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  • The Duke’s Christmas Ball




The corridors of Welwick Hall, on the Bodmin Estate, were long and winding, as well as cold and damp for some of the lesser unused ones. If one didn’t know where one was going, one might happen to lose oneself. But the three children sneaking along its passageways knew exactly where they were heading: the library.


Oscar led the way and had insisted that Vera stay in the middle, between the boys, as they tread with great care not to be heard. It meant that Vera’s twin brother, Silas, was at the rear. She had to admit that she liked Oscar’s idea of putting her in the middle, in between two people who she loved most dearly.


All three children were ten years old, all born in the same year, all born at Welwick Hall. But the twins were born in a small room in the large attic. This was where the residency of the servants was situated, of which there were many for such a large manor house. For Oscar, Vera knew that he had been born in a huge four-poster bed, because he had shown them it several times.


Nothing excited the children more than evading the adults who scolded the twins for daring to play with His Grace’s son. Vera was well aware of what Oscar’s father, the Duke of Cornwall, thought of his son playing with the servant’s children. Yet this never stopped Oscar from seeking them out.


He was like another brother to her, and she’d feel sad if they didn’t play together. In fact, Oscar was the one who came up with places for them to meet up because he usually knew the whereabouts of his father. They did everything they could to remain undetected. Not that Oscar’s mother minded; all she wanted was for her son to be happy.


As they arrived at the huge double doors that opened up into the enormous library, Silas called out from the back.


“It’s a bit of a risk considering your father's home, Oscar,” he said in a low voice as the children huddled together in the hallway.


“He’d never think to find us here,” Oscar said, determined to get into the library, for he knew that it was Vera’s favourite room. “He has no idea that I have taught you both to read and write, he thinks you ignorant, remember?”


“Yes, but if we are caught, it will be Vera and me that will get the punishment dished out," Silas reminded him. "The last time he locked us in our room for a whole day.”


“Stop being so soft,” Vera said, poking her brother’s arm with her finger, teasingly.


“Ouch! Stop doing that,” Silas growled. Vera knew that he wouldn’t poke her back because he never did anything to hurt her. Considering he was a boy, she was far tougher than him, and always happy to take risks, if it meant having fun with Oscar.


“Then stop acting like a baby,” she teased again. “I want to see the books; I love books and well you know it.”


Oscar opened one of the doors, and turned to Silas, “I promise if we are caught, I will make sure that Father does not punish you harshly.


Silas mumbled to himself, still carrying a look of worry on his face, but Vera pushed him through the door. When it came to books, she would risk anything because a good book was always worth the risk.


Oscar was the first to grab a book from a shelf at random because that was how they played their game. Whatever book was chosen at random, was the book they would read together. Silas and Vera went to hide underneath one of three long tables set up in the library. It was where they always hid when they managed to sneak into the library.


When Oscar joined them under the table, Vera was the first to speak, “What book is it?” she asked, keen to know if it was going to be a good one. Not that there was a book in the world that she wouldn’t enjoy.


“It’s called Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare,” Oscar read the title as he tilted the book. “Ah…it’s a play.”


“I love Shakespeare,” Vera said, wondering if Oscar knew that the shelf held all the Shakespeare books and so had chosen it on purpose. “Let’s get started…and stop fidgeting Silas, I want to listen to Oscar reading.”


Silas moved around, peeking out from under the table to check the door.


“I know this story, we have read it before,” Vera shared. “It is about a woman who dresses up as a man. The odd thing is that another woman falls in love with her.”


Even Silas giggled at that because it was such a funny story, all three children were tickled by the concept.


Oscar began. “O, when mine eyes did see Olive first, me thought she purged the air of pestilence! That instant was I turned into a hart—


“Wait, wait…” Vera interrupted him by taking hold of the arm that held the book. “As it’s a play, we can all read different parts. But I must be Viola, and Silas can play my brother, Sebastian.”


“I don’t want to read out loud, we will be heard,” Silas snapped, for he could not stop his worrying. “Our mother will be in trouble too, and she can’t afford for the Duke to send us all away.”


Vera turned to her brother, “Don’t be silly, who will cook for the Duke if they send Mother away?”


“If Silas is so worried then we should leave,” Oscar suggested, looking at her brother. He could see from his expression that poor Silas was fretting.


“Then you will get to miss playing Duke Orsino’s part, and you know that’s a great part to play,” Vera said, attempting to entice Oscar onto her side of thinking.


“That means I get to marry you,” Oscar said with a big, cheeky grin.


Vera nodded with the excitement that she had at least won Oscar over, now she needed to work on her brother. “I tell you what, let’s skip to scene 4, where Viola is disguised as a man and the Duke believes her masquerade.”


“I suppose it will cut our time in the library short,” Silas nodded as he agreed.


“Now then, don’t be laughing at me because I’m going to read with a deep voice, and that's because I’m pretending to be a man,” she said, looking at the two boys with a perfectly serious glare. “I’ll do my best to woo your lady—”


Without warning, the library door burst open, “Come out from under there, all three of you!” the Duke’s voice boomed.


They looked at one another with growing dread, Silas seemed the worst, with a terrible fear etched on his face.


