About the book
He has allowed his need for her to enslave him...
Eleanor Betham has been chasing shadows ever since she can remember.
Taken in by a noble family as a baby, her life has been governed by a single desire: to find out who her biological parents really are. Her plans are put on hold when the Lady she serves becomes engaged and she is asked to accompany her to his manor.
To Aaron Ayles, Duke of Durnsott, marriage is a cage. One specifically designed to trap him. It all changes, however, when he meets his betrothed’s lady’s maid, and suddenly all he can think of is spending the rest of his life tangled in Eleanor’s heart. And her bedsheets.
But as Aaron and Eleanor quickly realize, the truth has a price. And this one just might be steeper than what they are willing to pay. For the truth of Eleanor’s birth lies in a star, and the only way to discover it is to give up Aaron’s life...
Eleanor Betham was Lady Julia Dennis’ lady’s maid. She had only recently been given the job, though she had lived at Clayriver Manor in London for most of her nineteen years.
She was hanging up Lady Julia’s freshly cleaned dresses in the great oak armoire and couldn’t believe the softness of the muslins in their pastel shades. Lady Julia also had several real silk dresses, which were softer than cream. Because Lady Julia was unmarried, they were in gentle, but bright tones. She had exactly one black bombazine dress for funerals. Everything else was brilliantly dyed.
The bed chamber had silk wallpaper in a soft egg-shell blue, with a large four-poster bed. Eleanor wondered what it would be like to live in a room such as this. She sometimes daydreamed about having another sort of life, one with two parents who loved her, a fancy house. Other times, she dreamed of being in love with a dashing gentleman…he would have intense blue eyes, and a wicked grin. He would sweep her off of her feet.
The door opened suddenly, and Eleanor spun around.
“You’ll never guess the news!” Lady Julia said, beaming at Eleanor. She entered her bed chamber like a March Lion, dressed in a pale-pink silk dress.
“Then do tell me, My Lady,” Eleanor replied, folding her hands. The two had been playmates as children. Though society separated them as they grew older, they shared a quiet respect for one another.
“My parents have been discussing plans of making an alliance with the Duke of Durnsott,” Lady Julia explained, taking Eleanor’s hands in her own, squeezing them in excitement. “My Mother and I have been invited by his step-mother, the Dowager Duchess, to spend some time at their county seat, getting to know her son, and to discuss the marriage further.”
She let go of Eleanor’s hands, drifting over to her dressing table, to look at her reflection in the mirror.
“So it is an alliance through marriage,” Eleanor murmured as she hung up the last of the dresses, then shut the door softly.
“Yes,” Lady Julia replied, sitting down at her dressing table. Eleanor went to stand behind her, unpinning Lady Julia’s long, golden tresses. She began to brush it out.
“Is that what you want?” Eleanor herself yearned for a love match, though she was but a servant. She had read Miss Austen’s books and knew that even an ordinary woman could find love, if only she was herself.
“What an odd creature you are, Eleanor!” Lady Julia replied, gently. “It is a most advantageous match. What more could I want?”
“Romance,” Eleanor shrugged. Lady Julia was not much for reading.
“Not I. I’m a lady of the ton,” Lady Julia stated. “I am to wed so that our two families may be bound to each other.” Eleanor felt that Lady Julia was reciting a lesson, and not necessarily what she truly believed.
“And, you’ll be a Duchess,” Eleanor pointed out, watching in the mirror as her mistress beamed. Eleanor smiled back. “Everyone shall call you Your Grace.” It was fitting. Lady Julia was very comely. She had been destined to make an advantageous match from birth.
“It will be a good match,” Lady Julia said. “I must admit, I am nervous. I haven’t seen His Grace since we were children. I do not know what he’s like now.”
“I’m sure he’ll be handsome and charming.” Eleanor began to twist Lady Julia’s hair into a high bun, leaving two portions of the hair toward Lady Julia’s face out, so she could curl it in ringlets that framed the lady’s high cheeks. Eleanor had set the iron in the fire earlier, so that it would be heated up when needed.
“You are to come with me,” Lady Julia told her. “I’ll need my lady’s maid, as well as a chaperone.”
Nervous butterflies filled her stomach. She was excited at the prospect of going on her very first adventure. She beamed at Lady Julia. “How exciting!” she gasped. “How long will we be gone for?”
