About the book
Each night, he spends a single hour with her in his dreams. Since that hour, his days are layed with fire...
Attending a ball had never crossed Juliana Middleton’s mind as a possibility.
Even more so when she finds herself dancing with the most alluring Marquess. However, when the clock strikes twelve, she is forced back to reality: she is nothing but a maid.
The time has come for David Linfield, the Marquess of Emerstan, to fulfill the promise he made to his mother on her deathbed: he must find a suitable wife and settle down. How could he though, when his mind is dominated by thoughts of the bewitching maid he danced with?
Fate brought them together, and fate tears them apart when Juliana goes missing. Anxious to find her, David is determined to go to the extremes; even if that means going up against the father of the lady he was supposed to marry.
A note is his only clue. A note that unwittingly leads him to a truth that someone buried decades ago. And Juliana’s name is right in the middle of it...
David Linfield, the Marquess of Emerstan, knew that this was going to happen. The closer they drew to London, the more pressing the thoughts of his deceased mother became, and he didn’t want to think about that right now.
He tried focusing on his hunger, holding his hand lightly over his stomach in a vain attempt to smother the growling sounds that filled the carriage every so often. Staring out the window at the countryside as it rolled past, he tried his best to think about the poached eggs he'd refused at breakfast.
“Good heavens, David. Is that you?” his Aunt asked after a particularly loud growl. Ruth Lovell, the Dowager Duchess of Fernshire, had been living with him since her husband died. That had been a year ago, and since then Aunt Ruth had stepped in to fill his uncle’s place as much as was possible. Sometimes he resented her overzealous mothering, but generally the two got along well.
He hummed in affirmation.
“I told you to eat more at breakfast. You’ve forgotten how far Emerstan Manor is from London. We’ve still got miles to go yet.” Despite her reprimanding tone, she sounded concerned.
“I hardly think I will perish from a single missed breakfast, Aunt Ruth.”
But it wasn’t just a few skipped eggs that was troubling David’s stomach. Butterflies of nervousness flitted about inside him as each passing moment brought him closer and closer to the city he had come to hate.
“What's the matter?” Aunt Ruth asked, looking at him quizzically. She was almost too observant sometimes.
David swallowed. “I dislike London. Especially this time of year.” He hoped the simple explanation for his anxious mood would settle it, but of course, he should have known better.
“I think the excitement will do you good. You are too young to be shut up in the middle of nowhere.” She picked up the fan in her lap and flicked it open. It was growing quite warm as the day wore on.
“It's precisely the excitement that I dislike.”
“Unusual.” Aunt Ruth said. “Why?”
Her simple and direct questioning left him little room to maneuver out of answering. He pressed his lips together, but then decided that he might as well give voice to what was troubling him.
“Mother died this time of year. It was the height of my first London season. When she passed, it felt as though the world had stopped turning. And yet, when I looked around, everything continued at that dizzying London pace. Life went on too quickly without her. Perhaps it's irrational, but I found it somehow disrespectful.” He looked out of the window again, gazing out at the undulating hills which would all too soon give way to wide lanes and congested streets.
“One cannot grieve in London. I cannot now think of attending a ball or a dinner without being reminded of that dreadful year.”
“That dreadful year...” Aunt Ruth said thoughtfully. “That dreadful season, five years ago.”
“Five years is a short time compared to one's whole life.”
The older woman shrugged. “Perhaps. But it is plenty of time to grieve. Your Mother would not want her death to stall your life. I would know. She was my sister.”
David sighed. “Yes, I know. If I wasn't perfectly, painfully aware of that, I would not be returning to London.”
His stomach gave another growl which might have been comical under different circumstances.
Ellismont Manor was situated in a fashionable neighborhood of London. The building itself was pristine white and gleamed in the bright spring sunshine. A sudden wave of apprehension washed over David as he stepped down from the carriage and looked up at the place where he had grown up. The place where his Mother had lived and died.
The heavy oak door opened and his Father, Edmund Linfield, the Duke of Ellismont, descended the immaculate marble steps, his arms outstretched.
David stood rigidly, noticing the deep lines which crinkled around his Father's eyes as he embraced him.
My Father has grown old.
