Annabelle Johnson has a secret. It could ruin her. But yet, she remained in a darkened room with a gentleman. Perhaps it was because for the first time she felt safe in a gentleman’s company.
Compromised and hiding a damning secret was never going to be a good mix. Annabelle had to think of something before her secret ruined her and hurt the man she had married.
Lord Stannage, Earl of Garston was a handsome man. A pity then that everyone who met him only noticed his different coloured eyes. In a society that only perfection was accepted, he was never going to feel welcomed. He avoids society apart from when he becomes too lonely.
Two people, both hurting and afraid, needing each other’s strength before their living nightmare can ease. Will they find the courage to trust and listen to each other, or will they continue on their path to heartbreak?
Release date: April 29, 2015
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 208
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Annabelle could not understand why she seemed to suffer more than others from the heat in a ballroom. Her fan seemed to almost wear itself out in an attempt to cool her down. She shook her head at herself; this was only a regional ball, nothing compared to the size of the ones held in London if the accounts were anything to go by. It was the intention for her to spend some time in London enjoying the sights and the entertainments, but she was not sure she would be able to cope without expiring completely.
This ball was being held in her honour by her elder sister, the Duchess of Sudworth. Annabelle had felt a little overawed at being introduced to the locality, but it would potentially make her acceptance into London society easier. She was under no illusion: acceptance into any society was to be handled carefully; she, along with her three sisters were daughters of a ‘cit’, a man making his fortune in the City.
For some reason, since his girls were small her father had wanted all of his daughter’s to marry a titled man. The man in question was less important to her father than the title. But then recently he had changed his mind. He had always wanted a son to take over his business interests, but four daughters had been born instead. When her eldest sister had married the Duke of Sudworth and left the family home, a gentleman had been introduced to the family: a Mr Wadeson. He was to be the man who was to continue the family business, and Mr Johnson, Annabelle’s father had announced that Mr Wadeson could have his choice of the remaining three unmarried daughters as his wife.
Only Annabelle and Grace had been at home at that time, and Mr Wadeson had announced that he would wait to meet the youngest, Eleanor, before he made his decision. Unfortunately for Annabelle, he had shown his true self in a way from which she was struggling to recover —an incident that remained a secret from the others in her family. For the first time in her life Annabelle had felt the reality of living with parents who put their own interests above those of their children. She had felt alone and terrified, unable to confide in anyone, even her sisters.
Being able to demand that she be allowed to visit her married sister was the only way Annabelle could think of to escape and, surprisingly, her father had agreed to the scheme. Rosalind was under the illusion that Annabelle was still looking for a titled gentleman when Annabelle knew she could not marry at all but had needed an escape nonetheless.
Annabelle managed to secrete herself on the stone terrace attached to the ballroom. She would have just a few moments in the cool air before returning to the ball and the dancing. She stood in the shadows not wanting to attract attention to herself. A movement at the window forced her to move further into the shadows, as four or five women came out of the ballroom.
“Have you seen what she is wearing?” came the clear voice of Baroness Leyland. “She’s wearing debutante colours, when in reality she is on the shelf. Who ever heard of a debutante being two and twenty? Her father couldn’t find a man in their own circles and now in desperation has foisted her into our society.” The words were said with a sneer.
Annabelle’s cheeks burned with anger. Without doubt they were referring to herself. She wanted to storm out and give the woman a piece of her mind, but it would cause a scene. She started to move towards the window to try and sneak back into the ballroom, but further conversation stopped her in her tracks.
“The clothes both she and the Duchess wear are of the finest material,” Mrs Ratcliffe said.
“Yes, just proving that even the highest quality can’t make the wearer more acceptable. One may be able to dress in fine clothes, but the origins are still the same,” Baroness Leyland replied. “The Duchess acts as if she were born to the role, but she will never be considered as a member of the aristocracy. Could you imagine, a woman from trade holding one of the highest titles in the country and expecting us all to give her the respect the title deserves? Unthinkable! The arrogance of such a presumption makes me laugh!”
“Mrs Adams says the sister comes with a large dowry,” Baroness Talbot said.
“She would have to do something to tempt anyone with class; a fortune is probably the only thing some unfortunate member of our group would be tempted by! No one would touch them otherwise. She will find only a desperate husband, just like her sister did. If the Duke hadn’t needed money, he wouldn’t have looked twice at his wife,” Mrs Ratcliffe said.
