Helena Bolingbroke sat in the front row of the church, waiting for her brother’s fiancé to come down the aisle. She could see her brother’s profile and knew that he was nervous. Simon had been in love with Elise McKenna ever since they were children. Turning to glance back up the aisle, she reflected on how lucky it had been that it had worked out for Simon and Elise, as it so often did not for others.
However, marriage was the last thing she wanted to think about. Her parents had been trying to marry her off since she was sixteen years old. Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of the man who had been her parents’ first choice for her. Lord George Ransom still looked as handsome as ever. Despite his good looks and charm, Helena knew the devil that lay beneath. His wife, Lady Catherine Ransom, was heavy with child—their third if Helena had kept track correctly. Looking away, Helena suppressed the urge to glare at him.
Her once-intended had been a friend of the family for years. She had only been sixteen when she had been pushed at George. He was close friends with her brother and although he displayed a respectful and kind facade to her parents, she knew him to be a rake.
The processional music started, snapping her back into the present. Elise was beautiful in a soft yellow gown, a bouquet of small pink roses in her hand. Her father was beaming as he walked her down the aisle.
Helena stiffened when she caught George’s eye, staring at her smugly from across the church. He winked at her, and her stomach lurched. How could her parents have wanted her to wed such a man?
The wedding ceremony began, and Helena let her mind wander. Seeing George only cemented her long-held resolve to never marry. A woman gave away every bit of freedom once she was married, devoting her whole life to educating and rearing children and seeing to her husband’s every whim. She could not imagine a life of such drudgery. Books were her true love. She could get lost in literature for hours, days even, completely content to shut out her own dreary life. She did not have the time nor the inclination to wed.
The ceremony was short and sweet. Simon and Elise waited in the church as the guests filed out, ready to shower them with flower petals. Later, they would go on to celebrate with the traditional wedding breakfast at the McKenna estate.
As she walked up the aisle, Helena’s mother linked arms with her and they walked out of the church. “Perhaps next year, it will be your turn,” she whispered. Helena could almost feel the hope in her mother’s hands as they squeezed her arm slightly.
“I don’t think so, Mother,” she replied dully.
“Don’t despair, my dear. You are only one and twenty and there are plenty of eligible bachelors who would not mind that you are older. You have all the usual accomplishments and a lovely disposition. Not to mention, you are more handsome than all the ladies in Bath and London combined. You would have no trouble finding a husband, if you only put in an effort.”
Helena rolled her eyes at the not-so-subtle hint. “Yes, Mother,” was all she said. She did not wish to fight with her over the merits of matrimony, not when her brother looked so happy. But she would not be coerced or prodded into anything she did not want to do. Today, she would put a smile on her face and wish her brother and his new wife well.
She liked her new sister-in-law, even if she was a little shy. She suspected that Elise would come out of her shell as they got to know each other better. The engagement between Elise and Simon had been short. Even though they had known the McKenna family for years, Helena had not spent much time with Elise.
Simon winked at her as they came out of the church, Elise draped over his arm as if she had always fit there. Although Helena and Simon were close now, it was not always the case when they were children. With a seven-year age gap, it had been hard for them to find much in common. Helena cheered heartily as the newlyweds passed by, throwing petals up in the air. They got into the open-air carriage, and the crowd began to disperse as they drove away.
“Come. We should be there before the guests start to arrive for the wedding breakfast,” her mother instructed. Helena nodded and followed her parents to their carriage.
When they arrived at the McKenna estate, Helena did her best to wear a smile. But George made it challenging to focus on anything else. Why did he delight in tormenting her so? His young wife was sitting in the parlour, her burgeoning belly a reminder of how glad Helena was to have escaped matrimony so far.
Her friend, Anna Fawcett, came up behind her and linked arms with her. “Am I correct in surmising that you are over here hiding from Lord Ransom? Really, Helena, he only has the power over you that you give him,” she said. Anna was frequently too lax with what she said, not bothering to care that others might hear them. Helena had not been able to keep what Lord Ransom had done to her a secret from Anna, although she had tried. Far from being blind, Anna had figured it out long ago.
