About the book
She was the light that guided him out of his darkness…
Locked away in her family’s estate for more than two decades, Aurelia Blackmore has resigned herself to a life of exile.
Blinded in the same fire that killed her mother when she was young, marriage is not even a thought for her. Until the day her father announces her engagement to a man she has never met.
Donovan Harding, the Duke of Oakhampton, has suffered many losses, with his wife and his fortune sacrificed on the altar of an illness. With no good options left, he must marry again. But his new bride’s secret might be more than he can handle.
Tied together by the strings of his son’s violin, their marriage is a precarious one. When a fire claims her childhood home and a constable brings news of a murder, the strings begin to unravel. A familiar voice, awakening memories of her past, threatens to tear away all that she loves, just as it had the fateful night she lost her vision and her mother.
June 4, 1814
As the flames licked at her heels, Aurelia had only one thought on her mind.
Her chest heaved as she felt the heat creeping in closer and closer. It tickled her neck and the smoke was all that she could taste. Curling up against the pianoforte, she wondered how fast the fire was growing. Though she turned in circles praying for an escape, she couldn’t find one. There never seemed to be an escape; not after the first fire.
She sucked in a deep breath.
We don’t have long, she thought to herself, which meant they had to get out of there quickly before they were trapped. Surely there was a path to safety.
I have to do something!
It was up to her to save them. This was her childhood home, the world she had been raised in.
My family’s estate.
Blind or seeing, she could navigate the property easily.
But there were flames now and she didn’t know how to get anywhere without her sight.
“Aurelia?” Timmy squeaked as his hands clutched at her skirt.
Immediately she reached out for the child. For a moment, she feared she had lost him. Her hands covered his as she bent down to surround him with her arms. Never before had she felt so protective of another soul, for she would rather let the world crumble than let him be injured. She couldn’t let anything happen to him.
Except she felt paralyzed.
From her childhood, she recalled the layout of her home with the grand staircase.
It can’t be far away.
They were in the second-floor music room connected to the hall closest to the stairs. And there was a window.
No, two windows in the music room. But where?
Spinning them around in a circle, Aurelia tried desperately to remember. Her skirts tugged on her shoes and nearly made her tumble over.
“I’m scared,” Timmy cried pitifully in her ears, just loud enough for her to hear over the raging fire.
Tears wet her cheeks only to grow warm. The crackling sound grew closer. She flinched. Sweat began to collect on her face, mixing with her tears as it stuck her hair to her forehead and cheeks.
She squeezed her eyes shut as she tightened her grip around the boy beside her. The last time she had been caught in a fire such as this, she had been the child who needed help.
Now I have to help him.
No matter how scared she was now, she could not just stand there.
I have to do something.
Aurelia swallowed her fear as she attempted to muster her courage. Her heartbeat thudded loudly against her ribs as she tried to think about how to get them out of the danger they were in.
After coming so far in the last couple of months, she couldn’t give up now.
“It’s all right, my darling. We’re going to be safe,” she managed to say at last. Though her tongue felt thick and heavy, she focused on drawing the words out one by one. If she didn’t show her fear, perhaps he wouldn’t feel so afraid. She swallowed hard. “We’ll find our way out of here.”
The boy was shaking now. “How?”
Her plan was still forming in her mind as she told him. “It’s a game, Timmy. Just another game. You’re going to be my eyes. You can do that, can’t you? You’ll keep us both away from the flames and get us to safety. I know we just left the pianoforte. There are two windows in the room. But where is the door, Timmy? The door?”
She kept her hands on his shoulders as she felt him raise one arm. Her hand slid down to follow the direction where he was pointing. “That way. But the chair…”
There was a chair set near the door. Aurelia licked her chapped lips. “It’s not in the way, is it?”
“It’s burning,” he squeaked.
“Then we’ll go around it,” she assured him. “We’ll both be brave, just like your father, won’t we? We want the Duke to be proud of us. We must be brave and go find him. He must be worried about us. It’s only a game, Timmy. You’ll lead us out of here, and then, then we shall be safe in his arms.”
