About the book
People usually fall in love. But some people were born in love. Already. And always…
Miss Annabelle Fernside’s dreams of one day becoming a famous painter turn to ashes when her father pressures her to marry. Watching everything she has worked for crumble before her eyes, she is determined to make this courtship fail at all costs.
Phillip Caney, the Marquess of Cottenhorn, has been drowning in sorrow ever since he lost his wife and son at childbirth two years ago. The sole heir to his father’s title, his parents arrange his marriage to force him to take on his responsibilities. However, his resolve to undermine the deal crumbles the moment he meets his intended.
Like an ominous storm cloud, anonymous letters tear through Annabelle and Phillip’s budding love. When Annabelle disappears a wet trail is the only thing she leaves behind, and Phillip must watch his life turn to ashes in order to get to her in time. For the past didn’t have a choice then, and it wears hatred like a cruel second skin.
Phillip paced up and down the hall outside of the chamber of his wife, Mary. His eyes felt heavy and they burned from lack of sleep. In the last forty-eight hours he had only dozed in the armchair in his study, in front of the roaring fire. But sleep, proper sleep, eluded him. The fear of what terrible news he might wake up to would not let him rest.
“My Lord, would you care for something to eat, at least? You must keep up your strength,” his valet, Pierre, asked.
Phillip shook his head “No, thank you, Pierre. I cannot eat. My stomach feels as though it is in knots. Has there been any news of my wife?”
His valet shook his head, his wavy blonde hair gently swaying from side to side. “I am afraid not, My Lord. Her Grace has not emerged from her ladyship’s chamber since last you spoke to her.”
Phillip sunk into a chair outside of his wife’s door and buried his head in his hands. Mary had been in labor for almost forty-eight hours now and still there was no sign of their child—their first born. How they’d longed for this child, how happy they’d been at its imminent arrival. While a son was all but demanded, so there would be an heir, neither Phillip nor Mary cared as long as the child was healthy. If this one was a girl, they mused, the next one might be a boy. Or the next one after that. For the two of them planned a large, happy family.
Phillip sighed. His mother, Her Grace, the Duchess of Weavington, had taken charge of Mary’s confinement as well as treatment, given that Mary was an orphan, having lost both of her parents at a young age. Suddenly, from inside, a blood-curdling scream emerged and Phillip jumped to his feet. He wished for nothing more than to burst through the doors and see his wife for himself. He wanted to encourage her, and soothe her. Yet, he knew it would not be possible.
“My Lord,” Pierre said. “Remain calm.”
Phillip shook his head. “If I had known it would cause her so much pain, so much suffering, I would’ve gladly gone without an heir. I do not care if it would mean losing the title back to the crown. I cannot stand to hear her in such pain.” He said the words to himself as much as to Pierre, but the young man nodded in agreement anyhow.
“I understand, My Lord. However, I assure you these things take their time. Growing up, I saw many young girls in labor for much longer than this, and they always came out the other side with a bouncing baby. As will you.” It was a lie, one spoken with good intentions but a lie nonetheless. Phillip knew it. Yet, there was something soothing and comforting in the young man’s voice. Perhaps it was the slight French accent he still carried with him from his childhood in Marseille.
Pierre Lombard had been in the family’s employ for several years and worked his way from a lowly footman to that of the future Duke of Weavington’s valet. He was now his closest and most trusted advisor. To Phillip, Pierre was almost a friend. He did not make friends easily, nor did he truly care to, but with Pierre he’d felt an odd kinship right from the start. He was glad to have him by his side now.
To think that my closest friends are my valet and my wife… and yet, I do not mind it. No, I would not have it any other way.
Before another word could be spoken between them, his mother threw open the door to Mary’s chamber and stepped out. The Duchess’ normally pristinely arranged hair hung around her sweaty face in disarray, and she wore a white apron over her fine gown to protect it from getting soiled. She glared at the valet.
