About the book
"Neither fire nor wind, birth nor death could ever erase his love for her..."
Left at the steps of Dewdale Manor as a baby, Vivien Crawford has been Lady Isadora’s companion all her life. And that means one thing: when her Lady is invited to her future husband’s home, Vivien must follow.
Though vexed with his stepmother’s machinations to have him married, Gerard Kahler, the Duke of Hartwick, vows to be the perfect gentleman. What he never accounted for is Lady Isadora’s beautiful companion.
But as both Vivien and Gerard soon realize, the past is a peculiar thing, with a mind of its own. Vivien has been living a lie facilitated upon her birth, and the key to the riddle is a single old pendant. A sapphire as bright as the moon the night she was taken...
Vivien Crawford raised the skirt of the lilac silk into the light and turned a critical eye to the neat row of stitches she used to repair the torn material of Lady Isadora’s gown, daughter to the Earl of Dewdale and Vivien’s own mistress. With a satisfied nod, Vivien returned the gown, which was one of Lady Isadora’s favorites, to the wardrobe.
Across the room, Lady Isadora raised her head from the letter she was reading. She received three that morning, and the other two remained unopened on her desk. In the sunlight, Lady Isadora’s golden hair was so bright it appeared to be surrounded by a halo. She was a lovely Lady, all brightness and light, and quite the opposite of Vivien, whose sleek hair and eyes were both dark.
“There is nothing to do in London when it isn’t the Season,” Lady Isadora said, letting out a long sigh.
“Nothing, My Lady? I’m quite sure Her Ladyship would be willing to find something to occupy your attention.”
Lady Isadora groaned. “I can scarcely imagine what pleasure my mother derives from those old, dusty volumes.”
The Countess of Dewdale’s newest passion was in collecting and translating medieval manuscripts, something she was remarkably talented doing, and something which Lady Isadora had been treated to several long, rambling treatises on. Vivien felt a pang of sympathy for Lady Isadora’s boredom.
Lady Isadora was a proper, society Lady, who detested being anything save the center of attention, and like a beautiful flower, she wilted during the fall and winter months when there were simply not enough social activities to fulfil her desire for being noticed.
“And don’t you dare mention that I am bored to Her Ladyship,” Lady Isadora said. “She’d likely take the opportunity to have us accompany her to a monastery in Cornwall or something outlandish. Just because I’m bored in London does not mean I’d like to spend the bulk of autumn on some dreary, damp beach.”
Lady Isadora wrinkled her nose and patted her elegant curls, as if imagining them already thrown into disarray by the sea spray and foul weather.
“I would never do that,” Vivien said, folding her hands in her lap. “You know that.”
Lady Isadora nodded and glanced at her letter again. “Will you pen a response to Lord Reginald?” she asked. “He tires me, but I dare not send him the harsh words he doubtlessly deserves.”
Lord Reginald, the son of the Earl of Trentworth, was Lady Isadora’s most persistent suitor and the one she found the most disagreeable. The match would be quite good, but Lady Isadora was one of the rare young ladies who wanted—very desperately—to marry a man who truly loved her. This was something she had confessed to Vivien only late into the night when there was no one about to hear.
And Vivien, who never had a suitor, acutely understood the Lady’s ardent desire for romance. Vivien quite hoped Lady Isadora found it, too. But Vivien had resigned herself to never wed, reasoning that it was enough to have a family who treated her well.
Is that the sort of life my parents would have desired for me?
Almost without realizing it, Vivien’s hand went to the gold pendant that always hung around her neck, beneath her gown. It was small, with her initials carved into it and a tiny, twinkling sapphire, the only clue and reminder she had of her long-lost parents.
“And besides,” Lady Isadora continued, drawing Vivien’s attention back to Lord Reginald’s letter, “You’ve a much subtler manner of writing. I daresay you could insult the King, and he’d read your letter and emerge with the profound feeling that you had the utmost affection for him.”
Vivien laughed. “I value your praise, although it is far too great.”
Lady Isadora’s coral lips curled into a sly smile. “Nonsense.”
Vivien took the letter from the Lady’s hand and quickly read through it. It was the usual fare for Lord Reginald—polished declarations of love, an inquiry about when Lady Isadora might see him next, and a long missive about everything he was doing to improve the conditions of his aging father’s country estate.
Although he was a cheerful Lord and unfalteringly polite, Vivien had developed the opinion that Lord Reginald’s interest was only in money, which admittedly might make one a dull husband.
“Do you want to see him?” Vivien asked.
Lady Isadora sliced open the seal on delicate, cream-colored stationery with a gilded letter opener. She pressed the metal against her pursed lips, thinking. “Only if you cannot find a graceful way of delaying the occasion.”
Vivien nodded, and taking a piece of paper and quill, began to write a response which would neither offend the lord nor force Lady Isadora into any obligation which she’d no eagerness to fulfill.
