Christmas Encounter with a Duke
“Oh, come off it, Lord Henry. Rose will love London.”
A gentle winter wind swept into the room through the crack in the window. Rose shuddered and rubbed her arms. She walked over to the window with light steps and cautiously shut it, making sure she didn’t make a sound. Rose hurried back to the door again and pressed her ear to it. She focused, trying even harder to listen in on the conversation.
“Mary, I will not discuss this. Rose is my daughter. I make the decisions on things that concern her. End of story,” Lord Henry, the Earl of Farringdon retorted.
“She might be your daughter, but Rose is my niece too. I wouldn’t be suggesting it if I didn’t think it would be of great benefit to her, would I?”
“Mary, I sincerely would rather not talk about this,” he answered. “I have business to tend to.”
“And I have a niece I would love to spend time with. In London!”
Rose tucked the strands of her honey-colored hair behind her ears and pressed her ear even closer to the door. She was much leaner than she had been a year ago.
Her collarbones protruded more, and her waist was slimmer; she had even had to alter most of her dresses as a result. Her face was thinner, and her already high cheekbones were much more pronounced than before. She had been under so much pressure and hoped that something . . . anything . . . would change her father’s mind.
“Come on, Auntie,” Rose whispered to herself.
Rose held high hopes that this time, her Aunt Mary would be able to persuade her father to allow Rose to stay with her and her family in London, to attend the London Season in time for Christmas. Rose’s one wish was to have her come out, and find a husband. She was the only one left to do so out of three sisters. Rose hoped to follow in the steps of her older sisters, Catherine and Chloe, who had already been married and were living far from home with their husbands, happily.
“Mary, I don’t appreciate you arguing with me like this, especially since I have asked you to stop,” Lord Henry said sternly.
“At the very least, hear me out,” Mary insisted. “Come on, Lord Henry.”
There was a long pause before Rose finally heard her father speak again. “Fine. Plead your case if that will make this conversation end more quickly.”
“Thank you,” Mary said. “What I am trying so hard to explain to you, dearest Brother, is that Rose needs a change. The girl looks like she might collapse any second. Her sisters are living their lives, and, if I remember correctly, they had both already come out at Rose’s age. I strongly think that Christmas is the ideal time for Rose to make her debut.
Why wait when the opportunity is right in front of her? It’s perfect. She needs to come out during this London Season and find a suitable match. Christmas is the height of the Season’s events. There are going to be lots of wonderful festive parties, balls, and carol concerts. You know all that, Lord Henry. I really think Rose should be allowed to participate.”
“My answer is still no,” Lord Henry stated.
“She is your daughter, Lord Henry. Listen to her.”
“I said no, Mary,” Lord Henry roared. “My answer isn’t going to change if that’s what you’re waiting for, so you might as well stop insisting.”
Rose’s heart sank, hearing her father’s words. A part of her knew he was going to refuse, even before Mary had walked into the study. But Rose had tried to remain optimistic. It was something she really wanted. Spending time in the city with her aunt, her cousins. . . She needed an escape from the reality that was her life.
“Lord Henry, your decision does not stand to reason!” Mary continued to argue.
“Rose will stay here in Oxford, and she will look after me,” Lord Henry explained. “You know very well of my condition. I am ill, and it won’t be long now before I am no more. She doesn’t need to concern herself with the London Season. Such frivolities are just a waste of time. She will only become exhausted eventually and possibly overwhelmed, with the entire situation.
Rose is better off at home with me. If you’re concerned that she will be bored during the festive season, then you need not worry. We will have a quiet family Christmas here at home, just the two of us.”
“Lord Henry, that’s not the only issue here,” Mary said.
“She can marry when I’m dead,” Lord Henry rasped. “What is the rush? She’s only eighteen.”
“Only?” Mary repeated, raising her eyebrows.
“I see no need to be hasty when I will be gone soon,” Lord Henry said, coughing. “Would you rather I spent my last days alone? She can wait.”
“Might I point out, Lord Henry, that while you claim you are soon to leave this world, you are, in truth, a perfectly healthy man, who is likely to live for years?” Mary countered.
“How can you possibly be so sure?”
“Your physician said so himself,” Mary said. “Whatever is going on in your head isn’t going to kill you in the snap of a finger, Lord Henry. In fact, you’re perfectly fine. I think you only use this so-called illness as a pretence to keep Rose here.”
“Enough,” Lord Henry roared. “I have had enough of this conversation, Mary, and would rather you leave now. My decision is final.”
Rose slowly backed away from the door until she hit the wall. She emitted a long sigh and dropped her head. At first, she had thought caring for her father every hour of the day was only going to be a temporary situation, but now Rose felt almost like a slave in her own home. Her father wanted no one else to tend to him, though they had many capable servants, and he always must know where she was every minute of the day.
She had hoped that when it was time for her to officially enter Society and fulfil her lifelong dream of marrying and starting a family, her father would support her, just as he had supported her sisters. But things weren’t going as she had planned.
Oh, what do we do about this, Rose?
Mary emerged from the study, visibly frustrated. She let out a loud groan and brought both hands to her hips. Despite the family resemblance, Mary’s hair was much lighter than Rose’s and curly, her eyes were a soft, light brown. Mary was a tad shorter than Rose, too, and a little plump, which made for the best, most comforting hugs. Her Aunt Mary was Rose’s favourite relative. Aside from her sisters, of course.
