About the book
What’s he to do when he inherits a title, a fortune…and a betrothed?
Betrothed to a Marquess ever since she was a little girl, Lady Marcella Baxter cannot find it in herself to feign sadness at his disappearance years ago. And she would do anything to get herself out of it.
Reginald Danvers, the newly appointed Marquess of Hurrow, will forever curse the day he decided to rob his own father. And the only thing that could alleviate his reluctance to enter the ton again is his feisty intended.
Thrown into a battle of wills, no one seems to be emerging triumphant save their scorching desire for each other. But Reginald is soon to realize that someone didn’t want him around then and even more so now. And they won’t be satisfied until he draws his last breath.
“Almost here,” Reginald muttered.
The carriage, his prey, came nearer with every passing second. Reginald adjusted his position, taking care not to crush any of the dry, brittle leaves underfoot. He doubted that either the driver or the horses would notice him, for he’d taken good care to hide himself, but a careless highwayman was as good as dead, and Reginald had no intention of facing either the gaol or a hanging.
Reginald’s blue eyes swept over the team of horses pulling the carriage. They were fine animals, much nicer than his own russet mare who he’d hidden further off the road. She was near enough to aid in a quick escape, but not enough to draw attention. Usually, Reginald didn’t steal horses; they were too much trouble and couldn’t be hidden beneath cloaks and shirts the way that money and jewels could. These were tempting, though. They could fetch a decent price if he could find a buyer.
It’s not as if this man would miss the horses or could not afford to replace them with an equally good pair.
When the horses were only a few feet away, at a narrow bend in the road, Reginald sprang from his hiding place. He withdrew his pistol and pointed it firmly at the driver’s face. “Halt!”
The driver pulled back on the reins, and the horses stopped abruptly. Reginald smiled grimly and tried to conceal his relief. He really had no desire to shoot any man. He was a thief first and foremost, not a killer. But he’d found that men could be notoriously unpredictable. Most often, they surrendered. Then, Reginald and his men relieved their wealthy travelers of any valuables and sent them on their way. But there were always a few that fought.
“Cooperate and no harm will come to you,” Reginald said. “Do you understand? We only want your passenger’s valuables. We can avoid bloodshed today.”
At Reginald’s words, his associates revealed themselves. There was Charles, broad-shouldered and tall. He was a dependable sort of fellow with a curly red beard and a noticeable scar over the empty socket, where his right eye should’ve been. The other was Edward, who was so slight that he appeared as if a good gust of wind would knock him over. But he was quick and good with locks. They emerged from behind the thick woods and brush which lined the sides of the road and slowly approached the carriage. Each brandished pistols, which if everything went well, would remain unused. Only one member of their band was missing—Isaac, who was usually responsible for arranging the best robberies.
The driver tensed, and his hands tightened on the reins. He was a thin, young man with a ruddy complexion and limp brown hair. As Reginald approached, the driver visibly shivered. “Don’t do anything foolish,” Reginald said. “We’re not here for you.”
There was no point in robbing the driver; he probably didn’t have any money on him. And it wasn’t as if Reginald especially enjoyed what he did. There was no satisfaction in stealing from the poor, who were like him and just struggling to survive.
Charles rapped his pistol against the door of the carriage, which promptly opened.
“What is the meaning of this?” a man’s voice boomed.
It was an old voice but one dripping with authority. Reginald could recognize one of the ton from that tone alone. “Your money or your life!” Charles declared. “Quickly, now!”
Already, Edward was emptying the carriage of its luggage. Reginald smiled pleasantly at the driver. “How much do you earn for driving that old man around?” he asked. “Is it thirty pounds a year? A small amount from a man who has so much more than you.”
The driver swallowed.
“Less?” Reginald asked.
“Twenty-five,” the driver replied at last. “It’s a very generous salary, one which my family greatly appreciates.”
Reginald nodded. His eyes flitted to Charles. He could only partially see the man because of the carriage door, but the transaction seemed to be going well. And Edward seemed to be nearly finished relieving the carriage of its contents and taking it to the waiting horses.
The best jobs were the ones which went like this. “Your family?” Reginald prompted.
It was best to distract the driver. One never knew when a man might lose his nerve and try something foolish, such as attempting to flee in the midst of a robbery, and Reginald had learned the art of distraction well.
“My sister,” the driver replied. “I have a younger sister and my mother. I’ve been taking care of them both since my father died two winters ago.”
“Quite a responsibility to bear!” Reginald exclaimed.
The driver slowly nodded, and he offered a shy, tentative smile. Reginald grinned and lowered the pistol. Instead, he withdrew four shillings and held his hand out. “Here,” he said. “Buy your sister and your mother something. Something that brings them pleasure, not something they need.”
