Ten Leaping Lords, one imperious grandmother, and a Mister from Louisiana were her Christmas fate.
Much to Lady Lucinda Claxton’s dismay and irritation, her father’s house party only includes bachelors ready to wed. A new arrival, however, changes everything, and soon Lucinda decides the next ten days may not be so tedious after all.
Mr. Caleb Copeland agrees to accompany his great-aunts to the home of the Duke of Arscott on one condition: He’ll not participate in any of the entertainments. However, as much as he tries to keep his vow, his path often crosses Lady Lucinda’s while she is hiding from her court. Before long, Caleb knows none of her leaping lords will ever be worthy of her.
June 1, 1816 Of all my observations this Season, there are a few people of whom I’ve taken a great interest. One is the Duke of Arscott and how he seems to grow more irritated with each passing day. The cause—his daughter, Lady Lucinda Claxton. She is soon to turn two and twenty and has yet to settle upon anyone, though many lords wish to settle on her. Her father believes she’s being too fastidious. I believe she is being pragmatic. Deciding upon a husband is far more serious than choosing whom one might grant a waltz. Not that I’ve granted any waltzes, mind you, as I’ve yet to dance at any function, which is by choice. You see, as soon as I realized that I had been deemed a wallflower, I embraced my unintentional and surprising standing within Society. Yes, that is what I am—a Wallflower. It hadn’t been my intention to become such when I embarked upon my first Season, but within a sennight, others determined that standing for me. I understand why they might have reached such a conclusion, but their reasoning was quite incorrect. I didn’t take up with the matrons, bluestockings, and other wallflowers on the far side of the room because I’m shy, lack confidence, am being rebellious, or wish to remain distant and avoid crowds. I simply wished for a place to observe how Society conducted itself in what was a new environment for me before my family introduced me to others in attendance. However, once my place was established, by others, I decided I liked being there very much, and never left. And thus, began my observations of a wallflower. To think, before I came to London, the idea of being cast as a wallflower would have crushed my very soul, but it has had quite the opposite effect, and I find I don’t wish to be anything else. Not only have I learned much about Society, but I’ve taken joy in noting my observations within my journal, such as tonight. To think, for so long I struggled to write within these pages as nothing ever interesting had happened to me before. But Grandmother insisted that we all keep a journal. However, I no longer find writing within this book a nuisance as my first Season in London has opened a new world for me. It is likely that by the time I return home, these pages might finally be filled with my observations. I do wonder however, if Lady Lucinda will finally settle upon someone before the Season ends, or will her father be forced into drastic measures to see her wed.
Forester Hall, England ~ December 27, 1816 “These are the gentlemen my father invited?” Lady Lucinda Claxton groaned as she let the parchment drift to her lap. The ten names had been kept from her because Father wanted no excuses nor rejections. He’d been correct in doing so because Lucinda had an objection to each lord named, yet they were to arrive at Forester Hall this afternoon. Not even the festive greenery of holly, ivy, rosemary, and hellebore adorned with ribbons throughout the house brightened her mood as it normally did this time of year. At least there were no kissing boughs that she’d need to avoid. “What is wrong with them?” her grandmother, the Duchess of Arscott questioned. “Your father is assured they all wish to court you in hopes of marriage.” “I’d rather die a spinster,” Lucinda mumbled. It wasn’t that she was against marriage, she simply didn’t wish to settle. “I suppose this is what happens when the daughter of a duke remains unwed at the advanced age of two and twenty. Said Duke decides to invite bachelor lords of the realm to win the daughter’s hand and favor of the duke.” “Now you are being melodramatic,” her grandmother chastised. “You might just find you enjoy yourself.” “If my friends were invited, it most certainly would be enjoyable. Instead, the only people who will be in attendance include you, my father and ten lords ready to wed.” Lucinda threw up her hands in frustration. “Even my siblings have abandoned me, wishing to avoid this debacle.” The family had barely completed breaking their fast on Boxing Day when each of her eight siblings left to visit family or friends to celebrate the remainder of the holiday festivities with no intention of returning until after Twelfth Night. Violet, who was twenty, had been the first to flee because she feared Father might decide that she needed to find a husband as well. At least her oldest brother Wesley and his wife, Miranda, hadn’t gone so far away, but they had vacated the manor for the dower house, taking a handful of servants, and Lucinda’s youngest sister, Honora, with them. “I should have gone to visit Blythe.” Blythe was her oldest sister who also happened to be a widow and living a life of freedom in London. She never returned to Forester Hall and even when the family was in London, Lucinda rarely saw Blythe as her sister did not go into Society, preferring to spend all her waking hours at the foundling hospital. “Yes, well, your sister is another matter,” her grandmother said with disappointment. As much as they tried to convince Blythe to come home, or even consider marriage given she was only four and twenty, but she refused. Oh, if only her mother were alive, Lucinda sighed. Would Father be taking such drastic measures to see her married? Would she have even allowed him to do so? Unfortunately, those were answers Lucinda would never have. A