Arabella looked over her shoulder at the two young women, her hands lightly resting on the pianoforte keys.
“If I get this right the first time, you will both have to eat a wedge of lemon,” she said, grinning wickedly.
Charity grimaced. “Did you have to choose lemons? I do not even like lemony desserts!”
“I second that,” said Madalene, flicking her yellow-red hair off her shoulder. “Besides, I tire of this game. Can we not do something befitting our age? We should talk about a more appropriate subject like hair management.”
Madalene chose that moment to drape her locks over her shoulder, the slightly golden hue of some strands catching the afternoon sun rays gleaming through the large parlour windows. She had let it down earlier because an ant supposedly crawled into her hair while walking in the garden earlier. Arabella didn’t believe that for a second. Madalene was rather vain about her fair looks and didn’t waste an opportunity to draw attention to herself. Still, Arabella loved her all the same and simply looked at it as part of her friend’s character. It was no use loving certain bits of a person; one had to accept everything about them if one truly considered them a friend.
Sighing, Arabella turned to face them. “What a dreary lot you are. This used to be our favourite game for many years. We hear a new melody at a party and try to copy it without a music sheet. How is that not entertaining?”
“I almost always lose,” said Charity.
“But not always,” Arabella countered. “You’ve become rather good in the last year, Charity.”
Charity grinned, her slightly tilted greenish-brown eyes narrowing until they had almost disappeared. Arabella and Charity were cousins through their mothers, and the young woman had come to live with them to prepare her for her first Season. They had returned to Hertfordshire after spending three months in London, yet no mention had been made about Charity returning home. Arabella suspected Charity’s parents were experiencing financial woes due to her father’s love of gambling and excessive living. Arabella’s mother had likely taken Charity in to avoid postponing her coming-out another year and embarrassing her.
“Trying to copy music heard at one of the balls isn’t nearly as exciting as discussing the gowns worn and all the handsome suitors we saw,” said Madalene, drawing their attention.
“Oh, very well,” Arabella replied, leaving the pianoforte to settle on a settee with Charity. “I do like a little fashion talk but spare me the details of handsome suitors.”
“Tut, tut, Arabella,” Madalene chided. “Marriage should be the foremost thing on your mind. This year should be one of courtship that we may enter 1818 with engagements and have spring or summer weddings. Charity is exempted as she has only just had her first Season, but we are in our third.”
“I do not dispute that marriage is important,” said Arabella, “but I have had enough of smiling at suitors until my cheeks hurt. To do anything less is to communicate that one is a sour grape and not sweet at all. Why are men so sensitive? They say it is women, but I beg to differ.”
“Men have fragile pride,” Madalene claimed. “That is what Mama always says. A man needs to feel important, needed, and respected. It is the woman’s duty to puff him up until he cannot see his flaws.”
Charity giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. An unimpressed Madalene gave her a haughty look that quickly killed the younger woman’s mirth.
“Pray, tell,” said Madalene. “What is it that you find so amusing, Charity dear?”
“I meant no harm at all, Madalene,” Charity assured. “I was only reminded of Sir Jeffrey. He stuffs his chest to make his rounded belly less noticeable, but it makes him look like he walks about with a puffed-out chest.”
Arabella grinned. “He is quite amusing, isn’t he? I hear he is looking for his next wife and has set his eyes on Mrs Elliot.”
“The reverend’s widow?” Madalene asked.
Arabella nodded. “I overheard talk of it at the last dinner party I attended. Sir Jeffrey appreciates her pious spirit and believes she’ll be a great comfort in his old age.”
Charity grimaced. “Mrs Elliot is far younger than him.”
“One cannot be picky when without fortune, connections, or a husband,” said Madalene. “Mrs Elliot needs someone to help raise her sons. They are only eleven and nine.”
“Mrs Elliot can do better than a foul-smelling man with gout,” Arabella argued. “She is handsome and has supportive relatives who have taken her in. I’m sure a more suitable man will ask for her hand.”
Madalene rolled her eyes. “There you go again, acting as though you know better than the next person. You have much to learn about life, Arabella. Being closeted in Kerrymill Hall has made you naïve.”
Arabella raised her eyebrows. “Considering we came out simultaneously, I’m interested to discover how you know so much more.”
“Mama has taught me about the realities of life and a woman’s position,” said Madalene. “Even she would say that Mrs Elliot should marry Sir Jeffrey.”
Arabella shrugged. “We’ll have to agree to disagree.”
