Clea held a quizzing glass to her right eye as she adjusted the height of a ‘presser.’ She had yet to think of a different name to better fit the button-like device she had created to poke holes through weaving pattern cards, but she wasn’t overly concerned with that yet. Perfecting her machine was of the utmost importance to prove to everyone how useful and revolutionary it could be for those in the carpet industry. No more tedious punching of cards for the loom; this machine would cut down the time and effort and make production a more efficient process. Well, at least, that was what she hoped would happen, but Clea needed more people to believe in her invention.
A tendril of dark brown hair escaped the clumsy bun she had created this morning, straight after leaving her bed. It was her ‘thinking bun’ and was usually the first thing she ‘put on’ in the morning before getting dressed and heading to her tinkering room. Clea would likely spend most of her day in that room, much to the annoyance of her mother and sister, and she would take her meals in there if not for the iron-clad rule that every family member had to sit together around a table to eat. It was a silly rule when all the women did was complain about their lives and judge others. Clea found it sad and amusing that the very people her mother and sister judged were the same ones they envied.
For example, her sister had a love-hate relationship with a childhood friend because the woman was married with her first child. Amanda had always believed she was prettier than her friend, Lady Hannah, and was mortified when the woman secured an earl during her first Season and was married the following year. Lady Hannah became Lady Cavendish, and Amanda was still unmarried despite seven years having passed since her first Season. Clea felt sorry for her sister, but she had to admit that the woman was her own worst enemy. Potential suitors soon lost interest once they discovered her mean streak that she never could entirely hide under her respectable and polite exterior. Amanda was something of an accomplished bully, with Clea absorbing most of the attacks at home. The woman seemed to have the belief that she could say whatever she wanted, no matter how cruel it was, and wrote it off as a mark of concern.
The sound of tools and clanging against metal were the only things that could be heard in her tinkering room, so the sudden sound of rustling papers drew her attention and prompted her to look behind her. Clea pursed her lips when she found her cat settling into a pile of notes on an old desk. The desk had belonged to her father during his school years and was passed down to Clea when she showed an interest in the academic world beyond what was considered normal for a young lady.
“Duchess Leah!” she scolded, putting her pen and quizzing glass down. “You know full well you should not play in my notes. Come away from there.”
The snow-white cat merely gave her a lazy look while flicking its tail back and forth. Clea knew that look well.
“What do you mean to attack?” Clea asked. “There are no rats in here. At least, I do not think there are any rats.”
She warily looked around her, searching for signs of a rodent. Clea was just a teensy bit afraid of rats and would rather not be in the same room with one.
“Where is it?” she asked the cat, her legs already feeling jittery.
Duchess Leah rose to her legs and leapt off the table towards the window where a white butterfly was hovering. Nearly collapsing with relief, Clea quickly opened the window wider and let the butterfly out, rather than risk it becoming the cat’s next victim.
“You ought to allow these creatures to live, you silly cat. They have done no harm to you. Now, I might not complain if it had been a rat, but I would still feel terrible about its death.”
Clea picked up the cat and cuddled her before putting the animal on a worn armchair. Every one of her furniture pieces was old and had a backstory, which was just the way she liked it. Amanda often teased her about her love of old things, but Clea didn’t care. She would much rather have a loved item when she could than something new, although there was nothing wrong with new things.
Clea heard a knock at her door and couldn’t decide if she wanted to sigh or groan. That would be a maid coming to call her to join the family for another eventful breakfast.
Crossing to the door, Clea opened it and smiled at the young woman. “I know, Mary,” she said. “Breakfast time. I’ll tidy up and make my way downstairs in just a moment.”
“I called you twenty minutes beforehand to give you time, Lady Clea,” the young woman told her. “You get a little lost when you’re in this room.”
“That I do,” Clea agreed. “Are they still in their rooms?”
“Lady Herbert had a tiny mishap with her dress and had Mrs Weaver called in to repair the damage,” Mary told her. “Your parents are in the parlour having their first cup of tea together.”
Clea struggled not to roll her eyes. “My sister called in Mrs Weaver to repair something on her dress? What is wrong with the dress?”
Amanda could have easily worn something else instead of calling Belle away from her family, but the woman thrived on being difficult.
“A rosette has fallen off,” Mary explained. “She wanted Mrs Weaver to put it back on.”
Clea inwardly shook her head. Belle was one of two seamstresses on the estate, but Amanda seemed to like bothering the young woman with silly problems that could be easily remedied by a maid. Perhaps Clea’s long friendship with Belle was her sister’s main reason for unnecessarily nagging the woman, which sometimes made her wonder if Amanda hated her. Clea didn’t want to believe that her sister hated her, but sometimes there was no other explanation. Amanda was everything Clea was not: well-liked, respected, and the perfect lady. There was no reason for Amanda to be jealous; thus, it only left the option of hate.
