Matchmaking with a Broken Duke
Miss Leonie Delaney gazed out of the kitchen window at the beautiful orange sky. A sigh slipped from her lips. Before the incident, she would faithfully stand at the window once every day and watch the sunset. It relaxed her, and the subtle sound of the wind was tranquil. Leonie was there so often that people who visited the shop downstairs noticed her habit and would greet her as they strolled by the corner.
But it had now been a week since she last stood at the window. Where had the time gone? Her mind had been clouded by so much worry that she felt completely off-kilter. Oliver, her dearest uncle, had been bedridden for a week. He was in pain and could barely speak a coherent sentence.
Leonie sighed and picked up the small basket of bread on the kitchen table. All her life, people had always praised her for her confidence and resilient attitude. But Leonie was going to crumble any minute, she knew it. Oliver had never been so sick. He was usually quick to recover from anything, and hated to be in bed for more than two days. Yet a week had gone by and there was no sign he would be back on his feet anytime soon.
“Miss, shall I bring the bread to the dining table?” Mrs. Ophia, the housekeeper, asked her.
Leonie gave her a weak smile and shook her head. It was easy to tell when Ophia was deeply worried about something. Her forehead would furrow, and she would stand with her arms akimbo, studying Leonie’s face. Mrs. Ophia had been with them since Leonie was five years old, and now, fifteen years later, Leonie couldn’t live without her.
Mr. Oliver had brought Mrs. Ophia into their home as a surrogate mother to Leonie and Toby, Leonie’s younger brother. Mrs. Ophia was a small woman, with a big heart. Growing up, Leonie liked to sit and listen to Mrs. Ophia talk about her experiences as a slave to an important family of the ton. She was originally from Nigeria, a country on the west coast of Africa. Leonie was grateful for her loving presence; Mrs. Ophia cooked for them, looked after them, and worried for them. She was family.
The family sat at the dining table, preparing to eat. Leonie, Toby, Mrs. Ophia, and Mr. August Blick all remained silent as Mrs. Ophia served the food. The mood was tense, and worry was written in all their faces.
“So, what did the physician say?” Mr. Blick asked, setting his spoon down on the table. “I reckon it’s not good news, is it?”
Mr. August Blick was another person Leonie regarded as family. He had been a friend of Mr. Delaney’s for decades, and he helped run the family business situated on the ground floor of the premises. Her uncle was the best painting and artwork restorer she knew of. Leonie had been learning the ropes of the trade from him since she learnt how to walk. Mr. Blick and her uncle had been in business for years, and they were well known as experts in their field.
The family lived in a two-storey building on Piccadilly Street in Wandsworth, London. It was one of the busiest streets in the city, crammed with many shops and sightseers. Inside the building, the ground floor was strictly for business. Mr. Oliver had named the workshop ‘Delaney’s Artist Outfitters & Art Restorers’—a name he considered fancy enough to attract the best custom.
The workshop always seemed to be a mess and reeked of paint. There were cans of paint on every surface, brushes, tools, and artworks in various states of repair mounted on wooden easels. The workshop had two other rooms in the back, one where supplies were stored and another room that served as a study.
Leonie and her family lived in the quarters above the shop. Sometimes, it was hard to differentiate the living quarters from the workshop, as restoration paraphernalia littered the parlour too. There were four rooms in the house in total. Leonie had the room at the far end of the upstairs passageway to herself, where she practised on artworks, read about the world, and rested. On most days, she would spend time with Ophia in the kitchen, helping with the food or chores. On other days, she helped Oliver with restoring paintings for customers. It was how they had lived for years. But now, Leonie couldn’t help but think that her world was about to crumble.
“Well, will someone say something?” Mr. Blick asked. “What did the physician say?”
Leonie sat up. “He said Uncle will recover, eventually. After examining him, he gave instructions for him to be kept warm, drink plenty, and eat lightly. He said he will be back later to check on his progress.”
Mr. Blick let out a long sigh. “Does he think Oliver’s getting any better?”
Toby shook his head. “He didn’t say,” he answered in a cracked voice.
Leonie saw the look on Toby’s face and felt a pang in her heart. She darted her gaze, and her eyes fell on a broken mirror at the corner of the room. Leonie stared at her reflection, noticing the difference in her appearance. It had only been a week, but the worry had taken its toll on her. Her collar bones were even more obvious than before. She couldn’t even feign a smile. Leonie was often complimented on her smile and white teeth, hence it was an asset she was proud of.
