About the book
"For who could ever learn to love a beast?"
The ton, Lady Olivia Fraser quickly learns, is harsher to those that deserve it least.
With her marriage prospects looking bleak after her betrothed left her on their wedding day, she has resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood. Until the day her father announces she is to marry a Duke. And not just any Duke…
With a facial deformity and a proverbial curse looming over his family, Vincent Price, Duke of Kingham, is notorious for being as cold as the castle he isolates himself in. Left to handle his late father’s debts, marrying a rich heiress seems to be the only option. Until the day he meets Lady Olivia.
As Olivia takes it upon herself to transform the dreary castle, her smiles thaw the ice around Vincent’s heart.
When Olivia falls mysteriously ill, Vincent is certain the perpetrator is not the Kingham curse but one of flesh and blood. His worst nightmare becomes reality when, still sick, Olivia disappears. And his only clue to her whereabouts is a trail of torn clothes and broken jewelry…
The first snow of winter drifted in silent flakes from the sepia sky, the clouds swollen and dark with lingering fury at the coming death of the seasons. The year’s final eulogy before a new one arrived, to take its place.
It was not yet dawn, but Lady Olivia Fraser could not rest any longer beneath the covers. She had struggled in vain since retiring to her chambers the previous night, leaving her mother and father, the Earl and Countess of Ashington, so she might attain her beauty sleep. She knew it was important for a bride to look her best upon her wedding day, but excitement had held other ideas. Indeed, it had woken her with unrelenting frequency throughout the night, and she had lain there, grinning like a fool, contemplating the blissful union she would have upon the morrow, when she became a wife at last.
Throwing back the bedclothes, she padded over to the window. The icy floor stung at the bare skin of her feet, for that same restless excitement had made her forget her slippers. There, she stood breathless, watching the snow fall and blanket the world beneath.
It is perfection…
She had always adored the snow, though her father griped about it being a cold nuisance. And she could barely wait to arrive at the church, the carriage making the journey through this wonderland of pure, virginal white. It would make her look all the more angelic, in her gown of white silk and lace, which her mother had harried the seamstresses to create until their knuckles ached and their fingertips grew stiff.
I cannot wait to be your wife, Henry. I have longed for this day. Soon, you and I shall be the happiest pair that ever were, like a couple of turtle doves, nestled close for the rest of our days.
At that precise moment, she heard the coo of doves in the forest beyond the gardens of her family’s seat, Ashington Manor. It made her chuckle giddily, her heart swelling with unfettered joy. Surely, if ever there were a sign that she and Henry, eldest son of the Earl of Gresham, were to be happy, this was it. The Lord Himself did send doves in times of great peace, and she knew that this marriage would provide her with all the peace and contentment she would ever need.
A hesitant knock at the door made her turn. A pink-cheeked waif of a girl, with an unruly mane of ginger hair that could rarely be restrained beneath a maid’s cap, and irreverent green eyes, entered. Lexie Holland—Olivia’s lifelong friend and confidante, concealed in the guise of a lady’s maid.
“I knew ye’d be up, M’Lady!” she whispered excitedly. In her hands, she carried a tray of tea things, with two freshly buttered crumpets resting precariously on a plate. “Why, all night, I kept thinking to meself—shall I go up and see her now, since she’s likely not sleeping a wink? But then, I didn’t want to risk disturbing ye, in case you did manage to drift off.”
Olivia smiled. “Can you fathom it, Lexie?”
“’Course I can, M’Lady! Why, if you aren’t the finest creature in all of England, then these eyes of mine must be turning blind before me time. And Lord Foxwood will be the most fortunate of gentleman, to have you as his wife.” Lexie set down the tea things and began the task of straining the tea into two cups. Lord Foxwood, of course, was Henry’s title, though it sounded somewhat alien to Olivia, to have him referred to so formally. For her part, he had always insisted she simply call him “Henry.” His maverick nature, with regards to high society, was one of the many reasons she adored him with her whole heart.
“I imagine he will look so very handsome, Lexie.” Olivia almost swooned at the thought of him standing at the altar in all his finery. It was said that gentlemen never looked more handsome than when they were about to become a husband.
“Undoubtedly, M’Lady. He’s a fine chap, if you don’t mind me speaking so casual.” Lexie chuckled to herself and sat down in one of the armchairs by the still-burning fire, which fought valiantly to keep the winter chill out of the bedchamber. Other maids might have been scolded for such an action, but Lexie was more of a friend to Olivia than a servant, and Olivia preferred it that way. That would never change.
Olivia sat in the armchair opposite. “This time tomorrow, you and I shall be in an entirely new house, and I shall be drinking tea in an entirely new bedchamber, with an entirely new name.”
“It’s all going to be entirely new, M’Lady. You’ve got that right.” Lexie sipped from her cup and recoiled. “Ooh, I’ve gone and burned me tongue. I’ll never learn! Even in a new house, with you bearing a new name, I’ll still burn me tongue on the first sip of tea.”
Olivia closed her hands around the teacup, drawing from its warmth before she dared to take her first sip. “Do you think it is too soon for me to begin preparing for the wedding?” She glanced toward the window and watched the snow continue to fall.
“After a sleepless night, M’Lady, I’d say it’s never too soon. But don’t you worry, I’m here to make sure you look your finest. No one will have the slightest notion that you’re not well-rested, once I’m done with you. I’m a magician with face powder, M’Lady, as you well know.” Lexie took another sip of her tea, the two women sitting in companionable silence for a while, with the snowfall deadening the sounds of the world outside.
“Then… let us begin.” Olivia could not wait a moment longer. The sooner she was ready, the sooner the ceremony would come, and the sooner she would be Olivia Wilson, Viscountess Foxwood. One day, when Henry’s father passed, that title would change to Countess of Gresham, and she would be able to count herself amongst the most elite ladies in the country.
