About the book
"I love you because the entire universe conspired to help me find you.”
Lady Edyth Oakden has been living with a weight on her heart: She's been in love with her best friend all her life. Still, there is something holding her back: If Brandon does not return her feelings, not only will their friendship be ruined, but so will her chances to make her family proud.
Brandon Risewell, Marquess of Belton, is not your typical noble. Resourceful businessman but introverted, he'd rather stay away from the public eye, much to his strict father's dismay. Especially when rumors about Edyth's upcoming nuptials to someone start circling the ton. Someone who is not him.
Much like in their business world, love is often unpredictable and unforgiving. And when Edyth and Brandon finally find their way down the aisle, hand in hand, they are not ready to see that it leads to a bloodied altar. All it takes is one little push...
London, September 1814
Lady Edyth Oakden sat in the garden of her father’s London townhouse and watched as her friends, Brandon and Jeremy, fired the shuttlecock back and forth.
Jeremy ran after it, his long, brown hair whipped around his cheeks in the sun while Brandon stood, a smug grin on his face, knowing he’d bested his friend. However, to both Brandon and Jeremy’s surprise, the latter managed to hit the shuttlecock at the very last moment, propelling it into the air and thus scoring, the point awarding him his victory.
“By Jove, yes! This is the first time I’ve ever won a game against you.” Jeremy beamed and Brandon stuck his tongue out at him, but grinned. Theirs were never games played in earnest, they were a pastime they both enjoyed, although at times they were rather competitive.
“Or perhaps I let you win because you’re about to leave us for months. Perhaps I wanted to send you off with pleasant memories, rather than another crushing defeat, eh wot?”
Jeremy shook his head, his blue eyes glistened in the afternoon sunshine.
“I should think not. You cannot stand to lose, no matter the reason. But we are fortunate as we have a captive audience who can tell us if my victory was valiantly earned or handed to me out of charity. Now, Edyth, what do you say?” He spun on his heels, a wide smile on his face.
Edyth shook her head. She had been friends with the two young men, Brandon Risewell, the Marquess of Belton, and Jeremy Hennessy, the Earl of Hillfield, since their childhood days. And as such, she knew it was best not to be drawn into such a debate with her two closest friends. When she was, it never ended well.
“I shall remain impartial—the same way I always am. You will have to engage the services of someone other than myself to settle your dispute.”
Jeremy raised his arms.
“The lady wishes to remain impartial, Brandon. What are we to do now?”
A deep voice sounded out from the bench to their right where Edyth’s father, the Earl of Charhelm, sat with his head buried in a novel.
“I must agree with Jeremy, he won the point quite fairly.”
Brandon turned to Edyth’s father and raised his hands in mock despair.
“Lord Charhelm, how can you forsake me so? Is not my father your dearest friend?”
Edyth’s father broke into a smile. “So he is, but so was Jeremy’s father. The three of us were always a notorious trio, almost as notorious as the three of you.” He winked at his daughter who chuckled. “Thus, I have no favorites. If you wish, you may use the billiard room to settle your disagreement with another game.”
The two looked at one another but then, Jeremy shook his head.
“I am afraid I am not able to. I must return home and ready myself for the journey. I have yet to pack.”
Suddenly, Edyth’s smile vanished from her lips and a sense of loss spread throughout her chest. She, Jeremy, and Brandon had been the best of friends since their childhood days. Their fathers’ strong friendship, and the subsequent close connection between their mothers, had trickled down to the three of them. All born within two years of each other, they were more siblings than friends.
The three of us have not been apart for any length of time since Brandon and Jeremy went to Eton. Faith, I still recall how lonely I was during those times when they were at school. How sad I felt every time I watched them depart for another school year—and how happy I was to see them return.
Since graduating from Eton, the three had hardly been apart, especially the two young men. They’d started a business of their own—importing furs from Canada—which saw such success it was almost unprecedented. In these days, when members of the nobility found themselves forced to take up trade to maintain their standard of living, many lords tried their hand at a variety of businesses.
Edyth’s father was invested in a mine, for example. However, few saw such success as Brandon and Jeremy had with their fur imports. All of London, it seemed, was eager to have their muffs made out of their beaver, and lately, bison furs, and to have their fine coats and redingotes lined with the same. Until recently, nobody but the two of them and their company, Fine Furs Imports, imported from Canada, assuring their success.
For the past year, however, competitors had sprung up, causing them to suffer lower than usual profits. So bad was the situation they’d decided Jeremy had to travel to Canada to speak with their suppliers personally in order to maintain their good relationship and assure the best rates.
“I wish you did not have to go,” Edyth cried out to Jeremy, while Brandon retrieved the shuttlecock and rackets so his valet could take them away. “I wish you did not have to go so far away. It is dangerous, I am sure of it. The crossing alone is hazardous.”
