Alexander winced as his sister’s clumsy dog streaked past him, bumping into his problematic leg. Leaning against a French oak console table, he massaged the ever-present ache, willing the spasm to pass. Whilst he could walk on most days without his cane, his leg would never quite be the same again, not with the amount of muscle tissue damage he had sustained after his carriage accident.
“Champion!” he heard Sophia shout. “Come back here this instant!”
The young woman appeared a minute later, her round cheeks red with exertion. Wisps of her dark hair had escaped her carefully constructed coiffure and were sticking to her face like weeds clinging to a wall. She would likely cry in horror if she was to see herself in the mirror.
“What did Champion do this time?” Alexander asked his sister.
Sophia held her hand up as she caught her breath, probably regretting the extra helping of cake she had had earlier today.
“That silly mutt has gone too far this time,” she claimed, walking towards him with both hands on her waist.
She was still breathing heavily, but at least she was able to speak. Her dark brown eyes quickly narrowed at his hand on his leg before crying out in dismay.
“Did he bump into you again?” she asked. “I am so sorry, Alex. I have been trying to teach him to be more obedient, but he takes off whenever he sniffs something interesting. Getting a bloodhound might not have been the right choice, but he looked so adorable that I could not just leave him.”
The black and tan pup had been the runt of a neighbour’s litter and quite sickly as he had not been able to fight his brothers and sisters for their mother’s milk. Sophia had taken pity on him and asked to take him home, but only under the promise that she would do everything she could to nurse him to health. The young woman had done precisely that, caring for the young pup until he had grown stronger and bigger than his siblings and could be introduced to the other animals on the estate. The only problem now was the fact that he had been coddled so much that he rarely listened to anyone.
“Go and find him before he gets into the chicken enclosure again and upsets all the hens,” Alexander told her. “We barely had any eggs for a week the last time he did that. Do it quickly because you will need time to get ready for dinner this evening. You know how Mother is about her children being punctual at mealtimes.”
“Yes, yes, I am fully aware of the rule,” Sophia reassured him. “I would ask Selina to help me, but she is practising the pianoforte with Miss Robins. I best be going.”
Sophia waved and ran off, nearly knocking into a servant carrying the silver cutlery for shining. She quickly apologised and continued running, shouting for her pup to stop. Needless to say, there was never a dull moment in the Spencer household. Between mischievous twin sisters and their own zoo of various animals, there was always something going on. Alexander did not mind as it was just the thing he needed to keep his mind occupied and alert during the day. Sometimes, the shadows that frequently followed him were too close for comfort, and he suffocated under their strain, but his family and friends were always there to help him to chase them away.
“Alexander, dear,” his mother called. “Did you say your friends are coming to dinner today?”
The Dowager Duchess knew full well that Cecil and Ewan were coming to see him today after spending two months in London for the Season. They had both written that they had big news to share with him in their last letter, and Alexander was looking forward to hearing it. He lived vicariously through his friends since willingly locking himself on his estate for the last few years to avoid the society he had nicknamed The Brainless Bunch. Anybody who could not hold a conversation without gossiping about someone in a horrible fashion could not be intelligent. Since the Ton seemed to thrive on scandal and gossip, it was only natural for Alexander to see them as nothing but fools.
“Alexander,” his mother sighed in exasperation, her gold bracelets lightly bumping against each other as she placed her hands on her hips. “I would appreciate an answer from you.”
“Yes, Cecil and Ewan are joining us for dinner tonight,” he replied. “They should arrive around six.”
“That gives us an hour before dinner,” the Dowager Duchess said, her dark eyes showing dissatisfaction. “Can they not come earlier?”
“They are travelling from London to Kent, Mother,” Alexander reminded her. “I expect they will arrive at their respective houses around two, giving them four hours to rest and freshen up. Would you have them arrive here all dishevelled and ill-mannered from lack of sleep? The Season must have kept them busy.”
“You are the only one who acts like a bear when woken up before it is time,” his mother retorted.
“Have you ever seen a bear before?” he asked.
“No,” the woman admitted. “But I have heard that they are aggressive and menacing when disturbed.”
“Do you truly think I am aggressive and menacing when disturbed?” Alexander asked.
The Dowager Duchess pulled her mouth to the side and gave a frown that the twins often mimicked.
