Belgrave Castle sat in all its splendor in the heart of Hertfordshire, as it had for eleven generations and nearly three hundred years, since the sixteenth century. And aside from some more modern features that had been added, and a few decorative touches, very little had changed in its history. And its owners followed the same traditions they had for more than two hundred years, which was reassuring. It was the family seat of Phillip, Duke of Westerfield. The Latham family had built Belgrave Castle, it was one of the largest castles in England, and due to the duke’s fortune, one of the most beautifully maintained.
The land around it was extensive and stretched as far as the eye could see, with forests, a large lake—which the groundsmen kept well stocked for fishing—and tenant farms, which were run by farmers whose ancestors had been serfs. The duke had overseen all of it since his youth, when his father died in a hunting accident on a neighboring estate. And under his diligent care, Belgrave and all its land and properties had prospered. At seventy-four, he had been schooling his eldest son, Tristan, in the management of the estate for several years. Phillip felt that his son was ready to take it on, and handle it responsibly, but he had other concerns about him. Tristan was forty-five years old, married with two daughters. The duke’s younger son, Edward, was forty-two years old, had never married, and had no legitimate children, though countless illegitimate ones. No one knew just how many, not even Edward himself. And he was given to strong drink and gambling, and every kind of indulgence one could imagine, preferably if it involved fast horses or women. It would have been a disaster if he had been the eldest, but fortunately he wasn’t, although neither of Phillip’s sons had produced a son and heir.
Both men were the sons of the duke’s first wife, Arabella, the daughter of an earl, and Phillip’s second cousin, with a handsome fortune of her own. She came from an irreproachable family, of aristocratic lineage, and she had been young when they married. It had been a union both families had approved of, Phillip had been twenty-eight, and Arabella barely seventeen, and strikingly pretty. She had been the star of her first London Season, where she had been expected to meet her future husband, and she had done so very successfully. But Phillip had discovered that she had a cold nature as she grew older, and she was far more interested in social pursuits, and enjoying the benefits of being a duchess, than she was in her husband, and she had even less interest in her children. She was a very self-centered woman, though greatly admired for her beauty. She had died of influenza when the boys were four and seven, and with the assistance of governesses, the large staff he employed, and his mother, the dowager duchess, who had still been alive at the time, Phillip had brought up his boys alone.
The young women of neighboring families, and the London hostesses who entertained him when he went to town, did their best to catch his interest in the ensuing years. But the boys were in their twenties before Phillip met the woman who enchanted him totally and became the love of his life the moment he met her. Marie-Isabelle was the daughter of a French marquis, first cousin of the late French king who had died in the French Revolution. She was a Bourbon on one side of her family and Orléans on the other, with royals on both sides. She had been born during the first year of the Revolution and her parents had been killed shortly after, their château burned to the ground and all their possessions stolen or destroyed. Sensing what was coming, her father had sent her as an infant to stay with friends in England, with provisions made for her, should the worst he feared happen in France. She had grown up happily in the bosom of the English family who had agreed to take her in, and doted on her. She was an enchanting young girl of striking beauty, with almost-white blond hair, enormous blue eyes, and an exquisite figure, and skin like fine porcelain. And she had been just as taken with the duke, when she met him, as he was with her. They were equally well born, both related to monarchs, and Marie-Isabelle had fallen in love with him immediately. They were married four months later, when she was eighteen and for the first time in his life, Phillip knew true happiness, with a woman he adored. And they made a striking couple. He was tall, powerfully built, and elegant, and Marie-Isabelle combined the aristocratic habits of the English, among whom she had grown up, with the charm of the French, through her own ancestry. She proved to be a wonderful addition to his life, and loved Belgrave as much as he did, helping him to add beautiful decorative pieces to his existing heirlooms. The castle shone with her presence, and everyone loved her, with her bright sunny ways, and obvious adoration of her husband. He was fifty-five when they married, and felt like a boy again when he was with her.
Their life together was like a fairy tale, which ended all too quickly. She conceived a child during their first year of marriage, and died two days after giving birth to a daughter they named Angélique because she looked like an angel, with the same white-blond hair and sky-blue eyes as her mother. Bereft without Marie-Isabelle, Phillip devoted his life to his daughter, who was the joy of his existence. He took her everywhere with him, and taught her as much as her brothers knew about the estate, perhaps more. She had the same passion for their land and home that he did, and the same innate instincts for it. They spent many long winter nights talking about the running of Belgrave, and the farms, and in the summer they rode out on horseback together while he showed her changes and improvements he had made, explaining to her why they were important. She had a complete understanding about how the estate worked, and a good head for figures and finance, and gave him sound advice.