“Pierre, you are not needed here right now. We will call for you should his Lordship need your assistance.” She waved a dismissing hand at him and turned away. Phillip saw the way his valet flinched. Ordinarily he would have protested his mother’s tone of voice as he did not like the way she spoke to their servants, especially the ones in Phillip’s employ.
Pierre bowed and departed. Once they were alone, the Duchess looked at Phillip. He could see from her expression that the news she carried was grave.
“What is it, Mother? I take it the news is bad?”
She nodded. “Mary is very weak and the child is a breech. The physicians inform me that the time has come to make a decision.”
“A decision?” Phillip frowned and brushed a strand of his brown hair out of his face.
“Who should they save? Mary or the child? For it seems they cannot save them both, lest both die in the attempt.”
The words struck Phillip like a dagger directly to the heart, burning and sharp. He could never have imagined to find himself in this situation with this impossible choice. He still remembered the day he found out he was to be a father. The joy, the elation—had it all come down to this? Choose who is to live and who is to die? He walked to the window, looking out into the garden before him.
I can recall the first day of our courtship. We walked in this very garden and I admired her beautiful green eyes and her soft heart-shaped lips. She was so beautiful, so kind, and she held my heart from the very first moment. And now I am to decide if she, or the child we so longed for, lives?
He turned and looked at his mother. “Mary, of course. Tell them to save Mary at all costs. We can always have another child, but I will never have another woman by my side as perfect for me as she.”
His mother only nodded in reply and then returned to the chamber. Leaving Phillip to, once again, sit in agony as he could do nothing but wait and pray.
He stood silently beside his father and looked on as the coffins were being lowered into the ground. One was large and made of beautiful white mahogany with a single white rose, the symbol of his grief, placed upon it. The smaller one was so tiny that it was inconceivable that a little life lay within it. It was made of the same materials. A red rose, symbolizing the name Mary had intended to give the newborn should it be a girl, adorned the lid. They were being lowered in adjacent graves while Phillip stood in silence and watched.
There they go. The loves of my life. Gone forever.
His father placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know this is difficult. Your mother and I buried many children before you and after you. But let me assure you, the pain will pass. You are still young. There is still life ahead of you. You will love again, and you will wed again. Mary would want it, I am sure.”
Phillip did not reply as he watched the coffins disappear from view. Momentarily, earth was being shuffled upon them.
Is it what she would want?
They had pledged their undying and unconditional love to one another, sworn that they would never love another as much as they loved each other. Would she really want him to find somebody else to make a similar pledge to?
He could not imagine it. If it were the other way around, he knew that he would not want her to look at someone the way she had looked at him. He turned to his father.
“I know that you mean well. But hear me. I shall never love again. This is a promise I make now before my dearly departed wife and my child, who never so much as got a chance to take a breath. They will never be replaced; not in my heart, and not by my side.”
The older man swallowed hard and rubbed his lips together. He was an older man, nearly sixty. There was more white in his hair than brown these days, and his face wrinkled more as each day passed. His posture, once tall and strong, was now that of a much older man.
“Even if you do not love again, my son, you must wed. It is required of you. Our family has held the title of Duke of Weavington for generations and we must not allow it to die out. Love is not a requirement for marriage. Indeed, you were lucky to love the one that matched with you. Most of us are not that fortunate.”
Phillip frowned, vexed that this conversation was taking place as he laid his beloved to rest. He shook his head.
“I do not wish to wed again, either. I will if I must, but I pity the woman who meets me at the altar, as I will never love her nor cherish her as I did Mary. There will never be another.”
He turned on his heel and marched back toward the house, leaving the small cemetery behind. He knew then and there that the woman he was leaving behind in the beautiful coffin, dressed in the most exquisite of gowns, would be the only one he could ever love. Yes, of that he was certain.
