How to Capture a Duke(3)

By: Bianca Blythe


Though she’d long abandoned any aspirations to marry, she couldn’t stand the thought that all her work, all the carefully collected and recorded artefacts, would lose all significance because their finder was deemed a foolish girl. No one would donate funds so that the rest of the palace might be dug from the ground, and any mosaics, any sculptures, any pottery would remain firmly in the earth to be forgotten.

Fiona’s conviction that a Roman palace lay under the apple orchard would be deemed ridiculous, and anyone she told would be reminded in giggling tones that Fiona also had insisted she was betrothed to a wonderful man, when the man had turned out to be entirely imaginary.

The coach pulled in before Cloudbridge Castle, and Fiona exhaled. Gray stones blended into the harsh gray sky above, as the castle thrust its jagged turrets, defenses from a former age, into the sky. In another age her ancestors would have warred against the neighboring aristocrats; now they were supposed to be friends, simply for their shared status.

Her cousin exited the coach and glided toward the butler, padding her lace boots over the cobblestones. Fiona lifted her gray dress and proceeded. The coarse wool prickled her fingers, and she stumbled on a worn cobble.

“Madeline.” Grandmother’s astonished voice rang out from the open door of the castle, and Fiona quickened her pace.

Murmurings sounded. Fiona couldn’t decipher her cousin’s doubtlessly refined answer. Madeline’s delicate soprano voice never carried, a fact her cousin had exploited once she discovered she could make snide comments about everyone, assured that only her seat companion would be able to hear.

Fiona entered to discover Grandmother leading Madeline toward the Great Hall. So much for any hope of speaking with Grandmother alone. Fiona followed them, her dress swishing against the antiques cramming the narrow hallway.

“I was just telling Fiona that I was so hoping you might grace us with your presence at this year’s annual Christmas ball.”

Grandmother laughed as they settled into the velvety armchairs that surrounded the table in the Great Hall. “My days of balls are behind me, though Fiona might attend.”

“How splendid.” Madeline clapped her hands together.

Fiona moved a finger to her collar, brushing against her mother’s favorite brooch. “Thank you for inviting me, but I fear I cannot accept the invitation.”

“But dearest!” Grandmother exclaimed.

Fiona stood up, coughing. “I fear I’m getting a cold. You must go, Madeline. I would not want to inflict anything so despicable on my dearest cousin.”

Madeline’s thick eyelashes, far longer and more elegant than Fiona deemed necessary, fluttered downward as she blinked. “I’m sure I do not fear any cold that you might have.”

“Then you are a brave woman, baroness.” Fiona strove to keep her face solemn.

“But you truly should consider attending!” Her cousin leaned forward, and her eyes sparkled. Her voice took on an affable tone at odds with the smug manner she seemed to favor. “I’m sure we can find you an eligible bachelor with whom to dance. Cousin Cecil is attending.”

“Indeed.”

“Why, he shows as little interest for dancing as you do! Uncle Seymour and Aunt Lavinia say it is sure to be an ideal match. He has no title, but not everyone can be sufficiently fortunate to marry a man with one.” She beamed, perhaps contemplating her own accomplishment at acquiring a baron.

Fiona strove to nod politely, thinking it best not to mention that she suspected it was not within Cousin Cecil’s nature to find doing much of anything with a woman appealing.

A maid appeared with tea.

“You must find yourself a husband,” Madeline said. “It is the natural course of things, and your sister is no longer here to keep you company. And the ball will be marvelous. They always are.”

“How delightful.” Grandmother picked up the teapot and poured tea into a cup. “And by then Fiona’s—”

Fiona coughed. Not in the most elegant manner, but she was aiming for loudness, not delicacy.

Madeline moved back a fraction, and Grandmother’s eyebrows jolted up.

“My dearest, you are doing quite poorly. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you cough quite like that. It was as if—”

“As if you were trying to emulate a carriage.” Madeline bit into a sweet.

Grandmother fixed her gaze on the baroness. “I wouldn’t have termed it in quite that manner.”

“Oh, yes!” Madeline said. “The kind with multiple horses, and driving on poorly maintained roads. Like in Scotland!”

Fiona’s chest constricted. At this moment she could only hope her grandmother had thoroughly forgotten everything Fiona had ever told her about Captain Knightley. She heaped a generous amount of sugar into her teacup, snatched a silver spoon, and stirred the tea with vigor.

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