Why did people insist on playing cards when they were obviously terrible at them? John had won the last four hands, and yet Hugh just kept playing and raising the stakes. One should always know when to stop, but the man didn’t appear to understand that.
“I feel good about this one,” said Hugh, grinning at his cards.
“Are you confident about that?”
It was no skin off John’s nose if the man lost his money since Hugh didn’t seem to care one bit, but John needed more competition, or a game of cards was simply dull.
“As confident about the fact that you’re spending the summer with my family and me in Cheltenham,” Hugh replied. “Simply say yes, and I can send word of your arrival.”
John pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes. Hugh’s constant badgering about Cheltenham was as annoying as a bit of a scratch at the back of one’s throat, the itchy type that refused to be appeased by clearing one’s throat.
“I already told you that I have plans in London. That is where all the action is during the summer. Why would I miss the parade of beautiful single women to spend time with you and your family in Cheltenham?”
“You’ve done that for several years already,” Hugh protested. “Why not do something different for once? There are beautiful young women in Cheltenham as well.”
John let out a frustrated sigh. They were going around in circles yet again. What else could he say to get the idea out of Hugh’s head? A thought occurred to John. Hugh was destined to lose this round once again. Why not take advantage of that?
“Beat me in this round, and I might think about it,” John declared.
Hugh’s eyebrows lifted. “Indeed? If I win this round, you’ll agree to come?”
There was no way Hugh would win. “You have my word,” said John, nodding once.
A gleam entered the man’s eyes. “Then, by all means, play your cards.”
John revealed his cards with a little smirk and sat back in his chair, draping his arm along the back.
Surely Hugh would accept defeat, and they could be done with the game? John enjoyed cards as much as anyone else, but he usually didn’t have someone pestering him with talk of going to Cheltenham for the summer. He watched with a little remorse as Hugh’s face dramatically fell. The man threw his cards on the table in surrender, bowing his head. There was something rather theatrical about Hugh’s reaction, but the man was a tad over-the-top at times.
“Yet another win for the Earl of Winchester,” Hugh complained somewhat happily. “I don’t know how you do it, John. I thought I had you there.”
John lifted an eyebrow. Why on earth would Hugh be happy? Any other man would be angry about losing money yet again, but Hugh merely smiled. Perhaps Hugh had not yet come to understand how expensive it was courting the upper echelons of society and would need to hold his money close to his chest. Hugh and his family were new money, and they certainly acted like it.
“I’ve never met someone quite so happy about losing a game,” John remarked.
“Losing to a friend is more enjoyable than losing to a stranger.”
Were they friends? John supposed so. As annoying as Hugh was, the man meant well.
Ignoring the comment, John pulled the pot to him. “It was a pleasure winning against you yet again. I presume this is it for the night? I do have to get back.”
“The night is still young!” Hugh exclaimed. “You’re not one to turn in so early. Are you getting old?”
“That’s hardly the case,” John said dryly. “We’re the same age, for goodness’ sake.”
“Precisely my point! The fun and games only truly begin at nine. We have an hour and a half yet before we get there.”
Observing the eager man with mild distaste, John wondered how he came to be friends with such a person. Hugh was not his usual choice of companionship, and yet here the man was.
If not for being at Cambridge together, we would have never crossed paths. New money is not an earl’s first choice. Perhaps I was just too nice, and he latched on.
Now, the man wouldn’t leave him alone no matter what John said or did. Hugh was a rich leech who sucked the life out of the people he pestered. More specifically, Hugh drained John’s energy faster than a long game of rugby. Still, Hugh was good company when he was simply himself and wasn’t trying to prove anything. John had to give him that.
“Half an hour more. No more than that, you hear?” John acquiesced.
“That’s the spirit! Why don’t we have a drink? Father got in some whiskey the other day. Black market, of course. He paid a nifty sum for the stuff.”
Money again. All Hugh ever spoke about was money, how much he had or how he spent it. The first rule of fitting in with high society was never mentioning money. It was a lower-class bad habit.
“A whiskey is fine,” said John.
Hugh stood up, his long legs stretching to their full gangly length. John was tall himself, but Hugh stood shoulders above most people. Sometimes, the man had to stoop to enter rooms, but other than that, his height didn’t appear to bother him.
