Claiming the Duke – Extended Epilogue

 

Even a character, a scene, or anything. You could say no if nothing bothered you.
It can be a character, a scene, or anything that made the book better for you.

Three years later

Scotland

The rolling hills of the Scottish highlands seemed endless, and the blue sky appeared farther away than in England, Chloe thought as she looked up, birds soaring through the air. She took a deep breath, tasting the cleanness of the air.
The warm Scottish sun bathed the garden in a golden glow as the group sat together, basking in the joy of their reunion. Alicia and George’s children, Edmund and Elizabeth, played nearby, their laughter filling the air like the sweetest melody. Lady Christianna’s little girl, Amelia, toddled around, her curious eyes taking in the world around her. Beside her was Chloe’s own child, a little boy, taking in the world with large eyes.
Nestled against Fraser, Chloe felt a flutter in her belly, a tender reminder of the precious life growing inside her.
Christianna’s gaze met Chloe’s, a knowing smile gracing her lips. With a gentle hand on her own rounded stomach, Christianna whispered, “Isn’t it grand we are with child at the same time?”
Chloe nodded, her eyes shining with a mixture of anticipation and gratitude. “Yes, Christianna,” she replied softly. “We have both been blessed, although I worry Adam will find it a little too much.”
“He will manage,” Christianna said and waved a hand dismissively, glancing at her husband, who stood a distance away, conversing with the innkeeper. They were all staying at a little inn in the Scottish Highlands to celebrate the wedding anniversary of George and Alicia. While the scandal of their running away was no longer talked about, they had decided to remain in Scotland, where they were afforded both anonymity and respect. Chloe rather enjoyed this, as she liked coming to visit them in the north.
This time, they had been joined by Christianna and her husband, both eager to escape the London Season which was in full swing.
As the conversation flowed, Alicia’s current endeavors as a companion in the laird’s household became the topic of discussion. Alicia beamed with pride and delight as she shared.
“The laird and his wife are truly wonderful people. However, the recent debut of the lady’s younger sister was quite eventful, to say the least. Finding a suitable husband for her will be quite the challenge.”
Chloe chuckled, her memories of the spirited young girl resurfacing. “Ah, I remember her well,” she remarked. “Her fiery nature will certainly make the task a formidable one. But I have faith that the right match will be found in due time.”
As her friends chattered on, Chloe’s gaze shifted from one face to another, taking in the love and happiness that radiated from each person present. She huddled closer to Fraser, his presence a comforting anchor amidst the merriment.
“We have been truly blessed, haven’t we?” Fraser mused, his voice filled with a mix of awe and gratitude. His eyes glimmered with love as he watched their little son, Alfred, tumbling on the lawn with the other children.
Chloe’s heart swelled with affection as she observed their playful son. “Alfred surely seems contented,” she murmured. “I can hardly believe he is almost three already.”
Fraser’s gaze softened, and he pressed a gentle kiss to Chloe’s cheek. “And soon, he will have a sister to share his adventures with,” he whispered, his voice brimming with tenderness.
A smile graced Chloe’s lips, and she glanced toward her parents, who were eagerly awaiting the arrival of their next grandchild. “They can hardly contain their excitement,” she shared, a touch of warmth in her voice.
Contentment enveloped Chloe, filling her like a warm embrace. Fraser’s voice broke through her thoughts, bringing news of his and her father’s latest business venture. “I received a letter from Mr. Waverly,” he announced, a note of satisfaction in his tone. “Our latest endeavor is going remarkably well.”
Chloe’s eyes sparkled with delight, her heart swelling with pride for her parents’ success. “I am pleased to hear that,” she replied, her voice filled with genuine happiness. “Father is so happy not to have to worry about debt anymore, and my mother surely has never held her head higher.”
Fraser’s expression brightened, his eyes shining with excitement. “Indeed. Say, I have a mind to have a larger Christmastide celebration this year,” he declared, his voice brimming with anticipation. “What do you think? Your mother is eager to plan it.”
“Christmastide?” George interjected, a note of surprise in his voice. “But we’ve only just passed Easter!”
Alicia laughed, her voice melodic and light. “Oh, George, it is never too early to plan for Christmas,” she teased, a mischievous glint in her eyes.
Fraser nodded in agreement, his smile infectious. “Indeed,” he affirmed. “We shall gather together, all of us, and celebrate the joy of the season. It will be a time of love, laughter, and cherished memories.”
Christianna clapped her hands, her laughter echoing through the garden. “I wholeheartedly agree!” she exclaimed, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “It will be a splendid occasion, and if your mother is in charge, an expensive one.”
They chuckled, for they all knew this to be true when Chloe turned to Alicia and George.
“You’d come, would you not? It would not be a true celebration without you.”
“Indeed, enough time has passed since your scandal,” Christianna added. Alicia and George exchanged a glance before Alicia answered.
“I should think so. The children could see their grandparents.” George nodded.
“Indeed, I dare say I am looking forward to it.
Chloe looked around at the faces that had become her extended family, her heart overflowing with love and gratitude. “Finally,” she whispered, her voice filled with a deep sense of peace. “All is as it should have been. We are happy, united, and nothing will ever tear us asunder again.”
“That is quite right, Chloe,” Fraser whispered into her ear and kissed her temple. “All is as it should be.”
And as their laughter mingled with the gentle breezes, Chloe knew that this gathering, this moment, would forever be etched in their memories as a testament to the enduring power of love, friendship, and the bonds that held them together.

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Claiming the Duke (Preview)

Prologue

Rothesay Castle
March 10th, 1801

“You will get out of my way,” Fraser Plunkett’s father’s voice boomed as he scolded some poor servant down the hall. The very essence of his words seemed to freeze the air, sending an icy cold chill coursing through the tender bones of young Fraser, barely six years old.
“Don’t come here,” he whispered, staring at the flicking light that seeped in underneath his door from a sconce.
“Your Grace,” a woman’s voice replied hurriedly. It was Mrs. Boyle, the housekeeper; Fraser recognized it at once.
“Woman,” his father replied, but Fraser took a deep breath and pulled his blanket over his head, not wishing to witness another of his father’s outbursts.
He inhaled, and a burst of lemon mingled with the subtle sweet scent of cedar wood burning in the fireplace. At once, his eyes stung as his beloved grandmother’s face swam to the forefront of his mind.
Her kind eyes, as blue as his own, and her round, jolly face marked etched with deep lines reflecting her many years on earth. Years that had come to an end the previous day.
A weight pressed down on Fraser, like a rock piled on top of his chest, as he thought of her and imagined his beloved grandmother. She’d been his only source of happiness. When she drew him into her large arms, enveloping him with her lemon scent and boundless love, he’d felt his loneliness lift, if only for a moment.
It was always as if she meant to hug away all the hurt and suffering he endured at the hands of his father and brother, Jeffrey.
But now she was gone, just like his mother. He had no memory of his mother, having met her only once on the day of his birth – the day of her death.
Yet, oddly, he loved her as he’d loved his grandmother. The late Duchess of Rothesay had come alive in the stories told by her mother and the family housekeeper. Sometimes, Fraser thought he could feel her presence.
He wondered; would he also feel his grandmother’s?

In the room’s silence, Fraser could only hear the occasional creaking of the floorboards and the crackle and pop from the dying fire. Outside, the wind shifted leaves in a tree. He peered out from under his blanket. Was his father gone? Was he safe for the night?

Suddenly, heavy footsteps boomed on the stairs, and his heart raced. His father hardly ever approached the attic, where Fraser’s chamber was located. So deep was his father’s hatred of the little boy that he’d forced him to occupy a stuffy room in the most far-flung place in their home so that he didn’t have to see him more than necessary. Thus, whenever he did venture to this part of the castle, Fraser knew to take heed.

Fraser grabbed the pillow tighter and sat up, pushing his back against the wall as his eyes widened. The footsteps grew louder until they reached his door. A shadow rushed outside his door, and a second one soon joined.

“Your Grace, please. Leave the lad be.” Mrs. Boyle’s sweet voice was filled with terror, filling Fraser with dread. His stomach tensed, and he braced himself. Had his father gotten into the spirits, he wondered? He often did, and then, one had to stay out of his way, lest one wanted to catch hide.

“Get out of my way, Mrs. Boyle. Now,” his father growled. The door flew open with such force that it slammed into the wall adorned with Chinese hanging paper before ricocheting back into his father’s face as he entered.

For one glorious moment, Fraser wanted to laugh, for the sight of his father’s befogged visage as he saw the door come his way was rather amusing. However, he knew this would only enrage him further.

Sure enough, the Duke of Rothesay stormed into his chamber, followed by Mrs. Boyle – and marched directly to his bed.

“Father,” he said and blinked, unsure what to make of this late-night visit.

“Do not call me that,” his father bellowed; a whiff of something acrid and sour wafted into Fraser’s face. “You are no son of mine. I have but one son and heir.” He grabbed Fraser’s upper arm, his thick, meaty fingers encircling Fraser’s thin arm whole. Then, he catapulted him out of the safety of his bed and onto the floor.

Cold crept into his toes, making him shiver, but there was no time to ask for his blanket or a shawl, for his father dragged him out of the room.

