About the book
He became the exception to her rule of a loveless life…
Even though she sees people on their happiest day, Miss Eileen Bartlett has vowed never to fall in love. Having inherited her bakery business from her late mother, she aims to become the biggest name in London.
There is nothing Oscar Frampton, the Duke of Alderth, likes more than his freedom. So when his family forces him into marrying a proper lady of the ton, he refuses to take part in the preparations. Until he meets the baker tasked with making his engagement cake.
When he discovers Eileen’s bakery ransacked and her nowhere to be found, Oscar is ready to risk everything to rescue her. With his only lead a breadcrumb trail of scattered pieces, he finds himself standing outside a warehouse known for a very particular, very nefarious reason...A reason that he had a hand in creating.
Eileen Bartlett steeled herself with a deep breath. She had just closed up for the day and had begun sweeping up her bakeshop when she was startled by the sound of plates crashing in the kitchen. And although she was certain that she had bolted the back door, she was worried.
Mother had always said that there was really no way of keeping a determined thief or crook out of one’s home.
And since she now lived alone—for her mother died three months ago—it was completely up to Eileen to deal with the situation as she saw fit.
And while she considered herself a strong woman—as one inevitably becomes when exposed to the intense demands of baking since childhood—she knew that a young woman would probably need more than a broom to fend off an intruder with malicious intent.
So, as quickly as she could, she slipped the day’s total earnings into the pouch around her waist and locked the front door of the shop. She then ran next door to Mr. Mowatt to inform him of the break-in, at which point he grabbed a cricket bat and hurriedly followed her back to the shop.
Together, they now stood in front of the kitchen door. The plan was thus: Eileen would pull the door open so that Mr. Mowatt could focus on using the cricket bat. With a quick, silent nod, Mr. Mowatt set the plan into motion and Eileen yanked the door handle towards her.
Mr. Mowatt charged into the kitchen crying, “Who’s there? What do you want?” and all sorts of other useful questions as Eileen charged behind him with her broom.
She had expected to see broken shards on the floor, but the intruder was neither man nor child, but rather a cat.
“Cookie!” Mr. Mowatt exclaimed with great exasperation as he and Eileen both exhaled enormous sighs of relief. “You treacherous thing! What on earth are you doing scavenging for dinner here when you know perfectly well that I keep your saucer topped up with cream?”
While Cookie was, in a technical sense, Mr. Mowatt’s cat, she never stayed in one place and so their whole street felt responsible for her. Eileen gently shook her head as she took in the sight of Cookie indignantly poised with her back arched and ears folded back. Evidently, the feline was more irritated at the ruined baking bowl than Mr. Mowatt was with her.
“I guess it serves me right, Mr. Mowatt, because while I had remembered to lock the backdoor, look!” Eileen pointed. “I carelessly left the window open. Perhaps Cookie was only trying to warn me of it,” she chuckled. “Ah well, I suppose we better put down our makeshift weapons. Would you care for some tea, Mr. Mowatt?”
Mr. Mowatt, Eileen, and Sally Whittaker—one of Eileen’s oldest friends—sat around the kitchen table sipping their respective cups of tea whilst Cookie, on the kitchen floor, groomed her brown, tabby-patterned coat.
Mr. Mowatt thoughtfully stared off into the distance. “If your poor mother were here, she would still be talking wretched Cookie’s ear off.”
Eileen grinned and stared into her own cup of tea. “Oh, most certainly. And then she would have made a fuss, saying things like, ‘That nasty cat isn’t allowed in this house ever again!’ but then forget all about it the next day.”
Mr. Mowatt put down his cup and gently patted Eileen’s hand, “I know you miss her, Ellie.”
Eileen fought back the lump that was growing in her throat. She knew Mr. Mowatt was not a very emotional man, so even this small gesture held so much meaning when it came from him. Over the years he had become like a father figure to her, and a steady friend to her mother, Edith Bartlett.
Eileen hadn’t been born yet, but her mother said that when Mr. Howard Mowatt first opened his flavored ices shop, he generously offered free ices to everyone on the street. But due to his quiet nature, his selfless act almost failed when most of the neighbors assumed that he was simply trying to pester them into buying the luxury dessert item.
It was only when he extended the ice towards Grandpa Dennis for the third time, did Grandpa finally ask, “Oh! Do you mean to say this is for free?”
From that moment onward, Mr. Mowatt—sometimes affectionately called “Mr. Mo” or “Howie”—became a part of the Bartlett family and did his fair share in watching over Eileen, despite never appearing to take the slightest romantic interest in Edith.
Eileen never met her real father, and neither her mother nor her grandparents told her anything about him. Even just the mention of him was enough to cause Edith to break out into tears. So at a very young age, Eileen decided she wouldn’t bother about her father at all.
He abandoned us, so what’s the point of discussing him? she would tell herself.
