"Maude, you must understand that you have a duty. You have been raised to—"
"To marry and produce children for the man whom I marry. I am aware; you have made me aware of this as often as you can manage," I gazed at my mother, who stood behind me, in my gold-gilt floor length mirror.
She sighed and set her hands upon my shoulders. Inspecting our two faces, which were next to each other in the mirror, I saw our similarities. We both possessed uncommonly pretty countenances, our outstanding features being piercing blue eyes and beautifully chocolate hair, which fell in curtains around our heads. And below our side-by-side shoulders was my best feature. I have an uncommonly small waist, and an hourglass figure that seemed perfectly fit for corsets. One thing my mother had, though, was a perfect nose that gave her the ideal profile. My nose would have been the same, had I not received a scar from an accident with the reins of my horse at the age of fourteen. Now, my nose was marred by a dent in its bridge.
But that was the least of my problems at this point. What I now faced was infinitely more troubling than a spot on my nose. I had just turned eighteen on June 17th, and my father was going to broach the subject of marriage. It was his dearest hope that he marry me off before I turned nineteen.
"Mama, I want to be a help to Father, but I do not think that I could stand the presence of any of the men he would like me to marry."
"It is not for you to like them, my dear," she braided my hair as she spoke, something that she never did, which my maid Sarah seemed particularly surprised at.
I watched her for a moment before answering, "No, it is not necessary for me to love him. But I will not marry a man whom I dislike. That is my only stipulation against Father's schemes."
My Mother smiled despite herself, "I will make sure that he knows of this addendum. But you will find that it is easy to get along with most men."
"Not the ones Papa parades me to. He is the Earl of Hertfordshire, he should expect men to come courting me."
"Maude, your father is new to his title and what it entails. He wants to make allegiances with powerful men, so forgive him for using your beauty to draw them into a treaty."
I locked gazes with my mother in the mirror, "I know. I only wish I had more choices, or more time."
"Things will work out; your father will find you a happy marriage. He loves you."
In the lamplight, her porcelain pale skin glowed and shined. My mother finished plaiting my hair and set the braid over my shoulder, squeezing my shoulders affectionately. I turned and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.
"Goodnight, my dearest Maude."
My maid Sarah and my Governess Emily Hatfield curtsied to my mother and murmured, "Good night, My Lady."
As the door was closed behind my mother, I watched as Sarah quickly pulled back the sheets for me. Emily filled a glass of water and set it at my bedside in case I should need it during the night. Climbing into bed, I remained upright while Emily sat down beside me on my bed. I took her hands in mine.
"Emily, what do you think about this marriage idea? I do not relish the thought."
"I believe that whomever you marry, you will grow to love. And he will learn to accept you as you are," she shook my hands, "outspoken stubbornness and all."
I smiled as I laid back in bed and tucked up into my sheets, "You always know just what to say Emily. Goodnight, Emily, Sarah."
Emily turned the lamp down until it was almost completely dimmed, and then kissed my forehead, "Goodnight, child."
As Sarah and Emily left my room for the evening, a sense of freedom engulfed me. This was the only time I was alone in the whole of the day. And soon this time too would be spoiled, and by a husband. He would expect me to remain quiet, obedient and perfect while he spent his nights and days with me. And I would lose my time to think free thoughts and to resent my situation. I had read many novels where women met their matches, and all I could see is that I would never have that because of my duty. Turning sideways against my pillows, I sighed and closed my eyes. One more day of freedom was over.
The sun rose over Sybelline, my family's estate. Lit up by the golds and pinks of early morning, the grey of our manor's walls appeared as though part of the landscape. I stood at the window, gazing out onto the waking world of Hertfordshire. This home was not new to myself, my father, or my mother; we had spent many vacations here when we visited my grandfather (the late Earl of Hertfordshire) during our escapes from London. He had died recently, leaving my father the title, the wealth, and the family estate. He, my father Lord Robert Chesterfield, Earl of Hertfordshire, could handle all of this very capably; but my father is and always shall be a nervous, scrupulous sort of person.
So he fretted. And when he fretted, he sweated and took on the very appearance that a fretting man would have. In short, he was not capable of handling the stress of his new station just yet. And my life was supposedly in his perspiring hands. Just as I thought of this, I saw my father rushing out onto the grounds below, wringing his hands in a fitful way. I laughed as I saw him pace around the front courtyard of Sybelline Manor. He was a decently attractive man; tall, leanly built with a smiling face, but from my perch I could see that his hair was thinning on the crown of his head, and what remained was fast becoming grey.
He threw his hands in the air, and began wildly gesturing from one of the servants. Someone of great importance must be arriving rather soon, I supposed. Not long after I made this supposition was I proven correct. Down the long road to Sybelline came a carriage, all lovely and gilt in a dark blue. As the carriage came to a halt near my father, he hurried forward and almost opened the carriage door himself in his rush to greet whoever was waiting inside. But as I removed my eyes from my comically lovable father and his quirks, I saw another carriage coming down the way. This one was plainer, simply black, but still had all the appearance of a fine vehicle. I leaned against the window, straining my eyes down the road. There were two more coaches approaching; what on earth could Father be up to now?
I pulled the curtain across my window and hurried out into the hallway. Servants were bustling all over, trying to clean, gossip, and gaze at our visitors all at once. I saw Emily coming towards me from across the hallway, a jug of water in hand. Sarah was not far behind with a small basin.
"Good morning, Maude. Your mother wants you dressed and cleaned within a half-hour. Come on, back to your room!"
I allowed myself to be ushered back into my room, where I was quickly put into a blue and white striped and corseted gown; the hoop skirt underneath this dress was particularly flattering to my figure. Emily is on orders to make me look my absolute best, but what for? I wondered.
So I wondered out loud, "What is all this for? What is my father's reprehensible and no doubt disillusioned scheme?"
Sarah smiled while Emily brought me the basin and water to wash my face and hands with, "I don't know what you're talking about, My Lady."
"Do not withhold your gossip, Emily! You simply must tell me!" I leaned toward her conspiratorially.
"Well," she paused as she wiped her hands off on a cloth, "Bertha in the kitchen says she's been instructed to make meals for ten more, and to pull out all the stops. She's to make all her best foods."
Sarah now spoke up, "And some of the maids say they've heard it's four families, with titles, all come to become more closely acquainted with your father."
"And, of course, there're some eligible bachelors come to see about you, my dear!" Emily pinched my cheeks.
Sarah drew back the curtains so that I could view the arrangement of families now being greeted and brought inside by my father. I sat on the sill and looked down onto the front lawn of Sybelline. Directly below me, and already making for the door, was a woman of around fifty wearing a garishly over bright purple silk gown, with a plethora of necklaces, broaches, and rings on. She wore the most hideous purple felt hat I have ever seen. And next to her came a lovely, fair-haired young woman around my age wearing a more subdued lavender gown, which was cinched tightly at the waist.
"That's Lady Imelda Aberton and her daughter Isabella," I realized my mother had come in to join on my gawking.
Behind them came a clumsy man of around thirty who must have been the young woman's brother, for he had the exact shade of hair (though far less covered his head as he was clearly balding) that she possessed.
"Oh, and there's Miss Isabella's brother Bertram. Quite an attractive man, is he not?" my mother said dryly.
I shot her a look full of ire, then looked down once more. By the more refined black carriage stood an austere woman in dark brown, her husband in black, and their quizzically-browed son in grey, who appeared ready to march in a dirge he was so somber.
"Those are the unspeakably boring Mr. Reginald Forester, Mrs. Elizabeth Forester, and their son Conroy Forester. The boy is due to inherit his uncle's Barony."
From the third carriage, my lovable Aunt Emma and Uncle Tom emerged, waving at me as they saw me spying from above. I waved back eagerly. Quickly refocusing onto the last coach, I saw two people planting their feet on the ground of Sybelline with a sense of excitement; one I knew and the other I did not. One was my dear friend Sylvia Beauclerk, whom I had grown up alongside during my summers here. As I waved to them as well, my eyes traveled to the man at her side. They were both somewhat tall—Sylvia was just taller than me, while her travelling companion stood just a bit taller than his competitors—and fair complexioned, with sandy hair and green eyes. He was not unattractive; perhaps he was Sylvia's brother whom I had not met heretofore.
"Oh, my dear, look, your friend Sylvia is here to keep you from absolute boredom! And that must be her older brother William," my mother mirrored my thoughts as she gazed at him, "he is very agreeable to look at, wouldn't you say?"
"Mama!" I cried.
Both William and Sylvia were the younger children of the Duke of St. Albans, untitled other than the unattached "lord and lady", but they were very noble indeed. Obviously my mother favored William over the others, but the others were not nearly a match for William's appearance. Bertram was pasty-faced, out of shape, and awfully clumsy while Conroy appeared to have the emotional depth of a spoon, though he was attractive, if painfully serious in feature. As I examined these horrendous potential suitors, a great black stallion came galloping into the courtyard, almost bowling over Bertram, and halted near a valet. The man who dismounted proved as exciting as his mount. Dark hair, long legs, a trim figure, and a quizzical brow matched with a devilish grin, the man carried an air of mystery about him.
"I was unaware that Lord Blakely would be joining us as well. I ought to warn Bertha," my mother made to exit, but I caught her hand.
My mother glanced back down at him and smiled, "Yes. Charles Blakely, Lord of Dunningham. He is seven-and-twenty, and the very epitome of a young bachelor. Very charming, I'm told."
"Well so far I like him the best," I stared at him from the window as my mother left the room, "So, Lord Blakely, you are a most unexpected guest."
Rushing down the front steps into the foyer, I found myself greeted at the bottom step by a suit of armor being moved from the parlour to the study. Throwing my arms in front of me, I abruptly ceased moving, which threw me off balance. My staying centered was not helped by the fact that my heel-shod feet were halfway off the marble steps. With a gasp, I fell forward onto the poor suit of armor and both it and myself toppled to the floor; I was fortune enough to remain in one piece. It, however, was not. The helmet went flying across the front hallway and careened into the front door, while an arm went clattering across the floor. There was suddenly a hand levitating in front of me and I gazed up at its owner. William stood there, a small smile playing across his face.
"Are you alright Lady Chesterfield?" I could tell from the gleam in his green eyes that he had viewed the entire incident unfold.
I took his hand with a gracious smile, "Yes, thank you, Mr. Beauclerk. You won't tell anyone about my horrible clumsiness?"
