Days were beautiful at Balwell Manor, as beautiful as they had ever been. Summer had arrived and with it the warmth Beatrice had grown accustomed to since their move to the manor some four years before. There were no imposing buildings to block the sunshine and warm breezes. There was nothing but acres of green gardens and bright flowers.
Beatrice looked out her window as the sun rose above the horizon. It was the best time of day for her. The time of day when she had uninterrupted minutes to herself before she was inundated. She enjoyed the few moments as she stood in her shift, her long golden hair hung over her shoulder in a loose braid. Any moment there would be a knocking on her door. She could almost count the seconds to it.
The rapping began a heartbeat later and Beatrice smiled at the accuracy of the child. Matthew was better than any clock. He got up and came to wake her at the same time every day. Concepts such as holidays or Sundays mattered little to him. He knew, that once he woke, it was time to get his Aunt Beatrice.
She turned, her bare feet striding slowly to the light blue door with its gold leaf design painted along the border and trim. It matched those that lined the walls. The Earl of Wismoth, her sister’s father-in-law, had spared no expense to ensure that his home lacked nothing in terms of elegance and detail. His wife, Lady Wismoth, had taken great care of the home in her life, and he had seen to its upkeep since her death.
The smile was already on her face as she turned the handle on the door and pulled it open. There stood her little man, his dark brown hair unkempt atop his head as he rubbed his eyes. He looked up at her sleepily and then stepped toward her with raised arms.
“Good morning, my sweet Matthew,” Beatrice said, as she kissed his cheek soundly before turning back into the room and shutting the door behind him. Matthew was a little over two-years-old now but he was a very determined child. His room was next to hers and because of it he always found his way to her whenever he wanted something.
“What are you doing about?” she questioned as she sat upon her bed and pulled Matthew onto her lap. He was still half asleep and would more than likely finish his rest in her bed before he was ready for the day.
Matthew didn’t answer, instead, he clung to her neck and nestled into the crook of it. Yes, he was still very much in a state of sleep.
“Come, let’s get you back to bed,” she said as she leaned back against her pillows and pulled her nephew into her body. She played with his dark brown hair as he slowly drifted back to sleep. How she adored watching him rest. He was like an angel and caring for him was her heaven.
Beatrice had little in life. And once upon a time it used to matter, but now she had accepted her fate. Love was not for her. Marriage was a fantasy she had been blinded by for the past twenty-five years of her life and now she was finished with it. Her entire world was her sister, Helena, and her family. Beatrice needed nothing else, or so she told herself.
She remained in bed with Matthew for more than half an hour before she called up the maid to help her with her bath. Millicent, her chambermaid, brought up eight large buckets of heated water to fill the clawed bathtub in her washroom. Matthew was still asleep by the time it was ready.
Beatrice lay in the tub, soapy bubbles surrounding her, as she thought about her life. This was not what she had expected. And now with mother and father gone to Bath, she felt more and more out of place at Balwell Manor. There was so much here that reminded her of what she didn’t have.
Her mother and father had moved to Bath almost a year ago. Her father’s health, though improved since his release from prison after he was exonerated, had begun to decline once more. The physicians had recommended a change of air for the sake of his health and Bath had been their recommendation. The Earl of Wismoth had very kindly seen to their accommodations.
She wondered how they were. Letters came every few weeks but it still didn’t change the fact that they were no longer with her. She would have gone with them if Helena hadn’t needed her help at Balwell.
Helena’s pregnancy with Matthew had been an easy one, but several months later, when she became pregnant with Elizabeth, things were not so. Elizabeth was more temperamental than her older brother and Helena’s sickness had been significant. Beatrice had stayed to see to the house and her sister’s care. She would not have them hire a woman to do what she could for her own family.
After her bath, and getting Matthew ready, she took her nephew for a walk in the gardens before breakfast. It was only eight in the morning and breakfast would not be ready for another hour.
Matthew liked the outdoors, just like his mother, and Beatrice loved to watch him play. He ran amongst the topiaries while she chased him. It was the only time she got to laugh and she enjoyed it thoroughly. He had the gift of erasing all her worries.
“Good morning,” she said with a smile as she and Matthew walked into the dining room. Breakfast was already laid for them, clotted cream and preserves, fresh bread and some slices of ham. The Earl, her brother-in-law’s father, was seated with his usual cup of coffee already cradled in his hand.
Matthew ran to his grandfather. “Poppa!”
“Good morning,” he replied with a smile. “You look very well today. I see the two of you have been out in the gardens.”
Beatrice smiled at the way the Earl and his grandson greeted one another. The Earl pulled Matthew into his arms, setting him on his lap. He nuzzled the small boy playfully and himself became as a child again. It was beautiful to watch.
“Where are Helena and Elias?” she questioned as she took a seat beside him.
