Miss Amelia Lands a Duke



July, 1812

“So, you’re saying we do not have an actual invitation to this house party?” The vise tightened around Miss Amelia Manners-Sutton’s chest, squeezing the breath from her. Aghast and suddenly ashamed that she had accepted this position as companion to her aunt, she could only stare in disbelief at her mother’s younger sister. “Aunt Katherine, we are in Lord and Lady Merivale’s drive.” Amelia stated the obvious while her aunt turned a peculiar shade of tomato red. But Amelia was not giving in. “A footman is about to open this door and now you say we do not have an invitation?”

Her Aunt Katherine, the Viscountess Rawdon, was attired and coiffed in the absolute height of fashion, as usual. She always made the most perfect appearance no matter where they went. They’d left London before the sun rose yesterday and spent the night at a shabby inn, leaving again this morning before dawn. Twenty minutes back, they’d stopped at a fork in the road where her aunt had her pretend-French maid Marie touch up her hair before she evicted the woman to sit outside the coach with the groom.

For Aunt Katherine it was all about appearances.

“That is certainly not what I said you piteous creature,” the woman hissed.

“Despite your great-grandfather being the previous Duke of Rutland, you understand nothing of society. For that, I blame my sister. She should have instructed you better.”

“I was a child when she died, as you well know. Regardless, I beg you please leave my parents out of this conversation. Before we left Town, you said we were invited here. Now I discover we were not! How else do you expect me to react?” Amelia hated that this is what her aunt had reduced her to. She’d always prided herself on her honest, straightforward presentation, now she was going to surrender to her aunt’s web of lies because it was now too late to turn around and return to London.

“I expect you to behave as a lady’s companion. Do not make me sorry I’ve brought you along.” Her aunt gave her a peevish look.

Amelia might have kept quiet, but the look her deceiving relative gave her, made Amelia want to cut her Aunt Katherine’s lying tongue directly from her mouth.

Aunt Katherine held her back ramrod straight and her head high—so high her coiffure nearly touched the roof of the borrowed coach. And that woman’s cold gaze shot daggers at her. “Lady Merivale was in her cups. She invited everyone at the table.”

The coach lurched as the driver dismounted to hold his horses. Voices could be heard as someone drew closer to their trunk-laden conveyance.

“But you said…” Amelia could not summon words to express her horror and humiliation. “You were not… Oh, dear Lord. You were not even sitting at the same card table!”

Aunt Katherine cocked her head at the sound of crunching gravel. Before plastering a smile on her slightly-weathered face, her aunt gave Amelia a wicked stare and hissed, “She will never remember that. Now speak no more. You are mute for the duration of this visit, or I will send you to Mrs. Wallace’s Workhouse in Birmingham. Do you understand me?”

Oh, Amelia understood all right. Her aunt would stop at nothing to land herself another husband, and this time she had her sights set on His Grace, the Duke of Caversham. The same duke, she’d just informed Amelia, who had recently let his mistress go. The man supposedly had a broken heart over it—though why he’d let the woman go if he was still enamored of her, Amelia did not understand. And her aunt was acting no better than a scavenger after a carcass—swooping in to pick his aged bones clean. Just as she had with her previous two husbands. Aunt Katherine’s behavior was shameful and embarrassing, and Amelia began to think again about any possible way out for her. Even though she was beyond the prime for marriage, at twenty-eight, Amelia still had hopes of finding an honorable man and marrying after she paid her father’s debts. But if a potential husband ever met her aunt he might paint Amelia with the same brush, and she was nothing like this woman she was related to.

She gave her aunt a curt nod and turned away. This event was surely the last straw. She had to quit. Amelia could tolerate the woman’s insults and not paying her salary. There was always food on the table in Aunt Katherine’s home and Amelia had a strong sense of self and her place in the world, so the insults just rolled off.

But Aunt Katherine’s house would be the first place her brother, Harry, would look should he make his way home. Though that was unlikely to happen any time soon now that their country was fighting two wars.