Fraser’s heart pounded as his father dragged him down the dark halls of their castle. The air was thick with the musty smell of old wood and damp stone. The walls were lined with portraits of long-dead ancestors, their eyes following the pair as they passed. Candles flickered ominously, casting eerie shadows on the walls.
“Father, please,” he pleaded as they passed under a portrait of the late Duchess. Fraser looked up, wondering if his mother could see this scene. He silently begged her to help him, but it was of no use.
They reached the winding staircase, and the heavy carpet swallowed their footsteps. He stumbled, trying to keep up with his father’s long strides.
“Your Grace,” the housekeeper called as she rushed after them, her apron fluttering behind her. “The boy has done nothing wrong.”
This stopped the Duke in his tracks, and he rounded on her.
“Done nothing wrong? He killed your mistress, and you know it.”
Fraser looked up, terrified. His eyes sought Mrs. Boyle’s, but there was no comfort in them. The woman was as scared as he was.
“He was a babe. He didn’t mean it. It was the good Lord’s wish that …”
His father’s hand flew, and Mrs. Boyle shrank back as though she feared he might strike her. However, the Duke merely waved to silence her.
“I will have no more of this foolishness. I’ve put up with this creature’s presence in my home all these years for the sake of Margaret’s mother. The old mare would have had my head if I’d dispatched of him sooner.” He glared down at Fraser, who shivered. “But she’s gone now, isn’t she?”
He pulled his son closer and bent down. “You’ll get your just dessert now, little …”
“Your Grace,” the butler, Penhurst, said from the door. “He is here.”
He? Who was he? Fraser wondered. And what did his father mean by just dessert? He was never allowed dessert. He was never allowed any of the comforts his older brother Jeffrey enjoyed.
Alas, there was no time to think because his father sent into motion again, pulling him toward the front door and into the frigid night. The moon hung high in the sky, illuminating the old castle in a silvery hue.
He glanced back and saw Mrs. Boyle hurry through the towering oak doors, which suddenly looked like a gateway to another world, another life.
“That the lad? Looks scrawny,” A scratchy, rasping voice said. It reminded him of gravel crunching under his feet.
“That’s why you get him so cheap,” his father said and let out a chuckle as he shoved Fraser forward. His bare feet caught on one another, and he tumbled forward, dirt digging into the palms of his hands. Mrs. Boyle came his way, her face a picture of despair.
“Oh, you poor lad.” she squatted beside him, but a tall shape stepped out of the shadows and pushed her back so gruffly she fell onto her backside.
“Mrs. Boyle,’ Fraser cried, but his words were cut off as the tall man grabbed him by the neck as though he were nothing but a stray kitten escaping from its clowder. Who is this man? Why was he taking him? Where was he taking him?
“I suppose he’ll do, Your Grace.”
“No, let me take him,” Mrs. Boyle cried. “Please, Your Grace. I’ll take him and bring him up as my own.”
Hope sprang in Fraser’s chest. He loved Mrs. Boyle almost as much as his grandmother. He’d love nothing more than to be her son; he’d even scrub her pots and sweep her floors. However, his father let out a grunt and glared at the woman.
“Stay out of it, Boyle. These are not your affairs to meddle with. Now, say your goodbyes if you must.”
“Mrs. Boyle,” he whispered. “Must I go?” A lump formed in his throat as the woman cupped his face.
“By Jove, be quick about it. I have a mind to put him to work tonight if you make haste,” the man growled, but Mrs. Boyle ignored him.
“Fraser, you be a good boy, promise me. Do as you’re told, and all will be well, yes? I’ll keep you in my prayers.” She kissed his forehead. “You’re loved, lad,” she whispered.
Fraser wanted to grab on to her, beg her not to send him with this horribly smelly man who still held on to him with an iron grip, even though Mrs. Boyle hugged him tight. It was as though he were afraid she might carry him away with her.
Then, when his father pulled the housekeeper away, Fraser strained against the man’s grip. “Please!” He stretched his short hands out to her, but his father stepped in his line of sight.
“Take him. Now,” he growled at the man, glared at Fraser, and snarled as though he were a wild animal.
“Father,” Fraser said and looked up at the man whose features he shared. His grandmother had told him many times that even though his father and brother treated him as less than him, he was a Plunkett through and through. He shared his relative’s thick and wavy black hair; he had their eyes, and he would one day grow tall and lanky just like his father and fifteen-year-old Jeoffrey. One day. If there was such a day.
For in this moment, it felt as though his father did not care that Fraser was his son, his flesh and blood. All he cared about was that he wanted to get rid of him. Indeed, he turned, marched into the house, and slammed the door without ever saying goodbye.
Fraser’s feet were lifted off the ground, and his small body tossed into the back of a rickety cart which shifted when the man climbed onto the box seat. And then, as the carriage rumbled away, Fraser scrambled to his feet and peered out, watching Rothesay Castle, the only home he’d ever known, disappear behind a line of trees, and he understood he was truly alone.

Chapter One

London
May 30th, 1815

“Oh, do you see that dress? The Pomona green will bring your hair out wonderfully,” Lady Lydia Willowshire cooed as she peered into the window of “Madame LaFleur’s Modiste” shop on Bond Street. She cupped her hands around her eyes as she looked inside, the front end of her bonnet butting up against the glass as she smiled.
Lady Chloe Harrington took a deep breath but regretted it at once, for a horse had just passed and relieved itself on the cobblestone street behind her. She rumpled her nose as she caught her reflection in the glass and sighed.
Her fiery red hair, which would indeed look lovely against a Pomona green gown, shone even in the dim reflection. Her skin, an alabaster white that her mother never failed to tell her, was all the rage now, shimmered with a thin layer of perspiration thanks to the bright sun. Chloe ran her hand over her sky-blue gown, removing the wrinkles left by their carriage ride.
“Chloe, stop wool-gathering,” her mother called and wrapped her gloved hand around her wrist, pulling her gently toward the front door. “We must get inside before the other ladies snatch up all the best fabrics and appliques.”
“Should we really purchase yet another gown? What with father…”
Lady Willowshire rounded on her daughter, her jade eyes aflame with a burst of anger.
“Chloe Harrington, I will not have you speak in such a manner in the street where everyone can hear,” she hissed, though a smile remained plastered on her face as she glanced at the impeccably dressed passers-by.
“But it is true,” Chloe retorted. “I heard father tell Mrs. Sparks that she could not have the candle stubs for her own use as we need to use them up to the very last to save on costs. And he told Martha that he was going to have her window bricked up to save on tax. She has but one window. She’ll be cast in utter darkness with only smelly tallow candles to light her evenings.”
Anger once more roiled in her stomach as she thought of her poor lady’s maid’s plight, but her mother dismissed her concerns with a wave of her hand.
“I dare say they can manage. As for our … situation …” Her eyes darted left and right, and she lowered her voice even more, as though they were planning to overthrow the Prince Regent and install themselves on the throne instead. “The best way for us to overcome your father’s poor investments and save yourselves from the debtor’s prison is for you to marry well. And for you to marry well, you need a suitable wardrobe. This is your third Season, after all. You must make a match this year.”
It was odd; the quieter her mother spoke, the more suppressed anger came to the surface. Anger at Chloe for not having married a wealthy gentleman yet, anger at Chloe’s father for investing in a minding venture which swiftly became as depleted as the mines itself, and anger at her changed circumstances.
Chloe bit her bottom lip, knowing the best thing to do was to just get through the afternoon, let her mother have what she wanted, and worry about the results later.
“Very well, then we shall go. But I must warn you, a gown – no matter how striking – will not make a Duke or a Marquess fall in love with me. I have many a pretty gown and yet no offers. None of the gentlemen even talk to me.”
Her mother’s thin eyebrows rose, and she let go of her wrist, rising to her full height once more now that the topic was a less precarious one.
“Well, we both know why that is, Chloe. You talk too much. Indeed, I venture to say you are the town’s premier gabster. That will put any gentleman off. A man does not want a chatterbox. He wants a woman who is demure and let’s ….”
“Lets him lead.” Chloe knew the speech so well that she could finish it before her mother had a chance to. Lady Willowshire’s eyes widened, and she clicked her tongue.
“You know it well. I wish you would also do it. Now, come,” she said and pulled the heavy glass door. Immediately, a little bell above the door chimed, and Chloe knew she had no choice but to do as her mother said. She followed, her shoulders slightly slumped, wishing she could tell her mother she was wasting not only her father’s time but also what little remained of his money.
Chloe did not want to set her cap on a wealthy man, nor care particularly if anyone spoke to her. For the truth was, she had already set her cap on a young man, and he felt as intently for her as she did for him. She smiled as she thought of Peter and shuddered as she recalled his rough hands on her smooth cheek. No, she did not need a new gown; what she needed was the courage to tell her parents that her heart was already claimed. Alas, this was not the right moment to do so.

As they stepped inside, an aroma from the fresh fabric and perfumes filled their noses. She’d often been in Madam LaFleur’s, but the interior still struck her each time. The shop would have been rather dim if not for the large windows allowing enough natural light to pour in, throwing rays of bright sunshine onto the fabrics and prefabricated gowns on display.
The shop was bustling with activity, with several women trying on various hats, bonnets, and gloves. The Countess of Willowshire led the way, with Chloe following closely behind. They were greeted by an attendant in a splendid white dress with a yellow spencer. Chloe had seen her many a time before and smiled at her. However, today the young woman only gave the slightest sign of recognition and swiftly disappeared into the back. Chloe frowned, but her mother left her no time to ponder the unusual behaviour.
“Oh, will you look at this bonnet? Isn’t it just marvellous?”
Indeed, the shelves filled with various hats and bonnets of all shapes and sizes, adorned with feathers, flowers, and bows. Chloe smiled for while she did not want for any new attire – the truth was, her armoire was bursting as it was – the lovely quality could not be denied.
“Here, try it,” her mother demanded and selected the hat she’d been fawning over. Like the gown in the window, it was Pomona green, adorned with delicate lace and ribbons in a complementary shade of cream. The hat, garnished with a cascade of silk flowers and feathers, created a striking and sophisticated look. It is the perfect accessory for a ball, sure to turn heads and make a statement. If one wanted to make a statement.
Her smile froze as she thought of Peter once more. He never attended balls nor saw her in her finery. And he did not care. He adored her just as she was. Indeed, she knew she could present herself in nothing but her nightgown, and he would not mind it. Warmth spread through Chloe’s body as she grinned. No, he would not mind that at all, would he?
Still, she imagined what it might be like to attend a ball with Peter. Would he like how she looked in such clothing? With her hair arranged just so, her face covered in crushed pearl powder? And what might he look like in a proper suit? They’d make quite the couple, she was sure of it.
“I beg your pardon,” her mother’s shrill voice penetrated her rather uncouth thoughts. She waved down the young woman who’d so suddenly disappeared. “We’d like to try this hat with the gown in the window. The matching one. And have you a shawl? Silk, not satin or brocade.” She shuddered as though a brocade shawl might ring in the end of days.
“I …” the young woman, who could not be much older than Chloe, stammered. “Lady Willowshire, I am afraid…”
“Afraid of what, child? You must learn to speak properly if you have any hope of ever rising through society. I always tell my daughter she…”

“Lady Willowshire,” Madame LaFleur’s heavily accented voice emerged from the darkness of the shop’s storeroom. “A pleasure,” she said, chasing the girl away with a sharp nod. “I see you are back again so soon,” she trilled in a sweet tone, but Chloe gulped. For unlike her mother, she heard the irked undertone in the woman’s voice.