“Don’t worry so,” Oscar assured him, and he made to climb from under the table first. The twins followed close behind him.


“How dare you, Oscar?” his father said to his son, throwing his arms up in the air. “I do not want you associating yourself with the children of the servants. Now go to your room until dinner is served.” The Duke turned to the twins, “You two do not belong in this part of the house. Ah, Barker, there you are,” he said as he looked over at the house butler.


Vera watched as the stuffy butler came toward them. She turned her face to her brother, rolling her eyes at the butler’s presence. His face was red with fury but that didn’t frighten her, not one bit.


“Barker, return these children to the kitchen. Ask their mother to find them some work to keep them occupied,” the Duke ordered, turned, and marched away.


Both children knew what was coming next. Barker grabbed hold of their ears and twisted them in his fingers. Silas yelped but Vera made no sound at all. She would never let the butler know that he had hurt her, it would give him too much pleasure. He then let go of their ears and grabbed each one of their arms, dragging them as his fingers dug into their skin.


“I ought to give the pair of you a good hiding,” he told them in a stern voice. “You never do as you're told. You’re a pair of scoundrels, that’s what you are. Wait until I see your mother.”


Somehow, he managed to keep his firm grip on their arms all the way through the large house, and down into the kitchens. There, he threw them to the cold floor, right in front of their shocked mother.


“I do not take kindly to finding your offspring on the loose about the house,” he called out. “Give them some work of the hardest kind, immediately, or you will all find yourselves homeless!”


As he was leaving, Silas scowled at him, his anger finally stirring. “How dare he talk to you in that way, Mother? He’s only a servant of the house too!”


“Sshh… I’ll be having no cheek from the likes of you two. Now get out to the well and fetch me six buckets of water. I need to get it on the boil,” she instructed them.


“But the buckets are too heavy for Vera,” Silas complained.


“Nonsense, it serves her right," his mother said, pursing her lips. "If I know my daughter, she's likely the one who got you into trouble in the first place.”


With miserable-looking faces, the twins turned to leave through the back door, heading for the well. Fetching water was usually a job for one of the bigger boys.


“You can fill the buckets in the well, and I’ll carry them back to the kitchen,” Silas suggested to his sister, so that she didn't have to carry them.


“I might be a girl, but I can manage the buckets just as well as you can,” she scolded “Oh dear, I... I’m sorry Silas, I didn't mean to shout. But I can carry my share and Mother was right, it was my fault. In the future, I'm going to listen to you more often.”


“In the future, I’ll be big and strong, and I’ll protect you better from the likes of Barker,” Silas promised her.


“Nah… He’s harmless enough. He can be kind to us when he wants to be. Remember at Christmas, when he always gets a gift for us?” she grinned. “But he’s the head of the household so he has to tell us off. If you ask me, I do believe that he likes us really.”


With that proclamation, the twins got on with their task, between them they made a vow never to get caught again.


Chapter 1

15 years later…

The new Duke of Cornwall walked the corridors of Welwick Hall as he approached the library. It was a corridor that held many memories for him, but the library held even more, and most of them were good ones. How he missed his childhood. With all the new responsibilities of running the Bodmin Estate, he carried a heavy load on his shoulders.


Oscar opened one of the double doors and entered the library, making straight for the shelves that held tutorial books on business. It was his hope that if he studied hard enough, he might be able to run the estate as well as his father had before him. As he stood in front of the shelves that towered to the ceiling, he felt a tinge of pride. Before him were all the books that his father had collected over a lifetime. Reaching out his hand, he took hold of a black leather-bound volume.


Sitting at one of the large, oak tables, he stared back at the shelves. They held an array of red leather-bound books. Many boasting golden letters with grand titles of Greek mythology, and philosophers from ancient times. It was a magnificent collection, and they were now his responsibility.


A flash of a distant memory came to mind, of a little girl’s smiling face. In his mind, he pictured the cheery features of his dear childhood friend, Vera. They had often sneaked into the library, and every time her eyes would light up with anticipation. She would look upon shelves that held the novels and boast about all the adventures contained within their pages. How she had loved this room.


But then he reminded himself that was so long ago, time had moved on and he was no longer that little boy. Now he was the master of his family's estate. His parents had been taken from him so suddenly, and much too soon. The whole affair was all too recent and still wrenched at his heart.


How they must have suffered that night. Mother, you must have been terrified, you could not even swim, he pondered on their fate over and over in his mind.


The night was late. Far too late to be wandering around corridors and seeking books relating to business, but sleep would not come to him. Every time he closed his eyes he saw the image of a ship out at sea, on a dark and stormy night. His parents were standing upon a leaning deck as the ship sank into the enormous waves that swallowed all traces of them and the ship. It vanished into the cold, dark depths of the ocean.


Oscar rubbed his face with both hands as if the action might wipe away the image. But it was an impression that he could not rid his mind of. It was a recurring nightmare he had suffered every single night, ever since he had been told that his parents had drowned at sea.


His loving mother’s face smiled back at him in his mind, how he missed her. Never again would he see her happy smile or hear his father’s deep, baritone voice. His father was a man he had looked up to; he had been strict, but fair. For all that he had shown his son a severe hand, he had also shown his love.


