About the book
“You trapped me into an engagement to escape the advances of your cousin.”
Despite the desperate situation her family is in, Lady Charlotte has no taste for rakes. And no one must ever know that she was kissed by the most depraved one against a dark garden wall. Or even worse, that she enjoyed it.
Aaron Brighton, the Duke of Hexham, has everything planned out. He has arranged his sister’s marriage and he is now on the market for his own Duchess. One that will not meddle in his affairs. And certainly, one that will not bite.
Just when his sister’s disappearance has Aaron feeling that nothing could go worse, a gossip column changes his mind. For it appears that he is engaged to the most obnoxious and intoxicating Lady of the Ton. And she will pay for trapping him so. Just as soon as she helps him find his sister.
It was not often one was invited to a ball hosted by the Duke of Hexham, and the impoverished Calore family was not insensible of the honor attached to the invitation.
“Just fancy,” Marcella said, examining her appearance before the speckled mirror, twirling her skirts. As the Earl of Lowood’s sister, she had endeavored to procure the nicest dress for herself: a muslin and lace concoction in the palest pink. “The Duke will be there, and I’ve heard he’s on the look for a wife now that Constance is settled.”
“Marcella,” Charlotte sighed. Her dress was the same she had worn for three events in a row, and despite her maid’s best efforts, the pale green material did nothing for her complexion. “I hardly suppose the Duke is the type to concern himself overly much with his sister. And do you think of nothing but marriage?”
“With the Duke? What else is one supposed to think?” Marcella jerked her head away from her lady’s maid. “Watch where you’re putting those needles.”
Her maid ducked her head. “I’m sorry, My Lady.”
“And why would a Duke wish to ally himself with this family?” Charlotte demanded. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we don’t have a penny to our name, and Cousin Sebastian cannot fix this on his own.”
Marcella patted her dark hair and glared at Charlotte in the mirror. Charlotte recognized the spiteful look, the way Marcella’s lips pinched in both disgust and disapproval. “Perhaps,” Marcella said, her words poisonous, “you would like to be the one to fix this.”
“If you mean that I wish I could marry to spare Sebastian the burden of providing for me, then you are correct.”
“As though you don’t intend to pursue the Duke.” Thinking herself vindicated, Marcella turned her attention back to her reflection. “You’re just jealous he will inevitably prefer me.”
“The prevailing fashion is for dark hair, you’re right,” Charlotte mused, and Marcella smiled triumphantly, “but shallow beauty will only appeal to shallow men. If the Duke is shallow enough that he does not mind your personality, then you are more than welcome to him.”
Charlotte’s mother, Anastasia, the Dowager Countess of Lowood, opened the door and cast a stern gaze over the two girls in the dressing room.
“I could hear you arguing from down the hall,” she said. “What can there be to argue about on such a day?”
“Charlotte thinks I am ugly on the inside,” Marcella said.
“I said no such thing—you said that all by yourself.”
“You implied it.”
“You are determined to throw yourself at the Duke of Hexham despite his reputation.”
“Enough.” Charlotte’s mother held up both hands. “I will not hear any more on this subject.”
“He is a rake,” Charlotte said; this time her words were pleading, and she met Marcella’s gaze in the mirror. “A man such as that cannot make you happy, Mar.”
“He is a Duke, and his consequence will be enough to satisfy me,” Marcella snapped. “You will not take this chance of happiness from me.”
“Finish Lady Marcella’s hair,” the Countess said to the maid. “Charlotte, come with me. Your cousin is waiting downstairs. Marcella, you may arrive when you are done, and I want to hear no more of this from either of you.”
With another sigh, Charlotte gathered herself and walked downstairs. There was only so long her cousin could continue to maintain the townhouse, she reflected, looking around the home that had been hers so long she couldn’t imagine losing it. Once her father’s debts had been fully paid, there would be nothing left—and providing for her and Marcella’s Seasons all at once was no doubt another pressing financial concern, although Sebastian would not hear of her mentioning it.
But her dress alone was evidence enough that there was little money for them and more need for her to marry and make a match. As detestable as this evening’s entertainment would be—for she had no interest in attending the home of such a notable rake—at least she might find a gentleman who would not mind her lack of dowry or connection to a family in such dire straits.
Sebastian, as promised, waited for her in the drawing room, already dressed in a smart waistcoat and jacket. They were not the prevailing fashion, but his Hessians were well polished, and his breeches fitted well to his legs.
“I have never known such a thing as ladies’ dressing,” Sebastian said, turning to her. Like Marcella, he had dark hair swept back from his face and hazel eyes that often held a twinkle, like now. “I heard the argument from downstairs. Pray, what have you found to argue about now?”
