About the book
“I wish I knew how to quit you.”
Christiana Barkley has always known how cruel the ton can be. After an accident in her childhood left her disfigured, her confidence has been in ruins ever since. But when she meets the man of her dreams, everything seems to change…
Horace James, the Duke of Erlton, has never had plans of marrying. Until his father dies, and his will emerges from the ashes, requesting him to marry if he wants to keep his title as a Duke. Conflicted between passion and duty, he comes across Christiana, the only woman who can awaken a passion deep inside him…
But as Christiana and Horace get closer to marriage, they quickly learn his family will do everything to keep them apart. They don’t want a scarred daughter-in-law. Not when there are better options out there.
Will they be able to stay together, or will family achieve to tear them apart?
Christiana Berkley, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Nale, arrived a little late and flustered to the dining room. She had spent the morning at the pianoforte, as she often did, and had quite lost track of the time.
“I do apologize,” she said as she rushed in and took up her seat.
Her father chuckled. “It’s all right,” he said. “We could hear you playing from here and knew you would not be on time.”
She was meeting her parents for lunch—a rare treat, given how busy the Duke so often was—and it was a beautiful day for it, the glorious spring sunshine flooding the room through the large, double-sized windows. It was a long, rectangular room, so shaped to fit their dining table.
Though meant for entertaining, the Duchess liked to use this room often, and so despite the fact that the table would seat eighteen, just the three of them sat around it now, the Duke and Duchess at either end, and Christiana in the middle.
She looked up and grinned at her mother.
“Good afternoon, Mama. You’re looking beautiful today. I do like that gown. Is it taffeta?”
“Why thank you, Christiana,” her mother replied with a smile. “Silk. You’re very bright today.”
“It’s the music,” she said with a nonchalant shrug. “You know how it gets to me. And today is a day for happy music, with the sunshine and the singing birds.”
“And a good job, too,” her father jested. “For we all know how dismal you become when you’re playing something downhearted.”
At twenty years old, music was Christiana’s first and only love. She had learned the pianoforte as a young girl and now played it daily and often for hours on end. It was not only the pianoforte she adored, though. It was all kinds of music—from recitals to orchestras to opera. Wherever there was music, Christiana could lose herself entirely, and her mood would come to match that of the sounds.
She was an attractive young lady. Tall and curvaceous, Christiana liked the shape of her body as she became more womanly every day. Her hair was so blonde it was almost platinum in color, her skin as pale as alabaster but for the dancing freckles across her nose and the spots of ever-present pink on her cheeks. Her lips were full and luscious, red and sensuous and longing to be kissed, and her eyes a deep-chocolate brown that told a tale of her passion and desire.
There was only one thing Christiana hated about her looks, and she hated it so much that it quite ruined the rest of her. She had a scar, deep and vicious, snarling the flesh of her right cheek and tugging at her upper lip. It ran from just beneath her nose, all the way up to the corner of her eye, and the skin had turned silver with the deformity. It made her want to hide away from the world—and hide away she did. Music would never judge her, but people so very often did.
“What’s for lunch?” Christiana asked hungrily, her healthy appetite always leaving her craving more.
“Roast pigeon in a butter sauce,” her mother said, “followed by lemon posset.”
“Father’s favorite,” Christiana replied matter of factly.
“Of course,” the Duchess said, shaking her head at her daughter as if she was quite mad. “It’s not often we are honored with his presence at this time of day. It’s only right we provide him with what he likes best.”
“Spending time with my beautiful family is gift enough,” the Duke beamed, his deep and velvety voice settling over the room.
“You say the sweetest things, Father,” Christiana said, throwing him a warm smile. “But I am curious. Why are you here?”
“Do you not want me here, Daughter?” he asked in mock outrage, a hand held to his chest.
“It’s a pleasure as always,” Christiana said—and quite honestly, too. She loved her father dearly. “But normally you are so busy. I merely wondered whether this was a special occasion of sorts.”
“Ah, yes, well,” he said. He cleared his throat, not quite meeting her gaze, then said, “actually, there was something your dear mother and I wished to talk to you about.”
Christiana felt a lump of anxiety grow in her throat. Her father looked uncomfortable, and she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know why. She was certain whatever he had to say would involve her leaving the house—something she hated to do ever since the accident that had caused her disfigurement.
