Regina Hartfield concentrated on her stitches. Elizabeth was banging away at the pianoforte just one room over. It was threatening to disturb her calm.
She did feel rather bad. It wasn’t Elizabeth’s fault she couldn’t play well. And she wasn’t trying to disturb anybody. But every time it gave her such a headache.
“Elizabeth!” Natalie entered the room. Her hair was only half done up. “For the love of all that’s holy would you stop! You can hear it through the whole house!”
The pianoforte stopped. Regina breathed out a quiet sigh of relief.
“Honestly,” Natalie grumbled. Then she spied Regina. “Oh, darling, you must start getting ready!”
“I don’t think I shall be going tonight.”
“But you must!” Natalie looked crestfallen. Although part of that might have been her half-done hair. “Regina, everyone will be there.”
“Precisely.” Regina focused back on her stitching. The idea of being among such a large crowd of people for hours terrified her.
“Have you told Father?” Natalie asked.
Regina didn’t answer. She was a horrible liar. And she hadn’t told Father. She’d tactfully avoided the subject of tonight’s ball all week.
She had been hoping that, being ensconced in the side parlor, she could avoid Father. Then when it was the time, the flurry of her four elder sisters climbing into the carriage would disguise her lack of presence. By the time Father realized she wasn’t there, they would hopefully be halfway to the ball. Far too late to turn back for shy mousy Regina.
It was too late for that now. Natalie would be sure to tell Father.
“I think that you should go,” Natalie maintained. “It’s always such fun.”
“For you it is,” Regina replied. It was widely maintained that Natalie was the prettiest of the Hartfield sisters.
Regina supposed that depended upon one’s taste. Natalie was the only sister with blue eyes. That helped her to stand out, certainly. Paired with a sweet, heart-shaped face and dark red hair, every man in the county wanted to marry her.
Personally, Regina preferred the cat-like green eyes of her other sisters. Not that Regina took after them. She had red hair like all of her sisters. Gotten from Mother, God rest her soul. But Regina had boring brown eyes and far too many freckles. She was tiny as well. Elizabeth liked to joke about Regina being the runt of the litter. What man wanted to dance with a girl when he had to crane his neck down to look at her?
It wasn’t her looks that truly made Regina reluctant to go to the ball. She just didn’t like people. And all that exercise. She wasn’t the adventurous type. A quiet evening stitching and reading suited her just fine.
Not that Father would see it that way.
“It would be fun for you as well if you would make an effort,” Natalie replied.
“I’m sure that stitching would be just as fun for you if you made an effort,” Regina pointed out.
Natalie sniffed. She’d always hated stitching. “I’m going to finish getting ready. You should as well. Elizabeth!”
Elizabeth appeared, looking peevish. Elizabeth was the second youngest and had taken to it like a martyr. Her red hair was orange and fiery to match her temper and her green eyes were always flashing.
“It’s hours yet, Natalie, I don’t have to get ready.”
“You should start now. You know your hair takes longer to tame.”
Elizabeth had also inherited their father’s tight curls. It did make her hair rather difficult to get under control.
“Not all of us need half a day to make ourselves fit enough to be seen by society,” Elizabeth replied.
Regina focused back on her stitches. She really didn’t want to be privy to another spat between Elizabeth and Natalie.
“You could learn from my example. Perhaps then someone would ask you to dance a second time.”
Regina shrank a little farther back into the chair. Luckily the spat was ended when Bridget entered the room.
Bridget was the oldest of the five Hartfield sisters. She was also Regina’s favorite. Although, it wouldn’t do to tell any of her other sisters that. Bridget was everything that Regina wished she could be. Bridget was confident and tall with pale creamy skin and a serene face. She had dark red hair and quick green eyes. Furthermore, she was wickedly funny, well read, intelligent, and could make anyone love her. Natalie was the prettiest Hartfield, everyone said, but Bridget was the wittiest and the most well-liked.
“Elizabeth, please go and get ready.” Bridget didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t need to. “I’ll join you in a moment. Natalie, could you remind Father that he needs to speak to the gardener?”
Natalie and Elizabeth looked like they knew exactly what Bridget was doing but they hurried off anyway. Everyone always did what Bridget asked.
Meanwhile, Regina was pretty sure that if the house was on fire, nobody would listen to her if she told them to get out.
Bridget smoothed out her skirt and sat down on the settee next to Regina’s chair. “That’s a lovely set of stitches.”
“They’re for the Lord and Lady Morrison.”
Bridget smiled. “We shan’t be seeing them for another two months, at the masked ball.”
“Yes, but I want it to be perfect.” Regina focused down on her stitches. She’d chosen the flowers for their meanings. They all meant some version of love and devotion, wishes for a happy marriage.
Bridget placed her hand carefully over Regina’s. “Darling. You are quite accomplished at that.”
“It’s merely practice.”
“Precisely.” Bridget’s voice was gentle. “I think that if you practiced just as much at your social skills as at your needlepoint, you needn’t find it all so intimidating.”
Regina set aside her sewing. She wasn’t going to get any more done today. Not if Bridget got her say—and she always did.
