About the book
Desire knows no reason...
Tormented by her step-mother, Lady Edwina Pierce is a pariah in her own home. And her younger brother’s threats to send her to work as a governess are an even greater blow to her dignity.
Even for a rake, Albert Winfield, the Duke of Rowan, cannot cope with betrayal. Not when the woman he was in love with cuckolded him and broke his heart and trust.
With the masquerade as her only chance to escape her fate, Edwina has no choice but to get compromised. Unaware of her plan, Albert himself finds a good excuse to spite his former fiance with the fake engagement. But how can a plan work when based on lies?
"Where do you think you are going?"
The broad smile on Edwina Pierce's face dissolved at the sound of her half-brother’s voice and when she took in his impatient mien, she knew she had just encountered a wall.
"Why, to the Winfield Masquerade, of course,” she responded, her attempt to keep her annoyance out of her tone wavering ever so slightly.
Tonight, of all nights, Edwina was neither in the mood nor did she have the time to argue with Tommen Pierce. The London Season was drawing to a close and the Winfield Masquerade was the last grand event before the aristocracy would retire to the country to welcome the first winds of autumn.
And after four failed seasons, one could only imagine the desperation that was propelling her actions. She had resolved to get a proposal from a gentleman tonight, even if that meant getting caught in a compromising situation. It was either that or have her freedom taken from her when she would be sent off to become a governess to some Earl’s wards in Cornwall.
"Do you really think I will unleash you at any event so you can continue dragging the family name through mud?" He rested both of his hands on the handle of his cane and raised his chin in the manner that dandies did to show their sophistication. Only he appeared more ridiculous than sophisticated.
“I am not going to be late because you wish to lecture me about our good family name, Tommen,” she said, descending the rest of the steps and brushing past him.
He took her arm and yanked her backward, causing her to nearly stumble and fall. “You will speak to me with respect,” he hissed. “I am Viscount Mercer.” Then his dark eyes did a slow assessment of her attire, a deep-red and silver ensemble picked out by her friend’s mother, Lady Matthews.
The woman’s taste was exquisite, and Edwina had been only too happy to accept her offer to assist in choosing her attire for the masquerade. Having made their bow at the same time, Edwina and her friend, Kitty, had instantly become friends, and Lady Matthews had cared for her like a mother ever since.
"This here is the reason why you are not going out tonight," Tommen declared.
She wrenched her arm free. “You are looking for another excuse for me not to attend. Do you not have something better to occupy yourself with?”
The dress made Edwina feel confident. It would serve her well tonight, she was certain. It flattered her figure in all the right places and the neckline was modest but exposed enough skin to tease any gentleman that dared look. Red was a daring color, designed to draw attention and she believed Lady Matthews chose it to subtly encourage her.
"Your actions reflect on this family, and it is my business to get involved when you look like a harlot hoping to get an offer tonight," Tommen replied, scrunching up his nose in ostensible disgust. "Or is it what you are hoping for?"
Edwina's nails dug painfully into her palms, and she tried her damndest to keep a calm disposition. She needed only to put up with him and his mother a little longer. She did not wish to be thrown out before she succeeded in finding a husband. But then a voice in her head reminded her that a little longer depended entirely on the outcome of the evening. She simply had to attend the ball.
"Dear, Tommy," Edwina said, relishing the displeased look her calling him Tommy brought to his face. He never liked the name and only ever tolerated his mother's use of it. "I am not nine-and-ten years old. I am two-and-twenty, and I can think for myself.”
Edwina was unsure what offended him more; her use of the moniker he detested or her reference to his age. However, the self-consciousness that flashed in his eyes pleased her. Not taken seriously because of his youth offended him and his face began to redden.
He opened his mouth to respond but was cut off by his mother's voice as she descended the stairs, adjusting her satin gloves. "Tommy darling, we are running late,” said Prudence Pierce, the Dowager Viscountess of Mercer, Tommen’s mother and Edwina’s stepmother.
He winced, then breathed deeply before returning his attention to Edwina. "The Earl of Cromer has sent someone to escort you to Cornwall, Edwina. He is expected tomorrow morning, thus, I would suggest you go back to your room and start packing your things."