Dear Lord Reginald,
Although quite delighted to receive your letter and your friendship, I must confess that I’ve presently no time to make solicitous visits, as I have numerous obligations which demand my attention.
There were no obligations aside from the usual, but Lord Reginald need not know that. Vivien paused, considering whether she ought to concoct a few obligations which might keep Lady Isadora from visiting anyone. Admittedly, that was lying, but if there was one thing that Vivien had learned about lords and ladies, it was that sometimes lies were necessary for keeping everyone’s dignity intact.
“This one is from an orphanage in London,” Lady Isadora said. “Thanking me for my generosity. I do not recall sending any orphanage a gift, though. Do you?”
“Yes,” Vivien replied. “You sent them a sum of money during the Season, or rather I did. Do you recall? It was when you told me to elect five charities and allot them money on your behalf.”
“Oh, yes. That,” Lady Isadora replied. “You can answer that letter, too. Acknowledge them on my behalf. I won’t have orphans in London saying that I have no time for them.”
“Of course not.”
But first, Vivien still had to answer Lord Reginald. This was not the first time Vivien had been tasked with excusing Lady Isadora from meeting with a less than desirable suitor, however, so Vivien knew precisely what to do. She finished the letter to Lord Reginald, expressing that Lady Isadora was simply too busy and—of course, regretfully—unable to meet him any time in the near future due to her philanthropic obligations.
“Oh, this is interesting,” Lady Isadora said. “Do you see?”
The lady held the last letter aloft, and Vivien read the name. “The Dowager Duchess of Heartwick?” she asked. “Why would she send a letter?”
“I’m unsure,” Lady Isadora mused. “I briefly spoke to her during the Season, and we discussed floral arrangements.”
Vivien had been present for that discussion, but because Lady Isadora did not seem to recall her presence, Vivien remained silent.
“And horses.” Here, Lady Isadora paused and wrinkled her nose.
Although few knew it, Lady Isadora fiercely detested horses. As a girl, a mare had bucked and thrown her to the ground, and ever since, Lady Isadora avoided horses whenever she was able.
“I might be willing to forget the horses, though,” Lady Isadora said, “If His Grace is involved.”
Lady Isadora let out a dreamy little sigh, and Vivien understood why. The Duke of Heartwick was very handsome. He was a tall and broad-shouldered man, whose deep, melodic voice radiated both strength and reliability. His hair was as brilliant as spun gold and his eyes a playful sky blue. By all accounts, he was a striking man.
Chivalrous, too, or so Vivien had heard. She only met the lords and ladies who Lady Isadora met, and the lady had only spoken to His Grace on a handful of occasions.
“It must be difficult for him, being so young,” Vivien mused.
At only five-and-twenty years, the Duke of Heartwick managed the largest dukedom in all of Britain, ever since his father’s unexpected death only two years before. Vivien, who’d never known her parents, always felt as though she’d lost something deep and profound with their loss, and she could scarcely imagine how much more difficult it must be to lose a parent when still young and unready, but old enough to remember them fondly.
“Nevertheless, he bears the title and its responsibilities well,” Lady Isadora said, flipping the letter between her fingers.
“Without a doubt, My Lady.”
“Shall we open it, then?” the lady asked, already tearing the seal open.
For a moment, Lord Reginald’s letter remained forgotten on the desk, as Vivien leaned forward to listen.
“Dear Lady Isadora,
I was thinking just a day or so ago about the delightful conversations we had at Lord Summerfield’s ball during the latter half of the Season, and I had the most wonderful thought.”
“Oh?” Vivien asked, leaning forward eagerly.
Lady Isadora gave her an amused smile. “She likely wants to begin a gardening club or something of the like.”
That was quite likely, at least from Vivien’s appraisal of the lady’s character.
“You are an intelligent, well-mannered lady of good breeding with a bright disposition, and as I’m sure you’re aware, my son has only recently become the Duke of Heartwick. I fear that he spends too much time on managing the dukedom and far less looking after himself. This is, as I’m sure you’ll agree, the most charitable of flaws.”
Lady Isadora paused suddenly, although her eyes continued to skim the letter’s contents.
“Well?” Vivien asked, after a long moment.
Lady Isadora drew in a sharp gasp. “Oh, God! Am I dreaming? Read, read!”
The lady sprang to her feet and shoved the letter into Vivien’s startled face. With a surprised laugh, Vivien took the letter in hand. Lady Isadora paced the floor suddenly, practically bursting with anxiety.
Vivien frowned and skimmed the letter’s contents, searching for the words which had thrown Lady Isadora into such a state of disarray.
I think my son could benefit from a presence like yours, and when I approached your parents with the idea, they agreed that it was quite a good one. And over several weeks of correspondence, your parents and I began to consider the possibility of a betrothal. Therefore, I would like to cordially invite you to spend time on our estate with your mother, so we may discuss a potential engagement and union of our families. I have also sent a letter to your parents, inviting them to join us for the occasion.