Two Years Later
Annabelle stood before her easel, her head slightly tilted to one side as she examined the results of her morning’s work. This was her third attempt at painting the lake behind her parents’ small estate. Stalkton Village, her home for the past twenty-two years, was a most picturesque place and she’d painted much of it thus far. The only place that always seemed to elude her was the lake. Try as she might, it never came out the way she imagined. Until today.
She nodded, pleased with the results for the first time. The colors were vibrant, and the details impressive even to her own eyes. She’d captured minute details that usually escaped her artistic eye.
“What a lovely picture,” Charlotte, her family’s maid, said as she walked up behind her. “Might be one for the collection.”
“I should hope so,” Annabelle replied with a smile on her lips. “If only someone would offer me a spot in a gallery. Yet, it seems like every time I write to a gallery owner, they show interest in displaying the work until they find out that I, the artist, am a woman.” She shook her head, sending blonde hair flying out from underneath her straw bonnet. Annabelle did not care for the restrictive manner in which societies’ ladies wore their hair at all. She preferred to allow it to cascade down her back, unless in company.
“Perhaps I should chop off all of my hair, borrow some of my papa's pantaloons and waistcoats, and present myself as Mr. Eric Fernside instead of Miss Annabelle Fernside. I might have more luck that way.”
Charlotte chuckled, completely unaware that Annabelle was not entirely joking. She had a vast collection of paintings, all of them originals. Once upon a time, she copied the works of famous painters for practice in an attempt to perfect her skill. These days she no longer felt the need. Accumulated over several years, her originals were ready to be displayed in any gallery, such was their quality. Indeed, she was certain if she were born a man, she would already be well-known.
Alas, she was born a girl and thus considered only good enough to be someone’s wife, or somebody’s mother. Neither of which interested Annabelle in the least. No, she had no plans to marry until the right man came along. Someone who’d love painting and the arts as much as she. A true prince.
“Have you never wanted to be something other than a maid?” She fixed her clear blue eyes on Charlotte, who shrugged.
“The likes of me haven’t got any choices, Miss Annabelle. You become a maid, or you become a governess if you’re lucky. Not much choice in it. Eventually you might marry; a merchant, if you’re lucky. But that hardly ever happens.” She shook her head. “At least you are of a higher rank in society, your father being a General. You have some choice in your future.”
Annabelle shook her head. “Not if you speak to my parents. All they see in my future is a husband. But I will not be pushed into a marriage. No. Not I. I am determined to have my work shown around the world. I will be England’s first famous female painter. You just wait and see.”
Charlotte glanced at her. Clearly, she was not quite sure what to say. She didn’t have to say anything. Annabelle was well aware that others frowned upon her passion. Her mother had called her selfish for wishing to pursue her artistic streak, while abandoning her other lessons, such as music and embroidery.
None of those gave Annabelle anywhere near the pleasure that painting did. While painting, especially water coloring, was considered an activity very fitting for a young woman, to make a career out of it certainly was not.
Annabelle shrugged. “Truly, my work will one day speak for itself. I know it. I will make a living off of the one thing I truly love: painting. And when I have my own little house, bought with the money I make off my work, you will come live with me and all doors shall be open for you, too, Charlotte.”
“Yes, Miss Annabelle,” Charlotte replied. It was evident she did not believe in Annabelle’s ability to determine her own path in life any more than anybody else did. However, it didn’t bother Annabelle at all. The only person whose opinion counted was hers. Yes, she was sure she would be the one to determine her own future. And her own fortunes. Nobody else.
Later that evening, Annabelle made her way to the dining room and found her parents already seated at the table. Her father was at the head, her mother at the foot, as usual. She frowned as she entered, as in addition to her parents, a third party had joined them. An older woman, her hair greying and in a knot at the back of her head, clad in mourning black, sat where Annabelle usually ate.
Not wanting to be impolite, she curtsied to the stranger and took her seat across from her.
“Good evening,” she said as she greeted the room. The older woman nodded a greeting her way and looked her up and down in a manner which irritated Annabelle a great deal. She did not like being looked at as though she were a pig at the market.
