Authors: Ella J. Quince
To Love, Honor, and Obey...
By Ella J. Quince
Dear Lord Willowton,
His Grace requests your immediate return to Willowton Park in preparation of your inheritance.
M. Atler, Esquire.
How official, Chance sneered as his coach bobbed and swayed over the familiar roads that led home. Home. He sighed and looked out the window, not paying attention to the passing trees and farms. He was going home to see his father, a robust man fondly
referred to as The Bear Duke, who was reaching the end of his life’s tether. For all Chance’s life, he had been the image of invincibility. He was like a Viking warrior, large, bearded, loud and boisterous. He drank Whisky by the barrel, hunted, rode, and made a mockery of slim, elegant gentlemen when he wore his blacks. He was an unstoppable force. So why—Chance raised his eyes to the heavens—was he being summoned home to prepare for his father’s death?
It was unthinkable. It was heartbreaking.
Chance gritted his teeth and pictured finding his father in the best of health—coming back from a ride, possibly with a small deer slung over his shoulder. That was how he usually spent his time in the country—riding, hunting, everything Chance had taken for granted. He had spent all his time in the country as a boy until he went to school. It was there he discovered his natural talent for being an aloof gentleman. He wore fine clothes, supple glossy Hessians, jackets and pantaloons so fitted they felt like his skin. He was charming, he was debonair, and he behaved perfectly in every situation. He was wealthy, eligible, and highly sought after by marriage-minded mamas. Nevertheless, when he returned every summer after the season, it was back to his worn buckskins, scuffed top boots, riding, hunting, swimming, and generally, being the heathen his father had raised. It had kept him grounded while enjoying the frivolity of town life, kept him from being a ridiculous fop or a drunken gambling wastrel.
He knew the feel of wet meadow grass under his feet, and the taste
of wild acorns, but when in town, he played a role. He pretended to be above those things. Why? Well... he didn’t exactly know.
He hadn’t been home in years
. His father had always made short jaunts to town bringing father and son together for small visits. It wasn’t that Chance didn’t love his father—he truly did, but his father was rather... abrasive to the senses. His laughter boomed from him like thunder. His conversation centered on politics, war, and generally, anything that shouldn’t be uttered in polite conversation.
But he was his father, and along with all those embarrassing attributes, he was a great father. He taught Chance how to ride, hunt, fish, read, and
to know when to put up your fists or reason with words. He was the kind of father that gave great big hugs and kissed his son goodnight. A unique duke, if there ever were one, which made the thought of his death all the more painful.
The coach turned up the familiar oak lined drive. Nothing had changed. Everything looked the same as when he battled imaginary dragons across the lawns as a small boy. The coach stopped in front of the portico, and Chance stepped out before the footman reached the door. He nodded to Edgar, a footman he had helped his father interview, and
then headed inside. The greetings were somber, eyes downcast, and smiles fleeting. Everyone was already mourning the loss of their lord, the man they laughed with and worked to the bone with when the east barn collapsed, and his father had joined in raising a new one. That was his father, a titled gentleman, but also just a man.
“How is he?” Chance asked.
“He is resting, my lord. Would you like some refreshment after your journey?”
Chance grimaced. His body ached from travel. The last thing he wanted to do was sit. “No
thank you, Gable. I’m going to the creek for a swim. I won’t be long, and then I will see my father.”
“Yes, my lord.” Gable nodded and directed the footman to take Chances belongings to his rooms.
Chance headed toward the back of the house. Walking through the house was like stepping back in time to when life was much simpler.
“Obedience, you know how inappropriate it is to go swimming in nothing but a shift where anyone could come upon you.”
“There is no one in residence who would venture to the creek for miles, Patience. Who would see me?” Obedience said as she buttoned the front of her bodice.
“The Marquess of Willowton, for one
,” Patience returned snidely.
Obedience spun away from the mirror. “Teddy’s back?”
she squealed, though she abhorred ladies who squealed.
“I cannot believe you would still address him so informally. Please remember to act like a well-educated lady. Now that I have debuted, your actions reflect on me.”
Her younger sister sighed impatiently and fussed over her perfectly curled haired in the mirror.
It was really Obedience who should be giving lectures on behavior, being that she was four years older, but for the majority of her life, Obedience knew she was different. All the decorum a proper young lady should exhibit seemed to elude her. She wasn’t graceful, she couldn’t sew, sing, or play the pianoforte, and most times
, she could barely sit still.
Obedience just couldn’t help it. She liked to move, do things, dirty her hands, and run until her cheeks were pink and her heartbeat echoed in her ears. She long suspected she should have been a boy.
If she were a boy, she could climb trees, swim, and beat any man in a horse race without the threat of ruination upon her family. But, alas, she had been born a girl with rioting black curls that wouldn’t hold pins. And now she had developed hips and a decadent full bosom that was always getting in the way, or at least threatening to spill out of the ridiculously fashionable dresses her mother insisted she wear.
Obedience couldn’t help who she was
. It was in her blood. Along with her looks, she had inherited her wild demeanor from her father. He had died when she was ten years old, leaving a hole in her heart his vibrant and loving presence used to fill. All she had left of him were her dark locks and blue eyes. He had been her only ally. Without him, she was the black sheep, the awkward middle sister between her elder sister of three years, Prudence, and her younger sister, Patience.