The sudden awareness of his Father's aging, of the passage of time, reminded David of the promise he had made his Mother on her deathbed. At Emerstan Manor it had been easy to put it off. Time felt frozen there.
His Father welcomed them warmly and David climbed the stairs of the house, feeling almost as though he had never left. Five years had not even begun to soften the edges of his memory of this place. Instinctively he stepped over the long crack in the third marble stair, the only visible defect in the Manor's edifice.
His chambers were just as he had left them. The familiar bedspread was washed and the pillows fluffed, but he wondered how dusty this room had gotten before the maids had been instructed to ready it for his return. When he collapsed onto the mattress, the familiar scent of lemon soap accosted him.
He took refreshment in his room, a light meal of bread and meat, and then fell asleep.
When he awoke, he was being summoned for dinner. He hastily changed his clothes and splashed cool water over his face to wake himself up. He was surprised at how tiring the journey that morning had been and how soundly he had slept atop his blankets, fully dressed except for his boots. He was slightly disoriented, having fallen asleep while the sun was still high in the sky and waking up at sunset.
The orange glow of the setting sun slanted across his room as he smoothed his dark-blond hair; he caught his reflection in the mirror above his old dresser for just a moment. He looked tired, and there was a hardness to his mouth that gave away his discomfort at being in this home again. He tried to soften his expression. He didn't know if he succeeded.
On the way down to the dining hall, he had to pass by the door to the room where his Mother had died. She had been so weak in her last days, but she had managed to make her wishes known. She wanted to spend her last days in the quiet little parlor with the east-facing windows. The door was shut now, but he knew that behind it was the small room, with its couch and its chair and the embroidery stand that his Mother would sit at for hours. A harpsichord stood in the opposite corner and when he was young, he could hear her practising at it in the mornings when he played in the garden and she had the window open.
On her last morning, the sun had broken through the morning fog, filling every inch of that cheerful little room with white light that illuminated the paleness of her face. Rays of golden morning sunlight bathed her in warmth as she died, just like she said she wanted.
A shiver went through him as he passed the door. Hurriedly, he jogged down the stairs, seeking company to divert his attention from those sun-soaked, terrible memories.
“There he is,” his Father greeted David as he entered the dining hall. The table was laid out with a variety of food and Aunt Ruth was already seated. “I was beginning to wonder if we should start without you.”
“My apologies, Father. I fell asleep.”
Aunt Ruth laughed. “He's grown quite unused to travel. It must have worn him out.”
David smiled tiredly as he sat down and unfolded his napkin.
Almost before he had settled into his chair, Aunt Ruth had already dug into her food and was changing the subject.
“Well, I myself am not unaccustomed to travel, as you know. And I couldn’t possibly lay around all day. I went straight to Almack’s this afternoon.”
“Is that so?” David asked casually. He piled green beans onto his plate, his appetite having wavered somewhat after his encounter with his Mother’s door.
“Ah yes, I assume the ladies there have been expecting your arrival,” his Father said.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Aunt Ruth said with a faint blush. David glanced at his Father. Although the Duke was now getting on in years, the gray at his temples and the weathered look of his skin was not unattractive on him. David wondered idly if he would ever remarry.
“I spoke to the Patroness there, just trying to get my bearings, you know. It’s been so long since I’ve been in the mix here in London that I hardly have any idea what’s been happening.”
David let her words blur in his mind, turning his attention to his plate. He had very little interest in London gossip.
He poked at the roasted duck. The sauce was different than how his Mother had preferred it. He took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. He tempered his disappointment by telling himself that it had been foolish to assume that absolutely nothing at home would have changed in five years.
“Do you mix with him often?” his Aunt was asking his Father. David looked up, wondering what he’d missed.
“Oh, not terribly often. I have made attempts to be friendly. We are in the same business, you know, and he would make a strong ally in the world of textiles.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking, as well,” Aunt Ruth went on. David still didn’t know who they were talking about.
“His daughter, Lady Sarah, is a lovely girl, is she not?”
His Father raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “Oh yes, very lovely.”
“She is coming out this year.”
David noticed that Aunt Ruth was looking at him now.
“Oh no,” he said, shaking his head.
“I’m only saying! You heard your Father. If you were to marry Lady Sarah, her formidable dowry and the business association with her Father would be more than fortuitous for all involved.”
