About the book
She is ice and fire. The touch of her burns his hands like snow...
Though raised like every other well-bred Lady of the ton, Arabella Foster is certainly not one of them. And her unwavering determination to be involved in her father's ducal duties leads her straight into the path of one charming barrister...
Of common birth but with an ingenious mind, Charles Connolly has established his professional reign as London's most sought-after barrister. And yet, there's something that eludes him. His heart's greatest desire: Arabella Foster's hand.
A series of suspicious deaths of prominent noblemen shakes the foundations of London's high society. When Arabella's father receives a threatening note, all clues point to a single common thread: Charles Connolly.
With more than just his reputation on the line, Charles is determined to clear his name and win the favor of Arabella's father.
However, the world is a scary place when darkness falls, and unbeknownst to him, Charles just put himself in the gravest danger of them all...
Ten-year-old Charles Conolly sat, staring into the fire. The flames danced and crackled before his eyes. If he closed them, their dance would penetrate the darkness that dwelt there. Eyes closed, eyes open, it didn’t matter—his father was still dead.
His feet hung out into space, as they did on every chair. He kicked them a little bit. He was frightened that the constable was there to take his mother from him, too. He’d had nightmares about it, ever since his father had been taken away. He was learning that nightmares were real. Even when he was awake, the horrible reality was still there.
Behind him, in the other room, his mother and the constable were talking in low voices. He tried to listen, closely.
“How is your son?” Constable Barnes asked. This was a trap—they pretended to be kind. Then, when a person relaxed…that was when they accused that person of something you hadn’t done.
“He’s stopped speaking, since…” his mother trailed off. She sighed. “Since the hanging. I shouldn’t have taken him, but I wanted him to see us, right before…”
Just the mention of it caused Charles to begin to shake. He’d closed his eyes, so he hadn’t seen the awful moment, or what came after. He’d heard someone, screaming. It had taken him a while before he’d realized that it was actually him.
“I have news, Ma’am,” the constable said. Charles’s small heartbeat quickened in fear. So, he was there to take Charles’s mother. His body tensed. What should he do? What could he do?
“Yes?” his mother said. Charles listened, even closer. He waited for the constable to deliver the bad news. Then, he would go in, do something to protect her.
“Another murder has occurred,” the constable began. “We were able to catch the true perpetrator. A man, who looks very much like your husband.”
“Oh, Oh God,” his mother gasped, bursting into sobs.
Charles’s stomach dropped. His small hands were tight fists at his sides. They had killed his father. He thought of his father, then—he had the same dark hair and blue eyes as Charles. Theodore Conolly had been a kind, gentle person. Someone who would have never hurt anyone. The constable kept talking.
“I’m sorry to say that your husband has been cleared of any wrongdoing in the whole affair,” the constable said. “We are…we are so sorry, Madam.”
A tear trailed down Charles’s cheek as he listened to his mother, crying in the other room. Charles stood up, then stalked angrily into the living room, where Constable Barnes was seated at the worn settee with his mother.
“You come to tell us this now?” Charles demanded. He might have been ten years old, but he had the full weight of righteous anger on his side. “You come to tell us that you hanged the wrong man?”
Charles was shaking, and he felt sick to his stomach. The constable looked at him with droopy eyes.
“I’m so very sorry—” he began.
“No, you’re not,” Charles snapped, cutting him off. “What are you going to do? Take my mother from me, too?”
“Charles!” his mother said.
He turned to his mother. She looked pale, faded, as if the life had been sucked out of her since his father’s arrest. Her cheeks were glistening with tears. “What? What is he going to do?” Charles demanded. “He’s taken Father from us! Because he made a mistake!” He turned toward Constable Barnes, who looked like he’d been slapped. “How are we supposed to live?”
“We’ve…we’ve raised some money,” Constable Barnes said. “To ensure that you are both taken care of. So that the boy can go to school.”
“Money? What good is money?” Charles snapped. “I want my father back! You took him from me!”
