About the book
She wears masks beneath masks, until he unveils them...
Hidden under a mask, Lady Emily James makes her dreams of singing reality. Her rebellion does not go ignored when her uncle forces her to marry a man she doesn’t love to save her home.
Framed for fornication and with his dignity stolen, Jonathan Hargreaves, Duke of Blighton, has spent years fighting for a fresh start. When he meets an enchanting masked singer, it suddenly becomes hard to maintain control.
But where love flourishes, pain is never far behind. The glint of a blade is all Emily manages to see before darkness engulfs her and Jonathan is left to face the most unlikely enemy: a letter that promises to kill and take...
“Oh, Rosa.” Emily sighed and watched her lady’s maid in the mirror as she puttered around the room.
Emily James was the daughter of the late Earl of Langston, and at twenty-years old she had become an independent young lady with a love of reading and a passion for singing. She had a loving soul, and she treated everyone with a kindness that she wished to receive in return. Although sometimes shy, she had a fiery nature that she would reveal when necessary, and she stood up for what she believed in.
Her bedroom was opulent, with a large bed covered in beautiful pink-silk bedspreads. The walls were lined with a pale-blue wallpaper, the details picked out in gold. It suited Emily perfectly—a sea of calm with irresistible splashes of color.
“Shall I braid your hair for you, My Lady?” Rosa asked, smiling down at Emily as she sat in front of her dressing table. The large, oval mirror was tilted to provide just enough light, and the legs of the cream-colored table curled decoratively on themselves. It was littered with all manner of trinkets, including a silver-backed hand mirror and a box for her jewels.
“Please do, Rosa,” Emily said, managing a weak smile. She sighed deeply and looked in the mirror. Rosa began running her fingers through her silky locks of golden hair. “You know, Rosa, all I’ve ever wanted to do is sing.”
“Yes, My Lady, and you’ve got such a beautiful voice. Like no other I’ve heard.” Rosa picked up the silver-backed hairbrush and started smoothing out Emily’s gentle curls. It was perfect compared to Rosa’s own dirty-brown ringlets that she’d hastily shoved under her bonnet.
“Thank you, Rosa. You always know how to make me smile.”
“No need to thank me, My Lady. I only speak the truth.”
“Did anyone ask for me while I was away last night?” Emily asked.
“No, My Lady,” Rosa said and smiled into the mirror. “How was the theater?”
“Oh Rosa, it was wonderful, but please—let’s not talk about it. I know you understand how important it is that this does not get out.”
“Of course, My Lady.”
They lapsed into a companionable silence as Rosa carefully brushed through Emily’s hair. Eventually, Rosa spoke.
“Look at yourself, My Lady. You’ve got such a beautiful face to match that lovely voice of yours.”
Emily twisted her neck this way and that, taking a long look at her face in the mirror, then she let out a bark of laughter. It was somewhat harsher than she intended, but the notion of beauty irritated her. Indeed, even she could admit she was beautiful. Her heart-shaped face had a delectable roundness to it, and the porcelain white of her skin was brightened by the permanent flush to her cheeks. But she didn’t care for it.
“What a shame it is I have to hide one of them,” Emily said, wrinkling up her pert nose in the mirror. “Though really, I don’t see why everyone believes beauty to be so important.”
“If beauty is not important, My Lady, then what is?” Emily rolled her eyes at her lady’s maid. Rosa had been in Emily’s employ for many years, and they had become something of friends. She accompanied Emily everywhere, and Rosa knew her better than anyone.
“You know I don’t care one dot about being beautiful.” Emily pursed her bright pink rosebud lips, then laughed. “All I want is to sing! Just imagine it.” She whipped around to face her lady’s maid, causing Rosa to jump back and laugh. Emily grinned, her eyes twinkling with the possibilities.
“Imagine what, My Lady? Please turn around or I can’t do your hair how you like it.”
Rosa was a petite young thing, and just a year older than Emily at one-and-twenty. Her olive skin had a smattering of freckles along the nose, and her dark-brown eyes shone bright with intelligence. She leaned over and tried to brush back Emily’s hair from the front, laughing as Emily ducked out of the way.