Edwina’s stomach clenched and a short gasp rushed past her lips. "I beg your pardon?"
She had known about Tommen and her stepmother’s plans, but she had apparently underestimated how quickly they wanted her out of the house and their lives. Before she could protest this new development, her stepmother, Prudence, stepped forward.
"Oh, so this is the dress you turned down my offer to go shopping for?" she observed, looking unconcerned as always. "It is a pretty thing… if one is looking to become a woman of easy virtue, of course."
That smugness returned to Tommen's features. “That is exactly what I told her, Mama, but she—”
“Hush, Tommy.” Prudence raised a slender finger. “Edwina is your older sister, and you must speak to her with respect.” He clamped his mouth shut but glared at Edwina. To a stranger, it looked as though her stepmother had just defended her but she knew better. She swallowed the lump gathering in her throat.
"Well, you know they say the women that raise a girl are her first teachers,” Edwina said after deciding to speak her mind. “I merely learned from the best, Mother." She allowed a slight smile to touch her lips.
Edwina's real mother had died when she was but a year old and her father had been quick to remarry only to die a couple of years later, leaving her in the care of Prudence, to whom she might as well not exist.
"How dare you?" Prudence snapped. If Edwina had thought Tommen red earlier, then she had no words to describe their mother's color now. And without giving them the opportunity to further disparage her, she gathered her red skirts and climbed the stairs to her bedchamber.
"Did you forget something, My Lady?" her lady's maid, Danny, asked upon her entry into her bedchamber.
"I shall wait and leave for Matthews Manor after they depart and go with Kitty," Edwina said as she flopped onto her bed, burying her face in her pillow.
“Do you want anything, My Lady? Tea perhaps?” Danny asked, concern in her voice.
“No, Danny. You may retire for the night.”
This final event, her last opportunity… Edwina was not about to let it slip through her fingers. She would attend that masquerade and find a husband. Whatever it took, she was not leaving to become a governess in Cornwall tomorrow.
Her bedchamber was in front of the house and when she heard the carriage pulling away, she darted to the window to make certain that Tommen and Prudence were truly gone before donning a cloak over her dress and slipping out of the house through the servants’ entrance.
Kitty lived on the same street and Edwina arrived in a few minutes. She found her in the front hall, preparing to leave for the masquerade. “Edwina?” Kitty appeared surprised to see her.
Edwina quickly explained what had happened. “Do you mind if I come with you to the masquerade?”
“Of course not, Edwina.” Kitty squeezed her hands. “We can tell Mama your stepmother is indisposed, not that she will object to your coming with us, of course.”
“No, no! Prudence is at the masquerade.”
“Can we not tell her the truth, then?”
“What truth?” came Camilla Matthews’ voice.
“Er… the truth about—” Edwina faltered.
Camilla’s expression turned sympathetic. “I know what is happening in your house, Edwina. We shall talk about it later. Come, we mustn’t be late. This is a Winfield event.” She preceded them out of the house to the waiting carriage.
To the world, Prudence was a doting mother and Edwina had never told anyone, save for Kitty, about her predicament. Camilla knew, it would seem. Edwina and Kitty exchanged a sheepish smile before following Camilla out.
As expected, the Winfield Masquerade was all splendor, and the ballroom was practically spilling with guests. An opera singer decked in a very provocative costume was performing on a dais with the orchestra and gentlemen looked on with desire-filled eyes. The air crackled with repressed excitement.
The two Winfield men; the Duke of Rowan and his cousin, Mr. Steven Winfield, were notorious for hosting unconventional balls that the ton appeared unable to keep from attending. And what was most interesting was the fact that the hosts either fleetingly showed their faces before leaving the guests to their devices or made no appearance at all. Edwina did not know what they looked like.
"What a typical Winfield event," Kitty said over the din, seeming to notice the atmosphere, too. "This one is hosted by Mr. Winfield. I have never been to an event hosted by the Duke but I heard they are much more splendid and far less reserved than his cousin’s."
This event seemed like a good place for Edwina to accomplish her goal. "I shall go find the Countess of Avanday. Have a lovely time, Dears," Camilla chirped, urging them into the crowd before disappearing herself.
