Claiming the Duke (Preview)


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

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.

If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here

Once More, My Duke (Preview)


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.

If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here

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.

If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here

The Duke’s Convenient Bride (Preview)


It was so cold, and the rain was an added misery, each drop hitting her soaked skin and thin, drenched garments like a stinging needle of ice. Her chest, on the other hand, felt like it was on fire, every ragged, sobbing breath like coals dragging over her throat and into her ribs instead of the needed air.

It didn’t matter, just like the bruising pain of cold hard cobblestones under her chilled bare feet or the squelching, grasping cold of mud when she stumbled into a puddle. The ache in her legs, worse than the stitch in her side, didn’t matter either.

None of it mattered. All that mattered was that she keep running, running, and running to get as far away as she could from him.

She wanted to go home — wanted it so fiercely she would have cried, if she’d had breath or tears left. But the streets all looked alike to her, and she was hopelessly lost with no one in sight to help her, to guide her or give her shelter.

It was as if there was no one in the world but her… and him.

Without warning, she hit a slick patch in the road and went down with a shrill cry, her child’s voice cracking with both pain and fear as she tumbled to the paving stones, skinning her hands and knees with a force that would leave bruises. Still sobbing, she levered herself up, fighting to get to her feet.

But her legs wouldn’t work. She couldn’t stand, and she couldn’t run. She couldn’t even seem to find strength to crawl.

And then she heard it — the distinctive tap-tap-tap of his cane on the stones and the chilling sound of his deep, cold laughter, harder than the stones and cold as ice.

Fear froze her as effectively as her unresponsive legs did, but desperate fear gave her a voice through her sobbing breaths. “Help me! Someone, help me please! Help me!”

She let out a wretched sob as she looked for anyone to come to her aid. “Someone… please… he’s going to take me away! Please, take me home! Please, someone… anyone… help me.”

The rain seemed to swallow her cries before they could truly form, even as the cold, cruel laughter echoed louder and louder around her.

Then a hand came out of nowhere, seizing on the back of her neck with more force than a collar and with all the harshness of an iron chain at her throat. A cold, smooth voice echoed in her ear, “There is no escape. You’re mine, now and forever, little bird.”

She screamed in terror and pain, in desperate anguish and hopelessness, as she was dragged back into the darkness. The rain swallowed her shrieks of despair as it had swallowed her cries for help. She flailed helplessly, mindlessly, in one final effort to escape…

She thumped her hand on the headboard of her bed, catching hold just before she rolled off the thin mattress.

Diana Milwood blinked in the darkness of her small room, breathing hard as she realized where she was.

She wasn’t a child, trapped in a cage. She wasn’t a child running through the streets to escape a pursuer. She was safe in the little room she’d occupied for several years now, in the small flat Mr. Gilbert helped her maintain.

The scream had been real enough, and her throat was still aching from it. She was a bit cold, but that was the cold sweat from her nightmare, not the cold she remembered from her dream.

The rain was real enough—only, it was drumming down in sheets outside her window shutter. It wasn’t falling on her head or soaking her to the skin. It was only a sound to trouble her dreams, not something she could take chill or hurt from.

With a sigh, she rose and got a cup of water from the chipped pitcher on her small, secondhand nightstand. She drank to sooth her throat, her free hand straying to the brooch she wore close to her heart.

That brooch was the one thing that remained to her from her life before the man who haunted her dreams had taken her away and locked her in the dark. Why he’d never taken it, she didn’t know, but she clung to it for all of that.

It was the one thing she had of her family. Her memories of those “before” days were hazy, but she remembered—or thought she did—that she’d always had this one piece of jewelry. It was gold, simply decorated with an abstract knotwork design and with a single stone in the center—her birthstone.

It was a wealthy family’s brooch, the type that might be given to the beloved daughter of a well-off merchant or even, perhaps, a child of the noble class. It would not be from the highest families in the land—for she had no doubts she’d have been found by her family long before if that had been the case—but some form of nobility nonetheless.

Diana sighed, finished her water, and slipped into bed, hand still firmly clasped around the brooch as she slid back under the thin sheets and the warm coverlet. Her eyes went to the window and the sound of the drumming rain.

The faintest light of the windblown and beleaguered street lamp outside flickered through the slats, but it was enough.

There had been no light and little enough of sound when the man—the monster, rather, for that was how she thought of him still—had taken her. There was very little light or sound save when he opened the door to feed her in the dark, windowless room she’d been kept in.

Here, there was the flicker of a streetlamp and the hissing tumble of the rain. They were reminders that she had escaped, that she was no longer a frightened child, trapped by a shadowy man and held captive.

She’d escaped, and she was free. And, thanks to Mr. Gilbert, she was warm and safe enough, with food in her belly and clothes on her back and hope still in her heart.

And that was enough to be going on with, no matter what nightmares might come.

With a deep breath and a final sigh, Diana watched the windows and let the falling rain lull her back into slumber once more.

Chapter One

The rain was frigid and uncomfortable but not half so much as the impact with the cobblestones that followed a mere second or so later.

Edmund Hampton grimaced as he dragged his head from the pavement he’d crashed into. His waistcoat, shirt, and trousers were already soaking through, and this close to street level, the smell of mud and offal was impossible to escape. He wrinkled his nose blearily and tried to shove his way to his feet.

It was harder than it seemed, not just because the street seemed inclined to sway under his hands. There was also the heavy greatcoat that thumped into his back a moment later, followed by the bellowed words from the club owner, “Be off, you wastrel, and don’t be showing your face around my establishment again!”

Ah, that was right. He’d been thrown out of the club he’d been attending…again.

Two sets of feet came to stop on either side of him, and he rolled over to gaze through alcohol-blurred eyes at the bemused expressions of his two friends, Peter and James.

James was first to move, offering him a hand before bending to get his other hand under his elbow and haul him, swaying, from the muddy pavement. Once he was on his feet, more or less, Peter slung his damp coat around his shoulders.

James grinned sloppily at him. “Well, good show that, Edmund.”

Peter snorted in what was probably meant to be a disapproving tone but was too filled with mirth to come across that way as he attempted to support Edmund’s other side. “Good show? That’s the third club this month we’ve been barred from. If you keep on like that, dear chap, we’ll have no club at all to attend.”

Edmund blinked. “I was…I was defending my…my honor. There’s no–nothing wrong with that.” It was harder than it ought to be to form words, but he hardly cared. The warm glow of alcohol in his blood was far more important. “I’mma lord. I am…a duke even.”

“You’re not a duke yet, Edmund, as you well know. And in any case, that’s hardly a reason to be trying to thrash a fellow for losing a single hand of cards. The stakes weren’t even all that high.”

James laughed. “Well, drink and a temper, and you’ll have both I suppose, Edmund. And you and me, Peter, we knew it well enough.”

“That’s as may be. But where shall we go now?” Peter grimaced. “The weather is truly foul, and there’s no point in wasting the warmth of good liquor on this chill rain. I’d rather a trip to somewhere more congenial, if you don’t mind.”

Peter, as the least encumbered and inebriated, went to find their carriage. Edmund stood, leaning on James’ shoulder and trying not to look as drunk as he felt. His head felt foggy, but under the fog, there was a thread of mingled remorse and resentment.

Peter wasn’t wrong. And nor was James. The Viscount Harcort hadn’t won all that much off of him. But his pride had been pricked by the sly comments the other was making, and in the haze of his fifth (or was it sixth?) shot of scotch, it had seemed unreasonable that the man could have beaten his full house with the cards he had and intolerable that he should make such mocking statements about how quickly he’d be draining Edmund’s purse.

And why shouldn’t he have challenged the man?

He wasn’t quite sure how it had gone from that to the attempted fisticuffs that had resulted in his being thrown bodily from the establishment. Even with the cold rain clearing his head somewhat, he only had vague memories of shouting before a lunge around the table had brought the club owner’s wrath down on his head.

The carriage clattered around, and James and Peter helped him stumble his way into it. He blinked rain out of his eyes as he slumped into the seat. “Where shall we go now?”

“After being subjected to that weather, I think I’m for home and a hot brick and a hot meal, to say nothing of a hot toddy in front of my own fireplace.” Peter grimaced and huddled into his own greatcoat. “In any case, it’s late enough, and I’ve business to be attending to in the morning.”

“That’s a fair point.” James nodded. “The weather’s not fit for man or beast, and the evening is getting on. It might be best to call it an evening.”

A part of him wanted to protest. The rest of him was tired and wanted nothing more than his own rooms and his own bed. He sighed, then heaved himself up and thumped on the roof of the carriage. “To my flat, then deliver these fine gentlemen to their own homes before you turn in for the evening.”

“As you will sir.” There was a muted snap of the wet leather of the reins, and the carriage lurched into motion.

Soon enough, they clattered to a stop, and he looked out through the spitting rain to see his own front door. He heaved himself out of the seat and lurched toward the carriage door, steadied by James, and he shoved it open and stumbled forward with uneven steps.

The door opened before he reached it, revealing the stiff-backed and disapproving form of his valet, Collins.

Behind him, the carriage clattered away into the rain, leaving him to shoulder the full force of Collins’ displeased expression. Edmund grumbled under his breath, then made his way forward, passing Collins to the warm dryness of his own moderately lit hall.

Collins’ disapproval was nothing new. The valet might be his in name, but the truth was that Collins was his mother’s man through and through, hired by her when he announced his intentions to reside in London. He was above all loyal to her, though Edmund was supposedly responsible for his salary and his living conditions.

He knew Collins reported to his mother on a regular basis. But what use was there in trying to find a new valet or trying to stop him? It would only upset his mother further.

Collins took his greatcoat, hat, and gloves. “Your evening, sir?”

“Well, I shan’t be attending that particular club again.” He grimaced. “Is there a fire laid in my rooms?”

“There is.”

“Then have bottle of brandy brought up. It’s bitter weather out.”

“Is that wise, sir? You seem to have had a fair amount at the club.” Collins, drat the man, managed to sound disapproving while also sounding utterly correct and well within his role as a valet.

Edmund exhaled sharply in annoyance. “None of that. And don’t give me that disapproving look either. You put me in mind of my mother when you look all stiff like that.”

Mood soured, he turned his steps to the cellar, intending to get his own bottle if Collins was going to be tiresome. But the stairs seemed to waver out from under him, and he found himself stumbling off-balance against the wall instead, grunting as his shoulder impacted the brickwork.

He heard Collins sigh, and then firm hands took his arm and levered him back to his feet. “Come, sir. I’ll see you to your rooms—with a dram, if you must insist on continuing this behavior. At least you’ll be in private, I suppose.”

Edmund scowled. “And what reason is there that I shouldn’t do what I like, in my own home or out of it?”

Collins sighed again as he guided him into his rooms and into a seat by the fire. “If I may be so bold, sir, a man’s reputation is everything, and yours is not…favorable. But that aside, your mother would surely be distressed to see you in such a state.”

“And what of it?”

Collins said nothing for a moment, but his lips pressed together in evident disapproval. Edmund groaned, holding his slightly aching head. “Out with it, man. You may as well speak your mind, rather than skulking around with that scowl on your face for days.”

Collins studied him for a long moment then moved to stand in front of him, back straight and hands behind his back. “Then, if I have permission to speak plainly, sir, I will say this. Your mother permitted and facilitated your move to London so that you might find some purpose to your life and learn those things a proper gentleman needs to know about conducting oneself in the circles to which your birthright entitles you entrance. Instead, you seem content to sink deeper and deeper into this dissipated lifestyle of indulgence in alcohol and loose women.”

Edmund scowled at the fire, feeling like a chastened schoolboy. “And?”

Collins voice softened, “Your mother worries for you and for the future of the Hampton title. She sent you another letter today, and it would well behoove you to answer her and at least assure her that you are in no dire straits, even if you can assure her of nothing else.”

Edmund sighed. He would have preferred to be angry at Collins and his accusations, but at the same time, he had given his manservant permission to speak freely. And in any case, it was not as though Collins had said anything untrue.

The alcohol glow seemed to be fading, leaving him weary and with a sore head. And yet, he had no more desire for the brandy he had previously requested. With a grimace, he rolled his head to look at Collins. “Perhaps there is something wrong with me, do you think?”

Collins studied him for a moment then shook his head. “Not at all, young master. You’ve perhaps lost your way somewhat, but I would not say that you are a hopeless case nor that there is anything wrong with you that some discipline and a proper purpose to your life would not mend.”

It was comforting to hear, even if he wasn’t entirely sure that Collins was being truthful. “Thank you, Collins.”

His valet nodded. “I’ll return with your nightcap and a tonic for your head, sir.” He bowed once then turned and disappeared through the open door of the bedroom.

Alone, Edmund cast his gaze over his room. The large bed dominated the room, piled high with pillows and blankets, including a heavy duvet that would be a welcome addition on a night like this. Beyond that, there was a pitcher of water and a wash basin on the chest of drawers.

Then there was a nightstand over between the bed and the windows, with a lamp standing ready to be lit with the taper over the fireplace. Between the lamp and the bed sat a shallow dish with several missives stacked neatly.

He didn’t need to see the handwriting to know that they were all from his mother—all unopened and unread.

Collins was right. Ignoring his mother would make things no better between them nor was it kind to her. With a grunt, he heaved himself to his feet and made his way with careful steps to bedside table to look at the gathered letters. He stared at them for a moment then scooped them up and returned to his seat.

He opened the one dated from several weeks prior first and read it through, then the next and the next. Finally, he opened the one that had arrived while he was out.

It was exactly like the dozen or so before it.

My Dear Son,

I have not heard from you in nearly two months, and yet, I have heard much reported of your activities, and I am full of sorrow and consternation as to the way you have comported yourself, if the rumors I have heard are to be believed. And how can I not give them countenance when I have heard no word otherwise from you?

What am I to think when I hear of your continuous attendance at the most disreputable clubs and dance halls in London or when I hear of you engaged in dalliance after dalliance, and all of them with girls of lower class or poor repute?

What I am to think when I receive such high bills from the liquor sellers of barrels and bottles delivered in such high quantities to your dwelling?

What am I to think when I have heard that the few proper gentleman’s clubs you have managed to gain entrance to, you have summarily been banned from for fighting and other conduct unacceptable in any gentleman, much less one of your status?

I fear you have gained a reputation of a rogue and a gentleman of dissolute and untrustworthy character, my son, and I beg of you to cease such disgraceful behaviors before your reputation becomes tarnished beyond any hope of repair.

A young man, an heir to his father’s title, might be expected to err somewhat, to act in a somewhat wild manner for a short space of time. Young men run hot-blooded and hot-tempered after all. But, as for my son…

My son, you will soon no longer be simply the heir to your father’s title of Duke Hampton. Soon, very soon, the title will pass to you from your uncle, as is proper. And a duke cannot have such stains to his reputation and his character, not if he wishes to retain the honor and the financial success of his title. If you wish to maintain the wealth and status of your birthright, you must take steps to secure yourself a reputation and character that will befit such a position.

I beg you, my dear son. Cease this drinking and dissipation and consorting with uncouth women of low or dubious character. Find yourself some appropriate occupation and some company of the sort that befits a noble of such status as yours.

And, if you must have female companionship, then find a young lady of proper breeding and temperament to be your partner. I do not require a formal understanding of you, but I would ask that you find a lady who is of a more acceptable reputation and bearing.

My dear son, I know no young man likes to receive such words from his mother, but please understand, I wish only every happiness and success in life for you. I admonish you only with your welfare and your future in mind.

Believe this, my son, and know I love you deeply and wish only to hear that you are well.

Your Loving Mother,

Christine Hampton, Dowager

Edmund groaned and leaned against the wing of the chair, staring at the letter in his hands, head aching and gut churning.

He knew, if he forced himself to think properly about the matter, that his mother was correct. He needed to find something productive to do with himself. He had fallen to bad habits in his schoolboy days and continued them afterward.

But how was that his fault, when his father was a laggard who’d renounced his title and run off with his mistress when he was only a boy of tender years? He’d been raised to adulthood by an uncle barely old out of boyhood himself when he’d taken temporary custody of the title, the estate, and his child nephew’s rearing.

It wasn’t his fault. And yet, reading his mother’s admonishments, he could taste the bitterness of disappointment and an awareness of his own faults of character.

He hated disappointing his mother. He didn’t want to continue to do so. And yet, he’d no idea how to start meeting the demands she’d made of him.

With a scowl, he threw the letters into the fire, watching them curl and burn with little sparks of randomly-colored fire where the heat ignited the inks in the paper.

He needed to find a proper gentleman’s club and build a proper reputation.

He needed to drink less as well, though even the thought of foregoing his regular evening drinks was uncomfortable.

He needed to find a lady with whom he could establish a relationship his mother would approve of. He was far from looking for a wife, a marriage, or even a fiancée, but perhaps he could foster the illusion of such a relationship. They’d have a cordial courting, and then he could say they didn’t suit after all.


Edmund straightened as a thought came to him. Why should he go through a farce of meeting a lady, courting her attention, and all that tiresome behavior? It wasn’t actually necessary to do so. It was only really necessary to let his mother believe he had done so.

That could be accomplished with a simple letter.

Edmund lurched from his seat to the side table and reached for the clean paper stock, pen, and inkwell that rested there.

He lit the lamp for better illumination then uncapped his inkwell, pulled free a sheet of paper, and after a few moments of consideration, began to write.

My Dear Mother,

I do apologize for the absence of correspondence, dear mother. And I will confess, I am not so unaware of my faults of character as you seem to fear I am. But there is one matter in which I fear you have been misinformed, and that is the matter of what sort of female companionship I keep.

To wit, my dear mother, in recent days, I have been seeing a young woman, one whom I imagine you would heartily approve of if you could but meet her.

You will not have heard of her, either her name in conjunction with mine nor in any society pages or other such correspondence, for she is quite dreadfully shy. Likewise, she is perhaps of poorer prospects financially than many of our circle usually associate much with and somewhat discomforted by this fact.

Nonetheless, Mother, she is a girl of good and modest character, with a graceful nature and becoming behavior and appearance. It is but early days yet between us, and I cannot say yet if matters will progress in the manner you and I might both hope. However, to date, I find her a most charming lady, and I have some hopes to properly court her. Should my suit be accepted, I may even be proposing marriage in the coming months.

I apologize that I have not communicated such to you sooner, but I have been rather cautious in my advances, a necessity with the reputation which, as you pointed out, I have so unfortunately gathered. I did not wish to reveal my efforts, should they meet with failure. Nonetheless, that is how matters stand.

Perhaps I will have better news yet for you in coming days, but for now, I beg you be satisfied with this news.

Your Devoted Son,


He finished the letter with drying power then folded it up and worked it into an envelope just as Collins entered with a discreet knock and a tray holding a tumbler of brandy and a larger glass of tonic.

Doubtless the man had delayed to give him time to sober up and languish in the headache overindulgence brought in its wake. In any case, Edmund thought he saw a glimmer of surprise in the man’s eyes to find him at the little-used side table that served as his bedroom desk rather than in his bed or still in the fireside chair.

“Collins.” He gestured for the valet to place the small tray on the side table. “I…well, you’ve made your point, about my mother. I read her correspondence while you were fetching my medicine.” A raised eyebrow but no comment greeted those words as he continued, “I’ve written her a reply.” He handed over the letter. “See that gets in the morning post to Bath, will you?”

“Of course, sir.” Collins took the letter and tucked it into his pocket. He laid out Edmund’s nightclothes and helped him change then stoked the fire and took his leave, shutting the door behind him.

Alone at last, Edmund knocked back the tonic then sipped at the brandy to wash away the taste. Once the last drops were drained, he blew out his lamp and settled into his bed with a sigh.

Perhaps he might need a change, but tomorrow was soon enough to be thinking of it.

If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here

A Duke’s Diamond in the Rough (Preview)


Yorkshire, England

September 1802

Autumn was the most beautiful time of year in the Yorkshire Moors. Each hill, each tree, and each rock; seemed to be on fire, with the colors of the leaves changing, dancing to the delicate autumnal wind. It was a wild landscape, fitting for the Wilde family, enjoying a remarkably warm day in their garden.

“Come here, you little demon!” Lord Wilde said, the moniker a good-natured term of endearment rather than a mean one.

