About the book
How much ever they hated each other, fate ties them together….
Daisy and Jonathan would rather jump off a cliff than get along.
After years of enduring his and her brother’s merciless teasing, Lady Daisy Pearson, daughter of the Duke of Ellingholm, has finally had enough.
Jonathan Henderson, the Marquess of Banroy, never thought he’d see the day Franklin Pearson would marry. Or the day he’d start looking at his sister Daisy as anything else other than an annoyance. Especially since she’s set to wed someone else.
As their resistances crumble, Jonathan’s inexplicable illness jars them back into reality. With physicians unable to find a cure, Daisy is desperate to save his life from the invisible foe ravaging his body. But there’s one problem with that: hiding right in the heart of their house, the devil is here to stay...
“Don’t forget your crown, Queen Daisy!” Franklin snarled at his younger sister. As he reached down to the hedging that grew beside the terrace, he threw a handful of weeds in her direction, causing her cheeks to burn and her eyes to prick with tears. “You wouldn’t want anyone to mistake you for a low-born commoner without it.”
Low-born. Commoner. Her half-brother’s jeers had been the bane of her existence for as long as she could remember.
Daisy picked up the weeds and smoothed the little purple tufts on the ends of the stalks. Mustering all of her dignity, she answered calmly, “Why, thank you for picking these for me, dear brother. These will indeed wind together nicely into a delicate crown of flowers.”
“I am not your brother! And leave it to you to adorn yourself with sticks and leaves and cockleburs, like some sort of wildling creature,” Franklin answered with a sneer.
“I’d far rather be a creature from the yonder wood than a spoiled brat who never bothered to grow up,” she retorted angrily. “Are we not too old for this ridiculousness? Must you insult me at every turn?”
“For the rest of my days,” Franklin said with a wicked grin. “I shall make the time to always help you remember your place.”
“My place? And what place is that, brother?” Daisy asked, feigning ignorance of her half-brother’s constant tormenting. “Oh, you’re referring to my mother being a common village woman before your father fell madly in love with her? I’m so sorry to remind you, but you and I have the same father and, therefore, I am the daughter of a Duke.”
Franklin was prevented from replying by the arrival of his best friend, Jonathan. The two men shook hands warmly before Franklin threw an arm around Jonathan’s shoulders and gestured to where Daisy sat at an outdoor table, the remnants of her latest work sitting in front of her.
“Jonathan, you’re quite the expert on what makes a young lady appealing,” Franklin began with a dismissive sniff. “Tell me, is this the very picture of a high-class, proper young lady whom any man of the ton would even deign to glance at, let alone marry?”
Jonathan looked Daisy up and down then turned to Franklin with an indifferent expression. “Are we to start this again, at such an early hour? I don’t have time to berate your little sister all day. I thought we were going riding.”
Daisy looked down in anger. For as long as she could remember, Franklin and Jonathan had tormented her with cruel jests and mean pranks, all because her mother had married the Duke after the first Duchess had passed. She had once believed Franklin despised Daisy’s mother for replacing his, especially when his mother’s death had also meant the death of Franklin’s infant brother. But as she grew older and the taunts became more and more specific, Daisy had come to understand the truth.
Daisy’s mother was nothing to him.
A commoner from the sizeable and prosperous village surrounding Ellingholm, the new Duchess was young, beautiful, and a talented artisan. All who knew her readily overlooked her status due to her charm, warmth, and welcoming nature… all but Franklin, that is.
At her brother’s insistent goading, the Marquess of Barnroy sighed dramatically and looked Daisy over once again, turning his head this way and that as though appraising a painting he did not care for. He tapped his fingers against his chin thoughtfully.
“Well, I daresay she could be beautiful, if she would take a bath,” Jonathan teased. “At nineteen, she should certainly know how to make herself more appealing to the eye. I blame the mother.”
“We all do, never fear,” Franklin said, rolling his eyes. “But tell me, have you ever seen a daughter of a Duke—even a pretender such as this one—who goes about with bits of leaves stuck in her hair and mud along the hem of her gown?”
“I had to fetch the reeds from the riverbank, I told you that,” Daisy said in a low voice. “Mother needed a certain kind, and they only grow—”
“I’m far too exhausted from trying to turn you into a lady to even talk about your mother,” Franklin interrupted. “A Duchess who sits at her work without even thinking of how it calls shame upon the rest of us?”
“Shame?” Daisy said, standing up. “The only one who should feel shame is you. You’re a spoiled brat who wouldn’t know how to feed himself if someone didn’t come along and do it for him. My mother’s family has been weaving baskets and mats and all manner of items for hundreds of years. Their pieces fetch the best prices anywhere. People pay a ransom to get some of these. They are even given as gifts to new brides!”
“Brides who can’t afford so much as a tin pot to boil their water, perhaps,” Franklin said, turning to Jonathan and jabbing him with his elbow to elicit his laughter. Jonathan only chuckled thinly, then shook his head.
“Are we not getting too old for this sort of bickering?” Jonathan asked in a droning voice. “It was mildly amusing for the first ten years or so, but then it got rather tiresome. I grow increasingly bored of having to even think about your sister, let alone talk about her.”