“I am not avoiding anyone. I was only walking around,” Helena said, trying to defend herself. Giving a backwards glance in George’s direction, she continued walking around the great hall where the breakfast would be served.
“Any fool can see that you’re hiding from something.”
“I shouldn’t have to spend any more time around that odious man than I have to. Simon doesn’t know what George is really like and I am hardly going to ruin his wedding day by telling him. Besides, he will soon be gone. I only have to suffer his presence once or twice a year.”
“You shouldn’t have to suffer his presence, as you say. I wish you would tell your parents and brother what he did.”
“I am fine. Don’t worry about me,” Helena said, wishing that Anna would let the conversation drop. She just wanted to get through this day, go home, and forget she had seen him.
Anna nodded. “Very well. Let’s sit here. The bride and groom should be coming in any minute.”
Helena followed Anna to two empty chairs near the middle of the long table. Amidst applause and offers of congratulations, Simon and Elise came into the room and sat down at the head of the table. Dreading the long speeches that would soon begin, Helena steeled herself, wishing she could be alone in her room curled up with a good book.
“To my bride,” Simon said, standing to give a toast. “It will be my lifelong pursuit to provide for your happiness, welfare, and comfort. To Lady Elise!”
The hall echoed with shouts of, “To Lady Elise!” and Helena raised her glass, wishing the couple well. She was sure they would be happy, despite her own misgivings about matrimony.
For a split second, Helena caught George’s eye, gleaming with a dark aura that had frightened her as a child. Now, she stared back in challenge, refusing to let him see how much discomfort he still caused her. He leaned over to whisper something to his wife and they both turned to give her a derisive glance. Pulling her focus back to the head of the table, she forced herself to look as if she were engrossed in the speech her father was now giving.
But try as she might, her focus was again diverted. Her mind flashed back to the time she had resolved once and for all that she would never marry, George playing the major role in her decision.
She had just had her sixteenth birthday. Helena had grown up with George being a regular visitor in the Bolingbroke home. He had been good friends with her brother and had often spent many an evening in their company. George was handsome and charming by all appearances, but had a dangerous side that her parents either ignored or were oblivious to. Simon did not believe her when she told him of her discomfort at being around George, believing his sister to be a silly child who imagined things.
It had been a lovely morning in May when Helena learned of George’s true intentions towards her. Simon had suggested he and George go for a ride after breakfast.
“Please take Helena with you, Simon,” her mother had instructed. Helena had frozen with fear, racking her brain for an excuse so she would not have to go.
An argument had ensued, but their father had made Simon take her along in the end. Usually Simon got his way, but for whatever reason that day, her father had prevailed. George had helped her onto the horse, his touch revolting her. He had been attentive all throughout their ride. And when Simon had ridden ahead of them up over a rise, George had stayed right next to her.
“You have turned into quite the beauty, I must say,” George had complimented, his eyes gleaming like a predator.
“It is improper for you to say such things to me,” Helena replied curtly.
“Not if it’s the truth. It will not be long until the men start lining up to ask for your hand.”
“I don’t want any man clamouring for me.”
“How very refreshing, a woman who does not wish to fall in love.”
Helena had frowned, wanting to get as far away from him as possible. She had looked earnestly for her brother, and finally spotted him several hundred yards away from them. She had spurred her horse forward, but George caught hold of her reins before she had a chance to bolt.
“Why the hurry? Look, it is about to rain. We should take cover under that oak until it has passed,” he had turned his steed towards the tree, forcing her to go along despite her protestations.
“We really should be getting back to the manor. Mother will be worried,” Helena had tried to argue. With one swift motion he had dismounted and came around his steed to stand beside her. George had ignored her pleas and reached up his arms to help her down from her mount.
