An Escape to Love brings together two of my most recent novellas: “The Courtship of Lord Blackhurst” and “Lord Radcliffe’s Best Friend.”
Today, we will take a look at “The Courtship of Lord Blackhurst.”
The Courtship of Lord Blackhurst
What happens when a lady falls in love, not with her betrothed, but rather with his cousin?
Miss Priscilla Keenan has been promised to the Marquess of Blackhurst since her birth. The problem is: She has never laid eyes upon the man. So, when Blackhurst sends his cousin to York to assist Priscilla in readying Blackhurst’s home estate for the marquess’s return from his service in India, it is only natural for Priscilla to ask Mr. Alden something of the marquess’s disposition. Yet, those conversations lead Cilla onto a different path, one where she presents her heart to the wrong gentleman. How can she and Alden find happiness together when the world means to keep them apart? Inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” this tale wants for nothing, especially not a happy ending, which it has, but that ending is not what the reader anticipates.
Excerpt conveying their first meeting:
For more than a week, Cilla had called daily upon the abbey, no longer waiting for either of the Sterlings to assist her. She also no longer wore her better day dresses, for she often assisted the maids—girls from the village she knew either from church or by sight— taking down dusty drapes or rolling up carpets to be beaten. Some items she had chosen to replace, while others only required a thorough cleaning. Each day, she spent time reorganizing her various lists, prioritizing what should be addressed first.
“After you have had your midday meal,” she told Audrey, Ellis, and Janie, the three maids hired to assist her, “we will take a survey of this music room.” If it had been Cilla’s choice, once she had viewed the spectacular pianoforte located in the music room, she would have started her survey of that particular room first, for music was what touched her soul. Everything else was secondary in her life. However, it was on the third day before she had recalled the room near the rear of the house.
When she was younger, she would sometimes sneak into the abbey just to have a look around. There were so many wonderful pieces of art and sculptures thereabouts, and Cilla loved simply to curl up on one of the dust-covered chairs and study the artwork, while she made notations of melodies to accompany each piece. The works served as her inspiration. It was perhaps on her third or fourth visit to the abbey that she had discovered the music room. Her hands had itched to play the pianoforte, but she had resisted the urge to do so, knowing someone might hear her and demand to know why she had entered the Blackhurst property without permission. Little did she know, at the time, this would be her future home. She was glad today that she would have a legitimate excuse to view the ornate instrument, perhaps even taking a few moments to play a short composition she had rolling around in her head.
“Shall I bring you a tray, miss?” Janie asked.
Cilla’s eyes remained on the instrument. Distractedly, she responded, “Bring it when you return. I am in no hurry.”
“Yes, miss. Enjoy your time to rest for a few minutes. You’ve worked most diligently,” Audrey added.
Cilla smiled at the girls. “I plan to test out Lord Blackhurst’s pianoforte.”
“You play, miss?”
“My late mother loved music as dearly as she loved my father. She made certain each of her children could play an instrument.” Cilla did not say the words aloud, but she thought, As I pray I will be allowed to do so with my own children. Catching the ache of loneliness seeping into her chest, she shooed the maids from the room so she might explore the space alone.
With the maids’ exit, Cilla made her way about the room, admiring the carved frame of a harp, which had two broken strings, but she strummed the remaining ones, picking out a simple tune. “Even without all its strings, the instrument is excellent, or perhaps it is the room that speaks of perfection,” she murmured. She could imagine herself spending countless hours within. “At least, this is something I can love about the future marriage to which I have been committed.”
Leaving the harp behind, she began a more complete examination of the room, which she had belatedly realized had been specifically designed to create a musical experience. The room’s location, near the rear of the house, would prevent the noise of a busy household from interfering with a musical performance. Draperies not only hung at the windows, but also covered one of the walls. Persian rugs of various sizes were scattered about the floor, sometimes layered with rugs made of wool supporting an instrument, while several large plants and upholstered chairs and settees dotted the rim of the room.
One corner held a bookshelf, containing books of various sizes. A floral printed wallpaper covered the wall surrounding the arched entrance, and a fabric-covered folded screen sat opposite the book shelf in another corner.
