Delia McDowe glared at her father, fists clenched at her sides, wondering if any woman in the history of the world had calmed down because a man told her to ‘be reasonable.’
“He’s from a good family after all.”
“You’re trying to sell me to the highest bidder, but people say I come from a good family.”
The earl’s face flushed. “Young lady, that is no way to talk to me. I am your father! I demand that you show me some respect!”
“Yes, Father.” She bobbed a little curtsey. “I shall indeed, the very moment you prove worthy of it.”
“What… you… you horrid, ungrateful child!” he bellowed, his neck and face crimson.
She supposed she was that. She certainly felt ungrateful, but her father had just announced that she was to marry the Duke of Lancaster.
“You will be Duchess of Lancaster!” her mother said, her eyes shining with longing. But all she’d ever dreamt of was being royalty, having her every need met by servants. It was a constant disappointment to her that she’d given birth to a daughter who didn’t share her dream.
Perhaps Delia would have felt differently if the duke wasn’t old enough to be her grandfather. How did either of her parents expect her to be grateful for a life no woman of eighteen would wish for?
“I will not do it,” she insisted, stamping her foot.
The earl glared at his wife, as though she too were defying him. As though his mousey, agreeable wife didn’t obey his every wish.
When he turned back to his daughter, there was a gleam in his eye she’d never seen before. Then again, she’d never defied him before. “You will do exactly as you’re told, you will marry the duke, you will become his wife, you will bear him children.”
“Children,” she echoed with a snort. “A man that age who has had three wives and no issue? That might be a bigger task than I can handle, through no fault of my own.”
The earl looked enraged to the point of speechlessness. His mouth moved, but there was no sound coming out.
“But think what that means, Delia.” Her mother reached for her hand. “Then you will be the dowager duchess. You can marry again—”
“That could take years!” Delia cried.
“Fine counsel to give her before her wedding,” her father snorted.
“There isn’t going to be a wedding! I am not going to marry him.” She crossed her arms and stamped her foot.
“You will!” The earl, who had hardly ever raised his voice in her eighteen years of life, shouted. He moved closer, his tall, bulky frame towering over her. “You will obey me, or I swear I’ll have you whipped!”
Her bravado slipped for a moment. He… couldn’t be serious, surely? As an adored only child, she’d never been beaten, not even when she’d done more than enough to deserve it. She looked to her mother, whose face looked as horrified as Delia felt.
“Harrod…” She tugged on her husband’s sleeve. “Be reasonable, love. She—”
He didn’t take his eyes from his daughter’s face. “She will do as I say, or learn a most painful lesson. Your headstrong daughter needs to learn that I am master of this house, and I will be obeyed!” He turned his dark, glinting eyes on his wife. “Or do you need a reminder also?”
The Lady of Lansing, who had, it seemed, been about to defend her child, shrank back. “No. No, my lord.”
He nodded his satisfaction and turned to his only child. “You have until morning to give me your answer. If it is anything but happy acquiescence, then I will wield the whip myself!” He left the room with great ceremony of stomping to show his displeasure.
The lady of the estate gave her daughter a pained look. “I am sorry, Delia. You’ll have to do it. You know you shall.”
She supposed she should have been surprised by her mother’s siding with her husband, but she was not. She had many years’ experience with this particular brand of disappointment. Though her father did not tell her no often, when he did his wife fell in line. It was her duty, after all.
Delia tilted her proud chin upward, her lips pursed, resolute. “No. I shall not.” Then she turned on her heel and swept out of the room with her mother calling after her, begging her to see reason.
She found her governess in her room, waiting. She rose from the chair she’d been sitting in the moment Delia stormed into the room.
Delia faced her, pinching her lips together to hide the fact that they were trembling. “Did you know?” She held her breath as she waited.
Miss Ashley looked her up and down, then nodded once. “I can see you’re taking it much as I predicted.”
She turned away, feeling anger turn to despair. “I cannot believe you kept this from me.” Delia quickly bit down on her lip again and blinked back tears. When she felt her governess’s hands on her shoulders, she felt certain she would soon lose the battle.
“Your father forbade it, cher.”
She tried to shrug away Miss Ashley’s hands, but the older woman would not be so easily put off.
“I am sorry you are disappointed, dearest.”
