Prologue

Hardington, 1811

 

There was nothing but blue skies for as far as the eye could see as Emily Rutherford made light, brisk steps along the dusty road. She had been out much of that morning, as she oftentimes was whenever the weather allowed (and when she was free to do so), working on her landscape painting. There was a quiet spot not far from the cottage–up on a hill–from which she had a splendid view of the village of Hardington with its quaint stone church, winding streets, and colorful gardens that lay like neatly arranged postage stamps behind the houses.

To the right of the village lay Coldwell Manor, a wide stone building that sat heavily upon the English countryside. Emily had been there on a number of occasions as a child, when her parents had still been alive.

James Rutherford, the Viscount of Hillsbury, and his wife, Anna, had been one of the most celebrated couples in the area, their acquaintance sought after with great effort, as they always held the most spectacular and talked-about parties.

But that was then and this was now. Emily’s parents had both passed away five years earlier in a boating accident. To the great misfortune of Emily and her sisters, Claire and Beatrice, there had been no will. Their parents had been young and had in all likelihood imagined that there would be plenty of time for that later. Thus, they had been left with next to nothing, since the majority of their parents’ fortune had passed to the next male heir, their cousin Edward.

You see, when Emily’s grandmother had passed away, their grandfather had remarried a widow who had brought her own son, Jack, into the family. Jack had left home as soon as it had been possible for him to do so, and had hastily married a young woman named Elizabeth. She had died no more than a year after the wedding while giving birth to Edward.

Even though the Rutherford girls and their parents had always treated Jack and Edward as if they were blood relations, Edward had always been painfully aware of the fact that he did not belong. So it was with great satisfaction that he discovered that he’d inherited Lord Hillsbury’s fortune, simply because Emily’s grandfather had secretly adopted Jack years earlier, in the hopes of strengthening his and Edward’s ties with the rest of the family.

Emily and her sisters had been shocked to find that they’d been left without the right to anything, save for the modest cottage that their cousin had, out of the supposed goodness of his heart, purchased for them to live in. They were family, after all. But they would be expected to find themselves suitable husbands to support them and, it was hoped, become less of a burden to their distant relative.

And so it was that Emily had accepted a position at the nearby school in order to help make ends meet. She was not one to be blown over by the difficulties life had to offer, but was instead determined to make the best of any given situation. And, besides, she loved her students, who gave her a sense of purpose and always filled her with good cheer.

The three sisters were striking, with petite figures they’d inherited from their mother, though Emily was the only one blessed with her famous green eyes.

As the eldest of the three sisters, Beatrice had been the one to take charge of the household. She had put her heart and soul into ensuring that they were well cared for, and she had done it well, and without a single complaint, ever.

But it was clear that they could not go on like this forever. Husbands had to be found for all three of them. The trouble was that having had it all and then so graciously fallen, they needed to find suitors who could restore them to their former glory–no small task.

At present, the only one who had the chance to restore each of them to their rightful station was Emily. She had since childhood been a close friend of Adrian Fairchild, Viscount Carroway’s son, of Coldwell Manor. In fact, they had been best friends and still saw each other regularly. Marriage between the two seemed inevitable.

 

Chapter 1

Emily clutched her canvas and easel tightly under her right arm as she quickened her step, her box of paints held firmly in her left hand. She realized she must look terribly awkward as she struggled along, trying desperately not to drop anything.

As the rustic little cottage with its climbing roses spread across its façade came into view, Emily hurried ahead. She was eager to return home for there was much to be done today. She and her sisters had been formally invited to attend the yearly ball at Coldwell Manor. It had of course been Adrian’s doing, for nobody would have thought to invite them otherwise.

The invitation had arrived a little over a week ago, and the three sisters had talked of nothing else since. It was the only invitation that they had received in the last year, as it had been the only one they’d received the year before that, and the year before that. And since it was only once a year that they were invited out, it had become the occasion they looked forward to with unparalleled eagerness and anticipation.

Bursting through the front door of the cottage, Emily immediately set down her cumbersome load on the floor to rest against the wall. She untied the green ribbon of her bonnet and removed it, running her fingers lightly through her hair. She was all jitters, she knew–something that would suit a young girl but hardly a fully-grown woman. So she took a moment to calm herself and smooth over her dress before quietly opening the door to the parlor.

Claire and Beatrice were both seated within, animatedly conversing with a guest that Emily recognized immediately. “Kate!” she exclaimed, forgetting herself and her composure as she rushed forward, her arms spread wide. “How good of you to have come! I’ve missed you terribly, and not a day has gone by where I haven’t wondered about you. How long has it been?”

“Far too long, I suppose,” Kate replied. She was a stunningly beautiful woman with a tall, shapely figure and light blonde hair. Her eyes were the clearest blue, her lips full and rosy. She and Emily had spent much of their childhood together in one another’s company, though they’d seen less of each other in recent years now that Kate’s family had moved to Stonebrook, the estate that her father had inherited from his brother.

