The Duke I Thought I Knew – Emma Linfield

The mid-morning sun shone over the rolling green hills, the last drops of dew amplifying its rays until it looked as though the farmers had planted diamonds instead of hay. Looking out the upstairs window of Parmbridge Manor where she kept watch at her father’s sickbed, Anastasia could only wish for such a divine and fantastical crop. “Even one rare gem would mean the difference between hiring a physician to tend to Father and relying on remedies from Mother’s mouldy old household book,” she whispered to her reflection as she leaned her head against the glass dejectedly. “Daughter, did you say something?” her father croaked, raising a feeble hand. “Can you bring the water?” “Of course, Father.” Hurrying to his bedside and filling the glass, she helped him to lift his head as she brought the glass to his mouth. “Better now?” “As always,” he said, gasping slightly as he took a breath and smiled up at her. He closed his eyes, the smile still affixed for her benefit though Anastasia knew he was in constant pain. “But you must go. You must… get ready for the ball.” The ball, Anastasia thought miserably. It was bad enough to be two-and-twenty years of age and still flouncing about at parties and balls in hopes of finding a husband. So bad, in fact, that Anastasia had all but resigned herself to a life of playing nursemaid to her father until spinsterhood should make a lady on a shelf of her. Instead, Holly was their only hope. Still only sixteen and as beautiful as any young lady ever to draw breath, she was the one Anastasia gave all her attention to in terms of a Season.

If Holly should meet a wealthy man—a titled one being even more fortuitous— then it would not matter if Anastasia ever found a suitable husband. Between Holly’s good fortune and their cousin Erik’s inheritance of their father’s barony, Anastasia would get by somehow. She might never become a bride or a loving mother, but she would at least be kept from starvation. At this point, it was all she could hope for. “Yes Father,” Anastasia asked when the Baron coughed, more to get her attention than to alleviate any of the pain in his chest. “The Marquess of Elderbrook is hosting a ball for his son, who has returned from the army.” “Good, good,” her father answered, nodding. As if Anastasia could read his thoughts, she cringed at what he must be thinking—a ball filled with eligible officers with distinguished careers of service. A pang of remorse swelled up inside her. How was she to care for her father, be supportive of Erik’s efforts to take ownership of Parmbridge, find a husband for Holly, and also see to her own future? It simply could not be done.

“I must go and see to Holly’s preparations now,” Anastasia said quietly. “I’ll send Mrs. Black in to watch over you soon.” “Yes, daughter. Thank you,” the Baron managed weakly before closing his eyes again. Anastasia closed the door softly behind her and went in search of the housekeeper. Other than Mrs. Black, there was one scullery maid who also doubled as their cook, and an elderly butler whose nephew could be called upon to serve as a driver when the need arose. A man came from the nearby village to tend the family’s two horses each day in exchange for being permitted to graze his sheep on the family’s acreage without payment. It was a simple life in comparison, though Anastasia had to admit that they had all they needed.

Theirs had been a loving home, even after the death of their mother when Holly was but two years of age. Now with Father having taken ill so long ago, it felt as though each day were simply a stolen moment of happiness before the sisters were plunged into poverty and despair. “Nonsense, Anastasia,” Erik had told her during a recent visit. “Though Parmbridge is not prosperous by any means, I do intend to step in where your father has been unable to these past few years. Once the property is again thriving, I will see to it that you and your sister receive a small sum each year. It may not be much, certainly not at first, but it will be sufficient to keep you from starvation. Of course, even should Holly marry, you would be welcome to stay on at Parmbridge for as long as you need.” Her cousin’s generous offer came with only one terrible problem: apart from Erik’s own wife who would take over the household, Erik’s father was not yet deceased. As the true heir to Parmbridge—despite his age and his own often frail health—Uncle Gideon had the authority to marry both Anastasia and Holly to men of his devising. “But not if we beat him to it,” Anastasia whispered to her reflection in a looking glass that hung in the hallway.

“He cannot overturn Father’s own choice, and Father will be glad of any man his daughters may win over.” After stopping off in the brewing room to speak with Mrs. Black, Anastasia went in search of her sister. She found Holly in the library, curled up in their mother’s chair with a book. Anastasia should have certainly scolded her, but she couldn’t help but smile. “So is your new gown somewhere within the pages of that book?” Anastasia chided gently, startling her sister. “Oh! Anastasia, sorry, I was just… I was putting things away in here and just had to open this one for a moment,” her sister said, her cheeks flaming with a hearty pink blush beneath her alabaster skin. “It’s all right,” Anastasia said, laughing as she sat down across from Holly. “But if your gown is to be ready for this evening, I must finish it by midday so I can see how much ribbon it will require.” “I don’t see why we should spend money on ribbon at all,” Holly said, looking down.

“It’s not as though men even care about such things.” “Perhaps not,” Anastasia conceded thoughtfully, “but women care a great deal about it. You want a woman to recommend you to her son or her brother, do you not?” Holly only shrugged, still looking down. Anastasia reached over and patted her sister’s hand. “Holly, are you anxious about your Season? Remember, it’s not ‘til next spring, and here in only September you have little to worry about. Think of it as only a rehearsal for your Season next year. It’s enough that you’re out and being seen for now.” “I know,” Holly answered. “And these events are truly for you to seek a match of your own. I feel selfish taking any attention—or money for ribbons and fabric to sew gowns— from you.