“Imagine if I could sing at every soiree in town,” Emily said. She leaned toward Rosa, eager and full of joy, and her words tumbled out in excitement. “It’s the beginning of the season. If I started now, I could sing at every ball and every opera house. I could sing every single day—”
“Indeed, you could, My Lady,” Rosa laughed, hairbrush still raised in the air.
“Just think. If everyone knew me, if they could all see me and hear me, I could…” Her smile slipped, and she bowed her head. As her words faded away, a gnarled knot of discontent formed in her chest, and her eyes became heavy with all the things that could not be.
“You could what, My Lady?” Rosa asked. Emily noticed the contrived jollity in Rosa’s voice, and she silently thanked her lady’s maid for always trying so desperately hard.
“Except I couldn’t, could I?” Emily gazed into Rosa’s eyes for a moment, then turned back to face the mirror. Rosa stepped forward and began stroking Emily’s hair again, her sympathetic eyes flicking to Emily in the mirror. “I can’t do any of that because my uncle won’t allow it.” She let out a sob and buried her face in her hands. “Oh Rosa, what am I to do?”
When her parents, the Earl and Countess of Langston, had died just five years before, Emily’s guardianship had been passed to her father’s brother, Lord Andrew James, the Earl of Crawford. She had begged him to let her sing, but time and again he refused, as she was to be married to one Edward Hargreaves, the Marquess of Durnley. Her uncle was a dear man and she cared for him deeply, but he had forcefully arranged this betrothal and she was devastated by the prospect.
“Oh, My Lady, please don’t cry,” Rosa said as she knelt next to Emily and smiled up at her. “It’s not all bad, is it? Soon you’ll be married to the very handsome Lord Durnley, and that’s certainly something to get excited about.”
Another sob shuddered through Emily and she cried into her hands.
“I don’t want to be married,” she said, not looking up at her lady’s maid. Marriage was the last thing she wanted—and a marriage to Lord Durnley was even worse.
Yet if she didn’t marry Lord Durnley as arranged, she would lose the only home she had ever known. Langston Manor, at the outskirts of London, had been her father’s house and the house she grew up in. It still managed to take Emily’s breath away—but she would lose it if she did not do as her uncle wished.
“Here My Lady, don’t be like that. You’ll be the Lady of your own house soon. And you’ll have a beautiful gown, you’ll have a husband to look after you, a little bonny baby or two. You’ll have—”
“No freedom!” Emily interrupted, finally looking up at Rosa. Her sky-blue eyes were an ocean of tears and her lips quivered with the effort of composing herself. “That’s what I’ll have, Rosa. No freedom.”
Rosa looked at her sympathetically then said, “Doesn’t every lady dream of marrying a handsome gentleman, My Lady?” Emily leaned back in her chair and sighed deeply.
“I don’t,” she said, somewhat truthfully. “I don’t want to marry at all, but alas, my uncle forbids me to remain unwed and he has arranged this betrothal without a single thought to what I want.”
There had been a time when marriage had seemed such a wonderful thing, a time when Emily had been so happy, so hopeful of the future.
She’d had her heart broken not once, but twice: first when her parents died, and then by the man she loved. She buried her thoughts of him, refusing to let him affect her again.
Rosa stood from her crouching position and gently pulled Emily’s hair to her back. After a few soft brushstrokes, she separated the hair into three strands and began to braid.
“It’ll be all right, My Lady. Honest it will.”
“Thank you, Rosa. I know you mean well, but I just…I just wish I could run away and live the life I want. Perhaps in another country, where I could sing to my heart’s content every day for the rest of my life.”
“All done, My Lady,” Rosa said.
“It looks lovely, Rosa,” Emily said, pulling the loose braid over her shoulder. Rosa had left a few wispy tendrils of blond hair framing her face, just as Emily liked it.
“Would you like to take a turn in the garden, My Lady? It’s a lovely day.”
“Thank you, Rosa, but no, not right now. I think I’d like to read a while. Why don’t you take some time to yourself?”
“Thank you, My Lady,” Rosa said, and curtsied before turning to leave.
Emily meandered to the library, her thoughts leaving her steps lilting and slow. He was a true gentleman, the Marquess of Durnley. Emily knew that; there was no denying it. But did she want to marry him? She knew, also, how much it would hurt to be torn from Langston Manor, and that was reason enough not to marry him. Still, it was not the life she had envisioned.