Presently, Mr. Mowatt picked up his tea once more and resumed sipping it.
Apparently Sally took this as her chance to chime in, “Would you consider letting out one of the rooms upstairs, Ellie? I think I speak for Mr. Mowatt, as well, when I say that we feel quite ill at ease whenever we think of you living in this place all by yourself. It’s all well and good when I come around to see you in the evenings, but isn’t it terrible to have to go to bed with no one else in the house?”
Eileen shrugged, “My dear Sally, you of all people know that I don’t have time to even worry about such things.”
“Even with Mr. Mowatt’s kindhearted assistance with purchasing ingredients and sorting out the necessary paperwork for the shop, between baking until I’m drowning in pastries and having to sell them until I’m drowning in sweat, I’m so tired when I get to bed that all it takes is for my head to touch the pillow and poof!” she gestured with her left hand for dramatic effect. “I’m transported into the world of sleep. Sleep so deep, in fact, that I don’t dream at all!”
She announced the last part with a tone of pride. Grandpa Dennis always believed there was more value in a hard day’s work than a year’s worth of idleness.
He and Grandma Mary established the Sweetling Bakery themselves and instilled their work ethic in both of their children.
Unfortunately, Uncle Ernest lost his life in an accident at Stellwoods Mill, but Edith followed in her parents’ footsteps and got Eileen into the kitchen practically from the moment she could walk.
Sally knew about all of this, after all, she herself had spent many afternoons sneaking tastes of cake batter and licking the spoons alongside Eileen. However, she still didn’t appear to be reassured by Eileen’s words, but rather than explicitly contradict her, Sally looked to Mr. Mowatt to drive the conversation forward.
In response, Mr. Mowatt cleared his throat and finished the very last of his tea.
“Ellie,” he said with utmost gentleness, “or if you prefer, Miss Bartlett—I keep forgetting that you turned four-and-twenty only last month—perhaps it is about time you considered looking for a husband…”
Eileen immediately scoffed, “Mr. Mo, with all due respect, the very notions of so-called love and marriage are abhorrent to me. Surely you understand my position, for you yourself never married.”
He smiled at her with great patience, “Yes, my dear. And as I sit here before you, a man whose strength wavers a little more every year, whose hair grows more white every day, and whose good-for-nothing knees hurt more every winter, I believe it is a course of wisdom for one to marry while there is still opportunity to do so, especially since you are a business owner. And I also know firsthand how overwhelming it can be to run a shop singlehandedly.”
Eileen waved all of this away, “Yes, yes, then I would much rather hire help than waste time with frivolous things like love and marriage. In the past month alone, I’ve fulfilled orders for three families based in the so-called ‘polite’ wealthier parts of the city. I suppose it would now be practical to hire an extra hand, even if only for the duration of the summer months.”
Both Sally and Mr. Mowatt knew better than to push the topic of marriage any further because they knew very well Eileen’s unwavering stance regarding it.
Eileen flashed them both a small smile, before gulping down the last of her tea.
With her own two eyes, she had witnessed her mother hopelessly pine after her father—whoever on God’s green earth he was.
And while Mr. Mowatt—thankfully—had never taken even the slightest romantic interest in Edith Bartlett, a number of men over the years certainly did. And Edith turned them all down.
As Eileen grew older she gradually realized that her mother, while very warm and kind, was still in deep pain from the disappearance of her father. And when Eileen’s friends started talking about various young men around town that were attempting to win their affections, the only thing that Eileen found herself thinking was, I don’t want to end up with the same pain as mother.
Indeed, Eileen found running the bakery to be a far more productive use of her brain and heart.
Why bother taking unnecessary risks with my heart for a man who will probably leave once he gets what he wants? Mother got on just fine without getting married, and so did Mr. Mowatt. Yes, love can be such a colossal waste of time.
And so Eileen turned the conversation to more practical matters, such as the best way to make frosting out of potatoes. Eventually, Mr. Mowatt—as usual—kindly offered to share his dinner with the young women, for he was well off enough to retain a modest assortment of household staff.
Eileen and Edith would often find themselves too exhausted to cook even a simple meal after locking up the bakeshop for the day, so Mr. Mowatt almost always had them around for dinner.
And even tonight, as she, Sally, and Mr. Mowatt sat around the somewhat scuffed, but still very sturdy dining table, Eileen reminded herself to count her blessings. Even though her mother was no longer around, Eileen was going to make her proud.
Everything will turn out all right, as long as I stay focused on my work.
“And that brings me back to my earlier point, you see, existence—in and of itself—is futility,” shrugged His Grace, the Duke of Alderth, Oscar Frampton.
In response, Jerome Kempton—also known as the Marquess of Gelmerstone—shook his head in disbelief.
“The least you could do, old boy, is speak of happier things. You’re engaged to be married, not earmarked for the grave.”
