Arabella Nott gazed back over the wide, rolling hills of Dorset, which were spreading out as far as the eye could see. From this vantage point, high on the cliff, she could clearly see the green countryside behind and the sparkling grey-blue sea ahead.
The horse beneath her stirred, stamping his hooves restlessly. She leaned down, stroking his chestnut flank. “It is quite alright, Pem,” she whispered reassuringly to the horse. “I am not about to lead you down the cliff face.”
She sighed deeply. The brownish-golden sand of the beach below beckoned to her, stirring her blood. She knew that it was out of bounds – her parents were very insistent that she ride only so far beyond the grounds of Rudwick House, their country estate. A young lady of one and twenty had to show propriety and restraint. A young lady had to restrain her wild impulses to ride as far and as fast as she wanted to.
Ara sighed again, still gazing longingly at the beach. Sometimes it was just so boring being a well brought up lady. There were so many rules and regulations. Petty rules and regulations, in her book.
If only I had been born a boy, she thought longingly. Then I could ride as wildly and as far as I wished, and no one would question me.
She had already broken a golden rule this morning, just by saddling Pem and coming here. She had not bothered to tell her father or her mother. She knew that her mother had earmarked this morning for a fitting with the dressmaker, who was travelling from Frasby, the local village, to Rudwick House. New gowns for their upcoming London season were needed, and Mrs. Grace Nott was determined that they all look the part.
“We must not look like country bumpkins,” her mother had declared huffily. “If we do not have gowns made in the latest fashion, we shall all look as if we have just stepped down from the hay cart.” She had paused significantly, staring at Ara. “And then we shall never hope to land a good husband for you, daughter.”
Ara stirred restlessly in the saddle, remembering her mother’s words and her pointed look. Mama never stopped going on about finding a husband for her. It had been her life’s mission since her sixteenth birthday, and the disappointment of having a daughter still unwed at one and twenty was sour for her.
I am so bored with it all, she thought darkly. Why must I find a husband? Why can’t I just head out, riding Pem, and when at home stay in the stables all day, for the rest of my life?
She kept gazing over the sparkling sea. The colour reminded her of one of her mother’s silk gowns. Her eyes lit up when she saw a solitary ship far out on the ocean, its impressive white sails blowing in the wind, as she imagined the wild adventures the sailors on board it must have. She had no desire herself to sail the seas, but the thought of the freedom was intoxicating.
Her mind turned to Ruth, her cousin and closest friend, who had grown up alongside her as a sister at Rudwick House. Ruth didn’t think the way that she did. Ruth desired to marry well and loved socialising and new gowns. Ara thought that Ruth was the daughter that her parents desired, in their heart of hearts. Sometimes, she thought that they loved Ruth more than her, just a little bit. Her cousin was so sweetly compliant and genteel. Just the way a young lady should be.
Ruth’s eyes had bulged dramatically when Ara had whispered to her at the breakfast table that she was taking Pem for a ride this morning.
“Ara,” she had whispered back furtively. “You know that the dressmaker is coming today! My aunt shall have an apoplexy if Mrs. Gibbs arrives and you are nowhere to be found. London is only a week away, and we must have our gowns before we depart…”
Ara had stared at her cousin levelly. How was it that she always did the right thing, without any seeming effort? Her eyes had trailed over Ruth’s perfectly coiffed brown hair and immaculate gown, with not a crease or a stain upon it. Her gaze had dropped to her own gown, where she had already managed to spill a tiny bit of marmalade, creating an orangey stain that her mother would be sure to fuss over.
But she knew that Ruth’s situation was one of the reasons she was so compliant. Her own parents were long dead, and she had been brought up at Rudwick House, as a charity, although her parents loved their niece. Miss Ruth Nott did not have any money of her own, and as a woman her situation would always be precarious until she found a good husband. Ruth had to toe the line.
“I will not be long,” she had whispered back. “I will only take Pem a little distance beyond the grounds.” She had glanced furtively at her mother, who was sipping tea at the end of the table. “Do not worry so, dear cousin. I will be back in time for the dressmaker, and my mother shall not be any the wiser.”