He bowed, "I shall take it to the grave, my Lady."
"Then my reputation is in your hands, sir. I am only glad that more people did not see the beheading of the poor knight of Sybelline."
William smiled once more and made to speak, but was interrupted by an overly apologetic servant. He insisted on begging my pardon three times before he went to collect the dismembered knight and scurry away to the library. When I looked up, William had gone, but his sister Sylvia was coming to take his place.
"My dearest Maude!" She cried happily.
As she approached we grinned at one another, then paused to curtsy in greeting. Then we were hugging one another as though we had been separated for a lifetime.
"Oh my goodness Maude! It has been so long since we saw one another!"
"Only a year," I laughed, grasping her hands.
"Well, still. It was too long!" she giggled and pulled me across the room and onto a sofa, "This is all so exciting!"
My eyes narrowed, "Exciting?"
She grinned, "Oh Maude don't you know? All these families have come to see if they can match you to their sons!"
"Well of course I knew that would be a part of your arrivals, but this can't be the whole reason for your visit?"
"Not for me of course! You are such a dear friend. But my parents, and William, and all the others…they are trying to win you over. Of course, that includes making friendly with your father, the new Lord Hertfordshire. But they are far more interested in his lovely daughter," she seemed thrilled with this.
My brow furrowed and she took my hand, looking at my pensive expression, "What's the matter, Maude? Does it not excite you that this many people, and more beyond that, find you beautiful?"
"Well, yes of course that's flattering, but I thought…rather, I had hoped that a man would want to marry me because of my character, not my looks and my money and position."
"Good luck finding that, Maude," my face closed over at this and she squeezed my hands, "Oh please don't be unhappy. It's just that this is how things are."
"Maybe they should not be that way."
Sylvia sat back then took in a deep breath, "Look, forget I said anything. You and I will have a marvelous time, and we shan't worry a bit about those silly boys."
I smiled, "That sounds wonderful."
Just then, Lord Blakely strode through the doorway. He was taller than I had originally thought he was. He walked past us, not seeing us, as a valet showed him upstairs to his guest room.
Sylvia leaned over to whisper, "Perhaps we could worry about one silly boy?"
"Perhaps," I said, watching the dashing lord ascend the steps.
After dinner, and after all our guests had been properly introduced to me, and after an evening in the sitting room being positively smothered by Bertram Aberton—the middle-aged skittish wonder—I retreated to my room for safety.
Unfortunately, Lord Blakely spent the evening speaking to my father about economics and trade. Lord Blakely was our neighbor in landholding apparently, so he was keenly interested in developing a trade relationship with us. I did, however, catch his eyes upon me once or twice during the evening, and when our eyes met, he would smile that devilish grin before looking away. I found myself smiling as I sat in my room, brushing my hair for bed.
There was a knock on the door, and then Sylvia came running in, and jumped on my bed. She, like me, was dressed in a plain white nightgown made from fine silk.
"So, has Lord Aberton managed to win your heart, or ought he spill a few more glasses of wine on your carpet to truly win you over?"
"The poor man has no sense of grace at all. And so nervous! He was positively drenched in sweat the whole evening!"
With a snicker, Sylvia began impersonating Bertram, "Oh Lady Chesterfield, how lovely your…um…the climate is most…what a nice room."
I burst out laughing, then covered my mouth and shushed Sylvia, "Be nice!"
"Well that is no fun at all."
I flopped onto the bed beside her, staring up at the curtains atop my bed, "If only Lord Blakely had come spoken to me. If he never approaches, then he is as bad as Bertram!"
Sylvia laughed, lying down next to me, "Now who is being unkind?"
"I just wish that this was not happening. Why does my father insist on marrying me off before I'm nineteen? What is the matter with a nineteen year old unmarried daughter?"
"I have no idea, dear Maude," we sat in silence for a few moments before Sylvia spoke again, "What if we played a game?"
"What do you mean?" I asked, closing my eyes.
She sat up, "I mean, let us have a competition for your suitors."
Now I sat up to stare at Sylvia, "A competition?"
"Well they would not know we were ranking them of course, but yes, a competition. We can watch them, and after they have spoken with you, we can give them marks and see who gets the highest score!"
"And would I have to marry the man with the highest marks?" I cringed.
"Oh no! That's ridiculous! We can rank them just for fun!" She grinned.
I thought about it, "What if we gave each suitor challenges, and tested his character? We could score him based on his actions!"
"This is a wonderful idea!" Sylvia sang, "I am so glad I thought of it!"
The next week was spent indoors due to inclement weather, and I found myself rained in with our new guests, and my suitors. Sylvia passed some of each afternoon playing cards in the parlour, and surveying whichever suitor we found lurking about.
The parlour was rather expansive, with rich coloured wooden floors and lovely pale blue walls. A great fireplace sat on the interior of the wall, creating a center for the room; and around the hearth were set two couches and three large chairs. On the exterior wall, which faced my mother's prized garden and a large maintained yard, there were three great windows, spaced evenly apart. They were so large that they nearly filled the whole space of the wall; these were covered in light, white curtains that scaled from the ceiling all the way to the floor. There was also a chess table set in one corner, and two more sets of couches and chairs on either side of the room; plenty of space for a large number of guests.
During the first day of our confinement, Bertram Aberton had come seeking me out. I had to respect the man for his perspicacity, for he was quite intelligent. But I clearly frightened him near to death, for whenever we concluded conversations, he was white as death and his brow was covered in sweat. Yet, he persevered, though I think we both knew the match to be impossible.
On the second day, we were joined by the two male Foresters, Reginald and his son Conroy. While Sylvia was forced to talk to Reginald, Conroy made his character more known to me. He was arrogant as well as moody and monotonous, and thought himself the most educated of the group of suitors. This I greatly doubted. I had heard of William's schooling at Eton from both Sylvia and her parents, whose pride in him was clear. And I knew from speaking to Bertram that, while finicky, he possessed an impressive knowledge of most things. Blakely, I suspected, was likewise educated at Eton. Conroy boasted little knowledge of anything. He professed to be an avid reader, yet he had read none of the books I had been taught by my tutors at the behest of my father, who insisted I be as well educated as any boy. In addition to knowing little academic information, he lacked the ability to produce interesting anecdotes. I thought that were he my only option to marry, I would sooner die.
I shall not even relate the third day, in which both Bertram and Conroy joined forces to induce Sylvia and I into playing word games. I will simply say that it was the blackest day of our confinement indoors.
On the fourth day, we sat on our usual corner couch, where we could observe the other inhabitants of the room. We had taken a slip of paper from my father's office, and were writing down my suitors' marks on it. I leant over the table we'd brought in front of us, with the paper, pen, and inkwell in arms' reach.
"Blakely," I stated as I wrote the initial B down.
"I should have to say three points for good looks, but he has not interacted with you otherwise, has he?"
She was right; other than occasionally smiling at me or greeting me as we passed each other in the hallway, he hadn't spoken to me, "Well I well also give him a point for the winks and smiles he gives when he looks at me. So, four points. Now, Aberton."
I wrote the A on the paper and we looked at it for a moment. Sylvia put her hand to mouth as she thought.
"I say that he deserves three points taken away for his stunt with Conroy to play games yesterday. For that experience I cannot undo, no matter how hard I try."
I laughed, "But I feel I must give him five points for his perseverance. He tries though it frightens him to death. And I will not take off points for his sweating, but I will take off one point for unnecessary nerves. I will give him two points for his mind though. That brings him to three points. What terrible prospects thus far! If Blakely does not ask, my next best hope is Bertram!"
Sylvia laughed, "You should not take him, even if he is second choice!"
"Alright. Enough unkindness. Now, Conroy Forester," I scrawled a C.
"You cannot possible give him a score. It would be unkind to take him in debt of points," she pointed out.
"You are right. He has made many errors. But I will give him credit for one thing," Sylvia looked at me questioningly, "He befriended Bertram, who is badly in need of a friend."
"So one point for Conroy?"
"Yes," I paused, thinking, "Yes I think so."
I went to fold the sheet and Sylvia grabbed my hand, "You forgot about William."
"Oh my, I did!" I unfolded the page and drew a W, "What shall we give him?"
"Points for good looks? Even I can admit my brother is handsome enough."
"Yes. Two points for looks. I will also have to award him two points for chivalry."
Sylvia turned to me, her eyes alight, "Chivalry? Do tell!"
"I suffered from a moment of clumsiness, and dismembered the Sybelline knight who now sits in the library. He swore to keep my graceless moment a secret, and he helped me up after I fell."
"Four points to my brother as well?" I nodded to Sylvia, who smiled, "See? You nearly forget him, and he is the leading competitor for your Lord Blakely!"
I shrugged, not thinking much of it, instead focusing my attention on Blakely, who had just entered the parlour. I stood, meaning to go speak with him, but was intercepted by the lovely Isabella Aberton.
"I'm sorry not to have spoken with you before, Lady Chesterfield," she and I bowed our heads to each other before she continued, "it is just that I am…terribly shy."
I smiled and took her hand, "Please Miss Aberton, do not apologize. What matters is that we speak now. Come, sit with Sylvia and myself. And I insist that you call me by name, for I am not the formal sort."
Two days later, Sylvia and myself had made a new friend in the demure, lovely Isabella. She was soft spoken, but kind and good hearted. She possessed the same qualities as her brother, but she managed her shyness and nervousness with a great deal more grace and appeal.
However, as I sat in the library, I was alone. Isabella's overbearing mother had insisted on her daughter's help with something or other, and Sylvia was suffering from her monthlies. All told, I was not entirely sad for this. I was growing restless spending all afternoon in the parlour, and I relished the though of reading quietly in the library.
I chose The Aeneid in Latin to read that afternoon. I had not practiced my Latin in a while, and I feared it had got a bit rusty. So I settled into the comfortable chair in front of the fireplace in the library and began reading. I became deeply engrossed in the novel, as I loved reading Latin and I was compelled by the love story between Creusa and Aeneas. I knew that not only was the love not the point of the tale, the love between Dido and Aeneas is the main romance of the poem. Yet he risked death to turn back to the burning Troy to search for her, and when he encountered her ghost, he attempted to embrace her a final time before she entered the realm of the dead. It may not have been the great and terrible love of Dido and Aeneas, but it was a constant, loyal, and beautiful love.
"You look engrossed, Lady Chesterfield."
