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Chapter 1

Back straight, shoulders down, eyes straight ahead. It was the rule of three that was drilled into Emma’s mind like a poem, one that she recited to herself at any spare moment she could afford. The carriage ride felt like the perfect opportunity to practice her mantra since she was already trying to tune out the sound of her mother and sisters as it was. She was unsure if her father was listening to what was being said. If he was, the Duke was very good at focusing on the passing countryside while also listening intently.

“I’m just saying that it’s only going to have poor implications on us!” Elaine’s pitch was too high to ignore anymore. Emma let her shoulders sag as she stared at her youngest sister. Elaine wore her blonde curls loosely while they made the journey through the country to their cousin’s estate. Emma wished she was afforded such a luxury, but instead her hair was pinned so tight that her face felt slightly stretched from it.

“Your sister is trying her best,” their mother spoke up. “This is going to be the year, it has to be.”

“I’m right here,” Emma said finally. “And yet you speak of me as though I’m riding one of the carriage horses and out of earshot!”

“Perhaps there will be someone for you at Louise’s party,” Elaine chimed in once again.

“I’m going to wish my cousin a happy eighteenth birthday, and warn her of what pressure will be put on her by even those closest to her,” Emma said, firing a glare at her sister. “Searching for men isn’t something I like to busy myself with at an event like this.”

“If we’re being honest,” Susan, the middle child, said. “You never look for a man who could be a suitable husband.”

Emma stared at her sister with a look that said not you too. Susan was only two years Emma’s junior, and normally the one who would jump to her defense. But it seemed that on the matter of marriage, it was very clearly every young woman for herself.

“We just don’t want you to become destitute,” her mother’s tone was much softer than that of her sisters.

“Or worse, a spinster for a sister,” Elaine added with a theatrical gasp.

If her parents hadn’t been in the carriage with them, Emma would have rolled her eyes at her sister’s comments. The Partingtons had a reputation to uphold, they had a place in society that Emma knew she was putting in danger with her choices. She was going to let the family down if she didn’t find a husband, and soon.

“Elaine,” her mother scolded at such brash talk in the carriage.

“But it’s true, Mother,” Elaine persisted. “Emma is the one who will marry and her husband will inherit the duchy, correct? She needs to choose before there is nobody left who is prepared to marry an older woman.”

Emma felt the heat rising in her cheeks, but she bit her tongue and remained composed, though inside she was plotting how she would get revenge on her younger sister for the things she was saying. Emma wasn’t normally malicious and so all she could think was to perhaps leave one of her sister’s skirts out in the sun for too long to discolor the material.

She knew that if it were the other way around, the mischievous girl would plan something much worse for her. But Emma was the eldest and she had a responsibility to her family so she couldn’t stoop to such levels.

“Are we nearly there yet? It’s getting awfully hot in here,” Emma said while beginning to fan her face with the lace-trimmed fan that matched the same blue hue of her dress.

“She’s trying to dodge the question,” Elaine mumbled.

“That’s enough from you,” her mother said before turning to Emma. “I’m sure it cannot be much longer. You know as well as I that it’s a relatively straight road from Padvine to Louise’s estate. Imagine if we had to travel all the way down to London. Now that would be much more of a commitment.”

Padvine was the vast house that the Duke and his family called home. It was the large estate where Emma had grown up, and it held many fond memories in every nook and corner. Traveling anywhere felt wrong to her, for Emma felt safe on the grounds of Padvine and didn’t like leaving. Even when going to London, the buzzing city of opportunity, Emma wanted nothing more than to be back on the lawn reading a book in the afternoon sun. London was too crowded, and there were far too many staring eyes, and mouths talking about her. Emma shuddered at even the thought.

Luckily, there were no trips planned to the capital in the near future, but she was concerned about finding a husband in time to please her family. While Emma didn’t want to end up as a spinster as her sister had suggested, she knew what she wanted in a man; someone who would respect and love her, someone who would not see the imbalance of their arrangement and try to take advantage of it. She winced internally, wondering if it was too much to ask for.