“Someone certainly knew what he was doing,” she said as she crossed to one of the windows to draw back the drapes to allow light into the space. A smattering of dust filled the air about her, and she batted away the dust motes floating before her eyes. She turned for a second look at the room, now draped in sunlight. “I could spend my days practicing and not be disturbed.”
With a sigh of satisfaction she had yet to know since assuming the task of arranging his lordship’s household, Cilla sat at the instrument and positioned her fingers upon the keys. Although the pianoforte, like the harp, could do with a good tuning, within minutes, she was lost in the music, swaying on the bench, allowing the melody to carry her to another place—a place only she knew. Soon she was switching from a piece by Mozart to one she had been working on for several months—one with which she had yet to know fulfillment.
Over and over again, she played the prelude, changing the phrasing—adding a different chord here and there—dropping a half note she once thought essential.
So engrossed with the process, she failed to hear the faint sound of a footfall behind her. When she finally realized she was no longer alone in the room, it was too late not to gasp, as she spun around to gape at the handsomest man her eyes had ever beheld.
“Oh, botheration!” She clapped a hand over her mouth, as she blushed thoroughly. “You startled me, sir! I did not hear you come in. May I assist you?”
What could only be called an arrogant lift of his eyebrow rose in obvious disapproval. “Perhaps it is I who should assist you,” he said in exacting tones.
Her eyes could not deny her private desire to take in the change in the man’s countenance. Eyes, the color of the vault of the heavens, assessed her appearance, and Cilla instinctively reached for her riot of curls, many of which had worked free of the pins supposedly holding them in place. For all her customary bravado, she found herself stammering, “Although . . . although I appreciate your offer, you are not dressed as a servant. The house maids shall return shortly. Then, we will see to the room. I am certain Lord Blackhurst would object to your varying from whatever occupation you have been employed to do.”
The gentleman’s lack of a smile validated his disapproval. “Despite being impressed by your aptitude upon the instrument,” he chastised, “I doubt Lord Blackhurst would provide his consent for a maid to take it upon herself to use his family’s pianoforte for her own pleasure.”
“A maid?” Cilla inclined her head in an equally unfavorable gesture. “You think I am one of his lordship’s maids? You think I play no better than one without any training? I am more than just a bit offended, sir.”
Just as she stood from the bench, he stepped closer. Although he was the most intriguing man she had ever encountered, she suddenly wondered if he had simply wandered in, without anyone knowing. Was he supposed to be in the abbey? Brazenly, she lifted her chin and spoke in her best “lady of the manor” voice. “Mayhap you should explain your purpose in being in Lord Blackhurst’s home, sir.”
He matched her cynical look with his own cynical amusement. “I am prepared to ask the same of you,” he said in even tones.
She cursed herself for discovering she enjoyed his smile, ironic though it may be. The man before her, in spite of being dressed as a country gentleman, rather than a Town dandy, was clearly a man of means. His posture and his manner of speaking suggested he was aware of his consequence. Yet, it was the way his coat stretched taut across his shoulders that had her heart beating out an unfamiliar tattoo.
“I am waiting,” he said in stern tones that drew her from her musings.
Cilla presented him her best scowl, crossing her arms across her chest and lifting her chin a notch higher. To emphasize her frustration, she tapped her foot as she said, “As am I.”
A slight chuckle escaped the gentleman’s lips before his scowl deepened. “Ladies first.”
However, neither of them had a chance to know an end to their standoff, for the maids had returned with Audrey leading the way and carrying the tray she promised Cilla. “Oh, miss,” Audrey said as she spotted the gentleman while managing an awkward curtsey. “I’d no idea you’d company. Would you prefer us to fetch another cup for tea?”
The gentleman looked suspiciously to the maids and then to her. “Perhaps you might provide me the lady’s identity,” he instructed.
Cilla motioned Audrey to place the tray on a nearby table before responding, for the girl appeared quite intimidated by the gentleman. She turned to the man. “Such shall not be necessary. I am capable of answering for myself,” she said in a waspish manner that seemed to seep from her when she was near this particular man.
“Finally,” the man growled under his breath.
