Prologue

Marjorie

 

“Marjorie? Marjorie, where are you?”

 

Peeking her head out from behind the rose hedges where she was hiding, Marjorie Reeves grinned at her young cousin, Susan Langdon.

 

“I’m here, darling!” she called, waving her cousin over to her hiding spot.

 

Susan furrowed her pretty brown eyes as she hurried around the hedge.

 

“What in the world are you doing?” she asked, slipping behind the bushes to join Marjorie on the stone bench she’d been perched on for the past hour.

 

“I’ve just been reading,” Marjorie explained, showing Susan the novel that she’d brought out with her from the library. “I’ve found that this particular spot is hidden just enough for me to read undisturbed if I wish to. Why were you looking for me?”

 

“I’ve just heard that the dowager duchess is coming to visit, and I thought I’d warn you before the house becomes overwhelmed with matronly enthusiasm,” Susan said with a grin.

 

Marjorie couldn’t help the little giggle that slipped past her lips.

 

“Oh, goodness, Mother will be delighted to have her friend to visit, though it feels as though hardly a day goes by that they aren’t in each other’s company.”

 

Susan nodded. “That is true. I must admit, though, while I find the dowager duchess to be a very amicable lady, her presence can prove … somewhat overwhelming.”

 

“Oh, that’s nonsense,” Marjorie cheerfully replied with a wave of her hand. “Granted, she’s boisterous, but I don’t think she ever truly goes too far. Well … except in regard to her son.”

 

“That is certainly true,” Susan readily agreed.

 

Betty Hardy, the dowager duchess of Sedgewick, was an intelligent, determined woman, whose greatest desire in life appeared to be securing a wife for her elusive son. The dowager lived near Marjorie’s family home, having moved to London several years ago. She and Marjorie’s mother, the Viscountess Lockhart, had become fast friends and spent much of their time together.

 

She liked the dowager very much, and enjoyed her company, but it hadn’t escaped her notice that the woman appeared particularly keen on bringing up the subject of her son whenever Marjorie was around. They could hardly even be considered hints, as the dowager was not always subtle when it came to speaking of her son, the Duke of Sedgewick.

 

“Some days she makes it so obvious she wishes to make a match between her son and me, that I’m tempted to claim a sudden deep interest in religion, so I may claim a vow of celibacy,” Marjorie joked.

 

Susan laughed. “Oh, the poor woman wouldn’t be deterred. She would simply attempt to convince you that her son’s merits are far superior to even God’s.”

 

“I’m afraid you might be right,” Marjorie snorted.

 

“He does sound like a nice gentleman,” Susan offered, as if to try and convince Marjorie to consider the man as a serious suitor. “From everything the dowager has told us, he would likely make a very agreeable husband.”

 

Marjorie rolled her eyes as she laughed. “He sounds boring. I doubt there’s a woman alive who could successfully charm him.”

 

Isaac Hardy, the Duke of Sedgewick, was rumored to be a very handsome man, especially if his mother was to be believed. However, he was rarely seen off his estate, and the dowager even struggled to draw him into town. She described him as serious, dependable, and attentive to the business matters that kept his family wealthy.

 

However, while the dowager might believe such characteristics to be desirable and noteworthy in a prospective husband, Marjorie always paid closer attention to what his mother didn’t say about him. She never spoke of his pursuits beyond his business dealings. She never mentioned him attending any balls or social gatherings of any kind.

 

Marjorie couldn’t imagine the dowager would leave any of that out if her goal were to endear the duke to her. So, Bridget concluded that his mother’s omission of such information could only mean that the duke didn’t participate in such frivolities. A man who dedicated so much of his time to work and so little to entertainment, could never hold Marjorie’s interest, of that she was certain.

 

“You are far too judgmental of the poor man,” Susan insisted. “You cannot know he’s boring without meeting him.”

 

“I disagree,” Marjorie replied. “If his own mother has nothing interesting to say about him, there really is no hope that he holds any redeemable qualities that would make him engaging enough to be around for any length of time.”

 

“I’m sure that’s not true.” Susan could be as stubborn in her opinions as Marjorie herself. “Even if he isn’t usually entertaining, I’m sure being around someone such as yourself at a social event would bring out his fun-loving side.”

 

Marjorie arched her brow. “Oh? You really think so, do you?”

 

Susan blinked at her, her brow furrowing in growing confusion. “Yes … I do.”

 

Though only a year apart in age, Marjorie often felt as though Susan was far more naïve about the world than herself. It wasn’t that Marjorie was cynical, or viewed things in a negative way, but she was more of a realist and didn’t place expectations on people who didn’t warrant them.

 

Susan and Marjorie were not just close in age, but in appearance too. They were often told they could practically be twins, save for the slightly darker shade of Susan’s red hair and her brown eyes, which differed from Marjorie’s hazel gaze. Besides their looks, however, Marjorie and Susan were the best of friends, and had been their whole lives.

 

Marjorie shared everything with her cousin. Every secret and every dream she held, Susan kept in confidence, and vice versa. There was no one in the world Marjorie trusted more, and their shared hardships over the years had only brought them closer together.