Madalene sniffed and looked away; her lips pursed in annoyance. She had the habit of belittling others during topics about life and a woman’s duty, but Arabella never took it to heart. She understood Madalene’s need to seem knowledgeable and important, although she would do better in conversation if she respected the opinions of others. No one wished to converse with someone who claimed to know it all or insisted they were better informed.
“What should we do for the rest of summer?” Charity asked, breaking the bit of tension in the room.
“I think we should have stayed in London until at least August,” said Madalene. “However, Papa soon grew tired of the London crowd and wished to return home. We could have at least gone to Bath or Cheltenham, but he refused.”
“It would be just as crowded there,” Arabella pointed out. “Your father loves the peace and quiet of the countryside. He and Papa are much alike in this. Do you not recall how they would disappear to the least noisy part of whatever event we attended? Mama tasked me with finding Papa whenever it was time to go home. I’d usually find your father when I find him.”
Madalene gave a frustrated cry. “He vexes Mama and me. Sometimes, we need him to make the first introductions to a new family, but he is nowhere to be seen. How are we to grow our connections? Connections are everything.”
“Who else do you want to be connected to?” Arabella asked. “You already know a great many people, Maddy. You’re quite popular within our circles.”
“But I am nowhere as well-liked as you,” Madalene argued. “You need only walk into a room for people to flock to you.”
Arabella frowned as she kicked her slippers off, tucked her feet under her, and rearranged her dress over her legs.
“I think it’s equal,” she countered. “We’re always together at social events— how can you tell the difference?”
“They all look at you with adoration,” Madalene replied.
Arabella still didn’t agree, but she didn’t want to continue arguing with her friend, so she clapped her hands and startled the women.
“Why don’t we have some fruit?” she asked. “Mrs Hurley purchased fresh fruit this morning and promised to cut some for us to eat. Shall I call her?”
The housekeeper was good friends with a fruit vendor and always had the first pick of the season’s best. They did have a hothouse where they grew fruits and vegetables out of season but eating seasonally was always best.
Charity’s eyes lit up. “They’re here? I heard Mrs Hurley talk about it, but I didn’t know when she would go to the market.”
“I suppose we can eat some if Charity is peckish,” said Madalene, trying to pretend she wasn’t interested.
Arabella grinned. “Please pull the rope beside you, Maddy. Just one short pull for Mrs Hurley.”
Madalene stretched to tug on the gold-tasselled rope while Charity also slipped off her shoes and tucked her feet beside her.
“Why do you both do that?” Madalene asked. “It’s not a very ladylike way to sit, and Charity only does it because you do it, Arabella.”
“Because it’s comfortable,” said Arabella. “You should also do it in our company. We’re among friends, are we not? No one is here to judge us.”
“Mama says we should always maintain our ladylike behaviour even when no one is around to watch us,” said Madalene.
“That’s a tad too stifling,” Arabella complained. “One should be able to be themselves with their friends, family, or alone. It’s too tiring to constantly worry about what others think of our behaviour. I think I act well enough in company and have never heard complaints. I was even complimented several times by older women during the Season. One has to put on a costume for outsiders, but we must wear our own skin at home.”
“Speaking of costumes, did you hear about the ball being held soon?” Charity asked. “I think it will be a themed ball. I’ve never been to one of those before.”
“That would be Mrs Carroll,” said Arabella. “She always throws themed balls around this time. It’s usually the first ball after a London Season. Last year we all had to go dressed as an animal. Maddy and I were gazelles. We even had our seamstress make us horns to stick atop our heads. I think they were one of Madame Laurant’s best works. Did you hear what the theme is this year, Charity?”
Charity nodded. “Magical creatures, I think. I do not know what I’ll choose.”
“Why don’t we all go as different faeries?” Arabella suggested. “We can choose between woodland, water, and air faeries.”
“Why must we always be the same thing?” Madalene asked. “I wish to be something else.”
Surprised, Arabella lifted her eyebrows. “We always go as the same thing, but I see nothing wrong if you wish to be different. Charity and I will be faeries, or would you like something else?” she asked, looking at her cousin.
Charity smiled. “I would like whatever you choose.”
“Then you should be a water faerie,” Arabella replied. “Blues look very pretty on you. I’ll be a woodland faerie. We can ask Madame Laurent to make our wings.”
“Oh!” Charity cried excitedly. “Wings as well? How lovely.”
“Faeries will probably be the most chosen creature at the ball,” Madalene commented. “I shall choose something unique.”
“I do not mind if others choose faeries, Maddy,” said Arabella. “What matters is that we love what we’re wearing. What will you choose?”