Ruth’s brow had puckered anxiously. “You are wicked to do it, Ara! You know that your parents do not like you riding beyond the grounds of the estate alone…”
Ara had sniffed. “What they do not know will not hurt them.” Then her gaze had softened as she stared at her cousin. “Do not fret, Ruth. I shall not cause a fuss.”
Ara sighed again, as she kept gazing at the ship in the distance. She should turn around and head back to Rudwick House now if she were to be on time for the dressmaker. She knew that. And still, she couldn’t bring herself to turn the horse around.
She stirred restlessly in the saddle. The sea was so inviting, and the beach so wide and beautiful. What would it hurt if she went down there and rode along the beach, just for a little while? She could be quick.
“Come on, Pem,” she said aloud, spurring the horse onwards. She knew a safe path down to the beach that would not tax the horse too much.
She smiled as the wind whipped her hair around her face. Already, she was anticipating the thrill of the ride along the sandy beach, with the sea glittering alongside her.
Ara’s heart sank a little as she approached Rudwick House. The ride had been brilliant; all that she had imagined it would be. But she had spurred Pem on to a gallop, and her hair was a mess now. And she wasn’t at all sure if she was still on time for the dressmaker.
She left the horse in the stables, heading to the house by the back path. Sometimes, if she was quick, she could make it in and head to her room before her mother even noticed. If she managed to avoid her, then she could quickly fix her hair and be downstairs in a heartbeat.
Suddenly she saw Ruth approaching, walking quickly towards her, a pained look on her face. Ara frowned, sighing deeply.
“There you are, at long last,” said Ruth, the moment she was near enough. “Your mother is on the warpath, Ara….”
But Ara brushed past her cousin, smiling vaguely in her direction. “I cannot stop, dear Ruth! I must fix my hair before I go downstairs.”
She kept walking fiercely. If she could just get inside, then all might still be well.
She had almost made it to the staircase when she heard footsteps approaching. Warily, she turned around. Her heart sank further. It was her mother, staring at her with thunder in her eyes.
“Mama,” she said, smiling weakly. “I was just about to go to the parlour…”
“Arabella,” growled her mother, her eyes trailing over her. “You are a disgrace! You are positively windblown. Your hair looks like a bird’s nest, your gown has sand all over it, and Mrs. Gibbs has been forced to leave for another appointment.”
Ara hung her head. “I am sorry, Mama.” She looked up at her mother pleadingly. “But it was such a beautiful morning for a ride! I did not intend to be so long…”
“You never do, do you?” said her mother sharply. “It is always the same. Always the same excuses and apologies, and yet it never stops you doing it again the next time, does it?” She sighed huffily. “I despair of you, daughter! How on earth are we to find you a good husband when you insist on still being a tomboy? You are too old for this now, Arabella! You must set your mind and heart in the right direction…”
Ara stiffened slightly. She was used to her mother’s tongue lashings, but it still rankled.
“We are heading to London next week,” continued her mother. “It is important that you are fitted for new gowns. Because of your rudeness, I have had to schedule an emergency appointment with Mrs. Gibbs in Frasby tomorrow. She has only just managed to squeeze us in, and only because she values our custom.” She paused for breath. “How will you ever entice a suitable young man to pay court to you if you are not properly attired? They notice such things in London…”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Mama,” interjected Ara, impatience overcoming her. “I do not care for things like that! I do not care a whit for any of it!” She took a deep breath. “All I want is to stay here, at Rudwick House, and ride. I do not care for London, or new gowns, or for finding a husband there! It is all so insufferable that I could scream!”
Mrs. Nott gaped at her, looking completely flabbergasted. “You must find a good husband! How can you say such things? It is the only goal a well brought up young lady should have! And there are no suitable candidates around here, as well you know. All the young men are either already married or not good enough…”
Ara sighed heavily. “As you have told me a hundred times or more, Mama. I simply do not care! Why should a young lady’s only mission in life be to find a husband? It is so utterly wearisome.” She looked mutinous. “I will not partake in it anymore! I am not a horse to be paraded at auction, with the fashionable young men of London the buyers…”
Mrs. Nott paled. “I do not understand you, daughter.” She paused, her bottom lip trembling, as if she would surely break out in tears at any moment. “I do not understand you at all. After all that I have done for you! All the balls I have taken you to, all the London seasons, all the gowns and jewellery that we have spent a small fortune on…”
Ara glanced at her sharply. “I did not ask you for any of it. I do not want any of it. I have no need for a man telling me what to do! I want to live my own life, just the way that I want to!”