 

“I propose a wager,” Marjorie said, delighting in the fact she was clearly catching her dear cousin off guard.

 

“A wager? What do you mean?”

 

Marjorie held up her finger. “Should we ever attend a ball where the duke is present, I would wager he doesn’t dance once with any eligible ladies.”

 

Susan’s eyes lit up with understanding. “Ah! I see. Well, I’ll wager just the opposite. I’ll wager you can steal two dances with him.”

 

“Me?” Marjorie giggled. “Why me specifically?”

 

“You are easily the most engaging and entertaining person I know,” Susan replied. “If you can’t get him to dance, I don’t believe there is anybody in all of London who can.”

 

Marjorie grinned. “Ah, I see. Well, you make a very excellent point, my dear. However, I fear you are far too optimistic about the stoic Lord Sedgewick. I doubt even my considerable allure could sway him. Besides, I’ve much better things to do than charm some snobbish duke.”

 

“So, you won’t even attempt it?” Susan teased. “Are you perhaps too afraid he will fall for you, despite what you believe, and you will lose the wager?”

 

“Of course not,” Marjorie scoffed. “I simply don’t wish to waste my time on such a dullard. There are so many more exciting people to spend my time with.”

 

“Are you refusing the wager then? It was your idea, cousin.”

 

“Oh, I will take on the wager if you’re game for it. Just to prove once and for all that Lord Sedgewick is just as boring a man as I believe him to be.”

 

Susan sighed. “My dear cousin, you are setting yourself up for failure, and it will be so entertaining when you are proven wrong.”

 

Marjorie opened her mouth to respond, but at that moment a maid rounded the tall hedges, her eyes widening with surprise when she found the two women sitting before her.

 

“Oh! Lady Marjorie. Miss Susan … we’ve been looking for you. The viscountess is requesting your presence in the parlor. The dowager duchess has arrived.”

 

Marjorie offered the maid a smile. “I see. Thank you. We’ll be along directly.”

 

The maid curtsied and turned to leave them.

 

Marjorie pushed to her feet and looked down at her cousin. “Shall we?”

 

Susan nodded and stood as well. They began to walk back around the hedge and through the garden. Marjorie walked slower than usual, so Susan could keep up with her.

 

Her young cousin walked with a considerable limp, an unfortunate reminder of the terrible fever that had struck her when she was fifteen. Marjorie had grown ill with the same fever, and it had carried off both of Susan’s parents. Guilt twisted Marjorie’s belly as her cousin tried to walk faster.

 

She’d never understood why sweet Susan would be subject to such lingering suffering, when Marjorie herself had survived the fever, with no enduring consequences. Susan never appeared to let her struggles bother her, however. She was quieter than she’d once been, but she was still sweet, and Marjorie adored her.

 

They made their way into the manor, and when they reached the parlor, they found the viscountess and dowager duchess already deep in conversation. It took the women a moment to notice that Marjorie and Susan had even entered the room.

 

Marjorie’s mother, Dorothy, was the first to glance up and notice the girls.

 

“Oh! My dears, I’m so glad you could join us.”

 

“Did we have a choice, Mother?” Marjorie teased as she and Susan crossed the room to sit with them.

 

The dowager duchess looked up at her with a wide grin.

 

“Oh, of course my dear,” she replied. “You always have a choice … but it is wise of you to please your dear mother.”

 

All four women shared a laugh, and Marjorie’s eyes swept subtly over the dowager. She was a tall and sturdy woman, who commanded any room she entered, but there was still a delicate elegance to her that Marjorie knew was practically bred into the ladies of the upper-class.

 

“How are you, your Grace?” Marjorie asked, resting her hands in her lap.

 

“Quite well,” the dowager answered. “I received a letter from my dear Isaac yesterday. I was just telling your mother about it.”

 

That didn’t take her long at all. She’s getting bolder with her not-so-subtle hints.

 

“Oh?” Marjorie replied, keeping her tone neutral but polite. “What did his Grace have to say?”

 

“He was bringing me up-to-date with his latest business ventures,” the dowager explained, her expression lighting up. “He is so incredibly intelligent. Have I told you how intelligent he is, Marjorie? You two would have the most engaging conversations, I’m sure.”

 

“I’ve no doubt, your Grace,” Marjorie nodded as Susan fought not to let her amusement show. Marjorie elbowed her cousin in her side when a snort slipped past Susan’s lips.

 

“When will his Grace be in town next?” the viscountess asked. Marjorie arched her brow at her mother, suspicious that the dowager may have somehow convinced her mother to assist her in her pursuit.

 

Her mother and father were unique among the ton as they did not wish to force their daughter into an arranged marriage. They were willing to give Marjorie the freedom to find a husband for herself … but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t attempt to nudge her along if they were presented with a favorable opportunity.

 

Marjorie wondered if, perhaps, her mother considered the Duke of Sedgewick such an opportunity.

 

The dowager released a heavy sigh. “I am not certain. He gave no indication in his letter. I swear, if he had things his way, he would never leave the estate.”