“Make no mistake, I shall never grow weary of making sure she understands that she is nothing,” Jonathan replied, as though schooling his friend in an important subject. “You of all people should understand the importance of hierarchy. I am the son of a Duke, for example, and therefore, I shall one day be the Duke of Ellingholm. You are only a Marquess and therefore quite fortunate to have friends who are your betters.”
Ignoring the smirk Jonathan wore at Franklin’s insult, he continued with a scoff, “My half-sister here, though, is nothing more than the unfortunate result of an unthinkable occurrence. My father, in his grief, allowed a social climber to exit her hovel on the outskirts of the village and sink her claws into him, snaring his heart and his better judgment in some sort of trap. Therefore, ‘Daisy’—can you imagine any respectable family in the ton ever naming their child something so base?—must always be reminded that she is no one. If she is fortunate and if she ever learns to dress and act like a lady, perhaps she will snare some lowly baron in desperate need of her dowry in the same way her mother trapped my father.”
Jonathan only looked bored while Franklin glared at Daisy triumphantly.
“This is always the game, isn’t it?” Daisy asked quietly. “Two grown men, dressed up in their fanciest riding habits, stopping in their important work—wait, what was it the pair of you actually do again?—to torment me out of petty jealousy.”
“Jealous? You think either of us has an ounce of envy for someone such as you?” Franklin demanded. Even Jonathan looked at her in disbelief.
“I do,” she answered primly, reaching for another handful of fern fronds to wind into the wreath she was crafting. “I have a loving mother who has passed on not only a profitable skill, but who continues to show me such affection as a loving parent has for their child, each and every day. Your mother, Franklin, has sadly passed away and you have no one to treat you thus, as you have rejected my mother from the moment you first met her. Jonathan, while I do not know your family so well, I am aware that your father sadly passed away long ago. I well remember the day we were bowling when your governess came running to fetch you.”
Daisy paused to look at them both, feeling somewhat smug about their stunned silence. Franklin’s hurtful expression soon turned to a glare of anger, though Jonathan’s face was somewhat less readable.
“Come along, Pearson,” Jonathan said quietly. “We have better things to do than remain here.”
Daisy continued her weaving without ever taking her eyes off Franklin. He watched her angrily, walking backward until Jonathan spun him around with a forceful tug at his elbow. She knew from experience that her current triumph would be short-lived. Franklin would find some way to torment her again soon, and probably in a very humiliating way.
She was not wrong.
By dinner that evening, Daisy had almost let her guard down, but her senses were alerted once again when Franklin stood up from the table as she and her mother entered the dining room. He watched her with disdain when the Duke stood as well and came over to greet his wife warmly, kissing her on the cheek.
“My dear, I don’t know what sort of witchcraft you practice, but after all these years you still look as beautiful as ever,” the Duke said, taking her hand and leading her to her chair. He even held it out for her himself, ignoring the footman who came forward for the task. “And I care not what spirits you may have conjured to bless me with yet another child at our ages, but your expectant condition has left you absolutely radiant. Two children already and another on the way has left me the most fortunate man who ever lived.”
“There is no need of magic spells or potions when one is so gloriously in love,” the Duchess replied, looking up at her husband and beaming happily.
“And my sister as well,” Franklin said, darting comically around the table while mocking his father, “we mustn’t forget to dote on poor Daisy.”
Daisy watched him warily as she came closer to the spot where Franklin held her chair for her. She darted her eyes to her mother but saw that the Duchess looked overjoyed that her children were being kind to one another.
“Thank you, Franklin,” Daisy said quietly as she stepped in between her chair and the table.
As she moved to sit down, Daisy clutched the table in front of her. It was the only thing that prevented actual injury as she crashed to the floor, Franklin having pulled her chair back once again at the last moment.
“Franklin!” the Duke roared. “Apologize at once or leave the room!”
“Apologize? Because Daisy still cannot manage to learn her manners and sit down in a chair without falling like a clown in a traveling troupe?” Franklin asked, claiming ignorance of the disaster.
“I’m all right, Father,” Daisy said sweetly as she scrambled to her feet beneath the awkwardness of her gown. “I’m certain Franklin was merely overtaxed from trying to remember how to fasten the buttons on his coat. Remember, brother, the button goes through the hole, just like we’ve practiced.”
The Duke laughed at Daisy’s insult. “Very good, my girl. Brother or no, never permit any guff to go unanswered. Now, Franklin, apologize to your sister this instant.”
“Dearest Queen Daisy,” Franklin said, mocking her with a low-swept bow, “I am sincerely sorry for sending you to the floor,” he lowered his voice to a whisper before adding for only her to hear, “where you belong.”
“Might we all enjoy our dinner now?” the Duchess asked sweetly, in hopes of ending the unpleasant start to their evening. “Dearest, don’t we have important matters to discuss?”
“Quite right, my love,” the Duke replied with a smile as they settled in their chairs and the footmen came forward with water and to fill their plates. “Franklin, as you are to be married in a short time, we are all going to our estate in Clevedon for the summer.”
Franklin groaned as his shoulders sagged. “What is there to do in Clevedon but sit on a terrace and watch the ducks waddle past? Why can we not pass the time somewhere more interesting?”
“It is a good chance for you and your betrothed to get to know one another under the supervision of your families,” the Duchess replied.
