The crisp autumn air filled Anna’s lungs as she inhaled deeply, her lungs lapping up its freshness. A walk first thing in the morning was the perfect way to start her day, but she wasn’t enjoying it as much as usual. Her brother had unexpectedly come to stay, which meant her aunt would find more fault with her than usual. It was challenging enough to handle Aunt Margaret’s cold attitude on a regular day under her care, but Harrison certainly worsened their aunt’s mood by his mere presence. He had a terrible habit of arriving at the manor house unannounced and putting the household into a frenzy, trying to ready his room while he demanded everyone to be at his beck and call.
If only you had given me my own house just like Grandfather gave one to Aunt Margaret, Papa. I suppose you expected Harrison to take care of me until my marriage, but he sent me away before you were even cold in your grave. Aunt Margaret seems resentful of my presence.
A yapping dog in the distance made her groan with frustration. Tibby had gotten loose again, which would only add to Aunt Margaret’s ire. The little dog wasn’t allowed to roam around outside unless her aunt had given permission, and judging by the time of day, her aunt had not authorised the walk. Sighing, Anna turned back to the house to find the cheeky little Pomeranian before her aunt realised her dog wasn’t safely napping in the parlour. Aunt Margaret was likely taking tea in bed since breakfast would be later this morning. They usually had their first meal by nine, but those were not fashionable hours for Harrison. He refused to eat before ten and expected everyone to follow his daily routine no matter how inconvenient it was for the rest of the household. Anna supposed that being an earl gave a person many expectations that couldn’t be denied, but it wasn’t fair for those who had to serve him.
“Tibby!” she called out, keeping her voice just under a shout.
Anna looked towards the rose bushes where Tibby liked to chase butterflies. Sure enough, she found the little dog hunting for butterflies and getting leaves all over its coat.
“Tibby!” Anna scolded lightly. “How on earth did you escape the house? It couldn’t have been my fault because I made sure to close the door before I left. If I remember correctly, you were still sleeping peacefully in the parlour, or were you pretending to sleep?”
Tibby looked up at her happily, her tongue hanging out of her mouth. The dog was too adorable to remain annoyed, so Anna scooped her up and returned to the house, entering through the back door. Her aunt never used this door, so the chances of being seen were slim.
“I should have removed the leaves from your fur before we came inside,” she complained, picking at Tibby’s fur and throwing the leaves outside.
Fortunately, it wasn’t a windy day, or the leaves would have been blown into the house and given Mrs Collins something to complain about. The housekeeper kept a tight rein on the household and prided herself on how efficiently it ran under her care.
“Do not tell me the silly little dog got out again?”
Anna turned around and grinned at her lady’s maid. “Are you done talking to Percy?”
Her lady’s maid turned a bright shade of red. “You say that as though I had ulterior motives to see him. I only wished to thank him for the cabbages.”
Percy Colette brought fresh vegetables to the manor twice a week instead of Mrs Collins going to the market to order and purchase them. Cassidy had suggested it after she ran into Percy while out on an errand and found out he delivered vegetables to surrounding houses. At least, that was what Cassidy claimed. Anna believed her lady’s maid had fallen for the farmer and used the excuse of delivering vegetables as a way to see him.
“Why thank him again?” Anna asked, tilting her head to the side. “I’m sure Mrs Collins expressed her gratitude when she paid him. Besides, it is not your responsibility to thank him.”
“Is that a leaf I, see?” said Cassidy, concentrating on Tibby. “She must have been rolling around in the grass. That is the one thing I dislike about autumn— all the leaves that fall and cause a mess. That and the cold. I prefer the springtime.”
Anna chuckled at her maid’s sudden change of topic. “I caught him looking for butterflies outside. He must have followed one of the servants outside and ran straight to the rose bushes. I need to return him to the parlour before Aunt Margaret comes downstairs.”
“She has already come downstairs, My Lady,” said Cassidy. “I was looking for you to inform you that breakfast would be earlier than usual this morning. Your brother sent his manservant to inform the kitchen.”
“Oh, goodness,” Anna said with a sigh. “I do not know what is worse: hearing aunt scolding the servants for not taking better care of Tibby or hearing my brother’s latest whims. Both seem equally terrible ways to start the day. Perhaps I should run to Camille’s home and stay there for a few days.”
