Season of the Wallflower Preview

A Historical Regency Romance Novel

About the book


Starting this day, she was no longer going to be quiet, a wallflower no more…

Being a wallflower is hard. Having a twin sister that is the belle of the ball at the same time, however, is even harder. Anne Cooper is finally tired of being overlooked. This Season, she has a plan. She will win the heart of the Duke she always dreamed of. To do that, she only needs to convince her best friend, Silas, to help her.

Silas Elkins, the Earl of Godwin, has been hopelessly in love with Anne ever since they were kids. His love is so sincere, that he would do anything to see her happy. Even if it means leading her right into the arms of another man…

However, as they will realize, what shines is not always gold, and behind carefully constructed masks hide dark secrets and scandals…


Prologue


Mayfair, London, 1822

Wistfully, Lady Anne Cooper, the youngest daughter of the Marquess of Keats, clasped her hands, while her warm green eyes flicked from one dancing couple to the other. Seated at the sidelines with the other wallflowers, she knew she had the privacy to watch as no one, Lord nor Lady, would be looking at her.

Her eyes landed on her twin sister, Beatrice, as she was swirled around the room. As slender and graceful as a ballet dancer, her sister’s dance card was always packed to the last whirl. It was something Anne had made peace with from the day they had been introduced to society—her prettier sister would always be the first choice.

No matter how many corsets her mother had purchased or the slimming diets she had tried, she was still plump and one day before her twentieth birthday, one of the lowest times of her life, Anne had told her mother to focus on Beatrice. It had not been hard because their mother had always favored Beatrice anyhow.

Though it was shameful, Anne had accepted that she would be a spinster. If one of them had to marry, she was happy that it would be Beatrice. She had given up on the corsets and diets and used an abundance of petticoats to hide her embarrassing abundance of flesh. Though she wanted to hide, the bulk made her look larger, but Anne did not mind. She was not to marry anyhow.

Something drew her attention—a gentleman. But not just a gentleman, Benedict Brook, Duke of Lambert, the man who she had secretly given her heart to. Tall, golden-haired, with sapphire-colored eyes, he had the face of an immortal—high cheekbones, squared jaw, full lips.

His dark jacket was offset by a bright, embroidered waistcoat that matched his eyes and made them glimmer. A part of her envied the lady he was dancing with, but Anne would have never kept up with him as they whirled around.

Oh, what I would give to dance with him.

But as her eyes flicked over him, she hated herself for being embarrassed to look at him. It was as if she were a mortal and he too superior for her to gaze upon. Her dearest dream was for him to see her, for him to step across the room and greet her.

But that simply did not happen to wallflowers like her. The first time she had been called a wallflower had been the very night she had come out to society. Anne Cooper, the wallflower, she was the person no one noticed. She had no choice but to fade into the background.

 She met the eyes of a Lord standing on the other side of the room, watching couples dance. Her instinct was to shrink away, but when she saw who it was, she smiled—it was her friend Silas Elkins, the Earl of Godwin.

Classically handsome and fit, his black hair and bright blue eyes were as familiar to Anne as her family was. She counted Silas as a good friend and almost like a brother to her. She could not even remember the day their younger selves had met, but he was her firm, bosom companion for over fifteen years. After meeting her eyes, Silas skirted the dancefloor and came to sit by her.

“Why aren’t you dancing?” he asked, nudging her side.

Anne lifted a brow. “Pardon me, good sir? Do I know you?”

Silas’ lips quirked, “You should be dancing.”

“With an imaginary Lord?” Anne said lightly. “And even if a Lord does ask me, I am sure my sister has already danced with him and I will be a pale imitation.”

“I beg to differ,” he said. “You are a brighter version.”

“I know you would think so,” Anne said, as she faced the dance floor. “But if I were to dance, I would love to chance it with the Duke of Lambert. He’s never noticed me before and I do not think he will after, but this might be my last Season and I want to hop on the shelf of spinsterhood with a bang. I want to win his heart.”

Silas’ mouth dropped. “Pardon? You want to win Lambert?”

“Yes, why?”

“Because—” his jaw worked and something like frustration or irritation flashed over his face but then it vanished. He turned to her with a smile, “What is your plan, because word around the ton is that he knows and has used every trick in the book.”

“I would like for you to dance the next set with me,” she said. “Will you?”

“Yes,” he smiled, but Anne could see that the motion did not reach his eyes.

The dance before them ended and it was the last one of a set, so the dancers were undoubtedly going over to the refreshment table for drinks. They had time.

“Have you danced?” Anne asked Silas.

One of his shoulders lifted in a shrug, “Once or twice.”

Puzzled at his nonchalance, Anne asked, “Are you having fun at least?”

He sat back and stared at the empty dance floor, “It’s a ball, Anne. I’ve been to countless ones. There is nothing new here, but I do wish you would have danced with someone.”