Jeremy shook his head and sat down next to her on a checkered blanket in the grass.
“It is perfectly safe, I assure you. Many travelers go to Canada. I shall not put myself into undue danger.”
Edyth sighed deeply when Brandon joined them. He was dressed in a pair of trousers, as opposed to Jeremy, who always preferred breeches. She frowned and realized she’d never seen either of them in any other attire than their standard. The two young men shared a passion for fashion and often purchased new waistcoats and tailcoats at a frequency that alarmed Edyth. She hardly ever requested a new gown from her father, aware of the high cost.
And Brandon and Jeremy certainly ought to be more frugal, especially now.
“What is the matter? You’re ever so Friday-faced, Edyth,” Brandon commented as she sighed and shook her head.
“She is worried I might run into trouble in Canada, seeing how I have a penchant of not behaving myself,” Jeremy chuckled but Edyth was not in the mood for jesting.
She truly was worried. She’d never been to Canada but she’d heard frightful things about the American West. And surely, the distance between the two couldn’t be so far as to eliminate the possibility of trouble during her friend’s journey. Or could it? Edyth didn’t truly know anything about the geography of the region. She knew it was large but it could not be as large as to eliminate danger. She resolved to find a map of some sort to calm her anxious mind once she had the opportunity to do so.
“Jeremy will take good care of himself. After all, the success of our business depends on it. I would go with him, but one of us must stay here to manage our affairs, and Jeremy is the one who speaks French. Thus, he must go to speak to our suppliers in Montreal,” Brandon said with a serious tone that even caused Jeremy to stop his act.
“You know I will do all I can to protect our investments.”
Brandon plopped down on the grass in front of them and the three sat in a semi-circle, the way they always used to when they were children, playing with marbles.
Edyth blinked her honey-brown eyes at the two men who were like brothers to her. She didn’t have as close a relationship with either of her older siblings due to their large difference in ages.
“I know you will. Who would have thought we’d have competition so soon? Not many other companies invest in fur. Everyone is concerned with importing silk and muslin from India, or sugar and tea. Nobody was importing fur until recently.”
Jeremy sneered. “You are right. It wasn’t until that goosecap, Lord Headdon, started his own business that we ran into trouble. He inspired others and now look at what we are facing.”
From the table, Edyth’s father cleared his throat again.
“Jove, how I miss the days when the aristocracy did not have to involve themselves in trade.”
“I am afraid those days are behind us, Lord Charhelm,” Jeremy said with a shrug. “Anyhow.” He stood up and smoothed his shirt. “I shall have to go home and continue my preparations.”
Edyth jumped up right away and faced him. “When does the ship depart?”
“This evening, thus I must make haste,” Jeremy smiled at her but there was a sadness in his eyes she couldn’t ignore. “I shall be back very soon, you will see. Nine months will fly by and before you know it, I will be back here to torment you and beat Brandon in games of billiards.”
“I know you will,” she said quietly. “But I shall miss you. I will come to the dock with you to see you off,” she declared.
Jeremy shook his head. “I do not think you ought to come with me. It would make departing all the harder for me to see the two of you, my dearest friends, left behind.”
“Surely, you will want me to come,” Brandon said, the surprise evident in his voice as he stood up.
“No, Brandon. Please, do not make my departure harder by coming to the dock. I’d rather say my farewells here and now. I’d like to hold on to the memory of my sweet victory for as long as possible and think of the two of you here in the garden where we always have such fun. That is all.”
Brandon shuddered. “You speak as though you are never coming back.”
“He may not, if he meets a pretty lass in Montreal. We might receive a letter telling us he’d decided to stay,” Edyth said. The desire to ease the mood beat strong inside her chest.
“Indeed, Edyth. I shall run off and marry, never to be seen again,” Jeremy chuckled. For a moment, the heaviness between the three lifted and they looked at each other, smiling. But then, Brandon extended a hand to his friend.
“Very well. We shall bid you farewell and wish you Godspeed.”
Jeremy shook his friend’s hand and then pulled him into a hug.
“As I said, time will fly. You shall have to make a detailed report of the Season, which will start shortly. I will want to know what’s on-dit the moment I return. Save me all the scandal sheets as well, Edyth.”
“Scandal sheets?” she said in mock surprise. “I do not indulge in such frivolous entertainment.” She grinned, for of course she did, any young lady enjoyed reading what was in the Morning Gazette. She and her sister, Sophie, spent many a Sunday morning after church sitting in the drawing room attempting to decipher just who was hiding behind the thinly obscured initials in the scandal sheets. Who might Lord P. be, who was seen leaving Almack’s with Lady S.? And who was the mysterious rake Mr. G., who was seen compromising one lady or another one night after the opera? At least they did, before her sister’s marriage. It was all in good fun—until one ended up in the scandal sheets oneself.
