Everyone who met Margaret Clarke agreed on one point: There was no one so charming, so darling, and so utterly independent. Since her childhood, she had prided herself on her abilities; she could paint, sing, and she could ride better than most men. Her governesses often found that they were no match for Margaret’s innate cleverness, and she often wound those poor women up in knots. Still, she did not mean to cause trouble, and though she valued the time she spent on her own, she was never so happy as when speaking with a kindred spirit.
Her aunt was one such spirit. Countess Clair Caron, wife of the esteemed Compte Jacques Caron, had taken Paris by storm thirty years earlier. She flitted from ball to ball and from opera to opera with the frenetic energy of someone who knows she will be young only once. Although softened by age, Countess Caron still carried a vivacious spark that Margaret loved. Despite the difference in their ages, the two women spoke easily and naturally.
It was late afternoon, the sun lighting the Parisian sky and glinting off Paris’s famous butter-yellow houses. Margaret and her aunt were in the latter’s sitting room, embroidering as a pretext for conversation.
“Have you heard about darling Sophie Lucas?” asked Countess Caron, her needle flashing in and out of the cloth.
Margaret’s large blue eyes sparkled. “She is to be married to Monsieur Bernard, is she not?”
“She is,” agreed Countess Caron. “A more advantageous match has never occurred. Her parents could not have hoped for more, especially taking into account darling Sophie’s lazy eye.”
“Aunt!” said Margaret, throwing down her embroidery. “You are too cruel to poor Sophie. Her eye is not noticeable; it does not signify.”
“Would you like a lazy eye?” Countess Caron asked wickedly.
Margaret laughed. “Of course, a choice is different than no choice. No one asked Sophie how she minded it. She simply had the eye thrust upon her. It is not the same thing at all.”
“You have been blessed with looks,” said Countess Caron. “You do not know what it is for us ugly creatures to try and find love.” She spoke falsely of herself. Even at fifty, Clair Caron was a beauty, with thick brown hair and flashing dark eyes. Like many pretty women, she affected modesty by calling herself ugly. It was her chief amusement to belittle herself, an instinct that Margaret did not understand. Margaret was proud of her waist-length blond curls and her large blue eyes, and she would not disparage them for the world.
“Do you know when the wedding is to be?” asked Margaret, taking her embroidery back up and undoing a few loose stitches.
“Oh, not for a while, to be sure,” said Countess Caron. “Paul Bernard is in the colonies, seeking his fortune. He will not be back until autumn.”
“How grand!” cried Margaret. “I would love to travel the world.”
“You had your grand tour,” said Countess Caron. “You have already seen a great deal more than most young women.”
“I know it,” Margaret assured her aunt, “but I want to go beyond England or the continent. I want to cross oceans!”
Countess Caron smiled fondly. “I remember those days,” she said, “when my heart was wild. Thankfully, it has long since settled down. I am very fond of Paris.”
“I as well,” said Margaret, looking out the window at the rows of bright stone buildings and the smartly dressed men and women parading up and down the street. “It has much more of an exotic air than home. Women here paint their faces!”
“You might start doing so,” said Countess Caron, and Margaret blushed.
“I would feel too awkward,” she said in explanation.
“In England, perhaps,” said Countess Caron. “Here, you would fit right in.”
“But I do not live here,” Margaret said, laughing prettily. “I am an English girl, through and through.”
“I thought the same,” Countess Caron said wisely. “Now I cannot imagine myself anywhere in the world besides Paris. The society here is much more stimulating than in London, and you meet many more interesting characters.”
Margaret allowed herself to imagine a life as Mademoiselle Clarke. It had a nice ring to it, she decided. Besides, what was the use of learning all that French if she never used it?
“Ah, I see you are contemplating my suggestion!” crowed Countess Caron.
Margaret grinned unabashedly. “Yes, perhaps I am. Change is necessary in this life of ours. One cannot spend one’s whole life doing the same thing over and over again. But I am afraid that I would miss Father and England dreadfully, in the end.”
“Your father is a good man,” agreed Countess Caron, “but as he already comes here once or twice a year, you would not go without seeing him. As for England, I am sure that nothing there can compare to anything here.”
“You are always sure,” Margaret teased. “It is never, I suspect, or I think. It is always, I am sure!”
“You must be sure when you say things,” said Countess Caron. “I only say things that I agree with completely. I think before I speak, you see.”
“Of course,” said Margaret, who had heard enough of her aunt’s exclamations to know that this was not always the case.
“Besides, many new people are entering Parisienne society these days,” continued Countess Caron. “Just last month, Mary Berth and her husband came from Lancashire and have vowed never to return to England.”
“That is because Mr. Berth is wanted for tax evasion,” Margaret said. Countess Caron’s eyebrows shot up.
“Really?” she said, leaning forward interestedly. “And how did you come to hear that?”
“Mary’s cousin, Anna,” said Margaret. “She confided that Mary told her that Alec was involved in ‘unsavory business’.”
“I would never gossip about my own family members,” said Countess Caron. “That silly girl is going to ruin her reputation.”
