A Dilemma for the Duke
Amanda Collins tried to be positive as she put together a hearty breakfast of poached eggs, toasted bread, baked pork chops, and fresh fruit. She had to believe she could coax her father to eat, even though it had been days since he had so much as drank broth for her. She could not allow herself to think of what it might mean if he kept refusing food. She could not believe it was too late for him.
Practicing a cheery smile, she dished out the food onto two plates. She loaded up a silver tray with the meals, coffee, and freshly squeezed orange juice, then she walked slowly out of the kitchen and up the stairs to her father’s large, sparsely furnished bedroom.
She had been doing her best to keep the house clean after her days working at her father’s bookstore, so everything was shiny and spotless. One would hardly guess it was the sickroom of a rapidly deteriorating man. Until that was, they looked at the small bed in the far corner of the room.
Her heart ached as she looked at her father. He had always been a large man, very tall, and quite muscular in his younger days. But he had opened his bookstore, Barrett’s Books, shortly after Amanda was born, to keep him busy after his wife died just days after their daughter’s birth. The change to the sedentary lifestyle of a bookseller had caused him to grow ever rounder and soft as Amanda grew up.
Now, however, as influenza and pneumonia continued to plague him, he was rapidly wasting away, making him nearly unrecognizable to Amanda. His once thick, dark-brown hair had gone fully silver and started thinning. His brown eyes, which had once sparkled with good humor and affection, were now dull and all but lifeless. It was hard for her to not burst into tears each time she went to tend to her father.
As always, she forced herself to smile, glad to see her father was awake. She put down the tray of food on his bedside table, which was clear, except for the medicine the physician had given her father on his previous visit.
Hope rose when she checked her father for fever and found his temperature seemed to be only marginally elevated. She was further encouraged when the bookseller smiled, albeit weakly, at her.
“Good morning, Amanda,” he said. His voice was weak and raspy from constant fits of coughing, and there was a rattle in his chest. “How are you, my dear?”
Amanda beamed down at her father, kissing him on the forehead as she sat in the chair beside his bed.
“I am well, Father,” she said, pointing to the table beside her. “I brought us some breakfast. I thought I would eat with you today, before I go into the bookstore.”
Barrett Collins turned his head to glance at the food, then gave his daughter an apologetic look.
“That looks wonderful,” he said. “But I am afraid I do not feel at all like eating.”
Amanda’s hopes fell once more, but she tried to keep smiling.
“Well, I will still sit and eat with you,” she said, even though eating was the last thing she wanted to do. “Perhaps that will improve your appetite.”
Her father nodded, drawing in a loud, rattling breath.
“I just bet that it will, darling,” he wheezed.
Amanda tried to smile again, but she knew he did not believe his appetite would return. Still, she forced a bite of egg and some of the pork past her lips, pretending it did not taste like stationery to her.
“Are you going to the bookstore today, dear?” her father asked after a moment of heavy breathing.
Amanda froze in the midst of taking another bite. She had told him when she entered that she would be going there after breakfast. That he had forgotten so soon was a terrible sign.
She did not react, however. Instead, she smiled and nodded.
“Yes, I am,” she said. “Would you like me to bring you home a book to read while you rest?”
She was unsurprised when he shook his head. He had not tried to read in a fortnight, and she knew he never would again. Still, she could not help hoping.
“No, dear,” he said. “However, do not forget to unpack the new books that arrived yesterday.”
Amanda bit her lip to fight off tears. The books to which he was referring had come in just before he fell ill, months ago. She was due to receive another delivery in another week, but they had gotten no new ones in between, apart from community donations.
“Papa,” she began, then stopped herself. It would serve no purpose to point out that he was having trouble with his memory. It would only distress him, or lead to an argument. She would not spend any of the precious time she had left with her father bickering about whether she’d told him something or not, nor about a silly shipment of books. “I will make sure all the books are taken care of.”
Barrett nodded again.
“You will do a reading soon, won’t you?” he asked.
Amanda blanched at the question. Being very shy, she detested doing readings. The few she’d had to do when her father could not be at the bookstore himself had been trying enough. But she could not upset him by saying that, either.
