About the book
A broken Duke… A cheeky Lady drenched in scandal…
Lady Hermione is now a ruined woman. And even though not much can be done to salvage her reputation, she is faced with a terrible dilemma: seduce an ignorant Duke into marriage or see her own and her sister’s lives ruined forever.
After his heartbreak, Antony Stenham, the Duke of Benson, made quite a strange vow to his brother: he shall never marry or sire children, so that his brother will inherit the title one day. And nothing can sway him away from it.
Until he finds a cheeky Lady in his library that seems to be indifferent to his status. Kissing his guest’s daughter is not something that he had planned though. Nor will he let it happen again. Unless… He finds himself already shackled to her.
“I do not think you realize just how tarnished your reputation is, Hermione.” Her aunt’s words made her flinch in her seat in the carriage. She lifted one hand to the locket she carried around her neck, clinging to it tightly, whilst the other hand was encased in her sister’s fingers.
“Tarnished? Pah!” her father scoffed at the words, earning her gaze. Rufus Rogers, the Earl of Branigan, had once been both a handsome and an extremely wealthy man, one of the most eligible bachelors in the ton. The years had taken its toll, and though he still bore the coifed fair hair and startling green eyes that once made him attractive, his face was haggard with his age, and his accounts had withered too.
“It is destroyed. It lays in tatters, about as ripped to shreds as her veil was on that dreaded day,” he said, gesturing to Hermione.
She recoiled away from his words, trying to sit straight in the seat and take their censure on the chin, but it was nigh on impossible. She’d suffered their chastisement and reprimands for the last week and a half since the event that had turned her life upside down. She didn’t imagine they would ever stop now.
“What follows next must be handled with tact and care, My Lord,” her aunt said kindly, placing a gentle hand on his arm. The simple touch seemed to take the wind of anger out of him. Since their mother had passed some years ago, their mother’s widowed sister, Mrs. Cordelia Atkins, had moved in with them. “As long as everything goes according to plan, she will be married before anyone can find out what happened in London.”
“And you do not see the problem with your plan?” Hermione asked, finding her voice at last.
“Hermione, don’t,” Phoebe whispered at her side, pleading with her. Hermione looked to her sister, just long enough to see the petite and slender girl with just as piercing green eyes as their father shaking her head. “Do not argue with them any further.”
“I am sorry you have to hear it, Phoebe, truly, I am,” Hermione said, squeezing her sister’s hand tighter. Her sister had always been more of a sensitive soul, and Hermione usually went through life trying to shield her sister from the harsher things in life. Sadly, she could not protect Phoebe these arguments from anymore. “Yet, something has to be said.”
“You wish to argue with me more?” Rufus thundered, his face blushing bright red as did his neck around the cravat he was wearing. He moved forward to the edge of his seat, his body frantic and tensed with evident anger.
“You wish me to trap a man into marriage,” Hermione stressed the words, glancing between her father’s and her aunt’s faces. “Do you not hear how awful that is? You wish me to deceive a man, not only forcing him into marriage, but persuading him to believe I am an ideal woman too? With a reputation intact?”
“You no longer have the virtue of actually having a perfect reputation. That was your own doing,” Rufus snapped the words. Horrified, Hermione’s lips parted, just as Phoebe at her side cowered back into the seat, trying to hide from his anger.
“It was not my doing,” Hermione matched the vigor in her father’s tone, moving to the edge of her own seat. Placed directly opposite her father, she stared him down, refusing to look away from his calculating gaze.
“You did nothing wrong? Nothing wrong!” her father roared the words.
“Please be quiet, My Lord, or the coach driver will think something is amiss,” Cordelia pleaded with him. He glanced once at her, breathing deeply in the obvious attempt to control his anger before he looked back to Hermione again.
“It astounds me you still deny all blame in this situation.” Her father spoke much quieter this time, though with just as much venom in his voice as before.
“And I will continue to deny it,” Hermione said, snapping her gaze back to him.