The driver blinked several times and looked taken aback. His wide, brown eyes searched Reginald’s face for any sign of deception, but he slowly extended his hand. Reginald deposited the coins into the young man’s palm. It was a small amount, but it was enough to make a difference to the driver. Besides, the occupant of this carriage would have more than sufficient funds to make the venture profitable. Reginald was willing to give a little to ensure the driver’s cooperation.
“Is that everything?” Edward asked.
“It appears to be,” Charles replied.
Reginald patted the flank of one of the horses and walked along the side of the carriage. He peered inside. The velvet-lined carriage had only one occupant. It was an older gentleman, but despite his finely tailored clothes, there was something vaguely sickly about the man. His brown hair was thick but streaked with white and gray, and his pale face was heavily lined. There were dark shadows beneath his eyes, which spoke of either sleepless nights, illness, or frequent indulgence. Perhaps, it was all three. His eyes were blue and cold, and something about his gaze was sharp, nearly hawk-like.
“How much money did he have?” Reginald asked, leaning over to inspect the stolen items.
Charles held open the bag, now filled with a handful of jewelry and coins. Reginald arched an eyebrow. “I’d expected more.”
“I don’t carry my valuables with me,” the man said. “The roads aren’t safe these days, as you can clearly imagine!”
Reginald laughed heartily. “The roads are safe for the most vulnerable. I’ve no doubt that you’ve many other trinkets besides these.”
Horse hooves beat against the road, and Reginald snapped his head towards them. Two men on horseback came quickly towards them, but worse, they were the constables. Reginald swore quietly. They weren’t even properly inside the city of London yet!
A breeze drifted through the air, and Reginald raised his hand, raking back his hair from his eyes. When Reginald turned his attention back to the carriage occupant, the man had frozen. He looked as if he’d seen a ghost.
“Run!” Reginald shouted. “Go!”
There was one rule that all highwaymen always followed, and that was that every man had to think of only himself during sudden escapes. Charles bolted, taking the stolen jewelry and money. Edward vanished quickly into the trees, and with the constables quickly approaching, Reginald turned to run.
A hand seized his wrist with surprising strength. It was the carriage occupant. Reginald scowled. He had no desire to fight a foolish, old man, but he also refused to be captured.
“Release me at once!” Reginald snapped, raising his pistol.
The man’s eyes were wide, and although his jaw dropped, he didn’t relinquish his grip on Reginald’s wrist. “Reginald, please!”
How does he know my name?
Reginald froze, his heart thundering against his ribs. With a sudden burst of force, he pulled his wrist free of the man’s grip. Reginald raised his pistol and fired a shot into the air, several feet from the man. It was only meant to be a warning.
“Stay in the carriage!” Reginald snapped.
But as he turned to run, the man from the carriage pursued him. And there were the constables, too. If he fled further up the road, Reginald knew they would quickly overtake him on their horses, so he needed to hide. The woods would be his best chance for eluding their grasp. They ran alongside the road and were too filled with hidden holes and roots for horses to travel through. That was why he’d left his own further back.
A hand seized his coat and pulled him back. Reginald twisted around, the movement sudden enough to send the man from the carriage falling to the ground.
“Quit pursuing me!”
What is the matter with this man? I’ve never been pursued like this in my life!
Ordinarily, the wealthy men he robbed remained in their carriages and made all haste away once Reginald and his men had withdrawn. They’d only ever been pursued by a few young and foolish men with quick tempers and delusions of heroism.
Hooves beat against the ground, and Reginald found his path blocked by the constable atop his horse. He clenched his jaw and raised his pistol, even though this was clearly a battle he couldn’t win. Without turning around, Reginald knew that the constable’s companion was behind him.
“Are you unharmed, Your Grace?” That was the driver, come to collect his master.
Your Grace? I tried to rob a Duke?
Isaac had mentioned that he’d heard a wealthy gentleman would be traveling to London, which was how Reginald and his band of highwaymen had known to wait for him. Now that Reginald was thinking about it, it was rather strange that the constables had happened outside of London at the precise moment which the robbery was to occur. It was too convenient for them and too disastrous for him.
That was, unless Isaac had betrayed them and told the constable about the crime. Isaac had never mentioned that they would be robbing a Duke, despite clearly having some information on the carriage’s occupant.
“Lower your weapon and place it on the ground!” the constable ordered, his gun pointed at Reginald’s face.
“Please, do it,” the man from the carriage—His Grace, it seemed—said. “Listen to the constable.”
Reginald clenched his jaw. “I don’t see why it matters to you, Your Grace. And I don’t want your pity now or ever.”
Men like His Grace were all the same; they liked to pity, but they never liked to help. They were never interested in improving anyone’s lot in life save their own. And regardless, Reginald knew that this would end in either imprisonment or worse.
The Duke cleared his throat. “Please. I can help you, son.”
“Now,” the constable ordered.
“I’m not your son,” Reginald said, reluctantly placing his pistol on the ground. “Don’t call me that. I don’t want your empty endearments.”