Eleanor smiled, then began to place the pins in Lady Julia’s hair, securing the bun. She was anxious to see more of the outside world. She had rarely seen much of the world, though Clayriver Manor was so near to London.
Aaron Ayles, the Duke of Durnsott, was sitting in the parlor at Myrtlegrove Manor with his step-mother. His step-brother was out riding. Louisa Ayles, the Dowager Duchess of Durnsott had called him there, though, for what, he had no idea.
It was a hot early summer day, and it was stifling inside the parlor. Aaron had a thin layer of sweat, coating his upper lip. He sat down in one of the armchairs.
“So?” he asked.
She had just settled herself down on the blue brocade settee. She was a handsome lady, though her dark-brunette tresses were streaked with silver. Her face, only recently, had taken on wrinkles, which were carved deeply across her forehead with two parentheses around her lips. Regardless, her intelligent blue eyes were sharp as ever as she regarded him. She smiled at him, which should have been the first clue that something was amiss.
“There’s something that I need to tell you,” she began, her hand going to the heirloom diamond necklace around her neck.
“Then, do tell me,” he said. Aaron had loved his father. He wasn’t particularly fond of his step-mother, but he was respectful of her. She had meant something to his late father, God rest his soul.
“We’ll be having guests for the next few weeks,” his step-mother said.
Aaron laughed softly, tilting his head to the side. “Oh? I thought we agreed that you would tell me first before tendering invitations.” As the Duke, he was now in charge, a fact that his step-mother seemed to often forget.
She toyed with the diamond necklace. “Yes, well, it came around rather organically. Before I knew it, we’d already agreed upon it.”
“Who is it, pray tell?” Aaron asked. He couldn’t see the harm in allowing Louisa to have her way. After all, she had cut back on her spending as he’d requested.
“Lady Whitecier and her daughter, Lady Julia,” she replied.
“Very well.” Aaron had not seen Lady Julia since they were children.
“We’ll be discussing plans for your marriage to Lady Julia,” the Dowager Duchess went on. For a moment, Aaron stared at her in complete shock.
I should have known that it was all a part of some sort of scheme.
“No,” he stated flatly. “You might think that you can manipulate Jack to do your bidding, but I am not your pawn. I am the Duke, now. I choose how my life is going to go.” He had no plans to marry any time soon. It was an inevitability—for his half-brother, Jack, was not fit to take over the title. But Aaron himself was still young. He wouldn’t need to wed until he was in his thirties, at the very least.
“But I’ve already sent the invitation, and they have already said that they are coming,” she said, looking equally as horrified.
Which means I can’t get out of it without looking horrifyingly rude. He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He much preferred his stables, filled with thoroughbred horses, to the ton. When he opened his eyes, his step-mother was watching him nervously.
“Very well,” he muttered. “I can’t insult Lady Whitecier.” Lord and Lady Whitecier were beloved among the ton. Their county seat was very close to London, and they were a very powerful and old family, their title dating back many, many hundreds of years.
“Aaron,” Louisa said, “you must marry and produce an heir, sooner rather than later. Not to mention, an alliance with Lord Whitecier would be most advantageous.”
“As you say,” he muttered darkly.
“Excellent,” Louisa said, standing up, and then walking from the room. “Someday, you will thank me.”
The door closed behind her, but Aaron stayed where he was, staring at the window, where all he could see was the sharp blue of the sky.
He didn’t like feeling like a pawn to anyone. During her tenure as Duchess of Durnsott, Louisa had moved among the ton like a fish in water. She had, undoubtedly, raised the family up in stature. His father had relied upon her prowess.
But Aaron did not. He wanted to do things his way. Louisa was going to have to start accepting that, and soon. Especially, if there was to be a new Duchess.
Aaron suddenly felt as though life were closing in around him, like high walls, which would tumble down on top of him. He tugged at his cravat.
I feel like I’m suffocating.
If Lady Whitecier and Lady Julia were to be on the Dowager Duchess’ side, then Aaron needed someone who was on his side, who would give him unbiased advice. Particularly if he was making a decision that would affect his entire life.
He decided to write a letter to his best friend, Arthur, asking him to come to Myrtlegrove Manor. The Viscount of Mallen was at his hunting lodge in the country. If he asked, then Arthur would come, immediately.