The Earl’s eyes and arms were occupied but he did look up to answer her. “Elias and your sister will be down shortly,” he informed her. “I believe little Elizabeth did not give her parents very much sleep last night.”
Beatrice smiled. “She is a very spirited girl, just like her mother.”
The Earl smirked. “Indeed.”
Beatrice plucked a sourdough roll from the basket and broke it in two. She spread one side with raspberry preserves and the other with clotted cream before sandwiching them together once more. She took a big bite.
“Some tea, Miss?” Nellie, the new housemaid inquired as she held the pot for her.
“Thank you,” Beatrice replied politely with a smile. The girl was young, seventeen at best, but she had already worked in several good homes.
The girl poured her tea and then excused herself. The Earl was still playing with Matthew, his breakfast completely forgotten for the moment. Beatrice took another bite of her roll.
“Good morning, Father,” Helena said several minutes later as she walked into the room. She kissed the Earl’s cheek before her son laid hold of her gown.
“Good morning, my darling.” Helena kissed Matthew’s forehead as she lifted him into her arms, setting him on her hip.
“Helena,” Beatrice said with a smile as her sister came toward her.
“Good morning, Bea,” her sister replied as she kissed Beatrice’s cheek also. “You look very well this morning.”
Why was everyone saying that? Did she not usually look well? Beatrice wondered but didn’t voice the question. She sipped her tea instead.
“Good morning to all,” Elias said enthusiastically as he entered the room with a broad smile. Clearly, his infant daughter had not disturbed him very much.
“Elias, there you are,” his father called. “I wanted to speak with you before I headed into town for the day.”
“Of course, Father,” Elias replied as he pulled out the seat beside the older gentleman. Helena walked around the table and took the seat on the other side of Elias.
“I have been looking at the information you provided on our holdings in the West Indies, and I believe that a visit is necessary,” the Earl informed.
Beatrice’s eyes moved to Helena. Her sister sat quietly with her son on her lap. Her eyes rose to meet hers but neither woman said anything. A trip to the West Indies would mean Elias would be absent for months. Helena had a two-year-old son and a two-month-old daughter.
She smiled and Helena smiled back.
“Father, I thought you might think as much,” Elias replied. He turned to look at Helena. “However, I do not think the time ideal at present for such a trip. Elizabeth is new to the world and with the time Helena had during her pregnancy, I wouldn’t want to leave her on her own for so long.”
The Earl nodded. “I understand. That is why I am considering the voyage myself.”
All eyes turned to the Earl. It had been some time since he had turned the affairs of the Repington family over to his son. He had retracted himself from work in order to enjoy more time with his family and to pursue more charitable pursuits. The thought of a long sea voyage was out of place.
“Father, are you really considering this?” Elias questioned.
“Yes. It has been years since I have visited the islands. I am not getting any younger and if I ever wish to see them again before my life is over I must do so now.”
“Do not speak in such a manner,” Beatrice said, feeling melancholy. “You have many good years left, my Lord.”
The Earl smiled at her. “You are very kind my dear, but as I learned in the navy, there is very little in this life that can be guaranteed. Today, we may be here and tomorrow we may be elsewhere. We must take our opportunities as they come.”
Beatrice internalized his words. They were a lesson she’d learned the hard way when her father had been wrongfully accused and their lives turned into a daily nightmare. Now, she was thankful for the peace that had come into their family and the comforts they now enjoyed.
“Very well Father, if you insist. I will see to the arrangements,” Elias answered.
“No need,” the Earl assured. “I make my own plans. You have enough on your plate as it is and I am not a child that I cannot make my own arrangements.”
“I wasn’t suggesting it,” Elias replied. “I simply wanted to help.”
“And that is appreciated,” the Earl replied. He turned to Beatrice. “If I need assistance, I am sure I can find someone more than capable of handling it,” he stated.
Beatrice smiled at the older man. Since her move to Balwell and Helena’s pregnancy, her sister’s role as the Earl’s right-hand had fallen on her – a position she rather enjoyed. He trusted her with much of his house and during the worse of Helena’s illness during her pregnancy, it was Beatrice to whom the household reported.
“I will do whatever I can to help,” Beatrice said with a smile before sipping her tea.
“What a family I have,” the Earl said suddenly. “I have been truly blessed. I have three grown children under my roof, one of my blood and two of my choosing, and grandchildren in my old age.” He smiled brightly. “What more could I want?”
Beatrice’s heart was lightened to find herself included amongst those the Earl called family. Though it could not replace a family of her own, it was more than she had ever expected to be when she came to Balwell.
“Thank you, Father,” Helena replied.
“Yes, thank you, my Lord,” Beatrice chorused. “I hold you in as high a regard as my own father, and he sees you of equal importance to leave me in your care.”
“Your father knows that I would do nothing but the best for you Beatrice – both you and Helena. Though my son is more capable of tending to the concerns of your sister than I,” he said, giving Helena an impudent wink. “And as for you, Beatrice, I will see that you lack nothing while you are under my roof.”