"Do you think we might see our host or the Duke tonight?" Kitty asked Edwina as they waded their way through the crowd to the refreshments table. They were wallflowers and that was their usual spot at balls.
"They hardly deign to attend their balls. I would say the chances are slim," she replied, her eyes scanning the faces of the gentlemen, measuring her chances tonight.
Their plan had been simple; attend the masquerade and find a decent gentleman for her to seduce and get an offer from, but as her gaze took in the masked faces, she realized how flawed their plan was. Some gentlemen were barely recognizable and the others, she had not the slightest inkling who they were.
"See anyone you fancy?" Kitty asked, a sly smile tugging the corners of her mouth up.
Edwina released an un-ladylike snort and began to help herself to some lemonade, mainly for the purpose of occupying herself. She was nervous and it became apparent when her hand shook when she picked up the glass and raised it to her lips. She took a sip and set the glass down lest she decorate her dress with its contents.
Kitty, noticing her growing nerves, took her by the arm and gently pulled her away from the edge of the crowd. "Don’t be nervous, Edwina. Everything is going to be fine," she said.
"That is easy for you to say. You are not the one desperate enough to think of seducing a man to get an offer." Edwina allowed an anxious chuckle.
"There is nothing to fear, dear friend," Kitty reassured. "How difficult could finding one gentleman among a sea of masked gentlemen be?"
"Kitty, you are not helping!"
“Sorry!” Kitty smiled sheepishly. Edwina reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes for a moment and drawing a steadying breath. When she opened them, she saw him.
He was surrounded by a small crowd but he stood tall and imposing among them, dressed impeccably in black. His sandy-brown hair was too long by fashionable standards and lent him a roguish air. His face was masked like everyone else’s but she knew she had just found her target.
"How difficult could it be, indeed," she murmured, her gaze glued to his well-built figure.
“My goodness!” Kitty gasped, momentarily drawing Edwina’s attention to her. Her eyes were on the man, as well. “That’s the one!”
A conversing group to their left threw a peeved look in their direction before moving away. "Pardon me!" Kitty called after them.
Edwina chuckled, feeling a trifle more confident at the appearance of some prospect, at last.
They made their way to the ladies' retiring room, grateful to find it empty, and there went over their plan once more, deciding that Edwina would shadow him and find a way to get him alone. Kitty would then wait a while before following them, making sure she brought company. A scandal might be her only hope.
"What if he is ugly?" Kitty asked, gesturing for her to turn around. She began working on her stays, tightening them to further expose and accentuate her bosom. Edwina felt self-conscious and bare, but she immediately dismissed those feelings. This was necessary.
"A man in possession of his kind of pull is rarely ugly, Kitty. He seems like a Lord, too. Besides, anything is better than tending to children in Cornwall for the rest of my life."
"There." Kitty took a step back to admire her handiwork. “He won’t be able to resist you.” Edwina was uncertain if her nerves were to blame for her trouble breathing or her tightened stays.
They stepped out into the hallway and were on their way back to the ballroom when they saw their sandy-haired gentleman striding out of it. "Even fate is on your side tonight, Edwina.” Kitty shoved her forward, urging her to follow him. “Remember Cornwall.”
He walked down the hall and she followed, pretending he was not even there but with each step, her legs felt less like they were a part of her body. He disappeared behind a set of double doors. She stopped before a painting on the wall, pretending to admire it, and waited for about a minute to pass before approaching the doors. He had left the doors ajar, and she slipped in quietly.
It was a library, a large one that was divided at the center by a grand bookshelf. The room was well lit but her gentleman was nowhere in sight. The room’s quietness filled her with trepidation. She stepped forward, the heels of her slippers clicking against the parquet floor.
What in God’s name am I doing?
Sudden clinking sent her into a nervous frenzy, and she took several steps back, thankful the bookshelf shielded her from him. How did one approach a gentleman they were out to seduce?
The clinking came again, almost as though glass had been lightly struck with something, then footsteps followed. Edwina felt betrayed. All the books she had read had made the entire endeavor seem easy enough. Some had even dared to call it ‘The Art of Seduction’.