Franklin did not look at her as he responded, “I already know Lexie, we’ve been play friends since we were children. Her parents practically saddled you with this arrangement while we were still in swaddling clothes.”
“Lady Alexandra,” the Duke corrected darkly, “is the daughter of my longtime friend and associate. You are very fortunate to have a bride such as she.”
“If one chooses to have friends who are so far beneath them, that is one’s choice,” Franklin replied smugly, “but one does not wed their children together simply because of this fondness.”
“Even though her father is an Earl, Lady Alexandra is certainly not beneath you,” the Duke answered. “If you will kindly remember you are not yet a Duke and while I still breathe, you are not titled at all. Should the child your mother carries be a son, you very well may not inherit at all. Do you understand my meaning?”
“My mother is dead,” Franklin reminded him placidly, “and no Duke would ever pass over his firstborn for his second wife’s child. The people of Ellingholm wouldn’t stand for it, either. The scandal would be too great.”
“I urge you not to test me on this, Franklin.” The Duke pinned his son back with a fierce glare, then his expression softened. “As such, you are marrying my friend’s daughter in a matter of weeks, and we shall all enjoy a pleasant excursion in the meantime. You may include your friend, the Marquess of Barnroy, if you wish. And you, Daisy, are of course free to invite a dear friend along as well, should you choose.”
“Daisy has no friends who could afford passage to Clevedon,” Franklin said, laughing suddenly. “And what would they wear at parties? Oh, that’s right. No need to worry as there are no parties since Clevedon is incredibly dull.”
“Franklin, that is quite enough from you,” the Duchess said coldly in a rare show of dominance. “You will not speak to my daughter that way, and for you to be so dismissive of your father’s brilliant plans for you is very poorly done.”
“Thank you, my dear, you are entirely correct,” the Duke said lightly. “Let us end this discussion and enjoy our dinners before Franklin ruins all our digestion with his complaining.”
“Mother? Are we not going to finish the garlands and boughs for the chapel?” Daisy asked as the Duchess began winding away the dried grapevines and flower blossoms they’d been using.
“Not at the moment,” her mother replied. “Lady Alexandra will be coming to call soon, and we don’t want her to see all of this disarray. We can finish several more later on today and then have all of them completed before we depart for Clevedon.”
Daisy fought back a curt reply at having been reminded of their upcoming journey. She held back an even stronger, more hateful remark about Lady Alexandra.
Daisy had endured a childhood spent largely with her brother and Jonathan, but from time to time, Lady Alexandra had popped in to enjoy the fun at Daisy’s expense. She’d longed to give the brat a sound thrashing on occasion, but her governess had already been overly alert to Daisy’s unladylike behaviors.
Still, where her small fists had not been able to leave their mark, Daisy’s wit had more often than not left its sting. She did not suffer the insults from her brother too well, but she was certainly not going to meekly tolerate them from those who had no cause to treat her thus.
“I’ll finish tidying up in here,” the Duchess said from the corner of the morning room where they often worked together, the Duchess teaching her daughter the most intricate braids and techniques that had been part of their ancestors’ legacy. “You’ll need to go and change your gown.”
“What’s wrong with my gown?” Daisy asked, looking down and brushing some leaves from the gauzy muslin overlay.
“You’ve gotten a few tears in the long skirts, likely from gathering sprigs of holly for me earlier,” her mother pointed out, looking down at the gown’s fabric appraisingly. “And there are some smudges along this side. If you place it in my bedchamber after you change, I’m sure I can sew those little holes back and you’ll never know they were there. Do hurry now.”
“Yes, Mother,” Daisy said, cursing her luck. Once again, her flower picking and general love of strolling through the meadows had damaged her garment. If only she could make it to her room to change before—
“Well, well. If it isn’t one of the scullery maids come to sweep the ashes from the fireplaces,” Franklin said as Daisy darted through the hallway. “Oh, how clumsy of me, it’s Queen Daisy. I had no idea it was you. Tell me, why are you disguised as a street urchin with all that soot on your face?”
“It’s not soot,” Daisy grumbled as she turned her back and kept walking. “I was only out walking, and—”
“And you fell into a pigsty?” Franklin finished. “That would explain where you spent the afternoon, visiting some of your relatives in the mud. Did you have tea or merely slop?”
“Stop it, Franklin!” Daisy shouted, whirling around angrily. She was momentarily delighted by the look of astonishment on her brother’s face, though it was fleeting.
“Stop what? Reminding you that you are nobody?” Franklin asked, glaring at her fiercely. “Never.”
“What are you even doing up here? Don’t you have a sow of your own to greet when she arrives?” Daisy asked smugly, attempting to look more certain of herself than she felt.
“I’ve been looking for my father’s mistress, but I’m afraid she’s likely as unpresentable as you at the moment,” Franklin said, eyeing Daisy’s gown again.
That was enough. Daisy grabbed a small pewter trinket box that stood next to a vase of flowers and hurled it as hard as she could at Franklin. It was only through sheer good fortune that he managed to duck out of the way at the last moment, letting the box crash into the wall behind him rather than full in his face.
“You could have injured me!” Franklin shouted.
“That was every bit my intention!” Daisy replied just as loudly. “You dare to refer to my mother, the Duchess of Ellingholm, in such an unthinkable way? I should tell Father of your remark and see if he still thinks so well of you!”