“I am going to dance with you,” Anne said sweetly. “You are my best friend.”

This time she pulled a warm smile from him. “I know.”

With their estates bordering each other, they had become playmates. Anne remembered the times they would play when he was gap-toothed because he had fallen out of trees, or had skinned knees because he would run pell-mell in races.

Silas had grown up from a untidy boy to a stunning young man that Anne knew would have a lovely wife one day. In the back of her mind, she hoped she would be there to support him at his wedding. Until then, she just had to focus on making her last year in the Season her best.

While they waited for the new set to be arranged, Anne spotted the Duke lift his hand and tuck back a lock of hair behind his dance partner’s ear. His smile was easy and loaded with suggestion and Anne felt a bit of despair. She knew nothing about flirting and if she, by some mercy, was able to do so successfully, Anne would credit it to divine intervention.

She watched as he dipped a flute into a miniature champagne lake and handed it to the lady before he wrapped his arm around hers. It was the first time Anne had seen anyone drink champagne like that and it amazed her.

Suddenly, the Duke’s gaze lifted, and Anne forced herself not to shrink away as his gaze met hers, however so briefly. Her cheeks heated as she forced herself to stay right where she was and not to press herself into the wall behind her.

It was the wallflower’s curse, desperate to both be noticed and hating to be noticed. She received such little attention, after all, and to have it come from the same man she had just admitted to wanting to impress had her heart leaping in her throat.

She pulled away as the new set started and Silas stood and extended his hands to her. While she was nervous, Anne felt a bit confident with her gown. It was a stunning bronze silk with lamé net over it and gold trefoils.

Silas swept her onto the floor as the waltz music flowed around them. Countless hours had Anne practiced this dance, but seldom had she been able to show it. Now, with Silas helping her, she was going to show the others that she was just as good. A Lord might not be able to lift her off her feet in their spins, but she was not going to mash their toes in, either.

From the corner of her eye, she spotted her sister Beatrice’s eyes narrow and her lips thin, just before she turned her attention to the lord with her. Anne twirled with Silas and kept her steps matching his.

“Steer us near to His Grace, please,” she whispered.

Again, Silas looked uncomfortable or just irked, but he did it and they danced near to the Duke and his newest partner. They danced a few feet away from the Duke, circling around them, but never going too near.

Silas leaned in, “We’re soon to the end, what is your next move?”

“Just pray that I do not fall flat on my face,” she whispered back.

As the music dwindled, and the dance ended, Silas stepped back to bow while Anne curtsied. She was placed exactly where she wanted to be—right behind the Duke. As she spun, she forcefully stepped on her gown, tripped with a distressed cry and fell—right into his arms.

“Easy there,” Lambert drawled.

With her face flaming, Anne replied while she was being righted, “Oh dear, I am so sorry, Your Grace. My mother always told me I’m all fingers and thumbs.”

He chuckled and stepped away, then his head cocked to the side and his eyes narrowed a little. “You’re the Marquess of Keats’ daughter, correct?”

“One of them, yes,” Anne said.

 “I thought I recognized you. You know, if you wanted a dance, My Lady, you could have tried asking,” Lambert teased.

“I wouldn’t have dared,” Anne said, tilting her head. “But on the off chance that I had asked, how would you have responded?”

His brows darted up at her daring question, and after a moment, he chuckled, “Point taken, My Lady.”

Her heart was thudding in her ears while she tried to ignore the stares coming from all around them. Lambert did not seem to be aware of the stares they were getting. His lips quirked, “Would you do me the honor of being my next partner, My Lady?”

Relief flooded through her at the question. It showed her that her gambit had proved itself successful. “I would love to, Your Grace.”

He held her hand and guided her to the center of the room just in time for the music to lead in. He grasped her hands, “You do realize that we are the center of attention?”

“Perhaps because you took us to the exact center of the room,” Anne said dryly. “But I believe that even if you took us to the corner, all attention would be on you. You are a remarkable man, Your Grace. Attention will be given to you, like it or not.”

“Thank you, but no compliments are necessary,” he grinned.

“Are you sure?” Anne smiled. “I’m told flattery sweetens the soul.”

“I should say the same for you,” he said. “Why are you invisible at these dances?”

It was one thing to know of one’s plumpness and suffer the ignominy that came with it in silence, but it was quite another for one to speak about it. “It seems that I do not have an eye for the current fashion and my choices in dress miss the mark completely.”

“And?” Lambert cocked a brow. “Modesty may be becoming on a lady, but I suspect there is more to it than horrible gowns?”

Anne nearly admitted that men shied away from her because of her plumpness, but just as she was about to speak, she remembered a tip of advice from one of her friends.

Men are curious creatures, Prudence had said. Leave some mystery in your conversation, make them want to come to you instead of you going to them.