It had been many years ago, the accident, but it still haunted Christiana every day—and every night. She’d been just ten years old when the line attaching the coach to the horses snapped and they were flung against the big stone wall, the carriage shattering around them.
Christiana was the only one to be hurt, and though she was grateful her mother was safe, she always felt it some sort of injustice that she should be so badly injured while others got away with nothing. She cursed the day often, that moment when she became this beasty creature, instead of the beauty she was destined to be. It was a resentment she desperately tried to keep buried and most definitely hid from her parents.
“You’re at such a lovely age,” the Duchess said, looking lovingly at her daughter.
“I am,” Christiana agreed.
She was enjoying being a young lady far more than she had enjoyed childhood, even if she was yet to sample the true delights of womanhood, those tantalizing, secret things that she instinctively knew she wanted. Of course, she also knew it would never be possible to sample such delight—not for a beast like her. No man could ever bring themselves to kiss her lips, not with what they had become. That didn’t stop her dreaming, though, or imagining and she did that often enough, in the secrecy of her own bedchamber.
“And you’ve attended how many Seasons now?” her father asked, pulling her quite sharply from her reverie.
The lump in her throat grew larger. It was true that she had attended the Seasons when required, but it was always something she dreaded, for people were often unkind when it came to her looks, and she shunned friendship and kindness as a result. She had no desire to be social, only to play her music and forget her woes and be happy in her own little world.
“What’s this about?” she asked, brow furrowed in her father’s direction. She thought she knew, but she hoped she was wrong.
“Marriage, my dear,” the Duchess said. Her mother’s eyes sparkled with excitement, the very notion of a wedding sending romance dancing through them.
Christiana sighed and looked down at her place setting. “Oh,” she said, “that.”
She wanted to marry, of course she did, if for nothing else then to experience in real life those moments of physical intimacy that so often invaded her dreams. Those things that would bring shame upon her family if they knew.
What she didn’t want was the courting, the lead up, the convincing a man to take her when she was so evidently ugly. She couldn’t bear the thought of further rejection, and she certainly did not want a man to marry her simply for her dowry—or worse, for pity.
“Don’t sound so negative,” the Duchess said. “It’s time we started thinking seriously about it, and it’s a good thing—marriage will make you whole, my dear.”
“I’m already whole,” Christiana snapped in reply.
“Of course, you are, darling,” the Duke interjected. “That’s not what your mother meant.”
“I am whole, but I am also hideous, as you both well know. No gentleman in his right mind is going to show any interest in me at all.”
She hated this. She hated the sad feeling, the resentment, the fear. She was such a bright and bubbly person, so near to beautiful as could be, and yet so dreadfully far away. She couldn’t stand being reminded of the fact that she was not and would never be all she desired to be. And to have her mood ruined like this, without warning or notice, made her positively angry.
“Nonsense,” her mother said softly. “You are far from hideous. Your scar, admittedly, presents a small obstacle, but it’s nowhere near as bad as you imagine it to be. You are still very beautiful.”
“Thank you for your empty words, Mother,” Christiana replied, looking straight ahead instead of at either of her parents. “But they really are useless, as they always have been.”
“Enough,” the Duke said, though not unkindly. “None of this really matters, for I have already found you a suitor.”
Christiana’s head whipped around and she stared at her father, wide eyed and open mouthed in a mixture of horror and anticipation.
“You’ve found me a suitor?” she repeated.
“His name is William Balfour,” he said proudly.
“The Earl of Montegor,” the Duchess added with an excited squeak.
“I suggest you meet sooner rather than later.”
“And what is his interest in me?” Christiana asked, genuinely confused as to why any man would show even the vaguest interest in marrying her. “Does he know about the scar?”
“He does,” the Duke said. “And he’s been very understanding about it.”
“Darling,” the Duchess began. “The thing you need to learn about marriage is that looks are not important. It doesn’t matter how you appear on the outside. What truly matters is how you are on the inside—and inside, you are the most beautiful of creatures.”
Christiana scoffed and threw her mother a humoring smile. The Duchess meant well, Christiana knew that, but to her it seemed more like a confirmation of her unattractiveness than any sort of compliment. The very fact that her mother told her to focus on her personality proved to Christiana that she really was as repugnant as she thought.
“I understand your concerns, my dear,” the Duke said. “You’ve experienced an awful lot in this short life of yours. But that does not mean you must live the rest of your life in the shadows of what happened to you as a child.”