“Hold on, now,” David said. “I wasn’t paying attention. Who is this business associate?”
“The Earl of Wickford,” his Father answered, dabbing at the corner of his mouth. “You remember him, David. His wife used to come ‘round to play bridge with your Mother. The kindly looking gentleman with the wire spectacles.”
David furrowed his brow. “Yes, I suppose I do remember him. Vaguely.”
“Do you remember his daughter?” Aunt Ruth asked, leaning over her plate.
David racked his brain. He thought he remembered a very slight girl, with fine hair and ungainly limbs. He couldn’t have met her more than once, however. And then only for a moment or two. She’d certainly not made an impression on him one way or another.
“Very vaguely,” he answered.
“Well, she’s grown into her arms, if that’s what’s concerning you.”
David laughed. “Grown into her arms?”
“She was quite a skinny child, as I recall. I saw her today with her Mother at Almack’s though. Perfectly lovely now. Splendid. Pretty as a peach.”
“You’d make a fair saleswoman, Aunt Ruth,” David said with a wry grin.
Her blush returned. “Well, I don't mean to pry into your business. I'm merely making it known that the opportunity is there.”
David smiled at his Aunt, knowing that she meant well. “Thank you, Aunt Ruth. I shall keep it in mind.”
The rest of the dinner went on with no more mention of marriage, but David couldn't get the thought out of his head. After the food was eaten and they all had coffee, David excused himself and returned to his room, feigning a headache.
Despite sleeping for several hours that afternoon, he felt tired. He stripped off his clothing save for his shirt and his smalls and crawled under the blankets. He closed his eyes, but all he could see behind them was that small parlor of white light and his Mother dying. He remembered what he had promised her.
“David,” she had said, her voice airy and faint, “you must promise me something.”
David had knelt at her side, gripping her cold, gray hand. “What is it, Mother?”
“You must not dally too long in getting married. I worry what will happen to you with me gone and no woman to care for you. You must marry well, my darling.” She coughed, and David gripped her hand tighter. The cough was wet and horrible, making her entire body shake. Finally, she laid back against the pillow and could speak again. “I say marry well, but I don't mean just to marry money. Marry for love, David. Always for love. There isn't anything in the world more important than that. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you, Mother. I promise.”
He would have promised her anything in that moment. But at the time, it seemed like such a silly, little thing. She was dying, why should she be concerning herself with his marital future? Could she really believe that there was nothing more important than whom one marries? Her own marriage to his Father had been arranged by their parents, and yet they had grown to love each other through the years.
He thought of Lady Sarah, wondering idly what she looked like now. It was because of this promise to his Mother that he was back in London at all. It had been five years, and his unfulfilled oath was beginning to weigh heavily on his conscience.
I will have to marry.
Juliana woke with the dawn, stretching her body luxuriously under the warm covers as the gray light of morning filtered through her curtain. Birds were beginning to chirp outside, and she knew that somewhere not far away the other servants were stirring, cooking breakfast and stoking fires that had burned down in the night.
She was lucky in that she did not need to be up as early as some of the others. As Lady Sarah's lady’s maid, she only needed to be up in time to be dressed and presentable in time to wake up Lady Sarah.
She sat up slowly, reaching over the side of her bed to pull the curtain aside. The sky was cloudless for the most part, save for a few wisps of cloud that looked like faint smudges across the brightening sky.
Perhaps Lady Sarah will want to go riding this afternoon.
The thought cheered her, because if that were the case it meant that she would go along as well. She was keenly aware of how lucky she was to be able to partake in some of the pleasant past times of the upper class, even if only as a chaperone. She also knew that she was lucky that her mistress was such a kindhearted young lady, who treated Juliana, and indeed all of the staff, more as friends than as lackeys.
She was reluctant to leave the warmth of her bed. While the days were growing warmer as the spring came into full bloom, the early mornings were still quite crisp. She slid her feet into slippers, which waited for her at the edge of her small bed, and crossed to the basin on her dresser to splash her face. She hardly glanced in the mirror that hung nearby. Her own features, the fine brown hair and high cheekbones, were familiar enough, and she could manage her hair by feel alone.
Her uniform was a utilitarian gray dress that neither hid nor accentuated her looks. She was comfortable in simple clothes though and she didn’t waste much of her time envying the fine gowns and frocks of her mistress.
