Marianne leaned her chin on her palm, staring out the window dreamily into the park across from their townhouse. She was unused to the sights and sounds of the city, and they filled her with a secret thrill of delight. All the world seemed spread out before her; the streets full of people passing arm and arm, arguing over the price of a carriage ride, or striding purposefully to one meeting or another. It was all so strange and different from the place where she had grown up, where she could peer out the front window of their vast country estate and see only rolling hills dotted with sheep, a lazy river that connected with a faraway village, and orchards along the lake.
She had been to London before, but only on visits with her father when she was younger, back when London was a chance to see a play or go to a museum for a few days; nothing more. Now, everything was different. Now, the world outside Marianne’s window held the promise associated with her first-ever Season in London. The air outside was still crisp and cold, but she could smell spring on the breeze and knew that soon all the people below in cloaks and velvet would be walking beneath cherry blossoms in the throes of romance and intrigue. She was a young woman at last being introduced into official society, and the idea was exhilarating.
She turned and saw her maid standing in the doorway, arms full of white muslin.
“Millie, is that it?” she cried, coming from the window and taking the gown up in her arms. “I haven’t seen it since the tailor shop.” She ran to the mirror, letting the dress fall in front of her. It skimmed the floor, elegantly tailored in the latest fashion; the sleeves capped with tasseled tops, the bodice low and lovely, trimmed in pearls like the hem and the ribbon cinched tight about the chest before the gown fell in shimmering folds to the floor.
“It is, My Lady,” the maid said, blushing prettily to the roots of her blonde hair. “It’s a pretty thing, and perfect for a first coming out gown. Are you quite ready to dress? Your father asked that you come down to his study afterwards, and I wouldn’t want to keep him waiting.”
Marianne nodded with a quick smile. “I am indeed ready. Will you help?”
The maid unbuttoned her plain housedress and helped her into the much grander gown, lacing up the undergarments and back separately before putting the final pearl buttons in place. Marianne smoothed her hands along the front, feeling like a princess.
“Now for your hair, My Lady,” Millie said, leading her to a seat in front of the toilette and expertly twisting up her long, thick red hair into a knot atop her head. The curls were unruly under normal circumstances, but Marianne had worn hers in careful rag curls the night before to tame them, and when the style was done, a few perfect curls fell to frame her pale cheeks. Her eyes looked out of her face, grey and deep. She reached up and slipped a few white roses into her hair, holding them in place while Millie pinned them so that they would not move.
When she stood again, she sighed happily. “You’ve made me into a princess, Millie.”
“I didn’t have to make you into anything,” Millie said with a sigh. “You’re practically royalty, My Lady; the daughter of a baron appearing for the first time in London society. Everyone will be eager to know you.”
Marianne felt a twinge of nerves at the idea of all the strangers she would be meeting for the first time and smiled weakly. “It is all going to be very new and strange,” she said quietly.
“My Lady, you’ve been to balls before,” Millie interjected.
“Country balls, where the village square is ringed in banners and the room is lit with candles,” she said with a smile. “Nothing like a London ball before; nothing as grand as what I will attend tonight. It will be obvious to everyone, I’m sure, that I am new.”
Millie reached up and adjusted a strand of hair carefully.
“It should be obvious, My Lady,” she said at last. “This is your first time officially out in society at a London Season. The entire room should notice.”
“Thank you, Millie,” Marianne sighed affectionately.
“But now you have no more time to waste,” the maid said crisply, rubbing her hands together. “Your father is waiting downstairs, and he’ll expect you to speak with him before the Duchess comes to get you into her carriage.”
Marianne nodded and hurried downstairs. The duchess, Lady Katherine Barrington, was a cousin of Marianne’s, at least ten years her senior, who was to be her chaperone on this first official foray into society. The role ought to have belonged to her mother, but Lady Ellen Amesbury had died giving birth to Marianne, and she had never known her mother aside from the paintings hung in their country estate and the stories her father told her. Chaperoning her to her first evening out in society was the sort of the thing that Lady Katherine was made for. She had the wisdom of a few years on Marianne, the wit to cover over uncomfortable situations, and the love of fun required to sustain Marianne’s energy.
