Desperate for a Duke, Desperate and Daring Series, Book 1

by Dayna Quince

When only a Duke will do…

When her father resorts to suicide to escape his gambling debts, Heather Everly is heartbroken. But her sorrow turns to terror when she discovers that his last losing bet was her hand in marriage to the scoundrel Lord Brightly. The blackmailing nobleman threatens to ruin Heather and her sisters by revealing their father’s cause of death to Society—unless Heather marries him. Desperate, she knows she must marry a man with enough wealth and status to silence the evil Lord Brightly and save her family from ruin.

The elderly Duke of Ablehill is believed to be Heather’s best opportunity for a speedy marriage to a powerful man. But when she attends a house party hoping to meet the duke, she finds he is injured and has sent his secretary, Mr. Calder, in his stead to determine if Heather would make a suitable wife for the duke.

Heather is instantly drawn to the handsome secretary and begins to entertain the possibility of an indiscretion with Calder before she sacrifices herself for her family and enters into a loveless marriage with a man old enough to be her grandfather.

With deceptions swirling, Lord Brightly conniving and the clock ticking, Heather’s prospects seem bleak. The only bright spot in her otherwise dreadful existence is the delightful Mr. Calder. The more time she spends with him, the less interested she is in the duke—or the prospect of marriage to anyone who isn’t her beloved Mr. Calder.

Faced with dire choices, Heather must either risk everything for a man who makes her heart race with desire but can’t help her or her family, or do what’s expected of her and sacrifice her only chance at true happiness.

Previously published as Ella Quince.

"This exquisitely executed romance stars two characters who are sure to capture the hearts and minds of readers from word one.” WTF Are You Reading 5 star review
"This book by Dayna Quince was absolutely wonderful. There are so many good things to say about it. The connection between Erick and Heather was so very intense. The conflicts had a sense of realism. This was also a spicy read. I loved both characters, and also really enjoyed Heather's mother.” Robin Loves Reading 5 star review

Read an excerpt from Desperate for a Duke.

Prologue

Everly House, Wiltshire, England

February 12, 1819

The day after her father’s death.

All the visitors had left, and the house stood quiet.

Heather shivered.

The air stroked the bare skin of her nape like death’s breath, cold and heavy. Her senses tingled with anticipation. She looked around, fighting the instinctual feeling that someone watched her. Soon enough, the creditors would come calling, but for now, while her mother kept her sisters occupied inside, Heather believed she was alone. Unless she wasn’t.

She looked around the garden. Only one man would dare intrude on the fresh wound of their mourning. She stood, turning toward the house, her feet moving swiftly on the gravel path.

“Wait, my dear.”

She froze and turned slowly.

A man stepped out from a copse of trees near the main drive. He removed his hat, his midnight hair streaked with silver unmistakable. As she’d guessed: Lord Simon Ashley, Baron Brightly.

Heather stiffened her spine. “We’re not receiving visitors, my lord.”

He closed the distance between them. With each step he took toward her, Heather moved back.

“I could not wait a moment longer, knowing you are suffering. My deepest condolences, Miss Everly.” He bowed low.

“Thank you, Lord Brightly. I will pass on your message to my mother.” She wanted to turn and run. Her gut told her to do so, but habit begged her to be polite.

He took two steps closer, holding his hat in his hand. “I was with him, you know. That night.”

“What do you mean?”

“We played cards. You father and I frequently played together.”

“Oh?”

Heather wondered if Lord Brightly could reveal something that might give her and her mother some comfort. It was the only reason she would remain in his presence. Her father had considered him a friend, but nothing about Lord Brightly was friendly. He’d always made Heather’s skin crawl.

“I don’t mean to cause you more pain, but I thought if you knew his final actions, you would find some peace.”

Her heart lurched. “You were with him four nights ago? Before he came home?”

The man nodded. “Yes. Come.” He waved toward the gravel walk in the garden.

She hesitated. If she stayed in view of the house, she should be safe.

He presented his arm, and reluctantly, she placed her hand on his sleeve.

“My mother is expecting me. I cannot stay outside long.”

“Of course, my dear. I know every moment I have with you is precious. I won’t waist a second more. I’m delighted to tell you of your father’s last night with me, for it was life-changing for us both.”