“Why do we have to continue this same argument all the time?” Phoebe pleaded, looking between them. Hermione could feel her sister’s hand trembling. “Are we incapable of talking of anything else?”
“Phoebe, you will need to toughen up to hold your head high in this world,” Rufus said tiredly, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“How can you speak to her like that?” Hermione asked, horrified. “She is hurt by our argument because she feels things keener than you ever could. She has more heart than you have in your breast–”
“Do not you dare talk to me with such insolence!” Rufus raged, dropping his hand from his face. “The point is, Hermione, you do not have a choice in this matter.”
The vigor of Hermione’s argument was taken out of her, and she sank back onto the cushions of the carriage, just as the coach jolted back and forth across potholes, making them sway from side to side.
“Your father is right, Hermione,” Cordelia said with a softer tone. With some reluctance, Hermione looked up to her aunt, waiting for her next words. “It is not easy to hear, yet it is imperative. Your damaged reputation does not only affect you but all of us. Especially Phoebe.”
At these words, Hermione turned to her sister, seeing Phoebe looking down at her lap, biting her lip, and avoiding Hermione’s gaze.
“Your sister’s name will be tarnished too. The only way to ensure Phoebe makes a good marriage now is if we marry you off and marry you off well,” Cordelia said plainly, as though the solution were an obvious one.
“The Duke of Benson is the perfect candidate,” Rufus said with animation, leaning forward toward her with his hands outstretched. “He has never married and was betrothed himself before, so he should not be so choosy.”
“He is very wealthy,” Cordelia said with widened eyes. “Immensely so.”
“That is important, is it?” Hermione asked, unable to resist challenging the two of them. “Since when is money the cause of a happy marriage?”
“Try living without it, and you’ll find out,” Rufus said harshly. The words were spoken so sharply that Phoebe shifted in her seat beside Hermione.
“The Duke’s mother is the Dowager Duchess, Rose Stenham+,” Cordelia explained. “She is a good friend of mine, and we have known each other for many years. She explained to me recently in a letter her wish to see her eldest son married. It is the perfect opportunity.”
“And the Dowager Duchess does not care about my tarnished reputation?” Hermione asked, frowning.
“Well, I did not mention that in my letters,” Cordelia said pointedly. “Did you think I would? It’s shameful!”
At her words, Hermione turned to look out of the window another time. She still knew she had done nothing wrong, but it seemed she was condemned forever more now. She lifted a hand to the locket at her neck, holding onto it once more as an image flashed in her mind.
She was standing at the doorway of the church with the bouquet of flowers in her hand, then the bouquet fell to stone floor, scattering petals and leaves.
“I also did not mention a suggested betrothal between you,” Cordelia was speaking again. “I simply said that it would be lovely to see my friend again after all this time, and she fortunately invited the whole family to stay for a month.”
“A month?” Phoebe repeated as Hermione turned back to face her family. “You expect Hermione to make the Duke of Benson fall in love with her in a month?”
“Who mentioned love?” Rufus said snidely. “We said marriage. There are many ways to make a man marry a woman. You have a month to ensure the Duke of Benson proposes. By that time, the gossip will have spread from London. You have to do this, Hermione.”
“What if I was to refuse?” Hermione said, lifting her chin higher.
“Then I will take you and Phoebe back to our country home in Norfolk, and you will both live out your days as spinsters. Alone.” His harsh words made Hermione and Phoebe snap their gazes toward each other.
Hermione reeled with this news. Her ability to make a marriage was not just about her own happiness anymore; it was about protecting Phoebe from a life alone.
“So, Hermione?” Rufus said, smirking wickedly as he evidently knew he had her backed into a corner. “Will you do this for your sister? Or will you condemn her to be alone for the rest of her life as well?”
Silence descended in the carriage. For a minute, Hermione couldn’t find words. She just let the coach jostle her from side to side as she concentrated on the feeling of Phoebe’s palm within her own. Beyond the carriage windows, the sun was setting firmer, no longer visible above the trees at all. What she could see of the sky was streaked in red and orange hues.
“I have no choice,” Hermione said, turning back to her father. “I’ll do it.”