Marianne paused downstairs and knocked on the door to the library, slipping in at her father’s invitation.
“Marianne,” Lord Amesbury said quietly, standing from his position by the fireside and setting his sherry glass down. He smiled, looking at her with warm eyes. “You look lovely indeed, just like your mother used to.”
She smiled happily and curtsied before coming into the room and standing in front of him. “I hoped you would like it, Father. Will you be proud of your only daughter going out in society in such a fashion?”
“I would indeed,” he said. A certain sadness came into his eyes. “I am happy to see you so well adapted to this new chapter of your life,” he said quietly, “but I cannot help mourning the loss of my little girl.”
“You know full well that I will always be your little Mari,” she teased him. “No grand ball will change that.”
“Perhaps not the ball itself, but the outcome that we desire might,” he said quietly. “The reason for introducing you to the Season in the first place is so that you might mix society with young lords and ladies that will shape the rest of your life, hopefully, the trajectory of your marriage. I know it is what is best for you, but I find myself struggling with the thought of you slipping away into the company of some young man forever.”
“You should take comfort in the knowledge that I would never choose a husband that did not fully satisfy your requirements,” Marianne said gently, reaching down to take her father’s hands in her own. “I care about your opinion far too much.”
“Are you nervous about tonight?” he asked with a smile.
She nodded, excitement welling up inside of her. “I confess I feel a bit ill with nerves but assured that such things are normal, and I am as excited as I am frightened.”
“You have always behaved in ways that made me proud to call you my own,” her father answered quietly. “You are a very proper and accomplished young lady, and though I know you have natural nerves, I hope it soothes them somewhat to be assured that I have confidence you will continue to act properly in all things.”
“Not all things,” she said with a half-smile. “I believe that dancing is rather expected at these sorts of events, and you know full well how inadequate I am in that regard.”
Her father’s eyes showed compassion. “You were always harder on yourself than you deserved. You will not be required to dance every dance, and you will have time to recover between turns around the floor. Just be certain to rest and not push yourself too hard.”
They looked at each other, doubtless each remembering the incident that had encumbered Marianne’s ability to dance well; she with only a faint recollection, he as though it happened just yesterday.
“I told you earlier that you reminded me of your mother,” her father went on in a lighter tone. “It is not just because you have her wild hair and grey eyes, I assure you. You also have her spirit and kindness, and I want you to remember that tonight. There is more to a person than their wealth and status—feel free to fall in love, my dear, but I would have you marry not only for society but for the will of your own heart. Your mother and I found a love match, and I believe that you deserve the same.”
“I thank you for your care, Father,” Marianne assured him. “But I do not believe my very first night in society will result in a romance. I am not so quickly caught up by the manners and affections of others.”
“Perhaps not,” he said with a wry smile, “but let me assure you that they will quickly be caught up with yours. Furthermore, you are a woman of title from an established home with a fine estate. There will be those present who are fortune hunters and rakes, and though they may masquerade as the most handsome and charming of men, I would bid you see through their schemes and only entertain the affections of upright and kind gentlemen.”
“I will not give my heart away to someone unworthy,” Marianne said, a thrill of excitement filling her again. She had tried to fight against the fervour of other friends and acquaintances her age who thought only of love and romance and marriage, and yet now, with the prospect of happiness before her, she couldn’t help feeling a yearning for the kind of love her father talked about having with her mother.
“I know you are a sensible girl,” he said with a sigh. “But listen to Lady Barrington. Your cousin knows much about the world, and she will be certain to find you an upstanding gentleman to make a life with.”
“Not tonight, surely.” Marianne laughed. “I hope to have a bit more time to find the love of my life.”
“Me too,” her father said. “But we don’t always have control over who we love; sometimes it comes upon us quite quickly, and we have no power to fight it.”
“Was that how it was with you and Mother?” Marianne asked. She wanted to know as much as she could about her mother; found herself pushing for whatever little tidbits she could pull out of her father, but while he was happy enough to sing the praises of his late wife, he never seemed eager to speak about the circumstances of their courtship.