“Anna does not much care for her reputation, in any case,” said Margaret. “She is always in the company of single men.” Then, a little guiltily, she added, “However, Anna is a nice girl, and I do not wish to join those who thoughtlessly tear down another person without knowing all the details.”
“I do not mind doing so,” said Countess Caron. “Her behavior has been astonishingly reckless. Why, she went to see Versailles with Edward Mantle himself!”
“No!” gasped Margaret. Edward Mantle was a well-known rake. Any woman who spent time with him was liable to leave with their reputation in tatters. “That horrid man ought to stop encouraging young women.”
“It is very unseemly,” agreed Countess Caron, “but never mind about Anna and Mr. Mantle. We are talking about you.”
“What about me?” said Margaret.
Countess Caron rolled her eyes. “We are talking about you coming out into Parisienne society and finding a husband here.”
Margaret bit her lower lip. “It is not as easy as all that, Aunt. I do not want to marry any old man. I wish to marry only for love.”
“And is it ordained that you cannot find love with a Frenchman?” demanded Countess Caron.
“Not at all,” said Margaret. “But I feel that I ought to try among my own brethren first.”
“You have already come out in London,” said Countess Caron. “Indeed, you have been out over a year. Have you not had time to find someone to love?”
“I was busy,” protested Margaret. “My father…” She trailed off, and Countess Caron eyed her sympathetically.
“His marriage to Augusta Easton certainly stole the wind from your sails. A father should not eclipse his own daughter in such a manner. He might have waited a year, at least, to wed.”
“If he married someone whom I loved, my heart would be content,” said Margaret. “As it is, Augusta Easton is … hard to get along with.”
“Cold as a fish, that woman,” said Countess Caron. “I remember meeting her at the wedding. She looked me up and down before declaring that it was very bold of me to wear such bright colors at my age. As if she were not but five years younger than I!”
“It was very cruel of her,” Margaret said sympathetically. “You may take comfort, however, in the knowledge that you are not the only one she torments. I saw her bring Eliza Bide to tears not two months past. It was tea time, you see, and—”
But Margaret would not get to finish her story, for at that moment, Countess Caron’s lady maid tentatively entered the room. Marie was a timid creature, devoid of all color, from her starched white apron to her gray cheeks.
“Mademoiselle,” she whispered, executing a half curtsey before retrieving an envelope from her apron pocket and giving it to Margaret.
“Who is it from?” said Countess Caron.
A wrinkle formed between Margaret’s brows as she read the return address. “It is from Father, I think.” She broke the seal and withdrew a single sheet of paper covered with crabbed handwriting. Margaret recognized the handwriting as her father’s and read it swiftly. Then she read it again. It said:
My dear Margaret,
Do not be concerned, but I am ill and confined to bed. As such, when I finish this letter, I will give it to John to post. My hope is that it will reach you shortly, though the storms may delay the mail-boats in crossing the channel. My predicament is not terrible, and in fact, the physician has a great deal of hope, but I feel that I must inform you. Do with this information what you will.
“What is it?” said Countess Caron, putting down her embroidery and leaning forward with a look of concern. “You look as if you had seen a ghost.”
“No ghost,” Margaret assured her aunt, “but my father has taken ill.”
“Oh, my dear,” said Countess Caron. “Is it bad?”
“He says that he does not think so, but my father has been known to understate his symptoms,” said Margaret.
“I remember when he was a boy,” said Countess Caron, “and he had a terrible affliction of his throat. He tried to hide it from us, but it came out eventually. He is too kind in trying to protect others from worry.”
“In this case, he has not succeeded,” said Margaret. “If it truly were nothing, he would not wish to disturb my visit by writing.”
“I am afraid you are right,” said Countess Caron. “I know my brother, and he must be in a sorry state indeed to be writing to you. I am afraid that our schemes for your entrance into French society must be laid aside.”
“I must return to England as soon as possible,” said Margaret, rising from her chair. “Marie, will you go to my room and begin packing my trunks?”
Marie curtsied and skittered out of the room.
Margaret crossed to the mantle and rested her forehead on the cool stone. “Oh, I am so worried, Aunt!” she cried. “And it is terribly selfish, but—”
“But?” said Countess Caron.
Margaret shook her head in despair. “I had hoped to avoid my stepmother as long as possible, and I am afraid that I have neither the patience nor the temper to hold my tongue around her. She is rude to my father. She is never pleased with his state of dress or his manner of speech. She pesters him for money until his purse turns inside out.”
“You will ease your father’s pain,” Countess Caron said sympathetically. “I know that I would be able to bear anything with a daughter such as you by my side.”
“You are too kind, Aunt,” said Margaret, rushing over and embracing the older woman. Countess Caron held her tightly.
“It is all right, crying never hurt anyone,” she said, rubbing Margaret’s back with a gloved hand.
Margaret smiled gratefully and wiped a lone tear from her cheek. “I am all right now,” she said bravely. “I must go help Marie pack.”
“One moment,” said her aunt, taking her hand. “You are a strong, intelligent girl. It is good that your father has you. Especially with his new wife.” She uttered the last part grimly, and a chill ran down Margaret’s back.
When she got to her room, she found Marie knee-deep in dresses.