Perhaps it is more complicated than that, and I hope to find the reason one day to better understand my puzzling sister.
“Would you please give Duchess Leah some cream?” Clea asked the young maid. “I thwarted her plans to kill a butterfly, and now she seems somewhat annoyed with me. A bit of cream and perhaps a little fish head should placate her.”
The kitchens had a steady supply of fish heads because Clea’s father adored fish pie. The earl had it every day without fail and would gladly refuse fancier fare if he had to choose between the humble pie and a sumptuous dish.
“Of course, my lady,” said Mary, giving her a respectful nod before entering the room. “Come, Duchess Leah. You’ll have a lovely treat today to sweeten any sourness you may have. In all sincerity, you shouldn’t be trying to kill innocent butterflies that have done you no harm. You’re much better off getting rid of nasty rats that make holes in the flour bags and eat little children’s feet.”
Clea shivered at the maid’s words. She hadn’t always been afraid of rats; Clea had learned a healthy fear of them after one of the servants’ children woke up one day with bites taken out of their heels. It had been a horrendous sight, and a physician was called to assess the damage. Fortunately, the child was not severely affected and even somehow grew her skin back, so one could never tell a hole had been there before. Of course, a few bite marks remained, which seemed odd when considering how the tiny holes grew back. Clea put it down as the many wonders of the human body.
Leaving her study, Clea made short work of the distance between the room and her bedchamber. They were on the same floor, which was helpful during those long days when she didn’t want to climb stairs. Amanda wasn’t so keen about having a tinkering room on their landing, but it was at the very end and barely noticeable unless one was curious. Of course, this didn’t stop Amanda from complaining about it every now and then when she was bored and needed to nitpick about something. Clea usually stayed far away whenever she noticed her sister was in one of her moods, but Amanda always managed to get hold of her at some point during the day or even the following day. Amanda wasn’t a terrible person; although that was the initial judgement, she merely needed to adjust her distorted self-worth. Everyone was important, but Amanda believed she was better than others and deserved to be treated differently.
Clea rubbed away at the ink stains on her fingers, wondering why she still tried. They never budged until she soaked in a steaming tub of hot water for at least twenty minutes or until her fingers and toes looked like shrivelled prunes. Her mother would surely have something to say about the stains and never seemed to grow tired of complaining about the same thing over and over again. Despite all the complaints, nitpicking, and judgement, Clea lived a happy life and had accepted her family, warts and all. Her father made up for the lack of support from her mother and sister when it came to her love of invention or tinkering, as the women often put it. The word had been said negatively, but Clea had liked it so much that she had asked a carpenter to make her a sign that read ‘Clea’s Tinkering Room’ to put on her invention room’s door.
“Well,” she said to her reflection in the full-length mirror. “This is the best I can do.”
Her hair was neat, her dress was presentable, and she was clean if one didn’t count the ink stains on her fingers. She needed to find a way to avoid messing her fingers when writing down her notes, but Clea usually became so engrossed in what she was doing that she didn’t think about such matters until it was too late to do anything about it. At least she had made headway with her invention this morning. Clea had woken up with an idea to adjust her pattern-punching machine to include multiple pattern cards both horizontally and width-wise. Usually, weavers had to painstakingly punch holes through every individual card and sew them together to control the pattern on the loom, but Clea’s invention would make punching cards a less troublesome and mundane activity.
Clea had first come up with the idea after Belle spoke about the troubles her husband, David, went through at work. He worked at the Wilton Royal Carpet Factory, which was owned by Clea’s family, and he was regularly exhausted with all the tedious repetitions necessary when working with the loom. One wouldn’t think that an employee would complain about such things to the daughter of their employer, but Belle and Clea had been friends since childhood and told each other everything with complete confidence that the other would keep their conversations private. Thus, it was no hardship for the family’s seamstress to speak about her husband’s plight at the family factory. It was a wife’s worry for her husband that had moved Clea to create something that would ease David’s load and give him some breathing space.
Clea made her way downstairs and entered the drawing room to find no one sitting at the table. That rarely happened, which gave her the upper hand to do a little harmless teasing of her own. It would likely rile her mother and sister up, but her father would play along and enjoy the bit of humour in the morning.
Amanda sauntered in first, wearing a pretty yellow dress with embroidered daffodils. This wasn’t the dress Mary had described; she had mentioned rosettes, but these were daffodils. Knowing that she had disturbed Belle’s morning for a dress she did not wear left Clea annoyed.
“So, you’re here already,” said Amanda. “That’s a change.”
“A pleasant one, I hope.”
“Pleasant is having a normal sister who cares about her sister’s future,” said Amanda. “This is just a change. Is that what you’re wearing today?” she asked, looking at Clea’s dress.
Clea looked down at herself. “It’s what I usually wear.”
“I know that, but you could have put more effort into your appearance.”
