London, England, Summer, 1814.
“It’s such a big house, my Lady. All corridors and staircases, and I’m quite lost,” Gillian Pembroke’s maid, Lucy, said, as they turned down yet another corridor at Broughton Grange in search of the powder room.
“Lady Camilla said it was just down here… or did she say up the first flight of stairs? Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure we’ve passed this portrait already,” Gillian said, glancing up at the portrait of an imperious-looking woman whose expression appeared to be one of judgement for their lack of direction.
“I don’t like it at all, my Lady. It’s got a horrible feeling to it,” Lucy said, shuddering as Gillian pointed to the left.
“Let’s go this way. If we can get back to the ballroom, we can start again,” she said, remembering something her father had once said about military maneuvers and returning to the point of departure.
But this was not a military operation, it was a ball. One Gillian should have been at the center of, had she not wandered off with her maid in search of the powder room. In truth, she had grown tired of the attention she was receiving, bored of the endless stream of men vying for her attention. She had recently made her debut, and like any young lady in the flush of her first season, many gentlemen were eager to make her acquaintance. She had danced with several of them, and promised several others, but now she was only too glad to escape the stuffy confines of the ballroom at Broughton Grange, even as she now admitted they had become quite lost.
“But this is the way we came earlier. It leads to the orangery, I think. I heard Lady Broughton talking about it earlier,” Lucy said, and Gillian sighed.
“Well… let’s go there, then. I’m starting to think I’d prefer the company of exotic fruits to the plain English apples in the ballroom,” she said, and her maid smiled.
“Aren’t you enjoying yourself, my Lady?” she asked.
Gillian thought she was enjoying herself, at least she wanted to believe that. What woman would not enjoy the attentions of handsome men at a society ball? But Gillian was not entirely like other women. Her life was one of privilege, and ever since she could remember, she had been surrounded by those who talked of little else but comings out and seasons, balls and soirees, dresses, and the latest gossip. At her debut, she had been thrust into a world of expectations; the curtain lifted, and a performance expected. But Gillian’s interests extended far beyond the latest fashions or the gossip pages of the periodicals. She delighted in books and music, took an interest in politics and affairs of state. She had educated herself far beyond the usual expectations for a woman of her class, and was involved in any number of charitable causes and good works. Her life was so much more than the expectations afforded her, and there were times when Gillian felt trapped by what other women did not seem to recognize as limitations.
“Well… I suppose so. It’s nice to see so many others enjoying themselves. But I was reading such an interesting book this afternoon. I couldn’t put it down, but then I had to. Mother means well, of course, but… oh, you know what I mean, Lucy,” she said, and her maid nodded.
Lucy had been her maid since Gillian was old enough to no longer need a governess. They were around the same age, and though their lives were very different, they shared many of the same concerns, and Gillian had come to see Lucy as a friend and confidant, rather than a servant.
“Your mother means well, My Lady. She wants you to make a good match,” Lucy replied, and Gillian nodded.
“Oh, I know… but I don’t think these matters can be forced,” Gillian replied.
The direction they had taken did lead to the orangery. It was a grand room, glassed on the roof and sides, where dozens of exotic plants, many of them bearing fruit, stood in ornate containers. There was a pleasant, citrus scent to the air, and a warmth enveloped them as they entered. It was the height of summer, and despite the late hour, dusk had not yet settled, though the trees and plants cast long shadows across the tiled floor. The whole effect making it appear as though they were walking through woodland in some far off and unfamiliar land.
“What a remarkable place, my Lady,” Lucy said, gazing around her in awe.
Gillian was fascinated by the orangery, and by the sight of the exotic plants, some of which grew right to the roof, their fronds and enormous leaves hanging down almost back to the floor. She had read about such plants, but to see them growing was quite astonishing.
“Isn’t it just… oh! Those are bananas. I never thought… and oranges and lemons, and these over here I don’t recognize at all. Isn’t the scent delightful?” Gillian said.
