FALLING FOR THE GUARDED DUKE
Sedgewick Manor, 1816
The room brightened as Lord Alexander Sedgewick, the Marquess of Lovewell, made his way down the stairs, feeling in front of him to anticipate each step. He quite liked his new cane; after the old one had broken from being weak over the years, his father had commissioned the new cane to be made from the finest materials that could be found.
“My lord,” he heard Rufus greet. Rufus had been the butler at Bembridge Estate for as long as he could remember.
Alexander nodded as he got to the bottom of the stairs. “Do you know where my father is? He had sent me an hour ago. And do you know where Philip has gone to? He had been with me in my bed chamber and had excused himself. I have not heard of him since.”
“His grace is in the study, my lord. And Philip had come to inform his grace that you were busy and would be with him shortly.”
Alexander walked on. It seemed that since he snapped at Philip, his valet, a few days ago, the man had become quite withdrawn and avoided being around Alexander for too long. Alexander did not regret what he had done.
The man had been treating him like an invalid since his previous cane broke. He had been standing too close to him, directing him on where to go, never giving him the space to be alone—it endlessly frustrated Alex. He never wanted anyone to think that he could not do anything on his own.
He waved at Rufus in dismal and replied with a heavy sigh, “All right, thank you, Rufus.” The butler walked past him with his head bowed. Alexander made his way to the study, curious as to what his father wanted of him. He turned the doorknob while announcing himself to the room, “Father?”
The study was dim compared to the light in the hallway. It made it difficult for him to even see colors. He made his way to the seat across the desk and settled in it.
“Father?” he called again; a touch unnerved by the silence.
“Alexander,” his father cleared his throat, lifting his face from the papers on his desk.
“You sent for me.”
“Indeed, I did. There is something of great importance we need to discuss.”
“I am all ears,” Alexander sat up straight.
His father’s face turned for a moment. When he finally met Alex’s again, he could make out his mouth as it opened, snapped shut, and opened again to blurt out, “There is no other way to say it, but to say it. My condition has worsened, Alexander. The physician says I have little time.”
Alexander felt his heart fall. He felt his stomach twist in knots. He could not believe what he was hearing. Surely there was a way, there was always a way. His father was the duke, after all. “Certainly, something can be done. We could send for another physician.”
“No… We shan’t do that.”
“I think that is the best thing to do,” Alexander insisted.
“Gail has been our family physician for over thirty years, Alexander. I trust his judgment.”
“Or perhaps you are giving up too soon,” Alexander persisted, his frustration bleeding into his tone.
The Duke sighed and folded his hands on top of the desk, “You are making this harder than it needs to be, Alexander. I no longer have enough time left. I have lived as long as I should. There comes a time when the angels call us home.”
Alexander was quiet then. He wanted to be in denial, to not believe what his father was saying. Surely, he thought, there is another way. He shook his head lightly and whispered, “No…”
It seemed that the Duke did not hear his whisper, for he went on. “As my eldest son, it is right that you are fully prepared to take over the dukedom. My time is nigh, and—”
Alexander shook his head and more forcefully than he had thought, he exclaimed in anguish, “No!”
He heard a loud thud. In the dimness, he could not see what generated such noise, but with his father’s growl, he knew then that his fist had met with the desk. “Listen to me, son. There is absolutely no use living in denial, choosing to embrace oblivion. My heart has worsened, and I am no longer as agile as I used to be. But you… You are of age, and you are well, and strong. You are the future, Alexander. And so, I must inform you that with all of this in consideration, it has been decided that you shall attend the London Season where you are to seek a bride.”
Alexander scoffed at his own father’s absurdness. The last thing he wanted to do was settle down. He did not want a bride; he longed for no one. All he wanted was to live in peace—alone. He wanted no pity from anyone. He did not want to have to open up to someone only to be hurt by them again. After Maria, he had promised himself that, which was why he left London and came down to their private manor in the countryside—to be left alone. He also had no interest in the Duchy. He was not prepared to take on such a responsibility. He certainly could not.