“Indeed, I will do my best, as time allows,” she said vaguely.
Her father turned his head to look at her, and for a moment, Amanda wondered if he could really see her. His gaze was unfocused, and his eyes appeared to be cloudy and vacant.
Before she could ask if he was all right, his arm began to flail, and he simultaneously began coughing violently. His hand waved wildly, as though trying to grasp onto something that was not there.
Frightened, Amanda set aside her practically untouched plate of food. It fell to the floor, but she could not take time to worry about it just then. She put one hand on her father’s spasming chest and the other on his face, which had just become three shades paler, despite his horrible coughing.
“Papa?” she asked, choking back tears. “What do you need? Tell me how to help you.”
Barrett shook his head, gurgling as though he was choking. Amanda moved her hands behind her father’s back and, using all her strength, pushed until his back was raised off the bed. Straining, she held him up just long enough to shift his pillows so that his upper body would be slightly more elevated when he leaned back against them.
Her strength was spent, and her father fell back against the pillows limply. But a moment later, his coughing began to subside, and, after another minute, it ceased. The horrible rattle in his chest remained, but he gradually caught his breath.
“Please, forgive me,” she said. “Are you all right? I didn’t mean to just let go of you.”
Her father smiled, very weakly, and reached for her hand.
“I believe that, had you not, I would still be coughing,” he croaked.
Amanda bit her lip.
“What can I do to help you, Papa?” she asked again. “Do you need a damp cloth or a drink of water?”
Barrett shook his head again. He was looking at her, but his eyes were glassy, and he appeared to also be looking through her.
“I need you to listen to me, Daughter,” he said, pausing to wheeze between each word.
Amanda shook her head. She knew what was happening. But she foolishly believed that, if her father could not speak his final important words to her, he would not leave her.
“Rest first, Papa,” she said, her heart breaking. “I will stay home instead of opening the bookstore, and you can tell me what you wish to say when you can breathe a little better.”
Barrett looked at his daughter with rueful eyes.
“I must say this now, dear,” he said. “I do not know how much time I have left.”
The tears forming in his eyes told Amanda that he knew he was fading. She swallowed hard, forcing down more protests. No matter how difficult it was for her, she needed to let him have peace by telling her his final words.
“All right, Papa,” she said. “I will listen.”
Her father nodded, still struggling to breathe. He tried to squeeze her hand, but he had no strength left. So, Amanda did the squeezing for him, gripping onto his hand as though that alone would save him.
“You and the bookstore have always been my entire life,” he said. “Leaving you now seems most unfair, even to me. But it is what must be, I am afraid. However, I shall not rest until you promise me something.”
Amanda tightened her jaw. Her father leaving her was, indeed, unfair, and she wished that he would not talk in such a way. But she was a grown woman. She could not live in a delusion that her father would recover. She needed to be strong for him and hear what he wanted to say.
“Yes, Papa,” she said, sniffling. “I will promise you anything.”
The book merchant nodded again, wheezing hard.
“Firstly, I want you to promise that you will take good care of yourself. Aunt Ingrid will be happy to take you in, should you need it. And your cousin, Gregory, would make an excellent guardian for you, as he has always loved you like his own sister.”
Amanda nodded. She loved her aunt and cousin dearly, and she knew they would take her in. And they might need to if she ended up having to sell the house. In truth, she did not know if she wanted to continue living in the house she had shared with her father. The memories would haunt her too much.
“I will turn to them, if I need them,” she said. “I promise.”
Her father gave her a weak smile.
“Very good,” he said. “And my only other promise is regarding the bookstore. I want you to keep it going. It will provide you with the income you need, and it will keep my dream alive. I know I am asking a great deal, for you to run it all by yourself. But I also know that you are capable. Will you do this for me?”
Amanda squeezed his hand again. She loved the bookstore just as much as he did. She would not give up the store for anything in the world.
“Of course, Papa,” she said. “I love the bookstore too. I could never dream of selling it.”
Barrett gave her the last smile he would ever give.
