BellindaThe Duke's Guardian Angel
Bellinda Harper sat nervously outside her mother’s chambers, awaiting the verdict of the physician. Her hands danced in her lap as she fumbled and fiddled with her long fingertips, which twitched as though they could not settle until she heard news of her mother’s condition.
Minutes seemed to stretch into hours as she waited impatiently until her fingertips eventually found the ends of her light brown hair.
She listened tentatively to the muffled, earnest voices of her father and the doctor but failed to decipher the words through the thick, oak chamber door. She continued to twist at the ends of her straight hair that dangled freely over her angular shoulders and framed her youthful, oval face. She had been halfway through practicing hair styling with her lady maids in preparation for her upcoming debut when the physician arrived.
Everything in Bellinda’s life seemed meaningless compared to her mother and father, the Earl and Countess of Ellishire. She had enjoyed a blessed and connected childhood alongside them, with all manner of sweet memories and happy times during her seventeen years. The concept of losing her mother to her sudden ailment of the lungs filled Bellinda with a dread that she could not quantify.
Her impatient concern was remedied slightly as the chamber door opened and the Earl of Ellishire retired from her mother’s chamber.
“Father, how is she?” Bellinda asked, her honey-brown eyes wide with concern as she studied her father’s face. His eyes were dark like hers but were drawn and heavy with the weight of an ill wife.
“She will be quite alright, but there are some changes we must make to ensure her recovery,” he started, placing his hand on her shoulder as though he were about to deliver bad news.
“Anything, Father, of course. What is it?”
The Earl hesitated for a moment before drawing a deep breath and answering his fretting daughter.
“Wait, where is Lily?” he asked, suddenly realizing that Bellinda’s sister was no longer beside her.
“She went to the gardens to get some air, Father; she is fraught with worry, as we all are,” Belinda answered softly.
“Well, please fetch her. I would like to inform you both of what needs to be done,” he ordered in a more earnest tone than usual for him. Bellinda allowed her father’s seriousness to go unquestioned, for he was more stressed by the Countess’ illness than both of the daughters combined. “Or perhaps it is good that I have you alone, for it is you I pity the most in these circumstances, darling,” he continued.
Bellinda’s heart sank with a sudden and keen dread. What could he mean?
“Pray tell, Father, I am sure that I can manage it,” she smiled, feigning confidence to comfort the Earl.
“We are to move to the coast with immediate effect, for the sea air is pure and will aid in your mother’s recovery. We are to go to Bath, and that means dragging you away from your upcoming debut. I cannot imagine how disappointed you must be, dear, but we will continue when she recovers. The sooner the better,” he soothed, placing his hand upon her slim shoulder once again.
The words certainly surprised her and sent a mild sting of disappointment through her heart, but she did not let it show. “It does not matter if it means Mother will be well again!” She beamed. “When are we to go?”
“The physician has advised that we leave as soon as possible, by tomorrow if we can. I am proud to have raised such a selfless girl. I know many daughters that would have their father’s heads if they were to remove them from an upcoming debut.” He laughed, half relieved, half guilty. Bellinda joined her father in a much-needed dose of laughter that rang through the corridor walls.
“There is plenty of time left to find love, Father. My family is my priority, always. Please do not feel guilty, Feel happy, for we have a route to Mother’s recovery at last!”
“You are right, and I know that you are destined to find the most excellent of noblemen, for you are the most excellent of ladies.”
Belinda smiled and patted out the creases in her primrose dress. “Can I see her now?” she inquired.
Her father nodded. “Of course. Go in, dear.”
As Bellinda turned to make her way into her mother’s chamber, the physician drew out, clutching onto his brown leather satchel. He nodded at her in his professional way. “My lady …”
She nodded back and walked past him to see her mother, at last, closing the oaken door behind her and leaving the Earl to see to matters of payment.
The Earl, Countess, and their two daughters took the long carriage journey to Bath the very next day, equipped with stuffed suitcases full of their possessions and a vast array of Bellinda’s books.
The family occupied a sweet little cottage in Bath that fit them and some limited staff snugly but happily by the dramatic coastline. Bellinda and her younger sister, Lily, spent their days rambling the salt-soaked grasslands and exploring the sandy beaches with bare feet, which suited Bellinda greatly as she was an avid lover of the outdoors. The sea air set to its task of healing the Countess’ lungs, and over the course of three years, she was restored to her full health.
Bellinda happily gave up her debut for the sake of her mother’s health and set to becoming further educated and enjoying her new and unexpected lease of freedom. She was not concerned with rushing matters of marriage, for she was always certain that she would marry for love when it saw fit to find her. Three years on, and on the verge of Bellinda being considered a spinster, the family returned to Mayfair to release their daughter into the upcoming social season in the hope of finding her a marvellous husband with whom to start a family of her own.
