“Look, there’s another!” Juliet danced in a circle and pointed at the carriage, drawn by two dark brown horses, as it crested the distant hill. “It’s coming right here… right to the castle!”
From his seat on the low stone wall along the lane, Juliet’s new friend laughed softly. “Castle, eh? What makes you call Wyndham Green a castle?”
Juliet giggled. The answer was so obvious, surely even an adult would know it. “Why, because it’s the biggest house I’ve ever seen, and Mummy says a duke lives there. He married Lady Regina so now she’s a duchess and we must always say ‘her grace’ when
we speak of her.”
A light breeze played with the ends of the man’s graying brown hair as he studied Juliet for a long time. She bit the inside of her cheek. Perhaps she had said too much. Mummy said she
sometimes said the wrong things to the wrong people. The plop-plop of the approaching hoofbeats grew louder and Juliet shifted from foot to foot.
Her new friend bent, plucked a blade of long grass, and wound it around his finger. “And what do you think of her grace?” he finally asked.
“Oh, she’s very nice,” answered Juliet, grinning. “She smiles at me when she sees me and she doesn’t mind when I help Mummy in the house sometimes.”
The carriage slowed and turned onto the road that led to the big house. Sweat darkened the horses’ sides and glistened in the strong sunlight.
“Oh, the poor horses,” cried Juliet. “They must have come a long way.”
The man nodded. “That they did. Does your mum work in the house then?”
“Yes.” Juliet stood up straighter, proud of the hard work her mum did. “Her name’s Patricia. She works for La — her grace.”
“Ah, I see. What might your name be?”
“I’m Juliet.” She held out her hand with the back tipped up the way she’d seen ladies do when they met gentlemen. She’d practiced for hours and hours in the barn, giggling when Alfred, her favorite horse, snuffled at her skin seeking a bit of apple or a carrot. When her new friend inclined his head and nodded in approval, she knew she’d gotten it right.
The man accepted her hand and lifted it up. Then, fixing his clear blue gaze on her eyes, he bent his head and brushed a gentle kiss behind her knuckles before releasing his grasp. “Juliet. What a beautiful name. ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night.‘“
The skin along the back of her hand tingled and Juliet giggled. “What does that mean?”
“Why, ‘tis from Romeo and Juliet. Mr. William Shakespeare wrote it. And one day, perhaps you’ll find out what it means for yourself.”
“Someday, I want to marry a duke like Lady — I mean her grace. And I want to live in a castle like this one.”
“One day, maybe you will.”
Another carriage rolled along the lane, heading toward the main house — a big one this time, shiny and black, all closed in with doors and windows, and drawn by four matched bay horses.
Juliet squinted, just able to make out a coat of arms emblazoned on the side — a red and white shield bearing a lit torch and flanked by two crested white doves. Awestruck at the splendor, she drew in a deep breath and turned back to her companion.
A pleased expression settled over the man’s face. “Ah, I must go now. That carriage is bringing my son.” He stood and began walking across the field toward the house.
“Wait!” cried Juliet. “I told you my name. What is yours?”
The man turned and smiled at her. It was a kind smile and it made Juliet miss her father just a tiny bit less. “Most people call me the Duke of Wyndham. But you, my dear, may call me Alexander.”
As he strode away, his shiny black boots sweeping through the waving grass, Juliet stared with widened eyes at his retreating form. A frisson of awareness tickled along her spine and she knew something extraordinary had just occurred.
Ten years later
“I cannot believe you’re serious!”
Juliet jumped, almost dropping the heavy tray she carried, and sighed inwardly. The strident tones of Annabella Price’s voice cut the peace like a sharp knife, quickly slicing short the quiet evening.
Silently cursing the duchess for picking the early supper hour to raise a subject sure to put Annabella in a sour mood, Juliet kept her gaze locked firmly on the platter of roasted rabbit she held and tried to pretend disinterest in the conversation between mother and daughter. She handed the dish to the waiting butler. Geoffrey shot her a warning glance and then placed the rabbit on the fine walnut table amongst other gleaming silver serving dishes. Juliet didn’t particularly mind serving supper, though it did extend her work hours some. Serving duties had fallen to her when the duchess had been forced to let one of the footmen go. Linus Dobney was dearly missed in the household, and not only because others needed to take up his responsibilities.
Annabella slapped the flat of her hand next to her plate and slumped back in her seat, a pout marring the delicate features on her heart-shaped face.
The pale rose fabric of Annabella’s gown bunched in the middle and the lace around the neckline wrinkled downward, exposing a bit of extra cleavage, but she did nothing to right her garment. “It’s laughable to think I’ll consider such an outlandish plan.” She tossed her head, the motion loosening the comb at the back of her head and allowing some of her golden hair to escape.
“Sit up straight, dear. And, yes, I am quite serious.” With her golden hair perfectly and elaborately coifed, and her stylish Pomona green dress pressed, Regina, Duchess of Wyndham, carried off her role as lady of the household with precision and care. As all her servants were aware, she expected no less attention to detail from the other members of her household. With a pointed glance at her daughter, Regina sat up straighter herself, as if
stiffening her own spine would somehow influence her child. “The arrangements have already been made. You will be leaving at the end of the month to spend the Season in London. It’s high time you take your place in society as the daughter of a duke—”
“Stepdaughter,” Annabella ground out through clenched teeth. In the hard silence that fell, the too-loud ticking of the case clock in the corner might as well have been a galloping horse.
Juliet stood frozen in place, her gaze tracing the dark crust along the edge of the roasted rabbit, afraid to look up. Ye’ve gone and done it now, your grace. Any minute now, Annabella would set into one of her regular tirades on the sensitive topic.
