About the book
Amid lies and betrayal, his touch is her only truth...
Lady Celine’s title as her family’s pride is destroyed when she fails to find a suitor.
Ashamed and betrayed after being told she has to marry, she makes the most daring decision of her life: she assumes the identity of a servant and runs away.
Captain Theodore hides a dangerous secret. Born Edwin Brockwood and unfairly accused of killing his wife, life on the waves seems like his only option. Even if it means hiding from his daughter to protect her. His dark days seem to have no end, until the day a peculiar servant boards his ship, and reignites a startling passion inside him.
But the sea has two faces. It’s freedom but it’s also a trap, and when a blade is pressed to Celine’s neck, she has nowhere to hide. Especially when Edwin’s daughter is caught in the crossfire. For evil is on the ship with them. The same evil that took Edwin’s wife away from him...
It was the night of the annual ball held by Lord and Lady Grimshaw at their massive country estate. The party was already underway by the time Lady Celine Bloomington arrived, on the arm of her father, John Bloomington, the Earl of Rexham. They had shown up fashionably late, and the dancing had already begun.
“It’s a good turnout,” Lord Rexham murmured as they looked around the room. He was a silver-haired gentleman, with sparkling blue eyes. Celine let her gaze travel the room. There were long-lasting candles, burning in the massive chandelier in the ballroom of Grimshaw Manor. Everywhere she looked, she saw light catching on jewels and silks.
She was dressed in a pale green silk which showed off her auburn hair and creamy skin. She wore a white ostrich feather in her hair, and long cream-colored gloves over her elbows. In her hand, she held a white lace fan. Around her neck, she wore a glittering diamond necklace.
“It is the summer’s first big do,” Celine murmured. It was the first of the country balls, held in May, just when the ton was arriving at their estates for the summer. It was not to be missed. Members of the ton travelled to Tunbridge Wells from all parts of England to attend. Festivities would be on-going, throughout the next four days, though Celine and her father had no plans to attend those.
Celine’s mother had recently been struck by apoplexy. Beverly Bloomington, the Countess of Rexham, had assured both her husband and daughter that she would be well cared for that evening. From her bed, she had unceremoniously shooed them out of Rexham Hall. Unable to deny her the pleasure of listening to all of the details of the evening, her husband and daughter had gone.
“I’m going to greet Lord Falmore,” her father said, patting her on the hand. “I have something I’d like to discuss with him.”
Likely, a dull, business-minded talk.
Celine was happy to be excluded.
“Good.” Celine and her father separated. She walked over to join a discussion with the most polished ladies in the room. Though she didn’t much care for them, she would mingle, as was expected of her.
“I’ve heard that Lord Burnham is unattached,” Lady Arabella Stanley was just saying. “He’s quite attractive.” Celine felt stung. Lord Burnham was certainly unattached. After he and Celine had gotten into a heated disagreement, he had ended their formal courtship just a week prior. His betrayal still smarted.
“Well, his looks are where the attraction ends, unfortunately,” Celine said. They all gave her withering stares, then turned away. Clearly rebuffed, Celine sniffed, wrinkling her nose as she opened her fan. She had wanted to be married at least two years ago. She was upset and devastated over remaining unmarried at one-and-twenty.
It isn’t for lack of trying.
She turned away to find Lady Grimshaw coming to her rescue. She was dressed in a soft gray silk, her gunmetal-gray hair arranged neatly on top of her head. Her neck was adorned with three strands of freshwater pearls mingling with glittering diamonds that caught the candlelight.
“Lady Celine!” she said, slipping her arm into Celine’s. She took her aside, speaking in a low voice. “How is Lady Rexham doing, the poor dear thing?” She looked at her with wide, concerned eyes. Celine immediately detected false pity.
“She’s as well as can be expected,” Celine replied, mustering as much politeness as possible. “Thank you for asking.”
