About the book
The sweetest of smiles hide the darkest of secrets...
Lady’s maid Betsey Babington knows that the Cublertone Masquerade party is her only chance to ever approach the man she is secretly in love with. Disguised as the Ice Queen, her dream comes true when she finally dances with the tempting Lord Hillfield.
Engaged to his antagonist’s daughter, Viscount of Hillfield, Michael Calford's entire life has been nothing but a business deal. From the minute he dances with the Ice Queen, though, he loses control over his heart, mind, and body.
But while on a hopeless quest to discover her secret identity, she slips right through his fingers...
In his attempt to locate her, he will not only face a well-crafted plan aiming for his demise, but he will also discover that the person who wants him dead is nothing but a ghost.
Betsey sat on her narrow bed, sewing by the early morning light shining through the window. She had always woken early, and Lady Paulina slept late, much like the rest of the gentry.
While the Earl and his daughter slept, the rest of the household buzzed with activity—servants in the kitchen prepared breakfast, chamber maids opened curtains and dusted in the common rooms of the house. Outside, stable boys brushed the horses and mucked out their stables, while grooms and coachmen prepared the carriage in case the master should need it.
The household was a complex organism, with many layers of activity happening all at once, most of them invisible to the outside observer. Betsey enjoyed being a part of this, more than she had expected to. She found it fascinating how the seemingly simple tasks performed by each member of the household worked in tandem with the others.
If one task was left undone, it could create ripples that would spread outward to affect the entire household. Mrs. Campbell, the housekeeper, had a remarkable ability to anticipate these ripples and reassign members of the staff to minimize them. This meant that Betsey had, from time to time, acted as her assistant when Lady Paulina was occupied with her music or dancing lessons.
Betsey considered what adjustments might need to be made today, as she continued to mend the hem of Lady Paulina’s petticoat. Her stitches were tiny and perfectly even. It had taken her some time to perfect this skill, but she was able to mend most things without any visible signs now. Lady Paulina was particular about her clothes, as most noblewomen were, so this was an important skill.
When Betsey entered the kitchen an hour later, the mending was complete and Lady Paulina was still asleep. Betsey ate her breakfast quickly; a simple porridge, sweetened with just a touch of honey—a luxury for a servant.
“Thank you, Mrs. Latham,” she said to the cook. “The porridge is particularly delicious this morning.”
“You’re welcome, Betsey.” Mrs. Latham winked at her, “You are very sweet.”
Betsey smiled back at her as she ate her porridge. Mrs. Campbell, the housekeeper, had always been kind to her, saying that Betsey reminded her of her own grown daughter who had married and moved away. Mrs. Latham and the other older women of the staff had followed suit. Betsey was pleased to have a mother figure in Mrs. Campbell, and she thought of Mrs. Latham and her kitchen staff as kind aunties.
Her own parents lived in the village where Betsey had grown up, and she did not have much opportunity to see them, though they wrote to one another somewhat regularly. In addition to Mrs. Campbell’s maternal affection, she also had her older brother, Simon. He had started out as a footman several years ago, and was now the Earl’s personal valet.
In truth, Simon was her half-brother. His mother had died when he was four years old, and his father had married Betsey’s mother soon after. She had never thought of him as anything other than her full brother though, and for as long as Betsey could remember, Simon had doted on her.
Soon after he started working at the estate, he had encouraged Mrs. Campbell to hire Betsey as a chamber maid. As the Earl’s personal valet he had a certain degree of influence among the household staff, and when Lady Paulina had needed a new lady’s maid, Simon had suggested that his sister ought to be promoted.
Simon entered the kitchen as Betsey was eating and Mrs. Latham handed him his own bowl of porridge.
“Thank you kindly, Mrs. Latham—you do make the best porridge!” he said, sitting down across from Betsey at the kitchen table.
“All right, Simon, that’s enough flattery, now eat up,” Mrs. Latham sounded exasperated, but Betsey saw her smirk as she turned back to the hearth.
“Is Lady Paulina looking forward to meeting the Viscount of Somerwich today?” Simon asked his sister.
Betsey paused for a moment, trying to think of the best way to answer this question. “Well, she knows nothing of the Viscount, except that his father and hers are political rivals, so she is unsure of what to expect.”
“Perhaps they need not be rivals for long.”
“Oh?” Betsy raised an eyebrow as she looked at her brother.
“If today’s meeting goes well, the Earl plans to marry Lady Paulina to the Viscount.”
“Yes, I had assumed that was the purpose of today’s meeting.”
