“But why are you telling me this, Papa? What can I possibly do to aid the fortunes of Bexley Hall?” Lady Eliza Ashton studied her father closely.
Martin Ashton, the Earl of Bexley, was clearly uncomfortable. Eliza could not remember ever seeing him so before, and it was most unsettling. It seemed to Eliza that her father could only meet her eye every so often before looking away again. There was something there she could hardly recognize, and she wondered if it was something he was ashamed of. Whatever it was, it was making her feel even more nervous.
To be told that Bexley Hall, her father’s fine estate, had been ailing for years was no real surprise to her. She had heard both her parents speak aloud their worries on the subject many times over the nineteen years of her life. But she had never truly realized the extent of the worries her parents had, more often than not, they tried to contain as best they could. She realized now that all she had heard in the preceding years was just the tip of a very large iceberg, one that had suddenly grown out of all proportion.
“At a time like this, all members of a family must pull together, Eliza, must they not?” He looked into her brown eyes and hurriedly away again.
When she had first been ushered into the Earl’s study for a private conversation with her father, Eliza had certainly been taken aback. The household at Bexley Hall was comfortable in that it was relaxed, and anything her father had to say to her before then had simply taken place during tea or breakfast or any number of moments in the day when the family were together. Nothing so formal as being asked by the butler, Eames, to attend her father in his study had ever happened before, and her senses were already heightened before she entered the dark, austere little room.
“Indeed, Papa. But we are the only ones here. Mama is not here, and Henry is not here.” Eliza began to feel suspicious, and the physical sensation that accompanied her disquiet seemed to grow.
“We all must do what we can.” Her father looked away again, staring at some point on the deep oak skirting board over by the door.
“And what is my part in this, Papa? For it is clear to me that I must have one.”
“My dear Eliza, perhaps you have the greatest part to play of all of us.” He smiled at her hopefully as if willing her to be proud that she could somehow make a difference.
This time, Eliza was the one to look away. She could not bear for her father to see her fear or worse, her unwillingness even before she knew what it was he wanted of her.
“What is it, Papa? I would rather you came straight to the point because you are making me afraid with your tiptoeing.” She continued to look down, studying the tiny green flowers which had been carefully embroidered onto her ivory gown.
“My dear Eliza, our financial straits are now worse than they have ever been. The estate is losing money by the day, and I have no means by which to pay back the loans I have been forced to take to keep life here at Bexley Hall going.” He paused and sighed, and she realized he saw this as a personal failing.
“But as you told it to me, you were bequeathed an estate that was already ailing for years before it was yours. You ought not to look so responsible for it all, Papa,” she said kindly.
Despite her own fears, Eliza Ashton loved her father dearly and could not bear to see him suffering.
“Yes, but I have never been able to find a way to rescue it, and that was my responsibility.”
“So, what are we to do now? Is it so very bad?” Eliza already knew the answer to her question.
“We are on the verge of losing the estate. Everything. And with no estate, I am sure the title will be useless, perhaps even bestowed upon another family altogether.”
“Oh, my goodness,” Eliza said breathlessly. “I had never imagined it was so far gone. But what shall we do then? Where shall we go?”
“I have no idea. There is nothing left of my personal inheritance, and any money your mother brought into the estate when we married is long gone. We would have to find somewhere to rent, but where and with what I cannot imagine. I will need to find some sort of occupation, employment. But again, I have no trade, obviously, and no clerical skills.”
The Earl looked utterly crestfallen, and Eliza felt her insides suddenly cold and taut at the idea of her father, a man who was not in his first flush of youth, having to seek traditional employment in a world that was not his and never had been.
“Then we are doomed, are we not? There is nothing we can do.” Eliza thought suddenly of her engagement to Miles Gainsborough and felt a guilt-ridden stab of relief.
Whatever the fortunes of her family, she was due to be married to the son of a Baron. Perhaps all was not lost, and yet she could not see how it would be possible for Lord Gainsborough to help the rest of her family.