Camille was the only person Anna could turn to when her life became a drudgery of bitter people, responsibilities, and sadness. Anna would need Camille’s infectious laughter to get through her brother’s stay.
“Your aunt hasn’t been to the parlour yet, My Lady,” said Cassidy. “She went straight to Mrs Collins’ room to discuss the meals for the coming week. You still have time to put the little monster on its bed.”
Anna gasped and covered Tibby’s ears. “You shouldn’t say that within her hearing. I admit she’s a little troublesome at times, but she’s affectionate and adorable.”
“Adorable?” Cassidy repeated. “If she is adorable, I am Queen Charlotte.”
“Ha!” said Anna. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be the queen?”
“Perhaps, My Lady,” Cassidy replied.
“Perhaps?” Anna agreed. “Wouldn’t you want to have everything your heart desires? Or have a husband who is above the law while he expects everyone else to uphold it?” Anna added. “That makes our king a rather hypocritical man, does it not?”
“Do not say such things, My Lady!” Cassidy exclaimed. “You could be accused of slandering the king.”
“Who would accuse me?” said Anna. “You and Tibby are loyal to me, just as I am loyal about keeping the servants out of trouble. I should return Tibby, or Aunt Margaret will be on the warpath and demand to know who let her precious child out the house.”
“I’ll prepare your attire for your outing, My Lady,” said Cassidy.
Anna nodded and hurried to the parlour where Tibby’s bed was kept. She found her brother drinking his morning coffee while reading the gossip section of the local newspaper. Harrison was never concerned about politics or other topics but relished reading about the misfortunes of others. Their father would be saddened to know how little his son cared about the estate and the welfare of his family and servants.
How could a father and son be so different? One would think they were unrelated if not for their similar build and features.
“You look like a statue standing there with that irritating little dog,” said Harrison.
“I wish I were a statue,” she mumbled, walking to Tibby’s bed and putting her down. “Do not roam around until Aunt Margaret authorises it, silly girl. You’ll get everyone into trouble.”
“Why do you talk to that dog like it understands you?” said Harrison. “Mind you, you’ve been doing that since childhood. It was rather embarrassing to have a sister who stopped to talk to every creature within sight. My friends thought you were odd.”
“I think it odd that they were so concerned about my habits,” Anna replied. “We should let everyone be, especially if one’s actions do not harm others. It’s no good being nosey.”
“One shouldn’t behave oddly in the company of others,” her brother argued.
“I agree,” said Anna, taking a seat or else her brother would see it as being ill-mannered. “But we all have our opinion of what is odd. I heard you wish to have breakfast earlier today.”
Harrison nodded. “I need to see a few people today, so the earlier, the better. I need to get away from this house for a few hours. It’s a tad stifling.”
Anna inwardly shook her head. The comment was foolish, considering he had come here without an invitation or warning.
“Breakfast is served, My Lord, My Lady,” said Evans from the doorway.
“It’s about time,” said Harrison, standing up. “This household is rather slow, isn’t it? I gave the order to change our breakfast time nearly half an hour ago.”
Anna ignored Harrison’s comment and thanked the butler before following her brother to the dining room. He didn’t like taking his meals in the drawing room, where she usually sat with her aunt twice a day, so the dining room would get used more than usual. It seemed silly when it was just the three of them, but Harrison’s word was always law, even when not in his own home.
They found Aunt Margaret taking her seat in the dining room and ordering a servant to pour the tea while another sliced the cakes.
“Good morning, Aunt Margaret,” Anna greeted.
“Anna,” her aunt replied. “I trust you slept well, Harrison?”
“Well enough, although I think my linen should be changed,” Harrison replied, sitting down. “It was a little too scratchy against my skin.”
Aunt Margaret’s jaw visibly tightened before it loosened so she could speak. “I’ll have the servants change it. Is there anything else you would like?”
“I see sausages were not added to the meal,” said Harrison, looking at the table.
“You arrived quite suddenly, Nephew,” said Aunt Margaret. “We do not have any right now, but Mrs Collins has ordered. I expect them to arrive tomorrow.”
“Why do things move so slowly on the outskirts of town?” Harrison asked. “My housekeeper is able to get sausages first thing in the morning if needed.”
“We do not live close to suppliers, Harrison,” said Anna. “We need to order in advance to receive goods. Perhaps if you had informed us of your arrival beforehand, we could have stocked the pantry with all your preferred foods.”
