Brightgate Manor, London
Louisa Grove heaved a small sigh as she let her mind wander out of the drawing-room into the fields.
Through the large windows that had always towered above her person, she watched the horses roam.
They had been let out that morning, as was customary twice a week, so they could stretch their limbs. It was often obvious to anyone who cared to pay them any attention, that they thoroughly enjoyed their time out of the stables.
Another sigh slipped past her lips.
What she would give to be like them at that moment, free to do as she pleased, not required to sit through hours of boring German lessons.
Alas, those were words she could not dare say out loud, for she was aware of just how deeply they would hurt her mother. And far be it from her to be the one to cause the woman she loved so dearly such heartbreak.
That was why, for the past eighteen years of her life, she’d continued to come up with one reason after another to avoid studying the language.
The lies had worked for a while but, evidently, no longer.
As soon as the London Season began to approach and her parents decided she was finally old enough to enter Society, her mother had awakened the talks of Louisa studying her second language yet again.
“But you know how difficult learning German is for me, I’ve never been able to get past a few phrases,” Louisa had protested, hoping the excuse would work as well as it had all those years ago.
Unfortunately, those words might as well have been water falling on the backs of ducks. Her mother had brushed her protest away with one hand, insisting that now Louisa was older, perhaps she would find German easier to understand.
“You’re half-German, Louisa. It certainly isn’t right that you don’t know how to speak your mother’s language. However will I be able to face my people when they find out this truth? We might have managed to keep it well hidden until now, but I’m afraid we cannot keep it so any longer,” her mother had argued.
“The Season is upon us,” she’d continued, further establishing her argument. “You’re eighteen summers now and there couldn’t be a more perfect time for you to enter Society. There will be aristocrats from all over the world! Particularly my relatives from Germany!”
She’d taken Louisa by the arms then, her eyes wide, as though the mere thought of it filled her with horror. “Imagine how much shame I would feel if my own daughter, my flesh and blood, is unable to hold a conversation with them in her mother tongue. Forget being a duchess; I would become an object of ridicule, and they would be right to laugh! We don’t want that to happen now, do we?”
Her mother had always had a sweet way with words. It was no wonder that Louisa fell for her plea. She’d never stood a chance, especially not when the duchess had also looked at her with those soulful dark-blue eyes of hers, so filled with hope.
Louisa would have had to be stone-hearted to not have given in. Alas, it was common knowledge that where her parents were concerned, there was very little she could refuse them.
Hence, she’d agreed to try again, albeit reluctantly, if only to make her mother happy and save her from public ridicule.
Now, as she found herself envying the horses who seemed to be enjoying more freedom than her own person, she couldn’t help but wonder if things wouldn’t have been better if she had stood her ground.
If she’d just come out with the truth, letting her parents know that the true reason why understanding the language had seemed near impossible for her so far was because she truly wasn’t interested in learning then, perhaps, they would have understood.
Yes, that would have hurt her mother particularly, but the hurt would have eventually gone away, wouldn’t it?
Mayhap they would have been sour for a few days. Nevertheless, they would have come around soon enough. After all, it was no secret that as much as she loved her parents, they cherished her just the same and indulged her where they could.
If she’d taken that course of action then she wouldn’t be sitting in the enormous drawing-room, plotting her escape.
Startled from her thoughts, she felt the soft tap on her arm and looked up to see her lady’s maid, Ruby, staring at her apologetically.
Louisa gave her a small smile, letting her know it was all right. After all, Ruby must have only been acting in her best interest, as it was clear that her mother now realized she was no longer in the drawing-room with them—well, her mind, at least.
With guilty eyes, Louisa turned to her mother, the Duchess of Brightgate, Elsa Schmidt.
“Gathering wool again, were we?”
Louisa was aware that lying was useless, but she tried, nonetheless. “I simply got carried away admiring the horses for a bit, Mother. I apologize.”
Her mother dropped the textbook in her hand then, her shoulders also sinking in resignation.
“Louisa, this can’t keep happening. It’s always one thing or the other! How are you ever going to learn enough to hold a conversation at this rate? Especially with the debutante ball only a few days away?”
“I’m sorry, Mother. Forgive me.”
“Of course, I forgive you. I always will. But that doesn’t mean this can go on.” Her mother paused to drag in a deep breath. “I’d hoped that letting your instructor go and taking over your lessons myself would help you to learn better, or at the very least, pay more attention, but I see now that I was wrong.”
“No, Mother, you weren’t. I promise, I was only distracted for a moment. It won’t happen again.”
Her mother glanced meaningfully at Ruby. “If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard those words, I would be able to buy your dowry.” There was a moment of silence before she continued. “Tell me the truth, Louisa, you really do not like studying German, do you?”
Louisa froze at the question. Had she finally let her façade slip? Could her mother now see through her many lies?
Her eyes widened in panic, she contemplated whether this was finally the moment of truth, or not.
“What makes you think that?” she heard herself ask, her lips moving before her mind caught up.
Her mother was walking closer to her now, her strides as graceful as ever, making it seem as though she was floating on air despite being as tall as a gazelle.
She was a vision, and Louisa looked just like her. It never ceased to amaze people, just how striking the resemblance was.
They had the same long, blonde, wavy locks that tumbled to their waists. The same dark-blue eyes that often-reminded Louisa of the deep sea at midnight.
Their complexion was pale and soft, like fine silk soaked in milk. Louisa was almost certain that if she chose to count the freckles they had splayed over the bridge of their noses, spilling onto both cheeks, the number would be almost the same if not precisely so.
Louisa was just as tall too, standing at five foot seven. Many would argue that was too tall for a lady and it would chase gentleman away, as it would make her seem domineering.
Louisa’s father had always maintained he preferred it that way, as weak-spined men would do well to keep their distance. Louisa would often chuckle at those words, but she knew her father meant everyone.
The duchess came to a stop as she reached Louisa’s side. Quietly, she sat by her side on the sofa and took her daughter’s hand into hers.
“I carried you in my womb for nine months, Louisa, I nursed you for another two years after that, and since the moment you were born, I’ve watched you grow. What I’m saying is, I’m a mother, and I would be an awful one if I didn’t know my daughter well enough.”
