The two men faced off against one another, the tension between them palpable to any onlooker. The moments ticked by at an unbearably slow pace, as they looked each other up and down, waiting for an opening.
The tension burst as one rushed at the other, tackling him around the waist and forcing him back a few paces. The other was quick to react, hooking his arm around the first man’s head and locking it into position so that he could not struggle loose.
They twisted and turned, each fighting for the upper hand. They exchanged no words, only grunted with the strain and the effort.
One finally found an opening, landing a blow to the other’s ribs – but it was a soft blow, and one that signaled only the end of the fight.
“Alright, I yield,” Christopher Hardwicke laughed, letting go of his friend’s neck and stepping backward. “You got me again, Rivers.”
Jasper Rivers straightened up, flashing him a grin of victory. “As always,” he said. “You’re lucky I didn’t really have a knife.”
“I’m not sure why you would pull a knife on your best friend,” Christopher laughed. “It would be terribly unsporting.”
Jasper brushed himself off, laughing in return. “Not to mention that the Captain would be none too happy with us for thinning the ranks of our own army.”
“You’re right about that,” Christopher smirked. “Though if you ask me, this army could do with fewer officers – at least, the ones above us. More room for us to move up.”
“Well, give us some time,” Jasper said, picking up his scabbard and reattaching it to his belt. “We’ve only just got here. Once we know the score a little more, we might find there’s an opening somewhere.”
Christopher shrugged. He had already made some inquiries since they were reassigned to their new barracks.
“All the officer positions are full here. Just about everywhere, it seems. I’ve put out a few queries, but I don’t think there’s a captain missing in the whole of the south of England.”
“Hm. We’ll have to do something about that,” Jasper said.
Christopher raised an eyebrow. “I don’t see that we can. Besides, we’ll be busy enough with everything this season.”
“You have some plans?” Jasper asked. “I hope you’re not expecting to leave me behind.”
Christopher laughed. “Never, old chum. You know we both have lodgings for our leave in Bath. But I do think perhaps you might want to stay at the barracks when I go back to visit home.”
Jasper pulled a face. Nothing more needed to be said: they both knew what had happened last time Jasper had visited Hardwicke Hall.
It had been a terrible to-do; Jasper had succeeded in persuading Christopher’s younger sister, Patience, to run away with him, and it was only at the last minute that they were stopped with Patience’s honor still intact.
Jasper flopped down on his cot, making himself comfortable. “I suppose I should never show my face in front of Edmund again.”
“My brother is not the forgiving kind,” Christopher agreed.
In fact, Edmund, the Earl of Kelt, had been incensed to know that Christopher still fraternized with Jasper – but he was not in the military, and he did not know what it was like.
Bonds that were forged here were strong, and when two men still served together, it was not as though they could avoid one another.
Besides which, they were officers. That meant they treated one another with honor. And since no real harm had been done – except for Patience complaining and sulking for weeks straight – Christopher had let the matter go.
Perhaps if he really had run away with her, it would have been a different matter.
Edmund, on the other hand, had no bond with Jasper. He had given Christopher a black eye for bringing his friend to the family home, so there was no telling how far he would go if he ever saw Jasper again. Even the calming influence of his wife would likely not be enough to hold him back.
“Still, all is well with the family?” Jasper asked, even managing not to sound as if he couldn’t care a fig.
“Oh, yes,” Christopher said, trying to ignore the treacherous spike of jealousy when he thought of how happy they were. “Edmund is settled in very nicely with his new wife. They are expecting a child soon.”
Jasper snorted. “I bet that will be the end of it for your siblings,” he remarked, picking at something on the inside of one of his fingernails.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, once he has a child of his own, I doubt the Earl will want to mess around playing father to the others. He’ll have his hands full. The girls will be married off as soon as possible and ignored otherwise.”
“You can’t think so!” Christopher exclaimed.
“Why not? It’s a tale as old as time. The new lion takes over the pack, and he kills the cubs of the old king. People are always more dedicated to their own children. I was only packed off to the army because my mother remarried.”
Christopher frowned. “You have him wrong,” he said. “Since our parents died, Edmund has only ever taken his duties seriously. Besides, Samuel is away at school, and Patience should be married before long anyway. By the time the new child is walking around unaided, he’ll only have Amy left with him. She’s not exactly a burden.”