I startled, looking up. I had not even heard William enter; yet there he stood, to one side of my chair. He bowed his head to me and I acknowledged him. He stepped over, and looked at the book in my lap.
"The Aeneid. And in Latin, too. Sylvia told me that you were well-educated, but this is most impressive."
I colored slightly and looked down at the book, "My father wanted to give me the best education he was capable of giving his only child. Please sit down, Mr. Beauclerk ."
"I think that it would be acceptable to call me by my first name, Lady Chesterfield," he smiled at me warmly as he sat in the chair opposite mine, and I felt myself blush again.
"Yes, but only if you stop calling me Lady Chesterfield."
He leant back in his seat, stretching out his legs, "Very well, Lady Maude. We have a deal," I closed the book, and he immediately sat forward again, "Oh do not stop reading on my account."
My brow furrowed, "Are you certain? It is no trouble at all—"
Will smiled softly, "Yes, I'm sure. I was merely looking for company. We do not have to talk. I will find myself a book, and we shall sit quietly and read. If you do not mind having a companion."
I returned his smile, "Not at all, William. I am glad for a quiet afternoon. And even gladder that I shan't be alone."
As he promised, we talked very little, and I spent the day reading—and finishing—The Aeneid, and William read Plato. Occasionally, one of us would interrupt the other with a thought or question about what we read, but it was never truly that much of an invasion on the quiet. I also gazed up from my book from time to time to watch my reading companion. He was often ensconced in the philosophy, his brow furrowed (not in anxiety, but through intense concentration), and his sandy hair just fell into his eyes. Once, he looked up to see me observing him, and he smiled at me, running a hand through his light brown mane of hair to pull it out of his eyes, then returned to reading. I found I enjoyed spending time in Will's presence; we did not have to speak or even take part in the same activity, and yet it was as though we did something together. I felt comfortable around him in ways I was not with other men, including the enigmatic, handsome Lord Blakely.
The next morning, I was woken by my mother; another uncharacteristic thing for her to do.
"Good morning, Maude."
"Is something the matter?" I asked as I got up.
"No. But you ought to get dressed quickly. You are to go riding with your father and our guests."
I suddenly grinned, "Riding?"
I looked outside, and was delighted to see that the clouds had gone, and it was sunny, if a bit muddy in places. I was an avid horse rider, and I relished every chance I could find to ride. And, in London I so rarely got the chance to ride. There are benefits, I mused, to living outside the city.
"Your father knew you would enjoy this," my mother stroked my hair for a moment before smiling, "Now hurry and dress or you will miss the outing!"
I ran to my closet, Emily in tow, as we hastened to get me clothed in proper riding gear. We settled on putting me in a beautiful dark blue velvet riding dress before Emily ushered me out the door. I ran down the stairs again, this time pausing at the stairway to make certain I would not have an incident with another suit of armor, and then ran out the front door toward the stables. But, one should never run or make a ruckus around horses, my trainer taught me for many years, so I stopped at the door and slowed to a walk. There were many guest horses that I did not recognize in the stables, but I did see Lord Blakely's stallion, towering over every other creature in the barn. I stopped only briefly to watch the massive horse before moving down to my mare's stall.
Tess, my sweet natured mare, nickered when she saw me approaching. I rubbed her face, giving her a carrot that I had gotten for her in the kitchen. While she was chewing contentedly, I ran my hands along her cream colored neck. She was very pretty; her coat a shining cream color. She was small enough that I managed her easily, but she was also built to run with considerable speed. We had spent a lot of time racing around the countryside when I had visited my grandfather.
I turned and saw Lord Blakely a few feet away, leaning against a post.
"My Lord Blakely," I dipped my head in his direction, to which he responded with a well-practiced ornate bow, "She is a beautiful mare."
"And whatever made you think I was speaking of your horse?" he grinned roguishly at me, his eyebrow rising in mischief.
I blushed deeply and found my gaze on the floor. Before he could say more, Conroy Forester coming to collect a mount interrupted us.
"Good afternoon Lady Chesterfield, Lord Blakely," he bowed to us respectively, "I don't know about you, Miss Chesterfield, but I am quite put out by the idea of an outing. We would be better served to stay indoors and socialize, don't you think?" he looked at me.
"I rather like horse riding, Mr. Forester." I smiled sweetly.
His eyes went blank as he realized he had badly misjudged my character, "I see. I find it can be most invigorating."
I entered Tess's stall, ignoring the two men with their horses, and easily saddled my mare. Then, I led her to just outside the stable doors. Michael, the stable boy, approached with the box for me to use to mount my horse. I thanked him kindly and climbed onto my dear riding partner. It was unfortunate that I had to ride sidesaddle while men could ride on average saddles. Sidesaddle was most uncomfortable, and I resented that we had to ride this way simply because that was the norm. My father soon joined me on Hephaestus, his grey charger.
"Good morning sweetheart." He smiled at me lovingly.
"Good morning father. Where are we riding?"
"It shall be your choice today."
"Really?" I asked, happy to have him indulge me.
"Yes, my dear," he turned in his saddle, "Now where is everyone else? What if they have all decided it is unfavorable to ride today?"
His brow knitted together as he began to worry. I reached over and placed my gloved hands on his, "They will be here father. Remember, you are the host. They must do what you tell them to."
Soon enough, William, Sylvia, their parents, my aunt and uncle, Henry and Conroy Forester, Bertram, and Charles Blakely were all mounted and ready to commence riding. Sylvia rode over to my side.
My father smiled at the group, "Come ladies and gentlemen, let us ride. The rest of our party will be joining us at the top of the Aldershill for tea."
My smile faded; of course father had already planned our course for today. It wasn't his fault that he felt he had to plan everything out; my grandfather had instilled that in him every day of his life. But I did, for just a moment wish that I really had gotten the choice of route this beautiful morning.
"Are you alright?" William had ridden up beside me, and looked at me closely with polite concern.
"Of course she's alright Will! She just has sun in her eyes," Sylvia interjected for me.
William nodded, moving to wait by my father.
"Are you alright, Maude?" Sylvia asked.
"I am fine. It is as you said, I had sun in my eyes, and it was most vexing. But now your very useful brother has moved and blocked the sun completely," I smiled, hoping that she believed me.
"He is always good for something!" She laughed.
My father circled his horse around and called to us, "We have dallied around long enough! Let us ride!"
We broke off at a quick clip, my father in the lead. After a short open field, we came to the small forest on our estate, and slowed to a gentle walk. My father and William sat in front of us, while the rest were behind. Lord Blakely seemed to be lounging in the very back, enjoying the dappled forest light.
"What if we presented a challenge to the boys right now?" I asked, smiling wickedly.
"That would depend entirely on what you had in mind, dear Maude," Sylvia responded with equal dark mischief.
I sidled over closer to her and spoke quietly, "Well, what if Tess were to suddenly become "spooked" by something and bolt off. We could discover which of our hopefuls is the knight in shining armor."
Sylvia smiled, "I like this idea very much. You will be careful though, won't you?"
"I have ridden these woods for years, I can navigate the path quickly, and without error. I will be fine. Let us just see what happens."
I grinned, and then kicked Tess hard in the ribs. She whinnied, and started forward at a gallop. I directed her around William and my father so we did not have any accidents, and shouted, pretending fear and confusion. We dove through the forest, and I leaned in close to avoid low hanging branches. One did manage to catch up in my hair as we flew through the wooded path.
I decided that then was as good a time as any to shout a few times, "Help!"
Glancing behind me, I noted that there were three horses coming up behind me. The closest rider, I noted with disappointment, was my father. Then Lord Blakely, on his great black stallion came blasting forward. He easily began to gain the distance between us.
That would be too easy, my Lord Blakely, I kicked Tess again urging her to go more quickly.
"Help!" I shouted again.
I looked behind me; Blakely spurred his black steed forward and edged next to me. He stretched out his hand, and took the reigns from me. As he tugged poor Tess's head uncomfortably, I subtly took her mane and instructed her to slow. She obeyed beautifully, though Blakely thought it was he who had successfully slowed the raging horse. We both slowed to a walk, and I smiled over at Blakely.
"Thank you so much, Lord Blakely!"
"Please call me Charles, Lady Chesterfield," the wolfish grin appeared again, then he looked at my father as he approached, "Your daughter is in safe hands, my Lord."
My father raised an eyebrow, "So I see."
In my mind, I cringed. My father knew me to be a fine horsewoman, and I would not have the slightest problem in calming a frightened horse. I thought for a moment he would bring it up in front of Blakely, but thankfully he did not, merely riding past us down the trail. Sylvia rode up to my side, grinning.
"You ought to have been in my shoes, Maude. Conroy began a lengthy rant on how he had been right in voting against an outing, and Bertram nearly fainted from fear."
I laughed, "And your brother? What did he do?"
Her brow furrowed slightly, "Did you not see him? He was directly behind Blakely. I have never seen him ride so fast before."
"I suppose I must have missed him. Blakely did rather fill the scene though."
"Oh goodness, yes! Every bit the prince charming, dashing to save his princess. It was terribly romantic," her brow cleared immediately, giving way to a wide smile.
"It was!" I gushed.
The path began to clear in front of us; we were coming to the incline up to Aldershill. I looked behind me and spied Conroy. I smiled, to which he merely bowed his head before turning back to a conversation with his father. I turned about, my smile slipping away. Conroy was terribly serious, and so very tiresome.
"Maude, let us ride ahead of the party and find a perfect spot to sit!" Sylvia prompted me out of my thoughts.
"The best place to judge the contenders from!"
We both fell to a fit of giggles before nudging our horses forward; however, we made certain not to travel as quickly as I had before, to keep from arousing suspicions. We easily passed my father and Lord Blakely, and were soon riding up Aldershill, where we could spot my mother and the horseless guest waiting. I flicked my gaze behind us, and saw that we had just gone out of sight of the rest of our company.
"Well, come on then Sylvia, let us race to the top!" I shouted as I urged Tess into her full speed.
"You are cheating!" Sylvia shouted from behind me.
I laughed and leaned in close to Tess. Looking behind me, I saw that Sylvia was beginning to encroach on our lead; her little grey pony could certainly run. I clucked at Tess, kicking her gently, both were to encourage her speed. She whinnied and pushed forward. We were fast approaching the top of the hill; Sylvia was still well on her way to catching up. As I crested the hill, so did Sylvia. The reclining ladies gasped, thinking we were going to stomp them to death on our horses. I laughed and merely turned Tess away from the crowd. We soon came to a halt a short distance from the women, who were now fluttering about. Sylvia was behind me, and as I looked on, I saw that her brother William was trotting up slowly on his chestnut stallion.
