,” Caroline agreed. “But there’s very little you can do about that.”
“I wish I knew why.”
“She thinks you think yourself above her,” Caroline said.
“Why would that be?” Ophelia protested. “I work for her. She orders me around every day.”
“Yes,” Caroline agreed. “But you speak to Lord Alden as if he were your equal. Sometimes it seems as though you believe that you and Lord Alden are friends. I think Vera wonders why you bother to work in the kitchen at all, if you’re so favored by the Marquess.”
Ophelia shook her head. “The Marquess doesn’t favor me, Caroline,” she said.
“Of course he does,” Caroline said. “You must see it, Ophelia. I think you’re the only member of the kitchen staff he could even call by name. He holds himself apart from the rest of us. He considers himself better than his servants. All except for you.”
Ophelia wasn’t ready to talk about the things Marcus—Lord Alden—had said to her last night. She wasn’t ready to talk about their years-long friendship and the fact that it seemed to be over now.
“We were friends when we were children,” she said quietly. “That’s all it is. There was no one else in the Manor near to Lord Alden’s own age, so his parents permitted him to spend his days with me. That’s the only reason he knows my name. But that was years ago.”
“Oh,” Caroline said. “So you’re not friendly with him now, then.”
“Of course not,” Ophelia said, though she felt as if she might start to cry. “How could I be close with him now? He’s a Marquess, and I’m a maid in his kitchen.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Caroline agreed. She laughed lightly. “Vera does allow herself to get upset over nothing sometimes, doesn’t she? I wonder why she believes there could possibly be a friendship between you and Lord Alden.”
Ophelia said nothing. She turned her attention to the bread dough.
If the idea of her being friendly with Lord Alden was so easy to disbelieve, what would Caroline say if she knew the truth—that Ophelia had dreamed of marrying Lord Alden one day?
She wouldn’t believe it. Or she would think I was completely insane. And perhaps I am.
And what would Vera have said if she had known about Ophelia’s hopes?
It doesn’t matter now.
It had never mattered, not really. Ophelia had known that. Yes, she had dreamed of marrying Lord Alden, but she had never believed it might actually happen. Even when she had been young, even when they had been close, she had understood that they occupied different positions in the world. It wasn’t something that could be so easily overcome.
But she had never expected to be completely dismissed by him, as if they had never meant anything at all to one another.
“So where were you last night?” Caroline asked. “Why didn’t you come to help with supper?”
“I was unwell,” Ophelia lied. “Was Vera very angry?”
“Yes,” Caroline admitted. “She said that it was just like you. That you couldn’t be counted on. She said she was going to report you to His Grace.”
Ophelia shuddered. “Do you think she did?”
“No,” Caroline said. “She was just angry. She knows that His Grace would never dismiss you.”
“I don’t know,” Ophelia said. “He might.”
“You don’t really think so?” Caroline asked
“There was a time when I didn’t,” Ophelia said.
There was a time when I believed that Lord Alden’s favor would shield me from anything his father might want to do.
But she had been wrong. Lord Alden had never cared for her as she had cared for him.
Together, they finished preparing the dough for the morning’s bread and slid it into the oven to bake. Then they went to the other side of the kitchen, where scraps of the morning meal had been laid out for the servants to claim when they were finished with their responsibilities.
Ophelia was looking forward to taking a piece of fruit and retreating to her room until it was time to prepare lunch. She wouldn’t be needed for clean-up, that job fell to the scullery maids, and she wanted to dwell on her sadness.
But as she reached for an apple, Vera appeared. “Ophelia,” she said. “You will serve, please.”
Ophelia felt a burst of anger. Of course, Vera hadn’t officially done anything to be angry about. Someone had to serve, and Vera always asked a member of the staff to go out when the meal was ready. And yet, Ophelia could tell that she had been chosen today because she had arrived late to prepare the meal. It was Vera’s way of exacting revenge.
Still, it was her responsibility. She couldn’t protest. “Yes, ma’am,” she said, and arranged the family’s plates on a serving platter.
Caroline helped her lift it. “Don’t forget to pour the tea,” she hissed in Ophelia’s ear. “Remember, His Grace gets angry if the family has to pour for themselves.”
That was an understatement. Ophelia had seen the Duke yell at a housemaid for a quarter of an hour because she had neglected to remove the lid from the sugar bowl for him. He had very clear ideas about the service that was due him. That had always been apparent.
Now it seemed that Lord Alden was more like his father than Ophelia had ever dreamed.
