The Viscount I Once Loved (Preview)

Chapter one

Rosalind watched while two footmen transported the last of her belongings from the house over at Rothenwood estate; grunting as they carried a large trunk – no doubt filled with linen and other such things. All the paintings that adorned the house had already been sold, along with most items of value; leaving the place with little else but faint remnants of her life and marriage since she had packed the remainder of her chattels for a summer in Bath.

If Rosalind were able to assume full control of her choices, she would choose to remain in the countryside forever. The list of joys that followed her marriage to the Earl of Rothenwood was slim, and seclusion had been one of them. She possessed the liberty to explore the estate, to ride with her daily, and occasionally by herself, to take long walks in the autumnal nature – to dream about winter frosts.


Rosalind turned, a smile already on her lips. She was not entirely loveless — there was love to be found here; one she had borne and cherished and nurtured within these walls.

“Grace,” she said, holding out her arms for her daughter’s embrace. “What have I told you about running?”

“Ladies should walk – always,” Grace said in all her childish impatience. “Is everything packed?”

Her daughter was the reason she had accepted her parents’ invitation to Bath. Rosalind glanced up once more at the sun-soaked stone of Rothenwood house and to the forests beyond comprising their part of the country. She would miss its wildness.

But for Grace, and for their future, she was willing to leave it.

“Almost, my love,” she said, taking her daughter’s hand. “Are you enthused for our journey?”

“Miss Lily said there would be lots of carriages and shops,” Grace said excitedly. “And I will get to see Grandmama and Grandpapa again.”

“You will,” Rosalind said, biting her lip at the thought of her parents — they were well-meaning people but had condemned her to a life of unhappiness by forcing her into a marriage with a man she could never love. “I hope you have a wonderful time.”

“Will you have a wonderful time too, Mama?” Grace asked, hanging on Rosalind’s arm, and looking up at her with brown eyes – same color as Rosalind’s late husband. She had conciliated with that remnant of her husband’s – in fact, she’d learned to love those eyes – but, oftentimes, deep within her she wished Grace had inherited her features only so that their lives would have nothing reminding them of the Earl.

“I will have a wonderful time,” Rosalind said firmly. “Our summer shall be beautiful and we will need to be very kind to Grandmama and Grandpapa for looking after us.”

“You mean after Papa died?”

Rosalind swallowed and glanced at the carriages before them; thinking about all the memories Bath held. “Yes,” she said. “Now that Papa has died.”

“But he died months ago.” A curious face peered at Rosalind, asking questions she felt entirely unprepared to answer.

“And you are not wearing black anymore.”

“That is because the mourning period lasts six months, dear.”

“Are you sad that Papa died?”

“Sometimes,” Rosalind said, glancing down at her daughter. “Are you?”

“Sometimes,” Grace echoed, but she looked away again, already distracted. The sun glowed against her golden hair — a feature she did inherit from Rosalind. “Miss Lily says the luggage will ride separately from us.”

“That is correct.”

At that moment, sparing Rosalind from any further discussion about the state of her feelings – Lily arrived, panting around the side of the building.

“Lady Grace,” she exclaimed breathlessly. “Here I was, thinking you were hiding in the gardens.”

“Grace,” Rosalind chided. “Did you hide from Miss Lily again?”

Grace toed the gravel by her feet.

“It is time for your nap,” Lily said, marching up and taking Grace’s arm. Rosalind relinquished her charge and watched as they disappeared inside the house. She sometimes missed her daughter when Lily took over but, admittedly, it would have been exhausting; having to take care of her on her own – so she was thankful for the help nonetheless.

She took one last glance at the carriages, and gathered her skirts as she turned and went back into the house.

Lena, her companion and best friend, was already in the drawing room pouring them both tea. “I thought you’d want some,” she said in response to Rosalind’s raised eyebrows. “And I gather I was right. Come, sit with me; tell me what is on your mind.”

Rosalind waved a dismissive hand but accepted the tea as she sank into her seat. “You know I don’t like Bath.”

“I believe you shall find Bath has changed since you last visit seven years ago.”

“I detest we must rely on charity to survive.” She sipped her drink. “Had it not been for Charles’ dissolution and mindless squandering, we would not be in this state. His will left us nothing.”

“Consider yourself fortunate his cousin has allowed you to live here so long.”

Rosalind knew she ought to be grateful. Charles’ cousin, having no interest in an estate that could not maintain itself, had acquiesced to them remaining in the house – even if he hadn’t offered her any financial assistance. Her parents, on the other hand, had extended their invitation right when Rosalind was considering selling her final pieces of jewelry. They must have known her desperate need of help, even if she never dared to admit it. “

My parents’ invitation has come at a fortuitous time,” she confessed, trailing her nail along the fine china cup. “And I am grateful. Without their help, we would have nowhere to live since there is no way we could ever stay here.”

Lena kept her expression blank. “It is a large house, to be sure.”

“Truthfully, I would be happy to remain at this house if our finances were not as dire.” She took another sip and placed her cup back on its saucer. “With Charles gone, I could lead a gracious life here.”

“Bath is merely a transient solution.” Lena said after a moment. “I want to believe the severity of all this shall not last; the tide could turn in your favor.”

“Let us hope it shall turn in Grace’s favor – that is all that matters to me.”


Andrew North, the Viscount Nortingdale, rubbed his head as he surveyed the multiple ledgers lying on the table before him. He had been given the title for just over a year but was still unaccustomed to managing the affairs of such an estate. There was an onrush of bills, constant demands on his time and no woman in charge of servants – not since his mother had succumbed to laudanum and left this life when he was still a child.

A knock sounded on the door and he glanced up; pushing the ledgers to one side. Damned accounts could wait anyway; it wasn’t as though he was getting anywhere with them.

“Enter,” he called.

Hoskins, his butler, entered with a tray on top of which lay a letter. “From your grandmother,” he informed Andrew grandly. “It arrived with an express rider.”

Andrew took the letter which did, indeed, sported his grandmother’s seal on the back. The urgent nature of the letter was quite befuddling— what could be so important?

As soon as the butler left the room, Andrew opened the letter; a frown growing on his face.

My dearest Andrew,
As you may or may not be aware, it is soon to be my birthday. Aging is an indelicacy one cannot avoid and should, therefore, embrace as a natural part of life. I miss you dearly and I beseech you to attend the ball I am hosting in honor of this day. I shall be delighted to see you again after so long.
I must ask you to forgive the urgent pretext of this letter but we both know this was the only path I could take in order to get your attention. I shall be expecting you in Bath.
With love,

Andrew placed the letter down. Her last missive had arrived not three days ago, and it was customary for them to go several weeks between letters. His grandmother had assumed a motherly figure in his life, for which he loved her dearly, but he had not thought she required immediate response to her previous letters.

There were a few minor matters of business he needed to attend to in London but he could deal with them the next morning if he moved a few things around and could be on the road by noon.

His response would hardly arrive before he did. So he hastily set himself down to write one.

Dear Grandmama,
I need no express post to persuade me into coming to Bath; I would not miss your birthday ball for the world.

Andrew used his newly acquired signet ring to seal the letter and summoned Hoskins once again to send the letter.

“Send it with an express rider,” he said, his lips twitching. Now he had come into his father’s rather large and
carefully curated fortune, Andrew need not worry about expenses such as these.

Next, he summoned Simon to the study. Simon was Andrew’s valet and, of all the servants, he was the one he was closest to as he’d been in his service for the entirety of his adult life. “Simon,” he said with a welcoming smile.

“I have some news.”

“Am I to be pleased, my Lord?”

“I expect so. We shall leave for Bath tomorrow.”

Simon allowed himself a small smile. “Then I am very pleased indeed, my Lord. Escaping London’s animosity will be rather beneficial.”

“Oh, tosh. Business won’t falter merely because we shan’t be in London.”

“I expect you shall be visiting your grandmother, the Dowager Countess?”

“Yes. I am well aware of what you are probably thinking, Simon, but she won’t prevent me from managing my affairs.”

An empty statement that was, and they both knew it. Florence would never allow Andrew to spend his time working over the accounts his estate. “I am not entirely certain about the duration of my visit; I suggest you pack whatever you

think I may require for an extended stay.”

“Will you be attending the Pump Room, my Lord?”

“I expect so,” Andrew said carelessly.

“Very good. Do you need anything else?”

“I need you to stop implying I am too consumed and absorbed by my tasks,” Andrew said, but his lips twitched into a smile. “Oh and while you’re at it, the Dowager Countess is throwing a ball – which I cannot miss.”

“Of course, my Lord.”

“Thank you, that is all.”

Simon left the room, and Andrew turned once again to his ledgers. His eyes were tired and they hurt. The urgency of his grandmother’s letter boded badly; he was certain there was more to this invitation. And the sooner he arrived, the sooner he would ascertain the situation.


Chapter Two

After a particularly long day’s travel, Rosalind and Grace arrived at her father’s house in Bath. It was a four-storey building with convenient access to the Pump Room as well as all the shops Bath had to offer. Although the town’s popularity had waned as of late, her parents had never ceased visiting over the summers. That was one thing that had never changed since her childhood.

“Everything is so tall,” Grace said, staring out of the window.

“Yes, indeed. All the buildings are very grand.”

“And there are no trees,” she said wonderingly.

“That’s enough now, Lady Grace, or else you’ll tire your mother,” Lily said. She had offered to take Grace in a separate carriage but Rosalind hadn’t minded the company. Entertaining her daughter was an occupation she enjoyed and aided her in refraining from thinking too much – especially when the very act of thinking would force her to venture into places within her she hadn’t dared enter for seven years.

As they dismounted the carriage, her mother Miranda, Countess of Montshire, descended the steps onto the street, with arms open and inviting. “Rose,” she said warmly, giving Rosalind an embrace before turning her attention to Grace.

“And of course, little Gracie. How wonderful to see you both.”

“Not much has changed,” Rosalind managed.

“Well, you know we are fond of continuity.” Miranda did not seem to notice the tightness in Rosalind’s words, and so she beckoned them both inside. “Your father is thrilled to see you,” she said, her voice echoing through the townhouse’s high ceilings. Once, years ago, Rosalind had lain on her back on the tiled floor and stared right up to the very top of the house and wondered whether if she wished hard enough, she would be able to fly.

The butler had found her, brought her to her feet and admonished her for acting in an unladylike manner.

Grace bounded along, eyes wide at the new sights. “Is it true that you have balls to attend to all the time?”

“Well, not all the time,” the Countess laughed, taking Grace’s hand with the naturalness of a mother. “Oftentimes, we do though.”

“Mama says, when I am older, I too can attend balls.” Grace glanced back at Rosalind, who forced a smile. “Isn’t that right, Mama?”

“When you are older, yes.” she reiterated.

“You must change for dinner,” Miranda said. “Your father will be there, Rosalind, and we have so much to tell you. It shall be served at eight — we abide by town hours here.”

Rosalind forced a smile. “I should have expected nothing less.”

Their luggage was in their chambers already, and Rosalind took her time changing out of her traveling dress into a blue muslin evening gown. Lena was curling her hair as she stared at her reflection in the mirror. Seven years had passed since the last time she saw herself through that mirror and considered how she had changed; her face was thinner now, and her eyes heavier with the weight of the interceding years.

It was apparent to her that sorrow had carved its own path across her face. All those years ago, she’d harbored the hopefulness and naiveté of youth. And love had blinded her to folly; breaking her heart over it. And all this time she’d spent living in misery with a selfish, cruel man had only solidified that grief; a woe that haunted her very being and was exuded through her eyes even when she smiled.

“Is being here difficult for you?” Lena asked.

“I hardly know how I feel,” Rosalind said restlessly. “I was so fond of being here — and even though now I do love the countryside and the peace it offers me, I used to adore mingling at the social events and gatherings, and savoring the brightness of the town.”

“Society glitters like a star.”

“Like the brightest of jewels.” Rosalind sighed. “Until it is sold to the highest bidder.” She fingered the sapphires in her ears. “I am not the same woman I used to be, Lena.”

“You are stronger now,” her friend said. “Loss has rendered you thus.”

She glanced up to meet Lena’s steady brown eyes. “Are you referring to my husband?”

“I believe we both know whom I’m referring to.”

Rosalind rose; one hand pressed to her stomach. “I think it is almost dinnertime.”

Lena joined her as they went downstairs and into the large dining room where her mother was already waiting.

“You look beautiful,” Miranda said, and Rosalind was reminded that for all her mother’s faults, she loved her with all her heart. “I consider myself very fortunate you did not take after my own appearance, or you would have been plain indeed.”

Rosalind shook her head. “You are hardly plain, Mama.”

“I do not possess your ethereal beauty, my love, but I do not resent you for it. All mothers wish their daughters a better life than the one they have known.”

Rosalind sat in her place. “Is that what you wish for me?”

“I am very sad your dear Charles died.”

Her father entered the room, cutting off Rosalind’s remark about how Charles had never been dear to her, and that she did not mourn his death so much as the lack of stability his presence afforded her and her daughter.

