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MAGGIE DARLINGTON ROLLED OVER IN bed and squinted into the sunlight pouring through the lace curtains of her bedroom window. As if suddenly realizing where she was, she groaned, spread her fingers wide, and placed both hands over her face. She wordlessly cursed the brilliant sunshine and bemoaned her return to Wentworth Hall, sliding deeper under her floral eiderdown quilt and soft, voluminous bed covers.
If she were in Paris—as she had been only two weeks earlier—the red velvet drapes would still be drawn and she’d be permitted to sleep until noon—at least. To think, she had looked forward to coming home. She had really believed life would return to normal after her year away in France. How wrong she had been.
But, like it or not, she was back in Sussex now, and Nora, her ladies maid, had already begun their morning ritual, slipping silently into her room only a few hours after dawn to draw aside the heavy damask window coverings. It was Maggie’s father, Lord Arthur Darlington’s, none-too-subtle way of rousing the household for the day. Her father loved Wentworth Hall, and felt his entire family should share his affection. Never mind the fact that there wasn’t much to do at the house if you were a lady. Other than read in the library. Or practice sewing in the parlor. Or have tea with her younger sister, Lila. Despite eighteen years of doing just that, Maggie had yet to grow fond of those activities.
Dropping her hands down by her sides as if in surrender, she realized it was no use trying to go back to sleep. She had already spent the last few weeks claiming the journey had exhausted her. If she couldn’t get back to normal exactly, she did have to find a new routine, a new “normal.” And no better day than the present to get started.
She could hear the servants already up and about. Footsteps trundled down the hall, and the lingering homey smell of bacon was unmistakable. Probably a servant delivering Lady Darlington’s breakfast. She was the only one Lord Darlington allowed the luxury of breakfast in the bedroom, and solely because Lady Beatrice Darlington had recently delivered him a second male heir. Meanwhile, said male heir was being cared for night and day by the French nanny they had brought back from Paris.
Although Maggie claimed to have developed a preference for the “continental breakfast” of pastry and dark coffee she’d been enjoying during the past year’s stay in Nice and then Paris, this morning the idea of a good English “fry-up” had appeal.
Maggie tossed off the quilt, letting it slide to the floor, sat up, and stretched her lanky frame. Gathering her lush honey blond curls into a bundle, she twisted the hair into a topknot that would hold its form without the help of hairpins or a ribbon.
She lowered herself from her high four-poster bed, pulled a matching peignoir over the daring rose-colored satin nightgown her aunt had purchased for her on the Champs Élysées and crossed to the window.
Green hills dotted with trees rolled out for miles, and the stream’s water sparkled in the distance. It called to mind the many hours she’d spent riding on those very grounds. She remembered laughing as she galloped faster and faster, scaring Michael, her groom, and forcing him to race after her. Once upon a time, Maggie had spent as many waking hours as possible out in those very fields, relishing the feel of the wind in her hair and the reckless abandon of pushing her favorite horse, Buckingham, to his limits.
But those days of girlish, foolish, behavior were over.
She stepped back when she saw Michael walking out of the stable with Lila’s horse, Windsor. Maggie hadn’t seen Michael since the day she left for the Continent, over a year ago. From this distance, he looked just as she remembered—broad shoulders, strong arms, and easy, self-assured gait. He’d always had a confidence about him, even when they were children. She caught sight of her reflection in the windowpane and wondered if he would notice any difference in her. Not that she planned to give him an opportunity to do so.
Maggie inspected her hazy appearance in the glass, not so much to admire it—though since childhood everyone had commented on what a pretty girl she was and she wasn’t deaf to the praise—but rather to search for signs of change. Surely the experiences abroad had lent maturity to her features? Had the girlish sparkle left her brown eyes, replaced by a new worldliness?
There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” Maggie responded, turning and crossing her room to take a seat at her vanity. She assumed Nora was returning to lay out her clothing.
Turning sharply toward the unexpected voice, Maggie took in the figure of petite, delicate Therese, nanny to newborn James.
“What is it, Therese?” Maggie’s tone was colder than she had intended.
“Madame Darlington is still sleeping and I am not sure.… Shall I take baby James for a stroll this morning?” Therese inquired in her heavily accented English.
“Why would you ask me?” Maggie snapped. Seeing the bags under Therese’s normally sparkling brown eyes made her regret her tone. Perhaps Therese was homesick for France. Or for her mother, who Maggie had learned had died only a year before, leaving Therese without any family in the world.
“I am sorry. I only thought—”
Feeling guilty for her peevishness, Maggie softened. “Please don’t apologize. I only meant that James is not my responsibility. If Lady Darlington is still sleeping, ask my father to wake her.”
Therese stepped back, almost recoiling from the very idea. “Oh, no,” she said, hesitating. “I would never wish to bother Lord Darlington with such a matter.”
“I don’t see why not. I can’t imagine what Lord Darlington could be doing that is more important.”
“Right now he is addressing the staff,” Therese told her.