“Now, why would I want to spill all my secrets at one time, Your Grace?” Anne said.

Lambert threw his head back and gave a shout of laughter and not less than a dozen heads snapped to the source. Clearly, everyone was wondering what she had said to amuse him.

“You have a witty mind, My Lady,” Lambert grinned. “And you are right, one does appreciate some mystery in one’s life. I’m impressed. I would love to find all the layers to you.”

A wide smile crossed Anne’s face.

Yes, I have my chance—my plan worked!

The dance ended and she curtsied with delight dancing through her chest. Lambert bowed, “Shall you join me at the refreshment table?”

“Yes, please,” Anne felt happiness dance through her heart, but as she tuned and caught a glimpse of her sister’s soured face, her joy vanished.

Oh no, what is wrong now?


Chapter One

 

With a glass of punch in hand, Silas tried not to scowl. It pained him that Anne was dancing with Lambert instead of him. How could she not see what was right in front of her? He knew Anne worried a lot about her figure, that she was too plump for the modern gown styles, and that her sister was better than her in that regard.

Silas disagreed. Anne might see ungainly plumpness, but he saw a woman with a petite frame and lovely curves. He liked that he stood a head over her and that her smaller and utterly feminine physique was a perfect contrast and complement to his broader, virile, tougher form.

But he knew others did not see her that way. It had taken all his strength not to react when other ladies would turn their noses up at her and lords would look right over as if she were a fly on the wall. None of them knew the kindness and brilliance that Anne had. No, they all looked at her exterior and dismissed her without remorse.

He went back to the refreshment table while coming across Lady Beatrice Cooper, Anne’s twin. For some reason, he had never liked her. She had an air of selfishness and conceit about her, and her nose was perpetually stuck up in the air.

While swapping his glass of punch for water, he saw her sneer. Cocking his head, he looked in the direction she was glaring at and spotted Anne on Lambert’s arm as they made a turn around the room.

“What does she think she is doing?” Beatrice hissed venomously.

“Making a mockery of herself, obviously,” another lady, Beatrice’s pawn, a rail-thin woman with a horse-looking face, lifted her lip. “Don’t worry about it, Beatrice, you have nothing to worry about.”

The twin was showing her nasty colors, but then again, she had never hidden them.

Tossing her head, Beatrice sniffed, “I am not worried. Anne knows that she has little time left in the Season, so let her take a last whirl.”

“But to set her eyes on the Duke of Lambert?” the horse-faced lady said sourly.

“Lambert is mine,” Beatrice said, as she moved from the refreshment table’s nook and into the ballroom.

Putting his water down in disgust, Silas left to rejoin the room. He had never liked Beatrice because of what he had observed at their home. During their interactions, he had seen how their parents had always given Beatrice an unfair advantage above Anne.

They prized Beatrice’s slender form, her lustrous auburn hair, and nimble gracefulness, and shunted Anne’s kind heart and generosity to the side. They plied Beatrice with jewels and silk clothes, making Anne shrink back with her plain gowns and simple hair adornments.

He knew that Anne had suffered a large blow to her confidence a few summers ago when she had gained more pounds than she had lost. He remembered the night she had broken down on his shoulder, crying her heart out about her body.

The next day, she told him, “I’m giving up, Silas. If I must be a spinster, I will be one.”

It pained him because that was the day he had planned to ask her to let him court her. In retrospect, he should have voiced what was resting on his heart that day, but he had let it go. Now, three summers later, he was lamenting that he had lost the chance.

Even now, he still did not know if he should say a word. If she wanted a try with Lambert, why stop her?

I’m spineless.

Going back to the ballroom, he felt little desire of dancing with anyone and temporarily thought of leaving. But it felt even more cowardly to leave Anne there when he knew that she had so few people in her corner. He hated admitting to the truth—seeing Anne with Lambert pained him to his core because he knew men like the Duke. They were all in it for themselves.

“Silas,” Anne said from behind him, then laughed self-deprecatingly. “Pardon me, I mean Lord Godwin, may I have a moment of your time?”

He turned with his lips flat but seeing the delight on Anne’s face while holding Lambert’s arm had his irritation vanishing. “Yes?”

“I am sure you two know each other, but Your Grace, may I introduce Silas Elkins, the Marquess of Godwin. He is my best friend in the world. Lord Godwin, His Grace, the Duke of Lambert.”

“Your Grace,” Silas bowed. “We’ve been acquainted before.”

“Really, when?”

He gritted his teeth, “At the Ascot races, Your Grace. I believe you were there with Lady Hammond. She wore more peacock plumes than the bird had itself.”

“Ah—” a light of comprehension lit his eyes. “Now I remember. And you are Lady Anne’s friend, eh?”

“I’d say best friend,” Silas notched his head up a little.

