The hum of chattering guests and softly playing music drew Tabitha like a butterfly to the sweetest nectar. Her soul mate was surely in this room, and she was ready to meet him.
Turning to her father, she called out to him, but he didn’t seem to hear. The duke appeared focused ahead and a little troubled.
He looked down, a slight frown marring his usually jovial face. “Yes, my dear?”
“Is something amiss?”
“No,” her father replied, his frown deepening for a second before smoothing away until only his permanent lines remained. “Why do you ask?”
“You appear to be concerned about something. Is there someone you’re looking for?”
“Oh, hush, dear,” her mother admonished. “Your father is merely thinking about your success. This is your very first ball, after all, and we wish you to make a good impression.”
Tabitha could understand that. She was just as concerned about this ball, but her excitement far outweighed any undesirable emotions.
“Do not fret, Papa,” Tabitha assured him. “I will not do anything to bring shame to our family.”
The duke affectionately patted her hand resting on his forearm. “I know, dear. ’Tis a father’s prerogative to fuss about his daughter’s first ball. Do you have your dance card with you? I have a few suggestions for your partners, particularly your first dance.”
This piqued Tabitha’s interest. “Oh? Who would that be?”
“Lord Bazeley,” her father announced. “It’s unfortunate I cannot see him yet. Perhaps he hasn’t arrived.”
Tabitha had never heard about this man, but he was important enough that her father knew him and wanted her to dance with him.
“Who is he, Papa? A friend?”
“Something like that. He is a distinguished marquess and well-respected by his peers.”
Which meant he would probably be old and unattractive. Tabitha’s heart sank. She had hoped her first dance would be with a handsome man who was both young and an accomplished dancer. Tabitha was often told by her friends that she was a gifted and graceful dancer and was eager to make it known during her first Season. Everybody would surely admire her and say wonderful things about her nimble feet and youthful gaiety.
Looking around, Tabitha noticed how people observed her openly. Shyness refused her to gaze upon them with as much frankness, but she was secretly pleased. She was not in any way vain about her beauty, but Tabitha was aware of its effect on others. There was seldom a room she walked into where people did not pause their conversation and watch her. She presumed it was the combination of her golden hair and emerald-green eyes surrounded by fair skin and almost permanently flushed cheeks that drew their appreciative gazes. Tabitha’s mother often commented that Tabitha’s joie de vivre maintained her rosy cheeks and delicate features, making her appear younger than her nineteen years. Mandee’s opinion was altogether different. The handmaiden, and Tabitha’s closest friend, attributed Tabitha’s appearance to her mischievous deeds and playful manner. Whichever it was, it worked in Tabitha’s favour.
“Alfred,” her mother began, “I feel a tad parched, and I’m sure Tabitha is as well. Why don’t you get us some wine, and we’ll find somewhere to sit?”
The duke agreed, weaving his way through a small crowd as Tabitha and her mother went in the opposite direction. Sitting areas had been set up along the walls of the vast ballroom, and while most were already occupied, they managed to find a comfortable spot beside the Dowager Countess of Windbatten. Tabitha found the old woman rather odd but interesting. Her father often called the dowager senile, but Tabitha disagreed. The woman’s mind was sharp and observant, but her peculiar ways made her seem forgetful, frail, and someone not many wished to be around. They put up with the dowager, but most people avoided her at all costs. Fortunately, Tabitha’s mother liked the older woman and didn’t mind sitting beside her.
“It took you long enough to arrive, Trina,” the dowager expressed sharply as soon as they drew up to her. “I have been alone for some time.”
“I assumed you were not coming this evening,” Tabitha’s mother explained. “You were rather vocal about not being amongst ‘fuddy-duddies’.”
Tabitha giggled at the word. The dowager used it to describe the Ton despite being part of the very same society.
“I decided to come and observe how foolish everyone has become since I last saw them,” the woman declared, casting twinkling eyes at Tabitha. “It will give me something to laugh about when I return to Surrey. Have you seen Fletcher’s girl? She looks like a fluffy cloud of dribble.”
Tabitha’s mother looked around, placing a warning hand on the woman’s frail wrist. “Do not speak so loudly, Countess. Someone might hear you.”
“But look at her,” the dowager insisted. “Is she not ridiculous with those puffy sleeves and ruffles that do nothing to hide her unsightly double chin?”
Tabitha looked at the old woman’s own chin, watching the excess skin shake whenever the dowager spoke.
“Do not look at me like that, Tabitha,” the dowager warned. “I wasn’t always like this. I was much like you when I was younger, but with dark hair and blue eyes. Suitors fell at my feet just to dance with me. Where are your dance partners?”
