Miss Elsie Stanhope resided in Nottinghamshire, an area so rich in titled gentlemen, so felicitous for marriage-minded mamas, it was called “the Dukeries.” Indeed, Elsie had been betrothed since childhood to the heir of a dukedom. She had no expectation it would be a love match. Still less that she would enter into a shockingly scandalous affair with an altogether different sort of lover. And the very last thing she imagined was that the mysteries of his birth would be unraveled with as many unforeseen twists and turns as the deepest secrets of her heart.
Praise for the novels of Jane Goodger
“Gentle humor, witty banter, and attractive characters.”
—Library Journal on Marry Christmas
“A touching, compassionate, passion-filled romance.” —Romantic Times on A Christmas Waltz
Nottinghamshire, England, 1862
One of the more harrowing tasks of the servants
of Mansfield Hall was searching for Miss Elsie, who
had a tendency to fall asleep in the oddest places.
They once found her balancing precariously on
the edge of a fountain, one hand dangling in the
water as carp nibbled curiously and painlessly upon
her fingers. Though the servants always began their
search in her rooms, it was almost inevitable that
they would find her where she oughtn’t to be—
and never in her bed.
“Don’t she look like an angel, though,” Missy
Slater, Elsie’s personal maid, said, gazing down at
her employer as she slept like the dead curled up in
an oversized leather chair in her father’s library.
Mrs. Whitehouse, the housekeeper, was far less
charitable, and scowled down at the sleeping girl. “As
if I have time for this,” she grumbled, then cleared
her throat loudly in an attempt to awaken her.
“You has to give ’er a good shake,” Missy said,
doing just that. She was rewarded when Elsie’s moss-
green eyes opened drowsily, and she smiled. She
nearly always woke up smiling.
“What am I missing?” she asked, as she always did.
She was feeling a bit groggy, for she must have been
sleeping for at least an hour. The servants had been
instructed to never awaken Elsie unless something
of importance had happened.
“That Frenchie painter is here,” Missy said. “I
know you wanted to be in the ballroom when your
father met with him.”
“Monsieur Laurent Desmarais, Miss Elizabeth.
He arrived not ten minutes ago,” Mrs. Whitehouse
said, glaring at Missy for her familiarity. Missy made
a face behind the housekeeper’s back and Elsie
found herself trying not to smile at her maid. Just
because she knew she should, she gave Missy a halfhearted
stern look, which only caused the little
maid to shrug innocently.
“Thank you, ladies,” she said, bouncing up, as if
she hadn’t just been sound asleep. She patted her
golden-brown hair, which was none worse for having
been slept upon, and headed off to the ballroom.
Having the great Laurent Desmarais paint a mural
on their ballroom wall was a great coup for the Stan-
hope family. Usually, the famous muralist painted
for no one beneath the level of a viscount, but her
father, Baron Huntington, had more pounds than
the typical baron, and apparently that income was
more than Monsieur Desmarais could resist.
The Stanhope estate was in close proximity to the
Dukeries, an area of Nottinghamshire that had an excessive
number of dukes, making it a rather fortunate
place for any family with girls of marrying age. Elsie
had the good fortune of having been engaged to a
future duke from the time she was an infant. At least,
her father insisted it was good fortune. Elsie thought
the idea of having her future laid out before her
Which was why having Monsieur Desmarais agree
to paint their ballroom was so very exciting. So little
of anything nearing excitement happened at Mansfield
Elsie lifted her skirts and ran, her slippers tap-
tapping on the marble floor, as she hurried to the
ballroom, a fairly new addition to their sprawling old
home. There she found her father in deep discussion
with a rather rotund-looking man, whose mustache
was so thin, it looked as if it had been painted
upon his face. His hair had too much pomade and
his clothing looked about to burst away from his
“Ah, this must be the beautiful Mademoiselle
Elizabeth,” he said in his delightful French accent,
and instantly Elsie forgave him his rather dubious
charms. She’d conjured up a far more romantic
image of the famous painter and felt rather ridiculous
about that now.
Elsie dipped a curtsy. “Monsieur Desmarais, un
plaisir,” she said, in impeccable French. “Veuillez
m’appeler, Mademoiselle Elsie.”
“Of course. Mademoiselle Elsie. Lord Huntington
was telling me a bit of your wishes. You require
a large mural, no?”
“Yes. I would like it to cover this entire wall,” she
said, indicating a large barren wall that had been
stripped of all decoration in preparation for the muralist.
A man was there, his back to them, laying out
a drop cloth to protect the ballroom’s marble floor.
“My assistant, Andre,” Monsieur Desmarais said,
nodding toward the man, who froze momentarily at
the muralist’s words before continuing his work.
“He does not speak, but he hears perfectly fine, the
poor soul. He’s been with me since he was a boy. His
English name is Alexander, but I call him by his
“How very charitable of you,” Elsie said.