Hugh returned with their drinks, handing one to John. Leaning against the wall, the man took one healthy gulp of whiskey, swallowing with a satisfied sigh. He never flinched or coughed once. The spirit was enough to put chest hairs on anyone, but Hugh looked like he could finish a bottle and still remain standing. It had to be his height. He just had more to him than most people and could better distribute the liquor. At least, that’s what John thought.
“Are you ready for another game?” Hugh asked.
John groaned. “I thought we settled this already. The last game was the last one. I won fair and square.”
“I know, I know, but we won’t play for money this time. I have something else in mind.”
“Don’t tell me it’s a piece of property or something. I have all the land I could ever need or want.”
Hugh shook his head. “Not at all. I wager your agreement to spend the summer with my family and me in Cheltenham. If you win, I’ll never mention it again. If you lose, you have to come–no excuses.”
Again, with Cheltenham! When would Hugh put the idea to rest? John took a much-needed swig of whiskey, hissing when the liquid gave a pleasant burn as it coursed down his throat.
“Well?” asked Hugh a bit impatiently.
“My silence should speak volumes. What more can I possibly say to convince you that I do not wish to go to Cheltenham? You are the one who refuses to listen.”
“But that is why I’ve come up with this wager,” Hugh explained. “You’ll never hear me mention it again for as long as I live. As long as you win, of course,” the man added.
It was a foolish wager considering that John had won every single hand. Still, if it meant that John would never have to be asked again about visiting the town, then one last game sounded like a solution.
“Go ahead and deal,” John finally said.
Hugh could hardly contain himself as he took his seat and dealt the cards. It didn’t take long before John realised his cards were primarily a useless mess, and Hugh looked more jubilant than ever. That probably didn’t mean anything because the man smiled even when he lost.
“I know I’ve said this before, but I feel good about this round,” said Hugh.
John couldn’t say the same. “Just stop talking and play.”
Eventually, John got a better hand. This was more like it. The thought of spending an entire summer with Hugh’s obnoxious family left him slightly stressed. The Hatchers were not bad people, but they had yet to learn a thing or two about etiquette. One could buy their way into society, but that didn’t make one part of it. A person could be acknowledged but remain on the outskirts.
“This is it,” Hugh said. “You go first.”
John wasn’t entirely confident, but it was a good hand, nevertheless. He spread his cards out on the table, fully expecting to see Hugh’s disappointment, but that was not what happened. The man grinned until much of his teeth showed and laid his cards on the table one by one.
“Read them and weep,” Hugh declared triumphantly. “You’re coming to Cheltenham, dear fellow. Mother and Father will be so pleased.”
What? How was this possible? John left his seat, taking a closer look at Hugh’s cards. Sure enough, the man had played a better hand. Narrowing his eyes, John looked at his friend, noticing how smug Hugh looked.
“You played badly on purpose,” he accused.
“What gives you that idea?” Hugh asked.
“Don’t give me that! You planned this entire thing, didn’t you? You made me believe that you’re a terrible player, so you could trap me into going to Cheltenham with you.”
Hugh pulled his head back, planting his hand on his chest. “Me? Why would I do such a thing?”
“Because you’re a sneaky fellow who cannot take no for an answer.”
“But fair is fair,” the man insisted. “I won, and you lost.”
“By trickery!” John complained.
“That’s what you claim, but there’s no proof of that. I simply got lucky. Don’t be a sore loser, John. I promise you’ll have a marvellous time with my family and me.”
John doubted that, but he didn’t have much of a choice, did he?
Mariah felt the air swirl around her legs as she spun on her toes, laughing when the room became a blur. She paused, her arms outstretched to keep her balance. Everyone was looking at her with such admiration and adoration, not at all minding her shoeless feet.
“How graceful you are, dear,” cried a matronly woman.
Mariah curtsied. “Why, thank you, Mrs Humplebottom.”
Humplebottom? What an odd name, but it suited the woman well. Mariah leapt forward, clearing several feet before landing with delicate poise in front of the orchestra.
