Lady Elizabeth Derby sat at her vanity and looked in the mirror, appreciating her high cheekbones and flawless skin. She was to attend her first gala, and her maid brushed out her long, silky brunette locks.
“It is too bad that I was born with brown eyes, instead of blue. Cordelia has all the luck,” she pouted. Her little sister was thirteen and was the only one of the three Derby sisters to inherit their father’s blonde hair and blue eyes.
“You have beautiful eyes, my lady,” her maid said, a frown creasing her brow. Elizabeth smiled, rolling her eyes.
“You are duty-bound to say so.” Elizabeth stood up and went to the full-length mirror. She was dressed in her shift, with a pale pink dressing gown cinched around her slender waist. Elizabeth turned from side to side, inspecting her figure. Whilst she had not inherited her father’s blue eyes, she had inherited his height. She stood several inches above the other girls, gliding gracefully like a swan. Her mother had told her so on several occasions.
“Not at all, my lady. I am sincere in my praise. You are the most beautiful girl in the county.”
“Only the county?” she asked, teasing the poor girl. Elizabeth gave her a smile of approval. “You are very kind to say so.” Elizabeth basked in her praise, even though she did not need the maid to tell her. She knew she was beautiful, and she was counting on her good looks to land her a suitable match. An earl would do, or even a viscount.
The door opened with a creak, and her mother entered. “What is this? You are not even dressed? Sarah, what is the matter with you!?” her mother barked at her maid.
“I was just going behind the screen, Mother,” Elizabeth said. She motioned for Sarah to follow her, moving her arms to the side so Sarah could take off her dressing gown. Sarah then slipped a pale ivory gown over her head and helped her shift it into place. Elizabeth came out from behind the screen and turned so that Sarah could tie the ribbons behind her back.
She stepped over to the mirror again, and a smile of appreciation touched her lips. The high empire-waisted gown complimented her tall figure perfectly. The white silk fabric shimmered with silver embroidery.
Her mother gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. Tears brimmed in her eyes. “You look absolutely beautiful, my dear.”
Elizabeth took her mother’s hand, and they stood side by side in the mirror. Even though her mother was in her forties now, she had retained her youthful beauty. She wore a deep crimson red gown with heavy embroidery on the bodice. Her dark curls had been piled high on her head, with a ruby and silver tiara at the forefront. Elizabeth had her mother to thank for her dark allure.
She went around and smoothed Elizabeth’s dark curls down, nodding with approval. Elizabeth had opted for a simpler hairstyle, with strands from the sides of her head woven into braids, and then gathered at the back of her head. Sarah had pinned it with a diamond-encrusted comb, leaving the rest of her tresses to cascade down her back.
“What am I doing?” her mother exclaimed, berating herself. “We will be late!”
She took Elizabeth’s hand and hurried her out into the hall. Elizabeth’s heart quickened with excitement. She had just been presented to the queen a few days before and was about to attend her first gala.
“Now, remember what I told you?” her mother quizzed her as they walked down the grand staircase. Elizabeth’s fifteen-year-old sister, Penelope, was waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs. Cordelia walked out of the parlour, munching on a biscuit leftover from their afternoon tea.
“Yes, Mother.” Elizabeth ran through the list in her mind and then repeated it aloud. “Keep the gentlemen talking about themselves, laugh at all their jokes, and leave them wanting more.”
“Correct. And above all, never show your true feelings. Even if you detest the man, be attentive. Sometimes the repulsive men are the wealthiest.”
Cordelia screwed up her nose when she heard the bent of their conversation. “Should she not marry for love, Mama?”
“Nonsense. Love is for peasants and fairy tales. What have I always told you, girls?” Her mother looked down her nose at Cordelia, who shrank behind Penelope, thoroughly chastised.
Elizabeth took a deep breath and recited her mother’s long-held sentiments on the subject. “Love fades, but wealth will keep you warm at night.”