“And if they are married, then her father and the Earl of Hillfield will be family. Eventually they will share grandchildren,” Simon explained.
“I see,” Betsey was beginning to understand. “Is there anything in particular the Earl hopes to gain from this family connection?”
“Well, I cannot be certain of that, but the Earl is a smart gentleman,” Simon sounded reverential—he had always talked admiringly of the Earl. “No doubt he will think of something when the time comes.”
Betsey did not doubt that this was true. The Earl seemed to have a way of turning any situation to his advantage. In fact, he had contrived more than once to get Betsey alone in an empty room, hoping to take advantage of those situations as well. So far, she had been able to escape with no more than a lewd comment, thanks to some tricks she had learned from the other maids.
“Hmm…” Betsey sighed, “I suppose it will all depend on Lady Paulina then.”
“I suppose so,” Simon agreed, sounding unconcerned. “But Lady Paulina knows the importance of doing as her father says, and the Viscount is not old, or ugly. I see no reason why she should object.”
Two hours later, Betsey stood in Lady Paulina’s room, helping her mistress into a pale blue, silk gown. Her fingers worked deftly as she adjusted the laces.
“This color is lovely on you, My Lady,” Betsey said, looking over Lady Paulina’s shoulder at her reflection in the looking glass.
Lady Paulina tilted her head this way and that, examining her reflection. She caught Betsey’s eye in the mirror and smiled at her. “Thank you, at the risk of sounding immodest, I must say that I agree with you.”
Betsey and Lady Paulina laughed together good-naturedly as Betsey began to arrange Lady Paulina’s hair. She had been surprised to find, upon becoming Lady Paulina’s maid, that she quite liked her mistress. They laughed often, and Lady Paulina confided in Betsey.
“Are you looking forward to meeting the Viscount of Somerwich today, My Lady?” Betsey asked, her voice tentative.
“I suppose I ought to give him a chance,” Lady Paulina sounded resigned. “Perhaps he is handsome and charming.”
“Perhaps he is, My Lady. But he is not…”
“No, he is not,” Lady Paulina said firmly. “But I must still meet with him, so I might as well hope for the best.”
“That’s the spirit, My Lady.”
“Of course, his father has a terrible reputation,” Lady Paulina mused. “Papa says that the Earl of Hillfield is not to be trusted around the serving girls, but perhaps the son is a different sort of character.”
Betsey pursed her lips and said nothing as she continued to style her mistress’s hair. Perhaps it was true that the Earl of Hillfield had a bad reputation, but she doubted it was any worse than that of the Earl of Cublertone.
“On the other hand,” Lady Paulina continued, absent-mindedly, “Papa might just be saying that to discredit Hillfield—they are so often at odds in Parliament.”
“Hmm…” Betsey said, considering her words carefully. “Do you think that your meeting with the Viscount could have anything to do with that?”
“Well,” Lady Paulina said, turning away from the mirror, “Papa has not said so yet, but I am quite sure he wants me to marry the Viscount. Perhaps he thinks we shall fall madly in love at our meeting today, but I doubt he would consider that important.”
“You would not be the first Lady to make a marriage for political gain, rather than for love. I’m quite sure that many happy marriages start that way.”
“That is true,” Lady Paulina agreed. “No doubt many unhappy marriages have started that way as well.”
“I suppose so, My Lady.”
“Well, there’s no use worrying about that now. If the Viscount proves to be a boar at our meeting, then I shall just have to convince Papa to change his plans.”
Lady Paulina sounded confident that she would be able to change her father’s mind, but Betsey was not so sure that this would be possible. The Earl had always doted on his daughter—she was his only child, and all that was left to him since her mother had died ten years ago. Still, he was an ambitious gentleman who was accustomed to getting his own way, and Lady Paulina rarely defied him.
Michael Calford, Viscount of Somerwich, rode in the back of his family’s carriage toward the Cublertone estate. At thirty years of age, he could hardly put off marriage any longer, though he did not relish the prospect. He would have been content to live out his years as a bachelor, but as the only son of an Earl it was his responsibility to provide an heir to his family’s estate.
His mother was nearly hysterical with worry about finding a suitable wife for her son. She had been searching for a well-bred young lady who would make her son happy. When she had suggested the daughter of the Earl of Cublertone, her husband had seen an opportunity to make an ally out of a formal political rival.
Michael cared little for his father’s political ambitions, but he did love his parents and wished to please them. Lady Paulina had made her debut last season, and Michael had heard that she was beautiful and well-mannered. He had not heard anything about whether she was clever or interesting, but then, most gentlemen cared little for those qualities.