This would be the first time she had had to see him since their painful conversation yesterday. It would be a miracle if she managed to serve the family well without making a mess of it. Still, she was determined to do her best. She didn’t want to let Lord Alden see how badly he had hurt her.
She balanced the tray carefully. Caroline opened the kitchen door for her, and Ophelia stepped out into the foyer. She crossed to the dining room, entered, and moved to the Duke’s side.
He took no notice of her. He was engaged in conversation with his wife. “I can’t imagine why you think it’s any of your concern,” he said.
“I do take an interest in the members of my household, you know,” the Duchess said. “And yet you persist in employing new people without giving me the opportunity to meet them first.”
“Clementine, please,” the Duke said. “You’ll never even have to speak to them if you prefer to keep your distance. One of the new members of our staff is a footman, and you’ll have no cause to talk to him.”
The Duchess looked slightly mollified. “And the other?”
“The other is to be our new stable man,” the Duke said. “Marcus spends far too much time in the stable with the horses. A young man of his rank shouldn’t be tending to his own mount. Surely you must agree.”
“Your Grace,” Ophelia murmured, setting his plate in front of him.
The Duke ignored her but pulled his plate within his reach and began to spread jam on his bread.
Ophelia moved to give the Duchess her breakfast, doing her best to avoid looking over at Lord Alden as she did so. She did not want to make eye contact with him. She was afraid to see him looking at her, and equally afraid to see him paying her no attention at all.
But when the plates had been set out and it was time to pour the tea, she found she could no longer resist.
She looked up at Lord Alden.
He was looking right back at her.
She knew that expression so well. Excruciatingly well. It was the way he looked when he was trying to figure out what she was thinking. How many times had he looked at her across a chess board with that very same look in his eyes?
“Excuse me,” the Duchess said sharply.
Ophelia was jolted from her stupor. The Duchess was staring up at her, holding out a hand, waiting for her tea.
“Oh—” Ophelia handed her the cup. “I beg your pardon, Your Grace.” She stepped back quickly, hoping that the Duke did not intend to berate her for her carelessness. Today was painful enough without the prospect of being yelled at in front of Lord Alden.
Fortunately, it seemed that the Duke was too preoccupied with his family’s affairs to notice what Ophelia was doing. “There will be no time for Marcus to worry about horses any longer, whether we would allow it or not,” he said. “Marcus will be very busy in the coming weeks and months,” he said.
“Will I?” Lord Alden said, sounding confused. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Father.”
Ophelia busied herself pouring Lord Alden’s tea, trying not to let on that she was taking her time. She knew that whatever was being discussed here was not for her ears, but she also knew that, as a servant, her greatest power was the ability to pass unseen. The Duke and Duchess might have well forgotten she was here.
Lord Alden certainly seemed to have no trouble forgetting about her.
It was the Duchess who spoke. “You’re five and twenty years old, Marcus, and it’s time for you to think about marriage. It’s my hope, and your father’s as well, that you will find a young lady to court this Season. The social events will begin this month.”
“You wish me to marry?” Lord Alden said.
Ophelia’s breath caught in her throat.
Of course he could never have been mine. She knew that. She had always known that. It had never been anything but a fantasy.
But if he were to marry, she would have to bid even the fantasy farewell.
Well, maybe it’s time I did.
Hadn’t that been what Lord Alden had been saying to her yesterday? Hadn’t he been telling her, in his kind natured way, that it was time to move on?
She returned the tea kettle to the tray, took it up, and retreated from the dining room, hurrying back to the kitchen as quickly as she could go.
“Ophelia!” Caroline said as Ophelia reentered the kitchen. “What’s the matter? You’re as pale as milk! Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Ophelia said, setting down her serving tray and picking up an apple. “I’ll be fine, Caroline, thank you.”
And she pledged to herself that she would be fine. Let Lord Alden court and marry some highborn lady. Ophelia Travers would do as he had bidden her. She would move on with her life and forget about her feelings for him.
Marcus knew he could show no physical reaction to the fact that Ophelia had fled the room the way she had. If he did, it would attract his parents’ notice, and it would likely mean some kind of negative attention for her. She might even lose her position.
He didn’t want that.
What he wanted was to chase after her and make sure she was all right. Whatever they were to one another now, they had been friends once, and for a long time. He cared for her.
But things couldn’t go on between the two of them the way they once had.
So, he kept his attention in the present. “Who am I to marry?” he asked his mother.
