Her rich brown hair is worn up high, with a few curls left in the back, a trademark of the Duchess of Horace, a Duan socialite.
Aster Horace called his wife bluntly. Catherine, slicing the tender veal with a graceful motion, slowly raised her eyes.
Her sharp, long nose made her a classical beauty and a favourite in social circles, but her mysterious blue-grey eyes also gave her a distinctly provocative air.
“I heard Ian is looking for a bride.”
Catherine’s slicing stopped, and she blinked her round eyes a few times before muttering.
“…It’s about time.”
Her first introduction into society had been in the glory days of the ball season, when Prince Ian was in full swing as an escort for his twin sister Charlotte.
It’s no exaggeration to say that every young lady who made her debut then had a crush on Ian. Catherine was no exception.
She has two sons. Having fulfilled her duties admirably, Catherine gained a measure of freedom. The highly respected lady could now entertain a lover in secret, and there was no one to openly ridicule her private life.
But the mere news of Ian’s search for a bride had made her feel strange, and she hadn’t expected it. So much for first love.
“Ian has asked you to find him a bride.”
Catherine slowly set her plate down. Her brow furrowed slightly, and then her mouth opened in a twisted smile.
“Oh, you overestimate me, I’m sure you’re not joking.”
It was an unpleasant request, to be asked to find a bride for the man she so ardently desired. Worst of all, it didn’t make sense. Even she couldn’t possibly know the princesses of other countries.
“Do you know of any disreputable young ladies among the noble ladies of Grand Batten who are either heavily in debt to their families, or whose inheritance has been cut off and is in danger of falling into the hands of distant relatives, and who will soon be living on the streets?”
“…What kind of stupid thing is that?”
Catherine ended up contorting her beautiful face in annoyance.
She really didn’t want to talk about this nonsense with Aster during their meal. Oh, no, not if it really screwed up the Grand Bartender. He wanted to cry more than anything.
The light footsteps grew closer. Natalie, lying dead in bed in the middle of the day, slowly opened her eyes at the sound.
There was only one visitor on the corner room on the second floor. Natalie sighed in anticipation.
Before she could finish her long sigh, the door creaked open and a small voice called out to her.
“Alex, I know you’re not supposed to be in my room.”
Natalie, who covered her face with one hand, muttered as if she was annoyed. Regardless, Alex approached the bed and buried his face in the sheet next to her, and started whimpering.
“I’ll play with you next time, now get out.”
“You always say next time. You’re just lying here doing nothing!”
Why do you keep coming back to your sister’s room when you can’t even play with her?
Of course, she understands how a bored mind could wander from place to place in search of something to do. She was like that with Alex right now.
“Get out of here before mother starts screaming again.”
But no matter how bored he was, he couldn’t stay in his sister’s room anymore.
Baroness Warfield had thought her eldest daughter insane after the David trial.
She used to freak out when she saw them together, worried that young Alex might be influenced by Natalie. Just a few days earlier, she had witnessed the siblings having a friendly conversation and was freaking out.
Natalie decided to keep her distance from Alex on her own.
But the boy, who still couldn’t understand his embarrassed sister’s situation, found the whole thing wistful and frustrating. Alex pouted his lips and muttered.
“But I have the most fun talking to Natalie.”
“And downstairs, Dorothy’s having another hysterical fit. I’m sure she’ll take it out on me again if we run into each other….”
At the mention of Dorothy, Natalie involuntarily curled her lips into a tight line.
Dorothy was the youngest child in the family until the age of nine, when she was suddenly dethroned by Alex, and she fought with her brother over the age gap.
Then last year, when she made her social debut, she became hysterical.
“Alex, you little crab, just because the nobles of Duan ignore me, you’re ignoring me now?”
When Dorothy began to throw tantrums, the stoic Alex would avoid his youngest sister1the youngest amongst his older sisters, who had become the devil herself.
“…Where did you learn the word hysterical?”
As Natalie tried to hide her agitation and spoke in a mumble, Alex stared at her intently. Natalie cleared her throat needlessly, as if Alex’s expression was saying “Who else but you.”
