Melting a Duke’s Winter Heart – Preview

Oct 18

Chapter 1

Sarah Lockridge pulled herself upright in the carriage, stretching her short legs forward across the seat and casting a playful grin in her friend’s direction.

“Long trips like these always leave me aching to run about or splash in some cool water. I am not sure I will be able to abide this carriage one more moment.”

“You speak as though you had a choice,” Margaret Hayward said with a playful note of her own.

She was the opposite of Sarah in every way: tall, dark-haired, and dark-eyed. She had been of marriageable age for a few years, just like Sarah, but unlike her hot-headed friend, Margaret had multiple suitors lined up for her hand and the opportunities therein.

Sarah leaned out of the carriage and let the warm summer wind lift her hair up in the breeze and carry it gently aloft.

Her hair was so blond it was almost white, a feature that only seemed starker when matched with her brilliant green eyes. Her father, who rarely seemed to notice her existence, had once acknowledged that she looked like an old Irish selkie, the mystical seal folk who could shed their skin and, in some cases, enchant poor fishermen to their doom.

“I’m not ready to be home,” Sarah said softly, leaning her cheek against the window sash. “Perhaps at Fuller Mill we might take a break?”

“It’s a short walk from the Mill to your parents’,” Margaret said. “Someone might see us dabbling in the creek.”

“Perhaps the coachman will let us out early.”

Sarah brightened and straightened, knocking against the wall of the carriage until the driver opened a small door for communication.

“Could you drop us at Fuller Mill, Hopkins? We wish to stretch our legs. You can carry our belongings on to Talon Hall.”

“What about Miss Hayward?”

“Her parents are sending a coach to take her on from Talon Hall, I’m sure they won’t mind if she’s a few minutes late.”

The coachman paused for a moment, clearly facing a familiar dilemma – whether to give in to his mistress’s commandment and risk her father’s disapproval or to hope for the best.

In the end, Sarah saw the carriage slowing near the peaceful mill, and she and Margaret were allowed to clamber out of the carriage with only their bonnets to carry home across the fields.

“Give my best to my parents,” Sarah said with a blithe smile, “and tell Lucille I’ll be home directly.”

“You could have brought Lucille, you know,” Margaret said as the two girls picked up their skirts and waded through the tall prairie grass towards the silent mill. “You are two peas in a pod, and I’d have enjoyed her companionship along with yours.”

Sarah smiled to herself. When most people used the phrase “two peas in a pod” they meant it figuratively, but in her and her sister’s case, there was never a more literal interpretation.

Born identical twins, Sarah and Lucille Lockridge were indistinguishable to most people. They were the same height, had the same waist-length white-blond hair, and had similar mannerisms and tones. They could only be told apart by their clothing choices and their personalities.

While Sarah Lockridge wore daring colors and brilliant hues, Lucille wore pastels in the simplest styles. While Lucille was content to quietly collect fans and gloves and shut herself away indoors, Sarah had a hungry mind and longed for adventure.

Many people didn’t even know that Lord Edgar Lockridge, the Earl of Huxley, had twin daughters. Because Sarah so often went out in society alone, they just assumed she was his only daughter, and when Lucille ventured out, they were often mistaken for one another.

“Lucille has been quiet as of late,” she mused as the two girls drew near the shallow stream beneath the turning mill wheel. “I’ve enjoyed our time together, but I worry about her.”

“Lucille has always been quiet. It’s just her way.” Margaret looked over at her friend with alarm. “What are you doing?”

Sarah had already stripped off her stockings and slippers and was hiking her bright blue skirts up to wade into the stream.

“My feet are aching,” she said with a joyous laugh. “Would you leave them to languish in slippers after a day of travel?”

“But what if someone were to see?” Margaret gasped, putting one foot behind the other as though to ward off Sarah’s unseemly ways. “It would be scandalous. Sarah, I can see your knee!”

“No one is passing this way, dear.” Sarah closed her eyes and felt the subtle current tug at her ankles like a needy child. “The water is so cold. You should try it.”

“Who knows what is in that water. Can’t you wait until we are home and can draw a proper bath?”

“Margaret,” Sarah scolded, leveling a laughing gaze on her friend. “You speak grandly of how brave you are and how many adventures you wish to go on, but when it comes to a simple matter of standing in a clear stream, you balk at the drama of it all.”

Margaret looked from side to side with a nervous giggle. “Alright then,” she sniffed daintily. “I will touch it with my hand.”

She knelt down and sunk her pale wrist into the water until it covered halfway up her forearm, and then withdrew her arm just as quickly.

“With bravery like that, we will conquer the world,” Sarah said drily.

She waded a bit farther into the stream, letting the water lick at her knees.

“I want to do things, Margaret. Not silly little things like this, but the sort of things I read about in my books. Men get to travel all over the world on boats and have all sorts of adventures. They come back telling their tales, and we women are meant to swoon over them without hungering for adventure ourselves. It isn’t fair.”

“You always were obsessed with books. Didn’t your father used to warn against it?”

“You really haven’t spent much time at Talon Hall in recent years,” Sarah said, half teasing, and half sad.

Margaret’s mother wasn’t a fan of the Lockridge family, and Margaret had spent more and more time traveling with her family and locked in music studies as the years went by.

“Nothing’s changed with my father,” she went on. “He would still prefer I kill the adventurer in me before it causes him embarrassment in the House of Lords.”

“What does the House of Lords care about a young girl?”

“You know what Father always says,” Sarah said quietly. “If I bring shame on the family name, then there’s no coming back from it for him. I would ruin him, and that would ruin the plans he has for the government.”

