“Mama, forgive me, but do you intend to marry Ronald Belville?” Ella Winfield sounded as dejected as she felt.
“We shall just have to wait and see, my dear.” Ariadne Winfield was trying to dissuade Ella from her questioning, and Ella knew as much.
“Mama, it is a simple enough question. After all, he has made no secret of his interest in you, and I can see no sign that you have attempted to escape his interest, even though Papa passed away less than a year ago.” Every time Ella alluded to the death of her beloved father, the familiar grief swept over her, weakening her each time.
“Are you concerned that I would not see out my full period of mourning?” Ariadne looked affronted.
Ariadne Winfield often looked affronted, especially when her motives were being called into question. And when she was not affronted, the wife of the late Baron Winfield was generally dissatisfied with life and everything in it.
Ella had always known that her parents’ marriage had certainly not been a match made in heaven, but she had also known that her father would have given anything for it to be so. Her mother, on the other hand, always had the air of a woman who regretted marrying in haste and wished she had waited for a better prospect to come her way.
But Ariadne had come from much humbler beginnings. The daughter of Sir Robert Addington, she had been forced to work as a governess when her father had died, and the extent of his debts became apparent.
No longer a gentlewoman, Ariadne had not enjoyed her reduced status. When Lord Winfield, a baron and close friend of the family for whom she was working showed an interest in her, Ariadne had jumped at the chance to rescue herself from a life of obscurity, in a world where she was neither fish nor fowl.
The young Ariadne Addington had not languished in the lonely life of the governess for more than six months before she agreed to marry Winston Winfield. But it was clear that she had never loved him; he was simply a means to an end. He was the man who would make her a woman of note again, not a gentlewoman fallen on hard times, but Lady Winfield, a baroness.
Ella had never known if her father had realized it at the time when he had first asked the young governess to marry him, or if he was blinded by his love for her, so much so that he would have taken her on any terms.
But Ariadne’s dissatisfaction had grown and grown over the years until it had become a tangible thing with what seemed like a life of its own. And it was clear to Ella that her beloved father had noticed it then, even if he had not seen it all those years ago.
“Well, is that what is upsetting you so?” her mother spoke again when Ella had been silent for some moments.
“I beg your pardon?” Ella was a little startled by her mother’s sharp tone.
“You are concerned that I am not going to wait out my one-year period of mourning?”
“That is not all I am concerned about, Mama,” Ella said, wondering at her mother’s shallow attention to nothing more than what was considered proper. “And just the idea that you are waiting out your twelve months and nothing more is something that I find extremely upsetting. After all, Papa was very much more than a man whose passing should be hurriedly counted away on one’s fingers.”
“As usual you are being obtuse, my dear,” Ariadne said sharply. “You are not at all practical, Ella, and I feel certain that it will one day be your downfall.”
“I am practical enough, Mama, when there is a need of it. But I do not need to be practical about the loss of my father. He is more than a few months of mourning to me, even now when he is no longer with us. It pains me that you are not struck in the same way.”
“You do not know what does or does not strike me, Ella.” Ariadne glared at her, her dark brown eyes glassy and her features seeming to become more pointed than ever.
It was a tone and countenance which Ella recognized with ease. Ariadne had a vaguely aggressive manner when she could not add anything of worth to an argument and instead sought to put the whole thing to an end.
But Ella had seen and heard it all before and was not fooled by any of it. And she knew exactly what did and did not strike her mother, even if Ariadne herself seemed so sure that she did not.
“Mama, the Earl of Dandridge does not have a reputation as a good man.” Ella was not about to let it go. “He is not spoken of warmly in society.”
“Men of power and wealth seldom are my dear. It is just the way of the world, and you will one day come to recognize the petty jealousies of others,” Ariadne said in a condescending way as she treated her daughter to a smile which suggested she was simply tolerating her daughter’s ignorance of the way of things.