“You have to catch me, Papa!” little Aileen cried gleefully, with all the strength a ten-year-old could muster. She ran and laughed until she couldn’t hear or see her father’s hearty laughter or see his shadow any longer. But after a while, she grew worried for she was still in the garden, hence not beyond the property. So where was he?

“Papa?” she repeated, her eyes becoming glassy with tears when, all of a sudden, strong arms lifted her up from behind and raised her into the air. She squealed with delight.

“I caught you, my lady!” Lord Wilde cried.

“That’s unfair, Papa! You hid!”

Despite her words, Aileen kept laughing and squirming in her father’s grip. Unfortunately, such playfulness was short-lived, as Giles, the head footman, cleared his throat in the doorway of the garden.

Lord Wilde finally set Aileen down on her two feet.

“My lord, you have visitors. They await you in the foyer.”

Aileen abruptly stopped giggling. She didn’t know why, but a chill ran down her spine, and it was not one of happy anticipation. There was a certain set of visitors the Wilde Manor expected, and Aileen wasn’t sure she was ready for them. Her Papa had been anxious about their arrival, having the staff clean the entire house from top to bottom. He’d even had a new gown made for Aileen, of a buttery yellow with a white sash. There were even bees embroidered on the sleeves and hem. She felt very fine in it, so that was at least one positive she could gain from this entire experience.

“Of course, Giles. Aileen, are you ready to meet your new Mama and sisters?”

She was not, but ever the dutiful daughter, even at her young age, she nodded.

“Yes, Papa.”

She wondered if he knew that she was not.


Aileen could hear her new family before she even saw them. Wilde Manor hadn’t had so much commotion in a long time. Quite honestly, it was a little jarring.

“Careful with that box, old man; I have my most prized possessions in them!” came the very authoritative, if a little icy, female voice. Then Giles and the other footman appeared, moving the large chests like set pieces at an opera.

Aileen had never seen such massive chests in her life. Her heart was pitter-pattering from the chaotic scene. Her father must have felt the same way because he gripped her hand even tighter.

“Oh, there he is, my darling Frederick!” And, thus, the frigid voice was matched to a face. A beautiful woman dressed in the finest green silk gown emerged from the madness that was the dance of the chests. This lady was stunning, a column of rose and alabaster wrapped in emerald. She moved with the grace of a swan. Aileen found herself struck dumb at the sight.

Her father dropped her hand suddenly and moved forward to kiss the stunning woman. It was just a short peck, more like a gesture of formality rather than a passionate gesture.

The noise started up again at the front of the hall. Aileen could see outside the wide open front door: a carriage and two girls stumbling out of it unhappily.

“Mother, the weather is positively scorching! I thought it was supposed to be cooler up north!” one of them whined.

“I can’t seem to find my fan anywhere,” the other said miserably.

“Girls! It is hardly the time!” snapped the beautiful woman, looking over her shoulder at them. The girls stomped into the foyer, red-faced and huffing.

“These must be my new daughters,” Lord Frederick said, smiling while looking past Aileen, who pressed her lips together nervously.

“You are correct as always, Frederick. These are my girls, Beatrice–” she gestured a graceful hand to the one who had complained of the northern weather, a ginger girl with a round face, “and Honora,” she pointed to the other, a blonde with an overly freckled nose.

Lord Wilde bowed as if he were at court.

“Very pleased to make your acquaintance, ladies,” he said. The two girls giggled and curtsied as was proper.

“And this is my lovely daughter, Aileen,” he continued, stepping aside to reveal a frozen in place Aileen.

She felt so very awkward upon meeting new people, especially ones who were so intimidating.

“It is erm… l-lovely to m-meet you.” She inwardly berated herself for stuttering. She had a bad habit of doing that when she was nervous. When writing a letter or around people with whom she was comfortable, there were no issues. She then remembered to curtsy quickly, which was a little wobbly under pressure.

Beatrice and Honora snickered behind their mother, who seemed not to notice.

“I am Lady Clarissa Bolton, no, Lady Wilde now, since I’ve married your father.”

“Please do come in; there is no sense in standing around in the foyer,” Lord Wilde said, beaming.

As they walked through the hall to the private family sitting room, Lady Clarissa’s daughters looked up and down and around in amazement. Whereas the lady herself seemed to look upon it with distaste. Aileen made all these little observations in her head as if she were taking notes.

“I must say, Frederick, I thought it would be grander. I’ve heard so much about the Wilde Manor, but it’s so much… darker than I expected.”

Little Aileen was irritated by the insult, but she couldn’t blame her for noticing the darkness. It hadn’t been updated since her real mother died, and all of the furniture, as well as many of the paintings, were indeed dark and heavy.

“To your credit, the furnishings look expensive,” Lady Clarissa said, patting the upholstery of the arm of the sofa when she sat down.

One of the maids set down a tray of tea. Aileen watched as Lady Clarissa eyed the porcelain. It was impossible to tell what she thought until she drank the tea. She wrinkled her nose and set the cup down quickly.

“Goodness, that is strong tea.”

Her father laughed good-naturedly, and Aileen felt a pang of disappointment flash through her. That was the laugh he reserved for when they played together in the garden. It was not meant for other people.

“It is fortifying. Usually, it is much colder this time of year, and you shall be glad of such strong tea when it snows.”

“Ah, but a good wine is much better for–”

Aileen interrupted at that moment. Her father was attempting to make a good impression on the newcomers, so she tried to match that.

“I w-would like to show y-y-you my greenhouse,” she offered, looking up at the beautiful lady.

Lady Clarissa’s bright green eyes affixed upon her in such an abrupt way that Aileen was taken aback.

“Oh, your greenhouse! Whatever that place is, it sounds very interesting,” she said, scrunching her face and tapping Aileen on the nose. “But I am so fatigued from the journey. Perhaps you should like to help my daughters unpack,” Lady Clarissa suggested with a smile that befitted a snake rather than a woman.

“Mother, shall we have our own greenhouse too?” Honora asked.

“I want mine purple!” Beatrice said with a bright smile.

Aileen’s father laughed again, and she bristled, her irritation growing by the minute.

“You shall have anything you like now that you are my daughters.”

Beatrice and Honora squealed until Lady Clarissa shushed them.

“Run along now girls. Go explore. Get to know each other. We’ll all dine together later as a family.”

The cool way Lady Clarissa said it made Aileen very much doubt that, but as an obedient and unobtrusive child, she did as she was told.

Beatrice and Honora ran out into the foyer and up on the grand staircase, but Aileen bit her fingernails and hung back near the doorway of the library, anxious to be apart from her father. But this was her life now, and these girls would be her sisters. Her father and late mother would expect politeness. She shyly approached the two girls, intending to introduce herself properly. They were huddled on the stairs, whispering and giggling.

“Why are you wearing that? It’s so old-fashioned,” Beatrice commented.

“You look like a bumblebee,” Honora said. The two of them made buzzing noises in unison for a second, then broke into hysterical laughter.

Aileen could feel tears gathering in her eyes as her hands bunched the buttery yellow fabric. She had promised her mother to stay strong no matter what, and she wasn’t about to break that promise over a pretty yellow dress and some mean-spirited girls. She had to persevere.


Chapter One

Wilde Manor, Yorkshire, October 1812


 “Have you seen my shawl, Aileen?” came a shrill voice from the other side of the room.

“Which of them, Honora?” Aileen asked, masking a sigh.

“The one with the beadwork! Can’t you see it’s the only one that suits this gown?”

Honora did a twirl in her blue silk gown as if inviting effusive praise.

“Honora, surely you do not expect Aileen to know about fashion like you do. Why, she can barely dress herself!” Beatrice jabbed.

They burst into terrible rounds of laughter while Aileen rolled her eyes. After ten years, she was used to the taunts of her stepsisters, so she continued to search for the shawl amongst the heap of gowns on the bed.

“I, for one, do not think there’s anyone in all of England capable of making a dress your size; even the most famous modiste would run out of fabric if she tried,” Honora said.

“Little wonder Father scarcely ever comes back with a gown for her!” They both screeched with laughter.

“I am not fat!” Aileen maintained. “You have such a way with your exaggerations.”

“Yes, you are! Mother says you are, and everyone else knows it.” Beatrice seemed to enjoy watching Aileen’s face turn red as she stole glances at her stepsister through the mirror on the vanity.

“Papa says I’m petite and pear-shaped,” Aileen said.

“You mean bean-shaped?” Honora said with a snort, causing the stepsisters to crow in laughter.

Aileen rolled her eyes. These girls would never change. They hadn’t in ten years and probably wouldn’t in another ten. After she located the beaded shawl, she raised her gaze to the elegant backs of her stepsisters. Honora generously dabbed perfume on while Beatrice fussed over flowers and ribbons on her bonnet. A peculiar sense of longing arose in Aileen. She liked fine things, and part of her wished she, too, could dress up and attend events. But she was too clumsy and shy, which doubled in the presence of her stepmother and stepsisters. At the beginning of the season, she tripped over her feet and crashed into her dance partner. It wasn’t that bad–he’d laughed–but Lady Clarissa was so embarrassed and infuriated by Aileen’s fumble that she’d ordered her to be sequestered at Wilde Manor until she could comport herself properly in public. How being away from all polite society would help her practice, Aileen did not understand, but Lady Clarissa was fearsome indeed.

As the stepsisters rose to meet the carriage downstairs, Aileen suggested, “You might want a Spencer or a coat for the cold.”

“No, Aileen, that would ruin the look. See, you know so little about fashion!” Beatrice snapped.

“Yes, you ought to stay and tidy the room instead,” Honora added.

They laughed as they exited the room in a cloud of perfume. After closing the door behind them, Aileen coughed and sat on the edge of the bed, surveying the mess in the room. The other ladies of Wilde Manor were on their way to the Earl of Warwickshire’s northern country home for tea. It had been a month since the incident at the first ball of the season, and she was still being held away. There were plenty of months left, but Aileen would sit out the entire season if her stepmother had her way. And then she’d chastise me for being a spinster, she reflected bitterly. At the very least, her father would be at home today. He’d taken a long journey around the continent. Although they frequently wrote, quill and ink could never replace his warm smile and genuine eyes.

She picked up the dresses on the floor and put them on the bed, then began to fold everything delicately to put it back in the wardrobe. Out of the corner of her eye, a gown caught her attention. It was as delicate as a sugar confection, intricately laced with gold shimmering and teardrop pearls over a lush rosy under gown. The sleeves were so insubstantial as to be mere whispers of silk, and the neck came down low. She loved everything about the dress. As much as her stepsisters disdained her, she really did like fashion and pretty things. She picked it up and held it against herself in the long mirror. It was the perfect color to bring out her complexion.  Her light brown hair and amber eyes seemed darker, but it was rather perfect. Perhaps, next time her father went on a trip, she’d request fabric like this instead of flowers and wear such a gown to a ball. Whenever her father traveled, he brought back all sorts of gifts for his wife and daughters. And, of course, Beatrice and Honora always had the latest and greatest fabrics. And they looked quite stunning in them–after all, they’d grown into quite beautiful young women. When Aileen had first met them, they were still red-faced, freckled children. She, however, did not feel as though she’d changed much. Instead of fabric, she always asked for exotic plants and flowers that she could not procure in Yorkshire. Lord Wilde brought those back every time, and she tended them faithfully in her greenhouse.


Her stepmother called her name shrilly. Aileen said a quick, silent prayer for strength, then tossed the gown on the bed, her steps quickening as her stepmother called her again. When she reached the top of the stairs in the grand foyer, Lady Clarissa was waiting at the bottom, stroking a feathered fan impatiently.

“Did you not hear me calling for you?” Even from this distance and the high ground, Aileen could see those green eyes spark.

“I’m sorry, your grace, I was tending to the dressing room.”

Lady Clarissa sniffed in derision.

“I will be out to run errands, so make sure the house is spotless for your father’s return. I have sent Bonnie to chaperone my girls. You’ll have plenty of time alone to clean the house. I expect that shouldn’t be a troublesome task for you.”

Not long after arriving at Wilde Manor, Lady Clarissa had dismissed most of the staff, claiming they were incompetent or rude to her. The other servants she’d hired in their stead handed in their notice not too long after starting, unable to work under the lady’s demands. So, Aileen did much of the cleaning in the large, empty home.

“Well, I was hoping I could spend some time at the greenhouse with Bianca today,” Aileen said, fidgeting with her fingers behind her back. Her stutter had gone, but it was replaced by fiddling with various things instead.

“Ugh, not that greenhouse again. It is little wonder you have no prospects or friends when you hide away in there all the time,” she said mockingly.

“Bianca is my friend,” she protested. Bianca Dowling was the daughter of a neighboring lord, and the two had often played as children. Now that they were older, there was less and less time for play, especially since her duties at the manor kept her so preoccupied.

Lady Clarissa scoffed.

“I’m sure your one friend can wait.”

Aileen fought the tears that welled up in her eyes with anger. It is your fault that I am not allowed out, she wanted to say. You do this to me. But she didn’t. She needed to keep calm and not give her stepmother any more cause for teasing.

“I am at a loss for what to do with you, Aileen. I told your father he ought to be sterner with you. But, the man doesn’t seem to have a single harsh bone in his body. If I had my way–”

Don’t you always? Aileen thought but did not say it aloud.

“–I would toss you out of the house this instant so you could learn the cold realities of life. You cannot always be living in a fairytale. As a lady, you must–”

Giles interrupted at that moment, looking a little too pleased with himself.

“Your Grace, your carriage is ready.” He was not shy with his dislike of Lady Clarissa.

She rounded on him immediately, forgetting Aileen.

“Such impudent servants. I wonder where Frederick procured you. Lucky he insists on having you around.”

Giles only nodded and smiled, utterly immune to Lady Clarissa’s venomous words.

“Thank you, Giles,” Aileen said, finally feeling safe enough to descend the stairs.

“It seemed like you needed saving, my lady. That old bat seems to prefer the sound of her own voice to any other tune.”

“Oh, don’t let her catch you saying that!” Aileen said with a laugh. “Though I should hop to it, I suppose.” Her tone was decidedly somber at that.

It was evident Giles could not help but feel such pity for her. The way Lady Clarissa treated her when Lord Wilde was not around was unacceptable. Still, because of the power balance, he could not say anything. And she looked a little worse for wear too. Her amber eyes were dull, and there were dark circles under them. And to top it all, she wasn’t allowed to bathe as often as her stepsisters as her hair was a little dirtier and her skin not quite as fresh looking.

“It isn’t your place to clean after them,” Giles reminded her gently.

“Oh, I don’t mind. Papa wants us all to be family, and I just want to make him happy. He seems to love Lady Clarissa, and I love seeing him happy.”

“What about you, my lady? Are you happy?”

Aileen paused, a brief flash of truth in her eyes.

“I am content and grateful for all we have, Giles. I should hasten. Surely Papa will be home soon.”

Giles knew better than to press on, so he bowed and began to make his way down the corridor by the front door as Aileen made her way upstairs. Through the open window that looked out onto the front garden, the clip-clop of hooves and the creak of a carriage wheel sounded. Could it be His Grace, arriving early? Or perhaps Her Grace had forgotten something… Aileen made her way down the staircase again when a knock sounded. She could not see very far through the cracked door.

“Good day, sir. How can I help you?” Giles asked.

Well, it certainly wasn’t her father, from the sound of that voice.

“My name is Edmund Barnes. I request to speak to the lady of the house,” the man responded, his tone imperious.

“The lady of the house is out at the moment, but you can speak with her,” Giles said while motioning to Aileen, whose footsteps alerted him of her presence. He opened the door a little further so she and the visitor could properly see each other. “This is Lady Aileen Wilde, daughter of Lord Frederick Wilde. She can receive your call.”

Aileen curtsied politely, quietly commending herself for not falling. The young man raised his hat to his chest as he greeted her. He wasn’t a bad-looking guy. His curly hair, light freckles on his face, and easy way of speaking were endearing. Perhaps she was too easily impressed… after all, she had grown up with very little masculine company. The young man’s face fell as he looked at Aileen, who clearly resembled a servant. She realized then that her gloves were stained, she was wearing a ratty apron, and she did not look like a lord’s daughter. However, he did not seem to notice as he appeared to be quite disheartened.

“My lady, my deepest apologies. I’m afraid I bear horrid news.”

If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here

What a Duchess Wants (Preview)

Chapter One

Rose stood with her clenched fists hidden within the silken folds of her skirts. Her whole body was ramrod stiff; so much so she was almost shaking.

“I cannot believe you consider this appropriate, Your Grace.” She almost spat the title at her brother-in-law. “My husband not dead even a year.”

“Oh, don’t give me that grief-stricken bride act.”  Ernest Barrington stubbed out the cigar he had arrived smoking on her china tea saucer, sitting atop her antique writing desk. ‘We know there was nothing between you, and certainly not a baby!”

He did not hide his pleasure at that. It was the first thing the pair had agreed on all afternoon, but she would not admit it to him. She was beginning to realize that without the patter of tiny feet, her position in this stunning castle was extremely tenuous.

“The Duke and I understood each other very well,” Rose insisted, jutting out her chin to cling to a modicum of self-confidence.

“Sadly, not as well as the dozen or so other women on whom he bestowed his favors, who have at least had the sense to realize their good fortunes are over. You got what you wanted out of Ambrose; your father’s debt paid off with money that should rightfully be mine now, and your sister’s place in society guaranteed. Now it is payback time.”

Rose did not grace him with a reply. She just stared him down.

“You must know that the church does not approve of such practices,” she said.

“Oh, so you have suddenly become pious now?” He cocked his head to one side and gave her a sneering smile.

“I was raised to be God-fearing, Your Grace.’

“Well, in my opinion, the church has very little to do with religion. It is simply a system of control, and I don’t need controlling. What I am asking of you is not against the law, and it makes perfect sense for both of us. And who, except us, is going to object?”

But I do object, thought Rose.  Every single cell in my body is objecting. She could not fail to observe how the rolls of fat around his middle were straining against his vest buttons and breeches.  He was so overweight his legs looked like sticks trying to hold up a disproportionate torso. But that was not the worst thing about him.

“Look,” he was trying again. “It must be quite plain this is sensible, even to you.” Ernest took stepped across the red silk rug in the drawing room to come uncomfortably close to her. She moved to step back, but the loveseat behind her was blocking her retreat. The smell of tobacco, alcohol, and pungent cologne emanating from him was overpowering. At close quarters, he was even more repugnant; his skin blotched and pot-marked. His fine clothing—which had led to Ambrose calling him ‘The Dandy’, and not in an affectionate way—did not make up for his unsightly countenance. She gulped down her revulsion at his nearness and attempted a smile. She was going to have to try a different tack.

“Your Grace, I am sure you could find a far younger and more lovely life companion, especially with your new-found status.”

“What do I want with a ton twit?” Ernest spat, his spittle landing on her cheek. It was all she could do not to dash it away, but she was not going to do anything which would widen his Machiavellian leer.

“I want you and I always have, long before Ambrose chose to thwart me. But you are still young enough to serve me well.”

He reached out and touched one gnarled finger to the back of her hand before she whipped hers away. He smiled with the smugness of an animal circling its prey, knowing all routes were blocked.

“You really only have two choices, my dear. Marry me and be the Duchess of Norfolk, or endure a life of poverty.”

“I am already the Duchess of Norfolk,” she retorted.

“The Dowager Duchess now,” he sneered.  “You can keep that title. It means nothing. It can’t buy you a house, pay your servants, pay or your bills. Only marriage to me will guarantee that.”

“Or marriage to someone else!” She aimed her chin at him again.

“But my dear, who would want you? You’re barren.”

Rose reeled at his cruelty. She hadn’t expected such a low comment, even from him. She didn’t know she was barren. The problem could have lain with Ambrose. But she was aware of the gossip in the ton, which would certainly restrict any marriage proposals. However, the one thing his comment had cemented in her was her resolve to have nothing to do with her late husband’s brother.

Rose steeled herself to bring her face closer to his as she ground out angrily, “I wouldn’t marry you if my life depended on it.”

Ernest was unfazed. He shrugged. “I would say, my dear, that it does.”

He watched her, hawk-like, as she moved away from him, over to one of the long windows looking out across the castle gardens. In the distance, she could see the rooftops of the town, rolling down to the River Arun beyond. A fully-laden barge was moving slowly towards Arundel port. It was a dull, rainy English summer’s day, but the lushness of the lawns, and the greenery of the forest, usually pleased her even when wet. Not today, however.