“Rosalind,” he said, taking his place at the head of the table. “It is good to have you with us again.”

“It is good to see you again, Father,” she said – avoiding to comment on her being there with them — for of course she would not have come if she had any other option.

“You would not believe the innumerable invitations we have received this year,” Miranda prattled. “Lord and Lady Slade are to host a ball next week – rather unusual for them. And of course, the Viscountess Odendale is holding a soirée. You must come, Rose.”

Once, she would have leaped at the opportunity to attend as many events as possible, but all she could feel now was dread uncurling at the mere thought. She had never experienced life in Bath without…

No, she would not think of him.

“Perhaps I will,” she hedged.

“Oh, well, it is in two days so there is time for you to decide, my dear.”

Rosalind suspected she would not be given the option of making up her mind; she would be expected to attend this soiree and any arguments to the contrary would be dismissed. Her mother was an expert at dismissing thoughts or intentions she did not wish to entertain.

“Perhaps, now we might speak about Grace,” Rosalind said. “Her education, specifically. I had hoped you would be inclined to employ a governess for her while we are here. I would have done so at Rothenwood but the state of our affairs did not allow—”

“Indeed, we must speak about Grace and what we could do to facilitate her future,” her father said. He eyed her sternly. Rosalind had inherited his eyes but not the way he leveled them at people with the weight of his intent. “I have reflected upon the matter, as I am certain you have too, and the most suitable solution would be for you to marry again.”

Rosalind almost choked and put her knife down with a clatter. “I—”

“I understand you have not been a widow long but, you must know, there is little else for you now. Your daughter needs a father, and you need a husband to provide for you both. Your stay here will undoubtedly present some suitable opportunities.”

Rosalind caught her breath. “And if I do not wish to marry?”

“Your wishes are not of primary concern. Your daughter is, and we cannot assist you both beyond the course of this summer. You must have a husband, Rose.”

“Only another husband — a titled, wealthy one — can provide you with the security you need,” her mother said gently.

“I understand marriage does not concern you presently but you should consider Grace.”

“I am considering Grace,” Rosalind said, her voice choked. “Everything I have done thus far — including accepting your invitation, which I now see was under false pretenses — has been for her sake.”

“Then you must see that there is no other way forward.”

Rosalind gritted her teeth. Her father had behaved like this once before; with heavy-handed assurance he was doing the right thing only to condemn her to a loveless marriage. Now, however, everything was different. She had Grace to think of — that much was true — and there was no particular gentleman her parents had in mind. Bath was better than London. If necessary, she could put her daughter first and find another man to marry. A gentleman of her choice would be better than Charles, no doubt, and while she was certain she could never love again, perhaps respect would be enough.
“Unfortunately,” her father said, “I have to return to London tomorrow. I have business there I must attend to.”

“Of course, Father,” she said.

“I shall return in a few weeks; hopefully to good news.” He sent Miranda a long look, and Rosalind knew her mother was in charge of overseeing her matchmaking.

“At six-and-twenty with a daughter in tow, I hardly imagine I shall have many prospects,” she said, her voice steady.

“Never mind titled gentlemen. At what stage do you anticipate me having to settle for the first man inclined to offer for me?”

“You are the widow of an Earl and the daughter of an Earl,” her father said, raising an eyebrow. “Your family ties are impeccable, and you are still young. I foresee no difficulty in the matter.”

Rosalind bit her lip and kept quiet, uncharacteristically so, until they reached the end of the meal and she returned upstairs. Instead of retreating to her chamber though, she headed towards the nursery where Grace slept. Six-year-old Grace, who had nothing but Rosalind to rely on. And Rosalind had nothing but the knowledge she must marry. Again.

She sat back on the rocking chair; watching her daughter’s steady breathing. She had been a fool for even thinking her father would be tempted to offer her charity. He was the kind of man who always planned ahead, and an ulterior motive with mixed intentions. It felt as if a vise had clamped around her chest; stopping her breath. Once more, her father was steering her toward an unwanted marriage and, once more, she would have to pose no objections. Her own feelings were of no value and she would called, yet again, to sacrifice her happiness at the discretion of others.

Grace slumbered on; oblivious to Rosalind’s presence, her heartache, the dizzying realization that their lives would change forever.

“For you,” Rosalind murmured, stroking Grace’s hair back from her face. “I would not do this for anyone but you.”


The Dowager Countess of Stanshire lived in a manor house slightly far from Bath’s city center, in a green and grassy area notably distant from other houses. Andrew had always loved it there; he had spent many happy years exploring the vastness of its gardens after his mother’s death.

Today, however, he hadn’t come to indulge in a journey down memory lane, and so he dismounted, handed the reins to the groom, and was greeted by the butler at the front door.

“Evening, Stewart,” he said. “Is she inside?”

“Good evening, my Lord. She is waiting for you in the drawing room.”

Once, when he was still a child and had been led to his grandmother in a similar fashion, these halls seemed particularly intimidating. Now, though little had changed but Stewart’s graying head, he felt nothing but a sense of relief to be back.

Maybe Simon was right: maybe he was working too hard.

“The Right Honorable, the Viscount Nortingdale,” Stewart announced as Andrew reached the room.
“Really, Stewart,” the Dowager Countess scolded. “We both know who he is. Andrew,” she said now to him, holding out a hand. “How good it is to see you.”

Andrew’s step faltered. Instead of the hale and hearty lady he had expected to see, his grandmother sat in a chair with a blanket over her legs, her usual color dimmed from hollowing cheeks. “Grandmama,” he said blankly. “Are you quite well?”

“Stop staring, boy,” she said, beckoning him closer. “I am well aware my appearance is not how you expected it.”

He bent and kissed her on the cheek. “You ought to have told me.”

“I’m telling you now. Sit — I’m growing weary just looking at you.”
Andrew sat on a chair, and she took hold of his hand, gripping it tightly.

“I did not lie to you,” she said. “My birthday is indeed soon, and I should like you to attend my ball, of course.”

“You may not have lied about this,” Andrew said dryly, “but you cannot possibly tell me you have been entirely truthful.”

“Few people ever receive the entire truth.” She sighed and patted his hand. “But you are right — I did conceal the state of my health from you. As of recent, I have been feeling tired and weak; it appears there is a something amiss with my heart. My physician will gladly inform you on the specifics.”
Andrew privately resolved to do just that.

“The fact is, Andrew, I do not have much time left.” For a moment, she broke away and glanced at the carpet. Her gray hair had been pinned up behind her head just as elegantly as always, but her face was thinner, the lines deeper, her hazel eyes larger by comparison. Those eyes had resisted time’s call; they were the only part of her that had remained the same since he was a boy.

Time could not be defied and would not be denied; Andrew knew that as much as he knew the sky was blue. It was an instinctual knowledge, that everything once born would eventually succumb to death, a piece of knowledge he had never dared to think it would affect his grandmother as well. Not when she had been such a beacon of life in a world he so valiantly struggled to understand.

“Now now, I do not require your melancholy,” she said, turning her attention to him again. “Had I wanted to be mourned, I would have decided to disclose the condition of my health these past few weeks.”

“You have known for weeks?”

“You were occupied in London, and I was engaged with planning on how I intend to spend the last few months of my life. There is much I wish to do.”

“Months.” The word dropped from Andrew’s mouth unintentionally, and he struggled to control his expression. “You have months left?”

“As it would seem. I beseech you, my dear boy, brush the glumness off your face. Your presence gives me joy and there is no need for you to brood over this turn of events. No one is expected to live forever.”
Andrew glanced up and smiled at her in a ghostlike manner. “Notion and reality are very different, Grandmama.”

“Indeed they are, and that is precisely why I summoned you here.” She paused just long enough for him to formulate her next statement, and said, “I want you to settle down, Andrew.”

“I am perfectly settled, Grandmama,” Andrew said cautiously. This was veering into dangerous territory; prospects he did not wish to consider again. The past was long gone and he had no intention of revisiting it.

Or marrying.

“Do not tease me,” she said. “We both know you need to marry.”


“You marrying concerns mostly your happiness. And mine – knowing you are content.”

There was once a time, seven years ago, when Andrew had believed he’d found love – he was but a mere boy, though, and knew nothing of the world. Now that he did know more about the world – he was content with life the way it was; devoid of the burden coming with love and marriage.

“I am content now,” he said.

“When was the last meaningful attachment you formed?”

He met her gaze steadily. “This is none of your concern.”

“As your last living relative, Andrew, I beg to differ.” She caught his hand in hers. “It is my biggest wish to see you happy and married before I pass.”

There was nothing Andrew could say to that, even if the prospect of marrying again made his stomach sink. It was true he would have to marry eventually, if only to sire an heir to take over the estate when he eventually died, but he had not intended it to be so soon.

“There is a soirée at Odendale Manor in two days,” she said with a mischievous smile. “I would be honored if you were to escort me.”

Andrew couldn’t hold back his smile. “Shall I have to fend off suitors, protect your honor?”

“As though I have any left to protect,” she chuckled. “But there will be many beautiful young ladies there, and I trust you can bring yourself to leave my side long enough to dance with a few.”

“I suspected there may be an ulterior motive.”

“You should know me well enough by now to know there is purpose to all I do,” she said, perfectly truthfully. Andrew had long since learned never to cross swords with his grandmother if he wished to venture out alive. “So, Andrew? Will you come?”

“You know I could never refuse you anything,” he said, bending to kiss her hand again. “Much as I should like to.”

She laughed again; a throaty laugh that sounded like in imminent danger of making her cough. “I have missed you. These next weeks shall be wonderful.”

Andrew was less certain of that; he wished never to bind himself to another woman as he had so nearly bound himself to one seven years ago. But his grandmother was dying, and this was the one thing he could grant her. He would not fail.

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Another Earl to Love (Preview)



All would be well. It had to. Cecilia paced back and forth along the hall outside her marital chamber. The floorboards creaked beneath her feet. She placed one hand on her chest.

Yes, Cecilia thought to herself, her husband, Jonathan Barnard, the Earl of Pembroke, was a young man, and while he’d been sick, she knew he’d recover. Before the onset of his illness, he’d been a vigorous man, full of life. Surely, fate would not be so cruel as to take him away now, just when they’d settled into their life as husband and wife.

She clutched the little pendant that hung from a silver chain around her neck and closed her eyes. The pendant – a gift from her late father – always meant a lot to her. It was one of the few items he ever gave her. Given her status as a sideslip, the product of the Baron’s affair with Cecilia’s mother meant she was never fully acknowledged.

She smiled to herself, as she remembered the day he’d given her the pendant. It was her birthday. She’d just turned eighteen. Other ladies her age would have had a coming out ball by then, but she had no such celebration due to her status.

Instead, her father visited her at her mother’s home and presented her with the pendant that showed St. Christopher. It was meant to protect her – and it had.

How strange, she thought, that her father passed away just months after giving her the piece of jewelry. She couldn’t help but wonder if he’d chosen that birthday to give her the pendant because he knew his death was imminent, and he’d wanted her to have something to remember him by.

Cecilia sighed deeply and dropped her gloved hand to her side and paced once more. The soft silk material of her rose-colored gown swept across the beautiful, marbled floor while her half-boots created a clanging sound that echoed in the vast space.

“Cecilia,” her mother-in-law’s voice drifted down the hall, and she looked up. Lucille Barnard, Dowager Countess of Pembroke, rushed toward her, past the rich tapestries imported from Spain and the beautiful artwork her husband, the late Earl, collected from around the world.

She clutched Cecilia’s hand, her blue eyes glistening with tears. “How is he? What does the physician say?”

“He has been inside the chamber for more than an hour, but he hasn’t emerged. Jonathan was ever so pale when I was sent away. His breathing was so ragged it pained me. Oh, Lady Pembroke, what if….”

Her mother-in-law squeezed her hands and shook her head. The large turban on her head swayed back and forth under the weight of its heavy adornments.

“Do not even consider it. Jonathan will recover soon. He knows his duty to the Earldom and his father. We do not yet have an heir; this alone will inspire him to hold on and to fight. Believe me. He would never allow Barnard Hall to fall back into the hands of the crown.”

Cecilia swallowed and swiped a strand of her black hair out of her pale face. She considered her mother-in-law’s words. They were kind and yet admonishing. Her failure to produce an heir in the first year of their marriage was a contention point between the Dowager Countess and her son and daughter-in-law.

Cecilia looked past her and out of the window. Barnard Hall was a beautiful home. A former monastery, it became the property of the Earls of Barnard after the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. For almost three hundred years, the Earls of Barnard had resided here. She knew this history well, for her mother-in-law enjoyed little more than to talk about it to anyone who might listen.

If only the woman knew the real reason why she and Jonathan did not have a child yet, Cecilia thought. Then, perhaps she might understand better. But she and the older woman had never been close. Lady Pembroke hadn’t approved of Cecilia from the start, and Cecilia knew it well. She was, after all, only the illegitimate daughter of a dead baron without a proper dowry or even the appropriate status.

Before she had a chance to consider the past any longer, the heavy oak door opened behind them, and the physician, Mr. Charles, exited, a grave expression on his face.

