Amelia looked around at the frustrated shout. It was likely her mother, who never wanted her wandering off to do her own thing. She would prefer her daughters to sit down and do what proper ladies should partake in. It was annoying; Amelia just wanted to be left alone for a little bit.
Besides, she was in the middle of planting the new seeds in the herb garden. They weren’t going to do it themselves, and Amelia had made a deal with the gardeners that she would look after the herb garden on her own if she were at home. Once she was done, Amelia would go back inside and endure the frustration of needlework with her sister.
Her mother knew what she was doing, so why did she have to come by and bother her?
Returning to what she was doing, Amelia planted and covered the seeds. The garden was flourishing, and it had been coming along nicely. The smells that came off the various things she had looked after were a delicious aroma that filled her head. It was enough to clear her sinuses most days. The mint was her favourite smell, and Amelia often rubbed the leaves as she went past just to smell her fingers and feel it linger there. This was a place where Amelia felt at home.
If only she could stay here for longer. With the clouds gathering and darkening at every passing moment, though, it appeared that she would not get what she wanted. Just a few more minutes if she wasn’t interrupted …
Then, the Duchess of Harrowsfield rounded the greenhouse, stopping when she saw Amelia on her knees by the flower bed.
“Amelia! What on earth …?”
“I’m just planting some new herbs, Mother.” Amelia put the trowel aside and picked up the watering can. “I’m just going to water, and then I’ll be inside once I’ve cleared up.”
“Honestly!” Lady Harrowsfield harrumphed. “Just look at the mess you’ve made! This is not the way a lady should look or behave!”
“What?” Amelia looked down at herself. “I’ve not made a mess. This is actually quite tidy compared to what I normally do.”
“But look at your dress! It’s covered in mud.”
“Oh.” Amelia brushed it off. “That’s soil, not mud. It’ll brush off easily.”
“Easily? I have never seen you in such a state.” Lady Harrowsfield shook her head in disapproval. “You really shouldn’t be doing this. Leave it to the gardeners to look after the plants. They’re mostly just weeds, after all.”
“They’re not just weeds, Mother!” Amelia protested.
Lady Harrowsfield rolled her eyes and turned away.
“Just get back into the house and change. I don’t want to see how much of a state you’re in. You look like you’ve been rolling around in the fields.”
“What’s wrong with horticulture, Mother? Why do you hate it so much?”
“Ladies are supposed to look at the garden, not actually stand in the middle of it looking like one of the helps.”
Amelia bit back a growl. She could protest all she wanted with her mother, but the duchess wasn’t going to listen. She had her own beat to her drum, and she was not about to compromise for anyone else.
“I’ll be in shortly, Mother,” she said tightly. “I won’t forget.”
“You’d better not; otherwise, I’ll be having a word with the gardeners about banning you from doing anything in the garden.” Lady Harrowsfield shook her head as she stormed away. “Maybe I should do that. At least you would remember how to behave like a proper lady if you were actually listening.”
Amelia glared at her retreating back. Honestly, the woman was insufferable. She could understand where her mother was coming from, but she took it to another level, which was so frustrating. Amelia didn’t want to deal with any of that. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much she could do. It was just how things were for members of the ton, especially when your parents had a higher social standing and a title like duke.
There were days when Amelia wished that she weren’t the daughter of a duke. The pressures on her and her little sister were far too much. If only she were a lesser noblewoman, she could pursue her passions without her mother breathing down her neck.
Watering the newly laid seeds, Amelia got up and dusted herself down. Her dress had some smudges where her knees were from kneeling for so long, but everything else came off without a problem. She would have to change, but her mother would be less impressed when she saw the dirt ingrained into the skirt.
Oh, well. That was a price to pay. At least it could be washed and not thrown out.
Tidying up her space, Amelia swept the path so it was clean and then made her way through the vast garden towards the house. On the way, she passed the head gardener while he tended to the rose bush. He looked up and touched his fingers to his cap.
“Barker.” Amelia smiled at him. “The seeds have been planted now. I’ve left it tidy, so you don’t need to worry about clearing up.”
“Thank you, My Lady.” Barker sighed. “Lady Harrowsfield was not happy when she realized where you were. I tried to play dumb, but she didn’t believe me.”