He dismounted easily, and then came to assist his sister off her horse. Once she was on the ground, William moved over to help me. With a small smile, he stepped forward and raised his arms, hands outstretched. Placing my hands on his shoulders, I let him lift me from the saddle by the waist and place me on the ground. I was surprised at his strength, though I should not have been. As he settled me on the ground, his eyes narrowed on my brow; he reached up and pulled a twig from my hair.
I laughed, my cheeks reddening slightly, "From my ride earlier, I suppose."
William's face did not lose its grave expression as he stepped closer, bending to examine my temple even more thoroughly. He tucked some of my hair behind my ear, then touched a spot just above my ear. I looked up at William's eyes and saw how intently they focused on the spot. I also took note that while Will was a good deal taller than me, his presence was not intimidating, but rather gave me the feeling of being protected.
His hand moved back to where I could view it, and I saw it had a bit of blood on it. His brow furrowed slightly, in much the same way his sister's did, "You're bleeding. Do you feel alright, Maude?"
Will looked intently at me, and I stared back at him, "Yes I feel quite fine. Just a bit of blood, I do not think it is anything too serious. I do thank you for your thorough examination, though, Mr. Beauclerk."
"It was my pleasure, Lady Chesterfield" he took a step back and bowed to me, the small smile returning to his mouth.
He then left to look after his mount, and I turned to unsaddle mine. By that point, others of the party had begun to appear on the hill, and the skittish Bertram bumblingly offered to care for my horse, which I gently refused. The last thing I needed was either man or horse to scare each other off into the forest. A footman did, however, soon appear to do my job for me, so I went to find Sylvia.
She was, of course, seated on a blanket at the top of the group, where we could easily observe everybody else. I fell to the ground beside her, and she absently passed me a bowl of strawberries.
"Look at Conroy Forester. Certainly bad marks for sitting with his parents and remaining unsociable."
I looked to the Foresters; Conroy sat, unspeaking, on a blanket with his mother and father. He appeared to be instead reading a book, though I had no idea from where he had produced it. Then I saw Bertram Aberton nervously sit with Blakely and attempt conversation. Blakely smiled, somewhat condescendingly, spoke shortly and waved the boy off.
"Oh, bad marks to Blakely! He brushed off poor Aberton. Of course the man is of an uneasy nature, but one should have kindness," Sylvia spoke; she had seen the exchange as well.
"I agree," I was disappointed to see my favorite err, "But his actions earlier somewhat counteract the ones just performed."
"Perhaps. Or perhaps the actions in this moment lend further insight into the motives behind his previous actions."
I looked behind me. My father stood just behind me. I smiled up at him.
"Oh Papa, you cannot mean that!"
He laid his hand on my shoulder, "You forget, my dear, that I have known him for a long while. He is a selfish, conceited man."
I simply could not believe that, "Then why invite him?"
His eyes roved to Blakely, "I did not. He invited himself. I urge you to look elsewhere for a match."
Then my father kissed the top of my head and went to join my mother. I turned back to Sylvia and made a face.
"He has no idea how to make his daughter a good match. Of course Blakely has flaws, but none so serious as what he accuses. He just cannot suffer silly people, is all."
"Besides, everyone likes a proud man. He cuts a clean figure," Sylvia laughed, her eyebrow raising.
I laughed along with her, then took her hands, "I have a splendid game! Let us try and guess the ages of my suitors!"
Sylvia giggled, "Alright. Whom should we begin with?"
I sat back, tapping my chin. Then with my tapping finger, I pointed to Conroy Forester. Sylvia looked at him intently for a minute, then smiled.
"Two and twenty, but six and eighty at heart."
I burst out laughing, and had to cover my mouth with the back of my hand. Through my covered mouth I mumbled, "I think you are right."
She grinned, then looked at Blakely, "And how old do we think our charming Lord Blakely is?"
My lips pursed as I gazed at him. He was tall, and self-assured, and, of course, a titled lord. He seemed full of energy, and vitality. And he was handsome; he happened to look up at me, and the roguish smile reappeared.
I felt myself smile in return, "My mother has already told me he is twenty-seven, and I think that he looks every bit his age."
"And why do we say that?" Sylvia turned to lay on her stomach, facing the party downhill.
"Look at that devilish grin. Only a man who has seen the world could have such a look."
"That is a fair point. And what do with think of Aberton?"
We paused, considered, and then looked at each other and said in unison, "Thirty-five."
We laughed, and I swung too, so I laid on my stomach on the blanket. Sylvia grinned, sliding the tea down in between us. I looked to her brother. I believe he had been sitting alone, but Aberton had joined him, and the two were carrying on a quiet conversation. I smiled to myself; Aberton had found a friend.
"How old is your brother?"
Sylvia put her hand to her mouth, almost laughing, "Oh my goodness, I'd forgot about him. He's twenty-six, just a bit younger than your Lord Blakely."
I inserted the information into my brain, then turned on my back and watched the sunlight play over the tree that sheltered us. Some time while I relaxed, I must have dozed off. I woke to the sounds of people shuffling about. Sitting up slowly, I looked about. Bad weather was moving in, and we were packing to return home, and indoors, before the weather turned on us.
I stood, stretching. Unsurprising to me, Sylvia had fallen asleep next to me. I bent and nudged her awake with my hand. She blinked, bleary-eyed for a moment.
"Come on, there is bad weather coming. We're leaving."
She pouted, "But it was so nice."
"I know. But I cannot change the weather," I helped her up.
We went to our horses, whom a footman had already been kind enough to saddle for us, and who had left boxes for us to mount on. I climbed atop Tess and, seeing the party beginning to ride off, urged her forward down Aldershill. Taking the same trail back, I watched the sky growing ever darker grey until it almost seemed black like coal above us.
Blakely rode up beside me, grinning; clearly, he enjoyed this sort of weather, "Would you care to race, Lady Chesterfield?"
I laughed, though I wondered why he would ask after just seeing my "loss of control" earlier. It seemed imprudent, "I think you ought to reconsider that. You may not win, and then your reputation will be in tatters."
He turned to me, eyebrow rose skeptically, "I never lose."
Then he shot off like a bolt down the path, around the rest of our party. I cursed my foolishness under my breath, and then sped after him. With all the racing about I'd done today, it was a wonder that Tess had not thrown me from my saddle. I felt us blurring along the path, but I saw only Blakely and his stallion, and my deepest wish was to pass him, and prove to him that I was not as unskilled as I had pretended earlier. Tess must have somehow sensed my urgency, and she bolted forward, quickly closing the distance between Blakely and myself. I laughed triumphantly as we moved by him, but my celebration was a bit early. As we neared the exit of the woods, he pulled alongside me, and we came to a halt together at the edge of the forest.
"It was a good fight, Lady Chesterfield, but I am afraid I am the victor today."
"It was a tie!"
"I was ahead of you just now."
"It was a tie!" I insisted, "You—"
I made to argue further, but just then the skies opened up, and rain began pouring down on us. I squealed and urged Tess across the open field to the barn. By the time Blakely and I had made it to the dry indoors of the stable, we were both completely drenched. Blakely jumped off his horse and imitated a dog, shaking the water off himself. Then the wolfish grin spread across his face and his eyes gleamed as he looked at me. I laughed and stretched out my arms. He obligingly stepped over and pulled me off Tess. I felt a flush spread across my checks at the warmth and firmness of his grip. My blush deepened as he continued to hold me by my tiny, corseted waist. I looked upwards at him, finding I had to crane my neck. His sharp, predator's gaze was intent on me. Then he leaned down and planted his mouth on mine.
It was my first kiss, and I found I liked it very much. A sharp tingling began at my lips, and traveled down my arms and legs, so that my extremities tingled pleasantly. I found myself putting my hands on Blakely's arms and pulling him closer. With more mental fortitude than I had ever had, I willed myself to pull away from him. He let me go, but his eyes were positively on fire as he grinned at me. I laughed, smiling equally wickedly.
"I need to find dry clothes, Lord Blakely. And the others will arrive at any moment."
He nodded his head, not speaking. And I turned, striding down the aisle of stalls until I found the stable boy, and handed off the reins to him. Without looking behind me, I walked slowly, confidently out of the stables and into the house, where I quickly climbed upstairs to my room. Emily was just inside the doorway, and she gasped at me; I was so wet that I was dripping on the carpet.
"You are going to catch cold, and then you won't be smiling, Maude!" she tsked as she approached, undoing the laces at my back and pulling the gown off me.
However I tried, I found I could not stop smiling. Even as Emily yanked through my hair with the brush, desperately trying to untangled my tresses, I smiled. Was this what it felt like to be in love? No, surely not. One kiss could not make one fall in love. But it did make me feel wonderful.
"Will you be getting dressed, or sitting there all day staring?"
I blinked, looking at Emily, "Of course I shall get dressed. There is still dinner and the evening in the parlour! Fetch me the dark blue gown, please."
Emily smiled at me in the mirror, then went into my closet and retrieved the requested dress. With her skill, it only took a moment to put on and tightly tie the fabric to me. She placed the silver shoes I liked to wear with that gown by the vanity stool and then helped me pull my dripping hair into a well groomed braid which hung over my shoulder. As I slipped on my shoes, a freshly changed, wet-haired Sylvia came traipsing through the room, falling onto my bed.
"I am so cold, Maude! All that rain simply wet me to the bone," she rolled over and looked at me, "You look much to happy for getting caught out in that weather just now."
I came and sat down next to her, "Blakely kissed me."
Both Sylvia and Emily exclaimed, "What!?" Sylvia's was with excitement and glee, and Emily's was with terror and anger. Emily tugged me to my feet, pointing at me.
"You stay away from that Lord Blakely. He's not a good one, Maude."
My eyes narrowed, "What have you heard?"
Servants, though I was loathe to call Emily a servant as she was more of a friend and advisor, loved to gossip. If ever I needed to know anything, I could trust to only ask Emily to get a full report. This time, though, Emily shifted her weight, her eyes cast away from me.
"What did you hear? Please, Emily, I must know!"
