I tried to focus on the books in front of me. I tried to be interested in the latest from Minerva Press, but there were so many people walking by on the street just outside of Hatchard’s Bookshop window, I just couldn’t concentrate.
Maybe if I looked at the non-fiction. My sister, Rose, had told me that there was a new book out by Christian Thomsen, the Dutch archeologist. It had sounded interesting. Of course, our father would have already bought a copy, but that just meant that I wouldn’t even get a peek at it until he had finished with it. Father hated when a book he was reading disappeared before he had read it from cover to cover.
I turned to look for the book but out of the corner of my eye spied the most handsome man outside of the window—and he was coming my way!
In a deft move, I slipped between two other patrons, escaping the notice of my maid, Sally, and darted out the door of the bookshop—straight into the chest of Mr. Handsome. Completely unintentional, I assure you! Oh, but he smelled good! I just loved the smell of men–that combination of leather, something slightly spicy, and man. I took a deep breath.
“Oh! I am so sorry!” I exclaimed. “I am much too clumsy, not watching where I’m going. I do beg your pardon.” I lowered my eyes demurely while glancing up at him through my eyelashes.
“Not at all, Miss,” the gentleman said with a slight bow. “Entirely my fault, I’m sure.”
I cocked my head and looked up at him, ignoring the people squeezing past on the busy pathway. “Are you new in town? Oh, no, wait, I’m certain I saw you at Lady Sambourne’s soiree the other night,” I said, lying outright. I hadn’t been to Lady Sambourne’s. I hadn’t been anywhere. I wouldn’t be presented to society for another six months. I had only turned eighteen a month ago, but I looked older than I truly was and took advantage of the fact.
“Er, no,” the gentleman admitted, gently guiding me closer to the side of the building so that I wouldn’t get knocked against–he was clearly a thoughtful, kind gentleman. I liked him already. “I only arrived a few days ago. Just a quick visit to the city before I return to University in a few weeks, you know.”
“Oh, yes, of course. I’m Laia Grace.” I held out my hand.
Mr. Handsome looked at it for a moment. “I beg your pardon?”
“Laia Grace. That’s my name,” I explained. I couldn’t blame him for being confused. Proper young ladies did not introduce themselves to gentlemen. Rose had told me at least a hundred times in the past three years since we arrived in England from the archeological dig where my sisters and I grew up since our parents were archeologists. The problem was there no one else around who could make the introduction—and I did so want to meet him. Surely, no one would find out. He was going to be leaving town again very soon, he’d just told me as much.
“Oh!” He looked down at the hand I was still holding out to him. He pulled himself together and took it, a smile slowly growing on his face as he bowed. “Reginald Swithin, Viscount Yardley, at your service.”
Viscount Yardley. Why did that name sound vaguely familiar? I searched my memory but came up with nothing. “I’m so happy to—”
“Yardley, there you are,” an older woman said, coming out of the bookshop behind me. Uh oh!
“Sorry, Mother, I have just been introduced to this charming young lady,” Lord Yardley answered.
The tall woman looked about, clearly searching for the person who had presented me to him.
“Er… Well, actually I introduced myself,” I admitted sheepishly. At least I was honest, if not properly behaved.
“Oh, yes. That wasn’t clear from what I said, was it?” Yardley laughed.
The woman’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Her chin lifted as she took advantage of her height to stare down her nose at me. Before she could utter a word, however, Sally popped out of the bookshop, squeezing around Viscount Yardley’s mother, who was still blocking the doorway. “Miss Grace! There you are,” Sally said. She stopped abruptly upon seeing that I was engaged in conversation. “We, um, we really should be going, Miss. Your father will be wondering where you are,” she stammered, looking from Lord Yardley to his mother and back again.
“Yes. Thank you, Sally.” I gave a quick curtsey to Yardley and his mother, and then preceded Sally down the street.
Never had I wished for my father’s carriage so much as I did just then. It would have looked so much better if I’d had it that day.
It wasn’t so much that I wanted to impress Lord Yardley, although that would have been nice. But, honestly, the way his mother had looked down her nose at me made my hackles rise. Just who did she think she was to look at me that way?
“The Duchess of Bromfield? You introduced yourself to the Duchess of Bromfield?” my older sister nearly shouted.
“No!” I replied, trying my best not to match my sister’s tone or volume. “I introduced myself to Lord Yardley. Who is the Duchess of Bromfield? And why are you yelling at me?”
Papa collapsed into his chair with a groan, shoving his curling, gray hair back from his eyes where it had fallen, as it always did when it was too long, which was almost all the time.
