About the book
A sky full of stars and still she shone the brightest...
Her inability to read and write properly has made Lady Eleanor Lockhart the laughing stock of the ton. Growing up without a mother to teach her how to navigate the social scene, Eleanor has isolated herself and is determined to spend the rest of her life caring for her aging father.
When his father’s passing forces Hugh Covington to return to England to assume the title of Duke of Steephelm, he wants absolutely nothing to do with it. Until a chance meeting with a lady stirs something inside him. A lady he hasn’t seen in over ten years.
After Eleanor’s father announces that she is to be wed, Hugh knows he must act before he loses her to another man. When Eleanor falls victim to a series of seemingly innocuous accidents, he just might lose her to something else first. For bloody is the price you pay for betrayal...
She had climbed too high, and she knew it. If she were to fall now, she would not emerge unscathed. Her palms grew slippery on the rock face, her heart pounding, the blood and fear rushing in her ears. A short distance above, the kite fluttered. Taunting her.
You have come this far. Why not continue until you have me in your grasp?
It seemed to goad young Eleanor Lockhart, daughter to the Duke of Emberwood. At eleven years old, her youthful spirit had overcome common sense. And when the kite had flown out of the hands of her cousin, Diane—two years her junior—and she had witnessed the girl’s bitterly disappointed tears, she had been willing to do anything to get them to stop.
Now, however, with the fierce wind whipping around her and the nerves shivering through her shaky limbs, she realized the grave error of her decision.
“Come down, Eleanor! It is much too dangerous!” Francesca Bolton, daughter of the Viscount of Fernshire, and Eleanor’s childhood friend, called up from the safety of the grass below. Her voice was filled with terror.
Gripping the rocks as tightly as she could, Eleanor tried to glance back at her friend. “I am almost there!”
“It is foolish.” Diane sobbed harder, though not for the loss of her kite any longer. “I should never have cried over such a thing!” She undoubtedly felt responsible for the worrying predicament that Eleanor was now in, but there was nothing to be done about it now. It was too late for Eleanor to change her mind.
I cannot go up nor down…
Panic bristled through her veins, for there were no suitable ledges or rocks she could grasp onto above, and the footholds below seemed much too far away. In truth, she did not know how she had managed to climb so high in the first place, for she had never shown much in the way of athletic prowess.
“You will surely fall!” Francesca cried, her hands clasped in frantic prayer.
“I shan’t,” Eleanor shouted, with more courage than she felt. In truth, her feet were already cramping on the narrow ledge, and her knuckles had whitened with the exertion of trying to cling on for dear life. She knew that it would not be long before she could not hang on anymore.
Trying to press herself flush to the rock face, she hoped it might help her withstand the wind. Staring down to look at the position of her feet, she made the mistake of seeing the distance between herself and solid ground. Dizziness overwhelmed her, her breaths coming in frightened gasps as her eyes widened, realization dawning. She was going to fall. At best, she could hope for a broken leg. At worst… her young mind could not even begin to fathom it.
Why did I do such a thing?
She scolded herself, as hot tears began to fall. She did not think of her father and brother’s grief or anguish, if she were to be injured or lost to this foolish act. She thought only of how ashamed her father would be, to discover how it had happened. Another humiliation to add to her shortcomings as a daughter.
“Eleven years of age, and yet she reads and writes as though she were an infant! I have tried, Your Grace, but there is little to be done with such an idle and stubborn child. It may be imprudent of me to say so, but you must pray that she is a rare beauty, for she will not forge her path through society with her intellect.” Her governess’s words still clamored in her ears, and her cheeks burned with the brutal memory. She had been forced to stand there, at her father’s side, and bear the insults. Regardless of whether they were true or not.
I tried so very hard, but she refused to acknowledge my attempts. She thought me lazy, but I was merely frustrated. She did not understand that I was endeavoring to do my best.
More tears streamed down her cheeks.
I continue to try my best…
Perhaps that was why she had tried to retrieve the kite, to prove that she was neither idle nor a perpetual failure. And yet, it seemed fate was determined to trip her up at every turn. Now, she had not only failed, but she had managed to ensnare herself in a dangerous position that she could not escape.
“I… I… I cannot hold on!” Eleanor sobbed against the rocks, which formed a ragged cliff face of sorts at the perimeter of the Curran Chase, before it plateaued into the fields above. It was the Scottish seat of her father’s friend, the Duke of Steephelm, though the house itself was the Duchess’s family home, inherited by the Duke in the absence of any male heirs on his wife’s side. With it being summer, they had come to spend several weeks here, as they did most years since Eleanor had lost her mother at the tender age of three.
“I will fetch help!” Francesca shrieked in response, turning on her heel and darting across the verdant lawns toward the sandstone house in the distance.
Mama died here, and so shall I.
