Seventeen Years Earlier
Lullingstone House, a ramshackle stone manor situated a ten-minute walk from the insignificant and often extremely muddy village of Lullingstone, was hardly a place suited for a noble young lady destined to marry a duke—or so Lady Diane Roehaven often thought. At sixteen years old, she was vividly conscious of her station in life: orphaned as a child and the last of the Roehaven line; raised by the Hemmynges, a minor noble family related to her grandfather’s cousin; destined by birth, if not fortune, to make a distinguished match. Her destiny had come true when a messenger from the City arrived with the news that she had been chosen to wed a distant relation who was the heir to their sprawling, ancient family.
“Tremontaine,” she whispered as she gazed at herself in the black-speckled mirror hanging in her small, plainly furnished dressing room. She would become the Duchess Tremontaine, and she would never again return to this gods-forsaken pile of gloomy stone and crumbling plaster. She couldn’t wait to leave. “Louisa!” she called sharply. “I wish to try on my blue silk gown again. Bring it to me!”
In the far corner of the dressing room, a slight, silent figure rose from where she had been sitting on a wooden stool, needle flashing through a nightdress she was sewing for Diane. “Yes, my lady,” Louisa said.
Diane examined her reflection, turning her face this way and that. She had pale white skin, unblemished but for a tiny mole on her left cheek, a small, round chin, and a nose that she deemed perfectly shaped. But Diane believed her most striking characteristic was her eyes: well-proportioned, delicately lashed, and as blue as the sapphire in her mother’s ring, which she always wore on her right hand. She preferred to wear blue to bring out her eye color, which was why she had chosen the blue silk—specially sent to Lullingstone by her future husband’s mother as a gift—for the gown she intended to wear on the day she would first meet him.
“I shall also require a blue ribbon in my hair, Louisa.”
“That will make your eyes look beautiful, my lady,” Louisa said promptly. “Would you like me to find a ribbon first, or would you like to put on the gown?”
“The gown first.”
Louisa carefully took the gown off the mannequin where she had draped it in order to finish the last stitching, and carried it across the room. The dress had a beautiful bodice embroidered in yellow thread that gave the impression of gold at a fraction of the cost, and it had taken Louisa and a local seamstress weeks to sew. Sometimes, late at night after Diane had gone to sleep, Louisa tried the dress on herself, tempted by a desire to be the lady instead of the maid, at least for a moment. She had relished the secret thrill she felt as she peered at her reflection in the dimly lit glass, holding herself taller, imagining what it would be like if she were the one betrothed to the duke. Indeed, it had not been difficult to imagine at all, for she had been Diane’s constant shadow for the last two years, waiting nearby silently as Diane took her lessons in etiquette or dancing or correspondence. Louisa had practiced her own curtsies and dance steps alone in the dark dressing room, enjoying the feel of her mistress’s skirts draping luxuriously over her legs.
Now, as she helped Diane into the dress, Louisa judged that it looked better on herself. There was something pinched and avaricious about Diane’s face that made the dress look ill-suited, like a crown on a beggar woman. Louisa was struck with a pang of jealousy as Diane examined herself approvingly in the mirror.
“Bring me my jewels,” Diane ordered. “This gown is incomplete without them.”
Diane’s jewels consisted of a single parure: a sapphire and pearl necklace, matching earrings, and the ring that Diane was already wearing. Louisa brought the small velvet-lined box out of the wardrobe and fastened the necklace around Diane’s neck. Diane was heir to other family jewels, but those were kept in trust until her wedding in the City. Here at Lullingstone, they had to make do with the few trinkets that Diane had inherited from her mother, a situation that Diane often complained about. Today she seemed content, though, and as Louisa worked a wide sky-blue ribbon into her hair, Diane preened in front of her mirror. “I will be a beautiful bride, don’t you think?” she said.
“Indeed, my lady. Very beautiful.” Louisa, standing slightly behind and to the right of Diane, could see herself in the speckled glass as well. They were dressed very differently—Louisa wore a faded green dress that had been a castoff of the Lullingstone housekeeper’s—but they could have been sisters. They were of the same height and build, and both had blonde hair, though Louisa’s eyes were not blue, but the grey of winter skies over Lullingstone. When Louisa had first been hired on as Diane’s maid, she had overheard Lady Ernestine, Lord Hemmynge’s widowed aunt, commenting...