About the book
Nothing she confessed could make him desire her less...
When Belle’s father, the Duke of Auldwood, forces her to marry a rakish Marquess, she only has one option: escape to Scotland. Disguised as a servant, only an unexpected accident could doom her plans. Until a handsome stranger comes to her rescue.
Stephen Townshend is not your average Duke. Recently returned from the Far East, he struggles to reconcile with his hurtful past and save himself from bankruptcy. Driven away by his mother’s pressure to marry, he only finds solace in the embrace of a mysterious servant girl.
But how quickly can the fire they share burn their hearts to ashes?
After Belle’s true identity is exposed, their plans to elope turn to dust. With Belle dragged to the altar, Stephen is devastated by her lies. Until he discovers a terrible truth: Belle is not the only one lying to him...
The break of dawn was always the best time of day. The kiss of the soft sunlight against the curtains, casting an ethereal glow through her bedchambers always made her smile. Belle couldn’t help but to take a moment and appreciate it, basking in the silence and peace that it brought with it.
That calm lasted mere moments before she wrapped her plaid shawl around her head and headed out the door. She could picture it already, as she stepped silently over the carpet running through the hallway.
Her lady’s maid, Hannah, would be shocked to find her gone, but that was if she didn’t make it back in time, of course.
As tempting as returning late sounded, Belle tried to ignore it.
She held the shawl tighter around her body, heading for the back stairs. If her luck held out, as it had been for a while now, she wouldn’t encounter anyone on her way to her destination. She let loose a soft breath, letting the calmness of the morning settle over her shoulders and release any built-up tension.
She needed this break, this reprieve. She needed to be alone with her thoughts, without Hannah constantly following behind her, without her father’s imposing presence, and without her mother’s loud silence. She simply needed to be alone, to enjoy her own company, and to forget about all the things that troubled her.
But that is easier said than done.
For a moment though, when she finally made it out of the manor, Belle did forget all about it. The soft light of the sun, coupled with the gentle, crisp breeze, seemed to wash away all her worries. She simply stood there for a few seconds, basking in the serenity of the moment. This was the most precious part of her days, the one she clung to, simply to get through the rest of it.
When she opened her eyes, Belle resumed her trek to the stables. She tried not to think about it, tried her best to keep the thoughts from rearing their ugly heads, but she was constantly being reminded of it. The dowries, the marriage prospects, the fact that she had made her debut last London Season, had been quite popular, and still returned without a husband.
To many, she would have been considered a failure. To her father, she certainly was. After all, Richard Sinclair, the Duke of Auldwood, was the sort of gentleman who didn’t accept failure, especially not from a daughter whose only use to him was to marry well.
A smile broke out on her face when she spotted her horse standing in the center of the stable, a middle-aged man next to her. The man was around forty-years old, his grin wide, his body skinny and his hair a gray mess. He was terribly kind and he always doted on Belle, always made sure he could do whatever he could for her.
“Tom,” she greeted and watched as his smile threaten to overtake his face. “How did you know I would go riding?”
“I see you sometimes, M’Lady,” he said, stumbling a bit over his words. His eyes twinkled as he patted her horse on the rump. “So I thought I would come and saddle your horse for you this morning.”
“That’s very sweet of you, Tom.” She couldn’t help smiling at him. She drew nearer, running her hand over her horse’s nose. Her name was Shadow, a midnight black mare that was the fastest in the stables. Shadow bobbed her head slightly at Belle’s touch.
“I’m glad you like it, M’lady,” Tom said as he took a step back. She swung her leg over Shadow; her mood was instantly lifted now that she was settled on the horse’s back. With the path ahead of her, the vast countryside to explore, Belle felt all the residual weight on her shoulders fall away.
She shot Tom another grin as she raced out the stables. Normally, she would begin with a slow trot, easing Shadow gently into the exercise. But she couldn’t wait today. No, on this morning, Belle felt like chasing the sun.
The instant the wind picked up her hair, she felt as if she was flying. She’d tied the shawl around her neck to keep it from blowing away as she raced away from the stables, from the manor, from all the pressures of her title and her father’s domineering attitude. Atop Shadow, Belle felt as if she could truly be free. There was no longer anything holding her back from finally relaxing, from being herself.
