ENAMORED WITH A SCARRED LADY
Amy Reid smiled at her fiancé as he escorted her off the ballroom floor for the last time that evening. The couple had dined and danced at Thomas Denton’s expansive manor for several hours, but to Amy, it felt like mere minutes. Being in the Marquess’ company always filled her with warmth and joy, and the anticipation of becoming his wife made her feel as though she were constantly floating on clouds. As Thomas stared dotingly at her, she knew with complete certainty that he felt the same way.
“Did your family leave you behind?” he asked, glancing around for a glimpse of her siblings or parents.
Amy nodded, smiling affectionately. “Mother and Father were growing tired,” she said. “Colin has a meeting early tomorrow morning, and Teresa claimed that she was bored.”
Thomas laughed, his eyes sparkling with fond amusement. “Does bored rather mean frustrated because that young duke she was surveying did not notice her?”
Amy giggled, “I do believe so.”
Thomas nodded knowingly. “Well, she will be making her debut soon, will she not?”
Amy nodded. “Yes, she shall. And I have told her that once she does, she will have her choice of all the handsome young dukes and earls in London.”
Thomas chuckled warmly, filling Amy with such delight. “I suppose that she is just a bit eager.”
Amy suppressed the urge to roll her eyes, thinking back over Teresa’s uncurbable appetite to fill any silence with her moans and platitudes of her upcoming debut. “You do not know the half of it.”
The couple laughed harmoniously as they moved to the center of the ballroom for Thomas to thank the few remaining guests for attending the ball he was hosting and announce that the night was concluded.
Amy had told her family that she would stay behind to help Thomas entertain his guests. As his future wife, it was an honor to volunteer for such a task.
Truthfully, however, she knew that Thomas did not need her help. She had only stayed so that she could spend more time with him. They had almost spent the entire evening dancing with one another, but she felt as though every single moment she could get with him was still not enough.
Soon, all the guests had filtered out of the grand ballroom and were packed inside their coaches. Thomas was escorting Amy to her own carriage. As she and Thomas approached, her lady’s maid smiled shyly.
“Good evening, my Lord,” she said, averting her gaze.
Thomas smiled warmly, “Good evening, Julia.” Then, he turned back to Amy, taking her hand gently into his own. “Thank you for another lovely evening,” he murmured, kissing her hand softly.
A host of butterflies fluttered wildly in Amy’s chest, and she felt her cheeks grow warm. “The pleasure was mine, to be sure,” she whispered, muted by her own dizzying fantasy playing out before her eyes.
Thomas reluctantly released her hand and opened the carriage door, helping her inside. “I shall call on you again very soon, my beautiful cherub,” he confidently declared, his chin lifting with pride, smiling at Amy with deep affection.
“I look forward to it,” Amy breathed, returning his smile. The carriage pulled away slowly. Amy settled back on the bench, sighing happily.
As the coach rolled along, Amy daydreamed about her wedding day. She had already chosen her dress material, and she would be going for fitting later in the week.
She imagined how the soft white silk with silver trim and matching ribbons would look on her once it was finished. She envisioned the love in Thomas’s eyes as he watched her walking down the aisle toward him, anxiously waiting for the moment they became husband and wife. The life they would soon share together flashed before her eyes, and how happy she knew they would be filled her chest with the utmost delight.
Suddenly, the carriage jolted, throwing Amy from the bench. Her maid reached for her as she fell, but it was too late. The maid had just enough time to brace herself before the coach began rolling into a ditch. Amy tried desperately to grab onto something to pull herself back up to one of the seats, but to no avail.
The carriage continued rolling, life tumbling all about in a chaotic swirl, and Amy simply closed her eyes. The last thought she had before everything went black was of her beloved Thomas…
When Amy awoke, it was with a vicious start. She tried to sit instantly upright, but pain shot throughout her body and set fire to the left side of her face. Whimpering, she lowered herself back down, trying to look at her surroundings and figure out where she was.
