Three months earlier
Caroline Holland was exhausted.
Tired of scraping and rationing to get by.
Bone tired of doing nearly all the work in the house by herself.
At 26, Caroline Holland had long ago given up on balls, dances, and frilly dresses. She even convinced herself that she didn’t miss the thrill of being held in a handsome man’s arms during a dance. But then, she had learned the hard way that handsome men were usually more trouble than they were worth.
Tonight, an April night in Gloucestershire, she just wanted to sleep. That was becoming increasingly difficult due to the ruckus coming from her brother’s bedchamber across the hall.
Her chest tightened. What was Jacob doing now?
In the darkness, she first heard the tread of his boots on the floorboard. Then rustling, footsteps, and an occasional bang, as though furniture was being moved. Finally, she heard the silvery zing of a saber being sheathed and unsheathed. It was what roused her out of bed, into a long robe, and to her brother’s door, dreading what she might find. Their cottage was small, so it didn’t take long.
His door was open and light spilled from his room. Caroline saw Jacob sitting on his bed fully clothed. He was wiping his saber while a dozen candles blazed and dripped wax behind him. She wondered which should she address first: his night owl behavior or his excessive use of candles.
“Jacob, you are awake? Why have you lit so many candles?” She entered the room and immediately began snuffling them out one-by-one. “I told you we must economize.”
“Good morning,” he said and smiled brightly. “I need good light to clean my saber well.”
Caroline sighed to herself, doubtful it was actually morning yet. She wasn’t terribly surprised he was awake. He had been sleeping most of the day and staying awake at night for a month since he had returned home from the military hospital after his accident.
“You need not clean your saber in the middle of the night, Jacob. It is not yet day, and you have woken me up.”
In the dim light of the hall, she saw their housekeeper, Anne, her nightcap askew, and her long gray hair disheveled. She stood in the doorway holding a taper for light.
“Aye, and me as well.”
Caroline sat on the bed next to her brother. Their lives had changed so much in the last year. How could she say this gently?
“Jacob, you should be sleeping.”
He laughed, his eyes shined darkly as he continued wiping his blade. You know I keep bachelor’s hours. When we were in the army, we regularly stayed awake until 5 o’clock each morning.”
Caroline felt herself frown.
“You are no longer in the service,” Caroline said quietly. He had been a military officer, after all. She wanted to feel pride for her brother. She did feel pride. It was just all so different since he had been injured and returned home.
Mostly she felt anger and annoyance, although she knew that was not fair to Jacob. She should not have allowed her younger brother to purchase a commission with the last of his inheritance. It had been his decision, of course, and she couldn’t legally stop him. Still, she wished she insisted he had stayed home with her instead of going off to fight Napoleon after their parent’s deaths.
Now his commission was over and all they had was a growing mountain of bills from their father’s gambling debts. Jacob had served a year with the military until he fell from his horse and hit his head. For two weeks in the hospital, he could not be roused. Physicians told her to prepare herself for the worst.
Then he woke. He seemed to have his wits about him. But now she knew those had been false wits. At first, he seemed like his old self. He knew his name, his family, who the sovereign was. He could recall his childhood.
She realized slowly after he had come home that he was not right. He could not remember things that happened only an hour or even a few minutes before. He was easily angered and was deeply untrusting of people. He argued over trivial matters and at times, could say things which were very cruel. The physicians told her head injuries could change people in strange ways.
The housekeeper, who had practically raised them both, sat on the other side of Jacob and took his hand in hers.
“You should be sleeping, lad. You’ll feel better when you keep normal hours.”
His cheerful expression faded until he positively glowered. His face frightened them both. He pulled his hand roughly aside.
“I do not need orders from my sister or my housekeeper,” he said coldly, standing up and walking away from the women.
“Jacob, Anne and I merely want you to be well,” Caroline said to his back. Her heart raced to see him like this.
“I am well. I should be back on the field with my men.”
Anne looked at Caroline silently. It was not the first time he had mentioned returning to the military despite the fact he had been discharged due to injury. Caroline knew the bitter truth: they wouldn’t take him back.