“Then stop fussing about it,” Margaret said sensibly, drying off her arm with the edge of her shawl.

“Stop reading books and longing for things you can’t have. There’s no reason to indulge in such a way, especially when you know you’ll end up married just like the rest of us, sewing and caring for children and attending grand parties.

“The best you can hope for is a kind and interesting man who will leave you alone most of your life.”

It sounded horrible to Sarah, but Margaret spoke of it all as though it was the ultimate dream; as though nothing else in the world could be as perfect as settling for a man who was boring enough to leave you alone for the rest of your life.

Sarah had known Margaret since they were young girls. In fact, they’d met at their first coming out season when they were sixteen years old.

Lucille had been there, too, but she’d spent the whole of her time in the upstairs of the mansion, examining the paintings in the art hall.

Bored, Sarah had wound her way about the ballroom avoiding the offers to dance and pretending vague interest in the goings-on therein. She’d sighted Margaret Hayward leaning against a banister with a wan little look of nerves on her face and she’d walked up to her.

“I know it seems like a bore,” she had said, “but if you stick with me, we shall bring some magic to the evening after all.”

They had been fast friends ever since, even if that friendship had looked more like occasional letters and rare social gatherings as of late.

It didn’t matter so much for Margaret, who seemed to have a bevy of female friends at her beck and call, but for Sarah, there was no one else except Lucille, and in some ways, she and Lucille were so similar, that it was more like being friends with oneself.

One’s quiet, distant self.

She climbed out of the creek and wiggled her toes in the sunshine. “I don’t want to climb back into my shoes,” she said softly.

In truth, she didn’t want to climb back into her life. A week at the seaside with Margaret was like fresh air, and she knew the stale coffin to which she would be returning.

When her stockings were on and her slippers laced up again, the girls began walking across the open fields towards Talon Hall.

“Margaret,” Sarah said after taking a deep breath. “I so rarely get to travel to your house, and you so rarely travel to mine. Do you think we live similar lives?”

“It’s hard to know,” Margaret said, snapping a head of wheat off a nearby grass and rolling it in her slender fingers. “After all, you rarely talk about your family.”

She shrugged. “I suppose most families are the same, though. Sometimes they’re annoying and drag at your nerves, but more often than not, everything is very quiet and peaceful.

“It’s easy enough, living with your own family. You know everyone’s rhythms and desires; you know that, no matter what happens, they’ll be there for you, even if they scold you first.”

Sarah kept her head turned so that Margaret couldn’t see the tears in her eyes.

That’s what she’d always wondered – if her family situation was the same as other people’s – and she’d had something of an answer just now.

It wasn’t annoyance, or dragging at nerves, or scolding that plagued her family. It was a silence that was unexplained, a complete absence of camaraderie or shared trials; the thought that anyone would care enough to scold in the first place.

Lucille was too quiet to be of assistance, too willing to fold under her father’s iron will.

Edgar Lockridge was a pale weasel of a man who looked unassuming at first glance but was in fact as strong physically as he was politically. He had a tight fist on all his business holdings, whether domestic or abroad, and that fist didn’t loosen when it came to Talon Hall.

Sarah still remembered the first time he’d caught her reading a book on the anatomy of insects.

Lucille had been in the room, doing her embroidery by the fireplace as was her wont, and Sarah hadn’t even noticed her father’s presence until Lucille let out a little startled cry.

Edgar Lockridge had snatched the book from Sarah’s hands and perused it in silence for a few moments before sending it skittering across a nearby tabletop.

“There’s no use for a girl to read such things,” he’d snapped.

“But, Papa,” she’d cried, too young and naïve to know how idiotic it was to disobey him. “I want to learn. Don’t you want a child that you can be proud of, who might be able to help run Talon Hall when you are gone?”

“The only way you could have been a child I was proud of is if you’d been born a boy,” he’d hissed, slicing at her heart with every word. “I ask God for a boy, and he gives me two girls. What kind of joke is that?”

Eventually, the Earl had gotten his heir, a youngest son named Edmund, but Edgar Lockridge was never satisfied. He had political ambitions that needed to be acted out in the now, not in the vague future, and Sarah could feel his frustration whenever she was in the room.

If he had been given sons instead of daughters, he often told her, he would already be at the top of the social sphere.

As might be expected, this cold reception taught Lucille and Sarah to stay far away from their father. Their younger brother, Edmund, was at first a joyous addition to the family; but as he grew older, he spent more and more time with his father and grew jaded and shallow.

All this might have been softened by the presence of a tender mother, but though Sarah had only good things to say about her mother, Marianne, she rarely saw her.

Marianne and Edgar spoke to each other only when necessary, and Marianne spent most of her days locked away in a darkened room, complaining of a headache or some other such malady.

She turned to Margaret as Talon Hall came into view beyond the last hill. “Thank you for walking with me, friend, and for the welcome distraction this week.”

“My pleasure,” Margaret answered with an empty smile. Sarah wondered what she was thinking, and thought she could guess.

It’s unlikely I’ll see you again for some time. She bit back her disappointment, and the remainder of the walk continued in silence.

The Hayward carriage was already drawn up outside the impressive Talon Hall structure, and when Sarah had seen Margaret safely inside, it took off down the sedate drive lined with birch trees.

Sarah watched until her friend’s ride was out of sight, and then walked quietly up the marble steps and through the front door.

Inside, the family’s long-time butler, Ellis, greeted her with proper formality and, relieving her of her bonnet and gloves, held out his hand toward the dining room.

“Your family is waiting for you in the dining room, Miss Lockridge.”

