Lower town market, London.
“Your trinkets! Get your trinkets! Lovely, the lot of ’em! And all from Italy!”
Patrick Cook’s chime rang through the dusty mid-morning air, made so from the stomping of boots as traders and buyers alike travelled up and down the market.
His wasn’t the only voice ringing, attempting to cajole shoppers into stopping by. All around him, traders with their stalls open and tables out front displaying their wares, sang songs they believed to be pleasing to the ears, and perhaps, tempting to the heart.
It was a typical morning in the lower town market. Not one thing was out of place.
Urchins dressed in clothing that wouldn’t even be deemed good enough to serve as rags in some nobleman’s house, getting into some trouble or the other–many of them simply running errands, shoppers holding their satchels and reticules close to their bodies, aware of just how many itchy hands were about, and of course, the occasional cursing from traders who had more than enough to be angry about.
Just as that thought crossed Patrick’s mind, he heard the roar of Mr. Fern’s anger, from the fabric stall across the way.
“Ye lecherous vermin! I ever see ye near my shop again, and I’ll have ye eyes! Gorge them out, I will! Try me and ye’ll see! Brat!”
Patrick chuckled at those words. Ah indeed, it was a typical morning at the lower town market.
Choosing to tune out the bustle and focus on his wares, Patrick began to chime again, especially as his eyes caught some ladies approaching who were adorned in finer dresses than anyone who belonged in these parts of London could ever dream to have.
“Your trinkets! Get your trinkets! Lovely, the lot of ’em! And all from Italy.” He paused as she neared him, holding out a fine piece of jewelry. “Milady, this bracelet would look lovely on you!”
Patrick didn’t care to hide his smile as the lady in question stopped to take a second glance. He peered at her closely, knowing the exact moment she decided that she wanted to take that bracelet home with her.
“I’ll have the earrings as well!” she chimed as she tried them on and saw that they were a perfect fit.
“Ah, magnifique!” he chimed in a faux French accent. “You, milady, certainly know your jewelry. Great taste, I must say. That would be a pound for both the bracelet and the earrings. I shall throw in this lovely ring as well, for free, just because I know they’d never find a more perfect home than your delicate, fine fingers.”
She eyed him with that gaze he’d grown accustomed to receiving from women, and he knew just what she was thinking.
“You’re quite the charmer, aren’t you? Little wonder you’ve got women flocking to your stall all day long,” she said, affirming his thoughts. “I’ll take them.”
Patrick was grinning now, from ear to ear, knowing that that knowledge could have only come from frequenting the market, as well as his stall, often. He didn’t remember her face. There were so many of them, he could hardly keep up. “I only ever say the truth, milady.”
“Indeed, I believe that,” she muttered in response.
Ten minutes later, she left with trinkets worth of fifteen pounds–evidently more than she’d planned to buy–but certainly happy with her decision, if the blush on her cheeks was any indication.
Patrick couldn’t deny that he was satisfactorily pleased with himself. Mrs. Frayer would be very happy with the returns from today’s sales. And there was nothing he loved more than seeing that nice, ol’ woman in joy.
He’d just finished dropping his latest earnings into the satchel around his waist when he felt the acquainted presence of another.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk...poor Lady.”
Patrick’s smile deepened as that familiar voice filled his ears. He didn’t need to look up to know who it was.
“I thought you wouldn’t be coming to the market today?” he questioned.
His little sister, Liliana Cook shrugged in response. “Well, I had some errands to run, and I thought I’d come see how my dearest brother was fairing.”
“I’m your only brother,” he pointed out.
She heaved an exaggerated sigh, accompanied with a roll of eyes. “My point exactly. If only I had more options.”
“Point is moot. The answer wouldn’t be any different. I’d still be your favorite.”
“Indeed, in your dreams, that is.”
He looked up at her then, his smile never leaving his face. “What are you really doing here, Lily? I’m sure you must have your hands full with ball dresses, seeing as the season is just around the corner.”
Tucking a few stray blonde locks behind her ears, she answered easily. “I already told you, I had some errands to run.”
Her sapphire eyes twinkled. “I also wanted to see if you’ve turned a new leaf from reaping off unsuspecting ladies.”
“Reaping off. Ah! Quite the contrary, I always give them good prices. Perhaps, the best in the whole of London.”
“No arguments there.” A small smile teased her thin, cherry lips, as her hands went to rest on her waist. Against the simple grey gown that she wore often, her fine complexion shone.” And you know that wasn’t what I meant.”
His arched his brow, his brown eyes glimmering in that mischievous manner he knew always flustered her.
“You continue to effortlessly charm their every penny off them with your handsome smile and sweet words!” she blurted.
Patrick’s insides warmed with the taste of sweet victory. It was the way of siblings, you see. Teasing and taunting and getting the best of each other. But also loving one another to death.
“Ah, so you admit I am handsome, charming as well, and have a sweet way with words. Wow. So many compliments in one day.” He paused to peer closely at her. “Who are you, and what have you done with my sister?”
Something flickered in Lily’s eyes, and if anyone who didn’t know them was watching, they’d think a fight was about to erupt, instead, she broke into laughter.
It was warm, soft, and it pleased Patrick to no end.
“You’re a thorn in my foot. You know that, do you not?”
He was grinning now. “But you love me either way, do you not? Come now, admit you came all the way here because you miss me. You’re one of Madame Simone’s best hands. No way she’d send you to the market for some petty errand. You probably jumped at the offer because you knew I’d be at the stall today.”
It was apparent Lily couldn’t deny those words. So, she simply tried to change the subject.
“You’re aware Mrs. Frayer keeps asking you to oversee the stall because you make so many sales, aren’t you? I say it’s high time you took on the job permanently and start getting paid for it.”
“We already get paid for it. All those fresh vegetables and fruits from their farm. Also, you know she only asks me to do this because of Mr. Frayer’s health.” His voice became solemn, the lightheartedness easily fading away. “He has more bad days than good days now.”
This made Lily turn somber as well. “True.” There was a pause before she spoke again. “You don’t think he has long left, do you?”
“Mr. Manson says a few months at least. A year, if the heavens are kind.”
“Mrs. Frayer is going to be so heartbroken.”
Patrick nodded. “But she’ll have us. We’ll help her get by.”
Lily mirrored his gesture as she took her hand in his. “Yes, yes, we will.”
He squeezed back, and as soon as the moment passed, he was back to his usual self.
“You run along now. You don’t want to keep your Madame waiting.”
She had no objections. “Indeed, indeed. I’ll see you when we get home. Try to leave some pennies for the ladies to hire a coach with, will you?”
He chuckled aloud at that. “They almost always come with their own carriages, I’m certain they’ll be fine.”
She was smiling as she turned around, her legs taking her farther from his sight with each step.
He continued to watch as she walked with the grace of someone who had blue blood running through her veins, someone who’d received a fine education and learned refined manners.
But Lily, born a mere farmer’s daughter, simply didn’t have that fortune. Oh no, whatever features she possessed that made it seem like she was of noble birth were from heaven. God-given.
Her grey skirt swayed as she suddenly veered to her left, almost losing her footing, all in a bid to avoid being hit by a wheelbarrow. Its pusher wheezed past her, not even bothering to stop and apologize.
Patrick stepped forward, but quickly caught himself. The wheelbarrow and its pusher were long gone, and Lily wouldn’t appreciate his interference. She could take care of herself.
True to his thoughts, his sister sighed, shook her head in resignation and continued on her way as though what had just happened mattered little.
However, the tension in her shoulders told him she’d become even more conscious of her surroundings.
His heart squeezed.
She might have lived this life all her years, but she didn’t belong here, not really. What would her life be like if she’d been born to different parents? The answer came easily.
She would be a diamond. One incomparable. Such was the beauty, grace, and wit that Lily possessed.
In that moment, she finally disappeared behind the crowd, and trusting that she’d make it back to Bond Street safe and sound, Patrick returned his attention to the trinkets spread out before him.
The thought had just occurred to him to bring out more from the store when he heard a commotion.
“Cut off his hands!”
“Burn him! Burn the thief! He shall learn a lesson never to steal again!”
Patrick didn’t need to hear more. He jumped into action, moving as quickly as he could.
A few moments later, he was on his way to the small crowd that had gathered, stall locked behind him, urging his legs to carry him faster.
He’d lived around these parts of London long enough to know that whenever the mob cried for blood, they almost always got it if nobody intervened. The worst part? It could be a child of no more than ten summers who’d be offered as the sacrificial lamb.
That was what often made him sick to his stomach. These children, the ones many liked to call street urchins were not saints, yes. But they were just trying to survive like everyone else.
So, what if they stole a few loaves of breads every now and then to keep from starving, who wouldn’t?