“My dears, what is going on out here?” Daisy’s mother inquired, a hint of reproach and concern in her voice.
Daisy blinked back tears of shame, glaring at her brother as though she dared him to repeat what he’d said about her mother. For his part, Franklin was silent, shaking his head slightly at Daisy in warning to keep quiet.
“Have you two not grown tired of this constant bickering yet? You are both much too old to still be speaking to one another in this manner,” the Duchess said sadly. “I would have hoped, for your own sakes, that you would put a stop to this madness and treat each other civilly.”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” Daisy said quietly, never taking her eyes off Franklin. Her expression dared him to remain quiet at this time.
“My apologies as well, Your Grace,” Franklin managed to sputter, though his loathing was evident in his tone.
“Franklin, your guest should arrive soon. Daisy and I will be downstairs in only a few moments,” the Duchess said, effectively dismissing her stepson.
Franklin grimaced but turned on his heel and left. Daisy waited until she was certain he was gone, then wept on her mother’s shoulder.
“But my dear! Whatever is the matter?” her mother said, patting her shoulder soothingly.
“You should have heard what he said of you,” Daisy said miserably. “How long must we suffer his hatefulness?”
“Oh, Daisy, my loving girl,” her mother said kindly, “I care not what he said about me. I know that he is a deeply pained young man. After all, his own mother is gone from him forever, and it is no surprise that he holds no kindness in his heart for the one who took her place.”
“But he said…” Daisy looked around and whispered, “He called you Father’s mistress.”
“Yes, that is not a new insult, I’m afraid,” she replied with a forced smile. “That sort of talk will follow any woman who has made others feel envy or disregard for her. I know the truth, and you know it as well. That is all we need concern ourselves with.”
“I simply do not understand how you can take his horrible treatment so placidly!” Daisy said, wanting her mother to feel the same outrage that she did.
“To what end?” the Duchess replied woefully. “Remember, should the day come that your father passes, your brother holds our fortunes in his greedy, vengeful hands. What do you think will become of us when he inherits all of this?”
“If that is true, then why show him any kindness at all? I dare not think it will cause him to be more generous, more loving,” Daisy argued.
“No, but I will leave this house knowing that I have done my utmost to be a good person, a good wife to the Duke, a good mother to him—or at least as good as he has permitted me to be,” her mother answered, smoothing back an unruly lock of Daisy’s dark blond hair. “I will then be able to hold my head up proudly with whatever meager sum I am allotted from my loving husband’s generosity.”
“Is that our fate then? To be so tormented by him like a fly hovering over a delectable tray of fruits, pecking at it until it becomes rotten?” Daisy shook her head angrily, clenching her fists to keep from crying out in her frustration.
“Well, now that you do bring it up,” the Duchess said, a hint of warning coloring her words, “that is why you must be very prudent about the subject of marrying.”
“Marrying?” Daisy cried out. “But I’m only a girl.”
“Nineteen is hardly only a girl, my dear, you should well know that,” her mother chided lovingly. “Many young ladies at your age are already happily wed, or at least considering an offer of betrothal. Should something happen to your father—who is not an old man, but not so young either—it would do my heart well to know that you would be cared for and not left to the mercy of a… well, never mind that.”
The Duchess smiled at Daisy and kissed her cheek tenderly. She brushed back her daughter’s hair and plucked a tiny leaf bud from one of the wispy curls that refused to be tamed. Holding it up in front of Daisy to inspect, she laughed.
“And perhaps a little less of this would be required,” the Duchess added. “I have always wanted to impart you with our ancestors’ craft, especially as it is always good to know a profitable skill, but I feel as though I have failed to create a young lady of you.”
“I have no use for young ladies if they cannot even gather flowers, create boughs for the festival, or weave the most serviceable of baskets,” Daisy said proudly, watching her mother with adoration. “If I were ever to be in charge of anything important in this world, I would require it of all children of every household.”
“That’s my strong girl,” her mother said, kissing her on the cheek again before adding, “but you must go get ready now. Our guests shall arrive soon and it would not behoove us to slight them by not being present when they get here. I’ll send for Beatrice to help you.”
“Yes, Mother,” Daisy replied, only halfheartedly succeeding in sounding enthused.
In her bedchamber, Daisy groused to herself as she slumped in a chair while waiting for her lady’s maid. Her mother’s admonishment had been sobering, to say the least. Though she had often wondered why Franklin was permitted to be so insufferable, it had never occurred to her that he would one day have both hers and her mother’s fates in his grasp.
“Good day, Lady Daisy,” Beatrice said quickly after she was bade to enter. “Let’s get you all cleaned up then.”
She set down a fresh pitcher of water she’d brought for Daisy to wash with at the basin, then unfastened Daisy’s gown. She unpinned Daisy’s hair next and brushed it until it shone, then swept it up quickly for her to wash and change.
“There now, My Lady. You look as lovely as ever,” Beatrice said when they were finished. “What a delight to have those beautiful locks and those stunning eyes.”
Daisy had to laugh. Her lady’s maid was only a few years older, and she had been a housemaid before rising to this position when Daisy came of age to need help dressing and appearing stylishly appointed. More like a beloved older sister, Daisy knew their friendship was uncommonly done among their peers, but she cared not for standing on ceremony.