“Your kindness means the world to me,” Beatrice said finally before the table fell into quiet conversation as breakfast continued. The sole voice that could be heard over them all was that of Matthew, who was insisting on his own way as usual.
The Duke of Everdale was bored of London. Though that was not the reason he had accepted the invitation of the Earl of Wismoth to spend a few days with him and his family at Balwell Manor. The Duke had received the invitation several days before and had immediately replied.
Indeed, Alexander Langdon, the ninth Duke of Everdale, was very eager to return to the home of his oldest family friend. The Earl of Wismoth had been a friend to his father before his death some fourteen years before. Alexander was only twenty-one at the time.
He sat back comfortably as he watched London peel away behind him and the countryside expand before him. Lendenbarrow was a beautiful county, nearly as beautiful as Everdale, but not quite. Though, Alexander could not be sure what exactly had become of his home in the years since his last visit.
It had been five years since he had last returned, and even then, it had only been for a matter of days. France had become his new home, though now his time there would be at an end. England and his obligations had brought him home and now he had to see to the business of his estate.
Alexander left London in the early morning. It took several hours to reach Lendenbarrow and he was expected for dinner. He hated to be late. He was a man who prided himself on his punctuality.
His fingers lightly tapped the frame of the window of his carriage as he traveled further into the country. There was little to do but think and there was much of that for him. He was thirty-five with no heir and time was catching up on him.
Men of means were in want of a wife. It was true. Some mocked at the sentiments that some possessed, but it did nothing to disqualify the facts of the matter. A wealthy man needed an heir to continue his line and to pass on his wealth or else it would be entailed away to some other branch of the family.
He dozed on the trip and the image of a pretty brunette filled his mind. She was smiling at him, as she blew a kiss in his direction. He was younger, much younger in his dreams and infinitely happier. He ran after and she ran from him.
‘Cecilia! Cecilia!’ He called but still, she ran from him, a laugh playing at her lips as she turned to look at him over her shoulder. She was stunning, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
‘Come back,’ he called. Still, she ran. ‘Come back!’ he pleaded but she continued to move farther and farther away from him. He watched in dismay as the gap between them grew larger. The faster he ran to catch her the farther away she got until finally she was gone.
Alexander’s eyes flew open. He had been napping. It had been a long time since he’d dreamed of her. It was always the same. He chased her and she escaped from him. She never stayed. He always lost her.
The carriage came to a halt and Alexander peered out the window at Balwell Manor. The torches were lit and the manor was bathed in their yellow light. The footmen came to greet him. They opened the carriage door and Alexander immediately stepped out.
He was a tall man, well over six feet. He towered over the men beside him. His shoes shone in the light. His French suit was equally elegant and well-made. No expense was spared. Alexander wasn’t a man to pinch pennies nor did he conserve. He paid for what he wanted and he always got what he wanted.
Alexander strode up to the house. The Earl of Wismoth was waiting at the door to greet him. He smiled and extended his hand as Alexander drew near.
“Walter,” Alexander greeted the older man, as he took his hand. They embraced, giving each other a friendly pat on the back.
“I’m glad to see you. On time as usual,” the Earl replied.
“You know how I hate tardiness. It’s terribly disrespectful of the time of others.”
“Very true,” the Earl agreed. “Come, the family is waiting for you inside.”
Alexander nodded politely before following the older man inside.
The house was much warmer than Alston. The halls were painted in light colors, beautiful paintings adorned the walls and the pale marble floors were exquisite. He always loved what Lady Wismoth had done with the house after she had become the mistress of it. Cecilia would’ve done the same to Alston if she had been given the chance.
The Earl led him into the parlor, there he found Elias, Viscountess Chatleton, and her sister sitting in conversation.
“Elias. Helena. Beatrice. His Grace has arrived,” the Earl announced. The trio stood on ceremony, each bowing their heads cordially. Alexander did the same, while Elias’ son played at the feet of his parents.
“Your Grace,” Elias said with a smile as he stepped forward and shook his hand. “A pleasure to see you again.”
“Your Grace. How wonderful to have you back with us at Balwell,” his wife added as she stepped forward to greet him. She was a very pretty woman, a fact that Alexander had noted on his last visit. However, his eyes did not linger long on her pleasant face but moved to where her sister stood.
“Your Grace,” Beatrice said politely and promptly turned her attention from him to the small child at her feet. The boy seemed especially fond of her, another fact he had noted on his last visit. She was completely occupied by him and seemed disinterested in everything else.
Alexander joined in the conversation. He commented where necessary but mostly he observed. Beatrice Leeson was an attractive woman. Not especially beautiful but neither was she homely. She did have a very pleasant smile that seemed only to appear in the presence of her nephew. The child had a way of making her laugh and she treated him as if he were the only person in the room.