Sarah blinked. Her family never ate together except when hosting guests, and even then, it was shocking to have them all present. “Do you mean my father, Ellis?”

“All, my lady.”

“My mother?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Sarah!” It was Lucille, with Edmund close behind.

Edmund’s face was drawn and grim, and for the first time, Sarah thought she could see something of a man in his dark eyes.

Lucille, in contrast, looked beside herself. “I’m so glad you’re back. Sarah, something dreadful has happened—”

“Lucille!” Edmund interrupted with a frown. “Papa said not to say a word until dinner.”

Edmund turned to Sarah in a tone that bordered on imperious. “He asks you to change and come down to dinner at once.”

Sarah looked past Edmund. “Do you want to accompany me upstairs?” she asked softly.

“Lucille will stay with me,” Edmund said, laying a hand on his older sister’s arm. He was looking more and more like his father every day.

Sarah cleared her throat. “I’m not sure what’s going on, but I’ll change at once and come down. Tell Father I’ll only be a few more moments.”

“I’ll send a maid up,” Lucille said softly.

She seemed different; broken. Sarah’s heart went out to her, but she didn’t want to make matters worse by interfering before she knew the facts.

She bowed quickly to her brother and sister and made her way upstairs, her heart in her throat and her mind spinning with new worries.

Chapter 2

“We’ll call this session to a close,” the Lord Speaker announced in the same droning monotone he’d been employing all day.

In response, the gathered gentlemen in the gold-hung House of Lords stood in a cacophony of screeching shoes and tapping canes, to stream out of the meeting room like children from a schoolhouse.

It had been a particularly long day. Augustus Sutton, Duke of Whitehall, sat in his seat as the other lords left, wiping a hand across the beads of sweat on his brow and wishing, more than usually, that he had rescinded his right to his father’s seat and escaped all the nonsense of political intrigue.

Today’s drama had centered around the Earl of Huxley’s new bill, a chance to gouge more money out of the poorer class by raising the candle tax yet again.

The Earl, Edgar Lockridge, had a long history in the House of Lords that was less than reputable, and every step of Augustus’s since he’d come of age to participate in the political goings-on, had been impeded by the Earl’s conniving ways.

“A rough showing today,” one of the other lords said as Augustus stood to depart. It was Lord Martin, a middle-aged man who rode both sides of most issues, choosing peace over principle. “Do you care if I’m frank with you, Lord Whitehall?”

Augustus tried to contain his temper. Thirty-five years old and he still felt like he was battling the angry response of a hot-headed youth in moments like these. “I don’t see that I will be able to stop you.”

“Is that any way to talk to a friend and ally?”

“If you were either of those things, you would have stood up for me when I fought against Lord Huxley’s bill today. You know that it is wrong in so many ways, and yet you are willing to stand by and allow that miscreant to perform highway robbery on the poor people of England.”

He clenched the back of the seat in front of him, trying to pour his anger into the chair rather than the man in front of him. Diplomacy was a skill he’d never mastered.

He tried to put a softer edge into his voice. “You have a good heart, Lord Martin. You should put it to good use.”

Lord Martin shifted nervously to his other leg and affected an imperious tone. “You say I have a good heart, and I warn you that you have a bleeding one. It will get you in trouble, standing up for the rats in the sewers.”

“If I don’t stand up for them, who will?”

Lord Martin changed tacks, his voice softening. “You don’t really think the tax will hurt them, do you? They’re already paying a candle tax and it’s only a small change.”

“It’s a significant change, with an open-end clause that could allow further gouging,” Augustus said, watching the last of the lords clear the room. His voice echoed in the emptiness.

“And what bothers me above all is that such a change is entirely unnecessary. Huxley is only forcing the issue because he bought stock in a whaling company and thinks the sperm whale oil candles will profit if people don’t want to pay extra for beeswax.”

“Look, old boy,” Lord Martin said, laying a hand on Augustus’ shoulder. “You’re known for fighting the lesser man’s battles, but this is David against Goliath, and as pious as you are, I’m not sure you have God on your side.”

“I think it’s more likely He’s on mine than on Lord Huxley’s,” Augustus muttered under his breath. “Lord Martin, if you took a strong stand on this, it would make you sympathetic to the common people; you would get good press over it.”

“This isn’t the House of Commons,” Lord Martin said with a laugh. “If I needed to look sympathetic to the common people, I certainly wouldn’t fight this losing battle.

“Tying my name to yours is a recipe for disaster. You spoke up for women’s rights last year, and before that, you made a name for yourself as a philanthropist with your sewer bill.”

“And that’s a bad thing?” Augustus fought the urge to rub his temples in frustration.

“It makes you look weak,” Lord Martin said, his voice sobering. “And weak is a bad thing in the House of Lords. Maybe if you’d picked your battles a bit earlier in the game, you would have had more supporters now.”

“I have some supporters, perhaps enough to stop the bill,” Augustus ventured. “Some men stand by their principles.”

Lord Martin yawned and took his gilded cane in hand. “Some do. And I will, if you can find a way to make your principles profitable.”

He strode out of the hall without a backward glance. Augustus put on his top hat and followed suit, walking down the stairs outside to his waiting gelding and mounting with his thoughts still tethered to the day’s work.

He went back over the arguments he’d posed, the witnesses he’d brought forth, and the information he’d dug up; at each turn, Edgar Lockridge was staring him down with superior wealth and political ambition. He wasn’t sure what else to do.

As he neared his manor, she came back into his head, as she did on occasion, pale and wan like the ghost that she was.

You’ve got to keep trying, she whispered.

Lettie. The one soft part of his life – back when he thought that love was achievable, and happiness was a reasonable goal – the thing that had driven him toward philanthropy in the first place.

