I'm so excited today to share with you the first two chapters of my newest Regency romance, Secrets and Suitors. This story is so close to my heart, and I hope you will enjoy getting to know Nora and James.
Secrets and Suitors
It was not the best hiding spot I had ever found, but it was, thankfully, proving quite effective.
I peeked through the leaves of an impressively large fern that shielded me from the ballroom, watching the twirl and flow of the dancers. No one had seen me as I’d slipped away to this secluded corner, desperate for a few minutes of peace. I was not particularly fond of balls. I’d already danced for hours, and my legs ached from the effort. If I prompted my lips to turn upward, my cheeks refused entirely, so wearied were they from the forced smile I’d worn all evening
My wandering eyes found Mother across the room, standing amongst a group of older matrons. She nodded along with something being said, but her gaze darted away every few seconds, narrowed in focus. My absence had not gone unnoticed.
I leaned back, close to the wall. I did not wish to be discovered at present, not even by my mother. I may have inherited her blue eyes and soft curls, but I unfortunately had not received her graceful movements or effortless skills at conversation. She never suffered the paralyzing nerves that were my constant companions at such events, and it was an exhausting business.
Perhaps in another twenty minutes, I might recover enough to join the party.
Another familiar figure moved across my limited view of the ballroom. Father. He strolled slowly, stopping to greet those he considered friends, ignoring those he thought beneath him. The Baron Denford wore no smile, though that was hardly unusual. Father liked country balls even less than I did; his attendance tonight was almost as rare as a smile would have been.
“There you are, Nora.”
My head jolted as Mother appeared beside me, scrutinizing me from behind her fluttering fan.
“How long did you imagine you might go unseen?” She fixed me with a stern look, though her cheek twitched in an effort to conceal a smile. “It is a potted plant, my dear, not a wall.”
I sighed. She always found me. “The veranda was unavailable.”
“I should say.” She snapped closed her fan. “You would have frozen in a minute.”
Winter still held a firm grasp upon the hills of Hampshire, though I could not help but think a minute of solitude would have been quite worth the January cold. I did not voice my opinion.
“I think you’ve had plenty of recuperation,” she said briskly. “Mr. Weston has been looking for you.”
“Mr. Weston?” I paused in the midst of tugging up my gloves. “He cannot be wanting another dance, can he? I’ve already danced two with him.”
“Of course not.” Mother frowned. “He would never risk your reputation.”
“No, he would not.” Mr. Weston would never do anything to upset the careful propriety that ruled our worlds. In fact, he never did anything I would categorize as risky or uncertain.
“I’m sure he simply wishes to talk, Nora,” she said. “Now come, let us take a turn about the room.”
She did not realize talking with Mr. Weston was nearly as wearying as dancing with him. But I forced a nod and she slipped her arm into mine as she led me from my safe haven.
Then again, how could I blame Mr. Weston for his reserved nature? Was I not the one hiding away in the corner? But perhaps that was the problem: entering into a conversation in which both participants were reticent. Someone was needed to guide the conversation, ask questions, and incite interest in a topic.
Someone like James.
I swallowed, turning my head from Mother. If only James were here. He would not have dragged me from my corner. He would have joined me, laughing quietly as we made whispered observations about the amount of frills on Miss Densley’s dress or the vivid color of Mr. Samson’s waistcoat.
I took a steadying breath. I could not think about James now. Memories of him only brought an aching pain to my chest. He was not here because he did not want to be. He had made that perfectly clear six months ago. Now he was an ocean away, far beyond the reach of my wistful thoughts. Missing him would not help anything, especially when I still had hours of socializing to endure tonight.
We moved about the outskirts of the room, watching the lines of dancers. As we neared the orchestra, a group of young ladies caught my attention. They were smiling, chattering amongst themselves as they cast flirtatious glances at passing young men. They were all near to my own age of one and twenty, but that was likely the only commonality we shared. One of the ladies—Miss Blythe—turned as we moved behind them. Her eyes glinted at the sight of me, not unlike a cat stalking a mouse.
“Oh, good evening, Miss Hamilton,” she said in her high, breathy voice. “Do come join us.”