“Miss,” Marie said gratefully when she saw Margaret. “I was not sure what you wanted packed and what you wanted left behind.”
Margaret thought of her father’s letter and said, “I do not think I will be returning to France any time soon. Pack everything.”
“As you wish, Miss.” Marie wrapped a blue evening gown in a swath of silk and put it carefully into one of Margaret’s trunks. Margaret gathered her pearls and diamonds, her bracelets and earrings, her smart new shoes. When everything, down to the last glove, was packed away, Margaret sent Marie out. She undressed, packed the last gown, and slipped beneath her covers, pressing her burning eyes to her cool pillow. She knew that she needed to rest for the long journey ahead, but she also knew there would be little sleep tonight.
Hiding a yawn, Nicholas Hurley leafed through his notes. Lord Walter, though the designated secretary of the group, was never thorough enough. As a fast writer, Lord Hurley usually did not fall far behind while he wrote. But it was an unusually hot day in Richmond, and Nicholas could scarcely keep his eyes open. He was a handsome young man of twenty-seven, with shoulder-length curly black hair and flashing dark eyes. Usually a lively man, Nicholas was now halfway to sleep.
“What do you say to that, Nick?” said a jovial voice.
Nicholas widened his eyes and blinked rapidly, trying to clear the sleep. “Um,” he said. “What do I say to what again?”
“You must remember that we were talking about the taxes,” Lord Ruffiage said peevishly, before launching into a protracted explanation that somehow included references to both the price of grain and Shetland ponies. Peter Ruffiage was a short man with small eyes and a distended stomach; there would have been nothing wrong with these traits if he were not also an utter bore. One word in his monotone could send even the most committed lord into a stupor.
“I’m sorry,” said Nicholas, shaking his head. “You want to raise taxes on … ponies who eat grain?”
“No, that is not it at all,” said Lord Ruffiage. “I was simply using them as price comparisons.”
“What Peter means to say,” said Theodore Wilson, the owner of the jovial voice, “is that we’ve been discussing raising the property taxes on homes with more than eight children.”
“Oh,” said Nicholas, scratching his head. “Why are we thinking of doing that?”
Lord Ruffiage once again began to explain. Nicholas felt a headache coming on. Theodore Wilson caught Nicholas’s eye and winked. Nicholas mimed falling asleep.
“I think it’s time we adjourn the meeting,” Lord Wilson announced. “We can always come to an answer next Monday.”
“But I wanted an answer today,” said Lord Ruffiage, sounding exactly like a child denied sweets.
“It is time that I was leaving anyway,” said Nicholas, getting to his feet. “Thank you, Lord Walter, for your hospitality.”
Lord Walter, always silent, nodded.
With relief, Nicholas left the stuffy study and hastily strode down the corridor toward the front door. Theodore joined him, and when they stepped out into the sunshine, he said, “Well, Nick, I thought you were going to pass out from boredom.”
“Or from anger,” said Nicholas, allowing himself to voice what he had been thinking. “Lord Ruffiage’s tax would affect poor people the most.”
“Don’t think about it,” suggested Theodore. “It will only raise your temperature, and God knows that that is the last thing that needs doing.”
“It is atrociously hot,” said Nicholas. They had come to the stables, and both men waited for the groom to fetch their horses.
“Do you want to come to Hannerfield Hall?” asked Theodore, referring to his uncle’s estate. “My sisters would very much enjoy the company of the Duke of Richmond.”
Nicholas held up his hands in mock horror. “No,” he said hastily. “I am not sure that I am up to any women today.”
“And what is wrong with my sisters?” said Theodore, crossing his arms.
“Your sisters are lovely,” said Nicholas. “Truly, they are. But they are a bit… conventional.”
“Conventional?” said Theodore, bending down and plucking a wildflower which he then spun between his fingers. “Strong words indeed, Lord Hurley.”
“Oh, you know what I mean,” said Nicholas, feeling a little guilty. “They are always drawing or painting or taking singing lessons. Sometimes I feel as though they are products more than people. They have been assembled so carefully, like dolls. I am always worried that I will break them.”
Theodore flicked the flower at his friend. “You are a beast, Nicholas Hurley. These poor girls spend all their time learning how to be good, and you say that those very traits they so covet are what makes them unlikeable.”
“Not unlikeable,” Nicholas said diplomatically. “Simply not for me. I require someone with more fire.”
“I could give Bessie a candlestick to hold,” suggested Theodore. Nicholas stared at him before bursting into laughter.
“You, Theodore, are a ridiculous man.”
“At least the women like me,” Theodore said happily.
Nicholas noticed the groom leading the horses out of the stable and smiled politely. “Thank you, Joe.”
Joe smiled back. “’Tis always a treat to see you, my lord, for you always bring the most beautiful creatures.” He affectionately patted the flank of Nicholas’s gray stallion who nickered and stamped one hoof.
“Here, Philip,” said Nicholas, taking a sugar cube from his pocket and feeding it to his horse. Philip’s rough tongue licked Nicholas’s palm, sweeping the sugar into his mouth.