“A basilisk or a vampire,” Madalene told them.
“Will that not clash with your fair colouring?” Arabella asked. “Perhaps a mermaid might be better.”
But Madalene shook her head. “No. I wish to be different. I’m sure I’ll make it look stunning.”
Mrs Hurley came in then, interrupting their conversation. “What can I do for you, Miss Dandridge?”
“May we have some fruit, please?” she asked. “I know you went to the market this morning and purchased some for the week.”
The housekeeper smiled, her brown eyes crinkling in the corners. “I wondered when you would ask for some. I’ll arrange some on a plate and have Betty bring it to you soon.”
“Thank you, Mrs Hurley,” Arabella replied, smiling. “Has Mama returned from her walk yet?”
Arabella’s mother insisted on an early afternoon walk around the estate, which she swore was the answer to better health and maintaining one’s youth.
“Not yet, Miss Dandridge,” the housekeeper replied. “She took a longer route today. Said she had more energy and wished to take advantage of summer before the cold months returned.”
“I see,” said Arabella. “She’ll be sore and tired when she returns. Will you start heating up some water for her to soak? Add some salts and dried lavender as well.”
Mrs Hurley assured her she would do so and left the room, the pungent smell of roses lingering in the air. She made her own perfume oil with the roses she grew outside her cottage, but Arabella thought she’d do well to add another scent to tone down the cloying rose fragrance.
“Do you think Mr Gale will be at the ball?” Charity asked suddenly, her plump cheeks colouring.
Arabella gave her cousin a knowing look. “Mr Seth Gale?” she asked.
“Is there another Mr Gale?” said Charity.
“Well, yes, if you think about his father, two brothers, and cousins,” Arabella told her. “They are all Gales.”
Charity’s blush deepened. “Then yes, I meant Seth Gale. Do you think he’ll attend the ball?”
“I do not see why not,” said Arabella. “He lives here, does he not? His family is also well-known, so he’ll certainly receive an invitation. Why? Do you hope to see him?”
“I was merely curious as he didn’t stay long for the London Season,” said Charity.
Arabella nearly laughed. Curious was not the word she would use for her cousin’s infatuation with the gentleman. Charity had fallen for Seth Gales almost immediately after meeting by chance during their walk to the park. The man had been strolling with his Dalmatian when it took off running for some ducks and bumped Charity over. The apologetic man had been so remorseful that he hadn’t noticed the adoring look Charity had given him when she first laid eyes on him.
“Do not set your eyes on Mr Gale, Charity,” Madalene advised her. “He is infamous for breaking young women’s hearts. They fall in love with him, only to be rejected the moment they show their interest. He has a heart of stone.”
Charity’s face fell. “Oh.”
“I think Mr Gale is merely waiting for the right woman,” Arabella countered, frowning at Madalene. “I think he is picky and wants to make the right decision before committing himself to anyone. I feel exactly the same way. I will not commit myself to anyone I do not feel a connection to.”
“Ugh,” said Madalene, rolling her eyes. “You and your romantic ideas. Do not get Charity’s hopes up, and you shouldn’t be so naïve, either. Marriage is a transaction where a woman gains protection and security and fulfils the role she was made to take. In case you’re uncertain about what that is, it’s being a mother and wife.”
“How cynical you have become the last few years, Maddy,” said Arabella. “We have always felt the same way. What has changed?”
“I now understand the realities of a woman’s life,” Madalene explained. “I just turned twenty-two a month ago, and you’ll be twenty-two towards the end of the year, yet we haven’t secured any courtships yet. Why is that? I’ll tell you why. We are looking for romantic ideals like true love, soul mates, and such, and we forget that we are not living in a faerie tale. We should put childhood fantasies behind us.”
Arabella inwardly sighed. Madalene had certainly changed since they entered society three years ago. It seemed like everything was a competition for her, and at times Arabella felt that her friend resented her. She didn’t want to lose Madalene’s friendship, so she ignored the woman’s condescending attitude and prickly behaviour, but everyone had their limit.
Betty entered the parlour then, carrying a tray laden with grapes, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, blackcurrants, blackberries, and gooseberries. Charity’s eyes widened in glee, and Madalene tried to appear nonchalant, but the excitement in her striking blue eyes had given her away.
“Please place it in the centre so everyone can reach the fruits,” said Arabella. “Is someone bringing plates and forks?”
“Mr Busby has them, miss,” said Betty. “He was just behind me, but he placed them down when Lord Tuxford arrived. I’ll get them now.”
Arabella stilled for just a moment before she spoke again. “Lord Tuxford? Here? Why?”