 

“He must get lonely out there all by himself,” Susan said, having gained control of herself at last.

 

Shrugging, the dowager replied, “My Isaac is a solitary creature in many ways. He enjoys his peace and quiet, which is perfectly acceptable, of course. My only worry is that he is so comfortable in his solitude that he will forget to find himself a wife to settle down with.”

 

Marjorie kept her lips sealed. She didn’t want to say anything which might give the dowager undue hope that she might be that wife.

 

The more she speaks of him, the more I am convinced he is the dullest man in all England.

 

If, and when, Marjorie married, she was determined it would be to a man who was vibrant and enjoyed life as much as she did. He wouldn’t be stuffy and boring, nor would he isolate himself on his country estate to avoid all manner of social interactions.

 

No matter how much the dowager might wish it, Marjorie could never foresee any circumstances which would lead her to marry a man like Lord Sedgewick.

Chapter 1

Isaac

 

He managed not to groan out loud when a firm knock sounded against the study door.

 

“Come in,” Isaac called without looking up from the three letters he was attempting to write at nearly the same time.

 

“My lord, another correspondence has arrived for you.”

 

Isaac glanced up at that and met the gaze of his butler, Billings. The man held a silver tray bearing a letter.

 

What more can be piled onto my plate today?

 

Isaac kept his thoughts and feelings of annoyance to himself, however. It wasn’t proper in his mind to let it be known to those around him when he was not pleased with something, especially not the servants. Besides, it wasn’t Billings’ fault that Isaac was being bombarded with demands for his attention, so the loyal butler didn’t deserve his ire.

 

Smiling, Isaac nodded and beckoned the man forward.

 

“Thank you, Billings,” he said as he took the letter.

 

Billings bowed low before turning to leave the study once more, shutting the door firmly behind him. Once he was alone again, Isaac glanced down at the letter. He could tell just from the stationary that it wasn’t a business correspondence, and his smile widened when he considered it could be from his sister, Harriet.

 

He quickly opened it and began to read, but as he made his way through the neatly written words, a tired exasperation settled over him.

 

The letter wasn’t from his sister.

 

It was from his mother.

 

 

 

Dearest Isaac,

 

I was so happy to receive your correspondence the other day. You really should write to me more often, darling, especially if you will not come to London to see me. I do miss you terribly, I hope you are aware of that.

 

On that note, I have decided to come and visit you at the estate, since it appears to be nearly impossible to induce you to leave it. I shall arrive tomorrow morning and plan to stay until the end of the week. It has been so long since I have seen the place, and you.

 

I shall leave this letter short, as I will be able to tell you all the news and gossip from town myself when we are face to face. There is much to report, I assure you.

 

Until tomorrow, my dear!

 

With much love,

Mother

 

 

 

Isaac let the letter drop to the desk and leaned his head back against his chair. The groan he’d managed to hold back earlier finally slipped past his lips. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see his mother, but the huge amount of work he had to do that week was indicated by the many piled papers and stacked ledgers on his desk.

 

He also knew her visit had an ulterior motive. The timing was no coincidence. The London Season was soon to begin, and she would no doubt want to drag him back to town with her and talk incessantly of marriage.

 

Marriage was not an endeavor in which he was keen to participate. He knew it was likely something he would have to do one day, if for no other reason than to secure an heir for the dukedom, but he had many years yet before that became much of a concern. He was far too busy and was certain he’d have to set aside his vital duties in the dukedom to keep a wife happy as well.

 

He could hardly stomach the thought.

 

Isaac was a very driven man, who took his responsibilities as Duke of Sedgewick seriously. Ever since his father died nearly nine years ago when he was only eighteen, he had worked hard to become a duke worthy to follow him. His mother always told him that in the process of becoming who he was, however, he’d forgotten how to live his life.

 

Just because he didn’t enjoy the shallow pleasures and vapid conversations which seemed to characterize the ton, didn’t mean his life wasn’t fulfilling. His mother simply didn’t understand how very necessary his work was. Her visit was most likely an attempt to pull him away from his duties, but he would explain how truly busy he was, and she would depart in a few days without him.

 

In the meantime, he could go about his business as usual.

 

Though he told himself that, and tried to do so, he nevertheless struggled to turn his concentration back to the three letters before him requiring his attention. After several minutes of reading and re-reading, then writing and scratching out his words in dissatisfaction, he leaned back in his chair with a ragged sigh.

 

She hasn’t even arrived yet, and she’s already distracting me from my work.

 

He supposed there was no point in trying to force the matter, as it would likely result in substandard writing. Pushing himself to his feet, he made his way across the room to the little bell by the fireplace and pulled the cord to ring for Billings. Within moments, the door opened, and the butler stood on the threshold expectantly.

 

“How may I help you, my lord?” he asked.

 

“The dowager duchess will be paying us a visit tomorrow,” Isaac said as he sat back down behind his desk. “See that the Rose room is prepared for her and have the cook prepare her favorite dishes. Also, have fresh flowers from the garden placed around the main areas of the house. She always enjoys their scent.”