“Well, I suppose not,” the duchess finally answered. “But if someone did not know you well, they would be terrified every time they called to you and you turned to them with a frown. You have a rather fierce look about you, but I blame your father. He could stare at a man and make him look away in discomfort in a matter of seconds. It worked on women as well, but I always thought he was like a hero in a Gothic story of ghosts, damp castles, and young maidens. Perhaps his inability to scare me was what made him pursue me.”
The duchess smiled as she thought about her late husband, showing a dimple on her left cheek. Although she had more lines on her face than ten years ago, she was still a beauty and had aged well. Barely a grey thread could be found in her dark hair, and her walnut-brown eyes kept their youthful sparkle that would likely never diminish in brightness.
“Perhaps I should purchase a bear from Mr Presley, and have you witness its true nature,” Alexander suggested. “You might realise that I am an angel compared to those hulking creatures.”
The Dowager Duchess wagged her forefinger. “No more animals. That Bloodhound is the last animal I will allow on this estate. Do you not have enough pets?”
Alexander shrugged. He had lost count of the number of pets they had but always felt there was room for one more. The animals they had ran from the everyday domestic to the exotic and were shipped to England from different parts of the world. Mr Presley always made sure to contact Alexander whenever a new shipment of animals arrived in the country, giving him first preference.
“We are missing a unicorn,” Alexander eventually replied with a smile. “Your daughters have spoken about having one for years, but I have not been able to locate one yet. Which continent do you suppose they come from?”
The Dowager Duchess just shook her head. “Oh, you! You are as bad as your twin sisters. Please tell Sophia to come back into the house when she is done. We have not decided what she’s wearing for dinner yet.”
“Cecil and Ewan will not mind what she wears, Mother.”
“I mind,” the woman argued. “I cannot have my daughters look like anything but the best. Selina has already selected her attire for the evening and has planned her afternoon well. ‘Tis only Sophia who seems to disagree.”
“Leave her be, Mother,” Alexander insisted. “We cannot compare them to each other because they are completely different. You will cause a rift between them if you keep pointing out their differences and favouring one daughter over the other.”
“I would never do such a thing!” the woman protested. “I only wish that your sister would show a little more interest in the things that usually appeal to a lady her age. Running around with animals is hardly appropriate behaviour. How will I introduce them next year? Selina will remain poised and calm, but I am afraid Sophia might say or do something to humiliate herself. I only wish to protect her.”
Alexander shook his head. “You might succeed in pushing her away instead. Let her be.”
“That is easy for you to say,” the woman bit back. “You are not a mother or a parent. When you have a daughter one day and your advice works, you are free to tell me how wrong I was. Until then, let me do as I believe I should. Also, be sure to rub that leg with some of the ointment Mrs Muller made especially for you.”
The Dowager Duchess walked off with a stiff back, undoubtedly annoyed by his words. Whilst Alexander understood his mother’s fears, she needed to take the time to understand her daughter. Sophia was more like he was at her age—curious and adventurous with a short attention span. She enjoyed being outdoors with the animals and often returned to the house looking a little worse for wear. Alexander had specifically hired a seamstress and shoemaker to make dresses and shoes that could handle her outdoor activities, thus avoiding spoiling her finer clothes.
Their mother had not been impressed by his initiative, but she had seen the merit of protecting the delicate dresses and gowns she regularly had made for her daughters. Alexander doubted any other daughters could boast of having a wide array of attire as his sisters and knew they were the envy of their friends. It seemed his mother was determined to make a good impression on Society before their formal introduction at court next year. He dreaded the day, but Alexander could not stop it. Selina and Sophia would be eighteen next year and likely older than most women being presented to the monarch. Many young women were brought before the monarch as soon as their mothers could chance it, whilst others preferred to wait a little longer. The Dowager Duchess would have sent the twins to court this year if not for Alexander stepping in and convincing her that another year would be needed to ensure the girls were ready to enter Society. However, with Queen Charlotte’s illness, it was too early to gauge if she would hold a drawing room next year, but perhaps 1814 might be a lucky year for the twins.
Alexander walked to the nearby parlour with a slight limp, needing to rest his leg. He had wanted to spend some time in their vast library, but that would mean walking up two flights of stairs, which his leg would loudly protest. Twenty minutes or so resting in the parlour would be enough for his old injury to stop complaining and provide him with relief. He caught his reflection in the hallway mirror, his eyes falling on the long, thin scar that ran from his left temple to his cheek. It did nothing to take away from the features that many women considered handsome, but it did add a slightly dangerous air about him that suited his dark brown eyes and brown hair. It was the only immediate visible reminder of the accident, but the scar on his thigh was far worse.