“Do you have any more of those?” said Theodore, but Nicholas pretended not to hear him and simply rolled his eyes. The two men mounted their horses and, with a farewell to Joe, made for the gates of Lord Wilson’s estate.
Both Nicholas and Theodore were fine riders, and before long, an unofficial competition sprang up between them. They urged their horses faster and faster, bright green meadows and emerald-leaved trees flashing by. Nicholas leaned forward, enjoying the wind on his face and the power of his horse.
Secretly, Nicholas wished for a woman who could ride as well as he could. He had met many admirable horsewomen in his day, but none as daring as he. He half-suspected that if he met a woman who could keep up with him, he would ask for her hand on the spot.
“Whoa!” called Theodore, pulling on his reigns. His horse slowed to a trot.
“What is it?” said Nicholas, reining in his horse as well.
“Hannerfield is this way,” said Theodore, nodding his head towards the familiar trail. “Are you coming?”
For a moment, Nicholas considered saying no. The last thing he needed was the attention of more simpering women. But he remembered that his mother was spending the day at Hannerfield, and he did not much look forward to returning to an empty estate.
“All right, then,” said Nicholas and followed Theodore’s lead. The rest of the ride was short, not more than five minutes, and Hannerfield Hall soon came into view. It was a handsome red brick building surrounded by flowers and a few tiny fountains.
As soon as Nicholas and Theodore entered the house, a small girl with waves of black hair collided into Theodore and wrapped her arms around him. “Theodore!” she said. “You’re home!”
Theodore picked up his littlest sister and swung her in a circle. “You act as if I had been gone years and years, Annabelle.”
“I lost a tooth,” she said, opening her mouth so they could see. There was indeed a gap in the lower row of tiny white teeth.
“I hope you didn’t swallow it,” Theodore said seriously, “because it might sprout a tooth tree in your stomach.”
“Of course I didn’t swallow it,” Annabelle giggled.
“Nicholas here swallowed his first tooth,” said Theodore. Annabelle turned to him, and Nicholas nodded. It was true, after all.
“Come into the drawing room,” Annabelle said, changing topics in the disjointed way children do. “Everyone is sitting in there, and Bess is practicing her piano.”
Nicholas and Theodore exchanged a look. “What did I say?” Nicholas mouthed.
Now that he was listening for it, Nicholas could just make out the strains of a piano. Someone was playing Mozart, not very well. The poor genius would probably have been horrified to hear Elizabeth Wilson’s take on his work.
True to Annabelle’s word, everyone was in the drawing room. Bessie was sitting very primly at the piano while her two older sisters embroidered. Lady Wilson and Lady Hurley were drinking tea.
“Nicholas,” Lady Hurley said warmly.
“Hello, Mother,” said Nicholas, coming over and pecking her on the cheek. “How are you?”
“Just as good as I was this morning,” said Lady Hurley. “And how was the meeting?”
“Dreadful,” proclaimed Theodore, throwing himself on the sofa. “I thought that Lord Ruffiage would never cease speaking.”
“Theodore!” his mother chided.
“You ought not speak of such a respectable man in that tone,” said Miss Wilson, threading her needle. Genevieve Wilson, whom Nicholas slightly preferred, rolled her eyes.
“Tell me, Nicholas, what do you think of my stitches?” asked Miss Wilson, holding up her embroidered flowers.
“Er,” said Nicholas. “They’re very pink.”
“Well, of course they’re pink!” she said. “They’re roses. But you did not answer the question.”
Nicholas looked helplessly at his mother. He had avoided Miss Wilson for so long that he had forgotten her infatuation with him.
Lady Hurley swooped in. “Very nice stitches, Alice. They are so small as to be almost invisible.”
Miss Wilson preened. At that moment, the piano stopped, and Bessie swung herself around on the stool.
“How was that, Mama?”
Lady Wilson clapped. “Lovely, darling, just lovely.”
Beth batted her eyelashes in Nicholas’s direction. “Shall I play a song for you, Nicholas?”
“Oh, do not worry yourself about entertaining me,” said Nicholas. “I shall be all right.”
“Oh! I do not mind,” said Bessie, stretching her fingers in anticipation of his acquiescence. “It gives me pleasure to bring enjoyment to others.“ Although she was only fifteen, she had already followed her older sisters’ example of falling in love with Nicholas.
“I only came for my mother,” said Nicholas. “Shall we ride back together?”
A chorus of voices begged him to stay “just five minutes more.”
“I have new watercolors hung up over here,” said Genevieve, running lightly over to the wall and pointing out competent paintings of a waterfall and a flock of birds. They were nice, but so was everything Genevieve did. Nice, but without any fire, as Nicholas had told Theodore earlier.
Lady Hurley must have caught something in her son’s expression, for she rose, smoothing out her day dress. “Cook will be laying out dinner for us,” she said apologetically.
Just like her son, Lady Hurley loved horses, and she had ridden to Hannerfield that morning. After Nicholas bid the women of Hannerfield farewell, he and his mother retrieved their horses and set out for home.
“Someday, you are going to have to break those girls’ hearts,” remarked Lady Hurley. Nicholas sighed dramatically.
“I wish that everyone would stop teasing me about the Wilson sisters!”