“It’s fine. She’s never happy with anything I do, even when I’m doing as she wants.” Amelia shrugged. “It’s just something I have to deal with. She wasn’t harsh on you, was she?”
“No, but … I do get nervous. She’s intimidating when she wants to be.” Barker hurried on: “I don’t want to speak out of turn …”
“I know what you mean. Don’t worry, I won’t say a word.” Amelia gave him a wave as she walked past him. “I’ve got to get moving. Take care.”
“Thank you, My Lady.”
Amelia headed into the house and made her way up to her bedchamber via the servants’ stairs. She didn’t want to go up the main staircase and risk bumping into her mother again. If Lady Harrowsfield saw her dress, she would certainly be very upset. Besides, climbing the stairs the servants used was quicker, seeing as it was close to her room.
Ducking into her bedchamber, Amelia saw that her sunflower-yellow dress was laid out on the bed while her maid Catherine was folding the laundry, ready to be put away. She looked up and smiled at Amelia.
“I thought you might need a change of clothing, My Lady, so I have a gown ready for you.”
“Thank you, Catherine. I appreciate it.” Amelia sighed as she shut the door. “Mother’s already caught me. I don’t think she’ll be too happy to see the state of me now.”
“You don’t look that bad. It’s not like you’ve been rolling around in mud all day.”
“You make me sound like one of the pigs on the neighboring farm.” Amelia laughed, crossing the room to the bed. “I’m just planting seeds, not falling flat on my face.”
“Well, you do come back smelling nice, and the herbs you give us to use in the washing really help.” Catherine patted a pocket in her apron. “And thank you for giving me the peppermint. A bit in my tea when I’m nursing a headache, and it clears up wonderfully.”
“I’m glad I could help. If you need anything else, just let me know.” Amelia kicked off her slippers. “I like to help as much as I can.”
“I thought the servants were supposed to serve the nobility, not the other way around.”
“But I’m not most people, am I?”
Catherine’s expression warmed. The pair had a close bond, Catherine having been Amelia’s maid since she was thirteen and Amelia was fifteen. She was young but very shrewd and bright. Amelia loved talking to Catherine about pretty much anything whenever they were getting ready; her maid’s insights were very wise and levelheaded, something Amelia needed when she was consistently frustrated.
There were times when Amelia wished she could switch places with her maid. Despite her lowly background, Catherine would be able to cope far better than she could.
“Right,” Catherine said briskly as she joined Amelia, “let’s get you changed. Your mother has already come up here looking for you, and I’m sure she’ll be on her way shortly if you dawdle.”
“She needs to slow down and realize that we don’t always follow her tune. She can’t mould Cecilia and me into what she wants.”
“But she is a duchess,” Catherine reminded her. “Her words carry a lot of weight.”
That was true enough. Although Amelia had a feeling she had a lot of pressure on her shoulders because she was the healthy one. Cecilia had contracted influenza a year before, just months into having their first Season, and it was bad enough that they had needed to withdraw from London to their family estate in Teddington. They were close to London but far enough away that they wouldn’t get bothered. Cecilia was better than she had been eight months ago but was still not back to full strength. Of course, Lady Harrowsfield would hover around her and worry over her younger daughter, and Amelia didn’t blame her for that.
She just wished that her mother would ease off on making sure she was the perfect duke’s daughter. It was going to get overwhelming sooner or later.
It didn’t take long to get changed and downstairs to join her mother in the orangery. Lady Harrowsfield was sitting in her usual chair with an open book in her hands while Cecilia was sitting in a patch of dwindling sunlight, the light flickering through the glass as the sun disappeared behind a cloud. Aunt Temperance was also there, sitting in the corner of the room at her writing desk, her head bent as she scribbled something into her diary.
Nodding at her mother and smiling at her sister, Amelia went over to Aunt Temperance and placed her hands on her shoulders. The middle-aged spinster looked up and smiled at her niece, brushing her graying hair out of her eyes.
“Amelia, dear. Did you get all of those seeds planted?”
“I did. Although I don’t think there was a point to watering them, seeing as we’re about to have the heavens open any moment now.”
“Well, at least you did it. We might be lucky and not have any rain, just the threat.”
That was when they heard the pitter-patter of raindrops on the glass roof. They looked up and saw the drops turn into many droplets as the heavens really did open. Aunt Temperance sighed.
