Westcott Villa, London, 1812
The Right Honourable Lord Graham Hancock, Duke of Westcott, stared out of the rain-streaked window at the street below. Large puddles had formed where the cobbles were unevenly laid or where the stones had begun to subside, carriage wheels splashing through them and soaking anyone walking by. Not that many people were simply walking by. More likely, they dashed along the pavement, beneath big black umbrellas, trying to avoid their own puddles or even, in some cases, the very rain falling from the sky.
A fire blazed and popped in the hearth behind Graham, and his mother, Lady Edith, the Dowager Duchess, sat in an armchair beside him. She had not uttered a word to him since breakfast time, had simply worked at her embroidery hoop, and occasionally looked up to glance out of the window. Before he had gone away to war, it was rare to see his mother in the drawing room before noon. Now she claimed she was keeping him company, but it was no different to when she had remained in her own rooms upstairs.
The clock on the mantelpiece bonged eleven times, indicating that the visiting hour was upon them. But as there were no young ladies in the house, no visitors were expected.
Graham sighed heavily, causing his mother to glance up from her sewing before returning her attention to the fabric in front of her once more. He leaned forward slightly to scratch at an itch at the nape of his neck, then slumped back heavily into his chair.
I am so bored! he thought to himself. I can’t even acknowledge anyone walking by. They are all either hiding beneath their umbrellas, or they don’t look up to see me at the window. He sighed again. His eyelids drooped drowsily, and he closed his eyes, allowing sleep to overcome him. After all, it was better than being bored.
A flurry of skirts and a rustle of silk beside him woke him from his nap with a start.
“Do wake up, Graham,” said his mother, leaning forward and sticking her needle safely into the fabric of her embroidery. “We have a visitor.” Without waiting for his response, she jumped up and moved instead to an arrangement of seats in front of the fire from where she could face the door to the room.
Graham rubbed his eyes, stretched, and looked out of the window. Sure enough, a carriage awaited at the bottom of the steps. He watched as Jackson, their butler, held an umbrella aloft to protect the lady alighting from the vehicle.
He sighed again but nevertheless stood up and joined his mother on the settee in front of the fireplace, limping slightly as he crossed the floor. Together they waited. A visitor was surely most welcome to help relieve his boredom, but perhaps not necessarily this visitor at this time. It is too soon, he thought.
The door to the room burst open, and in walked Jackson. Instead of addressing Graham, however, he addressed the dowager duchess.
“Lady Emmeline Broughton, Your Grace,” he announced, nodding his head slightly.
Lady Edith stood up and said, “Thank you, Jackson.”
The butler stood to one side as the lady duly entered the room in a rustle of pink silk. She was closely followed by a slightly older woman, somewhat dourly dressed in grey.
Lady Emmeline hesitated for just a moment before sweeping towards Graham with enthusiasm, a bright smile upon her pretty face. He merely stood stiffly to greet her, clicking his heels and bowing over her outstretched hand to kiss her gloved fingers. Then she turned to Lady Edith and curtsied before indicating the woman who had come in with her.
“May I introduce my chaperone, my distant cousin, Your Grace?” she said. “Miss Mary Broughton.”
Lady Edith nodded at the chaperone’s curtsy before the woman crept to stand against the wall. She did not sit until she was given permission.
“My dear Emmeline,” said the dowager. “You have no need of a chaperone when you are already engaged to my son. And in any case, I shall be with you the whole time.” She turned to the butler, who was waiting for further instructions. “Do take Miss Mary down to the kitchen, Jackson, and ask Cook to make her a pot of tea. Then Cook may send us a tray up.”
“Very well, Your Grace,” said the butler, bowing his head. He turned to Mary. “Do come with me, miss.” He closed the door tightly to behind them.
When she was quite certain that the butler and the young woman were out of earshot, Lady Edith said, “My dear, why on earth did you bring a chaperone?” She said the word ‘chaperone’ with a little distaste.