“So, you think that people only talk ill of him because they are jealous? That they say that he is a man of no loyalty and short temper simply because he is more wealthy and powerful than they are? All of them, Mama?” Ella spoke incredulously, keen to let her mother know that she was not as naive in such matters as she had been accused. “Or do you perhaps hear and see what it is you wish to hear and see, Mama?”
“I have seen nothing in Ronald Bellville’s character which would make me suspect that he is anything other than a good man,” Ariadne said defiantly.
“I think you are just determined to see him so, Mama.”
“And why is that? Why would I be so determined to see him as a good man if he is not?”
“Because I believe that you wish to marry him, Mama.”
“And why would I wish to marry a man if I did not truly think him good?”
“I do not know,” Ella said although the truth of the matter was that she did know.
But, at that moment, Ella could not imagine how it was she would say to her mother outright that she believed her a title hunter, an ambitious woman with little or no regard for the memory of her very fine husband and the welfare and happiness of her own daughter. For that was exactly how Ella saw it, and she knew, deep down, that it was the truth.
Ella was not a naive young woman, far from it. She had a keen intellect and was an extraordinarily good judge of character. These were things that she thanked her father for, blessings which he had passed down to her, she was sure.
And, having only met Ronald Belville on the two occasions he had attended her mother at home, Ella had judged that every misgiving the people of their acquaintance had about the Earl was true. It was not anything he had said, nor anything he had done, but there was something about the man which spoke of an ill temper and ruthlessness that Ella did not want to become any better acquainted with.
“Then you will agree that you are simply being silly, my dear.” Ariadne smiled triumphantly.
Ella was so antagonized that she almost told her everything that had crossed her mind there and then, without sparing her feelings at all.
Instead, she took a deep breath and held it, just as her father had always taught her, and rose from her seat to cross the drawing room and look out of the window.
As Ella stared out across the beautiful gardens, so natural and free, allowing a little disorder here and there, she was struck by the awful feeling that Longton Manor might not be her home for very much longer.
There were trees everywhere and such wonderful arrangements of beds, many of which contained wildflowers. Lord Winfield had always been keen on the garden and had developed a long and respectful relationship with the old gardener, Jameson. Between them, they had created a garden that was just out of the common way. It did not quite conform to the neatness and rigidity that was the current fashion; a fashion which always seemed to Ella to make the outside world look like the inside world. People were so keen to show off fine gardens that they had almost become akin to well-decorated drawing rooms.
But the grounds at Longton Manor were a wonderful break with the new tradition. They spoke to Ella of nature and true beauty, instead of the peacock form of beauty which always seemed to thrive by denying nature instead of embracing it.
To society now, nature was something to be tamed, to be controlled. It had to be cut away and held in check, with every blade of grass standing to attention at exactly the same height as its neighbour. Where was the real beauty in that?
“Mama,” Ella began again in a cautious tone. “We have everything we need here. We have been fortunate that the Manor and all of Papa’s money has been left to us. We have a fine home and our circumstances, in terms of wealth and security, have not changed because Papa has passed.”
“I know,” Ariadne said a little impatiently.
No doubt she thought she had won the argument for that day.
“We do not need to search for security elsewhere.”
“And you think I am searching for security with the Earl of Dandridge?” She arched her eyebrows so high that she looked like a different woman altogether.
“Perhaps.” Ella could feel her confidence waning as she looked at her mother’s fierce expression.
“I do not need security, Ella. But I do want something more than this.” She spread her arms wide and looked disdainfully around her.
“More than this?” Ella was hurt and offended, and it was clear in her voice.
“Oh, you are too much your father’s daughter. You are so painfully content with everything around you that you frustrate me almost as much as he did.” Ariadne was forgetting herself.
“This is a fine home, Mama, and Papa was a fine man.” Ella felt anger surge through her. “How can you look around you with such dissatisfaction?”
“Because I want more than this. I am tired of making do.”
“How on earth can this life we have here be described as making do? Papa provided well for us both. We have never been without any of the things we wanted or needed. I have never had to make do, as you put it Mama, and neither have you.”
