Prologue

Robert

New Forest, Hampshire, 1808.

“Pray do not let this journey last much longer,” Robert said to himself as he stretched in the back of the carriage. He had scarcely been travelling for a few hours, but he already longed to be at his destination.

Beyond the windows, night was beginning to draw in, with the sun setting behind a thicket of trees. It was always the same with travelling through New Forest. The sun would set quickly, masking itself from view behind branches, leaving just enough of the sky visible for Robert to see red and orange streaks between the clouds. Seeing a glimpse of that sky now, he leaned closer toward the sunset, feeling a smile take over his face.

She would love such a sunset.

His betrothed had said more than once how much she adored the sunset, calling it both the most romantic and miraculous time of day.

“Do you not think it a miracle?” she had said to him once as they crossed his estate, looking out across the lawn toward the sun.

“A miracle? Whatever for? Science, yes, with the turning of the earth, we hide the sun from our view, that is all,” he said, knowing the science full well from his years of lessons and time at university, yet his betrothed had stopped and turned to him with a mischievous smile.

“I know the science,” she had said, then pointed to the setting sun again. “But does science not seem like magic to you sometimes?” She turned her focus on the sunset. “Each day we watch the sun say goodbye to us, and we pray that it will come up again the following morning. Yes, it is a miracle indeed, to think how far away the sun is, and yet how much we rely on it. We are a world that hates to say goodbye to people, yet we say goodbye to that sun every day.”

Her whimsical way of looking at the world had made him smile and follow her as she continued to walk across the lawn, as though trying to get a little closer to that sunset.

He had despaired during their last goodbye, seeing the sadness on her face at the idea that he would be away for almost a week.

Robert lifted his eyes and stared at the streaked sky above the forest, wishing his betrothed were with him now. He hated to be apart from her, especially after so many years of living practically in and out of one another’s pockets, but what choice did he have?

He reached into the pocket of his jacket, pulling out a sheet of parchment and hurrying to peel back the letter from his father.

Dearest Robert,

Pray, come and see us soon. I know you love your life in London, dear boy, I loved it myself when I was your age! Yet your mother longs to see you and talks at length of how much she misses you. I do not talk of it as much, but you know me well enough to know I ache as much as she does.

Please, come soon. We are staying at our house in Bath for the next few weeks. Come stay for a few days at least. We want to hear all your news from London, and I believe your mother is keen to ask after the wedding preparations too. She even has her old wedding gown, which she has suggested your betrothed might like to wear for the day.

Write back to us soon.

Your ever-loving father,

John Douglas, Duke of Somerset.

Robert smiled as he folded up the letter and put it away again in his pocket. After receiving the letter, he had written back to his father at once, promising to come within three days to see his parents. He loved them dearly, and the distractions of London only kept him away for so long. He was more than happy to return home to see them.

He only wished his betrothed could have spared the time to come with him.

Before he could think any more about her, the carriage jolted to the side. It was so sudden that Robert stretched out a hand, gripping the cream-cushioned bench beneath him in surprise.

“Thomas?” he cried to the coach driver, reaching forward to stretch his head out of the window. “What was that?”

“I think it was a pothole, my lord!” Thomas called back.

Uncertain at the words, Robert went to sit back, when the carriage rocked aggressively from one side to the other—he was thrown back completely on the bench, until his spine cracked uncomfortably. He was about to lean forward and shout to Thomas again, when the carriage veered completely off the path.

It shifted dangerously at an angle, with the horses whinnying madly in despair. Robert turned his head out of the window, seeing not only the trees darting past at a ridiculous speed, but the branches that kept striking the sides of the carriage.

He reached toward the window, knowing he had to get out of the carriage, before it crashed and injured him beyond repair, but by the time he reached the window, the trees were a blur.

“No!” Thomas roared the word in panic.

Robert snapped his head round, trying to crane his neck to see what was happening at the front of the carriage, but he could see nothing. Yet he felt the carriage tip completely. For a moment, they were travelling just on two wheels, at an awful diagonal angle, and then they tipped over completely.

Robert felt his body smack against the side of the wood, with his head striking the window frame so hard that it bounced back in the air. He was lying on the door like it was the new floor of the carriage, as it skidded along the earth and tree roots, coming to a slow halt with the sounds of tree branches snapping loudly and the horses neighing in panic.

When all was still, Robert tried to breathe, yet could not manage a deep breath. He felt swamped, looking up to see part of the carriage had caved in and he was pressed beneath it, with his head trapped and unable to move.

He opened his mouth to call for help, or to even shout to Thomas to see if he was well, yet no sound came out. The brief sight he had of splintered wooden fragments began to blur into a black hue, until all semblance of reality was swept away. Within seconds, Robert was lost in that darkness.

Chapter 1

Elias

New Forest, Hampshire, 1810.