He knew his possessive attempt at proving his connection with Anne had fallen flat, and both men knew it. Anne, however, was blissfully ignorant about the tension between the two men.

A sly look darkened the Duke’s eyes and it seemed as if he were sifting under Silas’ bravado to see his true intentions for Anne. “I see.”

Anne was beaming. “Have fun, Lord Godwin.”

“You too, My Lady,” he dipped his head.

While the two went off to speak with others, Silas let his gaze trail after them. He retreated to the dance-floor edge and not to seem so direct, found a Lord to speak with. Even throughout the conversation, his attention was tuned to Anne and the Duke. He hated how he was parading Anne around as if to say, “Look at me, I am with the social outcast.”

The Lord lifted his glass and pointed to Beatrice. “A hundred pounds that she is going to be vied after by the top Lords around. She’s stunning.”

“She is beautiful, I agree, but her character is horrid,” Silas said.

“You know her?”

“I know her,” he said shortly. “She and her sister are East and West. This is not gossip, as I hate rumormongering, I am just telling you the truth.”

“I see,” the Lord nodded. “Thanks for the warning.”

Lifting his glass in a salute, Silas turned away. It was near dinner and the last dance was winding down. But the Duke and Anne were not on the floor.

“Silas?” Anne asked. “Why aren’t you dancing?”

“I didn’t feel like it,” he shrugged. “No one drew my eye.”

“Really?” Lambert drawled from behind them. “Perhaps you were not looking hard enough, because I have seen no less than three ladies who were eyeing you. Perhaps you had your eye on someone who was taken, hm?”

With his chest burning at being discovered, Silas turned to the Duke and greeted him with a bow but spoke to Anne. “Have you spoken to your sister?”

“I haven’t, why?” Anne said, a flash of worry crossing her face.

He made to tell her how cross her sister was, but he refrained and forced a stilted smile. “No reason. I thought you would have been with her tonight.”

Her brows darted, as Anne knew that was unlikely. She and Beatrice never ran in the same circles anywhere, especially at balls. They both knew that Beatrice loved to distance herself from Anne for many reasons, most of all was that Anne was too plump to be around her.

Silas had a private suspicion, that Beatrice only surrounded herself with women who paled in comparison to her so she could shine. But he also believed that Beatrice was too spoiled and conceited to share any characteristics with Anne. She was not humble, she was not gentle, and she was never kind. Sometimes, Silas wondered how Anne lived with her.

“I—” Anne looked apprehensive. “—I probably should go and speak with her. Please pardon me, Your Grace.”

As Anne hurried away, Silas faced Lambert. “Don’t hurt her.”

The Duke cocked his head, but Silas had said his piece and left to go to the refreshment table. It was rude to dismiss one of the most powerful men in the country like that, but he did not want to engage in more conversation. Especially since he had a sinking suspicion that Lambert had seen right through him and seen what he felt for Anne.

Moving away, he spotted Anne and Beatrice over in a corner, and from the expression on her face, he grimaced. Had he made a horrible decision by sending Anne to Beatrice? He wanted to get her away from Lambert, but it seemed he had plucked her from the pan and thrown her into the fire.

***

“What do you think you’re doing?” Beatrice hissed through gritted teeth and a bright smile.

“What do you mean?” Anne furrowed her brows. “I am not doing anything wrong.”

“Yes, you are. Do you think the Duke wants to be seen with you?” Beatrice snapped. “You should never have even spoken to him, much less conned him into dancing with you. I saw that fake stumble, Anne, who do you think you are fooling?”

Distraught, Anne hollowly said, “How hard is it for you to believe that His Grace wants to be seen with me? You have everything else, are you going to deny me one night of happiness?”

“But it’s you,” Beatrice sniffed. “Your gowns have enough fabric to clothe three and you believe he is proud to be near you? Mark my words, he is only pitying you.”

Before Anne could say a word, Beatrice stuck her nose in the air, spun on her feet and flounced out. Heartbroken, Anne turned, and her vision swam a little. Bravely, she sucked in a breath, held her chin up and went to find Silas. Perhaps he would stay with her awhile.

One night… just one night and Beatrice cannot even let me have some speck of attention. It’s all supposed to be on her, all the time.

She meandered through the sidelines, searching but not finding Silas and regrettably, went to sit with the matrons and chaperones. Beatrice’s high, tinkling laugh both drew her attention and soured her soul.

Her sister was laughing gaily, the light flickering over her auburn hair and glinting over her gold gown. Surrounded by Ladies and Lords alike, Lambert the chief of them, Beatrice commanded the room with a finesse Anne knew she would never have.

For a moment, she felt that her ploy had fizzled out and that she would never gain the attention she wanted from Lambert, especially when Beatrice turned to him. She stood coquettishly with her glass of champagne lifted high.

