About the book
Over everything, I choose you..."
Miss Anastasia Byrds’ life crumbles the day her father passes. Left in the care of her cruel uncle, she is certain she is trapped in a perpetual nightmare. A nightmare that proves real when her uncle arranges her marriage to a man she has only ever heard terrible whispers about.
Clayton Gale, the Duke of Calford, is rumored to be a terrifying man. Having lost his parents at a young age, he has been living in a self-imposed exile, allowing a select few to catch a glimpse of his face. Until the day he meets his bride at the altar.
Their blooming love sweeps them off their feet, like lightning. But what Anastasia and Clayton forget, is that after lighting comes thunder. And when she falls deathly ill, it’s up to Clayton to do everything in his power to save her. A tale as old as time, tune as old as song...To save his true love from harm, the Beast must learn to love...
The mid-morning sun shone over the rolling green hills, the last drops of dew amplifying its rays until it looked as though the farmers had planted diamonds instead of hay. Looking out the upstairs window of Parmbridge Manor where she kept watch at her father’s sickbed, Anastasia could only wish for such a divine and fantastical crop.
“Even one rare gem would mean the difference between hiring a physician to tend to Father and relying on remedies from Mother’s mouldy old household book,” she whispered to her reflection as she leaned her head against the glass dejectedly.
“Daughter, did you say something?” her father croaked, raising a feeble hand. “Can you bring the water?”
“Of course, Father.” Hurrying to his bedside and filling the glass, she helped him to lift his head as she brought the glass to his mouth. “Better now?”
“As always,” he said, gasping slightly as he took a breath and smiled up at her. He closed his eyes, the smile still affixed for her benefit though Anastasia knew he was in constant pain. “But you must go. You must… get ready for the ball.”
The ball, Anastasia thought miserably. It was bad enough to be two-and-twenty years of age and still flouncing about at parties and balls in hopes of finding a husband. So bad, in fact, that Anastasia had all but resigned herself to a life of playing nursemaid to her father until spinsterhood should make a lady on a shelf of her.
Instead, Holly was their only hope. Still only sixteen and as beautiful as any young lady ever to draw breath, she was the one Anastasia gave all her attention to in terms of a Season. If Holly should meet a wealthy man—a titled one being even more fortuitous—then it would not matter if Anastasia ever found a suitable husband. Between Holly’s good fortune and their cousin Erik’s inheritance of their father’s barony, Anastasia would get by somehow.
She might never become a bride or a loving mother, but she would at least be kept from starvation. At this point, it was all she could hope for.
“Yes Father,” Anastasia asked when the Baron coughed, more to get her attention than to alleviate any of the pain in his chest. “The Marquess of Elderbrook is hosting a ball for his son, who has returned from the army.”
“Good, good,” her father answered, nodding.
As if Anastasia could read his thoughts, she cringed at what he must be thinking—a ball filled with eligible officers with distinguished careers of service. A pang of remorse swelled up inside her. How was she to care for her father, be supportive of Erik’s efforts to take ownership of Parmbridge, find a husband for Holly, and also see to her own future? It simply could not be done.
“I must go and see to Holly’s preparations now,” Anastasia said quietly. “I’ll send Mrs. Black in to watch over you soon.”
“Yes, daughter. Thank you,” the Baron managed weakly before closing his eyes again.
Anastasia closed the door softly behind her and went in search of the housekeeper. Other than Mrs. Black, there was one scullery maid who also doubled as their cook, and an elderly butler whose nephew could be called upon to serve as a driver when the need arose. A man came from the nearby village to tend the family’s two horses each day in exchange for being permitted to graze his sheep on the family’s acreage without payment.
It was a simple life in comparison, though Anastasia had to admit that they had all they needed. Theirs had been a loving home, even after the death of their mother when Holly was but two years of age. Now with Father having taken ill so long ago, it felt as though each day were simply a stolen moment of happiness before the sisters were plunged into poverty and despair.
“Nonsense, Anastasia,” Erik had told her during a recent visit. “Though Parmbridge is not prosperous by any means, I do intend to step in where your father has been unable to these past few years. Once the property is again thriving, I will see to it that you and your sister receive a small sum each year. It may not be much, certainly not at first, but it will be sufficient to keep you from starvation. Of course, even should Holly marry, you would be welcome to stay on at Parmbridge for as long as you need.”