She finally turned her eyes back to me, and I saw there was guilt in them, "I am sorry Maude. It is not what I heard, but rather what I saw. Blakely was with a kitchen maid last night."
"You must be mistaken. He would never do something like that," I laughed it off, though inside I did feel uneasy.
"I promise it was him! You can recognize his voice anywhere, and he is so very tall. No one else in Sybelline matches his height."
"I…Well then we shall just have to see if this is true," I turned to Sylvia, who nodded agreement.
"Yes, we will get the truth!"
"Mr. Forester, that is simply too riveting," I cooed, "I will simply have to relate that to Miss Beauclerk ."
I stood from my seat by Conroy's equally tedious father and—striving not to appear as if running away—walked across the parlour to Sylvia, who chatted with her brother. I smiled at him, and took his sister's hands.
"Oh my goodness, Sylvia, Mr. Forester is as bad as his son! His story almost bored me to tears."
"No!" Sylvia exclaimed, laughing.
"I tell you it is the truth! I felt my eyes watering, and I knew I had to find a means of escape."
"How very unkind, Maude!" Sylvia scolded.
I began to answer, but was stopped by William.
"Not at all, sister. I think she did it rather to spare the man his feelings. I have no doubt that Lady Chesterfield hasn't an unkind bone in her body," William's face remained composed, though when I saw him glance my way I swore I could just see the corners of his mouth rise ever so slightly.
"Thank you Mr. Beauclerk , you are absolutely right."
He bowed his head to me, the smile appearing, "Not at all. Now if you excuse me, I shall take your place with Mr. Forester."
He walked across the expansive room and sat by Forester, who immediately jumped into conversation with William. I shook my head in his direction.
"Your brother is so very kind. He wouldn't want any one in this party to feel the least bit poorly about themselves."
"That is his way," she peered at me, and a speculative light entered her eyes, "You seem taken with him, Maude. Do you find my brother the most eligible suitor here?"
I looked away from William, "Not with Lord Blakely around! But, we must discover the truth about him for ourselves!"
"Do you think what Emily said bears any consideration?"
We began slowly walking away from the window at which we stood, "I think any rumour spread by servants is worth pursuing. They have a nasty habit of being right."
Sylvia thought for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders in agreement, "So what shall we do?"
I looked over to Blakely, who stood talking with Sylvia's father. He seemed in the habit of talking to those older than him. I held back a smile as the memory of our kiss flooded my brain. I willed him to look at me, but he would not be swayed. What was this? I wondered if he no longer took an interest in me. But that was ridiculous; his sole purpose in coming was to woo me, was it not? But…he had not been invited. Perhaps he was not interested in marrying the daughter of Lord Hertfordshire; he could have been here on simply business.
I found myself dismayed, "I am not sure. He seems quite uninterested now, Sylvia. Look, his eyes never stray my way as they once did."
"Oh Maude, I think he is simply playing games; he must still be interested in you," Sylvia encouraged me.
"Well then, I propose that you engage him in conversation. I shall find conversation elsewhere, and you shall report to me what he says."
"What am I to say?" she asked, looking at Blakely.
"First, discern whether he is interested in me, and that I think you know how to do. As for discovering if Emily is right about his nightly escapades, we shall have to keep watch tonight."
"Alright, but I am sure he is interested in you. We need not go to all these measures!"
Taking a breath, she went over to Blakely and struck up conversation. I looked away quickly, striving not to be caught staring. Isabella stood deeply in conversation with William, so I went over to them. William greeted me warmly and, strangely, Isabella seemed reluctant to have me join in their talk.
"Good evening Maude. I trust you weren't flooded on the ride back?" William asked teasingly.
"As I am here, we can assume that I did not swim back, or I would be there still," we laughed, and then I turned to Isabella, "Where were you this afternoon? Sylvia and I missed your company."
"I…was not feeling well. In fact, I still feel badly now. Perhaps it would be best if I retired for the evening," she smiled wanly, dipped into a light curtsy, and left.
My brow furrowed in confusion. What was this show of discomfort with me about? Isabella was a friendly girl, and I had liked her—and I had thought she I—just days ago. Now, she seemed unable to remain in my company at all.
"What on earth was that? What did I do to the poor girl?" I asked aloud.
To my surprise, William chuckled. I looked over at him, and he smiled apologetically.
"I do not mean to laugh at your perceived hurt feelings. I think this has rather a lot less to do with you, and a lot more to do with," he paused, his face beginning to look uncomfortable, "me."
"You?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yes. I suspect, and at this point she only need verbally confirm those suspicions, that she has developed an attachment to me."
I laughed, my brow clearing, "But I don't see what that has to do with me, William."
Something shifted in William's eyes, and his smile faded, "Well it is probably that she didn't want to have an audience to her flirting."
"I'm sure. But tell me what is troubling you," he raised his eyebrows questioningly and I hurried on, "No, do not deny that you are troubled, William. Tell me, please!"
William nodded, mouth pursing. Then he took a deep breath and spoke, "I was just thinking about your incident today."
"With your horse."
"Oh yes. That," I felt myself blush, "What about it?"
"I was given to think that you were a better rider than that," his sharp eyes fixed on me and I felt myself blush even more deeply.
Suddenly, I could not meet that sharp, knowing gaze. I first glanced the carpeted floor, and then quickly cast my eyes out the window. I knew my face had gone completely scarlet. William stepped forward, taking my upper arms in his hands.
"Why would you pretend to be less than you are, Maude?" I looked back to his eyes, and saw that they had softened.
"Do not tell anyone," I stared at him imploringly.
"I promise," he continued looking intently at me, then urged me on, "Well?"
"We…Sylvia and I, we wanted to see how the suitors would react. Test their…your merits," I finished lamely.
His brows rose, but he smiled, his eyes crinkling with unsounding laughter, "And how did we measure up?"
"I," I struggled until I realized he was teasing me, "Please don't tell anyone!"
"It is one more secret I shall have to keep for you," His smile widened, and then his eyes followed suit.
His eyes traveled down to where he still lightly gripped my arms, and my face went hot as I realized that we had been standing so close for so long. William released my arms, moving to a more appropriate distance from me, straightening his waistcoat self-consciously. I cast my gaze about the room and saw that we had drawn the attention of my aunt and uncle, and my parents.
"I shall owe you many favours if you keep collecting secrets from me," I joked, attempting to relieve the awkwardness of the moment.
"Wait for the day when I call on you to repay me. You will be in dire straits," if any other person had spoken those words, I would have felt threatened; but William never for a moment frightened me.
Sylvia returned, grabbing my hands and tugging me out of the room. I almost insisted that we stop and she tell me what she had learnt in the parlour, but when I saw the set of her jaw I knew that she would brook no contradiction. She propelled us out of the parlour and down the hallway to a quiet corner.
Once we had stopped, I could not contain my curiosity any longer, "What did you learn?"
"He is still very much interested, and I must say a bit jealous—as of this evening—of my brother," my face froze, and she laughed, "Bravo with the scene. How did you manage to get my brother to help?"
I relaxed; she thought it had been fake, "You know, he is always so helpful. He leapt at the chance to be of assistance."
We fell to a fit of giggles, and then Sylvia asked, "What are our plans for tonight? Will we be on the lookout for debauchery?"
"Yes. Come to my room around mid-night. We will have to wait until the household is asleep; for if Blakely is participating in unsavory activities, he will have to wait too."
Late that night, Sylvia and I crept down the hall from my room to the servant's stairs. This was the surest way that we would not be caught. It was very dark, and the wooden stairs were cold against my bare feet. We stole down the steps, lurking behind the opened door to the kitchen. The cook was there, and the boy that helped him. Both were resting in chairs pulled up close to the fire in the hearth. I pulled Sylvia along and we moved quickly through the kitchen toward the servant's quarters and laundry rooms. A few maids were shuffling around; they bowed when they saw us. When we reached the end of the hall, and had still had no sight of Blakely, we turned around to walk to the main hall of the ground floor.
"No Blakely! Perhaps the gossip was wrong after all," Sylvia whispered with excitement.
With an inward sigh, I knew that her statement had just done the inevitable. Just at that moment, as we passed the half-dozen doors between ourselves and the marble staircase, we heard voices coming from the library. I pulled Sylvia close to me, and we both listened through the library door, which was cracked open.
"…haven't any money…gambled it all away…You need to secure a marriage to my niece."
I gasped, and covered my mouth, hoping to contain the sound and remain unnoticed. My uncle was plotting with someone to marry me? Why?
"Don't worry, Thomas. The girl is half in love with me already. It will be easy to sway her to marry me. Very easy, in fact. I had thought she was going to be more difficult to win over."
Sylvia grabbed my arm, whispering in my ear, "That's Blakely!"
I nodded, holding my finger to my lips. My uncle and Blakely continued talking.
"But you do like her, don't you Charles?"
"Of course, of course. She is very beautiful, and spirited. Those are just the sorts of things I look for in my horses, and in a wife. I think I could be very happy with her. First and foremost, however, is the fact that she has a great deal of money in her dowry, and stands to gain even more once her father passes her his earldom."
I backed away from the door as the two men plotted their way to getting my father's money and land. Why did my uncle need the money? I now knew what sort of man Blakely was; one not averse to marrying for money instead of love. But this left me in a perplexing situation; Blakely did say that he liked me. Should I still consider him as a viable suitor, or would it be better to cast him aside now?
When we got back to my room, I lit the lamp, and we settled onto my bed, "What am I going to do?"
Sylvia was deep in thought on my problem, her face cradled in her hands, "I have no idea. But, do you want the truth, Maude?"
She took a breath, "I would ask him to leave. Clearly he is the scheming sort, and the gambling sort as well. He would spend all your money within a year and then the two of you would be destitute. Not to mention the fact that he seems to evaluate women the same way he does horses. He cares not for your mind, but for your appearance. And when that is gone, he will not care for you at all."
"I did not think you cared overmuch about what men thought of your mind," I smiled quietly, impressed with my friend.
"You have been brushing off on me, I suppose," she smiled back, "so what are you going to do?"
"I…" I paused, thinking, then sighed, "I think you're right. Blakely is more trouble than he is worth."
"And what about your other suitors? Do you find any of them acceptable?"
"There will be more. I fully expect that my father will take me to London to find a good match, for I think that my husband is not among this crowd."
Sylvia grinned, her eyes twinkling, "Well, when you go to town, please endeavor to bring me along!"