“Anyway, Dorothy will never come to this room. So let me hide for a moment.”
Natalie blinked, this time like she’d been slapped in the back of the head.
Three years had passed since the David trial. In three years, Dorothy had only visited Natalie once. As if she didn’t exist, as if she wanted her to disappear.
Natalie Dowse’s world was still falling apart.
David, Natalie Dowse, Baron Warfield’s lady.
Not even an escape from imprisonment could save her honour. Natalie’s name, synonymous with shame, faded from public memory, but once stamped, the stigma seemed to last forever.
As Natalie fled Duan after David’s trial, the voices of the onlookers at the railway station echoed in her ears, especially the one that hurt.
“Dowse will never set foot in Duan from now on, right? No, if it were me, I wouldn’t even be able to take a step outside the barony!”
True to her word, Natalie didn’t go outside the baronial fence for three years. She wasn’t locked up by anyone in particular. She locked herself away from prying eyes and judgement.
The same was true of most of the baronet’s people. They never left the manor unless it was for an unavoidable reason.
It was only last year that the gates of the Warfield Barony reopened. Eighteen-year-old Dorothy’s debut into society could no longer be put off.
Dorothy made her social debut last year. With the help of Bianca, who had her husband’s permission, but that was as far as the Countess of Rutherford’s power went.
Dorothy was a strikingly beautiful and spirited young woman, but she was not welcome anywhere. People remembered the names Warfield and Dowse. It was impossible to make connections, let alone find a husband.
Natalie remembered Dorothy returning to Warfield after the social season, sobbing bitterly and lashing out at her.
“Do you know what I went through at the debutante because of you? Natalie, you’ve ruined my life, you’ve ruined it beyond repair!”
It was the most miserable and sad moment since her identity was revealed.
Somehow, after another agonisingly painful time, Duan’s social life returned. But the disaster wasn’t over yet.
Dorothy, now in her second season, didn’t even make it to Duan this time.
Things had gone awry the previous winter when Bianca had sent word that she was pregnant with their second child and would be staying on the estate for the entirety of the next social season.
No one sent Dorothy an invitation. With no connections to be a chaperone and no money to pay for a place to stay for the entire season, Dorothy could not go to Duan.
This explains why Dorothy was unusually sharp these days, and why the atmosphere at the mansion was so sinister.
Once again, it was not just Natalie who was isolated.
‘How can I make things better for my family?’
Natalie felt like biting her tongue. Her downfall was probably for the best. But watching her family suffer was the hardest thing to bear.
‘If only Dorothy could find a groom and get married safely.’
It must have been a nightmare.
“Natalie, you look so pale. Is your head hurting again?”
A concerned voice broke through her reverie. She reflexively turned in the direction of the voice and saw Alex staring at her with anxious eyes.
The younger Alex seemed to think her older sister was ill and rarely left the room.
Natalie whispered in a small voice.
It’s all my fault. I created this atmosphere in the house and made you feel uncomfortable. I’m sorry.
The guilt of having handily destroying what had been a fairly close-knit, if not extremely harmonious, household was immense.
“I’ll play with you next time. Really.”
In her nightmare, where she had nowhere to stand on her own two feet, Alex was the only person who treated her as he had before, but it was this innocence that scared Natalie the most.
‘When you find out what a lady’s shame is, you’re going to think horribly of me. You’re going to hate me.’
She didn’t know when Alex would find out, and she was afraid of that moment, so she kept her distance.
The kind younger brother did not bother his sister, who was in pain. Alex kindly greeted her and wished well before falling back from the bedside.
“Come to think of it, you don’t have any books anymore. There used to be a lot more books in your room than in father’s study.”
Alex muttered to himself as he glanced around the room.
The door slammed shut and the seemingly peaceful silence resumed.
If it were books, it would be scary now. She couldn’t read it anymore, let alone write it.
“…Actually, maybe that kid knows everything and acts like it every time.”
Natalie’s head was really starting to hurt.
- 1the youngest amongst his older sisters