She frowned in confusion. Had her father won a large sum? It didn’t make sense.

“How so?”

He stopped and turned toward her. “Do you believe in fate?”

“No,” she said. “If you have something important to tell me, please hurry. My mother needs me.”

He lifted one hand to her cheek, and she stepped back to avoid his touch.

“Please, Lord Brightly. I must know what happened if it as important as you say.”

“It is,” he murmured, his gaze wandering over her in a way that made Heather want to bolt to the house.

“I must go.”

He blocked her escaping by stepping in front of her as she tried to move around him. “Don’t run away, my pet.”

“I am not your pet.”

His icy blue eyes hardened. “But you are. Your father may have popped his cork before informing you of that fact, but it is nonetheless true. You will be mine. Your father used your hand in marriage along with a lovely bit of land in his last bet against me. And I won.” He grinned and spread his arms. “Behold your future husband.”

Too stunned to move, Heather remained still, her mind imploding on itself.

“We can make Everly House our home, but I do favor Sussex,” he went on, as if she weren’t staring in disbelief at him.

“Sussex?” She gathered her faculties. The salty musk of his skin mixed with his sandalwood cologne jarred her senses into place.

“The land in Sussex.” He stroked her cheek again.

She inched backward. “We don’t have land in Sussex. My father lost it to Lord Baylor two years ago, and as for me, nothing on earth would move me to consent to a marriage arranged on a card table.”

His nostrils flared as he glared down at her. “He cheated?” His gripped her upper arms. “That fool lied to me?”

She struggled in his hold. “Let go of me.”

But he just pulled her against him again, knocking the breath from her.

“It’s not the land I want. It’s you. It’s always been you. I’ve watched you since you were a little girl, so innocent, so alluring. You are mine, Heather. The siren who calls to me. I will have you, and nothing on earth will stop me.”

“Leave, or you will be forcibly removed,” Heather cried, her voice trembling. Tearing herself from his grasp, she ran back into the house.

Once inside, she called for her mother and told her everything Lord Brightly had said. The grounds were searched, but by then he had departed.

***

The next morning, he called again, and Heather and her mother met with him.

“I’ll keep this brief,” he said, as he paced the drawing room. “Heather marries me, or I tell King George, a personal friend of mine, that Lord Everly shot himself. The title, the land, and whatever money Everly hasn’t gambled away, returns to the Crown. You will be left with nothing.” He slashed his arm through the air. “Then you’ll want me, won’t you, Heather? You’ll need me.”

Her mother bristled. “We have no idea what you are talking about. My daughter will not be forced to marry anyone.”

Heather’s stomach lurched. How does he know? She bit her tongue to keep from shouting out the words.

“A bet is a contract,” Lord Brightly said.

“My daughter is not a bet. Whatever my husband promised you before his untimely death…it will be sorted out by our man of business,” her mother returned.

“You expect me to get in line behind the creditors?” He shook his head. “I don’t want money—I want her!” He pointed at Heather.

Heather stood. “I’m not for sale.”

His face changed into a cold, emotionless mask. “I don’t have to buy you. We’re meant to be together. I can make you love me.”

“Carson!” Heather’s mother shouted.

Carson entered the drawing room, followed by another footman.

Brightly moved unhurriedly toward the door. “You will regret this. I can destroy you.”

“Wait,” Heather said. Afraid as she was of him, she stepped toward him. There was no telling what he would do, but she needed to buy her family some time.

His features relaxed, and he smiled. “See? All you have to do is submit to me.”

“May I make one request?”

He nodded, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips.

Heather hid her shudder of revulsion. “I’d like a year to mourn my father.”

“A year? Six months is the expected time.”

“I’m asking you for a year. I loved my father more than anything.” She sent a prayer to the heavens to be forgiven for that lie.

Lord Brightly frowned. “You’ll love me more.”

She swallowed down her fear and forced herself to stroke her fingers through the silver streak of hair at his temple. She didn’t know his age, but he had to be close to her father’s. Greasy pomade stuck to her fingers as she drew her hand away.

“One year, my lord.”

He nodded. “One year, and we will wed.” He bowed before departing with a spring in his step. “I’ll call tomorrow.”

