The gloom in the dark chamber could be felt as soon as one stepped into it. One needed not to glance around, to take in the situation before a guess could be made. The discomforting smell of medicine scented in the air, along with blood that had just been bled out, making it obvious that someone in this room, was down with a serious ailment.
The chamber’s glory shone poorly in this state. The tapestries and curtains had been brought down to guard Henry Stamford’s eyes, which now hurt from too much sunlight. Hence, the chamber was cast in a dimness that did little to show off the expensive furnishings of the chamber. The bed, made from the finest wood money could buy, the wooden floors which shone with glory, reflecting the sun’s goodness, the chairs that the Duke had specially ordered to be sent down from Greece, and the vanity from the best wood maker in Italy. Yes, indeed, Henry Stamford was a man of style, and he had this house that was art to many, to show for that. Sadly, here he was, on his sick bed, unable to stand and move around by himself, to admire the work he had taken years to put together and many more years to adore. Even when he did manage to, from his confinement, the beauty was nothing compared to what it was, under the grace of nature’s light. It was one of the things that made his soul weary, as his hope for recovery dwindled daily.
Still, all of these unpleasantries did not hinder his carersfrom making sure he got the necessary attention required. His servants moved around, getting rid of what dirt lay around. By his side, his wife, Elizabeth Stamford, sat, holding his frail hands as they waited for the servants to leave so that the doctor would commence his examination. As soon as it was just them in the room together with his valet, Callaghan, and his doctor, Mr Wimpletton, his examinations began.
He watched as Doctor Wimpletton opened the wooden box that contained his tools and brought out a stethoscope. Henry knew what was to come next –Wimpletton would request for him to be blindfolded, so that the curtains could be raised for better light. Right on cue, Wimpletton spoke.
“Err… If you would please, have His Grace blindfolded so that we may raise the curtain for better lighting.”
Callaghan marched over to him, to cover his eyes with a piece of black cravat. Momentarily blinded, he heightened his other senses so that he could be aware of what was happening around him. Callaghan’s distinctive footfalls sounded, and a few seconds later, the room felt brighter.
Henry felt Wimpletton bend over him and knew that the doctor now had his ears close to his chest to get his heartbeat. It was steady; he would tell Wimpletton that, if only he asked. That was unlikely, for it was common knowledge that the man liked to see and hear things for himself.
“His blood is still dark?”
Elizabeth gave a huge, sad sigh, and his heart ached. He hated seeing her this way.
“A little. It started to look lighter this morning. It worries me so, Mr Wimpletton. Whatever does this mean?”
“I really cannot say, Your Grace. The ailment that befalls the Duke is likened to none I have ever witnessed in my thirteen years of practice. I declare, it really is something to cause a wonder. A thing of befuddlement, I must confess.” He stopped at that and went back to Henry’s upper form.
He was still blindfolded, but he knew Wimpletton was observing him, thanks to the sunlight that now spilled into the room, making that easier to do. Earlier that morning, Elizabeth had told him that he still looked pale with sorrow in her eyes. Still,he felt flushed with the fever that ailed him. His lips were chapped, almost birthing scales, and his hair was starting to thin out. He felt so weak and tired, every day he seemed to wake up with a new pain.
He had to be strong; he knew this. But sometimes, his predicament saddened him so much, that tears filled his eyes. He desperately wished that this strange sickness would be over. That by some stroke of luck, what ailed him would be diagnosed so that appropriate treatment could commence. Unfortunately, wishes were not horses, and even a man of status and enormous wealth like him could not afford to ride.
He remained still as Wimpletton took his hand, held it gently, and then pressed two fingers to the streams of veins on his wrist to take his pulse. The room stayed quiet – no one had any interest indistracting the physician from his work with the slightest noise.
Wimpletton finally released his hands, but not before placing them carefully on the bed, lest they fell with a thud. His voice filled the air as he broke the silence.
“You may release the curtains and remove the blindfold.” At the doctor’s instructions, Callaghan dropped the curtains and walked back to his master to remove the blindfold.
Henry flexed the muscles of his eyes as the cravat came off, trying to adjust to the dim lighting. He finally focussed on Wimpletton who was now at his feet, reaching for the leeches that had been used to suture the cut on his left foot. He held a breath and pressed his lips together, swallowing the pain as Wimpletton yanked the terrible insects off.
The physician seemed to have sensed his agony, for he muttered, “My apologies.” Then as he rose from his bending position,“I have removed the leeches for it seems His Grace has been bled enough for this week. He needs his rest, and I do not want to drain him of all his blood. I shall continue to correspond with my colleagues in the country and overseas, but I must confess, I am not entirely certain about the outcome of this.”
“Mr Wimpletton, I beg you not to mince words with me,”Henry finally spoke, taking great care to do so, for even talking these days, required great energy.
“Is there hope for a recovery? Or shall this be my deathbed? If so, then you must tell me in plain words so I shall begin to put my affairs in order. I might have lived a life not as long as I would have loved to, but I shall not deny it has been a life well lived. If I have to go soon, I do not mind. I only do not want to be taken by surprise.” He needed to know.
