A Virgin for the Cursed Duke Preview

A Steamy Regency Romance

About the book


“You should be afraid. I am not a man to be trusted.” 

Lady Emma Hughes is in love with a man she has never met. And as their correspondence had started as mere support to a soldier fighting on the front, she never expected to lose her heart to his noble and gallant soul.

Not a single day passes in which Winston, the Duke of Darton, doesn’t think of the beautiful Emma. But after his curse has taken everything from him, he can’t let her know of his affections. Or even let anyone get close to him ever again.

With her father’s heir and new guardian leering for her hand in marriage, Emma is desperate. And worst of all, her mysterious soldier has stopped responding to her letters. Until her mother comes up with a scandalous proposal: go to the country to seek the beastly Duke’s protection.


 

Chapter One


She stared down at the blank piece of paper before her, trying to find the best words to express what she wanted to say. How to begin? It was difficult to know for sure as she worried what the consequences might be if she did not write this letter perfectly. She could potentially lose the person she had come to cherish most in the world. For Emma Hughes, that thought was terrifying.

Though she did not know who exactly it was she was corresponding with, these letters had become a source of light in her life which seemed to be growing increasingly shadowed and sad lately.

She pushed thoughts of her depressing circumstances aside and focused back on the piece of paper that was laying on the table before her. Picking up her pen, she took a deep breath and began to write.

My dear, mysterious friend,

I hope this letter finds you well. It has been a rather trying few days since I last wrote to you. I must confess, I had hoped to receive a letter from you at that time as I know it would have helped lift my spirits.

Your letters are not as frequent as they once were. Is everything all right? I hope I have not done anything to offend you. I also hope you are not hurt or ill in any way that prevents you from writing.

Forgive me if my words seem too forward. I do not wish to appear desperate for your attention. I only worry about what might be causing your lack of letters after you were so consistent in writing to me up until now. If you could at least reply to assure me that all is well with you, that would go a long way to ease my concerns.

Your letters are a true gift to me, I hope you know this. I have come to cherish our correspondence with each other. It feels as though you are one of the only people in this world that I can express my truest self to. There is so much expectation placed on ladies such as myself to act and appear a certain way, and sometimes these expectations seem to go against my nature.

You have never judged me, though. You have never told me that I am lacking in any way or that my thoughts and feelings are not welcome to you. You have no idea how freeing it is to have someone in my life that seems perfectly happy with who I really am.

I suppose this letter has gone on quite long enough. It is funny. I am not nearly so chatty in person as I am when I write to you. I hope that you are able to reply to me, and I will look forward to your letter, at least to tell me you are well.

Your Sincerest Friend,

Lady Emma Hughes

Releasing a sigh, Emma looked over the letter as she waited for the ink to dry. She hoped her friend did not think poorly of her for any of it, but she was genuinely concerned that she had not heard from him as of late. A part of her feared that he had decided to stop writing to her entirely. She was not sure that she would be able to bear the loss.

“What in heaven’s name is this?” a deep voice boomed from behind, startling her. A large hand shot over her shoulder and grabbed her letter from her loose grasp. Crying out in protest, she spun around in her seat and glared up at her uncle. Lord Robert Larson, Earl of Glaston, ran his eyes over her letter, reading the words that she had meant to be a private correspondence. His brow furrowed, and his expression grew angry as he looked back down at her.

“Who is this person you are writing to?” he demanded to know.

“No one to concern yourself with,” Emma replied coolly. She gripped the back of her chair until her knuckles were white, fighting with all her might to contain her temper. “My private correspondence has nothing to do with you.”

“No concern of mine?” he hissed, waving the paper in front of her face. “It is that soldier fellow you have written to before, is it not? You are writing to another man when you are all but betrothed to me. Have you no shame that you would so easily risk your reputation?”

Emma’s stomach lurched. “I am not engaged to you,” she said in a firm tone.

“Not yet,” he clarified, “but you know very well that if you do not marry me, I will turn you and your mother out onto the street.”

“Do you really think such threats will inspire any affection within me for you?” she snapped. “Why do you believe I would attach myself to a man who hangs his authority over my head as you do?” He arched a brow at her, clearly unaffected by her anger. Or, more accurately, he simply did not care what she felt at all.

“And yet, you are not making any great effort to remove yourself from my authority,” he replied smugly. “Where would you even go? Would you rather end up in the poor house? I doubt that very much. No, you may save all your complaining and defiance for a conflict you actually have a chance of coming out the victor of, my dear. We both know you will not leave this house which means you will become my wife in time.”

Emma gritted her teeth, fury burning through her. She so badly wanted to give him a further piece of her mind— to curse him to hell and back. She kept her mouth shut and her enraged thoughts to herself, however. He was right, after all. He could turn her and her mother out without any type of warning. As much as she wanted to bravely declare that she did not care what happened to her and that she would find a way to make a life away from him, she could not risk her mother’s comfort and security. She needed to be cautious in dealing with him, even if the idea of being near him at all made her skin crawl.