“Getting old is certainly not for the weak, I’ll tell you. Poor Lady Rexham! And to think, her only daughter still unmarried,” Lady Grimshaw simpered, patting Celine on the arm. “Your mother wants to see you married before she passes, My Lady. I was so relieved when my own daughter was able to secure a husband only a few weeks ago.”
Celine, souring, flashed Lady Grimshaw a smile. Though she had been trying her best to find a husband, she had failed, yet again. Her own father said it was her fault—that she was too stubborn. Celine merely believed that she was being reasonable when she was looking for a gentleman who truly appreciated her keen mind and sharp wit.
“Well, as you know, My Lady, it is not always easy to find a match that is both advantageous and romantic, which is something that I aspire to find. After all, why settle for something less?” Snake-oil slipped into Celine’s tone, as it usually did when she was mixing with the ton.
Lady Grimshaw glared at her. She opened her mouth to say something, when she was interrupted.
“Lady Celine!” a familiar voice called out. Celine turned. Leon Jeremiah, the Viscount of Lillington and Celine’s childhood friend, was approaching. Though she hadn’t seen him since they were both five-and-ten, Celine would have recognized him anywhere. The intervening years hadn’t changed him much. He still had the same dark hair and dark eyes—his smile was still bright, guileless. Lord Lillington had merely grown into himself. His black jacket and pale breeches were very modish, his boots gleamed.
Celine flashed him her most winning grin. It had been several years since he had been sent away to boarding school, in compliance with his late military father’s will. The former Viscount of Lillington wished for his only son to be sent away, rather than remaining at the family’s county seat with his stepmother.
“It’s so good to see you, My Lord,” Celine replied, genuine for the first time that evening. She gave him an elegant curtsy, as he bowed to her.
“I was hoping that you’d be here this evening,” he assured her.
Lady Grimshaw immediately moved on, calling out to someone else. Celine breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank you for cutting in,” she muttered. “You’ve saved me from being shamed for not finding a husband.”
“Well,” Lord Lillington said, bowing to her gallantly. “Look no further, My Lady. Lady Grimshaw was telling me earlier that I would make the perfect husband for you.”
“Oh, did she?” Celine raised an eyebrow, grinning at him wickedly as they both laughed. “And please, we’ve been friends for so long. Surely, we can call each other by our Christian names.”
“Of course, Celine,” Leon said.
While they had been close during their childhood, there was no spark between them. Their relationship had been largely epistolary for the past six years. They were merely good friends, and nothing more.
“Darling!” her father called out as he neared them. He had a very good-looking gentleman walking with him. Celine’s eyes were drawn to him immediately. “I want to introduce you to Vincent Hickory, the Earl of Tremaine. Lord Tremaine, this is my daughter, Lady Celine Bloomington, and her friend, Leon Jeremiah, the Viscount of Lillington.”
Lord Tremaine greeted Leon pleasantly, then turned to Celine, taking her hand, bowing over it. She dropped a curtsy. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, My Lord” she murmured.
“The pleasure’s all mine, My Lady,” Lord Tremaine said. He was golden-haired with dark brown eyes. He smiled, baring a row of perfect teeth.
“My father’s spoken of you very highly,” Celine commented. Lord Rexham and Lord Tremaine had recently entered into a business agreement. Celine knew the basics of it, but hadn’t paid much attention. Now, she wished that she had, for Lord Tremaine was very attractive.
When she glanced over, her father and Leon were already deep in discussion. She turned back to Lord Tremaine. He smiled at her.
“What brings you to Tunbridge Wells?” she asked.
“My family recently purchased property in the area,” he replied. “I have been appointed proprietor of it.”
Celine nodded, though she had no interest in land or money. She was looking for love.
“Your father tells me that you’re a great reader,” he said, sparking her interest even more.
“Yes. I am.” She opened her fan, to hide her grin yet allow him to see the interest in her eyes. His own eyes were holding her gaze. Lord Tremaine’s lips were in a half-smirk, which hinted at confidence on his part.