“And do not forget to keep the readings going,” he said. “You are very good at those, and patrons seem to love it.”
Amanda’s heart thudded in her chest. But she could no more object than she had when her father had mentioned those damnable readings previously.
“I will do my best,” she said.
At first, she thought her answers had satisfied her father because he fell silent. But a moment later, she realized that he was not moving because he was not breathing.
“Papa?” she asked, jumping from her chair, and shaking him. “Papa!”
After a long moment, the merchant took a ragged breath. But his eyes fluttered shut, and he remained unresponsive to her continued attempts to rouse him.
Panic flooded her, and she reverted to her childish mentality. She needed to do something. It could not be too late to help her father. She refused to believe it. She hurriedly scribbled a letter to the physician and posted it immediately. Then, she paced in front of the doorway for the rest of the morning, praying the man would get the letter and come.
When the knock came, she screamed, covering her mouth with her hand as she opened the door.
“Thank goodness,” she said, ushering the doctor in. “I was worried you would not get my letter in time.”
The physician looked perplexed and shook his head.
“I never got any letter,” he said. “I told your father last week that I would call in today and see how he is.”
Amanda nodded slowly. She realized her father had not told her of the physician’s visit because he had not expected to still be alive. Struggling to hold back her tears, she ushered him up the stairs and to her father’s bedroom.
As she paced in front of the bedroom door, Amanda prayed. She prayed to her mother that she not be ready to be with her husband again. She prayed to the heavens not to take him from her just yet. And she prayed that the physician would miraculously discover the solution to her father’s condition and tell her that, in a few weeks, her father would be good as new.
But when the physician exited the room, his expression was grave, and he shook his head.
“I am so sorry, Miss Collins,” he said. “Your father has passed. There is nothing I can do for him.”
Amanda sobbed, covering her face with her hands. That meant he had died shortly after she’d left his room earlier. She cried, fighting to regain control of herself so she could speak to the physician again.
“What do I do?” she asked. She had never planned for the moment which now lay before her. She had no idea what to do.
“I will give you a moment alone with him,” he said. “And then, I will come in and note some details for the records. I will also send them to the coroner myself.”
Amanda nodded silently. She prayed then for the numbness of shock, but it never came.
Amanda approached her father’s now lifeless body. His skin was still warm, so she leaned down and gave him one final kiss on the forehead.
“Goodbye, Papa,” she sobbed, stroking his face.
Though his eyes could no longer see, one single final tear slipped from the corner of one and rolled down his cheek. She wiped it away, hurrying from the room so the physician could finish what he had to do and then send the details to the coroner.
She would carry on with the bookstore, as she had promised him. Keeping his legacy alive in such a way was the only connection she had left to him. But how would she ever learn to live without him?
Early Spring, 1817
Amanda glanced up at the clock above the cashbox in the bookstore, gasping at the time. Though it had been a slow morning, it was already almost noon. She would be doing a book reading at half past twelve, the first since her father’s death. She sighed, wondering if she had made the right decision by bringing back the readings.
Patrons had been asking when she was going to do another one, and she had always just smiled and given vague answers. Truthfully, she had always had difficulty speaking in front of large groups of strangers, and her shyness had only worsened in the years since her father’s death.
However, he had begged her to consider continuing them just before he passed, and her guilt was rapidly outweighing her discomfort. She had promised him to continue with the readings, but, until now, she had failed to do so.
A week prior, however, she had forced herself to put an advert in the London Times, announcing that she was bringing them back. She had told herself that it would be a good way to keep her father’s memory alive. Now, she wished she hadn’t.
Quickly, she fetched a cloth and a sponge, made a bucket full of soapy water, and ran to the front windows of the shop. She hoped to have them clean and dry before the patrons began to arrive.
She had not intended to put off cleaning them for so long, but the early spring morning had had a sharp chill in the air when she arrived to open the store that day, and she had wanted to wait until it warmed up.
The grand sign over the storefront still read Barrett’s Books, although the shop had now belonged to Amanda for three years. Each time she saw the sign, she smiled, though her heart was still filled with grief. She had considered changing the name to Collins’ Books, but she could not yet bring herself to do it.
