About the book
In the throes of their passion, his soul lay close to hers; he finally had her all to himself...
Phoebe Elkins, daughter of the Earl of Wycliff, knew from a young age that she would one day marry Evan Boltmon. If an arranged marriage wasn’t enough, her mortification grows even greater when she realizes she is completely infatuated with her betrothed’s younger brother.
Owen Boltmon, the youngest son of the Duke of Bentley, is a dignified and courageous lord...and madly in love with his brother’s intended. When his brother disappears at sea, he is torn between devastation and a twisted sense of relief.
But when a blessing in disguise knocks on the door, what would have been a dream come true under other circumstances, now feels like the greatest burden to bear: Evan returns and he is not the person they remember...
Duncan Boltmon, The Duke of Bentley, observed the children playing with a proud smile on his face. It was the height of summer, the fleets were on voyage, and finances had never been better.
His own sons, Evan and Owen, were boisterous but mindful of their learning. Their play fighting included all the noble standards the Duke had worked to instill in them, including honor and virtue.
“Where is your sword?” Owen asked of his older brother, Evan. He searched around him for the second of the two wooden swords the pair owned. “The opponents of a duel must be equally matched or it is unjust.”
“Nobody duels anymore.”
“Not even for the hand of a fair maiden?”
Phoebe, the daughter of the Earl of Wycliff, giggled at Owen’s remark, her eyes sparkling. She clapped her hands together in delight while watching them play. Her brother, Roger, jumped up to show he was just as noble as the Duke’s sons
“En Garde!” he yelled, picking up the second sword and thrusting at Owen. The boys laughed and jousted their way around the gardens, their laughter ringing through the air.
Jacob Elkins, the Earl of Wycliff, turned to look at the Duke. The shade of the parasol cast a shadow across his bearded face but most of the shade covered his wife, the Duchess of Bentley, Tabitha Boltmon. She was reclining in her chair sipping at lemonade from a tall glass.
She wore white, always white. She liked to demonstrate that she could wear a new batiste or silk dress every day—and she did. Lady Bentley was a great admirer of the latest French fashions. Her long, soft dress cinched tight under her chest and then flowed to her feet. Her dresses were always embellished with lace or ornate stitching and she owned an exceptional array of hats.
“It seems to me you have something on your mind, Your Grace,” the Earl said.
The Earl of Wycliff and the Duke of Bentley had a long-standing friendship rooted in their own childhoods which was further solidified by their joint business. It had taken many years for them to acquire their fleet and man it with skilled sailors and merchants, but they were certainly reaping the rewards at present.
Here they were, basking in the sunlight, each of them with his own glorious properties and staff at his command, their wives and children dressed in their finery, and they had prominent positions in society.
“Yes, I do,” the Duke of Bentley looked over to his sons, both strapping young boys. Both were dressed in breeches, waistcoats, and matching long grey jackets. They were growing more handsome by the day and he was not unaware of their eligibility as husbands in the near future. “Evan is now thirteen years of age.”
“Yes. He’s a fine young gentleman.”
“As his father, it is time I begin to think about his future, to make arrangements. Do you understand?”
“I believe I do.” The Duke saw Lord Wycliff’s gaze travel to Phoebe, his only daughter.
At seven-years-old, she was still very much a child, but it would not be long before suitors came to court her. At least, it wouldn’t be long before matches started to be made in preparation a future that would be upon them in the blink of an eye.
It was hard to tell at that young an age what kind of lady she would become but there were clues as to her nature. Phoebe was a free-spirited and playful child, much to her father’s chagrin although he loved her dearly. No matter how hard the Earl of Wycliff and the staff tried to teach her etiquette and proper behavior, she would often find some way to have her fun when she thought nobody was watching. The Earl would often tell the Duke about the times she’d been caught rolling down hills in her pretty dresses or brandishing swords at her dolls in play. They would laugh at the perils of fatherhood as old friends do.
Yet she had a profoundly feminine side also. She was completely transparent with her emotions. Everything she found funny drew joyous laughter from her, and every upset brought tears. She was not the sort of child to hold her emotions in or have a stiff upper lip. She laughed, she cried and she expressed herself with complete freedom always.