Her cousin’s generous offer came with only one terrible problem: apart from Erik’s own wife who would take over the household, Erik’s father was not yet deceased. As the true heir to Parmbridge—despite his age and his own often frail health—Uncle Gideon had the authority to marry both Anastasia and Holly to men of his devising.
“But not if we beat him to it,” Anastasia whispered to her reflection in a looking glass that hung in the hallway. “He cannot overturn Father’s own choice, and Father will be glad of any man his daughters may win over.”
After stopping off in the brewing room to speak with Mrs. Black, Anastasia went in search of her sister. She found Holly in the library, curled up in their mother’s chair with a book. Anastasia should have certainly scolded her, but she couldn’t help but smile.
“So is your new gown somewhere within the pages of that book?” Anastasia chided gently, startling her sister.
“Oh! Anastasia, sorry, I was just… I was putting things away in here and just had to open this one for a moment,” her sister said, her cheeks flaming with a hearty pink blush beneath her alabaster skin.
“It’s all right,” Anastasia said, laughing as she sat down across from Holly. “But if your gown is to be ready for this evening, I must finish it by midday so I can see how much ribbon it will require.”
“I don’t see why we should spend money on ribbon at all,” Holly said, looking down. “It’s not as though men even care about such things.”
“Perhaps not,” Anastasia conceded thoughtfully, “but women care a great deal about it. You want a woman to recommend you to her son or her brother, do you not?”
Holly only shrugged, still looking down. Anastasia reached over and patted her sister’s hand.
“Holly, are you anxious about your Season? Remember, it’s not ‘til next spring, and here in only September you have little to worry about. Think of it as only a rehearsal for your Season next year. It’s enough that you’re out and being seen for now.”
“I know,” Holly answered. “And these events are truly for you to seek a match of your own. I feel selfish taking any attention—or money for ribbons and fabric to sew gowns—from you.”
“You mustn’t feel that way! I’m glad to have your company at these grand events, no matter how they may turn out for us,” Anastasia replied with a bit more happiness than she truly felt. “Come, we’ll finish sewing your gown and think of how to do up your hair. It’ll be great fun, you’ll see.”
“Remember, be mindful of whom you speak with and how close you stand to some of the gentlemen. Even if you cannot hear their words clearly for the music or the talking, it’s important to keep a respectable distance,” Anastasia said as they arrived at the ball that evening, reminding Holly of the most important lessons she’d taught her about being out in society. “And there may well be some men who use the noise to their advantage, speaking so softly that you simply nod politely, only to later find you were agreeing to something unfortunate.”
“I’ll remember,” Holly said, clinging to the sides of the carriage as it swayed over the cobblestones unexpectedly. “Is it always so uncomfortable riding in the carriage?”
“Hmm, I think you’re merely out of practice,” Anastasia suggested before frowning and adding, “or it may be somewhat in disrepair. We certainly don’t use it as often as some people might.”
The Marquess’s house came into view and Holly let out a contented sigh. It did not escape Anastasia’s notice. The poor girl had been withering under the weight of their near poverty and Father’s illness for such a long time that any semblance of luxury made her feel as giddy as Christmas morn.
“Do make sure your dance card does not contain the same names too frequently,” Anastasia reminded her as the carriage pulled up in front of the main door, the lanterns out front illuminating the early autumn evening.
“How often is too frequent?” Holly asked, turning to her sister wide-eyed.
“No more than two dances with the same gentleman, and certainly not in succession to one another. If someone does wish to dance with you so frequently, come and find me at once. He may very well be the sort of man who has taken a fancy to you, which could be either very fortunate or very alarming,” Anastasia said, leading the way out of the carriage when a footman held the door for them.
Together, they climbed the wide, stone steps up to the Marquess’s city house. With the Season fully over and many members of the ton already returned to their country estates, the event would be small but delightful, nonetheless.
“Good evening to you, ladies,” the Marquess said warmly as they entered the home. His smile turned to a look of sincere sympathy. “And your father is not with you, I see. How I miss that dear man!”
“Thank you, My Lord,” Anastasia said after she and Holly had curtseyed before the older man and his wife. “We shall certainly extend to him your greetings the moment we return home.”
“And have you met our newest guests?” the Marchioness asked politely, linking her arm through Anastasia’s as the older daughter, and leaving Holly to follow in their wake. “I want you to meet some of the men who’ve returned with their regiments. Major Honeywell is here, along with several of his captains.”
