Lady Anna Stuart was happiest in the garden. Surrounded by strong-smelling herbs and the sounds of insects buzzing, she could almost forget about the uglier parts of her life. The fact that her parents were gone and buried, that her uncle’s widow and her brother were her only family, and that this was her fourth year on the marriage market with very few prospects. In fact, her prospects appeared to dwindle with every year that passed.
But she remained cheerful in her garden, tending her plants, drawing the new ones she encountered to look them up in her father’s library late at night after her aunt and brother were abed.
That would not happen tonight, however. Anna knew all too well that she was living on borrowed time. Even as she turned over a fresh patch of soil, ready to plant a few of the sprouts she had been nursing in the glasshouse, she could sense her aunt making her way down the garden path towards her. She was determined not to acknowledge her right until the very last moment, right when she would be forced to because there would be no way around it without incurring her aunt’s wrath.
“Annabella, dear, why aren’t you preparing for the ball?” her aunt demanded, stopping just behind Anna and blocking out the radiant sunshine that had been unbroken all day. Anna cringed at the annoying trill of her aunt’s voice. She hated it when she insisted on using her full name. Only two people in the whole world had called her Annabella since she was a baby in leading strings, and they were both gone.
Yet she bit her lip to refrain from telling her aunt not to. The last time she had tried, she had received such a scolding, accused of being entirely ungrateful for all the care and guardianship her aunt had given her these last five years since her parents’ passing, reminded that as they didn’t share a single drop of blood Lady Beatrice Feathers, the Countess of Featherton, had no real duty to them at all but that she did it all entirely out of the kindness of her own heart. Secretly, Anna believed it had far more to do with getting in the good graces of her brother, recently old enough to become Lord Augustus Stuart, the Marquess of Basingstoke, after the passing of their parents in a tragic carriage accident five years earlier. Though a wealthy widow due to being the earl of Featherton’s second wife, without an heir to her husband’s estates, her own place was precarious. She would never admit it aloud, and she had created a respectable and shining reputation over the years, but Anna sensed the cracks beginning to show. She saw it in her late night conversations with Augustus when they both believed Anna was sound asleep in bed.
She had often heard them skulking around the manor, and Anna would have liked to tell her aunt that after four Seasons, she knew well what she was doing, but her life was much simpler remaining under the thumb, living the quiet life wherever possible, doing the bare minimum to stay off everybody’s radar.
“I was just finishing up here,” Anna insisted, making several small holes to pop in the sprouts
“Margaret can finish that,” Lady Featherton insisted, and out of the corner of her eye, Anna saw the woman wafting her gloved hand. Clearly, she was more than ready for the garden ball they were set to attend that evening. It was still a few hours away, yet her aunt was clearly dressed and ready to leave, likely on her way to Augustus’ chambers for more conversation and scheming.
Margaret, Anna’s lady’s maid who had been standing back to allow Anna to go about her business, hurried forth and dropped down onto her knees beside Anna. “Please, allow me, My Lady,” she insisted, taking the second to last sprouts from Anna. “I shall finish up here and then come to your chambers to help you bathe and dress.”
Leaning in a little closer, she whispered, “You had better go. She looks in fine form this afternoon.”
A lump formed in Anna’s throat. Having been at her side since they were small children, Margaret was Anna’s closest friend and trusted confidant, and it was best not to question her when she read Lady Featherton’s moods. Anna had long since learned that servants were great readers of the gentlefolk and nobility. Rarely was Margaret wrong when it came to predicting a scolding or a belittling on the way.
“Thank you, Margaret,” Anna said loudly enough for her aunt to hear as she wiped her soiled hands upon her apron. Then, in a whisper, she added to the maid, “I left the tonic for your friend in the glasshouse under the flowerpot.”
Though Margaret merely smiled, it was filled with gratitude. In truth, Anna did not need it. She was pleased that her love of horticulture and herbology could benefit someone. Though her aunt and likely the rest of the ton would never understand, she knew her learned father would be proud, and so she remained true to herself even if it was in secret and only helping the servants of their household and those neighbouring them. It was perhaps the only thing that kept her sane in the face of her aunt’s constant attempts at pushing her into a dull and lowly marriage.
“Come now, hurry along, or we shall be late, and I shall not have that!” her aunt instructed, clapping her hands together. “I shall simply leave you behind if need be.”
Though Anna would have loved her aunt to do such a thing –perhaps then she might get some time to herself to sketch and research and read – she knew her life would not be worth living the next day when her aunt began her usual act of guilt-tripping her whenever she did not adhere to whatever her wishes were.
“I am coming, aunt,” Anna promised, rising to her feet with a false smile plastered upon her face.
“Good, good. Chop, chop then,” Lady Featherton insisted, clapping her hands together once more. Anna struggled to hold back her cringing as she turned and headed for the back entrance of the manor.
As she passed the gardener, he tipped his hat to her and said with a friendly smile, “Good afternoon, My Lady.”