“Are you criticising me, dear sister?” Harrison asked. “I didn’t think it would be a burden to visit my family.”
“Your sister does not know what a burden is,” said Aunt Margaret. “Do not mind her careless words.”
Anna lowered her head and added a slice of toast to her plate. She already knew where this conversation was going and didn’t want to encourage it by answering back.
“I’m glad you are guiding my sister along the right path, Aunt,” said Harrison. “But you should put more effort into getting her married. She’s already twenty-four, and I have yet to hear of any courtships. Don’t you think it important to get her married? I’ll cease to be her guardian once she has a husband.”
Aunt Margaret sipped her tea, her mouth tight with indignation. She carefully placed the teacup on the saucer and dabbed the sides of her thin lips before speaking.
“I’m doing all I can to find a suitor for Anne, Nephew,” said Aunt Margaret. “Perhaps you can ask your sister to put in more effort. I can only bring the suitors to her.”
Harrison turned to Anna. “Is this so? Are you driving suitors away?”
Anna quickly filled her mouth with toast and pointed apologetically at her mouth. Harrison narrowed his eyes slightly, but the call of breakfast seemed to matter more to him because he stuffed his mouth full of plum cake. A few crumbs coated his lips while others had collected on his chest like little unwanted trophies of his meal.
“The Statute Fair is in just a few days,” said Anna, trying to lighten the atmosphere. “Will you both attend this year?”
It was Anna’s favourite event of the year, where everyone from miles around sold their crafts and offered all kinds of foods for consumption. Anna had been going to the fair with her parents since she was a little girl, but she skipped two years when her mother died tragically and one when her father passed away.
“I don’t have time for such silly fairs,” said Aunt Margaret. “There are things to be done around the house.”
“I might go if Lady Diane attends,” said Harrison, stabbing his fork into the pile of toast. He pulled three from the plate at once and shook them off the fork onto his plate. “Perhaps you can ask Miss Darcy if her cousin will attend. It’s the least you can do.”
The least I can do? One would think he has taken care of me my entire life! He acts as though I’m his penniless relative, not his sister, with her own sizeable income. It’s just a shame I cannot gain access to my inheritance.
Harrison was keeping a ‘watchful eye’ on her money, which didn’t make sense because money couldn’t walk. Anna had asked for it several times to set up her own house, but her brother refused. He thought her too immature to handle her money, but that was absurd. Anna was careful about saving money rather than using it on frivolous things and rarely asked for anything from her brother or aunt.
“Anna?” her brother called. “Will you say nothing? Is it such a big favour in light of everything I’ve done for you?”
It was on the tip of Anna’s tongue to ask what he had done for her, but she wisely said nothing of the sort.
“I’m going to see Camille after breakfast, so I’ll ask her,” she said instead.
Harrison grinned. “Good. Perhaps you can ask your friend to convince Lady Diane to attend the fair. She doesn’t attend many events these days. It might be good to invite Lord and Lady Townsend to dinner, Aunt Margaret. I’m sure it will be easy for you to put a lovely evening together.”
Aunt Margaret’s upper lip curled slightly. “I’m afraid I cannot do that, Nephew. I already have too much to do. Let us not forget that you left Anna’s care in my hands.”
Harrison sighed, evidently exasperated. “I wish you would get married, Anna. Look how much trouble you have given us.”
Anna closed her eyes for a moment and wondered how many days she would have to put up with her brother.
“May I be excused?” she asked.
“You’ve barely eaten your breakfast,” Aunt Margaret pointed out. “Do you wish to waste food?”
“I’ll ask a servant to put it away,” Anna replied, rising to her feet. “I’ll probably be hungry a little later.”
“Do whatever you wish,” Aunt Margaret replied. “You always do.”
Usually, that comment would make her sit down and be the meek niece her aunt expected, but Anna knew she couldn’t handle much more of the morning’s atmosphere. Perhaps the anniversary of her mother’s death had weakened her and the knowledge that her brother had forgotten about it. He had arrived three days after the day without a word said about honouring their mother. It made it hard for Anna to tolerate anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t show any interest in someone who had been such a vital part of their existence.
“Thank you, Aunt,” said Anna.
She left the room and went straight to her room to change into riding attire before getting onto her horse and heading towards Camille’s home.
“I didn’t know you would be here so soon,” said Camille when Anna was led into the music room after she arrived.
“I couldn’t stay at home any longer,” said Anna. “Are you busy?”
