Kingsborough Hall, Moxley, England

1817

 

“It’s time, Mama,” Anthony Hurst, the seventh Duke of Kingsborough, said as he strode toward one of the tall windows in his mother’s bedroom and pulled aside the heavy velvet curtains, flooding the space with a bright beam of sunshine. Pausing for a moment, he looked out at the garden. The crocuses were beginning to bloom, adding a cheerful display of yellow and lilac to the dreary winter landscape.

“Why must you disturb me?”

Anthony turned at the sound of his mother’s voice, gritting his teeth at the lifelessness in it. He hated the morose atmosphere that had swamped Kingsborough Hall for the past year, and he hated how difficult it was proving to move past it. “It’s been thirteen months, Mama—that’s long enough.”

His mother, still dressed in her widow’s weeds, sighed from her seat in the corner, her light blue eyes squinting in the brightness as he pulled aside yet another curtain. Black did not suit her—it made her look pallid and brought out the silver streaks of gray in her hair. She had aged dramatically during the final stage of her husband’s life. It was almost five years since the first symptom of illness had surfaced—a lump in the former duke’s armpit. Three physicians had been consulted, all of them advising immediate surgery, and with no desire to meet a speedy end, the Duke of Kingsborough had complied.

Anthony knew it had been a painful procedure, and yet it had only been the first of several. So it had come as no surprise when his father had eventually called him into his study to say that he had refused further treatment—but it had still been bloody hard to hold back the tears in the face of such defeat, knowing without doubt what his father’s decision had meant.

A month later, however, the condition hadn’t worsened, and Anthony had begun to hope that perhaps it never would. But then, as if from one day to the next, his father’s health had declined with startling rapidity. Nothing could have been worse than looking on helplessly while a loved one had withered away and died, his body wracked by pain at every hour of both day and night. Even the memory of it was unbearable.

“Is that all?” His mother’s tiny voice was weak, forcing a wince from Anthony as he went over to her and gently took her delicate hand in his. “It seems like an eternity.”

“Mama,” he whispered, kneeling beside her, his heart aching for the woman who had once been so full of life. “So much more reason for us to end this.”

Her eyes met his with the same degree of hopelessness that he too had felt for so long. His father had always been so strong and healthy—the sort of man that everyone had thought would outlive them all. Suffering through his deterioration, inheriting his title and eventually taking his place as duke had been far from easy for Anthony. It was now more than a year since they had laid him to rest, and Anthony had decided that it was finally time for all of them to start living again. With that in mind, he had an idea that he hoped would capture his mother’s enthusiasm. “We shall host an event,” he announced, in a voice that sounded too old and serious for his own liking.

“An event?” His mother looked as if she’d much rather crawl back into bed and draw the covers over her head than listen to one more word of what he had to say.

“Not just any event, Mama,” he said, determined to make her listen and even more determined to uncover the woman who lay dormant somewhere beneath her beaten-down exterior. He knew she was there—somewhere. “It’s the end of February already, but if we hurry, we can probably manage to arrange a house party in time for Easter.” He saw that his mother was about to protest and quickly added, “It could commence with one of your infamous balls.”

She stilled for a moment as she stared back at him, time stretching out between them until he doubted she would ever respond. He was trying to think of something to say to break the silence when he saw her stir, understanding flickering behind her eyes. “We haven’t had one of those in years, Anthony. Do you really suppose . . .” Her words trailed off, but not with defeat this time. Anthony couldn’t help but notice a slight crease upon her brow. She was thinking—quite furiously, judging from the fact that she was now chewing on her lower lip. Her eyes gradually sharpened, and she leaned forward in her seat. “Perhaps it will help bring the family back together.”

Anthony certainly hoped so.

When his father had stopped fighting for his life, it had not taken long before his sister Louise had married and removed herself to her new home. Anthony had not questioned her motives at the time. She had been of a marriageable age (though perhaps a bit young), the Earl of Huntley had clearly been in a position to offer her the standard of living she’d been raised to expect, and Anthony had given the couple his blessing without much thought on the matter.

The truth of it was, compared to everything else he’d been faced with at the time—his father’s imminent demise, the payment of physicians’ bills that kept arriving daily, and his ever-increasing duties in regard to running the estate—his sister’s hasty decision to marry had been more of an inconvenience than anything else.