Tabitha took no notice of the woman’s scathing words, finding them without bite. “Perhaps I am not as beautiful as you were, My Lady.”
“So speaks the girl who has attracted every male’s gaze since she walked into the room. I noticed how everyone’s eyes turned to the entrance. I knew it was you even though I couldn’t see you from where I’m sitting.”
Tabitha knew the woman didn’t expect a thank you in return. The dowager had said it matter-of-factly, not intending to compliment.
The women eventually fell into easy conversation until Tabitha’s father’s arrival. The man immediately baulked when he saw who Tabitha and her mother sat beside but continued to draw closer, albeit unwillingly.
“Countess,” he said by way of greeting. “You’re looking well.”
The old woman raised her eyebrows. “Don’t you mean senile?”
The duke’s cheeks reddened. “No, not at all. Have you come alone?”
“My son and daughter-in-law are somewhere in the room,” the woman replied. “Do you have a glass for me?”
Tabitha’s father looked down at the three glasses in his hands, his face a mask of internal struggles. Finally, he handed one to the dowager and the others to Tabitha and her mother.
“How kind of you, Alfred,” the old woman remarked. “Where is yours?”
“I was just about to get one,” the duke answered, his voice strained. “Please excuse me.”
Tabitha’s poor father bowed to the woman and left them only to return moments later with a dashingly handsome man at his side. The tall, fair man looked at her and smiled, causing Tabitha to blush and look down.
“I see you’ve come out of your hole, Bazeley,” said the dowager.
Tabitha’s head jerked upward. Bazeley? The very same man her father had spoken about? Why, the marquess wasn’t ugly or old!
“Good evening, Lady Windbatten,” the man said, bowing before the old woman. “You look particularly lovely today.”
The dowager snorted. “My husband would say differently. He hates navy and would rather see me in pink. Awful colour.”
Everyone grew silent. The dowager’s husband had been dead for several years, and yet the woman spoke of him as though he were still alive. This was one of the reasons why many considered the woman to be senile.
“Lord Windbatten has wonderful taste,” said Tabitha, filling the awkward silence. “Pink looks wonderful against your dark hair. I cannot wear it as you can. Blue is more my colour.”
This evening, Tabitha wore a white silk dress with short sleeves and gold edging along the bodice, sleeves, and hemline. Her mother thought it was important to appear as young and vibrant as possible as all men seemed to prefer women with a more youthful appearance. White was supposed to achieve just that, although Tabitha would have selected a light blue dress or perhaps something in green.
Her father cleared his throat, gaining their attention. “Tabby, this is Leo Whittier, the Marquess of Bazeley. He has asked for the very first dance.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Browning,” the marquess said, bowing before her. “Your father is indeed right about asking for this dance. It would be an honour to be your first partner.”
Tabitha felt obliged to get to her feet, curtsying in turn. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, My Lord. I will add your name to my dance card,” she promised.
“You have made a poor soul a happy man, Lady Browning,” Lord Bazeley claimed. “I will return shortly for that dance.”
Tabitha’s father offered to walk the marquess back to wherever he had found the man, his eager form disappearing alongside Lord Bazeley into the group of people ahead. The marquess had to be an important man to have gained the attention of the duke, yet this was the first she had heard of him. Tabitha had to admit that the man reeked of elegance and excellent manners and was attracting a fair bit of attention as well. She put down the admiring gazes to his fair hair and light blue eyes, a favourite combination for most.
“He cuts a striking figure, doesn’t he?” her mother commented, looking at her with a smile.
Tabitha suddenly became interested in her glass of wine, feeling her cheeks grow hot under her mother’s playful gaze. She had a feeling the duchess had noticed her keen interest in the marquess but would never outright say it.
“Lord Bazeley will be a favourite this Season,” Tabitha finally said. She glanced at the dowager, not surprised to see the woman asleep. “I expect she is dead to the world for another hour or so, Mama.”
“Or so,” the woman replied, her eyes sparkling. She knew Tabitha was avoiding discussing the marquess. “I’ll remain with her until Diana remembers she has a responsibility to her mother-in-law.”
Tabitha and her mother spoke quietly for some time, only pausing when the dowager gave a little snort of air or a soft snore. Tabitha was about to ask if she snored when music played announcing the first dance of the evening. Her belly fluttered as she sharply drew in breath. Lord Bazeley would appear any moment now and claim the right of her hand. As soon as she thought that, Tabitha’s mind started to spin with possibilities. Could Lord Bazeley be the man she was to marry? He certainly fitted the physical description of a handsome man, and he was so polite. Her father evidently thought highly of him as well, which was promising. Perhaps it was too soon to know, so Tabitha decided to tuck her thoughts away until further into the Season.