Vivien read the letter again, before her wide eyes snapped to Lady Isadora’s face. The lady’s delicate hands covered her mouth. “It still says it,” she said, her words muffled.
Vivien paused, trying to judge Lady Isadora’s reaction. She scarcely knew the Duke Heartwick, even if she found him handsome, and Vivien was quite sure that Lady Isadora was not in love with the Duke.
But color rose in Lady Isadora’s cheeks, and a sparkle came to her blue eyes. “The Duke of Heartwick!” she exclaimed. “And his estate! Oh, my goodness! Can you believe it? We must go at once.”
“We?” asked Vivien.
Lady Isadora waved a dismissive hand. “Of course, we! I’m hardly going to leave you behind! Oh, I hope I don’t forget anything! The Duke!”
Vivien grinned, as Lady Isadora’s enthusiasm rose, seeming to fill every corner of the room. “You’re not so bored now, My Lady!”
Lady Isadora laughed and swept back into her chair. She reached out and clasped Vivien’s hands and gave them a tight squeeze. “No, no, I’m not! His Grace, the Duke! Why, what a high-born noble! Do you think I’ll grow to love him? It sounds so romantic, doesn’t it? A lady being swept away to a duke’s country manor!”
Vivien nodded, joy blossoming in her breast. While lords and ladies often kept multiple residences and traveled to them frequently, Lady Isadora and her parents remained primarily in London, going to the country only when they were ill and in sore need of fresh air. And going to His Grace’s estate was an opportunity to see something new, to explore the world that was so much vaster than Vivien’s simple life.
“I must summon the dressmakers at once! If I’m to woo him properly, I’ll need something beautiful to wear.” Lady Isadora spoke so earnestly that—had she not been a Lady—one might have believed that she lacked a wardrobe filled with luxurious, pearl-encrusted gowns.
“I can send for them,” Vivien said.
Lady Isadora swept away again, spinning across the floor as though she’d been asked to dance. “Wonderful. Yes! Oh, Vivien, this is going to be so wonderful! Don’t you think? There is so much to do.”
“I know, but we can do it. I’ll make all haste to the dressmakers,” Vivien said, standing, “And I’m sure they’ll be quick to answer your summons.”
“Yes, of course. It’s not the Season.”
For a brief second, both of them fell silent. Then, without warning, Lady Isadora emitted a delighted scream and pulled Vivien into a hug. “I can’t believe it,” the lady said. “This is—this is precisely what our boring winter needed.”
Vivien nodded, grinning so much that her face hurt. “I know. And I don’t think any lady has ever been invited to the Duke’s estate, not since he took the title.”
“No, there haven’t been any. I’d know if there were! And for the Dowager Duchess to choose me!” Lady Isadora let off with a small, longing sigh. “She must have a much higher opinion of me than I anticipated!”
Lady Isadora squeezed Vivien’s shoulders once more. Then, the lady herself left the sitting room and strode into her own bedroom. Vivien followed, Lord Reginald’s reply left forgotten on the desk.
With a flourish, Lady Isadora threw open the doors to her wardrobe and drew out an elegant, fur-lined riding jacket. She held it against her chest and sighed breathily. “I might even be willing to love horses for him,” she said. “What a match! I scarcely could’ve imagined a better one! If I can just make a good first appearance, I’ve no doubt I can charm him. He’ll fall madly in love with me at first sight. How romantic!”
Vivien wondered if it would really be that easy and if Lady Isadora would really be so quick to return any affections that the Duke of Heartwick might offer, but she did not express her doubts. Although she’d resigned herself to a single life, a small part of Vivien still delighted in the potential of falling in love, and if anyone was worthy of His Grace’s affections, it was surely Lady Isadora.
“Everything,” Lady Isadora said, with another longing sigh, “Will be just perfect.”
Gerard Kahler, the Duke of Heartwick, could always sense when there was something awry in his household. It was difficult to explain precisely how, because as far as Gerard knew, he had no concrete evidence that anything was ever wrong. But he seemed to have something within him, some internal feeling that was unnaturally good at predicting when something was amiss.
Gerard shook his head, sure that the matter would reveal itself soon enough, and instead returned his attention to the mare before him. She was a large Arabian with a pristine white coat, whom he’d recently purchased. Despite her intimidating size, the mare had a gentle temperament, one which Gerard encouraged with gentle pets and treats.
Gerard turned his head. It was one of the housemaids who stood before him, a young and slight woman named Elizabeth. She bobbed her head at his attention.
“The Duchess seeks your presence, Your Grace, if you are not currently occupied.”
The maid arched a questioning, nearly impertinent eyebrow. Elizabeth was never rude, precisely, but she had the distinct misfortune of an expressive face. Every mood and thought were painted across her face with such radiance that Gerard doubted the young woman could possibly lie, even if she wanted to do so.
For all her faults, though, Elizabeth could clean like no one else. She had an unrivaled efficiency and was singularly gifted in making people like her, so her faults were forgiven.