When their eyes met, Mary’s gaze softened, and she looked at Rose with pity in her eyes.
“Oh, Rose,” Mary whispered.
Rose shook her head slowly, quietly asking Mary how the conversation had gone, though she’d heard every word. Mary shook her head with a sigh. She walked over to Rose’s side, took her by the arm, and they walked side by side into the parlor.
The parlor was a vast, square-shaped room. There were two large windows, set about three feet apart in the back wall that looked out over the garden; they allowed a good amount of sunlight to illuminate the room. The walls were painted sky blue, with drawings of landscapes hanging on the walls. There was a large fireplace situated on the right-hand wall, where a fire blazed brightly, given the wintry season.
“Here, sit,” Mary told her.
Rose slumped on the chair and gazed at the high, white ceiling. She drew in a shuddery breath, resisting the urge to cry. It all was starting to look hopeless, and that scared her.
“He is not budging, Rose,” Mary said, patting her back. “I tried everything, but he is adamant.”
“I heard him shouting, Auntie,” Rose said. “I already knew he wasn’t going to change his mind. I mean, Catherine and Chloe have both written to him too, trying to persuade him to let me go, but he has simply ignored them.”
Mary shook her head. “I don’t understand him. This imaginary illness of his, shouldn’t it go away soon? Or is he stuck like this for ever?”
Rose shrugged her shoulders. “Father is adamant that he is sick, and the physicians must tell him what he wants to hear, else he throws a fit. They say he thinks that, since Mama died, he is next. So, he is preparing himself for it, even though. . .”
“. . .He is a perfectly healthy man,” Mary added. “Oh dear, this is dreadful!”
Rose nodded. “What if it never goes away, this supposed illness? What if Papa needs me until I’m old and all wrinkled?”
“That’s not going to happen, my dear,” Mary assured her. “I have a plan; I intend to steal you away without him knowing and take you to London with me. There are plenty of other people here in the manor to take care of your Papa. He’s the earl, after all.”
Rose looked up at Mary and smiled at her. “You know I can’t do that, Auntie.”
“Of course, you can,” Mary argued. “Whatever is stopping you? What’s Lord Henry going to do about it?”
Rose shook her head. She had thought about it before, but she knew it wasn’t something she could do. While she wanted to break free from the shackles of her home, Rose couldn’t disobey her father. It was the last thing she would ever do, she told herself. So, her best and only bet was to try and convince him to let her go to London.
Mary stroked Rose’s hair and sighed again. “Oh, what do we do with you, my poor niece?”
Rose slowly closed the door of her father’s bedchambers and stood for a few seconds on the landing, listening to make sure he had fallen asleep. She leaned on the door, gathering herself before walking down the vast hallway. Rose had been fighting back the tears for weeks, trying to remain optimistic, but she knew they would have to fall eventually. Why was her father being so stubborn about this?
Rose shook her head vigorously as she walked. “Let’s not think about it now. Happy thoughts,” she whispered to herself.
Pondering about a situation that would not change overnight was no use, so Rose decided it was best merely to watch things unfold. The more she thought about her situation, the more her heart pained her. It was simply no use wishing.
Rose picked up the cake, which the cook had made on her request, from the table in the hall and stole out of the house. She figured that the best way to spend her scant free time that evening while her father slept was with the two people who always brought a little peace to her soul with their warm welcome; Mr. and Mrs. Martin lived in a tied cottage close to the manor, where Martin was the head gardener, and his wife had always treated Rose like her own child.
The couple had been happily married for over ten years, but they had no children of their own. Rose loved how cheerful and affectionate they were with each other despite that. Most times, when Rose looked at them together, she wondered if she and her husband would show the same love toward each other.
If she could find someone who matched her as well as the Martins seemed to fit each other, she knew she would always be happy. They always had a smile for her and welcomed her into their home with open arms. They treated Rose like the daughter they had never had.
Their modest, one-story cottage was located near the estate’s large lake. Even from the outside, it was easy to tell the home was full of warmth; there were lanterns stationed at the entrance of the house to light the way for visitors, and the windows glowed with light too. Rose pattered up the narrow, stone path leading up to the front door.
She knocked and stepped back, waiting only a few seconds before the door creaked open and Mrs. Martin poked her head through the crack. Her face lit up in delight on seeing Rose. She pushed the door wide open and spread her arms.
“Rose!” Mrs. Martin beamed. “It’s been a while since we last saw each other, my dear.”
Mrs. Martin was a short, plump woman with a matronly air about her. Her dimpled smile was always cheerful, her curly blonde hair was always slightly askew beneath her white mobcap, and her apron was often dusted with flour. She was quite the opposite of Mr. Martin, a lean, lanky fellow with short brown hair, who was always neat in appearance.
“Hello, Mrs. Martin.” Rose giggled, embracing her. “And no, it has not been a long while at all! We met on Tuesday; do you remember?”
“Well, that was a long time ago. I prefer to see you every day,” Mrs. Martin said.
Rose giggled again, her spirits already rising. “I brought one of the cook’s fruit cakes for you. He made it special,” she said, holding out the package.
“Oh, thank you, Rose. Please thank him for me, won’t you, dear? Now, come in out of the cold,” Mrs. Martin said, taking the cake with a smile. “Would you like some tea?”