Her left eye was bandaged shut, and her right eye was watering from the tremendous pain. She rested her head back on what she gradually realized was a stack of pillows, situated in such a way to keep her in a slight upright position. She gingerly lifted her hand to her right eye and wiped at the dampness that was blurring her vision.
Once she could see more clearly, she looked around once more. She was in her bedroom in her family’s home and, at the moment, she was all alone. She tried to recall what had happened, and why she was in so much pain, but the effort caused her head to ache. She opened her mouth to call out to someone, but her voice was weak and hoarse, as though she had not spoken a word in days.
Just then, the door to her room opened quietly. Amy strained to see who was entering. Through her blurred vision, she struggled to make out the features, but she could just make out a doctor’s coat, and what appeared to be a medical bag in one hand. When he noticed her moving, he rushed to her side and put his hand on her shoulder.
“You must not move too quickly,” he urged softly. “Lie back, my dear. You have been terribly injured.”
Amy shook her head, confused. “What happened?” she croaked. “Who are you?”
The man poured some water into a glass and gently lifted Amy’s head. He put the glass to her lips and helped her take a drink. The action caused her great discomfort, but the water was soothing to her parched, burning throat.
“My name is Dr. Price,” he said in the same soft voice. “You were in a terrible carriage accident, and you have been unconscious for nearly five days.”
Amy’s head spun as she suddenly recalled being tossed about the coach like a straw doll. Her left hand moved gently to the left side of her face, and she grazed the bandages with her fingertips.
“Why is my face bandaged?” she asked. Her voice was still weak, but the water had soothed some of its hoarseness.
The doctor looked away, as if in shame. “You sustained several severe injuries,” he stated slowly, approaching the issue at hand with care and hesitance. “Most of them will heal with time. But…” he trailed off and glanced around the room, as if trying to choose his words carefully. “Your face suffered the most damage.”
Amy’s heart pounded in her chest. “What do you mean?” she inquired, and once more attempted to sit up. She demanded answers to his cryptic, terrifying words.
Dr. Price patted her shoulder, gesturing for her to lay still. “You should be resting now. There is no need to upset you with the details.”
Amy turned her head to look him in his eyes as best she could.
“Please, Dr. Price,” she said. “What has happened to my face?”
The doctor sighed. He looked at Amy, his face lined with sympathy and regret. “Your face sustained severe injuries,” he repeated. “In fact, it is a miracle that you survived at all. It took several hours to stitch up all the wounds, and I very nearly lost you a couple of times. I did my best, but…” he trailed off again.
Amy’s breath caught in her throat, and she felt dizzy. The pain, blending with the doctor’s words, threatened to take consciousness from her once more. She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths, willing herself to stay focused. “What are you saying?”
Dr. Price shook his head, and his eyes grew sad and distant; perhaps Amy’s vision was too poorly damaged but she swore she witnessed a flash of remorse come over his features. “Despite my best efforts, I am afraid that, even once the wounds are healed, they were too deep and serious to return to normal. You will have significant scarring on the left side of your face for the rest of your life.”
Amy closed her eyes once more, trying to make the world stop spinning. When she opened them again, she set a firm gaze on the doctor. “Let me see,” she demanded.
The doctor looked at her, his eyes widening with concern. After a moment, however, he sighed and resigned to her request.
He opened the drawer beside her bed and pulled out a hand mirror. Then, he moved to the left side of her bed and began gently removing the bandages from her face. Amy trembled, resisting the urge to look in the mirror until the last bandage was removed. Once it was done, Dr. Price stepped back and once more averted his gaze.
With a shaky hand, Amy lifted the mirror and looked at her reflection. When she saw the horror that had become her face, unconsciousness claimed her once more.
“Amy,” Colin called softly from her doorway the following day.
“Don’t look at me,” she said, turning her face away from her brother.
Colin approached her bed and sat in the chair beside it. He took her hand and gently patted it. “Dearest sister,” he said, his voice warm and concerned. “Please, do not hide your face. Not from me.”
Amy’s heart ached. She desperately wanted to seek comfort in her brother’s eyes. They had always been close, and it was clear that he wished to be there for her when she needed him most. But she knew how grotesque she looked, and she could not bear it if he found her hideous.