It was the same now. He put his hands on Marianne’s arms and, smiling, changed the subject. “I think I hear your escort arriving outside,” he said. “You could not ignore the sound of Lady Barrington’s fine coach and four, even if you wanted to.”
Marianne let the topic go, as she had all her life. If her father wanted her to know the details of that time, she was certain he would have told her by now. She stepped excitedly away, drawing a shawl close around her shoulders and pulling on her gloves.
“It is time, then. I will tell you everything when I return, Father.”
He kissed her cheek and sent her off into the crisp evening air.
“Mr Edmund Stapleton, at your service.” Edmund bowed his head and gestured to his sister with a smile. “And this is Miss Louisa Stapleton.”
The footman nodded and gave a few words of direction to their carriage driver before leading the two up the long marble staircase at the front of the manor and inside where strains of music were already easing out onto the pavement. The inside was all magic and glamour, and though Edmund had seen it all before, it was more lovely watching it through his sister’s eyes. It was her first Season in London, and though the Stapleton family were not titled and destined for the House of Lords, they were a wealthy and stylish enough influence to deserve an invite to the first fashionable ball of the season.
Louisa was beside herself with excitement and delight, and Edmund couldn’t help smiling at the way she drew the gaze of everyone in the room when she stepped in at his side. She had the trademark Stapleton eyes; large and dark, with black hair swept up off her neck and thin dark curls framing her face. She had gone to the extreme in shopping for the season and wore a powder blue gown with silver accents at the hem and sleeves, as well as an elaborate sapphire necklace about her throat. Edmund knew that he cut a very different sort of figure alongside her, still dark-haired and dark-eyed, but a few heads taller than her and much more simply dressed.
He had been out in society for a few years, being older than Louisa, but those years had not been full of balls and outings as with other young men his age. He had studied at Cambridge for most of them, and even now, he couldn’t help looking at all the noise and grandeur and wishing, in some small part of him, that he was back beneath the sedate college walls he loved so well. He had only returned from his study a few months prior and had been at once enlisted into this position—to accompany Louisa to her first ball as a chaperone and to aid her along the way in navigating the twists and turns of society.
“It’s magnificent,” Louisa said, gasping, opening her fan, and hiding her amazement coyly behind it. “How very high the ceilings are and how bright the lights!”
“And all the handsome young men are an added benefit, I suppose?” he teased her quietly. She blushed and shot him a warning look.
“You will not ruin my fun tonight, will you?” she asked with a pretty pout. “I will not have you reporting back to Mother and Father that you disapproved of my engagements and conversations.”
“Then try not to have engagements or conversations of which I would disapprove,” he answered her. Then, seeing her face fall, he nudged her gently. “I do not worry about you, sister. Keep a level head and use common sense, and I should hope to see you spinning about the dance floor very soon.”
As he was speaking, they crossed the room and came to a stop near the punch table. He went to the servant near at hand and requested two drinks, one for him, one for Louisa. When he brought them back to her, she sipped nervously, her eyes darting across the floor.
“Now what?” she asked nervously.
“Now we introduce you,” he reassured her. “That’s where I come in. This isn’t like the country dances where we grew up; you stay by my side, and I will do my best to make the introductions as we move about the room. The first gentleman you meet will likely ask you to dance, but I have no concerns on that point.” He grinned at her. “You’ve always been very light on your feet.”
Just then, they turned into a pair walking towards the table behind them; two women engaged in conversation with each other. Louisa brightened at once, leaping forward lightly and seizing the hands of the older of the two women; a beautiful—high-browed lady clad in fine royal blue garments.
“Katherine!” she exclaimed. Edmund recognized the woman as a friend of his sister’s, although he had only met her once before. Louisa, however, seemed absolutely transported. “It is so good to see a familiar face,” she said, smiling apologetically back at Edmund. “I mean, my brother is a fine enough chaperone, but he simply cannot understand how nervous I am and how eager to make a good impression.”
