EloiseA Benevolent Lady
Summer of 1812
“Just a little further, my dear. Keep your eyes closed!”
“They’re closed, Papa,” Eloise replied, eyes squeezed obediently shut. She didn’t need to open her eyes to know where she was.
Eloise knew the scent and sound of the stables like nothing else. She could feel the crunch of straw on rough wooden boards underneath the thin, lady-like slippers her mother had insisted she wear. She breathed in deeply, scenting the familiar smell of horses and hay. The scent would get into her clothes, and her mother would complain. Apparently, ladies should only ever smell of roses and sweet perfume.
After a day’s running in the gardens and riding on her father’s horses, Eloise didn’t like to imagine what she smelled like. It certainly wouldn’t be roses and perfume.
It seemed tremendously unfair that even on her birthday; Eloise had to wear what her mother told her. Lady Jillian Pierce, the ferocious Duchess of Pinington, had very clear ideas on what a young lady should be.
It was almost a pity that her only child was so very disappointing. Eloise knew her mother loved her, but their ideas of what Eloise should and should not do clashed violently at times.
At thirteen, other girls were becoming interested in ribbons and dresses, and they longed to dance at real, grown-up balls. They began to think about husbands and families and began to worry about their dowries.
Eloise, unfortunately, had two left feet, and she did not seem to be aware that ribbons existed. She would disappear into the grounds for hours on end, returning covered in mud and grime, with new tears in her expensive pinafore.
Perhaps it was just as well that Eloise would never have to worry about a dowry. Her parents were quite rich enough, and Eloise herself would be a wealthy woman one day.
However, Lady Pierce’s will was every bit as strong as her daughter’s, and today she had managed to turn out a decently dressed young girl, tidy and neat.
Now she was in her favourite place once again, Eloise could forget about how uncomfortable her new dress was, or how uncomfortable it was to walk in the flimsy satin slippers. She involuntarily squeezed her father’s hand, excitement building.
Please be a horse, please be a horse, Eloise prayed.
Eloise was allowed to ride one or two of the staid old mares, the horses that Lady Pierce approved as suitable for a young lady to ride.
Not one of them would go over a jump higher than knee-height or move faster than a brisk canter. Eloise longed to gallop and jump on her very own horse, without having to ask permission.
“Here we are.” Lord Pierce carefully manoeuvred Eloise into place. “You may open your eyes now.”
Eloise could hear the excitement in his voice. She could imagine her father hovering behind her, eyes alight with anticipation, his wide smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. Lord Daniel Pierce, Duke of Pinington, loved to give his wife and daughter presents. Eloise knew she was lucky to have such a kind, doting father.
She opened her eyes.
Eloise was standing in front of one of the horse stalls. In the stall was a new, unfamiliar horse.
It was the most beautiful creature Eloise had ever seen.
The horse wasn’t as large as some others in her father’s stable, but he was perfectly sized for Eloise. He had a glossy, chestnut coat, all one colour. The light reflected in his well-brushed flank, glinting like fire. He had a thick black mane and tail, and large amber eyes, which scrutinised Eloise with more curiosity than fear.
“Happy birthday, my darling,” Lord Pierce said, and Eloise turned and threw her arms around his neck.
“Papa, He’s beautiful, simply beautiful!” Eloise cried. “Can I ride him now?”
“Wait a moment, Eloise!” Lord Pierce said, laughing as he disentangled himself from his daughter’s arms. “You can’t possibly go riding without your brand-new riding boots.”
With a flourish that must have been practiced beforehand, Lord Pierce withdrew a package. Eloise shrieked in delight.
“Thank you, Papa!”
“You spoil her, Daniel.”
Eloise stared a little at her mother’s voice. She hadn’t seen Lady Pierce follow them to the stables. Her mother had a smile in her eyes, and she spoke mildly, even though Eloise noticed a flash of worry when her mother’s gaze skipped over the new horse.
“Ah, but I’ve been promising my little Eloise her own horse for years now,” Lord Pierce answered, smiling adoringly down at his daughter. Eloise gave him another hug and kiss, and ran over to hug her mother, too.
“Thank you ever so, Papa and Mama. I’ll take the best care of him, I promise.”
“I know you will.” Lord Pierce smiled down at her. “The grooms will help you, but you must take care of him yourself, too.”
“May I ride him now?”
Lady Pierce tutted. It was a tiny sound, but both Lord Pierce and Eloise flinched.
“Mama?” Eloise turned, eyeing her mother warily. It wouldn’t be the first time Lady Pierce had prevented Eloise from doing something she deemed “unladylike.”
Lady Pierce’s eyes flicked between Eloise and the horse. “That’s a large horse, Daniel,” she said quietly.
Lord Pierce winced. “Not as large as you think, my dear. It’s a ladies’ horse, and very docile.”
She pressed her lips together. “Very well, then. But you must ride side-saddle, Eloise. I mean it!”
“But it’s more difficult.””