She had dark hair like her late mother, Katherine Elkins, the Countess of Wycliff. She had the same deep eyes with thick, dark lashes that pulled at your heartstrings when she fluttered them or made you feel like a monster when they caught her tears after a scolding. She had a small nose and high cheekbones and shapely lips. The Duke believed she would grow up to be beautiful. If she was even half as beautiful as her mother had been, she would make a fine match for his son.
“It has been a while since we’ve discussed the possibility of a match for our children. Not since Lady Wycliff was with child and we didn’t know whether the birth would bring a boy or a girl. That was when Evan was six years of age. I was considering these things then, so you can only imagine how urgent my concern now that he is reaching adolescence.”
“Of course,” the Earl nodded, putting his drink down on the little cast-iron side table. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and keeping his eyes on the children. The affection he held for Phoebe was evident in his eyes when he looked at her. He had all the natural protectiveness a father should feel, and more so due to the untimely loss of his wife. “It is also in my interest to ensure that Phoebe will be taken care of in the event of my passing and one never knows when that will be. It would allow me to rest easy to know she is spoken for and entrusted to someone I know will treat her kindly.”
“Evan would be a natural match. I do hope you agree.”
“You know I do. It has been all but done since the day Phoebe was born. Nothing would make me happier than to tie our families together through the bonds of marriage. May our children find as much success in marriage as we have found in business. You hereby have my word that Phoebe is betrothed to Evan and that they shall be wed when she turns eighteen.”
The Earl stood then, straightening his coattails as he rose. “Will you excuse me a moment? I’ll return shortly.”
Lord Wycliff took his exit, heading toward the manor. As soon as he was out of earshot, Lady Bentley sat up and fixed the Duke with the most lethal of glares.
“You have promised our son in marriage to the Boltmons?”
“You know better than to question my decisions, my dear. I would trust Lord Wycliff with my life.”
“A sentiment I simply cannot understand!” Her eyes narrowed to slits, her eyebrows drawing together in the middle of her forehead, making her appear as some kind of solemn bird, not aided in the least by the length and hook of her nose.
She had all the makings of a handsome woman, but her sternness often made her ugly. The Duke would have chosen for himself a prettier, less temperamental bride had he the choice when he was young. Perhaps that was why he was so keen to secure for his son an amicable bride. Phoebe was an exuberant and lively child who was always quick to smile. The Duke had doubt his wife had ever smiled in her life. If she had been able to, perhaps he would have seen a smile on her face on their wedding day.
“I have never understood your dislike of Lord Wycliff. He’s my closest confidant and business partner.”
“Lord Wycliff is irresponsible and selfish. He has lost us half a dozen of our fleet in the last year alone.”
“Lord Wycliff cannot be held responsible for the weather.”
“He can certainly be held accountable for choosing to set sail in a storm.”
“The decision was a joint one. We stood to lose a lot of money if we did not make that shipment on time.”
“And look at what you lost! All because Lord Wycliff convinced you to set sail against your better judgment. You have always been focused and intelligent, my love, yet you put your faith in a gentleman far less able. Now you want to commit our son to his imbecile daughter?”
“Enough!” The Duke raised his voice so loudly and so harshly it stopped the children in their tracks. They ceased playing and turned toward their guardians in shock. “You forget your place again, Lady Bentley! You’d best be thankful the Earl was not here to hear you speak to me in that manner or you would be wincing far more than you do at the sound of my voice.”
She lowered her eyes, twisting the sheer fabric of her dress between her fingers. She withheld her tears in that stoic manner that frustrated the Duke so—he’d have preferred a more fragile, softer lady—and she pursed her lips.
“As you wish, husband, but on your head be it if our son suffers on account of your faith in Lord Wycliff.”
“Your boldness will never cease to astound me. Will you ever learn to hold your tongue?”
He gestured toward Phoebe. She was now sitting beside Owen on a carved stone bench, talking about something with avid interest and trying not to gesticulate too wildly. Every time her hands started to fly into the air in excitement, she remembered herself and returned her hands to rest in her lap.
The Duke continued, “This child already speaks more French than both of our boys. She has learned to embroider. She plays the violin with the skill of a girl three times her age! She is no imbecile and so help me if I ever hear you suggest such a thing again.”
