A Spinster for the Unbending Duke by Hazel Linwood

Chapter 1

“They are coming! They are coming! Mercy, they are coming!” a blood-curdling screech splintered through the hallways of Fernside Manor, setting everyone on edge.

Inside her bedchamber, Frances Baxter trembled. “No, no, this cannot be. Not yet. Please, not yet. Take pity, I beg of you, take pity,” she hissed at her reflection, as she frantically tried to flatten a frizzy clump of wiry auburn hair.

A whirlwind of peony-pink muslin exploded into the bedchamber, the blood drained from the young woman’s face; her mouth opening and closing breathlessly, her head twisting back over her shoulder, as though devils were in hot pursuit, and this was her only safe haven. “Frances, they are here! My goodness, help me!”

“There is nothing I can—” Frances’ words were cut short as her younger sister collided with her, almost knocking her to the floor. Had it not been for the high back of her desk chair, keeping her upright with a sharp jab to the hip, she would surely have been sent flying.

“Help me, Sister!” Beautiful brown eyes, the color of sweet treacle, peered desperately up at Frances. “I am not ready for this! Steal me away. Fashion me a rope I might use to flee from this very window. Hide me in the armoire until morning, please!”

Frances chuckled and put her arms around her younger sister, Emmeline, holding her close. “I might need to gather more blankets and coverlets first, or we will surely find ourselves dangling halfway down the side of the Manor and will either have to climb back up or jump. The former will see us back where we started. The latter might see us with a broken ankle or worse.”

“Then let us forage for additional fabrics!” Emmeline yelped, grimacing at the thought of injury.

The lady’s maid, Cariad, who had been tending to Frances and her disobedient hair, rolled her eyes in amusement. “I’m pretending not to hear any of this, M’ladies.”

“Cariad, you must come too!” Emmeline grabbed for the maid’s hand. “We shall all begin a new life elsewhere. I hear Austria is delightful at this time of year, or Morocco if we desire somewhere further away. If I had freckles from such a fierce sun, I might not be recognized!”

Frances smiled stiffly, aware of the dense constellations of freckles that marked her own face, though she had never spent more than a fleeting moment in the summer sunshine without a parasol. “Did you see the carriages arriving?”

“Why else would I be screeching for your aid, Sister.” Emmeline tugged both the maid and Frances to the window, which looked out over the sprawling grounds of Fernside Manor.

Situated on the edge of the Chiltern Hills, midway between Oxford and London, greenery bloomed in abundance. Nestled in a sweeping valley, sheltered by the rolling hills, they were visually spoiled by the verdant forests and emerald pastures that surrounded their stately Manor. And when they tired of such views, the countryside stretch of the Thames was not far, providing a cooler spot to visit in the warmest peak of the summer.

Frances furrowed her brow. “I see no carriages.”

“They were there. I know they were there. I heard them coming,” Emmeline insisted, hopping from foot to foot in nervous anticipation.

Gently, Frances rested her hands on her sister’s shoulders to try and still her. “You only heard them?”

“I… well… no, I know I… hm… I suppose I did not actually see any carriages, but—” Emmeline tilted her head to one side. “Where did they go?”

Frances gestured down at a lone horse, pawing at the gravel driveway; its rein held by a yawning stable hand. “I think you heard the express messenger, Dear Sister.” She offered a kindly laugh. “It is an easy mistake to make, especially considering you are already beyond giddiness.”

“I am not giddy, Sister!” Emmeline protested. “I am terrified!”

Cariad clicked her tongue in restrained disapproval. “Why should you be, M’lady? If the gentleman was an aged ogre with a terrible reputation, I could understand you quaking a bit.”

“But Lord Croxley is well regarded among the ton,” Frances interjected, wanting to calm her sister’s nerves. “You should have heard the ladies whispering at Lord Palmer’s ball last month—they were, all of them, puce with envy that you were betrothed to Lord Croxley, and they were not.”

Emmeline covered her mouth with her hand, hiding a chuckle. “I believe the saying is, “Green with envy,” Sweet Sister.”

“Indeed, but they were puce, almost to the point of turning purple.” Frances gave her sister a playful nudge. “The gentlemen were equally prone to gossiping, and I daresay many a heart has been broken, and many an unrequited love will never be declared, after they learned of your imminent marriage.”