Somewhere in her mind, she believed that doing so would remove the last of her father’s memory from the collective mind of London. Besides, she felt it would always be his bookstore, even though he had willed it to her. Perhaps, one day, she would change the name. Today, however, she needed to overcome the challenge of getting through a simple book reading.
She hoped Gregory, her cousin, would be coming, as he’d promised he would. He and his mother had taken her in after her father’s death; her aunt loved Amanda like a daughter, while Gregory saw her as a beloved sister.
Amanda had not known her mother, as she’d died shortly after Amanda was born. Feeling like a daughter to her aunt Ingrid was one thing that had helped her through the grief of losing her father.
She was relieved when it only took twenty minutes to clean the windows and door. That left her plenty of time to wipe down the sitting area’s light-oak tables and chairs, and the black pedestal she would sit on while she read.
She sighed as she stared at the podium, feeling her nerves try to take hold of her. Do it for Father, she thought, trying to be brave. Make him proud.
She was putting away her cleaning supplies just as the first patrons entered the store. She hurried back to the front door, greeting each one and leading them to the small sitting area. She cursed herself as she remembered how her father used to help her bake cookies for the readings, and she made a mental note to bring some the following week. If that was, she could force herself to host another reading.
The room filled up surprisingly quickly, even though she had not done a reading in years. Perhaps it was because she hadn’t. In any case, she was stunned to see how many people had come to the reading.
Gregory was not there, and she could not help feeling disappointed. She thought she saw Lily Brown, her best friend, at the back of the crowd. But when the young woman turned to face her, she saw it was not Lily after all.
She was on her own, and she prayed not to humiliate herself. This is for Papa, she reminded herself. Perhaps if she pretended she was only reading to her father, it would be easier.
Taking a deep breath, she opened her book of Shakespeare’s works, trying to think only of her father as she read, choosing the poem The Phoenix and the Turtle:
Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precursor of the fiend,
Augur of the fever’s end,
To this troop come thou not near!
From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather’d king:
Keep the obsequy so strict.
Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.
And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender makest
With the breath thou givest and takest,
‘Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.
Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
So they loved, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
‘Twixt the turtle and his queen:
But in them it was a wonder.
So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phoenix’ sight;
Either was the other’s mine.
Property was thus appalled,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded,
That it cried, How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love hath reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain.
Whereupon it made this threne
To the phoenix and the dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As a chorus to their tragic scene.
Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclosed in cinders lie.
Death is now the phoenix’ nest
And the turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
Leaving no posterity:
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Truth may seem, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.
The room had gone eerily quiet as the patrons listened intently to her reading. When she finished, however, it erupted into a wave of polite applause. She smiled, more from the relief of having finished the reading than anything else. But she was glad the patrons were pleased. Her father would be proud.
Many of the customers stayed after the reading. Some merely wanted to praise her for how well she’d done, which was overwhelming. But several bought books, including a copy of the book containing the poem she’d read.
Even though business was still hardly booming, it was the busiest she had seen the store in quite some time. She was happy, though she wished her father could have seen it. Perhaps he had been right. Perhaps doing the readings was the way to bring in more business more frequently. She just did not know if she could do it.
By the end of the day, she was utterly exhausted. She felt relieved when it was finally time to hang up the closed sign on the door. She locked the door and went back to the reading area, ensuring that everything was tidy and ready for the following day. Then, she went back to the desk, wiping it clean and stacking the books she would need to reshelve the following morning.
Her last task of the day was always counting the money in the cash box. She kept a piece of stationery by the box to record her sales.
As she counted, she marveled at how much she had made that day. Perhaps she would have enough at the end of that month to add to the little savings jar she had started after her father died.
She was halfway through counting when she heard a light knocking at the door. She quickly wrote down the amount so she would not forget. Then, she turned to the door, smiling as she saw who was waiting. Gregory stood there, giving her a wave and a bright grin.
He was there to walk her home, as he did every evening, and she was glad to see him. She went to the door, unlocking it and ushering him inside.