Lady Pierce raised her eyebrows. “And would that be a challenge for such an accomplished rider as yourself?”
“No, of course not. I will, Mama!” Eloise shouted joyfully, racing towards the house to change into her riding things.
Eloise woke early in the morning, with the weak morning sunlight streaming in through the window. It was barely six, and the rest of the house wouldn’t be up for hours yet.
Her first ride on her new horse—whom Eloise had named Red— had been somewhat disastrous. Lady Pierce had insisted on two grooms accompanying her, and riding side-saddles was a trial in itself. Eloise could barely trot without risking sliding out of the saddle.
Then, to cap it all off, her tiresome cousin had appeared. William was always there, especially when they were staying at their country seat. Eloise found him quite tiresome and considered herself lucky not to be saddled with any brothers.
William was twenty-one and fancied himself quite the man.
Eloise disagreed, loudly. Her cousin had been brought up with Eloise as a brother, and Eloise had no scruples about telling her cousin exactly what she thought of him, and his silly friends. In fact, William was a self-important fop who had absolutely no right to mock Eloise’s clumsy side-saddle riding.
Lady Pierce didn’t allow Eloise to say such unladylike things, but Lady Pierce was not always around. Eloise took full advantage of that. If William did not want to be mocked, he should be nicer to Eloise, and he should spend a little less time getting dressed in the morning and putting that awful greasy stuff on his hair. He looked silly, and Eloise very much enjoyed telling him so.
Perhaps some of Eloise’s staunch dislike of her cousin came from his refusal to take her out shooting.
Still, William was always around. He was essentially a brother to Eloise, and he was a known quantity.
William’s friend, Rollo Spencer, was something else. In fact, they weren’t the kind of boys one might have expected to be friends.
Rollo was a quiet, chestnut-haired man, who made a stark contrast to William’s blond good-looks and brash, outgoing manner. He had a handful of sisters, and Eloise didn’t think much about him at all. He kept William from teasing her, and for that she was thankful.
Eloise quietly tiptoed about her bedroom, pulling on her comfortable old riding things. She didn’t put on her new boots until she was at the front door and wouldn’t risk waking up the others with the ring of heeled boots on stone.
Breathing in the fresh, clean air, Eloise felt the familiar twinge of excitement before a ride. It would be good to ride without a twitchy groom at her side, telling her how to canter when Eloise had known how to canter for years. The grooms never let her jump fences or gallop really fast, much to Eloise’s annoyance.
But now she had her own horse, there was no need to wait around for a groom to go riding with her.
Red was waiting for her in the stables and tossed his head excitedly when he spotted her.
Eloise soothed him, stroking his warm, sleek nose. He nuzzled at her hand, searching expectantly for treats.
“We won’t bother with that silly side-saddle this time,” Eloise whispered.
She saddled Red up with practised ease and led him over to the mounting block. She swung one leg over Red’s back, hitching up her skirts in a way that would have given Lady Pierce an apoplexy, and they were off.
Oh, yes, this was the best decision she could have made.
Eloise breathed deeply, revelling in the freedom riding always brought her. The morning air was fresh and cool, and the wind brushed back her hair from her shoulders. Red galloped beneath her, enjoying the run just as much as she did.
She hadn’t thought much about where she was going, letting Red set the pace. The Pierces’ grounds were extensive, and Eloise could gallop for miles without worrying about encroaching on someone else’s land. She knew their grounds like the back of her hand and never even considered she might get lost.
They were galloping alongside an area of dense forest, where the morning sunlight had not yet reached. They ran along for a while, in the shadows of the trees. Eloise was idly thinking about changing the direction—it would be no difficulty, since she and Red already seemed to move as one—when it happened.
A gunshot rang out, barely a few yards to their left. It was so sudden and so loud that Eloise gasped in surprise, hands clenching around the reins.
Red was startled and pulled up abruptly, nearly sending Eloise flying over his head. She tried to soothe him, but he was frightened, and would not be soothed. Red reared up on his hind legs, front legs windmilling in the air, and Eloise lost her grip on the reins.
Eloise screamed as she tumbled backwards from the saddle. There was a blur of blue sky and green grass, then she landed awkwardly on her side.
A horrible pain shot through Eloise’s left arm, and she screamed again. For one awful second, Eloise found herself looking directly at Red’s hooves, only a few inches away from her head. The horse reared again, and Eloise truly thought he might trample her.
Instead, Red trotted away, eyes still rolling with fear.
Eloise sat up slowly and painfully, cradling her throbbing arm in her lap. Her dress was smeared with grass stains and damp with morning dew. She tried to flex her left hand, but her fingers would not obey her. If she even tried to move her hand, pain shot through her forearm.
There was a crashing sound in the forest, and Eloise barely had time to conjure up images of bears, wolves, and other ferocious wild animals before William appeared, blinking in the sunlight as he stepped out of the treeline. His eyes widened when he spotted Eloise on the ground.
“Good heavens! Rollo, quick! It’s Eloise!”