There was neither art nor grace in frantic heartbeats and weak knees, at least not in the way she was feeling them. With a trembling hand, she plucked a tome off the shelf but lost her grip and dropped it. The dull sound filled the room and she shut her eyes.
Several beats passed before she bent over to pick it up, her movements coinciding with approaching footsteps. Her eyes moved from the book to immaculately polished black leather shoes.
"Have you been following me?" the gentleman asked.
"You did not tell me Roxanne was attending the masquerade." Albert Winfield confronted his cousin Steven in his study while the guests were making merry in the ballroom.
"I did not invite her if that is what you are asking," Steven replied in a flat tone. "You know how these events are. You invite one person, and they bring their entire household with them. She may be the guest of a guest."
Having been raised by an overly critical father who found fault in him and pronounced it with every second breath, the Duke of Rowan had developed a thick skin, allowing very little to rile him. Tonight, however, he found himself unable to contain his rising ire when he was revisited by a traitor from his past who shamelessly walked about without care after trampling on the most important part of him. His heart.
Roxanne Perkins had been his fiancée before he found her in the arms of another man. Her face was one he could never forget and would recognize behind a thousand masks. The face of betrayal. Although he had no lingering feelings, the sight of her dancing happily reminded him of how stupid he had been. Perhaps even how stupid he still was for clinging onto so much bitterness and refusing to lay the past to rest like she ostensibly had.
"Still,” Albert continued, “this is your party, your masquerade. Surely you ought to have some control over it."
"Like you have control over that castle of yours in Bath?" Steven cocked a brow.
Albert had not visited the property in Bath in nearly three years but it was never devoid of activity. His friends had house parties there throughout the year which he happily paid for. Because he liked to stay in control of his affairs, he made sure to check his accounts and list the names of his friends that had made merry on his property. Should a time come when he would seek a favor from them, he had leverage to use.
"I suppose you have a point." Albert conceded.
"Where is your sense of adventure, Al?" Steven chuckled. "It is a bloody Masquerade! On a night like this, nothing should be on your mind save for the booze and women. Never say you are becoming tamed."
A wolfish grin spread across his features. "I am impossible to tame. Your Masquerade is boring, Steven. You have only gently bred women here.”
“Come, we are in London and the ton is here. We cannot have our usual entertainment. There is the opera singer, however.”
Albert pursed his lips and thought about the exotic woman with the voice of a siren. “I don’t fancy her. Besides, she has a protector.”
“Entertain yourself with the young, lovely widows here. I saw Lady Stenton dancing.” Albert leaned back in his chair.
Albert grinned. Lady Stenton was a delight and he thought to seek her out before the evening ended. "It is a masquerade and rules are meant to be bent this evening." Steven tilted his head. "Enjoy yourself, Cousin. And pay no mind to certain guests."
When Albert returned to the ballroom, he immediately regretted his decision. He was accosted by some members of the House of Lords, and he wondered how in the world they recognized him underneath his black demi-mask. As an important aristocrat, he plastered a false smile on his face and tolerated them for a bit before taking the first opening he got to excuse himself.
Libraries provided excellent sanctuaries and he opted to retreat to it but on his way, he got the odd sense that he was being followed. A little glance behind him revealed a slight figure in red. The corner of his mouth tilted, and excitement began to boil in his blood. The night was finally becoming interesting. He deliberately left the double oak doors ajar before proceeding to the inner section of the library to serve himself some liquor. As he plucked a decanter off the shelf, he caught a glimpse of red again.
A sly smile tugged at his lips. He knew exactly who it was. No woman would dare to follow him but Nora, Lady Stenton. And red was her color. Besides, this was not the first time she had followed him to a secluded place for a tryst.
This was just the medicine he needed. A distraction to flush Roxanne out of his head. Rather than go to her, he chose to wait for his little intruder to show herself. That was until he heard a thud.
Setting down the glass of port he had poured himself, he followed the sound and found her reaching to collect a book from the floor. It appeared that was what had been dropped.
"Have you been following me?" he asked in an amused tone as he admired the swell of her breasts. Her posture provided him with a lovely view.
She straightened very slowly, and her blue eyes met his. They looked different tonight, more beautiful, and they burned underneath her red-and silver mask with an odd combination of wariness and defiance.