“I simply never know what to say,” Regina admitted. “I always say the wrong thing. And the men are terrifying. They all think they know better than I do. And they’re loud and pompous and I can’t bring myself to look them in the eye. Everybody gossips and says nasty things about one another. About Father and about Mother sometimes as well.”
Bridget sighed and squeezed Regina’s hand. “Father is a good example of how not to deal with grief. And what does it matter what they say about Mother? We know the truth. And they know the truth as well. They just like to pretend otherwise when they’re bored and there’s nothing else to discuss.”
Regina waited. She knew that there was more Bridget wanted to say by that look of discomfort on her face.
Sure enough, after a moment, Bridget spoke again.
“I don’t like the idea of you being alone all the time, darling.”
“But I’m not alone. And I won’t be for quite some time. Unless the four of you have gotten engaged and neglected to tell me so.”
Bridget chuckled. “Now darling, you know it won’t be long for any of us. Natalie will be off as soon as she finally chooses one suitor.”
Regina allowed herself an indelicate snort. Natalie choose just one out of the many men who danced attendance? Not likely.
Bridget leveled her with a stern look. “I have had a talk with Natalie myself about her future.”
“Did she listen to a word of it?”
“She shall if she knows what is good for her. A woman who is known as a flirt quickly goes from many suitors to none at all.”
Regina didn’t think that Natalie would be inclined to believe this advice until it actually happened to her.
Bridget continued. “And you know that Mr. Fairchild is only waiting for his aunt to pass so that he may marry Louisa.”
“His aunt has been stuck with one foot in the grave for two years. Is Louisa willing to wait for another two before she passes?”
Louisa, their second-eldest sister, had the carrot-colored hair of Elizabeth but none of her younger sister’s fire. Louisa was the gentlest of all of them. It was no wonder she was the first to have been proposed to, even if it must be kept secret for the time being.
“You know as well as I do how quickly one’s health can take a turn for the worst,” Bridget replied. “Elizabeth will not lack for suitors long, either.”
“If she can find one that will put up with her temper.”
“She’s a spirited girl. She likes riding and long walks. She enjoys trips to town. Many men would pay dearly for such an active and athletic wife. Just you watch, when the shooting season starts and she is in her element, she will have men to admire her.”
“And what of you?” Regina asked. She squeezed Bridget’s hand in return. “I doubt there is a man on Earth good enough for you.”
Bridget laughed fondly. “You give me too much credit.”
Regina blushed and looked down at her lap. Their mother had died in quite distressed circumstances. A longtime friend of their mother had been injured in a riding accident. Mother had raced to his side.
Some said that they were having an affair, but Mother had looked upon the man only as a brother. He had called her ‘sister’ in his letters to her. Regina had called him Uncle.
Mother’s desperation to take care of the man she saw as a family had its consequences. She had been caught in a downpour and continued on. She had arrived in time to make the Earl’s last few days bearable. But while he lay dying, she was also ravaged. The rain had given her pneumonia.
She had passed away only a week after the Earl. His estate had been far from home and her family. They hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye.
Regina had been quite young at the time. Bridget had immediately stepped up as head of the household and as Regina’s caretaker. A governess was well and good but did not replace a mother’s care. Bridget had provided that.
In her secret, jealous heart of hearts, Regina did not want Bridget to marry. She did not want to lose the woman who was more like a mother than a sister to her.
“I admit,” Bridget said, “My taste is quite discerning. I have turned down quite a few young men.”
Each time that Bridget had turned down a man, Regina had breathed a sigh of relief.
“But that state of affairs cannot endure forever,” Bridget said. “Already Father berates me for my stubbornness. And I am not entirely impossible to please. There will be a man for me, darling. And when that happens, you cannot endure this great big house alone.”
“But Father will need someone to run the house,” Regina protested. “I can serve in that. I have assisted you often enough. I like keeping the books.”
“And we are both well grateful for it,” Bridget teased. She ruffled Regina’s hair. “But your place is not here. You must come into your own. You must be a mistress of your own place. And that can never truly be while you are here.”
“Did Father put you up to this?” Regina was well aware that Father despaired of finding her a husband when all you do is sit—his words, not hers.
“Father might go about it the wrong way but he worries because he cares. And no, he did not put me up to this. You should know better than to think my opinions come from anyone except myself.”
Regina could see that her sister was not moving on this matter. “But what if I find no man to suit my tastes?”
“Well then tell me your tastes. I shall help find you a man to suit them.”
Regina thought, but she could not think of a single thing. “I do not know.”
“Think about it then,” Bridget said. “And when you know, tell it to me. We shall find you someone to protect that gentle heart of yours, darling.”
She patted Regina’s hand and stood. “Now, come. I have a delightful frock for you for tonight. It shall bring out your fine eyes.”
Regina didn’t think anything could be done to improve upon her appearance. But neither could she bear to dampen her beloved sister’s spirits. So she allowed herself to be led upstairs.
Perhaps, she thought, this ball would be bearable.
Regina had a headache.