Oscar jumped up from the chair and paced the room, growling to himself in frustration.


Why? Why? He mused, wishing the accident away. There was no rhyme or reason for their deaths.


He recalled how, on the day of their departure, he had waved them from the docks as they headed to France feeling happy with life.


And now, I am never able to see you, ever again.


Life felt so unfair!


How am I to run the estate on my own?


Becoming the Duke of Cornwall was a huge responsibility. One that he had not expected to shoulder for at least another ten years or so.


As he paced the dark, parquet library floor, he happened upon the Shakespeare shelf, and it caused him to pause. In front of his eyes, as if someone had pulled the book out a little for his attention, was the Twelfth Night.


“Ahhh…how many times have we enacted this play,” he said aloud as a wave of nostalgia swept over him, followed by a feeling of deep fondness at the title. “And how many times have I married you, Vera?” he chuckled. “How many times did Father find us playing together? Oh, Father, why did you have a problem with me playing with the servant’s children?”


He realised that he was talking to himself, but if the servants should hear him, he was sure they would understand. They all knew that his grieving process was difficult and painful for him.


He went to sit at the table again, holding the book open to read its pages. The words gave him a warming sensation. They were words that he and his two best friends had read over and over again. The twins’ faces came to his mind as he read, and he didn’t notice the library door opening.


“Y… Your Grace?” a light voice questioned.


He looked up to see Vera standing in the open doorway as she held a tray, and he knew that she had to be wondering what he was laughing at.


“Come in, Vera, come on in,” he waved an arm to welcome her. “You are free to use the library whenever you like now,” he called over to her. “Mind you, I know that you have most likely read most of the novels in this collection,” he said as he watched her carry the tray. “But fear not, we will add to the collections. Anyway, what are you doing up at this late hour?” he added as an afterthought.


“I could ask you the same question Oscar, I… I mean, Y… Your Grace,” she stuttered, remembering her place.


“I do wish people would not call me that,” Oscar said, putting down the book. “It is going to take some getting used to, on my part.”


“I’ve brought you a hot mug of milky coco,” she told him as she put down the tray. “I see that you’re reading the Twelfth Night,” she said, staring at the book.


“Sit with me awhile, Vera, please,” Oscar said, patting the seat by his side. “Let us reminisce upon all the times we re-enacted the Shakespeare plays.”


Vera smiled as she looked at Oscar’s sky-blue eyes, “You look tired. Perhaps you should drink your hot milk and then try returning to your bed.”


“My dear Vera, always mothering me,” Oscar smiled back at Vera’s petite frame. Her rosy cheeks seemed to be a permanent feature and had always warmed his heart. But his favourite part of her pretty face had to be her almond-shaped, deep brown eyes, lending her an almost oriental appearance. “I thank you for your concern, but my nightmares make sleep difficult.”


“I know it’s a wearisome time for you,” Vera sympathised. “But if you don’t get some rest, you’ll make yourself ill.”


“You are right, as always, but I was about to read the shipwreck scene in the Twelfth Night,” he said, thinking he could read the tragedy better with Vera by his side.


“That’s not a good idea, Oscar,” she warned. “It would do you better to push such thoughts from your mind for now.”


“I much prefer it when you call me by my name than my title,” he told her, watching her closely. “Promise me that when we are alone, you will always do that.”


“It would give your father a terrible fright if he were to hear me calling you by your name,” Vera chortled.


“Ha…yes, it would indeed,” Oscar agreed, enjoying sharing such memories with his friend. “It was right underneath this very table where he found the three of us, the first time we came across this book.”


“I remember it well too. We were about to start the scene where I was dressed as a man, when his booming voice demanded we all get from under the table,” Vera added. Though it gave her a shiver recollecting the Duke’s strict ways.


“Yes, when you're only ten years old, his voice could be very scary,” Oscar agreed, feeling more relaxed now, in Vera's company. “I am grateful that the three of us managed to remain good friends over the years. Even if Father did not approve.”


“I am too. And I know that my brother treasures your friendship,” Vera agreed. But then a cold chill caused her to shiver. She noticed, in her peripheral view, that a figure was standing in the open doorway.


A tall silhouette filled the open space, making her body jolt at the sudden sight.


“What is it, Vera?” Oscar asked upon seeing her body jerk in her chair. Almost simultaneously, he spotted the figure too.


“It is not appropriate for you to be alone with His Grace,” Barker’s voice filled the air with disdain. “My apologies, Your Grace,” he added in a softer tone. “The servants should know their places. Please, Atkins, go to your room.”


Vera said nothing, but she knew the butler was right, it was inappropriate to be alone with Oscar, even though they were lifelong friends. She stood up and went to exit the room, under Barker’s cold glare. He had left her only a small gap in the doorway, but she was petite enough to squeeze by him.


“Careful, Barker, you might have steam coming from your ears soon,” she teased, knowing her comment would rile him even further.


Oscar smiled to himself; Vera was as defiant as ever, and he covered his mouth with a hand to hide his smile from the butler.


As she disappeared, he remarked, “Barker, it is not a good idea to be scolding our cook. You should soften your mood a little in your old age.”