He glared at the constable, then turned and stormed out through the back door, letting it slam behind him. Charles stood on the back step, breathing heavily. He didn’t know what to do, or where to go. His mother would worry if he disappeared. Charles wasn’t allowed to go far. He sat down heavily on the back step.
His father, a good man, had been wrongly accused of murder. No matter how hard they had tried to convince anyone of his innocence, no one had listened. And they hadn’t been able to afford a barrister.
If only they’d had the money to afford one then. He decided in that moment, that he would become a barrister, himself. Then, he could help people like his father.
Seventeen Years Later
Now that Nemesis had gotten a taste for killing, a plan had begun to form. The list of names, upon whom the murderer wished to get revenge was long. Five gentlemen, all of whom had wronged the murderer over the past few years.
Since most of the gentlemen on the list were comfortably ensconced at their country estates for the summer, the murderer planned. No one had reported the first gentleman even missing, much less dead.
The murderer had spent the last few hours of dwindling light, scrawling letters to all of them. Threats, which would soon prove to be more than idle. The murderer wanted them all to be afraid, knowing that they were targeted.
You know who I am. You wronged me, severely. You will not see me coming, but you will feel my breath on the back of your neck, cold as January wind.
By winter’s end, you will be dead.
It was easy enough to send a letter by post. Then, when winter came, all of the gentlemen would be there, in London—where the murderer would hunt them down, picking them off one by one.
The murderer wrote the letter’s recipient, Robert Follett. Duke of Tiverwell.
A butler stepped forward, to open the door to the carriage. Charles stepped out, looking around at the grand façade of Tiverwell Manor. It was a large country estate, with a massive, multi-story house of sandstone.
He was dressed in his best suit—he wanted to make a good impression on the Duke. He straightened his dark blue jacket, then pushed his top hat back a little. Charles had been invited out to the country by the Duke of Tiverwell, in order to arrange his affairs. Since he had never before worked for a gentleman of this caliber, he had agreed immediately.
The family stood out in front of the house, awaiting his arrival. Charles beamed at them as he stepped forward—Robert Follett, the Duke of Tiverwell cut a rather imposing figure. He was a gentleman of fifty, with salt and pepper hair.
“Mr. Conolly,” the Duke said, bowing a little. Charles bowed low.
“Your Grace. Thank you for sending the barouche-landau,” he said. “It was most kind of you.”
“It was the least that I could do, Mr. Conolly,” the Duke said, “since you agreed to come all the way out here to help me with my estate planning.” Charles had been referred to the Duke by the Earl of Danbury, another of his clients, who were mostly members of the ton.
The Duke turned to the lady at his side. “This is my wife, the Duchess of Tiverwell.”
She curtsied—she was an elegant lady, with her reddish-brown hair pulled back in a low chignon. She was dressed simply, in a cream and blue striped silk dress.
“Welcome to Tiverwell Manor, Mr. Conolly,” she said.
“You are most kind, Your Grace,” Charles replied, bowing again.
“And this is our daughter, Lady Arabella,” the Duke said. The Duchess moved, and then Charles saw her. He had heard much about Lady Arabella of late. She had debuted just the past winter. When it was found out that she rode astride, like a gentleman, and participated in archery and fencing, the whole of London had been talking about it.
“Please to make your acquaintance, My Lady,” he said. She was dressed in fencing gear, and was, at that moment, tugging off her gloves. A fencing foil—a sabre, to be exact, was tucked under her arm. She regarded him with intelligent honey-toned eyes.
“Pleased to make yours, as well,” she said, curtsying.
He bowed. When he raised his eyes, she was studying him closely, her head tilted to the side. She smiled.
“I imagine that you’re wondering why a lady is dressed in breeches?”
“Not at all, My Lady,” he replied, taking in her brown curls that framed her face, the freckles—cinnamon flecks across the cream of her skin. “I’m wondering at your use of the sabre over an epée, actually.”
“It’s a more solid weapon,” she replied, a look of pleasure crossing her pink, bow-shaped lips. “An epée is too flimsy for my taste.”
