Martha Barwood

Regency Romance Author

Beneath the Mistletoe's Promise

Prologue – Chapter One – Chapter Two


Sebastian Bellamy, the Earl of Harrow, sat rigidly in the sumptuously decorated parlour of Harrow Manor, a glass of brandy poised in his hand. The afternoon sun streamed through the high windows, casting golden beams across the curtains; but inside the room was tense. Cold.

The intensity of the gazes that held him captive belonged to none other than his mother, and his late wife’s equally daunting mother. They sat side by side, their eyes unwavering, their postures filled with a determined resolution.

His mother cleared her throat, and Sebastian braced himself. He knew what was coming. “Sebastian,” she began in her most imperious tone, “it has been three years since dear Lady Harrow passed, may God rest her soul.” A pause, heavy with meaning, followed. “It is time, my dear, to think of your daughters.”

Sebastian frowned, swirling the liquid in his glass. The mention of his children always managed to pierce through his aloof exterior. “They have a father,” he replied defensively.

“And they have grandparents who care for them,” Lady Agatha Drummond, Elizabeth’s mother, interjected, her voice softer but with an underlying steel. “I disagree that you must remarry, but it isn’t my choice.”

His mother leaned forward, her eyes intense. “Your duty is not just to the memory of Lady Harrow or to your children. You have a responsibility to the Bellamy lineage. Your daughters need a mother, and the estate needs an overseeing lady. We’ve observed the household, Sebastian, and there’s no denying it.”

Sebastian’s blue eyes darkened. The weight of his title, the legacy of his family, always felt like shackles to him. Yet, he knew he could not escape the duties and responsibilities it entailed. “You speak of remarrying,” he said slowly, as if tasting the words.

His mother nodded. “Indeed. Isn’t it about time, my son?”

Sebastian felt the word sting him sharply. It wasn’t just the idea of remarriage that pained him, but everything it brought to the forefront of his mind. A bitter taste spread through his mouth, reminding him of all the times he’d tried to swallow his regrets. He took a slow sip from his glass, hoping the familiar warmth of the brandy might chase away the cold memories, if only for a moment.

His past with Elizabeth was not at all what he had dreamt of. As a young man, he’d dreamt of a life filled with joy, with days spent in shared laughter and nights in whispered conversations. They would be partners, confidants, lovers. In those dreams, their house echoed with warmth, with the giggles of their children and the shared stories of their days.

Reality proved cruel. Instead of a haven, their home resembled an ornate cage. Their marriage was more a business arrangement than a romantic union, one meant to merge influential families and produce heirs. Their conversations, once filled with hopes and dreams, were replaced by silent dinners and cold glances. Instead of a sanctuary, their bedroom felt empty.

The echoing voice of his late father played again in his mind, a constant reminder during his younger years of the importance of producing a male heir. “The Bellamy lineage rests on your shoulders,” he’d said repeatedly. The pressure, the desire, no, the need to produce a son weighed heavily on Sebastian’s heart. Every whispered hope, every disappointed look from Elizabeth when they realized they wouldn’t have a son, only deepened the divide between them.

To make matters more heart-breaking, their two daughters, Emily and Sophia, became silent witnesses to their parents’ growing chasm. They were collateral damage in a war of silent resentment. Their innocent eyes often darted between their parents during tense meals, internalizing the frosty atmosphere.

Sebastian remembered times he’d caught Emily consoling Sophia, the older sister trying to shield the younger from their parents’ icy exchanges. These memories pained him the most. How had he let his beautiful, innocent daughters get entangled in his failed marriage? The weight of guilt pressed on him, adding to the regrets he bore.

He was brought back to the present by Lady Drummond’s soft, sympathetic voice. “Sebastian, there is no need for you to remarry; I’m here today to ask that you and your mother reconsider. Elizabeth has only been gone three years.”

“And I,” his mother countered, “Think that three years is more than enough.”

He glanced at her, his blue eyes betraying the turmoil inside. The thought of starting afresh, of giving his daughters the loving home they deserved, was tempting. The risk of another loveless bond, the potential of putting Emily and Sophia through more heartache, held him back.

His fingers tightened around his glass. The next decision he made would determine the course of their lives. He had to choose wisely, for himself and, more importantly, for his daughters.

Sebastian’s gaze travelled towards the mahogany door on the far side of the parlour. His library was situated beyond that door, serving as his refuge. How he yearned to be there now, surrounded by the comforting embrace of his books, far from the intensity of this confrontation.