Rose nodded. “I would love some tea,” she answered.
“All right then. Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
“Oh, no,” Rose protested. “This is my home too. I’ll come with you to the kitchen, and we’ll make the tea together.”
Mrs. Martin laughed on her way to the tiny kitchen. “Of course, my dear girl, of course. We shall have a slice of this splendid cake, too. It’s Mr. Martin’s favorite, as you know.”
Rose followed the plump woman into the kitchen, fetching cups from the cabinet and setting them out on the large oak table, while Mrs. Martin filled the kettle and put it on the permanently warm stove.
“Where is Mr. Martin?” Rose asked.
“Oh, he’s out with a few of his cronies at the Rose and Crown, getting up to mischief, no doubt, but he should be back soon,” said Mrs. Martin, turning to look at Rose more closely. “How’s your father?”
Rose sighed and sat at the table. “Much the same, I’m afraid. In fact, with Christmas almost upon us, he seems a little more tense than usual for some reason.”
“Ah. Judging by your face, I take it your aunt wasn’t able to convince him to let you go to London for the Season?”
“No,” Rose shook her head. “He says I can’t leave him. I must take care of him because his health is dwindling by the day. But we know that’s not true. He just believes it to be true.”
Mrs. Martin reached for Rose’s hand and squeezed it. “You know, illnesses of the heart are often the hardest to cure. Do not despair, my dear. Fate often steps in when one least expects it.”
“Well, isn’t it about time it did?” Rose asked sadly. “I need a miracle. I think. It feels as if I will never be able to come out and get married. I mean, I see you and Mr. Martin so much in love, and I know it is what I want for myself. A family of my own, with a husband who loves me as much as I love him.”
“And that you will have,” Mrs. Martin assured her. “Remain optimistic, my dear. Something good is bound to happen to someone as sweet as you.”
Rose stayed at the cottage for a while, talking over her dreams for her life with Mrs. Martin, accompanied by plenty of tea and fruit cake. When she saw it was getting quite late, she said her goodbyes and left the cottage in high spirits.
But as she walked back to the manor in the cold, her worries came back and clouded her thoughts. If she were to describe her home, Rose would call it nothing short of a prison. She could only leave when her father was asleep because he never liked her to be far away when he was awake.
Rose had begun to feel that his behavior meant she was doomed to spinsterhood. Growing up Rose soon learned how impossible it was to change her father’s mind once he was set on something. He was a stern, adamant man. And now that he was adamant about her never leaving the manor, she feared things would never change for her.
Rose wiped the tear that fell on her cheek at that thought and continued down the path. Surely, if her dear mother was still alive, she would not have allowed the situation to continue. In fact, if her mother were alive, the difficulty would not exist. But sadly, her mother was not with them any longer, and her father’s attitude made it feel as if Rose’s hands were tied. And Rose could never bring herself to disobey her father.
She was stuck. With no way out.
“I really don’t feel good about the deal, Rogers.”
Rory McAllister, the Duke of Westshire, mounted his horse with a worried expression on his face. He was in the countryside, near Oxford, having attended a business meeting. Together with Rogers, his valet and friend, he was now beginning the journey home on horseback to Buckinghamshire.
Rory was taller than average, with broad shoulders, and a firm, sturdy build. His shiny blond hair was cut in the fashionable Brutus-style, and his cheeks were clean-shaven. Many ladies had declared that Rory had eyes as clear and beautiful as the afternoon sky, yet his gaze at that moment was flinty.
“It is a good deal, I believe, Your Grace,” Rogers told him. “You are perhaps dwelling on it a little too much to see its advantages.”
“Of course, it’s a good deal, man, I made it!” Rory declared contrarily. “I simply said that I don’t feel good about it.”
“So, what is the matter, Your Grace?” Rogers asked. “What exactly is it that you don’t feel good about?”
Rory sighed. Deep down, he knew the deal was not really the problem. The agreement he had inked that afternoon with William Devane, importer of exotic goods from the Far East, was bound to bring enormous financial benefits to the McAllister family, and Rory knew any man would be proud at having been able to pull off—except perhaps, his father. Yes, Rory was sure the former duke would not be impressed by his son’s performance. If it had been his father who had made the deal, he was sure they could have gotten a higher percentage of the profits.
Five percent was a good rate of return on Rory’s investment, he knew, but he nevertheless suspected that the former duke would have insisted on six percent. That was how great his father had been, and Rory felt he could never quite live up to the old man. So, while he’d been perfectly satisfied on leaving Devane’s offices earlier that day, the worm of doubt had soon began to gnaw at his brain; Father would have stuck out for more. That perpetual doubt in his own abilities in comparison to the old duke’s almost always made any joy Rory felt in his own achievements as the new duke very short-lived.
As the two men rode side by side, Rory brooded; just thinking about the wealth and status his father had amassed for the family during his time as duke always made Rory feel anxious. How was he ever going to live up to that? He felt as if he was in constant competition with a dead man, living in the shadow of his father.
He wanted to be better, to do better, to be the equal of the old man. But every time he did something noteworthy, it never seemed to match up with his father’s past achievements.
The old duke had added so much to the family’s wealth, power, and reputation, his business acumen and his fine ducal qualities unquestioned. But that only piled pressure upon Rory to outmatch him—everyone seemed to expect him to be just the same as his father. Since the mantle had been passed down to him on his father’s death, Rory had worked tirelessly to meet the standard set for him. However, in his mind, his efforts never seemed enough.
