Laurel could not see much from the tiny opening by her side of the carriage, but she could make out the tall shape of the enormous trees that sat on either side of the path as their carriage wobbled towards the manor – their new home. She did not know what to think about having a new home. It felt terribly strange, and perspiration ran down the side of her arm as she contemplated all the changes taking place in her life. Her frock felt as heavy as a pound of hay, and her heart was beating uncommonly fast. Her eyes traveled as the carriage moved, a whole new life awaited her, and she did not know how to feel about it.
Her eyes glanced to the side where the Earl of Clifton was sitting in complete silence, his nose upturned in the air. To Laurel, he looked like his mind was set on what was to come. She knew him well enough to know that he was tired, miserable even. The air he tried to form was nothing to her because she could see right through him. She wanted to reach out and tell him that she could feel the heaviness he carried around. She herself carried it too, and now more than ever, she needed to be free. She assumed he was lost in his thoughts since he appeared not to notice her staring at him. Or maybe he had and was trying his best to ignore her.
Laurel tore her eyes away from her father and looked out the window; they were inching closer and closer to the Manor. The haphazardly scattered trees were starting to look well-kept and manicured. The groundskeeper – whoever he was – was doing an amazing job; even with her limited view, she could see the difference. She wondered if her father saw it, too. Would he pat the keeper on the shoulder, and give him a small smile? A smile that never quite seemed to reach his eyes. She did not think so; he had been too lost in thought lately to notice anything, his face clouded with the ghastly experience they were both forced to go through.
Laurel tried to level her breathing as her mind began to wander. She did not want to think about the incident. She pressed her eyes closed, sweating more profusely harder as she tightened her palms on her lap. She needed to be strong for her father. She had to be strong, for the both of them.
Her breathing instantly subsided as she felt a large hand on her palms, squeezing them reassuringly. A soft voice accompanied the gesture.
“We are here.” Her father said.
Laurel nodded. She heard the coachman jump down and head towards her side of the carriage. He pulled open the door and stretched out his hand. Laurel placed her gloved hand gingerly into his as he assisted her out of the carriage. Her feet crunched on the dried leaves that had fallen off the tree. As the wind whistled through her hair, she quietly chided herself for not wearing a hat.
She raised her head and looked at the manor, the sun illuminating the old but rich silhouette. Laurel knew nothing about architecture, but the past couple of nights, before they had decided to relocate to a new manor, she had sat near the fireplace, her head bent over her embroidery listening to her father's conversations with his friends. They spoke about the architecture of the manor, and her curious mind had imagined it numerous times. But their loud, proud words had not done justice to the beauty that was in front of her.
“Goodness me,” Laurel gasped, taking in all the little details she never knew she would notice. The manor was humongous; granted, it fit her father's status, but she had not expected it to be so breathtaking.
“She is beautiful, isn't she?” Rupert asked, and Laurel could see his eyes lingering on the building. A sense of pride and nostalgia washed over her; this was their fresh start — a new beginning.
“It is amazing Father. I never thought...” She trailed off; the words that were about to leave her lips would not do the building justice. And she wanted to say something else, something she should not even think of saying. Something that was bound to send her and her father into a spiral of memories and regrets, so she held her tongue, they were here for a new life, and she would make sure of that.
Her eyes drifted back to the building; the specks of gold mixed with the wooden brown of the blocks made the building look ethereal. By their side, there was a massive fountain in the middle of the compound, surrounded by perfectly manicured grass. The groundskeeper was worth his salt, Laurel thought again. The pillars in front of the main house leading inside stood tall and intimidating. When Laurel leaned to the far right, she caught a slight whiff of horses, and she knew instantly that the stables were behind, along with the courtyard her father had raved about. All in all, she could see that it was a wonderful place, and she could also see her father loved it. They could restart their life in this manor and this new city, and in time, they would be happy.
“This was a good purchase. I wonder why the duke would want to let go of this piece of property. It is so beautiful,” Rupert said.
Laurel noticed his eyes were still fixed on the manor, and she smiled. He needed to be passionate about something else, and the manor would be a great distraction.
“Ah-ha, you are both here.” A voice dragged Laurel out of her reverie, and she focused on the petite woman waddling towards them. She wore a simple linen dress, but the gold brooch on the collar of her dress distinguished her from the other servants. “My Lord, my Lady, I am Antoinette, the head housekeeper. I have been expecting you both.”
Rupert gave a small nod while Laurel responded. “Nice to meet you.”
Antoinette smiled, her face small and mousy, and Laurel noticed she was elderly, but her small frame was deceiving. The wrinkles around her lips and forehead gave her age away. Her father had insisted they get new house staff, probably as a means to forget all about the previous town they had both journeyed from. Laurel had no objections whatsoever; most of the staff at their old manor had voluntarily quit after the incident. A cloud of sadness had slowly drifted and covered the manor and all that was in it. It was only right that they left too.
“Well, your belongings arrived a few days ago and they have been arranged and put away. The only thing you need to do is settle in.”
“Thank you, Antoinette,” Rupert said.
“Oh, it's nothing, my Lord. I had a lot of help.” She giggled.
Laurel could see that Antoinette aimed to please; she did not mind it. If she was going to be the head housekeeper, she might as well make their acquaintance. Laurel wondered what her lady’s maid would be like. Her mother had been in charge of everything that she needed so she had never seen the need of employing a lady’s maid. Now, Laurel was a lady, and she certainly needed a maid, but mostly a friend. She shook the thoughts out of her head as her mind began to wander again; she did not want to think about what she had left behind, even if her heart wanted something different.
“We would like a tour, right Laurel?” Rupert said, distracting her from her thoughts.
He had noticed.
“Yes, certainly. I cannot wait to see what this beauty looks like on the inside.” Laurel gave her father a small smile.
