A Most Improper Duchess by Alanna Lucas
It was with a heavy heart that Alexandra and her two sisters were leaving Charis Hall for London. They’d known this day was coming, and yet it was still difficult to accept that this was to be their last day in their home. It was now their sister-in-law’s house, as Rachel—Lady Grace as she preferred to be called, even by family—had made perfectly clear upon her arrival less than a week ago.
Since Alexandra and her sisters were now out of mourning after their father’s death, Harold, their brother, had informed them upon his arrival that it was time to get on with their lives and marry. The sisters suspected Rachel was behind this not-so-subtle nudging. Their brother had never expressed such sentiments previously. Later that same day, their suspicions were confirmed when his wife had also informed them it was well past that time. None of them—including her brother, Alexandra suspected—cared for Rachel. Unfortunately, it was only after Rachel had married Harold that she’d revealed her true conniving and insincere self, and it had worsened with their parents’ illnesses.
Rachel had been none too pleased that the girls had vowed to stay with their parents as they had battled through illness rather than each having a London Season, marrying, and moving away. And then that awful day had come when Mama could no longer fight, and she’d slipped quietly away to Heaven. That had been the beginning of a few devastating years when Papa had not been able discern anymore between reality and the life he’d once known with his love.
It was not long after their mother had died that Harold had informed Rachel that his sire and three sisters would not leave Charis for one of their smaller properties—as she wished—and she would just have to accept that as his final answer. It was the only time he had ever stood up to his domineering wife. Of course, his sisters suspected that Harold had been paying the price each and every day since he’d put his foot down. But the time had come when Harold could no longer put off his pestering wife, and he had finally acquiesced to her demands.
Holding true to form, upon her arrival last week from their estate near Cheltenham, Rachel had swooped in, playing the grieving daughter-in-law who missed her husband’s parents, but all the while counting the silver and days until the sisters departed for London. Thankfully, Rachel was making herself scarce today, this last at Charis.
Alexandra and her sisters spent the morning strolling through the immense house, remembering all the fond times they’d shared as a family. The ballroom had always been Alexandra’s favorite room. She remembered the last celebration held there as if it were yesterday. It had been such a beautiful evening, celebrating her mother’s birthday with family, her parents dancing through the room, the love they shared for each other shining bright in their eyes. It had been a perfect moment in time.
But then their joy had been ripped from them, piece by piece. First, their grandmother had passed away, then Mother had suffered through illness for five years while Father had watched, his mind slowly slipping further and further away from reality. After Mother had died, Father hadn’t been able to accept that the love of his life was gone. He’d wandered the halls, talking to her as if she were strolling next to him. In his moments of clarity, Alexandra and her sisters had tried to explain what had happened, but it was as if he was hearing of his beloved wife’s passing for the first time and he grieved all over again. After the second time of watching their sire endure such heartache, the girls had decided to quit revealing the truth to him, and over the course of the following few years they’d become quite creative with their stories as to why Mother was not at home.
Alexandra suspected, however, their father had always known the truth in his heart, for there was such a sadness about him. He’d detested being alone, and so the sisters had taken turns at being by their dear sire’s side through the brightest of days and the darkest of the night hours, when the demons in his head had tormented him and his only relief was long walks. Three years had passed before he’d finally found peace and was reunited with his love.
At the end of their stroll through the house, Alexandra left her sisters, wanting a moment to enjoy one of her favorite haunts on the estate one last time. This had been her home—the only one she’d ever known—for four and twenty years. In fact, each of them needed to say their goodbyes alone to the home they’d loved so much. They would have plenty of time to talk in the carriage, share stories and memories, and plan for the Season. Harold had agreed to pay for one Season for the three of them, but she highly doubted that true love could be found and secured with one Season in London for each of the three sisters. Thankfully, once Aunt Imogene heard of Harold’s insistence, she informed the girls—in confidence—that she would fund further Seasons. She’d told them that their dearest Mama had wanted them to marry for love, and she would aid them in that quest.
Indeed, one of Alexandra’s fondest dreams was to have a large happy family with a man she loved by her side. She would not settle for anything less. Of that much she was sure.
The already cold air chilled even further as she went farther from the house, reminding her that spring had not yet come. The cold never bothered her, or her sisters for that matter—they’d always found beauty in nature regardless of time of year or temperature.
But the day was also grim and dark and was a perfect complement to her current mood. She wandered toward the maze, hoping to escape for a little while within its tall green hedges. In there, she did not have to worry about being spied upon from the house, and she could lose herself to recollections of being a small child chased by her father, laughter echoing all around. She could also give herself to the tears that seemed to be threatening her resolve too much of late.