And though he greeted Lady Featherton with the same respectful tip of his hat, Anna could see it was only out of obligation. She longed to stop and ask whether her salve had helped with his poor wife’s burned hands after her run-in with a cast iron cooking pot, but she could feel her aunt’s watchful eyes on her as she went, and she did not dare even to slow her pace.
She did, however, overhear Lady Featherton hiss at Margaret, “I do wish you would not encourage this folly of hers. She ought to have been ready hours ago. Do your duty!”
“Yes, My Lady,” she heard Margaret respond as if through gritted teeth before she was out of earshot.
Feeling sorry for Margaret, Anna knew the best thing she could do for her maid was to get herself ready as quickly as possible. Maybe then her aunt would leave her alone.
And so she did just that, already preparing her own bath by the time Margaret arrived at her chambers, careful not to allow her aunt to witness her doing so.
“I am sorry about my aunt.” Anna sighed almost the moment Margaret entered to find her already slipping into the copper tub. “Did you manage to speak with Gerald?”
She felt that, of late, she had been apologizing for her aunt’s behaviour more and more. With every week that passed, her grip upon the household appeared to be tightening. Though now that Augustus was finally of an age to properly take to being head of the household at twenty-five years of age, she couldn’t quite understand it.
Perhaps the rumours were true. Maybe there was more to her aunt and brother than met the eye. And that made Anna quiver with disgust. Though Lady Featherton was only five years Augustus’ senior, she was a wealthy widow and a woman in a rather high position of power. And as their aunt, well, it didn’t sit right with Anna at all.
“I thought you might like to know.” Margaret chuckled as she crossed the room to grab the lavender oil that Anna had entirely forgotten to add to her tub. “And so yes, I stopped off to speak with Gerald. Joanna’s hands are much improved, though he says she might benefit from further treatment.”
Anna glanced at the closed bedroom door behind her before she responded, “I shall make them some more as soon as I am able.”
Margaret simply nodded in acknowledgement before she said, “Let’s get you ready for the ball, My Lady.”
Anna sighed deeply. It had only been a few moments, but she had managed to forget about the event for a short while. Now reality had set in once more.
“Do be sure to stuff a wad of paper and some charcoal in the pocket of my gown, Marg,” Anna instructed, scowling deeply at her maid. “I have a feeling tonight shall be as boring as ever.”
Lord Maximillian Montagu, the Duke of Manchester, had quite forgotten how bumpy the streets of London could be, though they were nothing to those in Russia, where he had just spent the last few weeks on business. Though he had enjoyed travelling for the last several years, he thought he might perhaps enjoy a little time spent back at home in the comfort of his townhouse, surrounded by old friends and family. Having received several letters of well wishes of late, he was certain everyone would be pleased to see him. Yet, as he covered the last few miles of the journey into the London square where he made his home, he couldn’t help removing his pocket watch from his waistcoat. Flipping it open, he meant to check the time and instead found his eyes caught by the tiny painted portrait of the beautiful woman who had once been his bride.
“Oh, Sarah.” He sighed deeply, rubbing his thumb gently over her pale-painted face. Five years, and still, he missed her. Five years and still, he longed to hear her voice and feel her touch and simply know that she was on Earth for him to gain advice wherever he required it. Yet, she was gone, and it had come time for him to move on. He knew that well enough. His sister’s near-constant letters for the past two years had insisted upon it. But still, he could not quite remove the portrait from the inside of the pocket watch cover. He could not quite bring himself to have the servants remove his wife’s things from the house or even pack up the nursery that had been prepared for their unborn son.
He had thought to give instructions for such things to be done while he was away, but in the end, the words had never left his lips. Now, as he pulled up to the steps of Montagu House, he couldn’t help regretting it.
Almost the moment the footman opened the carriage, and he stepped out into the late afternoon sunshine, he heard a familiar voice. “Maxi! I thought you would never arrive!”
Removing his hat, he used it to shield his eyes as he turned them up to the porch where his sister awaited him.
“Bethy, what are you doing here?” he exclaimed, rushing up the steps to greet his little sister. “You are a sight for sore eyes.”
They embraced as loving siblings before Elizabeth held him at arm’s length and scrutinized his face. “They certainly do appear sore. Are you certain you are ready to return?”
Max took a deep breath and shook his head. “I am not certain I shall ever be ready, but I must one day, and today is as good a day as any.”
“Oh, good, good!” Elizabeth trilled. “I am glad you have finally come to your senses. Let’s go inside. I must speak with you before the ball this evening.”
Max gulped at that. He hadn’t even set foot in the house yet, and his sister had already begun organizing his social calendar. He suspected his days for the rest of the month would be chock-full of hunts, luncheons, dinners, and balls if she had anything to do with it.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Elizabeth insisted as she guided him into the house where all was abuzz with the final preparations of his moving back in. Servants flitted to and fro carrying trunks, fresh linen, artwork brought back from Russia, and fresh flowers. Max suspected the latter was down to his sister and her always insisting his home needed a woman’s touch.
Her words caused him to realize that he had been scowling at her at the mention of a ball. He adjusted his face and shook his head. “I was not looking like anything. I am merely tired after my long journey from the docks.”
