A Diamond for His Grace



Evelina Darlington brushed back some wild strands of wavy, brown hair that had fallen in her face as she bent over one of her trunks. She stood upright, wrinkling her dainty nose, as the thin layer of dust she had disturbed on opening it rose into the air. She rubbed at her cheek to soothe the itching produced by the rogue strands of hair and sighed. She had never liked packing, but she always found it especially difficult whenever she was leaving a place where she had enjoyed staying. And she had very much enjoyed the seminary school which she had been attending but now had to leave.

“Milady,” said a voice from the doorway.

Evelina turned to see her lady’s maid, Grace, entering the room, hiding a smile behind her hand. The smile turned into a giggle when Evelina turned to face the maid.

“What is it?” Evelina asked.

Grace laughed again.

“Perhaps you should allow me to do my job and do that for you,” she said, approaching the trunk, “and go to the vanity and see for yourself.”

Perplexed, Evelina crossed the room to the vanity on the opposite wall and looked in the mirror. At once, she saw what had tickled her maid so. When she had scratched the itch on her cheek, she had managed to smudge herself with some of the dust that had caused her nose to twitch. The smudge went from her nose all the way up to the corner of one baby blue eye. The dirt had made a gray-brown stain on her porcelain skin, making it look as though some cosmetic product of an unfortunate color had been poorly applied. Evelina could not help giggling as well, as she reached for a cloth, dipped it in the nearby washbasin, and gently wiped away the dust. Once her skin was clean, she turned back to Grace and smiled sheepishly.

“I suppose you think me quite hopeless, Grace, don’t you?” she asked.

Grace nodded knowingly.

“Quite so, milady,” she said, smiling back. “Now, if you would like to move aside, I shall finish the job for you.”

Evelina giggled again and nodded, discarding the damp cloth. She took a final glance at her reflection, which showed a young woman of above medium height, with an hourglass figure, and a head of thick, curling, brown hair, then she abandoned the vanity and sat on the edge of the bed. Grace went about the packing, while her mistress settled into her spot and gave occasional instructions about what should go where. Grace had been her maid for several years, and she had come to think of her as more than just a maid—she was a friend, too.

“Tell me,” she said, as Grace worked diligently at her errand, “is there any news from my father?”

Grace stood abruptly upright and shoved her hand into her apron pocket.

“Oh, dear,” she said, blushing. “I almost forgot. I have brought you his latest letter. Apparently, it was delivered to the manor and forwarded here. I wonder why he should have sent it there rather than here? But perhaps he explains it himself.”

The maid fished out the letter and handed it to Evelina, who took it eagerly. Since Grace had already packed up her letter opener, she gently pried open the envelope with a fingernail, then slipped the piece of stationary free of it with a delicate tug. Excited, she unfolded the letter and began to read.

Dearest Evelina,

I hope this letter finds you well. I did not know exactly where this letter would find you, as I could not, for the life of me, remember on which day you would be returning to London from Bath. So, I decided I would send it to the manor and trust it would find its way to you through our wonderful staff.

I know you were expecting to find me waiting for you there, as we had discussed, but there has been a change of plans. I will be unable to return for another few weeks, because I must attend another unexpected meeting. I apologize for the delay, dear daughter. I miss you dearly, and I promise to return as soon as I can. Unfortunately, however, the delay means I will not be back in London in time for your debut.

Do not fret, though, my dear. I have written to your aunt, and she has happily agreed to take you in at Searington Manor until I return. She has also taken up the responsibility of hosting your coming-out ball, as well as finalizing all the plans and necessary arrangements, so that your debut need not be postponed. She is thrilled about the opportunity, and she and your cousins are very excited about your arrival.

Once again, I am truly sorry. But I know you will be safe and happy at Searington Manor with your aunt, uncle, and cousins until I return. I love you with my whole heart, Evelina, and I am so very proud of you. Providence has decreed that your debut will be a great success, and I very much look forward to hearing all about it when I come home. Be well, and be happy, my daughter.