“She is not really my chaperone,” replied Lady Emmeline. “She is a poor cousin who has fallen on hard times. If she accompanies me as my unofficial chaperone, she has a chance to enjoy at least some aspects of polite society. I do feel so very sorry for her. It is the least that one can do.”
“You are most generous,” said Lady Edith. “Please, my dear. Do be seated.”
She indicated the settee next to Graham. When he glanced away and made a point of taking up almost the entire settee himself, the dowager adjusted and pointed to a pair of armchairs instead.
Lady Emmeline hesitated again before joining her future mother-in-law beside the fire. “How are you, my love?” she asked Graham. He shrugged his shoulders and stared into the flames of the fire. “You must tell me all about your recent journey,” she said. Still, he ignored her, this time looking to his mother for help.
Puzzled, Lady Emmeline also looked at his mother. “Did I do something to offend His Grace?”
Lady Edith patted her hand and said, “No, no. Not at all, my dear. But Lord Graham was … injured in battle …” She drifted off.
Lady Emmeline’s head snapped around to face him, and her big blue eyes examined him from head to foot. She turned back to his mother. “But … but … I do not see any injury,” she said. “What has he done?”
And there it was. Lady Emmeline, his very own intended, had automatically stopped addressing him directly and now, instead, discussed him as though he were an ignoramus. A thing. An inanimate object. Just like everyone else he had encountered since returning from France. And before she even knew the extent of his condition. Graham fixed his gaze once more on the fire as the two women talked about him as though he were not even in the room. If he listened in silence, perhaps they would forget he was there altogether.
“He has a head injury,” the older woman explained. “My poor son had only recently been promoted to major-general,” Lady Edith continued, “when he was injured on the battlefield. Of course, they did not understand how much damage had been done at the time. But his good friend Thomas Hatcher, who you know, I believe, was with him. Carried him to safety himself, he did.”
“Oh,” murmured Lady Emmeline. “Yes, I do know him. They have been friends since childhood, have they not?” When Lady Edith nodded, Lady Emmeline continued. “Thank goodness he was there. Are we able to thank Mr Hatcher for this brave deed?”
“Sadly, no,” replied Lady Edith. “Young Thomas went back to the battle, but now he is missing. Presumed dead.”
“That is dreadful,” said the younger woman.
Graham blinked at the memory of his friend. Good old Thomas, always there when he needed him. Apart from now.
“Indeed it is,” agreed the dowager.
“So … so … what exactly is wrong with him?” asked Lady Emmeline. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Nothing … too personal, I trust?”
Graham felt as though he wanted to laugh out loud, but he restrained himself, pretending instead to be stifling a cough.
“Oh no, my dear. Nothing like that,” said his mother. “Well, not as far as I am aware at any rate,” she admitted. “Although I would not expect them to tell his own mother of such an, er, ailment.”
There was a tap on the door, and a kitchen maid appeared carrying a heavy tea tray. She glanced around the room and placed the tray on the low table in front of the settee.
“Thank you, Fanny,” said the dowager. “Will you do the honours, my dear?” she said to Lady Emmeline. When Lady Emmeline nodded, Lady Edith indicated to the maid that she was dismissed.
“Would His Grace like a cup of tea?” Lady Emmeline asked his mother.
Graham tutted and shook his head lightly. I am here, you know! He wanted to shout. But no, his mother answered on his behalf.
“Yes, please, my dear. He will have it with lemon.”
But I do not want it with lemon! He felt his brow furrow with annoyance. I do not even want any tea. I would much sooner drink coffee. In fact, he would very much sooner have a glass of whiskey, but it was still too early in the day.
Once the women had finished fussing over the refreshments, Graham’s fiancée pressed his mother for more information.
“You were saying, Your Grace?” she prompted.
“Ah, yes. Well, when he came to – he was unconscious for several days – he had completely lost the power of speech.”
“You mean —”
“I mean, my dear, the events of that day literally left my son speechless!”
Graham noticed for the umpteenth time the self-satisfied look on Lady Edith’s face when she said that. He had heard his mother say it to so many different people by now that it no longer amused him. It did not appear to amuse his fiancée either.