Delia mustered a tiny smile. Her governess had been with her for the last twelve years of her life and was much more her mother than the woman who had birthed her. Miss Ashley understood her—she loved her charge, at least Delia liked to think she did. She knew that the situation she found herself in was in no way her governess’s fault and she would be remiss to pretend it was. “I understand why you kept this secret.” She walked over to her bed and flopped onto the quilts. “I only wish…”
“I wish I knew what to do.”
“What to do?” Miss Ashley’s voice was sharp, cautious. “Whatever do you mean?”
Delia sat up, feeling wounded by the disapproval etched on her governess’s face. “I know I am from a wealthy family, I know I must help improve our station. I know my duty, Miss Ashley. Never fear. I only wish there were some other way.”
Her governess came over and sat down on the bed beside her. She patted her lap and Delia laid her head there, curling into a ball the way she used to do when she was very small. Miss Ashley began to run a comforting, motherly hand over her hair. “I know, cher. I know. You will make your peace with this. You will persevere like the strong woman I know you to be.”
She smiled, grateful for the words of comfort. “Tell me a story, Miss Ashley?”
“Oh, cher… I think you’re too old for stories.”
“No, I’m not. And even if I was, I’d still wish to hear one. You tell the best stories of anyone I know. You should put them in a book!”
Miss Ashley chuckled ruefully. “No one would publish the tales I tell you, child.”
“Please?” She looked up hopefully. Her governess always knew how to make her feel better and from the time that she came to begin Delia’s lessons, she would tell her a story whenever she needed cheering up.
“I think that my stories are perhaps part of the problem,” she mused. “I’ve tried to stay true to the course your parents want for you, but I think women can be meant for more than to be mere arm ornaments.”
“Not me,” Delia said, the word more sad than bitter.
“Perhaps your daughter, then.”
“All right, very well then. Once upon a time, there was a lovely princess.”
“And she didn’t need a prince to save her,” Delia guessed.
“Who is telling this story?” her governess demanded, but she was smiling.
“I’m sorry. I’ll be good.”
“Indeed, I’m sure you shall.” She rolled her eyes skyward, for they both knew that Delia liked to interrupt. “Her name was Asmellia and she was very beautiful. Her parents had found many suitors for her hand, but Princess Asmellia refused them all…”
Delia was using her ivory-handled brush to brush out her long, blonde hair when she heard the soft plink against her window. She dismissed it and continued her nightly beauty routine, counting the strokes as she pulled the brush through, watching how shiny her tresses were becoming.
When the noise came again, she saw her curious expression mirrored back at her through the looking glass. She went to the window and looked out, catching her breath at the sight of the gentleman standing below. He was tall, dark-haired, and muscular. She could see that already and she wanted to see more.
“Lady Delia?” His voice was rich and husky, making her smile, try as she might to hide it.
“Who asks?” she replied in her most courtly voice.
“It is I, the Duke of Lancaster.”
Her breath caught. It couldn’t be. She’d thought him to be an old, frail gentleman. It was said that he was losing his sight. She needed a better look.
“I shall be down in a moment.” She threw a dressing gown over her pajamas, knowing her mother would be scandalized and not caring. In fact, it only served to add excitement to her step as she ran down the stairs, taking them two at a time.
When she threw open the door, he was standing there, waiting. Her pulse began to race as she took in his dark eyes, his strong jaw.
“But… you look so…”
“Young?” he guessed and chuckled. “You were expecting something else?”
“Well…” A blush crept up her cheeks. “I thought… It’s only that I had been told…”
“Close your eyes.”
“What?” She laughed a little. “Why?”
“Do as I request, my lady.”
She obeyed, shutting her eyes and feeling a smile curve her lips as she did so. “May I open them?”
When she opened her eyes she saw that he was holding a beautiful, large red rose toward her. She gasped, reaching for it. Delia noted that the stem had been trimmed so that it had no thorns. Her fingers brushed against his, but instead of the firm, supple fingers he’d held out a moment ago, they were wrinkled with age spots.
Somehow, the man in front of her had transformed while her eyes had been closed. He was no longer young and handsome. His face was wrinkled, the skin pulled taut and showing the hard angles of his chin and cheekbones. His hair was thin and silver. His smile revealed a few missing teeth.
She gasped and stepped back. “I… I thought… what has happened to you?”
