Buckinghamshire, Summer 1865
Young ladies did not lie prone on the rug behind the library’s
chesterfield and play chess against themselves. They did not stuff their
cheeks with boiled sweets before breakfast. Lucie knew this. But it was
the summer holidays and the dullest of them yet: Tommy had come home
from Eton a proper prig who wouldn’t play with girls anymore; newly
arrived cousin Cecily was the type of child who cried easily; and, at
barely thirteen years of age, Lucie found she was too young to just
decorously die of boredom. Her mother, on the other hand, would probably
consider this quite a noble death. Then again, to the Countess of
Wycliffe, most things were preferable over hoydenish behavior.
The smell of leather and dust was in her nose and the library was
pleasantly silent. Morning sun pooled on the chessboard and made the
white queen shine bright like a beacon. She was in peril—a rogue knight
had set a trap, and Her Majesty could now choose to sacrifice herself to
protect the king, or to let him fall. Lucie’s fingers hovered over the
polished ivory crown, indecisive.
Rapid footsteps echoed in the hallway.
Her mother’s delicate heels—but Mother never ran?
The door flew open.
“How could you? How could you?”
Lucie froze. Her mother’s voice was trembling with outrage.
The door slammed shut again and the floor shook from the force of it.
“In front of everyone, the whole ballroom—”
“Come now, must you carry on so?”
Her stomach felt hollow. It was her father, his tone coldly bored and
“Everyone knows, while I’m abed at home, oblivious!”
“Good Gad. Why Rochester’s wife calls herself your friend is beyond
me—she fills your ears with gossip and now look at you, raving like a
madwoman. Why, I should have sent her away last night; it is rather like
her erratic self to invite herself, to arrive late and unannounced—”
“She stays,” snapped Mama. “She must stay—one honest person in a pit of
Her father laughed. “Lady Rochester, honest? Have you seen her son? What
an odd little ginger fellow—I’d wager a thousand pounds he isn’t even
“What about you, Wycliffe? How many have you spawned among your side
“Now. This is below you, wife.”
There was a pause, and it stretched and grew heavy like a lead blanket.
Lucie’s heart was drumming against her ribs, hard and painful, the thuds
so loud, they had to hear it.
A sob shattered the quiet and it hit her stomach like a punch. Her
mother was crying.
“I beseech you, Thomas. What have I done wrong so you won’t even grant
“Discretion—madam, your screeching can be heard from miles away!”
“I gave you Tommy,” she said between sobs. “I nearly died giving you
Tommy and yet you flaunt that . . . that person—in front of everyone.”
“Saints, grant me patience—why am I shackled to such an overemotional
“I love you so, Thomas. Why, why can’t you love me?”
A groan, fraught with impatience. “I love you well enough, wife, though
your hysterics do make it a challenge.”
“Why must it be so?” Mama keened. “Why am I not enough for you?”
“Because, my dear, I am a man. May I have some peace in my library now,
A hesitation; then, a gasp that sounded like surrender.
The thud of the heavy door falling shut once more came from a distance.
A roar filled Lucie’s ears. Her throat was clogged with boiled sweets;
she’d have to breathe through her mouth. But he would hear her.
She could hold out. She would not breathe.
The snick of a lighter. Wycliffe had lit a cigarette. Floorboards
creaked. Leather crunched. He had settled into his armchair.
Her lungs were burning, and her fingers were white as bone, alien and
clawlike against the dizzying swirls of the rug.
Still she lay silent. King and queen blurred before her eyes.
She could hold out.
Black began edging her vision. It was as though she’d never breathe again.
Paper rustled. The earl was reading the morning news.
A mile from the library, deep in the cool green woods of Wycliffe Park,
Tristan Ballentine, the second son of the Earl of Rochester, had just
decided to spend all his future summers at Wycliffe Hall. He might have
to befriend Tommy, Greatest Prig at Eton, to put this plan into
practice, but the morning walks alone would be worth it. Unlike the
estate of his family seat, where every shrub was pruned and accounted
for, Wycliffe Park left nature to its own devices. Trees gnarled.
Shrubbery sprawled. The air was sweet with the fragrance of forest
flowers. And he had found a most suitable place for reading Wordsworth:
a circular clearing at the end of a hollow way. A large standing stone
loomed at its center.