Louisa’s heart was trembling softly now. She shifted in her chair, hoping to hide her discomfort. It felt all too much like being cornered, and she feared that even though she wasn’t ready to speak the truth, she didn’t have much of a choice any longer.
She said nothing, letting her mother continue.
“You are a fast learner. Y0u’re so full of wit, and charm, your intellect is second to none. You amaze your father, me as well, every other day. So how come it is that you have been struggling with learning this one language for almost two decades now?”
Louisa frowned at that. She had been right; she couldn’t hide anymore. Still, she tried. Even though she understood the truth would set her free, the fact remained that it would also hurt her mother.
Forget what she’d said about her parents recovering from their disappointment quickly; now that push had turned to shove, she found she truly didn’t have the heart to follow through on her thoughts.
So yet again, she lied. “Perhaps languages simply aren’t my forté? You know how much I’ve struggled with French and Italian as well.”
That was false. Her French and Italian were without blemish, but she pretended to be terrible at them for obvious reasons.
“It’s that way for some people, you know?” she continued to ramble. “They might excel at a thousand other things, but there’s just that one which continues to elude them.”
Her mother stared intently at her, eyes searching, as though she was trying to ascertain whether she could believe her daughter or not.
She must have decided on the latter, for she finally drew back, letting a small sigh slip past her lips.
“Still,” she said, her voice soft, “you should be able to manage a few phrases.”
Louisa bobbed her head eagerly. “I shall. I’ll make you proud, Mother, you’ll see. I won’t give those distant cousins and aunties of mine any chance to snicker at you.”
Her mother’s smile warmed her heart.
“Oh, my dear, you have no inkling how much it pleases me to hear you say that. All right then, shall we resume our lessons?”
Her mother was up on her feet in an instant, and Louisa had to battle with the waves of sadness and guilt that threatened to pull her under.
It wasn’t as though she hadn’t tried to commit to learning German. She had, even more so when she was younger. She’d tried everything she could to fall in love with the language, but it often seemed as though the more she strived, the deeper her disinterest grew.
For the life of me, I cannot fathom why.
“All right, so we shall continue with trying to say this sentence. Repeat after me; du siehst hübsch aus heute nacht. It means ‘You look beautiful, tonight.’”
Nodding, Louisa reiterated the words. “Du siehst hübsch aus heute nacht.”
“No, it’s not Natch, It’s Nacht, you have to end with the ‘t’ sound.”
Louisa tried pronouncing it one more time and was met with applause. However, it wasn’t from her mother.
She didn’t need to look in the direction it had come from to know that her father was responsible. She did, regardless.
He was smiling as he walked further into the room. First, he went to her mother, to place a soft, lingering kiss on her cheeks.
Louisa’s heart warmed as she watched the sight, and as always, she sent her silent prayer to the heavens that she too would one day be granted love like that.
She knew what her parents had was very special. Few English marriages were built on the foundation of love. As far as many were concerned, marriage matches were made for strictly business or political reasons.
However, her parents had rebelled against the status quo and married for love. Over two decades later, they were still as smitten with each other.
With the Season approaching, especially since her parents had made it clear that they wished for it to be her first and last Season, she could only hope that she too would fall in love, with a wonderful, kind gentleman who would cherish her just as deeply in return.
It wasn’t too far-fetched a dream now to have, was it?
As her father reluctantly pulled away from her mother’s side, he came to her.
“Having troubles again, I see?” the Duke of Brightgate asked.
Louisa lifted her shoulder in a shrug. “Well, no more than usual.”
“Your daughter believes languages aren’t her forté,” her mother explained.
Those words made her father’s smile deepen, and Louisa was once again reminded of how handsome he was.
He was a tall man. Taller than herself and her mother. His shoulders were so wide that when Louisa was small, they’d seemed almost endless. Louisa couldn’t count how many times she had fallen asleep upon them, only to wake up in her chambers the next morning.
His eyes were dark brown, like the woods after a night of rain. His hair was a lighter shade, reminding her of copper. At fifty summers, he wore a mustache, the same color as the defiant curls covering his head.
As he’d traveled a lot when he was younger, his skin was bronze from all the time spent under the sun, at sea.
Her mother said he used to be athletic when he was much younger, with lean, toned muscles. However, over the years, he’d begun to sport a round belly. Still, it was nowhere near as round as those of the many other lords who held offices in Parliament.
Not that any of that mattered to Louisa; he remained dashing to her, and always would.
“Well, you seem to have quite a good command of English,” he teased in response, brown orbs twinkling.
Despite herself, Louisa chuckled. “Now, Father, we both know you can’t really compare.”
“Why? English is a language as well.”
“I grew up in England, in a household where everyone speaks the language. It is only right it should come as second nature to me.”
Her mother was quick to respond. “You also come from a family of German royalty, Louisa. The language and culture run through your blood just as much as English does.”
“Indisputably,” Louisa answered easily. “Still, I have never lived a day in Germany now, have I? Surely, you can’t compare.”
“A-ha!” her father chimed. “The child has a good point there, Elsa,” he said, turning to her mother.
“Doesn’t she always?” her mother asked in response. The smile on her face assured Louisa that she’d taken no offense, which helped her relax a little.
“True,” her father agreed. “Absolutely true. It is why I have brought you a lovely gift in anticipation of the debutante ball, Louisa.”
Louisa lit up at the mention of gifts. “Oh, Father, you shouldn’t have!”
“But I wanted to. Can you guess what it is?”
L0uisa pretended to think long and hard. “Let me see . . .” Gazing at the ceiling, she tapped her chin with her forefinger a few times. Then, with a calculated movement, she turned to her father. “A jewelry box!” she chimed.
“Ah! Now I’m tempted to get you another gift for guessing correctly,” said the duke.
Louisa giggled at that. “I overheard you and mother discussing it in the atrium this morning. About the family heirloom?”
Her parents exchanged warm looks.
“Ever so perceptive, I see.”
Louisa simply lifted her shoulder in a shrug.
“Well, you are right,” her father continued. He reached for the parcel that had been in his hand all the while and handed it to his daughter. “There you are.”
Wide-eyed, ready to be awed, for her parents always gave such wonderful gifts, Louisa slowly opened the box, to reveal the most beautiful sapphire necklace she’d ever seen.
