About the book
Everyone had heard the rumors. But no one was prepared for the truth...
Compromised by her lecherous betrothed, Lady Regina Bexley’s only option is to flee to the countryside. With serious doubts about her own legitimacy, receiving the unwelcome glares of the beastly Duke is only the beginning of her problems.
One thing that Alistair Benson, the Duke of Slater, cannot stand is having visitors. For people avoiding his hideous facial scars hurts more deeply than the wounds. So when a tiny, feisty lady refuses to avert her gaze, his frozen heart awakens.
To his utter indignation, Lady Regina is there to stay. And her proposal to enter a pretend marriage makes it even harder for him to restrain himself. For where does the scheme end and the truth start? And a trail of blood is enough to show him that someone is determined not to let him feel what happiness tastes like.
“The best thing to do when a scandal has taken place is to wait it out in the countryside. Trust me, dearies. After a time, some other bit of news will snare the ton’s attention, and no one will even remember that you are compromised.”
Regina Bexley, daughter of the Earl of Wells, turned to regard the little old woman who was acting as chaperone for her and her friend Charlotte. She knew the woman was trying to be helpful and kind in her own way, but to think that the ton would so easily forget the smear to Regina’s reputation was either rather naïve of her or foolishly optimistic. The ton had a long memory and rarely forgave someone who had broken its sacred rules.
“Let us look on the bright side,” Charlotte Blaksley, daughter of the Viscount of Deens, and Regina’s dearest friend, said with her usual optimism. “At least in the country, we won’t have to deal with the gossipmongers and busybodies. It will be peaceful.”
Yes, but we shall miss out on the rest of the Season, and with its passing, we become less and less valuable in the marriage market.
Regina was supposed to be off the market, as it were. That had been her plan and her goal, and she’d come so close to achieving it. A shame the gentleman she’d nearly promised her life to had turned out to be a no-good cad who’d turned on her the moment he’d heard the word ‘no’.
“Regina, dear, are you all right?” Charlotte asked, pulling her from her spiraling thoughts. “You look rather pensive.”
“I’m afraid pensive barely begins to scratch the surface,” she replied, unable to keep the bitterness from her tone. “A more apt description might be fury. Rage. Humiliation. Devastation.”
Charlotte gave her a pitying look and Regina could hardly stand it. She turned away to gaze out the carriage window once more. Regina loved Charlotte dearly. She was like a sister, but she was so tired of the pitying looks and soft words spoken as if Regina were made of glass and would shatter at the slight edge in tone.
When Miss Benson, the kindly old woman who was acting as their chaperone, whom Charlotte had so lovingly dubbed ‘Aunt Martha’, had offered up her nephew’s home in the country as an escape from the wagging tongues of the ton, Regina had been eager to accept. She could only hope that Slater Estate, their mysterious destination, proved to be just as isolating as Miss Benson had promised.
“Aunt Martha, are you certain your nephew won’t mind us staying at his estate?” Charlotte asked for perhaps the dozenth time since they’d left London. Somewhat anxious and a people-pleaser, Charlotte never felt comfortable going places where she was not clearly invited. Usually, Regina didn’t worry about such formalities, but in this case, she found she shared some of her friend’s hesitation.
Miss Benson waved her hand dismissively, her lips curling into a reassuring smile. “Think nothing of it, my dears. I am always welcome to my nephew’s home, and so are any companions I may bring with me.”
“Even companions mired in scandal?” Regina questioned, wondering if the woman had even bothered to inform her nephew of the nature of their visit. That, of course, being an escape from society.
“Especially those,” Miss Benson chuckled. Her gaze was kind as she regarded Regina. “You must not fret, my dear. That man does not deserve anything from you, but most especially your anger and tears.”
That man. Frederick Jones, Earl of Altman. The man that she was supposed to be formerly engaged to that very moment. The man that had very nearly forced himself upon her when he thought she was all but his.