Mrs. Nott stared at her as if she had lost her wits entirely. Behind her, Ara could see Ruth hovering near the doorway to the conservatory, wringing her hands. For a moment, Ara felt a stab of guilt. It always distressed Ruth when she and her mother locked horns like this. And she knew from long experience that poor Ruth was always the peacemaker afterwards.
Mrs. Nott drew herself up to her full height. “Go to your room, Arabella. Your father shall hear of this. I do not want you to leave it until he sends for you…”
Ara gazed at her contemptuously. “That is just fine with me, Mama. At least in my room, I do not have to listen to talk of husbands all the time.”
She didn’t wait a moment longer. With a pounding heart, she ran up the stairs, tears stinging behind her eyes.
I am a duck out of water, she thought sadly. And it seems that I shall never find my lake.
Lord Miles Comerford tossed back the last of the whiskey in the glass, feeling it sting as it hit the back of his throat. He gazed at his elder brother, Andrew, the Duke of Lancaster, who was sitting across the table from him with slightly bleary eyes.
“We are rather longer here than intended,” he said, his voice thickened by the drink. “We were stopping by for just one whiskey and one game of cards, were we not?”
Andrew grinned. “That we were, brother. But then I beat you into the ground as I always do, and you had to seek solace in a bottle of Michaelson’s finest.” He paused, staring at the man walking towards them. “You save it just for us, do you not, Michaelson?”
Miles laughed, staring at the man as well. Richard Michaelson was the owner of the establishment. Brown’s was one of the finest and most fashionable gentlemen’s clubs in London, located on Bond Street. Michaelson sat down opposite them, gazing at them both fondly.
“You both know I always keep a few bottles just for the two of you,” he said, smiling. “The Duke of Lancaster and Lord Comerford are two of my finest customers.” His smile broadened. “May I tempt you to more indulgence, maybe of the feminine kind…?”
Miles stirred uneasily in his chair. He was slightly too drunk for that. And besides, even though he had partaken of Michaelson’s high class escort services more than once in the past, he had never really felt comfortable with it. He just wasn’t the type to love and leave a lady in that way.
Andrew shook his head firmly. “Heavens, no, Michaelson! We should leave. We are hours beyond what we thought we would be and are expected for dinner at home.” He gazed at the owner of the club. “Can you put it on the tab?”
“Of course,” said Michaelson. “Anything for you, Lord Comerford.”
“But not me?” said Miles, a little cheekily. “I am Lord Comerford too, you know. Even though I am not the Duke…”
“For both of you,” smiled Michaelson.
“Come on, old chap,” said Andrew, heaving himself out of the chair. “We should be off, before we really cannot move at all!”
The two brothers walked down the steps of the gentlemen’s club, down Bond Street, towards their waiting carriage. Andrew always asked it to park a fair distance down the street. He didn’t like to advertise that he was in Brown’s.
Miles lurched a little, quickly steadying himself. He felt pleasantly tipsy; it was enough to get him through what was sure to be a long and wearisome evening. In the distance, he saw two young ladies approaching them, fashionably dressed, with parasols aloft, even though it was almost five o’clock and the sun was not in appearance at all.
“Which do you prefer, brother,” he whispered, not breaking his stride. “The blonde, or the brunette?”
Andrew grinned. “You know that I always prefer brunettes, little brother. I will take pity on you and let you monopolise the little blonde, if you like.”
They were almost to the ladies, who were gazing at them with wide eyes. The two brothers slowed down a little, indicating their willingness to talk.
“Why, you are Lord Comerford,” squeaked the blonde, staring directly at Andrew. “I met you at the opera just the other night.” She curtseyed deeply, and the other lady followed her lead. “It is an honour, Your Grace.”
Andrew bowed, clearing his throat. “I think that I may remember you. Miss Davidson, from Exeter, is it not?”
The blonde lady blushed. “Indeed it is, Your Grace. I am thrilled that you remember me. And this is Miss Hart, my dear friend. She was at the opera as well.”