As the carriage slowed, Hermione leaned out of the window to see just where they had arrived. In the grey dusk that had fallen across the hills, she could just about see the ocean in the distance, lapping wildly with white foam. Much closer to her and across the grass lawn was a manor house overlooking Lyme Regis Bay. The house itself was tall, grey and imposing, something rather out of one of Hermione’s gothic novels, with tall windows like the slits in cat’s eyes staring across the scenery.
“It’s rather spooky looking, isn’t it?” Phoebe asked, still holding tightly onto Hermione’s hand.
“I rather like it,” Hermione admitted as a smile crept into her cheeks. The place had drama about it. As the carriage veered toward the house, more of the trees slipped away, revealing how the cliffs dropped down to the ocean far below with waves crashing against the rocks.
“It’s a good job you like it,” Rufus said, his tone urging Hermione to look back at him. “It could be your new home soon.”
Hermione swallowed as she sat back against the coach seat. She didn’t want to do this. She had never met the Duke of Benson before. The mere idea of not only marrying a man she didn’t know, but deceiving him and tricking him into marrying her when her reputation was tarnished, was awful to her. It felt against her nature.
One should only marry for love.
As the thought struck her, she released the hold on the locket she was wearing around her neck, barely having realized she had taken hold of it again.
The carriage turned toward the house along a curve in the driveway before slowing completely and coming to a soft halt by the front of the door. As Rufus descended out of the carriage, he offered a hand to help Cordelia down first, then Hermione and Phoebe followed.
The two sisters stood close together with Hermione making a point of pulling the pelisse Phoebe was wearing tight around her shoulders, trying to keep her sister warm just as the wind rushed up from the ocean buffeting their hair.
“I still think it’s creepy,” Phoebe whispered to her.
“I am sure, it will look much finer when it is light again,” Hermione said, trying to summon a smile. She fussed with her sister’s pelisse a little more until she was certain Phoebe was warm, then the front door of the manor house opened, earning her attention.
As double oak doors parted, a grand woman stepped through, wearing an empire-length gown in a bold midnight blue color, draped in refined pearls that hung down past her chest toward her stomach. The regal countenance of the woman told Hermione exactly who the lady was, even without an introduction.
“Mrs. Atkins, there you are!” The Duchess ran forward, scurrying in such a way to show that her dress was restricting her movement. “I have been looking out of the window every five minutes since lunch.” In her effort to reach her friend, she nearly tripped, saved only by Hermione reaching out to grab her arm. “Oh, thank you dear. That was sweet of you.”
“Forgive me, Your Grace,” Hermione said, retracting her hand when she realized that she had grabbed hold of a Lady of such standing.
“Think nothing of it,” the Duchess said, turning to her friend again. “Mrs. Atkins, it has been far too long.”
“That it has,” Cordelia said, taking her friend’s hands. “Allow me to introduce my family. This is my brother-in-law, the Earl of Branigan.” At Cordelia’s gesture, Rufus bowed deeply. “And these are my nieces, Lady Hermione Rogers and Lady Phoebe Rogers.” The sisters curtsied in turn, just as Rufus cleared his throat to speak.
Hermione could see the indelicacy coming before her father even spoke, for he was peering past the Duchess, trying to get a better view of the door. She winced, preparing herself for his next words. He hadn’t even said a single word to the Duchess yet, and the first thing he was to say would be impertinent indeed.
“Where is the Duke?” he asked.
“Another drink, Your Grace?” a bawd asked as she walked past Antony, carrying a round brandy glass half full of golden-brown liquid.
“No, thank you,” Antony said, turning to look away from the woman and down at the cards in his hand.
The gentleman’s club was one he occupied frequently along with his brother, who was currently somewhere else with another young lady that worked at the place. Antony had already had his fun for the night though and was keen to pass the time with the cards instead of the young ladies that kept swarming past him.
“Are you sure I cannot persuade you, Your Grace?” the bawd asked, easily slipping into his lap and pushing the glass of brandy under his nose. He jerked his head, turning away from both the cards and the other gentlemen at the table. “You have already seen what good company I can be,” she whispered in his ear.
