“Hello, Angel. Will you and your braid be spending the night against the wall again?”
Olivia’s cool remark prickled at Dabria’s nerves, sending sparks of annoyance down her spine. She knew the name Angel was not meant with any kind of affection. Ignoring her cousin, she finished braiding her long dark hair into a thick plait and placed it over her shoulder.
Turning back to her own reflection in the dresser mirror, Dabria’s wide gray eyes surveyed her waist-length braid. She didn’t dare fix her hair in any other fashion. At nineteen, Dabria Aughton was small and petite, with fair skin resembling that of a porcelain doll. The forest green dress she had chosen for the evening accentuated her fair complexion. Seeing the way Olivia was staring at her in the mirror with pure distaste, she shifted her focus and busied herself with the items on her dresser.
Olivia rolled her dark oak brown eyes and sauntered over to her own dresser. She loved to do her hair in all the latest fashions, and she always made a point of showing Dabria. “I don’t know why you are putting in so much effort when you’re just going to be a wallflower again all evening, Angel,” she said as she glanced over her shoulder to ensure Dabria was paying attention to her. “What do you think I should do with my hair this evening, Angel?”
“Please, call me Dabria,” she responded, giving in to her cousin’s taunting. “I think you should do whatever you please with your hair.”
Olivia had an annoying habit of taunting her until she gave in to her whims and said something back. “I think I might braid it. Do you think that will suit me?” she asked over her shoulder while examining Dabria’s face. “No, braids are your thing. I don’t want to step on your toes.”
Dabria knew better than to provoke her cousin with any kind of response. When her brother or cousin made such remarks, she learned to bite her tongue and suppress her anger.
Olivia Brown had come to stay at the Aughton mansion after her parents succumbed to a terrible illness. Dabria’s brother, Viscount Noah Aughton, had taken pity on her when she begged him to save her from her betrothal to a vile duke with a bad reputation. Narrowly escaping that fate thanks to Noah, Olivia had been a ward in their house for the past three years. Years she had spent mocking and tormenting Dabria, making snide remarks about her looks and the way she braided her hair, knowing full well that Dabria had no choice in the matter.
“Well, are you going to dance?” Olivia asked again, a smirk on her thin lips.
Sighing heavily, Dabria turned back to her mirror and fixed the lacing at the neck of her satin dress. “Are you looking forward to this evening, then?” She asked her cousin, in an attempt to shift the focus away from herself.
“Of course,” Olivia piled her mousy walnut brown hair on top of her head, examining her reflection from every angle. “Rumor has it there’s a new viscount in town. Our hosts have graciously invited him to this evening’s ball.”
Fighting back the urge to reply sarcastically, Dabria picked up her simple diamond earrings.
“Again with those plain diamond earrings,” Olivia said in a droll tone, turning away from her dresser, her light pink dress swinging around her knees.
Ignoring her cousin, Dabria fastened her earrings. They were the only keepsakes she had from her mother since her brother had not allowed her to take anything else from her jewellery box. He blamed her for their parents’ deaths and never let her forget it. He had only let her have the earrings because he thought they were plain and ugly and saw no value in keeping them.
“Here, keep these,” he’d said, throwing the earrings on the table in front of her after she’d asked for a keepsake of their mother’s. “They are plain, so they should suit you.”
Dabria recalled the memory as she looked at her reflection in the mirror, her lips full and rounded in comparison to those of her cousin’s. She had learned a long time ago to keep the peace by being a ‘wallflower’, as Olivia had phrased it, and holding her tongue. “I think the carriage is ready,” she said and pushed herself up from the dresser chair. “Noah will be waiting for us.”
Smirking in her cruel, superior manner, Olivia stood and lifted her shawl from the back of her chair. “Let’s not keep my suitors waiting then, shall we, Angel?” she teased, fixing her elbow-length gloves. Her mousy hair was now pinned back in a tight bun that pulled the skin on her face, making her narrow eyes appear even smaller.
Viscount Noah Aughton stood waiting for them outside by the carriage, just as Dabria had predicted. He was dressed in a pale blue suit that brought out his sky blue eyes. His beard was trimmed and neat, his light brown hair slicked back under his top hat. A dark mahogany cane swung from his arm as he held the carriage door open for Olivia to climb inside, stepping in before Dabria.