“I was just practising, but I’d much rather talk to you,” Camille replied. “Why don’t we have our tea in the conservatory, and you can tell me what is bothering you? I can see the irritation on your face.”
“Do you still have flowers blooming?” Anna asked hopefully.
Mrs Darcy had green fingers that made everything come to life, even exotic plants from other countries. The conservatory’s temperature was controlled by the glass and other apparatus used by the mistress of the house. She was something of a botanical genius and even had a club for women who enjoyed the study of plants.
“We have several blooming, but do not ask me what their names are,” said Camille. “I just like how pretty they are.” She stood up. “I’ll ask Mrs Fairvale to bring a tea tray to the conservatory. Why don’t you go ahead? I’ll meet you there.”
Anna knew Camille’s house as well as if it were her own, so walking about her friend’s home was natural. Mr and Mrs Darcy were also like parents to her and likely would have taken her in had Harrison not insisted she stay with Aunt Margaret. It would have been better to live where warmth permeated through the walls and made a person feel loved rather than be in a place where one’s presence wasn’t welcomed. Trailing her hand along the frame of a painting, Anna wondered if her life would ever change for the better.
“Haven’t you reached the conservatory yet?” said Camille, appearing beside her.
Anna smiled. “I was admiring the paintings again. You have a lot of family.”
“Consider them your family as well,” said Camille, linking her arm with Anna’s. “Now, tell me what happened with your aunt.”
“My aunt and my brother,” Anna replied. “Harrison appeared quite suddenly yesterday and started demanding things the moment he arrived. Aunt obviously took out her frustration on me as though I invited my brother.”
Camille shook her head. “It’s always the same thing, is it not? I wish I could tell them a thing or two, but they would merely make your life harder. Why can you not come and live with me? Why must they be so stubborn?”
Anna sighed and leaned her head on her friend’s shoulder. “I do not know. Perhaps convincing your cousin to see my brother will soften him enough to broach the subject.”
“Do you mean Diane?” said Camille. “Does your brother still like her?”
“I doubt his infatuation will ever end,” Anna said with a laugh. “The more your cousin rejects him, the more he wishes to be with her. Are all men this silly?”
“I haven’t met enough men to make that generalisation,” said Camille. “Why don’t we decide after the next season?”
Anna grimaced. “I’ll be twenty-five then and considered a spinster by many. You’ll only be twenty, so you have enough time.”
“Do not take yourself out of the pool of suitable ladies just yet,” said Camille. “Perhaps you’ll find a husband by the end of the year.”
“Perhaps,” said Anna, but she didn’t want to get her hopes up.
Being soft-spoken and gentle-hearted were praiseworthy qualities, but they always seemed cancelled out whenever she opened her mouth and revealed her love for books and academics. Only a man with a similar mind might take a genuine interest in her, but she had yet to meet someone like that who wasn’t old enough to be her father.
Perhaps there isn’t the right man for me, but it makes me sad to think so. Every girl dreams of finding a wonderful man and being in love, but I only seem destined for unhappiness. This cannot be fair, can it?
Maximilian removed his coat and boots, handing them to the footman at the door. “Did any mail come for me, Freeman?” he asked.
“Quite a few, Your Grace,” Freeman replied. “Mr Tate put them in your study.”
“Ah, good. I’ve been expecting several responses and wondered what kept them so long. Would you send refreshments to the study in twenty minutes? I should remove the dirt before I put my feet up.”
“Of course, Your Grace,” said Freeman. “I’ll ask Mrs Tate to put together your usual, or would you like something different?”
“The usual is fine,” Maximilian confirmed. “Any more, and I’ll be too full for dinner.”
“We could move the meal up to supper if that should happen, Your Grace,” Freeman suggested.
Maximilian shook his head. “There is no need. Please let Pickerton know I’ve returned.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Freeman bowed and took Maximilian’s coat and boots to dust and wipe off the day’s dirt. Kimbolton had not had a stitch of rain in weeks, making the roads dusty and hard for travellers, especially horse riders. However, it always tended to rain just before the Statute Fair, so perhaps the same thing would happen again. If not, people might struggle to set up tents and keep their crafts dust free. There was nothing worse than buying an item caked in dirt.
