THE DUKE'S LAST DANCE
The window of the carriage had given much over the course of the journey. It had shown her the beauty of the countryside, with its sprawling trees and leafy canopies. The various kinds of flowers that had littered the walkways on her way into the countryside now were covered by the snowfall that had happened with Christmastime. That had been a month ago.
Now that they were driving into Town, Lady Catherine Radcliff wondered what this Season in London would bring her. For the last few years, she had wondered this same thing with the same drab results. She would be consigned to the nursery while her parents hosted parties or while they were away at social gatherings. Sometimes, she would be able to see her friend Lord Lockhart, but oftentimes, that was reserved for the nights when the Duke and Duchess of Ashwood invited them to dinner, or when her parents extended an invitation for the Ashwood family to come.
Arriving in Town also meant that the green expanses of summer and the white wonderland of a country winter had gone for the moment. Now, her days would be filled with sights of dazzling homes, chandeliers, beautiful dresses, long gloves, and men as handsome as she thought them.
For this Season was the most important one in a young girl’s life. Lady Catherine had officially become eligible for marriage, and she would make her debut in society. Her mother, of course, was more excited than even Catherine.
The chance for a good marriage was greater the higher up on the social ladder one’s family was, and with her father being The Earl of Camberton, she knew that she would have many potential suitors awaiting her in Town.
Camberton… it had been only a few months since they had left the Camberton Manor for the countryside, but Camberton would now be where she resided. Her family always came into Town for the Season, and she saw no reason for that to stop.
“Catherine?” Her mother’s voice snapped her out of her thoughts. “Catherine!”
“Oh?” She looked over from the window to find her mother frowning at her. “My apologies, Mother. I must have started thinking about the Season instead of listening.”
“Well, now that I have your attention,” her mother stopped. Then, with a smile, she continued, “We will be starting dress fittings for the Season tomorrow. You must look your best with this being your debut into society, you know.”
“Yes, Mother. I know.” Catherine looked down from her mother’s gaze. “Not only are my looks important, but so are my manners and my abilities. When will I be learning the dances?”
“Oh, you and your dancing,” her mother huffed. “If you must insist on learning the dances first, then we can arrange for your tutor to come earlier, but he is currently coming in two days’ time. Long before the first event of the Season, Catherine, and I hope that is sufficient for you. You will not learn the quadrille and the waltz in one Session, nor will you master it in one Session.”
“I wish to learn the waltz only. Must I learn the quadrille?” Catherine could not help but curl her lips in disgust as she spoke of the second dance. She thought it dance for older men that had nothing better to do than show off their older wives to other couples of the same age. It was nothing compared to the waltz, even though some variations had waltz-like steps to them.
“Yes, you must learn the quadrille. I know you detest the way it looks and feels, but you will be expected to dance the quadrille with men at the events this Season. If you were to dance a set with a young gentleman that included a quadrille, and you could not dance it, you would mark yourself an object of ridicule, Catherine.” Her mother gave her a stern look. “You will be made known as a woman who only knows half of what she ought to about dancing, so what would you know about being a mother?”
“I do not believe it would be so, Mother,” Catherine attempted to argue.
Her mother stopped her from doing so.
“You will learn the quadrille, and that’s final. Have I made myself understood, Catherine?” Her mother did not let up on the stern glare that had come onto her face.
Catherine let out a quiet sigh.
“Yes, Mother. You have made yourself quite clear. I will learn both the quadrille and the waltz.” She knew that it was not worth continuing the argument at this point.
If her mother made any more of a scene, she would have been too embarrassed to continue arguing anyway. After all, her mother felt the same way she did about the quadrille, but she had learned how to dance it. Catherine honestly believed no one looked good doing the quadrille; much of the time, at least half of the dancers were still and doing nothing but standing there.
It was an odd look for a room of dancers, half of them doing nothing but standing still! Whatever kind of a man had thought up the quadrille had meant to give them time to socialize, surely, but it never worked out that way. At least, not from what Catherine had seen and experienced.
“I am glad to hear it, Catherine.” Her mother sat back against the carriage’s seat. “Are you excited about your debut?”
Catherine hesitated. She was not as excited as her mother was, but she was excited to see what this Season would bring. It would bring so many new experiences that she wanted to have, but it would also mean she had to step up and become a woman.
“I am, but I am not at the same time.” She took in a deep breath. “I suppose I am also hesitant to grow up.”
“We all are, Catherine. We all are.” Her mother nodded slowly as she spoke. “There is nothing more interesting than the way we are able to handle it all when we believe that there is nothing to gain and everything to lose, but even more so when we believe there is everything to gain and nothing to lose. You must know where you stand on that when the Season begins, Catherine. There will be men here that will make you believe you have everything to lose if you don’t marry them. You do not want to be with one of those men.”
Her mother’s eyes flickered down.
