About the book
Because nothing can keep passion apart...
Matilda Munford, daughter of Sir William, is a kind and dutiful daughter. After she lost her mother from a tragic illness, all she cares about is keeping her family happy; even if that means putting her own happiness to the side. But when she is instructed to marry the Duke she doesn't love, her life soon turns to chaos...
Francis McKinnon, the Duke of Eldbrick, is a scarred man with high hopes for the future. After returning from the Neapolitan war, his childhood love Matilda is all he has in mind, but he knows he can never marry her. So when it is arranged for him to marry a Lady he has no feelings, while he has to watch his lover marry someone else, he knows he has to do something...
However, a secret enemy has been hiding for years. When Matilda and Francis believe their only enemy is love, an unexpected and cruel mystery comes to the surface. Who wants to kill Matilda? And why do they need the young couple apart?
If awkward ever was a moment, it was that fateful morning in the McKinnon household. The silence that hung in the air was the kind that would often follow a prophecy that spelled doom.
Matilda Munford shifted uncomfortably in her seat, unable to bear it all. Breakfast had begun only half an hour ago, but it already felt a day too long. It was quite evident that everyone was on edge — being careful not to do the slightest thing out of turn. She could tell that a thousand thoughts were running through their minds as they wrestled with a myriad of emotions.
She cleared her throat softly, careful not to let out a sigh. The McKinnons had been wonderful to her, but she was still not family. Letting them know how aggrieved she was over the imminent event of the day would only draw attention and curiosity she did not wish to satisfy.
I can’t believe he is leaving.
Her heart broke all over again at the thought. Overwhelmed, she looked away as tears filled her eyes, blinking rapidly to hold them back. It wasn’t until she believed she had managed to get a hold of herself that she slowly started to raise her head. She soon regretted that decision because, at that moment, her stunning blue orbs met with striking hazel ones.
Yes, those same ones that hardly ever left her dreams.
Matilda froze as her heart skipped a beat. All around her, the rest of the world faded away. She could only see him.
The knowledge that if they remained staring at each other for a moment longer, it would be deemed scandalous should they be caught, but it didn’t worry her. It was as though she was held spellbound. Unable to do anything but stare while her stomach churned from how much he affected her.
Thankfully, just then, His Grace, Thomas McKinnon, Duke of Eldbrick, spoke, breaking the spell. Abruptly, the moment ended.
He was the first to look away, her hazel-eyed lord, clearing his throat as he did. Even though Matilda caught a glimpse of crimson tinge in his cheeks, she told herself that she must be mistaken.
He doesn’t care for me as I care for him. He couldn’t possibly have been as affected as I was.
Then why did you catch him looking at you? the voice in her head asked. It was a question Matilda could give no answer to. Or perhaps, she was simply too much of a coward to try.
“It’s not too late to change your mind, you know,” the Duke began. “We could send word to them this very moment. Let them know that you came down with an unfortunate illness. You would simply remain in the Manor for three moons, not to be seen by the public. Afterwards, we shall announce that you recovered miraculously and are going to Oxford to further your studies. When you return, a title and land to lord over would be waiting for you.”
“An Earldom!” Her Grace, Melinda McKinnon, Duchess of Eldbrick, chimed forcefully. “Would you not like that, Francis? You would be an earl! Lord knows your father has enough money to see that you never have to lack anything for as long as you live! The same for your children and their children and their—” she heaved a sigh. “I’m certain you understand what I am trying to say. It is not too late to stop this foolishness yet. Just say you will remain here with us. Your father and I shall take care of the rest.”
Matilda knew it was useless to hope. Yet, she felt her heart thrumming softly in anticipation for an affirmative answer. She supposed she was no different from his parents. Even though they had done everything to no avail, they had to try one very last time.
Beneath the table, her best friend and would-have-been sister-in-law reached out to her.
If only the world was a better place where people married only for love, not status, wealth, and power.
Matilda wasted no time taking Anne McKinnon’s hands in hers. She gave a small reassuring squeeze, and the two of them exchanged a look. Matilda could see Anne was hopeful still.
Alas, all of that hope got dashed in an instant as Francis McKinnon, second son to the Duke and Duchess, broke his silence.