“Thank you, Beatrice. I don’t know that I agree though. Eyes the color of pond water as Jonathan said to me only recently,” Daisy reminded her, frowning deeply.
“Pay him no mind, My Lady, you are a beautiful young lady,” Beatrice assured her with a firm nod. “Besides, I rather think comments such as those—even ones that appear to be borne out of a lack of good manners—are a sign of something much deeper… of affection and admiration.”
“You think that Lord Barnroy fancies me? That is a laugh!” Daisy answered. “I might count upon the fingers of only one hand the number of times he has walked past me without some snide remark or rude comment.”
“What better way to mask his true feelings then, hmm?” Beatrice said, grinning devilishly. “But you must hurry now, My Lady. I’ll take this gown to be laundered.”
“Oh wait, my mother said she might repair it first. Will you take it to her room? And do tell her I’m coming,” Daisy said, stopping the maid from taking the gown away.
“Of course, My Lady,” Beatrice answered before closing the door, leaving Daisy to think on this new impossible notion.
She thinks that awful friend of Franklin’s might fancy me? Ridiculous! Daisy decided, shaking her head. And even if he did, I’d sooner marry one of those frogs from the pond.
Jonathan readied himself at the glass, adjusting the layers of fabric that felt as though they were cinching his throat tighter and tighter. He winced, tugging at the shirt and pulling it away from his chest in irritation.
“Whoever created these damnable clothes should be dragged behind my horse until they plead for their life!” he called out. His valet only looked down and pretended to cough to cover his amusement, prompting Jonathan to turn on him with a smirk. “Oh, my suffering is enjoyable, is it, Mr. Scott?”
“Not at all, My Lord,” the valet answered, still trying not to laugh aloud.
“Go ahead and laugh, it is rather ridiculous,” Jonathan moaned in defeat. “Answer me this, though. Why is it that a lowly farmer can go about in the comfort of a lovingly crafted linen tunic and woolen breeches, yet my reward for being a peer is that I must dress as though I fell off of a lacemaker’s work table?”
“I suppose it is meant to be a mark of your station, My Lord,” Mr. Scott answered helpfully.
“A mark of how pointlessly useless we are, you mean. It’s all right, you are most likely thinking it, so you might as well give voice to it,” Jonathan said, causing the servant to fidget nervously. “My apologies, Mr. Scott, I am only in a foul temper at the moment. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Very good, My Lord,” he answered, though his voice was somewhat subdued. “Is it a matter of your travel preparations? I could seek some of the footmen to help me prepare, if need be.”
“Oh no, the preparations are fine,” Jonathan assured him, taking pains to mind the sharpness of his tone. “In truth, and I should not divulge this even to you, I have no wish to travel.”
“Oh? Are you feeling ill, My Lord?” Mr. Scott asked in alarm.
“No, I’m just… I’m feeling rather weary of Lord Franklin, to be honest,” Jonathan said, turning back to the looking glass and attempting to stare some resolve into the wretched cravat. He finally untied it entirely with a jerk of the thin cloth and began redoing it in a more satisfactory manner. “I find that, though we’ve been friends since before either of us were able to utter our first words, he’s done nothing but sneer with disdain ever since he began to speak.”
Behind Jonathan’s back, Mr. Scott looked away, clearly ill at ease with being privy to such private thoughts on another man. Jonathan watched him in the glass and was actually pleased with the valet’s discomforted expression, knowing that these statements would not be revealed to anyone else.
“If I’m to spend several weeks in Clevedon, would that I could at least spend them walking along the sea and enjoying the salt air,” Jonathan continued, finally getting the layers of fabric to lie somewhat flat and stop brushing against his jaw. “Instead, I’m certain we’re to be shut up indoors, staring at one another and making conversation about the weather outside. At least when we’re not irritating one another to the point of reaching for our dueling pistols.”
“Could My Lord not make his excuses and avoid the journey?” Mr. Scott offered helpfully.
Jonathan shook his head. “Would that I could, but I would never hear the end of it. Besides, with no one else there to temper Lord Franklin’s manner, there’s no telling what might occur. In any event, I’m certain I’m only being invited along so that sister of his has someone to escort her places.”
“I beg your pardon, My Lord, I don’t think I know his sister,” Mr. Scott said quietly.
Remembering that Mr. Scott was new to the house, Jonathan explained, “Yes, Lord Franklin has a sister, a product of his father’s marriage to the Duke’s second wife. She’s a tolerable enough creature, but Franklin despises her for some unfathomable reason,” Jonathan added as he turned and began holding up different garments, setting them aside to go into his trunks. “I don’t know that I’ve ever directly asked her more than three questions in all our lives, though it is fun to goad the thing into a fury. Most girls would simper and run for their governesses at the slightest insult, but not that one. She would just as soon plant her feet and ball her fists, preparing to exchange blows with anyone who insults her.”
“Reminds me of my own sister then,” Mr. Scott said with finality, being courteous without forgetting his place.
“I suppose it is not entirely her fault,” Jonathan continued before glancing at the valet. “She is likely the product of poor breeding.”
“Oh?” Mr. Scott asked nervously, his cheeks coloring slightly beneath his red hair.