“It’s certainly a different fighting style,” he agreed.
“Do you fence, sir?” she asked.
“I do, My Lady,” he said. “I was captain of the fencing team while I was in school.”
“She wants to challenge you to a duel, Mr. Conolly,” the Duke of Tiverwell said, a note of extreme pride and fondness in his tone. “This is how she measures up all of her potential opponents.”
“I would be happy to accept, My Lady,” Charles said.
She beamed, with genuine delight. “Then I will hold you to your word, Mr. Conolly. I always fence at eight of the clock, nearly every morning.”
“Tomorrow, then,” Charles said.
After they had greeted Mr. Conolly, Arabella returned to her room, where her lady’s maid, Annette, helped her to change quickly. She always sat in on her father’s business meetings, and she was interested to hear what Mr. Conolly would have to say in regards to her father’s proposed plan.
Arabella had been pleasantly surprised by Mr. Conolly. It was rare for any male person, aside from her instructor, to fence against her. There was often a lot of hemming and hawing, and then a soft denial. They all found the prospect of being beaten by a lady daunting, even though they always proclaimed that they were being “chivalrous.” Mr. Conolly had seemed pleased by her offer.
Dressed in a yellow silk gown, she walked straight to her father’s study. On the other side of the door, she could hear her father’s booming voice, then listened as Mr. Conolly answered.
He seemed to be an intelligent and confident man. He interested her immensely. She had never met anyone of his like. That is, she had never met anyone who hadn’t been scandalized by her wearing breeches. She was curious to see if he was merely able to hide his shock better than everyone else.
She knocked on the smooth cherry wood door. “Yes?” her father called out. She opened the door, peering inside. Her father and Mr. Conolly were both sitting across from each other at the desk, which was a riot of papers and ledgers.
“It’s just me,” she said.
“Come in,” her father replied. He turned to Mr. Conolly—who did not miss a beat, Arabella noticed. “My daughter always sits in on my business,” he explained.
“Very good, Your Grace,” Mr. Conolly said, turning to Arabella. “We were just discussing the estate planning that His Grace had in mind.”
“Ah, yes,” Arabella said, sitting down in a chair. “He’s told me all about it.”
“I ran it all by her before I enlisted your services, Mr. Conolly,” the Duke explained.
“Excellent,” Mr. Conolly said. “It’s all rather simple to do—however, it involves filling out and filing certain documents. That will take time. Particularly since the first version of your will seems to be incomplete.”
Arabella hadn’t known this. She frowned at her father.
“Never to worry,” her father said, waving her off before she began to ask questions. “We hope that you will enjoy your stay at Tiverwell. The country has its benefits.”
“This is the first time that I’ve been fortunate enough to stay out in the country,” Mr. Conolly said. “I’ve always lived in the city, myself.”
“Not to worry, Mr. Conolly,” Arabella said. “We will make sure that you don’t spend the entire time in my father’s dusty study.”
“That’s very kind of you, My Lady.”
Her father cleared his throat. “My one question is, Mr. Conolly—will we have any pushback from my cousin?” He was, of course, talking about Lord Farley Milton, the Viscount of Landsdale, who would, upon her father’s death, receive the lion’s share of her father’s estate, as well as the title of Duke of Tiverwell.
“I will do my best to—ease the way, so to speak,” Mr. Conolly replied. “If he’s to inherit the title and the county seat, then that may be all of the incentive that he needs to remain quiet. Certainly, I can point out the benefits of allowing Lady Arabella and the Duchess to inherit the funds as well as the London townhome, as you propose.”
“There are also certain—priceless objects—which must remain with my daughter and wife,” her father explained. Arabella, cursed with being born female, would be nearly penniless. Unless she married well, or Mr. Conolly was able to change the will, specifically the entail which took away the lion’s share of the money.
Should it not be resolved, then she and her mother would receive a modest income upon her father’s death, and nothing more. The title of Duke, Tiverwell Manor, all of the money, properties, and even her mother’s considerable inheritance from her own father would go to Farley Minton, Viscount of Norton, who none of them liked.