“Mr. Charles,” the Dowager Countess exclaimed. “How is my son?”

The man sighed as he held on to his black leather bag with one hand while the other was curled into a fist. He looked from one woman to the other; his shoulders slumped forward.

Then, he addressed Cecilia.

“My Lady, I am afraid his lordship succumbed to consumption. There was nothing I could do but make him comfortable.”

Cecilia’s jaw grew slack, and her mouth dropped open. She wanted to scream, but the sound caught in her throat, and all she could produce was a small whimper. On the other hand, her mother-in-law wailed, and immediately, the physician produced a handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket.

“No, it cannot be true. I spoke to him just yesterday, and he appeared to recover.”

“It was an end-of-life rally,” Cecilia suddenly said, surprised at the sound of her voice. She had a keen interest in books and devoured several per week. While she preferred novels, she often found herself captivated by medical books, as well as historical ones.

“Indeed, Lady Pembroke. Often when a terminally ill patient nears the end, they recover their strength to converse with those they care for, to give them hope and a last set of happy recollections before they pass.”

He looked down at the ground and shook his head. “I’ve seen too many healthy young gentlemen and ladies pass away from consumption. The end is always rapid. But let me assure you, it is also a blessing. The disease is terrible, and the patients suffer.”

Her heart broke at the thought of Jonathan suffering. While theirs wasn’t the romantic love affair she’d always dreamt of as a child, he’d been a good husband and companion.

Oh, Jonathan. Before you, I was nothing. If you hadn’t found me… What will become of me now?

She recalled the day they met. How regal he’d looked upon his black steed as he’d ridden into the village and stopped outside of her mother’s milliner’s shop. She could still see him dismounting and walking in large strides into the shop, his top hat in one hand and his cane in another. She recalled his puzzled expression when he realized he’d interrupted an argument between Cecilia and her mother over the lack of a suitable dowry.

Oh, how mortified she’d been to have a peer of the realm overhear her lamenting the fact that she was an illegitimate daughter of a lowly, now deceased baron with nothing but a pretty face. And yet, it seemed this only intrigued him – just as so many peculiar things intrigued Jonathan.

“Cecilia? Mother?” Sophie’s voice sounded out. Jonathan’s sister dashed down the hall from her chamber, her powder-blue gown with its fine lace overdress shimmered as the sunlight hit it through the tall French windows. Her pale face showed her panic. The moment Sophie saw the expression on their faces, she stopped and bent forward at the waist; a howl filled the air.

Mr. Charles excused himself and departed, leaving the three women alone.

It was quite strange, Cecilia supposed, how her mother-in-law and Jonathan’s sister could so easily express their grief even though they were usually so very proper. They never laughed out loud in public, never left the house without gloves and a proper head-covering, and never committed any social mishaps – unlike Cecilia. And yet, here they were, allowing their grief to consume them while she was frozen.

As if on their own volition, her feet moved toward the heavy door, and she pushed it open.

“Cecilia, no,” Sophie called out, but she ignored her.

She wanted to see him. Jonathan Barnard, the gentleman who’d taken her out of her mother’s shop and moved her into this grand, centuries-old home. The lord who’d taken a woman without prospects and made her a Countess in her own right. The man who’d saved her from spinsterhood and poverty. She needed to see him, if for no other reason than to thank him for all he’d done for her in the short time they were blessed to be in each other’s lives.

However, when she stepped up to the four-poster bed, she could say nothing. She stood; a hand wrapped around a bedpost as her lips quivered.

It struck her that he looked as if he were sleeping. His blond hair hung into his sweaty face, and someone had folded his hands on his chest, but otherwise, he appeared peaceful.

“Oh, Jonathan,” she muttered. “How can you leave me like this? You promised you’d protect me; you’d be here for me. And now you are gone. How am I to carry on without you and without this life we planned together?”

As she addressed her husband of only one year for the last time, a wave of emotion overcame her with such violence she found herself flung forward onto her knees. The sudden onset of grief and devastation and the realization that her life as she’d known it was once again overweight down upon her as she sobbed.

“Oh, Jonathan,” she moaned when suddenly hands wrapped around her slender arms and pulled her upright.

“Come now, Cecilia, come. We must call for the undertaker,” her mother-in-law said in a soothing voice she very rarely ever used.

Slowly, Cecilia allowed herself to be led out of her marital chamber, where her husband remained. As they walked through the arched doorway, she glanced over her shoulder. This was it. Their last goodbye.


Archibald Barnard sat in the drawing room of his London mansion and stared into the dancing flames of the fireplace. The snapping and crackling of the fire soothed him after his tediously long day. He was about to close his eyes when his valet, Thomas, entered.

“Excuse me, sir. I do not mean to disturb you,” he apologized as Archibald turned his head.

“Never. I was in a contemplative mood.”

It was true, he thought to himself. He had a habit of getting lost in his thoughts. It was a flaw in his character, according to his mother, who’d bemoaned his habit of spending hours inside of either a book or in his head since his boyhood days. She never quite understood her younger son the way she did her older one, Jonathan. No, Archibald mused; he certainly was not the apple of his mother’s eyes.

“You have much on your mind. Exams will start very soon, am I correct?”

“That you are, Thomas. I may engage you in assisting me. I require someone to test my Latin vocabulary.”

His valet drew his eyebrows together. “But I do not know Latin.”

He winked at his valet. Thomas had assisted him since before he moved to London; in fact, Thomas was his valet since he was a young boy. Therefore, he often regarded him more as a friend than an employee.

“I know it, Thomas. You simply have to ask. Read me the English word, and I shall spell out the Latin. I must improve. Otherwise, I shall be flung out of the Royal College of Physicians directly. A circumstance that would delight my mother, of course.”

“I should think not. Surely Lady Pembroke wishes to see you succeed.”

Archibald sighed deeply. “She’d rather see me succeed in the Navy. She never wanted me to become a physician. But I’ve never had an appetite for the sea. No, medicine is my passion, and one day, if I put my mind to it, I shall become Professor of Clinical Medicine at the college myself.”

“Of course, sir. You can and you will.”

Archibald sighed as he thought of the future. He’d worked hard these past few years at becoming a physician.

It was fortunate that his father supported him, as his mother never would. A Navy Captain was preferable to a physician; he knew this well, for she never tired of repeating this opinion to him whenever he dared venture home.

“You said a messenger came by? Was there a letter?” Archibald asked.

Thomas nodded and handed him an envelope. At home, at Barnard Hall, letters were delivered by Mr. Ponds, the family’s butler. He’d carried the letter into the room on a silver tray and presented it with a bow – a circumstance Archibald always felt excessive.

He preferred a more tranquil household and thus did not keep a butler when in residence.

He picked up the letter and groaned the moment he recognized his brother’s seal.

“Drats, here we are. Shall I make you a wager, Thomas? I wager you one full week pay that this letter is from Jonathan, telling me he intends to come to London and needs the use of the house for one of his sordid celebrations.”

He rolled his blue eyes into the back of his head and blew a blond curl out of his eyes.

“I would much rather not wager my wages away, sir. Although I am quite sure you are correct.”

“We shall soon find out.”

Archibald whistled and broke the seal. Right away, he noted that the letter was from his mother, not his brother, and as he took in the words, his blood ran cold.

“My dearest Archie,

I am writing to you with the most dreadful of news. Your brother Jonathan has left this earth this morning. He has suffered terribly for two weeks with consumption. The physician did all he could to return him to health and I was quite certain he would. He was young, and strong, as you know. I had every confidence he’d return to us just as vigorous as ever even when he was on the verge of death.

Alas, I was wrong. He passed this morning. The undertaker has been summoned and we shall hold a funeral. I trust you will be here for it. Of course, I expect you to return to Barnard Hall as quickly as you can, for you know you must.

I cannot summon the strength to write more. I shall leave you with this terrible news and pray for your swift return home.


Dead. His brother, Jonathan, was dead. Archibald could not believe the words he’d just read. No, this had to be a mistake, he was sure of it. Like his mother said, Jonathan was a healthy young man. He rode, he hunted, he was active – he could not be dead.

“Thomas, a brandy. Quickly,” he called as he placed the letter aside. His heart thumped and his breathing quickened.

Jonathan – for all the fights we had, I loved you. How can you be gone?

His valet rushed away and returned with the glass and Archibald drank it down almost in one swallow. The liquid burned his throat, but he didn’t care.

“I shall need another,” he said quietly. His hand shook as he glanced at the letter again. The news appeared quite impossible to fathom.

“Sir? Have you received bad tidings?”

He nodded slowly; his eyes fixed at the fireplace. “The worst. My brother is dead.”

Thomas gasped and took a step back.

“Heaven forfend. What has happened?”

Archibald’s nostrils flared at this question, and he scoffed. “Consumption. He suffered from consumption for months, and I was not informed. I am a physician myself, or as good as. One might think my mother would call on me. But no. I cannot believe Jonathan did not send for me.”

“I am ever so sorry, Sir. I mean, my Lord.”

Archibald frowned at this sudden, new form of address.

“My Lord?” He asked and looked up at his valet.

“Yes, my Lord. You are next in line. Your brother has passed away without an heir, thus, you are now….”

“By Jove, I am the Earl of Pembroke.” He got up and stalked to the fire, where he crumpled the letter and tossed it into the flames. “Me? An Earl. How can this be? Jonathan was born to be Earl. He was made for it. While he and I were as different as two young can be…”

Words failed him as he thought of his brother. He thought back to the day their father died, how broken he’d felt and how strong Jonathan had been. He’d guided him through the loss of their father with a strong, caring hand and together, they made it through the dark time. And now, the darkness was upon him again, but this time he had to face it alone. All alone. And with the added burden of following in his brother’s footsteps as Earl.

How was he supposed to take up his brother’s mantle? He wasn’t made to be Earl; he didn’t have the strength it required. One had to be fair, and one had to be strict when the times called for it – Jonathan had those traits, Archibald did not.

In this, they’d been of one mind. Jonathan was a born aristocrat who excelled at being the center of attention at balls, and the opera. He was well spoken and drew attention at the House of Lords. Archibald on the other hand, was gifted at medicine. He’d soaked up knowledge on how to set bones, treat illness, and he especially enjoyed discovering new ways to treat illnesses.

He wanted to help others through healing what ailed them, while Jonathan wanted to change the world -and better it – through his station.

“Shall I pack your belongings so you can return to Barnard Hall?” Thomas asked quietly, interrupting his thoughts.

Archibald looked over his shoulder. He considered the matter. There was nothing he could do at Barnard Hall. The steward, Higgins, would take control for now, and the entire household would be in mourning. Even if he left now, he’d not have anything much to do and the truth was, the thought of burying his brother mortified him so much, he could not even imagine it. The idea of seeing him dead, and watching his coffin lowered into the grave – no. He could not do it.

Besides, his studies for the year were to conclude at the end of May, three months from now. Surely, his return could wait until then. Yes, Archibald concluded.

He spun around and stared at the valet.

“Thomas, prepare my ink and quilt. I shall respond to my mother, as for packing anything – no. We shall not. Barnard Hall functioned well enough without me all these years. It certainly can sustain itself for three months.”

And with that, he marched out of his drawing room and into his study. He would do as he pleased. After all – wasn’t that what second’s sons were meant to do? Make their luck in life?

Archibald Barnard certainly intended to continue as he always had – Earl or not.


Chapter One

Three months later… 

Cecilia sat at the breakfast table, and her eyes took in the delicacies before her. Hot cross buns, marmalades, honey, butter, assorted pies, and even pastries filled the table, as they did every morning. Such riches still baffled her, even though she ought to be accustomed to them by now.

And yet, she couldn’t help but remember her younger days. She thought of the often sparse breakfast table at her own home, where her mother would cook eggs and bake bread purchased from the meager funds her father provided. How she longed to have her father join them at these meals, how she wished they were a true family, together and united. Yet, she recalled not a single time her parents ate a meal together.

She sighed deeply when her mother-in-law’s voice drifted to her ear.

“Cecilia, dear?”

She looked up and, for the first time, noticed that her mother-in-law was no longer clad in full-mourning attire. Instead, she’d switched to half-mourning. She wore a navy-colored gown with capped sleeves, showing her pale, slender arms. Her hands, wrinkled with age, were hidden in a pair of dark blue silk gloves, and on her head, she wore a blue and purple bandeau. It was too early for her to switch to half-mourning, as Jonathan’s mother, she was to remain in mourning for six full months.

Cecilia still wore her mourning attire. She knew she was expected to continue to wear black for another three months before changing to half-mourning for a further six. She didn’t mind. She found comfort in the process of donning her simple black taffeta gowns. Each had long sleeves and a bugle trim and matching gloves, shoes, and a black silk shawl. In her reticule, she carried a black fan and handkerchief to complete her attire.

“I am sorry, Lady Pembroke, I did not hear what you said. I was lost in thought.”

