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One

 

 

The Year of Our Lord 1817

The Serpentine, Hyde Park – Mayfair


Everyone knew older siblings loved to be bossy. Well, everyone saddled with an officious older sibling understood this. And Lady Emmaline Radcliffe had concluded long ago that her older sister Mary got exceptional pleasure from slipping into the role of nagging mother whenever their own was not present. Mary always did so with a zealous sort of enthusiasm. Just like today.

“Coming here to capture Lord Nathaniel’s attention wasn’t a good idea, Emmaline,” Mary grumbled.

Annoyance danced down Emma’s spine, but she’d not show it. She purposely stared past her sister and once more swept her gaze across the frozen ice of the Serpentine in search of Nathaniel Layton. He was supposed to be here. At least according to her lady’s maid, who had been told as much by her cousin, a scullery maid in Nathaniel’s home.

“Emmaline, did you hear me?” Mary snapped, her voice as piercing as her razor-sharp green gaze.

Emma clenched her teeth to fight the desire to set her sister straight on how impossible it would be not to hear her. Mary had the uncanny ability to make herself heard without raising her voice, exactly the way their mother did. They both had a certain distinctly peevish tone that caused one’s ears to tingle with awareness. Emma flicked her gaze to her sister and forced a smile. If she showed Mary she was disgruntled, Mary would leave, and if Mary left, Emma would have to leave as well, since Mother would have a fit if she dared skate unchaperoned.

“I heard you,” Emma replied, careful to keep her voice as nonchalant as she could. She tapped her skates against the ice while tugging her cap down tighter over her head, hoping the wool would muffle her sister’s voice.

Mary set her hands on her hips and looked down her nose at Emma, just precisely as Mother always did before announcing how Emma was failing to behave as a proper lady should. It was extraordinary and disheartening how alike Mother and Mary were and how very unlike them Emma was.

Mary narrowed her eyes. “I cannot remember why I let you persuade me to come with you on this escapade, but my senses have returned. We should leave.”

The wool experiment was a failure, and Emma stifled an irritated sigh, her pulse ticking up with worry. She couldn’t leave! Not until she saw Nathaniel. She’d long ago taken to thinking of him by his Christian name rather than Lord Nathaniel. One did not think of one’s future husband so formally. Ever since Emma had been eight and he’d wiped away her tears at the home of his great-uncle, the Duke of Danby, after a fight she’d had with her mother, Emma had thought of him secretly as Nathaniel. He’d run his bare thumb over her cheek and told her she was perfect. She thought him perfect, as well. Her adoration of him only grew from that day forward.

Fate, or rather his constantly being away at school, had made it impossible to spend much time with him to discern if he truly was as perfect for her as she thought. However, she had seen him here and there over the years, and twice more, he’d done things that made her heart squeeze and her breath catch. Like the time he’d threatened to plant a facer on Peter Strattford when the boy had teased her, or when Nathaniel had asked her to dance at his great-uncle’s ball last year, when no one else had asked her. She remembered the strength of his arms around her and the warm spice of his breath against her cheek.

And now that Mother was insisting Emma secure a marriage proposal this Season and Nathaniel was home from school at last, Emma simply had to get to know him. She needed to find out whether he was truly the man for her or not.

“Emmaline, are you ignoring me?” Mary demanded.

She looked Mary in the eye. “No, I thought I saw Lord Nathaniel. Please, give me a few more minutes. I shall endeavor not to embarrass you.”

Mary’s stern gaze softened. “If you’d only try to act more like a proper lady.”

“I do try,” Emma replied distractedly as she glanced back toward the ice. “It’s not as easy as you make it seem.”

Mary snorted. “I’d hardly call last week’s race in Hyde Park you attempting to behave as a proper lady.”

Emma stared down at the ice and half expected to see it thawing with the heat of her rising temper. Mary simply didn’t understand. Emma was different. She didn’t like all the things she was supposed to like, and no matter how hard she tried, it was clear to everyone around her. No one understood, except perhaps Papa, and that was because he was like her or rather she was like him.

He preferred to have his nose in a book instead of keeping a discerning eye on the state of his affairs, and like her, no matter how hard Papa tried, everyone knew he was horrid at the role of pragmatic earl. He would have been much better suited to being a quixotic inventor, yet he’d been born an earl. She inhaled a long breath. She would have been much better suited to being an independent man, yet she’d been born a woman whose fate—everyone kept telling her—was to live and die by the thousands of rules Society forced upon her.

She curled her gloved hands into fists and tried to beat back the tide of annoyance that was rising up, but it was no use. Out came a hot, irritated breath, fluttering a loose strand of her inky hair, which had been hanging in front of her right eye. “Cousin Jeffrey practically challenged me in the park when he told everyone I was an inferior rider! What was I supposed to do?” she demanded, regretting the words and the slip of her temper the moment Mary’s eyes went from narrowed to slits.

“Ignore him,” Mary replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “He’s foolish and you know it.”

She did know it, but her pride had stolen her good senses as it so often did. “I am a far superior rider,” Emma muttered.

“No one saw that, Emmaline. All they noted was your galloping across Hyde Park like a man would. All they remembered was that you once again behaved improperly. However will you find a husband if you cannot manage to comport yourself like a lady?”

“I’m comporting myself like a lady now,” Emma retorted, keeping her voice low to prove it even though she wanted to scream. “What’s more ladylike than setting one’s sights on the gentleman one wants to marry?”

Mary scoffed. “Emmaline, your silly girlhood infatuation must come to an end today. Just because his lordship once told you that you were perfect does not mean he believed it. He was simply being nice.” Mary raised an eyebrow.

 
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