With a sigh, he began, “The carriage will be here any moment, and I shall be getting on it. Mother, Father, I understand that you are worried and doing all of this because you care. Notwithstanding, you should know the son you raised by now. I am not one to cower at the eleventh hour and hide away while my parents handle it all.” He paused to take a breath.
“As for the matter of an earldom, you are well aware, as I have made it clear on several occasions, that I am not given to buying things that I have not earned. All that money would serve better purpose if bequeathed to the orphanage in Eildmore. Now, if you would do that on my behalf, I shall be most grateful.”
Her Grace’s countenance instantly turned sour. She dropped her cutlery to place her palm against her forehead. “Oh dear, I simply cannot understand it!” She drew in a deep breath and let out an exasperated sigh, “The Army! Of all the things you could have done! You enlisted in the Army! If you wanted to get away from your family so desperately — and I cannot fathom, why that is — you could have gone to Oxford or even begun your world tour!”
Her voice broke as she continued to speak, “Oh, Francis, do you wish to see me wither and die from worry? I have heard such terrible things about the war. How can I send my son off with my heart at ease? It simply never ends well! I have heard that even when you’re lucky enough to survive and return home, you never remain the same! Am I simply to wait and pray every day that the next time I receive news from you, it would not be of your death? Am I to simply hope until I see you again that when you return, you would not be a broken man?”
Anne cried out as Matilda’s heart flew out of her chest at the thought.
“Mother! Do not say such things, I beg of you! Francis will return to us in good health and before we know it. Since he has made it clear that his mind is made up, I believe the best we can do now is give him our grandest wishes and a wonderful farewell. Do you not agree?”
Matilda nodded slowly. She did.
The Duchess’ response was a scoff. “And what would you know? You shall become a mother someday, and then you will understand how impossible it is to give your son a wonderful farewell as he leaves for the Army.”
His Grace cleared his throat then, commanding silence. He was promptly obeyed. “Enough of the back and forth. There is some truth to what Anne said. It is difficult to see him leave. We have tried our best, and there is nothing more we can do. Now, all that is left is to bid him farewell and pray for his safe return. All of this… arguing will yield nothing, except more sadness.” The silence returned as he swallowed. When he spoke again, his voice was solemn.
“Francis, Son, you have always been different. Many would say odd, but I prefer the word — special. I trust you’ll make us proud out there. For your mother and sister’s sake, return safely to us, would you? In one piece, hale and hearty. Could you promise us that much?”
All of Matilda tingled as his smooth voice washed over her like a soft caress.
“You have my word, Father.”
This seemed to satisfy the Duke, for he eventually gave in to a smile. “Good thing you’re a gentleman, is it not?” He turned to his wife then. “You heard the young man, My Dear. His word is his bond. Rest assured, one day soon, your son will return home to you.”
Matilda did not know if that was enough consolation for the Duchess, or she just simply accepted defeat… whichever it was, the elderly lady went back to eating her breakfast without uttering a single word more. Thus, it was as it was before — silence and gloom.
Half an hour later, they had finished eating and rose to leave the dining room, as the butler came with news.
“The carriage for Lord McKinnon has arrived,” he announced as he rose from his bow. “I was made to understand that My Lord must begin to say his farewells now as they will not wait for long.”
It’s real. It’s happening.
Once more, tears stung Matilda’s eyes as her emotions threatened to overwhelm her anew. Like before, she succeeded in keeping them in, if only for that while.
“Thank you, Ranleigh,” Francis muttered. “I believe my luggage has been carried out?”
“It’s being loaded into the carriage as we speak, My Lord,” the butler responded.
“Very well then. I suppose there is no reason to linger. Mother, Father, Anne—” He turned to her then. Even though he did not call her name, Matilda knew that whatever he had to say was meant for her as well. “I will miss you all.”
Her stomach trembled. He would miss me too?
The Duchess was quick to brush him off with a wave of her hand. “Pshaw, there will be time still for that. For now, we shall accompany you to the carriage.”
They all began to make their way to the front of the Manor where the coach was waiting. When they finally arrived, one by one, they embraced him.
