The ornately carved clock in the corner of the room struck three times.
Eleanor did not look up from her embroidery, but she sensed one of the maids refilling her tea. She hoped they would bring more of the small cookies, as well, for her and Hazel to enjoy.
“I shall try and make you something rather spectacular.” Hazel giggled.
“You needn’t bother. We don’t need gifts. I do believe my father will do more than enough to provide for us,” Eleanor replied, looking up at her friend. The pale blue satin of the settee brought out Hazel’s blue eyes, a contrast to Eleanor’s own brown ones.
“Well, I know that, of course. But it doesn’t mean I cannot give you some little gift. What about for the actual day of the wedding? What colour are you going to wear?” Hazel wondered, then immediately answered her own question. “Oh, you ought to wear a nice rose pink. With your red hair, that would be such a lovely shade.”
Eleanor was not so sure, but she smiled at the thought anyway. How strange that she was soon to be married. She hardly felt ready, and yet she was unable to articulate exactly why.
Another maid brought in the cookies and Eleanor held herself back from lunging for them. She could hardly appear the glutton in front of the maids and her company. Temptation was overwhelming, but she knew her place in society. It would have been terribly uncouth for Eleanor to eat as she pleased.
“Well, it is too late for that. I don’t know what you—or he, for that matter—shall think of the gown that I’ve had made. But it hardly matters. It is not as though I’ve made many plans or thought through it all very well,” she said carefully.
In truth, Eleanor had already thought through all of it. She knew how she wished to appear. From a young age, she had planned her future wedding. That was simply what she thought young girls were meant to do.
The way she was going to look, the church, the flowers she wished to hold in her hands—none of that was in question. Each detail had been thoroughly crafted in her thoughts.
“But Mr. Hemsworth is to arrive in just two days’ time. Surely, you must have planned everything! You knew that his tour of duty was coming to an end and he intended to marry you upon his arrival, did you not?” Hazel asked.
Eleanor nodded, feeling her lips purse ever so slightly at the thought. “Yes, I knew. His seafaring days are nearly over. And we have planned everything for the wedding. I simply meant that it was not I who deliberated over every detail. My mother took care of the vast majority,” she explained, finally deciding she had waited long enough and reaching for one of the cookies.
She used the opportunity to look over the image she was trying to create.
Embroidery had never been her strong suit. It was something that she had been expected to do and do well, but she hated it with a passion. Creating images out of thread was for women with a greater artistic skill than she had and it left a poor taste in her mouth to see that her tulips looked misshapen and the shadows appeared more like stains. She would have liked to have traded it in for a better hobby, but no one would allow a young woman to choose an interest of her own.
Hazel’s embroidery, on the other hand, was rather magnificent. Rather than one poorly-stitched tulip, she had an entire garden worked into the piece. It was scarcely larger than Eleanor’s, yet the detail was intricate and exquisite.
She sighed and ate the cookie, wanting to give up. But with her marriage looming, it was more important than ever that Eleanor proves herself a worthy young woman with the skills of all young ladies of society.
Indeed, she knew she would be expected to produce simple and worthless pieces of art like this on a regular basis.
Would they ever add them to anything in her future home? Was Mr. Hemsworth going to have this silly little tulip worked onto the cushion of a dinner chair? The idea was hardly imaginable.
And yet, she was still expected to create it.
“Do you think he has had wild adventures at sea that he is going to regale you with? Oh, it is utterly romantic that your mariner darling should come home to you and make you his bride,” Hazel swooned, grasping for a pastry of her own now that her hostess had done so.
“I know nothing about the sea, so I do hope that he shares a little bit about it. And any travels that he has enjoyed. I should like to learn about the Italians. Oh, if he knows anything, if he saw their land? I should like to hear that very much,” Eleanor confessed.
She had always been interested in learning more of the places abroad that she had heard talk of.
The creativity of India, the silks of China, the art of France. All of it intrigued her. And as Mr. Hemsworth was a mariner, she imagined that he must have seen something. All she knew of these places were their creativity, silks, and art—she wanted to know more. No land was a simple dimension. No land was only one thing.