All my love,


Evelina slowly folded the letter and sighed. She was glad her father seemed to be having success with his business endeavors in the Far East, but she was disappointed to learn he would not be in attendance at her debut ball. She had dreamt of her coming-out party since she was a girl, and every time, she had imagined her father at her side, waiting to formally introduce her to all of London’s high society. Now, however, he would not be able to be there. Though she was glad her aunt was willing to help her, she could not help feeling sad at her father’s absence at such an important time in her life.

“Is everything all right, milady?” Grace asked, sitting on the bed beside Evelina and putting a hand on her shoulder.

Evelina nodded, giving the maid a sad smile.

“Yes,” she said, “but Father will not be able to attend my ball.”

The maid listened sympathetically as Evelina briefly explained everything her father had said in the letter. When her mistress was finished, Grace put an arm around her shoulder and smiled warmly.

“That is disappointing news, indeed, milady,” she said. “But try not to be too disheartened. It sounds as though it will be a lovely time, staying with your aunt and cousins. And a young woman should never lose her excitement for her debut. You will only ever have one, and I believe you should do your best to enjoy every moment from now until the ball, no matter what.”

Evelina nodded slowly, rereading her father’s letter. It was clear he was truly regretful at missing the ball and clearer that he wanted her to have the party he felt she deserved. And she loved her father dearly. She owed it to him to make the best of the party despite his absence and enjoy the time she would be able to spend beforehand with her aunt Hazel and her daughters.

“You are right, of course,” Evelina said, smiling gratefully at her maid. “Should we continue with the packing, then?”

Grace smiled fondly and nodded.

“Right away, milady,” she said.


A few days later, Evelina had completed the last of her education and said her final goodbyes to all the friends she had made at the seminary. There were many tears shed in the following days. Some were of sadness at leaving behind all the young women she had met at the school, while others were of joy at the thought of returning to her family. Soon enough, the day for her to reside to London arrived, and she and Grace boarded the landaulet which would take them both to the home of the Viscount and Viscountess of Searington.

They had arisen early that morning, but Evelina found herself too excited to nap during the journey. In truth, she was a little nervous. She had not seen her aunt, uncle, or cousins since well before she had left for Bath. Though she knew they were expecting her and excited about her stay, she hoped arranging and hosting her ball would not be too taxing for them. The last thing she wanted was to inconvenience or burden her family in any way. She loved them all, and she did not want to wear out her welcome or become an obligation to them in any way.

However, when they arrived at Searington Manor, Evelina soon realized that was unlikely to happen. Outside the stately old manor, in the middle of the perfectly manicured grounds at the front of the mansion, stood her two cousins, Helena and Henrietta. As soon as they saw the landaulet making its way up the long, winding drive to the manor, they hurried to the large ponderous wooden front door and rushed inside. They returned moments later, just as the coach was rolling to a stop, with both their parents accompanying them. Everyone was smiling, and Evelina felt overjoyed to see them.

As she prepared to step out of the carriage, her uncle hurried over to help her down. Then, once she was on the ground, he hugged her tightly.

“It is so wonderful to see you, dear niece,” he said.

Evelina enthusiastically returned his embrace.

“Hello, Uncle Stanley,” she said warmly, kissing him on the cheek. “Thank you so much for taking me in while Father is away.”

The viscount chuckled.

“It is hardly an imposition,” he said. “You are a delightful company, and we all love you dearly. We are happy to have you here.”

“Positively delighted,” a voice said from behind him, followed by two other sets of arms nearly squeezing the breath out of Evelina. The viscount laughed and gently squirmed out of the three women’s embrace. He stood back and laughed once more, as his daughters smothered Evelina with affection.

“Hello, Henrietta,” Evelina wheezed, addressing the one who had spoken to her. “And hello, Helena.”

