A Duke’s Winter Promise by Harriet Caves

ChapterOne

“Shall I wear my green or blue coat?” Irene asked, holding each thick, velvet coat over her grown. She turned her head in one direction, then the other.

“It would not matter,” Louisa retorted. “You shall just leave it in the ladies’ retiring room.” Louisa’s maid pinned another curl in place on her head.

“No, no, like this,” Louisa said, pushing the curl in the other direction. She sighed dramatically. “I have no idea why I bother.”

“I think I shall wear the green,” her sister, Irene, announced cheerfully, ignoring Louisa’s dour tone. “It would seem much more festive; do you not think?”

Louisa sighed again. “Yes, the green suits you better, regardless.”

Irene laid the coat over the back of her vanity chair, swooshing the skirts of her dress as she pretended to waltz toward Louisa. “Mary, once you’ve finished with Louisa’s hair, would you help me with my ribbons?”

“Yes, my lady,” the maid agreed, focusing intently on Louisa’s hair still.

“I am terribly excited to see a ball at Carriston Manor. It has been ages!” Irene cooed. “You look simply splendid, tonight. I am sure you will have everyone swooning at your feet!”

“Men do not swoon,” Louisa corrected. She inspected herself in the mirror on her vanity, feeling critical of the paleness of her face. She pinched her cheeks in frustration. “But so long as it is not Wyatt himself, then I shall pay no mind.”

“The Duke?” Irene asked, wide eyed. She fell to the footstool at Louisa’s feet. “How can you still hold such a grudge against him? It has nearly been ten years since we’ve last seen him.”

“It has not been ten years,” Louisa protested. “He has been back home several times. But even if it had, ten years would be too few.”

“You cannot possibly think of him as some wayward boy, as he was then,” Irene continued.

“I shall!” she protested. “Do you not remember how he tormented me? Frogs under my skirts, mud in my hair, dunking me in the lake. He was positively cruel to me. I learned to never play games with him, as I knew he would cheat just to relish in my discomfort.”

“I must confess, I do not have the same memories that you do. Surely, boys will just be boys.”

“You were quite young,” Louisa reminded her, then pointed to the paper on her desk. “If you do not believe me, look here, the latest gossip column speaks of tonight’s ball.”

Irene dutifully picked up the paper and read aloud, “It is to this author’s delight that the rakish Duke of Carriston will be hosting a holiday fete at his countryside manor. Rumors are that he has invited half the countryside, the female half that is, in hopes to secure his next mistress,” Irene scoffed but continued on. “After his studies, the Duke traveled through Europe, though what sights he saw cannot be discussed respectfully in this column.”

Irene shook her head. “Please, you cannot trust a word this report says. Just last week, Lady Whidby was said to be on her deathbed, when she was suffering from no more than a cold!”

“To be fair, Lady Whidby probably believed herself to be on her own deathbed,” Louisa laughed unkindly.

Irene set the paperback on Louisa’s vanity in a huff. “Still, you have no idea what he is like now. You should go tonight with an open mind. If he turns out to be a terrible flirt or tease, then seek solace with Rickard.”

Louisa pursed her lips thoughtfully, thinking about Wyatt’s younger, kinder cousin. “It has been a long time since we have visited him, too, since he went off to Oxford.”

“If nothing else, surely there will be plenty of other potential suitors there tonight,” Irene smiled. “As the columnist said, the Duke has invited half the country!”

“The female half!” Louisa reminded her. “If such is the case, then there shall be plenty of young ladies sitting out. I shall be surprised if I am asked to dance at all. Especially once everyone sees you.”

Irene started to protest, but Louisa laughed. Ever kind-hearted and good, Irene would deny her own beauty, especially when compared to others. She had beautiful, pale skin, golden blonde hair, and blue eyes. Even though they had similar features, Irene carried them better. By comparison, Louisa had hard edges, a steely coldness to her blue eyes.

“I know you feel so much responsibility for me to marry well,” Irene told her kindly. “It is not fair to you, especially when you do not care for society events like this.”

“You should not feel guilty, either. Neither of us could help that father died in the middle of our season,” she assured her sister. “I promise you, I will do my best tonight, and any other events we may be invited to.”

“Promise me, you will at least marry someone you care for,” Irene asked, her face somber. “Do not just marry for title or money, just for my sake.”

“I promise,” Louisa assured her.

A knock came at the door, just as Mary stepped away from Louisa’s finished hair. In unison, both girls called out, “Come in!”