Beyond the silks of China, what was it like? The culture, the people?
She wondered it all and hoped that Mr. Hemsworth might be able to add something to her view of the world.
“Yes, I suppose the rest of the world is quaint in its own way,” Hazel remarked, nearly wounding Eleanor’s feelings. “But I still think you ought to focus on falling in love with him rather than learning about places you’ll never visit.”
Once more, the faint smile puckered Eleanor’s lips. She wished that she could see things the way that Hazel did. She wished desperately that her heart would long for Luke Hemsworth. But it simply did not.
Telling people, even Hazel, that she did not love him was difficult. Certainly, her friend knew, but it was embarrassing for Eleanor to remind her.
What would people think of her, if it became widely known? Would they consider her a snob? A woman who was unwilling to wed beneath her station? Would they think that she did not care for him because she wanted to marry a man who had a title and status similar to that of her father?
Eleanor did not care about those things. And, truly, Luke Hemsworth was a handsome man with a great deal of charm.
There was no reason that she should not love him. Everything about him ought to have held her interest.
“Oh, dear. Have I done it again?” Hazel worried.
“Done what?” Eleanor asked in reply. Having finished her treat, she focused again on her embroidery, taking in a deep breath and crossing her eyes until the image before her blurred into a mass of colours.
“Sent you spiralling into your worries and fears. Here I’ve been going on about the romance of it, and you still do not know in your heart whether or not you wish to marry him. Have I been the most terrible of friends?”
“Hardly,” Eleanor assured her. “You are a very dear friend. It is only that you are right. I still don’t know that I wish to marry him.” She sighed.
With an embarrassed glance at the maid, Eleanor looked away. She was ashamed. Just as she knew she ought to be. She was entirely fortunate to have this match, and Eleanor feared the maid, Miss Cunningham, might tell her father about what she was saying.
After all, it was his estate, not hers. She would never have claim to the property.
“But why? I still cannot understand it,” Hazel said.
“I wish I understood it myself. But no matter how wonderful he is, although he is kind and handsome, I simply do not love him. I see him as a good man, but not the sort of man that I am hoping to marry. Not the sort of man that I could be happy spending my days with,” she said.
“I am sorry for that,” Hazel replied.
“Oh, no, it is I who ought to be sorry. I feel that I am a terrible woman. I really do hope that one day I may fall in love with him. It is just that, for now, I only… like him. I haven’t the sort of connection with him that I might have expected to have with the man I’m to marry,” Eleanor went on.
“Then why are you going through with it?” Hazel pressed, continuing her line of questioning.
Eleanor still felt a little bit uncomfortable sharing these things with her in front of Miss Cunningham. It wasn’t that Eleanor didn’t trust the maid, it was just that she felt bad for not wanting to marry a man who was good, but not interesting. She ought to have been thankful for the match, but rather, she was discontent.
“I have very little choice in the matter. My father wanted me married and I can understand his wishes. Far be it for me to deny him,” Eleanor said.
“And he chose Mr. Hemsworth,” Hazel stated, understanding.
“He did. Yes. And I cannot begrudge him the decision. He chose wisely. But I didn’t really wish to marry him, at first. My father insisted that I find a husband and that was truly the only reason that I have proceeded thus far in the matter. And he was very glad to have found someone for me,” she said.
“How did he find Mr. Hemsworth?” Hazel wondered.
“My father knows his father. In fact, Mr. Hemsworth’s father is also a mariner, on the same tour as my intended. And just as I was not consulted with the match, I believe that he was not, either. Our two fathers simply arranged it for us and then informed us both of it,” she answered.
Though she tried to keep her voice light, Eleanor could not deny the bitterness she felt. It was unfair to have their futures decided for them by their fathers. It didn’t seem right.
And yet, she wished to be a dutiful daughter and make her father proud. If this was the way to do that, she could hardly deny it, could she?
