About the book

A haunted and hidden lord...A desperate young beauty…

Pressured to marry for the sake of her sisters, Lady Bridgette Farbridge has no choice but to accept the scoundrel her uncle chose for her. Until his untoward advances earn him a much deserved slap that deem her ruined. 

Deformed and dejected after his return from the war, Isaac Lennox, the Duke of Calder, wants nothing to do with people. And rage is an understatement for his feelings when his aunt invites her own guests to his estate.

Fleeing to the country until the scandal dies down, Bridgette never imagined that her mother had more in store for her. And maybe charming the beastly Duke is her only chance to save herself. The problem? He can’t stand the sight of her.

Chapter One

It occurred to Bridgette Farbridge more than once in her short years that life was not fair.

“Shush, come now, Love, do not cry, it will all be all right.” The soothing voice of her mother, Petunia Farbridge, was normally something that made the whole world better. She had such a soft, pretty voice.

“Sit her down, Vanessa, fetch me that cloth, please. The water as well.”

Mothers were supposed to have soothing voices. Though tonight, not even her mother’s kind words were going to be enough to settle Bridgette’s shaking hands. Bridgette watched with hollow eyes as her mother and sisters set about the room. Serafina, locking the door and Vanessa fetching any items that she thought might appear soothing.

Bridgette let them fuss over her. She could not stop thinking about it. She could not stop replaying Lord Lork’s hands on her. Never in her life would she have imagined that somebody could use her in such a way. She was hurt, she was shaken, but most of all she was angry.

Bridgette was a woman of breeding. She was a Farbridge. Even more than that she was a person. She was not an object to be used or grabbed at like she was some sweet biscuit at a tea party. She understood that it was a widespread, common misconception that a wife belonged to her husband. That once marriage vows were taken that she was little more than a decoration piece to be moved around and displayed at his leisure.

I have taken no vows. I am not an object.

“We will get all of this sorted out before you know it, Love.” Petunia was the sort of woman who was always destined to be a mother. She had boundless patience for nearly anything that her daughters threw at her.

“You cannot possibly know that.” Bridgette’s voice was soft. “One word from Lord Lork and I am ruined, you know that as well as I do. The truth of the matter will be inconsequential.”

The culmination of all of these failed Seasons, of her betrothal now broken and she was ruined. Petunia said nothing as she dabbed a soft, wet cloth across Bridgette’s forehead in an effort to make her more presentable.

This is not fair.

“Serafina, please stop pacing, you are making me anxious.” Vanessa chimed in. She was seated in the chair across the way, her foot a nervous tap dance on the floor. As the third daughter, she tended to be more rational than the others.

“It is making you anxious, dear sister?” Serafina countered, pausing her pacing for only a moment. “I am a mess of nerves. Poor Bridgette is upset, I cannot think of any situation in which anxiousness would be more apt.” She threw her hands up over her head. “Our dear eldest sister, who did everything right only to be rewarded for a lifetime of polite behavior with this?

Serafina lifted one gloved hand to tick off her words on her fingers, “She attends the balls, she is well spoken, perfectly mannered in all the ways that count and now what? One terrible misfortune and it was all for nothing?”

It was like Serafina plucked the words right from Bridgette’s head. Out of the four sisters, Serafina was always the one most free with her opinions.

“Now is hardly the time for theatrics, Sera, you will wake your sister,” Petunia chastised.

Amanda, the youngest of the girls, was asleep upstairs. Or at the very least she was upstairs pretending to be asleep. Too young to be out in society, these troubles would not be hers for another year yet. Unless of course, the older sisters managed to ruin their family before that year was up.

I do not deserve this. My sisters do not deserve this.  

“Lord Lork is a brute. It is spoken about plainly enough. Just ask any of the staff from his Manor!” Serafina continued as if their mother had not spoken. “All of the ladies used to dread him on their dance cards, but tolerated it because he would be a smart match for any young lady. War hero, soldier's pension, medals and the title to match. He attacks my sister and it is her reputation that will be ruined?”

Bridgette nodded, agreeing with Serafina. “One offhand comment from him and I am undone, Mama. He only has to find a single pair of attentive ears and he will twist this affront into something where I am the villain. I promise you that.”