Oscar shrugged yet again. “Happier things? What has marriage got to do with them? As my mother always says, ‘The purpose of marriage isn’t to bring happiness, it’s to bring worthy descendants’.”
Jerome softly punched his knee, “And my, what worthy descendants you and Lady Caroline shall bring, eh? She’s only the best lady in the whole of England.”
Oscar made no reply.
When Jerome saw this, he couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows, “Very well then! I know you haven’t grown as fond of her, but can’t you see that you have everything the world could possibly offer?” He counted out the items on his fingers, “Title, wealth, land, a most honorable best friend, and now a most beautiful and elegant fiancée. You have essentially sorted yourself out for the rest of your life. Don’t you think you should first appreciate your existence before you denounce it as futile?”
Again, he made no reply. He simply directed his attention to the stately grandfather clock. Eighteen minutes past one in the morning, it said. He and Jerome had been at this match of Speculation for over twenty minutes now.
“I know you’ve been sneaking peeks at my cards, Jerry,” Oscar stated simply.
Jerome grinned wide, “Ah! And here I was thinking that I had done so well at concealing my underhanded scheme.”
Oscar laughed, “You’re fortunate I’m in a good mood tonight, you daft criminal. Tell you what, why don’t we postpone the payout to a later date?”
Jerome let out an exaggerated gasp, “What’s this? An act of kindness for your childhood pal?” He threw his arm around Oscar’s shoulder and pulled him closer. “Or do you perhaps have an ulterior motive?”
“Oh, fine, yes. I was going to suggest that you pay me back by letting me come live with you in your countryside estate for a while, after the wedding and all those other things are taken care of.”
These remarks immediately wiped the smile clean off of Jerome’s face, “Oscar… you would do that to Lady Caroline?”
Exasperated, Oscar stood up from the couch. “You don’t understand, Jerry! What? Don’t you think I’ve tried? I want to grow fond of her. I want to get to know her better and to understand her, maybe even to love her someday, but on my life! She is the most utterly boring and vacuous lady I have ever had the misfortune of meeting!”
“Of course the whole ton loves her! Lady Caroline never disagrees with anyone regarding anything! It’s not because she’s a miracle peacemaker. It’s because all she ever does is smile and nod. It’s no wonder I’ve been contemplating existential conundrums. Until I met her, I had no idea it was possible for a person to be pronounced alive even when she is without a mind!”
“No, my fiancée is not a lady, Jerry. She is a mirror; a mirror whose only purpose is to reflect what society wants her to. Like I said, it’s no wonder everyone loves her so!”
“Everyone but you,” Jerome reminded him.
“Yes. Well, you know me, old boy. My only true love is adventure. But alas, my freedom to explore died when my father did. Now I can only label such inclinations as unreasonable and childish.” He looked at the collection of nautical charts and maps that lined his study and sighed, “I’ve had to set such selfishness aside, for I am the head of this family now. And my duty to it comes above all else. Even so, it’s easier said than done.”
Jerome joined him in surveying the various maps. “I know, old boy. To your credit, you’ve been adjusting to your new responsibilities quite well, in my opinion. Don’t despair now, this is just another adventure. So just keep at it, Ozzie. Who knows? Lady Caroline might surprise you.”
Oscar thought that it was too late at night—and simultaneously far too early in the morning—to continue this debate, so he decided to let his friend’s last remarks slide. But internally, he scoffed at the idea that Lady Caroline could surprise him. Even though he was only thirty years old, he believed nothing in this world could surprise him anymore.
Like Jerome said, Oscar was now basically sorted for life. In other words, his future was already decided. And even now he could tell that it was going to be extremely dull.
Still. It is an honor to uphold the family name.
He silently contemplated the notion as he slipped under his bedcovers. He had a last thought before sleepiness finally overpowered him.
One more surprise, even just one more, would be nice.
“How are the tarts coming along, Daniel?” Eileen asked as she began pouring water into the seasoning tub.
Daniel craned his neck to answer her, “I believe they’re almost ready, Miss Bartlett.”
Eileen nodded. “I suspect so. After all, cherries don’t require a lot of baking. Right, let’s switch roles now, Danny. Do you remember what I showed you yesterday?”
Instantly, the young lad left his position by the oven and started mixing the seasoning tub. At only six-and-ten years of age, he barely had any meat on his arms at all. And yet, he still managed to make the strenuous task look easy.
In the meantime, Eileen got a tray ready and began transferring the cherry tarts onto it. Every now and again, she would check if Daniel was still mixing the seasoning correctly. He may have only started yesterday, but she was happy to find that he was a fast learner and a diligent worker.
That natural spirit of industriousness shall carry him very far indeed.
Eileen was grateful that she had taken Mr. Mowatt’s advice the other day. With young Daniel Warren here, they could get almost twice as much done. True, he knew next to nothing about cooking and baking, but that was all right. At least Eileen now had someone to divide the more manual labor-type tasks with. Not to mention, she was happy to be indirectly helping the Warren family, who lived only two blocks away.
