“Do you think your mother will be upset if I do not attend Miss Tatlock’s tea party?” asked Emmeline, kicking her feet in the shallow stream.
She had managed to steal away from her mother and the Duchess of Nottingham while they discussed a possible dinner party for the upcoming full moon.
“Is the sky blue?” Nicholas replied, removing the long stalk of grass he had been chewing from his mouth.
Emmeline sighed. “I thought so.”
“Why do you not want to go?” Nicholas asked. “I thought you liked Miss Tatlock.”
“I do like Miss Tatlock, but I’m not so keen on her cousin, who will definitely be there,” she said. “Lord Harrington has been a little bothersome lately.”
Nicholas stilled. “In what way?”
“Well,” said Emmeline, shifting uncomfortably. “He said something that made me uncomfortable during the last dinner party. I am not certain if I am being too concerned or not concerned enough.”
“What did he say?” Nicholas demanded, suddenly on edge.
He sat up from where he had been lying on the grass to look at her, his sapphire-coloured eyes searching hers. Emmeline frowned slightly as she looked down at her lap. She hadn’t been sure to mention this to Nicholas, but if she couldn’t talk to him, she had no one else to talk to. Of course, there was Jane, but Emmeline doubted her best friend would readily believe that the good-natured earl could be anything but that. Recently, Jane had begun to show signs of liking the earl romantically. Now that she knew the earl might be interested in her best friend, it might cause some problems.
“What did he say?” Nicholas pressed.
Emmeline glanced sharply at him. “Well, erm, he expressed an interest in marrying me, but I thought he was merely jesting. He has never shown any interest in me before, and I have heard him express marriage to other women by way of flirting.”
“What did he say to you?” said Nicholas.
“He said he had been watching me for some time, and I intrigue him,” Emmeline replied as she recalled the uncomfortable conversation. “I have only been out for just over a month and have only danced with him once or twice at Mama’s insistence. I thought he was merely flirting. At first.”
Nicholas’s eyes narrowed just a bit. “When did you start to think otherwise?”
“Later in the evening, after dinner,” she said. “He approached me again. He repeated the same thing and mentioned I would make the perfect wife. I told him I highly doubted that, and then you started walking towards me. I turned my attention to you, and it seemed to make him angry.”
“It made him angry?” Nicholas asked. “What else did he say?”
Emmeline paused. This was the bit of the conversation she didn’t want to share with Nicholas. He was known to act first and then think, and Emmeline was confident he would go after Lord Harrington and accuse him of upsetting her. That would only make matters worse. No, she couldn’t tell Nicholas a thing.
“Emm, did he say anything else?” Nicholas pressed.
“No,” she lied. “He didn’t say anything else. I’m sure what he did say meant nothing. Anyway, why don’t you tell me more about the Season?” she said, changing the subject. “I’m surprised you didn’t meet a lovely young lady while you were there.”
Nicholas had returned from the London Season several weeks later than his parents, with stories upon stories to tell her about his stay in the city. His parents had left London earlier because his mother suddenly had the idea to bring her out into society just before her eighteenth birthday. Emmeline’s family wasn’t important or wealthy enough to get their daughter into the London Season, despite being landed gentry, so the duchess had wanted to do the next best thing: make her a success in Cheltenham.
Many people had left London and were on their way to the countryside, beach towns and Cheltenham to spend the rest of their summer. Nicholas’s mother wanted to use this to her advantage and ensure Emmeline had her chance to claim her place in society.
Nicholas and her family had been friends for many years, but not equal as friends. There was always an unspoken rule that the Spencers would always be better because they were aristocrats. Emmeline was grateful to the Spencers for elevating their family to a comfortable position in society, but she also knew they could take it away in a heartbeat. As far as she was concerned, that wasn’t a real friendship. A real friendship was where friends treated each other equally and didn’t hold their higher position above others. However, her own friendship with Nicholas was as true as they came. Emmeline just didn’t know how long it would last now that they were both adults and could no longer treat each other with the same familiarity as before.
“You’re not being entirely truthful with me, Emm,” said Nicholas, breaking into her thoughts. “What else did Harrington say to you? I can see it’s bothering you.”
“Nothing,” she insisted, removing her feet from the water.
She had to let them to dry properly before putting her feet back in her shoes. Looking behind her, she just about saw the top of the main house’s highest chimney. Emmeline probably needed to return to the house soon, or her mother and the duchess would realise she wasn’t in the garden taking a walk like she had said. Instead, she was several feet away near the edge of the west side of the woods, where a little stream trickled by until it flowed into a larger body of water.