Luke Hemsworth as a regal man with a good heart who wished to serve his country. His love for the sea was reflected in the deep, dark blue of his eyes and the sand-coloured hair that seemed to blow in the breeze even on days with no wind. With a masculine brow and cleanly shaven chin, he was quite pleasant to look at.
But Eleanor had always imagined she might feel a spark of some sort with the man she was to spend her life with. A connection on a level beyond simple appreciation or even friendship. And yet, with Mr. Hemsworth, she could not feel anything more than a practical satisfaction.
There was much to be thankful for, but Eleanor would rather have made a choice for herself than have the decision told to her as a young woman, the way it had been. In fact, she could not even remember when she had been told. It was as if she had always known. And, in many ways, perhaps she had. After all, the decision had been made when she was rather young.
“I am sorry that you don’t love him, but I imagine that it will come in time. Don’t you think?” Hazel was clearly trying to comfort her.
She spoke to Eleanor, but her gaze was still on her stitching and she nearly went cross-eyed as she observed a particular section that she was working on. Eleanor tried to look closely at it, but the detail was so small and Hazel was working so diligently on it that she was frightened to cause her friend to err in the midst of her own curiosity.
“Perhaps. But it matters not. What is done is done and my father has made up his mind on the matter. I shall marry him regardless,” Eleanor announced. She had accepted it as it was.
Hazel looked up from her work and her expression appeared bleak, but Eleanor understood. There was nothing more that could really be said on the matter. There was no way to comfort her when the news was so upsetting as a life without love.
“Oh, don’t look so dour. It is going to be just fine. You know as well as I do that we, as young women, have very little say in our futures. And that is what it is. My father knows what is best for me. Even if I don’t always feel it. I must trust him,” Eleanor said.
“Yes. And love may still come in time,” Hazel repeated hopefully.
Eleanor opened her mouth to retort that she could live without love, but she was not quick enough to speak. A knock on the door startled her and she glanced towards it, looking up from the work in her hands.
“Come in,” she called, averting her eyes as she began to observe and critique her piece.
The maid in the corner straightened and Eleanor finally turned, surprised to see a man in their midst.
It was Mr. Smith, a servant of her father’s that he often sent to fetch others when he needed them. His face was very grave and he spoke in a low tone that she had hardly heard from him before.
Mr. Smith’s eyes met Miss Cunningham’s as the servant and the maid both blushed. For the first time in all the years that they had been around one another, Eleanor noted that look of affection. A look that she longed for.
She was reminded that station played no part in happiness and that two household staff could overcome their loneliness in a way that she had not been afforded. They were free to choose one another if they wished, despite being rather aged and living as employees of her father, the earl.
“Lady Cross, your father wishes a word with you,” Mr. Smith told her, tearing his eyes from Miss Cunningham.
The Earl of Brockshire was not a man to be kept waiting. Eleanor knew it well and she stood, setting her embroidery on the seat as she did so. But something in Mr. Smith’s demeanour left her feeling anxious. She could not quite place it, but he seemed less himself and more nervous than was typical.
“Mr. Smith? Are you all right?” she asked. This was more than just the nerves of seeing a beautiful widow that he had spent many years with. Something of deep concern had brought him before her, urging her to go to her father.
His eyes darted away from her. He appeared increasingly upset with each passing moment. Something was certainly wrong, and she was determined to find out what it was.
“N-nothing, my lady,” he replied, obviously flustered by her question.
“Oh, dear, I cannot believe that. Do tell me, Mr. Smith. What is wrong?” Eleanor insisted, her heart quickening as she begged him to do so.
“I am not in a position to tell you, Lady Cross. That is something that you must hear from your father. Please excuse me. He is waiting for you,” he said, eager to depart.
Eleanor nodded, but her eyes were wide with uncertainty as Mr. Smith left the room. She turned to Hazel and swallowed hard against her own nerves.
Hazel was standing, her craft tossed aside, forgotten. It was as though Hazel had gathered the seriousness of the situation as well, a fact which proved to both comfort Eleanor in that she was not alone and to frighten her in that it must be rather serious.