“Very good. Now, Cordelia, be in bed by a decent hour. Penelope, be sure she is. We shall see you two in the morning. And with any luck, your sister will be well on her way to earning herself a marriage proposal!”
Elizabeth let out a little squeal of delight and hurried to the front door. Her mother kissed each of her sisters before joining her at the front door. “Good night, loves! Wish me luck!” Elizabeth turned to her sisters, beaming with pride. She had never looked as beautiful as she did that night.
“Good luck!” Penelope said enthusiastically. “Snatch yourself an earl, would you?” she teased.
“Good luck.” Cordelia’s whispered well-wishes were not as animated as Penelope’s. She still clung to Penelope’s side, intimidated by her mother’s words.
“Come along! Come along!” Her mother herded her out the door, and Elizabeth bounded down the steps. The coachman handed her into the carriage, and she settled down next to the far window. Soon they were underway, Elizabeth taking in the lighted London streets.
“It is too bad Father is not here to see this,” Elizabeth said, a tinge of sadness seeping into her voice. Her father had passed away when she was ten, and even though they had not been terribly close, she would have liked to know he was pleased with her.
Her mother nodded stiffly. “Yes, well, I am sure he would have been very proud of you, dear.” She settled into her seat, gazing out the window at the passing traffic.
Elizabeth’s mother rarely spoke of her father. He had been several years older than her mother when they married. Theirs had never been a close relationship. Elizabeth reckoned that her father had been much too serious for her mother’s liking. Lady Derby was a free spirit who had a passion for life. She had wanted to travel the world, to experience everything she could before settling down and becoming a mother. Her father had refused, however, chaining her to a life in the English countryside. Elizabeth almost wondered if her mother had been relieved when her father died. After their mourning period was over, her mother had cast aside her black garments and gone straight to London for the Season.
Elizabeth was glad that she was old enough to participate in the Season now. She loved to dance, and had become an expert in the art of conversation, thanks to her mother’s tutelage.
Elizabeth let out an appreciative sigh when they arrived at the mansion where the gala was being held. The carriage pulled through the gates and around a curved gravel-covered drive that deposited them at the front door. She stepped down from the carriage, the front garden alight with Chinese paper lanterns. They were hung from the trees, giving the place a magical air.
She walked up the steps, her arm linked through her mother’s. “Isn’t it just like a fairy tale?” she breathed. The foyer was filled with yellow light from the thousands of candles that lit a tinkling crystal chandelier. The host of the party stood a few paces ahead, greeting the guests as they filed in.
Her mother leaned over to whisper in her ear as they neared the host. “That is His Grace, Robert Montague, Duke of Manchester.” Her mother’s eyes were filled with a glimmer of anticipation, and Elizabeth turned her gaze to the man who was now shaking hands with another member of the peerage.
“What are his interests, Mama?” she whispered hurriedly. It was almost their turn to greet him.
“He is in love with his hunting hounds. He also enjoys going to the opera and playing cricket. He lost his first wife almost ten years ago during the birth of his first child. Neither the mother nor the child survived. He is desperate for an heir.” Her mother straightened slightly. “Here is your chance to make a good impression,” her mother finished, just as they were stepping up to greet the duke.
“Ladies, how good of you to join us tonight.” The duke smiled and extended his hand to her mother. “It is good to see you again, Lady Derby.”
Elizabeth and her mother dipped into a deep curtsy, and her mother stepped aside. “You are most kind, Your Grace. May I present my eldest daughter, Lady Elizabeth Derby?” Her mother stepped aside, holding her hand outstretched to present her.
Elizabeth kept her eyes trained on the ground for a moment, rising gracefully from her curtsy. She kept her chin pointed to the ground slightly and fluttered her heavily lashed eyes when she looked up. She smiled demurely, just as her mother had taught her. “It is an honour, Your Grace.”