“Do you have a story to tell me, Mother?” Catherine wondered what kind of a story could possibly have scarred her mother so badly that she would not tell it to her, but then again, she did not know every detail of her mother’s life before marrying her father.
“I do, but it is not a story I feel appropriate for the first Season you are eligible for marriage. Perhaps after you have been married, Catherine,” her mother replied. “Now, sit up straight. You’ve allowed your shoulders to slouch, and no proper woman would be caught dead like that in Town.”
“Yes, Mother.” Catherine sat up straighter.
She wanted to have good prospects for marriage. If following her mother’s sometimes arbitrary advice would help her accomplish that, then she was all for doing so.
The rest of the carriage ride to Camberton Manor was silent. Catherine returned to looking out the window, watching the white snow pass by.
Town in the winter was always a mix of picture-perfect snow on the rooftops – especially right after fresh snow before all the soot had a chance to settle in – and an utter mess on the ground as everyone and their horses walked through the snow. Catherine much preferred the fresh, uninterrupted blanket of snow that was often created in the countryside after a snowstorm came through. With the houses being so much more spread out, it took longer for everyone to get out and about after a snowstorm.
She would much prefer to see meters and meters of freshly fallen snow to the slushy mess that London became, but she had no way to do anything about that. They were officially in Town, and with Camberton Manor coming into view from the carriage window, she was too excited about the Season’s beginning to do anything but think about the dress fittings her mother wanted to get started tomorrow.
“Ah, Camberton Manor…” Her mother interrupted her thoughts again. “We have arrived. Your father ought to be here already; after all, he left two full days before us.”
“Yes, I suppose he did.” Catherine smiled. “I have missed Father. Do you think he will have time to eat dinner with us tonight?”
“I hope so. If you have missed him dearly, then imagine how I have missed him, Catherine,” her mother sulked. “He is my husband, after all.”
“Yes, of course, Mother.” She was not one to argue with things that made sense to her.
The carriage came to a stop in front of Camberton Manor. The house was a large one, with a large bay window by the front door. Catherine had fond memories of sitting in front of that bay window as a child, watching for the carriages when her parents were watching her instead of the nannies that had been hired. When one would come up, she would be expected to be quiet and obedient in front of the visitors, but as soon as they had left, she could continue her window watching or play with her dolls or whatever she had been doing before they pulled up to the house.
The outside had been recently cleaned. The bricks sparkled in the sunlight, more dazzling than the snow that did the same. Each window seemed to have a small gleam to it as if it was happy to see that its occupants had returned for another Season.
“I have so missed Camberton, Catherine. What about you?” Her mother looked over to her as the carriage moved underneath them. Someone outside was getting off to help them out and unload all the trunks.
“I have indeed missed Camberton, and Town in general.” She could not help but agree with her mother. Whether that was because of the fatigue of the journey or because she genuinely missed Camberton, Catherine wasn’t sure. However, she knew that it did not matter in the end. When it came time to go back to the countryside, she would also have begun to miss their residence out there.
Having two houses to split her time between was rough sometimes. She supposed it was an upper-class problem, but she would not know for certain.
She took in a deep breath; the cold air woke her lungs up and energized her for all of the things she would now have to work around or with. She had to make sure all her trunks made it up to her room, that Amelia was ready to start helping her unpack… there was a lot involved in getting ready for the Town Season, least of all was getting all settled into the house for the Season.
As Catherine left the carriage, she watched her mother start to oversee the footmen getting the trunks off the carriage.
“You may go inside, Catherine. ‘Tis too cold out here for you to stay while they unload the trunks.” Her mother waved her hand, a clear sign that she was dismissed from whatever duties she may have had to help with in the snow.
“Thank you, Mother.” Catherine smiled.
Then, she turned and walked up the long walkway towards the house. She did not understand why every manor had such long walkways, but she appreciated them in the summertime. In the wintertime, when they were crowded with slushy snow and full of mud as the snow melted, it was a hassle to walk through.
It was even more of a hassle to drive the horses all the way up to the houses in this weather. Catherine did not know which was better; walking through the slush or watching the horses struggle through the slush while she sat pretty in the carriage.
For the horses’ sake, she would rather walk. For her own sake, she’d rather sit in the carriage as the horses struggled.
Whatever the reasons for stopping where it had, the carriage was now well behind her. She walked up the snow-covered steps and waited. A butler soon opened the door, and Catherine walked in.
The house was warm and full of the smells of wintertime foods: cinnamon, nutmeg, butter, sugar, and pumpkin. She knew that Amelia was fond of pumpkins when they were viable, but she knew that her handmaid would also make sure they had pumpkin when it was in season.
Pumpkin preserves were not Catherine’s favorite, but she indulged her handmaid from time to time.
The front hall was a grand place, and Catherine stopped to take it all in for a minute. Every time she came back to Camberton, there was always a feel of grandeur and wonder. It was as if the house was never the same, even though the moldings, the furniture, the papered walls never changed.