 

Billings nodded. “At once, my lord.”

 

The butler turned and hurried off to see that his master’s instructions were followed. Isaac turned his head to look out of the window. It appeared to be a lovely day outside.

 

The sky was bright blue, and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. It seemed likely they would at least have pleasant weather for his mother’s visit. Perhaps she would get her fill of the fresh air, then be on her way back to London before he even had a chance to be annoyed.

 

***

 

Thunder boomed, causing the manor to tremble. Isaac stood at the window of his study and stared out into the storm that was currently raging. He felt a pinch of annoyance deep in his gut, and a small tinge of worry as well.

 

It was almost as if he’d jinxed the weather with his musings the day before, and now his mother was traveling in a torrential downpour, accompanied only by her carriage driver. If something happened to her, he’d never forgive himself. He wasn’t a fool and didn’t believe he’d somehow conjured up the storm … but the fact that she was coming to the estate in the first place was in part because he had such a difficult time leaving it.

 

She likely would not even be coming here if I had only visited her from time to time in London.

 

He knew the Sedgewick estate was not her favorite place to be. She’d moved to town because the estate, which had been his father’s pride and joy, filled her with too much sadness. The only reason she ever returned was because of Isaac.

 

Turning from the window, he began pacing back and forth. He’d given up trying to get any work done a while ago, as his anxiety had only become worse as the storm had grown. He feared he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything until his mother arrived safely.

 

He glanced at the ornate mantle clock above his fireplace.

 

It’s nearly noon. She should have arrived by now.

 

He had to remind himself that his mother was often late in reaching her destination, and that it wasn’t necessarily a reason for him to be concerned. He told himself that same thing again and again, as he waited for word that his mother had arrived safely.

 

It seemed like an eternity passed before the study door suddenly burst open.

 

Isaac whirled around and was surprised to find a maid stumbling into the room, her face flushed and her eyes wide with worry.

 

“My lord, I beg your pardon,” she hastily said. “I’m sorry to barge in like this, but Billings told me to put aside decorum in light of the situation…”

 

“What situation?” Isaac demanded more sharply than he would usually speak to one of his servants.

 

“It’s the dowager duchess, my lord,” she gasped.

 

Isaac’s heart began to thud with instant fear.

 

“What’s happened?” He charged the poor girl, who shrunk back from him in alarm. He stopped and forced a calmer tone. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to startle you. Please, explain what is going on.”

 

The girl released a slow breath and slowly nodded. “Yes, my Lord. Your mother has just arrived, but I’m afraid the trip appears to have taken a heavy toll on her. She’s in a terrible state.”

 

“Where is she?” He clenched his hands into fists, so he wouldn’t grab the girl and shake the answers from her.

 

“She’s being escorted to the Rose room, my lord,” she explained.

 

Isaac was heading out of the door before she’d finished speaking. He hurried down the hall to the stairs, then took them two at a time to the next floor. He heard a commotion down the corridor and turned to follow the noise.

 

The door to the Rose room was open, and several servants were clustered on the threshold. One of them, a young footman, glanced up at his approach.

 

“My lord! Excuse us.” The young man quickly shooed the others out of Isaac’s way.

 

“Thank you,” Isaac murmured as he moved past them to enter the room.

 

He froze as his eyes took in the scene before him. Billings and one of the senior maids were both standing around his mother, who sat in front of the blazing fireplace, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She looked pale and she was sniffling.

 

As he watched her, she let out a delicate cough. The small noise jerked him back into action, and he strode across the room toward her.

 

“Mother, are you all right?” he asked in a soft, concerned voice.

 

She gazed up at him with a weak smile.

 

“Oh, my darling, I’m sorry.” She coughed again, more forcefully than before. “I’m afraid the carriage could hardly hold up against the strength of the storm. It grew damp and drafty, and I’m afraid I’ve caught a chill.”

 

He furrowed his brow and raised his gaze to Billings and the maid.

 

“Is she very ill?”

 

“Her Grace has a slight fever, my lord, in addition to her cough,” the maid answered. “She is in no danger, but she should rest and not go anywhere until her fever has broken.”

 

“Of course,” Isaac easily agreed, then turned his focus back to the dowager. “You can stay as long as you need to, Mother.”

 

Her smile remained in place, but her eyes began to flutter as though it were difficult for her to hold them open.

 

“Oh, thank you, darling. You are such a blessing. You truly are. Between you and your sister, I am a truly blessed woman to be mother to such children.”

 

He almost chuckled. Even when ill, she couldn’t seem to help her tendency for dramatic statements and declarations.

 

“Mother, Harriet and I are the ones blessed,” he assured her. “Now, I’ll leave you to change and get into bed. I shall return later to check on you, yes?”

 

She nodded. “Yes, that sounds like a very good idea. Thank you, darling.”

 

Isaac shared a look with Billings and the maid.

 

“See that she is cared for and fetch the doctor as soon as possible. I want him to check on her, so we can be sure she is in no danger.”

 

“Yes, my lord,” Billings answered before hurrying out of the room.