“The Duke and I were married for nine years without one child, as you have so charitably pointed out.” She suppressed the quiver in her voice. “Why would you wish to marry me?”

“I am not interested in children!” Ernest Barrington laughed. “You will be too busy to look after them if I have anything to do with it.” He leered then lasciviously, letting his gaze sink toward the top of her cleavage. She moved her hands to cover herself there. He smiled, and she could see the tobacco stains on his teeth. “The title can die with me as far as I am concerned,” he said.

“But this is my house, my home,” Rose said softly, almost beseechingly.

“No, Duchess, it is mine, but if you marry me, you may lodge in it.”

The Duke reached into the breast pocket of his navy dress coat and withdrew a small silver snuff box. Flipping it open, he put some snuff on the back of his thumb, brought it close to his nose, and inhaled deeply and loudly before putting it back in its place.  Then he began to pace back and forth along the silk rug, his exasperation obvious with every step. “Look, I have waited long enough. I stayed away until now, remaining in the London house. I have entertained decorum. I am a considerate man.” He stared at her then as if to defy any comment from her to the contrary. “You cast off your black robes soon enough. You have had eleven months, and in a few weeks you will be free to marry again. I am giving you seven days to make your decision. I must admit, I expected someone in your position to be more grateful. I am being more than generous. You will not want for anything. You married one Duke of Norfolk to get what you wanted. What’s the difference?”

Rose did not grace him with an answer. She decided she had entertained his lewd looks quite enough for one day.  “I want you to leave now,” she told him.

He laughed. “Oh, but it isn’t about what you want any longer, is it, Rose?” His use of her given name rather than her title raised her ire even further.

“Well, if you won’t leave, then I will. Good day to you, Your Grace.” With that, she walked out of the drawing room and across the castle’s entry hall, only then swiping the back of her hand furiously across her cheek to remove any trace of his disgusting ejections.

Her butler hurried after her: “Can I be of assistance, Your Grace?”

“Yes. Make sure he leaves. I am going out.”

The butler looked concerned.

“Shall I ready your carriage?”

“No, thank you.”

Rose had no destination in mind; she just knew she needed to be alone. She changed direction suddenly and headed for the boot room. “I am going for a walk.”

“But it is so wet outside, Your Grace,” she heard the butler say.

The wetter, the better, Rose thought, to wash the stench of Ernest Barrington out of my nostrils.

She did not stop to change her clothes; she truly did not care what she was wearing.                       Theirs had indeed been no love match. Ambrose Barrington had not been looking for a lover—or should she say, another one—and she knew there was only one man she would ever love but couldn’t have. So, she had accepted the marriage proposal from the Duke of Norfolk after her parents died and set about making her surroundings as comfortable as possible if that was to be her life.  The Duke had ensured she looked the part of his duchess to everyone outside the walls of their palatial castle, but their arrangement had been a business deal: her reputation for his heir. It had not worked out that way.

Rose pulled on a pair of half boots beneath her cream satin skirts. She shunned her own tight-fitting outdoor apparel and grabbed Ambrose’s hunting coat from where it was still hanging on a peg, shrugging the hood over her head. She was well-known in Arundel town, and there had been a steady procession of well-wishers to her door since Ambrose had fallen from his horse. She did not want to run into anyone and feel obliged to explain her furious demeanor.

Rose let herself out of the boot room door and walked fast towards the main entrance to the castle, keeping her long blonde hair well-hidden beneath the coat. To all intents and purposes, she looked like one of the servants dispatched on an errand, her head down against the English drizzle.

Once outside the castle, she turned away from the town. She made for a small clump of trees along the side of the castle wall, which she knew would lead her down to one of the tributary streams of the River Arun and one of her favorite spots. Even before Ambrose had died, Rose would regularly don a disguise and leave the rich trappings of the castle behind to sit by the water and remember a time when life had been full of promise and the love of a man whose touch she still craved; whose smile had always been able to lift her spirits no matter the difficulties at home.

The hours she had spent with him had blotted out the endless harping of her mother, generally aimed at her father, if not her daughters. Rose had not understood then. To her, it seemed that her mother was a bitter, discontented, middle-aged woman who took out all her annoyance and anxieties on Rose’s beloved father. Rose had come to dislike her intensely as she had grown older. But she had regularly escaped from the confines of their home, lured into mischief by the boy whom Rose had favored almost her entire life.

They had met as children when their fathers became acquaintances and regularly romped in the grounds of Rose’s ancestral home or the fields around their estates. Her mother had chafed at that too, insisting it was not seemly that her tomboy daughter was climbing trees, unchaperoned, with a boy.

“Let them be, Victoria,” her father had admonished, surreptitiously winking at his eldest daughter. “Life is short, and when one reaches adulthood, almost not worth living.”

Rose had always been puzzled by that statement. Her father was one of the most liked people he knew, and he always came home with a big smile and even bigger presents for his two little girls. It was only later, after her parents died that Rose learned why he was so popular; because everyone was becoming rich as a result of his ineptitude at cards.

Reaching the stream’s edge now, Rose bent to trail her fingers in the cool water. She was hot beneath the thick cape and the huge hood, but as much as she longed to shrug it off and plunge into the water, she knew she could not. She had made her choice all those long years ago, and the life which would have allowed that was lost to her now. She had chosen propriety, status, and influence over love and fun. If she had been an only child, it would not have happened.

Rose had no fear of leaving the trappings of nobility behind and living a simpler life, but back then, her duty had been to her sister.

She knew her brother-in-law was right; she had no claim to the castle she had made her home. The law of succession was clear. Ambrose and Ernest Barrington had been the only surviving children of their parents. Ernest had automatically become the Duke of Norfolk, and Earl Marshall, upon Ambrose’s death.

Rose had married Ambrose Barrington specifically for money and because of his Earl Marshall role. As soon as her nuptials had been concluded, Rose had requested a coat of arms be granted to her little sister’s new husband to secure his status in society. Like Rose, Mary had fallen in love with a commoner, despite her frenetic season at the ton where she had been voted most popular. With both parents gone, and a mountain of debt in their wake, although Mary did not know that, the elder sister knew she had to protect the younger and save the family home for her too. The Duke had agreed to pay off all her father’s IOUs as the final part of their arrangement.

“The most important thing is you will be happy,” Rose had told Mary on the eve of her wedding.

“But what about you? Did you marry for love?” Mary had challenged her. Rose had evaded the question.

“I shall be content knowing I did my darnedest to make your life everything it should be.”

“But what about Will?”

“We will always have fond memories of a great friendship,” she had smiled and willed her tears not to come at the thought of the boy who had been her constant companion for years.

Rose knew her position and her role, and she knew she had to turn her back on that part of her life and walk away. She remembered the pain of losing him, like someone had reached into her chest, wrenched her heart free, and squeezed it dry. Throughout all her marriage preparations, she had felt utterly lost. She was so grateful the Duke was not interested in her, bar using her body as an heir-making machine. She knew she could never even pretend to love another.

But now, here she was, nearly a decade on, with no husband, no home, and no William Browning. All she had was an offer from one of the most odious men of the ton, albeit the most prestigious duke in the realm, to abandon every shred of possible happiness for money. Again. What was she going to do?

The rain had begun to fall more heavily. She hunched her back against it. She liked the feel of the raindrops pittering across her shoulders as the mud rose around her leather boots and her hemline turned from cream to dirty brown. She didn’t care. How long before she had no use for such finery anyway?

She rose to her feet, pulling the waxed hood down even lower in front of her eyes, and began to meander along the river bank. The trees were tightly-packed here, forcing her to weave her way between them but offering a good shelter from the increasingly heavy rain. However, the further she walked, the more open the landscape became until she was crossing the plain where she and Will had often cavorted as children. Their family homes had both been a little way down the river from Arundel, towards the sea, but they had frequently hitched a ride into town with Will’s father.

Sometimes Rose was glad she had stayed in the area where she had spent her childhood; other times, she wished she had moved to the far fringes of Scotland. Today was one of the latter.

She knew her sister would take her in and let her live with them as a widowed aunt to their two little ones. But she also knew she could not do that. She could not sit and observe the happiness the pair exuded, day after day, while herself living in a romantic desert.

“It is just not fair,” Rose muttered to herself, then looking skywards, she shouted at the top of her voice: “It is not fair.”

She began to run across the open field, her arms flung wide, her half-boots hammering across, sometimes catching in, the deepening mud. “It. Is. Not. Fair.” She hurled the individual words at the sky, occasionally whirling full circle as she repeated them over and over again, raising her face up to the falling rain, enjoying the feeling of the liquid running down her cheeks.

She was shouting so loudly, and the rain was falling so thickly she was unaware that she was no longer alone. It was only as she was whirling on her heels, still remonstrating with the heavens, that she caught a flash of man and beast out of the corner of her eye. She stopped screaming instantly and lowered her hood to obscure her face, presenting her back to the man. What would people think of her behavior if this person chose to share what he had seen and knew who she was? She only prayed that he had not caught a glimpse of her face and just took her for a local girl. She hoped he would just ride on by, but from beneath her lashes, she could see his fine, handsome steed staring at her as intently as he no doubt was.

“Are you quite well, madam?” she heard him shout above the downpour.

“Quite well, thank you,” she replied, not turning to look at him. Move on, move on, she thought.

“You seemed to be in some distress.” He was not moving on.

“I was simply enjoying the weather, sir,” Rose shouted back, taking care to arrange her words into a distinct southern country accent so that he would believe she lived locally. She couldn’t see him with her back turned, but his horse looked like it belonged to the nobility.

“Enjoying this?” He scoffed. “I see no pleasure in a lashing downpour.”

He was maneuvering his horse closer to her, perhaps to hear her better. She watched the horse’s hooves plod closer from beneath the edge of her hood. She could only imagine what she must look like, with a coat hem that extended to her heels and the sleeves ending lower than her fingertips.

“You will catch your death of cold if you stay out here long. Pray let me escort you to town. My horse is strong and can easily carry both of us.”

“No, thank you. I would not dream of putting you to any bother.” Rose groaned inside at the way she had pronounced ‘bother’—far more like a duchess than a village wench. It had been years since she had feigned a local accent and it took practice. She hoped he hadn’t noticed.

“Please do turn your face to mine,” the man said then. “It is most disconcerting having a conversation with the back of your head.”

Rose was trapped. She knew she was behaving most rudely. The rain was still hammering down between them, and she prayed it, and her hood would be enough to hide her as she turned slowly towards him and raised her chin as high as she dared without revealing her eyes.

She could tell now that he was a gentleman. His steed was tall, its coat gleaming, and he wore a pair of the finest black knee-high riding boots.

“You are soaked through,” he observed in a deep, rich voice. “Why on earth did you venture out in such weather and in such apparel?”

“I was dancing, sir. Celebrating the arrival of a new season in this beautiful countryside. I purloined my father’s coat.”

“It is bloody weather for June,” he said, and she imagined his smile. His boot moved in the stirrup. He sounded handsome and refined.

“Well, I am quite fine, you can be assured. I will bid you good day, sir.”

She started to walk away, trying to accomplish it as elegantly as possible, but the heels of her boots were sticking in the slippery mud, so her first few steps had to be slow and deliberate.

“May I know your name?” he called after her.

“Muriel,” Rose shouted back. “My name is Muriel.”

“Well, Muriel, I fear you may take days to reach the village at that pace, and this rain is only getting worse. I would be remiss if I did not act to assure your safety.”

He had turned his horse and ridden up behind her. One of his stirrups was just inches from her shoulder, and she felt a rush of air as he suddenly dismounted.

“I can assure you I have no ill intention,” he said. “I simply wish to assure your good health and I cannot understand why you would reject my offer.”

Rose was getting vexed now. He was far too close to her. She just wanted to get back to the anonymity of the castle. What was it about men that they never took no for an answer?

“Look, kind sir,” she started, but she did not say it as if she thought he was being kind. “I am not a damsel in distress who needs rescuing. I can take care of myself.”

She was aware he was walking around in front of her to effectively block her path. This made her even angrier.

“I would ask that  you get out of my way, and I will bid you good day, and we shall say nothing more of it. I am perfectly capable of returning home alone.”

“If you were perfectly capable, I don’t think you would have left home in this weather in those dainty boots,” he said derisively. Rose’s head snapped back to challenge his tone but for one fraction of a second, she laid eyes on her tormentor.

Rose froze. Everything went silent. She couldn’t hear the rain, the birds, or the breathing of his horse. Everything was suspended as she looked at the face of the one person she had fallen asleep with every night and woken with every morning for year after year. In that one moment, as he was still assessing her footwear, she saw the tousled brown curls peeking from beneath his sodden top hat. Every wonderful, glorious, precious moment they had ever shared together flashed before her eyes.  Then, she snapped her chin back down to her breastbone as her heartbeat began to pound in her ears. How? How is he here? Am I dreaming? Why does he sound so different? His voice was a richer, deeper baritone, but it was unmistakably him.

She had to get away from him. It was imperative now. She had wronged this man so badly. She could not face his reaction if he realized who she was. She moved quickly to the right, intending to go around him, but as she lifted her foot, her boot caught again, and she almost fell sideways, twisting her ankle. She groaned out loud.

“Are you in pain?” he was next to her immediately as she shook her head, trying to quieten the sound of her rapidly-beating heart, making her feel quite breathless. He took that as an indication of her frailty. “Come now, I will brook no argument. Let me escort you back to your family at once before the cold infiltrates the rest of you, and you succumb to a fever.”

He was older, broader, and even more handsome than she remembered, but why was he dressed like a lord and riding a horse fit for royalty? His arms were reaching for her now.

“Don’t be afraid if this is your first time on a horse. She is as gentle as a deer,” he said, next to her hood, and with that, his arms came around her body and lifted her free of the mud, swinging her up as easily as he would a child against his chest.

“Will, stop!” Rose screamed.

Chapter Two

Rose threw her head back against his shoulder as she attempted to free herself from his arms, and the wet hood slid off her tell-tale long blonde hair.


Rose cringed at his shout, not wishing to look at his face, having longed for but dreaded this moment for so many years.

He had stopped mid-step, but he did not release her. Instead, if anything, he held her more tightly.

“Rose! Is it really you?”

His voice cracked on the last word, and she realized his shout had not been uttered in anger. She turned her head to look at him, and he was staring at her face from just inches away with a look of wonderment. “How did I not recognize you? Your voice? The shape of you? That dance! That accent!” As she watched, a slow, delicious grin spread across his features. “How could I not realize that only you would be mad enough to be out in this downpour?”

Rose said nothing, her heart still pounding in her chest but marveling now at the play of emotions across his face. It was the same face she had lain in bed with every night for nine years, conjuring up that very smile, imagining the feel of his hands on her body. And now his hands were on her body, and they burned where he was touching her, even through her layers of clothes and undergarments. She could feel his breath on her face as he seemed to be struggling to maintain his composure. She could hear the pounding of his heart, too, against her cheek. Hers felt like a printing press. The rain was still falling, running in rivulets down their faces.

“I truly can’t believe it,” he was murmuring. “I can’t believe you are here!”

And then suddenly, with no warning at all, he bent his head and kissed her. His warm lips descended on hers, sealing out the rain, moving gently and tenderly and sparking a melting heat in almost every part of her body. Rose knew she should push him away, but as his arms closed more tightly around her back and her knees, she was being pressed against him as if he was trying to meld them into one. His lips were slaking so gently across hers that she felt as though she was dissolving into liquid. Then he suddenly raised his lips and looked into her wide eyes.

“Sorry,” he said softly. “I couldn’t help myself.”

He rested his forehead on hers for a moment, so she could feel his ragged breaths against her skin.

“It has been so long,” she said.

“So very long,” he agreed. “May I kiss you again?”

The fact he was asking for her permission seemed incongruous. All those years before, they had simply belonged to each other, and he had never asked to touch or caress her. Maybe he felt as she did, she thought, that one wrong move might shatter this sudden, unexpected, magical moment. She had so expected him to be angry, to shun her and ride away. But he was holding her as if she was a precious prize and seemed to have no desire to put her down.

She raised one hand to touch his hair and caress the side of his face, almost as if she was drawing him. He rubbed his cheek against her palm, then she ran her hand around to the back of his neck and slowly, gently pulled his lips down to hers. The warmth of his mouth was intoxicating, made all the more so by the cool of the rain as his lips danced across hers, their tongues intertwined.

Rose remembered this feeling so well; how her body used to surrender to his; the feeling of his soft, warm lips on her mouth, on her neck, against her ears.

“Oh, Will,” she groaned and was rewarded by an even tighter grip on her body.

“Rose,” she heard him gasp.

His kiss was becoming more ardent, more desperate. Her coat had fallen open, and where he had tightened his grip on her, his hand was now closer to the embroidered band of material across her breasts. The backs of his fingers brushed against the bare skin of her throat, and the jolt that she felt was obviously mutual as he groaned too. The tips of his fingers grazed the top of her cleavage, and she was certain that was deliberate, but she did not stop him. It was as if the clock had been instantly rewound and she was back where she had always been a decade before.

The drenching rain had soaked the fabric of her dress and undergarments; both were now thin and clinging to her body. Rose felt Will begin to move one finger across the bare skin above the band of her bodice as she arched in his grip, putting more of herself within his reach. She heard him chuckle against her lips, a deep, resonant, glorious sound that she had waited so long to hear again. Then his lips left hers and began to trail down her neck into the hollow at the bottom of her throat. His touch was like gossamer, barely there, just a trail of tingling heat. He began to trace circles with his tongue on her exposed flesh. She wanted that feeling to go on forever, but then suddenly, he moved his hand to capture one thrusting breast, closing his fingers around her nipple through the wet silk. Rose could not contain a sound that was half-human, half-animal.

“Harder,” she whispered against his wet hair, his top hat long toppled. “Touch me harder, just like you used to.” She was arching in his arms as he obliged. He was squeezing her breast so hard it was almost painful as his lips moved to the tiny gap at the top of her cleavage and started sliding slowly, purposefully, downwards. Her bodice was being pushed aside by his mouth as he rained kisses on her now-fevered skin. Then, his fingertips were inside the top of her bodice, pulling it down and clear to expose her whole breast. Rose gasped as his lips closed around her bare nipple, which was now so taut it was aching. She writhed with pleasure.

“Easy, easy,” he murmured against her breast. “You like that.” It was a statement and not a question. He knew she did. The more Rose writhed, the more he sucked on this most sensitive part of her. He was moving his fingers in tandem with his lips, tracing circles against the soft underside of her now naked breast. Inside Rose, the nerve endings in places he wasn’t even touching exploded. Her other breast was aching, equally; the nipple yearning for his fingers, his lips. But in this awkward pose, she knew he could not reach her there. He seemed to read her mind.

Without his lips leaving her breast, Rose felt herself being lowered slowly to the ground.

He sank to his knees as he laid her on the wet grass, finally releasing her nipple to kiss her lips, hard, once more, lying full-length next to her and crushing her breasts against his chest. She could feel her soft curves melded to his hard contours. She put her arm around him, feeling the play of his back muscles against her fingers, as she pressed him tighter to her, even trying to pull him over on top of her. She wanted to feel the weight of him holding her. He followed her lead and rolled towards her, heedless of the wet and the mud, but he kept his whole body weight suspended on straightened elbows, his face just a foot or so from hers.

She tried to pull him back down towards her, but he resisted. “I just need a moment,” he laughed, “to catch my breath.”

Water dripped off his hair onto her face. She wrinkled her nose against the unexpected drops and laughed. For a moment, neither of them moved. Years of unspoken conversations flowed between them in that suspended moment.

She could feel the cold, wet chill of the ground against her back, but he was grinning at her, warming her. He shook his head so that more drops of water fell on her face.

“Hey,” she protested, laughing, and reached to push him squarely in the chest, but by pushing his torso up and back, she forced his hips into sudden, direct contact with hers, and both their eyes widened. The hardness of his manhood through his breeches was obvious. He didn’t move away, but instead, he held her gaze with hooded eyes as he pushed himself even more closely against her thigh, through the folds of her dress. She felt him shudder with pleasure as she raised her hips to meet his. They stayed there, melded together, their labored breathing mingling with the sounds of nature around them, until he brought his chest back down to rest against her breasts as he buried his head in her hair and began to kiss her neck.

“You taste so wonderful,” he said breathily against her skin.

“Will,” she breathed out softly.