But that did not matter to her. Titles and wealth and whatnot were all circumstantial. It was the love and the matrimony that she desired and with Henry at her side, she knew she could not fail to have the most blissful of marriages.
A dove cooed again, fixing a smile upon her face that she did not believe could ever be removed.
If only the day could have stayed as joyful as those first moments before dawn, when she had basked in bridal exhilaration with her dearest friend.
The wintry world that had filled her mind with dreamscapes of an idyllic wedding, set against the backdrop of a snowy wonderland, had soured. The furious clouds had unleashed their full vehemence, turning the dainty flakes into a tempestuous blizzard that lashed against the carriage windows as Olivia and Lexie made their way to the church. She could not even see the rolling fields that stretched away to either side of the country road. Everything was a blinding, ominous white.
Her mother and father followed in the carriage behind them, but both carriages had been forced to halt several times on the relatively short journey due to poor visibility and the horses getting increasingly skittish, not to mention cold. The driver had voiced his concerns about the animals’ welfare, but the Earl of Ashington had insisted they continue.
“What if we do not make it?” Olivia whispered anxiously.
Lexie grasped her hand and held it tight. “We will, M’lady. Ain’t no amount of trifling snow that can stop you getting married today. Besides, you know what they say—the worse the wedding, the better the marriage. That’s what me old Mam used to tell me, and she had the worst wedding day ye could think of! But her and me da are still happy as a pair of yearlings. Honestly, it turns yer stomach to see ‘em, sometimes, when they’re dancing in the kitchen without a care in the world.”
“They had a bad wedding day?” Olivia gripped her friend’s hand even tighter. They had often discussed Lexie’s family, for Olivia enjoyed listening to the provincial tales and the somewhat wild upbringing that her friend had received, but she could not recall if Lexie had told her of her mother and father’s wedding before.
“Oh, aye, the chapel were flooded so they had to perform the ceremony out in the churchyard, and me mam’s dress tore, and me da was late because his horse were lamed on the way, and the vicar were mighty drunk and got everything mixed up, and one of me mam’s cousins tried to stop the wedding and beg me mam to marry him instead. It were a calamity, by all accounts, but you’ve never seen a couple so happy. You and Lord Foxwood will be the same, ye mark me words.”
“I am eternally grateful to have you as my friend, Lexie.” Olivia tried to take some deep breaths, to steady her rising nerves. “You always have a way of calming me when I am at my wit’s end.”
“What else are friends for? And rest assured, I don’t plan on leaving you, even if you get sick of me.” Lexie leaned into Olivia, the two of them huddled together against the biting, howling wind that slithered into the carriage.
A good half an hour later, yet only ten minutes late to the wedding thanks to Olivia’s insistence that they depart far earlier than necessary, the carriages pulled up outside the church. The moment she saw the familiar structure, with its steeple of gray slate and walls of sandstone, with the snow-drowned gravestones protruding like Spring buds in the churchyard, Olivia felt her worries ease. Henry would be inside, awaiting her. Her future lay through those thick wooden doors, and she longed to run toward it.
However, as she stepped down from the carriage, with Lexie’s assistance, struggling to control her multitude of skirts and petticoats in the violent winds and twisting whorls of brutal snow, which lashed against her cheeks like barbs, a figure came sprinting out of the church. The fellow held the edge of his tailcoat over his face, to fend off the pummeling snow, meaning Olivia had no sense of who he was until he was upon them.
“Lady Olivia,” he panted, revealing himself to be Lord Leopold, Henry’s younger brother.
“Lord Leopold.” She did her best to muster a curtsey, but her skirts forbade it. If she did not wish to expose her pantalettes to the world, then the curtsey would have to wait.
“We sent a rider to your home. Did he not arrive?” Lord Leopold scrunched up one eye against the blizzard, his teeth chattering.
“No, he did not.” Olivia bristled with sudden panic. “Is something the matter? Has something occurred? Is Henry well?”
Her father strode over at that moment. “What is the meaning of this?”
“My Lord, I was just trying to explain to Lady Olivia. We sent a rider to your home not twenty minutes ago—he was supposed to find you on the road here, but it seems he was unsuccessful.” Lord Leopold could not look Olivia’s father in the eyes, which only exacerbated the swelling fear in her breast.
“That does not answer my question, Lord Leopold. What is the meaning of this? Why have you come out? We are somewhat delayed, that may be true, but my daughter is here now. You should not be the one welcoming us.” Her father puffed out his chest, his eyes narrowing as he scrutinized the younger man.
Lord Leopold dropped his chin to his chest. “My Lord… my brother is… oh goodness, how do I even begin to say this? My brother… he is not… um… he is not coming.”
“What?” Olivia gasped, leaning against Lexie for support.
“I am sorry, Lady Olivia.” Lord Leopold cast her a mournful glance. “We did not know this would happen. He dined with us at breakfast, and all seemed well. Indeed, he was even here at the church, but then… I cannot explain it, Lady Olivia. He went into the annex, claiming he needed a moment to pray, but when I went in to see how he fared… the door to the churchyard lay open, and he was nowhere to be found. He left only this.” He took out a piece of ecclesiastical parchment and held it out to Olivia.
She had not the strength to take it. In her hesitation, her father swooped in and snatched the piece of paper from Lord Leopold’s hand. Olivia watched as her father’s cheeks turned puce, his eyes widening in rage and disgust as they flitted across the note.
“This is an outrage! A despicable, foul outrage!” Her father threw the note to the ground, where it immediately dampened in the fallen snow, the edges flickering as the wind caught against the paper. Olivia could do nothing but stare at the paper, while her heart splintered in her chest. Her palm leapt to the spot where her heart struggled to beat, as an unbearable agony tore through her.