At last, her father thought it proper to introduce the stranger.
“Annabelle, this is Mrs. Claire Umberton. She is here to provide us with some guidance.” He paused and looked at his wife, who nodded at him. “Regarding your future.”
Annabelle looked up at the woman with renewed interest. Was she perhaps affiliated with a gallerist? Or some noble with an interest in the arts? Her heart fluttered at the idea of it. Alas, her hopes were soon dashed.
“Mrs. Umberton is a very well-respected matchmaker, and the most successful in the area.”
Matchmaker? Matchmaker! It cannot be. Surely, they would not force a matchmaker upon me. Not after everything I’ve told them of my dreams and plans. Not with my chamber filled with wonderful works of art that just need to find a way to be seen.
“But Papa, we already spoke about this. I do not wish to wed. Not yet. Not with so much work ahead of me. Even then, I would only wish to wed a man of my own choosing.”
The General sighed and placed his spoon down beside him as he shook his head.
“Annabelle, it is not good for a young woman to have such ambitions. Painting is a pleasurable hobby, I am sure of it. However, that is all it can ever be, and we have told you to think of it as such.”
She shook her head at this fallacy. “You told me if I could find somebody willing to display my work, I was welcome to do so.” It was her mother who spoke up next.
“Annabelle. You are two-and-twenty. In no time at all you will be on the shelf. Is that what you want? To be an ape-leader?”
“I want to marry a man I can love and who can love me. One who can accept my passion and support me. I do not want to be married to some man just because he has wealth and a title, but who will stifle my very being.”
She caught the eye of Charlotte who was serving the white soup and bread. The sympathy in the maid’s eyes was immense.
At last, Mrs. Umberton spoke up herself. “My dear Miss Annabelle. Trust me when I tell you, a great many young ladies feel as you and do not wish to wed a man of their parents’ choosing. But almost every one of them came to see the light at the end and is grateful for it. I am sure you will, too. And I’m certain I can find you a man who will find your hobby charming.”
Annabelle was seething inside. Painting was not a hobby. It was her life. Why did nobody understand this? The matchmaker was not finished with her declaration, it appeared, for she cleared her throat and started again. “I have a great number of eligible gentlemen who would love to meet an accomplished, educated lady such as yourself.”
“Mrs. Umberton will consult with myself and your mother and we will arrange for you to court. Now, we will allow you some say in who you wed. However, ultimately the decision is ours and ours alone.”
She looked at her father and was about to protest when she saw the expression on his face. There was no way she could talk her way out of this. They were determined.
She leaned back in her chair. Very well. If she was to court, she would court. However, she pitied the man who was paired with her, for she would never agree to marry someone she did not like.
If I must ruin my own reputation to ensure I am not made to wed, then I will, I declare, I will.
Phillip woke and stared at the canopy above his bed. There were thirty-seven roses painted on it. Fifteen red, seven yellow, five pink, and ten white. He knew this because he’s spent the last two years counting them again and again when sleep deserted him too early in the morning, or would not find him at night.
The rose canopy had been installed after the death of Mary and Rose, so he could be reminded of them whenever he needed comfort. And he needed comfort almost daily still, even though so much time had passed. He pushed himself up and pulled the cord which would alert Pierre he was ready to be dressed.
Why do I get dressed? What is the purpose of my life? To spend the day hunting, visiting tenants, and studying the books with Father? It is all empty and meaningless.
Feeling listless, he dropped back onto his bed and closed his eyes until a gentle knock on the door announced the valet’s arrival.
“Good morning, My Lord.”
Phillip blinked and pushed himself up with a groan.
“Good morning to you, Pierre. I apologize for calling on you so early. I cannot seem to sleep at all.”
The valet grimaced as he pulled out his clothing for the day. “Sleep has not been your friend in a long time, My Lord.”