He was well aware that many people were angry, as they should rightfully be. The class system continued to do more harm than good. The common man struggled every day to feed his family and had to bow to every whim of the nobles.
The people didn’t want to be stolen from, on top of everything else they had to endure, but therein lay the problem.
As much as their anger was righteous, it was misplaced. They should be asking the crown to make life better for common men, not being hungry for the blood of children who’d never had one good day in their lives.
“Let me through,” he began to mutter as he pushed his way through the crowd.
“What are ye waitin’ for?” a vicious voice called out again. “Cut off his hands! Ye there, bring me that knife. I shall do it meself!”
Patrick’s heart began to thump harder in his chest, his sense of urgency increasing. Finally, he made it to the center of the commotion and indeed, just as he’d guessed, right in the middle of the circle, was a child who didn’t look to have seen any more than nine summers, shaking in horror and tear-filled eyes pleading for mercy.
By his side were five loaves of bread...his crime, evidently. Just like Patrick had guessed.
Then, there was Mr. Guy, one of the burly traders in the market whose bad side no one liked to get on.
He was huge and was a bully because he knew of his might and chose to use it to cast fear and intimidate.
Patrick didn’t particularly care for Mr. Guy, and thankfully, there had never been any reason for their paths to cross. Until today.
“After I cut off yer hands,” the bully threatened again, eyes glowering as he neared the child, “I shall brand this side of yer face wit’ the mark of a thief. Then, ye shall know never to take that which dinnae belong to ye, ever again!”
That was the last straw, and Patrick leapt forward, prepared to take on the big man. Alas, someone else beat him to it.
“You shall do no such thing!”
Patrick reeled on his heels as a delicate, yet firm, feminine voice filled his ears.
Unable to believe that he’d heard right, he followed the direction the voice had come from, and true enough, right there, in the small circle where all four of them now stood, was the most enchanting woman he’d ever laid eyes upon.
This time, when his heart thumped, it was for an entirely different reason.
She can’t be real.
That was the first thought that crossed his mind.
With hair so dark, it made him think of midnight skies bereft of stars and the crescent moon, and eyes the color of clear waters...and what about her complexion? Fair and so soft-looking, like silk soaked in milk.
There was not one blemish in sight. She was flawless. From the width of her shoulders, the tilt of her chin, and the straightness of her spine, not to mention her fine, obviously expensive clothing, it was clear that she was the daughter of someone very important.
And although he knew he shouldn’t allow himself to be so affected, she still took his breath away.
“Ye’d do well to step aside, milady,” Mr. Guy spoke again, dragging Patrick out of his reverie. “This dinnae concern ye. We never get involved in yer blue blood matters. It’d be best if ye dinnae get involved in ours.”
The Lady didn’t miss a beat as she retorted, gray eyes consumed with anger and another emotion Patrick believed to be a sense of justice.
“Who cares about what kind of blood flows through our veins when such a young life is at stake. If you must cut someone up, then here,” she stretched out her hands, turning her gloved wrists to face the heavens. “Cut me, and see if blue blood would indeed flow, or if it’d be crimson like every other person’s here.”
Guy hissed then, a long, angry sound that showed he was losing his patience.
“Ye very well know what I mean, and ’tis nay in my interest to educate a blue blood today, so get out of my way and lemme deal wit’ this brat accordin’ to the laws of London downtown.”
“How much for the bread?” She asked, pointedly ignoring Guy now. Patrick could tell that she’d surmised he would not be reasoned with.
“I assume whoever they belong to is nearby?”
Baker Maurice stepped forward then. A short, stout man, with a belly that made everyone look twice.
Patrick continued to watch this mysterious lady as she appraised Baker Maurice. He waited for it to come, the judgement, disdain, those familiar looks many nobles had in their eyes whenever they regarded any common man.
As it would happen, nothing in this Lady’s gaze suggested disdain or judgement. And he knew in that moment, that she’d meant every word when she’d said they all had the same blood flowing through them, that implied she considered them all equal.
“It is I, milady. The one who was stolen from.”
She nodded, just once. “How much for all the loaves?”
“Two shillings, milady.”
She stepped forward, then reaching for her reticule, she brought out a crown.
“Take it, for the bread and your trouble.”
Baker Maurice was taken aback, and from the murmur of awe from the crowd, so were they.
“Milady, but this...it’s...I can’t possibly.”
And Patrick forgot what it was to breathe.
“Please, I insist. I suppose now that the loaves have been paid for, they’re no longer stolen goods?”
She turned to Guy as she spoke, showing that he was now once again, her audience.
He continued to glare at her, but Patrick could see that he’d lost some of his bravado.
“Payin’ for the bread does nay absolve the brat of his crimes.” He spat. “That is the problem with ye rich folks. Ye think ye can solve everythin’ with a few shillin’s. If he’s nay taught a proper lesson, he shall steal again.”
“And that would be no concern of yours, but of mine, for, as of this moment, I am taking him into my care. He shall be my ward, and I am now responsible for him. If you have any scores you wish to settle, although I do not see why a man like you should derive any pride in picking scores with a child, you must speak first to me. Bring me your grievances, and I shall punish him according to my own laws. Is that understood?”
Guy faltered, his shame slowly becoming evident. “There shall always be another thieving’ urchin, ye shall nae be able to save everyone. After today’ ye’ll return to yer fine manor, perhaps, even abandon this boy. But ye know what? I shall always be there.”
He threw his knife in the air, causing it to spin, before catching it again. Then, spitting on the ground, and sending one last glare the child’s way, he turned to walk away.
Just like that, the show was over and the crowd began to disperse.
But Patrick stood there, still in awe, unable to believe what he’d just witnessed.
A lady had put the big bully of the lower town market to shame, all the while saving a helpless child and taking him into her care.
“Is there something you wish to say?”
He snapped out of his wonder when he heard her honeyed voiced again.
It took him a moment of looking around and finding out it was just the three of them left, to realize she was speaking to him.
“I...You...No...I…he paused to shake his head, as he felt his cheeks grow warm from mortification.
What a fine time to lose my words. An entirely fine time, Patrick, he thought to himself.
Then, willing his heart to calm, he took in a deep breath, and tried to answer once more.
“I just...I just wanted to say that it’s a really admirable thing you did, saving the child. Everyone here knows Mr. Guy is trouble. We all try to stay out of his way, but it just so happens he enjoys getting in the way. No one has ever been able to stand up to him like you did.”
The Lady eyed him then, and he had no words for how her close inspection made him feel.
“However, you were going to do just that, weren’t you? If I hadn’t beaten you to it?”
His eyes widened. All this while, he’d assumed she couldn’t have noticed him. Now, it was clear that he’d been wrong.
“I couldn’t just stand by and watch a child whose only crime is being born poor lose his chance at a decent life.”
She nodded slowly. “Neither could I. He’ll be needing those hands.”
Patrick mirrored her movement. His eyes strayed to the boy, who looked like he still couldn’t decide if he was dreaming or awake.
“Especially if he’s going to be working as a footman or valet someday.”
Patrick turned to her then, surprised by her person for the umpteenth time that afternoon.
“You meant what you said, about taking him under your wing.”
Her brow furrowed in a small frown, and he instantly wanted to take back his words.
“I’m not the kind to make declarations I do not intend to fulfil.”
“I see that now, my apologies for ever doubting you. Somehow, I had the feeling you indeed meant every word. Still...”
“It wouldn’t be the first time people of my kind would make such empty promises.”
Patrick bobbed his head.
“I understand, so you may consider your apologies accepted. I believe you have a stall you must get back to? In that case, do not let me keep you any longer. As you saw, disaster has been averted, and I believe I have a child to take home, after I speak with his parents, of course.”
She turned to him. “You do have parents?”
The boy shook his head, which made Patrick’s heart ache.
“It’s just me, milady,” he answered, voice still shaking from the scare.
Suddenly, Patrick was reminded of a memory long forgotten. One he’d buried deep inside himself, hoping to never remember again.
However, before he could fall into the rabbit hole, the mystery lady saved the day again.
“Just you? You’re orphaned? How long now?”
“For as long as I can remember. Never knew me pa. He died before I was born. Me ma never recovered from bringin’ me into this world, I hear. She died of a fever when I was only a year old. Stayed for as long as she could manage to nurse me for.”
Patrick’s heart squeezed in his chest. At least the boy knew where he was from.
“Do you have a home?” The Lady asked again. The sadness in her voice was potent.
“Was taken in by a kind missus, but she soon grew weary of the burden. Sent me out into the streets when she left to be with her family in Scotland. I’ve been out since then.”
“How old are you?” Her voice broke, and Patrick feared she might cry.
But her back was turned to him, so he could not see how many tears filled her eyes.
