The scene outside Nook & Brand Bookstore was reasonably quiet except for a carriage or two rambling past the buildings, but it suited William well. After this morning’s argument with his stubborn mother, he needed peace and quiet. The duchess kept insisting on marriage, but William wasn’t ready and doubted he would ever warm to the idea of tying himself to a woman. One heartbreak had been enough to warn him away from matrimony and love, giving him the much-needed lesson that offering up one’s heart to a woman was foolish and irresponsible. Looking back on his relationship, William had not noticed the glaringly obvious signs of Charlotte’s treachery until it was too late and she had run off with his brother. The open flirting, repeatedly finding them close to each other, and even their uncanny ability to always be in the same place as the other person had passed right over his head. It had simply never occurred to William that his own flesh and blood would betray him with the woman he had loved to the point of distraction, providing him with first-hand experience of the saying, “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”
Flicking through the book he held, William’s mind made no sense of the written words as his memories continued to taunt him. Charlotte had abhorred reading, believing it to be a mundane activity. The fair-haired beauty had certainly not been the brightest of women, but William had loved her vivacious nature and her ability to laugh off anything. Perhaps the latter character trait might have grated on his nerves in time to come, especially when tackling challenging situations. Still, William had only looked favourably upon the quality in his blind love for Charlotte. Had they still been together today, she would have flocked to wherever the action was, leaving him to his book browsing. Charlotte’s choice of place would have been High Street, where all the luxury shops were, or taking the waters at one of Cheltenham’s spa wells while sharing gossip with friends. William had thought to visit Pittville Pump Room today until his mother mentioned her intention to meet a friend there who wished to take the waters for her persistent stomach problems. Lady Dalton had been taking the supposedly curative waters for several months without relief in sight but still held hope her health would return. Her stomach issues were likely caused by her lifestyle, but people were more inclined to look for other reasons than what they were doing to their bodies. Everything taken in excess was certain to bring discomfort or illness, of which William knew well. At thirty-one, he was in a healthier condition than most of the men around his age as he had stopped taking in too much alcohol and food several years ago, especially at social events where these items flowed freely. Waking up ill after a night at a ball or dinner party had eventually become monotonously annoying, so taking care of his habits had been an obvious course to embark upon.
“I have found the biography, My Lord,” the bookstore owner interrupted, handing a book to him. “I wasn’t sure I had it until I looked in the back.”
William took the book, running his hand over the front where the title was slightly grooved into the hardcover. The Life of Samuel Johnson was one of his favourite biographies and arguably one of the best to be found.
“Thank you, Mr Higgins,” he replied. “I had hoped you would have this book. I lent mine to a relative some months ago and haven’t seen hide nor hair of it since then.”
“It seems to have had a revival again,” said Mr Higgins. “I’ve had a few people request this book in the last month, hence my depleted stock.”
“Lord Figglesworth is to blame. He raved about the book to an audience of avid readers and mentioned King George III had even read it, but I doubt he has the proof to support his claim. Fortunately for him, no one questioned his words.”
Mr Higgins smiled. “I’m not complaining at all, but I would have appreciated a warning of some kind. I had to dig through dusty boxes to find the books and ended up with filthy attire and hair. I think I removed a cobweb or two from these grey locks when I eventually closed up for the day and headed home.”
Mr Higgins kept his silvery hair long, often leaving strands across his shoulders and counters. His sideburns were kept neatly clipped, but his eyebrows— still mostly black— were a nature unto themselves. Wisps of hair grew every which way, crossing each other in some places and even reaching down to shade his deep-set eyes. William had often wished to take a pair of scissors and trim them a bit, but perhaps that would remove the bookstore owner’s eccentric charm.
“Would you please add this to my account?” William asked, briefly glancing at his pocket watch. “I see a few more books I might buy, but I’ll give them a better look-through another day. I have an appointment to fulfil soon.”
Martin, his best friend, had sent a note just before William left the house about attending their society’s weekly meetings. William regretted the day he ever joined an archery society as it had become something akin to being employed without pay. There were always things to do on behalf of the club or rules to be followed that left one stifled. He would leave the Bow & Quiver Society if not for Martin’s great grandfather being a founding member.
“Would you like me to send the book to your abode?” Mr Higgins asked. “I’m sure you would not wish to carry this book around wherever you go.”
“That is an excellent idea,” William agreed. “Please add whatever book is currently popular with the ladies and have it gift-wrapped for my mother.”
The book might soften his mother to forget about her favourite topic and give him a much-deserved break this evening.
“Certainly, Lord Hampton,” the bookstore owner assured. “Is there anything else you would like?”
“Not at this present moment, but I may return before the end of the week to look at a few other books. You seem to have new stock in.”
“Mainly French authors at the moment, but I have a few Scottish and English writers as well,” the older man replied. “The ton has a taste for all things French; thus, I thought it best to increase my range.”
“My mother certainly has an affinity for the French and is glad England is no longer at war with them,” William said in agreement. “Perhaps select two books— one English and the other French. Wrap them together with a yellow bow and include a bouquet of flowers.”