“Lord Stannage seems to like her, and he is rich,” Baroness Talbot said fairly of the gentleman who had shown he liked Annabelle.
“Ha! That’s because Stannage can’t attract anyone any other way! He’s as much tarnished goods as they are. Who in our circle would link themselves to him? A freak with different coloured eyes! There is obviously some bad blood in his lines,” Baroness Leyland said. “But that’s an aside; I’ll be having a word with the Duke tonight and telling him something that will bring his family down to its rightful place. It can’t happen soon enough; let’s see how many visits the Duchess receives when she loses her title. I can’t wait to see their faces when I break the news!”
“Well in that case, let’s go and have our fill of the refreshments before we all get sent home. While we are here we may as well drink their wine and eat their food,” Baroness Talbot said, moving back into the room.
Annabelle remained in the shadows for a few moments after the women returned to the ballroom. Rosalind had mentioned some of the difficulties that she faced from the locality, but Annabelle had not really taken it seriously. She suddenly had more sympathy for her sister; the transition had obviously been more trying than she thought if that was the type of welcome she had been given.
They would never be accepted into this society; they were fooling themselves to think otherwise. Annabelle was so very angry though; her character was not even a consideration: she was being rejected purely because of her background. No one in her own social circle would be so quick to condemn; they would wait to make their decision on the person’s character.
If that was the way they behaved here, she wanted none of it. She would not willingly marry into such a group even if her circumstances were different. No, they could keep their titles and their prejudices; they were welcome to them.
The problem was Annabelle needed to be married for the protection it would bring. The irony was, because of what had happened, she could never marry. She had no idea how to make her position better.
What she needed was a drink. Not the usual lemonade or tea; she needed something stronger that would steady her shaking body. She moved inside the ball room, keeping herself along the edge. Seeing Rosalind now would be a disaster; her sister would immediately see that something was wrong. She just needed to have a few moments to settle down; then she would be able to face everyone again.
She finally reached the doors to the hallway without meeting anyone who would realise something was amiss. She breathed a small sigh of relief; she could escape for a little while, and no one would be any the wiser. The last thing she needed was questions about what had upset her; she would not be able to lie, but she could not upset Rosalind’s evening. Her sister had tried so hard to make the evening a success.
Entering her brother-in-law’s study she leaned against the door she shut and closed her eyes for a second. When her breathing returned to normal she walked across to the decanter tray and poured herself a brandy. Taking a large gulp, she coughed and spluttered as the liquid burned down her throat and tears poured from her eyes; she was not sure whether it was the brandy or the last half hour that caused the tears. She finally wiped her eyes and turned from the decanter, moving towards the fireplace and the wing-backed chairs that flanked either side.
Sitting in one of the chairs was Lord Stannage, watching her with an expression of concern and amusement on his face. Annabelle, not expecting anyone else in the room, let out a scream and dropped the glass on the rug she was walking across.
The reaction stirred Lord Stannage into action. “Miss Johnson, please don’t be afraid; I didn’t think you would see me. I expected you to leave the room without noticing my presence. I’m sorry to have startled you. Would you like another glass of brandy?”
Annabelle had been startled only by the presence of another and was not really afraid of the gentleman before her, although she would always be wary in the company of any man. “I don’t want any more brandy, thank you,” she said quietly. “It’s awful stuff; I’ve no idea why it’s so popular!”
Lord Stannage laughed quietly, “It’s an acquired taste. Please sit down; something has obviously upset your equilibrium.” He should be leaving the room, he cursed to himself, but she had looked as if she needed to escape. The way she had leaned on the door, as if in pain, had him holding on to the chair arms to stop himself from standing to offer her comfort, but he had remained quiet. It was not appropriate that they were in a darkened room with the door closed, but he had some sympathy with anyone wishing to escape. That was a feeling he knew all too well.
Annabelle shivered, “I don’t think it will be a taste I’ll be trying again. I’m sorry I’ve disturbed you.” From what Peter said, she was not surprised that he was hiding, just that he had ventured out in the first place.
“Your company is always welcome, Miss Johnson,” Lord Stannage answered truthfully. “What happened for you to seek solace?”
