The Marquess's Forbidden Cinderella
Gloria stood in the austere study of Dewsbury Manor, a room filled with the ghosts of her family’s once great fortune. The wooden wainscoting, polished to a high shine, reflected the dim light filtering through the dust-laden windows. The once vibrant oriental carpet underfoot had faded into a tapestry of pastel hues, a poignant reminder of times past. The room was almost empty, save for a grand mahogany desk and two chairs, one occupied by Mr. Haversham, the family lawyer, the other waiting for Gloria.
After a long, uncomfortable silence, the lawyer shifted in his seat and cleared his throat.
“Miss Dewsbury,” Mr. Haversham began, his voice echoing in the near-empty room. He gestured to the vacant chair opposite him, his expression solemn. “Please, come have a seat.”
She nodded, her heart heavy, and took the proffered seat. She did so with reluctance, feeling too nervous and stressed to sit still. But the papers the lawyer had brought with him were very important. She knew they needed to be tended quickly. She couldn’t linger in a house that was sold, after all. So, she tried to just focus on the papers in the lawyer’s hand.
The worn leather of the chair was cool beneath her fingers, but with the heavy business at hand it brought her no comfort. The air was thick with the scent of old parchment, well-worn books, and a hint of pipe tobacco, a scent that had always been synonymous with Mr. Haversham. It was also pregnant with the news she needed but would never want: news about her family’s estate. Not for the first time since her father had fallen ill, she wished that things could have gone any other way.
He shuffled the papers before him, his old, vein-ridden hands steady and assured.
“As you know,” he began, his tone professional, “the sale of Dewsbury Manor and its remaining furnishings has been concluded.”
Gloria swallowed hard as his words hit her.
“Yes, I’m aware, Mr. Haversham,” she said sadly. “You have done well to help me with everything. But I cannot say that I am any readier to let everything go than I was when we first started.”
The older man nodded, glancing up at her briefly over his spectacles.
“These things are never easy, I’m afraid,” he said. “However, it went as quickly and smoothly as possible.”
Gloria nodded again, slowly. Perhaps, it did for you, she thought to herself.
Mr. Haversham slid a document across the polished surface of the desk. Gloria reached for it, forcing herself to pick it up.
“These are the final papers, Miss Dewsbury,” he said. “Your signature is required at the bottom.”
Gloria bit her lip, taking the ink well that the lawyer slid to her next.
With a trembling hand, she took the quill he gave to her and signed the document, her signature neat and practiced. She had to blink rapidly when tears stung her eyes, so none of them ended up on the page. As she put down the quill, Mr. Haversham handed her a small pouch, its weight surprisingly heavy in her hands.
“That is the profit from the sale after all debts and current bills have been paid,” he said. “It’s not a fortune, but it’s something.”
Gloria opened the pouch and peered inside. A small assortment of gold and silver coins gleamed back at her. It was a meager sum, to be sure. But she didn’t want Mr. Haversham to think that she was ungrateful to him for his help.
He seemed to have noticed her expression, as he gave her another sad smile.
“Will it be enough to see you through for a little while?” he asked.
Gloria shook her head.
“I think it will barely enough to sustain Father and me,” she said. “Especially with hm in the asylum. The bill for which is due quarterly, which will be in just another fortnight.”
The attorney nodded solemnly.
“I do hope he can recover from his… illness,” he said. “I know that things would be better for you if he could.”
Gloria nodded again.
“It certainly would,” she said. “However, there is no guarantee with such an illness.”
The attorney sighed and nodded once more.
“That is unfortunately true,” he said. “He was in a terrible state, indeed. All we can continue to do is to keep him in our prayers, and you do the best you can while he’s in there. You are doing very well, Miss Swann.”
Gloria took a deep breath. She felt sure that her best wouldn’t be enough, especially with money now so hard to come by. But she was grateful to him for his kindness.
“Thank you, Mr. Haversham,” she managed to say, her voice barely above a whisper.