She liked children. That was a good thing.
They were called into dinner by Mrs. Ruskin.
“Your Grace,” the older woman said, as she bowed deeply.
“Mrs. Ruskin, a pleasure to see you again. I see the house is still in perfect order,” he commented.
“As usual, Your Grace, though I must admit that I have a lot of help with the household since Miss Beatrice does so much of the managing,” Mrs. Ruskin commented. She looked at the woman she spoke of as Beatrice passed them on her way to the dining room. The child was still with her.
“She has been an immense help to me and her sister. She has been indispensable to the Viscountess,” Mrs. Ruskin pointed out, speaking loud enough that Beatrice heard her.
“Mrs. Ruskin,” Beatrice commented with a slight blush. “You praise me too much.”
“I do not exaggerate,” Mrs. Ruskin replied. “The Earl would agree I’m sure.”
“That I would,” the Earl interjected as he joined them. “Beatrice has been an invaluable member of this household since her arrival. In fact, she has done no less than if this were her own home.”
“It is my home,” Beatrice replied with a small smile. “You have been kind enough to welcome me under your roof, even in the absence of my parents, and you have seen to my every comfort. Ensuring that all is well with you and this house is the least I can do.”
“You are a very industrious woman I take it, to care for a house this large,” Alexander commented as he studied her expression. She gave nothing away in her looks. Though her smiles were polite, her eyes stayed distant and her manner slightly aloof. She was amongst them but not with them.
“I do what I can Your Grace. My sister needed me and I stood in her place for a time. Now that Elizabeth is here and her health has improved, I am sure that the praise will be shifted to the deserving party,” Beatrice replied as she deflected attention from herself to her sister. Alexander found it curious. Most women loved to be praised and yet Beatrice Leeson seemed to want none of it.
The Earl and his family proceeded into the dining room but Alexander lingered behind. He wished to observe this curious woman more.
She was taller than her sister, but not the tallest woman he had ever seen. She was several inches below him in height, but her frame was slender and elegant, with poise and grace from years of tutelage in the ways of carrying herself. She was clearly well-mannered and educated as he’d learned from their first conversations.
In the dining room, Alexander was given the privilege of sitting at the Earl’s right-hand while Elias sat at his left with his wife beside him. Beatrice was the last to be seated. She had handed the child over to his nurse to see to his dinner and now she looked at the table as if deciding where she should sit. Again, Alexander found this interesting.
Most women, who knew of his status, were eager to be seated beside him. A widowed Duke, who was relatively young, was a prized commodity to every woman of his acquaintance. But Beatrice did not seem to behave as most women did.
She deliberated briefly before coming to take the seat beside him. Alexander stood and pulled the seat out for her. She looked at him in surprise as if the action had come as something unexpected before she slipped between the table and her chair and allowed him to push it in beneath her.
She refused to make eye contact with him. Was he so unpleasant?
“Are you usually so quiet, Miss Leeson?” he inquired several minutes after they began their meal.
“I do not think I have much to contribute to the conversation. It is my belief that when you have little to say, saying nothing is best.”
“Indeed. Is that truly how you feel, or do you have things you would wish to say but you feel saying them would be improper?” he asked as he looked at her curiously.
“I have nothing to say, Your Grace.”
“Very well,” he replied. “Will you be attending the Madsen ball in a few weeks? I hear that half the eligible men in London will be attending.”
“I declined the invitation,” Beatrice replied before turning back to her meal.
“Declined?” Alexander repeated curiously. “Why would you decline?”
“I have no interest in it,” she answered so matter-of-factly that Alexander could hardly believe his ears.
“You have no interest in meeting eligible gentlemen when you are an unmarried woman? You are an oddity, Miss Leeson,” Alexander commented calmly.
“Am I? I think I am quite wise in my practices,” she answered. “Why should I spend my time where it will be of no use to me? I am twenty-five, almost too old for most to consider for a wife. I have a happy, comfortable home with two beautiful children to occupy me and plenty of time to indulge my interests.”
“Is that really all you desire in life? A happy, comfortable home, a place to entertain yourself and children to occupy you? Do you not wish to marry?”
She smiled, but though it lifted her lips it did not near her eyes. “Your Grace, you ask a great many questions.”
“I have been told I am a curious man,” Alexander replied calmly as his eyes met hers. They were brown, unlike her sister’s emerald, but not a dull brown. The color was more like cognac.
“I would have to agree,” she replied coolly. “You seem to always have a number of things to ask me whenever we meet.”
“I would admit, Miss Leeson, that you leave me with no end of questions after we speak,” Alexander admitted.
“Why is that?”
“You never answer as I expect,” he replied. “I find it fascinating.”
“I believe that is the only time in my life I have ever heard the word fascinating associated with me,” Beatrice replied.
“I am surprised that you have not heard it more often,” Alexander countered. “You are indeed quite fascinating.”
