About the book
“Only you can help me with my bedsport performance...”
The widowed Eliza, or Lady Lytton, has spent the last years relishing in her freedom and extravagant London lifestyle. And despite her refusal to let any man approach her, she finds herself caught up in an illicit wager with the worst of them.
The Duke of Wordsworth, Timothy Hansen, is a rake and proud libertine. But after his latest mistress unfavorably criticizes his skills in the bedroom, he is looking for reassurance. And his widowed friend is the only one to be trusted with it.
With her undesirable brother-in-law asking for her hand in marriage though, Eliza is afraid that her carefree days are over. Only, it seems that there is more at stake than her freedom. For she and Timothy both stand to lose not only the wager they have placed but their very own hearts…
The white negligee against her skin in the morning light was completely translucent. She knew, didn’t she? She had to know. A woman like that spoke seduction as a second language. He watched her appreciatively from the bed, pleased as the cat that got the cream.
Sabrina Summers was the best choice he could have possibly made for a mistress.
“Shall I stand still so you don’t strain to watch me wander across the room?” she asked. He chuckled. She was a spitfire. He enjoyed their verbal sparring as much as their sparring between the sheets.
“Take the negligee off if you want to give me a better look,” he said. She chuckled, peering over her shoulder at him. He admired her blonde tresses, messy due to their vigorous romps the night before. The contours of her body showed through the flimsy fabric, awakening the desire he had for her last night.
“I can’t. I have to go,” she said.
“We’ve lazed about the sheets all morning; you’re clearly not in a hurry,” he argued. She had gotten out of bed on the pretense of getting dressed to leave, but she was still almost naked, and no progress had been made. Her clothes, and his, were still strewn over the bed and the floor. It was late in the morning. The sun was already high in the sky. Thankfully, he had cleared his schedule for the day.
“I have to go,” she repeated. He sighed and closed his eyes, head resting back on his pillow. His head was clear, and his body felt rested and refreshed; that was the effect she had on him. As far as mistresses went—he had had a few, after all—Sabrina was a rare sort.
Attention from women wasn’t unusual. Unmarried, married, widowed, young, and old alike: they were all under his thrall. He had his strapping physique and handsome face to thank for that. He customarily had one or two bedmates at any given time. Sabrina began her seductive assault, and he was happy to oblige, the labor of the chase having been taken off of him. Hearing her move across the room, he felt her weight on the bed as she sat close to his feet.
“I have to talk to you about something,” she said.
“What is troubling you, my dear?” he said. He reached for her, touching her thigh. He tried to run his hand under the fabric of her dress, but the layers hindered his progress.
“I’m afraid I must end our affair.” He opened his eyes to look at her.
“Found another fellow, have you?”
“Not quite. Regardless, I must end our affair,” she said. He sighed. Every affair ended eventually. Sometimes, it was him, but most of the time, it was them. They became leery of their association, wanting to maintain their reputations. He never held it against them. He knew the kind of man he was and accepted that many women flirted with social ruin when they associated with him.
“In that case, come back to bed. We must memorialize our affair now that it is over,” he said.
“That’s the issue, Your Grace,” she said. Your Grace indeed. She only said that when she meant to ridicule him.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’ve held my tongue for weeks, but I can no longer take it. I come to your bed expectantly, but every night, I leave wondering whether my trip was worth the trouble.”
He sat up. “Sabrina—”
“You have quite the reputation, Your Grace. Plenty of women sing your praises, compliment your… talents,” she glanced at his crotch over the bedding. “I was enticed, I must admit, but alas, they were wrong.” His mouth opened, but all he managed were shocked sputters.
“Sabrina… tell me you weren’t in this bed last night, too drowned in pleasure to speak,” he said. She pursed her lips and shrugged.
“You’re a bachelor yet, but you’ve bedded many women. You must be aware that many will spare their men’s egos by… acting.” He laughed. Falling back onto his pillows, he dabbed his tearing eyes.
“Sabrina, I have many faults, but I am fully aware of where my talents lie. I excel at bedsport, and if you need another demonstration, you’re welcome back to bed.” Sabrina gave a polite smile.
“Your Grace, please don’t invite me to further disappointment.” He frowned.
“Sabrina.” He straightened and stood, coming up to her. “I would never want you to fear for your reputation for associating with me. I’ve never given cause for anybody to whisper.”
“Your Grace, it may be hard to believe, but the problem here is indeed you,” she insisted. His teeth clenched. He had never heard any complaints from women in the past, not even this one.
“You want something from me. You want something, and you think throwing a tantrum will make me give it to you,” he said.