“Oh, yes, yes. A tour is needed. Come, my Lord, my Lady, you need to see the beauty that is Clifton Manor.” Antoinette said, a broad smile spreading across her face.
Laurel and Rupert followed Antoinette up the marble steps to the entrance of their new home, trying to keep up with Antoinette's short brisk steps.
Laurel could not tell how long the tour was, but she was left flabbergasted with every turn they took. Her father had only been on the property once before it was fully redone, and she noticed he looked just as surprised as she was. The beauty was even more conspicuous on the inside of the manor than it was on the outside.
“...and this,” Antoinette paused dramatically as she stood in front of a gold-encrusted door, her eyes shining on Laurel, “is the ballroom.” She pushed open the door revealing the most beautiful hall Laurel had ever laid eyes on.
“My goodness,” she gasped, her eyes taking in every little detail.
“And this concludes our tour. I will leave you two alone now.” Antoinette said. She bowed, and shuffled out of the room, her shoes making clicking noises on the floorboards.
“Father!” Laurel turned to her father, gratefulness and delight oozing out of her very pores.
Rupert let out a dry, throaty chuckle, “I knew you would like it. I made sure the ballroom was redone just to your taste because of how much you love dancing. You can always come in here to dance your heart out.”
Laurel giggled with delight, her heart full. “Or we can dance together.”
She pulled her father into the middle of the dance floor, ignoring his protests as she twirled him around. He finally succumbed to her and whirled her around, her skirt billowing around her. They danced for a bit, and soon they were exhausted.
“I haven't attended a ball in the longest time. That was much needed.” The words stumbled out of Laurel's mouth in between pants.
Laurel watched her father's face, which had been lit up just a couple of minutes ago, fall into its normal expressionless countenance. There was something dark about him, something she could not pinpoint. He said all the acceptable things, but Laurel felt he was simply reciting a script.
“I want to ask you if you're happy, but–” she trailed off, not having the guts to finish her sentence.
“But what?” Rupert inquired.
“I am not happy either.” Laurel sighed and walked toward her father. “I want to be happy because that would be what mother would want for us. She would be horrified if she looked down from heaven and saw how miserable we are.”
“I am not miserable.” Rupert countered, his words lacking conviction.
Laurel stared at him, and after some time, his shoulders slumped in surrender.
“I miss her too.” Laurel said with a sniffle; the tears she had been trying to hold back for what felt like the longest time, threatened to fall.
She had to be strong, she needed to be strong for her father, and the last thing she wanted was for him to see her melt into a ball of sobs and snort. Laurel balled her hands into fists by her side, willing the tears to travel back.
Don’t you dare. She silently threatened herself. I am strong; I need to be strong.
She repeated the words in her head like a mantra, but she was doing a lousy job of convincing herself.
“There, there,” Rupert said, taking her balled fists in his hands, and suddenly it was all too much. The dam broke. The tears and snot escaped like torrents, like fluid trapped behind a wall. They flowed freely from her face, and her body convulsed as she cried. She had not cried that hard in a long while, she had always convinced herself that she needed to be strong, but she was tired of pretending. She was allowed to miss her mother, that was the normal, acceptable thing to do.
Rupert pulled her to him, “I miss her too, more than you could ever imagine.”
Laurel wrapped her hands around her father, crying into his suede coat. She knew she would leave a stain and was slightly worried about how expensive the coat was. But in retrospect, she did not care; she just wanted to feel all the emotions that were rushing through her and get them over quickly. Her tears were long overdue, and she needed to feel what she had been trying to avoid.
She calmed down after a while.
“Here,” Rupert stretched his hand and held out a handkerchief.
“Thank you,” Laurel replied. She noticed the soft linen and the embroidery by the side. “It is Mother’s,” she said softly.
Her father scratched the back of his head as if he were a child who was just caught playing in the mud. They had both come to a unanimous decision not to touch her mother’s things until they were completely healed. Laurel did not know when that would be, but she knew it would be better if they were not in any contact with things that would remind them of her.
“I have been carrying the kerchief around with me for a while now. It acts as a sort of solace.”
Laurel dabbed at her tear-stained face and retorted, “Maybe we are doing it wrong, this grieving. Maybe we need to feel her presence around us in order to heal. To be honest, keeping all her things locked away and trying not to think about her has not helped in any way.”
“I think you are right. She would love for you to have her dresses, brushes and perfumes, and linens. I asked Antoinette to store your mothers’ things that were sent from the old house. I think it is time we brought it all out,” Rupert announced.
“It won't be easy having constant reminders of her.”
“But we will be facing whatever is to come head on.” Laurel relaxed as he placed both hands on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. “We should stop running and come to terms with what has happened.”
She noticed his brown eyes, but they didn't seem bright or shiny. Laurel could tell her father was still hiding something, but she did not know what.
“One more thing, I would like Antoinette to take out the portrait that was wrapped away to be hung in the hall, over the staircase.”
“I would like that.” Laurel smiled.
She handed her father the handkerchief, but he did not take it. Instead, he replied solemnly.
“Keep it, I believe you need it more than I do.”
Laurel looked down at the handkerchief with her mother's embroidery. She had been a master at it and had made most of the things they used in the manor. She had embroidered cases for pillows, handkerchiefs, napkins, and more.
She was perfect, Laurel thought.
When she passed, Laurel had been scared and had not known how to act. She did not know how she would be able to fill the big shoes that were left for her. Her mother was beautiful, gorgeous, regal, charming, charismatic, and graceful, and Laurel did not know if she could compare.
Her mother always had the best dress at balls, and she always lit up whatever room she walked into. She was a great dancer and an even better mother. She made the best meals and even had her own recipes which the cooks followed. She planned the best parties and ordered the best wine for her father. Laurel could not imagine how she would go on without her mother, but here she was, trying to make a good thing out of the bad deal she had been handed.