More than anything, Matilda wished she could do the same. Just once, she wanted to feel what it would be like to be in his arms, to be held by him.
“I shall write often. Do the same when you can,” Anne pleaded.
His lips curved in that smile Matilda adored so much, and even though it wasn’t for her, it made the butterflies in her belly flutter.
“You can count on that,” he said. “I shall look forward to receiving your letters.”
“And I, yours,” Anne responded.
The siblings embraced once more. It was only after they broke apart that Francis came to stand in front of Matilda. Her heart went wild, racing as though it was in pursuit, beating harder than it ever had.
She dipped in a shallow curtsy as she struggled with the ability to regain her speech. “Lord McKinnon—” she finally said as she straightened. Her every nerve tingled. Tremors took her spine for a racetrack. His nearness, his voice, it was all too much for her, making her both flushed and flustered. She could only hope to heavens that no one would notice just how much he affected her.
As though she was not already suffering enough, he smiled at her. “I trust you to take good care of my sister.”
For a moment, Matilda was lost, dazzled by his smile. She quickly recovered, bobbing her head as she answered, “Of course, and I hope you take good care of yourself as well. For her sake.”
“I shall try my best.”
She nodded her head once again. She wanted to ask if she could write to him and expect him to write in return. There was a time she would have done so without hesitation — a time when their friendship was easy and wholesome.
Since announcing his intention to serve, he had gone out of his way to put a huge wall between them. All that was left of what they once shared was awkwardness, uncertainty, and unrequited love.
So, she simply swallowed her questions, saying instead, “Be safe.”
I’ll wait for you… if you want me to. Then, she didn’t think she had a choice. Where he was concerned, her heart made all the decisions and it had proven impervious to advice or instructions.
He managed a small smile and repeated, “I shall do my best.”
No more words were said between them as he stepped away from her and hugged his parents once more. Then, he began to walk down the stairs to where the carriage was waiting.
Matilda watched him go, wondering when she would ever see him again… fearing that she might never, and hoping with all her heart that she would.
Look back. Turn to me. Give me something to hold on to.
He never did. Not even once as he got into the carriage and shut the door behind him.
They all stood there, watching as the carriage drew farther and farther away from them. It wasn’t until it disappeared from sight that they finally turned to go back into the Manor, faces as downcast as their spirits were.
In her heart of hearts, Matilda let herself whisper. I’ll miss you too. Very much so.
Two and Half Years Later
Francis McKinnon shuddered as the incessant shooting grew closer. Their enemies were gaining on them and soon, there would be no place to run to or hide.
At the moment, he was safe behind a rock where he had crouched to take cover and get some rest. He knew that he would not remain that way much longer. Soon he would have to get to his feet and return to the battle that was being fought.
Like everyone before this, it was probably going to be his last. He had made his peace with the fact that his life was no longer his own after the first battle he had ever fought in. Memories of that day plagued him without cease and he would take them to his grave.
All of those dead bodies, the brutally injured ones, so much blood, pain. It was the first time he had ever smelled death. The first time he had ever regretted his decision to join the Army.
“Get down, take cover, get down!” A voice cried from a distance.
Francis did not need to hear the instructions a second time. With experience, he knew what was to come after a warning like that. He dove into a laying position and began to crawl on his belly, further away from the rock that had been his sanctuary until only a moment ago.
He had only crawled a short distance when a loud blast sounded, accompanied by a raging fire and poisonous smoke. Francis froze for a moment, his arms instinctively covering his ears. Then, as those hands fell, he continued to crawl, needing to get as far away from the fire as he could.
Cries of agony filled his ears. He closed his eyes, knowing if he opened them, he would have to behold the terror. Visions of men like him burning in the fire or mourning limbs they’d already lost to the explosion.
Heavens knew he had seen enough horror to last three lifetimes already.
Finally, he crawled to a stop, surmising that he had gone far enough. In no time, his comrades gathered around him.
“Captain, what do we do? Do we surrender? Do we retreat? Or do we fight?” one of his men asked.
Francis swallowed hard. His parents had been proud to hear that he had been made captain of his brigade. If they only knew that had happened because the former captain had died, and he had been chosen as the next competent soldier to lead the troop.