Emmeline gasped. “Cease, Sister! That cannot be true. Who would be envious of me? I will not, and cannot, believe it, though I thank you for your kind words. I know you are only trying to put me at ease.”

From someone else, Emmeline’s protestation might have sounded insincere, and might have been followed by some pleased preening, but Emmeline meant what she said. To this day, Frances could not fathom how her younger sister could not see her own rare, astonishing beauty, or understand what a “darling” of Society she was, thanks to her sweetness, intellect, and generosity of spirit.

“Forgive my bluntness, but I’ve always thought your sister needed spectacles, M’lady,” Cariad remarked to Frances, visibly dumbfounded.

Frances nodded. “I entirely agree.”

“I could have sworn I saw carriages!” Emmeline sighed, missing the point of Frances and Cariad’s comments. “Goodness, I wonder if I do need spectacles. Or is it my hearing that is the trouble? I promise, I heard more than one set of horse’s hooves… or I thought I did. The evidence is hard to deny.”

Frances turned Emmeline around and twisted two loose strands of shiny, bronze-colored hair that framed her sister’s face, around her fingers to keep the curl. “Do you admit that you panicked for no reason?”

“Never,” Emmeline replied, fanning herself. “The carriages will be coming soon. Perhaps, it was a premonition.”

Frances smiled. “You will adore Lord Croxley and live a blissfully happy life, ensuring you continue to be the envy of everyone in England.” She carefully cupped her sister’s face. “Indeed, I should be the one fretting and asking for leave to escape, for you know I do not fare well at gatherings. If this party were not being held in our own Manor, I might be mistaken for a troll and cast out.”

Emmeline looked horrified. “Do not say such things! You are a divine creature, Franny. The most exquisite being I have ever encountered. If I were more jealously inclined, I would hide you away, in case Lord Croxley fell in love with you instead!” She flashed a smile. “Fortunately, I care more for you and your opinion than that of some fellow I met once when I was a child. If he were to love you, I would gift him to you without hesitation!”

The sentiment was bittersweet to Frances. She knew Emmeline believed that such a thing was possible, that she was beautiful enough to whisk a gentleman’s attentions away, but Frances was under no illusions when it came to her appeal. Or lack thereof.

Too tall by the ton’s standards, she had also been cursed with curves that made for a somewhat robust silhouette, and a wild halo of long, wiry hair that never did as it was told. Her nose was high and proud, sometimes giving her a haughtiness she did not actually possess, while her lips looked like they were recovering from a bee sting, and her brown eyes were unusual, in that the iris was so dark it blended with her pupil, lacking warmth. Add to that her considerable spread of freckles, a strong chin, and plump cheeks, and she was not grotesque by any means, but she was not beautiful in the classical sense.

“He is yours, Dear Sister,” Frances said, refusing to show any hint of self-pity. “I would not want him, even if he were the most handsome gentleman in Christendom. Although, he had better be as delightful as I have heard, or I shall be having stern words with the gossipmongers who spread such tales of wonder.”

Emmeline seemed to relax and moved to the window seat, so she could keep a close eye on the driveway and the winding road, just visible beyond it, through the densely congregated oaks and chestnuts and elders. Meanwhile, Frances returned to her position in front of the looking glass, where Cariad immediately set to work, resuming the impossible task of getting Frances’ hair to stay in the right place.

“Why are we not permitted to choose, Sister?” Emmeline broke the quiet, peppered only by Cariad’s muttered frustrations.

Frances and the maid exchanged a knowing look in the mirror’s reflection. “It is not our destiny, my Sweet Emmy.”

“But why not, and why am I betrothed before you? You are the older sister. You should, by rights, be the first to wed.” Emmeline did not turn to look at Frances, keeping her gaze fixed on the driveway.

Frances felt her chest constrict, made worse by the sympathetic pat of Cariad’s hand against her shoulder. “That was not my destiny. It is customary for younger sons to marry the younger daughters of other lords, and as Lord Croxley is five years my junior, and his older brother was already betrothed, I was… left out of the betrothal rigmarole. Quite happy to be so, too!”

It was not a lie. In her supposed “prime,” shortly after coming out into Society at eight-and-ten, she had hoped someone suitable might enchant her, and they would announce their engagement and be contentedly, if not ecstatically, married. The natural order, expected of an Earl’s daughter.