She left the tarts to cool on the table and went to work marking the loaves of bread before putting them in the oven. Thanks to Daniel’s help, she would be able to open at her usual time, eight o’clock on the dot, but now with a significant increase in the variety of pastries she could offer.
If we keep this up, we’ll be able to offer cherry tarts and lemon biscuits for sale every day instead of just twice a week! Oh! Where’d I put my broom?
Howard Mowatt’s cheeks had begun to hurt from all the smiling. He watched his newest customers finish their fourth samples of ices each. Normally he would be ecstatic, but to his irritation, they had only paid for the first serving.
“Even this flavor is most splendid! Wouldn’t you agree, my sweet Caroline?”
Howard silently prayed that they would not ask for yet another free sample. Had the mother not announced that she was the Countess of Balshmire, Howard would have turned out all three of the women onto the street for asking for free tastes of his ices. For this reason alone, he held his tongue. One wrong move and the rumors would spread like wildfire, after which no member of the upper classes would set foot in his shop ever again.
Lady Balshmire turned to him, “I learned about your exquisite ices from Lady Windmoor, you see. She had me around for tea and I was impressed by the apricot ices you prepared for her. Tell me, Mr.… er—”
“Mowatt, Lady Balshmire, Mr. Howard Mowatt at your service.”
“Yes, yes! Well, Mr. Mowatt, I am pleased to see that you are quite capable of consistently producing irresistible desserts. Yes, I do believe we would like to give you the honor of catering for my darling Caroline’s engagement dinner party.”
“Why, I thank you wholeheartedly, Lady Balshmire!” Howard said through gritted teeth as he tried his best to look excited. Something told him that Lady Balshmire would do everything in her power to narrow his profit margin.
“I have a magnificent array of flavors for you to choose from. If you please, you may pick a selection of flavors you deem suitable from this list.”
He put down three lists on the table, one for Lady Balshmire, one for the older daughter, Lady Caroline, and one for the younger daughter, Lady Angelica.
Howard couldn’t help but notice that while Lady Balshmire and Lady Angelica promptly began reading their copies of the list, Lady Caroline simply sat upright with her hands neatly folded on her lap.
Lady Angelica’s eyes lit up, “Mother, look! I didn’t know there was such a thing as grape ices. We could potentially surprise the guests with such an unusual treat.”
“We’ll see, Angelica. But it’s Caroline’s party, after all, so she should be the one picking out the flavors.”
At this, Lady Angelica rolled her eyes and lay her list on the table.
“My lovely Caroline, why aren’t you going through the list?”
“I’m fine with any flavor, Mother. If Angelica would like grape ices, then that’s fine, too.”
In the end, Lady Balshmire selected four of the flavors—apricot, lemon, burnt hazelnut, chocolate—and was finally persuaded by Lady Angelica to get grape as well.
Following a lengthy discussion regarding the pricing, Howard realized that Lady Balshmire, though keen on free samples, would not be holding anything back for her daughter’s engagement dinner party. So he took it upon himself to make a suggestion.
“Pardon me, Lady Balshmire, but I have often been told that ices are best eaten along with even sweeter things such as cakes and tarts, or with something more complementary such as biscuits. Would you perhaps be interested in those sorts of complementary pastries?”
Lady Balshmire let out an atrocious laugh, “Well, of course we were already considering getting a cake! How could we possibly throw an engagement dinner party without a proper lineup of desserts?”
“How very true, Lady Balshmire. And if you happen to have a moment, please allow me to escort you to the bakery next door. The owner has been familiar with my ices for decades now, and I do believe she would be the best-equipped baker to craft complementary desserts for the flavors you have selected.”
After a brief pause, Lady Balshmire finally replied, “Very well. Before we go, however, do you have any more chocolate ice samples?”
Eileen carefully set the platter down before her newest potential customers. “As you can see, Lady Balshmire, this is one of the many different arrangements and assortments we offer. We would be able to produce as many assorted platters as you require alongside any cakes Lady Caroline would prefer.”
Lady Balshmire didn’t say anything in return, she simply nodded to her daughters and they began picking up various pastries. Lady Caroline picked up the same pastry as her mother, cherry tarts, while Lady Angelica chose a lemon biscuit. They carried on eating in silence for some time while Eileen and Mr. Mowatt exchanged looks.
At last, when most of the pastries on the platter had been consumed—mostly by Lady Balshmire—the noblewomen reached their verdict; or rather, Lady Balshmire had reached her verdict. “Yes, I believe these pastries would pair well with Mr. Mowatt’s ices. Oh! You should have brought some more of your ice samples here, Mr. Mowatt! Then we could have had a proper tasting.”