Sure enough, Lord Bazeley appeared and swept her away amidst the admiring gazes of the guests. Tabitha heard a woman comment on how well she and Lord Bazeley suited, coaxing an unwanted blush out of her. Tabitha didn’t want to appear as though every compliment was reason to blush, or the marquess might think her too naïve.
“You look ravishing this evening, Lady Browning,” Lord Bazeley commented. “I daresay you’re the prettiest woman in this room!”
Tabitha smiled, hoping she looked gracious and not like a blushing fool. “Thank you, My Lord. That is kind of you to say.”
“Call me Leo,” he insisted. “I feel I shall see much more of you before the Season has ended.”
He had given her the use of his Christian name? Perhaps the marquess was interested in courting her! How did she feel about that? Lord Bazeley was handsome with excellent manners, which was as good a start as any for one’s first suitor. Suddenly shy, Tabitha lowered her eyes and nodded.
“It would be my honour to use your first name,” she said.
“That was so prettily said,” Leo replied. “It’s not so often that beauty, kindness, and respectability are seen in someone as young as you are. Your father mentioned you were nineteen.”
Tabitha beamed. She was making a great first impression! Her mother and father would be proud of her success.
“Yes … Leo,” she said, hesitating briefly. “Would it be forward of me to ask your age?”
Tabitha knew one should never ask a woman her age, but she didn’t think the same rule applied to men.
Tabitha’s eyes widened. She didn’t expect the marquess to name such a great number. He was eleven years older than her! Tabitha had always imagined a youthful man as her life partner, yet Leo didn’t look his age.
“Is there something wrong with my age?” Leo queried.
“None at all,” Tabitha assured with little confidence. “You merely surprised me.”
“That’s a relief to hear,” he said, his eyes full of amusement.
Tabitha looked away, wondering if she had undone all her success. But surely the opinion of a young woman shouldn’t matter to a man of his calibre? He had to be wealthy to afford his nifty attire, and Tabitha’s father wasn’t one to waste his time with those whose wealth was significantly lower than his own.
To Tabitha’s relief, the music ended. She curtsied, thanking Leo for the dance.
“No, thank you,” he countered. “You were the perfect dance partner and put all the other women to shame. May I lead you back to your seat?”
“I would like that.”
Leo tucked Tabitha’s hand in the crook of his arm and parted a clear path through the crowd. People stood aside and stared as though the marquess demanded attention. Tabitha felt rather proud to be on his arm.
“Tabitha – may I call you that?” Leo asked.
“Yes, of course, you may,” Tabitha readily agreed. “’Tis only fair as I now call you Leo.”
Leo grinned, showing his slightly crooked teeth. It was good to see that he wasn’t perfect. Imperfections brought character to one’s face, but there had to be beauty to balance it.
“It’s such a unique name,” the marquess stated. “Almost as unique as the owner herself. I wonder if she would allow me to call on her this week?”
“C-call on me?” Tabitha stuttered.
My, things were moving along fast! Tabitha blushed profusely, forcing her hand to remain on Leo’s forearm. She hadn’t expected the marquess to be so quick about calling on her. That could only mean one thing. Such an elegant man was interested in courting her! Unless he had said it to be friendly?
“Put me out of my misery, Tabitha,” the marquess urged. “I cannot come unless you will welcome me.”
“Well, uh …” she said, desperately finding the right words to say. “I have no objections, but allow me to ask my father first.”
Leo nodded, his expression pleased and smug. Had he been so confident that she would agree?
“I understand,” he said. “I shall personally speak to your father.”
Tabitha nodded, feeling a tiny bud of excitement unfurl and grow within her. This was only her first ball, yet she had her first interested suitor. It was more than any girl could hope for.
Leo returned her to her mother, but Tabitha only found a now wide-awake dowager. Tabitha thanked the marquess, watching him for a moment as he walked away.
“I hope you have not invested any thought or silly emotions on that man, Tabitha Browning,” the dowager said. “Bazeley is not the man for you.”
That was the last thing Tabitha had expected the countess to say. Most women would not question the remark, but Tabitha wasn’t most women. She wanted to know precisely what the dowager meant by her comment.
“Why? Do you think me too young and inexperienced?”
“You are as you should be. ’Tis him who is not good enough for you, dear. Take the word of an old woman: stay away from the marquess.”
The woman’s warning had an ominous ring to it. “But he is a wonderful man, My Lady,” Tabitha argued.
“Yes, my husband is a wonderful man,” the dowager replied. “None better can be found elsewhere.”
Had they not been talking about the marquess? “But what of Lord Bazeley, Lady Windbatten?”