“All I want is to part on good terms, Your Grace. We will surely meet each other again, and I want to know that we will be able to smile and bow without causing a stir. And for whatever it is worth, I won’t let anyone know that my experience with you was lackluster.”
“Lackluster?” he called at her retreating back.
“A better word than disappointing to be sure,” she said, looking over her shoulder at him. He sighed, returning to bed. Women for all their beauty and sweetness were the most infuriating creatures on Earth. At seven-and-twenty, he was not married and did not regret it. There were no plans for marriage on the horizon either.
“Whatever game you're playing, you win,” he said. “Tell me what’s upset you.” She spun to face him, her face like thunder but paused. Her eyes shut, and she inhaled deeply through her nose, calming herself.
“Your Grace, I no longer want to be engaged in this affair with you. I wanted… certain things, and they were simply not to be had. To continue the affair would be to continue facing dissatisfaction. I believed the rumors that you were as virile as you were handsome, and I’m afraid that has not been the case. It does not please me to say these things to you. I am embarrassed too. Frankly, if the rumors weren’t true, I’m simply wasting my time, am I not?”
His mouth hung open. He was never bashful of his nakedness in front of any woman, but suddenly, he wanted a pillow. It was the part of his body she was insulting, along with his lovemaking skill which he had honed for many years with many women. Many satisfied women at that.
“You’re a liar,” he said, unable to say anything else.
“If you believe that, then I won’t be the only disappointed woman leaving your bed. Goodbye Timothy. I’ll see myself out.” The door closed behind her. Too stunned to stand, Timothy sat, staring at the wall.
He had been called every name in the book, and most unflattering labels were true. A rake, Casanova, reprobate. He wore them without much compunction. Unlike many men, he had little use for a wife. Women threw themselves at him unbidden.
He had held Sabrina as she shook from the force of their lovemaking just last night; her claim was a bald-faced lie. She was plotting something, upset or insulted, and she wanted to punish him. He knew the games women were wont to play when they wanted something. She would be back.
And he was not bad at bedsport.
“My, my, has the Marquess always been so dashing?” Georgina Weedham asked.
“Where is he?” asked Amy Beauchamp, her head flying to and fro to spot the man.
“Try and be more obvious, dear,” Eliza said with a laugh, letting her eyes rove about the spacious parlor more subtly for the aforementioned Marquess.
“Isn’t he married?” asked Maggie Fraser.
“He isn’t married but you’re about to be,” Eliza quipped, “to someone else, might I add.” The women laughed.
“You would think I was getting married to you with that retort,” she said.
“It’s no crime to look, Eliza,” Maggie said. She was likely used to it. Her betrothed, a Baron, was perfectly matched in his good looks and wealth. A tall and striking man, she relished in the attention that he got, and that she got for being his intended.
“Looking is no crime, but if a crime is about to be committed, it is always preceded by looking,” Eliza said.
“And who are you offending by looking, Eliza?” Georgina asked. Eliza pursed her lips.
“Is it appropriate for ladies such as yourselves to ogle the gentlemen?” Eliza asked.
“Ladies such as who?” Georgina asked laughing. “I am unwed yet! I must keep an eye out for a man to marry.” Georgina was the only other unattached one in the group, excluding Amy who like Eliza was also widowed. Amy had never pursued remarriage, but it was an open secret that Frederick Dalton, an untitled, yet wealthy businessman, had his eye on her.
“Eliza, you are the most eligible lady here,” Maggie said.
Eliza waved the notion away. She was nothing of the sort. She was three years widowed and had never had any suitors after her husband's passing. Still, at five-and-twenty, she had years in her for a second marriage if she wanted, but she had never pursued the notion.
More than once, handsome young men expressed their curiosity. Older widowers saw her as their fellow seeking remarriage, but she had refused them all. Marriage, according to Eliza Wellington, was a stifling institution, and she was glad to be out of it, God rest her husband’s soul.
Though alone, she was never lonely. Hosting gave her so much joy; she gathered her friends in her home for balls, parties, and get-togethers as often as she could. Tonight, was one such gathering. Her friends along various levels of familiarity milled around her parlor, making merry and socializing.
“A five-and-twenty-year-old widow is hardly eligible,” Eliza said.
“Nonsense. Wasn't it just weeks ago that the Earl of Lytton called to propose marriage?” Maggie asked.
“As is his ritual every time the seasons change,” Eliza said with a shake of her head. The Earl of Lytton was her late husband’s brother. He lived in the country to allow Eliza the Manor in London. He must have done it in the beginning in the hopes that she would make another match, but years had gone by, and no such match had taken place.
