About the book
They haven’t yet managed to tame her wild streak…
Lady Marigold couldn’t pour tea to save her life. Left in her uncle’s care ever since she was young, she couldn’t care less about her lack of manners and decorum. Until a handsome stranger literally stumbles on her.
Jasper Johnson, the Duke of Thillingham, can’t accept that his aunt remarried for the third time. And he wants nothing to do with her new husband and his brazen niece. Except… to kiss her in secret one last time.
When his aunt falls ill and he concedes to visit, Jasper is ambushed not only by dogs but by their feisty owner. Once his aunt forces a timid bride on him, Jasper is faced with a difficult choice: Should he allow his head to lead him, or will his heart win?
“When will you finally become a lady?”
That was something that Marigold had found herself hearing more and more often— be it when she was just five years old and chasing the dog out in the gardens or when she had turned eighteen and spent her debut complaining that she would have to wear the ghastly gown that her uncle had chosen for her.
“Surely, you cannot expect me to wear that? Why on earth would you choose mustard yellow of all colors?” she had demanded, her total bewilderment showing in her flushed cheeks. “If my hair is red, and my eyes are blue, yellow is the worst possible idea.”
“It matches your name, dear,” was her uncle’s response. “It also matches the night’s theme. This is to be an important night when you finally introduce yourself as a beautiful lady that is eligible for marriage, and so I want this ball to be all about you.”
“I do not want it to be all about me. I do not even want a ball! The last thing on my mind right now is to curtsey to every count and lord within a five-mile radius in the hopes that one might take a liking to me,” Marigold retorted, which had ended the discussion. That was until the night of her birthday when she donned the dress and wore her best smile and tried in vain to charm various upstanding members of society that she had never met before. It hadn’t been wholly painful, aside from the less than hushed whispers of the older women in attendance and the stumbling attempts at dances with suitors.
“I was true to my word, was I not?” the Earl asked. “I had the flower you are named after practically swarming the room and the tables covered in gold.”
“I don’t suppose you had it in you to remind him that your favorite color was truly emerald-green?” Lady Shandon asked Marigold, who merely shifted in her seat and looked at her hands.
“Not at all. I was rather too busy waltzing with any man who came near me, asking him all of the right questions about his family and his home and whether he preferred the city or the country and other meaningless drivel until I had to take a moment away from the dance floor.”
“Of course, that was when you found yourself light-headed from all of the twirling and ended up falling flat on your face in front of all of the attendees,” the Earl pointed out, but he was not angry, not even the slightest bit. They had decided to look back fondly over the situation. Lady Shandon, of course, remained cautious about it all; the judgement of the ton could rarely be reversed once it became negative.
“I wish that you could say that it was the first and last time that I would embarrass you like that, but that simply isn’t the case, is it?” Marigold asked the couple, the embarrassment reappearing in her body.
“Nonsense, Marigold. In the four years that followed that birthday party, you have changed from a girl determined to disobey every order into one who is well meaning but graceless,” the Earl pointed out. He thought about that event, along with her evolution into the lady sitting beside him, as their carriage neared London.
“Dearest Uncle, I must know why you feel the need to drag me to all of these balls,” Marigold began her habitual practice of refusal. “We both know that I will find a way to ruin things.”
“Dearest Marigold, I must know why you feel the need to do just that. To show me as a less than brilliant father figure, perhaps?” her uncle responded, smiling down at her. He had grown used to her antics, becoming rather fond of them as much as they worried him.
“You know completely well that it is not my intention to do so. It is more so accidental, an error on my part, one could say.” Marigold smiled back. As often as she found herself causing a scene by being improper, it had never been out of spite. “What I am trying to say is that I rather dislike the city.”
“You always have,” was his response, which caught her a little off guard. She had truly made an effort to keep that from him, but it appeared that she had somehow let it slip. Lady Shandon, sitting beside him, rested her hand on his arm, her expression soft.
“Marigold, you have a tendency to make your feelings known,” Lady Shandon explained. “We know that you have been making an effort, but we also know that you have what can only be described as a disdain for London.”
“Well, since you know of my distaste, perhaps we could turn the carriage around? We could feign a mysterious illness that caused us to return to the country, possibly tell them that we might attend a future ball. Would that be so truly awful?” she asked, a hint of pleading in her tone, but her uncle and his wife looked back at her with cool and calm eyes.
“Marigold, first of all, that is improper etiquette, which you would know if you had paid any attention in finishing school,” Lady Shandon said, maintaining eye contact with her. “Aside from that, I am positively bewildered as to why you do not wish to attend this ball. It is New Year’s Eve, a magical time of the year, and this time I have even allowed you to choose your own gown— a lovely choice, I might add.”