Maximilian climbed the steps to his room, weariness eating away at his strength. Growing older was certainly not an activity for the faint-hearted, and while he was fit and strong for a forty-year-old, he couldn’t deny that he would prefer to be thirty again. No, perhaps not thirty precisely. That was the hardest year of his life. No one understood true heartbreak until they watched their loved ones die in pain and sorrow. If he could, Maximilian would go back in time and do things differently for the sake of his wife and unborn child. He would have kept her off her feet, at ease, and happy instead of allowing her to continue her charitable acts well into her pregnancy. Perhaps that would have kept her and his son alive.
Stop it, Maximilian. Reliving the past has never helped you. Focus on the present, or you’ll drown.
He nodded at himself, massaging the sudden tightness in his chest. The pain never went away, but sometimes he was able to forget it when he kept himself busy. Perhaps it wasn’t helpful to have his wife’s portraits all over the house, but Maximilian couldn’t bear not seeing his wife every day. He had a painting of her in various settings in almost every room of the house, both comforting and saddening him whenever he looked at her lovely face. Maximilian didn’t want to admit it, but he couldn’t recall his wife as easily as he could five years ago. He didn’t love her any less, but her face wasn’t as clear as it used to be. Seeing her paintings helped him hold her more firmly in his memories.
“Your Grace,” said Pickerton coming up the stairs behind him.
Maximilian turned around at the top of the stairs. “That was quick. I only just climbed the steps.”
“I met Freeman on his way out, Your Grace,” Pickerton explained. “I wasn’t sure when you’d return, so I laid your fresh clothes on the bed and kept warm water on standby. A servant will bring a pitcher full for a bit of light bathing.”
“Thank you,” said Maximilian. “Did you manage to purchase everything on my list?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” said Pickerton. “I bought all the soaps in the fragrance you prefer, and I’ve ordered the books you requested. I’ve also taken the liberty of ordering flower arrangements for your wife and son’s grave. I’ll pick them up on the morning you visit the cemetery.”
Maximilian nodded. “I forgot about the flowers— thank you.”
He entered his room and stripped down to wash away most of the dirt from his body, barely hearing his manservant quietly moving around the room. Pickerton had the amazing ability to appear and disappear at will and never had a hair out of place, even in the most stressful situations.
“Was your trip successful?” Pickerton asked, handing him a bath sheet.
“Are you asking if my Mother-in-law has forgiven me for her daughter’s death?” Maximilian asked.
“You do not need to be forgiven for something that fate had already decided, Your Grace,” said Pickerton.
Maximilian smiled. “You always say that, but I am not so sure we can explain everything as being the will of fate.”
“What is meant to be has already been decided no matter what choice is made,” said Pickerton. “Your final choice, action, or behaviour is set in stone. Even if you should change it later, that has already been decided.”
“Wouldn’t that mean a bad person is not bad because they chose to be bad, but because fate made that decision?”
Pickerton chuckled. “You’re thinking is too linear, Your Grace. The past, future, and present are all happening at the same time. We’re just not privy to that timeline. We can only move forward because we’re restricted, but the Almighty is beyond the constraints of time.”
Maximilian frowned. “Forgive me if I do not put much trust in the Great Almighty. The death of my wife and child, two innocent beings, is evidence that He is not as loving as people claim.”
“Why is pain evidence of the absence of God’s love?” asked Pickerton.
Maximilian waved his hand dismissively. “I do not wish to discuss this theological argument. I’m sure the reverend would love such a discussion.”
Pickerton chuckled and handed Maximilian his clothes. “I’ll be sure to discuss it with him this Sunday. Will I be sending your apologies for your absence once again?”
Maximilian lifted an eyebrow. “Need you ask?”
Pickerton nodded. “I’ll give a donation in your name.”
“I suppose it’s the week for the giving of the bread and wine?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Pickerton confirmed. “We always donate once every four weeks.”
“I know that. No need to remind me that I’m giving my money to an establishment I have no faith in.”
Pickerton smiled. “Even the prodigal son is loved, Your Grace. Now,” he said, flattening Maximilian’s collar, “were you kicked out or shown the door?”
Maximilian snorted. “Is there a difference? Lady Dalrymple is the only woman who dares to treat me the way she does. I suppose she has some right as she was my wife’s mother. I only put up with her out of respect and affection, but there is only so much a man can take.”
“You’ve been saying that for the past ten years, Your Grace,” Pickerton pointed out. “You have yet to say a word against her. Your heart is far too soft.”
