About the book
So dark, so deep, the secrets that you keep…
Eleanor Stanley, daughter of the Duke of Brisdane, is certainly not the apple of her father’s eye.
Rebellious and blatantly outspoken about her dislike for the hypocrisy of the ton, she’s earned herself not only a bluestocking reputation but also the nickname ‘Lady Disdain.”
Aaron Bravolt, Duke of Oberton, never expected to catch one Lady Eleanor sneaking a servant child out at night in order to spare her from her father’s wrath. But his determination to decrypt the puzzling lady has consequences he couldn’t have foreseen.
With his own assets under attack by a mysterious adversary, Aaron has only eighteen hours to discover what really happened to the Duke of Brisdane’s late wife and to keep Eleanor from being taken away from him forever.
Who was going to break the stony silence first? Her or her father? Thank God the carriage was dark enough so she could barely see him. It was not a comfort though. If she could see him, she had no doubt there would be a dark glower on his face. The tension in the air of the carriage was heavy.
The ball that Countess Heatherdale had put on was the second-to-the-last affair of the London Season, a season where Eleanor had successfully managed to dissuade many would-be suitors. As the last of the season was to come, she counted it as a triumph, but if the stiff stoniness from her father was any indication, clearly, he did not.
On their way from the Countess’ St. John’s Wood manor to their palatial home in Mayfair, Eleanor did not dare try to peek around the thick navy drapes to see where they were, but she was desperate to escape this silence. It ate at her skin and her mind had tripped into overdrive.
What is he thinking? What is he going to accuse me of? What is he going to order me to do?
“You have disappointed me, Eleanor,” her father’s deep gravelly baritone made her jump. “Just like you have been doing for the past four months since the season started.”
Seeing as the London season had begun in late January and it was now May, her father had been noticing her behavior and had been holding in his anger for almost four months.
“Father, I— ”
“Do you not understand the reason for attending all the balls and soirées, Eleanor?” Her father’s comment was rhetorical. “It is not all dancing and merrymaking, it is for to you to find a fitting husband, and tonight, you have turned away no less than five respectable suitors.”
For good reason! None of them had a lick of common sense, Eleanor wanted to shout but did not dare speak back to her father when he had not finished speaking.
“Eleanor, you are ten-and-nine,” the Duke said tightly. “If you do not give these suitors a chance, how are you going to get to know them and then progress to courtship? Or do you aim to be a blue-stocking spinster like Lady Mariotte Delancey?”
Lady Delancey was the daughter of a duke but she had never given anyone her hand in marriage. Now, at the age seven-and-thirty, she was mockingly monikered the ‘Nun’ by the whole ton. While some progressive-minded people lauded her for keeping her individuality, many others scorned her as a pariah of society.
More importantly, though, she was mentioned as a scare tactic used by many mothers to intimidate their daughters into marriage by reminding them of what contempt they would suffer after passing the marriageable age.
“That is not fair, Father,” Eleanor said stiffly. “I did exactly what I was told to do. I danced and then conversed during the break of the sets. It is not my fault that none of my partners had a grain of novelty in their dialog.”
“Eleanor,” her father’s voice had dipped to a warning tone. “Not every man is interested or even knowledgeable enough to debate the semantics in Shakespeare's Comedies or reflect on what is happening in the colonies.”
“And I must be interested in what steel is best for swords or which cigar is best to not give lung troubles?” Eleanor replied while keeping her voice as calm as possible.
“It would not hurt to pretend,” her father censured. “Eleanor, there is one more ball, the Greyson’s, and I implore you, even if the conversation is tedious, use your prodigious imagination and just play along.”
And lose my integrity in the process. Eleanor fumed, I will not downplay my intelligence to pander to any man.
“If you think that is the best course, Father,” she eventually replied.
Turning her eyes to the softly-swaying curtains, Eleanor was acutely aware that her father knew she had not given him a definitive answer. Her words gave the impression of her compliance, but they did not assure it. And, in truth, she had no intention of pretending to be what she was not to get a husband.
If she had to suffer spinsterhood for the rest of her life, so be it. No glittering jewels, grand manors, vacation homes in France, or the scribbling of Lady so-and-so on paper was worth the sacrifice of her integrity.
The stifling silence continued between them until they arrived at their Mayfair home. The house, situated on meager ten acres of property was a little small for a Duke and his servants but it served its purpose. They had moved to this property mere months after her mother, Elizabeth, had died seven years ago. During the mourning period, her father had stated that their home in his county seat of Brisdane reminded him too much of Elizabeth, so they had packed up and left.
However, for the duties of his station, her father traveled frequently to the dukedom and stayed there sometimes for days, even weeks, on end. When he did go, he left her under the guardianship of Miss Malcolm, an old family friend and her chaperone.
“Welcome home, Your Grace and Lady Eleanor,” their butler, Mr. Ambrose bowed.
“Thank you, Ambrose,” Eleanor said as genially as she could while removing her shawl. Her father, on the other hand, just gave the man a curt nod and stalked off.
She traced the butler’s wondering gaze and apologized on behalf of her sire, “You must excuse him, Ambrose, we had a little disagreement coming home.”
Mr. Ambrose’s smile was tight, “I understand, my lady, do you need me to send your usual tea to your chambers?”
“I would really appreciate it,” Eleanor said. “Thank you, Ambrose and good night to you.”
She turned away to face the undeniable proof of her family’s wealth. Crystals dripped like northern icicles from the grand-tiered chandelier overhead, and the golden light of its candles was flickering over the checkered marble floor underneath.
Ahead of her was the grand staircase. The twin arms of the gleaming mahogany stairwell elegantly rose to commence on a median landing, where two opposite walkways led to the separate wings of the house.
Sighing with exasperation at how the night had ended, Eleanor climbed to the landing and took the east corridor to her suite of rooms. She entered the first one, a modest sitting room with a chaise lounge and wingback chairs surrounding a coffee table and an escritoire. The hearth was dying down and its light flickered over the book-laden shelves she had persuaded her father to build there.
Passing through, she entered the bedroom and spotted a familiar head of brown hair bent over while the young child, not even two-and-ten, was stroking the fire higher.