“If you believe it to be so, I cannot argue. Granted, the only impression I have of him is that of an extremely angry man,” Jasper commented.
“Well, you do have that effect on most people.”
“Since my birth,” Jasper admitted cheerily. “It’s always been a particular skill of mine.”
“And what of your family? They are well?” Christopher asked, mostly out of politeness.
Jasper waved a hand dismissively. “All well. Why shouldn’t they be? Nothing new to report. But tell me, will Edmund hire a new governess? I do so enjoy a governess.”
“You won’t get your hands on her, even if he does,” Christopher said, scowling at the shameful memory of his own attempt to woo Joanna – the former governess who was now his brother’s bride. That was something he wished that he could forget. “You’ll have to make do with the ladies of Bath.”
“You’re still set on making the trip again this season, then?”
“Of course. I’ve already announced my leave to the Captain. I’m staying with another officer, and I’ve arranged a room for you in the same house. Lady Juliana will be in town at the same time.”
Jasper gave him a sly look. “You old dog. Returning to old grounds, eh?”
Christopher turned away from him and tidied his trunk, aimlessly, afraid that he might be seen to blush.
“It’s not exactly like that. Nothing happened between us last season. When I court her, it will be for the first time.”
Jasper followed him to elbow him in the ribs. “I’m sure.”
Christopher gave a yelp of protest, and quickly turned to tackle his friend. “Don’t start this again,” he said, as they began to play at fighting once more. The sting of red in his cheeks only served to make Christopher wrestle Jasper harder.
After confusing minutes of straining and matching strength against strength, Christopher managed at last to get a hand up to Jasper’s throat, clenched around the handle of an imaginary knife.
“I yield! I yield!” Jasper cried with a grin, seemingly only more satisfied by his friend’s embarrassment.
Satisfied, Christopher let him go.
His thoughts about Juliana were his own, and he didn’t wish to share them with anybody – least of all Jasper, who wouldn’t understand.
He wouldn’t understand staying up at nights, envisioning only one woman’s face, your ears ringing with only one woman’s laughter. He wouldn’t understand counting the days until he saw her again. Planning, hoping, dreaming, imagining.
Most of it, Christopher didn’t understand either. But if there was one thing he did understand, it was this:
A tree had taken root inside his heart last year, and it was growing and growing whether he wanted it or not. A willow tree of smiles and glances, of warmth and starlight, lean and strong and persistent.
There was no point in trying to uproot it. It had reached the core of his heart and had become entangled with it.
If there was one thing that helped him rise every day, that helped him survive the bleak days of life in the army, was the dream he could be in her presence again. And he would.
He would see Juliana again. And this time, everything would be different.
Lady Juliana Reffern lounged by her window, basking in the light of the sun as it flowed over her long, dark hair. Still, she refused to be cheerful. After all, she was in trouble – and it had been made more than clear to her.
Weeks had gone by, and still her stepfather had not relented in his unhappiness with her.
“It’s all just so unfair,” she sulked. “He won’t let me do anything.”
“Well, you did rather cause a scandal,” said Lady Mary Westenholme. The two girls were firm friends, with Lady Mary visiting Juliana for weeks at a time – though she was no longer allowed to return the favor.
“It doesn’t mean I should be confined only to my home,” Juliana protested. “It’s not as though I would be unsupervised were I to visit with you. Your mother and father have always been most scrupulous.”
“Perhaps your mother and stepfather want to ensure that you do not meet any more young lords,” Mary teased gently.
Juliana sighed. It was not as though Mary didn’t have a point. Everyone had been rather taken with the idea of her marrying the Viscount of Drevon when they started courting over the winter.
Her mother had made some small comments about the match not being quite equal since Juliana was the daughter of the current Duchess of Prighton. Juliana’s stepfather, however, had soon corrected his wife on that matter – Juliana was only the third daughter of the house, after all.
“He was just so boring,” Juliana sighed.
Mary knew instinctively who her friend was speaking of – after all, there had been talk of little else in the last months.
“Just because a man is boring, does not mean that he would not make a fine husband,” she said, primly.