The music and lights from the ball only made the throbbing in her temple intensify. Everyone was talking too loudly. It was all a cacophony.
She had allowed Bridget to dress her in a dark blue dress. The fabric was silky to the touch. Bridget had instructed the maid to do her hair up and they’d put a powder on her face to cover much of her freckles.
Looking in the mirror, she had thought she almost looked pretty. Perhaps the ball wouldn’t be so bad.
Now she was in the thick of it and it was as awful as she’d remembered.
Natalie and Elizabeth were out on the dance floor. Natalie was laughing, catching hands and tossing them away in turn. Elizabeth was dancing intensely, locking eyes with her partner like a dance was a challenge.
Louisa was sitting off with some close friends and talking. Holding court, more like. Louisa was gentle and quiet and yet it drew people to her. All her friends sat around with bated breath as she talked.
Regina could see Mr. Fairchild hovering nearby. Obviously wanting to ask Louisa to dance—and obviously unable to. Until his wealthy aunt passed he could not let his favor be known. Poor Louisa, Regina thought. To love someone and be unable to have them. At least Mr. Fairchild loved her in return.
Bridget was about somewhere. Regina craned her head, searching for her. Perhaps she could persuade Regina to call up the carriage to take Regina home. The men about would undoubtedly offer her sisters a ride home when they found them without one.
As Regina made her way through the ball to find her sister, she began to hear whispers. At first, she feared it was about Father again. The gambling habit he’d developed after Mother’s death was appalling. Many said it was only a matter of time before he gambled away his estate.
But no, they spoke of something else. Regina listened for a moment.
“Is he really here?” Someone asked.
“Oh to be sure, I saw him over by the foyer. I couldn’t bring myself to greet him.”
“He’s quite intimidating, isn’t he?”
Regina wondered who they were talking of. She pushed onward and caught a flash of dark red hair. Bridget!
She hurried forward. Bridget was talking with a man that Regina had never seen before.
Charlotte Tourney was just to the side. Regina came up to her. “Who is that man?”
“Who, speaking with Miss Bridget?”
Charlotte was the best person to approach for gossip. She did not disappoint Regina in this matter. “That is the Duke of Whitefern.”
“How have I never before seen him?”
“He’s quite the mysterious figure. I know hardly a thing about him. Other than his title and that he is heir to a massive fortune. But of course he wasn’t born into the latter.”
“Oh?” Regina asked. She kept watching her sister and the Duke. She couldn’t see the man’s face but she was certain he must be enamored of Bridget. What man alive wasn’t?
“I heard that his family was quite destitute when he inherited the title. It’s said his father was a poor businessman. The Duke had to earn it all back. And he had extraordinary luck about it. If you know what I mean.”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
Charlotte gave Regina a pitying smile, as though she thought it was sad that Regina didn’t know. “Gambling, my dear. He’s said to be a master with cards.”
Now Regina knew why the smile was pitying. Because of her father. She drew herself up as best she could. Her stomach quaked. “I suppose he has good luck indeed, then.”
“Indeed. Not much else is known of him. He is quite good looking but nothing is known of his connections or his family. Of course there is speculation. I heard that his mother was a French duchess.”
Regina hummed noncommittally. Not that it deterred Charlotte.
“I also heard that he’s won a dozen duels. Nothing to corroborate any of this, but it is rather fanciful, don’t you think?”
“Um, yes, rather like a novel,” Regina stuttered, and turned to approach Bridget. This headache really was monstrous.
She walked up and cleared her throat politely. “I beg pardon, but I’m afraid I must have a word with my sister.”
The Duke of Whitefern turned and Regina’s breath caught in her throat. He was tall, though not as tall as some men that she knew. He had dark hair and warm blue eyes. Regina had grown up with Natalie’s clear, bright ones. She hadn’t known that blue eyes could seem so warm and inviting.
It was more than simply a matter of being handsome—which he was. His entire face was firm, solid, as though he had been carved from stone. The warmth she saw in his eyes seemed quite at odds with the intimidating look of that face.
Regina found herself at a loss for words. He scared her, somehow. But not in the usual way. She couldn’t put a name to it. Still, he scared her.
“Lord Harrison,” Bridget said. “Allow me to introduce my youngest sister, Miss Regina Hartfield. Regina, this is Lord Harrison, the Duke of Whitefern.”
“It seems that beauty runs in the family,” Lord Harrison said. He bowed, taking Regina’s hand to kiss it. Warmth spread from the place where his lips had touched.
It made Regina want to snatch her hand away, but she didn’t know why. It must have been the headache.
Or perhaps it was the fact that he had inferred that she was beautiful. She did not appreciate flatterers, even less so when the flattery was untrue. She knew what she looked like. Irritation surged up within her, startling her.
“I apologize for the interruption,” she said. “May I speak to my sister for one moment?”
“Certainly.” Lord Harrison bowed and parted.
“Another suitor, I suppose?” Regina asked. She couldn’t help herself. She wasn’t quite sure why Lord Harrison was provoking such an emotional response within her. It was unusual.