Peering a little closer at himself, Alexander noticed a few wrinkles around his eyes, but he did not mind them. They added maturity to his face and made him look less like the young man he used to be.
He sunk down on a settee as soon as he entered the parlour, and continued to rub his leg until it eased, and he could breathe a sigh of relief. The spasms were no longer as frequent as they used to be, but he would never be entirely rid of them no matter how much time passed. Coming out of a terrible carriage accident with his life intact had been a miracle he did not take for granted, but it had altered Alexander’s life to the point where he did not recognise himself anymore. Gone were his carefree days and nights spent doing as he wished and going wherever he pleased. Now, he had confined himself to his estate and never allowed anyone in unless he counted them as family or friends. It had not been a decision he had made lightly, as it affected his whole family, but when Alexander experienced the judgement of the society he had grown up in, he knew that drawing away was the only way to maintain his pride and peace of mind.
“Your Grace,” Monroe called from the doorway.
“Your mother has sent some milk for you.”
Alexander grimaced. “It is mixed with bitter herbs, is it not?”
“The mixture will release the tension in your body, Your Grace,” the butler reminded him. “It may taste bitter, but it sweetens your body. Mrs Muller will send the salve to your room later this evening. Will you need some assistance with it?”
“No, thank you, Monroe. Does it smell any better than the last time?”
“She has added lavender flowers to improve the smell, Your Grace,” the butler told him, slightly leaning his tall frame against the door frame.
The man refused to use a staff although his back gave him problems at times. The proud man believed it would indicate his inability to serve the family, which was utterly ridiculous considering he was fitter than most men half his age.
“But have you smelt it?” Alexander asked.
A shadow of a smile hovered around the older man’s mouth, his grey eyes twinkling. “One could smell Mrs Muller cooking it from the hallway.”
“Aha!” Alexander exclaimed. “It is just as I thought. I will have you know that it is not easy falling asleep whilst slathered in something so foul-smelling.”
“That is understandable, Your Grace,” the man replied, nodding his grey head. “I will ask her to add orange blossoms as well.”
“If it will help. I might not even need it tonight as I feel much better. A little massage does wonders.”
“Very well, Your Grace. I must go and select the wine for dinner tonight. Mr Fletcher and Mr Hardy are most particular about their wine.”
The butler bowed and exited the room, leaving Alexander with the glass of warm, disgusting milk. He looked at the liquid and could have sworn he saw it bubble as though it had a mind of its own. He immediately was reminded of the witches’ rhyme in Macbeth as they stood around the boiling cauldron, mixing their next havoc-causing brew.
“‘Double, double toil and trouble’,” he recited. “‘Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake’.”
There was more to it, but Alexander could not be bothered to recall it all, but it ended with cooling the charm with baboon’s blood to make it firm and good. The thought of snakes and baboon’s blood made him gag with distaste, but he was reasonably certain Mrs Muller would not add such stomach-turning ingredients in his milk. Alexander had once been told that eye of newt and such ingredients were actually herbs, and a baboon’s blood might be that of a spotted lizard, but he still would not wish to dip even a finger in such a potion.
Blocking his nose, he drank the bitter liquid in three gulps, hating the way it coated his tongue. The mixture was indeed a Godsend at relaxing the muscles in his body, but Alexander could do without the taste. He usually had something else to chase it down with, but Monroe must have forgotten about it. Fortunately, Alexander kept hard-boiled sweets in his pocket that he usually handed out to the servants’ children that minded the various Spencer pets whilst their parents were busy with chores on the estate.
He popped a lemon-flavoured confectionery in his mouth, sucking furiously until all remains of the milk concoction had disappeared and all he could taste was the sweet in his mouth. Alexander was not fond of sweet treats, so he spat it out as soon as it had accomplished his goal, folding it in his handkerchief to dispose of later. The laundry maids would bemoan the state of the silk handkerchief, but he was confident they could remove the stain and make it look new again. He heard a noise outside before looking back with a jump as the partially closed door banged open, and Champion came hurtling into the room, jumping on the nearest armchair.
“Champion!” Sophia yelled.
“You are enjoying this, aren’t you?” Alexander asked the bloodhound, amused by the dog’s antics. “You should not annoy her so much, not when she has looked after you so well. What if she gets another puppy? How would you feel if you were no longer the main pet in her life?”