Her gasp filled the air. “It’s gorgeous!” she exclaimed.
“Just like you,” her mother added softly.
“Four generations of Grove daughters have worn this neckpiece,” her father explained.
“And earrings,” her mother added.
“And earrings. Now you’ve finally come of age and will be entering Society, it’s your turn to have them.”
“They suit my eyes,” was all Louisa could say, still in awe.
It was her mother who responded this time. “Indeed. You’re going to look breathtaking in them. Undoubtedly the Belle of the Ball.
“The Diamond of the Season,” her father finished.
Suddenly, Louisa’s smile began to vanish as her fears returned.
Even though she knew her parents meant well by those words, she was once again burdened at the thought of having to remain flawless throughout the whole Season to meet their expectations.
The truth was, she wasn’t certain she could. Sure enough, she had taken all her lessons on propriety and etiquette, had spent most of her life preparing for the Season, but even though her coming out ball it was only five days away, she still didn’t feel ready.
Her parents must have sensed something, for their brows immediately furrowed in concern.
“Louisa, darling, is anything the matter?” her father asked, his voice mirroring the worry in his eyes.
This time, Louisa knew she could speak the truth because they would understand. Even more so, they would comfort her.
“What if I fail you? What if I don’t make you and mother proud. You two have put so much trust in me, but I’m not certain I’ll be able to do so well. You know I’ve never liked large crowds, and I tend to woolgather a lot. I also haven’t been able to improve my German. What if I don’t become the Diamond of the Season? Or even the Belle of the Ball at all? What if I disappoint you?”
Her mother drew her into her arms then, cradling her close.
“Oh, sweet child, you could never disappoint us. You’re our baby, do you hear that? Ours. We’ve watched you grow into an outstanding young woman, and we do not doubt you’ll do well.”
Her father agreed. “Precisely. You don’t have to try to be anything other than you already are, my love. Just be yourself. Everyone will come to love you, and if they don’t, well, as difficult as it might be to believe, there are more than a few people who don’t know how to appreciate excellence.”
Perhaps it was the way her father said it, as though he had a few people in mind—some of whose names Louisa could guess. Then again, it could have been the way he made his brows wiggle and lips contort comically. Whichever it was, Louisa found herself laughing.
“Ahh, I thought that would do the trick. I’m glad I still know how to make you laugh.”
Louisa felt a warm fist close around her heart and squeeze gently, softly. “You always will, Father.”
“Good,” the duke answered. “Because I’ve just thought of something else that might brighten your mood.”
Louisa’s brow arched in curiosity, but as soon as her father got to his feet, she could tell what he had in mind.
“Elsa, my love, would you take the pianoforte, please? I would love to stretch my legs with my lovely daughter here.”
Her mother wasted no time in rising to go to the pianoforte which stood in a corner of the drawing-room.
Then, her father was holding out his hand to her, like a gentleman hoping not to be refused by the woman he fancied.
Giggling, for she couldn’t help herself, Louisa got up on her feet as well, taking his hand.
“It’s been a while since we danced together like this, hasn’t it? Just the two of us?” her father asked as he led her to the open space just in front of the pianoforte.
“Well, you have been busy,” Louisa responded. “It would be no surprise if you happen to have become rusty as well.”
The duke’s eyes lit up at her challenge.
“Careful now, youngling. Don’t forget I taught you how to sway.”
“Well, it is common practice for students to exceed their teachers now, is it not?”
Brown orbs glittered even harder. “Well, then, let’s really see who is the rusty one.”
Louisa was laughing by the time the music started and they began to move, fears all forgotten.
She’d always loved dancing; it was one of those things she’d gotten from her father, even though physically speaking, she was her mother’s daughter.
Dancing together like this brought back memories of when she was younger, and he’d refused to hire a dance instructor, saying no one could teach his daughter how to dance better than himself.
Despite his busy schedule, he’d always found the time, never missing any lessons.
All that time spent together had deepened their bond and strengthened their camaraderie. And now, as they matched each other, step for step, energy for energy, Louisa was once again reminded of why she loved her parents so deeply, and why she c0uld never do anything to hurt them.
She would learn as much German as she could in the few days left to her until the debutante ball, and when the Season formally began, she would win hearts . . . and the title of Diamond.
- Karpov Manor, London.
Alexei Karpov whistled excitedly as he beheld the magnificent structure in front of him.
The edifice was colossal; four stories high and extending similarly in breadth—so much so that he could easily count fifteen large windows from left to right at a glance.
The steps that led up to the grand maple doors were guarded by two strong-looking marble pillars gilded with gold and bronze. And right in the center of the front drive was a fountain that looked like it flowed year-round, no matter what the season.
He whistled once more, unable to curtail his awe. When his parents had announced they would be visiting England to join in the London Season that year and establish some diplomatic ties on behalf of their country, Russia, Alexei had been thrilled by the mere thought of embarking on another adventure.
He'd always wanted to visit England, but for one reason or another, he’d found himself being drawn to other countries across Europe. Perhaps it was the fact that a part of him had always known that the perfect time to tour Great Britain would one day come.
Mayhap he’d simply found the allure of the other countries greater at the time. In any case, his reasons had ceased to matter the moment his father had made that announcement.
The chance and time to visit England had finally come and that was all he could think of. Thrilled by the mere thought, he’d begun to count the days until they departed for England.
It was during one of those days that he’d thought to ask about where they’d be taking up residence for the duration of their stay.
“The Season is often three to four months long, yes? Surely, we’re not going to have to make do with an inn for that long?” he’d probed.
Truth was, he hadn’t been asking for himself, but for his parents. They were not getting younger, and he wanted them to spend the rest of their many years in comfort, as they always had.
As for himself, he had grown accustomed to making do with cramped cabins and small inns during his many travels.
His parents would have gotten a headache if they’d known how seldom he’d traveled in luxury but often as a commoner, in order to experience the various sides of life. Hence, he’d reckoned it best for everyone to continue to let them believe that he’d often spent a fortune on comfort during his sojourns.
So, yes, he would have felt right at home, spending the entire Season at an inn–especially as his parents would have only gone for the best.
Still, he was well aware that even the grandest of inns wouldn’t suffice–not for the entire Season. His mother could rarely function without a full staff at her beck and call, and his father, well, his old man loved his space and privacy.