“Your father would disapprove of your being alone with a female, let alone a female servant, if I may advise Your Grace,” Barker reminded him. “Certain servants will always try to act above their station, and it is my job to remind them of their place.”


With that, Barker bowed and then turned to walk away from the doorway, leaving Oscar alone once again. The incident served to remind Oscar of his deep responsibilities. It was a role forced upon him, and a role whereby he should be the one putting the servants in their places too.


That’s what I should have done with Barker, yet it felt so wrong. The butler was a man who'd always reminded him of his father. It simply didn’t seem right to order his butler around. They had never shared a close relationship, but he was very fond of Barker. Then again, he had always been the one to punish the twins whenever they had been caught playing together.


Yet, he sighed, it was indeed all so long ago, even though it feels like only yesterday.


Much had happened in the years since then. The twin’s mother had passed away with a deadly fever. Vera had become the head cook of the manor house, and Silas was now his valet. Although he no longer spent leisure time with his childhood friends, they were still ever-present in his life. He sought Silas’s advice many a day and enjoyed Vera’s cooking expertise daily. She was every bit as talented as her mother when it came to good food, her mother had taught her well.


Looking back at the book, he opened the contents page to scan the scenes. Fingering the pages, he searched for the scene where Orsino and Viola agree to marry. The words stirred his emotions, yet again. He had often fantasised about marrying Vera as they had acted out the scene. Imagine if his father had known his little secret, but then again, they were only children after all.


Chapter 2


The former Countess of Gosmore, Lady Olive Brent, had moved out of the Gosmore estate after the death of her husband over a year ago. The earldom had passed on to his oldest son and heir, a son from a previous marriage of his. She felt it appropriate to move out of the Gosmore estate to allow him and his family to move in. Her husband had left her a generous property known as Silsbury Manor. He had also left her a lump sum which worked out as an average income for many years to come. In her mind, it had been generous of him considering they had only been married for three months.


But it had never been enough for her mother. Lady Adelia Smith was always pushing her daughter to marry for more wealth. Olive had thought the battle with her mother had been won when she married Lord Jonathan Brent, the Earl of Gosmore. Though he had been quite old when they wed. And now that he was gone, her mother was pushing her to find a new, wealthy husband again.


It was quite late in the evening, and Olive was sitting brushing her long blonde locks as she stared into her own green eyes in the mirror. She had drifted off into a blissful daze, contemplating her situation as she recalled the day of the funeral.


She had been peering out of the window of the black funeral carriage. It had been a dull, grey day and the cold rain had lashed against the pain of glass.


“It is most inconvenient to hold a funeral on such a wet day,” her mother had complained, seated by her side. “One supposes that the new Earl will be glad of his father’s death. Goodness knows, he’s inherited enough of the old man’s wealth, and hardly a farthing for you, his wife.”


“Mother, please,” Olive had spoken up. “Is it not enough that you at least have a roof over your head? And my late husband left me a comfortable income, so you should be more respectful.”


The carriage had rocked from side to side as it hit a bump, juddering Olive’s nerves. Or perhaps she had been growling with contempt at her mother’s attitude.


“He has left you an income that will not sustain what you have grown used to,” her mother had snapped in her usual manner. “I will catch my death in this weather. I should have remained in the carriage instead of getting soaked for the likes of a husband who has all but abandoned my daughter.”


“Might I remind you, Mother, that you were the one who pressured me into marrying the Earl,” Olive had raised the issue. “He was already an old man and suffering from ailments of ageing. We had only been married but three months.”


“You devoted every moment of your marriage to his comforts,” her mother had insisted. “Never taking any time for yourself. And this is the thanks he gives you.”


“Silsbury Manor is a beautiful house," Olive had stated, annoyed at her mother’s persistent moaning. "As far as I am concerned, £700 per annum is more than enough for us both to live in comfort.”


“We can barely keep a carriage with that income,” her mother had whined, relentless in her discontent. “You were entitled to far more than they gave you, and you know it.”


“I do not care, Mother!” Olive had called out yet again; her voice raised in frustration.


“Don’t you shout at your mother!” her mother had snapped back.


“Then can we not have some silence for the rest of the journey home, Mother?” Olive had pleaded. “I have only this day buried my husband; can you not allow me some time to grieve?”


Her request seemed to have worked as her mother simply tutted at her, but she did remain silent from that point.


It had always niggled Olive because she had felt little, if any, sadness whatsoever over the death of her husband. This was still causing her a great deal of guilt. She had been lucky that her kind husband had left her anything at all.


He had been a kind soul, having lived alone since his first wife passed away twenty years ago. They had been introduced at a ball and he took a liking to her straight away. Of course, the introduction was all her mother's doing. Olive had liked the Earl, he had a sense of humour, for his age, though little in the way of energy. Most of the time she had spent with him, he had slept. Nor had he ever eaten much. She supposed he was already suffering an illness that he did not tell her about.


She read to him every night before bed. She took soup to him when he felt ill and entertained him with music when he was up and awake. Her mother had been right with that, she had spent a lot of time with him, but then he had not been awake that much.