Wimpletton said nothing for a while. He seemed to be in great thoughts, and Henry wondered just what it was he was thinking. Perhaps he was considering how best to break the news of his imminent death to him. When he finally spoke, Henry knew he had been right.
“Your Grace. I am deeply sorry and sad to tell you this. You have been on this sickbed for over two months, and I have seen no improvements. From a professional point of view, I do not think you shall overcome this, My Lord. A different case, it would have been, if we could diagnose this ailment, but as it holds, that is yet to happen. I will suggest you do as you have just said. Put your affairs in order and prepare your household. You may be taken from us at any time. Right now, we can only pray. The Lord be with you, My Lord.”
He bowed as he finished speaking and began to gather his things into his wooden toolbox. No one said anything;they were too busy swallowing the implication of the doctor’s words. Henry watched as Callaghan turned away, and he gave a grim smile. There was very little doubt that his dear valet and friend of many years was shedding a tear or two. Beside him, he heard quiet sniffling and adjusted his head so he could look at his wife. Indeed, she too was crying and her tears rolled down her cheeks in un-hushed streams.
It felt like a heavy morsel clogged his throat as he watched those tears flow. Oh, how much he hated to see her so sad, watch her cry over his bed every now and then, hear her sobs when she thought he was asleep. He knew that this was taking a huge toll on her and more for this woman he loved than himself, he prayed hard that he recovered from this. Summoning more strength from within, he swallowed the lump in his throat and reached for her hands. When he took them in his and squeezed, she looked up at him, all the love she felt evident in her eyes. It overwhelmed him.
Realising that he was seeing her cry, she hurriedly dashed away the tears with her kerchief. Then she gave him a small smile. He smiled in return, happy to see the tears gone. Elizabeth was strong. Whatever happened, he had to believe that she would pull through just fine. She covered the hand that held her and cleared her throat as she broke eye contact to look at Wimpletton.
“You said you would contact your colleagues?”
“That is right, madam.”
“In the case that no one can offer a definite answer as regards this, do you think there is any treatment you can administer to my husband, so that he could at least be strong enough to move about for his last days? The season is coming, and I would love for him to enjoy one last season. Do you not share the same thoughts, Henry?”She turned to look at Henry who stared at her in wonder. She was brilliant; he knew this.
“Is this possible, Wimpletton?” he croaked. Why had he not thought of this earlier?
The physician seemed so lost for words that he stuttered at first. “Your Grace… Th… that is…” A pause to regain his composure, and a sharp clearing of throat as he stood upright and straightened his shoulders.
“That is a most excellent suggestion, My Lady. We can manage that; I am certain. I will look into medicine that can help the Duke live his last days with more strength. Mayhap, they would not be his last if the Lord answers our prayers.”
Pleased to hear this, that there was still a little bit of hope, a little candle flickering, but burning nonetheless, he returned his wife’s bright smile as she looked at him again.
“Do you hear that, Henry? You shall be able to make it to the season.”Whatdid he ever do right in this lifetime to have deserved such a wonderful woman?If this worked, he was going to be on his feet again, be able to move around, to behold sunlight. He felt her tender hands caress his cheeks before turning to Wimpletton who had looked away in their moment of privacy.
“We shall be waiting to hear from you, Wimpletton. You must understand, if you can get my husband on his feet again, howbeit for such a short period, we shall remain indebted to you. I give you my word as your Lady.”
Upon hearing this, Wimpletton lowered into a deep, regal bow, more than happy to be of service.
“If thou wishes it so, My Lady. I am the honoured one for having this opportunity, to do this for my good Lord.” He stretched back to his full length. “If that would be all, with your permission, I shall take my leave.”
“You may leave, Wimpletton. We shall call for you if any urgent matter arises.”
“I shall do my best to respond as soon as I can, if any such call should arrive. Good day, Your Grace.”
He dropped another bow before taking his leave. Elizabeth must have wanted time alone with him, for she called on Callaghan.
“See Mr Wimpletton off, will you?”
The valet dropped a bow and followed the doctor out. As they stepped out of the room, they could be heard engaging in small talk. As soon as their voices became faint, Elizabeth hugged her husband, placing her head on his chest as more tears left her eyes.
“I cannot believe this, Henry. Was it not just yesterday when you were racing me to the stream on Kingston, as strong as an ox? How did we get here so fast?”
Henry could hear the sadness in his wife’s voice, and it pained him to see her so sad. He knew if this ailment took him, it would be a hard blow on Elizabeth. He worried for her more than he worried for himself. So, needing to take what little of her sadness he could away, he teased.
“I remember that day as clear as the skies, Elizabeth. I won again, as always. You were so far behind on Queen that I had to return to you. Then you pushed me off Kingston, and before I could get back on, you raced to the stream.”
Jerking up, she looked at him, flabbergasted, as if unable to believe the ridiculousness of his accusations.
“Henry Stamford, did you just accuse me of cheating to win that race? Because I remember, quite well for the matter, that you fell off that horse on your own,and you never got to the stream in the first place, talk more of returning to me! I won, fair and square.” She ended with her chin up as he dissolved into a fit of laughter, suddenly feeling stronger with Wimpletton’s promise.