“You say that as though you expect me to lie, Elizabeth.”
Her lips twitched into a sly, clever smile. “I know how fond you are of your horses, Your Grace. That is all.”
“Tell my dear stepmother that I’ll be in directly. Where does she wish for me to meet her?”
“In the drawing room, Your Grace.”
As the servant left, Gerard returned his attention once more to the horse. He briefly considered going into the stable with the mare and hiding. Perhaps, this was the matter which he’d sensed was amiss.
“Perhaps it is nothing,” Gerard murmured, stroking the horse’s neck. “Or perhaps she is lonely.”
Gerard’s father had married twice. First, to Gerard’s own mother and after she died, to the former Lady Lydia. That occurred when Gerard was six, so for most of his life he’d been raised by his stepmother and alongside his half-brother Samuel. Now that Gerard’s father, the late Duke of Heartwick, was deceased, it left the household in something of an odd position.
The former Duchess of Heartwick, his stepmother, now lived on the estate as the Dowager Duchess, and Gerard suspected being removed from her more powerful position deeply bothered her. As long as Gerard had known her, his stepmother had a burning need to be acknowledged and admired. This transition must be difficult for her, although she’d never spoken to him about it.
Since my father’s death, we’ve scarcely spoken at all.
That made it even stranger that she’d asked to see him.
“But the matter isn’t likely to vanish on its own,” Gerard said, giving the horse’s neck a final pat. “Wish me luck, my dearest.”
As he left the horse, Gerard trudged across the grass. Days before, it had snowed, and the pristine layers of white had since become a muddied sludge that was unpleasant to walk through.
I need to name that horse.
Perhaps it was silly of him, but Gerard took the naming of horses much more seriously than most. And he had yet to find a satisfactory name for the Arabian, who was both so beautiful, and so intimidating, and yet the sweetest mare he’d ever purchased.
Gerard entered the manor house, pausing to shake the snow and mud from his riding boots.
The staff must loathe me sometimes with the messes I make.
It wasn’t entirely his fault, admittedly. Heartwick estates were built in a swamp during the Middle Ages, and although the manor’s condition had improved over the centuries, it was still impossible to keep the grounds entirely free of mud.
But I doubt most lords track in mud as I do.
Sending a sheepish smile to the waiting maid, Gerard headed across the sleek, tiled floor. His boots were mostly clean, and he considered pausing to change. But his stepmother usually preferred haste over social graces, when there was no one save the family about, at least. If there had been company, she’d have been appalled.
Father used to wander into the manor in the same way, though.
Gerard felt an ache in his chest. His shoulders tightened, and his spine straightened. In hindsight, his father had been an eccentric man. A bright man, whose presence lit up every corner of the vast estate.
He was a wild man who roamed the moors and enjoyed nothing more than scaling down the cliff side, a thirty minutes’ ride away, and breathing in the sea air. He’d been a man who liked to wander through the untamed forest, and one prone to tracking in mud, leaves, and debris. More than once, he’d returned with spiders crawling from the pockets of his coat.
It seems unreal that he didn’t die in a hunting accident or on some daring expedition.
Instead, the late Duke had died from—of all things—consumption. The condition took him slowly, whittling the vibrant, lively noble down to a shadow of his former self, and even as Gerard watched his father waste away, he’d been plagued with fears that he wasn’t ready. He wasn’t ready to be the Duke of Heartwick. He wasn’t ready to be without a father. But here he was.
Gerard peered inside the drawing room, where his stepmother waited. The Duchess was in her early fifties, but her face and poise still attested to the great beauty she’d been during her youth. She was a plump creature now, her auburn hair turning slowly white, although no one could tell that by looking at her. Gerard only knew because he’d found his stepmother plucking the white hairs from her scalp one morning.
“Apologies for keeping you, Your Grace. I was tending to the new horse. You’ve seen her—the white Arabian?”
The Duchess turned to him and smiled. “I could’ve gathered that from your appearance. You clearly haven’t been in your room managing paperwork.”
Gerard mentally winced at the mention of the seemingly endless pile of paperwork currently languishing in his study. Despite knowing how many obligations his father had, Gerard still hadn’t anticipated spending quite so much of his time seated at a desk.
Carefully avoiding the Persian rug, Gerard crossed the room and took the seat across from his mother. She’d taken the liberty of having someone add wood to the fire. Gerard wondered if she’d anticipated that he’d come from outside or if she’d merely been cold herself. With a sigh, he let himself slouch a little, as the coldness and dampness of the elements sank into him.
“I’ve some news to share with you, and I’m unsure how you might receive it,” the Duchess said.
Gerard arched an eyebrow. “I’m in a pleasant mood, so I suppose it’s an appropriate time for unexpected news.”
“Visitors will be arriving any moment now.”