As the weight of their words continued to bear down on him, his thoughts roiled, desperately seeking the comfort of the familiar leather-bound tomes and the soft crackling of the fireplace. Just as he was about to excuse himself, Lady Drummond’s sharp voice cut through his fog of contemplation.

“Lord Harrow,” she declared, her tone leaving no room for argument, “I’ve taken it upon myself to arrange for a governess for Emily and Sophia. She will be here within the week. Perhaps that is a suitable replacement for a new mother.”

He blinked, taken aback. “A governess?” he repeated, his voice tinged with incredulity. “When did I agree to this?”

His mother leaned forward, interjecting with a soothing tone, “My dear, I must agree with Lady Drummond. We only thought to ease some burdens from your shoulders. A governess will provide the girls with the maternal guidance they so dearly need until you remarry-“

“He does not need to remarry,” Lady Drummond countered sternly.

Sebastian’s temper, already frayed, sparked with frustration. “The upbringing of my daughters is my responsibility,” he shot back, standing abruptly. “You overstep, Lady Drummond.”

Lady Drummond, however, was not one to be easily cowed. Rising to meet his stance, she retorted, “Your daughters need more than you can currently provide, Sebastian. I refuse to passively watch as they grow up and potentially become promiscuous individuals.”

“Do not speak of my children like that,” Sebastian challenged, his blue eyes flashing. “I am their father. Should I not have a say in their education, in who influences them?”

His mother placed a calming hand on Lady Drummond’s arm, sensing the tension in the room. “Sebastian,” she interjected, “this isn’t about undermining your authority. It’s about recognising that, as a father, you might need assistance in certain areas.”

Sebastian clenched his jaw, wrestling with the barrage of emotions threatening to explode. He took a deep breath, trying to collect himself. “I appreciate your concern,” he began slowly, “but decisions concerning my household should be made by me. This sudden arrangement has taken me by surprise.”

Lady Drummond, her eyes softening a fraction, replied, “I did it out of love for the girls. They deserve all the opportunities in life, and a governess can offer them the education and guidance they require.”

Sebastian sighed heavily. The weight of their words, their unspoken concerns for his daughters, and his own buried guilt settled heavily on his shoulders. “Very well,” he conceded, “I will meet this governess. But,” he added firmly, “if I feel she is not a good fit for Emily and Sophia, she will not stay.”

Lady Drummond nodded, a satisfied gleam in her eyes, while his mother smiled gently, sensing the storm had passed, at least for now. “That’s all we ask,” she murmured, reaching out to pat Sebastian’s hand.

“You see, Lady Harrow,” Lady Drummond began, her tone tinged with a superiority that instantly put the others on edge, “I knew that he would see reason. Had we not intervened, Lord Harrow would have continued to flounder, leaving Emily and Sophia bereft of the guidance they need.”

His mother’s face hardened, her gaze turning icy. “Lady Drummond, it is not your place to undermine him. I know why you want him so desperately to have a governess – so that he will not remarry. I only want to support him, as should you.”

Lady Drummond scoffed, “Support, yes, but not blindly. We both know that ever since Elizabeth’s passing, he’s been lost. Those girls need more than just their father’s fleeting attention, but a new wife is not the answer.”

Sebastian’s face flushed with indignation, but before he could retort, his mother jumped in. “I am his mother – now that the late Lady Harrow is gone, you are of no relation to us and of no authority, either.”

Agatha’s eyes blazed with stubbornness. “I will not be ignored, or tossed away-“

His mother rose from her seat, her normally composed demeanour replaced with one of ire. “Your presumption knows no bounds, Lady Drummond. You should stay out of our affairs.”

Lady Drummond stood as well, her voice rising in pitch. “It is not presumption but observation, Lady Harrow! Do you plan to cut me out of your lives if Lord Harrow remarries?”

The tension between the two women was palpable. Words were weapons, and they were being brandished with precision. They seemed to have forgotten Sebastian’s presence entirely.

Sebastian, seeing the two ladies deeply engrossed in their escalating debate, saw his chance. Without a word, he set his glass down on a nearby table and quietly slipped away. The door to his library beckoned, and he didn’t hesitate.

Once inside, he closed the door softly, leaning against it for a moment and taking a deep breath. The familiar scent of leather and aged paper enveloped him, instantly soothing his frazzled nerves. He moved to his favoured armchair by the fireplace, sinking into its plush embrace. The flames flickered, casting a warm glow over the room and chasing away the coldness of the parlour’s confrontation.

His fingers trailed over the spines of books as memories of shared reading sessions with his daughters came to mind. Perhaps, he mused, he could find a way to bridge the gap with Emily and Sophia through these books. Maybe the magic of stories could be their saving grace.