She gritted her teeth, hunching over Shadow’s speeding body. Tears pricked her eyes from the brisk air, and it made her laugh in happiness. This wouldn’t last long, she knew. She’d have to return eventually.
And the Duke of Auldwood would be there to greet her if she was late, her mother cowering behind him.
No, there’s no use thinking about that right now.
She shook her head, as if that would get rid of the annoyingly burdensome thoughts and she forged Shadow ahead, pushing the horse to her limits. She knew Shadow, having been by her side ever since she was a babe, and she knew she was as much as a fan of the lovely early morning run through the countryside as Belle was. They made a wonderful pair.
This would be her last ride for a while. Soon, she’d leave here to go to London for another Season and Belle was dreading every moment of it. Her father was sure to crack down on her, ensuring that she didn’t leave the city without accepting a proposal and Belle wasn’t sure how long she could oppose him.
He wasn’t easily deterred and she was sure he would be keeping a keen eye on her this time around. She was already nine-and-ten. To him, she should have been married the year she debuted.
The fact that she would not be able to ride like this for a few months saddened her and she came to a slow trot, her wispy brown hair falling down around her shoulders. Absentmindedly, she lifted a hand to run her fingers through it, knowing that while she was in London, she’d be subjected to the usual beautiful hairstyles, extravagant dresses, and the pressures of standing out among the other ladies of the ton.
She would be fighting to be noticed around all the other lovely ladies, to not be overshadowed by those who would debut this year. Just the mere thought put an ache between her shoulder blades.
So, hunching over Shadow again, she urged the mare to starting galloping again. She was eager to comply.
Belle didn’t know how long she spent out on the open land but when she returned to the stable, Tom was still there, waiting. The morning was still blissfully young and so she hurriedly handed the reins over to him, giving him a grateful smile and turned to leave, missing the way he ran his hand over Shadow’s hair. She repositioned her shawl over her head and quickly made her way inside the manor.
It didn’t take her long to get back to her bedchambers, slipping in to find the room thankfully empty. Without hesitation, Belle removed the shawl and changed into her nightgown, getting into bed right after.
The sun had fully risen by the time she was done, and she closed her eyes against the brightness, willing herself to go back to sleep for a short while before Hannah came in. Because only in sleep did the weight on her shoulders feel non-existent.
Coming back to Dunleer Manor was one thing Stephen didn’t think he would have to do. At least, not so soon—if one considered after ten years to be too soon.
Still, as his carriage shook along the ruts of the street, he couldn’t help the unnerving feeling in the pit of his stomach. He flexed his fingers against his knee, gazing out the window at the sights that were so familiar yet altogether different. The last time he’d been in, the manor was filled with bad memories and he was beginning to see how difficult it was not to attach the negative feelings to his surroundings.
At least my Mother should be some source of comfort.
He could remember it clearly, that day. The day he’d decided to cast aside his longing for peace and confront his father, the late Duke of Dunleer, about his wrongdoings. That day lead to ten years away from this place. Ten years pursuing his own dreams and running from the memories of the past. Ten years without seeing his mother, knowing she was still in the manor, alone.
Stephen wrote to her regularly and had become complacent due to it, eager to cling to any excuse not to go back to the manor. Now, there was no escaping his duty.
He stopped flexing his fingers as the carriage pulled up to the manor. The familiar sight brought up such mixed feelings that he could do nothing but sit and stare for a moment. This was where he had grown up, where he had all those wonderful memories—memories that had been tainted by his father.
Pulling his shoulders back, Stephen left the carriage. His steward instantly began organizing the servants to bring in his luggage, and he left them to do so, eager to see his mother.
She was waiting for him in the grand foyer, her hands clasped together. At the sight of her face, of her mature beauty draped in finery, he couldn’t help rushing up to her and enveloping her into a tight hug.
“Stephen, my dear,” she breathed as she hugged back just as tightly as he did. It felt nice having her in his arms, feeling his mother’s frame next to his once more. Stephen didn’t realize just how he had missed her until this moment.
