Silas brought his hand over his eyes making a visor against the brightness of the midday sun. London’s docks were active at this time of day, with sailors unloading ships and carting crates to nearby warehouses. Silas took out his handkerchief and kept it at his nose as if he had a cold in full bloom. He never got used to the stench of rotting fish and ripe bodies of men who spent months at sea without visiting a port.
No matter. He would wait as long as it took to see the Lady of Assam glide into port. He would know her when he saw her. The British East India Company had newer sleeker ships than the tubs bobbing in the water before him. And they had a much more profitable cargo.
Finally, she slipped into port as if she were 10 feet above the ocean with barely a wake or sound. Painted black with brass fittings and her name painted in a brass colour, longer and thinner than most ships, Silas was amazed at the difference between this ship and the one docked next to it. My God, did they have a monopoly on everything? he thought.
The gangplank was moved into place, and Silas focused on the men exiting the ship. Gentlemen would exit first, so he expected to see his brother at any moment.
It had been too long since he saw Phineas. He missed having his big brother and best friend near. The dark years with father’s decline and Phin in India were finally over.
There he was, watching his feet, carefully navigating the plank. His skin was brown from the sun in India, and that same sun had bleached his hair blond. He had filled out since Silas last saw him, but then again, so had he. Silas was happy to see Phin’s smile intact.
Finally reaching the bottom, Phin looked up and scanned the dock. Silas shot an arm straight into the air and started waving like a lunatic. Phin saw him, gave a short laugh and put up one index finger. He stopped a sailor, said something Silas couldn’t hear and pointed to Silas’ carriage. The sailor couldn’t miss it. It was shiny black with the Exeter crest painted in red and mustard yellow. The footmen were all in red with mustard yellow trim. Phin smiled to himself. Silas always did have good taste.
He was happy to see his brother’s enthusiastic welcome. Silas’ letters were always long and entertaining, but Phin was nervous about his return. Father was dead. He couldn’t ruin Phin’s reputation any longer.
Phin broke into a run and took Silas into his arms for a vice-like hug. Silas was slow to let go, tears pooling in his eyes.
“Let me look at you, brother,” Phin said with a grin. After surveying Silas from top to bottom, he nodded.
“I didn’t know what to expect. Pasty face, paunch, stiff attire. But Silas, you look good. You look as if life is treating you well. I approve.” Phin nodded again.
“I’m happy you approve,” Silas said dryly. “But no one looks healthier than you. The ladies are going to hunt you down. I fear they will set up camp at our front door and never leave us alone.”
Phin raised his head, opened his mouth to respond but said nothing when the two sailors approached him carrying his trunks. He pointed to Silas’ carriage.
On the way to the townhouse, Silas asked, “So is your plan the same?”
Phin nodded. “No change. I am single-minded about my goals now that I’m home. Marry Mercy off, find a quiet wife, head to Collinswood, and renovate the castle all the while working with Everett. Phin placed a hand on his brother’s arm. “Silas, you know any time you would like, you can join us.”
Silas swatted his hand through the air. “Don’t sidestep. We’re talking about the plan. Why quiet?”
Phin looked at his brother and smirked. “Silas, you have had enough experience with the opposite sex to know they can give you a headache. I don’t want drama. I want an heir and someone to run the castle.”
“But she might be boring. She might spend her days in the library reading Pride and Prejudice and such.” Silas was worried.
Phin laughed. “She sounds perfect.”
Phin knew his life in India was simpler than the one he came home to. While in India, he sent Everett everything he earned. They were best friends, and he trusted him with his life. He also trusted him with his money. To pay off his father’s debts quicker, he and Everett joined forces to start a company that imported silk to London from Phin’s nearest port. Now that he was home, they would start the export of English goods to India and China.
Phin had access to other commodities he could send home as well. Everett responded to every request with enthusiasm. They profited from each ship set sail from India with space rented by Phin.
When he began working his free land, growing tea, Phin liked the change. London was dirty, crowded, noisy, and to Phin, uninhabitable. However, Assam, India reminded Phin of Collinswood. They were nothing alike, of course, but they both were in the country. There was quiet.
In India, Phin worked, he ate the food his cook served him, and he read at night by candlelight. Sometimes he wrote letters to Everett about when a ship would arrive in the London ports with fabric made in India or China. Sometimes he wrote Mercy or Silas about what his life was like, asking them to do the same. He never asked after his father, but he never told Mercy or Silas to leave out information about him. He didn’t want his siblings to know anything about what happened between the two.
Phin owned a plantation and then took over two more from countrymen who couldn’t make a go of it. He bought the new technology, an iron plough that prepared the land with two oxen instead of six. It was two times faster. His plantation home was modest compared to the Exeter properties in England. A kitchen, dining room and parlour downstairs and three bedchambers upstairs. All built by him.
