Enchanted by a Fair Damsel (Preview)

Chapter One

‘I cannot stay here, Papa. I cannot stay here in London without you,’ Arabella had cried.

Her father, Captain Randall Helford, a kind but recently broken man, had looked at her with heavy sadness in his eyes. It was the sadness of knowing that he would have to leave her, but it was also much more than that. Their world had been turned upside down in more ways than one during the last year, and now the dreadful ordeal was over, her father looked more than lost.

It had all started when her mother, Lady Bertha Helford, had taken ill about a year ago. At the beginning, it had been just a small cough. A cough that seemed persistent and that her mother, no matter what remedies she had used, could not seem to shift. As the weeks went on and her health did not improve, it became more of a concern to her father until he had little choice but to fully address their circumstances. It had been a difficult conundrum but eventually, and against the wishes of his wife, the captain had decided that they ought to leave Jamaica. He had been posted there once again, having travelled and been posted at many islands in the Caribbean over Arabella’s lifetime, but given that he and her mother liked Jamaica so much, he had requested a commission to return there.

Perhaps it held a special place in her parents’ hearts because it had been the place Arabella had been born, but that had mattered little in the end. Captain Helford had requested they return to London, for he was determined that the large town would be where his wife would receive the best medical care.

Arabella had visited London only once before when her father had returned to see to his business, but they had not remained for long. In fact, after her parents had married, as far as Arabella was aware, that had been the only time they had returned to London. She was too young to know why they had needed to make the long journey, but it had something to do with her father’s station. For good reason, her parents had chosen to travel whenever her father was instructed to do so, and in that way, Arabella knew little of England that her mother had not taught her from books. With her mother’s illness, however, her father had little choice but to come back, and yet, at the time, Arabella could not have known that it would be the last journey her mother was ever to take.

Though her father had been deeply concerned, Arabella was determined that her mother would recover, for physicians visited many times and tried many tonics and potions. Perhaps it had been more of a wish, and Arabella had simply not allowed herself to think of the reality of the situation. And yet, her mother’s demise had come to pass, no matter what Arabella had hoped, and she had left them forever only seven weeks ago.

The last few days of her mother’s life had torn both her father and her to pieces, and she could not ever say that before that time, she had heard or seen her father cry. Yet, stood in the slightly open doorway of her mother’s bedchamber on the evening that she finally took her last breath, tears had sprung to her own eyes as she had watched him sobbing openly, his near limp body thrown across her mother’s now lifeless one. The depth of sorrow that Arabella had felt by the sounds of her father’s mourning could not be put into words, but her heart had ached, and she had felt an overwhelming heaviness surround her that had not yet left.

While Arabella had been heartbroken, her father had been nearly inconsolable, and as they both suffered in their grief, neither could really help the other. Perhaps that was why he had decided to take the commission to India so soon and yet, Arabella could hardly believe what she was hearing when he had told her.

It had been a few days after the funeral, and they had been sat in silence in their mourning in the drawing room, seemingly neither feeling they had any words to express. The constant ticking of the large grandfather clock was the only sound in the room, and the atmosphere felt thick and heavy. A weight of grief continued to shroud Arabella in what felt like near suffocation, which had not left her since the night of her mother’s death. She could not imagine that her father felt much different but given that he had hardly spoken a word to her since the funeral, she could not really know for sure.

Their London accommodation was a modest affair, not any grand house, yet sufficient for a captain and his family. The drawing room only reminded Arabella of their travels, for the wares they had brought back with them now surrounded them on dressers and tables. They looked strange against the backdrop of a typical English home, with the family portraits and gilded paintings hanging upon the pale green walls.

The disparity raised a conflict within Arabella that almost paralleled her feelings of being in England. The ornaments and vases did not seem to fit just as she herself did not seem to fit, and she had wondered since the funeral what her future now held. While on the outside, with her long and wavy blonde hair and her ‘ocean’ green eyes, as her mother had called them, she looked like any other resident of London, on the inside, she knew that she simply did not belong there.

Being raised on islands with such diverse cultures and freedom of life, Arabella had never experienced a feeling of being confined or controlled. Yet, since arriving in London with all its societal rules and expectations, she could only describe the feeling as being stifled. Even within her own home, for she had barely ventured out, it had been the same. When people had arrived at their home, she had been required to act in a certain way. It had been a struggle, and she had wished many times that it would not be long until her father decided that they return to Jamaica.

‘I am going away, Arabella,’ her father had near whispered into the silence.