“Say my name again,” he murmured.

Behind them, Will’s horse neighed as if he was speaking for her. Will lifted his head and laughed. “We have an audience.”

For one moment, Rose looked panicked, but Will laughed again. “I meant the horse!”

But his words had broken the spell in Rose. That moment of alarm had made her realize what they must look like, literally rolling together in the mud, lost in carnal desire.

“You know we can’t do this,” Rose said sadly.

“But we are,” his lips descended on hers, and he kissed her into silence. For a moment, she surrendered to the sweet, salty taste of his full lips once more, but then, reluctantly, she pulled away.

“Anybody might see us!”

Will swiveled his head in all directions. “There’s nobody here.”

“We can’t know that!”

“What would they see? Nothing more than they would have seen ten years ago when you were never so nervous.”

She looked at him then, taking a moment to commit everything she saw, everything she felt to memory. She noted the throbbing of her body, the rivulets of pleasure running through her, the tingling where his body touched hers. He arched an eyebrow at her intense stare, and then she moved before her resolve broke.

“You need to let me up,” she said, pushing against his chest.

For a moment, he resisted, his deep brown eyes looking directly into hers. It was obvious he didn’t want to let her go, and deep down, Rose did not want him to. She wanted to stay there, rain or no rain, for eternity, with him holding her, watching his smile. She wanted to turn back time to those carefree fun-filled days she missed so much. But she pushed harder against his chest and the gentleman within him, however frustrated, gave in.

He tipped sideways, allowing Rose to put a space between them as she smoothed her wet hair back from her face and straightened her sodden and muddy dress.

“Look at the state of me,” she said plaintively.

“You have never looked more beautiful to me,” Will smiled. “And I am certainly no oil painting myself.” The whole of one side of his jacket, breeches, and boots were coated with mud.

She knew the passion of the moment was broken, but they sat side-by-side in the rain, both breathing a little faster than was normal, if now from a few inches apart.

“Why didn’t you tell me it was you?” Will asked her softly.

She didn’t look at him.

“I didn’t know it was you either until you got down from your horse. I couldn’t see you from beneath my hood.”

“But then…”

“It was not proper what I was doing. I didn’t want you to recognize me.”

“Who cares about proper?” Will threw his hands up, slightly exasperated.

Rose span to face him. “I do! I have to.”

She watched his expression darken.

“Ah yes, I forgot.” His tone was suddenly bitter. “Rose the duchess”.

“That’s not fair, Will. I have to respect my station. I can’t just do anything I want. There are consequences.”

Will didn’t look up from his sodden breeches.

“Trust me, I am well aware of your consequences,” he ground out.

She was looking at the top of his head, his dark curls now flattened in the rain. She felt a sudden, wounding flash of guilt. He looked up, straight into it.

“This is what I was afraid of,” Rose said softly. “Of your anger; your annoyance. I was scared to tell you it was me.”

He said nothing then, looking away from her to stare out across the fields.

She did not want to argue with him; she just couldn’t let him go on kissing and caressing her because she was afraid he might not stop. Or worse still, she might not.

“I did not know you had come home,” She tried to break the silence.

“It is no longer my home,” he snapped back.

“How can this not be your home?” she chided. “All our memories are here.”

“I left them behind,” he said tartly. “Like you did!”

The wonder of the morning had disintegrated into upset and recrimination. She didn’t blame him. How could she? She had nothing to say to make it better. She knew she could say she was sorry, but how would that help? So she just sat, plucking the wet fabric away from her rapidly chilling legs, knowing she should go back to the castle but unwilling, no, unable, to walk away from him.

“How is your family?” She ventured, acknowledging to herself the ridiculousness of a parlor conversation in the middle of a soaked field.

“My father is dead!”

“Oh.” Her sudden, obviously heartfelt show of emotion seemed to crack the armor William Browning had donned around himself.

“My mother called me home when it was time.” He bowed his head now, not looking at Rose. “I had not seen him for many years. London had preoccupied me.”

“I am so sorry, Will,” she managed. “He was a truly lovely man.”

“He was very fond of you.”

She knew that. Rose was aware that Benjamin Browning had wanted nothing more than to see her and his son married in the local church and provide him with a clutch of grandchildren. In any other circumstances, that would have been the case.

“It seems I did not come home soon enough.”

She looked at him quizzically.

“Not soon enough to grant my father his dying wish anyway, which he only revealed on his deathbed.”

“What was his wish?” She asked tremulously, wondering if she really wanted to know.

“He wanted to gift his family – gift me – noble status. He wanted our own coat of arms. I believed money and good business were enough. If I had known it was so important to him, I could have approached you. I could have asked for your help with the Earl Marshall. But I never came back.”

“Why did you stay away?”

Will looked at her then as if he was looking straight through her. The vacuum between them contained everything she imagined they both wanted to say but couldn’t.

I couldn’t face you.

            I couldn’t bear to see you.

            I was married.

            You didn’t marry me. You left me. You broke us. I hate you.

             I know. I love you.

“I may not have been able to help anyway,” Rose said, knowing she had prayed on Ambrose’s generosity enough.

“Why?” Will’s head whipped back. “Because we weren’t deserving enough? Not of the right stock.” Will spat the words out like weapons.

“No!” Rose’s head snapped up too. “No, Will,” more softly this time.

“You didn’t think twice about doing it for your sister’s husband! You used all your newfound power and influence to get them what they wanted. You would do anything for them. You would do anything for yourself.”

You have no idea, Rose thought, but she didn’t reply.

“We could have had a good life. I would have taken care of you after your parents died. I was a commoner, but we were not poor. I am richer now than most of the ton. You just didn’t think twice about us! You chose him.” His contempt was palpable.

No. I didn’t think twice, she thought to herself. I thought a thousand, a million, times about us—every single day, 365 days a year. Every night, alone or in another man’s bed, I conjured up your eyes, mouth, and smile. I lived two lives—my carefully-crafted outward, calm, noble demeanor and this crazy, lost, frantic, hopeless inner creature that could not live without your touch; was only existing and barely.

“Did you love him?” Will asked suddenly, shaking her from her reverie.


“Did you? Did you fall in love with him? With him and his fancy castle and his carriages and racehorses? Did you dance in the rain with him? For him?”

“This is not seemly Will. The Duke is dead.”

“Are you the grieving Duchess?”

She averted her eyes. How could she tell him she felt no more for Ambrose Barrington than for a stranger in the churchyard? What did that make her, except a scheming opportunist? What would he think of her? She felt it was better he thought she had fallen in love with the Duke and married him because she wanted him, not because she wanted the power of his title and status.

“Will you marry the brother?”

Rose reeled. “How do you know about that?”

“So it is true then? It is all over town. He is telling everyone how you will be destitute without him; how you have been begging him to marry you so you can remain a duchess.”

“That’s not true!”

“It is irrelevant to me, even if it is,” he scoffed and turned his face away from her.  “You will do what you will do; you always have. But you do know if anyone protested, it could be voided.”

So, he had looked into it too, Rose thought. Would he protest if she agreed to marry Ernest? Would he crash the wedding, tell everyone he forbade it, and whisk her away with him? But before she could enjoy even a moment of that childish fantasy, he dashed it.

“Of course, if you married him, you would once again be married to the Earl Marshall. You could get him to issue me with a coat of arms and make my father rest easy in his grave.”

Rose gasped. “You would see me married to the odious Ernest Barrington just so you can get noble status?”

Will suddenly rose to his feet and beckoned his horse to him. “Why not? You threw me over for a title.” He stroked the stallion’s neck and then in one fluid movement, swung himself up onto his back and looked down on her wet, bedraggled form. “Don’t you think you owe me? The only difference is this time, you would be doing it for someone else rather than yourself.”

It was obvious Will had no thought for chivalry now as he had not helped her up nor offered her a ride. His anger was tangible.  “Think about it. Let your conscience guide you. That will be novel to you, but you can try. Good day to you, Your Grace.” The use of her title was dripping with sarcasm.

Before Rose could answer him, he was already riding off into the rain, his horse’s hooves hurling clods of mud up into the air. Watching his departing back, his shoulders hunched, his head down, reminded her of the last time he had left her, standing on the steps of her family home, feeling as if everything good in her life was over.

Rose sank slowly to her knees in the mud and let out an anguished howl of despair.

If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here

Marquess of Seduction (Preview)

Chapter One


April 1813

Imogen let out a quiet sigh when she realized her lady’s maid, Warner, had turned away. She looked at herself in the mirror, wishing she could put off the task at hand for a little longer. She had exhausted all of her excuses for not reentering society. There was no doubt in her mind that her parents would not believe anything she said now.

“This looks very beautiful on you, Your Grace,” Warner said as she came to stand behind her; holding a pair of pearl drop earrings against her ears.

They did look lovely on her, and they added to the elegance of her lavender gown. Imogen had found much relief in discarding her black mourning attire. The dreary colors had only reminded her of his control. Even after her husband’s death, she had been obliged to respect him by wearing colors she disliked. He had done nothing to deserve it.

“Your Grace?” came Warner’s voice. Imogene blinked and raised her eyes. “Are you well?” she asked; her voice dressed in concern.

“Yes, I am.”  Imogen adjusted her satin gloves to conceal her nervousness, despite knowing it was a futile endeavor. Warner knew her too well.

“I suppose you are not ready to be in society again.”

She was not. All she wanted was to live out the rest of her life in peace. Alas, she was only four and twenty and needed to rejoin polite society if she was to find any peace in her life. Harris had been dead for a year and one week, having died of influenza, and this –  according to her parents – was the best time to begin the search for new prospects.

“I cannot hide for eternity, Warner,” she said with a weary sigh. “I must do it now, for the longer I leave it, the more difficult it will become. You know my parents won’t allow it.”

The woman gently smiled as she attached the pearls to Imogen’s ears. “I am sure the ton is curious about you.”

Imogen snickered at that. “What could they be curious about? My grief?”

“Exactly that, Your Grace,” Warner replied.

“Well, I shan’t keep them waiting beyond tonight.” Even as she spoke, she dreaded the pity she would undoubtedly see on their faces.

Warner nodded. “You deserve to live as you please after everything you went through. I truly want that for you.” She lay a gentle hand on her shoulder.

No one understood the torment she had faced in her marriage as Warner did. In fact, only she knew the truth of what Imogen had scrupulously hidden. They had known each other for eight years, and she considered her a dear friend.

“Thank you, Warner,” Imogen said; meaning every word.

She hadn’t cried a single tear for Harris since his death. There was nothing for her to be mournful about, no sadness in her heart. Despite this, she felt empty and alone at a time when she should have felt liberated. She wished she could figure out why she was feeling this way. It could be the burden she was carrying.

Warner inserted the final pin into her hair before smiling at her through the mirror. “What a splendid image you make.”

Imogen returned the smile and stood; picking up her reticule and slipping it over her wrist.

“Oh, I forgot to give you this, Your Grace.” Warner stopped her when she had almost reached the door. Reaching into her pocket, she retrieved a missive and handed it to her.

Imogen immediately recognized the seal. It was from her sister, Emily, and a small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she opened it.

My dear Imogen,

I would usually prate about how delightful spring is in Kent

but I shan’t bore you with that. Rather, I would implore you

to join Michael and me at Lanburn Hall. The lake is beautiful and

serene at this time, and the village is positively entertaining.

I know how you long to breathe the fresh country air, my dearest.


We had the honor of hosting Lord and Lady Herington for

several days, and they had an unforgettable time. I have been

hankering for more company since their departure and was

even tempted to come to London but I daresay the thought of

the sooty air was quite discouraging.


Please, say you will come and stay with us awhile.

I eagerly await your answer.


Your loving sister,


Imogen smiled as she shook her head. Her sister had done exactly what she had said she would not do at the beginning of the letter: extol Kent’s spring virtues. Her brows knitted together in a frown for she despised disappointing her;  Lanburn Hall was a beautiful estate but she had no desire to visit – not right now.

“Your expression suggests that she requested you visit her,” Warner observed.

She nodded. “Yes.”She couldn’t possibly face her sister for the time being.

Two years ago, Emily met and married the Earl of Evensdale after a very brief courtship. It was a love match and Imogen was happy for her. The problem was that her sister, like everyone else, believed her marriage to Harris was a love match, too.

Her family would still have been in dire straits and her sister would never have become a countess, had Imogen not married Harris. Her father had fallen ill six years ago, rendering him unable to run his businesses properly. This had compelled her to marry well, and when Harris entered her life, he embodied the most charming suitor. She would never have agreed to marry him if she had known what was in store for her. But a  knock at the door drew her out of her memories’ cage and as Warner went to answer it, she sighed and straightened her shoulders.

“We will be late for the soirée,” said her mother – Barbara Thorne, Viscountess Thornewood. “Is she ready?”

“Yes, my lady, she is,” Warner replied with a curtsy.

Imogen folded the letter and placed it on a side table before going to meet her mother and devising an excuse as to why she had taken longer than usual to dress. “I had trouble deciding what jewelry would best complement my dress.”

Barbara’s expression softened when she saw her. “Oh, you look divine, my darling.” She touched her cheek.

“Thank you, Mama. Shall we?”

They met her father, Aldrich, in the front hall. It was comfoting and reassuring to have them with her tonight, knowing she wouldn’t have to face the ton alone. He smiled at her in the same way that her mother had.

“You look like an angel, Imogen. You remind me of the day you attended your first ball after your coming out.”

Her smile faltered. That had been the night she caught Harris’s attention; the night the course of her existence would change irrevocably. Taking a deep and slow breath, she composed herself and thanked her father for his compliment before following them out to the waiting carriage.




The trip to Burenstone House did not take long, and the moment they arrived, small knots formed in Imogen’s stomach. Her father descended first and helped her mother down. When it was her turn, she hesitated.

Could she truly do this? She asked herself. No, she would need much more courage than she thought.

Taking her father’s proffered hand, Imogen stepped down from the carriage, looking about her. Some faces were familiar, some were not. She considered she might be seeing people she’d never met after so long out of society.

The butler escorted them to the ballroom, where they met their hostess Margaret, Dowager Viscountess of Burenstone. She was Barbara’s best friend, and their very friendship was one of the reasons Imogen chose this soirée as her first outing.

“Oh, welcome!” Margaret clapped her hands in delight when she saw them. “I am glad you could attend,” she said to Imogen after they had exchanged greetings. “Please, allow me to introduce my son Arthur, Viscount Burenstone.”

He bowed politely at Imogen, and she inclined her head in return. Arthur had not been in England when she made her debut. At that time, Margaret had dearly wanted to make a match of them so it is highly possible she still harbored such thoughts about them.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace. My mother has told me much about you,” he said cordially.

“It is wonderful to see you amongst us again,” Margaret said before Imogen could respond. She was already feeling overwhelmed, but she kept a smile on her face. “You have a lot of courage. After Arthur’s father died, I was unable to leave the house for two years. “I truly admire your bravery, my dear.”

“Oh, yes,” Barbara chimed in. “I am proud of her indeed. During the first few months, she was utterly miserable. It was why we insisted she stay with us.”

Margaret took Imogen’s hand and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “We are all here if you require anything. Is that not right, Arthur?”

“Yes. Yes, of course,” he said awkwardly.

“Thank you, Margaret. I appreciate your sympathy,” Imogen responded as gracefully as possible. Lying was becoming more difficult by the day, but she couldn’t tell anyone how unhappy she had been in her marriage or how much she despised her late husband. The news would be devastating to her parents, particularly her father, whose health was deteriorating.

She remained close to her parents for the first half of the evening – watching couples twirl around the dance floor. The sight evoked an unwanted memory. At her first ball, she had stood at the fringes of the ballroom without a dance partner. She had been shy and inexperienced, and when her gaze met that of a handsome gentleman from across the room, she blushed effortlessly. Harris then approached her and asked her to dance. She felt fortunate that night, wide-eyed as he charmed her with wit and good humor. The next day, they were in the gossip sheets declaring them the ideal match, the envy of every debutante and spinster.

Imogen averted her gaze, silently chastising herself for allowing such memories to surface. She was supposed to forget about Harris and start her life anew now that she was out of his clutches. She slipped away, angry with herself, to find a refreshment table. She moved slowly and carefully, avoiding the gaze of the guests. Knowing them, they would want to talk to her about him.

There was nothing strong enough for her at the table when she arrived, but thankfully, a footman approached with champagne. She helped herself to a glass; appreciating its effervescence. She then caught sight of her mother and Arthur weaving through the crowd toward her.

“I have been looking everywhere for you,” Barbara said, then turned to Arthur expectantly.

He bowed and held out his hand. “Will you do me the honor of sharing a dance with me?”

Imogen set her champagne down and took his proffered hand, tempted to cast a disapproving glance at her mother. But, as a woman who always considered her actions, she refrained. Everything her mother did was motivated by love and concern, as confirmed by Barbara’s encouraging smile.

Besides, how bad could a dance with Arthur be?

She was disappointed to learn the dance was a waltz because she would have to be in his arms, and as soon as it started, Arthur stepped on her foot.

“Oh, forgive me,” he apologized. “That has never happened before.” His face colored.

Seeing him flustered made her feel sorry for him and her irritation abated. “Think nothing of it, my lord,” she assured him.

That seemed to make him feel better but Imogen felt uncomfortable in his arms – making her wish the dance would be over soon.

“I recently acquired a phaeton,” he said with some pride in his voice. “It is a grand conveyance, very fashionable.”

“Indeed, I’m sure it is,” she agreed for the lack of anything better to say.

“Would you like to ride through Hyde Park with me tomorrow afternoon?”

No, she’d rather spend her afternoon in her bedchamber reading a book. Even better, she preferred to spend it relocating to the townhouse Harris had generously left her. She yearned for the independence that widowhood would provide her, and it was the path she needed to take to heal.

She met her mother’s gaze from across the room as Arthur twirled her. She was enthralled by them, and Imogen didn’t want to let her down.

“I doubt I will have the chance tomorrow afternoon but I would be delighted to join you the day after,” she said stiffly.

“Excellent.” He grinned. “I shall eagerly await the day.” Suddenly, his face contorted and before she had the chance to ask him if he was well, he sneezed. Instinctively, she jumped out of his arms. “I am truly sorry, Your Grace. I did not mean for that to happen.”

“Such things are hardly in our control,” she murmured. “Perhaps we should—” She abruptly ceased speaking when he beckoned for her to resume the dance. It would not be proper to refuse him over a sneeze.

“There is something in the air that disagrees with my health,” he said as they resumed their dance.

“There is always something in London’s air that disagrees with one’s health.” She looked heavenward; praying for the dance to reach its end. The orchestra seemed determined to prolong the moment, however.

“Yes, yes. I find the soot and smell intolerable, but the pollen is worse.”

Imogen had been referring to the various faces society wore but his comments were valid indeed and she decided to seize an opportunity to discourage him from taking her on that drive. “Perhaps you should remain indoors if the weather disagrees with you.”

His eyes widened, supposedly with incredulity. “How would I fully partake in the Season as an unmarried gentleman if I stay indoors?”

That is no concern of mine, she almost said. Instead, she gave him a stiff smile. “There are several activities you could enjoy whilst attempting to avoid pollen, Lord Burenstone.”

He sneezed once more. He had the decency to turn his face away this time. But when she thought she’d seen the worst of this dance, he painfully stepped on her toe once more.

“It would be wise to take my advice,” she said; hoping her smile concealed her displeasure. The dance ended at that instant, giving her the opportunity she needed to get away from him.

“I suppose you are right, Your Grace. My deepest apologies.” He bowed.

She still had enough generosity in her to take his arm and allow him to lead her away from the dance floor a  she excused herself. Imogen walked toward the first set of open doors she saw, leading onto the terrace overlooking the garden.

The cool air felt refreshing on her skin. Imogen leaned against the stone balustrade, wishing her tumultuous emotions would subside. Her first night was a letdown. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, but she hadn’t expected it to be so difficult. She felt herself calming down after a few moments, and if  she stayed in this state, she’d be ready to return to the ballroom in no time. Or she stay here as long as she wanted to enjoy the peace and solitude. So far, no one had noticed her absence.

Firm footsteps coming from behind startled her; urging her to turn abruptly. Before her stood Horace, Lord Bagshire. The corner of his mouth turned up impishly as he regarded her. Imogen tried to take a step back but was stopped by the railing. He had been Harris’s friend, and she had known him for years. Yet, she never liked him and could not understand why Harris had befriended a man with such an odious character – but then her husband had not had the best of characters either.