She was always quick to flash a smile, even in the mirror. But that had changed. Her long, curly hair had been left unbrushed for days. Leonie was sure that if she put a brush into it, taking it out would be a problem. Her eyes were dim with fatigue, and the usual vibrancy of her icy-blue eyes was hidden. Her pale skin was even paler, and her cheeks had lost their colour. It had only been a week, yet a lot had changed.
“Please, eat something, my dear,” Mrs. Ophia begged her. “You need food to be strong.”
Leonie forced a short smile. It was often difficult to read Ophia’s expressions; she had been well-schooled as a slave to hide her feelings, but it was always easy to tell when she was happy. It would be evident in her smile. Her bright, white smile. But Ophia wasn’t smiling, and for good reason. In fact, none of them looked happy.
Leonie dropped her head and stared at her paint-stained fingers. “I’m not hungry,” she whispered.
“You still need to eat something,” Ophia said. “At least try. You too, Toby.”
“Uncle Oliver can’t eat,” Toby replied. “So, it doesn’t feel right for me to eat. Uncle Oliver has been sick for days. He can barely talk, he squirms in pain, and he coughs all the time. It worries me greatly, and it’s ruined my appetite.”
“It worries all of us,” Mr. Blick chipped in. “But at least Miss Delaney and Mrs. Ophia are taking good care of him. You and I are also taking good care of the business. I am sure that when Oliver fully recovers, he will be proud of us. Everything will go back to normal. Just give it time.”
Not only was Leonie taking care of her Uncle, but she was also now handling all the restoration work brought into the shop alone. Thankfully, Mr. Oliver was comfortable with her handling the restorations. Even before falling sick, he regularly assigned some of the work to her. But Leonie had no problem with the extra work and had never complained. She loved doing it, and it kept her busy.
But Oliver had been bedridden for too long. Part of her was worried that he would not be back on his feet in time for one of the most important jobs they had ever been awarded; Oliver had asked her to assist him in restoring an old master by Giotto at Rokesby Castle in Sussex.
They were expected to arrive in Sussex in a few days’ time to start work on the priceless painting. It was a big job that was definitely going to take several months to complete. Oliver had previously promised by messenger that they would undertake the task, and do it perfectly. And one thing Oliver hated to do was break a promise.
However, given his current condition, Leonie could only conclude that disappointment for the customer was inevitable. Sooner or later, she would have to draft a letter to the Duke of Rokesby and explain the situation to him. Leonie hoped he would be kind enough to postpone the work until Oliver was better. That was their only option.
It would be very unfortunate if we missed this opportunity, Leonie thought to herself.
“Miss Delaney,” Mr. Blick called her from across the table, “Oliver has asked to see you after dinner.”
Oliver’s wheezing cough indicated that he was awake. Leonie rapped softly on his door before tiptoeing into the room. She ran her hand over her grey, free flowing gown and twisted the fabric between her fingers. Seeing Oliver so weak and frail always made her nervous. Leonie wanted to do something to make everything better, but she had no clue how to help.
The room was dimly lit by a candle on the nightstand. The window at the opposite end of the room was shut tightly, in line with the physician’s orders that Mr. Oliver Delaney be kept warm. He lay on the bed in the opposite corner of the room, coughing. He was buried under two quilts, yet he still shivered. Leonie approached him cautiously and sat on the bed.
“Hello, Uncle Oliver,” she said softly. “Can you talk?”
Oliver’s coughing ceased. He nodded slowly and cleared his throat. “Stop worrying,” Oliver managed to say.
Leonie felt tears well up in her eyes. “How can I not? You’re not getting any better, Uncle.”
“I feel a bit better,” he answered. “I’m talking now. That’s a good thing, is it not?”
“Barely,” Leonie said. “You must recover quickly, Uncle. There’s so much you still haven’t taught me and I’m most worried about the job for His Grace, the Duke of Rokesby, the Giotto. Remember?”
Oliver shifted on the bed. “How could I forget? That is actually the reason I asked to see you, my darling.”
Leonie nodded. “I want to speak to you about it too. I reckon the best thing to do is to send a special messenger to His Grace and inform him that we shall have to postpone the work.”
Oliver started to cough again, alarming Leonie. She inched closer to him and held his hand. “Do you need something to drink, Uncle? Let me fetch you a glass of water.”
“No, I’m fine,” Mr. Delaney said. “We are not turning down this job, Leonie.”
“Of course, we’re not,” Leonie said. “A Renaissance masterpiece by Giotto? We have never restored a painting of that calibre before. I would like to see it too. I suggest we ask His Grace to give us more time for you to recover, so we can go together. We cannot miss this opportunity, Uncle.”