“We did not know this would occur, My Lord. He seemed content last night, and this morning. I do not know what can have happened to change his mind in this abhorrent manner. My mother is beside herself, and my father is railing to such a degree that the vicar asked him to go into one of the side rooms, lest he shock the congregation any further.” Lord Leopold kept his gaze fixed on Olivia, but she hardly saw him. Her eyes filled with bitter tears, which stung with a greater violence than the barbed lashings of the blizzard.
“Everyone is here,” she whispered. “Everyone will know.”
Lexie held her close. “There’s no need for them to see you like this, M’Lady. We’ll get you out of here before anyone can.”
“He has… jilted me, Lexie.” An ugly sob rasped out of her throat as she sank into her friend’s strong arms. “He has… abandoned me. I do not understand. I thought… I thought he loved me.” He had certainly given no inclination that he did not wish to wed her, when they had spoken but four days’ prior. No, indeed, he had seemed only too eager to be joined in matrimony with her and had spoken of how joyful their future would be, together.
What has changed? What did I do?
Her mind whirred as she tried to discover any possible explanation for this harrowing turn of events. She thought of all of their previous encounters, and their strolls about the gardens, and the dinners they had shared at her house and his, with both families. But… there was nothing. No hint that all was not well. He had been so charming and romantic, filled with flattery and humor, upon every one of those occasions. And he had told her how deeply he adored her, each of those times.
“Your wretched brother will pay for this!” Olivia’s father could not restrain himself any further, his cheeks an alarming shade of scarlet. “He has humiliated her! Do you think her reputation will recover from an embarrassment such as this? She is already three-and-twenty, Leopold—she is no longer in the bloom of her youth! How will she find another suitor, once the gossipmongers of the ton find out about this? Tell me that, Leopold! Will you wed her?”
Lord Leopold froze, as Olivia sobbed, her father’s words striking another blow to the fragile carapace of her heart and soul. She knew he was speaking out of anger, yet there was no denying that he spoke the truth. Though she had not been able to admit it to herself, she had known that Henry could well be her last chance of happiness. But she had been able to push such thoughts to one side, because he had professed his love to her, and she had thought they would be happy.
But now… what was she to do?
“I am already engaged, My Lord.” Lord Leopold shifted awkwardly.
“Then I pray the unfortunate soul who is to be your bride will not be nearly as unfortunate as my daughter. What sort of rogue claims to love a lady, and then abandons her at the altar? What sort of coward would do such a thing? Why, I promise you now, if I ever happen upon that wretch or he deigns to come crawling back, I shall see him dead for this insult!” Olivia’s father shuddered with pure fury, the emotions bubbling out of him like a pot about to spill over.
“That is your right, My Lord.” Lord Leopold wrung his hands. “But, as of now, we do not know where he has gone. There is a horse missing, but, with this atrocious weather, there were none willing to chase after him. I volunteered, but my father forbade it, claiming he did not want to lose two sons this day.”
Olivia’s father turned to her. “Go. Get back in the carriage and return to the manor. I must speak with the congregation and see what can be done in the way of silence.” He shook his head. “You did not deserve this, Olivia. You did not deserve this.”
With Lexie leading her, Olivia was ushered back into the carriage, with the sound of her mother’s wailing providing an added howl to the screeching winds. As their only daughter, she could not afford to have her reputation in tatters, and it seemed so very unfair that she should have it torn asunder, through no fault of her own. Yet, she knew how cruel the ton could be. If she survived this mortification, it would be a miracle.
And, what was more, she did not know if she wanted to. She loved Henry. And she had thought that feeling reciprocated. Now, to find out that he had jilted her, she did not know what to do, what to think, what to feel. She felt… numb, as though nothing would ever be the same again.
As the driver snapped the reins, and the carriage turned around, making the somber return journey to Ashington Manor, Olivia felt something cold and wet being folded into her palm. She glanced down, to find that Lexie had pushed the sodden note into her hand.
“How did you—?” Olivia managed to speak. Although, she supposed she ought to have asked the more important question, “Why did you—?”
“I swiped it when His Lordship weren’t looking.” Lexie had tears in her eyes, empathizing with her friend’s pain. “I thought… I don’t know what I thought, but I knew it weren’t right for everyone to read it but you. Maybe you can make some sense of it, that no one else can.” Lexie herself had never learned to read, though Olivia had tried to teach her. And, oh, how she wished her friend could simply read out the words to her now, so she would not have to force herself to look upon the note.
With a trembling hand, she unfurled the damp paper. The ink had already begun to run, but the hastily etched letters remained starkly, painfully visible. Thirteen words, no more, no less, was all she’d been given in return for a broken heart and a broken reputation:
Tell Lady Olivia that I am sorry. I cannot do this. Forgive me.
Winter came and went twice more, but Olivia could not look at snow the same way. Now, she saw it for the cold annoyance that it had, perhaps, always been. Whenever it drifted down from the heavens, she closed herself away until it had melted away, that virginal white reminding her of the wedding that had almost been.
Then again, closing herself away was not a pastime she reserved solely for the winter. Since the unfortunate occasion of her cruel jilting, and the ensuing scandal that had ripped through high society, she had barely left the confines of Ashington Manor.
Her father had not been able to silence the congregation, as he had wanted. News had spread, and it was Olivia who had suffered the most gravely. Henry might have been tarnished, too, had he bothered to rear his cowardly head again. However, as far as everyone was concerned, he had all but vanished from the face of the Earth. Some people mused that he had joined the military or had gone to the continent to begin afresh. But Olivia did not care where he was, or what he was doing. He had ruined her. He did not deserve a jot of her concern.
How have I come to be here?
She glanced around the room of Comstock House—a large, impressive building, belonging to Lord and Lady Lomond. It brimmed with gaudy socialites, chattering and smiling so wide that she feared for the strain in their cheeks. It was only the third event she had attended that year, and the previous two should have served as a warning as to how this one might proceed.
“Lady Olivia? Can it be you?” A young lady, joined by what Olivia supposed to be her mother, approached. Fear immediately clenched at Olivia’s breast, making her wish that Lexie could have been here, with her. Having all but isolated herself from society, Lexie had become her only friend, which she did not mind one bit.