If I was trying to avoid Mr. Weston, then joining his cousin was likely the worst choice I could make. I was already inventing an excuse when Mother spoke. “Of course. Go and be with your friends, Nora.”
She knew very well I did not have any friends. Well, any friends here.
I withheld a sigh and instead managed a nod. Mother gave my hand a pat as she left. It was not reassuring.
I faced the group of young ladies, all watching me with careful calculation. They curtsied deeply to me, and I returned their movements before Miss Blythe stepped forward to claim my attention. She was something of the leader amongst the younger set here in Larkwood and had taken it upon herself to claim me, rather like one might collect a doll. As the eldest daughter of the Baron Denford, the only member of the peerage in the surrounding area, I was the crown jewel in her collection.
“Are you enjoying the ball, Miss Hamilton?” Miss Blythe asked.
I cleared my throat. “Very much.”
“Your gown is lovely.” She eyed me from the ribbons in my hair to my lace-trimmed hem, no doubt calculating how much my father had paid for such an ensemble.
I glanced down at my gown to avoid her scrutiny and slid my gloved hands over the pale silk. Though it was cut in the latest fashion, I disliked pink. It clashed horridly with the red tones in my blonde hair, but Mother had insisted I looked lovely. “Thank you.”
I knew I ought to return the compliment or make an observation about the dance. But my mouth refused to cooperate, and I kept my gaze on the tips of my dancing slippers. Miss Blythe watched me, though she did not press me.
The conversation moved on, and I was grateful to take up the role of passive listener. I smiled and nodded, keeping my thoughts to myself. It had always been like this. I knew they likely thought me snobbish or aloof, but I simply did not know how to overcome my shyness. And in truth, I wasn’t particularly keen on having more “friends” like Miss Blythe. It was easier to keep to myself.
I turned at the sound of my name and immediately wished I hadn’t. Mr. Weston had found me again. He watched me with that careful expression he always wore, as if worried someone would scold him for smiling.
“I hoped I might have a word with you,” he said, extending his arm.
There was little I could do, and yet I wished I could do it. I wished I could pretend I had not heard him. I wished I could say no, that I preferred not to. I wished I could go back to my lovely quiet spot behind the fern.
But I did not. I coaxed a smile to my face and took his arm. “Of course, Mr. Weston.”
He led me away as Miss Blythe sent me a knowing look I did not understand in the slightest. I was already dreading this conversation. Mr. Weston tended to speak with such dull, measured assurance, one would think he did not speak at all until his mind was thoroughly convinced his words could not possibly offend or cause outcry. That made for tedious conversation indeed.
Perhaps he simply wished to say goodbye since he departed for his home in Shropshire in two days’ time. The Blythes had thrown this ball as a farewell, no doubt to pry their way into his good graces. The man was to inherit a barony from his father, after all. It was certainly why Father liked him so much, though I could not claim a similar fondness. I had been counting down the days to his departure, wishing for a few weeks of normalcy before we left for the Season in London.
We walked out into the hallway and down a ways, stopping before an alcove. A few other guests gossiped down the hall, but we were as alone as we possibly could be. An ice-frosted window displayed the lovely winter scene outside: the snow-covered lawn, the bare branches of trees twisting in the wind.
Mr. Weston turned to face me.
“Miss Hamilton,” he began. “I cannot tell you how much I have enjoyed the last few weeks, especially since I have been fortunate enough to spend much of them in your company.”
Far too much of them, in my opinion. He had accompanied his cousin whenever she paid a visit to me, and since Miss Blythe insisted in coming to Denford House at least weekly, I had seen quite a bit more of Mr. Weston than I should have liked.
“We shall be sad to see you return to your home,” I said, hoping to lead him into his words of farewell.
But then he stepped closer and my pulse quickened, and not in a particularly pleasant way. He took my hand and raised it between us, his thumb moving in an uncomfortable circle on the back of my hand. What on earth was he doing?
“My dear Miss Hamilton,” he murmured, his gaze riveted to mine. “I know we have not known each other long, but I have come to regard you most highly.”
He had? I would not have guessed that in the least. But the way he was staring at me now made me realize how very blind I had been. Thoughts connected with astounding force inside my head: the hothouse flowers he had brought me last week, his constant stares from across whatever room we were in.