“I have a high respect for a lady who reads,” he declared, taking a sip from the glass in his hand.
“Good to hear,” she murmured, snapping her fan closed to reveal her smile.
The musicians were just tuning up in the corner for the next dance. Having only just arrived, Celine had not even gotten a single name on her dance-card.
“Are you taken for the first dance, by any chance?” he asked, noting her downward glance at the tiny card affixed to her wrist with a silk ribbon.
“No,” she replied. “My father and I have only just arrived.”
“Would you do me the honor, My Lady?” He set his drink down on the nearby table, and offered her his arm.
“I will.” She beamed, taking the arm that he offered her. Beneath the fine cloth of his jacket, his muscles were hard and shapely. She was pleased to find that Lord Tremaine was very good at dancing.
What’s more, he’s an interesting conversationalist: two marks in his favor.
After the dance ended, he leaned in, whispering in her ear.
“Care to join me in a turn about the terrace?” he asked, grinning devilishly, his eyes on her own. She smiled.
“Of course, My Lord.” Celine slipped her hand into the bend of the proffered elbow. Her pulse was racing, her face warm from blushing. She glanced back, to make sure that her lady’s maid was following to chaperone.
Lord Tremaine grabbed another full glass as they passed the refreshments table. He glanced at her, his eyebrow raised.
“A glass of punch, My Lady?”
“No thank you.” She shook her head, declining. She would have wine with dinner, but that was all.
Celine felt as though she were already intoxicated by Lord Tremaine’s good looks, his gallant behavior, his intelligent discussion. As they went out the open French doors, they walked out onto the flagstones of the terrace. Celine fanned herself. It was much cooler out-of-doors. After dancing, it was refreshing.
They moved away from the more crowded part of the terrace. Celine let her eyes travel around the sight before her. Though the gardens were slowly darkening under the purplish twilight, they were lit up by torches, placed along the path. The flora revealed in the golden light was breathtaking. She could spy the lush, crimson roses which were Lady Grimshaw’s particular favorite.
“I saw you speaking with Lord Lillington,” Lord Tremaine commented.
Celine frowned, as he slurred his words a little.
Is he drunk?
She could put up with a little slurring. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him lift the glass to his lips.
“He’s been a good friend to me, ever since childhood,” she explained.
“I’m sure that you’ve both grown out of each other, since then,” he said dismissively.
“Hardly,” she stated in dismay, watching as he took another large sip of the amber-colored liquid in his glass. That was not punch. He was wavering where he stood. “We’re good friends. We always have been, My Lord.”
“Ladies and gentlemen cannot be friends.”
“Of course they can,” Celine replied, heatedly. “Why should I eschew a dear friendship due to a difference of sex?”
“Do you always argue, so vexingly?” Lord Tremaine raised an eyebrow. Celine detected a tensing of his jaw that seemed to herald disaster. Yet, she couldn’t help but speak her mind. It was her way.
“I’m confident in my measure of others,” she remarked. “I trust that my opinion, which is based on my experience, is correct.”
“That is rather confident of you.” He leered, leaning in too close. His breath was hot against her cheek, and smelled strongly of drink. Celine felt the world tip sideways. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so safe in Lord Tremaine’s company.
He’s far more intoxicated than he has let on.
“I imagine so,” she agreed, no longer enjoying the conversation. She was suddenly sickened by his closeness. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go back to the ballroom.” She curtsied, though Lord Tremaine did not bow to her. He was frowning. As she turned to go, he grabbed her arm, stepping in close. “My Lord, let go of me!”
Celine attempted to wrench herself out of his grasp. However, his foot was caught on the hem of her gown, and he staggered, wobbling and grabbing onto her gown. Her gown tore, opening down the front.
Celine gasped—she had never, in her entire life, been so rudely treated. She felt utterly violated. Her throat tightened, and she did her best not to cry.