Eleanor ran down to the kitchens after she had finished helping Lady Julia to dress for dinner. She was excited to tell Olivia what she had just learned.
Olivia Betham was Eleanor’s adoptive parent. She was red in the face, and harried as usual. Her bright, white-streaked copper-colored hair frizzed beneath her kerchief. She was in the process of drizzling butter sauce over the fish course: baked cod.
“You’ll never guess the news,” Eleanor said.
“You’ve come to help me dress the salad,” Olivia said, smiling at her, then turning back to drizzling the sauce.
Eleanor moved to drizzle the dressing over the salad, tossing it to coat the lettuce. Olivia was always in a rush to get dinner out on time and still hot. She always needed extra hands, even though the kitchen was packed with help.
“Well, go on—what’s the news?” Olivia asked, grinding a last bit of pepper over another dish, filled with roasted potatoes.
“I’m to go to the Duke of Durnsott’s county seat with Lady Julia,” she explained.
Olivia gasped, her face breaking into an excited grin. She actually stopped what she was doing.
“How exciting,” she said. “Your first time away from Clayriver Manor.” She quickly put the silver cloches over the food to keep it warm. She breathed a sigh of relief. Eleanor stood aside.
“All right!” Olivia said, waving the footmen over. They were all dressed in livery, their hair slicked back.
“Here’s the soup! Get it up there while it’s still hot!”
The footman with the large silver tureen vanished, while Olivia gave a burst of orders to the others, pointing at each dish, and when it was to go. Once done, Olivia breathed a sigh of relief. Dinner was always a large production.
“Will you be all right? With me gone?” Eleanor asked her. The cook chucked her beneath the chin, then placed both of her pudgy hands on Eleanor’s cheeks.
“I’ll certainly miss you,” she replied, “but I’ll manage. Then, when you get back, you can tell me all about it.”
“Go out. See a little bit of the world,” Olivia said, placing her hands on her voluptuous hips. She was breathing heavily after the exertions of putting on dinner for Lord and Lady Whitecier. “You’re old enough to go now. If Lady Julia marries, then I suppose you’ll be asked to go with her.”
“Even if I leave you?” Eleanor couldn’t imagine leaving Olivia. Her constant, steady presence was a balm to Eleanor, who would have otherwise felt very alone and unwanted.
“As much as I would miss you,” Olivia replied soberly. Her hazel eyes were teary, her button nose and round cheeks turning red. She used her apron to wipe at her face. “And I really would miss you. Don’t hold back just for me. I did what I set out to—I raised you up just right, and then if you really want to, then you go out and into the world to get a job or to get married.”
Eleanor’s life had been a quiet one. She had often dreamed of going out and seeing the world—perhaps, looking for the parents who had abandoned her when she was just a babe.
At the same time, her life was there at Clayriver Manor. Olivia had been a very good mother to her, and she didn’t know if she could leave her. She felt a wave of sadness wash through her.
“Don’t you go getting all teary-eyed on me,” Olivia said sternly. Eleanor wrapped her arms around the cook, who patted her on the back. “You’ll have a good time, and come back with stories of all your adventures.”
It was the day that Lady Whitecier and Lady Julia were to arrive. Aaron had been considering this day with dread. He was fully prepared to loathe the entire visit. He had already planned to give Lady Whitecier and his step-mother his regrets.
The family all stood in the drive, their servants standing in a neat line across from them. It was utterly silent. In the distance, Aaron could hear a horse whinnying. He wished that he could disappear into the stables, where it was calm. No one expected anything of him there. He knew just what he was doing.
All the pomp and circumstance. He swallowed nervously, tugging on his cravat, which his valet had tied extra tight, it seemed. The sun was hot, beating down mercilessly.
Aaron knew that he was going to have to play the kindly, attentive host, when all he wanted to do was to vanish into the stables. His half-brother, Jack, laughed beside him.
“What?” he demanded, glancing over at him. Jack had the same blue eyes and brown hair as all of the other Ayles’. He didn’t look much like Louisa.
“You look like you’ve sucked on a lemon,” he said. “Honestly, if you go around with a face like that, you’ll scare the poor lady away.”
Aaron smiled at Jack, making a face at him. Though related, they were complete opposites. Jack was easy-going—and easily manipulated. However, people tended to gravitate toward him, while Aaron himself was a forbidding presence, at times.
“Terrifying.” Jack pretended to shudder.
