Chapter 1

Oliver Murray-Parker, earl of Bridgecombe, future duke of Willingshire, had not meant to laugh. Really, he had not.

He could have blamed it on a somewhat excessive consumption of white wine (fresh glasses appeared in his hands at an overwhelming frequency), on mental exhaustion, and sheer surprise. Ladies did not often faceplant into potted gardenias. Such an event could catch one unaware, he supposed.

The truth was that he was an idiot.

Future dukes could not allow themselves to be caught unaware, not with armies of sycophants hanging on your every word, facial expression, gesture, fashion choice and imagined intention. Hence, everything that had resulted from his lapse in propriety was squarely his fault.

But Oliver Murray-Parker, earl of Bridgecombe, future duke of Willingshire, had been nineteen and somewhat inebriated when miss Tisiphone Lane had faceplanted into Lady Ashbrooke‘s potted gardenias, in front of a packed crowd, at the season’s most attended ball up to that point. Busy as he had been putting on a facade of cool indifference while every social climber in London attempted to converse with him, while he was attempting to not hyperventilate, Tisiphone’s fall had hit him harder than she had hit the gardenias.

He had chuckled.

It had opened the gates of hell.

Tisiphone Lane had many, many problems.

The list included “entailed home”, “dead father”, “financial insecurity”, and “devastating social awkwardness”. But those were problems she could tackle. Would tackle. At some point. Somehow.

A problem she could not tackle, however, was being called “Tisiphone”, or, as the ton would have it, “Tipsyphone”.

Oliver wished he could take it back. It was, for him, a constant state of being, about a variety of gaffes he had committed. The only way he had found not to put his foot in his mouth every time he opened it was to never open it at all. It had earned him a reputation as a cool, uncaring young lord, rather than “that terrified kid strangely obsessed with cats”.

Rarely had his blunders thoroughly ruined someone’s life, however, and he owed it to Tisiphone Lane to make things right.

It had proven remarkably challenging.

In theory, it should have been the simplest task ever: he was a wealthy future duke, the most eligible gentleman the country had to offer (or so he had been warned). The ton was supposed to take cues from him so it could better suck up to him for personal favours. Sprinkling Miss Tisiphone Lane with positive attention should have been quite enough to rescue her from bullies and ghastly monikers. A walk in Hyde Park here and there, a dance at a ball, some polite conversation at the edge of a room… Alas, all of that required Miss Lane’s cooperation. It had not been forthcoming.

During that first season, before the rumours had entirely taken root, he had made numerous attempts.

There had been Earl Oakley‘s ball, where he had bravely crossed the ballroom with the intent of asking the young woman for a dance or two. He had not been supposed to attend — social events gave him cold sweats and a queasy stomach — but had made sure his steward combed through the pile of invitations he received every day, until he found a party the Lane family was likely to attend. Oliver’s sole intent had been to claim that dance, look enchanted with it, and highly praise Tisiphone to whomever would listen. And he would have, had she not vanished! One moment, she was standing at the edge of the ballroom with her mother. The next… Well, several next moments, as a future duke could not cross a room without being swarmed by courtiers… Several moments later, Tisiphone was gone. He had looked for her everywhere, going as far as to get a servant to monitor the ladies’ room, to no avail.

There had been the Avery‘s gala, the Lumfort’s ball, the Passervale‘s ball, all important events no debutante would have missed for the world. Tisiphone Lane, despite being invited (Oliver’s mother had been made to nudge some friends to ensure it), had not shown. “Indisposed”, her mother had announced. “A terrible cold is confining her to her bed”. It had been the longest lasting cold in the history of colds. That conspicuous absence had done nothing to smother the rumours on Miss Lane’s “drinking problem”.

There had been the Baron of Southgale‘s masquerade, which the Lane were bound to attend, since the baroness and Lady Lane were childhood friends. By that point, Oliver was convinced Tisiphone was dodging a specific subset of the ton (namely, the mean-spirited socialites). A low-key, intimate event with less than thirty people, all of them known to favour privacy and quiet, was more likely to lure Miss Lane out. And indeed, she had shown. So had he, clad as Harlequin, much to Southgale’s and his guests’ surprise.