“The Duke of Hexham, of all things,” Charlotte’s mother said, casting her hands to the sky. “Consider, nephew—we have not yet reached the ball, and they are already arguing about the prospect of marriage.”
Sebastian raised an eyebrow at Charlotte. “Surely you are not considering marriage with a man of that reputation?”
The way Sebastian framed the question irked Charlotte; she knew that his earlier days had involved gambling and excess just like every man’s youth, but she merely smiled. “It is not I who intends to pursue him, cousin.”
“I am glad of it,” Sebastian said, still with that frown. “Though I condemn Marcella’s taste.” Privately, Charlotte thought it reflected Marcella’s personality rather well; she had always been attracted to power, no matter its origins, and she cared little what she had to do to attain that power. If Charlotte had been her brother—
But she was not, and she refused to think of such things on a night such as tonight. Eventually, after they had been waiting downstairs for almost half an hour, Marcella deigned to come down. Her hair had been curled to within an inch of its life and pinned back from her head in an elaborate style that seemed overdone compared to the relative simplicity of her dress.
“There you are,” Sebastian said in relief. “It is more than time we should be off. Come, Marcella.”
Marcella sent Charlotte a spiteful glance as she passed, no doubt content in the fact that her appearance was prettier, more studied, than Charlotte’s. Indeed, Charlotte had told the maid not to concern herself overly with her hair—she had meant it when she said the prevailing fashion was for dark curls, and it seemed somewhat foolish to spend too much time on her hair when the rest of her appearance failed to match.
“How exciting this is,” Marcella said when they were all closed in the carriage together. “Constance to be married, the Duke in search of a bride, and our family received an invitation to what, you may be sure, is one of the most exclusive events of the Season.”
“I’m glad to see your mind has turned to serious subjects,” Sebastian said.
“Tch, Brother, as though I am to think of anything else when we are on our way to Hexham Manor for a ball.”
“Of course not,” Sebastian murmured, glancing at Charlotte and smiling. In Charlotte’s opinion, competing for a rake’s attention was both ridiculous and humiliating, but she kept her mouth shut; Marcella could make herself ridiculous for all she cared. She had a husband to find, and she would not do so by worrying about Marcella’s choices.
Hexham Manor was a large estate with a great many windows, blazing lights and a large garden that wound around the house. Charlotte had thus far had little reason to pass it, and now, in the darkness with the lines of carriages and the young ladies and gentlemen that ascended the steps to the front door like jewels, it seemed to her obscene in its extravagance.
Marcella, naturally, had entirely different feelings as she leaned against the windows and stared at the scene with a rapt expression. Finally, it was their turn to ascend the steps to the Manor, to be greeted by Lady Octavia Brighton, the Duke of Hexham’s aunt and her mother’s close friend, and they were inside.
Charlotte had expected opulence, but she had not expected the very walls to be gilded as evidence of the Duke’s supreme wealth. The floors were polished within an inch of their life; her shoes whispered across them. As for the ballroom, it was enormous. Chattering groups and couples scattered across its vast space with the quartet at one side and a table with refreshments across the other.
Charlotte had never seen such grandness. She would have hardly known how to respond, but Sebastian turned to her, took her hand, and said, “May I have this first, Charlotte?”
“Of course,” Charlotte said. She had some slight notion perhaps he ought to have asked Marcella to dance, but Marcella had already disappeared through the throngs at the sight of Constance, the Duke’s sister. No doubt hoping she could behold the Duke as well.
The music began, and Charlotte followed Sebastian to the dance floor. “You are looking well tonight,” he began. “I mean, considering our position.”
“You mean considering I am in the same gown as I was in for the soiree last week?” she asked dryly. “Thank you, Sebastian.”
“It is a source of great discontent that I cannot afford to provide for you better,” he said, and there was such sincerity in his voice that Charlotte looked away. “I wish—you have no idea how much I wish—that I had the money for new gowns.”
“Ah, but then I would not have the joy of making them up again,” she said lightly. “And would you deny me that?”
“You know I would deny you nothing.” This was getting into unsettling territory. She had never had him speak to her thus, and though she knew he had ideas of gallantry and what his family was owed, she needed to nip any tenderness in the bud.
“Then you would be foolish,” she said, keeping her voice light.
“Speaking of foolish, Marcella is deeply foolish.” He sighed. “I was glad to hear you are not thinking of throwing yourself at the Duke, Charlotte.”