“That is awful,” said Lady Emmeline. “Has he seen a doctor since he has been home?”
“Yes. The family doctor consulted a specialist right here in London, who examined my son most thoroughly.”
“And what did he say, Your Grace?”
“He said that Lord Graham must have suffered a great trauma on that day and that he has been left without his voice.”
“But is there anything that can be done for him?”
Lady Edith spread out her free hand. “The doctors do not know.”
“Does this mean that he is … simple?” asked Lady Emmeline.
Graham’s head shot around to look at her when she said that, and he immediately saw the look of shame on her face when she realised he had actually understood her. He reached out to touch her hand, but she pulled it back sharply.
“No, my dear,” soothed his mother. “He still has all of his faculties. He can write and communicate and read. And he understands everything that is going on around him. He is also more than capable of managing the country estate and the London home, but he is happy for me to help him with that for the time being – with his complete knowledge, of course. He does not seem to remember what happened on that terrible day. He is simply unable to speak. It is a tragedy.”
The look of disgust on Lady Emmeline’s face told Graham that she believed it was a tragedy of quite a different meaning, and it should have broken Graham’s heart. Instead, he was glad to see precisely how shallow she truly was.
“He will not be able to go out in society, then, surely?” she asked.
“There is no reason why that would be the case,” said his mother. “He simply has no desire to at the moment.”
Nor will I ever again, he thought to himself.
Suddenly, Lady Emmeline finished drinking her tea so quickly it would be deemed unladylike had they been in any other company than themselves. She stood up and clattered her cup and saucer onto the tray.
“Well,” she said. “I had better be off.”
“So soon?” asked Lady Edith. “You have only just arrived.”
“I am afraid that I must. I have, er, a very pressing engagement. I cannot be late.”
“Very well, my dear,” said Lady Edith, also coming to her feet. “It was very nice to see you … was it not, Lord Graham?” She tapped his foot with her own, prompting him to also stand rather belatedly.
The dowager duchess went to the fireplace and pulled on the service cord, but their visitor was already on her way out through the door. “Do not trouble the servants,” she said over her shoulder. “I will collect Miss Mary from the kitchen and ask Mr Jackson to summon the carriage.”
And in a cloud of expensive floral scent, she was gone.
“Well,” said Lady Edith, quite clearly affronted.
Graham simply shrugged and resumed his former seat next to the window.
“I do hope she will still be coming to our dinner party later in the week,” said his mother, pulling the curtain to one side so she could watch Lady Emmeline’s carriage drive away. Then she too resumed her former seat and returned to her sewing.
Graham glanced around the table at his mother’s guests, for they were her guests and not his. She had not even consulted him. Yet the dinner party had been foisted upon him anyway, regardless of whether or not he wanted to attend.
As the conversation buzzed around him, he allowed himself to drift off. He had suffered a bad dream during the night, reminding him of the terrors and the devastation of war. He had been wandering on the battlefield looking for his friend, Thomas. The ground had been littered with dead bodies, but they were in French uniforms and not British. Every time he’d turned a body over, he’d seen a face he recognised but could not place. The same face, over and over again.
He shook his head to rid his mind of the non-memories and tried to tune in to those around him. The elderly Lady Ponsonby, to his right, was talking to the middle-aged fop Lord Oberon facing her, telling him all about her current digestive disorder.
“The wind is terrible!” she exclaimed, and Lord Oberon’s face coloured beetroot red. One did not discuss such things in decent company. As if to prove her point, Graham heard a most unladylike noise coming from the woman’s person. He wafted a hand in front of his face and then pretended to be rubbing his nose while coughing quietly into his palm, and he turned his attention to the lady on his left.
Lady Chesterton was facing her husband, Lord Chesterton, so they were speaking with other guests. She was telling the chap on her other side about their extensive wine cellar back at home while her husband flirted openly with the woman opposite Graham, who happened to be Lady Emmeline herself. He could not hear what they were talking about, but she did look as though the lord was being quite risqué in some of his comments.