A cool breeze rustled through the trees, followed by a familiar voice that disrupted her senses. “I thought I might find you here,” Niall, the Duke of Blackburn, said as he strolled toward her. “I still remember the first time I rescued you from the evil clutches of this maze.”
“I hadn’t realized my situation was so dire,” she chuckled. Niall always seemed to know what to say to bring a smile to her face. Besides her sisters, he was her dearest friend. Without fail, he’d always been there for her, offering friendship, kindness, and understanding.
“Oh, it was,” he said as he took a step closer, his deep voice soothing her troubled soul.
A strange sensation tickled her insides. It couldn’t have anything to do with the nearness of him, could it? Of course not. She must simply be more emotional about leaving her home than she’d realized. After all, Niall was her oldest friend and promised to Lady Nerissa.
She nodded her head and gave a slight curtsey. “Well then, I thank you for that service all those years ago and promise to do my best not to cause too much trouble in the future.”
“That is very kind of you,” he began, his green eyes teasing, “especially considering your brother has tasked me with seeing you and your sisters safely to London.”
Shock caused her words to lodge in her throat. “H . . . Harold is not coming with us?” The sisters missed the person their brother had once been, the fun and playful banter they’d shared with him. Ever since he’d married Rachel, he’d not been the same. She knew her sister-in-law wouldn’t be traveling with them, but the sisters had assumed their brother would make the journey and spend at least a few days with them while they settled in at Great-aunt Imogene’s. They had hoped it might be enough to draw him back to his former self. “When did this happen?”
“On our ride this morning.” The spot between his brows crinkled. “He didn’t tell you?”
“My brother has become a great one for secrets. He does not tell anything of his thoughts. I suspect he is not . . .” She clasped her lips tight. It was one thing for her and her sisters to complain about their sister-in-law in private and quite another to gossip about her. Despite Rachel’s unpleasantness, Alexandra would not give in to bitterness.
“You needn’t say more.” Niall’s eyes softened with understanding. “All our friends have noticed the difference in him, and it only gets worse with each passing year.”
“I miss the brother he once was.” The thought of how close they’d been with their brother and how distant he now was tore at her heart.
“Perhaps his being here amongst all the memories you shared while growing up will bring him back.”
Alexandra shook her head, knowing very well her sister-in-law would not allow Harold to reminisce about his time before her, even in his own head. “It is her home now.”
“It may be her house now, but she is not the keeper of your—or his—memories, of all the wonderful times you spent here. You will always have those.”
“That’s something Papa would have said. I wish he were still here,” she ended in a whisper, quickly looking away in an attempt to hide the tears pooling in her eyes.
She felt Niall step closer, and then he spoke and it was her undoing. “I am here for you . . . always.”
The tears she’d only barely managed to keep at bay stormed down her cheeks, and in the next breath, he was at her side, holding her, comforting her, just as he had done when her mother, then her dearest Papa, had died.
A large, gentle, soothing hand held her close. “It’s all right, Alex, just let it all out.”
With the mention of his pet name for her—one that she had not cared for at first—a giggle escaped her lips. “You do have a way with words, Your Grace,” she sniffled. He detested use of the honorific just as much as she once had Alex, but in the past few years, something had shifted between them and now she didn’t mind the name. She supposed it was because they were such good friends. For as long as she could remember, Niall had always made her feel safe.
His words were soft yet reassuring. “You and your sisters have dealt with the changes and grief remarkably well. I know it has not been easy for any of you.”
She rubbed her cheek against his chest, relishing in the strength that surrounded her. “Thank you. That means a great deal, especially coming from you.” She was close with her sisters, but Niall had become her rock during the darkest hours when each sister had tried to cope with the stress and loss in her own way. Evelina had taken to poetry. Theodora—the youngest—when not wandering, could be found at the pianoforte at all hours of the day and night.
What would she do without Niall when he married Lady Nerissa? Would they still maintain such a close friendship? Her heart constricted as the pain of uncertainty wrapped around it. There were too many changes lurking on the horizon. She raised her cheek from his chest, looking past her reflection in his spectacles and into his green eyes. Time stood still for a brief moment, her breath catching as warmth filled her heart and something foreign passed between them.
Confusion laced her thoughts as she tried to reason with what she was feeling. What could . . . could it be . . . no. It’s nothing. I’m just overly tired and emotional from everything that has happened.
“I . . . I think I should return to the house. We have an early start tomorrow and I still have some packing to complete.”