William came running over, dropping to his knees beside her. For once in her life, Eloise was heartily glad to see him. William had thrown his gun to one side, and it lay forgotten in the wet grass. He put an arm around Eloise’s shoulders and pulled her close. “What happened, Eloise? Were you following us again? Your Mama said you weren’t to come with us when we go hunting.”
“It was an accident. I fell.” She sobbed. “I was riding, and there was a gunshot, and . . . and . . . Red reared up, and I couldn’t hold on.”
“It’s all right,” William soothed. He glanced down at her arm and winced. “That looks broken. Does anything else hurt? Can you move your legs?”
Eloise nodded, wiping away tears with the back of her good hand. Behind William, Rollo stepped out of the treeline, eyes wide.
“Right. Come here, I’ll carry you back to the house; we can call a doctor,” William said, manoeuvring Eloise into his arms. “Rollo, would you catch the horse and bring it back?”
Rollo gave a brief nod, running after Red, who seemed to have calmed down a little.
“No one will be awake yet,” Eloise sniffled. “I’m not supposed to go out riding alone.”
“Yes, and this is why.” William chastised gently. He wrapped both arms around Eloise, gathered her to his chest, and stood up with Eloise clutched in his arms. “What would have happened if you’d broken a leg instead and Rollo and I weren’t here to help you? How would you have gotten home? What if you’d been seriously hurt, or knocked unconscious?”
“You sound like Mama,” Eloise muttered.
“Well, she’s right. See, you went out by yourself, and now you’ve been hurt.” William glanced down at a cut on Eloise’s wrist. It was only superficial, thankfully, and forgotten in the pain of her broken arm. “You’ll need to see a doctor, Eloise. Let’s be grateful it wasn’t worse. Better wrap a handkerchief around that.”
The two of them made their way home, with William’s long legs striding along easily. Eloise managed to wrap a handkerchief around the cut.
“What is it?”
“Do you think I’ll. . .” Eloise swallowed hard. “Do you think I’ll bleed to death?”
William suppressed a smile. “No, I don’t. I daresay you’ll have a scar, though.”
“Oh.” Eloise looked down at her bandaged, swollen wrist. “Mama says scars are ugly.”
William glanced down at his cousin. “Well, I think the scars are dashing. So does Rollo. We secretly hope to get charming scars across our faces, so ladies will think we’re heroic and reckless.”
Eloise digested this new information. “I think I’d like to be heroic and reckless.”
“Then I have good news for you, Cousin. You’re already heroic and reckless.”
Eloise was wrong. The family was up. One of the maids must have gone into her room, found her gone, and raised the alarm.
The sun was barely above the horizon, and there was only weak morning sunlight so far, casting long shadows in the ground. However, the lights burned in most of the windows in their house, including Lord and Lady Pierce’s bedroom. Eloise’s heart sank. There would be no sneaking in unnoticed.
Carrying Eloise in his arms, William walked into the hallway, and was immediately beset by Lord and Lady Pierce. Through the chaos and overlapping, questioning voices, Eloise just had time to catch a glimpse of cold fear on her father’s face before she was hustled into the drawing room and set gingerly on a sofa.
“I will summon the physician at once, Your Grace,” the butler murmured, and Lord Pierce gave him a tight nod.
Lord and Lady Pierce swarmed over Eloise, poking and prodding at her injured wrist. She gave an involuntary squeak of pain, and Lady Pierce clapped her hand over her mouth. Lord Pierce reached out, brushing back strands of sweaty hair from Eloise’s forehead.
“Don’t worry, my darling girl,” he whispered. “You will be quite all right soon. Everything is fine.”
Now she was lying comfortably down on the sofa, safe and warm with her parents around her, Eloise began to feel exhausted. The pain in her arm was beginning to settle into a dull, steady throb. Nobody seemed too worried about the break, saying confidently that the doctor would set it nicely, so she began to relax. She leaned her head against a cushion and closed her eyes, only half-listening to the conversation around her.
“What happened?” she heard Lord Pierce say, his voice uncharacteristically cold and angry. “Did you two go out riding with Eloise? Your aunt made it very clear that a groom is always to ride with her.”
“No, uncle, she wasn’t with us,” William said. “Rollo and I went out hunting, we had no idea Eloise was nearby. Rollo shot at a partridge, and then we heard Eloise scream. The shot must have scared the horse.”
“I am so sorry, Your Grace.” Rollo’s voice came, soft and tentative.
“It’s hardly your fault, Spencer,” Lord Pierce said dismissively. “It’s not surprising a young horse like that would be scared by a gunshot.”
“Your Grace, Lady Pierce.” Rollo said suddenly, and William mumbled, “Aunt.”
Eloise heard the soft swish of her mother’s skirts. There was a pregnant pause.
“The doctor will be here as quickly as his carriage can bring him. Rollo, William, would you give my husband and I a moment alone?”
There was mumbling and shuffling, then the door closed softly.
“Is she asleep?” Lady Pierce spoke.