“Sleep, you fool, sleep,” Elias whispered to himself as he buried his head beneath the pillow that was stuffed with old straw. It was always the same at night. He struggled to sleep, for he knew the dreams would come again. These days, they came more and more often, but what choice did he have? He needed the sleep to keep functioning, so he would be forced back into the torment of those dreams, no matter how much he did not want them.

It wasn’t long before those dreams reclaimed him. With his head pressed beneath the pillow to block out the sound of the leaking roof as the drops tinkled into a chamber pot nearby, he slipped slowly into sleep.

Elias was walking through a forest, with the tree roots gnarled beneath his feet, forcing him to trip repeatedly in his fine Hessian boots. He was wearing different clothes again. Gone were the cheap waistcoat and torn shirt that had been repeatedly darned. In their place, he was wearing a fine set of trousers, with an excessively well-made shirt and a waistcoat that was made of silk, embroidered with patterns of leaves.

“My lord, we cannot stay here!” a voice cried up ahead.

He lifted his gaze from the forest floor and sought out the voice. It came from a young lady who was standing amongst the trees, her figure small and slight against the thickness of the oak tree trunks. She giggled as he walked toward her, unable to get her in focus.

“That storm is coming,” she called as she ran away from him, around one of the oak trees.

“We are safe for now,” he insisted, diving back round the tree, in desperation to catch her. She squealed playfully when he nearly did, and then she dove back the other way. He barely managed to touch her dress, receiving just a caress of pale blue silk beneath his fingers before she had escaped him. “That storm will not catch us.”

“You always say that, then inevitably we always end up trapped in the rain,” she said, giggling as she hid from him behind the tree.

He paused on one side, inching along, intent on sneaking up on her and catching her.

“Just last week we were caught in the rain,” she said. “Our poor chaperone was astonished to see us come back in such a state.”

“Then let them be astonished today,” he said with a chuckle, jumping in front of her and catching her at last. She laughed as he placed his hands on either side of her against the tree, trapping her in with their playful game.

“We have already outrun our chaperone once today. If we do not go back soon, we will be in trouble.”

“What do I care if we are?” he said with humor as he finally got a good look at her face.

It was the same woman again, the one he often chased through this forest. She was breathing heavily, her chest fluttering up and down with her laughter. She was the prettiest woman he had ever seen, with blue eyes so crystal clear, the color of the sky on a sunny day, and fair blonde hair, so soft that it cascaded down from her updo, curling temptingly around her shoulders. Her lips were pale pink and parted as she looked up at him, tempting him to steal a kiss from her.

“The storm will not catch us,” he assured her, desperate to stay in this private world with her a little longer. In answer to his words, there was a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder. The lady jumped within his arms, looking up sharply at the trees.

“Ha! I think the storm has sought to correct you.” She collapsed into more giggles as the heavens opened and tipped heavy droplets of rain down on them.

“Emphatically so,” he said as they both grew sodden within seconds. The rain was so strong that the droplets were running off his hair and down his cheeks. The lady’s dress was soon so dampened that it stuck to her figure, with the skirt molding around her legs, and her blonde hair almost appearing brown as it stuck to her neck. “I should apologize. My insistence on a picnic has meant your new dress is ruined.”

“What do I care for that?” she said. “I have enjoyed our day. It was certainly worth a little dampness.” Her smile made him smile all the more. What another lady would think as she did? She never cared much for propriety, and neither did she bother herself with what others thought. What mattered to her was enjoying life to the fullest. It was an infectious feeling, and being around her made him thrum with excitement, wanting to revel in the feeling with her.

“I do not think you will ever cease to amaze me,” he said with a whisper, leaning down toward her.

“Truly? How disappointing,” she teased. “I hope to amaze you a lot more yet, my lord.” The flirtation made him chuckle and lean even closer toward her. He hardly cared about the rain, loving the feeling of being out here alone with her, as the scent of the dampened forest filled his nostrils, and the rain falling in puddles masked the birdsong.

He was intent on kissing her. He had kissed her before, a few stolen touches away from their chaperone, but today . . . he wanted a new kind of kiss. He was about to close his lips over hers when there was another crack of thunder overhead. She jumped, her hands going to the lapels of his jacket and clinging to him as she looked up to the sky.

“Look at you,” he said with humor, seeing how sodden she had become. “Let’s get you back before you catch a chill.”

“It would be worth it,” she said, though as he stepped away from her, she followed. He grabbed a picnic basket up from the earth where he had discarded it, hooking it under his arm before offering his hand to her. She took it eagerly, pressing their palms together.

When a third clap of thunder followed, they both ran, heading back in the direction of the house. They slipped between trees and jumped over roots and puddles, until the wet soil was travelling up his Hessian boots and the hem of her dress. The further they went, the more the trees began to thin, with oak trees becoming slim birch trees, and the leaves growing less dense.

As they reached the edge of the forest, the lady pulled on Elias’ hand a little, urging him to stop. He caught the glimpse of an estate through the mist. It was old, incredibly so, made out of grey stone with timber-beam accents, indicating it may have been Tudor in design. Through the storm clouds and mist, the edges of the house were murky, making it difficult to see much more of the place.

