About the book
“You were always a part of me..”
Olivia does not intend to waste her dowry and inheritance in the hands of a reckless man. In fact, she doesn’t plan on getting married at all. However, when her best friend asks her to fake a courtship with him, until he figures out a way to get his pressing brother and mother off his back, she can’t deny him. And trouble begins..For she ends up falling for his brother.
Arthur has no intention of leaving his bachelor lifestyle behind. But the considerable debt his father left their family leaves him no choice. Until the perfect solution presents itself: his brother starts courting a lady with a considerable dowry. Now, he has to make sure the outspoken heiress will not back out of their agreement. And that he will not lose his heart in the process..
Olivia Barnes, the daughter of the Earl of Keaton, had received many letters, but none were more cryptic than the one she was now holding in her hands, vigilant that the message remained revealed to her eyes alone.
Dress nicely and come over. Agree with everything I say. I really need your help with this. I’ll explain later. E.
She read the masculine script several times before finally accepting that it was not a joke. It could not be. Edmund Nicholson, her best friend of many years, was certainly a lovable mischief-maker, but he did not have it in him to arrange for such jokes.
The words made her both curious as well as slightly apprehensive. She could not even venture a guess as to what sort of mischief he had managed to get himself into this time. She had been invited to Edmund’s house for tea that very afternoon, and the carriage was already rocking her softly through the cobbled streets of London on its way to the widely renowned Millerton Estate. She folded the letter and placed it neatly back into her purse which glistened with pearls around the handle that rested in her gloved hand.
She wasn’t certain what to expect at all. Then again, such had been her friendship with Edmund all along. She had gotten used to a relationship where there were periods of smooth sailing, and then there were also periods of feeling as battered as a ship during the stormy seas. That was the fun about being Edmund’s best friend. He always made life appear so precious, so wonderful, so necessary to be lived with each breath.
The two of them had known each other since childhood, their bond growing stronger with each passing year. They always helped each other when one of them got into trouble. Well, truth be told, it was usually Edmund who got into trouble, and it was usually Olivia who helped him, as opposed to the other way around. She wondered what kind of trouble he had gotten himself into this time. With such a cryptic message, it had to be something serious, something deep.
She sighed heavily, choosing to glance outside the window, pulling open the curtain that separated her from the passing world around her. But it served little to alleviate the confusion that reigned inside her mind. She loved visiting Millerton Estate. In her memory, it had always been a place of peace and welcoming. Hannah Nicholson, the Dowager Duchess of Millerton, had always accepted and welcomed Olivia into their home as if Olivia were her own daughter. Indeed, the only detail that might soil the memory of Millerton Estate in her mind, as well as this visit, was Arthur Nicholson, the Duke of Millerton himself and Edmund’s older brother. Olivia always wondered whether Edmund got all his bad habits by watching his older brother act the way he did. She frowned at the very thought of this man, hoping that some prior engagement might keep him away from Millerton Estate during her visit. She disliked being forced to speak to him on days when everything regarding her visit was clear. Now, when everything was murky, he was the last person she wanted to have around her because his presence would only add to the apprehension and confusion that already threatened to overtake her.
Once again, she remembered that the reason behind this visit was a complete mystery still. She looked down at her dress, wondering what Edmund could have meant by dress nicely. Did she not always dress nicely when he came to visit them? Did he consider her style outdated? Instinctively, she felt for her coiffure which this time was slightly more done than she usually preferred it. But her best friend instructed her to look her best, and what else was a best friend to do but comply?
Once again, she frowned at her ability to overthink things. Whatever the reason for this letter was, she was certain that Edmund would make it known immediately upon her arrival, and she would no longer be tortured by this lack of knowledge. She merely needed to endure a little more time under the strain of this unpleasant burden which was making her impatient with each passing second.
When she finally arrived at Millerton Estate, Olivia was ushered by Livingstone, their butler, right into the drawing room where she expected to see Edmund and immediately ask him regarding this nonsense with the note. Only, he was not alone. His mother was also there, as well as… Arthur. So, she would not be fortunate enough to have him out of the house. She supposed it was very well all the same. She would merely ignore him, like she always did, unless he specifically asked to speak with her which was also rather uncommon. They had already forged a relationship of quiet tolerance which should not be disturbed under any circumstances because Olivia could not vouch for her civility in his company.