“You have said that twice now. I would ask you to stop Your Grace, lest I believe you,” she said with a small smile.
“I always mean what I say,” he replied as he looked at her. She looked back at him, her expression slightly perplexed before she returned to her meal and he returned to his.
He had his answer. Beatrice Leeson was perfect.
It was another beautiful morning at Balwell and Beatrice found herself walking alone in the garden. Matthew was with his father on a fishing trip to the lake for the day and Helena was nursing Elizabeth. The Earl was shut up in his office attending to the arrangements for his trip. The voyage to the West Indies was daily becoming of more and more interest to him.
She walked slowly, enjoying the cool breeze and the warm sunshine. Ringlets of curls framed her face, while longer curls were pinned atop her head and fell down to her shoulders. She had allowed it to grow much longer since her move to Balwell, mostly because she was not being encouraged by her numerous friends to try different new styles with it. Beatrice had come to appreciate simplicity in her life.
Beatrice sat by the fountain in the garden. It was a special piece, designed for the late Lady Wismoth’s birthday many years ago. The pool was round in shape, the center spindle rose into the air two feet or more above her head. The front half of a horse marked the four cardinal points at the base, while the heads of lions adorned the middle and top tiers of the fountain. The water held there poured from the lions’ mouths into the pool below.
She sighed to herself. When Matthew wasn’t with her, she felt her loneliness acutely. She even found herself missing the Duke’s many questions. He was a very curious man. However, he had left for London a week ago after staying with them for several days.
Life truly was an unexpected thing. One could never know where one might end up or with whom. It was just a few short years ago that her father was looking at execution or transportation to the colonies for a crime he had not committed. Their family was on the verge of destitution, now she was sitting beside an expensive stone fountain looking up at a brilliant sun.
Indeed, life was unpredictable.
“Miss Leeson?” Mary Miller, one of the housemaids, greeted her as she approached.
“His Lordship wishes to see you in his study,” she informed politely.
Beatrice sighed. “Let him know that I will me there in a moment,” she replied. She wanted a minute more outside before returning indoors. She knew once she went in, it was unlikely she would get to return to the sun.
There were always a great many things to be done in a manor such as Balwell, and Beatrice had come to be mistress over much of it for the time. That would soon change. Helena was almost complete returned to herself and would once again see to the running of the house.
Beatrice took her time returning. She picked a small bouquet of flowers as she walked and brought them in with her.
“Mary, could you put these in some water and bring them into the Earl’s study?” she asked the housemaid as she passed her in the hall.
“Certainly Miss Leeson,” the girl replied as she took the small collection of colorful flowers and disappeared with them.
Beatrice made her way to the study and knocked before entering. The Earl’s calm voice answered from the other side bidding her enter.
“You wished to see me, Your Lordship?” she asked as she walked into the room. He was seated at his lavish desk with many papers decorating each corner along with the new lamp she had purchased for him during their last visit to London.
“Yes, my dear,” the Earl replied as he held out his hand and bid her take a seat on the other side of his desk.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, as she folded her skirt gently in front before she lowered herself into the chair.
He looked up at her with a serious expression.
“Beatrice, you know that your mother and father left you to my care now that they have gone to Bath. They trusted me because they believed me to have your best interests at heart,” he stated almost formally. His demeanor perplexed her. Why was he taking such an official stance?
“I do know this, my lord, and I am most grateful for the kindness you have shown me all this time,” Beatrice replied.
“It is my duty, therefore, to inform you of any matter which would be of importance and that might affect your future prospects,” the Earl continued.
“Yes, of course,” she replied, still quite confused about where this line of conversation was going.
“Then I must read this letter to you. It is from the Duke of Everdale. I received it some days ago and wanted to consider most carefully its contents before I brought it to your attention.”
“The Duke of Everdale wrote you a letter that would be of some interest to me?” Beatrice questioned, perplexed. “I have scarcely met the man. What subject could he have with you that should affect me?”
The Earl looked at her seriously. “It is better that I read to you from the letter,” he replied. Beatrice sat quietly, though her mind continued to reel. What could a man like the Duke of Everdale want with her?
“Dear Lord Wismoth. I thank you for the invitation which you bestowed upon me recently. I apologize for the delay of this letter, I contemplated its contents for some time before deciding to put my thoughts into writing,” the Earl began and Beatrice listened.
“I greatly enjoyed my time with you and your family,” the Earl continued. “However, that is not the primary reason I am writing. I am aware that Beatrice Leeson is in your care and I wish to convey to you my interest in taking Miss Beatrice Leeson for my wife.”
The Earl stopped at that and Beatrice’s heart stopped, too. Her brown eyes rose to the older man’s face in complete shock. She simply had no words.
“He goes on to say that he wishes for me to speak with you and to communicate with your father, if necessary.”
The Earl paused and studied Beatrice.