“I didn’t expect him to condescend to mingle with us,” Oliver had overheard a woman whisper, as he passed her and her friends in the hallway.

He still winced at the memory. “Condescend”. If he absolutely had to attend a party, he quite favoured quiet, small events, regardless of whether the company was high nobility or barely titled. People just assumed.

In any case, Tisiphone had been present, lovely in a leafy green fairy dress, her brown hair pulled up and cascading down her back, over silky butterfly wings. It had been the first time Oliver had seen her smile, as opposed to “frantically look for an exit”, and he had found the sight enchanting. He would have gladly told her so, had she not vanished. Again.

He had followed her as she exited to the gardens with Lady Southgale, and they had turned a corner. Upon doing the same, he had found Lady Southgale alone. He had circled the mansion, backtracked and looked inside the house, to no avail. Tisiphone Lane had, from the look of it, found a mushroom circle to disappear through.

That had been his last attempt (that year) to interact with her physically. He had also tried writing to her, inviting her family to dinner, and sending flowers.

There had been no answer, save for polite invitation refusals from Lady Lane.

And then, his mother had fallen ill, and he had returned to Willingshire for three years.

Tisiphone had a long history of avoiding Bridgecombe.

Why he had decided to pick on her, rather than any other debutante, she would never know. Lady Ershend had commented that “boys would be boys”, and that “the Earl probably liked her”, and it had taken Tisiphone her yearly supply of patience not to throw her cup of tea at the woman’s face.

Her own assumption was that she had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that there was no easier target than her in the whole ton. After all, she did not have a penny to her name: everyone knew her mother, her sister and her depended entirely on familial charity. Her great-uncle had been kind enough to allow them to remain in their home after her father’s passing, and only that generosity kept them from the streets.

While she had enough friends to comfort her when the rumours became overwhelming, none had spare weight to throw around in the ton, and there wasn’t much they could do to prevent a bullying campaign that came from the highest spheres of society.

Whatever his reasons, Bridgecombe’s nasty little nickname for her had ruined her life, and she would not give him a single opportunity to torment her further.

Admittedly, it led to strange situations.

Like finding oneself hiding under a table for three hours at Earl Oakley’s first ball of the season.

Like faking a cold for three months.

Like the whole fiasco at Lady Southgale‘s masquerade. Tisiphone still remembered her mother’s reaction that day: the purest mix of befuddlement, irritation and weariness.

What, pray tell, are you doing lying in the bushes?”

“It’s complicated. Are there people around?”

“Yes,” her mother had hissed, hiding behind topiary. “There are plenty of people around!”

“Then I shall stay here a little longer. My dress is green. I blend in.”

At that point, Tisiphone had accepted her fate and felt at one with nature. She was the earth. She was the grass. She was crawling with ants. Emmeline Lane was not impressed.

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“If people see me standing up from greenery again, I’ll never hear the end of it. Please try to lure people inside.”

“Tisiphone, what in the ever-loving hedge?”

“It’s complicated. Did the man in the Harlequin costume leave?”

“What man? Oh.” Emmeline had connected the dots. “Sweetheart, are you hiding from Bridgecombe?”

“It’s complicated.”

There was no lost love for the Earl of Bridgecombe among the Lane sisters, but Margaret — the youngest of the two — was more direct in expressing her dislike.

“The huge jerk is back in town!” she announced one morning, as she stormed into the hallway of their tiny Mayfair house. “He was in Hyde park just now!”

Tisiphone looked up from the book she had been absently staring through for thirty minutes.


“Of course, Bridgecombe! Who else would I insult that way?”

“You will not insult anyone in such a language!” their mother exclaimed from atop the stairs. “Margaret! Do behave!”

She hurried down the stairs, lifting her nightgown not to stumble. Proper lady that she was, Emmeline Lane was scarcely ever out of bed at eight in the morning, let alone dressed. Her daughters woke with the sun, and often managed a walk through Hyde park, a bout of window-shopping, and two meals before their mother even took her breakfast.

“Well, he IS a huge jerk,” Margaret pointed out. “Even taller now, actually.”

Tisiphone contemplated this piece of information (the news of the man’s return, not his size), and said nothing. Margaret went on.