It was not until after his father had died that he’d wondered if she’d perhaps been looking for a means of escape, some justifiable reason not to face the devastating truth looming over them all on a daily basis. Of course she’d visited a number of times, but she’d given herself a viable excuse to leave whenever she’d had enough. Anthony couldn’t blame her. There had been times when he had longed to flee from it all himself.

His brother, Winston, had been more reliable. He was two years younger than Anthony, had married Sarah the vicar’s daughter at the age of only twenty, and was now the delighted father of twin boys. To support his growing family, he ran a small publishing house that he’d started with the financial support of their father. Of course there had been those who’d disapproved of a gentleman making such a career choice, but Winston’s love for books had prevented him from swaying in his decision, and his father had given his support—a clear sign that he’d considered his son’s happiness more important than seeking the approval of his peers and a perfect example of the sort of man he’d been.

Though based in London, Winston had still managed to make the three-hour journey to Moxley once a week throughout their father’s illness. But with Papa now gone, Winston was busy applying himself to the growth of his business, and he didn’t visit Moxley as often as he had. Anthony understood his brother’s reasoning, of course. He just missed him. That was all.

“I must speak with Mrs. Sterling immediately,” his mother suddenly pronounced, startling Anthony out of his reverie. His eyes focused on her, and he noticed that there was a rather resolute expression about her eyes.

Anthony blinked. A moment earlier, she had looked as though a single puff of air would have overturned her. Now, instead, her back straightened and she gave a firm nod before pulling her hand away from his and rising to her feet.

This was what he had hoped for, but he had never imagined how quickly his mother would rally when faced with a project so large that it would require her immediate attention. To be honest, he had feared she might feel overwhelmed and that it would only serve to cripple her even further.

Clearly this was not the case, for not only had she already rung for her maid but she had also begun pacing about the room, checking off on her fingers all the items that would need addressing, all the while complaining about the limited amount of time Anthony had afforded her to prepare for such a grand event.

“We shall have to send out invitations immediately,” she gushed between mention of a possible ice sculpture and her thoughts regarding the flower arrangements that would have to be ordered.

Anthony’s head began to hurt, but he was pleased with the result of his plan. What he hadn’t mentioned, simply because he’d had no desire to excite his mother any further, was that he intended to use the event as a means to improve his acquaintance with the young ladies his mother undoubtedly meant to invite. His father’s demise had put everything into perspective for him, forcing him to realize just how fragile life could be. He needed an heir, and there was really no better time to start planning for one.

 

 

 “Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night, give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die, take him and—

“Stop that right now,” Isabella’s mother warned as she lifted her gaze from her embroidery—a new set of pillowcases that the butcher’s wife had ordered, with flowering vines trailing along the edges.

Isabella was supposed to have been practicing her cutwork, but she was finding the process incredibly tedious and had paused to read a little instead. She had just gotten started on her favorite passage when her mother had cut her off as usual—at the exact same point. “But it’s the most romantic thing ever written, Mama.” Isabella should have known better than to goad her mother like this, but she could not help it—it was much too easy.

“Romantic?” Her mother frowned, her mouth scrunched in a manner that warned Isabella of the derision that lay ahead. “You are aware that the hero and heroine both die because of some ridiculous misunderstanding, are you not?”

“Of course, but —”

“Not to mention that the passage you’re presently reciting starts not only with Juliet considering her dear heart’s demise but the prospect of having him chopped up and—”

“Cut up, Mama—into little stars, so that—”

“Honestly.” Her mother shook her head as she returned her attention to the rose petal she was stabbing with her needle, as if it had been Shakespeare himself and she meant to make him pay for subjecting her to his play. “I’ve never understood why anyone would think it romantic for a young couple to kill themselves in the name of love.”

Isabella stifled a grin as she set the book aside and reached for her cutwork. “I do believe you’re the only person I know who can criticize the loveliest play ever written as if Mr. Shakespeare had penned it with the sole purpose of offending you. Considering how much you love Papa, I would have thought you’d be more romantically inclined, yet I’m beginning to wonder if you even know what romance is.” She said it in jest, but when she looked up, her mother’s eyes had widened and her jaw had gone slack. “I’m sorry,” Isabella quickly muttered. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Her mother took a deep breath, held it, and then released it very slowly before bowing her head once more to her work. “No,” she said. “I don’t suppose you did.”