Louisa was frowning at the both of them. She was dressed in a black-and-cream striped silk gown to greet the guests, her hair in a neat, elegant bun. Her fingers were sparkling with rings. The Ayles Family heirloom diamond necklace was at her throat. It had been purchased in the 1600’s, and had large pear-shaped stones that glittered impressively in the sunshine.
The carriage pulled down the drive. It was a sleek black carriage, with Lord Whitecier’s coat of arms emblazoned on the side in crimson and gold. The horses were two perfectly matched black Norfolk Trotters.
Though he typically would have been very excited to see and discuss such a fine pair of horses, Aaron’s dread only grew at the sight. Already, he was tired of all of the posturing—the pretending to be civil, all while wanting to escape. He didn’t want to marry a lady that his step-mother had hand-picked for him.
The carriage came to a stop, and one of the footmen jumped down off of the back, opening the door. Aaron stepped forward, offering his hand to help first Lady Whitecier, and then Lady Julia down.
“Lady Whitecier,” he said, bowing over their clasped hands. “It’s good to see you again.”
“And you as well, Your Grace,” she replied. She was fair haired, blue eyed, an older version of her daughter. “I cannot thank you enough for inviting us to Myrtlegrove Manor. This is my daughter, Lady Julia, whom you have met before, though long ago.”
Like her mother, Lady Julia was fair haired and blue eyed. She was dressed in a light blue, with a cream bonnet—as pretty as a painting. She smiled at him kindly. He held out his hand, which she placed her gloved one in.
“My Lady,” he said, bowing low. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Your Grace,” she replied, curtsying. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”
“It has been a very long while,” he said. For he only remembered her as a child. She had grown into a very beautiful lady.
Behind the ladies, two ladies’ maids had climbed down out of the carriage. One was a stern-looking older woman. The other caught his eye. She was uncommonly beautiful. She had dark-brunette hair, and ethereal green eyes. Her chin was sharp, and she seemed almost one of the fey folk, albeit dressed in a plain gray maid’s uniform with a white pinafore over the top. When she raised her eyes to meet his, she glanced away.
His step-mother had already whisked Lady Whitecier toward the house. Jack was trailing after them, leaving Lady Julia and Aaron a small way behind in a move that felt calculated. He looked at her and smiled.
“What a difference ten years makes, Your Grace! I wouldn’t have recognized you,” she said, and they both laughed. He glanced toward the maid, noticing that she had a book, tucked underneath her arm.
“Nor I you. Did you have a good journey, My Lady?” he asked Lady Julia, offering her his arm. She tucked her hand into the bend of his elbow.
“It went very well,” she replied. “Eleanor and I were saying that the rolling hills out this way are uncommonly green.”
“Is that so?” he asked, glancing at the lady’s maid, who smiled easily.
“I have nothing to compare it to, Your Grace,” she replied. She lowered her gaze, blushing. Aaron was surprised by how aroused he felt when he beheld that blush on her pretty face. He couldn’t help but notice how her tall, slender form even made the plain maid’s uniform look elegant. He cleared his throat, looking away.
“It is Eleanor’s first time away from my Father’s manor,” Lady Julia supplied.
“Welcome to Myrtlegrove Manor,” he told her. Eleanor had fallen into step beside them, though she was on the other side of Lady Julia, for which he was relieved.
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
“We do live practically in London,” Lady Julia stated. “We don’t often see rolling hills of green. It’s very flat, unless you count all of the buildings.”
He found that Lady Julia was not anything like he’d expected. She seemed intelligent and kind. She seemed to be on very good terms with her lady’s maid.
But it was not Lady Julia who captivated him. It was her maid. An impossible conquest, particularly for a future Duke. He shook it off. He needed to consider Lady Julia seriously. Perhaps his step-mother had found him a good match in an Earl’s daughter.
Eleanor parted ways with Lady Julia and the Duke in the foyer. When she looked up, the ceiling was three stories high! It was a cupola, made of glass, through which light poured through. She had never seen a thing like it—the glass was joined together by what looked to be gold fittings, shaped in the form of a globe. It glittered in the light.
The butler cleared his throat. Eleanor gasped, and lowered her gaze.