“Oh, well. At least the aromas coming from the garden will be exquisite when we get back out there.”
A sniff of derision from Lady Harrowsfield had both of them looking over at the duchess, who was frowning in disapproval at Aunt Temperance.
“Would you kindly not distract Amelia from what she’s supposed to be doing, Temperance? Amelia’s already neglected her duties today.”
“It’s just a conversation, Eleanor,” Aunt Temperance said smoothly, not seeming at all bothered. “I’m sure you know that we need to converse with all types of people once we go back out into Society.”
Her younger sister’s eyes narrowed. Amelia had often wondered how the pair were even related. Temperance Brennan was laid-back and warm-hearted, brilliant but a little scatterbrained. Eleanor Hartwood was more composed and wanted things to be just so. She undoubtedly loved her husband and daughters, but duty was above love, and it showed. Amelia wished she could take a deep breath and realize that duty wouldn’t make everyone happy, not in the long term.
Seeing that the two were going to start squabbling, Amelia hurried over to her chair and picked up the needlework she had been working on the day before.
“I like the sound of the rain,” she said as she took a seat beside Cecilia. “It’s very soothing.”
“It is a little bit loud in here,” Cecilia pointed out, glancing up at the roof. “It feels like my ears are ringing.”
“I’m sure it will be fine after a while,” Amelia assured her. “It is cooler in here when it rains, which certainly helps.”
Her younger sister smiled, squeezing Amelia’s fingers before she pulled back and continued with her embroidery. The four of them were silent for a while as they continued their work. Aunt Temperance muttered a little under her breath, but she was so engrossed with what she was doing that Amelia didn’t want to bother her. Lady Harrowsfield was reading, her shoulders pulled back and her back straight as she turned the pages. How she didn’t get a sore back from that, Amelia had no idea; hers hurt if she did that for more than a couple of minutes.
Cecilia worked diligently on her needlework. She was really deft with a needle and incredibly creative. It was fascinating to watch her work, but Amelia knew she couldn’t ignore that she was supposed to be doing something herself. She was not good at needlework at all. She could sew a hole closed and darn socks, but when it came to something creative, that was just not happening. Amelia couldn’t do anything close to what her sister did, but her mother said she had to work on it, which was really annoying. Why couldn’t she do what she wanted?
But that wasn’t the point. She and Cecilia had to carry on their lessons to becoming proper young ladies. They had only been in Society for a couple of months before Cecilia was dangerously ill, and eight months later, they were still at their estate. Just because they weren’t in London didn’t mean they had to ignore their lessons.
Amelia didn’t mind that. She had found that she wasn’t keen on being in big groups with so many people talking at her and judging her for what she was doing. Being on their estate without the pressures of being perfect was far better for her.
Cecilia had been coping fine before she fell ill. If anyone were able to cope with Society, it would be her. Amelia had seen how she behaved in mixed company, and it would be more than enough to make their mother proud. But now Lady Harrowsfield was concerned about her younger daughter leaving the estate without her. She had talked about getting them back into Society, but Amelia could tell that she was concerned about how her daughter would be able to cope when her strength wasn’t as it was.
They were going back soon, and Amelia wasn’t looking forward to it. Anything to be reminded of the fact she and her sister needed to find respectable husbands, which was easier said than done with the gentlemen she had encountered in the short time in London’s Society. It was shocking at how disrespectful they had been despite trying to impress and charm her and Cecilia. Even her sister had rolled her eyes at their attempts to look good, only to succeed in falling flat on their faces.
There had to be some good gentlemen out there, but Amelia wasn’t interested in finding them. People in Society were constantly looking for ways to better themselves, including advantageous marriages. People could seduce others so they could marry into a better family and gain a better status for themselves. Sure, love matches did happen – her parents were an example of that despite her mother’s attitudes – but they seemed to be rare. Aunt Temperance had talked about love and being happy as the things important in a marriage, and if the status of the other person and their money were at the forefront, then it was not a worthy marriage.
Amelia wanted that for herself. But she had plenty of time. She was only twenty, after all. Didn’t she have enough time to find someone who could be meaningful to her?
“So, this is where everyone is hiding, is it?”