Andrew bowed again. “Miss Hart. It is a pleasure.”
Miss Hart laughed merrily. Miles noticed her blue eyes were shining brightly, gazing directly at his brother. Miss Davidson was gazing in rapture at his brother too. They had barely even glanced in his own direction. But then, he was used to it. It was always the same when Andrew was with him. The lustre of his title blinded young women to anything, or anyone, else.
Andrew introduced him to the ladies, who nodded politely to him, but straight away went back to talking to the Duke. Eventually Miles grew bored, gazing off down the street. The ladies were laughing and dimpling, flirting up a storm, and he could see that Andrew was not immune to it.
He studied his brother covertly. He was a handsome enough man, of two and thirty, with straight brown hair and hazel eyes. Andrew was also charming, witty and agreeable. But it was not any of those things which were so entrancing these two young ladies. He could have been portly and staid, and they would still have been hanging off his every word.
Eventually the two young ladies drifted off, down the street, and they resumed walking. Andrew had a slight grin on his face.
“You look like a monkey,” teased Miles, gazing at his brother. “Those two young ladies were not entranced by you, big brother. It is just your title, and you know it.”
Andrew’s grin widened. “Jealous, Miles? I guess some of us just have it, and others do not. Poor you!”
Miles laughed. “Brother, it is ridiculous how they throw themselves at you, just because you were born first with a better title!”
He expected Andrew to laugh with him, but his brother suddenly looked uncharacteristically sombre. He abruptly stopped walking, staring at Miles, as if something momentous had just occurred to him.
“I am tired of it all, Miles,” he said simply. “I am tired of the scene, and the circuit, and a hundred young women throwing themselves at me because of what I am, not who I am.” He paused. “I would really like to settle down. I want to find a woman to marry, at long last. A woman who appreciates me.”
Miles stared at him as if he had just started to sprout gibberish. To say that he was surprised was putting it mildly. Andrew had always revelled in his bachelorhood, claiming that he enjoyed his freedom.
“How long have you been thinking along these lines?” he asked quietly.
Andrew sighed. “A while now, I suppose. Long enough that I have become quite fixated on the idea.” He paused. “I am going to throw a ball, Miles. A ball to attract all the eligible young ladies, with a view to perhaps finding my soulmate.”
Miles stared at him. “Like Prince Charming in Cinderella? I only hope that the one who catches your eye does not turn into a pumpkin by midnight.”
Andrew smiled faintly. “You can tease me all you like, but I am deadly serious, brother. I am in my thirties now, and bachelorhood has started to pale. What better idea than to cast out a net and try to catch as many lovely young ladies as there are in London for the season?” He paused. “I hope to find my future wife there.”
Miles slowly started laughing. “You can have any woman you choose, brother.”
Andrew frowned. “The young ladies do not like me just because of my title, Miles.”
Miles grinned. “I think you are wrong, brother. Do you think that you are extremely better looking than me, or intrinsically more charming?”
Andrew grinned back. “I could say yes, but to be fair, not really…”
“Exactly.” Miles was nodding. “Therefore, it is the title. Miss Davidson and Miss Hart just proved it. They barely glanced at me sideways, while they were eating out of your hand…”
Andrew laughed. “No, no, you have it all wrong…”
“Do I?” Miles grinned again. “How about we not only prove the point, but we drive it home? What say you that I pretend to be you, to any young lady who does not know you from Adam, in the time between now and your ball?” He paused dramatically. “Let us see how many fall at my feet, then.”
Andrew’s eyes lit up. “A wager? Would you do it for coin?”
Miles nodded. “Of course I will, brother! It is a good wager, is it not?”
Andrew nodded as well. “It is. Two guineas. I win if you fail to attract any young ladies. You win if you do. Agreed?”
Miles held out his hand. “Agreed. Shake on it then.”
Andrew stared at the outstretched hand. “Should we not spit into our hands, like we did as boys?”
Miles laughed so hard he almost fell off the pavement. He really was more intoxicated than he had first thought, and so was Andrew, judging by the way he was grinning inanely.
“Let us get to the carriage,” he laughed. “Before it has to come to us.”
The next minute they were ensconced in the carriage, and it was hurtling through the London streets. The carriage driver took a left turn a little too sharply, and Andrew slid across the carriage, bumping into Miles with a crash.