“Would you play a jolly tune?” she asked them. “‘Tis a wonderful midsummer’s eve, and I do so love to dance.”
The entire orchestra bowed to her and immediately struck up a melody that would please even the fussiest of princesses. Mariah spun away, her feet barely touching the wooden floor as her feet lifted and fell in a rhythmic flow. Every movement was effortless and perfect, earning applause from her audience.
“Never stop dancing!” they called out to her.
Mariah skipped to them, holding out her hand. “Will no one join me?”
“Oh no, dear,” Mr Rumple protested, his moustache twitching. “No one can dance quite like you.”
Mariah planted her hands on her hips. “Are you certain you will not join me?”
The guests protested, urging her to continue dancing. Try as she might, Mariah could not convince a soul to join her on the vast dance floor. She gave a minute shrug of her shoulders and floated away until she stood in the centre of the room.
“Dance for us, Mariah!” a young woman shouted.
“Yes!” a man agreed. “We wish to see more.”
How insistent they all were. Mariah rose to her toes and prepared to spin once more but found that her feet would not cooperate. Frowning, she looked down and saw her feet were fused as though she were a fish. Alarmed, she tried to pull them apart but lost her balance and crashed to the floor. To Mariah’s horror, laughter erupted throughout the room.
“What are you doing, Mariah?” asked Lady Tottenham.
Mariah held her hand out, tears in her eyes. “Please help me, Mother.”
“Silly, silly girl,” the Baroness scolded. “I am not your mother. Did you forget?”
“Oh, Mama!” cried Louisa. “Look how foolish she looks. She’ll embarrass us. Make her stop!”
Mariah flinched at her stepsister’s words. Moving onto her hands and knees, Mariah tried to get up again but fell heavily on her palms. She cried out in pain, falling to her side and curling into a foetal position. The room continued to roar with laughter, throwing terrible comments at Mariah. It wasn’t her fault that she was so weak!
“It’s not my fault!” Mariah cried with a start, sitting up in bed.
She glanced around her room, clutching the sides of her head in despair. She had had one of her nightmares again. It had been so vivid this time that Mariah could feel the hardwood floor she had fallen on. She cursed silently, pushing the covers away as she got off her bed. Why couldn’t the dream remain beautiful and sweet? Why did it always turn into a moment of shame and pain?
Mariah crossed the room to a pitcher of water, pouring some into her basin. She washed her face, liberally splashing the water until it dripped down the front of her nightdress. The water felt cool and refreshing against her slightly feverish skin. She lightly cupped the back of her neck, hissing against the sudden cold. Why was one’s back always more sensitive than the front?
Drying her face, Mariah sat at the window, glad to see the sun had not risen yet. She enjoyed feeling the first rays of warmth from the ball of fire and found its morning hues aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Of course, sunsets were just as beautiful, but sunrises brought life and colour to an otherwise dark world.
A tiny bird perched on the flower box outside Mariah’s window, tilting its head as it assessed her.
“You’re fortunate, little bird. You’re able to fly high above the trees or swoop down to rest on whatever surface you wish. I can hardly place one foot in front of the other at times.”
The bird didn’t seem to think much of Mariah’s words because it flew off and disappeared from view. Not even a simple bird wanted her company. Sighing, she moved away from the window.
“I suppose I should get ready. Lady Tottenham will not be pleased with my tardiness.”
Breakfast was always at six-thirty sharp, although if Louisa chose to sleep in, she could. Mariah didn’t have that luxury of time but didn’t mind too much. She enjoyed mornings and liked that she could get a head start on her day.
Choosing a simple dark grey day dress, Mariah removed her nightdress and dressed. She didn’t feel tired or weak today and could probably get a lot more done than usual. It was a bother to have bouts of fatigue that attacked one quite suddenly and left one incapacitated for some time. When would she regain her health again?
“It has been so long since I took a walk through the woods. Lady Tottenham forbids that I step any further than the front door!”
Mariah’s stepmother was concerned something terrible might happen to Mariah if she went out of sight and insisted that she stay in the house.