Windows remained open nine months out of the year, the rainy season being the exception, and he ate mostly food served cold. His plantation relied on a series of wells dotted around his property used both to water the plants and to use in his home.
Phin walked into town, usually twice a week. While walking, he liked to look at the neat, straight rows of tea plants on each side of the path. It gave him a reassuring feeling inside that the world was not all a mad mess. The town, four buildings close together really, served as the place he ordered sugar, flour, and other staples as well as the place to send out the word for new workers. He could have sent someone from the kitchen to do the task, but Phin liked the walk.
His first stop was always the shop that doubled as a post drop. He wrote Everett, Mercy, and Silas often and usually received a letter every week. He missed them. All of them. It had not occurred to him that he was so close to his family and Everett until they were no longer within arm’s reach.
Phin found a simple, kind, beautiful native of Assam. Anusha was exactly what he needed. She took care of him. She answered his every need. She was a calm, quiet woman whom he had known for four years without ever hearing her raise her voice.
Granted, the culture and role of women in India were quite different, but Phin was confident he could find what he was looking for. He wanted someone like Anusha. Someone soothing to live with. Someone he could count on to be there when he needed her. Someone who understood he needed peace after the evening meal. He needed time alone each day as much as he needed sleep each night. He got irritable without it. But he knew it so he could manage it. His English wife would help him.
Silas leaned back in the carriage and blew out a frustrated breath. “I think you should hold your aspirations in check until you’ve been back on British soil for more than an hour.”
Silas was worried Phin would turn into a hermit. With a quiet wife who didn’t want to socialize with the ton nor venture into London every once in a while, Phin would be happy living with little contact with the outside world. Yes, Phin had always run from conflict of any kind, and yes, he needed downtime every day, but this plan was not good for him. Phin shouldn’t strive for isolation.
“Silas, I’ve had five years to think about what I want. Look at these streets,” Phin said as he swept a hand towards the carriage window. “The city is still dirty and smells of the polluted stream that runs down every street. Why are chamber pots emptied out the front windows?” Phin didn’t wait for an answer. “The coal fumes are so thick; I am not sure where the haze of coal ends and the fog begins. I can’t tell – is it foggy today?” Again, he did not expect an answer.
Phin turned to Silas and leaned back in his seat. In resignation, he said, “How long into the season are we?”
“Not even a month. You haven’t missed much. No one has paired off yet.”
“I know I need to be around for Mercy no matter how long it takes, but I’d like to get this wrapped up soon so I can head to Collinswood. When is the next event?”
Silas was incredulous. His voice came out a little lower than he expected. He detected a growl in his speech. “You’re joking. Relax. You’re not going to Collinswood soon. I know you’d like to leave town, but have you considered Mercy? What will you do if you have trouble finding a wife quickly?”
“I’ll be anywhere Mercy needs me for as long as she needs me.” Phin shrugged. “Why should I have trouble finding a wife? I’m single, a Duke, and I’m wealthy. I don’t drink; I don’t gamble, and I don’t want a mistress. What could possibly take time?”
Silas closed his eyes and shook his head. “Your attitude, maybe? Do you hear how you sound when you speak? You might want to go in there with less . . . oh, I don’t know . . . with less of a high and mighty attitude. Your attitude smells obnoxious.”
Phin quickly changed the subject. “Are you going out tonight?”
“Yes, Phin, I am.”
“To a ball?”
Phin looked at Silas. “Care to give me a little more information?”
“No, just that I have decided to attend the Harrington ball even though five minutes ago I couldn’t have been dragged there,” Silas grinned. “It might be quite amusing.”
Silas didn’t particularly like to socialize with the ton. It meant he had to go out alone and deal with single young girls. Silas was the second son. He didn’t need to marry and produce an heir. He much preferred keeping a mistress.
But Silas wanted to see Phin in action. He hadn’t been in London in five years. It promised to be entertaining.
When Foster opened the front door, he welcomed Phin warmly. Phin was always appreciative of Foster’s manner. He never did like a stuck up butler. The footmen began unloading Phin’s trunks. Foster informed the men that a few ladies were paying Mercy a call.
Phin asked for a bath to be brought to his room. He turned to Silas, “I’ve been in these clothes for four days, which by the way was the last time I bathed. I will be down to greet Mercy shortly.”
Silas turned and nodded. “Shave,” he whispered. He strolled into the front parlour.
As Phin climbed the stairs, he stopped short. The chandelier. It wasn’t the Waterford crystal chandelier. It was an imitation, the same size. A bad imitation.
He turned to talk with Foster but remembered Mercy was waiting for him. That was far more important.
As Phin climbed the stairs, he heard Silas greet the ladies. He shook his head and thought, Silas had a devil may care attitude that I envied. I can’t afford that attitude now that I’m Duke.’