Everyone was smiling from ear to ear, only Edmund’s smile was more of a grin, frozen in that position as he approached her with is arms outstretched.
“There you are, my dear,” he told her in an overly dramatic tone which she could not understand. Edmund rarely had a flair for drama, and it usually was not in front of his own family.
“How lovely to see you all,” Olivia said a little apprehensively, feeling all eyes on her as if she were on the center of the stage. Slightly nervously, she lifted her hand and pushed a little stray curl behind her ear, assuring that she indeed looked her best, without a single hair out of place.
However, no one replied anything to that. They all just kept smiling at her as if they all knew some secret which she was not privy to. Not yet, at least. Olivia was on the verge of turning to Edmund, grabbing him by shoulder and shaking this secret out of him if need be. Fortunately, he turned to her, took her by the hand then addressed the others.
“It is my pleasure to announce that, after years of nurturing a profound friendship, it has blossomed into something more.” He paused, as if for a bit more of that dramatic flair, then he continued. “Olivia and I have decided to start a courtship.”
With those words, he turned to her and pressed his lips to her gloved hand. Olivia felt as if a ton of bricks just fell on her head, making her knees weak. She was barely able to keep balance, and the entire room started to spin around her. She blinked heavily several times, and when she opened her eyes again, the Dowager was right in front of her, congratulating her on the decision that had made everyone so happy.
“… knew it all along… perfect for each other… so happy… so blessed…” Olivia could hear only snippets of what the Dowager was saying, but she managed to comprehend the entire message. Everyone was ecstatic about their upcoming courtship.
Even Arthur, who approached her last, offered his congratulations with a smirk she had the desperate desire to wipe off his face. His dark blue eyes stared intently at her, refusing to look away even for a single second, almost as if he knew that the longer he stared at her, the more uncomfortable she was becoming. And that was the last thing she needed.
“… courtship… so happy…” the Dowager kept aiming select words at her son and the lady she thought would soon become her daughter-in-law when Olivia finally managed to come to her senses at least to a certain degree.
“How about we all retire to the parlor for some tea?” the Dowager announced, clapping her hands joyously. “I have ordered some lovely scones and crumpets to go with that. I’m sure you shall love them, my dear,” she added to Olivia, who only managed to nod, turning then to Edmund and signaling to him with her eyes that she must speak with him at once. Fortunately for him, he seemed to understand the message immediately.
“Mother, why don’t you and Arthur go ahead?” Edmund suggested. “I would like to have a quick word with Olivia if I may.”
The Dowager smiled, placing her hand on her son’s shoulder lovingly. “I too was once young and in love, my dear. No need to explain. Only, do not make it long.”
“Of course not, Mother,” Edmund confirmed, smiling broadly.
“Come, Arthur,” the Dowager took her other son by the hand, locking her arm with his, then gracefully walked out of the room, making sure not to close the door fully but to leave it slightly ajar.
When Edmund turned to Olivia, he was no longer wearing that wide smile. It was as if he had stripped it off, like a mask he had worn up to that point, only to remove it now and show his true face. Neither of them was smiling any longer. According to Olivia, there was no reason to smile. Not a single reason at all.
“Livy,” he started, using the most endearing term he had graced her with every time he needed her help desperately, “I know this looks bad, but please, hear me out.”
“What on earth has gotten into you, Edmund?” Olivia was shocked to her very core, and now, all that shock was spewing out of her like an unstoppable flood.
He took her by the hands as he always did, knowing that just in a few moments, she would become Livy, and he would be Eddie, the best of friends, who always looked out for each other, no matter what. Only this time, Olivia wasn’t sure if Eddie had crossed the line. Because some lines were not meant to be crossed, for the very simple and painful reason that from the other side, nothing would ever be the same.
“You know there has never been anything even remotely romantic between us, nor will there ever be,” she continued with an unnervingly irritated tone which she tried to keep subdued because the door was left ajar. “How could you possibly tell such a shameful lie?” she asked him, incredulous at what he had done.