Suddenly Miss Blythe’s knowing look and Father’s willingness to come to the ball tonight all made a frightful amount of sense.
“Mr. We-Weston,” I said, choking on his name in my hurry. “I was unaware—”
My voice cut out completely. What could I say? Father would be furious if I refused Mr. Weston, and yet every inch of me begged to do just that.
Mr. Weston peered at me. “You were unaware of what?”
I stared at his cravat, perfectly starched and tied. Is that what my life would be like now, as stiff and lifeless as that length of fabric?
But then a voice--his voice—spoke from behind me. “She was unaware that her closest friend had returned home.”
I froze as his words sank in to me. His warm, comfortable, playful words. I spun and found him standing in the middle of the hallway with that familiar tilt of his head, his blue eyes bright with amusement.
The air in the hall was much too thin. That was the only reason I could think of for my sudden lightheadedness. My hands pressed into my stomach, and I whispered his name, my voice shaking.
I wanted nothing more than to run and throw my arms around him, prove to myself he was real, solid, and whole. But my feet would not move, trapped as they were in shock.
James’s eyes flicked to Mr. Weston and then back to me, a grin teasing his lips. “You do not seem very pleased to see me, Nora. Have I interrupted something? Perhaps I should come back at a more convenient time.”
That was when I knew it was really him and not some imagination of my mind. Only James would say something so audacious. But how was he here? I’d thought he would be gone for months yet. I hadn’t allowed myself to hope to see him so soon—or to prepare myself for the sight of him.
I hadn’t breathed since he had appeared. I inhaled a gulp of air, unable to look away from him, as if he might vanish if I were to blink.
“Miss Hamilton and I were talking,” Mr. Weston said from behind me. A note of irritation found its way into his voice, the most emotion I’d ever heard from him.
“Oh, I do apologize,” James said, adopting such a contrite tone I almost thought him sincere. He moved forward and offered a bow. “I don’t believe we have been introduced.”
There was a moment of silence before I realized that was my responsibility. I gave a small cough. “Mr. Weston, this is Mr. James Allen. He is a neighbor of my father’s and a good friend of mine.”
“The best of friends,” James inserted. “Why, I’ve known Miss Hamilton here since she was eight years old and thought it prudent to sail a raft down the stream. It required no small effort on my behalf to rescue her, I’ll have you know.”
I shot him a glare, though the corners of my mouth fought a smile. I was torn between mortification and laughter. Oh, I had missed him.
“Hush now,” I said. “Mr. Weston will think me peculiar.”
James raised an eyebrow, asking me a question, but it was not one I wished to answer at present. I flushed and turned away, determined to finish the introduction.
“Mr. Weston is Miss Blythe’s cousin, come to visit the family for a few weeks.” I forced a smile at Mr. Weston.
Mr. Weston was a difficult man to read; his face was all that was polite. Only his eyes, slightly narrowed, gave any indication he was less than pleased as he offered a curt nod as a greeting.
“How good to meet you,” James said. “Now, I know I am being terribly rude, but after six months abroad, I am longing for a dance with my oldest friend. If you are not opposed, Mr. Weston?”
Longing. I bit my lip at James’s choice of words. If only that were true.
Mr. Weston’s mouth parted, but no words escaped. Finally, he closed his mouth and shook his head, though it looked as though he would rather have spent an hour on the frozen veranda than let James take me away.
“I am sorry, Mr. Weston,” I said as I took James’s arm. “Perhaps we might talk later in the evening?”
He had no opportunity to respond as James guided me back down the hall. Mr. Weston’s footsteps sounded as he strode off in the other direction. Was he angry? There would be repercussions, I was sure. But for the moment I simply allowed a breath of air to escape my mouth. Whatever Mr. Weston had planned to say to me, I at least had this reprieve.
James and I walked in silence as the sounds of the ball filled the hallway around us once again. My mind was still racing to catch up, entirely too aware of his arm in mine, and trying desperately notto think of the last time we had stood this close.
“Did I surprise you, Nora?” James spoke in a quiet voice, almost apologetic.