They both started laughing again, so hard that they could barely contain themselves. When the hilarity had finally died down, Andrew grew sombre again, staring out the carriage window as if searching for the meaning of life.
“I am looking forward to this ball,” he said contemplatively. “I am too old for these London seasons, and it would be a godsend if I could finally find the woman that I am searching for.”
Miles blinked rapidly. “You really are committed to the idea, aren’t you? London and all of its excitements no longer holds you in its thrall?”
Andrew sighed deeply. “It has been happening so gradually that I have barely noticed it.” He stared out the carriage window. “Where once I was glad to be in London, and attend all the balls and assemblies, now I simply find it wearisome. I desire nothing more than to be at the Kent estate, in the country. And if I could have a beautiful and good wife at my side there, all the better.”
Miles nodded, but he didn’t share his brother’s sentiments. Although he loved Kemp Hall, their ancestral home where they had grown up, he felt strangely restless there now. London provided diversion, and distraction. Yes, it was often superficial and petty, but he found nowadays that he didn’t want contemplation. If he was in a whirlwind of activity, then it stopped him thinking too much.
His face darkened slightly. He didn’t want to think about it too much; what had happened all those years ago. It suddenly occurred to him that perhaps distracting himself in London was his way of not thinking about it. One had to just get on with life. There was no point brooding about the past, was there?
Andrew, in the mercurial way of the slightly tipsy, suddenly turned happy again. He fixed his brother with a wide smile.
“Were you serious about our wager before?” he asked. “Are you actually going to do it?”
“Of course,” Miles replied, smiling brightly. “If you are up for it, then I am. It will be a bit of harmless fun.”
“To harmless fun,” said Andrew, raising an imaginary glass.
“To harmless fun,” repeated Miles, raising his own. They made a great show of clinking their glasses, then started laughing again, rolling around the carriage.
But by the time the carriage had pulled up in Grosvenor Square, at their parents’ house, they had gotten themselves together, and walked almost without a stumble to the grand front entrance, determinedly avoiding eye contact.
Ara stepped down from the carriage, gazing up at the tall building in front of her, which was set on a wide tree-lined boulevard. She sighed deeply.
London, she thought darkly. Yet another season, with its interminable round of balls and assemblies, picnics and tea parties. How on earth am I going to endure it?
Ruth, who had stepped out of the carriage just behind her, gripped her arm excitedly. Her pale blue eyes were shining. “Oh, it is wonderful to be here, is it not, Ara?” Her eyes swept along the street. “Already I can feel my blood start to run a little quicker. As soon as we reached the outskirts of London, my heart surely leapt.”
Ara smiled fondly at her cousin. “I am glad to hear you are in such good spirits, Ruth. London seems to suit you.” Her smile faded a little. “I wish that I were as fond of it as you are. But the whole time that we are here, I must confess that all I dream of is the country.”
Ruth laughed a little. “You are turning into a country door mouse, Ara! You are only one and twenty, you know. Hardly old enough to fade into obscurity, my dear.”
Ara gazed at her cousin. Why did it always seem nowadays that Ruth was the elder of them, counselling her, when she was still only seventeen? And everything was so uncomplicated for her cousin. All that she desired was to wear pretty gowns, go to balls, and hopefully find a husband. Exactly what a young lady was supposed to desire.
Ara bit her lip, gazing down the wide street again. Well to do ladies and gentlemen were strolling down it, seemingly without a care in the world. Sometimes they would stop and chat, before continuing on their walk. It was the pattern of London that she was already familiar with, and which bored her to tears.
See and be seen. Parade along the streets on display. Make good connections. That was all that it was about, really.
Ara jumped a little. It was her mother, standing on the doorstep of their London residence, staring back at them a little crossly.
“It is not seemly to titter in the street,” Mrs. Nott announced. “Come along now, before all the curtains in the neighbourhood start twitching.”
Ara smiled faintly. “Yes, Mama. We are coming.”
Mrs. Nott nodded imperiously but didn’t say another word, sweeping into the house. Ara sighed. Her mother had barely spoken to her since her outburst after her wild ride on the beach. She had tried to make amends and be compliant since, but Mama had not forgiven her yet.