“Edyth!” Jeremy called out and poked her in the elbow. “You’re already dreaming about reading the newspapers again, aren’t you? For one so quick-witted and intelligent, you spent too much time indulging in such silliness.”
“Faith, Jeremy, how I shall miss you lecturing me,” she replied with a wide grin. She loved how the three of them could challenge one another in a good-natured way. When she attempted to scold her sister in such a way, Sophie always declared herself mortified, but with Brandon and Jeremy, she knew none of their chiding and challenging was malicious.
“Ah, gadzooks, I see your eyes glistening. We shall have none of that. I will leave now before tears are shed.” Jeremy lunged forward and embraced her; his rich, woodsy scent tickled her nose. When he let go, she saw he, too, had tears in his eyes.
“Well, do not forget to write from the ship. The letter might not arrive before you return, but perhaps we will be lucky. At least we will know you’ve arrived safe and sound,” Brandon requested, himself a little misty-eyed.
And so, Jeremy bade farewell to them, as well as to Edyth’s father, and then rushed up the steps from the garden and into the house. As the door behind him closed, Edyth’s heart felt heavy for she knew it would be a long time before she might see her friend again.
Just as her throat constricted with tears, Brandon wrapped his hand around her gloved fingers and squeezed and suddenly, the feeling of sorrow was replaced by an entirely different sensation—although this one was not any less terrifying.
She shook her head. This day was too much, entirely too much. Surely, once she got used to Jeremy’s absence, her whirlwind of feelings would settle. Yes, indeed. She was sure of it.
“Edyth, not this gown. The cerulean blue does not suit you at all,” Sophie complained, as Edyth emerged from her dressing room wearing a beautiful blue silk gown with a white lace overdress. It was late March and the Season was just beginning. Families who’d spent the winter in the country filed back to London, now Easter was behind them. London was about to become very busy with balls most days of the week. Tonight would be her first.
“How can you not like it? Do you not see the flowers stitched into the lace?” She raised it to show her sister just how beautiful a gown it was but Sophie shook her head so that the brown curls framing her face swayed back and forth.
“It is a fine gown, I do not deny it, but it does not suit you. It makes you look ill. Here, allow me.” Sophie got up and stormed into the dressing room from where she retrieved another gown. This one was a Grecian round robe of emerald green crape over white satin, with a satin bodice. Her sister, six years older than Edyth, knew all about fashion and always prided herself on looking her very best.
“This will suit you much better and it will bring out your eyes. We will put a bandeau in your hair to match my turban and we shall both have white satin gloves. Brandon will not know what to do with himself when he sees you.”
Edyth frowned. “Brandon does not care what I wear. I could come dressed as one of the maids and he’d not mind.”
Sophie pursed her lips and shook her head. “Then he is a fool, a fool I declare. Anyhow, if not Brandon, then another young lord will surely catch your eye. One ought to. It is your third Season and you really must consider a courtship now.”
Edyth rumpled her nose. She knew she had to, but the truth was, so far, she’d not met anyone she truly liked. She’d been to many a dance but most of the time, she ended up dancing with Jeremy or Brandon, or one of their friends.
“I say it will be good for you to have a Season without Jeremy and just Brandon to contend with. You are always in the company of the two of them. Any lord who sees you with them will assume you are betrothed to one or the other. Or they might suspect another arrangement entirely.”
“Sophie! What unkind, immoral thoughts you have.”
Her sister chuckled. “I am only telling you why it is you have not yet found a match. Tonight, I shall distract Brandon so you can have an opportunity to be seen alone, with only me and Papa for company, and you will see just how quickly your dance card fills up.”
“I like dancing with Brandon. You know he is ever so shy around the ladies; he hardly ever dances. Although Jeremy doesn’t have such troubles.”
Her sister shrugged and assisted her into her gown. Her maid, Catherine, usually tended to her but this evening Sophie insisted on helping her. While Sophie and her husband, the Marquess of Chancery, resided in London during the Season, they’d just arrived the previous week and the sisters were eager to spend time together. Tonight, Sophie would accompany her to the ball in place of their mother—Edyth’s usual chaperone.
“I am ever so glad you will be my chaperone tonight. We will have a wonderful time. Especially since Mama is ill with a headache again.”
Sophie sighed. “It troubles me she is ill so often.”
Edyth bit her lips together and nodded. “I think it is in large parts due to her melancholy. What a dreadful ailment it is. I wonder what has brought it on? It seemed quite out of nowhere.
Her sister grew serious and sat on the bed, her chestnut-colored hair shining in the light of the candles.
“It is not out of the blue. I am afraid it has plagued her before. You do not recall it but before you were born, she struggled for years to carry another child. She lost many. I have vague memories of her melancholy after each child she lost. The same was true after you. As you know, they wanted a spare, a second boy.”