“Father, I cannot take over the dukedom. Perhaps Jack would be better suited for such a position…”
The Duke chuckled bitterly, “My dear boy, this matter is not to be debated at all. I have not called you here to argue about it, or for you to contradict me.”
“But I have no intention of being wed, much less attending a ball in London. It would be an utter embarrassment.”
“And tell me why you think this?”
Alexander sighed, choosing not to elaborate but to persist in his stance that his brother was the better choice. “The society knows Jack, Father. With his service in the military, he should be the rightful one. He has been for the past years. I am quite certain that no one recalls you have another son. Besides, Jack would be willing to attend a ball and pick a bride.”
“I see no valid point in all that you have said,” the Duke mused.
Alexander slumped back in his seat in defeat. He knew then that he had lost the argument. His father had said all that he had to say.
“Prepare yourself, Alexander. You shall attend the London season, find a bride, and be wed before the next season runs out. By then, you shall assume your rightful position: The Duke of Bembridge.”
If there was anything more terrifying to him than becoming the Duke of Bembridge, it was attending a ball. Since Maria had told him that she was no longer interested in their courtship during a chaperoned walk in her garden, he had sworn to never attend a ball again and everyone had been fine with his decision. Or perhaps they were not, but no one had approached him about it. He had been left to do as he pleased. He had moved down to the countryside to be on his own, to enjoy the serenity and calmness. He spent most of his time in front of the pianoforte or riding horses. Although, he had not been left completely alone. Everyone visited as often as they could until his father fell ill and had moved here to have more serenity.
Alexander was well aware that his father would pay him no heed if he pleaded with him again. A frustrated, heavy breath passed through his lips. He was seated in the music room; his cane was resting in between his thighs while his fingers were splayed over the pianoforte. He was certain that the music he created could be heard across the entire house. He wished that his father could understand him and understand why he was reluctant at the responsibility saddled on him. While his father never listened to him, his mother often did.
His eyes widened as a thought came to him. He arose at once, a smile coming to his face. He would have a conversation with his mother to express himself. She would listen, of course, she would. And he would plead with her to speak to the Duke. He gripped his cane in his right hand and made his way out of the music room. The Duchess would be in the salon, as she was often there. She would sit there for hours, knitting until the day ran out and the sunset behind the tall pines. He smiled as he recalled the last time she had knitted a coat for him. He had been fifteen then; she had been so excited about it, her eyes and hands alive with pride and expression. He laughed quietly to himself as he recalled.
As he neared the salon, Alexander noticed movement to his side. He knew who moved that way, besides the walls, careful not to make a sound. It was Rufus.
“Rufus,” he greeted.
Most times, when Alex walked past someone and he called their name, they seemed surprised. They had no idea how sharp his senses were. What he was unable to do entirely with his eyes, he did with his ears and his nose. He walked past Rufus, who had stood aside to let him walk by. He walked into the salon and smiled. His mother was seated on a rocking chair. He heard it creak and he saw her gown spilling over the sides of the chair.
“Son,” she hummed lovingly, “what makes you smile at me so?”
“That I have found you.”
She chuckled; his mother was often the only one that found the charm in him. “Take a seat Alexander, won’t you? Keep me company for the hour. You rarely ever do so these days.”
He said nothing as he took a seat in an armchair to her side. These days, he echoed in thought. She meant he had not kept her company since Maria broke his heart. She knew not to mention it so directly. “I need your help, Mother.”
A curious sound escaped his mother. Alexander was not often a man to ask for assistance. “Oh… Do tell me. What may I be of help with?”
“It’s Father. I need you to help me talk to him. He has requested—nay, insisted—that I attend the London Season, take a bride, and prepare myself for the dukedom.”
With a tufted giggle, her attention returning to her knitting. “And what seems to be the problem?”
He held back a groan, not wishing to be perceived as a spoiled child, though he longed to make a fuss. Instead, he spoke evenly, “Everything, Mother. I want to do none of these duties he has tasked me with.”
“Alexander, your father has thought long and hard about this. And he has made the right decision.”
“Mother… I do not want to take a bride, and much less be the Duke of Bembridge. What kind of duke would I be?”