William Lockwood, the Duke of Dunworth, was enjoying an early morning jaunt on his faithful stallion over Dunworth moor. The early summer air clung to his olive skin and played with his dark brown hair, displacing it from its usual neatly tucked middle part to a tousled mess over his forehead.
The light fragrance of heather and peat moss refreshed him and allowed him a welcome escape from his thoughts and responsibilities. The moorlands that surrounded his country estate always brought him the most peace, for out in the hills, he was not a duke or a nobleman; he was just a man on his horse, breathing the wild air. He stopped to allow his steed to drink at a clear, trickling stream and cast his dark eyes over his pocket watch, quickly realizing it was almost time to break bread with his mother.
With a pull at the reins and a gentle tap of his leather boot, the horse was propelled into action, and the course was set for the country house to meet with the Dowager Duchess of Dunworth.
“Late for breakfast again, Will! If only you had known that warm, honey-glazed ham was on the table,” the Dowager Duchess said, laughing from the table as William waltzed into the room with rosy cheeks. “You look cold, dear.”
“My apologies, Mother, you know how I adore the countryside, especially at this time of year. There is a sea of purple that stretches for miles now that the heather has bloomed,” he replied, straightening his tailcoat and drawing towards the breakfast table. All manner of delights awaited him as he reclined in a chair opposite his mother and grabbed a crusty bread roll.
“Well, get some hot tea down you before you catch your death,” she ordered in her friendly yet firm harmony.
“You know I am made of strong stuff, Mother!” He chuckled and sat back as a young maid poured steaming brown tea from the ornate pot into his cup.
“So was your father …” She sighed, her eyes drawing down to the half-inch of tea that remained in her cup as she nursed it closely.
William’s heart sank as the feel of the room turned quickly from jovial to melancholy. “We both miss him dearly, but I assure you that I am here to stay,” he soothed, leaning forward as he spoke and softening his honey-brown eyes in sympathy.
“You are all that I have left, so wrap up warm next time and drink your tea. ” She smiled. William could hear that her voice was breaking as tears fought to break through, but he feigned ignorance and set to drinking from his hot cup. He was grateful that he was surrounded by such love but pitied his mother’s grief for the late Duke of Dunworth.
“Is everything quite well, Mother? I can sense when something is bothering you,” he spoke again as he set to the task of devouring his wedges of glazed ham and cheese. He and the Dowager Duchess’ relationship had flourished in the three years since his father’s sudden passing, as he was their only child.
“Well, I suppose I better get on with it,” she replied, placing her teacup down and looking very determined indeed as she met his gaze.
“Should I be concerned?” William enquired, mirroring his mother’s suddenly stiffened posture.
“No, it is just that I have put this off for a while, and in doing so, I have amplified the gravity of it in my own mind. I must speak plainly with you now, and you must listen kindly,” she replied. William nodded and awaited the words; he could not fathom what she could possibly have been keeping from him.
“Of course.” He nodded, trying to hide the fact that his heart was now clamoring inside his broad chest.
“Your father requested that I wait until the time is right to tell you this, but I feel in my heart of hearts that the time has come,” she began sorrowfully and then began to fumble her hands behind her seat. William heard the crinkle and rustle of what appeared to be a piece of paper, which was confirmed when his mother brought forward an envelope and held it out to him.
“Father wrote this?” he asked, rising from his chair to retrieve the mysterious paper. His mother nodded.
“We were both so sympathetic when Jasmine left, and we wanted to give you apt time to move on from the heartbreak of her betrayal. That is why I am giving you this now.” She sighed, looking up at him with wide eyes as he took the envelope.
Jasmine. Just the mention of the name made his heart feel cold. “Jasmine, I have not thought of her for a while,” he half-laughed, unfolding the neatly tucked letter that was sealed with his father’s wax insignia. “That whole palaver must have been a few years ago now ….”
“It was seven years ago, Will,” his mother said softly as she watched him investigate the letter.
“You must be joking. Surely it has not been that long?” he replied, scarcely able to believe it. She nodded. “How time flies ….”
William felt suddenly aged as he considered the years that had blindly passed by. He remembered the consuming days when his heart was shattered, and every morning was merely an effort to survive. It was clear to him now that those mornings had multiplied into weeks, and those weeks had multiplied into years right before his tear-stained eyes.
Unable to say any more, he cast his attention to the shaky, inky letters that he quickly recognized as his late father’s handwriting.
I have decided to write you a letter and entrust its safe keeping to your mother, as I know that I will not see the day when you are ready to hear what I have to say.