Sylvia went to bed shortly thereafter, and, as I lay down, I thought of my crowd of suitors and how absurd they all were. But, as I thought on them, my mind turned inexplicably to William, and the way he looked at me, and held me that evening.
A week later, my father declared that we were going to our home in the city. As he announced this to the gathered guests, I could not help but look at Sylvia and send her a smug look. His announcement was his not-so-subtle way of indicating that our guests needed to depart with haste.
The evening after the announcement of our trip, I entered my father's study and sat in the comfortable leather chair in front of his desk. He looked up at me, smiling; he held some documents in his hands, and by the way he gripped them, I could tell that they much frustrated him.
"Hello darling. Is something the matter?"
"No Papa, everything is fine. But I did have a favor to ask of you."
My father's smile widened, and he leaned back in his seat, setting his irritating papers aside for a moment, "Ahh, now I see. What is this favor?"
"I am greatly looking forward to our return to London. Only…" I trailed off, looking at my hands.
I looked up sideways at him, "Only I wish that Sylvia could come along. Things are so much more interesting with her about."
"I see no problem in having Sylvia stay with us."
"So she may come?!" I grinned happily, a wave of pure excitement buffeting me.
"As long as her parents are amenable, then yes, of course—"
I did not let him finish his thought. I jumped from the chair and threw my arms around my father, "Thank you Papa! Thank you thank you!"
Father laughed, clutching my arms. Then he gently squeezed me, "Alright. Let me back to work. There are important things for me to look over tonight."
The next afternoon, I informed Sylvia of her invitation to come to London with us, and she accepted gleefully. While her father the Duke was wealthy, he did not have a particular fondness for the city, and avoided it like a plague. Thus, Sylvia only rarely was able to enjoy the splendors of London, and never had she been with friends. We were accordingly excited for the trip.
Our guests—aside from Sylvia—left not long after; this event was met with similar happiness. I could not have stood another evening with the disingenuous Blakely, blathering, tedious Conroy Forester, or the finicky Bertram Aberton. I was a bit disheartened, however, when Isabella, my aunt and uncle, and William all left as well. I wished they could have also come with us; but that was far too large a party to travel from Sybelline to London.
After a long week of waiting to travel, we finally made it under way to London. And only three days thereafter, Sylvia and I were running through the pristinely kept house. We were within a carriage ride of Buckingham Palace, and I fully expected that we should attend at least one fete there. While I adored Sybelline, I had grown up in this mansion, and always felt at home here. I directed James, the butler, to have Sylvia put in the room next to mine, and then Sylvia and I ran up the large oak staircase to the second floor. This home was far longer than it was wide, so we traveled a short ways back to my room, which I showed Sylvia with great fanfare. Because I had grown up in this room, it was a great deal more personally decorated. In one corner hung my fanciful first attempt at a painting of King Arthur's Camelot. Along one wall I had hung a number of very old tapestries, beautiful and intricate, to both decorate and keep the room warm. A large bed took up half the room, and my vanity and dresser sat next to each other near the window. All said, it was a room of ideals—if I could marry a man I loved, a chivalrous Arthurian knight, then he belonged with all the things in this room.
After inspecting the tapestries and my painting, Sylvia settled herself on the bed and looked at me excitedly, "So when shall we have our first party invitation?"
I laughed, sitting next to her, "Dear Sylvia, we always have invitations. We need only wait for father to decide which parties he wishes us to attend. And, rest assured, he will only choose those which have the most eligible bachelors!"
Her eyes widened, "Will there be princes at this party?"
"Almost certainly we will encounter one within a month!"
We fell to a giggling fit, and thought of how it might be like to marry a prince and someday perhaps be Queen. We universally decided that that would not do; queens had entirely too much at stake. We cited Henry VIII's wives as a primary reason never to marry a king or prince. Yet, the draw was still there.
My mother entered the room as we began to quiet down, "Girls, put on some evening gowns. We will be attending the Duke of Sussex's party tonight."
We screamed in excitement, to which my mother smiled somewhat wanly before leaving us to our anticipation. As Sylvia's governess and maid had not come along, Emily and Sarah attended to both of us, curling our hair and stitching us into our corseted evening gowns. I wore a dark green dress, adorned much more simply than many of my ball gowns. This sounded like it was to be a simpler affair than a ball, so I chose a gown which was simple yet elegant and beautiful. Because of her fair skin, Sylvia chose a lighter shade, going with a pale pink that brought out the rosy hue of her cheeks. My hair was brought into a beautiful braided bun. I knew my hair would not stay in place though; even right after Emily had put it up, I saw pieces beginning to escape the braid. Sylvia had her hair set in a bun with ringlets haloing her face, and she looked positively angelic. Together, I thought we would be irresistible.
Emily and Sarah wrangled us down into the front foyer, where my mother and father waited. My mother looked wonderful in dark blue—I wished that I could look as beautiful as her after having and raising a child. My father looked dapper in his dark suit with a silver-grey waistcoat. My father was fidgeting with his gloves and hat while my mother adjusted his cravat.
"What are we waiting for?" Sylvia asked, looping her arm through mine.
"The carriage and its driver. Jonathan enjoys making us wait while he makes the carriage and the horses perfect," I leant over and whispered to her, "it also makes us fashionably late, but my parents will never admit to that."
James entered through the front doors and bowed, "Jonathan and the phaeton are here, my Lord."
"Thank you, James. Come on girls, let's go," my father ushered us through the door and into the waiting carriage.
My excitement grew as we approached the Duke of Sussex's palatial home. I had been there before, but never with a close friend, and never with the prospects of finding a husband. I had to admit that I was growing used to the idea of having men fawn over me, and court me. Yes, they sought me because I was well connected, and in line for an earldom. But, I had realized after my first round of suitors had left that I got to choose whom I preferred. That meant I could choose a man who valued me for more than my position. My mind flitted to William before Sylvia grabbed my arm.
"Oh my goodness, Maude, look!"
She pointed out the window to the Duke's house. It was lit up spectacularly, and a number of carriages littered the road outside the small palace. Inside I could see the house was already beginning to crowd.
"It appears as though you have picked the most populated party to attend, Papa," I looked over at my father, who smiled.
"Yes. There will be many opportunities for you tonight, Maude."
The carriage stopped in front of the Duke's door to let us out. Sylvia and I clung to each other excitedly as we walked to the door. The butler took our invitation before we went inside. My father took my arm.
"Sweetheart, I would like to introduce you to some of my friends," and their sons. I saw the words in his eyes, and almost heard him speak them.
I saw that he would take no refusal, so I nodded and we walked along, leaving Sylvia with my mother as my father directed me towards the families on his list of acceptable potential families for me to join. I met the Duke of Sussex's eldest son, Henry, who was to become duke after his father. I found him charming, but painfully unattractive; at twenty-five he was already balding. I also met another Duke's twin sons, not in line for the title of Duke, but each was to receive a barony. They were entertaining, but I wondered how anyone was able to tell the two apart. They even dressed the same; I sensed they performed some ridiculous pranks this way. I met three earls, one baron, two barons' sons, and one very pleasant knighted fellow who my father informed me had been knighted due to his business savvy.
After I had met everyone my father wished me to meet, I returned to Sylvia, who was chatting with a handsome looking fellow. I did not wish to interrupt, but when she saw me her eyes lit up and she mouthed, "Please help." I walked over and smiled at the young man.
"I am sorry sir, but I must whisk Lady Beauclerk away from you. It is important. You do no mind overmuch, do you?"
I smiled my most enchanting smile, looking at him through lowered lashes. His brow furrowed, and his eyes widened slightly, "No, I do not mind at all."
Sylvia and I walked away, and I pulled her into another room, equally crowded with people as the last, but at least the gentleman was not in here. It was funny, but I could not tell at all what the rooms were normally used for, there were so many people milling about.
"What was the urgency about?" I asked.
"He was positively the most boring person I have ever had the misfortune to speak with. I thought he would be clever, but he is just a handsome face hiding a plain mind."
"I thought you liked men like that," I bit back a smile.
She pursed her lips, "You continue to spread your opinions to me. You are a most infectious disease, Maude."
"I am sorry for that," I said, giving in to laughter.
"Oh, it's alright. I think it is for the better," she joined in my laughter before asking, "how did your excursion with your father go? Did you find any future husbands in the bunch?"
"I do not think so. But I am not looking terribly closely."
"Ahh, I see. Well I am looking. Not all of us have our own titles to look forward to," she turned to me, handing me a glass from a waiter's nearby tray.
I smiled and turned to Sylvia, "And who knows? Perhaps the man of your dreams will appear tonight and you shall instantly fall in love and get engaged!"
She grinned, "Yes. Since now it isn't all about you!"
"It did not have to be all about me, really. You were welcome to browse as well."
"You were rather attached to Blakely, though."
I laughed, teasing, "But you could have taken Conroy or Bertram from me. You cannot, Madame, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal."
"She is lovely, and she quotes Shakespeare. A rare woman indeed."
Sylvia's eyes darted over my shoulder, and I spun to look at the speaker. He was tall, handsome, very finely dressed, and smiling at me. His eyes twinkled merrily. I felt a deep blush settle over my face as he took my hand and kissed it.
"What is your name, my lovely new friend?" he asked as he straightened.
"Maude Chesterfield," I found I could hardly speak while the stranger's eyes bored into mine.
"Lady," Sylvia chimed in from behind me, "She is the daughter of the newly titled Earl of Hertfordshire."
"I see. A lady of standing; that would explain how such a strong mind was created in such a beautiful mold," he smiled again, and his dark blue eyes flashed.
"Who are you, sir?" I asked, hoping not to disappoint him by my lack of recognition.
But quite the opposite occurred. He smiled, and bowed, "You may call me Anton, Lady Maude."
Something about the name was familiar, but I dismissed it, "It is a pleasure to meet you, Anton."
"May I stay and speak with you and your charming friend for a while? I fear I have few friends at this party."
"I cannot imagine that, Anton. You are the most handsome man in the room. Do not you agree, Maude?" Sylvia encouraged me.
"Sylvia is right. You possess the finest looks of any man here," the blush, which had all but disappeared, spread across my cheeks once more.
Anton offered me his arm, "Then it is only fitting that I remain close to the two loveliest girls here."