“He was on a horse ride, I don’t think he saw me. Haughty as ever, but at least not surrounded by lackeys, for once.”

“I wonder if the Duchess recovered,” Emmeline mused. She paused. “We would have heard, had she died, wouldn’t we?”

Bridgecombe‘s mother, the duchess of Willingshire, had been thrown by her horse four years earlier, and had since been afflicted with a mystery illness that varied depending on who you talked to. The official word was that she had taken a blow to the head and required rest in a dark room due to overpowering headaches. The rumour mill had spun that into “she entirely lost her mind”, but Tisiphone was familiar with the rumour mill’s rotten products.

All the same, the Duchess hadn’t been seen in years, and her son had been called home to care for her, since the Duke had political obligations in the capital.

“Or her state has neither improved nor worsened, and he is merely visiting,” Tisiphone said. “He visits London regularly.”

Margaret and Emmeline could be overly dramatic. Tisiphone used to be, but had been dead inside for a while, now.

“True,” her mother conceded.

“True,” Margaret concurred. She marked a pause, still fuming. Clearly, she wanted more of an opportunity to rant. “Anyway! This is bad news. What if he targets Tisi again?”

Ah, to be seventeen, young and full of restless energy. Tisiphone (twenty-one) envied her. While her younger sister hadn’t been out yet when the whole “Tipsyphone” business had started, she had heard all about it through family friends: how Bridgecombe had been mocking Tisiphone to his friends, calling her a drunkard and a fool. How he had encouraged their harassment of her. How he had come up with that ghastly nickname. Margaret was a stranger to sadness, pain, and suicidal ideation. Her one and only reaction to the whole ordeal had been rage.

“I am still not certain he actively tried to,” their mother hesitantly commented, only to be glared down by Margaret.

Tisiphone sighed.

“Nothing is going to happen, because Bridgecombe will not get within a hundred feet from me.”

Her mother whirled to her.

“There will be no hiding in bushes this year!”

“I shall endeavour to retreat to the restroom whenever he is present.”

“Tisiphone! That was NOT what I meant, and you know it full well!”

“She doesn’t have to hide!” Margaret interjected. “Because if he comes near her, I shall slap him.”


“I… shall accidentally pour my champagne on him?”

“You, young miss, will be drinking fruit juice. Which you will not pour on an Earl. Or any other nobleman. Or person. Is that clear?”

“Crystal, mama.”

“This extends to all beverages and foods.”

“Yes, mama.”

Margaret‘s compliance meant nothing: she would find some other way to take revenge on Bridgecombe. Tisiphone often thought they ought to have traded furies’ names. Meg wasn’t much of a goddess of jealousy, unlike Megaera, but she sure had a penchant for inflicting punishment.

Tisiphone let them chatter. She, herself, no longer cared about Bridgecombe, as long as he stayed the hedge away. She had more pressing concerns, like saving the family from financial doom and clearing her reputation.

Just as she guided her mother and sister to the drawing room, the doorbell rang. Emmeline bolted and hid, nightgown and all. Farrah, the housekeeper, beat Tisiphone to the entrance, and opened the door on a footman clad in dark livery.

“Good day,” he told Farrah. His expression did not announce a good day at all. “I have a letter to be delivered to the lady dowager, in person.”

Oliver was enjoying the sun filtering through the branches, a cat on his lap and a book on the cat. It was not the best position when one needed to turn pages, but it was peaceful and relaxing. It remained so until Oliver heard the crunching of gravel under boots, at which point he froze, stopped breathing, and prayed not to be noticed.

The footsteps grew closer and stopped under him.

His father cleared his throat.

“Bridgecombe. I am going to repeat what I have been telling you for ten years, with the faint hope that you might listen, this time. You are too old to hide in trees.”

Oliver breathed out. Reassured that no interactions with a stranger would be required, his stomach vacated his newfound position in his throat and returned to his belly.

“Father,” Oliver greeted, placing his cat on the closest branch and jumping down the chestnut tree. “My apologies. I merely love the scent of the bark and leaves.”

“And you can enjoy them just as well from a bench,” the duke of Willingshire replied, resigned. Reaching his sixties had smothered what little ability for anger he had once possessed. He adjusted his eyeglasses. “I have a task for you. I am afraid you will not like it.”

