As You Wish
August 14, 1827
By the age of ten, Lady Grace Ryburn had a clear understanding of her place in the world. Her mama, the Duchess of Ashbrook, made certain that her children knew precisely how to behave in any conceivable instance, and Grace was a dutiful eldest daughter.
She had impeccable manners. She never sat on the grass, climbed trees, or behaved in a fashion other than that which behooved a member of the peerage. She spoke three languages, played the pianoforte, and painted landscapes (poorly) and portraits (surprisingly well). She was kind to servants, old people, and dogs.
She was boring.
Grace’s little sister Lily was not boring. Lily ran rather than walked. She ripped her frocks, spilled her milk, and gave people sparkling looks and disobedient smiles. She didn’t obey anyone’s rules, including the duchess’s.
Their father said that Lily was a Force of Nature. After years of observing her sister, Grace came to understand what her father meant. Because she was so pretty, Lily didn’t need to behave. Adorable as a baby, dazzling by the age of eight.
There was one good thing about not being the center of attention, the way Lily was. Grace could sit quietly at the edges of rooms and watch people’s faces—the way their jaws moved, the way they blinked, the way their foreheads wrinkled when they talked. She watched the way people responded to a girl like Lily versus a girl like herself.
Since Grace was plain, quiet, and non-sparkly—but very smart—she came to the obvious conclusion that it was risky to misbehave. Without being pretty, she couldn’t command love and forgiveness the way her sister could.
So Grace minded her Ps and Qs…until one night, when a moan came straight through the wall from the bedchamber where Colin, the eldest son of Sir Griffin Barry, was sleeping. It was August, and her family was staying with his.
A lady could never enter a gentleman’s chamber. That was a big rule, one of the biggest rules her mother had impressed upon her.
But Colin was almost like a brother. The Barrys spent every December at Ryburn House, and the Ryburns spent every August at Arbor House, the Griffins’ country house, and that was the way it had been for Grace’s entire life.
Most of the year, the Ryburn estate ran smoothly, with over one hundred servants weaving and interacting, all devoted to the comfort of the duke, the duchess, and their four children. But in August, many of the duke’s servants were sent back to their own homes and most of the furniture was put under Holland covers. The great estate of Ryburn House fell to a sleepy silence as Grace and her family made their way to Arbor House, which had only twenty servants to take care of all of them: a duke and a duchess, Sir Griffin and Lady Barry, his five children, and the duke’s four children.
It was chaos. It was glorious. The ducal progeny dreamed of it all year long. They talked longingly of days in which they were in and out of the lake all day, when the air was lazy and sweet with the smell of new-mown hay, and the children often didn’t bathe at all.
At Arbor House, the Barrys’ nanny ruled the nursery, and the duke’s nannies found themselves curtsying to her. Nanny McGillycuddy believed that children, even little lords and ladies, shouldn’t have too much supervision. There weren’t nearly enough maids, and no footmen at all, and their parents picnicked with them in the grass. Normally, the duchess wouldn’t dream of sitting on a blanket and eating outdoors. She just wasn’t the type, any more than Grace was.
But when the two families were together, everything was different. Sir Griffin and Grace’s papa had been pirates together, sailing the high seas, and so they told stories of sea battles, and once in a while they would actually drag out their rapiers and stage a fight for all nine children to watch.
Grace generally found herself watching Colin, instead. In her heart of hearts, she thought Sir Griffin’s oldest son was the most handsome boy in all England. He was tall for sixteen, and lean, with shoulders that already showed definition. He had a strong jaw and tumbled chestnut hair, but it was his eyes that she thought about most. They were periwinkle blue, a color she couldn’t capture with her paints, no matter how many times she mixed and remixed.
She wasn’t alone. Even her mother—whom everyone called the most elegant woman in England—laughed, and said that if she had been introduced to Colin at an impressionable age, she never would have given her husband a second look. That would make the duke growl and scoop his wife into his arms, pretending that he was going to carry her off to his pirate’s lair.
Colin was the kindest boy she knew, too. Once, when she was a little girl and skinned her knee, he wrapped it up in his own handkerchief. Then he told her how brave she was. Ever since, she had felt brave.
Now that he was a big boy, all of sixteen, she was too shy to hop into his lap the way that Lily did. But just the night before, she had leaned against his shoulder while he told a story about a sea dragon and a pirate treasure.
When she heard a second moan, she got straight out of bed, and without even thinking about it, found herself standing beside his bed.
“Colin,” she whispered, putting a hand on his shoulder. “What’s the matter?”
“I’m hot,” he said with a ragged moan. “Terribly hot.”
