Chapter 2

Royce Easton, the 9th Duke of Sutherfield, stood in his father`s study. No, not his father`s study, but his, he realized. The thought made the muscles in his stomach clench.

"I always thought the study a bit dark, but your father insisted on no changes being done no matter how much I insisted. Perhaps we can change the wood paneling and curtains," the dowager Duchess of Sutherfield said.


"But why? The study is—"

"I said no, mother. Just leave it as it is." Royce gripped the window sill. His knuckles turned white.

People walked on the street in front of the townhouse—casual strollers, couples, gentlemen on their way to their clubs—and all of them looked as if they didn`t have a care in the world.

Unlike himself.

His mother touched his elbow. "You can`t keep on acting like this, Royce. You`re a duke, and you must act like one. Your father wouldn`t be pleased if he saw you moping around like this."

His father wouldn`t be pleased with anything he did, Royce thought. Ever since he was little, his father had looked upon him with disdain, wishing that his older brother, who died from a fever before he reached his fifth year, had survived instead of his second son.

"And I`m sure father wouldn`t be smiling if he saw your cutting our mourning period short."

Royce heard his mother`s sharp intake of breath, and guilt washed over him. His mother never loved his father. She was relieved when he passed away scarcely a year ago, making her a rich, independent widow. Secretly, Royce could hardly blame her; that bastard didn`t deserve even a day of mourning.

"I`m sorry, mother." Turning around, he pulled his mother into his arms and sighed in her hair. "I didn`t mean a single word of that."

"I know you didn`t, Royce." She looked up at him and smiled. Even at the age of three-and-forty, she still had bright hazel eyes and smooth, pale skin. Her brown hair was pulled away from her face and left hanging over one shoulder. "I love you, my son, and I want you to be happy."

"I try to, mother. I really do."

His mother cupped his face with both hands and pulled his head down, so that their foreheads were resting against each other. The light scent of rose and jasmine filled his nostrils. He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply to capture the memory of his mother`s perfume.

"Just try not to dwell on the past. Think of your future and what it holds for you," she said optimistically.

The future, he thought with distaste. He was a powerful duke now, and with the title and fortune came responsibility. He would have to marry soon, preferably to a quiet girl with good connections who would bear him a few sons without complaint.

Walking into a ballroom to meet young ladies, the only respectable way to find a wife, made him want to throw up his breakfast. He had never liked the simpering debutantes and their scheming mamas. They always pounced on him like wolves, especially since he was the heir to a dukedom.

But it had to be done. If he could find a tolerable girl who wasn`t after his title and fortune, then he`d be happy enough. Of course, he couldn`t count on that. Everyone he met always wanted something from him.

"Mother, I`m going to find a wife this season. I need an heir to ensure that the line continues."

His mother pulled away and nodded. "I know… But please, Royce." She grabbed both of his hands and squeezed them. "Don`t make the mistake that I did. Marry for love and for happiness."

Marry for love. How could that be possible? He doubted that he could ever fall in love since he always found fault with every woman he`d meet. Of course, he`d marry to ensure a certain degree of happiness, but the first thing he had to think of was what his family needed the most.

Royce swallowed and pulled his hands away. He turned back to the window and looked out. "I want to start searching tonight. I know it`s sudden, but are there any events we can go to? Perhaps some invitations came after we arrived this morning."

He felt his mother`s hand on his shoulder. "Surely you`re not going anywhere today? Don`t you want to rest for at least a—"

"Do we have any invitations, mother?" Royce cut in.

The dowager duchess sighed. "When I was out this afternoon, I met the Viscount Herford who`s hosting a come-out ball for his daughter this evening. He did invite us, although acknowledging that we`ve barely been here for a day-"

"Good," Royce said. He turned around and kissed his mother on the cheek.

His mother smiled. "You don`t have to force yourself to go, dear. You`re only three-and-twenty; you can wait a few years until settling down and marrying."

"I know mother." He sighed. "But father`s death was so sudden, and it had me thinking about my own health. Like him, I can die anytime—be it a simple riding accident or a deadly illness. I want to have at least half a dozen children to carry on my name before that happens.

"Oh, Royce, you`re not going to die." She covered her forehead with her hand. "You`re making your old mother uncomfortable with all this talk."

"Sorry, mother," he murmured.

"Just go to the ball and enjoy yourself. You`ve scarcely did any of that when your father was alive," she continued. "I`m sure a lot of young, accomplished ladies will be in attendance. Viscount Herford`s daughter is said to be exceptionally beautiful—more so than her mother, and we know that Lady Herford was a beauty in her day."

"I shall see for myself when I go." Royce lifted her mother`s hand and kissed it. "But I doubt her beauty can compare to yours, as you are the most beautiful woman, I have ever seen."