Oddly, the highly excitable dog seemed to understand him because he jumped off the couch with his head down and left the room.
“There you are!” he heard Sophia exclaim. “Do not think your kisses will wash away your naughtiness, mister.” There was a pause before his sister spoke again, “Oh, very well. I will forgive you this time, but do not run away from me again. You must not get into trouble, you know. Mama is already so annoyed with you. Do you want to never see the inside of the house again? She’ll lock you outside with the pigs and chickens at this rate.”
Sophia’s voice grew faint as she moved away from the parlour, only to be replaced with the voices of his two best friends. They had arrived earlier than expected and were causing a ruckus in the hallway as they called out to everyone. Cecil and Ewan had always considered Spencer House their second home and did not think twice about making a noise in the stately building. Gentlemen were supposed to be calm, refined, and never raise their voices, but the pair did not think those rules applied to them.
Grinning, Alexander followed the chaos of laughing friends, barking dogs, and squealing girls until he encountered the two men talking to his excited sisters in the hallway. Selina and Sophia considered Cecil and Ewan their brothers and were treated as honoured sisters in turn. They were the envy of most English women as the two men were dashingly handsome and popular with the ladies. Alexander had been just as adored before his accident, but now everyone considered him a monster. They all assumed he was deformed and crippled, but they could not be further from the truth.
“The golden boys have returned,” he announced, drawing their attention.
Cecil and Ewan turned their fair heads to him, their grins widening. “We hope you have not been too grumpy without us,” said Ewan.
“When am I ever grumpy?” Alexander asked.
Cecil rolled his eyes. “When am I ever grumpy?” the man repeated. “The girls all used to call you dark and brooding, but they strangely loved that about you. You did not even need to smile to gain their attention. You simply had to stand about looking mysterious, and they were drawn to you like bees to honey.”
“More like sharks to blood,” Alexander countered. “They used to swarm around me like eager sharks, all waiting to take the first bite. Thank goodness for the accident, or I might have been married to one of them by now.”
Alexander made light of the carriage accident, but he saw the flicker of sadness in his friends’ eyes. He had not wanted to dampen the mood by bringing up the past, so he promptly changed the topic, inviting them into the drawing room for drinks. The twins followed, peppering the men with questions about their time spent in London.
“Did you meet anyone special?” Sophia asked, always the more forward of the sisters.
“Maybe,” Cecil replied, his corn blue eyes creasing as he smiled. “You have a smudge of dirt on your cheek. What have you been up to?”
Sophia wiped her cheek, removing some of the dirt. “Champion made me run around the house and estate chasing him. He seemed to think it was fun, but he has since apologised for it.”
“He did?” asked Ewan, his fair eyebrows raised. “But dogs cannot talk.”
“They have their own way of communicating their feelings to us,” Sophia explained. “He lowered his head, offered his paw, and licked my face—that is a clear indication of an apology.”
“I suppose you are right,” Ewan agreed. “My mongrel does the same thing whenever he is caught doing something naughty.”
“Why do you call poor Odin a mongrel?” Sophia demanded, frowning at the man. “He might not be a pure breed, but he is just as special as any other dog.”
Ewan laughed, revealing a bottom row of crooked teeth. “I know. I call him mongrel out of affection.”
“I still do not think it right,” Sophia muttered, crossing her arms over her chest.
Ewan stretched to lightly pull on her curl, encouraging a smile out of her before turning to Selina. “What have you been doing whilst we have been away, Selina?”
“The usual activities,” the young woman replied.
Selina’s life was full of routine and practice, never deviating from the monotony. One day she would learn that there was more to one’s existence than trying to be the best at everything, but for now, she seemed happy with the mundaneness of her life.
“I think we need to add a little excitement to your routine,” said Cecil. “Would two weddings do the trick?”
“Two weddings?” Selina asked, her brow puckering. “Who is getting married?”
Cecil and Ewan looked at each other, smiling, their faces saying it all. Both girls gasped, their brown eyes widening with surprise.
“You are getting married!” they said together.
Stunned, Alexander looked between his friends, realising this was the big news they had hinted at in their letters.
“Do I know the women?” he asked.
Ewan nodded. “Yes, but not personally. We have spoken about them before. Do you recall hearing about Elizabeth Atkins and Candace Darby?”