She wished she could do more. At that moment, all she wanted was to scoop him up in her arms and run out of the house with him to safety. Never had her lack of sight been so inconvenient and frightening.
Straightening up, Aurelia fixed her dress. She was on the last of her nerves, barely holding it together.
But I have to. For Timmy.
She gasped for breath, but only inhaled smoke. Coughing, she realized her mistake. She had to pause as her lungs struggled. Certainly a fine lady raised properly would have handled this situation better, she thought to herself. She would better care for her family and know how to protect them.
But this was all she had. And she wanted to keep what she had. Gripping the child tightly by the shoulders, she tried to keep her voice light and calm. “Lead me, Timmy. We must hurry.”
He took her other open hand and then a slow step forward. It was a game they had played before, but quieter now and with higher stakes. There was no time for giggling. Neither of them said a word as they panted for breath.
Aurelia realized the room was growing more stuffy with every step. She could feel the smoke billowing across her face. It was getting hard to breathe.
Timmy moved forward, slowly but surely with each successful step, they started across the room. He led them around what must have been the chair and toward the exit. She could tell when they were close because of the heat.
Then she realized why the room was so horribly stuffy. The door to the room was closed. Timmy put her hand out to it for her to turn the knob, but it wouldn’t budge. Aurelia’s heart sunk. Her family’s old house was still in good repair. She had been there only months ago. There was no reason for it not to open.
Panic clenched her soul as she held Timmy’s hand tightly in hers. Aurelia turned to look over her shoulder, though she knew she saw nothing. It was all so dark. Everything felt so helpless. She reached up to feel the door, her fingers spread out as if to find some way to free them.
“Help!” She cried out. “Hello? Please! Help us!”
There was smoke clinging to her lungs as she shouted. As she gasped for more breath to call out for help for them, she heard banging on the other side of the door.
Aurelia’s heart stopped. Covering Timmy’s hand in both of hers, they both gingerly took a step back as there was another thud. Then a third. After that, she flinched as she heard a crash in front of her, frightened of what it could have been.
“Timmy!” Donovan’s hoarse voice called out. “Aurelia!”
Tears of relief flooded down her face. The child left her grasp as she felt the presence of her husband there. She put out a hand before her, feeling Donovan’s face. He was breathing hard and there was a stiffness to his jaw.
“I’m getting you two out of here now,” he informed her.
With that announcement, the Duke scooped her up in his arms along with his son.
Aurelia’s heart hammered as she curled in close against his chest as she heard the flames crackling all around them. Only then did she feel hope inside her soul that they might get out safely. The fire must have been growing all this time. She wondered how much it would ultimately consume.
As her husband carried them toward safety, she wondered if this fire would bring her another loss like the last one had. Flames had taken so much from her in the past.
March 10, 1814
There was a blackcap bird singing in the nearby apple trees.
Jocelyn and Bridget were sitting nearby while arguing about Mrs. Poppersby, hardly noticing the nature around them. The two of them rarely paid attention to the birds, of course. They liked to hear their own voices more than anything else. Most folks were like that.
Sitting on a bench of her own, Aurelia wondered which tree the bird was singing in and if the bird liked that tree the most.
Birds made for pleasant music to the young woman who used her ears to enjoy most of the world around her. Over the years, she had attuned them to learn the calls of different birds, different wagons, and all sorts of creatures. But birds were her favorite. They had always struck her as a cheerful sort of creature.
In her hands, she played with a rose that Bridget, her companion, had cut for her. The petals were as thick as they were soft. She closed her eyes as she tried to imagine how they might look. Her companion had mentioned this one was a soft pink, the color of an early sunrise.
She had lost her sight over twenty years ago. After living a life without her eyes for much longer than she had used them, Aurelia had adapted to her sightless lifestyle in exile on her family’s property. Yet there were some days where she wished she could still see the blue sky, an intricate brocade, or the pink of a lovely rose.
“If you had wanted to become the housekeeper, you could have had the role, I’m certain,” Bridget was teasing Jocelyn. “You had only to write and ask the Duke.”