“Curse his pretty face,” Serafina rolled her eyes as she spoke. Simon was, unfortunately, very handsome. “I hope he gets boils.”

Bridgette nearly laughed, pulling her dress back to rights as best she could. “It will not matter that he was forward with me. If he chooses to be slighted and spread rumors, my reputation, all of our reputations will be on the line.”

Vanessa lifted her hand to stop her sister, speaking as kindly as she could “Be that as it may, our family cannot endure another scandal. Not so soon after father.”

“Do not worry your three lovely heads about that now,” Petunia interjected.

“This is not something you can shield us from Mama,” Bridgette shook her head, insistent. “I know that you mean well but this very well could be the height of gossip before breakfast tomorrow.”

Serafina snorted, containing her laughter. “I was across the hall when Bridgette rushed out and even I saw the angry red handprint on Lord Lork’s face.”

Bridgette smirked, and quickly hid it away. Serafina saw it anyway. “It is the least the man deserves. You have every right to be proud of the way you defended yourself. ”

“Perhaps his pride will save us,” Vanessa commented. “A gentleman would never stoop so low as to speak in such a way about a woman he was supposed to marry.”

“That is true, a gentleman would not.” There was no kindness in Bridgette’s tone left for him. As much as she wanted to believe that she was safe here at Evans Manor, it would never be her home again. These were not the safe, kind walls of her childhood. Not anymore.

“When your uncle arrives, I need you three to promise me that you will let me speak to him. Let me handle this.”

“I will not marry him, Mother,” Bridgette asserted. “This is how he behaves toward me without any vows. What sort of husband do you think he would be? A loveless marriage is one thing, but this? He tried to—” Bridgette cut off that thought instantly. She could still feel the artless way his lips bashed against the side of her face. Muttering about how they did not need to wait, that she belonged to him.

I belong to no man. Certainly not Simon Broadley.

“I wish I could have seen the look on his face when you slapped him,” Vanessa commented dryly.

Serafina gasped at her sister’s words. “I did not know you were so vicious, dear Vanessa.”

Bridgette smiled, starting to feel better. “It really was a sight to behold. His nose all crinkled in shock.” Bridgette attempted to recreate the expression to the best of her ability.

Vanessa covered her mouth with her hand to keep from laughing. Bridgette could already see the lines of worry forming between her mother’s eyes. Petunia did not have to voice her fears, Bridgette already knew. A broken betrothal at two-and-twenty? She was far from in her prime years. She was quickly running out of time before she was considered ineligible.

“It would be in the best efforts of everyone, if we can find a way to handle this with delicacy,” Petunia said.

“Lord Lork will be fine,” Serafina interjected. “No doubt he is already nursing his wounded ego with any pretty-faced woman within earshot. The sort that likes to hear his war stories and fawn over how strong and brave he was.”

Viscount and Soldier, Simon was considered a catch. Bridgette could not pretend to know what compelled him to accept the Earl's low dowry for her, but she had been grateful for him. Grateful. Knowing what she knew now, the mere idea of it made her skin crawl.

“I have been replaying over the evening in my mind, Mama. Picking apart the pieces and attempting to fit them together in a way that might help me understand how things went so poorly. There was no signal too forward. I did not say anything untoward. I laughed at all of his jokes, it was the same sort of evening we have had countless times before now.”

“Some men are simply too entitled for their own good,” Petunia answered, patting her daughter’s hand once again.

“What happens now? I cannot marry him now, Mama,” Bridgette insisted again, firmly. “I cannot go back to him when he is so—” Bridgette struggled to find the word, “so callous. I know that this is larger than myself.” She looked from one sister to the other with sad eyes. “The last thing that I want is to compromise our name or the potential prospects of my sisters.”

That was the last thing that she wanted. Family meant everything to her. Her sisters were so dear to her heart. She would never intentionally injure them or their feelings in any way.

“The final say in this is not up to me, Love,” Petunia commented, resigned.

“No, of course not,” Bridgette spat. “That honor is only for our dear Uncle Tobias.”

“He has done much for us, and you need to remember that.” Petunia looked to her other daughters. “You all should, or else you will find other occupation for yourself when he arrives.”