It was a beautiful day, and while traveling such a distance in the rain came with its own risks, Emma couldn’t stand being cooped up in a carriage when she could be out with the sun on her skin.

“I hope that the party is out in their gardens. I remember Louise being excited to show me the grounds the last time we were there,” Emma admitted while staring out of the carriage window.

“I hope her parents are sensible and keep the party indoors,” her mother said, shaking her head.

“But look how nice a day it is,” Emma said, pointing out of the window. “It would be a pity to spend the early evening inside.”

“Think of the insects,” her mother said, cringing. Emma, again, found herself digging deep to refrain from rolling her eyes.

“Will you just promise that tonight you will at least lower your expectations?” Elaine said.

Emma didn’t know how to respond. She wasn’t willing to compromise just to marry someone who would make her life no harder. She was the daughter of a duke, and that meant all manner of men came calling to try to win her hand. It attracted the kind of men Emma wouldn’t even dream of holding a conversation with, let alone entertaining the prospect of marriage. She wanted a gentleman, not one who was simply trying to elevate his status in society.

“I can’t make any promises,” Emma said finally, realizing that all eyes, aside from her father’s, were on her. “But I will try to keep an open mind this evening.” Her words were clearly the correct ones, for they were met with muted surprise.

Back straight, shoulders down, eyes straight ahead. Emma knew that she had a duty to her family, and while finding a husband from the crop of usual suspects wasn’t so appealing to her, Emma no longer had age on her side to bide her time.

They drew closer to her cousin’s estate, and for the first time, it began to dawn on her that her time was running out.

Chapter 2

The pins in her hair matched the pale blue of Emma’s beautiful dress and put the finishing touches to her outfit. Her heart was beating a little faster now that they were all settled in the guest rooms, the party less than an hour away.

“I don’t know why I feel like this,” Emma admitted to Susan. “I should be excited for Louise’s birthday, instead I’m worried everyone will be looking at me.”

“I hope everyone is looking at you in that dress,” Susan shrugged off the comment. She had her hair tied back away from her neck and shoulders, and there was a determination in her eyes that Emma knew meant she was going to be looking out for suitable husbands for both of them.

The dress really was beautiful, but Emma felt almost terrified to go downstairs in it. She would be garnering the kind of attention which usually caused her skin to prickle. Of course, she had appeared in society many times in the past, though each time she had maintained an air of ‘plainness’ about her. But that night felt different. Something had shifted in the atmosphere, though she couldn’t pinpoint what it was.

“Louise already told me that the Earl of Gloucester’s son will be here,” Susan said, putting the finishing touches to Emma’s hair.

“Oh really?” Elaine added. “Well, the Duke of Cumbria is also rumored to be bringing along his son.”

Emma knew what her sisters were doing; they were throwing around names and titles in a subtle way to prepare her for what was to come. She had always been bad with names, and that was never more evident than when she was standing in a ballroom faced with men who would be offended if she were to address them incorrectly.

“What about the Earl of Shaftesbury? I hear he is perhaps the most handsome of all the eligible bachelors?” Elaine spoke, pretending to swoon as she finished her question.

“I’m not sure he’ll be here, it’s quite a way for him to come and I hear he is not the least bit interested in parties.”

“That sounds perfect for Emma!”

Emma shot her youngest sister a pointed look in response.

“I have never said I didn’t like the parties and events,” Emma found herself on the defensive. “I just prefer them when I’m not being stared at by a large group of eligible men.”

“You and I clearly have very different preferences,” Elaine chuckled. She was only eighteen, and yet sometimes Elaine made comments that were far beyond her years.

“Come on, Emma, just think of the fun you’ll have tonight, and the added bonus of dancing with different gentlemen,” Susan was trying to reason with her. “You look incredible, I doubt that anyone will be able to keep their eyes off you.”

