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.

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