Eating breakfast with the others was one of the high points of her day. The kitchen was always bustling by the time she woke up, and she was greeted warmly by the cook, who placed a warm, earthenware mug of dark tea into her chilled hands.
Miss Dunn was there as well, scribbling something in a small black book she carried with her everywhere. As the head housekeeper of Wickford Manor, Betty Dunn’s responsibilities were far more complex than Juliana’s, and she was constantly making and updating lists.
“Good morning, Juliana. Lovely day,” Miss Dunn said without looking up.
Juliana sipped her tea, burning her tongue slightly. “Yes, it looks nice out.”
“Good morning, Juliana.” Christopher was leaning against the counter, idling over some toast and jam. He was the footman at Wickford and was the closest in age to Juliana among the servants. Juliana longed to be friends with him and often went out of her way to be kind to the tall, wiry young man. But there was something in his manner that kept her at arms-length. He was never impolite outright, but she often thought that she detected a hardness to his tone. Some days she thought that they were truly becoming friends, but then the very next day he would give her the cold shoulder and she would be left to think that he simply didn't like her.
“If Lady Sarah herself doesn’t wish to go outdoors today, you ought to see if you can manage a few minutes yourself. After being cooped up all winter I think some time in the sun ought to do you some good,” Miss Dunn said, interrupting Juliana’s attempted greeting to the footman.
Juliana smiled gently. Miss Dunn had always been the mothering type, constantly looking out for Juliana and fussing over her.
“I shall try.” Juliana said. Then, glancing at the clock that ticked over the fireplace, she stood up. “Speaking of Lady Sarah, I ought to be going now. Thank you for the tea.” She smiled to the cook and then hurried in the direction of the door, picking up a tray of breakfast to bring to her mistress on her way out.
“Goodbye, Juliana,” Christopher said in a drawling sort of tone. When she looked back at him, he was still leaning against the counter rather sardonically, but there was a touch of a smile in the corner of his mouth. She smiled back at him, pleased that he seemed to be in a good mood.
Lady Sarah’s chambers were in the westernmost wing of the expansive Manor. Juliana hurried there on light feet, gently tapping on the door before entering. The fire in her parlor had already been refreshed by a maid, but otherwise the little sitting room was undisturbed. Juliana tiptoed toward the door on the other side of the room that led to her bedchamber and softly pushed it open.
The room was still dark, with heavy curtains blocking out the morning sun. She waited a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimness, then quietly crossed to the window and pushed the curtain aside.
The mass of blankets on the large bed shifted as light fell upon it. Lady Sarah was retreating deeper into the covers, pulling them over her head.
“Time to get up, My Lady,” Juliana said in a low voice.
“What time is it?”
“Time to eat,” Juliana said with a smile.
This prompted the young Lady to poke her tousled head out from the blankets and peer out with one eye.
Juliana chuckled. “Eggs and toast with strawberries and hot black tea.”
Lady Sarah groaned slightly and stretched, slowly sitting up.
“It's a beautiful morning. Miss Dunn says we ought to get out in the sunshine while we can. You know how dreary and wet the spring can be,” Juliana said in a light tone, busying herself with tidying the combs and hairbrush that adorned Lady Sarah's dressing table. As she did so, the young Lady got up from the bed and wrapped a dressing gown over her filmy nightgown.
“I suppose she is right,” Lady Sarah said as she sat down at the small table where Juliana had put down the tray of food. “We ought not to take these sunny days for granted.” She took a bite of egg and continued speaking with her mouth full. “P’haps Father will let us wander ‘bout in town.”
“Is there something you need to buy? You could always send an errand boy.”
Lady Sarah smiled and swallowed. “There's nothing I need to buy. At least not that I know of yet. I have to see what there is in order to know what I need.”
“I see,” Juliana said, stifling her own smile. Lady Sarah's Father was too careful with his money for Lady Sarah to be a spendthrift, but Juliana secretly thought that it was quite lucky that Lady Sarah wasn’t born to more permissive parents.
“At any rate, haven’t you heard about the regiment that is staying right in London? Officers as far as the eye can see.”