I shook my head. “You know the answer to that. Your father said he did not expect you for another two months at best.”
He gave a little smile. “He was not mistaken. I’d thought to stay at the plantation far longer, but an opportunity presented itself and I left on the next available ship. I traveled as fast as any letter might have.”
I glanced sideways at him, examining the lines of his face. He kept his brown hair longer now, and it had begun to curl about his ears. His skin was darker, no doubt from spending months under the unrelenting sun, both on a ship and on his family’s sugar plantation in Jamaica. But those were not the only changes. His shoulders were broader and stronger, and he moved differently. He’d always been confident, so it wasn’t that. It was more his gait, an odd rhythm to his steps.
“Have you gone to see your poor father, or did you come to tease me straightaway?” I asked. “I would not be surprised if it was the latter.”
“Of course I saw my father,” he said with a laugh. “Though I must admit a bath was a bit of a higher priority than asking you for the first dance.”
He was teasing me, I knew, but that fact did not stop a stab of hurt inside me. I glanced away.
“What is it?” he said immediately, pulling me to a stop. “What have I said?”
I’d nearly forgotten how perceptive he was. It sometimes seemed he knew me better than even I did, and certainly better than anyone else, including my younger sister, Susanna.
“Nothing,” I said. We were alone in the corridor, though the doors to the ballroom stood open not five paces away, music and laughter spilling out.
He gave me that look, the one that told me he did not believe me. He had grown quite good at it over the years.
“Tell me,” he said. “No secrets, remember?”
No secrets. Our childhood pact had been made in such innocence, with no foresight into what complications would soon arise.
I swallowed. “It is nothing, I promise. I am only taken aback at seeing you.”
He tipped his head, examining me. “Taken aback? I admit I am disappointed. I’d hoped for a much stronger reaction. Words of elation, at least—perhaps even fainting at the sight of me.”
That drew a short laugh from me, no matter my tangled emotions.
He gave a dramatic sigh. “It appears absence has not made the heart grow fonder in this case.”
How very false that was. Had there been a day—or even an hour—during James’s absence that my mind hadn’t turned to him?
I immediately reprimanded myself. I was no longer allowed to think about such things, and I was determined to follow through. I attempted a lighthearted tone. “I might be fonder of you if you’d bothered to give me a proper farewell before you left.”
He sobered and glanced away for the first time. “I am sorry. You deserved far more than a letter. I wanted so badly to tell you in person, but circumstances did not allow it.”
Air hitched in my throat. Circumstances? Did he mean . . . ?
But I tore my thoughts from traveling that road to the garden party last summer. Because thoughts of that night would make me wish to run away, and I could hardly do that.
I swallowed, attempting to calm the turmoil inside me. No matter what had happened that night, we were the closest of friends. I had deserved a better farewell than the briefest of notes.
“I should have liked to say goodbye.” My voice was thin as lace, fraying at the edges. I took my hand from his arm in the pretense of fixing a hairpin; I could not bear his warmth reaching through my gloves.
But he did not allow me to retreat. He caught my hand, holding it between us. My heart stumbled at his touch, and I met his steady gaze.
“I am sorry,” he said as his eyes moved between mine. “I would do it differently if I could. I swear.”
I forced myself to breathe evenly, to keep my expression from giving away all that I felt. I knew I could hardly have expected him to wake our entire household just to bid me farewell, but I wished he had all the same. He’d set sail for his plantation before I’d realized he was gone, and it had hurt me. Shattered me. But I could not let him know that. I could not let him see how much his absence had affected me.
“You might have written while you were gone.” I forced a stern tone to my voice.
He squinted at me. “Ah yes, I’m sure your father would have liked that.”
He had a point. Father had never strictly forbidden my friendship with James. It would have been difficult, considering we were neighbors and the Allen family was well respected in Larkwood. But Father would not have liked James writing me, and neither was it proper for him to do so now that we were grown. The unforgiving rules of Society did not care that we’d been friends since childhood.
“I cannot stand to have you upset with me.” James tucked my hand against his arm once again. “What can I do to make things right? Perhaps a waltz would be a good start?”