The moment came to a sudden pause as Antoinette walked in, a young girl about Laurel's age trailing behind her.
“Sorry to interrupt my Lord, I want to present Lady Laurel's maid, this is Maude.”
Maude genuflected, “my Lord, my Lady.”
“Maude will take care of anything you need. You two can begin by picking out fresh flowers for the dinner table.” Antoinette said.
“Yes, Ma'am.” Maude led Laurel out of the ballroom, and before the door closed behind her, Laurel gave her father one last glance, her lips curved into a small smile. The dark aura had returned to his form, and it scared her more than she could ever imagine.
The clattering of silverware resounded throughout the spacious dining room, the heady smell of sweet wine filled the room, and one could not tell if the wine was expensive or cheap. The scent was just in the middle, throwing off anyone who smelled it. But the dining room was lavishly decorated, and every piece of furniture and ornament screamed wealth and prestige. Everything except the wine that is, which was utterly mediocre.
Philip took a big gulp of his and dropped the chalice back on the dinner table as though it were hot coals. He should have gotten used to this, but unfortunately, he hadn't.
“This wine,” he spat out, trying to hold back his wince.
“What about it?” His mother, Amaryllis, asked. The regal air around her was unshaken, undisturbed by his outburst.
Philip sighed; the last thing he ought to do was complain about the cheap wine. They were lucky to at least be having their regular portions of salmon coulibiac and venison, his toiling was slowly paying off, but it didn't seem enough. His title held no water, and he wished it were different.
Still deep in thought, the housekeeper brought the last tray of food, dessert. She was acting as the housekeeper, cook, lady’s maid, scullery maid, and sometimes the cleaner. All her underlings had been let go because their finances couldn't cover their wages. He was a failure, and he hated to think about it, but it was the truth. They had replaced their decadent dessert, which once consisted of assorted cakes and biscuits to sliced-up fruits and bowls of pomegranates.
From the corner of his eyes, Philip noticed Amaryllis cock her head to the side and examine the bowl of pomegranates in what he thought was pride and satisfaction. Still, her regal air remained unscathed.
“Pomegranates. I see you have enough extra money to splurge.” She teased.
“We cannot have cake, so I settled for your other favorite thing. I intend to spoil you even if I don't have enough.” His eyes were pleading, begging her to accept and manage what he offered.
Amaryllis smiled, pleased. “You know I have never been one to be stuck on fancy things, I love my bowl of pomegranates just as I would love any piece of cake. You should stop making it seem like I am delusional, I am well aware of our sinking finances.”
Philip pressed his hands down on the wooden table, the food in his mouth stale.
“Our finances are not sinking, I am well on it and taking care of the matter.”
“We are all we have, Philip, and I know you are the man of the manor, but it would not be a crime if you included me in the financial matters.” Amaryllis retorted.
“I don't want to worry you, Mother.” He responded honestly.
“I am sure you, you won’t. You just want me to go about my days playing dress-up and not having a care in the world, while all the money issues drown you. But I don't want that.”
Philip knew she was right. He was young and wanted to handle all the financial matters himself, and as much as he had tried to be on top of it and not worry her, she still somehow saw through it all. No matter how much he tried, he could not summon a cake for dessert every evening, and she noticed.
“I am sorry Mother. Is there anything you'd like to know?”
Philip flinched in his seat, avoiding Amaryllis' eyes. He hoped she would not ask any questions and just get back to her food, but he knew his mother better than anyone and how curious she could get.
“How is the estate doing?” Amaryllis asked simply, and Philip was slightly distracted by her struggling with the piece of meat on her plate.
“As I mentioned earlier, I am on top of the issue and it is all settled now. You do not need to worry about the estate, and in a few days, we will be having cake for dinner every night.”
Amaryllis gave Philip a hard stare, and he knew exactly what it meant. That wasn't the answer she wanted, and he hoped to the heavens she stopped asking questions she already knew the answers to.
“What about the house you sold? When were you going to tell me about that?”
Philip jumped as soon as the question left Amaryllis's lips, and he fought the urge to ask her how she knew. She was the Duchess of Cheltenham, and it wasn't surprising that she knew about some of the minor matters that went on.
Philip sighed, knowing he needed to be upfront.
“I sold one of our former properties, a manor to be exact, to an Earl who just came to town,” he confessed.
Philip noticed that Amaryllis' expression changed, and she chewed her food stiffly, not saying anything. He knew she was displeased, but she did not utter a word. Somehow, he was sad and elated all at once. Sad that she disapproved of what he had done, but elated that the truth was out.
“I can tell you are not pleased with my decision Mother; but I believe it was the best thing to do for the estate because it was costing too much to maintain.” He paused, then continued, “and with no one living there I figured there was no point in wasting money.”
Amaryllis cleared her throat and sat up, “Since you feel that was the best decision to be made, then I won’t question your judgment, Philip. You of all people would know what is best for the estate.”
Philip smiled. He was happy his mother had given her invisible stamp of approval; oftentimes, he wondered if he was managing the estate right. In times like this, he needed his mother's validation more than anything else.
Handling business was not at all easy for Philip as he had spent his childhood riding horses, learning archery, and just being a boy. He had been kept away from all business matters for a long time because, according to his mother, a young boy being nose deep in business is just an invitation for greed.
When his father passed, Philip had no other choice than to let go of his bow and arrow and settle the family's financial issues. The title of a duke had done nothing to help solve his problems, and he knew he had to get the business back on track.
Taking care of the estate has not been easy, but he was thankful his mother was not constantly hounding him on what he should and should not do. He loved how she had loosened the reins of control so he could explore yet she had not completely let go of the reins, so he couldn't stray too far and fall off the cliff.
“So,” Amaryllis clasped her hand on the dinner table, and from the mischievous glint in her eyes, he knew she was up to something.