Marigold smiled, a gentle blush creeping across her pale cheeks. She had also been thinking about the last time her uncle had made that decision for her.
“Aunt Poppy, it is neither of those trivial things that make me wish not to attend; rather it is the expectations of me. I, the niece of the Earl of Shandon, am but twenty-two, and I am already seen as a cast-off for not being married,” she said, a hint of sorrow twinging in her words. “We both know how society works, even with my, well, inadequacies in etiquette. My role is to find the perfect match in order to bring pride to our family, yet year after year I have failed to do so. Are you not ashamed of me?”
“Why on earth would we be?” Her uncle smiled, his hand resting on hers as her mother did long ago.
“Marigold, you know all too well that I lived for so many years without having so much as known the touch of my soulmate, even though I knew exactly who she was. Was ours a match made for the benefit of our families? Not exactly, which is why I had to wait so very long. Look at me now, finally with the woman that I was enamored by for years. You are young, dear, but you are intelligent enough to know that I want for you to marry for love. Your time will come.”
At this point, he diverted his attention to her aunt, a small and round woman around his age. They shared a look that made Marigold almost yearn for her future to arrive sooner. Almost.
“Must I marry?” Marigold uttered, defiant. “Have I not given you a hard enough time keeping me under control? What do you expect a husband to do? I guarantee that I would find it even more difficult following his orders than I find it following yours.”
It was then that the carriage screeched to a halt. Marigold lurched forward before being grabbed by her uncle, who had clearly forgotten all about the woman in pink that he was previously sharing such a loving look with. Falling back into place, Marigold felt herself slip back in time for a moment. Her body was, of course, still in the carriage with her well-meaning uncle and his wife, but her mind could not help but wander back to when everything in her world stopped moving.
It was a strange time where the adults would whisper in hushed tones as she walked by, exchanging “poor dear”s and “however will she cope”s until she turned red in the face. There were a lot of people, particularly women, who were eager to have her confide in them at the time, but Marigold knew better than to allow for speculation, even at her age. It was the loneliest yet busiest time she had ever known.
“Are you all right, dear?” That brought Marigold to her senses once more. She felt her uncle’s hand still holding on to her with a firm grip, her body perfectly upright and some of her skirts balled up in her fists, creasing her gown. Usually, this would earn a scolding, but her uncle knew better than to criticize her at that moment. His wife simply watched her with a soft gaze, studying her.
“I feel just fine, thank you,” she stammered, suddenly embarrassed by her behavior.
“Then I suppose that now might be a good time to point out your errors in judgement in what you said before?”
“Must you?” Marigold pleaded in a half joking tone, grateful that her uncle did not try to pull her feelings out of her.
“But of course. For a start, if your perception of marriage was accurate, I would be positively ancient before you were mature enough to find a man. Thankfully, a marriage, Marigold, is not truly a woman cowering before her husband. It shouldn't be, at least. When you find the right person who, we can hope, understands your rebellious nature, you will see that there is no better friend for you.” The Earl squeezed her arm gently, comforting her.
“I understand, and I will continue trying to find a good match although if a man ever tries to bring me to live in a city as bustling as this, I may go mad. Have we almost arrived?”
“See for yourself,” was the response.
Marigold peered out of her window and instantly her face was illuminated by the hustle and bustle outdoors. Streetlamps flooded the area with golden light that reflected off of the jewels cascading down the beautiful ladies of the ton, ladies that she would soon be amongst.
“My sincerest apologies for the sudden halt, My Lord,” announced the footman, opening the carriage door and taking Marigold’s hand to lead her down the steps.
“I’m certain there was reason for it,” the Earl responded, and once he believed that Marigold was out of earshot, he followed it with, “Be more careful in future, especially with Marigold in there. I know she does not often show fear, but we are all well aware that carriages frighten her.”
“My apologies again, My Lord. The carriage in front stopped suddenly, and I needed to act fast, otherwise there would have been an accident which we both know would —”
Marigold shut the conversation out from there. Instead, she walked over to admire the gardens. Lenten roses, she remarked to herself, and clearly well taken care of.
“Marigold, dear, perhaps we might go inside now?” Lady Shandon asked her. “Also, you must not forget the rules on where you can and cannot go outside, particularly when you are leaving us.”
“Of course, Aunt Poppy. I suppose that I do not handle carriages all too well,” Marigold responded.