She had been too young to remember it, but her father had told her fragments of the tale, while in his cups or in a somber moment of remembrance. Her beautiful mother had gone out in a boat with her dearest friend, the Duchess of Steephelm, and a servant to row, off the nearby coast. The sea, fickle mistress that it was, had turned rough without warning, and a wave had caught them unawares, sweeping her mother out of the boat before anyone could prevent it. She had been found, washed up on the shore, some days later.
It ought to have driven a wedge between the families. On the contrary, it had bound them for life, with her father visiting every summer to remember the place where he lost his love. They still held a vigil on Midsummer’s Eve for her, with candles and lanterns that turned the gardens of Curran Chase into a fairy glen—the kind she felt sure her mother would have adored. In truth, Eleanor was too naïve to think it macabre, viewing it as the epitome of romance instead.
Will they hold a vigil for me, too?
She clawed at the rocks desperately.
Or will they think me too idiotic to deserve one?
Shaking so violently that her teeth crashed together, she saw blood upon her fingertips. She had not realized how hard she had been grasping, but the stone teeth had cut into her fair skin, taking their vengeance against her trespass.
“Hold tight!” A masculine, familiar voice pierced the air.
Eleanor dared a glimpse downward, to find the Duke’s youngest son, Hugh Covington, approaching the scene on horseback. At ten-and-nine, and tall as an oak to her small stature, with curly copper hair and irreverent, sea-green eyes that seemed to glint in a state of constant mockery, he intimidated her thoroughly. More so, even, than his elder brother, Algernon, for he had more of an adult sensibility about him. His younger brother breezed about with a roguish air, always out riding or shooting or hunting or fishing.
“Help! Please, help!” Eleanor begged, forgetting her fear of him. Although, to her surprise, it looked as if he had come from the opposite direction to the house, so he could not have been heralded by Francesca’s call for aid. It appeared to be a serendipitous passing that could very well save her life.
Hugh chuckled as he swung down from his horse. “I intend to, but you must stay still.”
Eleanor did as he instructed, trying to keep herself as stiff as possible, though it proved difficult with her body trembling. Watching Hugh out of the corner of her eye, she gaped in disbelief as he clambered up the rock face with the agility of a monkey, covering the distance she had in a fraction of the time. Within minutes, he was beside her.
“I would ask how you got yourself stuck all the way up here, little dove, but I imagine you are in no mood for talking.” He flashed her a mischievous grin. “Now, you must listen closely. I will flatten myself to the rocks, and you will remove one hand at a time and take hold of my shoulders. When both hands are there, loop your arms about my neck and do not loosen your hold even if I protest that I cannot breathe. Do you understand?” His voice held a hint of a laugh, even now, perched on this precipice.
Eleanor nodded slowly. “Y-Yes.”
“Then do so, before we both fall,” he urged, pressing himself into the cliff face.
With tremulous hands, she willed herself to remove the first from the rocks and clamped it down on Hugh’s shoulder, holding so tight she could feel her fingernails digging into him. If he noticed, he did not say. He did not even flinch. Reassured by his easy, calm demeanor, she released her other hand and did the same, before sliding both hands forward and clasping them together in front of his throat.
“W-What do we d-do now?” she stammered.
He twisted his head to look at her, and grinned. “You hold on as though you were a barnacle, and I shall do the rest.”
Before she could even think of protesting, he began to scramble back down the rock face. She screamed as her feet were forcibly dragged from the ledge. Her body sagged for a second, as though it were about to plunge to certain doom, but his neck and her clamped hands spared her such an ominous descent.
“Keep doing that, and do not let go,” he croaked, his voice distorted by her weight against his throat. “We will soon reach safety.”
Skillfully finding handholds and footholds, he continued downward, carrying her like a sack of vegetables. She could not bring herself to look, though—her eyes squeezed shut. She was aware only of his raspy breath and the gurgle in his throat, and each thud of his feet finding the right route.
“Eleanor, thank goodness!” She heard Diane howl, as a solid figure careened into her.
Hesitantly, Eleanor opened her eyes. “Am I… alive?”
“I should say you are! Oh, I should never have cried over something so stupid!” Diane embraced her tightly from the side, making Eleanor keenly aware that she was still hanging from Hugh’s back. Mortified, she released her hold and he expelled a loud, strained breath.
“When I said not to let go, I did not mean when we were safe on the ground,” he teased, and she immediately clammed up once more. “Are you injured?”
She shook her head awkwardly.
“Are you certain? It looks as though the fright has turned you mute.” He laughed softly, rubbing the red marks on his neck where her arms had braced against him. “I do not bite, Lady Eleanor.”
But she could not muster a single word, though a torrent of thanks swirled in her mind and danced on the tip of her tongue, eager to be unleashed.