The library had always been a place of solace for Sebastian, with the rich mahogany shelves that bore the wisdom of ages. He trailed his fingers along the spines of countless books, each one carrying a unique story, a world of itself. His eyes wandered, searching for something to drown in, a narrative that would pull him away from the vexations of the day.

Then, his fingers brushed against a particularly worn and familiar spine. Pulling it out, he found himself holding Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The tale of Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation had always captivated him. The intricate dance of creation, ambition, and responsibility in the novel mirrored, in a haunting way, his own struggles with duty and fatherhood.

Moving towards his favourite reading spot, a chaise by the window where the afternoon sun streamed in generously, he settled down, allowing the rays to warm his face and body. The world outside was aglow with the soft amber of the afternoon, but within moments, Sebastian was transported to the icy realms of the Arctic, immersed in Victor’s tragic narrative.

The profound loneliness of Frankenstein’s monster and its quest for companionship and understanding deeply resonated with Sebastian’s own feelings of isolation and misunderstanding. He pondered on the responsibilities of creation, drawing parallels to his duties as a father. Just as Victor had brought forth life without fully considering the consequences, Sebastian reflected on how unprepared he’d been for the emotional intricacies of fatherhood.

Time seemed to stand still as he turned each page, engrossed in the chilling world of Ingolstadt, the Swiss Alps, and the unforgiving Arctic. The voices and arguments from earlier faded into the background, replaced by Shelley’s haunting prose.

However, the melodic chime of the clock striking the hour jolted him back to the present. How long had he been reading? Reluctantly, he marked his place with a ribbon and set the book aside. It was time to face the aftermath of the earlier confrontation.

Returning to the drawing room, he found it much quieter. Lady Drummond was gone, but his mother sat alone, her face contemplative and somewhat weary.

“You’ve returned,” she observed, her voice soft and laced with exhaustion.

Sebastian took a deep breath, choosing his words carefully. “I had to clear my head. Mother, I cannot appreciate decisions being made on my behalf.”

She met his gaze. “I understand, but can you see that our intentions are rooted in love and concern? Even Lady Drummond’s.”

He sighed, “I will meet this governess she’s arranged. However,” he paused, looking her straight in the eyes, “I wish someone had at least asked. To suggest remarrying…

She nodded slowly. “I’m sorry. Promise me you’ll genuinely consider it, for Emily and Sophia’s sake.”

Sebastian exhaled, realizing that no matter how tumultuous the day had been, the love and concern for the two young girls bound them all. “I promise,” he finally replied.

Sebastian moved closer to his mother, the firelight casting shifting shadows across the opulent drawing room. “I understand that everyone believes they’re acting in the best interest of Emily and Sophia,” he began, his voice soft but resolute, “but they are my daughters, and I must be allowed to decide their fate.”

She studied him, her face a mix of pride and sadness. “Sebastian, I raised you to understand the weight of duty and responsibility; but I also want you to find happiness. Ever since Lady Harrow’’s passing, there’s been a cloud over this household. I see it in your eyes, in the girls’. It’s my dearest wish to see you all find joy again.”

Sebastian’s gaze lowered momentarily. “I know, Mother, but joy can’t be orchestrated or arranged. It must come naturally. It was arranged between Elizabeth and I, and it didn’t work out.”

She frowned, thin brows knitted together. “I know, but if this governess does not work out, please tell me you will consider finding another wife?”

Although he wanted to ease her worries, Sebastian knew that he could not make such a promise.

Chapter One

Gillian carefully folded a delicate lace nightgown, placing it neatly into the small leather suitcase that lay open on her bed. The sun was setting, casting long shadows across the room and painting the walls with a soft, warm light. The room, filled with mementos of her childhood, seemed smaller now, almost as if it were shrinking in anticipation of her departure.

Across from her, in a well-worn armchair, sat her father, his once robust frame now fragile and thin. His hands, once strong and capable, lay idle in his lap, and his eyes, a mix of pride and sorrow, watched her every move. A harsh cough racked his body, a cruel reminder of the urgency of her departure.

Gillian felt a lump form in her throat as she moved to sit beside her father, taking one of his hands in hers. “Papa,” she said softly, “I want you to know that I’m doing this for us. I know it’s difficult, but it’s the best way for me to support us right now.”

Her father nodded, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. “I know, my dear. I’m so proud of you. You’ve grown into a strong, capable woman, and I know you’ll do well as a governess.”

Gillian smiled, blinking back tears. “Thank you, Papa. I’ll write to you as often as I can, and I’ll be back to visit as soon as possible.”