In a bid to distract her and rescue his fiancée from her plight, he coughed loudly into a napkin and reached under the table with his foot to tap her own, hoping he was not tapping Lord Chesterton’s foot by mistake. The lord might mistake it for Lady Emmeline’s foot and think that his luck was in.
As Graham’s foot made contact, Lady Emmeline appeared to jerk in her seat, which suggested to him that his aim had been accurate. He coughed again, and when she looked across at him, realising who was kicking her under the table, the expression on her face changed from one of surprise to one of gentle gratitude.
She excused herself from her conversation with the lord and looked directly across the table at Graham. Lord Chesterton turned his own attention to the beauty to his right, Graham’s aunt, his late father’s half-sister Freda, who was actually the same age as Graham himself.
“Tell me, Your Grace,” Lady Emmeline said to him. “Are you enjoying the dinner party?”
Graham pulled what he hoped was an appreciative face and nodded that yes, he was indeed doing so. If she kept it to questions that required either a yes or no answer, they would be fine.
“How have you been spending your time since we were last in each other’s company?” she said, spoiling it.
At a loss for what to do, Graham simply shrugged his shoulders, and a flash of irritation crossed her face.
She looked as though she gave some thought to re-framing her next question and said, “Have you been out at all?”
He shook his head with relief and gestured to her with his hand as if to say, ‘and you?’
Lady Emmeline watched the gesture as a series of emotions flickered across her face, then she pressed her lips together before saying, “Of course, it has been raining since last I saw you. Nevertheless, my cousin Mary and I took a carriage around the park. Just to be sociable.” She waited as if for some response. When she remembered that none would come, she added, “There was hardly anyone else there of any note. And so we went back home.”
She visibly sagged as she breathed out a sigh, and she looked towards the ceiling as if searching for inspiration.
Graham followed her gaze and his eyes rested on the candle chandelier above the centre of the table. Each of the candles was the same length as the next, each of them completely new for today’s little soiree. They all had good flames on them with no splutters. He spotted a spider weaving a web where the chandelier joined the ceiling, and he smiled slightly. Mother would not be happy with the staff if she saw it too, so he tore his eyes away and looked once more at his fiancée, whose own eyes were looking anywhere but at his.
He gazed towards the head of the table where his mother was seated, but she was engaged in an animated conversation with the gentleman to her right, who had a bright red nose. Everyone knew that the Duke of Kenilworth was partial to the odd drink or two, an attachment that caused the fine red lines that broke out upon his face as well as a paunch he tried to hide behind his waistcoat. It was good that his mother was distracted. If she was not watching Graham, then she would not have reason to think there was anything amiss with the chandelier. The spider was safe, for now. And so were the staff.
“You do remember my cousin, do you not, Your Grace?” asked Lady Emmeline suddenly, and Graham returned his attention to her.
What was she trying to imply? That he could not remember the young lady who had accompanied her only two days earlier? He may have blocked out memories of the battlefield, apart from the recurring dreams, but there was nothing wrong with the rest of his brain.
Irritated, he nodded his head just once before fixing his stare on the food on his plate in front of him. He could hear Lady Emmeline puffing and tutting, and from the corner of his eye, he could see her trying to attract his attention.
“Your Grace?” she enquired at last.
He lifted his face, looked right at her, and then pointedly and quite rudely turned to Lady Ponsonby on his right and tuned in to her conversation with the gentleman on her other side, Sir Nicholas, being sure to look as though he were listening intently and nodding and agreeing with all that he was saying.
Lady Emmeline tutted again and turned to Lord Oberon, who seemed relieved that Lady Ponsonby had finally stopped regaling him with stories of her health.
“Do you agree, Your Grace?” said Sir Nicholas across Lady Ponsonby, and Graham realised he had completely ignored everything that the man had said. He was about to nod his agreement and hope it was the right response, when Sir Nicholas continued to drone on anyway as though Graham had agreed entirely. “I knew you would,” he said, pointing at Graham with his empty fork.
“Excuse me, Dowager Duchess,” said Lady Emmeline loudly, addressing Graham’s mother almost the entire length of the table away.