Juliana rolled her eyes. “You sound just like the Duke,” she said. “I do not know why they could not understand it at all. Lord Drevon and I were matched so quickly, after all. These things are sometimes done in mistake.”
“Try telling that to his family,” Mary said heavily. “I hear they had already agreed to a lease on what was to be your future home.”
Juliana made a face. “A horrid, poky little estate. I wouldn’t have had it. No, it was entirely unsuitable.”
Mary picked up the book she had been reading, and pretended to study it once more. “I do worry that, compared to Prighton Hall, you will find very few estates in the whole of the country that match up to your expectations.”
“Just one that I have heard of,” Juliana said dreamily, getting up to sit on the window seat.
“Oh, not Hardwicke Hall,” Mary groaned. “Are you not done with that soldier yet?”
“He’s not a common soldier,” Juliana corrected her sternly. “He’s a Lieutenant now. He was only in training when we first met last summer, but now he has his commission.”
“Even so. He shan’t earn much at all from the army, and you know he won’t ever inherit Hardwicke Hall. You’d have to live somewhere else.”
Juliana picked up an old rag doll from beside her bed and threw it at Mary. “Will you not be satisfied until I am deeply unhappy?”
Mary ignored the doll, allowing it to land ineffectually beside her. “You should not even be talking of him, Juliana. If the Duke hears you, who knows what punishment he will decide upon.”
“He is already exceedingly angry with me,” Juliana sighed, looking out across the gardens where the flowers were just beginning to stir from their winter sleep. “I do not truly believe he could go any further.”
“I am quite sure that he could,” Mary warned her. “At least, for the moment, he has allowed me to stay.”
Juliana looked at her friend with some concern. Much plainer than herself, with her light hair that resembled straw even when she attempted to coerce it into a fashionable hairstyle, Mary was not considered a great beauty.
Those people were fools, and blind, according to Juliana, who couldn’t see Mary as anything less than beautiful. She was also one of the few people upon whom Juliana could truly rely. Her two sisters were already grown and married, and lived on their own estates.
To think of life with Mary banished for good gave her enough pause to quiet her down. “I suppose I should not have spoken to Lieutenant Hardwicke as I did,” she said.
“Lieutenant again now, is it?” Mary said, flashing her a smile as if to make her feel better again. “Only yesterday it was his Christian name you were insistent upon using.”
“You have a point about our conversation being overheard,” Juliana said, a little sourly.
“Well, you are right about that,” Mary agreed, putting her book down again and abandoning the pretense. “You should not have given him to believe he had a chance at your hand.”
“But he does,” Juliana insisted, throwing her hands up in the air. “At least, if I have anything to say about it.”
“According to the Duke, you do not,” Mary cautioned her. “I know your mother has given you the freedom to believe you might marry your choice of man, but remember who has the final say.
“The Duke will want to ensure that you marry well, so that he does not have to worry so much about providing you an allowance. A military man will surely need that.”
“The Earl of Hardwicke has riches enough,” Juliana sulked. “He could provide for us. Anyway, it is all a moot point if we cannot get to Bath.”
There was a pause, and Mary joined her on the window seat. “Do you really think the Duke will prevent you from going this season?”
“Yes,” Juliana said, gripping her friend’s hand. “And that means he will prevent you too, since we were supposed to stay with my aunt. If only we could change his mind.”
“I do not think he will bend,” Mary shook her head, squeezing her hand back.
“It is no matter to me, really, Juliana. Perhaps a spring in the countryside will be fun for us. The flowers will be all blooming, and I am sure it will be quite lovely to walk around the grounds when the weather is fair.”
“That should provide us entertainment for a day. What of the other weeks?” Juliana huffed, leaning her chin on her hand as she stared out of the window.
“It will be so dreary here. To think of all the others, having fun and dancing and walking about town. They shall all have new gowns too, and we shall miss the latest styles. By the time we come to the summer balls, we shall end up a laughing-stock for our old-fashioned looks.”
Mary giggled. “I think it will not be quite so bad as all that, Juliana,” she said.
Juliana sighed. It was just like Mary to not be upset about missing the Season. She was always happier in quiet company, and she had hardly danced at all last year. Juliana had been waiting for her to blossom, but she seemed stubbornly intent on not doing so.