“We have but one course of action available to us, Eliza.” Her father spoke in a voice that sounded almost unrecognizable to her, and she realized that he was not yet finished; there was worse to come.
“And what is that?” she asked with trepidation.
“I have received an offer of urgent financial assistance from the Duke of Lytton,” he said and seemed to study his daughter for her reaction to the news.
“But if you cannot pay the loans you already have, forgive me, but what good is another?” Eliza had never discussed matters of business with her father before.
She was an intelligent young woman for whom common sense was no stranger, so she did not find the concepts in any way difficult. But the conversation was, and she felt that her father’s revelations to her specifically had somehow changed everything; she could almost feel the old, solid ground begin to shift beneath her feet.
“This would not be a loan,” he began quietly. “And it would be enough money to raise us all up from this dreadful uncertainty and keep the Earldom and estate in the Ashton family for generations to come. It would see off all our loans and return Bexley to a former glory I cannot remember seeing since I was a child myself.”
“Why would the Duke of Lytton do such a thing? After all, you are not a very close friend of his, Papa.”
“No, I cannot claim to be a close friend, but I am reasonably well acquainted with the man.”
“But being reasonably well acquainted does not secure the sort of money you need, Papa. And for it to be a gift and not a loan? There is more to this, I am sure.”
As she studied her father’s face, Eliza was sure that he was greyer and gaunter than she had ever seen him. He truly looked like a man whose cares were wearing him down, but it was the guilt in his eyes she was finding the hardest of all to witness.
“There is more to this, I am afraid.”
“Which has much to do with me if this meeting here is anything to go by.”
“My dear, the Duke has made me a very specific offer.” Before he had even finished his sentence, Eliza knew exactly what that offer was.
In fact, if she was honest with herself, she had already known the only sort of assistance a daughter could provide her family with from the moment it had been mentioned.
“Papa, the Duke of Lytton is an old man,” Eliza said and felt suddenly hot and sick.
“He is in his middle years, it is true. But he is not old. He is but five-and-fifty.”
“And I am but nineteen. Surely you do not think that I should marry this man, whatever is at stake.”
“As I said, when a family is in our sort of trouble, it is incumbent upon us all to pull together and do what we can.”
“But the family is not expected to throw away their lives. Only I am expected to do that. Only I am expendable in the Ashton family. How is my sacrifice an example of a family pulling together?” She felt a well of anger spring up in her chest.
“Because it will cause the rest of us great pain to see you go into a marriage you did not want. But there is no other way.”
“Surely you have not forgotten that I am due to be married to Miles Gainsborough. Do you now demand that I put an end to our engagement? Do you demand that I turn away from the man I love so that I might be married to an old man I have no feeling for?” She knew she was beginning to punish her father but could not stop.
Why was it down to her to solve it all? Why should she make her family safe and happy at the expense of her own heart, her own life even?
“You know that I would not demand it.” He seemed a little angry himself. “You know that I have never treated you that way in all your life, and I am a little insulted that you would speak to me so.”
“It is true that you have never treated me badly for a single day, Papa. But you must look at what you ask of me and feel the fear and pain that I am feeling before you allow your own feelings to be hurt. You cannot be more insulted than I am at this moment. I am no more than cattle to you now, however well you have treated me in the past. In the end, you would see me sold off at the market, and so now you have an idea of my own feelings of insult.” Tears began to roll down Eliza’s face.
“I would never have wanted to hurt you.” Her father’s own eyes shone with tears, and she felt the true weight of the impossibility of their situation.
“Why can Henry not marry someone else, someone who would bring in more money by way of a dowry than his current choice? Why must it be me?” she said, feeling the great gap in the rights of a son and daughter and resenting them more than she had ever had cause to.
Idly, she picked at the raised little embroidered flowers on her gown and knew that she could not do what her father wanted.
