Shelley Robertson-Bell paced the vast gardens of her parents’ home and sighed deeply. This should have been the happiest time of her life, but she had never felt so utterly miserable. Tomorrow she was obliged to marry Alexander Armitage, the duke of Southampton, a pairing that would invoke feelings of joy for most girls. Shelley, however, simmered with resentment.
Her father was a strict, no-nonsense man who carried the belief that he knew best in every circumstance. Even so, Shelley found it extremely difficult to understand his reasons for signing a contract of agreement for her to marry a man she had never even met. Shelley recalled how her father had informed her a few months earlier that, at twenty-one years, it was time she found herself a husband and settled down. Shelley had been astounded, but in her father’s mind that had been the end of the discussion and the wedding plans had begun. Shelley refused to participate, her anxiety growing as she watched her parents organise the event she wanted no part of.
Slumping down dejectedly on a bench in a remote corner of the garden, knees shrugged to her chest, Shelley lowered her head and curled herself into a ball. Her secret hope was that she might be able to hide and remain unnoticed until her ‘big day’ became nothing but a distant, bad memory.
Breathing deeply, she inhaled the heady scent of the lavender and basil that grew in her mother’s small herb garden. As she took another cleansing lungful of air, the strong fragrance of the hyacinths overpowered the herbs. The scent soothed her raw nerves, and the faintest hint of a smile relaxed the creases in her furrowed brow.
Shelley was startled when someone sat down on the bench beside her unannounced, and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. She tensed instantly, not wishing to speak to either of her parents—unless, of course, they were there to tell her they had come to their senses and cancelled the wedding.
No such luck. Shelley opened her eyes and looked into the smiling face of their butler, Dexter. He had been with the family since long before her birth, and she could always rely on him to lend an ear when she was feeling down. She gazed sadly into his kind face, wondering if her particular problem was even beyond Dexter’s capabilities.
“Morning, Dexter,” Shelley sighed as she reached towards the trellis and snapped off a pale pink clematis head. She held the bloom under her nose and inhaled deeply, fingers caressing the delicate petals.
Dexter touched her hand. “Last-minute nerves?” he asked, his voice a source of comfort for her.
Shelley shook her head and looked down to her fingers as they moved over the stamen of the flower. “You wouldn’t understand,” she said softly. She knew that, like her parents, he could only see the positive side that this arranged marriage to the duke would bring.
Dexter responded by warmly closing his hand around hers. Shelley cringed at the gesture, crushing the fragile flower head between her fingers.
“I don’t want to get married,” she muttered, in an almost inaudible tone.
“Oh, Miss Shelley,” sighed Dexter. “Your parents have signed a contract with the duke.” He shook his head and frowned at her scowl. “Why on earth didn’t you talk to them months ago, when the matter of your wedding was first raised?”
Looking up into Dexter’s kind eyes, she shrugged in a gesture of hopelessness. He patted her affectionately on the shoulder before acknowledging sympathetically, “It’s too late to do anything about it now, you do realise that, don’t you?”
With a frustrated growl, Shelley pushed herself to her feet and hurled her ruined flower to the ground. She stomped upon the bloom angrily, twisting it under her foot and completely shredding the delicate petals with the sole of her shoe. Satisfied it was destroyed, she lifted her foot and her temper slowly calmed as she gazed sadly at the tattered remains. She raised her head and glared at Dexter, who watched her display with pursed lips.
“I don’t want to get married,” she repeated. “Why can’t anyone even try to understand how I feel about this?”
Dexter shook his head silently as Shelley continued her tirade. “I thought you, of all people, would help me,” she snapped, her temper firing up once more as she felt her hopes of cancelling the wedding slip from her. She turned quickly to walk away, tears of betrayal stinging her eyes. “I really thought you would be there for me,” she accused.
Dexter grabbed her wrist and spun her around to face him. “Young lady, I suggest you lose that attitude before you speak to your parents. If not, I can see someone taking a trip across her mother’s lap,” he warned.
“They don’t care and you know it.” Shelley’s cheeks flushed and she quickly lowered her eyes. “Unlike them, you have always had time for me. You never brushed me off or shooed me away, as they did when they were too busy to be bothered with me. I don’t even know why they brought a child into the world.”
“You really are asking for a spanking, aren’t you?”