I have watched how your heart bleeds over Jasmine leaving you, and I have ached with you. But I fear as the years roll by, you are no closer to achieving the due closure that is needed to assist you in moving forward with your life. One cannot sit in their grief forever, just as I do not wish for you and your mother to mourn me forever when this illness finally claims me.
As you will most inevitably be the Duke of Dunworth when you read this letter, I must lovingly remind you of your duty to continue our noble line, to produce heirs, and ensure that our long-standing line of noblemen and women flourishes. You must marry to do this, and that requires you to move on from Jasmine and the darkness that she brought upon you.
There is another girl out there for you, my dear boy, but one must be brave enough to open their eyes to see the flowers.
All my love,
Williams’ eyes began to bloom with tears as he read the shaky writing of his father. Images of the late Duke’s frail hands scratching the quill at the paper to reason with his heartbroken son haunted him. He felt like a failure when Jasmine called off their courtship seven years ago, and he now felt like a failure for not having any wife or heir to speak of by the age of thirty.
“Well ….” He sighed. “I suppose it is about time.”
“We both wanted you to come to terms with it in your own time, my dear, but the clock is ticking, and I hate to see you still on your own,” she smiled, seeming relieved to have got it off her chest.
“With the social season arriving, there is no better time to show your face once again.”
William contemplated a reemergence into the social season with a quiet brooding over his dark eyebrow as he sat back down at the breakfast table.
“What do you think, dear, you look pale?” the Dowager Duchess asked.
William roused himself from his trance to reply to his mother, “Yes, it is just a strange concept, I suppose. I thought that I would only be involved in the whole ritual once and then be relieved of such matters until death do us part. I appreciate that Father advised me to take my time to recover from the heartache, but the time to move on is long overdue.”
His mother nodded sympathetically. “Well, this is a chance to court again, to see that many girls would be head over heels for you. You are every bit as handsome as your father was at your age, you know,” she flattered.
“I suppose this means that I shall be returning to Dunworth Manor to mingle with the noble folk once again.” He chuckled as he swirled his tea unenthusiastically.
“I will join you, of course. It feels like a return to the place is long overdue. Since your father passed, I fear the walls may have gone cold.” She smiled over her ornate china cup.
“It has been two years, but the servants will have kept the place well,” William replied, finishing his tea. “I suppose we have had long enough to recover and hide from our duties.”
They both laughed and shared a moment of reflective silence. “Although I will miss my morning rides, I really do love it here,” he said earnestly.
“Well, perhaps you and a special someone could return here in the future?” She smirked.
“Perhaps,” he hummed, considering what a certain someone may be like. When Jasmine betrayed him, he did not think that he would love again. He had been certain that she was the love of his life, and when she left, his heart had closed for what felt like an eternal winter. For seven long years, he had tried his best not to think of her—or love for that matter—but both his mother’s kind eyes and the letter written by his father reminded him of his duty to marry and produce an heir.
Bellinda and the Countess were enjoying a late luncheon in the rose gardens for the first time in three years and were surprised that so little had changed. The sweet musk of red, white, and yellow roses hung thickly in the summer air that Bellinda inhaled greedily. She looked around at the perfectly kept foliage as the sun warmed her exposed face and neck.
“It feels as though no time has passed at all, Mother.” She sighed gleefully. “I am glad to be back, as much as I adore the coast.”
“It is a shame that so much time has passed,” her mother said with a sigh. Bellinda could tell that her mother felt guilty for preventing her debut on account of her illness.
“It is no shame, for it is the time that you needed to recover. Nothing has been wasted,” Bellinda replied, placing her hand over her mother’s as they sat in their white metal chairs and soothing her as well as she could.
“Your time has been lost, dear, and I cannot feel good about that …. But I have made all of my preparations for you to have the most dazzling debut ever known.” She shook her head as if to draw herself out of the guilt and force a positive demeanour. “I have arranged your first dancing lesson with the finest tutor in London; we will have you more than ready for the upcoming season.”
“Oh, how marvellous, Mother! When do they arrive?” Bellinda squealed. She had always been naturally gifted with dancing, but her time away had made her feel slightly rusty on the subject.
“Tonight!” She giggled to herself as she sipped her tea.
“Do you ladies mind if I interrupt?” The deep, playful voice of the Earl emerged from behind a rose hedge, making both of them jump slightly.
“Oh, Joseph, I do wish you would refrain from scaring us; it is not good for the ageing process!” her mother scolded.
“I am sorry, Helen. I suppose being back here is reminding me of the old, playful days.” The Earl chuckled, sitting beside Bellinda and grabbing a ham and cucumber sandwich from the table.