Arabella had lifted her head from staring at the rug on the floor and looked at him; for more than his words, she was surprised to hear his voice. As she regarded him sitting almost perfectly still across the room, she could not help really seeing his own demise for the first time. His skin had never looked so pale, and the thinning hair on his head appeared even more grey than ever before. It looked as though someone had taken all life from his body, for while he may still be breathing, he had aged considerably over the last weeks, and all that seemed to be left was the shell of the man he used to be.

‘I am sorry, Papa. What did you say?’

He had moved slightly in his chair and turned slowly to look at her. His movements were slow and stiff, not the spritely man he had been before.

‘I am going away. I have spoken to my commanding officer, and a commission has become available in India.’

‘Then, I will come with you.’

‘No, Arabella. Not this time.’

Arabella had been suddenly confused and frowned at her father, for he was not making any sense. She had always travelled with her father and mother. They had always travelled together as a family. It was something that was never discussed, only expected, for it had been the way things had always been.

‘I do not understand, Papa. I cannot be left here alone. You have never left me alone.’

‘Your confusion is understandable, Arabella, but it is for the best. You cannot spend the rest of your life travelling with me. You are now twenty years old, and it is time you found yourself a decent husband and settled down.’

‘No! I do not want to find a husband, Papa. I want to stay with you. There is plenty of time for that. I cannot be left here on my own. London is still a strange town to me, and I do not know anyone here.’

London still felt strange to her even after a year, for she had not really had the opportunity, with her mother’s failing health, to assimilate herself into London life or to get to know anyone in any depth of knowledge. In fact, she could truly say she knew the physician who had visited her mother better than she knew any other, for he had been the person she had had most interaction and conversation with. She knew that Doctor Phillips had a wife and two little girls and that he wished he could spend more time with his family than he did at work. She also knew that he had some family in Devon that they spent some time with in the summer and that one of his little girls, Anna wanted to be a doctor herself when she grew up.

Other than Ellie and Mary, the two servants who helped run their small London home, Arabella had had little contact with any other. While she had heard of many young ladies and women attending balls and dances and dinners, Arabella had simply not wished to leave her mother’s side. It had not seemed right that she should go out and enjoy herself when her mother had lay dreadfully ill in bed. Besides, as the days turned into weeks and her mother only appeared to be getting worse, Arabella was also aware that they could not know the day or the hour her mother would decide to leave them.

Even when she could no longer speak, Arabella wanted to spend every last minute she could with the woman that had been such a loving and caring constant in her life. A role model that Arabella had been determined to emulate with her ladylike presence, her intelligence and knowledge and independent mind, and a wonderful mother who would soon be gone, no matter how much Arabella wished against it.

‘I do not want to take you with me this time, Arabella. I know this is difficult for you to understand. I am also aware that you have always travelled with your mother and me; however, you have to trust me in this decision. I am only doing what I feel is best for you.’

‘But, Papa. Do you not understand? I have already lost one parent. What is to become of me if you are not here? I need you, Papa. I need you more than I have ever needed you before. Mother is gone; I cannot bear to imagine losing you too.’

‘You are not losing me, Arabella. I will return in due time. It is, however, time for you to search out a life of your own. This is something that I cannot do for you.’

‘I do not want to search out a life here. I was born in Jamaica, Papa. I may be English, yet England is not my home. Why would you press me to settle down in a place that I barely know?’

‘You may not have been born here, Arabella, yet it is your home. It is where you belong. My desire for you is the same now, as it has always been, and while you may not have been aware of it, a desire of your mother’s also. We always wanted you to become a proper Englishwoman. In fact, there is little reason that you cannot become a lady, just like your mother.’

‘But, Papa …’

‘Arabella! Your mother made great sacrifices for me and our love, and I can never forget her integrity. I do not wish you to have to experience the shame that your mother’s family cast upon her. It was one of the very reasons we travelled from here so that she did not have to bear it.’

Arabella knew the story well, for her mother had talked about it several times over the years. Her father had been a captain stationed close by to her family home, and while her mother was determined that she did not believe in love at first sight, for she had stated, ‘That is only in fairy tales, Arabella,’ her mother had said there seemed to be a strange yet instant connection when she met Captain Randall Helford. Her mother had never been able to explain it to any other and had never truly understood it herself, and yet, she could not deny that the connection pulled them together like some unyielding force.

Coming from an extremely wealthy family in London, her mother had been expected to marry a duke or an earl, or someone who matched both her family’s wealth and what her family desired for her. Given her family’s position, Lady Bertha, her mother’s title, had opportunities that would not be open to many other ladies, and her parents had pressured her often to marry up to further her prospects. However, her mother would not relinquish her feelings for the captain, much to the disgust of her parents and extended relatives. He was the third son of a lord and hardly someone her family viewed as acceptable. If anything, by choosing such a man, she would be marrying down. Yet, her mother had not cared.