“This is your first Season, is it not?” the other woman said with a benevolent smile. “I’m sure my dear Lady Marianne feels just the same.” She turned and drew her companion forward. “This is the Lady Marianne Amesbury, daughter of Baron Amesbury, if you are familiar with the name. Lady Marianne, may I introduce you to Miss Stapleton? I knew her family quite well during our last trip to Bath. And may I presume this is your brother, Miss Stapleton?”
“Yes, this is Edmund.” Louisa grinned brilliantly, turning to explain to her brother. “Edmund, Lady Barrington is simply the most marvellous of women. She recently became a Duchess—” she turned back to her friend. “The Duke is well, I suppose?”
“He is indeed.”
Edmund bowed. “It is a pleasure to meet you both,” he said quietly, although his attention was, in fact, primarily engaged by the younger of the two women. Lady Marianne looked to be about his sister’s age, although her expression was considerably more careful and restrained. She smiled faintly at him at the initial introduction but then turned her attention to the conversation of her companion and Louisa almost at once. He was grateful for her diverted attention, in fact, for it gave him the opportunity to examine her unhindered. She was dressed in a white muslin gown that fitted her to perfection; her skin was creamy and unblemished, her hair a brilliant copper, and her eyes as grey and soft as the sea.
“Is this your first time in the city?” he asked her. She turned her eyes back to him, something honest and unguarded in her expression.
“It is my first extended visit, but I have been here many times before.” Her voice was like music. “I love the country, but there is something exciting about coming at last to London during such a time of activity.”
“Indeed,” he said, captured by her beauty and the gentle tenor of her voice. “There is activity indeed at the beginning of the Season.”
“And of course in its natural connection to what is occurring in the House of Lords this session,” she began, but her companion at once laid a hand on her arm as though to discourage her from entering into the sort of bluestocking conversation that would not be appreciated in young ladies of substance. She stopped speaking at once and dropped her eyes. Edmund found he wished to hear more of her thoughts, whether they be on the passing affairs of the town or the more intimate details of her own life, but just as he thought to pry her with another question he felt Louisa tug at his arm.
“Edmund is going to help me with the introductions about the room,” Louisa said, “but might we come back and sit with you afterwards? I’m longing to hear all the news.”
“Of course,” the duchess answered. “We have introductions of our own to make.”
The two pairs parted company; Edmund and Louisa towards one side of the room, the duchess and her young charge towards the other. Edmund turned his attention back to Louisa. She was his purpose in attending this ball, after all, not winsome red-headed maidens with large grey eyes. He focused on her, pulling her to a group of young college friends gathered with some of the more impressive officers attending by the fireside.
“Miss Stapleton, your brother told me you would be here this evening,” one of the young men, a man named John Elliot, who was in line to inherit his father’s title, stepped forward with a foppish bow. “I hope that I might claim the first dance this evening?”
Louisa blushed at once. The young Mr Elliot was a handsome gentleman, and dashing as well, but Edmund knew him to be somewhat entitled. He smiled indulgently but made certain to introduce Louisa at once to some of his more respectable friends in the hopes that she would see just how wide the field of opportunities open to one such as herself could be.
While he was navigating these conversations, making certain that Louisa felt at ease, that his friends were behaving themselves, that the whole thing was proper and above board, he kept finding his gaze drawn to the other side of the room. It was easy to spot the young Lady Marianne. Her slender figure clothed in the white gown shone; her copper hair stood out amid all the dark-haired beauties and blonde curls, and more than that, Edmund found that her presence drew him. He could not hear what she said, but as he watched her interact with each of the gentlemen that came to speak with her, he was drawn in by her quiet laughter and the sparkling delight she seemed to be taking at the scene before her. He wanted to be near her; he wanted to be one of those young men swirling in her circle.
The dancing began, and Louisa came to him with delight, showing off a dance card already half full of admirers. He smiled at her joy and then looked across the room again. He knew it was foolish to find his attentions so quickly engaged, but he also knew he could not simply let the night go by without at least attempting to win a dance with Lady Marianne. He waited until Louisa had set out onto the dance floor with Mr Elliot, saw that Lady Marianne was, for the moment, unengaged, and slipped across the room to her side.