Olive was fond of the house he had left her, Silsbury Manor. It wasn’t a huge manor house, with only four bedrooms. But now they had fewer servants so they did not need as many rooms. They had a cook, who lived in the local village. They also had a couple of housemaids, who lived in the attic rooms of the house. And a groom for the small carriage they owned, who lived in the generous stable. Then there was the part-time gardener, who also lived elsewhere.


It didn’t bother Olive that they had fewer servants, there were enough to do all that was required for two people. She would be happy with even less if it became necessary, but her mother constantly wanted more. Heaven forbid if they had to get rid of the carriage and horse, her mother would be mortified.


Snapping out of reverie, she looked at the light supper the maid had brought up to her room, recalling how annoyed her mother was with her for not attending dinner.


Her mother had immediately complained when she ordered a light supper in her room. She had insisted that the cook still prepare a full dinner for her, and she would eat in the dining room as normal people did.


Olive enjoyed the peaceful moments in her own room away from her mother. But when her mother entered her bedchamber, she sighed to herself, she was in no mood for her mother’s ramblings. Getting up from the stool, she walked over to her bed, hoping her mother would take the hint that she was tired.


Getting into bed, she pulled up the blankets and sat up to read. Her mother surprised her when she approached the bed and started to tuck in Olive's blankets. She then proceeded to pull up a chair, to the side of the bed, and talk to her.


“A respectful period of a whole year’s mourning has now passed us by. This is a good time to begin thinking about the need to remarry,” she began.


“Mother, I am in no mood to discuss this. Nor do I desire another husband,” Olive said, trying her best to remain calm and be kind to her mother. “Why do you worry so?”


“Hear me out, if you will,” her mother continued, wagging her finger at her daughter to stop her from interrupting. “I have heard, along the way, that the Duke of Cornwall, Lord Oscar Wald, will be seeking a wife. He has now taken over the dukedom after his parents died at sea, oh, and he is young, handsome, and rich. What do you think of that then, my girl?”


“You want to know my true thoughts, Mother?” Olive asked with raised brows. “I feel very sorry for the Duke, that he is grieving his losses and I hope that you leave the poor man alone.”


“Exactly my point,” her mother squealed with delight. “It means that you both have a lot in common.”


“I fail to see how you know if we have shared interests, Mother. We have never even met the man,” Olive retorted, wishing her mother would give up and leave her in peace.


“You both understand the nature of grief,” her mother explained. “That is enough to start a conversation. Think of it, Olive, marriage to a handsome, young man would be very pleasing, would it not?”


“I have no appetite for another husband,” Olive tried again. “Let me get my strength back first before you go organising my life.”


“There is little time to waste,” her mother pushed, unwilling to accept defeat. “All the women of the ton will be chasing him. But none of them have your fortune in looks, and grace in demeanour. All the many talents that you possess impressed the Earl, so they will do so for a duke.”


“I am very tired, Mother. Can we not discuss this another day?” she asked, and she knew that she looked pale as she had seen her dull reflection in the mirror.


“Yes, you do look a little peaky, but fear not, you will come around to my way of thinking, I know you will,” her mother told her as she stood up to leave. “Get your beauty sleep for now. I want you to eat a full breakfast in the morning. You must keep up your strength for there is much work to be done. Leave it with me and I will sort out all the details of future meetings with the Duke.”


Olive watched her mother leave and pitied the Duke if her mother was to get her claws into him. She was a tenacious little woman, petite, yet strong in willpower.


Sighing, she opened a poetry book to read by candlelight. Poems gave her so much solace with their arrangement of soothing words. She wanted to imagine running through a sunny meadow, not putting all her efforts into impressing some gentleman she had never met.


Opening a page with the named poet Charles Lamb, she read. If you told me the world will be at an end tomorrow, I should just say, 'Will it?' This was a poet who often made her chuckle, and she read on. I have not volition enough left to dot my i’s, much less to comb my eyebrows…


The poem wasn’t necessarily a cheery one, but the eloquence of Lamb’s prose was unusual. It helped to take her mind away from other things. Soon her eyes felt heavy, and she was ready to lay her head on her soft pillow and enter the world of dreams. At least there, her mother hopefully would not haunt her.


Chapter 3

Silas was sitting with the other servants enjoying his breakfast, when his twin sister, Vera, came to sit by his side. He shuffled along the wooden bench to make room for her to squeeze between him and Lucy, one of the upstairs maids.


“Thank you, Lucy," she said to the maid. "I find myself in need of having a few words with my brother.”


Silas was aware that Lucy had a crush on him, and she would not give up her seat lightly, that was why he’d been the one to move along.


Vera turned to talk in a quiet voice, which wasn’t easy with all the chatter going on around them. Servant mealtimes were a welcome time in Welwick Hall, one of the few times that they got together to enjoy each other's company. Much of their chatter would be gossip, informing each other what they had heard upstairs, or from other servants on other estates.


“Listen, Silas,” Vera began as he leaned into her to keep their conversation to themselves. “I’m worried about Oscar; he’s suffering terrible nightmares and not getting much sleep. Have you noticed anything odd about his behaviour?”


“He’s hurting bad, from his sudden losses, I can tell you that much,” Silas nodded, though he didn’t feel over concerned. “But I wouldn't call that odd. I do try to cheer him, but I remember how we felt when Ma died, and it wasn't good.”