“What in the world are you thinking about so seriously, Your Grace?” Rogers asked.
Rory glanced at Rogers and shook his head. Rogers had been by his side for as long as Rory could remember. Apart from Francis, his best friend, Rogers was the only person Rory kept close to. The valet did almost everything for Rory. Rogers was a short man, with a moustache, and slicked-back dark hair beneath his tricorn hat. He loved to give Rory advice whenever he could. And most of the time, the advice was that Rory should learn to relax more and believe in himself.
“I could have done better,” Rory said. “I just know I could have gotten six percent if I’d just pushed a little harder, as Pa would have done, I’m sure.”
“But, Your Grace, you know it is an excellent deal,” Rogers reminded him. “In fact, I am quite surprised they agreed to your terms in the first place. No one, not even the old duke, could have gotten better, I tell you.”
“My father would have done better,” Rory rasped.
Rogers shook his head. “I beg to differ. No matter what you say, it is a good deal. Especially since it’s nearing Christmas. Who else would have ventured out into the wilds of Buckinghamshire this late in the year to hammer it out in person, when most fellows would rather be at home with their families?”
Rory scoffed. “Do you only say what you think I want to hear, Rogers? I don’t think you have ever done anything but praise me.”
“Praise where praise is due, Your Grace,” Rogers said. “I only speak the truth. Is there any reason to lie? I think you underestimate yourself to a degree that is almost offensive. Everyone knows you to be an excellent businessman, Your Grace, and fair too. I cannot say why it is that you say such things about every investment you make, though the profits are good.”
Rory tightened his grip on the reins. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Rogers.”
“Oh, Your Grace, how can you say so?” Rogers said. “You are doing the very same thing this minute! You persistently underestimate . . . no, invalidate your many wins. Is merely it a habit, I wonder? Or is it because of the former duke?”
“I just want to be better at what I do, Rogers, to achieve what my father achieved,” Rory said. “Who wouldn’t, in my position? I am a peer and a businessman. The better I am, the more wealth I’ll accumulate for the family.”
“You’re already excellent,” Rogers argued. “How much better do you want to be?”
“Don’t flatter me, Rogers. I might be good at what I do, but I’m not as good as him, and I doubt I ever will be.”
Not as good as my father. No matter how Rory looked at it or examined all his achievements, he knew he would never be as successful as the old duke. Hence, he was going to keep at it until he felt he had fulfilled his father’s expectations. Until he could stand in his own limelight, not his father’s shadow.
“Permit me to say,” Rogers said, “I have never met anyone who is so proud, humble, self-absorbed, and diffident at the same time.”
Rory squinted his eyes and tilted his head to the side. “Is that an insult, Rogers, or a compliment?”
“A compliment, of course, Your Grace,” Roger replied. “What else could it be? You’re a young, very successful businessman. On top of all of that, you are the Duke of Westshire. Why not be proud of yourself? When you do a great thing, or achieve a great feat, one should be proud of it.”
Rory smirked. “It is a compliment,” he said, turning back to watch the road in front of him. “Thank you, Rogers.”
“You’re welcome, Your Grace.”
“What’s my schedule once we get back home?” Rory asked. “I suppose I have a couple of meetings pending.”
“Indeed, you do, Your Grace,” Rogers said. “But, might I suggest you push them into the New Year? I mean, they are not urgent, and it would give you ample time to spend the festive season with the family.”
“I’d rather work,” Rory said. “Besides, I don’t want to cause anyone any inconvenience. It’s better that I try to wrap everything up rather than carry anything into the New Year. I shall feel better that way.”
“You have been working non-stop throughout the entire year, Your Grace,” Rogers insisted. “You barely take a break, you practically live and sleep in your study, and I often have to remind you to eat. Once we enter the New Year, the cycle will continue all over again. I recommend taking Christmas off, having a rest from all the hard work you have been doing before you exhaust yourself. You deserve it, there’s no doubt about that. Your mother would agree, I know.”
“Did my mother put you up to this, Rogers?” Rory questioned. “Because you are beginning to sound exactly like her. If I need a break, I will be sure to take one. But just now, I do not need one, hence, the need to occupy myself. I prefer to work, Rogers.”
“You are going to exhaust yourself, Your Grace.”
“Then let me exhaust myself first. That’s the only time I will be willing to rest. Who was it who said, ‘I’ll rest when I die’? The schedule, Rogers.”
Rogers sighed and shook his head. “You have a lunch meeting with Lady Sterling the day after tomorrow at her residence. She is looking to collaborate with the company regarding her shipping business. On Wednesday, you’re meeting with Lord Fredrick at your club. He wants to renew the contract, but on new terms.”
Rory scoffed. “What new terms? If anything, I’ll be demanding more from him. He does so little, yet he gets almost half the commission.”
“That same evening, you’re meeting Viscount Pennington, a prospective investor. There are other meetings to arrange, which I will see to once we get home.”
“Thank you, Rogers,” Rory said. “What would I ever do without you?”
“Just, please, don’t collapse suddenly, like an overworked horse, Your Grace,” Rogers said. “You know I must simply keep nagging you to take at least a month off to rest. I assure you, nothing will go wrong if you do. I can manage perfectly without you.”