But it was not to be, and I do not imagine it ever will—Frances observed her reflection, wondering what it was that repulsed gentlemen with such reliability. She did not consider herself ugly, though she had heard the word tossed in her direction often enough. Unusual, certainly. Intriguing, perhaps. Confident in her own skin… most of the time.

“Are you?” Emmeline twirled one of her framing fronds.

“Am I what, Sister?” Frances put a hand up to Cariad, surrendering to the knowledge that there was nothing more to be done to wrangle her hair into submission. To keep applying heat and oil and bejeweled slides would only make her look like she had slapped a greasy, overdecorated, singed wreath onto her head.

Emmeline shrugged. “Are you truly happy not to be betrothed?”

“Goodness gracious, yes!” Frances declared, a little too enthusiastically. “Think of all I shall be able to do without the burden of a husband. Why, I could become a mysterious hermit in the woods, surrounded by dogs and books, oft mistaken for a witch. The village children will dare one another to creep as close as they can to my cottage, and I shall play their game, bursting out of the door and waving my broom at them!”

Emmeline laughed softly. “Someone will marry you, Sister. You do not have to be a hermit or pretend to be a witch.” Her brow furrowed with sadness. “I would not want you to be left alone in such a way.”

“Someone will marry youFrances knew the words were not ill-meant, so she did not take them as such. Nevertheless, it steeled her resolve to remain a happy, content spinster, rather than be left to sift through the dregs of Society’s bachelor barrel and marry whichever one floated to the surface first.

“I adore solitude, Emmy. You know this to be true,” Frances assured. “At a ball, one can always find me wandering the gardens alone, having escaped the chaperone, or hiding away in an empty study, judging the host’s collection of literature. Failing that, I will be underneath a table where the servants are preparing food, stealing the choicest morsels. I enjoy your company, and that is all.”

Cariad sniffed.

“And yours, Cariad, of course.” Frances gave her a light nudge in the arm. “Though you will be stuck with me far longer, after my dear sister has journeyed off to begin her new life with Lord Croxley. Indeed, I fear you shall have to come to my witch’s cottage with me.”

Cariad pulled a displeased face. “I’ll quit before then, M’lady, if you don’t mind my saying. I can’t abide dogs, even those I’ve been around a long while.”

“How can you say such a thing?” Frances protested, thinking of her two beloved bulldogs—Eris and Piglet. “Dogs are wondrous creatures. I have never encountered a dog I did not like. People, on the other hand—I have encountered plenty I do not care for. Indeed, they say that a dog can tell if someone is trustworthy or not, and I happen to have faith in my dogs’ opinions.”

Emmeline smiled. “You know Dear Cariad is terrified of Eris and Piglet. She does not abhor them; she fears them. There is a difference. I think, deep down, she is fond of them.”

“I am not,” Cariad retorted, shuddering. “I’ll never forgive Piglet for chewing up M’lady’s hairbrush, or what she did to my shoe.”

The three women erupted into laughter, for it was an infamous tale among the household, and it never failed to bring some levity to even the tensest of atmospheres.

“Perhaps Piglet was afraid of your shoe,” Frances wheezed, trying to stifle her hearty laugh by pressing a hand to her mouth. Her parents had always scolded her, telling her she laughed in too masculine a fashion, and the habit of trying to soften the sound was a difficult one to break.

Just then, the distinct sound of a horse’s nicker drifted through the sound of their laughter. The three women froze, waiting for the telltale clatter of carriage wheels. This time, there was no mistaking the noise.

“Is it… them?” Frances’ stomach prepared to drop, for she had tried to put on a courageous face throughout the announcement of this betrothal, and she had done everything within her power to comfort and reassure Emmeline that all would be well. But the truth was, Emmeline would gain a husband from this match, while Frances would lose a sister.

What will I do here, without you? For while it was true that Frances relished solitude, that solitude rarely excluded Emmeline. They had been an inseparable pair from the moment Emmeline was born, and Frances realized she had never actually known true solitude. The loneliness of one.

Emmeline gave a slow, nervous nod. “They are here.” She sucked in a sharp breath. “I suppose there is no time to flee, now.”