“Amy,” Colin cooed. “I do not give a tinker’s damn about how it looks. I love you, and I always will. I am just glad that you survived.”
Amy felt the ghost of a smile on her lips. It was not unlike Colin to be able to guess her thoughts. With a sigh, she squeezed her brother’s hand and slowly turned to face him. She held her breath as he surveyed the deep, stitched cuts on her face, his expression blank.
When she dared to look into his eyes, she saw concern and dejection—and love. There was no sign of repulsion or disgust, and her eyes filled with tears of relief.
“Poor dear,” he sighed, rising to gently embrace his sister. She hugged him back, grateful as ever for their relationship.
“The doctor said it is permanent,” she whispered, burying the uninjured side of her face into her brother’s shoulder as she cried.
He held her in silence for a few moments, and Amy realized that he too was crying. When he released her, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed gently at her cheeks. A sign of love and care—something which Amy needed desperately.
“You will always be my beautiful little sister,” he assured her, wiping at his own tears with his hand. “I do not know what I would have done if…” he trailed off, his voice thick with emotion.
Amy reached up and gently squeezed his arm. “It is all right,” she said. “I will be fine.” Even in her weakened state, Amy felt the urge to comfort her brother. Colin was her big brother, and there would always be a deep-seated relationship with him.
Colin nodded and smiled through his tears. “Well, I came to ask if you are feeling up to having visitors,” he admitted, clearly glad to change the subject. “Thomas came calling this morning, but Father told him to return tomorrow—if you’re up for it.”
Amy’s eyes grew wide. “He cannot see me like this,” she said, her voice trembling.
Colin smiled warmly, an attempt to instill her with much-needed confidence. “Amy, you are marrying him. Don’t you think you will need to see him sooner or later?”
Amy closed her eyes and sighed. She desperately wished to see Thomas, but she was afraid. What if he would not be as compassionate as her brother had been about her wounds?
“He loves you dearly,” Colin continued, once more guessing her thoughts. “And this is hardly your fault. I do not believe he will stop loving you over something like this.”
Amy nodded slowly; Colin was right. She needed to have faith in the love that she and Thomas shared. “You are right,” she sighed. “I would love to see him when he returns tomorrow.”
Colin patted her hand and smiled. “There’s my brave, strong sister.” He rose from his position. “I shall go and let you rest, but I will check on you later and bring you a tray of dinner.”
Amy nodded and settled back against the pillows. “Thank you, Colin.”
Colin smiled again and nodded. “Anything for my little sister.”
The following morning, Thomas arrived early. Amy was still unable to leave her bed without a great deal of assistance, so one of the maids accompanied him into her bedchamber.
As he entered the room, Amy did her best to smile, ignoring the searing pain in the left side of her face. When she saw his expression, however, her smile faltered.
The Marquess stopped several paces from her bed. He stared at Amy, his face paling and his eyes growing wide. He clasped his hands in front of him and averted his gaze, but not before she saw the look of horror it held. “Amy?” he asked breathlessly.
Her heart began to race. Did he look that way because he had been frightened, like Colin? Or would her worst fear be realized?
“I am so glad you came,” she began, reaching for him with one hand.
Thomas recoiled and took another step back. “It is good to see you on the mend,” he muttered, still not looking directly at Amy. “I-I came to…” he trailed off, shaking his head as if trying to rid himself of an unwanted thought.
Amy bit her lip. The pain was now barely noticeable over the growing heaviness in her heart.
“It is horrific, isn’t it?” she asked weakly.
Thomas looked at her at last. He appeared to put great effort into not reacting or looking away, but he failed at both. His brow broke out in a sweat, and he turned his body so that he was facing the wall rather than Amy.
“It will heal with time, will it not?” Thomas asked.
Amy shook her head sadly. “The scarring is permanent.”
Thomas glanced around the room, making no effort to look at Amy once more. A moment later, Thomas turned toward the door.
“I am sorry,” he said, his voice so distant and cold that Amy shivered. “I must go.”