Anastasia shot Holly a warning glance. Military officers as a whole were not to be trusted, something that Anastasia had schooled her sister in all these years. Too often, they were the second sons of wealthy noblemen, which meant they stood to inherit nothing but pleasant relations. Equally common but far more devastatingly unfortunate, these officers may also be first sons whose behavior had been found to be lacking. Consigning them to a regiment and sending them off to service might make better men of them, but it was just as likely that they might carry on their rakish, roguish behavior while far from their fathers’ watchful eyes.
In any event, a soldier was at once to be kept at arm’s length, no matter how dashing or charming he may be.
“Anastasia, I don’t think I know anyone here,” Holly whispered when the Marchioness finally left them standing in a crowd of guests.
“That’s all right, we shall soon meet other ladies and find much to talk about. You’ll see,” Anastasia replied, taking her sister’s hand and leading her around the edge of the crowd in order to take a turn about the room.
As they passed other suitably dressed ladies, in their long muslin gowns with fashionably cuffed cap sleeves and gauzy layers of skirts gathered above their waists, Anastasia couldn’t help but notice how eyes were drawn to Holly. It was both the gentlemen, and the ladies present who halted their conversations to watch the younger lady float above the floor on delicate, graceful steps. It lifted Anastasia’s spirits considerably to know that Holly was being observed with such looks of approval, though it also meant that Anastasia herself would have to be on her guard to protect her. Already she’d had to direct a fierce glare at a small cluster of leering officers—handsomely appointed and rather rugged looking in their full-dress—which sent them averting their eyes and closing their gaping mouths.
“Must we walk the room this way?” Holly whispered, a faux expression of gaiety on her face. “I feel as though you’re a farmer walking his prized sow before the butchers at market.”
“You would not be wrong,” Anastasia said in Holly’s ear with a light laugh. “I am not only showing the ton this intriguing, beautiful newcomer in their midst, but also ensuring that all of your admirers know there is indeed a farmer with a long, sharp stick to fend off anything untoward. Now laugh merrily as though I’ve said something witty to you.”
“So, what say you to the price per acre of land near the seaport, Byrd?” the loud man in the very tight waistcoat called out from his chair, a plume of smoke from his cigar drifting above like a filmy gray cloud.
Gideon looked in his direction, unaware that his conversation had been overheard. I must keep my voice down when discussing business matters, he thought with irritation before turning and smiling at the man who’d interrupted.
“Well, Payton, I think it’s a damn shame that landowners who have no interest in improving their properties are in a mad dash to sell the land to new businesses, all for an outrageously high price,” Gideon said, trying not to divulge too much of the contents of his conversation with the Duke of Ambrose. “You can mark down that I’ve said as such too, though it won’t be a popular opinion among some of our set.”
“So, a man shouldn’t earn all he can in your esteem?” Payton challenged, laughing as he puffed magnanimously on his cigar. Others nearby joined in his guffaws.
“That’s not what I said at all,” Gideon rebuffed, holding his ground as he sneered at these layabouts. “But if a man has no gumption to enter the world of business, he has no right to hike up the price of his land—land that he likely did nothing to earn other than inheriting well by right of birth—when others are attempting to forge ahead in industry and make this country prosperous again.”
“So, I should just give my land along the coast to any ne’er do well who happens to want to open a seaport?” another man shot back.
“I hardly said anything of the kind, Gray. If a man comes along with a sound plan for a shipping firm and the means to build or acquire the necessary ships and crew, do you not think he has spent his last farthing on those things he will require? And yet, you would go and charge him a king’s ransom for a bit of seashore that is currently serving you no purpose and that you have no intention of building on?”
The grumbling and laughter died down noticeably as Gideon spoke. A few holdouts still waved him off and returned to their games of cards, though others moved to stand nearer and better hear his notions on business.
But he was in no position to expound on it further. He had come to this wretched ball with one goal in mind, and that was finding a moment to speak with the Duke about a wholly different scheme.
Not for his own sake, of course, but for that of his nieces. His brother’s younger daughter was rumored to be quite a beauty and possessing of a pleasant demeanor, though he had hardly seen much of her over the years. The older one, though, gave him pause—two-and-twenty and not yet married?
It was true that there was no mother in the home and Gideon’s brother had been ill for some time, but to permit a girl to pass on into spinsterhood—thus forcing her to remain a burden on her family’s finances for all time—was inexcusable.