Edyth nodded. She did understand her parents had wished for another son, in case something happened to her elder brother, Daniel, who resided at the family estate in the country.
Sophie looked at her with a strange expression on her face. “Edyth, Mama perhaps would not wish to tell you this but you should know. This ailment, this inability to carry a child to term—her mother struggled with the same.” She pressed her lips together. “I do as well.”
Edyth turned. “You do? Sophie, I didn’t know.”
Her sister shrugged. “I was with child twice this year, I am not now.”
“I am so sorry, Sophie.”
Her sister shook her head and got up again. “Do not pity me. I shall continue to try. I am still young, after all. As are you. But this is a subject you ought to be aware of. This struggle runs in the family. I do not mean to say that is why Mother is suffering with her melancholy now. She is not attempting to have another child. I am only telling you because this is not the first time I’ve seen her in this state. If the loss of a child could bring it on, something else would, too.”
Sophie said nothing else and stepped behind Edyth to continue her hair. Edyth watched her sister through the mirror. Could it be true? Could this struggle to have a child have been passed to her, as well as her sister? Edyth shook her head. She would not have to worry about this for some time. There wasn’t even a gentleman interested in making an offer at present. But it was certainly a matter to keep in mind.
She cleared her throat when Sophie placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Let us not fret too much, let us enjoy the evening.”
“Yes, let us. I look forward to the evening with you by my side.”
“Yes, indeed. While I am no longer able to dance with my own husband at a ball, I am at least able to act as chaperone for my sister. And you’ll see, I am a rather splendid chaperone.”
Edyth grinned from ear to ear. She had to confess, the idea excited her. Up until now, her mother had accompanied her to every single ball she’d ever attended. It was one of the things she found the most vexing about going to balls. Her mother, while kind and loving, was eager to find her daughter a match, and thus she always spent the entire evening pointing out every eligible lord at the ball.
Not only did she know who was courting whom, she also knew exactly what each young man was worth, as well as their heritage and their families’ various holdings. It was tiring, to say the least. Tonight, she’d not have to contend with that.
It would be nice to finally attend a ball without having her mother expecting Edyth to set her cap on someone. Yes, this evening would be wonderful, indeed.
Alas, by the time they arrived at the ball, Edyth almost wished for her mother’s presence.
For, during the carriage ride, it became quite clear that her sister would make an even worse chaperone then her mother. While her mother was content with just pointing out various lords, her sister announced that she intended to introduce her to every suitable gentleman and actively help her sister find a match. Whether Edyth wanted to or not.
I wish I could simply enjoy the dance. I wish I could listen to the music and let it carry me away, indulge in the fine foods and inspiring conversations without having to worry over finding a husband.
Of course, this was precisely the purpose of these balls, and many of the functions during the London Season. In fact, if Edyth was honest, all of London was nothing but a big marriage mart. It was almost as if the parliamentary sessions were only an excuse for the rich and powerful to bring their eligible daughters into the city to be married off.
“Look, there is Lord Partridge. Mama told me he is worth 90,000 and has an estate in Scotland. He was courting Lady Lydia Markham last year but that all fell spectacularly apart when she decided to elope at Gretna Green with the son of a diamond merchant. A diamond merchant, can you imagine?” Her sister clicked her tongue as they made their way into the building.
“If the diamond merchant’s son makes her happy, ought we not be pleased for her?” Edyth replied. Her sister raised her eyebrows.
“Edyth, you are entirely too naïve. You know as well as I that it will be a scandal that will haunt the family all of their days. And besides, when you come from a privileged background as Lady Lydia does, you will never find happiness with someone as simple as a merchant. Mark my words. She will return to her parents’ house within a year, shamed, and for all we know with child. Forced to take on a position as someone’s governess.”
The sisters made their way through the receiving line and then entered into the ballroom. To Edyth’s great relief, she spotted her father standing across the room near the orchestra and gave a gentle wave. He immediately excused himself and made his way across the room to his daughters.
“What a blessed man I am. I have not only one breathtakingly beautiful daughter, but two. Yes, indeed, two diamonds of the first water.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Sophie, where is your husband? I thought he was to join us.”
She shook her head. “There was a problem at the estate and he returned to Kent this afternoon. He shall be back soon. However, we shall amuse ourselves without him. I have told Edyth that I will find her the most splendid, the most spectacular dance partner.”
Edyth widened her eyes in a pleading manner towards her father, but he just chuckled and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Well, maybe your sister will succeed where your mother so unfortunately failed. I dare say, given that you are on your own this night, and your two shadows have not followed you, you might stand a chance of actually finding a match.”
Edyth had just arrived at the ball, but she already missed her friends. How much easier these balls were to contend with, with her friends at her side. Alas, Jeremy was still in Canada, and they had yet to receive a letter.