The bookstore owner didn’t bat an eyelid at the request. He was accustomed to arranging special requests ranging from gift-wrapping to hiring actors to perform a favourite part of a story or play for some customers. Calling Mr Higgins a bookstore owner didn’t do the man any justice, but he was content with his title.
“I still have some Sea Thrift growing in my garden,” the man said. “Would you like me to arrange those into a bouquet? I recall your mother was charmed by them when she came across them in the large vase I keep at the front of the shop.”
“Will the pink and lavender colours not clash with the yellow?” asked William.
“I have white as well, but I think a good mix of the three colours will look cheerful against the yellow.”
William shrugged. “You are the expert, Mr Higgins. Do as you see fit.”
“My brother is the expert,” said the bookstore owner with a grin. “He is the one with the florist shop on High Street. I’m just a humble bookseller tucked away on Henrietta Street.”
“Do not be so modest, my good sir,” William argued. “I warrant your knowledge about flowers is just as vast as that of your brother.” William glanced at his watch again, grimacing. “I really must go, but if you could have the gift delivered before this evening, I’ll be much obliged.”
“Certainly, My Lord,” said Mr Higgins with a bow.
William thanked the man and left the store in a hurry. He had promised to meet Martin outside the club before the meeting started to discuss an important matter on the man’s mind, but William was already ten minutes late. Martin should have picked a better time, preferably not the day of their meeting or at least after the meeting, but the note had been adamant about it being ahead of the club gathering. Tipping his hat at three women passing by William smiled at their giggles and pulled himself onto his horse. He had neglected to take the phaeton as he preferred the freedom of movement upon a horse rather than having to ride around in a contraption that would just take up room on Cheltenham’s narrower streets. Besides, Stills Lane wasn’t too far from Henrietta Street, and William could reach it in under ten minutes, but given that he was already late, he could only meet his friend nearly twenty minutes later than the agreed-upon time.
Sighing, William urged his horse into a medium-paced trot and hoped his friend wouldn’t be too vexed with him. Martin was a stickler for punctuality and could have his whole routine thrown off course by a few minutes, resulting in a wasted day. William often tried to help the man practice flexibility, but his father— a high-ranking general in the English army— had instilled certain beliefs that were too ingrained to replace.
“Good day, Lord Hampton,” greeted a man leaving a hat shop. “Buying another book? Some might accuse you of being bookish, you know.”
“Good day, Mr Flint,” William returned. “One must exercise their mind to keep it sharp and aware of the world around them. Surely that cannot be seen as bookish?”
“That depends on who is judging the matter. I’m not one for reading, although I enjoy hearing others read. Mrs Flint has a particularly soothing voice that puts me to sleep within minutes.”
The solicitor never missed an opportunity to talk about his wife, a woman twenty years his junior. Despite the age gap, the pair were smitten with each other.
“How is Mrs Flint?” William asked. “I hope she is well.”
“She is much better now that the physician has prescribed bed rest for her delicate condition. She wasn’t too happy about it, but she understands her health is far more important to me than running the household. Her mother has come to help.”
The man said the last part with a look of pain and resignation to some challenging times ahead. His mother-in-law, who was but two years older than him, was a meddlesome woman who had poked her nose in their affairs one too many times.
“I’m afraid I cannot stay too long to chat, Mr Flint,” said William. “Please pass my regards to your wife and mother-in-law. Will I be seeing you this week for dinner?”
The man nodded. “Yes, My Lord, but I might come alone if you do not mind. I’ll bring the legal paperwork on the property your father enquired about.”
After a few more exchanged words, the men parted ways, with the solicitor entering a sweet shop soon after, undoubtedly to appease his wife’s sweet tooth. The charming front window of the store featured boiled sweets, fruity confectioneries, and a few exotic concoctions that William wasn’t brave enough to try. The owner loved the weird and wonderful, often drawing his inspiration from countries like India and China. He had once offered a taste test of green tea ice for passersby, but it hadn’t been such a success. That hadn’t deterred the man from going above and beyond the usual flavour profiles of sweet treats, even calling himself an inventor born before his time. William briefly considered getting some chocolate squares for his father, which would only waste further time. Breaking into a comfortable gallop, he arrived at Stills Lane and slowed his horse to allow a carriage to pass him, frowning as the gentleman didn’t bother thanking him. The man appeared to be muttering angrily as he cracked a whip over his horse. Narrowing his eyes, William stared at the man’s retreating figure, recognising him as Thomas Milton, a man destined to end up like Beau Brummell if he didn’t curb his spending habits.
“There you are!” he heard a familiar voice say. “Is this an appropriate time to get here? The meeting is about to start, and I haven’t had the opportunity to tell you anything yet!”
William winced as he turned to his friend, nudging his horse away from a tuft of grass growing between stones. Martin was marching down the street towards him, his cheeks pink with either irritation or exertion.
“My apologies,” William called out, moving his horse forward. “I was thoroughly engrossed in another matter.”
“What matter would that be?” Martin asked, still approaching William and gesturing with his hand to climb off his horse.
“Well …” William trailed off, rubbing the back of his neck.
Somehow, being in a bookshop and talking to the family solicitor didn’t seem like a good enough excuse. Throwing his leg over and jumping down to land neatly on both feet, William wrapped his horse’s reins around his hand and led him forward as he tested his words.
