A Season of Hope

By: Christi Caldwell

Dedication




For Rory, my son and hero. Every day with you is a happily ever after.





Acknowledgements



Tremendous thanks to my amazing critique partners who took me under their wings years ago. You have been my cheerleader not only in my writing pursuits, but also in life. A special thanks to Aileen Fish. None of this could have happened without your support.





Chapter 1


Summons from the Castle

“My, the duke is fast. I’d imagine he has assigned someone to monitor each member of our esteemed family’s activities.” Olivia gave a mock shudder. “I fear the day I receive my missive is not long off.”



1819



It was a well-known fact that, above all else, unwed young ladies desired an advantageous match.

It was also well-known that a twenty-three–year-old young lady could ill afford to be particular where prospective bridegrooms were concerned.

Lady Olivia Foster sat at the window-seat, her knees drawn to her chest. She stared out at the swirl of flakes as they danced by the windowpane, down, down, until landing on the ground below. With a sigh, she trailed a finger over the glass and followed the slow descent of another flake.

Most young ladies loved the spring and summer season because of the balls and soirees. Olivia, however, embraced the winter. The cold weather had an almost cleansing effect and served to wash away all the lords and ladies who scurried off to their respective estates.

It also signified another Season that Olivia remained unwed and free of her father’s nagging attention. It was only when the Seasons ended and the ton was gone, that her father’s displeasure dissipated. Then, when spring came round, his fury and disappointment bloomed like hearty crocuses.

Olivia had heard on many scores what a disappointment she was as a young lady. Her father, the Marquess of Tewkesbury went to great pains to remind her that she had failed at a woman’s sole lot in life—to make a match.

“Hello, my dear.”

Olivia glanced to the door.

Her mother stood, framed in the entrance. A small smile wreathed her ageless face.

Olivia returned her attention to the window. “Mother,” she greeted.

The rustle of satin skirts indicated the marchioness had sailed into the room. She took a seat beside Olivia.

Olivia sighed.

“Am I making a bother of myself, daughter?”

Olivia’s lips twitched. “Never you, Mother.”

Her mother snorted and gave a tug to a strand of Olivia’s blonde hair. They’d always had a close bond; a relationship deeper than even the mother-daughter connection. Olivia had confided things to her mother that she’d never breathed aloud to another soul; all without recrimination. Just then, melancholy as she was, Olivia rather preferred her own solitary company to a visit with her mother.

Mother tapped a finger along the edge of the window-seat. The staccato rhythm indicated her nervousness.

Olivia looked at her mother. Really looked at her. The smile was not her mother’s usual. It was wide but forced. Creases wrinkled the corners of her eyes.

With a frown, Olivia swung her legs over the side of the seat. “What is it, Mother?”

“Uh, nothing, dear. Nothing at all,” she said, a touch too hurriedly.

Olivia knitted her brow.

`Her mother ceased drumming her fingertips and sighed. “Lord Ellsworth requested a meeting with your father.”

Olivia frowned. Lord Ellsworth had been the only real suitor Olivia had acquired last Season. At nearly sixty, he would have made a better match for someone her mother’s age. Still, her father had encouraged the Earl of Ellsworth’s suit for many reasons.

One: the earl was obscenely wealthy.

Two: Olivia’s prospects were limited. Very limited.

Three: She couldn’t remain unwed forever.

Olivia had begun to suspect that if the groom had made a reasonable offer for her hand, her father would have gladly accepted.

“What is he doing here?” Olivia applauded herself on the steady deliverance of those words.

Her mother wet her lips. “You know your father doesn’t tell me anything.”

No. Her father was quite clear on his view of women and the role they served.

Panic built in her chest. She’d thought she’d managed to escape a match with Ellsworth but what if she hadn’t? She drew in a deep breath. No, it was silly to believe the earl was here to offer for her. She’d not seen him in months, and they’d not left off on the best of terms.

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