Her father’s smile was tinged with sadness as he nodded. “I know you will, my dear. Just remember to take care of yourself as well.”

Gillian nodded, determined to keep her emotions in check. She knew that saying goodbye would be difficult, but she was determined to face the challenges ahead with courage and determination. As she packed her belongings, she couldn’t help but feel a mix of excitement and trepidation. Her new role as a governess was a step into the unknown, but it was a step she was ready to take.

With a final glance around her childhood room, Gillian turned to face her father. “I love you, Papa,” she said, wrapping her arms around him.

As she paused amidst her precise packing, Gillian locked eyes with her father, the manifest weakness in his once sturdy frame underscoring the gravity of her forthcoming role and adding fuel to the emotional maelstrom of their looming farewell. The room was suffused with the gentle light from the crackling fireplace, which cast a warm, amber hue on her father’s countenance, highlighting the wrinkles carved by years of concern.

The Christmas season, with its treasured customs and shared recollections, had always been a special time for them. Leaving her father alone during this time was a heartbreaking prospect, yet the call of duty and the necessity to secure a livelihood compelled her departure. Fighting back a wave of sorrow, she expressed her hesitancy, her voice heavy with feeling.

“Papa, I so wish I could stay with you over Christmas. It seems so wrong to leave you alone at this time of year.”

Summoning a comforting smile despite his waning vitality, her father replied, “My dear, I understand the necessity of your departure. You have obligations to yourself and your future. I couldn’t be prouder of you for embracing this new challenge.”

Gillian felt a wave of relief wash over her, buoyed by her father’s empathy and support. His acknowledgment of her decision provided a measure of comfort amidst the turmoil of emotions she was wrestling with. “Thank you, Papa. I vow to write regularly and keep you informed about everything. Although, I’m sure it won’t be all too interesting.”

Her father nodded, his gaze a blend of pride and melancholy. “I know you will, my dear. Remember, no matter the distance between us, you will always have a place in my heart.”

Struggling to hold back tears, Gillian embraced her father tightly. “And you in mine, Papa. I only wish I didn’t have to leave you alone.”

He offered a strained smile. “Ah, but I will have Mrs. Wainwright with me. So you see, I won’t be alone.”

As her father mentioned their neighbour, Mrs. Wainwright, Gillian felt a twinge of relief. It was comforting to know that he wouldn’t be entirely alone in her absence. The room fell silent once more, the echoes of their heartfelt conversation hanging in the air. In this moment of quiet reflection, Gillian’s emotions came to the fore. The resolve she had built up, the willingness to embrace the discomfort of change, and her raw, unfiltered feelings were laid bare. The strength she drew from her father’s acceptance, and the knowledge that he would be well-looked after in her absence, bolstered her determination. With a sense of renewed courage, she returned to her packing, ready to face the uncertainties that lay ahead.

The silence was punctuated by the soft rustling of fabric and the click of her suitcase latches. Gillian’s mind raced as she considered the challenges that awaited her. She had never been away from home for an extended period, and the thought of stepping into the role of a governess, responsible for the education and well-being of another’s children, was a daunting prospect. Yet, she knew it was a necessary step towards independence and financial stability.

As she folded the rest of her clothes neatly and placed them into her suitcase, Gillian felt a wave of emotions wash over her. There was sadness at leaving her home and her father, anxiety about the unknown, and excitement for the new experiences that awaited her. She took a deep breath, steadying herself, and looked around her room one last time. The memories of her past were etched into every corner, but it was time to create new ones and carve out a new path for herself.

Her father, sensing her turmoil, offered words of encouragement. “You are ready for this, my dear,” he said, his voice steady despite the sadness that welled within him.

Gillian looked at her father, touched by his unwavering support. “Thank you, Papa. I will make you proud.”

He reached out and took her hand, squeezing it gently. “You already have, my dear. Remember to be kind to yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.”

His words were a balm to her frayed nerves. Gillian nodded, absorbing his wisdom. She knew the road ahead would be filled with challenges, but she also knew she had the strength and determination to overcome them.

As she was making sure she had all that she needed, Gillian allowed herself to feel a sense of anticipation. This was a new beginning, a chance to prove to herself and others that she was capable of handling the responsibilities that came with being a governess. She thought about the children she would be caring for and felt a surge of determination. She would do her best to be a positive influence in their lives, just as her father had been for her.