She loved Miles Gainsborough with all her heart and had always known that he was the only man she could ever share her life with. He was so handsome and had such maturity and intelligence beyond his five-and-twenty years.
In truth, she could not entirely pinpoint her reasons for loving him, she just knew that she did and that she had since she was a girl of sixteen, and he had seemed like an impossible wish.
“Henry has his heart set on Penelope Arlow, my dear.”
“And I have my heart set on Miles Gainsborough, so that is no argument at all.” She felt a stab of anger once more. “Surely any number of wealthy fathers would be happy to bestow an enormous dowry for the knowledge that their daughter would one day be a countess. Can you not capitalize upon that and request that Henry be the one to make the sacrifice? Why must it be me?”
“I am not making your brother more important, Eliza. I am just being practical. No amount of dowry any father in the county could provide would come close to a quarter of what the Duke has promised me. The estate could not be saved with that, so there is no sense in making Henry miserable too.”
“But every practical sense is making me miserable. And repulsed, Papa, for I cannot bear to think of a married life with an old man I cannot bear to look at.”
“As I said before, I am not making a demand of you. In the end, it must be your decision.” He looked sad and a little helpless.
Despite her father’s kindness over the years, still, she had always played second fiddle to her brother, as all young women did. And it was true to say that she had resented Henry for it at times, and with good reason.
He had always seen his elevated status as his right. Not that he was an unpleasant or arrogant man, it was just that he never questioned his sense of entitlement. In that, he was likely little different from any other young man in such a hallowed position.
But the thing which angered her most was that she knew Henry would not even think to question it now. He would think his sister’s sacrifice right and proper because she held no power and did not entirely matter to the Earldom. She was just a spare part, one who would come in useful, even though she knew her brother did love her.
Her brother loved her, her father loved her, and her beloved mother loved her too. But that love would do nothing when they stood to face an uncertain future. And rather than weather the storm together, as a family, they were each of them willing to let her shoulder the burden so that they might continue to enjoy the life they had always had.
And for that reason, Eliza found that she felt suddenly very differently about them all. She had lost something inside herself, some feeling of home and love that would never, ever come back, whatever she decided to do next.
“You have made this my decision in the hopes that I shall buckle under the weight of the responsibility, Papa,” she said and held up a little hand to stop him when he drew breath to speak again. “You know how I love you all, and you are certain that I will end my engagement to Miles and marry the Duke to save you all. And by making it my decision, Papa, you have released yourself from true guilt. You can always reassure yourself that it was my choice and be satisfied. But I want you to know that is not truly the case. You have laid the responsibility of the entire family’s fortunes on my shoulders, and I think you are confident of a positive outcome. Positive for the three of you, at any rate. Perhaps it would have been better if you had ordered me, for I think you should at least suffer a little if I am to suffer entirely.”
“Eliza, please …”
“I have not decided what I shall do, but I know that I will never forgive you for this day, no matter what the outcome of it all. I shall never forgive any of you.”
“Please, your mother need not hear you say that,” he said beseechingly.
“I see that I am to sacrifice my own feelings but spare all of yours.” She laughed mirthlessly. “Well, I would beg you to release me now, Father,” she said, choosing not to call him the more endearing Papa for the first time in her life. “After all, I have much to think about, do I not?”
“Very well, Eliza,” he said with a sad nod. “But I would beg you to put such feelings aside and look at it all in a practical way.”
“There is no practical way to look at a heart unless one is a surgeon and intends to cut it out,” she said, wincing at the brutality of her own words before silently leaving the room and closing the door behind her.
“It is all so awful, Eliza. I have thought and thought, and I still cannot imagine what I would do if I were in your position,” Ariadne Holloway said as her eyes shone with tears, and not for the first time.
“How would I manage without you, Ariadne?” Eliza handed her dearest friend a crisp white handkerchief from the pocket of her gown. “But you must not upset yourself so. I cannot bear to see you with tears in your eyes. It makes everything seem so final.”