The sun was high as Obedience made her way through the wheat fields that ran along the western boarder of the grand estate of his grace, The Duke of Maltravers. Obedience had known the Armstrong family all her life. Her father, Baron Clive, had been the local magistrate, and a frequent guest of his grace’s hunting parties. Obedience had frequently swam with Chance, the dukes only child and heir, as children. In fact, it was Chance who taught her how to swim.
As she drew near the line of trees that ran the length of the creek, she could hear the quiet bubbling of water against rocks. The creek ran through a small ravine, breaking into small waterfalls that dumped into pools ground out by time. The surroundings were lush and green. Oaks and willows lined the banks creating a thick canopy that trapped the warmth of the afternoon sun.
She picked her way down a well-worn path. It brought her to the bank overlooking the largest of the falls that emptied into the largest pool. She looked down, her eyes sparkling with mischief as she saw the lean back and muscular arms cleaving the water.
He was swimming away from her, but if she took a running leap, she could land beside him.
Never one to waste an opportunity, Obedience quickly undressed and stepped back a few steps.
“Tally ho!” she shouted as she ran toward the edge and her feet left the ground. The drop was not far, so she balled her legs under her for optimal splash.
She only had time to see Chances startled glance just before she hit the water—a little too close to him.
Chance had only enough time for a quick inhale of breath before a pair of feminine legs filled his vision. She broke the surface of the water, landing on his chest, knocking the breath from his lungs. It felt like minutes had passed before he could find the surface. She popped up at the same time, laughing delightedly while he coughed and sputtered.
, Teddy, did I hurt you?” She giggled.
“You almost did me in
, you—” He froze. His eyes felt like they were bulging from their sockets.
“What is it? Did I really hurt you?”
she cried in alarm. She grabbed his arm and tugged him toward the bank. He followed her, and when they reached the bank, she spun around to face him.
“Where are you hurt? Oh, please don’t be hurt, I was only
he said dumbly.
Tears pooled in her eyes. “Oh
, god, it’s your head! I knocked your senses right out of you. It’s me, don’t you remember me?” she said hysterically and hugged him.
Chance stared down at the top of her head in amazement. He was dumbstruck by the woman before him who slightly resembled the girl who had been his constant shadow. She had been an aspiring hellion then, and by all indications had succeeded, but what left him at a loss for words was her startling beauty.
Chance almost groaned aloud. She was unabashedly pressing her body against him, and while his body was appreciative of such attention, his brain was still frozen on her identity. He couldn’t believe his eyes. It was Miss Obedience Wickenham, all grown up. Belatedly, Chance pulled out of her embrace and put her at arm’s length lest he embarrass himself and thoroughly shock her. His body was all too aware of how grown up she was now.
“Obedience, I’m fine, I was just... shocked by how much you’ve changed.” He looked down at her, his gaze raking her curling black hair, wet shift cloying to her body—thankfully
, not transparent, and her wide, glittering blue eyes.
Chance quickly looked away and backed up into the cool water until he was waist deep.
“I’m sorry, Chance. I didn’t mean to startle you. I just wanted to surprise you.” She was timid, but she followed him back into the water. “Did I hurt you?”
.” He laughed nervously. “Just surprised me... really surprised me.”
“I was so glad to hear you were home, and then I saw you here
, and well... I wanted to make a big entrance.” She smiled.
“That you did.” His eyes darted to her again and looked away. “It’s been some time, Porcupette.”
“Ugh.” Obedience rolled her eyes. “Please don’t call me that. I hate it, and you know I do.”
“I know, but your name does not
suit you.” He laughed, trying to relax enough to leave the water.
“I heartily agree, but it is the only name I have, and I am much too old to be called a baby porcupine.” She sighed. Why did it still sound so endearing coming from him?
“All right then. Now that you are all grown up, I shouldn’t address you so informally.”
Obedience narrowed her eyes at him. “Don’t start that. I will forever call you Teddy. That will never change.”
Chance winced. He hated his nickname as much as she loathed hers. “All right, but I beg you, keep it between us, never in front of others.”
“Agreed.” Obedience playfully flicked water at him and then dived away.
“Still so young,” Chance murmured, but he smiled, too. He used the opportunity to return to shore and dress.
“You’re leaving already?” Obedience waded
“Yes. I returned at my father’s request. His health is declining, and he needs me.”
“Yes... I know.” She looked down at the water, her joy fading. “Tell him I will visit today and bring him strawberry jam. He loves my jam.” She smiled brightly again.
Chance nodded and finished dressing.
She waved as he turned up the path, dancing in the water like a playful sprite. Chance stopped above the waterfall and looked down at her. He still couldn’t believe his eyes. She was one and twenty now, if his memory served him right. It had been five years since he last set eyes on her, five years since he had ventured back to Willowton Park, his ancestral home. Things had certainly changed, and it left him feeling... out of sorts.
He shook his head and continued up the path. He needed to focus on his father now, on preparations for his eventual passing. It was heartbreaking and a tedious task that would be almost impossible if Obedience
were there to distract him, and distract him she would. That was also unsettling. He didn’t have time to be distracted by a woman, let alone a woman he shouldn’t be having such thoughts about. She had been a childhood friend and nothing more... So why couldn’t he stop picturing her in a wet shift?