“I don’t intend to throw myself at anyone,” she said, unreasonably annoyed. Sebastian was being kind, and his concern was valid—she too would have been concerned if she had been fluttering around the Duke vying for his attention as though she were a pigeon feeding on crumbs. Still, the tone in which he said it irked her—as though he had any say over who she was to marry.
Except he did, she reminded herself. Sebastian was her guardian after the unexpected death of her father, and he was trying. They were all trying.
“It’s been a difficult year,” she said, smoothing over the moment with a smile. “I hope to find a husband soon, but you may be certain of one thing, Sebastian—I do not intend for that husband to be the Duke of Hexham.” Almost without thinking, she glanced around for him. They’d never been formally introduced though Marcella had met him, of course, but Charlotte knew what he looked like. She would have been hard-pressed not to know what one of the most influential men of the ton looked like, especially when he stood out from the crowd so very much with his piercing blue eyes, his height, and the broadness of his shoulders.
Charlotte wondered, suppressing a smile, whether Marcella would have been quite so interested if he were not so attractive.
The music came to an end in a flourishing chord. Charlotte curtsied and removed her hand from Sebastian’s. “Thank you for the dance,” she said as he opened his mouth to say something. “I must get a drink.” Without leaving him any chance to respond, she hurried away through the crowd until she found the table with the refreshments.
This place was worse than she had thought. Goodness, as though she had not enough on her mind, now she must counter the idea that Sebastian of all people was flirting with her. He was her cousin, and she had known him from birth. There could be no reason for him to flirt with her.
Perhaps she’d been imagining it. He was a gallant man, after all, as was evidenced by the kindness with which he had treated her and her mother when he’d come into the Earldom. She would forget about it, she decided, sipping on her punch. She’d allowed Marcella to wind her up, and look what had happened—she was reading far too much into the situation.
The heat of the ball was oppressive, however, and all the self-control in the world couldn’t have enticed her to remain in place when she saw Sebastian make his way toward her; he may not be interested, but that did not mean she had to countenance his compliments and well-meaning conversation at a time such as this. Leaving her glass of punch almost untouched, she slipped away along the back wall until she found a door out onto the balcony. Several guests enjoyed the relative privacy of the balcony, and Charlotte made her way past them, averting her eyes so she was not tempted to see who was stealing kisses and holding hands under the light of the moon.
As she’d predicted, Hexham Manor had exquisite gardens that, drenched in moonlight, looked almost as though ghostly fingers formed it. The cool night air was warm against her heated brow, and she tipped her face up to the sky. She could endure anything as long as she had quiet moments such as these, uncontested by the demands of Marcella, of public life, and of being obliged to mourn a father taken too early.
Here, she could just be, and as she merged with the shadows and lost herself to the obscurity of the garden, she found herself able to contemplate everything the evening had in store with equanimity if not enthusiasm. She would find a man willing to court her, one she was willing to marry, and all would be well.
Footsteps disturbed her reverie, and Charlotte’s heart leaped into her mouth. Worse than her mother discovering she had been in the garden was someone else discovering her there now. Her reputation, thus far untarnished, would be utterly ruined.
Left with nowhere to go, she hurried deeper into the garden.
Aaron Brighton, the Duke of Hexham, strode through the crush at his ball. Of all things, these gatherings weren’t his favorite, but he had been determined to throw one to celebrate Constance’s wedding—and for the moment she had been with him, she had seemed as though she was enjoying it. Now, however, she was nowhere to be seen.
Her irritating friend, Lady Marcella, was still present, but Constance was gone. Frowning, Aaron left the ballroom, avoiding everyone who looked as though they would speak with him. If she was not at the ball, there was surely only one other place she could be. Her bedchamber.
“Constance,” he said as he entered, finding her in her dressing room staring soulfully at her reflection. “Why are you not downstairs, dancing?”
She turned, shock staining her cheeks red. “Are you angry with me?”
“Angry? Not at all, but I fail to see why you’ve fled the ball.” He examined the unnatural flush on her cheeks as he strolled to the sofa. “Unless, of course, you’re excited about the prospect of marrying an Earl. I told you I would find a good husband for you.”
She hesitated, just enough that he wondered if it was excitement, before her face relaxed into a smile. “You always see straight through me, Aaron.”
“I would call it a gift, but we both know I have altogether too many of those—adding another would be greedy.” When her smile didn’t widen, he leaned forward, bracing his weight on his elbows. “Are you sure you’re well?”
“It’s quite the thing to have a crowd downstairs all desperate to congratulate you on something you have done so little to accomplish.” She toyed with the hem of gloves. “I did not choose to be born a Duke’s daughter, you know, and the Earl of Newtown hardly accepted me for my charms alone.”