Once bathed and dressed in an afternoon suit of clothes, Phin headed for the parlour. It was a stroke of genius to send measurements and his wardrobe needs to Giancarlo before sailing home. What a relief, opening his wardrobe door and seeing a full line of up-to-date clothing at his disposal.
Phin entered the front parlour fully prepared to assess the ladies to see if any met his requirements. Instead, Mercy let out a loud gasp and covered her mouth with her hand. She popped out of her seat quickly and ran to him.
All others in the room stood, except a much older woman.
Mercy gave Phin a tight hug that lasted until he took her by the forearms and stepped back to look at her. In the five years he had been gone, she had grown into a beautiful young lady. Her strawberry blonde hair and bright blue eyes had always melted his heart. For the first time, it occurred to him he was gone far too long. He was responsible for her future now. He needed to be by her side.
She took his hand, dragged him to each woman, and made introductions. Phin smiled and sized up the young ladies in the group, searching for a potential marriage partner. They were doing the same with him.
Then he saw her. Mercy turned and introduced Phin to Lady Charlotte Abbott. Charlotte had dark hair and dark smoky eyes. Her eyelashes formed a fringe against the backdrop of her porcelain skin. She was tall and willowy with a graceful swan-like neck. Her smile was bright and full. It made her eyes twinkle. And it was infectious. Without consciously doing it, Phin smiled back.
Was it possible he found the right girl only two hours back on British soil? He hoped so. Charlotte was the closest thing to perfect he had ever seen. The first thing people noticed was her hair. It was curly. It fought the confinement of the pins her maid had put there. It gave the impression it might spring out at any second. Some pieces were peeking out already. He wondered what it looked like down. Her height, her skin, her lovely voice. A woman who had a soft voice he could imagine whispering in his ear and sending chills down his spine, was a woman he wanted to get to know.
They made eye contact, and Phin felt a shiver down his spine. It was at once cold and hot. His blood flowed faster through his body as if it had been watered down. He could not tear his gaze away. He knew she felt something too. Her breath had become shallow.
Phin thought he would find it difficult to transition from Indian women to the women in London. He was surprised it was not so. He liked Charlotte immediately upon meeting her. However, he also sensed she was not what he was looking for. There was an unmistakable liveliness in her eyes.
“Phin, sit here, next to me,” Mercy said, patting the chair beside her. He looked up and turned, at once understanding that there was a gap in time from when Mercy introduced him to Charlotte and when Mercy sat down beckoning him by patting the chair.
He must have looked ridiculous. He gave a small smile and bowed to Charlotte then sat next to his sister. When he looked up at Silas, his brother had his hand over his mouth, no doubt stifling a laugh. Already laughing at his expense. Silas would indeed have fun tonight.
Phin drank tea and looked at Charlotte from the corner of his eye. Phin was encouraged that Charlotte was watching him. If he turned quickly, he caught her looking at him; she looked away, and her cheeks flushed. He wanted to know everything about her. No, he needed to know everything about her. When she spoke, he watched her carefully. But when someone else spoke, he could not look at her directly, but she never left the corner of his eye.
The group talked about ball gowns and ribbons and other nonsense Phin found mind-numbing. It was the kind of conversation Phin loathed, and yet he couldn’t make himself leave. He felt as if he was physically stuck to the chair, unable to move.
Charlotte didn’t hide her mouth behind her fan. When she laughed, she laughed unabashedly. Phin got the impression she laughed often. She also told a few amusing stories, captivating her audience with her humour.
Phin thought Charlotte to be a woman everyone wanted in his or her social circle. She was entertaining, and she had a love of life that was contagious. Just being around her made Phin feel lighter. He forgot his worries when in her presence.
Silas sat on the other side of the room having an animated conversation with Charlotte’s aunt. Genevieve was in her element making afternoon calls. Phin found her charming just listening to her high-pitched cultured voice. It travelled around the room and ricocheted off the walls. Silas was egging her on. He was trying to get her to respond just so he could hear her. Now it was Phin’s turn to stifle a laugh.
During a lull in the conversation, Phin turned to Josie, “Tell me, Lady Josie, will your brother be accompanying you to the ball this evening?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“May I send a note home with you to pass along? I am looking forward to seeing him.”
“And he you, Your Grace. He is very excited at your return. The time between letters was hardly bearable to him.” Josie’s eyes danced. He is looking forward to your reunion.
“Yes, well, let me get to the note then. It will be a delight to see you and your brother this evening.”
Shortly after Phin handed the correspondence to Josie, calling hours were over. Mercy stayed in the front parlour with Phin. God, she looks so grown up, he thought, wishing he could have returned to England earlier.
But he couldn’t. Mercy’s dowry was funded, and she shouldn’t worry about finding a good man.
Phin moved his chair so he was facing his sister. “Tell me, Mercy, about your conquests so far this season.”
Mercy gave him a small smile. “I will Phin, but first, promise me you won’t be too hard on anyone I like. Don’t scare them away.”