Emmeline loved coming to Spencer Manor. The estate had one of the biggest woods on its property that offered a nature-lover like herself countless hours of enjoyment. Emmeline had run with Nicholas’ dogs, sketched and painted, waded in the streams, and even fished in the lake when no one was watching. Of course, Nicholas had been with her for much of those adventures. Their friendship spanned many years, from the moment Emmeline met him when she was four and he was eight. She had latched onto him from the very first moment, not knowing at the time that he was the son of the duke. Nicholas also took an immediate liking to her, which had amused his parents. They couldn’t understand what their darling heir liked about her, but they didn’t dissuade the friendship, no matter how odd they initially found it. Eventually, their families became friends, and here they were.
Only, I’m afraid something has changed. Something the duke and duchess will never allow, but the earl certainly saw it. What will he do?
Emmeline gnawed on her lower lip, receiving a jolt when Nicholas unexpectedly placed his hand on hers.
“What is it, Emm?” he asked gently. “Surely you can tell your best friend? Let me help you. Obviously, the earl has upset you.”
Emmeline looked down at his hand, surprised by an odd tingling sensation starting under the warmth of his palm and travelling up her arm rather quickly. It settled in her belly like a satiated cat and stayed there purring; the sounds vibrating through her body. Emmeline imagined herself leaning into Nicholas and… She quickly snatched her hand away, cradling it against her chest as she fought the feelings rising within her.
Oh, no, no, no. Please, no. I cannot have feelings for Nicholas. The earl was wrong. He has to be wrong.
This was the one line Emmeline could never cross. Nicholas had to marry someone of similar birth, not someone who was a little better than a commoner. Emmeline’s father’s family had been smart enough to acquire land and keep it through the generations, making them landed gentry, but she was certain the aristocrats thought of them as commoners because they didn’t have a title in sight within their family lineage. Emmeline’s mother did have an uncle who was a baron, but it didn’t seem to count.
“I need to return to the house,” she said, getting to her feet and slipping her damp feet into her shoes. “Mama is likely looking for me. I only wanted a little fresh air away from the house.”
“What is wrong, Emm?” Nicholas asked, also getting to his feet. “Just speak to me. You never hide anything from me.”
Perhaps she never had before, but she certainly needed to now. Emmeline’s parents had given her many teachings while growing up. One of them had been to never anger the Spencers, which would lead to their social exile. Having them find out that a gentleman’s daughter might have a tendre for their son was asking for trouble.
I can get over my feelings. I know I can. They’re just silly little things. It’s probably nothing.
“I do not think we should return to the house at the same time,” she said, dusting her dress and ensuring no grass or twigs clung to the delicate muslin.
Nicholas had seen her leaving the garden from his bedroom window and followed her to the stream. They had happily sat chatting for some time, despite knowing it wasn’t the proper thing to do. Before, it might not have mattered for people to see them alone together, but now that she was a young lady who had been introduced to society, their friendship might not be seen as innocent as before. Especially if they were found alone. It had taken Lord Harrington’s words to remind her that the world around her had forever changed.
You and Lord Camberley will never be, Miss Stewart. Do not think I do not see what is happening between you. Soon enough, everyone will see it, and you will be rejected like the commoner you are. When that happens, you will realise that I am your only salvation. I look forward to it.
Emmeline shivered as she recalled the earl’s words. They had seemed almost ominous, like a terrible event was waiting to happen.
“Emmeline!” Nicholas cried, grabbing her arms and startling her. “Just speak, for heaven’s sake!”
“There’s nothing to tell!” she yelled, breaking free from him. “Why are you being so insistent? I need to go back, or Mama will surely complain. I’ll go first.”
“Fine, fine,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. “Do not tell me anything.”
Shaking his head, he stalked off deeper into the woods. Emmeline was tempted to go after him and apologise, but it was better this way. She probably needed to start putting distance between them for both their sakes, but every fibre of her being rejected that idea. Nicholas was her friend. However, she needed to change Lord Harrington’s mind, and that would only work if she wasn’t around Nicholas as much as usual.
Goodness. How am I going to achieve that?
Her silly heart had gotten her into trouble, but not all was lost. Not yet. Emmeline was confident she could fix the mistake she had made of inappropriately liking her best friend. She just needed time.
Several Days Later
Her foraging had been a successful mission. Emmeline had been worried others had found her secret place of blackberry hedges and taken the dark, plump berries for themselves, but they had been there, waiting for her. Happy and anticipating the pie Cook would make for dinner this evening, she returned to the house and let herself through the scullery door, greeting the scullery maids busy with blackened pots.
“Did Cook burn something again?” Emmeline asked, smiling.
Cook was excellent at creating delicious dishes for their pleasure, but she had the tendency to burn food while gossiping with the other servants.
“The pie filling,” said Dorothy. “She took a little break and forgot about the pork pie filling. We tried to tell her, but she assured us it was fine. It wasn’t.”