“Somewhat, but you never mentioned being so interested in them,” Alexander pointed out. “When did you decide they were the women you wished to marry?”
“We will share that information over dinner,” Cecil said. “The Duchess will want to hear about it as well.”
Dinner was still some hours away, but the men were adamant they would only discuss the details once they were around the dinner table. They played card games until then, but Alexander kept thinking about the big step his friends would one day take. Marriage was not something to be taken lightly, but if they had made their decision, it meant that they were serious about the women. Part of him wished he had met the women before, but his friends knew better than to introduce them to him.
Alexander had been avoiding the outside world since his carriage accident and did not plan to become involved with it any time soon. The very people he had thought would support him during his time of need were the ones who had gossiped and labelled him a monster. They all assumed his face had been deformed, he could no longer walk and needed to be carried everywhere. These were the same people who had praised him and all but kissed the ground he walked on, but they had turned on him and accused him of all sorts of crimes, including taking the lives of the people who had been in the other carriage. He had been the only one to escape with his life, which he had felt guilty about, but those around him had made it far worse and branded him a killer. It was amusing how quickly people turned on others once circumstances changed. Staying away from them had been his only solution to survive the emotional trauma he was already going through.
Dinner arrived soon enough, and Cecil and Ewan soon provided all the details of their courtship with their ladies.
“We approached them when we realised how popular they were with the other eligible men,” Ewan explained. “We did not like the idea of other men paying them so much attention.”
The Dowager Duchess laughed. “You were jealous! I have no doubt those young women knew precisely what they were doing to finally have you commit to them. When will we meet them?”
Everyone turned to Alexander, knowing it was his decision to make. Of course, they could meet the women elsewhere, but his family and friends were careful to consider his feelings in the matter. He appreciated their concern, but at times he felt he was pulling them back from living their lives.
“You do not have to shy away from the world forever, dear,” his mother said. “I know they said many hurtful things before, but some years have passed since then.”
“I assure you that Society has not changed, Mother,” Alexander told her. “These are the same people who accused me of being a murderer and a crippled monster. Let them think whatever they want of me, but I will not reveal myself to them.”
“But when will you show them how wrong they are about you?” Sophia asked, growing angry. “Your name was cleared, so everyone knows you did not cause the accident. The only thing left is to show them that you are not the broken man they believe you are. Why must you be so stubborn?”
“Sophia!” their mother gasped.
“Do not fret, Mother,” Alexander said, calming her down. “Sophia is only concerned about me.”
His sisters did not have a nasty bone in their bodies, and no matter how outspoken they were, he never scolded them. Remaining calm had always been the best method with them.
“Sophia is right,” Selina said quietly, putting her spoon down. “We want Alexander to meet someone special and settle down just like Cecil and Ewan. He deserves only the best.”
Alexander had not mentioned it before, but he had been thinking about marriage lately. He was twenty-eight and the only son of the family; he had responsibilities to uphold for the sake of the family line. But, more than that, Alexander wanted someone by his side to share his life with. Hearing about his friends’ engagements had simply reminded him of his own need to find someone and settle down. However, it was not so easy in his current situation. There was one option open to him, but there were no guarantees that it would work.
“You have become rather quiet,” Cecil pointed out.
“I am thinking,” Alexander replied.
“About what?” asked Ewan.
The table went silent, but Sophia soon broke the silence, “Get married? How? And to whom?”
Alexander did not want to say anything, not yet. He needed to first write a letter to Lord Russell and ask him to honour the agreement made between the two families many years ago.
I hope this letter finds you well. Several years have passed since our families communicated with each other, which is rather unfortunate considering you and my father were good friends. However, I wish to remedy the lack of communication by honouring the vow taken between the families.
If memory serves me right, Elizabeth is now twenty-one and is of marriageable age. Our families agreed to unite the Spencers and Montagues by marriage, and Elizabeth was thus pledged to marry me. I ask you to honour that vow by coming to Blackmore Estate with your family so I might meet my fiancée before a wedding date is set.
I look forward to hearing your response.
The Duke of Blackmore
Philip grabbed two tufts of hair on either side of his head and pulled, welcoming the stinging pain inflicted on his scalp. It was preferable to reading the young Duke’s letter and recalling the vow he had made with his old friend. The men had been drunk when they first brought up the topic of getting their children married to each other one day, but the idea had still seemed favourable once they sobered and had time to think about it, so they had gone ahead with it and made it known amongst their families that Alexander and Elizabeth were pledged to each other and would marry once the young girl reached marriageable age. However, it was all so long ago that Philip never suspected the young man would remember it and request he fulfil the vow.
