The Lennox and Lester families moved in the same circles. The mothers visited each other’s parties, the fathers saw each other at business lunches, and the children terrorized their appointed caretakers, together and separately.
No, no. That wasn’t quite correct. Maurice terrorized his appointed caretaker and hers, ostensibly because Averil’s nanny, then governess were not caring for her properly. He considered himself her protector and she didn’t mind so long as he would play the knight rescuing her from the dragon when she asked him to. He always did.
Averil was his—his best friend, the sister he couldn’t have because his mother miscarried, the delightful laughter when he pulled a particularly silly stunt or stood on his head just to hear that laugh. When the baron’s son pulled her hair at a children’s party, it was Maurice who made the wretch kneel before her and apologize. When she screamed because a mouse startled her in the garden, he chased down the creature and removed it from her presence. When she wistfully said she wanted an apple, he climbed a tree and fetched one for her.
Their parents assumed that one day they would marry. He never asked Averil whether she assumed the same.
“I cannot marry her!” Maurice stormed, eyes dark and glowering as his father stared him down sternly.
“It’s expected,” his father thundered from behind the desk in his study, palms flat against the papers strewn across it. “You two have been wild about each other since you were children.”
“Father, she’s my sister!” Maurice caught himself at that, realizing what he had said as his father stared at him.
His sister was dead. Their mother had cried herself to stony silence after the loss. Averil was… Averil.
Mr. Lennox shook his head and sat down heavily. “Boy, do you think she knows that?” he asked with a quietness more disconcerting than his anger. “Do you think she’ll forgive you?”
Maurice jerked back, startled. Forgive? He furrowed his brows but found he had no answer. He had not thought she wanted marriage—not from him. He was a scoundrel and a rogue, already overlooked by girls who found his rough manner and Averil-focused affection less than desirable. “Averil—” he opened his mouth to defend himself.
“Averil is a pretty girl too good for the likes of you,” his father stated without inflection. “I suggest you remember that. Either offer her marriage now or get out of the way for someone who does love her.”
It lit an anger in Maurice he’d never felt before to hear his one perfect, pure relationship ground to nothing with those words. He rose with a fury and left his father’s office. Not once did he look back.
His father’s warning had been painfully, impossibly accurate. She didn’t forgive him. She refused his card when he sent it up and the next he heard, the Lester family had removed to London for the season. Perhaps it was imprudent or unwise that he followed.
Averil was a pretty girl, the prettiest girl at the party, though it made Maurice frown grimly instead of smile as he might otherwise have done. She was the only hope of recovering the family fortune and to him, it was like seeing his best friend on an auction block, even if she seemed to be having a good time.
No one had told him the Lesters needed a good marriage for Averil to save themselves from insolvency. Gossips and rumors had done that, and it made him hurt the more to realize he could have saved her from this marriage off to the highest bidder. She did not speak him. She did not accept his invitation to dance.
This was a new kind of fury, a fury mixed with shame as he saw her smile up at the jellyfish duke with his spineless poetry who didn’t know his Averil with her mischievous streak and her golden laugh and the way she liked to wander the gardens and the woods outside the city and eat wild apples while pretending to be his queen and Maurice her servant knight.
Dalrymple. What kind of a name was that anyway?
His father’s words came back to sting him afresh. Perhaps this duke would love her, but could he ever serve her, protect her, provide for her the way she deserved? He would ask him.
“Maurice!” She broke her silence. “How could you?” She looked at him with those anguished violet eyes and he wondered if she would ever look at him with affection again.
“How could I what?” he returned harshly. “How could I demand that a man prove himself?”
She lifted her chin in mutinous fury and he knew he had said the wrong thing. “What proof of virtue or character is it to be able to brawl like a common rascal?” she asked coolly.
The words stung like a slap, delivered on the heels of his own father’s assessment. ‘Averil is a pretty girl too good for the likes of you.’
Maurice bridled. “At least I can work with my hands and ride my own horse without a foppish man to do it for me.” He scowled. “At least you can bake your own family’s food with your own apples and you don’t need a servant or a poem to do it!”
Averil stared at him. Finally, she responded, eyes flashing, “You fetched my apples.”
It stopped him. He had. He had always been her willing servant knight. “He doesn’t love you, Averil.”
“How could anyone doubt what he feels for me?” She shook her head, denying the charge. “He has told me so and treated me kindly. He is a gentleman and has done more for my family than your own father has done despite our years of association. You think because he does not stoop to do such physical labor as you find necessary that his love is somehow abated? He has asked me to marry him!”
It was too much. Maurice had always loved her. Always. “What do you want? Do you want money, is that it?”
“Maurice!” She reached out a hand to stop his agitated pacing. “Don’t do anything rash. My marriage is the honorable way to assure my family’s provision.”
Honorable! Casting Averil to whatever man thought her beautiful enough to pay in gold. Auctioning her to a man who wouldn’t even let her do her own baking until she startled him with how wonderful it tasted.
“Marrying me to a man I love.”
He did stop pacing, stood stock still, and studied the soft look in her eyes. No one ever doubted Dalrymple’s aggravating blandness, mistaking it for goodness. “He doesn’t deserve you,” Maurice said roughly with a softness he’d always saved for her.
She looked up at him and a faint blush spread across her cheeks. He wasn’t sure if it was prompted by anger or something warmer and gentler, only knew when he heard her answer—“He does”—that he would never forgive it.
She wept for him and Perceval assumed it was her nerves, her female disposition and response to the frightful nature of a death so close to them. Maurice had died chasing a stagecoach on his own horse, and the shaken man who stumbled out was the solicitor who had ruined Averil’s father.
He wouldn’t marry her, wouldn’t love her, wouldn’t let her go to love someone else, but she wept for him because when all was said and done, she was his and even Perceval Dalrymple couldn’t change it.