After finishing her packing, Gillian helped her father downstairs for supper. His knees were stiff, and his legs shaky, a testament to his weakening condition. She couldn’t help but worry if Mrs. Wainwright would be able to look after him properly. As she set about making supper, her father, seated at the table, commented, “I will surely miss your cooking, my dear.”

Gillian smiled, “I’m sure Mrs. Wainwright will take good care of you, Papa.”

He chuckled, “Ah, yes, but she does have a tendency to overcook the vegetables.”

Gillian laughed as she stirred the pot on the stove. “I suppose you’ll have to suffer through slightly mushy vegetables for a while.”

Her father grinned, “A small sacrifice, I suppose.”

As they bantered back and forth, the heavy weight of their impending separation momentarily lifted. It was moments like these that Gillian would miss the most – the easy, comfortable conversations with her father, the warmth of their shared laughter.

When they sat down to eat, her father asked about her plans for the journey to the Earl of Harlow’s estate. Gillian shared the details of her travel arrangements and what she knew of the family she would be serving. Her father listened attentively, offering advice and sharing his own experiences from his youth.

The conversation flowed naturally, and for a moment, Gillian forgot about the challenges that lay ahead. It was comforting to know that, despite the physical distance that would soon separate them, her bond with her father would remain strong.

As they finished their meal, her father spoke earnestly as Gillian began to wash the dishes. “Gillian, I want you to know how proud I am of you. You have grown into a strong, independent woman, and I have no doubt that you will thrive in your new position. The women in our family have always been steadfast. Reliable.”

Touched by her father’s kind words, Gillian felt a lump form in her throat. “Thank you, Papa. I couldn’t have done it without your support, you know. Since Mama passed… well, it has always been us against the world..”

He smiled, his eyes misty. “I did my best to raise you well, but I cannot take all of the credit. Your mother deserves most of it.”

As the last of the dishes were dried and put away, Gillian found her thoughts drifting to her late mother, who had passed away when she was very young. She could barely remember her face, but her father often spoke of her with a twinkle in his eyes, painting a picture of a kind, loving, and incredibly strong woman. “Papa,” she said, her voice quivering slightly, “do you think Mama would be proud of me too?”

Her father looked at her, his eyes softening. “Oh, my dear, without a doubt. Your mother was the most loving and caring person I have ever known, and she would be so incredibly proud of the woman you have become.”

Gillian felt tears prickling her eyes as she smiled at her father. “Thank you, Papa. That means the world to me.”

Her father reached out and took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “I know it’s not easy, my dear, but you have a strength within you that will carry you through. Just as your mother had.”

Gillian nodded, feeling a sense of resolve wash over her. “I will do my best to honour her memory. I think about her a lot, you know.”

“As do I, Gillian. As do I.”

As the evening wore on, Gillian took on the role of caretaker, helping her father get ready for bed with kindness and patience. She helped him up the stairs, made sure he was comfortable, and brought him a cup of tea. It was a role she had taken on with grace over the years as her father’s health declined, and one she approached with a mix of love, duty, and a hint of sadness.

As she tucked her father into bed, he looked up at her with a smile. “You are a blessing, my dear.”

Gillian felt a lump form in her throat as she kissed her father on the forehead. “I love you, Papa.”

He reached up and patted her hand. “I love you too, my dear. Sleep well.”

As Gillian left her father’s room and made her way to her own, she couldn’t help but feel a mix of emotions. There was a sense of loss at leaving her home and her father, but also a sense of anticipation for the adventure that awaited her.

Gillian’s room was small and simply furnished, a reflection of her father’s modest salary as a professor. His income was meagre, and it relied heavily on his constant publications. The room contained a narrow bed, a wooden dresser, and a small desk by the window, upon which sat a few of her favourite books and a small vase of fresh flowers. The walls were adorned with a few framed drawing Gillian had made as a child, and a small, faded portrait of her mother.

As she changed into her nightgown and brushed her hair, Gillian couldn’t help but think about her mother. She often wondered what her life would have been like if her mother had been around. Would she have been different? Would her father’s health have deteriorated so much? These questions had no answers, but they often occupied her thoughts, especially on nights like these when the weight of the world seemed to be on her shoulders.

Climbing into bed, she pulled the quilt up to her chin and stared up at the ceiling. Her mind was a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. She was excited about her new job, of course, but she was also nervous. She had never been a governess before and had no idea what to expect. Would the children like her? Would she be able to manage them well? Would the Earl of Harlow be a kind employer?

She also couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt about leaving her father. He had always been her rock, and she hated the idea of leaving him alone, even if it was only for a short while. She knew Mrs. Wainwright would take good care of him, but it wasn’t the same as being there herself.