“Be careful, Maria,” Eleanor said. “The coals are hot.”
“I’m careful, my lady,” the young servant replied as she retracted the iron poker and closed the iron grate. She then stood and curtseyed, gripping the thin cloth of her mud-brown skirts in worn hands. “How d’you do this night, my lady?”
Smiling, Eleanor took out her handkerchief from her reticule and softly wiped off a line of soot on the poor girl’s face. “I am…as usual, Maria, tired of going to all these balls. But Father is all set on getting me married off. I suppose I must play along.”
The servant girl looked confused, “Why is it so troubling, my lady? Wouldn’t it be good to have your own husband?”
“Because—”the men I meet have nothing in common with me and are boring as white soup, “it’s complicated Maria. But things will play out eventually.”
“I am sure you’ll be happy someday, my lady,” Maria said quietly, “I think you’d be a wonderful mother too.”
“Speaking of,” Eleanor asked, “how is your mother?”
“Still a bit ill, my lady,” Maria replied while her hands twisted in her drab dress. “She’s a bit better after she took the medicine the doctor you sent gave her. Thank you for your help.”
Eleanor had never seen Maria’s mother but one day she had caught the child crying and had asked her what was wrong. Through tears, Maria had explained that her mother was sick to her stomach and she did not know how to help.
Immediately, Eleanor had sent for her physician and directed him to go help Mrs. Briks. She had even paid for the woman’s medicine out of her pocket. Thankfully, her father had been off to Brisdane at that time and had not been able to censure her about it.
“I’m glad,” Eleanor smiled. “Now run along, it’s past your bedtime.”
“Do you not need my help disrobing, my lady?” Maria asked.
Tutting, Eleanor shook her head, “I’ve been dressing myself for a long time, Maria, but thank you for the offer.”
“Good night, my lady,” Maria said.
Seeing her go, Eleanor sighed as she took off her shoes and massaged her stocking-clad feet. The poor child. I wish there was more I could do to help her.
There was a knock on her door and a maid, Polly entered, “Your tea, my lady.”
“Thank you, Polly,” Eleanor replied. “Set it on the table there and good night to you.”
When the maid left, Eleanor nimbly unlaced her corset, did away with her petticoat and the stays. Exchanging her stiff chemise for her softer one and donning her nightgown, she unpinned her auburn hair, brushed it out and then went to make her cup of tea. With the steaming cup in hand, she went to sit by the window seat and stared out into the night's sky.
The gibbous spring moon was high in the sky and the tiny stars around it twinkled brilliantly. Her younger self had imagined that one of those heavenly beings was her mother and that the bright flashes it gave off were Elizabeth’s way of saying she was being watched over.
Blowing the silvery steam away from her face, Eleanor took a sip and sighed, “I wish you were here, Mother…I miss you every day.”
As far as Eleanor could remember her mother, Elizabeth Stanley, Duchess of Brisdane had never been ill a day in her life. Then when she was two-and-ten she had come from visiting her friend Amelia to find her father telling her that her mother was gravely ill.
Grimly, she had watched the doctor leave her mother’s room with a staid face and white lips. From the very look, she had known the pronunciation but not wanting to believe it, had fled to the stables to cry. Later that very same day, her father had tracked her down and reported grievous news, her mother had died.
“She suddenly fell ill, Eleanor,” her father had explained, “There was not much we could do to help her.”
For a while Eleanor had believed him but then seeing his actions in the days and years that followed, she had started to doubt him. Not once had he mourned for her mother and he had restricted her from going into her room and his study. Her father had not shed a tear at his wife’s funeral and a few weeks later, declaring the house too much of a reminder of her, had packed them up and moved away.
“I wish you could tell me what happened to you, Mother,” Eleanor sighed. Just like I wish I could trust Father, but I can’t. Not anymore anyway. He has become…a stranger to me. He never was warm or loving but now he is excessively cold and demanding. Nothing pleases him anymore—not even me—and he is a tyrant.”
She stared at the light amber liquid of her tea. “And furthermore, he is pushing me into courtship and marriage. Mother, I have not met someone who I can truly connect with…I doubt he even exists.”
Frowning into her bland tea, she stood and went to add another dollop of milk. “What if I have already met him and I don’t know…” she took a moment to think it over then snorted, “If I am the next Lady Delancey, so be it.”
The Dukedom of Oberton
The Barvolt Mansion
Only a few lamps were lit in the flickering dimness of the Duke of Oberton’s large, high-ceilinged study. The light rendered the gilt-framed paintings of Aaron Barvolt’s forefathers a dark burnished gold and gave a strange ochre sheen to the leather furniture near it.
Lining the walls were tightly-clustered shelves of books and at the very far end was a dead hearth. In the middle of the room was his wide wooden desk which was mere feet away from the large sash windows he was standing in front of.
Aaron stared blankly out into the dark gardens before him, absently noting that the skeleton shape of the willow trees swaying in the breeze and the dark mounds the hedges created an eerie picture. In the dark solitude, Aaron felt as if the weight of the word was laid upon his broad shoulders.
From handling the various cares of the dukedom that his father had left him and managing the trade ship business that his dearly-departed uncle had left him, Aaron sometimes felt like he was drowning. His advisors and steward were a great help, but they could only do so much and, ultimately, every decision was left to him.
Lately, the most troubling decision he had to decide on was the issue of marriage. He had to find a wife soon. Turning around he went to sit on the leather wingback and tapped his knees. Instantly, his two Irish Wolfhounds bounded over to him and dropped their paws on his knees.
“Icarus and Erebus,” Aaron smiled as he scratched them both behind the ears. “Missed me, did you boys?”
The dogs’ wet noses eagerly rubbed into his dry palms and he chuckled, “Sorry, no treats now, but I will remember next time.”
Icarus, with his light coat, sank down to his haunches where the dark-haired Erebus, named after the Greek god of the night, stayed balanced on his back legs. Ruffling the large dog under his muzzle, Aaron sighed, “Be glad that no one is forcing you to find a mate, but your master must do so.”