“Wait, before we go back in,” the lady said, prompting Elias to turn back and look at her. She smiled sweetly up at him, with her face now wet from the rain, though she didn’t seem to care. “I want you to know something . . .” She paused, biting her lip.

“You can tell me anything, you know that,” he said, squeezing her hand. His words made her smile.

“I know,” she said and stepped toward him. “Today meant everything to me,” she whispered softly, her words a little muffled by the rainfall. “I love each moment we have alone, and it pains me to know that we will soon be with a chaperone again, and I will have to be proper, sitting at a distance from you, making awful conversation about the weather instead of discussing things I truly wish to talk about.”

“Ha!” Elias roared with laughter at the picture she had painted. “It is rather stifling, isn’t it? Your maid glared at me so hard the other day that I felt compelled to ask after the state of your father’s hounds, rather than talk to you about anything that truly interested us.”

“I had noticed,” she said. “Soon, though, we will not have any such restrictions, will we?”

“None at all,” he said gently and placed the picnic basket down on the ground.

He glanced once back at the house, seeing that candlelight was visible beyond some of the windows, but they were so far away that it would be impossible for anyone at those windows to discern the two of them from the trees behind them. It gave him a few more minutes of privacy with her.

“Well, if we are about to walk back into a world of propriety, perhaps we could indulge in one more liberty before we go?” he asked, holding out his other hand to her. She took it eagerly, so they were clasping both palms together with their fingers entwined. “Kiss me again,” he whispered to her, watching as her smile grew wider.

“I kissed you a short while ago!”

“And I long for another, don’t you?” he asked with a teasing smile, to which she nodded, biting her lip and blushing despite the chill of the rain.

She reached toward him, lifting up on the balls of her feet. Her slim figure moved toward his, until they were nearly pressed together. Elias lowered his lips toward hers, so close that he could feel her delicate breath against his cheeks. He was about to take that liberty, about to kiss her and show her what he felt for her . . .

Elias woke up. His eyes shot open to nothing but darkness, thanks to the pillow above his head. He pulled down the pillow and wound his hands in his hair in frustration. If only he could have stayed in that dream for a little longer! It was the finest dream he’d had yet of the mystery lady.

Feeling a tingle still coursing through his body from how close he had come to kissing her, he slowly sat up in the bed and looked around the room. He was not in a forest, and nor was he near any grand Tudor estate. He was sleeping in the attic room above the tavern, with beams and slanted roofs hung low over his head, which most days he hit his temple against.

Tonight, there was no moon beyond the windows, leaving his eyes to adjust to the darkness and trace these timber beams, as well as the cheap items in the room. There was a table pushed against the nearby wall, rickety with the leg wedged, and a full wash bowl that had a crack in it placed on top. On the other side of the room, there was a wardrobe, with doors that were so misaligned they were impossible to fasten shut. Beside it, he had placed a chamber pot to catch some of the droplets of rain that leaked through the aging roof.

The bed Elias was sleeping on was old too, holding an unpleasant smell at times, no matter how clean the bed sheets were. There was a rustle in the bed beside him, and he looked down to see the person there, his wife.

“It’s just a dream,” he whispered to himself, looking between his wife and the poor room.

It was the first time he had seen that Tudor building in his dream, so far away from where he truly lived, but that mystery lady . . . she kept reoccurring, almost every night now. Where she had fair hair and blue eyes, the wife that slept by his side was nearly her antithesis. She had long, almost black hair, now mussed beneath her on the pillow. She had dark brown eyes too, that were firmly closed with sleep.

Elias looked away from his wife, frustrated at the lack of attraction he felt.

How is it that I can feel more for a figment of my imagination than the lady I married? I must be going mad!

Angered at himself for the disloyalty he found in his dreams, he slowly climbed out of the bed. It creaked beneath him, though his wife did not move in response. Her breaths only grew a little deeper still. His bare feet touched the floor as he stood, padding slowly across the boards that were cracking in places, fracturing with old age. He took the same path he had made every night since the dreams of the mystery lady had begun, heading straight to the window.

He drew back the curtains a little further, revealing what he already knew, that there was no moon tonight. Beyond the window though, he could just about see the line of the forest nearby. He frowned at the sight, for it was a different forest to the one in his dream.

In his dream, there had been oak trees, birch trees too, as well as wild orchids and dandelions growing through the roots. The forest beyond the tavern was completely different, dominated by pine, spruce, and fir trees. He had taken enough walks through the landscape to know the earth would be arid beneath his feet. The wild horses that still swept through this land would traipse through what seemed to be sandy earth at times, collecting those grains beneath their hooves.

No, the forest in his dream had to be the work of his imagination, just the way the mystery lady had been too.