“You mustn’t worry too much; it is something that we can work on,” her uncle soothed her, leading her back towards the building.
Once inside, Marigold was met with the warm light of the ballroom, decorated with gentle flowers and filled with ladies covered in various shades of blue and silver. She stayed on the outskirts of the room, looking on and hoping that she would not be pushed towards joining the crowd.
“Marigold?” A soft voice came from behind her. Marigold knew at once who it belonged to and turned toward the speaker.
“Lilian! It is so lovely to see you.” Lilian had been Marigold’s closest acquaintance throughout their time in finishing school although they had led very different lives since.
“I must say,” Lilian chirped, greeting Marigold, “I am surprised to see you here. I had thought that you found these events, what is it that you called them, ostentatious and pretentious?”
“You had thought correctly,” Marigold smiled back, “but have we not all changed through the years? Perhaps it is simply my time.”
“Do you think so? Goodness, I am almost beside myself over the upcoming social season. Will you be participating once more?” There was an edge to this in Lilian’s voice, if slight. It was rather well known that Marigold had struggled to find the perfect match, but she still had another year.
“I believe I will be. My dear uncle thinks that this will be my year. I don't suppose you will have any issue finding the perfect bachelor,” Marigold responded, trying to keep the conversation light.
“Oh, I never have. I have suitors calling almost daily, but I, as well as my father, am trying to find the perfect someone.”
“As perfect as yourself?” slipped from Marigold’s lips before she could stop herself, and she bit her lip to prevent herself from saying anything more.
“I suppose you could say that, actually, yes,” Lilian responded. “In an ideal world, he will be here tonight, and I can finally meet him in person.”
“And who would this lucky gentleman be?”
“A lady never tells all. After all, Marigold, you mustn't forget that we ladies are currently each other’s biggest competition.”
“Why is that, Lilian? Are you afraid that I will ruin your season with my stumbling waltzes and less than adequate etiquette? How will suitors keep themselves away?” Marigold giggled childishly, spreading her fan across her neck with a flourish. In the years prior, this would have at least elicited a response from her friend, albeit slightly forced in order to be polite, but now there was nothing but a gently scornful cough.
“Less so the two of us, maybe. Perhaps you are forgetful of how a season goes with women. Each woman fights for a man’s hand in marriage in her own dainty way. Should you find yourself being courted by a man of sufficient prestige, well, you ought to prepare for the onslaught of vicious rumors that shall come out of nowhere.”
“Of course.” Marigold knew exactly what Lilian was talking about, and she had seen it firsthand. Ladies with prosperous futures had watched their futures slip from their fingers at the mere suggestion that they had been ruined in one way or another.
“On that note, are you unaccompanied at this moment?” Lilian smiled sweetly. Marigold felt a chill travel down her tightly corseted spine. Was the sabotage to commence now? Then she saw Lilian’s kind face and reminded herself of their time spent together in school, and she calmed herself down gently.
“I believe my uncle is nearby. With all of the commotion, I suppose he thought it wise to let me stay outside for a moment. Where would your chaperone happen to be?” she hastily answered in the hopes that Lilian was similarly out unaccompanied.
“My father is over by the snowdrops with my mother, a mere ten feet away. I do believe that he is whispering in her ear as we speak. Isn’t it so lovely watching your parents grow old together and seeing them just as in love as the day they were married? One can only hope to be so lucky.” Lilian sighed wistfully, glancing toward them. Marigold followed her gaze, a knife twisting inside of her chest.
“Well, if we are to have that in our futures, we had best hasten and find the lucky suitors. I do believe that my uncle and his wife are calling for me. I suppose the issues with the carriages have been solved. Perhaps I will see you inside?” Marigold asked, smiling through gritted teeth.
And with a cordial nod, the most eligible lady of the ton returned to her chaperones, who doted on her with glee for conversing with girls of Marigold’s sort. Marigold herself looked at the fragile petals of the blooms, as pink as her flamed cheeks, and wondered who would wither the fastest.
Lilian and she had never truly been close, Marigold now realized. Perhaps it had always been more of a competition than anything else, one that she had always been losing, and all along it had been her own fault. Her defiance and headstrong insistence to only do what she considered worthy of her time had left her far behind other ladies of her age and status. This realization should have hurt her, but it was all too easy to push it aside. They were acquaintances at least, possibly even friends, and this was simply a conversation between two ladies who both wished for a husband. There was no malice, simply a playful competition between them.