She sighed. “Good evening to you, Lady Hillsford, Lady Elaine.”
“How brave of you, Lady Olivia, to come to such a soirée. You have been sorely missed amongst polite company.” The mother, Lady Hillsford, took the lion’s share of the talking while Lady Elaine stood by, with a hint of a smirk upon her lips. “Tell me, are you much recovered?”
“I have not been unwell,” Olivia retorted, trying to keep the sharp note out of her voice.
“Oh goodness, that is not what I meant.” Lady Hillsford clasped her hands together. “I was referring to that awful incident that happened—was it two years ago now? A terrible thing, indeed. There are not many young ladies who would be able to show themselves in society again. I admire your courage.”
Olivia smiled stiffly. “Thank you. I apologize, I think I see an old friend.” She excused herself and weaved through the ballroom, eager to avoid her mother. The Countess meant well, but she may as well have placed a sign upon Olivia stating, “Any potential husband welcome for desperate spinster.” And, to make matters worse, there had not been a single willing volunteer, which only battered Olivia’s broken spirit even further.
Keeping her head down, she escaped through one of the French doors which led out into the garden, and slinked into the shadows. There, she drew in cool gasps of air, letting the icy breeze calm her furiously burning cheeks.
At least it is not snowing…
She gazed up at the velvet night, the constellations putting on a magnificent display. She only wished she could enjoy it, but the music that drifted out, and the sound of idle talk, put her firmly on edge.
She had hoped the embarrassing episode might have died down with the passing years, but every time she dared to attend an event or a party, the ghost of that blizzard-swept church came back to haunt her, with the name or inference of “Henry” upon everyone’s lips.
As such, at the age of five-and-twenty, Olivia had reached her lowest ebb. She had not thought it could be worse than the initial torment, in the direct aftermath of the would-be wedding, but gossipmongers were expert at playing a somewhat longer game. Just when she thought she had fully recovered, they would swarm in and sting her once again, as they had just done, returning her to a state of unrelenting sorrow.
“What did I do to you, Henry?” she hissed to the darkness. “What did I do to make you hurt me so savagely?”
I said I would not allow myself to think on him anymore, yet here I am… thinking of him.
It burned her up inside, angry tears stabbing at her eyes. How much more humiliation was she expected to bear, because of him? Had she not endured enough? Now, every eligible gentleman looked at her as though she were a leper, wondering what on earth she could have done to make a groom flee from her on the day of their wedding. That was the stark truth of society—no matter who was to blame, the woman was always the one who suffered most. She was no exception. She had become a disease, through no fault of her own.
If I were to walk into the shadows right now, would anyone miss me? The cold would claim me by morning, and I would no longer be a burden upon my mother and father. I could simply… drift away and forget all of this.
Tears streamed down her cheeks, though she made no move to wipe them away. That tender, liquid touch reminded her that she was still alive, albeit in a world that seemed determined to crush her.
“There you are! My goodness, what are you doing out here? You will catch your death of cold.” Her mother’s voice pierced the air, prompting her to turn slowly.
“I needed some air, Mama. It had grown stifling inside.” She huffed out a weary sigh, wishing she had never agreed to come to this awful affair. Her mother had practically pleaded, and there was nothing Olivia would not do for her mother. In truth, her parents were the only reason she had not walked into the icy night and let exposure carry her away to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Her mother’s stern expression softened. “They spoke of it again?”
“When do they not, Mama? I am the monster that mothers and fathers whisper about to their daughters, to serve as a cautionary tale. I try to forget, I try to progress, and they will not allow me.” This time, she did wipe the tears from her eyes.
“I am sorry, my darling.” The Countess put her hand upon Olivia’s shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze. “Come, I have tired of these drab festivities anyway. We should return home.”
“Will you promise me something?” Olivia lifted her wide eyes to meet her mother’s.
The Countess furrowed her brow. “What is it, Darling?”
“Promise me you will not make me come to another of these events. I know you think me dramatic, but I cannot bear it. It hurts too much, every time.” She hiccupped, the jolt making her chest ache. “If I am to be a spinster, then let me be a spinster. Allow me to hide myself away, where I cannot be the source of anyone’s cruel amusement anymore.”
“I…” The Countess hesitated.
“Please, Mama. Let this be the last,” she begged. “I know you would like me to find an alternative husband, but the well has run entirely dry. You have tried with all your might to elicit some interest in me, from just about every eligible gentleman in polite society, and there has been nothing but awkward silence. Do not put me through any further embarrassment, I implore you.”
The Countess lowered her gaze. “I suppose that is fair, Darling.” She raised her head again, a hard glint in her expression. “How I wish I could look that Lord Foxwood in the eyes and make him pay for what he has done to you. It is entirely unjust. You did not deserve this! It makes my very blood boil, to think of him gallivanting across the continent without a care in the world, whilst you languish because of his despicable actions.”
Olivia managed a faint smile. “He wounded you, too.”
“And that is all the more reason that I wish he would show himself again, so that I might have my revenge for all the injury he has caused!” she continued, infuriated. “As for that family of his—why, they are no better than he. They ought to have explained the situation and taken full responsibility, freeing you of any enduring humiliation. But they did not! If anything, they perpetuated the rumors and the gossip to save themselves and their own reputations.”
“Let us go home, Mama.” Olivia took her mother’s hand. “And let us never contend with any of these people, ever again.”
Her mother paused. “I just want you to be happy, Darling. It is all I have ever wanted.”
“My time for happiness has been and gone,” Olivia replied. “But I am certain I will be able to find joy again, even if it is only in my books, or in helping Papa with his accounts.”
“Oh, Olivia…” The Countess shook her head. “You poor, poor thing.”
Yes… poor, poor me.