His mother jerked her hand away and glared at him. Her eyes, however, sparkled with amusement. "Don`t say that about your mother. I`m far too old to be taking compliments like that."

"Very well, mother. I won`t argue with you, even though nothing will change my belief that you are the most beautiful girl in England." He chuckled. "Will you be accompanying me?"

"No, I`m much too tired." She began to massage the bridge of her nose. "Send Lord and Lady Herford my regards."

"Of course." He kissed her on the cheek again. "I should start getting ready now. I`ll see you tomorrow morning."

"Have fun," she called out as he walked out of the study.

A ball, he mused. He hated those damn events, but it was the only way for him to find a respectable wife. Hopefully, he`d be married before the insipid debutantes and matchmaking mamas drove him crazy.

Olivia raised her handkerchief to her nose and sneezed loudly.

Emma jumped at the noise. "Are you alright, Olivia? You`ve been sneezing quite a lot today."

"I`m fine, thank you." Olivia sniffed and wiped her nose. She looked around the ballroom. "Did anyone see? I would die if a gentleman had seen me sneeze. It`s so unladylike, after all."

"No one saw at all," Emma assured her. "I swear on it… But are you alright? I`m a bit worried."

"Of course she`s not doing well," Marianne cut in as she approached the two. "The entire ballroom is decorated with roses, and you know how much Olivia detests flowers."

Marianne was right. As long as she could remember, she had always sneezed whenever she came in contact with flowers, grass, or any type of plant for that matter. Unaware of her daughter`s condition, Lady Herford spent a small fortune on several hundred, greenhouse-grown pink roses.

Olivia sniffed again. Her temple began to ache. "It`s horrible—and during my come out ball, no less."

"We could step outside for a breath of fresh air," Marianne offered as she rubbed Olivia`s back. Her brows were furrowed in concern.

"No, mother would kill me if I left the ballroom for even a second. I have to stay here and entertain the guests since this ball is in my honor."

Emma sighed. "Well, perhaps it will be easier when you go onto the dance floor. The middle of the floor is far away from the roses."

"I suppose so."

Olivia hoped that Emma was correct. Most of the roses were placed in vases which were set on small tables pushed against the wall. Since the ballroom was quite large, she might be able to escape the thick cloying smell of fresh flowers if she spent most of her time in the middle of the dance floor.

Now all she had to do was find an abundance of dance partners. She sneezed again. Her head began to pound.

Emma and Marianne looked at Olivia with shared frowns.

"I could create a diversion for Lady Herford if you want to step outside?" Emma offered.

"It`s too late," Marianne said. "Lady Herford is coming here right now."

Olivia looked up and suppressed a groan. Her mother was charging over like an enraged bull. All she needed was a pair of pointed horns to complete the look.

"There you are. I`ve been looking all over for you, Olivia," her mother said in a slightly scolding tone. She smiled and her voice became more pleasant. "I have so many young gentlemen to introduce you to." She turned to Emma and Marianne. "You won`t mind if I borrow my daughter, for say…a few hours."

Both girls shook their heads. "Not at all, my lady," said Emma.

Lady Herford latched her long fingers onto Olivia`s arm and dragged her away before she could even think of voicing her protests.

The ballroom was packed that evening. Olivia had to push herself through the crush of bodies. The stifling heat generated by so many people coupled with the scent of roses made Olivia`s head spin. Blond hair stuck to the back of her slick neck. Her legs shook and she leaned on her mother for support.

"I feel wretched, mama. I want to lie down."

"Absolutely not," Lady Herford said firmly. "This ball is held in your honor, and you will therefore greet the guests. And do keep from leaning on me. You`re too old to cling to me like a child."

Olivia pulled away from her mother and swayed. She took deep long breaths and hoped that the ground wouldn`t rush up to meet her. Pulling out her fan, she began waving it in front of her face as her mother introduced her to some of the eligible young gentlemen in attendance. She tried to store the slew of titles and names that were thrown at her in her brain, but her head ached too much to be of any use.

"Miss Pennant? Are you unwell?"

Olivia looked up. A tall gentleman with sandy hair and light blue eyes looked at her with a questioning expression.

She blushed, covering her cheeks with her fan. "I`m sorry. I was just thinking about the crush tonight. There`s so many people that it`s quite stifling. I think I may die from the heat."

He smiled, revealing a row of straight, white teeth. "May I fetch you a drink? Perhaps it will cool you down."

The young gentlemen looked so friendly that Olivia couldn`t help but smile in return. "I would like that very much."

He turned and walked away. Lady Herford pulled Olivia close and whispered harshly into her ear. "What is wrong with you? Lord Ranford called your name three times before you answered. I was just about to die from embarrassment. What if he thinks that you`re dimwitted?"

Olivia didn`t care because she had no interest for the gentleman in question. "I can`t help it, mama. It`s so hot in here. Besides, men love it when females are stupid," she whispered back.