“Which we’ll go through and detail in the document,” Mr. Conolly was saying. “As I work, it would be of great use if you could make a detailed and thorough list of the items of which you speak.”
Arabella let her mind wander, just a bit. They were discussing those objects which her father wanted to remain within the bloodline. This included several paintings, a few sculptures, a silver tea service…nothing that truly interested Arabella, aside from a Middle Ages broadsword, which her father kept over the fireplace in the library.
“You see, Mr. Conolly,” her father was saying. Arabella focused when her father turned a fond gaze in her direction. “My wife and I have raised our only child as both son and daughter to us both. We wish to make sure that upon my demise, she is treated as she has been raised.”
Arabella beamed at her father, then turned her gaze toward Mr. Conolly. Instead of looking shocked, he merely nodded, smiling.
“I will ensure that it is so,” he said.
“I must say,” Arabella said. “I’m very impressed at how you’re taking all of this.”
“It’s not my job to impose my opinions on the requests of my clients,” he replied. “However, I see no reason why a beloved daughter shouldn’t receive the things which her father wishes to give her.” He cleared his throat. “The only true problem that we may encounter is the entail itself. They are difficult to break; however, it has also been done.”
“They have, have they?” her father asked.
“Yes. The wife’s fortune has been successfully released from the estate,” Mr. Conolly explained. “The title and the county seat were not.”
Arabella smiled at him. Secretly, she was planning never to marry. She wanted to live like a gentleman—under her own power. She wanted never to have to submit to a husband.
“I think you’ve found a very sound advocate in Mr. Conolly, Papa,” she said, smiling at her father. She loved him, as any daughter who had been raised by a kind and generous father would. She just couldn’t tell him her plans. He would never understand the full weight of how her upbringing had formed her mind and her heart.
As Charles made his way down for dinner, he found himself thinking of Lady Arabella. She was beautiful, yes. But she was also opinionated and intelligent. He was interested to make her acquaintance. It could never be more than that, but he was fine with that. He’d met so many daughters of gentlemen in his work. It was abundantly clear that none of them were anything like Lady Arabella.
As he walked, he glanced at the paintings in the hallway which stared out at him from their gilt frames. The carpet in the hall was soft and thick, muffling his footsteps.
When he arrived, the Duke, the Duchess, Lady Arabella, as well as another gentleman, were already down in the parlor, awaiting the announcement that dinner was ready. Charles glanced about the room. No matter how long he worked with the ton, their extravagant living situations still made his head spin.
His eyes went immediately to Lady Arabella, who was wearing a midnight blue silk gown which brought out the auburn of her hair. She looked positively bewitching.
“How do you find your rooms, Mr. Conolly?” the Duchess asked him.
“Very comfortable, Your Grace,” he replied. “Thank you.”
“This is the Viscount of Drysdale,” the Duke said, as a very austere, prim-looking gentleman walked over to them. “He’s here to enjoy the hunting. He will be staying here at Tiverwell Manor.”
“I’ve heard of your prowess in chambers,” Lord Drysdale said, smiling. “His Grace has been singing your praises.” He was a gentleman of no more than five-and-twenty. Charles had the hunch that he was actually there in pursuit of Lady Arabella. A hunt of the female kind.
“How kind of you, Your Grace,” Charles said. The Duke raised his glass of brandy in salute.
“It’s all well-deserved, sir.”
“I might have a case to discuss with you, myself,” Lord Drysdale replied, lowering his voice.
“I’d be very happy to assist you, My Lord,” Charles replied. This was how he made his client list—on the strength of recommendations from other clients.
“Mr. Conolly has agreed to fence me tomorrow,” Lady Arabella cut in.
“You’re going to duel a lady?” Lord Drysdale asked, clearly horrified.
“I shall,” Charles replied, feeling his hunch to be correct. Lord Drysdale seemed to be very confident, as he looked over at Lady Arabella. It was in a manner that was, already very proprietary.