“Who else has been teasing you?” said Lady Hurley. “Theodore?”
“Of course,” said Nicholas. “He never lets up. But it is not just Theodore. Everyone wants to know who and when I am going to marry.”
“You must forgive them,” said Lady Hurley. “There is never much to talk about besides who is marrying whom and how much money so-and-so has.”
“It is dreadful how everyone knows everyone else’s business,” said Nicholas.
“You are much too grumpy today,” Lady Hurley said reprovingly. “It suits you ill.”
“On the contrary, Mother. I think it suits me perfectly.” Nicholas hid a grin at his mother’s chiding look.
“One of these days, you will meet a woman who leaves you all smiles,” said Lady Hurley.
“Maybe,” Nicholas said.
Lady Hurley laughed at the look on her son’s face. “You do not need to sound so dispirited,” she said. “It is almost as though you do not believe me.”
“You are right,” said Nicholas. “I do not.”
His mother pulled her horse into a trot, and after a moment, Nicholas slowed down as well. “What is it, Mother?”
“I do not like to see you like this,” she said.
Nicholas shifted on his horse. “Like what?” he said, almost irritably.
“So set on being alone,” she said. “It is sad for a mother to see her son in such a state.”
“Then do not look,” said Nicholas. Immediately, he felt ashamed at his harsh words. “I am sorry, Mother. It is just that I really, truly am happy. I am sure you are right, and that I will meet someone. It is just hard to see it right now.”
“The young always have a problem with perspective,” said Lady Hurley. “You think that everything is going to be the same way it always is, forever.”
“Maybe,” said Nicholas, and Lady Hurley laughed.
“Maybe is your favorite word,” she said and sped up.
When Margaret arrived at her family home in London, she was greeted quite enthusiastically by all members of the household apart from her stepmother. While Augusta glared, Alice the housekeeper embraced Margaret and asked how she had been. The little chambermaid named Lily asked with wide eyes if Margaret had met any French gentleman, and the cook sent Margaret a hot drink. Augusta, who had never gained the love of the servants, remarked that they should know their places and not bother Margaret with their silly conversation.
“Especially Agatha,” said Augusta. “She is liable to talk one’s ear off, and it is most unseemly in a cook. I do not see what your father saw in her when he hired her. She always droning on and on about flour and cooking, and it is enough to take away one’s appetite completely.”
“I enjoy Agatha’s conversation,” said Margaret, following her stepmother up the stairs to her father’s bedroom. “In fact, I find it much preferable to the conversation of others in this house.”
Augusta sniffed. “You must speak quietly,” she said sharply. “Your father cannot bear loud noises at the moment. He is very ill.”
“So I have heard,” Margaret said. They had come to the door of her father’s chamber, and she impatiently went to open the door, but Augusta stopped her.
“Do not run at him and overwhelm with your presence. He is very weak and should not be jostled.”
“Then I will do my best not to jostle,” retorted Margaret, opening the door. Her father was in bed, covered in mounds of blankets with only his pale face peeking out.
“Margaret,” he cried, extending his arms as best he could despite his weakness. “You have arrived!”
“Yes, Father,” said Margaret, rushing up to her father and taking his frail hands in her own. She took him in with an anxious eye, noting the dullness of his face and the dimness of his eyes. Fear struck her heart, but she did her best to hide it. “I came as soon as I received your letter.”
“I am sorry to have cut your visit short” Lord Clarke began, but his daughter waived this away.
“Do not be silly, Father. It is not your fault you are ill. I would have been most displeased if you had tried to keep the truth from me.”
“You look well, Margaret,” said her father, putting a hand to her cheek.
“Though I worry about her skin,” Augusta cut in. “It has gotten so terribly freckled.”
Margaret glanced in the mirror hanging on the wall. She could see a little truth to Augusta’s claim, for Margaret had often forgotten her parasol while strolling with her aunt. “Perhaps it has,” she agreed, knowing that nothing made her stepmother angrier than when Margaret refused to be bothered. “A certain gentleman in France told me he much admired it.”
“I am sure that many gentlemen have told me things that are not true,” Augusta said, crossing her arms. “Especially Frenchmen. They are such flatterers.”
“I do not doubt that gentlemen have lied to you,” said Margaret. Augusta’s eyes narrowed, and her thin lips parted, but Lord Clarke held up his hand.
“Please try to get along,” he said. “Both of you.”
Immediately, Margaret felt guilty for upsetting her ill father. “Of course,” she said, rubbing her father’s arm. “I apologize, Augusta.”
Augusta did not deign to answer.
“I have one more favor to ask,” said Lord Clarke. “Augusta, would you give me some time alone with my daughter?”
“Do not let her stay too long and bother you,” Augusta announced before sweeping out of the room. The door slammed shut behind her, and both Margaret and Lord Clarke winced.
“I apologize for her behavior,” Lord Clarke said. “She is worried about me, and you know how some people are when they worry. They get argumentative.”
“She must always be worried, then,” said Margaret.
Her father laughed despite himself. “You have too quick a tongue,” he said.
Margaret smiled sheepishly. “Auntie says it is my best feature. Men like clever women.”