It was just as she had left it in the summertime. The walls were covered in a light white wallpaper with faint flowers. She was never sure what color the flowers were supposed to be, but she believed they were meant to be a kind of cream or ivory color – standing off the white, but not different enough to cause them to be the focal point of the wallpaper.
The dark wooden railings of the staircases stood out in stark contrast to the white wallpaper, and it made Catherine feel as though she was being welcomed by an old friend.
She took her cloak off and handed it to the waiting butler.
Then, she started up the stairs. She would have to make sure that her room was ready to receive all the trunks she had brought. This year, she had not brought as many trunks as she might have otherwise. She was to receive an entire wardrobe of new fancy dresses for the Season, so she had left the ones she would have brought in the countryside.
Catherine had also left dresses here, ones that were the wrong color for the time she would spend in the countryside. However, with the end of each Season, those often became dresses she could no longer wear to events. She had to wear them out and about or around the house. What they would do with these dresses now that she was emptying out her wardrobe to make room for the dresses her mother would have her fitted for tomorrow, she had no idea.
She took in a deep breath, the cinnamon wafting up from the kitchen. She wished it had been pine trees, but all the windows were closed, and for good reason. It looked like there would be another snowstorm.
Catherine entered her room and found it exactly as she had left it, pretty much. There was a little bit of dust in the room, but that was to be expected. Not every room could be dusted every day.
“Lady Catherine!” Amelia’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “You’ve arrived.”
“Yes, I have arrived, Amelia.” She smiled.
Her handmaid walked into the room. Lady’s maid was the more fashionable term for her position, but Catherine had grown up being told that Amelia was her handmaid. Whatever the term for the position, she was glad to see Amelia.
“How was the Season in the countryside?” Amelia had a large trunk in her arms as she walked into the room.
The luggage was coming into the house.
“The Season in the countryside was good, as it usually is.” Catherine shrugged. “There was nothing too unusual, and all the excitement will be happening here in Town this Season.”
“You debut to society this Season?” Amelia’s eyes sparkled.
“’Tis wonderful to hear, Miss!” The handmaid smiled as she set the trunk down. “Would you like me to start unpacking the trunks as they come in, or do you want to wait until they have all been brought up?”
“Wait until they have all been brought up to the room, please, Amelia.” Catherine smiled. “Do you have time to sit and catch up?”
“If you wish it, I can do so.” Amelia smiled.
Catherine simply motioned to the chair by her writing desk. Amelia gladly sat down, and Catherine sat on the bed.
“What do you think this Season will be like, ma’am?” Her handmaid did not bother much with the things that had happened in the countryside, and Catherine did not blame her.
She shared her hopes with Amelia. There would be plenty of people to court, and she would be introduced to many suitors this Season, she hoped. Somewhere in her heart, she wanted to know that Nicolas Lockhart would be there too, but she did not share this with Amelia.
It had been far too long since she last saw him…
The trunks were now being brought in by the butlers, and when all the trunks had been brought in, Catherine stood up.
“We should get all of this put away now…” She did not want to, knowing how much time it had taken to pack all the trunks, to begin with. “There’s so much of it…”
“There always is, Lady Catherine,” Amelia replied. “Come. Let me get it unpacked, and you continue to sit on the bed and tell me what you wish to see this Season. It must be so exciting, debuting into society like this.” Her handmaid smiled. “I wish I could be debuted as elegantly as you surely will be.”
“I wish the same for you, Amelia, but sometimes, there is nothing one can do about it.” Catherine sighed.
They continued to talk as Amelia started to move the trunks around and get everything packed up. The trunks had survived many trips back and forth between the country and Town with all the Seasons that had happened. At least one of the smaller trunks had been her main travel trunks when she was a child; they were well-made and lasted a long time.
Her mother had made sure they had gotten her good quality trunks.
Soon enough, her handmaid was putting the last of the stuff in her wardrobe.
“I hope you are able to enjoy your debut into society. It sounds as though your mother has a lot planned for getting you ready for the first ball of the Season,” Amelia mused. “Oh!”
Something clattered to the floor.
Catherine looked up from her nails. A small box had toppled to the floor, and it had opened.
“I’m so sorry, Miss Catherine.” Amelia knelt down to pick up the box and its contents.
Catherine got off the bed and stopped her when she realized what was in the box. It was a small brooch and some faded letters.
“What are they?” Amelia questioned her response to them falling out of the box. “What importance do they have to you?”
“This is the brooch that Lord Lockhart gave me years ago… I thought I had lost it somewhere in the country. I scoured that house looking for this for years…” Catherine held the small brooch in her hand. It was cold to the touch as if it were upset that it had been forgotten about in the wardrobe.
“Why did he give it to you, if I may ask?” Amelia was now interested in what had happened between her and Mr Lockhart.