“Stay away from the pistol!” the constable ordered.
Reginald stepped back. From the ground, the weapon seemed to mock him, but he knew he’d lost. The constable had a gun and a horse, and the man behind Reginald did, too. His only chance for escaping this with his life was to comply and inevitably throw himself at the mercy of the courts, although he doubted they would be any more forgiving.
“Aren’t you, though?” His Grace asked. “You have a scar on your forehead that I won’t soon forget. I saw it when the wind ruffled your hair!”
No, this is impossible.
Reginald felt ice trace a path down his spine, and he wasn’t sure if it had more to do with the approaching constable or His Grace’s assertion. Probably the latter. Still, he forced a bold, haughty laugh. “I earned this scar in a duel with a gentleman much like yourself, who didn’t know when he ought to let well enough alone.”
“Is that what you tell everyone? I seem to recall you getting that scar in a different way. When you were a boy.”
A lump formed in Reginald’s throat. He remained still as the constable fastened the irons around his wrists. This seemed like the strangest end to his career as a highwayman, being captured both by the constable and by the past he’d fought so hard to avoid over the years. He swallowed hard and shrugged, as if by continuing to deny the truth, he could make everyone around him disappear.
The Duke approached, and the constable, who took a firm grip of Reginald’s arm, cast him an alarmed look. “Be cautious, Your Grace. You can’t trust highwaymen.”
“Quite true,” Reginald admitted.
But Reginald couldn’t keep his own gaze averted. Instead, he looked at the Duke again, searching his features more closely. The man was older and more worn than Reginald remembered. Once, he’d been a striking man, who’d only grown handsomer as he aged. Reginald remembered this man being lively and exuberant. Now, he seemed like a diminished husk of that man.
“I don’t think you want to do this,” Reginald said. “I can scarcely imagine the scandal this will create.”
His Grace raised a trembling hand, and Reginald inwardly flinched as the Duke’s thumb traced along the old scar.
“Ah, I realize it’s none of my business,” the constable’s companion said. “But what’s…happening?”
“You caught a common criminal,” Reginald said, forcing himself to sound cheerful. “Excellent work.”
“Yes,” the constable said, pulling roughly on Reginald’s arm. “I’m sure many people will be quite pleased, and soon, we’ll have your associates, too. It’s over, you see. We already know where you and your men have been planning these robberies.”
Is that true, or is he saying that merely to taunt me?
Long ago, Reginald had accepted how his end might come, and although he wasn’t keen to be punished for his crimes, he had no one. There was no wife or child waiting for him to return home after a long day’s work. But his associates did.
The Duke drew back his hand, looking distraught. “You’ve caught my son. I’m sure of it. Of all the professions you could’ve chosen, why was this the one, my child? What would your mother think?”
She would be horrified, utterly horrified.
“She’d admire my resolve,” Reginald replied.
“We must take him to the gaol,” the constable said, looking uncertain. “I’m sure you understand, Your Grace.”
The Duke looked hesitant, and Reginald looked away, unable to bear the expression on his father’s face.
It seemed so impossible for him to be there, after being gone for ten years. Reginald cleared his throat. “You’d best not become involved, Your Grace. Let this be the end of the matter.”
His Grace, his father, shook his head. “It won’t be. I can assure you of that. I will help you.”
Reginald wasn’t sure which would be worse, facing justice for his crimes or having his father interfere after Reginald had tried too hard to leave his old life behind. Maybe it would be better to face the gallows or exile than to endure what his father might consider penance or worse—knowing that he’d been spared when he didn’t deserve to be, while his associates were hanged for their crimes. It wasn’t fair, any of it. “Please,” Reginald said, offering one last plea. “It’s better for all of us if you just let me go to my ignominious end.”
Besides, Reginald could always try escaping. He’d been caught before, after all. This was a matter of principle, of being treated the same way his loyal associates would be.
But if Reginald knew anything, it was that his father was a relentless man. He never changed his mind, and he never went back on his word.
“Oh! Do be careful, Marcella!”
Marcella shook her head, brown ringlets bouncing about her face. She turned her head and peered with bright, hazel eyes at Adeline Rowler, who was both Marcella’s dearest friend and the most persistent worrier whom Marcella had ever met. Indeed, Marcella stood halfway to the top of the ladder, which was several feet from the floor and not necessarily safe, but it was also a necessary evil if one wished to reach the highest volumes on the library shelves.
“I’ve been climbing this same ladder since I was a girl, and I’ve never once fallen. There’s no need for you to worry so.”
“But I shall worry,” Adeline replied, smiling wryly. “If I learned anything from attending finishing school with you, it’s that you are entirely lacking any sense of caution. So I’m to be that for you.”
Marcella feigned an exasperated sigh and continued searching among the volumes. “There must be something,” she insisted.
