Portait of Love

 

Chapter 1

 

The Duke of Norrend, Arthur Cain Cartwright, moved his newspaper down just enough to look over it at his wife and the girls. He caught the eye of his eldest daughter, Lady Annabelle. She looked back, somewhat amused by the situation.

 

The Duchess Louise Ann Cartwright was red in the face but silent. She seemed to be having a staring contest with one of the twin sisters she was mentoring. The indignant girl stared back without fear.

 

“Lady Joanna, you cannot go against the rules simply because you want to. It is not done that way.”

 

“I can,” Lady Joanna replied, shaking her blond hair back and forth. “I like my hair down and I want to keep it that way.”

 

“A lady does not wear her hair down around her shoulders.”

 

Lady Joanna gave her a cold look. “I am not going to put my hair up, my lady. You are not my mother. I do not have to do what you say.”

 

“I am afraid you do, young lady. You were entrusted into my care by your mother and your father and I will do my best to see that you are raised properly. You will not go to the ball if you do not put your hair up in a style similar to your sister’s.”

 

Lady Joanna’s frown deepened. “I do not want to look like her!” she cried.

 

“You do not look like her,” the Duchess of Norrend’s voice was filled with confusion and exasperation. “You do not look alike. I was merely suggesting that you wear a similar style. I did not say the exact same style. Sometimes, young lady, I am beside myself with worry for you. Your future does not look prosperous to me.”

 

Lady Annabelle watched the exchange between her mother and Lady Joanna, standing to the side with Lady Julia, her best friend and Lady Joanna’s fraternal twin. Lady Annabelle and Lady Julia had been friends since they were in nappies. Their parents had always been good friends. The Lord and Lady Rickman were fine people. When Lady Julia and Lady Joanna were twelve years old, six years previous, their brother Luke, who was only seven, fell into a pond and drowned. Unable to get over the loss of her precious only son, Lady Rickman isolated herself from society, withdrawing into a state of near despair. She asked her closest friend, Louise Cartwright, to care for her two daughters and raise them as her own until her depression broke. So Lady Julia and Lady Joanna lived with their mother and father but did all social events the ton had to offer with the Cartwrights and under the close, watchful eye of the Duchess.

 

“That is not fair,” Lady Joanna said. Lady Annabelle thought for an eighteen-year-old young woman, Lady Joanna did not act like she had the sense God gave her. After six years of this, she should know that the Duchess always got her way. She glanced over at Lady Julia as Lady Joanna and her mother continued bickering. She was tired of it and only wanted to sit down. She caught her father’s eye and begged him with her mind to beckon to her. She would gladly go and sit with him and chat. Her father was a personable man. He was strong, intelligent, quiet, and reserved. Very unlike his excitable wife, who was outspoken and sometimes loud.

 

He was looking over at them and caught her eye. He did not beckon to her. He merely shook his head and lifted his paper. Lady Annabelle knew a disappointed look had to have covered her face. She sighed.

 

“Mother, I do not wish to stand here any longer,” she said. “I know Lady Julia and I have things to do before the ball tonight and I do not wish to waste any more of my time. I know between the three of us girls, and Lady Cecilia, too, we can find a hairstyle that will both be appropriate and approved by you and Lady Joanna.”

 

Louise looked at her daughter, surprised. Lady Annabelle only spoke out when she was saying something logical. She nodded curtly, a frown still plastered on her once-beautiful face. “Yes. You three go upstairs. Lady Annabelle, take your sister with you. She needs to prepare, even if she has not yet reached the age of courtship.”

 

“Of course, Mother,” Lady Annabelle replied, curtsying slightly. “I planned to take her with us.” It was only a little lie. She thought her mother would tell her to take Lady Cecilia with them but did not bring it up, just in case her mother did not say it.

 

Lady Annabelle nodded at Lady Cecilia, who smiled as she walked to them from across the room. Lady Annabelle and Lady Julia went through the parlor door and into the foyer. The three older girls went through the door and to the curving stairwell to go upstairs.

 

Lady Joanna pulled away from the other two quickly, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. She picked up her skirts and was at the top long before her sister and Lady Annabelle. Lady Julia shook her head and murmured to her friend.

 

“I tell you, Lady Annabelle, she is getting worse every year. Though I try so hard to teach her and show her.”

 

“You two are nothing alike,” Lady Annabelle said confidently. “Nothing.”

 

“I know. It is hard to believe we are sisters, let alone twins.”

 

“I do not know where she gets such a spark!” Lady Cecilia exclaimed. “I would never speak to Mother the way she does. Never, ever.”

 

“She is only speaking her mind,” Lady Julia said. “But sometimes I do wish she would say things a little more politely.”

 

“Perhaps time will help,” Lady Annabelle suggested.

 

“One can only hope,” Lady Cecilia said, shaking her pretty head. Her hair was piled up on her head, hanging in beautiful ringlets around her pale cheeks. She had no face paint on yet but planned to add a little rouge and some color to her lips before the ball. She was only sixteen and not allowed to do some of the things her eighteen-year-old sister could do. That was not one of the things her mother insisted on, so she took advantage of it to give herself some color. She detested the gown she would be wearing that night. It was a dull brown color, almost a tan with dull dark yellow soft fabric around the collar, wrists, and hem of the skirt. It was pretty but the color took away any vibrancy she could have hoped to achieve. She wanted to wear something bright pink, blue, green, red, something that would make her sparkle.

 

Her hair was a pale color of yellow, but it was pretty. She had no eyebrows to speak of and her eyelashes could not be seen, though they were quite long. The only thing she could use was rouge and lipstick. She did not need face powder with smooth skin like hers.

 

Lady Annabelle looked similar to her sister but her features were more prominent. Her dark blond hair was double braided and pulled to the back. She was wearing a pale red dress with gold trimmings around the collar, wrists, and hem. There was a small line of pearls going down the front of it, just between her breasts. It made her look beautiful and she knew it. She had the perfect necklace to go with it, a row of pearls her father had bought her for her last birthday. They were the same exact size as the pearls on the dress.

 

“We still have several hours for the party. We do not need to get dressed yet. Let us go out and enjoy the sunshine for a while,” Lady Annabelle said in a low, conspiratorial voice. Lady Cecilia’s hand went immediately to her mouth and she giggled behind it. Lady Julia raised her eyebrows, a small grin fighting for the ends of her lips.

 

“Lady Annabelle, are you hatching a plot?” she asked, her voice very curious.

 

Lady Annabelle grinned. “Whatever do you mean? Of course not.”

 

She turned to the stairs and climbed them. “Come, let us change into the clothes to go outside. It may be muddy from recent rains.”

 

“I think it has been sunny enough to dry the earth, though,” Lady Julia said, following behind her friend. She had a lot of clothes at the Cartwrights’ home. She had no problem fitting into them, as she was of average height and slender as could be.

 

“Well, we shall see. I am going to err on the side of caution and at least bring my boots. Then if I do not need them, I will leave them on the porch.”

 

Lady Julia nodded. “That is a good idea, Lady Annabelle. Shall I ask Lady Joanna to come?”

 

“If you wish to, of course,” Lady Annabelle replied. “But I do not think she will want to.”

 

“Probably not but I will ask.”

 

Lady Julia went to the room she shared with her sister when they visited Norrend, the name of the mansion in which Lady Annabelle’s family lived. The other two went hurriedly to Lady Annabelle’s room.

 

***

 

“I just do not know what to do with my sister,” Lady Julia said, aggravated, as they walked down the pathway toward town. “I try so hard to encourage her to come out with me. It is not just today but it seems so often now! And do you know she has told me that she will wear the style your mother suggested to her after all? All that arguing for nothing! I do not understand the girl! Why do I feel so awful?”

 

“Because you have a soft heart and she’s your sister. That’s as it should be,” Lady Annabelle said firmly.

 

“I do not know where she gets that behavior from,” Lady Julia sighed. “I want her to be happy but sometimes it is very difficult for me.”