“I heard him request to speak to your father, miss,” the maid replied. “He is in the entrance hall waiting for Mr Busby to return with word from your father.”
The earl had obviously come here without invitation because her father would have mentioned if they had a visitor today. Arabella didn’t like Lord Tuxford at all, especially since he had set his eyes on her and believed he would marry her. She had refused him numerous times, but the far older man had taken to speaking to her father frequently to wear him down.
Why does he think he can get away with anything? One cannot simply arrive at someone’s house without prior notification! He must be here to ask Papa about my hand in marriage again. I hope Papa doesn’t weaken against Lord Tuxford’s slippery words.
The earl was more than double Arabella’s age and an arrogant man who did as he pleased because he knew no one would stop him. It seemed that the more she refused him, the more he became obsessed with her.
“Miss?” Betty called.
“I asked if you would like something to wash down the fruits,” the maid said.
“Soda water will be just fine,” said Arabella, looking at the other two women. “Unless you would like something else? Perhaps elder wine? Elder cordial mixed with soda water?”
“The elder cordial with soda water should pair well with the fruit,” said Madalene matter-of-factly.
“Yes, I agree,” said Arabella distractedly, her mind on the earl’s visit. “Please bring our beverages, and I’ll get the plates and forks, Betty. Did you say they’re in the hallway?”
“Oh, I could never make you do that, miss,” said Betty. “I’ll quickly fetch the plates and forks before I get your beverages.”
“Do not fret,” Arabella insisted, getting up and putting her shoes on. “Do as I said. There is nothing wrong with getting the plates and forks. I’ll follow you out.” Arabella turned to Madalene and Charity. “I’ll return soon.”
“You really should let the servants do their jobs,” said Madalene. “But oh well, you will not listen to me.”
“You’re right,” said Arabella. “I will not listen. I will only be a moment,” she continued, following the maid.
However, Arabella didn’t head to the hallway. She first peeked in the entrance hall to see if Lord Tuxford was still waiting and found him gone. Assuming he was with her father, Arabella ran to a secret door hidden behind a long painting in the dining room and climbed the narrow steps to the first floor. She was certain the men were in the study as her father spent his days pouring over philosophical books to argue with his informal literary group. Almost all the rooms in the house were connected by secret passageways that only a few knew well, and Arabella was one of those few. She crept forward, counting the doors she felt along the wall with her fingers because it was so dark, with very little light entering the narrow path.
One, two, three, four, five … six. This is it. I can tell by the ‘S’ I etched on the door several years ago.
She lightly pushed on the door, not wanting to draw the occupants’ attention on the other side.
“A little brandy, My Lord?” she heard her father offer.
“I prefer a bit of rum if you have any,” the earl replied. “While I admit it’s not the usual gentleman’s drink of choice, I’m afraid I got too used to it during my travels as a young man. Rum tends to be the drink of choice when out at sea.”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” her father replied. “Although I barely drink it straight. I much prefer rum punch.”
Arabella recalled her father telling her that the earl had been a privateer before inheriting the Earl of Tuxford title from an uncle. It seemed odd that a man who was nothing but a pirate could have such relations, but if Beau Brummell, a commoner, could become popular with the ton and a friend of the Prince Regent, anything was possible.
But he is in Calais now, is he not? The foolish man finally had his own set-down.
“Here you are, Lord Tuxford,” her father said.
“Thank you, my good man,” the earl said. “This looks as good as the one I keep at home.”
Arabella heard shuffling before the loud creak of a chair and her father’s satisfied sigh. She pushed the door open a little more until the earl’s back came into view. She didn’t dare go any further in case her father noticed one of his wall panels jutting out at an odd angle and investigated.
“I’m sure you must be wondering why I decided to drop by, Mr Dandridge,” the earl began. “I knew you wouldn’t mind my sudden appearance, especially when I bring you such good news.”
“Good news, My Lord?”
“Yes, Mr Dandridge,” the earl affirmed. “I’ve told you this before, but this time I have come with a better offer. I would like you to reconsider giving me your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
“Oh, uh, well, I,” her father stuttered. “Is this your good news?”
“Part of it, my good man,” the earl told him.
Arabella shook her head. Nothing the earl could say would change her father’s mind. She had already told him she would marry only for love, nothing less. It wasn’t such an outlandish decision as many couples had made love matches over the years. Her parents and grandparents all had love matches, so it shouldn’t be so strange if she wanted the same. Of course, she was willing to marry a good man if a love match could indeed not be found before she turned twenty-five. That had been the promise she gave her parents when she turned eighteen.