“Why, a young lady of your choice, of course,” his mother said, laughing lightly. “Lord Kensington is having a ball next week. Perhaps you’ll meet someone there.”
“And you want me to marry this year?” Marcus said.
“You must have expected that the time was close at hand,” his father said. “You have responsibilities as my son and heir, Marcus. I expect you to produce an heir. It’s only by doing so that our family line remains strong.”
“I know that,” Marcus said.
“Of course you do,” his father said. “But have you considered that it might not be as easy as you think it will? Your mother and I were very lucky. Our very first child was a healthy son. There was no need to have more children. But if you need an example of how things can go wrong, look no further than Lord Kensington himself.”
“Lord Kensington has a son,” Marcus said. “I’ve met the boy.”
“Yes,” his father said. “But Lord Kensington’s son is only six years old. And before the boy was born, Lady Kensington gave birth to seven daughters. Now Lord Kensington and his wife are growing old, and who can say whether the boy will be ready to inherit his father’s title when Lord Kensington dies?”
“God forbid,” his mother said.
“I want to see your son and heir in my lifetime,” Marcus’ father said. “I want to know that my title and lands will remain within our family. When I know that, I’ll be able to die a happy man.”
Marcus sighed. Legacy was so important to his father.
Marcus wanted to keep Westdale Manor and the Dukedom in his family’s hands as well, and in order to do so, he did have to produce a noble heir. Though he thought his family was placing too much emphasis on speed, it would have to be done sooner or later. “Very well,” he said. “I will attend the ball at Kensington Manor and look for a young lady to court.”
“I knew you would,” his mother said. “You can be relied upon to protect the best interests of this family, Marcus. I’ve always been very proud of you.”
Marcus finished his tea. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, “I think I would benefit from a bit of fresh air.” He left the table and strode out of the dining room before either of his parents could call him back. Though he was determined to comply with their wishes, right now he wanted nothing more than to be alone.
He went out onto the grounds and crossed the lawn, heading down toward the stable. It was the one place he truly felt at ease, perhaps because he didn’t really belong there. He had no purpose in the stable, which meant that there were no expectations placed upon him. There usually wasn’t even anyone there to talk to, which was a relief.
Today, though, he entered the stable and stopped short.
He was looking at a middle-aged man with thick, graying hair and calloused hands. “Oh,” he said. “You must be the new stable hand my father mentioned.”
The man turned and smiled at Marcus. “And you must be…Lord Alden? Am I right?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Marcus said. “I suppose my father told you about me?”
“He mentioned that he had a son,” the stable hand said. “He said that you loved to ride, and that he would need someone to help tend to your horses.”
“Well, I do enjoy riding,” Marcus said. “Welcome to Westdale Manor. What’s your name?”
The man hesitated. Then he held out his hand. “My name is Nicholas, Lord Alden,” he said. “It’s a great pleasure to meet you.”
“It’s very nice to meet you too,” Marcus said, shaking the man’s hand. He had a firm and commanding handshake.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Nicholas asked. “I presume you came down here because you wanted a horse prepared for a ride?”
“No, actually,” Marcus said. “I came because I wanted to spend some time among the horses, nothing more. I hadn’t realized…” He hesitated, then went on. “I hadn’t realized that the new stable hand had already arrived and begun to work here. You see, the stable is usually a place I come to be on my own.”
“Ah,” Nicholas said. “If it would suit you, I would be happy to leave so that you can spend your time with the horses.”
Marcus was surprised. “You would do that?”
“Of course,” Nicholas said. “I’m here to serve you, Lord Alden. It’s my duty and my pleasure to do as you wish.”
“But I don’t want to interrupt your work,” Marcus said.
“I understand what it’s like to prefer the company of animals sometimes,” Nicholas said. “I don’t always get along well with humans myself. That’s why I chose to work in stables in the first place.”
Marcus was stunned. He had never met someone who understood his eagerness to spend so much of his time in the company of horses. Even his parents thought it was a strange thing to do.
The only person who had ever come close to understanding it was Ophelia. She had said once that horses seemed to have a kind of wisdom that humans could never match, and Marcus had been impressed by her insight.
Thinking of Ophelia was too upsetting, too distracting. He pushed the thought away.
Instead, he focused on Nicholas. “It must be very peaceful,” he said, “being able to spend all your time with them.”