I can see by your expression that you were not aware of the Duke’s feelings for you,” the Earl commented calmly. Beatrice wondered at his coolness. The Duke of Everdale had just asked him for her hand in marriage. Calm was the least of her emotions.
“I had no idea,” Beatrice confessed. “He did question me quite intently at our few meetings, but I assure you that I never gave him any cause to think I desired more from him.”
The Earl sighed. “I did not think that the case. I knew the Duke was of a mind but I had no idea that it was already set.”
Beatrice’s eyes widened. “Did the Duke say something to you?”
The Earl nodded. “During his last visit he did mention something in passing, but I did not take it seriously. As you said the two of you have scarcely been in each other’s company.”
“But he did say he was interested in me as a wife?” she repeated the question in disbelief. She had spoken to the Duke yet he had made no indication to her of such feelings. In fact, he was nothing but cool and formal in his questioning, though perhaps a little too curious.
“He intimated to me that he had made up his mind to take another wife,” the Earl stated.
“Yes. His Grace was married many years ago. His wife, Cecilia, passed away just a year after they were wed.”
This was the first Beatrice had heard of this. She knew so little of the Duke and he knew even less about her. How could he want her?
“Your Lordship, you know the man better than I do. I scarcely know what to think about this letter. Why would he desire me, a woman he barely knows, to be his new wife?”
“His Grace is not a man who makes light on subjects such as these. In the years since his first wife’s death, he has never once given any indication that he would ever remarry. I am sure there must have been some inducements, but he never considered them.”
“Then why me? Why now?”
“I think the biggest question is, what your feelings are on the matter?” the Earl asked. “Do you have a desire to be married?”
The words struck Beatrice in the heart. A desire to be married? It was all she’d ever wanted her entire life. It was only in recent times that she had put those desires aside for the only future she saw possible. Now, a man she had never imagined, was asking for her hand.
“Beatrice?” the Earl called when she did not immediately answer. She met his eyes. “Do you wish to be married?”
“I…” she began but faltered. Treacherous hope was threatening her carefully orchestrated plan for her future.
You have put thoughts of marriage aside.
Then why did her heart still leap at the prospects of the Duke’s proposal?
“Beatrice,” the Earl said gently. “I know that you have been disappointed in the past. But you, my dear, are an ideal wife and should be married.”
“Your Lordship,” Beatrice said meekly as her emotions wrestled inside her.
“I say nothing more than what is true.” He sighed. “I know you are not well acquainted with His Grace, but I believe if given the chance, you could find him very agreeable. He is a good man. His reputation is impeccable and having known him his entire life, I can vouch for his character.”
“I trust your judgment implicitly,” Beatrice replied. “However, I still cannot fathom why a man such as the Duke of Everdale would ever consider someone like me for his wife. What do I have to offer? I am not wealthy. What money we had was lost, and I have no title to induce him. Then why?”
The question was burning inside her. She could not understand the Duke’s thinking and Beatrice liked to understand, it gave her comfort.
“I cannot answer that for it is not written here,” the Earl replied as he laid the letter on his desk. “What I can tell you, is that it is my sincere belief that you would make him the best wife possible, and in his care, you would never lack. If you wish to know his heart, then I believe you will need to speak with him.”
Beatrice took a deep breath. She nodded slowly. “I would like that.”
“You would?” the Earl questioned as he leaned forward on his elbow and studied her face carefully.
“Yes, I would like to speak to His Grace and have the opportunity to understand what has prompted such a letter, before I even consider its response,” Beatrice explained. “A decision cannot be made if one is not well-informed.”
The Earl smiled, her response seemed to please him and she wondered at that as well. He clearly believed the Duke a good man and one suitable to be a husband. Still, she needed to be settled in her heart.
“I will write to him this afternoon and request that he visit us at his earliest convenience. I will inform him that you are considering his proposal, but desire to speak with him before you make a decision.”
Beatrice’s heart fluttered. Was this really happening? It felt like a dream, or a fantasy, that was unfolding before her and she was a silent observer of it all. Only, it wasn’t. She was sitting across from the Earl of Wismoth discussing the prospect of marrying a duke.
“I would appreciate it,” she replied slowly. “I would not wish to offend the Duke by responding immediately,” she continued as she got to her feet. She felt slightly lightheaded.
“Are you well my dear?” the Earl asked as he got to his feet and moved to her side. “This has been a bit of a shock.”
“Yes,” she assured him, as her heart continued to beat rapidly. She smiled at him weakly. “Thank you.”
The Earl smiled. “Take care of yourself. I will write immediately.”
Beatrice nodded and turned away. She walked slowly from the room, her legs trembling slightly. Once outside the door she pressed her back against the closed door and held her hand to her heart. The Duke of Everdale wanted to marry her.
“What will Helena think?”