“I thought you wanted to find some idea for a book,” Adeline pointed out. “Shouldn’t you be at a desk, bent over your paper and ink like some devoted clerk?”
“No,” Marcella replied. “Because I’m looking for inspiration. All artists draw their inspiration from other works of art, so I don’t see why I ought not.”
Adeline hummed and held onto the lower rungs of the ladder, keeping it steady. Marcella continued tracing her fingers along the spines of the books. There were a great variety, most of which Marcella had already read, but she was looking for a particular kind of book, one which she was not even sure existed. The story lingered somewhere at the edge of her mind. Perhaps it was a memory or merely a feeling. It was, thus far, too indistinct for her to properly describe.
“I just feel like there ought to be more to literature,” Marcella explained, “especially as far as women are concerned. It’s always the same story. A man and a woman meet, fall madly in love, and live happily ever after.”
“Surely, you do not begrudge women for having happy marriages, do you?” Adeline asked.
“Of course not,” Marcella replied.
Especially not since you want a happy marriage so desperately for yourself.
Adeline would likely get one, too. She was, firstly, a beautiful young woman with blonde curls, wide blue eyes, and a sweet, and angelic face. Many men had already fallen to the charms of Adeline’s beauty, but she was also the daughter to a Baron with a very substantial fortune and who was well-liked amongst the ton. Besides that, Adeline was sweet-natured and had a good, cheerful sense of humor. Any man would be lucky to be married to so charming a creature.
The voice which cut through the air wasn’t Adeline’s. Rather, it was Claudia, the Viscountess of Castamere and Marcella’s own stepmother. She was a tall, slender woman and remarkably beautiful. Claudia was so beautiful, in fact, that her warm auburn hair and emerald eyes had enchanted Marcella’s father almost the moment they met. That was despite Claudia’s own humble upbringing; she’d been a merchant’s daughter, rather than an aristocrat like the rest of the ton.
“After all, you’re to be married soon,” Claudia said. “I won’t have a spinster in the family, and nor will your father.”
“But must I marry?” Marcella asked. “Certainly, marriage suits some women—like you, my dear stepmother. And I daresay it would suit Adeline, but are there not some women who are not in the least improved by matrimony? And if I can make a fortune of my own—”
“With your scribblings?” Claudia asked. “Why, you can hardly depend on that. You must be reasonable, especially since…”
The door to the library opened, and Marcella’s father entered. He made a stately figure, cold and still. As a girl, Marcella had thought at times that her father was more like the ghost of a father, like in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Adam, the Viscount of Castamere was pale, and his hair was as black as a starless night. His eyes were blue and only ever shined when he was in the company of his childhood friend Rufus, the Duke of Mavis. But besides those few fleeting moments of joy, Marcella had never seen any warmth or affection in her father’s eyes.
“Ah, your father will want to tell you,” Claudia said, smiling brilliantly. “It’s really wonderful news.”
Marcella felt a pit form in her stomach. Her stepmother had entered speaking of marriage, and now, her father had arrived with some important news. Marcella had always been a clever girl, and she could figure out the truth of the situation quite readily. She only hoped that her instincts were wrong. Surely, surely, her father and stepmother could not conceivably think of marrying her to someone against her will?
There was one engagement, but it was so long ago. And broken. They could not have possibly arranged another so quickly without my knowledge. There would’ve been whispers of it amongst the ton and the servants. I would’ve known.
“You recall the Duke of Mavis’ son?” her father asked.
Of course, she did. But that knowledge didn’t make her feel any better. No, the Duke of Mavis’ son had been her original betrothed. This only made Marcella’s theory—that both her father and stepmother sought to marry her to someone with all haste—more plausible.
“Of course,” she replied. “His disappearance was…unforgettable. It’s been how many years now? Ten?”
Marcella knew that it had been. She’d been promised to the future Duke of Mavis almost since birth, and she’d only been freed of that obligation when she was ten. The young future Duke had vanished without a trace, leaving his father distraught. For many years, Marcella’s father had insisted that there was no need for her to form another engagement. He’d hoped, just as his dearest friend had, that her betrothed would eventually return.
“Indeed,” her father answered. “But it appears that he has returned at last! I’ve just received a letter from His Grace!”
“Isn’t that wonderful?” Claudia asked, smiling pleasantly. “After all this time!”
Marcella blinked in surprise. It was wonderful. Of course, it was. She’d never wished any ill on the young lord. She remembered that he’d been mischievous in his adolescence but little beyond that. Marcella had been too young then to really understand all the machinations of love, and she’d, therefore, always approached Lord Reginald only with a sort of fond curiosity. But this conversation was turning very quickly in the direction she’d feared it would.
“And what has he been doing all this time? Where has he been?”
“Living on the streets of London as a vagabond!” the Viscount exclaimed. “His Grace says that his poor son was so ashamed of the life which he’d fallen into that he simply could not bear the thought of returning home, but now, he has.”