“You know that is not possible,” she said carefully. Perhaps speaking the truth would help him understand.
He turned to her, his face full of fury, and Caroline immediately regretted her words.
He threw down the cloth and tightened his grasp on his saber.
“I do not need to be told what to do by women!”
He shouted the last word, and Caroline instinctively flinched. His spells of anger came more easily these days and she was worried he might hurt someone or himself.
She jerked back and stood up. She hoped he was still willing to take her advice.
“It is bad form to speak with us this way, Jacob.” She tried to remind him of manners. After all, they had been educated properly and gone to good schools, before their lives had changed so drastically.
His hands loosened their grip on the saber, and Caroline saw their chance to leave the room peacefully.
“We take our leave, Jacob. I am sorry we have disturbed you.”
Caroline grasped Anne’s hand and led her out of the room. It was only after she closed her brother’s door that she realized her hands were shaking.
“He’s not well, Caroline,” Anne said as they stepped away from his door. Caroline nodded to her, wondering for the hundredth time what to do. She had actually been relieved when he began sleeping through most of the day. It gave her and Anne a few hours of peace. Physicians told her if she couldn’t care for Jacob by herself the best place to put him was an asylum, but she couldn’t bear that.
He did not belong there.
She exhaled slowly and tried to make sense of her brain’s whirling.
She thought back to him as her younger brother giggling with her in church, which hurt her heart a little.
She held Anne’s hand a moment longer.
“Go to bed, Anne. I’ll figure something out,” she said.
She went back to her room and sat on her bed, exhausted. The sun rose over the horizon, and she wondered how many more nights like this she could endure. Across the room, her eyes fell on a folded letter from her aunt on her side table.
She knew what she had to do.
She simply had no choice in the matter.
In the early hours, she sat wrapped in a shawl at her desk and wrote her aunt a response.
“Faith, let this work,” she said to herself as she set it to go out with the other mail.
East Yorkshire, 1820
After two days sitting in a small carriage, Caroline decided she would gladly give her left hand for a hot cup of tea.
She looked down and considered her gloved left hand.
Surely, that was being impractical, and she would need two hands to carry things. Particularly in her role as a lady's companion to Miss Cornelia “Nelly” Featherton.
Maybe not the whole hand. Perhaps just a small finger.
She stretched her shortest finger. If it were a painless procedure, like a sort of magical spell where it simply disappeared, she may agree to it.
But the tea would have to be marvelous.
Not that it mattered. The carriage was in motion, jostling down the dusty Yorkshire road, and there was nothing available to detach the finger anyway. In her boredom, she had glanced all around the vehicle.
As the carriage jostled her again, she cradled one fully-fingered, tealess hand in the other as the carriage wheels turned in the road onto a long drive.
“Nelly?” she turned to her single carriage companion, who looked to all the world as though she were dead. Nelly’s eyes were shut and her small rosebud mouth fell open as she gently snored.
The girl made an inelegant smacking sound before her eyes fluttered open. Caroline ignored it rather than correct it. Her Mama would not be pleased, and as her companion, it was her duty to remedy any behavior that may take Nelly down a notch in the marriage market. However, no one else was present and Caroline knew that by the time an eligible, well-bred man was privy to Nelly’s semi-conscious self, it would be too late for him to change his mind.
Nelly straightened up for the first time in hours, pushing her honey-blonde curls off her face and opening her blue eyes. She looked out the window at the passing green fields.
“La, more sheep. Do the fields never end here?”
Caroline suppressed a smile at Nelly’s lack of romance about the landscape.
“I should think you’d be learning to appreciate the moors if you may make a home here one day.”
“Bah.” The girl closed her eyes again, snuggling into her seat. “Any peer worth his salt will have a townhouse in London.”
Caroline debated whether to correct the comment. She had warned Nelly before of appearing too entitled to members of the ton.
Caroline opened her mouth to tell her so.
“But it is true, is it not?” Nelly asked, cutting her off.