The thought of it always made him grimace. To him, there was no such thing as a competent soldier. It didn’t matter how quick you were on your feet or how skillful you were with the pistol. On the battlefield, your strength amounted to little. He had seen the strongest of soldiers fall and the weakest survive, battle after battle.
To be a soldier, all one needed was courage. Any brave soldier, to Francis, was a good soldier, and to come face to face with death every time, one had to be brave. If you’re lucky enough to survive one battle — for that was only what kept one alive — luck… that luck might run out the next moment.
“We cannot win the war if we always surrender,” he heard himself say.
“With all due respect, Captain. If we retreat now, we can live to fight another,” his second in command pointed out.
“Or die,” Francis interjected. “Or we can live to die another day. It’s always either of the two for us, Connor. You know this. We all know this. The question is, which do we choose to do today? The war will not end anytime soon if we continue to retreat. I say we stand together and—”
He never got to finish that sentence. In a split moment, his world was shattered as another blast went off right beside them. Francis’ weight left his body as he got thrown into the air. When he finally hit the earth again, it was with a loud thud. Pain seared through him as he heard his bones crack and break. Still, it was nothing compared to the agony that tore his heart apart when he looked up and beheld the devastation before him.
What was left of his troop was burning to ashes — Connor, Dakewell, Featherington, Wartford — all of his comrades, his dear friends. Right before his eyes, they were being consumed. Their cries filled his ears as they tried to outrun the fire.
“No, it can’t be…” he muttered, “it can’t possibly be—” he had just been speaking with them. A moment ago, they were all safe.
Francis tried to move but, he could not even lift a finger. It was impossible to shut his eyes; his heart shattered to pieces as tears flowed.
From his depths, a cry wrenched free. “No! No! No!!!”
“Captain? Captain! Captain McKinnon!”
Francis startled awake to find a figure hovering over him, holding on to his shoulders. There was no time to think before the sleep cleared from his eyes. His subconscious took over, causing him to tackle whoever had been touching him to the ground.
“Who are you? What do you want? Who sent you?”
“Captain,” the young man groaned breathlessly, “it’s me, Howard!”
Francis gave a pause then. “Howard?”
“Yes, Captain. It is I.”
Slowly, Francis regained full consciousness and, recognition dawned. With it, shame, and grief. He couldn’t even look his physician, Mr. Howard Mannington, in the eyes as he released him from his hold and rose to his feet.
Clearing his throat, he apologized. “I’m sorry. I was—”
“Back there again?” Howard asked, understanding.
Francis sighed as he gave a curt nod. “Yes.”
“Which battle was it this time?” Howard asked. He was one of the only two people who knew of Francis’ recurring nightmares. Over the years, as he helped nurse Francis back to health after sustaining battle injuries, he had witnessed how much his patient suffered.
The friendship that had formed between the two of them had made it easier for Francis to gain Howard’s loyalty, ensuring that the truth never left their midst.
“The one at Fortlane,” Francis answered. He was met with a comforting silence.
Of course, the physician knew of it. It happened a year ago. When Francis had been brought to Howard, he had been half dead. It was a miracle that he had managed to recover. One would think that would have been the end of his service, but he had stubbornly returned to the battlefield the moment he had regained his health.
Many had said he was on a death mission. Others believed he felt guilty for being the only surviving member of his troop when he had been their captain — thus, wanting to join them in death. They hadn’t been so far from the truth. Francis only ever responded to these speculations with silence.
He considered himself one of the lucky ones that death never came for him. All the time he reached its brink, it never took him.
Francis had fought long and hard, sustaining many more injuries, until he finally took that damn bullet to his leg that made everyone fear he would never walk again. Once again, Howard had successfully nursed him back to full health.
“Are you certain you’re ready to return home?” Howard asked after a long moment.
Francis could hear the concern in his friend’s voice, and he knew the physician was referring to the nightmares that still haunted him. How would he be able to keep it secret when sometimes, he found himself crying out into the real world.
He lifted his right shoulder in a shrug. “There’s nothing more to do here. Unless you would employ me and teach me the ways of modern medicine.”
Howard’s response was a soft chuckle. Francis gave one of his rare smiles. Alas, it vanished as soon as it appeared.