“But it’s not just what happened to me as a child, is it?” Christiana snapped. “It follows me around every day. Each time I pass a looking glass, it jumps out at me. Every time I leave the house, I hear the whispers behind fans and raised hands. I see the children in the streets staring at me as though I am some sort of monster. What on earth makes you think this Earl of Montegor, whoever he is, will be any different?”
“The Earl is a good man,” the Duke urged.
“Is he old? Deformed himself? In debt? What is so wrong with him that he would be willing to take on a poor disfigured girl?”
“There is no need for such ire,” the Duke said, not letting his wife speak. “You know we are willing to answer any of your questions and I most certainly would not match you with someone I did not think worthy of you. He is six-and-twenty—”
“And a rather handsome young man,” the Duchess interrupted.
“And his house is in good order.”
“Then why?” Christiana insisted, feeling a fury inside him.
“He’s a kind man,” the Duke said. “A romantic at heart. He knows he is getting on in age now, and he is looking for a wife. I would have thought you would rather like that.”
Christiana briefly closed her eyes and sighed. She was being harsh and she knew it. She had known this day would come, and in truth, she was surprised it had taken her father so long. And the Earl did sound like a perfectly decent gentleman.
When she opened her eyes again, her father was looking at her with such love and kindness that Christiana knew she would not say no to whatever came out of his mouth next.
“Just meet with him, will you? If he really is as awful as you’ve got into your head, then we will call the whole thing off and find you someone else. Does that sound like something you could agree to?”
She smiled softly at him. Even if she wasn’t so enamored by her father’s favor, she knew in truth she had no real choice. “Yes, all right,” she said. “I’ll meet him.”
“If you could hold your arms out to the side, Your Grace,” Mr. Beecham, the tailor, asked. He ran his hand down the length of the tape measure, making it snap straight.
Horace James, the newest Duke of Erlton, tried not to squirm as the tailor held the tape measure under his arm. He was being fitted for a whole season’s worth of new suits—and whyever not, now that he had a Dukedom all of his own. He stared out of the window, the arch of hand-painted, gold-embossed lettering facing out onto the busy street, and he tried his best not to move.
“Do you always look so furious when you’re being measured for a new tailcoat?” William asked, idly picking at the accessories displayed along the one wall of the shop.
“I am not very good at it, I admit,” Horace said, still staring intently in front of him, as though to move his head would make a mess of the entire measurements.
He’d never liked being at the tailor, and at five-and-twenty, he felt no different. It wasn’t that he disliked the tailor as such, but more that he had never really been any good at staying still—and that was most definitely required, if he did not want to irritate the ever-patient Beecham. He was an active sort, his body and mind in a near-constant flurry, and he found the tailor’s shop far too calm.
Thanks to his lack of stillness, Horace was muscular, his shoulders strong and broad, his chest shapely and defined. His skin had a flush of gentle brown from hours spent in the sunshine, for he detested being trapped indoors. A tall man, he had dirty-blond hair that fell flat against his head no matter how much he coiffed it, and thick bushy sideburns and matching eyebrows that he pandered to often.
Everything about him was handsome but in a boyish, almost rakish kind of way. He was not pristine and perfectly preened, but he’d so obviously tried that it was endearing, and his features certainly made an appealing view.
It was his eyes that attracted the most attention, though. His irises were made up of a plethora of brown, from the palest hazelnut to the darkest chocolate, marbled together with a youthful spirit and a zest for life.
Quite without trying, he attracted ladies and commoners alike, all fawning over him in their attempts to become a lucky Duchess. Thanks to his loveable good looks and his youthful charm, everyone wanted to know the Duke, and if they couldn’t talk to him, then they would talk about him.
“If you hate being fitted so much, why are you getting a new wardrobe?” William asked. “I have no doubt that your old suits are decent enough and there has been no great fashion change in recent months.”
He picked up a leather pocketbook, flipped it open, closed it, and returned it to its place all while speaking the sentence. Not only did the tailor make gentleman’s clothes, but he also sold a range of premade goods and accessories—from pocketbooks to gloves and handkerchiefs. William prodded each in turn, not with any intention of buying any of it but to keep himself occupied as Horace stood stripped to shirt and trousers.
“Mother thought it would be a good idea,” Horace said, “what with the season coming, and my new position in the household. A new wardrobe for a new Duke.”
“And do you always do what your mother tells you?” William teased.