“Just you wait until I tell my father about this,” she growled, tugging herself away as she held up the remains of her gown to cover herself. “He’ll never work with you again.”
He laughed, stepping back. Holding her torn gown together, she fled. Her lady’s maid, who had seen all, rushed to her side.
“My Lady,” Regina said, horrified.
Celine’s eyes filled with tears as Regina ushered her over to a corner. “Let me fix it,” the maid said.
Regina was able to fix Celine’s gown in a way that made it look as though nothing had happened. Then, Celine returned to the gathering, arriving in time for dinner to be served. She found her seat, in between her father and Leon.
“So,” her father asked in a low voice. “You seemed to be getting on well with Lord Tremaine.”
“No,” she murmured, her face heating up as she blushed. Celine’s throat tightened. She had never been so embarrassed in all her life!
At least no one witnessed it.
That was her one consolation after being pawed, and her gown torn open.
Her father raised an eyebrow. His lips quirked upward, while his eyes widened. “No?”
Celine shook her head. This was what always happened between Celine and any potential suitors. She knew that he suspected something. Luckily, her father didn’t press any further. He nodded, his face troubled.
“Very well. You know best, my sweet,” he said as they were given the go ahead to take their seats. Dinner was served, and Celine focused on the appetizer course—scallops in butter sauce.
Across the room, she heard Lord Tremaine, roaring in anger at someone. All gathered looked on, watching as Lord Tremaine got up, knocking over his chair before staggering out of the room.
“I say, Tremaine!” Lord Grimshaw called after him. “Are you well, My Lord?”
Lord Tremaine waved his hand over his shoulder, then left. The gathering tittered.
“Apparently, Lord Tremaine cannot manage his liquor!” Lord Grimshaw announced, making a face.
“Apparently, he can’t keep his hands to himself, either,” Lady Broadesmere said. When everyone looked her way, she added, “I saw Lord Tremaine touching Lady Celine Bloomington in a most scandalous manner.” Lady Broadesmere turned her wide, seemingly-innocent eyes toward Celine. “Out on the terrace.”
All that were gathered gasped. Celine felt her face grow hot as all eyes were turned toward her. Her heartbeat was a loud drum in her ears. She set down her fork.
“He drank too much, then he fell on top of me,” she explained, her voice sounding very small in the very silent dining room. Her voice quavered. Her vision blurred from tears.
It wasn’t my fault.
It felt like a bad dream.
Any second, and I’ll wake up.
She could hear it as they all began to talk to each other in low asides. Their eyes were still on her. She looked over at her father, who was frowning. A traitorous tear fell down her cheek.
“Perhaps, that’s why she can’t find a husband. Particularly since any gentleman will do in a pinch,” Lady Foxmore added.
“That is unconscionable, Madam,” Leon snapped, coming to her rescue. In that moment, Celine realized that the tables had turned on her. There was nothing that she could do. They all blamed her for Lord Tremaine’s drunken pawing.
Quickly, recovering her courage, Celine stood up, rage at her own impotence filling her. She left her tears, gleaming on her cheeks.
“How dare you, all of you,” she said, looking around at faces she had known all her life. “Why am I being punished for a gentleman’s indiscretion? All of you are a bunch of silk-coated hypocrites.”
When no one responded, Celine ran from the room, throwing all propriety to the wind as she made her escape. When she reached the hallway, she burst into tears. When she turned, Leon was following after her.
“Oh, no,” she sobbed. “They’ll think—”
“To hell with them,” he snapped, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket. “I needed to make sure that my friend is all right.”
Celine gratefully accepted his handkerchief, then allowed him to ferry her toward the door.
One month later
Captain Theodore Huxley, stood at the railing of his ship, the Petonia. A cool wind was blowing off of the dark blue-gray water. He was dressed neatly in his dark blue coat with gold buttons and epaulettes. On his head, he wore a large black tricorne hat.