Eileen almost snorted from laughter because she could tell by the terrible vein that had suddenly appeared by Mr. Mowatt’s right temple that Lady Balshmire was quite keen on his free ice samples.
With a fake laugh and an even faker smile, Mr. Mowatt replied, “You are quite right, Lady Balshmire. How careless of me! But it is wonderful that the pastries are to your liking.”
They went through similar motions once more as Eileen brought out a cake for the ladies to try. She hadn’t been expecting to be examined today, so she had only prepared two lemon cakes. Of these, she reluctantly brought out one and was thus a bit sorry to see Lady Balshmire devour more than half of it while her daughters had a slice each.
I can’t tell if this is really what Lady Balshmire’s appetite is typically like or if it’s just overexcited because she knows that she’s getting this all for free.
Eileen silently kicked herself for bringing out the entire cake. She probably would have done better to cut it in half first, and then iced it a bit to make it look whole again.
Still, my efforts to make an impression will be worth it as soon as Lady Balshmire says yes to having me cater the desserts.
But what if she doesn’t say yes?
I might have to lower Daniel’s wages for a week or so. The noblewoman has eaten almost enough to put me out of business already.
Thankfully, Lady Balshmire said yes.
“I don’t mean to scold you like children, but I can’t help but notice that you’re both fidgeting, ladies,” Mr. Mowatt said.
Sally and Eileen grinned at each other, “Oh yes, don’t you feel like fidgeting, Mr. Mowatt? It’s always exciting to get a chance to peek into fancy houses.”
The coach had dropped them off in front of the gates of the Goldsmith residence and now the three of them were making their way up the pathway towards the servant’s entrance at the side of the impressive house.
“We’ll be doing a lot more than simply peeking, Ellie. Remember, we’re here to make the necessary arrangements with the butler and other members of the household staff.”
Eileen threw her head back, “I know, I know, Mr. Mo. I suppose I am a bit overexcited and anxious at the same time. It’s just that this is my first elite client since Mother passed. I’m a bit worried I’ll suddenly discover that I can’t handle these sorts of catering jobs without her.”
“Don’t fret, Ellie!” piped Sally. “I shall always be right here. Between you, me, and Daniel, we shall prepare the most delectable cakes and tarts they have ever tasted. Just you wait, after this party, you’ll have a line of stylish nobles waiting outside your shop.”
The housekeeper, Mrs. Pratt, welcomed them cordially. She showed them straight to the kitchen so that they could sit down with the head cook, Mrs. Wilson, and discuss the delivery and storage of the food. Thankfully, Mr. Mowatt did most of the talking on their behalf, but they soon learned something quite surprising.
“What?” exclaimed Mr. Mowatt incredulously, “Do you mean to say that the engagement party is still four weeks away?
Mrs. Wilson nodded, “Yes, Mr. Mowatt, the date has been set for the 31st of May.”
He scratched his head. “Pardon my outburst, Mrs. Wilson. I’m just quite surprised. When Lady Balshmire came into our shops yesterday, she gave us this address and urged us to visit by today or tomorrow in order to begin planning. Based on the imperativeness of her tone, both Miss Bartlett and I had assumed that the dinner party would take place at some point next week!”
Mrs. Wilson gave a dry chuckle. “Quite understandable, Mr. Mowatt. Lady Balshmire came home yesterday and told Mrs. Pratt and I to expect you. I imagine that you’re thinking that four weeks’ advance notice and preparation time is quite unnecessary for things like ices and cakes. Well, you’re absolutely right in that regard. But I suppose we cannot blame Lord and Lady Balshmire for wanting to impress their daughter’s future in-laws. The entire household is on edge and tensions rise higher every day as we endeavor to keep up with Lady Balshmire’s ever rising standards for perfection.”
“That sounds quite exhausting,” chimed Sally sympathetically.
Mrs. Wilson let out a hearty laugh, “Oh, don’t feel too sorry for us, child. Very soon you lot shall also share our miserable plight. I believe you shall be trouncing in and out of this house no less than once or twice a week bearing various iterations of your tarts and ices until Lord and Lady Balshmire agree that they are satisfactory.”
As was characteristic of his personality, Mr. Mowatt didn’t appear to be fazed by this. And if her mother were still alive, Eileen wouldn’t have worried about a challenge like this. However, now that she was bearing total responsibility for the shop, she worried that failing this job would make her a letdown to her family.
What if I botch the cake and Lady Balshmire warns everyone in high society to stay as far away from our bakery as possible?
But then Eileen reminded herself that there were still roughly four weeks to go.
Plenty of time to craft the perfect desserts.
She just needed to make sure that she didn’t disappoint Lady Balshmire during the prep and trial stages leading up to the party.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Wilson. Since we’re here, would it be possible for us to see the dining room in which the food will be served? Being able to see the layout of the table and the previous courses would help Mr. Mowatt and I to plan and arrange the best possible designs for the assortment of desserts Lady Balshmire ordered.”