“What am I to do?” he whined, dropping his head in his hands.
Elizabeth would never marry a cripple! Philip knew his youngest daughter well and understood she was quite vain and selfish like her mother. The young woman would never agree to marry Alexander, but Philip could not go against a promise he had given several years ago. The situation would have been better if Alexander was still the same man he used to be, but the terrible carriage accident of several years ago had changed him into an unrecognisable young man.
The last time Philip had briefly seen Alexander was at his father’s funeral, and at that time, he was still recovering from the accident. A mask had disguised half of his face that was reportedly deformed, and servants had carried him in a sedan chair as his legs had been crushed. Philip still did not have all the details of the accident, but he recalled being told the driver of the other carriage had been in the wrong when the two collided and the one fell off a steep hill, whilst Alexander was knocked off his carriage and crushed beneath the contraption. Three young men died that day, but Alexander escaped with crippling injuries that kept him confined to Blackmore Estate. No one but his family and two closest friends regularly saw him, and over time, people had created their own stories and rumours about the man.
Philip pitied him, but not enough to give his daughter to him.
Getting up, Philip moved to his drinks trolley and poured himself a brandy, swallowing the amber liquid in one gulp. He poured another and returned to his desk, falling into the armchair with a loud sigh. Alexander’s letter had been straightforward, leaving no room for error on the reader’s part. The young man’s request almost felt like a challenge for Philip to rise to, but he was not certain he could meet the duke’s requirements.
“Why do you look like the sky is about to fall?” his wife asked, gliding into the room. She took a seat opposite him and rested one arm on the table. “Have you gambled away something of value?”
“If only,” Philip replied with a miserable laugh. “That would be easier to deal with.”
“What do you mean? What has happened?”
“See for yourself.”
Philip pushed the letter towards her and sat back, closing his eyes so he did not have to witness his wife’s initial reaction. She would probably refuse the marriage and end the agreement between the families, but Philip could not do that. He had made a vow, and he intended to fulfil it, even if it earned him the hatred of his daughter. Deborah finally looked up at him in horror, shaking her head.
“We cannot marry our daughter to a crippled man!” she explained. “That would be inhumane.”
“He is also human, Deborah,” Philip reminded her.
“A crippled man with half a face!” the countess cried. “I heard he wears a mask to hide the gaping hole in his face. Do you wish your own daughter to marry a man like that? What if he is impotent?”
The last word was a whisper as though his wife could not bear to say it aloud. Sighing yet again, Philip hung his head and rubbed his temples in tight circles.
“I need time to think about this,” he told his wife.
“What is there to think about?” Deborah demanded. “My daughter will never marry a man like the Duke. I forbid it!”
Philip looked up, raising his eyebrows. “You forbid it? Indeed? Since when does a wife’s decision take precedence over that of her husband?”
The woman’s fierce expression mellowed as she smiled at him, understanding that she had forgotten her place. Philip was not an overbearing husband or father, but he had limits that he would not permit to be pushed out of the way.
“Dear,” the countess began. “I did not mean to speak so harshly. I suppose I am surprised by the news and only thinking about our daughter’s future. She doesn’t deserve to marry the Duke, not when she has other better prospects to consider. It is only a matter of time before a young gentleman asks to court her.”
“I do not break my promises, Deborah,” Philip said firmly. “However, if we were to go to Kent and the Duke realises that Elizabeth is not a good match, then he will end the agreement, and we shall return home with our daughter.”
“Do you hear what you are saying?” the countess asked. “The Duke will take one look at Elizabeth and claim her as his bride. Who would reject a beautiful, poised, and graceful woman like our daughter? She stands head and shoulders above the rest and is already a favourite with Southwell’s eligible men. We cannot take the chance of the Duke seeing her.”
“Then what is it that you expect me to do?” Philip asked, his voice rising. “The duke expects a response from me. What am I going to tell him?”
Deborah pressed a finger to her brow and lowered her head. “Why did you have to make such a promise? Why did you sell your daughter to the Spencers?”