Oliver fought the urge to clamber up the tree.

“You can count on me, of course, Father. What is the task?”

There was a pregnant pause. Oliver knew nobody could count on him, ever. Romuald knew he couldn’t count on his son, ever. But, since it was not as much an issue of compliance as one of aptitude, they never argued about it. Oliver did his best, always.

“The viscount of Russelby passed, may he rest in peace. His funeral is to take place on Saturday, on his estate. I’ll need you to attend in my stead. I have another funeral planned, believe it or not.”

“Who else died?” his son blurted out. He was unaware of one passing, let alone two.

“Danvers. A friend of your grandfather‘s. You needn’t concern yourself, but I must.”

Oliver acquiesced. He braced himself. “I will start packing, then. I’ll leave early tomorrow.”

Romuald nodded, satisfied.

“Just, um…” Oliver grimaced. “What family did Russelby belong to, again?”

The question earned him a world-weary sigh.

“The Lane, Oliver. The Lane family.”

Emmeline, as it turned out, was the only person in the family to actually mourn the late viscount of Russelby (the second such viscount she had seen buried). Margaret and Tisiphone barely knew their great-uncle, whose visits and tolerance for children had been scarce. Their mother, however, vouched he had been a lovable man (albeit afflicted with a razor-sharp tongue and a gruff temperament). Their father, she swore, adored his uncle. Tisiphone had no reason to doubt her, but only remembered the viscount as a sullen old man who had patted her head once when she was six. Watching his coffin being carried into the familial mausoleum did not tug any heartstrings.

She was sombre all the same, since everyone deserved to be respected and mourned at their own funeral.

Margaret was sombre due to a sense of impending doom, which was legitimate.

About everyone was appropriately sombre, except the new viscount of Russelby, who couldn‘t wait for the formalities to be over. He gave lip service when talking to his father’s dearest friends, faked melancholy whenever he caught someone looking at him and, for the most part, seemed bored out of his mind. Margaret had caught him sneering thrice, and was keeping a tally.

Unlike their great-uncle, they knew their second cousin. Not well, but they did. He was a socialite, so they crossed paths every so often, and never was the meeting pleasant. For a start, he had heavily admonished Tisiphone for bringing shame to the family with her supposed alcoholism. And the rest of the time, he was just… himself: conniving, vain and opportunistic.

Tisiphone had no doubt he would kick them out of their house in Mayfair the second the ton stopped paying attention.

Talking about “paying attention”, maybe she should not be drifting through the crowd while woolgathering. Putting her thoughts aside, she turned to her mother and nearly jumped out of her bones.

Bridgecombe had materialised before her. Emmeline and him were conversing, even!

“My father wished to extend his sincere condolences,” he was saying. “While he could not be present himself, much to his regret, he wanted me to assure you he kept you in his prayers.”

His words would have been more meaningful had he delivered them with the slightest emotion. Instead, he sounded like he was reciting a script at someone somewhere behind Emmeline’s left shoulder. His expression was bored, his chin tilted up, his posture tense.

Margaret was shooting daggers at him. Emmeline merely smiled.

“I heard about Mister Danvers. He will be terribly missed. A great man, very kind. Such a patron of the arts.”

Bridgecombe cleared his throat.

“Um. Yes, of course,” he replied, his body half-turning away. “A great man. He—”

“Your attention, please,” a footman hollered by the gates of the graveyard, where the local villagers had assembled for the funeral. “We will be returning to the manor for refreshments. Please make room for the carriages and horses.”

The Earl saw his chance to escape. He bowed as a salute. “If you’ll excuse me, Lady Lane, Miss Margaret, Miss Tisiphone… I am sharing my carriage with relatives, and they will be waiting for me.”

“I fully understand, Lord Bridgecombe,” Tisiphone’s mother answered with grace. “I would not dream of delaying you. Please relay my thanks to your father, we are touched that he thought of us.”

He answered with a sharp nod, then stalked away.

“He looks like a scarecrow in a blonde wig,” Margaret whispered.

“Meg, once again,” Emmeline sighed. “Behave.”

Tisiphone and Margaret both paled, noticing her bone-deep weariness, and offered an arm each. Their mother took both. She took a deep breath.