As she tossed and turned, trying to get comfortable, Gillian couldn’t help but feel a mix of anticipation and apprehension about the journey that lay ahead. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, but she was determined to make the most of it. After all, this was an opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to build a new life for herself.

As the thoughts swirled in her mind, Gillian eventually drifted off to a restless sleep, filled with dreams of what the future might hold. It was a night of fitful slumber, as her subconscious wrestled with the myriad of emotions that the upcoming day would bring. But, despite the turmoil in her mind, there was a flicker of hope, a glimmer of optimism that, somehow, everything would work out in the end.

Chapter Two

Sebastian savoured the bracing air and the freedom that came with horseback riding across the rolling countryside. The sun was shining, casting a warm, golden light over the fields of wildflowers and the distant woods. Birds sang merrily in the trees, and a gentle breeze rustled the leaves. It was a picturesque scene, a stark contrast to the stuffy, confining walls of the manor.

For Sebastian, this was an escape from the duties and demands of the manor, a welcome diversion from the pressures imposed by his mother and Lady Drummond. As he rode alongside his best friend, Lord Grayson, Sebastian found himself confiding in him about the strife at home – the discussions about his potential remarriage, his mother’s insistent nagging, and Agatha’s unilateral decision to hire a governess for his daughters.

Grayson listened attentively, nodding every now and then. He had always been the voice of reason in their friendship, and Sebastian valued his opinion greatly. “I understand your reluctance, Sebastian,” Tristan said after a moment of contemplation. “But perhaps a governess might be beneficial for your daughters. It might be good for them to have a maternal figure in their lives.”

Sebastian sighed, running a hand through his ash-blond curls. “I know,” he said, his voice tinged with regret. “I just… I wish I could be enough for them. I wish I didn’t have to bring a stranger into our home.”

Grayson laid a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You are doing the best you can, Harrow. No one can fault you for that. Who knows? This governess might turn out to be a blessing in disguise.”

Sebastian managed a small smile, appreciative of his friend’s support. “Thank you, Grayson. I just hope you are right.”

Grayson’s horse trotted alongside Sebastian’s as they continued their journey through the countryside. The scenery was breathtaking, with rolling hills and fields stretching as far as the eye could see. It was a sight that never failed to bring a sense of peace to Sebastian, even in the midst of turmoil.

As they rode along, Grayson decided to press the point a little further. “Harrow,” he said, his voice serious, “Emily and Sophia are daughters of an Earl. They deserve the best education and upbringing possible. You have a responsibility as their father, a duty to ensure they are well taken care of.”

Sebastian’s eyes clouded with a mix of guilt and resignation. He knew Grayson was right, but the reminder of his responsibilities weighed heavily on him. “I know,” he said quietly. “I just…” He trailed off, unable to articulate the jumble of emotions that swirled within him.

Grayson studied his friend closely, noting the deep lines of stress on his face. “You still wish they were sons, don’t you?” he asked gently.

Sebastian looked up, startled by the directness of the question. He hesitated for a moment before nodding. “Yes,” he admitted, a note of sadness in his voice. “I know it’s wrong to feel that way, but I can’t help it. My father always stressed the importance of having male heirs. It’s been ingrained in me since I was a child.”

Sebastian’s mind churned as Grayson and he made their way back to the manor. The weight of the guilt he felt for his past actions was made heavier by Tristan’s well-meaning words. He couldn’t help but remember how his longing for a son had driven a wedge between him and his late wife, Elizabeth. That longing had only served to worsen an already failing marriage. It pained him to think about how his desires had affected those around him, especially his daughters.

As they approached the manor, Sebastian’s thoughts were interrupted by the sight of his mother engaged in a conversation with a young woman he did not recognize. The woman was petite, with dark brunette hair pinned into a simple bun. She was dressed modestly, but her posture exuded a quiet confidence that caught Sebastian’s attention.

As they drew nearer, his mother lifted her gaze and greeted them with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Ah, Sebastian, Lord Grayson, allow me to introduce Miss Gillian Hughes, the newly appointed governess for Emily and Sophia.”

The woman dipped into a curtsey, head bowed. “Lord Harrow, Lord Grayson.”

Sebastian’s heart skipped a beat as he extended his hand to the young woman. “Miss Hughes, good afternoon.”

Gillian smiled warmly as she shook his hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you, My Lord.”

Sebastian couldn’t help but be charmed by her polite demeanour and genuine smile. Perhaps this wouldn’t be as bad as he had initially thought.

Grayson, ever the gentleman, greeted Gillian with a warm smile and a bow. “Miss Hughes, welcome to Harrow Manor.”