The deep voice was followed by the tall, broad-shouldered shape of the Duke of Harrowsfield coming into the orangery. Cecilia beamed when she saw her father, and Amelia jumped up immediately. That only resulted in her needle digging into her hand, and she muttered a curse. Lady Harrowsfield frowned at her.
“You really need to watch your language, Amelia,” she warned.
“Don’t be hard on her, Eleanor. Nobody’s here to hear that.” Harrowsfield kissed her forehead, which softened his wife’s features for a moment, and he approached his eldest daughter. “You’re certainly happy to see me.”
“I’m always happy to see you.” Amelia hugged him. “How are Uncle William and Aunt Patience? Are they well?”
“They’re doing really well. I don’t think I’ve seen them happier.” Harrowsfield kissed Cecilia’s head and nodded at Aunt Temperance. “They sent their greetings, Temperance. Patience thanks you for the lavender pillows. It’s been helping her sleep at night.”
Behind his back, Lady Harrowsfield scowled. Aunt Temperance beamed.
“I’m glad your sister likes them. Anything to help.”
The duke’s expression was warm as he straightened up. Amelia felt the warmth from her father’s gaze as he looked at all of them. While she was frustrated that her mother was pushing for her to be a consummate lady, she felt great affection for her father. He was a bit more laid-back, not pushing anyone into anything if there was no need. And he spent a good deal of time with his daughters. Cecilia’s face certainly lit up when she saw the duke. Plus, Harrowsfield was really kind to his sister-in-law, who had come to live with them ten years before. She had her own quarters, but she spent a lot of her time with her nieces. He looked out for her as well as his immediate family.
If she could find a man who had the same compassion and kindness as her father, Amelia knew she would be happy.
“I apologize for interrupting such a … diligent lesson …” Harrowsfield was fighting back a smile as he caught Amelia’s eye. “But I have a surprise for you. I think you’ll like it.”
“What is it?” Cecilia asked. “Is it a present?”
“Sort of. It’s not one you can unwrap, though.” Harrowsfield turned towards the door. “You can come in.”
A fair-haired young man with a similar build to the duke’s and a skin colour that suggested he had spent a lot of time in the sun walked into the room. It took a moment for Amelia to recognize him. She stared.
Her cousin grinned at her.
Cecilia squealed in delight, and even Lady Harrowsfield started beaming. George was Uncle William and Aunt Patience’s son, heir to the viscountcy. He had been travelling about Europe for the last two years, sending back letters regularly. Amelia had thought he was never going to return, his letters saying that he was really enjoying his time abroad.
She hurried across the room and flung herself at him. George caught her and spun her around, laughing before he put her down.
“Now that’s what I call a welcome,” he said.
“You never said you were coming home!” Amelia looked him up and down. “And what on earth happened? I swear you were thinner than this when you left. It’s like you’ve grown as well.”
“Nothing like that. I’ve just taken part in some manual labour while I was abroad.” George approached Lady Harrowsfield as she stood up and embraced him. “Aunt Eleanor, it’s good to see you.”
“And you, George.” The duchess looked far more relaxed than a few minutes ago. George had always managed to find her soft spot. “Manual labour? You don’t need to do that, do you?”
“I was travelling to learn, and it paid so I could keep going.” George shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. I’m back for now.”
“For now?” Cecilia put her sewing aside. “You’re going to leave again?”
“I don’t know. I certainly want to settle down, but maybe I’ll go and visit France again now the war is over.” George sat in Amelia’s chair, hugging Cecilia. “How are you doing, Cecilia? You’re looking better than I was expecting.”
“I’m doing well.” Cecilia smiled. “I’m nearly back to my old self.”
“I don’t know about that,” Lady Harrowsfield said quietly, Amelia catching the worry in her voice.
Aunt Temperance jumped up and clapped her hands.
“Well, why don’t we get some tea, and then George can tell us all about his journey. I’m sure there’s lots that he wanted to tell us that he couldn’t get into his letters. I know I’m keen to hear.”
“I think we all are, Temperance, but let George catch his breath for the moment.”
“I don’t mind, Uncle Graham.” George beckoned Aunt Temperance to join them. “I can tell you everything now. But I would like some tea, or my mouth will be dry in a moment.”
Amelia went to the door, intent on letting someone know they would like their tea now. Listening to her cousin talk about his two-year travels would be far more entertaining than sewing something she didn’t think would come out as anything anyone would recognize.
