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

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