“You may enter, Harold,” Aaron called to his inherited butler. The septuagenarian had served his father and his grandfather before him, but despite the frequents entreaties for him to retire, Mr. Charles Harold refused.
“Your usual nightcap, Your Grace,” the butler said while depositing a tray of warm wine on the table. “I must add that your valet, Mr. Stanton, has been suddenly been called away.”
“The reason, Harold?” Aaron asked while stepping over his faithful hounds.
“A family matter, Your Grace.”
“Ah,” Aaron acknowledged while pouring out his wine. “Then I suppose the job of arranging my outfit to Lord Greyson’s ball tomorrow evening must be left to you.”
“I would be happy to, Your Grace,” the silver-haired man replied. “But I must admit that the fashion of your generation befuddles me. What man wears pants so tight they can be mistaken for a second skin?”
“Dandies, Harold, dandies with their blue powdered wigs,” Aaron laughed in his wine. “Which if you ever see me don, please call the men from Bedlam to institutionalize me.”
“Your Grace,” the butler’s voice had gone thoughtful. “I do not want to press you, but you do know that your partners are looking for you to choose a bride this season.”
“I know,” Aaron sighed.
“Have you gained an attachment to any young woman?”
Had it been anyone else who had asked that question Aaron would have quickly censured it for being too bold, but seeing as Harold had been a second father to him for many years, Aaron respectfully replied.
“Sadly, no,” the youngest Duke in England grimaced.
“Your Grace, do you think you would initiate a marriage of convenience?” Mr. Harold opined.
“And lose out my chance for real love?” Aaron shook his head. “I do not think so. I know she’s out there, Harold, but I’ll be damned if I can find her.”
“Perhaps you are looking too far,” the butler added. “Maybe she is closer than you think.”
Peering over his glass, Aaron spoke, “I sense that you trying to tell me something. What is it?”
“A connection with Lady Brisdane,” Mr. Harold offered. “The last time you met, I think she was impressed by you.”
The scornful laugh Aaron almost made would have Harold feel insulted, so he swallowed it down instead. “I think you mean repulsed, Harold. The first time we met I was one-and-twenty, she was fifteen, freckled-face and—”
“Where you told her she was a tomboy,” Mr. Harold inserted only to make Aaron scowl.
“—and even after completing my degree, I spent another two years at Oxford studying trade laws and regulations. When I came back to take over from father two years ago, I gained a distinct feeling that she did not like me.”
“Perhaps it was because that was the time you told the young lady, of seven-and-ten I believe, that she was spoiled,” Mr. Harold concluded.
Aaron grunted, “Was I wrong? She looked at me like I was mud under her shoes. It is now no secret that Lady Brisdane disregards all men of her class which I why I have avoided her these last months. I suppose she is holding out for a prince of a foreign land or an Indian Maharajah to court her.”
“Perhaps,” Mr. Harold inserted. “But Your Grace, take my foolish advice, try to connect with her tomorrow night.”
Aaron was reaching out to refill his glass when Harold’s words settled on his mind. “You really think there is something there?”
“If you pardon my forwardness, Your Grace, you have not seen her for over four years and rumors do not paint a full picture of a person. Even if she has gained a reputation for refusing suitors, you may be the one to find out why. Moreover, your families are not enemies, so I do not expect a gruesome recreation of the Capulet versus Montague situation.”
Aaron swallowed over a sudden lump in his throat. “That is not a pretty picture.”
“And I have it on good authority that her freckles have disappeared,” Harold added.
The man was not subtle, was he?
“I’ll consider it.”
“Do you have a specific suit for tomorrow, Your Grace?”
“If she is what they say, perhaps the very same suit that I wore to my Aunt Beatrice’s funeral.” Aaron drawled. His failed attempt at humor was met with a withering look. “Fine, fine, I’ll leave it to your discretion, Harold, but I know she’ll not accept my apology much less an offer for courtship.”
“I beg to differ, Your Grace,” Harold said calmly. “I will see to your suit for tomorrow.”
Scratching under Icarus’ jowls Aaron smiled ruefully, “So, I am tasked with winning Lady Eleanor over, a task worthy of Hercules himself...how much would you wager that she is going to spit in my face tomorrow night, considering she hates my very existence?”
As this party was the last of the ton’s affairs, Eleanor was decided on two things—firstly, be so subtle in dissuading any of the men who tried to speak to her that they did not suspect they were being put off and secondly, avoid those who were smart enough to suspect it.
A few names were on that second list, the principal of which was one annoying and aggravating Duke that she would rather not even think about, much less name.
The hosts, Viscount and Viscountess Greyson received her and her chaperone, Miss Malcolm with strained grace. And the strain was for good reason. Lady Greyson’s son, Anthony, had been one of her suitors until she had found him nothing but a cad pretending to be an honorable Oxford-educated man.
“Lady Eleanor and Miss Malcolm, welcome to our humble abode. How wonderful it is to see you both, especially you Lady Eleanor.” The hostess’ smile was forced.
Really, after the scathing dismissal I had given your son Anthony, I believe you would rather see my grave than see me.
“Thank you, Lady Greyson, it is my pleasure to be here,” she smiled tightly with the pleasantry. Oh, how she hated saying things she did not mean.
“May I ask, where is your father?”
“He’s away on business,” Eleanor replied. “You know, the never-ending duties of a Duke. But what a divine necklace you have.”
“My dear husband bought it from Rundell and Bridge’s for our anniversary,” the lady’s fingers ran over the emerald stones while looking over to her spouse of over twenty-odd years, an ex-military man who still stood with the same formal bearing.
“Marriage is such a wonderful thing, dear.” Her smile then grew sweetly condescending. “In fact, our Anthony is now engaged to Lady Hannah Collings, you do know her dear, the daughter of the Prince Regent’s main advisor?”
“Faintly,” Eleanor’s smile was sympathetic. Why did this woman believe that she would be sorry for losing out on her scoundrel of a son? Anthony was no prize, and in fact, she felt sorry for Lady Collings.
“Oh, and what a wonderful dress you have dear,” Lady Greyson complimented.
“Thank you,” Eleanor replied.