“And that is what I want to talk to you about,” said Lord Clarke. “Men. Marriage, to be exact.”
“Oh,” Margaret said, surprised. “What about it?”
“I fear—” Lord Clarke began, but he was interrupted by a horrible hacking cough. Margaret ran to the water pitcher and poured him a glass of water. His hands shook too much to hold the glass, so Margaret brought it to his mouth helped him drink.
“You see that I am very ill,” said Lord Clarke when he had finished drinking. “What I was saying before is that I fear that I am not long for this earth.”
“Don’t say that!” said Margaret, putting down the cup in alarm. Water splashed over the rim and onto her traveling gown. “Please don’t say that.”
“But it is the truth,” Lord Clarke said gravely. “Would you rather I lied to you?”
Margaret shook her head, trying not to cry. “No, of course not. But are you sure?”
“I can feel it in my body,” Lord Clarke said. “Every day I get sicker. I do not want to die without seeing you happily settled, safe and sound.”
“Married, you mean.”
“Married,” agreed Lord Clarke. “And I have an idea of who you might marry.”
Margaret tilted her head, curious. “Really? And who might that be?”
“Lord Easton, the Earl of Berkshire. Percy Easton of Berkshire.”
“Percy Easton!” Margaret cried. “But that is Lady Clarke’s nephew. You know my feelings about your wife.”
“The nephew is nothing like Augusta,” her father assured her. “He is a smart, kind boy, and what is more, he is eligible to inherit my title of Duke when I die.”
Margaret put her hand to her mouth. “But … Percy!” she said again.
Her father looked distressed. “Think about it,” he told her, and Margaret sighed.
“All right, Father,” she said. “I will consider it.”
She stayed a little longer to speak with her father about France, amusing him with her tales of balls and parties. “Compte and Countess Caron are very happy.”
“I am glad to hear it,” Lord Clarke said warmly. “There is no one who deserves happiness as much as Clair.”
Margaret was just agreeing when the chamber door slammed open. It was Augusta, a crystal vial in hand. “Margaret,” she said, sounding as if she had expected Margaret to be gone by now. “I have your father’s medication.”
“Thank you, Augusta,” said Lord Clarke. He allowed Augusta to come around the other side of his bed and pour three drops of a disgusting dark liquid into his mouth. Margaret could see that her father hated the taste, though he obediently swallowed it.
“What have you two been up to?” said Augusta, settling in one of the armchairs.
“I was just telling her about Percy,” said Lord Clarke.
“And I was just saying that I shall have to think about it,” said Margaret.
Augusta raised her brows. “Think about it? What is there to think about? Do you know how dangerous it is to be a lady without status?”
“I am the daughter of an earl,” Margaret said archly. “I do not think I shall end up in dire straits.”
“No matter,” said Augusta. “I am sure that in time you will see the wisdom of your father’s decision.”
“Decision?” said Margaret. “He has made no decision. I do believe he gives me the final say in my own life.”
“Nevertheless,” said Augusta, “I have written Percy informing him of Edmund’s declining health, and he will be here within a few days.”
“I am sure I look forward to it,” Margaret said sarcastically.
“Augusta, Margaret,” Lord Clarke said wearily, and once again Margaret felt guilty. She rose from her chair and bent down to give her father one last kiss.
“Where are you going?” demanded Augusta.
Margaret ignored her stepmother, instead bidding her father farewell and gently shutting the door behind her. She walked briskly down the hall to her own room, and when she had shut her door, she allowed herself two or three tears. Then she wiped her face with the back of her hand and looked in her looking glass, taking care to disguise any sign that she had been crying.
Her trunks had already been unpacked by Lily, and Margaret picked out a riding outfit. She dressed quickly and ran down the stairs, eager to get to Richmond where her horse, Thunder, was stabled. As a child, Margaret had spent summers with her family in the countryside at their estate in Richmond. Though trips to the country had become rarer since her mother’s death, Margaret still stabled her horse there. In the carriage, her thoughts turned ceaselessly.
She had met Percy Easton once before and had found him a bore. With his blond hair and gray eyes, he was certainly a handsome man, however Margaret remembered women clinging to him like burrs. She decided that she would not be one of those women. She had no interest in marrying someone with so little spirit. No. Whomever Margaret married had to have as much passion for life as she did.
At last the carriage stopped and Margaret alighted, contentedly breathing in the country air. She liked London well enough, but its smog rendered everything a dull shade of gray. In Margaret’s opinion, there was nothing better than the green grass and blue sky.
Her happy mood was checked, however, by the information that Thunder had died the month before.
“I’m sorry, miss,” said the groom, rubbing his elbows. “He were a good horse, but he were getting on in years. It got so he wouldn’t eat anything at all, in the end.” Instead, the groom showed her the only horse that was prepared and ready to be ridden, a black stallion by the name of Lucius.
“He’s just been broken in, this one,” said the groom, affectionately patting Lucius’s flank. “He’s a wild one, but if anyone can handle him, it’d be you, miss.”
“Quite right,” said Margaret, admiring the horse. He was certainly a handsome beast, dark as midnight and sleek as silk. His powerful muscles rippled when he snorted and stamped the ground.