Lady Herford`s face reddened. She opened her mouth to reply to her daughter`s insolent words, but Lord Ranford`s return stopped her.

"Excuse me for the delay, my lady," Lord Ranford said to her mother. He handed a glass of champagne to both ladies.

Other than a glass of wine at the dinner table, Olivia had never drunk much alcohol since her mother declared her too young to do so. However, the viscountess said nothing as Olivia lifted the glass to her lips and took a tiny sip. The champagne was cold and bubbly; she had to force herself from draining the entire glass in one gulp.

After dancing with the gentleman, Olivia slipped through the crowd, covering her mouth and nose when she passed a vase of roses. She snatched a glance behind her, relieved to see that her mother was nowhere in sight.

"Olivia!" Marianne raised her arm and waved in Olivia`s direction, then nudged Emma.

Olivia returned the wave and rushed over, stopping to snatch a glass of champagne from a passing footman with a tray.

"You don`t know how relieved I am two find the both of you." She drained the glass and wished that she had more to drink. This champagne left a buzzing feeling in her head that she decidedly felt was quite pleasant. "Mama is determined to introduce me to every guest here while I wither in this oppressive heat and stench."

"Shouldn`t your mother know that you`re allergic to flowers?" Marianne asked with a frown. "It should at least be common knowledge within your family."

"Mama does know, but she`s convinced that she can cure my allergies if she constantly exposes me to flowers."

"Does it work?" Emma asked.

"No, and it vexes her since she finds it unladylike for a lady to detest flowers." Olivia sighed. "When I marry the duke I will ban flowers from the house and set the greenhouse and gardens on fire."

Emma looked horrified, likely because one of her hobbies was tending to the garden behind her townhouse. Her family`s estate also boasted one of the finest greenhouses in England. Nonetheless, she plastered a smile on her face and quickly changed the subject. "I do hope to catch a glance of the duke soon. Do you think he`ll be at Almack`s this week? Bachelors do tend to avoid the assembly rooms, after all."

"I expect he`ll be there," Marianne said. "It is rumored he is searching for a wife, and what better place to start than at Almack`s."

"He`d better come. It was so hard for mama and me to get vouchers." Olivia frowned. "But it might be better for him not to show up at Almack`s. What if another lady catches his eye?"

Quickly, she glanced around the ballroom. Several eligible young ladies were in attendance, and after being introduced to every one of them, Olivia realized that this season`s batch was quite fine. Almost everyone was passingly fair and had the talent for witty conversation. Anyone of them could be a contender for the Duke of Sutherfield`s heart.

As if sensing her insecurity, Emma said, "Don`t worry, Olivia. You`re easily the prettiest and wittiest girl his season. The duke would have to be blind not to notice you."

"But don`t let it get to your head," Marianne quickly noted, always being the practical one in the group.

Despite her friends` reassurances, doubt began to burrow itself into her mind. She had been told often that she was a classic English beauty with her fair skin, blue eyes, and golden hair. Her teeth were straight and she supposed she had a good figure. Although she tried her best not to be vain, she was far better-looking—no, she was damn well the best looking girl in England. The duke would be mad not to be able to keep his eyes off her.

But what if the duke had unconventional tastes? He might prefer brunettes, or intelligence-rather than looks-might be his preference.

Preposterous, she decided. Men liked girls to be ignorant and stupid. No one would look at a bluestocking.

A bluestocking… God, she had always enjoyed reading. Her family`s townhouse boasted a large library that she liked to spent most of her time in. What would the duke think if he found out? Moreover, she wasn`t even accomplished at the pianoforte. That could very well ruin her chance for a match with the duke. He could be fond of music for all she knew.

I will have to be calm, she told herself. I may not be talented in some areas, but my appearance and wit will certainly make up for any deficiencies.

She smiled weakly at her friends. "Thank you," she murmured. "Hopefully everything will be fine."

"I`m sure it will be," Emma answered with a wide smile.

Marianne`s eyes strayed away from Olivia and locked onto the double staircase that served as the entrance to the ballroom. Finally, she said, "I think you will find out now, Olivia. The duke has arrived."

Author`s Note: I hope everyone is enjoying the story so far. I`m having a lot of fun writing it.

Istalri: Thank you. My dialogue isn`t perfect, but a lot of research gave me a general idea of how they spoke back then.

michibun: You might end up a bit surprised, but I won`t be giving away anything yet. You`ll just have to wait until the next chapter. Olivia is a bit bratty like Priscilla, but I hope readers will later see that she has plenty of redeeming qualities. Thank you for reviewing.

GermanSam: I`m so glad to see one of my favorite reviewers again. I hope I don`t disappoint. Thanks for stopping by!

happyflowers0729: My updates will come once a week. I hope that isn`t too bad.