He shook his head, tsking. “You’re a vain woman, Lady Delia. I know it. How well I know it.”
She gasped as though she’d been struck, stepping back into the doorway. “I… is it so wrong to want to marry someone young? Someone who might give me children? Who might…” She’d been about to say who might come to love me, but she couldn’t force the words past her lips.
The duke, his dull eyes assessing her, threw his head back as though he knew what she was about to say and couldn’t believe she’d dare dream so high. Delia slammed the door shut and raced back up the stairs, but she could still hear his mean laughter. It chased on her heels, followed her into the bedroom, and rang in her ears even with the pillow pulled tightly over her head.
“Go away!” she shouted.
But then she was being shaken and she bolted up in bed, gasping. Her eyes struggled to focus. It was still night—darkness surrounded her except for the flickering of a single candle. Delia took deep breaths, trying to steady her racing pulse.
When she felt calmer, her eyes began to focus. She saw her governess holding the candle.
“What is, Miss Ashley? What has happened? Is it—”
“No, no, do not worry, mistress. Your parents are both well, only…”
The older woman shocked her by setting the candle down on the table beside her bed and taking a seat beside her. Miss Ashley was a firm proponent of proper decorum, and in all the years that she had been Delia’s governess this was one breach of station that had never occurred.
“Your father has dismissed me.”
Delia’s gasp echoed throughout the room. “What? I do not understand. Why should he do such a thing?”
“Because… you are to be married, my dear. You no longer require a governess. Truthfully, he would be quite angry if he knew I was here. I was to leave without seeing you, but…”
“Oh, Miss Ashley.” She felt tears sting her eyes. “I’m so glad you came.” She leaned over and broke another of her governess’s rules when she hugged her.
But Miss Ashley did not scold her. In fact, she returned the embrace. “I would not have woken you, only I could not think of when I might have another time.”
“When do you leave?”
Delia couldn’t believe it. It seemed as if what she was hearing could not be true, that it was an extension of her nightmare. “How long have you known?”
“He told me last night. I was to pack my things and leave straight away without a word to you.”
Delia couldn’t believe this. Her father letting Miss Ashley go was horrid in and of itself, but to insist she shouldn’t be told? She was feeling her anger rise, but she pushed it aside for the moment and gave her governess’s hand a squeeze. “I could speak to him. I could insist—”
Her governess shook her head with a small, sad smile. “I thank you, mon cher. Truly. But… what reason would your father have to listen to you?”
“I shall make him listen. Believe me, I plan to create such a storm that he shall never again think to dismiss anyone without asking me!”
Miss Ashley tsked her tongue. “My dear, I truly wish we had more time together, for I fear I’ve been remiss with your education.”
She was shocked to hear her speak so. “Whatever do you mean?”
“My sweet child,” she stroked Delia’s golden hair, “you’ve had a very privileged upbringing. Your parents have given in to many of your whims.”
Delia opened her mouth to object, but her governess held up a hand and she desisted out of habit.
“I have seen it myself in these many years. I do not say these things to hurt you, but only to make you see.”
“But… I do not see.”
“How well I know it,” she sighed. “Mistress Delia, the truth is that the wealth in which you’ve been raised, and being an only child, have made you spoiled.”
Delia spluttered in protest.
“I do not mean that you are not kind and given to acts of charity. But you do not truly understand the way of the world. You are a woman, my dear, and while I pray that it might not always be so, your desire only means as much as your father, or your husband, is willing to grant you.”
The words stung. Delia drew away from her governess and felt her cheeks heat. She wanted to deny it, to say that she would make such a world for herself, but when she opened her mouth to speak, the words died before leaving her lips. She knew that Miss Ashley meant her no harm and only spoke the truth for her benefit.
She shook her head, her curls bouncing. “There is nothing to forgive.” She reached for her governess’s hand once more. “Miss Ashley… thank you so much for everything you have done for me. There are not enough words, or enough time…” Tears stung her eyes and she blinked them away.
“It has been a privilege and a joy to oversee your education, Lady Delia.”
“Where will you go? Will you find another girl to…” A lump rose in her throat that she couldn’t speak over. The idea of her beloved teacher with another pupil pained her.
“Truthfully, I do not know. I had thought to retire, but…” She gave a shrug of her elegant shoulder. “I will have to see. I will try to write, if your father will tell me where to send my letters.”