Besides, Marigold thought, it is almost exhilarating knowing that I have thus far successfully kept enough suitors away to continue my life in the country in Shandon Manor. Perhaps I may tire of not being married, but as of right now, Lilian may have all of the suitors that she desires. How can we even be in competition?
Of course, there was guilt in her heart that her poor uncle was so eager for her to do the exact opposite of what she planned, but Marigold knew that he wanted what was best for her, and so, any choice she made would surely be welcomed by him.
That was what she hoped, at least. Watching Lilian wander the ballroom with her parents, she remembered that she must follow suit. She returned to her uncle and his wife, wearing her best smile.
“Keep your chin up, dear,” Lady Shandon said gently. “Tonight may just change your life.”
Being thrust into the light of the ball, Marigold wondered if her aunt was right. Little did she know that there was no greater truth.
As far as parties could go, particularly those in winter, Marigold found that this one was rather painless. Of course, not all balls had a theme, but the invitation for this ball had suggested that the attendees should wear shades of snow and ice. It had clearly been loose and up for interpretation, and Marigold’s risk had paid off tenfold, for she had chosen a deep, sapphire blue to match her eyes, sweeping her red hair into an updo. Her maid, Emma, had offered to ready her for the evening, but Marigold could never bear the thought of that.
“Are you quite sure, ma’am?” Emma had asked, an eyebrow raised as if she thought she was being tested.
“Quite,” was Marigold’s response. “Perhaps when I am a married woman, I might like to have somebody to take care of me, but as of right now, I am perfectly happy to tend to my own preparations.”
“Certainly, ma’am, although if I may suggest pulling one single curl down to frame your face?”
“Yes, I do believe that would be a wonderful suggestion. It would make me look that much more unwieldy. Can you imagine? I am already finding myself unable to snare a partner, and this would make it all the worse.” Marigold smiled, not changing a single part of her hair.
On the outskirts of the dance floor, however, watching the beautiful ladies of the ton whirl with their one stray curl adding youth to their complexions, she doubted herself. Pulling a piece out of her updo, she made a note to herself to apologize to Emma upon her return. Her stubbornness would be the death of her; she knew that much.
“Are you not yet dancing?” Aunt Poppy asked politely, appearing behind her.
“Oh, most certainly not. For a start, nobody has asked me, and even if they did, I would decline the offer. I cannot, do not, and will not dance. I thought you were aware of that.”
“Of course, I am, but it is truly a shame, dear. In all the time that I have known you, you have never enjoyed this part of the night, yet it is among the most common ways to find a match.”
She continued with an expression that showed she had had this conversation with Marigold almost a hundred times, no small feat for somebody so new to being personally involved in Marigold’s life. It was true that they had known of each other for years, but even after her uncle’s marriage two years ago, Marigold had simply kept her distance in the politest way that she could. She did not need a mother.
“I shall have the upcoming season for matchmaking and everything that goes with it. For now, I simply wish to enjoy my last taste of freedom before yet another dreary several months of making my best efforts to please others,” Marigold retorted, determined to end the conversation there.
“Marigold, there is no time like the present!” a familiarly gentle voice cooed beside her. Lilian had found them, switching on her brightest and most charming smile since she found herself around somebody more mature than herself. “If you ask me, I think that it would be a marvelous idea to beat the crush of ladies in spring and find a partner now, even if there is no proposal in sight just yet.”
“Of course,” agreed Marigold’s aunt, beaming at the radiant young beauty. “It would be a splendid occasion to introduce yourself to fine young gentlemen in preparation for the next social season. Think of it, Marigold— catching the attention of a handsome stranger only to leave him wanting more for the next several months, his only continuous thought being of finding you again.”
To Marigold, that almost sounded exciting. A love affair based on a chance meeting: him watching her on the sidelines before gingerly offering her a dance, her accepting and seeing him fall in love with her all in the space of a few fleeting hours, and then she disappeared for months. Maybe he would find her, maybe he would not. It all sounded too good to be true.
“I suppose you have a point. Might you be able to locate a couple of young gentlemen for us, Lady Shandon?” Marigold conceded, knowing that if anyone could find her a match it would be her aunt. After all, the better a match found for the girls now, the less likely it would be that they would be in competition come spring.
Lady Shandon nodded with a polite smile, leaving the girls and returning with two well-dressed young men. One man was much taller, with blond hair and eyes of chocolate brown, and the shorter man was broader, with dark hair and a brooding gaze.
“Marigold, Lilian, may I present Sir Matthew Wetherington and Sir Johnathon Basingstokes.”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Marigold cooed with a gentle smile and a curtsy, adding in whispered tones to Lilian, “May I take the shorter gentleman? I do apologize for my need to choose, but Matthew is the name of my uncle, and I would feel all too strange saying that name so informally.”