“I hope you will remember your place and dance when asked to this evening,” Noah snapped at her as soon as she took her seat. “There will be consequences if you behave like an insipid little wallflower again all evening. It’s high time you were married.”
“Yes, Noah,” Dabria kept her face straight, while Olivia smirked. “I will do my best to be sociable this evening,” she said with a defiant tilt in her chin.
“Insipid Angel of Death,” Noah taunted and clenched his jaw in disgust.
Turning away from her brother and cousin, Dabria rested her chin on her delicate gloved hand and stared out of the carriage window as the horses’ hooves began to clop on the cobbled street, jostling the carriage as it moved away. Her name meant Angel of Death. A name her father had given her as a newborn after her mother had died giving birth to her. Her governess had once told her that her father had held her in his arms, with tears rolling down his cheeks as her mother lay motionless in their bed.
“You are so beautiful, like a little angel, an angel of death, my little Dabria…”
The sentence rang in her head like a church bell tolling when death was announced. Her father had taken his own life a few weeks later, the grief of losing his wife driving him insane. Noah was eight years old at the time, and he’d never forgiven her for killing their parents, telling her every chance he got that she was to blame.
“We are here,” Noah’s cold tone yanking her off her thoughts.
The carriage jostled to a halt in front of a large building adorned with ornate statues. Light and laughter spilled through the brightly illuminated windows. The ball was already in full swing.
Dabria was about to exit the carriage after Olivia when the length of Noah’s cane being placed across the doorway to bar her way made her pause.
“Remember what I said. You are to dance when asked to this evening. No exceptions.’’ His tone was just above a whisper, presumably, she thought, so the footmen would not hear.
“Yes, Noah,” she said and waited as her brother pushed past her and exited the carriage.
Inside the mansion, the ballroom was brightly lit with lanterns and candles. The ladies’ jewellery and ornately beautiful dresses glinted in the light as they chatted away to suitors and chaperones.
Dabria stood next to a tall fern, a glass of punch in her hand, trying her best to seem as small as possible as she surveyed the flying cherubs painted on the high ceiling. The crystal chandelier above held no less than one hundred candles; these were the kinds of things a person noticed when trying their best not to be noticed.
“Excuse me, miss,” a gentle voice asked from just beside her.
Dabria turned slowly while chewing on her bottom lip. She could see Noah from across the hall glaring at her, scrutinizing her reactions.
“How do you do, sir?” she replied, attempting a smile and bobbing a polite curtsey.
The gentleman in question was tall and handsome in a roguish way. His cedar brown eyes matched the neatly combed hair that had been swept to the side in a thick wave. His suit fit perfectly across his muscular build.
“Good evening,” he bowed, his arm across his chest. “Forgive me for startling you, miss. If I may introduce myself, I am Viscount Monroe Wren. I could not help but notice that you look just as out of place as I do this evening.”
Dabria took a step back and tilted her head in mild indignation. She sipped her punch, all the while watching her brother; the last thing she needed that evening was another person insulting her quiet demeanor.
“Forgive me, please,” Viscount Monroe said hurriedly. “I can see I have offended you. I did not mean it in that way. You see, I am new in town and don’t know anyone. I just meant that you seemed to be just as lost as I am this evening. I always find meeting new people rather daunting.”
The sincerity in his eyes and voice relaxed her nerves and made her lower her guard slightly. If she was to make pleasantries all evening, perhaps conversing with the newly arrived viscount would not be so bad after all.
“Good evening, Viscount,” she said, placing her drink on the table behind her and offering her hand. “I am Miss Dabria Aughton. Pleased to meet you.”
Viscount Monroe looked relieved. “I am pleased you did not take offense; it would be just like me to offend one of the most beautiful women in London at my very first ball.”
Dabria laughed lightly despite herself. “Not at all, my lord, I was merely transfixed by the lovely ceiling. You caught me off guard, is all.”
The viscount looked up and seemed about to comment when Olivia appeared and slipped her pink-gloved arm through Dabria’s, holding it tightly.