“We have missed you so,” Helena said, giving her cousin a big kiss on the cheek.

“Come now, girls,” the viscountess said, approaching the four of them slowly but smiling just as warmly. “Let us let poor Evelina get inside before we bombard her so.”

Evelina turned toward her aunt and walked into her waiting arms.

“It is so wonderful to see you all,” she said.

The viscountess squeezed her just as firmly as her daughters had.

“Likewise, my darling,” she said. “And we are thrilled about hosting your debut ball. Come inside, dear. We have tea and cakes prepared, and we shall have the servants move your things up into your quarters.”

With that, the family, still hovering close to Evelina, made their way back inside the manor. As Evelina moved through the well-polished halls, the walls of which were adorned with many old paintings of landscapes and portraits of all the viscounts and viscountess’s past, Evelina felt warmth radiating throughout her body. If there was any place where she felt at home beside her father’s mansion, it was here, at Searington Manor. Everyone talked excitedly around her, and it was clear they all were, indeed, thrilled to have her. She sighed with relief and happiness. Father was right, she thought as she followed her family to the drawing-room. This will be a marvelous time.


“Evelina,” Lady Searington called, just as Evelina was opening the door to her bedchambers.

“Coming, Aunt Hazel,” she called back, closing the door firmly behind her and making her way to the staircase. As she descended, she could see her aunt and cousins waiting for her at the bottom. The two younger women were talking excitedly to one another, and the viscountess was smiling up at her warmly.

“Are you ready to go, darling?” she asked.

Evelina nodded, blushing.

“Yes,” she said shyly. “Though, I can hardly believe it is finally happening.”

The viscountess embraced her, squeezing her gently.

“Well, believe it, my dear,” she said. “It is happening, and it is going to be a splendid coming-out ball, indeed. And you are certainly most deserving of such a grand affair.”

Evelina’s blush deepened at her aunt’s benevolent words. Though there had always been great love shown between herself and her aunt and cousins, she was still amazed at the warm reception she had received. She was endlessly grateful to her aunt for agreeing to see to her debut ball. It was an errand she had already undertaken for her daughters, and Evelina thought it was very gracious of her to take on her own coming-out event, as well. When all the hectic activity surrounding her ball was over, Evelina promised herself she would find a way to show her aunt how grateful she was to her. The viscountess released her niece, then gestured for Evelina and her daughters to follow her out to the waiting carriage.

A short time later, the coach came to a stop in front of the modiste’s shop. The store was large, much larger than the storefront implied. To Evelina, it looked as though the ceiling was so high it was almost impossible to reach, which was unusual for any shop in London. It looked to her like a room one might find in a royal palace. She guessed the modiste must be very well-to-do to have such an impressive interior to her shop. The treasure trove of dresses, fabrics, ribbons, and accessories which lay within were just as wonderous and marvelous to her as the shop itself. The rainbow of colors included everything from all the loveliest whites and pastels, which she loved dearly, to brilliant, bright shades of pink and yellow, and even deep, dark-reds, and blues. The fabrics were the finest Evelina had ever seen, including silk come straight from China and India, and the softest cottons from the West Indies and America to be bought in any shop anywhere in England. Evelina talked excitedly with her cousins about the dresses the modiste had chosen to display; everything from simple riding habits to the fanciest ballgowns was displayed for all the patrons of the shop to see. The window, too, was filled with dresses. Evelina thought one of them must be a wedding dress because of its extravagant elegance.

While the younger women continued their awestricken exploration of the shop, the viscountess briefed the modiste on the event for which they were shopping. The seamstress dutifully walked with the women as they browsed the selections, each picking out dresses they wanted to try on. Evelina knew her dress would be white, but she enjoyed trying on other dresses with her aunt and cousins. And it seemed the excitement of the women was contagious, as many of the other women in the shop stopped and admired the dresses which Evelina and the other three ladies chose, each murmuring their approbation. Some of the women even stopped to talk, as they recognized Evelina, and they wished her good luck at her debut. Evelina had forgotten how much she had missed socializing and shopping while she was away at the seminary school, and she was thrilled to be doing both once more.