“Oh Elizabeth. I never would have fallen off my horse in the first place if you had not flashed me your undergarments, intentionally.”
“I know not what you speak of My Lord. I was riding astride; it is only normal for my clothing to enter a state of disarray. And this is a much different story than the narrative you told earlier,”she ended, pretending to be hurt, but he knew better. It also gladdened him that she had forgotten her sorrow for long enough to play along.
“I fell; you won. These were constant in both narratives, were they not? I see no lie, dear woman wife. I may be a sick man, but I will not be accused of being a liar.”
He watched her heart melt before she bent to give him a kiss on the lips. “A fair game, would you not call it, husband man? Since you began with the accusations, after all,”she countered, causing him to break into hearty laughter again. Elizabeth smiled at this, aware that it had been a while since she heard him laugh so heartily.
“Enough of that. Kiss me again dear wife; remind me of how that particular day ended.”
She flushed at this, and he knew what she was thinking of. It was the same memory that rang in his mind at this moment. How they had made sweet love by the river. Tenderly, passionately, like it almost always was with them. When she lowered her head to capture his lips in another soft kiss, he welcomed the sensations.
“Aye. That is more like it. I cannot wait for Wimpletton to return with the medicine so that I may be able to act that scene fully again.” He ended with a wink, causing her to dissolve into a fit of laughter of her own. Then she lifted her hands to his cheeks and began to stroke, holding his gaze with her pure amethyst eyes.
“Oh, Henry. I love you so much. It’s never going to be the same without you. I shall be so lonely. However, shall I survive?”she cried.
“Shhh. Do not say that Elizabeth. You shall do just fine. You have Nicholas, and you have the memories of our love to carry on with. Thirty years together. That is going to count, right?”
“Good. In that case, do not be sad, and do not think that surviving will be difficult. You are strong, and you will do so, just fine. Nicholas will take care of you too. Of that I am certain.”
Nicholas was the only child they had been blessed with, in all their years of marriage. At first, Elizabeth had worried he would be unhappy with her and seek another wife or a mistress, but he never said a word of complaint to her. It never crossed his mind, not even in the three years it took for her to become heavy with Nicholas. He had loved her through it all, cherished her like she was the only woman he saw and remained faithful to her. That was something many women of the ton could not boast of.To think that they had had to grow in love.
“Do you think we should let him know?”
Henry thought about this for a while before responding.
“I would rather not. At least, not now. He would be so devastated, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth nodded, agreeing with him.
“Speaking of Nicholas, since I would be… leaving, do you not think it is time for him to take a wife? We have given him enough time to bury his head in those books of his, do you not reckon? He is not getting any younger, especially at twenty and seven summers. I declare, we need to get him married.” It was a thought that had plagued his mind in the past weeks, and he only hoped his wife would agree. She raised her head at that.
“You are right. He has spent enough time in his books. However, Nicholas has not so much as declared any interest in any young lady of the ton, or his peerage for that matter. I doubt he would be kin on the idea of marriage so suddenly, Henry. If it must happen, then we shall have to find a wife for him from a respectable household lest he makes a wrong choice, especially with the season coming around.”
“Indeed. Indeed. I would very much like to see him married before I go. We know a number of ladies from reputable households. We could think hard on whom to arrange for him. I would prefer a mature lady who has not only just left the schoolroom. You know how Nicholas is. He would need an older lady with developed senses who would arrest his attention, longer than those books of his.”
“Ahh. Yes. I can think of a few families, but all of them have daughters who are already married, betrothed, or just out of the schoolroom. It shall be hard to find such a lady, Henry.”
This placed him into deep thoughts. She had to be one who could engage Nicholas in sensible chitchat, not the meaninglessness ones from air-headed schoolgirls, for Nicholas would accept nothing less. But… Who could such a lady be?
He thought and thought until he remembered his dear friend, Williams Birmingham, the Duke of Cambridge. He and Williams had attended Eaton together and remained business partners until now. How was it that he had not quickly come to mind? Indeed, Williams had three daughters, all of whom were unmarried, and the eldest daughter was the perfect age he sought for his son. Eyes twinkling, he looked up at his wife.
“Elizabeth. You must remember Williams, the Duke of Cambridge. You and his wife, Victoria, have met for tea a number of times, I presume I am correct?”
She seemed to think for a few seconds, her brows furrowed in confusion before clearing with realization. “Ahh. Yes. Yes, you are. Although, I do not care for the Duchess; I remember quite well that they have three daughters, ripe for marriage, and yet to be promised.” Her eyes lit up as she put two and two together, and Henry saw another reason why he loved this woman. She had wit that could not be matched.
“You are thinking of Agnes Birmingham, are you not?”
“Aye. I knew you would figure it out. I have met with the young miss, a few times. Lovely child and sensible too. Aye. I think she would do just fine for our Nicholas. And that family, I have heard not of a single scandal to tarnish their good name. I do not think we could get a better match for Nicholas.”
“I agree,” Elizabeth replied, bobbing her head.
“In that case, we shall write a letter to the Birminghams and have it delivered before the season commences. We must know if they would like such a union between our families.”