“He intends to be, I am sure,” Bridget said. “I have met him at other balls and he has made his regard for me clear.”
“But you do not like him? He is a Duke.”
“He has made his money as a gambler, and we have quite enough of those in our family already,” Bridget said firmly.
Regina nodded, secretly quite pleased. She knew it was childish but she really did not want Bridget to marry just yet. “May I take the carriage home? I have the most awful headache.”
“You will have to ask Father about that.”
That was what Regina had been afraid she’d say. “Where is he?”
“Where else? In the side parlor.”
Regina nodded. Gambling again. “If he says yes, do you say yes?”
Bridget nodded. “None of us shall want for offers of a ride home. Mr. Fairchild will take us all if no one else. But Father is not a young, pretty woman.”
“Mr. Fairchild will take him as well as Louisa.”
“Perhaps. But it’s one thing for a young lady to ask a gentleman for a ride home after a ball. It’s quite another for an older gentleman to ask another. There is the matter of his pride.”
“Very well.” Regina sighed. “I shall ask him.”
She left Bridget and made her way to the side parlor. It was like stepping into another world. The rest of the house was brightly lit and crowded, filled with noise. The side parlor was done up in dark reds and dimly lit. It was smaller as well, so that the eight men inside seemed to dominate it.
Regina knew all of the men assembled. Lord Harrison was standing off to the side and was the only man she knew by name only. The others she knew both in personality and reputation.
Father was seated at the table with three others. The ones on either side of him were rather young men, a Mr. Charleston and a Mr. Denny. Both looked rather crestfallen.
The one seated directly across from Father—he made her heart sink. Her headache fled completely to be replaced by an awful coldness in her gut.
It was Lord Pettifer.
The man had proposed to Bridget a couple of years ago. He’d only known her for ten days. Bridget had turned him down and he’d called her the most awful names for it.
Natalie had told Regina later on that the man was a terrible rake. He was rumored to have left the daughter of a groundskeeper in the family way up north. He was certainly an unashamed gambler. Unlike most men who pretended they bet only a little—even when they bet a lot—Lord Pettifer boasted of how much he had staked and won.
Lord Pettifer had reason to boast, apparently. He was a veritable card shark. Or so Natalie had told her.
And now he was facing off against Father. Father, who was an awful gambler and had taken up cards as a way to get over his wife’s death.
Regina felt a hand at her elbow and looked up into the blue eyes of Lord Harrison. “You shouldn’t be in here,” he said quietly.
“I know that women aren’t allowed,” she protested. “I simply have to speak with my father.”
“It’s not only because women aren’t allowed.” Lord Harrison’s voice was surprisingly soft. There was something else in there too, a protectiveness. “This isn’t a good time.”
“I only want to ask him a question.” What on earth was the matter?
There was a cry from the table. Regina knew that sound—it was her father.
She shoved past Lord Harrison, who was far too surprised to stop her. “Father?”
Father looked very pale, staring at the cards on the table. Lord Pettifer looked far too pleased with himself. Smug, even. Regina thought he looked like a rat.
“It appears as though I’ve won after all,” he said.
Father looked like he might faint. Regina hurried up to him and put her hands on his shoulders. “Father? Are you quite all right?”
“This must be the youngest of your lovely daughters,” Lord Pettifer said. “My deepest condolences.”
Deepest condolences? Regina looked from Lord Pettifer to her father. “What’s going on?”
“Lord Hartfield.” It was Lord Harrison. “If I may escort your daughter out?”
Father nodded, still pale and distracted. Lord Harrison turned to Mr. Denny. “Denny, if you’ll get Hartfield some water here. Pettifer, do us all a favor and collect your winnings and leave.”
“I don’t understand.” Regina stood firm. “Why must you offer condolences?”
“Regina, please leave,” Father said faintly.
“No.” She startled herself with how firm her voice sounded. “I want to know what is going on.”
“What is going on,” Lord Pettifer said, standing, “Is that you are about to find your circumstances wildly changed.”
He held up his winnings. There was a wad of notes, a ring, and a piece of paper.
Regina looked closer. No, it wasn’t just a piece of paper. It was signed. She squinted until she could read it.
I, Lord Hartfield, do will the holder of this paper the rights and lands owned by me according to the laws of the gentry.
Her father had gambled everything.
And he had lost.
Her knees nearly buckled and only a warm, strong hand at her elbow kept her upright. She looked up to see Lord Harrison looking at her with his brows drawn together. He seemed concerned.
“You should follow me, Miss Regina,” he murmured.
Regina yanked her arm away. She had no idea where the impertinence came from. She was never like this. “Father. Have you truly gambled away our lands?”
Lord Pettifer gave an exaggerated sigh. “I did tell him I had a good hand.”
“Which you always say when you have a bad one!” Father bellowed.
Regina wrapped an arm around Father’s shoulders. He was working himself up into a state. “Father, please, don’t yell. Come with me and we’ll get you sorted.”
“There is no sorting,” Mr. Charleston snorted.