“No,” his father had responded. “There will be no need for an inn. We now have a home in London. Your mother and I acquired it a while ago when we were visiting. We reckoned it would come in handy one day, especially with my political aspirations.”
In truth, Alexei hadn’t been surprised to hear the answer. After all, what kind of son would he be if he didn’t know that was something his parents were entirely capable of? One of their greatest strengths, and the reason why they continued to flourish, was their ability to look far into the future and put plans in place for various possibilities.
Unfortunately, out of all the ways he took after them, that was one quality which had always eluded Alexei.
He lived for the moment, the here and now. Anything else could wait as far as he was concerned. The future often had a way of catering to itself, he believed.
In any case, despite his lack of surprise, Alexei had found himself looking forward to seeing their home in England. All the while, he’d reckoned his parents had purchased a townhouse. Nothing overly grand, just respectable enough to suffice.
He could now see he’d thought wrong. Again, his parents had proven they were never ones to do anything by halves. They went all out, with no reservations.
As he circled back to them, he raised a brow. “Perhaps you should have told me that the home you’d purchased in London was an actual manor? I mean, it turns out we have an entire mansion in another country, and yet you didn’t think to mention it to your only heir?”
His parents shared guilty glances.
“I told you he would be like this; we should have let him know.” That was his mother.
His father’s response was swift. “What difference does it make? He knows now, doesn’t he?”
The countess playfully rolled her eyes at her husband before turning to her son. “We didn’t mean to keep it from you,” she began to explain.
For some reason, seeing how remorseful they looked made Alexei chuckle.
“I’d say every minute of choosing not to correct the wrong impression you very well knew I held now seems quite deliberate, Mother.”
“And whose fault is it that we had to hide the entire truth from our own son?” his father asked, his tone defensive.
“Mine, I’m guessing,” Alexei responded.
His father didn’t hesitate. “Precisely. Ever since you were eighteen you’ve seized every opportunity to leave Russia. We were having enough trouble getting you to stay home with your family, where you belong, as it was. Imagine giving you another reason to leave?”
“We were quite convinced that if you knew about the manor, London would become your second home,” his mother finished.
Alexei bobbed his head slowly, taking in their words. The truth was, he couldn’t fault them. After all, they hadn’t told a single lie.
If he’d known about the manor, just for the sake of sightseeing, he would have come to London a long time ago. And who knows—he might have fallen deeply in love enough to want to return as often as he could.
“I’m young and healthy, Mother. What else am I to do with my youth if not see the world? Am I to wait until I’m married and responsible for a family before I indulge in my love for the sea?”
His mother heaved a resigned sigh that told him she believed it was no use trying to get him to see reason.
She looked up to his father, seemingly for help, but his father simply raised his shoulder in an identical shrug
“Don’t look at me, he’s your son.”
“Oh, so he’s my son now? But whenever he does you proud, he’s your son?”
Alexei laughed out loud at her begrudged tone. Wrapping his hands around both their shoulders, he began to usher them towards the stairway.
“Pay no mind to Father, Mother. You know how much he loves to tease you. I’m as much his son as I am yours. I mean . . . I have your dark hair, his light-blue eyes, his straight nose, and your high cheek bones. I also happen to have your lovely egg-shaped face.”
“Don’t forget to add his large forehead and thick lips,” his mother retorted. “Heavens knows, you’ve only turned out so handsome because of my good genes. Left to your father alone . . . well, so, I suppose it is true, you are my son. You know, Alexei, you should be more grateful to me. I’m the reason why all those ladies blush whenever you walk past.”
“Should he have taken your height as well? Then he’d only be only a little taller than my cane, as yourself,” his father countered.
Alexei cackled with laughter.
As far as the public was concerned, the Russian count and countess were upstanding members of Society who had warm smiles for everyone but were too prim and proper to engage in frivolities.
Alexei knew better. No one teased them as mercilessly as they did each other.
Growing up, before realizing it was one of the many love languages the pair spoke to each other, he’d always worried that what he now knew to be their light-hearted teasing was actually the prelude to a huge quarrel. Now, he simply laughed to his heart’s content whenever they got to pulling each other’s legs.
He was still giggling as they reached the doors, which opened to reveal a line of staff, in front of which stood a tall man in smart livery whom Alexei immediately guessed to be the butler. He was right.
The man, who he would soon come to know as Alfred Foreman, dipped in the most flawlessly executed bow Alexei had ever seen.
“My lord, my lady, young master, you must forgive us for not coming to welcome you sooner. We were not expecting your arrival until tomorrow, and the messenger you sent ahead only arrived about half an hour ago.”
The count swiftly stepped away from his son’s arms. Alexei took that cue to drop his other arm to his side.
“Indeed,” his father began, clearing his throat. “The seas were kind, hastening our journey by a day. Accept our apologies. We hope we haven’t put you to too much trouble.”
Foreman was quick to shake his head. “Not at all, my lord. And please, you need not apologize. Safe travels are what we pray for, aren’t they? Why then must we beg forgiveness when the heavens answer our prayers? In all honesty, we were done with preparations two days ago. We only needed to put some last moment affairs in order. As well as have the cook get started on a sumptuous meal befitting for persons of your status.”
Not once did his smile falter, impressing Alexei, who couldn’t tell if the butler was simply being polite or if he was sincere. Not that it mattered. The man was pleasant enough to make Alexei believe he would enjoy dealing with him.
“Please,” Foreman continued, extending his arms towards the hallway. “By all means, allow me to show you to your chambers. I’m certain you must be exhausted from the long journey and require warm baths and rest. By the time you have freshened yourselves, I assure you, dinner will be ready and waiting.”
“Thank you, Alfred,” his mother and father muttered in response.
They crossed over the threshold then and started to make their way further into what would be their abode for the next few months.
“As you requested, my lady, I have employed more staff. I shall make the introductions tomorrow morning or whenever you feel well-rested and ready to meet them.”
It was the countess who spoke. “Tomorrow morning is fine, after breakfast. If we’re to enjoy our stay here and get along well with everyone, we must make their acquaintances as soon as possible.”
“Of course,” Foreman responded. “Of course.