“Of course! Howbeit, I do not conceive that would be an issue. We have just as good a standing as them, after all! Nicholas is also a fine young man. One of the most eligible bachelors in all of England, except the Prince of course, even if I do say so myself.” She sounded like it was absurd to even consider that anyone would reject them. It was only to be expected from a mother who was as proud of her son as she was of Nicholas.
“You shall get no arguments from me, dear wife. If it is settled, you shall call the scribe and have him draw up a proposal. Then, we shall send James to have it delivered to their manor in Cambridge.”
“I shall do just that. Oh Henry, if things go as planned, it is going to be a wonderful season!”
“Indeed Elizabeth. It is.”
One of Victoria Birmingham’s favourite times of the day was her traditional afternoon tea with her friends in her drawing room, which was her fondest place in the manor. From the regal furnishing and the comfortable chairs, to the windows which opened out to the field and pond, affording her visitors a lovely view, one could say that the reason why the Duchess organised these tea parties in the first place was to show off her exquisite taste. She never hid the fact that she had singlehandedly redesigned the drawing room after marrying Williams, for the state in which it had been before was tasteless and terribly old-fashioned. In her words – a sight for poor eyes. So she went to work immediately and had her dear husband ensure that the drawing room was made to her taste. Now, it served as a good place to afford her much needed company in this country life which got terribly boring without the season to keep her busy.
There was always so much juicy gossip to be shared during these visits, and this was why she hated to be interrupted. Out of courtesy, her guests were expected to wait until her return before saying anything further, but she knew that was not the case. She could hardly fault them since she was just as guilty of the same offence when positions were reversed. She was the one to continue discussions as soon as the hostess made excuses for her leave, insisting that she could be filled in later. For this reason, Victoria was of the opinion that the few minutes of her absence was usually an avenue to discuss her. Everyone in her household knew better than to disturb her with unnecessary matters that could be attended to later. This made her wonder why the butler, Edward, was standing by her side this beautiful afternoon, trying to gain her attention. Miffed, she halted the ongoing conversation with a hand in the air and turned to him, giving the haughtiest look she could muster.
“Yes Edward? Do you care to inform the ladies and me why you have decided to interrupt our tea session this afternoon with such lovely weather outside?” There was absolutely no need to bring the weather into play, she simply liked to overkill.
The butler tried not to shift on his feet; notwithstanding, it was obvious that he was not happy to be in this position.
“My apologies, my ladies.” He bowed, one hand folded on his back as he did, while the other remain fisted by his side. They nodded at him, and although he could not see, stood up just in time – it came with years of practice.
“I have only been sent to inform Your Grace that My Lord has requested your presence. I informed him of your session, but he insisted I come for you. He says it is matter of urgency, and I am not to return without you.”
Victoria’s expression softened a bit on hearing this, but it did not stop her from feeling put off by the interruption. Still, she knew if her husband was taking her away from her guests, it really was something which needed her immediate attention. Hence, she rose on her feet and proceeded to regard all the women seated around her ballroom, with their ladies in waiting. Squaring her shoulders and straightening her spine, she lifted her head, feeling like the self-proclaimed Queen she was.
“Ladies. You must pardon me, I pray thee. We have all heard from my butler’s mouth, and it is common knowledge that I must not keep My Lord waiting. If you would be gracious enough to excuse me for some minutes, I shall return as soon as I can manage to leave the Duke’s presence. I do hope this is fine by you, and I am permitted to take my leave?”
A murmur of agreement went round, and she smiled, pleased that they had not answered differently than she had been expecting them to. Her asking for permission had only been a matter of courtesy, after all.
“Well, in that case, we shall continue this discussion upon my return. Enjoy yourselves.” Her voice was as cheery as it could be, but no one could lie that they had not detected the note of warning in them. Before she left, she gave her maid who was in charge of pouring the tea, a wink,and the woman who was named Betty, curtsied. Since her ladies would be leaving with her, she could trust Betty to keep her ears open for any gossip that would be shared in her absence. Her own servants were her tested and trusted gossip mill, as long as the Birmingham household was concerned, and very little went on without her knowledge in this house.
Nodding to the women in her drawing room again, she lifted her skirts and let Edward lead her to her husband.
As they walked, she nodded at servants who greeted her, none of them able to meet her gaze. It pleased her greatly that they revered her so. Although she knew they only respected her so much because of the fear she had instilled in them. Well, it worked perfectly for her. She was of the opinion that inferiors had to be afraid of their superiors, tremble constantly in their presence, so as to be constantly reminded of their place. She was a ruthless woman who loved power and wealth, relished it, took maximum advantage of it, and felt no guilt, whatsoever.
Indeed, she was an arrogant aristocrat, through and through. The model for propriety and a perfect example of the personalities the ton comprised. She knew that she had very few true friends because of this, but it bothered her not in the slightest.
Soon, they arrived at the Duke’s study, and she dismissed Edward.
“I do not have to be announced to my own husband in my own home, Edward.”
Her ladies-in-waiting stayed behind, not needing her instruction to do so. It was common knowledge that the Duchess did not welcome an audience when she wanted to have a private word with her husband.