“I believe so. Jillian, I—”
“Don’t,” Lady Pierce said sharply. “She could have been killed, Daniel.”
Another pause. “I know,” Lord Pierce said miserably.
Eloise’s heart leapt into her mouth. Why wasn’t her father defending her? Why wasn’t he insisting that Eloise was an excellent rider, that this was one mishap which wasn’t even her fault. Hadn’t Rollo fired the gun?
“You know I am not one to crow when I am right, especially now our child is hurt. But I warned you, Daniel. I allowed you to overrule me and buy that wretched horse. I told you that this . . . this indulging of her tendencies was a bad idea. Now, look what has happened. She could have broken her neck and died out there alone . . . oh, I can hardly bear to think of it.”
“I know, I know. I made it clear that she shouldn’t ride alone, Jillian. I told her. I thought she would obey me.”
Eloise heard her mother sigh. “You know what Eloise is like. She loves to be independent, and she never sees danger. That is why I was against buying her a horse. Those creatures are dangerous, and Eloise is only a child—a reckless, headstrong child at that. I hope you see my point now.”
Another long pause. “I do,” Lord Pierce admitted quietly. “What do you suggest?”
“She can’t be trusted to ride sensibly. I won’t risk her life, Daniel, I simply won’t. Things need to change. Now. Starting with that horse.”
“It’ll break her heart, Jillian.”
“I’d rather she cries over a horse than break her neck,” Lady Pierce said sharply. “She is thirteen years old. Society may roll their eyes at her foolishness now, but you and I know that it won’t last for very much longer. We have indulged her long enough. It’s time for her to stop being a silly tomboy and start growing into a decent young woman. We can begin by stopping this riding nonsense. Sell the horse. Today, Daniel. I mean it.”
Eloise wanted to sit up and shout, to demand that her father defend her. Red was her horse; they couldn’t simply take him away from her now. It couldn’t be borne. She would not bear it.
She waited for her father’s outrage on her behalf. He had always backed her up before, and Eloise was sure that this time would be no different.
She was disappointed.
“All right,” Lord Pierce said. “All right. He’s a decent animal, and I’ll be able to find a good home for him.”
Then Eloise did sit up abruptly, unable to lie still and listen to her future being discussed so coldly. But she earned herself a lengthy lecture on the evils of eavesdropping from her mother, and Lord Pierce refused to budge. Red was to go, and Eloise would stick more closely to her mother in future and learn to be a young lady.
Later, at supper, Eloise eyed the bandage around her arm. The break was not bad, barely a break at all, and the cut had been sewn up neatly. There was a clean, raised pink mark along her wrist, which Lady Pierce had darkly predicted would leave a scar.
She had cried and begged and raged, but neither of her parents would be moved. Lady Pierce was adamant, and for once, Lord Pierce would not back up his daughter.
Red was going, and that was that. One of their neighbours had already agreed on a price with Lord Pierce. A fat tear rolled down Eloise’s cheek, and the others at the supper table pretended not to notice.
For the first time ever, William seemed to feel uncomfortable at his uncle and aunt’s dinner table. He leaned over his plate of food, determinedly shovelling food into his mouth to avoid speaking to anyone.
Sniffling through her tears, Eloise glanced up across the table, and her eye fell on Rollo. He had his head bent and pushed his food around his plate. He did not speak to anyone, and nobody spoke to him.
You did this, she thought hatefully, and glared furiously at him.
In Eloise’s lessons, she’d learned about the Greek woman Medusa, who had hair like snakes and turned men to stone. She’d been very taken with Medusa. A stare like that could be very useful, she thought, and snake hair would probably be easier to deal with than her own tangled locks.
Unfortunately, Rollo remained obstinately human and alive under Eloise’s furious stare.
No matter. I won’t forget.
Summer of 1818, London
“Oh, you look stunning. I do wish I could carry off green,” Jane said admiringly.
Eloise complacently eyed her own reflection in Jane’s dressing room mirror. The bedroom was a mess, with linens and fine dresses strewn everywhere. Eloise could already imagine the expression on her maid’s face when she saw the piles of clothes and expensively crumpled fabric.
However, there was really nothing to be done. Dressing for a ball like this one was no small matter. One couldn’t simply choose the first dress that fell out of one’s wardrobe. The two girls had spent hours already, and Eloise had only just settled on her green silk.
“Me and every other fair-haired chit,” Eloise commented, hoping not to sound too vain.
She knew she looked well. The fashion was for dark-haired beauties at the moment, but that only meant that Eloise and her flaxen locks stood out even more. Eloise privately envied Jane’s thick black hair. She always seemed to have masses of hair, trailing down her back, allowing itself to be wrestled into the latest elaborate hairstyles.
Eloise’s hair was blonde and tended towards wispy, but it only looked flat besides Jane’s glorious mane. Jane’s hair could make anyone’s curls look a little thin.
Well, she could allow Jane that advantage.