“Indeed, aren’t we just your best customers?” her mother laughed, one hand in front of her mouth. If the displeased tone hadn’t already alerted Chloe to the fact that something was amiss, the flash of vexation in Madame LaFleur’s eyes would have.

“I was hoping to commission a gown for my daughter. Lady Chloe has many important balls this Season. I believe the gown in the window would be perfect if made with a few alterations. Specifically, I had in mind …” Lady Willowshire said, gesturing towards the window when Madame LaFleur raised a hand.

“I apologize, Lady Willowshire,” she said in a tense voice, “but we cannot extend any more credit to your family. Your bills from previous orders remain unpaid.”

Lady Willowshire waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, yes, I am aware of that. I assure you, Madame LaFleur, that we will settle our accounts soon. But for now, we need a new gown for my daughter.”

Chloe’s lips parted, and sweat broke out on her back as she felt the eyes of everyone in the room burning into her back. She shifted slightly, hoping to conceal her mother and Madame LaFleur from view but knew her petite stature would not achieve much.

Madame LaFleur’s expression grew more assertive as she stemmed her rail-thin arms on her bony hips and pushed her pert chin forward. “I am afraid that is not possible. I must insist that you settle your debts before we can provide further services. Indeed, I must insist on immediate payment, Lady Willowshire.”

Mortification washed over Chloe. She had always been taught to be gracious and polite, but the tension between her mother and Madame LaFleur made her uneasy. Likewise, she spotted the tell-tale wobble of her mother’s lower lip, a sign she was growing desperate. Chloe glanced over her shoulder. Several customers had stopped their inspections of the wares and instead looked their way, although they had the decency to avert their eyes when they saw her watching them.

“Madame LaFleur, surely you understand that a lady of my position in society will always pay her debts. I will speak to my husband tonight, and you shall be paid post haste. Now, as for Chloe’s gown…”

“No, madam. I cannot accept any further orders. I stand firm on that. I am so sorry you are experiencing financial troubles, but this is a business, not a charitable institution.”

Chloe’s mother gasped at this insinuation and clutched her necklace. “I do not know what you mean to imply, Madame LaFleur. There was a mistake made, but I assure you, we suffer no financial or otherwise troubles.”

“Nevertheless, Lady Willowshire, until this mistake has been rectified, we cannot serve you,” the woman said, remaining adamant.

Chloe’s eyes grew wide as she looked around the room. Somewhere nearby, a woman gasped, and heat rose into Chloe’s cheeks. She was certain she resembled a tomato. She wondered; just how did Madame LaFleur know about their plight? Did they perhaps owe money to other proprietors also? She remembered that, of late, her father no longer received the newspapers at his door as he once had. Nor did her mother’s weekly delivery of fresh flowers arrive. Cook had been turned away from the butchers not long ago but claimed it was because she’d argued with him over the quality. Had this been a lie? To protect her?

Suddenly, everything clicked into place. Chloe realized just how dire her family’s situation was, leaving her feeling sick to her stomach.

Lady Willowshire’s voice rose in protest. “I cannot believe you would turn away a member of the aristocracy. You will regret this decision, Madame LaFleur. Chloe, we are leaving. We will commission your gown from Mrs. McGowan down the road. The Scots were always more polite than the French, anyhow,” she declared and stormed out of the shop, her face a mask of embarrassment and fury.

As they departed, Chloe couldn’t help but think about what would happen to her family. Her mother’s insistence on her marrying someone with status and wealth suddenly made more sense. She knew she’d wilfully closed her eyes instead of staring down into the abyss that was the disaster her father brought down on them. However, she could no longer ignore it because the Harrington family was clearly on the brink of financial ruin.

Chloe’s heart shattered, and each breath felt like a million shards of glass cut her up from the inside because she understood with absolute clarity what this truly meant. She had to marry a rich man, someone who could save her family – and that person had to be someone other than the stable boy who had stolen her heart. She and Peter could never be for the choice before her; love or family was not a choice at all.

She might be a girl madly in love, but she was first and foremost the daughter of the Earl of Willowshire – and her duty to her family always came first. No matter how hard cruel, and unfair it might be, and no matter how much pain she would have to inflict upon Peter – and herself. She had to save her family. There was no other way.

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Once More, My Duke – Extended Epilogue

 

Even a character, a scene, or anything. You could say no if nothing bothered you.
It can be a character, a scene, or anything that made the book better for you.

Two years later

The lights of London were as beautiful as she remembered. Lucretia breathed in a deep inhalation of the night air, watching the city’s flickering lights from the balcony of the estate of Lady Cromwell.
Arms snaked around her, and she laughed and relaxed into them. “Warren…”
His deep laugh sounded in her ear. “You do know the ball is actually inside. The view might be lovely, I’ll grant you…” He pressed a quick kiss to her head. “But the party is still inside.”
“I know it, truly, I do.” Lucretia laughed softly and leaned into the quiet strength of his touch. “It is only that returning to London society has been far more tiring than I expected.”
She had been made welcome enough, she supposed. Certainly, there had been no shortage of invitations to various balls and parties.
“It will get easier. Besides, is this not what you wanted, to rejoin society and make the rounds, now that no one will dare snub you for your situation or your past? You have certainly been talking about the London season often enough.” Warren’s voice was soft.
There was a time when she would have agreed with him or put on a brave face and pretended to agree with him because it was the sort of thing one might expect of the wife of the Duke of Argyll. But she and Warren had promised each other honesty in their marriage. And in any case, she had sworn that she would not raise her daughter to put more stock in appearances and social position than honest relationships, not by word or by example.
She sighed and leaned into Warren’s arms. “I thought it would be, but it is not.”
“Not?”
“Not. I miss Bath. I miss the quiet sounds of the city where we have made our home. I miss our little estate by the river, where the city turns into the country, and there is nothing there for miles to disturb us. I miss our friends and family there. I have lost my taste for the glamour of London life, if ever I truly had it.”
Warren laughed. “Well, in that case, the solution is simple.” He gently turned her to face him. “If you miss our home in Bath, then to Bath we shall go. We can go make our excuses to our host and hostess, and then we shall go home, pack up our household, and be on the road before the sun rises. And we can be back in our little country estate by supper time tomorrow or earlier.”
“I…but there is Patience to think of. What if she is upset?”
“She will recover. She has not had time to become enamored of London. And in any case, it is many years yet before we have to worry about her coming out ball or her first season. And perhaps she will not want to leave Bath either. But even if she wishes a season in London…well, perhaps we shall both be better prepared for London by then.” Warren shrugged easily.
“I just want her to be happy. I should not want her to be restless or bored.” Lucretia swallowed, once again faced with the nebulous fears that seemed to catch her off guard when she thought about her daughter. “I do not wish her to feel deprived or unhappy.”
“And I doubt she will. If she does, I have no doubt that she will find something to occupy her. She is, after all, as beautiful, intelligent, and lively as her mother.” Warren grinned. “And besides, she shall have her Aunt Eleanora to coddle her and make much of her.”
Lucretia smiled. “I cannot be sure of that. Have you not heard? Eleanora has recently become enamored of a young man from the ton, and he seems determined to court and win her.” She smirked and reached up to stroke his cheek. “Rumor has it, it is quite serious.”
“All the more reason for us to return to Bath, in that case.” Warren heaved a dramatic, put-upon sigh. “No doubt, I shall have to do something to make sure my cousin does not get into too much trouble with whatever fellow has caught her attention and her fancy this season.”
“Well, if you are sure…”
Warren laughed softly and bent to press his forehead against hers. “Lucretia, my darling, my love, I want only your happiness. If returning to Bath is what makes you happy, then that is what I want.”
Lucretia stared up into his shining emerald eyes.
People would talk if they returned to Bath now, only days after having arrived. No doubt, gossip would be thick, with rumors of all kinds swirling around the ton who would imagine every kind of scandal, secret, or fault between them. That was the way London society worked.
She no longer cared. She had learned what truly mattered, and it was not the shallow opinions of noble ladies or their husbands.
She smiled and stretched up to kiss her husband softly on the lips. “Let us go home, my love.”
Let the ton say what they would. She had spent enough time on their whims. She was happy. And that was all that mattered to her and to Warren.
They were happy.