Carson closed the door behind him, leaving Heather and her mother alone. Heather let out a relieved sigh. “He’s gone.”

Her mother stared at her, her blue eyes round with fear and her skin frighteningly pale. “You can’t mean to marry that lunatic.”

“We have a year to make sure I don’t have to.”

 

Chapter 1

Vale house party, March 27, 1820

My precious Heather,

It has been a year and I’ve heard some disturbing news. Rumor has it that you have an arrangement with the Duke of Ablehill. I could not believe it. My fair Heather would never betray me! I control your fate as I did your father’s. One word from me and your sisters will be ostracized from Society and your mother will be thrown in debtors’ prison. I will have you, or your entire family will suffer. Remember, my love knows no bounds.

Yours,

Brightly

Heather couldn’t stop the shiver that slithered down her spine. The spiky letters of his writing swam before her eyes, and his voice repeated them in her head. How did he always find her? At least she was safe from him here in Hampshire. She’d taken great pleasure in burning that letter before they’d left London to travel to Vale house, but Lord Brightly’s words still haunted her.

“Dear, are you cold?” Her mother joined her and tucked Heather’s shawl more tightly around her shoulders.

“No, Mother.” Heather smiled. The drawing room of Vale house thrummed with excited chatter. Soon the gentlemen would arrive, and the house party would commence in full force. Lady Vale touted herself as matchmaker extraordinaire, and predicted no less than four betrothals this season. Five, if Heather was included, but she wasn’t. Society called her the “Indebted Daughter,” or worse—she buried a shudder—“Brightly’s Bride,” and no eligible gentleman near her age would touch her.

“Don’t be nervous, my dear. It was fortuitous that the duke responded so quickly to our letter, and that Lady Vale could be convinced to invite us here to meet with him.”

“I know, I’m just…anxious.”

Anxious was far from accurate in describing the roiling sea in Heather’s stomach.

“The Desperate Duke,” the papers had dubbed him. He’d quit London after his fourth fiancée had jilted him last summer. Heather had lured him out of hiding two weeks ago after her mother reported his London house was being aired.

He was eager to wed a woman who could provide him with an heir, and Heather was frantic to keep her sisters from starvation—and herself from Lord Brightly. So, they’d struck a bargain: Heather’s hand in return for her sisters’ futures. But the duke had insisted on meeting his bride-to-be first.

A hand suddenly touched her shoulder, and Heather jumped in her seat. Her heart thudded madly as her mother leaned close. “Heavens, what has come over you?”

“I—I need some air. Please excuse me.” She quit her seat on the settee and hurried into the hall, where only a footman lingered.

Her mother joined her, turning Heather by the shoulders to face her. “I know this is difficult, dear, and I would never ask it of you if we weren’t…”

“Destitute? I know all the reasons why I need to marry Ablehill.”

“He isn’t a bad man, Heather.”

But he is old, and four other women refused to marry him shortly after becoming engaged to him. Heather bit her tongue. It was cruel to think such thoughts about the man who would save her.

“If there were any other gentlemen to consider, I would not have you choose the duke. However, he is the lesser of two evils. Lord—”

“Don’t say his name.” Heather hugged herself.

“Brightly,” her mother finished. “He won’t be stopped. He isn’t like normal men. His obsession with you is unnatural. Without the protection of a husband, I don’t know what he will do. The duke can pay off your father’s debt and keep you safe. It’s the latter that I care about most.”

Heather nodded. “And I care about you, and Violet and Prim.”

“Then you know what you must do.”

“Yes…” She took a deep breath. She knew what she needed to do, but her heart was not agreeable to it just yet.

Her mother put a cool hand on Heather’s cheek. “The other guests are going for a stroll. Will you take your sisters? A walk will ease your nerves more readily than sitting here and waiting.”

“Of course.” She straightened, then joined the other young women in the drawing room. They were almost all the same age, and unlike Heather, most would be coming out this season with grand balls. Heather collected her younger sisters from a nearby sofa, and they trailed the other girls out the terrace doors.