“Not at all—for fencers, it’s practice,” Charles explained, calmly. “From what she’s told me, Lady Arabella is, at the very least, as trained as I am. It’s a fair fight.” He cleared his throat and then went on. “It would be an insult to the lady not to fence her, simply because she is a lady.”
Lord Drysdale frowned, but said nothing. He looked confused, as though he were wondering if he had been insulted, himself. Meanwhile, Lady Arabella was beaming at Charles. She mouthed the words, thank you. He nodded.
“Lord Drysdale,” Charles went on because he didn’t want the Viscount to believe himself slighted. He was a potential client, after all. “I’ve heard tell that you’re a master at whist. Would you be at all interested in a game, later?”
Lord Drysdale nodded, a small smile spreading across his face. “Of course, sir. Who told you?”
“The Earl of Diggar,” Charles replied. “He was just telling me last week that you gave him a solid thrashing at the Millgate Club.”
“And so I did,” Lord Drysdale said, proudly. The butler peered into the room at that moment.
“Dinner is served, Your Grace,” he said.
Arabella was thoroughly impressed by Mr. Conolly. He had gently put Lord Drysdale in his place, and then had softened it. He was clearly an expert in navigating the ton, without even being one of them.
Dinner was a long, drawn-out affair. Four slow courses, over which ton gossip was intimated by her parents and Lord Drysdale. She found herself sneaking glances over at Mr. Conolly.
Once, he caught her looking. He smiled, winking at her. She smiled, though she looked down at her plate. Her face heated as she blushed.
To be reduced to a blushing maid! Over a London barrister!
Dinner was over, at long last. The gentlemen and Mr. Conolly all left the room, retiring to her father’s billiards room, where they could enjoy their cards, cigars, and brandy in peace.
Arabella and her mother went into the drawing room, where they sat on her mother’s yellow brocade settee, sipping lemon cordial. The windows were thrown open, so that a cool, twilight breeze permeated the room.
“Mr. Conolly is an interesting sort,” her mother said, picking up her glass of cool lemon cordial.
“He is, indeed,” Arabella agreed, taking a sip of her own. It was sweet, with only the hint of sour.
“And what, pray tell, do you think of the Viscount?” her mother asked. Now that Arabella had debuted during the last Season, her mother had been suggesting eligible bachelors to her, as easily as though they were horses to be bought.
“No.” Arabella was firm. Lord Drysdale was kind enough, but he was about as interesting to her as pea soup, which was to say—not at all. Although he was a young gentleman, he acted as though he were older than her father.
“Of course.” The Duchess sighed as she smiled at her daughter fondly. “I knew you were going to be picky.”
“Mamma,” she said. “I cannot marry just anyone.” She couldn’t tell the Duchess that she meant not to marry at all. She had no plans on keeping any gentleman in suspense. She would quash anything before it happened.
“Your father highly approves of him. We were discussing his suitability earlier.” Arabella didn’t approve of them speaking behind her back in this manner.
“That’s because they’re both members of the same club,” Arabella explained. “They’ve bonded over cards and drink, which makes them believe that they share a deeper bond.”
“You’ve seen Drysdale House,” her mother said, raising an eyebrow. “It’s not very far from Tiverwell Manor in terms of comfort and luxury. Not to mention, it is only a five-hour journey.”
“Mr. Conolly says that he will be able to secure the London townhouse for us,” she said. “As well as your fortune for our use, and even perhaps some of Pappa’s money.”
Her mother regarded her with suspicion. Arabella realized that she had accidentally hinted at her true thoughts. Her mother set down her glass of cordial, and folded her hands in her lap. When she spoke, it was with great care.
“Daughter of mine, are you planning not to marry? Because that’s what it sounds like you are contemplating, in light of your father’s planned changes to his will.”
“Mamma—” Arabella sighed. “If I marry—”
“If!” Her mother’s eyebrows shot up.
“If, yes—then it will be for love, and with a gentleman who will not seek to dominate me using propriety as a means to do so.”
“I would expect nothing less,” her mother said, smiling.