Maggie sniffed with annoyance. “What’s he bothering them about now?” Though it did explain why Nora wasn’t there to help her dress. Maggie walked over to her wardrobe to select an outfit for herself.
“I am not certain. I was told it did not concern me.” Therese tilted her head toward the open door. “Pardon, I must return to little James.”
“Yes, yes, by all means, go,” Maggie dismissed Therese with an absent wave and surveyed the many dresses in front of her. The less she saw of Therese—and baby James, for that matter—the better.
Before she’d selected the day’s outfit, seventeen-year-old Nora burst into the room, red-faced and frazzled. “Sorry, Miss Maggie. I was hoping you weren’t up yet. His lordship was giving us a talk and I just slipped away quiet-like because I didn’t want to leave you stranded here in your room with nothing to wear.”
“Well, you needn’t have worried, Nora. I’m perfectly capable of dressing myself. In fact, from now on let’s just skip this dressing ritual. Really, it’s so old-fashioned. What do you say?”
Nora bustled past Maggie and pulled a charcoal gray frock with a wide white bib collar from the wardrobe and laid it out across a love seat in the corner of the room. “Her ladyship would never hear of that!” Nora objected firmly. “It wouldn’t be right.”
Turning, hands on her hips, Nora looked Maggie up and down. “You’re looking very ooh-la-la today. Very pretty nightgown, I dare say, but has your mother seen it?”
“I’m eighteen, Nora! I don’t have to have my mother’s permission for my nightgown.”
“You got that in Paris, didn’t you?” Nora guessed with an air of disapproval. “And I’ll wager her Ladyship wasn’t with you when you bought it.”
“Nora!” Maggie scolded. She had known Nora for as long as she could remember and she wasn’t about to be lectured to by the waifish, freckle-faced maid with whom she’d played as a child while Nora’s mother cooked downstairs in the servants’ quarters.
“Have it your own way,” Nora gave in. “You always do, anyway.” She pulled open a dresser drawer and selected a full-length slip, stockings, garters, a corset, and underdrawers.
“I don’t want to wear any of that,” Maggie insisted. “It’s the middle of August. I don’t need stockings and I most certainly do not want a corset.”
“No corset?!” Nora exclaimed. “What’s going to hold you together?”
Nora’s horrified expression made Maggie burst out with laughter. “Same as what holds you together, I imagine. My bones and skin. At least I hope so!” Sifting through the clothes hanging in her armoire, Maggie contemplated her Parisian purchases. “Here, look at this, Nora.” She held up a straight-lined floral sheath of a translucent fabric, lined with green satin. It was worn with a coordinating billowy green tunic-length jacket. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
“It’s something, all right,” Nora allowed. “You’ll certainly make an impression at the breakfast table. But wear it at your own risk. And don’t be saying I selected it for you.”
“I’ll take the blame,” Maggie agreed. Nora helped her change into the outfit. Truthfully, wearing something daring made her feel like her old self again. It felt good. “I’m starving. I take it I haven’t missed breakfast?”
Pulling down her quick updo, Maggie shook her hair out, letting it spill around her shoulders, and began to brush. Without comment, Nora plucked the brush from her hand and continued the job. “No, you’re in luck. His lordship’s talk has delayed everything this morning.”
“What on Earth is he babbling about for so long?”
“It’s about those houseguests coming to live here at Wentworth Hall.”
Maggie addressed Nora’s face in the mirror. “Houseguests?” she asked. “Coming here? Whoever could they be? And how long will they be staying?”
“The Fitzhughs. Don’t know more than that,” Nora mumbled, holding a couple of pins in her mouth as she arranged Maggie’s hair. “There,” she said, admiring her handiwork.
Nora went off to take care of Lila, and Maggie headed down the hall. From the curved central staircase she could see the immense lobby below on the main floor of the estate. Most of the indoor staff of about thirty was assembled and listening to Lord Darlington’s address. Craning over the balcony to hear his words, they came to her in a low drone. The staff could see her, though they dared not give any indication of it, but Lord Darlington’s back was to Maggie and so he continued undisturbed.
Her father was dressed in a navy blue, single-breasted waistcoat, vest, and pants. His crisp white wing-collared shirt was nestled beneath a perfectly done black bow tie. His black shoes were polished daily and gleaming. As she descended the stairs, Maggie noted that the ever-widening bald spot on his head also held a shine and it amused her to imagine his manservant, Gerald, polishing it. Maggie would not put it beneath her father to request such a service.
“Are there any questions about what I have just said?” Lord Darlington asked the staff as Maggie settled on the stairs behind him.
“None at all, sir,” Percival the head butler spoke for the others, standing with his usual square-shouldered perfect posture. “The young Fitzhughs shall be cared for with no less diligence than if they were His Royal Highness King Edward himself. We look forward to attending to their every need no matter how major or how minor. You can count on us, sir.”
“I will count on it,” Lord Darlington replied. “Indeed, I will insist upon it. You may dismiss the staff.”