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Once More, My Duke (Preview)

Prologue

A brisk breeze swirled from the southeast, tangling the sheets on the line and deterring all of Lucretia’s attempts to smooth the damp fabric on the line to dry. With every tug, she found herself scowling with frustration, irritated by the seemingly never-ending futility of the task.
The mundane nature of the task only served to further exacerbate her ever-present feelings of resentment and anger. Every flap of the fabric reminded her that this wasn’t the life she wanted and certainly not the one she’d been born to live. And with every yank of the cloth, she renewed her long-held vow.
Someday, I will escape this life of drudgery and poverty and gain the riches and social prominence that I was born into and that my grandmother and I need to truly be comfortable and happy.
The vow was old, like the well-worn and bitter memories that had inspired it. She had only been a small child when her father had disappeared into the night, leaving her mother and grandmother with empty purses, his last name, and the mountain of debts accrued by his addiction to gambling.
Lucretia’s mother, Annabelle, had been the daughter of wealthy merchants, but in the space of a few years, her wastrel husband had spent the fortune her father and grandfather had earned. Lucretia’s mother and ailing grandmother had been left with no choice but to seek work among the very society they had once hoped to be part of, and the loss of the life she was accustomed to had broken Annabelle Vernon’s spirit.
To her dying day, she had never stopped cursing the man who had used her love to rob her blind nor ceased bemoaning the life of luxury she had lost. The day Lucretia had buried her mother, she had vowed that, no matter what it took, she and her grandmother would not endure the same fate—a life lived in poverty to end in a cold pauper’s grave with barely even a headstone to mark it.
Someday, somehow, she would bring back the riches and status her family enjoyed to give her grandmother the life she deserved and had worked to have and herself the future she dreamed of having. In this future, she herself would bask in the glow of society’s acceptance, never again to endure the cold and hunger or the drudgery of menial tasks such as laundering.
A whiff of citrus and spice invaded her thoughts and captured her attention just before arms wrapped around her waist, masculine laughter sounding in her ears. “Hah! Now I have you!”
Lucretia laughed and twisted in the playful grip to face the man standing behind her—her paramour and suitor of several months, Warren Blackwell. For a moment, she was content to bask in the warmth of his gaze, admiring the way the sun tinted his sandy-colored hair gold and made his emerald eyes sparkle.
Warren leaned in for a kiss, and Lucretia met him willingly, enjoying the passion of his touch and the firm, sensuous pressure of his lips on hers. Then she laughed and squirmed free, admonishing him with a playful smile as she darted just out of reach. “Warren, you know we cannot indulge in such behavior, and especially not out in the open like this! Someone might see us!”
Warren only chuckled, his voice warm and deep like mulled wine on a winter night as he stalked toward her like a cat on the prowl. “And what of it? Let them see and know how much I cherish you.”
“Easy for you to say when it is not your reputation that would be besmirched.” Lucretia dodged his questing arms as he made a grab for her. “Warren!” With a startled laugh, she ducked in amid the sheets, hiding amid the shrouds as she evaded his efforts to capture her once more.
The flapping cloth confused her, making her feel disoriented and she turned around. By the time she stopped to catch her breath, there was no sign of Warren’s pursuit. The sound of his footfalls was entirely muffled, and there was no sign of his hands searching for her or his silhouette among the crisp linens. Lucretia frowned, a small dart of uncertainty dampening her mirth of moments before. “Warren?”
Strong hands emerged from the flurry of sheets and caught her about the waist, lifting her from the ground and spinning her free of the tangling laundry. Lucretia shrieked in surprise as Warren spun her free of the encumbering cloth, laughing as he set her down. “There! Now you can’t run away and hide from me anymore!”
“Warren!” Lucretia leaned against the warmth of his chest for a moment, breathless with laughter. Then she stepped back, levity fading slightly as she remembered her position and his and how it would be perceived. “Really, you cannot behave in such a manner. Unless…” She paused, then looked up at him hopefully. “Did you speak to your father?”
Warren’s expression fell, and Lucretia felt her spirits fall with it. “Lucretia, I…”
She didn’t need him to complete the statement, and it made her heart ache. “You promised me, Warren.” She reached out to lay a hand on his chest, keeping him at arm’s length so he could see her disappointment instead of trying to distract her with his embrace. “You promised to speak to your father about the possibility of gaining access to a portion of the estate for your inheritance.”
“Lucretia, I know you hoped for something, but we’ve discussed this before. You know the truth as well as I. There is no inheritance. I’m not considered proper blue blood, not with my father and mother being unwed and myself born on the wrong side of the sheets. It’s kindness enough that Father has let me live with the family and enjoy a lifestyle and education similar to my half-brother’s.”
Warren sighed and reached out to tug her closer into his embrace as if that would make the words easier for him to speak or her to hear. “But there can be no inheritance for a base-born bastard, not with a legitimate son and heir still living. It wouldn’t be fair to my brother to be cut out of his full and rightful inheritance. And even if he would accept it, society would not tolerate such elevation of a bastard, and not even the kindest father can do anything about that.”
He spoke the truth, and she knew it. “Warren, you promised me…” A gentle kiss silenced her words.
“I understand the gravity of my promise to you, dearest Lucretia. If it is of utmost importance to you, I shall speak with him once more. However, I implore you to grant me a little time.” He tenderly kissed her, his movements delicate and affectionate as he brushed her raven locks behind her ear with a confident caress. “Please trust me, my love. I simply ask for your trust.”
“I do trust you, Warren Blackwell.” Lucretia leaned up to kiss him lightly, keeping her tone light and teasing to match the smile she maintained with an effort. “I trust that you will fulfill your promise to lead me to a life of love, financial comfort, and social connections beyond my wildest dreams.” Warren was handsome, sweet, and a gentleman, and she loved him for all of those things. Even so, he was correct about his status. He was a bastard, and all his possessions in the world were given to him on the sufferance of his brother and his father’s kindness. There would be no title for him, and he would inherit none of the properties or the wealth his family enjoyed when his father passed, not unless he was willing to pursue them.
Warren might be willing to accept obscurity and whatever pittance his family deemed fit to bestow on him, but she was not. Her grandmother only grew frailer with time, and Lucretia was determined to achieve the wealth and position that would allow her to find the best physicians for the older woman and a life free of drudgery for the both of them.
It only remained to be seen whether she could do so with Warren’s help. She did love him but love never put food on the table, nor money for a physician and medicine in one’s pockets. Love for Warren would not help her take care of her grandmother or aid her in bettering herself.
The sort of love that turned rags to riches was a sweet children’s dream, a fine fairy tale for a cold winter’s night, but the reality of the world was far different. She couldn’t afford to waste her future on fairy tales, no matter how fond she was of Warren.
Warren released her from his embrace. “I know it’s not the news you wanted, but I did bring you something to ease the disappointment.” He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled forth a small red velvet box. He held it up between them and opened it.
Lucretia gasped with delight as the contents were revealed. Warren might be unambitious and a bit weak-willed, but she had to admit his taste in jewelry was exquisite.
Inside the box was a small, heart-shaped pendant of gold suspended on a fine gold chain. The craftsmanship was beautiful, every aspect of it absolutely perfect in its simplistic elegance. For all her unhappiness at the words he’d spoken, she couldn’t help smiling as he lifted the chain free of the box and fastened the delicate necklace around her neck with careful hands.
It was beautiful, and she was turning to thank him when the distant clatter of carriage wheels on the front drive shattered the tranquility of the moment. Lucretia stepped sharply away from Warren’s embrace as she recognized the sound and its meaning.
Lady Eleanora Darlington was home, bringing the mysterious guest she’d been speaking of for the past week. And with her return, Lucretia was expected to be on hand to serve her mistress, doing her duties as Lady Darlington’s lady’s maid.
She couldn’t afford to be caught idling in the garden among the linens when she was meant to be working. She certainly couldn’t afford the scandal or the censure that would come if she was caught in a compromising position with her mistress’s beloved cousin.
She looked at Warren, letting him see her regret. “I must go. Lady Eleanora has returned with her guest, and I dare not be missing from my post when she enters the manor.”
Without affording him a chance to reply nor allowing herself the luxury of a farewell kiss, Lucretia pivoted abruptly and seized the empty laundry basket, hastening inside. At the back door, the senior housekeeper was just coming to look for her, her disapproving expression conveying her suspicions that Lucretia had been lagging in her duties. Lucretia paid her no mind, save to offer a quiet apology as she set the laundry basket down in its appointed place and hurried toward the front hall, tucking the necklace under her collar and the box into her pocket.
She made it to the front entryway just with just enough time to dust off and straighten her skirts, then smoothed her hair back into order from its tousled state. The footman opened the door, and Lucretia quickly dropped her eyes in an appropriately modest expression, dipping into a curtsy as she greeted the lady of the manor. “Lady Eleanora. Welcome home.”
She watched from under her lowered lashes as the footman took the lady’s coat and hat, trying to swallow back and hide the old, familiar feelings of resentment she felt whenever she thought of the differences that separated Lady Eleanora and herself.
Eleanora Darlington was a beautiful woman, and even in her moments of deepest bitterness, Lucretia would not deny it. But where Lucretia knew herself to be all shadows and sultry temptation with her long dark hair and deep ocean-blue eyes, Eleanora was a picture of light and delicacy.
Alabaster white skin, golden hair, and eyes the color of a bright summer sky—had any artist been asked to select the woman most closely matched to the likeness of angels from Heaven, he would surely have selected Eleanora Darlington. Her personality was a match for her looks, sweet and gentle, with a delicacy and grace that Lucretia envied at times.
She tried not to envy Eleanora too much. After all, the lady was soft-spoken, kind and considerate to everyone, including her servants. She was a far better mistress than many of the wealthy and titled women Lucretia had heard stories about. She treated Lucretia courteously, whereas many of her station would only have looked down their noses at her with disdain.
Under different circumstances, Lucretia might have called Eleanora a friend. They had enough in common that she could imagine a friendship between them. But the harsh truth was that such friendship could never be, not when she was a servant and Eleanora, a lady. She would always be less than her in the eyes of society, and even Lady Eleanora herself could not avoid yielding to the unconscious bias of her class.
Instead of friendship, Lucretia could only aspire to be a servant and strive not to resent that Eleanora had been born into the life she so desperately coveted, with all the desired advantages.
Eleanora’s soft voice dragged her from her thoughts. “Lucretia, come here. I wish to make you known to my fiancé, Frederick Dryden, Marquess of Cornwell.”
It took all her willpower to keep from showing her surprise as she raised her eyes and stepped forward.
Fiancé? Marquess? Lucretia could recall no mention of Lady Eleanora seeking a betrothal nor any inkling that the esteemed Darlington family was in pursuit of a match for their beloved daughter. Such gossip was typically the fodder of Bath’s social circles, yet Lucretia had heard nary a whisper regarding such matters. As a servant, she was usually privy to as much, if not more, information than the members of the ton themselves.
Curiosity piqued, Lucretia raised her head fully, wanting to get a good look at the man who had secured the favor of her shy and soft-spoken mistress.
Blue eyes met brown, and Lucretia felt her breath catch in her throat.
The man standing beside Eleanora was darkly handsome, as different from Warren as she herself was from Eleanora. His dark hair was expertly coiffed, framing his chiseled jaw and piercing, dark brown gaze. His attire was fashioned from the finest fabrics and tailored impeccably to the latest styles, making him the epitome of refinement and sophistication. His commanding presence exuded an air of elegance and charm that would no doubt cause a stir at any social gathering.
As handsome as his clothing and bearing were, it paled next to the energy that radiated off him. Warren was all softness and shyness, but this man, Frederick Dryden, had the air of a man who knew his worth and intended that everyone else around him should know it as well. There was open arrogance in the tilt of his head and the set of his shoulders, conveying an air of authority that he wore with the same unconscious ease that most men wore their coats and hats. Next to him, Eleanora Darlington looked like a mere shadow, a delicate, pale wraith.
Lucretia swallowed hard to combat the dryness in her mouth as she dipped into a second curtsy, deeper as befit the status of a marquess. “I bid you welcome to Darlington Manor, my lord.”
“Lord Dryden, if you please.” The deep, growling rumble made her stomach twist as she raised her head once more.
Frederick Dryden was studying her with frank appreciation, a burning hunger in his eyes that made her breath catch in her throat once more. Their gazes met, and she saw an assessment every bit as calculating as her own and an understanding that only the ambitious could share.
She’d wondered how Eleanora could catch a man’s attention with so much intensity, but that one shared glance told her all she needed to know. Eleanora meant little to him, save to fulfill some form of ambition or another. The engagement was a matter of convenience, a means for improving his station or reputation, or fulfilling some obligation within his family. It wasn’t a match made for love, not on his part, and held very little interest and perhaps only the smallest amount of affection, at least on Frederick Dryden’s side.
Whatever Lady Eleanora thinks, she cannot hold his attention or his interest. She is a meek little lamb, and he is an untamed hunter, a king in the jungles of society. If his gaze has not strayed already, it will soon enough. He will quickly tire of her pale, waif-like charms. And when he does, I wonder…
Lucretia met the Marquess’s eyes and let her mask of polite servility slip a little to reveal her own ambition and desire. Frederick Dryden smiled in answer, interest sparking a blazing fire in his dark eyes. There was no question that, should she choose to pursue the matter, he might well welcome a little boldness and fire into his life—and perhaps more.
Lucretia was well aware of how reprehensible the thoughts passing through her mind were. She was fully conscious of what she risked and whom she might hurt, but even so, Frederick Dryden represented an opportunity.
Warren Blackwell was a sweet man, and she would always think fondly of him. But he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give her what she wanted and needed. He was too accepting of his obscurity, too willing to live with the pittance he had rather than the wealth and prestige he could claim. With her grandmother’s health failing and her own most eligible years for marriage and childbearing passing her by, she could not afford to spend her time and ambition on a man who had none.
It might not be the most honorable or noble of aspirations, but if Frederick Dryden truly was the opportunity she had been waiting for, Lucretia was not going to squander the chance to reach the social and financial heights she aspired to.
To finally restore her family’s place in society and see her grandmother cared for, there was very little Lucretia wouldn’t do.