“Lady Marianne,” he said, clearing his throat and giving a little bow as he neared her chair. “May I beg a moment of your time?”
She looked up with genuine surprise, a hint of a blush tingeing her cheeks. “Mr Stapleton.” She nodded. “My time is yours.”
“I was wondering if I might engage you for the next dance. I see that it is to be a waltz, quite progressive, I know, if you are willing to risk it, so too am I.”
She looked nervous and shot a glance over in the direction of the Duchess, who was appraising Edmund with patient eyes. The other woman nodded encouragement, and Lady Marianne turned her eyes back to Edmund with a half-smile.
“I would love to,” she answered quietly.
Edmund led the lady out onto the floor as the first strains of the next song came on, loving the way her hand felt, soft and gentle, in his own. She walked smoothly but seemed uncertain. He wondered if she was simply nervous about coming out and dancing in front of society for the first time in her opening season, or if there was something else beneath the caution she was showing.
They took their places across from one another, each shoulder to shoulder with the others of their sex as the song began. When it did, Edmund fell easily into the pattern of the dance. It was, in his mind, a very romantic dance. The music was soft and inviting; the steps encouraged closeness, and more than once, he found the Lady Marianne in his arms for this turn or that.
He was usually gifted at conversation, but he found himself tongue-tied at first, struggling to find something worth saying to such a beauty. It was she who spoke first.
“I suppose you are quite familiar with all the excitement around us,” she said with a smile. “I confess it is all still very new to me, and I feel wide-eyed with wonder at the sight of it all.”
He was relieved that she had saved him from the opening remark. “You do not seem so very wide-eyed. My sister, on the contrary, has greeted the entire night with the wonder and delight of a child.”
“If I do not seem the same,” she answered wryly, “it is because I have done a very admirable job of keeping my feelings on the matter to myself.” She hid a smile.
“What were you thinking of?” he asked. “Just now, when you smiled?”
“I was only thinking that the duchess would not think I had done an altogether perfect job of conducting myself this evening. She is a kind woman, but she does not think my father would approve of me discussing the business on the table at the House of Lords with you in our first conversation.” She reached up to turn beneath his raised arm and came back into position across from him.
“I noticed her disapproval,” Edmund answered, smiling back at her. “But you need not feel so restrained about me. I was interested to hear what thoughts you had about the session. I have recently finished a few years of study at Cambridge, and in our philosophical readings, we often compared the history of the past to the current events of the present.”
There was a strange look in her eyes at these words, and when she spoke again, it was slowly; with care. “You’re asking me my opinion?”
She gave a light laugh. “I confess that does not happen to me very often.”
Edmund smiled, but he knew that it was true. Even a woman as influential as Lady Marianne, gifted with beauty and wealth and title, would not be deemed worthy of opinion in society. He knew it to be true, and yet he had been raised by his father to look for intellect and knowledge wherever he could, and having found it in the beautiful creature now dancing with him, Edmund was not about to overlook it.
“So, tell me what you know.”
“I was singularly interested in the tax they are speaking about levelling on some of the lower classes,” she said after a pause. “I do not know much about it, but it seems strange that we would tax something that is a necessity for the poor, rather than taxing the surplus of the rich.”
Edmund raised his eyebrows. “It is strange, indeed, but you must also consider the effect of taxes at the higher level and how they might negatively affect the poor in the future. Estates like that of your father’s and mine help to support the community in which they operate.”
“Perhaps,” she said, turning again into his arms. “But surely some middle ground must be found, rather than draining the lowest in our social stratum of the little gifts they have managed to receive.”
He looked on her with new interest. “It would have been good to have someone like you in our politics study,” he said. “It would have offered some much-needed balance.”
“Now you are the one speaking scandalously,” she scolded with a laugh. “I cannot imagine something more bluestocking than a woman such as myself pursuing higher education. Not to mention impossible at present.”
He caught her close to him, his arm around her waist, and smiled down at her. “And yet something tells me that even though you know it is impossible, the thought of studying at Cambridge has crossed your mind before.”
