Lady Selina Drake peered out through the window of her father’s landau, which was taking her from her father’s estate in Hertfordshire, to her uncle’s home in Colchester, a two days’ journey by carriage. The shiny black carriage was pulled by a perfectly matched pair of Norfolk Trotters. On the pale-blue velvet seat across from her, Faith, her lady’s maid, was sound asleep, snoring softly. Her head rested against the window. Her bonnet had slipped back, and her mousy-blonde hair was tumbling out of her bun. Selina let her sleep—it had been a long journey. Selina was dressed in a smart gray frock, which wouldn’t show the wrinkles after a long drive into the country. A simple straw bonnet covered her golden hair, the gray silk ribbon tied beneath her chin in a bow. From far off, she spotted the familiar façade of Kirby Hall, her uncle’s country seat. It was like returning home, in some ways. She’d spent much time at Kirby Hall when she was young. It had been five years since her last visit. Her father, Lord Everett Drake, the Earl of Quinton, was traveling for business. He’d been called away to Paris to oversee some of his investments in silk. Her mother, Lady Quinton, never let an opportunity to go to Paris pass her by, and Selina’s older brother, Thomas, was visiting a friend in the Lakes District.
Selina didn’t want to remain at Staunton, her father’s sprawling estate, so she had written to her aunt and uncle, to see if she could visit. As it turned out, her cousin, Leah, was newly engaged, and they were happy to receive her. She was invited to stay through the spring, so that she could be there for the wedding festivities. The carriage pulled onto the long, winding drive that led to Kirby Hall. The estate was lined by white fences, which boasted grassy fields, filled with her uncle’s thoroughbred horses. The driveway led the landau past an overlook, from which Selina could see Kirby from a distance—the large white house with three floors of shiny windows and the large lake in the foreground. Lady Selina leaned forward, gently tapping Faith on the shoulder. “Wake up! We’re here!” she said softly. Faith’s gray eyes fluttered open, and she stretched. “I’m sorry, My Lady,” she apologized.
“I didn’t mean to drift off like that.” “It’s quite all right, Faith,” Lady Selina replied. “It’s been a long journey.” When the landau pulled up in front of Kirby Hall, her uncle’s butler was just walking down the front steps to meet them. He was an elderly man, dressed in a crisp dark suit. It had been several years since Selina had seen him. In that time, his hair had turned to the color of frost. “Welcome back to Kirby Hall, Lady Selina!” he said, opening the carriage door, and offering her his gloved hand. “Thank you, Mr. Wickes,” Selina replied.
“How was your journey, My Lady?” he asked as she alighted from the carriage, her halfboots landing neatly in the gravel of the drive. “Lord and Lady Kirby, and your cousin, Lady Leah, await you in the withdrawing room, My Lady,” he told her. Lady Selina waited for him to help Faith down. Her lady’s maid stumbled a little, breathing a sigh of relief when she was on the ground. “Right this way, My Lady—I’ll have the manservant bring your bags,” Mr. Wickes said, ushering Lady Selina inside of the house. Selina turned to Faith as she walked, “Can you please make sure that my new silk gown made it here in one piece?” “Of course, My Lady,” Faith replied. “I’d like to wear it to dinner,” Selina told her. “Would you mind pressing it?” “I’ll see to it, My Lady,” Faith assured her. “Thank you, Faith.
” Her lady’s maid was always with her—to ensure that everything went smoothly. Lady Selina didn’t know how she’d ever manage without her. Not that she would ever be in a position to find out. At least—she hoped. Mr. Wickes opened the large front door. It was painted a sleek black, with a big brass knocker. The butler held it open, so that Selina could pass. She entered, looking around. The inside of Kirby Hall was the same as it had been the last time she had visited.
The foyer’s high ceiling was adorned with a massive, medieval-looking chandelier, and the sweeping stone staircase led toward the upper floors. Servants were everywhere— dusting, sweeping, carrying full vases with fresh flowers. “Come,” Mr. Wickes said. “Lord and Lady Kirby are just upstairs. I shall bring you all some tea.” “That sounds marvelous,” Selina said gratefully, following the man up the staircase and down the upper hallway lined with oil paintings depicting her Uncle Latimer’s dour-faced ancestors. They looked down on her with marked disdain. “Please enter, My Lady,” Mr. Wickes opened the door to a withdrawing room papered in cream with delicate blue and pink flowers.
Her aunt and uncle were seated, side-by-side on one of the settees. They both turned when the door opened. “The Lady Selina Drake has arrived,” Mr. Wickes announced formally with a smile. “Lady Selina!” Her uncle, Latimer Bowles, the Earl of Kirby, stood. He was a tall gentleman who had salt-and-pepper hair. He was often riding or hunting, and it showed in his trim physique. “How was your journey?” Selina walked over, kissing the air beside her uncle’s, and then her aunt’s faces. “It was long,” she replied honestly. “However, nothing too arduous.