Before Amy could say anything more, Thomas rushed through the open door. She stared after him silently, praying that it had only been shocked that made him behave that way, and that he would return the following day.
Thomas did not return. What arrived the following morning in his stead was a letter. Amy had to read it several times, even though it only contained a single sentence:
Please, forgive me, but I can no longer marry you.
As the weight of his words settled into her heart, Amy began to cry.
“Whoa there, Chestnut,” Amy said, gently tugging on her horse’s reigns.
Chestnut stomped his front hooves in playful protest, but he gradually slowed from his excited, giddy trot. It was clear that he enjoyed the crisp morning air and beautiful countryside scenery just as much as Amy.
She rode Chestnut almost every single morning, and neither of them ever tired of the trails, the streams, or the bright blue sky. As she slowly guided Chestnut back toward the stables, she mused at how her young horse was more of a dear friend to her than a mere riding animal. She had whispered many secret fears and worries to the horse on their rides. Though he could not speak to her, she felt that he listened and that he loved her every bit as much as she loved him.
As the stables came into view, Amy tugged on the steed’s reigns once more, slowly bringing him to a stop. She dismounted him, smoothing her scarlet riding habit once she was securely on the ground.
The habit had been a gift from her father right after her accident, and she had loved it immediately. Its male cuffs and gold buttons and trim shimmered brilliantly in the sun, and the deep, rich red color complemented her porcelain skin tone. It was one of few things that made her feel beautiful again—however briefly.
She walked the horse the remaining steps to the stables and hugged his strong, majestic neck.
“Good boy,” she cooed, running her fingers through his groomed mane. “I shall see you tomorrow morning.”
As if in response, Chestnut nuzzled her head, gently grazing her hair with his lips. Amy laughed and kissed him. Then, she handed the reigns to the stable hand and hurried to the grand barn just behind the stables. The sound that greeted her as she stepped inside warmed her heart, and she rushed toward it.
Inside a small cloth and feather lined cage lay a small white rabbit. Well, lay was no longer accurate. For the first time since she had rescued the poor injured thing a fortnight prior, the rabbit was trying to balance on her back legs, sniffing the air. When Amy reached the cage, the little rabbit’s ears perked up.
“Good morning, sweet chit,” she crooned, picking up the small animal.
The rabbit looked at Amy with wide, alert eyes, and Amy gently stroked the top of her head. The animal turned her head so that she could smell Amy’s hand, gently grazing it with her teeth.
“You are hungry today,” Amy observed, carefully turning the rabbit over in her hand so she could look at the injured leg she had kept wrapped with gauze and a tiny splint.
Fortunately, the leg had not been broken, but it had been sprained badly enough that the small animal would have made easy prey for larger, more able-bodied animals.
She gingerly massaged the leg, testing how the sensation felt to the rabbit. When it sat still in her hands and allowed her to complete her task with minimal resistance, Amy smiled.
“You will be ready to return to the forest soon,” she assured the fuzzy little critter.
She kissed the rabbit gently on the head and placed her back in the cage. Then, she fetched a small carrot from the basket on the ground and placed it in front of the animal, unsurprised when she began eagerly nibbling on it straight away; its cheeks were swelling as it chomped away at the vegetable.
“How is she doing, my dear?” said a voice from the barn doorway.
Amy turned around and smiled warmly at her father. “She is healing nicely. She should be ready to be released very soon.”
The Earl of Winterton walked slowly toward his eldest daughter and the little creature. He stood and admired the rabbit for a moment before gently reaching into stroke her head.
“You have cared well for her,” the Earl noted, smiling warmly at his daughter.
“It is very rewarding to care for poor, wounded things such as she,” she said.
Her father smiled and nodded knowingly. “I understand how much you love animals and this countryside.”
Amy nodded fervently, smiling at her father once more. His affection toward the small rabbit warmed her heart, and her heart swelled with gratitude at her father’s support for her hobby.
He had always ensured that she had everything she needed to care for any of the sick or injured animals she brought home from her rides or walks through the trails, and he always checked in on their progress. He also did his best to be with her when she released each one back into its natural habitat. He even held and comforted her as she cried when she failed to save a baby bird a couple of months before.