Clea frowned. “Why does my dress bother you today? You have seen me wear it before, and you’ve never said a word against it.”
“That is because your entire existence bothers me!” Amanda snapped.
Clea’s eyes widened in surprise. Her sister was in one of her moods again, but Clea didn’t feel like sitting quietly by while Amanda had her little rant. A little change in conversation and a bit of teasing would turn this argument on its head.
“Is this any time for you to arrive for breakfast?” Clea asked with a haughty tone.
Amanda pulled her head back, forming a double chin. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me well, dear sister,” Clea replied. “Arriving late is considered the height of rudeness. Can you be a lady if tardiness is one of your traits?”
Amanda’s nostrils flared as her eyes widened. “Did you hit your head on the way downstairs? Or did all that tinkering finally destroy what little common sense you have in your head?”
Clea took none of her sister’s words to heart. “I do not deny my behaviour, but imagine what would happen if everyone discovered that you are not a true lady?”
“Not a true lady? How dare you!”
“Oh, I dare, Sister dearest,” replied Clea with a smile. “However, since you are my sister, I suppose I should be lenient with you.”
Clea had no intention of speaking against her sister, but she loved seeing her sister’s puffed-up cheeks and desperation to keep her reactions as ladylike as possible. Extreme emotions were not allowed in Amanda’s world, but she didn’t need them when she knew how to throw out words that could cut a person deeply.
Amanda shook her head and took her seat. “It’s like we have two different sets of parents. How will you get married when you behave so oddly and say things that do not make sense?”
“I suppose I will have to find someone as insane as I am,” said Clea. “Normal people like you will never do.”
“At least we agree on one thing,” Amanda muttered.
Their parents entered the drawing room with their mother’s hand firmly attached to their father’s arm and their heads close to each other as they discussed something between them.
“I almost thought our family rule no longer applied to you,” Clea remarked. “I was almost certain you were planning to have breakfast in the parlour.”
The countess turned to her and frowned. “Whatever do you mean, dear?”
“Such tardiness is not allowed in this family, Lord and Lady Pembroke,” said Clea, tsking.
Her mother’s expression was similar to Amanda’s, but the earl had a twinkle in his eyes. He knew she was merely jesting with them.
“We are terribly sorry, Lady Clea,” he apologised, bowing to her. “It will never happen again.”
“You’re sorry?” the countess said. “Have you lost your senses? Clea has been late to breakfast more times than I care to count! However, we always let it go and continue our meal in peace.”
Clea didn’t mean to snort out loud, but she did and had to cough to try and cover it up. Her mother knew full well that wasn’t the truth. They usually berated her throughout their meal and listed all her unwanted traits in an effort to change her, but Clea was past the stage of changing for others. She accepted herself fully, which was why she could handle comments that attacked her person.
“Oh, do sit and enjoy your food, Mama,” said Clea. “My neck is aching from looking up at you. Did you grow an inch overnight? At this rate, you might surpass Papa and be able to see his bald patch on the top of his head.”
“Did you just hear that, Jonathan?” the countess shrieked. “Will you allow her to say whatever she wishes? I think she has forgotten who we are.”
“My memory can be a tad fickle at times, but I am certain you are the Earl and Countess of Pembroke,” Clea told them, reaching for some toast. “You have two daughters, one who is the perfect lady and one who brings you nothing but headaches because she does not meet your standards. She prefers to tinker around and make inventions that she swears will help others live better lives. Have you ever heard such a ridiculous thing in your life?”
At this point, Clea was only half-joking. Sometimes, she liked to remind her mother and sister that she was aware she wasn’t all they hoped for her to be, but that didn’t change her mind about what she wished to achieve in life.
“Well, I’m glad we share the same opinion,” the countess replied, sitting down. “However, that doesn’t seem to change a thing. You would be easier to marry off if you abandoned your tinkering habit.”
“Is marriage more important than helping others?” Clea asked, adding strawberry preserve to her toast.
“What a question!” Amanda exclaimed. “Of course it is, you silly girl. We ought to destroy your tinkering room, so you finally see there is more to life than doing silly things.”
Clea paused. “Silly? I’ll have you know that the machine I’m building will improve the process of making weaving patterns.”
The countess frowned and scrunched up her nose. “Are you still busying yourself with that contraption? I fail to see how that will help with weaving. It sounds nonsensical to me.”
“It’s just the same as making punch cards for the loom, but my contraption will make it more efficient and significantly cut down the time for each pattern.”
Amanda shook her head. “You need to stop this, Clea. You’ll only be disappointed when you realise that your invention will never work. Leave such things to men. Women should not be fiddling with things that do not concern them.”
Usually, Clea would bite her tongue and say nothing else, but she needed to defend her invention because she was certain now more than ever before that it would work.
“You are wrong,” Clea told her sister. “Anyone with a brain is entitled to use it however they wish. I create inventions, and while some of them may not work, some do. I just need a little more time before this one is ready to show everyone how it works.”