As she got ready for the day, Mariah thought about the first part of her dream, recalling how strong and healthy she had felt while twirling about the dance floor. Everyone had been kind and supportive, smiling encouragingly and applauding her grace and beauty. It was the second part that always forced Mariah to wake up in a pool of perspiration.
Tucking her hair into a simple style, Mariah used a pin to hold it in place and left her room, hurrying downstairs. She had a few minutes before the meal officially began and needed to be seated before then, or Lady Tottenham would gaze down at her in disapproval. The Baroness spent much of her time annoyed by Mariah and called it concern. Sometimes, Mariah wondered how true that was, but why wouldn’t it be? Lady Tottenham had sworn to Mariah’s father on his death bed that she would look after Mariah and ensure she was settled into a good family.
“Not that there is any chance of marriage in my condition,” Mariah whispered sadly.
What man would want a weak wife? Louisa had often said that Mariah would likely never marry because men were impatient when it came to illness. Mariah wasn’t confident as to how true that was, but Louisa did know a great many things. The two young women were the same age, but one would think that Louisa was several years older.
Mariah found the room already occupied and wondered if she was late. Even Louisa had made it down on time.
“Good morning, my lady. Good morning, Louisa. I hope you both slept well?”
“As well as can be,” retorted Lady Tottenham. “We were waiting for you to come down so we can begin our meal as a family. What kept you?”
“But I have six minutes to spare,” said Mariah.
“Is that how you answer me after all I’ve done for you?” the Baroness asked quietly.
“Not at all, my lady,” Mariah denied. “Please forgive me.”
Lady Tottenham nodded. “You’re fortunate that I’m so kind. Many people would not take well to such snide comments. Remember that your father left everything to me because he couldn’t trust you with even a cent of his money.”
The comment hurt. Mariah didn’t understand what she had said to anger the woman, but she let it be. Charlotte Nightingale was a woman of quick temper, but she had taken care of Mariah’s father when he fell ill and continued to look after Mariah although she was of age. A lesser woman would not have done as much. After all, Mariah was not the woman’s daughter. Sometimes, Mariah wished her mother was still alive, but where did wishing get one?
“Thank you, my lady.”
“You’re such a wonderful person, Mama,” Louisa cooed. “It’s no wonder that everyone loves you.”
Lady Tottenham smiled. “A woman must do what she must. People admire that.”
Mother and daughter continued to speak as Mariah put a slice of toast on her plate and buttered it. She was still considering a pork sausage when the Baroness addressed her.
“Mariah, how do you feel today?”
The words were cautiously spoken, leaving Mariah to guess why. Did Lady Tottenham expect her to faint at the breakfast table?
“Well, thank you, my lady. I’m much improved from yesterday.”
“Indeed?” asked Louisa, hardly hiding a scowl. “How nice.”
Louisa didn’t sound as though she was pleased, but Mariah put that down to early morning. The woman was not at her best until well past nine.
“Yes. I think so,” said Mariah. “‘Tis wonderful to wake up feeling slightly more energetic and stronger than usual. If I could continue to improve, I might regain my full health soon.”
“Let’s not be hasty, child,” the Baroness protested. “One step at a time. We wouldn’t want you to wear yourself out, now would we?”
“Yes, my lady,” Mariah agreed. “I give you my word that I will not overextend myself.”
The Baroness smiled, but it never reached her eyes. “That’s good to hear, dear.”
Everyone minded their breakfast, but Mariah ate sparingly. Yesterday, Cook had promised her an apple pie if she was well enough to join them in the kitchen a little later. Mariah needed to reserve her appetite for the sweet tart covered in lovely custard.
“You do not intend to go to the ball, do you?” Louisa asked suddenly. “You’re always so terribly dull at them.”
“I do plan to attend,” Mariah affirmed. “It has been some time since I’ve left the house.”
Lucy, her best friend, had painted such a grand picture of the ball during her visit the other day that Mariah couldn’t imagine not going. Perhaps providence would have mercy on her and allow Mariah to be the lively and energetic young woman she used to be.
How lovely it would be to dance again! To weave in and out of the crowd, laugh with the guests, and perhaps have a little harmless flirting with a gentleman or two. I never appreciated my health until I lost it quite suddenly.
