About the book
Love me the way you did once upon a dream…
Lady Rowena Burton is so dutiful, she doesn’t even bat an eye when her father announces her betrothal to a stranger. But her days as an obedient daughter come to an end the moment she meets an extraordinary Duke.
A business meeting takes a turn when newly appointed Duke of Westmond, Christopher Newmont, casts his eyes upon a lady’s portrait in her father’s study. The only problem? She is already betrothed to someone else.
After Rowena’s father rejects Christopher’s marriage offer, they are left with only one choice: escape to Gretna Green. But when Rowena is mysteriously abducted, Christopher sees their future burn in the worst fire London has ever seen...
Christopher shifted in the uncomfortable hard wooden chair, trying to find a position that would not leave him utterly stiff.
By Jove, this is worse than the seats at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. At least I have a cushion there. How did Father manage to get through thirty years of this?
As if he’d read his mind, his uncle, Nestor Hicks, the Earl of Totham, leaned over toward him. “Getting stiff already? Wait until you reach my age.”
Christopher nodded with his chin toward the speaker. “He has been up there for three hours, talking. How much longer are we expected to sit through this?”
His uncle chuckled. “However long it takes. Lord Westchester once spoke for near six hours. I would have paid a pot of gold to have gotten out of having to sit through that one. You gather my meaning, eh, wot?” he laughed quietly once more.
Christopher had always liked his Uncle Nestor, brother of his late mother. He had to admit he found it a great relief to have an instant ally in the House of Lords, where he did not know many of his fellows. He glanced around the gallery at the many empty seats. There were no more than thirty or forty lords in attendance and all of them appeared to be rather on the old side.
Following his gaze, his uncle cleared his throat.
“Shameful, it is really. All these empty seats. It’s the Season, and we should have a full house each evening. Yet our fellow lords would rather shirk their duty to sit at White’s drinking and placing wagers.”
“I must say, having sat through that,” he nodded at the speaker who stood between the two sets. “I do not blame them.”
His uncle sighed. “Which makes me even prouder that you are here, doing your duty. Your Father would be ever so pleased.”
The mention of his father stirred something inside of Christopher. His father had passed away almost six months ago. He looked around the great chamber and tried to imagine his father sitting where he was now, listening to one speaker or another making their point and then heading down to White’s with Uncle Nestor or one of his fellow lords.
The thought made Christopher smile. It felt good to think of his father as the healthy man he had once been.
How I wish I had known him better when he was well. I should have spent more time with him when I had the chance.
He sighed and felt his uncle place one wrinkled hand upon his forearm. He patted the older man’s hand and they exchanged a nod, each knowing what the other was thinking.
Once, when Christopher was just a young boy, his father had been one of the most respected Peers in the Realm. The title of Duke of Westmond had inspired fear and loyalty in the heart of his subjects and trust and reverence in the minds of his fellow lords, as well as the Regent. His power and influence had reached far and wide.
But then disease had struck him and the once strong, fear-inducing man had withered away over several painful years. The disease had robbed him in a few short years of not just his health and vigor, but also of his position at Court as well as much of his wealth.
Christopher blamed himself. He’d trusted Horton, their steward, the run the estate while their father sought treatment after treatment, never realizing Horton was lining his own pockets while bleeding the Westmond estate dry.
Between the steward’s stealing and the expense of the physicians who were summoned from far and away, they had soon found themselves almost on the rocks financially. By the time Christopher had taken control of the estate, they were almost bankrupt.
No matter, I shall rebuild it all. I shall ensure that the Westmond name will once again be respected and I shall reclaim my Father’s position at Court.
The desire to rebuild the respect and wealth he felt he was owed to his family, was his main reason for sitting through these tedious proceedings day after day. He had arrived in London after the Easter break and had attended Parliament each day with his uncle, who made introductions he thought beneficial for Christopher.
The speaker at the podium had at last concluded his speech, causing even his uncle, a passionate Parliamentarian, to exhale with great relief.
“At last. Now, come quickly, Christopher. I would like to introduce you to another of my fellow lords.”
His uncle got up and made his way down the aisle, toward the Prince’s Chamber where the lords often gathered before and after the sessions. He was surprised at how spry his uncle was when he wanted to be.
Christopher struggled to follow him and when he finally managed to catch up, his uncle had already struck up a conversation with two men, both of whom appeared to be in the same age range as his uncle.
“Ah, very well. Here he is now. This is my nephew, Christopher Newmont, the Duke of Westmond. Lord Westmond, this is William Lornsdale, Viscount Havers, and Peter St. Clair, Baron Strygar.”
A Viscount and a Baron. And I have never heard of either. I wish Uncle Nestor would introduce me to some more influential types.
Hiding his disappointment, Christopher greeted his fellow lords with a nod of the head.
“My, I’ll be darned. You look just like your Father when he was your age. Same striking blue eyes. Your Father could instill the fear of God in anyone with those eyes,” Viscount Havers said with a chuckle.
“Indeed, it is true. Quite the force, your Father was, My Lord. I expect you’ve inherited his spirit as well as his eyes,” Baron Strygar added.
“He certainly has. The new Duke of Westmond shall be a force to be reckoned with, I declare,” his uncle said with a certainty in his voice that made Christopher break into a grin.
“I shall hope so.”