“I’ve seen her playing in the pond with frogs! She has none of the graces one would expect of a lady.”
“She is only a child.”
“When I was her age, I would never have walked around with grass in my hair and mud on my cheek, chasing after the boys as if I were one of them.”
“They are the harmless pleasures of childhood. Soon enough she will be forced to leave them behind. Let children play while they are children.”
“And what of Lord Wycliff? He is no child. He drinks until he is in a stupor and he has a foul mouth when he’s taken liquor.”
“Then keep in the company of other ladies if the pursuits of men so easily offend your sensibilities. I cannot be held accountable for what you hear when you are eavesdropping. You always forget how fortunate you are, my love. Phoebe is not the only one who fails at being a lady. A lady knows to accept her husband’s decisions without question; she knows how to keep her thoughts to herself. A good lady honors and obeys her spouse unconditionally. Perhaps you need to take up some Bible study to remind you how to keep to your values.”
“It is dangerous to condescend a smart lady.”
“I’ll remember that if I should ever meet one.”
Lady Bentley drew in a sharp breath through her teeth, gathered her skirts and stood. “Excuse me, My Lord. I have matters to attend to inside.”
The Duke allowed her to leave without objection. It was always a relief when his wife exited a conversation. As a lady she drained him and as a wife she disappointed him. He had always hoped for a meek and affectionate wife, but instead, he found himself married to a stubborn and hostile lady. It was a wonder she bore him any children at all when there seemed to be so little lady in her.
Yes, Phoebe will be a good wife. Her father was no stranger to merriment and overindulgence and it showed in his daughter, who revelled in entertaining and being entertained. Perhaps if she’d had a mother, she’d have ended up like the Lady Bentley instead; like all ladies of the present time.
The Duke considered it a blessing that their children had been raised together and Phoebe and Evan had been offered such a rare opportunity to see a friendship become a marriage. They would know and be familiar with each other by the time it came to say their vows. They would have these memories of time spent in summer gardens, of laughter and play. There would be fondness between them.
It would be deceitful for him to say he had no personal benefit from the arrangement—it made good business sense to align their families—but his fatherliness also played a role.
Let Evan have a happy, gentle wife. Let him have a lady to love and to give love to in return.
Phoebe sat on the bench between the cedar trees down by the lake in the eastern grounds of her father’s estate. She liked the way the trees shielded her from view. In this little grove, she could take a moment away from prying eyes. It had become her habit to slip away long before even the servants had awoken and to retreat to one of her many hideaways in the estate to be alone.
Today she turned twelve years of age.
At twelve-years-old, there were many societal pressures weighing her down and she longed constantly for escape. Today, she should have been indoors receiving lessons from her governess in Greek and Latin. However, this morning, like every morning, she had made her escape to have at least an hour or two outdoors.
She liked to watch the birds. Sometimes she would attempt to draw them, but she could never get their little faces right. She must have had a hundred sketches of funny little birds with curious eyes.
“Lady Phoebe! Lady Phoebe!”
The governess, Miss Bennet, was calling her. Miss Bennet had the most powerful lungs. No matter where Phoebe was on the huge estate, her governess’ cries would never fail to reach her ears.
She squeezed her eyes shut in annoyance and considered climbing a tree to hide but decided better of it. Her father would be very disappointed if she ruined her birthday dress. It was white with pink embellishments and a pretty ribbon around the waist. The sleeves ended halfway down her forearms. The material was tight and well-fitted, making Phoebe feel like she was bandaged up from head to toe. She felt she was wearing far too many layers with her frock and puffy undergarments. It reminded her of the time she fell in the river and the material swelling around her in the water had made it hard to kick her legs.
With a sigh, she decided to reveal herself. “Here I am, Miss Bennet.”
Miss Bennet appeared in the grove. She was in her late twenties and unmarried. She had once been a gentlewoman from a noble family that had fallen into disrepute, forcing Miss Bennet into work. Phoebe had once heard her father refer to her as a spinster. He’d said it as if it was a bad thing, but Phoebe adored Miss Bennet, even if she didn’t delight in the dull pursuit of foreign languages and stitching.