Furthermore, she wondered how they would ever wash themselves of this lie and of this guilt. The shame she already felt for allowing this lie to surface was eating away at her soul.
“We must put an end to this right now,” she ordered him. “No. You must put an end to this right now.”
She had no idea how he would do this or what excuse he would use, but she didn’t care one bit. He could claim temporary loss of sanity, whatever excuse he had, she just wished for this bad dream to be over and not go on for a single moment longer.
“Livy, Arthur found a letter I wrote for Alicia,” Edmund finally revealed, his voice down to a whisper.
Alicia was his most guarded secret, but between the best of friends, there were no secrets. Alicia Sambridge was an opera singer, a very good one at that, from what Olivia had heard about the lady in question. However, she was more than that. She was also the woman Edmund had been hopelessly in love with ever since he first laid his eyes on her. Their love affair had been a matter of utmost secrecy due to their differences in status. Olivia had already warned Edmund that this could not go on for much longer, for the risks were far too great for them both. Alicia, as the woman, would certainly gain public scrutiny if their affair came into the light, but Edmund would also not be left unscathed.
Olivia was well aware of the huge pressure that had been placed on both Edmund and Arthur regarding their necessity not only to marry but also to marry well. With financial debt as heavy as a dead albatross hanging around their necks pulling them down more and more, the Nicholson family could see only one way out, and that was through a hefty dowry which could only come from a rich wife.
All this was no news. Edmund had been discussing this for quite some time, and all Olivia could do was offer a sympathetic ear and some words of consolation, but as for any reasonable advice, she had none. She could not very well marry him herself, but as it turned out, that was exactly the preposterous idea he had come up with.
“Does Arthur know it’s for Alicia?” Olivia wondered.
“Thank heavens, no,” Edmund sighed with apparent relief. “We had agreed beforehand not to write our first names but rather simply endearing terms. That was the only reason why I was able to convince Arthur that the letter was actually addressed to you.”
“And he believed you?” Olivia asked, unconvinced.
“It took some convincing, but eventually, yes. I told him that we were both afraid of what everyone might think because we had been friends for so long.”
“I see,” she nodded, still irritated with the entire situation, but unfortunately, she could see no way out other than confessing to everything which would in turn create a whole new set of issues.
“I have a plan,” Edmund assured her, bringing himself closer to her and taking her hands into his which felt cold and clammy. Olivia knew that this only happened when Edmund was extremely nervous. For the first time since she received his letter, she stopped being angry and tried to look at things from his perspective. The burden placed upon him and his brother was grand. It was more than a free spirit like Edmund could handle.
Then, she remembered that Arthur was the older brother. It was his duty to take care of the family and assure that the debt was paid off. If that meant getting married himself, well… wasn’t that the life role of every duke? Why would Arthur be any different?
“I have made some investments,” Edmund continued speaking underneath his breath because the last thing he wanted to have happen was to be overheard by the wrong person. And they could not very well go ahead and close the door, unchaperoned. “They are really promising, Livy. The return is going to be immense, even more than the family requires.”
Olivia listened to him intently. “You know that investments are a risky game, Edmund.” She still refused to refer to him as Eddie. She didn’t want him to think that he had finally reached that soft spot she had for him. She was still upset. Very much so, to be exact. And he would remain Edmund for a while longer until they found a way out of this mess together.
“There is nothing risky about this, Livy,” he told her, all excited. “The only problem is that some time needs to pass before the investments can make a good profit — the amount I am hoping for. You see, that is where I need you. You can help me during this time of waiting, so I am not forced to search for a wife. According to everyone, I already have someone I am courting, and that someone is you. As you should have seen, this has made my mother very happy.”
“I am just wondering what she will be feeling when you tell her it was all a lie,” Olivia frowned. She hated lies and not just because she was such a terrible liar that everything was usually written all over her face.
“The amount I am expecting is so grand that I will be able to pay off the entire debt,” he told her in confidence. “I will even have some left on the side. My mother will be so happy to be free of that debt that she will forget all about the disappointment of us not really getting married.”
“But you will get married,” Olivia inquired, certain that she could already see the final goal, “only not to me.”