When she spoke, her voice was rich and soft, and it made his pulse pound. "Have I nothing better to do?"
As spunky as ever, Albert thought. His gaze admired her figure before returning to the most enticing sight of her chest, the rise and fall as she breathed beckoned to him. His body began to respond with a ferocity that was unfamiliar to him. He loved women but something about Nora tonight was driving him wild. She seemed very different.
"You clearly have something better in mind by coming here," he replied, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the bookshelf. This was an attempt to look unconcerned and keep her eyes from traveling to his lower body. He wanted to play a little before the heat intensified.
She turned to replace the book she dropped, treating him to an unobstructed view of her fine posterior. How he ached to reach out and take hold of her, but he held himself back. He loved it when they teased him.
"You are looking delectable tonight," he heard himself say. She gasped and swiveled to face him. That was very odd but before he could understand her curious behavior, she swayed and he immediately caught her in his arms. “This is one you are playing,” he murmured, his lips moving close to her ear.
“I—” she began to say but paused. Her lips remained parted and she trembled. Albert took this opening to relinquish control of his body, and he captured her lips with his.
Her response was slow, tentative. If he did not know better, he would think she had no experience at all. Such an impossible thing because Nora was anything but inexperienced. Perhaps she was playing a virgin today. His arms tightened around her waist, and he parted her lips with his tongue, thrusting deep to coax a reaction from her.
Her hands dug into his shoulders and she moaned. He pulled away slightly, teasing the corner of her mouth with the tip of his tongue. "My Lord," she whispered, drawing him closer.
"My Lord?" he echoed. Did she know it was him? Or had she been expecting someone else? Entertaining other men was not part of their agreement. She was exclusively his and she had never defied him. Albert released her and took a step back.
Then it hit him like a bag of bricks. Blue her eyes might be but this woman was certainly not Nora. He had mistaken another woman for his mistress. "Bloody hell!” He took another step back. “You are not Nora.”
"These damned masks tend to do that," she said with a smile, covering the space between them.
His brows rose. She swore without reservation and he decided he liked her. His desire that had been ebbing at the discovery of his error ignited anew. His arms went around her waist again.
If she wanted him, he wanted her. They resumed their kiss and his entire body burned. Perhaps it was the mystery of not knowing who she was but he ached more than he had in a very long time and if he had his way, he would take her right there. Her lack of experience made him take things slow. She was no green girl but he could tell she still had some innocence to her.
Edwina felt like she was dreaming when he kissed her again. She clutched the lapels of his coat to keep herself upright. He had been expecting someone else but he seemed delighted rather than disappointed when he discovered her. This emboldened her and she pressed her body to his.
Her belly made contact with the bulge of his desire and he groaned. One of his hands moved to her back, cupping her buttocks and squeezing. This was not how she thought her first kiss would be. It was better than anything she had ever imagined and the sweet little place between her legs began to pulse with want.
He slowed the kiss and stroked her cheek as her breath came in short gasps. Her senses were on fire and her lips were soft and swollen. He gently removed her mask, and his amber eyes widened a fraction. “My, you are lovely,” he whispered, lowering his head to kiss her again but she drew away slyly.
"Am I not allowed a glimpse, My Lord?" she asked, keeping her voice light and seductive. Whatever she was doing seemed to be working. He wanted her, and by God, she would get an offer from him tonight.
"Not until you give me your name," he returned, pressing his lips to her neck and trailing kisses down to her neckline. His tongue darted out to make little swirls on the mounds of her breasts. Excitement peaked in her blood.
"Edwina Pierce,” she said between soft moans, “and I hope you are not a John."
"Pray what is wrong with being a John?" He chuckled.
"Nothing except that one in three Englishmen is a John."
His hands began to undo the buttons on the back of her velvet dress. "And I take it you like your men different? Maybe unique?"
"I do. Are you different, My Lord?” She ran curious fingers through his hair before finally taking off his mask, surprising him. When he raised his head, an Adonis filled her vision. He was every bit as handsome as he was roguish.
He grinned. "Well then, I hope Albert is unique enough for you, My Lady." He tucked a finger under her neckline and pulled it down, exposing her stays and reaching for the laces.