She was about to reach up to the nearest tree and take one of the low hanging fruits in her hand, when footsteps behind caused her to draw back. Turning, she was surprised to see one of the men who had earlier made an advance toward her entering the orangery. His name was Lord Percival Tenant, and he had been among the most insistent of her earlier attentions. Gillian had declined his offer to dance, but he had been persistent, and she had reluctantly agreed to dance with him later on.
“Lady Gillian, your scent led me to find you here; it’s very distinctive,” he said, and Gillian blushed, wishing she had not doused herself quite so liberally with lavender water before leaving the house earlier on.
Lucy glanced at her with a wary look on her face. Lord Tenant reputation preceded him. He was a rake and a womanizer, and Gillian would certainly not be the first woman he had danced with that evening.
“I’m sure it is, Lord Tenant,” Gillian replied, guarded, lest he should make an indecent proposal.
Her mother, Miriam, the Marchioness of Pembury, had warned her about such things, dissuading her of any innocence she might have had concerning the intentions of men.
“Men can be charming. Delightful, even, but be wary of them, Gillian. Their charms aren’t always wholly innocent,” she had said, on the day of Gillian’s coming out.
Since then, Gillian had observed her mother’s words to be true. Some men were as they appeared; charming, honorable, and chivalrous. Others were not, and it had not taken Gillian long to recognize the signs in those particular specimens. Lord Tenant was a case in point. There was something about him—a slyness—as though he was always watching for the advantage, rather than seeking the good for others.
“I’m glad I found you here… alone,” he said, stepping towards her and smiling.
There was no doubting his apparent charm. He was handsome, too, having served in the military, and with the physique of a soldier still evident. But false charm and handsome looks were not enough to win Gillian over. Her mother had warned her to guard her virtue, and Gillian had every intention of doing so. She did not consider herself particularly pretty, but it seemed there was no shortage of male attention directed towards her, and Lord Tenant now appeared to believe he had won the prize.
“Well, not entirely alone,” Gillian said, glancing at Lucy, who had now taken up a position next to her, as though ready to defend Gillian should the unspeakable happen.
“Yes, it’s such a pity one has to go round constantly chaperoned, don’t you think?” he said, smirking and raising his eyebrows.
Gillian did not think so. She was more than glad to have Lucy at her side, knowing she could count on her maid to prevent any indiscretion on the part of Lord Tenant. She did not like his assumed position of power, as though his presence was enough to bring her to submission.
“Having my maid here suits me very well,” she said, and Lord Tenant laughed.
“Yes… I suppose it does. Tell me, Lady Gillian, why didn’t you agree to dance with me earlier? I had eyes only for you. You’re certainly the most beautiful woman here tonight,” he said.
Gillian blushed, though she was not about to be taken in by his apparent charms.
“I didn’t want to dance with anyone in particular. I don’t think I dance very well, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” Gillian replied.
Lord Tenant smiled.
“Come, now… I’m sure you dance very well. But no matter,” he said, taking another step towards her.
Gillian stepped back, brushing against the fronds of an overhanging tree. She did not know what Lord Tenant’s intentions were, even as she feared what might so easily be construed if they were found together in such a way. It was not proper for a man to be alone with a woman under such circumstances, and Gillian could only be grateful to have Lucy at her side.
“I really don’t. But I should return to the ballroom. My mother will be waiting for me. I only went to find the powder room,” Gillian said, and she stepped to the side, even as Lord Tenant did the same.
He reached out and grabbed her by the hand, pulling her into his embrace, and laughing as though it was a sport.
“My Lady,” Lucy exclaimed, and with a deft movement, she extracted Lucy’s hand from that of the rakish aristocrat.
Lord Tenant was taken by surprise, and Lucy hurried Gillian across the tiled floor, the click of their heels echoing around the orangery. Gillian was breathless. She could hardly believe what Percival Tenant had just done. It had all happened so fast, and now, flushed, she paused on the steps, glancing back to where the arrogant noble stood laughing beneath the overhanging fronds of a banana tree.
“What a delight, Lady Gillian, what a delight,” he exclaimed.