“Yes. Her mother was hardly a suitable or prosperous match for the Duke. There has long been talk even that perhaps she knew the Duke while his first wife was still alive.” Jonathan raised an eyebrow pointedly, and the valet looked even more uncomfortable.
Before Mr. Scott could inch his way to the door to see if there were any footmen without to help pack the trunks, Jonathan waved his hand as though dismissing the rumor entirely.
“But much of that sordid talk has originated with Lord Franklin himself, so I’m not certain how much stock one should put in it. Besides, even if it were so, the Duke would hardly be the first man who married for a good match then dallied for love. He secured an heir from within the bounds of consecrated marriage to the daughter of a nobleman—what would I care what else he does to bring himself happiness so long as there’s no scandal? He does truly seem to love the Duchess, so it’s not for me to say.”
“Quite right, My Lord,” Mr. Scott said firmly. “If you don’t need anything else, I shall go and see if the footmen are ready to begin moving some of these items to the carriage.”
“Of course, Mr. Scott. I won’t be long.” Jonathan took one last look at his cravat and scowled, but at last he left well enough alone.
“Your Grace, may I announce the arrival of Lady Alexandra Finch,” Mr. Golding, the butler, said as the Duchess of Ellingholm and Daisy stood to greet her.
“Lady Alexandra, welcome,” the Duchess said warmly as she nodded her head in greeting. Beside her, Daisy curtseyed only slightly, all too painfully aware of who Lady Alexandra was.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Lady Alexandra said stiffly, her hands folded in front of her as she curtseyed to her future mother-in-law.
“It has been a long time since you’ve visited us,” the Duchess continued. “You have always been a lovely girl, but I see you have grown into a beautiful young lady.”
“You are too kind, Your Grace,” Lady Alexandra answered without so much as a shadow of a smile on her face.
“Shall we sit?” Daisy’s mother said before turning to the butler and saying, “Golding, will you tell them we are ready for tea?”
“It would be my pleasure, Your Grace,” the butler said before bowing and leaving the drawing room.
Daisy sat first, watching her brother’s future wife out of the corner of her eye. She did not like the pinched expression the young lady wore, which gave her the appearance of having just smelled something unpleasant. The newcomer sat perched on the edge of the sofa on the other side of a low table, her posture erect and her head held high.
“Well then,” the Duchess began as though she did not quite know what to say, “I am so looking forward to our travels together to Clevedon. Have you ever visited the sea before?”
“Not there, Your Grace,” Lady Alexandra replied languidly. “I’ve only been to my family’s home on the more fashionable Brighton side.”
Daisy bristled at the veiled insult in their guest’s response, but she did not speak up. To do so would bring shame to her mother and would have little effect on Lady Alexandra.
“Daisy, weren’t you telling me recently how eager you were to return to our home in the countryside?” her mother asked, silently pleading for her daughter’s help in the conversation.
“Oh yes!” Daisy answered a little too brightly. “The hills behind the house are lovely for riding, and the most beautiful birds nest there each summer to enjoy the cool air from the sea.”
“Hmmm,” Lady Alexandra replied, looking around the room.
“And… and then there are the whales that we can sometimes see from the top floor windows,” Daisy added eagerly after a look of desperation from the Duchess.
“Whales?” Lady Alexandra asked, taken aback and appearing somewhat repulsed. “Do they not carry quite a horrid stench?”
“I suppose there might be some that find the seashore to be a different sort of environment,” Daisy answered slowly, her gaze quickly becoming a glare of contempt. “I find that trying new things and having new experiences makes one a more interesting person instead of a dullard who only discusses gossip and the weather.”
The Duchess nudged her daughter’s knee with her own without ever taking her eyes off of their guest, her hospitable smile fixed in place and unmoving.
“In any event,” Daisy’s mother said, “we shall depart in the morning. I’m certain you will have a lovely visit, and I am looking forward to getting to know you much better. I also anticipate many wonderful visits with your parents when they should come to see us.”
The rest of the afternoon passed in dull chatter about unimportant things. Daisy could not help but think that Lady Alexandra was casting mean glares in her direction since she did little to hide her sense of superiority over both Daisy and her mother.
I cannot believe it, but I must take Franklin’s side in this, Daisy thought after watching Lady Alexandra inspect her teacup as though looking for dirt, even going so far as to hold it up to the light from the window and squint at it before scratching at some invisible speck with her fingernail. But she is insufferable! How dare she sit in judgment over a Duchess’ fare for tea when she is but a lowly…
No. That would never do, and Daisy knew it. The last thing she wanted was to upset her mother or embarrass her father. After all, Lady Alexandra was the only child of the Duke’s closest school friend.
There had been a time when Daisy fancied something of a friendship developing between herself and this petulant young lady. True, it had been years ago when they were both still taken with dolls and playing at tea. But Lady Alexandra had not only outgrown Daisy far too soon due to the difference in their ages, but she had also grown tired of Daisy’s idea of fun pastimes.
It cannot be helped that she is too fearful of snakes to play in the woods, Daisy remembered thinking on that fateful day when Daisy had brought Lady Alexandra a harmless green garden snake, no bigger around than her forefinger and no longer than her little arm.