Immediately upon her father’s death, Amelia was forced to sell all the tools and equipment for his book binding business and pay it all toward his debt for Harry’s education. There had been nothing left for Amelia to purchase even a crumb to eat. In fact, she owed Mr. Simpson, her father’s lender, a moderate amount of money yet. She’d been evicted from the house she shared with her father and younger brother, and she’d lived off the generosity of friends in the district for a week, until her aunt hired her as a companion—a position for which she was supposed to receive a quarterly salary so she could repay Mr. Simpson. Her aunt had agreed, and Amelia had snapped up the opportunity. And while she received her salary once, when it was time for her second quarter salary, she received a letter of intent to pay. Without even needing to ask, Amelia knew her aunt’s card habit ate into her pay.

Stepping out of the coach, Amelia followed in the wake of her aunt up the wide, sweeping limestone steps, Aunt Katherine’s maid trailing behind. She found herself standing in the grand foyer of a Tudor-styled manor house that looked as though there might have been an abbey attached to it at one time. Amelia turned her mind away from her aunt’s outlandish explanations to her hostess, who came to greet them. Amelia didn’t want to hear the fabrications her aunt was creating.

Aunt Katherine was an amazing liar when need be. Amelia thought she could have had an astounding career on the stage had she been so inclined. Instead, the woman was wheedling her way into a two-week long stay in the country.

“We would have arrived yesterday, Caroline, but I had to give instructions to my staff for removal from London back to Surrey.” Aunt Katherine patted her hair after removing her hat and handing it to the closest footman, making herself quite at home from the moment she set foot into the place. “When we leave here, we will be going directly to Greenwood Manor because while we were in Town, I had some rooms redone and…” She brought her gloved hand to her breast in an act of false sincerity.

Lady Merivale appeared confused. Amelia didn’t blame her, given that every word out of her aunt’s mouth was total rot.

“I told you, don’t you remember?” Aunt Katherine said. “Then we spoke about how the house wasn’t ready, as the painters were working in my suite and—well, you know how noxious the smell of paint is. Gives me crushing headaches. You then invited me here for a few weeks, as you said you had a few guests coming anyway.

“It took a little reworking of my schedule, for Lady Sylvester had invited me as well.” Aunt Katherine leaned in toward Lady Merivale as if sharing a secret, but Amelia could see that the other woman was trying to place this conversation in her mind. Poor Lady Merivale was putty in the expert’s hands. Of course, it probably didn’t help that she was a little worse for her “afternoon toddy.”

Aunt Katherine followed through with the coup de grace. “You know I’d rather be here with my dear friends than in Gloucester with Henrietta Sylvester! But never tell her I said that, because it would break the dear woman’s heart. Too, I hear she invited Baroness Hopken, and I will not lower myself to be under the same roof as that woman. She is the most notorious social climbing flirt I have ever met.”

The woman knew exactly how to flatter her social betters. Amelia coughed delicately and she hoped her aunt got her message.

The housekeeper arrived and Lady Merivale asked Aunt Katherine how many rooms she’d require. “Just one. My niece can share with my maid. Though I could just as easily send her back to London, if it’s a bother.”

It seemed Aunt Katherine understood her message loud and clear, and wasn’t too pleased with being taken to task.

“No, it’s no bother at all. We should easily be able to manage another room for the dear girl.”

Amelia returned her slightly dotty hostess’s shy smile, while Aunt Katherine silently fumed inside. She hadn’t lived with her relative for the past six months and not learned a thing or two about the woman!

“It needn’t be much. She is used to modest accommodations.” Aunt Katherine leaned in toward their hostess again, and whispered loud enough for Amelia to hear each word. Deliberately, she was sure. “My dearly departed older sister didn’t marry as well as I did.”