Gerard wondered who would possibly find any appeal in coming to his country estate in the middle of a snowy, wet swamp. He, of course, loved Heartwick and considered it to be better than any place in all of Britain, but Gerard also realized that Heartwick was, for some, an acquired taste.
“Lady Isadora. Her mother is coming, too, but she sent a letter ahead, explaining that she’ll be arriving after her daughter. There was some matter in London which kept her delayed.”
Gerard searched through his mind, trying to recall who Lady Isadora was. “Lord Dewdale’s daughter?” he asked at last.
“Yes, the same one.”
Gerard began to have an inkling of why his stepmother might have been unsure how he would respond to that particular bit of news. “And am I to assume that this lovely young lady and her mother simply wanted to make their winter more miserable than it was in London? At least, they might have enjoyed a frost fair there.”
“What a discourteous remark to make to your beloved stepmother,” the Duchess said.
Despite himself, Gerard smiled. “I’ll grant you that, Your Grace. It was discourteous.”
“I’d just given it some thought,” the Duchess continued. “And I don’t think you’ve given enough attention to finding a suitable match for yourself. You need a Duchess.”
Gerard ran a rough hand through his blond hair. “If I’ve not given it suitable attention, it is because I’m occupied with other matters, Mother, as you well know.”
“Marrying well and siring heirs is also an integral part of managing a dukedom. I found Lady Isadora to be an enchanting young lady, in need of an engagement, and I thought she might make a good candidate for your future duchess.”
“So your plan was to arrange my potential courtship for me, invite the lady to come all the way from London to Heartwick, a week-long journey assuming the weather is good, and then, inform me. You realize, of course, that I cannot turn the lady away after she has come this far.”
The Duchess’s smile wavered a little.
“And you further decided to tell me when she was due to arrive at any moment, so I could not devise some sudden reason for being absent during her visit.”
“Are you angry?”
Gerard considered the question for a second. It was difficult to be truly angry when his stepmother’s criticism was true. He had neither considered looking for a duchess nor attended any social functions during the Season. Despite his father’s tendency to be a social, exuberant Duke, Gerard had become a recluse since taking the title.
“I don’t know whether to be angry or whether to admire your ingenuity,” he admitted, shrugging his shoulders. “I wish you’d not done it this way, but I also know that—had you approached me with the idea—I would have denied needing a duchess. Well-played, Your Grace.”
“So you’ll be courteous to her?” the Duchess asked, suddenly cheerful and eager again.
“Thank you. I would expect nothing less of you, truthfully, but I know how difficult your father’s death has been for you.”
“For the both of us,” Gerard said.
The Duchess’s green eyes softened and became slightly misty. “Yes, for the both of us. Harder, though, for you than for me, I should think.”
Gerard glanced at the ceiling, blue enamel painted with delicate flowers. When his mother was alive, he remembered that same ceiling being painted before his wide, marveling eyes.
“Why Lady Isadora?” he asked. “Was she the only one bold enough to ask directly about my hand, or is there something you like about her?”
Despite seldom leaving his manor, aside from visits to his tenants and relevant business partners, Gerard knew that he must be a particularly appealing bachelor. The Dukedom of Heartwick was massive and wealthy, and he was younger than most dukes, something which would doubtlessly appeal to the young ladies still seeking matches.
“She is a charming conversationalist,” the Duchess said. “And I think that she has a very romantic heart. Like you.”
Gerard, who found nothing romantic in his character, raised an eyebrow. Perhaps his stepmother meant something other than what he was thinking, for there was no way she could have so incorrectly surmised his character.
Really, what else could he say? Despite the Duchess’s insistences that he and Lady Isadora would make a fine match, Gerard did not find any evidence of that in his stepmother’s words.
Emma, the housemaid, curtsied at the doorway. “A carriage has arrived.”
With a sigh, Gerard climbed to his feet, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of a bear who’d just awakened from hibernating all winter. “Well, I’d warrant that’s our guests. Shall we greet them, Your Grace?”
He offered his arm. The Duchess stood and put her hand at the crook of his elbow. Together, they left the drawing room, Gerard taking extra care not to tread on his stepmother’s blue silk gown. Once they reached the entryway, he and his stepmother gathered in the window, sweeping aside the curtains and watching as the black, sleek carriage pulled to a halt before the manor.
“You’ll like her,” the Duchess said. “I wouldn’t have invited her if I thought you’d hate her.”
Gerard said nothing, but he nodded to acknowledge the words.
Are you trying to reassure me or yourself, my stepmother?
Lady Isadora emerged from the carriage, her hair framed by the setting sun. The red and gold of the dimming light washed over her, illuminating the goldenness of her hair and the rosiness of her cheeks. She stepped down with the aid of her coachman, a visage of beauty in her pale blue cloak.
Gerard thought he might have seen her before. Since he’d taken the title, and ownership over the Dukedom of Heartwick, he’d seldom attended social functions, and even before his father’s death, he’d never been the most sociable of lords. To his embarrassment, though, he realized that he knew Lady Isadora’s title and family far better than he knew her face or mannerisms.