While the older men continued their conversation, Christopher felt himself momentarily distracted by activity at the other end of the room. He glanced over and saw two younger men squabbling.
“I was counting on you,” the taller fellow said. He was broad shouldered and had dark hair which hung down just past his chin. He was glowering at another man, shorter and with shaggy-blond hair. The taller man was presently jabbing his index finger into the shorter man’s chest, clearly displeased about something.
He appeared to notice Christopher’s glance for he turned his head and tilted his head.
“What?” he barked, his voice deep and full of anger.
Christopher raised both his hands and shook his head, looking away.
“That’s Lord Thornmouth,” his uncle explained. “Don’t mind him. He’s in a bit of a mood. He’d been trying to get the Lord High Chancellor to do something about unemployment out in Cambridgeshire and his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Not something he’s used to.”
“He’s used to getting his way, Thornmouth is, eh, wot?” the Baron said, nodding toward the young man.
“Who is the other man?” Christopher asked, glancing back. The quarrel between the two men appeared to have slowed somewhat and they were now standing and talking with their voices lowered.
“Lord Lounds, Viscount from Cambridgeshire, like Thornmouth. He was to back him up but then changed his mind.”
Christopher licked his lips. It appeared this young man, who could not possibly be much older than him, was a rising star in the House of Lords. He scratched his chin and made a note of the name. Perhaps he could find a way to make his acquaintance. These were exactly the kind of people he needed to know to rise among the peerage once more.
Christopher bided his time and engaged in small talk with his uncle’s friends, having determined that the elderly Viscount and the even older Baron were most certainly not going to be among those who would help him restore the Dukedom of Westmond to its former glory. No. If he wanted to reclaim what was once his, he’d have to find another way. He glanced behind him to where the young Lord Thornmouth and his companion were just departing. He pursed his lips, deep in thought.
After what seemed an eternity, his uncle declared himself tired and in need of a rest, giving Christopher the chance to excuse himself and make his way toward his carriage. He was due to meet with his brother, Henry, for supper and his stomach was already grumbling.
“Home, My Lord?” the coachman asked as he opened the door. Climbing inside, Christopher felt a tug in his heart.
“To my uncle’s home. Yes, Thorpe,” he replied and sat leaned against the cushioned backrest. They no longer owned a home in the city. Their beautiful home in London, Havisham House, was among the properties that had been sold in order to pay off the enormous debt his father had left behind. Due to his illness and the shady business of his estate steward, Christopher had spent the first few months of his Dukedom trying to right the sinking ship. He was on the right path. Alas, some of the actions that had to be taken had been painful. The sale of Havisham House among them.
He’d loved the London house. Located in Westminster it overlooked St. James’s Park and featured one of the largest ballrooms in the entire city. His mother had loved hosting balls there when he was still a young child, long before consumption had taken her.
I shall get it back. I shall. It is one of the first things I will do.
These days, whenever they were in London, they stayed with his uncle at his modest Mayfair home.
He glanced outside at the streets which were lit by newly installed streetlights. Few people were about at this hour. He leaned his head against the window and watched as the houses passed, letting his thoughts wander. Even though he was not a keen rider, he always found the sound of trotting horses soothing, and tonight was no difference.
The carriage was just making its way past Green Park and turned onto Half Moon Street when Christopher spotted a commotion up ahead. In the dim light of the street, he saw two masked men dragging a third off his horse. He squinted and recognized that the man being pulled of his horse was a messenger.
“Thorpe, stop the carriage!”
The vehicle came to a stop and Christopher jumped out, rushing toward the men.
“Stop, you rogues.” The two men briefly looked up and then one rose to his full height, which was still somewhat shorter than Christopher who’d inherited his father’s tall statue.
“Walk away, Me Lord. This don’t concern ya at all.”
Christopher glanced down at the messenger whose nose was already bleeding and whose expression was one of fear.
“Please, My Lord. Help,” the man begged.
“I order the two of you walk away and leave the man be.”
“Do you order that now?” the masked man asked. “And on whose authority?”
Christopher grinned and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“On mine. I am Christopher Newmont, Duke of Westmond. And I order you to let up. Now.”
The masked man turned to his companion who was still holding down the terrified messenger.
“Do you hear that? The Duke of Westmond is ordering us to let the man go. What do you say? Shall we?”
His companion appeared to ponder the question for a moment and Christopher felt quite certain that the two would do as he’d asked. He was, after all, a Peer of the Realm. Alas, he was quite mistaken.
“Nah,” the second man said and suddenly Christopher felt himself being grabbed by his long hair and pushed onto the ground. It was only due to the utterly surprising attack that Christopher found himself at a disadvantage. He was no stranger to fights and always came out victorious. This time, however, he found himself on the ground.
From the corner of his eye he saw Thorpe rushing to his aid, only to be tackled by the second man, who’d let go of the messenger. To his horror, rather than help them, the messenger mounted his horse and rode into the night.
The tall man straddled Christopher’s chest and wrapped his hands around his throat, squeezing hard. Gasping for air, Christopher saw flashing images appear before his eyes. His mother, young and beautiful. His father, strong and in his prime. He and his brother with their parents on a summer’s day. He, Christopher, the spitting image of his tall, dark haired and blue-eyed father and Henry, so like their mother. The images flickered as he struggled to breath.
This cannot be the end. No. I will not allow it. I have never lost a fight and I shall not start now.