“Jonathan, you need to say something to your daughter,” the countess implored him. “Look how she spends all her time in that room when she could be doing something better like trying to secure her future. She just doesn’t care!”
“Do calm down, dear,” the earl said, patting his wife’s hand. “Why don’t we enjoy our breakfast and talk about this another day?”
“Why don’t you understand my fears, Jonathan?” the countess demanded. “Why do you encourage her unruly behaviour?”
“This is not encouragement, dear,” the earl insisted. “I can never quite digest my food after having an argument at the table. I’m sure our daughter is aware of your concerns.”
“She is aware, but she pretends to be ignorant, so she can do as she pleases,” the countess replied. “However, I refuse to allow my youngest daughter to ruin her life in this manner.”
“But, my dear,” said the earl. “Is it so wrong to have a hobby that one takes pleasure in? Some girls collect accessories for their hair, and others collect butterflies. Inventing is but another hobby.”
“Do not tell me you believe that!” the countess exclaimed. “A hobby does not take you away from the realities of life, and that is getting married once the right moment arrives.”
Clea wished to know precisely how a person knew when the right moment arrived because she failed to see any evidence to support her mother’s claim, but she knew better than to ask such questions when the vein in her mother’s left temple was visible. It was better to let her father calm his wife down than to speak and perhaps have her mother ban her from the tinkering room.
This morning’s argument had taken on a more serious note than she expected, and now she regretted poking fun at her family.
I’m confident the little teasing would have worked wonderfully in another family, but I keep forgetting that I’m somewhat of a disappointment to them. At least Papa is always on my side.
“I see they have my favourite sausages this morning,” the earl remarked, stabbing one with his fork. “Would you like one, dear?”
“Will you ignore our argument for the sake of food?” the countess asked.
The earl sighed. “I simply wish for a peaceful meal, but I see that will be difficult. It’s no secret that I support Clea’s inventions because she believes in them. I would do the same for Amanda. I see no harm in allowing our daughter to pursue something she believes will help improve our factory’s efficiency.”
“Do you truly believe in this nonsense?” the countess asked. “It’s this very same scandalous bookishness and bad habits that will ensure she never marries! Our poor Amanda has been out for seven Seasons, yet she has not managed to secure a match because of her own sister. She is now four-and-twenty—do you know she does not have long before she becomes an old maid?”
“Mama!” Amanda complained.
“There is no reason to hide the truth, dear,” their mother said. “We should speak frankly about the matter, so that your sister is aware of the consequences of her behaviour.”
“You cannot blame Clea for this,” the earl argued. “Amanda has been out for seven years, and Clea entered society five years ago. That leaves two years for Amanda to have found someone and matched with them before anyone even knew about Clea’s love for invention.”
The table fell silent, and Clea gave her father a smile of thanks. She believed the argument was over with, but it seemed her mother still had much to say on the matter.
“I want both my daughters married within three years,” the countess announced. “Sooner, if possible. In order for this to happen, things must change. No more discussing ridiculous tinkering in front of guests, and no more shunning them in favour of spending time in that room. If you can do this, then you shall keep your room.”
Clea’s brow furrowed as the last of her mother’s words sunk in. “Do you mean to take away my room?”
“Not unless I have to,” her mother responded. “Do you not see how destructive your behaviour is, dear? I want you to settle down, but I worry that you’re simply too educated and, well, too strange to attract any suitors. You need a lot of help in this area, so you need to listen to me and do as I say. I’ve thought about this for several days now, and I’ve made up my mind.”
“What does that mean?” Clea asked, no longer concerned about her food.
“If you wish to keep your room, you must do whatever I say. Doing so will ensure that you no longer cause our family embarrassment, and Amanda can finally find a good man to settle down with.”
Clea found it amusing that her mother never once mentioned Amanda’s bullying as the usual cause for suitors losing interest. If the woman could curb that, she would likely find someone interested in taking the next step with her.
“If you can find a man who will accept me for who I am, then I am more than willing to get married to him,” said Clea, rising to her feet. “Until then, please do not threaten me as though I am just a problem to be done away with. Please, enjoy your meal.”
“Clea!” her mother scolded. “How dare you speak to me in this manner!”
“The one thing that being educated does for a person is point out the faults in arguments,” said Clea. “I used to care that I wasn’t considered the ideal daughter, but I realised that my self-worth is not defined by others. I have no objections to getting married, and I have much to offer the right man, but I refuse to change myself when you have failed to address every factor involved in Amanda’s inability to get married.”
Shaking her head, Clea left in the midst of her mother and sister’s complaints. She would likely regret being so outspoken later, but at least she had said what was on her mind. Clea kept repeating to herself that she had done the right thing, but she had likely stirred the hornet’s nest and needed to be prepared for whatever sting may come.
