The Perks of Mismatchmaking with an Earl – Hazel Linwood

Daniel wandered through his father’s mansion in the darkness, aware of his surroundings and yet as if he were still asleep. He walked down the grand staircase, his hand on the smooth wooden railing. At the bottom of the steps, he made a turn and went through the grand hall. Stop. Stop walking. The voice in his head was distinct, and yet he could not heed its demand. His feet kept walking, stopping only when he reached the drawing room. The fire in the fireplace flickered still, the last of the embers clinging to life as it soaked up the remaining oxygen. There was a glass on the floor, and brandy had been spilled on the beautiful carpet. His body shivered in the cold as a part of him longed to be back in his chamber, and back under his warm covers, safe and secure. And yet, another part of him pushed him forward, until he found himself spotting a bright light at the end of the hall. Turn back. Don’t go further. Again, he could not comply with the warning. He walked forward even though every fiber of his being wanted him to stop.

His feet, his small, bare feet kept moving forward towards the light as the dread inside of him grew ever larger. At the door he stopped, suddenly aware that he was asleep. No! Please! I want to wake up now. I want to wake up. I do not want to be here again. Tears streamed down his chubby cheeks as his feet moved once more, over the threshold and into his father’s study. Why could he not wake? Suddenly, a sharp pain on his cheek made him blink and he found himself waking. Or so he thought. His blue eyes flew open and he found himself looking at a man, his back to Daniel. It took a moment before his dazed mind recognized him.

“Papa?” He turned then, his father. He was a tall man, or perhaps he only seemed that way because ten-year old Daniel was short for his age. There was blood on his father’s hands, dripping onto the floor. “Daniel,” his father said in his deep, gravelly voice. “Go back to bed. There’s nothing to see here.” His father stared at the floor and Daniel followed his gaze. With horror he realized at once what the source of the blood was, for it was lying on the floor in front of him. It was his mother. His beloved mother.

She was pale and her eyes were open, yet still. Her body was surrounded with blood. Suddenly a scream tore through the silence of the room. It wasn’t until he felt another striking pain on his cheek that he realized: The scream came from him. “Danny! Daniel! You are having another nightmare. Wake up.” Penelope’s voice drifted through the darkness and brought him out of that strange space between sleep and wakefulness that Daniel had found himself in once more. At last, he opened his eyes and looked into her frightened pale face. Her gray-blue eyes reflected the light of the sole candle in the room. Her long, dark hair ran down her shoulders like waves.

“Penelope? Penny?” Utterly disoriented, Daniel pushed himself up in bed and blinked. The room was almost dark except for the one beeswax candle burning on his nightstand. His friend sat on the edge of his bed, dressed in her long nightgown. “Shall I fetch Mrs. Hargrove?” Penelope said, with concern on her fair face. Daniel shook his head. He had no desire to see their governess. She would only tell him that at threeand-ten, he was too old to still have nightmares about his dead mother. Penelope nodded. In a quiet voice, she started speaking again.

“Was it the same dream? About your mother?” “Yes. But worse. This time, I knew I was asleep and yet I could not wake myself up. It was terrible. And she was there again, on the floor. All the blood…” Tears sprang into his eyes and Penelope took his hand. Even though she was only two years young than him, her hand was tiny, like that of a smaller child. Still, she gave him more comfort than any adult ever could. “Why do these dreams haunt me still?” “Because you loved your mother. My mother appears in my dreams all the time.

” He sighed. “Not the way mine does, I am sure.” Penelope nodded and slipped under the covers beside him. Her cold feet brushed against his legs for a moment and he shivered and moved away. “I did not witness my mother’s death as you did. It is normal for it to haunt you still.” Daniel said nothing and looked at the canopy above his bed. He did not want to think about that terrible day three years ago. It haunted not just his sleep, but when he was awake as well. His entire life had changed that day as he had not just lost his mother, but also his father.

If not for Penelope’s father, the Duke of Branigan, he would have had nowhere to go. Daniel was fortunate not to be sent to an orphanage or to some far away relative. Instead, the Duke, who’d lost his wife not long before, took him in as his ward and raised him alongside his only daughter, Penelope. He rolled onto his side and tucked his hands under his head. “Your father will be very upset if he finds us sleeping in the same bed again.” Penelope shook her head. “Why? There is no reason to. Why should you stay on your own if you are plagued by nightmares?” Daniel did not speak for a moment, not quite sure what to say. He knew the reasons, but did not wish to tell her outright. It would only hurt her.

“He says we are no longer little children and we must act like the adults we will soon be.” He paused, remembering the unfortunate news he still had to share with his best friend. He swallowed. “He also said that I am to go to school. At Eton.” As he’d feared, her eyes grew wide and watered at once. “Eton? But that is a boarding school! You will have to move there for much of the year. Why is he sending you away?” “He says as I am an Earl and I must receive an education befitting my station, and he does not have the time to teach me. He says I must study so that one day I can be in charge of my estate instead of the steward.” Tears ran down Penelope’s face and he placed a hand on her head, stroking her soft hair in an attempt to comfort her.

“I will come home for holidays. And in summers. And you and your father can come visit me. You’ll see, everything will be well.” Penelope’s tears stopped flowing as she blinked. “Do you promise me?” “I do. I promise. We will always be the best of friends. We will always be together. I will write to you while I am away and you will write to me as well.

Now, sleep. It is late. See? The candle is about to burn out.” Penelope nodded and turned on her back, her eyes fixed at the same canopy he’d looked at just minutes before. She reached across and placed her cold hand in his and they laid that way until her breathing slowed and became even. Daniel pulled his hand gently out of hers and pulled the duvet over her. He would miss her so much. Since the day he’d arrived here, Penny had been his best friend, his family. He loved her above all else. In fact, he could not imagine a life without her in it.