wave of melancholy rushed over her as she recalled the woman who had died when Lucinda was only a child. “I promise that you do not need to marry any of them if they have not earned your heart or at least your affection during their visit.” Panic rose, tightening her chest. “You expect me to marry so quickly?” Courtship was bad enough, but marriage was permanent. “No, dear,” her grandmother chuckled. “A promising courtship, however, would make your father happy.” “None of these gentlemen could ever hold my attention, let alone my heart.” “Are you so very certain?” her grandmother asked. “Not one of them?” Lucinda blew out a sigh and picked up the parchment to read through the list once again, hopeful that perhaps she’d missed a name that held some promise. “He didn’t!” Lucinda sat forward and read the names a third time. Suspicion and dread sank into her bones. “These are alphabetical. Though ‘J’ was skipped,” she murmured almost to herself before she glanced up to her grandmother. “Please tell me that Father doesn’t have an alphabetical list of eligible lords and simply invited the first ten he approved of?” “Of course not,” her grandmother stammered before she quickly took a sip of tea. Lucinda narrowed her eyes. “You are saying it is just a coincidence?” “Yes…yes…of course.” Lucinda nearly snorted in disbelief. “Is it so important that I marry that Father doesn’t care who it is?” “You need to give serious consideration to your future,” her father announced from the entry. “By starting at the beginning of the alphabet and going through them until I find one I like?” At her indignation, His Grace looked to his mother and frowned. “Whatever is most expedient.” Lucinda focused on her grandmother as suspicion grew. Was this her doing? “We will go through each and every letter, if need be, until you’re settled,” he added decisively. Maybe they were in this together…No! Lucinda couldn’t accept that her grandmother would choose gentlemen in such a manner. Grandmother knew the importance of love, because she’d lost her one, true love before they could wed, so she shouldn’t expect Lucinda to settle for anything less. “If you had given serious consideration to your gentlemen callers in London, this wouldn’t be necessary,” her father added. “You’ve had four seasons.” She had given them serious consideration. Unfortunately, she found those callers no more interesting than the ten lords her father had invited to Forester Hall. “These gentlemen,” she held up the list, waving it, “are dandies, filled with self-importance, and most will likely spend more time at their toilette than I do.” “They are lords,” her grandmother reminded her. “What use do they need to have, besides being a husband and provider of protection and security?” How could the woman who still mourned her great love, decades after his death, expect her to settle for so little? “If I can’t marry for love, I’d at least like my husband to be an enjoyable companion. These gentlemen are boring.” “How could you possibly know?” her grandmother tsked. “None of them have had anything of interest to say when we’ve spoken previously.” “Yes, well, those encounters occurred in a London social setting, which is far different than a house party, as you know. You might find a few who are not as they put forth before the ton.” Lucinda certainly hoped that was the case or the next ten days were going to be the dullest ever to be imagined. “Excuse me, Your Grace.” The housekeeper hovered near the entrance wringing her hands. Lucinda sat forward. Mrs. Wetherly was not one to hover or worry, yet clearly, she was distraught. “Yes?” grandmother asked. “It’s the servants, Your Grace. Several have failed to return after going into the village yesterday.” “We are to have guests.” Grandmother glanced at the clock. “They’ll be upon us in a few hours.” “Are you telling me that all of our servants went to the village yesterday?” Lucinda’s father barked. “Why would they all do so?” “Not all, Your Grace,” the housekeeper answered. “A few remained to attend to duties here, but the majority did attend the Servants’ Assembly, as you gave them leave to do so.” “Blast! I’d forgotten,” he grumbled. “That doesn’t explain why they haven’t returned.” “A footman for Mr. Harley, who hadn’t been feeling well, decided that he didn’t wish to miss the celebration and attended anyway.” “That still doesn’t explain why my servants are missing.” “That’s just it, Your Grace.” She worried her hands even further. “He collapsed at the assembly and the doctor proclaimed him to have the measles.” Her grandmother gasped. “Measles?” Lucinda’s stomach tightened. She’d lost her mother to measles, as well as a sister. The entire household had come down with the illness, and it took two of them to the grave. “Yes, Your Grace. The doctor has now quarantined everyone.” “Bloody hell!” With that, her father marched to the sideboard and poured himself a glass of brandy even though it was only the middle of the day. The butler, Warren, joined Mrs. Wetherly, his mouth set in a grim line. “Dr. Talbot is of the opinion that the disease began in the home of Mr. Harley, and as there are no further known cases within the community, he decided to prevent it from becoming an epidemic,” Warren explained. “Therefore, those who attended the assembly, and who have not previously been afflicted, are now quarantined together at either the assembly hall or in one of the three inns in Laswell.” “That child of a doctor!” her father groused. “Is he even old enough to know if it is the measles?” Dr. Talbot couldn’t be above six and twenty, having studied under physicians in London after he received his education in Edinburgh. He’d arrived in town three months earlier to take over the practice of their retiring local physician. “I’m certain that he does, and even if he were uncertain, I’d rather ere on the side of caution. You well know the danger of measles,” Her Grace reminded them. “Yes, too damned well.” Sadness and pain