Alexander appeared calm to all, but inside he was anxious. He had received the Earl of Wismoth’s letter days before and had immediately made arrangements to return to Balwell Manor. Beatrice Leeson was considering his proposal.
It was as he had hoped, still, he did not presume to think the lady’s hand would come easily, given her disposition. He was sure she would have many questions, and the Earl’s letter was a confirmation that his assessment of the lady was accurate. Beatrice was not a common woman.
Alexander left London early in the morning and by lunch, he had arrived at Balwell. He approached the house with a purpose. He had not come to be entertained, but solely to set at ease the mind of the woman he intended to make his wife.
The Earl greeted him as usual and the household was very welcoming, but Alexander was unmoved. His only desire was to speak with Beatrice. Still, he was not rude despite his focus.
“You arrived so soon,” the Earl commented as they walked into the house. “We barely received your letter this morning to prepare for your arrival.”
“I thought the matter required urgency,” Alexander replied. “I wish to make everything clear to Miss Leeson.”
“Your Grace,” the Earl said calmly. “I know you well. I know your mind is determined in this matter and I will not try to dissuade you.”
“I wish you would not,” Alexander replied.
“That is not my intent. In fact, I wish to encourage you.”
Alexander stopped and turned to the older man. He looked at him squarely, his brown eyes searched the man’s face. “You have no objections?”
“None whatsoever,” the Earl replied with a smile. “You have been alone a long time. I am glad that you have finally decided to seek happiness again. As for Beatrice, the lady is like my own daughter and I would wish nothing but the best of circumstances for her. I believe you can give her what she deserves.”
Alexander nodded. “I thank you for your confidence.”
The Earl patted his arm paternally and Alexander was reminded of his father at the moment. In the past, when he was alive, his father would have spoken to him as the Earl was now. Alexander had almost forgotten what it was like to be guided by someone in his actions.
Alexander turned to find the Viscountess standing there. She looked at him coolly.
“Viscountess Chatleton,” he said as he bowed his head to her in greeting. “You look well.”
“Thank you, Your Grace, as do you.” Her eyes moved from him to the Earl and back again. “I have been informed that you are here to see my sister.”
“That is true, My Lady. Your sister and I have some matters to discuss,” Alexander replied matter-of-factly.
“Matters of marriage,” she elaborated. Alexander bristled slightly at the icy tone with which her words were spoken. He could see it in her eyes. She was suspicious of him.
“My intentions, My Lady, I assure you will be made completely known to you in due course, but first they must be expressed to your sister. The Earl was taking me to her,” he explained.
“I will take you,” the Viscountess offered. She smiled at the Earl. “With your permission.”
“Very well,” the Earl replied. “Your Grace, I will leave you for the moment. When your business is complete, come and see me in my study. I wish to speak with you further.”
Alexander nodded. He turned to the Viscountess. “My Lady, please, lead the way.”
Alexander could feel the tension between them, however, he had nothing to offer to ease it. This matter was between him and Beatrice and, until she expressed her feelings, he had little to say to anyone else. He was a private man, always had been, and that was not going to change, not even for the sister of the woman he was pursuing.
She led him to the door of the parlor and stopped outside. “Your Grace, I will be right here,” she informed sternly as if warning him against attempting anything untoward with her sister.
Alexander gave a nod of understanding. The lady was protective of her sister and that was as it should be. “I did not expect anything less.” He knocked on the door and waited for a response.
Beatrice didn’t answer, instead, she came to the door and opened it. Her light brown eyes looked up at him. “Your Grace, come in,” she stated as she pulled the door back and stepped aside. He moved into the room.
The parlor seemed unusually quiet to his ears. It was almost as if the room itself had been waiting for his arrival and was now holding its breath. Perhaps it was reflecting the feelings of the lady who shared the room with him. He turned to Beatrice.
“Miss Leeson,” he said with a deep bow.
“Your Grace,” she said with a curtsey. “Please,” she said as she extended her hand and offered him a seat. Alexander politely accepted and took a seat on the chaise. He folded one leg over the other and reclined slightly, watching Beatrice as she moved toward him.
Her steps were unsure and her hands were tightly clasped in front of her. She was nervous. She sat at the other end of the chaise with her eyes cast to the ground.
Alexander considered speaking but thought it best to allow Beatrice to express herself first. He did not wish to rush her. This was a very serious decision that she had been presented with. He was not about to pressure her, though the matter was of some urgency to him.
Several minutes passed before Beatrice’s eyes rose and her face turned to look at him. She was pleasant looking, even in her pensiveness.
“Your Grace, the Earl has shared your letter with me. I must admit, the content took me by surprise. That is why I wished to speak with you,” she explained.
“That is why I am here,” Alexander replied. “I want to make everything clear to you.”
She nodded. “Then I trust you will answer me honestly.”
“I am always sincere,” Alexander replied calmly.
“Very well,” she sighed. “Why do you wish to marry me?”
