Note: I have changed Laura’s name to Alice. I was getting confused having so many characters with names ending in A.
Since being trapped in a tree and rescued by the duke, that is Nate, Sylvia had taken care to curb her hoyden impulses. She had walked to escape Lord Brandon’s attention. Did other ladies feel the need for seclusion and privacy—for even five minutes of their own thoughts and with utter silence—as she did during courtship? Probably not, she mused to herself. Very few people seemed to feel as she ever did.
It was easy to amend her ways once she made a task list. It was a simple order of dos and do nots. Do: compliment Lord Brandon. Do: listen to him ramble on about whatever pleased him. Do: smile encouragingly. Do: ask simple questions. Do: avoid his eyes. Do not: let her imagination wander. Do not: trample about the grounds unescorted. Do not: run into the duke. Do not: think about the duke.
Left unwritten was that if it had been any other gentleman, the incident yesterday might have been entirely charming. Had he almost kissed her? It certainly seemed like it. Being held in his arms was not unpleasant. He had smelled of soap and earth. His strong arms and broad shoulders were the stuff of which ladies dreamed. For once, she felt the flutters others spoke of when with gentlemen.
Around Nate, Sylvia’s mind felt slow and incapable of its usual quick-thinking. Her belly filled with butterflies and cotton choked her mouth. She probably appeared a bumbling idiot to him. However, despite some teasing, he did not reprimand her very much yesterday.
Sylvia lowered her book at the sound of the library door opening. She assumed it was an acceptable hobby for a refined lady to read. Of course, behind the book of poetry, was one of Clifford’s latest acquisitions on farming methods he allowed her to borrow. Over the edges of the tome, Sylvia saw Lady Alice Gordon enter.
“Miss Linwood?” the young lady called. “Are you in here?”
Sighing, Sylvia lowered her book all the way and emerged from her hiding location. “Here I am. May I help you, Lady Alice?” she dropped into a curtsy.
“Oh, please.” Lady Alice motioned for her to stop. “There is no need to be so formal.” She approached Sylvia. “In fact, I was hoping we could become excellent friends.”
Sylvia tried to smile, but she could not think of how she could ever be friends with a duke’s sister. Even if Lady Alice were not as arrogant as Sylvia had first assumed, she could never marry Owen. Even if the girl truly loved him, her brother would never allow it.
Lady Alice’s smile faltered at the lack of Sylvia’s response. “Would you mind if I kept you company?”
“Of course not,” Sylvia motioned to the chairs where they might sit. On the tables nearby there were several books casually arranged. She picked one up.
“Were you not reading something else when I entered?” Lady Alice made a selection and sat.
“It was only a book of sonnets. It is of no consequence to begin something else.”
Sylvia quickly opened her selection. With any luck, Lady Alice would become engrossed in whatever she chose, and any conversation would be minimal. Looking at the spine of her own, she hid her reaction. Pamela? Why did Clara have such trash? She flipped open the pages and settled into her chair, leaving Nate’s sister to follow suit.
“Oh, I love Pamela,” Lady Alice chirped happily.
Sylvia gave her a slight smile.
“Of course, I prefer the newer novels more. I think perhaps it is because they are written by women. It astounds me there are several who have published works.”
Gritting her teeth, Sylvia turned her eyes upon the woman Owen thought he loved. “And you object to that?”
“Not at all!” Lady Alice gushed. “I am impressed by their courage. Too often ladies are not allowed to follow their heart’s desire in this world of men. I had thought all women saw that.”
Sylvia assessed the young lady before her. Had Owen told Alice of Sylvia’s desires to be a steward? Nothing could be a more profound betrayal! “Some ladies have the freedom to anything they choose. With money and position, many things are possible.”
“Perhaps,” Alice murmured. “Or perhaps all the expectations of station and wealth,” her voice grew bolder and confident, “are merely false trappings. Is that not what your Lord Bountiful learns?” She pointed at the book in Sylvia’s hands.
“He is not my Lord Bountiful. I do not know that he learned any such lesson.”
“With all his money and prestige, he could not earn what he most wanted from Pamela.”
“Her submission!” Sylvia cried while flushing.
“Well…well, I can see why you would call it that. I already acknowledged I preferred other novels. However, I believe the author attempted to display that he wanted her love.”
Sylvia snorted. “Indeed not. All he wanted for the longest time was her to submit to his carnal pursuits. He wanted her as mistress and in the end, gained her as wife. A mistress might freely leave for other employment. A wife would be bound to him forever. I say he lost nothing by marrying Pamela.”
“That is quite shocking,” Alice leaned back in her chair. “However, I would say not all wives must be so submissive to their husbands. Surely it is not a chore for all of them—not if they marry for love.” She lowered her head and blushed. “Alas, such is not possible for everyone.”
“My lady, do you have something specific you wish to say to me? Is there a message you mean for my brother, perhaps?”
“Yes—no—let me begin again.”
Lady Alice sighed, and Sylvia smirked to see the duke’s sister befuddled.