 

Isaac turned to follow the butler, but the dowager stopped him.

 

“Darling, wait. First, there is something I need you to do for me.”

 

Isaac glanced back at her. “Anything, Mother. Just name it.”

 

She opened her eyes and gave him a pleading look. “Would you have some paper and pen brought to me so that I can write to my dear friend, the Viscountess Lockhart? She will be so worried about me if I don’t return home in the time I said I would. I would appreciate it if you would make sure it is posted too.”

 

Isaac wasn’t sure why she wished him to do such a favor for her. A servant could easily fetch her writing supplies as well as post the letter for her. Perhaps the fever was confusing her thoughts?

 

He didn’t wish to cause her undue distress, so he simply answered, “Of course, Mother. It is no trouble at all.”

 

“Thank you, my dear.” She looked exhausted; it made his heart heavy.

 

He nodded and continued out through the door. He was relieved his mother was safely under his roof, though he couldn’t help but worry about her health. It appeared she would be staying longer than anticipated, but he couldn’t truly complain, given the circumstances.

 

He just hoped no other unexpected surprises presented themselves to distract him and disturb his concentration.

Chapter 2

Marjorie

 

Her fingers danced across the keys, and she let herself be swept away by the music. She didn’t consider herself to possess any true talent when it came to the piano, but she enjoyed playing it so much, she didn’t mind when her fingers stumbled on occasion.

 

Susan sat in the corner of the room, reading one of her complicated philosophy books. The two had been enjoying a quiet afternoon while the dowager was away. The woman was entertaining and engaging to be sure, but it was rare to experience such peace and stillness when she was around.

 

Of course, Marjorie should have known it was not going to last for long.

 

The door suddenly flew open, startling both Marjorie and Susan from their activities. Marjorie looked up from her music to find her mother rushing over the threshold, apparently all aflutter. She was waving her hand in the air, her fingers clutching what appeared to be a letter.

 

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” she tittered, as she began to pace around the room aimlessly. “It’s awful. Simply awful.”

 

Marjorie pushed herself up from the piano bench. “Mother? What’s the matter?”

 

Her mother didn’t appear to hear her. Her green eyes shimmered with distress and her light blonde hair seemed a little more mussed than usual, as if she’d been running her fingers through it in agitation.

 

“It’s terrible,” she nearly wailed, swaying on her feet.

 

Marjorie hurried over to her and took her arm.

 

Looking toward a wide-eyed Susan, she said, “Go and fetch the smelling salts.”

 

Her cousin nodded and practically ran out of the room. With a firm but gentle hold, Marjorie guided her mother toward a chair.

 

“Mother, please, you must calm down,” she said in what she hoped was a soothing voice. “What is wrong?”

 

The viscountess began shaking her head. “My goodness, what shall we do? We must do something!”

 

Marjorie lowered herself to her knees in front of her mother and took her free hand.

 

“Mother, you must tell me at once what is going on,” she insisted, making her voice firmer.

 

The viscountess blinked and stared at Marjorie, as if only just realizing she was kneeling there in front of her.

 

“Oh … oh Marjorie, darling … it’s so terrible…”

 

“You’ve said that already,” Marjorie sighed. It was clear her mother was too upset to answer her, so she very gently pried the letter from her clutching fingers. She recognized the dowager’s handwriting right away as she opened it to read.

 

My Dearest Dorothy,

 

The most terrible circumstances have befallen me. I am afraid I found myself stuck in an awful storm on my way to Sedgewick and have now fallen terribly ill. The doctor appears hopeful, but a part of me wonders if this might not be my end.

 

Well, end or not, I am to be stuck in the country until I am deemed well again, should that day ever come. Isaac has been a gem, seeing to my every need and comfort without hesitation or question. I truly am the luckiest of mothers to have such a doting and loyal son.

 

I can tell he is quite distressed on my behalf, but he is putting on a brave face, so as not to worry me. My dear friend, should the worst come to pass, know that I have cherished your companionship these past years. You and your girls have truly been a beacon in my often lonely and dreary existence.

 

How I long for any kind of female companionship now. I fear I am languishing away in my solitude! I cannot rely on dear Isaac, as he is quite busy, though he does visit me often.

 

Oh, if only you were here to chase my sorrows away, my dear friend. It would be a welcome reprieve.

 

I shall write again, hopefully with more optimistic news of my recovery … though I should not wish to get your hopes up only to have them crushed.

 

Your most loyal friend,

Betty

 

Marjorie bit back a grin as she finished what was easily the most dramatic letter she’d ever read in her life. It was very much in line with the duchess’ character, however, which made Marjorie think the lady was doing much better than her words would have them believe.

 

Her mother, however, appeared to be taking the dowager’s letter very seriously.

 

Wringing her hands, she asked, “Oh, what can we do? There must be something. Some way to offer comfort to my poor dear friend. Oh, if only we could go and see her. I’m sure that would be a great relief to her.”

 

Marjorie could not help the small amount of amusement she felt as her mother so clearly steered the conversation in the direction she desired. She didn’t truly mind, though, and decided to give in and suggest what her mother so clearly wished for.