The old woman’s wrinkled brow creased as her head tilted. “What of him, girl? Is he here?”
Perhaps the woman was senile after all, but Tabitha found it strange that the dowager would say such a specific and uncomplimentary remark about Leo.
An unsettling feeling stole over Tabitha, dimming her excitement. It was temporarily set aside when her mother returned and asked about her first dance with the marquess. Tabitha all but gushed about Leo’s agility, skill, and grace, likening him to a swan with the strength of a stag. She didn’t mention that the marquess wished to call on her tomorrow, giving the man time to speak to her father. Tabitha found she wasn’t as keen to see him as she had initially been and knew it had to do with what Lady Windbatten had said.
The dowager never repeated her warning that evening, but Tabitha couldn’t forget about it. Annoyed with herself for putting so much stock by what the old woman had said, Tabitha told herself to forget about it and enjoy the rest of the evening.
Later that night, she couldn’t stifle a yawn as Mandee helped her remove her gown. The maid chuckled, carefully setting the garment aside before working on Tabitha’s unmentionables.
“It must have been a good night to have tired you out,” the woman remarked.
“Oh, it was magical, Mandee! I’ve never been to anything so grand. The dancing, the music, the guests …”
Tabitha twirled away as soon as Mandee had removed the chemisette, performing one of the dances.
“And here I thought you were tired!” the maid exclaimed.
“I am fatigued, make no mistake, but ’tis the wonderful sort that gives one a burst of energy when required. I do not think I shall be able to sleep once my head hits the pillow. I’ll lay awake all night thinking about everything and anything about the ball.”
“Did you see anyone you know?” Mandee asked. “How many partners did you have?”
“My dance card was brimming with partners. Every eligible suitor wished to dance with me once Leo had claimed the first dance.”
Mandee’s eyebrows lifted. “Leo? And who might he be?”
Tabitha’s lips stretched wide in a telling smile. “Only the most handsome gentleman at the ball this evening. Most likely know him as Lord Bazeley, but he gave me the use of his Christian name during our first dance. He wishes to call on me tomorrow, you know. I was happy about it at first, but now …” Tabitha shrugged. “I suppose I allowed Lady Windbatten’s words to affect me, and now I seem to think something isn’t right about him.”
Mandee opened her mouth, and after a moment’s hesitation, asked Tabitha to repeat the man’s name.
“Lord Bazeley,” Tabitha told her. “Leo was so attentive, kind, charming, and a wonderful dancer, but now my opinion of him has been somewhat tainted by what Lady Windbatten said. I do not know if she was in her right faculties when she spoke, but she warned me away from Leo, stating he wasn’t the man for me and that he wasn’t good enough. She changed the subject soon after and never said a word about it again, but I, unfortunately, haven’t forgotten about it. Silly of me, isn’t it? I suppose I’m worrying over nothing.”
“If only that were true,” Tabitha heard Mandee mutter under her breath.
“What do you mean by that?”
A pained expression crossed the young woman’s features before firm resolution promptly replaced it. Tabitha wondered what that was about. Mandee was usually a cheerful person, but she appeared disturbed by something.
“May I speak frankly?” Mandee asked.
“Yes, of course. You know that I never forbid you from speaking your mind.”
“That may change after what I have to say.”
“You’re going around the hill when you could just go over it,” Tabitha complained. “Speak plainly.”
Mandee spoke in one breath, her words running over each other. “I’m sorry to tell you that Lord Bazeley has an awful reputation. I have it on the best authority.”
Tabitha scrunched up her face, pulling her head back slightly. “You must have heard wrong. Leo has not exhibited any sort of unsightly behaviour.”
“I know. That is how he fools everyone but the ones he allows to see his true character. I heard the servants gossiping about it several times before, and I always wondered who this man was. I’m not mistaken by claiming it’s the same man who danced with you tonight. Lord Bazeley’s own servants dislike and fear him. He is a dangerous fellow, Tabitha. You would do best to stay away from him.”
Tabitha slowly sunk onto her bed, wrapping her arms around a bedpost. How could this be? If everything Mandee said was true, it was puzzling why her father allowed her to dance with Leo. Didn’t her father know about the man’s reputation?
“I know that you wouldn’t lie or tell tall tales,” said Tabitha. “But I must admit it’s difficult to believe that the charming man I met tonight is the same man you speak of.”
“I assure you it is,” Mandee insisted. “Him coming to call on you does not bode well.”
Perhaps that was why Tabitha continued to feel unsettled about the marquess. But how could an evil person hide their true nature under such beauty and charm?
“I think I shall not see him again,” Tabitha decided. “I do not want such characters around me or my family.”