“If you insist, Marigold, but you must remember that it is improper to call these men by their first names anyway,” Lilian responded quietly.
With that, the four of them set about to the dance floor and waited for the next piece to begin. Marigold realized that she must not have been paying attention as this was to be the twelfth and final dance of the evening, so the need for perfection was at an all-time high. Sir Johnathon appeared to be kind, holding her not too tightly and not too weakly, and asking her questions that, while proper, were new to her.
The dance itself was being executed well by her. She knew exactly how to dance to this piece as she had heard it so many times during her debut. She noticed that people had begun to watch her, which came as a surprise to her but not to her uncle nor the handsome stranger dancing with her. Being one of the few ladies that had chosen a jewel toned gown over the shimmering silvers of the others, along with the bright red of her hair that contrasted it, she stood out amongst even the most beautiful members of the ton.
“I must ask you,” Sir Johnathon began, “do you prefer the city to the countryside?”
“That is a rather simple question. I would choose the countryside every time. It is quieter there, calmer, and I can hear my own thoughts. Silence is always in short supply in the city, especially one as lively as London,” she responded, the words falling out of her lips with so much ease it surprised her as well as Sir Johnathon who appeared a little shocked by her answer.
“That was not the answer I was expecting, I have to admit. You are so bright, so loud without even speaking, that I had simply assumed that your heart belonged to the lights of the town.”
“Looks can be deceiving, Sir,” she said with a polite smile. She was following etiquette perfectly, and she knew it, and with the look that the gentleman dancing with her was showing on his face, it made her all the more confident. “Perhaps, with time, you might come to understand me better. People can be surprising; that is what makes them quite so interesting. Would you not agree?”
The music ended as Sir Johnathon nodded his approval of her question, almost answering it for her as he was clearly in agreement. They curtseyed and bowed to each other before turning away. Marigold found Lilian, who seemed rather unimpressed by Sir Matthew but remained cordial in her stance and expression.
“Next time, Marigold, I do believe that I shall be the one to choose first. He is positively dreary; however, it will be nice to have someone that I know during the next season.”
“I do apologize, Lilian. I must also thank you greatly, for Sir Johnathon was simply marvelous. I do hope to see him again in the spring,” Marigold said, smiling brighter than ever and blissfully unaware of Lilian’s issue.
“I do believe that your aunt is summoning us,” Lilian announced, changing the subject. Marigold followed her gaze, and, surely enough, there was Lady Shandon, beckoning for them to return to her. Both ladies knew better than to do anything but just that, and so they made haste in doing so.
“Marigold, my dear, you were wonderful! That might be the best that I have seen of you thus far. It is lovely to see that you are starting to take advice now. Lilian, you really are a natural at socializing with the ton. I am certain of that because that gentleman that you danced with could have been more receptive had he been a pebble on the shore,” Lady Barrow chuckled, causing Lilian to cover her face with her fan and smirk.
“Thank you, Lady Shandon; that is truly an esteemed compliment coming from you,” Lilian responded. Marigold almost envied how soft-spoken Lilian was, especially when she still managed to speak in such a way that she got what she wanted.
“I also wish to show my gratitude. I truly am making every effort to be a proper lady,” Marigold uttered, trying to be as well-spoken as the ladies she was conversing with but missing the mark.
“Marigold, I do believe that your uncle is over in the far corner. Perhaps he is looking for you?” Lilian asked, a slightly bitter tone emerging from her words.
“That might be the case,” Marigold replied as brightly as ever before curtseying and turning to find her uncle.
That will have shown her, thought Marigold, that I am capable of more than she thinks. I may have been behind in finishing school, and I may not wish to follow the rules and restrictions of high society, but perhaps I do not need to. Perhaps I may simply be myself and find true love and make a match before spring arrives. That would show them all.
Marigold was so caught up in her thoughts that she had begun to forget quite how busy the ballroom was, and now that the dances were over, and the night was nearing its end, people were speaking throughout the room in groups. Marigold did, however, catch her uncle’s eye, and once she did, she began to pick up her pace, excited to finally hear him speak of how proud he was of her.
That was until she felt herself lurch forward, not unlike in the carriage. That was followed by a slight pain, particularly on her knees, hands and chest. The tiles on the floor were cool, numbing her body after the stumble that she had just taken, and the sound around her died down immediately, including the orchestra that had been performing.
This is not happening, she thought desperately. This cannot be happening. I was doing so well.