“Come now Dabria, don’t keep our new guest all to yourself,” she said in a high-pitched tone, batting her eyelids as she smiled at the viscount.
Dabria almost forgot herself then, just managing not to roll her eyes. So, this must be the newcomer Olivia is after. Just my luck to get caught in the middle of the hunt. Knowing she had no choice, she made the necessary introductions.
“Viscount Monroe Wren, may I please introduce my cousin, Miss Olivia Brown?”
“Miss Brown,” Monroe bowed and kissed the hand Olivia thrust in his face. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“The pleasure is all mine, my lord,” Olivia flirted and giggled. “Will you be dancing much this evening? I’m sure you have already filled in many a lady’s dance card.”
Dabria pushed back the nausea growing in her stomach. Her cousin’s obvious flirting was enough to make her want to leave. She was about to do just that when Monroe Wren took her by surprise.
“Actually, I was about to ask Miss Aughton here if she would grant me the honor of the first dance.”
Dabria stopped in her tracks and looked at her cousin’s darkening eyes. She knew that accepting the dance would infuriate Olivia, but her brother’s raised eyebrow and warning expression let her know there would be more than just a sulky cousin to deal with if she declined the offer. Noah’s wrath would be far more severe than anything Olivia could do.
Choosing the lesser of two evils, Dabria braced herself and placed her hand in Viscount Monroe’s, “I would love to.”
Olivia’s face shrouded to match her eyes as Dabria allowed herself to be led into the middle of the dance floor with the other waiting couples.
The violins began to play their lively melodies as the viscount twirled Dabria in expert fashion. “I think we may have a lot in common, Miss Aughton,” he whispered as he placed his hand on her waist. “I much prefer the solitude of the country to all this polite pomp and ceremony of town, don’t you?”
Dabria began to enjoy herself despite everything. The viscount’s friendly demeanor was something she thought she could get used to. She doubted she’d ever feel the affection referred to in popular romance novels as ‘love’ for anyone, but if she needed to make a match so that her brother could get rid of her through a marriage of convenience, the viscount didn’t seem such a bad prospect.
Throughout the dance, she laughed and made polite conversation, briefly forgetting about her brother and cousin. She let him lead her back to the refreshments table, where he poured them both some punch.
“Thank you,” she said, taking it from him gratefully, “dancing makes one thirsty.”
“I must admit, I always dread the small talk one has to make while dancing, but that was quite pleasant. Wouldn’t you say?”
Dabria sipped her punch and nodded. “I don’t usually like to dance, but it was enjoyable, indeed.”
“Care to join me for another when we have had our refreshments? Please, say yes. You would be doing me a great favor. I dread having to approach another lady. I dare say that not everyone would be as polite and understanding as you if I accidentally insulted them.”
Dabria was about to say no; the trouble Olivia would make for her if it seemed she was paying too much attention to the viscount wasn’t worth the extra dance. Not even if the viscount was a pleasant distraction from the evening.
“Please, say yes. Just one more?”
“All right, you have convinced me. Just one more dance,” she said, smiling politely, adding, “You shall save me from being a wallflower for the evening.” Her brother’s stern glances across the room forced her to accept the offer.
“Who is a wallflower?” Olivia cut in. “Not our angel,” she said with a hidden sneer, reminding Dabria of her place, slipping her hand once again through her arm.
The smile on Dabria’s face vanished in an instant.
Monroe frowned but shook his head at the exchange. “I was just asking your cousin for a second dance,” he told Olivia politely.
“Not so hasty, my lord. You shall wear our poor Lady Aughton out.” Her laugh had an icy edge to it that only those closest to her would notice. “I would first like to take a walk with my dear cousin, let her catch her breath, and then you can have her all to yourself again,” she said, looking up at Dabria. “What do you say?” she gently applied pressure to Dabria’s arm, letting her know that declining would be ill-advised. “Meet me in the gardens in five minutes?”
Dabria lifted the corner of her mouth into a polite smile and addressed Monroe. “I would be delighted to accept another dance once I have caught my breath, my lord. Would you please excuse me for a moment?” she said and replaced her glass on the table.