“I did not sell our daughter, Deborah,” Philip countered. “You would do well to not make the mistake of repeating that ridiculous statement again. You are well aware that arranged marriages have been the norm in this country for centuries, and this arrangement was not made lightly. I knew that Alexander would one day be a duke and inherit his father’s vast estate. I believed Elizabeth would not have been able to find something better anywhere else. How was I to know he would have a carriage accident and lose the ability to walk?”
“Do not forget that he is no longer handsome,” Deborah added. “Our poor daughter would run away from him if she ever saw the grotesque being beneath the mask. Do not do this to our daughter, Philip. You know how frightened she would be to marry that man. I understand that most women would consider him, but Elizabeth is not most women. Not only is she beautiful, but she has an enviable dowry that will be enough to attract other worthy suitors who are whole in body and mind.”
Philip pushed away from the desk to look out the window, watching the servants below. He smiled when he recognised his eldest daughter under the large straw hat she often wore when tending the flower garden. Lily was not like other young women her age, but that did not surprise him as she had not experienced the same childhood as them. Philip blamed himself as he had not been around Lily when she was growing up, only finding out about her seven years ago. She was his first child resulting from a passionate love affair between him and Claudette. It had been wrong of them to be together when their engagements to others had already been announced, but they had not been able to help themselves. His months spent in France had been the best moments of his life, but they had ended when he had to return to England and married Deborah. Philip had not known that Claudette was with child then; she had kept it a secret from him and taken the burden on herself.
“This is not the time to daydream, Philip,” his wife complained, pulling him back to the present. “We need to find a solution to this predicament.”
“Being silent and looking out of the window does not mean I am daydreaming,” he said, annoyed at her whining. “This matter is challenging and needs a lot of thought. Do you not have an errand to attend to?”
“The immediate future of our daughter is much more important than any errand,” Deborah stated. “I cannot leave this study not knowing what will become of our daughter.”
“Sitting there and complaining will not help me think,” Philip warned.
“But I only wish to help,” his wife claimed. “I understand that you are the one with the final say, but can I not discuss this matter with you? Elizabeth is my only child, Philip. Surely, you can understand my concerns?”
“You can stay if you can contribute to finding a solution and not badger me about keeping the promise I made to a good friend,” said Philip. “Can you do that?”
“Certainly!” Deborah exclaimed. “In fact, I think I have the perfect solution to this mess.”
Philip lifted an eyebrow in disbelief. “Indeed?”
“Of course. You know how concerned I am about Lilith’s future,” the woman began. “She is like my own daughter. I am worried she will never have a suitable gentleman court her due to her unfortunate situation. Thus, getting her married to the Duke instead of Elizabeth seems like the wisest choice.”
Philip’s jaw dropped. “I beg your pardon? Give Lily to the Duke?”
Oddly, Philip had never truly thought about Lily leaving the estate. He understood that she needed to marry someday, but he felt he had spent so little time with her that he was reluctant to let her go. Seven years just did not seem enough for him. Of course, this did not mean he loved Elizabeth any less, but Deborah had spoken about their daughter’s eventual marriage so much that Philip believed he was somewhat prepared for the day the young woman would leave his home. Being surprised about swapping their daughters had merely been a knee-jerk reaction for him.
“Yes,” the countess affirmed. “Please, just think about it. Elizabeth and Lilith share the same colouring and bear some resemblance to each other. The Duke has not seen Elizabeth in many years and will not be able to tell the difference. Marrying a duke will give Lilith the status and security she needs to finally take her place in this world.”
Philip narrowed his eyes. “How can he be good for Lily but terrible for Elizabeth? They are both my daughters.”
“Lilith is illegitimate,” Deborah pointed out, her body stiffening. “You may have convinced others that she is the daughter of a poor family member and you adopted her to give her a better future, but that does not change the truth. You cannot compare Elizabeth’s prospects to Lilith’s.”
Philip’s jaw clenched. Deborah would never let him forget that Lilith was the product of a forbidden affair, but she was never so direct with her comments before. She had special ways of digging her talons into him that let Philip know she had not forgiven him for his betrayal. Bringing Lily to England had only worsened her grudge against him, but he could not have ignored his daughter and left her in France after learning about her. Finding out about Claudette’s death had also rocked him to his core, and his only ray of light had been the knowledge that they had a daughter together.
“Philip,” said Deborah. “You must admit that what I have said makes sense. Lilith is not as fragile as Elizabeth, and she has always said that looks do not matter to her. I am certain she’ll make a good wife and take care of the Duke. He is obviously in need of a wife, and I believe only Lilith will meet his needs. I say this as a compliment. She is a sturdy girl.”