Niall cleared his throat, taking a step back and offering his arm. And once again, he took away her worries with playful words. “I certainly hope that you leave your breeches behind.” Whether roaming the grounds or riding her horse, Alexandra had always very much enjoyed the freedom she felt when wearing trousers. “It would be very improper for you to be seen wearing them in Town.”
“I know,” she responded with a sly smile.
A single brown brow raised in concern.
She would never do anything too shocking or improper, but it was still fun to tease her dearest friend just the same.
The next morning,the Grace sisters, along with Niall, his sister, and the Dowager Duchess of Blackburn, departed for London. Thankfully, the dowager rode in her own conveyance with her children, leaving Alexandra and her sisters blissfully alone in the carriage provided by their brother. The dowager scowled far too much for Alexandra’s liking. She truly did not know how Niall and his youngest sister, Naomi, tolerated her sourness for any length of time.
Alexandra watched the lush green countryside pass them by. There had been so many additional preparations as of late, she hadn’t stopped to take in the beauty that was early spring, and the renewal and hope it brought. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply, then slowly exhaled, releasing the tension. Their parents would not have wanted them to dwell on the sorrow and heartache of the last eight years. Quite the contrary. They would have wanted the girls to rise above it and live life to the fullest. She was determined to honor their spirit. She took in another deep breath, filling her lungs with the crisp morning air. This was the beginning of a new adventure for the Grace sisters.
“I’m thinking about them, as well,” Theodora said.
“Me, too,” Evelina, who was the second eldest of the Grace sisters, chimed in. “Will the pain ever go away?”
“With time I suspect it will,” Alexandra said, trying to convince herself as well as her sisters. “Mama and Papa would want us to enjoy the Season.”
At four and twenty, she was embarking on her first Season, along with her two sisters. Evelina was two and twenty and Theodora had recently turned one and twenty. They knew they were considered old by ton standards to only just be entering Society. But despite what some of the gossips would say, the girls believed they were prepared to enter Society with grace and determination. They would not be swayed by others’ opinions of them.
“Do you think Aunt Imogene is prepared to chaperone all three of us?” Theodora asked.
“Based on her enthusiasm in her last letter, I believe she is very much looking forward to having us in residence,” Evelina assured their younger sister.
Their elderly aunt had been briefly married once nearly fifty years ago and was considered quite eccentric by the ton, but the girls adored her. Aunt Imogene seemed to dance to her own tune, never caring what others thought of her. Of course, when one’s wealth rivalled that of Croesus, it was easier to shun Society’s rules. Without a doubt, Theodora was taking after their dearest relation.
“I think it would be best if you didn’t wear Papa’s coat while in Town, Theodora,” Alexandra gently suggested. It was her youngest sister’s favorite keepsake of their papa’s. She’d taken Father’s death the hardest. Despite frequently being unable to remember that Theodora was his daughter, they’d grown extremely close, and over the course of his illness she’d grown most protective of him, hardly ever leaving his side. She’d been his constant companion on his nightly strolls.
Theodora pulled the edges of the coat closer about her. “I will not wear it to social events, but that is all that I can promise,” she conceded. “What are the chances that I could make a match, marry, and return to the country in less than a fortnight?”
“Very slim, and besides, we agreed we would help each other through our first Season.” Alexandra did not want to think about the day when each of them would be married with families of their own and living apart from one another. The three Grace sisters had always been together.
Truth be told, she was a little worried. Oh, she knew she and her sisters would always be close regardless of distance, but it felt as if with each breath she took there were more changes storming onto the horizon. One thing was certain, though. She would not settle for an advantageous marriage purely because that was what was expected of her as the daughter of a viscount. She was determined to marry for love. She wished for a husband who would treat her just as Niall had, only with the addition of that all-important passion.
The problem was she didn’t know how to go about finding such a man. Hopefully the Season would reveal him to her.
The hours passed in pleasant conversation, the sisters discussing their hopes for the Season. By the end of their first day of travel, they were all tired but feeling optimistic about the future.
Before too long, they were at the first overnight stop of their journey. The carriage door opened, revealing a hazy sunset. Alexandra stepped down, followed by her sisters, and glanced about the traveling inn’s stable yard when Niall strolled toward them.
“I hope this leg of the journey wasn’t too uncomfortable for you all? The recent rains made for an uneven ride.”
Before Alexandra could respond, Naomi playfully scolded, “Oh, Niall, must you always be so formal all the time?” She turned to the three Graces. “This is most exciting, all of us having our first Season together.” At eighteen, Naomi was quite enthusiastic about being out in Society, whereas the sisters were more prudent. That wasn’t to say they didn’t want to have fun, but they were more interested in musicales and other intellectual diversions than crowded ballrooms and the latest on dits.