He had laughed at her hesitation. “I’m not going to hurt you, Helena. Have some sense for once and get out of the rain.”
Helena had finally relented, allowing him to help her down. Her heart had begun to beat wildly and she wondered if there was any chance at her running to her horse and getting back on by herself before George could stop her.
George had led her further under the protective branches, stopping when they neared the trunk of the giant tree.
“There is no use in you resisting me, you know. Your parents have already given me their consent to court and marry you.”
Helena had sucked in a breath. She had stepped away, but he grabbed ahold of her wrist and yanked her back, twisting her arm painfully. “Let me go!”
He had released her arm but stood there grinning at her as if he were the victor in a conquest. Taking a step towards her, he had captured her in his arms, laughing at her. “Release me at once, sir!”
“You’re so beautiful when you’re angry.” He had gripped her chin and kissed her forcefully. Her mind had screamed with panic, wishing that Simon would come to her rescue.
“Why fight the inevitable,” he had whispered, his lips brushing her forehead as she continued to fight to get away from him. “You will be my wife by the end of the year.”
Helena had planted her hands on his chest and pushed him away with all her might. He had finally let her go and stood there, snickering at her.
“I do like your spirit. But when we are married you will have no choice but to obey me.”
“You are the last man I would ever think of marrying!”
“It’s already done. You can’t escape this. There are many women who would find themselves lucky to be wed to the next Lord Ransom.”
“I am not one of them,” she had said, her words dripping with disdain. “I shall never marry, least of all you. If you dare to follow me, I shall tell my father what you have done today.”
She had then turned and hurried towards her horse. Helena had struggled to climb on, but was thankful when she looked back and saw George was still standing beneath the tree, seething with rage.
Her mother had been none-too-pleased that they had stayed out in the rain together. Helena had received a lecture from her while she bathed and changed for dinner. Although George had been to blame, she took the verbal assault rather than telling her mother what had happened.
Helena had tried to make excuses as to why she could not go down to dinner, but her mother had heard none of it. Blessedly, when she had come down to the drawing room, George had been gone.
“Left?” she had asked, lifting a wary eyebrow. “Why?”
“He gave no reason. Besides, it’s none of your business what a grown man does with his time,” Simon had said and walked into the dining room. George had married Helena’s childhood friend, Lady Catherine, four months later. Poisoning her friendship with Catherine, George had stolen not only her first kiss, but one of her few friends.
Willing herself back to the present, Helena caught George looking at her from across the great hall. He smiled sardonically and she lifted her chin. She would not allow him to cow her.
“Are you alright?” Anna asked. “You look pale.”
“Yes, perfectly fine, thank you.” She took a sip from her wine glass, taking the chance to gather her thoughts.
The rest of the reception passed without much to upset her. She was glad when they were able to leave, though. It had been a long and trying day.
Just as they were leaving, George and Catherine came to say hello to her parents. They had stayed on good terms, even though Helena had fought tooth and nail against her betrothal to George, causing a rift between her and her parents for a time. He exchanged pleasantries with them and only acknowledged her at the last second. Even then, he would not meet her eyes, which was fine with her.
“You look well, Lady Helena,” he said curtly. Catherine echoed his compliments, as Helena was sure she always did. How she wished she would have been able to warn Catherine about George’s dark nature.
“Thank you,” was all Helena had the stomach to say. She watched them leave, hardening her heart anew against ever marrying.
Six years later…
Helena entered the drawing room late in the afternoon to make sure that all was ready for the party. Every second and fourth Friday of the month, she would invite her friends to discuss the latest in British literature.
“Be sure there are plenty of candles in here tonight,” Helena told one of the maids.
“Yes, my Lady,” she replied and went to fetch extra candles just in case.
Helena set out three books that she wanted to have the group vote on. The one with the most votes would be the next book they would read. Then in two weeks, they would come together to discuss it.
“Hello Helena. It looks like you have everything ready to go,” Anna said as she entered the drawing room.