“I was just finishing counting the money,” she said. “It is taking me forever today.”
Gregory gave her a teasing elbow.
“Did you forget how to count today, Cousin?” he asked.
Amanda giggled, giving him a playful shove.
“I almost forgot how to count so high,” she said. “The store was incredibly busy after the reading this afternoon.”
Gregory gave her a sheepish look.
“I hope you can forgive me for missing it,” he said. “I was caught up at the construction site. We ran into some major complications today, and the boss insisted that we all stay late, to work through them and be ready to compensate for them first thing on the morrow.”
Amanda smiled at her cousin.
“Do not worry, Gregory,” she said. “I will be doing many more readings, from the looks of it.”
Her cousin grinned at her.
“It went that well?” he asked.
“I did tell you that I am still counting the money, didn’t I?” she asked.
“I suppose you did,” he said. “Well, I am glad to hear it. But are you sure you can handle doing more readings? I know how nervous they make you.”
Amanda thought for a moment. She wanted to say that, with his support, she could do anything. But that would only make him feel worse for missing the reading that day. So instead, she simply shrugged.
“I think Father would love anything that brings the store more business,” she said. “And, to make him proud, I believe I can do it.”
Gregory gave her a warm smile.
“You are the strongest, bravest woman I know,” he said.
Amanda raised her eyebrows.
“Including your own mother?” she asked. “I would say she is very strong and brave for having raised you.”
Gregory feigned being horribly wounded at her words. He put both his hands on his chest and looked at her with wide, puppy dog eyes.
“You have broken my heart, Cousin,” he said, laughing as he spoke.
Amanda laughed along with him.
“Is that why you can’t say that with a straight face?” she asked.
Gregory caved in, guffawing loudly, and slapping his knee.
“All right,” he conceded. “You and my mother are the two strongest and bravest women I know. Now, can we go home? I am famished.”
Amanda giggled again and nodded.
“I will just finish counting, and we can leave,” she said.
She finished counting, smiling as she saw the final totals for the day. Then, she met her cousin at the door, enjoying the fresh spring breeze as she stepped outside. She and Gregory locked up the store, and then began their slow stroll home.
As they walked, they savored the scents of the fresh spring flowers, and cooed over the sight of many young birds, which had clearly just learned to fly. Amanda felt more alive than she had since her father died, and she was grateful.
When they reached her aunt’s home, she could smell the delicious aromas drifting from the kitchen.
“Mother is the best cook,” Gregory said, practically salivating.
“Indeed, she is,” she agreed.
Charles Ashton’s brow was furrowed with deep concentration as he pored over the building plans in front of him. His father had been a shrewd businessman and an excellent architect, having designed each of the business buildings he owned and operated by himself.
Charles had only learned how to read and follow his father’s blueprints in the four years since his father had died, when he inherited the Ashtonshire dukedom. Once he understood them, he developed a new appreciation for his father’s work. He had overseen the completion of three buildings which his father had been working on, and each was more impressive than the last.
The plans for the seaside hotel, which lay before him, were by far the best Charles had seen. His father had raved about his dreams for that hotel until the day he died, and Charles had every intention of making his dream a reality.
“Your Grace,” the butler, Paul, said, startling Charles. He looked up and smiled at the man.
“Yes?” he asked dreamily, still envisioning how the hotel would look according to the blueprints.
“The duchess has arrived,” the butler said.
When Charles’s face fell, the butler gave him a small grimace. Charles shook his head and sighed. For a moment, he debated on fleeing the mansion. Or, at the very least, the room. Surely, it would not be too difficult to hide from the dowager duchess for a couple of days.
“Perhaps I should have you tell her I am not at home,” he murmured, more to himself than to the tall, stout, elderly butler.
Paul heard him, nevertheless, and he chuckled softly.
“Should I tell her so?” he asked, looking more than willing to do just that.
But before Charles could answer, he could hear his mother’s voice, very close to the study door.
“It is all right,” he said, sighing again. “Please, show her in.”
“I am perfectly capable of showing myself in,” the duchess said.