“Exactly,” he grinned. “The debt will be paid off, and I will be free to marry the woman I love. Everyone is happy that way.”
“Yes, only now we have to lie to your family. In fact, we have to lie to my family, your family, and the entire city of London to be more precise.”
“Well, it is not like we are lying to the entire world,” he shrugged, teasing. “Just a small percentage of it.”
She sighed heavily, already leaning to his side which made her upset with herself. He always managed to do this, to get her to come to his side, and as always, it was them against the world.
“Why don’t you just tell them about this investment now and about the entire plan?” she suddenly wondered.
“Because they would react in the same manner you did just now,” he replied sorrowfully. “They would question the veracity of the investment. And not only that, but they would also never accept Alicia. You know this.”
Olivia said nothing, but he was absolutely right. A lowly opera singer would never be considered a good match for the second son of a duke. He would never be allowed to marry her, and doing so against everyone’s wishes would bring forth terrible consequences for his family. She knew that Edmund would never do that.
“Oh, Edmund, this just doesn’t feel right,” Olivia shook her head at him, but she still allowed him to hold her hand in his. It felt soothing, like a safe harbor during a stormy sea which she could not see the end of.
“I know,” he said, looking down at his feet then his eyes met with hers again. “Believe me that it does not bring me any sort of pleasure to concoct such plans, but I see no other way out of this predicament. I know my promise means little to you now, but I assure you that none of this will harm your reputation in any way. And it will only be for a very short time.”
Olivia looked straight at him for what seemed to be a small eternity, neither of them willing to look away even for a single second. She could see his smile, the little dimples in the sides of his cheeks, and his curly dark hair which was kept in place only by his sheer power of will. Everything about him was like that. Edmund was a force of nature, and once he set his mind to something, he would eventually reach that goal, one way or another. It was just who he was, and she loved him for it. She loved him for many other things as well, but mostly for his big heart and unwillingness to bow down to pressure, pushing on for his own hopes and dreams. That was a trait they both shared.
Only, she was the frightened one. The shy one. The one who always weighed the pros and the cons before jumping into something whereas Edmund jumped in without hesitation, if jumping in meant that he would get what his heart yearned for. His bravery was contagious, and she always hoped that some of it would rub off on her as well.
“So, what do you say, Livy?” he asked, smiling and cupping her chin with the tips of his fingers.
Olivia sighed again, already feeling the burden of this decision weigh heavily upon her.
“What else am I supposed to do with you, Eddie?” she asked, chuckling softly when Edmund’s hands flew open around her, welcoming her into a loving embrace.
“You don’t know what this means to me,” he whispered against her ear, and she could swear his voice trembled as he spoke. She never heard him speak in such a soft manner, almost frightful that this was just a dream, and he might wake up any moment.
“Ahem,” someone behind them said, clearing their throat.
Olivia did not even need to look in the direction of the door to know that Arthur had returned. Edmund released her from his grip, and confused, Olivia went ahead and straightened an invisible wrinkle on her gown. They both turned to the intruder.
“Mother said to come and get you,” Arthur explained, standing in the doorway. “From what I can see, it is good I arrived when I did.” She could hear the snicker in his voice, and she did not like it one bit. She did not like him one bit, but she would be able to endure one afternoon if he caught her hints and didn’t speak to her unless the situation utterly demanded that of him.
“Tea is ready,” he continued, not taking his eyes off of her.
“We are coming, aren’t we, darling?” Edmund took Olivia by the hand, and together, they left the parlor.
They walked ahead of Arthur down the corridor, and she could swear that he was still staring at her, unwilling to look away even for a single second. The heat of his gaze felt as if it were burning a hole in the back of her head. She could not understand why the need for such a serious gaze. Not that it mattered anyway.
She still believed that it was Arthur’s duty to find a wife and provide relief from this financial burden their family had found themselves in. But instead, he preferred to live the bachelor life where he had not a single concern or responsibility. Olivia could not understand such a life, especially for a man. She could not understand many of the things Arthur Nicholson did, but at the same time, she did not care to understand him. He was not her friend. His brother was, and she intended to keep it that way, without extending her friendship beyond those confines.