Lady Edith paused in her conversation and looked towards her future daughter-in-law with mild irritation.
“Forgive me for bothering you, Your Grace,” said Lady Emmeline. “But I wondered if I may have a private audience with you after we have finished eating?”
Graham’s mother considered the request, flicked her eyes to Graham and then back to Emmeline, and nodded. Then she returned her attention to the duke.
Graham glanced at each of the dinner guests seated around the table. What a strange mix they were. And then he twigged. Apart from Lady Emmeline and Aunt Freda, all the guests present were members of his mother’s whist society. No wonder he did not appear to have anything in common with any of them. And not a single one of them, apart from Lady Emmeline, exchanged more than two words with him – and only then if he were fortunate.
He stifled a yawn and glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. Dessert would be here soon, and then he could go up to his chambers and hide away from everyone.
At the end of the meal, the gentlemen present looked towards Graham, and he remembered that he would have to entertain them with port and cigars while the ladies withdrew to the drawing room. He was, after all, the resident gentleman, and there were no others there who could even step up to the role. They were all friends of his mother’s, and not related.
As he stood up, so too did the dowager duchess. She turned to her companion, the Duke of Kenilworth, bowed her head, and announced loudly, Gentlemen, my friend the duke will look after you all. Ladies, I will join you in the drawing room presently.” There was a murmur of voices. “Lady Emmeline,” she said. “Will you come with me?”
This, of course, left Graham at a bit of a loose end as all the gentlemen completely ignored him. He watched the ladies leave the room, followed by his mother and his fiancée. The duke, his mother’s friend, went to the drinks cabinet as though it were second nature to him, and Graham wondered just how familiar the man was with his home. When he was certain that no one was paying him any heed, he slowly followed the ladies through the door.
The ladies swished their skirts and chatted amiably as they climbed the stairs to the drawing room, which was on the next level up in the London town house. The dowager duchess and Lady Emmeline, however, were just disappearing into the small parlour, and he wondered what on earth his fiancée wanted with his mother.
Torn between climbing the stairs to his own chambers and this unexpected intrigue, it was curiosity that got the better of him. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the men had still not noticed he was missing. Then he stepped quietly across the hallway and stood just outside the door to the parlour.
“Will you not be joining us in the drawing room, my dear?” his mother was asking Lady Emmeline. She had swept into the parlour but remained standing, and Lady Emmeline had her back to the door.
“No, I thank you, Your Grace. I will not be staying.”
“Then what is it you wish to speak with me about?”
From his vantage point beside the door, he saw Lady Emmeline take a small letter from her bag. She handed it to Lady Edith, who looked down at it as though she had never seen such a thing before in her life.
“What is this?” asked his mother, keeping her hands folded in front of her.
“It is a letter,” said Lady Emmeline.
“And why would you write me a letter when you are perfectly capable of speaking to me, my dear?”
“The letter is not from me. It is from Papa.”
Lady Edith sneered down at the letter again, but when Lady Emmeline held it out to her, Graham’s mother cautiously took it from her hand.
Lady Emmeline started to make as though to leave, but Lady Edith stopped her.
“Please wait while I see what your dear father has to say.”
“Very well, Your Grace,” said Lady Emmeline, bowing her head and looking at the floor while Lady Edith unfolded the letter and read it.
Graham’s mother looked up at Lady Emmeline in surprise. “Do you know what your father has written to me?”
“I do, Your Grace,” admitted Lady Emmeline.
“Then, I repeat. Why the letter? Why did you not tell me this yourself?”
“Because I am a coward, Your Grace,” she admitted. “However, it is my choice. My decision. Papa merely articulated it for me in this formal manner.”
“You no longer wish to marry my son?” said Lady Edith, astounded.
The breath caught in Graham’s throat. Lady Emmeline spun around on the spot while Lady Edith saw him standing there for the first time.
“What do you think of this, my son?” asked his mother.
Graham stepped into the room and shrugged his shoulders. Then he held out his hands in an expression of ‘why?’