“If that is an attempt to cheer me up, I fear you don’t know me at all,” Emma couldn’t help but chuckle. She knew that she was going to have to stand up and do her duty for her family some time, she just hadn’t anticipated that the time would be that evening. She had spent so long getting out of such events, but a family birthday had sneaked up on her and provided the best chance for her family to spring such a dilemma onto her.

“I will keep an eye out and dance with all the men who ask, I promise,” Emma said, letting out a deep and heavy sigh. Her nerves were building like a bank of gray clouds, her legs suddenly felt as though they could betray her at any moment. She grimaced at the thought of stealing all of the attention of the night onto herself, but that was exactly what her family wanted for her. She had to marry, and there was no more time to be wasted.

“Oh, don’t you just look beautiful,” her mother gushed as the three of them finally emerged from their room. Emma already wanted the entire affair to be over with. “All three of you really will shine tonight.”

Emma passed her mother and took a step out into the upstairs hallway of the grand estate. They were staying in the guest wing, and the decorations were slightly different to those in the main part of the house. The strip of carpet was a copper color which complimented the wooden floor around its edges, and the walls were a pale beige that allowed the oil paintings in golden frames to grab the attention of anyone passing by.

It reminded Emma of being back in Padvine, but the many rooms and corridors here could easily make the place feel like a labyrinth instead of a home.

“I love it when the girls do your hair like this,” her mother gushed as she walked at her side. Her mother gently touched the few stray blonde hairs that hung to frame her face a little. Though Emma had once read, in a forbidden book that her mother had since disposed of, that some men liked girls with a more ‘common’ look about them. The book had caused a scandal amongst society members, and Emma was warned to never speak of its title again. Her mother had made a comment about how she hoped it was the only scandal her eldest daughter would ever be involved with.

“Your father is already downstairs and talking with some other guests,” her mother continued. “I think he has a lot of expectation on you too.”

Emma winced at the thought of her father wanting her to quickly find a husband. She knew that he was concerned about who she would pick; he wasn’t going to hand over the duchy to just anyone, and he wasn’t going to agree to a marriage if there was something wrong with him. But at the same time, it appeared that he too was tired of waiting for her to make a decision.

“You don’t think he will find a husband for me, do you?” Emma asked in a hushed tone as her sisters trailed behind them. They started to descend the carpeted stairs, a sparkling chandelier fitting snugly into the space created by the staircase.

“I honestly don’t know dear, I know that he has spoken of it in the past, but we agreed that it would be fairer to leave it up to you.”

Emma swallowed thickly, her gloved hand holding onto the banister as the sound of chatter and a string quartet floated up to meet them.

They reached the ground floor and there was now only a large wooden door separating the four women from the ballroom. Emma’s stomach churned, the heavy feeling of pressure on her shoulders almost causing her to slouch as they slowly approached it. Shoulders down, back straight…no, that’s the wrong order, she panicked, trying to recite the mantra in her mind. Her mother’s steps were relentless, and the servant in the doorway was already reaching for the gleaming handle. Emma felt her heart thumping so loudly that it was creating its own beat in her ears.

“I can’t do this,” she whispered, her feet stopping before she could calculate the consequences.

“Yes you can, dear,” her mother said quickly.

“Come on, Emma,” Elaine spoke a little louder than Emma had been hoping for. “There’s nothing to worry about, it’s only a party.”

Her breathing was rapid, and the sweaty skin of her palms clung to the white gloves as they pulsed with nerves.

“I can’t,” Emma shook her head once more. “I really can’t, I’m sorry, Mother.”

She turned to see the disappointment in her mother’s eyes, Emma’s own blue eyes were wide and filled with fear and nerves.

“Emma,” her mother said while giving her arm a gentle tug. Emma had no choice but to follow her mother, away from the servant who hesitated in confusion at what to do. “You need to calm down and focus on what needs to be done. Think of how many women would love to be in your position; about to enter a ball, knowing that her and her title are perhaps the most desirable in the room.”