filled her father’s grey eyes before he finished the liquid in his glass in one swallow and poured another. “How many servants do we have for the household?” “Besides Cook, nearly half of our staff returned,” Mrs. Wetherly offered in a hopeful manner. If it were just the family in residence, they’d have no issues. But ten lordly guests added a burden and Lucinda hoped they’d brought their own valets to help see to their comfort. Though, guests rarely traveled with servants when attending a house party as they made use of maids and footmen in the household when in need of assistance. “At least we have Cook,” he grumbled. “What of out of doors?” he asked as if he was almost afraid of the answer. “Not as many, Your Grace,” Warren answered. “We’ve been reduced to two stable hands, a dairy maid, and the Head Gamekeeper.” “None of the others bothered to get measles as a child?” her father roared. “Apparently not, Your Grace,” Warren responded, undisturbed by her father’s tone. “At least our guests will have drivers to see to their horses and not tax the stable hands overly much. They’ll be busy enough seeing to the care of my cattle.” Father owned several horses and his stables were quite vast with carriage horses, hunters, those for riding, as well as those used to work the land. At least the numbers had been reduced when her family vacated the premises, as they needed conveyances to travel. “We have guests arriving in two hours and not enough servants to see to them or the house,” her father summed up the situation. “We are aware, Your Grace,” Warren answered. “This is going to be a disaster,” her grandmother nearly cried. Lucinda smiled. “Or it could be quite fascinating.” *** Caleb Copeland loved his three great-aunts. He truly did, otherwise he wouldn’t have allowed them to drag him to Forester Hall for a house party. He’d not been invited, which was no surprise as he didn’t even know the Duke of Arscott, but his great-aunts were apparently dear friends of Arscott’s mother, and the ones to receive the invitation. What Caleb found suspicious, however, was that his great-aunts insisted that he accompany them because ladies should not travel without a man to protect them. He’d snorted at their excuse, as had his siblings since the three sisters traveled widely, with only a few maids and footmen to see to their care, as had been the case when they’d sailed from London to New Orleans only a few years ago. Yet, they suddenly needed him to accompany them from Chatwell Castle in Shropshire to Forester Hall in Devon. They were up to something, but he’d yet to determine exactly what scheme the three had hatched. After getting settled in and putting his own things away, Caleb wandered the upper level in search of the stairs when he noted a gallery open to the parlor below. He’d attended house parties in the year and a half that he’d been in England, and the homes were usually filled to capacity. Those gathered below only included his three great-aunts, the Duchess of Arscott and ten gentlemen he recognized from London. Where were the other misses and ladies? Further, he’d been led to believe that the Duke of Arscott had nine children, all old enough to be out of the schoolroom, yet they were not attending tea either. “Why are you up here and not down there?” He nearly jumped at the voice and turned to find a young woman with dark ringlets and laughing grey eyes. “I’m not really a guest.” She frowned, her full, rosy lips puckering. “Then why are you here? Did you sneak in? Are you here to rob us? Should I be screaming?” Affronted, Caleb took a step back, though he was beginning to suspect she teased him. “I simply accompanied my great-aunts.” He pointed to the three older women seated side by side. She glanced down at the gathering before a smile burst on the woman’s lips. “Ladies Priscilla, Joanna and Esther Tilson!” She quietly clapped her hands in delight. “I’d not been told they’d be coming. I do so adore them. They may be just what saves this house party from being tedious.” “Tedious?” “Yes.” She sighed and leaned on the balcony. “Those ten are the only guests, other than you and your great-aunts. To make matters worse, the rest of my family has found a reason to be absent, leaving me, my father and grandmother to attend to those lords.” She turned. “Forgive me, I’m Lady Lucinda Claxton.” “Mister Caleb Copeland.” He bowed to the duke’s second daughter. “Why did he only invite ten gentlemen?” She let out a deep sigh. “To see me married, of course.” It was as he suspected, though it didn’t explain why his great-aunts needed him. They couldn’t expect him to be included in the group below, who would undoubtedly leap to do any deed to win Lady Lucinda’s favor. He chuckled. “Ten lords a leaping,” he sang quietly. Lady Lucinda scowled at him. “I don’t find you the least bit humorous.” Caleb would have believed her if Lady Lucinda’s lips hadn’t twitched. “Yes, you do.” He winked. She brought a hand to her mouth to muffle her giggle. “Perhaps I do.” Merriment danced in her grey eyes. “They do tend to jump, or in this case, leap to do one’s bidding when one is the daughter of a duke.” “You should be flattered.” At that she rolled her eyes. “It’s bothersome. I shan’t wed because they are of the right family with the correct title, nor should that be the reason anyone wished to marry me.” “It is the way of things, is it not?” “For some, but not for me.” She lifted her chin. “Shall we join the others?” “You go on,” Caleb insisted. He’d much rather have a view of the leaping from where he currently stood. “Are you not a bachelor as well?” A dark eyebrow lifted with the question. “I am, but while my uncle may be a duke, and my brother a duke in training, I am but a simple mister from New Orleans.” He then grinned. “And I do not leap.” “Such a pity for I do believe I’d enjoy you doing so.” She laughed. Lady Lucinda swished away from him and for the briefest moment, Caleb almost wished that he could claim the title of lord.