At this Juliana could no longer stifle her laughter. “Surely you have your sights set somewhat higher than that? Why, I’d assumed that you'd settle for no less than a duke.”
Lady Sarah shrugged her pale shoulders. “I’m certain Mother and Father have some perfectly suitable and terribly dull matches in mind. Personally, I think I would prefer a gentleman with...shall we say...a bit more vigor about him.” She gave Juliana a saucy look.
“How cheeky of you,” Juliana chided.
“Do you think there's something wrong with me, Juliana?” Lady Sarah asked with sudden earnestness. “It’s only my first Season but already I feel just fit to bursting. I just can’t stop thinking about being kissed. Do you think I’m a bad lady?”
Juliana softened and shook her head. “Not at all. I’m certain that every lady feels the same at your age, whether they admit to it or not.”
“At our age,” Lady Sarah corrected. “It’s just terrible that you don't get to have a coming-out party as well. But then, I think I might prefer to be in your place.”
“My place? Why?” Juliana asked. She tapped on the rim of Lady Sarah’s tea cup, reminding the young Lady to drink.
“Well, you’ve already got that handsome footman to make eyes with and flirt with.”
“Who, Christopher?” Juliana asked, feeling her face growing warm. “What makes you think that there's anything between us?”
Lady Sarah took a moment to sip her tea and help herself to a hearty bite of strawberry. “I've seen him looking at you. He's got those wolfish features you now, and when you pass by he looks positively ravenous.” She sighed, leaning back in her seat and looking wistful. “I'd give my left foot to have a man look at me like I was a custard pie.”
“Custard pie?” Juliana exclaimed. “Is that a compliment?”
“Oh, yes. Indeed, it is. You don't know how lucky you are. Tell me, has he ever kissed you?”
Juliana scoffed. “I should say not. He hardly speaks to me most days. I honestly haven't the slightest idea what you are talking about.”
Lady Sarah rolled her eyes delicately and took a bite of toast.
Juliana changed the subject, knowing that she was blushing and she did not wanting to give Lady Sarah more to tease her about. She thought that the potential trip into town was a safer subject and she and Lady Sarah chatted idly about ribbons and what they might eat for lunch until Lady Sarah's breakfast was complete.
“I saw a new style for ladies’ hair in a fashion booklet the other day,” Juliana said as Lady Sarah chose which dress she would wear that day. “I've made a study of the drawing and I think I may be able to reproduce it. Do you mind if I try it on you today?”
“Of course I don't mind!” Lady Sarah called from deep in her wardrobe. She emerged with a pale-green gown that accented her pale skin. As Juliana helped her to dress, she tried not to compare her own olive and freckled complexion with the radiant and well-bred beauty of her mistress.
As Lady Sarah sat down before the looking glass and Juliana began to brush her hair, Lady Sarah let her eyes fall closed. She hummed slightly as Juliana pulled the brush through her long golden locks.
“Is it really true that the footman has never kissed you?” Lady Sarah asked quietly as Juliana began to place strategic pins in her hair. “You wouldn't get in trouble, you know. I'd not tell a soul. And you know that I've never hidden anything from you.”
“I'm not hiding anything from you,” Juliana assured her. “I'd never dream of such a thing. It's just that there's nothing to hide. It's as I told you, he hardly speaks to me most days.”
“But not all days? So you do speak?” Lady Sarah's eyes were open now and she was watching Juliana through the mirror.
“Well, of course, we speak. He's the only one in the house besides you who is close to my own age. I've always thought that I would like to be friends with him, if only to keep from being lonely. Some days he seems to feel the same way and we are able to carry on conversations lightly. But...well, I don't know. I don't think he likes me very much.”
“That can't be it,” Lady Sarah said with a firm tone. “Perhaps he is simply awkward because he doesn't know how to act around a woman he fancies.”
“I hope that isn't the case. I really don't feel that way about him.”
“You don't?” Lady Sarah asked, raising her fair brows incredulously.
Juliana shook her head. “No. I value him as a friend. Or a potential friend, at the very least. But as far as romantic feelings...I don't know.”
“He's quite good looking,” Lady Sarah said. “Kind of dark and brooding. Mysterious.”