“Sorry, Sir,” she mumbled. He raised an eyebrow. She glanced over at Mellicent, who was Lady Whitecier’s lady’s maid. She was older, and less dazzled by the sight of Myrtlegrove Manor. She made Eleanor feel clumsy and inexperienced.
“Please avoid the main staircases,” the butler told them both. “Those are for the family and the guests only.”
“Of course,” Eleanor murmured.
“The footmen will bring the trunks in,” the butler said. “I will show you to your ladies’ bed chambers so that you can do the unpacking.”
He led them into a door, set into the wall. Behind it, there was the servants’ hallways and staircases.
While they walked, Eleanor didn’t look about her. She didn’t want the forbidding Mr. Stanley to catch her gawking at the house any more than she already had.
She felt simple there. She had never seen so fine a home before. It was even fancier than Clayriver Manor, which boasted some impressive features. But that house, to Eleanor, was familiar. This one was not.
Eleanor had been shown to Lady Julia’s bed chamber, where she waited for the footmen to bring up Lady Julia’s things. The ladies had gone to have tea with the Duke, his brother, and the Dowager Duchess.
Lady Julia’s bed chamber was papered in yellow silk. The furniture was made of cherry wood, which was set off well with the wallpaper. The window, when she peered out of it, looked over all of the grounds.
The door opened, and she whirled around, feeling like she’d been caught. The footmen deposited Lady Julia’s trunks, then left, barely giving her a glance.
Chastised, she began to unpack, hanging the dresses up in the cherrywood armoire in the corner. They hung there, like many colored ghosts, waiting for their spirit to inhabit them.
Eleanor recalled that Lady Julia wanted her peacock-blue gown to be made ready for her to wear to dine that evening. She needed to make a good impression on her potential husband and mother-in-law.
Eleanor moved quickly, setting a fire in the fireplace, and heating up the iron. She smoothed the dress out, then hung it up on a peg on the inside of the door of the armoire. She extinguished the flames, then made sure that all else was prepared—her mistress’ things were in order, ready for use. Her shoes lined up in a neat row. Someone had already fetched water in the ceramic ewer set by the basin.
Everything in order. How comforting, when all the world seems so large.
She had seen the way that Lady Julia had smiled at the Duke of Durnsott. It was clear that she was enamored of him. His Grace had seemed very kind. He was certainly handsome, with his sparkling-blue eyes, high cheekbones, full lips. He wore his light-brown hair pulled back in a low pony tail.
Eleanor had noted the way that he had taken notice of her. She had felt—something, though she couldn’t have said what that feeling was. A little flutter, in the bottom of her stomach.
I have never seen a gentleman so comely before. Perhaps that’s all.
Eleanor decided to go down to the servants’ quarters. She needed to eat something before she would be needed to help Lady Julia dress for dinner. As soon as she walked down the hallway, she realized that she had no idea where she was supposed to go. The hall was dimly lit, and seemed to stretch onward in either direction.
I came from the left, did I not?
She began to walk. Mr. Stanley had told her where the servants’ hallway was. It had been hidden behind a doorway. Now, she realized—all of the doors looked the same. All of them were shellacked in cherry, all of them neatly lining the hall, uniform in their sameness.
The most horrifying thought that occurred to her was that should she try the doors, she might open the wrong door, thus coming upon someone who belonged there, and didn’t expect to be walked in on. Her stomach did a nervous flip.
She made her way through the halls, where she found the main staircases, with no problems. However, she wasn’t sure that those would lead her to the kitchen. She dreaded the thought of becoming even more lost than she already was.
This house is so big that I could be lost for days.
Her heart was pounding in her chest. She thought that she had already seen this hall—she stopped, glancing at the portrait of a woman in a white dress, staring down at her.
Yes, I’ve seen you before.
She continued on, hoping that she might run into someone, who could show her which door was the one that she was looking for. Everything looked the same—the walls were all a dark-crimson wallpaper, with oil paintings of people and landscapes. The same red-and-gold bordered carpet covered the floor.
“How do they navigate this house?” she muttered under her breath. She found that, again, she was standing in front of the woman in white. She exhaled, then turned around.
“Are you looking for Lady Julia?” a male voice asked.
She whirled, to find the Duke, looking at her quizzically. Her pulse raced as she looked into his handsome face, those blue eyes. An unfamiliar feeling, like warm sunlight, pooled in the bottom of her belly. “I’m sorry, Your Grace,” she gasped. “I didn’t hear you approach.”