Christopher knew he only had seconds left to act, seconds to save himself, and by the looks of it, Thorpe, who was now knocked out on the ground, was taking a beating from the second man. Christopher closed his eyes and gathered all of his strength. With one deep breath he curled his hand into a fist and a moment later, swung his arm forward.
Rowena made her way down the grand staircase, running her hand along the beautifully carved wooden handrail. She crossed the foyer, passing Mrs. Wooster, their housekeeper, on the way. Mrs. Wooster was carrying a bundle of freshly cut flowers in her sturdy arms and smiled as she passed.
“Lady Rowena, don’t you look lovely today. Is that one of the new dresses Her Ladyship sent from Paris?”
“It is indeed,” she pulled the delicate silk fabric to the side and gave a little twirl, making the old woman chuckle.
“Utterly darling, I declare.”
“I was meant to save all the new dresses for when we go to London next week, but I couldn’t resist. And Mama is in London already with Margaret, so she won’t find out.” She paused and tilted her head to one side.
Perhaps I should not have told Mrs. Wooster. She is ever so loyal to Mama. But then, it is just the one dress, after all.
She needn’t have worried. The kindly woman smiled at her and shook her head.
“She shan’t find out from me. And I doubt Lady Catherine will tell her, given that she is presently prancing around the gardens wearing a new gown herself,” she winked at Rowena who grinned. “I shall carry on as these need putting in water,” she lifted the bundle of flowers and departed when Rowena gave her a nod of the head.
Rowena proceeded to make her way through the foyer. One of the footmen opened the large French doors leading outside. She stopped at the top of the stairs and inhaled. The scent of fresh-cut grass was in the air and the sound of birds singing in the distance drifted to her ears. It was May now, and spring was on the cusp of turning into summer.
She loved this time of year. The harshness of winter was long behind them and the best season of all, the London Season, was ahead of them. Rowena could hardly wait to join the rest of her family, who were already in London to attend the Royal Wedding, later in the week.
“Rowena!” her sister called out. She looked up and broke into a grin as her eyes settled on her younger sister, who was walking through their father’s rose garden up ahead. Betsy Carmichael, Rowena’s close friend, strolled alongside her.
“Come, join us. It is glorious weather out here,” Catherine called out. Rowena grinned as she gathered her pale, peach-colored gown in her hand as to not let it drag along the sandy driveway and stepped onto the gravel path.
“I see you could not resist the call of the new gowns any more than Cathy could,” Betsy said with a smirk as Rowena joined them.
“The best part of the war being over at last is that we can finally have access to all these glorious gowns from France,” Catherine said and gave a twirl. She was dressed in a striking yellow gown that flattered her blonde hair and pale skin. A row of white-lace embroidery ran down her chest in a V-shape and the same embroidery had been used around the hem. She’d paired the dress with a white spencer; it too was embroidered, this one with matching yellow flowers along the sleeves.
“I would venture to say that the soldiers disagree with you there. However, I must admit that I have never seen gowns quite as beautiful. And Mama and Margaret have really outdone themselves. We have enough gowns and hats and reticules to last six London Seasons.”
Rowena broke into a giggle, joined by Catherine. Suddenly, Rowena’s eyes fell on her friend’s face and she saw that Betsy had not joined in the excited giggles. No, instead she stood quietly, her hands folded in front of her, a polite smile upon her face.
A wave of shame overtook Rowena and she reached out to clasp her friend’s hand.
“Faith, Betsy, I am ever so sorry. I did not mean to be so insensitive and boastful.”
Betsy waved her hand dismissively. “Please, do not fret, Rowena. I am happy for you. This is an important Season for the both of you. Of course, Lady Hazelshire will want to ensure you have the very best and finest of everything. Besides, she has not entirely forgotten me.” A sheepish expression crossed her comely face and her grey eyes flashed with a spark.
“She has sent me a small trunk of items as well.”
Rowena exhaled, relieved that her mother had not forgotten their dear friend.
It was silly of me to worry. Of course, Mama provided for Betsy. She loves her ever so much.
Betsy, the only surviving child of Lady Hazelshire’s closest childhood friend, had been made an orphan ten years prior when a devastating fire robbed her of her entire family. Lady Hazelshire, loyal to her friend as she was to all those she cared about, had taken her in and raised her alongside Rowena, Catherine, and their brother, Charles.
“That is wonderful. You must show me later. We can pick out our Promenade dresses for when we are in London.”
Betsy smiled and nodded, “We shall. Although I imagine Lady Hazelshire intended the new wardrobe to assist me in finding a position, more so than to go for strolls in Hyde Park.”
Rowena swallowed hard. She knew Betsy was right. While she had been raised alongside them, she was not of noble birth and the time had come for Betsy to find a position for herself. Perhaps as a teacher or governess.
The thought of her friend leaving made Rowena incredibly sad. Of course, she knew that she would soon be leaving the family home as well…as soon as her father found her a suitable husband. She sighed. Rowena disliked change, but she knew very well what her place within the family was, just as Betsy knew hers.
“Rowena, do not look so Friday-faced. The London Season is upon us,” Catherine broke Rowena out of her sadness, excitement in her voice. She was presently squatting down beside a bed of orange roses, pulling the blossom toward her, and inhaling the scent with her eyes closed.