Chapter One

Two years later

The sky was gray and leaden, threatening rain at any moment. As far as Warren was concerned, it reflected his mood perfectly.
The priest’s prayers droned on, but he paid them little heed. The words were as hollow to him as the two coffins being lowered into the ground before him. There was one coffin for his father and the other for his half-brother, Jason Blackwell, both of whom had been lost on a trip to the Continent. The ship on which they’d sailed had been caught in a storm at sea and sunk with no survivors. He wasn’t entirely sure of the full details, but he knew that his father and half-brother had been lost to the sea and swallowed up by the depths, leaving no bodies to bury.
It was awful and only added to the surreal feeling of the whole situation. How could both of them be gone so suddenly?
The thought made him shudder, but his grief was muted, painful in a distant and uncertain sort of way. Despite his father’s efforts to raise and educate him, providing him with the means to support himself, their bond remained somewhat strained. As for Jason, his half-brother had always been aloof yet kind in his own reserved manner, even though they had shared the same upbringing under their father’s roof. Despite their kindness, an unbridgeable chasm had always existed between them—an invisible wall that marked the difference between legitimate and illegitimate. His mother had not been his father’s lawful wife, nor had she been the same woman who gave birth to Jason. Society’s unyielding standards had reminded them of his less-than-auspicious origins, creating a pervasive atmosphere of awkwardness and discomfort that lingered even in the most cordial of moments.
Still, for all the difficulties in their relationship, the two men had been there to support him during the most painful times of his life. And now, they would never be there to support him again.
The first shovelfuls of dirt fell into the graves, and he looked away with another shuddering breath, raising his gaze to sweep across the mourners until his eyes fell on a familiar slim figure standing nearby. It was his cousin, Eleanora Darlington.
Eleanora looked as pale and exhausted with grief as he felt, her porcelain cheeks stained with the tears he could not yet bring himself to cry. She appeared as fragile and delicate as a fading flower, her slight frame evoking a sense of vulnerability that made him fear the slightest breeze might whisk her away and shatter her into pieces. She had always been a delicate woman, gentle and soft in both manner and nature, but the events of two years ago had only made her more so.
Like Warren himself, she had never really recovered from the shame and anguish of having her fiancé, Frederick Dryden, elope to Gretna Green with her lady’s maid, Lucretia Vernon, before the pair absconded to London.
It had been terrible for her, and as for Warren himself, he’d never really healed from the heartbreak of those days. It was bad enough that Lucretia had thrown him over for another man, but her departure with Frederick had come on the very day he’d intended to propose formally to her. The shame and hurt of it had cut him deep, leaving him to wonder if his love had ever been enough to make Lucretia happy or if she had only settled for him while waiting for another, richer man to come along.
Just the thought of her was enough to wake the bitterness that had long since taken root in his heart, leaving bile in the back of his throat and sullen anger and distrust burning in his soul. Her actions had destroyed his world and shattered his heart.
She’d also destroyed Eleanora’s reputation, leaving both of them floundering in their emotional devastation with a callousness he’d never thought possible in the woman he once loved.
As if to mirror his dreary thoughts, the weather shifted, the skies opening to let the first drops of rain fall and splatter coldly against the ground and across his face. The servant standing at his elbow opened an umbrella to hold over his head. On the other side of the graves, another servant did the same for Eleanora, and the two cousins shared a sad, pained look before returning their attention to the priest.
The service came to a close, and the priest murmured the final prayer for the souls of the deceased, followed by a benediction for the mourners. Duties completed, the priest departed, as did most of the mourners. Warren watched as the friends and former acquaintances of the former Duke of Argyll quickly dispersed, eager to escape the rain and the gloomy atmosphere.
Of the assembled mourners, only Eleanora offered him any sort of comfort. As the last of their associates left, his cousin gave him a sad smile and a brief embrace before bidding him farewell and retreating to her carriage and her home.
Warren waited until the graves were completely filled in, then took his own leave, offering a last bow of respect to the deceased before he turned and made his way to the carriage that had once been his father’s and now belonged to him.
The thought of it being his carriage now felt as foreign to him as everything else. He’d formally received his father’s title the day before the funeral. Now and until he retired, he would officially be recognized as His Grace, Warren Blackwell, Duke of Argyll. The thought was enough to make him shudder in a manner that had nothing to do with the cold.
He’d grown up knowing he was the duke’s bastard son and aware that he would never be more than a well-tolerated but still illegitimate son, cared for only because his father was blessed with a kind and generous nature. Now, he had been catapulted to a position he had never dreamed of through accident and a shocking tragedy.
He hadn’t been able to believe it when they’d first given him the news, but the solicitor had been clear in his message. As the sole surviving member of his father’s bloodline, he was best positioned to inherit. Furthermore, his father’s will had granted him legitimacy and designated him as the next in line to inherit should his half-brother perish without an heir of his own.
The carriage clattered up the long drive to the Argyll estate of Blenheim Manor, formerly his father’s home and now his own. Warren stared up at the sprawling edifice as it loomed over him and felt another shiver run down his spine. He’d visited the manor numerous times, spent summers running and riding over the lawns and many rainy days exploring the halls, but it had never felt like his home. The country cottage his father maintained had always been more to his taste. But now, with the former duke and his heir gone, the giant structure felt even less like home than usual, empty and devoid of life with halls that echoed with haunting emptiness.
How could this place ever be his home? Family had been the only thing to make the sprawling grandeur bearable, and now there was not even that to lend any kind of warmth to the rain-washed granite and cold marble halls.
Nonetheless, there was an image to maintain. Warren steeled himself and clambered out of the carriage to climb the wide stone steps. At the top, the familiar figure of Murray, his father’s butler and personal manservant, opened the doors and bowed him into the entrance hall with a sweeping gesture and a polite greeting. “Welcome home, Your Grace.”
Your Grace. The words made his stomach flip uncomfortably. Despite knowing what had happened and what was expected, he’d still been waiting to hear Murray call him “young master Warren” the way he always had. Murray had helped raise him and helped him come to terms with his place in the Argyll household, and he hadn’t expected the old man’s behavior to change, even though so much else had. He opened his mouth to protest, then closed it again.
Whether he welcomed it or not, this was his new reality. This was his life, a life where Murray addressed him as “Your Grace,” all the servants greeted him with deference and respect, and the title Duke of Argyll no longer belonged to his father.
He was no longer constrained by the financial limitations of the allowance he had been afforded; he had the entire estate at his disposal. But neither was he afforded the anonymity his previous status had allowed him to enjoy. Now he was expected to mingle with the rest of society. Once the mourning period was over, he would have social obligations and the family business to deal with, and he would be expected to comport himself accordingly. He might as well start now.
He swallowed again and forced his voice to work, trying to maintain the calm, even tone that his father had used when addressing his servants. “Thank you, Murray.”
The door shut behind him with a hollow thud, and Murray bowed him toward the front parlor. “If you will please accompany me, Your Grace, the rest of the staff is waiting to offer you our formal greetings and condolences.”
Warren wanted to retire to his rooms, preferably with enough scotch available to make the horrible leaden weight of the day fade into an alcohol-blurred haze. But he had duties, and he supposed that one of them was to introduce himself to the staff formally.
He handed off his wet coat and hat, and followed Murray to the parlor where a host of men and women waited, all dressed in the somber black uniforms of mourning. Four women wore maid’s uniforms, a bevy of men wore general servant’s uniforms, and there was one boy wearing the stable boy’s uniform, with two women and one other boy wearing the sturdy clothing and aprons of the kitchen staff.
Murray led him to a place in front of the assembled servants and gestured the others to be silent, adopting the solemn air of a greeter making formal introductions at a society ball. “You all know of the tragedy that has befallen us in the loss of our lord, His Grace, William Blackwell, former Duke of Argyll, and his eldest son, Lord Jason Blackwell. However, life continues on, and so I make known to you His Grace’s youngest son, our new lord and the newest Duke of Argyll, His Grace, Lord Warren Blackwell. I expect you to serve him well.”
Warren bit back the urge to laugh bitterly at Murray’s deft and tactful way of explaining his heritage. Every word was true while tastefully avoiding any embarrassing mention of his true parentage. He focused on keeping his face an expressionless mask as the assembled men and women bowed, then came forward one by one to introduce themselves and offer him their condolences. Jane, Elizabeth, Dickon, and Richard…the names all blurred together, and Warren responded to each with a stilted nod, feeling as if he was trapped in some sort of strange and horrid dream.
Finally, it was over. Warren blinked back into focus and dredged up words from some corner of his mind. “I thank you all for your service. Rest assured, I shall review your contracts and speak to each one of you in turn at some later date. However, today is my father and brother’s funeral, and I wish for some time to mourn them and resolve their affairs. To that end, you shall each be given some time off today and tomorrow to make whatever observances you feel appropriate. Murray will help you arrange matters.”
Everyone bowed, and Murray opened the door and stepped aside for him to leave the room. Warren left the parlor with a sigh of relief, climbing the stairs to the second floor and the suite of rooms that had always been his. At some point, he would be expected to move into the master suite and take possession of the rooms set aside for the duke, but that wasn’t going to happen today. He simply couldn’t stomach the idea.
Murray arrived a few minutes later with a tray of sandwiches, a pot of tea, and, thankfully, a bottle of fine scotch and a glass. Warren accepted the cup of tea and waved the man away, unwilling to endure more company for the moment. Murray nodded his understanding, stoked the fire in the grate to a comfortable blaze, then bowed and left, closing the door soundlessly behind him.
Warren sipped at the warming beverage, but it couldn’t seem to thaw the coldness in the core of his being. The cold of loss was compounded with an aching sense of uncertainty now that everything he thought he’d known and every path he’d anticipated his life taking had vanished, buried with his father and brother.
A stray thought crossed his mind, causing him to smile bitterly into the fire before him.
His life had certainly changed. He’d gone from a poor, potentially penniless bastard, cared for on sufferance and his father’s good graces, to the Duke of Argyll. The irony of it…
Lucretia had abandoned him and thrown him over for Frederick Dryden because of his status, lack of wealth, and limited prospects.
I wonder, Lucretia Vernon, if you would have left me, had you known what my life would become and that I would one day gain the title and wealth you coveted so dearly that my love meant nothing to you. Would you still have shattered my life and Eleanora’s by running away, or would the promise of my future prospects have been enough to hold you, even though my heartfelt affection so clearly did not?
The fire gave him no answers, but he suspected he knew the truth of the matter anyway. The certainty stung like bile and acid in his throat.
God above, he was so tired of thinking of such things and the cold and bitterness that never seemed to leave him. He wanted to forget, even if it was only for a little while.
Warren finished the cup of tea and set it aside, reaching for the scotch.