The scent of gravy and cooking meat wafted through the halls as she started down the carpeted staircase, her hand resting gently on the polished bannister rail. Her stomach twisted uncomfortably. Food was the last thing she could think about with her mind in such turmoil. As she reached the entrance hall and began to tiptoe toward the library opposite, the cellar door swung open and a scullery maid scuttled out, a heavy load bundled in her arms.
“My Lady,” the scullery maid said with a brief nod as she dashed across the room toward the kitchen. Her sleeves had been rolled up to her elbows, and her face was bright red with effort.
“Amelia,” Emily said, nodding her own short yet friendly reply. She had made a special effort to remember the servants’ names, after seeing the offhand way her uncle treated them.
Emily entered the library, then closed the door quietly behind her to lock out the flurry of noise. She immediately felt its calming influence. The library looked out over the gardens, the room awash with sunlight that flooded in through the double windows and caused dust motes to float lazily in the air. The walls were lined from floor to ceiling with rows of bookcases, and each shelf was carefully arranged with leather-bound tomes. There was everything from books on business and books on nature to novels and poetry.
She murmured happily as she slipped a volume from the shelf and sat on one of the cushioned window seats. She sat with her back to the window frame so she could see both the books and the gardens just beyond the delicately draped muslin curtain. This was her favorite place in the house, the one spot she could escape to. She felt at peace in the library, and she loved to leap into the pages of a book, letting the story wash over her and clear away her woes.
She pulled open the book to her marked page, the cerise-pink ribbon bright against the yellowing pages, and began to read. She had barely read a paragraph before she found her gaze wandering to the bright colors of the sun-washed garden. She laid the book in her lap, still open, and breathed deeply.
In the cloudless sky, she watched as the birds dipped and swam their dance of freedom. She imagined their birdsong, bright and joyous as it rang through the air, and thought of her own conundrum. Not having the freedom to sing was painful, but Lord Durnley was not a bad match, her uncle was correct about that.
Indeed, he was rather a fine gentleman. Always polite and friendly; certainly handsome, and he had the means to care for her. She had, as her uncle had pointed out, known him for almost all her life. He was a perfectly acceptable match and yet, she did not love him.
And what is marriage without love?
A life without love, a life without singing; the thought was more than Emily could bear. Once married and a Lady, no less, she would not be permitted to entertain the crowd at the Opera House, she was certain of that. Lord Durnley would surely not allow what her uncle had not, and it would be improper anyway.
“What am I to do?” she muttered, raising her eyes to the ceiling as though in hope of finding the answer from the heavens. She looked back out at the garden—the birds and the trees and the colors, and she made a decision.
With a decisive nod to no one but herself, she closed the book, laid it on the mahogany side table, and stood. She brushed off her long, cream cotton skirt and looked down at her daintily slippered feet. Then she marched back to her rooms in search of Rosa and to get herself properly attired. They would go where Emily always went when she needed cheering—to the home of her good friend, Lady Mary Swanson.
Jonathan Hargreaves, the newly titled Duke of Blighton, watched through the coach window as they trundled up the long gravel drive of Blighton Estate. He recalled over the times when, as boys, he and his brother would scamper around those very trees, chasing each other in the summer sun. The memory made him smile. He hadn’t expected to be back so soon—if ever.
He had received word that his father was dead. A fit of apoplexy, they said. It had been sudden, unforeseen, and the Duke had not had time to name his second son as his successor. Thus, it fell to Jonathan, the eldest of the Hargreaves sons, to take the ducal title at the age of seven-and-twenty. Not only was it unexpected, but Jonathan wasn’t sure he even wanted it.
Not that I have a choice now.
He sighed and looked up as the house loomed large in front of them. The low privets directly in front had been meticulously tended, their edges sharp and accurate. The house itself was grand in gray and white brick, four large windows on each of the levels, and three dormer windows sprouting proudly from the roof. Smoke billowed from one chimney as the kitchen staff went about their day, but the other remained still in the summer heat.
The front door opened and the butler stepped out, the crunch of the wheels as the coach came to a stop alerting him to their presence. Jonathan thought he saw a flash of shock across old Fletcher’s’ face, but he composed himself quickly and tottered down the steps to greet him.