She pulled away, smiling. He remembered a time when he was much, much younger, when she would smile with abandon. Now, her smile was just as beautiful, but perhaps not as encompassing. “I’d forgotten how tall you are,” she said. “Or have you grown a few inches since you left?”
“I think I did all the growing I could possibly do already, Mother,” he said on a chuckle.
Her light blue eyes, that seemed to have faded in color through age, raked down the rest of him and she frowned. “And why are you dressed like this?”
“Like a commoner?” The Dowager Duchess of Dunleer crumpled her nose at the sight of him and she took a step back. “You must have forgotten that you would be returning here a Duke, Stephen.”
“Believe me, Mother,” he said, feeling a tad weary all of a sudden. “There is no possible way I could have forgotten that.”
No, it was the only thing I could think about the entire way home.
He saw the struggle on her face as she tried to fix her expression. He wasn’t sure it worked very well. She tucked her arm into his and began to lead him out of the foyer. Stephen tried not to look around the walls, at the memories that were clustered in every corner, lining the wallpaper, filling his every thought. He focused on his mother’s body next to his, patting her hand in comfort as if that would remind him of who he was here to be.
Not a Marquess but a Duke.
“Relax, Mother,” he said when he caught her studying his style of dressing once more. “Things are much more relaxed in the Far East and they aren’t as stringent with how we dress as they are here in England.”
“I can understand that,” she said lowly. “But why would you show up to London looking like that?”
He shrugged. “I suppose I simply grew accustomed to it. It’s quite comfortable. Simple, really.”
“It’s horrible to look at. If your luggage is filled with things like this, then I will have to get better clothing for you. You cannot possibly walk around London looking like that.”
He tried not to sigh. It had been a while since he’d last been subjected to his mother’s judgment. She’d led him to the drawing room where tea and pastries had already been prepared. Realizing just how hungry he was, Stephen instantly went for one of the small cakes on display.
“You are now the Duke of Dunleer, Stephen,” the Dowager went on strongly, watching as he bit into a cake and crumbs went everywhere.
Perhaps not the most fitting image to display when being reminded that I am a Duke.
“You should look and act the part.”
Stephen knew this day would come. No matter how much he had tried to ignore it, to focus on other things, he knew his father would not last forever and that he would be forced to accept his inheritance.
When he left this place ten years ago, he’d joined the army and served three years. And then when that ended, desperate to stay away, he went to oversee his grandfather’s spice industry in India. Content to simply write to his mother often, Stephen was happy to be as far away from London as he possibly could be.
But when he received a letter from his mother saying his father passed away, he knew he couldn’t stay in India. The letter had taken a while to come, so although he’d only been aware of it for a month, his father had been dead for six.
He was a fool to think he would never be back. To think he would not have to face the past sooner or later and assume the responsibility that was his birth right.
He knew he couldn’t possibly tell his mother of his reluctance to become a Duke. She needed him and the society around him was unforgiving. Being back in London was already enough of a scandal.
But at least one of the people he didn’t wish to see again was no longer around. The other…well, he hoped he’d never have a reason to see them.
On the morning of Belle’s nine-and-tenth birthday, she felt as if invisible shackles were being tied around her wrists. She stared at herself in the vanity mirror as Hannah tried her best to be gentle with her hair and tried to tamper the feeling as best as she could. She couldn’t help the sinking pit in her stomach, as she was unable to keep herself from the terrible feeling.
Why do I feel so odd?
She grimaced at the thought and Hannah must have caught the look on her face because she quickly said, “My apologies, My Lady. Did I pull too hard?”
“Oh, no. Not at all.” She plastered a comforting smile on her face as she studied the hairstyle Hannah gave her. It was one of the simpler ones, since Hannah knew of Belle’s abhorrence for pins. “It’s quite lovely, actually. Thank you very much. You outdid yourself with that one.”
Though her smile was small, Hannah shone with pride. She was a hardworking girl, slightly older than Belle. As such, Belle often found herself coming to her for advice, which had been hard earned considering how shy the girl was as well.
“Thank you, My Lady. Are you ready to join your parents for breakfast?”