“Oh, Cook,” said Emmeline with a sigh. “Papa really wants a pork pie for dinner. I wonder if she’ll have it done on time?”
“She started another filling almost immediately,” Dorothy informed her. “Judging by the smell, I think it’ll be ready.”
Emmeline lifted her nose into the air and sniffed. “Mmm, I can smell it, too. Cook can certainly work wonders. She must have several other dishes she still needs to prepare.”
“A few,” Dorothy confirmed.
“She might not be so accommodating when I show her my basket of blackberries,” Emmeline said, patting the hoard under the cloth she had used to cover them. “But it does not hurt to ask. Excuse me.”
She left the scullery, soon entering one of the kitchens. Her home boasted three kitchens, all of them connected and fully equipped for the household’s needs. Cook ruled all three kitchens and the scullery, but she had several kitchen maids to help her. However, Cook didn’t allow anyone to touch certain dishes.
“Here you are!” the housekeeper cried as she entered the second kitchen, her cheeks red with exertion. “Where have you been, Miss Stewart? Your parents have been looking for you on nigh an hour.”
Emmeline frowned. “But they know I went foraging, Mrs Burton. I told Papa before I left.”
“Well, that doesn’t matter now,” said Mrs Burton. “They await you in the drawing room.”
Mrs Burton looked worried, too worried for Emmeline’s peace of mind. “What is the matter, Mrs Burton? All was well when I left the house earlier. What has changed?”
“It is not for me to say, Miss Stewart,” the housekeeper insisted. “Please, go and speak with your parents. I’ll take that from you,” she said, gesturing at the basket.
Emmeline handed the blackberries to her and left the kitchen, her heart thudding a little faster than moments ago. Something was wrong; she could see it in Mrs Burton’s eyes. She increased her pace, poking her head around the drawing-room door once she reached the room.
“Mother? Father?” she said. “You wished to see me?”
“Sit down, dear,” her father gravely said. “We need to discuss something with you.”
Emmeline sat down, careful not to put her stained hands on the white armrests. Her mother had fallen in love with the colours white and light blue, transforming their drawing room into a bright and pleasant room. However, it also picked up dirt far more quickly than the other rooms with darker colours. Emmeline should have washed her hands before coming to see her parents, but the look of concern in Mrs Burton’s eyes had urged her to forget that and reach her parents as quickly as she could.
“What is the matter?” she asked.
“I returned from the duchess’ home a little while ago,” her mother began. “She had something troubling to discuss with me. It seems that, umm, it seems that she encountered a terrible rumour.”
“About who?” Emmeline asked.
“You, I’m afraid,” her father replied. “The duchess was told that you are exhibiting the ways of Jezebel in trying to seduce Lord Camberley and trick him into marrying you.”
Emmeline’s eyes widened. “What! But how? Who would say that? Surely you must know that I haven’t done anything at all?”
This had to be something out of her worst nightmare. She had just entered society! A rumour like this would ruin her reputation and make her a social pariah. Finding a husband would be close to impossible.
Oh, Lord. What about my brother and sister? Malcolm is sixteen and expects to enter university in a few years, and Sarah is only ten. What if this damages their future?
A ruined reputation never only affected the woman but her family as well. The only way to save the woman and her family was to find the culprit and have them confess their falsehoods or have the daughter leave the family so they could salvage what little remained of their good standing.
“You do believe me, do you not?” Emmeline pressed when her parents said nothing. “I would never do anything like that. Nicholas is my friend.”
“Yes, dear,” her father assured. “You would never do such a thing, and your mother said as much. Fortunately, the duchess believed her.”
“Yes,” her mother confirmed. “She believes the rumours are false. She believes someone intended to hurt both families, so she managed to contain the rumour. I do not know how, but such are the ways of the powerful.”
“Then all is sorted,” said Emmeline with a grateful sigh.
Having powerful friends was undoubtedly useful. Emmeline didn’t want to know what the repercussions of such an ugly rumour would have been. The knot that had formed in the pit of her belly loosened until she was able to sit a little more comfortably.
“Not quite, dear,” her mother said, lowering her head. “The duchess is worried the rumour will eventually resurface. She might not be able to stop it a second time.”
The knot came back more tightly knitted than before. “What then?” Emmeline asked. “What did she say?”
Her parents grew quiet as they looked at each other, her mother’s eyes growing watery. Emmeline’s heart grew almost frantic as it beat in her chest, the motion making her blood pound in her ears. Whatever her parents would say next would alter her life. She just knew it.
“…no choice,” she heard her mother say.
Emmeline obviously hadn’t caught the first part of her mother’s sentence. “I beg your pardon, Mama. I… I didn’t hear what you said.”
Her mother nodded. “I know this is a lot for you to accept, dear, but it’s our only hope. The only hope for you and us.”
“What is our only hope?” Emmeline asked, her voice growing quiet.
