Authors: Sophie Jordan
For Mary Lindsey,
whose friendship has added so much to my life
ain hung thick in the air, the threat of which turned the early evening gray and mist-Âshrouded. Mrs. Heathstone knocked smartly on the immense double doors of the Duke of Banbury's Mayfair residence.
Rosalie slid an anxious glance down her body and winced, smoothing a hand over the well-Âworn wool of her cloak.
That's the word that came to mind.
That was another word.
It wasn't how Rosalie envisioned her return to London. She dreamt of bright skies and heralding trumpets. Ridiculous, but what fantasy didn't possess a touch of the absurd? At least for her. She was an expert at dreaming up the absurd. She had imagined returning a debutante of the first order, outfitted in a wardrobe that royalty would envy. With swains lining up to pay court on her. With parties and galas that kept her out all hours. An invitation to court from the queen herself. She had imagined all this and more.
She had imagined him
The words whispered through her mind and made her wince. Perhaps not precisely
. Only someone as handsome as her stepbrother. Whenever she imagined a suitor for herself, he always bore a striking resemblance to Declan. She supposed it was a testament to her lack of exposure to suitable gentlemen during her time at the Harwich School for Young Ladies. Certainly some time about Town would dash such daydreams.
She sighed. Daydreams had long kept her company as she rusticated in Yorkshire, waiting for her mother to claim her. Waiting for a Season. Waiting for her life to begin. She had perfected waiting to an art form.
Now, standing on Declan's stoop, the cold evening vapor folding over her, those fantasies were a very distant thing. But at least the wait was finally over. She stood two steps below Mrs. Heathstone's formidable personage. The headmistress was taller than any man of Rosalie's limited acquaintance even without the advantage of said steps.
She huddled deeper into her cloak as Mrs. Heathstone rapped yet again. The sound reverberated out onto the street, and Rosalie shifted nervously on her feet, casting uneasy glances over her shoulder, certain that eyes were already upon them from every neighboring window, wondering at the bedraggled pair calling upon the Duke of Banbury.
The mist suddenly gave way to rain as though it could be denied no longer.
“Drat!” Mrs. Heathstone growled, throwing a gloved hand over her head as if that would offer some protection.
Rosalie shrank back inside the voluminous hood of her cloak. She knew from experience that the slightest moisture turned her hair into a wild, frizzy mess. She pushed a coppery curl behind her ear. There was no help for it. She would not be making a sterling impression this eve. Of course, until this moment she had not realized how very important it was to her that she do so. She had told herself through the entire journey here that he would likely not even remember her.
“Perhaps we should call again later?” The ring of hope in her suggestion was unmistakable even over the drum of rain.
“Nonsense. Someone is at home.”
was at home. The duke maintained a staff of dozens at his Town residence, but the gentleman himself? The gentleman they needed to see? He was unlikely to be home. A matter of circumstance that appeared to only bear consequence to Rosalie. Mrs. Heathstone was quite prepared to deposit her on the duke's threshold and then bolt. The headmistress had made up her mind weeks ago when she arranged this trip, and she was not to be dissuaded. As she had regretfully explained again and again, the duke was family. If her mother would not step up to claim her, then responsibility fell to him.
At last the door opened.
It was the only invitation Mrs. Heathstone required. She charged inside, shoving past a sputtering butler. Rosalie ascended, hesitating on the top step, peering inside the grand foyer that was at once familiar and alien. She knew it shouldn't look so large and formidable now that she was a woman grown and no longer a child, but it actually looked bigger.
Mrs. Heathstone shook her cloak, spraying water onto the marble floor as she flung back her hood, revealing her lush silvery gray hair. Her sharp eyes narrowed on Rosalie. “Miss Hughes, come inside at once before you catch ague.” Her long, elegant fingers flicked impatiently on the air.
Rosalie obediently stepped inside, looking in awe up at the high-Âdomed frescoed ceiling. Lowering her gaze, she sent the butler a small smile. She did not recognize him, but then she wouldn't. She had been very young the last time she visited here. She had been relegated to the duke's country estate most of the time. Her mother preferred it that way. Preferred to have her in the country while she entertained in Town. Out of sight. Out of mind.
The butler's face puffed like a bloated fish. “Madame, you cannot barge in hereâÂ”
“Oh, no worry, I'm not staying.” She dropped Rosalie's valise to the floor, her manner brisk and efficient as she closed her hands around Rosalie's shoulders. “Remember all you've been taught. You're a lady, Miss Hughes, no matter .Â .Â .” Her voice faded, but Rosalie knew what she was going to say.
No matter who or what your mother was.
“Yes, ma'am.” She nodded.
Mrs. Heathstone squeezed her shoulders gently a final time. “You're a good girl, Rosalie. Smart, too. I wish we could have kept you on, but your future was never at Harwich's. Your future is in this world.” She glanced around the opulent foyer.
Rosalie swallowed back her protest. This didn't feel like her world at all. For the last ten years she had shared a drafty room with Rachel, a former pupil like herself who now taught French at the school. Rachel had been top in their class and spoke French like she was born to it. When Mademoiselle Leflore decided to return home to tend to an ailing aunt, Rachel had been offered the position.
Unfortunately, there was no position to be had for Rosalie. She had remained the last two years merely due to the goodwill of Mrs. Heathstone. She'd tried to make herself useful in that time. However, her situation was always awkward. Not a pupil and not an instructor. She merely took up space.
And yet her meager room back at Harwich felt more familiarâÂmore like homeâÂÂthan these lavish surroundings.
She wasn't certain the Duke of Banbury would welcome her any more than her mother would, but Mrs. Heathstone was confident this was the right course of action, and Rosalie acknowledged that something had to change. She could not live on the charity of others. She should have left two years ago.