“I could tell,” the lady said as she pursed her lips and scrutinized her daughter-in-law. “I said Archie will arrive any day this week. I’ve had a letter and…”

“Did you say Archie will come at last? I cannot believe it has been three months since Jonathan passed, and he’s yet to show his face. Such impertinence,” Sophie complained as she entered the breakfast room in a deep purple dress. As a sibling, her mourning period lasted only three months, and she’d resumed wearing her regular gowns and adornments the moment she was able.

“Indeed, he is,” her mother confirmed, “And I agree, it was impertinent of him. I shall speak to him about his behavior when he arrives, but I did not wish to upset him by way of a letter before he gets here. Lest he refuses to come at all.”

“Surely, that would not be possible, Lady Pembroke. As heir, he must assume the title, must he not?” Cecilia asked.

She would never admit it out loud, but she still had trouble making sense of the many rules that governed the upper class. She found her role as Countess difficult to grasp, even when Jonathan was alive to guide her, but she had no help whatsoever and felt forever uneasy with him gone.

“Of course, he does; he has no choice. He is simply stubborn, as he’s always been. He must assume his title and become the new Earl of Pembroke. He will need to marry soon and produce an heir since we lack one now. I was blessed with a spare, at least.” She sighed and took a sip of her tea while Cecilia’s eyes grew wide.

The heir and the spare, she thought, were terrible ways to think of one’s children. She wondered, would Archie, the former spare, be a terrible brute when he arrived? Would he cast her out? After all, he’d refused to attend the funeral, and he hadn’t come to her and Jonathan’s wedding, either. What if he didn’t want her in his home?

She bit her bottom lip and looked from her mother-in-law to Sophie and back again. She couldn’t ask them. At least not directly.

She stirred her spoon around her hot drinking chocolate while Sophie sighed across from her.

“He will be ever so miffed that he had to stop his tedious studies. He wrote to me, saying this is upsetting his entire life because he never wanted the title. He blames Jonathan for dying without an heir.”

She stared at Cecilia, who only blinked.

“He shall have to find his way into the role. He’ll see how blessed he is to be able to leave that dreadful scholarly life he’s led behind him.”

Cecilia looked up then, seeing an opportunity to inquire about the gentleman who had the power to change everything. “I thought he enjoyed his life.”

“He made a mistake in choosing to study medicine, but he is too proud to admit it. That’s Archie. His father spoiled him, I’m afraid. My beloved husband was a good, kind gentleman, but when it came to our second son, he was much too tender-hearted.”

A flash of nostalgia and sadness appeared on the lady’s face, as it happened each time she spoke of her late husband. Cecilia never met the late Earl, but by all accounts, he was a wonderful person with a good, kind heart.

She could only hope his younger son inherited some of it and would allow her to stay.

“I plan to host a ball very soon to make sure he finds a suitable match,” Lady Pembroke announced.

Cecilia looked up in surprise. “A ball? But the household remains in mourning.”

She knew well that it was customary for the mother of a recently deceased gentleman to remain in mourning for six months at least. To see her mother-in-law already in half-mourning had thus taken her by surprise.

Just what was her mother-in-law thinking, she wondered. She had to know that Cecilia could not attend a ball, a wife was to mourn for a year, not three months. It would cause gossip, and she would find herself in the scandal sheets, that was certain.

“My dear Cecilia. I know you were not brought up to know such things, but the mourning period for widows is mostly to make sure that there is no child on the way. You see, if you were to marry again soon, and you found yourself with child, there might be confusion as to who the father is. But since Jonathan was sick for several months and the two of you unable to… Well.” She shrugged and picked up her teacup. Her piercing blue eyes burned into Cecilia’s skin from over the rim of her cup.

“Surely, nobody would think badly of us to hold a ball in honor of my late brother and in celebration of the new Earl of Pembroke,” Sophie said.

“Indeed,” the Dowager Countess said. “As for you, Cecilia, nobody will think it odd if you come and join us for a little while. You live here, after all. At least for now.”

Cecilia dropped the bun she’d just lifted to her mouth at this. For now? Surely, she didn’t want her to leave right away. Didn’t she have the right to a share of Jonathan’s estate? Or home or at least lands? Or did her mother-in-law suspect her son, Archibald the brute, would send her away, so soon after becoming a widow? She posed this question carefully to her, not wishing to offend.

“Was there no income set aside for my keep?” she asked. “Am I not allowed to stay here, as Jonathan’s widow? Is this not my home, as well?”

The older woman tilted her head to one side.

“Cecilia, my dear, you are entitled to a dower income, of course. However, you must understand that finding a new husband is the best thing for you. You’re still so young, surely you do not wish to spend the rest of your life a widow. I know you may find it strange to hear it from me, but you must trust me, moving on is going to help you heal. Besides, imagine how uncomfortable you would be once Archie takes a wife. It will be preferable to find a husband and start anew.”

“As for your title,” Sophie added. “You are not the owner of the title Dowager Countess of Pembroke. When Mother dies – if you are still unmarried then – that is when you can use the title Dowager. Until then, the honor of being called Dowager goes to her as she is your senior. You are a Dowager because your husband is dead, but while Mother lives, you do not go by that title. There can be two Dowagers. But only one can be addressed as such, these are the ways our society is, complicated for someone of low birth, I know…”

Cecilia swallowed as her lips parted. She felt rather foolish as she listened to her husband’s family explain the rules of the high society. She thought back to the days in her father’s company and realized he’d never taught her about the upper class because he didn’t expect her to marry into it. What would he say if he saw her now? Cecilia, the secret daughter that was born out of wedlock, the widow of an Earl?

“What will my title be, exactly?”

Her mother-in-law sighed deeply and shook her head. “My dear, after a year of marriage, you ought to know this. Once you re-enter society, you will be known as Cecilia, the Countess of Pembroke. I know it is confusing, however, it will not be a problem at all for you shall have a new husband very soon and a new title. Perhaps an even grander one.”

She licked her lips. The way her tongue darted out of her mouth reminded Cecilia of a serpent. “Who knows, you might even improve your station once more.”

“Cecilia, you look ever so sullen. I know you miss Jonathan, as do we all but Mother is right. You are still young, especially for a widow. You need not worry about what Archie thinks or does. He will be rather busy with his own concerns anyhow when he arrives. He’ll hardly even notice you,” Sophie said as if it was meant to console her.

“Indeed. And I am afraid I will not have much time to tend to you either, dear. I will have to focus all my energy on Archie to make sure he follows his father and brother’s path. Not an easy feat for someone who is so very contrary by nature.”

She shook her head and picked up the Morning Gazette, indicating the conversation was over. However, just as Cecilia dabbed the corners of her lips and pushed the chair back to excuse herself, her mother-in-law spoke up again.

“Why, see? Right here is an eligible gentleman in need of a wife. The Duke of Hereford. His betrothal to Lady Helena was just broken. It says right here in the scandal sheet.” She blinked at Cecilia. “Dear. There is nothing better to mend a broken heart than to fill it with love for another. And quickly.”

Cecilia gave a slight nod and rose.

“I thank you for your wise counsel, Lady Pembroke. If you will excuse me, I’d like to take some air and read my novel in the garden.”

Thus, she departed, leaving the two ladies who were meant to be her family behind.


“I do not understand why she is so eager to see me married again,” she said a few hours later as she sat in the garden. The branches of her favorite ash tree provided much-needed shade against the blistering hot sun. It was August now, and the summer sun warmed her skin so much she feared she might soon take a tan, despite the shade.

“I think her Ladyship only wishes to be helpful. You have been sullen since Lord Pembroke passed away. Of course, that is only natural as he was your husband.”

Her lady’s maid, Maggie, sat beside her and waved a fan in her direction to cool her.

“It is not necessary; I can fan myself, Maggie,” she said in her gentlest tone. She did not like to offend the servants who only wanted to help, but at the same time, she found it difficult to be treated with such reverence.

“If I may say so, you have never truly taken to the role of Countess,” Maggie replied, a small smile played around her thin lips. She’d known Maggie for more than ten years. Before she became Jonathan’s wife, she and Maggie had been friends and worked alongside each other in her mother’s shop. After the wedding, she’d taken Maggie on as a lady’s maid – she needed an ally in this household full of aristocrats.

Not a day went by that she didn’t say a grateful prayer for her friend’s company.

“I do not know, but I know her ideas are rather strange. Holding a ball where I might meet a match while I am in mourning is unheard of. She really does want me gone as soon as possible.”

“It might not be the worst thing to start over elsewhere. Perhaps you can find a kind man, one you might learn to love? I know it is unusual, the way the Countess goes about the business, but perhaps it will be for the best.”

“Perhaps. Have you found out anything about Archibald? I believe in all the time I’ve known Jonathan, he’s uttered but three sentences about his brother, and none of them good.”

Her friend grimaced. “I have asked the other servants, but it seems nobody knows him well. He departed years ago, first to travel the world, and then he joined the Royal College of Physicians in London. It seems he only sees the family when they go to London.”

This did not soothe Cecilia. She’d hoped for positive news, something to take away her perception that this mysterious brother was not the brute she expected.

Alas, Maggie’s words did not provide the desired comfort; the opposite was true. She gave a deep sigh and picked up her book again. Reading, she found, was the only way she could soothe her troubled mind. And today, it was more troubled than ever.

As Maggie picked up her own book and silence fell between them, Cecilia glanced up at the sky. In the distance, the fluffy white clouds made way for dark ones. She sighed but shook her head. She had time; yes, she would continue with her reading, for often, these rainclouds passed them by.

It was ironic, she surmised, that she should find herself lifted out of a commoner’s life and into the life of a well-respected lady of the ton, only to find herself standing with nothing a year later. Life, she concluded, was not fair. But there was no use in complaining, for there was nothing she could do but throw herself at the mercy of this unknown gentleman who’d soon come to take her husband’s place.


Chapter Two

Archibald stepped out of the carriage just as thunder boomed above him and he looked up at the sky. Droplets of rain fell on his skin, and he sighed.

What a welcome home, he thought to himself. These past few months had been difficult for him, the death of his brother had left its mark on his heart. It was strange, the two never conversed much throughout the year and only saw one another when Jonathan needed the London townhouse.

As such, his death should not have changed much. Yet, it somehow changed everything. Waking up in the morning with the knowledge that he could not call on his older brother or write to him whenever the fancy struck him shook him.

Not being able to speak to him was entirely different than choosing not to do so. Even now, three months later, he could not quite comprehend that he now lived in a world where his brother no longer existed.

Now, as he stood before his childhood home, he craned his neck to take it in. It was a beautiful home that once upon a time housed a monastery. The large, arched windows gave a view of the entire estate. He remembered standing at them with Jonathan and Sophie as they watched their father ride out into the distance as soon as the sun came up. Now, this was to be his home again.

“My Lord,” Thomas said beside him, drawing him from his thoughts. “Shall I announce our arrival? We have made good time and I am sure we are not yet expected.”

Archie took a deep breath. “I suppose we ought. I can’t deny it, Thomas. The thought of entering into this home and knowing my brother will not rush forth to greet me makes me feel quite ill.”

The valet smiled at him, a sadness in his kind eyes. “I understand. Perhaps this feeling will ease with time.”

He shrugged, “Perhaps. One can only hope. But wait, I have forgotten my book.”

He turned and stepped back into the carriage as the rain intensified outside. He frowned and canvassed the interior for his novel when he spotted it on the floor. With a sigh, he bent forward and lifted it, the rain drummed against the roof of the carriage.

“Goodness, Thomas,” he called out. “I’d forgotten how quickly a drizzle turns into a downpour here. Fetch me an umbrella, would you? The butler is sure to have one. You can announce us at the same time.”

“Of course, my Lord.” Thomas rushed to the front door as Archibald sought refuge in the carriage. Ordinarily, he would have dashed across the driveway, and risked getting soaked, but since this was to be the first time he laid eyes on his mother in quite some time, he didn’t think presenting himself in such a state was proper. She was sure to still hold a grudge because he’d missed the funeral – quite on purpose of course.

He took a breath and waited for the arrival of the umbrella when suddenly, from the small garden to the right of the front door, a loud scream sounded out. He frowned and craned his neck to see better.

“By Jove,” he muttered. There, in the distance, was a lady laying on the ground, her dark dress stood out against the vivid green grass. He leaned forward to see better and found with horror that she was hunched over, clutching her leg.

Without thinking, Archibald jumped out of the safety of his carriage and ran through the rain toward the garden.

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The Duke’s Last Governess (Preview)


Chapter One

 “So, now that we know how poetry works, I’d like you to write me a poem,” Sophia Fielding said to her young pupil, Adam, who sat listlessly at his desk eyeing her like she had two heads.

The lad wasn’t exactly thrilled with her, their subject of the day being poetry. He didn’t enjoy writing, which was an absolute pity, seeing as how he was fairly gifted when he gave it a chance. But his father, Baron Colshire—who was insistent on him pursuing a good education—wasn’t interested in him truly learning the arts, of course. Why would he be? The lord of the manor expected his son to follow in his footsteps. Baron Colshire emphasized a focus on arithmetic, wanting Adam to be able to successfully manage the taxes, fines and dues of the estate.