 

“You are a good sister, Lady Julia,” Lady Cecilia said. “I have seen her act younger than I am. And you defend her still. I applaud you for your patience and understanding. Whenever it gets difficult, you know we will be here to help you however we can.”

 

“Thank you so much,” Lady Julia replied in a soft voice. “I wish to see her happy and successful. Yet she seems so miserable all the time!”

 

The three fell silent, knowing why Lady Joanna was miserable. She, like her mother, could not get over the death of Luke. That trauma had caused Lady Joanna to retain a resentful attitude toward the world and anything in it. Her mother’s retreat from society was another blow to Lady Joanna that she was having a hard time handling. Lady Julia accepted Duchess Cartwright as a substitute mother and Lady Annabelle as a new sister, along with Lady Cecilia. They were family to her. Lady Joanna felt as though she had been abandoned when in actuality, she was given a new family in addition to the one she already had.

 

Lady Joanna did not see it that way and it only caused conflict. She did not act like a lady of eighteen, the way Lady Julia and Lady Annabelle did.

 

“I feel sorry for her.” Lady Annabelle put one arm around her friend and grasped her by the hand. “It will be all right, Lady Julia. You’ll see.”

 

Lady Cecilia giggled. “Lady Annabelle is usually right about these things, you know,” she said in an amused voice, her pretty eyes crinkling at the ends when she smiled.

 

“I truly do feel sorry for her.” Lady Annabelle lifted one hand and placed it on her chest. “She is such a sad girl inside, so lonely and depressed, even though she is with others who love her.”

 

Lady Julia shook her head. “She is lonely in a room filled with people.”

 

“We must speak about something else!” Lady Annabelle exclaimed. “We will do our best with her and be patient! She is your sister, after all. We must come to her defense.”

 

“She is not so bad, Lady Julia,” Lady Cecilia said, finally adding her two cents.

 

Lady Julia lifted one hand to giggle behind it. “I have two of the best friends a girl could ever ask for!”

 

The three of them gathered together in a free-for-all hug, laughing softly.

 

“Next time, she will come,” Lady Annabelle said as they separated. She rested her head briefly against Lady Julia’s head and smiled widely.

 

“I hope so.” Lady Julia sounded positive. She grinned at them.

 

 “It is quite warm out here, is it not? I should have brought along my fan.” Lady Annabelle spotted a bench and made a beeline for it. “Let us sit in the sun for a spot and then return to our duties. What do you say?”

 

“Jolly good idea, Lady Annabelle,” Lady Julia was on her heels. “Jolly good.”

 

 

Chapter 2

 

The Duke of Cardinal, Stephen William Colbourn, was the youngest duke in South England. He was also the most well-known and well-liked. His reputation was immaculate, despite his young age and the fact that he had taken the title when he was but a mere sixteen years old. He was blessed with an uncle on his mother’s side, also a duke, who took him under his wing. He’d noted to dignitaries passing through that his young nephew was the fastest learner in all the Queen’s land and he was extremely proud of the lad’s progress.

 

At twenty, the Duke of Cardinal had solidified his reputation throughout England simply through word of mouth. If he had not met someone in person, they would know of his name all throughout England and in some other parts of the world, as well.

 

His father’s estate had been large and he owned many manufacturing businesses, making furniture, clothing and other odds and ends.

 

The Duke of Cardinal’s greatest passion, however, had nothing to do with the amount of money in his coffers. He was a lover of the arts, paintings, sculptures, and statues of old. He personally owned many masterpieces, which he proudly displayed in what he still considered his father’s mansion. It was difficult to let go of his father’s legacy and presence. It had been domineering and strong. His father had taught him till the age of sixteen and he considered himself a better man because he had listened.

 

As he rode in the carriage down the street toward Norrend, he thought about what beauties he was about to see. He was visiting with the duke and duchess to see if they had any paintings or artifacts they wanted to sell.

 

The Duke of Norrend had spread word of his intention to sell half of his collection. When asked why, his answer was that he had not displayed them for a long time and did not want their beauty to remain unseen.

 

The Duke of Cardinal was excited to see what was there. The Duke of Norrend had the paintings stacked in the cellar of his mansion, which, by all accounts, was quite vast. The Duke of Cardinal hadn’t been to visit the Cartwrights before. He had heard of them in name only, just as they had heard of him. Their reputation was as solid as his, though the duchess was said to be colder than her husband but amiable enough.

 

He was not worried about the duchess. He was not there to talk to her or discuss business with her. As a matter of fact, he doubted he would have two words to say to the woman, other than hello and goodbye. Maybe he would tack on a “Your Grace” or “madam” to be civil.

 

The Duke of Cardinal did not think of himself as a man who had time for frivolities like females. He saw no need to pursue anything of that nature until he was ready. He did not consider himself ready.

 

His mother, the Duchess of Cardinal, still lived, though her countenance was not the same. It had taken a great toll on her when her husband died. She reacted similarly to Lady Rickman, although she was perfectly capable of continuing to make good decisions regarding her children and life. She got out of the house, attended balls and parties, socialized often with the people of the ton. They regarded her highly. But she was rarely seen with a smile unless she was looking at the Duke of Cardinal. He was her pride and joy. She expected great things from him, and great things were what he had given her. He loved her dearly and vowed to always take care of her.

 

His trip to the Norrend mansion was made even more special to him because they owned a valuable piece of artwork by the great Tiziano Vecellio, an Italian painter known for his colorful style and unique brushstrokes.

 

He had created many beautiful paintings in many different styles, including portraits of individuals, landscapes, and mythological subjects.

 

He was very well-liked and his mother practically worshipped his work. There were three of the sixteenth-century Venetian painter’s works of art hanging in the Colbourn mansion already. He was proud of them and hoped to purchase another for his mother from Duke Cartwright.

 

He’d heard the duke had procured the Salome with the Head of John the Baptist or Judith, a religious work that depicted a woman holding the head of John the Baptist while a maiden looked on. His mother considered this to be one of the most beautiful works of art ever to be painted.

 

“It’s a portrait of beauty and sadness,” she would say when seeing it in a volume of famous paintings.

 

He was excited to get a chance to put his hands on the actual painting, should the duke still have it. He leaned to the window and looked out at the mansion on the hill. It had a winding roadway up to the house. It was lined with trees on both sides but he could see how it wound up the side, following a flowing stream that ran along the right side of it.

 

The hill the mansion was sitting on was dotted with sculptures, fountains, shrubs, flowerbeds, and the prettiest green grass the Duke of Cardinal had seen in quite some time.

 

The carriage rolled smoothly over the graveled road and he was impressed by the care the duke was taking with his landscaping. It was quite beautiful.

 

The Duke of Cardinal continued admiring the duke’s land until they reached the front doors. He stepped out of the carriage and nodded at the driver, who would stay until the Duke of Cardinal was ready to leave.

 

He went up to the front doors. Before he could knock, it was opened by a young woman in a uniform, carrying a burlap sack. She paled when she saw him and nearly dropped the sack. He reached down and steadied it in her hands.

 

“I… I apologize, my lord. I am so very sorry.” She curtsied to him several times.

 

“Do not worry yourself, young lady. I am the Duke of Cardinal. Your master is expecting me. Will you have me announced?” While he spoke, he took the bag from her and placed it to the side. She looked down at it and then back to him, her face red.

 

“Yes, Your Grace, of course. Please follow me.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal did so after she took his hat, cane, and the light cape he’d been wearing. It was not a cold day but it was somewhat humid and he did not like the feel of it. She put the cape over one arm and held the hat and cane in the other. She went to the third door on the right, passing the curving staircase that would take a visitor to the bedrooms upstairs.

 

“He is in his study, my lord. I’ll announce you.” She opened the door and poked her head in to see if the master was in the room. “My lord? His Grace, the Duke of Cardinal, is here to see you.”

 

The Duke of Norrend raised one hand, looking up at the young maid over his eyeglasses. “Tell him to come in, please, Mary.”

 

The girl went in the room and held it open for the Duke of Cardinal, who passed by her with a curt nod. “Thank you, Mary,” he said in a low voice. She colored again, lowered her eyes and nodded. She was out the door and closing it behind her just moments later.