“Your mother and I have considered all avenues, dear,” her father said when it seemed her mother couldn’t continue to speak. “We had to take everyone involved into consideration.”
“What does Nicholas say about this?” Emmeline asked. “He is also involved.”
“The duchess never mentioned anything about him, but that hardly matters, dear,” her mother said, her tongue evidently loosened once more. “Nicholas will be seen as the victim, and you the villain. You have much to gain by entrapping him.”
“But I haven’t done anything of the sort!” Emmeline cried, her voice rising.
“We know, dear, we know,” her father said soothingly. “You must believe that we know. You are our darling girl, and such things are beneath you. However, it doesn’t matter what we know. It only matters what others believe and how it affects our lives from this moment forth.”
Emmeline lowered her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. “What do you mean by that?”
“We only have one way to save your reputation and our family, dear,” said her father. “Just until we are certain that the rumour will not resurface.”
Emmeline raised her head slowly. “What do you mean, Papa? What is this way?”
“Your mother and I have decided it would be best for you to leave first thing tomorrow morning,” her father told her.
“You’re sending me away?” Emmeline cried, leaping to her feet. “I am to be exiled?”
“Calm down, dear,” her mother said. “It is not as terrible as you think. The duchess suggested we send you away to another country, but we could never do that to our daughter. This is hardly your fault, dear, but we cannot deny the repercussions of such a rumour.”
“Then where are you sending me?” Emmeline asked, not knowing if she should take comfort in her mother’s words.
“Just to Snowshill, dear,” her mother said. “To your aunt and uncle. It is only an hour away by carriage, so we will be able to see you as often as we wish.”
“I see,” said Emmeline, slowly sitting down. “Only an hour away. For how long?”
Her parents looked at each other. “We do not know, dear,” her father eventually replied. “We cannot inform anyone of your whereabouts for obvious reasons. Everyone must believe you are far away, so it would not make sense for you to appear back home so soon.”
“How long?” Emmeline repeated.
“At least a year, dear,” her mother said. “The duchess would expect no less. Can you do that? Can you do this for all of us?”
“Just think of what the alternative could be, dear,” her father said. “Your reputation could be ruined, our standing in society will be affected, and we might lose the friendship of the Spencers. Your brother and sister might find it challenging to make their way when they come of age. Will you allow this to happen?”
“Of course not!” Emmeline cried. “But this is not right. Is this the only way? Have you considered other avenues?”
“Of course we have, dear,” her father assured. “This is the only one that will solve this matter immediately. The duchess expects it.”
Emmeline shook her head. “The duchess expects it,” she said rather bitterly I suppose only her opinion matters.”
“We know it is difficult, dear, but you are still young,” her mother said. “One year will not affect your future. In fact, it will save it. You are but eighteen, child. You have many years ahead of you.”
Emmeline bowed her head. Everything was moving so fast that she could hardly think, but the mention of her brother and sister made her pause and think.
What is a year in the face of ensuring they are not affected? I like Uncle Basil and Aunt Edith and have been meaning to visit them. Snowshill is also a lovely village. One year will not be so terrible.
Her parents had also said they would visit her often, but there was one thing she wanted to know.
“What about Nicholas?” she asked. “Will he know where I am?”
Her mother shook her head. “No, dear. It is better for him not to know. You know what he is like. He would come looking for you and undo all our good intentions.”
Emmeline’s heart sank. She wouldn’t even be able to see her best friend. Jane would also wonder what had become of her and why the sudden change. However, if her parents said this was the only way to help everyone, she had to believe them.
“Very well,” she said. “I’ll go.”
It’s just for a year.
“The Lady Who Stole the Duke’s Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Emmeline Stewart had it all – a charming life, an adoring family, and a promising future. Nevertheless, one scandalous accusation was enough to change everything and lead to her being sent away, for her own good. Forced to start anew, she leaves behind the only home she has ever met and a wonderful friendship with Nicholas, just as it was blossoming into something more. Years go by, but the memory of him still lingers in her heart…
Suddenly, when he returns, Emmeline’s world is once again thrown into turmoil.
Nicholas, the Duke of Nottingham, has never forgotten Emmeline and spends years searching for her. When he finally finds her, he’s determined to rekindle their friendship and secretly wishes for something even deeper. With obstacles and enemies in their path though, including his mother insisting on a different match for him, Nicholas must choose between following his heart and protecting Emmeline’s reputation.
Now that he’s finally found her again, could he possibly erase her from his mind?
Nicholas and Emmeline’s love runs deep, but they are surrounded by threatening shadows. Will their feelings be enough to overcome the challenges that await them? Can their tender romance withstand the rumours and dangers that risk ruining their every chance at a happily ever after?
“The Lady Who Stole the Duke’s Heart” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.