Verity and the Forbidden Suitor
I am not a Du Bell.
But oh, how I longed to be. Not for title or wealth, nor even prestige and influence, as my family name, Eagleman, held all the same to even greater extents as a dukedom. With the exception of being a princess, there is no higher birth a girl could have than my own. And I was very much aware of the many who envied my life. Despite the many scandals of my household—my father’s affairs and illegitimate son, my mother’s misery and then death, followed by my father’s wholly inappropriate marriage to my stepmother, a butcher’s daughter; not to mention Evander, my elder brother, and his own marriage mishaps—there was no shortage of people asserting how fortunate I was to be born Lady Verity Eagleman. But given the choice, I would have preferred to be born Lady Verity Du Bell. To be born into a home filled with warmth, laughter, and teasing. A home filled to the brim with overwhelming love.
Instead, love seemed to always evade me. As though it had some personal vendetta against me. Evander was the godson of the Marchioness of Monthermer, Lady Deanna Du Bell, and as such was afforded many opportunities to experience such tender emotions with the family. I, on the other hand, was kept away from them and society at the behest of my father. By the time he passed, Evander had made a mess of our connection with the Du Bells, and, consequently, no other chances presented themselves.
Now, as I watched the candlelight of my brother’s carriage fade into the darkness, taking him and his perfect new wife, Lady Aphrodite, to their long-awaited happily ever after, the opportunity had arrived, only I knew not how to stand before this family or society at all.
I was alone.
The name Verity means truth, and yet I felt as if I were nothing but a lie. In front of most people, I sought to appear confident, self-reliant, but the truth is I was afeard . . . of so much.
“I cannot believe it is done,” said the marquess to his wife, whom he held openly within his arms, as we all stood before the gates of their London estate.
“After all these years, you still underestimate me, my dear?” the marchioness replied with her head held high, appearing pleased with herself.
The marquess was a man of white skin and golden hair that was nearly all gray now, with sharp blue eyes that always seemed focused upon either his family or a book. His wife was the opposite of him, with rich brown skin deeper in shading than my own and curly brown hair that she kept pinned up neatly. Rather than books, her brown eyes read people with frightening accuracy.
“Underestimate? Never. Stand in awe of your power? Always. Well done, my dear.” He squeezed her arm slightly, making her laugh while their eldest son groaned.
Damon Du Bell, the Earl of Montagu, also stood beside his wife, Silva, whose face was a bit round with a nose a bit short, but her demeanor was pleasant. They were locked, arm in arm, very much a parallel set to his parents. The look on Damon’s face showed he was not keen on the elder couple’s public display of affection, even as he mimicked them.
“One would think that you would have some restraint at your ages,” Damon said to them as though he were the parent.
“Dear,” Silva muttered in apprehension.
“You should thank heaven we do not, or you would not exist,” his father replied, making the marchioness’s eyes widen.
“What are you all talking about?” questioned the youngest Du Bell, Abena, her little face bunched in confusion. Alongside her were two of her sisters, Hathor and Devana, and her brother Hector.
“Nothing!” said the marchioness and her eldest son in unison.
“That does not seem like nothing,” Abena pressed, frowning. “Are you keeping a secret?”
“Yes, they are,” said Hathor, the second Du Bell daughter, causing Abena to look to her for an answer. “Mama and Papa were thinking of sending you off to a professional pot washer, seeing as how you’ve become so good at it of late.”
Hector and Devana giggled and then laughed outright as Abena looked at her parents in horror.
“No, Papa!” Abena ran to her father, holding on to his waist for dear life, which made the marquess bend to her level and hug her.
“She is merely teasing you,” he comforted her.
But at that moment, it was I who felt pain.
What must it have been like to hug one’s father, one’s own mother even?
I did not know.
I stood before one of the most prominent and amiable families in all the ton, one I had always wished to be a part of, yet now I desperately desired to escape their blissful company. The irony.
“Verity, my dear, are you well?” the marchioness asked, stepping away slightly from her husband toward me.
No, I am not well. How are you all so happy? These were my true thoughts. Instead of speaking them, I quickly presented my best smile and said, “I am afraid not, Marchioness, as your daughter has stolen away my brother.”
Humor is always a good way to deflect from one’s self.
“Ha! I beg to differ. For it is your brother who has stolen away our daughter!” the marquess declared with a hearty laugh, Abena still at his side.
“Father, someone cannot steal someone whom you have formally given away.” Hathor rolled her eyes and pointed back to the house behind her. “Especially in such a grand fashion as this.”
“Hathor, it is called a joke,” Damon replied.
“Let us agree to call it the past, as in finished. As in, can we all retire for the evening so we may start afresh tomorrow? Hopefully with a new main character.” Hathor didn’t even wait, already turning to walk through the gate before anyone else.
“I pick Verity to go next!” Abena yelled, purposely running right by her sister’s skirts, causing Hathor to nearly stumble.
“Abena!” Hathor hollered, steadying herself.
The small girl spun around, grinning. “She is much more handsome, and she’s a duke’s daughter! Everyone will be engaged this season before you!”
“To the pots with you!” Hathor dashed after her into the house.
“Only Mama can do that!” I heard her little voice yell back.
“Where do they find this energy?” The marquess snickered and then looked over to his wife. “Ah, never mind. I have found the source.”
Damon, his wife, and the rest of his siblings all laughed. The marchioness managed only to shoot him a glare, detaching herself from his side entirely and walking over to me.
“Since you all wish to join your father in teasing me, I shall focus on this good child.” She met my gaze and smiled from ear to ear, taking my hand. “Oh, how happy I am to finally have you stay with us, Verity.”
“Thank you once again for having me, your ladyship—”
“Have I not told you that you may call me Godmother? I shall accept only that title. Now come, let me show you to your rooms,” she said as she led me back into the house, where the splendor of my brother’s wedding feast was slowly being dismantled by the servants.
“Ingrid,” the marchioness called out, and immediately, a slender older woman with a white streak of hair amidst all her pinned-up dark hair arrived at her side, curtsying before her. I found it strange that a lady would ever call any servant by anything but their surname, but no one else seemed to be concerned. “Do tell the servants they may leave the cleaning up until the morning—
“And they may have the last barrel of wine!” The marquess’s voice boomed from behind us. Only now that we were inside could I see the redness of his cheeks more clearly. He was drunk. And I noticed that with a simple glance from the marchioness his valet was already beside him, leading him elsewhere.
“Ingrid, tell the servants they may take remainders of whatever they like,” she spoke to the housekeeper. “They all did so splendidly. I shall come down and thank them personally later.”
“Yes, madam.” Ingrid curtsied again before going.
“You will thank the servants personally?” The question came from me before I even realized, but only because I was so surprised. The thought of the marchioness or any noble lady going to thank the servants in their quarters seemed . . . abnormal. My governess lectured me nearly to deafness over my many trips to the servants’ hall or my escapes on my own throughout the grounds.
She glanced over at me, a bit saddened. “You do not think it is proper?”
“No, of course not. I mean, no, I do not think it is improper. My former governess would disagree, but she was very strict, though not unkind. I was very well taken care of. Just—oh, forgive me. I am a bit caper-witted all of a sudden.” I had apparently lost all control of my speech. Who was I to judge the way a lady ran her household, least of all the woman renowned for having the best-run home in the ton?