“Of course, Miss Bartlett! Right this way, please.”
The sooner we get started, the sooner we can get paid and get this over with.
“I hope you don’t mind, Your Grace,” said Lady Balshmire in her shrill voice. “But darling Caroline showed me the letter of proposal you sent her because—and I hope I’m not embarrassing her when I say this—she was just giddy with joy! Wasn’t she, dear?”
She turned to her husband, Lord Balshmire—Ambrose Goldsmith, the Earl of Balshmire—as she spoke the last sentence.
Lord Balshmire nodded thrice and smiled as he remarked, “Yes, yes, that’s right.”
So Lady Balshmire turned to Oscar once again and carried on, “And Your Grace, you certainly have a way with words! The letter was so heartfelt, yet eloquent and dignified. I was half-tempted to have it published so that the world would realize your talents!”
Oscar laughed to hide his discomfort. He felt awkward, knowing that he didn’t actually formulate a single word of that letter except the signature of his name at the bottom. He gave a quick side-glance to his mother—Henrietta Frampton, the Dowager Duchess of Alderth, and the true author of the letter.
At first, she nagged him relentlessly to write the letter himself. After a few days, he relented and produced a letter so unfeeling that his mother called it offensive. So he wrote draft after draft as a way of pulling her leg.
But she soon grew impatient. She cornered him one day and dictated every word of the letter herself, accusing him of deliberately stalling and unnecessarily prolonging the entire process, especially since Lord Balshmire had already given him his blessing.
Today supposedly marked a significant milestone in their engagement, for the marriage settlement had finally been sorted. Lord Balshmire balked when Mother had suggested involving lawyers—he asserted that their services were best reserved for families who couldn’t see eye-to-eye, whereas the Framptons and the Goldsmiths were almost perfectly synchronized.
“Involving lawyers will only bog us down,” Lord Balshmire stated matter-of-factly.
And, of course, this line of reasoning eventually persuaded his mother because she dreaded the very possibility of delaying the marriage any more than was necessary.
When Oscar expressed his frustration that she was always rushing him to get married, she returned that it was because he was far too slow at procuring an heir.
Presently he looked around the Goldsmiths’ lavishly furnished drawing room. He and his mother shared one couch, Lord and Lady Balshmire sat on their respective armchairs, and Lady Caroline and her younger sister—I keep forgetting her name—sat next to each other on another couch. They all sat facing an antique-style mahogany table, on which rested everyone’s—now empty—teacups and saucers, haphazardly strewn about.
Oscar actually had his eye on the newspaper near Lord Balshmire’s end of the table, as well as the stack of thick books that sat on the pianoforte.
Never before had he so badly craved anything to read or do, just anything to get his mind off of the mind-numbingly dull and self-congratulatory conversation the parents were using to metaphorically pat themselves and each other on their backs.
His eyes fell on his wife-to-be, who as usual appeared to be perfectly content to smile and nod. He sighed inwardly. With the engagement party only four weeks away, he desperately needed to find some sort of connection or spark with his bride-to-be.
If I am to raise children with her, I might as well get to know her. After all, if I become a terrible husband, becoming a terrible father is not a far off possibility.
So for the sake of his family, her family, their offspring, and his sanity, Oscar spoke up. “Pardon me, Lord Balshmire, Lady Balshmire, the weather’s so lovely today. I was wondering if you would permit Lady Caroline and I to stroll around your beautiful garden before luncheon?”
Now that he had gotten her away from her parents, and with a footman acting as chaperone, Oscar presumed that now was as good a time as any to finally see if he could draw out Lady Caroline’s true nature.
“Have you had the chance to read anything interesting lately, Lady Caroline?” he asked as politely as he could.
“I am afraid not, Your Grace. I prefer watercolor painting,” she replied sweetly.
At last! I was worried she just spent her days smiling and nodding while she listened to her parents drone on and on.
“Painting, you say? Maybe one day, if you like, you can show me your work.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
And with that dead-end answer, the hope of a meaningful conversation appeared to die once more.
Still, Oscar was not a one to give up so easily, “What do you usually paint, Lady Caroline?”
“Trees, plants, flowers, bees. I usually look for inspiration right here in this garden.”
“I see! Well, perhaps for our honeymoon I shall take you to the steep hills of Saint Leys. The meadows seem to never end! What do you say, Lady Caroline? Does the prospect of travelling seem agreeable to you?”
This was the first time Oscar saw her smile waver. “Pardon me, Your Grace, wouldn’t it be better for us to remain in town?”
He sighed inwardly once more before asking, “I see. I take it that you are not fond of travelling?”
“No, Your Grace. I quite like familiar faces and places.”
Well, I suppose I could have easily guessed as much. Ah well, at least we made some progress today, I’ve finally found something that Lady Caroline doesn’t agree with.