She hid a smile. “I prefer to dwell on solving the practical problems of the moment rather than manufacturing problems that do not exist. I would not expect a philosophy student to understand that.”
“Shocking,” he said, spinning her away again and laughing. “The lady knows how to cut me to the quick,” he teased.
They went through the motions of the promenade, clasping hands and advancing backwards and forwards with the group all around them. At one point, she seemed to stumble, but righted herself at once, and they continued.
“Tell me,” he asked her. “What do you do with your time when you are here in London?”
She bit her lip. “I am not well acquainted with the city, but I suppose I shall fill my days much as I do back home. I will ride, walk, and adventure as far as is proper, and read a good deal.”
“Perhaps your days will be full of new acquaintances,” Edmund said. “Perhaps you will find your hours occupied by admirers.”
She looked at him with a half-smile that told him she saw through his coy turn of phrase. She did not tell him what he wanted to know—if she already had a young man of importance in her life—but instead waited in silence until the dance took them apart, and then spoke of a different matter when they came back together again.
It was very near the last part of the dance, as the final strains of music were filling the air, that she stumbled quite suddenly and dramatically, pitching forward. Had he not been standing near at hand with his arm about her waist as the dance required, she would have fallen to the floor, but he caught her at once in support. She winced, and he could see that she had twisted something.
“Is it your ankle?” he asked in a low voice, not wanting to embarrass her. She flushed crimson, took a tentative step, and then bit her lip in pain. She looked very white but shook her head. He put his other arm beneath her elbow, still discreet enough to shield her from the notice of others. “Perhaps you will accompany me from the floor, My Lady? I find I am weary and would appreciate a glass of water as refreshment.”
She nodded silently, and together they made their way across the floor to the little alcove where her companion still waited. Lady Barrington stood at once, alarm on her face. She had clearly seen the injury or perhaps had perceived that something was amiss by how heavily Lady Marianne was leaning on Edmund’s arm. He helped the lady sit and offered to fetch her a glass of water.
“Are you feeling ill?” he asked. “I can bring refreshment.”
“No need,” she said, wetting her lips. “I have a glass here at the table already.”
The duchess looked at Edmund, and then back at her little charge in concern. “It is nothing, sir,” she said briskly. “Only that Lady Marianne sometimes grows faint in public places such as these, and after strenuous dancing. I believe that it was unwise for her to—”
Lady Marianne reached up and gently put a hand on the duchess’ arm. “It is alright,” she said quietly. “He has already rescued me from extreme embarrassment; I think it is the least we can do to tell him what has happened and assuage his fears.” She met her friend’s eyes reassuringly. “I know that you are only trying to protect my feelings as well, but something in Mr Stapleton’s manner assures me that he is not prone to quick judgements.”
Edmund shook his head. “I am not, but I would not enquire personal information of a lady.”
“It is nothing,” she said, waving her hand. Her face had regained some of its colour, although she still seemed very weak. “It hurts my pride to tell of it, but it is an engaging enough story.” She looked out over the dance floor. “Is your sister quite well?”
He turned, appreciative of her concern, and saw that Louisa had set out onto the dance floor again with one of her many admirers. She seemed fully at ease in her surroundings now, all the nerves gone up in the cloud of compliments that had been showered upon her. He turned back to Lady Marianne.
“She is.” He nodded to the seat. “May I sit with you?”
Lady Barrington seemed more withdrawn than she had been when they first met, although then she had been blessed with Louisa’s energy to sustain the conversation. Now she seemed worried, almost as though she regretted having given Lady Marianne encouragement to dance with Edmund. She cleared her throat.
“You are the son of Mr Laurence Stapleton, are you not?” she asked.
“I am,” Edmund answered. “Do you know my father?”
“Lady Barrington,” the other woman interjected, a note of gentle reproach in her voice. “The gentleman has asked if he can sit with us, and you have begun to quiz him about his home and heritage. Surely both could be accomplished after he is comfortably settled?”
Lady Barrington nodded reluctantly, and Edmund sat. He smiled at Lady Marianne. “I will answer all that you ask, but you were first going to tell me a story of your own history, and I will admit that interests me far more than my own.”