Standing stiffly, her shoulders taut with irritation, Cilla reprimanded, “A lady should not be expected to introduce herself to a true gentleman. Yet, if you insist, I am Miss Keenan. I have been asked by the marquess to ready the abbey for his return. I have a perfectly legitimate reason to be in any room I choose in the manor.”
Surprisingly, instead of frowning at her again, the man executed a proper bow. “Miss . . . Miss Keenan?” he spoke in what could only be called a lack of composure, one matching her earlier befuddlement. “I did not expect—” He paused as if he thought better of what he was saying. “Lord Blackhurst would not desire his intended actually to go to battle with the dust that has occupied the family estate in his absence.”
She had no idea of what he spoke until a quick glance to the maids, who each pointed to a different part of her own body, warned Cilla the dust from earlier had landed on her hair, shoulders, and forehead, respectively. Defensively, she said, “How else might I examine the quality of the drapes and other furnishings?” She made herself not reach for the dust to remove it from her person. “Now, might you provide me your identity in return?”
The gentleman regained his composure. With an aristocratic nod, he said, “I am . . . I am . . .” Again, he paused awkwardly to gather his thoughts, and she wondered if this was a characteristic of which he was unaware or was it purposeful? “Mr. Alden. Mr. Johnathan Alden, at your service, miss.”
“Mr. Alden?” she questioned. Cilla’s first assessment of the man standing before her said he was too top-lofty to be a simple man of all works, and his Christian name was too “ordinary” for a man of his consequence; after all, even in her limited circle of acquaintances, she knew nearly two dozen men called “John.” In her opinion, the man required the name of one of the gods or something along the lines of “Valentine” or “Zepher.” Yet, she swallowed the words rushing to her lips. “I did not expect you until tomorrow.”
“The roads proved better than what I anticipated,” he explained. He glanced about the room before motioning her to the gathering of furniture where the tray rested. “Perhaps we could share your tea while the maids take up their tasks.” To Audrey, he said, “Might I prevail upon you to bring the lady and I another cup, as you suggested?” The maids quickly bowed from the room, leaving Cilla and the gentleman alone.
Cilla knew she frowned, but she nodded her agreement. As she crossed to the seating group, she attempted to brush away the dust from her person. Once they were seated, and she had poured tea for the gentleman, she set herself the task of asking the question that had bounced about in her head since her father had announced she was to assist in restoring the abbey? However, before she could rearrange the words in her head, she felt she must first understand the status of the man sharing her settee. “Are you intimate with his lordship? Have you held a long-standing relationship?”
The gentleman appeared shocked by her forwardness; however, he responded, nonetheless. “I have known his lordship since he was but a child,” he assured. “Actually, since he was in his crib, but no man recalls such details of his youth.”
“I see. That is good then,” she mumbled, making to organize her thoughts. She knew her frown remained, but there was little she could do but to be honest. “I know this might sound off-putting and ungrateful, and I do not mean for it to be so. Yet, I have no one else to which to speak my thoughts. Would you indulge me in this matter?”
His brows lifted in question, but he nodded his willingness.
“Right then.” She shrugged her shoulders to shore up her courage. “Could you speak to Lord Blackhurst’s character? I do not understand how this marriage agreement has reared its head so quickly, nor do I understand why his lordship would agree so readily. I mean, if Lord Blackhurst intends to accept the agreement between his father and mine, without question, I would like to hear something of his lordship’s nature. Has he no prospects beyond a country miss? I would think his title would permit him to claim any woman of the ton; yet, he has agreed to marry the likes of me. It simply does not make sense. We are expected to marry, and, in reality, we have never met. I am to set up a home for a man of which I know little beyond the customary rumors. Does the marquess prefer bold colors or more subtle ones? Does his lordship possess an interest in history or science or horticulture? Anything you care to share would be greatly appreciated.”
Mr. Alden wrinkled his nose in what was obviously indecision, but he waited until Audrey quietly placed down a second cup and saucer upon the tray and then disappeared from the room before he responded. “I am certain Lord Blackhurst would be happy with whatever you chose,” he said diplomatically.