He wished sometimes that she would leave him be. She was gone, anyway; beyond his reach. Why must she keep rising in his mind to torture him?

But then, when her memory seemed to fade, he always grew frantic with fear that he would forget her soft skin, the way she laughed, or the graceful twist of her neck when she looked over her shoulder at him.

Then he would conjure up all the most beautiful and painful memories and cradle them in his mind’s eye until she came back to softly torment him in moments like these. You have to keep trying.

It was an unnecessary command because Augustus had no intention of stopping the fight. He was a stubborn man above all else, and he would be stripped of all his title and honor before he gave up on the floor of the House of Lords.

Lettie wouldn’t have stood for Lord Huxley’s selfish laws. She would have pestered Augustus until he laughed with frustration and turned the heat of his passion against the rich man’s deception.

People used to say that Augustus and Lettie were cut from the same cloth. They even looked similar back then, both tall with light-brown hair and dark eyes, but in the years since Lettie was lost, Augustus had changed. Even he could see it in the reflection that stared back at him in the mirror.

He was broad-shouldered, strong as an ox and well-muscled from extensive time outdoors. He had buried himself in activities when he lost Lettie, and he had the hunting scars on his chest and the casual athleticism to show for it. But his eyes – there was the greatest difference.

They were so dark they almost looked black, and there was an empty fury in them that he could see when he caught sight of himself in a glass.

She’d put the fury there, just as she’d put the melancholy.

When he neared his home, Augustus began to feel the tension of the day drain from his body. In its place was a weariness he could barely fight.

He had planned to go out that evening; to parade around some fine living room and listen to amateurs sing at a dinner party, but he couldn’t bring himself to play the politician tonight. All he wanted was a pipe, a stout drink, and an early turn in to bed.

He handed his horse off to the livery boy and climbed the marble steps to his door two at a time. Robbins opened the door before he knocked, and ushered him inside with usual poise.

“Your Grace, a good day in town?”

“It was a day.”

Augustus was fond of Robbins, but he’d never really grown into the casual friendship that some of the upper class entertained with their servants. He’d been raised on decorum as a boy, and he held to those same principles as the heir to Whitehall.

“I’ll have no dinner tonight, just a drink in the study and bed. Will you alert the footmen?”

“I will, Your Grace,” Robbins nodded, taking his hat and glove and handing them smoothly off to a nearby maid. “But, Your Grace, you received a letter just a few moments before you arrived, a message from the House of Lords.”

“Infernal place,” Augustus complained under his breath. “Will they not take their pound of flesh and leave me be?”

Robbins cleared his throat as he always did when he wasn’t certain how to respond. He reached into his pocket and took out the letter. It was written on an elegant paper and sealed with a crest Augustus knew only too well.

He took it, opening it as he walked into the nearby parlor. Robbins followed close behind.

The seal was telling – it had the eagle with talons extended that could only mean one thing:

Edgar Lockridge of Talon Hall.

It wasn’t enough that the man had avoided the House of Lords that day and chosen instead to send a proxy to argue his despicable bill into law, but now the gentleman in question was taunting him, sending him letters as though the two were friends rather than mortal enemies.

Augustus tried, as a rule, to reserve judgment, but he found Lord Huxley to be the greediest of men, someone who was never satisfied with his position or his wealth and always sought to line his pockets at the expense of those who could not defend themselves.

Lord Huxley was not above bribery, and on more than one occasion, Augustus had learned that his plans had been thwarted because Huxley had managed to manipulate one of the lords into taking his side.

The letter was simple, written in Lord Huxley’s familiar neat hand, and as Augustus read, his brow blackened in anger.

He had been prepared for a bribery attempt; for an undercutting of the moral integrity of the institution. In such a cut and dried situation, he would have thrown the letter into the fire and thought no more of it – after all, it was not the first time this lord had made threats to keep him from following through on his political gains.

But as his eyes tore through the letter, he realized it was far worse than bribery.

“What is it, Your Grace?” Robbins asked nervously.

Augustus turned to him with a retort on his lips. He thought about telling the older man it was none of his business or scolding the servant for overstepping his bounds, but in the end, he realized he wanted someone to hear the truth.

“It’s blackmail,” he said stiffly. “Plain and simple.”

“Blackmail, Your Grace?” Robbins asked with a nervous tick in his eye. “We should alert the constables immediately. We shan’t stand for such behavior.”

Augustus scanned the letter again, his stomach sinking with every word. It was not the sort of business he could tell a constable about, and he knew it.

“No, no authorities,” he said, trying frantically to think of a way out.

But every avenue that he landed upon, was met by yet another blockade.

He had thought himself impervious to such things, but he realized with each glance at the letter, that Edgar Lockridge had found his weakness.

Lettie rose in his mind, laying a cool hand on his shoulder, but the sight of her stung even more against the contents of the letter.

The impudence of what Lockridge had written was the worst of it. What right had any man to demand of Augustus what this man demanded, and all for a better political position?

It was infuriating, and more than that, it was ridiculous. It was an insult to Augustus, to Lettie, to all the people who were clawing their way out of the gutter even now.

In a blind fury, Augustus reached for the nearest object, a vase, and hurled it across the room in anger.

Even as it left his fingers, he knew it was an unwise thing to show his emotions so frankly, but a long-buried childish desire to hurt something like he’d been hurt, rose up in him.

The vase hit the opposite wall between two wall hangings and shattered into innumerable pieces. The noise cracked throughout the house, and Augustus heard Robbins gasp behind him.

“Your Grace. What’s wrong?”