Aaron’s frown returned. “The Earl of Newtown is besotted with you,” he said. “I could not have persuaded him to revoke his suit if I had tried.”
“Then I shall believe you,” she said with a light laugh. “And to be sure, it is good to know I shall be comfortable.”
“You know I would not have chosen someone who would not provide for you.”
She smiled softly. “I know that. You are very good to me, Brother.”
“As to that, I can’t say, but I would like you to be happy, Con.”
“Then consider me happy.”
Their aunt, Octavia Brighton, stuck her head through the door. As usual, her gray hair was pinned elegantly behind her, and she wore a dress of finest silk. “Imagine my surprise when my dear Anastasia informed me that the two this ball has been thrown for are not in attendance,” she said, the tremor of a smile on her mouth. “Goodness, are you plotting? Ought I to be worried?”
“Never worried, Aunt,” Constance said with a laugh. “At least—you may worry about Aaron all you like. I fancy he will give you enough to worry about.”
Aaron rolled his eyes. “Wretch,” he said, but in this company, he didn’t mind her teasing. It was true he had a reputation, but it was also true that his title more than made up for it when it came to the subject of matrimony which was no doubt what his aunt was hoping to entice him into.
“You know, there are countless young ladies downstairs who are extremely keen to dance with the Duke of Hexham,” Octavia said, holding out her hand in invitation. “And I had hoped—perhaps foolishly—that the said Duke might oblige them.”
It had always been his intention to marry once he’d got Constance settled, but now the time had come, and he felt as little inclined to it as he had before her engagement. Still, there was nothing to do about it now. He would find some insipid Miss to be his wife who would change very little about his situation aside from providing him with an heir, and all would be well.
“Very well, Aunt,” he said, rising from his seat and giving a nod to Constance to indicate her presence was also required. “You have persuaded me.”
“There are some very pretty girls out this Season,” Constance said as they descended back to the ball. “I have no doubt you shall find at least one who may appeal.” Aaron resisted making the comment that what he looked for in a wife was not necessarily female charms or accomplishments but a stoic tendency to turn a blind eye to certain behaviors. Still, he would never say that to his innocent sister.
They reached the ballroom once more, and he released Constance’s arm. “Fear not,” he said, “I shall find them all exceedingly charming.”
Her lips twitched into a laugh. “You’re a brute,” she informed him.
“And that, my dear, is an insult I will only allow my sister to give.” Laughing, she turned away from him, and he gave his attention once more to the ballroom. As his aunt had said, there were many young ladies vying for his attention; when he bestowed a smile on one, a flock came running, and he was never in want of a partner.
As the evening went on, and he danced with more young ladies than he could count, he came to the conclusion that only one would suit his purpose: a Lady Roberta, whose steady demeanor convinced him she would not be the type to sit at home and waste away waiting for him to return. She also informed him, in a manner he found slightly condescending, that she detested social events of this nature.
Well, as Duchess, she would no doubt be expected to hold several social events, but hopefully she would find herself equal to the task and would not expect him to escort her to Almack’s every week.
“Are you enjoying your time in London?” Lady Roberta asked politely. She asked everything politely, apparently considering it a waste of time to deliver words in anything but calm collectedness. He would find no enthusiasm in her, but then, that was perfect; she would not entice him into making foolish decisions, and he would not disappoint her as she clearly had few expectations.
“Even more so now I’ve met you.”
Her polite smile could have dampened even the most ardent of lovers. “You flatter me, Your Grace.”
“Perhaps I do,” he said. “Will you forgive my lapse in judgment?”
A flash of something—horror, perhaps—crossed her eyes, but she merely inclined her head. “Of course, Your Grace.”
Heavens, she had not been granted a sense of humor, either. Really, her only virtues were passable attractiveness and a good family name. Which were, he reminded himself, the only things that mattered and that he was looking for.
The dance came to an end, and Constance approached, slipping her arm through his. “Aaron,” she said as soon as Lady Roberta had left, “surely, you cannot be thinking of marrying that dull creature.”
“She would make me a proper wife.”
“She would make you a dull wife.” Constance squeezed his arm as the young ladies so relentlessly drew closer. “I have a much better idea. Lady Marcella is a lovely girl and is very keen to dance.”
Aaron had never danced with Marcella, but he’d seen the way she looked at him as though he were a new hat or dress that she coveted. “I… thank you,” he said, remembering his sister’s odd friendship with the sharp-eyed girl, “but I’ve had my fill of dancing.”