“Well. To the manor, I assume.”

Russelby Manor was, from what Oliver had gathered, Tisiphone‘s childhood home. More precisely, it was the viscount’s home, and the viscount used to be Tisiphone‘s father. He had died young, with no heir, and the title had been inherited by his uncle. From the look of things, he had claimed the mansion, but let his nephew’s widow and her two daughters live in the family’s house in Mayfair. And there they had remained for ten years.

That arrangement was likely to change soon.

Oliver’s crippling fear of social situations had some advantages. Well. It had some side-effects that were not entirely negative. Namely, he was excellent at hiding in the most unexpected places, like trees, roofs, and under the occasional desk.

Today, he had retreated to a secluded balcony past the empty library, so he could contemplate just how terrible and stilted and fumbling his delivery of condolences to three separate viscountesses of Russelby had been. One would have thought that between the current viscountess, the freshly widowed viscountess, and the dowager viscountess, he would have gotten one try right.

It hadn’t helped that the new widow had been weeping, the current viscountess had been annoyed with the conversation, and the dowager viscountess… The dowager viscountess had been quite nice, actually, but her daughter had been staring at Oliver with unmitigated hatred. Or maybe he had imagined it. His steward kept telling him he always saw hostility where there was none (namely in every single person in his vicinity).

He had planned to enjoy his shame undisturbed. Alas, just like his open mouth attracted his feet, empty rooms attracted people.

The viscount of Russelby (newest, alive, single holder of the title) had waltzed into the library with a group of friends. Their loud stomping spoke of a group of five or more. Oliver had frozen and squeezed himself against the edge of the balcony.

“Things,” Russelby had announced with a dramatic pause, “are going to change!”

That was the proclamation that had Oliver concerned about Emmeline, Tisiphone, and Margaret Lane’s arrangement. Seeing how he was somewhat invested in Miss Tisiphone since the gardenias incident, he elected to eavesdrop. Not that he could have avoided to, unless he felt like jumping off the balcony.

Laughter echoed through the room.

“Isn’t it a bit early to throw away the furniture and redecorate?” someone said. “We barely left the funeral.”

“Oh, spare me,” the viscount sighed. “I can‘t wait for the sordid affair to be over. Everyone knows my father and I couldn’t stand each other.”

More laughter. Oliver made himself as small as he could, and waited for them to bloody leave.

“So what are the big plans?” a new voice asked.

The viscount leaned against some creaking piece of furniture before answering. “Overhauling the finances, obviously. My father‘s outlook was that one had to sit on one’s wealth and change not a single thing. There are a few business ventures I would invest into, provided I can still get in. And of course, I‘ll review the old man’s expenses. He made our family haul so much dead weight. That will not last.”

“Dead weight?”

A silence again, a swallowing noise.

“The list is wayyy too long,” Russelby said. “There will be some overall pruning. Which I will do from the comfort of London, while my oldest sorts the mess here. He plans to take over the manor, so his children can enjoy the countryside as they grow. If he wants this glorified farmhouse, who am I to object?”

While he could have meant anything by “dead weight”, the mention of London was worrying: Russelby had his own house there, but it was a little out of town. The Mayfair residence occupied by the dowager viscountess and her daughters stood in a much more convenient location, not to mention “strategical”. A man interested in business connections would doubtlessly love to insert himself right in the middle of the town.

The viscount’s friends chuckled, but were interrupted by a new arrival: a servant came knocking at the door.

“My lord, the viscountess is looking for you.”

Russelby groaned. “Back to the entertaining, I suppose. God have mercy.”

Oliver listened to them leave. It took him a few minutes to calm down, and a diffuse anxiety clung to him. Yet, he knew that he could not hide forever. Sighing, he braced himself for a new round of socialisation.

“How is my hair?” Emmeline asked, twisting her neck at an unnatural angle to point her mirror at her braided curls. “It doesn’t look too, ah, loose, does it?”

By that, she meant “like I stumbled out of a lovers‘ bed”, although her choice of dress, jewellery and hairdo were all intended to make her look as enticing as possible. Tisiphone did her best to give her mother an accurate answer, but the assessment of the balance between attractiveness and propriety required more mental calculations than she was able of. As for Margaret, she didn’t pick up on the innuendo.