“Twelve, milady. Been out in the streets for three winters.”
Winters. It was always cold in London, but winters were particularly cruel. Patrick knew the child hadn’t said summers because they mattered little. It was those nights when the boy was out freezing in the cold that would stay with him forever.
Patrick also didn’t fail to realize that the lad was three years older than he’d reckoned. All that hardship must have made him look younger than his years.
Patrick’s insides tightened. They were just children. They weren’t supposed to have no one. Alas, it was the reality of many.
“Twelve, I see,” the lady whispered. There was a small pause before she spoke again. “Well,” she began, sounding stronger, as though she’d taken that time to gather her emotions.
And because she’d now changed her stance so he could once more see her face, he was able to glimpse her smile. He felt the sun stir with envy.
“Good thing you have me now, is it not?” She held out her hand. “Come, let’s go home.”
That word kept resounding in Patrick’s ears as she nodded at him and turned to leave, the child’s hands in hers.
It wasn’t until she disappeared down the street that he realized he hadn’t even caught her name.
Six Months Later...
Farley Manor, Mayfair.
“Milady! Look at me! I’m riding a horse! Finally! I’m riding a horse!”
Violet Farley’s laughter rang loud and happily through the air, following the winds to only God only knew where.
Not that she cared. After all, it was no longer a secret in her father’s household that she adored this little one. Cherished him as though she’d carried him in her womb and birthed him, herself.
Ever since she’d brought him home all those months ago, her whole world had turned upside down. It was as though all this while she’d been living in reflections of bleak, pale colors, but now, her skies were filled with a million dazzling rainbows.
Lancelot, as she’d found the child’s name to be, had gifted her with so much joy and given her life a new purpose.
She’d had every intention of simply giving him employment, as well as a room over his head, but as she got to know his story and stare into the sheer brilliance that was his mind, a bond had formed between them. One that she now knew would never be broken.
Whenever she looked back on the events of that day, she had more and more reason to believe that none of it had been a coincidence. Every minute had been divinely orchestrated.
For some reason, the universe had wanted her to be in that place at that time. It was why she’d suddenly felt the urge to visit a market she’d always heard of, but never dared to visit before.
Why she’d been unable to ignore the crowd that had gathered, even when she’d normally mind her own business and be on her way.
And why she’d been hit by a sudden, and overwhelming feeling of protectiveness towards the child when she saw him hurdled on the ground, bones sticking out in places where flesh would usually cover, and eyes held captive by fear.
Just one look at him, and she’d known she would be going home with him.
Oh yes, none of her actions that day had been in her character at all. But with all that had happened in the time since, she could only say she was very much pleased with how everything had turned out.
Whether a greater force had been at play or not, she was just glad that her life finally felt exciting and meaningful, that she had something to look forward to every day.
And Lancelot, her dear Lancelot, never ceased to make each day memorable indeed.
“If I haven’t been with you every moment of your life since the day you were born, I, too, might be tempted to believe he’s your long-lost child.”
Violet’s smile faltered as her mother’s voice filled her ears.
She’d been so lost in her thoughts that she hadn’t even sensed her mother’s presence or felt her approach.
“Mother,” she greeted simply.
“I see why you love him,” her mother continued. “He’s starting to grow on me as well. I only wish your devotion wouldn’t stir up so much dust. It’s a miracle you’ve managed to avoid the scandal sheets until now. The staff see everything you know. They see and talk to their peers in other households.”
“Then they would be well aware that I have never been with child.”
Her mother scoffed. “Since when did English people rely on facts over sensationalism? As long as it’d make interesting gossip, they’ll let themselves believe anything and even conjure up reasons to back their beliefs.”
Violet arched a brow as she gave her mother a side-eye. “Such as?”
“They’re saying you must have had him the summer you were in the countryside, recovering from that terrible ailment. It was seven years ago, do you remember? And even after the evil days were gone, you couldn’t enter society right away because you looked so sickly and needed to regain all the weight you’d lost.”
Violet’s mother, the Countess of Atterton shook her head in that somber way she always did whenever she spoke about Violet’s sickly past.
Releasing a deep breath, she continued. “Not to mention, the physicians strongly advised against putting you through any rigors. And the London season can be quite rigorous indeed. So, we delayed your debut for three more years until no one would be able to guess how sick you’d be, and you finally debuted when you were twenty. It is why you’re three-and-twenty and yet to be married. You missed your prime, and now, we must all pay for it.”
Ignoring those last words, Violet’s crossed her arms.
“We both know that story, even if I hadn’t experienced it myself, you must have retold it almost a hundred times by now. What exactly are you getting at, Mother?”
“Well, the society pages are saying you must have had the child then! And we took him from you so that no one would ever find out. They claim you’ve been searching for him since you returned to London and finally found him at the St. Claire’s orphanage.”
Despite herself, Violet giggled.
Her mother’s gray eyes so similar to Violet’s own widened with bewilderment. “You’re laughing? At a time like this? Pray tell, Violet Anne Farley, what’s so humorous? The fact that people believe you had a child out of wedlock?”
Violet shook her head, as she willed herself to sober. “No,” she said finally. “The fact that people can be so imaginative. My goodness, Mama, think of how much more interesting the plays in the theatres would be, if the ton put their imaginative talents to good use and wrote better scripts for the troupes. Now, I certainly would be frequenting the theatres more often. Perhaps even bring Lancelot along.”
The countess’ sigh was dreary and filled with resignation. “You shall be the death of me.”
Violet giggled as she wrapped her arm around her mother and pressed her cheeks to hers. “The only thing I shall bring you, Mama, is joy.”
They had an unusual relationship, the two of them. They did not always see eye to eye, and never cared to air their disagreements, but it was obvious to anyone who so much as glanced their way that they respected and loved each other.
“Worry less about the gossips, will you? Anyone with a good head on their shoulder will be able to see the ridiculousness for what it is. If we pay it no mind, it’ll go away soon enough.”
There was a small pause before her mother responded. “Well, in any case, I think you shall be able to adopt him soon.”
Violet’s heart leapt as the meaning of those words sank in. She pulled away and looked her mother in the eye.
The Countess bobbed her head. “Your father and I received word today from the Langleys. Their son has finally returned home after four years. There will be a ball thrown in his honor in a few weeks. They wish for him to marry and settle down so he won’t go off for another half a decade again.”
Violet’s forehead creased in a frown. “And what does that have to do with me adopting Lancelot?”
“Oh, silly child, don’t you see? You can’t adopt the boy because you’re unmarried. So, the perfect answer is to find a husband who will be willing to take Lancelot as his child as well! I hear Lord Langley is a kind soul, and thanks to the years of good business and friendship between your father and the Duke, he might very well be the answer to all your heart desires.”
“But I don’t even know him anymore, not really.”
“Well, that is what the ball and season is for, do you not reckon? You shall get to know him again, Violet, and I hope, love him as well. Or at the very least, admire and respect him enough to not feel forlorn about agreeing to be his wife, if only for Lancelot’s sake.”
Violet wanted to say something, to oppose the match some more, but she knew it would be foolish, as well as useless, to do so. Hence, she clamped her mouth shut and simply returned her attention to the child who was riding on the horse without a care in the word.
She’d always known this day would come, had she not? From the moment she’d known what it was to be a woman in English society, she’d been aware that the day would come when she would be required to marry into a reputable family, and not for love.
For this reason, she’d never let herself dream of butterflies or heart-fluttering moments. She’d simply told herself that it would be more than enough to end up with a kind man.
Someone who would respect and protect her, who would honor their vows, just like her father.
Her parents’ relationship had not been built on love, but over the years, they’d formed deep friendship and had come to care for each other. She’d hoped for that at least.
Then, the sickness had come, and she’d been away from the marriage mart for three years longer than normal. And when she’d returned, no one had seemed interested in the mysterious Farley daughter who was debuting after almost all her peers had gotten married and become mothers.
Not even the handsome dowry that continued to increase every year had changed that. As long as they didn’t know the reason why she’d been away–something ripe for speculation—she’d gotten no proposals. The truth wouldn’t have made things any better or different either, as many families would rather not have a sickly daughter-in-law.
Well, that’s if she wasn’t counting that one from the fortune pilferer, Writhsworth, or Renley, the damned old fool. Oh goodness, she desperately tried to never remember the overbearing, lecherous Pattinson who’d tried to ruin her reputation and force her into marriage with his dastardly tricks and rumors.
A shiver wracked through Violet as she shook her head.
Ah yes, she certainly couldn’t count those as proposals.
In any case, through all of it, she’d begun to accept that perhaps marriage simply wasn’t for her. That she was lucky enough to have survived her illness and couldn’t, shouldn’t ask for more.