She continued to lie there for a moment, feeling a little too bruised both mentally and physically to stand and face everybody. It was only when she heard gasps and whispers that she felt the need to understand exactly why people had this reaction, scrambling onto her back and looking around.
“My goodness, look at how she carries herself!” muttered one voice, belonging to a woman that Marigold did not recognize.
“Can you imagine lying there like that? Especially as an unmarried woman?” agreed the man beside her, likely her husband. He did not have the same look of disdain as his apparent wife, more of lust than anything, which disgusted Marigold.
Looking further, she saw Lilian beside her aunt. Lilian hid her face behind her fan, but it was clear from the way her eyes were creased up slightly that she was smirking.
So much for proving to Lilian that I am worthy competition, Marigold thought to herself.
Her aunt had raised a hand to her forehead momentarily before placing it beside herself once more. Unlike Lilian, she showed concern on her face more than anything though Marigold was sure she must have felt highly embarrassed. Marigold had truly tried this time, no longer letting herself fall into her old habit of pushing boundaries and not giving in to expectations, and she had failed so miserably.
Men, Marigold had found, were much more outwardly expressive. It was one of the many things about them that she envied. They did not have to keep all of their opinions to themselves, and they did not have to be led by everybody else around them. While ladies such as Lilian had to hide their disdain, men were afforded the luxury of showing it. Marigold was well aware of this, and looking around, she saw many cases of it, but one had her breath caught in her throat. She looked beside Lilian, and of all people, there was Sir Johnathon, a look of pure horror on his face. They held eye contact for just a moment before he looked away.
Marigold couldn't understand why he had looked so horrified. It was an undignified moment, to be sure, but everybody had fallen over at some point, so quite why all of the attendees had stopped in their tracks to stare at her confused her. Upon looking behind her once more, she saw her uncle racing toward her, lifting her to her feet once he reached her.
“You should never sit with your legs apart like that, Marigold,” he whispered in her ear. “It is highly unbecoming.”
“Is that why everybody is staring?” she whispered back, albeit louder.
“Yes, among other reasons, but that is not of importance right now. Where is your shawl?”
“It is with Aunt Poppy. She had offered to take it for me, so that I could dance. Are we leaving now?”
Lord Shandon did not respond, instead motioning to his wife that he needed her. Lady Barrow remained frozen for a moment, unsure of what to do with herself. Eventually, Marigold thought, she must have decided that obeying her husband came above avoiding humiliation because she made her way over with the shawl.
“Wear this lower than you usually would, dear.” Lord Barrow instructed her, and she obliged. Lowering it, she realized exactly why. The skirt of her dress had ripped, most likely from being stepped on as she fell. This meant that a part of her legs was now on display.
In all of her deliberate attempts to act out of order, she had never managed a feat like this, and she was mortified, grabbing her shawl and muttering an apology to her uncle before racing out of the room, followed by Lady Barrow. The other attendees looked on, still in shock, before returning to conversations mostly consisting of a desire to know who Marigold was.
Jasper had found that the outdoors during that last hour of a ball was the least painful place to be. The talk indoors was always at its most vicious as people had the most to discuss there: one woman may have had the gall to wear green on an evening where silver and blue were heavily emphasized as the theme, one man had the nerve to speak with a woman that was not his wife for a fraction longer than permissible, or perhaps a family had brought their children to an event, and they were not the perfectly behaved little robots that society was expected to deliver.
As a man, he had liberties not awarded to women, but he still felt so many restraints. He was not awarded the option to show a single emotion, in public nor in private, and he had to maintain a strong family bond in order to present himself and those in his circle as that much greater than those who were not of his class.
Outdoors, however, there was an air of acceptance as if everybody there was escaping the same place in order to hear themselves think for a moment. It would, therefore, come as no surprise that there was nowhere at the ball that Jasper would have rather been at that precise moment. Unfortunately, the role of a duke came with the expectation that he would at least make an appearance at events such as these.
One would, in this situation, long for a companion to assist them. There is, after all, less of an obligation to greet people one after another until you are blue in the face if you have somebody to converse with. Luckily, Jasper found himself with his cousin who could not have been happier to see him if he tried. Nicholas had introduced him to what felt like hundreds of ladies, all of them eager to meet the Duke himself. They did not even see his cold shoulder as off-putting. In fact, the thrill of a possible game of hard-to-get encouraged them further.
Jasper tried to smile politely until he felt his face ache, but he could not help but let the mask slip. He was here in order to be a proper gentleman and do his duty, not to court the several desperate young ladies all vying for his affections. He simply did not need them, especially those who were so superficial that he could see through them with ease.