“Your sister is a witch!” Lady Alexandra had screamed as she’d hidden behind Franklin and Jonathan after running screaming from the wood. “She’s conjured serpents and is trying to get them to bite me!”
For his part, Jonathan had laughed at Lady Alexandra’s tiny, tear-stained face. Franklin, however, had been furious, if only because he, too, was afraid of the creatures. Still, he’d managed to gather up the courage to grab the little snake from Daisy’s hands and stuff it down the back of her gown, laughing at her hatefully when she cried while trying to free the animal.
“Isn’t that right, Daisy?” her mother said a little more loudly, jarring Daisy back to the present. “I said, it will be a lovely journey by carriage, only a few hours with several stops along the way in some very picturesque villages.”
“Oh, quite right, Mother,” Daisy agreed a little too forcefully, embarrassed at having been caught daydreaming about such unpleasant memories.
“Harrumph,” Lady Alexandra snorted, very clearly disbelieving both of them. She stood to go and curtseyed hurriedly. “I must take my leave now as I still have much to pack.”
“Shall we send a carriage for your belongings?” the Duchess asked, rising as well.
“No, Father will send my things on ahead. I would hate for anything to happen to them,” she said with a hint of derision. “Good day, Your Grace. Lady Daisy.”
When the door had closed behind Lady Alexandra, Daisy and her mother both breathed a sigh of relief, though for very different reasons. The Duchess turned to her daughter and smiled weakly.
“Well, at least that part is over with,” she said optimistically. “Now that we’ve caught up with one another, perhaps our visit will be all the more pleasant.”
Daisy looked at her mother with an air of disbelief, but she did not argue. If there was one thing Daisy could be certain of, it was that her brother and Lady Alexandra were perfectly matched for one another… in both cruelty and scorn for everyone else.
“This shall be a very long summer, I’m afraid,” Daisy finally said, averting her eyes to avoid the look of disappointment on her mother’s face. “I shall strive to make it a pleasant one, but I cannot help but feel that something terrible is bound to happen.”
“Oh? What has brought this on?” the Duchess asked with great concern, and for a moment, Daisy regretted saying anything that gave her mother the impression this was some portentous sort of vision.
“No, no, nothing like that,” Daisy insisted, shaking her head. “It is only a bad feeling, nothing more. But it is one that I cannot help but believe rings true.”
In a day’s time, the entire party was to set off. To Daisy, it was a magical affair filled with lots of preparation and packing, but also much fun and laughter. As many of the servants would also make the journey to Clevedon, there was chaos throughout the house as everyone readied themselves.
And Daisy loved it.
“But what’s all this?” Daisy asked the housekeeper, Mrs. Flemming, as the woman carried a pile of linens toward the waiting wagon.
“It is the linens for Lord Franklin’s bed,” the woman replied sternly, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand after handing them off to another servant to be loaded.
“There are linens at the country home,” Daisy said with a perplexed frown.
“Yes, but Lord Franklin prefers these linens. He bade me make sure they were sent along so that he might rest at night.” The housekeeper smiled knowingly, and Daisy rolled her eyes at her brother’s rather particular ways.
“Poor Mrs. Flemming, I do wish you were coming with us. Who will look after us the way you do?” Daisy asked, a pleading look in her eye. “And what will you do here without us to care for?”
“I know precisely what I shall do,” the woman said, leaning close and beckoning Daisy toward her so that she might share the secret. “I shall sit about all day with my feet up, eating chocolates and reading novels!”
Daisy laughed devilishly. “I hope you do. But I promise to send a boy on ahead of us to the house before we return so that you might be warned.”
“Thank you, my dear,” Mrs. Flemming said, returning Daisy’s infectious laugh. “You’ve long been my favorite. I shall go and tell Cook to pack up some extra sweets for you in the hamper.”
The old woman patted Daisy’s hand before returning inside to fetch more items for the wagon, leaving Daisy to watch after her happily. Mrs. Flemming was more like a kindly old neighbor than the housekeeper, though she ran a very tight ship with her charge of the servants. For the first time, a worrisome new thought struck Daisy.
“What if there is no one in Clevedon to be my ally?” she muttered beneath her breath.
Her mind raced with memories of all the times she’d run to hide from Franklin and Jonathan—and even on occasion, Lady Alexandra—by scurrying behind Mrs. Flemming and permitting her to chastise the boys as much as she was able. More often than not, Daisy had avoided all danger by seeking out Mrs. Flemming or the Cook before any trouble could begin, choosing to spend more than a few rainy days sitting near their elbows as they polished silver or kneaded bread.
One awful memory struck Daisy at this very odd moment, the day she’d gone to Mrs. Flemming in tears at a horrible thing Lady Alexandra had said.
“You mustn’t call me Lexie anymore,” the girl, barely twelve years old, had told her haughtily. “You must always refer to me as Lady Alexandra, Daisy.”
“But why? I’ve always called you Lexie,” Daisy had argued hotly, putting her hands on her hips and glaring as fiercely as any girl of ten could.
“I don’t know,” she had replied. “Only that Mother says it is not fitting.”
“That can’t be right. If you call me Daisy and not Lady Daisy, then I shall call you Lexie. Besides, my father is a Duke and your father is but an Earl. Even the governess has said that a Duke is more prom-pro-prominent.”