With Gideon’s brother perhaps dying at any moment and the barony passing over to him, it was imperative that those useless girls find their way to convenient marriages, and quickly. Heavens above knew the property and the house were hardly worth anything save for the title that went with it, and the last thing Gideon needed was two unmarried sisters draining what resources he could wring from it.
It was only upon his arrival that he had even learned his nieces were here this evening, a most fortunate turn of pace.
Two birds, one net, Gideon thought as he turned his attention once again to the Duke. I shall complete this conversation on the possibility of our venture, then seek out those who can relieve me of these burdens sooner rather than later.
“Tell me, Byrd,” the Duke said when they had concluded their business and were conversing of more amiable things, “what’s all this I hear about your nieces in attendance tonight? It’s practically all anyone could discuss during dinner.”
“Quite so,” Gideon replied, mustering up some semblance of love for the two girls. “They are both out in society now, and as you may know, their father is quite ill.”
“Oh? That is indeed a tragedy.”
“Yes, it is. It is his ardent desire that both of them be married as soon as possible so that he may go to his grave knowing they will be well looked after, you know,” Gideon explained, realizing he may have pushed the boundaries of propriety with such a piteous plea. “You would not happen to know of an ideal match perchance?”
“I might at that,” Ambrose replied. “As you well know, I have several sons. At one time it was thought to be an envious position—an heir and a spare and then some, as they say—but now that the lot of them are all growing up and requiring of some sort of income, it is troublesome indeed.”
Gideon soured noticeably.
A second, third, or—heaven forbid—a fourth son? Impossible. Even that older niece would have nothing but misery with an untitled husband who had to seek his fortune in some way.
She would be a constant thorn in his side, her husband always coming to call with his hand out…
“I see,” Gideon said, attempting to remain diplomatic for the sake of his own business affairs. “Sadly, my nieces must marry into more substantial funds than a spare son might provide. I understand there is some small dowry set aside for each, but it’s hardly worth more than the box that would hold it. Their father’s estate is not very large, I’m afraid.”
“Ah, that is too bad. That’s the way of things these days, isn’t it? Too many titled but penniless nobles seeking marriages to wealthy up-and-comers,” the Duke said with a sigh. “But I shall let you know if I hear of any young men who might meet your needs.”
Gideon thanked the Duke and left him to his conversations, intent on seeking out these nieces and ensuring they knew what was at stake. If their father should chance to die before they were wed, he would see to it personally that they were sent along their way with the first acceptable man a hired matchmaker could procure.
“Miss Byrd, Miss Holly,” the older man said, startling the sisters and causing them to look on him, eyes wide with wonder and lack of recognition.
“Yes, My Lord?” Anastasia asked, feeling slightly dizzy from the awareness that she did not know this man and might be slighting him.
“No lord,” he answered, his thin lips pressed together in what might have been an attempt at a pleasant smile. “It is I, your uncle.”
A silent pause in the space of a fraction of a second passed before Anastasia realized what the man intended. She curtseyed and noted that Holly did likewise.
“Uncle Gideon, you mean,” Anastasia answered with relief. “It is a pleasure to see you again. How have you been faring?”
“Quite well, though I understand the same cannot be said of your father?” the older man asked.
“No, I’m afraid not,” Anastasia said as a cloud of hurt crossed her face. How impolite for the man to be so blithe about it, causing her to wonder if there was some small feud between the brothers that she did not know of.
“That is a shame, to be sure,” their uncle replied, looking around the room as though he had already lost interest in the topic. “Do inform your father that I will be by very soon—”
“I know he will be most pleased to see you,” Anastasia said, smiling happily.
“—to discuss my stepping in as Baron of Parmbridge,” Uncle Gideon continued, ignoring Anastasia’s sentiment entirely. “If he is unwell, perhaps it would be wise to have his solicitor in attendance too. That way, there will be no question of documents or procurements. See to it that someone summons the man.”
“Yes, Uncle,” Anastasia said quietly, dropping her gaze so that he might not see the wounded look in her eye.
“Oh and be aware that I am well informed of your status as unmarried ladies, ones who have had no discussion of suitors at the present,” he continued, already walking away but turning back to make this known. “I shall also speak of my terms for your marriages in the very near future.”