The attorney gave her a nod, checking over the paper she had just signed. Then, he slowly rose from his seat and tipped his bowler hat to her.
“Please, do not hesitate to let me know if there is anything else you need from me,” he said. “I will be happy to help.”
Gloria gave him a small smile.
“I am sure that I will,” she said. “But I’m afraid that I won’t have the money to do so.”
The man gave her another kind look and shook his head.
“We could work out something at another time,” he said. “Let’s just get you through your father’s sickness.”
Gloria sighed. She didn’t know if there would be a way through her father’s sickness. He seemed worse each time Gloria went to visit him. But she appreciated the solicitor’s kindness.
“Thank you, Mr. Haversham,” she said. “You have been so good to my family. I am sorry that we will no longer have need of a solicitor.”
Mr. Haversham waved his hand.
“Your father was a good client and friend of mine,” he said. “That will not change. My client list changes often, what with people dying and children marrying and moving away. I understand it’s nothing personal. I do hope that you will be all right, however.”
She stared at the pouch in her hands, her mind racing. It was clear to her now. She doubted that she would ever be all right ever again. She had been raised to prepare to marry a nobleman. Not to end up a bankrupt, land-poor daughter of a mentally ill baron with no money and nowhere to go. She was unencumbered, free of her family’s debt, but with the responsibility of her father’s care on her shoulders and no house to call home.
The weight of her new reality settled heavily upon her. She would have to find some way of bringing in money. She had never been the one responsible for making or handling money, and she wasn’t even sure how to go about it. She could ask the solicitor for advice. But part of her was ashamed that she couldn’t solve her family’s problems herself. Even despite her lack of experience doing so.
“Do you have any inkling what you will do now?” the solicitor asked.
Gloria sighed. She was thinking of telling him that she didn’t have any idea what she would do. But he held up a finger as though he had just gotten an idea.
“Have you considered talking to any of the previous servants of your family?” he asked. “They really seemed to care about you and your family. Perhaps, if they are still seeking employment, they would allow you to stay with them until you found a more permanent solution.”
Gloria shook her head. She couldn’t think of imposing on the people who had once worked so hard for her and her family. It wasn’t a matter of pride. They were no more capable of taking care of her than she was. But an idea sparked in her mind. It was a heavy, loaded one. But it was an idea, nonetheless.
“I suppose I could find employment,” she said, the words sounding foreign to her ears.
Mr. Haversham nodded, his gaze sympathetic.
“I believe that would be wise, Miss Swann,” he said. “It is a respectable decision, and one that a lady in your position shouldn’t be ashamed to consider.
Gloria nodded, grateful for the support. She couldn’t tell Mr. Haversham just how strange it felt to her to even consider it. She didn’t want to seem as though she was a delicate lady who shunned the idea of making her own living to take care of her ailing father. It was just not something she would have ever imagined that she would need to consider. And where would she even start? She didn’t want to bother Mr. Haversham with such burdens. But she didn’t have the first clue as to how to go about getting gainful employment.
Mr. Haversham bowed to her, reaching out to take one of her hands and give it a gentle pat with his wrinkled ones.
“I’m afraid I must be going,” he said. “It might not seem like it now, but things will work out in time. You’ll see.”
Gloria nodded, doubting his words.
“Thank you again,” she said, giving him a small smile. “Allow me to walk you out.”
The solicitor nodded, giving her a warm smile of his own.
“Very well,” he said.
With a last glance at the grand old study, Gloria rose from the chair, the weight of her new life heavier than the coin-filled pouch in her hands. She had lost her home, her wealth, but she would not lose her dignity. She led the solicitor to the front door, trying not to look at the barren state of her childhood home. It is no longer my home, she thought tearfully as she waved goodbye to the solicitor and closed the door behind him. Now, it belongs to someone else.
The morning sun painted a glowing warmth on the cold stones of Dewsbury Manor. The once proud residence now bore the weight of neglected years and financial strain. The grandeur of the past was but a faint echo in the empty halls and unkept gardens. Gloria, the young baroness, was to leave this life behind. Mrs. Lane, the housekeeper from Kensington, arrived in a humble hackney, a stark contrast to the elegant carriages that once adorned the manor’s drive.