Maximilian stared at his reflection in the mirror. No one would think he had a soft heart just by looking at him. Over six feet tall, his broad shoulders were likely the first thing people noticed after his height. Some called him handsome, but Maximilian didn’t think much of his physical features. His dark hair and grey eyes were nothing remarkable, and he could do with fewer wrinkles around his eyes, but nothing could be done about them. He was forty, after all, and time changed a person.
“Your tea tray should be in the study,” said Pickerton. “The cheddar and Stilton are especially good, and the beef was fried in drippings.”
Maximilian’s stomach grumbled, reminding him he hadn’t eaten since leaving the house this morning. Pickerton looked at his belly and smiled.
“I think you’re in need of this meal, Your Grace,” he said. “You shouldn’t neglect your body. Food and rest are important. More important than the books you read endlessly.”
“A scholar’s life is the books he reads to fill his mind and heart, Pickerton,” Maximilian argued. “You know that.”
“I’m not bookish, Your Grace,” said Maximilian. “I prefer to do things with my hands.”
“Like sword fighting? I don’t know of anyone else who still does that. It’s good exercise to have someone to spar with when I need to release some tension.”
“Don’t you mean compete with to judge who is better?” said Pickerton. “I have never met anyone more competitive than you.”
Maximilian shrugged. “It was a trait my father instilled in me. That and the ability to eat a horse when hungry. I cannot wait anymore.”
He left his room, followed by his manservant into his private study down the hall. Maximilian had two studies— one where he welcomed fellow scholars and the other where he spent most of his time. It had been a space he shared with his wife, who enjoyed being around him, even when he was poring over mundane subjects like politics.
“Have you thought more about the subject we raised the other day?” Pickerton asked as they took their seats.
Maximilian pretended not to hear as he tore off a chunk of bread and added cheese and beef before stuffing the lot in his mouth. Thankfully, he didn’t have to eat like a gentleman around Pickerton. It was tiring behaving properly all the time to avoid offending people, although he believed their mouths could do with some proper behaviour. Gossip news was rife through Pickerton, with some discussing his single status as though it had anything to do with them. Whether or not he had a child was up to him, and if he let his family’s line die out with him, then so be it.
“I can wait for your answer, Your Grace,” said Pickerton. “I have all the patience in the world for you.”
“Sometimes I wish you would be more impatient and move on from a tiring subject like who I’m going to marry,” said Maximilian. “It’s not something I choose to talk about.”
“This is an important matter, Your Grace,” Pickerton insisted. “I do not wish you to be alone for the rest of your life. Surely you understand my concerns?”
“I spoke about being lonely once, and now you’re picking at the topic like a woodpecker,” Maximilian complained. “Open my letters instead. That is a better use of your time. How many do I have? I’m expecting at least six.”
“You have eight,” said Pickerton, sorting through them. “It seems even Lady Wentworth has replied this time. I still cannot believe you allowed a woman into your club. I thought that was forbidden.”
“It’s my club, so I can do as I please,” Maximilian replied. “I offered the other members the chance to leave if they had a problem with it, but they chose to stay. We’re learned men, after all, not mindless brutes intent on trampling on women. Lady Wentworth proved herself.”
Pickerton smiled. “I recall that day she won the debate with Mr Smith. That was the turning point in everyone’s minds.”
“I had to hold in my laughter during the meeting until I got home,” said Maximilian. “It was easily the most interesting meeting since I started the club.”
“I agree,” Pickerton said. “Would you like me to read them to you, or will you read them yourself?”
“I’ll read them while you get yourself a cup of tea,” Maximilian told him. “This is your usual time. Please bring another loaf of bread. I feel this one is smaller than usual. Is the kitchen trying to restrict me?”
“I doubt it. I heard the chef wishes to make smaller versions of everything because it is supposedly more elegant.”
Maximilian sighed. “People should leave things alone. I like my big loaf of bread.”
Pickerton stood up. “I’ll let the chef know. I will not be a moment, Your Grace.”
Maximilian nodded as he cut another piece of cheese and popped it into his mouth. His manservant was right about the Stilton being good, but the cheddar could have done with a little more time ageing. It wasn’t as robust or full of flavour as he would have liked. He opened the first letter and quickly read through its contents. Mr Lockhart rarely had anything intriguing to say in person, and it was the same with his letters. It was all fluff and a few unnecessary compliments that he could do without. Maximilian moved on to the following letter and found much of the same. Only the fourth letter had more of the scholarly sustenance he enjoyed.