“You know if someone hears you, they will think you a social climber, and you want to make the best…”
“...best first impression.” Nelly finished Caroline’s sentence in a mocking voice. Thankfully Nelly only talked like this in front of Caroline.
Nelly was correct, but she did not seem to grasp the delicate situation she was entering into. Nelly was rich and very pretty, which made her sought after, but her family was not members of the ton, the elite upper class. They were not aristocrats. Her father was a newly wealthy merchant. And though they were richer than some members of the ton, her manners needed to be impeccable for them to accept her as their own. Some of them would never see her as an equal, but if she made a fortunate match, social decorum would dictate that they recognized her as such. That was why Caroline was with her.
Out the window, Caroline watched the green hills pass by. Nelly was right, all of Yorkshire seemed to be rolling hills, rocks, and sheep. They were almost to Howsham House. The carriage turned off the road and the trees thinned out. There, in the distance behind a patch of trees stood the large gray mansion.
She knew that Howsham was grand, but she was unprepared for just how majestic the manor was until it came into view. The wide, light-colored stones and gleaming windows rose above the neat emerald lawn. She swallowed quietly, trying to rid herself of the lump that was forming in her throat. She willed herself to remain calm. After all, it was Nelly’s thin shoulders that bore the pressure of this visit, not hers. Although her life would be affected as well.
She pictured Nelly’s mama at their meeting two months ago, a jeweled feather in her graying upswept hair when she made Caroline the offer to be her daughter’s traveling companion.
“Five hundred pounds if Nelly marries Wolfolk,” she said, smiling knowingly while her daughter was out of the room. Caroline nearly gasped at that number, but caught herself and smoothed out her expression. With five hundred pounds, she could purchase a fine cottage and hire a nurse to aid her brother.
Her mama referred to the Earl of Wolfolk, a peer whose wife had died of illness without an heir two years ago. He was wealthy, an appropriate age for Nelly, and unmarried. And, she noted, thought to be handsome.
“And what if she and the Earl Wolfolk do not suit?”
Nelly’s mama smiled again, tilting her head to look closely at Caroline.
“I’ll pay you the fifteen pounds I would pay any companion, but no more. It is imperative that Nelly make a grand match. If you are not confident that you can guide her accordingly, I will find another companion for her.”
“No, I can guide her,” Caroline said quickly. She hoped her aunt would not take back the offer. She was already thinking of ways to use the money.
“Yes, I thought you were singularly qualified for this position. And I know you have the need.” Her aunt drew out the last word.
Caroline swallowed and nodded. Of course, everyone knew about her family’s circumstances. She wanted to say something smart back, but she could not. Nelly’s mama was right. Caroline had grown up in the shadow of the ton. Her mother had been a society belle before she married and had even been presented at court. Caroline knew its ways and intricate rules.
“This will be Nelly’s first visit to the northern country, and if all goes as planned, she will not leave Yorkshire unengaged,” her aunt said, picking up a teacake on a tray and placing the entire thing in her mouth.
It was not as heartless as it sounded. If Nelly and Wolfolk suited, and they likely would, everything would be much easier. Nelly would become a Countess, her mama’s greatest hope, and Nelly’s family would forever be connected to an ancient family.
Besides, it’s not like they were marrying her off to an ancient ogre. Wolfolk was rumored to be attractive, even if gossip said he’d become a hermit after his wife died. He rarely socialized. Even in public, he earned the title the “Silent Earl.” Marriage to Nelly would ensure his estate had enough money that he could shut himself into ten manor homes if he wanted.
He needed a wife and an heir.
Nelly was a rich, pretty girl in need of a titled husband.
They were a perfect match.
As the carriage trundled past the gatehouse, Caroline touched Nelly’s arm again.
“There’s Howshawn House. What do you say now, Nelly? Is it grand enough for you?”
The girl opened her eyes and craned her neck to look at the house.
“How pretty! It looks like the top of a trifle cake,” Nelly said, finally awake. Caroline was amused at how quickly wealth roused her.