Gillian shook her head, her anger roused against him. But as Lucy pulled her away, they almost collided with a group of women, led by Lady Beatrice Whitfield.
“Oh, Lady Gillian, I didn’t expect to find you here, and with Lord Tenant, too,” Lady Beatrice said, glancing behind her at the other women, who tittered behind their fans.
Gillian returned Lady Beatrice’s questioning looking with a defiant glare.
“I was just leaving,” she replied, and Lady Beatrice raised her eyebrows.
“Just leaving. Having just finished?” she asked, glancing over Gillian’s shoulder to where Lord Tenant stood, still with a smug, self-assured expression on his face.
Gillian’s heart skipped a beat, her stomach twisting in knots. She knew Beatrice Whitfield’s reputation well enough. She was a notorious writer of scandal sheets and delighted in spreading gossip. Only a few months previously, Lady Beatrice had written of an affair between the Duke of Gloucester and the Countess of Truro. It had been enough to ruin both families, and neither they, nor their children, were now welcome in polite society. Gillian knew what she was capable of, and what she was capable of construing from the scene she had now entered.
“I was looking for the powder room,” Gillian replied, and Lady Beatrice smiled.
“Yes… they all say that,” she said, and the other women tittered once again.
“My Lady, we should get back to the ballroom,” Lucy said, slipping her arm into Gillian’s.
“Yes, you should listen to your maid, Lady Gillian. You wouldn’t want anyone to think something… improper had occurred, would you?” Lady Beatrice replied, raising her eyebrows.
Gillian ignored her, even as she feared the damage had been done. Had Lord Tenant intended this to be the case? She glanced back at him, and he raised his eyebrows, still smirking at her.
“I hope I’m still promised a dance, Lady Gillian?” he called out, but Gillian did not answer, and arm in arm with Lucy, she hurried out of the orangery and back to the ballroom.
The musicians were playing a waltz, and she spied her mother talking among a group of women.
“Mother, I want to go home,” Gillian said, pulling her mother away from the others.
The marchioness looked at her in surprise. It was not like Gillian to make such demands.
“But whatever’s the matter, Gillian? The night’s still young—we’ve hardly begun. You’ve only danced twice,” she said, but Gillian shook her head.
“No, mother. I just want to go home,” she said, glancing over her shoulder and spying Lady Beatrice across the room.
She was talking to another group of women, all of whom were now looking in Gillian’s direction.
“But what’s happened?” her mother asked.
“It’s for the best, my Lady,” Lucy interjected, and reluctantly, the marchioness agreed.
In the carriage, on the way home, Gillian recounted what had occurred in the orangery. Her mother listened with wide-eyed horror, even as it seemed certain Lady Beatrice would now spread the rumor of Gillian’s apparent indiscretions far and wide.
“Oh, Gillian, how terrible… oh, but we must hope… but nothing happened between you. Lucy can swear to it. I’m sure Lady Beatrice won’t be so cruel as to write anything of what she assumed she had seen…” Gillian’s mother said.
But such hopes proved unfound. Lady Beatrice did write about what she had seen… or what she thought she had seen. By the next day, rumors were circulating, and in the drawing rooms and salons of the capital, Gillian’s name was mud. Lady Beatrice had not held back in her description of the scene she had apparently witnessed; the passion of a hot house romance, the scent of the citrus in the air, the couple caught in flagrante. Gillian’s reputation was ruined, and overnight, she went from the belle of the ball to an outcast in society. No one wanted to know her, and the invitations immediately dried up, leaving her with nothing but her own company and that of Lucy and her parents.
“You did nothing wrong, my Lady. I’d swear it before the Regent himself,” Lucy said, but Gillian shook her head.
“It doesn’t matter now. They don’t want the truth, only the story. I’m ruined,” she said, as a tear rolled down her cheek.
She had done nothing wrong, but was now the victim of cruel circumstance and assumption. What came next, she could only guess at, even as she knew no man would ever want to marry her now. She was resigned to the life of a spinster, content, as far as could be, to retreat into a world of books and study, no longer the belle of society. And it was in this retreat she found herself at the home of her aunt and uncle, a refuge from the gossiping tongues and cruel words of the ton.