“Alexander Sedgewick,” she breathed, lying her knitting in her lap to give him her full attention, “I shan’t sit here and watch you speak of yourself in such a manner. You shall do no such thing.”
He was quiet, his teeth clenching in aggravation. Would no one hear his side of things? Why should he be forced into such large life decisions? Because of the whims of a dying man? “Mother”
She turned her chair and clasped his hands in hers, her eyes so round that he could make them out, “Alexander. I know that you feel that you are worth nothing. But I wish that you could give yourself a chance. Give yourself a chance to experience life. You have been holed up in this house for too many years alone.”
“I have the horses and my pianoforte,” he stubbornly defended.
“Alexander,” the Duchess warned, “do not count me in such a way.”
He forced a polite grin, but his mother knew it to be false. “Pardon my manners, Mama.”
She patted the backs of his hands before withdrawing. “The dukedom is your birthright. Bembridge is for you. It matters not what anyone has done to you. I am quite positive that you shall find the perfect bride.”
He was silent for a long moment before hoarsely questioning, “And what if I do not?”
“You have to attend the season first before you decide.”
He sighed; never had he been so exasperated. His father had already discussed all of it with his mother before he had been approached. Now, talking to his mother about it all made him realize that she likely had been more insistent about it than the Duke. She wanted him to live freely like his brother in the city, surrounded by people, attending balls, and doing everything sociable.
“I wonder how the ball would be,” he speculated dryly.
“How do you mean?”
“I can’t dance,” he grumbled. “It will be awful. I will stumble about and make a fool of myself.”
The Duchess chuckled, “I knew you’d consider that a problem.”
He turned to her with an arched brow, “Did you now?”
“Your father already thought about all that,” she commented, returning to her knitting.
“He did? Does that mean it isn’t necessary that I attend?” His face lit up.
“No, your father will hire a dance instructor to assist you before the London Season.”
Rather than feeling disappointed at her revelation, he was taken aback, “Oh.”
His father had really thought fair about all of this. It seemed he had no choice whatsoever than to simply do as his father wished.
“All right then,” he said quietly.
The Duke was dying, and he wanted to keep everything in order. Alexander needed some air. After finally accepting that he was going to have to attend the ball for London season, he felt like knots were in his stomach and his insides twisted. Was it fear, he wondered, or mere uneasiness? Whatever it was, he needed to be alone. He rose.
“I would like to go riding for a bit—to clear my mind,” he announced.
“Of course, my dear, do as you may,” her words had come out quietly, as though she felt the fear that he did.
He walked over to where she was seated, bent down, and kissed her on her cheeks, “Thank you, Mother.”
She chuckled warmly, the same small laughter that was interwoven in every blissful memory of his adolescence. “Nonsense. There certainly is no need to thank me.”
He smiled and made his way out of the salon and headed to the stables. A ride would do him some good. No sooner than he walked into the stables did Stephen, the stable boy, appear at his side. “My lord.”
“Stephen,” he replied. “Saddle me a horse. I would like to go for a ride.”
“The Dark Knight, my lord?”
Alex shook his head. The Dark Knight was for when he was angry. When his spirits were raging, and he needed nothing more than a steed with sheer power and speed. But not today. “No, Pristine would do.”
Pristine was a white horse with a finely kept mane and velvet coat. Alexander loved to ride her when he felt at peace or when he felt the need to settle his uncertain thoughts or uneasiness. He heard the horse neigh as Stephen drew near with it.
Stephen patted the horses back, “Here you are, my lord.”
With Stephen’s assistance, Alexander mounted the horse and saddled himself. Stephen handed him the horse’s reigns. Alexander pulled his hands through its mane. His chest tightened as he did this. He would miss the countryside. He hated that he had to return to the city, but he had to. Perhaps his parents were right, perhaps he needed to see the world a bit.
“Are you ready, my lord?”
Alexander nodded. He pulled at the horse’s reins gently and it began to move. Despite the fact that Stephen would follow him with another horse, just to call him back if he went the wrong way, he felt some sort of power when on a horse. He felt a drive rushing through him. And in those moments, only in those moments, did he truly feel like himself.
Shalestone Manor, 1816
“Would you like cherry, mother?” Olivia asked, walking around the table to where her mother was seated.