So, Catherine told her the story of Lord Lockhart’s promise. The idea that she would someday marry Nicolas continued to make her heart flutter just a little, but she now wondered if that promise could ever be fulfilled.
“Why do you look so upset?”
“I have not seen nor heard from Lord Lockhart in years. He has disappeared.” Catherine shook her head. “I have to wonder who caused him to disappear, or what caused him to disappear. I would not have thought him the kind of man to leave Town so suddenly when he turned eighteen…”
“Perhaps he was called away for business of some kind with his father’s business partners,” Amelia offered a suggestion.
Catherine was not completely sure that would have worked, but it would have at least explained why Nicolas had completely disappeared.
“Well, if he has disappeared for that reason, then that would explain why he has not written to me. If he disappeared for other reasons, I have nothing that could explain why he has not written to me,” Catherine wondered. “I suppose ‘tis rather childish to think he could hold that promise… keep it like he said he would when he made it to me.”
“I do not think it childish, ma’am. I believe there is something to a promise made in childhood. It may not come around as you think, but sometimes, even the most serious of childhood promises can be fulfilled instead of left as childish dreams,” Amelia stated.
Catherine laughed and started to put the letters into the box.
“’Tis childish for him to have promised to marry me so long ago. What if we never see each other again? Will he hold out hope that I have not married for when he comes back, or will he give up and marry someone else, expecting that I had long ago done the same?” She spoke as she put the brooch into the box.
“Well, if that is the case, then he is not the first man to leave a childhood love to grow dust.” Amelia held her hands out for the box. “Would you like me to put this back where it fell from or is it time it has a new place in your wardrobe?”
“Put it back where it fell from, Amelia, please.” Catherine gladly handed the box over with a laugh. “I see no need for it to have a new place, and now that I know where it is, I can move it if I need to.”
“Of course, Lady Catherine.” With that, Amelia took the box.
It was placed back on the shelf, and Catherine could not help but smile. Nicolas Lockhart… wherever he was, she hoped he remembered her as fondly as she remembered him.
He sat looking at the letter in his hands. For the last three years, he had been in the military, and this last year, he had been at sea. While he had been able to see so many cities – he had spent a good six months in Paris, and he was now heading back to London – he knew that coming back to Town would be the best thing.
The letter was from his mother. She had been writing him every week since he left, and she had been informing others of what he was doing and where he was. Nicolas honestly doubted this, as he knew that his father was incredibly controlling. If he did not want people knowing where Nicolas was, then his mother was powerless.
While he did not want to return to Town, the way his mother wrote to him had a sense of urgency that had been lacking in the other letters. She told him of his father’s illness, that the doctors were not hopeful that he would recover. Even though he had enjoyed being away from his father’s watchful eye – the controlling man would do anything to make sure that his will was followed instead of allowing Nicolas to do as he pleased, especially when it came to his life – he knew that it was only right of him to leave for Town as soon as possible.
The ship would soon be docking in Town, and he was excited. It had been a while since he had been in England, in Town even, and he was ready to come home. His mother’s letter gave him a good excuse.
Now, he could see the docks, and he watched Town come closer to the ship as they pulled into the dock. This was his home. There was no mistaking that. It was, however, different than when he had last been here. The last time he had been on these docks, he had been leaving for his first post just a week after his eighteenth birthday. He had not been allowed to say goodbye to Miss Catherine when he had left, and he often wondered if Lady Catherine knew where he had ended up, what had happened to him.
Catherine Radcliff, the daughter of the Earl of Camberton, had captured his heart as a child. Even when he had been eighteen, and she had been fifteen, he remembered the promise he made her quite fondly. Marrying her was not something that his father looked at as an option, but he knew his father had never quite enjoyed watching Nicolas become a man.
He was not obedient enough for his father, and he was willing to say that it was enough of an issue to have him forcibly sign up to serve in the military. In the end, the military had been good to Nicolas, but he was still mad that his father saw it as a way to keep him from his childhood sweetheart.
The ship docked, and Nicolas grabbed what trunk he had brought from Paris. He had not shipped out with much, and now, he was glad for that. He had been able to buy a few things here and there in the places he visited, and he did not have to worry about needing another bag to start.
His mother had said that there would be a carriage waiting for him when he returned to Town, and he was able to easily find one. It was always easy to find a waiting carriage near the docks; families made sure that there was someone to take their loved ones from the docks back home.
He shoved the bag up into the carriage, not caring that there was room on the top of the luggage rack for it. It had simply become a habit to shove it wherever he could because it was so small.
He was about to hoist himself up into the carriage when he saw a familiar face walking towards him. Lord Edward Radcliff had somehow found the docks at the exact same time that he was disembarking and getting ready to head back to Ashwood Manor.
“Well, if it isn’t Lord Lockhart. How have you been?” Lord Radcliff stopped to talk to him as he walked past.
“I have been well. I am back in Town for a while.” Nicolas smiled. At least Lord Radcliff had been a good friend to him in childhood, and he was sure that would not change despite the lack of communication.