Charles’s stomach twisted into knots as the Dowager Duchess of Ashtonshire waltzed into the room.
“Mother,” he said stiffly, “I was not expecting you for another two days.”
The duchess gave him a smug smile, moving past the butler as though he was invisible.
“I decided to leave Bath early,” she said. “I felt I had already put off my visit for too long as it is. I saw no harm in coming a little early. I very much doubt you have anything so important planned that my early arrival will be disruptive to you.”
Except for my two final days of peace and quiet, he thought bitterly.
“Yes,” was all he said aloud, looking at his mother and trying to gather his wits. He had been dreading her visit as it was. To have to deal with her for an extra two days was all but unbearable. Still, she was his mother, insufferable though she could be, and he tried to force himself to smile as he walked over to properly greet her.
As he kissed her on the cheek, she turned to glance over her shoulder. Not directly at the butler, but in the general direction of where he was standing.
“You are dismissed,” she said, her voice clipped and cold.
Charles winced, looking at his mother to ask her to remember her place in his home. But the butler simply bowed, taking his leave in silence. And before he could speak, the dowager sashayed around her son and made herself at home by sitting in the chair opposite his at the desk.
“Do make yourself comfortable, Mother,” he said dryly, returning to his own seat, but not before taking the whisky decanter from the cabinet and pouring himself a glass.
His mother did not seem to notice his sarcasm. She simply sat regally in the chair, looking down her nose at him as he took a sip of his drink.
“Oh, darling,” she said, clucking her tongue. “You really should not start the habit of drinking before evening. It would hardly do to have the Duke of Ashtonshire known as a drunk.”
He had only intended to sip his drink. But at his mother’s snide remark, he downed half of it, clenching his jaw to keep from visibly flinching from the burn of the liquor.
It was perfectly acceptable for a man to have a drink in the middle of the day. But he knew that arguing the point with the dowager duchess was precisely what she wanted, and it would get him nowhere but merely frustrate him even further. So, instead, he just refilled the half empty glass, ignoring the disgusted scowl on his mother’s face.
“How have things been in the country?” he asked, forcing himself to give his mother a pleasant smile.
The dowager duchess made a sour face.
“Positively dreadful,” she said, putting her hand to her forehead dramatically. “I thought I would just die of boredom.”
Charles turned away so his mother would not see him roll his eyes. It had been her idea to stay in their country home by herself when he and Jessica returned to town. And he knew well that she would have complained about London, too, had she come with them. Again, he said nothing. He simply took another sip of his drink and tried to think of something they could discuss that would not elicit more snobbery from his mother and thus, irritate him further.
“I am sure Jessica will be pleased to learn that you have arrived early,” he said. “She has been looking forward to your visit.”
He knew his words were not exactly true. Jessica loved her grandmother, but the pair were complete opposites, and they had nothing in common. Still, Charles felt sure that the mention of her granddaughter would put a smile on his mother’s face.
The dowager duchess looked at him, almost as though she pitied him.
“I saw Jessica sitting in the drawing room when I was on my way here,” she said, tapping the desk with a finger. “But alas, she did not see me. She was too involved with her . . . reading.”
Charles waited for his mother to say more, perhaps that Jessica was reading something inappropriate, at least in her opinion. But when the dowager duchess just stared at him expectantly, he raised an eyebrow.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “I am well aware that Jessica enjoys reading. She spends a great deal of her time reading, in fact. And, as I remember, you are aware of that, too.”
The dowager duchess put a hand on her chest, her eyes widening.
“I know she loved to read as a child,” she said, shaking her head. “But I simply wrote it off as her being bored. I was sure she would outgrow such a silly pastime.”
Charles gaped at his mother.
“What is so bad about reading?” he asked. “I have always enjoyed reading, as well. It is no surprise that Jessica does, too.”
The dowager duchess rolled her eyes.
“I know,” she said, “but you were a boy. And I knew that, as a man, you would spend much of your adult life reading letters and ledgers and all that business. . .” She paused, waving her hand dismissively at the word business. “It was more acceptable for you to read.”
Charles snorted, shaking his head.