Sighing with disappointment, Elias turned and looked back at his sleeping wife. Grace was a beautiful woman, and though a little stubborn and moody at times, she had been kind to him in the past, even if it was some time ago. He knew that. There had been a time where she had fussed over him, constantly checking he was well. That kind of kindness was long gone. That’s why it felt like a betrayal to dream of another woman, even if that lady was something he had created out of thin air.

“I am sorry, Grace,” he whispered into the air, knowing she was asleep and couldn’t hear him. “I need to find a way to stop these dreams.”

He considered going back to bed and attempting to sleep again, but one step toward the bed made his gut ache. He always had the same reluctance to climb into the bed with Grace. Something about it felt . . . wrong.

He stepped back and sat on the windowsill instead, resting his head back on the aging glass, choosing this rather uncomfortable place to sleep instead.

“I must find a way to stop these dreams,” he muttered to himself. “For good.”

Chapter 2

Elizabeth

Richmond, London.

“It is a ball, Elizabeth! Isn’t that wonderful news?”

“Yes, Mother, delightful news.” Elizabeth did her best to summon a smile to her cheeks, even if it did not last long. Her mother looked back at her with a knowing glance, before she returned her focus to the plate in front of her.

“Good, then we must prepare for it. Everything will be attended to with care, so that you may appear perfect for the event.”

“Mother, please . . .” Elizabeth started, yet she trailed off when she saw the insistent shake of Josephine’s head.

“It will all be attended to, won’t it, dear?” she said, lifting her head and addressing her husband with this latter comment.

“Yes, Josephine,” Elizabeth’s father said, offering his daughter an apologetic glance once Josephine had returned her gaze to her plate.

She is always so insistent these days. Elizabeth sighed with the thought as she pushed her plate away, having had quite enough of food for one morning. She turned her eyes on the breakfast room around them instead, noting how the décor had changed in recent years. Where there used to be mahogany paneling was now replaced with duck-egg blue wallpaper.

Robert would prefer it as it was before.

Yet she could not indulge in the thought for long, for her mother’s attention was back on her.

“So, I have heard from Countess Ely that the ball will be quite the talk of the Season,” Josephine said, picking up her teacup and practically wriggling in her chair with excitement. “It is imperative that we make sure you are presented well for the occasion. More so than usual. You know, noticeable. Memorable.”

Elizabeth glanced down at her own body and then snatched up the nearest silver spoon, seeking out her reflection. Granted, the belly of the spoon turned her reflection upside down, but there were still the same eyes looking back at her, crystal blue, framed by blonde hair.

“Am I so unpresentable normally?” Elizabeth asked, biting the side of her mouth in surprise.

“That is not what your mother meant,” George said, looking up from his newspaper with imploring eyes. “Was it, dear?” he said, turning his focus on his wife.

Josephine looked up from her teacup, tipping her blonde hair out of her eyes in wonder, as though she hadn’t realized she had directed any kind of insult at her daughter.

“Meant what?” she asked innocently.

“Never mind, Mother,” Elizabeth said, lowering the spoon back down again. She knew well enough how her mother felt about her these days. She was impatient for a marriage to take place and often sought an excuse for why one hadn’t occurred already, conveniently avoiding the real reason as to why it hadn’t happened.

I cannot let go of Robert.

“Yes, you are right. We should prepare for the ball,” Elizabeth said, trying to sound interested in the occasion. “There is a new modiste on Bond Street I would like to see. I will go today with my maid and see what she can offer for the occasion.”

“I beg your pardon?” Josephine said, placing the teacup down so hurriedly that she nearly dropped it in the saucer.

“I said, I will—”

“I know what you said, but the idea of a young lady visiting a modiste alone . . . Well, it is unfathomable!” Josephine declared, fluttering her hands in front of her face as though trying to calm down.

“Not alone, with my maid. Many other young ladies do the same,” Elizabeth said quickly, turning her gaze on her father in an appeal for help. He shrugged and lifted the newspaper, hiding behind it instead. Elizabeth inwardly cursed his reluctance. George knew as well as she did about her mother’s increasingly frantic and overbearing behavior, but George thought the best way to deal with this nature was to pander to it. Elizabeth quite disagreed.

“You are not like many other young ladies. All this new fashion for going alone places, it is not proper, Elizabeth,” Josephine said, busying herself by pouring another cup of tea and aligning her cutlery beside her plate until it was all perfect. Elizabeth sighed at the sight, knowing it was what her mother did when she grew nervous. She sought to reset the world to her liking, starting with aligning cutlery on tables or moving ornaments on shelves.

“I would like to go alone, Mother,” Elizabeth said, sitting straighter in her seat. “I would greatly like to choose a dress for myself.”

“But . . . I always help you to pick your dresses.”

“Your help I am always thankful for, but on this occasion, if you will permit, I would like to choose one for myself.”

“That is absurd. Who will check the dress is of the latest fashion?” Josephine said, replacing the teapot and moving it until it was exactly in line with the milk jug and sugar pot.

“I know something of fashion. The modiste knows such things too, Μother.”