“Don’t you wish we could at least go to meet some of the new gentlemen who might be on the scene?” Juliana asked.
“I will be happy to marry whomever my parents choose,” Mary said, dutiful and diffident as ever. “Or if a gentleman should happen to choose me himself, it will be fine enough. I don’t long for the drama and politics of courtship.”
“You only say that because you have not yet fallen in love,” Juliana protested. “You will change your mind once it happens. Then you will care very much about who you are permitted to marry.”
“Well, at any rate, it will not happen this spring,” Mary said. “If we are not at Bath, then we shall not meet anyone new.”
“I just wish I knew of a way to change his mind,” Juliana said. “Or at least to get us there. Even if we have to agree to other restrictions…”
“I see that your mind is at work,” Mary said, quite seriously. “I fear that I should be quite worried.”
Juliana responded only by giving her friend a wicked grin, causing them both to fall in laughter together.
Her mind was indeed at work. And it would not rest until it came up with a way for her to see Christopher again.
“What else do I need with me?” Christopher wondered out loud, staring at his trunk as if the answer would magically come to him.
“Whatever else you haven’t yet got,” Jasper said lazily, not getting up from where he lay on his bed. He was thumbing through a little printed magazine, the kind that told dashing tales of heroes on the battlefield and women who swooned at their rescue.
“I don’t know what I would do without your help,” Christopher said with a heavy dose of sarcasm.
“Any time you need me,” Jasper replied, flicking onto the next page.
Jasper’s lack of enthusiasm did nothing to dampen the excitement that Christopher felt.
He was a bundle of nerves, strange as it seemed even to him; it was not as though he had never met Juliana before, and yet here he was, with a whole swarm of butterflies making their home inside his stomach at the thought of seeing her.
He gnawed on his lip thoughtfully, and pulled out one of the jackets he had packed earlier to exchange it for another. Only his best, he had decided. It would not do for her to see him in his second-best jacket.
“Well, I think I have everything I need,” he said. “You’re ready, I assume?”
Jasper shrugged. “I’ll throw some things together in a while,” he said. “We’re not leaving for a couple of hours yet.”
Christopher shook his head. “But aren’t you excited? We don’t want to miss the coach.”
“We won’t,” Jasper said, turning another page of his magazine.
Christopher sighed and sat down on his cot, looking at his trunk again and trying to rack his brains for anything he may have forgotten to pick up. He ran through the events he was expecting in his mind to imagine what he would need.
His mouth twitched up into a smile at just the thought of dancing with Juliana.
It had been so long since he had had the chance to lead her in a dance. He remembered the first time they had met like it was yesterday…
Across the hall at Bath, he spotted a glimpse of yellow silk. A young lady dancing with a man, laughing with joy as she spun around in the center of the room.
Other couples made way for them as they passed through, but it was not the man that commanded the attention. If anything, he looked out of his depth.
His face was pale and strained as he strove to keep up with her. His occasional smile of joy was at his ability to make her laugh with happiness at the dance.
As they moved through the crowd, Christopher strained to catch another glimpse of her. He saw more flashes of that yellow silk, a fleeting sight of a beautiful face, hair moving with the steps of the dance.
Finally, the crowd parted in such a way that he had a full view of her. She turned in his direction as the dance dictated, and he was able to admire her in full for the first time.
She was shapely and small, the picture of a doll. Her hair hung long over her shoulders in artfully arranged curls.
The thing that Christopher noticed most of all, however, was the wide and free smile on her face. Above it, her eyes sparkled like twin stars.
In short, she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
Not only that, but the most well-dressed, the happiest, the most enticing. She was like no one he had ever seen before.
At that moment, not fire or flood or earthquake could have dissuaded him from getting close to her and finding the chance to ask her name.
Christopher cut through the crowd, following her movements. He almost ran around the corners of the dance hall, brushing past those who stood to the side to converse. He had to be in the right place when the dance finished. He had to be right in front of her.
The music came to a close and he stood, catching his breath, watching her laugh and curtsy to her partner. Then he rushed forward, but he was too late; another man stepped in and offered his hand.
Cursing his luck, Christopher followed them again. The minutes passed in agony as he attempted to keep up, trying to be as close to her as possible.
