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.

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