“What is so bad about a young woman reading?” he asked again.
His mother sighed.
“Young women should be concerned with other things,” she said.
Charles tilted his head, bewildered.
“Like what?” he asked.
The dowager duchess looked at him as if he was crazy.
“Like finding a husband,” she said, as though it should have been obvious.
It was Charles’s turn to roll his eyes. He supposed he should have known that was his mother’s chief concern. Perhaps he was simply dreading the day his daughter was of age and ready to marry. But he did not feel any pressure should be put on her. Not even when she was old enough.
“Jessica is still a little young yet to be thinking of marriage,” he said.
His mother shook her head fervently.
“Not at all,” she said. “She will be coming out soon. She cannot risk having a failed debut.”
Charles exhaled a big, slow breath.
“Her debut ball is still a year away, Mother,” he said with exaggerated patience. “And I do not see how her reading will have anything to do with her coming out. Many women of the ton enjoy reading. It is hardly the worst pastime.”
His mother stared at him as though trying to determine whether he was serious or being facetious.
When he simply shrugged and waited for her response, she rubbed at her temple, as though it were the most trying conversation she had ever had.
“Men prefer women who play music and sing and dance,” she said. “Husbands want their wives to be active with charity work and entertaining guests. Not with sticking their noses in books.”
Charles desperately wished his mother had not come. Within her first hour at his home, she was already driving him mad. He wanted to try once more to make the situation more bearable, however. Instead of making a cold remark about how society had changed since his mother’s youth, he simply smiled.
“I am sure Jessica will be successful with finding a husband,” he said, feigning cheerfulness. “She is as beautiful as she is smart, and any man on the ton would be lucky to marry her.”
Rather than smiling with pride about her granddaughter, the dowager duchess scowled.
“I believe that both of you are taking this matter far too lightly,” she snapped. “Do not say I did not warn you when she becomes an old maid, with no chance of marrying.”
Charles’s blood boiled. He knew at that moment that he would not be able to suffer his mother’s company. But what could he do? She was already there, and he knew he would not be able to make her leave.
However, nor could he allow her attitude to affect his dear daughter. He did not need Jessica doubting herself, or feeling self-conscious, just because her own grandmother did not want to see reason.
He glanced down at the blueprints before him, and suddenly, he had an idea. He looked back up at his mother, a wicked smirk spreading across his face.
“I do wish you had written to tell me of your early visit,” he said deliberately. “I could have written to tell you that there has been a change of plans.”
The dowager duchess held her head up high and sneered.
“Oh?” she asked. “Well, I suppose you will simply have to change them back.”
Charles shook his head, enjoying his spreading smirk.
“I cannot, I am afraid,” he said. “I have before me Father’s plans to build something in the seaside village. And I promised Jessica we would go for a holiday there, while I surveyed the village, and any prospective land.”
The dowager duchess shook her head, her face a blank mask.
“I imagine you will be doing so at the end of the Season,” she said.
Charles shook his head.
“No, Mother,” he said. “I was informed by Mr. Harding just three days ago that there is some property for sale that I should see as soon as possible. I had planned to write to you today and tell you. But you arrived before you expected.”
The dowager duchess shrugged.
“Then simply tell him that you will not be there until autumn,” she said.
Charles shook his head again.
“I cannot do that,” he said. “I promised to be there by the day after tomorrow.”
His mother frowned.
“But I have only just got here, Charles,” she said crisply. “You cannot just leave.”
Charles feigned an apologetic expression, shrugging his shoulders.
“Mother, I am sorry,” he said. “I was expecting to write to you today to let you know. You really must tell me when your plans change so suddenly.”
The dowager duchess huffed.
“You should have told me before now,” she said. “You should have known that I might arrive early. You could have told me a fortnight ago that you were planning this trip.”
Charles rolled his eyes. He would not remind his mother that he had already said the news had only come a few days’ prior. Nor would he tell her that he did not have to go, but that he was choosing to go.
“I have made up my mind, Mother,” he said with finality. “Jessica and I are heading to the seaside for the Season. And nothing you say or do will change my mind.”
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