Somehow, she had gone from having the brightest future, to being locked in a cage of society’s creation. And, still, she did not know what she had done to end up here.
As they made their way back through the house and stepped out into the bitter evening air to be collected by their carriage, something icy and jarring landed upon Olivia’s nose. She jumped in fright, her eyes turning in all directions to see what had pricked her. Her stomach lurched as her gaze turned skyward.
The snow had begun to fall.
A gloomy sky sulked beyond the bedroom window, threatening rain. The snow had come and gone, but Olivia did not trust the winter weather, any more than she trusted gentlemen.
She sat at her vanity, staring at her reflection. It was a daily ritual, akin to self-flagellation. One day, she hoped to see what Henry had found so repulsive, that he could not fathom the idea of marrying her. She stood at medium height, with a shapely physique that was neither waif-like nor buxom, with long tresses of golden blonde hair and a pair of dark brown eyes that could look black in the right light. A dusting of freckles dappled her nose and cheeks, with a faint flush of pink in the apples therein. Nothing so very repugnant. Indeed, many had called her pretty, in her time.
So, what did he loathe about me? And what does everyone else loathe about me?
Though she had politely spoken with a couple of gentlemen at the ball a few nights prior, there had been no notes or requests to call upon her. And she had not expected any. She had long stopped expecting any such thing. After all, she was no longer the young and fresh debutante that she had once been. And how could she compete with the other young ladies in society, with the record of harsh rumors that insisted upon following her wherever she went?
I must be content to live in solitude, alongside my father and my mother and my brother. And, when my brother marries, I will have to accept that I am secondary in this household. I will befriend his wife and watch his children grow, and I will love them as though they were my own. Maybe, just maybe, there will be enough joy in that to convince myself that I have had a satisfactory life.
Hauling herself to her feet, she headed out of her bedchamber and descended the staircase, before crossing to the dining room. There, her mother awaited her, already halfway through her breakfast. Two empty chairs represented the spots where her father and her brother should have been sitting. The former, Solomon Fraser, had gone away on some business, which was not all that unusual. The latter, however, had gone away to serve in the military, as per his national duties. His absence weighed heavy on the entire household. For her part, Olivia thought of him often, and always kept him in her prayers, in the hopes that it would bring him home safely.
“Good morning, Darling,” her mother said softly.
“Good morning, Mama.” Olivia took her seat and waited to be served. “Is Papa not yet home? I thought he was due to return last night?”
Her mother stared down at her eggs, as though there was something exceedingly interesting upon them. “Mmm… yes, he said he planned to return last night, but I imagine he has been delayed somewhere.”
“And you are not worried?”
“Oh heavens no, I know your father. He will be well enough, wherever he may be. I am sure he will be back today.” The Countess pushed her eggs around with the prongs of her fork, seemingly distracted.
“Is something the matter, Mama?” Olivia sensed a curious anomaly in the atmosphere of the room. Yet, she could not pinpoint what the peculiarity might be.
Her mother shook her head. “Not at all, Darling. I was just thinking I may have put too much salt on my eggs.”
“Are you sure?” Olivia remained unconvinced that eggs were the cause of her mother’s odd demeanor.
“Quite sure.” The Countess could not even meet Olivia’s gaze, which set her heart to pounding. Something was definitely amiss here. But, unless her mother decided to be forthcoming, Olivia did not know how she might discover what the problem was.
“Is it the ball? Are you cross that we left so early?” Olivia was determined to get to the bottom of it.
The Countess chuckled drily. “Goodness, no. I told you, I had grown tired of the entire occasion. The orchestra was appalling, and there was not a single suitable gentleman anywhere.”
“That is because there is no longer a single suitable gentleman in all of England who would dance with me,” Olivia retorted, unable to help herself. She had become so very self-deprecating these past two years, and it appeared to have become an innate part of her character.
“Do not speak so.” Her mother sounded sad. “There is such a gentleman out there. It is merely that he does not trouble himself with the silliness of that particular ball, or any such balls.”
“Then how am I to find such an enigmatic creature?” Olivia had to laugh, or she might have cried.
The Countess shrugged, looking crestfallen. “I do not know, but we must both continue to live in hope.” She visibly rallied, signaling for the staff to serve tea. “Now, what would you say to a morning of decorating the house? I know you love Christmastide, and the entrance hall would look charming with some wreaths about the place.”
“I used to love Christmastide,” Olivia corrected her.
“Well, perhaps you shall learn to love it again, if you only give it a chance,” her mother replied. Once again, she would not look Olivia in the eyes, which concerned her greatly.
There was only one reason that her mother would not meet her gaze. Yes, the Countess was certainly up to something. But what… Olivia did not yet know.
Solomon, Lord Ashington, rode as though he had death itself chasing him. His horse frothed at the mouth and blisters stung at Solomon’s palms from the severe grip he held upon the reins. A drizzle of rain began to spit from the gloomy sky, lashing cold droplets in his face as he thundered along.
He thought of his daughter as the horse pounded along the country road, the trees still sparse and skeletal from the bitter touch of winter. The irony was not lost on him. Olivia had once been in the Spring bloom of her youth and vitality, but Lord Foxwood had stolen that from her, leaving her as stark and meagre as these trees.
She was not to blame, yet society itself has seen fit to spurn her.
A father could not ignore the gossip and the rumors that slithered, insipid and vile, through the network of the wealthy elite. He had tried, for the sake of his sanity, but he had heard words being bandied about that were so cruel that it made his blood boil to even think of them.
There had been some inference that she was so ugly to look upon, that Lord Foxwood had bolted the moment he set eyes on her in the church. Another rumor had stated that she had been in cahoots with another gentleman, and Lord Foxwood had discovered the affair at the last moment. A third whisper had suggested that she was impure, and barren, in addition.
I rue the day we ever introduced you to that wretched fellow, Olivia.
