Private Affairs of a Wicked Duke – Henrietta Harding

Twenty-two years old, red-headed, and whip-smart, Abigail Young drew herself off horseback and swept to the ground, gripping the reins of her beautiful glossy black beauty, whom she’d named Rain. On the other side of the horse, she heard her dear cousin and best friend Tabitha’s cry of alarm. “Goodness me!” she hollered. “What is it this time?” Abigail demanded. “Nothing. Well,” Tabitha staggered for a moment, considering her words. “It’s only that I’ve stepped directly into a mighty pool of mud.” Abigail giggled and rushed around the side of her horse to find Tabitha ankle-deep in mud, gripping the reins of her horse sheepishly. “You must be joking, Tabitha,” Abigail tried. “Why on earth would I joke about something like this?” Tabitha demanded. “It might surprise you, but it truly doesn’t please me to play any sort of fool.” “Oh, but darling Tabby, you’re ever so good at it,” Abigail said with a wide grin. “Come now. Hand me the reins.” She collected Tabitha’s horse and led both beasts to the stables, where she bellowed a wild greeting to the stable hand, Martin, who’d worked at her parents’ estates for the previous fifteen years, since she’d been a girl.

“Did you have a fine ride, Miss Abigail?” he asked, taking the reins. “Indeed. We avoided disaster until the very final part,” Abigail affirmed. “Tabitha’s decided to make herself useful to the mud.” “Oh, dear me,” Martin said, chortling. “She always does get herself into such situations, doesn’t she?” “I can hear you, Martin,” Tabitha cried. “I’d better run,” Abigail whispered conspiratorially, before rushing back into the ruins to collect Tabitha. It was late May, and the clouds had brewed over the glowering, massive estate. As she dragged Tabitha out from the muck, droplets of rain splattered across their cheeks. “Abigail, I know I’ve said this before,” Tabitha said.

She sped up to stay with Abigail, whose longer legs stretched out beautifully beneath her skirts. “But we aren’t children anymore. I can’t very well arrive back at my parents’ estate with mucky dresses. It isn’t becoming. And suppose Reginald were to stop past? He might end our engagement on the spot.” Abigail stopped short and flashed her eyes towards Tabitha, who staggered to a halt, as well. “I asked you not to bring him up today,” Abigail blurted. “I know. I just …” “It’s my birthday, Tabitha,” Abigail shot back. Tabitha grimaced.

“Your birthday was several days ago. Some of us have to move on.” “I just don’t want to be reminded that you’ll soon be a wife and mother,” Abigail returned. “I’m twenty-two years old, but I feel much more like fifteen, sixteen. You’ve given up on our pact to be youthful forever.” “We made that pact when we were youthful,” Tabitha returned. “Yes. Because we liked it so much,” Abigail spat. She crossed her arms tightly over her chest and glowered. “You know, you’ll lose all your independence when you marry him.

Reginald.” She said his name as though it was an insult. “As though I have a great deal of independence now?” Tabitha said. “All I’ve done today is follow you on horseback across the countryside.” “You could lead once in a while,” Abigail shot back. “You know I get apprehensive that you’ll fall off your horse and I won’t realize it, and I …” “It’s all right, Tabby. Come on. You’re shivering,” Abigail said. She grabbed Tabitha’s elbow and dragged her back towards the garden entrance of the estate, where they could easily slip off their wet and mucky gowns and tap up the back staircase, towards Abigail’s bedroom. Abigail’s bedroom was glossy, refined, with a four-poster bed in the corner, a porcelain washbasin covered with painted flowers, and a stunning old portrait of her once-gorgeous mother on the wall.

Her mother was, of course, still rather beautiful—but liked to point to this painting as a means to illustrate just how quickly time passed. Often, this conversation was linked with one regarding Abigail’s seeming inability to court anyone. “Your looks will fade, my darling. It’s best that you find a man now before it’s too late,” Lady Young had said. Tabitha sat on the floor, studying her newly-scrubbed, pale feet. She wore only her underthings, and Abigail was reminded of long-ago days when they’d frequently slept over at one another’s estates and whispered secrets to one another through the night. “Tell me, Tabitha. What on earth do you like about dear Reginald, in any case?” Abigail asked. Tabitha rolled her eyes. “You’ve asked me this question nearly every day since the engagement began,” she said.