“Does this not smell divine? And the color matches my dress ever so well. I shall like to cut one and put it in my hair. Don’t you think that would be marvelous?”
Rowena shook her head. A strand of her rich, dark brown hair fell into her face.
“I would not dare. You know how Papa is with his roses.”
“You are such a goody good, Rowena.” She set out to break one of the roses off, making sure not to poke her skin with any thorns, and wedged it behind her ear. “Papa won’t find out. He is in London, anyhow.”
Suddenly, her sister’s blue eyes took on a dark expression. “I cannot believe we were not invited. It is a scandal, I declare.”
Rowena and Betsy exchanged a glance, each suppressing a grin.
“I would not go so far as to declare a scandal, sister. If every member of every aristocratic family in England went to the wedding, they would have to hold the wedding at outdoors in St. James’s Park instead of Carlton House. Indeed, Charles and Margaret were lucky to get invited alongside Papa and Mama.”
Catherine shook her head and rose. “Faith, Mama and Margaret best memorize every detail. I shall want to hear it all the moment we get to London.” She looked down at her hands, pouting. Rowena was struck by how young her sister looked. She was seventeen now, a woman already, but still her face still had a child-like quality to it, especially when she was upset.
“I am certain they will,” Rowena said and ran her hand along her sister’s spencer in comfort.
“I know I should not say so, but I am ever so envious of Princess Charlotte,” her sister’s voice slipped from matter-of-fact to dreamy. “They say it was love at first sight between her and Prince Leopold. Can you imagine?”
Rowena sighed. She could not. She’d never dared to. She knew very well that as the oldest daughter she would be expected to marry whoever her father chose for her. And, as much as Lord Hazelshire loved his daughters, he would choose someone who would benefit the family and who increased their influence and wealth. Not someone who fit his daughter’s romantic fantasies. Although she thought it wise to keep these thoughts to herself. Her sister was slipping into a melancholy mood as it was.
“I am sure it is wonderful. And I know you will find someone to love soon, Lady Catherine,” Betsy said, giving the younger girl an encouraging nod. Instead of being encouraged by the comment, Catherine simply sighed.
“I would need to have my coming-out ball first, of course. Otherwise no man will even know I exist.” She looked from Rowena to Betsy and back.
“Cathy–” Rowena reached toward her, but Catherine removed her hand and shook her head.
“It is quite alright, Rowena. It cannot be helped. I simply must be patient.” She rubbed her temples. “I feel as though I am coming down with a rather nasty headache. I shall rest for a while, but I will see you at dinnertime, I am sure.”
Without waiting for a reply, Catherine walked away toward the house.
“I feel ever so dreadful, Betsy,” Rowena said as she and Betsy walked along the lake which lay just beyond the rose garden. “It is my fault she has not had a coming-out ball yet. And it is my fault she has not yet been able to even look for a match.”
Rowena shook her head, her delight at the arrival of the beautiful gowns now a distant memory.
Betsy looped her arm through Rowena’s.
“It is not your fault and you know it. Do not let it vex you. I am certain your Father will find a husband for you soon and then Catherine can have the most glorious of coming-out balls and be wed in no time at all.”
Rowena sighed. She knew that the only reason her parents had held off on giving Catherine a coming-out ball was because they had yet to find a husband for Rowena. While having both daughters out at the same time was not uncommon, it was unseemly.
“I can only hope. I still feel ever so terrible about what happened with Lord Mortimer.” She shuddered at the memory. The year prior, her father had attempted to make a match for her with Louis Forbes, the Marquess of Mortimer. She had met the young man on several occasions, always properly chaperoned by her mother and found him as tolerable as one could hope for in a match. She’d expected that an offer of marriage would be made in no time at all.
In fact, her parents had been so confident that an offer would be made, plans were drawn up for a summer wedding as well as a coming-out ball for Catherine that fall, who’d been ecstatic at the idea.
And then the unthinkable had happened. Lord Mortimer had run off with his secret lover, the daughter of a local butcher, and wed her at Gretna Green. Utterly devastated by the events, Lady Hazelshire had taken to her bed for a week, and Catherine had cried until her eyes were puffy and red, and Rowena…well. She had done what she’d been raised to do. Kept her composure. While her mother and sister had fallen into despair at their respective disappointments, Rowena had carried on as always.
“Faith, don’t waste another thought on that scoundrel Mortimer. You’ll see, soon enough you will have a new match and Catherine will have a ball. And I, God willing, will have a suitable position.”
Rowena frowned. “Have you got any prospects?”
Her friend shrugged. “Lady Hazelshire is going to take me along on her morning calls when we get to London to introduce me to some of the families that might be in need of a governess.”
Rowena sighed heavily. “I shall miss you ever so much, Betsy.”
Her friend shook her head. “Don’t fret. I won’t go far. You all are as close to a family as I have. I’d never want to leave you. Well,” she winked, “unless a handsome young merchant asks for my hand in marriage. Then I might be inspired to go wherever he wants to take me.”
She swayed a little as she walked, and Rowena found herself pushing away a slight ping of envy.
Sometimes I wish I had the freedom to wed a man I choose, like Betsy.
She pushed the thought away, reminding herself of all the blessings she had in her life and of all the hardships Betsy had gone though. If Betsy could find a man who loved her and gave her a comfortable life, Rowena would be happy for her. There were few people who deserved happiness more than Betsy.