His wife, Francesca, Lady Ashington, had been the one to suggest Lord Foxwood as a suitable candidate for courtship. Naturally, he had agreed with her suggestion, as he did in most matters. A soirée had been organized at Ashington Manor, though he could not recall what excuse had been used. Nevertheless, that was where Lord Foxwood and Olivia had met, and where this entire, awful debacle had begun.
How could things have gone so awry?
He dipped his head against the onslaught of rain, as the drizzle turned to a torrent. Even two years later, he could not fathom what had occurred. He only knew that it had rendered his daughter a pariah of society, who could not so much as gain a dance from a gentleman, let alone a proposal.
There had been such delight when Lord Foxwood and Olivia had found common ground at that gleeful party, and had seemed to find joy in one another’s company. And there had been elation when Lord Foxwood had come to Solomon and asked for Olivia’s hand.
So, why did he run?
Solomon knew he might never have the answer to that mystery. His only conclusion was that Lord Foxwood was a despicable coward, who had contemplated the responsibility of marriage and found himself wanting.
He dug his heels into the side of his horse, knowing he was not far from Ashington Manor now. His eyes itched, for he had ridden through the night, pausing only to change horses at the roadside inns that he had passed by. The temptation of a warm bed and a hearty meal had threatened to entice him, but he had resisted, for his daughter’s sake.
I will remedy this, Olivia, as I promised I would.
There was purpose behind his fearsome ride. He had gone away under the ruse of attending to business matters, which was not entirely untrue. He did have business matters to attend to, but they regarded Olivia’s future. And now, he was on the return journey, so he could deliver the news to his wife and his daughter.
After all, though he had a son whom he loved dearly, he knew he could not rely on George to provide perpetual security for Olivia. Now a military man, George faced peril upon a daily basis. Indeed, Solomon did not even know where George was, at that present moment. All he knew was that his son, his only son, was fighting upon a distant battlefield, where death and destruction ran amok. If George, God forbid, did not come back, then Olivia’s security, and that of his beloved wife, would be forfeit.
No, this was the only way to ensure the safety and protection of those he loved most in this world. He wished there might have been another way, but there was not. For two years, they had pursued every possible option, and all had failed. At least, this way, he could be content in the knowledge that Olivia and Francesca would not flounder if anything were to happen to him and George. All men died; it was simply a matter of when.
Thunder rumbled in the distance as Solomon continued on his journey home. A shiver prickled up his spine, for bad weather could only be a sign of a bad omen.
I pray that I am doing the right thing. For, if I am not, then I have sentenced Olivia to a life of misery… If not something far, far worse.
Far away, within the bitter walls of a once-grand castle that had fallen into disrepair, where gargoyles hunched and scowled upon the world, and rooks cawed their ominous cries from crumbled towers, a shadow shifted before one of the upper windows.
Rain lashed the dark stone, covered in years of grime and errant lichen. Cracks spiderwebbed across several of the windows, while some stared out like hollow eyes, their glass entirely gone. The gardens had gone to seed, weeds suffocating the flower beds and sapping the beauty that had once lain there. Open-mouthed statues were strangled by the wild vines, their silent screams directed upward to a god who had all but abandoned this place.
The shadow moved again, a bone-white palm pressing against the windowpane. Condensation fogged above the palm, where cold breath touched the glass. A face came into the gray light of the storm-swept morning, which dared to glance through that windowpane.
The rooks screeched and took to the skies in alarm, weaving in a black cloud before they disappeared into the tempest. Meanwhile, the ghoulish features of the eroded gargoyles looked anywhere but at that chilling face, as a monster surveyed his fallen kingdom.
Olivia leapt from her chair in the library as the windows blew open without warning, sending the drapes into a billowing frenzy. She hurried toward them and pushed the window back into its frame, turning the rusted latch that kept it closed. She did not know how it had opened by itself, but she supposed the raging storm outside was the likely perpetrator.
“M’Lady?” Lexie rushed into the room; her eyes wide.
The wild-haired lady’s maid visibly relaxed. “Goodness, M’Lady, I thought ye’d been hurt! I heard an almighty screech and thought some ill had befallen ye.”
“It was only the window,” Olivia assured.
“’Tis howling a gale out there, M’Lady. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times—I can hardly wait for Spring to come again. This winter misery don’t suit any of us well. No, it don’t suit us well at all.” Lexie shuddered, like a hen ruffling her feathers.
Olivia returned to her chair. “I daresay, I agree. I despise this winter weather. If it were warm outside, I might stroll in the gardens or take my mare for a ride through the forest. Instead, I must be content to while away the hours in here, where there is a fire to keep away the chill.”
“’Tis a wonder to me that there are any books in here ye’ve not read, M’Lady.” Lexie chuckled, and perched upon the arm of a nearby chair. Another casual action that would have seen other maids chided, but not Lexie. She was beloved by all in this household.
Olivia smiled. “I shall make it my life’s mission to read every book in here, if only to provide satisfaction to you when I have finally read the last one.”
“Would ye care for some tea, M’Lady? The fire’s all well and good, but there’s naught like a hot cup of tea to comfort the soul. And this weather ain’t good for anyone’s soul.” Lexie drew her woolen shawl closer about herself, pulling it tight.
Olivia nodded. “Tea would be delightful. Will you join me?”
“You try and stop me.” Lexie giggled and jumped down from the arm of the chair. She was gone before Olivia knew it, leaving her to lean closer to the flickering flames in the hearth. She put her hands out to the warmth, though she did not believe it would do anything to warm the chill that ran in her veins—a latent panic from the windows exploding open in such a terrifying manner.
Less than five minutes later, Lexie hurried back in. Olivia immediately noticed an absence of any sort of tea tray and frowned in confusion.
“I thought you had gone to fetch the tea?”
Lexie jabbed a finger out into the entrance hall behind her. “Your father has returned, M’Lady. He must’ve ridden hard, for his horse looks half dead! And he’s sodden to the bone.”