Hugh sighed and dusted the remnants of dirt from his tailcoat. “Miss Keswick, might you take Lady Eleanor inside and have the housekeeper tend to her? It appears she has hurt her hands in all her bravery.”
Diane nodded. “Of course, Hugh.” She tugged on Eleanor’s arm, but it seemed it was not only Eleanor’s tongue that was frozen. With the adrenaline draining out of her body, her knees threatened to buckle.
“I will toss you over my shoulder and carry you there myself, if you do not go with Miss Keswick,” he threatened playfully. “Oh, and I ought to give this back to you, since it has caused such upset.” Seemingly out of nowhere, he produced the kite she had striven to retrieve and passed it to Diane.
“Th-Thank you,” Eleanor managed to say, stunned by his trick.
Diane hugged the kite to her. “Oh yes, thank you! Thank you so very much!”
“Think nothing of it.” He waved a hand dismissively and focused on Eleanor. “Now, will you walk on your own two feet, or will you force me to strain another muscle to get you to the house?”
Eleanor gulped. “I… will walk.”
“Excellent, then you ought to go before anyone discovers what has happened here today. It shall be our secret, though I suggest you never attempt such extravagant feats of heroism again. At least, not for the sake of a kite.” He flashed her a conspiratorial wink, before heading back to his waiting horse, who contentedly chewed upon a patch of grass. Reaching for the pommel, he hauled himself into the saddle and turned the horse around, disappearing into the nearby woodland as though nothing strange had occurred at all.
“Come, Eleanor. We must hurry before Francesca fetches someone!” Diane insisted, holding tight to the kite which Hugh had rescued.
With some coercion, Eleanor finally encouraged her legs to move forward, the two girls hurrying back to the house as quickly as they could. As she walked, Eleanor’s mind fixated on a portion of Hugh’s parting words: Will you walk on your own two feet? For reasons she could not yet explain, they struck a chord in her chest, bringing sudden tears to her eyes.
“I am trying,” she whispered to the summer air. “I am trying my very best.”
Diane turned. “Did you say something?”
Eleanor shook her head, and hurriedly brushed the tears away. “No, Cousin. I said nothing at all.”
Ten Years Later...
Hugh sat upon the velvet squabs of his family’s carriage, trying to ignore the bounce of the wheels on the uneven ground as they made their way up the wide, countryside road that led to his family estate of Steephelm Towers, just outside of London.
Turning his gaze out of the window, he found himself thinking of that moment, in the heady summer of his nineteenth year, when he had saved Lady Eleanor from a foolhardy fate. He could not even picture a proper image of her face, only the relief he had felt, in secret, when he had rescued her. The clandestine proof, that no one knew of, that he could be a good man, and a good son. It surprised him, for he had not thought of that in a very long time. He had no reason to.
But I could not save you, Algie, could I?
He bit the inside of his cheek to stop tears from coming. If he arrived at Steephelm red-eyed, the staff would think the worst of him. More worryingly, they might believe the rumors to be true… That he was a good-for-nothing wastrel, who had spent the better part of the last decade traveling the Continent and generally ignoring his duties. They would not understand, as his father had not, that he had a far greater reason for disappearing—to run away from his memories, and the ghosts that haunted these shores.
But he could not run anymore.
“Are you all right, Your Grace?” The man opposite—a fellow by the name of Stein, who was to be his manservant—asked.
Hugh shuddered. “I suppose I shall have to get used to that.”
“What, Your Grace?” Stein frowned in confusion.
“Being called that,” Hugh replied. With an elder brother, he had never desired the formality or the duty of being a Duke.
But then you died… and I could not change it.
He sucked in a deep breath and closed his eyes, knowing what he would find there. The bluish, smoky haze of the gentleman’s club, where Algernon would not have been if Hugh had not insisted he come along. He could almost smell the tobacco and the stale brandy. He scrunched his eyes tighter as he heard the sound of shouting, and the deafening bangs of tables being overturned, and glass smashing on the ground. Followed by the blood-curdling click of a pistol being armed, intended for Hugh.
Why did you do that, Algie? Why did you…
His thoughts trailed off, too painful to bear. In all his life, he had done one good thing—saving that girl, one summer. But that was not enough to wipe clean the slate of his transgressions. It could not even wipe away a small portion of the guilt that would forever rest on his shoulders.
“Your Grace?” Stein prompted.
Hugh spotted Steephelm Towers coming into view. “I am quite well. You needn’t worry about me.” A bitter smile curved up the corners of his lips. “Although… I suppose I was wondering why I only return to this house whenever there is a funeral?”
For, now, he had no one. Only a dukedom he had never asked for, and never wanted.