Something twisted in her stomach when she saw the dark look in his eyes. He was staring at her as though she were; making her want to run.


Chapter Two

“It is a pleasure to see you, Imogen,” he said; stepping close to her.

She inched sideways. “Likewise, Lord Bagshire.”

He quirked a brow. “Lord Bagshire? You have never addressed me in such a formal manner before.”

It was safer to address him as such — Harris had demanded it. And with him dead, she no longer had a reason to be friendly with the pompous lord. “Much has changed since we last saw each other,” she said; feeling her body tense when he moved closer.

“I wanted to visit you, my dear Imogen,” he murmured. “But we were both in great pain, and I could not look upon you without the ache of our loss tearing at my heart.” He added with no trace of sincerity in this eyes.

Her hands clenched into fists at her sides. She wanted to scream that she was not in pain – not over her husband, at least. “How considerate of you.” Her tone was laced with sarcasm which he did not appear to notice.

His eyes roved her body. “You look delectable. It is easy to see why Harris could never leave your side. A lady as beautiful as you should not be here alone.” He smiled. “But then widows are allowed liberties that unmarried women aren’t. I am sure no one would bother.” He stepped even closer; every inch of her body contracting.

“Lord Bagshire, I would greatly appreciate it if you kept your distance.”

His dark eyes glinted in the light from the sconces on the wall. “Oh, come now, my dear. You are a free woman now.”

When she tried to step away, she found herself in a corner with his body blocking her only path to escape.

“That is inconsequential because I respect myself and ask you to respect my wishes,” she said through clenched teeth.

“You can have any man you want.” His breath held the smell of strong liquor. It was nauseating and she held her breath all the while thinking of ways to escape. “I am offering myself to you, Imogen.”

“I would never have you.” She pushed against his chest. “Not even if you were the only man in the world.”

He swiftly caught her hands and pulled her against him, forcing her to take extreme measures to free herself. With as much force as she could find under the circumstances, she kicked his shin. He hopped back in pain and only then was she able to push him away and remove herself from the corner.

“Oh, heavens!” someone gasped.

Imogen’s head shot up to see a woman standing in the ballroom doorway. Her eyes glowed at the prospect of a scandal. Many faces appeared soon after, and loud whispers began.

“What happened?” someone asked.

“A tryst, evidently,” another replied.

Imogen wished the ground would swallow her whole so she wouldn’t have to face the shame that was about to befall her. Her mother pushed her way through the crowd to reach her and took one look at Horace, who was wincing and trying to straighten up, before realizing what she needed to do.

“There is nothing to see here,” she said to the crowd then took Imogen’s hand and led her through the second door at the far end of the terrace.

Her father was summoned from the cards room and they left the house immediately.




“You may enter!” Imogen called after the knock at her door. It was mid-morning and she was by her window staring absentmindedly at the busy street.

Warner appeared – holding what appeared to be a gossip sheet and expressed a nervousness in her countenance. “Your Grace—” she began.

Imogen proffered her hand. “Let me see.” She had suspected they would report something that might harm her reputation after being seen with Horace last night. Her suspicion still did not prevent her stomach from twisting when she read:

After a year of mourning for her beloved husband, the Dowager Duchess of Murrendale graced our dear society with her presence. Said widow did not hesitate to express her desire to find a gentleman to entertain her and one could only guess Lord B’s willingness to play that role, as they were seen in quite a tangle on Lady Burenstone’s terrace.

Her fingers curled around the sheet, crumpling it. They had all but declared her a merry widow, on the prowl for a gentleman to keep her bed warm, which left her in a vulnerable position. Now every man without scruples would turn his eyes on her.

“May I offer a suggestion, Your Grace?” Warner asked; shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

“You may.” Imogen looked up; stiff with regret and indignation. She should never have attended that soiree.

“Perhaps you should consider accepting your sister’s offer to spend the spring with her in Kent.”

She sighed and pressed her hand to her aching temples, the result of a lack of sleep the night before. Warner was right. Staying away from London until the scandal died down was a clever idea. As much as she disliked seeing her sister, it had become necessary.

“I shall consider it. Thank you for the advice, Warner.”

Warner smiled and curtsied. “You are most welcome, Your Grace.”

Several hours later, she gathered enough courage to face her parents and headed towards the drawing room downstairs. As she approached, she heard her name mentioned, which gave her pause.

“Arthur is keen to make an offer for her,” Barbara said. Another knot formed in Imogen’s stomach – she could never marry Arthur. They were utterly unfit for each other.

“She does not need to marry because of a scandal,” Aldrich responded, “and I do not consider what happened last night to be a scandal. Lord Bagshire is a cad.”

“Yes, but this will distress her. I know it. Oh, my poor daughter.” She could imagine her mother’s expression as she spoke.

“If Arthur offers to marry her, I shall allow her to decide what she wants. I doubt she would be inclined to marry a man such as him. Unlike her and Harris, they are not a match.”

Imogen decided to reveal her presence at that moment and to prevent further talk of her dead husband. She entered the dining room and sat beside her mother.  “Yes, Father Lord Bagshire is a despicable cad indeed, however, that fact shall definitely not put a stop to the gossips. Emily wrote to me, inviting me to spend the spring with her in Kent. I reckon her invitation has arrived at the right time.”

Barbara’s face immediately brightened. “Oh, what an excellent notion. Will you accept?”

Imogen sat beside her. “I should. I did not intend for what happened last—”

“Oh, hush, my dear!” her mother interrupted; squeezing her hand. “We know very well what passed and none of it was your fault. We merely happen to be surrounded by vultures.”

“Kent is an excellent place to be, Imogen,” her father encouraged.

Imogen made her decision then. “I should like to leave today.”

Barbara and Aldrich nodded their agreement. “Would you like me to accompany you?” her mother asked.

“You do not have to, Mama. I shall fare well by myself.” She dearly hoped that she would find the respite she needed in Kent; despite the circumstances that led her there.




The ship anchored at the harbor, and Colin examined his watch again; it was exactly one o’clock. He tended to check the time frequently whenever he was anxious; a peculiarity about which his friends often teased him.

It had been three years since he last stepped on English soil. He ought to be happy to be returning home after such a long time, yet he was shrouded in trepidation. Venturing into unknown territory had never ceased to fuel his adventurous spirit – until now. He felt like an interloper assuming his brother’s place as Marquess of Wingham.

Thomas had been killed in a carriage accident six months ago and his father had summoned him back from the Far East to assume his new responsibilities.  There was a time when Colin wished he was the heir. Now that fate had unexpectedly bestowed that boon upon him, he was miserable.

“We are here, my lord.” His valet, Hunter, grinned then went to retrieve their baggage.

Colin wished he could share the man’s excitement.

As they disembarked the ship, he noticed a fine black carriage bearing his family’s crest. For a brief moment, he thought he saw one or both of his parents approaching, but neither of them appeared. If Thomas had been gone for as long as he had, at least one of their parents would have been there to greet him – he  had always been the favorite, with only a passing thought for Colin.

“Welcome back to England, my lord,” John the coachman said; removing his hat and bowing.

“Thank you, John. It is good to see you.” Colin meant that. John had worked for his family since he was at Eton, and his smile was broad as he moved to collect the bags from Hunter.

Colin climbed into the carriage, and Hunter joined him shortly after.

“You have been very quiet, my lord,” he observed. “Is there anything I can do?” the man understood Colin’s reservation about returning to England.

He shook his head. “I am quite well, Hunter.” He remembered something then. “Although, there is something I would like. Prepare a sleeping draught for me, please.”

“I shall do that once I see you settled, my lord.”

When the carriage began to move, Colin turned to look out the window. In London, not much had changed. Urchins continued to chase each other with stick horses, and the air made one long for the countryside. Or, in his case, the sea breeze. He smiled as a wave of nostalgia washed over him. He would undoubtedly miss China, particularly the food and vibrant culture, and he grew very fond of his life there. Managing his uncle’s textile business had given his life meaning. It also helped to alleviate the agony of being the second-born son, who would inherit the title and bloodline only if his brother was unable.

Thomas had received all of their love and attention as children, while he was relegated to the role of observer. He assumed he was the observer because he was easily overlooked and had few friends.

Hunter interrupted his thoughts. “We have arrived, my lord.”

Colin, being utterly lost in his reverie as he was, hadn’t noticed they’d arrived. He climbed down the carriage and looked up at the house – it, much like the city, hadn’t changed and he didn’t expect it to with his parents so rooted in tradition.

The butler greeted him warmly, and as he entered the front hall, his mother, Susannah, approached him. He could see a difference now; she was much smaller and older than he remembered, with pronounced lines around her eyes and the corners of her mouth. His brother’s death must have had a profound effect on her.

“Colin, my dear child.” She opened her arms.

He embraced her, uncertain of the meaning behind his current emotions. He had always been able to understand how he felt but, at the moment, he was at a loss; his parents had never shown him any affection, only indifference; thus, this embrace was as odd as it was surprising.

“I am so happy to have you home safely.” Susannah pulled away and cupped his cheek with one hand.

He smiled down at her. “How have you been, Mother?”

She sighed, her large grey eyes quickly misting. “It has been difficult.” She took his hand and squeezed it. “I am sure everything will change now that you are home.”

Everything has already changed, he thought and it all had changed the moment his brother lost his life.

“Your father is waiting for you in the drawing room.”

Colin nodded. “I should not keep him waiting then.” His father had never been the most patient of men. “Are you coming, Mother?”

“No, I have to see Cook about the dinner menu.”

Suddenly, he felt like a child summoned to his father’s study after he had misbehaved.

When Colin entered the room, the Duke of Dellington, Robert Smith, was sitting in a wingback chair in front of the fireplace, smoking a pipe. He turned to face him, his expression as unreadable as ever.

“Father,” Colin said; bowing in greeting.

“Wingham,” Robert said and Colin tensed. “Welcome home, Son.” He motioned for him to sit on the other chair by the fire.

Colin struggled to get his feet to carry him across the room. He’d always been Colin to his father, but now he seemed to be just Wingham. Thomas had been born as the heir, but he was known by his Christian name.

“I trust your journey was uneventful.” Robert reached for the decanter on the table between the two chairs and poured some brandy into a glass that he handed to him.

Colin was tempted to down everything in one gulp but decided to be patient and satisfied himself with a sip. “It was peaceful,” he said; wondering why his father bothered to ask that question.

Why? Because you are Wingham now. Your wellbeing is essential, his inner voice reminded him.

“There is an important matter I wish to discuss with you,” his father began after exhaling a puff of smoke.

Colin had no doubt it was about his rise in station. He was the marquess now and was about to be reminded of the responsibility that comes with the title.

“I do not need to remind you of the family responsibilities and obligations you now must carry. I want you to start thinking about the next generation.”

He knew his father would mention marriage even before he boarded the ship back to England and would not be surprised if the man had already chosen his bride.

“I have been considering it, Father,” he said.

“Then I advise you to acquaint yourself with the prospect of making Lady Harriet your wife.”

Colin had just taken a sip of his brandy when his father made that announcement. He began to cough; his throat burning. Lady Harriet was Thomas’s betrothed.

Robert regarded him with one brow raised as though he were offending him by choking. Colin composed himself. “Did you say Lady Harriet, Father?”

“Yes. Do you wish to dissent?”

“Yes!” That came out with more force than Colin had intended. How could he marry the woman that had been intended for his brother?

There was a great measure of disapproval in his father’s countenance. “Lady Harriet is the daughter of the Earl of Avensborough and her lineage dates back hundreds of years. She is ideal as the Marchioness of Wingham and a future duchess.”

In his father’s eyes, Wingham was more than just a title. It was a way of life that Colin despised and was completely contrary to how he wished to live his life. He shook his head emphatically. “I have never met Lady Harriet. And I wish to marry a woman of my choosing.”

“Avensborough and I arranged the marriage for Thomas, and he readily agreed—”

“I am not Thomas and I do not agree.” Colin shot to his feet.

“Sit down before you give yourself apoplexy.” Robert waved his pipe.

He found himself sitting down despite his disinclination to do so.

“Now, it was initially a business arrangement,” continued the duke. “The land bordering Penningbrick belongs to Avensborough and he offered it as Lady Harriet’s dowry.”

Penningbrick Hall was the estate in Devon where Colin was born and raised. He was baffled by his father’s desire to acquire more land at his expense. He’d only been in England for no more than an hour, and he was already itching to board the next ship out of the country.

“But I have considered the benefit her bloodline would bring to this family,” Robert continued. “That is more important to me than any land.”

“You wish to have a golden lineage,” Colin intoned with irony. “Why did you not tell me this? I would have ridden straight to Lady Harriet’s house upon my arrival to introduce myself.”

Robert’s glare could freeze a lake on a hot summer day. “I will not tolerate such sarcasm from you, young man!”

Colin tossed back the rest of his brandy. “When do you wish for me to call upon her?” There was still some sarcasm in his tone but he could not help it.

“They are in Bath now. After you hand in your resignation to Miles, we shall travel there to make it official.”

His father had mentioned that Colin would have to forfeit his position at his uncle’s company – yet another thing he didn’t want to do.

“Very well, Father. When do we depart?”

“You have a fortnight to make the necessary arrangements with Miles. I expect you to be ready by then.”

Colin’s jaw tightened. Miles had saved him from a dark path when he took him away from England when he was one and twenty, and parting with him had been most difficult. Robert had no idea how his selfishness was affecting him, and he was unlikely to find out. Colin did not tell his father he had already concluded his business with his uncle, giving him more time to himself before meeting Lady Harriet.

“Is that all, Father?” he asked; bracing his hands on the arms of the chair to stand.

“Yes, you may take your leave.”

Colin did leave, feeling as if he had just lost something greatly treasured to him, but couldn’t quite place what it was.

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The Rake’s Seductress (Preview)

Chapter 1

London, March 1820, Walington Ball

 “You will keep my words in mind, won’t you, my dear? You must remember not to do anything foolish or clumsy, Annabelle, as is your wont,” Annabelle’s mother, Eliza, the Dowager Duchess of Tidendale, pointed at her daughter from across their dim carriage. Her brother Jeremy sat next to her sullen and silent.

Everything in Annabelle’s body tightened whenever she heard a scolding from her mother. She could prepare adequately beforehand, but no matter what, her mother would remind her not to be the awkward wallflower that she unfortunately was.

“Yes, Mother,” she said, looking out of the carriage window at the dark streets of London.

The heater was lighting the carriage, warming it slightly; however, she pulled her wrap more tightly around her, wishing she could jump out of the carriage and onto the cold cobblestone; that would at least save her from further reminders of how bad of an impression she made at social events.

“It is your third Season,” her mother said, nodding along to her own words as if they were fresh and new.

If her mother couldn’t see her, Annabelle could have mouthed the speech word for word.

In a high voice filled with indignation, her mother continued, “And it is high time, it is beyond high time, that you get yourself a respectable husband. The Season is beginning again, and you must do your utmost to make a fine impression.”

“There is enough time, dear Mother, for Annabelle to find a husband,” Jeremy said in a calm, slightly bored voice. He was seated at his mother’s side. “There is no need to push her.”

Annabelle unclenched slightly, grateful for her brother’s aid but a little confused by it. He was usually so intent upon following rules, always holding her to an exacting standard.

“I do see the need!” her mother said sharply, turning to face Jeremy. “And you should be just as worried as I. You are the Duke of Tidendale now, and Annabelle is your responsibility.” Her mother pointed to her. “This is Annabelle’s third Season, and she has still not received a proposal!”

Annabelle closed her eyes and sighed. Her mother often forgot that she was in the room when she spoke of her and her failings. It was not as if Annabelle did not want a husband or a future of her own. For one thing, it would take her out of her mother’s house, and she would be able to live freely, without constant scolds.

What a dream life that would be.

But finding a husband was a far more difficult task than she’d initially thought. Her friends had been married off one by one as the Seasons passed, and now Annabelle, daughter of a duke, was the only unmarried one left among her acquaintances. Each Season, each ball grew ever more embarrassing.

Clutching at a new thought, trying to change the subject, Annabelle said prettily, “Jeremy, how is your wrist after fencing?”

Jeremy’s eyes narrowed in frustration, and he rubbed at his left wrist. “Unfortunately, it is taking longer to heal, damn it all. I would much rather be sparring than going to a ball,” he grumbled, and Annabelle smirked at her mother’s slight gasp.

“It’s only been a week,” Annabelle replied, smirking at her brother’s serious tone and expression. Ever since he had taken over the dukedom six years ago, tension had grown between them, and she knew that her lack of a husband had brought about some of it. However, it was not as if he had married, bringing a new duchess into the family.

His tousled blond hair and light eyes drew many a young woman, and Annabelle hoped that one day, one of them would be able to soften his expression once more and turn him into the cheerful brother he had been.

Annabelle shared the same features as her brother, instead with long, blonde ringlets, but unfortunately, her looks had done her no favors in the ballroom.

Her mother hmphed and crossed her arms. “I am sympathetic to my dear son’s ailment, for he will not be able to dance as heartily as he would normally this evening.”

Turning to her daughter, she continued, “Do not think that you can escape my words, Annabelle. You are in a privileged position, and it only makes sense that you should marry someone respectable and titled.” Her mother chuckled mirthlessly and, with a shudder, said, “At this rate, you’ll have to marry a clergyman or a barrister. Oh, the horror.”

Annabelle bit her lip to keep from saying something unkind. Since she was old enough to marry, her mother had spoken to her in such a way. She had changed since her husband died, and at times, Annabelle felt like she was living with strangers. Strangers who didn’t seem to care much for her and treated her like an object or an obligation to be foisted off upon another.

“At least you look well enough, Annabelle. You can be quite pretty at times, but you must be rid of that wide-eyed look of fear.”

Still gritting her teeth, Annabelle’s heart leapt in happiness when she saw the façade of the impressive Walington Manor come into her view.

“Thank you for your advice, Mother,” Annabelle said, grinning widely.

Her mother looked taken aback at Annabelle’s sudden change in mood but dismissed it quickly.

The carriage slowed, and a liveried footman opened the carriage door. A gust of cool March wind rushed inside, and Annabelle shivered. At least the inside of the Walington’s ballroom would be warm and comfortable.

She grabbed the footman’s gloved hand, and he helped her down the steps out of the carriage. Looking up at the brightly lit house, she took a breath. “It’s only a few hours. You can do this,” she whispered to herself encouragingly.

Silently, Jeremy offered her his arm as he emerged, and the three of them joined the greeting line for the ball. The closer she got, the more her stomach twisted with nerves. It was the first ball she was attending this Season, and she knew that her future depended on it. She had to find a husband, no matter how impossible that seemed.

She couldn’t finish another Season without receiving a proposal. And deep down, she also wanted her mother to be proud of her, something she craved more than she cared to admit.

Once inside, having survived the greeting of the hosts, she slipped out of her mother’s clutches before she could give out another warning. She made her way to the far wall, where potted plants stood on pillars, a refreshment table nearby. It was the perfect place to hide away—the perfect place to keep a wallflower from embarrassing herself.

Annabelle stood on her toes, trying to see around the large potted plants to look at the dance floor. It was filled with beautiful, swirling couples. The muslins and silks ranged from pastel pinks and blues to dark, rich reds. The gentlemen’s coats were dark as well, and each one seemed to be more handsome than the next.

Give me torture. Give me a battlefield at war—anything but a ballroom during the Season.

Annabelle’s gloved fingertips patted against her thigh in time to the music. Even if she was a little clumsy on the dance floor, she did love music.

She enjoyed playing the pianoforte if she was comfortable around those who listened. Annabelle looked down at her dress. It was the palest of pinks, and while it went with her blue eyes, she still felt uncomfortable in it. Like she was pretending to be someone she was not. Even if she was a duke’s daughter and now a duke’s sister, she never felt like her status gave her much of anything. Who was she?

Sometimes she dreamed about balls. She would close her eyes at night and think about what they would be like if she were graceful and elegant – if everything went right. She always pictured herself dancing with the same gentleman: Calum Spencer, her brother’s best friend, her friend too. She’d known him for years and years, and ever since she was young, she’d given him her heart fully and completely. Unfortunately, Calum was far too handsome and charming to notice her as anything more than his friend’s younger sister, who humiliated herself at every turn.