“We’re not missing it, and we are not writing a letter to the Duke either,” the man stated flatly. “You will go.”
Leonie scoffed. “You want me to go in person and ask for more time? Uncle, we can just send a letter. It’s simpler.”
“Leonie, stop pretending you don’t know what I mean.”
Leonie’s eyebrows furrowed. “Surely, it cannot be what I’m thinking.”
“You will go in my stead. You will restore that painting,” her uncle announced.
Leonie stared at him in confusion. “By myself? You expect me to go to Sussex all by myself?”
“I do. You will do well, just as you have always done.”
Leonie slowly smiled. It baffled her that Mr. Delaney could joke in his condition. But he was always one to like a jest. Sometimes, they were hilarious, and sometimes, they left her too stunned to speak.
“You’re joking, aren’t you?” Leonie asked, squinting her eyes at him questioningly.
“This is not the time or the place to joke, Leonie,” he said. “I cannot turn away His Grace. It would damage our reputation.”
“You’re ill. Surely, he will understand,” Leonie protested.
“I made a promise.”
“And you’re not breaking it. You’re only delaying it,” Leonie countered. “Uncle, I have only ever assisted you with your paintings. All the work I have done has all been under your close supervision. I’m not a lone wolf. I’m part of your pack of wolves. You lead, I follow. It is how it has always been.”
“Well, it’s time you take the lead,” Oliver said. “You’re going to Sussex, Leonie.”
“I beg to differ.”
“You are going,” Mr. Delaney said sternly.
“No, I am not,” Leonie answered, equally sternly. “How do you expect me to leave your side when you’re so ill. You’re shaking, Uncle. You can barely speak a complete sentence without that cough wracking your lungs. What if something bad happens to you while I’m away?”
“I am well looked after by Mrs. Ophia. Toby and August run the business very efficiently. We will survive while you are gone. You’re going to Sussex, Leonie. End of story.”
“It’s not the end of story if we’re still talking, Uncle Oliver,” Leonie countered. “I have been nothing but your assistant since I was ten years old—”
“That was ten years ago.”
“Still,” Leonie continued, “how can you trust me with such a valuable commission? It’s a Renaissance masterpiece we’re talking about. Instead of sending me, who has never undertaken such work alone, wouldn’t it be better to postpone the work than risk me ruining the painting… and our reputation?”
“Leonie, I have watched you all these years,” her uncle said. “You are my equal in skill. Besides, I will be here for you. If you encounter any problems with the job, write to me. You absolutely must go to Rokesby Castle.”
“The Midwinters are a powerful family, Leonie,” he continued. “They have had to wait several months to secure my services due to all the work we had pending. We can’t delay any further. And we have a reputation to maintain. We Delaney’s are known for our reliability and quality of work.”
Leonie took a deep breath. “I can’t go, Uncle. It’s too much. I don’t want to disappoint you and bring shame to our reputation, but it’s too much responsibility for me alone. I—”
As she continued to speak, Oliver’s wheezing cough returned. He coughed continuously and shook alarmingly. Leonie stood to her feet and held his hand tightly, praying the coughing would cease soon. But it didn’t.
“Uncle?” she asked in a quaking voice.
Ophia rushed into the room and sat by Oliver’s side. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. He started coughing, and he can’t stop,” Leonie stammered. “We were arguing…”
“Arguing?” Ophia rasped, frowning. “Why must you aggravate his condition, Leonie? Go now. Go to your room. He needs to rest.”
“No,” he struggled to say, stopping Leonie as she made to leave.
Once the coughing had stopped, he began to gasp for air. It took him a few seconds to gather himself.
“No…” Mr. Harstfield said, out of breath. “Leonie, it will only be a temporary arrangement at first. This job will take months to complete, and I will get better. You can do the preparation, and once my health improves, I will be able to join you at Rokesby Castle. This job comes with a hefty price tag, dearest girl. We need the capital to expand the business. Will you do me this favour? Or at least, think about it?”
Leonie nodded without hesitation. “Of course. I’m sorry for upsetting you, Uncle.”
With that, Leonie scurried out of the room. She felt deeply sorry for worsening her uncle’s condition. If only she had spoken more softly. Although Leonie hated the idea, she knew she must do as Oliver wished. He had trained her since childhood, and everything she knew, he had taught her. She mirrored him in knowledge and skill, so he said. But she was not the person the Midwinter family, or the duke, was expecting. And she was a woman.
“It doesn’t matter,” she whispered to herself.