Arthur was not particularly fond of guests, especially not of this one, but today’s visitation was done under completely different circumstances. As the four of them sat opposite each other, drinking tea and listening to his mother’s gushing of joy over the news that Edmund and Olivia just shared, Arthur found himself intrigued by this entire situation.
Never in a million years would he have guessed that Edmund’s mystery lady, the one with whom he was exchanging rather racy letters and the same one with whom he had been meeting in secret, was none other than Olivia Barnes. But that was not the only surprise that seized Arthur. When he finally made Edmund reveal the lady’s identity, he was curious. Now, upon seeing her after two years had passed, he was shocked to feel a small but still noticeable pang of jealousy.
He remembered Olivia as the annoying best friend of his younger brother, both of whom Arthur had done as much as he could to avoid as often as he could. He was used to women who complied, who agreed, and who did not question what they were told. Olivia did none of those things. She never feared to speak her mind even when others tended to disagree. If she was asked for an opinion, she would always give an honest one. While it was not the primary feature Arthur was attracted to in a woman, he still had to admit that he admired Olivia up to a certain extent.
The eventful afternoon passed by, and soon, she announced her departure. Farewells were exchanged, and she exited the manor house, heading towards her carriage. As soon as the door of the house was closed, Arthur excused himself, explaining that he needed to handle an urgent business affair in his study. His mother was too lost in reverie to hear half of what he said, and the only thing she wanted to talk about was the upcoming courting of Edmund and Olivia. Edmund would take care of that, he thought to himself.
As soon as he was out of sight, he rushed outside, sneaking around the house and heading towards Olivia’s carriage which was still waiting there as the footman was readying the horses. Arthur approached the footman and urged him to wait a moment to which the young man nodded.
Arthur knew that this was ludicrous, jumping into a lady’s carriage just as she was heading home, but he had to make sure that this marriage would take place no matter what. He had too much at stake, too much to lose in case she changed her mind. He could not allow that to happen under any circumstances.
When he opened the door and slumped into the carriage, Olivia gasped in shock, pulling away from him as if he were fire itself and just being close to him would scorch her.
“What on earth are you doing here?” she exclaimed loudly, shock etched in every line on her face.
Her beautiful face, some voice inside of him added just to spite him a little. He could agree with that. Olivia was indeed a beauty with her caramel-colored curls and her deep, blue eyes which were now boring a hole right in the middle of his forehead as she waited silently for an explanation.
“I need to speak with you,” he said matter-of-factly.
“What on earth about?” she demanded, regaining her senses. Her body relaxed but only up to a certain point. She did not trust him for some reason. They were never really close enough for her to trust him. That was the truth. They were more like two acquaintances, now pushed into the same spotlight where they needed to work together for the good of them both. At least, he hoped she would see it like that.
“About your marriage to my brother,” he explained. She swallowed heavily. He could see the quick motion of her throat then she stared back at him, confident once more.
“You need to discuss that with your brother,” she cut him off. “Also, it is highly inappropriate to be asking me any questions regarding my upcoming nuptials alone in my carriage.”
She was right. He could not fault her for any of the words she just said. However, he also knew that this was not a conversation they could have in front of either Edmund or his mother. He had to be assured that this marriage would take place as planned. Otherwise, his own life would need to change drastically, and that was the last thing Arthur wanted for himself.
“I just need assurance,” he urged, ignoring her comment. They were more alike than either of them was willing to admit, and he would remind her of that momentarily. “You always said you would never marry — even I know this. What made you change your mind?”
She immediately looked away as if scorched by his question. This was the second time she had shied away from him, from his presence. He never would have thought that he would be having this preposterous conversation, or that his younger brother’s annoying best friend would become his own sister-in-law. It sounded more like fiction than real life. However, he could understand the necessity as well as the urgency. His mother had been more adamant than usual in forcing her sons to search for an eligible wife with an appropriate dowry. She had a tendency to use overly flowery language when speaking of this issue as if by stating it in different, more beautiful terms, she would redirect everyone’s attention from the ugly truth which was the simple fact that they needed money, and they needed it as quickly as possible.