“Nobody is going to want a girl on the cusp of spinsterhood,” Emma cringed at the thought.

“Then think of your sisters,” her mother tried again, her features softening somewhat. “Think of the way that your marriage will set the tone for their own. If you fail to secure a match, you will be doing more than just yourself a disservice.”

It was the guilt that Emma needed; it forced her to turn back to the door where her sisters were waiting for her. Just because she couldn’t find the right man didn’t mean that she had to subject her sisters to the same fate.

“All right,” Emma said, beginning to nod her head. “I will do it for them.”

Chapter 3

“I don’t understand why you insist on us going to another one of these events when you know I will only be met by the same disappointment,” Jonathan groaned.

His brother was rushing him, and if there was one thing Jonathan couldn’t stand, it was being rushed.

“We have to at least show our faces. If you have so much of a problem with it, why did you let me accept the invitation weeks ago? We have to show up or risk being shunned from future events,” his brother, Thomas, explained in a cool tone.

“I don’t think we have to worry about being shunned,” Jonathan said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Oh yes, I forgot,” Thomas chuckled sarcastically. “Because you are the Earl of Shaftesbury, and because you are eligible, you like to think yourself invincible. If you keep rolling your eyes like that, you could cause them to fall out.”

Jonathan rolled his eyes again.

“I only meant that people like to invite us,” he said to his younger brother. “Perhaps we could just pretend that there was some sort of family emergency that we both had to tend to.”

“Jonathan, hurry up with your tie, we’re leaving in a few minutes.”

Jonathan could only grimace at his brother as he continued to fight with the tie around his neck.

“You never know, there could be some beautiful women there this evening. Perhaps someone will take your fancy?”

“The women are always the same,” Jonathan said, pulling a sour face. “None of them are interesting enough, they are just interested in being a Countess.”

Jonathan checked his appearance in the mirror one final time, his brother standing in the doorway. Thomas was still trying to hurry him along, but Jonathan wasn’t going to let it get to him. With one hand, he pushed back his brown curls, making sure that they were all in place and looked presentable. His green eyes were complemented by the dark suit he wore, though he felt far too uncomfortable in his new shoes.

“Come on, my lady, you look beautiful,” Thomas mocked from. Jonathan rolled his eyes once more, though he made sure to face his younger brother so that Thomas saw the gesture.

The carriage ride was only made worse by Thomas’s insistent comments on Jonathan’s status as a bachelor. Jonathan hated the sensation of the carriage rocking and winced every time the wheels dipped and clattered from a hole in the road.

“You know that you cannot be a bachelor forever,” Thomas continued.

“No, because I’m not the simpleton you think me to be.”

“I’m merely trying to give you some good advice, brother,” Thomas said.

Jonathan couldn’t think of the last time his brother had said something that was actually of some use, though he bit his tongue and didn’t express such a thought. Jonathan knew that it would do no good to actually start that kind of quarrel while neither of them could leave the carriage.

“I feel it’s rather easy for you to say from your position as a married man,” Jonathan remarked instead.

“I’m just trying to show you that marriage is not as difficult as you’re making it out to be.”

Jonathan had heard enough of his brother drone on about finding a woman, he had more ambition than that, and his brother was trying to get him to see past this.

“But I don’t think I’m quite finished traveling yet,” Jonathan admitted, knowing it would only vex his brother further. “I want to see more of the world without having to drag around a wife in doing so. I want the freedom I have now. I already hate having to explain myself to you, let alone if I had to explain myself to my wife.”

Thomas let out a sigh of frustration. “You’re impossible. I don’t know how else I can say it; you can’t remain a bachelor forever. You are almost twenty-eight, do you really think you’re going to be able to keep this up?”

“I will show you what I mean when we arrive at the party,” Jonathan responded in a much calmer tone than his brother. “The women in this layer of society are plain and boring, they see my title before me, and I cannot muster the energy to feign interest in any of them.”