The ivory gown she wore was simple but stunning. With a square neck and nipped-in waist, the skirt of pale ivory flared subtly at her hips. The white gloves she wore accented the paleness of her dress and so did the white ribbons that caught up the hem of her skirt in regular intervals. Her dark red hair, deep enough to be termed auburn, was in a graceful chignon with a line of seed pearls threaded through the coiffure.
“Well, it is wonderful to see you,” Eleanor’s tone denoted the end of their forced pleasantries. She’d rather be pulling her teeth out without laudanum than be speaking to these hypocrites.
She knew they did not like her, what mother would after her brutal rejection of their son, but it was foolhardy to disrespect the child of a Duke. “But we are holding up the line. Please, excuse us.”
“Of course, dear.”
Walking off, Miss Malcolm murmured in her ear, “That was uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable is an understatement,” Eleanor said through her smile while she nodded to Lord and Lady Northvale. Near the refreshment table, she spotted two women who she had met at prior balls. Miss Billings and Lady Sutherland, were dressed in equally hideous shades of pale mauve taffeta and garish watery lilac respectively.
Eleanor flicked up her fan and rolled her eyes when both of them cut their eyes at her.
Just as haughty as I expected.
The moment Lady Eleanor had stepped into the ballroom, Aaron’s green eyes had been drawn to her. Her pale ivory dress was like a beacon of steadiness in a room where the riotous mix of bright and brilliantly patterned colors was wreaking havoc on his eyes. It was the first time he had allowed himself to deliberately see her in over four years and she had blossomed into a beautiful young woman, he grudgingly noticed.
“Ah, Lady Eleanor of Brisdane has arrived, or should I say Lady of Disdain.” Marquise Norwood sneered. “I’d give a hundred pounds to the man who breaks her in.”
Contempt soured Aaron’s chest as he saw the level of scorn the Marquise aimed at the lady. His contempt grew to anger when he saw the mirroring looks from the other gentlemen and his lips thinned to a hyphen, “She is not a stubborn filly, Norwood.”
“In case you don’t know, she has a reputation, Oberton,” the man snorted. “Any man that nears her is treated to a glare, a thinly-veiled insult and then a curt dismissal. She is already a termagant at such a young age. Even men with the pockets of Croesus cannot break her shell.”
Aaron looked back over to Eleanor and watched her go through the room he keenly observed how she angled away from people who neared her. It was as if she was subtly telling them to stay away.
Perhaps the rumors of her snobbishness are true.
“See that?” the Marquise prodded. “Look at how she treats Lord Hendrickson.”
He continued to watch her, and her lips thinned while the lord in question was talking. Lady Eleanor, Aaron knew was not a lady who suffered fools and was educated enough to not fall for the pretense of intellect.
“The other day, I heard that Lord Vale had begun a conversation with her about the Roman conquests in the Battle of the Medway and she corrected him with every word,” a new voice joined, this came from Earl Camden, a young Earl only a year Aaron’s senior.
“Mayhap for good reason. You must know that the fluff they teach women these days is not enough to fill a teacup. She has chosen the path of brilliance,” Aaron said while snagging a flute of champagne from a passing footman. “Or is that a crime I have not realized is now punishable by derision?”
“It is if you cannot get one word in,” said Marquise Norwood. “What man actually likes airs like that?”
“Do you gents possibly think that it is the men who approach her that are the problem and not her?” Aaron inquired. “Can you really blame the lady for having standards?”
The three lords gaped at him in shocked silence before Camdyn broke it, “Are you her champion, Oberton?”
“Not in the slightest but our families are acquainted,” Aaron replied.
“Then it should be you,” Norwood declared.
Aaron coughed slightly, “Beg your pardon?”
“You,” Norwood smirked evilly. “If anyone can get her to heel it would be you.”
Aaron wondered how on earth he had gotten to this point. Yes, he had come to get on Lady Eleanor’s good side, but this approach was far from the one he had planned.
His green eyes shifted from one man to the other, “Are you gents mad?”
“Remember when I said I’d give a hundred pounds to the man that reins her it?” Norwood added. “Good sir, I would give you a thousand pounds to do it.”
Aaron scoffed, “I do not want your money.”
“Then consider it a gentleman’s wager,” Camdyn said. “And Norwood, I will throw in my hat for five-hundred pounds if Oberton can not only rein her in but make her fall in love with him.”
“I’m in for another thousand,” a third voice added but this time Aaron went stiff. It was the voice of Duke Wyndrake, a patronizing peer with a sickening attitude and beetle-black eyes who was the resident thorn in Aaron’s side since he had inherited his dukedom.
“In fact, I raise my hand to five-thousand,” the Duke’s dark eyes were lit with maliciousness. “Prove us right or wrong, Oberton.”
“I do not accept,” Aaron’s words were firm. “And if this what you gentlemen do, wager and treat ladies like cattle to be haggled over, I can see why Lady Eleanor despises you lot.”
“So, it’s only Lady Eleanor now,” Wyndrake grinned. “It seems to me that you have more than an acquaintance, rather a history.”
“Which is none of your business,” Aaron said tightly. “Excuse me. I need some fresh air.”
Striding out from the room to the nearest balcony, Aaron reined in his temper. Despite how Lady Eleanor was, no one had the right to malign her. It galled him to discover that this level of malice was what men who felt inferior to a lady resorted to.
No wonder Lady Eleanor hates us…hell, I am tempted to hate us too.
“Oh,” a voice said. “My apologies, I do not want to intrude.”
Turning, Aaron’s eyes landed on the same person he had been contemplating for the last five minutes and wondered if fate had decided to punish him that night. Lady Eleanor Stanley stood there in the half-light and he gave her a disarming smile.
“No, no you aren’t. I am pressed to ask how can one interrupt a man and his glass of champagne?”
“I meant your woolgathering, Your Grace,” Lady Eleanor said aloofly. “I personally hate it when my train of thought is broken so I will leave you be.”
“No…wait a moment.” Aaron placed the delicate glass on the smooth balustrade and propped an elbow behind the flute. Peering at her under a half-mast gaze, Aaron could see that Harold was right, her freckles had gone and her once roundish, childish face had matured and slimmed.
“You’ve grown,” he commented.