Rose closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep calming breath. When she opened her bright green eyes once again, they could have pierced me like a needle. “Lord Yardley’s mother is the Duchess of Bromfield. Not only that, she is one of the biggest gossips in town, next to Lady Jersey. And don’t even get me started on what happens when the two of them get together, which they do frequently.”
My arms turned to goose flesh. I rubbed my hands up and down, trying to warm myself despite the fact that it was probably the warmest October we’d had in a long time.
I had been happily surprised by Rose’s visit and confused as to why I’d been called into my father’s study to speak to them both. We’d only just gotten past the pleasantries, when Rose had asked me where I’d been the previous day and what I’d done. I thought she was just being polite. I hadn’t realized that she’d known the answer to the questions before I’d even told her the whole story.
Papa stood and moved around behind his desk. Shuffling some papers, he was clearly looking for something. He finally let out an “Ah ha!” and lifted up a page. “Marshfield,” he said decisively.
“What?” Rose and I asked in unison.
I stifled a giggle.
“That is where you’ll be going. Marshfield,” my father said, looking straight at me.
The cold I’d been feeling intensified, and all thoughts of laughter flew from my mind.
“It’s an estate in Yorkshire,” he explained. “My solicitor just wrote me and said that I’d inherited it from some distant cousin named Bolingbrook. Been dead these past few months, but it’s taken them that long to track down some relation, er, that would be me.”
I dropped into the chair my father had just vacated. “You want to send me to Yorkshire?”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Rose said slowly, thinking it through.
“Yes, it is!” I protested immediately.
“Actually, that might just do the trick to fix her reputation,” my sister said, as if I hadn’t said a word. “For how long do you suppose, Papa? A month? Three?”
“I’m thinking until her debut,” he answered.
“No! You can’t just send me away.” Tears began to prick my eyes. I turned to Rose, who just stood there looking slightly pained but nodding her agreement. “Rose…” I pleaded. How could she agree with him? Why didn’t she defend me? Tell him that this was a horrid idea? She’d never had any qualms about arguing with our father before.
My sister looked at me, and for a moment, I thought she’d stand up for me. But after a moment’s hesitation, she just shook her head. “I’m sorry, Laia, really I am, but I think Papa is making the right decision.”
No! “I promise I won’t speak to any more strangers. Just don’t send me—”
“It’s not just the strangers,” my father said, interrupting. “It’s… It’s everything. You are too bold. Too outgoing. Too forthright.”
“High strung,” Rose offered.
“Yes,” my father agreed. “Too high strung. You need to calm down. Think before you act.” He put the paper down among the mess on his desk. “In short, Laia, you need to grow up.”
My throat grew thick with tears. I could barely get the words out, but finally I asked, “And how do you believe that sending me away will make me do that?” And then a horrible thought crossed my mind. I swallowed hard. “There isn’t some harridan of companion or governess there who I’m going to answer to, is there?”
“No. Although, I almost wish that there was,” Papa answered, walking slowly over to the sideboard as if it were an effort to go just that far.
“Then how do you expect me to mature… on my own, away from anyone I know?” I asked. None of this was making any sense. Was it the shock? Was I just being slow?
My father sighed. “I believe some time alone, in contemplation of all that you know, all that you have learned about how to behave, will be enough.” He poured himself a drink even though it was only just past lunch. “You are an intelligent girl, Laia. I know that you will be able—with some quiet introspection—to figure this out.”
“You know how to behave properly, you just don’t,” Rose agreed.
I opened my mouth to argue again, but my father just held up his hand, forestalling my words. “That’s enough. This conversation is finished. You will go to Marshfield. You will do what you must, and you will return in six months’ time ready for your debut. That is final.”
Tears I could no longer hold back leaked from my eyes. I blinked rapidly, trying to dispel them. “But Yorkshire!”
“It’s far, I agree, but I think it will be good for you to get away from town for a little while,” my father explained before finishing off the brandy in his glass. “I don’t know what sort of condition the estate is in, so you might very well find yourself occupied with setting the place to rights. With your extensive experience in helping your mother manage our archeological sites, you won’t have too much trouble figuring things out. There is a steward, so I’m told, so you won’t have to do everything on your own. And a staff, I believe. I will inform them of your imminent arrival.” He put down his glass with finality. “You have one week to get there. I’ll tell the butler that if he doesn’t see you in that amount time to write immediately.”
I took one last look at my sister in a desperate hope that she would intervene, but Rose just kept her eyes down. She wouldn’t even meet my gaze.
I tried swallowing past the lump in my throat again. I had no choice. I had to go to this God-forsaken place. Never in my life had I felt so betrayed. So abandoned.
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