Lady Emmeline stubbornly pretended that she did not understand. She turned to Lady Edith with a questioning look on her face. “What is he saying now?”
“He is asking a perfectly valid question,” replied Lady Edith. “And one that I would also like to hear the answer to. Why – why? – are you breaking off what has long been an understanding between our two families? Why do you dishonour my son and this family in this fashion?”
“Well, just look at him,” the young woman complained, almost on the verge of tears now. She turned to indicate Graham with her hand. “How can I go out into society with … with … that?”
“That,” said Lady Edith, almost spitting out the word. “That is my son. That is Lord Graham Hancock, the fifteenth Duke of Westcott. That is a human being who fought bravely for his country and now needs all the love and compassion we can bestow. How dare you speak as though he is an embarrassment to you?”
Graham did not wait around to hear any more. He turned on his heel and stormed from the room, taking the stairs two at a time to his chambers and slamming the door behind him. He would be neither pitied nor ridiculed. And if that was truly how Lady Emmeline felt about him, then he had been spared a terrible future.
Langley Manor, Kent
Things had happened very quickly following the death of Lord Donald Langley. With no time to put his affairs in order, the heart attack had been sudden, leaving his two daughters without either a living or a dowry. Lady Alice, the younger of the two Langley sisters, had become engaged only days before their father’s abrupt and unexpected demise, which was seen as a blessing at least. But, sadly, it was not to last.
Immediately following the funeral, a procession of carriages made its way sombrely from the church to the house, each led by a pair of black horses, each with a black feather on its head. The staff waited quietly and respectfully, lined up on the steps leading up to the big oak doors, heads bowed. They had on their best uniforms and black armbands. When the first carriage came to a juddering halt, the butler stepped forward to open the door and help the ladies down.
Lady Selina Langley took the butler’s hand and waited for her sister to join them. Then the two of them made their way into the house, stopping at every single member of the staff to say a word or two.
“Thank you so much, Mr Inchworth,” Selina said to the butler, who escorted her while Vincent, the head footman, looked after her sister. “You have been such a comfort to us both.”
“Not at all, My Lady,” Inchworth replied. “We all miss the master very much.”
As they stepped into the large hallway, Selina shivered. It was not cold in the house. After all, it was a warm spring day. Yet there was a chill to the home all the same.
“Are you cold, sister?” asked Lady Alice.
“No,” she replied, glancing up at the staircase. “But it is as though someone just stepped on my very own grave.” Lady Alice shuddered too at the thought.
There was a small commotion on the steps outside the door, and then their cousin, and the new Lord Langley, dashed into the house, straightening his clothes as he did so. A large copper urn sat on a table, and he admired the image of his face reflecting back at him from the highly polished surface. He licked a finger and smoothed down a curl of hair across his forehead before turning his attention to the two ladies.
“It was a fine service, was it not?” he said, a little too cheerfully for Selina.
“As services go, I suppose it was,” she agreed, handing her coat to one of the maids. Her sister followed suit.
“Will you join me for a sherry in the parlour?” he asked them.
Selina shook her head. “No, thank you, cousin. We must finish our packing.”
The new Lord Richard at least had the decency to blush at her words. “I say,” he said. “There is no rush. You are welcome to stay in the house for as long as you need to.”
Selina knew he did not mean it, for he had eagerly moved into the house only the day after the old lord’s death and had told them that he had already found them somewhere to live. She did not like the situation, but what could she do about it? It was, after all, the law.
“That is very gracious of you, cousin,” she replied. “However, you will marry soon, and we must make way for the future Lady Langley. It is your home now, and you have been more than kind in granting us the use of one of the cottages.”
“Indeed,” he agreed, nodding. “It was the least I could do. Nevertheless, I would still like to share a toast with you both, in memory of your dear father, my uncle.”
Selina was about to refuse once again, but she was interrupted by her sister.
“I think that is a splendid idea,” said Lady Alice, touching Selina lightly on her arm. “And we can also wish our good cousin luck, health and wealth in his new home while we are about it. He is, after all, doing us such a good turn.”