“And I am to marry a man who has been missing for ten years?” Marcella asked. “He will be a stranger to me, to all of us! Surely, we cannot simply continue with the engagement as if none of this happened! That is absurd!”
“And why should we not? You’ve seen how the years have worn the Duke so much, and you’ve seen him wasted away by the grief for his poor wife and his worry for his lost son. Why would you deprive him of this? He needs this.”
“But what about me?” Marcella asked. “Does my happiness not also matter, my father? What of my dreams? I do not wish to marry a man who I scarcely know! I’ve not seen my intended since I was a girl of ten years.”
“You ought to like him all the more now,” Marcella’s stepmother said. “Although you may not believe it now, men are like fine wine. They grow better with age.”
“And women age more quickly when they are married to men who they despise,” Marcella countered. “I do not understand why I might not, at least, try to have my dream. Didn’t my governess teach me well? Haven’t I learned every lesson better than most girls? Adeline can tell you how brilliant I was at finishing school.”
Ever loyal, Adeline nodded. “So brilliant that none of us could hope to shine beside her.”
“If you’ve raised me well, which you have,” Marcella said, “surely you can trust me to make my own way in the world. Other women have. Why could I not be like them? Why could I not find happiness with my pen, rather than with a husband?”
“Why must the two be exclusive?” the Viscount asked. “I do not see why you could not marry His Grace’s son and not write still.”
“Because I would be forever busy with managing the household!” Marcella exclaimed. “I’ve noticed how hard my dear mother and my stepmother worked to manage the household. It would be difficult to find the time to do both effectively. I want to pursue writing with my whole heart, with all of myself! Why must I compromise what I love in favor of a man I do not know? In favor of a man who none of us know? Do you not care for my happiness, Father? Stepmother?”
“Of course, we do,” her father answered. “You know that, just as you know that you’ve a duty to marry well.”
Marcella’s face warmed. “You have no faith in me.”
“You live in a world which will be considerably less indulgent and less kind than I have been,” he replied. “This is for your own good. You ought to think of someone’s happiness besides your own.”
But how can you expect two people who don’t know one another to marry and have it end in anything but disaster?
Acting impulsively, Marcella grasped Adeline’s wrist. Her friend jumped but obediently let herself be pulled along. “Come on,” Marcella said. “Let’s find somewhere else to enjoy ourselves. You came all the way to the countryside to have my company, and I’ll not have you stand here and watch us quarrel a moment longer.”
Her father’s face remained as impassive as ever and left Marcella longing for the warmth she remembered from her mother, who’d been all warm smiles and light hazel eyes that sparkled when she was amused. Although she’d died when Marcella was but a girl, that wound had never healed, and perhaps, it never would. “Nevertheless,” the Viscount said, “you will be married, Marcella. Fleeing to the gardens will stop neither time nor your engagement.”
“Maybe I’ll turn into a tree,” Marcella countered, “like Daphne trying to ward away the advances of lecherous Apollo. I should imagine that no man would wish to marry a tree!”
In a flurry of lavender skirts, Marcella hurried from the library. She felt as though she’d become consumed by a sort of frantic, angry fire, and the flames of it curled inside her belly and chest. She was down the corridor like a Fury and only realized once she’d reached the stairs that she still held Adeline’s wrist in her hand.
With an apologetic smile, Marcella dropped her friend’s hand. “I’m dreadfully sorry. I didn’t mean to storm away like that. I lost my temper and acted impulsively.”
Adeline grinned. “I’ll allow you to make it up to me.”
The women descended the stairs and once they reached the ground floor, stepped through the doors which led to the gardens. They were beautiful, green and wild even in autumn when so many trees and plants were dying. Marcella felt an ache in her chest. The gardens had been her mother, Eliza’s, love. They were her pride and joy, and Marcella’s few scattered memories of her mother were those of her in the garden.
“And how shall I make it up to you?” Marcella asked.
“I’m sure I’ll think of something,” Adeline replied, cheerfully linking their arms together. “You must let me think it over. Perhaps you can introduce me to someone during the next Season.”
If only I could be so happy with my lot in life!
Sometimes, Marcella didn’t understand Adeline and her desire to wed. But then, it wasn’t just Adeline who desired to wed. Most of the ladies in the ton didn’t seem to dread the prospect of marriage. Possibly the problem was with Marcella herself.
But it’s not as if I chose to feel what I do.
“You must remind me,” Marcella said. “But you—you don’t think I’m being selfish, do you?”
Marcella truly, deeply felt as though she was in the right, but there lingered just the smallest phantom of uncertainty. Surely, she had a right to her own happiness, didn’t she? Men always had the right to theirs, it seemed.
“I do support you, as always,” Adeline replied. “I think your feelings are entirely justified. Besides, it isn’t as if you’ve been anticipating marriage for Seasons now and knew. Your betrothed has been missing for years, and who is to say that the years have even been kind to him? For all we know, he’s become a scoundrel or a libertine! You can scarcely be expected to wed such a man.”