Margaret started out at a trot, but she could feel Lucius’s impatience. He wanted to gallop, and she didn’t blame him. The lane stretched before them like a brown ribbon, and Margaret was eager to race along it. Unlike most women, she rode astride as opposed to sidesaddle, and she pressed her heels into Lucius’s sides to spur him into a gallop.
He ate up the road, and Margaret clung to him, grinning. Her heart galloped almost as fast as the horse, and she felt at ease for the first time since hearing of her father’s illness. Lucius galloped tirelessly, and Margaret could feel her hair coming undone and streaming behind her in the wind. “What a figure I must cut!” she thought. “I probably look like a madwoman”. But she did not care at all.
Then, without warning, Lucius reared. Margaret just glimpsed the green glint of a snake when Lucius took off. She had thought they had been going fast before, but that was nothing compared to this. Lucius ran as if running from the devil himself, and it was all Margaret could do to stay in her saddle. Lucius cut sideways through the field, narrowly missing a tree, and Margaret squeezed her eyes closed. The next thing she felt was Lucius coming to a complete stop and her sailing from his back.
Nicholas was leaning against a tree and eating an apple. He was eating very methodically, slicing each chunk off with his pocketknife, and then sliding it into his mouth via his thumb before crunching down. It was horribly ill-mannered but much more entertaining than taking bites out of it.
“A fine day, is it not?” Nicholas said conversationally to Philip. “And it was raining only two days past.” Philip did not answer, though Nicholas would have been far more perturbed if he had. Philip was Nicholas’s horse, and he was currently engaged in trotting about the meadow. Every now and then he would stop to graze, gently nibbling at the grass and swishing his tail to ward away the insects.
Philip had been Nicholas’s since he turned one-and-twenty, and he was inordinately fond of the creature.
Suddenly there was the sound of hoofbeats. Nicholas cocked his head and listened as the hoofbeats grew louder. A black horse appeared over the rise, its muscles bunching as it galloped. This would have been alarming enough had there not been a woman on its back. Nicholas could tell by her form that she was an excellent horsewoman. It was probably the only reason she hadn’t fallen off yet.
Without thinking, Nicholas dropped both the apple and the knife and raced after the horse. There was no hope of him catching up to it, of course, but he couldn’t help but try. Then, without warning, the horse pulled up short, and the woman flew off. Putting on an extra burst of speed, Nicholas managed to catch her in his arms, and the two of them fell in a tangle to the ground. The woman landed on top of him, and for a moment, they stared at each other in shock.
“Th-thank you,” said the woman, her teeth chattering. Nicholas could not help but notice that she was exceedingly attractive. Soft blond curls fell to her waist, and thick lashes framed her light blue eyes. Before he could attend her, however, he had to attend to the horse. Gently settling her on a tree stump, he ran up to the black horse and gathered its reins. He soothed it as he tied it to a tree, then hurried back to the woman.
She was standing now and smoothing down her crumpled riding habit. Her cheeks were pink, her eyes shining. Nicholas swallowed hard. He did not think he had ever seen a more beautiful woman.
“Are you all right?” he asked, putting his hands on her arms as though to make sure she was in one piece. He noticed that she was shaking.
“I am quite all right,” said the woman, though she was slightly out of breath. “I had never ridden that horse before. I suppose he is not quite as broken in as the stables thought.”
“No, I suppose not,” said Nicholas. “Come, you should sit.”
“No, I am all right. I need to get Lucius back to the stables.”
“Allow me to accompany you,” Nicholas said gallantly.
The woman looked amused. “All right,” she said. “I do not think I would want to be alone with that horse.”
“Exactly. Here, I will walk Lucius, and you can walk Philip.”
But the woman demurred. “I do not see how Lucius can do me any harm if I am walking by his side. The problem was riding him!” She laughed.
Nicholas laughed, too, and agreed that she would walk Lucius while he walked Philip. As they started walking, he introduced himself and asked her name.
“You’re Nicholas Hurley!” said the woman. “Why, I remember you. I am Margaret Clarke. My family has a summer home here.”
Nicholas scrutinized her. “You do look familiar,” he said. “Were you at the Cobbles’ ball?”
“Yes,” said Margaret. “I think we might have danced together.”
“A waltz?” suggested Nicholas.
“Oh, it is so hard to remember,” said Margaret. “All the dances blend together. There are so many in the summer.”
“Which do you prefer?” said Nicholas. “Winter or summer?”
“Summer,” Margaret said immediately. “I love London, but it is nice to get out of all the smoke and noise. It smells terribly by the Thames,” she giggled.
“Yes, I am a country man, myself,” Nicholas agreed. “There are no good places to ride a horse in London, not the way a horse is meant to be ridden.”
“I agree wholeheartedly,” said Margaret. “Sometimes, I just feel the urge to get on my horse and gallop and gallop.”
Nicholas smiled in surprise. “It is unusual to find a woman who likes to ride like that.”
“Women are taught to be cautious,” said Margaret, “and I think it is a shame. Life is so much better when you throw caution to the wind.”
Nicholas could not help but be captivated by Margaret’s wildness, and he told her so.