She’d told herself she would be content with growing old as a spinster and at least having the solace of books.
That was until she’d met Lancelot, and suddenly, she’d wanted more. A family. Someone who’d be an even better father than the kind of mother she intended to be for him.
Of course, according to the laws, as a single lady, she very well couldn’t adopt. But with marriage–as long as her husband was willing, it became entirely possible.
So, she’d found herself wishing for marriage again. Only this time, she wanted something more out of it.
A marriage with butterflies and heart flutters, and she knew she only had one person to blame for that change.
With brown eyes that only seemed ordinary from afar, but upon closer inspection, those golden flecks that flitted in his irises were impossible to ignore.
His hair was just as misleading. Copper upon first glimpse, but when one paid closer attention–and she had–you could see hints of blonde streaks. It was like unlike any other she’d ever seen. So beautiful, so lush. And he wore it short, the longest of those locks rested just above brows of identical hue.
And how about his chest? She’d refuse to admit that she’d noticed, but doing so would be tantamount to telling a lie.
How could she not have?
The man was always in a cream-colored or grey shirt that had evidently seen better days. He had also obviously never heard of cravats. Then again, common men rarely had use for them–and the first few buttons of their shirts, apparently.
So what if she’d been unable to not glimpse the broadness of his chest? Or the muscles that rippled beneath his fine arms whenever he did any heavy lifting at all?
He always had his sleeves rolled up to his elbow.
Of course, his shoulders were broad enough to contain his chest. Fitting for the tall epitome of beauty that he was.
Her head never went past his chin. And yes, how could she forget that chin? So finely chiseled as though it’d been sculpted by the best of artists.
She only had to go a few inches higher to vividly see those lips that often reminded her of a cupid’s bow, in her mind’s eye.
And his skin, bronze. No doubt tanned from all that time he spent in the woods chopping trees, or in the market charming unsuspecting ladies into buying more trinkets than they would ever require.
She swallowed a small sigh. Yes, him.
The handsome angel who’d left an indelible mark upon her heart.
That fateful day at the market had affected Violet beyond introducing her to Lancelot. While she’d brought the child home, glad to be able to wake up to him every day, the humble hero visited her dreams every night.
And now, she was expected to marry another? When her heart pined daily for him?
“Oh, now, don’t be so theatrical,” her mother who’d never stopped talking, pulled Violet out of her thoughts. “To be quite honest, I do not think you can do better. Lord Langley is inarguably the most eligible bachelor of the season! He’s got the looks, the title, the manners, and the wealth!”
The countess raised her shoulder in a shrug. “Not to mention that the Langleys are the only ones we ever trusted with the truth of your absence, and they’ve loved you despite it. If they think you’ll make a good wife for their son, and a wonderful future Duchess, who are we to argue?”
Her mother was right, of course. The future Duke of Enfield was a great catch. She remembered a little of him from when she was much younger, before he’d begun his travels and she’d taken ill.
He would make a fine husband now that she really thought of it, but not because of all the reasons her mother had listed. He would make a fine husband because he was kind–given that his time away hadn’t change him.
And now that she thought of the future Duke of Enfield, for some reason, he reminded her of the man in the market.
She supposed it was because they both had kind hearts. But there seemed to be something more. Something she couldn’t quite put a finger to, yet.
In any case, she was back to thinking of him again.
Patrick Cook...After a few more visits, she’d found out the man’s name from one of the traders.
She’d also learned, after being disappointed by his absence a few times, that he wasn’t a trader. He simply helped an old lady who was a dear family friend on days when she had to tend to her ill husband and couldn’t come to the market herself.
Apparently, Mr. Cook was a carpenter. He made the finest wooden floors on that side of London, she’d been told.
Mr. Cook also happened to be a ladies’ man–this piece of information she’d discovered for herself. The women in the market floated on clouds whenever he was around and spoke a word to them. They found a reason to flock to the stall several times a day.
As for the ladies who visited the store to buy trinkets, they all became returning customers, each time evidently buying more than they bargained for.
Then there was Miss Lily, whom Violet had believed to be Mr. Cook’s wife or betrothed. That is, until she’d learned the young lady was his sister. She wished to speak nothing of the relief that had made her feel.
Admittedly, Violet had visited the stall more than a few times herself.
Nothing would ever come of it, she knew this. That was perhaps why she’d never tried to tell Mr. Cook how she truly felt or pursued more than a few words conversation with him.
Then again, was Violet even certain she truly knew how she felt?
She heaved another sigh, but before her mother could chastise her, she quickly declared, “I shall give it a try!”
The Countess raised a brow.
“Getting to know Lord Langley again, with marriage in mind, of course.”
Her mother visibly brightened as her face transformed with a dazzling smile. “Oh, truly? You’d do that?”
She nodded. “Of course, Mother. It is as you said, he would make a great husband. And if we’re being quite honest, what other choice do I have?”
In that moment, Lancelot got off his horse and started to run towards the women. Violet turned to watch him, her heart soaring with a love she would never be able to paint with words. And she knew then that she would give him the entire world if she could.
“For Lancelot. I’ll do it for him, Mama.”
Langley Estate, Grosvenor Square.
Arthur Langley flinched as his eyes caught a sharp ray of sunlight.
Quickly, he reached for his hat, tipping it lower so that it’d serve as better shield against the sun. Nonetheless, he knew that was a temporary solution.
He turned to the child beside him. Henson, a good lad of no more than fifteen summers, was almost as tall as Arthur.
Arthur could see that the heat was starting to get to the child well. It certainly made no sense to subject them both to this torture any longer.
They’d set out at dawn, before the sun had begun peek through the clouds on the horizon. That was more than enough riding for the day. There would always be tomorrow.
And the green fields that spread out, surrounding the estate will always be there.
“What do you say we turn around here, Henson? We’ve had a wonderful time, have we not?”
The boy who clearly adored Arthur did not hesitate to agree. “Absolutely, My Lord. The sun is fully out now, and I’d just begun to worry that you might be growing parched. We didn’t remember to bring along gourds.”
Arthur smiled at his response. “Oh, it’s fine. I can survive a few more hours. Given, it’s certainly warmer today than most, still, the temperature is nothing compared to what we have to endure in India. It’s always so hot there. The sun is scorching enough to cook your meals if you know the right tricks.”
Henson’s starkly blue eyes widened with awe as they often did whenever Arthur regaled him with tales from his trips. “Indeed?”
For the umpteenth time that morning, Arthur found himself breaking into a gale of laughter. “Well, I’m certain one day it would be possible, but not quite yet. The world still has a long way to go before we are able to have the ability to achieve that. But yes, the sun is truly that hot. Scorching in fact.”
“No wonder you were so tanned when you returned! I heard Mama say Her Grace wasn’t too happy about that.”
“Ah, yes, she was horrified.” Arthur chuckled as he recalled his mother’s shocked reaction to his bronzed skin. She’d cried for days on end about how she never should have let him go to the East Indies, and had forbidden him from stepping out lest anyone saw him and began to spread rumors.
As he hadn’t been ready to socialize with the ton quite yet, that had been a welcome suggestion. Save to roam the fields in the estate, he seldom stepped out of the manor.
It’d been over a month since he arrived in England, and his parents had managed to keep the news of his return hushed, until a few days ago when his mother had coyly mentioned it at tea to her lady friends.
The invitations had begun pouring in since, as well as letters from old acquaintances. Arthur was yet to get through them all, and he wasn’t eager to either.
“It’s different now,” Henson observed aloud. “The tan is beginning to fade.”
“Ah yes, so I noticed. Mother seems quite pleased, as well.”
“She loves you very much, My Lord.”
“As all mothers do, I suppose,” Arthur answered easily, knowing that the child would understand. The boy shared a close bond with his own mother, who was the estate’s cook.
“Indeed, My Lord,” the child responded, grinning from ear to ear. “Indeed.”
Arthur didn’t need to be a clairvoyant to know that Henson was thinking about his own mother.
There was a small moment of silence as they turned around and began to make their way back to the manor.
“Will you be telling me more stories about India?” Henson asked, breaking the spell.
Arthur didn’t miss a beat. “As many as I can, every time we go on rides like this, I promise.”
“Wonderful!” the child chimed. Then, evidently remembering himself, he cleared his throat and made a show of regaining composure. “You were saying something about elephants?”
“Oh, they’re huge,” he answered easily. “Almost four times my size.”
“And they keep them as pets?”
“Of course! Almost every child in the village I visited seemed to own one.” Well, not every child, but Henson didn’t need to know that. Arthur was aware of just how much things like this thrilled the boy, and heavens help him, for he’d come to find he truly enjoyed seeing Henson happy.
“But pets are often small!”
“Ah, the Indians would beg to disagree, my dear friend.”