“I suppose there is no use staying in my room when I look so wonderful,” she said by way of issuing the girl another compliment, and Hannah’s cheeks pinkened.
Hannah had arrived at her bedchambers shortly after Belle returned. Belle hadn’t gotten the chance to fall back asleep and so she had pretended that she was for a while, before she got up. Hannah hadn’t been any wiser about her early morning ride as she had been the last time she’d done it and they’d gone about the start of their morning as usual.
Belle didn’t have breakfast with her parents that often. She found excuses sometimes to eat alone, with only Hannah as company. Or, whenever her father was in an important meeting, with her mother. But the Duke had requested her presence with them today and she hoped it had nothing to do with the upcoming Season. If she was forced to hear him go on about his expectations, and what she needed to do to ensure that she snagged a proper husband this time around, Belle wasn’t sure what she would do.
Unable to help the sigh that escaped her lips, she left her bedchambers and made her way down to the drawing room where her parents were. The meal wasn’t so grand as to have it in the dining room, much to Belle’s surprise. As her father specifically requested her to eat with them this morning, she expected something less…simple.
Yet here they were, the food laid out before them. The Duke of Auldwood had the papers in his hands, held up before him, so she doubted he knew she had arrived.
Coming to a seat, Belle’s eyes darted to her mother. She was gingerly nibbling on a crumpet, her eyes on the floor. When Belle had walked in, the Duchess’ eyes lit up briefly, a shadow of a smile appearing over her lips before she glanced at her husband and returned her gaze to the floor.
Despite her mother’s clear timidity, she was a vision. Her hair was a gorgeous, shimmering cape of black, her finer features accentuated by her soft-brown eyes, which Belle had inherited. Her dress was befitting of a Duchess, and her shoulders were pulled back into a stature that belied her grace. It was her eyes that gave her away, that told anyone that came near that she was hardly more than a shell of a person now.
It broke Belle’s heart to see her wonderful mother this way, so Belle focused her attention on her father. He hadn’t so much as moved when she came, so she cleared her throat loudly.
Slowly, the papers lowered and the Duke of Auldwood looked at his daughter. Belle looked like him. It bothered her how much she saw herself in him when she didn’t want to be anything like him, she couldn’t deny that she looked a lot like he did. Her brown tresses were his exact hue, the slope of her jaw and the curve of her nose. Only the eyes—always the eyes—spoke something different. Green. Hard. Cold.
“Eat,” he said, jerking his chin to the food before lifting the papers again, “and then we’ll talk.”
Belle bristled. “I guess I was right in thinking this wasn’t you wanting to spend time with your daughter then?”
“Belle…” her mother whispered but Belle ignored her. Of course, the Duchess didn’t like it when she talked back to her father. Of course, Belle wasn’t going to let that stop her.
“There are more important things to be done than to sit around chatting like ladies,” said the Duke in an utterly dry tone that showed how unaffected he was by her words.
And as usual, his words were starting to get Belle riled up. She took discreet breaths, her appetite vanishing. “Is there something the matter, Father?” she asked through tight lips.
From the corner of her eye, she could see her mother biting her lip.
“You are nine-and-ten today,” said the Duke.
Belle wasn’t surprised he remembered, but she was surprised he was mentioning it. Her defenses rose. “Thank you for wishing me a happy birthday, Father.”
He ignored the jibe and said, “I’ve taken the liberty of preparing a dress for you. It is coming from London, made by the finest seamstresses the city has to offer.”
Belle blinked in shock. Her father had never taken an interest in her wardrobe before. “For what reason?”
Again, he lowered the papers. “Does there need to be one?”
Belle didn’t know what to say to that.
The Duke went on, “Also, we will be having a guest join us for dinner tonight. So, you need to be in attendance.”
She was still reeling in shock, so much so that she could only manage to say, “All right.”
Belle looked at her mother, who offered her a soft smile. Belle smiled back. She couldn’t believe that her father had taken the time out of his day to have a dress prepared for her birthday. She suddenly wanted to ask her mother if he truly had anything to do with it, but she doubted he would assume responsibility for something like that when he hadn’t cared much about it before.