She looked out the window of her bedchambers, thinking about how much different her life was than it was when she was a girl. The grounds and the house were once full of nice things, as well as many servants. But now, she had had to sell her life piece by piece after her father went to the asylum, and she had had to fire all the servants one by one. But there was one with whom she had remained very close; the last one she was forced to send away.
Mrs. Lane, her family’s beloved housekeeper, had been much like a mother to her after her own mother died. She had been very supportive, and she had stayed on with Gloria’s family for as long as she possibly could before she had to go find new employment. She had even worked for no pay the last month she worked for Gloria. But she had found new employment shortly after, and Gloria had bid her a reluctant goodbye. Now, however, Mrs. Lane was helping her once more. She had gotten her work, and she would be coming soon to escort Gloria to her new home and place of work.
As Gloria’s mind wandered further, her apprehension deepened. She pondered the intricacies of her new role within the Meltonshire household. Would her noble upbringing, marked by her father’s ruin and subsequent confinement to an asylum, be a constant reminder of her destroyed life? Would her refinement and polish render her unworthy of the duke and duchess’s esteemed presence? It was highly irregular for noble people to take on work. How would the duke and duchess feel when they found out that she was a baron’s daughter who was now having to depend on work just to avoid the poorhouse, not only for herself, but for her father?
Fear gnawed at the corners of her consciousness, threatening to overwhelm her fragile resolve. Doubts echoed through her thoughts like haunting whispers, questioning her every move, and casting a shadow upon her aspirations. Yet, amidst her unease, a spark of determination flickered within her, refusing to be extinguished. She was afraid, to be sure. And she knew that she had a long road ahead of her, especially as she adjusted to the life of a woman who had to work for a living. But she also knew that she had no choice. And she knew that she couldn’t fail.
An approaching hackney distracted her, and she watched as it came to a stop in front of the empty townhouse. Mrs. Lane exited the cabin, and Gloria raced down the stairs to greet her. When she flung open the door, her former housekeeper, embraced her tightly, smiling as she looked into Gloria’s eyes.
“Are you ready, my dear?” she asked.
“No,” she confessed. “But it isn’t as though I have a choice, is it?”
Mrs. Lane put her hand on Gloria’s back, rubbing it gently.
“I am here to help,” she said. “Let us get you ready to depart.”
Gloria led the housekeeper up the stairs, knowing she was making the ascent for the very last time. Mrs. Lane linked her arm through Gloria’s, which offered Gloria marginal comfort. The two women headed back to Gloria’s bedchambers. Mrs. Lane looked around, and Gloria could see the surprise and sadness in her eyes. She understood without a word what her family’s old housekeeper was thinking. She hadn’t seen it since she had parted ways with them. She was just as disheartened as Gloria was by the hollow, empty spaces that once held so much life and luxury. Somehow, seeing it on Mrs. Lane’s face made it even more painful and real for Gloria. She clung to her old housekeeper as they made their way to her bedchambers.
Once inside the room, Mrs. Lane sighed.
“Well, let us finish up getting you packed, dear,” she said. “We need to depart for Miltonshire Manor as soon as we can.”
Gloria nodded, taking a deep breath.
“Very well,” she said.
The two women headed for the few possessions that Gloria had left. They consisted of a hairbrush, a hand mirror, a bottle of lavender perfume, six gowns with matching shoes, two riding habits with plain black shoes, a robe, and a nightgown. Gloria went over to her vanity and began packing away her personal items. It was hard for her to imagine that she would never again use those things to attend balls or dinner parties. She mourned the loss of the life she had always known, even if she had never been very fond of the parties and social events.
As Gloria moved about her room, Mrs. Lane watched from the side, her fingers delicately folding the young woman’s dresses and placing them into a travel trunk. The room was tinged with the warm sunlight, creating a poignant scene of departure.