“Your Grace,” Fletcher said, bowing low as Jonathan climbed out of the coach. “Welcome home.”
“Thank you, Fletcher,” Jonathan said, handing over his hat before they’d even entered the house. It had been a long and arduous journey. “Is my brother home?”
“Yes, Your Grace, he’s in the drawing room. I shall take you to him immediately.”
Jonathan knew that, as it was his own house, he did not need to be taken, but Edward would be terribly surprised to see him, of that he had no doubt. His return had certainly not been guaranteed—it was thanks to the persuasion of his good friend that he was there at all—and he hadn’t sent word of his arrival. Besides, Edward had used the Estate as his home for many years, and Jonathan thought allowing Fletcher to announce him would be for the best.
Jonathan was a tall man and, as always, he carried himself with an air of propriety and pride. His broad shoulders topped a muscular frame, and he kept his beard neatly trimmed. His raven-black hair was pristine and fell in just the right places, despite his journey and his hat, and his smoky-gray eyes told of a wise old soul.
As they mounted the steps and went into the house, Jonathan looked around as though truly seeing it for the first time. When, two years before, he had been embroiled in scandal and sent away by his father, he never expected to return to this house—let alone own it. He shrugged off his coat and handed it to Fletcher, then continued into the entrance hall.
He maintained that the scandal was not his fault. He had most certainly not cavorted with a married lady, as they all believed. He had been framed; he was sure enough of that. His father had not believed him, of course, but even if he had, Jonathan understood he needed to limit the damage to the family name. Jonathan had joined the military instead and learned to accept that this would never be his destiny.
How wrong I was.
Fletcher knocked on the door to the drawing room, then twisted the knob and let himself in.
“My Lord? Your brother, the Duke of Blighton, has arrived.”
“My brother? The Duke?” Jonathan heard the shock in Edward’s voice as he stepped around the door frame, his footsteps on the oak floor loud and clear in the quiet of the drawing room.
“Good morning, Edward,” Jonathan said, a vague and uncertain smile on his face.
“Jonathan! I…goodness.” Edward’s eyes were wide in shock, and his bottom jaw bobbed up and down almost humorously as he searched for words. Jonathan chuckled.
“It’s good to see you too, my dear brother.” He smiled at Edward’s reaction.
“No, I…It’s good to see you.” Edward gushed a sigh of relief and finally jumped up to greet his brother.
It seemed to Jonathan evidently feigned, and he felt a twitch of irritation. His brother, of all people, should have been pleased upon his return, unless of course he thought the title as good as his. Jonathan was sorely tempted to renounce his inheritance here and now, merely to enjoy the look on Edward’s face.
“Do sit,” Edward said, indicating the couch in front of them. “I should tell Mrs. Miller there will be an extra person for dinner this evening. And for the foreseeable future? Would you like a drink? How have you been?” Edward strode to the drink’s cabinet and opened the door.
“Brandy, please. And no.” Jonathan shook his head and hitched up his trousers as he sat. “I’ll stay here tonight, but then I’ll go to the Hyde Street townhouse. Right now, I need to be in London to deal with business and become re-acquainted with, well, just about everything.”
Their father’s primary residence had been Cobblestone House in Hyde Street, so named for the cobbles lining the square in front of it. It was situated in the center of London, from where the Duke could easily attend business meetings and soirees in equal measure, and it was a stone’s throw away from all the best places to be.
Jonathan expected he would follow suit now and spend most of his days in London, but travel to Blighton Estate for weekends and long breaks. Edward had been living at Blighton and helping his father ever since Jonathan left, and Jonathan could see how settled he was there.
“Indeed,” Edward said. He pulled a decanter out of the cupboard and poured a glass both for himself and for Jonathan. He handed Jonathan his, then sat back on the couch, his expression an odd mix of surprise and anxiety.
“You’re welcome to stay here, of course,” Jonathan said, reading his brother’s concern. “I know that, technically, it is now my estate but this has been your home for a number of years now. I don’t have an issue with you remaining here until you find something more suitable.” He took a sip of his brandy and sucked in air after it, the burn pleasant in his throat. How he had missed good liquor.