* * *

Stepping into the ball and being the center of attention was something Jonathan had often taken in his stride. When there was nobody who took his interest, Jonathan simply kept his head up and stared past the sea of people. He was free to converse with whoever he wanted, all the while dodging pushy mothers and title-hungry ladies.

The ball that evening was no exception. Jonathan stepped into the room with the party already underway. He felt eyes on him before he had even taken in the entirety of the room. His shoulders were stretched back, and his chest slightly puffed out, though his lips remained in a tight line and his jaw was set. Jonathan wanted to appear as uninviting as possible, but he knew that his attempts would thwart few. Whisperings of ‘Jonathan’ and ‘Shaftesbury’ could be heard from around him, and Jonathan even caught his brother rolling his eyes.

“You may wish to be careful, Thomas,” Jonathan said with a slight chuckle. “You roll your eyes like that too much and you could cause them to fall out.”

He could feel his brother bristling at the way Jonathan was using his own sarcasm against him, but with so many eyes on them, Thomas could do nothing but force a smile onto his face and chuckle in response.

“See, I told you how appreciated your presence would be this evening,” Thomas muttered as they walked through the crowded room to the table of refreshments. Jonathan was already sick of the keen mothers already trying to catch his attention to see if he would make a match with their daughters.

“And I distinctly remember telling you that I didn’t want my presence to be such a highlight of the evening,” Jonathan spoke quickly in response. But he knew as one of the only eligible Earls, he was bound to have a lot of attention on him.

“Oh come on, just try to enjoy yourself,” Thomas said, laughing off the tension that seemed to be brewing between them.

“Perhaps I should just pick a name out of a hat,” Jonathan mumbled as the pair were handed drinks by one of the servants. He took a large gulp of the champagne, not caring if it wasn’t what people wanted to see from someone like him.

“I’m not sure that could work in your favor,” Thomas chuckled. “You need a match that is of advantage, not just because you have to get married.”

“Then you pick for me,” Jonathan shrugged. “Someone quiet, who does not care if I disappear to the other side of the world for a few weeks.”

“I fear you would come to loathe me if you had me pick your wife,” Thomas laughed a lot louder now. “Why don’t you be on your best behavior tonight and it may not be as hard a task as you think it is.”

Jonathan couldn’t help but scoff at his brother’s words. The storm of women before him did not present the task as easy, it was perhaps anything but that.

“Ah, Lord Campbell,” a pitched voice cut the brothers off from their conversation. Jonathan turned to see a woman with pinched lips, high eyebrows, and beady eyes seeking out his attention.

“Jonathan this is Lady Harriet Gordon and her daughter Mary,” Thomas said, clearing his throat.

“Lady Gordon,” Jonathan nodded politely before turning to her daughter. “Lady Mary.” It was only courtesy to kiss her hand, but Jonathan could tell people were beginning to look their way.

It wasn’t as though there was anything inherently wrong with Mary Gordon, she just appeared rather plain to Jonathan. It was perhaps the eagerness of her mother that also deterred him from pursuing anything further. Her mother was clearly calculating what his title would do for their family, and that was something that instantly left a sour taste in his mouth.

“Would you excuse me a moment,” Jonathan bowed his head before stepping away from the two women and taking his brother with him.

“I wish there was a way I could scold you for what just happened, but I do not blame you for getting away from that one,” Thomas mused and Jonathan found himself laughing with him. It wasn’t exactly kind, but he had needed to get away from Lady Gordon, for it would be unkind to entertain something he had no interest in pursuing. “All right, I’ll make sure they aren’t all as bad as the Gordons,” Thomas added.

“I’m going to get another drink, I’m not sure how much more of this I can handle,” Jonathan murmured into his brother’s ear.

“You drink like a bachelor.” Thomas shook his head, but Jonathan simply raised his empty glass to his brother as though to toast his comment.