“Hold your tongue,” Lord Harrison instructed. “Pettifer. Leave. Lord Hartfield, do sit down. Miss Regina if you’ll come with me.”
“Go,” Father said. His voice didn’t even sound like his. It was shaking and frail. Regina had never heard him sound so old.
Lord Harrison took her by the elbow again and this time she allowed it.
“Surely this is not legal,” she whispered.
Lord Harrison led her out of the room and through to the front door. “It doesn’t matter.”
He opened the front door and the cool night air hit her face. Only as the wind passed over her face did she realize how hot she had gotten. She was practically shaking.
“Just lean back here.” Lord Harrison helped her to lean against the wall of the house. “There now.”
Regina looked up at him. “Why does it not matter if it isn’t legal?”
Lord Harrison looked away from her. There was light spilling out of the windows of the house on one side. On the other, there were the pearl-white beams of the moon. Both sources coupled with the shadows to play over Lord Harrison’s face and place him in contrast: one-half golden and lit up, the other half silvery pale.
Regina wondered which side was true. He looked oddly warm on one half and cold and calculating on the other. It reminded her of the fairy stories Bridget would read to her when she was a child. There were stories about fairy kings in them. They’d enchant you and then whisk you away and entrap you.
She shook her head clear of such thoughts. They were childish and ridiculous. And if there was a time for such thoughts, it wasn’t now. She spoke again.
“If I am to be kicked out of my home and my sisters left penniless, I deserve to know why. Surely my father—”
She cut herself off. She had meant to say, surely my father is not such a fool. But that wasn’t necessarily true, was it? He had been a slave to the cards for years. Regina had eavesdropped on many an argument between Bridget and Father over the matter.
He had lost thousands of pounds over the years at cards. Was it truly so hard to believe that he would lose their home as well?
Lord Harrison sighed and looked back at her. “Miss Regina. You must understand. It is not legally binding. No judge would enforce it. But there is the matter of honor.”
“Your father made a promise in front of others. He swore to honor that promise should he lose. He lost. To back out now would save his land but impugn his honor. He would be looked at with disdain.”
“And he shall be looked at with such high regard once he is penniless and without land?”
Lord Harrison inclined his head as if tipping his hat to her. “You see clearly the conundrum you’ve been left in.”
“That I—” Regina’s blood froze.
She worried not for herself. She would not miss the balls and the dinners and the like. There was the fear of what it might take to maintain an income. Begging from friends and relying on charity made her stomach churn with humiliation.
But her sisters… her beautiful, stunning sisters. Natalie would wilt when she heard the news. Mr. Fairchild would never be able to marry Louisa now. Elizabeth’s sharp wit and fiery temper would become vices rather than amusing virtues.
And what of Bridget? Her sister had rallied them all together when Mother had died. What man would have her now?
Regina had wanted to keep Bridget all to herself but not like this. Not at this price.
Some of her horror must have shown on her face, for Lord Harrison’s brow tightened. “I am sorry, Miss Regina.”
Her mind raced. “What is to be done? How can this be salvaged?”
“Yes. Surely there is something that we can do to preserve ourselves.”
“Well…” Lord Harrison thought for a moment. “Do your sisters have prospects?”
“My three eldest. One is engaged, although it is not common knowledge. The other two have many suitors.”
“Then tell them to accept one of them at once. Have their marriages without delay.”
“My sister’s fiancé cannot marry her. His aunt will not allow it. If they marry she shall rewrite her will to leave him nothing.”
“And will he stand by her when the news breaks?”
Regina shook her head. “I do not know.”
“If your sisters marry quickly, their husbands can provide for you and your other unmarried sister. Their reputations and income will preserve you until you can be wed.”
“How quickly will the news get out?”
“More quickly than you would expect.”
Regina passed her hand over her eyes. This felt like a nightmare. It couldn’t possibly be real.
But if this was a dream she wouldn’t have been able to conjure up a man like Lord Harrison. She couldn’t have dreamt such detail. And she could remember every step she had taken throughout the day.
This was all horribly real.
“I shall have to tell them,” she said. Her voice was thick and she swallowed quickly. She would not cry in front of a man she didn’t even know. “Father will bungle the whole thing.”
“Perhaps in the morning. They will be too exhausted to deal with it properly tonight.”
Regina nodded. “Bridget will know what to do.”
Regina looked up at him. Lord Harrison’s eyes had lit up in a look that she knew well. She had seen many a man look at Bridget in that way, and Natalie as well. It was how Mr. Fairchild looked at Louisa.
“My eldest sister, with whom you were speaking earlier. She manages our affairs. She’ll know what to do.”
Lord Harrison inclined his head again. “Well, please give my condolences to your sister and inform her that should she be in need of a suitor, I stand ready and waiting.”
“That is rather bold of you, sir,” Regina replied. She blinked, surprised at herself. She was not normally so snappish. Perhaps it was the stress. Or perhaps it was that she wanted to protect Bridget.
Lord Harrison chuckled. “There’s a feisty one inside of you yet, Miss Regina. And here I had heard that you were the mouse of the five.”