“Do not raise your voice, Ella.”
“Forgive me, Mama, but I am so frustrated. I feel as if you are insulting Papa and everything he did for you.”
“Oh, because I was a governess, you think I ought to be grateful?”
“Not grateful, Mama, but gracious, yes. You talk as if Papa has done you some great disservice all these years. And you talk as if we are in the gutter when the Winfields are a fine old family of wealth and standing.”
“You have no ambition for yourself at all.” Ariadne rose from the neat brocade covered couch and made her way to the fireplace. She pulled the bell rope for tea and turned back to look at her daughter. “I dread to think what sort of a match you might make one day.”
“When I marry, Mama, it will be for love.”
“Then you are as much a fool as your father raised you to be. Really, the times I begged him to urge you into one direction or another regarding a suitable husband, but no, he would not have his precious daughter forced in any way, even for her own good,” she huffed loudly. “And now, here you are, a woman of twenty years with no suitors on the horizon and a romantic notion that the best marriages are made for love alone, without any thought to status, wealth, or the future.”
“Is status so important to you, Mama? After all, you are already a baroness.”
“A Baroness? What is that when I might be a …” At the last moment, Ariadne remembered herself.
“A countess?” Ella supplied a little sarcastically. “After all, if you married the Earl of Dandridge, that is what you would be. You would no longer be Baroness Winfield, but the Countess of Dandridge.” Ella’s voice was almost a whisper.
Would her mother finally admit the truth to her? Or would she continue to try to hide it?
“There is nothing wrong with wanting better, Ella.” Ariadne’s tone was much calmer than Ella had been expecting; it was almost peaceful.
“There is no man on this earth better than my father was.” Ella felt treacherous; she hated her mother at that moment.
“You have a good deal of growing up to do, my dear.”
“No, I do not.” Ella rose from her seat to leave the room.
“Where are you going? I have sent for tea.” Her mother had such a total lack of awareness that she looked most aggrieved that her daughter would think to leave when tea was coming.
“I do not want to sit with you,” Ella said truthfully. “You have already decided to marry Ronald Belville, and the rest is simply a shallow adherence to propriety. You are waiting out your one year, and that is all. And you are waiting it out most impatiently as if the whole thing is not so much grieving as it is an inconvenience.”
“If I marry the Earl, then that is my choice and not yours. But you should think carefully, my dear. After all, you would be coming with me to live in Dandridge Hall.” Incredibly, Ariadne began to sound excited. “Just think of that! What a fine life you would have in so great a mansion.”
“I could not bear to leave Longton Manor. I care nothing for fine mansions and every luxury. I want my life here in the home of my father.”
“If I marry, it will no longer be the home of your father.”
Ella felt suddenly hot and nauseous. She had not even thought about the fate of Longton Manor if her mother married again. But, of course, everything that was now theirs would instantly become the property of the Earl the moment he married her mother.
They would be at that man’s mercy for their safety and security; they would literally be giving up everything. And why? So that her selfish, ambitious mother could be known by all as the Countess of Dandridge and have even more servants at her disposal than she already did.
And Ella would be forced to live in a strange house with a man she did not like and a family she did not yet know.
“Mama, please, you must think about this. We would have nothing of our own anymore. We would be at that man’s mercy.”
“You silly girl! We would have everything our hearts desire!”
“No, we would have everything your heart desires, Mama, not mine. You do not know what is in my heart.”
“And at this moment, I do not care to,” Ariadne said sharply. “For you are not being very sensible and you do not deserve my consideration if you are going to behave like this.”
“I do not remember having your consideration before, Mama, so I shall not notice its loss.”
“Perhaps you should leave now. I do not think I care to take tea with you after all.” Ariadne turned to look across the drawing room, casually dismissing her daughter as if she were staff.
Without another word, Ella quietly made her way out of the drawing room.