 

The Duke of Cardinal looked at the Duke of Norrend, who had stood up and was holding out his hand. “Hello, Duke Colbourn. I trust your trip was a good one.”

 

“It was, thank you, Your Grace. How has your day been?”

 

“Productive, for the most part. Please sit.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal sat in a chair closer to the window. The Duke of Norrend came around his desk and sat in another chair that faced Colbourn at an angle. “Tell me,” the Duke of Norrend said, “how is your mother faring? A fine woman, she is. I was saddened to hear her condition has not gotten better since the death of your father.”

 

“It has been four years, my lord,” Colbourn replied. “And I fear she will never recover. I am glad that she chooses to continue with her social life but I miss her smiles. I would do all I could to make them come back.”

 

“I am sure you do your best, Colbourn. It is a matter of the heart that we cannot fathom. I must admit, I fear the day I will lose my beloved, Louise, though she is a bit difficult at times.”

 

The men smiled at each other.

 

“Women are a conundrum,” the Duke of Cardinal said, shaking his head. “I have not met one yet that has struck me to be less than extremely complex.”

 

“Complex, yes, for all of womankind. Difficult? Louise would fit in the latter category. There is a difference.”

 

“I have no experience to use as examples to debate with you on that fact, my lord. I will bow to your superior knowledge.”

 

The Duke of Norrend laughed. “I am glad you have come, Colbourn. I do hope you plan to attend the ball at the Conservatory this evening.”

 

“I heard of it and have brought the appropriate attire,” Colbourn replied. “I am looking forward to it. I do not believe I have been in this area before to attend such an event. I believe it will be quite a lot of fun.”

 

“I do hope so. I insist you ride with us. There is no need for you to attend solo. I have opened my home to you and am obligated to ensure you are entertained, as well as satisfied with our business dealings.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal nodded. So far, the reputation of Duke Cartwright held strong. He was a decent man, intelligent and well-spoken. The Duke of Cardinal could tell they would become friends. Perhaps he would learn from the duke, since the man was twice his age. “That is excellent, my lord.”

 

“Shall we take a look at the paintings I have in storage now?”

 

“I would certainly like that.” Colbourn felt a jolt of excitement pass through him. Duke Cartwright was a man who liked to get things done right away. That was the Duke of Cardinal’s kind of man.

 

He stood up and followed the Duke of Norrend to the door. Before they got to it, it was opened and a young woman ran in. Her dark blond hair was pulled back in two braids.

 

Some of the strands had strayed from the braids and were curling around her face. She halted in place. He noticed when her hazel eyes moved to him.

 

He was somewhat taken aback by her beauty. She had glowing skin, small dark pink lips, high cheekbones, a tiny button nose.

 

She was the ultimate beauty. In all the paintings he had ever seen – and he’d seen quite a few – the Duke of Cardinal had never seen a more beautiful woman in his life.

 

He stood back, waiting for Duke Cartwright to introduce him to this lovely young woman. All the women he had encountered who had their fair share of beauty had turned out to be ugly inside. Greed, jealousy, and lust were abounding. He was not that type of man.

 

He looked at the young woman, wondering if she was ugly on the inside. From her face and form, it could not be told. He thought of her as angelic from the moment she stepped into the room.

 

“Duke Colbourn, allow me to introduce my eldest daughter, Lady Annabelle.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal took Lady Annabelle’s outstretched hand, bent at the waist, and gave the top of her glove a kiss.

 

“Charmed, I am sure.” He turned to look at the Duke of Norrend. “You have no need for beautiful paintings, my lord. You have a lovely beauty right here in your home.”

 

The Duke of Norrend smiled widely, turning his eyes to his daughter. “She is a lovely girl, you are right. And a beautiful soul, as well.”

 

Lady Annabelle laughed, covering her mouth for a moment. “Oh, Father, you do flatter me. That’s why I love you so much. Well, it is not the only reason.”

 

The three of them laughed, the first time that Lady Annabelle would hear the sound of the Duke of Cardinal’s joy.

 

She liked it very much.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Lady Annabelle was so surprised when she saw the duke in her father’s study, she lost her breath for a moment.

 

He was a tall man, with hair that was almost shockingly blond. It fell down past his ears to his shoulders. Her first thought was that the features of his face worked so well together, he could be considered one of the most handsome men in all of England.

 

That might have been just her opinion but she was fairly certain it had to be a fact. His eyes were a bright blue and his smile stretched across his face, revealing a dimple in his right cheek that made her legs feel weak.

 

When he kissed her hand, she did not want him to let it go. She reined in her feelings and smiled back at him. When her father introduced them, she curtsied.

 

“It is good to meet you, Your Grace,” she said.

 

“My lady, it is my pleasure, I assure you.”

 

“We were about to go to the storage room to look at paintings, my dear,” the Duke of Norrend said. “Is there something you needed?”

 

“Yes, Father, I think you might want to speak to Mother before you go down to the cellar. She is quite upset because of Lady Joanna.”

 

“What has happened now?” The sound of exasperation was apparent in the Duke of Norrend’s voice and made obvious by the rolling of his eyes.

 

“She has run away, I suppose. She cannot be found. When we were dismissed earlier, we assumed she was here in her room. We asked her to go with us, Papa, but she did not want to. We did not know she would run off…”

 

Her father held up one hand to stop her flow of words. She clasped her hands in front of her and pressed her lips together.

 

“This is a large house,” the Duke of Cardinal said. “I suppose it would take quite a while to find someone if they are hiding.”

 

The Duke of Norrend and Lady Annabelle looked at him. “You are correct, my lord,” the Duke of Norrend said. “But this young woman, she is a handful. My wife has a lot of trouble with her.”

 

“Another one of your daughters, I presume? One of a very young age?”

 

“She is a ward of sorts, but close enough to be a sister to me,” Lady Annabelle replied. “She is our age. She is just… a little upset. She lost someone dear and… oh, I will not bore you, my lord, with the details. She has a sad heart.” Lady Annabelle’s voice dropped softly.

 

The Duke of Cardinal was impressed by her compassion. Especially if the girl in question was not a blood relative. He was impressed with her intelligence and goodwill, as well.

 

He enjoyed a woman of sound mind and logical thinking. Most of the women he knew were not that way at all and could not hold a decent conversation with him. He had a sneaking feeling this woman would be different.

 

“She is not really a ward,” the Duke of Norrend replied, waving for Lady Annabelle to turn around so the three of them could leave the room.

 

“She is a young woman my wife mentors. She is the same age as Lady Annabelle. She has a twin sister named Lady Julia. Their mother lost a child and since has lost her senses. It is feared she will never return to her normal state of being. It is a very sad situation and she is a very sad woman.”

 

“I am very sorry to hear that,” Colbourn said in a gentle voice. “Is Lady Julia also a handful?”

 

Lady Annabelle smiled and said in a teasing voice, “Lady Julia is a handful, too.”

 

Her father shared the smile as they walked out into the foyer. “My daughter teases. Lady Julia is a charming young girl with a pretty face and a heart of gold. It is surprising she has not found love yet.”

 

Lady Annabelle looked at her father. She could tell he was thinking the duke would be a good match for Lady Julia. Why would he skip over his own daughter to another man’s daughter? She reassessed the duke to see if there was anything about him her father did not approve of.

 

She saw nothing. She had to assume their talk before she had entered the room gave him some indication he did not want Duke Colbourn to court his daughter.

 

“Will you be attending the ball tonight, my lord?” Lady Annabelle asked, deciding not to allow any feelings to grow because her father’s approval meant more to her than the discovery of a handsome man in her home.

 

“I will,” the Duke of Cardinal replied.

 

Lady Annabelle nodded. “Wonderful! Lady Julia and Lady Joanna, if she is found, will be going with us, as they always do. You will meet Lady Julia then.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal blinked in confusion for a moment and then nodded. “I see. That sounds lovely.” He turned to the Duke of Norrend. “Shall we see to the paintings then? The time is passing and I must still get ready for the ball.”