Horace laughed. “As much as I can, actually. You’ve met her. As dearly as I love her, she can rather be a bit of a dragon when she doesn’t get her way.”
“I couldn’t possibly comment,” William said.
“Arms down now, please, Your Grace,” the tailor said.
William Balfour, Earl of Montegor, had been Horace’s greatest friend since they’d grown close at Eton. Neither particularly liked boarding at the school, and neither really enjoyed the bustle of the city, and so they had found a kindred spirit in each other.
They didn’t get together all that often, not with William so responsible when it came to his duties, and Horace’s newfound role as Duke, but whenever they could, they would meet and talk of how their lives were changing as they aged. Such meetings more often than not involved a bottle of brandy, and perhaps a little fine dining, too. Today, it was more casual that than. William had been passing by and noticed Horace’s worried face in the window of the tailor’s shop and had called in to offer his condolences.
“I often wonder how father ever coped with it,” Horace said, a wistful note to his voice. “Mother, I mean. He must have really loved her.”
“Your father had an excellent propensity for ignoring the matters that he did not care about,” William said. “I always so impressed by how he could block out noise and focus only on the things that mattered. A trait we could all learn from, I’d say.”
“He was certainly an excellent Duke,” Horace said with a sigh.
He and his father had been close. They seemed to agree on everything, and they rarely bickered. When an argument did ensue, it was always over something they each knew to be truly important to the other, and together they would find ways to accommodate and compromise. He missed his father already, and he knew his life was set to change forever.
“As you will be an excellent Duke,” William said, as though it was perfectly obvious.
Horace made a non-committal noise and pushed his lips to one side, as Mr. Beecham gently moved him into a new position and began measuring anew. He wasn’t convinced William was right in that. He always knew that he would eventually become Duke, of course. It was his birthright. But that didn’t make it any easier and he had no idea how he would live up to his father’s memory.
When he’d finished university, Horace had thrown himself into learning everything he possibly could about running the Estate and the areas under their control. His father had taught him a lot. And yet he still did not feel ready. The old Duke had died so suddenly—his heart had given out, or so the physician said—and it had come as such a shock to them all. This was something that was supposed to happen later in life, not earlier, and Horace had to admit to being more than a little overwhelmed.
“Perhaps,” he said eventually, though unconvincingly. “I just wasn’t expecting it to happen quite so soon.”
“I know your father had every faith in you,” William said, “and thus so do I.”
He turned to face Horace directly, as though this made his words have more meaning. It did, in a strange sort of way. Horace felt his friend’s strength through the look in his eyes.
“You are a good, honorable man with fairness and justice in mind. I am certain you will do a good job.”
“I’m glad somebody thinks so,” Horace said.
“Listen to me. I may not have a Dukedom, but I do run an estate and believe me when I say, it’s nowhere near as difficult as people like to make out. Just surround yourself with knowledgeable people and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. You’ll be fine.”
“Oh, I’m sure I’ll muddle my way through,” Horace said. “Still, I would have liked a little extra time to learn. And, actually, more time to be free and simply enjoy life before being forced into adulthood. One doesn’t get a lot of time between being a child and having to be a man. It would have been nice to explore it a little further.”
William snorted with laughter. “You are far from trapped, Horace. Admittedly, you have a few duties now, but you are still free. There is absolutely nothing stopping you from doing the things you wish to do. It’s your life, after all.”
“I suppose,” Horace said, his words coming out almost as a sigh. “And it’s not like I’m married with children or any such thing.”
He laughed at the very thought. He wanted to marry one day, but he imagined that day being very, very far in the future. Saying that, he’d envisaged being Duke as far in the future, and that didn’t quite turn out as he’d expected. He sighed again.
“All done, Your Grace. You may step down now.”
“Thank you, Mr. Beecham,” Horace said, stepping off the small podium and picking up the tailcoat he had hung across the back of the chair. He shrugged it on and looked down as he did up the buttons.
“Speaking of marriage,” William said with a nonchalance Horace could tell he didn’t truly feel. He had something he wished to say, and Horace cocked his head to one side, intrigued now.
“What of it? You haven’t gone and got yourself a wife without my noticing, have you, Montegor?” Horace laughed as he picked up his hat and pulled it down onto his head.
“No,” William said, shaking his head firmly. “At least, not yet. I have, however, been invited over to meet a young lady in the interest of becoming her suitor. The Duke of Nale’s daughter. Do you know her?”