Alexander sat forward. “Because I believe you the ideal choice for me.”
“Why?” Beatrice asked perplexed. “We barely know each other.”
“Yet I have studied you, Miss Leeson. Very carefully. Ever since the day we first met.”
Her brow wrinkled. “That was months ago.”
“Yes, and even then, I considered you an ideal prospect. Before you ask the reason, I will tell you. It was your disposition toward marriage and your fondness for children.”
Beatrice looked at him blankly. He knew there was much more he needed to explain, but he was easing her into it. It was a lot to take in at once and he did not wish to frighten her.
“My disposition?” she asked finally.
“Yes. You are not sentimental, and quite frankly, I do not wish a sentimental wife. I do not desire romance Miss Leeson. I need a wife and an heir.”
Beatrice remained silent.
“You have on more than one occasion stated your view that marriage is best as an arrangement, one where your comforts are met, you can have your freedom and enjoy your children. I want nothing less or more than that.”
He got to his feet and began to walk slowly. It was a practice of his when expounding on a matter, and given the circumstances, he had much to explain.
“If you will allow me to be frank Miss Leeson?” he asked.
“By all means, Your Grace. I would very much appreciate your candor,” Beatrice replied.
“I am the ninth Duke of Everdale,” he informed. “My family has held the seat of that county for nearly seven hundred years. I am my father’s only son and I have no heir. However, I do have a grasping and devious cousin, who wishes nothing more than to see the property, title, and wealth entailed away from my family’s line and to his own.”
He paused and looked at Beatrice. She remained silent, her eyes set on him quietly as he explained his proposal in complete detail.
“My cousin has had no greater desire than taking my title since we were children. Now, his wife has given him a son, a ready heir to continue the family legacy.”
“I understand,” Beatrice whispered as her eyes moved from him momentarily.
“You see Miss Leeson, I need a wife who will not desire love and affection that I cannot give. What I propose to you, is an agreement, between parties with needs which can be mutually satisfied by marriage. You want your own home and family. I can provide that. I need a wife who will not demand my attention but can provide me with an heir. That, I believe you can do.”
He looked down at Beatrice. She remained seated and still, but Alexander could see that her mind was at work to process what he had shared with her.
“I am not a romantic. Once, I was, but no longer. I have the responsibility of a county on my shoulders. A county my cousin would ravage should he ever gain the seat of it. I cannot allow that to happen.”
He sat beside her. “I am not getting any younger, and my time to produce and raise an heir is diminishing daily. Ladies want love and the frilly feeling of romance, a subject on which I am deficient. You are the first lady who has not pursued me for title or romance. In fact, you have given me no consideration at all.”
“And this is why you chose me?” Beatrice questioned calmly. “Because I fit your requirements?”
“Yes,” Alexander admitted. “I know my intentions may seem callous and unfeeling, but I assure they are not. You will want for nothing. You do not even have to see me if you do not wish to. I will not demand nothing of you but this – an heir to continue my family line.”
“And once you have your heir?” she questioned.
“You can raise the child as you see fit. He will be your son and you will be his mother. I would never separate you, nor would I presume to dictate his life. He will be raised to be the next Duke of Everdale and afforded all that is necessary to assume the role when I am gone.”
“Your Grace, this is a lot to take in,” Beatrice admitted.
“I know, but I believe you are more than capable of understanding it all,” Alexander stated calmly. “You are a very intelligent woman, Miss Leeson. Very capable. I have determined that from my observations as well as the comments of those around you.”
“Your Grace, you are flattering me.”
“I wish I were, but I have no talent for flattery,” he admitted. “I am a man of business. A man who sees things clearly, as they are, and makes decisions given the information presented to him. I believe you are a woman of similar mind.”
She looked at him calmly. “You seem to know a lot about me, Your Grace. I know nothing of you.”
“What do you wish to know?” he answered as he looked at her. Her expression had not changed since he had clearly set out the reasons behind his proposal. She seemed almost unaffected.
“The Earl trusts you,” she stated. “I trust him. He praises you,” she explained.
“He has known me a long time. He is more favorable to me than most.”
“We share that,” Beatrice replied. “The Earl has known me my entire life and his opinion of me is one of the highest I know. What he says of you, I believe. I have no questions for you, Your Grace.”
He leaned forward. “Then do you have an answer for me?”
She sighed. “Your Grace, would you allow me a few days to consider your proposal more thoroughly?”
He nodded. “Though I had hoped for your answer today, I did not expect it. Take all the time you need, but I do need an answer.”
Beatrice stood and Alexander joined her. “Thank you for coming, Your Grace,” she said with a curtsey.
“It was my pleasure, Miss Leeson. I look forward to receiving your answer.”
Alexander turned from her and walked from the room. The Viscountess was still outside the door when he opened it. He bowed to her before going on his way. He heard the parlor door close behind him as he made his way to the Earl’s study as promised.
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