 

The Duke of Norrend nodded. “Yes, I am sorry for the distractions. I will attend to my wife for a moment. Please stay here in the foyer, as I am sure the Duchess does not want company at present.”

 

“Of course, my lord. I will not move an inch.”

 

The Duke of Norrend grinned. “You can move an inch. I will send a maid to you directly to show you to your room. Lady Annabelle, you will come with me. When you are settled in and I return, we will have a look at the paintings I have to offer.”

 

He clapped his hands loudly, turning his head to the side. “Danielle? Danielle?” he called out. A door opened to their left and behind them. All three turned to look as the maid entered.

 

“Oh Father, must I come back to Mother?” Lady Annabelle asked hurriedly. “I do not want to hear it all over again. I tire so of hearing about this ongoing issue.” Lady Annabelle would plead with her father to be let out of that assignment. It was all she’d heard about for much too long now.

 

“You go along with what you were doing then. I will return shortly. My lord?” He turned his eyes to the Duke of Cardinal.

 

The Duke of Cardinal was a little disappointed that he would have to wait longer, prompting him to ask, “May I ask, my lord, if you have the Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by the renowned Italian artist Tiziano Vecelli? I was told you have it.”

 

“I do have it, yes,” the Duke of Norrend nodded. “It is one of the pieces I am selling.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal hadn’t felt so elated in his entire life. He was going to purchase the painting for his mother and bring her some happiness. “I will purchase it, my lord. My mother is a collector and adores his paintings.”

 

“It is a true masterpiece. I will take my leave and return to you shortly. Mary, please show the Duke to his room. I wish for him to know his bearings. He will be staying with us for a few weeks.”

 

“Yes, Your Grace,” Mary replied, looking up at the handsome duke. Lady Annabelle was disappointed in the feeling of jealousy that streaked through her. It was much too soon for her to be thinking in such a way.

 

The Duke of Cardinal bowed slightly at the waist. “I do hope you will not be disturbed that I have a curator coming next week. He will assess the value. It is not that I do not trust you, my lord, as I highly respect you on many counts. But I do feel it necessary to have my expert take a look at the paintings and any other items you have for purchase.”

 

Lady Annabelle moved her eyes between the two men, wondering if the Duke of Cardinal’s decision to bring in a third party to assess the value of the paintings would seem disrespectful to her father. Instead, he nodded and looked gracious, making his daughter proud of him.

 

“That is perfectly acceptable, my lord. It is always good to have an expert opinion.” He turned away from the two of them. “I will return shortly. I do not expect to take more than ten minutes.”

 

“I will be relaxing in my room, I am quite sure.”

 

“If you wish to have a drink brought to you, please inform Mary.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal nodded.

 

“I will go and find Lady Julia. We must get Lady Joanna so we will all be ready for the ball.” Lady Annabelle leaned over and gave her father a peck on the cheek. He smiled, lifting one hand to touch her elbow.

 

“Good girl.” With that, the Duke of Norrend walked away from them.

 

The Duke of Cardinal and Lady Annabelle looked at each other for a moment before one of them broke the silence. It was Lady Annabelle. She barely noticed that Mary was staring at the two of them, waiting to be told what to do.

 

“I feel as though we should be saying something to each other,” she said quietly.

 

He grinned. “It does feel a bit awkward, does it not? Let me ease the tension. I have an unnatural obsession with pineapple cake. Do you like pineapple cake?”

 

Lady Annabelle thought it was the strangest question she’d ever been asked. She stammered her reply, completely taken off guard. “I… I cannot say that I have an answer. I do not believe I have ever had pineapple cake.”

 

“Do you like pineapple?” the Duke of Cardinal asked, not losing his smile.

 

“I do.”

 

“And do you like cake?” She could see his grin stretching wider on his face. She expected at any moment, he would burst out laughing. She could see where he was going with the line of questioning and decided to play along.

 

“I do.”

 

“I suppose you would love pineapple cake then,” he laughed softly, much lower than Lady Annabelle had expected.

 

A peal of braying laughter would have been too much, frankly. She felt his laugh was completely appropriate to the level of humor he was conveying. She was impressed once again and tried to deny the urge to allow her feelings to take over.

 

It seemed her father wanted the duke to meet Lady Julia. So she would go along with that. Her father had always known best in the past.

 

“I do not wish to keep you from your missing person duties, my lady,” the duke stood back and bowed slightly. “I do believe Mary is to show me to my room.”

 

“Before you do, my lord, may I ask you a question?”

 

The Duke of Cardinal was once again impressed with her boldness. He nodded. “Very well.”

 

“You are here to purchase art, is that right?”

 

“It is, yes.” The Duke of Cardinal nodded.

 

“If you are here to purchase art, I must show you the paintings in this room first before I give you over to Mary. It will give you a small representation of my father’s collection.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal thought about it for a moment. “Would your father approve?”

 

“It will only take a moment and Mary will come with us. Won’t you, Mary?” Lady Annabelle looked directly at the young maid, who was a decent girl of about twenty-five, a hard worker and an honest person.

 

Mary smiled and curtsied lightly in one small bounce. “Yes, ma’am. Of course.”

 

Lady Annabelle turned back to him with a satisfied smiled. “There, you see? All is well. We will just make a circle here in the foyer.”

 

“Well then, that sounds wonderful,” the Duke of Cardinal replied. “Do you know a lot about art?”

 

“I have studied some of the greatest artists in history,” Lady Annabelle admitted with a nod. “Van Gogh, de Goya, Raphael, Michelangelo, and others. I do not know a great deal about Tiziano Vecelli but I would like to.”

 

Knowing that he was so interested in art made her wonder how long she would be able to hold back her admiration for the Duke of Cardinal.

 

When she stopped talking and he said nothing, she glanced up at him and did a double-take. The look on his face was priceless. She smiled. “Does this impress you?”

 

He nodded. “I must admit it does. I am also impressed with your confidence and intelligence.”

 

“I appreciate the compliment, my lord.” He was going to make it very difficult for her to block her returned admiration.

 

“And you are quite beautiful. I hope that I am not being too bold.”

 

She hesitated before shaking her head. “I am honored to be admired by you, my lord.”

 

“You must be very inspirational to your friends.”

 

“I am a positive woman if that is what you mean. My best friend, Lady Julia, is the same way. Unfortunately, her sister is not. You will enjoy meeting Lady Julia, I am sure.”

 

Again, the Duke of Cardinal blinked in confusion. Could this woman possibly not see that he was attracted to her? If he made it any more obvious, there would be trouble in the household. He swallowed and composed himself. “I am sure I will. What can you tell me about her?”

 

“She is the daughter of Earl Rickman. He is a wonderful man, much like my father.”

 

“Your father is a great man. He has a good reputation in society.”

 

“He should.” Her pride in her father was obvious in her voice. “I am blessed to be his daughter.”

 

“And you have a brother and sister?”

 

She raised her eyebrows, looking up at him. She had stopped in front of two portraits of her parents, side by side in between the door to the parlor and her father’s study. He gazed at the portraits.

 

“I do. How did you know?”

 

He looked at her, smiling. “Your father is well-known, surely you know this.”

 

She nodded. “Yes, but…”

 

“I have heard many things about your family. I did not realize until I arrived that you are near the same age as me. I was under the impression you and your siblings were much younger, less than ten.”

 

Lady Annabelle had to laugh. “I wonder where you might have gotten that impression.”

 

He laughed with her. “I do not know. Had I done a bit more research, I might have realized it. I am glad, though, to meet you and find that you are not, in fact, less than ten.” He turned his eyes to the portraits again, sensing he was making her somewhat uncomfortable.

 

Lady Annabelle was not uncomfortable. She was concerned about her father’s opinion. Before she continued to the next paintings she wanted to show him, she vowed to ask her father about it.

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

The ballroom was filled with members of society, dancing in circles, talking, and laughing. Lady Annabelle stood to one side, watching them. Her card was half-filled before the first dance started. She expected it to be full by the intermission.

 

Lady Julia was standing next to her, also watching.