She dropped her hand and rose to her feet. “One moment.” She walked to her bedside table and opened the drawer, taking out a handkerchief she’d tied in a knot. Inside was a pouch filled with silver. She had been saving it, and though she had never known precisely what for, Delia had been certain that a time would come. Walking back to the bed, she put it in her governess’s hand.
“What is this, child?”
“A little token only, to remember me by.”
“No, I could never—”
“Please.” Her voice trembled and her eyes held a sheen of moisture. “It would do my heart good if you would accept it. Then I would know… that you were safe.”
Miss Ashley put the handkerchief to her heart. “Thank you. Though I need nothing to remember you by, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Though she had tried, Delia had not been able to go back to sleep once her governess had departed. She was too angry. She tossed and turned, thinking of how hateful her father was being. She tried to banish the thoughts from her mind with little success. And then there was the matter of the Duke of Lancaster. Each time she closed her eyes her dream came rushing back to her, and a wizened face was waiting for her, the gaping holes in his mouth producing a smile that made her shudder.
It was just her imagination, she knew. Her governess had always said she possessed a mind too active, but she could not help it. The image would not go away.
She was not surprised when she was summoned to break her fast with her parents.
“You are not dressed, Lady Delia?” The maid looked scandalized.
Indeed, Delia was surprised at herself at well. She had been up for hours, long enough to watch the sun rise from her window, but she had not gotten out of her nightgown or done her hair.
The maid tsked her tongue reprovingly as she helped Delia dress. “I heard you are to marry the duke,” she said while Delia slipped out of the gown. “I daresay you shall have your own lady to help you dress there.”
“Hmm,” she replied, hoping the maid would realize she had no desire to discuss it.
“Your mother is quite pleased you shall be a duchess.”
“Yes, I believe so,” she murmured.
“What say you, Lady Delia? Are you as thrilled as your lady mother?”
“Of course.” The lie came out a whisper. For what else could she say? It was not the place of servants to ask such things, but she could not give any cause to gossip on her behalf. “I can manage well enough on my own, thank you.”
The maid bobbed a curtsey and took her leave.
Delia brushed her hair, put dabs of rosewater on her wrists and behind her ears, and stared morosely at her reflection in the looking glass. She supposed she was ready, though for the first time she had no desire to break her fast. She could not bear to see her father, the man who seemed to be taking everything away from her—first her governess, and now, her freedom.
She supposed she’d never been truly free. She had been but seduced by the illusion of freedom.
“There you are, at last,” her father said when she walked into the dining room.
Delia curtseyed and took her place at the table.
“We have been waiting,” he grumbled. “We should have eaten without you.”
Under normal circumstances, she would have apologized. It was what he wanted, what he was waiting for. But she could not bring herself to do it. She simply draped the cloth over the lap of her dress and picked up her goblet, taking a deep swallow of fresh water.
With another grumble, her father picked up a piece of meat in one hand and a pastry in the other, but he didn’t begin to eat. Instead, he glared across the table at his daughter.
She pretended not to notice and took dainty bites of the buttered bread. “Delicious,” she said to her mother, who nodded.
“Stop playing games,” her lord father snarled.
Delia turned to him, feigning surprise. “Why, Father, whatever do you mean?”
“I want your answer.” He crammed the pastry in his mouth as he looked at her with narrowed, beady eyes. “I want it now.”
“Tell me, Father,” she said instead. “Where is Miss Ashley?”
He frowned, pieces of pastry studding his beard. “What does your governess have to do with anything?”
“Well, I would ask her, only, I cannot find her.” She glanced at her mother, who she could tell hadn’t a clue what she was talking about.
“I dismissed her.”
“But why?” Delia asked.
“Oh, Harrod,” her mother said at the same time.
His empty hand balled into a fist which he banged on the table. “Because I am lord of this household, lest you forget, and I will do as I please.”
“And it pleased you to remove my governess, the woman who has been with me for the past twelve years?” Delia struggled to keep her tone from sounding angry, though she was so livid she felt herself shaking inside.
“Daughter, I am not sure why it troubles you. You will be married soon. Miss Ashley’s time here was done. Surely you both knew it.”