She found her husband, the Duke of Cambridge lounging on the chair by his desk.
“You called for me?”
He looked up at that, and upon meeting the eyes of the only person she had ever genuinely loved, a bright smile spread across her face.
“Ahh. Victoria. There you are,” he greeted, rising on his feet so he could come to her. She gave him her cheeks as he reached her, and he promptly placed soft kisses on them as he loved to do.
“I am terribly sorry for calling you from your tea session. You must forgive me. I only could not keep this exciting news to myself any longer, you see.” He was already going back to his desk. She too began to follow, but his words caught her attention, halting her in mid-stride.
“Exciting news, you say? Pray, tell me what it is!”
The Duke chuckled at this, and she flushed. She knew he must be thinking about how much she loved gossip, or in this case, news. He stopped and turned to look at her.
“First, you have to affirm that you are no longer angry at me, dear wife; you know I hate it so much when you get cross with me.” He took her hand in his and lifted it to his lips to press kisses along her knuckles. She watched him until his eyes pulled her and held her hostage. The feel of his cool lips against her skin and the intensity of his gaze sent thrilling sensations up her nerves, travelling to settle down in a pool of arousal, just beneath her belly. His eyes began to twinkle as a smirk stole across his lips, and she knew her arousal must have sent flashes through her eyes.
She looked away quickly, withdrawing her fingers, but it was already too late, and again, William laughed at this.
Her lips twitched with a smile that was fighting to break free, regardless of how hard she tried to keep her frown on. Darn him!
“Give in to it Victoria. You know you can never stay cross with me. As soon as you smile, I will take it that I have been forgiven, and share this good news with you. I can only imagine that you are dying to hear what it is. I promise you it is worth it.
He knew how to get her, alright. More eager to hear this news than she was to keep playing mad at him, she gave into the smile that tugged at her lips and flashed him her perfect dentition.
“Now, that is the Victoria I know.”
“Oh hush! This had better be worth it, or else, the Victoria I love will be back in a snap of fingers. Now, out with it! Tell me.”
“Tsk tsk tsk. Still lacking of that virtue, I see?” He winked at her, and she smiled cheekily. While he hardly ever made her feel beneath him, Williams was the only one who could tease her and go scot-free.
“Tell you? Oh, but Victoria, why in the heavens shall I do that when you can see for yourself? Come, my dear.” He took her hands, and she quietly let him lead her to his desk.
As they got to his desk, he dropped her hands so he could rummage through his desk for the envelope that had arrived earlier. He sighed when he found it and then retrieved it to hand over to her. She eyed the mischievous grin on his face as she took the envelope. The seal caught her attention, and she began to examine it.
“This seal looks awfully familiar, Williams. I simply cannot recall whose it is at the moment. It is broken. If you have read it, why can’t you just tell me?”
“And what will be the fun in that, my love? Come on now, read for yourself.”
Eyeing him suspiciously, she opened the envelope and brought the letter out of it, curious to know what the mystery was all about. She handed the envelope over to her husband and proceeded to unfold the letter. When she was done, she began to read.
As she read, her brows furrowed as she tried to fathom why Williams was showing her a correspondence from his business partner and friend. Then she saw it, and her eyes widened, as her heart started to thump in delight. Still, she kept her excitement in until she was done reading.
“Oh my, Williams! But this is amazing!”she cried out. “TheDuke of Yorkshire wants Agnes to be married to his son, the future Duke? Oh, but Williams! However, did this happen?”She was beyond excited; she was thrilled, and it rang in her voice as she spoke. This was great news indeed! Seeing her daughters married to nobles had always been her dream. To see that would come to pass, it pleased her so.
“I think it is as they have said. They feel it is high time Nicholas took a wife for himself, and they believe Agnes will be a perfect match. The footman arrived with the letter just as your session began. I knew this would be something you would make an exception for as you would not want to receive the news late. Now, was it worth it?”
“Oh, but a thousand times over! I would have been much more put off if you had kept this from me any longer. You did good Williams. Now, you are forgiven.”
“Hail Mary, mother of Jesus! Music to my ears!” he cried, dramatically.
She finally laughed, covering her mouth as she did so, for she never wanted to be anything but prim and proper.
“Oh Williams! Stop it. I am so thrilled by this proposal. Of course, we must speak to Agnes at once and send a message to the Duke and Duchess, confirming our acceptance of their proposal. I have no doubt this would be an excellent match.”
She began floating around the room – for she never paced – as plans began to hatch in her head. As soon as Agnes accepted this proposal – and she would, for Victoria was on her last patient nerve when it came to that first daughter of hers – wedding preparations would begin! They would use the biggest parish, of course, and the entire ton would be present. It was to be the grandest wedding of all time after all. Her daughter was finally going to get married, and no one would stop her from throwing the best wedding of all seasons. One that would only be rivaled by Isabelle’s, which would come next.
“Mayhap, you would want to listen to what Agnes has to say before you commence your plans for the grand wedding I am certain you have already begun to plan.” She stopped floating and shifted, so she could face her husband. He continued,“Bear in mind that Agnes is twenty and four summers, and this would be her seventh season. Our daughter has turned down every single suitor, even till this moment, and there have been quite a number; men of status and wealth. What if she has resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood and decides to have no interest in the Duke?”