“Yes, that's the trouble,” Juliana said, her face twisting slightly as she struggled to pin a curl into place. “He may be good looking, but in all these years I have never felt that I've really known him. Say what you will about mystery, but I think I prefer a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. I don't like to be kept guessing.”
Lady Sarah pursed her lips thoughtfully. “That is a good point.”
“And that's assuming I ever do marry.” She carefully slid a final pin into the hair style and declared it finished.
Lady Sarah turned her head right and left, admiring the intricately piled swirls that adorned her head almost like a crown. “Heavens, this is lovely. Well done, as always.”
“It's my pleasure, My Lady. But we have spent too much time gossiping. You must hurry down to your parents now.”
“I'll ask about going into town.”
Juliana smiled and nodded, watching the young Lady glide from the room.
Sarah took a last glance at herself in the large ornate mirror. The hairstyle that Juliana had practiced on her was, perhaps, a bit too formal for a Tuesday. But she had to admit that the undulating curls and wispy tendrils looked rather lovely on her.
She skipped happily down the stairs toward the parlor where her Mother and Father spent their mornings. Lydia Colborne, The Countess of Wickford, was sitting in her normal chair near an open window. Before her was a large embroidery frame which she worked on ceaselessly. Sarah had always admired her Mother’s embroidery skills. She could make the most elaborate and beautiful designs flow from her fingers with seemingly no effort at all as she chatted and carried on.
Sarah went directly to her Mother and stood over her shoulder, gazing down at the cushion that her Mother was busy embroidering.
“Ah,” Sarah sighed. “I'll never have your skill, Mother.”
“You might if you took the time to practice...” the Countess said calmly.
Sarah sighed again. “Yes, well...”
Her Father, the Earl of Wickford, was smoking a pipe as he leaned back in a chair, crossing one leg over the other and smiling gently. “Sarah never could sit down long enough to practice,” he said to his wife. The heavy-scented smoke of his tobacco curled into the air. The comment might have come across as criticizing, but his tone and the hint of pride in his slight smile showed the truth.
“As much as I am envious of Mothers’ skill, I'd rather be out running among real flowers than embroidering them,” she responded.
“One day, my dear, you will be old like me and you will discover the joys of sitting still.”
Sarah laughed and put her arms around her Mother's shoulders. “Old? You? Never.”
The Countess looked up at her husband. “Darling, I am beginning to get the impression that our daughter is buttering me up. Shall we place wagers on what it is she is about to ask of us?”
“Why, Mother, can a daughter not compliment her mother without being accused of ulterior motives?”
The Earl laughed. “She's going to ask for pin money.”
Sarah scoffed, but her cheeks darkened because it was true. She sat down in a nearby settee and folded her hands delicately into her lap.
“Well, my lovely, how much do you require?” her Father asked.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “I was not going to ask for money. I merely wanted to know if it would be all right if Juliana and I went out into the city together today. It's so beautiful outside.”
Her parents made eye contact and carried out a silent conversation as only long-married couples could.
“I suppose that's all right,” the Countess said after a pause.
“Where will you have lunch?” the Earl inquired.
Sarah shrugged. “I summed we would stop in at a bakery along the way. Perhaps we will eat in the park.”
“This sudden desire for a walkabout in town wouldn't have anything to do with the regiment of officers who have recently descended upon the ton, would it?” her Father inquired archly.
Sarah blushed even deeper. “Why, no. I merely want to have a bit of fun with Juliana on such a beautiful day.”
“You must keep in mind that all gentlemen look dashing in an uniform. Be on your guard,” the Countess said with a sly wink. Sarah laughed.
“Actually,” the Countess continued. “While we are on the subject, you know that yesterday I went to Almack’s Assembly Rooms?”
The Earl tapped out his pipe onto a saucer and picked up the newspaper. He pretended to be reading but Sarah could tell that he was still listening quite keenly.
“Of course, I remember.” Sarah picked at her nails absently, wondering what suitor her Mother had come up with at the social venue. Some wealthy son of duke, no doubt. Likely with no personality whatsoever.
She had a theory about the relation between a gentleman's wealth and his character. The more wealth he had, the less character. There was only so long that she could feign interest in a man's droning on about business accounts.
“I was chatting with the Patroness there, and she told me that the Dowager Duchess of Fernshire has returned to London.”