“Thank you,” Gillian replied, her cheeks colouring slightly at the attention.

Sebastian was taken aback by Miss Hughes’ appearance. He had expected someone older and more matronly, not a young and, he had to admit, appealing woman. Her smile was bright and kind, her eyes warm. There was an air of genuine excitement about her.

“Miss Hughes,” he managed to say with a nod of his head, “if you would excuse Grayson and I, we’ve just come back from a ride and need to tidy ourselves.”

“My Lord,” she replied, her voice melodic and soft. “Of course.”

Sebastian found himself momentarily at a loss for words. This was not what he had expected, and he wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. He quickly turned to depart, not trusting himself to remain composed in her presence.

“I shall leave you in my mother’s trusted presence,” he said hastily. “I trust you will find everything to your liking. If you need anything, please do not hesitate to ask the servants.”

“Thank you,” Miss Hughes replied, her tone gracious and sincere.

Sebastian turned to leave, and Tristan followed closely behind, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

“I must say, Harrow, the new governess is quite a sight for sore eyes,” Grayson said, a playful smile on his lips.

Sebastian felt a flicker of annoyance. “She is here for the children, Grayson, nothing more.”

He chuckled. “Oh, come now, Sebastian. I saw the way you looked at her. You were quite taken aback.”

Sebastian felt his cheeks warm, and he quickly turned away, not wanting his friend to see his embarrassment. “I was merely surprised. I expected someone older.”

Grayson raised an eyebrow, clearly not convinced. “Ah, yes, of course. Someone more… matronly?”

Sebastian sighed, knowing it was futile to argue with Tristan when he was in this kind of mood. “Yes, exactly.”

He laughed again, a warm, hearty sound that made Sebastian feel slightly better despite himself. “Well, I must say, I am rather looking forward to getting to know Miss Hughes better.”

Sebastian couldn’t help but roll his eyes at his friend’s flirtatious tone. “Do try to behave yourself, at least.”

Grayson feigned a look of hurt. “I am always the perfect gentleman.”

Sebastian snorted in disbelief as they reached the top of the stairs. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Grayson chuckled, clapping Sebastian on the back. “Fear not, my friend. I shall be on my best behaviour.”

Sebastian shook his head, unable to suppress a smile. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

As they wandered, Grayson turned to him, his expression more serious. “On a more sombre note, are you alright, Sebastian? You seemed quite… perturbed during our ride.”

Sebastian hesitated for a moment before nodding. “I am… managing. It has just been a lot to take in.”

He nodded sympathetically. “I can only imagine. If you ever need to talk, you know I am here for you.”

Sebastian smiled, touched by his friend’s sincere offer of support. “Thank you. I appreciate that.”

Tristan grinned. “Anytime, Harrow. You know I’m always here to lend a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on.”

Sebastian chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind, Grayson.”

The banter continued as they made their way down the corridor, Grayson making light-hearted jokes and Sebastian responding with dry, sarcastic quips. It was a familiar dance, one that they had been engaging in since they were boys, and it never failed to lighten Sebastian’s spirits.

“I must admit,” Sebastian said after a moment, “I was not keen on the idea of hiring a governess.”

Tristan raised an eyebrow. “Oh, why is that?”

Sebastian sighed. “Lady Drummond, Elizabeth’s mother, insisted upon it. She believes it is necessary for the girls’ upbringing. My own mother has been pressuring me to remarry, so it seemed the lesser of two evils.”

Grayson’s expression sobered. “I can understand your reluctance, Harrow. It cannot be easy, having to make such decisions.”

Sebastian nodded, appreciating his friend’s understanding. “It is not, but I must think of my girls. They deserve the best upbringing possible.”

Grayson clapped him on the back. “That’s what I said! You’re a good father, Harrow. A good man. Don’t ever doubt that.”

Sebastian smiled, touched by his friend’s words. “Thank you, Grayson. That means a lot to me.”

As they reached the end of the corridor, Tristan turned to Sebastian with a twinkle in his eye. “Now, enough of this sombre talk. Let’s get cleaned up, and have some fun. What do you say?”

Sebastian laughed, shaking his head. “You’re incorrigible, Grayson.”

Tristan grinned. “I try my best.”

Sebastian entered his room, a spacious chamber adorned with rich tapestries and fine furnishings. The room was filled with luxurious touches, from the velvet drapes that hung at the windows to the intricately carved mahogany furniture that decorated the space. It was a room that spoke of wealth and privilege, yet to Sebastian, it felt hollow and cavernous.