He was used to life on the sea. The Petonia had left Boston about two months prior. Any day now, they would arrive back in England, the land that Theodore had once called home. He tugged at his full beard thoughtfully.
He pulled the letter from his pocket, glancing at it. It had found its way to him just before the Petonia had disembarked from Boston Harbor. The letter promised him a return to his old life. He put it back in his pocket. There was no returning for Theodore.
On the advice of this friend, he had become a Captain and purchased the Petonia. So far, his friend’s advice had been exactly right.
Even four years after the fact, Theodore still mourned the loss of his wife and daughter as if it had happened only a few hours before.
He turned to find his third mate, Willard Smith, approaching him.
“Looks like a storm’s on the horizon, sir,” Mr. Smith announced. Theodore turned in the direction of the third mate’s gesture. There were dark clouds gathering in the distance.
“Then we’ll need to prepare. Batten down the hatches, Mr. Smith.”
Together, they headed for the helm. As he walked, Theodore yelled to his men, causing a mass outbreak of movement all over the deck. There was no time for him to brood over the problems of his past life. He had to focus on the here and now. The lives of everyone aboard the Petonia depended upon him.
“Come, Mama,” Celine murmured, holding up the spoonful of gruel to her mother’s lips. “You need to get your strength up.”
Slowly, her mother opened her mouth, accepting the spoonful. Celine used a handkerchief to wipe away the small bit that came out through her lips.
Lady Rexham smacked her lips. Her face sagged on the left side, but she was still able to speak. Recently, she had progressed to using a cane when she walked. This gave Celine hope that her mother was getting better.
“Why have you not been to any balls of late?” Lady Rexham asked. “Please tell me that you’re not staying in because of me.”
Celine cringed, then sighed. She would need to tell her mother everything, eventually. Because of her mother’s illness, she had spent the past few weeks avoiding any discussion of the ball at Grimshaw Manor.
“At the ball the Grimshaws threw, Lord Tremaine was seen touching me inappropriately when he was drunk,” she said. “He stepped on my gown, which resulted in it tearing open, and Lady Broadesmere saw everything and brought it to the attention of everyone during dinner. My reputation has been ruined. Ever since, no one has invited me to any of their parties or luncheons or teas. No one has come to call on me.”
Celine felt hopeless. It wasn’t her fault! However, in the past few weeks since, she had been completely shut out from all polite society. Not even quiet old Lady Gilles had taken pity on her. Luckily, Leon hadn’t abandoned her. He was turning out to be the same friend that he had always been.
“Perhaps it’s time for you to visit your aunt, in Maryland,” her mother suggested. “You can return our mother’s locket to your Aunt Felicity.”
She was referring to a family heirloom, belonging to her mother’s family. After securing his oldest daughter’s marriage, Lord Syrinia had taken his son Avery and his younger daughter Felicity to the Americas, where they had purchased land and begun a business in Maryland. When Lady Felicity had parted ways with her older sister, she had given their mother’s locket to the newly-minted Lady Rexham, to keep safe and to remember her by.
“I think you’re right, Mama.” Some time away from the ton would give Celine a chance to repair her image. She knew of a few disgraced ladies who had done something similar. They went away to America, where they spent a few months with family there. When they returned, they were welcomed back by the ton with open arms. Once Celine returned, she could try finding a husband, as tiring as it seemed to begin all over again.
Her mother smiled, patting her hand.
“I feel like all is hopeless, Mama,” Celine said, setting aside the bowl and spoon. “I can’t seem to find a husband. By now, I’d thought that I’d have found someone to marry.” She pulled a face. She had wanted to be married long ago. Unfortunately, no gentleman was looking for a wife who was so stubborn. Guaranteed, there would be a spat between Celine and her intended, after which he would end the courtship.
Her mother reached out, using her good hand. “The course of true love never did run smoothly.”
“Quite right, Mama.”
“Perhaps you’ll meet a gentleman in America.”
“Perhaps.” It was a thought.