Michael sighed deeply as he looked out of the carriage window at the rolling hills as he passed them by. Just because no one had said that Lady Paulina was clever and interesting did not mean that she was not. And besides, I have clever and interesting friends—perhaps all I need is a beautiful and well-mannered wife.
A quarter of an hour later, the carriage pulled up in front of the Cublertone’s estate, and the driver opened the door for Michael. He stepped down from the carriage, stretching his long legs after the cramped ride.
The Earl of Cublertone and his daughter were standing in the front garden, waiting to greet him. Lady Paulina was lovely in a gown of pale blue silk. Her blonde hair was arranged in clusters of curls framing her pretty face.
“Welcome to Cublertone, My Lord,” the Earl said, greeting Michael warmly.
“Thank you, My Lord.”
“May I present my daughter, the Lady Paulina Manning.”
Michael turned to Lady Paulina and bowed slightly. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, My Lady,” he said, giving her what he hoped was a winning smile.
“The pleasure is mine, My Lord,” Lady Paulina said, curtseying to her guest.
Once the introductions had been completed, the Earl invited Michael inside, and led them to the drawing room.
Michael sat down on a comfortable loveseat, and looked around the room. As the Lady of the house, the Earl’s daughter had likely chosen at least some of the décor, which he found to be pleasant and welcoming. As he looked at the burgundy velvet curtains, Michael was beginning to feel that this match might be more successful than he had initially expected.
After a few minutes of talk, the Earl rang for a maid. When she entered the room with a curtsey he said, “Please bring some tea for Lady Paulina and the Viscount of Somerwich. And send in Lady Paulina’s maid.”
“Yes, My Lord,” the maid said, curtseying as she left the room.
“My apologies, but I will need to return to my study before your visit is concluded. Lady Paulina’s maid will act as your chaperone when I do.”
“No need to apologize, My Lord,” Michael replied. “I understand perfectly well.”
A moment later, a dark-haired young woman entered the drawing room. She wore a simple gray gown, finer than that of a chamber maid, and Michael knew that she must be Lady Paulina’s maid. She was taller than her Lady, but still several inches shorter than himself. Her pale skin was luminous, and her golden brown eyes sparkled, suggesting a lively, curious personality.
The maid had seen him looking, and her pale cheeks turned a pretty shade of pink. She turned away from him and sat in a small chair in the corner of the room. The maid produced an embroidery hoop from some unknown location and focused on her needlework. Michael realized that he had been staring at her, and turned his attention back to Lady Paulina. I did not come here to look at pretty maids, I am here to meet with the pretty Lady sitting next to me.
Betsey sat on a hard, wooden chair in the corner of the drawing room. Her role was clear—she was to remain present at all times as a chaperone, but she should make herself as inconspicuous as possible. She felt certain that the Viscount had been looking at her for longer than was entirely proper, but she could see no reason why.
Lady Paulina looked particularly beautiful today—Betsey had seen to that. There was no reason for any gentleman, regardless of his social status, to look at a maid when Lady Paulina was in the room. Perhaps I only imagined that he was looking at me. Betsey focused on her needlework while Lady Paulina and the Viscount talked.
Betsey could not help but notice that they made a handsome couple. The Viscount was tall and broad-shouldered, with golden blond hair, and deep blue eyes. His face was angular and smooth, but managed to still be warm and inviting. Betsey tried, and failed, to ignore his full, soft-looking lips.
Betsey returned her attention to her needlework. She was embroidering a delicate floral pattern on the corner of Lady Paulina’s handkerchief, and she forced her mind to focus on each stitch as she worked, rather than on the Viscount’s handsome form.
The two young aristocrats were talking amiably enough, though Betsey sensed no great passion between them. Of course, that is hardly surprising—Lady Paulina’s heart belongs to another.
“Do you enjoy riding, My Lady?” The Viscount asked.
“Oh, yes, My Lord. Do you enjoy it?”
“I do,” the Viscount looked at Lady Paulina expectantly, as though he hoped she might say more on the subject. When she remained silent he said, “Do you get the chance to ride often?”
“Yes, My Lord, although I fear that I am not as skilled as you are.”
“What do you mean, My Lady?”
“Oh!” Lady Paulina hesitated for a moment, and then said awkwardly, “Only that I have heard you are a particularly good rider, and that your father keeps an impressive stable.”
“Oh, I see. Yes, I suppose my father’s stables are quite impressive. Perhaps you could come and see them some time. We could go riding together.”
“Yes, My Lord,” Lady Paulina said sweetly. “I’m sure that would be quite lovely.”