“Are they not simply delightful?” Nicholas asked Jasper about a particularly giggly group of girls.
“Or perhaps delightfully simple, Nicholas,” Jasper retorted, causing Nicholas to smile in spite of himself.
“You may speak for yourself, but I must admit that I find the brunette in the lavender gown to be rather enchanting.”
“If by enchanting you mean completely complacent and willing to do anything you ask, then I suppose that I could understand where you are coming from,” Jasper muttered, unimpressed.
“Jasper, my dear friend, is that not what women are for?” Nicholas laughed in a way that made Jasper question quite how sincerely he meant it.
It was not uncommon for Jasper to appear less than thrilled by Nicholas’ comments, but this time there was a strange feeling around him as if he was not quite there. Nicholas had spent years looking up to Jasper, listening to his every complaint and every triumph. When Jasper became so passive aggressive, it was often due to him being overwhelmed. Thankfully having strong connections with the hosts of the ball allowed Nicholas to be well acquainted with the house and its many secret passages.
“If you happen to need a moment, you need only follow me,” Nicholas said quietly to Jasper, so that others would not hear. Jasper said nothing in response but followed along. Down one of the corridors and on the left was a study that seemed little used.
“How do you know about this place? It is near empty,” Jasper asked, looking around at the ancient desks and unlit fireplace.
“It is quite simple, in all honesty. During my studies, I much preferred this place to my father’s. You’ll see why when I close the door. Luckily for me, my father and Lord Barnley had a very strong friendship, and so he graciously allowed me to use this room whenever I pleased,” Nicholas explained, lighting candles in a systematic way as he had clearly been doing for years.
And with that, Nicholas closed the door, and the pair were plunged into silence to Jasper’s delight. Jasper found a clean chair and sat down, letting the stress of the evening melt away into it. For what could only be described as an abandoned study, it was immensely comfortable. There was this strange form of power in the room that led him to forget where he was, making him more relaxed.
“Here, cousin, let this take the edge off a little,” Nicholas smirked, pouring a clear golden-brown liquid into Jasper’s glass from a flask in his pocket.
“Nicholas, you are most unrefined. The drinks here have been free of alcohol thus far. Has nobody told you that you take only what is offered to you?” Jasper looked down on Nicholas with a slight disdain though he was secretly grateful for the offer. “Besides, you know full well that I cannot stomach alcohol. It is bad enough that I am in the presence of it, let alone being offered it.”
“I have heard that many times; therefore, I know that you cannot say no to me. You might relax a little now and thank me later.”
“I might, Nicholas, and you might thank your lucky stars that you do not find yourself in a room filled with insidious gossip, lest we both fall victim to it.”
“I have myself to thank for that. Why do you believe that I brought you in here in the first place?” Nicholas replied, still smirking. It was rare for him to best his cousin, so the odd occasion that he found success, it was something to behold. Jasper recognized this too, laughing along with him— another rare occasion.
“I suppose I ought to return to the festivities, don't you? It would be a shame for me to bring shame upon the Johnson name,” Jasper resumed speaking after having a drink, his speech slurring gently.
“I am not so sure if that would be the best idea for you, Your Grace. Perhaps you should take a moment to collect your thoughts?”
This was convincing enough to make Jasper take his seat once more, accepting another drink. Nicholas began some recount of his latest exploits, travelling from Scotland all the way down to Greece and back again, leaving no details of the many women he had encountered to the imagination. Jasper allowed him to share these delights, though he envied them so, because it was a way to live vicariously through his friend.
Time seemed to pass much more slowly in that room, possibly because of how peaceful it was. The world outside of it was silenced beautifully by the heavy wooden doors, and not even the music could reach them. Jasper was becoming more and more tired as time went on, due to whatever it was that Nicholas was serving him. He felt himself sink deeper and deeper into the chair, forgetting who he was and where he was and why he was even there to begin with.
“Jasper! Do my eyes deceive me?” a voice came through as the door flew open.
That was enough to wake Jasper. He remembered three things at this moment: he was at a ball in London, he was there to play into societal expectations, and he happened to be the Duke of Thillingham, which this lady clearly knew nothing about.
“I will have you know that I have a title, and you shall refer to me as such,” Jasper snapped back, his voice stuttering through half of it.
“Yes, and I am well aware of that. One might suggest that you behave accordingly,” the woman continued.