“No, no, I do not think it right,” Josephine spoke with a hand waved in the air. “In fact . . . I think I have a better idea. Wait there.” She patted her lip with a napkin and placed the cloth down on the table, before she rose to her feet and hurried out of the room. She took the butler who had been standing by the door so much by surprise that he had to jump out of her way.

“Papa,” Elizabeth said, leaning toward her father with a harried whisper and making him bend the paper back to hear her. “You are not helping me here.”

“What can I do?” he said with a kind tone. “If I argue with her, it makes matters worse. She likes to worry after you, sweetheart. Best to let her get on with it.”

“That hardly makes the situation better, does it?” she asked, sitting back in her seat with a huff. Looking down at the table where the teapot, milk jug, and sugar pot were lined up, she felt a need to try something. She lifted a hand and moved the milk jug out of line, just a tiny amount.

“What are you doing?” George asked, narrowing his eyes a little.

“It’s a test. I just want to judge something for myself,” Elizabeth explained, to which her father smiled a little.

“She will notice.”

“That is what I fear,” Elizabeth said, hurrying to finish her words as Josephine hurried back into the room.

“There, all is settled,” Josephine said as she retook her place and lifted her napkin back across her lap.

“What is settled?” George asked, lowering the paper a little more.

“I have requested the housekeeper arrange a note to be sent to the modiste,” Josephine said with finality. “I have requested she come here later this afternoon in order to fit you for your dress.”

“Mother!” Elizabeth said in surprise. “But . . . I wanted to go out, into Bond Street. Why must she come here?”

“I think it best,” Josephine said as she looked forward, down at the table again.

Elizabeth couldn’t understand it. Her mother’s overbearing need for control was taking on new levels. She turned her gaze to her father, looking soundlessly for his help again. He winced at the sight of it and shrugged another time, as though to ask what he was to do about it.

“With the modiste here, we can be certain the right dress is made and that you are fitted with no other young ladies seeing what you are going to wear,” Josephine said as she added another small brioche bun to her plate. “Some ladies like to gossip, you know,” she said in a whisper, as though this were the greatest insult of all. “What a thing that is! Do you want all and sundry to know what you will be wearing to the ball before you arrive there?”

“Mother, I would not care if they did,” Elizabeth said calmly, but the words merely made Josephine shake her head again.

“Well, you should. How you present yourself is very important on such occasions. We must have you looking your best if you are to marry any time soon,” she said with confidence then reached toward the milk jug. Seeing it was now misaligned, she adjusted the jug back into its original place.

Elizabeth turned her gaze to her father and raised her eyebrows, alerting him to what had happened. He nodded, almost imperceptibly, as he folded up the newspaper and placed it down on the table. As soon as Josephine released the milk jug, George leaned forward and picked it up, making an appearance of adding more milk to his own cup of tea.

“Dearest,” George said carefully to Josephine. “I am not sure our daughter is as eager to be married as you wish her to be.”

“I know that,” Josephine said, looking down at her brioche bun as she lifted her knife and began to cut it into tiny pieces. “But enough time has passed now. She cannot wallow forever. She must marry.”

“Mother, it is not as simple as that,” Elizabeth said, pleading with her to understand, but her mother appeared not to hear her. If anything, she grew more agitated, cutting up the brioche bun until it was in even smaller pieces. When the knife grated against the plate, George reached out a hand and touched the back of her wrist, urging her to stop.

“Is all well, Josephine?” he asked in a gentle whisper.

“Yes, of course,” she said, bringing a full smile to her face before looking down at the bun.

Elizabeth looked away from her father, knowing full well what his expression would be—a look of warning. Her mother’s nervousness and fluttering anxiety was growing worse. Elizabeth had no wish to make it graver, but there was a level to which it could restrict her own life, surely?

She slowly pushed back the chair and stood to her feet, walking across the room until she reached the window and looked out. It was a grey day beyond the windows, with the clouds gathering ominously above the garden. Being late autumn, the garden was usually filled with russet and red leaves, glistening in the morning dew with the bright chilly sun upon it, but not today. It was a grey world, making the red leaves look brown and dung colored.

“Elizabeth, that reminds me,” Josephine said, calling her attention though Elizabeth kept her focus out of the window. “We need to talk about your behavior at these events. I do not want a repeat at this ball of what happened at the last soirée we attended.”

“What about my behavior, Mother?” she asked, clamping her fingers together in the effort to control her temper.

“You did not socialize, and you irked Lord Hanbury when he attempted to speak to you.”

“Because he has the manners of a toad,” Elizabeth muttered.

“What was that?” Josephine called to her.

“Nothing, Μother,” Elizabeth said, still keeping her focus out of the window.

“Lord Hanbury is hardly the only eligible bachelor you have scorned. What about Sir Walter of Kent?” Josephine asked, her knife moving agitatedly across the plate another time. “He asked you for a second dance, and you refused.”

“I merely did not wish to dance with him again.”

“That could have turned into a courtship, Elizabeth.”