“You have other customers, I believe, who would prefer your attention,” Antony said with restraint, trying to ease her off his lap though she refused to be moved. Instead, she clamped one knee down by his hip and passed the brandy glass under his lips another time. He leaned as far back from her in the chair as the structure would allow. “I do not visit the same woman twice, my apologies,” he said with a kind smile.
“Why ever not?” she asked, her face showing her instant displeasure as she stiffened in his lap.
“I have my reasons,” he answered her, having no intention whatsoever of telling her any more than that. It was the rule by which he led his life these days; when he took his pleasure at clubs such as these, he was certain never to be with the same woman more than once. It was how he could ensure that lust never developed into any warm affection as that possibility was too awful to bear.
“Perhaps I could persuade you that you might like more time with me?” the bawd leaned toward him again, whispering in his ear. She was attractive, he couldn’t deny it, with long brown hair that curled at her waist and dark, enticing eyes, but he never broke his rule.
“My apologies,” he said, this time managing to achieve his aim when he pushed her off his lap. “It is my rule. Go and peddle your wares elsewhere.” To his dismay, she responded by laying an arm across his shoulders, refusing to leave at all.
“You seem to be a favorite here tonight, Your Grace,” another gentleman at the table said, smirking as he stared at him over the cards. “No lady lusts after the rest of us so.” The other gentlemen laughed at the table as they continued their game of poker.
“Have no fear,” Antony sighed with the words. “It is not me she lusts after but my title.” The bawd beside him jerked, her face turning to him with wide eyes. He stared back, unrelenting in the strength of his gaze, as he was keen to show her how he had known exactly what she was doing from the off.
It was always that way. No woman wanted to spend time with him for the sake of actually spending time with him. They wanted his title and his money. The bawd beside him would not be the first to think she could entice him into making a proposal if she impressed him enough.
“Take your leave,” he urged the woman quietly. “I will not be trapped by anyone.” He knew the words were to the point, even curt and callous, despite the soft tone he’d used. The bawd did not take the insult lightly. Her cheeks flushed, and she turned the brandy glass over.
He felt the run of the liquid across his knee and his trouser leg without having to turn to see it. The bawd placed the glass firmly on the table, in emphasis of her anger, before she stalked away.
The pained sounds that were made around the card table by the gentlemen echoed Antony’s own frustration as he tried to mop up the excess brandy spilled across his trousers.
“Her liking for you soured very quickly,” the gentleman to his left observed.
“It always does,” he acknowledged, masking the pain he often felt at such a thought behind a smile as he picked up his cards again. “Whose turn is it?”
As he lapsed into playing the cards, he kept glancing around periodically, searching the club for any sign of his brother. The club was a grand one indeed, despite the small size of Lyme Regis, the seaside town it resided in. The proprietor used to own clubs in London, and when they opened this establishment, Antony had seen the same fashions he would find in London brought here.
Each gaming table that had been set up was lined with expensive crystalware and golden rimmed candles that burned brightly as they filled the air with gentle smoke.
Between the tables, each gentleman was waited on by a young lady, but their duties did not just reside with serving drinks or offering pipes and tobacco. They offered pleasures of the bed too, and chambers beyond the closest door were created just for that purpose.
Antony had often visited this club over the last few years. It was the only place he allowed himself to look at a woman and to lust after a woman, even if that lust was enjoyed for a short time only.
“Your Grace, you have taken your eye off the ball tonight!” the gentleman to his left chuckled, earning Antony’s gaze again. He looked to see that his betting chip pile was empty, and it was his turn to make a bet. “What do you bid?”
“Let me see…” Antony lowered his cards and fished in his jacket, searching for any extra cash, but he’d only brought so much with him, and that money now resided in the center of the table. “It seems I must wager an object rather than any more cash tonight.”
“What of that jacket?” the gentleman across the table who had been winning all night asked, leaning across the surface. “Mighty fine, that is.” He was a naval captain, stationed in the bay, and had often been seen in this club, almost as much as Antony had been.