 

“Why are you ladies not dancing?”

 

Lady Annabelle heard the now familiar voice of the Duke of Cardinal at her side. She looked up at him.

 

“We are merely taking a short break. My feet are getting tired already.” She looked at Lady Julia. “I must find out if these shoes are too small. I feel like my toes are being smashed together. It is uncomfortable.”

 

“Terrible luck, my girl,” Lady Julia replied, looking down at the slippers on Lady Annabelle’s feet. “I would give you shoes but my feet are smaller than yours and my shoes would do you no good.”

 

Lady Annabelle nodded. “We have established this before,” she said with humor in her voice.

 

“You have worn shoes that are too small in the past?” the Duke of Cardinal asked, lightly.

 

“I have,” Lady Annabelle grinned at him. “And I suppose I did not learn my lesson, as I am still wearing these shoes.”

 

“They are the same shoes?” the Duke of Cardinal could not help chuckling. “You are asking for punishment, my dear. You will not be able to walk tomorrow.”

 

The three of them laughed.

 

“I do not suppose it would be proper for me to take them off and dance without them.”

 

“I think you would cause quite an uproar if you were to do that,” the Duke of Cardinal replied.

 

“But my feet are barely noticeable beneath my gown. I do believe I could do it.”

 

Lady Julia was still laughing. “Please do not do that, Lady Annabelle. You know it will cause a shock if even one person noticed. It would catch on like fire and everyone would know and stare at your feet for the rest of the night.”

 

Again, the three of them laughed.

 

“I have a suggestion for you, Lady Annabelle,” the Duke of Cardinal said. “Perhaps we can all go out on the veranda and find a spot that is secluded from the other guests. You can remove your shoes and rub your feet until they feel more relaxed.”

 

Lady Annabelle thought about it for a moment. She was reluctant to admit she was considering it but he could tell by the look on her face anyway.

 

“Come,” he prompted, resting one hand on the back of her forearm. The touch sent chills through her body. She pulled away slightly but could still feel the warmth of his fingertips. “I will walk with you and guard you against the clay-kickers and the beef-witted scatterbrains.”

 

“That is kind of you, my lord,” Lady Julia said, giving the Duke of Cardinal a bright, beautiful smile. Lady Annabelle pushed down a feeling of instant jealousy.

 

She would not allow herself to be taken in so quickly by any man, no matter who he was or how handsome he was. She would keep her wits about her until she had a chance to talk to her father.

 

Her concern was that if she allowed Lady Julia to become close to the duke and then found out her father had no qualms with him, she would be too late.

 

She debated with herself in her mind, walking with Duke Colbourn and Lady Julia to the veranda. She and her friend each took his elbows and circled their small hands around them. She noticed when looking up at him that he was very proud to have them flanking him.

 

It made her nervous, excited, and a little afraid. She wanted to pursue something with him. She felt a quivering in her stomach when she looked at him. Touching him made her knees weak. But she remained strong and vigilant, refusing to let her feelings overrun her brain.

 

Once they were outside on the veranda, the three of them scouted the area for a secluded spot.

 

“How about that bench down there?” The Duke of Cardinal pointed down the slight hill to an iron bench placed directly under a large tree with low-hanging branches. He looked down at Lady Annabelle. “There is a path to take us there and once you sit down, your feet will feel better.”

 

“I do hope so,” Lady Annabelle said. “I really must remember to give these shoes to Lady Cecilia. She has smaller feet than I do.”

 

“Or you can give them to your best friend,” Lady Julia laughed.

 

The Duke of Cardinal joined her laughter as the three of them went down the steps from the large veranda to the ground. Lady Annabelle smiled, though it was strained. The steps were in two tiers and they had to turn in the middle and go down the second set in the opposite direction.

 

By the time they reached the bench, Lady Annabelle’s feet were burning. She was anxious to take the shoes off but unwilling to let it show. She did not want to appear weak in front of the duke, even if he was more inclined to court Lady Julia than herself.

 

She sat on the bench the moment they reached it and pulled off her right shoe. Instant relief flooded her body. It doubled when she pulled off her other shoe. “Oh my,” she murmured, rubbing her right foot, propping it up on her knee.

 

The Duke of Cardinal looked up at the sky, unwilling to gaze upon her lower leg and ankle. He caught a quick glance of her small foot and wondered how her shoe could possibly be too small for it. She had a lovely form, from what he could see, and her shapely leg made him feel jittery inside.

 

Lady Annabelle noticed when Colbourn looked away and grinned at Lady Julia. Lady Julia’s eyes moved to the duke.

 

“Did you see any artwork of appreciation in the conservatory, my lord?” she asked, drawing his attention so he would not feel uncomfortable while Lady Annabelle rubbed her feet.

 

“I did.” The Duke of Cardinal turned slightly away from Lady Annabelle, directing his eyes on Lady Julia. “It is a wonderful museum of eclectic pieces. I admire many of them for their beauty and others for their lack of it.”

 

Lady Julia tilted her head to the side. “Do you have a favorite piece? One that you do not own and have been searching for?”

 

The Duke of Cardinal thought about it. “I suppose I have always loved Portrait of a Lady,” he said.

 

“I know that painting,” Lady Annabelle said. “It is a famous piece from the time of the Italian Renaissance.”

 

“That is correct, Lady Annabelle,” the Duke of Cardinal said, turning his eyes instinctively to look at her. She had her left leg propped up on her right knee and was massaging her aching foot. He turned his eyes away again quickly.

 

“I have forgotten the artist. Is it a Lorenzo Casta?”

 

“No. It is Lord Leonardo da Vinci who painted this particular portrait of a lady,” the duke replied. “There are many portraits of many different lovely women over the last few hundred years. But this one is particularly striking and I am very interested in seeing it in person someday.”

 

“Do you know where it is at this time?”

 

The Duke of Cardinal shook his head in answer to Lady Julia’s question.

 

He was struggling with himself mightily. He did not want the women to see that he was aware of Lady Annabelle’s movements in his peripheral vision. It would be a disgrace if he were to show vulnerability in front of them.

 

It seemed to him that Lady Annabelle was prone to rebuff his advances, pushing him in Lady Julia’s direction.

 

Lady Julia, for her part, was just as lovely, and he would not object to a courtship with her. But there was something about Lady Annabelle that struck him, something that made him want to speak to her, be near her, enjoy her very presence.

 

He was uncertain about her feelings for him, as they had just met that very same day.

 

He realized that he had lost himself in his thoughts and neglected answering Lady Julia’s question, other than shaking his head.

 

“I have not kept up with it because I have been in pursuit of the paintings of Tiziano Vecelli, my mother’s favorite artist. That is what brought me here to your village and the home of Duke Cartwright. I am surprised I did not meet your mother. Is she coming at a later time?”

 

Lady Annabelle shook her head. “She stayed at the house with Lady Joanna. The girl was being completely unreasonable and my mother does not tolerate such behavior.”

 

“Is your sister not used to being told what to do by the Duchess? I thought you had been in her care for some years now.”

 

“We have,” Lady Julia replied, gazing up at him with clear admiration. “Lady Joanna knows full well what she is doing. She was a lovely little girl, an affectionate sister. The sorrow of losing our brother was too much for her to bear. We must tolerate her until she is well.”

 

“How long will she resist your mother’s efforts?”

 

He turned to Lady Annabelle, who had lowered her leg and was now flexing her feet under the long gown she was wearing where no one could see them.

 

She directed her eyes up to his face and then lowered them to his chest. She was afraid to look him in the eye. She was afraid of what he might see.

 

“There is no way to know the answer to that,” she replied, keeping her voice light-hearted. “She is struggling so much. It is a shame. She reminds me of a wild horse that refuses to be tamed. I watched our groom attempting to tame a horse. It was wild, bucking and kicking, making loud, throaty noises.”

 

She made a guttural sound like a horse. The Duke of Cardinal could not help but chuckle.

 

“Shall we not gossip about your sister, Lady Julia. I do apologize.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal bowed to her.