His stance showed her that the two were flirting, and Beatrice was brazen enough to touch his arm. Lambert did not move away, instead he went forward, and said a few words before stepping away. As if by a magnet, his eyes found Anne’s and her cheeks heated as her shoulders hit the wall behind her.

Lambert left his position at the opposing wall and started moving toward her and Anne’s heart thundered in her ears with every step he took forward. Was this the moment that he was going to disappoint her and tell her that he would be choosing her sister over her—something Anne had come to accept.

He was nearer, and Anne scrambled to think what to say.

Thank you for humoring me. I apologize if I have embarrassed you. I will never see you again, will I?

She plucked her back from the wall and sat up straight. He came and bowed his head. “I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you, My Lady.”

Her eyes closed—he would not be seeing her anymore. “Thank you, Your Grace, it was a pleasure meeting you, too.”

Her words carried a note of defeat and the Duke must have heard it. How could he not? Anne, however, was not surprised—it was the story of her life—disappointment and dismay chasing each other.

“May I call on you this week?” he asked—and Anne nearly tipped off her chair.

“Me?” her word squeaked in shock and his lips lifted in amusement. Quickly recovering, Anne added, “Yes, yes please, you may.”

She knew that he realized that she was not experienced with having men show her attention. If he still took it as charming or had masterfully hid how tragic he thought her, she was not sure because his face did not shift from light humor.

“Very well,” his head dipped. “Have yourself a great evening.”

Her heart sang. Maybe her ploy had not failed her at all. Nervously, she looked around to see if Beatrice had seen her and the Duke’s interaction, but her sister’s back was turned to her and she was chatting to another Lord. Anne breathed in relief. This week was going to be interesting, to say the least.

She looked around and spotted Silas, lingering at the edge of the room, and as soon as their eyes met, he turned his head away. All the joy she had just felt evaporated.

What is wrong now?


Chapter Two


Waking up after dawn, Anne still held on to the confliction from last night. The Duke of Lambert was paying her attention, just as she secretly had wanted for years. But then, her sister ruined it with her scorn, and so had Silas’ distance dimmed her victory. She hadn’t had much time to count her success; instead, it felt paltry and insignificant.

Anne dreaded facing her family, especially her mother and sister who she was sure were united in keeping her in the background. Especially with her loving but distant father who was constantly tied up with business in London and hardly got an input. For a moment, she considered staying in bed, but knew that she was not a coward. Even if they snubbed her, she was going to face them.

After her bath and clad in a day gown, she descended to the room where she knew her mother and sister would be. Every day, the two were in her mother’s private drawing room, having tea and going through the many letters Beatrice’s admirers had sent her. After last night, Anne saw no reason to think they would be anywhere else.

The door was half-open, and as she had suspected, Beatrice and their mother, Deborah, were seated. Both were in their dressing robes and had teacups in their hands.

“Good morning,” Anne greeted them, but only her mother looked up.

“Beatrice told me about your interaction with the Duke of Lambert last night,” her mother said tightly. “Will you tell me what that was about?”

Absolutely sure that Beatrice had blown all the events of last night out of proportion and had laced a few lies in there as well, Anne felt suddenly sullen and defensive.

“I was dancing with Lord Godwin and yes, I faked a trip to fall in the Duke of Lambert’s hands,” Anne said honestly. “But from there, I used no tricks. He did not look through me as most of the Lords have done and that was all I wanted, to have his attention, even for a moment.”

Her mother pursed her lips. “And why did you want that?”

Anne’s mouth flattened and she shot a look over at a smug Beatrice. “I am in my last Season, and I think we all know it. Beatrice is going to marry well and have it for the rest of her life. Why can’t I just have some good memories to take with me in my long life of spinsterhood?”

Her mother’s brows darted up at Anne’s forwardness as normally she would have swallowed those words and not have said a thing.

“That is fair, don’t you think?” Anne said.

Deborah turned to Beatrice, who was suddenly scowling, then turned back to Anne. “I think that is fair. You have stepped back to let Beatrice take the light, so I’ll allow it for now.”

Another hollow victory. “His Grace is going to come by this week to see me, he gave me his word.”

Shock flashed over her mother’s face just as Beatrice soured even more. “Well, that is delightful. I will have our cooks on standby with the best meats and delicacies to offer him. I am surprised—this is the first time we have had a Duke in our home, and it came because of you, Anne. Who would have thought it?”

It was not a compliment and Anne knew it. She did not allow herself to dwell on it because if she had her way, Lambert would be the second man who would see through her size and see her heart. If she had her way, she would make him see much more and soon, Lambert would love her the way she loved him.

“Beatrice,” her mother said. “Did you not think of a way to get His Grace into our home?”

“I have tried,” Beatrice scowled, clicking her teacup down. “But he has not paid me any attention.”

