A storm was coming.
Viola Cavendish didn’t need to look at the sky to know it. She could recognize the signs, all of them ominous, converging upon Kingstag Castle. Even worse, she had a very bad feeling she might find herself at the middle of it.
“I’m sure everything will be fine,” said the Duchess of Wessex as she buttoned her fur-trimmed pelisse. The footmen were carrying down the duke’s and duchess’s traveling trunks, and the coach was outside the door. Viola could see the horses’ breath steaming in the cold air as they stood waiting to carry her employers away for at least a fortnight.
The duke and duchess weren’t supposed to leave for another month. The duchess’s sister, Mrs. Blair, was expecting her first child after Christmas, and everyone at Kingstag could talk of nothing else. Well—all the females at Kingstag were keenly interested in the baby, although Kingstag was mostly populated by females. Aside from the duchess, the castle held the duke’s mother, the dowager duchess; the duke’s three younger sisters, Serena, Alexandra, and Bridget; and an elderly relation, Lady Sophronia. Since Mr. Blair was a cousin to the Cavendish family, everyone felt some claim upon the child, but especially the duchess, who was eagerly anticipating the visit she planned to make when the child was born.
But yesterday an express letter had arrived from Mr. Blair, saying his wife’s labor pains had begun almost a month earlier than expected, and she was begging for the duchess to come as soon as possible. The duchess and her sister were extraordinarily close; without hesitation the duchess declared that she was leaving at once. The duke argued with her—Viola had been ordered from the room, which was rare—but in the end the duchess had prevailed, although only on the condition that the duke would go with her.
That was the moment Viola foresaw the coming storm. As the duchess’s personal secretary, she was privy to almost everything that went on in the castle, and there was quite a bit going on at present. Not only was it nearing Christmas, but houseguests were expected, and the dowager duchess was ill. With neither the duke nor the duchess in residence, the position of hostess would fall on Lady Serena, who was young and unaccustomed to presiding. The next ranking lady would be Lady Sophronia, but no one would dare leave her in charge. Lady Sophronia delighted in chaos and mischief , and she always claimed to be pining for a scandal.
Viola could smile at that when she believed the duchess or dowager duchess would be around to prevent anything untoward. Now, though, the dowager duchess was confined to bed with a cold, the duchess was leaving, and Viola had the horrible thought that she would end up responsible for whatever disaster ensued.
Not that she could ever express that thought aloud. Her job was to be confident and capable, no matter what was asked of her. That was why the duchess had hired her, and Viola wasn’t careless enough to let something like a house party unsettle her—at least not visibly. She gave a poised smile in response to the duchess’s assurance that all would be well. “Of course, Your Grace.”
“The dowager duchess will surely be on her feet again in a day or two,” her employer went on. “Serena’s friends are delightful young ladies and I’m sure they’ll be no trouble.” She paused. “You might have to keep a close eye on Bridget.”
Viola fought back a laugh. Bridget was the duke’s youngest sister, and could be charitably described as high-spirited. Most of the trouble in the castle could be traced to Bridget.
On the other hand, Viola genuinely liked the girl. Once she had been just as enthusiastic and eager for adventure as Bridget was. Still, she said a quick prayer that Bridget wouldn’t go looking for extra adventure and mayhem in the next fortnight.
“Be sure to send the tenants’ Christmas baskets by the end of the week,” the duchess went on, “and let Serena tend to the decorating; I’ve already discussed it with Mrs. Hughes and she can assist.”
“I expect Serena and her friends will be rather quiet.” Worry shadowed the duchess’s eyes for a moment. “If they wish to have some entertainment, allow it. Especially . . . Well, encourage it as best you can.”
“Yes, madam.” Viola understood the concern. Serena was the eldest of the duke’s sisters, a charming beauty at age twenty-one. Until several weeks ago she’d been engaged to marry the Duke of Frye, pink-cheeked with happiness and excitement, and then one day the engagement was abruptly over, and no one spoke of why. Even Viola had no idea what had happened. Serena turned pale and silent, and her mother, the dowager duchess, had almost immediately announced a Christmas house party of friends to cheer her.
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