Lady Marianne smiled. “I will tell you, but you must not think too harshly of me. I was a very young girl then, and I flatter myself that the same events would not be repeated in the present age.”
“That is the way of childhood,” Edmund reassured her. “I will not think harshly of you, My Lady. Continue without fear.”
She laughed. “Well, I was about seven or eight years old—I cannot remember exactly—and I decided to run away from home. You may very well look shocked, for it is not a common thing for young girls as fortunate in the eyes of society and family as I to turn themselves out on the wild world untended, but I had my reasons. You see, we lived in the country, and I had only my father to tame me. I was the first child in my family, and my mother was lost the same day I was born. Father cared for me—cares for me still—very much, and I’m afraid he was not very adept in giving rules to the daughter he treasured above all else. He was gone often, and very busy, and I did not like my governess very much.”
Lady Barrington gave a little laugh, and Edmund looked at her. She shrugged, still cautious but smiling at the story nonetheless. “You ought to say ‘governesses,’ my dear, for there were many.”
“Yes, I sent many poor women from our estate who were well equipped and kind souls.” Lady Marianne smiled wryly. “I was a wild child, as wild as the countryside all around, and I wanted very much to live free of restrictions. In my childish brain, I thought the easiest way to do that was to free myself from my home.”
“It is difficult to imagine,” Edmund said truthfully. The woman across from him now had nothing runaway in her appearance; so soft and demure did she seem, although he felt that when he looked very closely, he saw something of the wilderness in her eyes. “You seem quite settled in your place and position.”
“You do not know Lady Marianne well,” Lady Barrington interjected, that same concerned crease in her forehead. “You cannot yet make presumptions one way or the other.”
“That is true,” Edmund conceded. “Please, lady, continue with your story.”
“Well, I plotted my escape with all the care a child so young can have. I opened a wee handkerchief and filled it with the remains of my luncheon, dressed in my shabbiest clothes, which were really quite fine, and brought along a cover from my bed. I waited until after dinner, and then I crept out into the night.” Lady Marianne smiled mischievously. “I thought it would not do to simply sleep under the stars, for the longer I was out there in the night, the more I began to worry about creatures coming to get me from the woods all around. I know now that not many wild beasts in those parts are dangerous enough to children, but at the time I could think only of the fairy books I’d read in Father’s study, and I was unwilling to put myself in the way of one of those witching creatures of the night. I found a tree at the far end of the estate, deep in the forest, and I began to climb it.”
Lady Barrington looked uncomfortable, and Marianne reached over to pat her friend’s hand. “I know,” she said, “this is the part of the story that you do not like. It is not wholly proper for young girls to climb trees. Still, I will remind you that those were my wild days, and I am quite reformed.”
“Quite,” Lady Barrington agreed, not sounding as though she fully believed it.
“I had climbed some trees before,” Lady Marianne went on, “and was fairly good at it, but the one I had chosen was very tall and had a good amount of space between each limb. I scrambled up as best as I could, but when I was a dangerous height from the ground, my little kerchief of refreshments slipped and trying to catch it, I tumbled from my perch.” She shrugged. “I fell very hard and broke my leg quite severely. As we are at a public event and you have already sacrificed to allow me to speak about personal matters, I will refrain from giving you the details, but I can tell you that it was quite terrible, and though a brave little girl, I fainted at the sight of it. When I woke up again, it was very dark and cold. The night was full of strange sounds. I screamed for help, but I was too far from anyone to be heard. In the end, I took the blanket and curled up against the tree. I stayed like that all night long.”
Edmund felt strong sympathy for the little girl in the story, and the more that the young woman telling it spoke, the more he could imagine her at the age of seven or eight, defiant, brave, that red hair hanging loose about her shoulders. His heart went out to her. “That is a long time to be alone and afraid,” he said.