Sometimes he would come to balls, and sometimes not. It seemed to depend on how much time he had, but he was always dancing with various beautiful partners whenever he did come. When she lifted her head to look at the dancers again, she sucked in a breath when she saw him. Calum Spencer asking the beautiful Dowager Countess of Fernglen to dance. Now that she’d found him at the ball, she knew she wouldn’t be able to look away.

“Oh dear,” she said forlornly and clenched her hands together, annoyed at the way her heart reacted to her brother’s friend. Having Calum Spencer at this ball looking just as handsome as ever would not help her keep her head that evening. She swallowed and sent up a silent prayer for help.


Calum clutched his glass of wine as he stared out across the ballroom. A man recently introduced to him droned on about something relating to business.

“I say that it’s far closer to get American cotton for the mills, but it is not as high quality as Indian cotton. What say you, Mr. Spencer? I was told that you are one of the foremost textile business owners in all of London. I thought you might be able to provide an intelligent and sufficient answer.”

“Certainly, Mr…”

“Burton,” the man supplied with a quick smile.

When Calum turned to face him fully, he saw that the man had eager eyes with little intelligence behind them. People often conversed with him about business, pretending they knew anything at all.

“We take whichever materials are most cost-effective, and the different kinds of cotton can be used for different purposes. If you’ll excuse me,” he said, spying the widowed Countess of Fernglen out of the corner of his eye. She was looking just as beautiful as she always did, and it had been days since their last rendezvous. He was eager for another. He gave Mr Burton a wide smile. “As I’m sure you can understand, I wish to dance this evening with some lovely young ladies. Business can always wait for another time.”

“Of course, Mr. Spencer. I quite agree with you,” Burton said with a chuckle and left.

Calum downed the last of his wine, putting the glass down before he approached Delilah.

“Good evening, my lady,” he said with a bow. Delilah beamed at him.

Her dark hair was curled low at the base of her neck, and her lovely red lips were turned up into a seductive smile. Calum had never seen such alluring beauty, and it was no wonder that he and the widow had been together many times over the past months. He was not the sort of man for intimate relationships, but she had kept his bed pleasantly warm. And they got along well enough. It was the most he ever wanted from this sort of relationship, and it suited him fine.

“Mr. Spencer, what a pleasant surprise to see you here. I forgot that the marchioness is a friend of yours,” she lifted one dark brow in a teasing gesture that never ceased to entice him.

“An old friend, Lady Fernglen,” he said, grasping her hand and laying a kiss upon it, not taking his light blue eyes from her dark blue ones.

“Well, that is some comfort,” she said with a little laugh. The sort of practiced laugh meant to reel a man in, and she did it expertly. His eyes were drawn to her mouth, making him think of the delights he could find there. Leaning in, she whispered behind her fan, “I don’t like to share.”

“Well then, I won’t ask it of you. Now would you share this dance with me, my lady? I would be remiss if I did not take the opportunity to ask you. Seeing as normally the gentlemen are flocking.” She could tease, but so could he.

He held out a gloved hand, and with another pretty smile, she slid her delicate hand into his. “Yes, certainly.”

With a swish, he pulled her onto the dance floor, taking her up into his arms when he heard the first few chords of a waltz. This was the only reason he had any interest in attending balls. Dancing with a pretty woman was a relaxing respite from the cold, challenging world of business. Not only that, but he enjoyed showing the stuffy ton that he had grace and elegance, even if he was only a bastard son of an earl.

“Every young woman’s eye is upon you this evening, Mr. Spencer,” Delilah said, her lovely head turning left and right, watching the crowd as they swirled together. He smiled as he breathed in her floral scent.

“I do believe they are all looking at you, my lady,” Calum replied in a low voice, thinking about when they could get away, and he could forget all about balls, dancing, and business.

“You are always full of compliments, Mr. Spencer,” Delilah tittered. “Ah, I think that young woman over there has you most in her sights. It is difficult to resist a rogue. I understand her completely.” She nodded her head to the woman, and Calum turned to look.

He lifted a brow as he saw who was peeking out from behind the plants. He would know those bright blonde ringlets anywhere.

He quickly saw her disappear behind the plant once more, placing her firmly in the section usually reserved for wallflowers.

Poor Annabelle.

“Ah, yes. She is an old friend. Lady Annabelle Tidemore.”

“Yes, that’s right. I’ve seen her,” Delilah said. “Her brother, the duke, is quite handsome, but it seems his sister is more like a wallflower. Poor thing. Rather like a frightened mouse.”

Calum felt the urge to reply, to protect Annabelle from Delilah’s words. There was no chance Annabelle Tidemore could compete with Delilah as a socialite, but she was not homely by any means. And when one could get her in conversation, she was very entertaining.

“Well, not every woman can have your confidence, Delilah,” he whispered in her ear, and she shivered just as he hoped. However, he couldn’t help but glance back up at where Annabelle was hiding, wishing that she would step out just as confidently as Delilah. She deserved to, and he’d never understood why she didn’t believe it herself.


Chapter 2

Annabelle closed her eyes and felt her cheeks burn as she pulled back behind the plant. Both Lady Fernglen and Calum knew that she was looking at them, and she knew she couldn’t possibly leave her place if there was a chance of facing them again.

However, despite it all, Annabelle railed against her fear. She leaned back against the safety of the ballroom wall. She knew that her mother would scold her for the rest of her days if she didn’t come out at all that evening.

A pair of tittering female voices drew Annabelle out. Gathering her courage, she stepped out toward the refreshment table, where the women were standing near the crystal bowl filled with punch. Annabelle swallowed hard. Part of the difficulty of being in a busy ballroom was the fact that she was surrounded by beautiful, elegant women like Lady Fernglen.

Annabelle wished that she could be like Delilah, oozing confidence, beauty, and seduction with ease. Now that Delilah was widowed, it was increasingly evident in each of her movements. Her lips pouted at just the right time. Her eyelashes fluttered prettily whenever she was speaking to a man, and her dancing was smooth and graceful as if she had left the woman in the middle of a waltz. Delilah had nearly all the men in the ballroom watching her.

Sighing with envy, Annabelle stared at the two young beauties who had caught her attention with their whispers. Both of them had found husbands in their first Season: Lady Fiona Pembrooke and Lady Constance Stanley. Their blonde heads were bobbing as they whispered and laughed to one another, watching the dancers. While beautiful, their personalities left much to be desired.

“And he thinks that he can act as though he belongs here?” Lady Fiona said, arching a delicate blonde brow.

Annabelle took a proffered glass of punch from a footman and moved closer to hear them better.

“I know, Calum Spencer seems to have a very high opinion of himself,” Lady Constance retorted, waving her fan with a practiced flair. “Just watch him there with the dowager countess, dancing with her as if he is a duke or an earl!” She laughed.

“The Marchioness of Walington has a soft heart. If it was my ball, I should not even think to invite him.” Fiona lowered her voice, but Annabelle could still hear her, her heart thudding nervously. She found herself growing angry at the words she overheard. “He is simply an illegitimate child, you know – a shameless rogue, born because his mother was light-skirted. Why, he is a menace now to every gullible young woman! Quite the rake, so they say, tempting them with his good looks but unable to provide anything but scandal!”

Annabelle couldn’t stand it any longer. Calum had always been good and kind to her, no matter his reputation. He had saved her from so many situations; she couldn’t just stand there and let someone speak of him that way. In a bold burst of courage, she stepped forward.

Without a proper greeting, she said, “You know that you shouldn’t say such things. It is rude and uncalled for. Cal—I mean, Mr. Spencer has been invited by the marchioness. He has just as much right to be here as you.”

Even though her words sounded strong, Annabelle could feel her muscles trembling as both beautiful young women turned to face her.

“Dearest Lady Annabelle, how sweet of you to come to the young man’s aid,” Lady Fiona said. “Isn’t it, Constance?”

“It certainly is. Why, it seems that you are showing quite a regard for him, nearly calling him by his Christian name as well. Imagine it, Fiona, the wallflower having a tenderness for the devilish rogue!”

The two of them burst into merry laughter, and Annabelle blushed furiously, fearful that someone had heard, that people would know of her secret affection for Calum. It was something she’d never told anyone.

Her mouth went dry. The two women waited for her to come up with something clever in reply, but there was nothing. As always, when under pressure, Annabelle’s mind went blank, and her tongue sat heavy in her mouth. There was nothing she could think to say, and as a result, her palms began to sweat, and a prickle ran down her neck. She had to leave, even though she was both angry at the women and angry at herself because she could never stand up to people properly.

In order to affect her escape, she turned abruptly to leave, but something caught her foot – and she tripped, gasping before she saw the crystal bowl of punch growing larger as she fell towards it.

Time slowed, but there was no stopping it now. Annabelle tumbled into the refreshment table. It all crashed to the floor in a loud noise that could rival a warring battlefield.

Annabelle, sprawled on the floor, heard the screech of the orchestra’s strings stop in mid-song. A collective gasp went up from the crowd before it all went silent.

She stayed still, her heartbeat slow, thudding out each painful moment as it passed. Annabelle had embarrassed herself before, but this was by far the worst.

There was glass everywhere, the punch had fallen all over her hair and gown, and champagne glasses had fallen to the ground as well, shattering into thousands upon thousands of tiny bits of glass. She was also certain she had cut herself a little. In the silence, she could hear footsteps rushing towards her. Finally, she dared to open her eyes.

When she looked up, she saw Calum’s handsome face, his dark hair hanging loose over his forehead, his light blue eyes staring into hers. “Lady Annabelle, are you all right?” he asked kindly.

It felt as if people were craning and crowding to see just how the clumsy Lady Annabelle had embarrassed herself this time.

Tears burned behind her eyes when she heard the sounds of soft snickers, but she nodded her head at Calum. She was grateful to him, despite her embarrassment, for Calum Spencer was like a strong rock in a raging river. Her life was full of mistakes and faux pas, but Calum had always been there to rescue her whenever she needed him.

Suddenly, her mind flashed back to when she was twelve years old, and she’d wanted to ride a pony her father had just bought. Even though everyone had told her she wasn’t yet ready, she climbed atop it anyway.

Naturally, the pony had thrown her off, and she’d landed in the mud. Unharmed, but feeling foolish. Her brother Jeremy had just stood there, shaking his head at her, but it had been Calum who’d reached out to help her up, just as he was doing now.

Will there ever be a time that I do not need rescuing?

Calum looked away for a moment, and she heard her brother ask him if he might carry Annabelle from the room.

When she felt Calum’s strong arms reach underneath her, Annabelle could think of nothing else but to pretend to faint. At least that would save her from some embarrassment, and she wouldn’t have to speak to anyone, including her mother.


As he heard a loud crash, he jumped in surprise and could feel Delilah spinning around to see what had caused such a noise.

“Excuse me. I will go and see what’s happened,” he said to Delilah, freeing himself from her clutches.

The crowd had parted slightly, and he felt his stomach twist in knots when he saw Annabelle sprawled out on the floor amidst the broken glass and spilt punch. The music had screeched to a halt, and he could not think of a worse situation for Annabelle to have gotten herself into. He felt terribly sorry for her, and he wished that he could pick her up and rush out of there. Ever since they were young, Annabelle had been the clumsiest person he had ever met. He wasn’t sure what it was, but she always got herself into scrapes. He’d been witness to many of her clumsy mishaps, and this time was no exception.

The ton’s eyes were on Annabelle, and he could hear laughter from a few of the young women on the side.

Annabelle Tidemore is worth three of you, he wanted to say, but refrained.

Delilah was still there, after all, watching all the goings-on. He pushed through the crowd until he knelt at Annabelle’s side. “Are you all right, Lady Annabelle?” he asked, conscious of the watching eyes. She nodded. He was angry and ashamed that Annabelle’s mother had not rushed to her aid. Even her brother stood back.

He turned to Jeremy as he remembered his friend’s fencing injury. Jeremy walked up to him.

“Will you carry her out?” Jeremy asked, rubbing at his wrist.

“Yes, of course,” Calum replied.

When he reached out to pick her up, Annabelle felt weak in his arms. He lifted her and realized she had fainted. He took Annabelle out of the room, Jeremy leading him, glad to leave the judgmental ton behind.

He looked down into Annabelle’s face. Her lovely blonde hair was matted against her face, the punch clinging to the light strands.

Jeremy led him to a couch in the drawing-room, and the sounds of the ballroom increased again as the music commenced once more. Jeremy walked back out of the door to quickly apologize to the hostess as Calum laid Annabelle softly down on the sofa. Her eyes were still closed.

He remained on his knees in front of her as he brushed a finger across her forehead to move her hair out of the way.

“Annabelle,” he said, with some regret, feeling sorry for her. It was a difficult thing for a young woman to have to go out into a Season, especially one whose status was as high as Annabelle’s. She would never be snubbed entirely, but he could see the teasing looks in many of the women’s eyes that evening as Annabelle lay sprawled out on the floor.

“We are like peas in a pod, you and I,” he said with a smirk, realizing that they both didn’t quite fit, even though they’d done everything they could.

Annabelle had her title, and he had his wealth and consequence. And yet, he knew that she felt as much of an outsider as he did. As he watched her, his heart did a strange little flip. He had known Annabelle for so long, and he had grown protective of her. She was the kindest, sweetest creature in the world and had turned into a beautiful woman.

“I think that will keep the ton’s tongues wagging for years to come,” Jeremy said, having returned to the room.

Calum stood and said, “Soon enough, they will have found something else to chatter about.”

“Everyone has started dancing again,” Jeremy said helpfully.

“I think the marchioness will not care in the slightest. Her ball was a success. The incident was a brief moment that we will laugh about later. I’m sure.”

“Hmm,” Jeremy said, looking down at his sister. He knelt before her. “I think that we should call for the physician.”

“He is here!” Calum turned to see the dowager duchess racing in with a young physician. “We are lucky that he was attending the ball. I found him and asked him if he might assist us.”

“I’m afraid all I brought with me are my smelling salts, but they shall do well enough.” He crouched next to Jeremy and lifted the salts to Annabelle’s nose.

With a jolt, she awoke and looked about her wearily. Her eyes caught his for a moment, and he tried to smile, to send her encouragement. Her cheeks flushed as they usually did in his presence, and she gave him a thin smile back.

“I suppose that was rather foolish of me,” she said in a small voice, not looking at either of them.

“Are you injured?” Jeremy asked with a frown. Calum wished he would be a little softer with her.

She shook her head.

“I think you should take your dear sister home, Your Grace,” the physician said, standing up. “She looks well enough, and there are just a few scrapes and bruises, but rest will do her well.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Jeremy said, and when he turned back to Calum, no doubt to ask for his help again, Annabelle put out a hand to stop him.

“I can do it, Jeremy,” she said and got to her feet. She was brushing at her skirt and pushing her hair back. At that moment, Calum admired her for her attempt at regaining a modicum of pride.

Calum followed the family out of a side door and assisted them in calling for their carriage whilst he called for his own.

“You do not have to go, Calum,” Annabelle said, shivering under her wrap, her clothing damp. “You do not have to leave on my account.” Her brother and mother were standing behind her.

“I do not need to stay, Annabelle,” Calum said. “I have had enough of the ton for the evening.”

As their carriage arrived, he helped her and her mother inside, waving the family off. He glanced up at the marchioness’ house for a few more seconds, thinking of Delilah and the pleasures that could await him, but he didn’t have the stomach for entering the ballroom again.

It was better that he ended the night there. Delilah would understand. However, he was slightly worried that Annabelle might never recover.

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Lady Emilia or Mr. Wight (Preview)

Chapter 1

Marlborough, England


“Quietly now,” Emilia whispered to herself as she hovered outside her victim’s bedchamber. With one slow breath, she blew out the candle in her hand, watching as the flame disappeared into a thin trail of smoke. It curled around the tip of the wax stick for a moment before dancing in the air, past her face.

Emilia placed the candle in the brass holder down on the hall table and looked at the corridor. The manor house was old these days and often creaked, even when nobody was walking upon the floor. One of these creaks echoed now, making her dart her head to the side, fearful of being caught. Yet no one was there, only the portraits that hung in their gilt frames, staring down at her through the moonlight with disapproval.

Her gaze rested on one particular painting. It was of one of her ancestors, clad in a pristine gown from the eighteenth century. Her stare was harsh, as if she really was looking at Emilia, rather than being just a frozen image.

“Well, I do not want to be another painting on these walls,” she whispered to the painting. “What is the harm in wanting something different?” She smiled at herself, rather amused at the idea of the painting answering her. She could imagine the figure in that portrait tutting at her, the way her own mother was always tutting in her direction.

Emilia turned her attention away and reached for the handle on her brother’s bedchamber door, then she hesitated, breathing deeply and building up the courage to take the next step. She had to do it; how else was she going to elude her fate?

With renewed vigor, she slowly turned the handle and opened the door. The moment the door creaked in her grasp, she froze and peered her head through the gap, waiting for the rousing of her brother- something that was bound to be inevitable. Strangely, he didn’t stir at all. Could this be a sign this would really work?

He was barely visible. Had it not been for the gap between the curtains and the thin trail of moonlight that seeped through, he would have been in complete darkness. Fortunately, that strip of white light showed her brother was flat out on the bed, half under the covers, with his face pushed so much into the pillow that it was half-hidden. He was certainly asleep, a fact made evident by the snoring that echoed around the room, so deep and sonorous it practically shook the floorboards beneath her feet.

Emilia covered her mouth with one hand, stopping her temptation to laugh as she stepped in through the door, careful to leave it ajar behind her so she didn’t make it creak again. Once safely in the room, she looked around, hunting for the very reason she had made this secret journey in the middle of the night.

Across the room and thrown across a chair in front of a tall mirror were her brother’s clothes. It rather appeared as if he hadn’t bothered with his valet that night, just left them there carelessly to be tidied away in the morning.

Emilia crept toward these clothes, reaching for them with a shaking hand. She took hold of the jacket first, lifting it off the chair in such a way that the sound of silk brushing against cotton whispered in the air.

The snoring halted.

Emilia froze with the jacket in her grasp as she looked toward the bed, certain that her brother was waking up. He snuffled and rolled over, his body quite agitated, yet his eyes never opened.

Laurence is only dreaming. The thought cut through Emilia with relief, making her release a breath she had barely realized she was holding. When he fell still again, she turned around and held the jacket to her body, looking in the mirror to check the fit.

She was almost as tall as her brother, unusually so, and though it had earned her plenty of comments in the past, she knew it could serve her well for the guise she was about to employ. The jacket would mostly fit, even if it was a little loose in places. That could work well to hide the curves that would betray her as a woman.

Her smile took over, realizing her plan might just work, drawing her eyes to her face. The dark hair was swept back from her face, revealing light brown eyes that could have been amber-colored in the moonlight. The features were bold, unusually so, and perhaps a little too feminine in places. The thought made her smile vanish as she turned her attention back to the pile of clothes.

I have to take this chance. I will always regret it if I do not. Imbued by the thought, she took the rest of the clothes before spying the top hat left in the very center of the chair. She snatched this up last, hoping it could be a way to hide her features when she received too inquisitive looks.

Checking constantly over her shoulder that Laurence never woke up, she crept back across the room toward the door and slipped through the gap. When she closed it behind her, she winced at the creaking sound it made, but this time, she didn’t wait to find out if it woke her brother or not.

She took off across the corridor, running on her toes with the clothes bundled against the stomach of her dress. As soundlessly as she could, she hastened toward her chamber at the far end. There, she stole inside, being careful to lean against the door once it was closed and press her ear to the wood, listening out for any sounds or footsteps beyond. There were none.

“It is done,” she said quietly before a giggle of delight escaped her. She turned around and hurried across the room, drawing a portmanteau out from under her bed in so much haste that she dropped the clothes in her hands and nearly fell over a rug in her way. Once the portmanteau was open, she hurried to place the new stolen garments inside.

“Borrowed. Not stolen.” She bit her lip, wishing she could believe it. She was very much a thief now with all the things she had taken from her brother over the last couple of weeks.

“It must be done,” she said with conviction as she looked at everything in the case. She had stolen quite a bit, including a man’s toilette set and scent bottles, to complete the guise.

She was ready. She had everything she needed; there was just one last thing to do.

“Now, I must put my plan into action. It must be done if I am going to avoid marriage for good.” With the words, she closed the lid of the portmanteau.