A rare brother-in-law, he had agreed to Eliza’s request to maintain her autonomy in the London Manor, continuing her social life among the people she knew as friends. He checked on her often, and Eliza had noticed a change in the nature of his visits. Once, they were simply calls from a former family member who had become a friend; now, they teemed with intention. He was interested in her personal life and in the gentlemen who might be interested in her.
She was staunchly against remarriage, no matter how handsome the match. The Earl was much older and strongly resembled her husband, taking her back to the memories of her stifling marriage. She did not hate her late husband, but she did not feel any fondness for his brother beyond the usual.
“You’re due for another wedding, Eliza,” Maggie joked.
“Will you truly doom me to marriage to a man who hates parties?” she asked. The Earl was notoriously antisocial, seeking dark and secluded spaces like a mouse. He would be a terrible match for her.
“Simply pick someone else then,” Amy said. “Ah, what about… him?” Eliza and the ladies turned their attention to the man in question. Eliza immediately laughed.
“What I wouldn’t do to know if the rumors are true,” Amy said, giggling.
“Amy stop it at once! Is it social ruin you seek?” Maggie asked. There was mirth in her voice. Yes, Timothy Hansen, the Duke of Wordsworth was an infamous rake. Handsome though, exceedingly.
Eliza could assent to that. They were childhood friends, so she regarded him as something of a brother, but she was a woman too. He was tall and cut a fine, masculine figure. His hair was thick and shiny, teeth in perfect condition. His skin was healthy and unlined yet with age. His eyes were clear blue and shining with mischief.
“Stay away Amy,” Eliza said. “Far away.”
“Why? So you can have him all to yourself?”More laughter. Eliza made a face.
“If I ever had the displeasure to be the last woman on Earth, and he the last man, I would still rather die alone.”
“Such a stinging indictment. You would think the two of you didn’t grow up together,” Maggie said with a smirk. Her words were hyperbolic of course, but the feeling stood. Timothy was a terrible rake. Any woman needed to mind herself around him. He would offer anything but marriage. He was trouble. The fastest way to ruin and ex-communication was through his bed.
“Whether we grew up together or not, he’s the poorest choice for a husband that any woman could make. With the whispers, I doubt any woman in London doesn’t know it.”
Turning around, Eliza heard her name.
“Eliza, dear!” A woman in blue rushed up to her, Timothy, steely faced, at her back. Dear Lord, did he hear me?
If he was a less confident man, he would think she was avoiding him.
Timothy’s eyes scanned the room for his target. She wore blue which suited her extremely well. He spotted the back of her blonde head. She was engaged in conversation with two other women, but he hadn’t cared who they were and didn’t bother to determine their identities before making his way toward her.
“Sa… Miss Summers, there you are.” He strode up to the women, cutting into their conversation as if it was not taking place. One of the women looked startled while Sabrina cast an exasperated look over her shoulder at him.
“I’m so terribly sorry,” she paused to say to her companions before motioning over her shoulder at Timothy. “His Grace is not well known for his decorum.”
The women cast suspicious looks at Timothy. What were they looking at? He was more annoyed by their mere presence obstructing him from Sabrina than the insult she had just paid him.
“Sabrina, I need to talk to you.”
“That is Miss Summers to you, Your Grace, and surely you can tell I’m already in the middle of another conversation.” He burned with silent rage. She was doing that on purpose, the absolute tease. They were in public, limiting the things he could say to her and how close they could be. At times, he loved it. At the moment, it was infuriating.
“Miss Summers,” he said from between clenched teeth, “a word?”
“Sabrina, whatever the matter is here, it seems quite urgent. We can have our chat later,” one woman said, the shorter of the two. He hadn’t the foggiest idea what either one was called and had abandoned his manners so completely that he had neither introduced himself nor asked for their names. They walked away, leaving a seething Sabrina finally alone.
“Are you quite satisfied?” she snapped.
“Will it take humiliating me in front of the whole party to please you?”
“Nothing quite so steep. It will however take an explanation for your absence,” he said. She did not soften at his attempt at levity.
“An explanation? Surely I made myself clear the last time we spoke.” A smirk fixed itself on her lips. Lips, pink and full that he’d rather be kissing than hearing her speak out of. After her request to end their affair, he had simply waited for her to change her mind and come running back.
Her accusation was baseless; she was playing mind games with him, and her search for someone half as skilled would be completely fruitless. Days had passed, however, and she had not called. No letters, nothing at all. The worry started. His confidence had flagged and seeing her at the party this evening, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to confront her. She owed him an explanation
She had her turns; all women did, infuriating creatures. The sight of her comfortably making her rounds while he stood with unanswered questions rankled him to no end. She should have been back with him by now.