“Forgive me.” Ariadne dabbed her eyes and looked around the drawing room of Tarleton House, the fashionable home of Lady Dearborn.
The two young women were attending their standing invitation to play bridge with Lady Dearborn and her large circle of friends, just as they did every Thursday.
That long-standing engagement meant so much to Eliza, for it was where she was first properly introduced to Miles Gainsborough almost two years before. She had admired him from afar for so long that she could hardly believe it when he asked their hostess for an introduction to the shy, dark-haired young daughter of the Earl of Bexley.
It seemed like such a long time ago to Eliza now. She had long since been at ease in the company of Miles and his family that the transition into marriage and becoming a part of the Gainsborough household would have been the most simple and seamless thing.
At first, they had met only once a week in that very drawing room at Tarleton House, every time trying to spend as much of the afternoon together as possible without leaving themselves exposed to gossip.
But as the weeks and months had moved on, they began to take little walks together on other days, meeting here and there as if by chance. Eventually, they had each introduced the idea of the other to their own families, and it was a move which had proved pleasing to all.
Lord Gainsborough was more than happy that his son was to make a fine match in the daughter of an Earl, and the Earl himself found much to admire in the son of the Baron.
In truth, there had never been a moment’s hesitation from either father in the developing courtship of their offspring. And for Eliza, that simply served to make the whole upset so much harder to bear.
“Did you speak to Miles? Did you tell him it all?” Ariadne said in a whisper as the pair kept themselves apart from the rest of the room on a small couch just large enough to accommodate them.
It seemed very unlikely that either one of them would partake of a game of bridge that day; there was simply too much to talk about, and neither woman could have concentrated fully in any case.
“Yes, I sent a message to him immediately to tell him that I wanted to meet him at Bagley Wood the very next morning, and that was when I told him everything.”
“And what did he say?” Ariadne said, her eyes wide.
“He was wonderful; he really was so calm and poised. He displayed every quality that I love about him.”
“Yes, Miles certainly is a very steady sort of a man.” Ariadne nodded furiously in agreement.
“He said that I would be understandably upset, that my father had given me a terrible burden, one that I should never have been handed.”
“And I can only agree with that,” Ariadne said sagely.
“But he was not cruel about my father, not for a moment. I have to admit that I was rather relieved about that, for as angry as I am with my entire family, I cannot help feeling that old loyalty and love.”
“That is to be expected, my dear. As awful as it all is, I cannot think that your father came to this conclusion lightly.” Ariadne sniffed. “Which is not to say that I think you should consider his request.”
“I do love you for your fierce loyalty, Ariadne,” Eliza said and meant it. “Miles made it all seem very much easier as if something would turn up. He said that he could not manage without me, that he would not let me go without a fight. I must say, I truly felt loved at that moment.”
“Oh, how wonderful.” Ariadne’s gaze had softened, and Eliza, who knew her of old, instantly recognized her descent into the romantic.
“He told me that it was not for me to put an end to my family’s troubles. And he said that if my father had never had a daughter, he would have to find another way. I must admit, I had never thought of it like that.”
“Well, that certainly does make a good deal of sense. It is clear that he loves you, and he would never let you go.”
“I did walk away from our meeting with much more certainty in my heart than I had felt previously. I know that I cannot marry the Duke of Lytton, an ageing man I know nothing about. It is too much to bear to be sold off, for that is what it all boils down to, does it not?”
“I hate to say it, truly I do, but yes, it is very much the same. And worse still, it is far from unusual in our society, is it? Even in the finest of families, a loving and caring family such as your own, in the end, the daughter counts for very little, does she?” Ariadne said and shuddered.
She stared off into the distance, and Eliza realized that Ariadne was imagining herself in a similar situation, the victim of her father’s burden of guilt with her family’s entire fortunes resting on her word.