Shelley felt the heat rise to her face. Despite her complete adoration for Dexter, she hated the fact that he knew her mother spanked her. “You know, there are some things that should be kept private. You have no business knowing something so personal,” she responded huffily.
“In fact,” Dexter continued, ignoring her comment as he loosened his grip on her wrist, “if you have any sense you’ll drop this nonsense and put your energy into preparing for tomorrow. Don’t waste it throwing these childish tantrums. I know this isn’t the fairy-tale wedding you dreamed of as a little girl, when you used to dress up as a princess. Nor will there be a knight in shining armour arriving to rescue you from your ivory tower. But the duke… he’s a good man. Your father would never allow you to be put in harm’s way,” he said gently. “He would never place you in the hands of a fire-breathing dragon. Remember that little wooden sword he bought you to protect his princess? Your parents love you. Please believe me.”
Shelley smiled at the memory, and wished suddenly that she was a little girl once more and her wedding day was simply a child’s fanciful dream. After a moment of silence, Dexter sighed again.
“Miss Shelley, you owe it to your parents to make them proud tomorrow, so let’s hear no more of this silly talk.”
Dexter’s impatience showed clearly in his facial expression, his lips tightened and his eyebrows raised, but Shelley pouted and shook her head. If Dexter couldn’t help her get out of this farce of a wedding, she held little hope of persuading her parents to cancel it. Despite his warnings, she believed it was still worth a try.
“Thank you, Dexter,” she said, nodding politely before huffily continuing. “But I think I know my parents better than you do.” Turning on her heel, Shelley strode towards the house.
“Good luck,” Dexter called after her.
* * *
Barely even glancing at the planters and vases filled with red roses and white lilies, Shelley stepped into the lavishly decorated hallway of her parents’ home. The effort in readying the stately home for the following day’s celebrations held no interest for her.
She leaned against the front door, closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths, preparing for the certainty of an awkward conversation with her parents. Dexter had always given her good counsel in the past, but now she needed to shun his advice and go with her heart. She had no intent to marry the duke, and her parents needed to accept that.
Shelley cautiously approached the lounge and rested her trembling hand on the door handle. Willing herself to be strong and stand by the decision that would affect the rest of her life, she pushed the handle firmly. The door opened wide and revealed her parents, Lord Frederick and Lady Annabelle, sitting side by side on the sofa. They were drinking tea from their best china, giving Shelley the suspicion that they viewed her upcoming marriage to the duke as something to celebrate.
They both smiled brightly when their daughter entered the room. “Shelley, come and join us,” encouraged her mother, shuffling aside and patting the sofa. Shelley lowered her head and gulped anxiously as she moved to accept the invitation. She silently watched her mother gracefully lift the teapot and pour a third cup of tea, and wondered idly why her parents had not spoken of their intent for her to join them on her final day of freedom. Shelley hesitantly accepted the offered drink, not missing the numerous cakes set upon the delicate porcelain plate. Even those delectable treats did not beckon interest, her appetite stripped by the queasiness in her stomach, and she was certain her parents could hear the pounding of her heart beating heavily against her chest as she mentally prepared what she was to say.
Even when he was happy, Lord Frederick had a sternness about his features that was hard to ignore. Putting his hand on Shelley’s knee, he gruffly announced, “This time tomorrow you’ll be a married woman.”
Shelley glanced up at him. She squirmed uncomfortably, chewed her lower lip, and shook her head slowly, watching apprehensively as his brow furrowed.
“I’m sorry, Father,” she whispered, lowering her gaze to focus on his thick black moustache, not daring to look into his eyes, which had narrowed in disapproval. She blurted the words out quickly before she lost her courage, and swallowed nervously as she raised her eyes to meet his. “I… I don’t want to be married.”
Her father’s face clouded over, his cheeks puffed out and reddened, and his eyes flared with anger. Shelley jumped anxiously when her mother’s hand rested lightly on her arm. She turned to face Lady Annabelle, and the unexpected kindness in the smile that greeted her.
“I know it’s sudden and a shock to you, and maybe I should have presented my feelings more slowly, but…”
“Shelley,” her mother interrupted, gently patting the girl’s hand. “You are not the first bride to get last-minute jitters. I promise you, it will all be fine. Here.” Shelley’s eyes widened in disbelief as Lady Annabelle expectantly held out the plate of cakes. “Cook made these especially for you. Go on, dear, have one.”