The Duke of Auldwood didn’t eat at all. The Duchess ate very little. Belle ate nearly everything that was put before her, her appetite returning with full force. The rest of breakfast passed in relative silence, with only a few words said between her and her mother. Whenever the Duke was present, the Duchess barely said anything, so Belle had her confusing, all-consuming thoughts to entertain her.
Her father left first, off to his office to do what Belle assumed was his favorite thing in the world to do: running his textile company. She believed it might be the only thing he truly cared about.
But perhaps I am wrong.
She couldn’t help the thought as she went to the gardens, needing some fresh air. Her mother had claimed to be tired and had already retreated to her bedchambers, leaving Belle alone once again.
“Have you seen it, Hannah?” she asked her lady’s maid who’d chosen to sit next to her. Belle hadn’t bothered to point out how happy she was that she did. It was clear that Hannah was growing more and more comfortable with her.
“The dress, My lady? I have and it’s beautiful.”
“Ah, so you knew about this as well, have you?” Belle couldn’t help the smile that crept over her face. “Did Father plan to surprise me with it? I didn’t know he could be so…cunning.”’
“He got it perfectly right as well, My Lady. The color will look lovely against your skin.”
“Two compliments in a day, Hannah? This is the best birthday I’ve had so far.”
Hannah smiled. “The Duchess has also prepared a gift for you. It is in your bedchambers.”
“Now that is what I expected. Mother is normally the one who prepares my gifts. Not Father.”
Hannah shrugged. “Perhaps this age is special.”
“Yes,” Belle hummed, staring out at the flowers before her. “Perhaps.”
“My Lady, are you all right?”
Belle couldn’t find the right words to say. She stood staring at herself in the mirror, watching the way the French silk tumbled down around her slender frame. Her hair had been elegantly done this evening, in honor of their guest, and it somehow managed to make the dress even lovelier.
Hannah was right. The color certainly did glow on her, making her caramel-brown eyes shine. When she moved, the silk moved along with her and a gorgeous necklace with a simple blue stone tied the entire thing together.
It wasn’t just the beauty of the dress that shocked her into silence, however. It was the fact that her father had it prepared for her, that he had gone out of his way to have this sent from London and had clearly wanted her to look her best on her birthday.
A slow smile crept over her face. Her cold, distant father…
Perhaps he does have a heart?
“My Lady, you’re scaring me.”
Belle had nearly forgotten Hannah was there. She laughed in surprise, taking Hannah by her hand. “My apologies, Hannah. I was simply shocked beyond words. This dress is utterly wonderful.”
“Yes, I agree, My Lady. And the necklace is lovely with it as well.”
“Perhaps Mother had this dress in mind when she bought it.” She ran her fingers over the stone. She had many like it, but anything from her mother deserved to be cherished. “I should remember to thank her when I get the chance. And Father.”
Hannah was no stranger to the strained relationship between her mother and father and once she had let it slip that she wished it could be mended.
Well, I wish for that as well. And perhaps it can be.
The Duke of Auldwood put his energy into one thing: his textile company. And last year, during the Season, he had managed to give some of that energy into ensuring she secured a husband. But asides from that, his cold and domineering nature made it difficult for her to be close to him. And that was what had reduced her mother to that shivering shell.
“The guest is probably here,” Belle said, shaking away the thoughts. “I should go.”
She gave herself one last look in the mirror before she left her bedchambers, thrumming with excitement. She couldn’t wait to show her parents how wonderful she looked, and she hoped her father would at least pay her a compliment. It had been a long time since she’d let such desires overcome her, but she couldn’t help the thought as she continued on to the dining room.
Her parents were sitting in their usual spot, but there was one additional person. An older gentleman, perhaps around her father’s age, whose eyes fell on her the moment she entered.
Belle opened her mouth to greet him and faltered. There was a glint in his eye, an appreciative look that gave her the sudden urge to turn and flee. But she took her seat and plastered a smile on her face. He must be one of her father’s business associates.
“Good day,” she greeted.