Gloria finished packing the items in and on her vanity. She scanned the small bookshelf, which she knew was already empty, as she had donated the books to the village bookstore. Then, she checked her bedside tables. One of which was completely empty. The other contained something that took her a moment to recognize. She paused, pulling out a small, well-worn book of poetry. That book had helped her through more sleepless nights and megrims than she could remember. She was glad that she hadn’t found it in time to donate it. But it wasn’t like she would be able to take it with her.
“I suppose I won’t have much time for these anymore,” she murmured, more to herself than to her companion.
Mrs. Lane glanced over her shoulder, giving Gloria a gentle smile as she studied the book.
“Nonsense, my dear,” Mrs. Lane said, setting a folded garment in the trunk, and looking up at Gloria. “The Duke of Moltenshire is a patron of the arts. I believe he will appreciate a well-read woman.”
The young woman offered a tentative smile, placing the book gently in the trunk.
“I can only hope he does not find it strange that a servant would be interested in reading,” she said.
Mrs. Lane shook her head.
“My dear, we all have to learn to read and write,” she said. “Some of us are called to help with secretarial duties for our masters. It will hardly be a surprise that you might read at bedtime or something. So long as you do not exhibit any advanced abilities regarding reading and writing, it should be fine. And if you only read at night, none of the masters of the home will ever see you.”
Gloria nodded, grazing the cover of the old book as she put it in the trunk alongside the rest of her belongings.
“I… I wanted to thank you, Mrs. Lane,” she said.
The older woman straightened, an elegant eyebrow raising in surprise.
“Whatever for, my dear?” she asked.
Gloria looked at her with tears in her eyes.
“For all of this,” Gloria said, gesturing around the room, her expression earnest. “For believing in me, for securing my employment. I fear without your intervention, my fate would have been quite different.”
Mrs. Lane’s countenance softened, her eyes reflecting a warm understanding.
“Miss Swann, you earned this position through your own merits,” she said. “You have a keen mind and a diligent spirit. I merely helped open the door; you walked through it on your own.”
Gloria blushed, her gaze falling to the floor.
“Still, you have my gratitude, Mrs. Lane. Truly,” she said.
The older woman reached out, tilting Gloria’s chin upward gently.
“There’s no need for formalities or words of thanks, my dear,” she said. “We’re to be companions in service to the duke, after all. But know this – your appreciation is accepted with warmth and my expectation of your continued excellence remains.”
Gloria’s gaze met Mrs. Lane’s, her eyes sparkling with determination.
“You shall not be disappointed, I promise you,” she said.
With a nod and a small smile, Mrs. Lane returned to packing.
“I do not doubt it, Miss Swann,” she said. “Now, let’s finish packing. It’s time.”
Gloria looked up from her trunk, her eyes glistening with determination, yet haunted by a sadness too deep for her years. “Thank you again, Mrs. Lane,” she said. “I would never have managed without you.”
Mrs. Lane offered a comforting smile.
“You’ve had a rough time of it, dear, more than anyone your age should bear,” she said. “I can’t imagine not doing everything I can to help you through this rough time.”
As they loaded the last of Gloria’s things onto the hackney, Gloria gave her family’s home one last forlorn look. It was the last time she would ever see the place, and suddenly she was overwhelmed with a sense of panic. What if she couldn’t adapt to her new life? How would she ever become accustomed to a home that wasn’t hers?
“Come, dear,” Mrs. Lane said, taking her hand and leading her into the seat of the hackney. “We have much to discuss before we reach Miltonshire.”
Gloria nodded, turning her back on her childhood home for the last time as the hackney pulled away. Neither of them spoke a word until the hackney had reached the road. Then, Mrs. Lane reached over and took her hand lovingly.
“You do understand that none of this is your fault, don’t you?” she asked.
Gloria shook her head.
“Sometimes, I am not sure,” she said. “Sometimes, I think that, if I could have helped Mother better, she would have recovered from influenza, and Father would have never become so weak-minded. He suffered for three years after her death, and he invested our family fortune so poorly, simply out of grief. I can’t help feeling like I could have avoided it all, had I just taken better care of Mother.”