That did it. When this fortnight was over, Amelia was leaving her aunt’s employ. Sooner if she could manage it, because she didn’t wish to set foot in Aunt Katherine’s extravagant home ever again. She’d have to ask the servants to inform Harry of her new address when she got one, because Amelia couldn’t trust her own aunt to do the right thing.

With that decision made, she had two weeks in which to find gainful employment. She wondered if Lady Merivale subscribed to Mrs. Petersham’s Weekly. If so, Amelia would love to borrow a current issue. Then she wondered how likely it would be that she found a job without a letter of reference because she seriously doubted Aunt Katherine would write one for her.

She was soon shown to a room on the nursery level. It was modest, yet clean and rather spacious with a small sitting area. It likely was once the governess’s room, and Amelia got the impression that it had been unoccupied for many years. Too, she noticed there were no children or other guests on this floor.

The young maid-of-all-work told Amelia about the meal times for the servants. Amelia informed the girl that she wasn’t a servant, and asked for a tray to be brought up for her meals. Because she’d pushed her aunt too far, the woman was punishing her. Amelia wasn’t invited to the dining room, nor did she belong in the kitchens with the servants. She felt like a misfit. The girl seemed to ignore what she’d said, and continued on about the routine of the staff. As the maid was leaving, Amelia made sure there was a key in the lock on the door. She thanked the girl then locked the door behind her.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Amelia felt tears of frustration and humiliation burning behind her closed lids. But Aunt Katherine had far exceeded the limits of propriety and familial bonds. Amelia could tolerate her aunt’s snobbish behavior and vanity. It was clearly obvious their hostess knew nothing of an invitation to Aunt Katherine. Common courtesy meant a hostess did not turn away someone even though she might not be exactly certain whether she had or had not extended an invitation. Amelia let herself cry for a few minutes, not just because of her situation but also because she missed her father and her brother. One she knew was dead, the other she prayed still lived.

Six whole months and three days since the death of her father, and Amelia still couldn’t help but think that if Harry hadn’t been abducted by the press gang, her father would still be here. He’d died in his sleep just a week after they’d been notified of Harry’s disappearance, likely from a broken heart. That was in January.

It was now July and Amelia still cried over how different and happy her life would have been had she been allowed to continue helping her father in his book bindery. Initially, her father had wanted her younger brother to apprentice with him, but Harry wanted to study anatomy, Latin, and medicine to become a physician. So both Amelia and her father had worked to pay for Harry’s university classes.

A week before the start of the new term, Harry and several of his classmates had stopped en route to Cambridge to overnight at an inn where he’d stayed several times during his travels back and forth. The young men had eaten dinner at a tavern near the inn and upon leaving the tavern they’d simply vanished. The tavern owner thought perhaps they’d gone to jail because there seemed to be a scuffle outside his establishment, but there was no record of the local sheriff having gone to the tavern.

Amelia had heard of the press gangs and the ruthless way in which they rounded up men to work on naval vessels. But they usually stayed within a certain radius of a major port. Cambridge was nowhere near a port, though it was on a river. And with two wars and a shortage of men, she’d heard the gangs were growing desperate. With no clue as to their disappearance, it was as though all four of the boys disappeared with the morning fog. And while she wasn’t exactly certain they had been press-ganged, she rather hoped so. The army or navy was better than murder for their money or clothing. So far there was no proof that a homicide occurred, and knowing the gangs had been active led her to the conclusion they’d been forcibly taken to serve in the military.

She prayed daily for Harry and his friends’ safe return. If her brother was dead, then she truly had no one left in the world.

Amelia splashed cold water on her face and re-pinned the fallen locks of hair. Taking her shawl, she radius of a major port. Cambridge was nowhere near a port, though it was on a river. And with two wars and a shortage of men, she’d heard the gangs were growing desperate. With no clue as to their disappearance, it was as though all four of the boys disappeared with the morning fog. And while she wasn’t exactly certain they had been press-ganged, she rather hoped so. The army or navy was better than murder for their money or clothing. So far there was no proof that a homicide occurred, and knowing the gangs had been active led her to the conclusion they’d been forcibly taken to serve in the military.