Horace shook his head. “My father had dealings with the Duke, I know that much, but I never met the fellow myself—and certainly not his daughter. You don’t sound too enamored with the idea, though.”
“I don’t know,” William admitted. “I am definitely in the market for a wife, as well you know. But it’s not very romantic, is it? Being called by her father and discussing it like a business matter? I’ve never even met the girl.”
Horace laughed and slapped his friend playfully on the back. “You’re like a maiden yourself, with all your romantic notions. How else do you expect a marriage contract to be drawn up? Really, you’ve been reading far too many novels when you should have been reading scholarly literature as your peers do. Montegor, if you’re not careful, you’ll turn into a woman!”
William rolled his eyes. “I don’t care what you say. I have a romantic soul—I can’t help it.”
“Why do you read that nonsense, anyway?”
“You know my mother’s eyesight is poor and it has been for a number of years now. She roped me into reading to her when she found she couldn’t read herself any longer—and it was always some love story or other. Father hated it, of course. Told her she should get a maid to read to her, but we carried on in secret. And what can I say? I suppose the romance seeped into my soul.”
Horace snorted. “I’d wager your father would not like to hear you say that.”
“Well, he’s not here to hear it, is he?” William said defensively. “And besides, I’m going to meet this young lady in a manner of which my father would have most definitely approved.”
“Good luck to you,” Horace said. “I hope it works out in the way you wish. I, on the other hand, have absolutely no intention of marrying any time soon.”
“Whyever not? You’re getting to an age now when—”
“No,” Horace said firmly. He took in a deep breath. “Believe me, becoming Duke earlier than planned is stressful enough. I don’t want to take on a wife and children, as well.”
“You don’t always have to be so negative,” William replied, an evident pout on his lips.
Horace turned and looked at him, his eyebrows crossed. “What are you talking about?”
“You and your insistence that marriage is no good.”
“I never said any such thing,” Horace said, feeling a new ire rising in the pit of his stomach. He couldn’t understand his friend’s sudden irritation and that, in turn, annoyed him.
“Just because you don’t wish to marry yet doesn’t mean it is a bad idea.”
“I never said that either,” Horace said, turning his surprised eyes on William. “What’s got into you?”
“Your nonsense has got into me!” William snapped.
Horace huffed, and he spoke harshly, though more through irritation than true belief. “And you think marrying some random girl because her father picked you out as a soft target is better than remaining single until the right woman comes along?”
“At least I am actively looking to move my life forward,” William said. “I will not stand by and let the chance of love pass me by.”
Horace growled in frustration and turned his back on his friend. “What sheer nonsense,” he declared, waving his hand in the air. “I wish you good day, my friend. And a good life, too.”
“Oh, you do fuss so, My Lady,” Maggie said, slapping Christiana’s hand away from the curls she had just pinned in place. “I’ve told you—if you’re not happy with it, I’ll redo it.”
“I’m perfectly happy with it,” Christiana said to Maggie’s reflection in the looking glass. “I’m always happy with how you do my hair, you know that.”
She reached up and moved a lock of hair barely half an inch to the left, then reexamined her reflection. She was happy with it, but she also wanted it to be perfect. She wanted to look her best—though she didn’t know why, it was not like this meeting would lead to anything. A battle between hope and truth wore on inside her—hope that all this talk of marriage would actually lead somewhere, up against the truth she knew in her heart: that she was gruesome looking and unlovable.
Although she never said it out loud, Christiana didn’t like to be in the company of other people, for fear of their cruel words and actions, something she avoided at all possible costs. It was a terrible shame, because there was something in her, some confident part of her wanting to burst out and show herself to the world. And that is just what she would have done, had she not been so terribly damaged.
That scar put a stop to everything—her beauty, her strength, her friendships and loves, her desire to be anything but housebound. Now, it was as if there were two Christiana’s: the real one, bright and extrovert and full of passion, and the damaged one, shy and fearful and wanting only to live in the shadows. Maggie, though, was always at her side, and she loved her maid dearly for her loyalty, her trust, and her confidence.
“If you’re happy with it, stop messing with it,” Maggie said, taking Christiana’s hand and moving it away from her face. “Them curls won’t stay in otherwise, and they look just beautiful on you as it is.”