“Me? A liar? Any man or woman here can vouch for my candor.”
“Do you need someone to vouch for me? Am I a laborer in need of recommendations to bolster my good character?” She narrowed her eyes at him.
“Ill-tempered tonight, aren’t we?”
“Endorsements are worthless. I've spent enough time with you between the sheets to know that your accusation is baseless.”
Sabrina stiffened slightly at the mention of their intimate encounters. His wounded pride was briefly restored. What nonsense. He had had her flushed, squirming, screaming for him, and she dared to suggest otherwise?
“And what, Your Grace, was that accusation?”Timothy balked. He opened his mouth then quickly clenched his jaw shut. A smug smile spread across her face again.
“Can you not even repeat it, Your Grace?”
“It’s a damned lie!” He had meant to whisper, but he drew glances.
“If it distresses you so, then do something about it.” With an impish grin, she left him. He seethed, breath uneven and cheeks hot. Spinning to find her again, he made pursuit.
Sabrina Summers. At once venomous with spite, yet a woman he simply could not let alone. She maddened him. His former mistress took a turn around the room before stopping to chatter with Eliza.
The widow briefly pierced his focused pursuit, only because they were so incredibly familiar. He could pick her out of a crowded room with his eyes closed.
“Timothy,” Eliza said in polite acknowledgment. He gave a curt nod.
“Eliza,” he said. His attention swung immediately back to Sabrina. “Miss Summ—”
“Lady Lytton?” Sabrina cut in magnanimously. She peered at Timothy, fully aware of his perturbance. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” Eliza said.
“As an associate, as ladies and friends, in your estimation of me, am I honest?” she asked. Timothy bit back his scoff. Eliza was not friends with Sabrina. They moved in the same circles as acquaintances, but they were not friendly. Sabrina was both infuriating and presumptuous. He took particular umbrage at her having him indirectly discuss his private affairs with one of his dearest female friends. Eliza looked puzzled by the question.
“Honest? I’ve never known you to be anything short of forthright, Miss Summers,” Eliza said. “What a strange query, whatever has prompted it?”
“Unfounded accusations made against me,” Sabrina said with a sniff, added for dramatic flair. Timothy rolled his eyes. In moments like this, he wanted to shake her. She was making a spectacle, backing him into a corner where his retaliation would expose them in front of Eliza no less.
“How strange,” Eliza said, eyes wide with concern. Timothy wanted to laugh. Sabrina was a master at ruffling his feathers. She ruffled other things as well. It was why he liked her so much, and why she had this power over him.
“Isn’t it just? I haven’t harmed anyone. I haven’t made any enemies. Why would anyone leverage such accusations against me?” Sabrina amped up the dramatics, giving her best look of distress, furrowing her brow and casting her face to the floor. Eliza was conciliatory, comforting the woman.
“Eliza, could you grant Miss Summers and I a moment?” he asked.
“I wasn’t sure the two of you were acquainted,” she said. He mastered his expression to stillness. They were much more than just acquainted. He had seen and touched much more of Sabrina than would be proper to reveal to Eliza.
“Oh dear, I’ve been monopolizing your time, My Lady. You’re our hostess, and you surely want to avail yourself to all your guests. I’ll take my leave,” Sabrina said abruptly. She hurried away, and Timothy made to go after her.
“Let her go,” Eliza said between clenched teeth. Timothy glared down at her. She looked meaningfully up at him.
“I want to… I must talk to her.”
“You’ve been after her like a headless chicken all evening. The poor girl is jumping through hoops to evade you snapping at her heels.”She had noticed. Embarrassed heat climbed up his neck. He knew he wasn’t being subtle and didn’t care if he was making a scene, but the acknowledgment that he was indeed obvious was embarrassing.
“Come off it; you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“I know she’s practically fleeing to get away from you. You’ll do well to leave her be. What’s all this about honesty and accusations being leveled against her?”
“Mind your own business, Eliza,” he said.
“Stop harassing my guests, and I might be able to,” she said. She wasn’t very tall, but she had a presence. Along with her older brother, Andrew, the Viscount of Righton, the three had been juvenile playmates. The associations lasted to the present day. He looked down at her face, the one that had been so familiar to him through the years. He had seen it transform through every stage of childhood into adolescence and now womanhood.