“We have just over five minutes left before Kinsey calls us in for the meeting,” said Martin. “I should say nothing and let you walk into your fate.”
“What fate would that be?” William asked, his interest piqued.
“I don’t think I wish to say anything at this point,” said Martin, his lips thinning. “I should let you deal with the matter as it comes.”
“Do not be so petty, Marty. Not everything can be planned to the letter, and I am sorry for being a little late. What do you have to tell me?”
Martin’s jaw worked as he stared William down, or perhaps it was correct to say up as the latter man was an inch taller.
“Very well,” he eventually said. “You’re in danger of being thrown out of the club due to your continued flouting of the rules. I’ve warned you many times to adhere to what has been set out in our booklets, but you’re too stubborn to listen.”
William couldn’t say he was surprised. Indeed, he had seen it coming. He didn’t disregard rules; he just had bad luck when it came to following them. The club failed to consider that he had a life outside of the club and expected him to jump to attention whenever they desired it. William had grown accustomed to paying fines for various reasons like not turning up in uniform, not going to a meeting, missing target days, snubbing society dinners, or forgetting his medals at home. His annual bill to the society, counting his fines as well, usually added up to eighteen pounds, a fortune for others as it could buy a horse or cover the wages of a skilled worker.
“Have you listened to a word I’ve said?” Martin asked, breaking into his thoughts.
“I have, and I have nothing to say about it,” said William with a shrug. “Let them remove me from the membership.”
Martin let out a frustrated sigh, rubbing his brow. “You’re one of our best archers, Will. Letting you go would be like shooting off our noses to spite our faces. It makes no sense at all, but this is also your fault. I cannot keep speaking up for you and covering your misdeeds with the other members. I’m the vice president, for heaven’s sake! I have a responsibility to the society, including disciplining our members and ensuring wins at tournaments with other clubs. I can’t do both if you keep defying our rules. At least you’re wearing the white waistcoat and breeches, but where are the buttons?”
William felt somewhat apologetic about putting his best friend in a difficult position. Having Martin’s father as the president and being the vice president had expectations, but William wasn’t making it any easier on his friend. Looking down at his waistcoat, William noted he had forgotten to wear the gold buttons, gold loop, and dark blue feather. It was their differentiating feature from other societies. They also had a headpiece worn only on special occasions like dinners and balls.
“Come, come now,” said William. “I’m under a lot of stress, which is the very reason why I decided to come here. I would have skipped this meeting if not for my need to avoid my mother.”
Martin rolled his eyes. “Very well, but keep your arms in front of you as much as possible, and stay at the back where Father and the secretary cannot see you. They’re discussing your fate after the meeting.”
“I cannot wait,” said William sarcastically.
Martin looked heavenward and began marching forward, weaving through a group of men ahead of him. William followed with his horse, handing the thoroughbred to a footman at the club’s gate. The society had its own stables and a building that took up most of the street on one side. Its white-painted stucco facade and main front door framed by two columns were no different from the other buildings, but once one stepped inside, the many paintings, busts, and rooms let a person know they were indeed in an archery society. William entered the place moments later, greeting the servant at the doorway who ushered him into a room to store his outer garments before heading into the main hall where Martin was seated.
“You must be sorely vexed to leave me behind,” said William, sitting beside him.
“I’m frustrated— there’s a difference. I do not think you understand the consequences of your actions, Will. You may be a marquess, but you are not above the rules.”
“I would be the first to understand that,” William insisted. “I’m not as mindful as you are, Marty. I focus on other matters that require my immediate attention. Unfortunately, this club comes last.”
“Yes, that much is evident. Well, you’re in luck at the moment as the meeting has been postponed. Father had a sudden situation to attend to.”
“So your father is given a pardon because he is the president, but the rest of us must be fined?” William asked. “Do you see the disparity? The discriminatory treatment? Your father should be upholding the rules, yet he is the one breaking them. How can anyone point the finger at me?”
Martin rubbed his forehead, a habitual gesture that communicated his distress or frustration.
“Let’s not discuss this right now,” the man begged. “I’ve had enough troubles this week with tournament cancellations and the influx of people wishing to join the club.”
“That is perfectly fine with me,” said William, stretching his legs out and crossing them at the ankle as he observed the other members of the club.
A few of their friends joined them shortly afterward, discussing their plans for the upcoming hunting season.
“My parents wish to host a ball and call it the Glorious Twelfth of August,” said Jeremy Potter, an old school friend. “It’s not an original name, but it fits the purpose.”
“They’ll be in competition with other people who wish to do the same thing,” said William. “Everyone wants to be known as the people who officially ended the London Season and started the shooting season with a ball.”
“By everyone, do you mean your parents?” Jeremy questioned.
William shook his head. “Not at all. They wish to have a winter ball in December and host several events throughout the season.”
“I’m looking forward to those events,” said Martin. “Your parents are known to throw the best society parties.”
“Agreed,” Charles Malory added, a fellow member William got along with well enough.
“Do you mean to say our events are not up to par?” Jeremy asked.
Martin lifted an eyebrow, observing the bristling man. “Why in heaven’s name is this a competition? We were having a decent conversation, Potter. Do not bring your jealous nature into it.”