Uncle Robert was not truly her uncle. He was actually a distant cousin who had inherited the title after her father had passed away from an illness. Emma, of course, being a woman, had not been eligible to act as her father’s heir. Now, she and her mother were at the mercy of Robert, a lecherous man who had his sights set on Emma herself. He had made no secret of that from the moment he stepped foot into their home.

“Give me the letter back,” she demanded, deciding it was best to bring the conversation to an end. She knew there was nothing she could say to change his mind, so it was better to just get away from him.

“What kind of guardian would I be if I let my ward write to complete strangers?” He was taunting her now, reminding her of just how powerless she was compared to him.

“He is not a stranger,” she insisted.

“Oh? What is the name of your mysterious correspondent, then?” He watched her expectantly, a smirk playing about his lips as though he knew he had caught her in some sort of trap.

She hated that she could not give him an answer. It only seemed to prove him right even though it was hardly the case. Even if Emma did not know the name of the person she was writing to, she felt as if she knew him better than anyone else in her acquaintance. He certainly knew her better than anyone else did. Her uncle, apparently taking her silence as an acknowledgment that he was right, gave a sharp nod.

“Just as I thought,” he snapped. “Your foolishness is going to get you into trouble one day. Better that you give up any fanciful notions you have about this mysterious friend of yours and accept the fact that you will be my wife.”

“I will not!” she shouted defiantly. She was on the brink of losing control. Shoving to her feet, she reached out and took her letter back from him.

His smirking expression turned into a glare. His hand shot out, and he grabbed hold of her arm, his grip so tight it was painful. Emma gasped and immediately tried to jerk free of him, but his grasp was like an iron band around her arm.

“How dare you,” he hissed. “Do you think I will tolerate such disrespect? This is my house now, girl. I own everything within it including you and your mother. You are my property, and I will do what I like with you. If I decided to punish you with a beating, no one would think twice about it because it is my right.”

Emma’s jaw dropped, and she stared up at him in horror. Such threats were not uncommon, unfortunately, but that did not make them any less terrifying. He had never beat her before, but she had no doubt in her mind that he would make good on his threats if he was angry enough.

She quickly adjusted her expression so that he could not see her fear, and she made her voice firm even despite the fact that her emotions were rioting within her.

“You do not own me,” she insisted. “I am not an object for you to do with as you please.”

Her uncle let out a cruel chuckle. “You are such a naïve little thing. It is almost adorable, but you must be brought to heel. The sooner you accept your new lot in life, the easier things will ultimately be for you. Do not try and argue with me anymore. You know I am right.”

He was infuriating. The condescending way he spoke to her and the entitlement that he seemed to feel regarding her made her blood boil. Her hand twitched to slap him, but she curled it into a fist and kept it locked against her side. However, she could not quite control her tongue as thoroughly as her hand.

“You are a disgrace,” she snarled. “You are no gentleman and are not deserving of my father’s title! I wish I had been born a son because then I would be able to throw you from this house and make you pay for everything you have done to me and my mother.”

A tense silence fell between them, and Emma realized that she might have gone a step too far with her harsh words. Just because he had not hurt her yet, did not mean that he would not do so if provoked enough. She watched his gaze darken with rage and his grip on her tightened to the point where she could not keep from flinching. She knew that she would have bruises on her arm once this was all said and done.

In a low, dangerous voice, he hissed, “You insolent little…”

“What on earth is going on in here? I could hear your yelling from across the manor.”Emma glanced toward the door of the parlor in which they stood. Her mother, Lady Jocasta Hughes, Dowager Countess of Glaston, stood in the doorway, frowning in concern.

The Dowager gazed at them with a shocked gaze, her eyes landing on Robert’s hand around Emma’s arm.

“My Lord,” the Dowager slowly said, “I would ask that you let Emma go. It appears as though you are hurting her.”He hesitated a moment, and Emma thought he might ignore her mother which would not be unlike him. To her relief, however, he let her go, jerking his hand away as if it burned him to hold onto her. Emma’s arm throbbed, and she bit her lip to keep from letting out so much as a moan to give away the pain she was in.

Robert turned toward the Dowager with a snarl. “Your daughter is lacking in manners. I would have thought you had taught her better than this.”Emma backed away from him just as the Dowager moved further into the room, slipping a little in front of Emma to face the man who now bore her husband’s title and threatened her daughter’s wellbeing.

“My Lord, I apologize on Emma’s behalf,” she said in a calm voice. Emma could not help but wonder how her mother could maintain such a demeanor around the man. She was a much more level-headed individual than Emma could ever hope to be. “She is young and willful. She will calm down as she gets older.”

“She will calm down once she is my wife,” he hissed.

Her mother’s shoulders visibly stiffened. She reached behind her and took Emma’s hand, squeezing it. It was a show of comfort, but Emma suspected it was also her mother’s way of assuring herself that her daughter was there with her and safe and sound. Emma knew what her mother would say next, and though she hated it every time, the Dowager would not allow her to object.