“Thank you, Mrs. Heathstone.” She nodded jerkily, emotion clogging her throat. In many ways, this woman was the closest thing she ever had to a mother. “For everything.”
Smiling, the headmistress brushed her cheek with gloved fingertips. “Dear girl. Take care of yourself.”
And then she was gone. Rosalie watched as she swept out the door, her chest tight and achy. She rubbed gloved fingers against her breastbone, willing herself to be brave. To embrace this next phase of her life.
The butler sputtered anew, and Rosalie sent him a halfhearted smile as she smoothed her hands down the front of her damp cloak.
“Good evening,” she greeted him, her voice a fraction too squeaky.
“You cannot be here.” The butler looked her up and down with the faintest curl of his lip. “His Grace is not at home at the moment to receiveâÂ”
“I shall wait for him.” She lifted her chin, attempting to emulate Mrs. Heathstone's haughtiness.
“That is not possible, Miss .Â .Â .”
“Hughes,” she supplied. “Rosalie Hughes.” At the butler's blank stare, she elaborated. “The duke's stepsister.”
Her announcement was met with a moment of stunned silence. Deciding not to give him too long to consider this revelationâÂand why the duke's stepsister had been relatively absent for the last ten yearsâÂshe brushed past him and moved toward what she hoped was the drawing room. Her memory could not recall.
She walked up the stairs, her gloved hand skimming the ornate stone balustrade as though she knew where she was going. “I'll wait in the drawing room,” she called over her shoulder as she reached the second floor. Hoping she chose the correct room, she pushed open the double doors to the first room on her right. She breathed in relief. Her guess was accurate.
The butler followed her inside, hovering close but saying nothing even though he looked mightily tempted. It was a masculine room, full of rich colors and dark wood furniture. A fire crackled in the massive hearth, drawing her forward, her boots sinking deep into the plush Aubusson rug. Rosalie sank down on a blue oversized settee on the far side of the room that was angled toward the fireplace. She dropped her valise at her feet and held out her hands, greedy for the warmth.
She stared solemnly at the butler, hoping to convey an air of .Â .Â . belonging. “I'll wait His Grace's audience in here.” Somehow, miraculously, her words rang with confidence.
His shoulders slumped slightly and she knew, in that moment, he had capitulated.
“Very well. Can I fetch you any refreshments as you wait, Miss Hughes?”
Her stomach rumbled at the offer. She had not eaten since their last stop several hours ago. “Yes, that would be lovely.” She was grateful her voice did not quiver with her eagerness.
With a nod, he departed, slow to take his gaze off her, slow to turn and present her with his very ramrod back. As though he could not quite reconcile a female of her humble appearance in the duke's vaunted drawing room. She could understand that. She could scarcely reconcile it herself.
As soon as the door clicked behind him, she relaxed and fell back on the settee. It felt as though she had just succeeded in some grand deception.
She winced and tried to remind herself that she had every right to call on the Duke of Banbury. Especially considering the unavailability of her own mother. What else was she to do? She was a gentlewoman. A lady. She nodded to herself as Mrs. Heathstone's arguments played silently in her mind.
Her stepbrother would not turn her away. True, he had not responded to Mrs. Heathstone's letter, but Mrs. Heathstone insisted he would do his duty. Rosalie hoped she was correct.
She bit into her bottom lip, gnawing it until she forced herself to stop. She didn't need a bloodied lip when she came face-Âto-Âface with Declan. She blinked hard and long, reprimanding herself. He was no longer Declan to her. She must not think of him so informally. He was a duke now and as far removed from her as the moon. A man full grown. She must forget the boy she remembered with such fondness. Oh, very well. With such adoration. Natural, she supposed. So often relegated to the country together, he had accepted her. Five years her senior, he had not minded when she traipsed after him. He even rescued her from a tree a time or two. She was always climbing trees. And always managing to get herself stuck.
, he would beckon her with waving hands and wide, encouraging eyes.
Come down. I'll catch you
A maid entered the room pushing a cart. She smiled at Rosalie shyly and bobbed a tiny curtsy.
“Thank you. I'll serve myself.”
With another bob of her head, she left Rosalie alone.
She fell upon the tray, making short work of the tea and delicious frosted cakes and tiny sandwiches. She ate everything and then regretted it, eyeing the crumbs. She would appear a graceless sloth when they come to claim the cart.
She collapsed back on the settee with little refinement, one hand rubbing her full belly, the other idly stroking the elegant brocade pillow beside her. She blew out a repleted sigh and glanced around the well-Âappointed room. An enormous painting depicting Persephone's abduction hung along a wall, taking nearly the entire space. It was riveting. Bold and dramatic. The dark Hades clasped the fair Persephone about the waist, one large hand splayed just below the swell of a breast that threatened to spill from her white tunic as he pulled her into the murky cavern of hell lined with demons and skeletons. Rosalie swallowed, her stare fixing on Hades's feral expression, clearly intent on possession. Something curled in her belly at the idea of a man
a woman that much.
The clock on the mantel ticked in the silence of the room. Only the occasional pop from the fire interrupted the still. She yawned widely into her hand. The journey had taken its toll. She had not left Harwich in ten years. No visits anywhere. She was unaccustomed to the rigors of travel.
Her head lolled against the back of the sofa, grateful that she was turned partially from the door, not in full sight of anyone upon first entering the room. She'd hear them before they spotted her. It would give her time to compose herself.
The warmth of the fire licked over her and her limbs grew boneless. This was the most comfortable she had felt since leaving Yorkshire.
Her eyes drifted shut. Just for a moment she would rest them. She snuggled drowsily into the sofa. No doubt the duke would arrive soon. She'd hear his approach. Better yet, she'd hear the approach of the maid when she returned to reclaim the cart.
For just a moment she would rest her eyes.