“Aunt Octavia would not like you deserting your post so soon,” Constance teased. “Must you disappoint her?” Rather that than dancing with either Marcella or Lady Roberta again—and that aforementioned girl was descending on them with a particularly determined look in her eye.
“Make my excuses, Con,” he said, freeing himself from her hold and striding away. First, he ducked into the smoky card room and poured himself some whiskey. It burned his throat pleasantly on its way down, and he had another until his senses were dulled. With the whiskey sitting low in his stomach, he made his way outside.
The gardens were his favorite part of Hexham; they reminded him of his childhood in the country amid the hustle and bustle of London. He enjoyed that, of course—as he enjoyed the many pleasures London had to offer—but sometimes he missed the quiet peace he’d loved as a boy. Footsteps quiet, he advanced into the garden.
Charlotte ran along the grassy verge beside a path, unwilling to step on the gravel for fear she should make a noise. The footsteps approached ever closer, and she sent a prayer up to the heavens. They could not find her now.
A statue loomed out of the darkness with a little nook beside it she could, if she were careful, squeeze into. Skirts gathered in her hands, she did just that although her feet stuck out into the path. This was worse than Sebastian’s flirting though she had thought there could be nothing more uncomfortable than wooing from a man she considered a brother.
The footsteps crunched toward her, and Charlotte closed her eyes. Please do not step on my feet. Please do not step on my feet.
The stranger approached far too slowly for Charlotte’s taste, his feet crunching against the gravel at every juncture. Odious man. She scowled as he drew nearer. Too close.
He stepped on her feet, squashing her toes utterly, and she was unable to hold back her gasp.
“I beg your pardon?” he said, the words a question as he traced her feet back up to her body, wedged behind the statue. “Have you fallen? Are you in need of assistance?” Charlotte closed her eyes in humiliation. Her night could not have gone any worse. Not only had she been discovered, but she had been discovered by the Duke of Hexham.
“Here,” he said when she made no answer. “Allow me to help you up.” Charlotte could do nothing but accept his hand and allow him to pull her out of the nook she’d squeezed in.
“Thank you,” she said acidly. “Though perhaps next time you could refrain from stepping on me.”
“A grave mistake,” he said though he sounded amused. “Might I inquire why you were enclosed in such a spot?”
“No, you may not.” He assessed her again. The gardens had little light, and so she had to rely on the moonlight to illuminate his sharp cheekbones, the sensual mouth. If she was inclined to blushing, the stories she’d heard about him would have been enough to make her redden.
“Fascinating,” he murmured. “One might have wondered if you were here, so you might avoid the ball.”
“And would that be so shocking?” She ought to get a hold of her temper—but oh, he had a nerve coming here and criticizing her for missing a ball that was purely made up of young ladies throwing themselves at him in the most embarrassing way. “This is a ridiculous event though I’m sure it’s entirely the kind of event that pleases you.”
He raised both eyebrows. “And why would that be?”
“Do you mean to tell me you don’t enjoy the women striving to please you and get your attention? Everyone can see the way they throw themselves at you. It’s humiliating.”
“For you or for them?” he asked gently.
“For them, of course! I have no reason to be humiliated.” Except for being discovered here with the Duke, of course, but she would not have mentioned that for the world.
The Duke stared at her for a moment longer, an assessing look on his face as though he was seeing her for the first time—and was intrigued by what he saw.
“So, let me understand,” he said. “You, an invitee of the ball, consider the event ridiculous because other women are interested in dancing with me?”
When he said it like that, it made her feel ridiculous, and she ground her teeth. “I would hardly expect you to understand.”
“And I am to infer from this that you are not inclined to dance with me?”
“I could think of nothing more odious!”
He caught her chin and lifted her face to more fully meet his. “I do believe I accept the challenge,” he said, and for the first time, she saw a spark in his eyes—a spark of danger that made her stomach tighten. “You see, call it conceit, but I’ve never been greeted by quite so much derision before.”
“Perhaps you have been associating with the wrong people.” She tried to jerk her chin away, but he tightened his hold, smiling down at her in a way that made her realize just how much trouble she was in. He didn’t know who she was, but that didn’t matter to men like him—even if he had known, he would not have changed his behavior, she was certain. He was a man intent on getting what he wished, and Charlotte didn’t want to think about what it was he wanted from her.
“You are a pretty little thing,” he said pleasantly. “I shall enjoy this.”
“Unhand me, Your Grace.”
“We are unevenly matched.” Curiosity, faint in the moonlight, stained his eyes, and he took her upper arm with his other hand. “You know my name, yet I do not know yours.”