Tobias, the one who had so graciously stepped in to care for his brother’s family after his passing. He was ready and willing to sing his own praises to anybody that would listen. To bolster himself proudly in any social situation with Bridgette and her sisters as trophies for his display. As if to say, ‘Look, here is my proof of how wealthy and decent I am’.

Bridgette turned to see her mother more clearly, her eyes widened and bordering on wild. “No, Mama, I cannot hear it…‘What will the Earl say?’ He threatens to put the lot of us on the street as it is and this will only displease him further.”

“It is not like he worked for some advantageous match, Bridgette, he accepted the first suitor willing to have you and ran with it.” There was no shortage of bitterness in Serafina’s tone.

Nothing about the events of the past year had gone according to plan. “His eyes have never been set on our wellbeing but instead on his own successes and the influx of good fortune thrust upon him and born of our pain.” Serafina’s arms crossed over her chest.

Petunia shot her a look and Serafina sat heavily on the nearest chair, silenced. “It was never my intention to push you so quickly, Love, but you know as well as I do that our time here is limited.”

Bridgette nodded. “What of my sisters? What if Lord Lork found the Earl on his way out of the ball? If Lord Lork stopped him and had words with him then he will already be set in his opinion of events before he has even paused to consider my welfare.” Words were leaving her too quickly as she attempted to scramble some solution to mind. As if by voicing her thoughts aloud a resolution might become clear.

“Love, I do not think that your opinion of events will trouble the Earl greatly.”

There was the sinking truth of it. All that the Earl would be concerned with was the possibility of scandal. “The turn of tonight’s events might be an inconvenience to his own agenda, this is true.” Vanessa spoke as the voice of reason. “But, we must remember that this is all new to him. He only has a son and these social politics are difficult for him.

“He is not exactly known for his patience.”

“Serafina, that is quite enough,” Petunia stated. “Let us not make assumptions as to how he might handle this. Perhaps he will surprise us all.”

There came a commotion from down the stairs.

 In the silence of the Manor the clatter of the door banging against the doorframe, as well as the hurried demands too distant to be understood properly, were like thunder in her ears. Bridgette felt sorry for the servants by the door. Yet another shock to see the way that the Manor was run now compared to under her father’s care. Their staff and hired men were not held to the same standards as before.

“I cannot allow him to send me back, any more than I can allow him to threaten the position and wellbeing of my sisters…there must be a way to reason with him. I am sure that perhaps if I implore him—” Bridgette had read so many similar stories over her life that there must be some cunning turn of phrase embedded into her memory. There must be some similar scenario that would allow her to find the perfect words to say to smooth over this situation.

“This is not one of your stories, my dear. As much as I wish it was, there would be a great number of things that I would see rewritten.”

The sound of heavy footsteps thudded up the stairs to the accompaniment of his grumbled protests. Whether it was reluctance that stopped her from understanding the demands that he uttered as he came down the hall toward them or simply the fact that his speech was slurred with drink, she would never know.

“So what do we do?” Bridgette whispered, panic blossoming anew.

“We do what women do best, Love.” Petunia patted her daughter’s knee soothingly. “We will sit here and diffuse the situation with grace, poise, and control.” Bridgette wanted to feel as calm as her mother looked.

“Where is she?” Tobias Farbridge’s heavy voice demanded from down the hall, checking one door and then the next. “I said, where is she?”

If Father was about to come through those doors, he would be the picture of worry. He would march straight back down to that ball and demand an explanation. Her father would fight the thin-lipped rake of a man, Simon, who had made such lofty promises to his daughter one moment, only to abuse her so readily the next. He would not stand idly by…but the Earl of Evans was not her father, and he never would be.

“Now, Girls, mind your manners. All of you. I mean it.” Petunia rose from her seat and moved to stand in the center of the room to greet the Earl.

The drawing room door slammed open, shattering the last of her thin, shredded self-control and a strange sort of calm took over Bridgette. Whatever would come from this, whatever he might throw at her, she would simply have to find a way to endure it. For her mother, for her sisters, she could do it.

She could…could she not?

“Where is she?”

Chapter Two

“What do you have to say for yourself?” The Earl’s voice was like ice as he focused on the women in front of him now.