“However, I do not wish my future husband simply to be ‘happy’ with what I choose,” she argued. “I would prefer his approval, but, more importantly, I would wish we shared some of the responsibilities of bringing Blackfriars Abbey back to its previous greatness. If we are to know felicity in marriage, should we not possess common goals?”
“I seriously doubt Blackhurst much cares whether the drawing rooms are all the same color or different shades,” Mr. Alden confessed. “I have never heard him express an interest in such matters.”
Agitated by his response, Cilla busied her hands, rearranging the items on the tray. She was half-tempted to dump the remaining tea in the pot over his head, but doing so would only prove her another recalcitrant female, a report surely to travel to Blackhurst’s ears. This whole situation was absurd—absolutely absurd. Even as she admitted this to herself, she realized she would require a different approach. Therefore, she placed a smile upon her lips and suggested, “Perhaps I could ask a few questions, and you could share what you know of the marquess.”
A brow quirked, but the gentleman again nodded his agreement.
Cilla knotted her fingers together and rested them in her lap. “Mayhap we could begin with Lord Blackhurst’s appearance. I imagine him dark of head. Is that true?”
“I have heard some describe his lordship’s hair as ‘chestnut’ or ‘russet,” the gentleman shared.
“Darker than yours, then?” she remarked.
He shook off the idea. “Not much difference.”
She swallowed the sigh of exasperation rushing to her lips. “And his eyes? Are they brown also?”
“Silver or grey.”
“Something of your shade,” Realizing she was grasping at straws, she said nervously, “I understand one might term me as being too bold, but your Saxon ancestors are present in your features. Am I to assume, such is so for his lordship? Can you speak to his height?”
“Permit me to save you a few questions,” he said calmly. “As Lord Blackhurst and I are related, you will find we are of a similar stature and countenance.”
Cilla allowed herself a breath of relief. Although Lord Blackhurst was not old in years, she had known men of his ilk who were well worn from drink and hard living before they married. At least, her future husband would be relatively pleasing to the eye.
“Then, am I to assume you were in the East with his lordship? I noticed your skin is quite brown from the sun,” she stated.
Mr. Alden directed a smile at her. “You would assume correctly. I would say quite confidently that where Lord Blackhurst can be found, so can I. We are quite inseparable in that manner.”
“You will be residing at the abbey also?” she asked.
“I have no doubt.”
Cilla nodded her acceptance as her eyes again skimmed the gentleman’s features: Square jaw. Closely shaven. Dark skin on his face and neck, indicating he had spent time in the sun of late. Broad shoulders. Up close, his shoulders appeared wider than she had expected. Deep chested. Obviously, Mr. Alden was accustomed to fine manners. The way he held his teacup was proof he had often spent time in Society’s drawing rooms.
He was hardly old, but she wondered if he was the elder or whether that would be Lord Blackhurst, and, if so, by how many years?
She realized Mr. Alden was speaking to her. With a blush of embarrassment, she said, “Pardon, Mr. Alden, I fear I was woolgathering. Might you repeat what you were saying?”
He presented her a long, slow look. “I was suggesting you might wish to write to his lordship. Direct your questions to Blackhurst himself.”
Cilla stared at him dubiously. “Would Lord Blackhurst accept a correspondence with me? Is it not too presumptuous on my part to think so? Would not his lordship be too occupied with business in London to be carrying on an exchange of letters with me?” She knew her brow wrinkled in a frown. “Would we even be permitted to write to each other? We have never beheld each other.”
Mr. Alden returned her stare with an unusual expression—whether it was amusement or serious consideration, she could not tell. “You do have a great many questions, Miss Keenan, but, I assure you, his lordship considers the agreement between your fathers a warrant of his honor. Therefore, a correspondence between you two should be considered one between those intending to marry. I can honestly say, I believe Blackhurst would welcome the opportunity to learn more of you before your wedding.”
Much struck by the notion, Cilla shook her head absently in the affirmative, all the while wondering if Mr. Alden could be correct. Was this a means to learn more of the man she was to marry?
Now, for the giveaway. Comment below to be in the mix for one of THREE eBook copies of An Escape to Love. The giveaway will end at midnight EST on February 10, 2022. I will contact the winners by email.