At five-and-twenty, she was still smooth, pink, and girlish to look at. She lost her husband young, and they had no children. Widowhood strangely suited her. Perhaps, rather, her first husband had been a poor match. Having never made a move to marry again, she must have enjoyed it. She wouldn’t have trouble matching once more if she so wished. Sibling-like familiarity had not rendered the Duke blind. He knew a beautiful woman when he saw one, despite whether or not she aroused his personal interests.
Eliza’s body was womanly and petite. It would not be difficult to pick her up if he ever needed to. Arousing, but only by strictly objective standards, of course. Her eyes were blue, and her hair, which he knew to be long, was chestnut brown. A pretty package, no doubt. He knew she had turned down several marriage proposals. They were similar in that way. Marriage held little appeal for them both but for different reasons.
“Do you expect an apology out of me?” Timothy asked.
“Yes. Out with it at once,” she said. He fought the smile tugging the corners of his mouth.
“All right. Lady Lytton, please accept my humblest apology for the commotion,” he said, throwing in a facetious bow. She giggled, shaking her head.
“No?” he sputtered, with a laugh.
“I’m afraid the offense was too great, and you must atone some other way,” she said. Timothy laughed again, the most relaxed he had felt since arriving at her home and seeing Eliza. Their easy familiarity eased him though Sabrina still played at the corners of his mind.
“What do you need?” he asked. She smiled, satisfied with his surrender. Looking about the room, she motioned to the far corner.
“Cards? I would hate to beat you at your own party,” he said.
Eliza’s smile grew playful, “Then make sure you don’t lose.”
“Why are you smiling?”
Eliza smirked and looked across the table at the Duke. His dark moods were rarely frightening to her, only funny. She had seen him through every stage of life there was simply no mystique there. They had cried in their nurse’s arms soiling their nappies together; he simply had no sway over her.
“I have a good feeling about the cards,” she said, winning the trick and taking the cards.
“The game is not yet over, My Lady,” he said. She giggled. The formality was to tease her. Most of the activity had died down, and many others were at the card tables. Some had congregated to watch Eliza and Timothy’s game.
“Let’s make things interesting,” Eliza said. Timothy looked at his friend.
“I sense a bet?”
“Precisely. You know how I enjoy relieving you of your money,” she laughed. She wasn’t usually a gambler but anything to tease the Duke. His pride, though earned, was tiresome, and she so enjoyed besting him at the things he thought himself superior. He wasn’t much of a gambler himself but frequently indulged her.
When he took time off from womanizing, he was a fine companion. His nature with his friends was to be accommodating and generous. She did not need his money, but the thrill of the game and the enjoyment of the night called for a raising of the stakes.
“How much do you want?” he challenged.
“Be careful where that confidence allows others to take you,” Eliza said.
“Hmm, how do eighty pounds sound?” he said. There were a few gasps.
“Adequate,” Eliza said smugly. “A new frock or two, perhaps, I could purchase with that.” He laughed.
“Don’t be too keen now. What is your bet?”
“I bet you will be married by the end of the Season,” she said. He laughed unreservedly.
“Marriage? Why would you doom me to such a dreadful future,” he said, winning the next trick and taking the cards.
“But wouldn’t it be nice? A lovely wife? Domestic bliss?”
“Bliss indeed,” he said, still laughing.
“Oh dear, well, perhaps not everyone is able to appreciate nice things,” she said. She imagined Timothy, finally domesticated, choosing to move out to the country after the wedding. She could barely hide her smile imagining him on all fours on the floor of the sitting room at Wordsworth Manor, playing with his children.
“What’s so funny?” he asked her, noticing her grin. She glanced up at him. A lock of his brown hair, longer than it needed to be, had fallen over his forehead. His eyes, twinkling under his thick brows, crinkled with mirth at his expectation of a joke. His mouth made an attractive lopsided grin.
She understood, if only objectively, what it was so many women saw in him. The reason why so many allowed him to take such liberties with their lives and reputations. She shook her head.
“I think marriage would suit you,” she said.
“Eliza, to bed the same woman night after night until either she or I died is a fate worse than death,” he said. There were murmurs at his bold language.
“That is why you marry a person with whom you are passionately in love, not simply your scullery maid because you see the woman every day.”
“What does he know of love,” someone in the crowd said. Timothy heard them and scoffed.
“It seems public knowledge that I would make a terrible husband,” he said.
“You’ve never been a husband; how would you know?” she challenged. “Marriage does constitute more than sharing a bed after all.” Her eyes were mischievous, teasing her long-term friend. Their jokes were the kind that caused others to raise eyebrows. Their cheeky repartee was famous. The Duke’s easy grin stayed on his lips. He took the next two tricks and it grew wider.