The duke smiled at her appreciatively, his gaze flickering over her slender figure. “Lady Elizabeth, I assure you, the honour is mine. Your presence here has brightened these halls already.”
Elizabeth gave him her most winning smile, and they stepped away, allowing the next guest to step forward.
Her mother took her by the arm and took her into the great hall where the dancing would soon begin. “Beautifully done, Elizabeth. Keep him wanting to come back for more. That was perfect,” she whispered.
“What do we do now?”
“We wait. The Duke will open the gala with the first dance. Stand right here, and I will be back shortly.” Her mother disappeared into the milling crowd. The noise in the room was almost deafening. People talked all around her in excited chatter. Laughter rang out all around her, and she felt awkward with no one to talk to.
But she was not alone for long, for her mother came back with two young gentlemen, both smiling from ear to ear. “Elizabeth, may I present Lord George Featherby and Sir Eldridge Nightingale?”
Elizabeth dipped into a curtsy and smiled at them. “How do you do, gentlemen?”
“How do you do, Lady Elizabeth. Your mother has told us so much about you. I wonder, would you do me the honour of going through the first dance with me?”
“I–” Elizabeth was about to answer in the affirmative when they heard someone clear their throat behind them. The two gentlemen turned, bowing at the waist when they saw it was the Duke.
Elizabeth curtsied again, smiling to herself.
“Lady Elizabeth. Would you do me the honour of opening the gala with me?” The Duke held out his hand for her, waiting patiently for her answer.
“I would be delighted, Your Grace.” And with that, he took her hand and led her to the dance floor. The crowds cleared the way, backing up until they were all crammed against the wall. Everyone craned their necks to watch as the music started.
The Duke took her hand and led her through the dance. Her heart thundered in her chest, but she made it look like she had done this a hundred times before.
“You dance beautifully, Lady Elizabeth,” the Duke commented as he led her through the quadrille.
“Oh, you are too kind, Your Grace,” she said in a tone barely above a whisper.
Several other couples joined in after she and the Duke had gone through the first phrase. As the dance was ending, she caught a glimpse of her mother gazing at her. A smile of approval tugged at the corner of her mouth, and Elizabeth knew she had done well. Perhaps soon, she would find herself the next Duchess of Manchester.
Thomas Bolton heard the sun rising before the golden rays ever peeked through his window. He was alerted to the dawn as a pair of goldfinches perched in the tree outside his window, awakening him with their song just as they did every morning. He sat up and stretched his muscled arms over his head, grunting as he stood up. He could not straighten all the way. The loft he shared with his brothers would not allow him to come to his full height without bumping his head on the eaves. Being six-foot-three-inches had its drawbacks.
He padded over to the windowsill and moved the curtains, leaning down so he could look out at the light spreading over the horizon. “Another warm day,” he whispered, not wanting to disturb his two younger brothers. Glancing over his shoulder, he smiled at the heap of arms and legs that was the tiny bed his brothers, George and Frederick, shared.
Thomas donned his clothes and headed downstairs. His mother was already awake, preparing a meal of gruel and tea for him. “Good morning, Mother,” he greeted her, sitting down at the table. “How is Eloise’s cough this morning?”
His mother set down a bowl of steaming gruel in front of him and leaned down to kiss him on the forehead. “She is better, but she did have a long night. I’ll let her sleep a little longer before I wake her.”
“Let her sleep the day away, if she likes. The rest can only help her improve.” Thomas tucked into the simple meal, thankful to have a roof over their heads and food to eat. Things had been difficult after his father’s passing three years before. He had been head gardener for an estate not far from their lowly cottage and had taught Thomas everything he knew. Instead of spending tedious months looking for a replacement, Thomas had gone to Lady Harriet Derby. He asked that she give him a chance to prove himself, and she had graciously given her consent.
Thankfully, Thomas had risen to the task, gaining the position of head gardener at sixteen years of age. Now, three years later, he was well-respected for his green thumb. Lady Derby was happy with his work, and he was grateful that he had not been forced to move away from his family.