Rufus Darnley sat behind his great oak desk in the study at Hillington Hall, his elbows leaning heavily on a stack of papers whilst he rested his chin in his hands.
“Your Grace, I think it is a very wise decision.” Henry Mercer, the attorney, looked at the Duke of Hillington through grey, kindly looking eyes. “After all, at five and thirty, I daresay the time has come.”
“Yes, I am sure it has, Henry.” There was something defeated in his tone, something so resigned as if he were being led up the steps to the gallows. “I suppose I had always thought that I might one day happen across a young woman I had something in common with.”
“I think it is so rare a thing, Your Grace, that to act practically is a very much more sensible solution. At least when you approach the thing with common sense, you are able to choose a young lady on her qualities, her very suitability to be your wife. I am afraid that when the heart is followed, such common sense flies out of the window.”
“I cannot tell whether your words are making me feel better or worse, Henry. There is a part of me which applauds your practicality on the issue, and another which feels as if all hope is squashed.” Rufus laughed.
“I think hope comes with practicality, your Grace.” Henry Mercer laughed also.
It had been a very long time coming, but Rufus felt a certain sense of relief now that he had enlisted his attorney’s help in the matter of finding himself a suitable bride. At five and thirty, the time really was drawing near that he ought to produce an heir to the Duchy. With nothing but very distant male relations to inherit should anything happen to him, Rufus felt the sudden weight of responsibility.
After all, his own very fine father had been proud to have a son to whom he could pass the title which had been in their family for generations. To not produce an heir of his own would be to let his father down, Rufus was certain of it.
And, despite the fact that his own dear father had been dead for fifteen years now, still, he missed him greatly and wished to please him, even though he was not on the earth to see it.
“Henry, what you say makes a good deal of sense. I suppose it is time for me to let go of the notions which have hung around me for so many years. I have wasted too much time waiting for a woman of sense to come along, one who attracts me with wit and intelligence instead of fine gowns and over-made faces. After all, it has been many years that I have searched for such a woman to no avail. Perhaps it is time to take the commonsense approach.”
“And when it becomes known that you are looking for a bride, you will have your pick of all the county, Your Grace.” Henry smiled, his ageing face crinkling pleasingly as he did so.
“The problem is, I have had the pick of the county ever since I became the Duke, and it has not helped me one bit. In all that time, I have not settled upon a woman who truly attracted me.” He shrugged.
They both knew, of course, that that was not entirely true. The Duke of Hillington had been attracted once, very attracted, and he had been so scorched by the experience that he had spent many years after choosing not to repeat it.
“Ah, but you will be looking with very different criteria from here on in, will you not?”
“To be honest, Henry, I cannot begin to imagine what the criteria would be. What should I be looking for in a good match, in your opinion?” There was not another man on earth of whom Rufus would have asked so open a question, displaying such a great lack of knowledge of his own.
“Well, a good background, obviously.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“A very solvent family.” Henry smiled. “By which I mean very wealthy.”
“Presumably you think that I should be insisting on a very healthy dowry.”
“Absolutely, Your Grace. The Duchy coffers are in good order, of course, but they are so because of many generations of good management and fine marriages. It may not speak to the last vestiges of romance in your soul, Your Grace, but these practicalities ensure the health and wealth of a fine estate like this for generations to come. As considerations go, it is of paramount importance.”
“Well, if you say so,” Rufus said without any conviction, even though he knew the old attorney spoke sense.
Henry Mercer had been an attorney for the Duchy for almost as long as he had been an attorney himself. He had been a young man when the old Duke had retained him as his attorney, long before Rufus himself was even born. Henry Mercer had been a feature in Rufus’ life, a very present figure, and a man who seemed as much a friend to his father as an attorney employed to see to Duchy matters.
Rufus’ father had trusted Henry with everything, and Rufus realized that the time had come for him to lay yet one more matter in the ageing attorney’s hands. The matter of his own matrimony. And, of course, it was not simply a matter of Rufus’ marriage, but the very continuation of the Darnley line as Dukes of Hillington.