The day was fine, though a little cool. Heather pulled her shawl tightly around her and kept pace with the cloud of noise that seemed to follow the large group of girls. Her sisters eagerly absorbed what they perceived to be elegance from the older girls in hopes that they too could be part of the house party festivities. Heather desperately hoped that would be true. She was falling behind the girls in their walk, still lost in her morbid thoughts of the future, when Lady Anabelle Darling and her sister, Lady Hazel, fell behind with her.

“Why the long face?” Hazel asked, and her sister sent her a withering glare.

“You are abominably rude, Hazel.” Anabelle gave an exasperated sigh.

“Abominably? Do you even know the meaning of the word?”

Heather smiled at the twins, who wore identical expressions of annoyance. They shared the same light blue eyes, long dark lashes, and winking dimples in both cheeks, but they differed in personality by leaps and bounds. Hazel’s hair was a darker blonde, almost light brown, with streaks of honey. Anabelle was as blonde as they came, and, in Heather’s opinion, the image of perfection. She had tried to shamefully dislike her for her perfect appearance, but Anabelle was just so nice.

“I thank you for your concern, both of you,” Heather spoke up before true sisterly bickering began.

“You look very solemn, Heather,” Hazel replied testily. Then she turned to her sister. “Was that better?”

“Much. No one wishes to appear long in the face. Not that you do,” Anabelle assured Heather.

“Oh, good,” she said, wishing she could say how she really felt, which was doomed.

Normally, Anabelle and Hazel were entertaining, the sort of friends you could rely on to create fun instead of having to provide it for them, but today, she didn’t have the energy for it. It taxed her just to appear banal, let alone express the truth of how she felt.

I’m being blackmailed to marry the vile man who drove my father to kill himself, but how are you, Anabelle?

Her mother’s warning suddenly echoed in her mind. Appearance is our greatest armor, Heather. If we appear at ease, no one will question it.

“It’s nothing. I always find it odd sleeping under a new roof during these parties, and of course, sharing a bed with a sister who snores.”

“Oh?” Anabelle asked tentatively.

Heather could hear the skepticism in her tone. She was horrible at keeping secrets, even when her life depended on them. But this secret… It was so toxic, she was sure it was spreading like poison, seeping into her words and actions before she could notice.

“How are you enjoying your stay thus far?” Heather asked to move the subject away from herself.

“Well enough, I suppose.” Anabelle glowered at her sister. “I too have a noisy roommate, but I suppose it is the excitement that kept me awake last night. So many gentlemen will be arriving today, if some haven’t already.”

“We should keep watch on the drive,” Hazel added quite seriously.

Anabelle laughed. “That would not do. What would they think of us?”

Heather sighed and faced forward. They were soon joined by other girls falling back to join the chorus of giggles.

“Good day, Miss Owens and Miss Angelwood,” Heather said in attempted brightness.

Miss Rose Owens rolled her eyes. “I thought we had agreed to dispense with formalities. I insist we call each other by our given names.”

The other girls smiled and nodded.

“Oh, all right,” Heather conceded. “’Tis not a hill I wish to die upon. Are we to be so familiar when the gentlemen arrive?”

Rose pondered the question, her chestnut curls bouncing as they strolled. “You may have a point there. Heaven forbid an unwanted suitor take it upon himself to be so familiar.”

Heather felt a bubble of laughter demanding to burst from her chest but suppressed it. If only she could have such luck with a suitor! “We will only use each other’s given names when it’s just us, then.”

“We should form a club,” Hazel offered, her brows arched, “and meet once a day to discuss our prospects.”

“Ooh, a splendid idea, Hazel!” Anabelle smiled, and the other girls nodded in agreement.

Heather mulled it over as they came to an open space bordered by tall hedges. This was where the lawn bowling would commence when the party officially got underway. A cluster of trees filled one corner, providing shade over a pair of tables and chairs. As a group, they walked to the tables, where they then spread out in smaller groups across the lawn, watching the footmen as they set up the game. Her sisters, Violet and Prim, joined a circle around Lady Karen.

“What should our club be called? I’ve always been jealous of men and their clubs,” Rose went on excitedly.

Charlotte Angelwood spoke up at last. “The Wallflower Club?”

Heather smiled. Charlotte was always so quiet, though she shouldn’t have been, with her dark brown hair and intelligent brown eyes. She could have suitors eating out of her hand if she only spoke out more. Her father was a country squire, but Heather thought Charlotte’s quiet beauty would make up for the lack of station. If only beauty had been on Heather’s side, but her frizzy, hay-colored hair and dull gray eyes left her looking washed out and bland.