“I won’t. I only want to see you happy.” He took in a long breath, “You are a beautiful young woman, Mercy. Many men will have an interest in you because you are beautiful, you are intelligent, you have a brother who is a Duke, and you have a large dowry.”
He took her chin and lifted her face. “You must discern the motives of any man that has interest in you. You must determine if they want you for the kind of person you are or if they want your money and your access to influence.”
Mercy nodded. “I remember from your letters. I keep track of the questions they asked me.” She shrugged. “From their questions and answers, I can tell if they want to know about me or you.”
Phin nodded. He closed his eyes to think. He opened them again. He couldn’t help himself, so he asked, “Lady Charlotte. How well do you know her?”
Mercy smiled. “Why do you want to know?”
Phin gave her a short laugh. “Now that’s the Mercy I remember. Always giving her brother the runaround.”
She smiled then became serious when she was ready to talk. “I met her at the beginning of the season, so I don’t know her well. I do like her, though. She is very funny. Most balls, she has two or three men in her orbit, eating out of her hand. But she’s sweet. I don’t even know if she realizes she’s attracting them. She is just a fun, vivacious girl.
“There is one man who pays her a lot of attention. Lord Jasper Bernard.” Mercy shook her head. “I don’t like him, but I don’t know why. Something’s not right about him.”
Phin sat back and looked at the ceiling. He really didn’t know what to do with that information. His mind was muddled. He needed to sleep before the ball. Mercy probably should rest as well.
He brought his head down to face Mercy again. “Who should I watch tonight, Mercy? How many potential beaus do you have?”
“Roderick Merritt pays me a lot of attention, but I don’t know him well enough yet to have formed an opinion. He says all the right things. It may be me seeing something that isn’t there. We’ll see what kind of feeling you get.
“Otherwise, I’m still trying to meet as many men as possible. Maybe you can introduce me to your friends?”
Phin stood. “I’ll look around. But now, I need to rest from my journey.” He grabbed both of her hands, pulling her out of her chair, and took a step back. He shook his head. “It’s so good to be home with you.”
Mercy headed for the stairs. Phin wanted to rest, but there was something he needed to do first. He asked a footman to find Foster and to cover the front door while Foster and he talked.
Foster entered and shut the door behind him. He bowed, “Your Grace?”
“Yes, Foster. I see many changes have been made to the townhouse in my absence, and I would like some insight on them.” Phin pointed to a wall with nothing but a nail sticking in it. “The Gainsborough.” He pointed to the sideboard. “The matching Ming vases.” He pointed to the door. “The crystal chandelier. No doubt other changes have been made.”
“No doubt, Your Grace. I may speak freely?” When Phin nodded, Foster continued, “The changes, if you will, were made in order to supplement your father’s allowance. There are other changes he made that I can point out to you if you desire.”
“I see. We will do that at another time. I have been on a ship for weeks, and my journey has caused fatigue. I doubt he redecorated on his own. Who helped him with his efforts?”
“I believe Lady Elizabeth Tanding helped. When Lady Ellen passed away,” Foster paused, shifting his weight, “your father’s sister’s dying wish was for him to look after her daughter, Lady Elizabeth. Your father requested Lady Elizabeth’s help in taking items to a pawnshop. I believe she also took a ‘fee’ for helping with his errands. Certain valuable pieces she coveted were bought by her for a pittance. You may want to check on your mother’s jewels, Your Grace.”
Phin was shocked. He should have thought Bennett would try to scrape together money for his gambling habit. But Cousin Elizabeth? He would need to pay her a visit. Phin pinched the bridge of his nose. “Thank you, Foster. Tomorrow, we shall go through the townhouse together.”
Getting ready for the Harrington’s ball was a long and tedious process. Charlotte spent longer in the bath than was usual. Her mind wandered as it did most days lately to Jasper Bernard and all the attention he paid her. She liked the attention, but she hadn’t made up her mind about him. Not to worry. The season had just begun. Charlotte’s mind jumped to Phineas. A Duke. A wealthy Duke. He could have anyone he wanted.
But what a strange looking creature. Just back from spending years in India, Charlotte thought he must have been ploughing the fields on his own plantation to have the sun colour his skin so. And his hair. Blonder than any blond she had ever met. Your hair didn’t get that light unless you’d been out in the sun for most of the day. Every day.
She noticed how bright his eyes looked against his brown skin and blond hair. Even his eyes were an exotic colour. She would say they were teal blue, but how could they be? For such a reserved man, his eyes shone like lightning at sunset.
Charlotte pondered why Phineas was worth pondering. He wasn’t her type. He was in great shape, which meant he was athletic. Charlotte wouldn’t even know how to be athletic even if someone gave her lessons in it. But she was an excellent equestrian. So there was that.