It wasn’t until they’d climbed two more stairways and were in the west wing where their chambers were that the butler spoke directly to Alexei. They’d just finished seeing his parents to their chambers and were now on their way to his.
“Young Master Alexei. It is an honor to finally make your acquaintance. I’ve heard much about you. Your parents sing your praises.”
Alexei smiled at those words. “I’m sure. I’m their only child, so it’s only right that I’m their favorite, yes? I’m pleased to make you acquaintance as well, . . .”
“Foreman, my lord,” the butler readily responded. “Alfred Foreman.”
“Foreman,” Alexei repeated, his smile deepening.
When he saw the old man’s eyes widen in awe, Alexei arched a brow.
“What is it, my man?”
“It’s just . . . your accent doesn’t seem to be as strong as your parents.’ It’s quite surprising, as well as intriguing.”
Alexei nodded. People often said the same. “I tour often. Settling in amongst people with different cultures and languages has made me lose the accent—if only a little.”
Foreman nodded, easily accepting the explanation.
“Your knowledge must be vast then, my lord,” he suggested.
Alexei seemed to give those words some thought before shrugging. “I suppose it comes with being well-traveled,” he answered simply.
Once again, Foreman nodded.
Silence fell and reigned, but it was the comfortable kind. Soon enough, Foreman drew to a halt in front of another door.
“I’m guessing this is my chamber?” Alexei asked.
The older man nodded as he handed over the keys. “If it isn’t to your liking, you only need say so, my lord. There are many more chambers to choose from.”
“I’m sure it’ll be perfect, Alfred. Can I call you that?”
Alfred was quick to bob his head. “Of course, young master.”
“In that case, please call me Alexei. Young master seems a little too much of a mouthful, do you not agree?”
Alfred’s eyes widened as he fumbled with words. “I . . . no . . . but I couldn’t possibly do that, my lord. You are my master’s son and—”
“My lord will do, then,” Alexei cut in, “at least, when my father is not around.”
Alfred's lips spread in a smile once more. Alexei was touched by the relief in his eyes. “Certainly, my lord. That is only fitting.”
Alexei bobbed his head as he patted the older man on the shoulder. “We agree, I’m glad to know. Thank you for showing me my chambers, Alfred. I have a feeling we’re going to have a jolly time together.” Drawing closer to the butler, he lowered his voice.
“How long have you lived in London, again?”
“All my life, my lord,” the butler responded.
“Interesting. That means that if anyone should know all the wonderful, exciting places to tour as a first-time visitor, it is you, yes?”
“I suppose I do know a few good places,” Alfred admitted.
“Good, prepare me a list, will you? You’ll have my eternal gratitude if the list is ready by the morning.”
“I beg your pardon . . . did you say morning, my lord?”
“I believe I did.” Alexei’s brows furrowed then, his eyes narrowing in concern. “You’re not hard of hearing, are you, Alfred? I know it sometimes comes with aging but . . .”
When Alfred’s face turned red in embarrassment, or perhaps anger, Alexei knew he’d teased the man too soon.
However, before he could apologize, his father appeared.
“Stop pulling the poor man’s leg, Alexei. Your mother and I have raised you to treat the staff better than that.”
“It was just a harmless jest, Father.” His protest was weak.
“No matter. Go into your chambers now and begin preparations for dinner. There are only two hours left until six o’clock.”
This time, it was Alexei who sighed in resignation. “Yes, Father.”
With those words, he opened the door to his chambers and went inside, but not before sending an apologetic smile Alfred’s way. Later, he would offer a proper apology.
His father had been right, after all. Some jests were better left un-made.
Alexei’s thoughts were soon forgotten as he took in his chamber. Just as he had expected, his rooms were large and tastefully furnished with the best of everything.
Whoever had been in charge of the design and decoration had done great work. It was almost more impressive than his chambers back home in Russia, and to think Alfred had been worried that it wouldn’t be to his liking.
The conversation made Alexei chuckle again.
He was still looking around when two servants arrived with buckets of bath water a few minutes later. In another half an hour, he was soaking himself in the tub, and washing away all the exhaustion from the journey.
He managed to snatch a short nap before he had to go down to dinner. Seeing how refreshed he felt, he was glad he’d chosen to rest.
His parents were waiting in the dining hall by the time he arrived. A feast to feed a score of people was spread on the table before them.
“That is a lot of food,” he observed aloud as he took the chair opposite his mother, on his father’s left side.
“It all looks and smells delicious,” he added. As though on cue, his stomach chose that moment to rumble.
His mother chuckled softly at that. “Good thing you’re famished too.”
“Starving,” he agreed. “How long has it been since we last ate? Breakfast, no?”
“In that case, I say we need not linger.” That was his father. Closing his eyes, the count muttered a quick prayer, “Heavens, bless this meal.” Then, opening his eyes, he declared, “Let’s dig in.”
They did just that.
Dinner progressed nicely in comfortable silence. Except for requests to pass one dish or the other, their family seldom talked during dinner.
However, as soon as it was time for dessert, that changed. The cook had prepared a delicious apple tart, one of Alexei’s favorites.
His father chose that moment to strike up a conversation.
“I realize you intend to explore London while you’re visiting,” he began.
Alexei nodded, seeing no need to deny it. He’d never bothered to hide his true self from his parents. He was a free spirit, that much had been clear since he was a child, who often got lost roaming the streets and woods back home, no matter how many times he was scolded.
No matter how many times he had feared he would never be able to find his way back home and was scolded whenever the search party finally found him, it was only a matter of days before he’d be back to reconnoitering new territories.
His parents had eventually come to accept their fate, realizing they would never be able to get him to stop exploring.
“The whole of England as well, if I get the chance.”
His father released a sigh, dropping his cutlery. “That is exactly the point I’m trying to make here, Alexei. You will not have the time, nor will you have the chance, to indulge in as much sightseeing as we’re well aware you would like to. We’re here in London on serious business.”
His mother nodded, taking her husband’s side as always. “There will be lots of functions to attend, the first being the Brightgate debutante ball in four days’ time.”
“You’ll be meeting with many nobles from all over the world. Men and families of power and prestige that you must become well acquainted with for the sake of fostering diplomatic ties. We hope you will impress them well enough with your quick wit and easy humor.”