While the modiste arranged for Evelina’s debut dress to be fitted for her, Henrietta and Helena browsed some fabrics hanging nearby. Though she was facing the mirror, Evelina closed her eyes, choosing to wait to see her dress on her when the modiste and her assistant had finished fitting it. She wanted to see the way she looked in it for the first time with her family, so she could be surprised, as well. Her stomach flitted as the modiste gently and carefully pinned and tucked, and Evelina could not help but smile.

At last, the modiste stepped back from her. Evelina slowly turned her back to the mirror and faced her cousins and aunts, who were apparently enthralled by some richly colored materials just in her line of sight. They had their backs to her, so she softly cleared her throat.

“What do you think?” she asked shyly.

The three women turned around, and they all gasped and covered their mouths with their hands simultaneously. They stared for a moment, none of them moving or speaking. Then, suddenly, her cousins rushed up to her together, each of them grabbing onto one of her arms and gently spinning her, so she was once more facing the mirror. As soon as she saw her reflection, she saw why they had reacted in such a manner.

She had seen the pattern from which her dress was to be designed, and she had chosen the silk material from which it would be made. But she had yet to see how it would look as a completed dress. Now, she stared in awe as she stood wearing the near-finished product. It looked like something the queen or a princess might wear, with its white billowing skirts and full sleeves. The beading was intricate, and the white ribbons flowed down her back, tied together in a delicate bow just at her lower back. Her white gloves had matching beads running all the way up to her elbow, and they were so light, they felt as though she was not wearing gloves at all. She did, indeed, look like royalty.

“Oh, Evelina,” Helena breathed, “you look so beautiful.”

“Like a princess,” Henrietta said, echoing Evelina’s thoughts.

Evelina blushed, feeling every bit a princess. She could hardly believe how lovely her gown looked upon her, and she was filled with nervous excitement for her ball.

“We are all finished, milady,” the modiste said, startling Evelina. She looked down at the woman, surprised.

“Already?” she asked. “You work very quickly.”

The modiste bowed her head modestly.

“You made it very easy, milady,” she said.

“Well, my dears,” the viscountess said, smiling fondly at her daughters and niece. “We must finish up our fittings and return home. There are many preparations still to make before this evening.”

Henrietta and Helena chattered excitedly as the modiste helped Evelina out of her gown and had it packaged up for her. Then, once she was back in her day dress, the modiste made just as short of work of fitting her aunt and cousins into their dresses. While theirs were not as elaborate as hers, each looked ravishing in their soft-blue, green, and lilac dresses, respectively. As she admired them, Evelina thought there could be no women so beautiful gracing her debut that evening than these three. When, at last, they had gathered their finished dresses and begun their trip back to the manor, Evelina felt she might burst with joy and pride in her family.

However, there were, indeed, many preparations remaining when they arrived home. The viscountess set her daughters the errand of overseeing the refreshment arrangements, and she and Evelina overlooked the last of the decorating. As it was a debutante’s ball, there were many white ribbons and flowers, the arrangements punctuated by pale pink carnations. The chairs being lined up for the guests to occupy were also white, with pale pink ribbons streaming in loose curls from their backs. And the ballroom was to be illuminated by a crystal chandelier and several brand-new, bright silver candelabras, set atop tables decorated with more white and pink flowers. As she watched everything slowly coming together as it would be seen by the guests later that evening when she made her official debut into society, Evelina’s heart leaped with joy. She could hardly wait for the party to begin.

A few hours later, the viscountess embraced her, then shooed her up to her bedchambers, calling for Grace to attend to Evelina in her chambers immediately. Evelina squeezed her aunt tightly before going off to get ready as she instructed.