It was difficult to imagine, but Leonie decided that, if she must go, she would work extra hard to charm the family and prove to them that she could do the job as well as her uncle. Society didn’t smile on women doing jobs they deemed to belong to men, and Leonie knew that all too well. Still, there was no room to think about all the pros and cons of going to Sussex. Mr. Delaney’s command must be obeyed.
The afternoon breeze oozed into the study, distracting Max from the ledgers. Max Midwinter, the Duke of Rokesby, shook his head and shut his eyes tightly. He needed a break. He had spent all morning staring at ledgers. There were piles of them, and it seemed as if the accounting work was never ending.
Max rose to his feet, grabbed his olive green coat and strolled out of the study, which was known as the eyrie. He stood on the high balcony, watching the groundskeeper working on the lawns below. The eyrie was Max’s favourite place in the whole of Rokesby Castle. It had a spectacular view of the surrounding fields and countryside that faded into the horizon. Max could hear the whistling of the wind clearly. He loved to watch the trees below billowing in the breeze and the beautiful blue sky above. The panoramic view of Rokesby Bay lay before him like an azure carpet. He could see it all, as if he was on top of the world. It was the main reason he loved the study so much, just like his father, his grandfather, and generations of dukes had before them. The relaxing nature of the place segregated him from everyone else, allowing his thoughts to roam free.
The castle stood on a hill, bordered by miles of forest on one side. It was built in the local granite, and from a distance, the strong walls seemed a unform grey. However, a closer look revealed a subtle mosaic of many different shades. The thick walls were high, and the towers even higher. The fields to the west stretched inland as far as the eye could see. In the castle gardens immediately below, like a jewel in a green velvet cushion, a wide pond surrounded by beautiful flowers glittered in the sunlight.
Beneath him, he could see the stone roof of the long gallery… Aside from the eyrie, the long gallery was Max’s favourite place within the castle. The gallery ran along the whole length of the castle’s facade. It stretched fully forty feet between the south and west towers. Inside, the walls were filled with portraits of Max’s family, charting one generation of Midwinters to the next, down the centuries. It was a treasure trove of valuable paintings, prized objects, antique statuary, polished armour, mounted animal heads—a place to beguile the senses. There were comfortable sitting areas scattered along its length, with side tables displaying exotic curios from around the world. There were shelves too, where boxes of well-worn games, ranging from cards, chess, whist, indoor quoits and croquet, and the like were stacked.
Max took a deep breath and stood with his arms spread-eagled. He had to return to the study soon and finish with the ledgers if he was going to attend to his other businesses that day. He brushed his finger over the scar above his left eyebrow and sighed. It had become a habit of his ever since the small scar had healed years before. Strangely, Max had grown comfortable with the blemish.
He had never been the cautious type, so the scar was not the only evidence of previous injury. His once-straight nose showed evidence of a break sometime in the past too. But his light, golden-brown eyes hid a painful inner scar, for Max’s heart had endured a terrible break, from which it had never fully recovered. But that secret pain was masked by his splendid physique. Tall, powerfully built, with broad shoulders, tanned skin, and a chiselled jawline, he was famed among the local maidens for his strength and good looks.
However, throughout the years, Max had learnt that the best way to distract himself from his inner hurt was by working. So, he worked hard, always building on his family’s businesses and investments. But the more he worked, the more work piled up.
“Your Grace. If I may?”
Max shut his eyes and sighed on hearing the butler’s apologetic voice. “Mr. Toffel, I specifically told you I do not want to be disturbed today.”
“I apologise, Your Grace, but it is rather urgent,” Mr. Toffel said.
Max turned to him. “What is it?”
“The letters are increasing in number, Your Grace,” the man explained. “The tenants are seeking an audience with you, and you have unfinished business with Lord Talbot. He keeps sending you letters, asking to meet.”
“I’ll take care of it when I come down, later,” Max said. “I’m not done here yet.”
Mr. Toffel bowed. “Your Grace.”
With that, the butler left the eyrie, leaving Max alone again. Yes, the more he worked, the more he had to work. It made no sense. After inheriting the dukedom four years ago, at the age of twenty -two, Max had not had a break from his responsibilities since. He couldn’t help but feel stuck in a loop every day, and the scary part of it all was that he didn’t want to get out of it. This was his punishment, his life.
“Better finish up here,” he whispered, returning into the study.
“I knew I’d find you here.”
Max lifted his head to see Lady Marion waltz into the room. He closed the ledgers immediately and sat back, waiting for her to take her seat. Lady Marion was the only person with the power to make time for herself in Max’s busy schedule. She didn’t take no for an answer, or leave him alone, especially not when she wanted something.
