This will be the last divided up post. From now on, I will be posting entire chapters. I can’t promise how often that will be but I am hoping once a week or more.
Sylvia sighed as she rubbed her aching back. She slowly lowered herself into a chair and unpinned her hair, then propped her feet up on the desk before her. In her youth, this had been her father’s study. Now, by law, it was her brother’s. However, he hardly set foot in it. Every inch and artifact in it bore her stamp.
She had not replaced the furniture and so the worn pieces from generations past still honored the room. Instead, Sylvia eyed the walls. She had replaced some of the more ancient tomes with modern books on farming methods and breeding practices in Scotland. Through her brother’s name, she subscribed to all the latest publications from the northern geniuses.
Not that she had cast aside a book, even if ancient and mostly useless. No, they were now housed in the attic along with old baby cots and christening gowns.
Indeed, it was nearly time to need them again. Owen ought to marry soon. He should fill his house with a wife and babies. Aside from the fact that no lady on earth would be good enough for him—especially not the conceited sister of the most pompous duke to ever live, Sylvia knew her brother put off the task out of concern for her.
While she was out today visiting tenants and looking over fields, she came upon a solution for Owen’s troubles. For years, she had hoped to save enough so she might have a modest income to live upon in some small cottage. Before that, she dreamed of supporting herself as a steward.
However, no one could see past her sex. They refused to see the improvement in Linwood’s ledgers or attribute it to her. Many times, she would meet with a solicitor who Owen thought would be agreeable to recommending her to his clients. There were times Owen would tell her that the gentleman in question knew much of the current state of affairs resided upon the war. Then, she would meet with the said solicitor and rather than acknowledging Napoleon and the trade hardships, he would blame her for Linwood’s stunted growth.
There was a time, however, even before her ill-fated and lofty hopes of independence, that she had craved marriage with a loving partner. One who saw her as an equal but also recognized her unique femininity. Of course, her teachers and mother had been correct about her inability to inspire love and not being womanly enough for a man.
She had been a foolish sixteen-year-old when she announced to the heir of the local baronet that she was in love with him. Even more stupidly, she did it in earshot of his friends. It spread through her small community like wildfire. Now, although it was years ago, she was met with either sad smiles or sniggering laughter. No one would ever consider her for a wife.
Clara invited Sylvia and Owen to a house party in Essex. There, she would find some gentleman in need of a wife. She did not have much dowry or beauty. As she was, she could not inspire love, so it seemed. Instead, she would pretend to be everything a gentleman would desire in a marriage. She would be insipid, biddable, and meek. He certainly could never know about her ambitions to be a steward.
Sylvia sighed. A tear threatened to escape but she refused to allow herself the luxury of crying. Her husband surely would have his own steward and never permit his wife to act as one. However, she might intervene with the tenants. She could put herself forward as the person to talk to rather than the employee. She did not know of a steward who did not feel overworked. She would have to be careful to never let it seem like the man in question was not doing his job, however. She would never want someone to be fired simply for her desires.
How would she manage it? What sort of man would not suspect her true intentions and actions? She would have to find a very dull man with little wit. All the better if he were rich and likely to give her a large stipend. As for the household, well she managed Linwood well enough with her divided attention. She simply needed a capable housekeeper.
And children? Sylvia was two minds about them. She hated the idea of the begetting. She had never met a man who stirred any passion or curiosity in her. Even her long-ago love had not inspired such feelings. How could she allow marital intimacies if she dreaded even a mere kiss? However, gentlemen would expect heirs. She supposed she could put him off most of the time—she had heard whispers of how to do it and very few ladies of their class were incessantly with child.
“Are you packed?” Owen said, bringing Sylvia’s mind to the present.
“Susie has seen to it, I am sure.” The truth was, she packed with more care than usual as she intended to pass herself off as some demure miss and needed to look the part. However, she did not wish to alert Owen to her scheme.
“I wish to leave precisely at noon.”
“Yes, I know. I am nearly finished in here.”
She had spoken with Richards, the butler, and Jefferson, one of the tenants, on how to handle any concerns while they were gone. Now, she was reviewing building plans to improve a few of the cottages before winter weather set in. Next, she would compile lists for the grocer and butcher. There were tasks to be done at certain times of year which allowed everything to flow best and they needed to be performed regardless of her brother’s impatience to travel and eagerness to attend house parties.
Her duties finished in perfect time and Sylvia made her way to the carriage before her brother. She always enjoyed causing him to fret and then proving him wrong. He seemed outraged each time, but truthfully she thought he enjoyed it.