Vera nodded her agreement, “I’m more worried about his health due to lack of sleep. I heard him stir in the early hours of the morning when I was on bread duty in the kitchens. I guessed where he’d gone to and I was right, he was in the library.”


“Yes, so I’ve heard,” Silas smiled. “Word soon spread that Barker caught you both alone.”


“Oh, for goodness sake! I was taking him some hot milk to help him sleep is all,” Vera sighed, glancing down the long table at the other servants. Gossip was always ripe among them, “You’d think they’d have better things to talk about,” she added.


“You know what, Sis, it’s my opinion that we shouldn’t tiptoe around Oscar,” Silas said. “Otherwise, he’ll never get back to being normal. I mean, we should give him his space, and allow time to grieve and be sad, but not pity him. That’s the last thing he needs.”


His sister looked at him a little surprised as she flashed him a scowl, “We must pity him, Silas. Poor Oscar will be feeling all alone in the world, and he isn’t. He has us, and I want you to tell him that, do you hear?”


Silas didn't feel like a lecture from his sister and jumped up from the bench. With one leg on either side of it, he reached over to the bread bowl and took out a fresh bread roll. “I thought this morning’s bread was Isabelle's doing, it always tastes nicer than yours,” he joked to rile her up.


“You cheeky...where do you think you are going?” his sister asked, looking up at him as he pulled out his other leg to climb off the bench. “We haven’t finished yet.”


“I’m escaping before you give me any more sermons,” he smiled. Turning around he hopped away and marched out of the kitchen towards the servant’s stairway.


Once at the top of the back stairway, Silas headed towards the reception hall. He always went there first to collect any letters for his master, where Barker would leave them. Today though, the butler was still around, sifting through the post.


When Silas was younger, the old butler used to frighten him silly. All the younger servants were still afraid of him. For many years though, he had held no fear for the man. Barker was one of those old men whose bark was worse than his bite, and what others didn’t seem to see was how kind he could be too.


“Ah, Atkins, I want you to stress to that sister of yours how it is not right and proper to be alone with His Grace, do you hear?” Barker said with a sharpness to his tone.


“I am sure that your reprimand, when you caught her, should have been more than enough to make it clear,” Silas replied, taking Oscar’s post out of his hand.


“You know that she threatens her position in the household when she cannot follow simple rules,” Barker tried again.


“If you say so,” Silas sang out as he walked away from the grumpy butler of the house.


Silas had every respect for Barker, but when it came to his usual threats, he tended to ignore the old man. Oscar would never allow him to dismiss Vera, so Barker was fooling no one when he threatened her job.


He climbed the huge, grand staircase that rose in the centre of the large hall and headed towards Oscar’s chambers. Oscar had remained in his old suite of rooms, not wanting to move into his parent’s larger rooms after their deaths.


Silas reflected on how Oscar should be awake by now, Lucy having delivered his breakfast tray over an hour ago. Yet, when he opened the door, the heavy drapes were still drawn and kept the room in darkness.


Marching over to the windows to open the curtains, he called out in a cheerful voice, “Good Morning, Your Grace.”


As he turned towards the bed where Oscar lay, he noticed how rough his friend, and master, looked.


“You haven't touched any breakfast,” Silas pointed out. “Vera will be most insulted if you don’t eat her food,” he joked as he picked up the tray. “I'm going to get you some warm water to wash, Your Grace,” he said before leaving the room.


Heading back down to the kitchen, he swapped the tray for a jug of hot water, as he did every morning. But when he returned to Oscar's room, he was still in bed.


“Your Grace, are we not to begin this wonderful day?” Silas sang out again, pouring the hot water into a large, blue decorative ceramic bowl.


“Do not start with any lectures, Silas, you sound like your sister,” Oscar groaned. “And stop calling me by my title when we are alone. I don’t wish to get up today.”


“Nay, I must call you by your title now that you are the duke of the estate,” Silas told him, pulling his covers down to his waist. “Come now, Your Grace, let’s begin your day, for the world awaits your presence.”


“When I am awake, I do nothing but think of my parents,” Oscar told him, making the effort to get his legs out of the bed. “Why can't you simply leave me to my sleep? It took me long enough to drift off.”


Silas was busy laying out Oscar’s outfit for the day, pretending to ignore him, but he was pleased to see that he was making the effort to get out of his bed.


As Oscar started to splash water over his face, Silas passed him a thick towel to dry with. Within half an hour, Silas was performing his duties as a valet and ensuring that his master looked the part of a duke for the day.


Oscar stood in front of the long mirror while he allowed Silas to brush down his outfit, and Silas could see that his master was deep in thought. At that point, he stepped aside and went to get the silver tray that held the letters, handing the tray to his master.


“Heaven forbid that they are even more condolences,” Oscar complained, breaking the seal from one of the folded pieces of paper. “Drat it! This is the last thing I need,” Oscar declared as he read the letter.


“Is it bad news, Your Grace?” Silas asked, continuing to address his friend by his official title, as was only fitting.


“No, darn it, it's worse. It’s an invitation to a garden party. Why can’t they leave me alone? I would much prefer it that way,” Oscar complained.


“Will you be attending, Your Grace?” Silas asked.