“If you think I shall tell you my name, you are mistaken.”
“No,” he said, a wicked smile on his mouth. Charlotte smelled the heavy tang of alcohol, and her stomach sank. He was drunk, and that was why he was taking so many liberties with her. If there was one thing she knew about men, it was that they were impossible to argue with when they were under the influence. “I do not think you will give me your name,” he continued. “I am, however, certain you will kiss me.”
“That is an insult I will only allow my sister to give,” he said, and with that hand still on her chin, he bent and kissed her. Charlotte had never been kissed before—not unless you counted the rector’s son one time, and, considering his lips had been damp and she had shoved him back almost immediately, she was inclined not to consider that a kiss.
This, however… this she could not deny was a kiss. The Duke’s mouth was warm and firm against hers, easing her mouth open in a practiced movement, the fingers on her chin relaxing, brushing up along her jawline. Shock rendered her pliant, and she allowed him to draw her closer, the hand on her arm moving down her back and pressing her against him.
He tasted of whiskey and smoke and the endless glory of the night sky. When his tongue teased against hers, heat flared down her from the contact, joining the coiled feeling in the base of her stomach. Hardly knowing what she was doing, she allowed him into her mouth, obeying the pressure of his hands and tilting her face to better allow him access. The low sound that rumbled from the back of his throat stopped her breath, and he chuckled against her lips.
She was kissing the Duke of Hexham. She pushed against his chest, forcing him back, and in her haze of anger and humiliation, she hardly noticed he let her.
“You beast,” she choked. Her hands were shaking—everything was shaking because the Duke had kissed her, and she had kissed him back, despite his reputation and despite the fact hers were not the first lips he had encountered, maybe even that same evening.
She had kissed him back, and she had liked it.
That, of everything, was the worst part of all.
He caught her arm, wrapping his long fingers around her wrist. “Don’t tell me you didn’t like it,” he said, a peculiar look in his eyes now as though he needed to assure himself of that fact as well as her. As though that mattered to someone like him.
“I hated it,” she spat, tugging at her hand. Lies. “Release me at once.”
“Not until you control your temper.”
Detestable man. Deciding she could not pull herself free, Charlotte changed tack and instead bent her head and sank her teeth into his hand.
He cursed and released her. Charlotte wasted no time in fleeing past him, back toward the glittering lights of Hexham Manor. Her heart pounded too high in her chest, and she could feel the haunting heat of his hand on her back; if she closed her eyes, she could have imagined him standing before her, tracing his fingers down her jaw.
At least she had repaid him for his troubles, she thought triumphantly, and she hoped her bite lingered on his skin as long as the sensation of their kiss, hot and pleasurable and utterly wrong, lingered on her mouth.
Aaron idly traced the half-moon bruise on the back of his hand as he listened to his aunt Octavia talk about Constance’s forthcoming nuptials. Constance was with the dressmaker, and he apparently had nothing better to do than listen to his aunt’s insistence that they use the roses from the garden at the wedding. A good luck charm, Octavia called it. Aaron called it a damned inconvenience.
Especially as every mention of the garden brought back memories of the girl he had encountered there. She’d been unexpectedly feisty and had bitten him hard enough that he still had the bruise three days later. That had been an amusing story to tell his friends but a nuisance otherwise. He’d had to keep his gloves on at all times just to avoid the inevitable questions.
“Aaron, are you listening to me?”
Aaron stretched out his legs before him, crossing them at the ankles. “You know I always listen to you,” he said, offering her a lazy smile.
“I have yet to see evidence of it.” His aunt raised her eyebrows. “Are you not excited about Constance’s wedding? This is all your doing, you know.”
“As everyone keeps reminding me, but I did little except grant the man permission to marry my sister.” Aaron flexed his hand, feeling the slight ache from the bruise. “I hardly feel I should take any credit. As for being excited—you know, I’m excited to see my sister well provided for, and I daresay she shall look beautiful in her dress, but what else about a wedding is there to look forward to? You have everything under control, and there is nothing for me to do except listen.”
“There could be plenty for you to do if you had the inclination.”
“What could I do that you could not do better?” he asked, coaxing a reluctant smile from her. “I am the Duke, yes, but when it comes to weddings, I submit to your superior judgment.”
“What about your wedding?” Octavia asked pointedly. “I saw you showing Lady Roberta particular attention.”