“I heard that the Duke of Manchester is in town for a visit up at the Derby Estate. I suppose Lady Elizabeth’s marriage will be taking place shortly?” his mother asked as she came and sat down with him. She prepared a cup of tea for him, pouring the boiling water over the tea leaves as she waited for his answer.
“Yes. I suppose the wedding will be very soon. The Duke has already waited two years to propose to her. She must be relieved that all her hard work has paid off.” Thomas tried to keep the sarcastic edge out of his voice. He had seen Lady Elizabeth from afar several times. She was undoubtedly beautiful, but he knew from the gossip that circulated the servants’ quarters and kitchens that she was a selfish girl. Perhaps she and the Duke deserved each other?
“Do not be unkind, Thomas. That is not like you,” his mother said, reaching across the table. “It is good that Lady Elizabeth should be settled. Lady Derby and her daughters have been through a lot these last few years.”
“Yes, I know you are right, Mother. Sometimes I find it hard to feel bad for them, though. They are so rich.” Thomas shook his head, taking another bite of his gruel.
His mother cast a sad smile his way. “There are two ways to be rich in this life, Thomas. One is monetary wealth, the other is the wealth of love between family and friends. You have the latter and I believe you are richer than any of the Derbys ever dreamed of being.”
Thomas returned her smile. “I agree.” He sighed, thinking back on all the time he had spent at his father’s side, learning his trade. Gardening had been more than a profession for his father–it had been a way of life. It was a passion in seeing things come to life and knowing that you had helped it along. His father had instilled the same appreciation for nature inside of Thomas, and for that, he was grateful.
Standing, Thomas took up his empty bowl and placed it in the washbasin. He would need to hurry if he were to make it to the manor in time. Thankfully, Lady Derby had allowed him to walk back and forth from the estate so he could stay with his family in their humble cottage. It was situated just over the rise and up the hill from Clivebury Manor.
He went to the tiny mirror that had been tacked above the washbasin, rubbing his bear-like hands over his scruffy, brown beard. His short-cropped brown hair was a bit wild, sticking up on one side. He would need to fix that before he headed off. “I’ll walk out to the well and fetch the water for you before I go. Shall I wake up the boys and help with breakfast?”
“No, let them sleep. It’s rare I have a bit of peace and quiet in the mornings.” His mother’s slate grey eyes sparkled, and he gave her a knowing smile. His brothers could be quite the handful at twelve and five, but Eloise, now nine years old, was a great help to her.
He retrieved the bucket from its place near the front door and walked the short distance to the well, relishing the cool breeze blowing up from the lake. The sun had now risen over the low rolling hills, and he took a moment to enjoy the beauty all around him.
Birds flitted from branch to branch in the towering maples and oak trees that made up the little yard around the cottage. He heard several different songs being sung as he walked down the narrow winding path to the well, gravel crunching under his boots. There was nightingales with their staccato chirps intermingled with the mistle thrushes’ simple whistling tune. Blackcaps, whose song started off with a few rough notes before moving to clear-toned notes, jumped from high to low tones in quick succession.
Thomas’ father had gone to great pains to ensure their tiny garden was a sanctuary for birds of all kinds. And unlike the estate gardens he had worked in all his life, with their manicured lawns and straight, graveled pathways, his father had preferred a wilder look when it came to their personal garden.
“A little chaos is good, son,” he had always said. “Nature is beautiful all on its own. All we need to do is give it a stage, and it will do the rest.”
Thomas smiled at the memory of his father’s quiet voice, gently guiding him as he learned the trade of a gardener at his side. He much preferred the more rambling, natural look as well. But perhaps he was prejudiced.