 

“Do not apologize, my lord,” Lady Julia replied. “You are a stranger in this place and do not know my sister or her pain.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal had to agree with that assessment. He was glad that Lady Julia did not share in the pain her sister was feeling. “As twins, you must be very different. You are much stronger than she appears to be.”

 

“She is,” Lady Annabelle replied in a firm voice. “Lady Julia is a respectful, intelligent lady with a great deal of potential to be one of the world’s most prominent women in history.”

 

Lady Julia blinked rapidly and raised her eyebrows, staring at Lady Annabelle with amusement on her face. “Might I ask how you came to such an idea, my dear friend? What have I done that is so accomplished?”

 

“Nothing yet,” Lady Annabelle answered with a smile. “But you will. I know you will. Your destiny is to be a great woman, remembered by all for generations to come.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal could tell Lady Julia was flattered by her friend’s appraisal. Her small green eyes brimmed with tears. “That is such a lovely thing for you to say, Lady Annabelle. Thank you.”

 

“I only speak the truth.”

 

There was a moment of quiet while the three considered their conversation.

 

They heard the sound of a female voice caterwauling on the veranda they had been standing on. They looked up to see where it was coming from.

 

“What in heaven’s name is that sound?” the Duke of Cardinal asked.

 

“It sounds like Lady Joanna. But I did not think she was coming. I did not know if Mother would bring her or not.” Lady Annabelle slipped her shoes back on and stood up.

 

The pain that split through both her feet when she put her weight on them made her want to scream.

 

“Oh!” she said, sitting back down again. She looked at her friends through pained eyes. “Oh dear. I do not think I can walk in these shoes. I will have to go home. I cannot make it through the entire dance. I can barely stand.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal felt like he was caught between a rock and a hard place. He did not want to leave the lovely lady but there were rules to be considered.

 

“I will go in and find your father. He will know what to do.”

 

Lady Annabelle nodded and watched with regret as Duke Colbourn hurried back to the veranda, going up the stairs two at a time.

 

“He is a lovely man,” Lady Julia sighed. She sat on the bench next to Lady Annabelle. “But why do you flatter me in front of him, Lady Annabelle? I know you must be interested in him.”

 

Lady Annabelle looked at Lady Julia, wanting to tell her that her father seemed more inclined to keep his daughter for someone else but she could not say it. “You are perfect for him, Lady Julia. I can tell.”

 

Lady Julia said nothing. She scanned Lady Annabelle’s face for a moment before looking back at the big glass doors of the mansion.

 

 

Chapter 5

 

The Duke of Cardinal looked around, wondering where Duke Cartwright might be.

 

The noise from the woman on the veranda had taken the attention from anything else. The music inside had not stopped. He did not see the Duke of Norrend but he did spot Lady Annabelle’s younger sister, Lady Cecilia.

 

He crossed the room and leaned to speak to the girl.

 

“Lady Cecilia, you must find your father and send him out to the back veranda. There is a bench where your sister is sitting. She needs to go home but cannot walk.”

 

Lady Cecilia looked shocked so the Duke of Cardinal continued quickly. “Her shoes are too small. She has hurt her feet by wearing them.”

 

Lady Cecilia’s face immediately changed to one of knowing. “Did she wear those shoes again? What is wrong with that girl?”

 

She giggled, covering her mouth. “I am sorry. I should not laugh when she is in pain. She has been told not to wear those shoes. Why, they are even too small for me!”

 

“Go fetch your father, please.” The Duke of Cardinal nodded, repeating the order gently. Lady Cecilia nodded.

 

He turned and went back to the double doors, going down the stairs and crossing the lawn quickly. Lady Julia was now sitting next to her friend. They weren’t talking, which he thought was a little strange.

 

Less than five minutes later, Lady Annabelle looked up into the amused eyes of her father.

 

“Someone did not get rid of her small shoes.”

 

Lady Annabelle giggled and blushed. “No, I did not. I am sorry, Father.”

 

He just shook his head, leaning down to scoop her up in his arms. He glanced at the Duke of Cardinal, who met his eyes briefly before looking away. “Thank you for having Lady Cecilia come for me, Colbourn. That was a good thing to do.”

 

“I knew of nothing else to do, my lord,” the Duke of Cardinal replied.

 

“Take her shoes off, Lady Julia,” the Duke of Norrend instructed. Lady Julia quickly slipped the shoes from Lady Annabelle’s feet, providing instant relief.

 

“You do not need to carry me, Father,” Lady Annabelle said. “I can walk without my shoes on.”

 

He gave her a look of doubt. “I will not allow you to cut the bottom of your feet on the ground, my dear,” he said. “I do hope that when we go home, you will dispose of those shoes.”

 

“I will give them to Lady Julia. You want them, Lady Julia?”

 

Lady Julia grinned. “Yes, I think they are my size.”

 

Lady Annabelle grinned at her father. “There, you see? The problem is solved.”

 

The Duke of Norrend laughed as the five of them walked over the lawn to where the carriages were waiting for their owners.

 

“I should go in and apologize for our sudden disappearance,” Lady Julia said. She thrust the shoes in Lady Annabelle’s direction. “I will be at the carriage shortly.”

 

“What will you tell them, Lady Julia?” Lady Annabelle asked.

 

“I will think of something.”

 

“You do not want to lie. Tell them my feet hurt. It is the truth without embarrassment. I do not mind being thought of as sensitive.”

 

Lady Julia laughed. “You are not thought of as sensitive, Lady Annabelle. You know that. This will not be a blight on your reputation. I will also fetch the driver.”

 

“I am glad to have you, Lady Julia.” Lady Annabelle turned to face the carriage as her father gently lowered her to her feet. The Duke of Cardinal was by her side at an instant, holding out his hand to help her into the carriage.

 

“May I help you, my lady?”

 

Lady Annabelle noticed when her father took a step back, his eyes on the Duke of Cardinal. She wondered what her father was thinking at that moment. Was he angry? He did not look angry.

 

She smiled at Duke Colbourn. “Thank you, my lord.” She grasped his hand and used it to launch herself into the carriage with only two steps on her aching feet. She turned as she sat and watched as Lady Julia held her skirts with her hands and hurried back to the foyer.

 

“There you go, Lady Annabelle.” He got up into the carriage behind Lady Cecilia and their father followed behind them. He sat next to her on the opposite side of the carriage.

 

Lady Julia would sit between them or Lady Cecilia, depending on where Duke Cartwright wanted them to sit. He did not seem to mind that the Duke of Cardinal had taken the same side as his daughter.

 

“Thank you, my lord. I do appreciate your help.” Her feet were pounding, burning and now she was beginning to get a headache. She lifted one hand and pressed it against her forehead.

 

“You are looking pained. Your head is hurting?”

 

“It is, yes. I hope to go home and put a cold compress on my eyes. I will feel better in the morning, I am sure.”

 

“You must remember to get a new pair of shoes.” He dropped his eyes to the slippers in her hand. “You do not need to be wearing shoes that are constricting your feet. It can cause you problems in the future.”

 

“I believe you are right.” Lady Annabelle smiled at him. “I will not wear these shoes again. I have given them to Lady Julia and she is now the rightful owner.”

 

“I hope they were not a favorite pair of yours.”

 

She laughed. “Not at all. They were sitting in a convenient spot, so I picked them up.”

 

Lady Julia was soon at the carriage. She had stopped by the servants’ quarters and brought their driver along. Lady Julia sat in between the Duke of Cardinal and Lady Annabelle, which was expected.

 

The ride back to the mansion was quiet. Lady Annabelle had a hard time not thinking about her aching feet and the pain that was pulsing through her head. The others in the carriage spoke infrequently and in low tones, respectful of her pain.

 

The Duke of Cardinal looked through the window at the starry night, admiring their charm and beauty without looking at them. They both needed to be painted into a portrait of beauty.

 

He thought that would be a good name for the painting. Portrait of Beauty. It had a nice ring to it. He would have to suggest it to Duke Cartwright.