Marcella didn’t entirely agree. Surely, even if her betrothed had a likable personality, she still ought to be allowed a refusal if the two of them were simply incompatible, as some people were. But at the moment, it was enough that Adeline, sweet and dependable, supported her choices.
“I cannot marry him. If I do, I know that I’ll never be an accomplished writer,” Marcella said. “There will always be some other matter to attend to.”
It turned her stomach to think of it! She imagined her long mornings spent at her desk, writing letters containing idle pleasantries. Then, there would be the management of the servants, her husband’s needs, the balls to be prepared, and the children to raise. It all sounded so utterly exhausting that Marcella was quite sure being a good wife would be the death of her soul.
“Do you think so?” Adeline asked.
“I know so,” Marcella insisted. “I could never be happy with such a life, and that’s even assuming that my husband would find writing novels an acceptable pastime for me! You know that most lords wouldn’t. What do I do, then?”
“Write anyway?” Adeline offered.
“And do what when my husband complained? Insist that I am going to be a great novelist? It would be a constant fight and so utterly tiring.”
“It does sound so,” her friend admitted.
“Well, it seems I’ve this engagement to manage.”
“And how do you intend to manage it?” Adeline asked, as they began a leisurely stroll down the garden path, lined with lush, flowering grasses. “Both your father and His Grace seem set on it, and I doubt that either will have sympathy on you.”
“I must try,” Marcella insisted.
But that’s a futile effort. I’ve never seen my father change his mind about even a small matter, much less one like this. And I doubt that the Duke of Mavis will agree. I wouldn’t know how to approach him with the matter anyway. He is my father’s dearest friend, too. The marriage between us was decided from the moment we were born. And I can’t depend on my intended breaking the engagement.
“And if your efforts are all for naught?” Adeline asked. “What will you do, then?”
“Then, I suppose I have only one solution. If my intended refuses to break our engagement, I’ll have no choice but to convince him that marriage to me is a terrible idea. I’ll be so vexing that he’ll break the engagement, and then, I’ll be free to become a writer like I want to be.”
“You can’t possibly do that!” Adeline exclaimed.
Adeline said that, but her eyes shone with mischief, as if it was a wonderful idea.
Marcella’s lips curved into a small smile. It was poetic in a way. Hadn’t she been trying to find a new story, one which wasn’t a man and a woman marrying and having a happily ever after? What better story to change than her own?
“I promise you this, Adeline,” Marcella said. “I will be the worst woman to ever walk the earth. My dear betrothed will break our engagement in a few months’ time, and I’ll finally be free to do as I please!”
After the loudness and busyness of London, the countryside seemed dreadfully dull and ill-suited. But then, everything was ill-suited to Reginald. Even his short stay in gaol hadn’t been as uncomfortable as the beautiful, polished carriage he now shared with his own father. Reginald turned his head towards the window, watching as the sunlight danced on the lake which followed alongside the road. If he could manage to ignore the sweeping grasses and the fallen leaves, he could almost pretend that it was the Thames, slicing through the heart of London.
He could almost imagine the docks, where the poorer families did their work and lived in small, cramped houses. He could almost imagine the fishermen preparing their boats in the early morning hours. Then, his father cleared his throat, and Reginald was forced to admit that he wasn’t in London at all.
“Are you quite certain that your associates deserved to be likewise freed from gaol?” his father asked. “Their lot isn’t like you. They don’t come from your lofty lineage.”
That handful of words were enough to make Reginald wish that he’d never agreed to leave with his father. Admittedly, it wasn’t as if he had been given a choice, and yes, he knew that he ought to be grateful. Most men weren’t so easily freed from prison, especially with his impressive amount of charges.
But really, I’ve just traded one cage for another.
“My associates were good men,” Reginald said evenly.
That was, except for Isaac who’d betrayed them, but Reginald had accepted that there was nothing he could do about that. Still, the others—Charles and Edward—were loyal and compassionate. If there were any faults in either man, it was that they’d simply been born with fewer chances than they truly deserved. They were desperate.
At least, he’d been able to convince his father to free both men, as a condition to his freedom. That had been the last good thing Reginald had been able to do for them. What would become of them now, with him gone? He’d always been the leader in their operations.
“I see,” his father said. “Well, I—ah, hope it’s not a decision you regret. I don’t know that I saw much good in them, but if you believe there was some, I suppose I can still sleep at night knowing that I’ve let two criminals loose on London’s streets.”
“And why do you think men turn to crime, Father?” Reginald asked, his temper beginning to fray.
His father waved a dismissive hand, as if the question was the most obvious one in the world. Maybe to him it was. Once, it might’ve been to Reginald, too. Now, Reginald had people he cared about, people who deserved every comfort in the world, and now, they would only struggle all the more without his aid. They depended on him!