“Good,” Arabella replied, taking a sip of her cordial. She felt relieved. It had felt like they were about to argue—and they rarely did. Her mother’s excitement over having Arabella married was…a surprise to Arabella herself.
“So, I will help you to find said gentleman,” her mother announced. Arabella cringed. She had been hoping that her mother would relax and let Arabella do all of the worrying.
“He would have to be your equal,” her mother remarked thoughtfully. She picked up her glass of cordial, holding it aloft as she spoke. “You could never be happy marrying a gentleman who thought himself above you. Nor, could he be lesser, for you would never respect him.” Her mother nodded to herself.
“Does such a gentleman exist?” Arabella asked, doubtfully. She had never met a gentleman who was like that. She had presumed that he didn’t exist, nor would he ever.
“In a country such as ours? Of course, he does. We just have to find him.”
Arabella turned her gaze toward the window, which was now a square of dark blue, the same shade as her dress. She thought, for a moment, of Mr. Conolly. She shook the thought away. He wasn’t a gentleman. Her father would never approve. Yet, Mr. Conolly treated her as an equal.
Perhaps he’ll show his true colors tomorrow.
Charles sat, staring down at his hand of cards. The two gentlemen were deep in a discussion of affairs upon which he could have absolutely no opinion. This was the usual habit of the ton. They were wrapped up in their own business.
“Your Grace,” Lord Drysdale said. “I was wondering at your education of your daughter.” Charles perked up.
“What of it?” the Duke asked.
“She seems to have been educated like a gentleman,” Drysdale said. Charles mused to himself that Lord Drysdale indeed fancied himself the natural match of Lady Arabella. He had the feeling, though, that she was more than the Viscount could handle.
“She has,” the Duke stated.
“How is she to be a wife to a gentleman if she claims to be his equal?”
“What did she do to you, Drysdale?” the Duke replied, winking at Charles. He had to hold in a laugh.
“Just this morning, she—she argued that I was mistaken,” Drysdale said.
“Not used to being bested by a lady?” Charles asked.
“Are you, Mr. Conolly?”
“I have not met many ladies,” he commented. “Usually, I work with gentlemen. Although, why shouldn’t ladies speak their minds? Why shouldn’t they be educated? In my opinion, education improves the life of the mind.”
“It has long been my opinion that ladies should be educated, but not argumentative,” Lord Drysdale muttered.
“What’s the point of educating them if they aren’t allowed to speak their minds?” Charles asked, setting his cards face down on the table.
The Viscount was about to answer, but the Duke threw his head back, roaring with laughter.
“Oh, Mr. Conolly! I love how easily you make your point. No wonder you’re so successful in the court room.”
“Indeed, Your Grace.” While he might have been low-born, he had no plans to sit silently, listening to them just talk.
The Viscount merely looked perturbed.
“Well Lord Drysdale,” the Duke said. “If you still mean to court my daughter, you should probably take a leaf out of Mr. Conolly’s book. She’ll never submit to the will of a gentleman who means to make her second to him.” The Duke shook his head. “She’s not going to change, merely because she’s married.”
The Viscount flashed Charles a look that was filled with jealousy. Charles, not wanting to present himself as a threat to the Viscount’s suit— particularly when he never could be—shrugged.
“Perhaps, My Lord,” he suggested. “Why don’t you try treating her as your equal? See how it goes.”
The Viscount squinted, as he considered it. “Perhaps. After all, what have I got to lose?”
The next morning, Arabella dressed in her fencing gear—a pair of breeches, with padding in the legs, a padded jacket, over a protective breastplate, and then she tugged the gloves on.
Her pulse was racing as she walked downstairs, Annette, as always, trailing behind her. Arabella was excited to duel Mr. Conolly. As promised, he was waiting for her, down in the salle, with her fencing instructor.
“Good morning, Fabrizio,” she said, greeting her instructor—a small, wiry man, who had been brought to England from Italy, by her father. She then turned to Mr. Conolly. “I see you’ve met Mr. Conolly.”
“I have indeed, My Lady,” Fabrizio replied.