He arrived at the well and quickly drew the water his mother would need as she began her day. Suddenly, he heard a loud bang coming from the loft window and knew that his brothers were awake. George began speaking loudly as he helped Frederick come downstairs for breakfast, and Thomas inwardly grimaced. Hopefully, Eloise would be able to sleep through the ruckus.
He hurried back inside and was not surprised when his brothers were already seated at the table with their bowls of gruel. “Why must we always eat this slop?” George complained, taking up a spoonful of gruel and letting it splat back into the bowl. He held his head in his hands, frowning at the thick, grey mixture.
Thomas set the water bucket down and went to the table, leaning his hands on the edge so he could meet both of their gazes. “You should be grateful we have food at all, boys. Some people are not so lucky as we are. And Mama has worked hard to prepare breakfast for you. Did you thank her?”
George’s face fell, and he looked up guiltily at his mother. “Sorry, Mama. Thank you.”
“Thank you, Mama!” Frederick exclaimed. He took a bite of porridge and smiled up at Thomas. “I had a dream about taking a boat out on the lake!”
Thomas smiled. “Did you? And did you go fishing?”
“No. There wasn’t time. The girl fell in.”
Thomas glanced up at his mother and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Oh, there was a girl? Aren’t you a little young for such fancies?”
Frederick shook his head vigorously, placing his little hand on Thomas’ forearm. “No, not my girl. Your girl.” He then sat back down and ate with gusto. No matter what Thomas said, Frederick could not be prevailed upon to say another word about the subject.
Some would say that Frederick had the second sight. And Thomas could not dispute the fact that Frederick seemed to know things that others did not. Even at two years old, Frederick had seemed to know that their father would pass away. After a long bout with pneumonia, his father had seemed to be getting better. But one day, as Frederick was playing, he suddenly looked up at Thomas and said that Papa would see the angels soon. Three days later, their father was gone.
“Don’t pay him any mind. He has been fascinated with the water ever since we read that story about the lad and the boat.” His mother touched his shoulder, drawing him away from the table. “You best be off if you don’t want to be late. Thank you for all your help,” she said, walking him to the door. He tried to shake off the uneasy feeling that Frederick’s words had instilled in him.
“You’re welcome,” Thomas replied, but in the back of his mind, he was still shaken. He glanced at his brother, still munching away at his breakfast. Thomas liked to believe in things that he could see and touch, whilst Frederick insisted that there was a world beyond their physical sight. It gave Thomas the feeling that he was not in control, and that scared him. Although, he would never admit it. “I will see you this evening. Have a good day, Mama.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek before he stepped outside.
“I am proud of you, son. I don’t know what I would do without you.” She waved from the front door as he set off. He waved back when he came to the low wooden gate. He undid the latch and pushed the gate open, passing through into the tree-lined lane leading down to the estate.
As he walked, he studied Clivebury Manor with appreciation. The red brick house stood out against the green landscape, with great white pillars standing to attention before the front doors. The gardens abutting the estate were immaculate, with low hedgerows and roses lining the maze of graveled pathways. Already, servants were setting up tables and chairs for the garden party that would take place later that afternoon. He let out a long sigh, enjoying the few moments of quiet before the whirlwind of activity that would soon overtake his day.
“Oh, to turn back time,” Thomas whispered. He would give anything to be the apprentice once more, soaking up all the knowledge from his father. His duties as head gardener put a considerable amount of pressure on him. He was not only responsible for the gardens, but also all the under gardeners and workers it took to keep the estate looking pristine. This would be the first significant garden party of the season, and Thomas knew that Lady Derby was counting on him to make it a success. “I hope I make you proud, Papa.”
Chapter 2: Elizabeth’s POV
Elizabeth looked up with nervous excitement as the guests began filing through the parlour and out onto the patio. When she spotted the Duke, she hurried over to him. He offered her his arm, and they joined her mother, who smiled at her soon-to-be son-in-law. Elizabeth wondered if she thought it odd that the Duke was only a few years younger than herself.