“It’s just so … despicable,” Regina muttered, at a loss for what else to say. “I never realized how unfair the world truly is until this. I was ready to marry that man, and I had no idea of his true character.”
“I’m afraid that is true of most men, my dear,” Miss Benson said with a weary sigh. “It is one of the many reasons I’m grateful to have never married.”
Regina turned her gaze back to the woman with a curious frown. “Is that the reason you never married?” It was, in truth, a rather unusual thing. Miss Benson was from a noble family, and Regina would have thought her family would consider her spinsterhood a true waste. If it had truly been the woman’s choice to never marry, though, that would be quite a fascinating revelation.
Miss Benson looked momentarily startled by the question, but she quickly recovered herself.
“Oh, there are several reasons, I’m afraid, and each more boring than the last. You wouldn’t be interested in hearing of the woes of a poor old spinster like myself, though. There are much more interesting topics of conversation for us to discuss.”
Clearly, it was a tender subject, which only made Regina more curious. She held her tongue, though, keeping her questions at bay out of respect for the woman who had been so kind to her so far. Few people wanted anything to do with Regina since her scandal had broken the night of Lord Altman’s ball, when he had made his unwanted advances on her. The fact that Miss Benson, and even Charlotte for that matter, were still willing to be seen with her was a small relief and a kindness she did not take lightly.
So perhaps I can forgive them their sympathetic looks and overly soft words. They only treat me thus because they care.
Unlike her own family, it seemed. Unbidden, the memory of what had truly caused her to flee London came floating to the forefront of her mind, despite her best efforts to quell it. It was something she hadn’t even told Charlotte. It was far too humiliating, and far more painful to consider than the scandal.
“You truly think I don’t see it? You really thought you could hide it from me all these years?”
“You sound like a madman! I have hidden nothing from you!”
“If I am mad, it is only because you have made me so with your deceit.”
“I have never deceived you! I don’t know where you got it in your head that I’ve been lying to you, but it’s simply not true!”
“Woman, I can see it in her face that she is not my daughter!”
Tears pricked the corners of Regina’s eyes and she quickly shoved the unwelcome memory away. She could still hardly believe her father had said such horrible things to her mother, but what was worse, was the possibility that she was illegitimate. Her current troubles would be paltry compared to the scandal that would befall her should anyone ever discover, or even just suspect, what her father believed to be true.
Regina was not so sure she believed it herself, but he’d just been so … adamant. That had probably hurt her most of all. His assurance that she wasn’t his, and the passion with which he argued the point. Almost as if he’d never really wanted her to begin with.
“You know, I have the most brilliant idea,” Miss Benson suddenly declared.
Regina quickly wiped her tears with her fingers before giving the woman her attention once more.
“What is that, Miss Benson?” she asked, pleased her voice sounded even and firm.
“An excellent way to get revenge on that horrible Lord Altman.” The spinster looked absolutely tickled as she regarded Regina, who in turn couldn’t help her curiosity.
“Oh? And what way is that?” she questioned.
Miss Benson’s face lit up, as if excited that Regina was even willing to listen to her thoughts on the matter.
“The best way to get revenge, as well as restore yourself in the eyes of society and make your parents proud …” she paused, no doubt for dramatic effect, “… would be to marry a powerful man to put Lord Altman to shame.”
Regina’s brows shot up to her hairline. She could honestly say she hadn’t expected that from the woman.
“Marry someone else … for revenge?” The idea bounced around in her head a bit, and in her current state of anger and rejection, it didn’t actually sound all that bad to her.
Charlotte, however, took immediate offense. “You cannot be serious! Revenge is no reason to marry somebody. Besides, where would you even find such a man? Most are in London for the Season. We’re not likely to encounter any in the countryside.”
Miss Benson wagged her finger and tutted at her charge. “Now, now, my lady, you know that’s not quite the case. My nephew remains in the country. He is a duke, outranking Lord Altman, and has a great deal of personal wealth as well as the family’s traditional holdings and stock. No man in all of England save the Prince Regent himself can compare to my nephew.”