Bridgette flinched as the parlor door slammed open. She had flinched. The very idea seemed impossible to her that one unsavory interaction could leave her so shaken. How long would it last, she wondered?

 It had not always been that way. Papa could get his temper up high with or without proper motivation but it would always be undone by something silly. If his shirts were starched and pressed too crisply? He would then commit to standing them all up in a line down the hallway. Papa would speak to them like they were friends of his, or that he was having a grand conspiracy with the shirts until the servants came and whisked them all away for repairs.

Her father had always made light of himself in times where his temper had gotten the better of him. Bridgette had foolishly assumed that all men must be that way. That they must all have a grand sense of humor and the ability to see the lighter side of situations. She did not often consider what life would be like as a married woman but when she did, she imagined it would be to somebody who could make her laugh, even when she did not wish to.

It had not taken more than one Season of eligibility before she had learned how far that was from the truth. Naively, she had assumed that her father would find her a good man. Perhaps not the man that she might choose on her own, but he would know the sort of man that she needed. He would know the sort that would be compatible with her heart and whatever match was made on her behalf would be a good and solid match. Somebody who could challenge her mind. Somebody who would provide friendship and safety. Then her father had died.

The match made on Bridgette’s behalf by her Uncle the following Season had been one of convenience. One that was thrown together quickly and of decent enough standing. One that would tolerate the meager dowry, a lower sum offered than in the years prior. Instead of having vetted meetings in the companionship of her mother and sisters, she was thrust into the parlor with a man who might be handsome, but had something hollow about his eyes. Bridgette supposed it all made sense now.

“Well? Answer me!” the Earl of Evans demanded once more. The small vein in his forehead seemed to grow by the second. 

“My Lord.” Mama seemed to snap to her wits at his second command for information and moved to the side to reveal Bridgette’s visage. What a state she was in. “Bridgette just needs a moment to compose herself. It has been quite an evening.”

The Earl showed no signs of sympathy toward Bridgette’s state of distress. He offered no words of comfort, nor did he make any effort to ensure her wellbeing. He simply looked her over, decided for himself that her suffering must not be that great if she was upright and in decent countenance, and therefore she had no excuse for any slight against him.

“Do you have any idea how much trouble you have caused me?” For a man who presented himself so well in public, he was different behind closed doors.

“Do you care to explain to me, why it is that I’ve received word that Lord Lork was seen leaving Dunleavy Hall in a state of upset?” The Earl paced into the room, tossing his hat onto the chaise lounge. “I attempted to speak to him, to inquire what was the matter and he shunned me. He lifted his hand to my face in front of all of those guests, muttering about how we could have nothing further to discuss as we were no longer to be family by marriage? Please, do not tell me that you are foolish enough to break off your betrothal with a Lord, a marriage that I have gone through so much trouble to acquire for you.”

Silence fell heavy in the room as neither woman spoke. Neither woman felt that the Earl of Evans would like what they had to say. Bridgette wanted to tell him what had happened. She wanted to explain, but the words had trouble finding her tongue.

Her sisters looked like they were nearly about to burst with the effort of containing themselves. “Is this how you repay the favors that I have done? All of the kindness that I have shown you?”

Lady Farbridge spoke, the knot in Bridgette’s throat was growing too large for her to speak. “We do appreciate your kindness, My Lord. Please, have heart, you have not heard the full story.”

The Earl’s eyes moved accusingly over to Bridgette, noting the tear on her sleeve and the nervous way she shifted under his gaze. She watched as his small brown eyes took stock of her person. He noted the disheveled state of her hair as if notating numbers in a ledger. The tracks of tears down her cheeks added more numbers to the equation before he drew the logical conclusion as to what might have caused her to react in the way that she had.

“I see,” he concluded, his gaze seeming to soften. Whether it would make a difference or not, was yet to be seen.

“It would appear that Lord Lork is not content on preserving the mystery or Bridgette’s honor until his wedding night, and attempted to force my daughter into lewd behavior,” Petunia said evenly.

“Nonsense,” the Earl dismissed immediately. “I have known Lord Lork for many years and your daughter is hardly beautiful enough to tempt him into such behavior.”

Bridgette scoffed, audibly. The knee-jerk reaction of men who all attended the club seemed to have was always to defend one another. No matter what.