“I have missed it too, Father.” Bellinda smiled.
The Earl beamed at her and then turned his attentions to his wife. “So, I imagine you have been planning all manner of fancies for the debut?”
“Indeed, dear, I have just told her about the dance lessons commencing this eve,” Helen replied.
“Lessons, but you’ve always been the best dancer! You will be better than the instructor!” the Earl exclaimed as he reclined under the sunshine.
“We are to take every measure to prepare her. she is twenty now; we do not want the wrong things being said about her,” the Countess replied.
“Very well, though anyone that dared to would have to speak with me directly,” the Earl smiled as he finished his sandwich.
At that moment, Lily, now twelve and reluctantly preparing for her debut in five years’ time, came rushing down the garden.
“I have done it!” she screamed with a wide smile, her brown curls bouncing over her shoulders as she galloped towards Bellinda and embraced her.
“A lady does not run about like that, my dear,” the Countess scolded her youngest daughter.
“Then a lady I am not,” Lily teased. “I am much more interested in finishing my novel than finding a husband.”
Bellinda laughed, much charmed by her sister’s rebellious nature. She had always imagined her sister becoming one of those rare, confident, and self-assured spinsters that made their own secret fortune and wore the title with pride.
“The chapter? You finished it?” Bellinda asked as she held her sister’s arms that were perched affectionately over her shoulders.
“Indeed,” Lily replied smugly and then set to dancing around in celebration, promptly knocking the basket which housed the bottle of lemonade over. The family gasped at the cloudy liquid spilled into the grass.
“With grace like that, perhaps you could benefit from joining your sister in her dance lesson this evening,” the Countess joked.
“Dancing? I have no time for such fancies. Now, if you will kindly excuse me, I have a novel to finish.” Lily gasped as she picked up the upended bottle, trying not to appear ashamed of her blunder, and turned to leave.
“Thank goodness we have one daughter that is willing to marry.” the Countess sighed playfully, for she did not resent her youngest child’s fiery will, but she liked to joke about it.
“I will only marry if I find the right man to marry. You may be stuck with me for some time,” Bellinda teased with a nod of her pretty head.
“There is plenty of room for you; I would have you stay forever if it wasn’t for the duty of being noble folk,” the Earl replied.
“Oh, Joseph, do not pretend that you would be satisfied with no grandchildren to your name!” Helen scolded her husband. He cackled as he sat with his hat over his face, shielding his eyes from the golden midday sun.
“They will certainly be bonny,” he replied in a muffled hum from beneath his top hat. He suddenly lifted it slightly to peep at his eldest daughter with an adoring expression. Bellinda smiled at him, suddenly thinking of whom she might sire children for. Would he be handsome, intelligent, amusing? She hoped for all of those things in love.
Bellinda’s first dancing lesson was a delightful success; she had worn her finest gown to practice carrying the weight around and had dazzled her instructor and family alike as they stood nosing from outside the parlor room.
“What an angel you are!” The Countess beamed as the instructor finished the lesson and retired from the parlor room. “I do not know where you learnt such grace.”
“Certainly not from me, but if I remember correctly, seeing Your Grace upon the ballroom floor is what drew me to you the night we met,” the Earl chuckled to his wife as he made way to pour a nightcap from the liquor cabinet.
“I thoroughly enjoyed that, thank you.” Bellinda sighed in a blissful harmony as she patted the creases from her lilac silk gown that was trimmed with gold thread. “Who knows who I might dance with this Season?”
“Only the best suitor—and he better be able to dance,” the Countess ordered with a strict yet light-hearted expression.
“With skills like that, she will teach him in no time,” the Earl replied, swirling a measure of sherry in a clean-cut crystal glass.
“A fine suitor does not require dance lessons, for his mother will have seen to them already,” the Countess continued. “I am so very proud of you, darling,” she whispered into Bellinda’s ear as she embraced her warmly.
“Thank you, Mother, but not as proud as I am of you for recovering as handsomely as you have and for guiding me so aptly!”
“Do not flatter me so. Besides, I have some more exciting news.”
“It’s like Christmas!” the Earl shouted before retiring into the sitting room to read his paper.
“I have arranged an appointment with the Madame Bella at Bruton Street tomorrow morning, for you require a whole new set of dresses fitting for the Season.”
“She is always fully booked! How did you do it?!” Bellinda gasped in a giddy thrill.
“A mother has her ways ….” The Countess indulged in the mystery of her ways, closing her eyes conceitedly and greatly amusing her daughters. “Now, off to bed with both of you. I do not want you looking dark-eyed and peaky for the debut!”
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel“Bellinda, the Duke’s Guardian Angel”. It will be live soon!