“Miss Cunningham, could you please see to it that Lady Rollins is safely delivered to her home?” Eleanor asked the maid.
“Eleanor, what is it?” Hazel asked, her own concern growing. The small squeak in her voice was a sweet and childish sound that made Eleanor think she ought to try and remain calm so as not to frighten her friend.
“I wish I knew, Hazel. But Miss Cunningham shall arrange for you to get to your estate. Whatever it is that my father must tell me, I have never seen Mr. Smith so flustered,” she admitted.
Eleanor noted how Miss Cunningham also seemed rather confused by Mr. Smith’s behaviour, and the two had worked together in the estate for nearly two decades. If Eleanor had never seen him anxious, it was no curiosity. But for Miss Cunningham to be worried, it was only further confirmation for Eleanor that something was very much amiss.
“I shall ensure that she is delivered safely home,” Miss Cunningham promised when she was given the chance.
“In that case, I must excuse myself. I shall go to my father now, thank you,” Eleanor said, turning away and heading towards the door.
She had been called to her father’s study many times in her life, but never with such foreboding. Whatever the reason was for this visit, she knew in her heart that something was about to change.
And that was rarely a good thing.
It was strange how she had to depart the room. Most days, when a guest was leaving, there was noise and bustle as they said their farewells.
But this time, Hazel was quiet with curiosity and there was very little ceremony in Eleanor’s departure. The maids were nearly silent as they arranged for her to take her leave. And as Eleanor tread the hallway towards her father’s study, she felt the burden of quiet descend upon her.
It could not have been news about her brothers. They had only gone to town that morning, and nothing bad ever happened in town. So she needn’t fear that something had hurt them or caused any anguish.
Whatever it was, the weight of it loomed as she reached the end of the hall.
Eleanor took in a deep breath before knocking on the door of her father’s study. As her fist rapped the wood, she almost hoped that he would not answer, that she would not have to learn whatever it was that she was to be told.
“Come in,” came the call from the other side. Her father’s deep voice was not so strong as it often was.
Eleanor would not be so fortunate as to escape the news, after all.
She turned the handle and pushed the door open, revealing her father seated behind his desk, a grave expression on his face. His shoulders sagged, and he barely managed to look up at her before turning his eyes away all over again.
The room was lit only by the soft light outside the windows, casting shadows along the books that lined the walls. The dour mood was heavy and did not let up for even a moment. Eleanor wondered how it had so polluted the home that she could feel, rather than sense, the sadness in the air.
Across from the wide, oak desk, another man stood from his chair and turned to her, bowing his head politely. He was tall and broad, holding onto a hat that he nervously shifted from one hand to the other. When his face lifted again, Eleanor saw that he was rather handsome, with deep blue eyes that held a mournful expression.
His hair was a light brown, cast over a masculine brow. Familiar, yet difficult to take in with such a distraught look on his face. Eleanor thought it was almost painful to gaze upon such a lovely face appearing so sad.
And, although she felt that she recognized him somehow, she knew she had never seen him before. She would have remembered this man.
“My dear, forgive me for intruding in your time with your friend. I would not have asked to speak with you had it not been a rather serious matter. Excuse us for taking you away,” her father apologized.
“It is nothing, Father,” Eleanor replied, cooperatively.
“Lady Cross,” the other man began. “It is nice to meet you, although I wish that it could have happened under different circumstances.”
Those blue eyes shifted about and the long fingers continued turning the hat by the brim. He could not seem to stop moving. The eyes, the small gestures—something all too familiar about them.
Watching the man closely, Eleanor began to put small pieces together, awaiting confirmation for who she believed him to be.
“My name is Michael Hemsworth. I am the brother of your betrothed. And I fear that it is my grave duty to tell you…”
He trailed off and paused, swallowing his emotion and looking at the ground for a moment. Eleanor saw his uncertainty, his sadness. This was terribly difficult for him. There could be only one reason for such pain.