Jeremy turned red up to the roots of his hair. “That is not what I meant at all,” he protested.
“It certainly sounded like it,” Charles insisted.
“Well, it is not,” said Jeremy. “I tire of this conversation. I actually have capital news to share with you.”
“Oddly, I do as well,” Charles claimed.
“Are you both sharing the same news?” William asked.
“I do not think so,” said Jeremy. “I doubt anyone has been as lucky in love as I have. This London Season proved to be better than the ones I’ve previously attended. I have found myself a sweet lady whom I’m courting for a little while. I intend to ask for her hand before the fox hunt begins.”
“How long have you been courting her?” asked Charles. “I’ve already asked for my lady’s hand in marriage. We’re set to have a spring wedding next year.”
“I started courting her at the end of July,” Jeremy replied.
“You mean to court her for three to four months before asking for her hand?” asked Charles. “Is that not asking for someone to swoop in and take …”
The man didn’t complete his sentence as he turned wide apologetic eyes to William. This was the last conversation William had expected to have, especially when he was trying to avoid it.
“I didn’t mean that,” said Charles. “I, uh, wasn’t thinking when I said it.”
“It’s no secret that Jacob and Charlotte betrayed me,” William told him. “You shouldn’t have to avoid similar conversations on my account. Do continue with whatever you wish to say. I won’t be here to hear the rest of it,” he said, rising from his chair.
“Where are you going?” Martin asked. “The meeting is about to start, and you know you cannot miss another one.”
William shrugged his shoulder. “Home, I suppose. The club is welcome to remove my name from its membership. It’ll be one less thing to worry about. Good day, gentlemen.”
Coming to a public place had not been the right choice after all; William should have taken a ride to a quiet area and had only his thoughts to keep him company. The last two months had been stressful with his mother pushing him to attend the London Season and find a bride, but William had steadily refused. Now, he was simply worn out and in need of rest. He took his coat and walked out of the building, closely followed by Martin.
“I wish you would stay,” he said. “We can discuss whatever is bothering you after the meeting.”
“Why don’t you come to the house tomorrow, and we’ll share a bottle of wine?” William suggested. “I’m not one to drink alone, so I’ll need a companion.”
“Surely you do not mean to become drunk?” Martin asked, surprise apparent in his voice.
“Certainly not. A glass or two will not make me ape drunk, old friend. Will you come?”
“Of course,” Martin assured. “Someone needs to help you put your thoughts in order. Is this about your marital situation? Or rather, the lack of it?”
“We’ll discuss it tomorrow,” William insisted.
Martin was well aware that William sometimes suffered from the stress of keeping his parents happy while dealing with their mounting requests. It didn’t seem enough that he regularly watched over his wayward brother despite the man’s betrayal. William kept abreast of his brother’s movements through the continent, often sending him money to avoid destitution. Jacob had not returned home in the last four years, but it would be too soon if William ever saw him again.
“I’ll bring the bottle of wine,” said Martin, patting his shoulder.
William nodded, taking his horse from the footman. “Until tomorrow.”
He swung onto his horse, kicking its sides gently to drive the creature forward. He returned home quicker than usual and went straight to the library, keeping away from his parents. It was time for him to return to his own estate in Gloucester, but he had promised to remain with his parents until the end of the first hunting season month. That left him with three weeks to endure more conversations about how important it was to continue the family line with a legitimate heir. His parents had emphasised the legitimate part as though they expected him to run around siring children all over England. William wasn’t an irresponsible man in the slightest; that trait had belonged to his younger brother and him alone. Honour, loyalty to family, and responsibility were the virtues William lived by and applied to his everyday life. Unfortunately, it seemed that women were attracted to rakish men who promised the world and failed to keep their word. Jacob had done that very same thing when he promised to marry Charlotte after eloping with her, only to abandon her halfway to their destination and run away to another part of England. The scandal had shaken the family to the core, and Charlotte was promptly sent to live with an aunt in Wales when she returned home in shame. A big mess had been created by a selfish young man who had exercised his charms in the name of fun, a man who William had loved without reservation. The betrayal had affected him on many levels; as a man, a brother, and a son, and on top of everything, William had to fix the mess while nursing a broken heart. Understanding his aversion to marriage shouldn’t be challenging, but his mother continued to push the topic, and William was beginning to cave.
At dinner later that evening, he was pleasantly surprised when his mother’s favourite topic did not surface within the first ten minutes of the meal. However, halfway through the main meal, his mother suddenly launched into the dreaded subject.
“Mrs Potter has informed me her son will marry a lovely young girl next year,” the duchess said, cutting into a potato.
“Yes, I heard about it,” William replied, his heart sinking as he forked a piece of fried mutton into his mouth.
“That seems to be yet another friend getting married before you,” the duke added, his eyebrows lifted.
“My thoughts precisely,” his wife said, putting down her cutlery to sip her wine. She daintily wiped the corners of her mouth and placed her hands in her lap. “Perhaps this is a sign for you to follow suit.”
“I disagree,” said William. “I am not a person who follows the patterns of others.”
“But this is such a good pattern to follow,” his mother insisted. “Getting married is such a wonderful experience, son.”