“Is that how you choose to greet your brother, Marion?”
Lady Marion stopped in her tracks and curtsied playfully. “Your Grace,” she said before sitting down, “I’ve been searching for you all over. Then I realised that there was only one place you could be. I really hate climbing up all those stairs. How do you do that every day?”
“I like it up here,” Max answered. “It’s quiet.”
She lifted her eyes. “I hear birds chirping.”
“I like this sound.”
Lady Marion shook her head and exhaled loudly. It had been just the two of them since their parent’s demise, and they loved each other dearly. She was practically his twin, born only two years after him. They looked very alike, with the same silky brown hair and golden-brown eyes. People often commented that they shared the same lazy smile too. Marion was the only person he truly cared for in the world.
“So, why have you climbed up all those stairs you claim to hate?” Max asked her. “What have you come to say?”
Her eyebrow furrowed. “What? Can I not come to say hello to my dearest only brother, whom I love the most in the world?”
“No,” Max said blankly. “Speak. I have a lot to do and very little time. I still have to make time to go into the village today. The tenants are seeking an audience, and I have no clue as to what the problem is.”
“I might have an idea. I go into the village all the time,” Lady Marion said. “I think someone is stealing from them. One group of farmers think it’s the other group of farmers, and vice versa. They need you to settle it.”
Max let out a sigh. “Great.”
Marion leaned forward and placed her elbows on the table. “Moving on from that boring news, I came to remind you that we’re expecting visitors any day now.”
Max frowned. “Visitors?”
“I know. Just the mention of having people over makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it?”
Max rolled his eyes. “What kind of visitors?”
“The painting restorers. Mr. Oliver Delaney and his assistant. They are due to arrive shortly. He comes highly recommended by many of our friends, you’ll remember, so I am very excited to meet him.”
“Well, I trust you to take care of whatever they might need while they are here,” the Duke told her. “I don’t like company, especially not strangers, so ensure you keep them out of my way during their short stay.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ve taken care of all the details,” Lady Marion told him. “He will be working in the northern end of the long gallery, far from your chambers. That is where the Giotto currently hangs, and it appears that is the ideal spot for him to work on it. I wrote to Delaney and asked him what would be the best situation for him to work in, and he responded by saying a large room in the northern part of the castle should have the right kind of light. So, the northern end of the gallery will be perfect for him.”
“sister, I didn’t ask you for the details. I just said sort it out,” Max told her.
“Well, I’m telling you anyway,” Lady Marion countered. “I have provided bedchambers for Mr. Delaney and his assistant in the rooms above the long gallery in the right wing. That way, they will be nearby and have easy access to the painting. I figured they can use the staircase at the northern end of the gallery rather than the main staircase. Plus, if they want a place to relax, they can just go down to the long gallery and play games, or sit and chat.”
Max squinted his eyes. “Sit and chat? You’re speaking as if we’re expecting royalty. They are commoners. They don’t need a place to sit and chat. They are here to work, are they not?”
“It doesn’t matter. He is a noble gentleman,” Lady Marion argued. “Oh, I should add that Mr. Delaney will also be joining us at mealtimes. That’s if he chooses to. I think that would be best because we shall need to keep abreast with the progress of the restoration, and dinner will be the perfect time to discuss it, don’t you agree?”
Max crossed his arms and looked at her, frowning. “What is your real plan, Sister?”
Lady Marion shrugged her shoulders. “What makes you think I have a real plan? Or a plan at all?”
“Spit it out.”
She moaned. “Mr. Delaney is coming from London, Max. He will come bearing tidings. Tidings I wish to hear. The Viscount Allandale says that Mr. Delaney is an amusing conversationalist, and I want someone to talk to. You’re boring, if you haven’t realised that, and it gets lonely here.”
“If it’s lonely, read a book,” Max responded.
“Why read a book, when I shall have the opportunity to talk to someone directly from London?” Max asked. “Mr. Delaney will be here for weeks, and I plan to enjoy the company of the widely travelled and amusing painting restorer. Visitors from London are rare.”
“But still, the long gallery is—”
“Oh, come on, Max. You said you trust me to handle this matter. Let me handle it, then.”
Max sighed and shook his head. “Fine. Have it your way.”
“Promise me you will be polite, Max,” Lady Marion continued. “I don’t want you revealing your usual grumpy side to Mr. Delaney. If he is to restore the painting perfectly, then he must be comfortable here. You might not want to hear this, but you can be very intimidating, and that rakish scar over your eyebrow doesn’t help. You have a certain… devilishness about your appearance. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly.”