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Her Rake of Hearts – Extended Epilogue

Even a character, a scene, or anything. You could say no if nothing bothered you.

July, 1809

The Helios Lyttleton Agency was booming. Adrian had stopped working as a Bow Street Runner, since every case that came to the office asked for him specifically. The very public arrest of Lord Edwin Cambell, Earl of Montrose, had captured the attention of all of England. Everyone wanted Adrian Rawdon and his wife on their case now. King George had even bestowed the title of Viscount on Adrian, which now made Rebecca a Viscountess.

In order to keep the Runners afloat, and his sanity intact, Rebecca suggested he open a private practice. He had been more than happy to take over the rent and all legalities at the Helios Lyttleton Agency. Frank, too, was happy–he wanted nothing more to do with detective work. He and his wife Eliza were even thinking about moving to the country, and they’d take his mother with them.

Everything was coming up roses.

Rebecca stood in front of the small, unadorned headstone marking the grave of her dear friend Sally. They’d not been able to recover her body, but Rebecca insisted on a headstone. She’d purchased a small plot with her new money as Viscountess, and figuratively laid Sally to rest at the top of the hill. They buried her diary, letters, and lily necklace, which she was so fond of. It was something, at least, and Rebecca visited the gravesite every week.

“Hello, my dear friend,” Rebecca whispered, kneeling in front of the headstone and placing a bouquet of fresh lilies in front of it. “I miss you so much. I wish you were here with me now.”

A gentle breeze brushed against Rebecca’s cheek as if in response to her words. She closed her eyes and breathed the crisp, clean air, letting the cool air wash over her. She smiled as she recalled their times together, their shared laughter, and their whispered secrets. But those memories were now tinged with sadness, with the knowledge that Sally had been brutally taken from her.

Even though Lord Edwin was behind bars, awaiting trial for his heinous crimes, Rebecca still felt a sense of unease. The knowledge that he had been capable of such violence, of taking the life of someone so dear to her, still haunted her.

She opened her eyes and looked up at the sky, watching the clouds drift lazily. Sally had always loved looking up at the sky, pointing out the shapes of the clouds and telling stories about the constellations. Rebecca smiled again, imagining Sally up there among the stars, looking down on her with a fondness that transcended death.

“Thank you, Sally,” she whispered. “Thank you for everything.”

The breeze picked up again, blowing stronger this time, and Rebecca let a tear slip from her eye. She had never been particularly emotional before this. This entire year had been one of the most emotional of her life, and she’d probably cried more times in the fall and winter of 1808 than she had ever.

The sky darkened as thunder rumbled overhead. Rebecca sighed and stood up, brushing the grass from her petticoats. She needed to return to the office and help Adrian. Every day, new cases arrived, requiring the hiring of additional staff. Former military men, women with a knack for puzzles, and all manner of clever individuals were applying at the Helios Lyttleton Agency. Rebecca had insisted on women being allowed to work as detectives rather than just maids or secretaries. She also demanded that they be paid the same as men, to which Adrian did not object. Most of London thought it was odd, but she liked it. Women who had to work for a living, in whatever capacity, had her respect, and she was happy to give them that chance.

As she walked up the steps, noticing the sign swaying in the breeze, she heaved a deep sigh. There was a long line out the door. She squeezed past, excusing herself, and saw Adrian at the front desk. When he saw her arrive, his eyes lit up with love, and he excused himself.

“One moment, please, gentlemen. I must consult with my wife.”

“I did not mean to leave you in such a rush,” she said, feeling a little guilty.

“It is nothing I cannot handle. Although, we do need to hire more staff quickly,” he agreed.

“Yes. You and I will need to take less investigations soon,” she said, reflexively placing a hand over her stomach.

Adrian looked at her, brow furrowed in confusion.

“What? Whatever do you mean?”

“Darling,” Rebecca said breathlessly, “I’m with child.”

Adrian looked down to where her hand lay over her stomach, then back up to her eyes. He grinned, as broadly as he had when she’d accepted his proposal earlier that year. Then he whooped and laughed, picking her up and twirling her in the air.

“I cannot believe it! We are to be parents,” he said, setting her back down and resting his forehead against hers.

“Indeed, we are,” she said with a laugh.

“Excuse me,” came a small childish voice from below.

Rebecca and Adrian broke apart quickly, and looked down to see a small child, probably no more than seven or eight, holding a newspaper advertisement of the office.

“Yes, darling? How can we help?” Rebecca asked, crouching so she was eye level with the little girl.

“My sister’s gone. Can you help me find her?”

Rebecca looked back at Adrian, who nodded.

“Of course, little one. That’s what we’re here for,” she said in a soothing voice.

And thus, the game was afoot once again.

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Her Rake of Hearts (Preview)

Chapter One

London, England

November, 1808

“Thank you, thank you!” The man sobbed as he held the girl close. “I dunno wha’ I woulda done wivout ‘elp!”

Rebecca watched through the glass window of the back office overlooking the small but clean lobby, where Frank was grinning and beaming at the young man and girl.

“That’s our specialty,” she heard him say proudly.

When the father had collected himself well enough, he set a heavy bag of coins on the counter with a grateful sigh. The familiar clink of coins was always a satisfying sound. As soon as the father and newly reunited daughter were out of sight, Rebecca dashed out of the back office to retrieve the bag. Frank watched her, amused, as she counted each coin and separated them into piles.

“A third for me, a third for you, and a third for Sally,” Rebecca said brightly.