William let his mother’s words go over his head as much as he could as he continued his meal. The food quickly became tasteless and was going down hard only to churn once it hit his stomach.
“Let the boy enjoy his meal, Sarah,” the duke gently chided. “He seems to be swallowing each mouthful a little harder than necessary.”
William shot his father a grateful look, hoping his mother would listen. Although the duke agreed with his wife about his need to marry, the man wasn’t one to poke at the matter like the duchess.
“You promised to support me in this,” the duchess argued, frowning at her husband. “We have to help our son understand that he has a responsibility to this—”
“Do whatever you please, Mother,” William snapped as politely as he could, placing his knife and fork down. “Choose the woman you prefer, and I’ll marry her.”
The duchess’ mouth dropped open for a moment before she broke into a smile. “Do you truly mean it?”
William wanted to yell that he wanted his mother to leave him alone and never mention the topic again, but that wouldn’t be received well. Instead, he nodded.
“Yes. Choose the woman, and I’ll marry her. Please excuse me.”
His parents didn’t bother calling him back to the table despite leaving before dessert. They were too thrilled about what William had just said and were discussing it excitedly. The foolish words had simply fallen out of his mouth as his temper had built, but now that he had given the promise, he couldn’t take it back. Instead of running away from marriage, William had given his mother the right to marry him off to the most eligible woman she could find.
The depiction of stags galloping through a forest was likely one of Agnes’ best works to date. The entire scene sat on a piece of fine linen that could easily be stitched onto a man’s handkerchief or pillowcase should the customer wish to put it to good use. A lady might even sew it inside her manteau to add something special to her ensemble or apply it to a cushion as a talking point with guests. Whatever the prospective customer chose to do with the piece was their prerogative and not Agnes’ problem once the money had exchanged hands and she received her pay. She didn’t necessarily do it for the money because creating unique embroideries was one of Agnes’ many loves, but it seemed only fitting that she made a little money from her skill. It saved her the need to ask her parents for money when they hardly had two shillings to rub together and keep warm. Her father had inherited a title and an estate with very little money due to the previous baron’s misuse of the family’s wealth, making the Humphries impoverished aristocrats. Perhaps that was too harsh a description of her family’s humble financial affairs, but their neighbours certainly made it seem that way. Despite her family’s lack of money, it wasn’t something Agnes obsessed over. She appreciated the respect and security it brought to the one who had it, but Agnes hated its power over mankind. Those who could not handle its power became greedy, covetous, selfish, and proud and often destroyed themselves and others around them.
“I could watch you do this all day,” her sister commented, her chin planted in her hand as she sat cross-legged on the parlour floor.
“Or you could do one yourself,” said Agnes. “You need only try and concentrate.”
Lavinia shook her head, pale ringlets dancing about her heart-shaped face. “I could never be as talented as you are, Aggie. It’s such a shame that you sell them all. I do not know if I would be able to go through all this trouble only to sell my masterpiece to someone who might not even appreciate all the effort.”
“Who is to say they do not?” Agnes asked, settling on the floor in front of her sister. “We cannot know the thoughts or hearts of everyone who buys my embroidery. Besides, I receive a good income that allows me some financial freedom.”
The younger sister snorted. “A few pennies is hardly a good income. Why, I’ve seen embroideries sold in shops that come nowhere close to the quality of your creations. Those sell for several shillings to pounds, while you receive eight to ten pennies apiece, perhaps two shillings at the most. That is less than a loaf of bread!”
“You forget that Penny sells the embroideries for me,” Agnes reminded her. “The middle and upper-class people tend to look down on servants and think them uneducated mules. Suppose I tell Penny to sell them for five shillings each? The customers might think her overstepping herself. Now, if she had owned a lovely shop where she could sell my creations, she would have been able to attach a higher buying price. We all must work within our means, Livvy.”
The maid took time out of her day every week to sell the embroideries at the weekly market because Agnes could not do it herself. It wouldn’t do for a baron’s daughter to be seen selling anything to the public, no matter their financial straits. To do so would bring unwanted scandal and further alienation for her family.
“It still does not make it right,” Lavinia insisted. “Quality work should be rewarded accordingly— servant or no servant.”
“Perhaps such things might happen in an ideal world, but we can only make do with the world we have right now,” said Agnes, reaching over to gently pinch her sister’s plump cheek.
Lavinia pulled away and stuck out her tongue, but there was only love and mirth in her eyes. The young woman was an even-tempered and gentle soul who knew nothing of the world’s evils because she lived a sheltered life. The sisters were six years apart, and as the older sister, Agnes had taken it upon herself to protect Lavinia from anyone and everything that could hurt her. Agnes often wondered if she was doing the right thing by wrapping her sister in wool, but she felt justified whenever she considered the alternative of pain, shame, and suffering.
“What has put such a frown on your face?” Lavinia asked, staring intently at her.
“Nothing you need worry about,” Agnes replied, smiling at her sister. “Why don’t we play a game of vingt-et-un? I think I left a deck of cards in one of these drawers.”