“Shall we return to the house?” Betsy asked after they’d walked for a while in silence.
Rowena nodded, “Perhaps we should. I have much packing yet to do. I dare say, Mama went a little over the top with her purchases.”
Betsy laughed out loud. “She does love fashion. I will say, I was surprised she took Lady Dorset with her to Paris and not you or Catherine.”
Rowena shrugged. “I expect she is trying to make nice with Margaret, since she will be the Countess of Hazelshire one day, when Charles inherits the title.”
Betsy shook her head. “I dare say I don’t–“ She got no farther for up ahead, Catherine sprinted their way, running so fast she had to hold on to her bonnet to keep it from flying off her head.
“Rowena! Betsy! A messenger has come, a messenger!” She reached them, totally out of breath and bent forward, pushing her hands on her knees. In her hand she held a letter. Rowena recognized the broken wax seal at once as that of her father. She swallowed. Why would he be sending a messenger all the way to Herfortshire when they were going to be in London in less than a week?
“What is it, Lady Catherine?” Betsy asked, anxiety in her voice.
Catherine straightened and took a deep breath and then broke into a grin so wide it lit up her entire face.
“I am to have a ball. A coming-out ball! It is true. Papa has rented out the Worcester Ballroom for it and he will invite all the finest lords and ladies. It will be in a month’s time. Can you imagine? The Worcester Ballroom? It is glorious. And to receive such news on the day of Princess Charlotte’s wedding makes it all the more wonderful.”
She swayed back and forth, clutching the letter to her chest.
Rowena felt Betsy’s eyes on her before she even looked at her. When their eyes met, she could see that her friend knew what this meant just as much as Rowena did.
She steadied herself and then addressed her sister, who was swallowed up in a cloud of elation.
“Was there a letter for me as well?”
“What?” Catherine stopped swaying and looked up as if woken from a dream. Then she nodded. “There was. I am ever so sorry, I forgot. I was so excited about my ball.” She reached into her reticule and retrieved a sealed letter which was now somewhat crumpled from its journey inside Catherine’s bag.
She handed it to Rowena. As she took it, she suddenly realizing her hand was shaking. Forcing her hand to steady itself, she took a deep breath and broke the seal. She began to read the letter she knew would change her life forever.
Christopher sat at the breakfast table, a steaming cup of hot chocolate growing cold before him. He held a beautiful golden necklace in his hand. Its long chain danced and twisted as he held it up to the morning light. The small pendant at the bottom caught the sunrays and sparkled. He’d found it on the ground after he and Thorpe had finally chased off the attackers two days prior.
The messenger, so cowardly that he had likely dropped it in his hasty retreat, abandoned all hope of delivering it to its recipient. He’d looked for the note or letter that had to have gone with it but hadn’t found anything. He had to admit, he’d been too exhausted to search properly that night.
A fly buzzed around the freshly baked honey bread, irritating Christopher. He swung his hand across the table to chase it away just as his brother, Henry, stepped through the door.
“Good morning, oh hero of the streets of London.”
Christopher gave his brother a weak smile and nodded toward the empty chair.
“Join me, will you?”
“Don’t mind if I do. It appears all this delicious food shall go to waste if I do not. Has your appetite deserted you, brother?” Henry took a seat and immediately set about cutting a large slice of honey bread from the loaf. He smeared it with butter and a generous helping of elderberry jam and took a bite.
I have never known one with such an appetite who remained so trim of figure.
“Have you decided what to do about that?” he nodded toward the necklace on the table.
Christopher shrugged his shoulders and winced. With his left hand he rubbed his right shoulder.
“Still aches? Perhaps you should have seen the physician after all,” his brother suggested before biting into an apple.
“It is nothing. I’ve had worse just falling off a horse. As will you if you decided to go in the military.”
Being the younger of two, there were no lands that awaited Henry and the young man had to make a life for himself. Christopher knew that he had his heart set on joining the military. A fine option for a young man, and with the dark days of the Napoleonic Wars behind them, a far less worrying one.
Yet, Christopher knew that his brother had been delaying his decision to join in order to help Christopher achieve his quest to rebuild their fortunes.
Henry held out his hand and bent his index finger, requesting the item. He dropped it into his brother’s hand and finally turned his attention to the honey bread on his plate.
“To my Darling Daughter, my Beautiful Rose. Your Loving Father.” Henry read the inscription out loud, his soft voice full of wonder. “Not much of a clue at all.”
Christopher crossed his legs.
“No, not at all. I have spread word at Parliament to see if anyone was in expectation of a messenger, but no results thus far.”
Henry frowned. “Why are you so determined to find the rightful owner? Judging by the material, the father is rather wealthy and can easily replace the item for his daughter.”
It was true, the chain itself was made of gold. The pendant, rectangular and with smooth edges, appeared older. The front contained a painting of three roses, intertwined to show one stem. Unusual.
“The father took great pains to create this. Surely it is important to him. And to his daughter.” He paused and locked eyes with his brother. “Imagine if Mother’s handkerchief had been lost.”
Henry’s green eyes darkened, and he dropped the apple he’d been eating on the table with a thud.
“I do not like when you invoke Mother.”
Christopher shrugged. “Like it, don’t like it. It is the same. Now. I shall go out and take a walk around Half Moon Street and the area, perhaps the letter which surely accompanied this pendant can still be located. Will you accompany me?”