Delia’s hands closed into fists underneath the table. “She could come with me. I shall write the duke for permission, of course,” she added before her father could object, “but surely he will allow it, for the sake of our future children’s education.”
“That is not how it is done.” He shook his head, another pastry in his hand. “What man, even one as rich as the Duke of Lancaster, wants to pay a servant years before he even has children in need of her? It will not do.”
Delia swallowed with difficulty. “She was more than just a servant to me.” To her surprise, she found her mother’s hand on her arm.
“Try to understand, dearest. This is the way of things.”
The knot in her belly was tightening more by the moment. She had been so blind, so ignorant to what life would really look like for her. “Yes. I see that now. May I be excused? I find I do not have any appetite.” She looked to her father, who nodded his permission.
When she returned to her room, she was exhausted. Physically and emotionally drained. She had hoped to go back to sleep but found a maid in her room.
“Yes?” she asked, struggling to remain courteous.
“Your lady mother sent me here to get your measurements, madam.”
“Why, whatever for?”
“For your wedding gown, my lady.”
Delia had not even had a full day to absorb the news of what she was expected to do before she was staring at lengths of ivory silk, lace, and boxes of seed pearls. The sight of them made her feel ill, so much so that she excused herself from the room.
The moment she was out of the bedroom, she turned on her heel and fled. Suddenly, she knew exactly what she must do. She had to leave. There was no other answer. If she did not, her father would carry through with his outlandish threat—she knew it. And while a whipped bottom was surely hard to endure, an even worse fate would be to be forced to marry a man she could not love.
She could not suffer it. There was no other way. As quietly as she could on quickly fleeing feet, Delia left the house. She did not turn around, not even once, to bid farewell to her home of the last eighteen years for fear someone might see.
She did not know where she was going. How could she? She had hardly been outside these walls, a fact that did not escape her as her eyes darted around as she moved. It was a long walk to see another house. It was grand, though not quite so grand as her own—her father had seen to that. Once she passed it, Delia let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Along with it, she exhaled a bit of the anxiety she’d been feeling too.
The further she walked without incident—though she did not slow her step the slightest bit—the more she allowed herself to relax. As she did, she began to take in her surroundings. She had never enjoyed living in the country, truth be told. It was something that her mother had insisted on and that her father acquiesced to. Not unhappily, either, because he had a hankering to hunt, though he didn’t do it well.
But if it had been up to Delia, she would have much preferred the noisy bustling of a busy city. Where you didn’t have to travel miles to see a neighbor. In all of Miss Ashley’s stories it had been the ones of the busy cities with their big adventures that she’d enjoyed the most.
That’s what I’ll do, she decided then and there. I’ll live in a city. What she’d do when she got there Delia didn’t have the faintest, but one step at time.
By the time she reached the city market, Delia was tired, sweaty, and her hair was askew, tendrils pulled free from the proper bun she’d styled it in that morning. Nonetheless, she wore a smile from the moment she heard the back-and-forth of loud, boisterous voices, and eagerly moved toward the noise.
Delia was swept into the crowd almost at once. Accustomed since birth to being deferred to because of her station, here no one seemed to notice her at all. People moved all around her, heavy baskets on their arms, jostling her to and fro as though she were invisible.
She felt panic begin to rise within. Think, Delia, think!
What was she to do? Despair warred with panic as she was bumped from behind. Was she going to be trampled in this stampede like a mouse? On her very first outing away from home?
No. She squared her shoulders, allowing resolution to conquer the panic, the fear. She was not a mouse. She was the daughter of the Earl of Lansing. She would not shrink back from this.
“Excuse me!” she called out, projecting as she’d been taught. She began to move at once. “Begging your pardon, please!” She could feel a few looks flit her way, but for the most part people simply moved out of her way. It seemed a simple thing, yet she was breathless once she’d made her way to a stall.
She’d happened upon a meat vendor and the delicious aromas of smoked turkey and chicken, sausage links and bacon made her mouth water. She cleared her throat. “Excuse me,” she said again.
“Yeah? Whatcha want?” he asked, scarcely giving her a glance.
“I was wondering if I could have a sausage link, please. Perhaps three.”
He cut the meat down without a word, laid it on a bit of cloth, and pushed it toward her.
Delia was so hungry she managed not to flinch at the dirt on the cloth. She reached for it, looking back in surprise when it was pulled out of her grasp.