But given the fundamental differences in their personalities, Oscar suspected he would find a great many more incompatibilities. He had hoped that her differences would complete him and vice versa, but their total incompatibility might actually lead to their mutual ruination.
He sighed again, outwardly this time. “I suppose we better head back inside now. Thank you for the wonderful company, Lady Caroline. I hope you don’t mind but I would like to smoke a cigar out here before rejoining you all.”
She didn’t mind.
Alone at last, he decided he would relish this rare moment of respite by sneaking off to stand by the tall hedges near the western side of the house.
But even as he blew out his first few puffs of smoke, he heard a woman start coughing and an irritated voice called from the other side of the hedge.
“Excuse me, sir, would you mind doing that somewhere else?”
The hedge was so thick that Oscar couldn’t see who it was that had addressed him so forwardly. Judging by the voice, he at least knew it was neither his mother nor any of the ladies from the Goldsmith family.
If I can’t see the owner of the voice, then she most likely can’t see me, either.
“With utmost respect, O voice from the hedge, I believe that unless you are a garden fairy or a pixie, you likely have neither authority nor jurisdiction to boot me from this quiet garden spot which I happen to find convenient for a cigar.”
A condescending chuckle came from the other side. “Do my ears deceive me, or am I speaking to a full-grown man who not only believes in, but yields to the whims of pixies? In spite of my lack of jurisdiction, sir, I would appreciate it if you smoked anywhere else in the garden. It’s just that I’m trying to make a good impression and I don’t think having my clothes smell like your cigar smoke would help me in that regard.”
Oscar was almost speechless. Being the eldest—and only—son of a Duke meant that never before had he needed to justify his presence. This new experience was annoying yet oddly refreshing at the same time.
“Then may I ask, Miss, why you don’t take it upon yourself to move elsewhere? Truth be told, I don’t believe hiding in the hedges would help you make a good impression anyway—unless, of course, your aim is to impress the pixies,” he teased.
Growing increasingly annoyed, the voice sailed over the hedge yet again, “For your information, good sir, I chose this spot so that I could remove the tea stain from my gown. One of the maids tripped while carrying a tray as we passed each other in the hallway. It so happened that one of the cups had quite a lot of tea left in it, and now it’s over the front of my gown. Just imagine what Lady Balshmire would think if I happened to run into her in this state!”
Oscar laughed, “Ah, are you trying to avoid her, too? In that case, I believe we have a compromise,” he called as he promptly put out his cigar. “I won’t smoke anymore as long as you don’t boot me from this conveniently secluded part of the garden. I take it that you chose this spot for the same reason as I—the tall hedges obscure the views from the windows on this side of the house.”
He heard, “Exactly, sir,” which was immediately followed by the sound of water sloshing around in a jug.
“Pardon me, Miss, if you’re thinking of pouring water on the stain, I have to ask—do you have a handkerchief to dry it off?”
“Yes, although it’s not one of my best ones. I’m afraid it’s rather thin and is quickly becoming drenched.”
Oscar immediately drew out his own folded handkerchief from his pocket and hurled it over the hedge. “Here you go then, Miss. You can keep it if you like.”
“Keep it? Absolutely not, sir! It looks quite expensive. I don’t believe I could bear to use it to wipe a tea stain.”
He chuckled, “Well, I suggest that you don’t feel too bad about it, Miss. After all, if I’m not mistaken, it’s probably my fault you have so much tea on you in the first place.”
“I’m not sure I’m following you, sir. But since my handkerchief is now damp and practically useless, I shall use yours and then wash it before returning it to you.”
He smiled. “You don’t have to, Miss. But I suppose I wouldn’t mind running into you again. May I ask your name?”
“Eileen Bartlett, sir.”
“Right. Well, Miss Bartlett, I think it is only right that I apologize. Like I said, it was likely my tea that the maid spilled on you because if I remember correctly, I was the only person in the drawing room who hadn’t finished my cup, and everyone else’s was bone-dry.”
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
He rolled his eyes but with a smile, “Oh, never mind. Well? Has the stain come out yet? I’d quite like to meet the woman who’s apparently trying to make a good impression on the Goldsmiths. Who knows? I might even put in a good word for you if I get the chance. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, exactly why are you so anxious to impress? Are you not already a friend of theirs?”
An incredulous, “Ha!” sailed over the hedge this time. Miss Bartlett continued, “You’re quite the joker, sir. In short, Lady Balshmire hired me to do the cakes and the pastries for the upcoming engagement party. So I came to sort out the necessary delivery and storage arrangements, as well as to inspect the dining room. It was going well until the maid spilled what you keep insisting was your cup of tea on me, Mr.— er— Oh! How rude! I haven’t even asked for your name.”