Rory scowled. “Oh, rub it in! Yes, you can manage, but it wouldn’t feel the same when I win out,” he said. “I have to do it myself. It is my business after all.”
“If you insist.” Rogers sighed.
“So, you have no plans for celebrating the festive season, Your Grace?”
Rory had decided to take a meandering route through some woods as they neared the town of Amersham on their route homeward. He wanted to enjoy the view of a lovely park belonging to some distant old manse. The country was Rory’s favourite place. He loved the quiet, the scenery, and the state of calmness that came with it.
Rory knew, deep down, he would love to stay and enjoy the beauty of the place, but in truth, he was worried. With all the work piling up at home since he had been away, there seemed no time to spare. It was his affairs at stake, after all, and he didn’t want to burden anyone else with the responsibility. Not that there was anyone to burden.
“Plans?” Rory said cryptically, moving a tree branch away from the narrow path in the woods.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Rogers replied. “Even though you intend to work, you must have some plans for Christmas.”
Rory took in a deep breath. “I intend to work.”
Rogers rolled his eyes. “Your Grace.”
“Fine,” Rory groaned. “Plans . . . Well, I’m looking forward to getting home. It is soon to be Christmas, as you say, and the only place I want to be is home at the manor with my family. Apart from the work stacking up for me back at home, there are other reasons why I have decided not to linger in the countryside.”
“Oh, really, Your Grace?”
“But what I am not looking forward to, apart from your nagging, is mother whining and Emily pleading for me to join the Season and find a wife. It seems to be all they talk about, Rogers. ‘Oh, Rory, you need to find a suitable woman and get married as soon as you can,’ he mocked in a high, womanish falsetto. If I had the time . . . maybe. But you know I don’t. Besides, I wouldn’t want to bore any poor woman to death with my riveting conversation about corn prices and labor costs.”
“Whatever do you mean? Your conversation is certainly riveting, Your Grace.”
“Oh, very amusing. You know what I mean, Rogers. You and I get along just fine because we are men, we talk about . . . well . . . manly things. Stop sniggering, Rogers! What fine lady is going to be interested in a dull fellow like me? I can barely make myself laugh.”
“Well, perhaps if you smiled a little more often. . .”
Rory shot Rogers a glare. “I do smile!”
Rogers opened his mouth to speak but stuttered instead, clearly choking off a laugh. “Apologies, Your Grace. Of course, you do. Just . . . to yourself . . . and maybe in front of a mirror.”
“What in the world do you mean?” Rory exclaimed. “Explain yourself, Rogers.”
“I’d rather not,” Rogers answered. “I’ve said too much.”
“I won’t ask you again,” Rory warned. “Tell me. What is it you think is the matter?”
Rogers cleared his throat. “Well, Your Grace, you really don’t smile very often, you know. In fact, you are serious almost all the time. All work and no play . . . well, you know what they say, Your Grace. Perhaps that’s why you consider yourself dull . . . or boring. Maybe if you were to be in company that amuses you, then you might feel better and smile more, and therefore, you would feel more confident in your ability to . . . mingle with the fairer sex.”
“I can mingle perfectly well with the fairer sex, thank you,” Rory said. “I just don’t want to.”
“But you just said—”
“Anyway.” Rory cleared his throat. “I am not looking forward to being forced by Lady McAllister and Emily to escort them to social events. I still stand by my decision that I am not in the mood to meet any lady or try to woo any lady. I simply want to work.”
“And you truly believe Lady McAllister will let you?”
“My mother can only complain,” Rory said. “But if she sees that I am quite busy, she will leave me alone. She knows all the duties I have and the things I am expected to do, hence she must understand.”
“But you must admit, you have been unsuccessful in the past in that respect, Your Grace,” Rogers said. “Lady McAllister always gets what she wants. And if she wants you to escort her and Lady Emily to any number of balls, then you know you will have to. You know you will not be able to refuse her.”
“Yes, I can,” Rory countered. “I merely decide to make them happy by accompanying them.”
“So, what is the real reason why you usually despise attending social gatherings, then? The fact that you are behind on work, or the fact that you think you will bore the ladies?”
Rory was quiet for a few seconds. “Both. But it doesn’t matter.”
“I feel it might, Your Grace.”
“Rogers, what is the matter with you today?” Rory lashed out. “You are being very argumentative!”
“Am I?” Rogers tilted his head to the side.
“Yes, you are.”
“Ah, so sorry about that, Your Grace. You know I get a little cranky when I haven’t had anything to eat,” Rogers explained. “Nevertheless, when we get home, I will make sure to prepare your outfits for balls and other social events.”
“I have just said I won’t be attending any.”
“Just in case,” Rogers said. “Just in case, Your Grace.”
Rory groaned and shook his head. He knew Rogers was right. Saying no to his family, especially his little sister, had always been difficult for him. He made most decisions in their favour, and always had their happiness in mind too. But dropping all his duties and all the work he had to do just to attend their wretched social events was going to put him seriously behind.
That was the last thing he wanted. He had ledgers sitting on his desk, unopened. Letters from the farmers and tenants too, unopened. His study back at the manor was in disarray. If he decided to take time off to celebrate Christmas, how was he ever to meet his father’s standards? In fact, his current pace would surely be considered far too slow by his father, wouldn’t it?
“You seem to have a lot on your mind lately, Your Grace,” Rogers noted. “But every time I ask, you claim nothing is bothering you.”