He had, in fact, been very supportive of her in every way in the years since her accident. He had especially been understanding of her decision to move permanently to the countryside home, and he had never pressured her to return to society or to try to find a husband again. He had been compassionate and loving, and she felt that she owed a great deal of her recovery to him.
“It is cathartic here,” she said. “And helping animals makes me feel useful.”
Her father nodded again. For a moment, Amy thought she saw his sorrowful eyes. Then, he blinked, and it was gone.
“Will you take a walk with me?” he asked.
Amy furrowed her brow in confusion, but she secured the rabbit’s cage and nodded.
“Of course, Father,” she said. “Is everything all right?”
The Earl offered his arm to his daughter and slowly began walking with her out of the barn. “I must speak with you about something important, my dear.”
Amy gave her father a puzzled smile. “I must say that this sounds rather grave.” Her voice was light, but the concern was rapidly filling her heart.
They walked in silence for a few moments, heading back the direction from which she had come with Chestnut earlier.
“As I’m sure you know, your mother and I will be taking Colin and Teresa back to London in three days,” he said at last.
“Yes,” she nodded, “Teresa is so excited about her debut ball. It is all she has talked about for the last week.”
The Earl smiled and nodded. “That she is,” he began, his voice trailing off on the pleasant thought before he pressed on. “Your mother will certainly keep very busy trying to plan it and keep up with her.”
Amy shook her head, smiling fondly. “Well, I shall be here to do everything I can to help both of them. Even though I will not be returning to London, I will not let Mother and Teresa down.”
The Earl stopped walking and clasped his hands behind his back. He looked up at Amy and sighed. “Your mother and I think that you should return with us.”
Amy’s eyes widened. “But Father, you promised me that I could stay here. That I would never need to return to London.”
“I know, my dear,” the Earl nodded, his voice full of regret. “But the debut ball is of great importance to your sister, and your mother does not want you to miss it. They asked me to speak with you and request that you come with us.”
Amy stared at her father, shaking her head slowly. “I will never be part of regular society again, Father… How can they expect me to try?”
The Earl took his daughter’s hands. “I know how anxious you must be about this, but perhaps it will turn out to be good for you.”
Amy bit her lip. She did not believe for a moment that returning to London would be good at all for her. She was angry with her family for trying to force her to do so, and she was terrified of returning to a life where people gawked at her and mocked her. But her father’s eyes were warm and pleading, and she knew how important a debut ball was.
She loved her family and she knew that their request was not made out of malice; they did not wish for her to be made a fool of either. She also knew that doing as they asked was the right thing to do—no matter how afraid she was. Amy had to find comfort in being amongst her family; the people who truly loved and protected her.
She looked into her father’s nervous face and gave him a small smile. “Very well,” she said, squeezing his hands. “I shall return to London with you all.”
The Earl’s face brightened. He gently embraced his daughter. “Thank you, my dear,” he whispered joyously. “Shall we go tell everyone?”
After the moment it took for her stomach to twist and then settle, Amy nodded. The Earl offered his arm to his eldest daughter, and they walked back up to the country house together.
As she had anticipated, her family was overjoyed to learn that she had agreed to go with them. Even her mother, who was usually prim and proper, seemed thrilled and relieved. Amy smiled outwardly, not wishing to put a damper on the happy atmosphere. Inside, however, her heart raced, and her mind spun.
As they dined that evening, Amy smiled and nodded when the conversation was directed at her, but she said little. Her thoughts were utterly consumed by her dread of going back to London.
Once the meal was concluded, Amy went straight to her room. As she closed the door behind her, however, there was a knock on it. She opened it to see her younger sister standing there; her eyes wide and bright.
“May I come in?” Teresa beckoned from the doorway.
Amy smiled and nodded. “Of course,” she said, opening the door wider. Teresa entered the room and promptly put her arms around her sister.
Amy laughed. “What is all this?”
Teresa giggled. “Can’t a girl hug her sister just because she loves her?”