“Yes, thank you, Jonathan. That was a worry. So, tell me, what adventures have you had in the past few years?”
“Oh, you know. I’ve been around the world and back again,” Jonathan said, his lips twisting into a smile as his thoughts took him back to those days. “I’m not saying it was always easy—it wasn’t. But it was exciting. I’ve seen many wonderful things and met a great many wonderful people during my time with the military. In fact, my dear friend, Thomas Windsor, will be joining me in London.”
“Oh yes?” Edward looked curiously at Jonathan, then took a sip of his own drink.
“Yes. He’s a self-made man. Brought himself up through his intelligence and cunning. An excellent investments man. He’ll be helping me with business for the time being.”
“That’s wonderful, Jonathan. I’m so glad you have someone you can rely on. He was in the military, too, was he?”
“Yes. We met in the colonies. Now there’s a place you should visit if ever you have the chance. How different it is to dear old England.”
“I’d love to,” Edward laughed, then looked into his brandy glass. “I doubt it would be possible though, not now Father has died. Things will be rather different around here, I expect.”
“Indeed,” Jonathan said. “How about you? How have the years treated you?”
“Nothing nearly as exciting, I’m afraid.” He looked back up at Jonathan, a resigned smile pulling at his lips.
Why is he not happy I am back?
“I’ve been helping Father run the Estate but since his death, nothing much has happened. When I’m married—”
“Married?” Jonathan asked, his voice high in surprised. “You’re getting married? Why, congratulations, how wonderful. I’m surprised you didn’t tell me straight away.” Edward paled, and Jonathan could see the flicker of panic that ran through his eyes.
“Y-yes, but enough about that.”
“Oh, come on, Edward. There’s no need to be shy with me,” Jonathan teased. “Who is your betrothed?”
Edward took a deep breath and looked up to the ceiling.
“Edward?” Jonathan probed, his own anxiety rising. “What is it?”
“My betrothed,” he said almost breathlessly and looked back down to face his brother. “My betrothed is Lady Emily James.”
The silence buzzed through the air and neither moved as they stared at one another. Jonathan’s eyes roved over his brother’s face in search of…in search of what? Humor?
“Lady Emily James?” Jonathan asked eventually, breaking the tension in the room.
“Y-yes. I hadn’t meant to tell you like—”
“The Lady Emily James? The one I had once declared my love to? That Lady Emily James?”
“Yes,” Edward replied. “Look Jonathan, it’s not as it seems. I—”
“Well,” Jonathan said. He breathed in through his nose, his lips pressed firmly together, and he stood. “I wish you both the very best. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am very tired after the journey here.”
“Of course. Will I see you at dinner?” Edward asked, rising from his chair as Jonathan turned to leave.
“No, I don’t think so. Please tell the cook I wish to take my dinner in my rooms. I really am quite tired and—”
“I understand, Jonathan,” Edward said with a nod.
The carriage slowed as it bumped over the cobbles, coming to a stop in front of a row of townhouses. Mary’s house was in the very middle of the row and stood a little taller than the other houses in the street, a proud maître d’ shepherding its guests.
At twenty years old, Mary was the same age as Emily, and they had grown up together as the best of friends. She had dark hair to Emily’s blonde, and a round face that became fuller as she aged. She was beautiful, in her own way, but she paled in comparison to Emily, a fact that she teased her friend about mercilessly.
Her poor mother had died in childbirth and so, she had grown up in the care of her father and a nursemaid whom she had cherished every day. It had been a year since her father also passed, his heart stopping on the anniversary of his wife’s death, and Mary was now under the guardianship of her brother, Anthony Swanson, the Earl of Dinsdale.
She was young at heart and laughed often, her cheerful nature compelling, and yet she felt every emotion deeply. When in distress, it was all she could think of, and it was all those around her could think of too, for she erred on the side of melodrama. As Emily’s closest friend in the world, she loved her like a sister, and they had promised to be friends forever.
“Thank you, Caleb,” she called to Caleb Rake, the footman, as she alighted the carriage, holding her skirt at her ankles to ensure she didn’t fall. “I shan’t be too long.” Rosa followed quickly behind her, gathering up her own skirts. She flashed a quick smile to Caleb, then jumped down the carriage steps to stand next to her employer.