Getting to her feet, Agnes searched through the writing desk drawers, her eyes travelling to the embroidery she had set up on a stand. It was indeed a unique piece of artwork and a representation of how she often imagined freedom would feel if she possessed it. She wasn’t by any means imprisoned, and her parents didn’t make any unnecessary demands on her, but the world she lived in often felt stifling and monotonous. Agnes did the same things every day, from the moment she arose from her bed in the morning to when she lay down to sleep. At one point in her twenty-three years of life, she had had the opportunity to have more out of life, but the chance had unravelled before she could take a step to grasp it in her hands. Magnus Archibald had promised her the moon and stars and had spoken about exploring their country and travelling to distant lands. Agnes had taken his words to heart because she had loved him and believed he had cherished her just as much. Their plans and dreams had bonded them together as tightly as the stitches she wove on her embroidery, never expecting her parents’ lack of money to be the scissors that would snip the threads and have the entire design fall apart.
“You have that frown on your face again, Aggie,” Lavinia pointed out. “You’re overthinking about something again. What is it this time?”
Only Lavinia was privy to the moments where Agnes’ usual cheerfulness and laughter did not hide her troubling thoughts. It was a vulnerability only shared between two sisters and best friends, and Lavinia was both to Agnes.
“I have a hankering for wings,” said Agnes, pulling out a worn deck of cards from an oak drawer.
“Wings?” Lavinia repeated. “Do you mean the chicken wings Cook usually smothers in a black sauce? Although I am certain she used quail wings in the last dish. The wings seemed smaller than usual.”
Agnes laughed. “Goodness, no! I mean the ability to fly. Why has some mad inventor not created a contraption to put humans in the sky? How I would love to soar high above the heads of people and make my home upon a mountain top.”
“Your thoughts never fail to intrigue me. How would you live on the mountaintop?”
“The highest mountains usually have snow, so I could use that for water. I suppose I shall have to come down to find food, but the forests tend to have enough food for the animals, so I assume I could find enough food as well.”
“Would I be able to visit you?” Lavinia asked.
“I would come down to visit as often as you like,” Agnes said, taking her place on the floor again. “Are you ready to play?”
“I shall only lose again,” Lavinia complained. “I am not an accomplished player.”
“You need only concentrate, Livvy,” said Agnes. “However, this is more a game of chance than critical thinking. You cannot know what card you will pick next, which makes the anticipation rise. You may go first.”
Agnes dealt out two cards and placed the rest between them. She looked at her own cards and struggled not to smile. She had a king and an eight— that already made eighteen. Agnes was not going to pick up a card just yet. Lavinia pulled a card from the deck, gnawing her lower lip as she placed it with the others. She met Agnes’ eyes and sighed.
“I do not know what to do,” she cried, her expression pained and distressed. “This is a good number, but there is every chance that you have something better.”
“That is why card games are so exciting, dear sister,” Agnes told her. “You must take a chance.”
“I wish to take a chance, but not on this card game,” the young woman said, her cheeks turning pink.
Agnes’ invisible ‘sister antennae’ began to move above her head, alerting her to the meaning between her sister’s words. Not everyone went to London for the London Season; some people spent the warmer months in Cheltenham to visit the spa wells and seek eligible young men and women. Agnes and her family lived over twenty miles away from Cheltenham in Lydney, which lay between the Royal Forest of Dean and the west bank of the River Severn. It wasn’t uncommon for travellers to spend a week or two in their town to visit relatives while in Gloucestershire, and judging by the becoming blush on her sister’s cheeks, one of those travellers had made an impression on her.
“Will you not say anything?” Lavinia said, worry clouding her clear green eyes.
“I know that I am good at reading your mind,” Agnes replied, “but perhaps you should tell me a little more about this … chance.”
Lavinia ducked her head, hiding the stain on the tops of her cheeks. “You know very well what I mean, Aggie. Will you embarrass me by making me explain my feelings for him?”
Agnes inwardly sighed. She had been worried about the attention Paul Walters was paying her sister and Lavinia’s reaction to the young man. Lavinia was only seventeen, and while Agnes had been but two years older when she had fallen in love and deemed herself old enough to marry, she feared her sister was not mature enough for such a significant step in her life. Agnes had hoped her sister would marry at the more acceptable age of twenty-one, but the starry look in her sister’s eyes said differently.
“I know that you speak of Paul Walters, Livvy,” Agnes finally said. “He is due to leave soon, is he not?”
Lavinia excitedly shook her head. “He has agreed to stay with his grandparents until the end of November. Is that not wonderful?”
“Well, that depends on how you look at the situation.”
Lavinia frowned. “What do you mean?”
“What are his designs? Has he said anything that remotely sounds like a commitment to you?” Agnes asked.
Lavinia looked down at her lap as she twisted her fingers. “He declared his love to me when Mama and I went to the clothier this morning. We were only meant to deliver a letter, but some pretty cloth caught her eye in Mr Owen’s shop window. Paul was with his grandmother in the store.”
The young woman babbled so that anyone else listening to her would have failed to catch most of the words she said, but Agnes had heard them all.
“Oh, Livvy. Do not tell me that Paul took you aside in front of everyone?”
Lavinia shook her head in earnest. “Oh, not at all! Paul would never put me in such a predicament. He respects me and wishes only the best for me.”