Helena turned and smiled at her friend. She had been married for three years and was expecting her second child.
“Yes, everything is ready. How are you feeling?” Helena asked, motioning for Anna to sit.
“Like I look as big as a house and feel like it, too,” she replied. She sat down and placed her hands on her belly. “Anytime you want to make an appearance, little man, please do so.” Anna said, talking to the baby.
Helena laughed. “I don’t remember you being so eager when you were waiting for Eloise to be born,” she replied. Anna’s one-year-old daughter was the sweetest baby Helena had ever seen, with bright blue eyes and sweet little blonde curls.
“Yes, well, I did not know what to expect. But now that I do, I’d rather have done with it,” Anna said. She had always been forthright, which wasn’t a trait that was valued in a lady of high society. Anna did not care what others thought of her. Even so, Helena had come to follow her example, especially with her parents pushing her to marry.
She was now twenty-seven years old, a confirmed spinster in her own eyes. For some reason, her parents were still holding out hope that she would find an eligible young man and marry. It was a rare man that would want a woman of Helena’s age. He would either have to be desperate or old and infirm to want a wife as aged as she. Still, Helena was happy with her situation.
“You hold that this child will be a boy, then?” Helena asked.
“I believe so. This pregnancy has been different from my first. But no one can be sure until the baby is born, I suppose.” Anna shifted in her chair to try and find a more comfortable position. “John hopes it will be a boy. That way, the family legacy will be secure.”
Helena nodded. She was glad that she did not have to worry about producing an heir for a demanding husband. Not that Anna’s husband was demanding. She believed that he genuinely loved her friend, and she was delighted that they were content. But matrimony was not for her.
No. She was content as she was, single and able to do as she pleased. True, there had been several suitors who had tried to capture her heart. However, she always sensed that they were after her dowry, and she loved her freedom too much to be tied down. One only had to fear being a spinster if one was poor. And Helena most certainly was not.
Her other guests started arriving then, all of them women. They ranged from married women in their thirties to young ladies who had yet to be presented to society. Helena tried to keep her opinions to herself concerning marriage and shared in the joy of her friends as they became engaged and married.
When about twelve ladies had entered the room, Helena stood and began the festivities.
“Good evening, ladies. Thank you all for coming. First, let us vote on the next book we are to read, and then we shall go into dinner,” Helena opened the meeting.
“First, I have a novel by Jane Austen. This is her most recent novel, Emma. I hear it is a brilliant piece of literature.”
There were professions of agreement all around the room at this statement. Miss Austen’s works had been a favourite with Helena since she had read her first novel by the author.
“The next book up for the vote is actually a play by Friedrich Schiller. Some of you may know it, Mary Stuart?” Helena said. “It depicts the last days of Mary, Queen of Scots.”
A general whisper of approval circulated around the room at this suggestion.
“I know I have always seen Queen Mary as a romantic figure that I would like to learn more about. The last suggestion I have is for a classic, The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith.”
Helena looked around the room and asked, “Are there any other suggestions, ladies?”
They all shook their heads. “You always give the best suggestions, Helena,” Lady Sarah Wentworth chimed in. She had three children and a husband who did most of her thinking for her.
“I think I should like to read Emma next if it’s all the same to you, ladies,” Esther chimed in. Helena and Esther had come out together many years before. Exhibiting a sweet and compassionate spirit, Esther balanced out Helena’s passionate and sometimes forceful opinions during the book club meetings.
“Very well, if no one has any other books to put forward, let us put it to the vote.”
In the end, the majority vote landed on Mary Stuart and then would follow up with the next two books in the subsequent meetings.
“Shall we have dinner?’ Helena asked. She stood, and the rest of the ladies followed her into the dining room.
A lively discussion of the last book ensued during the meal. They had just finished reading Evelina or the History of a Young Woman’s Entrance into the World by Fanny Burney. It was a satire about a young woman reared in solitude in the country and her mishaps when she eventually debuted in society. In the book, Evelina ultimately overcame her social ineptitude and was able to marry.