* * *

Emma stared about the room, her heart still hammering in her chest and a sheen of sweat moistening her back. The room was incredibly busy, something she found a blessing because it was hard for all of the attention to ever be on her. After wishing her cousin a happy birthday, Emma was left with only one other purpose of the function; to find a husband who would satisfy her family.

She was still wrestling with the fact that the likelihood of her finding a husband who truly loved her was slim. The thought stung and caused the pleasant smile to slide from her expression.

“Mother! I’ve been asked to dance!”

Elaine’s voice was pitched with excitement as she rushed over to where Emma was standing with her mother and Susan at the edge of the dancefloor.

“How exciting,” her mother smiled. Emma knew that her mother’s focus wouldn’t be fully on her sisters until Emma had succeeded in her job first. Now that they were both getting to the age of needing to find a husband too, Emma knew that she was only becoming more of a burden.

“I heard that the Earl of Shaftesbury is here somewhere,” Susan mumbled from her side. Her sister’s eyes weren’t looking at her as she spoke, instead, Susan was searching the crowd of faces for a man neither of them had ever seen before.

“Is that…good?”

“You really don’t keep up with the news, do you?” Susan chuckled.

“Just because I’m not jumping to grab the next gossip paper doesn’t mean that I don’t keep up,” Emma said, trying to defend herself. “He is the one you were speaking about while we were getting ready?”

“Exactly,” Susan nodded quickly. “He is apparently very handsome, but he is also very eligible, and that is a very good thing for us.”

“What if he is awful?” Emma asked, turning to look at her sister once more.

“You always think the worst of people, don’t you?”

Emma merely shrugged. “I don’t even know what he looks like. Perhaps he isn’t handsome and it was just gossip that has elevated his status. He is an earl, after all, and maybe people are just trying to convince themselves that he is handsome when it is in fact his title they find handsome.”

Emma knew that this wasn’t what her sister wanted to hear, but she didn’t care.

“Don’t you understand that you can’t afford to be so picky now you are getting older?” Susan had turned to look at her fully, her gaze was sharp and unrelenting.

“That’s rather rude. You are only two years my junior,” Emma fired back.

“And yet I am prepared to find a husband already.”

Without saying another word, Emma turned on her heels and decided to walk about the party in the hopes of finding someone who would appease her family. She was slightly deflated at the thought of no longer focusing on just appeasing her own expectations.

Her mind was adrift with thoughts of how she would ever find a man to marry, and she wasn’t really even looking where she was going. Her eyes were fixated on the wooden floor, her brow knitted tightly. A sudden thump to her shoulder dragged her attention back to the party, her drink sloshing over the side of the glass and straight onto the man before her.

Chapter 4

It all happened so fast that for a moment Emma wasn’t sure which way was up. A gasp escaped her lips, her feet were suddenly sliding against wood, and her balance failed her completely. The next thing she knew, there were arms around her back, and eyes staring into her face. Her breathing was erratic and a few strands of hair had been tossed over her face in the scuffle.

They remained in that position for some time; the man with his arms holding her, Emma bent backward and relying completely on his strength to stop her from hitting the ground. Green eyes filled with concern and confusion stared down at her.

“A-are you all right?” the man asked as he helped her to her feet.

Emma felt heat burning in her cheeks, the embarrassment of what had just happened only just beginning to hit her. A few people were staring at her, but thankfully the rest of the room was continuing with the party, the music loud enough to have muffled the sound which had escaped her lips when she fell.

“I’m fine, thank you,” Emma said after finally straightening up and trying to brush the stray strands of hair from her vision. “I apologize, I did not mean to…I-I…I’m sorry.”

She tripped over her words just as she had tripped over the rather handsome man in front of her. Emma swallowed thickly and tried her best to appear composed, but doubt seeped into her mind, followed quickly by embarrassment.

“It’s fine, really,” the man said, trying to brush the liquid off the sleeve of his dark jacket. “No harm done.”

But Emma was beyond embarrassed. She took a few steps back before spotting a nearby exit. The man appeared to follow her gaze and took a step closer to stop her.