When the couple strayed into the center of the hall, he cursed and ran his fingers back over his hair and mentally begged the musicians not to stop yet.
He knew this was as clear a chance as any that he would have to meet her. She was dancing with an officer he knew, and that meant that the man would be able to offer an introduction. Without that, he would be waiting a good time longer to dance with her.
A beauty such as hers might not be allowed to rest all night, since every man in the place would wish to dance with her if he could.
At last, the music began to trail off as the young woman returned closer to the edge of the room. It was done, and there was applause and bowing all around, and Christopher took his chance.
“Captain Jeffords,” he said, catching the woman’s last dance partner. “Who is this young lady? Might you introduce us?”
Jeffords grimaced, unable to hold back his chagrin. Perhaps he did not want to introduce this peach to anyone else, in case she was stolen from him. However, he did it all the same.
“You have the pleasure of meeting Lady Juliana Reffern, third daughter of the Duchess of Prighton,” he said. “My lady, this is Mr. Christopher Hardwicke, a young man of noble blood who has but recently joined our camp. He is set to be a Lieutenant once his training is done.”
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, sir,” Juliana said, smiling at him. “Are you an only child?”
Christopher shook his head, a flash of sadness running through him as it always did when he thought of his family. There was also a hint of shame, that he might not be able to proffer up a finer position that would be a fitting match.
“No, my lady. The Earl of Kelt is my brother. I was a second son, and our parents were lost to the sickness but a few months past.”
Her whole expression softened. “I am sorry to hear it,” she said. “I myself lost my father some years ago. I know how cruel such a loss can be.”
Awful though it was, they had something in common. That was a lifeline, a thread of hope that Christopher clung to with all the strength of a dying man.
If they had something in common, they might be able to connect on a deeper level.
If they had something in common, he might be able to convince her to talk with him – to find other things that they shared. And if they had more things to share, perhaps their connection might begin to deepen to something more real.
Christopher gave her a sympathetic look, then deliberately brightened it to a smile. And how could he not smile in her presence?
“Might you do me the honor of this next dance? We may reminisce upon our shared sorrows.”
Juliana inclined her head. “I will dance with you,” she said. “But let us not talk of sorrow. It is a fine night, and young people such as we ought to be having fun.”
“You have the right of it,” Christopher agreed, leading her back into position.
She surprised him already. It was the same attitude which he himself might have shared, given the chance to express it. She was not held back by her sorrow nor defined by it. She was alive, and he had the sense that she knew what it was to live.
The dance was one in which couples formed a line facing one another, of which he was glad; it would give him more time to gaze upon her as they danced, and more time for conversation besides.
He wanted to drink in the image of her and follow it with information. Details that he could store up, things to connect the pair of them. He wanted to know everything about her.
“So, Mr. Hardwicke,” she said, with mock seriousness. “Are you stationed nearby?”
“No,” he admitted. “In fact, we are here on leave. The officers thought to bring some of us new recruits with them since they knew the season was underway.”
“Then you are here just for a short while?”
“It is so.”
They bowed and curtsied to one another as the music began, and walked through the graceful steps of the dance together.
“That is a shame. You shall not be able to call on me once you are returned to your barracks.”
“A shame indeed,” Christopher agreed. A heat had risen up his back at the idea of calling upon her. “Though I will still be in Bath tomorrow.”
“I will too,” Juliana informed him. “I am staying at the house of my aunt.”
“And where ought I find the home of this reputable lady?”
Juliana giggled only, as they turned around one another, resuming places on opposite sides of the line to which they had started.
It was maddening. Why would she not answer? Did she not realize that his very life depended upon it?
“At least you will give me a clue as to which one of these ladies here is your aunt,” Christopher suggested.
Juliana glanced over her shoulder. Christopher followed her gaze to a stout, stern-looking woman who was watching them closely.
“I do believe I have recognized her,” Christopher said gravely. “And she has recognized me.”
Juliana giggled again. “She is a formidable one,” she said. “You ought to be careful, Mr. Hardwicke.”
“So I shall, Lady Juliana,” he said, grinning impishly. “In fact, I always am.”
“That sounds rather dull,” Juliana said, giving him a mischievous look.