“Who knows? We might even make some new business partners by the Season’s end,” his mother chirped. And perhaps . . . more.”
Alexei recognized the twinkle in his mother’s eyes. It said there was something they were keeping from him. An exciting plan they were not ready to reveal just yet.
From experience, he knew it would be useless to try to push them to tell him what it was, so he chose to bury his curiosity. Whatever it might be, he would find out when the time was right.
“I’ll be at all the balls, all right, and all the meetings you need me to attend,” he declared. “Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder why I have to put up with any of this. There is, at the very least, another two decades until I have to take over from Father. Surely, he can continue to see to the duties of count and head of this family without my help?”
His parents shared an uneasy look, one that threatened to resurrect the curiosity he’d just buried.
“Let’s say your father does indeed have so much time left, do you intend to keep whiling your life away for the next two decades? Pray tell, how then shall you acquire the knowledge and experience needed to continue the good work which the men of this family have handed down from generation to generation?”
Alexei was truly taken aback by his mother’s sudden seriousness. Every hint of a smile was gone from her eyes.
“Truth be told, we’ve let you have your fun, Alexei. Now it’s time to become a man, to carry more responsibility, to learn the ropes. How much do you really know about being a count? The family businesses, the estates? More than the lessons you had whilst growing up, you must also learn from experience. Consider this your last season as a child, Alexei. We hope your time here in London will help you become the man you were always meant to be.”
Alexei tried to swallow one more spoonful of food but realized he’d lost his appetite.
He’d simply wanted to enjoy a wonderful dinner with his family, but it was apparent that they’d had other intentions, and as such, had succeeded in finally ruining his dinner.
He was only twenty-three years old. Why did they have to worry him with such talk of responsibility and what-not? His father, at only fifty-four, was young still, healthy as well.
Even though Alexei could not deny there was some truth to what had been said, as far as he was concerned, he had at least two more years left before he had to start taking state affairs and the family businesses seriously.
This was his youth, a time he would never get back again. If he didn’t spend it doing what he truly loved, he was certain he would be filled with regret for as long as he lived.
Rising to his feet, he cleared his throat.
“I have to say that I appreciate you two speaking your minds like this. Although, I certainly cannot find it in me to be grateful for the fact that my dinner has been ruined in the process. I have heard all that you have said, and I promise I will give your concerns great thought. However, for now, I must take my leave.”
Bowing his head, he stepped out of the chair and broke into long, even strides.
He didn’t exactly know where he was headed. He simply continued to walk until he was out in the front yard, then the fields, and finally, the stables.
After exchanging curt pleasantries with the stable hands, he instructed a horse to be saddled for him.
“My lord?” one of the men asked, seeking to be sure.
“Is there a problem?” Alexei queried in response.
“No, none at all, my lord. It’s only . . . well, night has fallen, and London is such a big town. It’d be quite easy for you to lose your way, especially in the dark.”
“And especially if it’s my first time in town?” Alexei completed. “Have a horse saddled for me, will you? I won’t stray too far from the manor, rest assured.”
The man didn’t look one bit convinced, but he said nothing more, stepping into the stables.
About fifteen minutes later, he returned with a beautiful gelding.
“Lazarus,” the stable hand offered. “That’s his name.”
“Lazarus,” Alexei muttered, immediately falling in love with the horse’s strong limbs, and admiring how its golden-brown coat shone under the moonlight.
“Thank you,” he muttered to the stable hand. “I shall take it from here.”
With those words, he took the reins firmly and hoisted himself atop Lazarus. As soon as he’d successfully mounted and settled in, he kicked the gelding’s sides softly, sending it forward.
They rode further into the fields, and then into the woods, until there was not a glimpse of the manor behind them.
As the wind caught in his hair, Alexei knew riding was a sport he was going to enjoy very much during his stay in London.
It was so soothing, and even though Alexei didn’t think a man could fly, he believed that horse riding was the closest one could get to the feeling.
By the time he pulled the horse to a stop, his limbs were aching, but his mind felt clear, and his heart unburdened from the dinner conversation.
He was no longer upset, so it seemed like a good time to return home.
The problem was, as he tried to turn the horse around, he realized there wasn’t one clear path in front of him. No, there were three, and for the life of him, he couldn’t remember which one they’d come down.
Whispering in Lazarus’s ears, he asked, “You wouldn’t happen to know which road is the right one, would you?”
As though the gelding could understand him, it neighed in response.
Alexei didn’t speak horse language, but he believed he would understand such an emphatic ‘No!’ even in his dreams.
He exhaled a deep, long breath then.
The stables hand had warned him, but in his unrighteous anger, he’d been too stubborn, too proud, to listen.
Now, look where he was, in the middle of nowhere.
He could choose to gamble and take the first path that felt right, but what if that only took him farther from home, making things worse?
At least he was quite certain he had made no turns. If anyone came looking for him, they would be led right to where he was.
The wise thing to do in the light of all the wrong decisions he’d made that night, would be to find somewhere comfortable to lay his head.
Then, when morning came, he would decide on the next course of action.
With that in mind, he dismounted Lazarus and tried to find a clear patch of grass with what little light the moon’s crescent glow afforded him.
Lazarus continued to watch him curiously, but he paid the gelding no mind. Eventually, when he believed he’d gathered enough grass to cushion the hardness of the earth, he led Lazarus to a tree and tied a good knot. Then, he returned to his makeshift bed.
Lazarus continued to eye him curiously, and as Alexei lowered to the ground, the horse neighed again, as if in protest.
“Well, too bad if you don’t agree,” Alexei said aloud as he stretched out on the ground. “We don’t have much of a choice now, do we? Never worry about me, I’ve had worse lodgings, I can assure you. I can also tell you that I am a man of nature. I will be just fine.”
Lazarus said nothing, and Alexei had to admit he did not find the silence very comforting. But he accepted his fate, aware that he was fully responsible for the mess he’d gotten himself into.
He hadn’t lost his way like this in almost a decade, not even while touring the world. Hence, he’d come to believe such mistakes were behind him.
Yet here he was, being proven wrong.
His mind wandered to his chamber in the manor, the large, comfortable looking bed and clean, soft sheets. He should be sleeping like royalty after being at sea for so long.
Alas, look where his recklessness had brought him.