She nodded in response. “It was. I had been a terror to my governesses and my family for some time, but that night as I shivered in the darkness, I learned what real fear and pain could be like. I vowed in my little girl heart never to disobey my father again.” She smiled. “Of course, I thought my vow had wrought some magic, for it was my father who found me the next morning. He had arrived back home from his business to find the house in an uproar looking for me and set out at the head of the first search party. He picked me up and held me close, carrying me all the way back to the house where the doctor tended to my leg.”
Her eyes got a faraway look in them. “I was better after that, although you can’t expect a child to completely lay aside their will for adventure, but I wanted very much to make my father proud. In turn, he seemed to spend more time at home with me, and that eased my desire to misbehave.” She made a motion towards her leg, which was, of course, now swathed in white silk and muslin. “Some lessons leave scars, however, and while the break healed well enough that I can move without a limp, I still tire easily after standing for a long period, and certainly when dancing.” She blushed a little. “There you have the story in its entirety, although I warrant you had not expected such a complete explanation when you first asked after my help.”
Edmund looked at her with tenderness growing in his heart. He was touched by the story, more deeply than he had expected to be, and even more so by Marianne’s willingness to share it openly with him whom she had only just met. It seemed a mark of her character that she was so open and innocent about even those parts of her past that did not reflect well upon her.
He leaned close. “I thank you for sharing what you did,” he said. “And I shall answer your vulnerability in this matter with some of my own. I envy that your relationship with your father is now so close. I myself have not the same understanding with my father. He is a good man, but a distant one, I am afraid.”
“Tell me about him,” Lady Marianne asked.
Lady Barrington cleared her throat as though this vein of questioning was the last straw. “I do not know that such familiarity is called for so soon in our acquaintance,” she said quickly. It was a sign of her discomfort that she would sacrifice propriety to speak so bluntly. Edmund sat up, leaning away from Lady Marianne again to demonstrate that his intentions were pure. Lady Barrington pursed her lips together, and Edmund saw something strained in her gaze. “You are here to attend to your sister, are you not, Mr Stapleton?”
Edmund looked over at the dance floor and saw that the most recent turn was about to draw to a close. He looked back at Lady Marianne. She looked disappointed but was making an effort to control her visage. “My Lady,” he said, speaking to Lady Barrington. “You are quite right about my sister, and I fear I must part company with you to seek out her welfare at present. On the other matter, I cannot agree.” He turned his eyes to Lady Marianne. “I would most dearly appreciate a chance to call on you, Lady Marianne. Is there a possibility I might do so tomorrow?”
This time, the younger woman did not look to the older for guidance. She smiled very softly and nodded with a blush.
“You may, sir,” she said softly.
Edmund stood, bowed, and took his leave of the two women, his heart full of excitement as he made his way back to Louisa’s side.
“A Captivating Lady’s Love Storm” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
As her first official Season is approaching, Lady Marianne Amesbury can’t wait to discover what the future holds for her. After her first dance with a charming gentleman, her instinct tells her that he might be the one. While she can’t stop daydreaming about her life by his side, everything is about to change when she discovers that his family is her father’s lifelong feud. When her father announces that he will never allow her to see him again, Marianne’s life falls into pieces. Desperate to escape her grim future, she tries to find the cause of her father’s hate and soothe his resentful heart. Will she manage to put an end to an endless clash? Will she finally have the happy ending she has always been dreaming of?
Edmund Stapleton is a kind gentleman with an intrepid mind. Even though he has never enjoyed balls and such social events, he has no choice but to fulfil society’s expectations. When he first sees Marianne, he cannot help being smitten by her beauty. But a storm is brewing when he learns that the woman who is about to haunt his dreams would be the daughter of his father’s most obnoxious enemy. Will Edmund stick to his father’s demand to forget about Marianne, or will he start a relentless pursuit of claiming the woman he loves?
Against all odds, Marianne and Edmund do everything in their power to spend a few moments together. But when her father finds out about their secret meetings, furious as he is, he forces her back to the countryside. To make matters worse, he finds an eligible man to betroth her at the earliest opportunity. In the end, will the two romantic souls escape from a terrible fate? Will their love withstand the obstacles that keep them apart?
“A Captivating Lady’s Love Storm” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.