The governess often wore blue or brown dresses covered with a pinafore from her chest down to her calves and a maid’s cap, although she had told Phoebe stories about the beautiful dresses she used to wear when she had been a noblewoman herself.
Finding Phoebe between the trees, Miss Bennet put her hands on her hips and let out a sigh. “You’ll be the death of me, Lady Phoebe. Lessons were due to start an hour ago.”
Phoebe looked down at her silk shoes and grimaced. “I could hear the birds singing. It’s such a shame to spend all day inside.”
“I understand, my dear, but we all have our duties. Your duties are to become a fine, well-educated young lady so that you will grow up to live in a wonderful home with a respected husband.”
She knelt down to offer Phoebe a kind smile. “Besides, it is your birthday, Lady Phoebe. Don’t you want to come inside and greet your visitors?”
“But of course. His Grace, The Duke of Bentley is here with the Marquess of Huxley and Lord Boltmon.”
Phoebe’s eyes lit up. “Evan and Owen?”
“You mustn’t call them by their Christian names, My Lady! How many times have I told you? It’s considered terribly rude.”
“I always call them by their Christian names, Miss Bennet. They are my friends.”
Miss Bennet shook her head and let out a sigh of despair. “Come now, Lady Phoebe. They are waiting for you inside.”
The governess held out her hand to Phoebe and led her back toward the manor which appeared as prominent as ever on the horizon. It was a beast of red brick, held up by grandiose columns and reached by a set of stairs flanked by carved marble lions.
The grounds seemed endless, at least two-thousand acres of rolling hills, hidden lakes and streams, and patches of forest. There was, of course, the main manor which also contained the servant’s quarters, as well as the stables and immaculate landscape gardens that surrounded the perimeter of Wycliff House.
For any of the impoverished citizens of the inner city, this country manor would appear as a dream, something heavenly and unreal. To Phoebe, it was simply home.
They entered the manor and went to the drawing room, where Lord Wycliff and the Duke of Bentley were waiting with the two young lords, Lord Huxley and Lord Boltmon.
Evan, the Marquess of Huxley, was now ten-and-eight years of age. He was a fine young gentleman with broad shoulders, brooding eyes, and high moral values. For several years now, he had been traveling with his father’s fleets, halfway between a sailor and a lord. His hair was dark and long enough for him to be able to sweep it back, giving him the constant appearance of a gentleman who had only just stepped down from his vessel on the high seas.
He had the poise and self-assuredness of a true aristocrat. He stood always with his back straight and his shoulders back, making him seem especially tall. He wore cream breeches with buttons down the outer thighs and a long brown tailcoat, between the lapels of which emerged the layers of his silk shirt. His riding boots reached almost to his knees. He looked ready to jump into action at any moment. He stood awaiting Phoebe’s arrival, one arm behind his back, the other poised elegantly in front of his stomach.
Phoebe caught his eyes and smiled warmly, but then she spotted Owen and her smile turned into a childish, gleeful grin, which would have made Lady Bentley blush had she been present to see such poor decorum.
She knew she was supposed to focus her attention on Evan—her betrothed—who had been voyaging so long, but she had oh so much to catch up on with Owen, who had stayed by her side while his brother had been at sea.
Two years younger than Evan, the Lord Boltmon, her dear Owen, was now sixteen. Although the world saw him now as a gentleman, Phoebe still saw in him her childhood friend, the one who used to chase her with worms when nobody was looking, and the boy who taught her all the ranks in the army and navy so she could understand her father’s lengthy conversations when she was listening in.
He was dressed in a long black tailcoat and camel-colored breeches. Phoebe noticed that the white shirt ruffles poking out beneath the sleeves of his jacket were stained with ink. She wondered if he had been sketching or writing—he enjoyed both. He caught her eye and she could swear she saw a forbidden sparkle in it.
She remembered her manners, and although her heart was soaring to see Owen, she focused her attention on Evan, dipped at the knees in a curtsey, and greeted him in the proper manner.
“Lord Huxley.” She vaguely recalled she should offer some other salutation; maybe something about the pleasure of seeing him or her privilege…I don’t remember a word of it. “I am happy to see you here.”
“It is my honor to see you, Lady Phoebe. You’ve matured a great deal since last I saw you.”
“How has it been at sea?”