“Another satisfied customer,” Frank agreed, sweeping his side of the coinage into a small leather pouch he kept on his person.

“Indeed. Though I sometimes wonder if we are only here to locate lost children and wives,” Rebecca said with a small frown.

“Everyone’s life has meaning to someone else,” Frank counseled. “And besides, what does it matter when we make good coin?”

“I suppose that’s true. I do need a new pair of gloves,” she said teasingly.

“Do you mind closing up shop? I have an important meeting I need to attend,” he asked, already halfway across the small lobby, clearly eager to leave as he was practically bouncing at the doorway.

“By important meeting, do you mean a liaison with a lady?” Rebecca quipped.

By now, Frank was immune to her teasing and no longer blushed in embarrassment when Rebecca said such things.

“Quite possibly,” he answered, matching that teasing energy.

“Who is it, then? Miranda?”

“No, no. Simply didn’t work out between us.”

“What about that other one? Eliza?”

Frank looked baffled. “Eliza? No, surely not. We stopped seeing each other quite a while ago.”

Rebecca put her hands on her hips and regarded her friend curiously.

“You are avoiding my line of questioning, Mr. Patterson,” she pried.

Frank ran a hand through his chestnut hair and sighed.

“If you must know, I have met someone new. She’s quite lovely. The daughter of one of our clients.”

Now that was interesting.

“Frank, you cannot entertain romantic notions for clients! It is bad for business!”

Frank held up his hands in mock surrender as if to show innocence.

“She was in need of support. A shoulder to cry on, if you will.”

Rebecca’s green eyes narrowed into slits.

“I’m sure you were happy to oblige,” she said sarcastically. “I do wonder what she would think if she learned that I did the bulk of the work.”

“Ah,” Frank said, holding his finger up in the air as if to indicate his bright idea, “but I helped. My assistance cannot be discredited.”

Rebecca rolled her eyes.

“You tacked pamphlets and broadsides to buildings.”

“In very poor and dangerous parts of London, might I add! If my mother knew you sent me to Poplar, she’d kick you out of the building this instant.”

“I highly doubt that,” Rebecca said dryly. “I do believe I am her best tenant. Never a noise complaint, rent is always paid on time, and I keep a clean storefront.”

“You’re also easily the prettiest tenant,” Frank said with a wink.

Rebecca’s words were cut short by the piercing chime of the grandfather clock, indicating that it was already ten o’clock.

“Sally should be here by now,” she mused. She retrieved her small pocket watch from the pocket underneath her skirt and compared its time to the larger one.

“Well, you know Sally. Always likes to make an entrance,” Frank offered.

“Not when it comes to collecting her share of the money. I wonder if her new beau is keeping her. She was never this distracted and forgetful before they met,” she mused.

“If she is happy, isn’t that all that matters?”

“I suppose you’re right. I still would like to meet him, though.”

“Perhaps Sally is embarrassed.”

“Why ever would she be embarrassed?”

Frank shrugged. “Maybe her new suitor is ugly. You have been known to speak your mind on such matters.”

“I’ve never once called anyone’s suitor ugly! Even if I really thought so!” Rebecca maintained.

“Perhaps not, but you have this…look on your face. You don’t need words to convey your true feelings.”

“It is all an act,” Rebecca said, a little put off by the conversation but doing her best to mask it. “That is what makes me a great detective.”

“Of course, it is. In any case, Sally will introduce us when she’s ready,” Frank conceded.

“I simply don’t understand her lately,” Rebecca said as she returned the earnings to the office, securing them in the safe. “She never used to be so secretive.”

“Can’t a woman keep secrets? It is, after all, part of what makes them so alluring,” Frank said. Had Rebecca been closer to him, she would have thumped him on the back of the head with the account book.

“I dislike your tone. I will, however, call on Sally on my way home. At the very least, I want to know if she’s all right.”

“Don’t be too late. Mother’s nerves will be inconsolable if she has to stay up late for you again.”

“I appreciate that she does that for me, but she doesn’t have to. Please tell her to go to sleep at a reasonable time. Other landladies do,” Rebecca urged, a tinge of guilt creeping up the back of her neck. Mrs. Patterson was kind to her, almost like a mother. She did far more than she should as her landlady for the shop and her small but respectable rooms.

“My mother is not like other landladies. She’ll be upset you said that,” Frank said flippantly.

“Then I trust you to be sensible, Mr. Patterson. It is no use upsetting her any more than you already do.”

Just last week, Mrs. Patterson had given Frank quite the lecture when she found out he was courting yet another woman and had stayed out late at the clubs without telling her.

Frank sighed in defeat.

“Yes, I suppose you are right. Well, in any case, please come home at a reasonable hour. Tell Sally I love her dearly.”

“I’m sure she’ll be very appreciative,” Rebecca replied sarcastically.

Frank stuck his tongue out at her as he walked out of the shop but still smiled. Despite his charms and rakish ways, he was a good friend, and she knew that without his support, her detective business would struggle. People were still unwilling to trust a woman for such serious matters. Frank was the face, and she was the hands. She had not stumbled into detective work entirely by chance, though her life circumstances had certainly pointed her in that direction. Captain John Lyttleton, her late father, had retired from the military. He needed to occupy himself after becoming restless and landless due to Parliament’s enclosure laws. He’d always been good at chess, puzzles, and general cleverness, so he started a private detective agency. Harriet, Rebecca’s late mother, had come from a wealthier family than John. She, too, restless and constrained by society, used her dowry to fund John’s private detective business. She’d been clever too, always enjoying word games and solving riddles. Thus, Rebecca had a natural proclivity for such work. After their untimely passing, the business was all she had. She threw herself into her work, leaving little time for mourning. But she knew that if she stopped, even for a second, she wouldn’t be able to continue.

It was already dark by the time she concluded her business at the office. Her father had taught her the importance of keeping detailed, organized records, and she did so dutifully. It was tedious, especially when she wished for the comfort of her bed, but if she was going to have the best private detective agency in London, with a better reputation than even the Bow Street Runners, she needed to be meticulous. When satisfied that all the files were in order, she fastened her bonnet and Spencer jacket on, locked the door, and began the walk home. The little sign above the door swayed back and forth in the wind. Helios Lyttleton, Private Detective, it read in swoopy gilded letters, with a black magnifying glass painted in the corner. No, it was not her name. It was not even really her father’s name–but he had called her his “shining sun” when he’d been alive. Helios at least harkened back to that term of endearment while sounding interesting and trustworthy. Rebecca took one last look at the office to make sure it was locked up before heading out into the night.

It wasn’t particularly cold, especially for November, which explained the thick fog that had settled around the city. It would be even worse near the Thames, where she rented a small apartment from Mrs. Patterson. Nonetheless, she tightened her jacket around her slim frame. Something about the fog made a nighttime walk home even eerier. No one bothered her on the way home. Sometimes there were beggars or drunks out and about, but it was probably too early for the drunks and too late for the beggars. Rebecca was surprised to find Sally’s house, a townhouse she shared with several other women, locked. There seemed to be candlelight in the upstairs windows, indicating that someone was home—it wasn’t like Sally to be so irresponsible. London had already burned down once; it had no need to do so again.

No one answered when she knocked. After a few moments, Rebecca knocked again, and still nothing. How odd. Pressing her ear to the heavy wooden door, she couldn’t hear any footsteps and saw no shadows in the windowpanes. She was unsettled.  At least one of the ladies was usually at home, so panic began to rise in her belly. She took the small lock pick from her pocket and crouched by the doorknob, fully aware that this was illegal, but it couldn’t hurt as long as no one was looking. Rebecca had asked Sally for a key several times, the latter had one for hers, after all.  But the poor girl had been so absentminded lately. It was highly concerning.

The house was cold and quiet. Clearly, no one had been there in a while. There was, however, a small glimmer of light at the top of the stairs, where Rebecca knew Sally’s bedchamber was.

“Sally?” Rebecca shouted cautiously as she ascended the staircase. “Sally, are you here? I’ve got your cut.”

The staircase creaked underfoot, sending a shiver down her spine, which intensified when she noticed the door to Sally’s room was ajar.

“Sally, I hate to interrupt, but–”

Rebecca’s heart sank as soon as she opened the door. A scream, almost inhuman, ripped through the night, causing her to fall to her knees in shock as her hands trembled.

Chapter Two

“You’re absolutely certain you didn’t touch the body?” Adrian asked, pinching the bridge of his nose and stifling a sigh.

The young woman shook her head.

“Nay, sir. The moment I found her, I came runnin’ here.”

Adrian nodded. At least that made his job a little easier. Nights like this made him regret his decision to become a Bow Street Runner. It was cold and humid, and the last thing on his mind was a murder. He just wanted to go to bed, but the woman had knocked on the door so urgently that he felt compelled to help her.

“All right. I will alert the other runners and we ought to be on our way. I need to see the room exactly as you left it.”

The woman waited in the lobby while Adrian alerted the others, instructing them that he’d likely need assistance very soon at this particular address. And then they were off. The address was not in a particularly nice part of London, but Adrian had seen worse as a Bow Street Runner. When they were at the stoop, the woman stopped short and gasped.

“I…I swear I locked it ‘afore I left!” The front door was open just slightly, as if she might not have closed it hard enough when she scurried to his office in such haste. But the look of panic and bewilderment on her face was genuine, which was enough to tell Adrian that this was a more dangerous situation than he had previously thought. Any hint of tiredness almost instantly evaporated from his body as all his senses switched to high alert.

“Stay here. In case the killer is still inside and comes out this way, I need you to tell me which way he goes,” Adrian instructed.

The woman was on the verge of crying but nodded and dutifully remained at her post. She didn’t even blink as Adrian drew his pistol from his jacket and held it ready as he crept inside the house.