“Thank you, Aunt Hazel,” Evelina whispered, kissing the viscountess on the cheek.

Hazel released her and smiled fondly.

“It is truly a pleasure, my dear niece,” she said. “Now, go. The guests will be arriving in no time.”

Evelina nodded, grinning from ear to ear as she hurried up to her bedchambers, where Grace awaited her.

“Are you ready, milady?” Grace asked, affecting a casual tone, while her eyes sparkled with both amusement and fond emotion.

Evelina giggled and nodded.

“I most certainly am,” she said.

A few short hours later, Evelina was dressed in her princess-like white gown, with matching gloves, and her brand-new, white satin, beaded slippers. Her medium-brown hair was styled to perfection, with fashionable ringlets arranged just so around her face. And around her neck hung the diamond necklace her mother wore the day she had married Evelina’s father. The necklace had been in her mother’s family for many generations, and her father had become quite teary-eyed on presenting it to her before he had departed for the Far East.

“I believe you are ready, milady,” Grace said, at last, stepping back to allow Evelina to look in the mirror. Evelina put a hand to her chest, amazed at how beautiful she looked.

“You have done a wonderful job, Grace,” she said.

The maid blushed and waved her hand.

“You are too kind,” she said. “Shall I go and fetch your uncle? The guests will be arriving at any moment.”

As though punctuating her point, the sudden loud clatter of multiple horses’ hooves pulled Evelina’s attention to her bedchamber window. The first of the guests had just arrived, followed closely behind by several more. She watched in awe as they began exiting their respective coaches and following the butler up to the grand entrance to the manor. She could hardly believe they were all coming there in her honor. She sighed, a mixture of emotions flooding her. She was very excited, indeed. However, she could not help wishing her parents were there to witness her debut. But she knew this was her chance to make them both proud. Even if they could not be there to see it, they were forever in her heart. And she was forever in theirs.

The evening passed by in a blur. From the minute her uncle escorted her into the ballroom and she was formally introduced to society, all eyes were on her. Even throughout dinner, she could sense people looking at her with curiosity and interest, no doubt trying to guess at the success she might have in finding a suitor. It was apparent her father had spared no expense on the event, as well. The meal was the finest she had ever eaten, consisting of a grand, exotic main course, the name of which she was too shy to ask, and ending with the sweetest carved ice and pastries she had ever tasted. The orchestra was one of the largest she could ever recall seeing at any social function, and it played wonderful tunes with skill and passion.

By the end of the night, Evelina was exhausted. She had felt the eyes of gentlemen on her, and it had been clear many of them were anxious to share a dance with her, but her dance card had quickly filled and some were disappointed. She had never experienced such attention, and she hardly knew what to make of it. But once in bed, her fatigue lulled her into a deep, pleasant sleep before she could spend a great deal of time dwelling on the events of the evening.

The next morning, the whole family was buzzing with the excitement of the previous night. Her aunt and uncle discussed how many of the gentlemen would be seeking her affections, and her cousins went on and on about how beautiful she had looked, and how grand the ball had been. Her mind was still spinning when breakfast ended, and she had to slip away, as all the excitement was beginning to overwhelm her. She decided she would spend some time at the pianoforte in her aunt and uncle’s drawing-room. She loved to play the pianoforte, and her aunt had taught her well; she felt it would be just the thing to help her sort her dizzying thoughts about her debut ball and the upcoming season.

She was halfway through her second tune, a classical piece by Beethoven, when Helena burst into the room, startling her. Her cousin rushed over to her, waving something frantically in the air and speaking incoherently. Evelina rose from the bench, reaching out to her cousin and taking her gently by the shoulders.

“What is it?” she asked worriedly. “Calm down. I cannot understand you.”

Helena fanned herself with the paper she was holding, which, Evelina could now see, was a copy of the London Times. She could also see Helena was grinning from ear to ear, not in a panic at all, as Evelina first thought when her cousin had barged in.