That meant that one of her two sons needed to get married in the near future. As the older one, Arthur was the logical choice. Only, he had no intention of marrying now… or ever for that matter. That was one of the convictions he shared with Olivia. He understood this need for freedom, the need to do things according to one’s own way without the pressure to constantly have to explain oneself to someone else. He hated that idea, hated it with his entire being, and could never see himself in such an arrangement. He believed that Olivia felt the same way. At least, that was what she had been saying to Edmund for years with Arthur overhearing it a few times. And now, Olivia and Arthur were to start courting with the goal of getting married. Arthur had to admit that he was confused. He had his doubts. And he was here to have them dispersed.
Because if someone needed to get married, then that someone would need to be Edmund. And Arthur would see to it that this marriage took place sooner rather than later for the benefit of them all.
When Olivia finally offered a response to his inquiry, he realized that she hesitated a good minute to reply at first, taking her time to come up with the right words to say. Arthur frowned. That wasn’t a good sign. That made her appear hesitant. Not a good sign at all.
“I realized that I love Edmund more than just a friend,” she said as if that answer alone should suffice.
Yet, it did not. Arthur needed more reassurance. He had been the one bearing the brunt of their mother’s dissatisfaction. Now, it was high time Edmund took some part of the responsibility towards the family. Arthur welcomed that notion because that meant that he would be left alone at least for a little while.
“How come you did not know this before?” he insisted, sitting opposite her inside the carriage. She seemed more at ease now although she was still eyeing him as if he were a dog off the streets, and she could not tell whether or not he had good intentions.
“Love does not work like that,” she said with a dismissive half-shrug. “It can lay dormant inside of you for years before it finally surfaces as a result of some seemingly irrelevant action or word. But I would not expect you to know much about love.”
He smirked at her words. His response was on the tip of his tongue, but he managed to bite it in time. He certainly knew more about love than she did, but now was not the time to bicker. He had come here to get her on his side, not to push her away and turn her into an enemy. They were on the same side here. He needed to remind her of this.
“I merely do not wish to see my brother get hurt,” he said, grateful that this was true, and he did not really lie to her. It was, however, only half of the truth. Of course, he did not wish for his brother’s feelings to get hurt. If Edmund chose to court her, then he must have liked her a great deal. Arthur could believe that. Olivia was likeable, in a… rather annoying way, but still likeable. He also believed that Edmund knew her in a way not many people did, so perhaps there was more to this young lady who was now sitting opposite him, suspicious of his actions.
Suddenly, he regretted accosting her like this. He should have approached her openly, perhaps not right now but during a ball or some other event where they could have been alone yet chaperoned by a million eyes. That way, she would have felt more at ease to have this conversation. Oh well, the damage was done. Now, he had to find a way to rectify the situation.
“I also do not wish to see your brother get hurt,” she repeated with a dignified tone of voice. “He has always been my best friend. And now, he shall be my… future husband.”
Arthur thought he heard hesitation in her voice which once again filled him with dread that she still had doubts regarding this marriage.
“Edmund is a good man,” Artur said although he was certain that he did not need to remind her of that. “Any woman who marries him should consider herself fortunate.”
“Finally, something we can agree on,” she voiced herself, staring him down. How those eyes threatened to pierce right through him and endeavor to see what he was hiding. He wanted to look away, afraid that she might actually do what she was scheming to do, but he reminded himself that his thoughts were his alone as long as he kept them quiet, tucked away neatly inside his head.
“Now, if you will excuse me, I really must be heading on home,” she pronounced, signaling that as far as she was concerned, the conversation was over.
“Of course,” he nodded, bowing down respectfully before her. “Goodbye.”
With those words, he exited the carriage and watched as it disappeared down the path which was tunneled by a row of lush, green trees. He was left with a bitter taste in his mouth, not having received the assurance he was so desperate for. If Edmund and Olivia did not marry, then he would need to. The thought drove him absolutely mad. He would not let that happen. Not in a million years.
Whether or not he and Olivia were alike was irrelevant at this point. She said she loved his brother. She accepted his courting. That meant that her goal and Edmund’s goal were the same. In fact, everyone involved had the same goal.
Arthur slowly returned to the house, adamant to see to it that this marriage took place, even if he had to do whatever it took to make it happen. Otherwise, he dreaded to think what his life would turn into.
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