“Please, My Lord, we have discussed this. My daughter would not make a suitable bride for you. She is far too young and immature. I am more than happy to take on the role, and a marriage between the two of us would solidify your place as Earl as thoroughly as wedding Emma.”

Emma felt bile rise up in her throat. She wanted to jump into the conversation and tell her mother not to offer herself to the horrid man, but she knew her protests would be no use. Her mother had offered herself to the Earl countless times already in an attempt to take his focus off of Emma. It broke Emma’s heart that her mother would willingly make such a sacrifice for her, but the gesture had never worked so far. She doubted very much that Robert would accept the offer this time either.

As she expected, he scowled at her mother, looking almost disgusted. “Why would I marry a woman unable to bear me children? You claim that Emma is too young, but you are too old. What could you possibly provide for me that would make a marriage to you worth my time? I am simply not interested in a woman who is nothing more than a worn, hollow shell.”

Emma released a hiss of breath at the insult, but her mother squeezed Emma’s hand again as if to warn her to remain silent. It took all of her willpower, though, not to shout at the man that he would be lucky to be wed to a lady such as her mother. The Dowager Countess might be beyond childbearing years, but she was far from an old woman and still considered a great beauty. There were plenty of gentlemen within the Ton who would eagerly ask for her hand if they thought she would accept them.

“It would be far less of a scandal were you to marry me instead of Emma,” the Dowager said. This was hardly true as it was quite common for younger ladies to be paired with older gentlemen in the Ton, but Emma knew her mother was trying every argument she could come up with to change his mind.

Her uncle scoffed. “Your continued attempts to sway me are rather pathetic, My Lady. If I did not know any better, I would almost say you were besotted with me.”At that, Emma let out an exasperated groan.

I wonder how he is able to keep his head upright when his ego is so large.

“I am simply being reasonable, My Lord,” her mother replied in a tight voice. “There is also the possibility of allying our family with another through a marriage with Emma. If you keep her for yourself, you will not be able to climb further within society.”

“She will bear me children, and they will climb the social ladder for me,” he replied with a shrug. “And besides, that is no longer your concern. You are the Dowager now, remember? You no longer hold any authority in this household.”

The nerve of this man! How was it at all right that he should just waltz into their home, where Emma had grown up and her mother had spent the entirety of her marriage, and suddenly be able to tell them what they could and could not do? She hated him, hated the circumstances that had led them to this, and even hated the fact that she had been born a daughter instead of a son.

“This is her home more than it is yours,” Emma snapped, unable to keep her mouth closed any longer. “If my father could hear how you were speaking to my mother, he would throw you from the manor and banish you from ever coming back.”

Her uncle glared at Emma over her mother’s shoulder. “A shame for you that your father is not here to do so. Wishing for any other outcome from his passing would be an entirely fruitless enterprise on your behalf. I will not tolerate your rebellion any further. Make peace with the fact that you will be mine, or prepare to leave this house along with your mother. That is my final word on the matter.”

With that, he turned and stormed out of the room, leaving Emma and her mother staring after him in hopeless, heartbroken silence. Once she was certain the Earl was far enough away that he would not be able to hear them, Emma grasped her mother’s shoulders.

“Mother, are you all right?” she murmured. “He had no right to speak to you that way.”

The Dowager turned to Emma and waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, never mind that oaf. If I allowed myself to be insulted by the likes of him, I would have nothing left of my dignity to speak of.”It was a relief to Emma that her mother was not hurt by the Earl’s cruel words, but that did little to assuage the rest of her anxiety about the man. The threat the man posed to them was not something that could be so easily dismissed. They were still, by all accounts, powerless against him.

“What am I going to do?” she murmured. “He does not listen when I say I will not marry him, and I am beginning to fear that he will simply force the matter, and there will be nothing we can do to stop him.”

Sighing, her mother nodded. “I know. I am beginning to have similar fears, my dear. Do not fret, however. I will not allow him to have you, no matter what he threatens us with.”

“But how, mother?” Emma whimpered. “How can we possibly stop him from taking what he wants?”

“I am not certain yet,” her mother confessed. “For the moment, though, we just need to buy time until we come up with some sort of plan.”Emma wondered how in the world they would accomplish even that simple feat. The Earl was growing increasingly agitated and impatient with her, and though he had not admitted so out loud yet, she knew deep down that they were quickly running out of time. Her mother thought for a long moment before her eyes lit up with some idea.

“I have just the thing,” she declared. “He cannot force you to marry him if he cannot find you. We will send you away in secret, and you will remain in hiding, so to speak, until we think of a more permanent solution.”

Emma’s eyes widened in disbelief. “What? Hide me away? Mother, that would enrage him. Do you not fear the repercussions? I doubt very much he will let you go without some form of punishment.”

“If he wants to keep hold of this title, he will not lay a hand on me,” her mother said in a firm tone. “The staff remains loyal to me, and I am not without powerful connections I can call on if need be. You are the most vulnerable, Emma. Robert is your legal guardian now, and under the law, he can direct your life however he sees fit. I do not have a say if he does not grant me one, so our best bet is to remove you from his influence completely and send you somewhere he will never think to look.”