He thought about his parents, how worried they must be, especially because he’d disappeared after an argument.
Then, he hoped they’d gone to their chambers immediately after dinner and had fallen asleep due to exhaustion. As such, they’d only come to learn he hadn’t returned home after waking the next morning and were feeling well-rested.
Perhaps there was more truth to his mother’s words than he would like to admit.
Did he really wish to continue to trouble them for much longer?
Even though they’d long since stopped trying to stop him from making his many trips, it was no secret that they were always filled with concern, near the point of falling ill every time he traveled.
And with prayers, their hearts in their mouths, they always waited anxiously for his safe return.
Was it not selfish to continue to indulge in the things that delighted him, not minding his parents’ feelings?
Especially not when he claimed to love them so?
Mayhap it was time for him to become a more dutiful son, to do right by them, to make them happy and proud of him.
Those were the last thoughts on his mind as he finally succumbed to the wiles of sleep.
* * *
It was the sound of hooves pounding against the earth that roused Alexei from his slumber the next morning.
As he regained consciousness, even with his eyes shut, he became aware of how bright it was. He needed no one to tell him that the long night was finally over, and if he was hearing right, his father’s search party was close by.
Shielding his eyes with his hand, he opened them and rose to a sitting position. All over, his body ached. The cracks that reverberated through the air as he tried to stretch all testified to the kind of night he’d had.
Still, he could not deny that he’d slept through the hardship like a newborn babe.
As soon as he felt fully awake, he jumped to his feet and untied Lazarus, who was grazing contentedly on the short turf.
“Looks like our cavalry is almost here.”
Once again, Lazarus neighed in response, and Alexei found himself trying to recall all he’d heard about horses. Could it be that some of them truly understood human language?
He didn’t have much time to contemplate the thought, for three horses suddenly appeared on the path to his left, revealing his father, the stable hand who had saddled Lazarus for him, and Pavel, his father’s valet and most trusted confidante.
So, it was the left-hand path. Good thing I didn’t take the middle path, then, he thought to himself, just as the horses drew to a halt.
Standing his ground, he prepared himself to be berated by his father.
The count had other intentions. Just as when Alexei had been a little boy and they’d found him at the abandoned church after fearing the worst, his father ran to him, drew him into his embrace, and cried in relief.
“I thought we’d lost you for good! You have no inkling how frightened we have been. Your mother has nearly lost her mind. We weren’t able to sleep a wink all night!”
If Alexei hadn’t felt any guilt before, he certainly did then.
Even though he’d slept out in the cold, with bracken for a mattress, he’d been lost to the troubles of the world. Whereas his parents hadn’t been able to enjoy such pleasures.
His father broke the embrace to take a good look at him then.
“Let me see, are you hurt anywhere? You didn’t happen to run into any footpads, did you? Or bandits? For all its glamor and fame, you must know that London can be a very dangerous place, Alexei. Wicked men roam at night, looking for easy prey to attack. All it takes is straying into their trap.
Alexei tried to speak but his words caught in his throat, his eyes filled with tears.
When he had every right to be angry, his father remained more concerned for his well-being.
Eventually, he was able to gain control of his emotions. Swallowing hard, he answered.
“I’m fine, Father, unhurt. The night went by uneventfully. I . . . I simply lost my way and didn’t want to risk straying farther, so I thought it wise to stay put until I had enough light, at least.”
“Good, good. You made a most wise decision. I’m glad you’re safe and unhurt. Let’s go home now, Son. Your mother is waiting.”
Alexei nodded, saying nothing more.
Silence fell as both men mounted their horses, and altogether, they began to make their way back to the manor.
Louisa stood in front of the vanity, awed by her reflection in the mirror.
When her mother had chosen the pastel-pink fabric for Louisa’s new dress, she’d had her reservations, fearing the color would not compliment her complexion. She was happy to see she’d been wrong.
She was a vision, even if she said so herself.
The ballgown had been designed in the latest fashion by the best modiste in all of England.
The neckline was a little lower than Louisa was accustomed to, but it remained modest. The sleeves were extravagant, flaring out just after her shoulder to form puffs, like pumpkins, she fancied. They stopped just before her elbow, where her creamy silk gloves covered her arms.
The bodice of the gown was fitted, the corset having been tightened until Louisa could barely breathe. When she’d tried to protest, her mother had told her it was for the best.
“This way, your figure will be better accentuated,” the duchess had said.
Now Louisa stared at her herself, she could not deny her mother had been right yet again. Her already small waist looked even smaller, and the skirts flared out to form a huge umbrella around her legs.
“Now, I understand why they’re called ball gowns,” she jested, causing her mother and Ruby to laugh.
“Do you like your hair, my lady?” her lady’s maid probed.
Louisa happily bobbed her head. “I love it, Ruby. It’s beautiful, thank you.”
Ruby had somehow managed to arrange all Louisa’s unruly waves into a low, graceful knot at the base of her head.
Her lady’s maid hadn’t tamed every strand of hair, though. She’d let some fall in soft tendrils, framing Louisa’s face and adding to her beauty.
Everything was perfect, and for the first time since she’d begun to prepare for the debutante ball, Louisa found herself believing she might actually meet her parents’ expectations.
“Now, for the finishing piece,” her mother said as she walked towards her daughter, jewelry box in hand.
Although Louisa had admired the beauty of the sapphire neckpiece many times in the past week, she still found herself gasping in awe at the sight of it.
She felt she would never get over how truly gorgeous it was.
“Are you ready?” her mother asked.
Nodding eagerly, Louisa turned her back to her mother.
Gently, slowly, the necklace settled upon her neck, as though it’d been made especially for her. And after her mother had clasped the lock into place, she helped Louisa with the earrings.
She took two steps backward as she finished, her eyes gleaming with pride, love, and adoration as she beheld her daughter’s reflection.
“Stunning, absolutely stunning! Oh, my dear, I can’t believe the time has finally come. I feel so many different emotions, I cannot even begin to tell one from the other.”
Louisa’s eyes watered, and she suspected she knew exactly what some of those emotions were.
“I’m so proud of you, Louisa, never forget that. I shall always be proud of you.”
“And remember, you don’t have to be anyone other than your charming self.”
Louisa knew her mother meant every word. “Thank you, Mother.”