“It has not. Nor has much of anything. Truly, you are the only person I talk to of my own free will, other than my parents. Even with them, it is a chore.”
Phillip got up as Pierre assisted him into his drawers, shirt, and pantaloons.
“Well, I am glad to have your confidence.”
Phillip looked at his valet as he collected his waistcoat and cravat. They were almost the same age, with Pierre being a couple of years older than him. And yet, what different lives they’d led. An orphan, Pierre grew up in an orphanage in Marseille before making his way to England in the middle of the war. Poverty had been a reality for him, while for Phillip, it was just a strange affliction that bothered those of poorer rank. At least that's what his father would have him believe.
“Do you find fulfillment in your post here?”
The valet turned, his eyebrows furrowed. “Why, does it not seem that way? Perhaps I ought to show my enjoyment a little more clearly?” Pierre smiled and twirled once around, waved his hands in the air, and grinned widely. “Such is my joy at my post here.”
Phillip could not help but laugh at the display. “Pierre, you make me laugh despite myself. And as you know, I do not laugh easily these days, if at all.”
“I do what I can. I know the sadness you feel. I’ve carried it within me my entire life.” He shrugged and went to put the cravat on Phillip. “To answer your question in earnest. Yes. I find fulfillment serving you. I could not hope for a better position than that of valet to a nobleman, a future peer of the realm, no less. I am fortunate, given my humble origins.”
“That is good to hear. It pleases me when my servants are happy, because I aim to treat everyone with respect.” He slipped his arms into his waistcoat and his tailcoat after that. “Well, Pierre. I suppose I am ready for another glorious day.”
He did not bother to hide the sarcasm in his voice at all. After one glance in the mirror, he followed his valet out. It was time to act as though he was still a part of this world even though in reality his mind, spirit, and soul had long joined his beloved Mary and Rose.
The Duke of Weavington sat at the breakfast table when his son joined him. As usual, Phillip looked like the picture of a regal lord who would one day be Duke himself. But in his eyes, the Duke saw the same sadness that had plagued his son ever since the death of his wife and child, two years ago.
“Good morning, son. How are you feeling this day?”
Phillip sat and shrugged. “It is another day.” He reached for a sweet roll and cut it open, slathering it with butter.
The Duke watched as his son took a big bite out of his roll and washed it down with tea. At least he was eating again. For quite some time after the death of the Duke's daughter-in-law, his son refused to take any nourishment and shed an alarming amount of weight. Fortunately, those days were long in the past and he had recovered his appetite. However, while food used to give him much joy, it now seemed to be consumed only out of necessity. Such as everything else appeared to be done only out of necessity and duty.
“Have you slept well?” The Duke asked. Phillip just shrugged his shoulders and continued eating. It was exceedingly difficult to get any kind of conversation out of him these days. This fact pained the Duke greatly. Once upon a time, there was little his son enjoyed more than a good conversation. Alas, no more. Nor did he find joy in any of the other things he used to cherish. The games of chess they once played regularly, the walks around the estate, and the evenings spent in the drawing room while listening to their ward, Lucy, playing the pianoforte—nothing gave him comfort.
Just then his wife entered. Dressed in a beautiful light pink gown with a matching pelisse, she looked a vision. Despite the fact that theirs was a union of convenience, not one based on love like that of Phillip and Mary had been, he appreciated his wife. Yes, it could be said that he had grown to love her. More so as a companion and friend than a romantic partner, but he loved her nonetheless.
“Good morning, my darling.” She greeted their son and sat beside him, patting his hand as she did. He looked up and gave a weak smile.
“Good morning, Mother. What is your plan for this glorious day?”
Ignoring the tone in his voice, she smiled back at him. “I have quite the day planned. I am meeting my friend, the Countess of Mellesley. We are going to take the air and perhaps indulge in some sweetmeats this afternoon. She is bringing her daughter, Sophie. She is a delightful girl.” She glanced at her husband and winked. “I believe you have met her. She was at the coming-out ball of your cousin last summer. Isn't that right, Haskel?”