Eloise knew she’d grown into a beautiful young woman. She had large, pale-blue eyes set in a china-doll face, and her porcelain complexion was envied by richer and prettier women than she.
By Jane, too.
However, a little envy between friends never hurt anyone. Eloise and Jane had been firm friends for the whole Season, and their friendship looked ready to carry on to future years.
Eloise turned smilingly back to Jane, smoothing down her green silk skirts. “Are you sure it doesn’t make me look sickly?”
“No,” Jane answered firmly. “You look divine. If the marquess doesn’t drop dead at the sight of you tonight, he has a heart of stone.”
Eloise coloured at that, and the two girls giggled together. “His dropping dead will hardly do me any good,” she observed. “But enough about me. What are you wearing?”
“I was going to wear the pink,” Jane said diffidently, stroking an elaborate, highly frilled dress lying on the bed next to her.
“Don’t wear that one. It makes you look sallow,” Eloise said bluntly.
“I like it.”
“Yes, but you don’t look well in it. Here. . .” Eloise dived into a pile of chiffon and silk, producing a yellow dress embroidered with red roses. It should highlight Jane’s peaches-and-cream complexion, and the neckline would flatter her long, slender neck. “Wear this one. You can wear your rubies with it, and that pretty red hairpin.”
Some society beauties prefer to surround themselves with plain-looking friends, in the hopes of making themselves appear to be a better catch. Eloise knew that some of Jane’s previous friends had encouraged her to wear unflattering dresses—including a particularly hideous bonnet trimmed with giant rhododendron blooms and a shocking profusion of lace— but Eloise had no intention of being so unkind.
“Ooh, I’d forgotten about that one.” Jane brightened. “You are so good at fashion, you know. You can tell immediately what everyone should wear.”
Eloise smiled weakly. “Oh, I wasn’t always like that. I remember when I was a child, my mother was often driven to tears by the way I left my dresses.” Almost unconsciously, Eloise traced a fingertip along the raised white scar at her wrist. These days, she wore long sleeves, or used bracelets and neatly tied bits of ribbon to hide the ugly mark.
Eager to change the subject, Eloise turned back to the mirror. “Now. How shall we have our hair?”
Lady Ackley was hosting the ball, so naturally, everything was perfect. Jane and Eloise only had to trip downstairs a few moments before the guests were due to arrive. Jane greeted her mother, Lady Ackley, with a wide smile and a twirl. Lady Ackley, a pleasant but somewhat over-exuberant woman, clapped her hands in delight.
“Oh, girls! You look like an absolute picture. You’re both going to be a wonderful success, I just know it. Now, get along with you, the guests will be here at any moment. I just need to talk to Mrs. Biggs about the flowers. . .”
Lady Ackley wandered over to corner her hapless housekeeper about some detail, and Jane and Eloise were left to languish in the drawing room until the guests began to arrive, one by one or in family groups.
It was one of the final occasions of the Season, and nobody wanted to miss it. This would be the last party before everyone retreated to their country homes for the summer. Unless, of course, they had planned parties of their own, like Eloise’s family.
All too soon, Ackley’s magnificent ballroom was full of chatter and laughter. The dancing hadn’t started up yet, and Eloise was stuck in the corner of the room with Jane, fidgeting and longing to dance.
Jane was talking on and on about something or other, Eloise couldn’t quite hear over the din of the party. She thought it might be something to do with going to the country soon. Either way, Eloise couldn’t bring herself to listen, not when he was standing right there, on the other side of the room.
“Eloise? Are you even listening to me?”
Eloise dragged her gaze guiltily back to her friend. “Yes. Yes, of course.”
Jane narrowed her eyes, and to Eloise’s horror, turned and looked over her shoulder. Well, Jane saw him at once, and her round face broke into a wide grin.
“Ah, I see the Marquess of Corenwood is in attendance. Not that it’s surprising, of course.”
Eloise blushed. “Hush, he’ll hear you.”
“No, he won’t. Ooh, perhaps he’ll ask you to call him Oliver.”
“He won’t,” Eloise answered, but her heart fluttered at that kind of delicious informality.
Jane shrugged. “He’s coming to your parents’ house party, Isn’t he? That’s the perfect opportunity. He’s a real catch, you know. Mama says so.”
“So does mine,” Eloise answered absently. “That’s why they’ve invited him. I’m not a fool.”
“You’re lucky to have parents who are so supportive of your choices.” Jane sighed. “Mama was so angry when I turned down Lord Ruthburn.”
Lord Oliver, Marquess of Corenwood, was indeed a handsome and well-regarded man, standing head and shoulders above most of the other guests. Some of the flightier young women compared him to a Greek statue, and Eloise privately thought she could see the resemblance. He had bright golden curls, expertly set and pomaded in the latest fashion, a jaw sharper than most kitchen knives, and of course there were those startlingly blue eyes, blue as the ocean, fit to drown in.