I hesitated, but in the end did not pull away. “Do you think my dances have not already been claimed? You cannot show up in the middle of a ball and expect me to have no obligations.”
“Forgive my doubt,” he said dryly, “or have things changed so drastically since I left? Because if I do not miss my mark, you have been hiding away for the majority of the dances.”
I fought hard, but my lips twitched. “Only the last two.”
He chuckled. “Thank heavens. I was worried you might have changed while I was away.” His smile faded, and his gaze moved over me—my hair, my face, my dress. “It is good to see you, Nora.” His voice was quiet, soft as a shadow. “I have missed you.”
I wanted to respond, to say how much I had missed him as well. But footsteps sounded behind us, and I turned. Father stood in the doorway to the ballroom, his hair precisely arranged, his cravat stiff and jacket perfectly tailored. But his expression was not nearly as controlled. He stared at the two of us with a deep line furrowed into his brow, his mouth set in a scowl.
“Nora,” he said in a commanding voice. “Get your things. We are leaving.”
“Leaving?” I repeated. “But—”
“Now.” His tone left no room for argument, though I wanted so badly to protest. He knew I had not seen James in months. I wanted my dance with James and the conversations I had dreamed up during his long absence.
I opened my mouth to argue, and Father’s eyes narrowed dangerously. Why was he reacting so strongly? Father had always disliked James, no doubt because they were as opposite as two men could be. But he had never acted like this before, deliberately keeping us apart. What could have happened?
But I bit back my pleas. It would be no use, and I hated to make a scene.
I looked back at James. I’m sorry, I mouthed, and he gave a curt nod.
“Perhaps next time, Miss Hamilton,” he said. “Good evening.”
He bowed, and I curtsied. Then I followed after my father, glancing back once. James watched me with an unreadable expression before he turned and disappeared back down the dark hallway.
* * *
The coach ride home was silent. Even with my fur-lined cloak surrounding me, there was a chill inside our carriage, and not because of the January cold outside. Father sat across from me and did not speak one word as he glared out the window.
Mother sat quietly beside him. She did not speak either, but she sent me a sympathetic glance every few minutes. I hardly knew how to interpret either response. Surely James’s reappearance was not enough to elicit such anger from Father. It was as though I had missed a vital piece of information that everyone else was aware of, and it bothered me, like the buzzing of a persistent fly.
When we arrived at Denford House, Father immediately disappeared into his study, leaving me and Mother to ascend the sweeping staircase alone. I made certain Father was gone and then hurried a few steps to catch Mother.
“What has happened?” I whispered urgently. “Why is Father acting so strangely?”
Mother shook her head. “You know he is not overly fond of Mr. Allen.”
“It is more than that though. Why should he be so angry?” Our steps echoed in the quiet of the house; only a few servants were awake at this late hour. And Susanna, of course. She always waited up for me.
“Your father does not need much cause to be angry.” Mother spoke softly, but the tension in her voice was unmistakable.
“There is something you are not telling me.” I matched her low tone.
She gave a sad smile as we reached the top of the stairs. “Oh, there are many things I do not tell you, my dear.”
Before I could question her further, she departed down the hallway to her room. I sighed. Mother was nearly as frustrating as Father. She was not an unkind mother, by any means. She at least showed an interest in me most days. But never did she challenge Father, even for something so little as confiding in me about why he was angry.
I stood in the stillness of the hall, finally alone, my mind working in a fruitless attempt to unravel all the strange happenings of the night. I had not thought for one second that I might see James tonight, and the taste of it had been almost more torturous than not seeing him at all. I pressed a hand to my throat. Oh, but it had been so good to see him.
Taking a steadying breath, I went to my room, slipping inside and closing the door behind me. Susanna sat up in my bed, her red hair in a tight braid over her shoulder.
“You are home early,” she said, setting her book on my night table.
I gave a little laugh. “It is nearly midnight.”
“Yes, and I did not expect you for hours yet.” She cast me a suspicious look. “Did you pretend an illness again?”
“I have never done that.”
“Of course not,” she said conspiratorially.
“I haven’t,” I protested. “I am far too terrified of making a fuss. Now, come and help me out of this gown so I needn’t call up Margaret.”