Anastasia stared after his retreating form, pondering for a moment what it would be like to have the fantastical power to cause him harm with her thoughts. She left off those satisfying but rude thoughts when Holly tugged at her elbow.
“Anastasia, what did he mean?” Holly asked, her voice rising with desperation. “His terms? What terms could that be?”
“I am too nervous to think of it at the moment, but I did not like the sound of it,” Anastasia admitted, turning to look at her sister and feeling a wave of sympathy for the girl. “It will all be well, do not worry. But only know this is the cause of my constant, relentless nagging.”
Holly nodded somberly, but Anastasia shook her head. “I mean that with complete earnest. I remind you of proper decorum and chide you for your hair or dress only because I wish for you to seek out a husband for yourself, not be subject to the whims of a man I barely recognized. Do you understand?”
“Of course, Anastasia. But what about you? Are you to endure whatever fate our uncle has in store for you?” Holly asked tearfully.
“Do not fret for my sake,” Anastasia said cheerfully, though inside her heart ached at the thought of her uncle foisting her off on any man who could take her in. “If yours is a happy match, then that is all the joy I require.”
Holly darted up on tiptoe and kissed her sister’s cheek adoringly and Anastasia gave her hand a squeeze. “Come, little sister. Let’s continue to enjoy the fun. There is to be more dancing now that dinner is over!”
“More? Impossible! It is so late already,” Holly said, pretending to fall faint from weariness.
“Should you prefer—and supposing you have been asked—you may take a turn about the gardens with a gentleman of your choosing,” Anastasia said. “I will gladly chaperone the pair of you.”
“Well, there is one man,” Holly said shyly. She gestured with a flick of her chin towards a small group of gentlemen speaking together. When Anastasia followed her gaze, she noted how one of the men looked at the sisters and smiled, raising his glass slightly in greeting. “He is the Viscount of Tarlington, and a particularly kind fellow.”
“Kind? What of his mind? His morals? His countenance?” Anastasia asked, still trying to peek at him without appearing to be doing so.
“I know not,” Holly said, shrugging her shoulders. “After all, I’ve only spoken with him while we danced, or at least as much as a pair of dancers can converse while prancing about to a reel.”
“Then I suppose a walk out of doors will do both of you good. It will give you a chance to speak properly under the watchful eyes of several ladies who can safeguard your reputation!” Anastasia teased. “I shall go and inform him that you are available to be escorted to the garden.”
Holly nodded quickly and waited by the terrace door. Anastasia returned to join her moments later, followed shortly after by a young man Anastasia had not met before the evening began.
“Sister,” Holly began formally, “may I introduce Aiden Powell, the Viscount of Tarlington.” She turned to her acquaintance and added, “My Lord, may I introduce Miss Anastasia Byrd, elder daughter of the Baron of Parmbridge?”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Byrd,” the young Viscount began with a warm smile. “Believe it or not, you were quite the subject of conversation each time I had the good fortune to dance with your sister.”
“Oh really?” Anastasia asked, looking to Holly with an incredulous expression.
“All good things, I promise you, sister!” Holly said, laughing softly.
“Oh, of course!” the Viscount promised, stumbling over his words. “I almost felt as though I’d met you myself, all from the way she spoke such endearing things about you.”
“That is certainly a relief then,” Anastasia said, smiling as she gestured to the doors along one long wall. “Shall we go out?”
The trio moved outdoors, and Anastasia took in a satisfying breath of cool evening air. The scent of phlox growing in stone basins around the terrace belied the season with thoughts of spring, enveloping Anastasia in a feeling of calm that was all too rare these days. She pulled her wrap closer around her shoulders to ward off both the slight breeze and any eyes that might fail to look on her with discretion.
“Good evening, my dear girl,” one of the matronly women seated on a bench nearby said as Anastasia passed. “Care to have a seat with me?”
“Oh, I really must stay close to my sister, but thank you,” Anastasia answered, but the woman only laughed.
“It will be quite all right. There’s nowhere the young lovebirds can go from here where we cannot see them. They might actually be glad to not have you standing so near,” the woman continued.
Not wishing to appear cold, Anastasia obliged. She sat perched on the very edge of the bench and leaned forward, keeping Holly in her sight at all times.
“I take it that is your sister? It is very fortunate that she has an older, more experienced sister who is already a wife and can look out for her,” the kindly woman said, though her assumption pricked at Anastasia’s heart.