Amy raised her eyebrow. “She certainly can. Except for when she is planning a large social event and has enlisted the aforementioned sister’s help.”
Teresa laughed. She looked at Amy with affection. “I simply wanted to say thank you.”
Amy blinked, confused. “Thank me? For what?”
Teresa took her hand. “For agreeing to return to London for me,” she said, suddenly sounding shy and timid.
Amy squeezed her sister’s hand. “Of course, I would come to be a part of your debut ball.” She tried to make her face as soft and reassuring as possible, but her stomach was beginning to turn once again at the thought. “You are my sister, and I love you.”
Teresa nodded and smiled sweetly at Amy. “I know,” she breathed. “But I wanted you to know that I understand how difficult what you are doing is for you, and I felt that you should know how grateful I am to you.”
Amy forced herself to keep her smile. Though she and her sister were not quite as close as she and Colin, she still adored her sister, and she knew that Teresa cared about her, too.
Teresa, much like their mother, often had trouble acknowledging Amy’s scars and usually tried to avoid looking at them. However, she had defended Amy against people they had encountered in public, before Amy had left for the country when they shunned Amy in her presence.
Teresa’s display of gratitude made Amy feel a bit guilty. Though she did wish to give her sister her support, she was only returning with the family because her parents weren’t giving her a choice.
“I know that you would have much rather stayed here,” Teresa continued hurriedly, as though reading Amy’s thoughts. “I just wanted you to know that I am glad that you’re coming.”
Amy smiled at her sister once more. No matter how much she hated the idea of being back in London, there was no way she was going to make it her sister’s issue.
She hugged Teresa once more and squeezed her gently. “It is my pleasure,” she forced out, as kindly as she could, “Besides, who knows? I might enjoy it.”
Dreaming big, aren’t we? She thought to herself.
Teresa released Amy and looked at her, her eyes sparkling. “I am so glad to hear you say that,” she absolutely oozed. “I want you to be happy in town, too.”
Amy nodded, keeping her expression bright and happy. “I will be fine. You just concentrate on your ball.”
Teresa smiled widely again as she turned back toward the open door. “You are my favorite sister.”
Amy laughed at the joke they had shared since they were little girls. “And I am your only sister.”
Teresa giggled as she bade her sister goodnight and disappeared down the hallway. Once the chit was out of sight, Amy closed her door and undressed for bed.
She was glad to see her sister so happy about her return to London. However, she could not make herself feel as thrilled about the idea as she pretended to be. When she was finally ready to climb into her bed, she pulled the blankets all the way up to her chin and hugged her pillow.
Only there, in the safe quiet of her country bedroom, did she, at last, let her brave face falter, and her pain and fear of returning to town pour from her soul in waves of tears.
Matthew Seymour swallowed another wave of nausea, but it wasn’t the impact of the rough seas that made him feel out of sorts. For the first time since he had found his love for the sea, the cozy cabin of his ship, The Queen Coral, felt like little more than a parchment-thin shield between him and the world from which he often sought refuge.
The letter he received from his father had managed to invade the security and comfort he only felt while aboard his ship. He reread the letter, for what felt like the millionth time, praying that his eyes had deceived him and that his father was not asking him to return to London.
Unfortunately, the words on the page did not change, and Matthew swallowed again. His father was requesting that he return to his childhood home; to begin taking responsibility for his duties as the future Duke of Stonewater.
With a sigh, Matthew ran a hand through his hair and tucked the letter in the drawer of his escritoire. He saw little point in penning a reply to his father since he would not be able to send it until he returned to the London docks.
Instead, he reluctantly rose from his seat and began preparations with the ship’s crew to change course and make the return trip. He knew he could not break the promise he made to his father. The promise that he would return any time his father wished, but his heart was heavy nonetheless.
The next morning, Matthew awoke early to watch the sunrise, the last one he would get to watch on the open sea. For a time, he allowed the cool breeze wafting off the water and the beautiful orange and pink streaks in the morning sky to soothe his apprehension.
The ocean became both his most loyal friend and his greatest love after a terrible fever had taken his beloved wife just months into their marriage two years prior. Though he still missed her dearly, being out at sea brought him the healing and comfort he never succeeded in finding on land.