“And yet he stays in the country, shirking the social obligations of the Season,” Regina pointed out. “I’m sorry, Miss Benson, but that seems a mite troubling.”
“I will admit, he’s not the fondest of people in general,” Miss Benson nodded. “He puts up a tough front, but once you get to know him, he’s actually a very lovely person. He was a soldier, you know. Like his father before him. He fought in France. Nasty business, war. My poor nephew left home a boy and returned a broken man.”
“Aunt Martha, is your nephew even interested in marriage?” ever practical Charlotte asked. “I would think that if he were, he would be in London actively seeking a bride.”
Miss Benson reached over and patted Charlotte’s hand with a little smile. “Oh, don’t you worry about His Grace. He knows he has responsibilities and must settle himself down eventually. Introducing him to our dear Lady Regina here will be just hurrying the process along.”
Regina nearly snorted out loud, but she managed to keep her composure. Miss Benson was working awfully hard to convince her and Charlotte that her nephew wasn’t some recluse with no interest in marriage, which is exactly what Regina suspected he was. He likely wouldn’t be interested in her in the least, which was just fine with her.
“I’m not having this conversation again, Richards. I suggest you drop it while you are still employed.”
Alistair Benson, Duke of Slater, knew he was not a pleasant man. War and the general awfulness that permeated the world had long driven out any hint of patience or good humor within him. For some strange reason, though, his steward, Mr. James Richards, didn’t seem to experience the same intimidation so many others did in Alistair’s presence. As a result, the man had somehow gotten it into his head that he could tell the duke what to do.
It was damned irritating.
“Your Grace, you know my concern for you as much as for the Benson family bloodline and the duchy. You have a responsibility to marry and produce an heir. You cannot do so, however, when you insist on locking yourself away on this estate like some sort of leper!”
Alistair gnashed his teeth. He had been spending a quiet afternoon in his study, going over the estate ledgers, when Richards had barged in on him to bombard him with this blasted marriage conversation again. It didn’t seem to matter to the man how many times Alistair insisted he had no interest in the institution. Richards believed it his solemn duty to ensure the continuation of the Benson family, and he took that perceived responsibility incredibly seriously.
“Perhaps you have forgotten, but it is rather difficult to find a wife when most women faint in terror at the very sight of me,” Alistair bitterly hissed.
Richards’ expression turned stricken, though there was no sign of pity in his gaze, which Alistair appreciated.
“Your Grace, you need only give people a chance to grow used to your… changed appearance,” the steward insisted gently. “It is really not so bad after the initial shock.”
One of the reasons Alistair continued to keep Richards on, despite his refusal to drop the subject of marriage, was because of his gift for blunt honesty. It was a trait Alistair had come to appreciate all the more since returning from France, scarred both inside and out. While others might try to shower him with platitude and false assurances that his mangled face didn’t disgust them, Richards had never flinched away from telling the duke exactly what was on his mind.
Still, the idea of having to wait for a woman to grow used to him so she could stomach being around him was exhausting and disheartening, and he’d much rather avoid the whole ordeal altogether.
“It’s difficult to forget someone’s honest opinion once given,” he countered with a growl. “And in those first few moments of seeing me is when people are at their most honest.”
Richards frowned. “Your Grace, you really must not let the opinions of a small few force you into hiding. You are a great man. A hero, as far as myself and the rest of the staff are concerned. Your scars were earned gallantly on the field of battle, and you should wear them as a badge of honor.”
Alistair snorted out loud, leaning back in his large leather chair as he gazed at his steward from across his wide desk.
“Richards, I have the utmost respect for you. You know this, but when you speak of war and the honor of battle, you sound like a naïve fool. These scars were not honorably earned. They are the result of a failed campaign that cost the lives of more good men than I care to think about. I did not return home because my duty in France was done. I was forced home because I have been rendered useless in the eyes of the British military. That is all.”