“Though, I hope not,” Lady Rexham murmured. “I would miss you too much.”
Celine smiled, reaching up to smooth back her mother’s gray-threaded auburn hair. She doted on both of her parents. She wished, for their sakes, that she could turn back time. To undo the damage that Lord Tremaine had caused.
The next day, Celine and her mother had gone down to the drawing room, to discuss their plan with her father. Together, they figured that they could convince him. Celine felt hopeful. The idea of sailing to America seemed exciting. A fresh start would do her good. She had never met her Aunt Felicity nor her Uncle Avery, though she had read their letters to her mother. Celine was curious to get to know them.
Her mother entered, moving laboriously while leaning on her cane. Once she had settled down on the settee beside her husband, she smiled at Celine.
“Papa,” Celine began, smoothing her skirts as she began to tell him what she and her mother had agreed upon the day before.
“Yes, sweetling?” he asked, setting aside the newspaper he had been reading. He smiled at her kindly.
“Mama and I were talking yesterday.”
“Oh?” He glanced over at his wife, smiling and taking her by the hand. Then, he looked expectantly at his daughter.
“We’ve come up with a solution for my problem.”
He frowned. “Which is that?”
“Oh, Papa! Really! The problem of my exile from the ton,” she explained. “And, well—my inability to find a husband.”
“Pray tell, what is it?” he asked, raising his eyebrow.
“Mama and I believe that I should go to America, to visit Aunt Felicity and Uncle Avery in Maryland.”
Her father blinked in surprise. Clearly, the thought had never occurred to him. Celine waited, folding her hands in her lap. “You’re joking,” he said, at long last.
“No. Not at all,” Celine assured him. Her mother gave him a reassuring smile, as he looked at her, perplexed.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “Do you know how dangerous it is?”
“I’d be perfectly safe,” Celine insisted.
“She needs some time away from the ton,” her mother added. “It’s worked for Lady Mary Forstall.”
“She’s even found a husband, not four months after her return,” Celine added.
“Absolutely not!” he snapped. “It’s utterly reckless. Coming from you, Beverly, who should know the dangers of sailing!”
He made a chopping motion with his hand. “No. There’s another way. I know it.” He nodded to himself. “There is. There’s another way.”
“Well, let me know when you find it,” Celine murmured, then excused herself. Her throat had tightened painfully. She stepped out and into the hall, her vision blurring as tears filled her eyes. She covered her mouth with her hand as hot tears spilled down her cheeks.
The thought of journeying to see her family in Maryland had given her hope. Now, it was dashed to the floor, in a million tiny shards.
As she stood there, she could hear her mother, on the other side of the door.
“Why can’t she go, John?” she asked.
“Because I think I may have found her another solution,” her father replied. “One which wouldn’t send her to America. I’m just waiting to hear back. Any day now, Beverly. I know it’s going to work.”
I don’t know what to think of that but I don’t like how it sounds.
Upon Theodore’s arrival in Southampton, he sent a letter to his friend. He handed the letter to the man working at the post office, along with a coin, to pay for postage.
He found himself tugging on his own beard as he walked back out and onto the street. Theodore wasn’t often anxious, yet whenever he returned to British soil, there was always the chance that he might be recognized.
Arriving back at the Petonia, Mr. and Mrs. Williamson, along with their daughter Sybil, were walking down the gang plank, little Sybil’s hand in Mrs. Williamson’s. The little girl walked with a bounce in her step, which caused her blonde curls to bounce.
She curtsied to him.
“Good day, Lord Captain,” she said.
“Good day, Miss Sybil.” He swept his hat downward as he gave her a deep bow, watching as her blue eyes sparkled. She was small for her age, a little sickly. But she was a happy child. He pulled out a coin. “How about you go and find yourself a treat at the confectioner’s? It’s just down the street, if your mother says it’s fine?”
“How kind of you, Captain.” Mrs. Williamson smiled.