“For such a proponent of marriage, you’ve never sought another husband,” he pointed out. The next trick was hers.
“One marriage is the usual number meted out per person. I am at capacity,” she said. The group watching their game laughed.
Timothy’s reputation kept anyone from believing they would truly ever couple up. Eliza, of course, knew he was unmarriageable, and the teasing was only to rile him up. Everyone knew vying for his affection was useless. He would flirt shamelessly, kissing women in darkened corners and doing much more in darkened private rooms, and he never denied it.
A rake though he was, he was honest about it. No woman could ever claim he had fed her tales of courtship and marriage in order to tumble her. His conscience, paradoxically, was clear.
“Use up my chance for me,” he said. “I have no use for it.”
“You might need it yet,” she said. “I want the money.”
“If you’re in need my dearest Lady Lytton, a loan can be arranged. Why didn’t you just say so?” he said with manufactured sweetness. Eliza rolled her eyes.
“You don’t want to lose which means you will lose.”
“Will I lose?” he asked brazenly. “So much confidence. Are you going to find me a match yourself, or even better, will you marry me?”
Eliza pursed her lips at the utterance. A few gasps and whispers came from the crowd. If he was never married, that would be the last time he uttered that question. Eliza would be the only woman who could truthfully say that the Duke of Wordsworth, a rake to his last day, had proposed marriage to her.
“I’m afraid you do not meet my requirements for a worthy match, Your Grace. I despise gambling men.” More laughs came from the crowd. “Further, I would never recommend you as a match, not even to a woman whom I wished to see ruined.”
“I can’t be quite so bad as that,” Timothy replied.
“I hope no woman has the misfortune of finding out.”
“If you hesitate to match me, will you take up the mantle yourself?” he asked with a mischievous grin.
“If I did, I would need far more from you than eighty pounds.” The crowd erupted once more. Timothy met her gaze head-on.
“You have a deal, My Lady.”
“Can you believe the woman? Me? Bad at bedsport?”
Andrew Claymore, Viscount Righton, watched, amused, as his friend prowled the room, his outrage not allowing him to stand still. They were in Timothy’s drawing room. They met regularly at his Manor to make their way elsewhere, usually a gentlemen’s or boxing club. Today, the meeting had been protracted by Timothy demanding an audience to his fretting. Close friends since childhood, Andrew frequently acted as counsel when needed.
“Pardon me for saying, but as one who has never received a demonstration, I can’t confirm or deny that claim.”
“Come off it, Andrew,” he spat.
“It is she that slighted you, not I. Direct your ire at her.”
“I can’t direct anything at her. She won’t even talk to me.”
“Well, what did you do to her, Timothy? She isn’t the first woman you have even insulted badly enough that she will no longer speak to you.” That was true, but this was different. Women turned on him for all sorts of reasons but never this one. His physical prowess was simply not up for discussion.
He didn’t expect Andrew to understand necessarily, being a man with less experience. His frustration at her lie and her refusal to explain herself had been destabilizing enough to drive him to distraction since she had made her announcement.
“Then leave her,” Andrew said as if it was the simplest thing in the world.“ What has happened to you, Timothy?”
Timothy stopped pacing. “What are you talking about?”
“You’ve never spent days mooning after a woman who ended an affair with you. By the next day, you’re tumbling her replacement.”Timothy reflected on the words, realizing how out of character he had been acting lately from a third-party perspective. He sighed loudly and worried his hair.
“You don’t understand,” Timothy said.
“I understand that you think you’ve sustained some sort of insult, but it is not that every woman in London has died, and Miss Summers is your only possible choice. If my advice is useful to you—”
“Wait!” Timothy looked at Andrew, eyes wide. “You can speak to her.”Andrew blinked.
“Yes, you. You’re acquainted.”
“She’s acquainted with many people.”
“Tell her I must speak to her.”
“If the lady has already declined, continuing to pursue—”
“I would have spoken to her at Eliza’s party, but she wouldn’t entertain me for even that,” he said.
“What would I be able to tell her that you haven’t been able to?” Andrew asked.
“Just say something. Tell her I’ve taken ill and beg to see her.”
“Get a hold of yourself, Duke,” Andrew spat. “Who is this man, willing to debase himself for a woman who has humiliated him and ended their affair?”
Timothy seemed to remember himself, standing a bit taller. He paused to regard the situation from his friend’s point of view. Women had never been a problem for him. If anything, at times, there were too many who wanted his attention at once. Or his eye had been drawn by too many at once, and he struggled to narrow down his choices.