“The Army doesn’t want me anymore. I have been gone for almost three years. It is a good time as any to return home. I’m sure my family will be happy to see me.” As for the matter of nightmares, he would find his way about it.
“You have missed them,” Howard surmised.
Francis nodded. “Very much. Particularly my little sister. I can’t wait to see how big she’s grown. She was almost fifteen when I left. Now, she’s seventeen and about to begin her first Season. I should be there for her at the very least to help guide and keep her safe.”
And her. I have missed her as well, my Matilda.
Francis wondered what would happen if she ever knew the true reason he had left all those years ago. He wondered if she would ever forgive him for choosing a life in service simply because he had been unable to bear one more day of torture. The torture that came from being so close to her, loving her with all his heart, and knowing that he would never be allowed to have her.
I was a fool. In all that time away, there was not a day that went by where he did not think of her. Not even the horror of war had been able to rid his heart of the love he bore for her. Quite the contrary, he loved her even more now than he ever had.
In truth, he was tired of running away. He missed her so much he feared he would lose his life if he went another fortnight without laying eyes upon her. His heart might give up from all that longing.
“Well, if all the letters she’s written you is anything to go by, I’m certain she misses you as well,” Howard said, pulling Francis out of his thoughts. “Perhaps, it would be good for you,” he continued, “returning home, being with family once again. It could help heal your soul.”
“I am certainly not holding my breath. I am… damaged, Howard. Beyond what even your gifts can achieve. I will not delude myself into believing that there’s any hope for me to find healing for my soul. I shall be grateful for what little joys I can manage to steal in the time I have left here on earth.”
Howard’s response was a sad sigh. “You make it sound as though your days are numbered. You have defied death many times, my dear friend. You have many more years still to live. Beyond that, you can never be so certain. You never know what could happen. Indeed, there are limits to my capabilities as a physician, but you must never doubt the power of love.”
“Love,” Francis repeated as though it was a foreign notion.
If Matilda had cared anything for him all those years ago, he doubted that was still the case after the way he had treated her in the days leading to his departure. Or the flimsy excuse of a farewell he had said.
“I trust you to take care of my sister.”
He flinched at the memory. He could have told her to take care of herself, to perhaps, wait for him. He could have told her he would miss her and that he would love to receive her letters. Yet, all he had been able to utter was a plea to care for his sister, as though he had no thoughts for her.
Of course, she hadn’t written me any letters. Like the fool he was, he had waited but she had never sent any.
What he knew of her, the fact that she was yet to be married even after her first Season the year before, was thanks to Anne.
“We are in England, Howard. I do not know about other parts of the world, but we seldom marry for love here.”
“Yet, there are always exceptions, are there not?”
Francis didn’t miss a beat. “Who would love me? Demons and all?”
Howard smiled then. “You are always too hard on yourself, dear friend. Never worry, someday, I shall remind you of just how wrong you were and happily so.”
Nothing more was said. Howard slipped out of Francis’ chambers, leaving him to prepare for the day and the journey as he mulled over their discussion.
Could he be lucky with love? Could love heal his soul? Would Matilda still want to live a life with him? Now that he was older, he supposed he could challenge society’s expectations, defy the odds. However, would she want to stand with him?
Two hours later, he was all packed and ready to leave. Valise in hand, he stepped out of his chamber.
As he went down the stairs to the large hall which Howard used for his practice, the sweet aroma of hot breakfast filled his nose, causing his stomach to grumble.
“There he is!” Howard chimed. “I thought you would never come down. Breakfast with me before you leave, will you? Ellen went to a lot of trouble today. She wanted to bid you a proper farewell.”
“You make it sound like I will never return.”
“Well, until we meet again then.”
Francis’ lips curved in a small smile, and after handing his valise to Howard’s valet, he found his way to the dining room.
Breakfast was wonderful and warm goodbyes were said to what little household staff Howard had. Then, they stepped outside to meet the carriage that was waiting for him.
“Thank you, Howard. For everything. Your care, your friendship, and for opening your home to me time and time again. I will never forget your kindness and for as long as I live, I shall be in your debt.”
Howard was quick to brush him off with a wave of his hand. “Buy me a drink whenever I happen to be in London, and we shall call it even.”