Mrs. Lane patted her arm gently.
“Influenza is a strange thing,” she said. “Sometimes, people get well. Other times, it takes our loved ones before we even have a good grasp on how to help them. You mustn’t blame yourself. For your father’s state, either. Your family endured a great deal in a short time. But you could have done nothing more than what you did to help.”
Gloria nodded, but she didn’t speak. Despite the comforting words, she wasn’t convinced. Her mother had been sick for a fortnight before she ended up confined to her bed. Gloria thought that, if she had convinced her mother to have the physician summoned sooner, she could have been saved. She had tried, and failed, to do so. But she was sure if she had pressed the issue, she could have succeeded. And now, she feared that she would fail her father as he depended on her in the asylum, the same way she had failed her mother. What would become of him if she did?
Mrs. Lane patted her once more, giving her a bright smile.
“Now, let us discuss your new employers,” she said. “The duke and duchess of Meltonshire’s family are good people. They live with their son, the marquess of Hillingdon, and his young son, Theo. Bless his heart, he’s such a sweet child. He’s been through so much…” Mrs. Lane’s voice trailed off, hinting at a deeper sorrow.
Gloria looked at her former housekeeper, her own sorrows forgotten for the moment.
“What happened?” she asked.
Mrs. Lane sighed.
“Lady Hillingdon died about two years ago after an illness,” she said. “She left the marquess a young widower, and poor little Theo a half orphan. The family loves the child dearly, but it is clear that they worry a great deal about him. As I suppose they should. No child should ever have to lose his mother so young.”
Gloria’s heart clenched at the thought of her new role. She would no longer be a baroness, but a maid, serving the family of the Duke. Her interest was piqued when she learned about the young Marquess of Hillingdon, a widower, and his son Theo. Yet, the fear of her new life was nearly suffocating.
“That is horrible,” Gloria said, thinking of her own heartache at losing her mother once more. She had been almost an adult when her mother died. She couldn’t imagine how a young child must feel, losing a parent.
Mrs. Lane nodded.
“I knew you would understand,” she said. “Now, you will not be tending to little Theo. You will be working with me as a maid. It is unlikely that you will ever interact with Theo or the marquess. However, there are some things you must know before we arrive at the manor.”
Gloria took a deep breath and nodded. It was a relief to her that she wouldn’t be tending to the child. She didn’t know if she was ready for such a big responsibility. Especially being so new to the working world.
“Very well,” she said. “I am listening.”
Mrs. Lane gave her a bright smile.
“That’s the spirit,” she said. “Now, you must remember that you are a servant now. Not a lady. The masters of the mansion will expect you to behave as such. You must never speak unless you are spoken to. Never look them in the eyes, even when they address you. See to whatever tasks they give you immediately, no matter what it was that you were doing before they summoned you. Be sure to get out of sight quickly if they catch you working. They want to know that you are working, but they don’t want to see it. And above all, remain completely humble and compliant. Sometimes, they will test your patience. But you must remember that you are not speaking to a peer in the ton any longer. You are speaking to your employer. Remember these things at all times.”
Gloria swallowed. She didn’t want to say as much to her former housekeeper, as she had been born into a world where she was destined to be a servant. But Gloria was terrified of the transition. She didn’t know if she could do all the things Mrs. Lane was telling her to do. It felt strange to her to be in the midst of people her family would have once called peers. How was she ever supposed to behave like a servant when she really wasn’t?
“And lastly, my dear, you must keep your background a secret,” Mrs. Lane continued. “No mention of your father, the baron, or the asylum. And your education… it must stay hidden as well. It would only raise suspicions.”
“But how will I ever conceal that from them?” she asked. “I can hardly change my name or station.”
Mrs. Lane grinned.
“I believe that we can,” she said. “We shall call you Eleanor Dobson, and we will tell Lord and Lady Miltonshire that you were raised in a parsonage.”