“He is?” Olivia could not fathom why her father would have ridden through a storm such as this. There were innumerable pleasant inns upon the road, where he might have stopped to seek refuge. Her mind flitted back to her breakfast that morning, in which her mother had looked rather sheepish, as though she were keeping secrets.
Are the two factors related?
Olivia’s frown deepened.
She rose sharply and headed out into the entrance hall, just as her father strode through the main doors. True to Lexie’s word, he dripped bulbous droplets of water onto the floor, trailing it across the freshly polished floorboards. He certainly did not have the sort of overcoat that should have been worn in such terrible weather, which set Olivia to panicking. What if he became sick, because of this?
“Papa?” she cried, running up to him. As she reached him, she glanced back over her shoulder. “Lexie, will you fetch blankets and tea?”
“Certainly, M’Lady.” Lexie sprinted away down the nearside corridor which led to the kitchens, while Olivia attended to her father.
“Are you quite well?” Olivia clasped at his hands, which were ice cold. “What possessed you to ride through such a storm? What if you had been swept from your horse by the winds? What if you catch your death of cold? Or, what if you had been struck by lightning? I heard a growl of thunder not a moment ago, and it did not seem so very far away.”
Her father offered a weary smile. “I am well enough, little one. I was not swept from my horse, and I will not catch my death once I have warmed myself. And the lightning would have had grave trouble trying to strike me, for it rarely hits upon a rapidly moving target.”
“Come, you should step into the library. It is warm there.” Olivia kept hold of his hand and dragged him, forcefully, into the room she had just vacated. Lexie had ensured that the fire was well stoked, which meant it was likely the toastiest room in the house, aside from her mother’s private drawing room. Lexie always took pains to make sure the Countess was as close to perspiring as possible.
Once they were inside the library, Olivia wrestled the soaked overcoat from her father, before he sank down upon one of the comfortable armchairs. With nowhere else to put it, she threw it across one of the reading tables and joined her father by sitting opposite. From her vantage point, she finally noticed the bruised crescents beneath her father’s eyes, which suggested he had not slept in some time. He looked pale and drawn, with a hint of stubble across his jaw, giving him a haggard appearance.
“Is something the matter, Papa?” Olivia folded her hands into her lap.
He sat back. “No, little one. There is nothing the matter. Do not concern yourself for my welfare. I need only a moment to dispense with the chill, and I will be well.”
Olivia was about to press the issue, when her mother entered. She looked unusually nervous, wringing her hands in front of her pale-yellow gown as she lingered in the doorway. Visibly gathering herself, she surged forward and came to stand behind her husband, with her hands upon his shoulders. He lifted his gaze up to her with a fond smile, while she returned the gaze with a worried glance.
“What a state you are in, my love,” she murmured. “Why did you ride through rain such as this? You must sit nearer to the fire. Have blankets and tea been sent for?”
Olivia nodded. “They have, Mama.”
“Good. That is good.” Her mother’s hands trembled as she pushed the damp locks away from her husband’s sodden brow.
“I am well, my darling.” Olivia’s father lifted his hand to cover that of his wife.
They are so remarkably fortunate.
Olivia thought so, every time she beheld the easy affection they displayed for one another. She knew it had not always been that way, for they had been joined together in a marriage of convenience, arranged by their parents. The first time they had met each other had been on their wedding day. And yet, love had blossomed, and, more than that, it had prevailed. Some thirty years later, they were still besotted with one another, always stealing kisses and holding hands, regardless of who might see them.
“How was your business endeavor?” Her mother leaned down to kiss her husband upon his forehead. A slight tremor echoed in her voice, which took Olivia by surprise.
Her father sighed heavily. “It was a success, my love.”
“It was?” Her mother lifted her head and looked away, her stance stiff and unnatural.
“Yes, it was,” her father replied.
“I do not see what sort of business could be so important that you raced through a maelstrom to return home,” Olivia murmured. “I am always pleased to have you home, of course, but you should not have taken such unnecessary risks. You might have died, and I remain convinced that you could have been struck by lightning.”
Her father fixed his gaze upon her, his mouth turning up in a faint grimace. “Little one, there is something that your mother and I must tell you. However, before I begin, I must ask for your forgiveness.”
“My forgiveness?” Olivia did not understand.
“I must ask for your forgiveness, that we did not inform you of our intentions before this moment. I did not know if this endeavor would be a success, and I did not wish to worry you if there was nothing for you to worry over.” He paused, giving his wife a moment to interject.
“Not that there is anything for you to worry over, Darling. There is not. However, this news may come as something of a surprise—I believe that is what your father was trying to infer. Surprise, not worry. There is nothing to worry about.”
Judging by the nervous tone of her voice, Olivia did not believe a word. In truth, it sounded as though she did, indeed, have something to worry over.
“I do not understand,” she said quietly.
Her father leaned forward in his chair. “After the unfortunate events of two years ago, you have been placed in a situation that you do not deserve. I promised you that I would remedy your predicament, and that is what I have done.” He hesitated, smoothing back his wet locks with an anxious hand. “I realize this will come as something of a shock, but I have hopeful news for you.”
Her heart hammered in her chest.
I do not like this. No, I do not like this one jot.
“There is a gentleman in the North, who has been seeking a wife. I wrote to him, some weeks ago, requesting an audience at his residence, so that we might discuss a proposition. That is where I went, and that is where I have returned from,” her father continued. “He is a gentleman of power and influence, with a very respectable title, and… little one, he wishes to marry you.”
Olivia’s mind reeled, none of this seeming real. The world around her began to spin, her heart racing in her chest as a cold sweat edged up the nape of her neck. Her stomach lurched, as though she might be sick, while her hands gripped the edge of her chair, lest she topple forward in alarm.
“This… does not make any sense,” she rasped. “Who is this gentleman?”
“Ah.” Her father lowered his gaze, his toe tapping upon the ground in a movement of anxiety. “The gentleman in question is His Grace, Vincent Golding, the Duke of Kingham.”