Her shoulders went back, and her stance stiffened just as her voice did, “So have you.”
Aaron blinked slowly and then laughed, “Drop your spear and shield Lady Valkyrie, I am not here to fight.”
“And neither am I,” she inclined her head. “So I will leave.”
Aaron waited until she had turned and had stepped away before he spoke, “One would think you hate me.”
Lady Eleanor spun and her wide eyes showed her surprise, “Why would I hate you?”
Aaron pinned her with his eyes, “What other conclusions could I have come to? I met you twice and the look in your eyes both times told me you were not fond of me.”
Eleanor snorted delicately and Aaron found her wrinkled nose absurdly cute, “What other resort did I have after being insulted to my face, not once but twice? Your look nor your words at either time were complimentary. I was first a tomboy and then I was a spoiled tomboy.”
Aaron frowned, “And at the last, you called me a pedantic misogynist. Is it that we have misjudged each other all these years?”
“You tell me,” Eleanor’s words were stiff. “Do you still dislike women?”
“Do you still scorn men of your rank, like me?” Aaron replied crossly.
Her thin sculpted eyebrow rose, “It is not only you, Your Grace, so get off your high horse.”
“But clearly I am one of them,” Aaron shot back.
“Yes, you are one.” Lady Eleanor snapped. “It is men and women who have money and power but no heart or soul. I have realized that most of our class are hypocrites, appearing perfect but are heartless in reality.”
“And you believe yourself to be the paragon of virtue,” Aaron replied. “You come from money, Lady Eleanor, whatever curse you think we share applies to you too.”
“That’s where you are wrong,” she advanced on him with her eyes glittering like foxfire. “I am nothing like you or my Father.”
Aaron was deeply disturbed by her words and took a chance to reach out and lay a hand on her arm. “Lady Eleanor…are you trying to tell me that your father is harming you—”
“No!” she said as forcefully as she could while trying to be quiet. “No…nothing like that, and don’t go assuming anything of the sort.”
“But you think all men are like him,” Aaron concluded as the distressed look in her eyes bothered him. “That all men have something to hide and that we are all hypocrites?”
Lady Eleanor softly pulled away, and her eyes were guarded, “Aren’t you?”
“Lady Eleanor!” the aghast whisper of a lady came from the doorway, came from the doorway. “My lady, this isn’t proper!”
“I know Miss Malcolm. I know. I was just about to leave,” she said while not moving her enigmatic glance from Aaron, but then she dipped out a graceful curtsy. “Goodbye, Your Grace.”
Aaron watched her walk away, only to be corralled into the shelter of her chaperone’s gaze. He stood there on the chilly terrace, feeling disturbed for two striking reasons: the beautiful arches of Lady Eleanor’s cheekbones and the glimmer of the pearls in her hair, while she curtsied, had entranced him; and, secondly, what was wrong in the Stanley house? Was Duke Brisdane cold and distant to his daughter?
More importantly, though, he realized that he, and everyone else, had been wrong was about Lady Eleanor. It was not that she didn’t like men, she just did not know them. And moreover, on account of the precedent her father had set, it did not seem as if she was aiming to know any of them.
“Well then,” Aaron realized while shooting back the rest of his drink. “I guess the only remedy is to show her.”
The whispered sermon on acts of propriety that Miss Malcolm was giving her went in one ear and out the other. The heiress to the Brisdane dukedom was more concerned with the disconcerting meeting she had just had with the Duke of Oberton.
“Do you understand, my lady?”
She had no idea what Miss Malcolm had lectured her about, but she pretended she did and waved her acquiescence, “Yes, yes, I do.”
Taking a seat near the dancefloor, Eleanor reflected on what had transpired between her and the Duke. He had certainly grown, that was obvious. His green eyes seemed calmer, more…attuned and decidedly wiser, but what shook her was his voice. It was deep and resonant with the quality of deep water, calm and steady but with a powerful undercurrent.
Oxford has certainly matured him.
“Yes, Miss Malcolm.”
“The first dance is about to start and—”
“My card is empty,” Eleanor surmised.
“It is not but…I cannot explain,” her chaperone said while handing over the card and Eleanor opened the leaf. Instantly, her eyebrows shot up to her hairline. Though her card was signed with Lord Lancaster’s name first, nestled into the middle was another card, with the name Aaron Barvolt, Duke of Oberton written on every line.
Her first impulse was to get cross, surely this was a jest, but looking up she saw him not too far away with another flute of champagne in his hand. He was talking to some gentlemen. While her eyes held his, she plucked out the insert and held it between two gloved fingers so he could see it, his lips curled and then he lifted his glass to her.
“Lady Eleanor?” Miss Malcolm fretted.
“It is nothing, Miss Malcolm,” Eleanor said while secreting the lone leaf into her reticule and handing the card back to her chaperone. “Please, think nothing of it.”
Eleanor’s focus was now solidly on the Duke of Oberton. What did he mean by sending her a card with only his name on it? What was he trying to prove?
The orchestra musicians were taking their seats and Miss Malcolm hurried over to her. “My lady, Lord Lancaster is your first dance.”
For once, Eleanor was too mired in her own thoughts and did not resist when the lord, a handsome young man with deep grey eyes came to claim her for the dance. The ladies on the dancefloor were a medley of brilliant butterflies, a strong contrast to their darkly-clad gentlemen counterparts.
“Thank you for dancing with me, Lady Eleanor.”
She blinked, was the dance over already? Then she flushed seeing that there were only getting in line, “It is my pleasure, Lord Lancaster.”
Two hours of dancing and polite conversation passed pleasantly enough but with every passing dance, she expected the Duke of Oberton to be her next. He wasn’t. Every time a dance ended, and she returned to her seat, she felt like the card he had signed was burning a hole through her reticule.
Was the Duke just playing with her?
The last dance was approaching and with it, she let the last strands of hope that Barvolt was next partner to flutter away. Her hand closed over the reticule and a soft sigh left her mouth.
She forced a smile on her face. “Lord…um, forgive me, Greenville was it?”
“I am a bit fatigued,” Eleanor said. “Would you mind if we sat this dance out? I know it’s the last one and if you are set on dancing you are free to choose another partner if you’d like. I wouldn’t mind.”