Michael laced his hands behind his head as he lay in a soft patch of grass. He had things to do today, but he had chosen to hide away instead to secure a few moments for himself. His valet was probably looking everywhere for him and would be panicking about not making their appointments, but Michael had not been the one to make them, so he shouldn’t be obligated to meet them. That would have been a sound argument if not for the prestige that his name bore. Being the eldest son of the Sheriff of Cornwall and a military knight in his own right, people looked to him to uphold a standard that Michael doubted many others could handle. At times, he wished he was one of those dandies who went wherever they wanted, spent their days dressed in fine attire, so they could walk around and be admired, and bent the rules to accommodate their hedonistic lifestyles.
His horse neighed somewhere in the distance, alarming him. The beast had been near him not so long ago, but he now sounded several yards away. Sitting up, Michael looked around him until his eyes fell on the black horse eating a patch of grass to his right.
“What are you doing all the way over there, Phoenix?” he asked. “There’s plenty of grass right here.”
The horse raised his head to acknowledge him but quickly turned away and continued eating. Michael shook his head and lay down again, focusing on the clouds above him. He used to enjoy picking out different shapes and giving them identities, like a piglet trotting along a dirt road or a roaring dragon burning down a village. His imagination had never failed to make something out of a blob of cloud, but the last few years had changed him. It was hard to see much beyond the tip of one’s nose when all they ever heard was how important it was to settle down and get married. Michael’s father had been troubling him since he turned six-and-twenty three years earlier and had even selected a woman for him. According to the sheriff, Lady Elena Cosgrove was everything a man could ever want or need in a woman, but Michael’s opinion differed. He had met Lady Elena on several occasions and found her beautiful but terribly dull. He needed a woman who could stimulate his mind or add to his life rather than someone whose main contributions to a marriage were her beauty and dowry.
Michael noticed the sun was crossing over into the west, signalling late afternoon. No matter how much he didn’t want to return to his life, Michael couldn’t keep his valet looking for him forever. Also, he had no clue who owned the land where he was currently taking a rest.
Ha! I’m hiding, not resting. Although the two do go hand in hand.
Michael whistled for his horse as he rose to his feet, dusting off the bits of grass that had stuck to his attire. He was glad he hadn’t interrupted a nest of ants, or he might have trouble getting rid of them. That had once happened to him, and only a steaming hot bath had been able to get rid of them all. Michael had not dared lie on a grassy patch for months after that incident, but he soon got over his fears and enjoyed the activity again. He didn’t have many occasions to spend time alone as there was always something to do, but now that his father was nowhere near him to judge, Michael could make full use of this opportunity afforded to him.
He should be at home working on his business plans and earning the trust of investors, but he was stuck in Wilton for several months. Still, never one to waste an opportunity, Michael intended to use his time here wisely by looking for opportunities in the local textile trade. Not having to deal with Lady Elena for some time was certainly a relief, but Michael had foolishly promised his father that he would pay a visit to the Herbert sisters on the pretext that he intended to court one of them. Michael didn’t know why he had said such a ridiculous thing when he was aware that Lady Herbert was known to have a nasty temperament, but he had been so desperate to get away from his father’s matchmaking that he had simply said whatever had sprung to mind. The younger sister would likely be no better, but Michael could do nothing except follow through with his word. The Herbert family were awaiting his request to call upon them any day now, and he had been putting it off for a while, but any longer would prove problematic. The earl would see Michael’s delay as a snub and undoubtedly send a note to the sheriff voicing his displeasure. Michael grimaced to think how his father would react to the news that his eldest son had not kept his word.
“Your word is your honour,” Michael said, mimicking his father. “Why do the older generation always think they know what is best? They bicker and moan about their lives and try to force the younger generation to follow in their footsteps. It’s a never-ending cycle.”
Michael wanted something different for himself, and he would do everything within his power to make it happen.
He swung up onto Phoenix, urging the beast into a slow trot. They left the grassy area and entered a narrow road that could only take one horse at a time or perhaps two thin people walking side by side. It seemed more like a path that servants would make as a shortcut to and from a place and not at all a usual road created to accommodate travellers. Wilton House was somewhere nearby, and perhaps the land where he had taken a brief rest was part of their property. If that were the case, the earl certainly had a large estate that swallowed a patch of woods and a stream teeming with fish. This land looked ideal for hunting or doing a spot of fishing on a cool spring day. The hunting season was nearly upon them, so perhaps the earl would allow him to work off a little stress by making good use of his game, but the man might take advantage and push one of his daughters on him.
Fathers were no better than mothers when it came to trying to get their daughters married. They could plot just as much and do whatever they could to get their daughters attached to a worthy suitor. Sometimes, the suitor wasn’t suitable at all, but a father’s desperation to get a daughter off their hands eclipsed his daughter’s future happiness.