“Next week perhaps, My Lady?”
“Yes, My Lord, thank you.”
Betsey allowed their conversation to wash over her as she continued her needlework. She could hardly call Lady Paulina a friend, given the difference in the social status, but she liked her mistress very much, and Lady Paulina confided in her. Betsey wanted Lady Paulina to be happy, and she knew that a lifetime of stilted conversations with the Viscount of Somerwich would not make her happy.
Perhaps if Lady Paulina had not been enamored by another gentleman, she might find the Viscount more appealing. Betsey certainly thought he was doing his best to be charming. In addition to his charm, he was exceptionally handsome. Most young ladies must go mad at the sight of him—perhaps Lady Paulina is the first to be immune to his charms.
The conversation between Lady Paulina and the Viscount continued in the same way for another quarter of an hour. Then the Viscount suggested that they take a stroll in the gardens, since the weather was so fine. Lady Paulina seemed relieved by this suggestion.
“Yes, that sounds lovely,” she said with a sigh. “Betsey, would you please fetch our cloaks, and accompany us on our walk?”
“Yes, My Lady,” she said, curtsying to Lady Paulina and her father and then to the Viscount.
She had been gone for only a minute, and when she returned to the drawing room, Betsey found Lady Paulina and the Viscount sitting next to one another in silence. Neither of the young people seemed uncomfortable with this arrangement, but the Earl was looking concerned.
“Well,” the Earl said. “Please enjoy your walk in the grounds. I must return to my study now.”
“Thank you, My Lord,” the Viscount of Somerwich said. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
The Viscount helped Lady Paulina into her cloak, acting like a perfect gentleman, before putting on his own. Betsey wrapped a large knitted shawl around her own shoulders and followed the others out into the grounds for their walk.
The afternoon air was brisk and refreshing. Betsey pulled the shawl tighter around herself as she walked several paces behind Lady Paulina and the Viscount. As their chaperone it was important that she keep them in her sight, but also give them enough space to speak freely to one another. Though it seems there is little chance of that.
Betsey breathed in the fresh air, and looked up at the bright blue sky. The grounds at Cublertone Manor were beautifully kept, but Betsey had little opportunity to enjoy them. So when she escorted Lady Paulina on her occasional walks, Betsey loved to smell the flowers, and admire the perfectly manicured lawns.
Today she was enjoying the smell of the roses blooming along the edge of the house. The dark red flowers were vivid against the white stone background, and Betsey imagined all of the work that been done to create such a beautiful sight. The gardener, Mr. Lewis, was meticulous about his work, just as Mrs. Campbell was about her work on the inside of the house.
Lady Paulina and the Viscount walked through a garden like this and might think that it was pretty, and then forget about it mere seconds later. As the Lady of the house, Lady Paulina had some input into hiring and managing household servants, and perhaps the Viscount did as well in his own household. But Betsey did not believe that either of them could truly understand how much time, and thought, and work went into each detail, each rose.
“Thank you for a lovely visit, My Lady,” the Viscount was saying to Lady Paulina as Betsey approached.
“Thank you for calling, My Lord!”
“I must be off, but I look forward to seeing you next week when you come riding.”
“Thank you, I look forward to it as well, My Lord,” Lady Paulina sounded pleasant enough, though not particularly enthusiastic.
Michael waited for his carriage at the front of the house, and entered it, feeling relieved. The meeting had not been a rousing success, but nor had it been a terrible failure. Lady Paulina was beautiful and well-mannered, just as he had been told. She seemed quite nice, and they shared an interest in riding.
Still, as the carriage rolled along, and he looked out of his window, he could not help but think that life with Lady Paulina would be exceptionally dull. In truth, her maid had seemed more interesting, though he had not spoken to her directly. And I could have sworn that she was looking at me more than was strictly necessary.
In any event, he knew that he could not put off marriage much longer without causing his mother more distress. And he could not marry a lady’s maid without causing a great scandal. Besides, he had never even spoken to the lady’s maid in question. It would be foolish in the extreme to risk a scandal because of a twinkle in one maid’s eye.
When he finally arrived at home, Michael found his mother waiting for him in the entrance hall.
“Hello, Michael. Come into the drawing room, and tell me about your meeting with Lady Paulina.”
Michael followed his mother across the hall and into the drawing room, where he sat down in his favorite leather armchair.
“Well?” His mother asked, “How was it?”
“It was fine, Mother.”
“Fine?” she sounded incredulous.
“Fine,” Michael repeated himself. “Lady Paulina is very nice.”