She prayed daily for Harry and his friends’ safe return. If her brother was dead, then she truly had no one left in the world.

Amelia splashed cold water on her face and re-pinned the fallen locks of hair. Taking her shawl, she exited the room, looking for a back staircase and a way out of the house without using the main staircase and front door. She needed fresh air and an invigorating walk after almost two full days cooped up in a coach with her conniving aunt and the woman’s annoying fake-French maid.



Marcus Renfield Halden, II, eighth Duke of Caversham, wanted only respite from the crazed world outside this garden maze. A world in which a madman with a pistol could enter the main hall of the House of Commons and kill a good man.

As he sat on the carved stone bench, he wondered again if anything could have been done differently, some security measure set in place that would have spared the life of his political opponent and very good friend, Spencer Perceval. While they had been sometime rivals, Cav respected the man for his beliefs, most of which were not too far off the mark from his own. Many nights they’d debated issues they felt passionately over, with Perceval always the more eloquent of the two. Cav had something of a reputation among his peers as a man who got what he wanted, but Perce could talk the horns off the devil himself.

After seeing his friend interred at his final resting place, all he could do now was make certain the man’s wife and children wanted for nothing. And that is exactly what he and Merivale were going to do, though now that he knew of Lady Merivale’s plans, he should suggest to Merivale that they retire to Haldenwood for a few weeks, where it was quiet. Merivale’s wife, it seemed, had invited a small group of guests for an impromptu summer house party. Cav was in no mood to socialize just yet. If it didn’t appear the height of rudeness, he would have left immediately upon learning what Lady Merivale had planned.

Right at that moment, he hated being a gentleman. He wished he had the courage to leave this place because he knew Merivale’s wife planned this party the moment she learned he was coming out to Somerhill with her husband for a rest. Episodes like this were what made him wish he could retire from public life. If Perce’s death taught him anything, it was that you never knew when your own number was going to be called.

And there was the other matter he’d yet to deal with.

Clara. While he’d effectively dismissed her that night three weeks earlier, when he arrived at the home he rented for her, to find her in the arms of a young lover, he’d yet to make the break clean. Her betrayal had been a blow to his ego, and his manhood. Had he been his normal, intuitive self, he would have known something was amiss. As it was, he had no idea how long she’d been playing him for a fool. The only excuse he had was that he was still disturbed by his friend’s murder.

When he returned to town he’d have to get his secretary to settle Clara’s bills and release the house. He had no need for it any longer. If he took another mistress, which he would likely do one day, he’d get her a different house.

He watched a rabbit enter the path ahead of him, then suddenly recognize it was no longer alone. It wrinkled its nose as it stood on its hind legs, unmoving for a long moment while staring at him, then perceiving him no threat, it returned to nibbling at the manicured grass pathway. Cav didn’t know how long he’d been sitting on the bench outside the pavilion in the center of the intricate maze, basking in the summer sun, but long after the rabbit had moved on to tastier greens, he heard the crunch of gravel beneath slippers. Singular, delicate and not heavy enough to be a man, it was a determined stride, with a definite staccato rhythm to the steps.

Then he heard someone—a lady—speak softly, as though to herself. “Why do these things happen to me, Lord? What have I done to deserve this?” As she drew closer to the center of the maze, Cav knew he’d be discovered, so he stood, ready to greet her as the lady rounded the corner.

She kept talking, still out of sight. Apparently she had much to say. “If anyone in polite society discovers what she’s done, I’ll never find respectable employment again.”

Not a lady, but a servant. A servant with the diction of a lady. Definitely an upper servant. And, he wasn’t sure if it was the summer night, or the fact that his cock was reminding him it had been a while, but he found her voice sultry and almost… melodic. He could listen to her speak all night long.