“Where?” Emma whispered, a wave of conflicting emotions washing over her. “Where can I go?”

“My friend, Natalie, Dowager Duchess of Shefield, has a home in the country,” her mother replied in a low voice. “I will write to her today and ask if you can go and stay with her. She is directly related to the current Duke, so she will have the resources and ability to keep you safe in a way that I cannot.”The idea of leaving her mother was heartbreaking, but Emma could not deny that everything the Dowager had said was correct. Her mother would be all right without her, but Emma would not be all right if she stayed in that house with Robert.

Clenching her teeth, she nodded. “All right, mother. If you believe that is best, I will not argue.” Her mother cupped Emma’s face in both her hands and pressed a kiss to her forehead.

“Do not worry, my dear,” she murmured. “We will figure out a way to free you from this.”

Emma wrapped her arms around her mother, and the two clung to each other for several moments. Even though she knew it was not really the truth, for some reason, this embrace felt very much like goodbye.


Chapter Two


“Your Grace, I am sorry, but the repairs to the carriage house have been delayed…”

“Delayed?” Winston Travers, Duke of Darton, glared at his steward who stood on the other side of his desk, hat in hand. “That is the third time, Thompson. What has caused this latest delay?”

Thompson was visibly nervous as he wrung his hat between his hands. “You see, Your Grace…we were to have an order of lumber delivered to complete the repairs, but we have been having trouble with the gentleman supplying it…”

“What sort of trouble?” Winston growled, his temper rising.

“He keeps promising to make the delivery and then has some excuse as to why he cannot…”

“And what have you done about it?”

The steward blinked. “Your Grace? I am afraid I do not understand.”

Winston gnashed his teeth in irritation. “You are supposed to be managing this estate, but if you cannot handle even the simplest thing as delivery of wood, for what reason should I keep you employed? If the man is being difficult, you demand that he fulfill his end of your agreement, or you will get the constables involved. Do you have the backbone to do such a thing, Thompson? Tell me if you do not because I will find someone who does to take your place!”

The steward flinched and then quickly bowed as he stammered, “Ye…yes, Your Grace. Of course, Your Grace. I will take care of the matter right away. There will be no more delays.”

“See that there are not,” Winston snapped. “Now get out.” Thompson scurried to obey, no doubt relieved to finally be able to escape Winston and his sour temperament. When the study door shut behind the man, Winston leaned back in his chair and drummed his fingers on the top of his desk, annoyance and frustration burning through him. Was it so hard to find competent employees? Could he trust no one to do what needed to be done?

He grew lost in his brooding and so did not notice the door to the room open again until a bright voice called to him from the threshold.

“Oh, Winston, what did you do to poor Mr. Thompson now? The dear man looks as though he has been subjected to the horrors of the Tower.” Winston glanced up and scowled at his grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Shefield, as she swept into the room with a pleasant little smile on her face.

“If the man was any good at his job, he would have no reason to fret,” Winston insisted. “The delays in the carriage house repairs are costing me more than I intended to put into the building. At this point, it would have made more financial sense to just tear the blasted thing down and rebuild it entirely.” His grandmother released a sigh as she settled into one of the chairs opposite Winston.

“My darling boy, you really need to control that temper of yours,” she told him. “The servants are terrified of you, you know.”

Winston rolled his eyes. “Better they fear me than disrespect me. It is not as though everyone on this estate is not well cared for and more than fairly compensated.”

The Dowager nodded. “That is true. To those on the outside looking in, you are a very fair and generous employer. However, none of that changes the fact that you are also terrifying with your outbursts and impatience.”

Winston narrowed his eyes at his grandmother. He loved her and would do anything he could to protect her, but sometimes he wished that she felt at least a small portion of the intimidation she claimed everyone experienced with him. She was the only person who was not afraid of him, and some days he could admit it was refreshing. Some other days, however, it was not.

“Is there something you need from me, grandmother?” he asked, exasperated. “Or did you just come in here to lecture me about my temper?”His grandmother tilted her head at him and studied him for several moments without saying a word. He found it unnerving.

At last, she said, “Tell me, Winston, have you written to Lady Emma recently?”

Winston tensed. “Why would you be curious at that?”

“You know very well why,” the Dowager replied matter-of-factly. “If you do not reply to her, you will likely lose her. I know that would devastate you.”

Winston gritted his teeth, regretting ever revealing to the Dowager about his correspondence with Lady Emma Hughes. It had started when he was a soldier. They had started writing to each other by chance. Some sort of good deed on her part where she wrote to a soldier offering words of encouragement and comfort. He had not truly meant to respond, but he had been so enchanted by her words in that first letter, that he had not been able to help himself. He had written back to her, but he had kept his name out of it. He did not want her to grow too attached to him. Nothing good ever came to those who came to care for him.