As much as he hated to be regarded with pity, he hated to be regarded as a hero even more. War was supposed to have provided him a path to redemption. It had been a way to honor his father, as well as begin to make up for the grievous mistakes of his past. He hadn’t served selflessly, as others who had been there with him had. He had wanted to scrub the stains from his soul through the sacrifice of battle, but he had only returned more embittered and fuller of self-pity than ever before.
He hadn’t always been this way. Before the war. Before his terrible mistakes. He had been charming and full of optimism for his life. And why not? He’d been the handsome, wealthy heir of a duchy. Women had practically fallen at his feet, and he’d reveled in their attention. He had been the life of social gatherings and the envy of many within the ton.
He had been a completely different man then… but now, he hardly recognized himself when he looked in the mirror. The man he had once been had died in the mud and blood of the battlefield. In his place had been left a shell of his former self - ugly and broken and without the optimism of his youth.
Richards was gazing at him with a deep frown and a crinkled brow. Alistair could only imagine what he must be thinking.
How will you attempt to raise your master’s spirits this time? When you finally realized they have been crushed into oblivion and are beyond saving?
“Your Grace, I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for you in France,” the steward slowly began. “The things you must have seen and experienced… the horrors and pain you suffered. You are not the same as you were before, and I would in all honesty have been greatly concerned had you returned the same carefree lad you left here as. However, when I call you a hero, I do so because that is what you are. You went and you fought, and you were willing to give every bit of yourself for the sake of England. That is no small thing.”
Alistair knew that no matter what he said, he’d never be able to make Richards understand his reasoning for joining the military or the reality of his experiences during the war. He’d been rather naïve going into it all himself. He’d only ever heard the exciting and heroic stories his father used to tell of his time in the military.
Only now do I realize that those stories were for the family’s benefit… he kept the worst of it a closely guarded secret.
Alistair understood better why he used to catch his father staring off at nothing when he thought no one else was around, his expression one of infinite pain and regret…
“I don’t wish to discuss this matter further,” he snapped.
For a moment, Richards looked as though he might defy the duke and press the issue, but he wisely kept his mouth closed and nodded.
“Very well, Your Grace. We will move on from this topic… for now.”
Alistair flared his nostrils in annoyance but allowed the small amount of cheek from the steward. The man had likely earned it over the years, in truth.
“Grand,” Alistair huffed, then dryly asked, “What else shall we speak of?”
Richards appeared thoughtful for a moment, which instantly had Alistair on edge. The man looked as though he were choosing his words carefully, which was likely not a good sign.
“What are you not telling me?” Alistair snarled.
Richards scratched at his chin. “Well, Your Grace, I’m afraid I do have some news, which you may or may not be pleased about.”
Which absolutely meant he was not going to be pleased about it.
“Out with it, man.” Alistair was quickly losing what little patience remained within him.
“It appears your Aunt Martha is coming to visit you,” Richards said in a cheerful voice, as if that would soften the blow. “And… she is bringing a couple of companions with her.”
Alistair stared at his steward for a long moment, certain he had misheard the man.
“Repeat what you just said,” he ordered.
Richards did so. “Your aunt is coming to visit with two other ladies in her company.”
“They will arrive today, Your Grace.”
If Alistair was a less disciplined man, he would have most definitely exploded in a fit of rage that would likely have resulted in his study being completely destroyed. Instead, he levelled Richards with a furious glare, his hands clenching into fists as he was sorely tempted to punch the man right in his face.
“How long have you known of her impending visit?” Alistair asked, his voice dangerously soft.
Richards sighed, as if put out. “Your Grace, is that really necessary…”
“Damn it, Richards, don’t test me.”
The steward dared to hesitate a moment longer before he finally admitted, “A week, Your Grace.”