She knew she had no need to be concerned about the matter, since travel took months and months, and letters, if they did arrive, were always terribly out of date.
“Speaking of my shadows, have you seen Brandon?” Edyth asked her father, who shook his head. Beside her, her sister evaluated the room for a possible dance partner.
“I have not yet seen him. His mother and sister are here, but his father and he are not. He is not fond of these balls, even less so than you. Perhaps he’s not coming.”
“It would be a blessing. Not that my sister approves of my saying so, but it would be. At least for her prospects,” Sophie replied with a nod.
“I am sure he will be here. He told me he would be when we went for our walk this morning,” Edyth replied.
Ever since Jeremy’s departure, she and Brandon had made it a habit of walking in the mornings. They were generally accompanied by either one of their mothers, or Edyth’s maid, Catherine. These walks always started outside of Edyth’s home and ended at the office Brandon and Jeremy shared, just off Charles Street.
From there, Edyth would walk the promenade, as most young ladies did during the Season. This morning, they’d conversed at length about the upcoming ball and Brandon had bemoaned the fact that he was expected to dance—he did not care to dance even though he was quite the gifted dancer.
It is peculiar that a young man as handsome as Brandon is so terribly awkward when it comes to ladies. He can hardly bring himself to ask anyone to dance, which is why I always find myself dancing with him at least once, sometimes twice. Of course, I would dance with him more often but that would put my reputation in danger, as a lady never dances more than twice with the same man.
It was silly, really, this rule. Most of their friends and neighbors knew that Brandon, Jeremy, and Edyth were a tight-knit group and thus, she ought to be allowed to dance with either of them as many times as she wished. Not that Jeremy was available for dances often. He was a rather popular dancer at these affairs.
Ah, Jeremy. The thought of him inspired a sense of sorrow within her as she recalled the last time she’d seen him, just before his departure to Canada. How long ago it seemed, and how many more months before their friend returned to them.
It occurred to her just how close she and Brandon had become since Jeremy’s departure. Before, they were always a trio and engaged in activities together. It was rare to find Edyth with only Jeremy or only Brandon—although, of course, the two young men frequently spent time together without her.
And yet, with Jeremy away, it was just the two of them. In addition to their morning walks, they’d taken to playing shuttlecock together some afternoons, and Brandon often joined the family for dinner—at the invitation of Edyth’s father. Of course, Edyth was delighted whenever he did join them in the evenings. He’d always stay late and often they found themselves playing chess or backgammon into the night.
As she sat and thought of him, a warmth entered her heart that surprised her. She shook her head. No, she would not allow such odd feelings to tarnish their friendship. Before she could think about the matter further, her sister interrupted her thoughts.
“Edyth, come quickly,” Sophie suddenly exclaimed. “There is a gentleman friend of mine who is in want of a wife. I shall introduce you. Come along now. And then…” She glanced around the room and gave a nod. “Yes, I know whom I wish to introduce you to next. I shall need your assistance, Papa.”
“Of course, Sophie, anything at all.” Edyth looked over her shoulder pleadingly and noted for a moment that there was a hesitation in her father’s eyes. However, he said nothing further and simply walked across the ballroom to rejoin his friends, while Edyth found herself introduced to yet another young lord she had no interest in. As she stepped onto the dance floor to join in the minuet—the first dance of the night—she could not help but search the hall again for Brandon.
For he was the only one who could make this unpleasant evening bearable—alas, he was nowhere in sight.
After dancing two more dances with gentlemen selected by her sister, Edyth was entirely fed up with the evening. She wished for her mother’s presence because at least Lady Charhelm would on occasion take the air with Edyth or at least enjoy a refreshment. Sophie, on the other hand, appeared to have only one mission—find a husband for Edyth. Tonight.
“I am rather fatigued, Sophie. Let us go into the garden.”
Sophie shrugged. “I suppose we can sit out the quadrille. It’s a tedious dance, anyhow. Come, let us take the air.”
Greatly relieved, she followed her sister toward the door leading into the garden. In the pit of her stomach, the sense of abandonment grew the longer the evening wore on without Brandon arriving. Why, she wondered, was he not here?
Something must have happened. He knew how much she disliked coming to these balls on her own, they’d talked about it just that afternoon. So where was he?
“Sophie, Edyth, wait a moment,” their father’s voice suddenly called out from behind them and they turned. Beside her, Sophie gave a small yelp of delight and she grabbed on to Edyth’s elbow.
“This is who I wanted to introduce you to earlier, but we did not have the opportunity to do so. It seems Papa has taken my words seriously.”
Edyth frowned but then, when she raised her eyes and saw just who walked beside her father, her heart sank into her knees. Standing before her was none other than Lord Headdon—the very man who, through his ruthless methods, caused her dearest friend, Jeremy, to embark on his dangerous journey. She’d never been introduced to him officially, at least thus far.