“Yes, yes,” said Lord Richard. “I suppose I am, rather.”
“Very well,” said Selina, remembering her manners. They led the way, for the last time, to the parlour.
Langley Cottages, Kent
The cottage, whilst the biggest of the row on the very edge of the Langley estate, was still a lot smaller than they had been accustomed to and had been empty for a long time. With the help of only a single maid and a cook, also graciously granted to them by their good and generous cousin, it had taken them days to remove all of the dust covers from the furniture and give all of the rooms a good sweeping. The curtains in every room had been taken down and hung on the washing line in the small back yard, where they all took turns in giving them a thorough beating, swiftly followed by all the rugs that were not worn too thin to keep.
Selina had chosen the room with the biggest window and the best light for her studio, and here she carefully laid out all her brushes and her paints, her rags and her canvases, her charcoals and her papers. In the corner of the room stood an old and paint-splattered wooden easel with her current work in progress propped upon it. It was a painting of her parents, sitting happily on a bench in the grounds of the manor, the large three-storey bay window at the back of the house behind them.
Unfortunately, she had not touched the painting for months, and now it too gathered dust, just like the cottage they were living in. It still needed a lot of work before she would be happy with it.
“I really ought to finish you,” she said sadly to the canvas. “You will remind us of our home as well as our parents, all of which are now lost to us.”
The row of cottages ran alongside a small track that led back up to the main house, and Selina’s studio window looked out across fields. The houses were tied to the estate for the use of the groundsmen and labourers. However, she could not see the manor from here, which was just as well as she may feel ever more homesick if she could.
Movement outside the window caught her attention. A stable hand was astride one of the chestnut mares. He slid down from her back, loosely tied her reins to the fence, and bounded towards the front door of the cottage. By the time he rapped on the door, she was already there.
“Letter for the miss,” he said, holding out his hand. “Came on the mail coach this morning.”
“Thank you, Davey,” said Selina.
He doffed his cap, turned on his heel, and jumped back up into the saddle, loosening the horse’s reins with one hand and guiding her back towards the main house at a canter. “New master told me to be quick,” he shouted over his shoulder.
Selina watched him go in a cloud of dust before closing the door and calling out to her sister.
“Are you there, Alice?” she shouted up the stairs.
Lady Alice’s face appeared over the balustrade. “Is it a letter for me?” she asked, surprised.
“Yes, but don’t lean on that balustrade. It may collapse!” replied her sister.
Lady Alice disappeared from view and then clattered without grace down the wooden staircase.
“Who is it from?” she asked, taking the letter from Selina.
“It is from your fiancé.”
A smile broke out across Alice’s face as she looked at the man’s writing before clutching the letter to her breast. Then she galloped back up the stairs and shut herself in her room.
Selina smiled too. At least one of them was able to find happiness during this very sad time. She returned to her studio and looked at the half-finished painting of her parents, but a high-pitched wail that came from above, distracted her and turned her blood to ice.
She dashed out of the studio, up the stairs, and into her sister’s room. Lady Alice was sitting on her bed, holding the letter by a corner, as though it were contaminated, a look of horror on her face.
“What is it, my dear?” asked Selina, rushing to her sister’s side on the bed.
“It is Sir Benedict,” said Lady Alice.
“Is he unwell?” asked Selina.
“No!” wailed Lady Alice. “He is quite well.”
“Then what is it, my dear?”
“He has broken off our engagement!”
“What? Why?” said Selina, making a grab for the letter, but Lady Alice snatched it away from her hand.
“Because I do not have a dowry!”
“But I am certain that our cousin will honour our father’s agreement,” said Selina. “Surely, he would?”
“No,” cried Lady Alice. “That is why Sir Benedict has cancelled our arrangement. Our cousin has written to him and told him there will be no dowry.” Saying it out loud seemed to drive it home for Lady Alice, for her shocked face crumpled, and the tears began to flow. “He … says,” she gulped, “that he … can … not afford to marry a … a … pauper. We … are … paupers …” she gulped again between the tears, her eyes wide, finally handing the letter over to Selina so her sister could read it for herself.