Regina swallowed. She knew that she was plain in features. And she knew that she was quiet. But to learn they called her a mouse…
It stung, honestly.
But she would not be a mouse where Bridget was concerned. “My sister is an accomplished woman,” she said. “Only the best of men could hope to win her hand.”
“And you clearly do not think I am the best of men,” Lord Harrison replied. He seemed amused by this, smiling down at her. Regina shivered at that, but not unpleasantly. He looked striking like this, smiling with the moonlight on his face.
“I think that I do not know you well enough to cast judgment. But if you wish to win Bridget, you’d do well to proceed with more delicacy.”
“Delicacy?” Lord Harrison chuckled. “Miss Regina, the time for delicacy is at an end. You and your sisters are, as of now, dependent upon the goodwill of others. You must learn to be bold.”
“In speaking plainly to you I think that I am being quite bold.”
“Miss Regina.” Lord Harrison sighed. He briefly clenched his hand into a fist in frustration. “I apologize if I have offended you. But my offer is genuine. You and your sisters need the protection of a husband since your father can no longer provide any. I am willing and happy to offer your sister my heart and my home. Please convey this to her if it please you.
“You must understand the danger you are now in. I do not wish to see five innocent women thrown out onto the street. My words may be direct but my intentions are good.”
He took his hand in hers. Regina was surprised both by the size of it and how warm it was. It practically encased her own. It felt oddly as though the warmth and weight of his hand was the only thing anchoring her.
Lord Harrison’s eyes bore into hers. She felt a bit like a mouse pinned by a snake, except there was no malice in his gaze. “Believe me, I am only trying to help you.”
Regina swallowed. “You have helped, sir, and I thank you for it. The night air has done some good. As has your advice.”
She took a deep breath to steady herself. “I must get to my father. My sisters shall stay. It will be remarked upon if we all retire so early. I shall take my father home. Mr. Fairchild will give my sisters a ride back. Then I will speak to them of this in the morning.”
“Good girl,” Lord Harrison said. He squeezed her hand. “Have a calm head and act quickly. It is the only way to save yourselves.”
Regina nodded. Yes. Stay calm and act quickly. She could do that. Or, rather, Bridget could. She felt certain that Bridget would know what to do.
Then she realized with a start that Lord Harrison was still holding her hand. She slid her hand out of his grasp. Immediately she missed the safe feeling it had given her and the warmth it had provided.
“Thank you again, Lord Harrison. I shall take my leave, if I may.”
Lord Harrison made a shooing gesture. “Do what you must. And remember what I said.”
Regina hurried back into the house. She could feel Lord Harrison’s eyes tracking her the entire way. It felt like they were burning into her back.
Regina returned to the side parlor to find that all the men had cleared it. Save for Mr. Denny, who was sitting with Father.
“Mr. Denny, your kindness will not be forgotten,” she said, crossing to Father’s side.
Mr. Denny stood at once. “Anything for the Hartfields, Miss Regina. Are you quite well?”
“Yes. Lord Harrison forced me to take some night air. It did me some good.”
Regina knelt in front of Father. He had sunk back into his chair and still looked pale. He turned his green eyes to her. They looked watery.
“Father,” Regina whispered. “Are you quite all right?”
He shook his head. “I have ruined us,” he whispered.
“Don’t fret,” Regina said immediately. Her voice held a firmness she did not feel. “We shall find a way out of this. Never you fret.”
She looked up at Mr. Denny. “If I may take advantage of your good nature once more, sir?”
“As I said, anything.”
“Would you please find my sister, Miss Hartfield? Inform her that Father is feeling unwell and I have taken him home in the carriage.”
As the eldest, Bridget was known among society as Miss Hartfield. The second eldest, Louisa, was known as Miss Louisa Hartfield. Natalie, Elizabeth, and Regina were all known simply as Miss.
Mr. Denny bowed. “I shall inform her. I hope your father recovers. And…” he hesitated. “If there is anything I can do to assist, please inform me.”
“Not unless you are willing to marry one of us,” Regina replied before she could stop herself.
Mr. Denny flushed. Regina felt rather like bashing her head against the card table. When had she become so impudent?
“I was only jesting, of course,” she said quickly. “I apologize. Think nothing of it. I fear my mind is not at rights.”
“No apology is necessary,” Mr. Denny replied, just as hasty. He bowed again and hurried out the door.
Well, there was one man she’d just scared away from her family.
“Up you get, Father,” Regina said. It took some tugging but she convinced Father to stand on his own two feet. “I’m taking you home.”
She got him out to the carriage without much incident. It was only once they were safely inside that Father broke down.
Regina had never once seen her father cry. She had heard him in his study sometimes. After Mother had died, he would lock himself inside for hours. Regina would creep down at night to see if he was still there. If she pressed her ear to the door, she was able to hear quiet sobs.
She had wondered then what kind of love was so deep it ruined a man. She had then wondered if any man would ever love her like that.
She doubted it.
But now Father was sitting next to her in the carriage and crying. He was doing it quietly without much fuss. Regina would have expected great heaving and sobbing. But her father merely let the tears run down his face.