How sweet to include Sylvia, I thought. However, this man struck my mind dumb. He was the most charming man I had ever met, the most handsome by far, and one of the cleverest. And he seemed unconcerned by my position. I grabbed Sylvia's hand with my free one, and the three of us moved through the room. I noticed all eyes had turned to Anton, which caused me a moment of hesitation. Who exactly was Anton?
"Shall we remove ourselves to a less populated room?" Anton inquired, looking down at me; he was an impressive height.
I looked to all the people staring at us, who averted their gazes as soon as I saw them, "Yes, I think so."
We walked from the room to the Duke's study, which mysteriously emptied once we had arrived. Anton gestured to the chairs set in front of the fireplace.
"I suppose we may as well make use of them."
He settled me into a chair before likewise assisting Sylvia. Of course, we had no need of the help, but it was the thoughtfulness of the action more than the action itself that was endearing. Anton then sat in the chair across from mine and Sylvia's and threw his feet on the ottoman.
"What shall we speak of, ladies?" he relaxed back into the chair.
"I…I—" I had no words for this moment; I was completely dumbstruck.
"Do not tell me that the lady's mind has fled!" his smile faded somewhat, which spurred me into action.
"Mens sola loco non exulat," I quipped.
"And now she can recite Ovid," the flash in Anton's eyes returned as the delighted smile reappeared.
"What does that mean, Maude?" Sylvia asked.
She was answered by Anton, "She says 'the mind alone cannot be exiled.'"
"You see sir, I could not have lost my mind even had I wished to."
"I do see. But, mens bona regnum possedit. What think you of that, Lady Maude?" his eyes gleamed as he awaited my answer.
Before Sylvia could ask for clarification, I translated, "He says, 'a good mind possesses a kingdom.' Though I am unfamiliar with the quote, I must say that it is an interesting idea."
"It was Seneca the Younger who wrote those words in one of his plays. I am not surprised you have not heard of him; few have. But tell me this, where did you receive such an education as to know so much literature?" He leant forward in his seat, pulling his feet off their rest.
"My father wished me, as his only heir, to be raised as he was. He thought that if I were educated as well as any man, that I should hold my title with the same skill as any other," I saw that Sylvia was beginning to feel out of place in our conversation, so I redirected, "You must let Sylvia tell you of my troubles with suitors."
Sylvia smiled, back in her depth, "Yes, you must! It is a tale of great hilarity!"
Anton smiled, relaxed back into his seat, and waved to Sylvia affably, "Very well. Regale me, Miss Sylvia."
Sylvia launched into the full story of Conroy, Bertram, Blakely, and William at Sybelline, and how very entertaining they all proved. While she shared the tale, I could not help but stare at Anton. I could not stop thinking how handsome he was. Blakely had been dashing, but not nearly so perfect as the man seated across from me. He was tall, built like an ideal aristocrat, and had sweeping aristocratic features. He had a thin, aquiline nose, and a smooth brow partially obscured by a mane of dark hair. He had powerful blue eyes through which it was easy to see his intelligence shine.
He paid very close attention to Sylvia's story, but when she looked away from him as she spoke, he stared contemplatively at me—as though he were evaluating me. I found myself redden under his scrutiny, and when I looked back to him from under lowered lashes, I found him smiling as though he were thoroughly charmed. I hoped he was, even though I knew not if my father would approve of him. His name was uncommon among English nobility, and the familiarity of it ate at my brain. Where had I heard of him before? When Sylvia finished the story, Anton laughed.
"Those poor suitors. To have their hearts broken by the beautiful Maude Chesterfield! I cannot imagine how they recovered."
"I meant no harm to them, I swear!" I defended myself.
Anton stood, and came to kneel before my chair, "My dear lady, I beg your forgiveness. I was teasing only. Can you forgive my piggish behavior?"
He extended his hand to me, and I laid mine within it. I stood, and with my free hand took his chin and raised his eyes from their fervent and repentant gaze at the floor. He looked at me, and I saw no insincerity in them; he truly wished to apologize, though there was no small amount of amusement in his eyes. I realized how close we were, and how confident I had been to touch his face. I propelled him upwards with the hand under his chin until he stood straight and tall.
"You do not need to apologize. There was no wrong done, and I do not think that you could ever be piggish."
He smiled, his face relaxing so that the corners of his eyes crinkled, "You are a saint."
I realized he still held my hand, and, giving his a small squeeze, let go. He smiled, and then raised his arm to me.
"I think I have deprived our host and his other guests of the two of you for long enough. Though it pains me to do so, I shall return you to them."
I took his arm, then again grabbed hold of Sylvia's hand. She smiled at me, "Well, let's go!"
"You must meet a friend of mine, Miss Sylvia. I think you would like him quite a lot."
Her face lit with excitement, "And he is here?"
"Yes, of course!" He laughed, laying a hand over mine," Shall I introduce you?"
"Oh yes please Anton!" she could not help giggling.
"Then follow me, and you shall meet my very good friend, Henry Howard."
We reentered the fray to find that the number had only increased in our hour or so of absence. Anton steered us through the crowd, ignoring all the looks cast our way. What caused them to stare so? Yes, he was the perfect male specimen, but for many highly ranked English nobles that would not have been enough.
"Ah yes, Henry, there you are."
Anton brought us to a halt in front of a young man about the same age as himself, also remarkably well dressed and attractive. It was then that I recognized him as the young, newly titled Duke of Norfolk, one of the most eligible bachelors in all of England.
He grinned at Anton, "I had begun to wonder where you had run off to. I thought I ought to be worried, but know I know I should have been envious. Two such lovelies ladies."
"Yes, Henry, I think that you should envy a man who gets the pleasure of the company of these two without competing for their attentions. This," he gestured to me, "is the Earl of Hertfordshire's daughter and heir Lady Maude, and her close friend Lady Sylvia Beauclerk. I think you would find conversation with them most stimulating."
We spoke for a while, standing in a small circle. I saw that Sylvia immediately took a liking to Henry, and the four of us quite enjoyed ourselves. Others attempted to join in our conversation, but Anton, while always polite, barred their full entrance. With wonder, I found myself at the center of a group that everyone at the party wanted to be a part of.
Very late that evening, Sylvia and I broke away from Anton and Henry to search for drinks. While we retrieved glasses of wine, my father caught up with us.
"Your mother is quite spent. We need to leave for home," we nodded and turned to find and say good evening to our new friends, but my father took my arm gently, "Where have you been all evening?"
"With friends," I replied, going to the massive front double doors to get my short cloak.
I pulled the cape over my shoulders, and pinned it while Sylvia did likewise, and my father followed after us.
"Maude, please, what have you been up to?"
Sylvia chimed in, "Oh, Lord Robert, we have had the grandest time with our new friends! Here they come now!"
She pointed at Anton and Henry, who were approaching. My father looked, and grew pale. He swallowed, then bowed low to them. Before he could utter titles, Anton interrupted him.
"Lord Hertfordshire, it is a pleasure to meet you," he extended a hand to my father, which my father shook with a slightly dazed expression; Anton continued, "You daughter is a joy to converse with. If I may have your blessing to call on her in the near future, I would very much like to do so."
"Of…of course you may. You may call on us at any time."
"Thank you Lord Robert."
"We really must be going now, my wife is feeling quite poorly," my father waited for some sort of dismissal from them, which was odd.
"Please do not let us hinder your departure. Good evening to you sir, Lady Sylvia, Lady Maude," he took my hand and kissed it once more.
"Your Grace," he bowed again to Henry, "Your Highness."
As my father bowed to Anton, my eyes shot between the two of them, widening enormously; Anton was a prince?! I looked at Sylvia, whose eyes were likewise round and large. She met my gaze, looking as dumbfounded as I was. My father took our arms, and helped us out the doors and into the waiting carriage. Shock still rolled through me at an unnerving rate.
"Anton is a prince?" I finally asked my father as the carriage began moving.
"Yes. He is a German prince, and a distant cousin of the Queen I believe."
My mouth dropped open, and I covered it with my fingers, "A prince?! And he found me charming?"
At this a small smile appeared on my mother's face. She sat with her head reclining in the seat, and this was the first sign of movement I had seen in her since she had boarded the hansom.
"Is it any surprise, Maude? You are lovely, smart, vibrant, and come from a well-titled and wealthy family."
"Not well-titled enough for a prince's wife," my father muttered. He sat forward and took my hands in his, "Maude, promise to be careful. Make sure he does not take advantage of you. Yes, you would make a wonderful princess, but I cannot imagine that he does not know his family would disprove of taking interest in a lowly earl's daughter."
My head swam as I made sense of his words, "Yes of course I will be careful Papa."
I remained silent on the ride back to the house, as did Sylvia. I could feel words building up inside me, and I wondered if the same were true for her. Regardless, I knew the two of us would have a lot to talk about once we got up to the sanctuary of my room.
"A prince! Oh my goodness, I thought you would do well but…good lord you have done better than anyone could hope!"
Sylvia and I sat on my bed. She braided her long sandy hair that reminded me in passing of her brother William and his hair of the same shade. I was running a brush through my long, dark mane.
"I had absolutely no idea! But his name was familiar, you know. Perhaps I heard it in passing while I was being taught about the current royal families."
"Do you think he is your match? Do you think you will want to marry him" she paused in her braiding to stare at me intently.
"It is far too soon to suppose any of that, Sylvia! We only spent a few hours together!" I exclaimed, laughing.
"Oh all right. Do you want to spend more time with him?" She began undoing the braid; she was not satisfied with the braiding.
I paused in brushing my hair, thinking, "Yes. I think I would."
She began rebraiding, a smile blooming on her face, "I thought you might say that. Well luckily for you, he already has your father's permission to come calling. I wouldn't be surprised if he turned up tomorrow afternoon."
I gave her a skeptical look, "That is doubtful. He has far more important things to do with his time than bother with me."
"You think so?" now it was her turn to send me a skeptical glance, "We'll see."
Our butler came shortly after breakfast the following day, carrying a silver tray. Upon it was a small letter. He bowed to my father and handed him the slip of paper.
"From His Serene Highness, Prince Anton."
I had been reading and only took a passing interest in the missive until Anton's name was spoken. I looked at my father's face intently, trying to glean from his expressions what the letter was about. Sylvia's eyes shot up to mine, and there was a knowingly look in them, as though she had anticipated the letter's arrival. Going over our conversation the previous evening, I supposed that she had.
My father's face closed over as he folded up the note. I leaned forward excitedly, "What did it say, Papa?"