He came directly toward her, an expectant grin upon his lips. Edyth’s eyes darted around the room. She had to get away, had to make an excuse, for this would not do. Alas, as her sister’s grip tightened around her arm she realized there was no escaping. She was trapped
“We shall be late,” Brandon grumbled under his breath as the carriage arrived outside the grand manor in London’s finest area—Mayfair. His father winked at him.
“And why do you worry, Brandon? It is not as though you indulge in dancing anyhow, unless Edyth forces you. And I assure you, the hostess will have made sure there is enough honey bread to last all night long. You shall not miss out. Besides, was it not you who made us late?”
The coachman opened the door and assisted his father out. Once on the sidewalk, Brandon’s father adjusted his top hat and cravat while Brandon jumped out.
He sighed as he smoothed down his black tailcoat, a rather expensive acquisition he almost regretted now.
“It was and I apologize, alas, I could not depart the office for our biggest customer, Mr. Tibbens, came to call on me. He was dissatisfied with our lack of bison furs. I offered fox fur instead but he declined it. I fear I shall lose his business entirely.”
His father shook his head and brushed his greying hair out of his face. “I will never understand why you trouble yourself so with this business of yours. I can understand Jeremy is in need of additional funds. His father, as much as I cared for him, all but ran the estate into the ground with his poor management skills, but you? You will inherit my wealth one day.”
Brandon knew there was no reason to continue this conversation, as his father never could understand his point of view.
Brandon made his way into the ballroom behind his father and scanned the area for Edyth. He’d promised her to be here and now it was well into the evening. He glanced at the floor before him and as expected, nothing remained of the beautiful chalk paintings on the dance floor.
He knew that at any respectable ball, the hostess would hire artists to paint elaborate chalk paintings on the parquet floor to keep the guests from sliding all across it while dancing. During the course of the evening, the artwork would inevitably be destroyed by the dancers and especially by the ladies’ sweeping hems.
What a waste. Brandon shook his head as he thought about the cost of such a meaningless action. He couldn’t help but gaze around the room. Three large chandeliers hung above from a beautifully painted ceiling. Dozens of beeswax candles lit up the room as well as the adjacent rooms. He knew there was at least one room reserved for refreshments, another for the gentleman to play cards, and yet another for the ladies to retreat to.
Each of them lit with yet more candles. Servants, hired on for the night, rushed back and forth with silver trays full of expensive port, sherry, and cognac. Surely, the food had been prepared by the very best chefs Lady Worchester could find. He sighed.
Never once did I consider the value of money before. If I were not in business, I likely still would not care how much anything costs. My father is, after all, the Duke of Whithall, one of the most influential and well-respected Dukes in all of England. I should not have a care in the world, and yet, I do. Quite by choice, yes. I could wait for my inheritance but I never wanted to rely on my father’s wealth. It is not right.
Brandon shook his head and made his way toward his family who were congregated at the far right of the ballroom. His mother’s beautiful burgundy ball gown stood out against the sea of white and pastel tones. Those were the colors of the Season, but his mother, the Duchess of Whithall, cared little about what was fashionable among the younger crowd.
She adored the simple silhouette of the gowns so popular among the ton but preferred rich colors. And her tastes influenced those around her. All of the ladies who moved in his mother’s circle dressed alike, in rich colors and elaborately adorned turbans and bandeaus.
His mother, he knew, wielded the same kind of influence over the ladies in Society as his father did over his fellow peers.
Perhaps that is why I always aspired to make it on my own, to prove I do not need my father to make a name for myself. Jeremy and I, we were always determined to succeed—albeit for different reasons.
“Brandon,” his mother chirped as he approached. “You look rather miffed, what is the matter?”
His father waved a hand. “Do not worry yourself, my dear. Our son has troubles with the business, as usual.”
“Not as usual. We were entirely successful until recently,” he said. His mother gently patted his arm and immediately, his bristles were set up. He didn’t like her acting as though he were a child in need of soothing. He was, after all, a man of three-and-twenty. But, like his father, his mother didn’t understand his need to succeed independently of his father.
“Faith, Brandon, do not take it so hard. Jeremy will be back soon from Canada and he will surely have good tidings. In the meantime, dance, enjoy yourself.”
“Brandon won’t dance,” his younger sister, Emma, said with a sneer. She was only seven-and-ten and this was her first Season. Brandon looked at her.
“I do not see you dancing either, Emma,” he retorted. Once again, his eyes scanned the room for Edyth. She was the only person who could make this evening bearable. If it weren’t for his promise to her, he never would have come and he knew she felt similarly.
His sister pulled out her dance card and waved it in front of him with a wide grin. Her taffeta gown crunched as she moved. “My card is already full. It was only the quadrille I did not wish to dance. I do not care for it. But I was asked. I dare say, I may find a match before you do.”