“Mama, tell Mariah that she cannot go,” Louisa whined. “She might faint or do something equally embarrassing at the ball. ‘Tis better that she stays behind.”
However, before Lady Tottenham could speak, Mariah voiced her opinion, giving Louisa a little annoyed look.
“I did say that I feel better. I believe the tea is helping me, so ‘tis no bother at all to attend. I shall not embarrass you, I assure you. I simply wish to get out of the house and be amongst other people.”
“Do you think it wise?” asked the Baroness.
“Mental health is as important as physical health, my lady,” said Mariah. “I need some time away from the reminder that I’m unwell. Sometimes, this house feels like confinement rather than my home. I need some time away.”
Lady Tottenham stared at her for several moments as though searching for something. Mariah hoped the woman wouldn’t insist on her staying behind. She was determined to go.
“Very well, dear,” the older woman finally said. “If you are confident that you will be well enough, then, by all means, attend the ball.”
“But Mama!” Louisa protested.
“Hush, Louisa,” her mother lightly scolded. “If Mariah says she will be well, then we must believe her.” She turned to Mariah. “Have you taken your tea yet?”
Mariah always had her tea first thing in the morning, but the dream had knocked her off-kilter.
“Not yet, but I’ll have Susan bring it to me.”
Mariah gestured to the maid standing in the corner of the room to fetch her special tea from the apothecary. It was a special concoction designed to fortify her and keep her bouts of fatigue and weakness away.
Susan returned minutes later with a tea tray and a letter. “This came for you, Miss.”
“Thank you, Susan,” Mariah replied. “You may go. Please tell Cook I’ll be with her a little later this morning.”
“Yes, Miss,” the woman curtsied and left.
“Who is it from?” asked Louisa, craning her neck to get a better look.
Mariah noticed the handwriting, smiling. “Lucy.”
“Oh? How is her brother?” the young woman pressed. “I heard he is back from university.”
Louisa had a little crush on Martin, Lucy’s brother, although she tried hard to hide it.
“I am confident he is well, or Lucy would have said otherwise. Do you mind if I take my tea in the parlour?” she asked her stepmother.
“Yes, as long as you promise to drink all your tea,” the Baroness advised. “Will you be able to carry the tray?”
“I think so,” said Mariah, standing up. She lifted the tray, weighing it in her hands. “It feels light enough, my lady. Please excuse me.”
Mariah hurried as fast as her legs could carry her, eager to know what Lucy had written to her. Lucy was her link to the outside world and often visited Mariah.
I need my best friend to join me this morning for a time of chatter, and to a lesser extent, readying for the ball. Do say you’ll come?
That sounded like a wonderful idea–the pie would have to wait until tomorrow. Mariah folded the letter and stretched for her tea, already thinking ahead. She held the cup to her lips but stopped shy of drinking it when Lady Tottenham entered the room.
“What did Lucy have to say?” the woman asked, taking a seat.
Had the woman left her breakfast just to come and inquire about Lucy’s note? That was rather nosey of her but expected. The Baroness was protective of Mariah.
“She wishes for me to join her getting ready for the ball. I should probably leave now.”
“I know that you want to go, dear, but I must remind you of your health,” the Baroness said. “Do you think it wise to go?”
But hadn’t the woman just said that Mariah could go if she felt well enough?
“Do not be concerned, my lady. I wouldn’t go if I was unwell.”
“Lucy will take care of me,” Mariah quickly interrupted. “She knows all about my illness and will watch over me. You needn’t worry.”
The Baroness looked as though she wished to argue further, but she sighed instead.
“Very well. Have you at least had your tea?”
“Yes,” Mariah lied. “Please excuse me.”
Mariah felt guilty about lying to her stepmother, but if she didn’t go now, the woman might find a way to make her stay.
Mariah found Louisa at the door, the young woman’s pretty face pulled into an unattractive scowl.
“Do not embarrass me,” Louisa warned.
“I wouldn’t think of it.”
Mariah passed her, heading upstairs with a little more skip to her step. She truly was feeling well today and had a good feeling about the ball. Perhaps she’ll dance and laugh as she used to.
“Now, that is wishful thinking,” she whispered to herself.