Nicholas nodded. “It is,” he agreed. “Horses make no demands of us. The things they want are simple and easy to provide. And once you’ve befriended a horse, you can feel assured of his loyalty. It’s much simpler than relationships with humans are.”
He gathered up his belongings and began to move toward the stable door.
“Wait a moment,” Marcus called.
Nicholas looked back.
“You don’t have to go,” Marcus said.
“Are you sure?” Nicholas asked. “I don’t mind.”
“I appreciate it,” Marcus said. “But I don’t want to take you away from your work. Besides, I’m only planning on spending a little bit of time down here. I have things to attend to back up at the Manor. It just helps me to get away when I can. To calm down.”
Nicholas nodded. “I can understand that My Lord,” he said.
Marcus wandered to the far end of the stable. His favorite horse, Blackjack, was sticking his nose out to be stroked, and Marcus obliged him. “What brings you to Westdale, Nicholas?” he asked.
“A need for work,” Nicholas said. “I worked as a farmer before. I sold my vegetables at market. But I wasn’t able to earn enough money that way, so I had to find something else to do. I was very fortunate that your father was hiring, I must say, because working with horses is an ideal position for me. I couldn’t be any happier.”
“We haven’t had a stable hand in some time,” Marcus said.
“Then who has been caring for the horses?” Nicholas asked. “I can see that they haven’t been neglected.”
“No,” Marcus said. “Our footmen have done the work. But it will be much better to have someone who can devote all his time to them. I’m very happy to have you here.”
“Thank you, My Lord,” Nicholas said.
“I believe it’s my mother’s hope that your presence will dissuade me from spending so much time in the stable,” Marcus said.
“Perhaps,” Nicholas said. “No one said anything to me about that.”
Marcus nodded. “I have no intention of avoiding the stables,” he said. “I will comply with my mother’s wishes when it comes to such things as courtship and marriage, but my free time is mine to spend as I choose, and I will be visiting the horses as much as I ever did.”
“There’s no need to seek my approval, My Lord,” Nicholas said. “I’m here to serve you, remember?”
“But you’re also here to serve my mother,” Marcus said. “And if she’s told you to stop me from visiting the stables, or to report back to her if I do—”
“She hasn’t told me any such thing, My Lord,” Nicholas said. “You’ve nothing to worry about.”
Marcus nodded. “I don’t wish to put you in a difficult position,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to ask you to lie to my mother.”
“I see no need for lies,” Nicholas said.
“And if she asks you whether I’ve been here?” Marcus asked.
“A half-truth will often suffice,” Nicholas said.
“What do you mean?” Marcus asked.
“If I’m asked if I saw you,” Nicholas said, “I might say that yes, I did, but that you didn’t want to take a horse out, so it was clear to me that you didn’t require my assistance.”
Marcus was impressed. “I suppose that would make it sound as though you only saw me in passing.”
“Precisely,” Nicholas said. “I have no desire to interfere with your visiting your horses, My Lord, or with your escaping the pressure of your role as a gentleman. I can only imagine how heavy the weight of your title must be.”
No one had ever said anything like that before. No one had ever acknowledged that holding a title might be as much a burden as it was a privilege. “You’re a good man, Nicholas,” Marcus said.
“I thank you, My Lord,” Nicholas said. “Remember that I am here as your servant. Whatever I can do to make your life easier, I will always be happy to do it.”
“Then you won’t reveal it to anyone if I continue to visit the stables regularly?”
“I won’t,” Nicholas agreed. “That can remain a secret between the two of us, and I would be honored to keep your confidence.”
“Thank you,” Marcus said. “Thank you very much.”
He left the stable and made his way back up the lawn to the Manor, knowing that he had spent as much time away from his family as he would likely be able to get away with for one day. His mother would be looking for him, no doubt wanting to discuss his marriage prospects. He was sure that she would have ideas about which of the eligible young ladies who would be at the ball would make the best potential matches.
As for Marcus, he couldn’t see himself with any of them.
He would choose someone. He would court her and marry her. It was important to his father, and he wanted more than anything to make his father happy. He wanted to carry on his family’s legacy by providing an heir of noble birth.
But it was difficult—heartbreaking, really—to realize how much of his life would be governed by the need to do what was expected of him.
If only I had had the strength to tear myself away from Ophelia sooner.
He opened the door, walked into the foyer—and stopped in his tracks.
She was right there. She was staring right at him.
He opened his mouth to say something—though he had no idea what he could possibly say to her—but she turned and fled down the corridor before he could get a single word out.
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