“What?” Jocelyn squawked rather loudly. “And say what, exactly? ‘Sir Harold Blackmore, I’m only a lady’s maid but I’d like to become your head housekeeper for your Greenfair Estate’? I think not!” An embarrassed laugh bubbled out of her. “I could just as easily accept the role as you could.”
Aurelia smiled as she listened to her friends. A blackcap was more musically inclined, but Bridget and Jocelyn could always make her laugh.
The three of them had been together for several years now. It was just them together at Greenfair with the rest of her father’s household. They passed their days in the garden, the music room, and playing games. She liked how quiet and amiable it was for all of them. It allowed everyone on the staff to shine in their own manner.
It was Bridget’s turn for melodrama. She was usually the instigator of such activity. “But of course I could. After all, I have a close connection with his daughter, you see. I guide her and could just as easily guide the entire household.”
“Like when I was seven and you were mad at me?” Aurelia asked pointedly with her chin raised, speaking up at last.
Usually she let her two companions squabble, for it was more entertaining to listen than to participate. But the ability to slide in the occasional comment to overturn their silly little conversations gave her a delight like a newly wrapped Christmas gift. There wasn’t much she could do while she just sat there.
She could feel them turning to look at her. They always kept her in their sight, and she could always sense their presence. It was reassuring to know that she was never alone.
Aurelia blinked as she tried to imagine their expressions.
With the sun shining, the world wasn’t completely black to her. It was a soft shade of yellow with shadows where she assumed there were trees and the estate nearby. Everything was a blur that merged with each movement. When the accident happened, this used to give her a headache and make her dizzy. But it was something that she had grown used to over the years.
When they were children, Bridget would lead her around the house in circles with nowhere to go whenever they were upset at one another.
“I wouldn’t, I’m not,” Bridget stammered as she looked for an excuse.
The only problem Aurelia had when she inserted herself into her companions’ conversations and silly squabbles was that even now, after all these years, they tended to take her seriously.
She was quiet most of the time so they always forgot she was the one tempting them to sneak out to the kitchens late at night for muffins or to play games in the dark around the house after everyone had gone to sleep.
Her soft-mannered way of speaking as a Duke’s daughter had allowed her to be raised in grace, but also occasionally hindered her relationship with her friends who forgot that she enjoyed a good jest as well as anyone else.
Aurelia smiled. “Exactly.”
Upon realizing that she didn’t mean anything by her words, the other two girls giggled. There was the sound of footsteps across the cobblestones and then Aurelia found her maid and her guiding companion on either side of her. She stiffened in surprise before relaxing beside them.
“What do you think?” Jocelyn proposed to her with a note of hesitation in her voice. “With Mrs. Poppersby retiring, a new housekeeper must be found. It’s been over ten years since anyone retired from Greenfair. I think your father would rather promote someone who is already here, would he not?”
The question sounded innocent enough. Aurelia considered answering the question. As the daughter of a duke, she had no reason to respond to either of these women, even if she considered them her friends.
Nobody came or left the Greenfair Estate.
Unless they were part of the family or part of the household, there was no reason for someone to step foot on the property. No one came to visit and no one left permanently until they retired, like Mrs. Poppersby had requested to do just last month.
If they were losing someone on the staff, it meant someone new had to come. The very thought made Aurelia’s stomach knot up. She would never share such a confession, but after all this time, she liked her quiet lifestyle. Whether someone called it exile, privacy, or another matter, it was her life.
“I don’t quite know,” Aurelia claimed at last. “But Father arrives today and is here to meet someone. Whether they take Mrs. Poppersby’s position or another’s, I’m not certain.”
No one could be employed on the estate unless her father personally vetted them. He went through every rule with them carefully and explained the strictures in detail. It was a delicate matter, he had claimed. He never explained why, but everyone knew it was because of her. His blind daughter. Even though he had not lived there in two decades, it was still his property and she was still his daughter. He might not live here or care for her, but he would make sure that we are both cared for.
She supposed that would have to be good enough.
“I’m certain it will be Penelope,” Bridget groaned as she interrupted Aurelia’s thoughts. The bench rocked slightly as she shifted in annoyance. “I know it. Then she’ll insist on being called Miss Tyler and I’ll never eat biscuits at midnight again.”