 

Half an hour later, the Duke of Cardinal was helping Lady Julia down from the carriage. When Lady Annabelle stepped out onto the small ledge below the door, he stepped back and her father held out his arms for her.

 

“Oh Father, please let me walk.” The first time was humiliating enough. Now he wanted to carry her inside the house.

 

He shook his head. “At least to the front door, daughter. You cannot walk around without shoes. Your stockings will tear along with your feet. You care about your stockings, do you not?”

 

Lady Annabelle had to laugh. “Oh, all right.” She put out her arms and let him pick her up the way he had before.

 

The Duke of Cardinal hung back, watching, wishing he had the opportunity to pick the lovely woman up. He was afraid if the Duke of Norrend knew what he was thinking, he would not sell him the Vecelli painting.

 

It also might negate any chance that he could capture Lady Annabelle’s heart in the future. So he kept his mouth shut and walked with them into the house.

 

The duke carried his daughter inside and lowered her to the floor.

 

“Will you be all right going up the stairs to your room?” he asked, seeing the look of pain cover her face again when she stood up on her feet.

 

She regretted it, but she did not think she really could make it up the stairs. She wished the Duke of Cardinal could carry her but her father would never allow such a thing. She held out her arms again as if she was two years old, and her father smiled.

 

“All right. Come along.” He put his arms under her and picked her up, taking her up to her room.

 

The Duke of Cardinal stood outside the door watching as Duke Norrend put his daughter on the bed, sitting up. “I will need to change if I am to be bedridden,” Lady Annabelle said, looking up at her father.

 

“We will leave you to it, then.” Her father turned and went back to the door, stepping out into the hallway with Duke Colbourn and closing the door behind him. The Duke of Cardinal’s eyes met Lady Annabelle’s before the door closed and she looked away quickly.

 

“I apologize for interrupting your evening, Duke Colbourn,” she called out quickly. Her father pushed the door back open and the Duke of Cardinal looked in at her.

 

“Enough with the apologies, my lady. You had a very good reason to leave the ball. I was happy to help you out. I am sorry that your feet are hurting you so. It is not a pleasant thing, considering you have to walk on those feet.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal looked at the Duke of Norrend, nodding. The older man closed the door.

 

Lady Annabelle wanted Duke Colbourn to come back. She wanted it desperately. But she had not yet talked to her father about him and did not know his feelings about the duke.

 

She had to know that before she made any decisions or let her heart dictate her actions. She did not want to fall for this handsome man and then have her heart broken when he rejected her or her father told her to give up any idea of courting him.

 

“I will probably be asleep soon,” she whispered to herself. She did not tell Duke Colbourn that the moment he left the room, she was going to pull both her legs up and rub her feet for at least a half-hour.

 

She felt like a fool, having worn those small shoes. Her mother had warned her, Lady Cecilia had warned her, even her father told her to buy a new pair of slippers. The last time she made the mistake of wearing them, she was left with bruises on her heels and blisters on her toes.

 

The Duke of Cardinal was disappointed. He would have liked to spend a little more time with the lovely lady. Both young ladies were good company. But it was not to be, at least not tonight.

 

“I will take my leave then.” He bowed to Duke Cartwright. “If you need me for anything… anything at all, please do not hesitate to send Mary to fetch me.”

 

“Thank you for your assistance tonight, Duke Colbourn. You are a true gentleman. You did not need to leave the ball. In fact, it will not be over for another two hours. Would you like to return? You can take our carriage or one of the horses if you like.”

 

The Duke of Cardinal shook his head. He did not want to be at the ball if Lady Annabelle was not there. “I am feeling a bit tired. I believe I will retire to my room. Thank you for the accommodations and for a lovely evening, my lord.”

 

He turned on his heels and left the older man with a curious look on his face.

 

Lady Julia went to Lady Annabelle’s bed and sat on the edge. Lady Annabelle turned her back to her friend so Lady Julia could untie the straps on the back of her dress.

 

“He is a handsome man, is he not?” Lady Annabelle asked, holding her double braid up. Lady Julia untied the straps quickly and loosened Lady Annabelle’s corset.

 

Lady Annabelle felt a sudden rush of relief in her midsection. Her corset was always so tight, it was difficult to breathe. Sometimes it caused shortness of breath. She never actually fainted but it made her light-headed at times.

 

“He is,” Lady Julia answered, breathlessly. “I would not mind if he turned his eyes to me. But that will not happen. He has his eyes set on you, Lady Annabelle.”

 

“Is that what you believe?” Lady Annabelle turned back and Lady Julia helped her pull the dress down.

 

Lady Annabelle picked herself up from the bed with both hands and Lady Julia slid the gown below her waist so she could kick it off. Lady Julia caught it and took it to hang on the rack where it belonged. She looked back at her friend.

 

“I do. How can I not? Do you not see how he looks at you?”

 

Lady Annabelle thought about it for a moment, reviewing the day in her mind. She’d noticed the way he looked at her. And she had instinctual feelings for him, as well.

 

It would all come down to what her father thought. If she had his approval, she would allow her feelings for the handsome duke to grow. If not, she would squash them and push the duke in Lady Julia’s direction, if she could.

 

She did not want to. But she would, if her father asked her to.

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

The weekend passed quickly and Lady Annabelle was feeling much better by the time Monday came around.

 

On a typical Monday, Lady Annabelle, as her father affectionately called her, spent her mornings in the library, where her mother always hosted a children’s paint day.

 

The local women brought their children and Miss Berry, the only woman in town who could paint masterpieces in her sleep, would show them how to simply paint something beautiful.

 

This had been an ongoing event since Lady Annabelle was just eight years old. She never missed it and did not plan to now that she was older.

 

Lady Julia visited infrequently, not enjoying the recreation as much as Lady Annabelle. She was there that morning, though, and happy to see her friend.

 

She sat next to her on a child-sized stool, pulling it up under her skirt and lowering herself gently to it. A small easel was in front of her, not as small as some of the children were using but smaller than an adult-sized one.

 

The pictures Miss Berry had the children paint were generally not complicated or big. She glanced at Lady Annabelle with a smile on her pretty lips.

 

“What are we painting today, Lady Annabelle? An elephant with a hat on?”

 

Lady Annabelle laughed. “It could be, Lady Julia. We shall see. How has your morning been so far?”

 

Lady Julia lifted her eyebrows slightly. “Oh, it has been a satisfying day. Breakfast was delicious. I do believe our new cook is going to work out very well.”

 

“I am glad to hear that.”

 

They chatted during the hour-long session. Lady Annabelle would have stayed for the other classes but she knew Lady Julia was uncomfortable on the little chair and did not enjoy painting elephants with hats on.

 

She beckoned to Lady Julia when the first painting was done, which, much to Lady Julia’s happiness, was of a beach with umbrellas and no people or animals were involved. “We should go get some tea. I feel like playing a game of backgammon. Would you join me?”

 

“You cannot play if I do not join,” Lady Julia smiled widely. She much preferred backgammon to painting.

 

The girls got up and left as quietly as they could. They doubted anyone noticed and no one did.

 

They walked to the parlor, talking quietly.

 

“Have you seen Duke Colbourn recently?” Lady Julia asked, her voice so low Lady Annabelle had to strain to hear it. She smiled at her friend.

 

“He lives here, Lady Julia. Of course I have seen him.”

 

“But have you had a chance to speak with him?”

 

Lady Annabelle had to admit she hadn’t and it was a disappointment. “I do wish to speak to him, mind you,” she said firmly. “I do plan to. But… I am not sure if… it is the right thing to do. Perhaps I should allow him to come to me first.”

 

“You will not know him if you do not speak to him. He may think your father would not approve.”

 

“I think the same. I admit it has been holding me back.”

 

Lady Julia gave her friend a look. “Lady Annabelle! You know your father better than anyone. He listens to you when you speak to him. Ask him if he approves of Duke Colbourn. I cannot imagine he would not approve of such a fine-looking gentleman. Duke Colbourn has said and done nothing objectionable since his arrival, I take it.”

 

It was not really a question but Lady Annabelle shook her head anyway. “He has been a gentleman from the start.”