“A week?” Alistair roared, shoving to his feet. “You’ve known a bloody week that she has been planning to come here and you only tell me now?”
Richards didn’t even blink in the face of his master’s wrath. “I feared you’d get rather upset, Your Grace. I thought I’d spare you at least a few days’ worth of fury.”
Alistair grabbed a stone paperweight sitting on his desk and vaulted it across the room. It crashed through one of the tall paned windows and exploded out onto the lawn beyond. Richards gazed at the damage with a calm expression before turning back to Alistair.
“Your Grace, I would advise you to take a few deep breaths to calm yourself before you damage something you could truly regret.”
“Perhaps I should just damage you,” Alistair snarled. “I would feel immensely better.”
“I do doubt that, Your Grace,” Richards countered. “We both know there are few on the estate who can handle your temper as I can.”
Though that was a fact, Alistair didn’t care. Richards had gone too far this time. He knew the duke hated to have his home invaded by people. His aunt was one thing, as she was family, and so he would tolerate her when she dropped in, but for her to have the gall to bring strangers with her… and for Richards to allow it!
It felt as though they were somehow conspiring against him. Alistair’s anger grew stronger and stronger until the edges of his vision were tinged red. He was losing control of himself, he could tell, but he couldn’t seem to rein his temper in. When he got in such a state, it was nearly impossible for him to get himself out of it.
Luckily, Richards knew exactly what to do. The steward came around to Alistair’s side and laid his hands on the duke’s shoulders. His touch was firm and grounding and jolted Alistair out of his spiraling rage enough that he was able to keep himself from attacking the man outright.
“How about a bath, Your Grace?” Richards calmly asked. “I will prepare the tub for you.”
Alistair took several deep breaths and slowly nodded.
“Yes,” he grumbled. “A bath. In the usual place.”
Richards nodded, dropping his hands from Alistair’s shoulders. “Of course, Your Grace.” He moved away from the duke toward the liquor service on the other side of the room and poured a glass of brandy. Returning to Alistair’s side, he handed the duke the beverage.
Alistair took the drink in his hand. “Thank you, Richards.”
The steward inclined his head. “You’re most welcome, Your Grace. Now, give me but a short amount of time, and I’ll have the bath ready.”
He gave Richards a firm nod. Bowing, the steward retreated from the room, and Alistair was alone. Putting the glass to his lips, Alistair let the amber liquid slip into his mouth and slide down his throat. He relished the burn. Raising his free hand to his face, he ran his fingers along his scarred visage.
His anger had lessened, but in its place came the anxiety and self-consciousness that always plagued him whenever he was forced to be around people. He knew he was ugly. Beastly, even. His aunt knew this, so why would she dare bring strangers to his home?
I will simply avoid them. It’s a large estate, and I’m certain they won’t stay long.
Whatever their reason for invading his private sanctum, it didn’t matter. If they didn’t leave of their own accord, he’d chase them away if he had to. They would learn why one should never invade a monster’s cave.
“Isn’t it simply grand, ladies?” Miss Benson declared with a clap of her hands.
Regina stared up at the imposing façade of Slater Manor. It was, indeed, impressive. It was built of gray stone with two floors of tall, sparkling windows. Intricate iron work lined the roof and stood as decoration around the windows. It was both opulent and intimidating. Regina wondered if it was a reflection of its master, and if so, what could he really be like?
She supposed she’d find out momentarily.
“It is rather beautiful,” Charlotte remarked. She stood next to Regina; her head tilted back as she too took in the grandeur of the manor. “All this for one man? That seems rather… lonely.”
Regina glanced toward Charlotte with an arched brow. Her friend noticed her staring and her cheeks pinkened under Regina’s scrutiny.
“What?” Charlotte said. “Do you not think the duke must be lonely?”
“As I don’t know the gentleman, I can’t make any comment to his state of mind,” Regina replied with a shrug. “Perhaps he’s very content living in this massive manor by himself. Miss Benson, do you have any thoughts on the matter?”