Gloria blinked in confusion.
“Why?” she asked. “Won’t that add more complication to the situation?”
Mrs. Lane shrugged.
“Perhaps,” she said. “But, while we can hide your ability to read and write well, and we can change your name, there is little to be done about your refined speaking. Thus, we must explain it in such a way as to not rouse suspicion.”
Gloria sighed. It was hard enough to leave her status as nobility and the only life she had ever known. But now, she had to keep up with so many lies, when she had never told a lie in her life. How would she ever survive in this new world?
A short time later, Gloria and Mrs. Lane arrived at Miltonshire Manor. The grand mansion in Kensington loomed ahead of them, a stark reminder of the life she had lost and the one she was about to begin. Mrs. Lane shared the customs of servitude, the need for subservience, and the necessary humble demeanor. The hackney came to a halt at the servants’ entrance, a stark symbol of Gloria’s new status.
Gloria felt the reality of her situation bearing down on her. The fear was palpable, yet she found solace in Mrs. Lane’s reassurances.
“Remember, I will always be here for you, Gloria, no matter what,” she said.
Gloria nodded, but her head was still spinning. She had to memorize a new identity, as well as a new way of behaving. To say that she was overwhelmed was an understatement, and it took all her willpower to remain focused.
As they stepped out of the hackney and into the bustling world of Kensington, Gloria looked back one last time at the life she was leaving behind. Taking a deep breath, she stepped through the entrance of her new life, the grand mansion looming ominously before her.
A symphony of clinking silverware and rustling silk filled the grand drawing room of the Duke of Meltonshire’s opulent Kensington mansion. Christian Huges sat with his mother and father, and his younger sister for breakfast. The room was a flurry of activity, as a small army of liveried servants scurried about, attending to the family’s every need.
Christian had little interest in the conversation around him, however. From what he gathered, the season’s opening ball was happening in a few days’ time. And none to his surprise, his sister was bubbling with excitement about the affair. She was soon to have her own debut ball, and she had been looking forward to her very first season. Christian adored his sister. He could hardly believe she had grown up so quickly.
She was chattering away so excitedly that their mother had to interrupt her.
“Vicky, dear, you must eat something,” the duchess coaxed, watching her daughter push around the food on her plate. “You’ll need the energy for the Season. And our shopping is not yet finished.”
Vicky, a vibrant young woman of eighteen, grinned.
“Oh, Mama, the excitement itself is more than enough,” she said. “My stomach is too full of butterflies to manage a single bite. Oh, just imagine the ball at Downshire House.” Her eyes shone with anticipation and a dash of fatigue. Christian suspected that days spent shopping for the perfect gowns and accessories had taken their toll on his sister. He himself hated shopping, and only did it on the most necessary of occasions. He made sure he always had fresh suits. But the idea of shopping until one literally dropped was as about appealing to him as having his foot trampled by a horse stampede.
The duchess smiled indulgently at her daughter.
“Darling, of course you are excited,” she said. “But you would have a hard time participating in all the events if you are collapsing with megrims at each one.”
Vicky waved away her mother’s words of caution.
“If we go shopping today, we could go for tea at Gunter’s,” she said. “I simply cannot eat a single bite right now.”
The duchess chuckled, nodding.
“I suppose you’re right, dear,” she said. “A spot of tea at Gunter’s would be a welcomed treat after all that shopping.”
Christian felt a small twinge of guilt. His mother doted on his sister, and never told her no about anything. Christian supposed it was fitting, though. She was the youngest, and she was a young woman. And Christian and his sister loved each other dearly.
Vicky sighed happily.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I found a suitor during my very first season?” she asked.
Their mother beamed at her daughter proudly.
“I would be highly surprised if you did not,” she said. “You are beautiful, charming, and the very definition of refined.”
Vicky blushed heavily at the praise. Despite the amount of spoiling lavished upon her by her parents, she retained a bit of humility.
“I am sure that I will not be the prettiest,” she said. “But I do hope to catch the eye of just the perfect suitor.”