It was just like a trifle cake. God’s teeth, the income to maintain the place must be enormous. They headed down the lane to the front of the great house, seemingly growing in proportion and grandeur. Finally, their carriage pulled to a stop.
“It’s like a palace,” Nelly said before the footman got down and opened the carriage door. Both women were momentarily speechless by the facade rising above them.
Nelly was correct, but Caroline was not supposed to fluster in situations such as this. She smoothed out her skirts in preparation for exiting the carriage, just as a footman swung open the door. Fresh, warm air filled the cabin and Caroline inhaled gratefully. It had been a long two-day ride, and she was glad they had arrived. Nelly followed suit, her curls swinging as she moved.
Alexander Montgomery, fourth Earl of Wolfolk halted his mount as a passing herd of bleating animals blocked the path in front of him.
Why was it for a man of leisure, his life was so deuced unleisurely?
The herd, moments before hidden behind a line of trees, increased and Alexander’s horse was nearly swamped by the monstrosity of bleating wool passing before him. It was so thick he could barely tell teeth from tails. He shifted in his saddle impatiently.
It was as if he were being waylaid by an avalanche of dirty clouds, for heaven’s sake.
But, then, he was in no hurry to arrive at his destination. The sheep farmer scuttled the last of the herd’s stragglers across the road and Alexander’s horse could continue down the village road. As a matter of fact, he really longed to turn his horse around and return home.
But he did not.
Because he was a gentleman. And gentlemen attended holidays to which they had accepted invitations. He knew the rules. He had a title, but he had to put in the social time, everyone told him.
After riding on another quarter-hour, Howsham House, Lord Stanwyck’s ancestral seat, came into view over a hill after the two day's journey. He had taken his horse ahead of his carriage to in an attempt to cure his restlessness, but it hadn’t worked.
The afternoon sun was warm on his dark coat, and he yearned for shade. Anywhere else was preferable than attending a month-long summer party full of strangers, but a dark, quiet pub was his first choice. Still, he was making an attempt, was he not? Perhaps now the gossipy members of society would be satisfied. Although that was doubtful.
Even as his horse moved forward under him, Wolfolk felt his stomach sink. He had not been a formal guest in society in more than two years since the death of his wife, Eugenia, and he certainly did not wish to be one now. Despite his desire to escape, he urged his mount forward. The voice of his oldest friend, Percy Stanwyck’s voice sounded in his head. You must come and stay with us at Howsham this summer. You must come out and meet new people, Alex.
Stanwyck had meant young ladies, of course. When one is a widower, it seems, everyone wants nothing more than for one to remarry. He cringed. He understood his friends wanted him to meet another woman so they wouldn’t have to feel guilty when they saw him. As a young, childless widower, he was a tragic figure. People did not want to be reminded of how quickly and sharply the wheel of fortune could turn.
Alexander rode to Howsham’s neat, well-tended stables and dismounted as a groom stepped up to take his horse. He pushed his black hair from his face and steeled himself for what lay ahead.
The real reason he was here, as Stanwyck informed him, was that one particular guest was the loveliest girl to be presented to Society this season—an Incomparable, in both beauty and wealth. So he had ridden out in the boiling summer sun. He wished he had the foresight to lie and say he could not attend. At nearly three and thirty, he felt too old for any of this. When he had been young, he would have relished it, but now—after Eugenia—the thought of the charade of courting made him ill.
Alexander had successfully resisted matchmaking invitations until Stanwyck and friends had cornered him at a gambling table months ago. Alexander had not been playing well and was nearly out of money. A wager was made on his attendance for a month at the lord’s country home in the coming summer.
In a last attempt to turn his luck around, Alexander took the bet.
Caroline followed a young maid who led Nelly and her through Howsham to a high-ceilinged sitting room with a bedchamber on each side. It was large and airy, with gleaming doorknobs, sparkling crystal chandeliers and freshly cut flowers arranged in towering vases.
The view from the bedroom window out over the colorful gardens was excellent. Truly, Howsham in summer was superb. Caroline had to suppress the urge to gasp at the view, which was silly because she been in grand rooms much of her younger life.