Edwina could not help the slight shiver that ran down her spine. His voice excited her. “We shall see before the night ends. I must admit that I did not expect you to be an Albert.”
"Never say you walked into the lion's den without knowing what to expect?" He raised an amused brow.
Her uncertainty returned. This man radiated wealth and power. He also seemed to be a rake. She could still get an offer from him if she played this game well. Thus, she tilted her head and gave him a coquettish smile.
"I did not know lions attended masquerades,” she murmured.
"They do," he responded. "In libraries. With beautiful women. Women in red velvet dresses. Hair of molten gold." Every sentence was punctuated with a kiss.
In his arms, at that moment, Edwina felt beautiful. She giggled and he gently urged her backward, pinning her against the bookshelf with his hard body, trapping her. She did not know where her senses went until she felt him hiking her skirts up.
Realizing that he was not going to stop if she did not stop him, Edwina began to resist. She was not ready for this. Not like this. He gave her a puzzled look. "I… I should not be here," she breathed.
He blinked as if he was waking from a daze. He began to pull down her skirts. "I took advantage. Forgive me.”
She struggled to lace her undone stays and failed. “Would you like me to help you with that?” he asked.
She swallowed, contemplating the wisdom of allowing himself to touch her again. “I don’t think that is wise.”
“I promise to behave myself. You obviously cannot do that by yourself.” He stepped closer to her, and her breath caught. “Allow me to mend what I have undone.”
“Very well,” she conceded, turning around reluctantly.
The door suddenly opened and a gasp rent the still air, followed by, "Goodness, gracious!"
Albert froze, his hands on the laces of her stays. This was bad. He cursed under his breath and looked up, dropping his hands to his sides.
Three young ladies stood gaping with eyes as wide as saucers.
"Kitty!" Edwina said to one of the ladies. She appeared to know her. She drew her dress up and quickly arranged it to look decent.
"I knew something like this would happen tonight!” a red-headed one said, her voice filling the quiet room. "Who would have thought that it would be with the Duke himself?"
Edwina’s body tensed and she turned to look at him. "What did she call you?" A pained look passed over her features.
Before he could answer, they were joined by two society matrons who gasped. Unlike the debutantes, their eyes shone with interest. They had just discovered a fat piece of gossip. All of London would know by morning.
How did I let this happen? Albert asked himself. He knew she was a debutante the moment he had unmasked her. He should have sent her away because he did not touch gently bred, unmarried women. But he had been filled with desire. It was a poor excuse, however.
"Is that the Pierce girl?" one of the matrons asked.
"Why am I not surprised?" the other murmured. “The girl is rather ambitious.”
Edwina winced at their comments, her hurt apparent. Her arms went around her body and she shivered. A small crowd quickly formed in the library entrance and Roxanne was one of them. Albert’s jaw tightened and the ire that had been extinguished by passion returned.
Without thinking, he announced to the crowd, “Lady Edwina and I are engaged.”
This announcement was met by silence at first, the murmurs began and soon filled the room. The ton was surprised. Albert was surprised himself. Triumph ran through him when he caught displeasure and jealousy in Roxanne’s eyes. She had been given the chance to become a Duchess and she had thrown it away.
Now, Albert was not naturally petty and would not go to such lengths to spite someone. But considering how she had betrayed him, it seemed right that his announcement should pain her.
"I suppose we underestimated how soon we will need that special license, Darling,” he said to Edwina who stared at him in wide-eyed wonder. “Engagements often draw out unnecessarily, if you ask me." He chuckled lightly.
“Of course,” she replied and smiled stiffly.
"Oh, what a wonderful pair you lovebirds make!" The matron who had criticized Edwina earlier made an about face.
The crowd continued to murmur; some appeared pleased and some displeased. The only reason they were behaving themselves was because of his social rank. A man of a lesser standing would have received criticism even though he had just told them he was engaged to Edwina. The ton was often unkind in such matters.
The exchange of rueful glances between Edwina and the lady she had called Kitty did not escape his notice and he wondered if there was something happening that he did not know about. Still, he took her hand in his and faced her.
"What in the world is going on here?" A very young and lanky dandy pushed his way to the fore of the small crowd.