“How do you feel?”
“Anxious,” she responded honestly. Nonetheless, she could not deny she was glad it was her parents who were hosting the ball. At least she would be on familiar ground.
If it ever felt too much, too overwhelming, she would be able to make a quick escape to somewhere safe, preferably her chambers, or perhaps the attic, where she would not be easily found.
“Well, that is normal. I felt that way the first time I entered Society as well. My nerves got the better of me, so much so, that my palms wouldn’t stop perspiring. I couldn’t even hold on to my fan. It kept slipping free.”
Louisa was glad for the laughter that came with that revelation. “Truly?” Somehow, she couldn’t imagine her perfect, flawless mother ever being so nervous.
“But you got through the evening,” Louisa said as she recovered.
“I did, and so will you. You are your mother’s daughter, after all.”
“Minus the German,” Louisa chirped.
Her mother chuckled softly at that. “You’ve improved so much in the last few days, I’m certain you’ll do well.”
When Louisa would have responded, a knock sounded on her door.
“I wager that’s your father. He must have run out of patience and decided to come to get us himself. Come now, let’s not keep him waiting any longer.”
Hooking her arm around Louisa’s, the duchess began to lead the way.
Just as her mother had guessed, her father was waiting on the other side of the door.
His eyes went wide with wonder as they fell on his daughter.
“Goodness, gracious! It’s the spring of 1793 all over again. Only, now, I’m staring at my daughter, not the lady who would become my wife.”
“Well, if things go well tonight,” the duchess began, handing Louisa over to her husband, “perhaps, your daughter shall become someone’s wife soon enough.”
Louisa’s heart skipped a beat. There it was, that talk of marriage again.
“Not too soon, I hope,” her father chirped in response, taking her arm in his. “I still want to bask in the pride and delight of being her father for a little while longer.”
Louisa breathed easier then, grateful for how much comfort and reassurance those words brought her.
“You’re the vision of an angel tonight, my love,” he whispered in her ear as she came to stand by his side.
Louisa’s lips curved in a smile as her cheeks turned crimson.
“You look so gorgeous, I fear I shall not be able to take my eyes off you lest any of those rakes I already see prancing through the ballroom capture your attention.”
Now, Louisa was laughing, aware that was something her father was utterly capable of.
“I’m certain you shall be quite occupied with your hosting duties, Father. Never worry, I shall take good care of myself.”
Her father chuckled. “Well, when you say it like that, I’m bound to trust you.”
There was a small pause before he spoke again. “What do you reckon? Are you ready to formally meet the people of London?”
Louisa drew in a long, deep breath, hoping it would help steady her nerves.
Exhaling, she answered. “It’s now or never.”
Arm in arm, father and daughter began to make their way to the grand hall where their guests awaited.
Louisa made certain to take in deep, calming breaths. It was her way of ensuring she wasn’t a nervous wreck by the time they arrived at the ballroom.
“They’re people such as yourself, Louisa, surely, you know that,” her father whispered in her ear. He must have sensed her agitation.
Despite herself, Louisa couldn’t help smiling.
“Of that, I’m well aware, Father.”
“And let’s be quite honest, it isn’t as though you haven’t met many of them before. This might be your first formal outing into Society, but you’ve attended many functions before. You have quite a lot of experience in these matters. Be a little more confident in your abilities now, will you? Just as your mother and I are?”
Louisa nodded, unable to deny that her father had a point. She might be a debutante at this ball, but it certainly wasn’t her first.
She supposed the only difference was that now, the eyes of London’s ton would be on her, and those of the foreign dignitaries gracing the event.
“The London peerage think I can manage, Father,” she confided. “My German aunties and cousins? Them I’m not so sure of, especially considering the way Mother speaks of them. They sound quite hard to please.”
Her father turned to her mother then, exchanging a look with her before returning his attention to Louisa.
“Your mother’s opinion is only colored from the days when they vehemently opposed her decision to marry an English lord rather than the German royal they’d matched her with.”
Now, that was news. Louisa was aware that her parents’ marriage had been opposed by both their families, but they’d chosen to fight for their love, regardless.
What she hadn’t known, though, was that there had been German royalty involved.
Eyes widening, she glanced meaningfully at her mother. “You could have been married into royalty?”
“He was a very distant cousin of the prince at the time. He would never have gotten close to the throne, nor has he.”
“Still, your children would have been blue-blooded. I would have been blue-blooded.”
Her father’s brows furrowed in a mock frown then. His voice was humorously sullen when he spoke again. “Being the daughter of a duke in England is as good as being royalty, you know.”
There was nothing Louisa could do to stop the chortle that escaped her lips. “Indeed, Father. I mean, why be royalty when you can be so close?”
“Sarcasm does not become you, dearest daughter. So much for being the favorite parent, eh?”
She was still smiling as she leaned into him, endearingly rubbing her shoulder against his. “Come now, Father. You know you’ll always have a special place in my heart.”
Her mother visibly opposed that notion, shaking her head, lips downturned in evident disappointment. “You carry a child in your womb for nine full moons, go through unspeakable pains to bring her into this world, cradle her in your arms and suckle her for years, only for her to grow up and become her father’s daughter.”
The duke was smiling once more. “Now, now, Elsa, jealousy certainly doesn’t become you.”
When her mother’s eyes widened in disbelief, Louisa found herself breaking into hearty laughter.
She was still laughing when they arrived at the ballroom, and she realized then, with a start, that she didn’t feel so anxious anymore.
There was no certain way to tell if it’d been a deliberate ploy on her parents’ part, but their lighthearted back and forth had managed to make her feel better and in control of her nerves.
Her heart suffused with warmth at the thought, and the smile that gained control of her lips did not seem keen on leaving them for the foreseeable future.
“Here we are,” her father said as they drew to a halt just outside the door.
Louisa dragged in one last deep breath and exhaled in a long, unbroken stream.
“Here we are,” she repeated.
Her mother, who’d been walking two steps behind them, fell in by side then, taking Louisa’s free hand in a squeeze.
“You will be fine,” the duchess assured her.
Louisa bobbed her head, believing it for the first time—if only a little.
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Shall we, then?” asked her father.
Turning to him, her smile unfaltering, Louisa bobbed her head yet again. “We shall.”
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