Once on the pavement, Emily straightened her bonnet. Curls of golden blonde hair were perfectly placed around the sides of her face, while the braid had been wound into the hat. Her cotton, empire-line dress was ruched at her breast and around her arms, and the skirt draped gently around her curves. A parasol dangled from her hand, along with her matching reticule.
She looked up at the house, a sense of relief at being so close to her friend flooding through her. It was then that she noticed the large brass doorknob turning and the door being pushed open. She heard the laugh of a gentleman—or maybe even two—and then, scampering merrily down the steps, she saw a man. She gaped as she bit at her bottom lip.
A tall, handsome stranger—Mary does have a lot to tell.
She took a step forward, a smile on her face, and Rosa mirrored her movements a pace or two behind. The man on the steps finally looked up, and Emily gasped, a hand flying to her chest in surprise. She felt the heat rise on her face, her breath shallow.
What is he doing here?
At the sight of him, she felt the familiar tingle run up her spine, making her shudder in pleasure. He had made her feel like that the very first time they had met, and it had continued ever since. The sight of him sent shivers through her, and as their eyes met, she found herself licking her lips. He was so, incredibly, handsome, and she craved to run her fingers through that raven-black hair. The effect, it seemed, had not lessened in his absence, and she let out a juddering breath.
Four years earlier, they had declared their love for one another, and her heart had leaped for him. But it had ended just two years later, when he had betrayed her. He had left her broken hearted and yet, as he scurried down those steps, still her heart fluttered for him. She felt her chest heave and she held her breath.
“My Lady,” he said sharply and with barely a nod. He glared at her briefly before climbing into his coach, tipping his head forward so his hat didn’t catch on the top.
She turned and watched as the coach pulled away, a hand still to her chest and her eyes wide with both surprise and desire.
“Oh,” she whimpered, and she silently willed her heart to still the pounding.
“Shall we go in, My Lady?” Rosa asked, guiding Emily toward the steps.
“What? Oh, yes, of course Rosa, let’s do that.” As the coach trundled out of sight, Emily ran up the steps as quickly as she could.
Mary was in the breakfast room enjoying a cup of tea, when the butler knocked on the open door. Emily peered through, eager to see her friend, and she suppressed an amused smile when Mary jumped, her teacup rattling in its saucer.
“My Lady, you have a visitor. Lady Emily James.”
“What a lovely surprise!” Mary replied, panting a little from the sudden disruption. “Do send her through, thank you.”
“Mary,” Emily said almost breathlessly as she blustered through the door. Her eyes were wide, and she could feel tears beginning to brim.
“Emily, dear, is everything quite all right?” Mary placed her cup on the lace covered table and stood to greet her unexpected visitor. “What’s happened?”
“You’ll never guess who I’ve just seen!” Emily’s heart still thumped in her chest, although the attraction she had felt upon seeing him was coiling itself into anxiety.
“Who, dear? Do sit down.” Mary guided Emily to her seat, then returned to her own. Straight backed and with hands clasped in their laps, they faced each other for a moment, both with surprise registering across their faces. Mary had barely noticed Rosa, who quietly sat in the corner and reached into her bag for her embroidery.
“Shall I pour you a cup of sweet tea?” Mary asked eventually, her tone slow and wary.
“Yes, thank you, Mary,” Emily said.
The teapot was decorated with bright red roses that matched those on the delicate teacups. The small round table was covered with a white cotton cloth and was accompanied by two hard-backed chairs. Behind Emily, the window was draped in heavy damask, and the light fell on the couch in front of it. To their left, the fireplace was unlit for the house was warmed by the sun, and Rosa sat in the armchair in the far corner behind Mary, quietly counting her stitches.
Mary stirred a little sugar into Emily’s cup.
“I’m sorry to bluster in like that. I meant to call on you to cheer myself but I—”
“Now then, Emily, my dear friend,” she said with a deep sigh and a gentle smile. “Start again, will you?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, of course. I saw him. You know, the one who…Coming out of your house!”
“The Duke of Blighton. Yes. And?”
“Duke?” Emily asked curiously, then remembered his father had recently passed away. Still, she needed more of an explanation than that. “What was he doing here?” she asked, still hadn’t touched her tea.