"Your sister was found in a man's arms,” Roxanne announced, her voice hard. His sister? Albert looked down at Edwina. Good heavens! If her brother looked barely out of Eton, then how old was she? Sixteen? She could not be older than him. She did not look it.
Lord help me!
"You!" The young man turned puce as his anger-filled eyes took in his sister's disheveled appearance. "You never miss a chance to soil the family name, do you, Edwina?"
Albert’s eyes narrowed. He did not like the way he was speaking to Edwina. She might be his sister but she deserved to be respected. He began to step forward but she put a hand on his arm, staying him. Her eyes pleaded with him to remain where he was. She was right. They were in the middle of a scandal and complicating matters would not help them.
"You are coming with me." Her brother tried to take hold of her wrist but Albert stepped between them.
“I proposed to Lady Edwina this evening and she accepted.”
“Oh.” He looked from Albert to Edwina and back. “You are not ruined then.”
“Of course, she is not. We will marry at the earliest opportunity.”
Her brother turned to the crowd. “There is nothing to see here. My sister is engaged.” The crowd did not move. He turned to Albert. “Allow me to take her to Mercer House. We shall discuss this matter tomorrow.”
Albert said to Edwina in a very low voice, “I shall see you tomorrow.”
She nodded and allowed her brother to take her hand. She looked like she needed to be anywhere but under the scrutiny of the gathered crowd. When she glanced back at him, there was something akin to regret in her eyes and all the fire from earlier had been extinguished.
Edwina had never felt worse in her entire life. She ought to be happy with the outcome of the evening. After all, it had been a success, but the way the Duke had been quick to announce them engaged to protect her reputation made her feel like such an imposter. And the news of him being a Duke only made her feel worse. She did not even know which Duke he was or his last name.
Why did he not just remain Albert? And why a Duke? She had been happy when she thought him a Lord. She was not ready to become a Duchess. In fact, she lacked the education and accomplishments to become a Duchess. Prudence had insured that Edwina’s education was sufficiently neglected.
Tommen and the gathered crowd had not given her the chance to talk to Albert alone. She had no complaints about their hasty departure but she had wanted to speak to him. She freed her wrist once they were in the front hall. “Where is Mother?”
“She left an hour ago due to a headache,” he said, glaring at her. “How did you get here?”
“I came with Kitty.” He ignored her to order for their carriage to be brought to the door and she was happy with that. He still did not speak until they were within the confines of the carriage.
"I have grown weary of your behavior, Edwina. How dare you leave Mercer House after I asked you to remain?"
“I am not answerable to you, Tommen.” She folded her arms across her chest and turned to look out the window at the lit streets of London.
"You had to employ treachery just to secure a match, further disgracing the Mercer title."
Tommen may be right about her deceit tonight, but she would not sit here and have him condemn her for it. "Oh, stop it, Tommen! I will not allow you to speak to me like that. Is this not what you wanted? I am going to be off your hands soon.”
"Not soon enough," he murmured. "I am not sure I believe the engagement is real.”
“He announced it to the room! It is a gentleman’s honor to go through with it.”
Tommen snorted. “Most gentlemen have no honor, Dear Sister. He—”
“You, for instance,” she interrupted him and he flashed her an angry look. “Am I wrong? You would not disrespect me as you do if you had any honor, Tommen.”
“You are still going to Cornwall tomorrow whether you like it or not."
Tommen thought and behaved like a child. She shook her head and said, “I am past the age where I need parental consent to marry. I have an offer and I am getting married. Your opinion means nothing to me.”
"You seem to forget to who you owe the roof over your ungrateful head, Edwina." Tommen leaned forward, his face red with anger. "You will do well to remember that I have the power to toss you out on your ear."
“You will do well to remember that I came to that house before you. I am leaving it soon and your debts might just leave you without a home.”
He raised a hand as if to strike her but she stood her ground, returning his glare without flinching. "You wouldn't dare touch me!"
He lowered his hand, seething. “I hope your gentleman is wealthy because you do not have a dowry. If he is a fortune hunter then I feel very sorry for you.”
Edwina almost laughed at the discovery that Tommen did not know who her supposed fiancé was. “Are you serious?” She raised her brows with the question.