“That is very good to hear. You are actually just the person I was looking for. I cannot believe I was so fortuitous to find you on the docks,” Lord Radcliff continued. “Come to dinner at Camberton Manor. I would like to introduce you to my fiancée.” The man smiled widely.
“I would be honored to meet the woman you have decided to spend your life with, Lord Radcliff. Thank you. When will this dinner be?” Nicolas stepped off the carriage’s little ladder. He wanted to have the details he needed before he was whisked back to Ashwood… to the controlling gaze of his father.
He shuddered a little to think of what his father would be like now that his father was ill and struggling with his health.
“Tomorrow evening. She is coming over to see the family, and I would be honored to introduce her to my childhood friend,” Lord Radcliff said.
Nicolas could not help but laugh at this point.
“I never thought you would be the kind of man to find a wife and settle down,” he announced. “You are full of surprises, Lord Lockhart.”
“As you are, Lord Lockhart.” Lord Radcliff nodded at him. “I will see you tomorrow, then.”
“On the morrow, Lord Radcliff.” Nicolas pulled himself into the carriage and shut the door behind him.
Lord Radcliff continued walking towards wherever he had been heading as a consequence of trying to find Nicolas. He watched out the carriage window as Lord Radcliff became just another person in the crowd of people on the docks.
A dinner at Camberton Manor… he hoped Miss Catherine would still be there. Though it had been three years, he knew that he wanted to see her while he was here in Town. It would be a good thing to see her, even if the feelings that had been there three years ago were no longer there.
Three years… a lot could change in that time. He wondered if it was even possible for him to keep the promise he had made her ten years ago when he was only thirteen.
He took in a deep breath as the carriage continued towards Ashwood Manor. Three years in the Navy had made him recognize why he struggled with his father being so controlling. When the Navy told him to do something, there was a lot behind the reasons. His father had only one reason to give him such a hard time about some things, and that was so that he would be the man his father wanted him to be.
The problem with that expectation, in Nicolas’s eyes, was that he was not his father’s marble statue. He would not sit there, unchanging, as his father tried to shape him into what he wanted Nicolas to be.
His father… there had been many issues with the reasons his father had sent him into the Navy. Part of him wondered if the Navy was a convenient excuse to send him away from Miss Catherine Radcliff before she could become eligible for marriage and keep him away from her until she married.
If that was the entire reason his father had sent him away, to begin with, it had not worked. Nicolas knew that she would most likely be ready to debut into society as an eligible young woman for marriage this Season.
The Town Season… this was going to be an interesting change. He was here in Town for the Season instead of abroad with his regiment or in the countryside, and he wondered if his father would even want him to be home because of that.
The carriage ride, however bumpy it was, helped him to soothe his troubled mind a little. The ride to Ashwood Manor was a little longer than he remembered it being, but it was a good excuse to let his mind wander. His father had never understood how Nicolas could enjoy long carriage rides. The ride out to their country manor was a good example; though his father loved going to the countryside to spend the off-Season, he hated the long ride. It was “too long” for his father, even though his father had picked the house many years ago.
Long before Nicolas had been born, at least.
The carriage came to an abrupt stop, and that pulled Nicolas out of his thoughts.
He had arrived at Ashwood Manor with time to spare, and that was all that mattered now that he was here in Town.
Though he would be dining at Camberton Manor the next evening, he was here to see to his father’s health.
His mother met him at the door.
“I thought you would have more luggage, but never mind that, Nicolas, you’re here.” She pulled him into a hug, even though it was not something that his mother had done before he left for the Navy.
“Hello, Mother.” Nicolas hugged back, knowing that his mother needed the support.
“Your father is not doing well, Nicolas.” She pulled away as she spoke. “He… he looks nothing like himself.”
“Let me get my things settled in my room, and then I will go see him, Mother. All right?” He smiled a little.
His mother nodded before moving so that he could get into Ashwood Manor.
Ashwood Manor, for all of its fault, was not a bad house. The bricks sparkled in the winter sun, mirroring the way the still freshly fallen snow on the ground sparkled with the sunlight. Each of the windows had a welcoming smile on it as the maids cleaned them.
He wondered if any of the furniture inside had been cleaned recently or if his family had changed it out in some rooms. His mother had been thinking about moving some of the furniture around, but there was also a wish to keep a familiar air in the house. Whatever had happened, he knew that his mother had been behind it all.
Nicolas walked in and he felt at home. This surprised him; after having been away for so long, he had not been expecting to feel so welcomed. Perhaps it was because everyone was worried about his father and welcomed the fact that someone else had come to help them out with it.
As he walked up the grand staircase, he put his hand on the railing and ran it up as he walked.
The cool ridges felt well-worn and well-used since he had been here last. They were a familiar feel, and when he reached the top of the stairs, he walked towards his room from childhood. Then, he realized he had no idea if he was in the same bedroom.