“My apologies, sir. I’m almost done. If you could just give me one more moment, I shall come around the hedge shortly. I need to thank you properly for being so patient with me.”
Before Oscar could respond, he noticed Seton, the Goldsmiths’ butler, strutting around the front garden, most probably looking for him.
I forgot it was almost time for luncheon! I must be irresponsibly late at this point!
“I’m afraid I have to go, Miss Bartlett. But you mentioned you bake cakes and pastries, correct? Pray tell, where could I find them, apart from the er... engagement party?”
Eileen dabbed the handkerchief a bit faster, “Oh, do you really have to go, sir? I should be done any second now. But to answer your question, I happen to own Sweetling Bakery on Lesnall Street. Perhaps you’ve heard of it; it’s right next to Mowatt’s Ices Parlor. Ah! I think I’m mostly dry now. I shall be with you in a moment!”
She folded up the handkerchief as she walked around to the other side of the hedge by passing under the leafy arch, but when she looked around, there was no one and nothing there, save for a prematurely extinguished cigar lying on the path.
Pity, I always wondered what a grown man who believes in fairies would look like.
Now that she wasn’t busy dabbing the tea stain, she could take a proper look at the handkerchief.
A little bit of soap, and I’ll have the handkerchief back to its original state, good as new!
But as Eileen inspected it more closely, she let out a small gasp because she was just now noticing the extremely fine quality of the silk.
What sort of man would just toss this over a hedge to a total stranger, tell her she could keep it, and then saunter off without so much as knowing who it was he had spoken to?
Even though it must have been about half past twelve in the afternoon with the sun cheerfully shining down from above, Eileen began to shudder. Even the poor little cigar, which the mysterious gentleman so quickly put out by mercilessly trampling on it, appeared to be of a superior quality.
Eileen’s nervousness only increased. She tried to remember exactly what she had told the anonymous man. She buried her face in her hands as she remembered how she so recklessly quipped and made jokes at his expense.
I was just so focused on the stupid tea stain that I didn’t bother to watch my mouth! I wasn’t thinking straight!
She groaned in agonizing embarrassment.
On the bright side, at least he never saw my face. Even if we happened to run into each other, we wouldn’t know it. And besides, if he really is a person of power and wealth, then I will probably have no cause for running into him again.
With these internal self-assurances, Eileen found a measure of solace. She swallowed a few deep breaths and then went back inside the house.
From the moment the coach door shut behind him and before he had even touched his seat, his mother was exclaiming, “Embarrassing! Utterly embarrassing! You were inexcusably late for the luncheon as though you were an eight-year-old! Worse even! Small children are renowned for being forgetful while they’re out playing, but what excuse does a duke have?”
Oscar knew better than to respond at this point. He knew that she was only getting started so he settled in for a long lecture.
“I was uneasy as soon as I saw Lady Caroline come back on her own. She said you wanted to smoke and I almost laughed because since when do you smoke before luncheon, if at all?”
Oscar drew back the curtain of the coach and looked outside the window.
“What can I say, dear Mother?” he turned to look her in the eye. “It can be exhausting to pretend to love someone.”
She folded her arms in response, “Oscar, please don’t start! How many times do I have to tell you that you don’t have to pretend to love her? You just need to assure her and her parents that you will see to her needs even after the wedding.”
“That actually sounds even more exhausting.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, “If you felt like going for a smoke, you should have at the very least come back to the drawing room and invited Lord Balshmire, and then shared a cigar with him. They were kind enough to have us over for luncheon and they’re even arranging the engagement dinner party.” She rubbed her hands together nervously. “I know how charming and agreeable you can be, Oscar. Why don’t you use some of that wit and friendliness to win over the Goldsmiths?”
Oscar raised an eyebrow, “That’s exactly what I was trying to do when I invited Lady Caroline out.”
“Yes, but doing so ended up being more to your detriment than your benefit because you then sent her back to the house alone and were so late for luncheon they had to send their butler after you.”
As Oscar recalled the mysterious woman in the hedge, he felt a grin coming on so he hastily turned to face out the window again, lest his mother notice it and then accuse him of not taking his engagement seriously.
I am taking it seriously. But if I am to give my life over to my duty, I might as well have some fun carrying it out. Besides, I know the Goldsmiths would—
He froze. As their coach waited for the gates of the Goldsmith residence to fully open, Oscar could see an older man and two young women make their exit through the pedestrian gate. None of them appeared to be of noble birth, but one of the women—the one with her light brown hair pulled back—had the ever so slightly visible remnants of a tea stain near her stomach.
Oscar’s jaw dropped.
Could it be her? It must be her, right? Yes! Unless… maybe someone else had an accident involving tea? No! That would be quite ridiculous. That’s her, isn’t it?
These questions continued to gnaw at him even long after she was out of sight. But there was a simple way to get the answers.
Looks like I shall be paying a visit to Lesnall Street tomorrow.
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