“You have made the right choice,” Mandee affirmed. “The likes of that man should never darken these hallways.”
Hopefully, Leo would change his mind and not come to see her tomorrow.
Tabitha hoped in vain. The very next morning at eleven, she heard a chaise draw up to the house. Her tea in hand, Tabitha looked outside her parlour window, nearly dropping her cup when she saw who it was.
“Mandee!” she screeched.
The woman, who had been darning a dress, uttered an expletive when she jumped, pulling out the needle that had pierced her thumb.
“What in hades are you shouting for?” she scolded.
“Leo is here! I can’t let him see me, for goodness’ sake.”
The woman jumped to attention, flinging the dress to the side and running to the window.
“That is Lord Bazeley?” Mandee said with some admiration. “He is a handsome fellow. The Devil incarnate but handsome. Perhaps Lucifer looked like this before he disgraced himself and was thrown out of heaven.”
“You are not helping!” Tabitha cried. “He is evil, remember?”
“He certainly is.” Mandee pulled her head back, pushing Tabitha away from the window. “I think he saw me.”
Tabitha’s eyes widened. “Do you think he saw me?”
“No, but he is climbing down the chaise. You’ll have to run to your room and feign illness if you’re to avoid him. I’ll tell your father that the late evening has altered your health, and you require some peace and sleep.”
“Do I have to pretend to be sick?”
“No, simply remain out of sight for the day. Go now!”
Tabitha didn’t need to be told twice. She scurried out of the room, lifting her dress higher than she should as she took the stairs two at a time. Fortunately, no servants but Mandee were around to see her. Tabitha heard the young woman chuckling before her laughter was abruptly killed by the appearance of the butler. The maid informed the man of Tabitha’s illness, requesting he communicate it to the duke. What would Tabitha’s father say once he found out about her ‘illness’?
“I wasn’t sick at breakfast,” Tabitha whispered to herself. “He might question it.”
Hiding behind the drapes of the second floor, Tabitha gestured at Mandee to join her.
“Now we wait,” the maid said, settling beside Tabitha.
Tabitha nodded, sucking in her breath when her father appeared. The butler spoke to him, immediately moving to the door when the knocker was banged. Leo walked in, thanking the butler while looking around the front hall as though he were taking inventory. Why would he do that? It seemed a tad rude to her.
Pursing her lips, Tabitha watched her father approach the marquess, warmly welcoming him and leading the way to the study. Mandee nudged her, wiggling her eyebrows and pointing. Giggling, Tabitha thought to make a smart remark when the marquess paused and looked up, his cold blue eyes instantly finding her. Tabitha sucked in her breath, feeling rooted to the floor as a cold chill travelled down her spine.
“What is it?” Mandee asked.
The woman’s voice was enough to break whatever spell Leo had woven through his eyes. Without a word, Tabitha turned and fled to her room.
Jeremy leaned forward to give his horse an affectionate pat on the neck. Wolfe had been his first purchase with his first salary and belonged to no one else but him. That mattered a lot to him.
“You treat that horse better than most parents treat their children,” the duke remarked.
The man drew up to Jeremy, unnecessarily digging his heels into his horse’s sides. Jeremy winced, feeling sorry for the horse.
“The better you treat your animals, the more they will cooperate with you, Your Grace,” Jeremy replied.
“Force is enough to make any animal or person comply, Jeremy,” the duke countered. “Your coddling of that horse will only lead to sad disappointment when it turns on you.”
Jeremy didn’t bother arguing that a happy creature, be it human or animal, didn’t need an occasion to turn because of its good situation. Happiness left no room for anger or discontentment. More people would do well to understand that, but people were more inclined to do or believe the worst. Jeremy found that was the human nature of most.
“We have new tenants that have agreed to the rent,” Jeremy said instead. “That should significantly increase earnings from the land to the north of the estate. I was concerned that the landscape would repel most farmers looking for land to rent, but Mr Seymour seems positive that the rocky area will be perfect for him.”
The duke shot him a sidelong glance. “Did he come up with that conclusion, or did you convince him?”
Jeremy gave a ghost of a smile. “Perhaps I may have explained the merit of owning such land. He has signed a twelve-month lease, so he has plenty of time to discover the merits beneath the rocks.”
The farmer was a rotten sort who had tried to trick Jeremy into lowering the rent of the land. Unfortunately for Mr Seymour, Jeremy was a stellar steward who had learnt much during his seven years working for the Duke of Storping. No one knew the Storping estate as well as he did.
The duke laughed. “Making you my steward was likely the best decision I ever made for my coffers. The agreement is probably so iron-clad that the man will never be able to get out of it until his twelve months are complete.”