“Your old bedroom is still open if that is what you wish to know, Nicolas.” His mother’s voice startled him.
When had she walked up the staircase?
“Thank you, Mother,” Nicolas replied.
He then started towards the room he would be sleeping in for the duration of his stay at Ashwood Manor. There was nothing new in the upstairs, either; all the portraits were still on the walls, and there was not a new one in sight.
When he walked into his bedroom, he found that had changed some. Instead of the small single bed he had had, a large four-poster bed had been put in. His small writing desk had been replaced by a larger one, one of his father’s old ones that he had once expressed a wish of having in his room. He was glad to see that it had happened, even if it was not exactly what he wanted to see today when he walked in.
He set his bag on the bed, and then he walked towards his father’s study. That was probably the first place his father would take up residence if he could.
When there was no answer, he determined that his father was not there. He started to search each room to make sure he had not walked right past whatever room his father had taken to stay sick in for the moment.
When he did not find his father on the second story of the house, he walked back downstairs. It was possible, he now realized, that his father was well enough to take residence in any part of the house, but not well enough to move outside of the house for very long.
He started in the kitchen. That had always been his father’s favorite spot to sit down by a fire, perhaps because of the way it smelled in the kitchen. The cook always had something wonderful going on the stove or in the oven, and it wafted through the entire kitchen. Unlike Camberton Manor, you had to be near the kitchen to smell it.
Nicolas smiled as he thought about the way Camberton Manor was set up to allow the residents to smell whatever was cooking in the kitchen without having to be near the kitchen or dining room. That was the kind of setup he wanted for his own house.
When his father was not in the kitchen, Nicolas did not know where else to look. So, he headed towards the drawing room, hoping that perchance his father had decided to watch over the snowed-in backyard, as he had often done during Nicolas’s childhood.
That is where he found his father, and he did not like what he saw. As much as he wanted his father to leave him to live his life the way he wished to – especially when it came to his choice of career – he did not want to see his father wasting away. That was exactly what he saw in front of him: his father had become quite pale, and he seemed to be thinning out.
He wondered for a split second how his father was still alive with the way he did not seem to be eating much at all.
“Please, take a seat, Nicolas.” His father’s voice, however, was still strong and authoritarian. It had not changed, though his body was wasting away with his illness.
Nicolas took a seat, though he wanted to stand for the moment. He had sat on the boat for too long, and the docking process and carriage ride had cramped his legs. But, if his father asked him to sit, he would sit for the day. It was only the polite thing to do, despite how much he wanted to take polite society and thrust his hands around its neck sometimes.
“I am glad to see that you are doing somewhat better than Mother’s letter told me you were, Father,” Nicolas said something and went to say more.
His father stopped him.
“Since you are here in Town because of my illness, I do not want you to sit in the house all day.” He looked at him with sincere eyes. “You are to participate in this Town Season.”
“Many young women will be out during said Season, I am sure,” Nicolas mused. “I was planning to participate in the Town Season while I was here; it would be useless to come all the way from Paris – from the sea – only for your illness, only to care for you.”
“With the way this illness is going, even the doctors do not believe I will survive.” His father shook his head. “They do not know me. They do not know that I will survive and come out strongly. I will live.” His father managed a smile.
“That is good to hear, Father.” Nicolas did not argue.
As much as he did not want to see his father control his life again, he could not argue that if his father could come out of the illness, then there was a chance that everything could change.
He wanted to take advantage of that.
Camberton Manor stood before him the next evening, and it looked exactly as he remembered it looking in the wintertime. It had a happier air to it than Ashwood Manor, and that was not a bad thing. It was something he looked forward to enjoying again.
As he walked in, he could not help but think about something that he had been thinking about a lot since his father sent him into the Navy: if he had not gone into the Navy, it was entirely possible that he could have been courting or married to Miss Catherine Radcliff now. He still wanted to fulfill that promise, and he hoped that she had not given up hope that it would happen.
If she had, then all hope for it was lost as she was most likely ready to move on with her heart this Season.
He could not help but marvel at the quiet butler. Though he had been greeted, it had been a quiet, soft nod of his head to show respect, and then he was escorted to the parlor. The walk to the parlor took him past many old sights, and he was not surprised to see his favorite portrait of Miss Catherine still hanging on the walls.
“Lord Lockhart, how wonderful you could make it.” Lord Radcliff’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
He looked up. To his surprise, not only was Lord Radcliff there but so was The Earl of Camberton.
“I am glad to see that you have been expecting me,” Nicolas replied. He continued with a soft bow of his head, “And I am glad to see you again.”
“As am I, Lord Lockhart.” The Earl smiled at him. “It has been too long. Where have you been for the last three years? We have not heard a thing from Ashwood Manor about you, and we have all been worried about what you have been up to.”
“I have been at sea for the last year, and with the Navy for the last three.” Nicolas did not hesitate to answer.