“I’ll do you one better. I shall buy you two drinks.”
The two of them ended up laughing. Then, as they shook hands, Francis’ voice grew hoarse with emotion. “You only need to give me a moment’s notice whenever you decide to visit London. My home will always be open to you.”
“Thank you, Captain. Take good care of yourself and do not forget to take your medication. Write as often as you can as well! I wish you the very best.”
“Will do. You too.”
With those words, Francis ended the handshake and climbed into the carriage. Three knocks against the roof with his walking stick was all the coachman needed to know that it was time to move.
The wheels began to roll, bearing him home and to whatever it was that the future held for him.
“I still cannot believe you’re not as excited about the new Season as I am.”
Matilda gave in to the urge to roll her eyes as she looked at her best friend. “Pray tell me, dear Anne, what is there to be excited about?”
“You would know! The balls! The gentlemen! The wine, the dancing… oh!” Anne’s eyes sparkled as they widened, transforming her face into a likeness of the sun’s radiance. “The dresses!”
Despite herself, Matilda chuckled. If she was not careful, Anne would succeed in infecting her with her exuberance regarding the Season, eventually. Her friend was as lovely as she was adorable. Not to mention the kind of beauty that had heads turning for another glimpse wherever they went.
“Well, when you put it that way, those are certainly enjoyable. Although, I must say again that I do not quite appreciate having the attention of all those gentlemen.”
Anne heaved an exaggerated sigh as she fell onto a sofa, still holding on to the fine silk fabric she had fallen in love with during their shopping spree that morning. “Sometimes, I wonder how we can be so alike, yet so different. I live for the day when I too, would receive so much attention from these fine gentlemen of the ton. Oh, Matilda! Imagine if I am lucky enough to find love!”
“I certainly would not overlook that possibility. Nonetheless, I must beg you not to get your hopes too high. Many of them are quite boorish if I say so myself. They hardly have the capacity for meaningful conversation. There happen to be many who believe that the only things that should be discussed with a lady are books of poetry and embroidery. Then some love the sound of their voices so much they would go ahead to bore you with tales of their adventures or time in service. I would never understand whoever told these gentlemen that gory tales of the happenings on the battleground make for good conversation during a dance.”
Anne broke into laughter as Matilda finished her rambling. The latter smiled, pleased that she had been able to make her friend laugh. Even though Anne tried to hide it, she was worried that she hadn’t received any word from her older brother in four fortnights.
Of course, Matilda too was worried, but she could not afford to let it show. Instead, every night, when she was alone in her chamber, she prayed to the Virgin Mary to keep him safe and have him return home to her. She knew the Virgin would continue to intercede for her.
“Of course, your experiences could be different. You are much more beautiful than I am, and your father happens to be a Duke. Your large dowry alone is enough to make these gentlemen fall all over themselves to win you over.”
Anne didn’t miss a beat. “Nonsense! You are just as beautiful as I am, perhaps, even more so. Beyond that, any gentleman who decides to treat a lady according to her status and wealth is simply not deserving of said lady.”
“Not that I would fault them,” Matilda muttered. “After all, I am but a lowly Baron’s daughter. Only a station above a commoner.”
“Who should also be treated with respect and honor. You know, Matilda, I do not think I will ever understand the need to differentiate the titled from those who are not. Noblemen, commoners, we are all humans. What’s even more ridiculous is the fact that even among us noblemen, there exists still stratification. So much discrimination and all for what?”
“Big words there,” Matilda pointed out, feeling quite impressed.
Anne rewarded her with a shy smile. “I have been reading the encyclopedia more these days. I know you said many gentlemen do not find the need to make sensible conversations with ladies. Nonetheless, I do believe that I might just be lucky enough to find one who would desire to converse with me like he would another gentleman. If that ever happens, I do not wish to be found wanting.”
“Perhaps, he would be too awestruck by your beauty to form words. I pray thee, My Lady, take great care not to fault him for finding your stunning gorgeousness irresistible.”
“Matilda!” Anne cried, blushing furiously. “Whatever am I to do with you?”
Matilda simply grinned from ear to ear. “Continue loving me, like you always have.”