“That’ll be five copper pieces.”
“Oh.” She felt her stomach drop in keen disappointment as heat flooded her face. “I see. I am dreadfully sorry, I am afraid I do not have any money.”
The man’s eyes narrowed and his mouth drew into a thin line. “What’re you playin’ at, girl? Don’t ask for somethin’ ya not gonna pay for!”
“I… I would, I assure you, only—”
With a sneer, he snatched the cloth off the counter and turned his back on her.
Delia felt horrified tears fill her eyes. She had never been so embarrassed in all her life. Stupid girl, she berated herself. She’d left home without any money, without anything to sell. What had she been thinking? How was she going to survive?
But at that very moment, as though she had voiced her fears aloud, she heard a deep, masculine voice.
“Four sausages, please.” Before the vendor had even turned all the way around, the coins shone on his counter.
He snatched them up, nodded sharply, and made quick work of securing the meat in another dirty cloth. This he passed into a strong-looking gloved hand.
Delia knew it was rude to look, but she allowed herself a glance all the same. What she saw made her forget every lesson in decorum Miss Ashley had forced her to sit through. Standing just behind her was a man unlike any she’d ever seen—or indeed, even dreamt of. With hair blacker than the night sky, perfectly sun-kissed skin, and sapphire blue eyes, just his face made her forget to breathe.
But there was more. As her eyes traveled down, she could not help but notice the uniform he wore. The deep blue jacket with gold trim and buttons suggested he was a seaman. She had never seen one up close before, or anywhere but storybooks, so even though she knew it was rude to stare, she couldn’t seem to help herself.
The man smiled at her. “Good day to you, madam. I believe you wanted these.”
She was so stunned when he offered her the cloth that she merely stared at his hand.
After waiting an inordinate amount of time, he took her hand and gently opened her fingers before depositing the cloth on her palm.
“I… ah… thank you.” She looked at him again, blinking in the early morning sunlight. She knew she was making a total fool of herself. But what else was she to do? She had not been trained on how to deal with members of the opposite sex, with the single exception of formal courting.
His smile widened, revealing perfect straight teeth. “You are quite welcome, madam. No one should have to go hungry.”
Delia heard her stomach growl as the wonderful smell wafted to her nose, acutely aware of the warm cloth in her hand.
“Please, do not wait on my account. Eat.”
She felt heat surge to her face. It was humiliating to have one of her first encounters with a gentleman in such a sorry state! “I couldn’t possibly.”
He shocked her further still by locking eyes with her and repeating in a firm voice, “Eat.”
Delia had never been spoken to that way before. He had not raised his voice, but something in his eyes had changed and he spoke with authority that left no doubt in her mind that he was a man used to being obeyed. She did not think twice, but opened the cloth, inhaling the delicious aroma wafting toward her before she began to eat. She was famished, and despite the feeling of his eyes on her, her growling stomach was too much to ignore. Miss Ashley would have been horrified to see the way she devoured the sausages one after the other, hardly pausing for breath.
It was only when she was done that she remembered herself. She felt the heat in her cheeks return, hotter than ever. Oh, dear. She must have appeared quite savage to the handsome stranger. Trying to save some of what was left of her dignity, she daintily dabbed her mouth with the cloth.
“Thank you again.”
“You are most welcome, my lady.”
Not for the first time, her mouth fell open in surprise. “How did you… I mean…” She gestured helplessly at her soiled gown, knowing her hair was a mess, her face shiny with sweat.
“Yes, I gathered that I caught you… on a bad day,” he finished, the picture of politeness. “However, in a gown such as that, with your polished manners, no one could mistake you for anything other than a lady.”
“Manners!” She threw back her head and laughed. “I fear if my lady mother had seen me eat just now she would disagree with you.”
The gentleman smiled at her once more. “Perhaps. Please forgive my poor manners, for I have neglected to introduce myself. I am Admiral McCray, my lady, at your service.” With his hands at his sides, he gave a little bow.
“I… Admiral.” The word came out a gasp. “It… it is a pleasure… to make your acquaintance, sir.” She curtsied as beautifully as she ever had, dirty gown or no.
“The pleasure is all mine. Are you far from home, my lady?”