The Duke looked up from his honey bread and quickly swallowed. Dabbing his mouth with a napkin, he nodded. “Indeed, I am sure you have met. You danced the Cotillion with her. Made quite the handsome couple if I remember correctly. Beautiful, lovely young lady she is. Still unattached, as I hear it.”
Phillip looked up and frowned. “Is that so?”
“Indeed, indeed it is.” The Duchess agreed. “Why don't you come along? The Countess has been asking after you. And I'm sure Sophie would enjoy the company of somebody closer to her own age. Nobody wants to spend an entire afternoon with two old ladies such as us.” She chuckled at her own joke, but Phillip shook his head.
“I cannot, Mother. As you know, I have no interest in meeting a woman. I know that eventually I must marry in order to provide an heir, but please refrain from attempting to trick me into a courtship. When it is time for me to marry, I will do so. But know that it will be out of duty, not out of love. I wish the young lady Sophie all the best in her endeavors of acquiring a husband. But it will not be me.”
He set the rest of his sweet roll down on the plate and got up, bowing to his parents.
“If you would excuse me, I must get to the stables. I asked Leopold to prepare Thunderclap for me, as I wish to ride.”
His wife grimaced at the Duke and for a moment he did not know what the meaning of her facial contortion was. Then it came to him.
Of course. If there is one thing my son and I still have in common, it is our love for the horses. I ought to join him. In fact, I will whether he likes it or not.
With that, the Duke placed his napkin down and rose.
“Wait up, son. I will join you. It is a fine day for a ride, I must agree. Let’s take the path through the woods.”
Phillip hesitated, but he could not very well refuse this request. Again, he shrugged his shoulders, a gesture seen so often on him these days that it vexed both of his parents greatly. He simply did not care for anything, it seemed.
Phillip galloped down the path that led back to the stables. His brown hair whipped in the air and he felt the freedom he did not experience anywhere but while riding his horse. Indeed, the only escape he felt these days was when he was atop his horse riding through the fields or galloping through the woods.
If only he never had to return back to Cottenhorn Manor. Alas, he had to. The Manor was the family’s main residence. While his father owned an estate in Devon, he and his mother always spent most of their time at Cottenhorn. And all of their time since Mary’s death. It was as if they had the desire to constantly remain by his side.
I wonder what they think would happen if I did not have them near. It is not as though their presence is such a great comfort to me. Indeed, I wished they never had given up their estate. I would prefer to be alone. However, it cannot be helped now.
“Phillip!” His father called out from behind him. He turned and frowned. While older, he was generally a healthy man. At present, he did not look it. His face was pale and clammy, his hair stuck to his skin as he rode.
Phillip turned his horse around and rode back toward his father.
“What is the matter? Are you hurt?”
He shook his head. “I do not know. I have a feeling inside my chest. It is… I cannot describe it. I feel as though I cannot breathe, as though I…”
He slipped off of his horse and fell to the ground.
“Father!” Phillip called out and dismounted his horse. He raced to his side, suddenly experiencing the same feelings that had rushed through him when he knew it was too late to save Mary. Or the child. He fell onto the dirty ground and rolled his father onto his back. The older man was breathing hard, his voice raspy.
“Pain…” He whispered and pointed at his chest. Groans and moans followed, but no more words.
Phillip jumped up and set off running into one direction, and then another. Seeking help. Any help. There was none. He re-joined his father who was gasping for air.
“Son. Please. If I die, do not let the line die out. Promise me. Have an heir. Carry on the line. I…” Suddenly, he stopped speaking and his eyes rolled back until only the white was visible.
“Father! Please. Stay with me. Do not leave…” Tears sprang into Phillip’s eyes as he felt utterly helpless and stared at the man before him. Another of his loved ones was dying before his very eyes. And there was nothing he could do. Again.
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