The Duchess laughed. “And where did you get that from my dear?”
“We have blueberries too, Mother,” Jane said, coming up behind her.
The Duchess shook her head. “Oh no, no, no. It is inappropriate for you to pick up fruits like that from the garden. A few could be poisonous.”
The memory made Lady Olivia Heywood smile. Although she was seated at the dining table, her mind was far away in the past that she loved to remember. A past that she loved to escape into in order to feel that, somehow, there would be a light at the end of it all.
Olivia dabbed the side of her mouth with a napkin when she was done with the meal, although her appetite had not quite been there, she had forced herself to put something in her stomach. The past weeks, months even had been most tiresome. She barely slept, she barely ate, she barely did anything at all except sit in the study and go through all the records her father had left behind.
The Duke of Shalestone had passed away a year ago. He had been ill for a while, until his death. At first, after he had passed, all Olivia thought about was how to raise her sister alone, and how they could both move forward with their lives. But it all changed a few months after when she began receiving bills. Letters came in with proof of money her father different people. It weakened and infuriated her all at once. Her father had made no mention of them until his death. She was not pleased that he had not informed her of all of this. He made no mention of it at all. And now, all the surprises were coming in.
She rose from the dining table and made her way to the study. It was where she spent most of her time. She had only decided to have lunch because Augustus, the butler in Shalestone Manor for over twenty years, had insisted. He had been quite persuasive. And right when he had been insisting, her stomach had rumbled.
With her father gone, and her sister away at a boarding school in Bath, and her first cousin, who was supposed to be her legal guardian, Lord Henry Heywood, away in the Far East, Olivia was left with no one to turn to for help. Of course, if she had written to Jane, informing her of all that was happening and how she needed help, Jane would not hesitate to come home to support her. But she could not do that to Jane. She could not place such a heavy burden on her shoulders.
Olivia wished that there was something she could do about the situation at hand. She wished there was a way to solve all her problems.
In the study, Olivia’s shoulders sagged as she looked through the records. Her heart broke as she saw their financial state. With the rate at which debts were arising, she may no longer be able to keep the manor.
She closed her eyes at the thought of it. It would break her mother’s heart if the manor were no longer within the family. She had cherished it so much. And so would her father’s. Irrespective of how irresponsible he had been, the last thing he wanted was for the manor to be sold. However, she wondered when everything changed. She wondered when her papa had become so nonchalant about everything.
The cracks in her frail heart deepened as she looked back over the years before her father had died. It seemed as though her father had been all that he could be for them, but he had missed her mother so dearly, so deeply; and so, he had become disconnected from them. He barely stayed at home, rarely dined with them, and spent most of his time away. But his illness had calmed him, so he began to spend much more time with them.
As Olivia stared at the record file containing the expenses used in the manor for the past fifteen years, she felt hopeless. There was no use doing that anymore. Staring at the files only made her worry more. Her father owed money to a lot of people. As she began to close the file, her eyes caught something that had been circled. Olivia creased her brows as she stared. Her father had made unwise business ventures that had led to him losing money.
Her shoulders slumped as far as they possibly could. He had lost quite a lot of money. It was dated back to a few months after her mother had passed. The Duke had been lost in grief. He was no longer himself when all of this happened—when he had made such foolish decisions.
Finally, Olivia shut the file. Her eyes looked through the study. There was nothing she could do besides finding a source of income that would make up for all their losses.
There was a knock on the door, causing Olivia to sigh before she responded, “Come in.”
Augustus walked in, he bowed and smiled at her. He was holding a letter in his left hand and a copy of the London Times in his right. Olivia grimaced. Another letter from one of the people her father owed, she presumed.
“Another letter?” she inquired; her voice filled to the brim with dismay.
Augustus nodded. “Yes. But perhaps this will lighten your spirits.”
“I doubt that it will,” she mused. And just because she felt the need to rant, she went on. “I fear that I may never be able to recover from all of this. Augustus, I have no blunt to pay for your services. I may have to relieve you as well as all the other staff soon.”