“And you know I always say the same thing.” “Say it again,” Abigail insisted. She bounced on the edge of her bed, drawing her pillow across her chest and squeezing it tight. Tabitha heaved another sigh. “I told you. I think he’s a confident, proud, and regal sort of man, the kind of man it would be difficult to top, should I continue on the often admittedly horrible adventure of courting through the season.” “You make it sound as if all this life was meant for was pursuing a mate,” Abigail said. “My parents have willed it. As have yours,” Tabitha said, arching her brow. “Your two elder sisters already have young children of their own.

They must look to you with such expectation.” Abigail snapped her fingers. “My mother has taken you to the side in attempts to knock some sense into me again, hasn’t she? My goodness, she’s stooped low.” “She’s only worried about you,” Tabitha insisted. “Please. Don’t give her any sort of support,” Abigail returned. “Whose side are you on, in any case?” “You know I’m on your side,” Tabitha murmured. “It’s only that I can’t envision this going on so much longer. There have been countless men who’ve been interested in you. Last year, don’t you remember how remarkable it was? That trader from London, who’d lived in the West Indies for a time and pledged to take you wherever you wanted to go.

He was incredibly handsome. You treated him as though he was scum between your toes. I’ve never witnessed anything like it.” “He was altogether too arrogant for my liking,” Abigail returned. “Don’t you remember? He seemed sure that I would swoon over him.” “All the other women swooned over him,” Tabitha said. “Including you, a tiny bit,” Abigail teased. “Perhaps a bit,” Tabitha offered, her cheeks brightening. “But he’s no Reginald. He’s not your beloved,” Abigail said.

“You’ve really got to give him a chance,” Tabitha insisted. “Perhaps.” “But there were other men as well,” Tabitha continued. “Men who really could have made you happy if you’d allowed them the chance.” “Yes. Let’s continue down memory lane,” Abigail remarked, bouncing a bit on the edge of her bed. “Remember that man who looked almost like my twin? What was his name?” “Christopher,” Tabitha said. “You wanted nothing at all to do with him.” Abigail scrunched her nose. “Can you imagine our children? Redheads, all of them.

” “For some, that’s quite a thing to wish for,” Tabitha returned. “I would adore red-headed children.” “Perhaps you and I should make a baby, then,” Abigail teased. Tabitha buzzed her lips in exasperation. “You’re exhausting. I don’t know what your parents will do with you in the end.” “Neither do I!” Abigail said. “And it’s such an exciting ride, wondering what will come next.” Abigail fetched two gowns for them, as Tabitha planned to stay for dinner with Abigail’s mother and father. Together, they hovered over the washbasin, ensuring their curls were set in-place after their monstrous horseback ride across the moors.

They took the grand staircase from the upper quarters, down into the glossy, marble foyer below. Abigail’s curls bounced down her back; she felt light, free, energetic—just a few days past her twenty-second birthday, and ready for another luxurious summer. Of course, it was regrettable that Tabitha had decided upon an engagement—but Tabitha had never had the gumption Abigail had. Abigail’s vision for her life had nothing at all to do with courting or matrimony. She had only to continue her stubborn streak; she felt sure she could carve out her place in the world without a man beside her. “Good evening, Aunt Evelyn, Uncle Peter,” Tabitha said. Already, Lady Evelyn Young and Lord Peter Young sat at either end of the overly long dining table, their hands folded in their laps. They gave Tabitha and Abigail expectant looks. After a strained silence, Evelyn said, “Good evening, girls. We imagined you’d be much later than even this.