Henry nodded. “The street sweepers are likely to have got to it, if it was ever there, but certainly. But only if a visit to Brook’s is in the cards.”
Christopher groaned. “Brook’s is for the Whigs. We’re Tories. White’s it is, or nothing.”
The brothers rose. “We are only Tories because Father was and Uncle Nestor is. We might make up our own minds as to what we believe in. Besides. Brook’s has much better wine than White’s.”
They made their way toward to their chambers to ready themselves for the ride just as Uncle Nestor’s voice could be heard.
“As long as we have to share Uncle Nestor’s house, you would do well not to mention Brook’s again,” Christopher said with a grin.
Henry rolled his eyes and a moment later, they parted ways.
The brothers had walked around Half Moon Street and the adjacent roads for the better part of two hours, scanning the streets for any lost communication the messenger might have dropped that night, but to no avail. Currently, they were making their way down Charles Street.
“Truthfully, the attack took place on the corner. We do not even know where he was going. It might be hopeless after all,” Christopher said, his voice now full of doubt. They might just be wasting their time. Yes, it was the right thing to do, to return the pendant to its true owner. It was the honorable thing. Certainly, seeking out the owner was the kind of thing their mother would have encouraged them to do.
Yet, it was not practical. He ought to concentrate on the matter of his social standing, not roaming the streets in search of lost letters. As so often, Christopher found himself torn between what was expected, and what was right in his heart.
“Topher!” Henry called out using his childhood nickname.
“Let us cut around and head through the park. White’s is not far from here. I am famished.”
“Very well,” Christopher nodded and the two headed in the direction of Green Park. He noticed that the streets were not as busy as they had been in the past few days. Given that the weather had taken a turn for the worse, this was no big surprise. It only meant that White’s would be crowded, which was fortunate.
A full club meant many opportunities to make connections and with Henry by his side, it would be all the easier. They were both outgoing, outspoken individuals. They often made a wonderful team.
“Let’s see if we can find some lords willing to play us in billiards. Perhaps we can make connections and win some guinea at the same time.”
Henry laughed out loud. “Always a scheme going, Brother, eh, wot?”
“Eh, wot? You are beginning to sound like Uncle Nestor, Henry. It is about time we moved back to Havisham House before you start turning into an old man before your time.”
His brother’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps it is unwise to set your hopes on reclaiming the house. The Viscount may not be willing to sell it back to us, even if fortune’s wheel turns in our favor once more.”
Christopher shook his head.
“Let me worry about the matter when it comes to it. Havisham House is the London home of the Dukes of Westmond, and it shall never change. I am certain I will reclaim it.”
Christopher had not found it in his heart to go to Westminster to see the house, instead taking the long way around each day on his way to Parliament to avoid seeing it. He was determined that the first time he’d go near it again would be the day he was ready to purchase it back.
“Brother!” Henry’s voice drew him back to reality. He turned around and saw his brother point at a house across the street, on the corner of Charles and Queen Streets.
It was one of the more modern town houses and looked to be four-stories tall. Christopher spotted two bricked-up windows, done so to avoid the window tax, of course. A clear indication that the owner was wealthy.
The windows on the lower floors were tall and the building’s exterior was stucco, another indication that it was new. Christopher disliked these more modern homes. He much preferred the older Tudor style of Havisham House, or his Uncle’s home.
“What is it?” he asked.
“There, look.” His brother pointed at the two columns which framed the black front door. Like many in the area, they were of a stark white, but there was something unusual about them. On each of the two columns was a distinct painting. Three roses intertwined to appear as though they had one stem.
“The same as the pendant,” Henry said while Christopher stared.
They two men made their way across the street and peered at the engraving on the marble columns. Christopher pulled out the pendant and held it up for comparison when suddenly, the door opened.
“Can I help you?” an older man, the butler no doubt, asked in a stern voice.
Feeling not unlike a child caught doing a misdeed, Christopher lowered the pendant and cleared his throat while fishing in his pocket for a calling card.
“Indeed, good sir. I am Christopher Newmont, Duke of Westmond. I would like to call upon the lord of the house. Lord…?” He tilted his head to one side, aware that his calling upon a house whose owner he did not know and was most likely not yet formally introduced to was frowned upon.
But then, he had not called on them, really. The butler had come out to call on him, so to speak.
“Lord Hazelshire is not at home. I will present your calling card upon his return.”
Hazelshire. The name is familiar. How do I know it? Have I met the man at Parliament? Or at White’s perhaps?
“When can His Lordship be expected back?” Henry asked as a carriage came to a stop on the street behind them.
The butler sighed and nodded with his chin in the direction of the carriage.
“It appears His Lordship has returned now. However, I am certain he is very busy, so if you could–”
The carriage door was opened, and an older man stepped out. Dressed in a cream-colored pair of pantaloons and a dark-green tailcoat with a matching waist coat underneath, the man looked every bit a lord of the ton. He stopped to pull his waistcoat straight and then fixed his eyes on Christopher and Henry.
“What is this then, Mister Foxworth? Morning callers so early in the day?”
He approached them and stopped before them, with Christopher reaching for another calling card which he handed to the man who had to be Lord Hazelshire. The older man held the card out in front of him and squinted, then pulling his looking glass in front of one eye.