‘You cannot stop love, Arabella,’ her mother had said, on a warm afternoon, as they had been sat together in the gardens of their home. ‘I loved your father dearly, as I still do now, and no expectations were going to dissuade me. I know my family was near ashamed of me once we were married, but I cared little for their opinion. I chose happiness over politics, for that is what many marriages back in England are based upon. I made the right choice, and I have not regretted it for one single moment that myself and your father have been together.’

‘I hope I find the same happiness one day,’ Arabella had said with a sigh.

‘Oh, my darling daughter, but look at you. You are stunningly beautiful, and with those ocean green eyes, I defy any man not to get lost in them.’ Her mother had smiled warmly. ‘You will find true love someday, Arabella, and he will be a very lucky man to have you.’

When they had returned to London for her father to see to his business, Arabella remembered that her mother did not seek out to visit her family. It could be said and thus regarded as an excuse that they were not really in London for very long, and therefore, had been given little time to do so yet, Arabella knew well that her mother could have made the time. Instead, she had made a purposeful decision to refrain from arranging to see them. She had told Arabella there would be little point. If she had thought she would be welcomed warmly, perhaps she might have done so. Yet, her mother had known she would not and had reasoned that she did not need to relive their judgement again after such a long time.

It had saddened Arabella to think when she and her father had attended the funeral only seven weeks ago that before then, her mother had not seen her family since she had left with her father. It was strange that only her death had brought her family back together, for even in her illness, they had not visited. At the burial, small as the gathering was, Arabella had not spoken to the few that had attended, for she did not know them.

When the service was over, she had returned to the carriage alone. Her father stayed behind and spoke to those in attendance and joined her sometime later. Of the four or five people that had come to show their respects, he had mentioned speaking to her aunt and uncle, though Arabella had not known which of the people present they were. Her father had not introduced her knowing the fact that Arabella had been so broken by her mother’s death, for when he re-joined her later, he had told her that perhaps today was not the time for introductions and that there would be other times that she could meet them.

Clearly, her father understood how deeply she was grieving, and besides, Arabella could hardly imagine meeting them under such circumstances, particularly given their rather dreadful treatment of her mother over the years. On that day, of any other days, it would have taken gargantuan effort on her part to act in any way civil toward them.

‘I only want the best for you, Arabella,’ her father had said, bringing her back to the drawing room. ‘Many opportunities will be open to you, and there is no reason that you cannot find a decent lord for a husband. I know at this time you will not understand my reasoning. Nevertheless, you must trust me. I am your father, and I will do everything in my power to provide the best life for you. You will not find that travelling the world with me.’

‘You cannot know that, Papa.’

‘Perhaps I cannot. Yet, I can know many other things. I know, for example, that the death of your mother has quite destroyed me, Arabella and I am aware enough to realise that I cannot give you the attention you so desperately need at this time. It is a hard thing for a father to admit, and yet, it is true. I do not want to stand in your way or perhaps, harm your chances of uniting with a man worthy of you. I fear my grief will only hold you back.’

For a long moment, Arabella had not replied, for there was a part of her that understood, even in a small way, what her father was saying. Yet, what he desired was not her desire. She cared little if she found a husband and cared even less of what level of nobility he may be if she did. The one thing she needed now was stability. Losing her mother was difficult enough, but to lose her father so quickly afterward, for no matter how she looked at it, his leaving her there in London still felt as though she were losing him, might quite destroy her entirely.

‘Since I was born, Papa, I have always travelled with you. I know you cannot understand how I am feeling at this moment, yet, I need you to see. I do not belong here. If I cannot travel with you, at least allow me to travel back to Jamaica. A place where I can feel like I belong. A place with people I know and with whom I can find some comfort.’

‘I am afraid that is just not possible, Arabella. You do belong here; you simply need to discover a way to reconnect with your heritage. I know it will not be easy, but it is what you must do. You will find a husband and start your own family. It is time, Arabella. I must now ensure your future security, for it would put my mind at great rest.’

‘But, Papa …’

‘If it makes you feel any better, Arabella, it is what your mother wanted for you also. I know she had little chance to tell you with her debilitating illness, but I would not state such a thing if it were not true.’