Augustus lowered his head, his anger as shattered at his feet. “I’m sorry about that, Robbins. I’ll tend to it myself in a bit.”

“No need, Your Grace,” the older man said, already bustling over to sweep up the pieces. “But I wish you’d tell me what bothered you so. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Change is coming, Robbins.”

There was Lettie, pulling away from view. Augustus wanted to reach out and grab her, but she had no place in this nonsense. Her memory was a beautiful and fragile thing that contrasted awfully against the black command of the letter.

“What changes, Your Grace?” Robbins asked.

Augustus raised his head and looked at the old man, speaking as though from a very great distance.

“I’m getting married, Robbins.”

Chapter 3

Dinner was a grand affair – too grand, Sarah thought nervously.

Her father sat enthroned at the far end of the table, with Edmund smugly on his right, Marianne across from him, and the twins shoulder to shoulder on his left. The footmen worked silently to lay the food out, three courses of grandeur with unusual attention given to the decoration and presentation.

It felt like the holidays Sarah remembered as a child, when the food was extravagant, but the conversation was thin.

Nobody made any effort to explain Lucille’s pale face or the whole spectacle of the evening.

The soup course passed in silence, as did the main course and the salad. Sarah looked down the table at her mother and felt a stab of pity.

Marianne looked pale and dark in her heavy silks, and there were rings around her pretty eyes. She rarely joined them for dinner, not after the miscarriages that followed Edmund’s birth.

There had never been another child, although more than once, there was hope of one. Sometimes, if she looked very closely, Sarah felt like she could see the lost children sitting with her mother – Marianne brought them with her everywhere she went, lost in the mist of her empty eyes.

“Would you like to hear about my journey?” she asked suddenly, giving in, as she always did, to her responsibility to break the silence. “Seeing as I’ve only just returned.”

“As you wish to tell us, I cannot imagine that we have much choice but to listen,” Edmund said drily.

“That’s ridiculous,” Edgar said to his son. “There is always a choice about listening when women are talking.”

Sarah pursed her lips and looked at her plate, her appetite fleeing along with her desire to speak. It was always this way, her father shutting down the conversation before it had a chance to even begin.

“But go on,” he said suddenly, surprising her. “Explain to me how your visit with Miss Hayward was a magnificent success.”

She could hear the sarcasm in his voice, but when she glanced at Lucille’s pained face, she knew she would do anything to take the pressure off her sister.

She forced a smile.

“It was a good trip. The seaside is beautiful this time of year, and Miss Hayward is an engaging companion.”

“That’s hard for me to imagine, considering her father is the greatest bore ever to walk the face of the Earth,” Edgar said with a sneer.

“Do you know that the Reverend Hayward was offered a full inheritance by his father, but he chose instead to pursue a career in the Church?”

“I think that very honorable, Father,” Sarah said quietly.

“Yes, I’m sure you do. You were always drawn to the foolish things of this world.”

Sarah took a sip of sherry to cover her nerves.

“It is not foolish just because it is different from your view. After all, would you have all the world be lords and ladies? Who would run our church services or tend to our doctoring? I think it worthy of Mr. Hayward to put his own betterment to the side in pursuit of ministry.”

“I think it foolish, and I stand by that,” Edgar snapped. “You have too many thoughts in that head of yours, my daughter. If you don’t tend to that failing, soon you will find yourself a spinster.”

“I hardly think my thoughts are the only thing keeping me from marriage, Father,” Sarah said drily, conscious that the entirety of the table was watching their sparring match with bated breath.

“No,” Edgar snapped. “Also, your wayward nature and your stubborn refusal to show even a breath of femininity.”

In Edgar Lockridge’s mind, femininity was the sort of shrinking, simpering fragility that always needed a fan against the heat and a cloak against the slightest draft.

He went on, casting a sly glance in Lucille’s direction. “Actually, daughter, you bring me to the point of this evening. Lucille has something to tell you all. Lucille?”

Sarah turned to her sister and her heart sank. The girl had always been frailer than Sarah, and she looked now as though she was being led to the stake. Her lip trembled, and she reached a shaking hand to wipe her mouth.

“Go on,” Edgar barked.

Lucille swallowed hard and spoke, her voice soft and clear in the dark room.

“I am to be married,” she said softly. “To the Duke of Whitehall.”

Sarah blinked. She heard her mother’s fork clatter to her plate and saw Edmund’s youthful smile curve upwards. He looked as satisfied as her father, although she didn’t know why.

“Pardon me,” Sarah ventured. “Why in the world are you to marry Lord Whitehall? Have you even met the man? I only know him by name, and I cannot think of a single association in which we traded words. You can hardly have met him.”

“Do not think that Lucille’s tendency to stay indoors has kept her entirely out of the limelight,” Edgar said with a self-satisfied smile.

“In fact, she did have the chance to meet the Duke just last week at a dance. You were gone, of course, and so you can’t be expected to know everything about your sister.”

“Is this true?” Sarah asked.

Lucille nodded dumbly.

“Of course it is true,” her father went on with an expansive wave of his hand. “I have secured a reasonable match for your sister, and she is very lucky in the choice I made for her. The Duke is not only titled, but he is wealthy as well. I serve alongside him in the House of Lords.”

“Yes, Father,” Sarah said slowly. “That is the only context in which I have ever heard his name spoken, and you have never done so with anything but disdain. What has convinced you to give your daughter to such a man in marriage? You detest the man.”

“I have my reasons, and Lucille can hardly complain.” Edgar hardened his jaw. “I dislike your impertinence, Sarah, and you should know it is just that sort of headstrong behavior that makes you an unfit candidate for such social and political alliances.”