“Did you ever ride on one?” The child’s eyes were twinkling now, his face radiating a million bright colors.
“Of course, many times! Here, we use horses to travel; there, they use Elephants! To cross rivers and move carriages. They’re big, you know, so they can carry more.” That much was true.
However, it would appear the child didn’t agree. “But they must be slow!”
Arthur chuckled at that. “Certainly slower than horses. Nonetheless, the Indians are rarely ever in a hurry. When they are, they use horses.”
“How do you get on them? The Elephants I mean. If they are four times your size, I imagine that would pose a challenge.”
Again, Arthur laughed out loud. Henson was truly a delight. His child-like innocence, his unassuming wit, his endless curiosity, all of it delighted Arthur.
“Indeed, it does. Which is why we use ladders.”
“Ladders! To climb animals!” the wonder on Henson’s voice rang through the air. “I must visit India someday. I too would like to ride on elephants.”
Arthur found himself giving that a serious thought. He soon came to a conclusion. “You know what? Perhaps, I shall take you along with me when next I visit India. You would be much older then, and your mama might be more inclined to giving you permission to travel with me.”
The reins slipped from Henson’s hands as he stilled with shock. Only years of experience kept the boy from falling off his horse as the mare bucked.
Quickly, Henson reached for the reins, regaining control before Arthur even had the chance to intervene.
“You mean it, do you not, My Lord?” His voice was serious, quiet, and his eyes held all the hope in the world.
Arthur was grinning from ear to ear. “When have I ever spoken words I do not mean?”
Slowly, Henson’s lips stretched into a smile that wrapped warm hands around Arthur’s heart. “In that case, I shall begin to count the days.”
Arthur bobbed his head. “Yes, you do that. But for now, I can hear my stomach grumbling. Forget water, it’s food my body truly needs.”
And somehow, that marked the end of the stories. Kicking the sides of their horses, they increased their pace, riding hard all the way back to the manor.
They rode past small cottages that served as home to many of the estate’s staff and families, and maneuvered their way through tall, huge trees that were decades older than Arthur, just like almost everything else in the estate. Until finally, the tall magnificent structure that was the manor came into view.
They went straight to the stables where several hands were waiting to welcome them, and retrieve his horse.
“Good ride, My Lord?” The stable’s foreman enquired.
Arthur was smiling as he dismounted easily. “As always, Jean. As always.”
The older man simply smiled at him as he accepted the reigns. “I shall have him ready for you come tomorrow morning.”
Arthur nodded in thanks as he pulled off his riding gloves and handed them over to Henson who’d now come to stand by Arthur’s side. “I’d be grateful.”
With those words, he turned to Henson with a wink, taking great care to ruffle the child’s hair before he began strolling towards the manor.
Because the structure was so huge, finding his way around would take another ten minutes, so he chose to use the servants’ door that would lead him directly to the kitchen.
The air was quiet, as it was always was in the Langley estate, and this side of London.
Just before he stepped in through the back door, he paused to draw in a lungful of the clean morning air. It smelled of trees and the stream that ran through their woods. It smelled like home.
As much as Arthur loved his adventures, traveling, seeing new places, meeting new people, learning their customs, traditions and language, he’d realized a while ago that there was nowhere quite like home.
It was why he always found his way back every now and then, no matter how long he was gone at a time.
This time around, he’d stayed away for too long, caught up in the dazzle that was the outside world beyond the shores of the Thames. No wonder his heart had begun to hurt from missing it all.
That was when he’d know he had to return home.
“My Lord,” the staff greeted as he walked past them,
Arthur smiled, nodded, aware that they were all glad he was home.
His presence put his parents in a pleasant mood, and it was common knowledge that whenever the Duke and Duchess were happy, they became even more generous.
A moment later, Arthur arrived at the breakfast room. As he came to stand at the door, his eyes floated to the golden clock that hung on the opposite wall.
Five minutes past 8 o’clock. He released a small breath of relief. That meant his parents had not been waiting for long.
And yes, they were waiting, like every other morning since the day of his joyous return.
Gait graceful as always, he strode into brightly decorated room.
The walls were painted in light shades of white and yellow. Large windows, which faced the east, were draped with cream-colored curtains, made even more beautiful by the peach and lavender flowers embroidered onto them.
Of course, as it was daytime, the curtains had been spread apart to allow sufficient amount of sunlight to stream into the room.
The table and chairs, made of ivory and oak wood, and covered with thick, lush brown leather, sat closely together in the center of the room. Above them, a chandelier hung, and at the far-left corner, a white pianoforte stood proudly.
The room was large enough to conveniently sit a score of people. However, the size of the table and the number of chairs indicated that only six persons were welcome.
Theirs had always been a small family–with him being an only child. In the event that they had guests, they used the dining hall for their meals.
The tingling aroma of a delicious meal wafted through the air, filling Arthur’s nostrils, overwhelming his senses and causing his stomach to rumble even more violently.
Ignoring the ache, he walked straight to his mother. Upon reaching her side, he lowered to place a soft kiss against her temple. Naturally, she lifted her chin, meeting him halfway.
“You look especially lovely today, Mother. Must be the dress. This shade of blue is certainly your color.”
The Duchess of Enfield beamed, her cheeks filling with soft hues of pink, as her gray eyes glimmered.
“Velvet,” she explained as he went to take his seat by her side. “One of Mr. Flock’s latest imports. I fell in love with the fabric and its color the moment I set my eyes upon it. Trust Madame Simone to do it justice with her ever impressive designs.”
Arthur chuckled at the glee in her mother’s voice. Anyone who knew the Duchess well knew that she was quite the fashion icon.
And she didn’t just invest in fine clothing for herself. She made certain that everyone around her had the best of the best. Of course, her husband and son were at the top of that list.
The maids’ and footmen’s uniforms were also an excellent style, made with evidently pricey fabric.
As for the other staff who didn’t wear uniforms, the Duchess of Enfield made it a point to supply them with a wardrobe change every three months.
It was one of the things he truly adored about his mother, she had a heart so generous, she hardly ever gave thought to how much it would cost her to see that the needs of those whom she held dear to her heart were abundantly met.
Of course, she had her vices, but nothing that could overshadow that one stellar quality, amongst many others.
“And trust you to wear it well,” he answered, the laughter still in his voice. Then, turning to his father, he bowed his head slightly in reverence. “A fine morning, is it not?”
The Duke of Enfield responded, finally joining the conversation. “Indeed, seeing as you didn’t keep us waiting for too long today.”
Arthur’s smile deepened that. “I’ve told you countless times not to wait on my account. I can always have breakfast whenever I return home.”
“You haven’t been with us for four years. No one knows when next you’ll run off on another adventure again. We shall savor as many breakfasts as we can until then.”
Before Arthur got the chance to respond, his father continued. “Well, he won’t be running away this time, will he? Not as long as we have something to do with it.”
That immediately arrested Arthur’s attention. Frowning, he looked from his father to his mother.
“What is that supposed to mean? What are you two up to this time?”
“Nothing to worry your head about,” his mother answered simply. “Come now, let’s share the grace so that we may break our fast. I’m famished, and the meal is getting cold.”
There it was, that tone of finality in her voice. It was the Duchess tone that she often used on subjects and staff, as well as her husband and son whenever she wasn’t interested in being argued with, or repeating herself for the matter.
So, Arthur held his peace. Whatever was going on, he was certain he would find out soon enough.
Besides, with the way the walls of his stomach continued to revolt, he had more pressing matters to attend to.
Pushing that concern to the back of his mind, he focused on the spread before him.
Bread, beef, stew, bacon, beans, wine, olive, berries, grapes, everywhere he looked, there was one delicacy or the other, resting beautifully in fine ceramic dishes.
It was a feast fit for Kings, however, in the Langley household, it was just another breakfast.
Half an hour later, breakfast was over and as they retired to the drawing room, his father finally broke the news.
“We have arranged a match for you,” he said.
“Like some sort of sport?” Arthur asked, unwilling to believe the truth of the matter.
Arthur’s mother rolled her eyes, clearly running out of patience, but his father simply smiled, his green eyes twinkling with understanding of his wife’s tendencies and his son’s jests.
“No, Arthur, a marriage match. With the Farleys, I believe you remember them? You must also remember their daughter, Lady Violet. She’s grown into a lovely young woman, and your mother and I are convinced she’d made a good wife.”
Arthur’s brows furrowed in confusion. “Isn’t Lady Violet two years younger than myself? That makes her three-and-twenty summers. How come she’s yet unmarried?”
“Well, it’s a long story. Remember how she took ill some time ago and couldn’t debut until she was twenty? Well, upon her return to London, many families have been wary, as the circumstances surrounding her absence were never disclosed.”