Annabelle looked into the fire, speaking words that she would have never said to her sister. “I will never belong here,” she said quietly. “It has been made plain that I was foolish to think that I could. I thought it would be easy, but it isn’t; I will never get the relief that I sought, so I need to return home and face what awaits me there.” She could not repress the shudder that her words stirred.
Lord Stannage felt his gut tighten; she was so beautiful with her rich chestnut hair and the deepest brown eyes he had ever seen. She had lips like her sister, a deep red, which drew him and made him want to kiss them. The problem was that Lord Stannage would never want to kiss the Duchess of Sudworth, but he did want to kiss Miss Johnson. He was under no illusion that she would look at him in the same light, but her words made him want to go out and punch every single person at the ball until he found out who had upset her.
“You have every right to be here; your sister is holding the ball in your honour,” he said quietly, watching her closely.
“Rosalind has the title to support her among her acquaintances, although I know there are some who will never accept her,” Annabelle admitted; the words she overheard had not been aimed purely at herself. “I have the backing of a Duke, but in reality it counts for very little as I found out tonight.”
“Who has hurt you?” Lord Stannage asked. His words were gentle, but his mind raced at what he could do to ease her distress.
“It doesn’t matter; they hold their titles as a protective shield against anyone who dares to stand up to them: no outsider can join their precious group,” Annabelle said bitterly.
“A title of your own would give you the protection you needed to be accepted into society.” The title from the right person he cursed himself. He had uttered the words, wanting to offer her his own title, the strength of his feelings surprising him; but he was a fool. She would get ridiculed even more by being attached to him. He sighed quietly; he was entitled to his dreams, however unrealistic.
“I’m not sure if I want to belong to this society,” Annabelle said honestly. “Rosalind suits the role she has married into, but I don’t think I would; I am not placid and diplomatic like my sister. My father has picked out someone at home who he wishes one of us to marry; I had no wish to fulfil that role but, even though my experience here is limited, it has shown me that in reality I have very little choice about my future.” Whether it was the darkened room or the effects of the brandy Annabelle was not sure, but she was confiding in a virtual stranger. She was saying things she had not even mentioned to Rosalind; she could not tell the stranger everything. Oh, no; she could not tell anyone everything.
“How so?” Lord Stannage asked, watching the vibrant woman closely.
“My father insists all his daughters marry a title, or we return home to marry the gentleman in question. We all come with very large dowries, so we presumed foolishly that our charms and a dowry would be enough to attract a husband. I certainly didn’t realise that most people would need the large dowry before they would even consider marrying us. Isn’t that vain of me?” Annabelle said simply. She did not want his pity, but for some reason speaking even a little of what troubled her was easier with him than with anyone else.
“They would be fools if they did not see the benefits that would come with being married to someone like you,” Lord Stannage said.
Annabelle blushed, aware that it was a huge compliment to herself, “Thank you, but I think I will ask Rosalind if I can return home; better to face my future sooner rather than later.” She was not aware of how she was ever going to be able to face that future; it was more terrifying than any nightmare she had ever had.
The thought of never seeing her again made Lord Stannage feel desolate, but he pushed the thoughts to one side. He was a bigger fool than the people who mocked her; she would never look at him seriously. He had been aware of her discomfort when they were so blatantly watched and laughed at when they danced in their previous encounter; he did not condemn her: it was far less of a rejection than he had experienced in the past. She had been polite and had danced with him—something few ladies of his acquaintance did. For him to go to London though: that was something completely different. He would never venture further than his home town or his society in the North West, even if it meant that he would never see the beautiful Miss Johnson again.
“I shall be sorry to see you go,” he said honestly.
“Thank you,” Annabelle said with a genuine smile. “I don’t think my presence will be missed by many. I shall return home; at least I will be with people in my locality with whom I am comfortable with.” She did not mention that a marriage to Mr Wadeson filled her with terror.
“I can understand your wish to do that,” Lord Stannage said with empathy.
Annabelle stood; she needed to go back to the ball. Speaking to Lord Stannage had been surprisingly comforting, but it was inappropriate to stay in the study with him, no matter how much she would have preferred it. “I’ve enjoyed your company, but I need to return to my sister,” she said.