 

“You should do just that,” she said with a firm nod. “You should go and be with the dowager in her time of need if that is her wish. Susan and I can accompany you.”

 

Her mother’s eyes flew wide with amazement, as if she hadn’t already had that very idea in mind and was simply waiting for Marjorie to voice it for her.

 

“My darling girl, you are an angel, aren’t you?” she gushed. “What a sweet suggestion. I’m sure darling Betty would love it if we were to join her. I shall write to her immediately and ask.”

 

And just like that, her distress appeared to leave her, as she sprang from the chair and hurried on steady feet from the room. Marjorie stared after her, still kneeling on the rug, and then shook her head with an exasperated sigh.

 

The dowager appeared to be rubbing off on her mother, as her own dramatics were steadily rising in intensity with every scheme the two women plotted together.

 

It will be most entertaining to see exactly what it is they have planned this time.

 

***

 

The trip was arranged rather quickly, and within a day they were preparing to depart for Sedgewick. Marjorie found the whole situation rather funny, in truth. Mere days before, she and Susan had made their silly wager, and now it appeared an opportunity might have actually presented itself to see it through.

 

As she and Susan made their way down the stairs to join the viscountess in the waiting carriage, Marjorie voiced the thought.

 

“Well, now we’ll be able to meet the subject of our bet,” she teased her cousin. “Remember, though, you cannot change your wager once we are introduced and it is confirmed he is the dullest man in all of England.”

 

“We shall see, cousin,” Susan replied with a laugh. She didn’t say anything else on the subject, though, so Marjorie let the matter drop for the time being. She never took her cousin’s silence to heart … it was simply a quirk of her character.

 

When they made their way outside, Marjorie’s mother was standing next to the carriage, tapping her foot impatiently.

 

“Ah! There you both are,” she said. “I very nearly sent a search party to look for you.”

 

Marjorie rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Mother, we are not in the slightest bit late, and you’ve given us so little time to prepare for this visit as it is.”

 

“You should always be ready earlier than the time I give you,” her mother replied, though there was no heat in her words. “Come now, don’t dawdle. The sooner we depart the sooner we will arrive.”

 

Indeed … that is how traveling works.

 

Marjorie kept the comment to herself, knowing it was neither the time nor the place for such sarcasm. All three women climbed into the carriage, which was already loaded down with some of their luggage. The rest would follow them in a wagon.

 

Marjorie had not understood the point in packing so much, as she’d been under the impression they weren’t planning to stay long, but her mother had insisted they prepare themselves as if they would be away for weeks.

 

She pushed the thought aside as the carriage lurched forward and started down the drive.

 

“When did you tell father we would return home?” Marjorie asked, wondering if her mother would slip up and reveal the full extent of her plans.

 

The viscountess didn’t fall into the trap, however, and replied, “I told him it might be a while, but that I would write regularly to let him know how we are getting on.”

 

Marjorie glanced toward Susan, who simply shrugged her slim shoulders. Blowing out an exasperated breath, Marjorie rested her back against her seat.

 

 “Will his Grace be in residence?” Susan asked, surprising her.

 

She appeared to have also surprised the viscountess with her question. Marjorie’s mother stared at her for a moment with wide eyes, then slowly blinked as if that would help bring the world back into focus.

 

“Well … I would assume so, my dear,” the viscountess replied slowly. “Seeing as he rarely leaves the estate…”

 

“Does he know we are coming?” Marjorie couldn’t help but follow on from Susan’s question.

 

“I am sure the dowager has told him all about our visit,” her mother replied with a dismissive wave of her hand. That was far from a satisfactory answer in Marjorie’s mind, but she doubted she would get anything better out of her mother.

 

The remainder of the journey was spent chatting idly or reading, a romance novel for Marjorie, and another book on philosophy for Susan. The drive itself was not a long one, as Sedgewick was located not far from London.

 

As they pulled up to the top of a hill overlooking the estate, Marjorie couldn’t help but stare out the window of the carriage in awe at just how large and impressive the manor and grounds were.

 

The manor itself was three storys tall at the center, with single story wings that stretched out on either side. Tall, arched windows lined the first floor, while the second-floor sported tall rectangular windows. The third had smaller, square windows that no doubt, she imagined, allowed the interior of the house to be flooded with sunlight.

 

Perhaps even more breathtaking than the house itself were the grounds surrounding it. They appeared to be meticulously kept, with not a blade of grace out of place. A wide lawn stretched from the manor and the gravel drive all the way to the thick, lush groves that appeared to surround the edges of the property.

 

The estate itself was so large, that the groves appeared as distant strips of green and brown that simply begged for someone to come along and wander through them on a sunny afternoon.

 

The carriage rolled along the gravel drive until it came to a stop in front of the wide front step that led up to large double doors. Footmen were already waiting to assist them. A few buzzed around the vehicle, while two others helped Marjorie, Susan, and the viscountess to the ground.