Jocelyn’s knees knocked against Aurelia’s. “Certainly not. She’s never worked a day in the kitchen. The Duke would certainly want someone trained in the kitchen and the house. He’ll promote Patricia.”
There was a sound in the street that caught Aurelia’s ears. Turning away from the silly argument, she leaned forward to see what that sound might be. She stopped breathing and put her hands over those of her friends to stop them from talking. They both knew her well enough to obey immediately.
The blackcap was gone. In its place was the sound of a squeaky wheel rolling over a dirt road.
“What is it?” Jocelyn asked her impatiently after a quiet minute.
“Jocelyn,” Bridget hissed in annoyance.
“Father’s here.” Aurelia stood up. She inhaled deeply as she started to straighten her dress. Hopefully, it had not gathered much dust or dirt. Beside her, the other two women did the same and ran their hands gently over her dress as well to be of service. “Well?”
The time for games was over. Aurelia was the gentle one in their party, the silent leader as the lady of the house, and her companions were quick to follow after her actions.
“Let us go to greet him,” Jocelyn announced graciously.
A knot started to form in Aurelia’s stomach. It tightened as she accepted Bridget’s arm and went with her two friends toward the edge of the garden. As they walked, she could hear the carriage drawing closer.
It arrived in front of the house. She remembered receiving his letter just last week. He didn’t write very often. But Mrs. Poppersby had announced her intention to retire, so action had to be taken. She had a letter written to her father and he had responded that he would be arriving to handle the matter within the fortnight.
Four months ago would have been the last time she’d seen him, when he wanted to ensure that the renovation for the stables had been properly completed.
But now he was there for the next two nights. She wondered how busy he would be. Aurelia had supervised the menu for the evening and ensured his favorite room was prepared for him. In case he cared for some leisurely activity, she had practiced a few of his favorite songs on the pianoforte as well. Though she knew better than to expect it, she was dearly hoping they might even have time for an afternoon walk around the estate.
She heard as the carriage rolled to a stop. The footman climbed down and opened the door.
Aurelia stepped forward as she heard familiar footsteps across the gravel. The knot in her stomach turned into a thicker tangle as her eyes searched the sky for him, knowing she would never see his face.
All she knew was the young father he had been when he still used to help her slide down the banister. That was a lifetime ago and he had changed in many ways since that time. She wondered how he had aged through the years.
“Welcome, Father,” she said loudly upon hearing him.
“There you are,” he called out.
“He’s waving,” Bridget whispered in her ear. “And he’s turning back. He’s looking at the carriage. There’s something still in there.”
Jocelyn gulped loudly. “Oh dear.”
While Bridget was the braver of her friends, Jocelyn was only outspoken when the three of them were together. Otherwise, her maid was quiet and collected. She had been with Aurelia since they were young, for Jocelyn’s mother had been maid to Aurelia’s mother before her early passing. When Jocelyn came of age to work, she was warmly welcomed back to Greenfair.
Aurelia opened her mouth to ask what was happening, but then she heard it.
The first time she had heard Lorena Morrisey’s voice, she had been hardly eight years old. Her father had brought home a new bride two years after his first one had passed away in the accident. Lorena had been only eighteen herself at the time, but she had enchanted the older man and married him quickly wherewith a new heir was produced. In all their years as a family, there had never been time for the women to bond.
“It’s still standing, is it?” the woman asked distastefully.
Aurelia had never seen her stepmother’s face, but she used to imagine how hideous it must be with her high-pitched voice, stale perfume, and bitter attitude for never giving anyone a fair chance. Just hearing the woman’s footsteps toward the mansion made her cringe.
“I’ve never been more relieved to live in London. I’ve never seen anything so ghastly in all my life,” another voice announced. This one stemmed from Lorena’s son and Aurelia’s half-brother, Nathan.
“Ah.” That was all she could manage before her father called her over to greet them at the door.
Bridget was there to take her hand and lead her around the rose bushes.