Aaron once again traced the bruise on his hand. Lady Roberta had nothing to the shy, concealed charms of the lady he’d met in the garden. He hadn’t been able to see much of her, but she’d been remarkably pretty and with a lushness to her body he’d found himself craving. Perhaps it had been foolish to kiss her—well, there was no perhaps about it; it had definitely been foolish to kiss her—but she had been so very defiant, and he’d been a trifle boozy.
More than a trifle. He’d been drunk, and she’d known it; he’d read that awareness cross her face like a wave across sand. Kissing her had been addictive as though he couldn’t have enough of her. He’d never experienced such a heady burst of desire which had been why he hadn’t released her. And she had bitten him for it.
“Lady Roberta,” he said, forcing his mind back to the decision he’d made. “Yes… I thought she would make me a—” He let his voice trail away as he thought. Ideal was hardly the word he wanted here—Lady Roberta would make an ideal nothing unless they were discussing ice sculptures. “She would make me an adequate wife,” he finished.
“An adequate wife,” Octavia repeated skeptically.
“Am I to expect more? She will do her duty admirably.”
“And you want nothing more from a wife?”
“I do not care to marry for love if that’s what you’re asking.” He shifted uncomfortably. Being in love with his wife sounded about the most unpleasant scenario he could envision; he intended to let no woman have such a hold over him. “Lady Roberta comes from good stock.”
“Good heavens,” his aunt said, her brows drawing together. “You cannot be serious.”
Aaron allowed himself a grin. “Perhaps my wording was a little unfortunate.”
“She is not a horse, Aaron, and you would do well to remember it.”
He picked up his drink and swirled it as he twinkled at her. “You mean I am not to examine her teeth?”
“Your outrage on her behalf is commendable,” he said, taking a drink. “I’m sure, when we marry and should she ever develop a sense of humor, she will be delighted to know you have been so ardently defending her honor.”
Octavia’s face relaxed into a smile though she tried to look at him sternly. “I hope she shall put you in your place.”
“My dear aunt,” he said as though shocked, “you should know by now I have no intention of marrying a woman capable of that.”
Constance’s wedding day arrived with as much pomp and circumstance as Aaron could bear. He had almost vowed to elope when he entered his sister’s dressing room to see her in the white gauzy dress that she would be married in. Silver lace was trimmed around the bodice and about the hem, and a touch of red had been added to her lips and cheeks to bring a vibrancy to her complexion that he could not help but admire.
“You look divine, Con,” he said, kissing her cheek. “I hope you know, every man in the church will be jealous they are not up at the front with you.”
She glanced at her reflection in the mirror, her smile trembling on her lips. “I should not wish to hurt anyone.”
“Nonsense! I only meant to say you look wonderful.” Aaron took her hand. “It’s understandable that you’re nervous, but fear not—the Earl is a good man, and he will look after you.”
“I do not need looking after, Aaron,” she said, removing her hand from his.
“You are but nineteen, and my little sister to boot. In my eyes, you will always need looking after.” Aaron smiled. Constance, his little sister, was to be married. She would be provided for, he didn’t have to worry about her wellbeing as an unmarried woman any longer, and he couldn’t be prouder of her than he was now. “But I concede you are a woman now, and you can take care of yourself.”
“Then you must stop trying to care for me,” she said gently.
“Soon, I shan’t have to.”
“No,” she said, her face contemplative. “Soon, you shan’t have to. Now go—you must be seen to be at the chapel, you know.”
“Getting rid of me already?” He laughed and kissed her cheek. “The next time I shall speak to you, you shall be a married woman. If I weren’t so happy for you, I would think it absurd.”
She squeezed his hand and smiled him out of the room. Aaron could hardly contain his bouncing step down the stairs and out to the carriage where Octavia, having already said goodbye to Constance, waited. His role as guardian was almost over, and although he hadn’t resented a moment of it and could have cared for her all his life if required, he knew Constance wouldn’t be happy living out her days as a spinster in her brother’s house. She needed freedom and her own household with a man she could respect.
The only downside to the marriage, and one that he would not allow himself to dwell on, was that once it was completed, he would have nothing preventing him from marrying Lady Roberta.
The chapel was a modest affair as requested by Constance—to Octavia’s disappointment—and when they arrived, the few guests that had been invited already mingled there in their finest silks and satins. Aaron spoke to several, making his presence known, including the Earl of Newtown. The Earl was an older gentleman in his thirties, the beginnings of gray peeping down his sideburns. At first, Aaron had been unsure whether his age would be a hindrance, but Constance had not mentioned it, and Newtown was certainly devoted. Aaron had no intention of marrying for love, but his sister deserved a man who adored her: Newtown, if nothing else, fulfilled that.