Max scoffed. “You’re jesting, Sister.”
“Just promise me you’ll be nice.”
“Fine,” Max said. Anything to get her to leave. “Now go. I have work to do.”
“This might not interest you, but I am going shopping later today in Arundel with Marguerite Wyatt, the Dowager Countess of Redgate. She will be returning with me afterward for tea. Max, I expect you to join us in my parlour to partake.”
Max groaned. “That nuisance? Why do you still meet with her?”
“Stop it. Marguerite is a very nice lady. And she likes you.”
“Exactly my point. She shamelessly lets it be known all the time. Every single time she comes to the castle, she tries to flirt with me. It seriously gets on my nerves.”
“Why? Is it so bad that she likes you and is not embarrassed to show it?” Lady Marion asked. “You’re a handsome young bachelor, Maximilien. You might have a horrible temper and are constantly rude to people, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are a very eligible bachelor. You need a woman in your life, for crying out loud.”
Max let out a frustrated groan. “Oh, not that again! Don’t you get tired of it, Marion?”
She drew in a shuddery breath and visibly gathered herself before she spoke. “Max, many other people have lost loved ones. Every day, people lose other people whom they cherish. It doesn’t change the fact that life must go on, and it doesn’t stop them from finding love again. You don’t see the average broken-hearted person making silly vows that ruin their lives, and the lives of people around them. Your ridiculous vow to be true to the memory of Miss Tamara by refusing to marry and have children means that our family name will be wiped out. Is that what you really want?”
“I couldn’t care less about that, Marion,” Max rasped. “And do not talk about Tamara in such a manner. Have the children yourself if it bothers you so much.”
“Marguerite would make a wonderful duchess. See the reason for this, please.”
Max shut his eyes. “If you won’t drop this subject, then please, leave. I really cannot talk about it now. I have work to do, Marion.”
Lady Marion rose to her feet. “Will you at least come for the tea party?”
Max nodded. “I will.”
Without another word, she sashayed out of the study, head high. Max immediately went back to work. His sister had brought up Miss Tamara again, and if he dwelt upon the name, he would never get anything done.
“So, you’re really going?”
Leonie set the paintbrush down on the stool and leaned back. She had stayed awake half of the night, contemplating Mr. Delaney’s decision. Her personal opinion on the matter had changed every time she turned in her bed. At some points, Leonie felt she possessed all the confidence in the world. At others, she felt inadequate to the task ahead. It was all so confusing.
“I don’t know, Toby,” Leonie responded. “What do you think?”
Toby shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t see why not. You were always going to take over uncle’s half of the business when the time came. That’s why he has trained you all these years. Mr. Blick and I handle one aspect of the business, and you and Uncle Oliver handle the restorations. It’s how it has always been.”
Leonie adjusted in her seat. “But don’t you think it would be better to postpone? I mean, the Midwinters expect Uncle Oliver himself, not me.”
“Not a woman, you mean,” Toby said. “It doesn’t matter, Sister. I have seen you work on countless paintings all these years. You can do it. You know you can. I have never seen you so anxious or lacking in confidence in your own talents before.”
“I’m not anxious,” Leonie insisted. “I am confident in my abilities.”
“Then what’s the matter?”
Leonie fiddled with her fingers. “It’s just that…. this is not just a regular job where I will be working here in the studio, in the familiar comfort of my home. I shall be leaving Wandsworth on a long journey to Sussex and a remote castle in Rokesby Bay. They are paying a lot of money for this restoration, so it means a lot to Uncle Oliver. If I make one silly mistake, it will affect him, not me. I don’t want to disappoint him.”
Toby placed his hand over hers. “I understand. But you won’t disappoint him. You can do it, Leonie. I know you can, and you know you can too.”
“Miss Delaney,” Mrs. Ophia called her, stepping into the parlour. “Mr. Oliver would like to see you.”
Leonie rose to her feet and took off her apron. She was well aware of the reason Oliver wanted to see her. They had not finished the discussion of the day before, and knowing Oliver, he was not going to change his mind. Leonie had no clue how to convince him to see things from her perspective. She was worried for him. Leaving Wandsworth meant leaving him in his condition, and taking the job meant risking his reputation.
Leonie stepped into his room and went straight to his bedside. She sat on it and watched Oliver slowly open his eyes. “Good morning, Uncle. How are you?”
“Better,” he answered, sitting up.
Oliver didn’t look any better. His lips were chapped, and he was pale and sweaty.