Angélique was tutored at home, and spoke fluent French, taught to her by a French governess Phillip had hired for her. He wanted her to speak her mother’s language as well. Marie-Isabelle had spoken both too, thanks to the attentions of the family who had raised her.
And as Angélique grew older, she took perfect care of her father, watched him attentively, worried when he wasn’t well, and nursed him herself through any illness. She was the perfect daughter, and Phillip felt guilty for not taking her to London more often. But it tired him to go there, and he had long since lost interest in attending balls and major social events, although he had taken Angélique to his cousin King George IV’s coronation when she was twelve, at Westminster Abbey in 1821. She had been one of the few children there, but due to their close relationship, the king had allowed it. Angélique had been agog at all the pomp and circumstance, and the festivities afterward. Sixty-eight by then, and in failing health, Phillip had been relieved to return to the country but happy he had taken her. She said she would never forget it and talked about it for years afterward.
Since then, the duke had often thought about Angélique’s first Season, the ball he should give her at their London home in Grosvenor Square, and the men she would meet there. But he couldn’t bear the thought of exposing her to the world quite so soon, and losing her to a husband, who would surely take her away from him. She was too beautiful for that not to happen, and he dreaded it.
Several years earlier he had allowed Tristan and his wife and their two daughters to move into the London house, since he no longer went there. He was more comfortable and at ease at Belgrave, and he found London and the social whirl exhausting. And Angélique always insisted she was happy in Hertfordshire with him, and had no need to go to London. She preferred to be at home with her father.
Tristan’s wife, Elizabeth, could easily have taken over the duties of escorting Angélique through her first Season, and even arranged a ball for her, which the duke would have paid for. But Tristan had been consumed with jealousy of Angélique from the day she was born, a feeling that had started with his hatred of her mother, and anger over his father’s second marriage. Despite Marie-Isabelle’s royal ancestry, Tristan and his younger brother had referred to her as “the French whore.” It was not unknown to their father, and caused him untold grief. And their open hostility to their sister once she was born caused him greater concern with each passing year.
According to the law, the title, his estate and the bulk of his fortune was entailed to Tristan, with some considerably lesser provision for Edward, as younger son. Edward was to inherit the Dower House on the estate, which was a handsome sprawling manor, occupied by his grandmother for many years until her death. And Phillip had settled an income on him, which would provide well for him, if he didn’t indulge all his follies. But if he did, Phillip knew that his older brother would take care of him, as the two brothers had always been close, and Tristan would never allow him to be ruined. But Phillip could leave nothing to his only daughter, other than a dowry if she married. He had several times expressed the wish to Tristan that she live in the castle for as long as she wanted, and in a house on the estate they referred to as “the Cottage,” when she grew older, if she chose to, even if she married.
The Cottage was almost as large as the Dower House, and similarly required a large staff to run it, and her father knew she would be comfortable there. But the ultimate decision would be up to Tristan, and how generous he wished to be with her. He was under no legal obligation to provide for his sister. Her father had also requested that Tristan support her financially, and settle a proper amount on her when she married, as befitting their position in the world, and her noble birth. He did not want Angélique to become penniless, or pushed to the side at his death, but according to the law, there was no way he could prevent it. She would be at the mercy of her brothers, and could not inherit from him directly. He had spoken of it to Angélique often, and she insisted he not worry. She didn’t need a great deal to be happy, and as long as she could live at Belgrave forever, it was all she wanted and could imagine. But knowing the ways of the world better, the dangers of the estate being entailed to an oldest son, the hardness of Tristan’s character, and the greed of his wife, Phillip spent many sleepless nights worrying about his daughter. And even more so recently, as he got older and his health continued to fail.
Phillip had been ill for the past month, with a lung infection that had been worsening steadily, and Angélique was very concerned. She had had the doctor in to see him several times, and for the past week he had been running a fever. It was November, it had been unusually cold, and she had had the maids keeping the fire bright in her father’s bedroom to keep him warm. Belgrave had a tendency to be drafty in winter, and the weather had been bitter cold this year, with snows since October, and she could hear the wind howling outside as she sat at his bedside and read to him. He had drifted off to sleep several times that afternoon. Whenever he woke, he seemed agitated, and his cheeks were bright with fever. Mrs. White, the housekeeper, had been in to look at him while he was asleep, and she agreed with Angélique that they should call the doctor again. His valet, John Markham, thought so too. Markham had served the duke since long before Angélique was born and was nearly as old as his employer, whom he was deeply devoted to. None of them liked the turn this illness was taking. The duke had a deep, racking cough, and he wished to neither eat nor drink, although Markham had brought several trays to his room.