Petunia and the Earl turned their attention back to Bridgette at the sound. This was likely the exact behavior that Petunia was hoping Bridgette would refrain from. Petunia attempted to convey as much with a knowing look in Bridgette’s direction.

“Despite what you might believe, My Lord, not all men are the way that they present themselves in public. Even more shocking, that men are capable of a great many terrors if they feel themselves so entitled to the life of another, particularly the life of a woman. It is not a matter of beauty, My Lord,” Bridgette’s tone cut sharper, her words dual purposed as she spoke evenly.

“It is a matter of power, of ego. Lord Lork felt himself entitled and this attack is not only against my daughter but the entire Farbridge family and all that it entails. This is an affront to you, My Lord, as well. Whether you see it or not,” Petunia finished, a small hint of pride in her tone.

The Earl considered their words carefully, turning away from them as he deliberated, the fingers of one meaty hand tapping thoughtfully against his chin. “I suppose, in the heat of the moment, Lord Lork might have had the possibility of being carried away with himself.”

“Might?” Bridgette interjected, unable to stop herself. “My Lord, forgive me for speaking so plainly but there is no might about it.”

The Earl was unaccustomed to women speaking to him in such a way, and he blustered. Let alone speaking to him in such a way, twice. He stammered the start of a word but Bridgette spoke again.

“Lord Lork was pressing matters that would compromise my virtue. He did not wish to take no for an answer. I had no choice but to strike him.”

You hit him?” Tobias’ eyes widened in surprise as he looked down at Bridgette’s small hands.

“I did,” Bridgette admitted. “He left me no choice.”

Bridgette knew as soon as her hand met the side of Lord Lark’s face that she was changing the course of her future. She had wished to take it back. Not because he did not deserve it but because she did not wish to bring her family harm.

“I see.” The Earl deliberated, the wheels in his head visibly spinning as he gestured to Vanessa to get him a drink, which she did.

“My Lord, if I may,” Bridgette spoke softly, her fingers worrying at the fabric of her skirt as she spoke. “I am not a woman who dreams of a perfect marriage. I do not ask for material possession or jewels, but I do ask for kindness. Decency in a man who might show me the same courtesies that I bestow upon him and while he presented himself that way at first…Lord Lork is hardly that man today.”

Bridgette certainly had not assumed she would be rushed and fondled against her will in the closed-off gallery of a ball. She had not liked the smell of wine on his breath as he jammed his lips clumsily against her own, bumping with artless fervor.

Simon Broadley, Lord Lork, had never seen her. Not really. She knew that then. She knew now that she was only a means to an end, an instrumental figurehead to be used, to save himself the trouble of finding women who required coin in order to endure him.

“We can hardly allow such an offense to be left unanswered for,” the Earl agreed, and for a moment Bridgette thought that he had seen reason. “We will…we will move up the wedding with your deepest apologies, we will pass off her reluctance due to maidenly fear and all will be well.”

“What? I will not hear of this,” Bridgette started, but her mother lifted a hand to silence her.

“And what, My Lord, if he will not have her?”

“Of course he will have her, why would he not?” The Earl paused, “But then, you were forceful, were you not? I should have expected such a thing. I was kind enough to bring you, and your whole family in after my brother died. Out of the kindness of my heart, I sheltered you and saved you from ruin, and this is what I get in return? A scandal?”

Petunia rose from the bench and crossed over to Lord Evans with a small bow of her head, the way that she manipulated conversation so simply was an art. Diverting enough that for just a moment, Bridgette wished she knew how to do what her mother did.

“The scandal is not yet too great, My Lord. There is an opportunity for us to turn this situation around. We can find a solution that will help maintain my daughter’s reputation and prevent my other daughters from the possibility of spinsterhood.” Petunia chose her words carefully, she knew that more than anything that the Earl wished them out of his home as soon as he could manage it. He wished for the women to be off and married to somebody with a decent enough income for him to further his station. “Perhaps, with your permission, My Lord, there might be somewhere that we could give Bridgette some time to cool off for the rest of the Season?”

The Earl scoffed. Despite his bluntness, he had a brilliant mind for numbers. Doubtless, he was adding up how much a stay at a country Estate was likely to cost him. What arrangements he would have to make and just generally how difficult the situation would be for him.