“Well, I am glad to hear that she is very nice,” the Countess said, sounding somewhat encouraged. “What did you speak about?”
“Nothing especially fascinating.”
The Countess raised an eyebrow at her son, disapprovingly. She had often criticized him for being too cynical for his own good, and he suspected that she was about to remind him of this flaw once again.
“My apologies, Mother. I did not mean to suggest that the meeting was not a success.”
“Well, I am certainly glad to hear it. Now, tell me what you discussed with Lady Paulina.”
Michael smiled ruefully. He would not be able to put his mother off, so he might as well tell her what she wanted to know now, and prevent her asking him again and again.
“We discussed the weather, and the beauty of the grounds at Cublertone—the usual things that people discuss.”
“Is that all that you discussed?” The Countess asked, sounding hopeful.
“Well,” Michael said, hesitantly, “We also discussed riding. It seems that Lady Paulina has heard of our stables, and I invited her to come riding with me next week.”
“I see. Well, that is wonderful news. It seems that you and Lady Paulina have a shared interest, which is more than can be said for many aristocratic marriages.”
“Hmm…” Michael sighed. “Well, I suppose that is true.”
“It certainly is more than can be said for your father and I, and look how well our marriage has turned out.”
Michael merely nodded at this. He supposed his parents’ marriage had been happy enough, as aristocratic marriages went, but Michael was not eager to repeat it for himself. The best that could be said for his parents’ marriage was that they did not seem to dislike each other, and both seemed satisfied with their lives outside of their relationship to one another.
Michael hoped for more from his own future marriage. Most of his friends from school had married for political or financial convenience, but one, now the Earl of Wessex, had married for love. His bride was the daughter of a wool merchant—a wealthy man, but a common one. It had caused a bit of a stir at the gentlemen’s club, but no one could deny that Wessex was happier in his marriage than any of the rest of them.
Michael considered whether he might find the same type of happiness with Lady Paulina. He doubted that he could, but nor could he find a reason to object to the match. And, clearly, Wessex’s marriage was the exception, not the rule.
“Michael?” The Countess said, her voice raised slightly.
“Sorry?” He had been lost in his own thoughts about marriage, and had not heard anything his mother had said.
“I asked if you were planning to go hunting with your father tomorrow.”
“Oh,” Michael replied, unsure of what to say. He had little interest in hunting, and less interest in spending more time with his father than was strictly necessary.
“Your father really would like for you to come,” the Countess said. It seemed almost as though she could sense his hesitation. “Do you have other plans?”
Michael did not have any other plans, and he could think of no reasonable excuse to avoid the hunt. He knew that it would do no good to tell his mother that he had no interest in spending the day with his father.
“No, Mother,” he said, feeling resigned. “I have no other plans.”
“Then the matter is settled,” the Countess replied, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, “Your father will be pleased to hear it.”
That same evening, Betsey helped Lady Paulina to undress and change into her night clothes. She noticed that her mistress was less talkative than usual.
“Is everything all right, My Lady?” Betsey asked, concerned.
“Yes, Betsey,” Lady Paulina said, her voice sounding sweet. “I am quite all right. It is kind of you to ask.”
The silence stretched between them, as Betsey brushed Lady Paulina’s hair. After a few moments, Lady Paulina spoke.
“My father was pleased to hear that my visit with the Viscount went well today.”
“Oh?” Betsey said, confused. The meeting with the Viscount had not gone badly, but she would not have described it as going well, if the goal was marriage.
“Perhaps I allowed him to believe that I was a bit more…enthusiastic …about the Viscount than is entirely the case.”
“He would be so pleased if I should marry the Viscount, and he would never allow me to follow my heart in the matter of my marriage, so I saw no reason to disappoint him,” Lady Paulina said, sounding resigned to her fate.
“So, you will agree to marry the Viscount if he proposes?” Betsey asked, bemused.
“Well, he has not asked yet, but if he does, I don’t suppose I shall have much of a choice.”
“Do you think that your father would force you to marry the Viscount, My Lady?” Betsey was not fond of the Earl, and she knew him to be ambitious. He would encourage his daughter to make an advantageous marriage, but she found it hard to believe that even he would actually force his daughter to marry someone if she did not want to.
“Well,” Lady Paulina said. “No, I don’t suppose that he would force me into the marriage. But, I must take a husband eventually, and if I cannot marry the one I love, the Viscount will make a better husband than many other noble gentlemen.”
“What do you mean, My Lady?” Betsey knew perfectly well what her mistress meant, but she was eager to keep the conversation going. Being silent was an important skill in her position as lady’s maid, but Betsey did not enjoy it.