“There you are, Sir Michael!” his valet cried, appearing out of thin air. “How I have looked everywhere for you. Where did you go without saying a word?”
“Didn’t I say something?” asked Michael. “I’m terribly sorry. I thought I did.”
Stephens’ brow furrowed. “I would remember if you did, Sir Michael. You have missed several appointments today, but I was fortunate enough to convince them to meet another day. Why set times and dates you do not intend to keep?”
Michael shrugged. “I haven’t the faintest clue. I suppose they are to keep me busy while I navigate the world of courtship and marriage.”
Stephens frowned. “Have you made up your mind about which daughter you’ll court? But you have not met them yet.”
“That is not what I meant. If I could avoid going to Wilton House, I would. I haven’t heard any good things about those sisters other than they’re beautiful.”
“I recall you were told the older sister possibly has a bullying trait under her polite façade,” said Stephens. “Although that hasn’t been confirmed. Perhaps the younger sister is different.”
“Perhaps, but I shall not hold my breath. I rarely find sisters who are entirely different in temperament. They might have a few defining qualities that separate them, but it’s difficult to be significantly different when you’re taught the same things from knee height.”
“The whole purpose of their education is to raise women who are well-bred and marriage-ready,” the valet pointed out. “They can hardly be blamed for being similar.”
“I’m not blaming them,” Michael argued. “I simply disagree with their education. It makes my mission to find the perfect wife much harder because searching for a woman with her own mind is like looking for something you dropped in the ocean. Do I have anywhere specific I need to be?” he asked, changing the subject.
“You were going to have dinner with Mr Isaac and his wife, but I cancelled it,” said Stephens. “I was afraid you would not return on time, so I told them you were not feeling well and asked to have the dinner at a later date.”
Michael’s shoulders dipped with relief. “Good man, Stephens, good man. I was not in the mood to smile and be polite this evening. I’ll take a light meal in the drawing room before I retire.”
“Yes, Sir Michael,” Stephens replied. “I’ll speak to the chef once we arrive at the house.”
They turned their horses in the direction of their lodgings and rode in companionable silence. Stephens was one of those rare servants who anticipated what his master needed before it was said and understood his moods well. Michael wasn’t sure if he was an open book that could be easily read by an observant person or if Stephens was merely an excellent valet, but it certainly helped to have someone like him around. The man was also his voice of reason at times, which was why Michael liked to get away to have a moment of recklessness. These moments never lasted long because his valet would find him sooner or later, but those precious minutes and sometimes hours of freedom were like breaths of crisp air on early spring mornings.
The house Michael had rented for his stay in Wilton belonged to a family friend who was currently in Scotland visiting an ailing aunt. Lord Tipton’s aunt had been dying since 1805, and it was now 1814. An entire nine years had passed, yet the man still held hope the woman would finally give up the ghost and leave him her fortune. Michael had a feeling the old woman had no designs to die yet and was only pretending to be sick so she could have her family around her more often. He had once met the woman some years ago and quickly picked up that while she looked weak on the outside, her mind was still sharp and attentive.
“Do you think I might be able to see Lord Pembroke before I meet his daughters?” Michael asked. “Or would that be considered rude?”
“I think it best you call on him at home before trying to discuss business.”
Michael smiled. “How did you know that was what I wished to discuss?”
“Your mind is seldom off the topic, Sir Michael,” Stephens replied. “Also, you mentioned wanting to get into the textile trade.”
“So I did.”
Michael had sent a letter of introduction some days ago and had been surprised by how quickly he had received a letter of invitation to call on the family at his earliest convenience. He surmised they were probably desperate to marry off their daughters because they were lacking in interested suitors. Lady Herbert was four-and-twenty, and Lady Clea was two-and-twenty, which was not too old in Michael’s opinion. He believed five-and-twenty was the right age for a woman to marry as they were more mature and ready to be mothers. Michael had formed this opinion after watching his seventeen-year-old cousin marry a man of thirty years and have a baby girl the following year. The woman was so unprepared for the realities of motherhood that she immediately gave the child to a wet nurse and continued with her life as though the baby didn’t exist. The situation was worsened because she had failed to give her husband a male heir. Michael didn’t want a woman who lacked maternal instincts and believed older women were less likely to show such indifference towards their flesh and blood.
They arrived at the house, where he quickly washed up and had a meal of bread, cheese, cold meat, and fruit in the drawing room before heading to bed. Tomorrow would be a busy day as he had to make up for the time lost today, and Stephens would be sure to keep a closer eye on him lest he run off again. Perhaps coming to Wilton on holiday had not been one of his best ideas, but Michael had been desperate to get away from Lady Elena. Recalling Lord Tipton’s talk about leaving England for Scotland and his brief mention of the Herbert sisters had been Michael’s way out of an unwanted situation. He couldn’t remember everything the viscount had said about the sisters, and he hadn’t cared at first, but now Michael regretted not finding out a little more about them before meeting the young women. He could meet another version of Lady Elena, which would probably send him running for the hills.