“Oh, I am not yet married,” Anastasia replied quietly, as though the stone pillars around them might turn and frown on her.
“No? But your sister is already out in society, and quite young at that? What sort of girl takes a handsome young man for herself and leaves her older sister out in the cold?”
“It was my choice, really,” Anastasia answered, instantly coming to Holly’s defense. “She is the much younger, prettier sister and she is of a lovely age. Besides, it is my wish that she be happily wed and settled in a good match before—well, before I go worrying about myself.”
The woman’s frown of consternation turned to a look of admiration. “That is very smartly said, and you are clearly a selfless, generous girl. Pardon my assuming, but did your mother pass away quite some time ago?”
“Yes, how did you know?” Anastasia asked, pleasantly astonished. “Wait, did you perchance know her?”
“No, my apologies. But it is quite obvious that you are accustomed to looking after your sister and doting on her as a mother would.” The woman smiled and patted Anastasia’s hand sweetly. “Never fear, my girl. They may say that young ladies such as yourself are hard-pressed to find a husband after so many years, but I’ve found it’s not entirely true. There are wealthy older gentlemen in need of second wives, men who were so busy acquiring their fortunes that they had no chance to marry, or even men who simply had business affairs abroad that prevented them from keeping up a household at home. You’ll see, a girl as good-mannered and caring as yourself will find that ideal match in due course.”
As much as she disagreed, Anastasia was glad to hear the old woman’s counsel. Though she had to confess that marriage had been the furthest thing from her mind throughout these hard years, now that her world was about to upend itself, it seemed a most welcome topic.
As Holly and the Viscount took a turn around the terrace and came once again into view, Anastasia saw the look of rapturous happiness on her sister’s face. Her heart nearly burst with joy of her own to see her sister so blissful for once.
Holly snuck her hand up at her side in a tiny wave of greeting to Anastasia, who only nodded in return lest the Viscount be privy to this secret communique between them. She looked completely at peace with the Viscount, and Anastasia had to admit the gentleman looked upon Holly like a puppy greeting an adoring child.
Before long, Holly looked back at Anastasia and cocked her head in a sort of signal to her sister. “Come here,” the look seemed to say. Anastasia darted to her feet and hurried over.
“Anastasia, the Viscount has asked to call on us tomorrow,” Holly said, the elation in her voice barely contained. “Would that be all right?”
“Certainly, My Lord,” Anastasia replied, turning to the young admirer. “We receive visitors at one of the clock if that suits you.”
“It does, Miss Byrd, thank you,” he answered with a charming smile. Turning back to Holly he bowed and said, “Then I shall see you tomorrow. I shall be thinking of our talk all evening, I assure you.”
When he left them alone, Anastasia turned to Holly with anticipation. “Your talk? What talk was that?”
“We had spoken before dinner a few times,” Holly began, but at seeing the look of scorn on her sister’s face, she quickly added, “Oh, we were in a group of guests, do not worry! But that, coupled with the times we were able to speak as we danced, I feel as though he took a fancy to me.”
“That is wonderful news, assuming of course that you are happy about it?” Anastasia asked, permitting Holly a way to avoid the interaction. “Do you even think fondly on this young man?”
Holly nodded quickly, her soft curls dancing with as much delight as the merriment in her eyes. Anastasia smiled and took Holly’s hands before looking on her with earnest.
“Then I shall ensure that all is ready for your guest tomorrow,” she said, though Holly immediately shook her head.
“No, Anastasia. You do everything as it is. I will make sure everything looks nice and Mrs. Black and Margie have something lovely to serve. Besides, you must remember that the Viscount is our guest, not only mine. If this meeting should prove to include something more serious, then it is to your betterment as well as mine.”
“That is very generous of you, Holly. I shall certainly stay out of your way in the preparations, but you must call on me to do any task that you have need of,” Anastasia scolded playfully. “But do not pin your hopes too high on the Viscount.”
“What do you mean?” Holly asked, her demeanor having gone from joyous to mournful in only a flash.
Clayton Gale sat back in his chair and stared at the piles of pages before him. Though he knew some to be bills from creditors and others—many more of them, in fact—to be promissory notes from his customers, he could not help but keep his eyes affixed on the paper itself.
Paper. So many pieces of it, all of it such a costly sum. If people only knew how much even a single leaf could cost, especially if it was of high quality, they might be astounded.