Sebastian sighed and slumped back in his chair, closing his eyes. His headache was building, making it feel like his skull was throbbing. There was just too much to get on with, too much to handle.
Of all the things to inherit, why did it have to be debt? And this big as well?
It was one thing to inherit a title so suddenly, but finding out that he was going to take on a debt as well just made the whole thing worse. If Sebastian didn’t know any better, his father had died so he could get away from the debt. It wouldn’t surprise him if he had actually done that.
God, he should not think like that. His father didn’t ask to fall off his horse and break his neck while riding drunk. He was a very good rider, so that shouldn’t have happened. And yet, it had, and now Sebastian was stuck with a title he hadn’t planned on having for several years and a debt that wasn’t his. Sadly, creditors didn’t care if the person now in charge of the debt was the one who accrued it. Just as long as they got their money.
At least they had given him some saving grace, but he had to find a way to get them the money sooner or later. Otherwise, they were going to be in serious trouble. Sebastian couldn’t let that happen; he had his brother to think about and a household of servants to take care of. It made him feel nauseous, knowing he was in charge of so many people.
He wanted to run away, but that was not an option. Not when Oliver needed him. His brother might say he didn’t need anyone to look after him, but he was only twenty. He needed someone to be with him. Although Sebastian couldn’t see how he could look after his brother when Oliver was angry and belligerent once he started drinking.
Which he did a lot. Sebastian wasn’t sure he remembered Oliver as sober since their father died three months ago. He was either drunk or hungover. As soon as he started to sober up, he began to drink again. It was a wonder that he hadn’t actually ended up dead in a ditch somewhere.
Sebastian wished that their mother were still alive. She had been tragically taken from them eight years before and had been very good at keeping Oliver in line. He could do with that now.
A knock on the door shook Sebastian out of his thoughts. Sighing, he sat up.
The door opened, and Christian walked into the room. He was holding a letter in his gloved hand.
“This just came for you, My Lord,” he said, bowing to Sebastian before holding out the letter.
“Thank you.” Sebastian rubbed a hand over his face. “Has Mr Fairfax arrived home yet? I’m aware that he didn’t return before I retired for the night, and he wasn’t in his room when I checked on him this morning.”
“He arrived shortly before the letter.” The butler’s expression was blank as he stood before the desk, hands now clasped behind his back. “He was swaying all over the place, and we managed to get him into the drawing room before he passed out.”
At least he was home, although Sebastian wondered if Oliver would ever let him know where he was going. He wondered if he should be thankful that Oliver only drank and didn’t play cards; his brother was atrocious at card playing and hated it, so he avoided it whenever he could. But that didn’t really make him feel any better; he would rather have Oliver at home. People were far too willing to take advantage of young people, especially when they were vulnerable.
Christian cleared his throat, and Sebastian realized he had been staring into space and not saying anything. Sighing, he rubbed his eyes.
“Forgive me, Christian. Thank you for making sure Oliver’s here safely.”
“Yes, My Lord.” Christian looked at the papers scattered across the table. “Forgive me for asking this, sir, but do you want any help with this? You do have Mr Charleston as your estate manager, and he would be more than willing to help if you asked.”
“What does Mr Charleston know about debt?”
“We all know about debt, and when it comes to numbers and distributing money appropriately, he’s the best person to talk to.”
Sebastian contemplated that. He did need some help; otherwise, he was really going to struggle with this. Numbers had never been his strong suit, which frustrated his father. He needed to know his heir would be able to look after their viscountcy properly. Sebastian hadn’t cared too much since he didn’t think he would be the viscount anytime soon; despite his advancing age, his father had been incredibly strong and healthy.
If he wanted you to look after the viscountcy with a good head for numbers, what is his excuse? Because he appears to have been worse with money than you ever could be.
“I might think about it. This is giving me a headache.” Sebastian scowled at the papers, trying not to see the numbers scrawled everywhere. “If he can get this in order and help me figure out where I’m supposed to be going, that would be perfect. This is making my head spin.”
“I’ll speak to him and see if he can help you with that, My Lord.” Christian paused. “Would you need anything else from me?”
“No, it’s fine. You go back to what you were doing.”
“Very good, My Lord.”