Paul sounded just like Magnus with all his sweet words and promises of love. Agnes liked the man well enough and found him humorous, but experience had taught her that a man was not to be trusted until he could prove that money was not a deciding factor in his declaration of love or matrimony.
“How did he come to confess such feelings?” Agnes asked. “I do not think he would have said them so publicly. Mama would have said something.”
Lavinia raised her head, her entire face a blushing pink. “He helped me to our carriage after I stubbed my toe on the large stone Mr Owen uses to keep his door open. Mama and old Mrs Walters were behind us arguing with Mr Owen about keeping dangerous items in his store.”
“And I suppose he confessed his love while you cried over your stubbed toe?”
“You make it sound as though he said it just to quiet my tears,” Lavinia accused. “Paul loves me, Aggie; I know he does. I have never felt this way about a man before, and I doubt I ever will again. Paul is the one for me.”
“Is he aware of our financial situation?” Agnes enquired. “You do not have a large dowry, Livvy. That can deter a man quicker than a blazing fire.”
“I know that you are thinking about Magnus, but Paul is not like him,” Lavinia insisted. “Paul is aware that we do not have much money, and he does not care.”
“What of his parents? You must expect them to have a say in who their son marries.”
“Paul says he will speak to them once he returns to Northampton,” Lavinia told her. “I am confident he will convince them to accept me. Once they realise how much he loves and cherishes me, they will look fondly on our relationship and bless our union.”
Agnes stared at her cards instead of the look of first love in her sister’s eyes. This seemed to be her situation with Magnus all over again, which meant Lavinia would be hurt once Paul rejected her. She started when Lavinia placed a hand on her leg.
“I know what worries you,” the woman claimed, compassion wetting her eyes. “You’re afraid Paul will leave me just as Magnus did, but I assure you this is different.”
“You were only thirteen when Magnus left me,” said Agnes. “What can you recall of the situation?”
“I remember the anguish in your eyes, your silent cries as you lay in bed weeping, and how you lost your ability to smile for several months. I may not recall everything about the situation, but I know how you felt because it touched my heart as well. A piece of my heart resides in you, just as a piece of your heart resides in me, Aggie. I feel whatever you feel.”
Agnes bit her lower lip to keep the tears that threatened to fall. They had nothing to do with Magnus but the tenderness in Lavinia’s eyes. Her sister understood her well, making it harder to understand why she would wish to put herself in such a potentially harmful predicament.
“Magnus told me he loved me, and he wished to marry me, and I believed him,” Agnes said, covering her sister’s hand with her own. “I didn’t think money would become a problem, but it did. Love is not enough, Livvy.”
“But it can be,” Lavinia insisted firmly. “Paul has given me his word that he shall marry me once I turn eighteen. He believes seventeen is still too young.”
“I would prefer twenty-one.”
“I cannot wait four years to marry the man I love!” Lavinia protested, drawing her hand away. “I can marry younger than that as long as I have Mama and Papa’s blessing, which I’m confident shall be given. You were ready to marry at nineteen, were you not?”
“I was older than my years at nineteen,” Agnes argued.
Lavinia narrowed her eyes; her lips pursed as she placed her hands on her hips, or rather, her thighs.
“Do you mean to say that I am immature for my age?” she demanded.
“You are not worldly-wise,” Agnes explained. “That might work against you if you marry so young.”
“Then Paul shall protect me,” Lavinia replied, chin raised. “He shall be my husband, after all. Oh, can you not be happy for me, Aggie? I love Paul and think I shall die if I cannot be with him.”
Agnes’ eyes widened in alarm. “Do not ever speak of death over a man! No one is worth dying over— no one.”
Agnes had had a second to consider ending her life when Magnus left her and married another, but her love for her family had banished the thoughts away as quickly as they had come.
“I did not truly mean it,” Lavinia insisted. “It was just a silly thing to say.”
“Even silly things can mean something. Promise me that you’ll never think about it again, Livvy. You must promise me.”
Agnes desperately needed her sister to say the words and give her some peace of mind.
“I promise,” said Lavinia, frowning. “I would never do anything to hurt my family, Aggie. Surely you know that?”
Anything was possible under the influence of a broken heart, making Agnes worry that her sister’s sweet and innocent nature would not be able to stand under the pressure of intense emotional pain.
“Yes, of course, I know that,” Agnes said, pasting a smile on her face. “Why don’t we finish our game? I think I might be closer to twenty-one than you are. I will not pick up another card.”
“Neither will I,” said Lavinia as she laid out a queen, nine, and two. “Twenty. Have I won?”
Later that evening, after dinner, Lavinia went off early to bed, and Agnes seized her chance to speak to her parents. Lord and Lady Trafalgar were loving parents who relied on Agnes to keep their lives running as smoothly as possible. It was unheard of for a daughter to help manage the family finances, but her father appreciated her financial acumen and never decided without her. Along with a hand in their finances, Agnes was the strength of her family and the one who everyone consulted when a problem arose. They credited her with why their family was not stressed, unhappy, and angry when they had every ground to experience those feelings. Living in a small town like Lydney meant that everyone knew details about others best kept between family members but were aired out for all to see. As a result, the Humphries were looked down upon by other aristocrats in the area and were seldom invited to social events. Lord and Lady Frampton and their daughter Miss Phoebe Philips were a family that never wasted an opportunity to mock them under the pretence of being kind and friendly and influenced other aristocrats to practise the same attitude. Despite it all, Agnes and her family maintained their happiness and made do with what they had.