Shelley frowned in frustration. “Mother, despite what you think, cake does not make everything better,” she snapped, pushing the plate roughly away. A hurt expression replaced Lady Annabelle’s smile, and Shelley felt immediate guilt for speaking so harshly to her. Before she could apologise, her father grasped her hand.
“Shelley, watch your tone when speaking to your mother,” he warned, anger reflected in his eyes as his stern gaze settled on her.
Shelley shuffled in her seat and looked forlornly towards her father. “I’m sorry, Father,” she quickly responded. “Please forgive me, Mother. I did not mean to snap at you,” she added, glancing sideways at a pale-faced Lady Annabelle, who still clutched the plate of cakes in front of her.
Lord Frederick nodded slowly, his features relaxing slightly as he squeezed Shelley’s hand encouragingly.
“This will be our last chance to enjoy afternoon tea as a family, while you’re still living here that is. Be a good girl and indulge your mother this one last time,” he asked, his eyes still revealing hints of anger.
Shelley shifted her gaze to her mother, who smiled insipidly while moving the plate towards her once more. Anger welled inside and she shoved the plate from her mother’s hand, watching it strike the table before shattering to the floor.
“For goodness sake,” barked Shelley. “Didn’t you hear me? I don’t want a stupid cake.”
Stunned by her outburst, Shelley watched mesmerised as bits of broken plate scattered across the table and carpet, and the cakes landed in a heap among the shards of broken crockery.
Her father’s grip tightened on Shelley’s hand and he quickly stood up and pulled her to her feet. “This behaviour is unacceptable! Get to your room this instant,” he bellowed. He shook his daughter roughly, spun her around, and landed a hard smack on her bottom.
Shelley yelped in distress and put a hand to her offended flesh, her eyes wide as she attempted to rub out the sting. In the past, her father had always left the corporal punishment to her mother, but fear filled her that he was about to change his habit. She was grateful when he released his hold and allowed her to slowly back away. Her eyes fell in disbelief to the mess she had made and she began to shuffle anxiously as her mother regarded her with a frown.
Lady Annabelle’s stern rebuke made her stomach twist. “Shelley, aren’t you in enough trouble without ignoring your father? Obey him this instant and go to your room. I will be up to deal with you in a minute. Let’s see if a smacked bottom will improve your manners!”
Shelley trembled, nodding dumbly as tears filled her eyes. “Yes, Mother.”
Shelley turned away and collided straight into Dexter. He held a small dustpan and brush in his hands, and shook his head as he walked past her. Shelley paused to watch him in stunned silence as he stooped down beside her parents and diligently swept up the remnants of afternoon tea.
“Shelley, are you still here?” her father’s voice boomed, as he purposefully strode across the room towards her.
Colour quickly drained from her face and Shelley hurried out into the hallway. She ran up the stairs, slammed her bedroom door, and sat down on her bed to wait in fearful anticipation of her mother’s visit. Glancing across at her bedside table, Shelley eyed her hairbrush apprehensively, reproaching herself for making the situation even worse. Her mother’s hand was normally enough when it came to spanking her, but she had threatened several times recently to introduce her bottom to the hairbrush. Shelley had thought she was bluffing, but now she was not so certain.
She was dismayed that her parents had refused to listen to reason, and it seemed she would still have to marry the duke, but now it would be with a sore bottom. Not relishing the thought of a spanking from her mother, coupled by an immediate concern that her father might also partake and deliver one from his own hand, Shelley decided that her only course of action was to run.
She opened her door quietly, checking that no one was in view, and then slipped down the back stairs, through the kitchen, and out into the yard. Driven by need, she raced across the fields towards the home of her best friend, Charlotte. Blinking back tears of frustration and fear, she prayed that her friend might be willing to hide her away for a couple of days. She reasoned that, when she returned home, it would be too late for her parents to force her to wed the duke.
* * *
Lady Annabelle entered Shelley’s bedroom and discovered the girl’s absence. With a loud sigh, she returned downstairs to wait for her disobedient daughter’s return. Lady Annabelle settled in her chair, embroidery in hand, and rang the small bell beside her.
“Yes, ma’am, how can I help you?” Dexter asked.
“Dexter, please could you let me know the minute my daughter returns home?”
Dexter nodded solemnly and walked from the room to leave Lady Annabelle in peace.