Dew drenched his trouser legs as he circled the monolith. It looked
suspiciously like a fairy stone, weathered and conical, planted here
before all time. Of course, at twelve years of age, he was too old to
believe in fairies and the like. His father had made this abundantly
clear. Poetry, too, was forbidden in Ashdown Castle. Romantic lines ran
counter to the Ballentine motto, “With Valor and Vigor.” But here, who
could find him? Who would see? His copy of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s
Lyrical Ballads was at the ready.
He shrugged out of his coat and spread it on the grass, then made to
stretch himself out on his belly. The fine fabric of his trousers
promptly grated like chain mail against the broken skin on his backside,
making him hiss in pain. His father drove his lessons home with a cane.
And yesterday, the earl had been overzealous, again. It was why Mama had
grabbed him, Tristan, and he had grabbed his books, and they had taken
off to visit her friend Lady Wycliffe for the summer.
He tried finding a comfortable position, shifting this way and that,
then he gave up, unhooked his braces and began unbuttoning the fall of
the pesky trousers. The next moment, the ground began to shake.
For a beat, he froze.
He snatched his coat and dove behind the standing stone just as a black
horse thundered into view in the hollow-way. A magnificent animal,
gleaming with sweat, foam flying from its bit. The kind of stallion
kings and heroes rode. It scrambled to a sudden halt on the clearing,
sending lumps of soil flying with plate-sized hooves.
He gasped with shocked surprise.
The rider was no king. No hero. The rider was not a man at all.
It was a girl.
She wore boots and breeches like a boy and rode astride, but there was
no doubt she was a girl. A coolly shimmering fall of ice-blond hair
streamed down her back and whirled round her like a silken veil when the
He couldn’t have moved had he tried. He was stunned, his gaze riveted to
her face—was she real? Her face . . . was perfect. Delicate and
heart-shaped, with fine, winged eyebrows and an obstinate, pointy
little chin. A fairy.
But her cheeks were flushed an angry pink and her lips pressed into a
line. She looked ready to ride into battle on the big black beast . . .
She made to slide from the saddle, and he shrank back behind the stone.
He should show himself. His mouth went dry. What would he say? What did
one say to someone so lovely and fierce?
Her boots hit the ground with a light thud. She muttered a few soft
words to the stallion. Then nothing.
He craned his neck. The girl was gone. Quietly, he crept forward. When
he rose to a crouch, he spotted her supine form in the grass, her
slender arms flung wide.
He might have moved a little closer . . . closer, even. He straightened,
Her eyes were closed. Her lashes lay dark and straight against her pale
cheeks. The gleaming strands of her hair fanned out around her head like
rays of a white cold winter sun.
His heart was racing. A powerful ache welled from his core, an anxious
urgency, a dread, of sorts—this was a rare, precious opportunity and he
was woefully unprepared to grasp it. He had not known girls like her
existed, outside the fairy books and the princesses of the Nordic sagas
he had to read in secret . . .
An angry snort tore through the silence. The stallion was approaching,
ears flat and teeth bared.
“Hell,” Tristan said.
The girl’s eyes snapped open. They stared at each other, her flat on her
back, him looming.
She was on her feet like a shot. “You! You are trespassing.”
She had looked petite, but they stood nearly eye to eye.
He felt his face freeze in a dim-witted grin. “No, I—”
Stormy gray eyes narrowed at him. “I know who you are. You are Lady
He remembered to bow his head. Quite nicely, too. “Tristan Ballentine.
“You were spying on me!”
“No. Yes. Well, a little,” he admitted, for he had.
It was the worst moment to remember that the flap of his trousers was
still half undone. Reflexively, he reached for the buttons, and the
girl’s gaze followed.
Next he knew, her hand flew up and pain exploded in his left cheek. He
staggered back, disoriented and clutching his face. He half-expected
his hand to come away smeared with red.
He looked from his palm at her face. “Now that was uncalled for.”
A flicker of uncertainty, perhaps contrition, briefly cooled the blaze
in her eyes. Then she raised her hand with renewed determination. “You
have seen nothing yet,” she snarled. “Leave me alone, you . . . little
His cheeks burned, and not from the slap. He knew he had barely grown an
inch since his birthday, and yes, he worried the famous Ballentine
height was eluding him. The runt, Marcus called him. His hand curled
into a fist. If she were a boy, he’d deck her. But a gentleman never
raised his hand to a girl, even if she made him want to howl. Marcus,
now Marcus would have known how to handle this vicious pixie with
aplomb. Tristan could only beat a hasty retreat, the slap still pulsing
like fire on his cheekbone. The Lyrical Ballads lay forgotten in damp grass.
Copyright © 2020 by Evie Dunmore. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.