Monsieur Desmarais puffed up a bit, seeming
pleased by Elsie’s comment. “Do you have anything
particular in mind for the mural?” he asked. “I understand
you admired Lady Browning’s mural last
“Indeed I did. But I was thinking of something
else. I was thinking of perhaps a lake.” She gave him
an impish smile, acknowledging her whimsy. “A
“Magical?” Monsieur asked, with obvious skepticism.
Elsie smiled, her eyes full of merriment. “A secret
lake might be a better description. Or one long forgotten.
With a gazebo, at the far end.” From the
corner of her eye, she could sense the assistant turning
his head a bit as if to hear better what she was
planning. “It’s painted white, but with paint chipping
and rotted wood, perhaps. But I want it to look
enchanted, not neglected, if you know what I mean.
And in the center of the small lake”—she closed her
eyes—“a rock formation, jutting out.”
At that moment a loud clatter sounded and Elsie
opened her eyes. The mute had apparently dropped
a supply of brushes. In rapid French, Monsieur
chastised the younger man. “He is not usually so
clumsy,” he said apologetically. “Usually as silent as
a little mouse, that one.”
“Do you think you could paint that? I remember
such a lake from my girlhood. There were no swans,
but you may add some for visual interest or whatever
“Just a lake?”
“A secret lake,” she said, teasing. “I wonder if it
would be possible to paint it as if someone is seeing
it through branches or trees?”
“This would be difficult,” he said slowly, staring at
the wall, his eyes falling briefly on his assistant. “But
I think it can be done.”
“Wonderful,” Elsie said, clapping her hands together.
“And will it be done in time for my birthday
ball? I’ll be twenty-two on September the fourteenth.
Is that enough time?”
“I will endeavor to complete the mural for you in
time, Mademoiselle Elsie.”
“It shall be the best of all balls,” Elsie said, grabbing
her father’s arm and hugging it to her. “Thank
Lord Huntington gazed down affectionately at
his daughter, and Elsie smiled, a bit guiltily, up at
him. She knew she could ask her father for the
moon and the man would try to give it to her. And
since her mother died three years before, he’d been
even more indulgent. Even though she was already
engaged—and had been for seventeen years—her
father had given her a Season in London to introduce
her to the society she would soon be an integral
part of. Since her fiancé seemed to be in no
hurry to marry, Elsie wanted to experience as much
fun as she could before the daunting duties of
being a duchess claimed her.
“It shall be a lovely mural,” Elsie said, watching as
Monsieur Desmarais donned his smock. With a fine
charcoal pencil, he began the barest outline of what
Elsie knew would be a work of art. She knew, because
Lady Browning’s rose garden mural was quite
the most beautiful thing she’d seen. She’d half
expected the air in the lady’s ballroom to smell of
roses, so real and life-like was that fanciful garden.
Lady Browning’s only complaint was that Desmarais
had included a few fading blooms, which the countess
claimed her gardener would never allow.
When Elsie saw that painting, the exquisite detail,
the realness that made her feel as if she could walk
right into that garden and touch a pointed thorn,
she knew she had to have a mural of her own. She
knew, without even thinking, what she wanted
the subject matter to be. It had to be of that secret
lake at Warbeck Abbey, where she and her sister
had played, making believe they had discovered
something truly magical. They’d never told a soul
about the lake, about how they’d dangled bare toes
into the cool water while sitting on a dock that was
beginning to sag rather dangerously. Elsie and
Christine had always dreaded their visits to Warbeck
Abbey, for it was such a dour, strict place where the
laughter of children seemed out of place. But after
they’d discovered the lake, their visits had become
far more tolerable.
The mural would be a happy reminder of her
sister, who she still so desperately missed. They’d
been twins, identical in nearly every way and inseparable,
and her death twelve years earlier had affected
“Let’s leave them to their work,” Elsie said, leading
her father out of the ballroom. “I have about a
dozen letters to write before meeting with the chef.
Are you planning any dinner parties in the next few
“No, dear. Nothing special.”
Elsie frowned, and started to say something but
stopped herself. Her birthday ball would be the first
large social gathering they’d had at Mansfield Hall
since her mother’s death. While many a man would
have remarried already, Michael Stanhope missed
his wife desperately and only recently had begun accepting
invitations. If not for her aunt Diane, Elsie
was quite certain she wouldn’t have had a Season at
all. Her father simply had no interests other than
wandering the countryside and collecting unusual
lichens. They were quite beautiful, but his preoccupation
with them was at times a bit worrying. He carried
a magnifying glass and sketchbook with him
and would disappear for hours at a time. He seemed
content enough, but Elsie did worry about him.
Perhaps as much as her father worried about her.
What a pair they were—a father who wandered the
forest and a daughter who was afraid to fall asleep.