“Not all gentlemen are as honorable as my father,” Lady Paulina said wistfully.
Betsey pursed her lips, but said nothing to contradict this. Lady Paulina believed that her father was devoted to his late wife. Betsey had come to Cublertone Manor after the Countess had died, but she understood from the rest of the servants that the Earl had been groping the maids since long before his wife died. Still, she had no intention of tarnishing Lady Paulina’s idea of her father.
“I could end up married to someone old, or ugly, someone with bad breath, or warts.” Lady Paulina gave an exaggerated shudder at the thought. Then she began to giggle, and Betsey could not help but join in. The thought of her young, beautiful, lively mistress married to a tired old gentleman was truly comical.
When they had both calmed down and caught their breath, Lady Paulina continued, in a more serious tone.
“Of course, even if my husband is young and handsome, he could be cruel, or stupid. He could leave me at home alone while he spends all of his time at the club, gambling.”
Betsey nodded solemnly at this. She knew that many gentlemen treated their wives in exactly this way.
“Or he could keep a mistress, or fondle the chamber maids when he thinks I am not paying attention. It happens more often than you might think, you know.”
Betsey nodded at this, but said nothing. She certainly knew that this sort of thing happened quite often, but she had no idea how Lady Paulina would know such a thing.
“The Viscount of Somerwich is young and handsome, and he seems a kind gentleman,” Lady Paulina continued. “I cannot imagine he would ever mistreat his wife, can you, Betsey?”
“No, My Lady. I suppose not.”
“And perhaps, in time, we might grow quite fond of one another. Perhaps that is better than a passionate romance.”
Betsey considered this. She had never had a passionate romance herself, but as a young girl she had imagined being swept off her feet by a handsome man. She supposed most young girls had similar fantasies, but she knew that those rarely came true.
Her own experiences with men had been limited to the Earl’s attempts to grope her, and a fumbled kiss in the pantry with a visiting valet who had refused to look at her the next day, and left without saying goodbye. Perhaps Lady Paulina is right—perhaps it is best to marry someone kind and grow fond of him over time.
Betsey thought about the relative merits of passionate love and steady fondness throughout the day. At times she agreed with her original thought, that marrying someone kind and growing fond of him over time would lead to happiness. More often, though, she was overtaken by thoughts of the Viscount.
Betsey knew that she ought to ignore these thoughts, but she found that she could not control them. When she sat by the fire, mending Lady Paulina’s shift, she imagined herself standing before the Viscount in nothing but her own shift. When she brushed Lady Paulina’s hair before bed, she imagined the Viscount running his fingers through her own hair, as he pulled her in close to kiss her.
Each time she was visited by these thoughts, Betsey felt certain that passion was more important than kindness. Her skin felt alive with electricity at the mere idea of the Viscount’s touch, and she knew that the reality would be even more exciting. She could not imagine forgoing such a feeling in favor of political or financial gain.
Michael woke early the next morning, and attempted to prepare himself, mentally, for the day’s hunt. His father had invited some of his colleagues in Parliament to join them for the day. Michael had been surprised to learn that Luke Manning, the Earl of Cublertone—Lady Paulina’s father—was to be among the guests.
Upon reflection, he supposed that it made sense to invite Lord Cublertone, if they were hoping to form a political alliance via the marriage of their children. However, Michael knew that his father and Lord Cublertone had clashed in Parliament last year over something to do with the regulation of tobacco. He did not know the details, but he did know that his father had been intensely angry with Lord Cublertone.
In truth, he was not as interested in politics as his father would have liked, and Michael paid little attention when his father spoke about legislation. He understood that it was important, and that when he came into his peerage, he would need to know about these things, but for the most part he found them terribly dull. Most had no bearing on people’s real lives, in any case.
Perhaps when he joined the House of Lords he would be able to effect some real change. Until then, he preferred to hunt only when he could not avoid it, ride when the weather was fine, and study philosophy by the fire in the library when being out of doors became unpleasant.
Perhaps he had been reading too much Plato, and that was why he hesitated at the thought of marrying Lady Paulina. To be sure, she was beautiful, but she did not inspire him to contemplate the spiritual world, as Plato suggested pure love should. Of course, Plato did not require a political advantage in a wife—perhaps Platonic ideals are too much for an aristocrat to aspire to.
Michael decided that when he next visited the library, he would review what Aristotle had to say on the subject of marriage. As he recalled, this was a much more practical view than Plato’s, but he could not remember the exact position just now. For the time being, he rolled over in his bed and attempted to go back to sleep. He would need his rest if he was going to spend the day with his father and Lord Cublertone.