Selina quickly scanned the words, and then she read them again.
“I did not think that our cousin could be so callous,” she said, holding back her own tears of anger. She hugged her sister and rubbed her back, and wiped the tears from her face. “Come now, sister. We will not let him upset you so. If Sir Benedict has called off the engagement, then he was marrying you for the wrong reason anyway. You are better off without him. As for our cousin —”
“He is a brute!” said Lady Alice.
“Lord Richard or Sir Benedict?” asked Selina.
“Both of them!”
“Quite right,” said Selina, pulling a handkerchief from the pocket of her dress. “Now blow your nose and stop crying. Neither of them is worth this, and you must be strong.”
Lady Alice took the handkerchief and did as she was told, honking loudly into the fine fabric. She did not return the handkerchief to her sister. Instead, she squelched it into a ball and pressed it to her eyes.
“You are right,” she said, trying to be dignified. She took a deep breath and then burst out crying again.
Selina cuddled her to her and rocked her, and then she said, “Come now, tell me your favourite story. That one you always like to tell.”
Lady Alice heaved twice, then took a deep breath. “You mean the one about the prince and the princess?”
“Yes,” soothed Selina, smoothing down her sister’s ruffled hair. “In the apple orchard.”
“Very well,” said Lady Alice. “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess …” she began as the two sisters settled onto the bed against the pillows with their arms around each other and their feet on top of the eiderdown. “The princess had everything she could ever wish for. But the princess was sad, for she was so very lonely …”
The tears threatened to fall again, but Selina proudly watched as her sister held them in check and continued to relate the tale. They whispered together about the secret orchard that the princess stumbled upon, describing the delicate pink blossoms and the heavenly scent, and about the handsome young prince she had met there for the first time.
“… And before long, it was clear that the two of them had fallen deeply in love,” said Lady Alice.
“Did they get married and live happily ever after?” prompted her sister.
“Yes, they did. And they had lots of children.”
Selina brushed at her sister’s hair again with her hand. “And you too will meet your prince. We both will. Perhaps one of them will be in an apple orchard such as yours.”
But Lady Alice did not reply. She had cried herself to sleep and was now softly snoring.
“A Love Portrait for the Silent Duke” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Following the sudden death of her beloved father, the spirited and kind Lady Selina Langley finds herself impoverished and homeless. In desperate need of an income for both her and her sister, Selina has no choice but to put her pride aside and seek employment. Luckily, she will be able to make her way in life by painting portraits for a tormented gentleman, who will draw her attention at their very first encounter. However, deep inside she knows that a match with a man of his stand and a fallen woman like her will always remain a foolish dream. With her unique talent and kindness, will Selina find the way to steal the charming nobleman’s heart? In the end, will she put her struggling past behind and find true love and happiness despite the odds?
When Lord Graham Hancock, the brave and gallant Duke of Westcott, returns injured from the war, he withdraws to his own world, struggling to adjust back into society. To make matters worse, his fiancée breaks off their engagement, as she is embarrassed by his presence. She refuses to be associated with someone who lost the ability to speak, and prefers to stay aside from the crippling nightmares he now endures. Soon, everything will change for the lonely Duke, when he meets the mesmerising woman, who is hired for his portrait and is about to replace what haunts his dreams. As he spends more time with her, she gives him the hope that life is far from over for him and he realises that she is the only person who can brighten even his gloomiest days. Will the silent Duke find a way to declare his genuine love to Selina? Or will he suppress his feelings out of fear and condemn himself into an eternal misery?
Selina and Graham’s hearts start to heal when they discover that they have found everything they were looking for in each others’ eyes. Everything crashes down though, when Graham’s mother banishes Selina from the house and convinces his ex-fianceé to return and ask for his forgiveness. Will Graham find the heartbroken Selina and make the right decision at the most critical moment of his life by convincing her that she is the true love of his life? While external forces are threatening to steal their chance at happiness forever, will the two of them fight for their feelings and choose the path of their own life?
“A Love Portrait for the Silent Duke” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.