Mr. Conolly, too, wore fencing gear. She couldn’t help but notice—he looked smart in the form-fitting, white suit.
“Good morning, My Lady,” he said, bowing.
“Good morning, Mr. Conolly,” she replied, sketching a curtsey. She walked over to where her fencing foils were kept. “I believe you said that you preferred the epée?”
“I do, My Lady,” he said. “Although, I am able to perform with sabre, if it would please you.”
She smiled at him. He was quite the smooth-talker. “What would please you, Mr. Conolly?” she asked, her voice a low purr.
He didn’t even bat an eye. “To make you happy, My Lady.”
“Sabre, it is.” She grabbed her sabre, flipping it, then catching it by the hilt.
“Very well,” Mr. Conolly said, bowing.
They both faced off, pulling on their helmets. He was a skilled fencer—he was pushing her to use lightning-quick touches. She parried him easily. Fabrizio and Annette watched on.
“Are you going easy on me, Mr. Conolly?” she asked.
“Merely warming up, My Lady,” he replied, jumping back as she executed an offense.
She began to attack him down low, forcing him to step back. He attacked her high, causing her to take a pace backward. She moved, as fast as a striking snake, down beneath his defenses, scoring a hit on his hip.
“Hah!” she yelled in triumph.
“Good hit,” he said.
“Thank you,” she murmured, pleased. Mr. Conolly was actually fencing her. That hit had been well-earned and fought for.
Charles had to admit it—she was good. Brilliant. She was about to beat him, fair and square. He wasn’t even going to claim that he was out of practice. Even if he hadn’t been, she would still be beating him.
He had scored only one hit, while she was about to make her third. He’d given it his best go, not letting her have it easily. She was absolutely ferocious with a sword.
Finally, she came in from above, something that she hadn’t done—hitting him just above the sternum.
He stepped back. “Third hit,” he said.
Fabrizio was clapping. “Bene. Bene, My Lady.”
Lady Arabella threw off her helmet, beaming as she stepped forward, holding out her hand to shake Charles’s. He took it, pressing it in his as he shook it firmly. “Your skill is excellent, My Lady.”
“Thank you,” she said. A strand of her hair had fallen loose, and the tip of it was stuck just beside her mouth. “Thank you for actually fencing me.”
“What? You think I’d let you win?” he asked with a laugh.
“No, but I’m glad you didn’t.”
“That was quite the duel,” Fabrizio said, clapping his hands. “I haven’t seen swordplay like that since I was on the circuit myself.”
“Thank you, Fabrizio,” Lady Arabella said, breathlessly. “Have you had breakfast, Mr. Conolly?”
“I have not,” Charles said, his stomach rumbling.
“Me either,” she replied. They put away their foils, then left their helmets on one of the benches.
They walked together, talking companionably as they went up to the breakfast room. Annette followed behind them. Ever present, yet always silently observing.
“So, Mr. Conolly,” Arabella said. “Have you often been in the country?”
“No, My Lady,” he replied. “I have not had the pleasure.”
“Then you must come riding with me soon,” she said. “Lord Drysdale will likely tag along, too, but there’s nothing as pleasant as a ride in the countryside.”
“I would be happy to, My Lady,” he said.
“Good. It’s settled then.”
She smiled at him as they neared the breakfast room. Her smile seemed to light up the dim hall. Light spilled in through the doorways, lighting her up from behind.
It wasn’t often that Charles felt as though he was being treated as an equal. However, he had certainly made an ally of Lady Arabella.
When Arabella and Mr. Conolly arrived in the breakfast room, her father was the only one still there. He liked to sit, reading the morning post and drinking tea. It was Arabella’s favorite room in the house, with lemon yellow and cream striped wallpaper, and large windows, through which light emanated.
“Well? How did it go?” her father asked, slipping the letter that he’d been reading into his jacket pocket.
“She’s a strong fencer,” Mr. Conolly said. “She beat me thoroughly.”