“Serious about what?” he asked dimly.
“About not knowing who my fiancé is.”
He jutted his chin out in a show of pride. “I know the most important men in England and he is not one of them.”
She could not hold back her laugh. “And you call yourself a Viscount?”
His brows furrowed. “Is he someone I should know?”
She shrugged. “No, I don’t believe he is.” She decided not to tell him that Albert was a Duke. Tommen was severely lacking in wits and if he did not know who Albert was despite being a peer, then he was beyond saving.
Well, she, too, had not known he was a duke when she first saw him, but unlike her brother, she did not claim to know everyone. And Tommen had a better chance of meeting the duke.
Albert had said he would see her tomorrow. She hoped he would keep his promise. He had introduced himself as Albert but she could not think of him as that. He was an important figure in society and she was the daughter of a deceased Viscount with no accomplishments. She was not thinking herself inferior. It was simply the truth.
"So, does he?” Tommen’s annoying voice broke into her reverie
“Does he what?” She shot him a beleaguered look.
“Does he know that you don’t have a dowry?”
“I don’t think he would mind,” she replied.
“He must be wealthy, then.”
“Does it matter, Tommen?”
“I suppose it does not. I care not how you fare, Edwina. I just want you off my hands.”
She turned to face the window, his words stabbing her like a knife. He was supposed to be her brother. He was supposed to care for her and protect her whether or not she ever married.
“Do you know how much Mother made me spend in the last four years?” Edwina did not dignify that with a response. Prudence had allowed her to have four seasons so she looked like a good mother. If her intentions had been pure, then Edwina might have been grateful.
“Edwina, I am talking to you.”
She met his gaze. “I cannot hear you.” The carriage rolled to a halt in front of Mercer House in that instant and he climbed down and made his way inside without offering to help her down.
What a selfish cad! He might as well have been born on the streets.
“Did you have a good evening, My Lady?” Danny asked when she came up to help her undress.
Edwina sighed. “I don’t know, Danielle.”
Danny’s pale brows rose. “If you are calling me by my full name, then it must have been an odd evening, My Lady.”
“It was the oddest evening,” she murmured.
That night as Edwina lay awake in her bed, she tried to reassure herself that everything was going to be all right but when her eyes fell on the miniature painting of her father on her nightstand, a new wave of anger enveloped her. Although he had been a caring father who had provided her with everything she wanted, his selfish decisions were the very reason she was in this predicament. He had chosen to replace her mother with a vile woman, and then left her to be torn to pieces.
She was all alone now, tending to wound after wound inflicted upon her by his new family. It was past three in the morning before she was able to fall into a restless sleep. As soon as the sun came up, she woke and performed her morning ritual without ringing for Danny. She did that sometimes, especially after Prudence had said, “Never let it be known that you do not have a lady’s maid. The ton would think me a horrible mother.”
Edwina understood that her privileges could be taken away at any time and contrived to be as independent as she could. Then she made her way to the kitchen to get some coffee before breakfast was ready. She loved how coffee rid her body of grogginess in the mornings.
As expected, the kitchen was already bustling with activity. She smiled, remembering how she had been in and out of the kitchen when she was younger. Prudence had forbidden her from visiting the kitchen since her debut but she stole away in the mornings while she slept.
"You did not sleep, My Lady, did you?" The Cook, Martins, asked as soon as he saw her. “Are you all right?”
Martins had been the Mercer House Cook for over a decade and Edwina saw a friend in him. She admired his culinary skills and they often sat and discussed different flavors.
"Oh, you should be more concerned about Mother’s four-minute eggs than me,” she said lightly. “I would appreciate some coffee, though.”
He grinned. “You shall have your coffee in no time, My Lady.”
Edwina took the coffee in the small library and everywhere she looked, memories of last night flashed in her mind. She might never see a library and not remember Albert and how he had made her feel.
Sometime later, a knock came and the butler entered, announcing, “You have a caller, My Lady.”
“At seven in the morning?” Edwina was surprised. “Who is it?”
"The gentleman would not give his name, My Lady," Larry said. “His manner distinguishes him as a nobleman.”
Edwina believed she knew who it was and her heart began to race.
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