And before his words came out from his lips, she felt the cold and icy knife of realization stabbing into her heart and through her chest. There was no doubt.
“My brother, as well as my father, have perished. As you know, they have been away at sea on a mission to protect our country. But there was a wreck. The entire ship, the whole crew on board. All were lost,” he explained, breaths coming quickly with each word. Whatever preparation he had done before telling her, it had clearly not made the announcement any easier.
Eleanor’s lips parted in shock, her heart catching in her throat. She could hardly believe such a thing had taken place. Such a tragedy was scarcely to be known. That two good men would die at sea in service to their nation was a loss of the highest order.
The sadness that weighed so heavily on the room suddenly began to make sense. She understood why it was dark, why the two men were burdened. And that sadness seemed to claw at her as it gripped her chest. This was a day of mourning.
“What?” she breathed, having to confirm what she had heard.
“My brother, Mr. Hemsworth. He is dead,” the man repeated with an equal pain, his head bowing slightly again in his despair.
Knees quaking, Eleanor reached to grab onto one of the shelves for balance. Her fingers grazed the wood that ran along the walls of the study, but she missed and had to swipe at it again before finding purchase. It was fortunate that she managed not to fall. At any other time, it would have been embarrassing. But in that moment, she was overwrought with distress in such a way that it hardly mattered.
She looked to her father who immediately looked away, as if guilty or equally pained. Eleanor did not know what was in his mind, but she wished that he would share it with her. Was she alone in her disbelief? Or had he come to terms with it?
“F-forgive me,” she whispered, trying to hold onto her composure as was expected of a young woman of her station.
“There is nothing which needs forgiven, Lady Cross. It is a terrible thing to hear. Let me help you,” Mr. Hemsworth offered, coming to her aid.
In the most gentlemanly fashion, he grasped her left elbow and right shoulder in order to guide her to a seat near her father. The Earl of Brockshire watched and Eleanor felt his eyes fill with compassion for her at the news of losing her betrothed.
He did not scold the young man for daring to touch her, as his gesture was so delicate and properly done. Rather, she felt that her father approved of how this man had treated her thus far and she was glad for it.
“Thank you,” she said, grateful for this brother of her intended and his kindness towards her. She felt a slight tingle at his touch, as if she ought to have turned him away herself. But propriety was not the thing on her mind just now. Rather, she was glad to not have fallen to the ground.
“I understand it is a devastating thing to learn of. I, myself, could not believe it, and our family is woefully upset,” he remarked. Once more, the man showed his own pain through eyes that held back tears of loss. His brows drew together in a display of weariness.
Eleanor nodded, having little to say in response. The words could not quite find her tongue.
“I am terribly sorry for the loss that you have suffered,” she managed to say.
“Thank you for saying so. And I am sorry for yours, as well. I know that it cannot be easy,” he replied.
“No. It is not. But I knew him very little. For you to have lost both your father and your brother at once, I cannot imagine what you must be facing,” she said, unsure if it was an appropriate sentiment to share.
“It is…” He inhaled, turning that hat in his fingers once more. “It is a tragedy that I might never have expected. And I do wish that my father and brother had not been on the same boat as they were. We have learned only that the ship capsized. They should have been separated,” he told her.
Eleanor nodded. She knew little of war, but the idea that a father and son should be together on a boat like that was not very wise. Certainly, should tragedy strike, it was wrong that a family should lose two loved ones. One would have been tragic enough.
But this Mr. Hemsworth was holding his strength together as best he could, and Eleanor felt herself glad that he had not been on the boat as well. How devastating that would have been for their family, should he have been lost in addition to his father and brother.
“And your mother? Is she well?” Eleanor asked.
He sighed with a heaviness that she could not blame.
“She is a strong woman. I think she will not let herself grieve while I am around. But she is a strong woman who loved her husband and son very much,” he answered diplomatically.
“Your brother spoke of her strength in the few times that we met,” she told him. “He said that she was a good woman. I am sorry for her to have lost her husband and eldest child,” Eleanor remarked.