“No, no,” the lord’s hazel eyes were genial. “I am rather tired myself. Would you care for a refreshment, my lady?”
“Yes, thank you,” she held out her hand and was graciously helped up. Crossing over to the refreshment table, Eleanor spotted Duke Oberton who was flashing a dazzling smile at some blonde-haired lady.
Turning away, she shook off the soft pang of disappointment and followed her escort to the room. She took a seat and smiled bleakly when the lord poured her a glass of champagne.
For a man who was trained to act strategically, Aaron wondered if he had gone temporarily insane by giving Lady Eleanor’s chaperone the card with his name on every line. What had he been thinking?
It was an act with no solid reason behind it and in the last two hours, he had failed to come up with one. Now though, as the last dance was about to begin, and he saw her go into the refreshment room with some lord, he was regretting his actions.
Knowing their history, the lady must think him jeering and tasteless. Why had he sent the card? Why?
The quizzical brown eyes of Lady Smith—or was it Smithson?— peered at him. “I am sorry, My Lady, my inattention is not your fault. Our conversation was lovely but please excuse me.”
She looked put off but nodded. He bowed to her, and Aaron went to the refreshment room. As Lady Eleanor was turned toward him, she saw him first but did not acknowledge him.
“Ahem,” Aaron cleared his throat. “Lord Greenville, I apologize for interrupting you so callously, but may you give me a moment with Lady Eleanor?”
The lord’s eyes darted between Lady Eleanor and the Duke but then did the sensible thing, “Is it acceptable to you, my lady?”
Eleanor's lips were pressed, “I will accept it, but only for a moment. Please do not be far, Lord Greenville. I do not expect this to take long.”
“Very well, my lady,” he bowed and walked out while leveling a warning eye at the Duke. Aaron’s left eyebrow danced up in incredulity—did the man think that kitten glare was somehow intimidating?
“Lady Eleanor, I believe I have left you with the wrong impression when I gave you the card.” Aaron approached her but stopped merely two feet in on account of her expressionless look.
“No,” she replied coolly. “I know exactly what you meant. I know that I have made a name for myself among the ton. That I am snobbish and disdainful. When I dance it is only once and there are no callers the next morning. Clearly, you were mocking me.”
Aaron frowned. “No, I was not.”
She did not answer him instantly but then circled the table to get to the glass of punch. It did not escape Aaron that by doing so, she was also putting a barrier between them. She was distancing herself from him like she had been doing to everyone else the whole night.
Her eyes were down and strangely, Aaron's eyes latched on her slender fingers which were delicately clasping her glass. Those were pianist's fingers.
“What was it then?” her tone had gone from cool to icy indifference.
His eyes clenched tightly, “I cannot tell you.”
She sipped her drink, “Why, because it is not appropriate or are you afraid to admit I was right? That you were truly mocking me.”
“I—” he grimaced.
“I was right then,” Lady Eleanor said unemotionally before she scoffed. “Is that much damage to your ego when you’re proven w—”
“I cannot tell you because I don’t know,” Aaron admitted harshly. “I don’t know why I gave you the card so I can’t explain it.”
She stilled and slowly let down the glass. “You…don’t know? How could you not know?”
“I just—” Aaron realized from the lowering of her eyes and the tightness of her jaw that she probably would not believe him even if by some miracle he managed to explain himself. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me.”
“Why is that every time we meet, we end up arguing?” Aaron snapped.
“Because you are pompous and pedantic and you annoy me,” she said plainly.
Aaron realized that there was no way to get to her and laughed at his foolish belief that he could have.
“And you wouldn’t believe me if I summoned God himself to reveal why I did what I did and then ask him to be the judge if I told you the truth. I am sorry for wasting your time. Good evening, Lady Eleanor.”
Spinning around, Aaron wasted no time in leaving and nodded curtly to Lord Greenville as he strode off. He met Lord Greyson and offered his thanks for the wonderful ball and studiously ignored the Duke of Wyndrake’s superior smirk.
“Don’t be a stranger,” Lord Greyson shook his hand strongly. “Good night, Oberton.”
“And you too.”
He was collecting his coat when Wyndrake snidely said, “I assume you failed.”
Aaron was severely tempted to spin around and plant a facer on the man but did not dare do so. The older duke was powerful and had much more time in the proverbial ring than he had. But there was only so much he could take and so much he would allow the older peer to get away with.
“I could only fail if I had accepted,” Aaron replied with forced ease. “And I did not accept, so ergo, I have not failed.”
His carriage came and Aaron nimbly entered, and knocked on the top. Sinking into his seat he pressed his hands into his stinging eyes, “That was an unmitigated disaster, she hates me and I cannot stand her. Why did I think I could mend our fences? She’d rather rip a stake out and stab through my heart. It’s over…it’s all over.”
A day and nine hours after the disastrous dance, Eleanor had finally allowed her curiosity to get the better of her and she had plucked the card from the bottom of the drawer that she had banished it to.
Duke Oberton’s writing told her a lot, instead of immaculate cursive as she had expected, he wrote with a slashing hand. Every word was a sword, with long strokes and dagger-sharp endings. Her fingers flitted on the underside of the card and she felt the deep indents from the press of the pen.
Why is he so impatient?
The unexpected meet on the dark balcony had given her the impression that the Duke was a man of serenity with his tempered words and calm demeanor. This tangible proof of his impatience forced her to make a different perception on him. What was he really like? Was he careful and meticulous or was he impulsive and slapdash?
“Because I don’t know…I don’t know why I gave you the card so I can’t explain it.”
“His voice was agitated and his face tense…perhaps he is a hot-head,” Eleanor mused and flicked the card over. I am still convinced he did this to agitate me.
Flicking the square back into the drawer, Eleanor closed the drawer with her hip while drawing a warm shawl around her. Her father was not going to be pleased when he returned, but what else could she have done?
Meandering to her sitting room, she sat in her chaise and rang for her morning tea. A book, The System of Nature by noted atheist Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, was cracked open and she began reading at her earmarked page. This was another subtle resistance against her father who had insisted on her not reading anything that gave her bad ideas on their faith.