It was awkwardly silent. Regina had no idea what to say.
When they arrived home she helped him out of the carriage.
“Here we are,” she said, speaking to him as if he were a child. “I’ll get the front door.”
Father looked down at her. “You know you have your mother’s eyes?”
Regina stopped and turned to look at him. “Yes. Bridget has said so.”
“The prettiest brown eyes, they were. So soft and dark.” Father sighed. “I apologize. You must forgive an old man’s ramblings.”
“You are not so old, Father.” Regina took his hand and led him inside.
“I am old enough to be labeled an old fool.”
“I suspect Mr. Charleston called you that and I will have none of it. He is a sour man of little fortune.”
Father shook his head. “He was right. Regina, I have just ruined us. And I have been ruining us for years.”
“Don’t say that.” She started to lead him up the stairs. She was grateful the servants were abed so none of them saw Father this way.
“I suppose Bridget hasn’t told you.” Father let Regina lead him easy as a lamb. “My weakness for cards led us close to bankruptcy even before tonight. It was why I have been urging you girls toward marriage.
“I feel as though I am seized by a devil. I cannot stop myself. Each time I see the cards and think, I shall win. I must win. Surely this time… and then nothing but more loss.
“Your poor sister has been at her wit’s end. I have promised her and promised her that I would stop. And I have failed. Now you will all perish.”
“Now Father, be reasonable. The whole world knows Lord Pettifer is the most disgraceful of men. It is his title alone that keeps him on invitations. It is not as if Natalie ran off to Gretna Green.”
Father shook his head. “No man will have you girls now.”
“Lord Harrison asked for Bridget’s hand even after your losses,” Regina blurted out.
Father stopped on the stairs and stared at her. “Did he now?”
Regina nodded. She felt a little as though she had betrayed Lord Harrison’s confidence. But then, he had not asked her to keep it a secret. And he must ask Father’s permission before marrying Bridget anyhow.
“I am not sure of him,” Father admitted. “I have heard the most wild stories. Nothing about him is known for certain. But he has wealth and seems a good man, if mysterious. Bridget could do worse given our changed circumstances.”
“I am certain other men will come forward as well,” Regina said. She spoke with a confidence she did not feel. “Now come, we must get you to bed.”
She helped him get up the rest of the stairs and into his chambers. It felt so odd, as though their positions had reversed: he the child and she the parent.
Father didn’t say anything more as she helped him. Not until he was in bed and she prepared to walk away. Then he caught his hand in hers and said,
“I am glad that one of you took after your mother.”
“I have been informed that I am nothing like mother,” Regina replied. Elizabeth had hurled that truth at her one day during a fight.
Father shook his head. “No. You and Bridget are like your mother. But you got just a bit more of her, I think.”
He raised his hand and gently touched right between her eyes. “Your eyes.”
Regina gently set his hand down on the bed and patted it. “Sleep, Father. We shall deal with this in the morning.”
She made sure all was taken care of and then went to bed herself. She knew that she should get some rest but for a while she simply couldn’t sleep.
She tossed and turned. But everything from the night played back at her. Especially Lord Harrison. She could see his eyes staring straight into hers as he promised that he only wanted to help. She could feel his hand holding hers, making her feel safe.
Regina sat up in frustration. Why should she be thinking of a man she had just met? It was of Father she should be thinking. Father and her family’s future.
She had no inclination to marry. And she did not think her sisters would appreciate being rushed into marriage themselves. To marry a husband for charity? Out of desperation? It seemed so base.
Marriage was to make a good match. It was an economical decision. To marry a man for love alone was folly. But neither was marriage something to be rushed into. It required a careful weighing of pros and cons. It went against Regina’s nature to rush herself or her sisters into matrimony.
If only there was a way to get back their fortune and land so that they could rely on Father as before. Then they could marry as other women did, smartly and in proper time. What would society say of them all getting married at once?
Her sisters deserved better than marrying under a cloud of scandal. And Father deserved better than the pity and judgment he would receive.
If only she could think of a way.
Regina distantly heard the sound of the front door. She checked the clock. Her sisters were back earlier than expected.
There was the sound of thumping feet and then the door to her bedroom flew open.
It was Elizabeth, her green eyes all but glowing and her chest heaving.
“Regina!” She snapped. “Care to inform me why Mr. Denny just proposed to me?”
The sisters all met in Bridget’s room.
Louisa sat quietly on the bed, propped up with pillows. Elizabeth paced back and forth. Natalie was curled up on the windowsill. Bridget was on the edge of the bed next to Louisa.
Regina stood in the middle. It felt a little like she was on stage.
“Spare nothing,” Bridget told her.
As simply as she could she told them what had happened. Elizabeth uttered many words that a lady shouldn’t know. Natalie clapped a hand over her mouth. And Louisa burst into tears.
Bridget merely stayed silent.
When Regina had finished she looked to her sister for guidance. Before Bridget said anything, however, Louisa cut in.
“Charles can never marry me now,” she whispered through her tears.