Ara walked into the study, located in the east wing of the house. It was where her father, Mr. Moses Nott, practically lived when they were in their London residence. Every day after breakfast, he would retire there to read the papers. He didn’t like to be disturbed unless it was a dire emergency. This fact alone caused her to tremble a little; that Papa had summoned her here to his domain.
He was sitting at his desk, bent over some papers. Ara studied her father covertly. He was a portly man, in his fifties, with blackish grey hair. At the sound of her footsteps, he looked up. His thick grey eyebrows drew downwards, looking for all the world like wings, contemplating her.
“Arabella,” he said, in his most severe voice.
Ara trembled more. Papa only called her by her full name when he was about to deliver a lecture. When he was happy with her, he always called her his sweet Ara.
“Sit down, daughter,” he commanded. “I need to speak with you.”
She did as he commanded, settling herself on the chaise lounge in the centre of the room. Papa stood up, pacing the floor.
“Your mother and I are concerned about your attitude,” he said slowly.
Ara sighed deeply. “Papa, I am sorry. I have already apologised a hundred times to Mama, but she still will not speak to me…”
Her father stopped pacing, staring at her. “She is tired of it, Arabella, just as I am. It seems that despite all your promises to stop your reckless behaviour, you cannot comply.” He took a deep breath. “And yet you must, daughter. For your own sake, and the sake of your reputation.”
Ara hung her head a little, feeling tears sting behind her eyes. Had she really done such a bad thing, by riding Pem on the beach and missing the dressmaker’s appointment?
She raised her head, a little defiantly. “If I were a young man, no one would have even mentioned my ride. It would have not even been remarked upon…”
“But you are not a young man, Arabella,” he interjected sharply. “You are a young lady. And as such, there are certain ways that you are expected to behave.”
She stiffened. She had been hearing this all her life.
“The way that you spoke to your mother was disrespectful,” he continued. “Your mother went to great trouble to arrange for the dressmaker to make a home visit, and yet you decided that riding your horse was more important than that.”
The tears stung harder behind her eyes. She held them back with difficulty.
“I am sorry I was disrespectful to Mama,” she said slowly. “What more can I say? I have tried to do everything that I should since then, but she still refuses to speak to me.”
“Because she is tired of your excuses,” he said sharply. “She is hurt, daughter, and rightly so. Your mother devotes herself to you. All that she wants is for you to be secure in this world, well married, and well placed. Why is that so hard for you to understand? Why must you fight and resist her efforts?”
A single tear fell down her cheek. “I do not know,” she said, her lip trembling. “I try, Papa. I really do try to be good, and be like all the other young ladies.” She took a deep, ragged breath. “I wish that I were more like Ruth. But it is so difficult for me.”
His frown deepened. “You must try harder, daughter. It is your duty to marry well. I must have your word that you will participate in your season here to the utmost.”
Another tear fell down her cheek, and she hung her head. She hated it when Papa was mad with her.
“I will participate in the season,” she said slowly. “Please, do not be angry with me anymore.”
Her father’s face softened a little. “We only do this for your benefit, Ara. It is our duty as parents. You do realise that, do you not?”
Ara nodded slowly. Yes, she understood that her parents were no different to any other well to do family in that regard. All mothers sought a good match for their daughters and worked tirelessly towards it. All fathers wanted to see their daughters married well and protected. It was universal.
She knew and understood all that. And still, the thought of marriage was anathema to her. Her very soul shrivelled just a little at the thought of being owned and controlled by a man.
She sighed deeply. It didn’t help that all the young men she had met in her London seasons left her cold. While all the other young ladies smiled and preened like peacocks on display at the balls and assemblies, flirting openly, she wondered what the fuss was about. No young man had moved her in any way. Some were more interesting to talk to than others, but she had never had a marked preference for any one of them in particular.
She sighed again. She could make an effort…couldn’t she?
“I know you and Mama are doing your duty,” she said slowly. “I will make a greater effort, Papa.”
He smiled. “That’s my girl! Run along now, Ara. I still have two more newspapers to peruse.”
She stood up. “Thank you, Papa.”
He waved a dismissive hand, heading back to his desk. Even before she had opened the door to leave, he was engrossed once more, not even turning his head to look at her.