Mr. Luke Hemsworth had spoken so highly of his mother that Eleanor had always worried that she would not live up to her within their marriage. Would he always expect her to be as his mother was?
Now, that concern felt entirely foolish. Now, in the midst of life and death, what meaning did her comparisons have?
“Indeed, it was quite a surprise,” Mr. Hemsworth acknowledged.
“I am sure that it was. No one expects such a blow to their family. Particularly when good men do a good thing and serve their country, it is a shame to hear that they did not survive. The winds and seas may not be controlled, but I am devastated that they should not have given respect to those men who held their lives with such grace and dignity as Mr. Hemsworth and his son,” she said.
“If only we could control the earth. But, alas, it was not to be so. And that is all I must accept in the midst of this,” he agreed.
There was a moment of quiet in which none of them knew what to say. Eleanor looked to her father once more, hoping that he might say something that would either continue or end the conversation.
But to be left in the uncomfortable silence, Eleanor tried not to be noticed as she stood, fiddling with her fingers, wishing that she could be better at understanding grief. No matter the loss she was facing, she was ashamed to even try to compare it with what he must feel.
“But, as it is, I know that you have been through quite a difficult shock as well, Lady Cross. And that is why I have come. I had to speak with your father first, but now that you know, I have completed my first task in coming,” he told her.
Eleanor wondered what his next task might be, or why he had worded his statement in such a way. She hoped nothing more tragic would be shared and that any other news would not bring such pain.
“Yes, well, thank you for telling me,” she said, awkwardly.
“It was my duty. And I am terribly sorry for this loss,” he said again.
She was glad for such understanding in the midst of this news. No matter how she had felt, despite not loving Mr. Luke Hemsworth, she was still aching at the thought of his passing away. It was a devastating blow to know that he was gone forever, lost at sea.
No man deserved such a fate. No man should ever have to die in such a way. And now, he was gone. Forever.
Another wave that crested and faded with the winds.
Michael tried not to stare at the young woman. It would hardly endear him to her, with what he was now going to say.
Her father was expectant, eager to see this thing through. In their previous discussion, he had made that quite clear and it was Michael who had been the hesitant one. Of course, his hesitation did not mean that he was not interested in the option that the earl had presented.
And now that he was seeing Lady Cross, Michael was more intrigued than ever.
Being that he was not a man of her station, he had been anxious. Luke had told him she cared nothing about that, but he was slow to trust it. After all, most young women cared greatly about position. Why should she not, as well? Why should she be deprived of her rightful place in England?
The Earl of Brockshire cleared his throat and looked at his daughter with compassion. He appeared to be a good man; he had taken it hard when Michael told him about the death of his father and brother.
The earl had said what a loss it was for the world and how deeply he had respected the elder Mr. Hemsworth. It was touching for Michael, who knew his father to be a great man.
Through all the loss and sadness that his family had experienced in the previous three days, it had been a difficult mission to come to the estate. Telling Lady Cross that her soon-to-be husband had passed away was an added complication.
But knowing that he was going to have to make an offer in the midst of all of this was an equal struggle. Would she accept?
Luke had been a wonderful brother—a kind-hearted man with a love for his country, he was known for his looks and his wit. Certainly, this beautiful young lady had been thrilled about the match.
And here, he had just told her something that would leave her heartbroken. It was no wonder that she struggled to maintain herself. He, too, was barely holding on. He was hardly able to function.
His mother, of course, was in a greater struggle than even he. But despite the sadness they were feeling, he had to remember that this was about Lady Cross. He had come for her, and that was what he had to focus on.
She was kind in her sympathies. He noted that she was a genteel woman, with grace and virtue. But could that virtue be the very thing that led her to deny him? Would she be too proper in her motives to even consider what it was that he was to suggest as his next matter of discussion?