“Then we must make our plans, and you must go and rest for an hour before this evening,” Elizabeth insisted. Before he could offer any protest, she gripped hold of him by the crook of his elbow and began to guide him through to the parlour. It seemed to be the only quiet room in the house.
“I tried my best to have everything ready for your return.” Elizabeth sighed, running her finger over the nearest table for dust. “But you have been gone for so long, and there was much to do.”
“You need not have done anything,” Max insisted. “I have servants for such things, and you have a family of your own. Is Lord McNeilly not missing you up North?”
“I am quite certain he is, but it would do the viscount some good to spend some time alone with his children before he has any intentions of creating anymore.” Elizabeth laughed with her usual good humour before her face fell. “Oh, Maxi, forgive me for my lack of good sense.”
Max bit the inside of his lip. The only thing he hated more than seeing people with everything he didn’t have was their pointing out that they realized he didn’t have it.
“Don’t worry about it, Beth,” he insisted, waving her sympathy away like a bad smell. “I have returned to London to move on from all the grief. It is time.”
“Then sit!” Elizabeth said, smiling exuberantly as she sat upon one of the parlour couches and tapped the seat beside her. “We have much to discuss if you intend to find a bride this Season.”
“Bethy!” he grumbled. “I said in my letters I was thinking of finding companionship, not that I wished to delve into another marriage just yet.”
Feeling heavy, he dropped down onto the couch beside her and was surprised when she gripped hold of his hands and squeezed them tightly.
“Maxi, what better companionship could there be than marriage?” she asked him. She looked him deep in the eye and added, “Sarah would not have wished you to be alone for this long.”
Max bit back the urge to tell her she had no idea what she was talking about. The truth was she knew exactly what she was saying. More than his wife and mother to his unborn son, Sarah had been his sister’s closest friend. He thought, in some ways, Elizabeth likely knew her better than he ever could have. And that only made the sympathy in her gaze so much worse.
“Can we at least get the pleasantries over with first before we begin discussing my marriage prospects?” Max protested through a clenched jaw. He squeezed his sister’s fingers in return.
“Fine, Maxi, how are you? How was Russia? Did business go well?” Elizabeth questioned him with a mischievous expression. “Were there any Russian noble ladies who took your fancy, or do you intend to stick to the homegrown?”
“You are persistent; I shall give you that.” Max sighed, rolling his eyes.
“Max, you aren’t getting any younger,” Elizabeth stated. She reached up and cupped his cheek in a sisterly manner before she added, “I fear for what shall become of Father’s legacy if you do not begin to think about the future.”
Her words, the honesty behind them, only made Max’s stomach clench up painfully. He had been well aware of such things himself for quite some time now. Though he did not need his sister to point them out, he was certain that her intentions were well placed, and so he could not bring himself to ruin their first encounter for several months.
“Who exactly is it that you have in mind?” he grumbled, knowing it was better to get it over with.
“Well, I do not wish you to narrow down your options just yet, but there are a few choices I think you ought to consider carefully before tonight,” Elizabeth explained as she began to reel off names, titles, and all other manner of information. Max nodded and pretended to be listening, all the while questioning whether he was truly ready to let go of his wife and his unborn son, whether he was prepared to begin again and face the potential heartbreak of having it all ripped away once more.
Five years, he thought, it has been five years, and if not now, when?
Perhaps it would simply be better to bite the bullet and be done with it. As his sister said, he was not getting any younger. At thirty-two, he ought to have an entire brood by now, a legacy secured, and his estates prepared for the next generation. Yet, he had spent so long hiding out in places all over Europe that he had not the faintest idea where to begin.
“A Wallflower for the Stoic Duke” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
In the stifling confines of her own home, Lady Anna Stuart, an unconventional and intelligent young lady, finds solace in her love for botany and the secret world of plant medicine. Trapped in her fourth year on the marriage market by her cruel brother and scheming aunt, Anna has resigned herself to the fate of an old maid. However, a chance encounter with the older yet intriguing Duke of Manchester offers her a glimmer not only of hope, but also true romance…
Will her blossoming connection with the enigmatic Duke be the key to unlocking her heart’s desires or merely another thorn in the intricate bouquet of societal expectations?
Lord Maximilian Montagu, Duke of Manchester, has long avoided the ton after the devastating loss of his beloved wife and unborn child. Lonely and yearning for companionship, he returns to society with the intention of fulfilling his duty to remarry and secure an heir. When he meets the captivating Lady Anna Stuart though, a profound spark ignites within him, challenging his resolve to keep his heart closed.
Can he battle his own demons and reconcile the possibility of a love with the memory of his late wife?
Together, they embark on a charade orchestrated by Maximilian to free Anna from the clutches of her conniving aunt. As they dance through society, their connection deepens, and the whispers of scandal surround them. Both haunted by their pasts, they must navigate the treacherous waters of societal expectations, family dynamics, and the undeniable longing that grows between them. Will their ruse lead to liberation or entangle them further in a web of deceit, jeopardizing their chance at true love?
“A Wallflower for the Stoic Duke” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.