“I beg your pardon, but I am no wallflower,” Hazel scoffed.

“Nor I,” Anabelle agreed.

Heather watched as Charlotte wilted under the stronger personalities of Hazel and Anabelle.

“A novel idea, Charlotte, but we need something that encompasses all of us,” Heather offered gently.

“How about The Flower Club?” Hazel broke in. “Every day we can meet in the garden.”

There was a chorus of nays in response.

“Why don’t we think on it, and we can have a vote tomorrow? We can vote after tea,” Rose responded.

The girls nodded. Heather glanced over at her sisters again and saw they were strolling toward her. Violet wore a peeved expression, and Primrose seemed nervous.

“What’s amiss?” she asked as they stepped into the shade.

“Lady Karen is a half-witted trollop,” Violet growled.

Giggles and gasps erupted behind Heather.

“Language, Violet. Where did you hear such words?” she reprimanded, though she was secretly pleased her little sister could see through Lady Karen’s shallow depths. “I hope you didn’t say that to her.”

“No, but she deserved it. She said you were to be served up to a doddering duke as a sacrificial lamb for the sake of our family.”

Heather clenched her teeth. She and her mother had agreed that it was best that Violet and Prim not know the details of their hurried jaunt to the Hampshire countryside. She could feel the speculative silence behind her. “And what did you say in return?”

“Nothing,” Violet said nervously.

“Violet,” Heather ground out. “What did you say?”

“I said nothing! I simply excused us and returned to you. Is it true, though?” Violet asked.

There was no use keeping such a secret; it was impossible. She would only be affirming what everyone already knew. “I would never have put it in such terms, but essentially, yes. We are here so I can meet the Duke of Ablehill and hopefully form an alliance.”

“But he is old, is he not?” Violet asked flatly.

Heather released an angry and humiliated breath. She took her sister’s arm and pulled her away from the others, feeling as if she was destroying their hopes and dreams.

“Yes, he is old, and yes, I will marry him to save our family. That is why we are here. We have no place to live, Violet. Cousin Milton won’t shelter us, and Mother sold the remainder of our things to fund this last trip to land the duke. If I don’t, we must go to work, and Prim must go to Cousin Harriette in America. There will be no parties and no seasons for you. No more pretty dresses, no more bonbons with tea, or chocolate in the mornings. I must marry him so that we will have a comfortable place to live, and more importantly, so that you two will have futures.”

“Are we going to have to marry old men?” Prim asked, her small voice shaking.

“No. I’m the sacrificial lamb so you won’t have to be. It’s what big sisters do.”

She met both her sisters’ gazes one at a time. Prim appeared relieved, too young to understand at the tender age of ten and four. But Violet clenched her jaw. God bless Violet. She expressed exactly how Heather felt, but with grim determination.

Heather realized her new friends were staring at her sadly. She did indeed feel like the sacrificial lamb, but they regarded her as if she had been sentenced to death.

“It’s not as awful as it seems,” she said to herself, and to them.

She was saved from having to say anything more by the commotion of carriages and riders on the other side of the hedge, and a maid scurrying to Lady Karen. Judging from the excited faces of the girls, Heather suspected the gentlemen had arrived.

As a group, they returned to the house and to the drawing room, where other mothers and daughters waited eagerly. There were twelve eligible girls in all, including Heather. The ladies sat prettily as the gentlemen arrived and were introduced to the room at large.

With each new gentleman’s arrival, the beat of Heather’s heart became more painful. They were all handsome young men of respectable birth—privileged, spoiled, with their futures bright before them. It was enough to make her sick. The surrounding noise increased with animated chatter and greetings. She did her duty and smiled as each new guest was announced, but inside, she simmered with envy. Violet sat to her left, quiet and dreary, and her mother sat to Heather’s right, with Primrose beside her.

Heather took Violet’s hand and squeezed it. Even though she trembled inside, she would always be a source of comfort for her sister. Through no fault of their own, they’d both had to grow up very quickly in the past year. Heather found some small comfort in that by marrying the duke, she’d be able to see them comfortable again and returned to their former selves. They would also be safe from Lord Brightly and his sinister machinations. For the time being, anyway.