“Take out the letter in the drawer over there for me, would you?” Oliver asked. “It’s in the top one.”
Leonie fetched the letter from the drawer and returned to the bed, handing it to Oliver. “What is it?” she asked.
“A letter for His Grace, The Duke of Rokesby,” Oliver answered. “I have explained why I cannot be there with you initially. I have also explained your long training and unmatched abilities as a restorer. I have made clear how much trust I have in you. And lastly, I have assured him I will join you as soon as my health allows.”
Leonie understood Oliver’s tactics perfectly. She was at the point where arguing wasn’t going to solve anything. Oliver wanted her to go to Sussex. And if he trusted her with such an important task, the least she could do was to trust in her own abilities and not let him down.
Leonie stared at the letter. “Hm. I will pack what I shall need and prepare for my journey.”
A smile slowly formed on Mr. Oliver’s face. “Thank you, my dear Leonie.”
“But promise me that once you are better, you will come to Rokesby.”
“I will,” Oliver told her. “But you know you can do this job well enough all by yourself.”
“I still want you there,” Leonie said. “We were supposed to do it together. I will go ahead and prepare, as you wish, but I will also be looking forward to your arrival.”
Oliver nodded. “Leonie, I must warn you about something. You have a temper. A fiery one. I need you to be cautious of it. If you meet any objections from the Midwinters about you being a woman, don’t get angry and throw a tantrum. I have seen how you can behave when people make mention of your gender and compare it to the value of your work. Don’t let your temper get the best of you.”
Leonie sighed. “I’ll be on my best behaviour.”
“Good. You are to be respectful to your employers at all times. The Duke and his family expect professionalism above all else. Be calm, collected, and use your intelligence instead of your anger to refute claims that you are not capable of doing your job competently just because you are a lady. Do you understand?”
Leonie nodded. “I understand. I won’t ruin things for you. Don’t worry, Uncle.”
“I’m not worried because I trust you. Please give it your best. Show them your confident side, and they will have no objection to make. Your mouth needn’t make your argument; your obvious skill will do that for you.”
Leonie smiled. For some reason, she felt better and more optimistic now. Oliver was always quick to compliment her skills and tell her how good she was at her job. But this time, it was different. He was not only complimenting her, but he was also giving her the push she needed to work alone.
“I’ll do my best,” Leonie said. “Just get better. The physician will be here to-morrow for your examination. Hopefully, he will have good news.”
“Hopefully,” Oliver replied. “Go now. I’m sure Ophia needs your help in the kitchen to prepare dinner. You leave tomorrow, so tonight, I want you to eat well, pack only your necessities, and get a good night sleep.”
“I will. I’ll be back later tonight to say goodbye.”
Leonie kissed Oliver on the forehead and made her way out of the room. She felt tears sting her eyes at the mere thought of leaving Oliver alone when he needed her the most. But it was what she must do. For Oliver, for the business, and for the family.”
“I still don’t think it’s proper for Miss Delaney to be travelling alone.”
They sat down for dinner at the usual time, and it wasn’t as depressing as it had been on other nights because there was something to talk about this time other than Oliver’s health.
Mrs. Ophia ignored Mr. Blick’s statement and turned to face Leonie. “Have you figured out the route you’re taking? Rokesby is far from here, indeed.”
Leonie nodded and took a bite of food. “I have to leave very early tomorrow morning if I’m to make it to the coaching inn in time. I take the public coach to Brighton, then I change for Arundel. Then, I will stay at the inn for the night, and hire a dogcart to take me to the castle the next morning.”
“With good weather, that will take three or four days,” Mr. Toby noted. “Are you packed? Have you got all the materials you’re going to need? You can’t forget anything.”
“I have,” Leonie answered.
“What about your clothes?” Mrs. Ophia asked. “You need to pack enough clothes. It can be cold down there on the coast. If you’d like, I can look through your box and double check. How about shoes? You’ll need boots too. And have you packed your good dresses? Not the ones stained with paint. You never know when you might need to look nice.”
“I’m sure I’ve packed sufficient clothes and shoes, and boots too, Ophia.” Leonie smiled. “I’m not a little girl. You don’t have to worry.”
“But I do worry,” Ophia told her. “You’re going to be alone and must fend for yourself. You’ll feed yourself, clothe yourself, and you might have no one to talk to. You don’t know how anxious that makes me feel.”
Leonie chuckled. “I’ll be fine, Mrs. Ophia. I’m going there to work. It won’t matter if I have no one to talk to. I shall be deep in conversation with Master Giotto.”