“There is no question there, Your Grace.”
The duke gave another bark of laughter. “I must say that I missed your ability to amuse me while in London. I was glad to leave the place when I did.”
The Brownings had returned some days ago, surprising Jeremy. The London Season had not ended yet, and indeed had months to go before concluding in August. This was not the way to go about finding Tabitha a husband. Jeremy’s chest tightened slightly, but he ignored the feeling. Some things were better left unsaid.
“Have you thought about my idea to extend the stables?” the duke asked.
“I have, and I think it a worthy idea for a future project,” said Jeremy. “We do not have the capital to fund such an extension right now, but I expect we will in months to come. I’ve surveyed our own farms and decided that we could increase the crop yield by thirty per cent and sell the surplus to the vegetable vendors.”
Jeremy had insisted on using a small part of the estate to plant vegetables and thereby lessen the amount spent buying fresh vegetables from vendors. His idea had cut costs by nearly ninety per cent, which made the duke’s pockets significantly heavier. It had also given some poor town’s people honest work and pulled them out of a life of thievery. The duke didn’t know that Jeremy had hired petty thieves to work his land, and it had been a risk bringing the men in to tend the vegetable garden. However, the risk paid off because the men worked wholeheartedly and were simply grateful to have a steady income to put food on the table.
“If you think growing more vegetables will make me wealthier, then do so,” said the duke. “However, I want to push the extension of the stables. I believe we’ll have the funds needed sooner than you think.”
Jeremy found the duke’s words somewhat cryptic and surprising. What did the man know that he didn’t? Jeremy knew the ins and outs of Storping Manor and its owners; nothing passed him by without his permission.
His Grace often gives his ideas, and I either approve them or put them on hold. He has always trusted my judgement. Why is he so insistent this time?
However, Jeremy knew his place and had to be careful about how he approached matters. There wasn’t a noble alive who would not take offence to a servant going against his employer’s orders. Jeremy may not be a lowly servant, but he wasn’t of the gentry class either.
“I am more than ready to begin the project provided I have the funds for materials and labour, Your Grace.”
The duke grinned, clearly pleased with himself. “I knew you would see it my way. I met a horse dealer while in London who promises to provide me with thoroughbreds at a fraction of the cost.”
Jeremy struggled to conceal his dubious expression. Why on earth would a horse dealer part with a prized horse for less than the going rate?
“Can the man be trusted?” Jeremy asked.
“What a question to ask! Do you not think that I cannot tell a no-good swindler from an honest dealer?”
“That is not what I meant, Your Grace. Your powers of good judgement are second to none. I’m merely surprised that a dealer would offer you such a lowered price. What good is it to him to make no profit on a sale?”
The duke drew his eyebrows together, his moustache twitching. The man was thinking, which relieved Jeremy. The man was not to be trusted with anything to do with large quantities of money exchanging hands. Jeremy had learnt that the hard way some years ago.
“I’m certain the man is a legitimate horse dealer,” the duke finally said.
“I do not doubt that, Your Grace,” Jeremy assured, the lie falling effortlessly off his tongue. “I simply wonder at what he has to gain by selling the horses at a reduced amount. You say that you met him in London? How was your stay in the dubbed ‘fashionable town’?”
Lying to soothe the ruffled feathers of an employer was an all-too-common occurrence among servants. It wasn’t done maliciously, for the most part, but as a tool to avoid bursts of anger or unwarranted accusations that could lead to unemployment or worse. Jeremy avoided lies as much as he could, but the duke made it challenging. Changing the subject seemed to be the best thing to do.
The man hesitated, his eyes clouding with concern. Had the trip not gone well?
“London is as it always is during the Season. Everyone wishes to be seen and noticed; fortunes are gained and lost, alliances are formed …” The man shrugged. “There is not much to tell.”
Jeremy didn’t believe that for a second. The duke had appeared eager to leave for London, boasting that he would become a success. Jeremy had wondered if he meant that he would be a successful parent if his daughter managed to attract the attention of a worthy suitor. Jeremy couldn’t think of any other reason. Travelling to the bustling town had been about Tabitha; that was what everyone knew.
“Did Lady Storping and Lady Browning enjoy their stay?”
“I imagine they did,” the duke replied. “After all, they needn’t worry about gains and losses at a card game. That is only for the man to bear.”
Jeremy’s heart sunk. Had Storping lost at the gambling tables again? The man had promised to steer clear of such things after Jeremy had warned him about the threat to the Storping estate.
I cannot ask him, or he will believe I am rising above my station. He is generally a fair man, but not even he will allow such a thing.