“Lord Rigsby, Lord Draven, and Mr. Calder.”

Heather looked up. Lord Rigsby’s chestnut hair was perfectly pomaded, and his warm brown eyes sparkled. He possessed that charming and mischievous quality ladies fawned over. Lord Draven was the dark and brooding sort. His hair was black as jet and his irises a very dark shade of gray that Heather had never seen before. He was very intriguing.

Then she moved her gaze to the next gentleman. Her heart thudded out of rhythm, and her lungs suddenly ceased to inflate. She blinked. He was taller than either of the other gentlemen, his hair carefully styled and dark as night. His eyes were bright blue, like bluebells. His gaze encompassed the entire room. His smile was so warm and friendly that Heather wanted to curl up to him like a cat with a spot of sunshine. That smile made her tingle all the way down her spine, warming her from the inside out.

She was aware she was staring quite shamelessly, and forced herself to pull her gaze away to see if anyone had noticed. They hadn’t. As the gentlemen continued to be introduced to various guests, led by their hostess, Lady Vale, an odd sensation pulled her gaze, and she peeked up to find Mr. Calder gazing at her. It startled her, but just as quickly, he glanced away.

The gentlemen were soon led before them, and Lady Vale made the introductions.

Lord Rigsby bowed elegantly before them, his smile charming and kind. “’Tis my honor to meet such a lovely family.”

Heather wanted to laugh absurdly again, but she was pleased by the flattering bloom in her mother’s cheeks.

“The honor is ours, Lord Rigsby. I hear your mother and sister will be joining us as well?”

“Yes, Lady Everly. They will arrive this evening. May I introduce to you Lord Draven, and our new acquaintance, Mr. Calder?”

Both gentlemen bowed before Lady Everly. Heather watched as her mother preened before them, and she couldn’t help smiling again.

“My daughters, Miss Heather Everly, Miss Violet, and Miss Primrose,” her mother said.

Lord Draven bowed rather coldly, his expression of boredom unmoving. Mr. Calder smiled politely as he bowed, his gaze touching on Heather when he stood erect again. It was then that Lady Vale directed the gentlemen’s attention to another group for introductions.

“Lord Draven and Lord Rigsby, surely you must not deprive the other ladies of your attention.” She smiled broadly at everyone as she herded them toward another group. They hastily bowed goodbyes as Lady Vale carried them off with the tenacity of an owl snatching a mouse from the ground. “Your attention is certainly wasted there,” she was heard saying as they moved away.

Heather’s head snapped up in shock as she turned to watch Lady Vale depart.

“Well, the nerve of that woman—”

“Violet.” Lady Everly’s admonishment cut her sister off.

Heather focused on her hands in her lap, but it was impossible not to notice the shining hessians in the periphery of her view. Mr. Calder had remained.

“Mr. Calder, is it?” Lady Everly smiled. “You are well acquainted with Lord Rigsby?”

Mr. Calder looked as comfortable as a sheep among wolves. He turned to Lady Everly. “Actually, I only just met them a moment ago. I’m afraid it was assumed by the butler that I was with them.”

“Interesting. Please sit and tell us about yourself,” Lady Everly bid.

Mr. Calder obliged, and Heather relaxed a bit. He positively loomed while standing.

“There isn’t much to tell, my lady. I am secretary to the Duke of Ablehill. His carriage broke an axle in a town south of here, and he is recuperating at an inn with a sprained ankle.”

“Oh my!” Lady Everly said with a gasp. “But we were to meet with him.”

“He sent me on ahead to give his excuses and prepare for his stay,” Mr. Calder finished.

Her mother turned to her in concern. But it was odd the way Mr. Calder turned expectantly to Heather as well. Dear Lord, did he know? He must, since he worked for the duke. It was humiliating, to say the least.

“That is unfortunate, Mr. Calder. We were so looking forward to his arrival,” Heather said.

He quietly assessed her, and she sensed he knew exactly who she was and what she wanted. Her pulse accelerated the longer she withstood his scrutiny.

“I hope the duke will recover soon from his injury?” her mother pressed.