Lord Stannage stood to offer his bow to the young lady. “I have enjoyed yours too,” he replied genuinely. “I hope you find what will make you happy.” He reached for her hand and kissed it. If he was not going to see her again, he felt justified in taking advantage of their closeness.
Annabelle blushed, but smiled at him; surprisingly she did not feel threatened by the gesture. “Good evening, my lord.”
Lord Stannage paused and then pulled Annabelle’s hand, so she stumbled towards him. Her eyes widened in alarm, but he could not help it: he needed a little more before he said a final farewell. He put his hand on her back and gently bent down and brushed his lips against hers.
Annabelle gasped; it had all happened so quickly. She pulled away in shock, recalling another time with a different man. “My lord?”
Lord Stannage held her face in his hands; his touch was gentle, almost reverent. “I’m sorry. You are the most beautiful creature I have ever seen, and this is the last time I will see you; I couldn’t let you go without kissing you. It was wrong of me, but I will never regret it.”
Annabelle smiled a little; it might have shocked her, but she was the one in the family who misbehaved, so she could not condemn someone who also pushed the boundaries that constrained him. She had been afraid of his touch, but he was so gentle that she relaxed a little, overcoming her initial reaction to pull away and put distance between them. Perhaps with him it would be different, Annabelle thought to herself.
Lord Stannage smiled at her, and she leaned towards him, kissing him in return. Lord Stannage was surprised, but he was not going to pull back from such an encounter; he lingered against her lips, but stopped himself from turning it into a passionate kiss. He had some control. He smiled as he pulled away, but the smile froze on his face as he heard a sound from the doorway.
Baroness Leyland’s voice was the first to be heard. “Oh, my goodness!”
Annabelle and Lord Stannage jumped apart, both turning pale with horror. Peter stood slightly behind Baroness Leyland and almost groaned when he realised who her exclamation had been about. This was not going to be good for either party, as Baroness Leyland was one of the biggest gossips of his acquaintance. He had only brought her into the study because she had said she wished for a private chat about his brother. He silently cursed his timing.
“Well, I never! Lord Stannage, I presume we will be wishing you happy?”
It was not so much the question, as the look of horror on Annabelle’s face that made Lord Stannage want to crawl away and hide from the world forever. The reality was, though, he had been found in a compromising position with an unmarried young lady, and he was going to stand by that. He could not examine his motivation or his feelings; he was reacting to the position they were both in.
“I was hoping to speak to his grace in private, but, yes, you will be wishing us happy,” he improvised.
Annabelle was mortified. Before her, gloating in the worse possible way was the woman whose words had sent her into the room in the first place. She failed to realise what affect her expression of horror was having on Lord Stannage but was completely focused on the superior smile that Baroness Leyland wore. She had hardly realised what words Lord Stannage had uttered; it just seemed that her world was spiralling out of control, but she could not find her voice to stop it.
She was safe. Annabelle sat in the carriage with a breath of relief. This was it; she was married. She had doubted whether or not she would be able to go through with it, but she had.
She almost laughed out loud at the thought. Safe? She had just married one man she barely knew in order to escape another; she might have jumped from one disaster to a worse one for all she knew. No, she inwardly shook herself; she was being unfair. Everyone who knew him sang the praises of Lord Stannage; if he did not have the affliction with which he was cursed, she was sure he would already be married.
Lord Stannage, the Earl of Garston, her husband: the thought felt very strange. He was a very attractive gentleman, his hair a rich chestnut colour worn in the latest fashion. Annabelle admired neat hair; hers was so often an unruly mane that she despaired of. Her new husband was around six feet tall, broad-shouldered, carrying no excess weight. His features were pleasing; he was certainly a handsome man, but his downfall was his eyes. One was a clear blue, the other a clear green. There could be no mistaking the affliction, and no one did. She imagined as a child he would have very often been bullied or ridiculed.
Annabelle was correct in her assumption of Lord Stannage’s struggles. When reaching the age of maturity and venturing out into wider society, Lord Stannage found just how cruel his peers could be. He was a naturally sociable type but could stand the ridicule and comments only for so long before he had to withdraw once again from society.
Those who befriended him discovered a true gentleman but, as most people followed the few leaders in society, he was to have a limited number of friends.