“You have been named the Diamond of the Season, Evelina!” Helena cried, thrusting the paper into Evelina’s hands.

“What?” Evelina murmured, scanning the page until she saw the article to which her cousin was referring. Her cousin was right. The article described how beautiful she had looked at her debut ball and about how hers would be the most highly sought-after company throughout the coming season. Her mind reeled. What had she done to deserve such an honor? And how would she manage the expectations that would now be placed on her, along with such a title?

She had very little time to dwell on the matter, however. Just then, the butler entered, announcing the arrival of a potential suitor. Evelina nodded numbly, barely registering the gentleman’s name as she struggled to compose herself. Perhaps, when he had left, she could speak with her aunt and seek her guidance. But there would be no such opportunity. The first nobleman to call on her was to be only the first of more than ten prospective suitors that day. The drawing-room quickly filled up with flowers from each of them, so that the servants had difficulty keeping up. And all the while, Evelina could only think one thing: Mother, I wish you were here.


Richard Weston leaned on the oaken mantelpiece above the hearth of Deansbrook Manor’s parlor with one hand, swirling a snifter of brandy with his other. His eyes were locked firmly on the portrait mounted just above the fireplace as he slowly sipped his drink, his fingers resting on the slick, light-brown wood beneath them. His father, the previous Duke of Deansbrook, had had the hearth remodeled shortly before his death three years prior, and since then, it had fast become Richard’s favorite place to ruminate.

 Looking at the portrait of the late duke was a great comfort to him. It had been painted just two years before the late duke’s death, before he had fallen ill, and in the background behind the duke was a full view of the front of the gardens of Deansbrook Manor. Whenever Richard looked at it, he felt as though his father were still there with him, if only for a few brief moments.

With a sigh, Richard reluctantly turned, so his back leaned against the hearth, and he could no longer see his father’s portrait. He gazed leisurely around the parlor, taking another sip of his brandy.

The rest of the parlor had been remodeled along with the hearth, once again, largely his father’s doing. However, it had been done at Richard’s suggestion. It had been his idea to transform the hearth from the dark, almost black wood, which had been part of the manor since his ancestors’ time, into the light oak against which he now leaned. His father had agreed and had liked his idea so much, he had left much of the planning to Richard. The late duke had called it Richard’s first test in running the manor as a duke, and Richard could not help feeling a tingle of excitement back then. He had taken on the errand with gusto, and the look of pride and affection on his father’s face when he saw what Richard had done had been one of the best moments of his life.

“I dare say you have passed your first test with flying colors, my son,” the late duke had said, clapping Richard on the shoulder.

Richard often replayed that day in his mind when he stood before his father’s portrait. He had admitted to himself as he stood there, admiring the work done to the parlor, that he, too, was proud of his ability to oversee the remodeling. But as he finished the last of his drink, he sighed once more. I would trade it all a million times over if only I could have you back, Father, he thought sadly.

As he often did when he stood in the parlor, he recalled the day his father died. His illness had come on suddenly more than a year prior, but the late duke had battled it until the day it finally took him from their family. His father had spoken to his wife and Richard’s young sister before finally asking to talk with Richard privately. Richard had been expecting it, as he waited for his mother and sister to leave his father’s bedside. However, he had not expected it to be the very last time he spoke to his father.

He bit his lip as he recalled the urgency with which his father had spoken to him. It had not been about any business ventures or anything to do with the duchy. Rather, it had been about Richard’s future. Specifically, about his choosing wife.

“You must make me two promises, my boy,” the fading duke had rasped, gripping Richard’s hand with his own weak, fragile one.

Richard had nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

“Promise me you will marry and continue our family name,” the duke had said. “But also promise me you will marry only for love. Do not marry for convenience or simply for the sake of bearing heirs. For, if you do not marry for love, the rest is for naught. You will be unhappy and unfulfilled, and it will weigh on you for the rest of your days. Please, son, you must make me these promises.”