“True enough, Your Grace. What of Parliament? I hear that the Baron of Eshowe has taken his father’s seat. Do you think it is permanent or a temporary solution while the old man recovers?”
The duke shook his head, chuckling. “I cannot fathom your fascination with politics, Jeremy. Why involve yourself with matters that will never concern you? ’Tis better to remain on your level than to acquire knowledge about politics. Leave that to the nobles.”
The duke’s comment stung. Jeremy knew not to take it personally, but he couldn’t ignore his disappointment. If he had an opportunity such as holding a title or money, he would have taken up politics, fought his way to a seat, and argued the rights of the working class. Parliament needed someone aware of the plight of those whose needs often, if not always, went unnoticed.
“Yes, Your Grace.”
The pair fell into silence as they trotted leisurely through the estate. Jeremy pointed at improvements here and there, passed ideas by the duke, and spoke about the overall condition of the estate. He got along with Storping more than most servants did with their employers, which Jeremy attributed to sound decision-making and his ability to make money.
Looking to his left, Jeremy noticed Tabitha sitting on a swing he had made for her many moons ago. The old oak was Tabitha’s favourite tree, so the gift of a swing hanging from its sturdy branches had been well-received.
The woman appeared to be staring at the ground where her shoes dragged, lost in her own thoughts. Over time, the back and forward movement of feet had formed a groove in the ground that allowed for easier movement as Tabitha had grown taller. Well, she hadn’t grown too tall as she was just a petite young woman. So petite and beautiful that it sometimes hurt to look at her.
Tabitha chose that moment to look up, her eyes going from her father to Jeremy. Raising his hand to wave would likely make him look like an eager fool, so Jeremy nodded once instead. Tabitha smiled faintly in return before looking down again. That was odd of her. Jeremy had always been helplessly mindful of Tabitha, covetously watching her from afar and only drawing near if a good opportunity arose. He knew her better than he knew anyone else, which was unwise considering his feelings for her.
She tends to sit on the swing when troubled. Has something happened that I do not know about?
Tabitha was an open book, a carefree young woman who had nothing to hide because the world had not tainted her yet. She was undoubtedly naïve and innocent, which Jeremy found preferable to a woman who had too much worldly knowledge. Those women tended to lie, seduce, and entrap to suit their own ends. Tabitha could never be like that.
“Did Lady Browning have a successful Season, Your Grace? She was rather excited to experience all London had to offer.”
The duke smiled. “My daughter was more successful than she realised.”
Jeremy’s heart began to thud. Something about the duke’s words sat ill with him. However, he needed to know more.
“Indeed? That is wonderful, Your Grace. Could that be the reason behind your early return?”
“Your powers of deduction never fail to amaze me, Jeremy. You are certainly right about that. Why remain in London when my daughter is set to marry a well-respected and wealthy man?”
Jeremy’s heart twisted painfully, setting off a chain of unwanted reactions in his body.
“Marriage?” he asked weakly.
How could Tabitha be betrothed? Jeremy rubbed his cheeks, his face suddenly feeling too tight. A tingling sensation had set in his limbs while a dull headache made itself known at his temples.
“Yes,” the duke affirmed. “To Lord Bazeley, to be precise. He is a well-known marquess with many connections that will prove beneficial to me. I couldn’t have chosen a better man for my daughter.
His tongue felt swollen and dry, but Jeremy managed to ask the question that burned in his mind.
“When is the wedding to take place, Your Grace?”
“Soon after August.”
The answer was a hard punch to Jeremy’s gut. “So soon?”
“The sooner, the better,” the duke stated. “Lord Bazeley is taken with Tabitha and does not wish to wait too long.”
Jeremy knew his heart had to be somewhere on the ground, ready to be trampled on by his horse. It was already so battered by the duke’s words that Jeremy doubted he would feel death if it came to claim him. Numbness overtook him, but Jeremy welcomed it. It was better to feel nothing than have the duke witness his pain. What would he say if the duke questioned his reaction? Could Jeremy admit to loving Tabitha and put in his own offer for her hand in marriage? Certainly not! The idea was entirely amusing and pathetic.
Yes, so humorous that I could gladly ride my horse to a jutting cliff and fall to my doom.
“Then congratulations are in order, Your Grace,” Jeremy said, forcing cheer into his voice. “I had no idea such a wonderful thing had taken place. Why have you not announced it yet?”
“I hoped to have Lord Bazeley here when I did it,” the duke confessed. “I spoke with him in London before I left, and he promised to come to Storping Manor and formally ask Tabitha to marry him. I know she’ll say yes as she was just as taken with him when she first met him. They danced the first dance at the opening ball, and everyone admired their suitability. Perhaps ’tis their fair colouring or their matching beauty. Tabitha will not object to such a great match.”