His military training had taught him to inspect the rooms at strategic angles before simply walking in, so he did just that. It was difficult in the dark, but his eyes adjusted quickly. No one was downstairs, but there was still light on the upper level, so someone was either still there or had left rather quickly. Adrian rushed up the stairs, cursing internally as they creaked underfoot. Nearing the door, he could see candlelight flickering. Oddly enough, he could hear mutterings and whispers too. Someone was definitely there. He took a deep breath to center himself, tightened his grip on his pistol, and swung the door open, catching the person off guard.

Immediately he was met with a scream, and a small glass vase sailed past him, narrowly missing his head, and smashed against the wall. His gun was raised but he did not shoot–for the face looking back at him was terribly familiar. Suddenly, he was transported through time, and images from the past flooded his mind, most notably of the woman before him, dressed in a beautiful gown with flowing hair, telling him that he needed to kiss a woman to become a man. Then his thoughts turned to her lovely lips and how they tasted. Those strange memories, however, vanished as soon as she spoke.

“Good God! What are you doing here?!” Rebecca Lyttleton shouted at him.

“Keep your voice down!” Adrian scolded.

Good God, this was a horrible sight. Rebecca Lyttleton was holding the horribly butchered body of a woman, whom he could only assume was Sally, based on what the other woman had said on their way over here. To make matters worse, Rebecca had clearly been there for a long time, as her gown was blood-soaked in some places, and her eyes were rimmed with red and puffy. It was not at all the reunion he’d pictured.

“Sally’s gone,” she said morosely, crying again.

As bad as Adrian felt for Rebecca, the state in which he found her was much worse. She was in the middle of the crime scene, covered in blood and holding a woman’s murdered body. If anyone else had found her, they would have immediately deemed her the killer, crying out of immense guilt and female hysteria. It was a good thing he was there, but it was still an ugly sight.

Adrian placed the pistol on a nearby side table and cautiously approached her, his hands up in surrender.

“Miss Lyttleton, I need you to come with me,” he said in that soft but firm voice that he used when talking to victims or close associates of victims.

Rebecca didn’t seem to hear him. She was still crying and holding Sally’s body, running tender fingers over her cheeks.

“Miss Lyttleton,” he said, a little firmer this time, “please. We need to go.”

He tried to grab her arm, but she thrashed wildly, refusing to be held.

“Get away from me!” she screamed.

Poor thing, she looked like a wild animal caught in a trap, scrambling to get out.

As Rebecca sobbed, Adrian took a moment to survey the scene. There had been no sign of forced entry downstairs, and there didn’t seem to be any in the room. There had clearly been a scuffle as papers, clothes, and furniture were strewn about and out of place. And then there was the matter of Sally’s wounds; the several stab wounds on her torso and part of her neck. She’d tried to fight, hence the multiple stabbings, but the one at her throat was the fatal one. Whoever did this was enraged, as evidenced by the brutality of the wounds. There was no way of knowing if anything had been taken without knowing what the room had looked like earlier, but Rebecca could know. This was also not a particularly awful London neighborhood. If word got out that a woman had been stabbed to death in her own home, the ton would be flooded with gossip, making assessing the truth that much more difficult.

“Rebecca, look at me,” he said, taking her face between his hands and forcing her to look at him. “You need to tell me what you’re doing here.”

Her green eyes were glassy and she hiccuped, unable to calm herself and speak coherently.

“I… Sally…the m-money… and now, she–she’s–” Rebecca broke into tears again. Adrian still couldn’t figure out why she was there. If she’d uttered such words to anyone else, she’d be clapped in irons and hauled off to jail, or worse, Bedlam.

“Rebecca, we need to get out of here. The rest of the Bow Street Runners will be here soon, and the circumstances are most unfortunate for you.”

“I can’t! I can’t leave Sally!” she cried, her shoulders heaving with the effort of the sobs.

“Rebecca, you are covered in blood in the middle of a crime scene, holding your friend’s body. If anyone else finds you here, you’ll be arrested.”

With his help, she rose clumsily onto her feet, surveying her surroundings as if really noticing them for the first time. And then all color drained off her face when she saw her reflection in the mirror. But alas, not a moment later, she fainted, her eyes rolling back into her head. Adrian cursed as he rushed over to catch her before her head hit the ground.

This was quite a conundrum, indeed. He’d taken enough visual notes to recall it well, but it was a fresh crime scene, and he needed to stay and search for any other clues. But he also needed to protect his old friend. The others would be here soon, and he could not risk them seeing Miss Lyttleton in such a state. Adrian sighed and cursed again. He set the unconscious Rebecca on a nearby chair, slumped against the wall. That was good enough for now. He took his pistol and stuffed it back into his jacket, then retrieved his small notebook and pen. If nothing else, he could at least take some notes before anyone else tampered with the evidence. He noted the various wounds on Sally’s body, counted them all, and the position in which he’d found the body, guessing how it would have lain before Rebecca held her. Then he took stock of every single item in the room in case something was found to be missing later.

When he was done, he went downstairs to speak to the young woman who’d initially alerted the office.

“Miss, is there somewhere else you can stay for the next few days?” he asked.

The poor girl looked frightened, but she nodded.

“Good. If you need to pack a bag, please do so quickly. I have to finish some of the initial investigation, but it is unsafe for you here should the killer decide to return. When the other officers arrive, they will most likely want to question you. Stay calm; they mean no harm.”

The woman nodded.

“Right. Please provide your fellow officers with the address of your accommodation in case any further inquiries arise.”

Having tied up the loose ends, he ran up the steps two at a time until he reached the crime scene. Rebecca was still uncoscious, and did not even stir as Adrian scooped her up. He did not want to go out the front door in case anyone saw–because that would look very suspicious indeed–but houses like these usually had a small back garden, or at the very least, small back area to stow trash or coal. He quickly located a back door, and some rickety old wooden steps led down to a small stone courtyard with a washing tub and a sad looking potted plant. This led into an alley behind that. Perhaps the killer had escaped this way–but it was too dark to see, and without a candle, he wouldn’t be able to closely inspect for bloodstains. Hopefully the rest of the Runners would think to look. At the very least, he’d be back in the morning.

Right now, he needed to get Rebecca as far away from the crime scene as possible.

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The Duke’s Convenient Bride – Extended Epilogue

Even a character, a scene, or anything. You could say no if nothing bothered you.

A few months later

“I want to get down.”

Edmund laughed as Diana buried her head in his coat. “Why? The view is beautiful.”

“It’s too high. Edmund, what if the balloon falls? I want to get back on the ground right now. This was a bad idea.”

Edmund chuckled again. “Well, we can’t just descend. The balloons don’t work like that, Diana. So, you might as well enjoy the view.” He bent to kiss the top of her head, smirking as the wind blew her hair against his lips. “Come on, love. I’ve got you. You’re safe enough.”

After a moment, Diana shifted to look up again. Edmund loosened his grip enough for her to turn, then pulled her back against his chest.

After a moment, Diana relaxed just a bit. “It is beautiful.”

Below the balloon, the world spread out in a panorama of color, highlighted by the glow of the rising sun behind them. Just above them, the clouds shone like spun gold. A crisp wind blew around them, guiding the brightly-colored balloon through the sky.

The last few months had been wonderful. Following the wedding, he and Diana had embarked on a tour of the Continent, following the suggestions of her brother, Joseph. They’d explored the mountains of the Alps, the canals of Vienna, and the churches of Rome. They’d gone on a taste-testing exploration of the vineyards of France and watched the bullfights in Spain.

They’d explored wherever the whimsy took them, traveling by boat and carriage, sometimes even walking or riding.

Diana had sent home trunks of new dresses for herself and Hattie, wines and beer for her former guardian, and other trinkets.

Edmund had bought clocks—German, French, Swiss, Spanish, and Italian—everything from small pocket watches to wall clocks.

He’d half expected Diana to protest after the tenth clock he’d purchased, but she only laughed, toying with the chain of the pocket watch that she had worn every day since their formal engagement. She’d been more than willing to accept his hobby, laughing and saying it was a better indulgence than bar fights and liquor.

He had more clocks than he’d ever use and likely more than he’d ever be able to finish repairing in his lifetime. But he was happy, and that was all Diana cared about.

After several minutes, Diana looked up at him. “Where shall we go next?”

He grinned. “Back to England, I should think. Did I tell you about the letter I received from Uncle Phillip this morning?”

“No, why?” Diana twisted to look at him more fully. “What has happened?”

Edmund smirked at her. “It seems my uncle Phillip’s been doing a bit of courting since we married and went to gallivant around Europe. His suit’s been accepted, and now he’s engaged to a Miss Hattie Wynn.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Diana’s delighted laughter rang in his ears. “After the wedding, we’ll be family at last.”

“Though she won’t be your sister. She’ll be your aunt.”

Diana scoffed. “As if that matters. I’ve learned that family is the most precious thing in the world, no matter what the relation. And I, for one, shall be happy to have another family member to speak with and attend next season’s events with.” She gave him a look. “Is there anything else you have neglected to tell me?”

Edmund kissed her again. “Well, Mother has been asking about when an heir will be on the way, since I’ll be taking the ducal title when we return.” He offered Diana a mischievous smile. “I got the impression she rather thinks there ought to be a child already.”

“We have been practicing to produce one, though I suspect that is not something we should tell your mother.”

Edmund tipped his head. “I could always send her a letter, telling her there is a child on the way.”

“Edmund!” Diana swatted him. “Telling your mother false stories in your letters was exactly how everything that happened between us started.”

“I know.” He smirked. “That is why I was considering another letter. The best thing that ever happened to me started because of that letter. Who knows what might come to pass?”

“You cannot truly think that is a good idea.” Diana stared at him. “Not after everything.”

“Perhaps not.” Edmund shrugged. “But if I could, I would do nothing else.”

Diana’s eyes were brighter than the sunrise as she smiled at him. “Nor would I.”

In the light of the rising sun, Edmund kissed the love of his life. And for the first time in his life, he felt truly whole and at peace.

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