Luckily, nothing too interesting happened.” She laughed; interesting was all very well and good—only when one was comfortably at home. “We’re so glad that you could come.” Aunt Georgiana, Lady Kirby, sat down beside her husband on the settee. She was a slim, elegant lady, with blonde hair—very much like Selina and her own mother, Aunt Georgiana’s younger sister. “Thank you for inviting me,” Selina untied the silk ribbon beneath her chin and removed her bonnet as she walked over to the settee upholstered in royal-blue velvet and opposite her aunt and uncle. She sat down, her eyes on the window across from her. A gentle breeze blew the filmy, white curtains, and she could see, through the window, a very fancy barouche-landau with a pair of white horses rushing down the drive. “We’re ever so glad that you could come,” Uncle Latimer said. “Especially during such a joyous time.
” Selina turned her gaze toward her aunt and uncle, who were beaming happily. “Indeed,” Selina replied. “My mother was saying how pleased you must be to have your only daughter engaged.” “We’re overjoyed,” Uncle Georgiana said. “With the entail on your uncle’s estate, we were quite anxious to have Leah happily married as soon as we could. Wait until you meet the Duke—he’s such a kind gentleman.” “He breeds horses on his estate,” Uncle Latimer added. “Just like I do.” Before Selina could ask anything further about Lady Leah’s pending nuptials or sterling fiancé, the door opened, and Lady Leah Bowles entered. Selina’s cousin was almost Selina’s polar opposite.
She had chocolate brown hair and eyes. Her skin was pale and freckle-free, nearly matching her cold, aristocratic demeanor. “Welcome, cousin,” she said soberly, sitting down on the settee beside Selina. “Thank you, cousin,” Selina replied, trying not to be burned by the frigid welcome. “Are you on your way out?” Leah was dressed in a stylish silk gown, in a dark blue which complemented her dark hair and eyes. Her hair was arranged elaborately in a chignon. “She’s on her way to oversee preparations for the engagement party,” Aunt Georgiana said, beaming with pride. “The Dowager Duchess expects me.” Lady Leah beamed. “I see,” Selina mused.
“Well, I won’t keep you.” “You should invite Selina along,” Aunt Georgiana suggested. “She’s got an eye for floral arrangements.” Leah’s face curdled—as if she was smelling something vile. “Would you like to come? You can meet the Duke,” Lady Leah offered, although it was clear that she didn’t want Selina to tag along and meet her fiancé. Leah and Selina’s relationship had always been tense. “I’m sure I’ll meet him at the party,” Selina murmured. “I can’t very well show up in my traveling clothes.” “You do look travel worn,” Leah said, eyeing her. Selina knew that Lady Leah had always been jealous of her, ever since they were young ladies.
Selina smiled, gritting her teeth. “I suppose not to meet a Duke.” “No. That wouldn’t be proper at all,” Leah replied. “I’m afraid I can’t linger. I’m expected —a Duchess is never late.” She gave Selina a triumphant grin as she stood. “Will you be home in time for supper, sweetling?” Lady Kirby asked. “I’m expected to dine with the Dowager Duchess and His Grace,” Lady Leah replied. “Very well,” her mother replied, smiling.
She looked over at Selina. “We’ll have Lady Selina to keep us company.” “Tell that Duke of yours that he promised to show me that new hunter of his,” Lord Kirby added. “Father,” Lady Leah said, horrified. “I can’t say something so gauche.” With that, she left the room. “I didn’t realize that horses were out of style,” Uncle Latimer said. Selina beamed at her aunt and uncle. They were kind people, and Aunt Georgiana reminded Selina so much of her mother. “I’d be happy to discuss horses with His Grace on your behalf, Uncle,” Selina assured him.
“Thank you kindly, dear,” Uncle Latimer said. Now that she was becoming a Duchess, it seemed to Selina that Lady Leah felt as though she’d won some sort of contest. But it was a competition that Selina had never been interested in. “Would you like for me to send for some tea, dear?” Aunt Georgiana asked. “Yes, please, Aunt Georgiana,” Selina murmured. * * * Jasper Munro, The Duke of Gillingham, and his good friend, Lord Stephen Cull, the Marquess of Sandbourne, were out riding. Jasper was trying out his new hunter, a large black Thoroughbred named Pilot. He sat comfortably in the saddle—he was a tall gentleman with broad shoulders, green eyes, and dark-blond hair, covered by a top hat. “Do we have time for a turn about the wood over there?” Stephen asked, hopefully. “Unfortunately, no,” Jasper muttered grimly.
“I’m expected at the house to receive my bride-to-be.” “Why the long face?” Stephen asked as they rode back toward the stables. “Lady Leah is a beautiful, genteel lady.” Jasper sighed heavily. “I just—I just always thought that the lady I married would be the lady that I loved.” “That’s a rarity, and you know it,” Stephen pointed out kindly. “I’m disappointed, Stephen,” he admitted. Jasper had never been in love. Nor, it seemed, would he ever be. His life had always been one of duty.