“He put up quite the defense,” Arabella added, as she sat down at the mahogany wood table. “Mr. Conolly is equally as strong.”
“Have you fenced much, Mr. Conolly?” the Duke asked.
“Yes, Your Grace, I was in the fencing club while at Cambridge.”
“Ah, I see.” The Duke smiled. “You didn’t let Lady Arabella win?”
“I wouldn’t dare, Your Grace,” Mr. Conolly replied, buttering a slice of toast, then biting into it.
Arabella grabbed a slice of toast from the rack, slathering it with marmalade and butter. She was pleased with herself. He certainly hadn’t let her win—she knew by now when someone was letting her win.
She poured herself a cup of tea, then ate with absolute relish. There was nothing so pleasant as toast and tea after a good bout of fencing.
“So, I take it you’ll be all ready to move forward with the estate planning?” her father asked.
“Of course, Your Grace,” Mr. Conolly replied.
Arabella looked up at her father. He was frowning thoughtfully. He stared down at the white tablecloth. He drummed his fingers in agitation.
“Pappa?” she asked, watching him seem to shake off his thoughts. He looked at her. “Is something wrong?”
“Heavens, no. Nothing at all, my sweet.”
“All right.” She went back to her tea and toast. It was odd. For a moment, he had seemed…distracted. Worried about something. But now he was smiling.
“You know, she hasn’t beaten me at a duel yet,” he told Mr. Conolly.
“It’s true,” she agreed.
Charles and the Duke were cloistered in the Duke’s study. The sound of quills, scratching across paper was the only sound that filled the room. The Duke paused in his writing, to take a sip of the brandy that was near at hand.
Charles glanced up to find the Duke studying him. “Is something wrong, Your Grace?” he asked.
“Take a break, Mr. Conolly,” the Duke suggested.
Charles set his quill down, next to the paper. He sat back in his seat, folding his hands. He, too, had a glass of brandy, but he made it a habit not to drink until he had finished his work.
The Duke was taking his time broaching whatever was bothering him. Charles took a sip, letting the smooth, oaky taste of the drink permeate his tongue.
“I know that you’ve helped many gentlemen of the ton with their affairs,” the Duke began.
“I have been most fortunate,” Charles replied.
“Some of them with things of a very…private nature,” the Duke said.
“Yes. I have kept those matters utterly a secret,” Charles assured him, feeling like the Duke was about to reveal something equally private. “I will take those secrets to my grave.”
The Duke nodded, inhaling deeply. He had let his mask slip, if only a little. There was a haunted cast to his gaze. “Mr. Conolly,” he said, at last. “What if someone was being threatened—for the sake of argument, let’s say a letter, from an unknown source? What could be done?
“Presuming that the source was unknown, it would be best to find out who it is,” Charles replied. “I would suggest that a private investigator be hired. Once there is actual proof, charges could be brought formally.”
“What if both parties wanted to keep it a secret?”
“That, too, could be brought about in secret,” Charles replied. “Depending upon what it is that these threats are over.”
The Duke nodded. His gaze was on his desk. Charles had the curious feeling that the letters being discussed did in fact exist, and were in the top drawer.
“Your Grace, are you being threatened?”
“No, Mr. Conolly,” the Duke said. “I’m inclined to believe that it’s nothing, yet…” He smiled at him, then took a sip of his brandy. It seemed like he shook off whatever shadow rested on his shoulders.
Charles nodded. “If you find that it’s more than that then, please do tell me. I’m…rather talented at settling issues outside of court to my clients’ satisfaction.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Mr. Conolly. Thank you,” the Duke said.
Charles nodded, then returned his focus to the task at hand. He had found that the Duke’s previous will hadn’t been completed. It had been hastily done, and didn’t include most of the Duke’s property. Charles did not, however, forget the conversation that they had just had. The whole time, he kept an eye on the Duke, studying him.
Charles suspected that the Duke wasn’t an individual who frightened easily. Whatever had been sent to him had visibly shaken him, though. For Charles, it put the estate planning, and his desire to see his wife and daughter’s futures secured in a different light.
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