The Duke chuckled, his eyes twinkling.
“I’m sure you’ll turn many a head, my dear,” he said. “Perhaps, you’ll even find one who wishes to make you his wife.”
Vicky beamed at her father, looking at him with big doe eyes.
“Do you really think so, Papa?” she asked.
In that moment, she sounded just like the little girl Christian had grown up with. His protective nature took over and he set aside his plate and shot a glance at his sister.
“There’s really no need to rush, Sister,” he counselled. “Enjoy the festivities. It is your first season, after all. You will not get another first season. Finding suitors and looking for marriage can wait.
His words, though well-meant, ruffled the duke and duchess. He had suspected that he might. But he didn’t want to see his sister rushed in the same way he had been.
“Darling,” his mother said, her tone carrying an edge of warning. “Your sister is now old enough to decide what she wishes for her life. I think it’s best that we don’t try to interfere with her opinions and decisions.”
“Like you just were?” he snapped. He instantly felt guilty when he saw his sister flinch. The last thing he wanted was to take away the joy she felt about the upcoming season. His ideas were not worth hurting his little sister. “What I mean is, it should be her decision. And no one should add any extra pressure to her, during what should be the most wonderful time of her life.”
Vicky relaxed, giving her brother a warm smile.
“Oh, I plan to do both, Brother,” she said. “I will attend all the balls and events, and I will have a lovely time. But I will be ever hoping to find an incredible suitor who will eventually offer for my hand.”
Christian clenched his jaw. He wouldn’t upset his sister again. But he thought that his parents should be more interested in their daughter’s happiness than in marrying her off, at least for one more year.
“As long as it is your choice,” he said, even though he didn’t mean the words.
The duke, his jovial expression souring, turned to his son.
“And what of you, Christian?” he asked. “It’s high time you considered remarrying. Florence has been gone for two years. Theo needs a mother.”
The room’s energy shifted. Christian’s face hardened. It was difficult to keep his mood from affecting his sister’s, especially now that his father had thrown down the gauntlet regarding Christian finding another wife. He wouldn’t have that conversation with his father a second time.
“As Theo’s father, I will decide what he needs, and when,” he said, trying to be careful with his tone. “And thus far, he is doing very well with us and his nursemaid.”
The duchess gave her son a sympathetic look.
“I know how hard it must have been for you to lose Florence,” she said. “But it is keeping you from seeing what is best for Theo.”
Christian clenched his jaw once more. He didn’t point out that his mother couldn’t possibly know what it was to lose a spouse, as hers sat right across from her right then. Nor did he mention that he had never been in love with Florence; that his marriage to her had been all but arranged by the duke and duchess. Instead, he shook his head, looking at his mother with pointed eyes.
“I know what is best for Theo,” he said. “And I think that introducing a whole new person in his life right now is nothing close to what is best.”
The duke cleared his throat, looking at his son with authority.
“Every boy needs a mother, Christian,” he said. “If that weren’t the case, then none of us would have one. You really should consider finding a second wife during this season.”
Christian huffed, giving up all pretenses of keeping himself calm.
“I won’t be a pawn in your game, Father,” he said. “You may have married me off once for the sake of our fortunes, but I won’t let it happen again. If I remarry, it will be my choice.”
The duke bristled, but before the argument could escalate, the drawing room door opened, and in toddled little Theo, hand in hand with his nursemaid. The room brightened instantly, as if the sun had peeked from behind a cloud.
“Papa,” Theo exclaimed, running towards Christian. He stooped and hoisted the boy into his arms, the earlier tension momentarily forgotten.
Christian nodded to the nursemaid. He wasn’t usually fond of her letting Theo take control of her. But in that moment, what he needed more than anything was his son’s bright smile.
“Thank you,” he said, masking his annoyance. “It’s all right if he sits in here with us for a little while.”
The young woman curtseyed and nodded.
“Very well,” she said, pointing to a corner of the drawing room. “I will be just over there, tidying up his toys.”