He was tall, broad, and exquisitely dressed, of course. Today’s coat of embroidered, padded purple was already creating a stir. Eloise noticed at least half a dozen young dandies mentally planning their trips to the tailor in the morning, with a rough sketch of Corenwood’s latest outfit ready for copying. The man set the fashions of London, and with so many would-be dandies around, that was quite a feat.
All eyes were on Lord Oliver, and he seemed very happy with the attention he received.
Had it really been two years since Eloise had first set eyes on Lord Oliver? Heavens.
Jane sucked in a breath. “He’s coming over,” she hissed. “Look natural, Eloise, for God’s sake. Pretend we weren’t looking.”
But Eloise found she couldn’t look away. She watched Lord Oliver approach, weaving neatly and efficiently through the crowd, long strides bringing him closer and closer. Those piercing blue eyes were fixed on hers, and he had that slow, heart-stopping smile spreading across his face.
Pretty young women watched him walk by them, hope fading on their faces as he barely spared them a nod. They glanced past him, eyes landing on Eloise. Their hopeful expressions were replaced with jealousy and dislike, eyes raking up and down Eloise’s frame to find some flaw, some imperfection to gossip bitterly about later.
Eloise realised she had frozen in place, her cup of punch half lifted to her lips. Feeling silly, she took a sip.
“Lady Eloise, Lady Jane. The honour is all mine,” Lord Oliver said smoothly, bowing elegantly. “I hate to break up your pleasant tete-a-tete, but I hear that the music is just starting up. I believe the dancing is about to begin.”
“Oh, so it is,” Eloise said stupidly.
Lord Oliver’s smile widened. “Lady Eloise, would you do me the honour of dancing the first set with me?”
Eloise didn’t dare glance at Jane, whom she knew would be grinning all over her little round face.
“It would be an honour, sir.”
Lord Oliver extended a large, warm hand, and Eloise slipped hers into it, willing her heart to slow its furious beating.
He led her out to the dance floor, and they took up their positions.
The dance began. It was a simple country dance, and Eloise knew it well. They moved through their positions nimbly and easily, and Eloise’s heart fluttered every time the dance brought them together—which was often. The dance wasn’t quite slow enough to carry on a proper conversation, but there were plenty of opportunities to meet the eyes of one’s partner, and exchange slow, secretive smiles. Eloise’s heart was beating fit to burst; she thought it might fly out of her chest. She was sure her thumping heart could be heard even above the music.
Lord Oliver was the kind of man every woman dreamt of. He was the kind of man Eloise dreamt of, and he seemed to be taking a very definite interest in her. Eloise was not vain, but she knew she was pretty, charming, and had a good portion. Why should he not like her? Why should they not be happy?
Besides, this marriage would do more than give Eloise personal happiness. Lord and Lady Pierce would be delighted, and she would be a duchess after all.
Eloise smiled up into Lord Oliver’s square, handsome face, already dreaming of white wedding lace and her parents’ proud faces. Energy flew through her limbs, and Jane’s smiling face kept skipping past during the dance.
Eloise just knew they would be dancing all night.
Jane and Eloise made their way up the stairs shortly before dawn, exhausted. They were too tired even to speak to each other. The girls had danced almost every dance—and most of Eloise’s had been with Lord Oliver. Tendrils of her hair were coming undone, and her thin dancing slippers did nothing to protect her aching soles. Both girls knew they would be sore in the morning, but neither had the heart to care. It had been such a wonderful night.
Well, it was hardly night anymore. In fact, it was morning already.
Barely pausing to mumble half-hearted good nights to each other, the girls disappeared into their bedrooms, Jane to her own, and Eloise to the guest room that was hers whenever she stayed with them.
By the time Eloise tumbled into bed, she was too tired to keep a coherent thought in her head. Unfortunately, the eventful, exciting evening she’d just enjoyed conspired to keep her awake. Music and dancing swirled through her head, backed by laughter and chatter, and tasting of rich, fruity punch.
However, the last thing Eloise thought before closing her eyes was just how much she was looking forward to going back to her parents’ country seat. She had never found the country boring, and now there was another, newer attraction.
Lord Oliver would be there.
They would be together in Eloise’s territory, in her old, familiar house and land.
In such a friendly, intimate gathering, who knew what might happen?
She might be a duchess before the end of the year.
On that wonderful thought, Eloise finally managed to fall asleep.
Finished, at last.
Rollo Spencer dropped the final stack of documents onto the finished pile on one side of his desk, sighing with relief. He stretched out his long fingers, cramping from holding a pen for so long. Outside, the first rays of dawn were beginning to streak the sky. Rollo knew he should feel exhausted, but all he felt was a kind of numb kind of resignation.
He didn’t often have to work through the night. It was always wholly necessary, and it was never pleasant. After all, if Rollo didn’t get his own tasks finished, nobody else would do them for him. His father had always taught him that the best way to ensure a task was done correctly was to do it oneself—that, and he should never ask an employee to do something he wouldn’t do himself.
Rollo couldn’t quite bring himself to ask his secretary to stay all night, so he’d had to work alone.
