“Before I introduce you to my grandson, let’s chat for a few moments.” The Dowager Duchess crossed over to a seating arrangement and gestured toward a chair. When they were both comfortable, the duchess continued.
“I asked Mr. Preston if he knew of a girl with courage and indomitable spirit. Are you such a person?”
“I believe so.”
“Yes, you very well may be.” She took a deep breath. “My grandson, the duke, is lost in a very dark prison of his own making. Although I’ve tried everything, I’m completely helpless to reach him.”
“I understand there was a tragic accident?”
“A ferry boat carrying my son and his family capsized en route from Dover to Calais. Most passengers drowned, but among the survivors was my grandson, Aubrey. He lost not only his dear parents, but his beloved younger sister, Elise.”
As she spoke, the woman’s voice cracked, and her eyes filled with tears. Rosamund found her own eyes brimming with tears as well.
“Oh, no. I’m so terribly sorry.”
“Thank you.” The duchess blotted her eyes with a lace-edged handkerchief, and then nodded toward the oil painting hung over the fireplace. “That’s my son and his family, in happier times. It was painted about five years ago.”
Rosamund gazed at the painting of a handsome couple posing with a strapping young man of perhaps sixteen or seventeen, and a pretty little girl around ten years of age. They appeared to be so vibrant and full of life, it was difficult to imagine anything calamitous could have befallen them.
“I haven’t given up hope that Aubrey may go on to live a normal life someday, which is why none of our acquaintances know the extent of his condition,” the duchess said. “If they did, they would think him mad.”
“I’m eager to meet His Grace.”
“He spends his daylight hours in the music room.” She stood. “Come with me.”
The woman’s stiff satin skirts rustled as she walked. Rosamund followed her from the drawing room and down a long hallway until they reached a pair of arched double doors. The duchess put her hand on the doorknob, and paused.
“You’ll be shocked at Aubrey’s appearance. Please don’t let it disturb you.”
As the doors swung open, however, Rosamund shivered with apprehension. The velvet curtains had been drawn over the windows, and the darkened room beyond resembled a tomb. The dowager duchess smiled serenely as she escorted the visitor inside.
“Aubrey, dearest, allow me to introduce Miss Ashfield. She’s a neighbor.”
Rosamund could barely discern the outline of a man sitting in a chair, but he neither stirred nor made any response.
“Miss Ashfield, why don’t you and my grandson have a nice long visit? Someone will fetch you in an hour.”
“Y-Yes. Thank you.”
The duchess sailed from the room with her head held high. Rosamund’s eyes were slowly adjusting to the darkness, but she nearly tripped over a footstool as she walked further inside.
“Forgive me, Your Grace, but this won’t do. I simply must have a little more light.”
She moved over to a window, opened the curtains, and tucked each fabric panel behind the drapery holdbacks. As illumination flooded the space, she turned back toward the duke.
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