"The Prince would like to call upon us around teatime."
I felt myself smiling, "The Prince is coming to visit?! Oh, tell me you will let him come!"
"I told him last night that he could call upon us when ever he wishes. I will not go back on my word now," he walked over to me, and gazed down at me soberly, "But do be careful Maude, my dear. His intentions may not be so honorable."
I stood, kissing his cheek, "Of course, Papa. I will be cautious."
Bounding up the stairs, I felt lighter than air. Emily, who I had left to relax in my room that morning, nearly fell out of her seat by the suddenness of my arrival.
"Lady Maude, is something the matter?" she asked as I ran to my closet.
I stopped, spun, and smiled blissfully, "No. Not at all."
"What is going on, then?" she asked, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"Prince Anton is coming to visit!"
I sat anxiously, playing with some of the trimming on my gown. I wore a deep red gown, which set off the red tones of my hair as well as my pale skin tone; my hair was artfully pulled up so that it cascaded down my back, and haloed my face. I hoped that my appearance would enchant Anton as much as it had the night before.
"Are you terribly excited?" Sylvia whispered next to me, "I am so excited! Perhaps his friend the Duke will come with him! Did you not think that he was as lovely as the Prince? I thought he was positively enchanting…"
She happily murmured on, and I focused on what I ought to say to Anton. Should I say it was good to see him again? Should I ask how the rest of his evening went? Perhaps I could—
"His Serene Highness Prince Anton."
Before I could think of conversation, Anton was announced. I stood, smoothing the front of my skirts down. When Anton entered, I dropped into a curtsy as Sylvia and my mother did the same; my father bowed.
"Please, this is your home. You need not pay obeisance in your own parlour."
I rose, letting my eyes stray to Anton's face. He was smiling at me. I found my mouth turn up in answer, though the fluttering in my stomach did not subside. Anton turned to my mother and bowed over her hand, kissing it gently. I felt a flush of pleasure over the respect Anton gave to my mother, though he far exceeded her in rank. He then turned to me and bowed just as deeply, kissing my hand as well. My skin tingled where his lips had touched.
"It is so wonderful to see you again, Lady Maude," His clear blue eyes sparkled as he straightened.
I smiled, "And you, Your Serene Highness."
"Please, just Anton. As you called me last evening before you knew my title," he took my arm and folded it in his own, "When you could call me a friend and not a visiting noble."
"Of course, I shall try to remember it, Anton."
"Excellent!" he turned to my father, "Lord Robert, I have called today so that I may ask your permission to take your lovely daughter and her equally lovely friend to my friend the Duke of Norfolk's party."
My father looked about to refuse, but when he looked at me, I gave him a plaintive look. He sighed, "You may, Your Serene Highness. But they shall need a chaperone."
"Nonsense, Father. We may act as each other's chaperone, for there are two of us," I made the remark forcefully, but in a light tone.
My father sighed once more, deeply this time, "Very well. But do bring them back at a reasonable hour."
"You have my word, they shall return no later than an hour past midnight, Lord Robert," Anton turned back to the two of us, "Ladies, I shall fetch you at six o'clock exactly."
"But what are we to wear? You haven't told us the nature of the event," Sylvia asked; the excitement was evident in her voice.
"Ah, of course. It is a gathering of close friends. Wear what you will, I am positive you will outshine all the other young women in attendance," his bright, clear eyes met mine, and I felt myself flush.
"We will see you at six, then. Anton."
He took my hand again, and bowed low over it, then to Sylvia, though his eyes remained upon me. Then straightening, Anton nodded to my father, bowed gracefully to my seated mother, and then strode from the room. I collapsed down onto the couch behind me while Sylvia began twirling around the room.
"Well my dear, it seems you have enamored a prince," my mother spoke from the couch, a strange tone in her voice; I thought it might be smugness.
"Yes, but she needs to be careful even so. His intentions may be pure, but his family will surely disprove of His Serene Highness's interest in you, Maude."
"Yes, but they haven't disproved yet, Papa."
I had no idea what to expect of my evening with the Prince. Sylvia was simply beside herself with excitement; she was going to see Henry Howard, her charming Duke again. I found myself awash in so many different emotions that I thought I might simply explode.
But as Anton's carriage arrived, I felt my heart fluttering in my chest—a great deal of this fluttering was excitement. Anton alighted from the steps of his transport, looking every bit the fairytale prince. Extending his hand to me, he assisted me into the warm, luxurious carriage. Sylvia was just behind me; with a wicked grin, she sat on the opposite side of me, allowing the Prince to sit beside me.
"Miss Sylvia, you look lovely. And my dearest Maude, you are radiant."
I was suddenly quite glad for the early evening's little light, for I felt my face flush with heat. I must have been completely red-faced then. Luckily no one saw it.
"How has your day been since I last saw you?" Anton asked.
"We've had barely any time to do anything but prepare for Henry's party!" Sylvia expostulated with a light laugh.
"Oh my, I am so sorry that I invited you last minute. If only we had met sooner, you would not have had to rush."
"Ah well, Anton, what would life be without its more unexpected moments?" I replied, tossing aside his apology.
Anton turned to me, "And do you find yourself to be an adventurer, Maude?"
It was a light-hearted question, but I did sense some deeper current underneath. What exactly did he mean?
"I find," I paused and then smiled, "I find that I am eager to discover whether I am an adventurer or not."
Anton's mouth curved upwards, and his expression became one of speculation, "I see."
We smiled at each other a moment, and I felt my pulse quicken under his gaze. My father's words came back to me, and I wondered if Anton's intentions were all honorable.
"Do you think our gowns proper for the party?" Sylvia suddenly asked, breaking through the lull.
Anton's gaze turned to Sylvia's silver-white dress and my pale gold one. He smiled, "My ladies, the two of you will never fade into the group," Sylvia began to protest but Anton held up a hand, "And for that I am glad. Glad that my good friend and myself have found such lovely and brilliant young women."
Sylvia put her hands to her face, on which a wide grin was spreading, "You are too kind! Really Maude, we ought to call him Prince Charming."
"Truly, he does possess all the qualities of a fairytale prince," I teased, "but that begs the question of his reality. Is our Prince Anton authentic, or a figment of our overactive imaginations, Sylvia?"
Catching on to the game, Sylvia raised a thoughtful hand to her chin, "Hmm, a troubling question. I do begin to doubt that such a man could exist."
"Which causes me to ask if your Duke is also real. But as I know from whence he comes, and I know his family is true, he and his charm are certainly real. Our Prince Anton, however," I observed him kindly, "we know not if he comes from a real land. Perhaps he comes from the Faerie. Tell me, Prince, do you come from the Faerie?"
"If I am perfection dreamed up, my lady Maude, then I am dreamt for you. And happily so, at that."
Sylvia and I both laughed as Anton grinned at us. The carriage came to a halt by the door of the Duke of Norfolk's (Sylvia's Henry Howard) front door. Anton climbed out first, and lifted a hand to help us. As I landed lightly upon the ground, Anton turned to me.
He whispered in my ear, "Tonight will be your night, my dearest Maude. I am at your service."
"You really are a prince out of a fairy story, Anton. You are too good to be true," I leant back and smiled.
Anton extended his arm to me, "Shall we?"
I took his arm then turned, looking for Sylvia. I did not want her to end up alone. But I found her a moment later being greeted by Henry, her charming duke, and knew that I would not have to worry. We walked through the doors into Henry's family home; it was a splendid manor, bedecked in centuries of Howard family portraits, tapestries, and possessions. The Howards were a very powerful family, and had been since their creation. After all, I mused as we walked through the enormous main hall, this is the family of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, Henry VIII's most illustrious wives.
We entered a large parlor in which about a dozen friends of the Duke sat on a circle of divans, couches, and chairs. I noticed in passing that two sat on a low table, which no one commented on. I supposed that the slightly odd must be normal for this particular party. The Duke gestured about the room pointing out our companions for the evening: there were three artists (a painter, an actor, and a writer), a young earl who was heir to a dukedom, two young barons, two daughters of a duke (unrelated to the young man in line for the dukedom), two wealthy merchant's daughters (twins, both fair haired and effusive), and the newly married Baron and Baroness d'Arcy. No one in the company was older than two and thirty.
The Prince, Sylvia and I sat on the remaining unoccupied couch. Henry took up the only chair in the room—a fine dark red-upholstered teak lounger that easily commanded the room.
"What game are we about tonight, Your Grace?"
"I think perhaps one of the supernatural," Henry pronounced after a drawn out pause; Sylvia let out a squeal of ill-concealed horror and excitement.
The Prince turned to me, "Do you believe in such things, Maude? In spirits and of things we cannot explain?"
"I believe there are many things for which there is no explanation. Why then could the spirits of men not continue on in world after their deaths?"
The writer held his glass up across the room, "She speaks with the voice of reason. And I could not have written it more eloquently."
"I thank you, sir," I nodded in his direction, "but I have no glass to raise to yours."
"That is something we can rectify," the Duke raised a hand, gesturing to the serving-man who stood at the fringe of the group. The man hurried forward with two glasses of deep red wine and handed one to myself and to Anton.
I raised my glass to the writer and we both took a sip. The wine was good, and very strong and heady. I felt it wash through me, leaving a trail of warmth where it passed.
The Prince tapped his glass to mine and sipped as well before returning to the matter at hand, "What has His Grace in mind for a game of the supernatural?"
The Duke turned to his friend, eyes alight, "If you must know, Your Highness, I intend for us to attempt to contact the spirit world."
"With what intention?" Sylvia asked; she leaned at the extreme end of the couch in an effort to be closer to the Duke.
"To have them answer our questions, of course, Miss Beauclerk. It is well known that spirits are privy to the secrets of the future. We shall ask them of our fates," the actor expostulated so dramatically from the table on which he sat that he lost balance and nearly fell to the floor.
While the actor's friends within the group laughed at his near-fall, the ladies of the party began to titter excitedly, "Wouldn't that be marvelous fun, Maude?" Sylvia gushed to me.
"Marvelous, indeed, Miss Beauclerk," Baroness d'Arcy exclaimed from her seat, "Come, let us attempt to speak to specters."
Immediately, the men sitting on the low table cleared and we all sank to the ground around it. The serving man produced a set of letter cards from I-know-not-where and arranged them on the table for us, leaving a small wooden block with an arrow at its head sitting at the center of the table.