“I’m handling it, Rogers,” Rory said. “It’s nothing to concern yourself about. I’m perfectly fine.”
But it was obvious from Rogers’ expression that he didn’t believe a word of it, and Rory understood why. Rogers worried a lot about him, like a father or an uncle. But talking about what was bothering him was only going to validate his feelings. Rory felt forced to work harder still; then, everything would fall into place. He had been working at it for years.
“Seriously. I am fine, Rogers,” Rory repeated.
“If you say so, Your Grace,” Rogers answered with a sigh.
Rose threw her head back on the chair and emitted a loud sigh. She stared at the ceiling, fighting the urge to shut her eyes. She had been in her father’s study all day long, working on his ledgers, going over correspondence, and answering letters. Her father Lord Henry merely sat at his table, handing her the letters and papers while she did all the work. He claimed he was too weak and had a headache, hence she had to do it. Rose didn’t complain, but she wished she were doing something else.
“Come on, Rose,” Lord Henry said. “What does this letter say?”
Rose heard him, but she couldn’t bring her body to move from where she sat. She had gotten so comfortable in that position that all she wanted to do was sleep. Her stomach grumbled, alerting her that the bread and tea she had taken for breakfast had completely vanished.
Rose groaned as she attempted to raise her head. “Papa, I am famished. Can I ring for some muffins?”
“Later,” Lord Henry said. “Let’s finish this, shall we? Come on, we are almost done. Just a few more letters.”
“We have been at this for hours, Papa,” Rose insisted. “I am exhausted. Let’s have a break, Papa, please. Would you like some tea?”
“Rose, no,” he said sternly. “When we finish this, you can have all the tea you want. Come on, now read the next letter. I have a headache; I can’t read it.”
Rose sighed and collected the envelope from him. She tore it open, brought out the paper, and read the contents unenthusiastically.
“Oh, it’s a letter from a neighbour,” Rose said.
“Lord William,” Rose answered, naming the head of one of the prominent local landowning neighbours. “It seems they are hosting a party soon and invite us to attend, Papa. Oh, how lovely . . . I can’t wait!”
“We’re not going,” he answered. “Write back to them, thank them for the invitation, but tell them I’m too ill to attend.”
Rose opened her mouth to speak, but words failed to form. She sat, not surprised but simply amazed. There was nothing physically wrong with her father, and she knew it well. Why, just last evening he’d sat up late playing cards, heartily eating ham sandwiches for supper, and drinking brandy with Doctor Leith and Colonel Foster. Lord Henry had seemed a man in his middle-aged prime, not the invalid he made himself out to be at all. Rose wondered in quiet despair how long he planned on using his very convenient ‘illness’ as an excuse for getting out of the things he wished not to do. True, he rarely left the house these days, claiming to be too ill and not long for the world, and insisted that she didn’t either.
“Papa, surely, you are not serious?” Rose asked. “You really intend on not going.”
“I can’t go,” he said.
“But I will be with you,” Rose said. “You could play cards all evening if you wish, and I would make sure all was well. And if you should grow tired and want to come home at any time, then we should, of course. I fear it will be deemed rude to refuse their invitation.”
“It’s not rude if the reason is justifiable,” he answered. “Write the letter, Rose. I am not going because I am ill. Understood?”
Rose clenched her jaw to stop herself from protesting. But she knew it was of no use. Arguing with her father was pointless; he never listened or seemed to care about her wishes on whit.
“Understood,” she said blankly. Just then, there was a knock on the door and Crowhurst, the butler, entered at her father’s “Come.” Crowhurst bowed and placed both hands behind him.
“My lord, Lady Rose,” he announced, “Lady Breeze and Lady Wolfe have arrived. They are in the drawing room downstairs.”
Rose sprung to her feet and gasped. “They are here! Father, Katherine, and Chloe are here with the children.”
Lord Henry smiled and cleared his throat. “Fine, go downstairs and meet them. I’ll be down once I have had my physick.”
“Thank you, Papa,” Rose beamed and hurried out of the room.
She had waited so long for Katherine and Chloe to arrive, and here they were at last, instantly making the manor feel like home again instead of a tomb. And they had brought their children! Rose loved children, and she adored her niece and nephews.
The two elder sisters had the same thick, mahogany-colored hair, silver-gray eyes, and flawless complexions as Rose, the youngest. But Katherine and Chloe were tall and willowy; they were well-known Society beauties, renowned for their elegance and grace, while Rose took after their mother in being petite and fine-boned.
“Aunt Rose!” Little Sara chimed, running to her aunt, beaming.
“Sara!” Rose called back, catching the little girl up in her arms. She spun her around, giggling. “How are you, my love?”
“I’m very well, thank you. Shall we decorate the house for Christmas? Mama says you would love to search for holly and ivy with us.”
“Sara!” Chloe cautioned her daughter with a smile. “We have just arrived . . . and you are already putting Aunt Rose to work!”
“It will be a pleasure, dear Sister,” Rose cried, setting the little girl down and embracing and kissing her sisters warmly. “Oh, I am so glad to see you.” Then, she told Sara, “Yes, I would love to hunt out some greenery with you, Sara.” The little girl clapped with glee.
“Good morning, Aunt Rose,” Jo and Sam, Rose’s young nephews, chorused before hugging her tightly.