“What is it, Mother?” The words came out in an uninterested drawl.
“There is this maiden, I feel you've been acquainted with her. Lady Arnold is her name and oh is she just a darling.” Amaryllis gushed in excitement, and with the way she was swelling, Philip worried that she might burst out of her corset.
“She is the daughter of Viscount Arnold Bernaden, and you know how conservative the Bernaden's family are. Not a single speck of undignified act to their name.”
Philip's attention started wandering and he was quickly losing interest in the conversation because she was constantly trying to set him up with any available lady or Miss to come through town.
“...her skin is so fair, like day-old milk and her hair, oh how it shines in the sun. I really must ask her what she does to achieve that luminous glow in her hair. I know you have eyes for her.”
“No, I don't.” Philip protested, slightly confused because he had no inkling of the woman she spoke of. All the women he had been introduced to by his mother were becoming a blur in his mind, and he couldn't single out who she was referring to.
“Well, you do not yet know her, but you will meet her at the ball we will both be attending tomorrow. I implore you to give her a chance. You can't be a snob to every lady I introduce you to and expect to keep one,” Amaryllis chastised, feigning anger.
Philip had no plan for the foreseeable future in wooing and marrying. As his mother had mentioned, their finances were sinking, and he needed to do something about that before he could even think about courting a lady. She was forgetting that no reputable lady would want anything to do with a duke who had just a title to his name and a couple of properties scattered around.
Philip grunted back a response, not providing a definite answer to his mother's plea.
* * *
Later in the evening, after dinner, Philip was buried deep in papers and receipts of all the properties that belonged to the Cheltenham household. His mind was foggy as he calculated and recalculated all the possible sales he could make to lead them back to financial freedom. The recent sale on the manor had been a big step toward getting them back on their feet. The economy in the town was terribly depleting, and he could not find anyone he trusted enough to buy the manor. Besides, the one thing Philip wished to avoid was the gossip that could spread around town if anyone were to find out he was selling off their properties to make ends meet.
He was lucky to have found the Earl. The man had wanted to move away from his old town, and he was willing to pay for all the furniture too as long as he found someone to sell a building to him quickly. The Earl had gone for the first price that Philip had uttered without even haggling.
The whole transaction had been highly convenient because he did not have to worry about any form of gossip spreading.
Philip sighed as he slumped into the chair and rested his back, his head ached from all the thinking and strain, but he was hopeful that everything would fall back on track with time.
“You should rest.” A voice shook him out of his thoughts, and blond hair peeked at him from the doorway.
Philip sighed as he sat up and focused on the record books. “I still have a lot to work on.”
“You do not have to tire yourself over this Philip, we still have a roof over our head and food in our bellies, and that means you're doing a good job,” Amaryllis cooed, approaching her son.
Philip sucked in a breath, his heart heavy, “But why do I feel like I am not doing nearly enough.”
“Because you keep beating yourself up. For someone who has no prior knowledge about business, you're doing an amazing job, so pat yourself on the back and go get some rest.”
Philip sighed in resignation; she had won once again. But in a sense, he felt like he had won too. He was exhausted and needed her push. He felt his mother watching him keenly as he packed up the receipts and record books and stuffed them neatly in a drawer, knowing he would get back to them at the crack of dawn. But for now, he needed to rest, and immediately at that. He had sold the manor and made a bit of money, so that should be something definitely worth celebrating.
“So you're going to bed now I assume?”
“Yes Mother, that's what you wanted isn't it?”
“I want one more thing.”
Philip gave her a look, upset at himself for starting the madness of letting her convince him to take a rest.
“What might that be?”
“Lady Arnold. I am sure you'll fancy her; you just need to open up your heart to the idea. You are not getting any younger, and don't think I did not notice the way you avoided the question during dinner,” Amaryllis scolded, her hands crossed over her bosom. Philip felt like he was five years old, being scolded by her for getting all muddied up immediately after his bath.
“What do you want me to say?” he asked helplessly.
“Say that you'll be open-minded at the ball tomorrow. There will be lots of young maidens in attendance just ripe for marriage, and if you don't want to leave your comfort zone, Lady Arnold is always available.”
Philip sighed for the millionth time that evening and shuffled uncomfortably from one foot to another. He knew there was no winning with his mother, and the last thing he wanted was to stay up all night arguing about this.
“Alright, alright. I will keep an open mind. Happy?”
“Delighted. Do have a good night's rest.” Amaryllis cooed, blowing him a kiss as she headed into the dimly lit hallway.
Philip let out a heavy sigh again, running his fingers through his blond hair, his mind lighter than it had been a few minutes ago. He still did not see any use dipping his toes into romance, but he had to play along just for his mother's sake. There was nothing he wanted more than to make her happy.
Philip tugged at the collar of his inner shirt, feeling awfully uncomfortable. He had only come to the party at his mother’s insistence. His mother held onto his arm as they both stood near a corner. She smiled and nodded to people they knew. The last place he wanted to be was with a bunch of pretentious, upper-class men all packed together in a ballroom. Philip could not think of an even more pretentious gathering, but he also knew this would be the perfect time to talk business with some of the other men there.
He grabbed a glass of cocktail from a tray, downing it in one gulp and hoping the drink would prepare him for the long night ahead. Gathered at one corner of the hall, mothers whispered, throwing looks in his direction alongside loud giggles, as did the young ladies at the far end.
They were probably talking and assessing all the eligible bachelors in town, plotting on who will take an interest in whom during the ball. Everything exhausted him, and the only thing Philip could think about was the unattended accounts he had left scattered on his study table.
“Smile and for heaven's sake, look like you want to be here.” Amaryllis scolded, perched beside Philip.
Philip jerked back to his senses; he had quickly forgotten that his mother was standing beside him; she too probably ogled who amongst the ladies would make the perfect Duchess of Cheltenham.