That was when he knew he was under her spell, and he would never break it, not as long as he lived…
“What’s so special about this trip, anyway?” Jasper asked, pulling him out of his thoughts. He sighed carelessly as he finally began to pack his trunk. “You’re never this giddy usually. I’m worried I may have to fetch you a swooning couch.”
Christopher ignored his barb. Nothing could dissuade him from happiness at that moment.
“This trip, I know that Juliana is waiting for me,” he said. “She has given me hope that we might be betrothed by the time I return.”
“Her stepfather would allow it?” Jasper snorted.
Christopher hesitated. “Well, so she has given me to believe.”
Jasper laughed and shook his head. “You live in a dream world,” he said. “Why should he allow her to marry only a lieutenant? Even a viscount was not good enough for her last time.”
Crestfallen, Christopher had to agree with him. He made a good point. There was very little reason for him to appear an appropriate choice, particularly given Edmund’s impending child.
Before very long at all, he would be so far down the line of succession at Hardwicke Hall as to have no hope of a good inheritance whatsoever.
Not that he had ever expected it to be his; but he had at least thought to be married before his brother became the Earl. In point of fact, it should have still been his father who held the position. That would have been another situation entirely.
“I shall simply have to improve my commission,” Christopher declared. “Move up to Captain or Major. It’s the only way.”
“If a captaincy were to be available,” Jasper said, shaking his head. “You have as much hope there as of finding out that you have wings and can fly.”
“A little more, I think,” Christopher protested. “At least becoming a higher-ranked officer is within the physical realms of possibility. And I have the funding to buy my way in when it happens.”
“Possible, yet not probable.”
Christopher gazed down into his trunk in dismay. It was true – all of this could be in vain. How was he going to get past this wall that had risen in front of him?
With a certainty, he felt that he would not be able to do it alone. “Say you’ll help me,” he said suddenly, turning back to Jasper.
“Yes, help me find a commission. Captain will do. It will. If I have that, I have enough hope that she will be mine. Just say you’ll help me.”
“I don’t see how I can,” Jasper said, shrugging his shoulders. “But, alright. If you can think of a way, I will lend my assistance.”
Christopher grinned, feeling hope once again. There had to be a way to find a commission, he just knew it – and with Jasper on his side, they would make it happen.
Caught up in his dreams and hopes, Christopher ignored that little knot of foreboding that briefly made its appearance in his stomach when Jasper agreed.
“I shall never get to Bath at all,” Juliana said miserably, looking out of her window as the rain came down.
It was the only thing she had to look at these days. It was as if being kept away from the place she wanted to be made her only more acutely aware of how dreary it was to be inside all of the time.
There was nothing for it. She had wheedled and begged and tried everything to convince her stepfather to let her go.
She had even tried convincing her mother, who was not to be swayed either. Not even the mention of poor Mary being restricted from her usual visit was enough to turn their hearts.
Juliana had to resign herself to the fact that she was to be locked away forever, like a princess forgotten in her tower. And how was her prince to find her if he did not even know she was imprisoned?
There might not be a way to escape this tower, but she could still send a message to her prince.
Decisively, she took out a sheet of writing paper and a quill, and began to formulate a composition that would ensure he did not forget her over the season.
I am most heavy of heart as I write to you today. I am wasting away with missing you. It has been so long since we last met, and yet I fear it will be a long time still before we meet again.
I have had the cruelest of news. My stepfather will not allow me to come to Bath this spring. I had so looked forward to seeing you again, and to dancing with you. I still remember how you caught me quite off guard this time last year, with your charm and your flattering words!
I have longed to see you since I broke off my engagement with Lord Drevon, whose name I know you prefer I never mention again.
You have been the only one in my heart these many months, even when I – under protest – agreed to his demands of marriage. I am so very happy that we may have the chance to meet again.
But I do not know when that will be. Or if it is going to be at all. How might I manage to wait out these dismal and dreary months? I wish I had been born a pauper, that I might choose for myself who I was to marry and when!
My heart cries out to be next to yours again. Only when we are once more within the same room will I return to happiness. I care not if we have a hundred chaperones, a thousand of them. Simply to look upon your face again will be enough for me.