“This is my daughter, My Lord,” the Duke said gruffly. “Lady Belle. And this is Cornelius Pembrooke, the Marquess of Winchfield.”
Lord Winchfield? There is something very familiar about that name.
“It is lovely to meet you, My Lord,” Belle said politely.
“I can say the same, My Lady.” A slow smile crept over his face and Belle tried not to frown. His sandy hair was combed away from his face, his handsome features marred by the look in his eyes. A look she deciphered quite well after spending time around so many gentlemen during the last Season.
“The Marquess has come to discuss some business with me,” the Duke said to Belle. “Business that concerns you.”
Oh, no. No, please no.
Heart sinking, Belle looked at her mother. The Duchess had already begun eating, her eyes on her plate. She knew what was about to happen, Belle realized, and could say nothing about it.
“Oh?” she said, putting on a tight smile. She began to eat, hoping her hand wouldn’t tremble. It held strong. “Are you here to take me on as an apprentice?”
Her bold words clearly shocked the Marquess, so much so that his jaw fell open. But her father remained unfazed by her words, waving dismissively at her the way he had dismissed her all her life. “He has proposed marriage,” her father said, “and I have accepted.”
So many emotions flooded through her that she didn’t know what to do, what to think. She continued eating, not tasting a thing, as if the practiced motion would help keep her together when she suddenly felt so close to falling apart.
“Father, I don’t think—”
The Duke didn’t give her a chance to voice her complaints. “My Lord,” he said. “Now that we have gotten the announcement out of the way, perhaps we should begin making arrangements for the wedding.”
“How do you know my Father, Lord Winchfield?” Belle asked, looking up to meet his eyes. She could feel her father’s weighty gaze, but she refused to look at him.
The Marquess tilted his head to the side, regarding her for a moment. She wondered what was going through his head. Perhaps he would think her too fiery a bride and decide marriage to her wasn’t the best course of action.
“Why, through you, Lady Belle,” he said, his voice low. Belle’s skin crawled at the sound. “This may sound romantically foolish, but I took a liking to you after last Season. When I learned that you had remained unmarried, I hurried to finish my business and ask for your hand in marriage before you were off to this Season. I am not a man who likes competition overly much, I’m afraid.” He ended on a laugh.
Ah, I remember now.
He had been in London during the last Season and she’d heard a few rumors labeling him a rake. As a result, Belle had instantly written him off.
“That’s…sweet of you,” she ended, trying not to turn her nose up.
“As were saying,” her father continued, cutting her in two with one of his glares. She tried her best to ignore it, looking at her mother instead. The Duchess was shaking. “We should also make preparations for the merger.”
“For the merger?” Belle cut in, her head snapping up. She knew she would have hell to pay for her constant interruptions, but she also knew she could get away with it with the Marquess here, since her father wouldn’t reprimand her in front of company. She hoped. “The merger of the companies? Is that why we’re getting married?”
“Belle…” Belle looked at her mother, eyes wide. The Duchess shook her head.
She bit the inside of her cheek and tried not to glare at the Marquess. She tried not to snap at her father. She tried not to let her very unladylike temper show.
This is why Father had this dress made for me. So I could look pretty as I am being sold off.
She kept her eyes on her plate as the men picked up the conversation about the marriage. Angry tears pricked her eyes, but she refused to let them see her cry. She chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed, until all the food was gone, and she had nothing to focus her attention on. Yet still, they talked and they talked, Lord Winchfield paying Belle a compliment here and there, while Belle and the Duchess said nothing.
They hadn’t even asked her what she wanted to do, if she was willing to be shackled to the Marquess. No, her father didn’t care about what she wanted. He never had. And her poor mother had been a terrible victim of his cold ways, but Belle wasn’t going to allow herself to be the same.
She had to say something. She had to protest.
Then why is it so difficult?
The Marquess’ appraising gaze as the conversation lulled near the end of the dinner made her shiver with disgust. Belle didn’t care to smile at him, or to be polite. She wanted to leave the room and retreat to her bedchambers where she could let all this frustration out in peace.
“We don’t need you at the moment,” her father said gruffly, without even deigning to look in her direction as he rose. “You may busy yourself elsewhere.”