Ara sat in the window seat of her room, staring down at the street below morosely. London was always so grey and drab. How she longed for the rolling green hills of Dorset. How she longed to be riding out on Pem, with the wind in her hair, and not a worry in her mind.
There was a soft knock at the door.
“Come in,” she said wearily.
Ruth entered. She stared at Ara, a surprised look on her face.
“Ara,” she rebuked. “Why are you not ready? We are going to the tea rooms, remember?”
Ara’s eyes widened. Somehow, she had forgotten that entirely.
With an effort, she stood up. “I am sorry, Ruth,” she said listlessly. “But my gown is good enough, is it not? And all I need is to get a bonnet and my gloves…”
Ruth’s face softened. “Oh, Ara, it is not that bad! You act as if you are about to go to the gallows, not a tearoom.” She paused. “It is only tea, after all.”
Ara nodded. “Yes, yes, I know that you are right.” She sighed. “And all that I need to do is smile and nod, to all the dowagers that Mama confers with…”
Ruth studied her carefully. “You really find it all insufferable, don’t you? It seems to genuinely pain you.”
Ara blinked rapidly. “Yes, it is true, Ruth. I cannot hide my feelings, but I am trying to do my duty regardless.” She paused. “You are the opposite to me, dear cousin. How I wish that I were more like you. Life would be so much simpler if I was.”
Ruth stared at her. “Do not say that, Ara,” she said slowly. “I think that you are wonderful.” She hesitated. “Sometimes, I wish that I were more like you. You are so independent and can speak your mind. Whereas I tremble to say anything, thinking that all are judging me.”
Ara smiled faintly. “We are a silly pair, are we not? Each wanting to be the other?” Her smile widened. “How about we stuff our faces with all the cream pies and scones? Just like we did when we were children.”
Ruth giggled a little. “Do you remember the day that we made ourselves sick, when we ate too much? I had to go to my room with a stomach ache.”
Ara laughed. “You have always had a sweet tooth, dear cousin! Let us go and indulge. I am game if you are.”
Ruth giggled again. “Oh, Ara! I am so happy that you sound like your old self again!”
Ara blinked back tears. She loved Ruth dearly. She loved all her family dearly, and it always pained her when they were angry at her.
She would try harder. It couldn’t be that difficult, could it?
She took a deep breath, holding out her arm towards her cousin. “Let us depart to the tea rooms, cousin, to eat until we are bursting.”
Ruth’s eyes sparkled. She took Ara’s arm. Together they descended the stairs, leaning towards each other. Ara’s heart lifted. It meant so much to her that things were good between her and Ruth again.
In the carriage ride towards the tea rooms, Ara stared out of the window. They were passing Hyde Park. Her heart lifted just seeing the acres of green. Some people were strolling the paths in the park, but others were on horseback, enjoying an afternoon ride.
Her heart seized a little. She missed Pem. If only he were here, perhaps it would make London more tolerable.
She took a deep breath. She would try to walk in the park, at least. Perhaps that might allay her awful homesickness, just a little.
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Miss Arabella Nott desires nothing more in life than to ride her beloved horse through the fields around her home in Dorset. Although her mother won’t stop pressuring Ara to think about eligible young men and marriage, she has vowed that she will never marry. But when she unexpectedly meets a handsome Duke, he ignites a fire inside her, in ways that she could never have imagined. Why is she suddenly thinking that marriage to the Duke might be just what she desires when she has always been so vehemently opposed to it?
In London, Lord Miles Comerford, younger brother to the Duke of Lancaster, places a bet with his brother. He will pretend to be the Duke, to prove that all the young ladies are only attracted to his brother’s title. Even though he has vowed that he will never let another woman touch his heart again, it is a good wager, and Miles is confident that he shall collect the winnings. But when the first young lady he meets is the delectable and fiery Miss Arabella Nott, he finds that the bet might be more of a liability than an asset…When his heart beats faster every time he thinks about her, will he be able to risk it all and reveal the truth?
As the ball approaches, choices must be made, by both of them. Will they deepen the desire that burns between them? Or will the Duke’s trickery make a mockery of the burgeoning love, before it has even started to blossom?
“Unmasked by a Captivating Lady” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.