“Thank you, sir,” Perceval said with a sharp nod.
Lord Darlington turned and noticed Maggie on the steps. “The Fitz-whos?” she asked.
“Maggie. Good to see you up and about this fine morning. I take it your travel malaise has lifted?” Lord Darlington held out his hand and helped Maggie up from the stairs. “And what, may I ask, are you wearing?” he asked, taking in her rather eccentric outfit as she stood up.
“It’s the latest thing from Paris. Isn’t it delightful? It’s Aunt Daphne–approved.”
Lord Darlington’s face was less delighted. “Well, I’m not certain I approve. Though I am glad to see you, regardless of your attire. You will not wear that in England—and certainly not while we have houseguests.”
“All right, Father. I will change if you insist. But first you must tell me, who are the Fitzhughs? And why are we hosting them with such fanfare?”
“You may have heard me speak of my days serving in the army during the Second Boer War in South Africa.”
Endlessly, Maggie thought, and hoped she hadn’t inadvertently rolled her eyes, a gesture her father deplored.
“Reginald Fitzhugh was my closest friend and during a particularly violent skirmish, he saved my life. Ever since then we have been closer than brothers.”
“Then why have I never met him?” Maggie asked.
“Reggie went on to make his fortune in diamond trading, which required him to stay close to the diamond mines of South Africa,” Lord Darlington explained. “We have corresponded avidly for the last twenty-five years.”
“And now he’s dead?”
“Sadly, yes. His wife also passed on many years before, and that leaves his children with no one to care for them but us.”
“Us?” Maggie asked, the pitch of her voice rising, aghast at the thought of taking on any responsibility for small children. “How old are the little tykes?”
“You needn’t worry, Maggie; Teddy and Jessica Fitzhugh are almost your age. They will both turn eighteen in a matter of months.”
“Quite so, and given this tragic turn of events, they are dependent on our kindness. I expect you will treat them with the same warmth and hospitality as members of our family receive.”
Members of our family receive about as much warmth as a snowstorm, Maggie considered, but decided not to voice her thoughts. “I’m sorry to hear of their father’s death. But certainly, they must be perfectly capable of living on their own at their age?” she asked instead.
“Their fortune is being held in trust until they turn eighteen,” Lord Darlington answered. “Their father made the contract iron-clad, I’m afraid. No way to get them any money a day before their birthdays.”
“Ahh,” Maggie said, amused that the plot had just thickened. It certainly explained her father’s sudden and uncharacteristic benevolence.
“And what, might I ask, is meant by ahh?” Lord Darlington asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Maggie replied with a cagey smile. He knew what she meant. The Darlington fortune was not what it once had been. The trappings were still there: the immense grandeur of Wentworth Hall, the staff of servants, the expensive clothing. But Maggie wasn’t blind… or deaf… or dumb… and you would have to be all three to live in Wentworth Hall and not see that the family funds had been overspent and badly invested. A fresh infusion of a South African diamond fortune would be just the boost they needed. She wondered how her father planned to get his hands on the Fitzhugh fortune. Perhaps Wesley would have to return from Oxford and wed Miss Diamond Mines? She only hoped Jessica Fitzhugh was passably attractive, for her elder brother’s sake.
The clatter of dishes being laid out could be heard from the dining room, and Maggie’s stomach rumbled with hunger. She headed in the direction of the sound, but Lord Darlington clasped her at the elbow, halting her progress. “Upstairs, young lady, and change out of that Parisian getup.”
Casting a longing eye toward the dining room, Maggie turned back and said, “Yes, Father.” She started toward the staircase and began to climb.
“Maggie,” Lord Darlington said, walking toward her, his expression turning thoughtful. “You have indeed become a most lovely young woman. There was a time, not long ago, when I worried about your… impulsive nature.”
Stopping on the staircase, Maggie turned warily.
“It seems to me that your sojourn on the continent has lent you a new maturity that becomes you,” he observed.
Maggie descended two steps, her heart sinking with this observation. By all accounts, her father’s words were meant as a compliment. So why did it feel so insulting? Especially given the fact that he was right. Any spark of the girl she once was had been extinguished. She’d put it out herself.
“We should think about getting you out into society more. It’s time we turned our attention to providing you with a suitable husband.”
“Of course,” Maggie snapped. “And I suppose you think Teddy Fitzhugh would be suitable?” she said, tossing off the words with worldly knowingness, making it clear that he was right to think her changed. She was no longer the wild unruly colt who had departed for the continent last year. She knew now how these games were played, and she was willing to play them.
“Perhaps,” Lord Darlington replied in a level tone, “if he will have you. We also have more local suitors. Your mother would like to keep you close by, if possible. And the Duke of Cotswall has expressed interest.” With that shocking revelation, he nodded his dismissal, turning his back and walking into his study.
Maggie gripped the curved banister to steady herself. Stunned by his words, she sank onto the step. This announcement had taken her utterly by surprise. It was the last thing she would have expected—or welcomed.