Jasper paused, squinting at her in an attempt to focus. He immediately felt blood rush to his head. He saw grey hair, blue eyes and a soft, short frame. There was no doubt about it— somehow, he had been found by the worst person that could have possibly found him. He considered running out of the room, but if he was honest with himself, he knew that he could barely stand as it was. Alas, he was stuck where he was while the woman approached him at a speed once thought impossible for a woman of her age.
“Have you any idea of the worry you have caused me? I have been searching for you all night. You and I are in such desperate need of a talk.”
“What matter could I possibly have to discuss with you? Your wonderful new husband perchance? I do believe you know where I stand on that matter, and you should be more than well aware that I am not interested,” Jasper continued, feeling himself becoming more in control of his actions. He finally hauled himself out of his seat, trying to leave through the door that he had just been marveling.
“Interested in what exactly?” the woman demanded, grabbing his sleeve to stop him from leaving.
“I am not interested in learning more about him, and I am certainly not interested in pretending that I am pleased about the entire situation. This is your third marriage, and it is not as if your marriage with my father was your first, either. Is this the role you intend to take on for the rest of your life, Lady Thillingham?” Jasper asked, ensuring that he stayed in control of the conversation.
“Lady Shandon, Jasper. It is Lady Shandon now,” she said, much more calmly this time in an attempt to soothe him.
“I am aware of how titles work,” Jasper snapped in a similar manner to before. “Why are you not in the countryside right now?”
“We are visiting the city to introduce his niece, Lady Marigold, to some members of the ton. It is to be her fourth season in the Spring, and she has not been most successful thus far. Perhaps your first meeting with my husband might be easier if she was in attendance?” Lady Shandon asked with her charm completely switched on in one final bid for her nephew to finally agree with her.
“How many times must I tell you that I have not one reason to meet this man? I do not care to greet him nor pretend to care one bit about who he is and what his plans are for you. I refuse to do something that I do not wish to do,” Jasper said. There was a lot of finality to it as if he truly believed that the matter was settled.
“Why must you make this all so difficult? I am happy, Jasper. What is your problem with that?” Lady Shandon demanded, tears brimming her pale blue eyes.
“My problem is that you made me believe that you were happy with my father. I was but a child, but I still let you become a motherly figure to me, not that any of that matters to you, of course. Now you bring your new husband out to parties where you know that I will be, tormenting me with your wonderful new life and your perfect husband. I do not fit in with all that, nor do I wish to,” Jasper exploded, not raising his voice but with sheer exasperation.
With that, Jasper left the room. Nicholas was stunned at this outburst, not to mention the fact that Jasper left without saying goodbye. Jasper would never usually be so improper, especially in the way he used such a tone with a lady. It was something that Nicholas had never witnessed before of Jasper, and it made him feel uneasy. Well, as he is not here to do it for me… thought Nicholas.
“Are you all right, Mother?” he asked, approaching her, “Might you have any knowledge on the whereabouts of your husband? If need be, I will gladly find him for you.”
“You are a true gentleman, Nicholas, but I am all right. My husband is discussing some form of business with some friends of his, and I would not want to be distracting him from that,” she replied kindly, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief and leaving the study too. Nicholas blew out each candle one by one and left, closing the door behind him.
The evening was much colder than it had been when Jasper had arrived, and there was frost in the air. He was grateful for the many layers of shirts and waistcoats and jackets that he could wear and felt rather sorry for the ladies who were not afforded such luxuries. There was also no better way to sober himself than the chill of a December breeze which coursed through his veins as if it were drawing the whiskey out of him. He felt his legs tremble slightly, perhaps from the cold or from his inebriated condition, and he believed that a walk would help him either way.
He noticed a rose bush. This was strange to him as roses were not a winter flower. He was clueless about gardening and pushed the thought aside, assuming that he had just believed incorrectly, but he still noted them. Then he saw snowdrops, a much more festive flower in his opinion. He felt strange taking note of all of the flowers, but it kept him grounded. It definitely helped to distract him from the state that he had gotten himself into, at least.
Further through the garden was an archway decorated with vines. He headed toward it briskly, and once through the archway, he realized that it was a perfect little space surrounded by hedges with the moon so bright above that he swore he could reach out and touch it.
He moved further into the clearing, his breathing slowing and his heartbeat returning to normal at last. His legs, however, remained slightly unruly, and he was so concerned with making them move properly that he failed to see the pale body lying in the grass before he stumbled over it and fell into the grass himself.
“Hello?” he asked to no response. He tried to compose himself, half worried about the grass staining his clothes and half worried about the silent and still body before him.
“Who are you?”
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