“Nervous?” Aaron asked with a grin. “I have to say I would be if I were marrying my sister. She has a sharp tongue—but you know that.”
“I fancy there is nothing you could tell me that would persuade me not to marry your sister,” Newtown said gravely. Much of what he said was delivered in the same steady tone. “She is a delight to behold, and of course, I am excited for our families to be united.”
“There are many benefits to marriage, to be sure,” Aaron said, thinking once again about Lady Roberta. Her family would no doubt do the proper thing and say how very fortunate they felt to be allied with his family, but as with Lady Roberta, he had no inkling of whether they would mean it.
As for that slip of a girl he met the other night… an unintentional chuckle slipped past his lips. She would no doubt consider it a disgrace to be aligned with his family—or perhaps, more specifically, him. And she wouldn’t mind saying it to his face.
“Is something funny, Your Grace?” Newtown inquired.
“Not at all,” Aaron said, slapping the man on his shoulder. “Shall we go inside? There’s still a while before the ceremony begins, and it’s abominably cold.”
The chapel was both plain and richly adorned; there was nothing gilded, but its ancient stone walls were hung with religious pictures, and the dark wood pews gleamed. Even the lectern had been polished within an inch of its life, and the sunlight streaming in through the stained-glass windows illuminated carvings on the ceiling.
Aaron took his seat and examined the pictures with detached interest. After the ceremony and wedding breakfast, he would bid goodbye to his sister, and after a month or so passed, he would make his own proposal. Then perhaps it would be him standing at the head of the chapel waiting on his bride.
Time passed, and Aaron went outside the chapel to await his sister. The frigid air nipped at his nose and razed his throat, and he took to pacing to keep himself warm. Constance was never the most prompt of ladies, but of all days for her to be late—
He banished the thought that she might not arrive at all.
Yet the minutes ticked by, and his sister made no arrival until eventually a boy came, breathless, running down the street.
“Your Grace,” the child said. “A message from Hexham Manor. Lady Constance is missing.”
Aaron’s heart lurched. “What?”
“That’s all, Your Grace. She’s missing.” The urchin wiped his nose on the back of his hand.
“Very well. Pray give the same message to Lady Octavia Brighton and inform her I have gone to the Manor directly.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Aaron hailed a passing hackney and gave the driver his address. Bitter fear coated his tongue at the prospect of what could have happened to his sister. He’d seen her not two hours ago.
And in his Manor.
Upon arriving at Hexham Manor, he ran inside and ran straight up to her bedchamber. Empty. Every room was empty though he ran between them calling her name, and at last Aaron was forced to conclude she wasn’t here.
“I don’t know, Your Grace,” her lady’s maid said, fighting back tears. She was an older woman, reliable and steady, and Aaron could see little reason for her to lie. “I’d finished doing her hair, and she asked for a moment alone just to think. I never thought—I came downstairs, you know, thinking she would send for me again. But she never did, and considering the time, I thought she must have just left.”
Aaron considered the possibilities grimly. Constance was certainly gone, and it was unlikely that an assailant had entered the house, gone all the way up to her bedchamber, and forcibly taken her from there without anyone having seen anything. This left two alternatives. Either Constance had been snatched on her way to the carriage, she had entered a different carriage posing as his—both unlikely scenarios—or she had left herself of her own volition.
“Thank you, Betsy,” he said to the lady’s maid, who bobbed a curtsy and fled his wrath. When his aunt Octavia arrived, moments later, it was to find Aaron in a state of rage he very rarely found himself.
“She has gone,” he said, his voice clipped. “She has gone, and I suspect under her own steam though that tells me nothing.”
“Everyone will know about this,” Octavia said, her face white. “To leave an Earl at the altar—it will be all over the papers.”
“Never mind that now. Once we find her, we can debate her choices and condemn her for putting our family name through the mud, but first we must find her.”
Octavia placed a hand to her heart and inhaled, closing her eyes for the briefest of moments. When she opened them again, they were clear. “I presume you have already searched the Manor?” At Aaron’s nod, she continued, “Then we shall have to search every place she could be hiding, every friend of hers.”
“If she had been unhappy with the match,” Aaron grated, “she could have expressed her dissatisfaction to me.”
“And disappoint the brother she adores?”
“Better that than this.” He ran a hand through his hair and paced the room for a moment. “She could be anywhere, Aunt. She could have fallen foul of any number of people. A pretty, innocent girl like that wandering the streets—who knows who may have found her and what they might do to her.”
“Aaron, please,” Octavia begged.
He ran another hand through his hair and glanced at her. “My apologies. I’ll start looking at once.”
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