“What I wouldn’t have given for the coins to purchase even one of these pages,” Clayton said to himself, running a hand through his black hair until it stood on end, the streaks of gray showing through even more prominently.
His hunting dog sat up at the sound of Clayton’s voice, looking at his beloved owner with deep, sad eyes. At the sound of the animal jumping up, Clayton reached down and scratched its ears.
“We’ll go out for a jaunt in a while, old boy,” Clayton promised, tearing his gaze from the dog and back to his work while still petting the faithful hunter. “First, I must keep the other hounds from the door—the kind that would see me ruined without a second thought.”
As the dog returned to its ever-present place beside Clayton’s chair and Clayton returned to his pages, a knock at the door sounded. After bidding the butler to enter, Clayton looked at the tray Mr. Ryan carried.
“Your Grace, have you forgotten that Mr. Veardon will be arriving to meet with you within the hour?” the butler asked, eyeing Clayton’s state of informal dress.
“Oh blast!” Clayton growled. “Why did I agree to this again?”
Mr. Ryan was silent, seemingly uncertain as to how to answer or whether he should. It was only after Clayton looked up at him for an answer that he felt called upon to explain.
“Mr. Veardon has had significant success in the endeavor you’re pursuing,” Mr. Ryan began hesitantly. “He is considered one of the best, one of the most successful in his field.”
“And what field is that? The cattle market? Trading in livestock?” Clayton shot back, his voice a growl.
The creases around his eyes only intensified with his quick anger, and the pen he held in his large hand nearly snapped in two as he held it tightly. He already felt out of place at the comically small desk, but it was only because his own height eclipsed it. He knew it was all in his mind, but it seemed as though people ducked out of his way whenever he entered a room, simply to avoid being caught in the path of his giant’s limbs.
Good, Clayton thought, staring down at his work once again and fuming about the visitor. Let them scamper away in fear when I approach.
“I think perhaps Your Grace is simply nervous, if I may say so,” the butler ventured helpfully. “Once you have met with Mr. Veardon and discussed both the terms and the process, I think you might feel much better about the entire arrangement.”
“Arrangement. What an interesting choice of words, Ryan,” Clayton said, scoffing with disgust. “Whose idea was this to begin with?”
“I’m certain we both know it was yours, Your Grace,” the butler answered with a knowing look. “It is a good idea, one of your better ones as of late. Merely think on what it would mean for your business holdings.”
Clayton sobered almost at once, his anger dissipating measure by measure. Yes, his business holdings, his entire reason for living. Anything that would prove to put him in good stead in business would be a welcome tool, regardless of his own discomfort with it.
How had he fallen so far, only to rise back up and renew himself? Clayton had done it entirely from his own hard work and sweat. From his family’s ruin when he was but a young child to the years when he was foisted off on any relatives who would take him in, sometimes for years at a time, he had managed to not only rebuild his family’s empire, but also to eventually buy once again his ancestral home.
His early years had been the first time in more than 400 years that a Gale had not held residence at Eldershire Hall, the seat of his dukedom nearly falling into some newcomer businessman’s hands. As the Duke of Calford, whether he had a shilling to his name or not, he would have roamed the earth in agony at losing what was nobly and rightfully his.
But rebuilding his father’s shipping empire after it had been practically torn out from under him had been no small feat. After his father’s untimely death due to the strain of their circumstances, Clayton had sailed the world, meeting with one merchant or vendor after another and establishing those important ties once again.
And all was nearly complete in his plans, except for one thing.
“Your Grace,” Mr. Ryan said after speaking to a footman who’d come to the door. “Mr. Veardon has arrived early. Shall I seat him in the conservatory and send for your valet?”
“Yes, thank you, Ryan,” Clayton said as he started to stand, but then he stood up straighter and squared his massive shoulders. “On second thought, I will come downstairs as I am.”
“Your Grace?” the butler questioned, unable to complete the sentence while in his state of surprise.
“Yes, this Mr. Veardon should see me as I truly am,” Clayton explained, straightening the cravat at his throat. “Why should I maintain any pretenses? It will only ensure that his task is made even harder.”
“As you wish, Your Grace,” Mr. Ryan replied with a bow. “I will inform him you are on your way.”
Clayton thought that Ryan’s eyes lingered on him for only a few moments longer than necessary, and he hesitated in his stance that he was aptly attired for this meeting.