Arthur didn’t need to hear more. He knew just how insufferable the ton could be about these things. He gave one slow nod. “Ah, I see, and admitting that she was sick for an entire year wouldn’t help matters.”
“Precisely. It would in fact, only worsen the situation,” his mother answered. “But she’s healthy now. Strong as an ox. She hasn’t even come down with a fever since she recovered from that terrible illness. We know she will make you happy and bear strong children for you.”
Arthur didn’t miss a beat. “That is good news, believe me. I am happy for Lady Violet.” And he truly was. “She was a sweet child from what I remember. I imagine she’s still just as amiable as ever if you want her for a daughter-in-law.”
A small pause followed as he tried to choose his words. After due consideration, he decided that being direct was the only way to go.
“However,” he raised his fore finger. “I am afraid I shall have to disappoint you both. You see, I am simply not ready for marriage, neither do I have any interest in settling down at this time.”
“You’re old enough,” his father argued.
His counter was swift. “And yet, young enough to wait a few more years. At the very least, another half decade. Surely, you don’t want me to throw away my freedom at only twenty-five. When there’s still so much left of the world to see, to explore!”
“You’ve been traveling for eight years now, Arthur. Since you finished from Eton. Surely, you’ve satisfied your appetite for adventure. It’s time to stay home, with your family, to build your own family, to get to know the people who would become your subjects and begin to learn how best to serve them.”
Arthur brushed his mother’s words aside with a wave. “I can always do all that later.” His tone was just as dismissive as his gesture.
From the narrowed slits that the Duchess’ eyes became, he could instantly tell she’d neither appreciated that tone or his words.
Sitting up in his chair, he sighed in mock surrender. “All right, we can negotiate. How about three more years?” Those gray eyes turned to daggers. “Okay, two,” he adjusted. “I promise you, when I’m twenty-seven, I’ll return home for good and settle down.”
“It’s no use,” his mother snipped, barely letting him finish.
There was that tone again, letting him know there was no getting out of this.
True to those thoughts, she declared, “We have made our decision, and it shall stand. We’ll be throwing a ball in your honor to celebrate your return. It’ll also be the first ball of the season. Consider yourself duly informed. We expect you to prepare adequately for it and trust you to be on your best behavior.”
“It’s in two weeks’ time,” his father informed. “We intend for you to formally meet Lady Farley there. However, if you so wish, you can always call on her before then. I hear she spends most of her mornings at home.”
Arthur closed his eyes as he willed himself to remain calm. He couldn’t believe any of this was happening.
He’d returned home because he truly missed England, the cold rainy days, and the narrow streets, and the endless fields. But most especially, he had missed his parents dearly.
The last trip was the longest he’d been away from home at a stretch. One day, he’d awoken with so much longing that he’d just known it was time. So, he’d packed up his valises and gotten on the next ship to England.
His plan had been to stay for a few months, perhaps enjoy the winter and celebrate Christmas with his family, before leaving to discover new shores.
He had the Caribbeans in mind for next time. Not once had he ever imagined or foreseen his parents pulling such a fast one on him.
They’d already promised him in marriage; he was as good as betrothed!
While he’d been enjoying morning rides and regaling Henson with tales, Arthur’s parents had been scheming, putting together the perfect plan to keep him in England for a very long time.
“Why now?” he asked as he opened his eyes. “Why this? You two have always supported my travels. You’ve never been against them.”
He paused as a frightening thought crossed his mind and fear cause his heart to miss a beat. “Are you ill, Father? Is that it? Are you dying? Mother, you?”
The look of surprise his parents gave him, which eventually turned into confusion had his heart breaking free from the hold of fear.
“Ill? Dying? Of course not! Why would you even think of that?” That was his father.
Arthur allowed himself to relish the wave of relief that washed over him. “Well, perhaps because you two suddenly sprung talk of marriage on me and wouldn’t stop going on and on about how I need to take on more responsibility. It’s what people usually say when they’re dying, you know.”
“Or when they’re going far away,” his mother interrupted. “Nobody is dying, Arthur. Your father and I simply want to...retire.”
“Retire?” he repeated.
“Yes,” his mother replied.
“From being Duke and Duchess?” Arthur asked again, wondering if his ears were playing tricks on him.
“And since when did people begin to resign from titles? I thought it was something you held on to until the day you, you know...couldn’t any longer.”
“Well, there’s always a first time for everything now, isn’t there?”
Arthur looked from his mother to his father, then back to his mother. “And you two want to be the trailblazers?”
“Oh, Arthur! It’s all been well thought out! Of course, we won’t actually resign from our titles. We’d still be Duke and Duchess, only you will be the one in charge. Think of it as learning on the job. I mean, if we’re being quite honest, you know next to nothing about governing a Dukedom. And you aren’t getting any younger. It’s high time you learned.”
Arthur shifted his attention to his father once more, eyes glimmering with curiosity. “Perhaps you would explain?”
The Duke didn’t hesitate. “We’ve given the better part of our lives to Enfield, son. Devoted ourselves. We would like to rest now, to travel, to focus on just us and enjoy what time we have left to our heart’s content. Also, you have to admit that it’s not a good look.”
“What isn’t?” Arthur’s voice was flat.
If his father took any objection to Arthur’s tone, he did not show it. “The fact that our tenants can’t even remember what their future ruler looks like. You haven’t been to the countryside in almost a decade. That and the fact that if anything were to happen your mother or I now, heavens forbid, you wouldn’t know the first thing about running a Dukedom.”
Arthur frowned. “I still remember all my lessons, you know.”
His father stared him down. “Do you? Truly?”
Arthur couldn’t answer that question, not honestly. Of course, he remembered the basics, but his parents were right. He still had a lot more to learn.
“We’ve given you eight years to do as you wish,” the Duke continued. “Eight years of living according to your heart’s desires, free from the duty you were born to fulfil. It’s more than many heirs to a dukedom can boast of. You will not deny that we have tried.”
Arthur’s heart squeezed in his chest. His father was right, of course. In all sincerity, at the start, he hadn’t thought they would indulge him for this long. He’d believed he would be given a few years at most. Perhaps three? Many young gentlemen who went on world tour often returned after their second year away.
However, as time went on, and they had made no effort to hold him back, he’d become a lot bolder and, in the continued spirit of honesty, selfish.
“Your mother and I have given this great thought, and we will not be changing our minds. It’s time. Time for you to become a man, son. We will be here for a while still, to help you get used to holding the ropes. Then after we’ve seen you settle in nicely, we shall go on a little vacation.”
Arthur could feel his mother’s smile.
“We’re thinking the Caribbean. I hear it’s beautiful there. Especially in summer.”
Arthur was pleasantly surprised. Not just because that had been his next destination, but because he never would have reckoned his parents would want to go so far from home.
As though his mother could read his thoughts, she asked. “Now, don’t look so shocked. Where do you think your penchant for adventure comes from? Your father used to be quite the tourist in his time, you know. He stopped so he could be there for you and I.”
Arthur winced. He certainly didn’t want to hear the story again, about how his parents, swept away by their emotions, had conceived him out of wedlock.
“Why do I have a feeling this wasn’t your idea?” He returned his attention to his father. “Did you put her up to this? Because I am well aware Mother has never stepped outside the shores of England.”
“And now she wants to,” his father answered guiltily. “Come now, Arthur, we’ve done our part, do you not reckon? We have raised you into a fine young man, expanded Enfield’s coffers, given her people better living conditions, and served them with all our hearts. Now it’s time to finally live for us. Try to be fair, will you? We’ve let you have your fun. Now, let us have ours. Bear in mind that this way, it would be so much easier for you to make the transition into being a Duke when I’m no longer here.”
Arthur was wise enough to know when he’d lost a fight–not that he ever had a decent chance at winning. The game had been rigged from the start.
They’d employed every weapon in their possession, played on facts and emotions, and because he loved them too much, and could not deny they’d spoken the truth, he couldn’t bring himself to deny them this wish.
He heaved a deep sigh. Marriage.
Of course, he’d always known it was going to happen someday, but until this morning, it had continued to remain a faraway thought. A future problem that he’d only have to deal with much later.
Alas, it would appear the future had caught up with him.
“I’ll be at the ball,” he said with resignation and the knowledge that his wings had just been snapped in two.
Perhaps, one day, he would be able to fly again. However, for now, his parents were the ones who needed to soar. He could see it in their eyes, how much they wanted this.
And he would let them. After all, they more than deserved it.
They’d proven their love and devotion. Now, was the time to prove his.
“Remind me again, why I thought bringing you along would be a good decision?” Patrick asked his sister as he led the way deep into the woods, and cleared tree branches from their path.
“Because you knew you’d need the company?” came her sweet response. “A fine one, I might add. Perhaps, the best there is.”