“That is very true. But at least I mean more than that to Miles,” Eliza said as she closed her eyes for a moment and remembered how it felt to be in his arms as he held her tightly and soothed her before she had made her way back to her father’s house.
“Where is Miles?” Ariadne said and looked all around the room. “The afternoon is all but over, and there is still no sign of him.”
“Goodness, you are right. I had not realized how the time had flown. But I wonder where he could be; he never misses,” Eliza said and began to feel a little concerned.
“I cannot think that he will come now, there is but half an hour of today’s games left.” Ariadne looked as concerned as Eliza felt. “Perhaps we ought to take the carriage now and go over to Cherry Trees to see if he is unwell. We really ought to enquire, Eliza.”
“Yes, I think you are right. I shall not settle if I think he has come to some harm on the road here.” She was already rising to her feet. “Come, let us make our apologies to Lady Dearborn.”
Cherry Trees was a sprawling estate encompassing a large manor house which was the fine home of the Baron, Lord Gainsborough. And yet, despite its stately appearance, it always felt very homely to Eliza. Perhaps that was because she felt so very at home with its occupants.
“No, I shall wait here in the carriage for you,” Ariadne said as the driver helped Eliza down. “We need only be here long enough for you to be sure that all is well. If I come in with you too, the family will feel a need to go to some effort, and I really would not have that.”
“Very well, Ariadne. I shall see to it that I am brief,” Eliza said and smiled nervously at her friend before darting towards the front of the house.
The butler was already opening the door as she reached it, and he smiled at her as he pulled it wider and allowed her admittance.
“Forgive me, is Mr Gainsborough at home?”
“Yes, he is at home, Lady Ashton. Perhaps you would be so kind as to wait here whilst I let Mr Gainsborough know that you have come to see him?”
“Oh yes, of course,” she said, relieved that her beloved Miles would seem to have come to no harm.
The butler returned in no time and asked her to follow him towards the drawing room. He announced her presence before backing away and closing the door behind him, leaving Eliza and Miles alone.
“Miles, forgive my sudden appearance, but I was so worried when you did not arrive at Lady Dearborn’s,” Eliza said and smiled broadly as she hurried across the room to where he stood at the side of the fireplace. “Are you quite well, my dear?”
Eliza could see that Miles looked rather anxious and pale. He had one hand leaning against the stone mantle of the fireplace and seemed to be absently tracing the small, ornate scrollwork with his finger. He looked at her briefly and then looked away again, reminding her for an awful moment of her father just days before in his study at Bexley Hall.
“I am well, Eliza. Physically well,” he said and finally turned his handsome dark eyes on her.
“Miles, whatever it is, you must tell me,” Eliza said and felt suddenly a little faint; she almost knew what was coming.
“I hardly know where to begin.”
“Well, you must try.”
“I have discussed your situation with my father. I was sure that you would not mind, given how well the two of you get along.”
“No, of course, I do not mind. I have no secrets from you, Miles. And I have none from your father.”
“Perhaps we ought to sit down. You look a little pale,” he said as he gently took her elbow and led her to the small couch covered in grey velvet.
He settled her into her seat and sat at her side, reaching out to take her hand in his.
“Miles, what has happened?” Eliza’s mouth felt dry, and she could hardly say the words.
“I do not know how to say this, but it appears that your father is not the only one with financial concerns.”
“What do you mean?”
“It would seem that my father was rather relying on the dowry that your father had promised him in the event of our marriage.”
“But it was not so large, was it?”
“No, but it seems that it was necessary.”
“And so what now? What does that mean?” Eliza asked, knowing the answer, knowing she did not want to hear it, and yet knowing that she must ask.
“I am afraid that I will not be able to marry you, Eliza,” he said and could not meet her eye.
“For goodness sake, did the dowry mean that much? Was that all I was worth?”
“My father has insisted that I choose a bride elsewhere now that it seems unlikely that your father will be able to pay any dowry at all.”