Delia felt the stirrings of warning in the pit of her belly. What was she to tell him? Not the truth, surely. He would not look too kindly on what she had done. No gentleman would understand a woman fleeing her home to escape her duty. She was certain of it. What then?
Think, Delia, think! she chided herself, aware that with each passing moment he was bound to become suspicious. She must think fast.
Then it came to her. A plausible tale, and not only that, perhaps the key to her escape as well. “My lady mother died.” The words slipped from her lips no sooner than she had thought them. She quickly arranged her features to look suitably forlorn. It was not too hard, for she knew if her plan worked she would never see her mother again.
“Ah, my lady, I am so sorry.”
She nodded her appreciation. “But it is worse than even that. You see, my father married the most disagreeable woman. She is terribly difficult to live with.” Delia bit down on her lower lip and looked up at him.
The admiral’s brow was furrowed. “Whatever do you mean, my lady?”
“She… she flies into horrible temper if ever I fail to curtsey deep enough, or… if I am late to break my fast.” She spun the tale as she went, hoping he would think the pauses in her story to be from reluctance to share the personal details.
His posture stiffened the slightest bit. “I am sorry for your troubles, madam. But I am certain that, given time and strict compliance on your part, things might go well for you.”
“She beats me!” Delia burst out.
The admiral’s head jerked with visible surprise. “Surely not. Did you tell your father?”
“Yes, of course. But he… he is so stricken with the loss of my mother, you see, and desperate for a companion to fill the loneliness…” She trailed off, her eyes filling with tears. She needed him to buy her tale and feared he would not, that she would have no other choice but to return home. But the sheen of moisture in her eyes lent an air of authenticity to her story as nothing else could.
“I see.” His mouth was in a firm line. “That is… most unfortunate. Most unfortunate indeed.”
“She threatened to have me sent away, but first she promised to have me beaten until I would need to summon a carriage to leave.”
The admiral’s face twisted in sympathy. “I hardly know what to say, my lady. Perhaps I could speak to your father.” He pulled a silver pocket watch from his coat and peered at it. “I am due to depart shortly, but for this cause, I would be willing to delay.”
Delia felt excitement and fear knot her belly in equal measure. She had to choose every word carefully. “Perhaps you could take me with you.”
He looked at her without speaking, those intense sapphire eyes moving over her face. “I do not think it possible, my lady.”
Fear tightened inside her. He had to help her, he had to! This would surely be her only, best chance. “Please. I… I have nowhere else to go.”
The furrows in his brow deepened as he considered her plea. “We are traveling to Baasing, and I do not have the faintest idea of what I would do with you when we got there.”
“Why, that’s perfect!” Her face lit with a smile as hope filled her. “I have family in Baasing, and they would take me in, I know they would.”
He tapped the toe of his polished black boot against the ground. “I do not know… I still think it would be best for me to have a word with your father.”
Impulsively, she grabbed his hand, her eyes pleading as she gazed into his face. “Please, sir. Have some pity. I have lost my mother, and in a way, my father is lost to me too. Please, I implore your honor as a gentleman that you would take me to the only family I have left.” She could tell he was moved by her appeal. Yet, she held her breath as she waited for him to make a decision.
“It would be difficult,” he mused aloud. “The crew is rather superstitious, and it is uncommon to have a woman aboard.”
“But… you are the admiral. Surely if you vouch for me…”
A smile curved his full, red lips. “Vouch for a woman I do not even know?”
“I am a lady,” she reminded him primly. “As you yourself said. I will cause no mischief, I vow it. And… and I could stay in my own quarters—whatever provisions you allow, of course,” she spoke in a rush as the idea came to her.
The admiral considered her with a thoughtful frown. Finally, he nodded. “Alright. It will be my pleasure to see you safely to your family. But you must abide by my rules.”
“Of course!” she agreed at once with a delighted laugh. “Yes, yes, whatever you say.”
But his frown deepened. “My lady, please listen: while I promise no harm will ever come to you, if you fail to follow my rules there will be consequences.”
Delia was too pleased to see her plan working out to pay much mind to his warning. “Of course. You are the admiral, and your word is law.” She gave a little curtsey.
His countenance did not lighten, but he nodded. Then he offered her his arm. “Right this way, my lady.”
Happily, she took his arm, elated beyond measure to be off on an adventure and to start a new life.