“… a property is nothing to ignore,” Arabella heard the earl say, cursing herself for not catching the first part of his sentence.
“I agree that it’s not usual for a husband to bestow land to his wife,” her father said. “Usually, the wife is left at the mercy of relatives if her husband should die.”
“Precisely, my good man,” said Lord Tuxford. “I am not such a foolish man to leave my wife without anything. You see, I’m a businessman as well. I know it’s seen as terribly unfashionable for a gentleman to call oneself that, but I am proud of my ability to create income independent of my title.”
“I admire you, Lord Tuxford,” said her father. “Social rules are not always logical, although most of us would not dare go against them.”
The earl chuckled. “Yes, I know that. Perhaps my years at sea fuelled a rebellious spirit in me, but it is only in small doses, you see.”
“Small doses are perfectly acceptable,” her father claimed. “It makes one interesting, I think.”
“I’m glad you think so, Mr Dandridge. So, what do you think of my offer? Allow me to marry your daughter, and I will sign a document stating she will own up to thirty per cent of the land outside of my inheritance and will have a yearly sum of three thousand pounds.”
“Thirty per cent of your land and three thousand pounds?” her father repeated. “Why, that is generous indeed! That would be enough to maintain a large house, keep horses and a carriage, and employ well over ten servants.”
The earl chuckled. “Generous, is it not? Your daughter would never suffer a day in her life. Of course, should she bear me a son, she will be well compensated for that, too. Every son will be two hundred pounds more on her yearly income after my death.”
“My, Lord Tuxford,” her father gushed. “Your business must be doing well to offer so much.”
“One could say so,” the man replied. “However, I am modest and thus will not say too much about that. You should know that I have the means to take care of my wife and whomever she holds dear to her heart.”
“You have given me much to think about, Lord Tuxford,” her father said.
“I know, but I hope you will think in my favour, Mr Dandridge,” said the earl. “Furthermore, I do not want a dowry to accompany your daughter in marriage. It is unnecessary. Your daughter is the greatest prize of all.”
Arabella gagged noiselessly, her distaste for the earl leaving a bitter remnant in her mouth.
“I shall speak to my wife, Lord Tuxford,” her father said. “You are certainly a worthy suitor.”
No, Papa! He most certainly is not! Do not tell me you are weakening against the man? What about all I have said about him? He is not a good person, for heaven’s sake.
“How it warms my heart to hear you say so, Mr Dandridge,” the earl said. “Shall we drink to possible relations in the future?”
“I do not see why not,” her father replied.
Shaking her head, Arabella silently closed the secret door and crept down the passage to the dining room. Her father was undoubtedly weakening against the earl, but it would be a cold day in hell before Arabella accepted the earl as her husband. Her father’s offer to accompany him to India next spring was becoming more and more preferable to her. After winning a game of chess against her father some years ago, Arabella was afforded the option to travel with her grandfather to exotic lands when she came of age. However, Arabella had not left England for her parents’ sake. After many failed pregnancies, she was their only child, and she knew they couldn’t bear to be without her. However, if they pushed her to marry the earl because they believed it was best for her, she would pack her belongings and live with her grandfather until he left for India.
Marrying Lord Tuxford is not an option I will ever entertain.
“A Waltz with the Kind Marquess” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Arabella Dandridge’s heart has always been torn between living the life her parents wish for her and finding adventure beyond the borders of England. When a much older man puts a claim on her, she will do whatever it takes to avoid a union with him; even enlisting a handsome Marquess to pretend they have an interest in each other. Little did she know that she would soon stop pretending, as she truly falls for the charming stranger.
How will Arabella react though, when a woman claiming to be the Marquess’ fiancée appears in her life? Could a chance at happiness still be on the cards for her?
Francis Thorpe, the Marquess of Pembroke, returns to his childhood home despite the painful memories it holds. His life takes an exciting turn when he crosses paths with Arabella and agrees to help her with her plan. Besides, he would also benefit from this scheme, as he desperately wants to avoid the woman his grandfather insists he marry. What he did not anticipate was that Arabella would turn out to be the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with…
Two souls struggling to escape a gloomy future and embrace the light of their newfound love…
Despite love never being part of the plan, Arabella and Francis cannot imagine a future without each other. However, they have to deal with people who would rather tear them apart and do everything in their power to throw them into misery. Will Francis and Arabella succumb to external pressures and give up on their love? Or will they manage to navigate all the hardships standing in the way of their blissful destiny?
“A Waltz with the Kind Marquess” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.