“It might be for the best that she stops writing me,” he mumbled, turning his gaze from his grandmother. “There is no future between us, anyway, and it is cruel of me to continue giving her hope.”

“You do not mean that,” his grandmother insisted, furrowing her brow. “I know you considered meeting her in person and proposing to her at one point, shortly after you returned from the war. You cannot deny that you have genuine feelings for the young lady. Why do you insist on pushing her away?”

“You know why,” he murmured, clenching his hand into a fist as memories he wished he could forget flooded his mind.

His mother’s once-beautiful face was wasted by disease. His father was sobbing in pain. Amelia…poor, poor Amelia…He pushed the thoughts to the back of his mind, unwilling to lose himself to them.

His grandmother sighed, and it was a sad sound. “Winston, dear, you cannot continue to think that you are cursed…”

“I do not think, grandmother,” he stated firmly. “I know. Is the trail of bodies I have left in my wake not enough proof? Everyone I love suffers. That is all there is to it. Lady Emma would be far better off if she had never written to me in the first place.”

He was convinced that no person could suffer such bad luck as he had throughout his life without being under some type of curse. Where he might have been cursed or why did not matter. Whether it was by some unknown witch he had accidentally offended, God’s merciless will, or sheer bad luck, Winston did not know. He could not deny the truth of the curse, however. The number of dead loved ones in his life was proof enough that a dark cloud that he could not escape hung over him.

His grandmother frowned and shook her head. “You cannot believe that. Winston, how many times must I tell you that your parents’ deaths were not your fault? Lady Amel—”

“No,” he snapped. “Do not say her name. Never.” The Dowager looked as though she wanted to protest, but her shoulders finally slumped in defeat, and she nodded.

“Yes, I am sorry,” she said softly. “I do not wish to upset you, my dear. I just want to see you happy. It is damaging to suppress your emotions as you do. You need to find a way to move past your hurt so that you can live your life.”

Winston did not reply. There was little point. He knew his grandmother only wanted what she thought was best for him. She cared for him, and he could understand why she wanted to see him happy. Winston knew better, however. Happiness was not a luxury he was going to ever be able to enjoy. If he continued writing to Lady Emma, she would only end up hurt, one way or another. He could not allow that to happen. Not to her. She was too sweet, too good, to suffer because of him.

He knew she held tender feelings for him. She was not shy about her feelings in her letters to him. The last few he had received had been difficult for him to read as he hated knowing that he was causing her any kind of distress by not responding to her. As painful as it would be, however, he knew his only option was to cut all communication with Lady Emma and end their correspondence before things went too far. It was the only way he could protect her from himself.

“I have accepted my lot in life,” he told his grandmother at length. “There is little hope for me, but I can make sure Lady Emma does not fall prey to my misfortune. I will not risk her, no matter what.”

His grandmother shook her head, clearly distressed. “Do you truly believe this will make her happy? Abandoning her with no explanation? If she feels half as strongly for you as you do for her, she will be crushed!”

“We have never met face-to-face, so I am sure she will be able to move past whatever small heartbreak this causes her.” Winston needed to convince himself of this as much as he needed to convince his grandmother. He could not falter in his resolve to protect Lady Emma. “In the end, she will likely be grateful as she will no longer be strung along by a faceless recluse who would only bring darkness into her world. What I am doing is kindness, grandmother. If I were to draw it out, she would be stuck with her feelings, unable to escape them or me. This way, I am not lingering about to confuse her or weigh heavy on her heart.”

“That is foolish,” his grandmother declared, clearly exasperated. “Do you think that young woman does not know her own mind? That she is so shallow that she would get over you so quickly and easily?”

“That is not what I mean, and you know it,” Winston growled, his temper spiking once more.

“Do I? Because it seems to me you are belittling Lady Emma by not giving her the opportunity to choose for herself.”

Winston frowned at that. “What do you mean?”

His grandmother sighed and shook her head. “What I mean is that, if you really wanted to respect Lady Emma and her feelings and wishes, you would face her, reveal who you really are, and from there let her decide if she wishes to be with you or not.”

Winston gazed at his grandmother, stunned. “That is impossible.”

“Why?” she demanded to know. “Because you are so afraid, she might actually choose you?”

This conversation was getting out of hand. He did not know why she was so persistent that he reveal himself to Lady Emma, but Winston knew he was doing the right thing. If Lady Emma was given the choice, she might very well choose to stay with him, refusing to believe in his curse as so many others did, and he could not allow that to happen. Why could his grandmother not understand the risk in her desire?

“I do not wish to discuss this any further,” he grumbled. “My mind is quite made up, and nothing you say will change it. I am sorry that you cannot agree with me, but someday I hope you come to see that I am doing this for Lady Emma’s own benefit.”

The Dowager shook her head. “I think you will come to regret this. In fact, I am quite certain that you will.”He gazed at her for a long moment, unable to decide if he was angry with her words or grateful for her care.

At length, he finally said, “Grandmother, I am sorry, but I have quite a bit of work I need to get done today. Is this a conversation we could continue at another time?”