Yawning and stretching his arms above his head, Rollo mentally ticked through his tasks, ensuring there wasn’t anything he had forgotten. In times gone by, his father, the late Earl of Sunnington, would catch any of his son’s mistakes.
Not anymore, of course. Rollo was responsible for it all now—the land, the houses, the business, all of it. It was his responsibility to keep his mother comfortable and provide his sisters with portions. Currently, they were staying in their Bath residence, and the bills came thick and fast.
The late earl has been dead for over three years now, but Rollo didn’t feel like the real Earl of Sunnington, not truly. He felt like a little boy trying on his father’s much-larger clothes.
Rollo leaned back in his seat, glancing out of the window at the brilliant sunrise painting the sky. He could see a few carriages rattling along the deserted London streets. Judging by the crests, the carriages contained rich members of the ton, travelling back from whichever dance or party they had attended previously.
Must be nice to while away one’s hours with dancing and idle conversation, then simply go home to bed. Rollo thought sourly. The Spencers were not poor, but Rollo had no illusions about where their wealth came from. His father had never seen the necessity of shielding his family from the knowledge of their trade. They had once been merchants, and if the family wished to keep their current standard of living, Rollo would need to continue to work his fingers to the bone.
He stood abruptly, wincing at the pain in his stiff limbs. The candle was almost burnt to nothing, so Rollo bent over and neatly blew out the flame.
The morning light was slowly filtering into his office anyway. There was no point trying to sleep now.
By the time Rollo emerged from his office, the sun was well up, and the London streets were full of life. He’d washed and changed from his crumpled, dirty clothes into something more respectable. His stomach was rumbling, and Rollo decided to go in search of breakfast.
Before leaving, he had briefly glanced over his appearance in the mirror. He had no aspirations towards dandy-hood, with his rather dull brown coat and gold-and-brown waistcoat. His chestnut curls were cut for convenience rather than style, his eyes an uninteresting brownish green.
He was pale, from a life working indoors, and his hands were slim and soft. He’d been spared the calluses of manual labour, at least. In short, Rollo saw little to interest himself in the plain, oval face that greeted him in the mirror.
Rollo walked purposefully along towards his club, with the intention of getting himself some breakfast. Despite his long night at his desk, there was still more work to be done.
The club seemed to be another unnecessary expense, and he had mentioned cancelling his membership once.
Only once. His mother had gone into fits at the notion of her son not being part of a club.
“They will think you’re unclubbable, Rollo! A club is a social place. It’s necessary for any gentleman. Our friends will think you can’t afford it, or a club won’t have you. I’d die of shame, and so would your sisters.” She had insisted, over and over again, until Rollo gave up his suggestion. After all, the club was a convenient place to go for meals.
It was peaceful, too. Rollo looked forward to a solitary, quiet meal, without pages of figures to decipher and endless letters to write. The club had a good library, and surely no one would look askance if he decided to read a book while he ate.
He had, of course, spoken too soon.
“Rollo? Is that you? I say, so it is! Rollo Spencer!”
He flinched at hearing his own name, and turned to see a tall, well-built young man with fair hair hurrying towards him.
It took Rollo half a second to recognize the man, as his senses were dull and muddied from his long night at work.
“William Brown? Heavens, it’s been years!” Rollo cried, smiling at the sight of his own friend. William was beaming, that familiar, wide-smile, and clapped Rollo on the shoulder so hard that he almost stumbled.
“Rollo Spencer, as I live and breathe. Do you know, I hoped I’d run into you?”
“Is that so? How long have you been in town?”
“Two days, no more. Where are you going?”
“Breakfast at my club.” Rollo answered, gesturing towards the club in question. “Would you care to join me?”
The invitation surprised Rollo, too. He had been looking forward to a peaceful, solitary breakfast. However, William was one of his few acquaintances he truly considered as a friend. It had been several years since he and William had spent time together. It was strange to imagine they’d once spent several months of the year together, spending everyday riding, fishing, and hunting.
William smiled broadly at the invitation
“It would be my pleasure,” he answered. “I’m fairly starving. Does this place serve a good breakfast?”
“Oh, it’s excellent.”
The two men sat down to a delicious breakfast, and Rollo found he was suddenly ravenously hungry.
“Are you all right, old man?” William asked, curiously eyeing him. “You look rather pale. Did you sleep well?”
Rollo winced. “Not at all. I was up all night, working.”
William sucked in a breath. “How industrious. You’ll kill yourself if you go on like that, you know.”
Rollo took a sip of his tea and said nothing. William was unconsciously echoing the Dowager Lady Spencer. Rollo could hear her now. She rarely gave him the chance to forget, and when she and his sisters were away, she wrote frequently to remind him of her opinions.
You’ll kill yourself at that desk, Rollo, just like your father. If he hadn’t ruined his health on that wretched shipping company, he would still be alive with us today.
Rollo tried and tried to remind himself that the late earl’s illness had been sudden and completely unrelated to his work.