“Nonsense! No daughter of mine shall live a life of spinsterhood, not even over my old grave.” How could he consider something so utterly ridiculous?
“Agnes has only been behaving so badly because you have refused to clip her wings, Williams. However, after last season, I let her understand that this is to be her last, and she must choose a husband or we would do so for her. We are only in luck that an offer came so early. It is time to put our foot down for that child for she is not getting younger! She should be grateful that there is still a young man interested in her, at this age. Many have had to settle for so much lesser than she is getting. I have met Nicholas a few times, and he is a fine young man. Agnes will marry him, or I shall wash my hands of her!” she ended on a note of finality, huffing in exasperation. A life of spinsterhood? Her own daughter? Never!
There was a long pause as neither of them said anything. Victoria knew he was considering her words, and she hoped he would see reason with her. With his support, they could get Agnes to do the needful.
“I suppose you are right, Victoria. Mayhap, it is time to let Agnes know that her options and time have run out.”
She heaved a sigh of relief at the words that broke the silence. Lifting her skirts, she walked over to place a quick kiss on his lips.
“I knew you would see reason! Well, if that is all, I shall dismiss my guests and have that talk with Agnes. Lord knows they have overstayed their welcome, and apart from the season, I now have a wedding to plan for. Oh! It is surely going to be the grandest wedding ever witnessed, Williams. You just leave it to me!”
Without waiting for a reply, she floated out of the study, her skirts flowing behind her.
Agnes stopped her humming and looked up from the silk scarf on which she was embroidering flowers. She stayed still, straining her ears to listen so as to ascertain if there was indeed someone by her door, or her imagination was simply performing a trick on her senses. The former was confirmed when a knock sounded again. It had to be one of her sisters or the maid, she reasoned. Without bothering to ask who it was, she called, “You may enter.” She returned to her chore and resumed her humming as she began to work the needle. She kept her gaze fixated on her work, not bothering to look up when her chamber doors came open.
“What is it?” she asked, still not looking up. It wasn’t until the footfalls drew closer that she realised they had made no sounds until now, and even at that, they sounded so softly, hard not to miss except one was listening carefully. There was only one person she knew who walked that gracefully in this household. She finally looked up to confirm her suspicions.
“Mother,” she greeted, putting the scarf aside so that she could pay attention to whatever her mother wanted to say. They were rarely ever on agreeing terms, but this was her mother, and she tried to give her due respect when it was necessary.
“Agnes. I see you are still working on that scarf. How’s it coming along?”
“Very well. I should be done with it within a few days.” She could not help wondering what her mother wanted this time for she only sought her out herself when it was a matter of importance. They were still a few weeks shy from the season, and although preparations had already begun, surely, the sermons about proper behaviour and snatching a right husband could not be starting so soon. Despite her wonder, she said nothing. Her mother would state her reason for this call in due time. She only had to wait.
“Hmm. I see. Have you decided who you would give it to?”
The lie came easily, and she hoped her mother would not catch it. If anyone looked clearly, they would see that the scarf was in fact, a cravat. It was no secret only men wore cravats, and this was not for her father, or any man in this household for that matter.
“Eleanor, mayhap? Gifts usually go to the baby sister, they say.” Her mother was studying the scarf, so she held her breath, watching her carefully to see if she would figure out anything. She released that breath when Victoria turned to look at her with a genuine smile.
“Of course. That is quite sweet of you, dear. Eleanor will love it, I am certain.”
Great. Now, she had to make sure she embroidered an identical scarf for her little sister.
“I would love that, Mother. I am glad you think so. Thank you.”
Victoria gave a hearty laugh that took Agnes back. It was obvious that something hung in the air, and since her mother was being so charming, she feared that it was something heavy. She shifted in her seat, suddenly scared and uncomfortable.
“For how outspoken you can be, you are also terribly modest, Agnes. Indeed. I confess it is one of the things I enjoy about you, dear child. It is no secret that your embroidery skills are excellent. If you were not born into such privileges, I am sure you would have made an honest living from the sales of your handiworks.”
Agnes did not know how to feel about those words, whether to take them as a compliment or not. So she simply said nothing, only offering a small smile in return. She only wanted to learn of the reason behind this visit to her room. Victoria must have read her mind, for at that moment, she began floating around the room, her hands clasped around her back as she checked for nothing in particular.
“You must be wondering why I have come here myself, are you not?” She angled her head to look at her, and Agnes bobbed hers.
“Well, there is news, you see. I was quite eager to break it to you by myself –still am, but I feel it would be best if your father and I are both present. You must come with me to his study. We have things to say to you.”
Her breath caught in her chest. The dread that was steadily creeping up on her told her that her intuition had been right. Whatever hung in the air was heavy. She suddenly did not want to hear it. After all, if she did not, no one would expect her to act on whatever this mystery was about. A fool’s hope for she knew when her father summoned, she must answer. Keeping her emotions at bay, she rose on her feet and proceeded to smoothen out rumpled edges on her skirt.