“I should have taken that into consideration before accepting her offer—no matter that she’s the only relative I have now. And while that might be water under the bridge, the thing to do now is leave. Get as far away from her as fast as I possibly can because….” Finally she rounded the corner and came into the clearing and he got his first look at the voluptuous body that housed that sensual voice. She was in mourning garb but it far from detracted from her looks. Rather the opposite, she had remarkable green-gray eyes under arched brows the color of autumn leaves. Her light brown hair was coiled into a loose, heavy knot atop her head, and with the few wisps that had escaped, Cav knew it was curly as well. He had a fleeting image of waist length curls fanned across his pillows and he fought the stirring sensations in his breeches.

She was simply breathtaking. They stared at each other for what seemed minutes, though he was sure it was just a few seconds.

“Well, I hope you have a fast enough horse,” Cav said, keeping his voice droll and knowing as she entered the clearing. “Because I’ve discovered that trouble tends to nip at the heels of the most determined of us.” And how well he knew it.

She appeared surprised to have been caught talking to herself.

“Don’t worry.” He smiled in hopes of putting her at ease. “Your secret is safe with me.”

She still looked utterly shocked. Either she recognized him or was afraid she’d leaked state secrets.

“In truth, I don’t know who you were speaking of, just that you are planning to flee as soon as you have another arrangement.” He wondered who she mourned. A husband perhaps? It was very likely. She was beautiful enough, surely someone had captured her heart. And now? Now that he was gone, she was fortunate to have a relative take her in.

She was a woman full grown, with an ample bosom and softly rounded curves hiding beneath the empire waist of her mourning clothes. She appeared prim and her outfit dated. Certainly nothing his former mistress would have worn if she were to mourn anyone. But then, this lady was no man’s mistress. That much was obvious. She didn’t present or carry herself as a woman with a benefactor.

But she could be, given the right clothing and maid. Madame Celeste could fit her and she’d be just the ornament to replace Clara. With a lower lip that appeared just a little more plump than the upper, her heart-shaped face was fresh and rosy from her walk.

This luscious creature, with the right attire and jewels, would be stunning. He could envision her in deep green silk, to bring out the green hues in her gray eyes and diamonds for the shards of ice in her stare.

Didn’t he just hear that she was wanting new employment? Much as he couldn’t abide infidelity in a mistress, Cav missed his weekly appointment with her, a more energetic lover he’d never met in his fifty-two years. But her eagerness to please him, he now knew, was to get him out of the house so she could play with her other lovers.

“Please, do not be afraid. I’m relatively decent at keeping secrets.” He hoped he sounded reassuring enough to entice her to stay.

She searched his expression for sincerity and apparently found him honest enough not to be afraid of him. Probably not wise on her part. If she only knew what he was thinking.

“I’m sure you are discreet,” she said, “up until the moment you let it slip, accidentally, of course. I would rather avoid the calamitous events that would then ensue. So, I believe I will keep my own counsel for now. Thank you.”

Her eyes held a depth of astuteness he’d not seen in a woman in a while. The curls that broke free from the knot atop her head blew in the light breeze and she wiped them off her face as she looked up at him.

“I don’t believe we’ve ever been introduced, Lady…?” Was she a lady? He needed to know now if his hopes were futile.

“Miss.” She glanced around the center of the maze. Was she looking for someone?


She looked back at him and appeared to consider her words—whether to divulge her name, or no. Cav knew he was not wearing anything that would denote his position or title, though his clothes were quality, of course. He wondered if she would be more forthcoming with her identity if she knew who he was.

After several moments with no reply, he finally couldn’t stand the silence any longer. “Fine. We shall be nameless. You will be Miss. I shall be Sir.” He motioned for her to sit on the bench. When she did, he leaned against the stair rail of the gazebo next to her. “Perhaps I can be of assistance, Miss. I gather you are seeking to leave the employ of your current mistress.”

Still she examined him. Apparently she found him honorable on some level, for she spoke at last. “You mistake me, Sir. She is not my mistress. She is my aunt. And I am her companion. Much as I might bemoan my situation, she is the only family I have left.”