Perhaps I should raise the quality of letters in the next meeting. If people wish to share something, it should be worthy of the reader and not just a few words strung together for the sake of writing a letter. Do I not put in effort?
“I see you’re nearly done reading them, Your Grace,” said Pickerton walking in with a cup of tea and bread. “Are they not interesting? You usually take your time and even have books opened all over your desk when reading letters.”
“I think most of them wrote these letters half asleep,” Maximilian complained. “Where is the academic prowess I’m accustomed to? Or am I unnecessarily picky?”
“You have standards, Your Grace,” said Pickerton, handing him his bread. “The chef apologises for the size of the bread and promises to maintain its usual size.”
“That goes for everything else,” said Maximilian. “I’m not a man who eats mini foods. Leave that to the ladies. Could you imagine something small in the palm of my hand?” he asked, holding out his palm. “It would look ridiculous.”
“Certainly, Your Grace,” Pickerton agreed. “Wouldn’t it be good to have a mistress who enjoys such things? I’m sure the chef would be happy to make small food items for her.”
Maximilian frowned. “I will not get married just to please the chef.”
“Get married to please yourself, Your Grace.”
“Not to have an heir?”
Pickerton smiled. “That would be ideal, but I’m not one to force the issue of heirs. I’m more concerned about your loneliness. You would not speak of it unless it were something on your mind.”
“It was just a passing thought,” Maximilian lied.
Maximilian didn’t want to admit it was something he had been thinking about more lately. Perhaps he was lonelier than he thought, but that wasn’t enough for him to swim into the murky waters of courtship. Besides, he would have to marry a younger woman if he did want an heir but attracting a younger woman who wasn’t simply after his wealth and prestige as the wife of a duke would be challenging. Elizabeth wasn’t like that. They mutually fell in love and married after just one month of courtship. Maximilian doubted he could be so lucky in love twice.
“Will you attend the Statute Fair this year, Your Grace?” Pickerton asked. “You used to enjoy going before.”
Maximilian didn’t immediately answer. Pickerton knew why he didn’t attend the fair anymore, not since his wife and baby died. Elizabeth had gone into labour on the twentieth of November while he was at the fair to buy her some of the apples she enjoyed so much, and he returned to discover the baby had breached. It became a battle throughout the night to save them, but their lives were lost in the early morning of the twenty-first.
“I know it’s difficult, Your Grace,” said Pickerton. “But Her Grace would not have wanted you to live your life without the activities you used to enjoy. The fair was a favourite for you and Her Grace.”
“Is going to the fair about me or finding a wife?” Maximilian asked suspiciously.
“Do those reasons not both concern you?” Pickerton countered. “Whether you go for yourself or to find a wife will benefit you.”
Maximilian shook his head. He had reached his limit. “Enough with talk about the fair and finding a wife. I’d like to enjoy my meal in peace.”
Pickerton bowed his head. “Yes, Your Grace.”
Maximilian hunched over his desk and ate his humble meal, pushing the idea of marriage and the fair out of his mind. However, the more he tried to push it out, the more he thought about it until he abandoned his meal and stalked off to the library. Pickerton didn’t react because he likely knew what was on Maximilian’s mind.
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Anna Stuart is a bookish and eccentric lady, who has given up hope of ever finding a proper suitor. With her brother and aunt laying the blame on her shoulders, Anna believes that there’s something wrong with her. However, when fate brings along Maximilian Montagu, an older but charming duke, she wonders if there is still hope for her…
Could Anna find a way to the Duke’s heart despite all their differences, age included?
Maximilian Montagu, Duke of Manchester and distinguished scholar, has become a recluse after his late wife’s passing. While he has already built a wall of thorns around his heart, his encounter with Anna will make him yearn for love again. However, there are things he cannot get past; their age difference and Anna’s aunt and guardian who would condemn this romance. Will he fight for Anna, or will he compromise with being condemned to everlasting misery?
Two soulmates desperate to escape an ill fate others chose for them…
With each passing day, Anna and Maximilian feel inexplicably drawn to each other. However, internal doubts and threatening figures risk shattering everything they have dreamt of. Will Anna and Maximilian’s unique connection be strong enough to fight everyone against them? Will they manage to save their dreams before everything turns to ashes?
“The Duke’s Secret Letter” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.
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