Christian left the room, and Sebastian let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. There was something about the butler that reminded him of his old headmaster. Somehow managing to be intimidating by barely doing a thing. Sebastian had no idea how he did it, but it was enough to make him feel like he was in trouble.
Maybe he was in trouble. He had debt to deal with and didn’t know where to start, a viscountcy under his inexperienced hand, and a brother who was going to drink himself into an early grave if he carried on the way he was.
Hopefully, this letter gave him a slight reprieve and not more stress. Sebastian didn’t want to deal with more than he already had in front of him.
Opening the letter, Sebastian began to read. It was from his cousin Jane, which made him smile. That was a welcoming letter, certainly. And from what Jane said, she was entering London for her first Season in the next couple of weeks. How had his little cousin grown up to be eighteen already? It didn’t seem that long ago that she was a little girl barely coming up to his knee, toddling around after him. She was a woman now and entering Society in her own right.
And she was asking him to join her in London with her family.
Sebastian paused when he read that part. Was she serious about that? The family name on his side was tarnished, and Jane was lucky enough not to be dealing with it as her father, Baron Rothbury, was wealthy in his own right, and his only connection was being married to Sebastian’s aunt. He hadn’t been drawn in by a con artist who took away practically all their money over the years, and he had warned Sebastian’s father many times that he was in danger of losing everything. Sadly, it hadn’t worked, and over eight years, their fortune diminished.
That was certainly a long con and more than enough to make everyone look down on the family because of the previous viscount’s stupidity. Grief made people do many stupid things, and this was just something else that happened when one was missing someone.
Sebastian could only hope it didn’t happen to him.
With all that going on, he should politely dismiss Jane’s request. It wouldn’t do her any good to have him and Oliver around while they were in London; it might not benefit her. But Jane was his favourite cousin, and Sebastian had never been able to say no convincingly to her. They would be going with her, whether he liked it or not.
He just hoped they wouldn’t be making a mistake with it.
“Now that looks perfect!” Lady Harrowsfield exclaimed as Amelia looked at herself in the mirror. “That colour is just right for you, Amelia!”
“Do you think so, Mother?” Amelia frowned at her reflection in the mirror. “I always thought pink made me look rather washed out.”
“Nonsense! With your … skin tone …” Lady Harrowsfield shook her head, “it is going to compliment you just how you should be complimented.”
Amelia wasn’t so sure about that. She wasn’t too keen on wearing pink, especially this pale shade. Even with her spending a lot of time in the sun, which was mostly frowned upon, pale pink made her look like the colour had been sucked out of her. Amelia would rather have a dress with a different colour. It didn’t matter how pale it was as long as it wasn’t pink.
But she wouldn’t be able to sway her mother about it. She would have to cope with it until she got home. Maybe Catherine could ‘mislay’ the dress somewhere, and then she wouldn’t have to go out in it. Lady Harrowsfield would get upset that they spent money on a dress they lost, but the duke would say there was nothing they could do about it and put it down as a small loss.
Amelia had a feeling it wouldn’t be a small loss if her father caught sight of the prices of some of the dresses they were wearing. When he said he agreed that his wife could get their daughters new gowns for the upcoming Season to reintegrate them back into the ton, Amelia doubted he meant that their money would be significantly reduced.
Who would have thought scraps of fabric could cost so much?
“I think that’s one down for you, Amelia,” Lady Harrowsfield declared, coming up behind Amelia and adjusting the sleeves a tiny bit. “You’ve always been a bit more awkward shape, so I’m glad we can find something that will fit without too much trouble.”
“Mother!” Amelia gasped, glancing over at the seamstress, sitting on her stool and pretending that she wasn’t listening as she busied herself with her sewing kit. “Would you not say that in front of other people?”
“Oh, don’t be daft. It’s an honest observation, that’s all.” Lady Harrowsfield squeezed her shoulders. “I think we’ve got your first dress. Now we need to fit you with some gowns for balls, one for a garden party, another for when you go for walks in the park …”
“Mother, do we really need that many gowns?” Cecilia asked from her position on the chaise across the room. “We do have our gowns from when we were last in London. Why can’t we use them?”
Lady Harrowsfield rolled her eyes.