He shrugged. “You may well, but that is the difference between us. You’ve wanted nothing but to be a wife and mother since you were a child, that is your ambition in life.”
Her eyes narrowed as she pouted at him. “And so, what if it is?”
“Please, let us not have a quarrel here,” his mother mumbled under her breath. “I do not wish to have a scene. Emma is right, Brandon. You ought to ask someone to dance. You must marry and have an heir eventually.”
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, wishing he’d gone to journey across the sea instead of Jeremy, but then reconsidered.
No, it wasn’t true. He’d have missed his morning walks with Edyth too much if he’d gone. Not that it wasn’t under consideration. He surely had greater funds and since his father was still living, it would have been simpler for him to go. Jeremy, already an Earl in his own right, had to leave behind his estate and trust his steward would do him justice.
Suddenly, he remembered the letter in his pocket and patted it. He had to find Edyth.
“Mama, have you seen Lady Edyth?”
His mother’s visage brightened. “I saw her earlier, with her sister. But I cannot say I’ve spotted her of late. You will ask her for a dance at least, will you not?
He smiled at her. “Yes, of course, I always do.”
“So you do,” she replied and placed a hand on his shoulder. Something in her tone also caught his attention, but he wasn’t sure what either meant.
“I must simply have a glass of sherry, my throat is ever so dry,” his mother complained after a few moments had passed.
“As must I. I shall not have time to take a drink for the rest of the night as I will be dancing and dancing and dancing,” Emma said.
Brandon rolled his eyes, earning a swift glare from his mother, but no more was said on the matter. When the two ladies departed, Brandon found himself alone with his father once more.
“Your mother is not wrong, Brandon. I know you do not care to discuss the matter, but you do need to marry. It is not a matter of wishing to or not. It is your duty. You must carry on the line. Should something happen to the both of us…”
Brandon raised a hand. “I know, Papa. The title would revert to the crown as we have no living relatives. But surely it is not a pressing matter. You are still a young man.”
His father’s lips turned down and his face darkened as Brandon realized the error of his comment.
“The late Lord Hillfield was two years younger than I and he passed tragically in a carriage accident with his wife, as you know. Nothing in this life is certain, Brandon. You must carry on the line.”
Brandon looked away, unable to hold his father’s gaze. He knew that both his father and Edyth’s father still struggled with the loss three years ago of their friend, Jeremy’s father.
I cannot imagine what it would feel like if I were to lose either Jeremy or Edyth. The three of us are a unit and will always be. Just like our fathers were. Father has never been the same since Lord Hillfield passed away. I ought not to have mentioned it at all but I couldn’t help it.
The pressure to marry seemed to mount with each passing day and the closer his sister came to making a match of her own, the more daunting the prospect was for him. It wasn’t that he opposed the idea of marriage. No. He wanted it. It was just that his heart wasn’t… Nobody had ever truly captured his heart. Except, he knew this wasn’t entirely true because….
“Jove, would you look at that. Here’s Charhelm. I knew he was here somewhere,” his father smiled as he spotted Edyth’s father. Brandon followed his gaze and when it settled on Edyth, something inside of him gave him a jolt, almost as if he’d touched the flame of a burning candle.
She looked breathtaking in her rich, green gown. Her auburn hair sparkled with a bandeau adorned with countless crystals.
“Gadzooks!” He groaned the moment he realized just who was standing beside Lord Charhelm.
“Lord Headdon,” he hissed.
“Where?” His father asked and squinted.
“Over yonder, standing next to Edyth’s father. In the ghastly beige pair of trousers.”
It has to be said, for a man who made part of his fortune in textile, an industry that relied upon a sense of what was fashionable, Lord Headdon had the most atrocious sense of personal style. Tonight, he was clad in a pair of suede buckskins that had clearly been soaked overnight to assure a tight fit. Over it, he wore a long, black tailcoat that did not flatter his rotund frame.
“Brandon, I do not wish to alarm you, but it looks as though formal introductions are being made. If you care for Edyth, I suggest you….”
His father did not have to complete his sentence. It was clear what was about to happen. Lord Headdon would not have requested an introduction to Edyth if he didn’t intend to dance with her and the mere thought of that vile, repulsive man dancing with Edyth inspired a wave of unease to crash down on Brandon.
This man, who had forced his business into trouble, caused his best friend to travel across the ocean to save their investments, and made a nuisance of himself whenever possible, would not ruin Edyth’s night by imposing himself upon her person. Not if Brandon could intervene.
And intervene he did.
“Lady Edyth,” he called just as she’d pulled out her dance card and was about to hand it to Lord Headdon.
She raised her head and the moment her honey-brown eyes settled on his face his heart swelled as it had never done before. The expression of gratitude and relief was evident on her face.