“Mother, I know,” Elizabeth said, turning away from the window at last to look back at her parents. George was staring at Josephine with that same look of concern whilst Josephine glared down at her bun, now chopped up into such tiny pieces that it was almost disintegrated. “It is not that I have any particular objection to these bachelors. It is that I cannot consider courtship now.”

“This is a little ridiculous, Elizabeth.”

“How can I?” Elizabeth asked, holding out her hands in a despairing question. “As long as I am thinking about him, how can I think of another? He will always be on my mind. Ro—”

“Please, no more of this!” Josephine’s reaction was instant. She dropped her knife, letting it clatter on the plate as she stood to her feet, pushing back the chair so sharply that it fell over, clanging against the wooden floor. Silence followed this loud outburst. The only sounds were of Josephine’s heavy breathing, and the butler scurrying forward, kindly picking up the chair from its fallen position.

“Thank you, Bates,” George said with a smile as the butler returned to his place by the door. “I think perhaps this is enough of this conversation for one day, don’t you think?” he said, addressing Elizabeth and Josephine in turn. Elizabeth had no more to say, but her mother clearly did.

“That accident took place two years ago,” Josephine said with feeling. “Two years is a long time.”

It does not feel very long to me, Elizabeth thought, feeling the threat of tears. She turned away and looked back out to the garden.

“It is foolish to continue to waste your youth on grieving,” Josephine said, pushing on. “Continue in this way for much longer, and you’ll be a spinster, Elizabeth.”

“A spinster?” Elizabeth complained, whipping her head back round.

“Yes, it is possible. If you refuse in such a manner to engage with society, what other future could there be?”

Elizabeth couldn’t answer her mother. In the absence of any more words, Josephine hurried out of the room. George looked at Elizabeth, his expression uncertain. Elizabeth considered saying she hadn’t meant to upset her mother, but what would be the point? She never meant to upset Josephine, but it happened all the same.

As George followed Josephine, leaving Elizabeth alone, she looked out to the garden and rested her forehead against the cold glass, thinking hard about what had happened two years ago. The last time she had seen Robert had been at a ball where they had danced together, with the thrill of stolen touches and lingering brushes of fingers that were masked by the other dancers. He’d said goodbye to her then and promised he’d be back from Bath within a week.

It had been four days later when she’d received a note from the Duke of Somerset, informing her that his son’s carriage had been found in pieces, with the driver injured, and no sign at all of Robert. He was missing, and with no sign of him these last two years, as well as from the blood found within the carriage, it was generally thought that he had been injured and that he had stumbled to his feet, walked away, and fallen in a ditch or river somewhere. However, no matter how many times Elizabeth was told that Robert was most likely dead, she rejected the idea.

She had been so close to marrying him, and they had already told each other they loved one another. Her heart she had placed with him, and whilst he had been gone, she felt as though her heart was still missing. She was hollowed out, walking around as a shell of the person she had been for the last two years.

He has to be alive, she told herself, despite the evidence to the contrary.

Chapter 3

Elizabeth

“Money is no object, Madame Baxter,” Josephine said, clapping her hands together as she welcomed the modiste into the drawing room. Elizabeth winced at the words and stood to her feet, watching as the modiste hurried in with her swatches of materials. “I wish for my daughter to stand out at this ball. The latest fashion, that is what we need, and a material that will catch the eye of all attending.”

“Of course, my lady,” the modiste said smoothly as she laid the swatches of material down on the Chesterfield settee nearby and turned her eyes to Elizabeth. “Well, she is a beauty, yes? She will surely stand out without my help.”

Elizabeth grimaced at the flattery and turned away, though her mother fell for it and gushed for a few minutes about how Elizabeth looked like Josephine when she was young.

Desperate to think of something else, Elizabeth turned her attention to the materials, looking between the different swatches. Most were pale and modest colors, with pastel hues running through in plain satin and silk. There were a very few patterned materials, laid at the bottom of the pile. Elizabeth reached for these, her hand settling on one that was pale blue in color, her favorite hue, yet patterned with small hummingbirds that appeared to dance back and forth across the satin. She smiled a little at the sight, knowing who would have loved it.

How Robert would have teased me, saying that the dress was alive with the birds.

She lifted the material free of the others, keen to suggest it to her mother and the modiste.

“So, what do we have here?” Josephine said, ending her brief conversation on her younger days with the modiste and turning her attention to the materials. “Oh, these are fine.” She laid out three different plain white silks that looked no different to Elizabeth’s eyes.

“What of this?” Elizabeth said, proffering the swatch in her hands.

“It is a little busy, don’t you think?”

“Not at all,” Elizabeth said calmly, noting there were plenty of gaps between the birds. “It would certainly be different.”

“Yes, and not at all of the highest fashion, dear,” Josephine said dismissively, taking the swatch out of her hands and laying it back down on the settee beside her. “So, Madame,” she said, turning her attention back to the modiste. “The ball we are attending is for an earl. Not my husband, of course, the Earl of Buckingham. So many earls round here!” She giggled away at her own jest. Elizabeth did not miss the way the modiste forced a laugh.