“So, what else are we looking for?” Rufus said, noting that he needed to move on with it all, to accept the cold practicalities of an arranged marriage.
“We need a sociable young lady, but not too sociable. Someone who will shine at your side at every event without overpowering it with her own personality.”
“That seems like a lot to ask.”
“Not really, again, it is just common sense. People must be pleased to be in your wife’s company, for she will so often be expected to be with you wherever you go. To have a young lady of an agreeable nature is very important indeed, but it is equally important that she does not have so strong a character that that character itself is very obvious to all around.”
“This is more complicated than I thought,” Rufus said absently, all the while imagining his bride-to-be as a small, brightly coloured budgie, pretty to look at and pleasing to listen to as it chirped and tweeted, but also easily silenced by simply throwing a black cloth over its cage.
He began to feel a little depressed by the notion.
“It is not so complicated, Your Grace. I suppose I am merely saying that you do not want a young lady who is too gregarious.”
“Oh, I suppose that makes sense,” Rufus conceded, wondering if it really did.
“And, I daresay, you might quite like her to be pretty.”
“Yes, I daresay,” Rufus said and smiled.
However, Rufus knew that beauty often changed into something else altogether when the personality became apparent. He had spent a good deal of time in the company of young ladies who were truly beautiful on first glance and, no more than an hour later, suddenly unattractive when some disagreeable part of their personality became known to him.
Rufus did not consider himself to be particularly discerning. He did not have a list of wants in a woman at all. All he had ever really wanted was a certain amount of truth and openness, combined with the sort of intelligence that made a young woman more interesting. Instead, he was often presented with young ladies of great beauty and little else. Unless, of course, you counted their ambition as a quality.
And Rufus was so attuned to the idea of ambition that he very quickly spotted it in others. It was as if the more he looked for it, the more he found it, and yet he yearned for something else, for something completely different.
But, in the end, perhaps that was the lot of the man who held so high a title. Competition for his attention was generally fierce, and it was no doubt born of nothing more than ambition itself. Quite where he was supposed to meet a young woman who did not care about such things was a mystery to him. For surely such a woman, one who did not search for status, wealth, and title, would not seek him out in the first place. He felt as if he were trapped inside a great ball, being rolled down a hillside as his thoughts, the same old thoughts, tumbled all around him repeating themselves over and over again.
It was nothing new, nothing that had not existed for fifteen years or more. So, just thinking over old ground again would change nothing. Identifying the problem would not suddenly result in a solution. It was not as if by knowing that he did not want an ambitious young woman that suddenly an unambitious one would appear before him, for that had yet to happen.
“So, as you see, there is not really so much to it. I am sure that we will have identified just the right young lady for you in no time at all,” Henry said when Rufus had not spoken for a while.
“And how are we to go about it all?”
“Well, I shall set a little gossip abroad that the Duke of Hillington has finally decided to look seriously for a wife.” Henry laughed. “And such gossip is, believe me, Your Grace, very easy to spread.”
“But once the gossip is out in the atmosphere, what are we to do next?”
“Well, I propose you hold the ball here, or something similar. A big event such as you have not held for a good, long while. It will attract a great deal of interest, I have no doubt, and you can invite a great many young ladies whom you might care to consider. From there, we shall have something of a list, I think. Or at least a very good idea of which young ladies you might wish to see again. And then, once we have narrowed it down, I think it would be prudent to spend a little time in the company of each of them before making your final decision.”
“You make it sound very much easier than I suspect it is.” Rufus laughed. “But that is not to say that I am not grateful to you, Henry, for I am. I must admit that this very question has been playing on my mind for some time, and it is a tremendous relief to me to have your help and guidance in it all.”
“Not at all, I am only too pleased to be of assistance.”
“So, how soon should I arrange the ball?”
“Oh, I think you may go ahead and begin to make preparations immediately, Your Grace. It will not take long for the entire county to be aware that you are actively seeking a bride. I can hardly think there will be a household untouched by that particular piece of information inside of a fortnight, and that is the truth.”