Now, however, it made her heart hurt to look down at the grounds below the window, which stretched into fields of long grass, banked by lavender and white flowers waving in the breeze. Its trimmed hedgerows and ivy-covered walls reminded her of Barnsley, her family’s home in Gloucestershire. But Barnsley had been sold. In her previous life, she had always belonged in the grand rooms she had been in. Now it was one more reminder of what she no longer possessed.
She chided herself for being silly. Of course, the view was excellent, she was being shown the best room in the most lavish manor homes in Yorkshire. Not that it was meant for her. It was all for Nelly. Caroline was simply along for the ride.
“You may sleep here, mum.” The small maid curtsied at the doorway of the more modest bed chamber. It had no view of the garden, but thankfully, Caroline had her own bed as well as her own room, which had not always been the case since she had become a companion to Nelly.
Two footmen struggled to carry one of Nelly’s trunks past, and she stepped out of their way. Nelly showed no similar consideration and nearly walked into the shorter of the two as she was idly pulling off her gloves.
“Nelly, it’s a beautiful view of the gardens.”
Nelly’s gaze rose past her straight nose and out toward the window for a moment before settling back to her gloves.
“Yes,” she answered blandly. She turned to the lady’s maid and wordlessly held up her wrists so the girl could unlace them. “Have the other guests arrived yet?” Her blue eyes looked from the maid to Caroline. “Do you think he’s here yet?”
The maid looked confused. “Who are you seeking, miss?”
Nelly sighed impatiently. “The Earl of Wolfolk, of course.” She finally peeled one glove off and added, “Is there anyone else here to be concerned with?”
The maid looked worried. “I have not been attending to the male guests.”
“Of course you haven’t,” Caroline said to the maid. “Nelly, we will meet all the other guests shortly.” She watched the maid leave before she continued.
“You know it is unbecoming to show interest in only the loftiest guests. We should treat all guests equally.”
Nelly sniffed. “But I am here to meet him, am I not? That is why I’ve been invited.”
Caroline cringed. Nelly would be labeled a “lily” by the ton—beautiful, fragrant, and determined to persistently climb upward—if she wasn’t careful. And then all would be for naught.
Caroline brushed aside any uncertainty she had felt in her role of helping Nelly land one of the most eligible men in Yorkshire. It was what she was hired for, and it was certainly what her cousin wanted.
Nelly had had some refreshment, a short rest, and now sat in front of a vanity being primped and laced by a small troop of ladies maids and a French modiste for dinner. Caroline realized she ought to change as well.
“What fan will you use this evening?” a modiste with a thick French accent asked Nelly.
Nelly was toying with a powdered puff on the vanity in front of her.
“Nelly, please do not wear rouge,” Caroline said. “Your mama will run all the way up here herself if she hears you appeared painted in public.”
Nelly looked away guiltily, her nose in the other direction.
“I should do whatever I like. And I should like my jeweled fan tonight.”
The modiste beamed at Nelly. “Magnifique! Rouge will only make you more beautiful. Ah, I have a new rose lip salve.”
Caroline opened her mouth to protest.
“La Belle Assemblee magazine says rouge is perfectly acceptable for young ladies,” Nelly said.
Caroline bit the inside of her lip before speaking.
“You know your mother expects me to guide you as you present yourself to society.” She ignored Nelly’s pout. “Where is the jeweled fan?”
“Bah.” Nelly frowned. “No one will notice. Mathilde uses such a light hand. I will look au natural. It was packed in the teak trunk.”
“Better than au natural,” Mathilde agreed.
Why were the French so obsessed with looking like dolls?
Caroline glanced around the room. The teak trunk was not here. She guessed it was set with the other unopened luggage and hadn’t yet been brought up. She thought of sending one of the maids to find it, but she knew she could locate it with less trouble herself.