London, England

“I feel like I am being called into my tutor’s office at university,” Robert muttered to the man at his side. His steward coughed, clearly trying to hide his laugh as they passed the rather haughty butler in the corridors. “It is true!”

“He is your father, my Lord,” his steward said with a smile and raised eyebrows. “Can he really be so intimidating?”

“You do not know the man well enough yet. Wait until you see what I see, Kendrick. You will see why I like to stay away then,” Robert said with humor, prompting the steward to laugh another time.

The steward was quite a new addition to Robert’s household, but the two had become instant friends, leading Robert to take Kendrick with him almost wherever he went, even now when he was summoned to his father’s house.

“Best wait here,” Robert nodded his head at the corridor.

“Good luck,” Kendrick said wryly, earning another smile from Robert before he placed a hand on the dark wood of his father’s study door and knocked.

“Enter!” the harsh voice was so sudden that Kendrick winced.

“See? Maybe you do not even have to see him get the measure of the man,” Robert said with a dramatic voice, making Kendrick nod in agreement.

Turning away from the steward, Robert opened the study door and stepped in.

“Well, well, father, for what have I been summoned?” he asked, moving into the room and letting the study door close behind him. Any temptation he had to laugh was quickly fading away, for, before him, the study seemed quite a dark place.

Clad in mahogany-paneled walls and lined with shelves of books, it felt oppressive at times, especially as it lacked any windows. Behind a desk on the far side of the room, lit by so many candles that they formed a crescent moon in front of him, his father’s face appeared gaunt with age.

I could be looking at a ghost in this light rather than a man at all.

“I am in no mood to laugh, Robert,” Montgomery said, piercing Robert with dark eyes.

“Oh, it is serious then?” Robert asked, walking toward the desk. “Should I have left my smile at home?” His jest didn’t help matters, for his father stood from his seat and slapped some folded papers down on the desk. It was meant to be a dramatic thing, yet Robert had seen his father do this so often over the years that he didn’t even flinch.

“No jests,” Montgomery warned and pointed down at the papers. “Do you know who you are, Robert?”

“Have I changed so much that I am unrecognizable? Where is a mirror? I must check I haven’t grown horns since breakfast,” Robert said, taking delight in defying his father as he sat down in a nearby chair.

“Good lord!” Montgomery cried loudly, snatching up the papers again as he rounded the desk, coming near Robert. “You are my son, you fool. My heir. Not only are you a Marquess now, but you stand to be the next Duke of Sussex someday. Not that you behave like such a man would.”

“Not that you act as a Duke should either,” Robert muttered bitterly.

“What was that?”

“Nothing. Please go on, don’t mind me.” Robert feigned politeness.

Montgomery walked forward again, his expression dark indeed as he thrust the papers in his grasp into Robert’s chest, urging him to take them.

“Read it.”

“Father, I have read the paper already today –”

“Read it.” His tone became a deeper baritone. “It is not a normal paper.”

Robert took the papers and unfurled them quickly, seeing the title of one of the most popular scandal sheets before him. He smiled a little when he found his name. It had even been highlighted by his father, scored in black ink with a big circle.

“I wonder which section I am supposed to read,” he murmured.

“Do not attempt to be snide now, Robert. Not when you are so willfully destroying my reputation every day.”

You did not need my help for that. Yet Robert kept the thought to himself as he turned his eyes down to the paper, scanning to the section that had clearly offended his father so much and reading it aloud.

The ball last night at Lady Whittaker’s will undoubtedly be talked of for many months. Not only did we see courting couples take to the dancefloor, some being seen to even entertain three dances with one another, starting gossip that marriage is on the horizon, but we also saw gentlemen known to favor more than one lady making their way around the guests. Has this upset you so?”

“Read on.” His father warned, sitting back and perching on the edge of the desk behind him.

The handsome Marquess of Wellington was one such man, talked of so much that the name Wellington is whispered with gasps and flutters of fans. It was said last night he could not take his eyes off Miss Juliana Thorpe, a blonde beauty, known for her debut in the theatre just the night before. Perhaps the young actress is to be the latest lady we see on the Marquess’ arm.” Before Robert could say anymore, the scandal sheet was snatched from his grasp.

“You were seen staring at her, Robert, unashamedly! Do you even have any shame?”

“Looking at her…is hardly a great crime, is it, father? I would have liked to have done a lot more than that.” He couldn’t keep the mischief out of his tone, nor could he stop the smile when his father turned back to look at him darkly, his expression so grave that the jowls around his cheeks shook.

Robert loved these moments. He knew it was hardly kind to treat his father so, but in his opinion, his father had earned something much worse. I am even kinder to him than he deserves. He surely must know that.

“The disrespect! The boldness! The outrage!” Montgomery was in his element now, waving so madly with his arm that he nearly knocked over the candles behind him on the desk. “You think you can gallivant with every woman in town? Even this actress, and yet you believe it cannot affect your life?”

“What is that saying, father?” Robert pretended to think on it for a moment, scratching his chin rather nonchalantly. “Oh yes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?” He lowered his voice as he pinned his father with his gaze, somewhat irked to hear that his voice sounded much like his father’s.

He was becoming more like him as time passed.

“How dare you talk to me in such a way?” Yet Montgomery’s voice had lost much of its vigor. “It is disrespectful.”

“You and I have never had much respect for each other. I’d say we are past beginning now, wouldn’t you?”

“Forget respect for me. How about respect for the dukedom?” Montgomery asked with outrage, standing to his feet another time and throwing the scandal sheet down on his desk. “I will not have you mar my life like this, with your scandalous ways, nor will I have you destroy the dukedom because of it. Continue like this, and we will both be ruined. For good.”

“We were both ruined a long time ago.” Robert challenged the older man, looking him in the eye.

“I do not know what you mean by that, but this ends here.” Montgomery turned away, practically talking to himself more than Robert at all. “Yes, it ends now. I must stop this. Stop this before it can become any worse.”

“What do you intend to do? Come to every ball and assembly, and stand between me and every lady I meet?” Robert asked sarcastically.

“No.” Montgomery smiled as he looked back to Robert. That smile made Robert waver, seeing the triumphant nature of it. “I will give you an ultimatum, Robert. You will find a respectable bride by the end of the Season and be married, or rest assured, I will find a way to disinherit you. The money, the lands, the title, all of it. You will no longer be the next Duke of Sussex unless you marry.”

Chapter 2

“Where are my portmanteau and my valise?” Emilia asked as she was bustled out of the door with Laurence at her side. With them walking side by side, she could see how like him she was. She even adapted her gait a little, trying out a more manly walk with her legs wider apart before returning to her usual walk when he looked her way.

“Have no fear. They have been put in the carriage already. Louise has seen to that.” Laurence nodded his head toward where Emilia’s maid was climbing into the carriage, offering a squeeze of her hand to the coach driver, her husband, before she sat down on the carriage bench, waiting for Emilia. “You seem awfully concerned about them.”

“It is natural,” Emilia said hurriedly, trying to cover up her concern. “I have never been away from home for so long before. I am merely nervous.”

“You? Nervous?” Laurence laughed. “It is hard to imagine you being nervous of anything. Dear sister, I will miss you.” He opened his arms, and Emilia went quickly into them, holding tightly to that warm embrace for a minute more than usual.

“I’m sure you won’t miss having me at your side at assemblies,” Emilia attempted to jest to cover up the truth of just how sad she was to be parting from her brother. “You have spent far too long chaperoning me.”

“You did a good job of that yourself,” he pointed out as they released each other, both laughing.

“She was not supposed to turn herself into a spinster, though, was she?” The cold voice that spoke up made both of their voices die.

Emilia’s hands buried themselves in the sleeves of her spencer jacket as she turned back to look at the front door of the house. In the doorway, her father stood, the bearer of that cold voice, as he stared at her with an equally resistant glare. Her mother at his side was looking up at him with a shake of her head, clearly despairing of him.

“Ignore him, dearest.” Marianne hurried forward and kissed Emilia on both cheeks, clearly trying to have a heartfelt goodbye. “Write to me often, won’t you? What will I do without your constant chatter every day? Who will tell me of the latest art in London now?”

“I –”

“I think it means we’ll have peace, Marianne.” Lord Grady Chapman moved forward, coming to stand at Marianne’s side. “Have a safe journey, Emilia.”

Emilia couldn’t even summon a smile. She was so confused by her father’s behavior these days that she began to question whether he really loved her at all. Especially when he made such callous comments.

“Yes, do ignore him,” Laurence took up the conversation and reached for Emilia’s hand, pulling her away and escorting her down the last of the front porch steps toward the carriage that awaited her. “You know he will miss you, as we will.”

“I think that is wishful thinking, brother,” she whispered so only he could hear her. Just as she feared, Laurence didn’t naysay her again. They both knew the truth. Her father was tired of the situation. He was tired of her. “I wish I did not have to go.”

“You must,” Grady spoke up as he followed her down the steps. “It is all arranged. I will not tell you again why a spinster must be married.”

Hearing the words urged Emilia to turn away, fixing her gaze on her brother and disregarding her father completely. She had heard the lecture often enough these days, how it was a shocking embarrassment on the family to have a daughter a spinster, who had already rejected every available gentleman in her three seasons. Shocking indeed!

What was even more awful to her father’s ears was the claim Emilia had made just a month ago. “I do not wish to marry.” She knew this was why her father was sending her away. With the pure intention of seeing her married and no longer a burden or a shame to him.

“There will be many gentlemen in London,” Grady said, moving to the carriage and gesturing inside. “Your aunt will take care of you; she is very excited to have you with her. She can introduce you to the most eligible of gentlemen, and with a little luck, you will be married before the Season is out.”

“What if I…” Emilia trailed off, stopping herself before the words could be completed. She felt Laurence squeeze her hand in silent reassurance. He knew what she wanted – to live an independent life, one where she was not reliant on marriage but perhaps her own income. They think it merely a dream. Well, we’ll see.

“It is time to go, dearest,” Marianne said and stepped forward again. She kissed Emilia another time, holding onto her for a long while before Laurence pleaded for his sister to be allowed to breathe.

Eventually, Emilia moved toward the carriage, where her father offered his hand to help her up into the seat. To her surprise, he didn’t release her hand right away; he held it tightly, forcing her to lean toward him, to hear his whispered words.

“Remember our deal, Emilia,” he said, his voice quiet yet in a kind of fearful earnestness. She was used to this desperation now, but it never failed to cut deeply. I will always be a disappointment to him.

“I have agreed to go, father.”

“Not only that, but I do not want to hear another word about your… ideas,” he said the word as if it was something scandalous. “I have asked your aunt to report to me regularly. Should you utter another word of this nonsensical idea of going to work, to earn an income, from something as frivolous as painting, I cannot bear the stain on our family. You understand that, don’t you?”

“You would disown me,” she said the words quietly, numb. As quickly as she could, she retracted her hand from her father. “You have made it plain, father.”

“I am merely protecting our family, Emilia.”

“And yourself,” she pointed out wryly as she sat back in the carriage beside Louise. Grady closed the door before leaning his head through the window.

“Marry, Emilia. Then this argument will be a thing of the past.” He paused, breathing deeply. It was an odd moment, one where all his harshness faded, and he almost sounded vulnerable. It urged Emilia to look toward him. “Please.”

“We have our deal, father,” she said softly, “as you say. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.” He offered her a smile, but it was one she could not return.

As he stepped back and the carriage was given the signal to move on, Emilia leaned out of the window, waving to her mother and her brother, fully aware of the way her father was already retreating into the house, not looking back to wave.

“Good lord! Have you ever known such a man?” Emilia said with a sigh as she sat back in the carriage and slumped against the bench, glad to not have to keep up the fine poise whilst she was travelling. Louise copied the slumped position, clearly relieved to be sat so comfortably at last.

“He is a rather odd man, his Lordship, is he not?” Louise asked, chewing her lip. She had been Emilia’s maid for years now. In some ways, the two of them had grown up together and were great friends. For most of those years, Emilia hadn’t kept a secret from her. Until now.

“Odd? I can think of many other words for him! Insistent, concerned with reputation and marriage. Good lord, to think how horrified he is to have an unmarried daughter my age? You’d think he’d stood in horse manure the way he talks about it.” Her words made the maid laugh. “At least, in London, things might be different.”

“Different?” Louise queried, with her fair eyebrows quirking together in curiosity. “I thought your aunt was set to arrange suitors for you to meet? Balls and parties every night!”

“Let us hope not every night. I have scared off all my previous suitors; it should hardly be difficult to do so again.” Emilia felt the smile grow on her cheeks as she now realized how near she was to set her plan to action. All she had to do was hold out on marriage a little longer, perhaps the Season or two. If all went well with her disguise, some day soon, the idea of marriage could be academic entirely.

“Why do you smile so?” Louise said quietly to her. “I would have thought you dreaded this moment. You cried for a full night when his Lordship first told you of it.”

“I believe in making the best of a bad situation, my friend,” Emilia said with triumph as she sat forward again. “Trust me, perhaps London will not be as bad as I first feared.”


Robert barely looked up from the coffee in his hands as he heard his father enter the breakfast room and sit down at the far side of the table. They hadn’t spoken since their ill-fated meeting the night before.

Hearing that his father was threatening to strip him of his title, Robert had left at once and spent most of the night in the nearest gentleman’s club. Obviously, something his father disagreed with, for he could hear him muttering words under his breath now.

“You stink of liquor,” Montgomery said snidely. “It comes off you as if you carry an open carafe of brandy in your pocket.”

“Well, I had some bad news last night, father. Liquor is supposed to be good for shock, is it not?” His mischievous answer was clearly unwelcome, for Montgomery shot him a sharp look and hurriedly looked up to the butler who had poured his morning tea.

“Thank you. That will be all,” he nodded his head at the butler, urging him to depart.

Robert stared at his father over the rim of the coffee cup, waiting for the butler to leave. Once the door closed, Montgomery looked back at him.

“I was not in jest last night, Robert. I will do it. I will make another my heir if you do not follow my wishes.”

Robert busied himself with downing what was left in the coffee cup before he could speak.

“I’m fairly certain such things are impossible. Isn’t there a legal act somewhere that says eldest sons must always inherit? I’m sure I read something of it at university,” Robert said. He tried to sound uncertain of the matter, but he was sure. He did read such things in the law at university.

“Usually, but the Prince Regent has powers over parliament that Dukes do not,” Montgomery spoke slowly and steepled his hands together as he rested his elbows on the table. “He can give my title to my actual eldest son.”

Robert half dropped the cup as he had attempted to put it back in the saucer, making it clatter loudly in the air. The word was such a shock to him; he had never even suspected it was a possibility.

“My half-brother. Christian?” Robert spoke the words with disgust. He had nothing against Christian, nothing at all. It was the gentleman’s mother Robert objected to so, and the relationship she had with Montgomery still to this day. “You cannot do that. He was born outside of wedlock.”

“Perhaps the Prince Regent will make an exception in this case,” Montgomery spoke easily, as if the matter had already been discussed and decided upon.

Robert opened his mouth to argue, yet he found himself speechless, his lips opening and closing with not a sound uttered at all.

“Good. Maybe the shock will serve you well.” Montgomery sipped from his tea and set about serving his meal, as if the conversation were at an end.

“You wish me to marry,” Robert spoke at last, trying to form some sort of plan for his future. “Yes?”

“Yes, but if you are going to marry any sort of decent woman with a good reputation and connections, you must seek to repair your own reputation first.” Montgomery lifted the fork from his plate and pointed it in Robert’s direction. “Change your activities, show interest in something other than the gentleman’s club, drinking, and ladies.”

“You say that like they are bad things.”

“Robert.” Montgomery’s harsh voice made Robert look up to him again. “If you are to be a Duke, then you need to be respected. You need to share the interests of the most respected gentlemen in the ton if you are to marry one of their daughters. You must appear clever, cultured, and have a fine mind. Your want for jesting could be seen as good wit if you restrain yourself a little in public.”

“I actually thought for a second you were going for a compliment,” Robert said with a bitter laugh. “Have no fear, father. I do not expect compliments from you. Ever.”

“Every earl, marquess, and lord I know loves art these days. There is scarcely a weekend they are not viewing art or are attending an exhibition at the Somerset Gallery.” Montgomery went on as if Robert hadn’t spoken. “Visit the Royal Academy of Art. Maybe invest in it. It would certainly be nice to see the scandal sheets saying something nice of you for once. It is already arranged with the director of the Academy.”

Robert released his cutlery and sat back in his chair, staring at his father.

“Don’t look at me like that.”

“You have trapped me, father.”

“It’s how one hunts. You give them nowhere else to go.”

“Yet you have given a poor reason for your hunt,” Robert said as he slowly stood to his feet, making the chair scrape across the floor. “You are punishing me for turning into you. Have you not noticed that?”

Montgomery paused with the food in his mouth, mid-chew, unable to meet Robert’s gaze.

“As you wish, I will go,” Robert said, adopting a more formal tone as he turned from the table and walked out of the room. He could tell there was nothing he could do. He was indeed trapped and would have to do as his father asked.

By the end of the week, he would visit the Academy and leave quickly enough. After all, what could possibly be interesting at the Academy of Arts?

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This Beast Holds a Title (Preview)

Chapter One

“Faith, Lady Alice, would you look at this spread?” Alice Adamson – or Lady Alice, to her maid Sarah – stood by the refreshment table and took in the feast before them. A delicious Wassail punch, marzipan, cakes, pies, chocolates, and even candied orange and lemon peels were among the offerings.

“My cousin spared no expense,” Alice replied while picking up another slice of candied orange peel. She sighed and glanced around the grand ballroom. Pierce Adamson, her first cousin, had inherited her father’s title four years ago, after Alice’s father’s tragic death, and since then, he’d made it a point of hosting an elaborate ball at the start of each Season.

To mark the occasion this year, he’d hired the most sought-after orchestra, served the best food, and employed London’s most talented painters to draw elaborate chalk paintings upon the shiny, but slippery hardwood floors of the ballroom.

Under normal circumstances, Alice would have done all she could to get out of having to attend a ball. Unfortunately, they were little more than marriage marts, no matter under what guise. And she was decidedly not in the market for a husband. Not that her mother, the Dowager Duchess of Avonwood would agree with her on the matter. If it were up to her mother, she’d be married off to the next available gentleman already.

Alice sighed and bit into the sweet. The sour taste of the orange made her grimace, but then, the sweetness of the sugar-coating hit her tastebuds, and she closed her eyes, momentarily overwhelmed by the lovely flavor.

“You ought to try a bite, Sarah. It’ll make you pucker your lips,” she giggled without covering her mouth, much to her lady’s maid’s mortification.

“A lady doesn’t laugh without covering her mouth, Lady Alice,” Sarah chided.

“And a lady’s maid doesn’t ordinarily go by her first name, or attend balls. Or shall I start calling you Mrs. Clarkson?”

Sarah tilted her head to the side. She’d been Alice’s lady’s maid ever since her debut, two years prior, and even before that, she’d served in their household. But, as only a few years separated the two in age, they’d never been as formal as a lady and her maid ought to be. Especially now that Alice had no desire to conform to what was expected of her.

“Lady Alice,” Sarah said slightly exasperatedly, but Alice waved a hand.

“Let us not quarrel. Let us instead enjoy my cousin’s offerings and then slip away before anyone notices us. There is much we must discuss. I’ve found a lovely estate near Portsmouth, with water views. I think you will adore it,” she beamed, but Sarah squinted at her.

“Lady Alice, are you quite sure it is a good idea to attempt to make such a purchase? Do not you think it better to marry? You’re a beautiful young lady. Any of these ladies here wishes she had lovely hair like yours, skin so pale and eyes so blue…” Sarah waved her hand at Alice, indicating her blonde, shoulder-length curls, currently confined in an elaborate pinned-up hairstyle that allowed for exactly one curl to fall into her face.

Alice rolled her eyes. She knew well that she was considered attractive among the high society ladies, but she cared little for such matters. What she cared for was finding a way out of this ball.

“I have no interest in marriage right now; you know this. But do not fear, just because your lady doesn’t wish to marry doesn’t mean you won’t. I shall help you. We will find you a fine naval officer in Portsmouth who will wish to court you, you shall see. It is just a few more days before I turn one-and-twenty and come into my inheritance. Then, we shall both be free of London and this folly,” she said and was about to launch into a speech about the frivolity of the ton when Sarah shook her head and pointed with her chin to something – or someone – behind them.