“Because the fashions have changed. How would it seem if you went back into Society and didn’t have the appropriate fashion? People would gossip that we weren’t able to afford anything! You do know that your father is a duke.”
“We haven’t forgotten,” Amelia muttered low enough that her mother couldn’t hear.
While she understood keeping up with what was considered appropriate, it was not that easy to feel content about it. Things moved too fast, and Amelia just wanted everything to slow down for a little bit.
“It can’t have changed that much,” Cecilia said with a frown, brushing her hair out of her eyes. “It’s only been eighteen months.”
“Lots of things can happen in eighteen months,” the duchess reminded her. She left Amelia and approached her younger daughter. “Besides, even if we didn’t get new gowns, you would need a fitting. You’ve lost a lot of weight in the last year, and I want to be sure that your garments aren’t falling off you.”
Lady Harrowsfield’s expression softened, and she crouched before her daughter, taking her hands.
“You don’t need to worry about anything, my darling. Everything will be fine. You and Amelia are going to go back, and you’re going to shine. I just know it.”
Cecilia bit her lip, and Amelia could see the concern there. Both of them had their reservations about returning after having such a brief introduction to London Society. People were going to remember them from before, and they would remember that Cecilia had ended up falling seriously unwell. Because it had taken so long for her to return, she was going to be considered someone with a weak constitution, which might work against her when she was finding herself a husband. Amelia hoped that wouldn’t be the case, but there would always be people gossiping. In her experience, the ladies were the worst. The older ladies always seemed to have the ear of someone important, and then rumours spread so fast it was almost impossible to keep up.
Amelia would not be surprised if a woman was in charge of the newspaper scandal sheets. The smugness when talking about those who didn’t do something considered appropriate, no matter how small, practically came off the pages like steam. She had no interest in listening to scandal when most of it wasn’t true.
She could probably cope with it all, but Cecilia wasn’t as strong as she used to be. Amelia would be more worried about her little sister, who deserved to restart her introduction with a clean slate. It wouldn’t be fair to mark her as possibly undesirable before she had been given a chance.
“Come on, dear,” Lady Harrowsfield said as she drew Cecilia to her feet, “let’s get you fitted with your first gown. It’s ready, isn’t it, Mrs Muller?”
“Yes, Your Grace. Would you like me to help Lady Cecilia?”
“If you would.”
Cecilia gave her mother a shaky smile, glancing at Amelia before she followed the seamstress into the fitting room, the curtains closing behind her. Amelia turned to her mother.
“Do you think she’ll manage, Mother? You don’t think the undue stress will make her health take a turn again?”
Lady Harrowsfield frowned.
“Is this you not wanting to go back into Society again, Amelia?”
Her mother sighed.
“Of course I have reservations. About both of you. You’re my daughters, and you’re unmarried. That’s not going to look good from an outside perspective. Much as I want to keep Cecilia home for longer, I don’t have that choice.”
“We’re not chattel, Mother. Could you be a little nicer to us about it when we’re uncomfortable with returning?”
“Darling, I know you’re not happy about it, but I’m afraid that is the way of the world. You and Cecilia can’t stay in the house for the rest of your lives. It’s not just yourselves that you have to think about, you know.”
“I know that …”
Lady Harrowsfield sighed and took Amelia’s hands, squeezing them.
“Sometimes, we have to do things we don’t want. It’s how life is. You’re going to have to do things you would never do if you were given a choice, and this is one of them.” She paused. “Will you do this? For me?”
Amelia didn’t want to do it, but someone had to be with Cecilia when she was being reintroduced. And her mother was right; they had to do it, whether they liked it or not. Sighing, she nodded.
“Alright. But please don’t put too much pressure on us. I know we’re under a lot of pressure, and having it at home as well …”
“I can’t promise anything, but as long as you do as you’re told, things will be fine.”
That was the best that Amelia could hope for. She knew that her mother loved them, even if Amelia’s love of herbs and gardening drove her to distraction, but she kept putting duty first, which meant putting well-being further back on her list of priorities. It could get really annoying.
She was saved from saying anything more when the bell tinkled above the door, and two ladies entered the shop. Both were tall and slim with golden blonde hair with similarly-coloured gowns. They could have passed for sisters.