Olivia smiled and curtsied to the viscount before sauntering off.
Weaving through the throng of brightly dressed guests, Dabria headed towards the open doors leading out into the gardens. The cool night air kissed her skin; making her shiver and so she pulled her green shawl around her shoulders.
Olivia was nowhere to be seen.
Dabria picked her way through the bushes, grateful for the opportunity to be alone again, even if Olivia had pulled her out into the cool evening as a distraction.
“Dangerous for a lady to be out here by herself,” a nasty, rattling voice said from behind a nearby bush. “People might think she’s not virtuous.”
Dabria froze in her tracks, the familiar voice sending icy chills of fear and disgust down her spine. Clutching her shawl closer to her body, she took a step back.
The voice belonged to Frederick Williams, the Duke of Marton, a nasty old man with a despicable reputation. Rumor had it that he had killed his previous two wives, both young, healthy women who had succumbed to mysterious illnesses shortly after marrying him. The duke had on many occasions relentlessly pursued Dabria, much to her great revulsion.
“Your Grace,” Dabria greeted him politely, keeping her distance. “I was merely looking for my cousin. She said she would meet me out here.”
The duke was short with a round belly, and a balding head with tufts of grey hair on the sides. His teeth were yellowing from age, and his dark brown eyes reminded her of two stagnant pools.
“I hope her delay lasts a little longer,” he said, advancing on her. “I do so like it when it’s just the two of us.”
Dabria backed up all the way into a giant hedge, her arms defensively clutching her waist. “I should be getting back.”
“Don’t run away so fast, my dear. Don’t you remember how much fun we had at the last ball when you and I danced?” His smile was vile, curving into a mischievous grin that made her sick to her stomach. “I did so love twirling you in my arms.”
Dabria tried to make herself as small as possible. She began to panic as the duke advanced, memories of his hands groping her waist making her pulse race. He reached for her hand, and as she swung away, he caught the tip of her glove, pulling it off as she hurried away.
Her breath caught in her chest as she turned, seeing Olivia standing with Noah and Viscount Monroe in the doorway to the hall. A tiny crowd had gathered behind them to see what the fuss was about. She looked at their shocked faces, then back to the duke, who was standing still holding her glove.
“Noah, it isn’t what it looks like,” she said in a pleading voice when she realized what they must all be thinking. “I was waiting for Olivia when—”
“I beg your pardon, I played no part in your ruin,” snapped her cousin.
“Enough,” Noah barked when the crowd had grown even larger. He hurried down the steps and grabbed Dabria by the wrist. “Come with me,” he growled at the duke before dragging her inside behind him through the onlookers.
Once they were in the study, Noah shut the door. Dabria stood beside Olivia and the duke as Noah paced back and forth. “I will not ask what you were doing alone in the dark with a gentleman who is not your chaperone,” he hissed angrily.
“I was waiting for—”
“Do not bring Olivia into this. Your virtue has been compromised, Dabria, so do not act as if you don’t understand the seriousness of the matter. You will have to wed His Grace now. We will make the arrangements and announce the engagement within a month. That is, if you agree, Your Grace.” He turned to the duke for confirmation.
The duke’s dry lips curled into a nasty grin as he nodded. “I will marry the girl.”
“Brother,” Dabria looked pleadingly at her brother. “Please don’t make me do this.”
Dabria was about to resume her protests when Noah stopped her. She leaned back against the large, wooden desk in the center of the room, as if about to pass out. Olivia and the Duke’s triumphant smiles made her sick to her stomach once more. She couldn’t see a way out of the mess. How had she ended up in such a terrible situation when she had been laughing and minding her own business just moments before?
As it turned out, her marriage really had been just around the corner, as she had thought while dancing with the viscount. But it would be a marriage devoid of kindness.
The jolting of the carriage exacerbated Dabria’s nausea as she clutched her seat. She begged her brother not to force her to marry the vile duke, but an agreement was reached regardless of her wishes. They’d be married in a month, as soon as Noah could make the necessary arrangements.