Her father did not understand that she read only material like this for the sake of knowing other peoples’ point of view. To her, being closed minded and just banking on one train of thought or the rules of one culture was a cardinal sin.
There was a reason why other cultures and other schools of thought had emerged and she was not going to dismiss them all and willingly blind herself to one dogma. Besides that, her faith was well solidified inside her soul and no words from an atheist were going to chip away at it.
“Good morning, my lady,” a black-clad maid greeted as she placed the tea tray on Eleanor’s coffee table. “Was your night peaceful?”
“As could be, Lisa,” Eleanor mused while casting an eye over the teapot, cup, and morning crepes. Her eyebrow danced up when she spotted a calling card beside her fare. Reaching out, she plucked it up and opened it. It was a request for a visit by Lord Greenville.
The Lord was wonderful and gentle but…he was too unassuming. That was the kindest word she could offer as nothing about the man stood out for her. It was wonderful that he thought to initiate correspondence with her but he had barely made a mark upon her last night. The man that had was one she knew she was never going to hear from again—Duke Oberton.
“When was this delivered?”
With her head down as she fixed the objects on the tray, the maid replied, “This morning, my lady. Mr. Ambrose received it.”
Placing the card down, she received her tea with a soft smile. “Thank you. In half an hour, please fill my tub.”
Lisa curtsied, “Of course, my lady.”
Alone with her tea and thoughts, Eleanor wondered how she was going to play this. Though she had little interest in seeing him, a gentleman caller would stave off her father’s ire for a while. After finishing her tea, she went to her escritoire and fished one of her rarely-used calling cards out of her drawer and wrote a reply to the lord.
With her pen dangling from her fingers, her mind ran right back to Duke Oberton’s dratted card. What was it about him that irked her so? Usually, when anyone showed her disdain, she ignored it with no trouble but the Duke’s very presence annoyed her.
“Ugh,” she huffed in frustration and chucked the book away so hard it clattered to the floor. “I cannot suffer him.”
“My lady?” a small, timid voice cut through her thoughts and she found little Maria looking at her with soft fear on her face. Instantly, she felt contrite.
“Oh, Maria,” she sighed. “Forgive me for scaring you.”
The child’s smile was tempered, “I can come back if you are not ready for me.”
“No, no,” Eleanor said. “It’s alright. What do you need to do?”
“I’m here to dust, my lady,” Maria said while lifting her bucket of cleaning cloths. “I’ll be as quiet as can be.”
“It’s fine Maria,” Eleanor replied while plucking the book from the floor. “You won’t bother me.”
What did and what continued to bother her during the morning was the dratted Duke and his mysterious card. If she had known that this was the level of confusion it was going to give her, she would have found a moment to chuck the damned thing back into his face.
Now, wandering through the library, she was briefly interrupted by a maid who conferred to her that Lord Greenville had arrived and was in the sitting room and that Miss Malcolm was also present.
That was rather fast, does he have a phaeton or does he have a house nearby?
She replaced the book she had nearly taken out and nodded, “I’ll be there in a moment.”
The trails of her dark blue dress whispered on the Aubusson rug as she turned away. With her hand on the smooth railing of the staircase, she descended the graceful curve and stepped down the lushly-carpeted hallway.
“Lord Greenville,” a footman announced. “Lady Eleanor has arrived.”
The man stood from the chaise and bowed. “My Lady, good afternoon. It is wonderful to see you.”
“And you, Lord Greenville,” Eleanor replied while acutely aware of Miss Malcolm's presence. “I must again apologize for the Duke of Oberton’s interruption last night.”
“It’s alright, My Lady,” Lord Greenville’s suit of complimentary dark blue coat and light waistcoat matched with his pale cerulean eyes. “I am not offended. I gathered there was a history between you, am I right?”
“I wouldn’t say a history,” Eleanor refrained from scowling at the memory of the Duke and his rudeness. “But we had met in the past. How are you?”
“Fairly well,” he replied.
Sometime during their light conversation, where Eleanor learned of his love of politics, horses, and philosophy, a tray of refreshments was brought in. Eleanor idly mentioned her recent reading on the topic of naturalism and his eyes lit up.
“I too find such philosophies fascinating. I did not know you were interested in such topics, my lady,” he enthused. “It is not a subject many women find appealing.”
“Many women bury themselves in the never-ending scandal sheets,” Eleanor replied while setting her cup down. “I do not have the time or interest in such trivialities.”
“I would love to find out what else you find fascinating,” Greenville replied as he had one eye on the corner clock. “On another visit perhaps?”
Eleanor found his subtle fishing for another audience charming but was not sure if she would give him one. “I cannot say for sure, my lord but I will write to convey a time when I am available.”
It was not a direct refusal but it was not an acceptance either and both knew it.
“Well,” he stood and bowed. “I must take my leave, my lady. I do look forward to your correspondence.”
She stood and curtsied, “Thank you for a wonderful afternoon, my lord.”
With the footman showing him out, Eleanor sat again and looked at the tray with dismay. Was this how she was going to be all her life? The man had been nothing but polite yet she had put him off. Why?
“Thank you for being with us today but, please, excuse me, Miss Malcolm,” she said softly. “Have a wonderful afternoon.”
Without preamble, she left the sitting room and did not stop until she got back to her room. Maria was gone and there was not a speck of dust in sight. For such a young child, her work was impeccable.
Listlessly, she gravitated to the drawer where Duke Oberton’s note drew her like a puppet on a string. Opening it, she took it out and silently read line by line. With every repetition of his name, she felt turmoil build in her chest.
Why was this bothering her so much?
The question repeated itself so many time in the next three days that Eleanor found it tiring and mind numbing. Would it be wrong to just take a carriage to the Oberton dukedom and demand Barvolt explain himself? Most likely.
“Hm?” Eleanor asked.
“Is something on that paper troubling you?” Maria asked. “You’ve been lookin’ at it for over fifteen minutes now.”
Fifteen minutes? Oh, Lord. She dropped the card back into the drawer and shoved it closed with unnecessary force.
“I’m sorry,” she shook her head. “I’d not realized.”