However, to Bridgette, it felt like a lifeline. It felt like a breath of fresh air amid all of this sadness. She did not wish to be returned to Lord Lork for anything. She would rather chew her tongue into curd than apologize to him for something that she had not done. It was not her choice to be betrothed to him in the first place. Her first and only priority was her family, the station of her sisters and their happiness. If this would provide an opportunity for some space, to help allow her mother time to mend bridges, then she was going to agree.

“I have a friend,” Petunia offered, her hand soft as she touched the Earl’s forearm. More subtle manipulation by the woman who the word ‘cunning’ seemed to have been invented for. “Her nephew has an Estate in the country that she has been staying at, she has been begging me to come and visit for quite some time. We are dearly overdue, but if you think it might be reasonable, I could write to her and inquire if we could come visit straight away?”

The Earl deliberated, silence spreading throughout the room for a long moment as he seemed to take Petunia’s words and twist them inside of his mind, reshaping them into his own idea. “I think it would be best, if Bridgette were to retire to the country for the rest of the Season,” he nodded, as if finalizing his own idea.

Three women to deal with were certainly better than five. The sisters would be able to look after one another for the short trip. They would not offer any trouble while Petunia and Bridgette were away.

“I will send word to my dear friend Violet right away.” Petunia bowed her head toward the Earl and motioned for her daughters to leave the room right away. Vanessa and Serafina rushed from the space silently.

“My Lady, a word of caution.” The Earl smiled, the expression not quite meeting his eyes. “If this does not work, I daresay it will be more than enough reason to rid myself of you…and your little leeches.”

“Never you worry about that, My Lord. I assure you that this will all work out for the best.”

The Earl stopped Petunia and Bridgette before they could leave the room. “See that it does. I do not have to remind you what is at stake here should this fail.

Chapter Three

“Whatever you wish to say to me today, I do not wish to hear it, Andrew.”

If the tall man heard a word that left Isaac Lennox’s mouth he made no note of it. The thin, handsome, older man ushered himself into the room with no preamble and set about preparing the tea on the table for his Duke. The steward whistled a happy little tune as he worked, something bright and chipper and not at all fitting with the overall air in the room. Isaac Lennox was not a bright and chipper man. He had no tolerance for frivolity and he stomached whistlers even less. The only saving grace that his steward, Andrew, could cling to was the umbrella of forgiveness afforded only to those who had been around Isaac his entire life.

A soft, fragrant aroma slowly permeated the room as the tea was prepared. A small two-tiered serving carousel laden with biscuits and sandwiches was prepared to stand as a substitute to the lunch that the Duke had taken to refusing.

“Well, Your Grace, if you insist on spending all of your time up here in your study, then I must bring the afternoon tea to you, must I not?”

“If you had any common sense, you would leave me be.” The Duke stoppered the ink pot he had been working with and pushed the piles of paper that had been in front of him away. He knew from experience that if he did not get this conversation over with, then the steward would be content to simply stand by the door in judgmental silence for the entirety of the afternoon. Stubborn fool that he was. “I could have you punished for such pesky insolence, you know.”

Andrew’s brow lifted as he smiled. “Certainly you can, Your Grace. Only I know that you shall not. The worst that I have to fear from you is that barbed tongue of yours filled with petty, ill-planned insults.” He shifted to stand behind the chair and table that he had laid out for Isaac, nodding toward the place setting with a knowing glance. “I have no more to fear from you than I would a doused kitten, wouldn’t you say?”

Andrew’s voice was warm, fatherly as he spoke. A playful chastisement of his employer, the man he had known since he was a child.

Isaac stared at the man for a long moment, engaged in a silent battle of wills. Andrew would stand there until Isaac ate something, and Isaac would cave as they both knew that he would. He would be allowed to return to his sullen pouting after the fact.

“Oh, all right!” He pushed back from the heavy wooden desk and moved around it to the chair and small table, which had likely only been placed in here last week for this exact purpose. “I am only relenting because you are likely the only person who does not frighten at the sight of me. Do not get it into your mind that there is any other reason.”