A butler named Hobson ran the house, and often vied with Markham for the duke’s attention, but for now, with the duke feeling so ill, Hobson allowed Markham the valet to tend to him without interference. Angélique was grateful for their devotion to her father, who was well loved by all, and a kind man, who cared for each of them as an attentive and responsible employer. And he had taught Angélique to do the same.
She knew each of their footmen and housemaids by name, their histories and something about their origins, as well as the groundskeepers and grooms in the stables, and the tenant farmers and their families. She spoke to them as they crossed paths in the course of a day, as she went about her tasks around the castle, checking the linens with Mrs. White, or listening to problems in the kitchen. Their cook, Mrs. Williams, was a fierce but good-hearted woman who ran her kitchen with an iron hand, and ordered the kitchen maids around like an army sergeant, but the meals she produced were delicious, and worthy of any grand home. She was trying to tempt the duke with some of his favorite meals at the moment, and the trays had come back untouched for three days. She cried when she saw it, and feared it was an ominous sign, as did those who had seen him. He looked desperately sick, and Angélique had observed it too. At eighteen, she was mature for her age, knew how to run her father’s home, and had nursed him many times in recent years. But this time was different. He’d been ill for a month, with no sign of improvement, and after nearly a week of fever, he was not responding to the care and good nursing being lavished on him. And all he wanted to do was sleep, which was very unlike him. Even at seventy-four, he was a vital man, and interested in everything until now.
The doctor came again when he was sent for, and said he wasn’t pleased at the turn things were taking. And after he left, Angélique tried to coax her father to eat the broth Mrs. Williams had made him, with thin slices of poached chicken on the side, but he wanted none of it, and waved it away, as Angélique watched him with tears in her eyes.
“Papa, please . . . just try some of the soup. It’s delicious, and you’ll hurt Mrs. Williams’s feelings if you don’t at least take a little.” He coughed for five minutes then, when he attempted to argue with her, and sank back against the pillows, looking exhausted. She noticed that he seemed to be shrinking, growing thinner, and losing strength, and there was no denying that he had become frail, although usually she tried to pretend otherwise. He drifted off to sleep then, as she held his hand, and sat watching him. Markham came and went several times, glancing in from the doorway, and then leaving on silent feet.
Hobson the butler saw Markham come downstairs to the kitchen, and spoke to him quietly. “How is His Grace?”
“About the same,” Markham said with worried eyes, as Mrs. White hovered nearby to listen. The kitchen was bustling with activity, although neither Angélique nor her father was eating. They were going to send Angélique’s dinner up on a tray, but there were twenty-five servants still to feed in the house. Belgrave was a busy place, particularly below stairs.
“What’s going to happen to the little one?” Mrs. White asked the butler when Markham went to join the others for dinner. “She’ll be at the mercy of her brothers if something happens to His Grace.”
“It can’t be helped,” Hobson said, wishing he weren’t as concerned as the housekeeper, but he was. He had come into service as a butler years before, when his wife and daughter died in an epidemic of influenza. He had discovered that a life of service suited him, and he had stayed. Now, he thought that the safest solution for Angélique would have been for her to be married by the time her father died, and under the protection of a husband, with a settlement from her father. But she was still young, she hadn’t done the Season in London that summer, which was the first time she could have, and didn’t really want to. And now if her father didn’t recover, it would be too late, unless Tristan saw to it the following summer, and that didn’t seem likely. Angélique’s future was of no interest to him, and he had made that clear. He had two daughters of his own who were sixteen and seventeen, not nearly as pretty as their young aunt, who was only a year older. Angélique would have been the star of any London Season, in competition with their daughters, which was the last thing Tristan and his wife wanted.
Mrs. White and Hobson joined the others for dinner, and shortly afterward Markham went upstairs to check on the duke again. He had been up and down stairs all day. When he got there, His Grace was sleeping, and Angélique only picked at the dinner tray he brought her, and he could see that she’d been crying. She felt as though her father were slipping away from her. She had always known this day would happen, but she wasn’t ready for it yet.
Her father hung on for three more days, neither worsening nor getting better. His eyes were bright with fever when he opened them and looked at her late one night, but as Angélique watched him, she could see that he was more alert, and seemed stronger.
“I want to go into my study,” he said firmly, in a voice that sounded more like himself, and she hoped that it was a sign that the fever was finally breaking and he’d recover. She had been desperately worried about him and trying not to show him, and put on a brave face.