The Dowager released a long breath, but she nodded. “Very well. But we will continue it, Winston. I am not giving up on you. One way or another, I will convince you that you deserve to be happy.”

Winston nodded, just to appease her at that moment. He knew, though, that her efforts would be in vain. There was no happiness left for him in the world.


Chapter Three


The sun was shining brightly down on her, but Emma could hardly feel its warmth. She was too consumed with anxiety as she considered the precariousness of her situation. It had been nearly two weeks since her mother had told her that she would write to her friend, the Dowager Duchess, but they had yet to hear back to know if Emma could escape to her estate to hide from her uncle.

Since their last confrontation, Emma had been doing her very best to avoid him as often as she could. He did not make it easy for her to do so, however. It almost seemed as though he was intentionally seeking her out around the estate, placing himself within her presence despite her obvious desire to stay away from him.

She had thought to hide in the library one day, thinking he would not venture in there as it was not a room he utilized often at all. However, as she was tucked in the corner of a window bench, a book opened in her lap, he had burst into the room, startling her.

“Ah, my dear Emma, what a coincidence that I should find you here,” he had said, but he had not bothered to hide his smirk, making it obvious that it was by no means a coincidence.

She had left the room right away, not caring if she offended him. The same situation had repeated itself, again and again—in the drawing room, the stables, the garden, and even the kitchen. No matter where she went within the house, he would not leave her alone.

If it was only a matter of her disliking him, she would not go to such lengths to keep out of his presence. However, the problem was that whenever they were together, his behavior toward her was growing increasingly inappropriate. He would openly leer at her, stand too close to her, and say things to her that made her blood burn with fury. She could tell that he considered their marriage all but a certainty, and so, he was already treating her as though he owned her.

Except, he was not acting as though she were his future wife but, rather, a woman of ill-repute that he could use as he pleased. It made her increasingly worried about how he would treat her should they actually be married. She would be little more than a toy for him, to use as he pleased without concern for her own wants and needs.

It was her desire to avoid her uncle that had driven her out of the manor that day. She had declared that she wished to go for a walk to get fresh air and exercise, but in truth, it was to get a few short moments of peace by herself.

Unfortunately, she was not able to push her troubles from her mind. They continued to dog her, seeming to cast a shadow over her, rendering the world around her into shades of gray. No matter how hard she tried, she simply could not think of a way to escape the terrible fate of marrying her uncle unless she was to marry someone else first.

That was all but an impossibility if she continued to live under his roof, however. He did not permit her to attend social events without him being present, and he grew enraged if she gave any other gentleman more attention than was absolutely necessary. Emma was all but a prisoner in her own home. If she were to make her escape and find someone to marry to protect her from Richard, she had to leave.

Reaching the crest of a small hill, she stopped and gazed out across her family’s estate. It was so beautiful with its stately manor and lush green fields. Tears formed in her eyes as she gazed at it, however. As lovely as it was, and as much as she had adored her life there, it was no longer really her home. It had been tainted by her uncle, and now, as she gazed out over the land, it was not the happy memories of her childhood that she thought of but the bleak future that awaited her.

If father were still here, none of this would be happening.

What a terribly useless thought that was. Of course, if her father were still alive, this would not be happening. She might have had a chance at marrying someone else before her uncle came along, securing her future as well as her mother’s. Her tears broke free and slid down her cheeks.She missed her father.She missed him terribly.

Suddenly, she heard the unmistakable sound of a horse’s hooves pounding against the ground behind her. Emma quickly wiped the tears away from her eyes, not wishing to be caught in such a vulnerable state. She silently prayed that it was her mother come to find her or even the estate’s steward, but of course, that did not turn out to be the case.

When she turned to face the person riding up behind her, her stomach twisted in disgust at the sight of the Earl. He was riding a large black stallion so that when he came to a stop next to her, she had to tilt her head back in order to look up at him.

“Ah, Emma, out enjoying the lovely day, I see,” he said with that vicious smirk of his curling his lips. “How fortuitous that we should run into each other.”

She scowled up at him. “Do not act as though this is all some coincidence, My Lord. We both know that you have intentionally followed me, even though I wished to be by myself.”

He had the gall to act surprised by her accusation. “Followed you? Why in the world would I do such a thing? I was merely out for a ride and happened upon you.”

Emma glared up at him. “I am no fool. I can see right through you, uncle. Such antics will not endear you to me.”

He let out a snort. “As if I care about that. I am merely keeping an eye on you. I know you and your mother are plotting something. You will not get the chance to see your plans through, however, for I will always be watching you and will catch you in the act of your deceit.”

Anger burned through Emma, but she fought to maintain her composure. She did not want to give him any indication that he was right as it would only make things that much more difficult for her and her mother.

“I do not know what you are talking about,” she snapped. “My mother and I are not plotting anything. You are paranoid.”