And that was that. Though she was the topic of discussion, though her future was what was being considered, she wasn’t even allowed to sit in on the meetings. Belle had a feeling her father wouldn’t have even bothered to have a dress made if it wasn’t for the Marquess’ benefit.
Belle stiffly rose to her feet and curtsied, trying to keep the disdain from her face. As she turned and took her leave, she could feel the Marquess s eyes.
Belle ignored Hannah as she tried not to storm up the stairs. The tears ran unhindered now and her breathing grew shallow as she quickly tried to reach the confines of her bedchambers. She knew the girl would be right on her heels, knew that she would be confused as to why she was crying like this, but this wasn’t the first time Hannah had seen her so distressed.
Belle sat at her vanity table, forcefully trying to take her hair down. She couldn’t see anything through the blur of tears but she struggled all the same, managing to stab herself in the scalp with a few errant pins.
“My Lady!” Hannah’s soft hand grabbed hers, stopping her from causing any more damage. “Allow me.”
She did, taking a deep, shaky breath, wiping angrily at her tears.
“I’m betrothed to the Marquess of Winchfield,” Belle said once she felt she was strong enough to. As her hair tumbled down around her shoulders, she went on, “He’s a rake, Hannah. During the last London Season, I told myself I wouldn’t allow him to get near me. Thankfully, he seemed preoccupied with other ladies, but now he is claiming that he’s always had his eye on me. Can you believe that?”
“You are a beautiful lady—”
“That hardly matters! It’s all for my Father’s benefit, anyhow. My Father simply wants to strengthen his textile company and he thinks marrying me off is the best way to do it. He’s always thought of the company alone and never my feelings.”
Again, the tears came. Hannah began to style her hair again as she listened.
“You should have seen the way he was looking at me, Hannah. Lord Winchfield. He stared at me as if he couldn’t wait to have me…” She shuddered, unable to finish the thought.
Just then, there was a knock on her door. Belle instantly knew who it was, and it surprised her. Only her mother would care enough to seek her out, but she rarely ever did that.
Hannah went to open it and the Duchess walked in, her brown eyes betraying her sadness. Without saying a word, Hannah left, and the Duchess went to sit on the bed.
“Did you know?” Belle asked her mother. She tried her best not to sound angry, knowing the Duchess probably had nothing to do with the plan.
The Duchess’ eyes shone with tears. “He hadn’t told me specifically, but I suspected. I’m…terribly sorry, my dear.”
Belle didn’t know what to say. At the apology, the anger faded, and she simply felt sad and useless. More tears burned her throat.
“At least I will have some time without the Marquess coming around,” Belle said, forcing a smile onto her face that was gone in another second. “Since he says he will be in Bath for the next two weeks.”
“Small mercies,” the Duchess murmured back and for a few seconds, they both had the strength to huff a laugh.
The Duchess gestured for Belle to join her on the bed. Belle did. Her mother took her by the hand, looking down at them as she took a deep breath. Then she said, “It is time you know the truth, Belle.”
Belle’s heart fell. “The truth? About what?”
“About your Father’s mistresses.”
The world warped around her, her body going numb. Belle was sure her jaw fell slack at the words. “Mother…”
It was the sadness on her mother’s face that broke her heart, the pain she saw in her eyes and felt it as greatly as if it were her own. The Duchess was trembling again, and she squeezed Belle’s hand tighter, as if she was trying to contain it. “It has been ongoing for years now and since our marriage was one of convenience, I felt as if I had no right to complain. Even as I waited, hoping he would love me one day, he never did, and I never said a word about it.”
“Mother…why are you telling me this now?”
“Because I don’t want the same thing to happen to you. If you marry Lord Winchfield without love, then you will end like I have, especially if the rumors about the Marquess are true.”
“But there’s nothing I can do about it! Even if I try to fight it, Father will do as he pleases.”
The Duchess took a deep breath, determination lighting her eyes. She reached a hand up and caressed Belle’s cheek. “There is one thing you can do,” she said. “You can leave this place behind.”
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
Conquered by a Ravishing Duke is now live on Amazon!