Eleanor paced the gardens outside Glendale Hall, her shoes crunching in the gravel as she walked back and forth, wearing a strip of the ground down to the dirt beneath. Ferocious summer sunlight shone down upon her, prompting perspiration to bead on her forehead and down the back of her neck. An uncomfortable sensation for what would, undoubtedly, be an even more uncomfortable situation.
At one-and-twenty, the sour-faced governess’s uncouth words about praying for beauty had not come to pass, and Eleanor was not above thinking that said governess might have cursed her out of spite. Willowy-framed, and neither hideously squat nor obscenely tall, her peers gossiped that she lacked the fullness and the petite quality that would entice a gentleman. Her dark hair resisted styling, and a dusting of freckles marred her pale skin, though she tried to avoid the sun where possible. Naturally, not at that particular moment, for it was the only safe haven in a house of vultures.
Had it not been for her striking amber eyes, she supposed she would not have been remarkable at all. And even they required close proximity to fully witness, which gentlemen rarely sought.
I am a lioness… I can do this… I must not fear them.
She repeated the phrases to herself as she paced, desperate to do her father proud when she walked back into that house. It might have been no more than a drawing room to some, but it may as well have been a glaringly lit stage with a packed audience, judging by the uncontrollable race of her heart.
“I know this. I have learned this. I will not disappoint Papa.” She paused and drew in steadying breaths, aware that her palms had turned clammy. She wiped them absently on her gown and immediately regretted it, as she noted the slightly damp streaks on the blue satin skirt.
They will think me an urchin.
She groaned and held her head in her hands, sinking down onto a nearby bench, wondering if it was too late to scamper across the lawns and disappear without a trace.
“Are you ready, little lioness?” A head poked out of the French doors. Her brother, Andrew, was already grinning with pride. Arching a hesitant eyebrow at him, she fervently wished she could share his unwavering confidence in her.
She puffed air between her lips. “I feel more like a kitten that is about to be drowned.”
“Well, that is simply tough luck, for you are a lioness. Father says so, and he never lies.” Andrew came to sit beside Eleanor, leaning back and tilting his face up to the sun with a contented smile.
At least you do not have to worry about breeding freckles.
She could not sit still, agitation running rife. Usually, the mention of her beloved father calmed her, but it had the opposite effect, increasing her nerves tenfold.
“If I were a lioness, I would roar at the entire group of them until they hurried away in fright. Then, I would not have to read this poem,” she said, with an anxious half-smile. Her father had given her the nickname when she was a child, due to the extraordinary color and shape of her eyes—feline and unusual, in a way that would have made her an extraordinary beauty if the rest of her features had cooperated.
Andrew leaned forward, focusing on her. “You must not let them intimidate you. If you fear you might forget something, that is only because you are nervous, but you have no reason to be. Even if you do forget, which is highly unlikely, I have seen you conjure poems and stories at whim. Speak your own version, but do not be afraid.” He took her hand in his and held it tightly. “I believe in you, Eleanor. You had it memorized last night, as you can see from the enormous dark circles beneath my eyes.”
Eleanor chuckled. “I did not realize the hour got so late.”
“Then you are fortunate that you seem impervious to dark circles,” he teased gently, giving her hand a squeeze. “One would think you had slept as soundly as a babe.”
“Thank you for helping me, Andrew. I could not have done this without you, and I do hope that I can please Father.” She dipped her chin to her chest, only for Andrew to raise it with a firm hand.
He smiled reassuringly. “You could upturn a tea tray on the Queen, and he would still adore you. We are a pride, us Lockharts. We stand by one another, regardless.” Standing abruptly, he pulled her to her feet. “Now, you go into that drawing room before they start to think you have fled and show everyone that you are every bit the fine lady that they are.”
Eleanor straightened up her shoulders and gave a regimental nod. “I will not let the pride down.”
“I know you will not,” he replied, ushering her back into the manor house with some gentle pushing. He knew, as well as she did, that if he did not ensure she entered, she would stay out in the gardens until the afternoon’s recitals were entirely over.
With Andrew staying put at her side, they walked through the back sitting room and out into the entrance hall, where crystal shards of light jabbed at her eyes from the chandelier overhead. Putting a hand to her brow, to shield her vision, she let Andrew lead her down a lengthy hallway, adorned with oil paintings and blooming vases of fresh flowers, no doubt put there just for this occasion, until they reached the drawing room.
“Why do I feel as though you ought to have a black hood over your face?” Eleanor whispered, as she stepped into the drawing room.
Andrew laughed. “Nonsense. This is not a tribunal—this will be your crowning moment of glory.”
If only I could believe that.
A reasonably large group of lords and ladies, with their pristine butterfly daughters, were already assembled in various chairs that had been laid out. The watchful sons stood to the sides of the room, observing the parade of pretty young things who were being displayed before them. A chance for potential suitors to meet potential brides; the gentlemen and their families, especially the stern mothers, silently evaluating each young lady who took to the proverbial arena for judgement.