He arched a brow at her. “You must think I am a true idiot if you think I would take your word on the matter so easily. Mark me, girl, once I discover what you two have planned, I will put an end to it, and you both shall suffer the consequences. If you want your mother to continue to be cared for in her old age, you will work to be more obedient to me.”

“You are delusional if you think I will just give myself over to you without protest,” she growled. “Even if I did ever become your wife, our marriage would not be a peaceful one. I would disobey you at every turn and hate you for the remainder of my life. Is that what you want? A wife intent on making your life miserable?”

His expression was thunderous. “Your tongue is sharp, and I will admit that you are a willful girl, but that can all be broken. It only takes a firm hand to bring a woman to heel, and I am just the man for the task. You may resist me at first, but it will not last. That I can promise you.”

That was no promise. It was a threat, plain and clear. If she did not fall into line and do as he wished, he would try to break her down, so he could build her back up as he wished her to be. She could only imagine the methods he would use to do so. It frightened her to think about, but she did not let her fear show.

She raised her chin defiantly and said, “I will not break as easily as you think I will. I am stronger than you give me credit for.”

Her uncle appeared amused by this. “You are a woman. Your nature is far more delicate than that of a man’s. You are weak. No matter how hard you fight me, you will lose. That is simply the way of things between men and women.”

“It is not that way for me,” she insisted. “I promise you that.”

He laughed out loud at that. “You keep telling yourself that, my dear. I am sure we will find out soon enough which one of us is correct.”

With that, he turned his horse around and took off back down the hill, laughing the whole way. Mocking her, and there was nothing she could do or say at that moment to counter him. Glancing back out over the estate, she felt her heart sink.

No…this was not her home anymore. Her uncle had taken her childhood home and turned it into a prison. There was nothing left for her here except for her memories, and if she lingered much longer, even those would be ruined.

She had to get away. Had to escape.

***

“Emma! Emma, it has come at last!”

Heart thundering in her chest, Emma looked toward her bedroom door. Her mother’s voice was whispering through the wood excitedly. The day after her confrontation with her uncle while she had been out walking, Emma had decided not to even leave her room. She could not handle being forced to interact with him again, and so, she had remained hidden away, lying on her bed and staring up at the ceiling. She felt rather hopeless if she were being entirely honest.

However, at the tone of her mother’s voice, she felt a stirring of hope lift up her heart. Pushing to her feet, she hurried across the room and opened the door. Her mother hurried inside without a word, and Emma quickly shut the door behind her again. The Dowager Countess turned to her, her eyes wide and a letter clutched in her hands.

“Is…is that…?” Emma gasped, her gaze bouncing between the letter and her mother’s eager expression.

Her mother nodded. “Yes, yes, it is. It is a letter from the Dowager of Shefield inviting you to come and stay with her on her grandson, the Duke of Shefield’s country estate.”

The breath left Emma in a rush. “Really? Oh, my goodness. That is such a relief! Uncle did not see this letter, did he?”

Her mother shook her head. “No, no, I was very careful, I promise you. He has no idea I wrote to her at all. She says that you can go there within the week. They do not have many people that visit them in the country, so you should be undiscovered there for quite some time.”

Emma felt such a wave of relief, that she nearly burst into tears right then and there. With that relief, though, came a deep sense of worry.

“How am I going to leave without the Earl noticing?” she asked. “He is keeping such a close eye on me…I cannot go anywhere without him knowing.”

Nodding, her mother cupped her cheek. “Do not worry. I have a plan. We will get you out of here, and by the time he realizes you are gone, it will be too late.”

Emma pressed her hand against her mother’s. “What about you? Once he discovers I am gone, are you not afraid that he will come after you?”

“Do not worry about me,” the Dowager insisted. “I will be just fine. Our main concern right now is you, and we will make sure that you get away from that man. The Dowager Duchess has also said she might be able to help you in securing a marriage so that the Earl cannot get his hands on you, even if he discovers where you are.”

“She has?” It was rather stunning the lengths this mysterious Dowager was going to in order to help Emma. “Why is she doing this? She does not even know me. Why is she agreeing to help me?”

“The Dowager is a lady of deep kindness and compassion,” her mother explained. “She thinks what the Earl is doing is despicable and does not like it when men like him use their power and privilege to bully and coerce those around him. Besides, she knows plenty about you already. She is my friend, remember? I often brag about you to her.”

That was rather comforting to know. Still, Emma could not help but feel a bit nervous about putting her well-being into a virtual stranger’s hands. It was better than leaving her fate to the Earl, however, so she would willingly face whatever obstacles arose in the Dowager Duchess’ care if it meant she could escape her uncle.

Emma nodded and said, “All right. I trust that she will keep me safe and keep our confidence. My only other concern, then, is how I will get away from here unnoticed.”

“Do not worry,” her mother replied. “As I said, I have a plan. We are lucky that there are still so many among the staff who are loyal to us. We will have the help we need to sneak you away. You just need to be ready to leave when I tell you it is time, all right?”

Emma regarded her mother for long moments, unsure what it was she had in mind, but there was no one in the world that she trusted more.