This caused the Earl to fold down his newspaper and look over the top of it. “She hasn't been back since she went to live with her nephew after her husband’s death.”
“Yes, the poor dear. I don't know what I would have done in her place,” the Countess said. “I am glad she is back; she always lent a certain lightness to any gathering she attended. Marvelous lady. But her return isn't the most exciting thing about this news. Rumor has it that she has managed to string along her nephew as well.”
“Ah,” Sarah's Father said, going back to reading the newspaper. The Countess continued, undaunted. While she spoke, even as her voice became more animated with excitement, her fingers never stopped plying the fine needle in her hand and her work never once broke its stride.
“His name is David Linfield, the Marquess of Emerstan. I don't believe you have ever met him, Sarah. I have only seen him in passing a few times myself. He left London years ago, after the death of his dear Mother. Word has it that he has been nursing his grief out in the countryside all these long years. This is the first time he has returned to London.”
“What would bring him to London now?” Sarah asked.
Her Mother shrugged her shoulders. “It seems obvious, isn't it? He must be looking for a wife. There's little chance of finding one when one has isolated oneself, so he must have been brought back to the ton in order to mix with ladies and make his pick.”
“I suppose you think I should try to get a foot in the door, so to speak?” Sarah asked.
“You speak to me as though I would ever push you to marry someone against your will,” her Mother said, and Sarah felt a bit guilty at the sadness on her Mother's face. “I merely try to steer you in a safe direction, darling. Of course, when the time comes, the choice will be entirely your own. I only bring up the Marquess because he is not only well established, but he also has a reputation for being a kind, sensitive sort. The excitement of a handsome officer will fade in time, but in marriage the most important thing one must look for is kindness and gentleness of spirit.”
As she said this, the Countess looked up that Sarah's Father and he back at her. Sarah could have rolled her eyes. She knew she was lucky to have parents who loved each other and created a peaceful home life, but it could be embarrassing to bear witness to their devotion, at times.
“Word also has it that the Marquess is particularly attractive,” the Countess continued, punctuating the statement with a snip of her small golden scissors, freeing a strand of thread from its spool.
“Well, Mother. You have intrigued me. When shall I be introduced?” Sarah asked, assuming that her Mother had already made some plan to do so.
The Countess looked up and smiled. “There is going to be a ball in a week's time. It will be a perfect time for you to get acquainted with some new people. The Marquess has been invited, though it isn't determined without doubt that he will be there. We shall have to see.”
Sarah nodded, feeling a little bit excited to meet this mysterious gentleman. The thought of a gentleman flying off to the middle of nowhere to grieve the death of his Mother was rather romantic, she reasoned. And if he was as good looking as was implied, he might be worth a second look.
“Well, that will give you something to do in the city today, won't it?” her Father said, folding down the top of his newspaper again and revealing that he'd been listening to their conversation all along. “You will doubtless need a new gown for the ball.”
“Oh, Father, really?” Sarah asked, her expression brightening.
“Why, of course. Just have the bill made out to me. Don't go overboard, mind you. One wouldn't want to gild the lily.”
Sarah jumped up and went across the room to throw her arms around her Father’s neck. He laughed, kissing her forehead.
“No speaking to strange men when you are out,” he said in a lightly warning tone. “You and Juliana both have grown far too pretty these past seasons.”
“We won’t, Father. I promise.” Sarah said, with only a slight hint of a mischievous gleam in her eye.
“Her and Juliana, both?” the Countess asked, looking up from her work to raise a brow at her husband.
The Earl laughed, running his hand over his facial hair. “Oh, don’t be silly, my love. You’ve no cause for jealousy. You are still the fairest lady in the house.”
Sarah, keen on getting out of earshot of her parents’ flirting, rose back to her feet. “May Juliana and I leave right away?”
“Go right ahead, my dear. Have a good time and be back by dinner,” her Mother said. “And mind the neckline of your new gown. You may be coming out this year, but you are still my baby.”
Sarah sighed in a chagrined way but agreed before darting happily out of the room. She sought out Juliana, finding her in the small library with a book spread over her lap.
“They said we may go. They want me to get a new gown for the ball,” she said cheerfully.
“The ball? What ball?” Juliana asked.
Sarah grinned. “I’ll tell you everything on the way. Come on, let’s go!”
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