Haverswood, Kent, England, Summer, 1817.
“Oh, Penny, where are you? I hope you’re not burrowing for rabbits again. You know how dirty you get… where are you?” Gillian called out, peering across the vicarage garden from the kitchen door.
A bark from the shrubbery indicated she was right, and a moment later, Penny, a golden terrier with a keen face and long nose, appeared, barking in delight.
“You knew she’d be looking for rabbits, though she never catches one, of course, does she? Sometimes, I think she’s not really a dog at all, just in disguise,” Gillian’s cousin, Isabella Harper, said, laughing as Penny bounded across the lawn to the door.
“Don’t let that dog into my kitchen. She’ll trail mud all over the floor—I’ve just had Hetty scrubbing it,” a voice behind them said, and Gillian turned to find her uncle’s cook, Mrs. Baxter, glaring at her.
“Oh, please, Mrs. Baxter. She’ll only want to sit by the hearth. You dote on her really. I saw the bone you gave her yesterday,” Gillian said.
The cook’s expression softened, and she laughed.
“Well… wipe her paws clean. I’ve got some scraps she can have. I won’t say I don’t like her company, when your uncle won’t have her in the parlor,” she said, tutting and shaking her head.
Gillian glanced at her cousin, and the two of them laughed as Penny came bounding through the door, leaping at Gillian, and leaving pawprints all over her dress.
“Oh, Penny, no, not on my dress. I’ve got to go to church in a few moments. What will Uncle Thomas think of me?” Gillian exclaimed.
“We can brush it out. You’ll have to pretend you’re praying. Kneel as soon as you go into church, then he won’t see,” Isabella said, and Gillian laughed.
“I shouldn’t pretend to pray. But I can pray, and kneel, too,” she said, and her cousin smiled.
Penny had now calmed down, and Gillian wiped her paws clean before allowing her to enter the kitchen, where she went straight to her bed by the hearth. Hetty, the kitchen maid, started making a fuss of her, but Mrs. Baxter now shouted at her to do some work, and Gillian and Isabella retreated up the backstairs to the hallway, laughing with one another over the cook’s feigned annoyance over Penny.
“She’s always petting her, and that’s why Penny’s put on so much weight recently. That, or she’s been doing more than searching for rabbits in the shrubbery. Those dogs from the farm got into the garden a few weeks ago and father wasn’t pleased. You were out… oh, but let’s see to your dress, Gillian,” Isabella said, taking a brush out of a draw in the hallway.
The church bell had just begun to ring, and now the clatter of footsteps on the stairs announced the arrival of Gillian’s Aunt Florence. She was a kindly looking woman, with a round, smiling face and rosy cheeks. She wore a simple cotton dress, with a green shawl around her shoulders, and she looked at Gillian and Isabella in surprise.
“I thought I was late for church,” she said.
“Oh… we were just, calling for Penny to come inside. She was chasing rabbits in the shrubbery,” Gillian said, hoping her aunt would not notice the dirt on her dress from where Penny had jumped up at her.
“Well, come along, we don’t want to be late. It hardly does for the vicar’s wife to miss the start of Sunday matins, does it?” she said, and Gillian and Isabella shook their heads.
Gillian had lived at the vicarage in Market Harbingdon for the past three years. Her uncle, the vicar, was a kind and studious man, who cared deeply for his parishioners, and had offered to take Gillian in when life in London had become unbearable. Gillian’s aunt was her mother’s sister, but the lives of the two women could not have been more different. Gillian’s mother had married into the aristocracy, and her life consisted of a never-ending round of balls, soirees, and dinner, though since the trouble with Lady Beatrice, those invitations had become few and far between. Her sister, in contrast, had married a clergyman, and devoted her life to good works.
“Your grandfather wasn’t happy about it. But Florence certainly is,” Gillian’s mother had once said to her, and there was no doubting the happy life Gillian’s aunt enjoyed in Market Harbingdon.