“Please, I do not even know your name.”

Emma was already stepping around him as fast as she could without it appearing to the people around her as though she was rushing toward the exit. She needed fresh air, and wanted nothing more than to be on her own after what had just happened.

* * *

“Are you all right, Brother?”

“Perfectly fine,” Jonathan said, keeping his gaze on the door the young woman had just rushed through. It had all happened so quickly that he wasn’t sure whose fault it had been. Jonathan had been staring out at the dancefloor, trying to get a look at who his competition was in terms of the men wooing all of the eligible women of the season. His gaze hadn’t exactly been on where he was walking, and so didn’t feel able to blame it on the girl.

“Your jacket is ruined,” Thomas pointed out while trying to dab at the wet sleeve with his gloved hand.

“It’s fine, it will dry.”

“And then you will be a true bachelor; smelling of alcohol. Come, shall we see if our hosts have a spare jacket for you?” Thomas asked while gesturing for them to go the other way. But Jonathan shook his head quickly.
“It’s not that serious, Thomas. It will dry and it will be fine.”

Jonathan couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from the exit, but in his mind, he was remembering the image of her face beneath him. Her wide blue eyes had been so entrancing, and the late afternoon sunlight caught strands of her golden hair in a way that made it sparkle.

“Are you all right there? You appear rather stunned,” Thomas asked, laughing at his brother’s condition.

“Perhaps I am stunned,” Jonathan murmured. He felt as though he was snapping out of a strange daze. “What was her name?”

“Who?” Thomas asked, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “The girl that just clattered into you? Why do you want her name?”

“I just…” Jonathan glanced back at the doorway. With one hand, he scratched the back of his head, still trying to work out what happened.

“I see she must have caught your eye,” Thomas remarked.

The fact that his brother was now catching on caused Jonathan’s senses to sharpen. Thomas chuckled at the look on his face, which caused Jonathan to quickly shake his head and turn his attention to the dancefloor.

“I was just a little flustered by what happened,” Jonathan said. “But as you said, we should get back to the ball.”

* * *

“What happened in there?”

Emma was almost hunched over outside as she tried to regain her breath, and wished that Susan hadn’t found her so easily.

“Nothing, I was just taking a break,” Emma said, shaking her head quickly. “Don’t you think it is hot in there?”

“Emma, I saw you causing a commotion. What happened?” Susan asked in a much softer voice.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Emma said, shaking her head. Luckily only a few droplets of her drink had landed on her dress, but the clear liquid quickly dried and wasn’t noticeable. Emma grimaced as she thought about the man’s wet jacket and how she couldn’t even imagine stepping back into the party after what she had done.

“Come then, let’s go back inside,” Susan said, gently touching her arm.

“I’m going to stay out here for a while,” Emma said.

Susan laughed. “You aren’t going to find a husband out here though, are you?”

“Perhaps there is a young and handsome gardener who will steal my affections and I will fall hopelessly in love with him,” Emma murmured, glancing out at the empty grounds. The hedgerows and gravel paths were empty of people, everyone’s attention firmly on the party inside.

“Emma,” Susan sighed. “Whatever happened can’t have been that bad.”

“You didn’t see,” Emma shook her head without elaborating.

“Well, we’re going to need to go in at some point. We can’t stay out here all evening, and I’m sure it will only get colder.”

But Emma didn’t care about the cold. All she cared about was leaving the party and retiring to bed before anyone could stop her, but her sister wasn’t going to relent until she agreed to go back into the ballroom.

“The man I bumped into, he was asking for my name before I rushed out here,” Emma shuddered at the thought. “Do you think I could get in trouble?”

“For bumping into someone? I highly doubt it,” Susan said. “Come on, it’s a crowded room. It’s unlikely that you will see him again.”

Emma had never walked with such reluctance before, but her sister gently guided her back toward the door. Her nerves were in tatters, but she knew that there was too much expectation on her shoulders for her to turn back now.

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