Maria nervously fidgeted with her broom, “My lady…you’ve been lookin’ at that paper for days…but there’s this look on your face.”
Now Eleanor was intrigued, “What look, Maria?”
“Er…I see it sometime when my Ma used to look out for Da…” Maria said quietly. “Ma used to tell me that its hope…are you hopin’ for whatever’s on that paper, My Lady?”
Eleanor could have been knocked over with a feather. Was that the look on her face? No, it could not be. That was laughable! What on earth could she be hoping to get from the Duke? More derision?
“I’m sorry Maria,” Eleanor said. “It’s nothing like that.”
“Oh…sorry fer oversteppin’ my bounds, my lady,” Maria said timidly. “It won’t happen again.”
“Nonsense,” Eleanor dismissed her comment with a wave. “You did nothing of the kind, now, let me get out of your way.”
She was almost at the doorway when an errant thought ran through Eleanor’s mind.
Perhaps I have been hoping for something from the Duke…but only for him to apologize to me that is.
Halfway down the corridor, Miss Malcolm came around it breathlessly, “Lady Eleanor, I am so glad I caught you, your father is coming home tomorrow, and he would like to meet Lord Greenville.”
Dash it all!
The Barvolt Townhome
“I must have lost my mind,” Aaron sighed while looking into the dancing and hypnotic amber flames which blazed happily inside the sitting room’s majestic marble fireplace. The long rectangular room was clothed in thick drapery and thicker carpet with a splatter of wingback chairs and a chaise lounge.
Not many days after the fiasco at the Greyson house, Aaron had removed to the Mayfair townhome for a reprieve from his ancestral home. His sudden move was not because of Harold’s sympathy after he had admitted his major faux-pas with Lady Eleanor to him—though Harold’s response did irk him somewhat—it was more wanting a new atmosphere to think.
He still did not know why he had given Lady Eleanor the card and the more he kept wracking his brain over it, the more confused he got. In desperation, he had almost gone to see her at her home but stopped. If he couldn’t rationalize what he had done to himself, how was he going to miraculously explain it to her?
Moreover, why did she have to be so matter-of-fact and skeptical? For such a young lady those lines of cynicism should not have already started to embed themselves at the corners of her mouth. For God’s sake, the lady was nine-and-ten, not ninety-and-nine!
Huffing, Aaron strode over to the nearest window and looked out in the dark. A thick grey soup of fog hovered over the shadowed trees and its snake-like tendrils dipped to the bushes. The moon was a blurry disk, illuminating the clouds with a ghostly sheen.
His conscience was hounding him. He had to do something to stop this unresolved issue from festering. She had a right to be angry with him anyway, which young lady would shine with pleasure after being told she was a tomboy?
“I should have chosen my words differently,” Aaron mused while moving away from the window. It’s not like I spotted a pair of breeches under her skirts.
He paused for a moment and chuckled at the mental image, “But with her directness, that wouldn’t have surprised me.”
Heading off to his bedchamber Aaron vowed to right his wrong as soon as possible and hoped that when he did, she would believe him.
Receiving Lord Greenville was a lot less daunting than Eleanor had expected. Eleanor did not waste her energy wondering how her father had known about Lord Greenville, as clearly he had spies tracking her movements at the Greyson affair.
As she watched the nondescript brown carriage pull up to the gate, she turned away wordlessly. Her deep Prussian blue promenade dress, a fitting match for her eyes, clung lovingly to her slender figure as she descended the stairway.
Mr. Ambrose was opening the door just as her father, who had arrived that morning, came into the foyer. Dressed in menacing dark colors and a wine-red waistcoat, her father stood like a towering monolith in the room. With his height brushing six foot and five, he was naturally imposing but his stern features and dark navy eyes enhanced it.
Without a word, she stood to the left of him and waited until Lord Greenville was relieved of his outer coat and hat.
“Your Grace and Lady Eleanor, Lord Greenville,” Mr. Ambrose pronounced soberly.
Eleanor curtsied while her father went to shake his hand. “Welcome, Greenville.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Greenville heartily shook the older man’s hand and then bowed. “Lady Eleanor, how wonderful to see you again.”
“And I, you, my lord,” her smile was simple.
“Let us remove to the sitting room until dinner is announced,” the Duke of Brisdane’s words were more an order than a request and Eleanor followed the two men silently.
The large sitting room, the same room she and Miss Malcolm had entertained Lord Greenville days ago suddenly seemed small to her. It felt as if the air had been sucked out or, somehow, the room had shrunk. Perhaps it was the dominant and suffocating presence her father exuded. He filled up the room with his air of tight control.
“Lord Greenville,” her father spoke. “If I am not mistaken, your father was the late Marquise of Tremont, aye?”
“Actually, Your Grace, he was my guardian and benefactor as I am his nephew, not his son,” Greenville corrected respectfully. “My cousin died of consumption when he was one-and-ten and the marquise took me in.”
Eleanor peered at her father under her lashes. Her father always had correct information about anyone he was interacting with. Was he deliberately misleading the man? From the glimmer in his eye she knew her father was toying with Greenville, but why? Was he trying to trap the man with his own words?
“Ah, yes,” her father conceded with fake contrite. “My mistake. He was a trader in the East, no? With a line of ships that traded spices, furs, and other curious bric-a-brac?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Greenville added with a fleeting look of sorrow. “He sent me to Oxford and to honor his name and legacy I have expanded his business to the colonies. Before he died, he had made ties with the Governors of Jamaica and Nassau in the Indies. I made sure to follow those through.”
“Imports of sugar and coffee?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Impressive,” her father nodded sagely. “Smart move for a young man.”
Eleanor grew sickened with every passing moment. Her father had his genial mask on, and she itched to reach over, dig her fingers in the façade and rip it off. Would this charade just end already? The worst thing was that Lord Greenville was falling for it. The younger man had metaphorical stars in his eyes while conversing with the Duke.
“Ahem,” Mr. Ambrose delicately cut in. “My apologies for the disturbance, Your Grace, but His Grace, the Duke of Oberton is here to see Lady Eleanor. He says it is urgent.”
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