After changing, I sat at the vanity and removed the pins from my hair, allowing my coppery blonde locks to fall around my shoulders. Susanna reclaimed her place on the bed and rested her head against the bedpost. I eyed her in the mirror, watching the firelight play against the curls about her face. She always bemoaned her hair, but I thought the color lovely. She would not be Susanna without her fiery red tresses.
“Do not leave me in suspense any longer,” she said. “Was it wonderful? Did you dance with many gentlemen?”
I began brushing my hair in long strokes. “I danced with several, though none particularly stand out in my mind.”
She frowned. “You must give me more details than that. Tell me about the ladies’ dresses and whom you danced with. I must know everything.”
I resisted a sigh as I tugged my brush through a tangle. She deserved every detail she wanted. Susanna was uncommonly patient with me, seeing as I'd already had two Seasons and she was nearing eighteen. Most girls her age had been out in Society for a year or two already, but Father would not hear of her debuting until I was married. Susanna never hurried me, however. “It will happen in due time,” she always said.
I set down my brush and turned in my chair to face her. “Something did happen tonight.”
She straightened, clasping her hands in front of her. “This sounds intriguing. Go on.”
I took a deep breath. “James returned home.”
She gave a little gasp and leaned forward. “Truly?”
“He arrived today and came late to the ball. In fact, he actually interrupted—”
I stopped. I didn’t know precisely how to describe what James had interrupted. Had Mr. Weston been about to propose? That was the only conclusion I could draw, and yet I could not account for why he would propose to me, of all people.
“He interrupted what?” Susanna prompted.
“I’m not entirely sure,” I said. “Mr. Weston had pulled me aside to speak, and—”
“Oh! He was proposing!”
I shot her a sharp look and glanced at the door. I did not know why, since the household was quiet, but her voice was overly loud for my taste.
“I think he was, though I am not certain,” I said in a near-whisper. “It is not as though I have any experience in such matters. Even if he was, it hardly matters, because James interrupted us before Mr. Weston had spoken more than two sentences.”
She stared at me. “James interrupted Mr. Weston proposing to you?”
I sighed. “Yes.”
She laughed. “I cannot believe it. Of all the nights for him to have returned . . .”
“Believe me, I am well aware of the unlikely odds,” I said dryly, turning back to my mirror and beginning to braid my hair into a tight plait.
“Was it terribly awkward?”
“Of course it was; it was James. He enjoys creating horribly awkward situations.” Though I hadn’t minded tonight. I had been too stunned at his appearance and far too grateful he’d provided an escape from Mr. Weston.
She shook her head. “Poor Mr. Weston. But why is James back so soon? With such a journey as he had, I imagined he would be gone for a long time yet.”
“You are not alone in that,” I said. “But he said he returned for business.”
She examined me in the mirror. “And how did James look?”
I bit my lip, focusing on my braid. I did not want to admit to anyone, even my sister, how very well James had looked. “He looked well enough.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Well enough?”
My fingers paused for only a moment before continuing in their task. “Stop it, Susie.”
“I simply find it difficult to believe you do not think of him in that way.”
“He is my closest friend,” I said, my voice steady. I was quite accustomed to defending my relationship with James. “I can certainly admit he is handsome, but that does not mean I’ve set my cap for him.”
“I know,” she said, her voice sobering. “And I suppose even if you had, Father would not allow it.”
I should have been used to hearing such words, considering how accustomed I was to Father’s strictness. But tonight, with Mr. Weston’s near-proposal, James’s sudden reappearance, and Father’s hasty insistence that we leave the ball, her statement itched inside me. Father would not allow it.
“No,” I said, my voice thick. “No, he would not.”
We were quiet while I finished braiding my hair. As I tied off the end, Susanna moved to the edge of the bed.
“What would you have said?” she asked, tugging on the sleeve of her dressing gown. “To Mr. Weston, I mean, if James had not come?”
I leaned my forearms against the polished wood of my vanity, avoiding my own reflection in the mirror. Amidst all the tumult of the evening, I had not allowed myself to properly examine what I might have said. Mr. Weston was all that Father wished for me and yet nothing I wished for myself.
“I do not know,” I said softly. “I simply do not know.”
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