“I found the novel to be brilliant,” Helena replied. “It discusses the hypocrisy of our class, placing more weight on a woman’s outer appearance and behaviour than on the workings of her mind.”
The ladies collectively shifted in their chairs. Helena could see the unease on their faces, excluding Anna, and wished that there was something she could do to change how they saw themselves. Their stations had been created on the backs of the working class, who often went without the most basic of necessities. It made Helena ashamed to be called a ‘lady’ when others were starving, for it was their hard work that made her life of luxury possible.
“I agree, of course,” Anna chimed in.
“But the woman’s place is in the home. Don’t you agree, Priscilla?” Lady Wentworth said, ever the loyalist. Helena tried not to roll her eyes, for Lady Wentworth believed it was her God-given right to be pampered and waited on. All that a lady of social standing was good for was marrying well and producing heirs for her husband so their fortunes could be passed on to the next generation.
“But why should a woman not pursue her interests outside of the home?” Helena argued. “Women are as intelligent as men,” she replied.
“More so, if you ask me,” Anna laughed. The rest of the ladies joined in, all except Lady Wentworth. She smiled nervously and glanced around at the other ladies, as if her remarks would somehow get back to her husband.
“I do not think it is a competition. Men and women each have their roles in society. Women should not be treated differently than men as far as voicing their opinions or pursuing their interests—not because they are the weaker sex, but because we are all human beings and deserve to be treated with kindness and respect,” Esther said.
“Bravo, Esther,” Anna praised.
“All I am saying is, the world is changing. Perhaps someday, a woman may have the freedom to be an author, like Jane Austen, and not be ridiculed for it,” Helena finished.
Anna applauded and raised her glass to Helena. “To our esteemed hostess! Why have you never written a novel, Helena? I think you would be a marvellous writer.”
Helena coloured. She had thought about writing, but she knew her father would be furious. Even still, she worked on a book most evenings after everyone went to bed. She would stay up until the wee hours of the morning, pouring over her manuscript. She doubted anything would ever come of it unless she published anonymously, like Fanny Burney had done.
“Perhaps, someday,” Helena said simply, in reply to Anna’s encouragement. It was not that she was afraid of enduring her father’s wrath, but a lack of confidence in her writing ability.
She then took a deep breath and looked around the table, seeing that they had all finished.
“Shall we go into the drawing room to continue our discussion?” she asked.
All the ladies stood and retired to the drawing room, taking their seats around the blazing fireplace. It was customary for them to read the first chapter of the new book they had chosen together.
Helena opened the play and began to read, doing different voices for different characters. This delighted her guests, who most often pleaded with her to read. Helena was happy to oblige, feeling that she did the books justice with her reading style.
She looked around at the ladies and was glad that her meetings were not too large. She enjoyed the simple comradery they shared. If only it could stay like this forever.
When her guests had gone, Helena went in search of her parents. Usually, they waited up to hear how things had gone. When she entered the library, she could feel the tension in the air, like so many bees buzzing around in angry circles.
“What is it?” she asked, wary to be drawn into a long discussion.
Lady Bolingbroke wrung her hands nervously. “We overheard a bit of your dialogue over the last book you read.”
“You overheard or were you listening at the door?”
“We were only passing by on our way in from our dinner at the Kinneaud’s,” her father replied testily.
Helena took a deep breath. “And what has so disturbed you about tonight’s conversation?”
“The books you choose to read are very forward, in my opinion. From what I have heard, Evelina promotes some ideas about equality for women that are preposterous,” her father replied.
“Women should be equal to men.”
“Not in the way that Miss Burney thinks. These are dangerous ideas that you are promoting and I’m sure your guests’ husbands will not like it.”