“Oh, it is certain. Just a day or two off his feet should do the trick. The doctor assured us of this. The duke would have preferred to recover here with such splendid company, but the jostling of the hired carriage proved too painful. As soon as the axle is repaired, he will join us.”

Dread sank into Heather’s bones. Now she would have even less time to make a favorable impression on the duke before the house party ended. She felt a tug at her hand and realized she was still holding on to Violet.

“Have a care,” her sister whispered.

Heather released Violet’s hand, not realizing she’d gripped it so tightly. Violet yanked her hand back and rubbed it vigorously.

Heather wished to be outside again in the cooler air. Worry clouded her mind, and she feared it was written all over her face. She needed to get her bearings. She needed to be able to think clearly so she could decide what to do about the duke and put on a carefree attitude for her family. She was about to speak when he spoke first.

“I beg your pardon, but I must see that the duke’s room is satisfactory.” Mr. Calder bid them good afternoon and left the drawing room.

Heather smiled in mild relief and turned to her mother. “I’m going to exchange wraps. This one is far too heavy for indoors. Violet, do you need anything from our room?” Heather gave her sister a speaking glance, and Violet shook her head.

Heather excused herself from the group and serenely exited the drawing room. Once outside the door, she hurried to the stairs, but then paused with her foot on the first step. Changing her mind, she hurried down a side hall leading to the back of the house. She darted past a billiard room already full of gentlemen and rushed out the back door that led to a side courtyard.

***

Erick left the drawing room and found the nearest empty hall in which to get his bearings. His first order of business was seeing to the necessary accommodations. He would need a place to work and a messenger to relay notes between here and the inn, where the carriage was being repaired. Next would be to prepare for the eventual arrival of the duke. It was surely going to be a spectacle. Poor Miss Everly was certain not to enjoy it. Christ, what a mess. A broken axel? Erick could almost believe the Duke of Ablehill title was cursed. But they were here now, on the most unusual of tasks, and it was up to Erick to see it through.

He tugged at his collar, his shirt clinging to his sticky skin.

And then there was Miss Everly herself. Beautiful and tragically desperate. Heather.

Her name made him think of Scotland—of home. He closed his eyes and breathed deep, calling on memories of hillsides dotted with sheep, and wide vistas of purple and pink heather. His lips twitched. Lord, she was entrancing. Her hair reminded him of warm, golden sunshine, the kind that filtered through the clouds after a hearty storm. Her frosty gray irises glittered like melting snow on a window pane, and the sweet curve of her rosy bottom lip had obliterated his wits. Erick shook his head and stabbed his fingers into his hair. Then he pressed his palm to his coat, over the inside pocket where her letter hid.

My Lord Duke,

We have not yet been introduced, but I write to you in great need. I am Heather Everly, the eldest daughter of the late Lord Everly. My father’s demise has left us in perilous financial straits. It is to you I turn, knowing you have searched for a wife for some time. I fear for my mother and sisters. My cousin, who inherited my father’s title, seeks to punish us over his lack of inheritance, and has evicted us from our home. Creditors barrage us at every moment. We are running out of funds and food, and have no one to turn to for shelter. I will do whatever is needed to see my sisters and mother safe. I promise I would be a good wife and exceedingly grateful for your protection of my family… 

He could still remember the day it had arrived, how the delicate, feminine script had caught his attention among the stacks of business correspondence. He’d read it out of sheer curiosity, and from that moment on, he was spellbound by the idea of a girl throwing herself to the wolves for her family. Not that the duke was a wolf by any means. It was the idea of it, so selfless, and so giving. She was ensuring the future of her family. Was there a more noble cause?

He didn’t think so, not if one understood the long, sad history the title of Duke of Ablehill carried with it. And she must know. Erick would make certain she did.

He pulled himself together and straightened. There wasn’t time for woolgathering when a young woman needed saving. He wandered back to the main stair to find a member of the staff to show him to his quarters, and, as luck would have it, he saw Miss Everly escaping toward the back of the house. He should retreat and see to his duties, but the pull to follow her was too great. After all, he was here to see to the duke’s best interests, and that meant being sure that Miss Heather Everly was as genuine as she seemed in her letter. So what reason did she have to sneak away?

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