Cheltenham was not where he wanted to be, but John had to admit that the town was beautiful. Now, if only Hugh could stop talking long enough for John to actually enjoy the serenity the small town provided. The man spoke at every chance he got, chattering away about all sorts of things, most of which John was not interested in.
“We probably have the best horse races in all of England,” Hugh boasted. “I’ve organised for us to see one next week.”
“Some people might argue with you there,” John countered. “Ascot is popular and even boasted Tsar Alexander as a guest. Others prefer Newcastle, Winchester, and Yorkshire. What makes Cheltenham better?”
“It just is,” said an annoyed Hugh. “Everyone knows it.”
Had John struck a nerve? Probably. Hugh had been selling Cheltenham to John for so long, touting it as a great place because it was the home of many affluent people. A town wasn’t interesting or better than another just because rich people stayed in it. There had to be more to it.
“Which one?” asked Martin.
The third to their group, Martin Dunn, was more of a local than Hugh was, but Hugh acted as though he knew everything there was to know about the town. Martin humoured him as much as John did.
“Which one what?” asked Hugh.
“Which race are we going to?”
“Oh. Cleeve Hill,” Hugh answered. “Father has been breeding and training a couple of our Thoroughbreds for the race,” Hugh replied. “He has complained about the cost, but it’s worth it when your horse wins. I think he has spent close to twenty thousand pounds in the last year alone.”
Hugh just had to throw in a comment about money. His parents were the same, often informing John about how much each valuable piece of furniture or artefact cost in their home.
“Do you bet on your own horses?” John questioned.
“Horse owners agree on wagers,” said Hugh. “And the winner takes all. Father hopes to win this year, but I do make side bets on other horses. I like to keep my options open when it comes to money.”
John paid Hugh a wry glance, shaking his head slightly. Enough was never enough with the Hatchers, but they were generous hosts. John had been waited on hand and foot since arriving at Cotts Manor and hadn’t dipped into his own pocket for a single thing yet.
Martin kicked a stone, wincing when it narrowly missed a couple. “My apologies!” he shouted. “Oh no,” he muttered under his breath. “It’s Mr and Mrs Soot.”
“Who are they?” John asked.
“The annoying parents of an equally annoying girl,” the man answered. “Oh no! They’re coming this way,” Martin hissed. “Hide me, please.”
The couple had seen him and were making a beeline for him. John felt sorry for Martin because he could fully relate to how the man was feeling. He also had parents hounding him to marry their daughters.
“Martin!” the woman exclaimed. “How wonderful to see you. Isn’t it, Jeffrey?”
“Yes, yes,” Jeffrey agreed. “It certainly is, my dear Martha. We were not aware that you had returned, young man.”
“I haven’t been back that long, sir,” Martin replied.
John knew that was a lie. Martin had been back for nearly two weeks, which was plenty of time to make his return known about town. The man had obviously been keeping a low profile for this very reason.
“Rebecca was asking about you just the other day,” Martha said. “She wondered if you were coming back at all. She hopes to dance with you at the next ball. She’ll be happy to know you’re here. I’ll tell her to save a spot or two on her dance card.”
Martin smiled weakly, looking to John and Hugh for help. No gentleman would turn down the chance to dance with a pretty young woman, so John had to surmise that the woman was unfortunate looking. Poor fellow.
“My parents are hosting the very first ball,” Hugh put in. “I expect you received an invitation?”
Jeffrey looked at Hugh with interest. “Oh? You’re the Hatcher boy, aren’t you? I don’t think I’ve seen you around these parts.”
John cast Hugh a puzzled look. Hugh had made it seem as though everyone knew him, but that didn’t seem to be the case.
“I’ve been away at Cambridge,” Hugh explained. “This is merely our summer home.”
“I see,” the older man said. “I hear the Earl of Winchester will be attending as well. Most people are aware of that name, I expect, although I haven’t met him myself.”
John narrowed his eyes at Hugh, shaking his head slightly. The last thing John wanted was for the couple to latch onto him and try to throw their daughter at him.
“Yes, you’re correct,” Hugh agreed. “Lord Winchester will be the guest of honour at the ball.”