He couldn’t help but remember the time when he shared this room with Elizabeth. Back then, it had seemed so much smaller, filled with her dresses, accessories, and the various trinkets she had collected over the years. Now, it was just a reminder of the emptiness that filled his life.

Shaking his head to dispel the melancholy thoughts, Sebastian quickly washed his face and changed into a fresh shirt. As he left his room and entered the hallway, he encountered Grayson again, who was waiting for him with a mischievous smile on his face.

“You’ll never believe what happened at the Grayson estate the other day,” he said, launching into a tale of the latest antics of his younger siblings. “You should consider yourself lucky, Harrow. Dealing with an overbearing mother-in-law is nothing compared to the chaos that is my family.”

Sebastian laughed. “I find that hard to believe, Grayson. Your family may be lively, but they are also warm and loving.”

Tristan grinned. “True, I wouldn’t trade them for the world, but they do drive me to distraction at times.”

Sebastian chuckled. “I can imagine.”

As they made their way down the stairs and into the drawing room, Grayson continued to regale Sebastian with stories of his family’s escapades. It was a welcome distraction from the weighty matters that had been occupying Sebastian’s mind, and he found himself grateful for his friend’s light-hearted banter.

Sebastian and Grayson, in a concerted effort to avoid any further confrontation, expertly sidestepped into a corridor as they noticed Lady Drummond approaching in the hallway. Both men held their breath as she passed by, blissfully unaware of their presence. The pair exchanged knowing looks and tried to suppress their laughter at the childish yet necessary act of evasion.

Once the coast was clear, they made their way towards the garden, and Sebastian felt a flood of relief.

The gardens of Harrow Manor were a sight to behold; meticulously maintained hedges bordered well-tended flower beds, bursts of colour from the blooming flowers contrasted beautifully with the lush greenery, and gravel pathways wound their way through the landscape. The centrepiece of the garden was a magnificent fountain, its gentle cascade of water creating a serene ambiance. It was a place of solace for Sebastian, who often sought refuge here when the pressures of his title became too much to bear.

As the two friends strolled through the gardens, they found a secluded spot from where they could discreetly witness the affairs transpiring within the house without drawing attention.. From their vantage point, they could see Lady Drummond greeting Miss Hughes and Sebastian’s mother with a curt nod, her rigid posture and pinched expression betraying her displeasure.

Grayson let out a low whistle. “That woman’s icy stare has the power to freeze even the heartiest of substances,” he remarked.

Sebastian chuckled. “You have no idea.”

They watched as Lady Drummond and Miss Hughes conversed, perhaps discussing the girls. Miss Hughes’ smile was patient and sweet, but it was clear that she was trying to take it all in.

Sebastian felt a twinge of guilt for leaving the poor girl to fend for herself, but he quickly squashed it down. He was not ready to face her, not until he had a better handle on his own emotions.

As Miss Hughes turned her head in their direction, Sebastian instinctively ducked behind a hedge, pulling Grayson with him. He held his breath, hoping she hadn’t seen them. He contemplated going inside and rescuing her from his mother and Lady Drummond, even voicing the idea to Tristan.

“Maybe we should go in and save her after all,” Sebastian suggested, feeling somewhat responsible for the young governess.

Tristan shook his head. “I wouldn’t recommend it. She’ll be occupied with the children soon enough. Best to judge her from a distance and not get too involved.”

Sebastian raised an eyebrow. “You speak as if you have experience in these matters.”

Tristan chuckled. “I fancied a maid once, and it was nearly a scandal.”

Sebastian scoffed. “I am not you, Grayson.”

He only grinned, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “True, you have much better taste in women.”

Sebastian rolled his eyes but couldn’t help smiling at his friend’s attempt to lighten the mood. After a while hey watched as Miss Hughes, Lady Drummond and his mother vanished further into the hall, disappearing from sight.

As the sun dipped lower in the sky, casting a warm, golden hue over the landscape, the two friends retreated from their hiding spot, feeling somewhat foolish but also relieved to have avoided any awkward encounters.

Sebastian couldn’t help but feel a sense of foreboding as he thought about the days ahead. He knew he would have to face Miss Hughes eventually, and he wasn’t looking forward to it. For now, however, he was content to enjoy the remaining moments of peace and camaraderie with his oldest friend.

As they made their way back to the house, Sebastian felt a sense of gratitude wash over him. Despite the challenges he faced, he knew he could always count on Grayson to be there for him, offering a listening ear and a shoulder to lean on.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Donna Labrada

    Can’t wait to read the rest!!!

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Martha Barwood