As the London docks came into view, however, his stomach began to tighten once more. Gone were the days where he could turn to the waves for solace and solitude. With a deep sigh and a heavy heart, he prepared for the ship to dock.
He took his time disembarking. He did not know when he would set foot aboard next, and he intended to hang onto his already fading peace of mind for as long as possible before rejoining society. When, at last, he could dawdle no longer, he dragged himself off his ship and onto the docks.
It took him a moment to spot the carriage his father had sent to fetch him. The docks were crowded, which made Matthew feel claustrophobic. He tried to avoid eye contact with any of the people passing by and just focus on finding the carriage. He fixed his gaze straight ahead and, at last, saw the waiting coach.
As he approached it, a young man exited his own carriage. It only took him a moment to recognize the man, and he smiled his first genuine smile since receiving his father’s letter.
As though feeling eyes on him, the man turned in Matthew’s direction. A second later, a smile spread across the man’s face as well. He reached Matthew in no time and clapped him heartily on the shoulder.
“Matthew Seymour is that really you?” he asked, pulling him into a firm hug.
Matthew enthusiastically returned his old friend’s embrace. He and Colin Reid had been friends for many years, but he had not seen him since before his wife died. Colin had been out of town when Elizabeth had passed away, and shortly after, Matthew had begun sailing the seas.
“That is quite a ship,” Colin complimented, marveling at The Queen Coral.
Matthew smiled fondly. “It was a gift from my father. He gave it to me after…” he trailed off, a lump forming in his throat.
Colin grew serious for a moment. He looked at Matthew with a sorrowful gaze.
“Please, accept my condolences for Elizabeth.” His head bowed in respect.
Matthew clenched his jaw and nodded. “Thank you, my friend,” he managed to utter. He gave Colin a small smile and a clap on the shoulder. “Now, I am married to the sea.”
The dark cloud of remorse left Colin’s face, and he smiled. “She certainly is a beautiful mistress, is she not?”
Matthew nodded. “To my eyes, there is none more beautiful,” he said softly.
Colin smiled widely with his chest expanding with pride, and Matthew thought he saw him blush.
“Well, I have found one who, to me, is more beautiful by far.”
Matthew raised his eyebrows, bemused. “Oh?” he asked, intrigued.
Colin nodded, still grinning. “Her name is Louisa Dowding,” he said, his voice overflowing with uncontrollable excitement. “She is the daughter of a baron, and she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
Matthew smiled at his friend’s enthusiasm. Most certainly, he was happy for Colin. But hearing talk of beautiful women made him think only of his dear Elizabeth. Nevertheless, he put his hand on his friend’s arm. He would not let his own dejection become Colin’s.
“That is splendid news,” he said, giving Colin’s shoulder a hearty shake. “Congratulations.”
Colin nodded fervently, a heat overcoming his face. “Thank you, my friend. I would like to introduce you to her whenever it is convenient. How long will you be in London?”
Matthew stifled a groan and his resentment at having to be back at all. “I expect to be here for quite some time.”
Colin nodded again, not noticing Matthew’s unhappiness. “Very good,” he began. “We are having dinner at my family’s home in a couple of days—to celebrate our engagement. Please, say that you will come.”
Matthew plastered on another false smile. The last thing he wanted was a social engagement, especially when he had only just returned to town. However, it was refreshing to see a friendly, comforting face, and he did not wish to be rude to his old friend.
“If my father does not have other plans, I will attend,” he finally forced from his lips.
Colin grinned again. “I am glad,” he said. “I am certain that my parents would love to see you again, as well.”
Matthew nodded. He had gotten to know Colin’s parents well throughout their friendship, and he greatly respected them. Despite his lack of desire to engage in social activities, he felt that seeing some familiar faces might help ease his distaste for having been pulled away from the sea.
“That is mutual, my friend,” he conferred.
Shortly after, the two men exchanged their farewells, and Matthew boarded the carriage that would take him to his father’s home.