” “You mustn’t feel that way! I’m glad to have your company at these grand events, no matter how they may turn out for us,” Anastasia replied with a bit more happiness than she truly felt. “Come, we’ll finish sewing your gown and think of how to do up your hair. It’ll be great fun, you’ll see.” “Remember, be mindful of whom you speak with and how close you stand to some of the gentlemen. Even if you cannot hear their words clearly for the music or the talking, it’s important to keep a respectable distance,” Anastasia said as they arrived at the ball that evening, reminding Holly of the most important lessons she’d taught her about being out in society. “And there may well be some men who use the noise to their advantage, speaking so softly that you simply nod politely, only to later find you were agreeing to something unfortunate.” “I’ll remember,” Holly said, clinging to the sides of the carriage as it swayed over the cobblestones unexpectedly. “Is it always so uncomfortable riding in the carriage?” “Hmm, I think you’re merely out of practice,” Anastasia suggested before frowning and adding, “or it may be somewhat in disrepair. We certainly don’t use it as often as some people might.” The Marquess’s house came into view and Holly let out a contented sigh.

It did not escape Anastasia’s notice. The poor girl had been withering under the weight of their near poverty and Father’s illness for such a long time that any semblance of luxury made her feel as giddy as Christmas morn. “Do make sure your dance card does not contain the same names too frequently,” Anastasia reminded her as the carriage pulled up in front of the main door, the lanterns out front illuminating the early autumn evening. “How often is too frequent?” Holly asked, turning to her sister wide-eyed. “No more than two dances with the same gentleman, and certainly not in succession to one another. If someone does wish to dance with you so frequently, come and find me at once. He may very well be the sort of man who has taken a fancy to you, which could be either very fortunate or very alarming,” Anastasia said, leading the way out of the carriage when a footman held the door for them. Together, they climbed the wide, stone steps up to the Marquess’s city house. With the Season fully over and many members of the ton already returned to their country estates, the event would be small but delightful, nonetheless. “Good evening to you, ladies,” the Marquess said warmly as they entered the home.

His smile turned to a look of sincere sympathy. “And your father is not with you, I see. How I miss that dear man!” “Thank you, My Lord,” Anastasia said after she and Holly had curtseyed before the older man and his wife. “We shall certainly extend to him your greetings the moment we return home.” “And have you met our newest guests?” the Marchioness asked politely, linking her arm through Anastasia’s as the older daughter, and leaving Holly to follow in their wake. “I want you to meet some of the men who’ve returned with their regiments. Major Honeywell is here, along with several of his captains.” Anastasia shot Holly a warning glance. Military officers as a whole were not to be trusted, something that Anastasia had schooled her sister in all these years. Too often, they were the second sons of wealthy noblemen, which meant they stood to inherit nothing but pleasant relations.

Equally common but far more devastatingly unfortunate, these officers may also be first sons whose behavior had been found to be lacking. Consigning them to a regiment and sending them off to service might make better men of them, but it was just as likely that they might carry on their rakish, roguish behavior while far from their fathers’ watchful eyes. In any event, a soldier was at once to be kept at arm’s length, no matter how dashing or charming he may be. “Anastasia, I don’t think I know anyone here,” Holly whispered when the Marchioness finally left them standing in a crowd of guests. “That’s all right, we shall soon meet other ladies and find much to talk about. You’ll see,” Anastasia replied, taking her sister’s hand and leading her around the edge of the crowd in order to take a turn about the room. As they passed other suitably dressed ladies, in their long muslin gowns with fashionably cuffed cap sleeves and gauzy layers of skirts gathered above their waists, Anastasia couldn’t help but notice how eyes were drawn to Holly. It was both the gentlemen, and the ladies present who halted their conversations to watch the younger lady float above the floor on delicate, graceful steps. It lifted Anastasia’s spirits considerably to know that Holly was being observed with such looks of approval, though it also meant that Anastasia herself would have to be on her guard to protect her. Already she’d had to direct a fierce glare at a small cluster of leering officers—handsomely appointed and rather rugged looking in their full-dress—which sent them averting their eyes and closing their gaping mouths.

“Must we walk the room this way?” Holly whispered, a faux expression of gaiety on her face. “I feel as though you’re a farmer walking his prized sow before the butchers at market.” “You would not be wrong,” Anastasia said in Holly’s ear with a light laugh. “I am not only showing the ton this intriguing, beautiful newcomer in their midst, but also ensuring that all of your admirers know there is indeed a farmer with a long, sharp stick to fend off anything untoward. Now laugh merrily as though I’ve said something witty to you.” Holly did as she was bid, and Anastasia took note of how the gentle ring of her sister’s laughter turned a few more heads in their direction. Though she felt green in the middle at having to parade her sister through the guests in such a way—and for such a purpose —Anastasia reminded herself that it was all for Holly’s future security and happiness.


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