Evan’s eyes sparkled and a broad smile came to his face. He lifted a hand to gesture passionately. “An adventure, My Lady. I’ve seen more of the world than a gentleman could imagine. There are such wondrous things to behold beyond these English borders.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
Phoebe cast a glance to Miss Bennet. She felt her vocabulary failing her as she was expected to hold a conversation with a gentleman six years her senior. He was sailing around the world while she was still having her clothes chosen for her by the maids and being scolded for fiddling her hair into braids when she was supposed to be studying.
Her father, the Earl of Wycliff, gestured to one of the ornate seats in the drawing room for her to sit. The drawing room itself was a sumptuous place to be. The hardwood floors were covered with an exquisite Parisian rug in pale red and creams. The walls were embossed with gilded architraves and decorated with beautiful, original oil paintings from some of England’s most renowned landscape artists. The chandelier hanging from the center of the high ceiling was a final touch of sophistication to an already-opulent setting.
Phoebe sat down, smoothed out her skirts, and placed her hands carefully in her lap. She waited to be directed in what to do next. Her own judgment often failed her—she wished to throw her arms around Owen and tell him she had missed him since their last visit three months ago. She wanted to ask Evan if he had come across any pirates on his travels, or whether it was true that there were countries across the sea where women walked around without a stitch of clothing on their skin, but she could only imagine what the adults would think if she were to ask such a thing.
The Duke cleared his throat and threw Evan a purposeful glance. “You haven’t forgotten it is Lady Phoebe’s birthday, have you, Evan?”
“My apologies.” He quickly sat by Phoebe’s side on the hard-backed floral seat. He produced something from his pocket and turned to show it to her. “Happy birthday, My Lady.”
His voice was sweet and hopeful. There was tenderness in the way he spoke to her, genuine affection that Phoebe was too young to even recognize.
She took from him the little ornate box he was holding and carefully opened the lid. Inside rested a little golden locket with an embossed flower, a single ruby nestled between its petals.
“My Lord, it’s beautiful.” Phoebe glanced toward her father who was beaming with excitement and encouraging her with a nod. “Thank you.”
“May you what?”
While Evan chuckled, Lord Wycliff answered for him. “He wants to see you wear it, my dear.”
“Oh.” Phoebe gathered up her long dark hair and held it up so that Evan could fasten the locket around her neck. She felt like she’d done something terribly wrong when she felt his fingers brush against the nape of her neck. What a scandal!
However, nobody seemed to be sitting in judgment. Perhaps because this gentleman was to be her husband. What a strange thought. When the necklace was in place, Phoebe turned to show Evan. She examined Evan while his face was close to hers. He was handsome, certainly, but he only knew about three species of birds and couldn’t draw at all. They didn’t have very much in common, although his stories about his seafaring adventures could be quite interesting to hear. Then again, what was the point in having a husband who spent most of his time on a ship?
Phoebe didn’t much fancy the idea of living life as Lady Alone. Then again, without a husband looking over her shoulder, perhaps she could spend more time devoted to her own leisure activities—drawing, painting, reading, and finding new places to slip away to unseen.
“A charming couple,” the Duke announced with a smile. “The perfect match.”
Phoebe was drained from a day of airs and graces. She had minded her etiquette all day and behaved as ladylike as she was possibly able. Now her head and body ached; in fact, the weight of her new locket irritated her to no end, but she dare not take it off. Even at her young age, she understood that this was more than just a locket. This was a symbol. A promise.
She returned to the grove. She always felt calmest when faced with still waters and the sound of birdsong.
As she came to the bench between the trees, she spotted a small parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with a bow on the seat. She looked around her for who had left it there but she saw nobody.
Curious, she sat down and placed the gift on her lap. Slowly, she teased the ribbon loose and pulled apart the paper. Wrapped inside was a beautiful book about birds, filled with charming hand-drawn illustrations. It was penned by a famous ornithologist.
Her heart fluttered in her chest and she gasped with joy. She couldn’t decide if she wanted to first read about the birds or study the drawings. She wanted to absorb the whole thing all at once.
Who is it from? She turned the parcel over up and down, trying to find the name of the person who had placed it there but found no clue. She didn’t need one.