“You of all people know I do not wish to be here, Mother.”
“Then pretend. Mingle, look alive. For one evening, put the matters of the estate behind you and enjoy a party.”
Lately, attending parties and balls has seemed like the most boring of chores. With that, Amaryllis strolled away from Philip, ready to join the other gossiping ladies talking about the latest scandals. Philip shuffled his feet, feeling exposed without his mother by his side. No one knew what was happening with the Cheltenham accounts, and he knew the moment someone found out, he and his mother would be excluded from the ton. He did not know how she could not see it, how she could not know that he wanted to stay away for both their good.
Philip wanted the ball to end as soon as possible even though he and his mother had just arrived. From the corner of his eyes, he could see men asking ladies to dance and the ladies writing down the names on their dance cards. He dropped his empty glass on a tray and grabbed another one, taking a big gulp. He hoped the party passed by in a blur, but a part of him knew he shouldn't be drinking too much. He would not want to be tagged as the town's drunk.
He scoffed at himself as he dropped the half-empty glass on a tray and tried to retreat into the shadows, hoping to observe all that was going on without actively participating in any of it.
“Your Grace,” a small voice said before he could adequately hide in the shadows. Philip looked up to be met with a big smile, he looked over the end of the hall where his mother was with the other women, and as he guessed, she was watching.
“I am Lady Olivia, and your mother said you would like to dance with me,” the young lady said, her eyes plastered on the marble tiles, not daring to make eye contact.
For a second, Philip had thought that she was the certain Lady Arnold he was supposed to entertain for the evening. He knew he could not put it past his mother to send other strange women his way.
“Uh–” Before he could cook up an excuse, or an acceptable response, he felt a big hand on his back.
“Philip boy. The Duke of Cheltenham.” The voice came out loud and gruff, and Philip instantly recognized it.
“Theo, old boy. I did not take this to be your kind of gathering.” Philip said, smiling at his friend and pleased for the well-timed distraction.
“Ahem,” Lady Olivia interrupted, loudly clearing her throat.
“Oh, it looks like I might have been interrupting something,” Theo said, looking from Philip to the lady with a snide expression.
“Yes, you are,” the lady responded through gritted teeth.
“Well then, we fellas need to chat, and then we will circle back to you.”
Philip watched wide-eyed as Theo produced a pencil from his pocket and scribbled his name into Lady Olivia's dance card as the lady watched aghast.
“There!” Theo finished shooing the lady away with his eyes. She scoffed as she stormed away from them to join the other ladies. Philip was certain that word of how the unbearable Lord Theo would soon circulate around the ballroom.
As soon as she was out of earshot; Philip threw his head back and laughed.
“Why?” He sputtered out, not knowing how else to phrase the question.
“You know me, as one of your best pals I always need to save you from the claws of these marriage-obsessed young ladies and their mothers.” Theo grabbed drinks and handed one to Philip.
Philip took a long sip, then responded. “I could have handled her on my own, thank you very much.”
“Do not lie, Philip. I could see just how petrified and scared you looked all the way across the hall, and I knew I needed to sweep in and save you.”
“At this rate, you will never secure yourself a bride,” Philip scoffed.
“Not to be mean, but I much prefer the company of my dog.”
“Well, you have been blacklisted by all the ladies and their mothers all across town, so securing a bride should be out of the question for you.”
“And it might be for you as well if you keep on hanging around me and letting me drive away all the women that wish to dance with you. Very soon I shall claim my new title as the Baron of Bell End.” Theo laughed. “Cheers.”
Philip clinked his glass with Theo, and he took another sip of his drink, feeling grateful his friend had come to his rescue. Philip noticed his mother looking over at them, her face registering disapproval. She had certainly not seen Theo disrupting her plans, which Philip found all the more amusing. No one got on her nerves more than Theo, who she claimed did not want her son to get married.
Theo had always been against marriage; unlike Philip, who needed to settle his finances before he could even think of courting a lady, Theo would rather be an old gentleman teaching at an all-boys boarding school. One thing Philip loved about the Baron was that since they were children, he had never been too afraid to speak his mind, no matter the consequences. It was an incredible trait to possess, especially in a town where anything could become a scandal, and anyone could be shunned.
Before Philip could strike up a conversation with Theo, his mother and a couple of her friends approached them. Theo stylishly excused himself, and Philip knew he hated nothing more than being in the presence of the judgmental ladies of the ton.
They engaged in small talk, but Philip tried to exclude himself from the conversation as much as possible.
“Yes, there is a new Earl in town,” one of the ladies said, catching his attention. “Have either of you met him?” she asked the group.
“I most certainly have not,” Amaryllis responded.
“I haven't either, but from what I have heard around town, the Earl is said to be very private,” Philip replied.
There was a pause, Philip was not one for gossip, but he knew if ever there was a time to gather some information about the Earl, it was now.
“What have you heard about the Earl?” He took a sip of his drink, feigning the most nonchalant air he could muster. He did not want to be one to be seen hanging on to every word of gossip, but he needed to know what people were saying about the person he had sold the manor to.
“Well, I heard the Earl is very, very wealthy. And when I mean wealthy I mean he engages in manufacturing, trade, and even,” her voice dropped to a low whisper, “mining.”
“Mining, you say,” one of the lady’s husbands who joined the group, gasped in surprise.
Philip, too, was taken aback by the discovery. He was sure that anyone that wealthy would want to blend into society and make himself known. It was very uncommon for men of their town to be wealthy and not talk about it. The more they flaunted their wealth, the more respect they garnered. Philip immediately sensed the new Earl did not seek respect from anyone.
“I have invited him to my parties and soirées since his arrival a month ago, but I have not gotten any replies. It appears he might be a snob.”
“As have I,” the Lord said. “I always try to make acquaintances with new arrivals. I invited his household for the tea party I hosted a few nights back and did not get a response either.”