Michael looked to the Earl of Brockshire again, waiting for his approval to continue. He had already spoken with the earl about his intentions, and the two had come to a rather satisfactory agreement. But that did not mean his daughter would be as amiable in her thoughts. It did not mean that she would appreciate the matter at hand, or even agree to it.
And he could not blame her for that. Of course, Michael did find himself pleasantly surprised that she seemed rather sweet and sensitive to all that he was going through. Rather than having made the situation entirely about herself and her own loss, she was considerate of Michael and his mother.
That proved her to be a great deal more thoughtful than most young women might have been. It was encouraging to note.
And she was certainly as beautiful as Luke had described. There was something in her full lips and the dimples that pricked her cheeks that captivated him. But this was not the time to be noticing all of that. There was much more at hand to be aware of and consider.
The earl looked back to him and gave a look that he was going to continue. He took a breath in before turning to his daughter and beginning.
“My dear, Mr. Hemsworth and I have been discussing his brother’s affairs,” the Earl of Brockshire said, delicately leading into the next point of conversation.
Lady Cross looked up at her father with tears in her large, clear eyes. The gentle pout of her lip was beautiful, despite the emotion that it held. It was touching how sad she was for the loss of her betrothed. And it showed Michael that she had truly appreciated and cared for his brother.
Certainly, she must have loved him.
“There are some things which we should like to speak with you about,” the earl continued. “Although you have just been dealt some distressing news, I must inform you that our conversation is far from over. Mr. Hemsworth and I have spoken of a number of other things, and now it is our time to share those with you.”
“Yes, Father. Whatever it is, I am listening,” she replied obediently. “I can scarcely imagine what else must be spoken of in the midst of such terrible news, but I shall try to gather myself enough to hear.”
Lady Cross leaned forward in her chair, her face patient and ready to listen to whatever it was that her father was going to say next. She was a dutiful daughter in every way, that was clear. And, although Michael imagined she would rather have been given a bit of freedom to mourn, she was willing to hear whatever her father wished to say.
She looked to her father with understanding. She knew what was expected of her, and she was able to heed it.
Michael considered how difficult life must be for women, when they are constantly expected to change with the whims of men. This situation was no different.
“Good, very well. Certainly we must discuss the matter of your betrothal to the late Mr. Hemsworth. There was a great deal entailed in the arrangement and you and I must discuss that with his brother, Mr. Hemsworth,” the earl explained.
“Of course, Father,” she said, ever-dutifully. “Of course we must speak about the change that this brings to our family, as well.”
It was evident that she was not ready for such a discussion, but Michael was deeply interested in knowing what her answer would be. Still, he knew he couldn’t rush into things. Not with such a sensitive topic as this.
“If I may, my lord, I should like to be the one to speak with Lady Cross regarding this matter,” Michael ventured, trying to be bold and take over the conversation as best he was able.
Just as his father and brother had gone into battle, bravely fighting and taking a stand, Michael wanted to be brave. He wanted to be the one to share with Lady Cross what it was that had to be spoken of.
“Is that agreeable to you, my lord?” he prompted, waiting for permission.
He wanted to be the one to ask her this important question.
“Yes, please do,” the earl agreed, gesturing for him to continue.
“Thank you, my lord,” he replied.
Michael turned to face Lady Cross directly and met her eyes. He feared what he might see there, but he also wished to discern her thoughts as best he was able.
“Please know that I understand you have lost someone very important. And a match of marriage is a painfully difficult thing to lose, as well. So, I do not mean to be insensitive to that or expect you to rush past your emotions, but your father and I have been discussing the matter of our family union,” Michael began.
“Although I do not know you as my brother did, I think that it would be wise for us to come to understand one another. And as you shall not be marrying my brother, our families must not consider what it is that might enable us to be family after all, since that was the plan from the beginning,” Michael continued, painfully trying to get to the point.
She sniffed ever so quietly and nodded.
“I understand,” she told him. “Now that cannot come to pass. I have lost a husband and shall not marry.”
Michael glanced to her father, who appeared as though he may interject. But Michael gave him a look to say that he would do the explaining. Respectfully, boldly, he wanted to be the sort of man that Lady Cross could look up to and admire.