Augustus shook his head, not defiantly but rather kindly. “Don’t say that, my lady. I trust that you shall overcome all of this.”
“I am not quite certain, Augustus. We are sinking in debt.”
He was quiet for a while, then he squared his shoulders and held his chin high, “I shan’t go anywhere, my lady. It matters not how much debt the manor is in.”
It was Olivia’s turn to fall silent. She was certain that Augustus had made a promise to her father while he was on his sickbed. It was why he did not want to leave, like most of the staff.
“Augustus—” Olivia started, prepared to argue with the old man.
“It is not up for argument, my lady,” he intersected as politely as he possibly could. He stretched out his hand and placed the papers on the table. “A letter from Bath, and the London Times. I will excuse myself.” He bowed and walked out.
She was left alone, her eyes stared down at the letter from Bath and the latest edition of the London Times. Augustus had said that she would be pleased about the letter, but she was even more afraid of it than that of any of the people her father owed. Her sister, Jane, had written to her. She feared having to write to Jane. Everything was falling apart so quickly and the thought of responding to Jane and lying about everything made her chest tighten. She hated having to lie to her sister.
All she wanted for Jane was the very best. Her sister was seventeen. Her debut had been delayed because of their father’s illness, however, Olivia wanted to make her debut spectacular. She wanted to make sure that Jane found a good suitor and be wed, to be saved from the same state of despair Olivia found herself in. At twenty-two years of age, Olivia was past the marriageable age. But she did not want that to be her sister’s fate.
She opened the letter gently, her heart beating as fast as the wings of a hummingbird. It read:
How are you? How is everyone at the manor? And the horses? I hope they are well, just as I hope you are. I hope you do not spend all of your time staying at home. You should attend balls and be merry.
I know you agonize and want to know how I am doing here in Bath. Well, I am fine. The people are nice. I have made a lot of friends and I am happy. I am writing to inform you that I shall be returning home in order to attend the London Season. My lady friends here at Bath wish to attend and I do not long to be an exception, Livy. Also, I wish to make my debut during this period.
I shall return home in the next month. I hope to see you soon.
Olivia could not believe it. Her fear caught up to her quite sooner than she had ever imagined. Jane did not only want to attend the London Season, she wanted to make her debut as well. Olivia did not have enough blunt for that! She had been hoping that by next year she would do something about it, but if she denied Jane of this, Jane would question her. And she did not want Jane to know what was happening with the manor.
Olivia was nearing her wit’s end. She wondered what it was that she would do about all of this. She shook her head, as if the turning of her head would combat the anguish filling her insides. She placed the letter down, and glanced at the London Times, her interest barely in it.
However, her interest piqued when she saw an advertisement on the front page. She raised the paper so she could see more clearly.
It was an advertisement, claiming that a dance instructor was needed. Her eyes widened at the amount that was promised to whoever was fit for the job. Olivia stared at it in astonishment. How could one pay such an amount for a dance instructor? Her heart softened. Dancing never failed to remind Olivia of her mother. The Duchess had taught her to dance and had so anticipated her first dance at her debut. Only she had not lived to see it.
Olivia smiled sadly as she studied the advertisement. Perhaps this was the solution to her problems. Perhaps what she needed was right in front of her: Getting paid for doing what she loved the most. Her eyes brightened. She would send a letter to the address stated in the advertisement. After all, there was no harm in trying.
The days passed uneventfully after Alexander reluctantly decided to attend the London Season. He spent most of his afternoons with his father, listening as his father kept him up to date on everything concerning the Duchy and all the estates that they owned.
The more the duke taught him, the more he realized that his father had accomplished a great deal in his life. He had bought properties besides the one that would be passed down to Alexander. He had purchased a private property in the countryside, as well as a château in France, of which the marquess had not been aware. The duke had been successful in his business ventures, traveled overseas for business on many occasions, and had kept everything managed flawlessly for over thirty years.
Alexander could not help wondering whether he could ever be able to meet such a standard. How could he ever travel for business ventures? How could he even read important documents before signing them? He wondered how his father could be so certain that he would do well as his heir. He still felt that Jack would make a far better duke than he ever would.