Their mother swooped in, the picture of grace and elegance. She was already dressed for the evening. Her blonde hair, which both girls had inherited, was piled up on her head in a stately fashion. She had already donned her coat and raised her eyebrows at the state of both her daughters.

“My goodness, I expected you both to be ready! We’ll be terribly late, already,” she said, picking up Irene’s coat from the back of the chair. “Come now, let us be off.”

“One moment, I need my ribbons!” Irene protested, scurrying to her own vanity.

Louisa stood, smoothing her dress with a sniff. “I do not see the fuss. It shall only take a few minutes to reach the Manor by carriage. We shall hardly be the last guests to arrive.”

Mother sent her a withering look. “I expect you to have a much more hospitable attitude once you arrive. This is the first time you are meeting the Duke since his father passed. I expect that he would need our support in this trying time.”

Louisa stifled a laugh by turning her attention to Irene. Mary was deftly tying the last ribbon about Irene’s waist.

“No time to dawdle, grab your coat. Your Uncle is waiting downstairs,” Mother rushed, waving to Louisa to hurry.

With a sigh, she dutifully grabbed her coat from her bed, where Mary had laid it out earlier in the afternoon. Unlike Irene, she had not worried over what to wear that evening. Mary had suggested a dark blue gown, to match her blue eyes and contrast with her blonde hair, which Louisa did not contest. Irene, however, had fretted all evening, finally settling on a shimmery gold dress, which made her appear an angel.

Though they were sisters, their apparel illustrated their differences. Louisa preferred to be serious, quiet, and disappear into the crowds. Irene was cheerful, friendly, outgoing, always the delight of the room. Men bent over her hand and women giggled with her over gossip. Louisa struggled to fill a dance card, while Irene could afford to be choosy.

“Louisa?” Mother called, waving her hand in front of Louisa’s face. “Hello? Darling? Is something amiss?”

Louisa started. “No, no,” she assured her, donning her coat. “I shall meet you downstairs.”

As she passed through the door, she heard her mother urging Irene along, asking about her coat and her reticule. Gladly, Louisa escaped the attention of her mother, down the front steps of their manor, into the foyer where her Uncle Eugene waited.

“Ah, there you are,” he said, appraising her. “You look as lovely as ever tonight.”

“Thank you, Uncle,” she responded, feeling skeptical at his assessment. Looking at the two of them, one would not know that they were related. Both Louisa and Irene took after their mother. If someone had looked closely, perhaps they would have found the girls had their father’s smile. However, their father and uncle did not share that same feature.

“Such a wonderful opportunity this is,” he continued, his eyes shining. He paused, as though he hoped Louisa would press him, as the smile that played on his lips implied a deeper meaning. She raised her eyebrows to encourage him to continue.

“The whole ton will be at Carriston Manor this evening. Anyone of means, that is. You will have no end of eligible men to choose from.”

“I will be sure to keep an eye out,” she promised, looking up the stairs in hopes that Irene and her mother were coming down.

“I should hope, however, that you make sure to greet the Duke and wish him congratulations on his new title.”

Louisa raised her eyebrow again, wryly. “Would that not be in poor taste, Uncle, given that he only became Duke at the death of his late father? Surely, he is still in mourning.”

Uncle waved it off. “They were not close. I do not suppose that he grieves too terribly. Though, I suppose you could offer your support, perhaps, a shoulder to cry on?”

“Whatever are you proposing?” Louisa cried, shocked by her Uncle’s implication.

“You are in need of a husband,” he explained, waving his hands excitedly. “A husband of means. The Duke is, of course-”

“Uncle!”

“Let me finish!” he protested, grabbing her shoulder. “The two of you grew up together, but surely he has not seen how comely you have become. You may use your familiarity with him to gain his favor. It would be a handsome match.”

“I would never!” she gasped, horrified at the thought. “He would be a terrible husband!”

“Bah,” Uncle scoffed. “Perhaps, but a husband he would be, a husband of significant wealth and power. You would be free to do as you pleased.”

Louisa gasped again. “Uncle, I cannot believe you would say such things to me. I shall not have it! I would rather die a spinster than marry Wyatt.”

“The Duke,” he corrected, wagging his finger at her, brow furrowed in anger. “The Duke would give you the means to support your family, your sister. I have no dowry to lay against either of you. Your father saw to that! What do I have, but to pay off his debts? I support you out of my love for your mother.”

“And as our stepfather,” Louisa muttered. “You could hardly turn us out.”

“Your London season was ruined due to your father’s death, too. You have something to sympathize with him about. Perhaps, if he does not mourn his own father’s death, he may offer you the shoulder to cry upon. No man can resist a woman in distress.”