Clearly, her father had made his mind up, and no matter what argument she had put forth, he had not swayed. Yet, it was that last statement that he had made about her mother that finally silenced Arabella. Truly, how could she go against her mother’s final wish? She may not have heard it from her mother’s own lips, yet, Arabella trusted her father implicitly. He had no reason to lie, and frankly, she could not imagine he ever would. For a fact, he certainly would not use her mother to win his argument, for her father simply was not that kind of man, and in that knowledge, Arabella knew it to be true.

It was nearly a week later when they spoke of his leaving again. Arabella had mourned both the loss of her mother and the fact she would now also lose her father and knew well that her fate had been sealed with little choice. Yet, she could not have expected to hear what her father further disclosed to her on that morning over another quiet breakfast.

‘I have made arrangements with your mother’s relatives, Arabella. Your uncle, Lord Gareth Benfield, and your aunt, Lady Anne, have offered to assist you and oversee your upcoming season …’

Arabella stared at her father in a rather stunned fashion for several reasons. To begin with, were these not the very people her mother had avoided for so many years due to their dreadful treatment of both her and himself when they had decided to marry? To add to that, she did not even know these people, and suddenly, she was to be thrust into their lives with no say in the matter and hope that all would be well. How could her father make such an arrangement? Did he truly not care how she might feel about it?

‘I cannot, Papa. I simply cannot. After everything Mother told me, I do not even think I could look her relatives in the eye, let alone reside with them.’

‘We cannot hold such grudges, Arabella. All that was a very long time ago, and besides, it is about time you got to know your only living relatives.’

‘How can I say they are my relatives when I do not know them? They did not even come to visit Mother when she was ill, Papa. Truly, what kind of people would do such a thing?’

‘That is not true, Arabella. They sent several missives relaying their desire to come and see your mother; however, your mother would not let them.’

‘Well surely, Papa, that ought to tell you something of how Mother felt.’

‘Her reasons were not as you might think, my dear daughter,’ her father said gently. ‘It had little to do with what had happened all of those years ago, for your mother forgave her family a long time ago. You ought to know, that was your mother’s way.’

Arabella thought for a moment, and as she reflected, could not argue with her father’s point, for in everything her mother had ever relayed to her about how her family had treated herself and her husband, Arabella struggled to recall one time when her mother had spoken critically of them. In fact, for the most part, when talking on the subject, she had been trying to help Arabella understand that she must always follow her heart and never allow any other to sway her due to pressures of expectations.

‘Then I do not understand, Papa. Why would Mother not let them see her?’

Captain Helford smiled gently at her across the table, the same sadness of the last two months still very evident in his expression.

‘Your mother did not want them to experience any guilt, Arabella. While she was still strong enough to express to me her wishes, your mother did not want her family to see her so very ill, for she felt that given the lack of communication over all those years, your aunt and uncle would somehow be left feeling rather dreadful, especially if they saw the state that your mother was in.’

‘Perhaps they had wanted to say goodbye, Papa.’

‘Perhaps, and I know I struggled a little with your mother’s decision, yet, it was hers to make. I understood her meaning and her reasons, and while on the one hand, she was not allowing them to experience any regrets, though if that were the case, they would do all the same, on the other hand, I agree with you. She was denying them a chance to say their farewells. Sometimes in life, we are faced with such difficult decisions, Arabella, and you will learn, as you experience them yourself, that some choices are not as easy as they may first appear. You can only do what you think is right with a sense of integrity and goodness and hope in the end that it was the right decision.’

The breakfast, simple as it was, had been finished some time ago, and still, Arabella did not feel the compulsion to leave the table. Her father’s words irked her, for she could not say that she had been faced with such a difficult decision, and yet, it did shine a different light on the previous judgement she had made about her relatives.

‘I know you are not happy with the arrangements, Arabella. Yet, this is one of those very choices I am talking about. Your aunt and uncle have been kind in their offer of accommodating you, and I am grateful that they have connections that I do not. They will be able to make introductions to many nobles in London, and in that way, you will have greater opportunities of securing a good and wealthy husband and be happy in your life.’

‘A wealthy husband does not guarantee my happiness, Papa. In fact, wealth in general, does not ensure one will be happy. Look at you and Mother. Neither of you was rich, and still, I have yet to see a couple who were happier with each other.’

‘Please, Arabella. I beg you to keep an open mind. I know you are well travelled; however, there is much more of the world to see. You have your life ahead of you, and I can only wish that you find someone who will bring you the happiness your mother and I experienced throughout our years together.’