“Captain Jacobs, you wish the chance to win my jacket?” Antony asked, unable to stop his laughter at the idea.
“I don’t get the chance to wear such a fine thing in my day-to-day life. If you’re willing to wager it…” the captain paused and gestured to the tailcoat again. “I’d be mighty grateful.”
Antony was not fussed. He had many such jackets at home, and his wealth could afford to buy him more easily. He unbuttoned the jacket and tossed it into the center of the table, much to the pleasure of the other gentlemen.
“Call,” the captain said. “Everyone show their hands.” The three gentlemen left in this round placed their cards down, including Antony. He had a straight, with an eight, a nine, a ten, a jack and a queen. Unfortunately, Captain Jacobs also had a straight, but he had the higher cards, beginning at nine and ending on a king.
“Well, my luck is with me tonight!” he laughed and pulled the jacket off the table, eagerly standing to pull it over his own uniform. Antony laughed with the others at the display the captain was making, until he felt a firm hand on his shoulder.
“What did you do?” Fergus’ voice disturbed him.
“If you excuse me, gentlemen, I think my luck has finished for tonight.” Antony nodded his head to the others at the card table in turn before he stood to greet his brother. The two of them walked a little distance away from the card table. “I wagered my jacket and lost.”
“It’s a cold night outside! You’ll freeze,” Fergus said. “You are getting more and more reckless here.”
“Hardly, it is just a jacket,” Antony shrugged. “It is not a big deal. How was your evening?” he asked Fergus, watching as his younger brother smiled. Fergus possessed the same chestnut brown hair he had, but where Antony had piercing blue eyes and angular features, Fergus had softer brown eyes and more rounded features. The result was a man who always seemed to have a smile on his face.
“Particularly enjoyable,” Fergus chuckled as he glanced back at a young lady who passed by him, lingering with a hand on his arm before she disappeared. “And yours?”
“It was fine,” Antony said, holding back what he truly felt. Despite his attempts, Fergus looked sharply at him.
“If you do not like it here anymore, why do you come?” Fergus said with raised eyebrows.
“I will never marry, Fergus,” Antony repeated the words he had said so many times over the last three years. “Where else am I supposed to find what I need?”
“You could find a wife?”
“No, I will not. Rest assured, I will stay true to my promise to you.” He pointed at his brother, watching as Fergus’ smile grew.
He had made the promise to Fergus three years ago, when his outlook on life had flipped completely. He intended never to marry, so that Fergus would inherit the dukedom from him.
“Well, I can’t pretend I don’t look forward to being Duke,” Fergus said with laughter. “I’ll be old and grey by the time it comes though.”
“Your Grace.” A lady appeared at his side, a different one to earlier that evening. “A message has arrived for you.” She passed a folded piece of parchment into his hands and walked on.
Pulling the parchment open, he was dismayed to find his mother’s handwriting.
“Who is it from?” Fergus asked.
“It seems, our mother knows exactly where we have been tonight,” Antony said slowly, watching as Fergus shifted in his chair, clearly as uncomfortable with the idea as he was. He turned his attention to the rest of the note.
My dear Antony,
I must request both your company and your brother’s home at once, for we have guests. Please return so I can introduce them to you.
Love, Your Mother
“We have guests,” Antony said, folding up the parchment sharply with some frustration. “It seems, we must return home.”
“You can’t go home like that,” Fergus said, pointing at his lack of a jacket. “One minute.” As they both stood to their feet, Fergus hurried off in the direction of the entrance hall, returning a moment later with what was a very scruffy jacket in his hand.
“Where did you find that?” Antony laughed at the garment. It appeared to have been dragged through mud at least twice in its lifetime and was ripped too, several times over.
“Someone left it behind one night. At least it will keep you warm,” Fergus said. “Or would you like to suffer the chill tonight?”