It had been a while since Amelia had seen them, but she recognized the younger woman. Matilda Staunton, the Earl of Ashcroft’s daughter. They had entered Society at the same time, and Amelia recalled that Lady Matilda was a bit of a spoiled girl. Her parents catered to everything she wanted, which looked like it could get overwhelming. She had no idea how anyone could cope when their child demanded impossible things. But it wasn’t her family, so she wasn’t going to get involved. They barely interacted, choosing to move in different circles.
Amelia had hoped she could get back into Society without encountering the other girl.
The Countess of Ashcroft saw them first and smiled pleasantly as she approached Lady Harrowsfield.
“Your Grace!” She curtsied. “Good afternoon. I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
“Lady Ashcroft.” Lady Harrowsfield returned the greeting. “I’m just getting my daughters fitted with some new gowns. You can never have too many clothes, right?”
“Of course not.” Lady Ashcroft raised her eyebrows. “So your daughters are returning to Society? It will be good to see them back. They were sorely missed when Lady Cecilia was taken ill.”
Amelia bit back a snort of derision. She highly doubted that, but she wasn’t about to ruin the mood. She fixed a smile on her face as Lady Ashcroft turned to her.
“Lady Amelia, it’s good to see you again.”
“My Lady.” Amelia curtsied. “I hope things are well with you.”
“Perfectly. With how the weather has been lately, it’s certainly lifted the mood.” Lady Ashcroft gestured at her daughter. “Matilda and I were just discussing that it looks like someone’s wished for good weather and sunshine lately.”
“Oh, really?” Amelia glanced at Lady Matilda, who pointedly ignored them while looking at some fabrics on a nearby counter. “We have been lucky that there have been fewer showers recently. But maybe that good fortune won’t stay.”
“Let’s hope it will. I don’t want to ruin any shoes with the water.”
They turned, the seamstress coming out with Cecilia, now wearing her new gown. It was a floaty fabric in a cream colour with blue ribbons decorating the sleeves and under her bust. It was a gorgeous dress; even Amelia had to admit that.
“Oh, you look absolutely charming, Lady Cecilia!” Lady Ashcroft exclaimed before Lady Harrowsfield could say anything. “Just the absolute picture!” She turned to the duchess. “Your daughters are just stunning, Your Grace. They will be stealing a lot of attention when they enter the room. I just know it.”
Amelia didn’t know how to respond to that, and from the look on her mother’s face, she wasn’t entirely sure, either. Maybe she had caught how over-the-top Lady Ashcroft was being.
Instead, the duchess turned away and approached her daughter, standing beside the seamstress, looking nervous. As they checked the proper fit of the dress, Amelia caught sight of Lady Matilda at the counter. She was looking at Cecilia with an expression that could only be described as envious. It was as if the jealousy was simmering off her.
Amelia sighed. She had a feeling that their reintegration would not be as smooth as her mother thought.
“The Duke’s Unconventional Muse” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Amelia Hartwood never imagined that her quiet passion for herbal medicine would lead her on a journey of the heart. Stepping back into society’s glittering world to find a suitable husband was the last thing she desired, yet duty called. Amidst the pomp and pretense, she will find herself drawn to an enigmatic Viscount, a man with a tarnished family name and a heart burdened by debts. As Amelia’s longing to pursue her true calling clashes with the growing attraction she feels for him, she must navigate the treacherous waters of love and society’s expectations.
Will she dare to follow her heart and choose a path less traveled, or will duty ultimately dictate her destiny?
Sebastian Fairfax is a man haunted by the shadows of his family’s past. Left to bear the weight of his father’s debts and a brother who seeks solace in a bottle, he never anticipated finding love amidst the chaos. When he meets the spirited and compassionate Amelia, his world is turned upside down. Yet, as society’s judgments and an unexpected business proposition threaten to tear them apart, Sebastian must confront his own insecurities and prove that his love for Amelia is stronger than the whispers of scandal.
Can he win the heart of the woman who has ignited his soul, even when the odds are stacked against him?
In a world where love is a fragile bloom amidst the thorns of duty and reputation, Amelia and Sebastian must battle against the forces that seek to keep them apart. With society’s watchful eye and their families’ expectations looming over them, will they be able to triumph over adversity and find happiness in each other’s arms? Or will the weight of their duties extinguish the flame of their love forever?
“The Duke’s Unconventional Muse” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.