“Well, now that he will be in our home, try and make an impression on him,” her mother said.

Anne gaped. Was her mother going to spin her achievement into Beatrice’s’ opportunity? Her sister sniffed. “I am sure I can make a better impression than she has.”

“Why can’t you let me have this one thing?” Anne asked. “Beatrice has every other opportunity to meet others, why not leave me to this one?”

Their mother turned to her and her face was strict. “It is His Grace, Anne, do you not realize that this might be the best opportunity for Beatrice? Use your common sense. If she marries him, you would have done your sister the best opportunity in her life. Can’t you see that?”

And what has she ever done for me, except make me feel like I am a blight to this family?

“Yes, Anne, can’t you see that?” Beatrice said snidely.

Anne swallowed her words, as she knew even if she spoke them, they would not be truly heard. No matter what she would say or do, her mother would still turn the one thing Anne felt she had done right into Beatrice’s advantage. It was not different from anything else she had lived through from the day she was born. It did not matter that she spoke French fluently while Beatrice could barely decline a verb.

It did not matter that Anne could play the pianoforte or draw and paint, while Beatrice turned up her nose at those basic accomplishments and coasted on her beauty. Nothing mattered and it was so miserable that Anne was not surprised about it anymore.

She bit her tongue a little before she spoke, “Fine.”

“Good,” Deborah said, while reaching out to pat Anne’s hand. “I knew you would see sense. Now, Beatrice, let’s decide on your gown for the occasion.”

Unable to sit there while they planned how to use the Duke’s visit to their advantage, Anne excused herself. Going back to her rooms, she picked up a book mostly to have a distraction to stop herself from being distressed about her mother and Beatrice.

Even with the book open, her mind turned back to the short meeting she had. A soft body landed on her lap and Anne’s attention fell on the fluffy long-haired Persian, Mixie, who began purring on her lap.

“Hello, girl,” she said, while rubbing her cat’s ears. “Where have you been?”

Her cat made a few circles on her lap before settling down in a ball of white fur. She petted the warm mound, “I wish you could speak so we could talk. Why won’t they just let me have one thing, Mixie? Why won’t they let me be happy for once?”

For years, Anne held it that her cat was the second friend she had in her life, with Silas being the first. Sighing, Anne lifted Mixie from the book and laughed at the irritated huff her cat made at being jostled. As she read the familiar lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, her lady’s maid, Sarah Hill, came bearing a bouquet of pink, white, and orange geraniums.

“Pardon me, My Lady,” she said. “These have arrived for you.”

Surprised, Anne stood and laughed at Mixie’s displeased meow before reaching for the flowers. “Thank you, Sarah.”

The maid left and just as Anne plucked the card from the bed of the flowers, Beatrice walked in. Her eyes landed on the flowers. “Who are those from?”

Quickly reading the note, Anne’s smile was bright, “It’s from the Duke of Lambert.”

Her sister tossed her hair, “He’s just humoring you. There is no way you could hold his attention, but I’ll let you have your fun for now.”

You will let me?” Anne said incredulously. “I was the one who brought him here, not you. You have no power to let me do anything.”

“Just stay out of my way when I do get his attention,” Beatrice said, then turned and reached out for Mixie. The cat arched her back and hissed, making Beatrice yank her hand back. She scowled at the cat, “Never liked you anyway.”

She left the room with a sneer and slammed the door a little harder. Anne sighed deeply and reached over to soothe Mixie. “Don’t worry, girl, she won’t ever hurt you. Let’s prepare for His Grace’s arrival, shall we?”

***

It took four days for the Duke to send word about his pending arrival and the house turned into Bedlam. Anne was not sure why servants were rushing around pell-mell when they had put in all the preparations from the moment Anne had told her mother about the Duke’s intention to visit.

Anne dressed in a lovely bronze gown, then she sat for Sarah to fix her hair. “Do you know what Beatrice is doing?”

“She and Lady Keats are preparing as well, My Lady,” Sarah replied as she twisted Anne’s auburn hair into a delicate chignon. “I believe Lady Beatrice is using that gown she has had in store for the—”

“Royal occasion,” Anne snorted while holding her face still for Sarah to apply her cosmetics. “She had that gown updated every year just in case she meets a royal. She’ll probably take out the diamond jewelry set and have jewels threaded through her hair.”

Anne could see the glamourous picture her sister was going to give the Duke and swallowed her regret. Even if she had the same gown and jewels as her sister, nevertheless, all attention would be on Beatrice.

Again, she despaired.

Why can’t they just let me have one victory?

Still, Anne went on with her preparations. Even if the visit did not work out, at least she would hold the memory of dancing with him dear to her heart. When Sarah finished sliding the delicate mother-of-pearl combs into her hair, another servant came to tell her that the Duke’s carriage had arrived.