“Indeed. It’s hardly worth my time pursuing her when I could just as easily meet someone new.”
“Finally, you’re back,” Andrew said. “Never let me hear of you causing a scene at one of my sister’s parties again.”
“I don’t know what came over me,” he said with a gentle laugh.
“How long has it been bothering you?”
“I haven’t seen any papers, read any letters, anything at all for days,” he said. Reflecting now, he was quite embarrassed by the fact. He had quite forgotten himself due to the episode with Miss Summers. Perhaps her departure from his life was advantageous after all. Timothy called for a servant to bring in his unopened letters and began going through them when the stack was produced.
“I don’t suppose you’ve made it to the Clubs during this mad pursuit?” Andrew asked. Timothy wasn’t listening. He was staring openmouthed at a letter.
“What is it?”
“It’s my mother; she’s ill.”
Timothy stared out the window of the carriage. He was not looking forward to the visit. He needed to make it; it wasn’t one he could skip or afford to pass off to anyone else. He was her only child, and she was widowed.
It was hard enough to get out from under her bosom when he was a young man. So hard that he had fled to London and carefully controlled the visits he made back home to her. He made sure they were frequent enough that she didn’t miss him, but he still valued his autonomy.
News of her illness had knocked the air out of him. She was a hardy woman who barely caught a cold, let alone took seriously ill which was why the letter shook him so badly.
She has a stronger constitution than any woman I have met. Surely, she will recover post haste, and we can forget this episode completely.
He worried his collar and stilled his foot, realizing it was tapping the floor of the carriage. He was more anxious than he realized. His mother’s letter didn’t ask him to call, but he couldn’t remain in London without at the very least checking on her.
He wasn’t worried about medical care. Mary Hansen, Dowager Duchess of Wordsworth, was wealthy enough to afford the best medical care money could afford. He worried as he was all she had. Some expectation of what was to come also put him on edge.
When they arrived, he was welcomed into the Manor. Geoffrey Willows, the butler since Timothy had been a boy opened the door for him. The man, now old but no less strong and capable, smiled widely seeing him.
“Your Grace. What a pleasure to see you returned to Wordsworth.” Timothy’s heart was warmed by the welcome.
“My thanks, Mr. Willows. I wish I were here on a happier mission.”
“I’m sorry for the misfortune, Your Grace.”
The large manor on the Wordsworth Estate was full of wonder as Timothy explored it as his childhood home. He had never imagined living there because country life was so stiflingly boring compared to the pleasures available in London.
“Your Grace,” Timothy said grandly as he bowed upon entering his mother’s chambers. The Dowager giggled from the bed, beckoning her son to her.
“I feared you would be in lower spirits when I called,” he said.
“Awaiting your visits always lifts my spirits, Son,” she said. A servant was sent to retrieve the doctor who had been called preceding the Duke’s arrival. Timothy wanted to know from the professional exactly what was wrong. He didn’t like the thought of his mother alone and ill, but he had the funds to spare for the finest medical care.
He listened, asking hasty questions regarding the doctor’s descriptions of his mother’s symptoms. Frequent fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, and progressive weight loss.
“In a younger woman, I would predict pregnancy,” the Dowager said merrily. Timothy couldn’t laugh, not when a doctor said his mother’s illness seemed to be progressing for the worse, despite medication.
“What on Earth is it?” he demanded.
“At the moment, we’re treating the patient’s symptoms. Her Grace’s appetite is slowly being restored, and the nausea is easing as well, isn’t that right, Your Grace?” the doctor said. He was a short man with beady eyes but seemed to speak with enough authority for Timothy to believe him.
He didn’t have much choice, after all. After being briefed on his mother’s treatment and being assured that she was ill yet fighting the disease, Timothy felt comfortable enough to release the doctor.
“You must listen to the man and follow his instructions to the letter,” he said to her when the doctor was gone.
“Of course, Dear. It isn’t my first time being taken ill,” she said. The black humor worried him too much to laugh along with her. Many of the staff at Wordsworth had served since he was a boy. He trusted them with her life, but his worry was still too high.
“Now, I must ask about how you have been keeping,” she said.
“As well as ever, other than worrying about you.”
“I see. Have you no good news to share with me?” she asked, very suggestively. He was dreading this part of the visit. Powering forward, he played the simpleton.
“I'm afraid that the passing of my days has been quite ordinary, Mother.”
“I see. And what of your plans to marry?”
“Plans to marry? Mother, if I never had them the last time I called, how would they have materialized so suddenly?”
“To marry is virtuous, my son. Why would you deprive yourself of the joy that a wife can bring to a man's life?”