Cav felt the prospect of a new mistress slipping from his grasp with each word from her lips. She was a lady, as shown by her speech. And he’d become so set on the idea of a mistress that the disappointment was difficult to hide. “You mentioned leaving her employ? Is she a cruel aunt?”

“Not particularly, no. Single-minded? Perhaps. Devious? Sometimes. Thoughtless and not particularly kind? Often.”

He watched as she took in the entirety of the small clearing, the octagonal Greek pavilion made of cut stone, the garden in full bloom on each side, and two wooden benches on opposite sides of the structure. Her attention turned back to him, and again he thought her eyes striking.

“But she’s still my aunt,” she said, “and I’ll not have anyone else speak wrongly of her. The relationship I have with her is different from the one she has with her peers. To them, she is… an amusing companion who enjoys a good card game.”

“Likely why she was invited. Lady Merivale is a hostess who knows how to keep her guests entertained. And cards? The woman loves her gaming.”

The girl turned and he caught her profile for a moment. She looked young, her cheeks plump and smooth. By her looks, Cav would guess her maybe a few years older than his son, but not by much. And that made her young enough to be his daughter. God, he should leave her be. Allow her to continue on her walk. But her lower lip was full and glistening and for some reason he wanted to taste it.

He should quit talking to her and send the chit on her way. And yet he found himself asking, “Who is your aunt?”

She gave him an impish little grin. “Ah… I prefer to remain Miss, and you to remain Mister.”

“Sir,” Cav reminded her. “I prefer Sir.”

“Fine, then.” She gave him a regal little nod of the head. “Sir.”

“But that still doesn’t solve my current dilemma,” he said.

“What’s that?”

Now that he’d met her, he wanted to get to know her better. She gave him the impression she would make a wonderful dinner companion. “How shall I request our hostess to seat you next to me at dinner if I don’t know whom to ask for?” Where he’d been thinking of finding a polite way to leave Somerhill only minutes earlier, he now found a reason to stay. Even if she wasn’t likely to become his mistress.

Suddenly her face paled, her mouth forming a perfect “O,” and she began to stutter. “P-please, I beg you, do not do that. My aunt will think me most impertinent. Especially since we have not had a formal introduction. Besides—” She closed her eyes a moment and took a calming breath. “Besides, it can never come to pass. She’s had me relegated to the upstairs servants’ quarters. Likely as retribution for speaking my mind to her earlier.”

“So, you are not a servant?” Cav was confused. A frequent condition when dealing with the fair sex.

She gave a short burst of laughter. It was a delightful and hearty sound. Then, as if suddenly remembering where she was, she glanced back at the entrance to the center of the maze. “No. I am not. My great-grandfather was a duke, and my uncle is….” She stopped, her head cocked as she contemplated releasing information that might place her family in his mind. “My uncle is… in the church, and my other uncles are notable nobles as well.”

“But you will not tell me who you are? Or who your aunt is?”

“I’m afraid not. There are many things I realize about this world. The first is, I know I was not born to grace the table of a noble husband. My father was the youngest son and he fell in love with the daughter of a country vicar, so while one uncle is a viscount, and another is in the church, I am a mere Miss.”

He wanted to tell her there was nothing “mere” about her. This chance encounter in a maze while she walked off her frustrations was enough to captivate him. She was charming as well as attractive and if he were twenty years younger, he’d ask to court her. And the way his body instantly responded to her told him she’d make a perfect wife.

“Whom do you mourn?” He wanted to know everything about her, foolish as that was. He could not resist her.

Just as she was about to answer, her eyes widened and she paused. “Did you hear that?” She whirled toward the place where she’d entered.

He’d heard nothing and shook his head. “I was wondering who you…” Cav could get nothing else out before voices drew closer and his new friend quickly disappeared through the opposite entrance from which she came. Almost simultaneously, a pair of lovers looking moon-eyed at each other entered the clearing. Glancing at Cav, they turned around and left with barely a greeting.