Alexander sighed. Despite the intensity of his dread about the dukedom, he could not help thinking about the upcoming Season. He would attend, but not happily. He was quite sure that no one would even look his way. The young ladies of the ton all sought wealthy dukes. Or, at least, gentlemen with perfect eyesight. It would be strange to him, trying to pretend as though he belonged at the balls, knowing well that he did not. With a bitter chuckle, he wondered if he would be able to make it into the ballroom on his own at all.
He sat in the dining room with his parents. He had been quiet while they conversed, his mother laughing frequently at things his father said. He wondered why she did not seem distraught. Her husband was dying. He would be gone in a matter of time, and yet never had Alexander heard any sadness in her voice.
“The interviews begin today,” Alexander heard the duke saying. “Interested persons will be arriving shortly.”
Alexander looked up and saw his father glance toward the clock on the wall.
“Oh, of course,” the duchess said. “It very nearly slipped my mind.”
Alexander stifled a groan. He, too, had forgotten. His father had advertised in the London Times that he sought a dance tutor. In less than three days, responses came from all over London. The duke had been thrilled. He had informed Alexander of its success, and together, they agreed to invite them for interviews.
Just then, Alexander heard familiar shoes approaching the dining room.
“Milord,” the butler said.
“Yes, Rufus?” the duke asked.
“The first of those seeking employment have arrived,” he said.
Alexander’s heart thudded in his chest. Everything was happening so quickly. His life would begin changing from that moment, for better or for worse, and all he could do was dreading it. He wished he had not agreed to attend the interviews. It mattered not who was chosen. The results would be the same.
“You should be there, darling,” the duchess said, reading her son’s thoughts. “The instructor is not for your father. It is for you, my dear.”
Alexander sighed. The duchess was right. He needed to be involved in the decision-making, if only to ensure that the tutor hired would not mock him during each lesson. After a moment, he nodded slowly.
As he turned to exit the room, he thought back to his mother’s behavior during the meal. He turned around to face her.
“Mother?” he asked.
“Yes, dear?” the duchess asked.
“You are aware that Father is ill,” he said cautiously. “And yet, you seem at ease, as though everything is well. Are you not at all depressed?”
He could hear his mother approach him with soft footsteps.
“Darling,” she said. “Your father has lived his life, and I have been blessed to share it with him. I do not know how long he has left, but I intend to make the best of it, regardless.” The duchess sighed and lowered her head. “I am sad, darling. But I do not want your father distressed over how I will fare when he is gone. I do not want him to think about it. I want him to be happy for as many days as he remains with us.”
Alexander felt his heart melt at those words. Once upon a time, when he had thought that he would find a suitable match, he had hoped she would be just like his mother. The duchess was thoughtful, kind, gracious, loving, and free-spirited. But after Maria, he felt that he would never find any such woman. Maria had failed to understand that, despite his disability, he could do anything on his own. What made him believe that any other woman would think any differently?
“Your father is waiting for you, dear,” the duchess said, her touch pulling him from his self-pity.
Alexander smiled. He leaned forward and kissed his mother on her cheek, then made his way out of the dining room. His chest tightening with every step, and he prayed this would end quickly.
Alexander had never felt more vulnerable than he did the moment he stepped into the study. He could hear the people talking to one another in drawing room as they waited their turn. His breathing was shallow, and he gripped his cane tightly. He was too nervous to sit. Instead, he remained standing silently behind his father, his gaze fixed straight ahead.
The first person, a man who introduced himself as Alfred Whitehead, entered the room. The duke introduced both himself and his son. Alexander forced a fake smile as he felt the man’s scrutinizing gaze on him.
Once the man was seated, the duke began the interview. He started with questions about the man’s age, social status, and family background. Alfred gave curt, short responses, all the while never removing his gaze from the marquess. Throughout the interview, he had to resist the urge to squirm beneath the man’s scrutiny.
At last, it was Alfred’s turn to ask any questions he had.
“Has he ever been trained before?” he asked, the judgment clear in his voice. “Does he know anything about dancing?”
Alexander bit his tongue to suppress a sharp response. Most people believed that, just because he was blind, he was unable to do anything. Worse still, Alfred behaved as though he were deaf, as well. He was infuriated, but he forced himself to remain silent.