“She is a beautiful young lady,” his stepmother said.
“Aren’t they always?” Gerard asked, before he thought better of it.
When the Dowager Duchess did not respond with a clever remark, he knew he’d upset her.
“I would not anticipate you wanting to wed me to a hideous creature, like a banshee or an old crone who’d crossed your path in the woods, Madam.”
After Lady Isadora left the carriage, another woman emerged. She was dressed more simply, in a dark blue cloak, but somehow, she glowed as much as Lady Isadora. No, more even. The orange sun cast a radiance over her, so that the orange and red caught in the strands of her sleek, black hair. Her tresses seemed impenetrably dark, like a raven’s wing. Even with the heavy cloak she wore, it was apparent that the lady had a delicate build. Her face was creamy white and even from a distance, her eyes were dark and unfathomable.
Her simple, yet elegant, clothing suggested she was a companion, accompanying Lady Isadora to act as chaperone. Gerard felt he might have seen her before, but he—perhaps—had not paid her as much attention as he ought to have. Surely, if he’d really spent time looking at her, he would have certainly noticed such a beauty.
“It would reflect quite poorly on us if I married you to a crone in the forests,” the Duchess said.
“Without a doubt,” Gerard replied, barely listening.
His gaze had fixated on that young, dark-haired woman, and he never wanted to tear his attention away. And that would definitely prove troublesome because that young woman was not the visitor which ought to hold his attention. Not at all.
When Vivien imagined Heartwick Estate in her mind, she’d imagined something glorious, a modern manor house surrounded by flourishing flowers and green. This was, of course, despite her realizing that Heartwick existed in the middle of the moors and that it was the dead of winter.
Although the cobblestone road leading to the manor entrance was clear, the grounds were covered with dead, withered grass which was presently covered in crusted mud and sprigs of ice. The trees were barren, their branches stretching to the gray sky like bony fingers.
“It looks just like some place in a novel,” Lady Isadora whispered, as she stood before the carriage. “A French one. The French novels always have winter, and country estates, as their settings.”
Vivien had not read many French novels, and looking over the barren landscape, she was unsure if Lady Isadora really meant that the place looked like something in a novel or if she was only trying to reassure herself.
“It is quite charming,” Vivien said, hoping to reassure the lady.
It was odd, though, that a noble as wealthy as the Duke of Heartwick would choose such a gloomy place as his primary residence when his wealth surely afforded him many options.
“We shall see,” Lady Isadora said, striding confidently across the cobblestone pathway.
As Vivien trailed the lady, she let her gaze wander over the grounds. Upon further reflection, the estate might have been more beautiful than she’d first thought. The dreary, gray sky did make the black and white bark of the barren aspen trees appear more stunning than she’d ever seen before.
The butler bowed and opened the door for them, and the moment they set foot in the foyer, a feminine cry of delight split the air.
“My dear, Lady Isadora!”
The Duchess waited for them, the Duke beside her. Vivien suspected that Lady Isadora would prefer to greet her potential suitor first, but before she could, the Duchess took a step forward. She immediately extended her hands to Lady Isadora, who took them happily. The Duchess was a beautiful lady. Her thick auburn hair was pulled back in a series of elegant ringlets. That hair was her most distinctive feature and the one characteristic of the Duchess that always caught Vivien’s attention first.
“Dear Duchess!” Lady Isadora exclaimed. “I am so delighted to see you once again!”
“I hope your journey was pleasant?” the Duchess asked.
“It was quite pleasant,” Lady Isadora said. “Delightful, even. You know that my parents so seldom leave London, after all. Your invitation was quite an unexpected treat.”
While the ladies exchanged pleasantries, Vivien remained still and quiet near the entryway. Her gaze wandered to the Duke of Heartwick’s face. He had yet to speak, seemingly content to let the Duchess and Lady Isadora greet one another.
Looking at him, heat rushed to Vivien’s face. She’d seen His Grace on a few occasions, but she’d never seen him this closely before. He had a strong jaw and high cheekbones, which she’d never noticed. And Vivien had never realized that a thin spattering of peach-gold freckles spread over his nose and across his cheeks. The Duke’s blue eyes snapped sharply to her, and Vivien unwillingly drew in a sharp breath.
“Oh, this is Vivien Crawford,” Lady Isadora said. “My companion and dearest friend.”
“How charming,” the Duchess said.
Vivien curtsied, conscious that the Duke’s eyes were still on her, and his attention sent a warm shiver of delight coursing through her body. Perhaps it was because she’d never had any suitors herself, much less ones so powerful and handsome, but she felt a sort of forbidden delight in his gaze on her, even if the gaze was most likely one of assessment. A cursory one.
“I’m glad that you’ve both arrived safely,” His Grace said.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Lady Isadora said. “I can scarcely express how my heart soared when I received the Duchess’s letter. I had not even realized that I had caught your attention.”