Antony took the jacket from his brother’s hands and pulled it on over his shoulders before the two of them walked outside toward the carriage that awaited them. Once inside, Fergus started talking at length of the good evening he’d had, but Antony could not join in. As a naval officer, Fergus was often away on long trips, and his time at the gentleman’s club was always much looked forward to. Antony did not have the same feelings about it.
“Was the lady you were with so incapable of drawing a single smile from you?” Fergus asked when they were halfway back to the house, drawing Antony from his thoughts. “I wonder if you are choosing the right woman for you. Maybe you should stop going to such clubs and join the events of the ton instead.”
“The right woman?” Antony laughed. “The right woman does not exist!”
“How do you know that?” Fergus said kindly, but despite the soft tone, Antony felt his anger tense his body.
“I have seen the right woman doesn’t exist, Fergus. I do not wish to go down that route again.”
“Our father is not a subtle man, is he?” Phoebe asked as she helped Hermione to unpack in her chamber.
“Not remotely,” Hermione agreed, casting her eyes to heaven in exasperation. “The poor Duchess, I was startled to see she didn’t take note of our father’s impertinence.”
“She seems a very sweet lady.”
“Very sweet,” Hermione agreed. “That was why our father’s rudeness upset me so.” She turned to add more gowns to the closet, amazed at the sheer space inside the wardrobe. The Dowager Duchess had sent a maid to do the job for them, but Hermione had sent the woman away again, craving some privacy with her sister.
The room she had been given to stay in was grander than her own back home, but their own house was not what it used to be. Where opulent décor and fine furniture used to be, there was now old-fashioned furniture in desperate need of updating and missing furniture pieces that had been sold to help pay their father’s debts. The room she now stood in felt a world away from what her own home had become.
The bed itself was an over-the-top affair with so many blankets and pillows Hermione thought she might suffocate in it. The duck-egg blue colors were matched by the rococo style settee at the far end of the room and the curtains that were draped in front of the windows.
“So, do you still find the place a little creepy?” Hermione asked, turning to her sister. Phoebe wrinkled her nose as she looked around the room, her eyes darting between the stone window frames and the plaster molded ceiling. “I’m going to take that as a yes,” Hermione giggled. “It is not so bad.”
“I beg to differ,” Phoebe sighed as she passed her sister the last gown. Before Hermione could try to comfort Phoebe anymore on the subject, there was a sound beyond the closed chamber door. “What’s that?”
“Footsteps, I think,” Hermione said, listening as the fast patter of steps hurried up the corridor. When they reached her door, there was no knock of warning, and the door was merely flung open, revealing Cordelia beyond. “Aunt, what is wrong?” Hermione asked, watching as her aunt blustered forward with flushed cheeks.
“The window– take a look. Hurry!” she urged, waving her hands madly.
Phoebe was the first one to reach the window and peer beyond the curtains. “It’s a carriage,” she said, pressing her face to the glass.
Hermione felt the curiosity burn inside of her. Despite knowing that trying to trick a man into marriage was awful, she wanted to know just what he looked like. She hurried to her sister’s side, just as Cordelia did as well, and the three women gazed out of the glass.
Far below them on the pebble driveway was a tall black carriage. When the door opened, a young man stepped down, tilting his face up enough that in the moonlight they could see a glimpse of his features. With brown hair coiffed stylishly large eyes, and rounded features, he had a charismatic deportment.
“That must be him,” Cordelia said excitedly. “The Duke!”
That is the Duke of Benson?
Hermione couldn’t stop the feeling of disappointment that rippled in her chest. Whilst he appeared pleasant looking, she felt no attraction, none at all. Involuntarily, her hand lifted to the locket she always wore round her neck and clutched tightly to it.
“Hermione, it is your first glimpse of your future husband. What do you think?” Cordelia giggled, full of animation.
“I…” Hermione struggled for words as she watched the man turn away. He was talking to someone else who stepped down from the carriage, a man dressed in poor clothes who may well have been a footman. “I do not know.”
“I think he’s very handsome,” Phoebe said in a sing-song voice as she pressed her cheek against the glass.