She knew. Only Owen had ever cared about her interest in birds. He’d been the only one to ever listen to her go on for hours about the species and their habits. Only he would find a gift for her that could mean so much.
And the lack of a name? She understood that too. Every social relationship could be viewed as a scandal if it wasn’t signed, approved, and witnessed by an appropriate guardian or relative. A meaningful gift from a young gentleman to a young lady who was not his intended would never be viewed simply as a sweet gesture of friendship. It would be misconstrued and made toxic.
Yet Phoebe was so grateful for what Owen had done. While the adults planned her future for her and took away her independence, Owen encouraged the most unique parts of her personality. He knew her better than anyone in the world.
Why can’t I be betrothed to Owen, instead? He’s not like the other gentlemen. He dances to his own tune; he’s a free spirit—like me.
Owen watched Phoebe for a while before announcing his presence. She was sitting in the library of Wycliff House working intently on a drawing. He wasn’t surprised in the least to see it was a sketch of a little robin, except her skill had come a long way in the years he’d known her.
Owen was now twenty years of age, and Phoebe was sixteen. Neither of them were children anymore, but old a fondness remained.
Her body had become womanly all at once. A year ago she was still very much a child, with a flat chest and wild hair. Almost overnight, she had blossomed into an aristocrat.
She wore a long ivy-green dress with bell sleeves and a bodice that drew tight under her bosom. The material flowed unhindered down to her feet, outlining the figure of a body that had become shapely and beautiful.
Her hair seemed to have grown richer and darker in color. It was sleek and shone under the natural light that flooded in through the tall window behind her.
There was greater reflection in her expression as she worked. She was focused and quiet; she had matured into a scholar and an artist, working out of more than curiosity, but to break new boundaries and reach the heights of her own potential.
She glanced up from her work and on her face appeared that true and genuine smile that she reserved especially for him. She jumped up from her chair, then remembered her manners and curtseyed.
“Owen! What are you doing here?” she looked around. “Where is your father? Or my father? We really shouldn’t be here unattended. Let me take you to the drawing room. I’ll instruct the staff to prepare some tea.”
Owen held up a hand. “We are old friends, Phoebe. Soon you are to be my sister-in-law. I believe we are well-acquainted enough for a moment alone.”
I wish for a million moments alone together. Over the years, Phoebe had grown from a playful and curious child into a studious and witty young lady. She embodied so much of what Owen considered to be attractive in a person, especially so in a female. She was someone he could easily talk with on his own level, a delight in conversation and a vision to behold.
“Sister-in-law.” Phoebe laid her sketches down on the table beside her. “Time has passed so quickly since my father first told me of his plans.”
“Evan will make a fine husband.”
Phoebe offered a smile. “I’m sure of it.” She gestured toward the library doorway. “Let’s head to the drawing room, Owen. I shouldn’t want any loose tongues to wag.”
“You never used to be so conscious.” Owen chuckled. “I remember a certain young lady pulling me into the woods to show me a rabbit warren she’d discovered when she was ten or eleven. The same lady who whispered to me that her father’s uncle was ‘incredibly dull and smelled of pig muck.’”
Owen could see her try to hide her smile, but he caught it there, along with that mischievous sparkle in her eye that she’d spent her life trying to conceal.
“The follies of youth, Owen.”
“The follies of Phoebe.”
The two walked together down the long hall toward the drawing room. Owen noticed the way in which even Phoebe’s walk had changed. There was an intoxicating sway in her hips that had never been there before.
He felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment and shame. He felt terrible having such disrespectful thoughts toward such a fine young lady and close friend.
“I remember another who lived outside the social customs as a boy,” Phoebe challenged him. She cast a teasing glance his way then returned her gaze frontward. The smallest look to say so much. “I never did thank you for the book you left me on my twelfth birthday.”
“Phoebe, a secret gift to my brother’s betrothed would have been atrociously out of place. The birds themselves must have left it there for their most frequent spectator.” He paused. “Although I might reason that perhaps it would be something a sixteen-year-old who knew no better might have believed to be harmless and kind.”
“Sometimes a gesture of friendship is just that and nothing more.”
Sometimes it is a token of a forbidden and unspoken desire. Sometimes a gesture of friendship speaks of far, far more.