The happy product of their union had been Isabella, and since Gillian’s arrival at the vicarage, the two of them had been as sisters; always together, and happy in one another’s company. Penny belonged to them both… the runt of a litter, rescued from the barrel by the verger, Mr. Donbury, and given to the two women to take care of.
“I hope father’s sermon isn’t too long today,” Isabella said, as they walked across the front lawn of the vicarage to the gate leading into the churchyard.
Saint James church was an ancient place of worship, Saxon in origin, with a short, squat bell tower, and some of the finest preserved medieval glass in the county. The bells were ringing, and a steady stream of villagers were making their way up the path from the lychgate to the church door. Greetings were exchanged as Gillian, her aunt, and cousin entered the cool, still interior of the church, where the scent of flowers and beeswax polish hung in the air. Gillian liked to go to church. It gave her a sense of peace. The timeless words of the psalms, the stories from the scriptures, and the certainty of a faith she could place her trust in, when so much else about her life was an uncertainty.
“I’ve lost the last two pages of my sermon,” Gillian’s uncle said, appearing from the vestry in his white surplice and preaching bands.
“I’ve got them here, Thomas. You left them in the dining room at breakfast time,” Gillian’s aunt replied, handing over the two pages as the clergyman breathed a sigh of relief.
“Oh… thank goodness,” he sighed.
“You should’ve kept them hidden. It’s already ten pages long,” Isabella whispered.
The organ now began to play, and the last of the congregation filed into the church, whispering to one another as they took their seats in the pews. Gillian, her aunt, and cousin, sat at the front, and now the verger appeared, clad in black, leading Gillian’s uncle and the choir from the vestry. The congregation took up the hymn, somewhat tunelessly, and the rendition of Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, brought the procession to the sanctuary, where Gillian’s uncle rummaged at the lectern, hurriedly turning the pages of his prayer book to the correct place.
“Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with a humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart…” he began, peering down over his halfmoon spectacles.
Gillian closed her eyes, thanking God for bringing her the peace she now enjoyed. It was a simple life, and far removed from that she had enjoyed in London. But it was a life she had found to her liking, where the pleasure of books and the joy of charitable works had replaced the sense of necessity in social customs and expectations. Here, far away from the London crowd, with its backstabbing and gossip, Gillian had found a simpler pace of life, one she was thankful for, and even as her uncle’s sermon dragged interminably onward, she knew there was nowhere she would rather be than there. But such feelings were always tempered by the possibility of her being summoned back to London, returned to the life she had escaped from, and thrust back into the hurly-burly of societal intrigues and gossip. She hoped the day would never come, but in her heart, Gillian knew her idyll could not last forever.
“The Duke’s Heartfelt Dilemma” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
In the quietude of Market Harbingdon, Gillian Pembroke harbors a secret truth. Beneath the serene facade of this seaside village, the daughter of the Marquess of Pembury grapples with the shadows of a scandal that unjustly stained her name. With her life now woven into the fabric of this quaint hamlet, Gillian seeks solace in the pages of books and teaching. When an unexpected encounter revives old memories though, and long-buried feelings are brought back to the fore, it seems Gillian has a choice to make.
Will the revelations of her heart’s desires disrupt the quiet life she has carefully built?
In the grandeur of London, Gregory Spencer, the noble Duke of Sherbourne, carries a burden of regret. Distanced from Gillian during her time of need, his heart has remained tethered to the woman whose affection once lit up his world. United by a shared love for literature and altruism, Gregory’s unexpected reencounter with Gillian ignites a spark long thought extinguished. Yet, a longstanding family feud looms over their rekindling bond, casting a shadow upon their future.
Can Gregory navigate the labyrinth of their shared history to reforge a connection lost to time?
With Gillian’s parents contemplating a strategic betrothal and Gregory ensnared in his mother’s high-society machinations, the two of them stand at a crossroads. Torn between duty and love, they must unravel the intricate web of societal expectations and rediscover the essence of their bond.
“The Duke’s Heartfelt Dilemma” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.