“Lord Belton, I did not know you were here.”
He stopped a few steps in front of Lord Headdon who looked at him, a deep frown on his forehead. Headdon was not an old man, only a few years older than Brandon and Jeremy. He knew this with certainty because they’d attended Eton with him, and Headdon had always been three grades above him. In spite of this, his face gave the appearance of a much older gentleman. Perhaps it was the excessive frowning and glaring he made a habit of.
“Lord Belton, what a surprise to see you this evening. Where is your friend, Lord Hillfield?”
Brandon swallowed, not wishing to give away just where Jeremy had gone. Not to him, their greatest competitor.
“He is out of town for some while, to tend to his estate.”
An intense dislike for Brandon showed through Headdon’s eyes, even though his lips were turned up into a smile.
“I see. You must be rather lonely in that office of yours, without your companion to keep you occupied.”
Brandon forced a smile onto his lips. “I am rather busy with our customers. As you can imagine, during the Season we are rushed off our feet.”
“Is that so? I’d heard the business was slowing.”
Brandon’s hands curled into fists but before he had a chance to reply, the orchestra played the final note of the quadrille and momentarily the Scottish Reel would follow.
“Brandon,” Edyth’s father started, clearly uncomfortable with the way the conversation unfolded before him. “Lord Headdon….”
“I know, I have been ever so negligent. I must apologize. Lady Edyth, please forgive me for not arriving sooner. I have been tardy. Please,” he offered his hand to her. “Shall we dance? I recall you promised me the Scottish Reel.”
“So I did, Lord Belton, so I did.” Edyth beamed at him and swiftly turned toward Lord Headdon, who stood with a face that grew redder by the moment. “I apologize. It has been a pleasure making your acquaintance.” She curtsied and then swiftly took Brandon’s arm and together, they dashed away to where the couples were lining up to dance.
“You saved me, Brandon, for he was about to request this dance. I had no option but to grant it to him as Papa just introduced us and I’d already danced earlier in the evening, thus I could not say I am not dancing tonight.”
He glanced down at her. Her pale cheeks were flushed red with the sudden excitement.
“I could tell. And I also saw right away how mortified you were at the prospect, thus, I came to your aid like the dashing prince that I am.”
She poked him playfully in the arm. “You would not have had to come to my rescue, had you arrived on time as you were supposed to. I’ve had a dreadful evening thus far.”
He drew his eyebrows together as they stepped onto the dance floor, behind another couple.
“You have? But I thought your sister was your chaperone this evening and you thought it might be enjoyable.”
She rolled her eyes and he could not help but notice how utterly charming this was—even though it was, of course, also very rude. Somehow, he found when Edyth did things that might be considered unseemly for anyone else, he could not help but find it adorable.
“She has been a terror. A terror, I declare. She’s had me dance every single dance but the quadrille, for it is her mission to make me marry someone. Anyone at all, it seems. Mama at least gives me some say over whom I wish to dance with, but Sophie? She is relentless.”
Brandon chuckled at this, even though he felt her pain.
“Perhaps I ought to introduce her to Emma, as Emma is keen to be married at the earliest opportunity—and to just about any young lord who will have her.”
Edyth shook her head, the bandeau on her head shimmering even more than earlier.
“Isn’t it terrible? London is but a marriage mart. I wish I’d gone to Canada with Jeremy, at least he will have escaped this tedious affair.”
“Ah, that reminds me,” Brandon said. “I’ve had a letter at last. It is in my pocket. I shall read it to you when the dance is over. And tell you why I was so delayed.”
She smiled at him as the music began to play once again. “At last. I was ever so worried about him.”They positioned themselves to join in the dancing and the moment the first note played, they slid across the dance floor with the same ease that always enveloped them when they danced together. It was curious. For someone who did not like to dance, he found it a rather enjoyable activity when Edyth was his partner.
As they spun, he smiled at her, and suddenly, his worries were forgotten, all of his troubles pushed to the back of his mind. In her arms, here on the dance floor, nothing seemed to matter but the two of them.
A feeling, a sensation he’d never before allowed himself to feel, surfaced from the very bottom of his stomach and spread down his arms and into the very tips of his fingers.
Could he… Was it possible… No. Surely not. Surely, he could not allow himself to suddenly think of Edyth as anything other than his friend. For that was what they were. Friends till the end.
Determined to push the silly thought aside, he straightened himself and twirled her around and as he did, his eyes fell on Lord Headdon, who stood at the side of the dance floor, his arms crossed in front of his chest, his eyes full of fiery rage.
The jest, the delight at having thwarted the man’s attempt to dance with Edyth, Brandon suddenly realized, might cost him dearly.
For this night, Brandon knew, he’d made a lifelong enemy out of Lord Headdon—and he feared he might live to regret it.
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