“What brings you to Wycliff House, Owen?”
Phoebe and Owen arrived at the drawing room. The room spoke of formality and restriction, only more so when Lord Wycliff entered from the opposite doorway just as the pair were entering.
“You two are wandering around the house alone, I see?”
Phoebe laughed lightly. “Don’t be alarmed, father. Our paths simply crossed in the hall. I thought it best to bring Lord Boltmon straight to the drawing room.”
“Forgive me, Lord Wycliff,” Owen said. “I was asked to wait in the foyer, but I thought I recalled my way to the drawing room. It seems memory didn’t serve me as well as I thought it might.”
Lord Wycliff nodded and sat down in a chair with a regal flick of the tails of his tailcoat. “You’re here to discuss my recommendation for a military position for you.”
“I am twenty years of age, My Lord. I am running out of time to be commissioned and I will need to be vouched for by a superior officer.”
Lord Wycliff chuckled. “I haven’t been a military gentleman for many, many years, Lord Boltmon.”
“Your reputation still precedes you. Your word would go a long way in securing me a reputable position.”
Phoebe’s eyes widened. While Owen and her father were comfortably seated, she stayed standing.
She turned to Owen with a look of resounding horror on her face.
“Lord Boltmon, you’re joining the military?”
The pain he heard in her voice only confirmed to Owen what he already knew—Phoebe cared for him as he cared for her.
“It is either that or studying law, My Lady.”
“What’s wrong with law?”
He laughed. “It offers limited professions. For a gentleman of my standing, I would be expected to become a judge.” He offered her a teasing smile that he managed to conceal from her father’s eye. “And I don’t believe the wig would serve my vanity well.”
His joke drew a chuckle from Lord Wycliff. “The military makes you a gentleman. You won’t regret your choice.”
Phoebe frowned. She pulled her shoulders back and drew in a huge breath. When she next spoke, her emotions flowed as freely as Owen recalled them from childhood.
“Ridiculous. You are not a soldier, Lord Boltmon. You’re a scholar. Am I to believe there is no career but soldier or judge? What of chemistry, biology, physics, philosophy…” she gestured above her, “or birds? What of your study of the migration patterns of European flocks?”
“A pleasant pastime, but not a career, My Lady.”
Her eyes welled with hot angry tears, so unbecoming of a lady of her status—of any lady. Owen glanced across at Lord Wycliff. Surely he must sense, as Owen did, that her upset spoke of an attachment far beyond that she should feel for a childhood friend. Clearing his throat, Owen looked away.
Lord Wycliff grew embarrassed and scolded her. “Phoebe! You’re being hysterical, and it is far from your place to pass judgment on who is or isn’t a soldier.” He turned to Owen. “Speaking from experience, Lord Boltmon, you have the makings of a fine Second Lieutenant and you will have my full recommendation to my peers in the military. Let your father arrange the suitable payments and your position will be secured.”
“There is a war waging, Owen!”
She stamped her foot down, almost tripping on the material of her long dress. She looked far less a lady now, more like the child she’d been only a year or two ago.
“Napoleon is on the rampage and our men are fodder. You have too much to offer to die in a field.”
Lord Wycliff’s voice became low and dangerous, a tone deeper than the scolding he gave his daughter a moment ago. Now there was true anger and disappointment in his voice.
“Perhaps you ought to save such concerns for your husband-to-be who is at sea as we speak.”
“What harm will come to him transporting tea back and forth across the oceans? Will he face rifle fire on his travels?”
“If the love I had for your mother didn’t steady my hand, Phoebe…”
“My ‘husband-to-be’ has been away from me for over four years. He is practically a stranger to me. Should I be shamed for showing some affection and concern for a friend who has been present all these years?”
Lord Wycliff stood and extended his hand to Owen. “Forgive me, Lord Boltmon, but I must ask you to leave. My daughter and I are in need of some discussion. Rest assured, I shall write a recommendation for you and it will arrive at your father’s house presently.”
The men shook hands and Owen cast a look back over his shoulder as he left. Phoebe had crossed her arms over her chest and turned her tear-stained face away. He dreaded to think what cruel and derogatory things her father might say to her once he had left and only wished there was a world in which he could stay and comfort her.
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