A moment later, the carriage door opened and Owen’s mouth fell open in astonishment. “You have done it again!” He climbed in, taking the seat across from her.
“Just so,” she grinned.
“I must know your magic,” he said. “I can never end perfectly on time. I am either late or must plan to be early.”
Sylvia laughed as the coach lurched forward. “You are not early if you tell yourself to be ready at eleven and finish by twelve, instead. You are still late according to your own time.”
“Yes, but not according to anyone else’s!” Owen chuckled. “Today, I did manage it.” He pulled out his watch to show her. “What? This says it is one! Well, it is unlike you to be late!”
She withdrew her own watch and showed him the time, laughing at his puzzled expression. “I am afraid, dear brother, that I turned your watch forward an hour.”
Sylvia expected a good-natured scolding. Instead, her brother’s eyes took on a far away gaze.
“I suppose I need the gentle care of a loving woman.”
Oh, dear. He surely was not thinking of her. She had hardly a gentle bone in her body. No, he must be thinking of some lady he would like to bring home and give his name to. Lord help her if it was who she feared.
“Why were you so adamant we attend Clara’s party?” she asked Owen.
“Clara and Stephen are our good friends.” He did not meet her eyes and instead busied himself with looking at the passing scenery.
“Owen,” Sylvia said in the stern voice she had often used on him as a child. She was only two minutes older than him, and yet had always mothered him. “Is there a particular guest you wish to see?”
“Yes.” He drew out the word as though he did not wish to be untruthful and yet hesitated to explain more.
“And, what? I know you. You have already concocted some story in your head. Go ahead and tell me what it is so I may discover if it is fact or fiction and know whether I am guilty as you imagine.”
Sylvia huffed and crossed her arms over her shoulders. “I do no such thing!”
“You do indeed! You are always too quick to come to conclusions.”
“I certainly am not.” In the back of her mind, Sylvia wondered if he were more insightful than she usually gave him credit for. “I am patiently waiting for your answer to my question. If I believed I knew it already I would not have asked.”
Owen frowned, seemingly stumped by his own argument. Sylvia internally rejoiced. This was yet another reason no man would marry her as her usual self. She enjoyed arguing too much.
“Very well,” Owen said, at last. “Lady Laura Gordon and her brother shall be present. I hope to present my suit to them at the close of the party.”
Sylvia gasped. She had not thought he was so determined. “That would be a very fast courtship!”
“Not at all,” Owen said as he crossed an ankle over his knee.“I met her at Stanton’s party last year. We have seen each other at four others beside meeting in Town frequently.”
“You have been very quiet about this!” Sylvia gaped at her brother. Had she been so engrossed in her own affairs that she had not noticed him falling in love?
“You refused to come to any of the events.” He shrugged.
“And do you think she encourages your affections?”
The faraway look returned. “I do. She is so kind and sweet. I wish you would take the trouble to know her better during this fortnight.”
“But—but—but she is the daughter of a duke! Her brother is the most arrogant man I have ever met!”
Owen rolled his eyes. “Allow me to point out that you do not know many men. Compared to someone as affable as Stephen, perhaps he does seem aloof. However, I have seen him very animated when speaking to his friends.”
“And how does he treat you?”
“With civility,” Owen said.
“Does he welcome you as a suitor to his sister?”
“I am aware of the obstacles to our union.” He sighed. “Laura assures me that her brother only needs to know me better.”
“Owen,” Sylvia said gently. “I know you are one of the best men to walk this earth and I applaud Lady Laura for seeing that in you as well. However, surely a duke wishes for more than strong character for his sister’s groom. You have no title and we are not rich. He must expect more for her.”
“The way you talk, it is no surprise you are still unwed!” Owen cried. “Is that all you care about? Do you think that a man’s worth is tied only to his circumstances in life?”
“No, of course not. Pray, forgive me. I did not mean to insult or offend.”
“You do not know the duke. He may feel as you do. You are proving your prejudice. Not everyone with a title is like Sir Anthony. We are not unworthy and I refuse to act as such.”
“You are correct,” Sylvia said in a whisper. Clearing her throat, she attempted to smile. “I will attempt to let go of my prejudices.”
“Good,” Owen nodded. “Lady Laura is essential to my happiness and her brother is essential to hers. It is important that we both please him.”
Sylvia’s smile faltered. She could never imagine the stuffy duke would approve of her. Now, regardless of her private ambitions, she had even more reason to conceal her hoyden ways.