Grace headed for the washbasin, wrung out a cloth, and brought it back to the bed. Then she wiped down his face, trying not to get the bedclothes wet. “I’ll ring for a maid,” she told him, settling the neatly folded cloth on his forehead.
“No maids will come,” Colin said, with another moan. “Nurse McGillycuddy is old. She’s too old to get out of bed.”
Grace frowned at that, because she realized that his fever must be terribly high if he thought he was in the nursery. On the other hand, he might be right about the maids. In her mother’s household, maids always came within two minutes of a bell, but the same could not be said for Arbor House. “I could fetch our nanny,” she offered.
Colin flung himself on his side, and the cloth slid off the bed to the floor. “I’m so hot. I shall die in this desert.”
“Don’t be silly. Of course you won’t die.” Grace reached over so she could feel his head. That’s what her nanny always did when she was ill.
He grasped her wrist and squinted up at her. “It’s Lily, isn’t it? You’re my favorite. I’ll love you forever, if you’ll please give me some water, sweet Lily.”
Grace froze. He thought that Lily was coming to his aid?
There were times when Grace was so jealous of Lily that she wanted to scream, and this was a perfect example. Colin liked Lily so much that he didn’t even realize that Grace was standing right next to him. The truth of it pinched her heart and made her angry.
The glass on his bed stand was empty, so she went back for the pitcher. She brought it to the bed, but before she could fill the glass Colin sat up and reached toward the pitcher.
“Let me pour you a glass,” she said, pulling back as he grabbed at it.
“You’re a brick, Lily,” he sighed. “You’re the b—”
His voice broke off as the pitcher upended on his head. Water struck his face and then ran in a flood down his chest and splashed onto her nightgown.
For a moment, Grace felt only satisfaction. She wasn’t such a good girl right now, was she?
Then a terrible feeling gripped her stomach. She had poured water on Colin, who was ill. Dying, maybe. Never mind the fact that he was laughing, albeit weakly.
She ran for the door, crying “Mama!”
Her mother bundled her back to bed, and Grace lay there, sleepless, until the noise stopped next door and she knew that they had moved Colin to another room because his bed was wet.
The next morning her mother said, “Sweet pea, you should have rung for a maid when you realized Colin was in need of help. And how did he end up with a pitcher of water over his head?”
“He moaned, Mama. I heard it right through the wall.” She couldn’t stop herself from telling the rest. “He thought I was Lily, and he said that he’d love me forever. I mean, he’d love Lily forever.”
Her mother raised a slender eyebrow. “Why would he love Lily forever?”
“If she would give him some water.” Grace swallowed. She’d never had to admit to naughtiness before. “So I gave him the water.”
Her mother pressed her lips together tightly, as if she were trying not to laugh. But then she said, “Grace, you do know that one never throws water at a gentleman, no matter how irritated one might be?”
“And a lady never visits a gentleman’s bedchamber in the middle of the night, particularly if she hears moaning?”
Grace didn’t quite follow that, but she nodded again.
Then the duchess stooped down and gave her a hug. She smelled so good, like wildflowers and silk. “It sounds as if Colin deserved it,” she whispered.
Mother was like that. She understood things.
Grace leaned against her shoulder for a moment. “He thought I was Lily,” she repeated, unsure why that hurt so much.
“It was because you are a young lady who doesn’t even sleep in the nursery any longer,” her mother said, giving her a kiss. “Colin wouldn’t dream that Grace would be wandering the halls…but Lily, of course, is another matter.”
“But he said that she was his favorite.”
“He’s changed his tune this morning. He can’t believe that she turned a pitcher of water on top of his head!”
Her mother’s eyes were dancing, and that made a little giggle bubble up inside Grace.
“He won’t die of a chill?”
“Absolutely not. He’s already feeling better.”
No one ever found out the truth. Lily was furious when Colin told the whole drawing room that she had been the one to break his fever, and perhaps save his life.
“I wouldn’t save his life if he paid me a half a crown!” she told Grace later. “He’s a horrid boy and I think it’s mean of him to tell everyone that I threw water on his head. Not that I wouldn’t, because I would!”
Lily’s eyes gleamed in a way that Grace recognized, but she didn’t really care. She’d caught Colin’s fever, and it was making her head ache.
The rest of the feud became family lore amongst the Ryburns and the Barrys. Lily marched down to the lake and carefully skimmed off all the frogspawn she could find. Then she sent the youngest maid in the household to Colin’s bedchamber with a plate of hot toast spread with “royal jelly,” the better to strengthen him.
Colin ate every piece.
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Part One: With this Kiss