“Forgive me, Lady Cross, but that is not what I was going to say. Rather, your father and I have spoken and come to a different decision, based on the arrangements that had previously been made,” he told her.
“Oh? What might that be? Have I misunderstood?” she asked, clearly growing anxious at the unknown of it all.
“My father and brother sought to unite our two families. Just as your own father did,” he clarified. “Thus, your father and I are seeking to ensure that this arrangement is met. And, although my brother has passed away, we should like for a marriage to still take place.”
The sadness that had filled her eyes was growing more intrigued and curious. Lady Cross was going to be shocked, but he hoped she would accept his explanation.
“As it happens…” He cleared his throat. His own gut twisted with worry that she might refuse or embarrass him. And while his pride would survive the knock, he would hate for her father to have to see that.
He was not typically a timid man, but Michael had never had occasion to worry like this. He had never courted anyone before, and this was not the proper proceeding for such a thing. Still, it was a shame that his usual confidence had left him while he now worked to make such a daring request of Lady Cross.
“As it happens, my brother was not the only man in our family who was of marrying age. I, also, am in need of a wife,” he finally managed to say, following it with a ragged exhale.
Lady Cross’ face elongated as her jaw unclenched behind her lips. The shock of it was what he had anticipated, but something that he had been dreading. He hated to cause a young woman such trepidation. But she understood, now, what he was suggesting. She understood what he meant and what it was that he was intending.
“You mean…” she whispered.
“Indeed,” he confirmed, clearing his throat again. “I should like for you to consider accepting my hand in marriage instead. It would unite our two families, as had previously been intended. And although you had planned to wed my brother, I do hope that you can find it in your heart to consider me.”
Realization staled her face and she stiffened. She would not be able to give an answer right away, and he could hardly blame her.
Lady Cross looked to her father, who raised an eyebrow of expectation. It was uncomfortable to be standing there and not knowing what to say. Ought he to tell her that her father approved? Or would it have been better to offer her time to consider?
Ultimately, there seemed only one choice for him in that moment. And that was to reassure her.
“Lady Cross, I swear to you that I will be a good husband. A kind husband. Just as my brother would have been to you, so will I be. You have my word that you may expect to be treated well,” he promised, with as honest a heart as he had. He knew that he would be a good husband, that he would be good to her and for her. No matter what challenge they might face in the midst of this change, he would remain a good man.
Michael went silent, knowing that it was her turn to speak. Or her father’s, if he preferred. But Lady Cross had been dealt a shock and he could not contribute further to it.
Even if he found himself wanting to urge her to accept. Even if he found himself wanting to marry her, after all.
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When Lady Eleanor Cross gets betrothed to a man she doesn’t love, she feels condemned to live a rather dull life. But when she gets the dramatic news that he is lost in the unknown of the ocean, sadness cannot surpass the hope that is born into her heart; the dream that she might finally find a chance to marry for love and live with the independence she craves. Her hopes will be soon crashed when the deceased’s brother appears out of nowhere, asking for her hand in marriage. Eleanor seems to have no choice, once again. Will she choose to accept her fate or will she find the courage to show what lies deeper in her heart?
Michael Hemsworth is a man loyal to his family. However, tragedy strikes when his father and brother perish dramatically in a shipwreck. Michael finds himself in a terrible position which makes him come up with an offer: to take his deceased brother’s position and, inevitably, get married to his promised wife. Even though this seems like a way to straighten things out, deep inside he knows well that his intentions aren’t as altruistic as they might look… How far could he go in order to keep family secrets hidden so as to protect his name and the ones he cares for?
Michael and Eleanor were united by fate and now they have to learn how to share their lives together. But when unprecedented feelings start rising, untold secrets will threaten to drive them apart forever. Will their marriage eventually grow to mean something more? Will Michael manage to finally find the path that leads to Eleanor’s heart?
“The Secret Path to a Lady’s Heart” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.