“Jo . . . Sam,” Rose said, kissing their heads and stroking their hair affectionately. “Shall we all join in the hunt for the holly and ivy for the decorations? We can go down to the woods together. We shall need holly with the very brightest red berries, mind!”
They both nodded excitedly. Rose smiled, elated. The visitors had arrived at exactly the right time to cheer her and temporarily free her from her father’s grip. Usually, the big house was practically empty, and if not for her regular visits to the Martins’ cottage and her sisters’ visits, Rose feared she might lose her mind.
“Rose, we have only just arrived,” Katherine groaned, sinking onto the sofa. “At least, sit with us a while and tell us how you are faring. I must say, you seem more excited to see the children than us. Is there tea?”
“Oh, I’m excited to see you both too, Sisters, but you know how I love the children’s company. It makes such a nice change from Father’s.” Katherine and Chloe nodded with understanding as Rose rang for tea to be brought in. “And with Christmas fast approaching, somebody must gather the greenery for the house. Now I have my team of eager helpers.”
“And we must find the Yule log too, for the fire,” Jo added knowingly. “We can’t forget that. Else, we might have bad luck all year.”
“Indeed, you are right. We shall hunt out a suitable Yule log too, and then we can ask the gardeners to bring it into the house for us,” Rose said, “with the help of you two strong boys, of course,” she laughed, ruffling their hair.
Tea, lemonade, and cakes arrived, and the children set about the sticky treats with gusto, while the three sisters drank tea and caught up on their news. The end of tea was soon signalled by an empty cake stand and the children begging to go out into the woods with Rose.
“Shall we wrap up in our coats, then, my dears, and go off on our adventure?” Three little heads nodded simultaneously.
“Yes, let’s go!” Sara and the boys cried.
“Be back before dinner,” Chloe said. “You children shan’t have Aunt Rose all to yourselves. We, too, wish to spend time with her.”
“Now, children, run upstairs to Deborah and tell her we are all going out—she is to come too, and she will help you with your coats,” Rose told them. “When you are ready, we will all venture out into the garden.”
Rose watched the children leave with the maid, an ember of hope glowing in her heart. Perhaps Christmas at home might not be so bad if Katherine and Chloe decided to stay with the children till the New Year. She prayed they would; if not, she feared she might go mad, cooped up in her prison.
She turned around to her sisters and was shocked to find Chloe standing only a few inches away from her, inspecting her closely. Rose jumped, alarmed.
“You scared me, Chloe,” she gasped. “What are you doing?”
“You are too thin, Sister,” Chloe said, crossing her arms. “Your collarbones are sticking out like coat hangers. I think a strong wind would blow you away like a piece of paper. What say you, Kathy?”
Katherine rose to her feet and joined them. “Hardly a strong wind; a faint breeze would do. And, she’s pale as paper too. Are you eating anything at all, Rose?”
“Of course, I am,” Rose said, blushing, feeling awkward. ‘I eat well, thank you for asking.”
“I don’t believe you,” Chloe stated bluntly, narrowing her eyes. “And there’s something about that queer smile on your face.”
“Yes, it is odd,” Katherine agreed, “almost . . . false.”
“Will you both stop?” Rose complained, frowning. “Ask me how I am first, please, not weigh me up like a pig at the county fair! Is that not what normal sisters would do?”
“We don’t need to ask—the sorry truth is so obvious,” Katherine said. “Father is running you ragged. And, he’s still refusing to allow you to attend the London Season, isn’t he?”
Rose couldn’t feign the smile anymore. The corners of her lips dropped, and she sighed and nodded. She could never hide anything from her sisters.
“Come here, dear,” Chloe said, taking her arm. “Sit. Tell us what has happened.”
Rose took her seat, her sisters flanking her. They watched her face attentively, waiting for her to speak.
“Yesterday, Aunt Mary tried to speak to him about it,” Rose started. “She had a long talk with Papa. They argued too, but in the end, he still said no. Father has refused to let me go to London for the Season. He says he is very ill and needs my care.”
“Is he still going on with that nonsense?” Katherine asked. “I thought he would have come to his senses by now. So, Rose, he is still using this supposed illness to tie you to the house?” Rose nodded.
“It would be better if he was truly ill,” Chloe put in. “Aunt Mary says even the physicians have to lie to him or be dismissed. He is selfish! Well, if he refuses to budge, and it is affecting Rose so badly, then, Sister, we must do something.”
“I am sure all who see you, Rose, must see the sadness written all over your face,” Katherine noted. “We must speak with father, Chloe. He must be made to see things from Rose’s perspective. Maybe then he’ll understand and change his mind. Or do you prefer to remain here like this Rose, when your peers are out already, attending social events and finding their matches this Christmas Season?”
Rose shook her head. “I see Sara, Jo, and Sam, and I can’t think of anything else I want more than a happy match,” she answered. “I want a family, as you both have. I want children, and I want to take care of my own husband and home. But I cannot disobey father, and I can’t leave him when he is so adamant that he needs me.”
“He doesn’t need you,” Chloe told her. “He can take care of himself very well.”
“I agree. He is just using the opportunity because you’re here,” Katherine added. “Is this how you are going to live till you are old and wrinkled, Rose? Taking care of Papa? As the physicians have told us countless times, Papa isn’t about to die anytime soon . . . not from this supposed illness, at any rate. Rose, you must live your own life. Mama would wish for it.”