Although, perhaps if he hadn’t been so exhausted, sickly, and drained from his long hours, the earl may yet have survived a little longer. That was an unpleasant thought, and it would do no good, in any case. Rollo firmly put those thoughts out of his mind.
“Well, the business won’t run itself,” Rollo said. “I have just signed a contract which gives us shares in a rather lucrative tea company. I spent last night ironing out the details. It will be worthwhile, I promise you.”
“Not if you’re too tired and busy to enjoy it,” William pointed out, spearing a fried tomato with his fork. “You need a rest, for heaven’s sake. What are your plans for the summer?”
Rollo paused, his teacup halfway to his lips.
“Do you know, I haven’t the slightest idea?” he answered truthfully. “Work, I suppose. There’s always more to do at the company, and I rather like to do as much as possible myself. Then I can be sure things are done properly.”
“Oh, heavens. Rollo, do you do anything other than work?” William chuckled, taking the sting out of his words. “You ought to take a rest, you know. I’m sure you’ve a host of capable accountants and fine secretaries.”
“I know,” Rollo admitted. “But the company won’t run itself, and I’m not like you—I can’t simply ignore what needs to be done. I’m afraid that as long as I remain in London, there will be work for me to do.”
“Then that is our answer. We need to get you out of London, my friend.” Willian said, with a hint of triumph. “I have just the thing.”
“If you’re about to suggest I go and stay with my mother and sisters in Bath, then I. . .”
“No, no.” William waved his hand dismissively. “I was thinking that you should come with me to stay in my uncle and aunt’s country seat. You remember Lord and Lady Pierce, don’t you?”
“Of course, I do. Some of the fondest memories of my youth were spent in their home.” Rollo paused, taking another sip of his tea. His breakfast lay untouched on his plate, and Rollo’s mind whirred.
He certainly remembered the Pierces. They were some of the kindest people he had ever known. The Spencers may well be titled and wealthy, but everyone knew they smelled of the shop, as it were. The earl’s hard work in the company had provided their wealth, and he expected his son to follow in his footsteps.
However, there were still people in the ton who disagreed with gentlemen having occupations. Or, if a man must have a profession, let it be a gentlemanly, discreet one. Nothing to do with bartering and trading, handling dirty money, and bending over account books. In many social circles, trade was as unacceptable a word as any kind of blasphemy.
The more highly bred ladies and gentlemen wouldn’t acknowledge a tradesman, no matter how rich he was. Rollo was hardly a “tradesman,” but he was a little too close to it for comfort for some people.
Rollo had endured many a slight and still noticed some of the snobbier ladies and gentlemen turning up their nose at him. It was interesting to notice how money and breeding was inversely connected to bad manners and rudeness.
Not the Pierces, though. Never once had Rollo been made to feel uncomfortable or inferior in their home. William was treated like their own son, and Rollo was treated like a dear family friend. A cousin, even. He felt welcome and looked forward to his yearly trip to the Pierces’ country seat more than he looked forward to the yearly trips to Bath with his family.
“Mine too,” William said, cutting into Rollo’s thoughts. “My uncle and aunt were always very kind to me. I’m the impoverished cousin, you know.”
“You poor thing,” Rollo shot back, drolly. William was not exactly poor, but he was not rich, either. He couldn’t hold his own among the rich and titled and could certainly not afford to even set foot in a popular gambling hell. Heavens, William could quite easily gamble away his whole fortune in a night if he were foolish enough, and it would still only be a handful of trinkets and coins to one of the richer men in hell.
“Well, what about it?” William prompted.
“I’m not invited. I shouldn’t impose.”
“Nonsense. My dear aunt has given me the liberty to invite a friend or two, and she’ll be delighted to see you again. You remember my cousin, Eloise? You won’t recognize her, I swear. I shouldn’t extend the invitation if I thought you wouldn’t be welcome. Besides, don’t you fancy a few weeks of hunting and shooting?” William paused, dropping a wink. “It’ll be like old times. My uncle has promised me the run of the estate again. There’ll be fishing, too, if you prefer a more relaxing adventure.”
Rollo shovelled a forkful of bacon into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. William waited impatiently, fingers tap-tap-tapping on the table.
“I shall think about it,” Rollo answered eventually.
William nodded, wisely leaving it at that. He prattled for the rest of their meal about everything and nothing, even telling a few anecdotes that made Rollo chuckle.
It was almost like old times, with the two men chatting and laughing together. It was as if they were boys again, with a whole summer to while away.
As their breakfast ended, Rollo came down to earth with a thump, remembering the pile of paperwork and documents waiting for him on his desk. His secretary would have arrived by now and would dutifully have compiled a list of tasks that must be completed by Rollo by the end of the day.
Rollo’s heart sank. He couldn’t go to the country, not now.
“Let me know within the next week,” William said, as if reading Rollo’s mind. “About the trip to my uncle and aunt’s. I’d like to see you there, and I know they would too.”
Rollo nodded. “I will let you know,” he repeated.
He had quite made up his mind. He would not go.
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