Arabella sighed and gazed down at her empty plate, the small crumbs that had fallen from her bread and cake still scattered against the white of the china. Her once carefree and happy existence had been turned upside down, and for the first time in her life, she suddenly felt lost. Lost, and if she were honest with herself, a little afraid. Her father wanted her to go out into a world that she did not know, a world of strangers and social engagements and all without him. She understood his reasons, for she had already thought, since their last conversation, of how difficult the loss of his beloved wife had been. Perhaps he, too, needed time alone to grieve, and he could not do that when he had a daughter to care for.

Yet, it was more than that. Clearly, he felt his presence would hinder her from securing a husband, and perhaps further, would hinder her own healing from her mother’s death, for how was she to recover when she had to look upon her father’s sorrow daily? Still, even knowing all that, Arabella was reluctant to part from him. Even though she knew that she must.

‘I will try and do as you ask, Papa. I will try and keep an open mind,’ Arabella said sullenly.

‘It may not appear to be so now, Arabella, yet, I do think this is the best decision for us both.’

It was three days later when the two carriages arrived. One to take her father to the docks for his sailing and one to take her to a strange new life. A life full of uncertainties and unknown expectations – to a home where she did not truly belong amongst people that she had never met. Arabella had been on many adventures, journeying to unknown places and eager to see what would be discovered upon arrival. Yet, on each previous occasion, she had been hopeful and excited in her anticipation. She had also felt secure in the knowledge and safety of the presence of her parents.

This time, anxiety replaced her anticipation, and fear stood where excitement once had been. The security had left her, for it was the first time in her life that she would travel alone. Yet, it was not just that she did not have her parents as companions. It was the heavy realisation that from this moment on, she would never have her parents with her again. Her father’s journey to India did not represent his physical absence only, for Arabella knew that the significance was much deeper than that. This goodbye was much more than him leaving for another commission.

Tearfully, they hugged each other for a long moment as their trunks were loaded onto the respective carriages, and while little words were spoken between them, all that needed to be conveyed seemed to be expressed in their warm embrace. Eventually, her father pulled away and took a small step back, his hands resting on each of her shoulders.

‘I do love you so very much, Arabella. Do not ever forget that,’ he said, his eyes glistening with the tears that had formed but had not yet fallen.

‘I love you too, Papa,’ Arabella sniffed.

‘I know, my darling. But now it is time for us to part.’

Bending forward, he kissed her gently on her cheek before reaching and opening the door to her carriage. Arabella gazed sadly at her father before turning and stepping up into the vehicle. He closed the door firmly behind her and looked up at her one final time before calling out to her driver to go.

Moving back in her seat, Arabella gripped her reticule tightly and allowed the remaining tears that she had managed to hold back to now flow freely. A new journey had begun, but for her, there was no joy in its implementation, for she carried with her a heavy burden of such great loss that she wondered how she would be able to carry it now that she was all alone.

 

Chapter Two

From well before the time the huntsman blew the horn, the Earl of Ferrers, Nicholas Strickland, knew that the ladies in attendance had their eyes on more than just bagging a frightened fox. If demure glances and fluttering eyelashes could have caused a stiff wind, he might have been blown clean across the gardens of the manor from where the hunt began. It was not a large hunting party, but he knew of at least two of the four ladies in attendance, and along with their names, Nicholas was also well aware of their intentions. He was quite an eligible bachelor, after all.

‘I do love to come hunting with you, my dear friend.’ Lord Duncan Lambert grinned as he eyed the ladies present. ‘You seem to attract a rather more colourful and pleasing crowd than the old men.’

Nicholas laughed lightly at his close companion as he held the reins of his brown steed lightly in his grip, for if there was one thing Duncan did enjoy, it was the pleasure of a beautiful woman. In fact, Nicholas wondered if his long-term friend made a game of how many of the fairer sex he could entice with his charismatic yet mischievous ways. It was his charm more than his fine looks that gained the women’s attention, not that he was repulsive yet, he could not exactly be described as striking in any way. That, however, did not appear to deter those he set his eyes upon. He had hardly changed since their boarding school days, for even back then, he had flirted on any occasion he got the chance.

Nicholas had heard the words ‘dashing’ and ‘handsome’ with reference to himself, usually whispered between women as he passed by them. He was uncertain at times whether those whispers were meant to be heard as he made his way in such crowds; for a certainty, they could have been uttered a little quieter. While he did not pretend to understand the ways of any lady, nor could he entirely deny that he did indeed turn many heads. The genetics from his mother, for she was indeed a handsome woman even now, had been passed to him as an only child, and with his dark hair and brown eyes, he knew it was not just his vast inheritance and his title that attracted the fawning glances.