“You speak of it as if it were business rather than a matter of the heart.”

“It is business.”

Edgar hurled his napkin to the table and stood suddenly, rattling the glasses.

“I will have no more lip from you, lass. The marriage will happen, and sooner rather than later.”

He strode from the room in long, lanky strides and, in his absence, the table was momentarily silent. Then Edmund rose too, hurling his own napkin down.

“You ought to listen to Father,” he said with his nose tilted to the sky. “Women ought to know better than to question their elders.”

When he had gone, Sarah turned to her mother. “Mama, you cannot think this is a good idea. A sudden arranged marriage to a man Father despises? It cannot be right.”

Marianne raised her eyes slowly from her plate and looked at her headstrong daughter with an uncertain air. “I hate when he talks like that,” she said at last.

“Like what?” Sarah asked.

“Like his father.” She stood to leave as well. “Edmund could be so much, but he mimics Edgar in the most awful manner.”

“What of Lucille, Mama? What of her future?” Sarah asked, feeling frantic.

Marianne left with a sad smile, evidently unwilling to raise her hand against the will of her husband. Sarah watched her go and then turned to her sister with earnest eyes.

“Lucille, you must tell me everything.”

The girl looked up at Sarah with tears in her green eyes. “I thought it would be some time before I married, Sarah. Father says I have the disposition for it, but I don’t think he’s right. I get so nervous, as you know, and I hate to travel. I want to be brave like you, but I’m so afraid.”

Sarah looked at her with pity in her eyes. Lucille had never been made of the stern, rebellious stuff that kept Sarah’s spirits high, and she had always been a little weaker, suffering from bouts of ill health even as a child.

Sarah could see the brave little set of her chin and the way she tried to be strong even while her hands were shaking, and it tore at her heart.

“Tell me what happened, Lucille. Why the Duke? When did you learn of all this?”

“I don’t know why the Duke. Have you met him, Sarah? He’s a fierce man with dark eyes and a frightening disposition.

“I met him at the dance, just as Father said, but we hardly talked. I knew enough of Father’s dislike for him and so I kept my distance. The few words we exchanged were curt and cold. His eyes are so dark, Sarah.”

Sarah had not met the man herself, but the idea of him looming over her sister brought a spurt of defensiveness into her heart.

“He shouldn’t have frightened you like that,” she said.

“He didn’t mean to, I’m sure.” Lucille swallowed hard and cast a worried glance at the door. “And he’s not the reason this betrothal is a problem, Sarah. I have other reasons.”

“Tell me.”

“You must promise not to share.”

Sarah tilted her head as though to say, “Have I ever betrayed your trust?” and Lucille rushed forward as though she feared to lose her nerve otherwise.

“I love another.”

Sarah felt a chill of nerves and she, too, looked to the doors to make certain of their privacy. “What? For how long?”

“For how long?” Lucille asked with a sad little laugh. “What an odd opening question. Shouldn’t you be wondering who this gentleman is?”

“Well,” Sarah said sensibly, “I can assume from the cast of your face that the gentleman you love is not the Duke, and therefore other questions rise to the surface.”

“I cannot tell you who it is at the moment, but I’ve fancied this man for some time.”

“I will not ask you to tell,” Sarah said slowly.

“I know this is selfish,” Lucille said softly, “but in my heart, I wish it was you that our father had chosen to marry Lord Whitehall. You are beautiful and talented and brave. You have no other that you love; you are free.”

Sarah felt a catch in her heart, and she stared at her sister. “As for the beauty,” she said gently, “we share that qualification to perfection, I’m afraid. And you are braver than you think, Lucille.”

Something was blossoming in her mind, an idea that she wanted desperately to push away but nonetheless indulged. “Maybe there is a way out of this for you.”

“How?” Lucille burst into tears at last, the wetness sliding down her cheeks and dripping onto the lace of her gown.

“I’ve thought of it all week while you were gone, Sarah. If our father wants me to marry this man, you know I haven’t the courage to stand up to him.”

Sarah wanted to protest; to assure Lucille that she could stand up to Edgar Lockridge, but in her heart, she knew that her sister was not ready.

Any show of resistance would be met with a force too mighty for poor Lucille, and Sarah knew her sister would end up as vacant and tired as Marianne had become over the years.

The subtle thought was growing in her head, and impulsively she put out her hand and grasped her sister’s arm.

“What about me, Lucille?”

“What about you?” she asked.

“I could do it,” Sarah said, hating the words but feeling in her gut that it was right all the same.

“We look identical; no one would ever be able to tell us apart, and Father never pays us any mind anyway. He wouldn’t realize that a switch had been made until it was too late.”

“Sarah, I wasn’t serious when I said I wished you would take my place. I mean, I think you’d be better suited to the madness to be sure, but I wouldn’t wish such an arranged mess on you for anything.

“You are a wild and free spirit and you shouldn’t commit yourself to a marriage so early in your life.”

“I’ve always wanted an adventure,” Sarah said softly, trying to look braver than she felt, “and what greater adventure than to save your sister’s true love?

“I have no one I care for, as you pointed out, and no prospects. I can pretend to be mild-mannered and sweet until the Duke has been convinced, and then you are safe to pursue your own heart.”

“This is preposterous!” Lucille protested, twisting her hands nervously in her lap. “I can’t ask you to do this.”

“You aren’t asking – I’m offering. Lucille, you deserve more than to be a pawn in our father’s game. Everyone does. This way I get to show him what I’m worth for once, even if he’s too blind to know the difference until it’s too late.”

“What if the Duke is a brute?” Lucille asked.