“In that case, I suppose we should be on our way. I wouldn’t want to keep Father waiting.”
Agnes stood still, head high, shoulders squared and spine straight as her mother’s eyes fluttered over her, making assessment of her appearance. She must have decided that what she wore was acceptable, for she simply said, “Indeed, let’s,” and proceeded out of the chamber. Agnes followed suit, closing the doors behind her as she too stepped out.
By the time they got to her father’s study, her palms were damp with sweat, and she was releasing breaths in steady streams, all in a bid to keep her calm. As they entered, she saw her father by his desk, immersed in a piece of document he was reading.
He put away the document and took off his glasses before turning to look at them. He gave them both small smiles and then rose to march to the sofa where he stood by, waiting for them, ever the gentleman.
Agnes returned his smile as she reached the leather button sofa and took her seat. Her mother did the same, crossing her legs at her ankles.
“Williams, if you would hand over the letter to her, please?”
She looked from her mother to her father, confused. What letter did they refer to, and what had she to do with this letter? Her questions were answered when her Father handed over an envelope to her.
The seal was broken, so she knew for certain whatever was in this envelope had been read. However, it was addressed to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, thus by every indication, they were in the right to have read the letter. Her chest suddenly felt too heavy as her heart began to gallop against her ribs. She willed her hands not to shake as she drew out the folded letter and placed the envelope aside, so that she could unfold the piece of paper.
She did so and began to read.
“Dear Williams and Victoria,
Good tidings. We hope this meets you in good health and peace. First of all, we shall apologise for not doing this in persons. However, you must understand that this is a matter of the utmost importance, and we could not wait one more day. Putting our request in writing was the next best thing we could think of.
Friends, as you know, we have a son, Nicholas, who is twenty and eight summers this year. An agreeable age for any young man to settle down and manage his own home, would you not agree? Sadly, as it is, Nicholas has his nose buried deep in his books – scholar that he is – and while we are proud of that, we fear this has gone on for too long. He has declared no public interest in any young maiden, to our knowledge, and we worry that if we force his hand to do the needful, he shall make the wrong choice. As we pondered on how to go about making the right choice for our son, the future Duke of Yorkshire, you and your lovely family came to mind.
It is to our best knowledge that you have three beautiful daughters, all of whom are unmarried and unpromised. We are aware of the respectable household you uphold, and we declare, Nicholas could not get a better choice for a wife.
You must have realised by now, what it is in fact, that we speak of. Yes. This is a proposal for your first daughter, the fair lady, Agnes Birmingham. We wish to ask for her hands in marriage for our dear son, Nicholas as we are convinced that they would make a perfect match.
It would gladden us so if both you and the maiden accept this proposal. We shall await your response with eagerness and hope for favourable news.
Henry and Elizabeth
Duke and Duchess of Yorkshire”
Agnes swallowed the lump that had settled in her throat as she finished reading. She was in awe of how she had managed to read to the end of the letter without dropping it. She had realised what it was she was reading as soon as mention of Nicholas was made. It was quite easy to put things together to make a clearer picture when one was as smart as she was.
“So?” Her mother asked, leaning towards her. She was speechless, had no idea what to say, only that huge fists wrapped around her lungs and heart, cutting off her air and blood supply. She wondered which hurt more, her loss of air, or the ache in her chest. Oh no. This was bad. This was really bad. She had known this day would come, despite her foolish childish dreams, and hoped that it wouldn’t. Only she had thought she would have more time, that they would have more time.
“Agnes?” Her father’s concerned voice speared through her thoughts, and as she looked at him, the fists loosened so she could finally breathe.
Her gasp came out forcefully as she dragged in a lungful of fresh air. Great! Now she was hyperventilating. She ignored her parents’ alarmed looks and remained as quiet as possible as she took in more gulps of air. She was grateful she had no corset on, those darned contraptions would have made it harder. Her intuition had been right, once more. This was heavy.
“Are you alright, dear?”
Before she could reply, her mother did, regal smile on her face.
“But of course, Williams! Why wouldn’t she be? She is simply overexcited by the news. She can’t quite believe her fortune; isn’t that right, dear?”
She turned to look at her mother, stupefied. One would assume that they had seen every shade of Victoria Birmingham, then she awed with another spectacular hue. She shook her head but was glad she was finally regaining her composure.
“I am alright, Father. Just shocked, is all. So, this Duke and Duchess, they are your acquaintances?”
“Business partners,” her mother cut in.
“Friends too. Henry and I went to Eton together. You have met them a few times,’ her father replied, cutting her mother off. She smiled at this, especially when her mother relaxed back into her seat.
“And you have met this Nicholas?”
“Indeed. A fine young man, I must confess. I am thrilled by the prospects of making such an alliance with that family. They are respectable, and Nicholas would make a good husband.”