“That will be all,” the duke said curtly.
Alexander could hear the man draw in a breath to say something further, but the duke raised his hand.
“That will be all, Mr. Whitehead,” his father repeated.
Alexander shook his head the moment the door closed behind the man.
“I would not train with that pompous man if he was the last tutor in London,” he said, his jaw clenched.
To his surprise, the duke chuckled.
“I agree, son,” he said. “He was quite rude for someone who was allegedly in need of employment.”
You are mad if you expect any different from anyone else, Alexander thought bitterly. Instead of voicing the thought, he nodded to Rufus.
“Call in the next person, Rufus,” he muttered.
Alexander tried his best to relax. He despised being examined and treated as an exhibit at which to gawk. He hoped that he was wrong about the attitudes of the applicants, and that someone suitable would be chosen as soon as possible. However, when the next few were interviewed, they all stared at him as they absently replied to the duke’s questions, and all of them asked some variation of the same question that Mr. Whitehead had.
The first viable candidate was a lady named Bella Dudley. She told the men that she grew up in Ireland, but she had moved back to London for her debut. She had been dancing since she was a young girl. Alexander was more receptive to her responses than he had been to the previous candidates. She sounded polite and cautious, and she seemed quite prim and proper. He kept her name in mind, but he hoped to find an applicant who felt like a better fit for him.
The lady after Miss Dudley was even worse than the people before her. Alexander grew weary of the process, certain that the candidates would only continue to get ruder and more audacious as the day went on. Miss Dudley was the most reasonable prospect, but even she held little of his interest. As he sat there observing the people come and go, cast him pitiful glances, and ask irrelevant questions, he began to want someone who was worthy. If he was going to have a tutor, he wanted someone unlike all the others they had seen so far. He wanted someone he could trust to teach him properly, without making him feel like an inconvenience, or an invalid or, worst of all, pitied.
The more people they interviewed, the faster he began to lose the little intrigue he had mustered, and his initial nonchalance returned. He listened, but only barely, and began wishing once more that the interviews would end.
As the latest insufferable candidate exited, Alexander decided he had had enough. He gripped his cane and rose with frustration. There was no need for him to be there, especially with the way people were treating him. As he made his way to the door, he could feel his father gazing at him intently. He saw Rufus’ hesitation to open the door, and he gritted his teeth and narrowed his eyes at the butler.
Rufus reluctantly opened the door. As Alexander was about to step out, he felt a body ram into him. He heard a groan and saw the silhouette stumbling. He reached out and swiftly gripped the person, preventing them from hitting the ground. As his hands found purchase, he realized it was a woman. His hands were placed firmly around her waist and the small of her back. He could feel her body warmth as he did this, and his chest tightened. He could make out the color of the gown. It was a light, pleasant blue, made of either silk or satin. He could feel that she was petite and that she was quite surprised at his touch. His anger suddenly vanished and was replaced by a familiar, though unplaceable, sensation in his stomach.
She held onto him so tightly that her scent filled his nostrils. He found himself feeling nervous. He was unsure of how to release her, so he cleared his throat. At last, she moved away from him slowly.
“Pardon my clumsiness, my lord,” she said, her voice calm and sweet. “I was so eager to walk in that I did not see you.”
Despite himself, he laughed. Her remark had not sounded condescending, but full of humor and confidence. Her voice was low and melodic, and he briefly wondered if she could sing, as well as dance.
Then, something occurred to him. She had spoken to him like a normal person. She did not gasp or recoil. Had she not seen his cane or noticed that he was blind?
He opened his mouth to speak, but he was at a loss for words. He wanted to acknowledge her apology, but he felt that he would make a fool of himself.
She seemed to be watching him, and he felt his cheeks redden. Instead of saying anything, he nodded and gave her a sheepish smile, making his way out of the study, though more cautiously now. His heart was pounding wildly as he moved away from the door.
As he walked away, he found himself wishing that he could have seen who that was. He felt drawn to her. He could not get what had just transpired out of his head. He exited the house and headed toward the stables.
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