Christiana threw Maggie a wry, nervous smile, then looked at her own reflection. Her curls were tight and bouncy, and Maggie had pinned them up so that they cascaded around her face, framing her features, and helping to bring out the color in her cheeks.
“They are rather pretty, aren’t they?” she said.
“With hair like yours, My Lady, it’d be difficult for them not to look pretty. We’re all jealous, you know. You’ve got hair like the finest spun gold, and so soft, too.”
“You’re too kind.” Christiana attempted a humble reply, but her smile was proud. Her hair was indeed strikingly beautiful. It was just a shame that her face didn’t match it, not now it was disfigured.
“It’s not kind when it’s the truth.” Maggie walked over to the sideboard and picked up the crystal perfume bottle with the large pump. It shimmered in the light. “Here,” she said. “A bit of rose water. Rose is a good one for attracting love and romance, you know. You should slip a few dried petals into your stays for luck.”
Christiana tutted. “You know I don’t believe in that superstitious nonsense.”
“Even so,” Maggie said with a shrug, then released three fine mists of spray over Christiana. “I do, and I want the best for you. Before my Mother died, she taught me everything she knew.”
“Do you really believe your mother was a healer?” Christiana asked, narrowing her eyes at the reflection. Maggie had said it often enough, proudly declaring her mother a healing woman, someone people went to for help.
“She was more than just a healer,” Maggie replied. “She believed in the power of the earth. She said you could grind any plant to make a scent, and each scent would do a different thing to set your life on the path you wanted. Said that there was magic in it.”
Christiana snorted, then had the decency to push her lips together and stop her laughter. “Your mother was a witch.”
“Not a witch, no,” Maggie said firmly. Even she understood the connotations that word had. “A healer.”
Christiana watched her maid in the looking glass, her heart filling up with love for her. “Do you miss her?” she asked.
“Every day. But I’m glad for your family,” she smiled warmly at her employer. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d probably be dead by now, or on the streets, starving.” The mood had turned somber and Maggie looked saddened by the memory.
“Nonsense,” Christiana said with a laugh. “You’d be selling potions and tinctures and scents on street corners.”
Maggie laughed, the mood lifted once more. It was one of the reasons Christiana loved Maggie—the ease with which she could switch from sad to happy.
“Nothing wrong with a good perfume, even if you don’t believe in the rest of it. Besides, it’s got to be better than the sun’s own perfume, hasn’t it?”
Christiana raised a questioning eyebrow at her. “And what might that be?”
Maggie shook her head, not wanting to say the word. “One’s natural… scent, shall we say. When a lady is a little… overwrought.”
“Oh.” Christiana nodded and suppressed a giggle. She’d never really thought of sweat in that way before.
At three-and-twenty, Maggie had been Christiana’s lady’s maid for over ten years, and the pair had grown up in each other’s company. Maggie had been carefully trained by the Duchess’ own maid, and now she was knowledgeable and clever when it came to dressing her lady and being there for her, whenever required.
She had been employed before the accident that scarred Christiana. Before that, they had been maid and lady, accepting of each other but not really close. After the accident, Christiana had hidden away from the world, and even from her mother. It was Maggie to whom she turned, and the pair had become extremely close. As they each turned from girl to woman, their friendship had only strengthened.
Maggie was a slight young woman, her body almost like that of a child. Her hair was a dusty-brown color that she carefully pinned under her bonnet each day, and she had eyes of emerald green. She was strong willed and strong in body, and she would do anything required to keep her mistress happy—even if that meant telling her some harsh truths from time to time. That, she always said, was what a true friend did—and a good maid, in her opinion.
“What does my scent matter, though?” Christiana asked, swiveling in her seat and looking up at the maid. “I mean, he’s going to take one look at me and go running out of the door like a terrified puppy. He certainly won’t get close enough to me to smell me.”
Maggie exaggerated rolling her eyes. “Pardon me for saying, My Lady, but you don’t half talk nonsense, sometimes.”
Christiana frowned at her, then huffed and spun back around in her seat, crossing her arms over her chest and sulking like a child.
“Don’t be like that with me,” Maggie chastised, looking into Christiana’s eyes in the looking glass. “I know you better than anyone, don’t forget, and I’m telling you this right now—you’re making your scar a much bigger thing that it needs to be.”
“You don’t know that,” Christiana said, spinning back around again. “You don’t know how he will react.”
“And neither do you,” Maggie said with a victory grin, pointing at her with the bottle.