“What have I missed?” Eleanor sought refuge in her best friend, Francesca, who had saved her a seat closest to the door. Her father sat further back, with her brother beside him, for he was also in want of a wife. A strange thought for Eleanor. She only hoped that he chose well and chose for love rather than anything else. Above everything, her brother deserved to love and be loved.
Francesca leaned into Eleanor’s ear. “A very drab sonnet that is presently making Shakespeare, rest his soul, wish he had never put ink to paper.”
Eleanor stifled a snort. “You are wicked!”
“I am but honest,” she replied, smirking. “Are you feeling calmer?”
“A little,” Eleanor lied, relieved that there would be a few ladies before her turn came.
Just then, the Countess of Glendale, who happened to be the hostess of this peculiar form of torture, strode into the center of the makeshift dais at the farthest end of the room. She clapped her hands together excitedly, and the drawing room fell silent.
“What beautiful readings we have had on this fine afternoon, and the offerings have only just begun,” she announced.
Ah, offerings… That makes greater sense.
For Eleanor felt very like a sacrificial lamb.
“Please be rapturous in your applause for our next young lady, though you may call me biased.” She paused awkwardly, as though waiting for laughter. A few sympathetic chuckles rippled through the room, urging her to continue. “My daughter, Catriona, who will be reading one of my favorite pieces, ‘Death, be not proud’ by the splendid John Donne.”
Eleanor’s stomach plummeted; a shriek just shy of escaping her throat. Beside her, Francesca stiffened, and she could have sworn she heard a gasp coming from behind her, where her brother sat.
“That little viper,” Francesca muttered, keeping her voice low. “She knew you were reading that.”
Panic rushed in on icy waves, making Eleanor’s insides churn. “Why… Why would she do that?” She could not fathom it. It was not as though Eleanor were any sort of threat to the Countess or her daughter, aside from her station as a Duke’s daughter. Did she simply wish to humiliate her? Was that it?
“They are both snakes, that is why.” Francesca folded her arms across her chest, outraged on Eleanor’s behalf. But no one else seemed to have noticed the dreadful turn of events, everyone’s faces turned toward the dais, where the prim and pretty Catriona was preparing to amaze with her stolen poem. A classical beauty, with shiny fair hair and coy blue eyes, she already had the gentlemen in the room bewitched.
She does not need to mortify me to improve herself. How could one improve on perfection?
Eleanor glanced at the door, tempted to bolt before she could suffer any further anxiety. She could summon an imaginary headache or an affliction of ladies’ issues that would not beg too many questions from the gathered group.
“Do you have any other poems memorized?” Francesca asked furtively.
Eleanor shook her head. “I can read Lord Byron by heart, but I do not think it the right audience.”
“Might you sing, instead?” Francesca stared at her friend in anguish, though they both knew that was not possible. Eleanor’s singing accomplishments were as extensive as her ability to read and write. Indeed, she had been known to set dogs barking when she sang alone in her chambers.
“Would you have everyone’s ears bleeding?” Eleanor sagged back in the chair, not caring for her posture.
Francesca palmed a poetry book to her. “Then you must read another, as best you can. There are some short ones in there that would do well enough.” She gave her friend an apologetic glance. “But you cannot flee, or they will scent your fear.”
Eleanor stared at the book as though it were a rabid wolf, come to devour her whole. Since childhood, she had always struggled to explain her predicament to those closest to her. They believed she had a problem of some kind, but they did not understand—it was not that she did not want to read and write, or that she was lazy in her endeavor to succeed with it. It was that she could only reach a certain point before everything became… topsy-turvy.
“Squint if you must,” Francesca added. Eleanor loved her best friend dearly, but she could not repeat herself again—it was not to do with her eyesight, nor was it to do with a slow-witted mind, as many a governess had suggested. When speaking or imagining, her mind was as swift and formidable as anyone’s, if not more so. Only when it came to putting words to paper, or reading from paper, did she feel like a veritable dunce. And yet, if she spoke with aplomb and eloquence, surely that meant she could not be riddled with idiocy?
“I should leave.” Eleanor made to do so, but Francesca grasped her hand.
“You cannot. The ladies here will gossip about you for weeks, and I will not stand for that. You have to remain and fight those harpies in kind,” she urged, like a battlefield general before a conflict. “Show them that you are every bit as capable as they are.”
But I am not.
The stark truth weighed heavy in Eleanor’s stomach. She longed to read novels in secret, and wallow in the romance of poetry whenever she pleased, but that pleasure was denied to her. She did not know why, but she could not change the facts. Why, she had even made her brother read such infamous romantic novels to her, enduring the awkwardness, because she was so desperate to know what all the young ladies were whispering about. It pained her that she could not do it by herself, no matter how hard she tried.