“I am glad to see that you have come home, even if the circumstances were not the best. I am sorry to hear of your father’s poor health,” the Earl continued. “Come. Dinner will be served soon, and I would like to catch up more before we are told dinner is ready.”
“I was docked in Paris when my mother’s latest letter informing me of my father’s poor health arrived. It took me too long to arrive from Paris, but I am glad to see that I have come just in time for the Town Season to begin.” Nicolas smiled. “I hear there will be many a debut of women into society, and I hope to see some of my old friends while I am here.”
“Dinner is ready, my lords.” A maid came in not too soon after the words left his mouth.
“Shall we convene in the dining room, then?” The Earl looked between the two young men, who both nodded.
Nicolas was excited; he had not expected to be invited to a dinner at Camberton Manor as soon as he had been, but it was to be a good way to get his mind off the way his father’s health had decayed. He walked with Lord Radcliff and the earl into the dining room.
It looked just as he remembered it. There was nothing more interesting than the way everything could stay the same, but everything could change, too. The dining room still held the large oak table that the Countess of Camberton was so proud of, with the matching chairs peeking out from underneath the table. The chandelier hanging overhead was full of candles, all lit to light the room up for the dinner.
“The manor has not changed since I was last here.” Nicolas could not help but voice his observation.
“Indeed, it has not.” Lord Radcliff smiled. “Mother thought about rearranging the furniture, but she decided, in the end, that she liked Camberton Manor as it is, and did not change a thing. I am glad it feels familiar to you.”
“As am I, Lord Lockhart,” Lord Radcliff interrupted. “Now, let us take our seats. The women will be in soon enough to join us, and where would we be if we were not ready for them when they arrived?” He smiled.
The Earl had a point, and even Lord Radcliff nodded in response to this.
It did not take long for them to sit down and find a good spot to pick up the conversation.
“What do you plan to do about your father’s health? Surely, he has wishes that he wants to fulfill before he passes if the illness is to go there.” Lord Radcliff did not hesitate to continue the questioning about his father’s health.
“I have only been in town for two days, Lord Radcliff,” Nicolas laughed. “I do not know what my father wishes to do, nor do I care to know quite yet. There is still a chance he could recover, however slim it is.”
“That is a good way to think about it,” the Earl added. “Do you know what you would do if it came to having to let your father go, personally? I am not talking about what he would want to do before he passes away here, Mr Lockhart. I mean what you would do.”
Nicolas did not know how to respond to this. There was something to the question that made him wonder if there was any reason he should have the gumption to answer it, but in other ways, he knew that he had to answer it. It was always like this around the Earl of Camberton; he had an imposing manner that made it hard to tell him no but made one feel as though they had no other option but to say no.
It was an odd air, and he was glad to be in its presence once again. The confusion offered a good distraction from the reason that had brought him to Town after being away at sea all year.
“I am not sure I know how to answer that question, more lord, but that is a question I will be thinking about for the rest of dinner now.” Nicolas managed a laugh, but he did feel rather uncomfortable giving the Earl such an answer.
“I did not expect you to know what you were going to do if you had to come to terms with the idea that your father is to pass away, Lord Lockhart,” the Earl said. “It was a question that I simply want you to think about. Letting someone you love pass away, even when you have done all you can to help them die in peace, is difficult.” He picked up the glass in front of him. “It’s like when a glass breaks. You can’t help where the pieces fall, but you determine how you pick up the pieces.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Nicolas replied.
There was a brief silence, filled only by the ticking of a grandfather clock in the left corner of the room. Mr Radcliff looked between Nicolas and his father, while the Earl sat in his seat quietly.
Nicolas, on the other hand, could not help but wonder if Catherine would be here. There were to be six people at dinner, as there were six chairs set up for this meal. The Earl, Lord Radcliff, and himself had already taken up three of the seats. The countess and Lord Radcliff’s mysterious fiancée would take two of the chairs left.
That meant there was one chair left. It was either set up to ensure an even number of chairs and places, or it was set up for Lady Catherine Radcliff.
He sincerely hoped it was Lady Catherine that would be joining them at dinner, and he hoped that she would be as excited to see him as he was to see her.
“What has you smiling so widely right now, Lord Lockhart?” Mr. Radcliff raised an eyebrow as he spoke. “I have not seen such a wide smile on someone except when they were imagining a situation that would lead them to have the same kind of grin.”
“I am simply wondering if Miss Catherine will be joining us,” Nicolas replied. “I have not seen her in three years, and I am anxious to rekindle the friendship that I left so suddenly.”
“I am not sure what my daughter’s plans for the night are, but I do believe she will be joining us shortly,” the Earl added his thoughts before Lord Radcliff could say anything more. “I suppose I could have asked, but there are six chairs set up. I see no reason for her not to come to dinner.”