“All right,” Christiana conceded. “Fair point. But still—”
“And your father has already warned him about the scar, so there will be no surprises.”
“And all the Duke has asked of you is that you give it a chance, isn’t that right?”
“Well then, all will be fine, won’t it?”
Christiana tutted, shaking her head. “You and your logical and sensible arguments. Sometimes I wish you could be a bit more pigheaded like me.”
Maggie laughed freely, throwing her head back. The happy sound filled the room and filled Christiana’s heart, until she, too, was laughing.
“And where would that get us, ey? Nowhere, I’d say.”
Today was the day Christiana was to meet the suitor her father had lined up. She had asked her mother a thousand questions in the previous few days, most of which had been brushed off because the Duchess did not know the answers, Christiana suspected. Her mother, as beautiful and wonderful as she was, had a tendency to go along with whatever the Duke desired, without asking much about it.
Christiana had been nervous for days, and the lack of information didn’t help much—other than to set her imagination running wild. As much as she dreamed of being touched as a lover, she wasn’t convinced she was entirely ready to be a woman, either. And now that the day had arrived, she found herself irritable rather than anxious. Just as she was about to discuss this curiosity with Maggie, the door to her chamber flew open and her mother positively fell in.
“He’s here!” she hissed.
“Heavens,” Maggie said excitedly. “This is it! Remember, My Lady. Keep your smile and be friendly!”
“It’s a good job you’re here,” Christiana teased. “Or I would have quite forgotten how to be polite.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Maggie quipped to Christiana’s narrowed eyes.
She was stalling by talking to Maggie, she knew she was. But her heart raced and her breath came quick and ragged. Was this the moment she would find love?
“Come on, quickly,” her mother demanded. “He’s waiting in the drawing room for us.”
The Duchess grabbed hold of Christiana’s hand and dragged her out of the chair, through the door, and down the stairs before she had even a chance to reply.
“Mother, slow down,” Christiana snapped.
“But he’s here,” she cried.
“And he’ll still be here in thirty seconds! Let me catch my breath at least.”
“Very well,” the Duchess said tight lipped.
Christiana took a deep, shuddery breath. She’d read enough love stories to know this was a big moment. She would see him and swoon, falling madly in love with him the moment she set eyes on him, and she wanted to look her best.
“All right,” she said eventually. “I’m ready.”
They walked into the drawing room, Christiana with quite a grin painted on her face and fully prepared to be bowled over by his handsomeness.
“Good afternoon, Lord—oh,” she let out an awkward giggle. “I’m sorry. Er… Lord Montegor, good afternoon.”
“Good afternoon, My Lady,” he said frowning at her with concern. “Are you all right?”
She took in another deep breath, a hand upon her stomach, and she feigned another smile to hide the feeling of loss and confusion that flooded through her. “Quite,” she said, blinking away her surprise.
She had not swooned, nor been overwhelmed by his handsomeness. She had not fallen instantly in love. In fact, she felt nothing at all. She was strangely disappointed and most definitely baffled, for that is how these moments are always told in novels. But at least he had not screamed and run at the sight of her, and she was grateful for that. He even smiled kindly at her.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she managed eventually.
“And you, too,” he said, bowing to her before stopping and smiling blandly, clearly waiting for her to come up with the next part of the conversation.
He was handsome, in a way, she supposed. He wasn’t ugly, at least. His hair was an average brown—neither too dark nor too light—and his eyes matched in color perfectly. His height, likewise, was distinctly average, and his build was… well… average. It seemed to Christiana that there was nothing particularly special about this gentleman at all, other than perhaps the fact that he was clearly not much of a conversationalist. And there was nothing particularly bad about him, either. He was a perfectly respectable gentleman with little else to offer.
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” she ventured, attempting to start a conversation.
“It is,” he replied. Then he did that smile again, waiting for her next move.
She pressed her lips together, her eyes open wider than was natural. “Are you looking forward to the upcoming Season, My Lord?”
“Yes,” he replied. “I enjoy the dancing.”
“As do I,” Christiana said with a giggle.
Silence descended again. Christiana glanced nervously at her mother, hoping for some aid. This was not going at all how she had imagined, and she had imagined several ways it might go. This was simply awkward. The Duchess, meanwhile, glanced nervously at her husband, who only shrugged in reply. The whole thing would have had Christiana in giggles, were it not happening to her.