Richard had nodded and agreed, eager to say anything to ease his dying father’s mind, so his soul would rest. And he intended to do his best to uphold the promises he had made. But he also knew marrying for love was not common within the ton. Marriages were usually little more than business transactions, usually arranged by the fathers of the younger generation, often serving merely as a means to an end. And that end, as his father had said, was to carry on family lineages by producing heirs to the respective noble titles of the highest families in the land.

However, Richard also knew marrying for love was possible. It was, after all, his parents who had taught him that. Throughout his entire life, the real, genuine love that existed between his parents had been very apparent for all to see. Richard and his sister Faye especially had seen the deep connection and affection his parents had between them. It was something Richard had always admired and appreciated, but also something which had come about through a combination of luck and time. He had never taken the time to consider whether he would be as fortunate as his father in marrying a woman he truly loved. Was there any possibility of that happening for him? Or had he simply made one promise to his father he would end up breaking merely to keep the other?

“If I am to be so lucky, I need your guidance, Father,” Richard murmured to himself.

“Have you suddenly developed the habit of talking to yourself, Richard?” came a light, musical voice from the entrance to the parlor.

Richard whirled around to see Faye and his mother, accompanied by a very amused-looking butler.

“My lord duke,” he said, the humor clear in his voice. “Her Grace the Dowager Duchess and Lady Faye have arrived.”

Richard chuckled, giving his head a gentle, affectionate shake.

“Oh, I hadn’t noticed,” he said, smiling at the butler. “Tell them to enter, if you please.”

As he spoke, Faye abandoned her spot beside her mother and rushed over to her brother. She threw her arms around Richard, and he promptly picked her up and twirled her around. She giggled, and Richard was suddenly flooded with emotion and love for his sister.

Faye squeezed him so tightly, he could not suppress a cough. After he had endured a whole minute of the firm embrace, she released her brother and gave him a big, loud kiss on the cheek.

“How I have missed you, Brother,” she said, smiling sweetly at him.

“And I have missed you, little sister,” he said.

The dowager duchess cleared her throat loudly. Richard looked up to see her smiling, watching her children fondly, her hands clasped gently together in front of her. Richard pushed away from Faye and approached his mother, his arms wide open.

“And I have missed you, as well, Mother,” he said.

The dowager duchess hugged him almost as fiercely as her daughter.

“I certainly have missed you, my son,” she said. “How have you been faring?”

Richard shrugged, too happy to see his mother and sister to burden them with his worrisome thoughts of a few minutes earlier.

“How could I have a single complaint when the two most beautiful women in all of London have just entered my parlor?” he asked.

The two women laughed, and they both embraced Richard once more.

“That was such a journey,” Faye said, putting her hand to her head in an intentionally overdramatic fashion. “Please, tell me you have something to eat. I am positively famished.”

Richard laughed. His sister had always loved to eat, especially during and after long trips.

“Of course not, Sister,” he said. “Why on earth should I have any food in my home?”

Faye narrowed her eyes at him and playfully put her hands on her hips.

“Very well,” she said. “Then you shall have to go and fetch something yourself.”

Richard laughed again, with their mother joining him. He shook his head and motioned for the two women to follow him.

“Of course, I have had a meal prepared, little sister,” he said, patting Faye gently on the top of her head. “In fact, it should be ready for us as we speak. Are we all ready to dine?”

The two women nodded vigorously. The dowager duchess took one of his arms, while Faye took the other. They exited the parlor and walked down the vestibule to the dining room, laughing, and holding one another tightly. Richard had expected their arrival and had, indeed, had a grand lunch prepared. And as he listened to the sweet sound of their laughter, he realized how much he had missed the two women.

The trio had just gotten themselves seated when Faye began clapping with excitement.

“I can hardly believe I will be officially debuting this season,” she said.