“As if anyone would not be caught by your incomparable beauty,” the Duke of Heartwick replied.
Vivien frowned, not because she disagreed with the assessment. Lady Isadora was unquestionably a stunning creature, and she certainly had no shortage of enchanted suitors. But there was something in how the Duke paid the compliment that gave Vivien pause.
It sounds as though he’s an actor on the stage rather than a besotted lord, but that can’t possibly be. He would not have invited Lady Isadora here if he did not truly hold some measure of affection for her.
That was unless the Duke wished only to wed Lady Isadora to increase his financial holdings.
If that is the case, Lady Isadora will surely discover his motives soon, and she’ll be utterly appalled.
“But I’m sure that you ladies would like some time to rest,” the Duchess said. “Even if the journey was uneventful, it is still quite a long one. I’ll have Emma escort you to our best guestrooms.”
The Duchess waved to a waiting maid, a thin woman with fair curls peeking from beneath her blue cap. The woman curtsied. “This way, my Lady,” she said.
“We’ll join you again at dinner,” the Duchess said. “I’ll ensure that we have something grand prepared for the occasion.”
“Thank you. That’s most gracious of you,” Lady Isadora said.
The Duke’s eyes finally snapped to Lady Isadora. “I look forward to seeing you then,” he said.
“Likewise, Your Grace.”
They exchanged smiles, but His Grace’s seemed too careful and too practiced. For a man who had invited a lady all the way from London, he seemed quite unexcited to see her.
I’m reading too much into this situation. Of course the Duke of Heartwick desires her, or he would not have invited us here. Perhaps he merely has a cold nature and a difficulty in expressing his finer emotions.
As Vivien followed Lady Isadora up the winding, gilded staircase, she couldn’t keep from shivering at the memory of the Duke’s eyes on her.
The room arranged for their stay was large and luxurious. The roaring fireplace cast the green bedding and gilded furniture in a flickering, golden light, radiating a warmth and comfort that was absent in the outward appearance of the manor.
After being shown the rooms, Lady Isadora had promptly thrown herself across the bed, leaving Vivien to remove the lady’s shoes. And once the Lady was asleep, Vivien busied herself, assuring that all the luggage was brought into the room. It had scarcely all arrived when Lady Isadora bolted from the bed.
“I cannot sleep,” she announced. “Not with my heart racing like it is. I can still scarcely believe we’re here, Vivien. Do you imagine we’ll both wake soon?”
“I doubt it, My Lady,” Vivien replied, with a laugh. “Surely, if we were asleep, we wouldn’t both have the same dream and be aware of it.”
“No, I suppose not. You’re right.”
Lady Isadora cast an appraising eye over the rooms, roaming through the bedroom, sitting room, and bathing area. Vivien busied herself in placing the lady’s clothes in the wardrobe and in unwrapping the lady’s delicate perfumes and cosmetics, placing them on the vanity.
“I must look beautiful at dinner,” Lady Isadora announced, as if she had ever looked anything save gorgeous.
“You will,” Vivien replied. “Without a doubt. You always do.”
Lady Isadora sighed and sank into the green, velvet-covered chair before her vanity. “I know, but this is not just any suitor. This is the Duke of Heartwick, and I’m sure that there are so many ladies vying for his attention and affection! What if he decides that we are ill-suited for one another?”
Vivien bit the inside of her cheek and tried to decide whether she ought to reveal that there was something wrong with the Duke’s mannerisms, but if Lady Isadora had not noticed it, perhaps Vivien was just being a little…
Wary. Yes. A little too wary because she loved Lady Isadora more than anyone in the world, and if any misfortune came to the lady, Vivien would have been inconsolable.
“If he decides you are ill-suited, it is because he is of exceptionally poor taste,” Vivien said at last. “Only a fool would not be entirely besotted with you.”
Lady Isadora sighed and tossed her head back. “Oh, you are too kind to me, Vivien, but you would say that. You’re my lady’s maid.”
“And is your lady’s maid not allowed to say something nice and true?” Vivien asked. “You are the kindest Lady I know and the most charming. The most social, as well. I’m quite sure that the Duchess and Duke of Heartwick spoke at length about you before inviting you here.”
Lady Isadora clasped her hands together. “Yes, I suppose they did.”
The lady sounded pleased with the realization, as Vivien had known she would. Above all else, Lady Isadora liked to be adored, which Vivien suspected was the true reason the lady insisted that she wanted to marry for love. Lady Isadora liked to be fawned over, and the Duchess’s sudden and unexpected invitation proved that someone was looking at her.
“And I would never let you leave this room looking anything less than your most beautiful,” Vivien said.
To prove her point, Vivien opened a pot of rouge and grinned.
Lady Isadora sighed and straightened her back. She turned to face the mirror and fluffed her curls between her slender hands. “That is true, and besides, you’ll join me for dinner. And the Duchess will be there, too. I won’t be quite so nervous if I’m not alone with His Grace.”