At present, Kate had just returned from her annual two-week visit to her aunt and uncle. As they happened to live in London, Kate thoroughly enjoyed her visits.

“Tell me about your stay, Kate,” Emily said, as she took the last remaining seat. “It must have been thoroughly splendid. Was it?”

Kate gave a slight nod followed by a broad smile. “It was indeed. I was just telling Claire and Beatrice that Aunt Harriet and Uncle Geoffrey took me to the theatre a number of times. We saw Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty on one occasion and very much enjoyed Romeo and Juliet on another. And the parties! Oh Emily, you would have loved it . . . all the lovely dresses, the music, and the dancing.”

Claire and Beatrice both raised an eyebrow. “The dancing?” Beatrice asked. “Did you happen to meet any young gentlemen who sparked your interest?”

It was no secret that the main reason Kate’s parents encouraged her to visit London was in order for her aunt and uncle to introduce her to the ton. Her parents hoped that she would find herself a suitable husband there. She was, after all, approaching her twenty-fourth year. Still, she had returned from her visit earlier than intended, in order to attend the Carroway ball that evening.

Kate giggled shyly as a bright pink hue flooded her face. “I must admit that there was one particular gentleman who . . .”

A squeal of delight filled the air, cutting her off, and before Kate knew what was happening, Emily had sprung out of her chair and was throwing her arms about her in a tight embrace. “That’s wonderful news! You must tell us everything at once! Who is he? Are you engaged?”

“As a matter of fact, we have formed an attachment.” Kate peeled herself away from Emily, her cheeks even redder than before from all the attention. “However, I did intend for this to be a quick visit. After all, there are a lot of things that need my attention before the ball this evening. I understand from your sisters that you shall all be attending?”

Emily’s face brightened at the mere mention of that evening’s event and found it impossible to hide a brilliant smile. “Oh, absolutely,” she said. “We wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Then I shall tell you everything later,” Kate said, looking at each of them with a secretive smile. “Now, I really must be off.” She rose to her feet and reached for her bonnet.

“Well, it was lovely to see you again,” Emily told her. “I shall look forward to seeing you this evening and finding out more about this elusive gentleman whom you plan to marry.”

“As shall I,” Kate told her with a small smile as she gave Emily a quick hug.

Emily and her sisters stood in the doorway and watched her walk away. She turned once to wave to them, still tying the ribbon of her bonnet below her chin.

“Her parents must be relieved,” Beatrice remarked as they went back inside. “Considering her looks and the fact that her mother is the Duke of Bedford’s sister, I’m surprised it took her this long to form an attachment.”

“She’s a romantic,” Emily said. “She believes in true love and a happily ever after just as much as I do. Finding that can take time.”

“At least you don’t have to worry about that, dear sister,” Claire said with a teasing smile.

Now it was Emily’s turn to blush. Her sisters were both aware of her undying love for Adrian. She had in truth pined away endless hours, daydreaming of what her future would be like if she were married to him.

“When do you suppose that he will offer for you?” Claire now asked. “From what you have told us, it seems that the two of you have some sort of understanding?”

“Yes, we do,” Emily said with a thoughtful smile. “I do not know if he is in love with me, as I am with him, but I do not doubt that he loves me in some way or he would not have suggested that we should one day marry.”

“I’ve told you too many times to count, surely he must be in love with you if he suggested as much,” Beatrice told her. “How could he not be?”

Emily regarded her sister for a brief moment. The concern was clear in her eyes. She was clearly worried that Emily would end up unhappy in her marriage if Adrian didn’t love her wholeheartedly.

“Oh, Bea,” Emily said, wishing she could wash away her sister’s fears. “You do so worry about us, don’t you?”

“It is my job to worry about you, and I do believe that it has kept you safe from harm thus far.”

“Well, Adrian would never hurt me. He has been my truest friend for as long as I can remember. I do not mind if he is not in love with me. I should find myself fortunate indeed if I became his wife, and I should be thoroughly happy. Aside from the fact that I can think of no other man that I would rather spend my life with, do you not see what my marrying him would mean for us?”

“Of course we do,” Claire told her. “We just don’t want you to give up on finding true happiness on our account. Emily, you must not agree to marry him just because it will reinstate us to our rightful positions.”

Emily gave an exasperated sigh. She knew how much her sisters loved her, but they were taking this too far. “Do you not see?” she asked them. “Marrying Adrian would be a dream come true for me–it would be true happiness. I love him with all my heart and I know that he loves me.”

“Then by all means, let us hope that he will soon honor your agreement and offer for you,” Claire told her.

“Yes, let’s,” Beatrice agreed with a warm smile. “Who knows? Perhaps you and Kate will both be married before the year is out.”

 

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