Patrick scoffed. “Indeed. Must be why you wish to deafen me with your endless chatter. Either that or my ears will simply fall off.”
Her retort was quick, sharp. “Deny that you wouldn’t be having an awful boring morning fetching wood otherwise.”
“I assure you, I’d have been very thankful for the peace and quiet. Not that I ever realized how much I enjoyed those things before. I suppose your presence does help in some way. At least, now I know never to take my solitude for granted.”
“Hmmph,” she huffed. “You’re just saying that because you’d never admit aloud that you enjoy having me around.”
“If believing that helps you sleep at night, then far be it from me to point out the lie.”
Even though he was ahead of her and couldn’t see her face, Patrick had lived with her long enough to know that her eyes must have grown narrow, and she was now staring daggers into his back.
“Tsk, tsk,” he teased further. “If only looks could burn.”
“Oh, you’d be a fine heap of ashes by now,” she snapped.
Patrick giggled at that, happy to know that he’d been right.
“You make it so easy, do you realize?”
“Only because you’re so good at getting under my skin.”
“You know what? You’re right, maybe I’m just that good.”
“A shame you only ever seem capable of stuttering whenever her fine ladyship is near.”
Patrick near stumbled as he rocked to a halt.
Damnation! He was down bad, was he not? Now, even the mere mention of the lady could affect him.
What was he ever to do? How was he going to recover from all the emotions she was making him feel?
And if the day came when she simply disappeared, never to return to his presence, how was he going to live without her smile, which had become his special liquor? He could get drunk on it for a lifetime and still thirst for more.
“Ah, now, even mentioning her gets you to stumble.”
He shook himself out of his reverie as those words filled his ears. Despite himself, he couldn’t help but smile at the laughter in his sister’s voice.
She’d won this round, and she knew it. He was going to let her revel in her victory. But he would not give her the satisfaction of seeing him so shaken again.
Saying nothing, he continued to lead the way.
They were heading deep into the woods for individual reasons. He, to find good trees with fine wood for Mr. Kline’s floors. And Lily, to find rare herbs for her Madame’s headache.
The modiste had been ailing from a persistent headache for a few weeks now, and they seemed to be getting worse. The only thing that helped was when she took sips of Lily’s special tea.
They were both worried about the Madame, especially since she’d refused to take some rest. Not with the season finally around the corner. They’d spent months making dresses and preparing to adorn as many ladies as possible in beautiful ball gowns.
According to the Madame, now wasn’t the time to give in to illness.
“It appears I might have finally figured out a way to get under your skin,” Lily spoke again, ending the reign of silence Patrick admittedly hadn’t enjoyed half as much as his sister’s chattering.
“Do not even dream of it,” he said, deigning her with a response this time. “You only succeeded because I was taken unawares, but believe me when I say it will never happen again.”
“You seem so certain,” her voice was daring, as though she didn’t think he could refute her statement.
“I am.” Simple. Sure. Solemn.
But his dearest sister wouldn’t let it rest. “Then you, my dearest brother, are either a fool in denial, or a fool who knows nothing about love.”
“Either way, you think me a fool,” he surmised aloud.
“Precisely! So...” she drawled, skipping to walk side by side with him as they stepped into a large clearing. “Are you finally going to tell her?”
“Tell her what?” the feigned ignorance in his tone was unmistakable.
A grunt of frustration filled the air. It was like music to Patrick’s ears. He was back to having the upper hand. All was well in the world again.
“Ugh! Tell her you’re the prince of England, of course, what else?”
Patrick never felt it coming, the loud chuckle that broke free from his throat, coming out as snorts.
“Now, that was a good one. Sarcasm does become you, dearest sister. It would appear we’ve finally found your talent.”
“My talent is making the best healing potions and putting together the most beautiful dresses. It is you whose talent we’ve yet to figure out, brother.”
“Ah, well, I’m not renowned as the best carpenter in this part of London for no reason. It’s only a matter of time before my name spreads through the rest of England as well.”
“Noble dreams, brother. Work hard enough, and they might just come true.”
Even though those words had been said in continued jest, he could hear the tender emotion behind them. Patrick knew that she meant every word, just as much as she wished for him to succeed.
“As will yours, Lily. You do know that, do you not?”
Something shifted in the air. The ambience that had been lighthearted and easy just moments before was now sober, meaningful.
“Ah, I don’t know. I just do what I can,” she responded.
He smiled at that, aware that she never allowed herself to dream aloud, for fear that her dreams would never come to pass.
“Believe me, sister, your capabilities are not only inspiring, but endless. It’s only a matter of time before the world discovers you as well.”
She’d wanted to be a physician, having so much love and passion for healing. Alas, ladies were not allowed to go to school and study like men. And even if they were, Patrick and Lily wouldn’t have been able to afford it.
No, they would have. Patrick would have sold his soul just to see Lily get a proper education.
However, she’d found love in needles and had chosen to make dresses instead.
Beautiful dresses made ladies happy. Happiness was good for the soul. As far as Lily was concerned, she was still doing some form of healing.
Her blue eyes watered, and she began to blink furiously to keep the tears from falling. “What’s with all this seriousness? And how did you manage to successfully change the subject? Enough about dreams...when are you going to let the fine Lady know that you’re in love with her?”
“Her name is Violet, Lily. Lady Violet Farley.” He’d eventually found that out on one of her many visits to the stall, and he had to say, it was such a fitting name.
“Ah yes, Lady Violet Farley. Ask her on a walk! Or take her to the theatre! Lord knows you have enough money for that.”
She’d wanted to put a stop to the talk of dreams, yet, there she was making him dream again. To promenade with Lady Farley, to sit by her side and watch her laugh and cry over a play. Oh, his world would become paradise.
Patrick shook his head. There was a reason why he’d never let himself entertain such thoughts. It was foolish, utterly so. Foolish and useless.
“I will be doing no such thing.”
“Why? Because you’re afraid to wear your heart on your sleeve? Afraid that you’ll be rejected?”
“Because it’d be useless,” he snapped, losing his patience. “Nothing would ever come of it. All right? Nothing. She might have been polite all this while but the moment I forget my place, she’ll laugh in my face, and I’ll never see her again.”
Lily simply stared at him as she shook her head. “You truly know nothing, do you? You really believe she’s been visiting the market every other day and buying one trinket or the other, making a point to wear them when next she visits, because she’s being polite?”
“What other reason could there be?” He knew that might not be the case. He even secretly hoped it was true, but he would never let himself believe it.
Lily’s lips curved into a smile. “None, none at all. Ah! I think I see some ferns down that path. We shall meet here, yes? Whoever returns first must wait until the other person appears.”
She never waited for a response. As soon as she was done speaking, she turned around, and took to her heels.
And with Lily’s departure, came solitude, and with solitude, thoughts of Patrick’s fair lady.
If only he could truly let himself dream. If only there was a world in which they could be together...if only.
Lady Violet remained on Patrick’s mind as he found the perfect tree and began to hack it down.
He’d only made three strikes when a shrill scream cut through the air, causing his heart to beat faster in terror.
“Lily!” he shouted, dropping all his tools as he began running in the direction of her scream.
He found her soon enough, and while she seemed unhurt, there was a gentleman on the ground.
Patrick didn’t need any explanation. The situation, as well as Lily’s scream, was more than enough to tell him what had transpired.
Good thing he’d taught her to protect herself, but she didn’t have to now. He was here. He would protect her.
So, stepping in front of Lily, he brought out the dagger he always kept close and pointed it at the scoundrel.
Only, as the man looked up at him, eyes wide in wonder, Patrick realized that he was staring right back at himself.
The morning had started like every other since Arthur had returned to England: pleasantly.
He’d gotten up at exactly half an hour past 5 o’clock to prepare for his morning ride. There had even been a fine tune on his lips as he quickly adorned his riding habit.
By the time he was done tying his boots, he had been more than ready to smell the trees and grasses. To relish in the feel of winds being caught in his hair as he raced against them.
Ordinarily, his valet would help him prepare for the day, but Arthur had told the younger man there was no need to perform his duties before formal hours. He could take care of himself, just like he often did whenever he was away from home experiencing new worlds.
He was still humming the happy tune he’d learned from the Indians as he made his way to the stable. However, just as he reached the top of the stairs, memories of his breakfast conversation with his parents slammed into Arthur, causing him to halt.
Ah, yes, the conversation that had left him in a sour mood for the rest of the day, and even caused him to toss and turn ceaselessly in bed before sleep had finally claimed him just past midnight.
Suddenly, everything had changed.
How could he have forgotten that his life was about to be transformed drastically. Look at him, about to carry on the routine he’d become so accustomed to this past month, when nothing else was going to remain the same.