She also didn’t gravitate to the quiet types. His brother Silas was much more outgoing, and a lot of fun to be around, and she should be attracted to him. He was almost as handsome as Phineas; he was slightly taller, and his personality was similar to Charlotte’s. Yet, she felt no attraction to him.
She could talk circles around Phineas. But that was easy. She could talk circles around many people. He was the type who would take information in and roll it around in his brain rather than verbally respond. She could almost see the wheels turning in his head. But she did like that he wouldn’t speak unless he had something worthwhile to say.
The world must have turned on its axis for her to be attracted to Phineas. For the first time, her body was sending her messages. And the messages all pointed to Phineas.
Charlotte’s maid, Abby, helped her out of the tub, handed her a linen cloth and wrapped a robe around her. She sat with her back to the fire while Abby combed out and dried her hair. It fell to her waist and took a long time to dry. Charlotte stared at the opposite wall. Meeting Phineas caused her heart to race and her breath to quicken. Why? What of Jasper? What did she really know of him? The Baron of Warwick. Charlotte shrugged. She had no idea where Warwick was.
He was handsome to be sure. He had a square jaw and a ready smile. His nose had been broken. It was not a large bend but a small one that lent him character. It was probably a childhood accident. He certainly wasn’t the type of man to be in a brawl.
He always had a ready joke or biting comment about someone at the ball. He would bend down and whisper it in her ear. How he made her laugh. But, she was not comfortable laughing at anyone else’s expense. He walked a fine line between what she deemed acceptable, and sometimes his jokes missed the mark.
Abby moved Charlotte to the vanity that held her perfume and brushes and pins. She brushed Charlotte’s dry hair and split it into six different sections. She began creating an elaborate hairstyle while Charlotte closed her eyes.
Only Jasper and Phineas had turned her head. The other men she danced with were forgettable. Should she concentrate on Jasper and Phineas? It was early in the season.
After her hair was dressed, she began the process of donning her gown. She decided on her lilac chiffon with the dark purple belt and slippers. She loved the way the fabric moved when she danced. First, Abby helped her on with her chemise. Then she sat while Abby rolled her stockings above her knees and tied them tight with a long piece of fabric. Charlotte put on her slippers and tested the ties to make sure her stockings wouldn’t fall.
Then it was time for her corset. Charlotte did not know any woman who liked wearing one. The confining corset helped make Charlotte’s waist look smaller than it was. It also pushed up underneath her breasts to make them look larger. Abby tied the corset in place from the back, pulling the strings tight so Charlotte could barely breathe. Then Abby carefully placed Charlotte’s gown over her head and pulled it to the floor. Again, she tightly tied the gown in the back.
Finally, Charlotte went to Aunt Genevieve’s bedchamber to see what she had for matching jewellery. Most girls wore necklaces to break up all the space between the bottom of the neck and the top of the dress, which sometimes, was a great distance.
She would make more of an effort tonight to meet new men. After all, there were months ahead to find the right one.
Phin and Silas stood at the bottom of the stairs in all black evening clothes, save for their snow-white shirts and cravats, watching Mercy approach. She was wearing a light blue water silk gown with white pearls sewn in around the neckline and sleeves. Her white gloves went over her elbows, and her fan was white. While in India, Phin had sent her a comb with a line of pearls placed at the top. She wore that in her hair. Phin turned to Silas, “She really is rather beautiful. I think we need to keep a close eye on her.”
Silas laughed and leaned into Phin, “Don’t go overprotective on her. You sound like Father.”
Phin bristled. He stood up straight and gnashed his teeth. His eyes stared straight ahead watching Mercy’s descent. In a low voice meant only for Silas, Phin said, “Don’t you ever again compare me to Father. Ever. Again. Do you understand?”
Silas stiffened and turned to him, “No, Phin, I don’t understand. Do you care to enlighten me?”
Silas knew there had been something between Father and Phin, but he could never get anywhere close to finding out. And he wouldn’t. Phin had made a vow.
No, Silas I do not care to enlighten you, Phin thought. How could he tell him and Mercy about their father?
“Hello, gentlemen. Are you waiting for me?”
Phin bowed then took Mercy’s hands and kissed her gloved knuckles. “You look lovely tonight, Mercy. Silas and I have our work cut out for us.” He turned and looked at Silas.
“Yes, we do. Mercy, take pity on us.” Silas’ smile was tight. He turned and let Foster hand him his top hat and cane.
No sooner had the Duke and his family been announced upon entering the ballroom than Mercy scanned the place and spotted her friends. With a silent plea, she asked Phin to let her go. A nod was all she needed.
Silas mumbled something about getting a drink, so Phin ended up alone. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly as he scanned the ballroom. Young ladies and their chaperones were in clumps scattered around the huge ballroom perimeter. Phin estimated the ballroom could easily hold one hundred people and still have plenty of floor space to dance. Even so, it looked as though Lady Harrington sent too many invitations.