He had never seen in his own parents the kind of spark that he was longing to feel. “Well, can’t go back now, can you?” Stephen replied, morosely. “The Banns have already been announced. That’s as good as being married.” “True,” Jasper mused as they rode into the yard. He swung down off of his horse’s back, landing on his feet. The stable boy walked over, taking their horses from them. The two gentlemen walked toward the house—Gillingham Manor was his, and he was extremely proud of it. The house was built of sandstone, with large windows that overlooked the green fields of the estate. It was full of light and expertly crafted.
Recently, he’d had cypress trees planted, all along the drive. He was very proud of the Mediterranean flair that it added. Jasper sent his own carriage to collect Lady Leah, his intended. His manservant waited for the barouche-landau to return. “Looks like she’s here,” Stephen said, looking at Jasper sympathetically. “Indeed,” Jasper agreed. “I suppose they’re in the ballroom.” “I shall retire to my room, then,” Stephen told him. Lady Leah had marked dislike of Stephen, which baffled Jasper. Stephen was outgoing, intelligent, and well-liked by everyone.
The two of them had been friends since their school days. Jasper and Stephen parted ways in the foyer of Gillingham Manor. As he walked, he pulled off his riding gloves. At this hour, the day before the engagement party, servants were everywhere, rushing to fill all of his mother and his fiancée’s strict orders. As he neared, he could hear their voices, coming from the ballroom, echoing in the vast space. When he reached the dark-oak doors, he peered inside. Lady Leah stood next to his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Gillingham. They were both very similar—aristocratic bearing, their slender figures, the way they dressed. Today, they both wore remarkably similar shades of dark blue. They got along well.
“Jasper!” his mother said, frowning at him delicately. “Where have you been? We’ve been going on without you.” “I was out riding with Stephen,” he said, nearing the two ladies. His mother sniffed, disapprovingly. “You smell of horse.” “I imagine so,” he replied, smiling at her. She beamed back at him—she was pleased that he was finally settling down. “So? What have I missed?” “We were going over the decorations,” Lady Leah said, tucking her small hand possessively into the crook of his arm. “The flowers will be brought in tomorrow,” his mother said. “Lilies and roses, fresh from the garden.
” She gasped, looking at Lady Leah. “What if we had Martha add some jasmine to the arrangements?” “That’s a splendid idea,” Lady Leah agreed. Jasper felt suffocated, as though they were discussing flowers for his wake. For a brief second, he imagined himself, lying in a casket, surrounded by a large mass of white flowers. “Oh, dear—” his mother said, “they’re cutting the wicks all wrong.” Jasper followed her gaze to where several servants set candles into the chandelier that was now lowered to within reach. His mother strode briskly over to them and abandoning Jasper with his bride-to-be. “My cousin, the Lady Selina Drake, has arrived just today,” Lady Leah said. “I can’t wait to make her acquaintance,” Jasper replied politely, not actually meaning it. He was exhausted already.
“She’s a bit of a strange lady,” Leah replied, wrinkling her nose in distaste. “What do you mean?” “Everyone’s always making a fuss over her,” she said, clearly unhappy that her cousin had arrived. “She’s going to try to take all of the attention.” He looked closely Lady Leah. He took her small hands in his and looked her in the eyes. He’d often thought, in a kind way, they were chocolate brown similar to a horse’s eyes. It was what made him sure that he could come to have healthy, lukewarm esteem for her. “It will be your day,” he assured her. “Not hers.” Alas, his feelings for her would never be passion.
Or love. “We’ll see,” she said doubtfully. Jasper squinted as he studied her. Lady Leah was everything that the next Duchess of Gillingham should be. She was a proper, elegant, well-educated lady. She noticed his scrutiny, staring back at him, her chin raised. “What is it?” she demanded. “Are you happy, My Lady?” he asked gently. Her eyes widened. “Of course, I am!” She looked around at the room, clearly wanting to change the subject.
“You know, we could have invited a lot more people. Gillingham Manor is certainly large enough.” Jasper cleared his throat. He’d requested that the engagement party be a small affair so that there would be fewer people to be a party to his agony: the fewer people, the better. “Yes, well, more doesn’t mean merrier,” he replied. “What? Of course, it does,” she said, frowning at him. “No, it doesn’t.” He felt pained. He agreed to marry Lady Leah Bowles because it was the right thing to do, according to the aristocracy. As The Duke of Gillingham, it was his duty to marry an aristocratic lady and then produce an heir.
Or, give up his Dukedom in favor of his younger brother, Reuben. Then, he would have to follow Reuben’s orders. Something that Jasper would rather die than do. “The fewer people to put on a face for, the better,” he told her in a low voice. She blinked. “What do you mean?” she asked, frowning. “Does it not bother you that we aren’t in love?” he asked, finally being honest with her. After all, why not? What could it hurt? Maybe she’d agree, and they could call the farce off.