Dabria couldn’t bear the thought of being a wife to that horrible old man, with his round belly, yellowing teeth, and nasty grin. Why must it be so? She wouldn’t have minded being a spinster if it came to it.
“Don’t you think our angel will make a fetching bride?” Olivia asked Noah, watching Dabria’s face carefully for a reaction.
Noah’s mouth curved into a nasty smile. “Finally, you will be useful to this family,” he said.
“You don’t have to go through with this,” she said quietly. “I can leave and become a governess. I can look after myself. Please, Noah, anything but this. Don’t make me marry the duke. If I am a burden to you, I can make my own way in the world.”
“You have been a burden since the day you were born. You will go through with it.” His tone darkened as he added, “And you will do it without any fuss.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Never forget, you are the Angel of Death. You don’t get a say in the matter. Do I make myself clear?”
Dabria let out a shaky breath before staring back at her brother. “Perfectly,” she said, determination rising inside her. She knew that arguing with her brother would not make him change his mind. To him, she would always be the person who had brought death to their family.
Noah sat back in his seat as the carriage bounced along, his triumphant expression declaring his victory.
She raised her gaze out the window to the full moon hanging above the London skyline. She was determined not to marry the duke. She’d been punished enough for her parents’ deaths. It was past time for her to take matters into her own hands. Marriage to the vile man would be a fate worse than death, and she was not ready to die..
The foreboding light of the full moon cast ominous shadows across the carpet in Dabria’s bedroom as she pulled on her riding boots. The clock in the hall outside her chambers struck twelve times, letting the occupants of the house know it was midnight.
Noah would be in his chambers by now, having finished his whiskey an hour ago. If anything, her brother was a creature of habit. She could set her watch by his routine.
Tightening her dark traveling cloak about her, she pulled the hood over her head and reached for the small case she had packed after Olivia had gone to her room. She could hear loud snores coming from across the corridor, even with both doors closed; Olivia was sound asleep.
She did a final check on the contents of the case before snapping the lid shut. Two dresses, a hairbrush, a few toiletries, and the little money she had managed to save over the years for a rainy day. And marrying the duke was a rainy day if ever there was one. Her mother’s diamond earrings were pinned to the inside of her dress for safekeeping.
She went over the plan in her head once more as she looked around her room. The maids would all be asleep at that hour, allowing her the freedom to leave unseen through the front door. She intended to make her way across town to a certain livery stable that stayed open all night to serve the saloon patrons. There, she would purchase a horse and begin her journey to Scotland. Her aunt would know what to do once she arrived at her house.
Taking her case, she stepped out into the hall and quietly pulled the chamber door shut behind her. She waited a moment to see if anyone was around. There was always the possibility of someone summoning a maid during the night, and she couldn’t risk being caught. The maids in the Aughton mansion were terrified of displeasing her brother and would surely give her away.
When Dabria was sure the coast was clear, she made her way as quickly and quietly as she could down the stairs and out of the front door.
A servant’s bell rang in the distance, signalling that someone had indeed summoned a maid. Had Noah or Olivia heard something? Her heart began to race. Hurrying her pace, she closed the front door and made her way down the entrance steps, the heals of her boots clicking softly against the polished stone.
The night air was cool as she stepped out into the dimly lit street with her case in hand. She had done it.
“Who goes there?” a man’s voice called to her from the shadows, making her jump.
Had she been discovered already? The possibilities raced through her mind; perhaps the bell she had heard was Noah summoning a maid because he had heard something. When a man emerged from the shadows, she felt her heart pounding in her ears. He was dressed in the dark garb of the night watchmen who patrolled the streets.
“Where are you off to at this hour, miss?” he asked in a gruff voice.
Dabria kept her head low, not wanting the man to see her face.
“I’m off to catch the early milk cart leaving town. My aunt has taken ill suddenly, and I’m needed back home,” she lied, staring at his shiny black boots.
The officer looked at the mansion behind her. “Are you a maid here?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, relieved the officer seemed to have believed her story. Her quick thinking had always been one of her saving graces, a talent she’d developed over the years to avoid provoking her cousin and brother. You had to be able to think on your feet when you lived with the two of them.