“Writing poetry?” Adam scoffed. “What will that teach me, miss?”

“It will teach you how to rhyme, of course!” Sophia insisted. “Plus, writing can be quite enjoyable.”

“For you, maybe,” Adam huffed, and Sophia stifled a laugh. “Men don’t write poetry, and certainly not heirs to barons. I don’t have time for any of that girly stuff.”

“You’re being silly,” Sophia insisted, handing him some paper and a quill. “As if barons have no life outside of their duties. Some of the best poets have been men, Adam. Quite a few of them were even part of the ton as well.”

“Name three,” Adam challenged, and Sophia buckled down and took the challenge.

“Lord Byron, John Keats, William Blake, William Woodsworth—”

“Alright, alright. Show off,” Adam joked, leaning back in his chair. “But I don’t even know what I should write about,” Adam said, shaking his head. “All these flowery words make my head dizzy.”

“It doesn’t have to be some grand, honeyed poem about love or what have you,” Sophia replied. “It can just be a poem about something you like.”

“Well, I like playing hockey with my friends outside when Father allows it,” Adam murmured, twirling the quill in his hand.

“That’s it then! Something you like and are passionate about, my dear. It doesn’t have to be some big, romantic thing. You can just write about things that inspire you. I like to write poems about gardening, myself. I’m not much for romance.”

“Fine,” Adam replied, resigned to his fate as the quill began to dance and bounce on the paper in front of him. A poem about hockey was a queer one indeed, but if that’s what it took to get the wheels turning, Sophia decided she would surely take it. It was almost comical to watch him. His concentration was so deep that his tongue waggled out the side of his mouth like an excited young pup.

“There!” Adam said as he handed Sophia his poem, looking quite proud of himself as she read it over out loud.

“Oh, how I would rather be, outside playing hockey. Scoring goals is so much fun. We keep playing until we’ve won. Sometimes we lose and but that’s okay, the game is quite exciting to play…Wonderful, Adam! The rhyming is very good!” Sophia said as she read over the parchment, pleased with the way that Adam was blossoming under her tutelage.

She had been with the Colshire’s for quite some time, teaching Adam the ins and out of the three R’s—reading, writing, and arithmetic. Adam himself was an incredibly bright child, and she enjoyed spending time with him, even if that was really her only social interaction.

“Now, wash up, I’m sure we are nearing suppertime,” Sophia said to Adam, hanging up his poem in front of his desk.

“Yes, Miss Sophia,” Adam said with a grin, seemingly proud that she’d thought it good enough to hang up. Sophia was a soft soul, and felt that no matter what, positive encouragement was the key to good education.

Adam scurried through the door, and as he did, another familiar face came in behind him. Mister Barringer, the baron’s faithful butler, wore his usual well-fitted black waistcoat, peppered trousers, and black dress coat.

“Ah, Mister Barringer, I wasn’t expecting you to be there. You nearly gave me a fright!” Sophia giggled, cleaning up Adam’s desk.

“My apologies, miss,” Mister Barringer replied. “But there is an urgent matter requiring your attention, I’m afraid.”

“An urgent matter?” Sophia queried, confused by the very phrase. Her chest tightened as she stood there, her brain scattering every which way.

“The baron would like to see you, miss,” Mister Barringer replied. Sophia noted he seemed to look almost forlorn as the words slipped from his tongue, unsettling her even further. She was merely Adam’s teacher, after all, and a baron had no time or use for conversing with a governess—as long as she was doing her job. Had she done something wrong?

“O-oh,” Sophia said, throwing some scraps of paper in the bin and wiping her hands nervously on her dress. “Where is he?”

“The drawing-room,” Mister Barringer replied. “And do hurry, Miss Fielding. He doesn’t like it when anyone dawdles.”

Sophia gave Mister Barringer a quick nod as she felt her stomach twist and turn into knots. The walk to the drawing-room felt like it took a hundred years. As she got there, she saw the baron sitting by the fire, the light from the flames dancing off his pointed nose and indented chin as he casually sipped his wine.

“M-My lord,” Sophia stammered. “I was told you wanted to see me.”

“Ah, yes, Miss Fielding, do come in and have a seat over there.” Baron Colshire waved with his hand to an empty chair in front of him, and Sophia felt heavy as she sat. “You and I have a matter that needs addressing. A bittersweet one, at that.”

“Have I done something wrong, sir?” Sophia replied, a lump forming in her throat.

“Not at all,” the baron replied with a smile. “In fact, you’ve done quite the opposite. Adam is doing so well scholastically. He shows me all the amazing work you two have done, and his marks are extraordinary.”

“Why, thank you, my lord. I do try my best. Your son is a very gifted child.”

“Indeed,” the baron said with a nod, taking a sip of his drink. “That is why this moment is a bit poignant, my dear. You see, I will be enrolling Adam in boarding school early, as he is way ahead of most boys his age. I think it would do him some good to get in there, learn more structure and manners, especially as he is my heir.”

The baron’s words droned on, but Sophia felt like she was miles away, her heart dropping into the pit of her belly. He was sending Adam off a whole year early, something that Sophia had not expected nor accounted for. She’d squirreled away as much money as she possibly could, but there was no way that she could possibly afford to move out on her own on such short notice.

“He will be leaving once the school year starts, so, not much longer to be quite honest. Though not to worry—you have been exceptional, and I will give you only the best of references!”

Though she knew the baron meant well, she couldn’t help but feel frustrated. How could the baron, after all her years of service, just drop her so quickly? Without so much as care or thought to where she would go or what she would do? It just seemed so…cruel.

“Thank you,” Sophia replied, bowing her head in respect, though in her head she screamed and cried and carried on in a very unladylike way. “It has been a pleasure teaching your son.”

Before the baron could say anything else, she turned on her heels and headed to her bedchamber, resisting the urge to slam the door as she flopped onto her bed. Sophia grabbed her pillow and held it tight, sobbing into it so no one else could hear her tortured wails. She lamented over what exactly she would do. It wasn’t like governess jobs just fell in one’s lap, and with no time to line up her next position, there would be a gap in employment…and that meant no money.

After her father’s untimely death eight years ago, Sophia had been left with not a penny to her name—despite her father’s prestigious position in life. He had been a well-known solicitor, working with many of the ton and common folk alike. Her mother, too, had passed years ago, not surviving her birth. Even so, she didn’t want to be a burden on what family she did have left.

So much for being independent, Sophia thought to herself as she begrudgingly got up, went to her desk, and began to pen a letter to her aunt and uncle. Though she felt in her heart she didn’t want to go back—not that her aunt and uncle were bad people, nor would they mind having her around to help, but she enjoyed her own sense of liberation and self-sufficiency—she knew she had no choice. Plus, the embarrassment of it all was far too much to bear. To be sent home, jobless, without any sort of prospects?

How absolutely pitiful.


Chapter Two

Ethan yawned as he sat up and stretched. Pulling back the covers, he was met with the cold chill of the morning air. Another dreary day out there, Ethan thought to himself, sighing as he stared out the window. Another night, another vicious dream that woke him over and over, haunting him the moment he closed his eyes. But there was no time for crawling back in bed. There were ledgers to be gone through and things to be taken care of, and a duke had no time to sleep in. Regardless of the lack thereof the night before.

He rifled through his closet and got dressed, trying to shake off the nightmares that were still fresh in his mind as he glanced himself over in the mirror. His eyes looked hazy, purple-rimmed and puffy as he fixed his high collar, and he frowned as he combed through his messy, ash blonde hair.

“At least no one of note will have to see me like this,” Ethan mumbled to himself before walking down the hallway towards his office, almost running over the maid as he lumbered warily along.

“Oh, my apologies, your Grace,” Adele, his late wife’s former lady’s maid apologized.

“No, no, it’s my fault,” Ethan replied with a weak smile. “My head is a bit in the clouds today, I’m afraid. How are the children doing this morning?”

“Quite well, your Grace. They are working with the governess as we speak.”

“Excellent,” Ethan said with a smile. The triplets were his only real source of happiness anymore. Jacob, Jane and Julia were the lights of his life. They reminded him of the late duchess every time he looked at them, all of them born with her ebony locks and jade green eyes. They were a loveable though a mischievous lot, but he hoped that, with a woman’s touch, their unruly behavior could be stifled.

“Is there anything I can get you?”

“Hmm…some tea might be nice,” Ethan replied. “Hopefully the warmth will perk me up.”

“Yes, your Grace.” The maid bowed as she ran off to fetch his tea. He set up in his office and sat down, rifling through the pages of mess on his desk.

“Had I really left it like this last night?” Ethan asked himself, shaking his head. “It’s no wonder I’ve been having nightmares when I leave one here right in front of me.” Ethan began sifting through the pages, reorganizing the mess, and then going through the newest ledgers to check profits and calculate expenditures.

“Here’s your tea, your Grace,” the housemaid said as she returned, setting the small, steamy cup upon the duke’s desk.

“Why, thank you, Adele,” he replied as he took a sip, relishing the taste. “You make a perfect cup every time.”

“Only the best for you, your Grace.” Adele smiled. “Can I get you anything else?”

“Not unless you know how to go through these ledgers,” Ethan said with a laugh, taking another sip of his tea. Adele was a good maid—a great one, even—but she seemed to always be hovering. Always a worried look on her face as if he might break at any moment. Sometimes looking at her made his heart hurt, making him want to rid his world of yet another reminder of what had been lost. However, he knew that wasn’t the right thing to do, and a rather illogical, emotional thing to do at that. She was still good at her job, and good maids were hard to find.

“Mmm…that’s not my area of expertise,” Adele said with a soft beam, shaking her head.

“I thought not,” Ethan replied. “Has the laundry been done?”

“No, sir,” Adele said with a frown. “I’ll get right on it.” As Adele’s shoes clicked into the distance, Ethan went back to looking over the profit margins for the lands that were part of his estate. He sighed as he went through the numbers, making sure everything appeared to be on track. Ethan was so tired that the words and numbers seemed to blur together, and for a moment, he debated heading back to the comfort of his chambers.

A while later, footsteps echoed in the hallway and he sighed as he heard them coming towards his study. While he appreciated Adele taking him into consideration more since his wife’s death, sometimes her fussing became a bit too much for him.

“Adele, I told you I don’t need anything else,” Ethan called out from his seat in response to the knock at the door, his eyes never moving from the papers in his hand.

“Well, sir, it is I who needs something from you, actually.” Ethan spun around in his chair, surprised that his butler stood before him instead of the late duchess’s wayward maid.

“What seems to be the trouble, Mister Pembrooke?” Ethan asked, curious as to why the butler had come to his study. Mister Pembrooke wasn’t one to just come in willy-nilly. He was a very professional man, even on the rare occasions that he and Ethan had drinks together in the drawing-room when everyone else was asleep. He’d been the family’s butler for as long as Ethan could remember. With Ethan’s father gone, he’d become closer than one should to the help. Had it not been for Mister Pembrooke, Ethan may have crumbled completely long ago. The pressures of the dukedom and the loss of both his father and his wife were harsh burdens to bear.

“Well, your Grace, I am sorry to disturb you, but the governess is currently lugging her trunk towards the door.”

“Whatever do you mean?” Ethan asked, stunned at the information. “Why would she possibly be leaving?”

“It’s the triplets, your Grace,” Mister Pembrooke stammered. “They’ve gone unruly again. Miss Guinevere is beside herself this time, and she’s claimed she wants nothing more to do with the position.”

“Damn it,” Ethan groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. He could only imagine what they could have done now to chase yet another governess off. This was the fourth one in a years’ time, in fact. “Do you think I can save this one?”

“I’d say that’s very unlikely, your Grace. She wishes to give her resignation face to face.”

Ethan groaned as he stood up from his chair, pushing it back and then brushing past Mister Pembrooke and through the door. What had the children done this time? Put a frog in her teaching bag? Glued her to her seat? A million different pranks whirred through his mind as he reached the door. He spotted Miss Guinevere standing there in her usual black dress, uncharacteristically wearing a hat.

“Good morning, your Grace,” the older woman said, her bottom lip trembling as she appeared to hold back tears.

“My apologies, Miss Guinevere. I don’t know what they’ve done now, but I can assure you we can fix it.”

“There is nothing left to fix, your Grace. Those children are unteachable. They’re unruly and, dare I say it, possessed!” Miss Guinevere yowled, catching Ethan off guard.

Surely, they were quite the handful, Ethan thought to himself, but possessed?

“Miss Guinevere, I understand you are quite upset. I know my children aren’t perfect, but that sounds a bit…mad.”

“I’m the one who’s mad?” the governess wailed as she took off her hat, revealing the atrocity the triplets had committed. “They waited until I slept and then took the craft scissors. They butchered my hair! I look absolutely hideous!”

Ethan stood there bewildered at Guinevere’s once long, flowing, peppered locks, which were now shorn. The cuts were all uneven, going every which way, all in varying lengths

“Oh…good lord…” Ethan gasped, putting a hand to his mouth. The triplets had really done it this time, and if word were to get out about their impish deeds, they may never see another governess again.