Several hours later, the hunting party set out into the grounds of Hillfield Estate. Michael and his father were joined by the Earl of Cublertone, as well as William Everly, the Marquess of Portam, and Edward Hastings, the Duke of Litchfield.
Michael soon deduced that Lord Portam and Lord Cublertone were friends, and presumably political allies. He knew that the Duke of Litchfield was his father’s close friend and always sided with him in Parliament. The group consisted of two political factions, with Michael between them.
He could see now that he was meant to create a bridge between them, but he felt more like a toy soldier pulled in different directions by fighting children. Michael resolved to speak little, and focus only on the hunt as the day went on. His father would be frustrated, but not as angry as he would be if Michael said something to derail his plans.
Still, he must at least greet his father’s guests, and he could hardly ignore the fact that he had spent yesterday with Lord Cublertone’s daughter.
“Welcome, Your Grace, My Lords,” Michael’s father said. “Thank you for joining us on the hunt today!”
This was met with a chorus of, “My pleasure!” and “Thank you!” and “Looking forward to it!”
“Lord Cublertone,” Michael said. “Thank you again for your hospitality yesterday.”
“You are quite welcome,” the Earl replied. “I trust that you enjoyed your visit with my Paulina?”
“Yes, My Lord.”
His father cleared his throat loudly at this, and announced, “My son is not the most expressive of gentlemen. He found Lady Paulina to be very charming, and very beautiful, I am sure. In fact, he has invited her to come here and join him for a ride next week, as she expressed some interest in our stables. Isn’t that right, my boy?”
“Yes, Father,” Michael said, taking a deep breath to steady his nerves. “I look forward to her visit. With your permission, of course, My Lord.”
“Of course, of course!” Lord Cublertone replied, looking very pleased with the idea.
“Excellent,” Michael’s father said, all of his former anger at Cublertone seemingly forgotten. “And perhaps we shall see more of Lady Paulina after that. Of course, you are always welcome here at Hillfield as well, Cublertone.”
“Thank you, Hillfield, that is most kind of you,” the Earl of Cublertone said, rather formally. A look passed between Lord Cublertone and the Marquess of Portam, which Michael could not quite interpret.
The hunt was a success, with each member of the party bringing down several grouse. The Marquess of Portam seemed particularly keen to outshoot the rest of the party. He and Michael jockeyed for first position throughout the day, and Lord Portam joked good-naturedly every time he took the lead.
Michael was pleased to find that the outing was pleasant, as well as successful. His father was on his best behavior in front of his guests, and hardly criticized his son at all. In fact, he made only one comment about Michael’s lack of interest in politics. When the rest of the party laughed at this, the Earl joined them, pretending it had been a joke rather than a real criticism.
That evening at dinner, Michael’s father and the Earl of Cublertone spoke to each other politely, though rather formally. Michael’s mother acted as a perfect hostess, keeping the conversation flowing, and steering it away from anything controversial. The Duchess of Litchfield had also joined them for dinner, and assisted her hostess in this goal.
“I understand that your daughter is an accomplished rider, My Lord,” she said over dessert.
“Yes, Madam, she is a kind and gentle young lady. The horses respond well to her when they are too spooked to be ridden by anyone else.”
“When I was sixteen, my father and I visited Cublertone,” the Marquess of Portam said. “Lady Paulina was just a small child, perhaps eight years old?”
“I believe she was nine at the time,” Lord Cublertone corrected the Marquess.
“Nine. Yes, of course. In any event, she saw me going out to ride one morning, and escaped from her governess to join me.”
Michael looked at the Marquess eagerly. He was interested to hear more of this story—perhaps Lady Paulina was more intriguing than he had first imagined.
“She challenged me to a race through the grounds, and accused me of cowardice when I initially declined. After a few minutes, I knew that arguing with her further would be a fool’s errand, so I agreed to the race, thinking that I would need to slow my pace in order to avoid embarrassing her.”
“That was kind of you, My Lord,” Michael replied. “Please, tell us, did you let her win the race?”
The Marquess chuckled at this. “Well, as I said, I did not wish to embarrass her. Her father was our gracious host, and a good friend to my family. I had been warned by my own father that it would not do to upset the young Lady of the house. But in truth, I need not have worried.”
“And why is that?” Michael asked, more and more intrigued as the story continued.
“She beat me in the race, easily, and without any help from me! I would say that I was embarrassed to be beaten by a nine-year-old Lady, but in truth, she rode so well that I could only be pleased to have kept up with her for a few moments.”