“I would have a favor to ask of you; two of them, really.” Alice met Sylvia’s eyes with earnestness. “I have a very tender regard for Mr. Linwood. However, my brother does not know the gentleman as I would wish. He does not know your brother’s accomplishments or steady character. I know he does not appear it, but Nate is a very loving brother. He would wish me to make me happy. He thinks refusing to consider men of certain positions will protect me from unhappiness.”
Sylvia dipped her head so the other woman could not see her roll her eyes. Nate might be useful if a lady was stuck up a tree—although, he did not really catch her. However, he had ridiculous and antiquated ideas regarding marriage and, she would wager, the classes in general. Why, there were merchants wealthier than peers. Sylvia had read of manufacturers in the North amassing great wealth from selling finished products. Men like Nate cared only for their rents from tenants. When they felt their profit margins shrink, rather than pursuing their own enterprises, they raised the rents on their poor tenants. It became more important than ever for the tenant to use his resources to their best advantage and that is how Sylvia viewed assisting in farming knowledge and land management as a way to help those in need. What better way than to give them the experience and tools to help themselves?
“I did not hear your requests,” Sylvia said, at last.
“Oh, pardon me.” Alice laughed nervously. “The first is that I would like us to be friends. I prefer to think that is not as fearsome as the next possibility. However, I have observed you speak with Nate openly, and he did not seem to intimidate you.”
Furrowing her brow, Sylvia tried to catch the lady’s meaning. When had she watched her interact with Nate? Surely not yesterday.
“At the British Museum,” Alice supplied the answer before Sylvia could voice the question.
“Yes, I remember now. However, what is it that you are asking me to do regarding your brother?”
“Merely be yourself—let him see that the Linwood family is respectable and loving.”
Sylvia’s eyes narrowed. “Allow me to be frank, my lady—”
Sighing, Sylvia relented. Did neither in the family know how a duke and his sister should behave? “Very well. Allow me to be frank, Alice. I am hardly the type that would appear to best advantage to a duke or convince anyone that a family is respectable.”
Alice frowned. “I have not seen you behave improperly. There surely are no rumors regarding such.”
“Only because I am so seldom in company. Believe me when I tell you that I could never convince your brother to accept Owen’s suit.”
“Could you not at least try?”
Sylvia gulped. Could she do that for Owen? Surely, she could try, but it seemed an impossible task.
“You only need to be yourself,” Alice assured her. “He does not appear so to others, but he is very reserved. He prefers to observe others for some time before feeling comfortable with them. I am only asking that you speak with him some. Let him see how Ow—how Mr. Linwood treats his sister for it might be how he will treat a wife. In short, please do not avoid his company.”
The woman could hardly mean that she wanted Sylvia to be her true self. She had only seen her for a moment or two at the British Museum, and since coming to the house party, Sylvia had attempted to be the perfect debutante and gain Lord Brandon’s suit. She was already play-acting to gain Brandon’s hand. She would merely add appealing to the duke’s brotherly sentiments to her list. Of course, that would require being near him and thinking about him and then…well, then her heart skipped odd beats, and her stomach churned. However, how could she attempt to secure her own happiness and not Owen’s?
“I will try,” Sylvia agreed. “That is all I can promise.”
“Thank you!” the younger lady enthused. “Owen will be so pleased!”
“Do you have an understanding with my brother?”
Alice shook her head. “The only agreement we have is that my brother needs to know both of you better. Owen will not approach Nate until he thinks he might be accepted. He will not ask me to marry him until he believes it probable Nate will agree to the union. He does not wish to make me choose. As I am not of age, it would put us in very miserable circumstances.”
“That is just like him,” Sylvia agreed. “I will attempt this under the condition you both realize its ultimate success has nothing to do with me. I do not want it on my conscience that Owen’s courtship failed.” Of course, no matter what she said, it would be on her conscience either way. Had her behavior thus far hindered Owen’s happiness?
“That is all I ask.”
They were prevented from further conversation by the opening of the library door.
“Alice, here you are,” Nate strolled over to her and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“Good morrow, Nate. I believe you know Miss Linwood,” Alice extended a hand in Sylvia’s direction.
Nate, who had seemed to have noticed only his sister, turned and bowed. “Indeed. Good morrow, Miss Linwood. How are you finding Clifford’s estate?”
“I like it very well,” Sylvia smiled. “Indeed, we have often been guests here.”
“Ah,” Nate said. “I find the trees particularly enjoyable.”
Amusement lit his eyes and Sylvia instantly knew he referenced their encounter yesterday. However, Alice looked at him as though he had three heads. “You enjoy…trees? Did you sleep well?”
“Not as well as I would have liked,” he answered. “What of you ladies?”
“No,” Alice and Sylvia answered in unison.
Sylvia had too much on her mind and she suspected so did Alice. Why did Nate not sleep well? What could possibly bother a duke?
“Miss Linwood and I were about to go on a walk, if you would like to join us,” Alice smiled.
Nate hesitated before replying. “Certainly. It would be my pleasure to escort you ladies about the grounds.”
The siblings stood, and Sylvia put aside her book. This was going to be a long and unbearable week.