Think good thoughts. They might not be so terrible once I get to know them.
Perhaps the hardest thing he’d have to do was choose between the sisters.
Michael lay in bed as he thought about his day ahead. His meeting with the Herbert sisters sprung to mind, prompting him to groan and pull the covers over his head. Instead of talking himself into seeing the women, he had talked himself into the worst possible scenario. He imagined them to be women with nothing but air between their ears and nasty temperaments that would only worsen with age. Michael was going to regret today, he just knew it.
“It’s time to wake up, Sir Michael,” said Stephens, walking into the room and opening the drapes.
Michael hissed. “Must you do that?”
“Are you a vampire that you cannot stand the sun?” the valet asked. “Besides, you have the covers over your head, so you should not be affected.”
“It’s what will happen after removing these covers that I’m afraid of.”
“Oh, come now, Sir Michael. Surely a knight is not afraid of sunlight? Or perhaps it is not the sunlight you are afraid of but two lovely ladies looking forward to your company today.”
Michael lowered the covers. “I think you should send an apology to them with my regrets that I cannot join them today.”
“I will do no such thing,” Stephens protested. “We have cancelled enough appointments in Wilton. People will start thinking you’re unreliable and not a man of your word, which will put a damper on the business plans you have for the textile trade in this county.”
Michael closed his eyes and sighed in frustration. “Why must you always be right? Doing the right thing always seems so much harder than doing the wrong thing.”
“Doing wrong is undoubtedly easier, but the consequences are not worth it.”
“Yes, yes, I’m well aware of that. Do not ruin an already bad morning.”
“But that would be impossible, Sir Michael,” said Stephens, opening his wardrobe. “How does one ruin an already bad morning? I’d say calling it bad means it is ruined already.”
Michael sat up in a huff. “You are seconds away from having an ill-tempered master. Would you like me to meet the Herberts in a foul mood?”
“Did you intend to see them in a good mood?”
Michael narrowed his eyes. “Your devotion and loyalty to my family are the only reasons I turn a blind eye to these little comments given to get under one’s skin without appearing overly obvious.”
“I am sure I do not know what you mean, Sir Michael,” the man replied. “Here is your attire for the day. Are you ready to shave?”
“It doesn’t matter whether I’m ready or not,” Michael grumbled. “Duty always comes before one’s personal feelings.”
He got out of bed, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes as he took a seat in front of his valet, who was preparing his shaving tools. Stephens was excellent at producing a close shave so Michael wouldn’t have to repeat the activity before dinner. His facial hair grew quite fast, and he usually sported stubble by four o’clock. However, the valet’s method left him smooth until late at night.
“I wonder how many employees have imagined slitting their masters’ throats while they shaved them?” said Michael as he tilted his head up.
Stephens said nothing at first as he was focused on removing the hair around the neck area. Eventually, he brought Michael’s chin down as he answered the question. “I imagine most have felt that way at one point or another, but very few would do it. I can assure you I have harboured no ill intent towards you.”
“I already know that,” Michael assured him. “You’ve proven your worth and loyalty enough times for me to trust you with my life.”
“Thank you for your confidence, Sir Michael. If only all employers were as generous with their words.”
Stephens finished shaving him and left Michael to his ablutions while he readied the carriage. The valet had insisted that arriving by carriage would be better than going on horseback. Michael didn’t see why, but he knew better than to argue with his valet. There was always a good reason behind the man’s actions and decisions, and Michael had learned to trust them over time.
Stephens returned to help Michael with his clothing, ensuring that all sat perfectly on him. Michael could do this alone, but his valet wouldn’t hear of it. The man would brush his teeth if Michael hadn’t put his foot down.
“Breakfast is ready, Sir Michael,” said Stephens, adjusting his cravat. “You’ll have the rest of the morning to yourself before we set off for Wilton House around one.”
“How generous of you,” Michael replied dryly. “I hope Lord Pembroke will be there to take some of the pressure off me. Desperate parents will leave a dimwitted chaperone behind while waiting in the wings to find out if it’s a good match.”
“They likely think it’s easier that way,” said Stephens. “Parents will want to encourage a relationship between the suitor and their daughter, which might be difficult if they hover about.”
“The sisters won’t need a chaperone because they’ll be meeting me together,” Michael said, quickly realising how troublesome that could be. “What if they start bickering amongst themselves?”
“Why would they do that?”
“It’ll be a contest for who gains my interest first.”
“That is if they are interested in you,” Stephens pointed out.
“I do not see why they wouldn’t be. I have good standing in our society, I have enough wealth to comfortably take care of a wife, and many consider me handsome.”
The valet nodded. “You sound like the ideal suitor, but you still might not gain their interest. Just as you have qualities that you look for in a woman, these sisters might have a few things they hope to find in a man they’ll marry.”