Miss Benson blinked at them, seemingly taken by surprise at the question.
“Lonely? I can’t say that I know if my nephew is lonely or not. In truth, I haven’t really spoken to him in some time,” Miss Benson admitted. “He does like to keep to himself. Shall we ask him?”
Regina gawked at the woman. “Ask him? That seems rather bold, doesn’t it?”
Miss Benson appeared to consider that for several moments.
At length, she nodded. “You’re likely right. We shouldn’t overwhelm the poor boy immediately upon our arrival. We should most definitely greet him, though. He does tend to hide out, but I know his favorite place to lurk. Come along with me and we shall find him.”
Before Regina or Charlotte could say a word in response, Miss Benson began moving toward the large front door. Glancing toward Charlotte, who appeared as uncertain of this invasion as Regina was, she hurried to follow the older woman. When Miss Benson reached the door, she grabbed hold of the knocker and banged it hard.
Within moments, it was answered by an older man, who was obviously the butler.
“Good day, Miss Benson,” the butler said with a small bow. “We have been expecting you…”
“Is my nephew home?” she asked, interrupting the man.
He appeared somewhat startled and stammered, “Why… yes, His Grace is home… however, he is currently indisposed…”
Miss Benson had clearly stopped listening to the butler when she shoved past the poor man to enter the house.
“Miss! Miss! Please wait,” the butler exclaimed moving to chase after Miss Benson. “His Grace does not wish to be disturbed.”
Regina and Charlotte glanced at each other, baffled, and then hurried to follow after Miss Benson so that they weren’t left standing on the front step. As they entered the foyer, Regina spotted a slim man, quite a few years younger than the butler, descending the grand staircase. He paused when his gaze landed on Miss Benson and he frowned.
“What is the commotion here?” he demanded to know.
“Good day, Mr. Richards,” Miss Benson greeted as she climbed the stairs toward him. “My companions and I were just going to see my nephew.”
Mr. Richards raised his brows in obvious surprise.
“I would advise against that, Miss Benson,” he declared, but she was already moving past him up the stairs.
Regina couldn’t decide if she was impressed or concerned that the woman seemed to have no regard for the butler and Mr. Richards’ warnings against seeing the duke. What could he possibly be doing in the middle of the day that would make it so difficult to see him? Curiosity more so than anything else, kept Regina chasing after the older woman and the two men now pursuing her with increasing alarm.
“Please, Miss Benson, you can’t disturb him,” Mr. Richards insisted.
“Nonsense,” Miss Benson said, waving her hand dismissively. They’d reached the second floor by this point and she moved with determined steps down the hallway. “I am the boy’s family. I’m certain he will wish to greet me and my guests right away.”
“I’m certain he will not,” Mr. Richards warned her. “He has not had a good day.”
Miss Benson spared him a glance with a cheerful smile, though she never slowed her steps. “All the more reason for me to find him and cheer him up. The poor boy must be desperate for companionship, he’s been here by himself for so long.”
“I’m afraid rather the opposite is true.” Regina pitied Mr. Richards. He was no doubt in a rather difficult place, trying to keep his master from being disturbed without insulting the man’s aunt.
“Regina, perhaps we shouldn’t involve ourselves in this?” Charlotte said, the worry obvious in her voice as she hurried alongside Regina down the hallway. “We should go back to the foyer and wait to be escorted to our rooms.”
“Normally, I might agree with you,” Regina replied, her eyes locked on Miss Benson and the two frantic gentlemen. “However, this is proving far too entertaining to ignore. I simply must know how it plays out.”
“I have a very bad feeling about this,” Charlotte confessed.
Before Regina could reply, however, Miss Benson came to a stop in front of two tall, closed doors.
“Miss Benson, I really must insist you cease this at once,” Mr. Richards demanded, moving to block the doors from her. “His Grace will not be pleased that you have interrupted him.”