Cav followed his young lady but was never able to catch up to her. It was as if she disappeared. Vanished into the sunset.

He looked at the low-hanging sun perched just over the horizon, and chose to return to his suite to ready himself for the evening ahead—late dinner and an evening of music and singing. If Miss was not allowed to come down to dinner with the rest of the guests, she likely would take her meals in her rooms for the duration of her stay, because it was highly unlikely she would eat with the servants. Remembering her full, moist lower lip, he decided to instruct his valet to find out her identity.

Cav didn’t know what it was about her exactly, but… she intrigued him. From her voice to the way she moved, she fascinated him. She had confidence and intelligence, patience and mettle. If she knew who he was, she was unfazed. And that interested him most of all. Did she know? Would she change if she did?

Amelia ran through the ornate maze with its carved boxwood hedges easily hundreds of years old. The sweeping curves and twists in the design, brought to mind the words of the kitchen maid she’d seen cutting herbs in the garden. “On yer way out from the middle, at every fork ye come to, keep to the left.”

So she ran, intending to stop only after she reached the solitude of her tiny suite of rooms on the fourth level, but she encountered the housekeeper, Mrs. Lane, as the other woman exited the room across from where Amelia was staying. “Did you enjoy your walk, Miss?”

Amelia smiled and removed her shawl, flushed from the exertion. “Yes, it was pleasantly invigorating, thank you.”

“When would you like your dinner tray, Miss?”

“At eight, please,” Amelia replied. “Until then I shall rest. It’s been a long day. And after dinner, I should like to explore the library if it’s alright with Lord and Lady Merivale. Hopefully there are no planned activities in there.” Amelia hated the thought of running into the true guests during their festivities.

“I will find out for you, though I am certain it would be no problem.”

“Thank you,” Amelia said, then entered her rooms. She tossed her shawl across the foot of the bed, sat in the cushioned window seat, and stared down at the maze. Its interesting circular design had beckoned her earlier. The man in the center held her fascination now.

Sir. She wondered if he was still there where she’d left him, where she’d interrupted his privacy by barging into the clearing in the center of the maze. Who was he? All she could presume was that he was a lesser noble, a “Sir.” He’d admitted as much. He was a handsome sir, Amelia thought. Certainly older than she. Probably on the high side of forty and at his age, likely married.

She kicked off her shoes, brought her feet onto the cushion, and hugged her knees. Resting her chin on them, she sighed. It was just as well she didn’t participate in the festivities. To begin with, she and Aunt Katherine weren’t actually invited, were they? And it would do no good to dream of meeting a potential husband now, at her age. She had a debt to repay first. No one would want to take that on. And besides, no gentleman wanted the impoverished daughter of a younger son. Her mother, while a lady in Amelia’s eyes, was merely the daughter of a country parson in a small parish in Surrey. Her father had met her when he was passing through on his way back to London. They met, fell instantly in love, and married, staying in the area afterward.

If she had been given to tears over her situation, she would have cried long ago, when she realized her plain looks and lack of dowry would never attract a man. Marriage was not the be all and end all of a woman’s existence. She’d chosen to use her intelligence and abilities to help her father in his business and help pay for Harry’s university fees. Except she’d had no idea that her father had borrowed against the business to pay for Harry’s education and living expenses.

Her brother’s disappearance broke Papa’s heart. Literally. And it had come near to breaking her own. Amelia closed her eyes and fought the tears that came forth. Harry was alive out there, somewhere. She knew it, and before she left her aunt’s home, she’d have to make sure that he had a way to find her.

But that was putting the cart before the horse now, wasn’t it? Much as she wished she could leave her situation right at that very moment, she would have to stay until another opportunity presented itself, and she would have to be that annoying woman’s unpaid companion as long as that took. If there was any one thing to be grateful for, at least she had a roof over her head and food in her belly when so many others in her situation did not.