“And that’s not all,” Miss Guinevere spat, opening up her case and taking out two dresses, which had notably been her favourites. “They shredded these to ribbons!” she whimpered, throwing one of them at him. As he held it up, the light from the doorway exposed every little slit and hole as she shook the other at him furiously. “These children don’t need a governess; they need a beast handler!”

“I can replace those,” Ethan replied, clearing his throat and trying to think of a way to get her to stay. “I can also double your pay if you stay on with us.”

Ethan’s mind zoomed, trying to think of ways to get her to stay. He needed a governess to teach the children, to help keep them in line so he could continue to do his work. Although he loved his children dearly and cherished the time he did get to spend with them, balancing the running of the dukedom with being a single father was far too much for his plate. They desperately needed the guidance only a woman could give.

“You cannot replace those dresses. My mother made those for me before her death. And stay? With these monsters? I think not. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall take my leave. I have to see if I can fix this absolute tragedy upon my head. Good day, your Grace.”

With that, Miss Guinevere slammed the door before Ethan could get another word in edgewise, causing him to flinch as he hung his head in defeat.

“I tried to warn you, your Grace,” Mister Prembrooke chimed in from behind, and Ethan rolled his eyes.

“You didn’t tell me it was that bad,” Ethan groaned, throwing the tattered dress to the floor in frustration as he caught a glimpse of the three troublemakers peering from around the corner. Ethan shot them an annoyed look and the children fled, their little feet scurrying as they ran to their rooms and slammed their doors shut. He considered following after them but was so flabbergasted and exasperated that he thought better of it.

“I didn’t realize it was that bad, your Grace, I swear it. I just assumed it was another one of their foolish games that set her off. Not…that,” Mister Pembrooke replied.

“Ahhhh!” Ethan breathed, stamping his foot angrily as he ruffled his hair. “Now what am I to do? This is the fourth one just this year!”

“Well, I can try my hand at helping with the children, if it settles your nerves, your Grace.”

“No, no,” Ethan sighed. “I need you here keeping an eye on the other staff. You don’t have time for other things. Though I guess I’ll need you or Adele to watch them in my stead, seeing as how I’ll have to go to the employment registry to find another governess.”

“Of course, your Grace.”

“I imagine I can only hope that they have someone available immediately. With any luck, I won’t be long. Until then, keep this place together for me, will you?”

“Yes, your Grace,” Mister Pembrooke said with a bow as Ethan went back to his desk, once again attempting to go through the ledgers before his trip to London.

Quite the hitch this puts in everything, Ethan thought to himself, quite the hitch indeed. He wasn’t exactly sure how he would keep a governess, when and if he got someone else to come in. Not with the way the children were acting. He could only hope that by some act of God there was some woman out there whose will would outweigh the children’s determination.

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Chasing the Chaperone (Preview)


Chapter 1

Autumn, 1819

My Lord,

I never thought to say these words to you. 

You must forget me. 

You must.

You are meant for high society and the Earldom while I… 

I am insignificant.

I am the bastard daughter of a baron; of a man I have but scant knowledge.

I cannot bear to bring you low by our association.

Forgive me that I must convey this in a letter.

I fear my resolve might disappear if I were to see you again.

I pray that you stay kind to those both above and below you, as you have always been to me.

Be happy for my sake.

With gratitude for all that we have shared,


For the thousandth time, Jonathan read the last note Lavinia sent him. The paper was thin and creased, the ink fading for all the times he had handled the paper.

Eight years had passed, and he still had not forgotten her, despite her solemn command. He could remember her golden tresses and the way the light danced in her green eyes when she laughed.

Jonathan sighed as he set aside the note and focused on the ledger his steward left for his review. Although Jonathan already had a fair idea of the dire contents, he began to go through the numbers again.

The Earldom was on the brink of bankruptcy. Courtesy of his late father’s love for gambling, lavish and lavish living. Everyone knew of Abingdon’s reckless ways. And Jonathan had last year inherited the title only to see it had been brought to ruin. Jonathan smiled ruefully. His father had sworn that Jonathan would be the downfall of the title, when in fact, Jonathan would have to find a way to be its savior.

After a while, Jonathan closed the ledger and stood up, leaving the desk to walk to the tall open windows. Outside, autumn was just beginning, the turning leaves bare hints of a season on the brink of change. He relished in the warmth of the sun and closed his eyes. Unbidden, another autumn day came to mind, the day that Jonathan had chosen Lavinia over the Earldom.

It had been warm, and the hues of the season were also abundant the day he left this very same study. Turning his back on his father and his future as an Earl. A young man who was very much in love. He waited for her where they first met; a secluded bench in the park, surrounded by trees shedding their multicolored leaves.

He’d arrived at dawn, and he was still waiting when the sun rose the next day. If not for the rain that began to pour that evening, he would have stayed longer. Indeed, the day started sunny, but Jonathan returned to Abingdon in the dismal rain of evening. His greatcoat was well-drenched, and his boots caked with mud. He walked on in a daze. So lost in his thoughts that the truth came to him only when he reached the massive doors of his father’s manor.

Lavinia had not come.

The thought shocked him. He’d sent word to Lavinia that they would run away to Gretna Green to be wed. But she did not come to meet him.

Jonathan felt the old pang in his heart. He abruptly ended his reminiscence of the past and sealed his eyes shut tighter. He bowed his head and willed the unwanted thoughts and bitter emotions back into the metaphorical box he’d locked them in so many years ago. Then Jonathan heard three knocks on the door.

His mother, Rebecca, Dowager Countess of Abingdon emerged from the door, dressed in a fine silk gown of dove gray that showed that she was still in half-mourning for her late husband.

She paused and asked, “Is everything all right, my son?” A look of worry crossed her face that showed thin signs of aging, but one which still retained the regal beauty of her youth. Jonathan turned and smiled in hopes he could fool his mother, but knowing he tried in vain, as his mother’s intuition was always sound regarding her only son.

She walked to him and took his hand in hers. The soft hazel eyes that were so like his own entreating him to confide in her.

“From the frown on your face, I fear my presumptions are true. Abingdon is as good as bankrupt.” Jonathan’s mother said as she glanced at the ledger on the well-polished desk. He nodded slightly.

“As your mother, I do not want to force anything on you, Jonathan,” The Dowager Countess paused as if she was deeply pondering her next words.

“But think of the people who depend on us, son. Perhaps it is time that you think of marriage.” Rebecca softly said as she placed her hands on both sides of his son’s cheeks.

“I know, Mother,” Jonathan abruptly responded. So abrupt that it slightly startled the Dowager Countess. In an attempt to soften his words, Jonathan smiled, though it was forced.

He had never thought to marry anyone other than Lavinia. Even if it meant never taking a wife. Even after his months and years of searching for her turned up nothing.

As the reckoning of his father’s errors drew near, however, Jonathan knew he had no choice. He was in a bind. His hands tied—locked by his duty and his eyes blindfolded. There was only one thing he could do to save his estate.

By the end of the season, if Jonathan did not marry a woman of sufficient dowry, his estate would be in ruins, and his mother would be forced to live in poverty. She had endured too much from his father, and Jonathan would not drive her into such a state.

He looked at his mother and saw the light sheen of tears that welled in her eyes. The sight pierced him, and Jonathan placed a hand atop hers and squeezed gently as if it was enough reassurance that all will be well.

“Well,” Rebecca croaked before she cleared her throat. She blinked back her tears and took a sharp breath of air as if to cleanse herself of the sadness that threatened to overtake her. Bitterly, she continued, “I will be at your disposal if you need help choosing a bride.”  She patted his hand and with the gentle sway of her dress, the Dowager Countess turned and left the room, leaving Jonathan alone with his thoughts once again.

Jonathan turned back to the autumnal scene of his estate. He looked on the gardeners going about their duties. Jonathan had a duty to perform as well. One that would protect his people but take away his last hope of happiness. One thrust upon him by the dissolute ways of his damned father.

For his people and for his mother, Jonathan had no choice. He must lay his heart aside and forget his hopes of finding Lavinia.

Head bowed low and hands clasped behind his back, Jonathan turned back to his desk and heaved a sigh of defeat. Reluctantly, he removed his maternal uncle’s note from a drawer. Lord Winston had found him a wife—a woman to whom he would be sacrificed for the sake of his mother and estate.

Jonathan’s uncle assured him that any of the arrangements he made were not final if Jonathan did not wish to proceed. But Jonathan knew he had little choice.

Lord Winston had arranged a tentative betrothal to a Viscount’s daughter who possessed a large dowry and was in her third season. Included in the note was the letter from Viscount Marsham himself. The Viscount asked Jonathan to visit his estate north of London so that they might meet and his marriage to his daughter Amelia may be finalized. Jonathan knew that his fate would be sealed if he agreed, and he would wed a woman he had never even met. A woman whose considerable dowry had not been enough to tempt anyone else to marry her.

Jonathan sighed. There was naught to be done; he must wed this heiress with all due haste.

His heart heavy but his resolve strong, Jonathan reached for his quill to pen his responses to his uncle and Viscount Marsham. He felt like a veritable scoundrel as he did so, for though Jonathan would wed this woman, he would never love her. His heart would forever belong to another.

But, what could a man do?

Very little, Jonathan grimaced. He had to focus on all that depended on him. His tenants, his servants, and his mother. The estate could not afford to have another failed earl. So Jonathan signed his name and sealed the letters that would change the course of his life.

The Viscount responded promptly, and within a sennight, Jonathan and his mother found themselves in a carriage approaching the estate of his betrothed’s father.

Absent of any genuine curiosity but bored by the journey, Jonathan peered out the carriage windows. The russet foliage of autumn leaves neatly lined the lane, and directly ahead, Jonathan could see Lord Marsham’s castle in all its glory. The castle alone was enough of a signifier of the extent of the Viscount’s wealth. Something Jonathan found peculiar as most Viscounts did not have such a fortune to warrant residence in a castle.

Jonathan wished they could have come in spring when the landscape would be awash in color and the air redolent of fresh-cut grass. The dull browns and yellows of autumn had a funeral air. One that matched the dull ache in Jonathan’s heart.

“Autumn was much more beautiful back home,” Jonathan muttered. He spoke to himself, but somehow, his mother had heard him.

“You think so, dear?” The Dowager inquired as she leaned closer to her window and viewed for herself what Jonathan had been contemplating.

“I believe the colors are quite the same. And the sun is shining for a change,” She sensibly replied, a bit puzzled.

“Perhaps so,” Jonathan answered dryly. Though in his mind, Jonathan rebelled, He had not wanted this. So, despite what his mother thought, he kept himself occupied with his thoughts of how depressingly brown the Viscount’s estate was. Yet, all too well, the sadness in Jonathan showed in his eyes and the Dowager Countess of Abingdon reached for Jonathan’s hand and squeezed gently.

“This is for the best, Jonathan.” She smiled in an attempt to soothe him, but Jonathan did not answer. The carriage came to a halt then. They had arrived.


Chapter 2

Lavinia watched Amelia wince as the maid pulled the corset strings tighter. “Forgive me, miss,” The maid said as she tugged even harder. “But the master did say he wanted your figure to show to the best advantage today.”

When the maid finished with the corset, she helped her mistress into her gown and bowed out when she was dismissed.

“Are you in much discomfort, Amelia?” Lavinia asked with concern.

“This will be the least discomfort I derive from this day,” Amelia responded with a small smile to her former governess, who was now her paid companion.

Lavinia returned the rueful smile. She knew that this was Amelia’s last chance for a match. After two failed seasons, if she did not marry soon, Amelia would be deemed unmarriageable in the eyes of society. Lavinia remembered all the times she dried Amelia’s tear after yet another disastrous ball where the girl had sat at the edge of the room, her shoulders hunched, as she watched others dance and laugh.

The memories wrenched Lavinia’s heart. Not one of those noble snobs deserved the tears that Amelia had shed every time she was snubbed. But Lavinia could not voice this out loud for fear of being dismissed for speaking ill of her betters.

“Do you think I can finally succeed in turning a man’s head?” Amelia asked in a whisper. “I fear my limp will yet again be the cause of my failure. Why would this gentleman be any different from all the others that father has tried to buy for me?”

“Perhaps this one will be the right man for you, Amelia. Mayhap he will be kind and gentle,” Lavinia smiled as she reached up and tucked a brown curl behind Amelia’s ear.

“So, think not of what society deems a success. Rather, listen to your heart,” Lavinia said, laying her hand upon her own breast. She saw Amelia smile slightly, but there was no joy on her face.

“I fear the men of the ton do not listen to their hearts, nor are they kind.” Amelia replied bitterly. “I do not think the man you speak of will ever come or even exists.” Lavinia could feel Amelia’s sadness as small tears formed in her friend’s her eyes.

What Amelia said echoed through the deep recesses of Lavinia’s memories. She remembered when she once had the love of a kind gentleman, and in an instant, her thoughts wandered to Jonathan. She wondered if he had ever married, for if he did, his wife would surely be the object of envy. Knowing such a wonderful man existed gave her hope that Amelia would find one for herself.