“I think some men enjoy causing misfortune to others,” his father replied. “That’s a good deal of crime, I think. Laziness is a part of it, too. People do not wish to work for their livelihood and to earn a good, honest living. You know that as well as I. There are the poor who are deserving, those who we want to be our tenants. And then, there are another class of people, who commit crimes and other foul deeds.”
“And what does that make us, Father?” Reginald asked. “Are we any better than those criminals if we turn a blind eye to the people who are suffering?”
“We don’t turn a blind eye to it,” his father replied, sounding hurt. “Don’t we give to charity? Don’t we also support social programs throughout Britain? Education, for one?”
Why does he believe that’s enough?
In his heart, Reginald already knew why. His father had never really understood the working man. No one in the ton did. They’d never been forced into poverty, never had to choose between their morals and survival. Reginald had.
Reginald dug his nails into the palms of his hands. He knew that he was in the right, but he wasn’t sure how to argue his point and make his father understand. The man was stubborn, and the situation was already uncomfortable enough.
“I think you’ve been away from your home for far too long,” his father said. “You’ve forgotten how things ought to be, but you can remember. You can learn again.”
“Maybe I don’t want to learn again,” Reginald said quietly. “Maybe the ton is wrong, and we are wrong.”
His father laughed nervously. Had he always done that? Reginald couldn’t recall, and he didn’t really care to linger much over his past, anyway. If he thought of his past, he’d inevitably think of the night he’d fled, meaning never to return. And he wasn’t sure if he was strong enough yet to face that night. Maybe he never would be.
“Once we’re returned home, I’ll send for the tailor,” his father said, “with all haste. We can find you some more suitable clothing, befitting of your position. You don’t have to wear that anymore, and then, I think you’ll feel more like my son. The Marquess of Hurrow.”
Reginald tilted his head back against the seat cushion. “What is wrong with my clothing?”
His father smiled, and a small, wavering laugh tore from his lips. “Why, your clothing looks better suited to a clerk than to a gentleman. I can imagine that you want to be rid of it.”
“Are you implying, Father, that there is something disgraceful in the way which clerks dress?” Reginald asked, keeping his gaze on the countryside outside the window.
This wasn’t going to work. Already, he was frustrated with how much his father just didn’t seem to understand about the world outside the ton and their grand estates.
“Why, nothing,” the Duke replied, “but they are clerks. They aren’t like you.”
Reginald let out a low breath of air. “I know a clerk who lives on Lant Street. He walks five miles to his employer every day, and he works from nine o’clock to ten in the evening. Then, he returns home to his wife. Her name is Emma Smythe. His name is Matthew. They have a little girl named Helen and another little girl, who is their niece Elizabeth. Matthew’s sister died of consumption, you see. She followed her husband.”
“A tragic situation, certainly.”
Reginald nodded. “And do you know how much Mr. Smythe makes a week? Fifteen shillings. His wife earns four shillings working for a seamstress, sewing silk stockings. Do you think that meager salary is just compensation for such good people who work so hard? Is the world just, when I would’ve earned four times that amount just from robbing you?”
For a long moment, Reginald’s father didn’t seem to know what to say. He remained quietly seated against the velvet cushions, and his eyes took on a distant sort of look, as though he gazed at something Reginald couldn’t see. “I imagine they could do worse,” the Duke finally answered. “The solution to the Smythe family’s problem is not, however, to become a highwayman. And I can scarcely believe that I must say that to my own son.”
“I wasn’t only a highwayman,” Reginald countered. “I was a pickpocket before that.”
“Good God, son! I-I can’t even imagine how you’ve suffered. Being taken away from us and forced into this awful life…”
That hadn’t been exactly how it happened, but if Reginald admitted that, his father would want an explanation, one which Reginald wasn’t ready to give. No, it was easier to let his father weave whichever story made him comfortable.
“It wasn’t all bad,” Reginald said.
Not all the time, but some things were better left unsaid.
“I met some very worthy people living in London, people of all kinds.”
He propped his feet up on the seat of the carriage and received a horrified look from his father, who cleared his throat and let out what had to be the hundredth nervous laugh in the two hours they’d spent together.
“It’s good that you’re home,” his father said, once his laughter had subsided. “I have missed you so very much, and I daresay that the Marquisate misses its rightful Marquess.”
Reginald grimaced. “I’m quite sure that my cousin is doing a sufficient job. I’ve no interest in taking the title if that’s what this was truly about, Father. I’d dared to hope that—”
I’d dared to hope that you just wanted me, as I am.
But Reginald couldn’t say that. He wasn’t sure which would be worse, if his father admitted that he didn’t just want his safe return or if his father said that he did. If it was the former, Reginald would be angry. If it was the latter, he’d feel guilty. It would hurt either way, so the question was best left unanswered.