Elizabeth used the time to pick up the hummingbird material again, thinking of what Robert would have said had he seen it. She could practically imagine him walking through the room, heading straight past her mother and hovering by Elizabeth’s shoulder, leaning so close that she would tingle with the temptation of him being nearby.

“Choose what you like, Eliza.” That was what he would have said, using the nickname that only he ever used for her. She looked round, almost hopeful that he was really there, but there was just an empty space behind her where he should have been.

“Well, I have more of this in the hall,” the modiste said, collecting one of the white silks Josephine had pointed to. “If you wish to do a fitting, let me go collect my things.”

“Of course,” Josephine said with a smile. As the modiste hurried off to gather her silk and more, Elizabeth was aware of the warning look her mother was giving her. It made her drop the hummingbird swatch behind her, leaving it on the settee along with the others. “Quickly, I must speak to you, before she comes back.”

Josephine took Elizabeth’s arm and dragged her down to sit on the opposite settee, perching delicately on the very edge of the cushion. As Elizabeth sat too, she felt something tug at her skirt and looked down to see her mother was arranging the way her dress fell past her legs.

“Mother, what are you doing?” Elizabeth asked as gently as she could.

“I’m just trying to make sure it’s neat, dear,” Josephine said before sitting back. Elizabeth’s lips were parted in amazement. Apparently, her mother’s longing for things to be in order was extending beyond arranging cutlery and ornaments to now arranging Elizabeth’s own clothes.

“What did you wish to talk about?” Elizabeth asked hurriedly, eager to distract her mother.

“Listen to me, dear, for I am worried about you,” Josephine said, taking her daughter’s hand.

The feeling is mutual! Though Elizabeth held her tongue, knowing it would hardly help matters to point out Josephine’s odd and anxious behavior.

“You remember Baron Otley? You met him at Countess Ely’s ball? And then he attended your father’s summer soirée here?” Josephine asked excitedly.

“Baron Otley? Yes, I remember him,” Elizabeth said, nodding in agreement. The Baron was a little older than her, and somewhat reserved in his demeanor. He also seemed to have a preference for the formalities of life, hardly cracking a smile; he hadn’t even seemed to consider laughing at any of Elizabeth’s jests. When she had encouraged him to talk more about himself, he kept her at arm’s length.

He is the opposite of Robert. Cold instead of warm, distant instead of affectionate.

“The Baron has written to your father,” Josephine said excitedly. “It seems he had intimated to your father that he would encourage a visit from us all to his seat in the countryside. In particular, he mentioned you.

The words hung in the air as Josephine giggled excitedly. Elizabeth reared back a little on the settee, as though she could move away from this moment as easily as she could move in the chair.

“For what reason?” she asked, trying to keep her frustration at bay.

“Why do you think, dear?” Josephine scoffed. “He said as much in his letter that he would be interested in a courtship.”

“A courtship? Mother, Baron Otley has to be one of the . . .” She paused, afraid to insult the man. He had not been duly unkind; it was just that he was a little dull. “We would not be suited.”

“He is eligible, Elizabeth.”

“Does that matter more than compatibility?”

“Elizabeth.” Josephine’s harsh tone made Elizabeth fall silent and dip her head. “We have been over this. Not all marriages are born of love.”

Yet I nearly had one that was!

“Mother, please listen to me,” Elizabeth said, looking up and snagging her mother’s gaze again. The lines of her mother’s face were beginning to show more and more with her advancing age, particularly in the last couple of years. At this moment, the lines were all the more noticeable because of the tight set of her lips. “I cannot bear the idea of courting yet. I need more time.”

“That may be so, but agreeing to a visit or making plans with a man hardly means a courtship, does it?” Josephine said.

“I . . . I suppose not,” Elizabeth said, frowning at her mother’s smile. “Though it is certainly a step toward it.”

“Nonsense,” Josephine shrugged off the idea, but Elizabeth was no fool. It seemed her mother intended to rather artfully push her toward marriage, despite her insistences that she would not wed any time soon. “Well, that is settled then. I will tell the Baron we will attend.”

“Mother!” Elizabeth began to complain, but Josephine was on her feet, walking away.

“We must accept, dear,” she said distractedly as she walked toward the white marble mantelpiece above the fire. On the mantelpiece were a line of ornaments, all bearing different pastoral scenes of shepherds and shepherdesses. She began to move these, each one just an inch or so, until they were perfectly aligned. “To refuse would be rude, and you do not want to be accused of that, do you? Some ladies already call you a recluse.”

“Do they?” Elizabeth said in surprise, but before any more could be said between them, the modiste returned.

“Here we are,” Madame Baxter said, carrying in a full bolt roll of the plain white silk, along with a sewing box of seamstress materials. “Now, if you will stand, my lady, we can see to your fitting.”