“Why Emily, you know the Duke and my brother have long been friends.” Mary looked at her friend with concern. “They have been reminiscing over old times all morning. We were all frightfully surprised to find him back in London after, well, you know.” Mary sipped at her tea, watching Emily carefully over the rim of her cup.
“Of…of course,” she replied. “I hadn’t thought he’d take the title—”
“Well, he is the oldest son,” Mary said, head tilted to one side, cup still held in both hands, each little finger jutting rigidly to attention.
“Well, yes, indeed, but after the scandal, I just thought…” She trailed off, staring into the table in front of her. Lord Durnley had told her that he would be the one to take the dukedom from his late father, since his brother had been sent away.
Mary sighed and patted her friend’s hand.
“Oh Emily, do you still—” Emily looked up suddenly. She was still perched on the edge of the seat, as though ready to jump up again at any moment.
“No, of course not,” she protested, her eyes fierce with passion. “Not after…It’s just, he once told me he had no interest in the dukedom. I’m rather surprised he came all this way to take the title when his father passed, God rest his soul.”
Hadn’t he also told me he loved me, though?
He had indeed declared an undying love, only to break it two years later. At six-and-ten years old, she had been too naïve and trusting.
How foolish I was to believe him.
“Well,” Mary mused. “It seems he’s here to stay. I—”
“Oh my,” Emily gasped. Her fraught expression switched to one of hope, and she giggled at the idea. “This means that Lord Durnley will not, as we had previously thought, become Duke.”
“No, of course not, Emily.” Mary shook her head in confusion.
“Don’t you see what that means, Mary?” Emily’s eyes sparkled as she looked pleadingly to her friend.
“Whatever are you talking about?”
“It means that, perhaps, my uncle will annul my betrothal to Lord Durnley now.” She looked up at Mary hopefully. “I mean, the only reason Uncle Andrew agreed with the late Duke that I should marry Lord Durnley was because it was the right thing to do after the scandal. That, and because he was in line for one of the most prestigious dukedoms in England but now—”
“But now he won’t receive the title!” Mary giggled with glee as she understood Emily’s delight. She finally put her teacup down, clattering it against the saucer excitedly. “Oh, Emily dear, I do so hope for your sake that you’re right.”
“Me too,” she laughed. She settled properly into her seat, although not being so improper as to lean back and relax.
“We should celebrate,” Mary declared. She leaped up and dashed from the room, leaving Emily blindsided by the sudden movement. When she returned, she stopped in the doorway and held in her hands a small white box. “Sugar plums!”
With a squeal, she ran back to her seat and placed the box of candies at the center of the table, carefully pulling back the delicate pink tissue paper.
“Aunt Ophelia sent them. A Christmas gift. I’ve been keeping them for a special occasion and this certainly seems to fit the bill.”
“Thank you, Mary—and thank you Aunt Ophelia.” Emily peered over and wiggled her fingers as she decided which to pick. She popped it into her mouth and moaned with delight as the sugar coating melted on her tongue, slowly revealing the almond inside.
“Oh Mary, they’re positively delightful,” she said with a grin. “Thank you. You are a good friend.”
“Well, we had to somehow celebrate your perhaps-not marrying Lord Durnley,” she giggled and selected another sugar plum.
“I just hope we’re right about this,” Emily said, her face darkening slightly.
“Surely we are,” Mary said, sugarplum plucked between her thumb and forefinger. She licked delicately at the outside, the delight at such a rare treat evident in her eyes. “Your uncle wishes to see you married to the best possible match, and now that Lord Durnley won’t be receiving the title…well, there are better matches now, aren’t there? You’ll be free of him, and he’ll be free for the rest of us.”
“And what of love?” Emily pleaded. “What of that?”
“I fear our guardians do not think of love,” Mary said wistfully. “I wonder often if they have ever felt the emotion themselves.”
“You know, Mary,” Emily said, licking the last of the sugar from her lips and picking up her tea. “I do believe I could quite happily never marry. I would much rather sing, instead. That is my one true love.”
“I understand,” Mary said. She nodded kindly at her friend and smiled. “But the only way you’ll ever get to live that life is if you run away.”
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