“But Mother says your father is not the Duke,” Lady Alexandra had explained casually, her words hateful even if her tone at the time had not carried any malice. “Your father is some other man, no one knows who.”
“You take that back at once or I shall thrash you and throw you in the river!” Daisy had snarled, but Lady Alexandra had only turned up her nose and walked away to find some other amusement.
Tears streaming down her face, Daisy had run to the kitchen only to be swept up into the tender embrace of first the Cook—who’d filled her pockets with sweet biscuits—and then Mrs. Flemming, who’d dried her tears with her own handkerchief and bade her tell her what was the matter.
After Daisy had let the story pour forth, Mrs. Flemming had lifted her to sit on the table in the kitchen and pulled over the chair that Cook used when she peeled potatoes. She’d sat down so that her eyes bored directly into Daisy’s with earnest.
“Now, young lady, you must listen to my words very carefully,” the old woman had begun in the most serious tone Daisy had ever heard. It had caused her tears to cease at once, just from the wonderment of the housekeeper’s stern voice. “I will tell you something that I should not because it is not my place. But the very fact that I would tell you these things means you may know they are fully true. Only you must never let on that I’ve told you this. Promise?”
“I promise,” Daisy had vowed solemnly, nodding her head until her mussy curls had fallen into her eyes.
“I have served this family since I was but a housemaid, back when your own grandfather was the Duke,” Mrs. Flemming had begun. “It was back even before I was a married woman myself, back when I was known only as Rose. See there? We are both named for beautiful flowers.”
Daisy had smiled with pride and relief at their secret connection, and Mrs. Flemming continued.
“So, I knew the former Duchess of Ellingholm, and it was a mighty sad thing when she passed. The Duke did grieve heartily, and after a respectable time had passed, he was out of mourning and back about his business over the village. But when he met your mother while inspecting the fields and the industries, he was at once a different man. There was more life in him, more joy in him. Though to be sure, it was unusual that he married only a year after his wife’s passing, but once the dead are gone they can do nothing more for us, I always say. And besides, the Duke had a young son to think of. A boy needs a mother, after all.”
“Do you mean my mother?” Daisy had asked innocently, and Mrs. Flemming had nodded.
“Yes, the most beautiful woman this village did ever see,” the housekeeper had said fondly. “They were wed and, little Daisy, it was months before there was joyful news that Her Grace was with child.”
Mrs. Flemming had paused and cast a questioning glance to the Cook, who only shrugged her shoulders. The housekeeper sighed and continued.
“I don’t know if you’ve thought about how long a woman must carry her baby before it is born, but you, my favorite little imp, simply could not wait to be born,” Mrs. Flemming had said before tickling Daisy until she giggled. “You came too early, so soon that we were very fearful you might not live.”
“I did? Why would I do that?” Daisy had asked, and both women had laughed at her question.
“I don’t know the answer myself,” the Cook had said before pointing across the wide kitchen. “I only know that it was the dead of winter and the dark of night. They woke me from my bed and bade me stoke up the fires. The whole house was awake and running like chickens! I boiled enough water to turn the countryside into a lake, and then they did the darnedest thing… they put you in the oven!”
“What?” Daisy had cried out, wide-eyed in fear.
“Yes,” Mrs. Flemming had explained. “They put you in one of Cook’s roasting pans like you were a Christmas goose, all wrapped in swaddling, and put you in the oven to get you warm. We all took turns standing at your side through the night, sticking our hands in to be sure it wasn’t too hot.”
Daisy had been silenced by the story, in awe of the dramatic tale of her birth. She frowned then, and had asked, “Then why did Lex—Lady Alexandra say the Duke was not my father?”
“Because there are some people who would rather think of counting upon their fingers than that a man of the Duke’s age could fall in love with a woman as young and lovely as your mother,” Mrs. Flemming had answered quietly. “Your mother is the finest woman I’ve ever known, and it is a delight to serve in her household. Never you mind what that little girl said, as she does not matter. Now that you know the truth, you ignore her remarks or any others that some will cast your way. And remember… our secret.”
“But why is it a secret?” Daisy had wondered aloud.
“Because it is not my story to tell,” the housekeeper had replied, embracing Daisy once again then setting her down from the table. “I am but the housekeeper, not a member of the family.”
“I wish you were my family too,” Daisy had said. “You and Cook and all of us together!”
“You are the dearest little girl who ever lived—even if you almost didn’t!” Mrs. Flemming had smiled and patted Daisy’s pockets. “You have enough sweets? Good. Then run along and play, and pay no mind to what anyone else says when they only wish to hurt you.”
Daisy was jolted from the memory of that wonderful day by the sound of horses pulling a carriage around the drive to the house. She looked on in consternation as the carriage rolled to a stop and a footman darted forward to open the door, permitting Jonathan to descend.
“I see your trunks are all packed,” Daisy said as he strode closer. “Are you going on a journey?”
“If you can call Clevedon a journey, then I suppose yes,” he answered darkly as he came past.
“Clevedon? You’re going with us?” Daisy had demanded with a sinking feeling in her stomach. “But why?”
She couldn’t be sure she heard the Marquess correctly, but he muttered something under his breath as he strode into the house, something that sounded very much like, “Damned if I know.”
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