Yet, he could not say he had much interest in reciprocating such attention, for though there were many a beautiful woman who had tried to entice his consideration, he had for quite some time now, preferred his own company.

‘Yes, well, enjoy the view, dear friend,’ Nicholas replied. ‘They have more chance with the fox than they ever will of catching me, I can assure you.’

‘You would disappoint them so, Nicholas?’ Duncan mocked. ‘You are no sport at all. Think of what your mother would say.’

‘I think my mother could hardly care less, Duncan. Even if she did, I am grateful she is no longer in the country to try and press me into such confinements.’

Both his parents had travelled to Spain nearly as soon as Nicholas had left boarding school. It had originally been an excursion, and they had planned to return to Surrey, yet, his mother had loved the countryside there so much, she had persuaded his father to stay, and they had never returned. That had been some time ago now, and since then his father had passed on, therefore shifting the title of Earl to him. At the same time, given that his mother planned to remain in Spain, he had inherited both his families’ wealth and the huge estate in Surrey and therefore, had plenty of time for pursuits that pleased him. Which was where he found himself on that very day, though he could have done without the female attention.

The hunt commenced, and he and Duncan rode together for some time. A few of the fervent ladies had ridden on ahead determined to be in the chase and serious in their want of catching the fox, yet a couple held back, and Nicholas knew well, it had little to do with their ability as riders or the capability of their horses. He had thought the attention would wane some once the hunt began, yet clearly, these women were not there for the fox at all.

After some time of galloping across fields and jumping hedges, the relentless glances in his direction became tiresome, and Nicholas pulled back a little on the reins, slowing his horse to a near stop. The sound of the horn blasts and the yelping dogs faded as the distance between him and them grew, and he waited for Duncan to realise that he nor his horse were any longer pounding across the soft undergrowth.

The ladies noticed first, and yet they had little choice but to continue, much to Nicholas’s delight, for he knew well it would hardly be fitting for them to stop also. Duncan eventually realised that Nicholas was no longer by his side, and bringing his own steed to a speedy halt, turned back and cantered towards Nicholas wearing an expression of concern and confusion.

‘What on earth is the matter, Nicholas?’

‘My stomach is telling me it is time to eat, Duncan. Come, let us away.’

‘You cannot be tiresome with chasing the fox already, my friend.’

‘I will never find myself in such a situation, Duncan; however, it is not the hunt that irks me. I am feeling more and more like the fox as time goes by, and I must admit, I do now have some sympathy for the poor fellow.’

‘Oh, do not talk nonsense. Surely, you are not allowing a few glances to ruin your hunt? I would have thought you would have enjoyed the attention.’

‘You know well, that statement is not true. You are simply placating me, Duncan. It is you who is enjoying the attention, not I. When I attend such hunts, I come for the chase and the exhilaration, not to seek out the attention of a lady, nor for ways of courting or marriage. Come, let us escape for some peace and quiet.’

Duncan rolled his eyes at his friend but smiled good-humouredly. ‘I do not know how I tolerate your petulance at times, Nicholas. You are more than spoiled.’

‘Indeed, I am not spoiled. I simply enjoy my single life. I do not see that there is anything wrong with that. I have us a light luncheon in the basket. Come, I am hungry.’

Pulling gently on the reins, Nicholas guided his horse across the field and headed towards a group of trees situated to their right with a gentle canter. No one would come looking for them, and he cared little if they did. They were hardly children, and apart from the lagging ladies, most of the riders would be well along with the hunt by now.

A small dirt track ran through the trees that gained density as they entered into the thickness of the forest. If those in the hunt did happen to turn back in search of them, Nicholas wanted to ensure they were neither found nor disturbed, and with that in mind, wanted to head as far from the others as possible. He had been down this track before on previous riding jaunts and knew of a clearing a little way ahead. A small area of open grass where they could rest their horses and themselves and enjoy their light refreshments with a little solitude.

‘You have even brought a claret, my friend. My goodness, does your imagination know no bounds?’

Duncan regarded the delights that now lay on the dark blanket that Nicholas had spread across a soft patch of grass with wide eyes and a smile of appreciation. Clearly, while he may not have admitted to the want of food earlier, he was certainly willing to partake of it now.

‘I cannot take credit for the contents, Duncan, for I did not pack them. Mrs Millar, however, knows my needs and desires, and I am grateful for her foresight.’

‘Your housekeeper hardly needs foresight, Nicholas. It is more than likely out of habit that she provides so well for you, for the woman has been with your family since before you were born.’