Alice’s stomach clenched as she turned, and her eyes settled on her mother, Octavia Adamson, Dowager Duchess of Avonwood. Or rather, her stomach clenched at the sight of the man beside her.

“Alice,” her mother cooed and waved her white feathered fan in her direction. “There you are, at the refreshment table, as always. Would you see whom I found wandering about the ballroom.” She turned and indicated toward the gentleman.

Alice forced a smile onto her lips and curtsied while the man bowed.

“Lord Morendale, a pleasure as always,” she said politely while the man smiled broadly at her.

The Earl of Morendale, Maxwell Blackmore, was an obnoxious fellow with tiny, beady, brown eyes. If the eyes were indeed the window to one’s soul, his had to be quite dark and unpleasant; for there was something cold and unsettling in them. Fine lines stretched like spider webs from his temple, around the eyebrows and the bridge of his nose. At eight-and-thirty, he would have been considered on the shelf – if he had the misfortune of being born a lady. As it was, most ladies considered him a catch due to his large estate and highly respected family.

Alice wasn’t one of them. Alas, judging by the way her mother smiled at him, she thought him a perfectly suitable match for Alice. She should have expected that her mother would encourage conversation between them at this ball. She’d spoken of Lord Morendale in more than a complimentary manner for some weeks now.

“Lady Alice,” he said and raised her hand toward his lips. Before she could protest, he placed his thin lips on the back of her hand and Alice said a small prayer of thanks to the person that invented gloves. For it was that beautiful garment that saved her skin from feeling Lord Morendale’s wet mouth on her hand at the moment.

“How lovely to see a friendly face in the crowd. Are you dancing tonight?”

Alice shook her head and was about to declare she didn’t dance. She didn’t like dancing, as she didn’t enjoy the civil whiskers required. Usually, she simply declared she wasn’t dancing at all at the start of a ball. It was the only way a lady could avoid having to dance and this had been her plan today. Alas, her mother had other ideas.

“Of course, she is,” her mother declared.

Alice was about to protest when her mother continued. “She danced with Lord Longbourn earlier this evening.” She winked at Alice, whose nostrils flared. She had danced with the elder Lord Longbourn at the behest of her cousin. She’d hoped since it was early in the evening and not a great many guests were in attendance, she might get away with it, but her eagle-eyed mother would not let that happen.

“Well, that is delightful,” Lord Morendale exclaimed. “The quadrille is about to begin.” He extended his hand to Alice, and she reluctantly took it and allowed him to lead her to the dancefloor, where they stood in line with the other dancers. Alice glanced over her shoulder at her mother, who placed a piece of marzipan in her mouth while watching them. Beside her, Sarah shook her head, aware of just how much Alice despised the idea of dancing with Lord Morendale – or any lord for that matter.

While her mother believed a lady’s only goal in life ought to be to find a husband, have a son, and indulge in the good life, Alice had never thought so. What she wanted wasn’t a husband. It was independence. She wanted to forge her own path in life. And thanks to an inheritance left to her by her father, she would. On her birthday, one week from today, she’d inherit a substantial sum. With it, she’d make her dream of buying a piece of land come true. She’d have a small house in which she, Sarah, and some of her most trusted servants would live while she would indulge in the things she liked to do most.

Ride, walk, play her music, and above all read. She’d read and re-read her favorite poetry while engaging in charity work. It would be an unconventional life, one that would highly offend her prim and proper mother, but it would be a life of her making – just like her father had always encouraged her to do.

She wondered, what would her father have said if he’d known this was what she planned to do with her inheritance. Would he be proud? Yes, Alice thought he would be. He’d raised her to think for herself, to listen to the voice within her own heart and mind, to do what she thought was right. He’d support her, she was convinced of it. If he’d lived, perhaps he might have even helped her choose an estate. One thing she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt was that he would not have wanted her to marry for the sake of fulfilling society’s demands the way her mother wanted her to.

As Lord Morendale chattered beside her about inconsequential things, she canvassed the line of dancers around them, waiting for the quadrille. From the outside, one saw nothing but a line of young lords and ladies in their finest attire, bright smiles upon their faces. However, Alice knew that most of the smiles were fake, the beautiful gowns and fine waistcoats donned only for one purpose – to attract a suitable mate.

Just as her parents had done, and just like her parents, most of those around her would wind up in loveless marriages, a life of misery ahead of them. Not Alice. Alice, thanks to her father, would escape it all.

“Lady Alice?” Lord Morendale called out beside her, a curious tone in his voice. She realized that the cotillion had ended and couples were flooding the dance floor when she looked up. She’d been lost in her thoughts, never realizing the line was moving, and it was their turn.

“I apologize, I was lost in thought,” she apologized and marched forth with him just as the music started.

“It is understandable. You must have a lot on your mind,” he replied with a grin and spun her around when his heavy foot landed on her dancing slipper.

“Oh!” she exclaimed and took a step back, bumping into another dancer behind her.

“I apologize,” he declared, mortification rife with every word. “I’m afraid I’m not an accomplished dancer. I shall take more care. But, please,” he held out his hand, and she quickly took it, not wishing to create a commotion.

She’d known Lord Morendale was a bit of a foozler, but that he was quite so terrible a dancer was news even to her. Determined to get this dance over with, she forced herself to smile.

“That is quite alright. The quadrille can be challenging. Now, you said my mind must be occupied. I’m afraid I do not know what you mean.”

The relief at the change of subject was evident when his shoulders relaxed. “I mean as it is your birthday coming up. One-and-twenty, you must be quite excited.”

This was an understatement. Alice was more than delighted at the prospect of her upcoming birthday, although not for the reasons her dance partner might believe. She cared little for the gifts, the dinner party her mother would undoubtedly plan, or anything else. She only cared about her inheritance and the freedom it would give her to live the life she always dreamed of.

“I am,” she admitted but said nothing further on the matter, not wanting to give away too much.

Naturally, her mother – and the rest of the ton – knew she’d inherited a portion of her father’s estate. What they didn’t know were the details of the inheritance. Those only she, her cousin, her mother, Sarah, and the solicitor were privy to – as far as she was aware. And nobody but Sarah knew just what she had in mind for her inheritance.

“My niece turned one-and-twenty just last year. We had the most fabulous celebration. We spared no expenses.” He grinned and leaned forward, and when he spoke again, a whiff of cinnamon comfit mixed with his terrible breath wafted into her face. Her stomach recoiled, and she wanted to press a hand in front of her mouth but refrained. “I had chocolates from France imported,” he whispered.

“Is that so? Isn’t there a ban on French products?” she asked, aware that he’d just confessed to a crime. A minor crime committed by a great many lords, but a crime, nonetheless.

He pulled his shoulders back, taken aback by her response. “Well, yes. But I have my ways. One of the many perks when one is of a station as well-positioned as mine.”

She opened her mouth, about to give a snappy reply, when he stepped on her foot again. But, this time, she said nothing and simply grimaced while his face grew as bright red as his waistcoat.

“I apologize,” he said sheepishly. “You must regret agreeing to dance with me.”

“Do not fret, Lord Morendale. We shall find out rhythm yet.” She doubted this. Indeed, she was of a mind to suggest that he use his well-positioned station to hire a dance teacher but knew better than to offend.

“You are very kind, Lady Alice. And if I may say so, you are truly a diamond of the first water.”
This time, it was her turn to color up. She didn’t take compliments well and often found them shallow, but how he delivered his made it clear he truly meant what he said.

And somehow, that made her even more uncomfortable. Lord Morendale had shown an interest in her even when she’d made her debut. However, she’d noticed that of late, he’d appeared in her circle more and more often. No matter where she went, the theater, the opera, even the royal menagerie – he was always there.

Always ready to pay a compliment or seek her company. Not that he was the only one. There were a great many young gentlemen interested in her. She was, after all, the daughter of a duke and the only cousin of the current titleholder. Naturally, anyone seeking to elevate their family would want to marry a duke’s daughter.

Although she couldn’t deny that Morendale appeared a little more motivated than the other gentlemen who’d sought her company.

“I thank you, Lord M….”

She winced as he stepped on her foot for the third time. At this rate, she’d find herself flat-footed by the end of the dance.

As he uttered another apology, she sucked in a gulp of the rose-scented air and carried on dancing, ignoring the pain in her toes.

Just a few more days. In a few days, she’d be a rich, single lady with a home of her own – and she’d no longer have to worry about Lord Morendale or anyone else. She’d be free. Finally, truly free. All she had to do was bide her time…



Alice’s head leaned against the side of the carriage as a yawn overcame her. Her mother turned and raised an eyebrow.

“Tired, dear? You must be, after all the dances.” Her mother patted her arm, and Alice forced a smile.

“Rather. And my feet hurt,” she added as she blinked at her mother. It was true. The accidental assault upon her toes by Lord Morendale continued to cause throbbing pain. Alas, her mother didn’t seem troubled by this and chuckled.

“He is a little flat-footed, is he not? Well, if he asks you to dance tomorrow, perhaps you can select a different dance. One with less complex steps?” Her mother shrugged while Alice gasped.

“Tomorrow? We are to go to another dance tomorrow?”

How in the world was she to get through another dance, she wondered. She hadn’t been able to decline this one as her cousin hosted it, but she had no intention of going to yet another ball.

“At Lady Solenshire’s. I told you. I have a gown ready for you, the lovely lavender colored one with the lace from Edinburgh. Surely you haven’t forgotten,” her mother gushed.
Alice groaned under her breath, for she had indeed quite forgotten. Lady Solenshire was one of her mother’s dearest friends, and as such, she would have to attend the ball.

“Very well, I shall go. But I shall not dance. My toes cannot take it, Mother,” she complained, but her mother instantly clicked her tongue.

“You will dance. How else will you make a good match, child? You are almost one-and-twenty; if you do not make a match this Season, you might find yourself a spinster, and we can’t have that.”

Alice pressed her lips together. She knew it would be improper to talk back to her mother. Furthermore, she had to remind herself that her mother did not yet know her plans. Octavia Adamson wasn’t the kind of lady who’d understand her daughter’s desire to remain unwed and would certainly suffer from a bout of apoplexy if she was to find out.

As such, Alice had planned to keep the entire scheme to herself. She’d come into her money, buy an estate, and arrange for her belongings to be moved before ever telling her mother. Surely, once she saw how well laid out Alice’s plan was, she’d come around. Besides, it wasn’t that Alice would never marry on principal. No. She would if she met the right sort of gentleman. However, if she didn’t, then she’d be perfectly contented on her own. Now wasn’t the right time to tell her mother this. She let out a small sigh as the carriage slowed.

“Perhaps Lord Morendale will not be at the ball tomorrow, and thus my feet can find some respite,” she said hopefully. Her mother let out a small puff of air and shook her head.

“He will. I already made sure to ask him. He looks forward to dancing with you again, dear,” she replied as the carriage came to a halt. She could not wait to get to her chamber and to bed; for tomorrow, she’d just learned, yet another ball awaited her.


Chapter Two

Savonsbury Manor

Silas stepped out of the carriage and glanced around. A lamplighter stopped at the end of Rose Street and lit the sole streetlight. The dim light from the lamp gave the street an eerie atmosphere, and a chill ran down Silas’s spine. He turned the collar of his greatcoat up and turned back to the carriage.


His sister looked up, her blue eyes still heavy with sleep. She got up and smoothed down her white round dress before taking his left hand as he handed her out. She gulped down the air and smiled.

“London, how I have missed you,” she said with a beaming smile, and guilt instantly filled Silas’s heart. They hadn’t been in the city since their father’s death eighteen months ago. Primarily because Silas couldn’t stand the thought of being in the same town where his father had lost his life – and where he’d received the horrific injuries that would scar him for the rest of his. He peered at his right hand, the burn scars hidden under a black glove. While he could hide this scar from the world, the ones on his face and neck were not so easily hidden.

While he had nothing but bad memories of London, for his sister the city meant dances, balls, dinners – and the opportunity to find a husband once she made her debut. Which she would, soon. The sole reason for their return to the capital was so that Christine could finally make her social debut and join the ranks of eligible young ladies in want of a husband.

Silas had pushed off his sister’s debut until a letter from their paternal aunt, Lady Savonsbury, requested their return to London so she could take charge of the affair. He couldn’t ignore her request, for she was quite right, Christine’s debut was overdue. Most ladies had theirs at six-and-ten, after all.

“Shall we?” He extended an arm to her, and she took it, her eyes wide as she looked around. The houses on Rose Street were magnificent, even in the fading light. Narrow but tall with crimson brick, these were stately homes, occupied by the richest and highest-ranking members of the ton – like their aunt, Blythe Slater, the dowager viscountess of Savonsbury. Christine craned her neck and looked up at the five-story tall building but then frowned.

“Why is it so many homes in London have windows bricked up?” she asked as they passed through the small iron gate and ascended the three stone steps to the front door.

“To avoid the window tax. Parliament passed a tax on windows some years ago. I hear there are efforts underway in the House of Lords to reverse it. Our fellow aristocrats like their natural light more than paying taxes, it seems,” he chuckled, and his sister nodded.

“Will you take your seat in the House of Lords this Season?” she asked as he raised his gloved right hand and knocked.

Silas rubbed his dry lips together. Would he? He knew it was his duty. As Baron Evenswood, he was a low-ranking member of the peerage, but he was a member and had duties to the realm all the same. One such duty was to take the seat vacated by his father upon his death. However, the thought of doing so caused his stomach to clench with dread. Ever since the accident, he’d avoided people as much as possible. Too intense were the stares, too unkind the remarks.

However, he knew he couldn’t keep himself – and his sister – hidden from society forever. Beside him, Christine drew her shoulders back and rose to her full height, her eyes cast at the door. Through the stained glass, they saw movement, and then, the heavy oak door swung open.

Instantly, the butler, an older fellow named Mr. Farnsworth, smiled.

“Lord Evenswood, Miss Christine, a pleasure to see you again,” he stepped aside. He indicated for them to enter while motioning for the coachman to take the carriage around the back to unload their copious amounts of luggage. “Lady Savonsbury will be down in a moment. Please, take a seat in the drawing-room.”

As they relieved themselves of their coats and entered the warm drawing-room, Silas’s eyes fell on a portrait above the fireplace in which orange and yellow flames danced around the embers with abandon. It showed his father and aunt together when they were young, and his grandparents, the late baron, and baroness. Silas hadn’t met his grandfather for he’d passed long before Silas’s birth. However, he’d been told he looked just like his grandfather many times over the years.

That they shared the same wiry frame, hazel-colored hair, and green eyes, and their flawless skin with its delicate freckles under the eyes — he scoffed as he thought of this, and his still gloved hand traveled to his face. He no longer shared that part with his late grandfather; that he knew. His skin, at least the right side of it, was now covered in scars that made him into a spectacle no matter where he went. Sometimes, when he was alone and peered at his ruined face, he could still feel the heat of the flames on his him, smell the terrible stench of the burning skin, and hear the gasps of his father as he died in Silas’s arms.

“Silas, Christine!” his aunt’s voice called out behind him and drew him from his thoughts. He spun around just as Christine flew into her aunt’s arms.

He marched across to his aunt, bowed, and smiled at her. However, when their eyes met, he saw her squirm at the sight of his face.

It was strange, he thought. He’d almost forgotten how much it hurt when people reacted that way. After suffering through the pitying looks, the curious glares, and the horrified gasps for weeks, he’d left for his country seat. And there, nobody looked at him that way, for everyone already knew the fate he’d suffered. At his estate, Stanmore Hall, the servants had gotten used to the thick, red scars that covered much of the right side of his face, neck, and upper body. He didn’t have to contend with the surprised reactions.

However, he hadn’t seen his Aunt Blythe in months, and it seemed she’d forgotten the extent of his disfigurement. To her credit, she pushed away from the shock and smiled at him.

“Silas.” She stepped forth and kissed the unscared side of his face, her blue eyes – the same sapphire shade as Christine’s – lit up with genuine affection. “It is good to see you both. Please, sit. Would you like some tea?”

When Christine nodded, their aunt rang the bell before sitting beside Silas. He noted that she chose to sit so that she faced his still pristine left side, but he couldn’t say he blamed her for the choice.

“Aunt Blythe, I am ever so glad you invited us to London,” Christine cooed, her hands folded in her lap. His sister was already eight-and-ten, but to Silas, she still looked like the child he’d known all his life, the same young girl he’d soothed through the grief of losing their mother to consumption ten years ago.

“Of course. I am so pleased you accepted. You know I always hoped to one day help you with your debut. I promised I would, and I am a lady who keeps her promises. I told your father four years ago that we ought to start planning, but I think if he’d had his way, you would stay a girl forever,” Aunt Blythe chuckled just as a maid carried in a tray of tea.

Silas sat back and crossed one leg over the other. He had to confess if to nobody but himself that he shared his father’s thoughts. He wished Christine could stay a girl forever and remain at home with him. For, once she was out in society she’d soon find a match and marry.

While she was only the daughter of a baron, their estate was large and their funds plentiful. After his father’s death, Silas had sold the shipping company – the location of the accident – and made a hefty sum from the sale. The place had brought a calamity down upon him, but at least it would make for a handsome dowry for Christine.

Silas’s eyes surveyed his sister. In addition to the dowry, she possessed a striking beauty that would surely attract a great many suitors. Her lovely eyes, dark hair, and red lips stood in contrast to her pale skin, just like their mother’s had. And their mother had once been called the most beautiful lady in the Kingdom by one of the scandal sheets. No, there was no doubt in his mind that his sister would be engaged by the end of the Season.

And he’d be alone. All alone.

His aunt’s voice once again drew his attention.

“I think there is no time like the present,” she said to Christine, who beamed. “I’ve made an appointment with Mrs. Ravensbury, the best modiste in all of London, for tomorrow morning. So we will have a great many gowns made for you. And for me, since I will be your chaperone.” His aunt smiled softly and as she did, Silas noticed the resemblance to their late father. She had the same dimples in her cheeks when she laughed as he had.

“Faith, Aunt Blythe, we shall have such fun together. I can hardly wait.” Christine shimmied her shoulders. The happiness on his sister’s face soothed Silas’s gloomy thoughts. At least one of them had a chance at happiness. Still, he thought.

“You won’t have to wait too long. Soon, you will be invited to all of these balls. But first, we must establish your brother in society before we can have your coming out ball. And to that end, I’ve secured an invitation to a ball at the home of Lady Solenshire tomorrow. Silas and I shall go and let society know Baron Evenswood is back in London. That will be the first them, and soon, your ball will follow,” his aunt declared while Silas’s heart sank.

“The two of us? I thought you would take charge of Christine’s coming out,” Silas exclaimed with more force than intended.

His aunt blinked and set down her tea with a clang.

“And I am. I understand you are reluctant to attend these types of soirees, but it is important for you, Silas. Or rather, for your sister. You are Baron Evenswood now, and we must establish you in society before Christine can come out. It will be easier for Christine if the gentlemen of society are familiar with the head of the family. I do not expect you to dance, but perhaps you can join in a game of cards or visit the smoking room.”

Silas swallowed and pushed himself into the soft back of the chaise lounge in which he sat. The idea of conversing with others, being seen in public, mortified him. And yet, as he raised his eyes and looked at his sister, he saw the longing for a happy future within them.

He knew he couldn’t stand in the way of her happiness. He had to be the kind of brother his father would expect him to be. The kind who’d stand up for her, support her, do all he had to, to ensure her future. He gulped down the lump that had formed in his throat and gave a nod.

“I suppose I can play a round of whist or smoke a cigar if it helps Christine,” he grumbled.

“Yes, thank you, Silas,” Christine enthused and clapped her hands together in childlike excitement.

His aunt placed a hand on his forearm. “You will see, Silas, it will not be half as bad as you imagine. I had a few suits made for you. They’re in your chamber. You’ll look quite smashing. Who knows, you might come away with a bride as well, and then we may have two weddings before the Season is out,” his aunt said with a smile.

Silas huffed, for he knew that no lady would look at him as a potential match, and certainly no lady would accept to marry him or have his children. As much as it pained him to admit, the line would die out with him, the title would revert to the crown, and their family legacy would be over.

He, Silas Everett, would be the last Baron Evenswood, for he knew one thing for certain: He would never, ever marry.

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