Olivia struggled desperately to draw air into her lungs.
No, this cannot be possible. I will awaken soon, to find that this is all a terrible nightmare. My mother and father would not have spoken with such a man, nor would they have deigned to entertain the idea of him marrying me.
The Duke of Kingham was infamous throughout England, and even beyond. Olivia had heard his name whispered furtively at social occasions, as though it were a foul word, or a curse that should not be mentioned. He had acquired quite the reputation, though Olivia had never met the gentleman herself. Mothers utilized him as a cautionary tale to their pernickety daughters, informing them that they would be forced to marry the monster who masqueraded as a Duke, if they did not choose a more amenable suitor.
“No…” she gasped, feeling faint. “No…”
“Olivia?” Her other peered at her, in obvious distress.
“Have I not suffered enough?” Tears filled Olivia’s eyes, making her feel foolish. “You would see me paraded as the wife of a known recluse, who is looked upon as a cold creature, who hides himself away in his castle? This is your remedy? No… you cannot be so cruel, nor so foolhardy, as to think this will solve anything.”
The Duke of Kingham had not gained his reputation without warrant. Olivia had read articles, and heard tales of his cold heart, and his categorical refusal to make any appearances in public. The reasoning behind that refusal had been speculated upon, at great length, by all and sundry. But there had been some witnesses, who had confirmed beyond reasonable doubt, that he was a severe and brooding gentleman, in possession of a terrible facial disfigurement which he had gained during his service to the military. And that was the reason he had become cold, shunning society entirely. Although, those who had actually seen his face were very few, indeed.
“Olivia, Darling.” Her mother shifted uncomfortably, gripping her husband’s shoulders tighter. “I know this is not ideal, but you cannot go through life as a spinster. I do not say that to be cruel. It is for your own safety and security, for if anything were to happen to your father and George, then you and I would be left without any protection in this world. The estate would pass to your cousin, and we would be at their mercy. However, this way, you will be taken care of, no matter what may come. And, as a result, so will I.”
“You must not believe all you have heard, little one,” her father added. “The Duke is of excellent social standing, and he is a fine man.”
“You met him?” Olivia felt entirely unwell.
Her father drew in a shaky breath. “Not exactly. He and I have been conversing through a lawyer, and I met this lawyer at the gatehouse to the Duke’s castle. However, he has assured me that the Duke is not as terrible as his reputation. He is… unusual, perhaps, but he is undeserving of the bitter rumors that surround him. And, my dear girl, he may be the only chance you have to marry well, if at all. I hate to put it in such blunt terms, but it is the truth. I would not see you left alone in this world, which is why I took it upon myself to make this offer of marriage, which has been accepted.”
Olivia gulped. “It has been accepted?”
“It has, little one. You are engaged, and I would urge you not to flee from this, or attempt to break the engagement.” Her father sighed sadly. “I know it is woefully unorthodox of me to make the offer to him, but I saw no other option. You need security. You need protection. And he has sworn to offer both of those things.”
Olivia struggled to maintain her composure. “I must be allowed a moment to contemplate this.”
“Of course, Darling,” her mother replied. “Shall we leave you?”
She nodded. “Yes, if you please. Lexie will be bringing tea, but I can send her to your study instead, Mama.”
“As you wish.” Her mother exchanged a concerned look with her husband. “We are sorry to have ambushed you in this manner, but—”
“You had no other option,” Olivia interjected.
“Oh, Darling.” Her mother shook her head and looked as though she might weep. “I hope that you will come to understand why we had to do this, though I shall not blame you if you feel wounded or betrayed. I remember my own feelings, upon hearing the news that I was to be married to your father. But… our union became one of love, and I hope, beyond everything, that it shall be the same for you.”
“With the Gargoyle of Ilderton Castle?” Olivia spat, hating the bitter tone of her voice. Such was the nickname that the Duke of Kingham had been marked with, a verbal scar to add to his physical disfigurement.
Her father pursed his lips. “That is unkind, Olivia.”
The use of her name jarred her. Her father only ever referred to her in that capacity when she had done something to displease him. Yet, how could he expect her to be joyful about this?
“This is unkind!” she protested. “I did not ask for this.”
“No, but it is for the good of your future, as we have said,” he replied. “No daughter and no wife of mine shall be thrown into uncertainty, upon the occasion of my death. And your brother is away at war, where we do not know if he may survive. It pains me to say that, but it is the truth.”
“Do not say that,” Olivia pleaded, thinking of her beloved brother. George had always been her protector, throughout her childhood and beyond. He had been the one to scold gossipers, and take umbrage with anyone who dared to say a word against her, while he stood at her side. To even contemplate the idea of him not returning was unbearable in the extreme.
“I pray it will not come to pass, but we must implement measures for any and all possibilities.” Her father’s expression softened. “We will leave you to think on this. I am cold, and I must dispense with these sodden clothes. I am sorry for this, truly I am. But he is a good man, I am sure. And even if you cannot find love in your marriage, perhaps there will be companionship? It does not seem like a romantic notion, but when you are in the winter of your life, companionship can be a very dear thing indeed.”
He rose with a groan, and with his wife holding onto his arm, the pair of them departed, leaving Olivia alone with her racing thoughts. She leaned forward in her chair and held her head in her hands.
How has this come to pass? How is it possible that another mortification has been added to my already devastated reputation? What possessed them to do this?
She could not fathom it. Her father was a man of intellect, but this seemed like an entirely ridiculous scheme, which would not remedy any part of her predicament. No, if anything, it would only make matters worse.
Nevertheless, she knew, with agonizing certainty, that she could not escape this. The offer had been accepted, and her fragile reputation could not endure the wreckage of another failed engagement.
“I will become the Gargoyle’s wife,” she whimpered, tears cascading down her cheeks. “And they will ridicule me for it.”
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