Nicholas shrugged, conceding to Duncan’s point, for it indeed was a valid one. He could always rely on the woman preparing such provisions that would be fit for more than just he, for as she had mentioned many times, though Nicholas wondered if it might be for her wanting, that he did not know that he ever might not be dining alone. Mrs Millar, like his mother and near every other person in his societal periphery, seemed continuously, if not subtly, to allude to his need to settle down, which came as no surprise really.

At twenty-four years of age, it was now expected of him to find a wife and marry, and yet, the very idea irritated him greatly. It was not simply the fact that he enjoyed his freedom; he could choose when and where he wished to be without the approval of another; it was also that it did not please him to have to bow to such pressure. Who made such rules, and more so, who gave anyone the right to tell him what and when he ought to be doing things with his life? Surely, as an earl, he ought to have more freedom than that? He knew, however, that was not the way the nobility worked, and though he did not agree with it, he was also well aware of the expectations set upon a person when it came to society. Especially the upper classes.

‘The new season approaches, Nicholas. I cannot wait to set my eyes upon all the beautiful new debutants.’ Duncan grinned mischievously as he enjoyed another bite from a fresh strawberry. ‘All those beautiful ladies so eager to please and gain approval.’

‘Surely, you would not lower yourself to such standards, Duncan? Some of those ladies coming out are barely sixteen years old.’

‘Of course not,’ Duncan frowned, shaking his head vehemently. His eyebrows then raised once more, and with his usual roguish smirk, he continued, ‘Yet, there is no harm in looking.’

Nicholas chuckled lightly, for his friend was incorrigible. There was no doubt about it, he was a philanderer, but even Duncan knew his limitations. He aimed his charms at women who had the understanding of what his intentions were, and since Nicholas had known him, he had not witnessed him cause any harm to another, particularly an innocent young debutante who knew little about the way the world worked.

‘One of these days, I may even find a lady who halts my exploits,’ Duncan said wistfully. ‘I think I might like the idea of finally settling down.’

‘And I like the idea of watching the moon turn red. I think there is more chance of that happening before you choose one woman in your life, my friend.’ Nicholas smirked.

‘You never know, Nicholas. One of these days, I may surprise you. But yes, you are likely right. You will be well and truly wedded before I am.’

‘I would not depend on it, Duncan. On each occasion I come across such ladies, I am disappointed. Most of those whom I meet are foolish, vain, and empty-headed. Truly, they are like empty vessels. Vases, painted beautifully on the outside yet vacant of any substance within.’

‘You are looking at the entire concept in far too serious a frame of mind, Nicholas. You need to relax a little and do as I do. Have a little fun and enjoy yourself. That is how I view it. I do not need a woman overflowing with intellect to enjoy myself, I can assure you.’ Duncan winked.

Nicholas regarded his friend with mild disgust, rolling his eyes once more yet unable to stop himself from smiling. ‘You are a rake, my dear friend. Truly, you are deplorable.’

Duncan shrugged, uncaring of his friend’s judgement. ‘A man has desires, Nicholas. I do no harm. I cannot help it if I am attracted to the fairer sex, nor can I help it if they find me irresistible.’

The two men chuckled loudly together at Duncan’s mock vanity, and after a moment of exhilarating laughter, the men settled once more. Nicholas did not judge his friend overly, yet neither could he take his ideologies as his own. To begin with, it had never been Nicholas’s way. The idea of moving from one woman to another only caused his stomach to turn, for the idea of such superficiality near annoyed him.

What was one to talk about before or afterward? He could hardly imagine having to engage in such trivial conversation while waiting for a decent interval before he would want to escape. In fact, Nicholas did not know how Duncan did it, yet he acknowledged that they were not of the same view on many things.

Whereas Nicholas had no desire at all to marry, he knew that Duncan, beneath the thin veil of his banter and larking about, actually did. Though it did appear that he feared it as much as he desired it, for if he truly wanted marriage, then surely, he would stop his antics and find the right woman. His actions sometimes confused Nicholas, for while Duncan was not as refined as Nicholas, he was a decent man who, given the chance, would make a lady rather happy. Perhaps he was afraid that he might miss his old life – his philandering ways would have to be curtailed entirely, and with that, the excitement of the chase. Perhaps that was it; Duncan was afraid that settling down would be too boring for his disposition.

‘Will you be residing in your house in London for the upcoming season, Nicholas?’

‘Indeed, I will. You must come and stay with me. You can help save me from the fawning attention of all the newcomers. Even the idea is exhausting. Another round of balls and dances where we will be expected to smile politely and appear as though we are interested.’