“Thank you, Captain,” Sybil said, accepting the coin. She was a well-behaved child.
“Hurry back, Miss Sybil,” he said, as the small family walked all of the way down. “Perhaps, I can show you how to steer the ship.”
Sybil grinned excitedly, gripping her mother’s hand. Theodore watched as the family moved off and into the crowd. They were going to be aboard until the Petonia arrived in Boston. As he watched, he idly considered what he had just agreed to.
He was going to marry. He hoped that she would adjust well to life on the ship. He didn’t know how much longer it was going to be.
Theodore loved life on the sea. On the Petonia, he was free. He walked up and onto the deck. He paced, staring out at the sea. It was a sunny day, and the sun sparkled on the water.
Overhead, gulls wheeled and called out to one another. A cool sea breeze ruffled his hair. Once they arrived in Brighton, he would meet his new wife. He had no idea what to expect. But after all, he had nothing to lose.
Celine knocked on the door to her father’s study. She was nervous. He had sent for her, giving no explanation. Her heart thudded in her chest. She reached up to touch her hair, which Regina had just neatly coiled and pinned up, curls framing her cheeks.
“Come in,” he called from inside.
Celine opened the door, peering in at her father. “You wanted to see me?” It was dimly-lit, with the curtains open just a bit to let in a little light.
“Yes, my sweet. Come, sit down.” Her father was beaming at her as he gestured toward the chair opposite his big, mahogany desk. Celine sat, wondering what the good news was. He hadn’t been so clearly pleased in a few months. She smoothed her gray muslin skirt, then folded her hands. She realized then just how her downfall had affected him. It caused a gentle welling up of love toward her father.
“I’ve found a solution to your problems,” he assured her.
“Do tell, Papa.” She beamed at him. This was a relief, for Celine couldn’t think of a blessed thing. Particularly after his negative reaction to her plan to go to America.
“I’ve been corresponding with an old friend of mine—Lord Eddington. He’s been away from England, following the death of his first wife. He’s on his way here, to Tunbridge Wells.”
“How does this improve my situation?” Celine asked, recalling distantly that she had met Lord Eddington and his wife. She had been blonde and thin. He had been tall, good-looking, not very talkative.
“He’s agreed to marry you,” her father informed her.
Celine could only stare at him in horror. Her father, clearly thinking that her surprise was happy in nature, continued onward.
“Given, I didn’t mention that your reputation had been ruined, nor would he have known, since he’s been travelling. I told him that it was due to your unusual character that you have been deemed unsuitable for a match by most well-to-do folk. And, your slim prospects are finished now.” He paused, waiting for her to speak.
He frowned. “Why not?”
“I cannot marry for anything less than love.” Celine knew—the only way for her to be happy was to marry a gentleman who loved her enough to put up with her obstinacy.
“You’re running low on options, my dear,” he said. Concern was etched into his features.
“I’m fully prepared to wait,” she told him.
Her father folded his hands on top of his desk as he frowned thunderously. “Celine, I am your father. It’s my duty to make sure that you are taken care of. This is how I’m doing it. Lord Eddington is an honorable gentleman, who will provide you with a comfortable and respectable life. You cannot do better. You must do as I say.”
“Papa!” she sobbed, tears springing to her eyes. “You know why I haven’t found a suitable husband! How could you?”
His face closed down. “Celine. There’s no going back. He’s already agreed and is on his way to Tunbridge Wells.”
“But there are rumors that he killed his wife,” she said. “How could you ask me to marry him?”
He held out the letter. Celine stared at the folded letter, the direction written in a slanting script. She shook her head, then stood up, her hands balled into fists at her sides.
“You can’t make me do this. I’ll never marry him,” she snapped.
“I can, and you will. It’s final.” To his credit, he did seem sorry for forcing her into it, though he was remaining firm.