“You forget, Uncle, that Wyatt could never resist tormenting a woman in distress.”

Uncle opened his mouth to retort, but a noise at the top of the stairs distracted him. Mother descended with a smile on her face, exuding charm and beauty. Right behind her, Irene seemed like a younger version of her.

“Ah, there you are, Cora,” Uncle called, a smile spreading across his face. “We were just wondering if we might come up to fetch you.”

“Oh, I do apologize,” Mother said, a charming smile on her lips. With almost no effort, Louisa knew that Uncle could not resist her. “I assure you, Eugene, the wait was definitely worth it.”

“As ever,” he agreed. Once Mother came close enough, Uncle grabbed her hand and kissed the back of her gloved knuckles. Louisa tried not to roll her eyes.

“Louisa, you must try to look a bit more cheerful,” Mother scolded, spotting Louisa’s sour expression. “I promise this shall be quite an enjoyable evening.”

“Yes, we were just discussing the potential of eligible suitors,” Uncle said smoothly. He turned to Irene. “As always, you might keep a lookout for a special young man.” This time, the glimmer in his eye was genuine. Irene’s charm made her their Uncle’s favorite, meaning that she could never do anything wrong.

“I have made a list of a few names you might consider,” Uncle continued. “Respectable men of means.”

“Perhaps we could review in the carriage?” Mother suggested, putting her hand on Irene as though to guide her toward the door. “We shall be so late as it is.”

Snow was falling softly in the dark evening as they alighted the carriage. Carriston Manor was just a few miles down the road from Broadley Manor, where they called home.

As the driver brought them down the lane, Louisa thought of how many times they had called about Carriston Manor. The two families had been close when they had been younger. However, once Wyatt, then Rickard, went off to secondary school, then university, they found their visits grew more and more infrequent.

So, when they finally came upon Carriston Manor, Louisa found herself admiring how lovely the estate looked, dusted with snow, and lit with lanterns. Carriages lined down the drive, as footmen helped ladies step down at the front stairs of the house. Music carried across the front lawn in the quiet darkness.

Once it was their turn, Uncle climbed out first, offering his hand first to Mother, then Louisa, and finally Irene. Louisa marveled at the boughs of holly hung across the massive door, how the candles flickered in the darkness. She had never seen the manor so beautifully decorated.

“The Duke has outdone himself,” Mother whispered, looking around in wonder. “Perhaps, all of his travels did him some good.”

“Or perhaps he has hired a new housekeeper,” Louisa muttered. Mother sent her another withering look, which Louisa took to mean that she must learn to still her tongue. She ignored her mother’s silent reprimand as they entered with a throng into the foyer of the house. Footmen took their cloaks for them, while maids ushered the ladies off to the retiring room.

If the outside of the manor had struck them with awe, it was nothing compared to the dazzle of the ballroom itself. Louisa had to remind herself to keep her mouth closed when the master of ceremony announced them.

“The Earl of Broadley, the Countess of Broadly, Lady Louisa Johnson, and Lady Irene Johnson,” he called. Some of the guests nearest to them greeted them as they entered, but then she heard someone call out her name. Looking about, she grinned seeing Rickard approaching them.

“Rick-” she started, then shook her head. She curtseyed before him, then offered her hand, which he took to kiss politely. “Mr. Williams, I dare say that seems strange to say.”

“Likewise, Lady Louisa,” he said, a lopsided grin on his face. “It’s been far too long. My, how lovely you are!”

She tapped him with her fan. “Come now, do not go proving my sister correct.”

“And what shall I rebuff?” he asked, amused, looking past her. “Lady Irene?”

Irene turned, coming alongside her sister. “Mr. Williams! So lovely to see you.”

With a chivalrous bow, Rickard asked, “Now, please tell me, what has Lady Irene stated that I must prove as true?”

“I was just telling Irene earlier today that men do not swoon, while she assured me that they did,” Louisa said matter-of-factly.

Dramatically, Rickard grasped at his chest. “No, I dare say, it is true. Lady Irene, you most definitely have determined one of the greatest secrets of men.”

Louisa realized with amusement that Irene blushed at Rickard’s dramatic assessment. His eyes danced with delight, which made Louisa realize that their dear Rickard had indeed grown into a fine young man. A shock of black hair curled dashingly over his forehead as his lopsided smile grew larger.

She could not help but feel merry in his presence, but suddenly an eerie feeling crept over her. She suddenly felt terribly cold. Looking for the source of the draft, she locked eyes with the coldest blue eyes she had ever seen.