Anne looked like she was going to say something, but she ended up sighing. Matilda’s smile disappeared then, sensing that something was wrong.
“Is anything the matter?”
“Perhaps,” Anne answered with a small shrug. “I am elated about the Season and the thought of new experience but whenever I remember that I am to marry—” she sighed again. “Mother has made it clear that this must be my first and last Season. She does not wish for me to be seen as a failure in any regard — not that I’m saying you are but it is common knowledge that the only reason you are not at this very moment, wedded, is because you refused every suitor who sought your hand last Season.”
“That was possible since I had your father’s support. You could speak with him, you know. Get him to get your mother to see reason.”
Anne shook her head. “You know it would be futile. Mother cares about what the ton thinks a little too much. Oh Matilda, I have to find a gentleman I would love! If I do not, Mother shall have me married off to the most eligible suitor to look my way and I might never get to experience such a beautiful phenomenon in this lifetime! Could you ever imagine that? Never knowing what it is to love and be loved? Oh dear, I fear I shall be doomed to live a life of misery!”
Perhaps, that would not be such a horrible thing. I have experienced love. It’s not as rosy as it is always spoken of dear Anne.
Of course, Matilda could not say those thoughts aloud. For how close she and Anne were, she had never been able to bring herself to confess to her friend the true feelings she bore for her older brother.
Sighing, she got up to go to Anne and draw her into her arms. “I know that asking you not to worry about it is as good as useless. In fact, it would only make you worry more. What I can tell you is that I would be here for you every step of the way. It is why I refused to be wedded last Season. So that I could be here by your side to guide you through your first London Season.”
“Oh, Matilda! Truly?”
Matilda nodded. “Why did you think the Duke supported me? It was for your sake.”
Well, that is not entirely the reason. In all honesty, Matilda had been unable to give up on Francis. It was lucky that the Duke had agreed, it would be wonderful for Anne to have her dearest friend by her side when she finally debuted into society. Matilda’s own father had reluctantly agreed to the arrangement. He had deemed it the least he could do, to repay the debt of gratitude to the Duke for his graciousness toward Matilda.
She doubted that would be the case this Season. After all, she was a year older than Anne. If her friend was expected to be wedded by the end of the Season, Matilda knew she would not be able to escape an arranged marriage herself. Not this time around.
It was foolishness, was it not? Waiting for a man who had never asked her to wait for him — there was no assurance that if he returned, he would want anything to do with her. It was common knowledge that he was since betrothed to a lady of better social standing. As for her, her father wished to marry her to a titled man. Someone with enough wealth to help her family out of the misery that was poverty.
“You said you didn’t find any gentleman who was worth it!”
Matilda chuckled, leaving her dreary thoughts behind. “Well, that too is true. There weren’t many handsome gentlemen last Season. Hopefully, this Season will be better. But I warn you, you must leave the most dashing to me. Any other, you can have to yourself.”
They both ended up laughing heartily. If only for that moment, all of Matilda’s worries faded away, and she simply basked in the happiness that she felt.
The moment was abruptly cut short when one of the maidservants rushed into the drawing room, startling Matilda and Anne.
“Louisa. Is anything the matter?” Anne asked, brows furrowed in concern.
“Forgive me, My Lady,” the maid was quick to respond, dipping in a shallow curtsy. “I simply could not contain my happiness. I thought you would want to hear the good news swiftly.”
“What good news?” Anne asked.
However, before Louisa would answer, Matilda already knew. In her heart of hearts, she could sense him. His presence, after all these years.
He’s here. He’s returned!
Relief washed over her as Louisa’s next words confirmed her thoughts. It was so great, that even her knees threatened to give.
“It’s your brother, My Lady! Lord McKinnon! He’s returned! He’s come home for good!”
Anne did not wait to hear more, as she jumped up from the sofa and dashed out of the drawing room door.
Matilda followed closely behind her. It didn’t take too long to find him. He was stood outside the Manor; the family and staff had gathered around him to bid him welcome. The Duchess, could not seem to stop hugging her dearest son.
Not giving a thought to that, Anne ran toward him. Thankfully, her approach was noticed in time and the Duchess stepped away, giving her the chance to throw herself into her brother’s open arms.