“I say we send a letter inviting his family over for dinner one of these days, so we can get better acquainted,” Philip suggested.
“I have already sent a welcome letter and an invitation to the Earl, but I never got a response I am afraid,” his mother replied.
“It seems the Earl is somewhat of a loner who just wants his space and does not want to mingle with us measly mortals.” A lady sighed, and very soon, the group dispersed, leaving Philip alone with his mother.
“I did not want to bring it up with everyone else here, but is that the same Earl you sold our manor to?” Amaryllis asked.
“Yes, but the negotiations moved fast and I never got to meet him. Everything was finalized through the estate lawyers.”
Amaryllis scoffed, and Philip saw he had clearly upset her.
“How could you sell our house to a complete stranger?”
“I did not need to become best pals with him to sell him a house mother. Whereas his lawyers were capable and the sale was quick, we needed the money. I did not feel it necessary to sit and have tea with him before deciding to sell the manor,” Philip replied dryly.
Amaryllis shot him a glare and scoffed in exasperation, “I do not wish to squabble with you when I should be enjoying myself.” And with that, she stalked off, leaving Philip standing alone.
As he looked around, he tried to gauge whether he could get away without causing any undue gossip when he saw a young woman with luscious hair approaching him. He knew in an instant that she was Lady Arnold. Before she could get close to him, he found the nearest exit and made his way out into the cold dark night; the fresh air calming him.
* * *
“Which one, Maude?” Laurel held up the dresses one by one as she watched Maude's facial expression closely.
“You need to decide soon Maude because I have to make a good impression. This will be the first time I will be out of the Chilton halls. If I am to make friends, I need to make a good impression. So I ask again, which one?”
Laurel felt exasperated at this point, and she felt Maude was getting there too. Over the past few days, she had been fretting about the upcoming masked ball and had not been able to sit still for excitement. Her father was finally opening the home to the ton and somehow, she cared dearly about what they would think about her.
“Should I be honest, my Lady?”
Maude cleared her throat, ready to take off the cloak she had put on as Laurel's lady’s maid.
“I think the pink on you is just so drab, everyone and their scullery maid are wearing pink. I do not know what the modiste was thinking when she picked that out. And the green, oh, just hideous. Simply hideous. I have never seen a more ugly-looking dress, and although you wear all these with class and grace, I would say that the pale blue dress has something different,” Maude paused and looked around. “And this bright blue mask would be the perfect thing to wear with your dress, and you should leave your hair down, with blue ribbons. You will be the best lady dressed at your father's ball.”
With that, the room went silent.
When Maude had first spoken like that, Laurel had been shocked, but now, she was slowly getting used to the girl always being so honest. It felt refreshing and she knew she could always rely on her to give her the unvarnished truth.
“So, the one blue it is?” she asked to be sure.
“Yes, my Lady,” Maude said with a little bow, and just like that, she was back to being her lady’s maid.
Laurel knew they would become friends, she had sensed it the moment Maude had been introduced to her in the ballroom. Maude was easy to talk to, and she somehow had all the gist about everyone in town, which Laurel was not averse to. All the times she had spent indoors on her father's orders, Maude had kept her entertained. And on more than one occasion, they had stayed up all night chatting and giggling, disrupting the peace of the entire household.
“And shoes?” Laurel groaned, realizing they had merely scratched the surface of preparing her for the ball. She would also need to know how to act.
Back in their old town, none of this had mattered. Her mother had been with her every step of the way. She had always been in her mother's shadow, so she never considered worrying about how to act or what to do around people. Now, she needed to form a first good impression because there was no one who would help her do that.
“You can pick out any shoes, my Lady; one of the beauties of the dress is that it is long enough to cover your shoes and the embroidery is so detailed that one will only pay attention to your dress, rather than your shoes,” Maude said.
With that, Laurel smiled, extremely pleased. They were interrupted by a small knock on the door.
“Come in,” Laurel said. Her father walked in, masks in hand.
Laurel giggled as soon as she saw that her father was in the same dilemma she was in.
“Let me guess, you are having a difficult time picking out a mask?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied with a sigh.
“Black never goes wrong Father, and it's your favorite color.”
Rupert cocked his head to the side, inspecting the masks, and Laurel could tell that he was unsure of himself or her choice.
“Or you could just get rid of the mask altogether Father, and just have a regular ball,” Laurel offered.
“No!” Rupert bellowed, making her jump. “Err, I mean no. I want something different and I want to make an impression and a masked ball is just the way to go. I think you are right though, a black mask would be fitting.”
After saying that, Laurel watched him walk out of the room. Confusion spread across her face, she had no idea why he was hell-bent on it being a masked ball when it was clearly stressing him out.
“So where were we? Oh my, we haven't even thought about jewelry. We are slacking terribly,” Maude exclaimed, her expression distraught.
Laurel laughed out loud, she loved that Maude was taking it more seriously than she was, and in a couple of minutes, she forgot the encounter with her father, her mind fixed on impressing at the ball.
Laurel smoothed her dress down for the millionth time that evening, her pale face staring back at her in the mirror. It wasn't her first ball, but she had no idea why her hands wouldn’t stop shaking, or how to calm her racing heart. It did not feel the same to be all dressed up and groomed without her mother looking equally ravishing beside her. She smoothed down her dress, knowing that Maude had an exquisite taste for picking out the pale blue one. It brought out her eyes which glowed like bright embers placed against the paleness of her skin.
Her eyes trailed down to her neck, and the jewelry that adorned it was her mother's. Laurel fingered the necklace, the stones catching the candlelight and creating a luminous glow across the room.
“Are you ready for the corset?” Maude spoke from the corner where she so quietly stood that Laurel had even forgotten she was in the room.
Laurel pulled a dress over her head.
“I have never had use for a corset.”