“You worry far too much, Mr. Richards. Do you know that?” Miss Benson ducked under his arm and shoved the doors open before he could stop her. He released a small cry and then an agonized groan as she marched into the room. The butler appeared stunned as he stared after the woman.
Unable to contain herself, Regina rushed forward past both men and entered the room behind Miss Benson. She paused just over the threshold and gazed around in awe. They were standing in one of the most beautiful libraries she’d ever seen. Built-in shelves along the walls stretched from the floor nearly to the ceiling, and two great windows boasted cushioned seats. There were collections of chairs and tables throughout, and Regina could easily see herself curled up in one of them with an open book in her lap.
“Oh, dear,” she heard Miss Benson say, and then Charlotte gasped in shock.
Regina turned and found both women staring at the far corner of the room, which was slightly marred by shadows. She quickly understood their surprised reactions, however. In the corner stood a large brass bathtub. It was occupied by someone. A man. A naked man, Regina believed it safe to assume.
“What in the bloody hell is going on?” he growled. She couldn’t quite make out his face in the dark corner, but she could tell he was a rather large man with broad shoulders.
“What are you doing, bathing in the library?” Miss Benson stuttered. “This is most… unusual, nephew.”
Ahh, so this is the infamous Duke of Slater. This is not the first impression I imagined I would have of him.
“Well, as it is my damn house, I can do whatever I damn well please,” he yelled out.
Miss Benson placed her hands on her hips. “There’s no need for such coarse language, Your Grace. There are ladies present.”
“I did not invite them here,” he snapped. “You are disturbing my peace and invading my home. I don’t care a bit if I’ve made you uncomfortable. In fact, I can be much worse.”
Before any of the women could react, he suddenly pushed himself to standing. Charlotte let out a mortified shriek and quickly turned so her back was to him. Her cheeks burned a bright scarlet color, and Regina wouldn’t have been surprised if she were to melt into a puddle of feminine embarrassment right there and then. Miss Benson let out a stunned squeak and covered her eyes with her hands. It appeared to almost be a reflex rather than a conscious decision.
Unlike her companions, Regina didn’t look away. In fact, she wasn’t sure that she could. She felt transfixed as she watched the duke rise from the water. He kept his back to her, so she couldn’t see anything overly shocking, but what she did behold was… riveting.
He was tall, just as she’d suspected. His muscled back gleamed in the soft candlelight that flickered around the room. She couldn’t help but let her eyes trail down his broad form, to his tapered waist, and lower still…
Cheeks burning, she finally tore her eyes away from him. She had never seen a naked man before, and she knew it was highly inappropriate that she’d stared at him for as long as she had.
Yet how can I be blamed? Who takes a bath in the middle of the day in such a space as a library?
“Why are you still here?” he snapped in his low, rumbling voice.
Regina dared to peak back at him and was somewhat relieved to find that he’d procured a dressing gown and had covered himself. He had moved out of the tub and was facing them, but the shadows were so thick in that corner, his face remained fairly hidden. Still, she could feel the menace rolling off of him as if in waves, his displeasure clear even if she couldn’t see his expression.
“Forgive us our shock, Your Grace,” she bit out. “We were all caught quite off guard by your state of… undress. It appears to have quite paralyzed us.”
She could tell he’d turned to look at her, and he was silent for so long, she could guess that she’d surprised him with her bold words. Holding her head high, she didn’t look away from him again, refusing to show him any type of weakness of submission.
“You seem rather free of your paralysis now,” he hissed at length. “And so, I repeat… why are you still here? In fact, what are you doing in my home at all? You are not welcome here.”
“We were invited by your aunt,” she countered. What was she doing, arguing with the man? She snuck a look toward Miss Benson, who was staring at her slack-jawed. Charlotte remained with her back turned to the duke, her eyes squeezed shut as if afraid more naked men would pop out from behind every corner at any moment.