After a hasty look in the mirror to check if all was right, Anne hurried out the door and to the landing of the grand staircase, only to find that her mother and sister were already there speaking to the Duke. Her mother was in a stately gown and a fringed velvet turban, and Beatrice in a gown that put a cloud to shame with how light and pearlescent it was.

“I’m here, I’m here.” With her skirts in hand, she hurried down the stairs. Three steps from the bottom—she tripped. Panic ripped through her mind and she barely had time to gasp when strong arms caged her and warm woodsy cologne was in her nose.

Anne’s heart was somewhere in her throat and her eyes clenched tightly when Lambert chuckled, “We should stop meeting like this.”

Hesitantly, Anne peeled her eyes open and met the Duke’s glimmering blue eyes. Blood rushed to her cheeks. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

He helped her down the last few steps. Over his shoulder, she saw Beatrice scowl, and her mother’s unhappy face. She could read what they were thinking, how she had again stolen the spotlight from Beatrice. This time she had done it unwittingly, though, and all of them knew it.

With a nod and a charming smile, he turned to her mother, “Lovely house you have Lady Keats, and I am pleased to meet you again, Lady Beatrice.”

“You as well, Your Grace,” Beatrice’s smile was coquettish and inviting. “May I compliment you on purchasing Oster’s Park. The scenery out there is delightful.”

“It truly is,” he said. “Mayhap one day I’ll take you and your sister out for a ride.”

Anne saw the flash of irritation cross Beatrice’s face but in the next moment it was gone. Her plan to get the Duke alone had not worked and it felt fitting to Anne. They were trying to hone in and steal him, after all.

“May I show you to the solarium, Your Grace?” Deborah said. “We have tea service waiting for us.”

“Actually, I don’t have much time,” Lambert said. “A walk with Lady Anne in the garden is all the time I have.”

Secretly, Anne was dancing inside. He was cutting her family’s machinations to the quick.

“Surely just a cup of tea or glass of wine?” Deborah tried to persuade him.

“Thank you, but not this time,” Lambert said, then turned to Anne. “Please, lead the way.”

“Um…” she paused. Turning to the landing where her maid Sarah stood, Anne said, “Miss Hill, will you come with us, please?

Her maid made a quick trip down the stairs and curtsied. “Yes, My Lady, and pleased to meet you, Your Grace.”

With her head held high, Anne led the Duke out to the main garden with Sarah trailing behind them. She did not dredge up the courage to speak until they were on the cobblestone walk heading to the gazebo. “Thank you for saving me—again.”

He laughed. “Your ploy at the ball was amusing, but a while ago, you could have harmed yourself.”

“I know,” Anne said. “I was not lying when I told you that I have all fingers and thumbs. I’m hardly the graceful dancer my sister is.”

“Grace can come in many forms,” Lambert said. “It does not have to be dancing.”

“Or descending the stairs,” Anne laughed.

“That, too,” he added, while reaching out to pluck a blue iris. “I must say, I have a lot of ladies pull tricks on me but that was the first of its kind.”

Anne winced. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

He waved her words off, “Don’t be. It was an eye-opener, that was for certain. Aside from your clumsy greetings, you come across as an accomplished young lady, am I wrong?”

“I would like to think I am,” Anne said as she rounded a bush. “I have mastered playing the pianoforte, I speak French like a native, I have a few paintings my father had framed handing in his office, and I write stories mostly for my amusement.”

“Have you considered publishing?” Lambert asked.

“I have not even had a second reader or even a critic,” Anne laughed. “To publish was out of the question for me. Moreover, Father has made it clear that neither of us, me nor Beatrice, should work, but I don’t think writing counts as working, do you?”

“It might not be,” Lambert said. “Before I entered the Dukedom, I trained as a bookkeeper. Numbers were my passion.”

“Before?” Anne asked with her brows knotting in the middle. “What was before that?”

“I had two older brothers and when my father passed, I expected one of them to take over,” he said. “One went off to America, the other went to France and left me. Sadly, both died. I never thought I would step into the shoes of a Duke, but five years in, I think I have mastered it.”

Surprised about his history, Anne felt as if he should understand her more. If he had brothers that had been pushed in the spotlight before him, he would understand her debacle with Beatrice.

“I think so, too,” Anne replied. “Did your brothers ever lord their superiority over you?”

“No,” Lambert laughed. “I may have been the youngest, but I was by far the most talented. I think my brothers knew it, which was why they smartly skipped off to follow whatever nonsense was in their heads and left me with the Dukedom to take care of.”

Though he laughed, Anne could hear a strain of overdone hubris underneath. But then, he was a Duke, one of the most powerful men in England. Why wouldn’t he be prideful?

“So there was no competition between you three?” Anne asked.

“There was some, but when it came down to the test, I was the clear choice,” Lambert grinned as he turned them back to the house.