I am beside myself with misery now that I know it shall not happen this spring. Please, we must find some way to meet again soon.
Perhaps there will be a ball over the summer. If I am still imprisoned in my tower then, perhaps you might beseech my stepfather to let me down from a high window. I shall be much in need of a rescue.
Yours, and with the deepest ache at missing your company,
Juliana sealed the letter inside an envelope, letting a little wax from a candle onto the paper so that it would be impossible for anyone else to read it without detection.
“Bessie!” she called out.
Within only a few moments, a thin, sparrow-like creature emerged. Bessie was Juliana’s maid, though she was a slight and nervous thing. She had her uses, and was often most efficient, even if she did look as though a stiff wind might break her.
“Yes, my lady?”
“Take this letter,” Juliana said, pressing it into her hands with an urgent look.
“You must take it into town and post it yourself. Don’t send it with the household post, do you understand me? Father must not see it. Nor the butler. I do not trust his allegiances. Will you do as I ask?”
“Yes, my lady,” Bessie said, head bobbing up and down nervously. “Right away, my lady.”
“Good. Now go,” Juliana said, giving her one more intense stare for good measure. The girl often needed a little additional push.
Alone again, she sighed as she remembered the first time that they had met, at that ball a year ago…
“That sounds rather dull,” Juliana said, giving him a mischievous look that she hoped would convey exactly what she wished it to.
There was a pause then, as the dashing young soldier stepped around her, their bodies so close but never touching. Juliana wished he would at least take her by the hand, but this dance did not call for it.
“I think,” he said at last, “that you and I together could never be a dull combination.”
“You have it right,” Juliana laughed, filling the air with her enjoyment. Around them, people were watching, she knew. She always made sure that she was noticeable.
But this young soldier was noticeable himself. She saw that the ladies around them stared at his bright red uniform and his soft hair tucked back into a tail at his neck. He had quite the bone structure, a face that gave away his noble birth.
“So, shall I call upon you on the morrow?” he asked.
“It would only be rude of you not to. Particularly now that my aunt has seen us dancing, she will expect your presence.”
“Then I shall prepare myself most heartily for tea and pastries. She looks like a tea and pastries woman, your aunt.”
“Tea, yes,” Juliana giggled as she spun around him. “I do not know if you will be popular enough with her for the pastries.”
“You wound me,” he said. “I suspect far too few gentleman visitors are considered popular enough for the pastries, judging by your aunt’s appearance.”
Juliana squealed and her eyes flashed fire at him, though she smiled still. He was a card – a reckless and wicked one, but a card. “Lieutenant! You can’t!”
“What?” he asked with mock innocence. “I only mean that she gives me a stern gaze. Surely no man is good enough for her precious niece.”
All too soon the music came to an end and they faced one another, panting, to bow.
“How can you tell that I am precious in such a short time?” she asked, begging to hear one more compliment from his honeyed tongue.
“If you were mine,” he said, leaning close to her ear before she could react, “I should guard you like the most precious jewel in all the world, for I know how many would covet you.”
With a wink, he was gone, and her next dance partner stepped forward.
But for the rest of the night, Juliana only strained to catch a glimpse of him again, and wait until they might dance together one more time…
It was not two hours later before Juliana was hauled downstairs in front of her mother and stepfather, in the study which the latter called his place of work.
“What is this?” he thundered, laying down a piece of paper on the desk with such a flourish that there could be no doubt at all as to what it was.
“A letter,” Juliana ventured.
“And to whom?”
Juliana met the eyes of Bessie, who was simpering in the corner. The maid looked away quickly. Good, Juliana thought. At least she had the good grace to be ashamed of her behavior.
“To Lieutenant Christopher Hardwicke,” Juliana admitted, raising her chin and keeping her tone even. “It was private correspondence, in fact. I sealed it with wax.”
“You have no such thing as private correspondence, Juliana,” her mother said. “You are a young, unmarried lady. You should not be writing privately to soldiers.”
“Nor to any of the male sex,” her stepfather put in.
“No, indeed,” her mother agreed.
“I had the need to inform him that I would not be in Bath, as he was expecting me there,” Juliana scowled. “It is not the ladylike thing to leave a gentleman waiting when you are aware ahead of time that you shall not attend.”