“My aunt is not mistress here,” the duke replied. “She has no right to bring whoever she pleases, whenever she pleases.”
“Oh, nephew, please don’t be cross,” Miss Benson implored, turning her attention away from Regina to stare at the man with wide eyes. “This was my home once, and in truth shall always be.”
Regina watched the duke flex his hands into fists and then release them again. He was trying to control his anger but was doing a rather poor job of it.
“You may believe it your home, but I am the master of this house.” The duke’s words were spoken softly and coldly. “If you defy me, you will not be welcome here any longer.”
Regina’s eyes widened and she turned to Miss Benson to watch her reaction. The woman appeared stricken, and her bottom lip trembled. Fury burned through Regina at the sight. Miss Benson didn’t deserve to be treated in such a heartless manner. She didn’t deserve to be threatened like this.
“If… if that is what you wish, I’m powerless to stop you,” Miss Benson stammered. Turning, she exited from the room.
Charlotte, who had opened her eyes at last, cried out, “Aunt Martha!” before giving chase to the woman. Regina considered going after them herself, but she was far too angry to allow the beast at her back to get away with his terrible behavior and comments. Facing the duke once more, Regina narrowed her eyes at him into a harsh glare.
“That was terribly cruel of you, Your Grace,” she spat in disgust. “Miss Benson has been nothing but kind to myself and Lady Charlotte and does not deserve such treatment from the likes of you.”
“The likes of me?” he snarled. “Who exactly are you, to come in here and dare to scold me, as if you somehow know better than me?”
Putting her hands on her hips, she lifted her chin defiantly and answered, “I am Lady Regina Bexley, daughter of the Earl of Wells. My title and rank should hardly matter, though. No person should be treated as you have treated your own aunt.”
“You are a rather mouthy woman, aren’t you, Lady Regina?”
She gnashed her teeth. “How dare you! If I am mouthy, you are a coward.”
“A coward?” he nearly guffawed. “How have I suddenly become a coward? What do you know of my character to draw such a conclusion?”
“You snarl like a dog at helpless old women, and you hide your face in the shadows… though you seem shameless and feel no need to hide… the rest of you.”
“Believe me, my lady, I am hiding for your benefit.”
“What does that mean?” she demanded to know. “Are you so hideous that you must hide your face away?”
“Exactly,” he answered very softly.
Regina blinked, startled that a man she was coming to believe to be detestably arrogant would so easily confess to ugliness. She had her doubts, though, for she couldn’t help but think a man with such a body could not possibly be so displeasing in the face as to warrant hiding away.
“I very much doubt you are truly hideous,” she replied, though she kept her voice firm and chilled. “I think you are likely just very vain as well as a coward.”
Somehow, it felt as if all the warmth was sucked from the room at her words. Regina realized, too late, that that could have been a touch too far. After all, she didn’t know what he looked like. Perhaps he was rather hard to look at?
Still, that was no reason for him to act so despicably. Outer beauty could be easily overcome by a kind heart and respectful treatment of others, which appeared to be characteristics he sorely lacked.
“You doubt my word?” There was a venom in his tone that made her shiver with just the smallest amount of worry. “You truly think I hide because I am vain? Are you truly so stupid and naïve to believe such dribble?”
That had her back up once more. She was far from stupid, and though she might be somewhat naïve, she was still wise enough and bold enough to hold her own when facing down a cornered dog.
“If you are as ugly on the outside as you clearly are on the inside, then you must be truly horrid.” She threw the words at him viciously, her anger overshadowing her reason once more. It wasn’t in her nature to intentionally seek to hurt a person, but something about this man brought out the very worst within her.
“Oh, I am. I promise you that. In fact, you should know just how horrid I truly am, and I’m sure you’ll want nothing more than to leave my home, and me alone.”
Before she could respond, the duke stepped toward her and out of the shadows.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
A Beastly Kind of Duke is now live on Amazon!