“That is quite impressive!”
“She certainly thought so. When I finally crossed the finish line, she was standing next to her horse, stroking his mane, and do you know what she said to me?”
“I shall never forget it. She said, ‘There is no need to be ashamed, My Lord, you rode quite well. Perhaps I could give you lessons in the future.’ I do not believe that I have ever laughed half so hard in my life.”
Michael’s mother looked nonplussed, but all of the gentlemen in the party laughed heartily at this, except for the Earl of Cublertone. He was watching Michael closely, gauging his reaction to the story. Laughter rang through the dining room for a moment longer before the guests were able to catch their breath.
The Earl of Cublertone cleared his throat loudly and said, “I can assure you, My Lords, that my daughter would never say such a thing now! She was a precocious child, but she had the best governesses and they have been meticulous in teaching her proper etiquette.”
“Of course, Cublertone, of course!” the Duke of Litchfield reassured him. “I have met Lady Paulina myself, and she is charming and exceptionally well-mannered.”
Michael smiled at this, but felt a slight pang of disappointment. He understood that for practical purposes, a well-mannered wife was ideal. However, he could not help but think that life would be much more interesting if he were married to the sort of lady who still challenged the gentlemen around her, and joked about it afterwards. Perhaps that element of her personality still resides in her somewhere—perhaps she might show me that side of her in time.
Unbidden, an image entered Michael’s mind—Lady Paulina’s pretty maid, challenging him to a race. In his mind, she beat him in the race, but only just. He imagined dismounting at the finish line, seconds after she did. He envisioned them laughing together, and then falling into each other’s arms, feeling both of their hearts racing.
“Gentlemen?” Michael heard his father say, in rather a booming voice that pulled him back to reality.
I must stop this! I cannot be lost in thoughts of a pretty lady’s maid when I ought to be engaged in conversation with these gentlemen!
Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Michael returned his attention to present company, and looked at his father enquiringly.
“Shall we go through to the parlor for cigars and brandy?” his father asked the assembled company.
The gentlemen all nodded in agreement and stood up to follow their host. Michael’s mother remained at the table with the Duchess of Litchfield, and the Ladies bid the Gentlemen good evening.
The parlor was not an inviting room. It was filled with comfortable leather arm chairs, but the room itself was dark, and Michael recalled it as the scene of being told off by his father many times. At thirty, he ought not to let this bother him, but still felt a twinge of discomfort upon entering the room. Steeling himself, he followed the group into the room.
His father was handing out cigars and had called upon the butler to fetch brandy for his guests. They spent about half an hour recounting the day’s hunt, which was pleasant enough, though Michael found it rather dull, having just experienced it a few hours ago.
Eventually his father brought the subject around the matter of his estate, as well as the Earl of Cublertone’s.
“We must consider the next generation, Cublertone, neither of us is as young as we used to be,” he said.
“Indeed, we are not,” Lord Cublertone said with a sigh. “And of course, you know I have no son to inherit. My Paulina will be a good wife, and will rule her estate wisely by her husband’s side, when he comes into his title.”
“And you have no male relatives who might inherit?” the Marquess of Portam asked. Michael had the impression that the Marquess already knew the answer to this question, and had been instructed to ask it by Lord Cublertone himself.
“Unfortunately not,” Lord Cublertone replied, with a sigh. “My brother is dead, and left only daughters. I have no cousins on my father’s side, and the only living cousins on my mother’s side are ladies, who would have no claim to Cublertone in any case. I suppose that I must hope for a grandson in short order!”
“Well, as Hillfield borders Cublertone, this matter is of particular interest to us as well,” Michael’s father said in a matter-of-fact tone.
It was clear to Michael that this entire exchange had been engineered for his benefit. They need not have bothered—he was well aware of the benefits of marrying Lady Paulina. When the estates were combined, he would become the heir to a large portion of the west country—a powerful land owner, and eventually an extremely powerful member of Parliament.
His son by Lady Paulina would probably be one of the wealthiest gentlemen in England, apart from the Regent himself. No doubt their child would be handsome as well, and an accomplished horseman. And all I need to do in exchange, is spend my life with a lady I hardly know, who might be rather dull.
The day after the hunting party, Michael sat at his desk, and wrote a note to Lady Paulina. In it, he thanked her for her hospitality, and told her that it had been a pleasure to make her acquaintance. He also reminded her of the invitation to come and ride at Cublertone, suggesting that she might like to come the following Friday.
When he received her reply two days later, he was pleased to see that she had accepted his invitation, but he could not help but wonder whether she might bring her maid with her as well.
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