“When I am an adult and take control of my estate, I promise I will marry you, so that nobody can ever separate us again.” He turned and closed his own eyes completely unaware that Penelope was no longer asleep. As he fell asleep, she opened her eyes, a broad smile on her face. She could not imagine a future that did not have him in it, either. CHA PTE R 1 P NINE YEARS LATER enelope Richmond strolled through the vast and beautiful garden of the Branigan estate. It was a beautiful summer’s day. The sun stood bright in the sky, bathing the world in its glow. Penelope turned her face toward the sky to soak up the rays with her eyes closed when beside her, her father coughed. At once, she whipped her head around. “Papa?” The Duke of Branigan coughed and banged his closed fist against his chest in an effort to help his breathing.

Penelope wrapped an arm around his back and steadied him as he coughed. Once his fit subsisted, he straightened up and placed his hand on her cheek. “Thank you, my flower. It is better now. Do not fret.” “Of course I fret and worry. You have been growing sicker and sicker these past few weeks and refuse to see a physician. What am I to do if you die?” He winked at her. “I won’t die anytime soon, not until I am good and ready. And I’m not ready.

I will see you wed, with children, first. I shall die an old man. That I swear!” She smiled at his conviction and hoped it was true. Since the death of her mother and the departure of her former best friend—her father’s ward, Daniel—Penelope had nobody but her father. The thought of him leaving her, too, caused her excruciating pain. He was not a well man, older than the fathers of her friends. He was only growing frailer as time passed. “Perhaps we ought to go back inside, Papa.” “I suppose so. Although I’d prefer to sit in the garden,” her father said in reply, as he held on tightly to her hand.

“I feel rather in the mood for a nice cup of drinking chocolate and perhaps some fresh honey bread.” Penelope nodded. “I think that can be arranged.” Her father was not supposed to be eating too many sweets as they further upset his stomach. However, his sweet tooth was not easily combated. They had just made their way toward the table and chairs which always remained set up for just such an occasion, when a carriage stopped at the front of the house. A young lady dressed in a light peach-colored round gown stepped out of the carriage. Her arms were tucked into a striking white spencer jacket. Her flaming red hair was tucked underneath a capote and she waved enthusiastically at them. With her free hand Penelope waved back, a smile on her face.

“Is that Bridget Hughes?” Her father asked as he squinted. “It is. I was to have tea with her this afternoon.” She looked at him uncertainly. “Would you rather I send her away?” Her father shook his head with a grin. “Not to worry. I have to meet with Mr. Percival anyhow, to discuss matters of the estate. I’ll have him summoned and he can join me in a cup of tea while you attend to your friend.” She watched as her father turned and gingerly went up the steps into the house.

He’d been unsteady on his feet these past few days, which worried her a great deal. She decided then and there to consult the physician on his next visit. “Penny!” Her friend Bridget called, diverting her attention. She was one of her dearest friends. Penelope walked over to her friend and embraced her. They had not seen one another for a fortnight, as Bridget had been out of town. The two of them had been the very best of friends for many years, after meeting at a ball in the assembly rooms. “What a darling gown,” Bridget gushed. Penelope looked down at herself and smiled. She was wearing a sky-blue gown made of Dhaka muslin.

A very fine material. She felt as though she was going to a ball rather than having tea with her dearest friend. But then again, her father was always exceedingly generous when it came to her wardrobe. Penelope possessed the most extensive wardrobe in the entire county of Oxfordshire, of that she was sure. “Thank you so much, yours is ever so lovely, too.” The two made their way into the garden and took their seats at the table. Penelope sent off for the tea and tray of sweetmeats and turned her attention back to her friend. “Tell me all about Bath. Did you have a marvelous time?” Bridget shrugged. “Bath was pleasant as always, but the company,” she grimaced and shook her head.

“Dreadful, so dreadful. There was not an eligible bachelor in sight.” Penelope frowned. “That is unfortunate. I thought Bath was full of eligible bachelors this time of year.” Bridget nodded. “Indeed, that is what happened in years past. However, it just so happens that some Duke’s daughter was having her coming out ball in London right in the middle of my time in Bath. Thus, most of the eligible lords descended upon London instead.” She sighed heavily and picked up the cup of tea which had just been served.

She tilted her head from side to side and Penelope could see that there was more to tell than had thus far been divulged. “Do not hold back, Bridget. Please, you know I live vicariously through you, given how I am not able to travel myself due to Father’s health.” Her friend’s expression changed at this. Gone was her cheer from her bright green eyes. Her heart-shaped mouth turned into a line as she pressed her lips together. “Faith, Penny. You know me better than anyone. Yes, it is true I have kept something from you. There was one eligible Lord, the Earl of Peterborough.

We danced together in the Upper assembly room and it was most romantic. Oh la, he was ever so charming.” “But that is wonderful news! Why are you not happy? Is he from far away?” She shook her head once more and reached for a piece of marzipan, holding it between her thumb and index finger. “No, not at all. He is from Devon, not that far away. However, as it turns out, he thought me a lady of the ton. Somehow or another he had heard an on-dit that that I was the daughter of a Marquess, not the daughter of a merchant. Once he found out, he did not give me the time of day.” “Horsefeathers!” Penelope shook her head. “That is an outrage.

Does he not know who your father is?” “You are such a dear, Penny. Unfortunately, my father’s reputation does not reach as far and wide as that of a peer of the realm.” She shrugged and popped a piece of marzipan into her mouth. She chewed as a forlorn expression crossed her face.

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