“May I take a moment of your time?” she asked her parents as they sipped port by the fireside.
Summer had not quite ended yet, but lately, one could feel the early icy winds of autumn in the evenings.
“Of course, dear,” her father replied. “You may take several if that is what you wish.”
“Perhaps you might need several to digest the news I have to tell you,” she told him, taking an armchair beside their settee.
Both her parents sat up straighter, their eyes rounding with concern. “What do you mean?” the baroness asked, setting her glass aside and scooting closer to the edge of her seat.
Agnes drew in a deep breath and launched into the decision she had taken soon after her card game with her sister.
“I wish to be married.”
Her parents jerked their heads at the same time, turning to look at each other in surprise before refocusing their attention on her.
“Married, dear?” her mother repeated. “This seems rather sudden. Is there any reason for this request?”
Most mothers would not ask any questions but start planning how soon they could make their daughters a focal point of all the available men. The baroness, however, had accepted that her eldest daughter might never marry and had been content with the decision. A little selfishness was involved as Agnes’ parents felt they could not do without their daughter and thus didn’t push her to marry, but they had never dismissed the subject entirely.
“I think it time that I put the past behind me and find a good man to take care of me,” Agnes replied. “I do have some criteria for the gentleman that we’ll all have to take into consideration. He must have some wealth to elevate this family and gain some respect. This should assist Lavinia in finding the right suitor when her time finally comes to marry.”
Agnes said nothing about her sister’s blooming love, believing it best to keep the news between them until they could discuss the matter further.
“Well,” her father began, scratching his chin. “I am not sure what to say, dear. You seem determined to marry, but what brought this change about? You cannot mean to marry solely for the benefit of your sister. We likely have a few more years before we need to bother about the topic.”
The baron was a shrewd man and could dig deeper into matters, whereas others would remain at the surface.
“I am twenty-three, Papa,” Agnes explained. “I would like to try this road one more time before I become a spinster. Also, we cannot deny that my marriage could help Livvy make a good match with a man worthy of her hand.”
“I suppose you are right,” the baroness agreed. “Although I think I need to sleep on this request.”
Agnes could almost see her mother’s thoughts. The baroness was torn between being happy about Agnes’ interest in marriage and worrying they might not cope so well without her.
“Yes, sleep on it, and perhaps you can find the best way to get me married before the year comes to an end,” said Agnes.
“But that is just months away!” her mother protested. “Surely you do not mean to marry so quickly?”
“I have always wanted a wedding around Christmas, Mama,” Agnes said, smiling. “Something about the happy season and snow falling makes everything seem magical.”
The baroness smiled, her eyes watering. “You have always wished to be a bride, dear. I would be a fool if I did not help you.”
Agnes’ body slumped a little as some of her tension eased away. “Thank you, Mama. How soon can we begin our search?”
“I need a little time, but I can speak to Martha,” her mother told her.
“Mrs Mellors?” Agnes asked.
“Yes, dear. She is a successful matchmaker and has the ear of many influential people. I am certain she can help us.”
For just a moment, Agnes considered telling her parents that it was all just a joke and she did not wish to marry after all, but the thought of her sister being rejected kept her silent. Lavinia needed her chance at love, and getting married was Agnes’ only chance to make it happen. Agnes’ dowry was no different than when Magnus walked away from her, but hopefully, Mrs Mellors could find a man who did not mind her humble state. She would just have to prove that she could be the perfect wife to the first gentleman who showed any interest in her.
“Falling for a Forsaken Marquess” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
An unforeseen rejection from her first love has left Agnes Humphries peacefully settling by the side of her family- that is, until her younger sister falls in love. Worried that their financial situation might also ruin her sister’s happiness, Agnes is determined to take matters into her own hands. With the help of a matchmaker, she soon meets Lord Hampton, hoping that their union can increase her sister’s chances to marry her beau. However, when the mysterious lord gradually captures her heart, Agnes will find herself torn between her true feelings and doubt.
Can Agnes have a second chance at love, or is she destined to be rejected by yet another suitor?
William Sculthorpe III, Marquess of Hampton, has no desire to marry, but his responsibility as the eldest son dictates that he must. When a matchmaker pairs him with the high-spirited Agnes, William is immediately repelled by her loud and intense personality. Little did he know that those exact traits would be part of why Agnes is the only one who can bring warmth and light back into his soul… As past ghosts of a betrayed love still haunt him, falling for Agnes will give a profound meaning to his brooding life.
Will his open wounds prove to be his worst enemy?
As their painful pasts turn into a path to find hope, William and Agnes slowly realise that they belong together. Yet, when William’s younger brother, who betrayed him by sabotaging his first love, appears, William will have to face his worst nightmare. Can Agnes and William survive the challenges that stands in their way? Will they take the reins and trust each other, or will they lose themselves in an endless heartbreaking sorrow?
“Falling for a Forsaken Marquess” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.