“That’s right. But even if I wasn’t there, I’m sure you’d make him adore you. I don’t think I’ve ever met so charming a lady in my life.”
Lady Isadora’s smile broadened. “Nor I such a complimentary lady’s maid. You do your craft well. Perhaps we ought to have all lady’s maids raised by the cook.”
Vivien stifled a laugh. Sometimes, she forgot how absurd her entire life was. And other times, it would creep up on her. The mystery of her missing parents, who’d seemingly abandoned her on the doorstep of the Dewdale estate, would become so large that she felt she could scarcely bear it.
She knew, of course, that she was fortunate. Another abandoned child might have been left in an orphanage or caught its death of cold, but the Dewdale family had been kind. They’d let the cook raise her, and once Lady Isadora was old enough to long for playmates, they’d let her become the lady’s companion. It was a better life than most poor orphans could expect.
“I’m quite sure I learned manners from your governess,” Vivien said, not wanting Lady Isadora to know where her thoughts had turned. “The cook—bless her soul—is scarcely one for fine manners or proper speech.”
Lady Isadora laughed. “That is, without doubt, true.”
Despite having a large, compassionate heart, it was well known throughout the Dewdale household that the cook had a sharp tongue and a fiery temper. She was good at what she did, though, and managed the kitchens well.
Vivien smiled fondly and began applying Lady Isadora’s rouge with a careful, practiced hand. Although the lady was unquestionably beautiful, she was also quite pale and needed a bit of care to obtain the fashionable blush cheeks.
Once Vivien finished one cheek, Lady Isadora turned her head and considered her reflection a moment before nodding. Vivien began carefully applying the rouge to the lady’s opposite cheek, taking the utmost care to ensure that the color looked natural and blended well with Lady Isadora’s creamy skin.
“See?” Vivien asked softly. “You look wonderful.”
Lady Isadora pursed her lips and turned her head this way and that, looking at the effect from different angles. Finally, she offered Vivien a small smile. “I look as lovely as I always do.”
“I knew you would,” Vivien said. “Do you want some color for your lips?”
She already anticipated that Lady Isadora would, and predictably, the lady nodded her assent. Vivien opened the tiny pot of color and dipped her brush in it. Half-leaning against the vanity, she made careful strokes. Slowly, Vivien’s lips turned a soft, inviting coral, like the petals of a spring rose opening to the sunlight.
With Lady Isadora’s face finished, Vivien began managing the Lady’s curls. Unlike some unfortunate ladies, Lady Isadora’s hair was naturally curly, and with a little bit of rose oil and careful attention, that hair would be the envy of the room.
“Do you think I could persuade him to move to London if we marry?” Lady Isadora asked. “I do not know if I would want to live in a place like this, especially during the winter. It is so dreary and lifeless. Or perhaps, it is merely the fault of his gardeners and groundskeeper.”
Vivien paused. She hadn’t noticed that the estate grounds looked especially neglected. It seemed more to her that the Duke lived in an area which wasn’t very inclined to grow much beyond moor grasses and odd trees.
“I don’t know. Perhaps he feels the need to remain here because his father loved the grounds so much.”
Lady Isadora frowned. “I suppose that must be difficult for him. I can’t imagine what that loss must have felt like, but maybe that is why he invited me. Maybe he is hoping to find someone to help him heal from his grief.”
Vivien carefully rubbed a few drops of rose oil into her hands and methodically spread it through the Lady’s curls.
“Do you think love works that way?” Vivien asked. “You can assuage grief with it?”
“I don’t know,” Lady Isadora admitted. “But I do think companionship can help assuage loneliness. And maybe the Duke needs a distraction. I might be content to be a distraction if that leads a Duke to loving me.”
Vivien thought of His Grace’s eyes on her and his too polished, passionless way of speaking, and she shivered. A small, irrational part of her wanted the Duke’s eyes on her again, even if there was no admiration there and never could be. And yet another part of her feared that Lady Isadora would be disappointed or unhappy, even if the match was good.
“We’ll see,” Vivien said.
“And perhaps, after I’m married, we’ll work on finding you a suitable match.”
Vivien laughed. “And who do you have in mind for me, My Lady?”
Lady Isadora shrugged. “I have not the faintest idea, but I’m quite confident that we could easily find you a proper match.”
“With your determination, I’ve no doubt that you can,” Vivien said.
With her hair and face finished, Lady Isadora stood. She took a deep breath and smiled brilliantly at Vivien. “What shall I wear?”
Vivien’s face split into a wide grin. “The blue gown,” she said. “With the white French lace. It seems especially appropriate since you think His Grace’s estate resembles the setting of a French novel.”
They grinned at one another, both young and eager for romance, and yet Vivien couldn’t deny the tiny wavering of her heart. She dearly hoped that she was just too suspicious and too eager to protect Lady Isadora from disappointment and heartbreak. But what if she wasn’t?
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