“He will come.” Lavinia coaxed as she stared right through Amelia’s eyes. “The right one will love all of you, limp and all,” Lavinia said warmly with a smile that said she was sure of what she spoke.

“I hope so, one cannot wait for an eternity.”” Amelia said in a serious tone, knowing that the chances were slim.

“Or. . . Maybe I can, for it already feels like I have waited at least that long.” Amelia scoffed, and her eyes crinkled

Lavinia giggled and jokingly mocked, “Forever? You are still but a child.” She now saw laughter reach Amelia’s eyes and was pleased. Lavinia wanted nothing so much as to see Amelia happy.

After breakfast, Lavinia and Amelia and enjoyed themselves outdoors. They were in the middle of discussing a book in the library after luncheon when Amelia’s father, Viscount Marsham, approached them with swift steps.

“I come with good news.” Lord Marsham said to Amelia. He was a bit breathless, having trotted upstairs to find his daughter.

“Your betrothed’s carriage is approaching and will be at the door at any moment. Everything will soon be arranged for you.” Lord Marsham kept his gaze trained on Amelia as she slowly rose from her seat.

Amelia’s body shook, and she placed her palms flat on the table in front of her to steady herself.

“But what of my limp, Father? I am afraid he will take himself off as soon as he lays eyes on me,” Amelia said in a voice so loud and anxious that Lavinia softly reached for her hand to comfort Amelia. With a warm look at her, Lavinia gently smiled with eyes that conveyed all would be fine.

“There is no need for you to worry. I have everything arranged. This marriage is a business deal meant for the benefit of our two families. The Earl of Abingdon is in a bind, and he cannot take back his word. He will marry you, of that I am certain.”

The Viscount’s pronouncement struck Lavinia to her core. She sucked in a sharp breath as her mind reeled. Jonathan. 

His name ran through her head over and over as her fingers became nerveless, and the book she held fell to the floor with a thud. The loud sound jolted Lavinia out of her careening thoughts.

Fearing that Amelia and her father might see the stricken look on her face, Lavinia apologized for her clumsiness and crouched down under the table to retrieve the book and gather her wits. She tried to slow her breathing and still her shaking hands.

How could fate be so cruel to bring her love back into her life only for him to wed her dearest friend and employer?

At that moment, the butler came into the room to inform Viscount Marsham that the Earl of Abingdon and his mother, the Dowager Countess of Abingdon, had arrived. The declaration was all too abrupt, and Lavinia jolted in surprise, catching her head on the underside of the table as she got to her feet.

Both Amelia and the Viscount looked at her quizzically before the Viscount said, “Capital. See that they are settled in the drawing room and given refreshments. I will be down directly.” To Amelia, he said, “Make haste to freshen yourself, Amelia. The Earl and his mother will be here for a few days, but I want you to make a good impression on them now.”

Amelia nodded, and the Earl departed on the heels of his butler. Lavinia searched her mind for any way she could keep from having to see the man she had jilted but still loved, but nothing plausible presented itself. When she saw that Amelia was still shaking with anxiety, she put aside her own worries and drew Amelia into a warm embrace.

“All will be well, Amelia. Just be your sweet self, and do not worry; all will be as it should be,” Lavinia said as she stepped back from her mistress.

Amelia nodded and straightened her spine. Just as she was going to ask Lavinia to escort her to the drawing room, Lavinia said, “Do forgive me, but I’m afraid there is a pressing matter I must attend to at once.” Before Amelia could utter a reply, Lavinia had fled the room.

As Lavinia walked to her room, she tried to compose herself and again attempted to think of a way, short of packing her things and fleeing the castle, to keep from seeing Jonathan. How could she meet him again as he was about to wed another?

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Never the Duke, Always the Captain (Preview)

Chapter One

Captain Hugh Everett startled awake by a distant shout. The gentle motion of the ship that rocked him to sleep had morphed into a violent sway that almost threw him from his bed. Immediately alert, the last vestiges of sleep banished by the adrenaline that sparked through his veins, he hurried to the window. The rounded glass was splattered with sea spray, the salt rendering details slightly more difficult to make out but in no way minimizing the roiling sky. Pillars of rain reached down to the thrashing waves, and Hugh was almost thrown back as the ship lurched.

Cursing, he stumbled out of his room and up onto the deck, where water sloshed across the weathered wood.

“Sailor,” he shouted, grabbing the closest man to him. Wilson, he remembered dimly—the man’s name was Wilson. “What’s the situation?”
“The Captain fears the ship will be capsized,” Wilson yelled back, straining to be heard of the roaring wind. His eyes, wide and filled with fear, darted to the crashing waves. The ship, large in the ordinary way of things, was tossed from wave to wave as a child might throw a toy—with utter carelessness. Hugh had never seen such waves before; they dwarfed the ship. “All passengers are to remain belowdecks, sir.”

Hugh knew he ought to return to his cabin, but every part of him yearned to stay on deck, though the risk of being swept away was significant if he remained. Another insistent wave grabbed at his legs as the ship tipped, and he seized a nearby rope for support.

“Captain Everett.” The ship’s mate, his face rugged from years in the sun and salt, glared at Hugh. “Get back to your cabin. Cap’n’s orders.”
Hugh’s feet skidded across the soaked wood as he staggered down the steps back towards his room. His belongings bounced from one wall to the other. If the bed hadn’t been fastened to the floor, that too would be flung across the room.

He sat on the edge of his bed and felt in his pocket for a now grimy blue ribbon. Once, it had been the pale blue of the morning sky, and he still remembered the way his youthful hands had closed around it for the first time.

Now, his hands were rougher and less youthful, though only a handful of years had passed since then. The ribbon had at first been a symbol of everything he couldn’t have; now, it was his good luck charm. One he needed today more than ever before. This was a storm of Biblical proportions, and though he’d never anticipated the sea being the thing to take his life, perhaps this was how he was meant to die.

Let me live, he prayed, holding the ribbon to his mouth—though to whom the prayer was directed, he couldn’t be sure. Let me survive this storm.

The ribbon still pressed against his lips, he closed his eyes and waited for the morning.


Viscountess Arendale’s rose garden was exceedingly lavish. Audrey rarely considered herself fond of flowers, but one would have to be particularly hard-hearted—or perhaps blind—not to appreciate the beauty of these lush blooms. With a single gloved hand, she cupped the petals of the nearest rose and peered into its center. Blushing pink faded to a deeper, duskier shade that reminded her of the sky at sunrise.
Her mother, the Countess of Burdane, cleared her throat, attracting Audrey’s attention. “What do you think of Lord Talbot, my dear?” she asked, with a pointed glance at her daughter.

Audrey folded her hands in her lap. “Is he not a little young?”

Viscountess Arendale, who had been the one to put forward Talbot’s name as a potential bachelor in the upcoming Season, considered. “You may be right. He’s a fresh-faced boy, though you can’t deny he’s got a bit of his father about him—and his father was a popular man when he was in his prime.”

“I agree,” Audrey’s mother said, “but at his age, I hardly think he’ll be looking for a wife.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting the Duke of Dudlington,” someone else said. “I heard he’s on the marriage mart this season.”
The marriage mart. Audrey always hated that term, as though gentlemen and ladies were merely items on display to be chosen and purchased.

Her mother raised an eyebrow. “The Duke has expressed a wish to marry?”

“Did you not know?” Another young lady, with curls that looked altogether too uniform to be natural, leaned forward around the table. Her blue eyes danced from face to face until she was sure she had everyone’s attention. “I heard his mother tell Lady Sinclair that since his late father’s death, he believes it is time he sought a wife.”

Although Audrey’s mother was not so uncouth as to nudge Audrey, or indeed show any sign that she held anything more than polite interest for this particular piece of news, Audrey knew herself to be under scrutiny. She allowed herself a polite smile but nothing more. The Duke had been present at several events she’d attended, and she’d noticed his smoothness of address and dark eyes even before she’d noticed his title—although then she hadn’t known he was looking for a wife.

And now, in this exclusive group of ladies in which she was privileged enough to have a place, he had been deemed the most eligible bachelor of the Season. It was enough to make her heart flutter in her chest.

“Just imagine being courted by the Duke of Dudlington,” Lady Wraxall said, with a slightly mournful look. She’d married a somewhat older gentleman, last year. Although the match was said to be a happy one, and it had conferred greater status, there was no denying the Earl of Wraxall, in his forty-second year, was in no way as dashing as the Duke of Dudlington. “I rather think I’d swoon.”

Knowing her opinion was better kept private, Audrey merely kept her eyes down on her gloves, where the roses had left a smear of pollen. If she were given the opportunity to speak with the Duke, she rather suspected she wouldn’t swoon. Not that he was not as likely a candidate as any, but rather she had never been induced to faint and thought it unlikely that any man, no matter how handsome, could bring her to do so now. Swooning was reserved for ladies with weaker constitutions, and Audrey hardly felt herself to be a woman so overwhelmed by a man’s presence that she would faint at the mere sight of him.


In the carriage on the way home, Audrey let out a sigh and leaned her head against the velvet seats. “It was such a shame Olivia couldn’t be here,” she said. “Her migraine came at an unfortunate time. She would have loved to hear all about the dashing Duke of Dudlington.”

“Yes,” her mother agreed absently. Audrey knew that look; it meant she was thinking of things beyond them in this carriage. “Although this information will hardly benefit her—after her first Season, I don’t think it’s likely she’ll attract the attention of the Duke, my love.”

Olivia Jennings, Audrey’s cousin, and her parents’ ward, had made an unsuccessful debut last season and her prospects looked unpromising this year. Audrey couldn’t give a reason for this lack of success. It was true Olivia’s complexion was not as smooth as she’d have liked—she did have a great many freckles—and her red hair was too brassy to be considered a more refined auburn. But neither of these things was such a great problem to Audrey’s mind. However, physical features and a rather unfortunate fashion sense aside, Olivia had a small dowry to her name and was sponsored by Audrey’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Burdale. Audrey would have expected Olivia to have at least found one suitor.

She glanced at Lucy, her lady’s maid, who gave a small, repressed smile. Later, she would confide everything she had learned about the Duke of Dudlington to Lucy, but now was not the moment.

Suddenly, carriage lurched forward, and Audrey was almost thrown from her seat. “What the—” her mother began, but with another sickening lurch, the carriage tipped.

Audrey braced her hands against the wall of the carriage as it tilted. Panic, red-hot and piercing, lanced through her, and she screamed as she slid down her seat into Lucy.

With a metallic groan, the carriage fell onto its side. With a thud that knocked the breath from her lungs, Audrey landed against the door. Her leg ached where the handle dug into her thigh. Partially underneath her, Lucy moaned weakly.

Dazed, Audrey looked at the door above her and tried to reassemble her world. Outside, a horse snickered, and male voices shouted.
She shifted off Lucy and turned to face the girl. Lucy’s face was unnaturally pale, and her eyelids fluttered.

“Are you all right?” Audrey struggled to keep her voice calm. “Lucy, are you hurt?”

“Only my leg, m’lady.”

“Can anybody hear me?” a voice called from outside the carriage. Low yet authoritative, it was the voice of a man who was accustomed to being obeyed.

“Hello?” Audrey’s voice was faint, and she pressed a hand to her throat. He had to hear her. He had to. “Hello? Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you,” the voice said. “Stay calm. Are you hurt?”

She glanced at her mother, who appeared shaken but unhurt. “I am unharmed, but my maid has injured her leg.”
“You there, help me right this carriage. There are ladies inside,” there are ladies inside.

Once again, Audrey braced herself as best she could. Her mother, a little more in possession of her faculties, took hold of the seat, and after an alarming creak, the carriage heaved back upright.

The door opened, and Audrey did her best to control her expression at the familiar dark eyes that faced her. The man who had saved them was none other than the Duke of Dudlington.

“Your Grace,” she said, scrambling her thoughts together. “That is to say—”

“My lady.” He bowed and offered her mother his hand. “Please, allow me.”

In nervous anticipation, Audrey waited as he handed her mother from the carriage and returned for her. His hand was warm and solid, wrapping tightly around hers as he helped her out onto the street. Their horses, two high-stepping bays that her father had personally purchased, had been freed from the crumpled remains of their carriage. They stood on the cobbles, snorting and tossing their heads.
“Thank you,” she managed as the Duke helped Lucy from the carriage.

“Yes, thank you, Your Grace.” Her mother, pale but finally in possession of her faculties, sank into a curtsy. “We’re most grateful for your assistance.”

“Oh—please excuse my manners,” the Duke said. “We have not been properly introduced. I’m the Duke of Dudlington at your service.”
“The Countess of Burdale,” her mother said. “This is my daughter, Lady Audrey Burton.”

Audrey curtsied, wishing she were anywhere but on a dusty street, her hair in disarray and with an imperfect hold on her composure.
The Duke bowed again to each of them. “Delighted to make your acquaintance, Countess, Lady Audrey.”