“May I ask,” Anne inserted. “How old are you?”

 “Three-and-thirty,” he replied. “Not too old, do you think?”

“Not at all.” They had gotten to a porch that led directly back into the home and made it to the front rooms and foyer beyond it in comfortable silence.

As he collected his coat and hat, Lambert turned. “You are a singular young lady. I must tell you that. I am pleased to have met you.”

Why does that feel like parting words instead of proceeding ones?

“So am I, Your Grace,” Anne said as she stood at the doorway.

He set his hat on with aplomb, and turned to her as the carriage came to sit at the gate. “It has been enlightening to see you where you are, well, mostly comfortable. Promise that if we meet again, I won’t have to catch you.”

He said if.

With her stomach sinking, Anne nodded. “You have my word, Your Grace.”

Before he replied, his gaze drifted up over her shoulder before he turned back to her, “Good. I must bid you adieu, My Lady.”

She curtsied, “You too, Your Grace, and safe travels.”

Anne stood there with the ripening feeling that he would never come to her home again and that possibly—just possibly— she would never cross his mind again. As she turned and looked at Beatrice standing on the landing above and looking smug, Anne knew it was more than a possibility. She might have lost any chance she had at all.

***

Sliding his brandy away, Silas stood and paced to the window. It was after seven in the night and the lawn was dark and shadowed. The tips of the majestic elms waved in the night air and soon mist from the nearby river would start creeping up around their trunks.

Silas felt as solemn and grim as the scene before him. Even while he stared out at the grounds, his mind was on Anne. Repeatedly, he had castigated himself for not telling Anne how he felt—how he had felt for years—so she would not have gone out of her way to get attention from Lambert.

A self-absorbed man with little care or compunction for anyone else.

The Duke and Silas hardly ran in the same circles, but even so, he knew about the man. The family he came from was one who held their noses a foot above other’s heads and even though the Duke was the third-born son of a family, he still acted as if he were the forerunner.

He was not one who deserved the attention of a lovely lady like Anne, as Silas was sure the Duke did not have the character to treasure it for what it was worth. But even worse, he hated himself for being such a coward. Anne did not know he loved her, and from the friendly path he was still trotting, she would never know.

Pretty soon, she’ll be married off and I will hate myself for the rest of my life because I had not the courage to tell her.

 “Silas?” his mother, Hannah Elkins, the Dowager Countess of Godwin, asked from his doorway. “Are you still working? Heavens. You’ve been in this room from dawn and now it is way past time for you to stop.”

He turned with a warm smile, “I haven’t been working for a few hours now.”

“Then why are you here?” she asked.

He reached for his wineglass and downed its contents. “I’m worried about Anne, Mother.”

“Well, I am glad you are not overworking, but why are you worried? Has the sweetheart found herself in trouble?” his mother asked.

“I fear she will,” he sighed, then took his seat. “She has her heart set on winning the Duke of Lambert, Mother. He looks good on the outside and a lot of women have their eyes on him, but I happen to know that he is not a good man.”

“Then why aren’t you stopping her?” Hannah asked.

When have I ever had the strength to tell her?

Silas laughed dryly, “She has the mindset that she is going to be a spinster for the rest of her life and thinks winning his attention would be her crowning achievement, Mother.”

“And have you tried to deter her from it?” Hannah asked.

“To be honest, I’ve helped her to get in with him,” Silas’s lips pressed tight. “It is not my finest moment, but she has so little happiness in her life that I tried to give her whatever I can.”

“Silas,” his mother sounded exasperated. “You and I know that you are in love with that girl. Why haven’t you told her?”

“Because I am the worst coward,” he sighed, rubbing his forehead. “I knew you knew how I feel about her, but I am scared that she only sees me as a brother and a friend to her. I’m trapped between wanting to show her what I feel, but terrified that I will drive her away. Which is why I linger in the middle.”

Hannah tutted, “It’s very unlike you, Silas. I know you as a brave man, just like your father was.”

“I know,” he groused. “And I hate myself for it, but the chances are that I am the only friend she has, and I do not want to force her to choose. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the weight of it rests in my chest like a rock.”

“And you feel the only option now is to help her win the Duke,” Hannah said.

“For now, yes,” Silas uttered.

“And if she does win the Duke and he breaks her heart, what are you going to do?”

“The only thing I can do,” Silas said grimly. “Help her pick up the pieces.”

The higher we are placed, the more humbly we should walk

~ Cicero 


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Tags

duchess, duke, historical romance, lady, manor, marquess, regency romance, revenge, victorian romance

  • Loved the storyline! Best friends falling in love, staying together from kids into adulthood with a happily ever after. And a large family too…although i could have wished for silas’s father to be alive as well. A happy beginning, a living middle and a happy ending…all in all, a feel good story you would want to curl up with.

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