“Er…” the Duchess began, ushering Christiana further into the room and closer to Lord Montegor, “Lady Christiana is a wonder at the pianoforte, aren’t you, Dear? Do you like the pianoforte, Lord Montegor?”
“I’ve never played,” he quipped, though no one but himself laughed.
It was such an odd thing to say. Christiana imagined he would have far too much to do to be playing the pianoforte! He cleared his throat and smiled again. Christiana snatched up her mother’s idea and ran with it, though, if only to have something to talk about.
“Oh, I simply adore music of all kinds. Do you go to the opera often, My Lord?”
“No,” Lord Montegor said.
Still more silence. Christiana shifted her weight from foot to foot.
“Oh.” She blinked as she thought what to say next. “Attending the opera is one of my favorite pastimes,” she said. “It must be awfully sad for you to be so busy you cannot yourself go.”
“No, I’m not too busy,” he said. “I just prefer the theater, that’s all. I find the opera a little cloying, if I’m honest.”
Cloying? Christiana stared at him in horror, her jaw hanging open in shock until her mother jabbed her in the side and she came back to her senses.
“How curious,” she said as politely as she could. “Is there any reason for that? Other than the opera being cloying, of course.”
“I adore stories,” he said, and the smile on his face told her that was true enough. It was such a genuine expression of joy, not too unlike the expression she herself got when listening to music. Christiana was pleased to see some personality on his features—there was something in there, at least.
“I cannot discount a good story for a little entertainment now and then, but it’s so much better when accompanied by music, don’t you agree?”
“I suppose,” he said, frowning at the thought. “I’d never really thought about it. It’s the tale that captures my imagination, not whatever is going on in the background.”
“But music gets to one’s soul. You can connect to music.”
“And stories get to one’s heart.” He shrugged apologetically. “I suppose each of us are different and unique in our own ways.”
“Yes, I suppose that too,” Christiana said, unable to stop the pinch of disappointment she felt in her chest.
Their conversation continued in a similar vein for another fifteen minutes or so. It was polite and friendly, Christiana supposed, but somehow flat and uninteresting. He was a pleasant enough man, but the very thought of spending the rest of her days with him sent a shudder through Christiana’s soul. She was certain he would make a good husband to somebody, but to her he was a terminable bore.
“How was it?” Maggie asked excitedly when Christiana returned to her bedchamber. “Is he handsome? Is he kind?”
“I’m certain he’s kind,” Christiana said. Even she could hear the disappointment in her voice. “And he’s not unattractive.”
“I thought he was perfectly lovely,” her mother said, following her into the room.
Christiana sighed and turned to her. “Why have you followed me?” she asked tiredly. “Is there something more you want from me?”
“I want to talk to my daughter at this exciting time in her life. Is there something wrong with that?”
“It’s not exciting, Mother. I don’t want to marry a man like that.”
“But what was wrong with him?” Maggie asked, a gasp on her lips.
“Nothing was wrong with him,” Christiana said. “But there wasn’t much right about him, either. It was hardly what I would consider romantic.”
“Tosh,” her mother said, shaking her head firmly. “Romance has nothing to do with it. It’s about how well you perform together, and what benefits your union will bring to our family.”
“But he was boring!” Christiana cried.
“Oh dear,” Maggie said. “You’re certain you couldn’t find some common ground?”
“Don’t you have something to do, Maggie?” the Duchess asked, turning unbelieving eyes on the maid.
Maggie’s cheeks flushed and she rushed out of the room, eyes wide with the realization that she had been speaking to them on an equal level.
“There was no need to talk to Maggie like that,” Christiana said once she’d gone.
“Christiana, while I appreciate Lord Montegor might not be your first choice of suitors, you don’t not exactly have many options.”
Christiana’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
The Duchess sighed and sat on the edge of the bed. “I will say this as gently as I can, my dear, but with a face such as yours, it is unlikely you will get any other offers.”
“Because I am scarred and repulsive?” Christiana’s heart sank.
“I perhaps would not have chosen those words,” the Duchess said. “But essentially, yes, that is the case.” She reached out a hand to touch her daughter, but Christiana flinched away. “Christiana—”
“No, Mother!” Christiana snapped. “Get out of my room and leave me alone.”
She held herself stiff and still until she heard the door click shut behind her, and then she curled up on the bed and sobbed until she fell into an exhausted sleep.
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