“You are a lady now. Ladies wear corsets.” Maude said.
“Ah,” Laurel exclaimed simply. She looked at her reflection in the mirror in her undergarments, her skin extremely pale, almost blending in with the color of her undergarments, and again, her mind began to wander.
Laurel reminded herself that she was zero and two years old and that she was a woman. She was already ripe to marry, and the thought that women her age ran their own households made her shiver with fear.
She was grateful for Maude because she had no idea what to do with no one to hold her hand and guide her. She did not have the confidence or willpower to choose colors for balls, pick out an entire menu or even tell the difference between Sunkist coral and Calypso coral. Her mother had an eye for all that, but not her. Laurel was grateful, though, after her mother's death, her father completely deleted the idea of her being a woman from his mind. He never made her attend balls or socialize with the other young ladies in hopes of her finding a husband.
Maude gently wrapped the corset around her waist, and Laurel watched as she hesitated.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Will this be your first time wearing a corset my Lady?”
“Yes, it will be. Why?” Laurel was trying not to panic; she hoped for all she held dear that there was not an issue.
“There is no problem, brace yourself though, it will be anything but comfortable.”
“Oh, okay, I–” Laurel let out a loud gasp before she could even complete her sentence. Maude had tightened the corset without warning, and she felt like all the air had been sucked out of her lungs.
“Are you okay?” Maude asked quickly.
“I just,” Laurel tried to form a sentence, but no words were forthcoming. She did not understand why she envied and admired older women who moved about with their corsets and seemed to have the world under control. She wondered how they sat, laughed, and even danced when something was tugging at their guts.
“Are you okay my Lady?”
“Uh, can't we do without the corset, Maude?” Laurel asked slowly, trying to breathe, but her breath seemed hindered each time she tried to exhale.
“If I am to be honest my Lady, your dress looks great on its own but just imagine how fabulous it will look with a corset. Plus, it is a great way to bring out your figure and naturally shape it. All the women wear it,” Maude finished.
Laurel observed herself in the mirror, and she knew the girl was right. She looked different with the corset underneath her dress, and Maude was right. The dress looked better, even more than she had imagined. But there was something else that shocked her, and she had not expected. The dress was tighter around her bosom area, pushing it out and revealing the whitish skin of her bosom.
“Uh...” Laurel trailed off, the image in the mirror making her question everything she had ever known.
She looked mature, like a woman, and it felt strange that just a mere item of clothing changed her entire appearance.
“You look amazing,” Maude voiced out in admiration.
“I look grown up,” Laurel whispered, her heart sinking into her stomach, and she quite did not know why.
“Yes, you look like a lady.”
Laurel knew she looked like a lady. She looked like a lady who should be running a household, pushing out babies, and giving orders to cooks and gardeners and lady's maids. She was not ready to be grown up, and yet a simple corset had done just that. It was like she had been elevated from sitting at the children’s table to giving orders.
“I look grown,” Laurel mumbled again to herself, this time louder than the last.
“Of course you are grown. You are zero and twenty years old, my Lady.”
“Yes,” Laurel agreed even though she needed no reminder. She smoothed her dress again, trying to pay attention to anything but the rising and falling of her chest as she let out breaths.
Laurel moved to her dressing table, and Maude followed, before long, she brushed her hair. The girl sat in silence, her mind churning. In her small mind, she had thought she had all the time in the world to decide what she wanted to do with her life. Obviously, she had always thought marriage was the right thing to do after she had finished exploring, of course, and traveling the world. She had never exempted getting married and having a grandchild or more for her father and mother out of her plans, but she never thought it would be expected of her this early.
In her mind, she was only a child. She was a child who couldn't decide for herself, less talk of others, and she had planned on taking care of her father for a long while before she finally settled. Now, it seemed like she had no chance to read and write and explore and later get married.
Laurel took a deep breath, wondering what everyone else would think of her. Surely, they would think she was ready to find a match and get married. She didn’t want to believe it, but the thought scared her. Back in her old town, she never truly had a lot of friends because her mother’s company was worth more than a thousand friends. But she made one who she frequented the local gardens with to pick flowers, Dawn Freebridge.
She had never truly cared for Dawn as a friend, she had been more like an acquaintance. She enjoyed their routine visit to the gardens to pick flowers and chat about decorations. All their young girlish fun was cut short when Laurel found out that Dawn was to be wed to an old, widowed Viscount, and Dawn was two years younger than she was. Laurel had thought of how her life would go, but from what she had heard from the maid's gossip, Dawn had married the Viscount without a dowry because he really needed a wife to foresee his home, and the Freebridge's family needed to get out of their debts.
Then, it had not made sense to Laurel because she was young and had everything she had hoped for. Now, she was older and wiser, and as much as the world excited her, it also scared her tremendously.
“There. Perfect,” Maude let out excitedly.
“Yes, yes it is,” Laurel observed as her brown hair fell on her shoulders and back, and she watched as Maude applied rouge to her cheeks and lips.
Even though she was still coming to terms with the new fashion she ought to follow, she could not deny that the person staring back at her in the mirror looked outstanding.
“Here,” Maude handed Laurel her mask. “You are ready to go.”
Laurel smiled as she placed the mask gingerly on her nose. She was ready for the ball and ready to make friends, but the feeling in the pit of her stomach was not helping matters.
She whipped around and faced Maude. “I am nervous,” she confessed.
Maude gave her a reassuring look.
Laurel smiled, and with that, they both headed down to the ball.
It was everything Laurel had imagined, it was her father's ball, and she knew it would be anything but underwhelming. Her father always knew how to throw a fantastic party, and that was one thing Laurel hoped to learn from him. The champagne was plentiful, the music very merry, and the decorations wonderful. Laurel was certain the food tasted delicious as well; her father never settled for anything but the best.