Philip was taken aback by his wife’s words. She rarely said anything so complimentary about Lily and even insisted on calling her by the cursed name given to her by her grandfather. “Lilith” meant “demon”, and his daughter had been given that name to signify she was unwanted and considered the spawn of the Devil himself. Philip could not imagine what Claudette must have endured at the hands of her father and he hated she had to go through it all without his support. Of course, he could not have done anything about it as he was married by the time she gave birth to Lily and Deborah was pregnant with Elizabeth, but that did not stop him from feeling guilty. He could not even tell people she was his real daughter, or it would bring scandal to the family, but Lily did not seem to mind. She was merely glad to have a father who cared about her, which led him to an important question: could he allow her to marry a man who was no longer whole?
“Philip!” his wife cried, sounding exasperated. “Why have you not spoken a word? Is my idea so terrible?”
“No,” he said truthfully. “If anyone can handle such challenges, it would be Lily. However, I have one condition.”
“One condition?” his wife asked. “What would that be?”
“I want to give Lily a chance to meet the Duke and decide for herself if she could marry him. I will not force her to be with him.”
“But you would have forced Elizabeth!” Deborah shrilled.
“Do not put words in my mouth, woman!” Philip snapped. “Did I say I would force our daughter to marry him? I simply said I cannot break a promise.”
“That means the same thing.”
Perhaps it did, but Philip had not made any decision concerning his youngest daughter’s fate, so it was not fair of his wife to accuse him of favouring one over the other.
“I will not argue with you about this. We have reached a solution, and that is all that matters. I will send a letter to the Duke and inform him we will arrive next month.”
“Good. Best you speak to Lilith and explain the situation to her. She has to pretend to be Elizabeth, which means she must learn to hide her thick French accent. She has a few weeks to practice.”
Deborah finally left the room, making it feel instantly lighter and airy. His wife had the ability to draw the life out of any space she was in with just her presence, but that was probably his fault. Philip had never given her the love she deserved because his heart had already belonged to another, but he had respected her and given her everything she could possibly want. Sometimes, he wondered if Claudette had been able to forget all about him and move on, but that was a torturous way to spend his time.
Looking out the window again, Philip was disappointed to find Lily had left the garden. Just the sight of her would calm him. Whenever he was stressed or overwhelmed with the demands of his wife and youngest daughter, she always knew what to say to make him laugh. Lily seemed more concerned about him than the daughter he had raised from birth and never gave him any trouble even when Elizabeth was difficult with her. The sisters were a year apart, but one would think Lily was much older as her maturity levels were higher than Elizabeth’s.
“Why do I feel that I am abandoning her?” he asked himself.
Deborah had a point about getting Lily married to a respectable man, but if he did not think the Duke was suitable for Elizabeth, how could he imagine Alexander was right for Lily? Thank goodness he had mentioned the condition about allowing her to get to know the man first, but it did not seem fair to make her pretend to be her sister. Philip feared he would probably have sleepless nights until the matter was resolved and Lily had made her decision.
“Lost in the Duke’s Eyes” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lilith Picardie has faced rejection her entire life. Being the illegitimate daughter of an English lord is her greatest sin, and she is reminded of it nearly every day. Everything changes though when she has to pretend to be her half-sister, who desperately wants to escape from an unwanted marriage with the disfigured Duke of Blackmore. Little did she know that she would fall in love with the Duke’s true colours and kind soul…
Will Lilith manage to nurse the Duke’s heart and experience the dreamiest romance of all?
Since his carriage accident several years ago, Alexander Spencer has lived a lonely and isolated life. Even though he acts coldly towards Lillith after her first reaction upon meeting him, he will soon find himself drawn towards the intriguing girl and her tender spirit. However, when a heart wrenching secret is revealed, Alexander will wonder if he made a grave mistake by allowing romance to enter his life…
A newfound love hanging by a thread…
Alexander and Lilith’s hearts are dominated by a storm of emotions every time they see each other. Everything crashes down when secrets and an evil plot against Lilith are stumbling blocks that can be easily manipulated to tear them apart. Will Alexander and Lilith allow love and forgiveness to shine light upon their lives? Can their connection conquer all that works against them or will they both be plunged into a gloomy and loveless future?
“Lost in the Duke’s Eyes” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.