The ballroom was down three steps from the entry hall. From his vantage point, Phin could see everyone below. He started looking at the young ladies, deciding which ones he wanted to ask to dance.
Scanning the room, Phin quickly determined two things. Pink was the colour of choice in gowns this evening, and Charlotte was the most beautiful woman in the room. Actually, he thought of a third thing. He did not want to do this. Get me out of here, he thought. Not yet. Not yet.
First, he had to be introduced to fifty girls and take away those who were more interested in his title than him. Then he had to weed out those who did not have a serene personality, then he had to call on and court the finalists. He wanted to do none of this. Two marriages needed to be arranged. Mercy’s would be a happy one. His, if not happy, at least expeditious.
Phin felt the slap on his back before he saw Everett. Everett draped his arm over Phin’s shoulder and pulled him in. Phin lost his footing but regained it before the entire ballroom saw a Duke prone on the floor.
“You have any idea how happy I am to see you?” Phin said.
“Yes, actually I do. We’re making a pact right here, right now. Everywhere Mercy and Josie go, we go as a team.” Everett leaned in for emphasis, “Do you have any idea how miserable I’ve been putting up with this without you?”
“Ev, I was here alone for five minutes and wanted to leave. To make matters worse, I’ve got to find myself a wife,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“About that,” Everett winced. “Listen, Phin. I want to talk to you about this plan of yours . . .”
Phin put his chin down and bore into Everett’s eyes. “Stop right there, Everett. Silas has already told me he doesn’t like my plan. I don’t need to hear it again.”
“Here’s the thing,” Everett said slowly and softly to get Phin’s undivided attention, “we both think your plan is no good. We are both closer to you than anyone else in the world – even though you have been gone all these years – and we think your plan is lousy. If you can’t listen to Silas and me, who are you going to listen to?”
“I can listen to myself. I know me.” Phin softened. “Ev, thanks, really. I appreciate your concern. But in India, I realized I needed a quiet girl. I need a few hours of quiet every day to keep my sanity. You know that. I had a great arrangement with Anusha, and it taught me that was the perfect option for me. I know exactly what I want.”
“Okay. I read all your letters, multiple times. Your arrangement sounded wonderful. I get it. I don’t have to like it, but I get it. Looking back over the years, I remember you were always the one sneaking away from the chaos. I’m sceptical you will find someone like Anusha in England. Surely, you see the cultural differences would be difficult to breach.” Everett decided to put the wife discussion on hold for now. “On another subject, what you did for Mercy was …”
Phin whipped his head to face Everett. He growled through clenched teeth. “No one can know what I did for Mercy. No one. You’re clear on that, right?”
Everett put his hands up, palms facing Phin to calm him down. “Can I finish my sentence before you jump all over me?” Phin looked sheepish and nodded. “All the things you wanted to make right have been made right. Sit back and relax for a little while. I want to spend some time with you before you head to Collinswood.”
“You’re welcome to visit me anytime. You know that.”
“And you know that’s not what I meant.”
“I came home to a plundered townhouse. Bennett liquidated everything of value, including Mother’s jewellery – that should have gone to Mercy.” Phin shook his head. “I should have known he would do that. The kicker is my cousin Elizabeth helped him. She’d take things to a pawnshop and give Bennet the money the pawnshop gave her less a ‘fee.’ I’m going to visit her tomorrow. It will be interesting to see what I learn.”
Phin wanted desperately to change the subject. “Ev, see that girl on the left side near the wall with what looks like a yellowish gown?” Phin was directing Everett to Charlotte. He needed to find out what Everett knew about her. She looked gorgeous tonight. Even from this distance, he felt an inexplicable pull towards her.
“I do. That is Lady Charlotte Abbott. She’s a stunner, isn’t she?” Everett gave a short laugh. “She’s not for you. Point someone else out.”
Phin looked affronted. “Not until you tell me why she’s not for me.”
“Your plan, the plan I happen to not like, mentions a wife who is a quiet homebody. Am I right?”
“Yes,” Phin said while moving his hand in a circular motion urging Everett to continue.
“Everybody likes Charlotte. She’s the life of the party. She is a flame; every man in this room is a moth. She tells jokes, she laughs aloud instead of tittering behind her fan. She never misses a ton event. And, she’s usually the first to arrive and the last to leave. C’mon Phin, let me introduce you to a couple of shy, retiring debutantes so you can get a special licence and head to Collinswood the day after tomorrow.”
Could he be wrong in keeping his search so narrow? Would he miss others that did not fit his description but might make him happy? Why did he feel drawn to her, even from the other side of the room?
“But I’m intrigued by Charlotte. I think I’m a moth.”
“If that’s the case, I’ll be back with my butterfly net. It’ll keep you away from that particular flame. There’s a gentleman here, Jasper Bernard, the Lord of Warwick, who is pursuing her, shall I say actively? He’s had a big head start over anyone here.”