Sarah thought about that. In truth, she wondered if someone her father despised so much might, in fact, be an honorable man, but that was all beside the point.

Even if the Duke was a brute, Sarah was better suited to take his abuse than Lucille would ever be. Lucille was soft and delicate, and needed tender care.

Sarah forced a smile. “He’s not a brute, I’m sure. That kind of thing only happens in dramatic stories.”

Both girls fell silent because both girls knew it wasn’t true. Brutes weren’t only in stories – their own father was proof enough against that theory.

At last, Lucille looked up with tears brimming in her eyes anew.

“Are you sure, Sarah?”

It was an acceptance, and despite her fear, Sarah felt relieved that Lucille would be out of danger.

Putting on her bravest smile she said, “I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.”

Chapter 4

“Will you be having the lady in the parlor for tea?” Robbins asked, bending at the waist and keeping his eyes distant from Augustus.

He had been calm after the broken vase, but Augustus could see that the butler was still wary of everything surrounding Lucille Lockridge’s visit that day.

“I will,” Augustus said as kindly as he could manage, wishing to allay the older man’s fears.

“We may take a tour of the house and grounds afterward. Doubtless, her father will want to know the fullness of my estate.”

The last comment came out dry and sarcastic, and he saw Robbins’ face whiten a bit.

“Your Grace, if you don’t desire the marriage then what reason have you to go through with it?”

Augustus sighed, his heart heavy. “Robbins, your service has been invaluable over the years, and you have earned your place as a trustworthy butler, but you will understand that the circumstances surrounding this union are private.”

“Of course, Your Grace.”

“She will be coming with a chaperone,” Augustus went on. “Her brother, Edmund.”

He’d been glad to hear that; as glad as one could be under the circumstances. The idea of enduring Edgar Lockridge’s presence as well as his blackmail was unimaginable. He would barely be able to remain civil as it was.

“I will serve tea shortly after they arrive, Your Grace.”

“Thank you, Robbins.”

The butler left and Augustus sat in a chair to wait for his guests.

He had met Lucille Lockridge once before, and then only for a few minutes. He hadn’t known then what her father had been planning, and so he hadn’t committed her image to serious memory.

Now, he tried to recall her face. She had been pretty, he thought, though a bit pale and frail. She’d spoken hardly at all, and if he remembered correctly, he’d wanted the conversation to end as quickly as possible to be rid of her fearful trembling.

He had a pit of dread in his stomach at the thought of their impending meeting, and an added guilt. It was as though he could feel Lettie over his shoulder, her memory betrayed and worn through by his decision to give in to Lord Huxley’s demands.

Robbins reappeared, bowing formally and showing the two guests into the room.

“Miss Lucille Lockridge and Mr. Edmund Lockridge,” he said stiffly.

She was not just pretty, after all. She was beautiful.

Augustus remembered Lucille having a sort of fragile beauty, but there was something wild in her eyes that he hadn’t noticed before, like the sea.

She stood by her brother with her head down, only raising her eyes after going through the dutiful curtsy, arrayed in a pale pink gown that set off the almost white hue of her feathery hair. She had lace everywhere, and a ribbon braided into her hair.

“Lord Whitehall,” she murmured.

“Miss Lockridge. A pleasure to see you again.”

He could hear the lie in his voice. He sounded anything but pleased by their meeting, and he was doing nothing to hide it.

He turned stiffly to Edmund. “And I don’t believe we’ve had a chance to meet.”

Edmund was a tall young man, but he still had the frail, slender form of a boy. He smiled politely at the introduction, but his eyes were too much like his father’s.

“Lord Huxley sends his greetings,” he said, eyeing Augustus as though he had been commissioned to bring back a minute report on the Duke’s every action.

“I’m sure he does.”

Robbins returned with two maids and a footman in tow. “Tea?”

“Yes, lay it over there before the fireplace and we shall partake of it at once,” he said, thankful for the mundane distraction.

They walked together to the hearth and sat around a low table as the maids apportioned cake and tea to each in their turn.

Augustus took the opportunity to scrutinize his guests, primarily his future wife.

Her movements were graceful and refined, but there was something in Lucille that he had missed at their first meeting – a sharp intelligence in her eyes, as though she was waiting for something to happen.

“I’m glad you could come today,” he said awkwardly.

“Are you?” she returned innocently, meeting his eyes for the first time since her arrival.

Her eyes were two pools of emerald. He thought of Lettie and felt suddenly guilty.

Instead of answering her question, he turned to Edmund. “Have you been out riding much this season?” he inquired.

Edmund raised his eyebrows. “I’ve no interest in roaming about outside like a peasant,” he said serenely. “There is too much to attend to indoors.”

“You’re a young man,” Augustus pressed. “This is the time in your life when you can afford to explore a bit. Get outside, see the fresh air.”

“I have different interests.”

“Do expound.”

“I wish to grow up like my father, with his political prowess and aspirations. Such intellect must be built in books and a study of social occasions, not out in a field under the open sky.”

“When you say a study of social occasions, do you mean balls and needless parties?” Augustus asked wryly, already disliking the boy for his attempt at imitating Edgar.

“If you will take such an uncharitable view of the situation, then yes.”

Augustus took a sip of tea to cover his disgust and then turned the conversation to Lucille’s direction.

“And what do you think?” he asked. “Do you think your brother could benefit from some time in the sun, or are you of the opinion that his education up until now has been sufficient?”

Something in Lucille’s face shifted as though her thoughts ran much deeper than the service, but in the end, she simply lowered her eyes and said meekly, “I wouldn’t question my father’s judgment in this matter.”