Aaron had been just returning to the parlor after visiting the water closet, when he’d come upon Lady Julia’s maid. She was clearly lost. He felt awful for startling her, but the carpet had muffled the sounds of his steps.
“I’m looking for the servants’ quarters,” she replied, blushing. “I believe I’ve gotten hopelessly lost.” She bit her bottom lip in a way that gave Aaron pause.
“I can help you there,” he said, thinking of pulling her into one of the many corners along the hallway, pressing his body against hers as he plundered her lips with his own.
“I don’t want to be a bother. Mr. Stanley showed me the door, but…I’ve forgotten which it is.”
“Not at all, come. I will show you.” She followed after him, and he was all too aware of the distance between them, not only in space, but in terms of power, as well. “The staircases are hidden,” he explained, opening the door and showing her the servants’ staircase. It was lit by windows at the ends.
“I never would have found it on my own.”
“It’s the one beside that ghastly portrait,” he said, pointing to the painting of some thrice-great grandfather. It was a horrible one—he was pasty-faced, with a voluminous white wig, and a black mole on his cheek, which might have been fake.
“I think I can remember him next time,” she said, smiling, those tantalizing green eyes lighting up. “Thank you, Your Grace.” She curtsied to him, then began to turn away. He found that he didn’t want her to go…not just yet.
“What is that book?” he asked, curiously, using it as an excuse to step nearer to her. She untucked the tome from underneath her arm, looking at it tenderly.
“It’s Mansfield Park,” she replied.
“Indeed, Your Grace.”
“And why do you like her works?” he asked, studying the way that she beamed, and how his own lips curled upward to reflect her happiness.
“Because she says that anyone can find love,” she replied. “Anyone at all.”
He looked at her, as if he were seeing her for the first time. He paused, clearing his throat. Love was the one thing that Aaron Ayles, the Duke of Durnsott did not believe in. He had lingered too long. He needed to return to the parlor.
“The servants’ quarters and the kitchen are two floors down,” he said. He paused, looking at her. “They’ll be wondering if I got lost myself.”
“Thank you again, Your Grace,” she murmured, curtsying again.
“My pleasure,” he replied, then turned and strode away. He exhaled, opening and closing his fists as he walked. Nothing could come of it. Particularly since she believed in such a naïve thing as love.
Eleanor’s cheeks were still burning after her whole embarrassing rescue by the Duke. She made her way down the stairs, where she found the servants’ dining room. It looked almost exactly like the one at Clayriver Manor. She relaxed, finally feeling like she was where she belonged.
A woman, dressed in all black, with a keyring at her hip, came out of one of the offices off of the hallway.
“You must be Lady Julia’s maid!” the woman said.
“I was just coming to look for you! We were wondering where you’d gotten off to. I’m Mrs. Fallmire, the housekeeper,” she said. “Come in, I imagine that you’re starving after your journey.”
“Yes, Ma’am, thank you.”
She was shown into the dining room, where there was a side table. On top of it, there was a soup tureen, a basket filled with freshly baked bread, as well as a pot of tea. There were plain cups and bowls beside this.
“It’s such a large house, that we have meals in here for the servants to take as they are able,” Mrs. Fallmire explained. “You can expect breakfast starting at six.”
Eleanor dished herself a bowl of soup, with some bread, then got herself a cup of tea. When she brought it to the table, Mrs. Fallmire smiled at her.
“If there’s anything you need, just let me know.”
“I will, Ma’am.”
She then bustled off, leaving Eleanor to her meal. There was a young man, of about five-and-twenty, sitting across from her. He lowered his paper. “You’re from London, then?” he asked.
“I am, yes.” She spooned a bite of soup into her mouth.
“With Lady Julia?”
“So, then you might be coming here to work?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course you do,” he said. “If she’s to marry the Duke.”
“It’s not my place to gossip,” she replied, wishing that he would stop trying to glean something from her.
Giving her a look of disappointment, he lifted his paper again. “As you please,” he replied.
Whatever his name was, Eleanor didn’t much care for him. She opened her book, then read while she ate her luncheon.
The tea had stretched on, throughout the afternoon. Aaron had been relived when his step-mother had finally declared that they should all part, to get some rest and change for dinner. His mind was full. He wanted to think over what had happened. He went to his room, where he sat down in the armchair by the fireplace.