Christian nodded, but he was no longer looking at the nursemaid. He was ruffling his son’s hair, which was just as dark and curly as his own.
“Good morning, my boy,” he said, happy to not need to engage with his parents for the moment. They had angered him, and he didn’t want Theo to pick up on his tension. “Did you sleep well?”
The young boy nodded, sticking a finger in his mouth.
“Ann woked up,” he announced proudly.
“You certainly did, son,” he said. “Are you hungry?”
The boy surveyed the plates of food on the table carefully, as though he was about to make a life altering decision. Christian chuckled at how serious his son could be sometimes. He supposed that would serve him well when he grew up. Being serious had served Christian well, after all.
After a minute, he walked over to the bowl of strawberries and grapes. He filled his tiny hands with them, then went promptly up to Vicky.
“Eat,” he said, putting some of the fruit pieces in her hand. Then, he took a bite of one of his own, looking at Vicky expectantly.
Vicky giggled, looking up at her brother with awe.
“How could he have known that Mother was just trying to get me to eat?” she asked.
“He is very smart,” he said. “He likely just noticed that, unlike the rest of us, you have no food on your plate.”
She looked down and laughed again.
“I suppose you’re likely right,” she said. She bit into one of the strawberries that Theo had given her, earning her a bright smile of pride from the boy.
“Ya,” he said, taking another bite of his fruit. Then, two wooden toy soldiers sitting at the corner of the table caught his attention. He shoved the rest of the fruit into his mouth, dripping strawberry juice all down his chin and making Vicky and his grandmother laugh with doting endearment. He walked to the other side of his aunt so he could get to the soldiers. Meanwhile, the nursemaid came and tidied up the table, allowing Theo room to play with his toys beside Vicky.
“Perhaps, we should take him to get more toys,” the duchess said, scooting over to reach out and stroke the boy’s cheek.
The duke chuckled heartily.
“He can have as many toys as he would like,” he said.
Christian gave his parents a warning look.
“Perhaps, someone should ask his father if it is all right to buy him another room full of toys,” he said. He kept the edge out of his voice, but his eyes were cool and pointed.
The duke merely shook his head.
“It would hardly hurt to get him a couple more toys,” he said. “Every child should get to have the best childhood possible.”
Christian bit his tongue to keep from issuing another bitter remark. He himself had had toys to play with as a child. But he couldn’t think of once where his family had played with them with him. Still, he was able to curb the stinging in his ego by watching how happy little Theo was.
Vicky sat daintily at the large mahogany table and watched the exuberant display of her toddler nephew. The boy had recently turned three, and he was very well loved by Christian’s entire family. She reached out to Theo, who was presently engaged in a complex maneuver involving his wooden soldiers on the tabletop. “Theo, dear,” she cooed, picking up one of the toy soldiers. “Would you like Aunt Vicky to assist in the battle?”
Theo beamed up at his aunt, nodding eagerly.
“Pay me,” he said.
Vicky giggled yet again, reaching for one of the soldiers. The pair engaged in a brief, but very intense battle between the wooden toys. It wasn’t long before Vicky’s soldier fell down, an indication that Theo’s had beaten it. She gave Christian a wink, indicating that she had allowed him to beat her. Christian smirked. If there was any better aunt in all of England, he would never believe it.
Christian watched as his family cooed over his son, a bitterness settling in his heart. His own childhood had been devoid of such indulgence. And now, the only thing he seemed to be good for to them was to get married to some insufferable woman and end up in another loveless marriage, just to appease them. He simply wasn’t willing to do that. Especially not for a second time.
When he finally broke the silence, his words were laced with a sharp edge once more.
“It seems Theo doesn’t need a mother, since he is so spoiled by all of you,” he said.
Before anyone could say anything else, Christian rose, kissing his son on top of his head. He would allow him to continue playing for a little while. He, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with his family in that moment. Leaving the room in a huff, he ignored the stunned expressions on his family’s faces. His heart was heavy, but his resolve firmer than ever. He would not let his past dictate his future, no matter the cost.
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