Phin furrowed his brow. “Why is he pushing so hard? Does she have a sizeable dowry?”
Everett blew out a quick breath and hooted quietly. “I think the word sizeable minimizes how substantial it is. It is second only to Mercy’s. It’s quite the incentive.”
“We have to find out if this Bernard is broke.”
“Phin, why? She’s not your type. Let’s move on. Point out another.”
Phin scanned the room slowly. He saw a cute blonde exhibiting her ample breasts. He motioned his head to where she was standing. “Her. In the low-cut green dress.”
Everett’s eyes touched on the girl Phin described and turned to him. “Now you’re talking. They say she is shy. Me? I don’t think she has a personality. She is perfect for you. Go ask her to dance.”
“I will. I need one or two more.” Phin looked around the room, but his eyes kept stopping when he saw Charlotte. Everett called her stunning, and she was. Maybe she would be happy in a remote castle near a quiet village. Everett elbowed him. He woke from his musings and scanned the ballroom again.
“What about that brunette in the pink dress with the large Ruby necklace?”
Everett scanned the ballroom twice.
“Right-hand side close to the corner.”
“Seriously, Phin? She just came into town from her father’s estate in the Lake District. It’s her first time in London. I have no idea if she likes it here.” He shrugged. “She doesn’t look up to your standard.”
Phin let the comment go. How would Everett know what his standard would be? “You have been a great help, Everett. Introduce me to the pink dress and green dress. I’ll take care of the yellow dress on my own.”
Everett humphed. Then he looked Phin in the eyes and shook his head.
“Are you my friend or my mother? My mother used to shake her head at me like that.”
“I’m your mother. Let’s go.”
Phin asked all three for a waltz. He figured he could talk with them while dancing and wouldn’t need to stand on the side of the ballroom trying to get to know them while their chaperones listened in.
Green dress had a great body. When he approached her, it was difficult to find a place to put his eyes. They were naturally drawn to her bosom. Her waist was tiny which somehow accentuated the size of her breasts. The dress did that also. A pretty seafoam green matched her pale skin beautifully. There was intricate white beading in the front, rising from her waist where the beads were close together, to the top of the dress where they were not. She certainly knew how to dress in order to emphasize her assets.
She was quiet and listened well. Phin thought he found what he was looking for until he figured out she either lacked an education or was not very intelligent or both. With reluctance, he crossed her off the list.
The next waltz brought pink dress into his arms. The pink in her dress was not a classic pale pink colour that seemed to complement any skin tone – it was rather bright. The top of the dress was a simple and tasteful satin. The bottom, however, was an abundance of tulle. Phin did not like tulle. It was a harsh fabric that looked good on very few women. He thought it should be outlawed on any female over the age of twelve.
Phin had been to the Lake District more than once, so the conversation got off to a good start, even though it was a little one-sided. When that conversation was thoroughly beat into the ground, Phin looked into her eyes to see them frantically moving to and fro.
“Is everything all right?”
“Oh, yes. I was just trying to find another interesting topic of conversation. I must admit I was drawing a blank.”
“No need,” he said nonchalantly. “I was going to ask you how you like London. Is it your first time here?”
She looked up at him in relief and gushed, “Yes, it is my first time here. I like London.”
There was a pause in the conversation. Phin waited, thinking she would say more, but she didn’t.
“Tell me, what have you seen in London you’ve enjoyed?”
Phin estimated they danced around the floor twice before she answered his question.
“I like shopping. When we got here, Mama and I shopped almost every day until the season started. I liked going to Gunther’s. Where they serve ices?”
Phin closed his eyes for a moment, hoping when he opened them he would no longer be dancing with pink dress but with Charlotte. Soon, he thought, soon.
When the waltz ended, Phin thanked her and walked her back to her mama. Pink dress gave him a clumsy curtsy, Phin bowed, and it was finally over.
Phin walked away, heading for where he last stood with Everett. There must be an easier way. Was this how he had to eliminate the girls who were not right for him?
It was going to be a long season if every night was similar to tonight. There must be a better way.
Everett was laughing when Phin caught up with him. Phin wanted to scowl but ended up smiling instead.
“I suppose you saw the whole debacle?”
“It was riveting.”
“Well, Ev, I am happy to provide you with tonight’s entertainment. They were both God-awful. This last dance,” Phin pointed his chin towards pink dress, “I thought would never end. She’s a child.”
Phin shook his head. “If I found someone halfway decent, I’d run out for that special licence first thing in the morning. Then off to Collinswood before she could change her mind.”
Everett grinned. “I’m looking forward to having you in London for a few months.”
Phin rolled his eyes. “Aren’t you funny. Wish me luck. It’s time for my third and final dance of the night.”
Everett clapped Phin on the back as he left to traverse the ballroom floor toward Charlotte.