Caroline walked down the main stairs and reminded herself to inspect Nelly’s face when she came back before dinner. Being a seventeen-year-old girl’s companion was more complicated than she thought. She almost did not blame Nelly’s mama for not attending this trip, although the woman certainly would have enjoyed Howsham’s grandness. But Nelly’s father was ill and she insisted she could not take care of him and give her daughter’s entrance to society its proper attention.
That bore fruit for Caroline, although she had barely known her younger cousin before being contacted by her mama three months ago. Over the past few years, as Caroline’s fortunes fell, Nelly’s family had risen. Caroline’s own excellent education—before her mother died and her father gambled away their fortune—had taught her superb manners, and luckily for Nelly and her mama, she desperately needed the compensation. Not just for herself, but for her brother as well.
Wolfolk slipped into an empty sitting room. He wanted a moment alone to pull together his thoughts before meeting the other guests. Fortunately, the room was dark and blessedly empty.
How good the silence felt. He paused before a large gilded looking glass and reviewed his image. He was freshly bathed and dressed in a spotless dinner jacket. He smoothed his dark hair where it was curling up. Did he look like a man a young lady would want to marry? He used to, after all, Eugenia had wanted to marry him. But that seemed so long ago. He had no idea how he appeared to others now.
He tried to smile, to look how he knew he was expected to appear: gallant and pleasant. But even to him, his smile looked unconvincing. He looked a bit like a wolf. He tried again and bowed as though he was being presented to someone.
“Pleasure to meet you,” he said quietly, testing out his reflection.
Still not quite there. Needs more charm.
He bowed more deeply in the mirror.
“It is my pleasure to meet you,” he said slightly louder.
“It is my honor to…” He stopped speaking and froze. A face appeared in the mirror from behind him.
In the room.
She held a fan in her hands as she watched him. She must have been in the room the whole time.
And he had been talking to himself in the mirror…
He blushed vivid red, which he could see in his reflection.
She stepped forward.
“I am terribly sorry. I was retrieving a fan from a trunk and I didn’t see you come in. I apologize, my lord.” She curtsied and backed toward the door.
She seemed calm and self-collected. Even amused. Few people treated him as an equal, especially women. How silly he must look. How dare she intrude upon him? He was an earl, and she was… well, just who was she?
He turned to face her.
It was one thing to be caught unawares by a stranger, another thing altogether when it was a pretty one. Her eyes were a ridiculously lovely shade of gray. His pulse raced.
“It is I who am sorry. I was looking for a quiet place to collect my thoughts.”
“And I was intruding on that space. Forgive me.”
He met her eyes. Her pink mouth was straight and plump. And smiling slightly.
Who was she?
“It is not your fault. I intruded upon you. My apologies,” he repeated.
Good lord, it sounded as though they were arguing over who’s fault it was.
She nodded. “Of course, my lord.”
She backed herself to the door and was already turning the handle to get out.
She dropped another curtsey again. “My lord,” she said, slipping through the door and out of the room.
“Wait…” he said, but she was gone.
The room’s silence hummed in his ears.
Alexander turned and adjusted his cravat in the glass, decided he was a fool and left the room. There was no sign of the woman he had just seen. She had not been a maid, but he didn’t think she was a guest either. Whoever she was, she was unmitigatedly pretty. And composed.
Dear God, let her not be Miss Featherton. But she did not look that young, and her dress was rather drab. The woman—whomever she was—had not been dressed in fashionable clothes.
Hopefully, she was a nobody he could ignore for the rest of the trip.
He needed to find Stanwyck to straighten this out.
Caroline rushed back up the steps to Nelly’s and her bedchamber. She imagined the man’s dark eyes, his eyebrows rising in surprise at seeing her, the mortification on his face. He was very tall and had thick, dark waves of hair that fell almost to his shoulders.
He did not seem like other peers, barging his way through rooms and expecting people to mold to him. Noblemen usually did not have to apologize for anything in life, ever. The world bent to their wills.
But he had looked uncertain, which was not at all a usual look for an entitled member of the ton. In fact, he had looked lost.
She handed the fan to Nelly and wondered quite what to make of him. She hoped she would not see him again.