Since it was summer, the fire was not lit. He stared at the empty hearth, where someone had placed a decorative vase, filled with peacock feathers. Lady Julia was perfect for him in every way. What bothered him was that underneath that surface, he felt nothing.
Perhaps, not yet. You’ve only met her.
However, he knew. There would never be any feeling. Not after his heart had been torn into pieces by Lady Antonia Chatsworth, years before. Aaron didn’t believe in love at all. And so, a match which seemed perfect on the surface was the best he could hope for.
Lady Antonia had taken Aaron’s heart and torn it out of his chest. She had been so teasing, so seductive toward him. Her father had allowed the courtship between them, but had then changed his mind. Instead of fighting for the love that Aaron had thought they’d shared, Lady Antonia had seemed to gladly wed the other Duke that her father had chosen.
It had left Aaron with no room for love. He considered Julia. Considered how elegant and proper she was. She would make a proper Duchess, a devoted and loyal wife. And yet, he found himself thinking idly about the maid—Eleanor. She had been so sincere, when she spoke of love. He envied her that belief—that hope.
He shook it all off, then got up, and rang for his valet to come and help him dress.
After changing, Aaron went down to supper. He was dressed in his tail suit, which was coal black, a nice white shirt, his best shoes.
In the withdrawing room, he poured himself a glass of scotch. He was the first there, for which he was glad. His thoughts had been so scattered, he warmed to the idea that he could have a few moments to gather himself.
The door opened, and Jack entered.
“Got one for me, Old Man?” Jack asked. He was only seven years younger than Aaron. Sometimes, the age difference felt much larger. No duty was lain down on Jack’s shoulders when their father had died prematurely. He had gone on as he had been—focusing on his schooling. Meanwhile, Aaron had had to take control over the estate.
“Of course,” Aaron replied, pouring a few fingers into another glass.
“So? What do you think of Lady Julia?” Jack wondered aloud, taking a sip.
“She’s not what I expected,” he replied.
Jack beamed. “Mother will be pleased to hear that.”
“I’m sure that she will. Which is why you mustn’t tell her.”
“Why not? Isn’t it good news?”
“Can’t I figure it out for myself before she starts congratulating herself?” Honestly, was nothing a secret? He had often felt jealous about the close relationship between Louisa and Jack. While Aaron had been close with his father, his mother had passed when he was young.
“Very well,” Jack said, pouting a little. “I’ll keep your secret.”
The ladies all entered then in a cloud of brightly colored silks, and glistening jewels.
As usual, the Dowager Duchess took Lady Whitecier aside, and Jack wandered off, leaving Aaron standing beside Lady Julia. She was resplendent in a peacock-blue silk dress. Unlike Lady Whitecier and the Dowager Duchess, she wore only a single strand of pearls.
“How do you find your quarters?” he asked her, playing the attentive host.
“Quite comfortable, Your Grace,” she replied. “My maid said that you helped her find the servants’ hallway. Thank you for helping Eleanor. I cannot bear to think of her, wandering the halls lost.”
“It was my pleasure,” he replied. “If I didn’t know the place so well, I’d surely get lost as well.” He was curious to know more about the enchanting maiden who had never been anywhere before.
“She’s very bright. And kind,” Lady Julia added. “Since we’re so close in age, and she needed employment, it was the natural conclusion. She’s very good at what she does. I’m very fortunate to have her.”
“I’m sure,” he replied.
“We were playmates when we were young,” Lady Julia said, smiling. “It takes quite a lot to get Eleanor down. She’s always so happy.” She sighed. “I wish I could bottle up a little of her joy.”
They both smiled at each other. His curiosity was piqued, but just then, the gong rang for dinner. He offered Lady Julia his arm, and together, they walked into the dining room, which was lit up. As they entered, Mr. Stanley appeared, and behind him, was Arthur.
“Your Grace,” Mr. Stanley said. “Lord Felton has arrived.”
“Arthur!” Aaron said, pleased to see his friend. “You’re late!”
“Much apologies, Your Grace,” Arthur replied. “I came as soon as I could.”
When Aaron turned toward the company to make introductions he was met with a look of displeasure on his step-mother’s face. It gave him pause, wondering if she was about to speak out against Arthur. Her eyes met Aaron’s.
No, he thought, daring her. This is my house. My rules.
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