“It will end in disaster,” Eleanor murmured, shuffling back into the center of her chair. She had not wanted to be here in the first place, but now… She would have given anything for the ground to do her the courtesy of swallowing her up, then and there.
Will you walk on your own two feet?
Those words jolted into her head, unbidden. A long-lost memory of a scared girl with bloodied fingers that she had not dwelled on for some time. Not since the summer visits to Curran Chase had come to an end, four years after that incident… due to another, infinitely more tragic, incident.
Her chin lifted defiantly. “I will stay. I will not run. I will stand on my own two feet.”
“That is the lioness I know.” Francesca mustered a relieved sigh, the two young ladies sitting back to listen to Catriona repeat the lines that Eleanor had painstakingly memorized for two days. She even mouthed along to some parts, her blood boiling that a cruel trick had been played upon her.
Until, finally, it came to be Eleanor’s turn to recite.
“Now, we will hear from Lady Eleanor.” The Countess could not have looked less enthralled if she had tried, though Eleanor noticed a smug glint in the older woman’s eyes. “I apologize, I do not recall what you will be reading, and I do not have it written down.”
Eleanor stood up. “I will be reading, ‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art,’ by John Keats.” Clutching the book in her hand, knowing she would lose marks in her evaluation by even having it with her, she weaved through the chairs to the front of the room. A faint rattle of applause moved through the space.
Using the lectern which had been set there for sheet music, Eleanor opened the poetry book out to the right page and steeled herself for the disarray that was to come. Her eyes focused on the title, her heart hammering against her ribcage like a flustered bird, frantic for freedom. The letters held their form, but she knew that would not last.
Taking a discreet breath, she began. “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art.” The easy part had passed, for she already knew that was what the first line said. “Not in… lone… um… splend… splen…” A trickle of perspiration meandered down the side of her face, as the pressure increased. She could feel everyone’s eyes burning into her, while the words upon the page swam and muddled, making no coherent sense in her mind.
She cleared her throat, pretending she had something stuck there. “Apologies, I have not had a single sip of water, and my voice is somewhat parched. I would make an atrocious actress. Why, I imagine the clientele would be clamoring for reimbursement.” The gentlemen of the congregation chuckled amiably, while the mothers and daughters remained stony-faced. “Croaking through Shakespeare or Marlowe—could you imagine the horror? I would be cast out of England as a traitor, for dishonoring the memory of such playwrights. Though, I imagine France would welcome me. They are not so particular.”
The gentlemen laughed louder, a few amused grins tugging at their bare and whiskered lips. Even one or two of the young ladies allowed themselves a smile.
“Goodness, I have quite forgotten where I was. I admit, it is difficult to concentrate, when I fear that the frogs will come in from the garden pond and demand their acquaintance back, from where it has lodged in my throat,” she joked, knowing it would only buy her a brief reprieve from the swimming words on the page.
The gentlemen erupted into raucous chuckles, clapping in delight at Eleanor’s quick wit and humor. They did not realize it was mere façade, for if she could get them to forget why she was there, she would have a chance of emerging unscathed from this afternoon.
“I believe you were about to say: Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night… And watching, with eternal lids apart, like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite, the moving waters at their priest-like task of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,” Andrew chimed in to rescue her, coming to join her at the lectern.
Eleanor feigned a giggle. “You ought to read it, for you have done half the priest-like task for me.”
The gentlemen howled with glee, and some of the ladies softened. All but the Countess and her daughter, for Eleanor doubted this was what they had hoped to achieve by commandeering the poem she had memorized.
“I would not deny you the opportunity.” Andrew turned his back to the audience and pretended to hold the page, while he began to whisper the next lines for Eleanor to repeat. Of all the people she held dear, he understood her affliction the most. He did not know why it occurred, either, but he was always there to help her when she needed him the most.
“… And so live ever—or else swoon to death,” she finished the piece, the tension in her body relaxing. It was over. And though the congregation applauded her efforts, the majority rang hollow. They knew what Andrew had done, and the gossip would spread like wildfire.
I preferred it when they were laughing with me.
She sketched a curtsey, her spirits dampened.
Now, they will be laughing at me.
For there was no joke quite so hilarious as the barely literate daughter of a Duke.
The gaudy sunlight shone its taunting, hot glow upon the black-clothed mourners who had gathered at the mausoleum of the Steephelm dynasty, though it was a polite affair, with barely a tear shed. He had been well liked and had always been fair to his serfs and tenants, but he had reached a ripe age before he passed, and there was more respect to be found in that than grief. Not everyone was so fortunate, as Hugh well knew.
He will return to them now—Mother and Algie.