Andrew nodded, his hands coming to clasp in front of him. Isaac did not have to look at the man to know that he was hiding a victorious smile. The tea blend was one of his favorites, his stomach gurgling in anticipation at the scent of it.

He had missed breakfast again as well, had he not? Worked himself clear through most of the night until the candles had been too low to see by. It was easier to be in here, locked away inside of his study. It was simpler to remain in here than to see the servants carefully avoiding the sight of him. He could not stomach the way that they carefully schooled their expressions to keep from gawking in horror. It was why the meals in the formal dining room were too difficult. It was hardly their fault that their employer looked like such a wounded animal. He would not subject them to more than he needed to.

“I have received word that your Aunt Violet will be receiving guests this afternoon.”

“Is that so?” Isaac helped himself to tea, carefully ignoring the ball of dread forming in his stomach at the idea of company. “Did you by any chance inform her that she has her own home that she could receive company in, and that she does not have to use mine?”

“I did, Your Grace. But she insisted that your home was far grander and much better suited for the likes of her company.”

“Meaning that she did not wish to put forth the effort into her own home as she’s been too busy spending my money on pointless decorations?”

Andrew laughed, shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Something like that, Your Grace.” A beat of silence fell between them before he spoke again. “I think she worries, Your Grace, that you have been lonely for too long.”

Isaac paused to sip his tea, his attention drifting off toward the small window behind his desk. The man had a point. It was not something they often discussed. The life that Isaac had led before the war was vastly different than the one he led now.

Gone were the days of lascivious behavior at all hours of the night, taking advantage of his title to gain access to the clubs and parties. He did not chase pleasure at the expense of revelry and companionship. A large part of him would like to return to his rakish ways. Life was simpler then, it was uncomplicated and filled with nothingness. No meaning. No nightmares that woke him from a dead sleep. Women who would flock to him now crossed the street before having to look at him.

“She needs to mind her business and keep to affairs that concern her,” Isaac responded softly. He cared for his aunt. She was incredibly valuable to him in more ways than one.

Isaac’s mother had died at such a very young age and his Aunt Violet had a hand in raising him, into forming the man that he became. He understood that her concerns were born from a mother’s heart inside of a woman who had never been gifted with children of her own.

That did not make it any easier to bear. She insisted that the right woman was going to come along. She insisted that he would fall in love and that nothing else would matter. And as each and every day passed, her promises turned into fairytale daydreams. He was a man who had once worked and traded in love that lasted no longer than a nighttime, and now he was condemned to solitude as thanks for serving his country so valiantly. Yes, Fate was a kind mistress, indeed. “Who is the company she is receiving?”

“I believe she said something about a dear friend of hers, the Dowager Countess of Evans? I overheard her speaking to her lady’s maid about getting the linens cleaned in two bedchambers, so I believe she will be accompanied by one of her daughters. They were bringing up floral arrangements and fresh candlesticks all morning. Tucking lavender around the chambers as she likes to do.”

Isaac nodded, that explained the merchants that had been coming by for the last week with baskets, bolts of cloth and seamstresses to fit her for new gowns. She had even convinced him to have new waistcoats and jackets made. He had foolishly assumed that it was so that she could pretend that he was keeping up with the styles and colors of the Season. Now he knew that she had far more devious intentions.

It made perfect sense to him now that she hadn’t asked his permission, or even bothered to tell him it was happening. He could already guess as to how that conversation was going to go. Violet would explain that if only he would consent to having meals with her in the dining room again that she would have ample opportunity to explain things to him. That they could hold conversations that wouldn’t require her to go hunting around the Hall for him like some rat catcher. She was a cunning thing, after all.

“I see, and did she say exactly how long I am to host her friend and daughter?”

Isaac could go and seek out his aunt. He was certain that was exactly what she was hoping for. She wanted to answer all of his questions so that she could heavily imply how he ought to spend his time. Lectures about how to be a gracious host would follow. She would titter about his person making small, well-intentioned comments and his temper would be set aflame like kindling to a fire. It was his stubbornness that would prevent him from doing that.

“Not that I heard, Your Grace, but I could perhaps inquire on your behalf?”

No, that would be just as bad.