“Neither do I, Father.” Lord Radcliff nodded slowly. “Besides, she quite likes Miss Andrews. I do not believe she would leave my fiancée to have this dinner with my family alone.” He laughed.
Nicolas smiled. He had forgotten how much like family the Radcliff family felt sometimes.
The conversation stopped abruptly when there were footsteps coming into the room. The three men stood up, as was polite to do for women entering and leaving the room.
First, the countess entered. She wore a simple dress and matching gloves, of course. A wide smile softened the hardened wrinkles that time had brought to her face, and a sparkle in her eyes lit her face up.
“Mr Lockhart, what a pleasure to see you again!” She greeted him. “I hope you have been well while you have been away from Town for whatever reasons you have been gone for three years.”
“I have indeed been well, Lady Radcliff. How have you been while I have been away?” He replied, knowing that she would answer with some variation of being well enough while he was away.
“I have been well enough, and that is all I can ask for in my older age,” the Countess joked. “’Tis absolutely wonderful to see that you will be joining us for dinner, Lord Lockhart. Absolutely wonderful.” He did not need to worry about saying anything more because she promptly turned to her husband and greeted him.
As the Countess was making her greetings, a young lady walked in. He did not recognize the face, so it had to be this Miss Andrews that Lord Radcliff was now engaged to. She was not an awful face to look at. She had a rounder face, with a full head of beautiful black hair that had been twirled up and around to frame her face. There were no curls framing her face, specifically, but Nicolas thought she could do without them.
“Hello, Lord Radcliff.” She turned her attention to Lord Radcliff.
“Miss Andrews,” he started, “may I introduce my friend, Lord Lockhart?” He motioned to Nicolas.
“’Tis a pleasure to meet the woman that Lord Radcliff will be marrying,” Nicolas said, bowing to the young woman softly. “I am glad to see that he has come to find such beauty in this world. You will be well taken care of with him, I am sure.”
“Thank you, Lord Lockhart, but the pleasure is mine,” Miss Andrews replied, smiling. “Mr. Radcliff has spoken highly of you, and I was afraid I would never get to meet the man that inspired such words. Now that you have returned, I am glad to see that Mr. Radcliff was not making you up.”
Lord Radcliff’s cheeks colored at the remark. Nicolas laughed softly.
“Well, I am glad to see that I have saved some part of Lord Radcliff’s reputation tonight, even if that was not my intention in accepting the dinner invitation,” he joked with Miss Andrews.
The young woman smiled.
“You have good taste in friends, Lord Radcliff. I quite enjoy his company already, though we have scarcely been acquainted five minutes!” Miss Andrews turned to her fiancé.
“Lord Lockhart has a way of being good friends with anyone and everyone he meets,” Lord Radcliff said. “I suppose it to be what his mother has taught him, but since I have some of the same disposition, I cannot be entirely certain that it was only his mother’s teachings.”
“Well, whatever the reason for it, I am glad of it.” Miss Andrews then turned back to Nicolas. “I am glad you have come to dinner tonight. The pleasure really is all mine.”
“Thank you, Miss Andrews, but I believe the pleasure mine,” he replied. “I hope you have a wonderful marriage.”
“Thank you,” Miss Andrews replied.
Lord Radcliff was about to say something but stopped upon seeing another woman walk in.
This time, Nicolas recognized the woman. It was from Lady Catherine Radcliff. Tonight, she was dressed in a champagne colored dress, the bodice rather low-cut, and matching lace gloves.
Nicolas could not say a thing. He had not expected her to wear such a beautiful dress, nor for her to have her hair done up so beautifully. She wore no baubles in her hair, as this was a family dinner, but she was still beautiful.
He could hardly believe that the woman in front of him had once been the young girl of his childish attraction. Now that she was grown up, he could barely pull his eyes off of her. Her eyes had only boldened with age, the sparkle that he had always liked still there and much brighter now than it had been in childhood.
He could only wonder what had brought such a sparkle to her eyes tonight, but there was nothing more he could do.
Then, he saw something on her dress that made him even more speechless. It was an old brooch, obviously faded with time and love. But, he recognized it immediately. It was the brooch he had given her so many years ago as a token of his promise to marry her.
He could not believe that she still had it, much less still wore it. It was so faded, old, and not quite what a woman of her age ought to have been wearing. Now, he only wondered if she noticed that he was standing there, speechless, and with a good reason to be so.
She walked towards him, and then he realized that she would be sitting next to him.
“Lord Lockhart! What… what a surprise,” she said, smiling. Her cheeks had colored softly, but the smile told him that she did not care.
“Hello! Miss Catherine… my… what a pleasure it is to see you again,” he replied. “I am glad to see that you are doing well after I left Town.” He could not take his eyes off of her.
“I am doing… I am doing very well, thank you,” she managed to say something more before taking her seat.
As Nicolas sat down, he realized that his heart had started to pound. It was the same kind of reaction that she used to get out of him when they were kids.
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