Selfish as it may have sounded, Hugh envied his father that. At least he would have someone waiting, instead of an empty house that had once been full of laughter and joy, though that had not been the case for some time. After Algernon passed, the ensuing silence had been the very thing to drive him to the Continent, where he could distract himself with noise and color and life.
And then Mother passed from a broken heart, and that almost ended me.
Hugh stayed inside the mausoleum long after the other mourners had departed, staring at the names surrounding him. A once majestic legacy, now reduced to a sole entity. Him.
He glanced around to ensure he was alone, before walking up to his mother’s tomb. There, he pressed his palm to the cold, dead stone.
“I apologize, with all my heart. I should have been there. I should have stayed with you. I should have helped you to heal.” His palm curled into a fist. “I hope that, one day, you will be able to forgive me for running away.”
He looked to the as-yet unsealed tomb of his father.
“I owe you an apology, too. I was not the son you deserved. I am not even the son who should have lived.” He swallowed a lump in his throat. “I was a… coward, but I will endeavor to be better, though I have not earned this position. I will try my best not to disappoint you again, for you had enough of that in life. It would be dishonorable of me to continue as I have done, now that you are… no longer here.”
Turning away from his father’s resting place, he walked toward a familiar spot, Algernon’s tomb. Standing before it, he bowed his head and fought for composure. “It has been a long while, Algie. You will be pleased to know that I intend to stay, this time.” A pained gasp slipped out of his throat as he touched his fingertips to the stone. “I only wish you were here, to show me what I am supposed to do. I have not rehearsed how to be a Duke, though I know that is my own fault. Forgive me if it takes me some time to learn, as I have a great deal of ground to make up.”
Silence echoed back, and the loneliness eked in. The same loneliness that had driven him from this estate time and time again.
“I miss you all,” he said quietly.
Just then, a knock came at the mausoleum door. Hugh turned to find his friend, Andrew Lockhart, standing on the threshold, dressed in his mourning wear. The two men exchanged a sorrowful glance. At one time, Andrew’s family had been as close to his own as if they were blood related, but circumstance and tragedy had loosened those ties somewhat.
“I heard you had returned,” Andrew said. “I am only sorry to have missed the funeral. My carriage broke a wheel on the way from Glendale Hall, and I arrived too late.”
Hugh frowned, and made his way toward his friend. “Whatever were you doing at Glendale Hall? Do not tell me that you are engaged to the Countess’s daughter? It would be fair to say that she has a beauty about her, but there is little substance beneath those blonde locks.”
Andrew laughed. “And how, pray tell, would you know that? You have hardly been in England this past year, aside from a few weeks here and there.”
“About the engagement or Lady Catriona’s lack of substance?” He tried to muster a grin, but it would not come.
“As there is no engagement, you know I meant the latter. She has not been out in society for more than half a year. You must have your spies watching again?” Andrew replied, as the two men stepped out from beneath the mausoleum’s shadow and walked together through the estate’s graveyard.
Hugh tapped the side of his nose. “What you do not know cannot hurt you.” He paused and took a deep breath of the warm, honeyed air. “In truth, I happened upon old Gilbert when I arrived in London, and he told me that the Countess has been particularly aggressive in her pursuit of a husband for the young miss. I was told to avoid any invitation from her at all costs, considering my new situation.” He gestured to the expansive grounds, though he felt no pleasure in surveying his dukedom. It meant little without anyone to share it with.
“Ah yes.” Andrew clapped his friend on the back. “You will surely be inundated, once you set foot back in society.”
Hugh groaned despairingly. “Do not remind me. I ought to have a bonfire erected on the front lawn, reserved for any and every letter that comes from a lady with a daughter of marriageable age.”
How could anyone pick out the sincere from the ambitious?
He no longer had his mother or father to sift through the correspondence on his behalf, nor did he have them to perform his duties for him. He had spent long enough enjoying a carefree existence. Now, the time had come for him to take his place and stop playing the fool abroad.
So why did I feel more at home on the Continent than I do here?
He had been at Steephelm for less than a week, and it already felt like alien territory. The rooms and sights and sounds and smells were all familiar, as were the memories of the three-and-twenty years he had spent here before his gallivanting began, and yet all of that felt as though it belonged to someone else. A man who no longer existed.
“Are you not glad to be home?” Andrew asked, perceptive as ever.
Hugh gave a weary shrug. “I have not been here long enough to know, as of yet. All I have done is answer correspondence and bury my father. That is strange enough, without contending with the fact that I must now remain here.”
“It need not be unpleasant,” Andrew assured. “I am happy to re-educate you on England’s merits, if you would allow me? It has been much too long since I have seen you, Hugh. Even if you are not certain of your feelings, I am pleased to have you back here, where you belong.”
“Do you think you could educate me on how to become a righteous Duke, too?” Hugh gave Andrew a knowing look, for they were both in similar positions. One day, Andrew would take up the mantle in his father’s stead, just as Hugh had to do, now.