Tears streaming down her cheeks, Celine left, running down the hallway to her room. She couldn’t believe that her life was closing around her. The unfairness of everything that had occurred, starting with the night of the ball at Grimshaw Manor, was overwhelming. Now, she was going to be married to a gentleman who she barely knew.
He’s going to hate me, just like all the others. This time, there will be no ending it. We’ll be stuck with each other. Till death us do part.
The next morning didn’t dawn any brighter. Celine had spent the entirety of the night sobbing in her room. By the time she went down to breakfast, she had dark circles under her eyes, and her face was red and chapped.
Her father took one look at her, then shook his head. He ate quickly, saying nothing to her.
She sipped her cup of tea in silence. Her father continued to read his newspaper while he ate. Celine could feel him watching her over the page. He finished his breakfast not long after.
Celine heard her father grumbling to himself as he left the room. Soon, she heard the sound of her mother’s cane as she came down the hall.
“Thank you, Minton,” her mother said, as the butler opened the door for her, then he rushed to pull out her seat.
Celine glanced at her mother, who smiled at her sympathetically. She held out her hand, and Celine took it. She looked at her mother, hopefully.
“I have spoken to your father,” she began. “I have read the letters from Lord Eddington, as well.”
“Mama,” Celine begged. “Please tell him that I cannot do this. You yourself have said it—I cannot marry a gentleman who does not love me.”
“Celine, you must promise me that when Lord Eddington arrives, you will say yes to his proposal.”
“Mama!” Celine had never felt so betrayed in all her life. She stared at her mother in shock.
Her mother pressed her hand gently. “Listen to me, my sweet daughter,” she said, waiting until Celine nodded. “My health is not what it was. Your father and I just want to see you safely married.”
Tears falling down her cheeks, Celine nodded, unable to speak while her mother went on.
“Your reputation is in tatters. This gentleman has agreed to marry you. You will never get another offer as good as this. Celine, you must promise me.”
Celine swallowed. She knew that her mother was unwell. She knew that her father believed that he was doing the best that he could. She sniffled, nodding. “I promise, Mama.”
“Good,” her mother said, relaxing. She patted Celine’s hand. “Good.”
“So, I am getting married to a gentleman that I barely know,” Celine finished. Leon’s brow was creased in concern. He reached out, taking her hand.
“My darling friend,” he said. “If you truly do not want to get married, then I shall help you get out of it.”
“Truly, Leon?” she asked. Celine had secretly hoped that Leon would offer her help.
“For certain!” he said, then leaned in, whispering so that they were not overheard. “I know of a ship, docked in Brighton right this moment. Soon, she will leave for America. I can make sure that the both of us will be on it. Just one word from you and I will ensure it happens.”
Celine wiped at her cheeks, sighing with relief. “Leon, you are too good of a friend by far.”
“Well, I cannot have you wed to a gentleman that you neither know nor love.” He raised a brow, waiting for her answer.
“Yes, a thousand times, yes!” Celine covered her mouth with both hands and then laughed.
“Good. I will go and book us passage,” Leon said, standing up. “The Petonia leaves tomorrow, in the morning. So you’ll need to meet me, out on the road toward Brighton, tonight at three of the clock. We’ll both board, then be on our way to America.”
“Both of us?” Celine asked, suddenly realizing that he meant to come with her.
“Of course. I want to see you to America safely. The only way that I can do that is if I go with you. We can pose as brother and sister.”
“Oh, Leon. Thank you.” Celine stood, taking both of his hands in hers. She didn’t know how she’d gotten so lucky.
“Anything to keep you happy, my dear friend. Not to mention, this is an excellent chance for me to visit another friend, who has been living in Boston. Two birds, one stone, so to speak.”
He put on his hat, and then strode purposefully from the room. Celine gathered herself. She had to pack, and to plan. She also had to steal the locket, from her mother’s room, to bring to her Aunt Felicity.
For the first time in months, Celine felt as though she were alive. Her pulse raced, and hope soared within her. There was no time to think. She just needed to act, before it was too late.
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