 

“This place is breathtaking,” Susan murmured as they made their way up the steps to the grand front doors, which had been opened for them.

 

Marjorie nodded, her eyes widening when they stepped over the threshold into the grand foyer of the manor. Their shoes echoed across the polished marble floors, as they made their way further inside. Immediately opposite the front door rose an ornate, sweeping staircase that wound its way up to the second floor.

 

However, displayed on a landing halfway up was an intricately designed stained glass window that was taller than Marjorie, she was certain. The picture was that of a sunburst, carefully crafted in an array of colored glass. Light streamed in through it, casting a rainbow of dancing colors across the floor and walls.

 

“Lady Lockhart, welcome,” an older man, whom Marjorie took for the butler, appeared, and presented himself to her mother with a bow. “I am Billings, the butler. His Grace has instructed me to take you straight to her Grace upon your arrival unless you wish to freshen yourselves first?”

 

“That won’t be necessary,” the viscountess assured the man. “I would very much like to see my dear friend immediately.”

 

Billings nodded solemnly. “Of course. If you’ll follow me.”

 

Marjorie and Susan moved to follow, but the viscountess turned to face them and shook her head.

 

“I shall go alone this time, girls,” she hurriedly explained. “I would not want to overwhelm my dear friend with visitors right away when she is in such a delicate state.”

 

While her words made sense, Marjorie was still suspicious of them. However, she had no reason to protest her mother’s insistence on seeing the dowager alone, so she simply nodded.

 

“Of course, Mother, that seems like a very good plan.” Marjorie glanced around, wondering what they could do to occupy their time. “Perhaps Susan and I can walk through the garden together while you visit Betty?”

 

“I will have someone escort you out there right away, my lady,” the butler said before snapping his fingers. A footman appeared almost instantly at the bottom of the stairs.

 

“Yes, sir?” he asked.

 

“Lady Marjorie and Miss Susan Langdon would like to see the garden,” the butler explained. “Please escort them.”

 

“Of course, sir,” the footman readily agreed before turning to Marjorie and Susan. He bowed to each of them. “My lady. Miss. If you’ll follow me.”

 

Marjorie glanced up to watch her mother hurrying up the stairs behind the butler. Once they were out of sight, she turned and followed the footman through the house, Susan trailing just behind her.

 

The foyer served as an introduction to the splendor of the house, but the other rooms were not a disappointment either, they noted as they passed through. Plush oriental rugs lined the floors, absorbing the sound of their heels. Grand portraits and tapestries lined the walls, offering what Marjorie assumed was a peek into the Sedgewick line, as many subjects in the portraits shared the same black hair and strong facial features.

 

At last, they came upon a set of doors made of panes of glass, which opened out onto a large terrace. The footman led them out into the warm sunshine, and Marjorie couldn’t help but gape at the extravagant, but meticulously kept garden.

 

A gravel walk stretched from the house through the greenery, winding through hedges and neatly trimmed bushes, and all manner of flowers. From where she stood, Marjorie was able to count at least three stone fountains decorated with cherubs, who had running water pouring from the jars they held.

 

Yet, for all its beauty, Marjorie couldn’t help but think the space seemed very lonely. There was no one out walking along the paths, enjoying the sights and smells. It was rather sad to see such loveliness going unappreciated on such a gorgeous day.

 

 Marjorie thought the garden a little too pristine. It was lovely, but it had no air of fun or enjoyment.

 

If this were my garden, there would be a little wildness here and there; it would be inviting and full of life.

 

Being there, on the estate, and seeing for herself just how ordered and perfect everything was made to be, Marjorie wondered if perhaps she’d underestimated Lord Sedgewick. He appeared to be far more severe than she could’ve anticipated.

 

She doubted he could be particularly pleasant to be around. If she, Susan, and her mother were expected to stay in this grand place for however long it was deemed necessary, it would likely be best to simply avoid the man as much as she could.

 

Marjorie doubted such a task would be difficult. She was certain a man like Lord Sedgewick would prefer his own company over theirs any day of the week.

Chapter 3

Betty

 

Things are falling into place rather nicely, she thought as she wiped at her slightly runny nose with her handkerchief. In truth, that was about the only thing truly wrong with her. Despite the act she’d been putting on for her son, Betty was not really very sick at all.

 

She knew it was terrible of her to deceive him so, but she felt he’d left her little choice. If he thought her fit and healthy, he would no doubt make up some excuse to get her to leave sooner rather than later. She didn’t take it personally, as he was simply not adept at relating with anyone outside his tiny kingdom at Sedgewick, but that didn’t mean she didn’t miss him terribly.

 

At the heart of her scheme lay Betty’s wish to spend more time with her son.

 

Well … there was one more motivation behind her little act.

 

It was high time Isaac took a wife for himself, and Betty was of the mind that Lady Marjorie was just about as perfect a match for him as ever there was.

 

A sudden knock at her door tore her from her thoughts, and she quickly resumed her façade, sinking lower into the pillows and drooping her eyelids.

 

“Come in,” she croaked.

 

The door opened and a maid poked her head inside the room.