Richard’s heart stopped. He was well aware of his sister’s age, of course, and eighteen was a good age at which to debut. However, he struggled to reconcile with the fact the time for her debut ball had come around so quickly. He had put the thought so far in the back of his mind, it had almost ceased to exist at all. Now that it was on his mind, however, he had to swallow a wave of intense emotion.

“Yes,” he said, not looking at his sister. “Every young woman looks forward to her debut ball.”

Faye nodded enthusiastically.

“Mother has already promised me the most beautiful dress I can find,” she said. “And we are inviting everyone who is anyone in the ton.”

Richard nodded slowly. He was truly interested in his sister’s ball, and he had every intention of spending as much money as was necessary to ensure Faye got everything she wanted. But he could not shake the sadness in his heart. She was a diamond of the first water and her eyes were a shade lighter hazel-green than his. One day, far too soon, he would be expected to permit one of the many men Faye was sure to attract to court her. But there was a big part of him that was not yet ready to let her go. Nevertheless, he knew he must not let his big brother sentiments put a damper on his little sister’s ball or her excitement for the upcoming season.

“And I suppose I shall be paying for everything?” he said, feigning disdain at the very idea and giving an exaggerated sigh.

The two women giggled.

“Now, darling,” the dowager duchess said, “do not tease your sister. We all know there is nothing in all of London you would deny her.”

Richard blushed and chuckled.

“Do not be so sure,” he said mysteriously.

Faye gave a playful huff and crossed her arms.

“I dare you to tell that to my future husband,” she said, “whomever he may be.”

Richard’s heart stopped again. This time, however, instead of slipping back into his saddened and worried thoughts, he grinned impishly at his little sister.

“And who says you shall have a future husband?” he asked, giving their mother a small wink. “For I plan to duel with any man who dares to lay eyes on you.”

Faye gasped in horror.

“Oh, Brother,” she said, beginning to look almost as though she believed he might be as good as his word. “Surely, you would not do such a thing.”

The dowager duchess narrowed her eyes briefly at her son. Then, she turned to her daughter and gave her a reassuring smile.

“Of course he would not, darling,” she said. “Your brother is only teasing you. He loves you, and he would never wish to impede your happiness.”

Faye looked at Richard with wide eyes. A sideways glance told him his mother was practically glaring at him. He looked up at his little sister and gave her a reassuring smile.

“I promise you, I will not duel with every man who shows interest in you, sister dear,” he said. Only the ones who look at you in a distasteful way, he added silently. Which, he already anticipated, would be a great many of them.

Reassured and satisfied, Faye launched into more gushing about her ball and the upcoming season. Richard listened, teasing her lovingly several more times more as she spoke. He truly did love his sister, and he really would do anything to protect her. Truthfully, the thing he wanted most in the world was to keep her in his care for as long as possible. He could not seriously bring himself to consider the possibility of letting her go.

After lunch, Faye hurried off to take a walk in the gardens. The dowager duchess stopped Richard on the way to his study.

“You really should not tease your sister so,” she admonished. When Richard looked at her, however, she was giving him a knowing smirk.

“If it were up to me, she would wait another year to debut,” he admitted. “Or perhaps two.”

The dowager duchess shook her head.

“She would be practically a spinster by then, dear,” she said. “I know it is hard, but we must accept it is time for her to begin seeking a future of her own.” She paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. “I think it is time for both of you.”

Richard looked at his mother solemnly. He knew, without asking, what she meant.

“Would you truly wish to be rid of both of your children so soon?” he teased.

The duchess playfully tapped his shoulder and rolled her eyes. Then, she grew serious once more.

“Do you plan to seek a wife during this season?” she asked.

Richard took a deep, long breath. He thought carefully for a moment, realizing that, while he had often recalled his conversation with his father, he had given little real thought to actually seeking a wife.

“Yes,” he said, at last, surprising both himself and his mother. “I do believe I am at last ready to consider settling myself down.”

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