It was on a rare excursion into society that he had come into contact with Miss Annabelle Johnson, the sister of the newly married Duchess of Sudworth. Annabelle came with a large dowry: everyone knew that; it was well known thanks to the elderly Mrs Adams, who kept everyone in the locality firmly in their places. It was also known that Mr Johnson, Annabelle’s father, had wished for his daughters to marry titled gentleman even though his background was in trade.
Lord Stannage did not need a wife with a large dowry; he had come to the conclusion that he would never marry. He accepted his fate but, when he met young women who were as beautiful and entertaining as Miss Annabelle Johnson, he could not help be a little bitter about his affliction.
He had sought escape in the study of the Duke of Sudworth, leaving the noise of the ball behind while he tried to put into perspective the reaction he always received. He could accept that new people he met very often showed surprise or even alarm upon noticing his eyes, but he did wish the ones who had known him for years could sometimes just accept that his eyes were a part of him instead of something to laugh at and point out.
He was seated in the same study in which Annabelle sought refuge after overhearing comments made by the local dames. She had not set out to be found in a compromising situation but had stumbled on Lord Stannage in the study and, after a brief conversation, they had kissed. It had been almost a sympathetic kiss between two lost souls. Unfortunately for them both, the biggest gossip in the area had walked in on them.
The route to the wedding had not been smooth: Annabelle’s sister had not taken kindly to her new husband’s attempts to force a wedding and had absconded with Annabelle to the seashore, but eventually Annabelle had accepted marriage as by far the better option than returning to the home of her father. Forcing someone into a marriage with her seemed unfair in Annabelle’s eyes, but the thought of Mr Wadeson awaiting her made her act selfishly and agree to the handsome peer. So, here she was starting off on a journey to Lord Stannage’s hometown of Carlisle. She was with a man she hardly knew; even so, he was the person who from now on would have the most impact on her life.
Lord Stannage watched his new wife as she mulled over her thoughts. She was beautiful. Her hair seemed to cascade from whichever attempt at securing it on her head her maid had tried. It looked rich and thick, something any young virile man would want to run his fingers through. She had chocolate coloured eyes that were usually full of smiles. Her sister, the Duchess of Sudworth, had hinted that she was the mischievous one of the family. Her lips were very kissable rosebud lips that he could confirm tasted as sweet as they looked.
He would always thank the stars for leading her to the study that night. He had been drawn to her from the moment he had seen her at the Assembly in the town of Preston. He did not expect her to feel the same way in return; he was a realist when it came to knowing how people thought of him, but he would never regret the kisses they had shared because they had led her to be his wife.
In the few weeks that had passed since they had spoken in the study at the ball at the Duke of Sudworth’s home, he had wondered what she thought of him. He inwardly cursed himself; she would think exactly what everyone else thought: that he was a freak. He knew he was, but it did not prevent him longing for normality.
He resolved that he would treat her gently; she was with him not because she wanted to be but because of an unfortunate mistake on both their parts. He had no regrets, but he wanted to make sure she would not regret their marriage.
“How many days will it take us to travel to Carlisle?” Annabelle asked as the carriage picked up speed. Lord Stannage’s family originated from Carlisle, and he had asked if Annabelle would mind a long visit as part of their wedding trip. Annabelle had been happy to agree; the further she was from her parents’ home, the better.
“Three days will see us there, without having to be aboard the carriage from morning until night,” Lord Stannage said.
“What made you move so far away from your family?” Annabelle asked. She knew their main home was to be just South of Preston in Lancashire. It was only six miles from her sister, Rosalind, who was the Duchess of Sudworth, something that Annabelle was very happy with.
“It was a combination of the title I inherited and the desire to start afresh,” Lord Stannage said honestly.
“Oh?” Annabelle responded.
“You can imagine how my fellow school friends entertained themselves when we were younger can’t you?” he started. “When my uncle died and I inherited the title, I decided that I would move to his principal home and see if I could make my way in that society.”
“Did it work?” Annabelle asked, but in reality she already knew the answer. She had seen how people openly stared and commented on his eyes and had heard the words that had been used so unfairly against him.
“As you found me hiding in a study at a ball, you can guess the answer to that,” Lord Stannage said drily.
“You don’t sound bitter,” Annabelle said in surprise.
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