Phin arrived, let her curtsy, then bowed. “Lady Charlotte,” he said as he took her hand and tucked it under his arm. Before they even reached the middle of the ballroom floor, Phin looked down at his forearm to make sure a candle hadn’t set his coat on fire. Her touch made his skin feel like it was burning.
Up close, she was even more stunning. She had on folds and folds of pale yellow crepe fashioned in the style of a Greek goddess. Green leafs were embroidered climbing up and over the one-shouldered style. The green leafs were embroidered into the crepe belt. With her dark hair and smoky eyes, Charlotte was, for this evening, a Greek goddess herself.
They set their arms to the waltz. His left hand held her gloved hand and his right hand he placed on her waist. Can I feel the heat or is it just me? he wondered as the music started.
It was no surprise for Phin to find Charlotte was an excellent dancer. She began the conversation. Phin was relieved. After two disastrous dance partners, Charlotte was a breath of fresh air.
“It was a pleasure to meet you this afternoon, Your Grace. I met your sister at the beginning of the season, and I know we will be friends always. She missed you terribly while you were away.” Charlotte gasped and looked into Phin’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Your Grace, I hope you didn’t take offence.”
“Not at all. Mercy wrote often, and in her letters, she always asked when I would be home. I cherish my relationship with her. Not all brothers and sisters are so close.”
“You have such a wonderful family. I am an only child. When I see siblings who are close, I fear I am missing out.” Phin was distracted. He was trying to listen to her every word, but what he wanted to know was if she experienced heat coming from his body that he felt from hers.
Phin looked at Charlotte and didn’t believe she suffered from a lack of siblings. “From my brief observation, it looks as though you have an abundance of friends to make up for your lack of siblings.”
Charlotte thought about that for a moment and looked directly into Phin’s eyes. Phin had never seen eyes that were more expressive. He thought time had stopped, and they were the only ones in the ballroom. They had continued to dance, he knew that, but he stared into her eyes and could not speak.
“Yes,” she said, breaking the spell. The ballroom was once again full, much to Phin’s disappointment. “I think you’re right. I am fortunate to have a friend close by whenever I need one.”
Phin nodded. “Josie’s brother, Everett, has been a close friend of mine since childhood. I consider him a brother. So I suppose you don’t need siblings to have brothers and sisters.”
Charlotte gave him a smile that put the stars on a clear night to shame. “Thank you, Your Grace. I will never again be envious of my friends with siblings.”
“You’re welcome. Now, tell me how you are enjoying London. Not just the season mind you, but London.”
Charlotte gave Phin thoughtful and interesting recaps to different places she had been since the season began. She particularly enjoyed going to Stonehenge. It surprised Phin she went to all the trouble of taking the long carriage ride. Good for her.
The dance ended all too soon, and Phin walked Charlotte back to her Aunt Genevieve. He spoke with her aunt for a short time, hoping a favourable impression of him from Genevieve might help his cause.
But what was his cause? He was enchanted by Charlotte – that was true. His hand still burned from her touch. His body had never had that experience before. It hummed. Phin wanted to put his hands on every inch of her body, hoping the burn would never go away.
He noticed the subtle way she caught her breath when they danced. He knew there was a sexual tension between the two of them that would be a great pleasure to ease. But what of her happiness? She would never like being stuck in his castle hundreds of miles away from London.
He really knew nothing about her. What were her goals for marriage? If he had to guess, it included a townhouse in London with a large ballroom and a country estate with another large ballroom, lawns, gardens and many bedchambers perfect for entertaining.
And he planned to be in London only two, maybe three, days in a month. Everett would handle their business, otherwise. That wouldn’t be enough for her. He knew he couldn’t constantly entertain her. Besides his business concerns, he needed time alone.
Everett was right. She was not the girl for him. Phin sighed. Tomorrow would bring another ball, another round of quiet girls to meet.
“The Duke’s Broken Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Phineas Collins, Duke of Exeter, left London for India to escape financial ruin caused by his irresponsible father. After having restored the family’s fortune, he returns five years later seeking a wife at the marriage mart to produce an heir and to live in Collinswood, his country estate. He prefers the quiet to the London noise and crowds.
Lady Charlotte Albert begins her first season at the marriage mart. Outgoing and vivacious, she draws men to her. Although she is the opposite of what Phin is looking for, he is attracted to her. Lord Bernard has also shown an interest in her. Being deeply in debt, his interest is in her large dowry. To improve his chances with Charlotte, Lord Bernard spreads rumors about Phin that stem from his father’s irresponsible ways.
Charlotte rejects Phin because of the rumors and gets him heartbroken. When he is in France on business, his friends and family work to clear his name. A group of influential Dukes restores his reputation. When Phin returns, he wonders if he truly wants a woman who has rejected him. He has to decide between walking away from Charlotte forever and spending the rest of his life with her. Will he choose wisely?
“The Duke’s Broken Heart” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.