Jocelyn followed closely behind. The three young women made it to the front of the house, where Bridget helped Aurelia guide everyone inside. It was her role to act as Aurelia’s eyes, for the Blackmore family liked to pretend she did not exist.
Her father spoke before she could. “Thank you, child. I have business to attend to, so I’ll be in my study for the rest of the day. I shall see you all for dinner. Aurelia, make certain you join us in a timely fashion. I have news to discuss with you.”
“Of course, Father,” she said, wondering what news this could include.
His footsteps echoing in the hallway told her that he was already moving away. She didn’t have time to ask him and would have to wait until supper. Just as she was about to turn to Bridget and Jocelyn to suggest visiting the music room, she paused.
By the smell of a familiar stale perfume and old water, Aurelia knew that her stepmother and brother were still nearby. She had nearly forgotten her other guests.
“Welcome to Greenfair,” she told them, hoping she was looking in their general direction. She clasped her hands behind her back for they always made her anxious. “Will the two of you also be joining us for supper, or would you like it brought to your rooms?”
That’s when she realized she didn’t have rooms prepared for them. She would need to have something done about that immediately. Mrs. Poppersby wasn’t retired yet and still had plenty of work on her hands.
“Our rooms?” Nathan’s voice had deepened since they had last visited. “What do you think we are, naughty little children who must be locked away?”
She didn’t know how to answer that question. Aurelia was relieved knowing she didn’t need to worry about spending time with them often. Typically, they visited once every other year when they claimed they weren’t too busy with their London lifestyle.
His mother chuckled alongside him. “You poor dear, knowing nothing about children. Or supper, it would seem. You’re so fortunate to have a household that takes care of you. Oh, if only I could trust my staff enough to manage all of my needs. Perhaps I should offer you recommendations? It sounds as if you will need them.”
It sounded like there was a jest within their words that she didn’t understand. Aurelia forced a smile upon her face. “I will be certain to have enough places at supper for the two of you, then.”
“Two of us? How lovely. I’m sure you’re not used to that, are you?” Lorena sighed loudly. “Well, I suppose that had best change soon.”
Aurelia hesitated. “Pardon?”
Any confidence she had felt back in the garden had since vanished. This was her home, but she stopped acting as the lady of the house once her stepmother arrived on the property. She had always hated that, but there was nothing she could do about it.
She had been raised to not be a passionate person. It was important to hold in her feelings and to always remain composed. For that reason, her anger and her frustration showed itself as nerves as her hands shook. It made her wish she could shove the two of them right out the door and make them never come back.
They had never respected this house nor cared for it. Thus, they had no right to be there. And now, they spoke in riddles around her as though she were a simple child. Aurelia tried to rein in her passion but there was bitter distaste on her tongue for the family before her as she forced herself to stay put before them.
Nathan continued to chuckle. “Don’t worry, Mother. It’s not like she knows anything about change. Poor Aurelia, locked up here in the middle of nowhere like a poor country mouse. But don’t worry, something will work out. You can’t be both blind and dumb, can you?”
The knot in her stomach was returning. There was something being said between Lorena and Nathan that she simply didn’t understand. She swallowed hard as she forced a polite smile onto her face.
“If you’ll excuse me, I think I should go lie down. I don’t feel very well.”
“I’m right here, Miss.” Bridget touched her elbow and then took her hand in hers. Jocelyn was there on her other side as they turned around to the stairs. Though Aurelia knew her home like the back of her hand, she could hardly make it up the grand staircase by herself. She felt like a feather on the wind as they reached the top.
If she hadn’t have left, she might have done something she would have regretted. Aurelia was reminded of the first year she had been blinded. Those days had been filled with sorrow, pain, and endless torment.
She had struck out at everything and everyone. There had been such anger in her heart that all she wanted to do was fight and fight and fight. Her knuckles had been bloody for most of that year, even as her father ended up locking her up in her room. Aurelia’s hands balled into fists thinking of how good it might have felt to do something like that again.
But then she stopped, hearing Lorena and Nathan chuckle.
Lorena laughed loud enough to snort. There was a clatter as they bumped or kicked into something. Jocelyn would point it out to her later. Her stepmother always purposely broke things while at Greenfair. “It’s about time we’re done with that child.”