 If she thought that Isaac was sending Andrew as his lackey, then she would be incensed. Isaac wasn’t blind to the strange nature of their relationship. His Aunt Violet never had an unkind word to say about any living thing, but the way that she looked at Andrew when she thought nobody was looking could wilt flowers and sour milk. Why she disliked him was her own business.

“Perhaps, Your Grace, if you would simply consent to going to Town for the Season she might be more content. I dare say you wouldn’t even have to participate. Just word of your being present might suffice. Even with your limitations, I daresay your title and land would be enough to secure you an advantageous match.”

“Is that all that I am to be, Andrew? Somebody’s purse? Only worthy of tolerance for that which I might offer their status?” Isaac could feel the heat of anger rising inside of him. “With a marriage, children would be expected. Children, Andrew. How am I to perform my husbandly duties when most women faint at the very sight of my mangled face?”

Isaac spun in his chair, leering at his trusted steward as if he might find the answers to his questions written on the man's face. Instead he only found sympathy. “At least you came home, Your Grace.”

Andrew’s tone was soft. It was a wound that never healed. The loss of a child was something that Isaac could not fathom. Isaac and Johnathan had gone off to battle together. Served in the regiment together. Stood side by side through training and battlefield and yet, only Isaac had returned home. Andrew had been beside himself for weeks. He had worked for his family for many years and Isaac knew that after losing his son, this Hall and his employment was nearly all that his steward had left.

“That is not fair, Andrew,” Isaac said as kindly as he could. The implication that as long as he was alive, then nothing else could be the matter. So long as he was still standing then he ought to be grateful for any day his lungs filled with air. Isaac understood that. However, that did not make the knowledge of how he had returned any easier.

“Life is not fair, Your Grace, and you have returned to your home mostly whole. You have a duty to maintain, a duty that my son will never be allowed to fulfill and yet you squander it away here in your study, calculating accounts and keeping an eagle eye on your ledgers and reports…squandering away your youth and not continuing your line. Should the burden of passing on the title be yours to bear? I know not, Your Grace, but it is on your shoulders and I will not stand by while you pout here in the dark. Mangled face, two heads, or any other beastly qualities that you still hold inside of your heart notwithstanding.”

Isaac had rarely heard the man raise his voice to him before. He knew he was right. The passion was plain in his words and yet they both knew the conversation had crossed a line never meant to be crossed. “It is not that simple, Andrew.” They were slipping out of the neat lines that their positions in life kept them in, and Andrew’s comments cut to the core.

Is that what I’m doing? Pouting?

Isaac was a proud man, and he attempted to be patient with Andrew as much as he knew how. “I will not force myself or my visage onto an eligible young lady whose parents have pressured her into a loveless marriage simply because of a title that I was born into. It would be cruel to expect a woman, any woman, to look upon my face day after day and find anything but revulsion there. You, Sir, are cruel to imply such a thing simply for the sake of an heir.”

Even as he said the words, he wasn’t entirely certain that he meant them.

“I’ve overstepped then, Your Grace. Please accept my sincerest apologies,” Andrew muttered, his hands holding more tightly to one another in front of his person. His blue eyes were trained on the ground near his feet. It was apparent to Isaac that his steward had more to say but was keeping himself from saying it. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to my work at once, Your Grace.”

Isaac shook his head, lifting a hand to stop the man. “No, no, I think I’ll head out for a swim.”

Isaac’s temper carried him out onto the grounds in a huff. He did not pause to take in the setting or relish in the loveliness of the day. He noticed how the warmth of the sun felt different on the scar tissue of his face than it did anywhere else.

Swimming was a new hobby meant to calm him. He had always been an active fellow, but fencing and archery did not hold the same joy or sense of accomplishment for him as it did before he had gone off to battle. One of the very first things that he had done upon his arrival back home was to banish all of the weapons strewn about the Estate to a back storage room in Calder Hall.

Isaac unbuttoned his waistcoat and allowed it to fall somewhere behind him. Irritation hastened his steps and he untucked his linen shirt and cast that aside. He could feel the pull and stretch of scars there as well, littered across his chest and arms as he moved to the lakefront.

The very last thing that he was expecting, while he swam naked in the lake, was his name to be called, loudly. Isaac sank below the surface. Who was calling him, and why did it seem like he wasn’t alone?

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