“Are you feeling better, Miss?”
Adeline flinched, looking away from her reflection and locking her attention to the maid that had been running the comb through her hair for the past twenty minutes. She had remembered the girl’s name - Millie - and that Millie had been her personal attendant for a short while approximately five years ago, before Adeline got married. Now she just needed to narrow down the time she had returned to.
“I am, Millie. Thank you. It was just a nightmare.” Adeline lied, giving her a reassuring smile. She couldn’t tell her the truth - her or anyone else for that matter - or they would lock her up in some madhouse. And considering the quietness of the mansion and the black mourning band that Millie wore on her left arm, her parents and younger brother had already met their untimely end less than a year ago, leaving Adeline the only living heir of her father’s Duchy. She couldn’t allow herself to be locked up or killed again - she had a duty to her employees and the tenants of her lands; she had a duty to her family to keep the place running until she produced an heir herself or adopted someone to pass on the title.
Millie seemed to relax a bit after her words, returning to her work even though Adeline could not feel the comb hitch anywhere anymore. When she woke up the second time, Adeline found the girl soundlessly tidying up the place and rearranging the small library Adeline had long ago moved into her room. She had loved to reread the romance books she had collected, featuring a beautiful prince falling desperately in love with the heroine.
Adeline shuddered, looking away from the books and deciding to burn them all later.
“Has anything interesting happened recently? Anything that I have missed?”
Millie’s hand froze for a second, then she resumed the combing, but her face betrayed her sudden nervousness. Adeline continued to watch her, waiting for the girl to speak, but the silence dragged on while the maid pretended to be very busy inspecting every single strand of auburn hair as if her life depended on it.
“Spill it,” Adeline said, trying to keep the tension out of her voice.
“We are not supposed to tell you this yet, but I overheard it from the butler,” Millie said, lowering her voice as if afraid someone might hear her even though they were the only ones in the room. “There was an urgent letter this morning, from your mother’s family, may her soul rest in peace. It has something to do with your uncle, but I was not able to hear the details since they would have caught me if I had lingered any longer. They sounded very grim when they talked.”
“My uncle?” Adeline repeated, her throat turning dry. “No, no, no, it’s too soon. There is almost no time left.” She muttered out loud without realizing it. If the letter Millie mentioned was reporting on her uncle’s sudden death, then she really had no time to change her fate. She had hoped she’d have months, years even to gather information and plan her steps, but now the sand in her clock was almost finished.
“There is no time left for what?” Millie asked curiously and Adeline jumped, returning to the present. Millie raised her eyebrows, but then quickly looked away in shame, giving Adeline the chance to compose herself.
She had to act properly now. She was not supposed to know her uncle was dead yet, even the servants didn’t know. If she didn’t act surprised when Lester told her, people might grow suspicious. Knowing her Guardian, he wasn’t going to tell her for another day or two, so she had to force his hand.
Adeline jumped to her feet, heading for the door.
“Miss, wait! You can’t go out like this, your hair is a mess!” Millie shouted after her, but Adeline didn’t stop. She had almost forgotten that in the past, walking around with your hair down and not styled at all was almost as bad as not brushing it. That trend was going to change in a few years, but she had no intention of playing by everybody’s stupid rules anymore. Being perfect didn’t stop her from getting killed, so she had no intention of fitting in with their norms and expectations. Even if that made her a pariah. Soon she’d be the most wealthy woman in the kingdom, so the others wouldn’t dare say a thing even if she showed up completely naked to a ball.
Adeline strode to Lester’s office, ignoring the servants who gave her startled looks, until she was standing at the familiar double doors. Her Guardian had been chosen by her parents long ago in case something happened to her or her little brother. He had taken over her father’s work in the Duchy until she turned twenty-one, when she would be legally able to inherit the title and all the perks and responsibilities coming with it. That was, unless she got married first, which was the so-called back door of getting her inheritance faster. She couldn’t wait one whole year anymore; she needed the money and the power that came with her name.
Taking a deep breath, Adeline raised her hand and knocked. A low, somber voice invited her to enter and she let herself in, striding towards the big messy desk where Lester was drowning in even more paperwork than usual. His typically neat clothes and tendency to rearrange things when they were not perfectly aligned, seem to have taken the day off. Piles of papers in front of him were crumpled and uneven, while the top two buttons of his shirt were hanging open.
The gray in his long brown hair that was tied in a low ponytail looked more pronounced than she remembered it, and his cheeks seemed even more hollow on his cleanly shaved face. His forehead was lined with wrinkles from worries even now, and his brown eyes looked at the paper in his hand with unease.
He looked up when she stopped in front of the desk and his thoughtful, almost desperate expression changed instantly. Adeline smiled at him, and he quickly sat straight up in his chair, running his hands over his wrinkled shirt as if just now noticing the mess that surrounded him.
“I heard we got some news from Granshark Duchy. How is uncle?” She asked innocently, keeping her smile on. “Poor man must be feeling lonely and devastated. First, his wife and child died in that fire, and now his sister…”
“Adeline…” Lester started, but she ignored him, rubbing her forehead in an attempt to show concern, but mainly to hide her expression in case her thoughts showed. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her uncle or care about him, but in her mind, he, as well as her own parents and brother, died five years ago. She had already processed her grief the best she could and let go of the painful memories, keeping close only the good ones. In her mind, she had already been through this. So the overwhelming sorrow, fear, and desperation didn’t come.
“We should invite him to visit. Family should stick together. He doesn’t have any other relatives left but me, and I…” she continued to rant, noticing with the corner of her eyes how Lester shifted uncomfortably, leaning forward.
“Adeline!” Lester raised his voice unexpectedly and she trailed off, looking at him with her eyebrows raised in surprise. “Your uncle… he’s dead.”