“Do you?” Hermione asked with a small smile. Phoebe pulled her face back off the glass and lowered her gaze, blushing. “You do not need to feel embarrassed, Phoebe. It is only natural to be impressed by a gentleman’s looks.” Hermione wished she could say the same for herself.
Well… perhaps I could learn in time to find him attractive?
She had to hope it was the case, for both hers and Phoebe’s sakes, or they’d be packed off to live as spinsters together.
“We must begin our plans tonight,” Cordelia said, hurrying away from the window, back toward the door.
“Tonight? Aunt, no!” Hermione flicked her head away from the window and chased her aunt across the room. “We have retired for the night, as has the Dowager Duchess. To make an introduction now would be rude indeed! Abominably so.”
“When it comes to ensnaring a man in marriage, Hermione, we cannot worry so much about propriety,” Cordelia said with mischief as she reached for the handle.
“Aunt, listen to yourself!” Hermione pleaded as she placed a foot against the door, jamming it and preventing it from opening. “Do you not see the error of talking so? I refuse to be a part of this. I will be introduced to the Duke tomorrow at a normal hour, not in the depths of night.”
“Nonsense. You are too proper for your own good sometimes. Now, wait here.” Cordelia pulled the door open, shoving Hermione’s foot out of the way.
“Ow!” Hermione snatched her foot back as Cordelia disappeared through the door. She hobbled to lean on a wall nearby as she flexed her toes, turning to see Phoebe staring at her.
“I’m so sorry,” Phoebe said miserably from where she still stood by the window. “Maybe you could still talk your way out of a meeting tonight?”
“Maybe I’ll be unable to walk there because of our aunt,” Hermione said with humor as she pointed down at her injured foot. To her delight, Phoebe’s worried countenance lapsed into a giggle.
The two fell into silence, but it did not last long for Cordelia was back again, hurrying through the door with anxiousness in her manner as she waved her hands in Hermione’s direction.
“He has just gone into the study,” Cordelia said, taking her elbow. “You must go and join him.”
“Aunt, I will not,” Hermione declared with vigor, standing her ground. “I cannot walk in on a man and invade his privacy. What would I even say? My apologies, Your Grace. I have just happened upon you in your study because I wanted to look through your papers,” she stated mockingly. “What plausible reason could I have for being in his study?”
“Say you lost your way.” Cordelia steered her toward the door. “Appear helpless, like a lost lamb.”
“How attractive,” Hermione sneered at the idea.
“Do not be snarky, Hermione.” Cordelia pushed her in the small of her back, out into the corridor. Hermione only had chance to glance back once to Phoebe, who was looking at her sister with worry, before Cordelia closed the door behind them. Her aunt took Hermione’s hand tightly and dragged her down the corridor, past candles set against the walls toward the tall staircase that was in the center of the building.
“Through there.” Cordelia released her niece’s hand and pointed through a gap in the banister down to the lower floor and a door that was now closed.
“Hermione, you know you must,” her aunt turned to her with a gentle tone and took her hand softly. “For Phoebe’s sake as much as your own. Please, go.”
Seeing the pain and hearing the pleading tone, Hermione found herself nodding. With nerves on edge, she moved toward the staircase, and began to descend, holding the skirt of her dress high above her ankles to allow herself to walk. When she reached the halfway point on the stairs, she looked up to see Cordelia waving at her with enthusiasm. As she reached the bottom, she turned to the closed door that Cordelia had pointed out, breathing deeply.
I have to do this. For Phoebe. She repeated the words over and over again in her mind, but still her body did not move toward the door. She glanced back to the landing above, and when she found Cordelia was no longer there watching, she saw an opportunity to escape.
Little by little, she backed up from the study door across the hallway, heading toward a different room entirely. When the Dowager Duchess had given them a tour earlier that evening, there was a particular room that had caught her eye: the library.
Collecting a candle off one of the hallway tables, she carried the brass holder down a slimmer corridor that peeled off the first, hurrying to the far end. Set within the wall was a double doorway that she opened, revealing the library beyond.