A husband. He was going to be become a husband, and he would never be allowed to roam free again.
He knew he’d agreed to the entire matter yesterday morning, but the more he thought of it, the more everything in him revolted at the idea. Alas, he was a gentleman, and a gentleman did not go back on his word.
Ever. He had promised, so he must fulfil that promise.
Now agitated, Arthur realized that riding simply wouldn’t be enough that morning. He needed something more challenging that the slopes of Langley Estate. Something more daring, more exerting to take his mind off this wearisome matter before thinking about it drove him mad.
In a swift instant, his decision was made.
He would go hunting. Away from his family grounds that had become so familiar. He would take on a new challenge.
With this in mind, he veered to his right, changing course to the weaponry.
A short while later, he was at the stable, mounting his horse, a fine rifle crossed on his back.
“I wish I could bring you along, Henson,” he said, looking down at the sad, disappointed child. “but I do not wish to court your mother’s wrath. Never worry, tomorrow we shall ride together as always. I promise.”
“But I can hunt too! I’ve been taught! I know those woods well, perhaps even better than you.”
Arthur was forced to smile. “And I do not doubt that one bit, but until I have your mother’s leave, I shall not risk putting you in any danger.”
“I’m no longer a child!” Henson disagreed vehemently.
The foreman stepped forward then, ready to put the child in his place, but Arthur shook his head, letting the man know there was no need to intervene.
It was okay for Henson to express his frustration. After all, was Arthur not riding out into strange woods trying to do the same?
Deepening his smile, his gaze fell to Henson once again.
“As far as our Mas are concerned, big boy, we will always be children. Now, now. It’s only one day. If you continue to act so sullen, I might think I’ve spoiled you. And I haven’t, have I?”
That seemed to do the trick. Instantly, Henson brightened, visibly banishing his disappointment.
This pleased Arthur greatly. “Good. Now, give Dan here a helping hand until I return, will you?”
It was settled. With those words, Arthur took off, knowing that he didn’t need to ask them to keep the truth of his whereabouts a secret from his parents.
Not that they’d have to lie. When the Duke and Duchess awoke to find Arthur gone, they’d simply believe he had gone off on one of his usual morning rides again.
Satisfied by this thought, Arthur kicked the sides of his stallion, urging the fine animal to go faster, farther away from the estate, towards the hunting area.
There was something about having reliable senses. Despite the fact that it had been years, Arthur easily found his way to the hunting grounds.
The skies had just finished transforming to a faintest shade of blue when he dismounted from his horse, having found the perfect tree to tether his sturdy stallion to.
Certain that the rope would hold, he patted the golden-furred animal with fondness and promised not to take long.
When the horse neighed in response, Arthur began his hunt.
He walked deeper into the woods, aware that if he wanted to catch any good game, he couldn’t skirt around the outer boundaries.
As his feet carried him deeper, he opened all of his senses, letting in the entire forest.
With his ears on high alert, it was easy for him to pick up the slightest noise about half a yard’s distance. As for his sight, it was excellent enough to catch the fastest dash.
His impeccable senses were as result of his training, of course. His father had begun taking him to the hunting grounds when he was ten. And even as he traveled the world, one thing he never failed to learn was how to hunt with the native peoples.
So not only did he have years of experience, but he also had wealth of knowledge. And he put every bit of that knowledge to work.
It didn’t take long before he spotted his first quarry.
His insides tightened in anticipation of the kill. It would appear today was a lucky day for him after all.
Thankfully, the animal had yet to become aware of the imminent danger it was in. Arthur was determined to keep it so.
Gently, as softly as he could, he retrieved the rifle from his back and settled into position to aim.
The deer continued to remain oblivious of the fact that it was about to become dinner, quite busy with filling its own stomach.
Arthur was confident he would be able to get it in one shot. One clean shot, that was all he needed.
He was shrouded by trees and a log of fallen wood.
The animal was about twenty feet away, it was more than close enough. Soon, he would receive that natural nudge he often experienced, letting him know it was the perfect time to strike, then he’d flex the finger he had pressed to the trigger, and it would be done.
Almost there, almost...
His left eyes squinted close, and he found himself leaning forward.
He cocked the rifle.
Right in that moment, a split second before he pulled the trigger, a woman stumbled in front of him, seemingly in search of something.
Arthur froze, aware of just how wrongly things could have gone if she’d stepped out a moment later, or if he’d been a lesser hunter who hadn’t learned how to maintain his calm even in the most startling situations.
He continued to remain still, but as though the woman suddenly got a sense of the danger she’d just escaped, she turned slowly and faced him.
Blue eyes widened in shock as they raised to his not-really-brown ones. Then, those eyes fell to his hand.
Somehow, he knew what was coming next. Yet when that very feminine scream tore through the air, he found himself tumbling backwards.
Having lost his balance, he easily tripped, losing his footing, and his body hit the ground with a hard thud.
He winced, as a million bouts of pain shot through his body. They seemed to go straight to the ankle that had twisted thanks to his unfortunate fall.
Arthur was still contemplating how much damage his foot had suffered, and whether it would be enough to keep him from attending the ball when he felt another presence by his side.
He didn’t have to look up to recognize the helm of the strange woman’s purple dress.
The question was, how had she gotten to his side so soon? Had she jumped over the huge log, as opposed to going around the trees? And what did it matter? Had he hit his head as well? Was that why he was having such useless thoughts?
“You’re hurt!” she exclaimed, having taken in the situation.
“And it’s morning,” he replied drily, wincing as he tried to get up.
“Don’t move,” she cautioned, quickly kneeling down by his side. Hands surprisingly strong for a woman of her size shot out to hold him by the shoulders.
His nostrils were hit by the scent of herbs. Too many for him to recognize, but he didn’t mind. Not at all.
He took his time to appraise this woman who was evidently trying to help him sit up.
She had a bag hung from her waist with several herbs sticking out. Arthur supposed that explained the scent and what she was doing in the woods. She must be a physician of some sort.
Stray locks of blonde hair covered her face, making it impossible for him to see clearly. But he’d glimpsed that face earlier, so he had a faint idea of what she looked like.
As she had yet to hold his gaze, he didn’t think she’d really seen his face either. His hat and position behind those trees would have shadowed his features.
It was only a matter of time. Curiosity would get the better of her, and she would finally look at him.
“Thank you,” he muttered as she pushed him back to rest against one of the tree trunks. “But I would have managed just fine.”
“If only you wish to not use your leg again.”
Her head whipped up so suddenly that he found himself staring into the clearest set of blue eyes he’d ever seen, before he even had time to form a retort.
Thought of quip forgotten, he wondered at her eyes.
They weren’t midnight, like he’d thought. They were sapphire, glimmering jewels.
Alas, it would appear there was something dastardly on his face because his lady instantly went still with shock, and as she recovered, she scrambled away from him, rising to her feet.
Arthur lifted his hand to his face, trying to catch the swipe of dirt or even bug that might be clinging to his skin. However, he found nothing.
This made him frown. He probably wasn’t the best-looking man in England, but he was certainly easy on the eyes. Why had she scrambled away from him as though he had the appearance of a monster?
“Patrick?” she called out tentatively. “Is this another one of your tricks?”
His frown deepened, with concern this time. Was the woman mad? Why would she call him another name and speak as though she knew him?
Arthur was certain he’d never met her before. He never forgot faces.
“No, it can’t be,” she said, not waiting for his response. “You would never be able to get your hands on clothing so fine...so...noble.”
Now, she was rambling to herself. Ah, she was definitely mad.
His eyes swayed to the spot where he’d last seen his game. And of course, he’d lost his quarry. No doubt the animal had taken off after that scream.
He was human and his heart had almost leapt out of his body at the sound.
He returned his attention back to her, ready to ask some questions of his own. However, in that moment, he heard approaching footsteps.
No more than a few seconds later, a man stumbled out of the woods and into the small clearing they’d all found themselves in.
Arthur could only see the side of the man’s face, but for some reason, something gnawed at him.
It happened so quickly, one quick sweep with his gaze to access the situation, then the man was standing in front of the woman and drawing out his dagger.
Arthur couldn’t blame him. It was evident this woman meant something to him, and anyone would have come to the same conclusion as he knew this strange man had.
It was the only logical conclusion one could arrive at, considering her scream and Arthur’s position on the ground. So, of course, he wasn’t offended by the man’s challenge.
That didn’t mean he wouldn’t defend himself.
Prepared to explain the situation, Arthur began to raise his hand, as well as his gaze to meet the man’s.
That was when he saw it, the reason why the woman had scrambled away from him and called him a strange name.
Why? The man standing in front of him was his very own self! Arthur’s splitting image!
The question was, how could that possibly be?
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