Guest of honour? John hadn’t heard anything about that. What else had Hugh been saying without John’s knowledge?
“My dear, why don’t we return home?” Martha suggested. “I expect Rebecca needs me to help her get ready for the ball. Not that she needs much doing,” the woman added. “My daughter is easily the most beautiful woman in Cheltenham.”
John doubted that but smiled politely. The couple soon hurried away, and Martin could breathe easily.
“Thank you for that, Hugh,” the man said. “Mr and Mrs Soot are a handful, but you managed to take their focus off me. Now, they’ll be concerned about impressing the Earl of Winchester.”
John rolled his eyes. “Spare me. Let’s just keep walking and try to avoid any more run-ins with locals who have eligible daughters.”
Martin and Hugh fell into conversation about horses once more, but John was more interested in looking around the town to catch if people were staring at him. He had come to Cheltenham thinking that hardly anyone would know him, but now John wasn’t so sure.
Hugh must have noticed that not all the attention was on him because he turned to John, smiling when he realised what John was doing.
“That’s rather self-centred of you,” Hugh remarked.
John scowled. “Observing others is not self-centred.”
“You’re observing others in relation to yourself,” the man countered. “I’d say that is self-centred.”
“What is wrong with that?” Martin asked, confused. “I do that myself.”
“But you’re not an earl,” Hugh explained. “Our dear friend here seems to believe that everyone knows him and only care about his title. He’s paranoid like that.”
John clenched his jaw. He didn’t appreciate the foolish teasing and being called paranoid. People did fight and clamour to be near him because they wanted to elevate their status in society. Rarely did anyone wish to be with John without an agenda.
“Considering that most people tend to use my title to promote themselves, I think I’m allowed to be cautious,” John retorted. “You yourself used my name for the ball this evening.”
Hugh laughed, slapping him on the shoulder. “Oh, don’t take it too seriously, old chap. Besides, using your name is an excellent way to meet the town’s people, don’t you think? More people will come because they wish to see you.”
“How nice,” said John drily.
They walked on further, attracting many appreciative stares from women. It was probably something of a spectacle to see three young and handsome men walking about town because some people actually stopped to watch them.
“We’re causing quite a stir,” Hugh said happily. “Imagine all the young women who will wish to dance with us. Our names will be on every dance card!”
“I don’t think you would want to dance with every woman,” said Martin. “Some women are better left to men with a little more courage if you know what I mean.”
“Uncomely women?” Hugh asked.
Martin nodded. “That, and those who have been on the shelf for too long. Some women are desperate to marry and will do everything to trap you. I was nearly caught myself. Thank goodness I had the good sense to hide.”
The man shivered as though recalling a memory, his face a mask of dimmed horror.
“Now, I have to know what happened,” John insisted.
“I don’t wish to speak of it and will never speak of it,” Martin vowed. “And don’t bother trying to get the story out of me through drinking–I can hold my liquor.”
John was disappointed but understood. Whatever had happened to Martin must have been a harrowing experience.
“Why don’t we go to the Pump House?” Hugh suggested.
“Now?” asked Martin. “It’s mere hours before your ball. You cannot be late to your own event.”
“I suppose you’re right, but I’m growing tired of walking about with no end in sight. I think I’ve had enough exposure for one day. We’ll save the rest for later.”
That surprised John. Hugh was all about being known and seen by everyone. The man needed people to know that his family weren’t just simple middle-class citizens but wealthy people who deserved to be part of the upper crust of society. John had never had to prove himself before, and therefore couldn’t understand the obsession.
“We’re actually near my house,” said Martin.
John looked around, seeing several houses. “Which one?”
“The one with the chaise drawing up to the front. I expect that’s my sister.”
Hugh’s eyes lit up. “I didn’t know you had a sister.”
“Do not even think about it,” Martin warned. “I do not want anyone looking at my sister with anything more than a brotherly glance.”
“You’re no fun at all,” Hugh complained. “Is she pretty? Never mind, I’ll see for myself.”
Two women jumped down, but the men were on the wrong side of the chaise to see them clearly. They only caught a glimpse of the women with John seeing a fleeting pair of perfectly grey eyes that struck him to the core. They were magnificent and could probably look into a man’s soul.