Helena remained silent but she could care less what her friend’s husband’s thought of the books they were reading. Rebellion rose up in her heart. “That is between them. If they do not like the books we choose, then they can work it out between themselves.”
Her mother stood, grasping her hand in supplication. “You so not understand how it is between a man and wife. Don’t you worry that you may be making their lives more difficult than they need to be?”
“No, I don’t. Now, it has been a long day and I wish to go to bed.” She leaned over and kissed her mother on the cheek. Leaving the room, she heard her father whisper to her mother.
“She’s your daughter. Talk to her!”
“She doesn’t listen to me any more than she listens to you.”
“Well, something has to be done. She seems more determined than ever to remain unwed.”
Helena hurried away, knowing it was bad manners to eavesdrop. Laughing to herself, she climbed the stairs, reflecting that she was indeed determined to escape matrimony — at any cost.
Henry Beckham, heir apparent for the Earl of Somerset, entered the Pump Room Restaurant, looking around to be seated at an empty table. A young girl came and took his hat and then seated him at a table near the large windows facing the street. Sunlight streamed through the glass, warming him.
“Hello, old fellow!” Lord Bolingbroke said as he neared his table. It was rare that anyone purposefully sought Henry out, knowing he preferred to keep to himself. Henry stood and shook Lord Bolingbroke’s hand. They did not know each other well, but he was a pleasant man from what he knew of him.
“Good day, Lord Bolingbroke. I trust you are well? Please, do sit down.” Henry motioned for him to join him at his table and to his immense surprise, Lord Bolingbroke sat down.
“How is your father?”
“He is well, thank you.” Henry did not particularly want to be drawn into a business discussion, as it was all his father talked about. What other reason could Lord Bolingbroke have for speaking to him?
“Is there something I can do for you, Lord Bolingbroke?” Henry asked when a long pause ensued.
Lord Bolingbroke leaned forward, waiting for the serving girl to set the tea tray down and leave. “I wonder if you might do me a favour, Lord Henry?”
“A favour?” Henry’s interest was piqued. “What kind of favour?”
“My daughter holds a book club meeting every other Friday and I wonder if you might consent to attend her next one? Her mother and I would like to see her married and thought it might speed things along if we were to invite some worthy young gentlemen, such as yourself, so she might meet some new people.”
Henry’s brows rose. This was indeed a favour. Henry had never enjoyed reading, finding books to be a waste of his time. “Will she not be upset that I have come to her meetings uninvited?”
“I am inviting you. She still lives under my roof, after all.” Lord Bolingbroke gave a casual laugh and leaned forward. “Is not your brother courting Lady Esther? She has been a regular guest to my daughter’s gatherings.”
Jasper, Henry’s younger brother, had been courting Lady Esther for some time. Alas, their father would not allow Jasper to propose to her until Henry was married. If Henry were not the only gentleman to show up of a sudden at Lady Helena’s meetings, he would not feel so awkward.
“May I invite Jasper along?”
“Of course! In fact, if you can think of any other single young men of your acquaintance, please feel free to ask them to come along with you.”
Lord Bolingbroke had put him in an uncomfortable situation to say the least. “I shall try, if you think it would help.”
“No matter. I have already spoken with a few other of your peers. My wife will send along a formal invitation with the date and time of the next meeting. Thank you for your time, Lord Harry.”
Lord Bolingbroke stood, a wide grin spreading over his cheeks, and departed. Henry watched him go. A knot was forming at his throat and his stomach twisted with unease. He had never been comfortable around the opposite sex. Intruding on Lady Helena’s book meeting was the last thing he wanted to do.
Finishing his tea quickly, he headed for home to tell Jasper what had happened. He found him in the garden, practicing his shot with his archery equipment. Turning at the sound of footsteps behind him, Jasper gave him a smile and pulled back the bow. “I’ll be with you as soon as I finish this shot.” Jasper took a deep breath and held it, honing in on the target thirty yards away.
After he had shot, hitting the bullseye, Henry clapped him on the back and congratulated him. “You always were a good shot.”