“I still cannot help thinking that there is something rather tawdry about all of this,” Rufus said and looked downcast.
“Your Grace, you must stand firm. You came to this conclusion for a reason, and I think you have come to this conclusion very well. I understand your misgivings, truly, for they are quite natural. But they are only the misgivings of any man when he is embarking on the quest for the perfect wife, I assure you. Marriages are made in this way every day of the week, Your Grace, and they almost always turn out for the best, do they not?”
“I suppose they do,” Rufus said, hearing the surprise in his voice as he thought of the myriad of marriages he had seen made in just such a way, marriages which ostensibly seemed to thrive.
And yet, despite all of that, Rufus still would have given almost anything to have crossed paths with a young woman with very different ideals. But, of course, he knew he was back inside the ball again, rolling down the hillside with yet another repetitive thought. He was not going to meet such a woman, not now, and he would do well to give up on the idea and get on with things.
“So, is it settled, Your Grace? Might I go ahead and propagate my little bit of gossip?” Henry looked amused, and Rufus was glad of it.
It had somehow taken the edge off his melancholy, and he was pleased to have Henry Mercer there with him. There was not another man with whom he would entrust such a task, and he knew it. He had known Henry Mercer all his life and, if anybody knew Rufus Darnley well enough to be able to find him a suitable bride, it was his father’s old attorney.
“Yes, you may go ahead and propagate your little bit of gossip.” Rufus laughed and felt a little lighter. The time had come for him to move along, and he knew it. He knew it well enough that the idea of it, the acceptance of it all, strangely gave him a little peace. “And I shall arrange a ball. In fact, I will speak with my housekeeper and butler today and start things moving.”
“Now that is the spirit, Your Grace. That is the spirit indeed.” Henry nodded his approval and rose from his chair on the opposite side of the Duke’s desk. “Now, I daresay I ought to get started on things myself.”
“Yes, of course.” Rufus nodded, releasing his attorney for the day. “And thank you, Henry. Really, I do appreciate it all.”
“Kind Ella and the Charming Duke” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Following the death of her beloved father, Ella Winfield is devastated when her mother, a woman with untamed social aspirations, hastily marries the Earl of Dandridge. He is a humorless man, and one whom Ella does not trust for a moment. Leaving her beloved Longton Manor behind, Ella is cast adrift in the large and unwelcoming Dandridge Hall, despite her desperate plea that her mother need not marry at all.
The Earl’s daughters, Lady Patience and Lady Georgiana, are spoiled and manner less young ladies, used to their own way in all things and fiercely competitive with one another. But when the Duke of Hillington is reported to be searching for a suitable bride, the tension between the sisters reaches new heights. With Ella’s simple beauty, intelligence, and fine manners, the Earl seeks to hide her away from the world and, more importantly, the Duke of Hillington himself.
When he determines that Ella not attend a masquerade ball to which the whole family has been invited, Ella takes it upon herself to attend in disguise and spy on the ambitious little family for her own amusement. When she finds herself in anonymous conversation with the Duke himself, she realizes that there is more to him than a man who would seek nothing more than a pretty bride with a large dowry. He is open and amusing and she finds herself quite captivated.
Rufus Darnley, the Duke of Hillington, cannot shake from his mind the curious and exciting young woman who appeared at his masquerade ball uninvited, and he can no longer find any enthusiasm for his search for a wife with whom he might provide an heir to the Duchy. When he finds the discarded mask of the mysterious woman who left the ball without a word, he holds on to the hope that he might one day discover her true identity.
As the Earl of Dandridge plots the most appalling schemes to keep the Duke interested in his own daughters, Ella Winfield must do what she can to stop the man she is fast becoming attracted to from being steered in the direction of either Lady Patience or Lady Georgiana, all without being discovered by the family who have, one by one, turned their backs upon her.
“Kind Ella and the Charming Duke” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.