“You dared hope what?” His father’s voice was gentle, beseeching even.
“Nothing,” Reginald replied. “But it would be cruel of me to take the title from my cousin, after he so graciously took the position and has enjoyed it for so long.”
“It would not be cruel to return the title and lands to their proper owner, especially when you’ve already an engagement in place.”
Reginald had really thought the situation couldn’t possibly be any worse. Was there a fate any less desirable than being wed to a haughty noblewoman, whose idea of charity was probably gracing people with her presence?
“An engagement?” Reginald asked, hoping that he’d misheard that awful declaration. “You can’t mean Lady Marcella.”
“The very same,” his father agreed. “She’s become quite a lovely young woman in your absence, and I’ve no doubt you’ll be pleased with her.”
“Does Lady Marcella know that you’re insisting she fulfill her engagement to a criminal? A highwayman?”
“I had hoped that we’d omit the details for the good of the Marquisate.”
Reginald nodded. “Oh, a marriage built on a foundation of lies. It sounds truly wonderful, Father.”
“All men omit a few secrets from their past and exaggerate others,” the Duke said. “I suspect women do, also, but I’ve never been able to confirm the truth of the matter. And if she learned the truth, I don’t know if that would be so terrible. The writers do have such a way of making highwaymen romantic. I’m told that Lady Marcella is an eager reader, she may like being married to a highwayman.”
As if any proper lady would like that.
Reginald ran his hand through his hair, sending the brown strands into disarray. “Father, you must realize how absurd this whole plan is. What is the matter with leaving Simon to rule instead? He’s…”
“He’s nearly driven us into destitution. The Marquisate is nearly out of money.”
Reginald felt as if time had stopped, as if the whole world had stopped spinning, and the only thing which remained in motion was the carriage and the two of them.
“If you care about the plight of working people, like your Mr. Smythe, something which is very admirable of you,” his father continued, “the best way to help them is by taking your rightful place as Lord Hurrow. You can marry Lady Marcella, who has a substantial dowry. I’ve also had some money set aside for you, which I will give you provided that you’re married to a respectable lady.”
Reginald would be able to help his friends who were struggling. And help them better than before. His pulse jumped. Could this really be a blessing in disguise?
“What if my cousin doesn’t wish to relinquish the title?” Reginald asked. “Would the law even choose my side in such a matter? I’ve been away for so long that anyone would be forgiven for believing I was dead.”
“I’m quite certain the courts would be willing to accommodate us given that your case is a most unusual one.”
Reginald shook his head and toyed with his coat, which was black and ragged. Quite like a poor, much-abused clerk’s coat, when he thought about it. He’d been living like a pauper for years.
But what if Father is right? What if I could do that as a Marquess? What if I could do it better?
He dared to think it, but he couldn’t quite make himself believe it was true. It seemed unreal to think about just how many of his friends’ problems could disappear with just the tiniest sliver of his family’s fortune. “You might as well return me to prison, Father,” he said softly, “for all the good that I’ll do you. I’m not worthy of that title, and I doubt that I could do any good with it.”
“I’m not letting you loose upon London once more,” his father replied. “Not after I spent so long searching for you. I don’t care what you’ve done. You can do this. You can learn to be a proper gentleman again. I can introduce you to the ton again.”
This sounded like a plan which was already doomed to fail, but when Reginald looked into his father’s pale blue eyes, so filled with suffering and sorrow, he found guilt blossoming in his chest. How could he refuse in good conscience and bring any more pain to this man, who looked so much older than he ought to at five-and-fifty years?
“If I marry her, I’ll have my money, though,” Reginald said slowly, “to do with what I will?”
“Yes. I hope that you’ll use some good judgment with it,” his father replied, “something which…”
Reginald’s lips twitched into a wry smile. “Something which I’m clearly lacking in? Is that what you meant to say?”
“I meant to say which our family is lacking in, if your cousin’s financial difficulties are any indication. But yes, you may. If you’re careful with it, you might also be able to offer some small bit of aid to your charities and people. Buy Mr. Smythe, the clerk of Lant Street, a new coat if you desire or offer his young wife some small trinket.”
“Or, I have Mr. Smythe work for me, which would solve both of our problems. He’d have better wages and a kinder employer, and I’d have someone to manage my money.”
“Is the clerk also an accountant?”
“Not formally,” Reginald replied, “but he’s good with numbers.”
He was good with many other things, besides. Smythe’s talents were certainly wasted on his cold-hearted employer. Reginald frowned and began thinking of all the people he knew in London. There were so many who were so much more deserving of more than life had given them, many who’d been forced into crime to survive. Just like he had.
Surely, I could learn to tolerate a haughty Viscount’s daughter if it means that I’ll still be able to do some good in the world.
“Well, then,” Reginald said slowly. “It looks as though I’m to wed. When will I be allowed to meet my lovely bride?”
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