At length, she answered, “Yes, mother. I will be ready.”

“Good.” Her mother dropped her hand and gave her a small smile. “Everything will be just fine, my darling. There is a good life waiting for you out there, and I am going to make sure that you have a chance to reach it.”

“I know, mother,” Emma murmured. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” With an encouraging nod, the Dowager clutched the letter closer to her chest and moved to the door, slipping back out into the hallway and leaving Emma alone to ponder everything that had occurred so far…and all that was yet to happen.

***

Her mother’s summons came sooner than Emma had expected. It was the middle of the night, not two days later when she was woken from a restless sleep by a gentle hand covering her mouth. Her instinct was to scream, but she quickly realized it was her mother standing over her. The Dowager Countess held a finger up to her lips, and Emma took the order to be quiet, calming down and nodding.

“It is time,” she whispered. “You are leaving tonight.”

Emma furrowed her brow. “How?”

“I have hired a carriage to come and fetch you. It is waiting outside now, a little way down the drive so that it cannot be easily seen in the dark from the manor. We must move quickly, however. Your uncle is asleep, but I want you well away from the estate before he wakes and discovers you gone. Are your things packed?”

Emma nodded, swinging her feet over the edge of her bed, so she could stand.“Yes, though I did not pack as much as I would under normal circumstances.”

“Of course not,” her mother agreed. “Do not worry, though. The Dowager Duchess has kindly offered to secure you anything that you might need including a new wardrobe. She understands how important it is that you travel light.”

The Dowager Duchess was proving to be an incredible ally to them. Emma had the feeling that this plot would be impossible without such a generous co-conspirator on their side. They made their way silently down the hallway, and when they reached a corner, her mother paused and glanced around.

“Is the way clear?” she heard the Dowager whisper. Emma opened her mouth, about to answer that she had no idea when another voice floated gently through the air toward them.

“Yes, My Lady. The Earl is still fast asleep.”Hesitantly, Emma peeked around the corner to see who her mother was talking to and recognized one of the house maids pressed up against the wall.

“Excellent,” the Dowager declared in a soft tone. “Please warn us if that changes.”The maid nodded and turned to hurry away down the hall. Emma looked at her mother with a frown.

“What was that?” she asked.

Her mother shrugged. “I told you that the staff was still loyal to us. Practically the entire household is keeping an eye on the Earl to make sure he remains in bed. If he wakes, they have plans to distract him, so you can still make your getaway.”

Emma was stunned. She could hardly believe that the servants would put themselves at such risk to help her. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes, but she did not allow them to fall. It was not the time for that. Someday, she hoped that she could express to the staff just how grateful she was to all those who ended up helping her this night.

First, though, she needed to actually make it out of the manor. Reaching back, her mother grabbed Emma’s hand and tugged her along. They turned their corner and made their way down the empty hallway to the second-floor landing. Another maid was at the bottom of the stairs, and she waved Emma and her mother down before hurrying to the door to open it for them.

Emma and the Dowager hurried down the stairs and out the front door. They did not speak as they ran down the drive to the carriage waiting for them in the shadows. The driver was waiting for them with the vehicle’s door open. He moved forward to take Emma’s bags from her and load them into the carriage.

At last, the Dowager stopped and faced Emma. She could hardly make out her mother’s features in the dark, but Emma could tell her mother was fighting back tears of her own.

Grabbing hold of Emma’s shoulders, her mother said, “Now, I want you to write to me once you are settled. Send the letter as I have instructed you so that the Earl does not intercept it. I will do my best to write to you as well, and once we come up with some plan to keep you from his clutches, we will reunite.”

Emma nodded, swallowing down her sadness and worry at leaving her mother behind.

“Are you certain you cannot come with me?” she murmured.

The Dowager cupped her cheek and shook her head sadly. “I am afraid not, my darling. It will be far too difficult to hide the both of us. Besides, if I am here, I will be able to keep an eye on the Earl and stop him if he starts to catch onto where you are.”

Emma knew what her mother was saying made sense, but it did not make the parting any easier for her.

“I love you, mother,” Emma whispered.

 The Dowager pulled her into a tight hug and softly said, “I love you too, sweetheart. We will be together again very soon, I promise.”

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A Virgin for the Cursed Duke is now live on Amazon!

  • What a start looks like we are in for a great read What is the Dukes secret I wonder. I think where she is going they will meet but how and will he save her

  • The preview of this book is very well done, and I am definitely interested in reading the rest of this story. I look forward to a large cup of tea, and the rest of this story.

  • A very exciting start. I will certainly be buying the book as I wish to find out the endin. It has started so well.

  • Very intreguing plot.
    Great characters!
    Lord Robert is a horrible men!?
    I hope he get brought down and payes for all of his evil doing!
    The Duke of Darton is very intreguing!
    Thus will be a great novel.I thinking 5 srars!

  • Looking forward to reading the rest of the book I am intrigued, I hope the book will be released on Amazon in Australia 😀

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