Jeremy kept quiet. What else could he possibly say in response to such troubling news? He had already congratulated the duke. He had nothing else to give.
“Would you excuse me, Your Grace? I must continue my rounds of the estate before the afternoon is spent. I still have much to do.”
“Of course, Jeremy,” the man exclaimed. “Do what you must. I would like you to ensure that everything is running perfectly when Lord Bazeley comes. We must put on a good show for my future son-in-law.”
Jeremy wanted to say that he would rather burn everything down to the ground than cater to the man who would take Tabitha away, but that was a nonsensical notion. What had he expected? Tabitha was a duke’s daughter, a woman far above his station. What else could his love for her have brought him other than pain and regret? It was his own foolish fault to entertain such tender feelings for her in the first place.
After exchanging a few more words that Jeremy couldn’t recall mere seconds later, he left the duke, going in the opposite direction. He wanted to get as far away from everyone as he could.
“What did your secret love get you?” Jeremy bitterly asked himself. “Why did I burn a candle for her in my heart when I knew it would be extinguished the day some better man took her from me?”
Not that she had been his to begin with.
Sighing, Jeremy put a hand through his dark curls, cupping the back of his neck for a moment before releasing it with a neck roll. Unable to resist looking back, Jeremy sought Tabitha’s form on the swing, finding her in the same position. She certainly didn’t look like a woman who was happily engaged. If anything, Tabitha appeared forlorn and concerned about something. Was it her pending marriage to the marquess?
“That doesn’t tie in with what Storping said,” he decided aloud. “He seems to think that his daughter is happy about the match, although he did suggest that Tabitha wasn’t aware of a formal engagement.”
Perhaps Tabitha was eagerly awaiting the announcement and was disappointed that nothing had been said since their return. Thinking about Tabitha being happy with another man left Jeremy with a bitter taste in his mouth.
The unfortunate thing about feelings was their disregard for rank. Tabitha was a noble, and Jeremy was not. Though respected, he still could never meet the requirements to marry such a well-bred and beautiful woman. It would have been best if he had set his eyes on a simple woman who would welcome a humble steward as her husband. Jeremy knew there were plenty of such women; he needn’t look far. He only had to attend Sunday service at church, ride into town, or take a look around the estate to notice the admiring gazes of the women. Jeremy had been told he was a handsome man with much to offer, but it wasn’t enough to offer for the hand of a duke’s daughter. For the first time in his twenty-five years, Jeremy despised his low rank. If not for it, he might have been the one engaged to Tabitha. He knew her better than anyone else, and he likely cared for her more than anyone else ever could.
“I would treat her like the most precious creation known to man, a woman deserving of her husband’s praise, love, and attention,” he said, turning his horse away. “She would never doubt my love for her. Never.”
And that look of misery on her face would never have the opportunity to plague her again, not in his tender care. But who was he to even consider all these things? It was not his business to be mindful of Tabitha’s moods, no matter how they tugged and tore at his heart. She simply wasn’t meant for him.
Forced resignation pushed Jeremy to complete his list of duties for the day, but he was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted by the end of it. Who knew loving someone could drain one’s life to this extent? It was better to be unfeeling and give attention to matters of duty instead. Duty could never hurt or disappoint; it could only be fulfilled.
“Confessions of Lady Tabitha” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lady Tabitha Browning dreams of meeting her one true love and having a blissful married life. When she meets Leo Whittier, the Marquess of Bazeley, she is flattered by his attention and charm, until she discovers the dark side of him… Tabitha feels devastated when her father announces that she is to marry this cold-hearted man no matter what. With desperation haunting her every step, Tabitha turns to Jeremy Gibbs, her father’s steward, who will soon steal her heart…
Will Tabitha dare to defy high society’s rules for her one true love?
Jeremy Gibbs knows very well that no good can come from loving a duke’s daughter, but the heart plays painful games… When he finds out about Tabitha’s engagement, his heart breaks into pieces. However, after discovering that the Marquess is a scoundrel, he doesn’t hesitate to put his job and reputation on the line to rescue her. With time running out, will Jeremy find a way to escape from a hopeless impasse?
If only fighting for a forbidden love was not a road full of dangerous thorns…
Despite the terrible circumstances, Jeremy and Tabitha savour the precious time they spend together. Still, class differences and a threatening antagonist are just some of the hurdles Jeremy and Tabitha must overcome in order to unite their two separate worlds. Will Jeremy and Tabitha fight the odds and prove that love conquers all? Or will the cruel fate of reality tear them apart forever?
“Confessions of Lady Tabitha” is a historical romance novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.