“What?” Adeline asked, her smile dropping. “What do you mean dead? He can’t be dead. He was alive last month when he came to visit!”
“He… he hung himself,” Lester said carefully, slowly pushing himself up and circling his desk. “After the death of your aunt and the baby… he couldn’t keep going. That’s what it says in his note.”
“He… he wouldn’t do that, Lester,” Adeline said quietly. “He is a strong, responsible man. He doesn’t have any heirs or other relatives apart from me. Did he appoint a successor? Or…”
Lester reached out and pulled her into a hug, patting her head gently. Adeline stood still, trying to hide the surprise at the sudden show of affection. Lester was around her father’s age, a third son of a Marquis, with an estranged wife and no children. Adeline could remember him often playing with her when she was a child and holding her on his knee and telling her stories about the world. But ever since she grew up enough to lose the label ‘little girl’, he had stopped any kind of familiarity and treated her with proper respect and etiquette even after he had become her Guardian, even after her parents and brother had died.
She knew he did it for her, to make sure no strange rumors or unpleasant claims spread around, so the sudden change of behavior was baffling. Maybe it was because she lost her family so recently and he thought she’d break down, or maybe she played the shocked girl in denial too well too well. Either way, she stood still and waited for him to stop patting her.
After a minute or so he pulled back awkwardly, moving behind the desk as if to reestablish the previous distance between them. Adeline looked away, avoiding his eyes so he wouldn’t see her dry eyes and calm expression.
“Did he… did he name a successor?” Adeline asked. A long silence followed before Lester answered.
“He left a will, yes.” Lester finally replied. “He named you the successor. Do you know what that means?”
Adeline licked her lips. She knew perfectly well what that meant - she was no longer simply a Duke’s daughter and a noble girl that had good marriage prospects because of her family name and connections. She was not even just a Duchess that was going to inherit the vast lands and considerable fortune of the Talwen Duchy.
She was the sole heir of two out of the four remaining Duke houses that supported the crown. Once she inherited them both, she was going to be the most wealthy and powerful person after the king. With that, she had just become the most desirable marriage prospect in all of Maerania. Worthy even for the crown prince - or so she thought.
“I know.” She whispered, not sure if Lester could hear her. “I just ran out of time.”
In the past, once she received the news of her uncle’s passing, proposals started flooding her mail faster than they could reject them. And three days after the news broke, a letter from the Palace arrived written personally by the crown prince, asking her hand in marriage.
She could still remember vividly the joy she felt that day, the excitement with which she paced around Lester as he sent his positive reply. She had been so happy…. And stupid.
“Adeline, are you listening to me?” Lester asked and she finally turned to look at him. “I know this may not be the most appropriate topic after what you just learned about your uncle, but this is a serious matter. This is not just marriage for the sake of continuing the line. We need to pick your partner carefully.”
“Yes, yes I know.” She nodded.
“It would be best if it’s someone with equal standing to you, like a duke or at least a Marquis but considering you’ll have two Duchies to take care of, we can go a step lower or pick even a second son if you have someone you fancy. That way we’ll hold the power here and all of your children will become heirs to the Duchies, not his family. If you do not feel ready for marriage yet, I will respect that. We can wait a bit until you turn twenty-one and inherit both houses. It’s not like you need the money now…”
‘But I do, I need them to protect myself.’ She thought, but just nodded instead. Lester kept talking for a while but after noticing she wasn’t listening, he stopped and stared at her.
“I’m sorry,” Adeline said with a distracted smile. “I am just overwhelmed. Can I have three days to think about it?”
“Three days?” Lester asked, his brows knitting together. “Of course, take all the time you need. We don’t have to decide now, but we will need to decide on a candidate. We can agree on a prolonged engagement and marriage after you come of age.” He suddenly stopped, sighing. “I apologize. This is enough for today. Try to rest and don’t worry too much. I’m here for you and I’ll help you figure out what is the best for you and your future. You know I have your best interest at heart, don’t you?”
Adeline gave him another indulgent smile.
“Of course I do, Lester. I’m sure my father rests in peace knowing you are looking after me.” She said with a smile while he rubbed his neck awkwardly. “May I be excused? I think I need some time to myself.”
“Of course, go ahead,” Lester replied quickly. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Adeline nodded quickly, heading for the door. She didn’t stop or pay attention to the servants who greeted her on the way back to her room. Leaning against the inside of her closed bedroom door she finally let out a relieved sigh.
This was not good. In three days, they were going to receive a marriage proposal from Shayde and she was more than sure that Lester would insist on her accepting. After all, Shayde truly was the perfect human being for those who didn’t know him - handsome and smart, well-spoken and charming, he could win over a man or woman with his perfect conduct and honeyed words. And he was going to be the next king.
There truly was no better match than him.
But she had seen his true colors and while a small annoying part of her still wanted to believe it was all a misunderstanding, the rest of her mind refused to be an i***t.
If she were to die again, she sure wouldn’t let it be by his hand or for something she didn’t do. She was never going to marry him or give him even a bit of herself. So she needed to find a way to avoid their engagement and stay away from him.
She couldn’t run away and she definitely wasn’t going to make herself the star of a s*x scandal so she only had one choice left. She couldn’t get engaged to Shayde if she was already engaged. For that to happen, she needed a fiance.
And she had less than three days to find one.
“I can do this, I can do this.” She whispered to herself, trying to calm her racing heart and think of a plan. She took a deep breath and straightened up, pushing herself off the door and striding to the mirror in the corner. Her reflection looked back at her wearing a determined expression, with hazel eyes full of resolve. “I can do this,” Adeline watched the reflection speak and this time, she believed it.