“No, I will not,” Oscar replied with a sharp tone in his voice.


“The people who invite you are your friends, and they only wish to help you return some normality in your life,” Silas said, putting on a brave face. “It would do you good to attend some social events, rather than sitting around Welwick Hall all alone, Your Grace.”


“Has Vera asked you to say that to me?” Oscar asked, looking at Silas in amusement.


“She has spoken with me of her concerns for you, yes, Your Grace,” Silas admitted. Though only because he wanted his friend to know that he and his sister still supported him. “And we have agreed that you should not drown in your sorrows alone. You are allowed to have some fun in your life, Your Grace. There will be many pretty ladies at a garden party, all of whom will want to pay you their attention, given your circumstances.”


“Did you know that you and your sister have something particularly annoying in common?” Oscar said, straightening his jacket sleeve in the mirror. “You are both bossy.”


“My apologies, Your Grace, but we only share our concerns for his lordship,” Silas replied.


“No, no, Silas, it is me who should be apologising to you,” Oscar came back at him. “You went through much the same when your mother passed away. I recall how the sadness tugged at both your hearts.”


“Does that mean that you will listen to my advice?” Silas asked, hopeful.


“I suppose so, but I would hardly call a garden party fun though,” Oscar grumbled back at him. “And the people who invite me are not my friends, not like our friendship of many years anyway. They merely wish to gawp at the new Duke of Cornwall.”


“Perhaps not, but it will force you to mingle once again, Your Grace,” Silas tried. “It will do you good to speak to others about your experiences. People are going to want to bring up the sadness in your life.”


“You are quite right, Silas,” Oscar said, softening to his friend’s advice. “Though a good night’s sleep before then would not go amiss.”


“Yes, the whole house is abuzz at my sister bringing you hot milk in the library in the early hours of the morning,” Silas informed his master.


“Is it? She won’t like that, not if I know Vera,” Oscar said, looking worried. “Is she terribly angry?”


“No, Your Grace, she is only concerned for your health,” Silas said, giving his sister credit as it was the truth. He started to walk towards the door to open it for his master to leave.


“Will you join me on a stroll in the garden, Silas?” Oscar requested. “I could do with your companionship away from the ears of servants. I know that you are right, and I must stop being alone so much.”


“Of course, Your Grace. It will be my pleasure,” Silas replied, pleased that his friend was admitting that it was time to start socialising once again. He hoped that Oscar would accept the invitation to the garden party, and on his part, he would do all he could to ensure that he did.


Chapter 4

Vera could not believe the cheek of her brother. When she found him again, she would give him a piece of her mind. She felt it important for them to stick together in helping Oscar get through the difficult times and overcome his grief. He might be their master, but their friendship went much deeper than that.


Grief was something both she and her twin brother were familiar with. When they lost their mother to a fever a year ago, it had been a heart wrenching experience. She recalled how Barker had also been upset, for all the butler’s airs and graces, he was a bit of a softie at heart.


For now, though, she was busy preparing the main meal of the day. There wasn’t much cooking for upstairs, as there was only the Duke living there at present. There were still all twenty servants to feed though. She hoped that Oscar would not dismiss any of the servants. Welwick Hall was a large manor house and took a lot of care and attention to keep it spick and span.


Although she delegated many of the day-to-day tasks in the kitchen, she never trusted anyone with her sauces. Her mother had taught her that a sauce is the making of any meal, and she continued to practice that philosophy. Whilst stirring a meaty gravy, she noticed Barker entering her domain.


“Atkins, I must reiterate that you should never be alone with His Grace,” he rumbled as he came to stand by her side.


Taking a small spoon, she scooped up a little gravy and handed it to him to taste. Barker did so, promptly shouting out as he burned his tongue.


“Ouch! I shan’t be able to taste for a week now,” he complained, handing her the spoon back again.


“Didn’t your mother ever teach you to blow on hot food?” she teased, as she had done it intentionally, to shut him up.


“Stop your trickery and listen to me, will you,” he said in a quieter voice, following her around her kitchen as she went off to do various tasks. “I know it’s not particularly a rule for commoners, but for the nobility, it is considered a scandal if a lady is alone with a gentleman.”


“Like you said, I’m a commoner so it doesn’t apply to me,” she sang out, walking away from him.


But he would not relent, and he continued to shadow her in the kitchen. “I know that you don’t want His Grace involved in any gossip, equally as much I don’t. You cannot communicate with him as if he were one of your own. He is a duke, and you must accept that and understand your role, as well as his.”


“Well…you know what you can do with your orders, Barker,” she retorted. “He is my friend, and he is all alone with his grief. I will continue to help him while ever I see him suffering.”


“Don’t go around saying that the Duke of Cornwall is your friend,” Barker retorted back to her.


“Get out of my kitchen, Barker,” she called out loud enough for everyone in the kitchen to hear. Many faces turned their way at the raised voices. “You have no role in my kitchen.”


As she went to get something from the cold pantry, she was pleased to see the back of him as he marched off grumbling to himself.


“Cranky old man,” she said to Frances, the scullery maid. Frances was a small, skinny, little shy thing, but she giggled at the comment.