She had never felt so happy as she did then. She was about to be married! Soon her life would be complete, with a large house in town and an expansive estate in the countryside. The Duke also owned a home in Scotland, which he visited every summer near the end of the Season. Elizabeth had never been to Scotland, but she was sure it was lovely. The only thing about the arrangement that gave her pause was the distance from civilization–and her mother. The thought of not being close to her made Elizabeth weepy. How would she navigate the nuances of marriage without her constant guidance?
All this passed through her mind as she stood with the Duke, listening politely as he talked about his hounds. She did not really care about his dogs or that they had helped him bring in a mountain of hares and foxes over the winter months. However, by the look on her face, she was sure he thought that hounds were her favorite subject.
“Your Grace, would you like a tour of the grounds? You have not been to see the lake in a time, and we have made several improvements over the last few months.” Elizabeth was desperate for a change in scenery, and a brisk walk around the lake would do just the trick.
“No, thank you, dearest. Perhaps one of your sisters would like to accompany you? I am much too old for jaunts around the lake.” The Duke gave her a patronizing smile. Elizabeth curtsied and left the small group that had gathered around her fiancé.
Too old for walking around the lake, but not too old for tearing about the countryside on your horse? Elizabeth knew it was an excuse and wondered if she would be able to abide living with such a man. Perhaps his ardor was already fading?
At first, the Duke had been spellbound by Elizabeth’s beauty. She had worked tirelessly to catch his eye and push for a proposal. The Duke had dragged his feet, and after nearly two years, Elizabeth had been ready to give up. However, on a sunny spring day a few weeks prior, the Duke had finally asked for her hand. She had been elated, looking forward to a large society wedding once the Season commenced. There was a lot of work to be done, but for now, she was content to dream of all the things she would do once she was a duchess.
Elizabeth found Penelope by the punch table, chattering away with Cordelia as they looked over the guests. They were not old enough to participate in the conversation. Still, their mother had told them they could attend if they were quiet and simply observed the goings-on.
“Come along, Penelope. We are going for a little boat ride,” Elizabeth said. She took her sister by the hand and started off down to the lake.
“Do we have to? I haven’t been in that old rickety boat in ages. Besides, neither of us can swim.”
Cordelia followed timidly behind them, a nervous sweat breaking out on her forehead.
“Nonsense. I fancy a boat ride. And besides, I will make a very pretty picture for the Duke, glistening as we sail atop the water.” Elizabeth spread her arms out as if to say, Look at me, admire me!
Penelope only rolled her eyes. “You are so dramatic at times. Why do you need to put on a show for the duke? You are already engaged to him. I would think you did not have to work so hard now.”
“I have to keep his attention. It is not over yet. It will not be over until we are married.” Elizabeth continued to drag her sister towardss the lake.
“Well, I cannot wait until you are married. I am tired of all the hubbub.”
“When I am married, it will be your turn to come out and then you will see how hard it is to keep the attention of a man,” Elizabeth teased. Penelope’s face went white at the thought of marriage.
“I don’t want to get married yet. It looks like an awful lot of work,” Penelope complained.
When they reached the shore, Cordelia stood a safe distance from the gently lapping waters. “Are you sure this is a good idea, sister?”
Elizabeth waved her off. “Of course, it is. Now, hold the boat steady so that Penelope and I can climb in.”
Cordelia hesitantly approached the water but did as she was told. Elizabeth climbed in first and helped Penelope get in. When they were settled, Cordelia pushed them off, and Penelope began to row.
“Why do I have to be the one to row?” she complained, struggling with the heavy oars.
“Because I am the one who is supposed to be making a good impression.” Elizabeth looked up the hill towards the terraced garden and patio beyond. She smiled and waved when she saw that the Duke was watching them. He waved back at her, lifting his glass of champagne in greeting. Her mother did not look pleased.