“Thank you, brother. What brings you home from the Pump Room so early?”
“I had a very interesting conversation with Lord Bolingbroke.”
“Lord Bolingbroke?” Jasper set his bow down, squinting in the sunlight. “Isn’t that Lady Helena’s father? Esther is a good friend of hers.”
“The same. Lord Bolingbroke has invited me to attend Lady Helena’s bi-monthly book club meetings.”
Jasper rose an eyebrow and laughed. “A book club meeting? You wouldn’t be caught dead at one of those meetings, much less reading a book!”
“That is true, but I felt that Lord Bolingbroke cornered me. I barely know the man but he said that he would count it as a personal favour if I would come. Apparently Helena’s parents are talking to several single gentlemen around the city, trying to set her up with an advantageous match. He’s invited you to attend as well, since you know Esther.”
Jasper brightened at this. “Well, in that case, I would be happy to go along with you.”
His father and mother stepped out on the terrace, motioning for him to come to them. They both wore excited expressions, talking over each other to try and gain his attention.
He met them at the bottom step of the patio, Jasper trailing behind with an amused smirk on his face. Henry raised his hands to silence the din of their ever-increasing volume. “Please,” he said, laughing at their antics. “I can’t hear a word either of you are saying.”
“Lady Bolingbroke has just sent an invitation to you, asking you to one of Helena Bolingbroke’s book club meetings. How very odd,” his mother replied.
“Yes, I saw Lord Bolingbroke at the Pump Room today and he invited Jasper and I to the next meeting. It would seem they are trying to marry off their spinster of a daughter.” Henry smiled at the ridiculousness of it all. If Helena Bolingbroke had not married by now, he doubted she ever would. Not that she was not beautiful. He had seen her several times from across the room at various parties and balls. However, he had never had the courage or inclination to speak to her.
“Don’t you realize what this means? This could be the perfect opportunity for you to finally settle down and marry.” His father handed him the invitation and he pursued it.
“Lord Bolingbroke almost makes it sound like a competition,” Henry replied, incredulous.
“His daughter is a highly eligible young lady who comes with a substantial dowry. It would do well for you to consider winning her hand.” His father was not joking.
“I have agreed to attend but I don’t know what would entice Lady Helena to consider me as a matrimonial prospect.”
“Everyone knows what a prude Helena Bolingbroke is. I hear she has sworn never to marry. I doubt she will be pleased when she finds out what her parents have done,” he said, handing the invitation back to his father. But Lord Beckham would not take it back.
“This is your last chance, Harry. Your mother and I have asked you repeatedly to find a wife and settle down. You need an heir to secure your place as lord of this estate.”
Halting, Henry frowned at his parents. “Are you threatening me?”
“If you do not marry before the year’s end, I will replace you as the heir of my estate and name Jasper my heir. He is already on the cusp of becoming engaged, while you twiddle your thumbs and waste your time at card games and drinking port,” his father threatened.
Henry did not know what to say, only felt the injustice of it all. He was not comfortable around women. He had never known what to say or how to act, preferring the company of his friends. Harry had never really been charming and had often felt awkward around the opposite sex. “Father, that is not fair. I told you that I would try come next season.”
Jasper shifted behind him. “Excuse me. I should change for dinner.”
Henry watched him go, knowing that he would be able to talk to him at length later that evening. Turning his attention back to his father, he was about to argue again, but his father cut him off.
“No. It must be now. Either find a bride, or forfeit your inheritance and title. Perhaps a life in the Navy would suit you better anyway.”
Lord Beckham stomped off towards the house, leaving Henry and his mother alone.
“Mother, how can you condone this?” Henry asked, feeling the panic rising in his chest.
“As your father said, we have asked you over and over again to find a wife. But you have not even courted anyone since that Duncan woman,” she said, rolling her eyes heavenward. “That was five years ago. Of course, I am not excusing her behaviour. Running off in the middle of the night with a playwright is not any way for a lady to behave.”