The trip was a solemn one. He would be glad to see his parents again, but he could not simply pretend that his arrival was one of a brief family reunion. He knew that this was the beginning of the way the rest of his life would go. Although he had always known this was how things would be, he was not quite ready.
Nevertheless, as the carriage continued onward to his childhood home, he resolved that he would face hid duties and responsibilities as the man his parents had raised him to be.
As the coach pulled up to Stonewater Manor, Matthew took a deep breath. It was just as he remembered it, though now it seemed to loom oppressively rather than beckoning him welcomingly, as it once had.
He could not help remembering the first time he had brought Elizabeth to the manor and how happy they had been. His heart ached as he recalled her meeting his parents, and he clenched his jaw against the tears that began forming in his eyes. He reluctantly alighted the carriage when it came to a stop and made his way to the front door.
The butler opened the heavy wooden door after his first knock. The man smiled warmly at him and bowed.
“Good day, m’Lord,” he greeted. “It is good to see you again.”
Matthew smiled and dipped his head in respect. “Hello, Watson. It is good to see you as well.”
“Your parents asked me to escort you into the dining room when you arrived.”
Matthew smiled and nodded his head in affirmation. “Very well,” he said. “I do hope that I am not intruding on their meal.”
The butler led him down the hall toward the dining hall. Truthfully, Matthew was far from hungry, despite his long journey. But if it pleased his parents, he would join them.
As they entered the room, Matthew stifled a groan. His parents sat at the table, along with a handful of guests. He was wholly unprepared for social interaction, especially when he hadn’t even had the chance to regain his bearings. Nevertheless, as the butler announced his arrival to everyone, he put on a small smile and bowed politely.
Everyone ceased conversing and rose to greet him. He walked over to his mother and gave her a small kiss on her cheek. “Hello, Mother,” he said, his voice even and quiet.
“Matthew, darling,” she cooed, returning his kiss. “I trust your trip was a pleasant one.”
Matthew nodded. “Quite pleasant, thank you.” He turned to his father, who extended his hand for a shake.
Matthew shook it firmly and nodded. “Good evening, Father.”
“It is good to have you back, son,” he said brusquely, gesturing to an empty seat to his left. “Please, sit and join us.”
Introductions were passed all around the table. Matthew learned that he did, in fact, know four of the guests. They were Lord and Lady Lamton, close friends of his parents whom he had met once years ago as a child, and Lord and Lady Parkton.
His father had begun business dealings with Lord Parkton just after Matthew and Elizabeth had married. Lord Stonewater had introduced his son to the man with the intention of including him in their business ventures in the future.
Matthew smiled and nodded politely to everyone, exchanging pleasantries and greetings. Then, his father gestured to the two people who were entirely unfamiliar to him.
“This is Patrick Miles, the Duke of Baldur,” he explained. “And this is his daughter, Lady Ingrid.”
Matthew did his best to broaden his charming faux smile. He bowed once more to the Duke and his daughter. “It is a pleasure to meet both of you.”
The Duke bowed, and his daughter curtseyed politely.
“Lord and Lady Stonewater have told us so much about you,” Lady Ingrid announced sweetly; her voice was a touch mousy but remained pleasant enough.
Matthew stiffened, but he maintained his expression. “I assure you that none of what you have heard is true,” he said in jest.
The remark elicited hearty chuckles throughout the dining hall, and Matthew took the laughter as his cue to sit.
The conversation that his arrival had interrupted resumed. He sat quietly, content to allow everyone to talk amongst themselves. From what he gathered, Lady Ingrid was going to be debuting into society in the upcoming London Season.
Matthew shuddered at the thought of those dances, and he hoped that he would not have to attend them any time soon. As heir to a dukedom, he knew he would be expected to attend many social events, but he hoped to put off this inevitable inconvenience for as long as possible.
The night passed in a blur, with everyone engrossed in discussing Lady’s Ingrid’s debut. Matthew felt that the end of the evening could not come soon enough. When, at last, the guests dispersed, and Matthew was free to go to his old childhood bedroom, he collapsed onto the bed and fell into a deep sleep.
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