“Remember to focus on the task, good?” Toby told her. “Don’t get distracted just because you’ve never been to a castle before. Don’t lose sight of what’s important.”
“I think this is a great opportunity to prove yourself, Miss,” Mrs. Ophia added. “After all, you are going to inherit Oliver’s side of the business one day. This is a great chance to see just how great your skills are, if you need to improve in any way, and how well you can work alone.
“I agree,” Toby said. “I’ve told you, this is a great opportunity, Sister.”
Mr. Blick set his spoon down. “Does no one at this table agree with me?” he asked. “No one at all?”
Toby turned to him. “Mr. Blick, Leonie is perfectly capable of handling the job. Why don’t you give her the benefit of the doubt?”
Mr. Blick scoffed. “Do you think I don’t know what she is capable of? I’ve seen her working all these years. But the fact still remains that this is absurd. We’re talking about the Duke of Rokesby. It’s not just any job.”
Leonie arched her eyebrows. “What do you mean, sir? You think I’m not qualified to work for His Grace?”
“That’s not what I mean,” Mr. Blick explained. “All I’m suggesting is that it should be postponed until Oliver fully recovers. They have already waited months for his services, and they can wait a little longer. You’re a lady, Leonie. It’s not safe for you to be travelling alone. It doesn’t sit right with me.”
Leonie crossed her arms and frowned. It was such remarks, which boiled down to the fact she was a woman, that usually caused Leonie to lose her temper. Why did it always have to come up? Her gender did not matter one whit!
“I can take good care of myself, Mr. Blick,” Leonie told him sternly. “And I am more than capable of doing the job, even if it is for the Duke of Rokesby. Uncle Oliver believes in me, and I believe in myself.”
“Belief won’t get the work done, my dear,” Mr. Blick countered.
“I have all the skills and knowledge I need to do a good job too, as you yourself have said, and those will get the work done,” Leonie insisted irritably.
“Are you not worried at the reception you might receive from the Midwinters, Miss Delaney?” Mr. Blick questioned. “What if they turn you away simply because you are a woman.”
“I have a letter from Uncle Oliver explaining my capabilities to them, and I will not leave without speaking up for myself. If the duke is wise, he will place skill over any concern about my gender.”
“Let’s not argue now, Mr. Blick,” the housekeeper said. “Miss, you have a long day to-morrow. I want you to get some rest, check your boxes again, and make sure you have all your needs.”
“Indeed,” Toby said. “You’re setting out early. Shouldn’t you be in your chambers by now?”
“It’s still early,” Leonie said. “Besides, I still have to see Uncle one last time and say goodbye to him. Hopefully, this won’t be the last time I see him.”
“Don’t talk so,” Ophia said firmly, taking her hand. “Trust that he will get well.”
Leonie smiled and nodded, squeezing Mrs. Ophia’s hand. They finished dinner shortly after, and Leonie helped Ophia clear away the dishes. She spent extra time in the kitchen, helping Mrs. Ophia, so they could talk at length one last time before she left for Sussex.
When it was time to go to sleep, Leonie went over to Mr. Oliver’s room. She pushed the door open, peering inside to see if her Uncle was asleep, but he was still awake.
“Is everything set?” Mr. Oliver asked her weakly. “Have you packed your bags? Your tools and equipment?”
“Yes, Uncle,” she answered. “Everything is set. I will be taking the carriage to Brighton, then onto Arundel, in the morning.”
“That means you must set out with the first light,” Oliver said. “Better get some sleep.”
Leonie inhaled deeply as she walked further into the room. Tears threatened to fall, but she managed to hold them back.
“Remember everything I have told you?” Mr. Oliver asked her.
“If you need anything, just write to me. Do your very best.”
“I will.” Leonie’s voice quivered. “Get well soon, Uncle. I shall think about you all the time while I am gone. I will write often. But your health is what’s most important. I don’t like seeing you like this.”
“I know,” Oliver whispered. “I shan’t be ill the next time you see me, I promise.”
Leonie giggled. She leaned in and gave him a short hug, sniffing back the tears. “I love you, Uncle Oliver.”
“I love you too, my Leonie,” Oliver said, gently patting her back. “I’ll see you soon.”
Leonie forced herself up from the bed and exited the room. Once alone, she let the tears fall. She couldn’t help but think the worst of Oliver’s condition, though she prayed her fears were misplaced.
“This will pass too,” Leonie whispered, not completely sure she believed it herself.
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel“Matchmaking with a Broken Duke”. Claim your copy on Amazon!