“No, mama, the braids are tightened just right. Should I add some pins, just to make sure?”

“Oh, no, no, I trust Farrah‘s work,” Emmeline exclaimed. “I’m just fretting. It’s an important ball.”

Tisiphone slipped behind her, softly squeezing her shoulders. “You look lovely, Mother.”

She was not lying, but was acutely aware that her opinion was heavily influenced by familial love. Dressed to seduce, in her most beautiful dress, with just enough cleavage, just enough blush on her cheeks, just elaborate enough a hairstyle, her mother looked like a fairy. The kind that would kidnap your children from their cribs and trade them for changelings. Her pale eyes were set a bit too far apart. They were too wide, unsettling. Her thin face looked gaunt in some lights. Her small, upturned nose was not fashionable in the slightest. Emmeline knew all of that, but it hadn’t stopped her from trying to make herself desirable again.

“Margaret, would you fetch me your dangling earrings, please? If you don’t mean to wear them tonight?”

“At once, mama,” the teenager replied, trotting out of the bedroom.

Emmeline watched her go, held her breath for a moment, then sighed and crumpled in her chair.

“God, I’m so nervous,” she blurted out.

Tisiphone, who had not let go of her shoulders, hugged her from behind. “Mother, you don’t have to do this.”

“Of course I do! You think I would let my daughters whore themselves to any willing rich man to provide for us? If someone has to find a husband posthaste, it’s me! The two of you take your time and find loving young men you can rely on.”

She was not ready for it. Not by any stretch of the mind. She loved their father still.

Yet, having been given three months to vacate their house, Emmeline had to resort to desperate measures.

“Mama,” Tisiphone murmured. “We‘ll figure something out. I can take a governess position. My French is spectacular, and I’m not half bad at the rest of the things.”

Emmeline scoffed with false disdain and whacked her daughter‘s hand with her glove. “Are you insinuating I couldn’t nab a handsome, rich husband? I did it once already!”

The joke fell flat.

“I know, Mama,” Tisiphone said. “But neither Margaret nor I want to see you dive into romance before you are ready. We are perfectly fine young women who should have no trouble finding matches.”

Provided I can convince the ton I don’t stumble drunk through floral ornaments, she mused. At least, Margaret would start with a clean slate and more favourable looks. She would be the darling of the ton, if the ton gave her a chance. Tisiphone only had to remain out of sight and let “Tipsyphone” fade into oblivion.

“Margaret is a baby still,” Emmeline retorted. “She should get to enjoy several seasons. It is not a race.”

And yet, it was. Three months. Three months. And then they would have nothing. They would have to sell the clothes off their backs to survive a fortnight. The new viscount was “within his rights”, as Emmeline said, but it did not make him any less of a heartless bastard. He hadn’t even offered them another of his many holdings. They would have taken a hovel in the woods if it had been suggested, as the alternative was the streets. What tale would he weave for the ton? Surely someone would think him a villain for kicking out relatives.

The best they could hope for now was the charity of friends, and “extended visits”, until their friends’ good will ran off.

I am not a baby, mother. I am nearly a spinster, actually. I’m long overdue for an engagement.”

“Do you like someone, Tisi?”

“Not yet, but I’ll mingle more.”

Hiding in the shrubbery for three years tended to limit your social interactions.

“Still,” Emmeline insisted. “I will not allow you to shackle yourself to someone you do not love for our sake. That is my job. I shall veto any young man that doesn’t give you a suitable amount of butterflies!”

“So, middle-aged men are exempt from that rule?”

“Tisiphone. I am ser—”

Margaret barged into the room, cutting the conversation short. She handed a pair of earrings to their mother. “I found them. I have matching bracelets, too, but I found the dangling charms catch in all the lace in a room. So maybe don’t wear them.”

“I would rather not fuse with the closest handkerchief, indeed,” Emmeline chuckled, examining the bracelet. “A shame, it’s adorable.”

“Isn’t it?”

Emmeline put on the golden earrings, smiling. “Let‘s see what you have picked for yourself, now. We want you to dazzle the guests at Lady Lydia’s ball, don’t we?”

Tisiphone slipped away. She had to get ready herself.