Perhaps a waistcoat would not do me any great harm, he thought after catching sight of his reflection in the window glass. He shook his head, ignoring the thought. No, this is how I often look, it might as well suffice.
Clayton took his time descending the stairs though, keenly aware of the thundering of his footfalls on the steps. Every movement seemed to only exaggerate his large frame and he did not wish to intimidate his guest. He stepped through the entryway to the conservatory and instinctively ducked his head, despite being in no danger of actually brushing against it.
“Mr. Veardon,” Clayton said in his baritone voice as he walked in. The smaller man leapt to his feet and bowed.
“Your Grace,” Mr. Veardon replied in a rush. “It is a pleasure to meet you at last.”
“Likewise,” Clayton responded, sweeping his arm out towards the chair the man had just been occupying, instructing him to sit once again. “Thank you for agreeing to meet today.”
“Anything, of course,” he said somewhat quickly, overly eager to be of service. “But you were not very forthcoming in your letter. You did not provide me with many pertinent details.”
“Well, I knew that you were titled and a member of the peerage. I also see now that you are an imposing figure, but what of your age?” Mr. Veardon asked, plucking a small leather-bound book from his coat pocket and opening it to a page within. His pencil sat poised over the book, ready to record what was said.
“I am five and thirty,” Clayton answered before realizing that was not much information for Veardon to go with.
“And your occupation? I mean, apart from being the Duke of Calford, that is,” he said as he took down the Duke’s age.
“I own an import company, specifically in bringing wine, teas, and spices from the continent and the Far East,” Clayton said perfunctorily.
“How very exciting! So, do you have the opportunity to travel much?” Mr. Veardon continued, his pencil present and waiting to record it.
“Some,” Clayton answered, feeling slightly more relaxed with the way this meeting was progressing. “Though I have not been abroad in a few years now, I do have the occasion to inspect my fields in other countries or meet with various sellers.”
“Good, good,” Mr. Veardon said as he looked down at his book and scribbled more information. “And pardon my asking such an impertinent question, but what of your annual sum?”
“Yes, from your family’s estate,” Mr. Veardon clarified.
“Oh. That.” Clayton paused long enough that his guest appeared to squirm under the weight of the question, as though it had somehow been a step too far. But Clayton only shrugged. “There was no sum. My family’s fortunes were lost due to a drought that affected the tea fields. That, coupled with a storm that lost one of our ships and all its cargo, left us absolutely penniless.”
“Penniless?” Mr. Veardon repeated, as though appalled by the thought.
“Yes. But everything you see here is owed to the fact that I was able to build my family’s business back up. It has a good way to go before it is as profitable as the company had once been, but it is progressing very nicely.”
“How nicely…?” Mr. Veardon asked, intoning his skepticism in the question.
“Very, very profitable,” Clayton said once again, emphasizing the word so his guest would know not to press the issue further. Still, it was not as though the man had any need of the answer.
“I see. I’ll just mark that down as such,” Mr. Veardon said, slightly subdued.
After only a few more questions made all the more troublesome by the man scribbling everything Clayton said into his book, Mr. Veardon looked up brightly and smiled.
“I think that should be sufficient for me to begin my work,” he said brightly, despite the gloomy air that Clayton expressed. “But I cannot help but wonder, why call me at all?”
“I beg your pardon?” Clayton asked, misunderstanding the question.
“Forgive me for being forward, but it appears as though you have everything already. You are a fine specimen of a man who possesses a beautiful home, a title, a mostly profitable business… I’ve just rarely found such a man as yourself to be in need of hiring me.”
“And you find it so strange? After all, I have it on good authority that you are the one to help in these situations,” Clayton explained, suddenly feeling rather self-conscious.
“Oh, I am, that’s for certain. But I just cannot fathom how it is that you would need my help, that’s all.” Mr. Veardon smiled primly, as though his explanation made plenty of sense.
“Mr. Veardon, I am a man of business,” Clayton said in a low, almost menacing voice. “In my experience, when you have need of something, it is best to let those who have a knack for it to take charge. Even if it costs money, it is wise to leave the necessary things to those who are practiced at it.”
“But that’s precisely it, Your Grace,” Mr. Veardon protested with a welcoming smile. “What is it that you have need of?”
Clayton leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees, looking fervently at his guest. “I am a man of business, but my business is lacking an essential key to the last lock—I am in need of a wife.”
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