“Oh, Anne, how many times shall I tell you? It is absolutely improper for a lady to run! Much more jump!” her Grace cried.
Anne paid no heed to her mother’s words. Instead, she remained in her brother’s arms, refusing to let go as though afraid that if she did, he would disappear, never to be seen again.
Matilda remained where she was, beholding the beautiful moment as innumerable emotions rose inside of her.
Joy, fear, love, uncertainty, hurt.
She wished she too could go to him, jump into his arms, hold him close and affirm that he was all right. That he had returned in one piece, for good. Alas, she could not. So, she remained where she was, unable to look away from him.
Something happened then; he looked up and began to look around as though searching for something or perhaps… someone.
It can’t be. She knew that hoping it was as she thought would only hurt her. Yet, she could not help herself. She desperately wanted for it to be true, that he was indeed searching for her.
As though he could hear her thoughts, sense her stare, in that instant, he turned to her, and their gazes locked.
Matilda’s heart stopped. Then, with a might like she had never experienced before, it started to beat again. Although this time, it was more like a gallop. Fast, hard, so much so that she feared her ribs would suffer a bruising.
She lost every knowledge she knew about speech. She suspected that even if she hadn’t, it would be impossible to get her tongue to move.
He’s looking at me. He’s looking right at me, and he’s not turning away. Could it be? Surely—
The moment was interrupted as Anne finally broke the embrace, stepping away.
Matilda held back a gasp as air filled her lungs, and that was when she realized that she hadn’t been breathing all that while.
“You should have told us you were coming! We would have prepared a feast!” That was the Duchess. Her joy was evident.
“I thought it would be better to surprise everyone,” he replied softly.
Matilda had been able to sense it, had seen it even… the fact that he had changed. Not just physically. Yes, he had grown taller, and his eyes had become a darker shade of hazel. Where they had always been too expressive or impassive… now, they were simply a locked door. One that evidently held many secrets and spoke whispers of horror seen.
Hearing his voice… that tenor she once adored, now a deep baritone only confirmed her fears.
Just what had Francis seen out there? And how much of him had it altered? She supposed she would never know.
He had become a man, through and through. Gone was the lean frame of youth. His shoulders were much broader, his facial features, better defined. His blond hair had gotten darker, and he wore it at shoulder’s length, the curls lush. She had always wondered what it would feel like to bury her hands in them.
She was drawn out of her reverie when the small party began walking toward her, just in time to hear the Duchess announce that a ball would be held in two days to celebrate the safe return of her son.
They drew to a stop as they reached her.
“Ah, Matilda! I was wondering where you were. Of course, you would have come to bid Francis a warm welcome. You two were always as close as siblings, were you not?”
Matilda found herself forcing a smile as she nodded at the Duchess. Then, she turned to Francis. Once again, their eyes met. This time, the fact he was so close, after so many years of missing him and craving his presence made all of her tremble. The butterflies in her stomach were wreaking havoc, her heart would not stop thudding in an unusual manner. Yet, she managed to keep her calm.
“It’s wonderful to have you home again, Lord McKinnon. Welcome home,” she said, bowing her head slightly. She commended herself mentally when her voice didn’t betray her.
“Thank you, Miss Munford. I see you kept your promise to care for my sister.”
This made Matilda smile. He remembered.
“And I see you kept your word to take good care of yourself,” was her response.
“I wish I could say I did.”
There was something in the way he said those words that made her look up, holding his gaze once more. Perhaps she imagined it, but she could swear that in that spilt second, he opened himself up to her, and she got a glimpse of the memories that haunted him.
She swallowed hard for her throat felt dry and if they would have said anything more, the Duchess ruined their chance. Hooking her arm around his, she continued walking, forcing him to do the same.
“Come now, I am certain you have many stories to tell, and I am beyond eager to hear them all. Nonetheless, first things first. You shall eat, have your bath, get rest. Only then, shall we sit and discuss how these past years have been.”
They were already entering the house when Matilda finally remembered herself, and followed them.
Now that he had returned, things would change again in the McKinnon household. That much was certain. Matilda couldn’t help wondering what that would mean for her.
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