 

“Then your father will have no objection.”

 

Lady Annabelle thought about how often her father mentioned Lady Julia to the Duke of Cardinal. It was like he did not even know he was doing it. And it did not matter whether Lady Annabelle was around or not, she knew he was mentioning Lady Julia randomly whenever he could. He did not want Duke Colbourn in the family. He did not want him courting her.

 

She wondered why.

 

“I shall have a talk with him about it.”

 

Lady Julia snorted softly, making Lady Annabelle grin. “I am surprised you have not said anything as of yet. You are not like that.”

 

“I have been… distracted.”

 

Lady Julia laughed and patted Lady Annabelle on the arm, pulling it to her so they could curve their elbows around each other. “Now, Lady Annabelle, there is no better distraction than a good-looking duke!”

 

As soon as she said the words, the door opened and their father entered, followed by several other men. He smiled at Lady Julia.

 

“Did I just hear myself being called a good-looking duke?”

 

Lady Julia’s face colored brightly and she covered her mouth with her hand, looking down. “Oh, Your Grace! I did not know you would hear me! I was… I was merely…”

 

Duke Cartwright laughed, coming toward the girls. He held out his hands to Lady Annabelle, grasping her shoulders.

 

“My daughter, it’s good to see you this morning.” He leaned forward and gave her a kiss on both cheeks. He turned to Lady Julia and did the same.

 

“My almost-daughter. Let me introduce you to some newcomers to our little city. This is Lord Leonard Harcourt Balfour and his brother, Lord Gilbert Andrew Balfour. They are sons to Earl Daniel Harcourt Balfour of Beldingshire. They are residing with the Reverend here. You know Reverend Charles Stovington.”

 

Lady Annabelle and Lady Julia lowered into a small curtsy with each name they were given, looking at the specified individual under their lashes.

 

“Of course, how are you, Reverend?” Lady Annabelle said.

 

“I am well, Lady Annabelle. You are looking very refreshed. But I do believe you have a little paint on your dress.”

 

Lady Annabelle looked down, shocked that the reverend was right. She colored as deeply as Lady Julia had earlier and covered the small streak with one hand. “Oh dear!”

 

“It will come out,” Lord Gilbert Balfour said. He had a high-pitched tone that matched his long, hawkish face. His head was topped with a mop of curly brown hair and his eyes were deep brown to match. It was nearly impossible to tell the black of his pupils from the dark brown color surrounding them.

 

He smiled but it did not seem like a genuine smile and his teeth were not well-maintained.

 

Lady Annabelle moved her eyes to his brother, who was a little more put-together. His hair was a lighter brown but the same mop of curls his brother sported. His eyes were hazel and his face was more rounded than Lord Gilbert but Lord Leonard was heavier.

 

He looked stronger and more muscular than his younger brother. When he smiled, she noticed two rows of white, straight teeth.

 

“I am so embarrassed. Lady Julia and I were just in with the children, helping them paint. Or rather, we were painting along with them.” She smiled. When the door opened again and the Duke of Cardinal came in, her smile widened.

 

“I am sorry to be late, Your Grace,” he said, bowing to the Duke of Norrend with his head. “I lost track of time while exploring this fine little city of yours. You have some amazing characters here. I think Mr. Covington will fit in nicely.”

 

The Duke of Norrend nodded at him. He looked at the reverend. “Allow me to introduce the Duke of Cardinal, Stephen Colbourn. He is here to purchase some of my paintings. Yes, I am looking forward to meeting Mr. Covington.”

 

“Mr. Covington?” Lady Annabelle looked at her father.

 

“His colleague who is coming to assess the value of my paintings.” The way her father said the words gave her the impression he was not terribly happy about the man coming. It made her pause for a moment before she turned back to the men.

 

“I do agree that we have some terribly odd people in our city,” she said, keeping her voice light. “Is your colleague also an eccentric?”

 

“I think some might consider him that, yes. He’s very artistic and it makes his movements… quite fluid, you might say.” As he was talking, he was removing his hat and gloves, handing them to Mary, who appeared out of nowhere. The other men were already holding their hats and gloves in their hands. Mary collected them all, taking the reverend’s cane, as well.

 

“It is only for show,” he said, smiling at Lady Julia and Lady Annabelle. The girls smiled back.

 

“Shall we go in the parlor?”

 

“Father, we were going in to play a game of backgammon. We will be at the card table and will not bother you.”

 

The Duke of Norrend shook his head. “You are no bother, my dear. Thank you for your consideration.”

 

The girls looked at each other. Lady Annabelle wondered if her friend was thinking the same thing she was. There were three eligible suitors in the house at that moment. Was her father setting up this meeting for her, Lady Julia and possibly Lady Joanna?

 

They turned and went to the door. Before they reached it, Mary, who was dusting nearby, took quick steps to get in front of them and opened it for them. Lady Annabelle smiled at the young woman as she passed.

 

The girls went directly to the table. As she passed the tall mahogany shelves on her left, Lady Annabelle reached out and grabbed the backgammon board, which sat by itself in the corner where she always left it.

 

On any given day, there was a good chance she and Lady Julia could be seen sitting at this table, playing a game of backgammon. It was one of Lady Julia’s favorites. Not to mention, she was a terribly good strategist, causing her to win most of the games they played.

 

Lady Annabelle did not mind. She enjoyed seeing her friend happy.

 

The older men went to stand at the bar, where the Duke of Norrend proceeded to make a small glass of brandy, offering a drink to his guests. The reverend declined. The Duke of Cardinal also took a small glass of brandy from his host. Lord Gilbert and Lord Leonard looked longingly at the bottles lining the wall but both shook their heads, not offering an explanation of their refusal.

 

“This is Lord Gilbert and his brother Lord Leonard Balfour,” the reverend said, his eyes directed toward the Duke of Cardinal. “They are my apprentices.”

 

“Lord Leonard is his apprentice.”

 

Even from across the room, Lady Annabelle could hear the indignation in Lord Gilbert’s voice. Her eyes darted in his direction, instinctually wanting to catch the reaction of the other men and see the look on Lord Gilbert’s face.

 

He’d noticed the reaction his words got and immediately looked ashamed. “I mean, I am here in support of my brother’s decision,” he said quickly. “And to see if it is also the life I would like to lead.”

 

Duke Cartwright and Duke Colbourn eyed the young man for a moment. Lord Leonard chuckled without humor. “It seems my brother was not forthcoming about his dislike for change.”

 

Lord Gilbert looked at Lord Leonard gratefully. “This is true.” He turned his eyes to the other men. “I am not fond of change. Not at all.”

 

He gave them a weak smile.

 

Lady Annabelle looked over the table at Lady Julia, whose ears were as in tune with the men’s conversation as hers were. She could tell by the look on the pretty girl’s face. Her eyes were on the pieces of the game in front of her but her shoulders were lifted and she was tense from concentrating.

 

“Lady Julia!” Lady Annabelle hissed to get her friend’s attention. Lady Julia looked up with her eyes but did not move her head. Her hands were frozen on two game pieces. “If you do not move soon, your muscles will freeze and you will be a statue. A pretty statue but a statue nonetheless!”

 

Lady Julia’s face broke into a smile and she relaxed her shoulders. “I was just listening to…” she moved her eyes to the corners, bobbing her head in the direction of the men at the same time.

 

“I was, too. We should not eavesdrop.”

 

“His Grace told us we could come in,” Lady Julia leaned forward, whispering. “And besides, they are not discussing robbing the Queen’s bank, are they?”

 

Both girls giggled, covering their lips with their hands. They started the game and soon Lady Julia was winning as usual.

 

“I do not know why I continue to play this game with you, Lady Julia,” Lady Annabelle tried to sound whiny but failed. Lady Julia laughed.

 

“Because you love me.”

 

“When you are right, you are right,” Lady Annabelle grinned at her.

 

“Oh dear, it looks like you are losing quite badly, Lady Annabelle.” The Duke of Cardinal’s voice made them both look up and realize he was standing at the table, his hands folded behind his back, an amused look on his face.

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