Just as she had done earlier that evening, she paused and gasped at the sheer expanse of the room. Where her father’s library was small, damp with mold, and missing books, this was the opposite. It was vast indeed with so many bookshelves, not just lining the walls but set within the center of the room, that a labyrinth had been created. The ceiling height was great too, at least twice her height.
“It’s a maze of books,” Hermione whispered under her breath in awe. She stepped into the room and closed the door behind her.
She wandered between the shelves for many minutes, searching through the literature the room had to offer, before she found a book she had longed to read ever since its publication the year before: The Modern Prometheus.
Taking the book within her hands, she moved to a fireplace and sat down in an armchair pulled close to its side. It was a grand wingback chair with the arms curving around her like an embrace. She settled within it, placing the candle on a table beside her and pulling the book into her lap. As she peeled back the front cover, she felt the first genuine smile she’d experienced for the last week and a half pull at her lips. She may not have been able to escape her father’s insistence on marriage for good, but at least she could escape it for one night.
Antony was certain he had heard noises on the staircase of someone moving around. Yet, as he moved back to the hallway, he found nothing except the empty stairs. Confused, he picked up a candle off a table and held it aloft over the staircase, wondering if he looked a little harder whether he would be able to find the source of the sound. Yet, the light bounced back at him off the empty steps.
Despite his mother’s insistence on their return home, by the time they had arrived back at the house that evening, both the Dowager Duchess and their guests had retired for the night. Antony didn’t mind too much as he was glad of the peace.
“Did you hear something?” Fergus’ sudden voice made Antony jump and spin round. Fergus didn’t hold back his laughter. He chuckled as he stood in the doorway of the study, looking at his brother. “Apologies, I didn’t mean to make you jump.”
“I thought I heard something too,” Antony explained, looking back at the staircase. “Perhaps, we are imagining things.”
“Maybe so,” Fergus said, leaning on the doorframe as he tilted his head to the side, analyzing Antony.
“What is it?” Antony asked, shifting under his brother’s gaze.
“Well, you do look rather a mess,” Fergus pointed out. In answer to these words, Antony turned to look at the nearest mirror stationed on the wall of the hallway. In the candlelight, he could see just what Fergus meant.
The brandy the bawd had spilt over his trousers was beginning to stain, and the jacket he had borrowed made him look more like a groundskeeper than a Duke at all, with the torn cuffs and the smears of dirt.
“I’ll clean up later,” Antony said, turning and walking away from the mirror.
“Later! It is already late,” Fergus pointed out as Antony walked past him.
“This from the man who has gone to the study to work,” Antony said wryly.
“I’m just looking over my next orders for the navy,” Fergus said. “What are you going to do?”
“Read,” Antony called back to his brother as he passed from the mail hallway into a narrow corridor beyond. The library was a place he found solace in when the depths of night were upon him. There, he could lose himself in tales of beings whose lives were so different to his own, and he could imagine he lived in their shoes for a short while.
As he pushed open the library door soundlessly, he was startled to find there was already a candle in the room, for the orb was visible, streaming through the gaps in the bookshelves. Curious, he didn’t head straight for the book he was currently reading. Instead, he started to wander through the labyrinth of shelves, searching for the source of the light.
When he caught sight of the candle perched on a table beside an armchair, his feet stopped abruptly beneath him. Someone was in his father’s favorite armchair. The thought was too abhorrent. Since his father’s passing, he didn’t allow anyone to sit there.
He hurried forward again, rounding one of the bookshelves until he caught sight of just who had been so bold as to sit there.
It was a woman. Dressed in a pale blue gown with a deep neckline and sleeves that reached her elbow, he could see even sitting down she was petite with soft curves. Her legs were crossed delicately, showing the length beneath the gown. She hadn’t noticed his approach for she was too busy reading the book in her lap.
She turned a page in her book, resting one of her hands on the arm of the chair. The movement shook Antony out of his ogling of the stranger, reminding him of the brazen disrespect of the moment. A stranger had made herself at home in his father’s chair.
“Who are you? And what are you doing there?” he asked, finding his voice.
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