Andrew nodded. “Of course, on one condition.”
“And what might that be?” Hugh eyed his friend warily.
“Search through those invitations you have undoubtedly been sent, and respond to the ball that the Baron and Baroness of Chestershire are hosting at Emberwood Manor, for my cousin’s birthday.” He already looked pleased, as though he knew Hugh would have no choice but to agree.
“Miss Keswick?” He vaguely remembered her from certain summers at Curran Chase, when their family had joined the Lockharts, but he would not have been able to identify her in a crowd, even if he had a pistol pointed at his head.
Andrew smiled. “Yes, Miss Keswick. And I am certain that my sister would be excited to see you again, though she ordinarily loathes balls and soirees of any kind.”
“She and I both.” Hugh opened the gate that led out of the graveyard, the two gentlemen walking along the narrow path that wound through the rest of the grounds. He glanced despondently at the house, wondering if its ballroom would ever see music and dancing again. In truth, he could think of nothing worse than hosting such an event, for, as Andrew had pointed out, he would surely be inundated with young ladies seeking his title and wealth.
“Unfortunately, she will not be able to evade this one.” Andrew grinned as though he had ideas brewing in his mind.
Hugh raised a suspicious eyebrow. “Surely, you do not intend to foist the poor girl off on some unworthy suitor?”
“Nothing of the sort. I merely wish for her to be more comfortable in society, and my wish may come true if she attends a ball at her own home,” Andrew explained, his tone softening with admiration for his sister. Hugh could hear it, clear as day, in his voice. “She has had a… trying week, and I want to see her smile again. Actually, I would be pleased if she would even emerge from her bedchamber again.”
“What happened?” Hugh stopped in his tracks, suddenly curious. He may have abhorred society, as a whole, but he knew its inner workings. There were only two reasons that a young lady would resign herself to her chambers—either she had been involved in a scandal, or she had suffered a humiliation. And though he could not remember Eleanor distinctly, she was Andrew’s sister, and that made her welfare important to him.
“A cruel trick was played upon her by the Countess of Glendale, several days ago.” Andrew’s expression hardened. “That is why I went there this morning, in truth, to try and garner an explanation. Naturally, the Countess feigned ignorance and said that Eleanor was, ‘Much too sensitive.’ But I know they intended to humiliate her, I just do not know why.”
“Is it not obvious?” Hugh thought of the young lady, his memories drifting back toward that summer day when he had spared her a terrible fall. It seemed peculiar to him, that he should think of that again, for the second time this week. Perhaps it had been an omen that Andrew would come to him, seeking to coax him out into society.
Andrew squinted at his friend. “Should it be?”
“She is a Duke’s daughter, Andrew. Even the prettiest of ladies cannot combat that. Station will always triumph over beauty, in the end,” he replied sagely. “Were there eligible gentlemen present at this humiliation?”
“Then there you have it. The Countess intended to make her daughter look like the more agreeable prospect at Eleanor’s expense. It is cruel, yes, but exceedingly simple.” Hugh rubbed his chin in thought. “What humiliation did she suffer, exactly?”
Andrew hesitated. “I would prefer not to say, for Eleanor’s sake. The gossipmongers will have done their work by now, so it would be pleasant if she has someone at this ball who does not know what occurred.”
“Regardless, I am sorry that happened. Society is vicious when it wants to be, and the desperate mothers are the most brutal backstabbers of them all.” Hugh tried to remember more about Eleanor, as they resumed their walk toward the house.
She would not speak to me… is that right?
He smiled, picturing a timid creature with a tangle of dark hair and the most peculiar eyes. Like a newborn foal, she had been ungainly and awkward, never saying more than a few words to him unless forced, whereas her cousin and that friend of hers had more than made up for her silence. He supposed he had been a very different sort of fellow, then. His world had been a carousel of leisure pursuits, especially in the summer at his mother’s family seat.
What I would not give to dive into the cool waters there again.
He had made it into his summertime habit, to venture down to a private cove every morning, just after dawn, to bathe in the sea. Now, in this humid, suffocating weather, in this suffocating, silent house, he longed for those days again, more than ever.
“Very well,” he said abruptly. “I will go to this ball, though might you respond on my behalf? Once I begin delving through the pile of letters, I do believe they will drown me.”
Andrew’s eyes lit up. “Of course!”
“When is it?”
“A fortnight on Friday evening,” Andrew replied, clearly overjoyed that his friend would be returning to society.
It might not have seemed proper for him to re-enter that world, so soon after his father’s death, but as long as he wore a black armband, he was certain the eager matchmakers would forgive him. Besides, he knew that if he had to stay here at Steephelm, too many nights alone would drive him to despair. And his family mausoleum did not need another body being buried before its time.
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