“Who is she?” John breathed.
“Which one?” Martin asked suspiciously.
Did Martin even have to ask? The man had to be blind not to have noticed the woman.
“The grey-eyed woman,” John replied impatiently.
“Oh,” said Martin, his cheeks reddening. “That would be Mariah Nightingale, the late Baron of Tottenham’s daughter and my sister’s best friend. They’ve known each other for years.”
Did the man’s blush signify that he was embarrassed or interested in the woman? John hoped it was the former.
“I’m rather disappointed that I didn’t get to see more of them,” Hugh complained. “They are coming to the ball, aren’t they?”
Martin nodded. “Lucy is, but I’m not entirely sure about Mariah.”
That surprised John. What young woman wouldn’t wish to attend a ball? It didn’t make sense.
“Why? Does she not like balls?” he asked.
“Not precisely,” Martin explained carefully. “Poor Mariah suffered a tragedy which changed her. She used to be the life of any party. If an event was held, then it was a given that Mariah would be there.”
That sounded ominous. What could have happened to the woman to have changed her so much? John almost didn’t want to know, but he felt himself asking the question anyway. Martin looked rather sad as he answered. Whether he was sad for himself or Mariah was not clear.
“Her father passed away. If anyone knew Mariah, they would know that her father was the centre of her life. Lady Tottenham was likely jealous of the relationship between her husband and stepdaughter. The Baroness is quite a piece of work.”
“Surely Miss Nightingale recovered from her father’s death?” John asked hopefully.
Martin shook his head. “Sadly, no. The loss has made her dull and lifeless. Mariah is merely a shadow of her former self. She is often struck down by a mysterious illness that leaves her without energy. She rarely leaves her house now. Lucy visits her when she can and always comes back crying.”
It seemed cruel and unfair that such a young woman should be so affected by a death. John failed to understand it.
“Isn’t there anything that can be done for her?”
“Lucy has mentioned a tea that is meant to help, but my sister reckons it does nothing at all because Mariah is no better than when she first grew ill.”
“I don’t want to stand here listening about tragedies or sad people anymore,” Hugh complained. “Let’s go back to my house and have a drink.”
John was irritated by Hugh’s interruption, but the man was right. They couldn’t stand in one place forever. They turned, but John couldn’t resist the urge to look back at Martin’s house, hoping he could catch another glance of Mariah. Perhaps the woman would come to the ball and approach him. One could hope.
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Since her beloved father’s death, a mysterious illness has plagued the beautiful Mariah Nightingale, taking away her joie de vivre. Unable to stand her loneliness anymore, she hesitantly attends a ball where she meets the most charming Earl she could ever dream of. However, her stepmother is not happy with Mariah’s unexpected acquaintance, as she has always envied and viewed her as her own daughter’s competitor. To make matters worse, Mariah’s illness gets in the way of spending time with her charming admirer and threatens to bring her blossoming dreams crashing down. Will Mariah let down her defences and find the way to be with the man that has started to fill her with joy and love? Or will her bossy stepmother and sudden illness destroy it all?
John Blackmore, Earl of Winchester, did not intend to spend his whole summer in Cheltenham. However, after losing a bet at a card game, he is compelled to keep his word. Little did he know that his dull summer would soon turn into a fascinating one, due to him being immediately mesmerised by the gracious lady he meets on a special night. When John sees that this ethereal existence has been haunted by a mysterious illness, he is determined to move heaven and earth to help her recover. However, time is running short, as the beautiful woman’s health mysteriously deteriorates with each passing day. Will John manage to find the cause of Mariah’s illness and the cure for both her disease and his own heart? Or will he fail to rescue the only woman who has managed to occupy his every thought?
While Mariah and John discover the depth of their shared feelings, wicked powers threaten the blooming love between them. When John discovers hidden truths that might irreversibly change Mariah’s life forever, her overbearing stepmother will make any effort to keep her confined to the house. Will Mariah and John break down the walls that jeopardize their only chance at a happy life? Could fate have something better in store for them both?
“A Summer Ball’s Love” is a historical romance novel of approximately 50,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.