Elizabeth stood as the modiste requested, moving into the center of the floor and lining herself up under the molded ceiling, so that she was right in the middle. She supposed it appealed to her mother’s sense of things being in place, for she smiled when she saw it.

As Madame Baxter worked, taking measurements and at one point swathing Elizabeth in the silk to see how it would fall, Elizabeth stayed quiet, wishing she could escape the moment. Her mind was too preoccupied with what her mother had said about her being a ‘recluse’. It suggested other ladies whispered about her, spreading gossip. Such gossip had never really bothered her when Robert was here, but now that he was gone, it did.

Shortly after his disappearance, the rumors had started. Some had suggested he had run off and staged the accident; others thought it was so that he could flee with a mistress and escape his upcoming betrothal to Elizabeth.

Oh, I hope that is not the case!

She didn’t think it possible, for Robert had seemed as much in love with her as she was him.

Once the fitting was done, and the silk was taken away from Elizabeth, the modiste stepped back and thanked them both for their custom.

“Thank you,” Josephine said. “I look forward to seeing the dress.” As the modiste hurried out, after collecting her materials with the help of a maid, Josephine turned her attention on Elizabeth. “Now all that is settled, we should discuss the ball. Make a plan for which gentlemen you should dance with.”

“No, Mother,” Elizabeth said, feeling how firm her voice had become.

“What do you mean no?” Josephine asked, so stunned that her skin turned pale.

“If you would excuse me, I have a headache,” Elizabeth lied as she hurried off to the door. “I need to lie down for a while.”

“Yes, of course,” Josephine said distractedly. “I hope you will not need to lie down all day—”

Before her mother could say anything more, Elizabeth escaped through the door and closed it behind her. With the entrance hall empty, she felt at liberty to run. She sprinted as fast as she could toward the staircase, gathering her skirt around her legs.

Robert had once told her that he loved her freedom, how she was untainted by the stuffiness or the propriety that life seemed to want to impose on them. Without him there telling her as much anymore, she felt increasingly distanced from her world. Like a blot on a landscape painting that did not belong in the scenery.

She reached the landing and ran down the corridor, hurrying toward her room, never letting up her pace until she was safely inside of her chamber, with the door closed firmly behind her. Once it was shut, she rested her temple against the wood, breathing heavily as she tried to catch her breath from her run. She expected tears to come, for they so often did when she thought of Robert, but today they didn’t. She merely felt numb instead.

Elizabeth backed away from the door and hurried toward her bed, kneeling down and retrieving a small box that she kept hidden beneath the mattress. The only other person who knew of its existence was her maid, Jane, who had found it once when cleaning and then been sworn to secrecy.

Elizabeth peeled back the mother of pearl lid, revealing a pine interior that was piled high with her memories of Robert. There was a small poetry book, with wild orchid flowers that she had pressed between the pages, and a long golden necklace, set with a blue sapphire stone, encased with gold that was shaped to look like leaves. Elizabeth slipped her hand beneath the poetry book, pulling out a sheet of paper that was creased from the many times she had unfolded it to read the words within.

She pulled back the paper, eager to read those words again.

‘I have walked for a long time in darkness,

So long my eyes feel they are blackened.

My tired mind can sometimes feel bodiless

Lost, with no hope or direction, I’m shunned.

‘Yet like Pandora’s box, out comes a light.

Persephone, she walks forth, takes my hand

And pulls me free of everlasting night.

‘I know if Pandora opens again,

I’ll find my way back

For Persephone will find me

And she’ll bring me home, alas.’

Elizabeth could remember all too easily the first time that she had read it. Robert had written it when he had finished one of his literature courses at the university and sent it to her by post. When she saw him again a few days later, she had a burning question for him.

“Why did you compare me to Persephone?” she had asked him. They were strolling through her father’s estate, under the lime tree leaves that were budding with small pink flowers in the high heat of summer.

“You say that as if there is something wrong with Persephone,” he had said, chuckling.

“Well, a more traditional love comparison would certainly be Aphrodite.”

“And since when do you and I like to be traditional?”

“True.” She had laughed, loving the way he had taken her hand within his and steered her past the fountain. It was true they had taken their courtship a little differently than some. They frequently tried to find ways to escape their chaperones and had first discussed the idea of courtship between them when she had not yet reached her sixteenth year. That had been a few years before he went missing, though.

“I have always found Aphrodite vain, especially in the old Greek tales,” Robert had said with a shake of his head. “How could I ever compare a vain creature to you? She is hardly a suitable fit!” His words had brought a smile to her face. “I know Persephone went through hardships, but she is perhaps the goddess I admire most. Selfless, always putting others before herself, and reminiscent of spring, with the sun shining and new life on the horizon. Who does that sound like to you?” He’d said, coming to a stop and looking down at her. “I know exactly who that sounds like.”

Elizabeth lowered the parchment from her hands and rested it back in the mother of pearl box, feeling a single tear escape down her cheek. Oh, how she missed him, but he was never coming back to her now, was he?

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