“The Duke of Westmond? I knew your Father. Quite a fellow. Ever so sorry to hear about his passing.” He reached out his hand which Christopher shook. “James Burton, Earl of Hazelshire.”
The Earl of Hazelshire? I cannot believe it! He is one of the richest Earls in the entire House of Lords. One of the richest men in the entire country. What a stroke of luck!
Beside them, the butler stepped from one foot onto the other. Christopher knew the man had to be highly upset by this irregular display. Under normal circumstances it would be he, the butler, who would be introducing Christopher. However, this was not a usual afternoon.
The Earl and Christopher shook hands. “Thank you, Lord Hazelshire. It was a tragedy to be sure.”
The Earl squinted and looked at Henry who stood and waited for his introduction.
“My brother, Lord Hazelshire,” Christopher pointed at the younger man. “Lord Henry.” Henry nodded at the Earl.
“It is good to meet you both. Shall we?” He motioned toward the house. The butler’s eyes darted from one to the other. “Foxworth, have some tea sent up to my study, and perhaps some candied fruit, if there is any.”
The three men made their way into the house and through the modern parlor toward the back of the house, where the Earl’s study was located. Christopher was struck at once by how much the interior of the study differed from the rest of the house.
From the furniture to the tapestry that lined the high walls, everything appeared to be from a much earlier time, Jacobean perhaps. In fact, it reminded him of his father’s study at their country home. The only home they had left.
He glanced at Henry who appeared to be thinking the same.
The Earl stepped behind a large oak desk and motioned for them to sit on the heavy, red velvet chairs before the desk. Once seated, Christopher fished for the necklace in his pocket and held it in his hand, waiting for the opportunity to present it. Before he could, Lord Hazelshire spoke.
“I apologize for not making your acquaintance earlier. I’ve been exceptionally busy. I acquired a vineyard in Shropshire which turned out to be rather more time consuming than I had anticipated. In fact, I shall have to set off again tonight to return there.” The man shook his head, his wrinkles appeared to deepen. Then, suddenly, his eyes widened. “Westmond.” He pointed an index finger at Christopher as if something had just come to him. “Your Father owned a vineyard also, did he not? Summerwind Wine, that is yours?”
Christopher wetted his lips as he nodded. The vineyard was one of the few properties they had been able to hold on to. In fact, the vineyard was their main source of income these days.
“Indeed, it is. In fact, it is I who has been overseeing the vineyard and the winery there for the past few years.”
Lord Hazelshire nodded. “Yes, I imagine with your Father’s illness–”
“Before the illness, even,” Christopher interrupted, earning himself a sharp kick from his brother which reminded him of his manners. Since inheriting the title, he’d developed a bit of a habit of allowing the grand title to cloud his good manners.
He had to remind himself that just because he outranked these marquesses, earls, and viscounts didn’t mean he should disrespect them by interrupted them as they spoke. If nothing else, he needed them in his quest to rebuild his wealth.
Fortunately for him, Lord Hazelshire did not appear in the least perturbed by his poor manners, if he’d noticed at all.
“Christopher is quite the expert when it comes to wine production now, My Lord,” Henry said. Christopher smiled at his brother, grateful for his attempt at smoothing over his rudeness.
“Well, that is wonderful to know. As I said, I am having a rather unfortunate time with it. It appeared a worthwhile investment and my son is keen to take over the operation. However, it has been troublesome…” he shrugged. “Perhaps when my son and I return from Shropshire we can take dinner together, the four of us and talk about the business. Perhaps at White’s?”
This is going better than I had expected, and I have yet to return the necklace to him.
“Indeed, I would love to.”
“Well, that is settled then. Of course, I assume this was not the nature of your visit. What was it you were coming to call on us for?”
The brothers exchange a glance.
“Well, it is an unusual matter but, as it were, a couple of nights ago as I was returning from Parliament, I witnessed a robbery in progress, just a few streets from here, on Half Moon.”
“How ghastly! And I had thought Mayfair such a safe neighborhood. The best in London,” Lord Hazelshire’s voice was laced in outrage.
“Indeed. It was a messenger who was attacked. I was able to fend off the attackers…”
“With help of our coachman, Mister Thorpe,” Henry threw in, glaring at Christopher once more for taking too much of the credit.
“Yes, yes, Mister Thorpe. Brave man he is. In any case, together we were able to fend off the attackers. The messenger had run off with his horse the first chance he had and, well, he left this behind.”
Christopher opened his hand and held it out to the Earl who gasped.
“By Jove, there it is!” He took the necklace from Christopher’s palm and held up the necklace. A loving expression appeared on his face. “I had this made by my trusted jeweler back home in Hertfordshire and expected it days ago. I feared it lost. What good fortune. And just in time, for my daughter will arrive in London today…” He retrieved a handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and folded it around the necklace. “There wasn’t a letter with it, I suppose?”
Christopher shook his head. “If there was, it is lost. Once the attackers had fled, I found the necklace on the ground. Thorpe and I looked for a letter or anything to identify the owner but were unlucky.”
“My brother was determined to find the owner. Hope against hope, we decided to comb the streets once more, in case the letter had flown away.”
Christopher cleared his throat and crossed his legs. “It was sheer luck that my brother spotted the three-headed rose on the columns outside your house and remembered that the same symbol was on the necklace.”