Regina insisted upon acting as if the late duke had been Annabella’s father and his sons were her brothers, an arrangement none of the children had adjusted to. For the most part, Alexander’s sons had stayed away from Wyndham Green after the wedding, though from the gossip amongst the servants, Juliet gathered they’d been frequent visitors before that. But Annabella and her mother seemed to never cease arguing over the fact that the late Duke of Wyndham was not her father.
From the beginning, Annabella had taken on a habit of destroying many of the pretty things Alexander had gifted her with, showing her rejection of him as her father’s replacement. As
one of the upstairs maids, Juliet’s mother had cleaned up bits of broken china and the remains of frocks shredded before they could be worn, and Juliet had often mourned some of the nice presents Annabella had ruined just because she’d resented her stepfather so.
Juliet had thought the old duke a wonderful man, kind and gentle. He’d called her by name and never treated her like the daughter of a servant. Sadness welled, tightening her throat. She still missed him… nearly as much as she missed her father. Maybe more so.
In private, Juliet’s mother often commented that she didn’t understand how Juliet managed to spend so much time with Annabella, given the spoiled girl’s tendency to have tantrums. But Patricia Baines hadn’t seen Annabella heartbroken and sobbing in the stable. Juliet had lost her own father at a rather young age, and she herself had been distressed at leaving the only home she had ever known. But she and her mother had to move to Wyndham
Green with Lady Price and her daughter when Regina married the duke. Juliet and Annabella offered compassion and friendship to one another, forming an unlikely bond. A bond Annabella’s mother tolerated, and while Juliet could never be quite certain why, she
suspected Regina did so because of her own inability to calm her daughter. The lady of the house was never unkind, but she sometimes went to great lengths to see Juliet remained in her proper place.
“Please set out the creamed turnips and the asparagus tips.”
The hint of censure in the duchess’ voice startled Juliet from her memories, and she glanced at Geoffrey, whose narrowed gaze told her she would have a proper talking to later for her lack of attention. With a gulp, she hastened to the buffet. The silver tureen of creamed turnips warmed her hands as she carried it to the table, though the smell made her stomach turn and she held her breath.
“Don’t think by serving my favorite foods you’ll gain my willing acceptance of your wishes, Mother,” warned Annabella as Geoffrey set the creamed turnips in front of her.
Juliet shuddered at the thought of the creamed turnips that would be part of her own supper. Maybe Annabella would require her services and none would be left by the time Juliet was finished with her duties for the evening. The idea appealed, and she considered how much more satisfaction she would find in just a bit of bread and some meat. Regina met her daughter’s gaze. “You had a proper come-out at one-and‑seven, but mourning your father’s death—”
Annabella set her wine glass on the table with more force than necessary. The deep red liquid sloshed back and forth and a few drops trickled over the edge to land on the white tablecloth. Immediately the linen acted as a wick and the darkness spread along the weave, vanishing beneath the blue-‑and-white patterned china plate. Juliet sighed for the laundress. Hesper would have a time cleaning that stain once it set.
Regina ignored her daughter’s temper and continued as though uninterrupted. “—has kept you away from many important social events. You will soon be one-and-twenty, and in London you can expect a fresh start. It is not up for discussion. I have already notified your brother, the duke.” Regina raised her hand and held it out in front of her when Annabella narrowed her gaze and opened her mouth to speak. “Fine. Your stepbrother, the Duke of
Wyndham, has been notified to expect you.”
“Expect me? Don’t you mean expect us?”
Regina dabbed at her lips with a napkin and cleared her throat. “Well, ah, you see, I am in need of some treatments for my health, so I will be spending a few weeks in Bath first. Your great aunts Harmony and Charity will be escorting you and acting as your chaperones.”
Oh, dear. Oh, no! Ignoring Geoffrey’s silent directions to stand still, Juliet backed up toward the kitchen, keeping a wary eye focused on Annabella.
“Charity and Harmony! You must be jesting. The last time I saw them, they’d both gone dotty in the head.” Annabella slouched rather deliberately back in her seat and crossed her arms across her chest, shooting her mother a defiant stare. “Besides, they never leave Somerset.”
The duchess’ lips tightened and she drew in a breath, releasing it in delicate fashion before she spoke. “They have already responded to my message that they shall be happy to escort you for a Season in London.”
Annabella pushed her chair back and shot up. “I won’t do it! I won’t go! Why do I have to go spend the Season with Wyndham while you’re off having a splendid time in Bath! You wanted to marry into nobility. Not I. He’s arrogant and he barely knows I’m alive. We haven’t seen him in almost four years — not since his father died. He refuses to come here because he can’t stand to see you living in his father’s home. I hate him!”
Juliet could only stare with wide eyes as Regina stood as well, her face pale, her movements slow and deliberate. “Annabella, you will do as I say and you will mind your manners.
Otherwise, I will be forced to accept Vicar Hamilton’s marriage proposal and set the wedding to take place posthaste.”
At the mention of the stout vicar, Annabella’s face blanched and she clutched her stomach.
Not the vicar, your grace. Juliet bit the inside of her lip as she recalled Annabella’s last tantrum, directly after the totally smitten man visited for an afternoon and spent the next several hours hovering within feet of her. It had been one of her more destructive moments, costing the home a fine oil portrait and several china teacups.
Annabella recovered and her vexation became clear in the glare to which she subjected her mother. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“If you don’t make a suitable match soon, I’ll have no choice. So it’s up to you. Do you leave for London at month’s end or do you begin planning your wedding to the good vicar?”
Annabella’s face colored up and her eyes narrowed. Juliet’s breath stuck in her throat and she fled along the hallway from the dining room to the kitchen. The sound of breaking china followed close behind.