“Old maid, don’t you mean?” Nathan responded tartly. “Black mark? Stain on the family reputation? It’s bad enough I’m wasting away here when I should be in London. I’m missing two card parties now as we speak, Mother. That’s not counting the balls, the operas, or the games.”
A cold tingle ran down Aurelia’s spine.
But she couldn’t bring herself to move, wondering what they appeared to know that she didn’t. Bridget and Jocelyn stood frozen by her side. They wouldn’t move until she was ready.
Her stepmother spoke up with a groan. “Don’t worry, Nathaniel. You are the future Duke of Greenfair. That is already set in stone. She is nearly out of the way for good. Then finally you’re all that Harold will care for. No more black stains on the family or any blind fools weighing us down. We’ll be rid of her once and for all. Enough of this. All this travel has made me famished. Where is that kitchen? Where is everybody?”
“I’ll tear this place down once I’m the Duke,” Nathan growled. “Come along, Mother.”
Footsteps stomped down the wrong direction toward the drawing room and not the kitchens. But Aurelia wasn’t about to tell them what they were doing wrong. She wasn’t about to tell them anything.
Her blood boiled. She wanted to scream, to do something. But she was a lady and could do nothing. Inhaling deeply, she felt Jocelyn gently stroke her hair to try and calm her down.
She managed a shaky breath before nodding. Bridget led them to Aurelia’s quarters where she was helped onto her bed. Her favorite pillow was placed in her lap and a glass of water was found for her.
No one said a word for several minutes.
“Well?” Jocelyn asked at last. She was the least patient of the three of them. “What do you think is happening?”
“I don’t know,” Bridget confessed with what sounded very much like a pout. “But I’ve never wanted to slap the Duchess of Greenfair more in all my life. She’s hideous, Aurelia, just like she sounds. Her nose is too pointy for her face and her eyebrows are too close together. If you squint, perhaps she could be pretty to someone. But then she wears so many pearls that she appears to be drowning in them and then she speaks like she’s a dying bird.”
A small laugh escaped Aurelia’s lips before she could help it. Now that they were away from her family, the anger began to fade. She squeezed her pillow and leaned against her bed as she took a deep breath. “That’s not very nice,” she covered her mouth to hide the smile as she tried to be stern. “I like birds.”
“But she’s an awful bird,” Jocelyn nudged her, and soon all of them were giggling. For a few hours, Aurelia was able to forget the knot in her stomach as they talked.
But in the back of her mind, she counted the minutes till she knew what news her father had brought.
The Duke of Oakhampton felt like he was choking.
Even as he loosened his cravat, it hardly seemed to help him. The decision put forth before him was clear because his situation was dire. There wasn’t any other option. Yet he hadn’t anticipated such an action would need to be taken like this.
Especially one so soon.
His heart thumped. Running a hand through his dark hair, he sighed and shook his head. Though in his mid-thirties, he felt he was too old for all of this. Too old to still be making so many life-altering decisions...
And too young for so much sorrow.
“Donovan?” A voice rose from the silence to break him free from his thoughts. It was his younger brother, Isaac. The tea merchant was comfortably and quite lazily draped in a chair on the other side of the grand desk. For all his casual appearance, he sounded impatient. “Well?”
“Well, what?” Donovan couldn’t help it as his voice came out rather sharp.
It was his steward who stepped up and cleared his throat. “We know it’s a sensitive matter, Sir. But time waits for no man. The contract must be finalized and agreed upon. Your brother does not have all night.”
They all knew this.
Donovan was not a fool. He knew that and they knew it as well. But they didn’t understand what they were talking about.
They don’t know how hard it is to sign this contract. They don’t know what it was like to lose a wife. They don’t know what it was like to watch the person they loved most in all the world die slowly and painfully. And they don’t know what it is like to choose a second wife because he needed the money.
His gut twisted at the very notion.
He didn’t want to marry again.
Especially so soon...
It had hardly been a year since Lacy had passed away. Sometimes at night, he swore he could still feel her touch, still smell her scent.