“But just days ago you said that you would never give up on me. You said that you would not let me go without a fight, and now it seems that you will not even stand up to your own father. Miles, I love you. And you led me to believe that you loved me too.”
“Of course I love you, Eliza. You know I do.”
“You love me, and yet you have given up so easily? It is bad enough that my father has given up on me, but at least he is about to lose everything. Surely your father is not in the same situation; I cannot think that he is.”
“No, but every estate needs new money to come into it. That is how they survive, my dear. It is no good me inheriting an estate from my father that is not thriving. It would do neither you nor I any good whatsoever.”
“I wish you would not tell me what would or would not do me good, Miles. I do not expect such riches. All I ever wanted was you. I would make any economy I needed to so that you and I could be married, and I am sure that you are clever enough to find some other way to bring money into this estate as time goes by.”
“But do you not see that it is a risk I cannot take?”
“No, I see that it is a risk you will not take, and there sits the difference,” she said angrily, utterly tired of the deep sense of self-pity the most important men in her life had displayed in the recent days. “Because that would take courage, would it not? And perhaps only a little courage at that.”
“I wish you would not argue with me on the matter, Eliza, for I find it extraordinarily painful. You cannot think that I am happy about any of this; you cannot think that I have not suffered unending sleeplessness.”
“But your sleeplessness will end when you find a wife of means, will it not? It seems that mine will never end, but what of it? What man in my world would give a care for anything that I suffer?” She rose to her feet, hardly recognizing her angry tone. “I will never again believe in the courage of men, that much I can promise you.”
She began to march angrily towards the door, determined that she would be away from the house before the first of her devastated tears began to fall. She would have to maintain her anger, to nurse it and hold onto it to give her at least that much dignity in the face of so complete a humiliation.
“Eliza, please,” he said, echoing her father’s own plea in the face of her anger.
“No,” she said, her voice cold and her heart aching. “It is not men who need courage in this world, it is women. And why? Because we are the ones who are treated no better than pieces on a chess board. We simply come with purses attached to us, or not as the case may be, and we are served accordingly. You may have suffered a sleepless night, perhaps even two, but if this is as strong as you are, you would never be able to manage the fate which I will have to accept with dignity,” she said and opened the door, dashing out of it at speed.
By the time she reached the carriage, tears were welling in her eyes. She looked over her shoulder briefly, fearful that he would be following her. When she saw that he did not follow, Eliza realized that she felt worse still. Miles really had meant it, he would not marry her. Perhaps it had served his purpose well that she had been quick to anger and removed herself from his presence before he had to take on board any more guilt before his future sleep was threatened any further.
The driver, somewhat taken aback, jumped down from his seat and quickly helped her into the carriage, driving away without awaiting her instructions.
“Oh, my dear Eliza, whatever has happened?” Ariadne said, already becoming upset before she even knew what had passed between Eliza and Miles.
“The worst, Ariadne.” Eliza began to sob. “The very worst.”
“For the Love of a Duchess” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lady Eliza Ashton, daughter of the Earl of Bexley, had always thought her life would be a straight pathway to happiness.
Engaged to be married to the devastatingly handsome Miles Gainsborough, Eliza could never have imagined how easily happiness could turn into disaster. When her father tells her that she is the only hope of saving the family from financial ruin, she finds herself set to marry the Duke of Lytton instead.
Daniel Winchester, an accomplished and successful attorney, finds his simple existence at Lytton Hall turned upside down by the arrival of the Duke’s new young bride. Determined to think her a young title-hunter, he is surprised to find himself drawn to her as every day passes. When the old Duke dies, his ego bruised by the realization that the beautiful young woman will never love him, becomes increasingly aggressive, Daniel is the only man with courage enough to defend her.
But when the old Duke dies, will Eliza allow the threat of scandal and the fear of condemnation to turn her away from the only man she has ever truly loved? And will Daniel Winchester ever find a pathway leading to the heart of the young woman who occupies his every thought?
“For the Love of a Duchess” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.