Maude bade her goodbye and Laurel knew she would be all alone for the evening. Not completely alone though, she had been assigned a chaperone at the party. Governess Joan. The woman wore a dress that was ironed to perfection and did not show a sliver of skin except for her face. Laurel wished Maude was beside her, but she would not be allowed anywhere near the ball.
She looked around, Miss Joan close behind her as she examined everyone at the party. She couldn't tell who was who because most people had their masks on, but it looked like an extremely festive party. Laurel glanced around again, trying to catch sight of a black mask and hoping it was her father.
“Father is not here yet.”
“So it seems, he might still be getting ready or he wants a grand entrance, my Lady,” the woman said.
“I can't tell who anyone is,” Laurel all but groaned.
“I can,” Miss Joan said with a sly smile.
“Sure. But how can you tell who is who?” Laurel asked, confused.
“You doubt my skills, my Lady?” Miss Joan asked, feigning shock.
“Never,” Laurel giggled. The Governess was not what she expected her to be. The woman she had been expecting was supposed to be prim and proper.
Miss Joan cleared her throat and began. “Well, over at the far end with that man is Miss Catherine. Rumor has it that she has been looking for a husband for the last three seasons and she gives audience to every single man that gives her the littlest attention. And over there is Sir Gregory who frequents the brothel more times than he changes his pants.”
Laurel gasped her gloved hand over her lips. She could only make out the people from their clothes, but she didn't mind.
“And there is Lady Rose who has three children for three different men, and the only reason why she is allowed to show her face at these occasions and not shunned by society is because she inherited all her late husband's wealth. Rumor has it that she,” She made a motion of a knife slicing her neck, “killed him.”
Laurel gasped again, her eyes lingering on the said Lady Rose. The woman had one of the most elegant gowns in the room, and her neck was filled with rows and rows of pearls. Laurel knew idle gossip was not right, but it was also very entertaining, yet she knew she had to put an end to it. She had heard enough.
“That might be all now.”
“Are you sure you don't want to hear about the love triangle between the Vincent's and Harry's?”
Laurel paused, torn. She really wanted to hear about the love triangle, but she shook her head. She was going to form her opinion about everyone herself rather than being influenced by gossip, as a lady should. She thought that would be something Miss Joan taught her students, but apparently not.
Before Maude could say anything, Rupert arrived at the party, and the entire hall let out a thunderous applause to welcome their host and Laurel joined in too, happy that her father had chosen the black mask.
* * *
Philip took a drink of his champagne, his eyes scanning the ballroom for what he could not remember. He had only been in the manor a few times as a child when his father was still alive, but it looked different to him. The Earl had redone it, and it even looked nicer than he had remembered.
“Philip dearest, this is Lady Arnold. I found her standing alone with the other ladies. I reckon you two should have a dance,” Amaryllis' voice interrupted Philip's thought.
Philip bowed to Lady Arnold, and she did the same. She was the fourth girl his mother had introduced him to that evening, and he wanted to blame her for dragging him to the ball, but he knew she had no hand in it. When they had gotten the invitation, he had hastily sent back a reply, hell-bent on getting to know the Earl everyone else won't keep shut about.
“Would you like to dance, Lady Arnold?” Philip extended his hand to the woman. From the corner of his eyes, he could see the wide smile that formed on his mother's face.
“I would be delighted, Your Grace.” He took her hand and escorted her to the dance floor, where a few couples were dancing. He bowed, and then he placed his hand gently on her waist, and she wrapped hers around his neck, and they began to spin around the hall.
Philip noticed that her hair was just as luscious as his mother had described, and even though her face was mostly covered with the mask, he could tell she was a beautiful woman.
“So, Lady Arnold, what have you been up to lately?”
“Learning Latin and the pianoforte. I love languages, so I am adding Latin to my small collection of learned languages.”
“Small collection you say.”
She chuckled, “Yes, Your Grace. I know French, Spanish and now Latin. Language is a major currency in the world as my Papa says, and I intend to learn as many of them as possible.”
Philip shook his head, impressed. None of the women he had spoken to seemed to have any interests of their own. They all piggybacked on everything else the other girls were saying or what their mothers had told them to say. But Lady Arnold seemed learned, and that was something that impressed Philip.
“I have always known you as Lady Arnold,” he said as he twirled her, “but I do not know your first name.”
“My name is Caroline, but everyone calls me Lady Arnold, and it just stuck.” She chuckled, and Philip did too.
He did not seem to detest talking to her as much as he had imagined.
“So Lady Arnold, what do you intend to do once you are done learning the languages? Travel perhaps?” She laughed again, which startled Philip.
“How can I travel? I am but a lady and traveling is for wayward wenches who can't find a husband.”
Philip was shocked, but the music ended before he could speak up. Caroline smiled as she bowed at him and made her way over to the other ladies. Philip marched back to where he was standing, feeling suffocated. She was skilled, but she intended on wasting the skills under another man's roof instead of actually putting them to good use. He could never understand how some women thought, and on some days, he wanted to be as mean as Theo. Not everyone was ambitious, especially women. They had been trained to be silent, and it was only a miracle that a woman was learning something other than embroidery, sewing, or even pianoforte.
“Come, come Philip.” Amaryllis' voice interrupted his thoughts once again, and he groaned. The only thing he needed for the evening was to be back home, in bed.
He walked towards her and saw a man and a woman standing by his mother. He bowed as soon as he got in front of them.
“This is Philip the Duke of Cheltenham and Philip this is the Earl and Lady of Chilton.”
“Ah,” Philip exclaimed and bowed.
He had wanted some time alone with the Earl, but he just needed to take air, and any matter he wanted to discuss with the Earl was not one he wanted his mother to listen in on.
Philip's eyes trailed to the young lady as his mother chattered on, probably boring them with one of her stories. He noticed her rosy lips, and before he could notice anything else, he snuck away from the group.
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