“There, now,” Bridget said, patting Louisa’s knee soothingly. “Mr. Fairchild will not hesitate to wed you. I should say this gives him more reason to.”
“If only his aunt would hurry up and die,” Elizabeth said with an eye roll. When the other four looked at her, she shrugged. “Don’t look so scandalized. You’re all thinking it.”
“You must accept Mr. Denny,” Natalie said.
“I am not accepting a man I hardly know,” Elizabeth replied.
“He has an income of ten thousand a year and that’s all you need know!” Natalie hissed. “I should think you’d put up with half that a year if the man was fool enough to put up with you.”
“Squabbling will get us nowhere,” Bridget said. “Elizabeth, please consider Mr. Denny’s proposal. He is a good man and has been watching you for some time.”
“Watching is not half as good as speaking. If he has been watching me as you say then why not ask me to dance?”
“Because you are a harpy that does nothing but insult the man fool enough to ask you.”
“Natalie, enough!” Bridget commanded.
Natalie fell silent.
Bridget drew herself up. “You could do well to improve yourself, Natalie. You cannot treat men as playthings. Pick one, and pick now. The time for indecision is over.”
Natalie huffed but said nothing.
“And what of me?” Regina asked.
Bridget looked over at her. Her green eyes warmed and she almost smiled. “Don’t fret for anything, darling.”
“There’s no need to play favorites,” Elizabeth said. “She’s eighteen, that’s old enough to marry.”
“And how will it look if all of us marry at once?” Bridget replied. “And if the youngest marries before her elders?” She gestured at Louisa.
Elizabeth had nothing to say to that. What Bridget said was true. Two of them getting married at once would raise eyebrows but not too many. Three or four of them? Everyone would know the real reason they had tied the knot. The gossip would never cease.
As for age, it was commonly accepted—although by no means a rule—that the elder daughters married first. For Regina to marry before Louisa would provoke spinster comments about Louisa. Comments that her sweet sister did not deserve.
“And what of you, Bridget?” Natalie asked. “Surely you have suitors.”
“I have. And I shall think on who would best suit me. I shall have to be married first, if Louisa is not. But there is nothing stopping either you or Elizabeth from entering an engagement.”
“Let us face the truth, Bridget,” Louisa said. Regina was surprised that she had spoken up. She sounded incredibly tired.
“We must face it. Marriage will save us financially. But it will not—nothing can save our reputations. Especially Father’s. It will be years before people will stop whispering about it. Any man who marries us will have to take that on.”
“The whispers will die down as soon as the next scandal comes,” Bridget replied.
“Our lives will never be the same,” Louisa countered. “We shall be indebted to our husbands as most women never are. Our wedding days will be covered in clouds. Father might never be welcomed back into society.”
“This is how our lives are now,” Bridget said. “Perfect marriages they might not be. But they are all we have. Let us be thankful that we have suitors willing to marry us. Not every woman is so lucky.”
Again, Regina wished that there was a way to fix this. If only they could win back their land. That would stick it to Lord Pettifer. Then this cloud wouldn’t be over her sisters’ marriages. Father could hold his head high again.
“Then prove it to us,” Elizabeth said. “Find yourself a husband.”
Bridget thought for a moment. “I shall choose my husband the night of Lord and Lady Morrison’s annual masquerade ball. It is in a month’s time. Is that acceptable?”
The other three women nodded. Regina didn’t. She couldn’t. A thought had hit her like a lightning bolt. Her skin tingled and her stomach flipped.
Lord and Lady Morrison’s masquerade ball.
There was a way to win their land and money back. There was a way to fix all of this.
She had figured it out.
Want to read how the story continues?
The honorable Miss Isabella Watts, daughter of Baron Leinster, is living a nightmare.
All in the span of a week, she hears news of her father’s death, the removal of all she owns to pay off debts she had not known of, and to make matter worse, she has to surrender into the hands of her late father’s business partner. The awful Mr. Smith has taken it upon himself to make not just her life’s comforts disappear, but he is also willing to work any means of deceit to make her good reputation vanish.
The Marquess of Bellfourd has struggled to find his rightful place in life. This is mostly because it was never meant to be his. Upon the death of his elder brother, however, he has now been called back from his life in the Navy, to join at his father’s side, the Duke of Wintercrest. The only thing he finds more difficult than readjusting to the civilian life of a gentleman is being in the constant presence of a father who has up until this moment cared very little for him.
Isabella runs to the opportunity to teach a pupil far north from the London city she loves, for no other reason than to escape the clutches of Mr. Smith. When she enters the house of the Duke of Wintercrest, she learns that deep rift troubles the family and her dear student seems to be right at the core of it.
Isabella is determined not only to finally seek refuge from her own villain, but also to help heal the wounds left in the hearts of Wintercrest Manor.
However, all this might be for naught, when one misfortune after another seems to be continually shadowing the threshold of the duke’s home.
Will Isabella find her place? Can she help to heal the hurt in the Wintercrest Manor? Will she ever really escape the clutches of Mr. Smith?
“Falling for the governess” is a historical regency romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.