” “What a lovely way to greet us,” Abigail said. She slipped into a chair in the centre of the table, as Tabitha flopped into the one opposite. The girls gave one another annoyed glances, then forced themselves to grin. “Where on earth were you this afternoon?” Evelyn demanded, lifting her wine glass and furrowing her brow. “I imagined the two of you could sit with me and work on your stitching. It was such fun last time we did that together.” “Yes. Really, such fun,” Abigail returned, allowing a sarcastic edge to lift into her syllables just a bit. Luckily, her mother didn’t notice. “How have you been, Tabitha?” Peter asked.

“It’s such an exciting thing, your engagement to Reginald Thompson. Evelyn and I spoke of it this afternoon, didn’t we? You planned a wedding for early August?” “That’s our aim,” Tabitha said. Abigail coughed once, loud enough to force Tabitha’s eyes towards her. Immediately, she stuck out her tongue, ever-so-slightly, an indication that Reginald-talk was lacklustre. “How was it the two of you came to meet?” Lord Young asked. Tabitha stuttered for a moment. “My father encountered him through business dealings and … and I believe the two of them, well …” Abigail hadn’t known this portion of the tale. Her eyes snapped up, ogling Tabitha. “Your parents arranged your marriage?” Tabitha’s cheeks were tomato-red. Under her breath, she muttered, “It’s not as though I wouldn’t have courted him, given the chance …” “But you weren’t given any sort of chance,” Abigail blurted.

“You were forced into this engagement, without any sort of regard for your feelings. Do you have any idea how strange that is? It’s the rest of your life, Tabitha. It’s …” “That’s enough, Abigail,” Lady Young said. She placed the flat of her palm against her forehead and rubbed it slowly. “Let’s all just eat in silence for a few moments, shall we?” Tabitha shot Abigail a strange look. Abigail groaned inwardly. It was a common thing, especially over the past few years, for her parents to grow outraged with her at the dinner table. More than once, they’d threatened to dismiss her—something she usually challenged with words like, “Please, do. I can hardly take it.” To put it frankly, neither Peter Young nor Evelyn Young knew quite what to do with their youngest daughter.

Very quickly, Tabitha—ever the people-pleaser—suggested a fresh topic of conversation. News from London, how vibrant the rose bushes looked, even the concept of rain, were tossed about the dinner table, while Abigail moved around various food items on her plate. After dessert, Tabitha excused herself, declaring that it was time to return to her estate. Her father was Abigail’s father’s older brother, yet Tabitha was the oldest in her family, with a younger brother, aged twenty named Timothy. Throughout their lives, Abigail had almost continually informed Timothy of just how lucky he had it: he was allowed to live out his existence as a man, making decisions as he went without regarding anyone else’s opinion of him. “You’re free,” she’d whispered to him, even in their early teenage years. “Make use of it.” At the door, Tabitha wrapped her arms around Abigail and whispered, “Don’t make such a fuss about Reginald. Nothing is going to change between the two of us. Don’t worry yourself.

” Abigail’s nostrils flared. “That has nothing to do with why I’m upset.” “Whatever you say,” Tabitha returned before disappearing with the stable hand, assigned to take her home in a carriage. Abigail pondered Tabitha’s last words in the foyer, her hand still splayed across the door. Was there any reality in what she’d spoken? Was it true that Abigail’s anger over Tabitha’s engagement extended no further than her annoyance that she might lose Tabitha’s dear friendship for good? Certainly, it all wasn’t so simple. Far behind her, down the hall, she heard the soft murmurings of her parents’ voices. Although she loved them dearly, she hardly had the words to relate to them. Within seconds, she’d crafted a plan to dart to her bedroom and avoid continued correspondence. However, the moment her foot crept atop the first stair, her father’s voice boomed down the hall. “Darling Abigail.

Would you mind coming to the parlour for a moment?” Abigail froze. Her mind raced over several different options, ways to draw herself out of whatever cage had presented itself. “It will only take a moment, darling!” her mother echoed. Her younger self—a young woman on the brink of courting—had had far more responsibilities, and thus, would have been able to spout something now like, “I have a bit of French to study,” or, “I’ve only a few inches left on the painting.”


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