“First of all, he should not at all be waiting for you without my permission,” the Duke of Prighton glowered. “And secondly, he is hardly a gentleman. He is only a soldier.”
“He is an officer,” Juliana protested. “And a noble-born one, at that.”
“Pah! Lieutenant is hardly even a commission,” the Duke spat. “And as for his noble birth, I’ll hear nothing of that. The boy is a nobody. Not even the son of an earl any longer, but the brother of one. One day he shall be the uncle of one. That is no nobility at all.”
“We had a perfectly good match for you,” the Duchess said, shaking her head sadly.
“That is over, Mother,” Juliana said. She had heard enough about her failed engagement to the young Lord Drevon. The topic was going beyond irritating to her now. “There is nothing that can be done about it any longer.”
“No, well,” her mother said, resting the back of her hand against her forehead as if stricken. “It is my great misery. But we can at least attempt to claw back some form of respectable position for you if you simply do as you are told.”
“And that does not include going off to your aunt’s home and out of our sight,” the Duke added. “We shan’t have you able to do whatever you like.”
Juliana saw an opening and leaped for it, with hardly the time to wonder where she would land. “My aunt is hardly likely to allow me that. She is one of the strictest chaperones I have ever seen.”
“Is that so?” the Duke asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Truly,” Juliana went on. “She only allows me and Mary the barest of freedoms to go to the market for ribbons and lace. We’re not out of her sight all day long, nor the night either.
“We must dine when she dines and sleep when she sleeps. And if she walks in the rain, we must walk in the rain. She’s a keen old eye. I daresay it is the only part about my visit to Bath that I am not sad to be missing.”
The Duke and Duchess exchanged a glance.
“Bessie,” he said. “Go out and bring the Lady Mary here, would you?”
Bessie dipped a curtsy and hurried out as fast as her skinny legs could carry her.
“You say that Mrs. Reffern is of the strictest sort?” The Duke turned to his wife. “Is that true, my lady?”
The Duchess gave him a blank look. “She is not my sister. She was married to my late husband’s younger brother, who passed away years ago, God rest his soul.
“I confess I do not know what sort of personality she may have with the young ladies now. Her husband never gave her a living child before he was gone. Perhaps she takes to being strict with them for protection.”
“Exactly so,” Juliana cut in, excited but aware of the perils of overdoing it. “She fears that if she lets us alone for one single moment, we will disgrace or injure ourselves or be gone forever. It is most tiresome.”
Bessie re-entered the room then with Mary at her side.
“Ah, Lady Mary,” the Duke said. “You come at an opportune moment. Tell me, what kind of chaperone is Mrs. Reffern?”
Juliana stiffened. For a long moment, she was afraid that Mary would give the game away by telling the truth:
That Mrs. Reffern could be fierce, but that she was also given to a drink, and would think nothing of letting the girls into the town on their own at any time of day.
She stared over at Mary, but the other girl did not so much as twitch her head in the right direction. Juliana mentally willed her, instead, to know the right answer.
“The strictest,” Mary said, calmly and smoothly as an iced lake. “Why, she never lets us alone.”
Internally, Juliana cheered for her friend. There was something to be said for having a person around you who understood, truly, what you were about.
There was even yet more to be said for that person not being ashamed to lie for you.
“Hmm,” the Duke muttered, walking around his desk and looking at his wife for a long moment. Some form of question must have passed between them, for then the Duchess nodded.
“Alright,” he said. “The two of you shall go to Bath. It sounds to my ears as though you will be safer there than you would be here, especially given that you are trying to invite this boy to visit you.
“I have not the time to oversee your every letter, though it seems that your aunt does. So, I shall send you to her, and rest easy knowing your every move is watched.”
As soon as they were away from the room, and they knew they could not be seen, Juliana turned and threw her arms around Mary’s neck.
“Oh, you beautiful friend!” she exclaimed.
“I gather I had it right, then?” Mary said, laughing.
“Yes. Most certainly, yes!”
We are going to Bath, Juliana thought, unable to contain her excitement. It is truly happening.
With the smile still on her face, she let her eyes flutter closed for a moment and sent a silent message to the skies, half a promise, half a prayer.
Wait for me, Christopher. I am coming.