“I don’t think that will be a problem,” said Michael. “Lord Tipton mentioned Lady Herbert was having difficulty finding a match. I doubt she’ll be fussy about who she marries at this point.”
“What of the younger sister?” Stephens asked.
Michael shrugged his shoulders. “Lord Tipton didn’t have much to say about her, and I cannot remember even if he did. I expect Lady Clea will be like her sister. Have we not spoken about this already? One would think you are the one meeting these women.”
“I’ll admit that I am a tad anxious,” the valet confessed. “I am always like this before you meet a potential match. I want everything to go well so you can finally settle down.”
“You sound like my father and mother combined,” Michael remarked.
“I cannot profess to being as concerned as them, since they are your parents, but I look forward to meeting the young woman who will capture your heart.”
“I doubt either of the Herbert sisters will be that woman,” Michael stated. “I’m going to meet with dull women who will try to engage me in dull conversation. Maybe one of them will offer to play the pianoforte while the other sings. If that is not enough, they’ll bless me with a reading from a book that I’ll find just as dull.”
“You’ve certainly made up your mind about these women without having met them,” said Stephens. “I hope you’re wrong about them.
Michael snorted. “I’m rarely wrong about anything because I do not give my opinion unless I am certain. I may not know much about them, but my hunch says this afternoon will be dismal.”
Making his way to the drawing room, Michael considered if he was cursing the afternoon before it had even happened. However, one couldn’t condemn something that was destined to fail.
“The chef has prepared a hearty breakfast to fortify you, Sir Michael,” said Stephens, lifting the lids off several dishes.
“I do not know if I have the appetite for anything more than toast and coffee,” Michael replied.
“The chef will be disappointed, Sir Michael,” Stephens told him. “After not eating much at dinner, he wanted to ensure you ate enough today.”
“Tell the chef I do not eat heavy foods in the morning.”
The thought of eggs and sausages when his stomach was already knotted made Michael feel ill. It was his own fault, as he had talked himself into thinking the worst about meeting the Herbert sisters today. It was true that a person was their own worst enemy.
Stephens tilted his head slightly. “You usually enjoy such foods, Sir Michael. The chef was given a list of all the foods you enjoy, and he has kept to that list.”
“Very well, tell him I can only eat these foods when I do not have appointments,” said Michael.
“I’ll give him your schedule, so he is always aware,” his valet said.
Michael nodded and called the footman to him. “Remove everything except the toast, preserves, and coffee. Make sure it’s fairly distributed among the servants.”
The footman bowed and made short work of removing the offending foods, undoubtedly excited to eat such fare. The young man thanked him and hurried out, leaving Michael to add preserves to his toast while Stephens prepared his coffee.
“Oh!” the valet suddenly cried. “I nearly forgot your calling card! We cannot go to the Herberts’ residence without one. I’ll fetch a few to keep downstairs.”
Stephens handed him his coffee and left the room while Michael unrolled his newspaper and started reading about the latest news in Wilton. He was particularly interested in Lord Pembroke’s factory and the quality of Wilton’s wool compared to Scotland. One good thing that would come out of marrying into the Herbert family was taking over the Wilton Royal Carpet Factory. It had a lot of potential that the earl had not tapped into yet, and Michael could offer his ideas. However, the man might not be willing once he rejected both his daughters. Perhaps he could play along for a little while and pretend to show a hint of interest, but that might backfire in his face.
Sighing, Michael turned to the gossip column and learnt more about the people of Wilton from that than from the entire newspapers.
“Good old gossip,” he muttered.
“Lady Clea’s Inventive Match” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lady Clea Herbert’s ingenuity gets her into trouble more times than she cares to count. While her family condemns her eccentricity, the talented Clea is close to creating a machine that could revolutionise the textile industry. Yet, with her mother’s ultimatum to find a proper suitor or forget her inventions, Clea’s world falls apart. That all changes with a charming man’s arrival, despite Clea not believing she could ever find someone who truly appreciates her genuine spirit.
Is it possible that she has finally met her match?
Sir Michael Bassett, son of the Sheriff of Cornwall and a military knight, desires to make a name for himself in business. Yet, his father’s demands to settle down and the obsessive eye of a beautiful lady on him have trapped his soul into misery. Michael has actually written off finding his other half, until Lady Clea draws his attention. However, seeing her mother and sister’s overbearing behaviour makes him rethink his interest to avoid more drama in his life.
Will he be able to ignore his feelings when he is already mesmerised by Clea?
The more Clea and Michael grow closer, the more they realise their meaningful affection for each other. Their common creative passion shelters their mutual admiration that quickly blossoms into a very special love. As their obsessive parents and jealous antagonists will try to challenge their unique bond… Will they manage to find their way through all the schemes or will their growing romance remain a work in the making?
“Lady Clea’s Inventive Match” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.