 

“My lady? I’ve come to inquire as to how you are feeling.”

 

“Oh, I feel so dreadful,” Betty moaned, making a show of lifting her hand as if it took effort to rest against her forehead. “I’ve never felt so terribly weak and helpless in all my life.”

 

The maid cautiously moved toward her; her expression pinched with concern.

 

“Madam, your color does appear better…”

 

“I am certain I’m dying!” Betty declared, cutting the girl off. “I’ve been ill and alone for far too long. My body grows weaker with each day that passes.”

 

The maid’s eyebrows shot up and a hint of panic entered her gaze.

 

“Oh, Your Grace … is there anything I can get you? Something to eat perhaps?”

 

Betty shook her head, then winced as though pained. “No, no food. I couldn’t keep anything down at present. No, what you can do for me instead is to fetch my son, so that I might explain to him how I wish my assets to be divided between him and his sister before I pass on.”

 

Now the maid looked truly frightened, and she gazed at Betty as though afraid she would simply cease breathing at any moment. Betty had to fight not to laugh. She knew it wasn’t the kindest thing she’d ever done, but the girl’s genuinely anxious reactions were just so amusing.

 

Before the poor thing could leave to fetch Isaac, the door flew open once more and Dorothy entered the room in a flourish.

 

“Oh! My dear friend, I came as soon as I could,” the viscountess declared, crossing the room to Betty’s bedside. She sat on the mattress next to her and took her hand. “You are so cold! You feel as though death has you in its grip already.”

 

I will have to tell her to ease back on her concern a little. Her dramatics are bordering on Shakespearean.

 

Not wishing to drop the ruse in front of the maid, Betty replied, “Indeed. I fear it will be any moment now.”

 

Dorothy squeezed her hand and then turned her head toward the maid.

 

“Would you please help my daughter and niece unpack their things? I’d like a few moments alone with my dear friend.”

 

The maid looked immensely relieved and quickly nodded.

 

“Yes, my lady. Right away.”

 

She practically ran out of the room, shutting the door behind her with a firm click.

 

As soon as they were alone, Betty burst out laughing.

 

“Oh, my goodness! That poor sweet thing. I’ll have to make sure she receives some sort of reward for putting up with my antics.”

 

Dorothy chuckled and shook her head. “She looked positively mortified, the dear. Have you really been so difficult a patient?”

 

Betty shrugged, but grinned. “I imagine I’m no worse than if I were really standing on death’s doorstep. At the end of the day, we can view this as a practice run to prepare my staff for that eventuality.”

 

Dorothy scoffed. “Oh, hush now. We both know you’re far from death’s doorstep. You simply have too much plotting left to do to be anywhere close to done with this life.”

 

Laughing, Betty pushed herself up in the bed and sat up straight against the pillows.

 

“I’m so happy to see you, dear,” she said with a wide smile. “We’ve so much to do, and I’m afraid I can’t do it all alone.”

 

“Of course not,” Dorothy teased. “You desperately need my assistance. I knew you would. That’s why I agreed to join with you in this plan.”

 

“It is to our mutual benefit,” Betty pointed out. “You want your daughter happy and settled as much as I want the same for my son. This way, they can be happy and settled together.”

 

“And we will be in-laws!”

 

Betty threw her head back and released a bark of laughter.

 

“Yes, indeed we will,” she agreed with an enthusiastic nod. “But that is not our main motivation, remember.”

 

“Of course not,” Dorothy agreed. “Our children’s happiness is of the utmost importance … and we’re very certain they’ll be happy together.”

 

Betty nodded. “I’ve no doubt. Isaac is loyal, dependable, and intelligent, but he’s far too serious for his own good. Marjorie will bring some fun and excitement into his life. Her free spirit may rub off on him and convince him that work is not the most important thing in the world.”

 

“And he might likewise have a positive influence on Marjorie,” Dorothy added. “She needs a little grounding, so that she stays steady on her feet. I adore my daughter’s independent nature, but the unfortunate reality is that she needs security and to consider her future, before she is left all alone once her father and I are gone.”

 

“So, we are in agreement,” Betty confirmed. “Our children should prove good for each other, balancing themselves out and helping each other grow.”

 

“Yes,” Dorothy replied. “The more I consider it, the more I believe you are right. They are nearly perfect for each other.”

 

“Excellent!” Betty exclaimed. “If all goes well, I’m predicting a wedding by the end of the season.”

 

Dorothy’s eyes widened. “Truly? That soon?”

 

“Oh, definitely,” Betty insisted. “If our plan goes as smoothly as I believe it will, they will be in love and engaged in no time at all.”

 

“You’re very confident.”

 

“Of course, I am, darling. My schemes are practically foolproof. Now, we merely need to give them that initial push, so their paths cross.”

 

“It will be much easier now we’re all under the same roof.”

 

“Exactly,” Betty nodded. “They won’t be able to avoid running into each other from time to time while you’re here. So, we just have to ensure that your visit lasts.”

 

“For how long?” Dorothy asked with a frown.

 

Betty met her gaze. “For as long as it takes.”


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