Elizabeth ignored her mother’s stern glance, trying to enjoy herself. The sun glinted off the water, and she breathed in a contented sigh. “It is beautiful out here, is it not? Are you not happy that you agreed to come?”
Penelope put down the oars and stared daggers at her, but Elizabeth only laughed.
“You would not be out here if it were not for me. You had to have someone to do the work.” Penelope gave her an annoyed scowl and crossed her arms.
The tranquility was short-lived. A second later, Penelope’s hands flew to the side of the boat, and a frightened squeal escaped her lips. “We’re taking on water!” she cried.
Elizabeth looked down at the bottom of the boat where Penelope pointed. A gurgling spring was coming up from the floorboards and had already filled the little rowboat with several inches of water. She cast a worried glance to shore, realizing that they were likely too far away to make it back before they sank. “Give me the oars!” she shouted. Elizabeth took up the awkward things in her hands and started to try and turn the boat.
“You’re doing it wrong!” Penelope shouted. “Hurry, get us back to shore!” Penelope’s eyes were wide with fear at the prospect of drowning. Elizabeth did her best to combat the panic rising in her gut, putting on a brave face for her sister.
“We are going to be all right, do you hear me? Just stay calm,” Elizabeth said. But her tone was anything but comforting. Her voice shook as she tried to row with all her might.
After several poorly executed attempts to turn the boat around, Elizabeth let them fall into the water. Elizabeth stood up in the boat, making it sway dangerously from side to side. She raised her arms and started to wave them over her head. “Help!” she screamed. “Help us!“
Several heads turned from those on the patio, but no one moved for several seconds. She let out an exasperated sigh, the water already swirling around her ankles. “Oh, please! Help us!” she cried again.
A flash of brown and tan caught the corner of her eye, and she saw someone running towards the lakeshore. Her heart skipped a beat, and she clung to Penelope. “We have to try and get to shore, okay?”
“How?” Penelope asked, her voice rising in high-pitched hysteria. “We’re going to drown!” Penelope clasped her arms around Elizabeth’s neck, staring in terror down at the water.
Elizabeth tried to pry her arms off her neck, but Penelope was not about to let go. Elizabeth caught sight of a man standing at the shore. He took off his shirt and then dove into the water, pushing through the water with long, firm strokes. “Penelope, let go. You’ll drag us both down if you don’t try to swim.”
Penelope was frozen in fear. She barely seemed to hear or see Elizabeth. This is all my fault! she thought. Penelope and I are going to drown, and it’s all my fault!
The shore was now crowded with party guests, all of them calling around frantically for someone to do something. But no one seemed to want to get their clothes wet. The Duke stood there, ordering people about, his voice booming over the water.
Elizabeth gasped for breath, Penelope’s firm grip cutting off her air. “Penelope, let go!” Elizabeth yelled, trying to get loose. Penelope clawed at her all the more, desperate to have something to hold onto, something to save her from the watery depths.
The boat sank beneath the water, and the girls were plunged into the icy depths. Elizabeth screamed before they were both plunged beneath the surface. Penelope clawed at her, pushing her further down as she tried to get to the surface. Elizabeth yelled underwater, bubbles floating around her face. She cupped her hands and tried to fight her way up. After what seemed like ages, she was finally able to put her head above water, sucking in a breath.
Her dress was weighing her down, pulling her down to the bottom of the lake once more. Her head popped above the water for a split second, and she sucked in air. “Help!” came her watery, gurgled cry. All of a sudden, she felt a strong hand grasp her arm and pull her up.
“Hold still!” a man’s voice sounded, and he turned her around as she fought to breathe. “Both of you calm down and do as I say!”
Elizabeth instantly stilled. The man turned her around, wrapping his arm around her neck. She gripped his arm, holding on for dear life.
She wiped at her eyes, trying to get the water out so she could see. To her left, she saw another young man helping to pull Penelope to shore. She was whimpering softly, holding onto the man’s arm just as Elizabeth held onto her saviour. The man backstroked them to shore, his breath tickling her ear. What would Mama say when they finally did make it to the beach? She almost wished she had drowned.