But every morning was the same. He would wake up to the shining sun and be greeted to a large, empty bed. His manservant Charlie would arrive to draw back the curtains to remind him of his duties and responsibilities that continued to pile onto him day after day.
Since he had focused all his care and attention on his ailing wife, his state of affairs had fallen by the wayside. They were nearly destitute. If he wanted to keep himself and his son off the streets, then they had to do something.
“Timothy needs a mother.”
Donovan lifted his head slowly to see that his brother had begun to straighten up his lanky form. Isaac should have been the elder, the Duke, Donovan thought at that moment. He would know better about what to do. After all, he had put this plan into action. The younger man offered a lopsided smile beneath his serious gaze as he leaned forward.
“But what if…” Donovan couldn’t bring himself to finish the phrase. There were too many concerns he could voice. “I just… don’t want to bring a stranger home to him,” he said at last.
Ezra glanced at Isaac who stared back. “It’s not going to be a stranger. At least, not for long,” his steward added. “Your brother is right. You need to get your affairs back into order, and you don’t have enough time to attend to your son. He needs attention and he needs a mother. Not only that, but you need money to get back on your feet. I don’t think you’ll find a better match, nor a better deal. It’s forty thousand. Marrying a rich Duke’s daughter is your best option at this point, sir.”
He swallowed hard as he glanced back down at the numbers. That is certainly what they reflected. It is a fair deal. The Duke of Greenfair had already been generous thus far with an advance, and Donovan couldn’t push the man further.
There isn’t any other choice.
Rubbing his neck, Donovan let out a shaky breath. “All right. Of course. I don’t have a choice. It’s my only option.” He managed a weak smile. “It’s time that I marry again.”
His brother nodded as though it were a simple matter. Isaac was the one who had a head for business, after all.
But it was Ezra whose eyes glittered hopefully. He was a few years younger than Donovan, closer to Isaac’s age, but they were close confidants so the steward had been hinting for the last couple of months that some sort of financial action such as this needed to take place.
As he turned to sign the papers so Isaac could deliver them to Harold Blackmore, Donovan straightened stiffly in his seat. He remembered vaguely something his father had told him once as a young man when he was learning about the family estate.
“It is the legacy that is most important,” the old man had reminded him firmly. “It is not the individual that matters. Not you or I. The stones that built this home are older than we will ever live to be and will live beyond us. We are simply here to help them pass along to the next duke.”
The family legacy. The family name. The family crest. The wealth, the power, the dukedom.
It was a heavy weight on his shoulders.
This wasn’t what he wanted. He had never wanted any of this. Becoming the Duke had weighed him down all his life, haunting him like a dark cloud.
“Take it,” he mumbled to his brother as he handed over the documents once they were signed.
Isaac stood up and accepted them. Then he paused to study Donovan with a frown. It made the dimple in his chin stand out more than usual, and his hair fell in his eyes. Donovan glanced up, wondering what his brother saw.
“This is a wise choice,” Isaac said after a minute. “You know this, don’t you?”
“I would like to think so,” Donovan confessed as the words slipped carefully from his mouth. He leaned back in his chair as he fiddled with his undone cravat. Since his father’s passing nearly twenty years ago, he had done all that he could to do right by the old man. But part of him wondered if he would ever rise to meet those expectations. “But how do I tell my son?”
Again there was an exchange of looks between his closest confidants that he was not a part of. Donovan ignored Ezra and Isaac in annoyance, wishing his brother would just leave already as he had been pressing to do all day, waiting around for that final signature.
“You’ll find a way,” Ezra assured him. “You always do.”
“Timothy is shy at first, but he needs someone else in his life,” Isaac agreed quickly, nodding his head. “Remember how he was with Lacy? He used to run all the time and loved to play games. Now, it’s hard to get him to go outside for his daily walks. I’m sure that with a mother again, someone he can see as a friend and a guide, he’ll be out and about as he once was. He needs that influence again in his life.”
Beside him, Ezra was also nodding adamantly.
“And the money,” his brother added pointedly. “You need the money, Donovan. What else are you going to do?” He held the signed papers up in the air before putting them away into his bags. “As I told you from the beginning, I’m certain everything will work out on its own once you put in the effort. It always does.”
