Chapter I

It was a hot August day as the carriage stopped in front of the wide steps of Branham Hall. Incensed, Juliet Denby, known as Julia to all those intimate in her acquaintance, wasted no time in getting out of the carriage, not even waiting for her father to get out first to hand her down. She waved away the servant eager to help, and charged up the steps toward the wide double doors.

"Julia! Act like a lady!" her mother said, shocked, to her back. "And come back here! I am not done speaking to you!"

"I will hear no more of it, Mother." Julia said as she reached the door and turned back to the carriage. "What is done is done. There is nothing you can do about the matter, and nothing you can say to me to make me change my mind."

Heedless of the servants standing on the steps and watching agape at this feud, Julia spun around and went through the doors. She untied her bonnet with quick, agitated movements and tore it off her head. When she saw Mrs. Hintley, the housekeeper, watching her with concern on her wizened face, Julia glared at her.

"What are you looking at? Do you not have work to attend to?" she snapped before crossing the entrance hall to the grand staircase and sweeping up them to her room halfway down the hall. Once there, she slammed the door shut and leaned against it, breathing heavily. She felt the need to throw something, but she checked herself. Such tantrums were only for children, and would more likely cause her further injury than help. Once she had her breathing, if not her emotions, under control, Julia set the bonnet she still clutched in her hand on a table and went to sit at her vanity.

When she looked upon her reflection, she saw that her cheeks were still flushed with anger, her brown eyes still flashed with contempt, and her dark hair had fallen to disarray. Smoothing the sweaty strands away from her forehead, Julia sighed and laid her head on her arms.

She was not prone to such outbursts, but the long journey from London to Somerset in the hotness of August coupled with her mother's sly remarks had done their worst. Ever since the carriage had set off, Julia had been made to listen to her mother's regrets that the affair with Mr. Kenton had ended so badly.

When she had first arrived in London for the season, Julia had determined it would be a season like any other. Plenty of calling, balls, assemblies, and dinners to attend to, until she was sick of them, and then the trip home until the next year. But this year was not like any other year, as she had so hoped.

Within a fortnight of their arrival, a Mr. Kenton had been introduced to them by Julia's maternal aunt, Beatrice. He was a friend of her husband's, and very well-to-do, with large amounts of property in Shropshire. He had immediately taken notice of the beautiful Miss Denby, and within a week it was obvious to anyone with eyes that he was smitten. He gave every outward appearance of affection, requesting her hand for the highest number of dances allowed between a couple for the evening, inviting Miss Denby to any amount of walks, dinners, balls, any event imaginable. Soon, the whole of London was gossiping that the pair were engaged. After all, he was rich, and she was accomplished. What more did they care about? As long as the match was acceptable to both families, that is all that mattered. Emotions held little importance. At least, to everyone but Julia.

In early August, after a few months' acquaintance, Mr. Kenton invited Julia on a walk in the park. There, he declared his love for her and asked her to become his wife. Taken aback and panicked, Julia had rather rudely denied him, snatching her hands away from his where he had been holding them, and standing abruptly from the bench. She informed him that she did not wish to marry him, and never would. Startled, and with severely wounded pride, he had looked up at her and asked why.

"I refuse to marry a man who does not love me as he so claims. Your false airs and pretended emotions do not excite ardor in me, sir. I have no intentions of advancing your fortunes with my hand in marriage. I am not so easily deceived as you may think." and with that, she had left him sitting there on the bench, alone in the park with the harsh truthfulness of her words ringing in his ears.

As she thought back, Julia realized she should not have given Mr. Kenton her encouragement, as unintentioned as it was. She had, quite unknowingly, given him reason to believe her in love with him. She should have, from the first, left him no doubt in his mind of her indifference. She should have stopped to consider how their behavior would look to their acquaintance as well, as her mother let her know repeatedly when she found out her daughter had refused Mr. Kenton.

"Juliet! How will this look to everyone? It was so sure that you two would marry! All those times you danced with him, whispered with him in a corner of the room, went on walks with him! What will everyone say? They will pronounce you an intolerable flirt! A shame to our family!" Mrs. Denby had cried as the servants bustled about, readying them for their early departure from London to escape shame.

"Surely it is not so serious as that, mama." Julia had said with a small roll of her eyes. Her mother was prone to overexaggeration, especially when it pertained to family honor. She was forever afraid of besmirching the family name.

Julia raised her head from her arms and from her recollections as a knock came on the door. In came Penny, her maidservant, and the only one she trusted in the entire staff of Branham Hall. All the others acted as spies for Mrs. Hintley, and consequently her mother. Any small act of wrongdoing was observed by them and passed on.

"Did you have a good trip, miss?" Penny asked, smiling cheerfully. When Julia looked at her sullenly and she saw that her mistress had most certainly not had a good trip, Penny frowned and sighed. "Is it your mother again, miss? If so, you know she only wants what's best for you."

"Yes, but more often than not, what she wants for me is not the same as what I want for myself, Penny."

"What is it this time?"

So Julia told her about the Kenton incident, from beginning to end, as Penny helped her change out of her travel clothes and into a fresh gown for dinner. As she was redoing Julia's hair, she ventured her only comment about the matter.

"Only you know what's best for you in matters of matrimony." she said, and said nothing more, although her tight-lipped countenance told Julia all of what she did not say. Penny, like all the others, was anxious to see Julia settled with a wealthy husband, and happy. The issue was that that was not what Julia considered a happy situation. Or, to be more precise, she did not believe having a husband could be her only source of happiness.

She did not say anything more about it to Penny, as her silence told her she was in partial agreement with Mrs. Denby, who believed Mr. Kenton may well have been Julia's last hope for a good match. She had been adamant on that point the entire way home; she was convinced Julia would now become an old maid and never marry, and when Mr. Denby passed on she would forever be a burden to Richard, her brother and the heir to the vast grounds of Branham Hall. After all, she was already five-and-twenty. In a few short years she would be considered a spinster, and, as Mrs. Denby said, no man wanted a woman over the age of seven-and-twenty. Men, no matter what age, wanted young wives.