“Me, wild?” she said. “What would ever give you that impression?” But there was a smile in her voice.
Nicholas laughed. “By the way, what spooked your horse?”
Margaret sighed. “A snake, I think. It came out of nowhere.”
“They should have warned you,” Nicholas said angrily. “It is not fair to give you an unbroken horse so untrained.”
“I should have handled it better,” said Margaret.
“I doubt that I could have done much better,” Nicholas told her.
“That is very kind of you to say, but I am afraid that I am rusty,” Margaret said. “I spent the last few months in France, and I did not do much riding.”
“France, you say?” said Nicholas. “Parlez-vous français?”
“Oui, monsieur,” said Margaret. “It is a beautiful language.”
“I quite agree,” said Nicholas. “Some of my favorite books are French.”
“You will have to suggest some to me when next we talk,” said Margaret. “I am always looking for ways to improve my French.”
“I will write you a list,” Nicholas promised. “I assume you will come back here in the summer?”
“If all goes well,” said Margaret, suddenly looking heartbreakingly sad. Nicholas wanted to ask what she was worried about, but he did not want to overstep his boundaries. A moment later Margaret’s face brightened and she said, “And then we might ride together.”
“I look forward to it,” Nicholas said.
“Do you ride often?” said Margaret.
“Very often,” said Nicholas. “I consider a wasted day if I cannot ride.”
“It is much the same with me,” said Margaret. “When I am indoors, I long to be out of doors, and when I am out of doors, I hate to go back in.”
Nicholas could not believe that he had met a woman so similar to him. “Have you been riding long?”
“My whole life,” said Margaret.
“I noticed that you ride astride,” he said. He had been oddly charmed by the sight. Now Margaret blushed, making Nicholas smile.
“When I am in company I ride sidesaddle,” she admitted, “but when I am on my own, I prefer not having to twist around. Women have much more work to do than men, you know, on their horses. It is much harder to ride sidesaddle than astride.”
“My mother often complains of the same thing,” said Nicholas. “I think the two of you would get along.” He felt embarrassed as soon as the words left his mouth. He had just met Margaret, and he was already speaking to her of meeting his mother!
Luckily, Margaret did not seem upset. “Perhaps this summer,” she said.
“Perhaps,” Nicholas agreed.
He wished that they could talk longer, but all too soon, they came to the stables.
“I will see you later, my lady,” he said.
Margaret smiled charmingly and gave him her hand to kiss. “Until next time, Lord Hurley.”
Nicholas watched her and the horse disappear into the stable. After a moment he swung himself up on Philip and set off towards home. As he galloped he could not help but think about how attracted he was to this woman. Just the other day, he had been telling Theodore that no woman could ever interest him, and now he had found someone so utterly intriguing!
Then Nicholas reminded himself not to get his spirits up. There was no point in thinking so much about someone he barely knew. Still, the image of Diana’s long hair flickering like a flame behind her as she clung to her horse stuck in his mind. She had seemed almost like a goddess, so full of poise and power.
Of course, she had fallen from her horse, but Nicholas did not blame her for that. It was clear that the stable had given her an unbroken horse. He would have words with the stable master, he decided, next time he passed by.
When Nicholas returned home, his mother was reading in the drawing room. She smiled when she saw Nicholas and bid him sit down.
“Good afternoon, Mother,” he said, sitting across from her. His mother looked at him with suspicion. “What is it, Mother?”
“Nothing,” said Lady Hurley. “You seem unusually happy is all.”
“Is it so surprising?” said Nicholas. “I do not think I am an unhappy person in the least.”
“You are very serious,” said Lady Hurley. “That is what I meant. You usually seem so serious, and now you seem almost lighthearted. It is an incredible difference.”
“You do say such ridiculous things,” said Nicholas, getting back up and walking over to the bookcase. He could feel his mother watching him as he dragged a finger across the spines of the books.
“What is it?” said Lady Hurley. “I know it is something.”
“Nothing,” Nicholas said. But he paused for too long before he spoke, and his mother did not seem convinced.
“All right, then,” she said. “If it is truly nothing.”
“It is,” said Nicholas, though he could not help but think of Margaret’s open, charming face, and the figure she had cut on that wildly galloping horse. He took down a book he was in the middle of reading, but as he tried to concentrate on the words, he could not stop thinking of Margaret.
This is very irritating, he thought, but he did not really mean it. If anything, it was pleasant to have someone to reflect on. He had spent so long giving no space to women in his head that when he finally did, it was unmistakably pleasant. He wondered if he would see Margaret soon.
Nicholas also found it impossible to pay attention to the documents scattered on his desk. He leafed through them, but his eyes slid off the words. He absent-mindedly dipped his quill in the inkpot and began to doodle on a scrap of blotting paper. With only a few scratches of the quill-tip, a face appeared. He added curls to her head, and was just about to fix her eyes when he realized what he was doing.
But he almost could not help it. It had been so long since he had met a woman who interested him. The difference between her and the Wilson sisters immense. While the Wilson sisters were prim and proper, Margaret was wild and free. And yet, despite her fierceness, Margaret was well-mannered and charming.
Nicholas hoped to see her again soon.
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