“Delighted,” her mother repeated.

Audrey took in the surrounding devastation—her father’s carriage would not be fit to be driven again—and gasped at the sight of their coachman sat on the pavement, his head covered in blood. A man she did not know tended him.

“Not to worry,” the Duke said, following her glance. “Your coachman took a nasty blow to the head, but we were extremely fortunate to have Mr. Foster, a physician, passing by at the moment of the accident.”

“He will make a full recovery,” Mr. Foster said. Like her father, he had a full head of gray hair, and there was something so calmly reassuring about his demeanor that Audrey couldn’t help but relax. “If you ladies would wait just a moment, I would like to take the liberty of examining you as well.”

“Of course,” Audrey’s mother murmured.

The Duke removed his jacket and spread it across the pavement. “Please, sit.”

Audrey privately thought that a bit of street dust would hardly be a problem after being in a carriage accident. Still, Lucy was leaning increasingly heavily on her arm, and she helped lower the girl to the ground. Once sat, she realized her vision was spinning.

“As soon as Mr. Foster has finished examining you all; you must allow my carriage to take you home,” the Duke was saying, and her mother thanked him in enthusiastic tones.

Audrey swallowed. If the young ladies at Viscountess Arendale’s garden party could have seen her now, they would have been wildly jealous—and here she was, too dazed to truly appreciate the moment.

Mr. Foster approached and examined them each in turn. Audrey and her mother, as she suspected, merely had a few scrapes and bruises, but Lucy had sprained her ankle. Mr. Foster recommended she keep the weight from her leg for two weeks.

Once the examination was complete, the Duke politely led them to his waiting carriage. The Countess offered effusive thanks, and before they knew it, they were in the carriage he’d called for especially for them. He instructed his coachmen to drive exceedingly cautiously, bid them farewell, and they were off.

Audrey’s mother, her composure quite restored by the attentions the Duke, gave Audrey a significant look. “Well, my dear, that was a piece of good fortune.”

“The carriage overturning and Lucy hurting her leg?” Audrey said, her tone sharp. “I hardly think so.”

“Of course, it’s unfortunate poor Lucy was hurt. But I was referring to meeting the Duke in this way.”

“He was very kind,” Audrey admitted, “although I feel meeting him in a more conventional way might have been preferable.”

“Do you think so?” Her mother’s smile was enigmatic. “I think, my love, you have a little to learn about men.”

“Do you think him more disposed to like me now?”

“I shall be astonished if he doesn’t seek you out. Mark my words, Audrey—you have captured his attention. Now see if you can capture his mind.”

“And his heart?”

Her mother’s smile broadened. “If you have his attention and his mind, his heart will follow.”


Chapter Two

When Hugh opened his eyes, he was reassured to find the roof of his cabin intact above him. To his left, the window showed a clear blue sky and a calm sea—and in the distance, the London docks.

He had survived.

The blue ribbon was still clutched in his hand. Once again, it had brought him luck. For a moment, he sat on the bed staring at its familiar sheen, dimmed now from its years spent in his pocket.

“Here,” she said, laughing as she pulled the ribbon from her hair and handed it to him. “For luck.”

And luck it had brought him, though he hadn’t seen her in many years—and doubted he ever would again. Hugh certainly had no intention of reviving that particular friendship—his actions had destroyed it forever. Though he still believed his intentions had been honorable and correct, he would never forget the look in her eyes as he scorned her.

But now was not the time to be thinking of such things. Hugh rose and tucked the ribbon away, out of sight by his heart. For now, he would think of happier things: soon, he would be home and would see his mother again. That meant more to him than the murky memories of his past.

And they had won the war. Now was a time for celebration.

Fully dressed, he joined the other soldiers on deck as they pulled into London’s docks, and he embraced the sound of it—the sound of his home. After bidding goodbye to the men he’d considered his brothers during his three years at war, he made his way on foot back to his mother’s home. In his letters, he’d been deliberately vague to keep the precise date of his return a secret. He couldn’t wait to see the look on her face when she saw him again after all these years. At eighteen, when he’d left, he’d been a boy. Now, at one-and-twenty, with everything he’d seen behind him, he was a man.

His mother, Bridget Everett, lived in a modest townhouse in Cheapside. His late father had been a successful merchant, and although they hadn’t lived in a fashionable part of town, it was comfortable enough and provided for his mother’s needs. Since Hugh had achieved the title of Captain a year ago for saving the Duke of Dudlington’s younger brother—a feat he had considered in the ordinary line of duty and in no way worthy of acclaim—he’d been able to pay off the mortgage.

“Hugh?” his mother whispered as she opened the door to find him on the front step. At her face, creased with a smile even as tears sprung to her eyes, he grinned. “Oh, my Hugh—I didn’t know you’d be back so soon.”

He embraced her and rubbed her back with a rueful grin as she wept on his shoulder. “I must say I expected this to be a pleasant surprise.”
“Of course, it’s a pleasant surprise, you rascally boy. Come in, come in. I’ll ask Cook what we’ve got to eat, though heaven knows it’ll just be something plain. I live modestly, you know when there’s just me.” She pressed her hands to her face and sighed. “I wish your father could be here to see you now.”

Hugh’s smile tightened. His father had passed away while he was away at sea a year previously; his mother still wore her widow’s weeds. Although he’d decided not to embark on an official period of mourning now he’d returned, his father’s absence still grieved him.
Dinner was a small affair, marked most notably by the outflowing of his mother’s love towards him. “Few things have changed around here,” she said. “My biggest question is what you intend to do now you’re back.”

“Intend to do?” Hugh laughed. “Mama, I’ve spent the past three years fighting for our king and country. Haven’t I earned the right to a bit of rest?”

Her brows pulled together, and she glanced away. In the light of the flickering lamps, she looked older than she had when he’d left. The orange light highlighted the lines that framed her face and the cut of sorrow around her mouth that didn’t fade even when she smiled.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“There’s something you need to know. I’d hoped—but then that would be foolish. You’re so young. Wait here. I have something for you.”
Puzzled, Hugh remained in his chair as his mother hurried from the room and returned shortly with a sealed letter in her hand.
“As you couldn’t be there when your father—when he… He wrote you a letter.”

Hugh swallowed as he broke the seal. When his mother’s letter had arrived informing him his father had perished from typhus, he hadn’t thought he’d have another opportunity to hear from his father again.

How many nights he’d wondered what he would say if he had just a few minutes by his father’s bedside. How many conversations had he played through in his head?

How many times had he wished for a letter such as this to be in his hands now?

With his heart heavy, he read through the contents of the letter, which had been written by an increasingly shaky hand. Its contents were short and to the point.

My dear boy,
The physician has informed me I have little time left, and so I take pen to paper—though you know I despise the process—to write to you.
When I’m gone, your mother will be alone. When the war ends, and it will end soon, I ask you to consider the future carefully. Find a wife who will carry on the family name and bear you sons. Make your mother happy—it is her lifelong wish to see you settled, and I know you value her happiness beyond all things. It is my wish, too. War can bring you grief and pain; marriage will bring you healing. Trust me on this, son: marriage settles a man, and it’s the best way—nah, the only way to move past the devastation of war. Let it bring you and your mother stability, and let it, as I deeply hope it will, bring you the same joy my marriage brought me.
I must go. By the time you receive this, I will be gone. Reflect on my words. I know you will make the right choice.
Your loving father,
Jacob Everett

Hugh lay the paper across the table and stared blankly at the opposite wall. He was one-and-twenty—hardly an age to be settling down.

Marriage had been so far from the question that he barely knew how to respond to his mother’s anxious inquiry about the contents of the letter.

“Read it,” he said briefly, pushing the missive and rising. “Father says I must reflect.”

“Oh, Hugh, you know your father—”

“And then,” he said, striding from the room, “I must prepare to marry.”


Audrey toyed with her curls as she sat beside Olivia at dinner. Burdale Manor was filled with the most prominent members of the ton to celebrate her debut ball, many of whom she’d had occasion to meet at prior engagements. The Duke of Dudlington sat opposite her but one, engaged in conversation with Lord Rutledge, who spoke of little but foxes.

“… The best method of engaging in the hunt is to commit….”

The Duke glanced up and met her gaze before glancing away again, a small smile on his lips. Audrey’s entire evening had been consumed with those glances—they were never improperly long but frequent enough to assure her she dominated his thoughts.

And she had taken great care in ensuring she would. Lucy had practiced with the curling tongs until they had perfected the ringlets that framed her face, and her gown was of the finest silk. Just the color of the blushing roses in Viscountess Arendale’s garden, she had insisted a delicate pink would bring out the gold in her hair and highlight the color that so often suffused her cheeks. Once, Audrey had been embarrassed by how easily she blushed. Now, especially with the Duke looking at her so frequently, she embraced her propensity to blush. After all, a little color was becoming, was it not?

She turned to Olivia on her right. Unfortunately, her cousin had chosen a garish puce dress that, although exquisitely made, did little for her complexion or the ruddy hue of her hair.

“You’ve barely touched your food this evening, Livvie,” Audrey said. “Are you quite well?”

Olivia returned her concern with a sniff of disdain. “You worry too much.”

“You ought to eat something. The glazed apples are delightful. Would you not try some?”

“I told you—I’m fine.”

Audrey leaned back to her seat and glanced up in time to encounter the Duke looking across at her once again. Not for the first time, she had ample opportunity to appreciate the strong line of his nose and a rather fine chin one usually found on Greek statues. He really was beautiful, if beautiful were ever an epithet to be bestowed on a man.

After dinner, during which Audrey had been careful not to overeat, dancing could begin. Audrey’s dance card was nearly filled by nameless young men she had no genuine interest in. Still, to be popular was flattering, and she forced a smile at every infatuated head that came her way.

Until the infatuated head belonged to none other than the Duke of Dudlington.

As young ladies were wont to do, she’d been perfectly aware of everyone he’d spoken to, making a graceful loop around the room until he finally encountered her and Olivia. Olivia, perhaps knowing that the Duke would never approach her, moved a little to one side and gazed at the far wall with apparent rapt interest.

“Lady Audrey,” the Duke said, bowing over her hand. “What a pleasure to see you here looking so well.”
“Indeed, this is a rather less dramatic mode of meeting.”

“I cannot be sorry it was I who came across you that day, not another gentleman.”

Oh my.

Audrey’s heart fluttered in her chest, and her wretched cheeks bloomed with color again. “You flatter me, Your Grace.”

“Only as far as you deserve to be flattered. Would you do me the honor of this next dance?”

For a split second, Audrey glanced across to where Olivia lingered, her dance card resolutely empty. Not one gentleman had asked her to dance in the entire evening, and guilt rose in her stomach as the Duke took her gloved hand and led her out onto the dance floor.

“The Earl of Burdale has an estate in Yorkshire, does he not?” The Duke placed his hand, very correctly, on her waist. “It’s a beautiful part of the country. Did you enjoy living there?”

Audrey smiled at the recollection of diving across the estate with her spaniel, Peggy, in a very tomboyish fashion. “Very much so.”
“Aside from partaking in occasional carriage accidents, do you have any interests?”

“I love watercolor painting,” she said with perhaps more enthusiasm than was proper. “There was a lake on my father’s estate, and I used to paint there. Sometimes, flocks of geese would swim across, but in particular, there was a willow tree that… Oh, it was beautiful. I painted it at least twenty times.” She allowed herself a wry smile. “No doubt there’s a drawer somewhere at home stuffed with all my attempts.”

“Were there any you were pleased with?”

“The last, I believe, is accomplished enough I would not be ashamed of it.”

He smiled, and a shiver ran down her back to her toes. “If it should ever find its way to London, I should be glad to see it. While my artistic skills do not rate very highly, I collect paintings, and I have a keen interest in art. Watercolor, in particular.”

“If you expect me to believe—” she began, but a shriek interrupted her. The orchestra halted, the notes jarring, and Audrey turned to find Olivia lying on the floor surrounded by guests. Her stomach twisted into knots.

“Allow me through,” a gentleman said, breaking through the circle that had formed around Olivia. Audrey recognized him as Mr. Foster, the man who had happened upon them after the carriage accident. Her father called upon Mr. Foster after their mishap to thank the man for his assistance, and finding him to be quite the pleasant gentleman, had invited him to this evening’s ball.

“Padron me,” Audrey said, pushing through the guests until she was at Olivia’s side. Mr. Foster kneeled beside the fallen girl and waved smelling salts under her nose.

“Ah, there we go,” he said as Olivia’s eyes fluttered open. “May I have some assistance in carrying this unfortunate young lady to the parlor?”

“Of course.” Audrey’s father, the Earl of Burdale, turned to face the guests. “My ward has just become a trifle overheated,” he said, commanding attention in that effortless way of his. “She is well now. Please, let us continue with the dancing.”

Murmuring swept through the ballroom, but Audrey could barely hear it as her father lifted Olivia and carried her through into the parlor. So consumed by her cousin’s welfare, she didn’t even think to look for the Duke of Dudlington until it was too late.

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