The older man broke into a soft smile, his eyes sparkled.
“Ah yes, the roses. A design I created myself, many years ago.” He rose, pocketing the handkerchief containing the necklace. He walked around the table and past the brothers. “It symbolizes them,” he said. Christopher followed his gaze and saw he was pointing at a painting behind them.
The breath got caught in Christopher’s throat when his eyes fell upon the painting. It showed three women, one slightly older, with blonde hair, and another, younger, who looked almost identical. And then there was the third woman. Tall and slender, her hair dark as ember and her eyes just as deep and dark, she peered down from the painting as if looking directly at Christopher.
Without meaning to, he rose from his chair and stepped beside the Earl, unable to take his eyes off the woman in the painting. She was ethereal.
“My wife, Emma, and my daughters, Catherine and Rowena,” he pointed first at the two blonde women, and then the dark-haired one.
Rowena. What a beautiful name for a beautiful woman.
“I created the symbol of the roses for them. My three roses, each an individual, but each of the same strong root. I am fond of roses. I should mention that I dabble in the arts, thus the rose.” The Earl chuckled but Christopher hardly heard him.
“What a beautiful family you have,” Henry’s voice drifted to Christopher’s ear, but he hardly took note.
“Indeed. This is my son, Charles. Viscount Dorset. He is the one dealing with the vineyard most of the time, and beside him is his wife, Margaret. The painting was created shortly before their wedding, two years ago, at the same time as that of my three roses here.”
“A beautiful family. May I ask, which of your daughters was the necklace for? Excuse me if I am too forward in asking.” Henry’s voice said.
“Not at all. Indeed, it was a gift for–”
The woman’s eyes seemed to speak to him. There was a depth in them, as if she had many tales to tell, tales he longed to hear. He knew if he was opposite her in real life, he would get lost in those eyes. He imagined what her voice might sound like. Soft and kind, her words chosen carefully. He found himself wondering how she might smell, like a rose perhaps? Or a summer’s day?
“Christopher?” Henry’s voice carried an undercurrent of alarm which drew him out of his daydream.
“Yes, Henry? What is it?”
His brother glared at him and Christopher noted that both his brother and Lord Hazelshire were once again seated at their respective chairs. Embarrassed, he quickly joined them.
“I am sorry, I have not slept well since the attack. I am fatigued.”
“Lord Hazelshire has just very graciously invited us to his daughter’s upcoming coming-out ball,” Henry said.
“Indeed? That is very considerate of you, Lord Hazelshire. My brother and I gladly accept the invitation.”
Lord Hazelshire clapped his hands together in delight.
“Very well. The party is to be held in two weeks’ time, at the Worcester Ballroom. Do you know it?”
Christopher nodded, his thoughts already at the party. He wished he had paid closer attention to the conversation between Henry and Lord Hazelshire. Then he might know which of the two daughters was having her coming-out party. In any case, certainly both sisters would be at the party and he was bound to be able to meet her there.
Perhaps he could even steal a dance or two. Christopher felt himself falling back into the dream like state he’d experienced while examining the portrait but forced himself to remain in the present.
“I do. And I look forward to it.”
“Wonderful. We shall make plans for our dinner at the ball. I must say, as unfortunate as the business with the lost necklace was, I am ever so glad it has led us to each other. I foresee a prosperous future for this acquaintance.”
With that, Lord Hazelshire rose and Christopher and Henry followed suit as he led them out of the room.
They bade the Earl farewell and made their way outside.
The moment they stepped outside; Henry boxed him in the arm.
‘What is the matter with you? Finally, we make a connection that could lead us to prosper once more and you all but depart the conversation, standing like a fool while staring at the painting of the man’s family.”
He sighed, “I cannot explain it. There was something about her, the daughter. I must meet her. Henry, I have not the words but something about this woman is so magnetic that it has captured me.”
Henry frowned and then shrugged.
“She is pretty, looks just like her Mother too.”
“Not her, the one with the dark hair. She is ever so striking, so–” he stopped where he stood, stretching one arm out to his side to stop Henry.
‘Oh, Brother, what are you doing?” he grunted as he walked with his chest into his brother’s outstretched arm.
“Look,” Christopher said as they stood on the sidewalk.
Up ahead, a carriage stopped. Embedded within the Coat of Arms was the now familiar symbol, the rose.
The carriage door opened, and the coachman assisted a blonde-haired woman, Lady Hazelshire, no doubt, out of the vehicle. She was outfitted in a traveling dress, as was the young blonde woman who followed her out of the carriage.
This must be the Earl’s family arriving. He did say they were due today. And that means, certainly that means she will be among them.
A young woman with shorter, amber-colored hair stepped out next. Christopher did not recognize her. She’d not been in the painting. However, following her–
He took step forward, almost walking into an oncoming curricle when Henry pulled him back.
“Topher! What has gotten into you?”
He almost did not hear him for his eyes were fixed on the woman with the long, dark hair who had stepped out of the carriage after the rest of her family. He stared in her direction, knowing in his heart it was her. The woman from the painting.
He waited, hoping she might turn around to look in his direction so he might see her face in real life.
After a long moment, she did. The sun lit up her pale face, giving her dark hair a glimmer and for just one glorious second, their eyes met across the street.
Christopher knew then, he had to meet her in person. He knew that nothing would ever be the same again.
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