Of course, anyone who declared interest in her would make a good husband, thought Agnes. It had been that way since she clocked twenty-one summers and kept refusing suitors. She was still unmarried at twenty-four, not because she lacked men who wanted to take her for their wife. They were countless, in fact. Only that many had tired over the years, after subsequent rejections. In fact, she now had several titles – The lady who wanted no man, Ice Queen, Cold heart, and the likes. Ridiculous, if you asked her, but not unfounded. She saw how they easily arrived at that conclusion, but it was far from the truth. If only – if only they knew how she burned under his touch, how she soaked her sheets at night with dreams of him, how she yearned for his sweet kisses, how she ached for the touch that burned and melted her at the same time.
“So you would recommend him?”
“Yes. I certainly would.” She nodded at her father’s words, then mustering courage, tried one last time.
“And if I refuse?”she said so coolly, almost flippantly that her parents had to ask again.
“I asked, what if I refuse.”
“Absolutely not! I forbid it! We have entertained your petulant behaviour for far too long, Agnes. No more! This is it. If you turn Nicholas down, be ready to be married off to a widower or live a life of spinsterhood, but not under my roof. Never!” Her Mother was already on her feet, floating around the room. She was agitated, that much was obvious, but it wasn’t the first time Agnes had garnered such reaction from her mother. It bothered her less; she was only interested in what her father had to say.
Turning towards him, she hoped with all her heart that he would let her pass on this one. And if he did? a voice asked in her head. It was a sound question. If her father gave her a pass on this, would he continue to do so? If she would not reveal the fact that she had a secret lover, then at some point, she would be married off to a strange man whom she did not love. But how, how could she tell her father that she was in love with his business associate? Had been since she was a girl of fifteen, only beginning to understand the concept of that word. It was a failed mission even before it began. She and Alan could never have the life they dreamed of. It was impossible for them. Theirs was a love doomed from the start. The sooner she accepted that, the better for the both of them.
Still, she heard herself ask, “Father?”
Her father drew in a breath and sighed before replying. She already knew what the answer was. It hurt to hear him say it, nevertheless.
“I am sorry, child, but I would have to go with your mother on this one. I know you have been searching for the one, but you have to understand that there is no such thing as love at first sight. Love grows. You’ll see. With care, respect, and affection, it grows. Look at your mother and I.”
“You fell in love the moment you set your eyes upon her. You say so yourself.” She didn’t mean to snap at her father who was a kind man, but she could not help feeling betrayed.
He took no offence, smiling wryly at her outburst. It made her feel sullen, like a spoilt brat.
“I was attracted to her. She was fair, beautiful, and enchanting. I was charmed, but the love we share now, it did not happen in a day, a week, or even a month. It took years to build. However, we would not be sharing this now if we had not tried. You need to stop with your rejections. It has been six years since you entered society. We have given you enough time; would you not agree?”
She said nothing, looking away for she knew he spoke the truth. They had been more than accommodating, and she was aware of how insensitive and ungrateful she was coming off, as.
“What if I’m not attracted to him? What if there’s no pull at all when we meet?”
Her mother dissolved into a fit of laughter, and they both turned to look at her.
“Nicholas is a fine young man, Agnes. If you are not attracted, then you should be worried. Do not bother your head with such silly things. You will meet with Nicholas, and you shall agree to marry him. That is final. If you do not want to do this for yourself, do it for your sisters. They cannot marry until you do. It is not fair that you keep them waiting.”
The ultimate blackmail, but the truth nonetheless. Accepting that there was no way out of this one, she bowed her head in submission.
“Good. Then it is settled. We shall write a letter to Henry and Elizabeth. You may leave. I will keep you informed of developments as time goes by.”
She nodded and rose to her feet. Then she dropped a deep curtsy for both her parents and turned to walk out of the study. It took great effort not to slump, but she knew her mother’s eagle eyes were watching her, for the slightest falter in her gait.
As she stepped out of the room, she heard her mother say to her father, “I told you we only had to put our feet down, Williams. Now, she’s finally going to be married.”
The tears she had been holding in dropped then. Yes. She was going to be married, and it would not be to Alan Sheldon.
“A Scandalous Love for the Enticing Duke” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
When Eleanor Birmingham finds herself enchanted by Nicholas, a stranger who seems as though he had just walked out of one of her favourite books, she gets a taste of what love could feel like. She never expected to find exactly what she was looking for! However, it seems that luck is not on her side, for the tempting stranger who had spoken to her heart and soul, is the same man who is to be married to her eldest sister! Trying to avoid this undeniable attraction, will she be able to put reason over her growing passion?
Agnes Birmingham has found the one and only since she came to know what love is. Despite her parents’ efforts, she has refused men for years, in hopes that one day, her scandalous affair with her merchant would finally be out in the open. But this would not be the case anymore. When she finds herself forced to marry, how can she do this deed, when her heart belongs to another man?
Isabelle Birmingham, the youngest daughter of the family, despite being flighty and flirty, she is a total dear at heart! When she unearths the dilemma her sisters have found themselves in, she decides to take action! Enlisting the help of Nicholas’s best friend and her archenemy, she seeks to give everyone their happy ending. But all the while, will she also find hers?
Three couples against society rules, and a mother who stood only for status and title. She would stop at nothing to see her daughters married to men of title and equal social standing…
“A Scandalous Love for the Enticing Duke” is a historical romance novel of approximately 95,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.