“Be careful out there,” he nodded, and then resumed walking, his shiny boots crunching on the gravel of the deserted street. He would not have let her go alone if he’d discovered she was a lady. But a common maid was of no concern to an officer.
Dabria hurried down the street after thanking the man for his kindness. Her steps echoed in the darkness as she walked away from the duke, her cousin, her brother, and a life of misery.
Scotland, four days later . . .
Dabria reined the horse in on the tiny, cobbled walk outside her aunt’s cottage. The journey from England had been long and arduous. She had ridden by night and slept in taverns during the day to ensure no one would recognize her. She was tired to the bone and needed a drink to calm her dry, scratchy throat.
Dismounting the horse, she soothed the beast and made her way to the cottage’s wooden door. However, when she tried the handle, it was locked. It doesn’t look like anyone is home, she thought, dismayed as she peered through the windows to check inside. It seemed her aunt and her husband had gone somewhere. As it wasn’t like them to lock the door just for short absences, she guessed they had gone on a longer trip. Her heart sank at the thought.
Placing her hands on her hips, she looked around the exterior of the small cottage. There was no other entrance to the place, and the surrounding garden was deserted.
She had been to the lovely cottage in Scotland only once before, on the fateful day when Noah had forbidden her from ever wearing her hair loose again. She unconsciously reached for her braid and pushed it back over her shoulder as she recalled the events.
The walls of the cottage were made of solid stone holding up a simple thatched roof. Her aunt had always been a simple woman who didn’t need riches in life to be happy. The garden was small and filled with wild heather that grew untamed. The surrounding forest, with its mature birch trees and towering Scot’s pines, provided the perfect surroundings for the house, which nestled in its own private nook.
Dabria let out a sigh when she remembered how Noah had forced their Aunt Margaret to move to Scotland the previous year. She had married a Scotsman whom her brother deemed beneath him, and before Dabria knew it, her aunt had been sent away for good.
You can take that riffraff back to his country with you. Dabria recalled her brother’s harsh words after Margaret had announced her wedding. I will not have you parading him around London like some kind of oddity to be gawked at.
“I will go, Noah,” her aunt had replied without batting an eyelid. “I will go to Scotland with my husband. But know this, you will always be welcome in my house, even if I am not welcome in yours.” Dabria admired the way her aunt had faced adversity and yet still shown kindness. The woman had a fierceness about her that didn’t change her gentle nature. “I shan’t ask you for money either, so you can keep the family riches. But I will keep what is rightfully mine.”
Noah’s jaw had clenched in anger at her words. He knew exactly what their aunt meant. She would not be giving him the priceless family ring that had been passed down for generations.
Dabria was very fond of her, and the fact she had married a Scot didn’t change that. She was the only member of the family who had ever shown her any kind of affection, and, as her mother’s younger sister, she bore a striking resemblance to Dabria.
“What am I going to do now?” she murmured to herself. She turned and looked at the horse. “I suppose we might find another inn for the night and come back tomorrow,” she mumbled, chewing on her bottom lip as she considered her situation and stroked the horse’s golden mane. The prospect of riding any further for any distance was not appealing to her or the mare at the time. Four days on the back of a strange horse was more than enough. “Unless…” She turned and looked around the garden again.
Spotting a bucket laying on the ground near some bushes, she lifted it up and peered beneath it.
“Aha,” she said triumphantly. A golden key shone brilliantly in the morning sun.
Aunt Margaret had the habit of always leaving a spare key hidden. You never know when you will need it, she had said when Noah complained about it back in London. Her aunt had insisted on leaving a spare key beneath a bucket at the servants’ entrance. Why a bucket when a stone would be far less conspicuous, Dabria did not know. But at that moment, she was relieved the key was there.
“Thank you, Aunt Margaret, you never know when you will need it, indeed,” she murmured and let herself into the cottage.
The main room, which served as both kitchen and living room, was clean and tidy, but there was a thin layer of dust on the floor and furniture. It looked as if her aunt had been gone for a few days. Dabria walked across the floor, leaving footprints in the dust. She peered into the bedroom and noticed that the doors to the large wooden cupboard were slightly ajar. As she approached it, she noticed that her aunt’s dresses and her husband’s shirts were no longer hanging in their proper places.