When they reached the bank, the man pulled her out of the water, sputtering and coughing up water. He sat down on the ground and cradled her in his arms as if she were a baby. Elizabeth looked up into his face. Her vision blurred. He brushed her wet tendrils out of her face, his touch tender.
“Are you all right, Lady Elizabeth?”
His voice was warm and resonant, like a breeze floating over a sun-drenched field of wildflowers. For a moment, she relaxed into his arms and focused on breathing. “I—I think so.” She recognized him as the head gardener. She had seen him working diligently, although they had never spoken.
Elizabeth let her eyes travel over his face and then down his bare chest and arms. She immediately blushed and looked away. She had never seen a man with such well-formed muscles.
“Are you able to sit up?” he asked, his tone filled with concern.
“I—I don’t know,” she stammered. Her head was pounding, and her lungs burned. She felt like she had swallowed a gallon of water. She looked over at Penelope, sitting up in the grass with the other man sitting close by.
“Elizabeth!” her mother yelled as she hurried over to them. The Duke was close on her heels, followed by the other party guests. The Duke’s brow was deeply furrowed, and he seemed to be staring daggers at her rescuer. It was then that she realized how compromising this looked. She sat up quickly, her head swimming.
“Careful, now. Don’t try to move too quickly.”
Elizabeth glared at him and pushed herself upright. “Let go of me! Get your hands off, do you hear me?!”
He blinked slowly, shocked. He let go of her, his mouth flattening into a thin line. He stood up and held out his hand to help her. Instead, she pushed herself off the ground, her hair hanging in wet curls around her face. Humiliated, she went to her mother. Her mother wrapped her arms around Elizabeth’s shoulders, reaching her hand out for Penelope. Her sister soon joined them, whimpering.
The Duke stepped forward and offered her his jacket. “Are you well, Lady Elizabeth? You gave us quite a scare.” He did not look pleased with the turn of today’s events, and she felt her cheeks grow warm with a humiliating blush.
“I am well, Your Grace. Thank you.”
Whispers abounded as they made their way back to the house. The gardener’s actions had been innocent, but the way he had held her after pulling her from the water had probably looked anything but. As they neared the top of the terraced garden, she chanced a peek over her shoulder. The gardener walked across the lawn to the servants’ entrance, shoulders slumped forward and dripping wet. She quickly looked away, and her gaze locked with the Duke’s. His brow was still deeply furrowed, and he looked away from her, upset.
What have I done?
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Lady Elizabeth Derby has her whole life planned out: marry the Duke of Manchester and have a glittering future amongst the ton. However, everything turns upside down when she pulls a childish prank, taking her younger sister out in the lake on a leaky boat… Luckily for her, she will be rescued by their handsome gardener. Little did she know though that this fateful moment would mark the end of her longed-for betrothal.
When her reputation becomes tarnished, will Elizabeth manage to clear her name and find love against all odds?
What Thomas Bolton, head gardener at the Derby estate, could never expect, is that after rescuing Elizabeth, she would dare to blame him for ruining her life. Despite considering her a spoiled girl, he cannot help but feel charmed by her mesmerising beauty, and he soon finds himself unable to get her out of his mind. However, he knows very well that a union with a lady and a gardener is a hopeless dream, and that forbidden love might be a fruitless battle.
Will Thomas be brave enough to open his heart to Elizabeth defying the social standards?
As the weeks pass, Thomas and Elizabeth are unable to deny the growing feelings for each other. Unfortunately, several hurdles lie in their way, with the biggest one being Elizabeth’s mother and her unbearable expectations. In the end, will Thomas and Elizabeth’s true love bridge any social difference that comes between them? Or will prejudice and family duty succeed in keeping them apart forever?
“The Lady and the Kind Gardener” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.