He held his tongue. There was one specific joy he was interested in having from female bedfellows, and up to this point, he had not had to marry in order to obtain it.
“Mother, I’m impatient, and I’m fractious and ill-tempered. Doesn’t it border on cruelty to subject a woman to my whims?”
“Nonsense. Every man I have known has been softened by the right woman. They transform even more profoundly when the children arrive.”
The Duke didn’t have any objections against children. On the contrary, he thought the sound of their laughter was like tinkling bells, wonderful to listen to. He just always saw them as such an integral part of marriage—which he did not want—that he never bothered to picture his life as a father.
“Is that so?” he said, instead of arguing.
“Timothy, I can just picture it now. Your sons would be handsome, strong boys. Your daughters would grow into statuesque beauties that would steal the attention of every man at the balls.”She had thought much further into the future than he thought appropriate, given the circumstances.
“Mother, with all due respect, a wife and children are simply not elements I need in my life to be happy.”
“That is nonsense, Timothy. Throughout human history having children is what binds us to our ancestors: every civilization, every culture too, even the most barbaric. We might quibble when it comes to dressing, customs, and language, but not family.”
Every man, every woman indeed was on the receiving end of some harassment from their mother when it came time to wed and have their own families. He had heard the speech before. The content itself was not alarming; indeed, he had heard it all before in some version or another and not just from his mother. Her passion this time around, however, was what caught his attention.
“Mother, to become a husband and father is to subject my wife and children to constant disappointment at the knowledge that I would rather be elsewhere.”
“Timothy, stop being difficult.”
“Mother, I’m not a child. Remaining a bachelor isn’t a decision I take lightly. I’ve pondered over it for years. It’s in my best interest to do so.”
“You are my son, and my only wish is for you to be happy. I don’t want to be selfish, Timothy, but I must.”
“Timothy, I want you to marry; I want you and your wife to bear children. Not only does your Duchy depend on an heir—I want to see you raising your own children.”
Timothy chafed. She’d never asked him so directly to give her grandchildren. “Mother—”
“Your father and I were married close to six years before you finally arrived. I thought I was cursed, barren. After having you, we thought we had finally become lucky. We tried again, obviously, but to no avail. Every consequent pregnancy ended in miscarriage.”
“Mother, I am sorry that you and Father had to suffer so greatly to become a family.”
“Can you appreciate why this is important to me?” He could, but that did not make it important to him. He did not say that.
“Mother, I consider my freedom of prime importance—something I would rather die than give up.”
“Timothy, it is my dying wish that I see you with a wife and a child before I pass.”
“You are not going to die, Mother.”
“If I am ill, it is because my body is not as strong as I thought it was. If I can succumb to illness, I can succumb to death. If that day comes, indeed, when it comes, I would like to see you married Timothy—with children.”
If it was his mother’s wish to talk him into a tight spot, she had managed. He had tried to express in every way that was kind and controlled that he simply did not want a wife, but she was refusing to hear him. She thought she would die without seeing him married.
The way he conducted his life was untraditional. She surely wasn’t picturing this man when she held her newborn son in her arms eight-and-twenty years ago. Guilt nagged at him.
“Mother, it is difficult to change my mind about a decision I’ve held onto for my whole adult life, but I can think about it.”
“You will think about it?”
“I will think about it, yes.”
“Thank you, Timothy. When you’re ready, I will write a letter. A few of my friends know a number of eligible ladies who are ready for marriage.”
He swallowed and smiled. It was strained, almost painful. He was trying to be diplomatic, not dishonest. He was willing to meet her in the middle, but she had to be willing to do the same.
He walked out of the Manor wearily as if from a hard day at work. He knew that the inquisition was coming, but he was not ready for how it made him feel, particularly now that his mother was ill. He’d rather lose his right arm than lose his mother. Was it so terrible to grant what might have been her dying wish?
He suddenly felt alone. His mother was his last living immediate family member. There were uncles, cousins, and the like, but the shared blood between them was diluted. The notion of being the last of his line never bothered him before, but he felt it keenly then.
Once he was gone, was there to be any evidence that he had ever lived? His writings, his ruling, and his impact could and would be felt in different ways, but a person, an heir who directly extended the family, was something he had never felt so sentimental about.
So, what then? Marry? Marry and produce an heir—several even. Have a wife and parade of children. Live every day crushed under their desires and expectations. Worst of all, bed down with the same woman night after night until she or he died.
These thoughts came from seeing his mother so subdued. Her feelings had rubbed off on him and made him broody and introspective. He would be back to normal in no time; otherwise, he had to do something about it.
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