Henry cringed at the memory. He had only ever been in love with one woman—Mary Duncan. Far from being genuine, she had toyed with him the whole time, trying to appease her parents when she was really in love with someone else. It had been five years since that fiasco had occurred. Henry had found it difficult to move on from the rejection he had faced. He had always wondered if there had been something wrong with him to make her want to leave him.
“I have tried, Mother.”
“You have not tried hard enough, son. We need you to put in an effort. How do you suppose you are to run this estate without a wife by your side? We want to see you settled, and the estate secured for the Beckham name before we die. I want grandchildren,” she said with a smile on her face, trying to ease his discomfort over getting married.
“That is what this is really about, isn’t it?” he asked with a rueful smile. He let out a deep breath. “Very well. I shall try to find a wife. And if I must start with Lady Helena, so be it. But I doubt I have much of a chance. I will not be the only gentleman vying for her hand.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lord Bolingbroke mentioned having already invited several other single gentlemen. It seems that her parents are making a contest of this, in a way.”
“It all seems very high-handed to me.”
Henry offered her his arm and she gladly accepted it. They strolled slowly back to the house. He loved his parents, but his father had become more and more demanding in the last few years. Henry knew that they only wanted what was best for him, and for the estate. Sometimes he could not help thinking that his younger brother, Jasper, would be better suited to run the estate as his father had suggested.
However, he did have political aspirations and wanted his chance to make a difference in the House of Lords. Sighing heavily, he escorted his mother into the house so they could change for dinner.
“Henry,” his mother stopped him before entering the parlour’s double doors. “I want you to know that I understand why you have not married until now. I believe that Helena Bolingbroke would make an excellent match for you. And not just because her family is wealthy. I know it is said that she is closed off, but you could get through to her. I’m sure of it. She would bring strength to some of your weaknesses, and vice versa.”
Henry nodded. “Thank you, Mother. For you, I will try. I have seen her a few times at different parties. And while she is beautiful, I always got the sense that she did not want to be bothered with suitors.”
“Well, then, you shall have to break down her walls with your easy charm.”
“I don’t think I’m charming in the least. I am too honest,” he laughed.
“I value your honesty. Young men would do well to follow your example.” They stepped into the parlour and went out into the great hall, going their separate ways to prepare themselves for dinner.
Henry was glad to escape to the solitude of his chamber. He sighed heavily and plopped down on the lounge chair. Leaning back, he crossed his arms and thought about the first time he had seen Helena Bolingbroke.
“The Key to a Lord’s Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Helena Bolingbroke is without a doubt the most beautiful woman in Bath. However, she is far more fascinated by reading than attending balls, while holding a book club meeting to discuss the latest in English literature makes her the happiest. Even though her passion for books had always been embraced by her parents in the past, her father is now fed up with her churlish refusals to settle down and decides to take matters into his own hands. Could her one chance at true love be among the sea of men her father invites to win her hand?
Henry Beckham has never been the one to seek the attention of ladies. He is content with living his life the way he pleases and a wife would only get in the way. His parents have different expectations, though, that include him producing an heir to carry on the family legacy. Henry is inevitably introduced with the terrifying ultimatum of marrying by the end of the year or forfeiting his title and fortune to his younger brother. All seems to be lost for him, until he receives an intriguing invitation from Lord Bolingbroke to attend a book club meeting in order to win his daughter’s hand. Could this unknown woman secure his fortune and capture his lonely heart?
They have both expected a completely different life, one without love and romance. Now that every one of their dull expectations has given place to the profound revelation of true love, they are in awe of what they had been missing all along. Regardless of how undeniable their connection is, it is also tainted by dark secrets and contrasting priorities. Will Henry manage to break down Helena’s walls and win her heart? Will the powerful light of their romance dissipate the threats that lurk around?
“The Key to a Lord’s Heart” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.