“That is quite enough, Naomi,” Her Grace, the Dowager Duchess of Blackburn, reprimanded as she exited her conveyance, joining them. “We need our rest for tackling the remainder of the journey.” And with that, the duchess practically pushed her daughter away from them. Not for the first time, Alexandra wondered how Naomi stayed so cheerful with a mother such as this.
“I apologize for—”
“There’s no need,” Alexandra reassured Niall. For reasons she could not explain, despite being neighbors in the country, the duchess had never seemed to care for Alexandra and her sisters. “I suppose we should get settled before supper.” She offered a smile and went to her sisters.
An hour later, the sisters gathered in a private parlor for an evening meal. Niall strolled into the room looking handsome in his simple evening attire. There was something different about him, something that demanded Alexandra’s attention.
Yes, he is handsome, but Niall is just your friend.Too many thoughts were clouding her mind.
Besides, she’d never much thought of him in that way before. Why would she think him handsome now? Though she had to admit he was without a doubt the most intelligent gentleman of her acquaintance. If he were a woman, he would be labeled a bluestocking. Really, his only negative trait was that he was quite aloof at social gatherings.
A sadness swept over her. And he is promised to Lady Nerissa.
Just then she met his gaze and their eyes locked for one brief moment before Theodora’s question broke through the moment. “Is Naomi not joining us?”
Niall cleared his throat and turned his attention to her sister as if nothing had transpired between them. Perhaps it had all been in her imagination.
“My mother has decided that she and my sister will take trays in their room then rest for the remainder of the evening.” She could hear the sarcasm in Niall’s voice and knew he was thinking the same. The only rest Naomi needs is from her mother. “Hopefully, once in London, my mother won’t dictate my sister’s actions as much.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than they all burst into laughter.
“I don’t think that is possible,” Theodora blurted.
“I don’t either,” Niall started as he pushed the spectacles up his nose. “The entire way here, all Mother talked about was Naomi’s list of events.”
“That’s probably why they needed to rest,” Alexandra quipped.
A simple fare was laid before them and the party of four dined, continuing with their conversation.
“Since I am to keep an eye on the Grace sisters, what is your plan for the Season?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Alexandra spied her sisters watching her closely. What were they up to? Just ignore them, she inwardly shook her head.
“We have left the planning to Aunt Imogene,” she offered.
“I’m certain there won’t be a dull moment,” he jested. Although their days and evenings were certain to be quite full, Alexandra wondered just how much excitement Town could offer. They’d ventured to London once in the early days of their mother’s illness so that she could consult with a specialist, but none of them had found the excursion exciting or even remotely entertaining.
The evening passed with pleasant conversation and much laughter, but they had all planned to set out early the next morning, so before too long, Alexandra and her sisters were ensconced in their room. All Alexandra wanted to do was slip under the covers and sleep peacefully, but her sisters had other ideas. She had only just managed to sit on her bed when the interrogation began.
“What was all that about?” Evelina tilted her head, her eyes wide as she waited for Alexandra to answer.
“What was all what about?” Alexandra huffed out as she fluffed up her pillow, not knowing what her sister meant.
Both her siblings eyed her for several seconds before Theodora finally spoke. “You know we know, but if you’re not ready to confess your feelings for a certain gentleman then Evelina and I will simply wait.”
Theodora could not be insinuating she had feelings for Niall? He was her best friend and confidant. And besides, there was no passion or spark between them. The whole idea was simply preposterous. She turned up her nose and replied, “I truly do not know what the two of you are referring to.”
“Perhaps she doesn’t,” Evelina stated, her eyes narrowing with disbelief as she stared at her older sister, as if trying to see deep into her soul. Evelina could be so tiresome at times.
“Then we should not tell her.” Theodora nudged Evelina. “It will be great fun to watch it unfold.”
“Watch what unfold?” Alexandra demanded as she crossed her arms.
The only thing they would ever see were two friends, but clearly their imaginations were getting the better of them this evening and vexing Alexandra in the process. She could never entertain thoughts of Niall. He had been promised to Lady Nerissa ever since the dowager duchess had concocted the scheme, as Niall referred to it. Not that Evelina or Theodora knew anything about the scheme. Very few did.
“Nothing.” Her two sisters caroled in unison.
Alexandra chose to ignore them and instead nestled under the covers, pulling the blanket up over her head as sounds of their giggles permeated through the material.