“Is it safe to come out yet?” she called out to the kitchen maids, and they all laughed as the two of them exited the pantry. “Alright, let’s be getting our dishes cooked. We don’t stop for no man.”


Although she got on with her tasks of the day, she couldn’t stop worrying about Oscar. Becoming the duke would have huge implications for him. He had been in the process of learning how to run the estate, but it was a lot of responsibility on top of his grief. She knew the estate manager, Connor McIntyre was a good man, and good at his job too and he would be a godsend for Oscar. Connor had worked on the estate for fifty-odd years, if anyone knew about the running of the estate, it would be him.


She would get Silas to speak with Connor because he was a bit of a recluse. He needed to be advising Oscar at the earliest opportunity because her friend wasn’t thinking straight. Again, she recalled the death of her mother and how she was inconsolable for such a long time. Losing someone you love was very painful, and poor Oscar had lost two people with whom he had been very close.


* * *

At last, the working day was almost over, and it was time for the servants to have their dinner. Leaving the serving of the food to lesser maids in the kitchen, she went to join her brother at the long table.


She said nothing to him when he looked at her suspiciously, allowing him to enjoy his dinner first. But as the other servants started to leave the table, she asked him to stay on.


“How has Oscar been today?” she asked, once they were alone.


“I'd say he’s had a good day,” Silas nodded thoughtfully. “He asked me to spend most of it with him. We went riding, which always eases a man’s soul.”


“So, you think he’s coming to terms with his grief?” she pushed for better answers.


“At times I found him a bit withdrawn,” Silas said, being honest with his sister. It wasn’t worth lying to her because she could always tell when he did that. “I don’t think it's all about the grief that’s a problem, he’s more worried about running the estate by himself.”


To this remark Vera huffed, “He’s more than capable of doing it, but I suppose he’s lost some of his cocky confidence. I want you to get Connor to speak with him.”


“That’s a good idea, Sis, I'll do that. Don't know why none of us thought of it earlier,” Silas agreed. “I also talked him into going to a social event. You know...so that he’ll start mixing with his own kind again.”


“And has he agreed to go?” she asked, half-expecting him to say no.


“Aye, well…he doesn’t want to, but I’ve badgered him all day about it. He finally seemed to agree” Silas said, looking pleased with himself.


Vera breathed a sigh of relief as she leaned her elbows on the table and put her head in her hands. Rubbing at her hair dark, brunette head of curls, she moved a few strands of hair fell that from the tight bun she wore when working. She then blew them off her smooth face.


“Thank the gods that you’re his valet,” she remarked. “It gives us a way to be close so we can keep an eye on him. That is until he gets back to normal again.”


“Remind me if I’ve got this wrong,” Silas said as she looked curiously at his sister. “But you’re not still head over heels in love with Oscar, are you?”


“Do you want a slap?” she threatened as she shifted uncomfortably in her seat.


“I know that Mother always kept you in your place. She made sure you didn’t get ideas above your station,” he dared to suggest as she looked at him with a wide-eyed stare of shock. “But she isn’t around anymore, so I wondered how you felt about him these days?”


“Would you like some more of that cake to take up to your room?” she asked, making to leave the table. “It’s your favourite carrot cake.”


“You would do that for me?” he asked in delight, not realising how she'd ignored his question.


“Of course,” she replied with a cheeky smile, knowing her trick had worked. “I’ll get Lucy to bring over another piece for you.”


“But she doesn’t work in the kitchen,” he said. “Are you tricking me?”


“Lucy will be glad to bring you a piece of cake, she’s over there look, chatting with Frances," Vera pointed her finger. "You wait there, and I’ll go give it to her.”


Vera knew that she’d had a close escape with her brother’s prying question. Fortunately, she knew how to distract him, and it had worked. She could see him watching her as she approached Lucy, asking her to take some cake over to him, and give him an extra wicked smile while she was at it. Lucy was more than happy to oblige.


It wasn’t until she was alone in her tiny office, doing her end-of-day paperwork, that she finally gave Silas’ question some thought.


As a young girl she had believed herself to be in love with Oscar, and he with her. After all, they always re-enacted plays that led to them marrying. How many times had they married over the years of their young lives?


Tapping her feather pen on the blotting paper, she smiled to herself at the happy memories. Her mind was far away, recalling distant years gone by. For many years the three friends had been inseparable. Of course, the adults did all they could to stop the servant’s children from playing with the lord's only son, but they were far too clever for them. They continued to sneak off together to so many places, to have their childhood adventures.


Her mother had once told her that she had a childhood infatuation with the boy. Then, as they all grew up, the twins grew apart from Oscar. They were starting to understand how they were breaking the social rules of mixing. By the time they reached their teens, they no longer sought out each other’s company, and they didn't see Oscar every day. But knowing that he was always around had been enough for Vera.


Even now, every time she was in his company her body felt weak, and her stomach did so many flips she felt almost sick with it. As for her chest, that felt as if something might burst out of there it beat so fast, like a loud drum.


Do I love you, Oscar? She pondered on that question in her office.


A knock on the door brought Mary, the housekeeper, in. Soon enough she was discussing house business and menu planning. At least it took Oscar from her thoughts, but not for too long.

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