Drat it all, Isabella thought as she drew her needle through the piece of white linen she was holding. It had been neat and crisp when she’d started on it, but it had long since taken on the appearance of a crumpled rag. She shook her head at her carelessness—not in regard to the fabric but because of her mother. She’d unintentionally hurt her feelings, and not for the first time. She really ought to have learned her lesson by now. Glancing at the book she’d been reading, she made a mental note not to bring it into her mother’s presence ever again. It only resulted in trouble.

She let out a small sigh. All she wanted was a confidante—someone with whom to share her dreams of true love and a happily ever after. In spite of what she’d said, she knew that her parents were happy. It was obvious from the way they looked at each other and the manner in which they addressed each other with cheerful smiles.

Isabella wished for that, but she also wished for more—she wished for magic. Lord knew she had spent hours on end, dreaming about meeting a gallant stranger—a prince, perhaps—who would declare his undying love for her before carrying her off to his castle on a magnificent white stallion . . . or perhaps in a golden carriage similar to the one she’d imagined Cendrillon riding in the fairy tale she’d loved so dearly as a child.

“Isabella?”

Isabella blinked, realizing her mother must have been telling her something that required her attention. “Sorry, Mama, my thoughts were elsewhere. You were saying?”

Her mother frowned. “I know how fond you are of Romeo and Juliet. I didn’t mean to mock it in any way, it’s just . . . while I do appreciate Shakespeare’s talent, his notion of romance is, in my opinion, lacking—at least in this instance.” Tying off a thread, she folded the pillowcase and placed it in her embroidery basket. “Sacrificing yourself for the sake of love is not romantic, Isabella—it’s rash, thoughtless, and completely meaningless. Real romance comes from small and selfless gestures, from private moments spent in one another’s company or a shared kiss when no one else is looking. It’s showing the person you care about that they’re just as important to you as you are to yourself, if not more so. Most importantly, it’s what tells them that you love them, without the need for words.”

Isabella stared at her mother, suddenly feeling she wasn’t entirely the person Isabella had always thought her to be. There was a more sensitive side to her than Isabella had ever imagined, or perhaps it was just that this was the first time her mother had ever talked openly about her own thoughts on the subject of romance. Of course Isabella knew that her mother wasn’t a cynic when it came to matters of the heart, for her devotion to her husband bordered on the ridiculous. It was just that her mother did not understand why anyone would choose to write poetry rather than tell the person in question how they actually felt about them, and the idea that any lady might enjoy a piece of music written in her honor seemed silly to her—or at least that was what she’d once said.

Isabella was about to question her mother about the most romantic thing her father had ever done, but just as she opened her mouth, her mother rose to her feet and said, “You’d better ready yourself in time for Mr. Roberts’s visit. You know he’s never late.”

It was true. Timothy Roberts was the most predictable man Isabella had ever known. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing—after all, Marjorie, their maid-of-all-work, always knew precisely when to put the pie in the oven so it would be ready in time for his visit. And he had been visiting a lot lately. Every Sunday afternoon at precisely three’ o clock, for an entire year.

There was very little doubt about his intentions at this point (though he had yet to propose), and Isabella’s parents were overjoyed. Her father, who’d arranged the whole thing, was quite proud of himself for securing such a fine match for his daughter. He should have been too, for while they were bordering on a state of impoverishment, Mr. Roberts was a wealthy man who’d struck up a business specializing in luxury carriages.

Isabella’s father had worked in his employ for the past five years, test-driving each vehicle before it was delivered to the client, and while Isabella wasn’t entirely sure of what her father might have told Mr. Roberts about her, the man had one day appeared for tea, and had continued to do so since.

With a sigh, Isabella gathered up her things, feeling not the least bit enthusiastic about Mr. Roberts’s impending visit. Not because she didn’t like him (it was difficult to form an opinion due to his reserve), and certainly not because he had done anything to offend or upset her. On the contrary, he was always the perfect gentleman, adhering to etiquette in the most stringent manner possible.

No, the problem was far simpler than that—she just did not love him, and what was worse, she had long since come to realize that she never would.

 

 

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