Donovan managed a weak smile. That had always been his brother’s philosophy. And somehow, it had always worked to Isaac’s advantage. He nodded slowly. “Of course. Then you had best be off. I know you have a long ride ahead of you.”
Soon Isaac was off.
The papers should have been signed days ago, especially with the Duke of Greenfair in town. But Timothy had fallen ill with a cold and Donovan had refused to leave his side, let alone think of anything else. When he finally turned to review the financials along with the finality of the offer, Isaac informed him that the Duke was just about to leave town. As for himself, Isaac was bound for a merchant ship to France the very next day.
Donovan had never had good timing.
He didn’t have good timing, he didn’t have his wife, and he didn’t know how to talk to his son. All he had was a family legacy to protect. Bitterness for what his father had left him left a sour taste on his tongue.
Surely he had once been happier about all that he had. But now, he wasn’t so sure.
Guilt-ridden, he stared at the ledger before him in shame, wondering how he had sunk so low. He rubbed his forehead as he waited for the numbers to miraculously fix themselves. Nothing happened.
“You can say it,” he said in the silence.
Ezra stood back behind the desk, watching and waiting. It was his job to know everything that Donovan needed to know. He had just been hired the year before Donovan’s father passed and taking on all the responsibility there had changed them both, bringing them closer than anticipated. They expected complete honesty from one another.
“The situation is dire,” his steward offered drily. “You’ll learn to deal with this. In fact, I think this is the best thing that could happen to you right now.”
At that moment, Donovan wondered if honesty might have been too much.
He frowned at Ezra before looking over the numbers again. “Fine. Enough about the marriage. Let’s work on my estate, shall we?”
His steward obediently made his way around the desk to join him at his elbow. He glanced over his shoulder and tugged a few helpful notes out for them to keep in mind for their review. This matter would take some time for them to manage.
“If I may be so bold, Donovan,” Ezra interceded before they had moved on far through their documents and numbers, “This means that you’ll be married in three weeks once the banns have been read. Beyond the financials, this implies you’ll have a woman in your home again. Not only do you need to have your finances in order, but you also need to have your house in order. You need Timothy to be made ready, and yourself prepared.”
Donovan felt his heart skip a beat.
Though the Duke knew his steward to be correct, it added to the fact that Donovan felt as though he were losing himself lately. He didn’t know who he was anymore. Surely, he had been happy once. There had been hope for the future. But now, there was only the sober future ahead of him.
Ezra was simply pointing out something that he had yet to accept for himself right then. Of course, Donovan knew this to be the truth. He couldn’t accept a man’s dowry for his daughter without taking the daughter.
Even if no one knew anything about her.
He had a name with a vague family portrait from when she was a child. But that was the last one that had been created of her. She didn’t like to sit for them, her father had claimed. She was a private person, so she had never had her season.
But every woman had her season. As Donovan worked with Ezra to attempt to put his estate back into order with the money he was coming into, in the back of his mind, he couldn’t help but wonder about the woman he had agreed to marry. No one knew anything about her.
Even Isaac, who had helped arrange this since he was a business partner with the other duke, knew little of the man’s daughter. Only that she was in her late twenties, unwed, and came with an extremely large dowry.
“I think we’ve sorted through the worst of it,” Ezra offered when Donovan rubbed his face in frustrated exhaustion for the hundredth time. His steward gave him a sympathetic smile. “And I’m sure that Timothy is being put to bed now. Why don’t we finish this tomorrow? You can go see your son to his room. I’m sure he would like to see you.”
He paused. Donovan hadn’t seen Timothy all day. Cooped up with Isaac and Ezra, they had taken their early meals at the gentleman’s club before retiring to his office.
Rubbing his face, he nodded. “Of course. Tomorrow, then.”
Donovan stood up and stretched, feeling his body creak and groan. I am really getting too old. Thirty-five is much too young to be dealing with all of this pain and misery, let alone remarrying some stranger I have never laid eyes on before.
But he didn’t have a choice.
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