Something about the way she said it confirmed a fear Augustus had had since he first received Edgar’s threatening letter: this arranged marriage wasn’t just about the Earl’s daughter ending up with a duke, it was a dangerous political move to silence one of Lockridge’s most vocal opponents.

Augustus couldn’t be certain of Lord Huxley’s motives, but looking at the quiet girl sitting across from him, he began to suspect that the Earl wanted to use this girl to leverage Augustus’ vote in the House of Lords.

The marriage wasn’t just a chance to demean his opponent; it was a chance to further Lord Huxley’s control.

The man’s gall infuriated him, and he couldn’t separate Lucille from her father. He stood abruptly and walked a few steps towards the window.

“Tell me about yourself,” he said harshly.

“Excuse me,” Lucille ventured after a moment’s pause, “were you addressing me?”

“Yes,” he turned on her with a hard stare. “Tell me about yourself.”

She looked back at him with a steady gaze, and for a moment, he thought he saw the wild look in her eyes again, but then she blinked, and all seemed meek and empty-headed again. “Well, you know my name is Lucille.”

“What are your interests?”

“Everything that ought to interest a young lady,” she said softly, twisting her hands in her lap. “I sing and play the pianoforte. I embroider.”

Augustus wanted desperately to roll his eyes; to make her feel her ignorance, but something in her small face halted him. He took a deep breath. “You embroider.”

“Yes, quite well.”

“Perhaps you would play something for us on the pianoforte,” he said, motioning towards the instrument in the corner.

She followed his gaze with a nervous glance of her own, forcing a smile. “Not now. I’m far too shy.”

“You’d rather talk?” Augustus asked with his own feigned innocence. “I only inquire because I wish you to feel most at ease, and conversation doesn’t seem to be high on your list of priorities.”

She stared back at him, her face pale, and he realized with a start that he’d misjudged her. She wasn’t ignorant at all, and she knew exactly how much he meant to wound her.

“I do not wish to play,” she said slowly; purposefully.

Edmund looked at his sister with a strange expression on his face. “You seem quiet today, Lucille,” he said with a question in his voice. “Are you alright?”

“I’m always quiet,” she mumbled in reply, picking up her teacup and taking a quick sip to mask her discomfort.

Augustus had a strange feeling that he was talking with them about something he didn’t fully understand; on top of Edgar’s blackmail and deception, he was ill at ease with the thought.

She looked up from her folded hands and her eyes fell on a vase of dried flowers sitting above the mantle.

“Those are lovely roses,” she said softly. “Or I suppose they were, once.”

Augustus closed his eyes briefly. She could have no idea how large her misstep had been, but he still blamed her unconsciously.

This little sprite; this wild-eyed girl trapped in a docile body had no right to speak about anything that reminded him of Lettie. And those flowers, stiff and dulled on stalks of dried grass, were one of the few memories in the home that still reminded him of his lost love.

They were in a blue and white vase, dark with age. He could still remember the way she’d looked when he’d handed them to her all those years ago – fresh and soft like the sunset that bloomed gold and red behind her.

She had taken them from him before answering the question he’d come to ask; when she’d agreed to marry him, the flowers had fallen to the wayside and she hadn’t bent again to retrieve them.

Augustus himself had picked them up when Lettie had gone home for the evening; he’d put them carelessly in a vase and forgotten them as all bachelors do.

If the marriage had gone through, Lettie would doubtlessly have discovered the dried flowers and tossed them out for fresh blooms, but instead, they had stayed in a corner of his room until he found them long after everything was lost.

Then, the dried stems had become a memento mori that he could not part with, not for anything.

He followed Lucille’s gaze there and something in him rose up, violent and surly. “They are lovely still,” he snapped. “To me.”

She looked at him with her head cocked to one side and her eyes wide and innocent. “Are they from your garden?”

He didn’t want this, any of this. He didn’t want this little waif with her wide eyes and her father’s wishes. After Lettie, he had determined to live out his days in solitude. One of his distant relatives would inherit his title when he died, and the estate would be preserved.

The idea of any other woman walking these halls where he had so wanted his beloved to walk; any other woman sitting across from him at the table or hosting parties – it was garish.

“Perhaps you would like to see the garden?” he said coldly, walking too quickly across the room.

“Perhaps you would like to inspect the house in detail? If we are to have an agreement – an arrangement, as your father so eloquently put it in his communication – then surely you deserve to ascertain the extent of my wealth?”

“That’s not what I meant.” She stood, her hands limp by her sides. Edmund stayed sitting, clearly bored.

“I was not presuming to know what you meant, my lady,” he said, almost able to taste his guilt and fury. “I was only offering what I know you wish to see so that we are not standing on pretense.”

“Lord, man. Should we leave you alone?” Edmund asked with a weak little laugh. “We can come another day.”

Augustus was tempted to agree, but before he could open his mouth, Lucille took a step forward with a hard little edge in her voice. “Actually, I would like to see the house.”

She stared at him, her eyes level with his and that deep part of her dangerously close to the surface. “And the gardens. Everything, actually. I would like to take stock of your estate, even if my brother does not wish to.”

“Of course I’ll come,” Edmund said, rising to his feet. “You need a chaperone.”

Lucille’s eyes never left Augustus’. “Right. If we didn’t have a chaperone, this entire affair would be ridiculous.”

As Augustus stared in her impossibly green eyes, the fire she saw in them and the blatant defiance in her words, sparked something in his chest – something he hadn’t felt in a long time.

A grim premonition told him that, somehow, Lord Huxley had set before him a trap he couldn’t avoid.

Alas, he wasn’t so sure he actually wanted to.

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