“During dinner, we will all talk to him,” Chloe said. “Papa is only being selfish.”
Then, the children, all bundled up for the cold outside, and accompanied by a smiling Deborah, scurried back into the room and surrounded Rose. She quickly wiped away the tears from her cheeks, put on her best smile, and nodded at her sisters before leading the children out of the room. As she went, Rose sighed. At least there was another chance her father might be swayed. Hopefully, this time, it will work.
“What do you mean you’re not staying for Christmas and New Year?”
They spent all afternoon, happily trawling the woods, picking holly and ivy and searching for the biggest Yule log they could find for Christmas. Sara was the most enthusiastic because she had helped the gardeners and servants at her home bring in the greenery, and she wanted to do it at Grandpapa’s too.
After finding the perfect Yule log, Rose employed the help of the gardeners, assisted by the children, to carry it to the drawing room and set it in the hearth. Then, they sorted the greenery so they could begin the decorations. They had made good progress when Crowhurst announced that dinner would be served at five o’clock, giving everyone half an hour to get ready. The children went off to eat in the nursery with Deborah, while the sisters joined the earl at the table in the dining room.
“We cannot be here all the time, Rose,” Katherine told her. “Chloe and I have many social events we must attend over Christmas. That’s why we are here at Faringdon Park now, we are on our way to Oxford.”
“We have been sent so many invitations nearby, we had to come,” Chloe said.
“So, you haven’t come just to see me?” Rose said, a little piqued.
“Of course, we have come for you,” Chloe said. “Especially you. We haven’t seen you in ages. In fact, that was why we decided to accept invitations near Oxford in the first place. But it means we cannot stay for the holidays.”
“We will be visiting as often as we can,” Katherine added. “However, we will only be able to spend a limited time at the manor with you and Papa.”
“And, of course, I can’t accompany you to any of your social events,” Rose said dejectedly.
“Of course, you can’t,” Lord Henry chimed in. “Why even ask? You are needed here, Rose, to tend to me. Besides, your sisters are married women. Their affairs are completely different from the things you must concern yourself with.”
“You know, Papa, Rose could come with us and find a husband too, like us,” Katherine said. “In fact, Chloe and I wish to talk to you about that. About Rose.”
“What about her?” Lord Henry asked grumpily, taking a sip of his tea.
Rose felt the heat rise to her throat. She grabbed a glass of water and finished its contents in one swallow, trying to calm herself. Her one prayer was that her sisters would be able to convince their father to let her go, despite having failed to do so in the past.
“We both think Rose should be allowed to go to London for the Season,” Chloe said.
“Oh, not this again,” the earl rasped. “I knew it was you two who put Mary up to that the other day.”
“Father, Rose is withering away here,” Katherine insisted. “When I was eighteen, I was already married and expecting Jo. I remember how happy Rose was then. She used to rub my belly all the time, saying how she couldn’t wait to be a mother. That was five years ago, and it is terrible seeing my sister still single all these years later, not able to fulfil her dream.”
“Who says she won’t fulfil it?” Lord Henry snapped back. “All I ask is that she waits. It seems that you girls are rather in haste to see me dead. Well, it won’t be long now since this illness only worsens.”
“You are not sick, Papa,” Chloe said.
“You will not tell me how I feel!” Lord Henry roared. “Enough of this. Rose isn’t leaving here. She will only go to London over my dead body. That is the end of this discussion. By God, I can’t even eat my dinner in peace!”
He rose to his feet and stormed out of the room. They could hear him muttering to himself all the way up the stairs, then a door slammed to tell them he was in his chambers.
“Oh, poor Rose,” Katherine said, pushing her plate away.
“Don’t say it like that, Kathy,” Rose said, struggling to smile. “Or else I’ll cry. It’s all right. Thank you both for trying. I’m sure that, sooner or later, he will change his mind.”
“We can only hope that common sense will prevail, eventually,” Katherine replied, exchanging a worried look with Chloe. “Lord knows what Mama would have made of all this.”
After dinner, Katherine and Chloe left the manor with the children. It was a tearful goodbye. Sara cried because they hadn’t finished the Christmas decorating, and Rose had to stifle her own tears of resentment at her father’s selfishness. It seemed she was doomed to be trapped at home with him again for the entire holiday, while other ladies, younger than her, danced and laughed and drank champagne at Christmas balls across the land. It was a bitter pill; she stood in the hallway for some time after her sisters had gone, contemplating her stagnant life for the umpteenth time that day. This was the fourth time her father had refused her leave to go to London, or anywhere. There was no one else left to call on to try to persuade him otherwise. Her Aunt Mary was the only person close enough to try, and he had already turned her away.
She gathered herself and trudged back into the drawing room, deciding to finish decorating the room herself, to take her mind off her situation. Crying wasn’t going to solve the problem she faced, she knew, so she was not going to give in to tears. She must remain optimistic, as Mrs. Martin had suggested, for her own sanity.
Rose heard the butler call from behind her. “Yes, Crowhurst?”
“The earl requests your presence in the library,” he told her, his face sympathetic. “It is time to read the newspaper to him, then play cribbage.”
Rose forced a weak smile. “Thank you, Crowhurst. I shall be there directly.”
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new Christmas novel with “Christmas Encounter with a Duke” .