She walked back into the living room and sat in the rocking chair near the fireplace, knowing her aunt would not mind if she stayed until they returned. She carefully examined the living space, rocking herself back and forth.
The room featured a stone fireplace for heating and cooking, as well as a large pot hung over the ashes. There were four chairs at the large central table, and a smaller table next to the rocking chair. A quill, an inkpot, and a few scraps of unused parchment were scattered across its varnished top.
Dabria was about to remove her filthy boots when she noticed a letter with her brother’s name written on it on the table. A sinking feeling told her that this could not bode well for her.
Picking up the letter, she began to read.
Dear Aunt Margaret,
I am pleased to inform you that Dabria is set to be married to Frederick Williams, the Duke of Marton. I would like to formally request the family ring that is in your possession. At our last meeting, you said you would not part with the ring unless Dabria was to be married. Well, I am happy to inform you that this is soon to be the case. Kindly use the money enclosed to send us the ring. If I do not hear back from you within the coming week, I will be coming to collect the ring myself. The wedding plans must not be delayed.
Your nephew, Viscount Noah Aughton.
As she read the date on the letter, Dabria felt the blood drain from her face. It had been sent just over a week before she had even attended the ball where she had been caught in a compromising situation with the duke.
She looked down at her lap, letting the letter fall to the table. They had planned everything. The duke had been waiting for her in the garden on purpose. Her knuckles whitened as she gripped the dusty fabric of her dress. That meant Noah, the Duke, and Olivia, who had invited her into the gardens, knowingly luring her into the trap.
Dabria knew Olivia hated her, but she had no idea she hated her that much. She had never done anything to her knowledge to cause her harm. Perhaps, like Noah, she blamed Dabria for her aunt and uncle’s deaths. Dabria, on the other hand, had often noticed how much Olivia hated it when people complimented her beauty.
Dabria had always tried to keep the peace by blending in. She was determined, however, not to be a wallflower for people who would throw her to the wolves simply because it suited them.
Pushing herself up from the rocking chair, she paced back and forth in the tiny cottage. She had to take a few deep breaths to calm the anger rising within her. Everything that had happened in the last few days was all part of Noah’s elaborate plot to marry her off, something he had wanted for years.
Walking back over to the table, her eyes fell on the gold coins peeking out from beneath the envelope in which the letter had come.
Maybe her aunt didn’t send the ring. She had always insisted on giving the ring to Dabria in person when the time came, which had irritated Noah to no end. He didn’t like hearing the word “no”.
The ring was a valuable family heirloom and the only thing her aunt had. And her brother wanted the ring because he feared that Dabria would inherit it. If their aunt sent him the jewellery, he could make sure it was not passed down to his despised sister.
Dabria’s mouth dropped open when she recalled a line from the letter. At our last meeting… That meant Noah had asked their aunt for the ring a year ago when they had visited her here in Scotland. He had been planning these events since then.
Falling back into the chair, she realized what the coins on the table signified. If Aunt Margaret hadn’t sent the ring, then Noah would be coming to Scotland in person. Staying at the cottage would no longer be safe. She needed to find an alternative as soon as possible.
Almost screaming with frustration, Dabria kicked at the small table, narrowly missing one of the legs. The years of pent-up frustration were finally coming home to roost. She vowed never to be small again.
Calm down. She was already out of her brother’s reach. She just needed to wait until her aunt came back; she would explain the situation, and together they could come up with a plan.
Perhaps her aunt knew of a family in Scotland in need of a governess. Or a maid even, since she was unsure how the situation with governesses stood in Scotland. She only knew that Scots were barbarians. Or, at least, that was widely believed in England. She stepped out of the cottage, taking a deep breath to settle her nerves once and for all, and closing the door behind her.
“Great! Lovely ,” she exclaimed as she looked around the empty garden, noting that the horse was no longer standing on the path where she had left it. Her case, which contained all of her belongings, was still tied to the saddlebag.
Looking around, she realized she’d have to find the beast if she wanted to change her clothes. A walk in the woods would also help her relax.
So she set off alone into the unknown forest.
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