‘Well, at least your favourite lady will be present, Nicholas. By the rumours, you and Lady Benfield are expected to be married within the year.’ Duncan gave a mischievous smile. ‘Or is she too, one of those empty vases you spoke of earlier? I always thought she was rather intelligent, yet, perhaps not good enough for you.’

‘It is nothing to do with being good enough, Duncan. Yes, Lady Benfield is capable of some intelligence, and indeed, she comes from a well-established family and good breeding. I have known the family for some time, and yet, I am not responsible for such rumours. In fact, I prefer that there were none, for, in that way, there are no expectations from either Lord Benfield or any other.’

‘Well, do not look at me, Nicholas, for I had nothing to do with them. It is apparent, though, that they are murmured much about London town, for they have reached as far as Surrey.’

Nicholas shook his head in slight frustration. ‘I do not understand why such pressure is put upon my shoulders to become committed to one person. I have no interest in connecting myself to the Benfields nor to any other for that matter.’

‘What is it that you have against marriage, Nicholas, for you are determined to shun the notion with a great vehemence.’

‘The very idea of rushing into a lifelong commitment causes a huge resistance to build within me. Perhaps it is because I worry that my own independence will be lost, or perhaps it is because I feel I am being pushed into it, as though it is not my choice.’ Nicholas sighed heavily.

‘Yet, that is just the way it is, my friend. There is nothing new about it. It is the way it has always been. Surely, as you were advancing through your years, you became aware that this would be the end result.’

‘Perhaps. Or perhaps I chose to ignore the inevitable, Duncan. If I am honest, I cannot tell you the exact reason. Maybe that is because there is no one single reason. Yet, I suppose I ought to consider it, given my advancing years.’ Nicholas smirked at him.

Duncan laughed at his friend’s mocking and lightly shook his head. Taking a long sip of claret from his glass, Duncan suddenly looked as though he were in deep thought, and for a long moment, he did not speak.

‘I have an idea,’ Duncan began eventually. ‘If we must be forced into this imprisonment, we can at least make it a little bit of fun.’

‘Oh, dear. I feel something dreadful is about to be proposed,’ Nicholas said wryly, a slight smile rising at the corner of his mouth.

‘Not exactly dreadful. I think we ought to make a wager.’

‘A wager?’

‘Indeed. If we are forced to relinquish our freedoms, we must wager to see which one of us will marry first.’

‘And how does that work? The first one to marry loses?’

‘Exactly. You are so set against marriage, Nicholas, you are bound to win,’ Duncan laughed heartily.

‘And how much is this wager?’

‘I think a pound ought to do it.’

‘A pound for my freedom. It sounds like a good deal.’

Both friends laughed once more at the silliness of the bet and the idea of courting and marriage. A little later, as they finished off their cold meats and pastries, Nicholas could not help smiling to himself. This would not be a difficult wager at all. Duncan was far more eager to find a wife than he; it was a sure thing that he would win.

Even with the upcoming season, he was hardly likely to meet anyone that would sway him. He had seen it all before, and while others looked forward to the season with some sort of excitement, Nicholas looked at it rather with a slight feeling of dread and a touch of obligation. Now, however, he might enjoy it a little more given Duncan’s proposal. If there was one thing Nicholas did enjoy, it was a worthy challenge.


“Enchanted by a Fair Damsel” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

After her mother’s passing, Miss Arabella Helford has to leave her carefree life in Jamaica behind and move into her uncle’s house in London. Even though most of her newly discovered family gives her the cold shoulder, she finds comfort in the company of her friendly cousins. Yet, while Arabella tries to fulfill her father’s wish and find a suitable partner, her fateful encounter with the charming Earl of Ferrers, her cousin’s aspiring husband, will shake her world.

Torn between duty and her growing affection for the daring Earl, will Arabella chase her dream of true love or will more troubles block her way to happiness?

Nicholas Strickland, the handsome and very eligible Earl of Ferrers, has everything a man could ever wish for, and yet no lady has ever captured his heart or attention. However, society’s pressure around marriage burdens his wild nature, until he meets the spirited Arabella at a ball that will change his life forever. Little did he know though that Arabella’s relatives were expecting his union with another member of the family…

If only Nicholas could prevent the great scandal that was about to occur…

As Arabella and Nicholas are trying to find a breeding ground for their stormy romance within a cruel and prejudiced society, some awful rumors will force them to take different paths. Will Nicholas manage to save the only woman he has ever fallen in love with, or will Arabella return to Jamaica to mend her broken heart? Will their unconditional love flourish through the struggle or is it doomed to never blossom?

“Enchanted by a Fair Damsel” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

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