Betting on his Duchess Preview

A Historical Regency Romance Novel

About the book

“But now I shall repeat myself. Will you marry me?”

Being a spinster is better than marrying the wrong person. But, after her father’s death, Lady Arabella must obey her angry and authoritarian uncle who demands she marry as soon as possible. A known rake is the last person she would choose, but what is she to do?

Giles Turner, the Duke of Blackwood, has had a particularly rough childhood, abused and neglected. A man now, he does not believe in love. So how bad can a little bet for a lady’s heart really be? Well, it depends on the lady…A fateful meeting at a ball seals their little arrangement.

A false betrothal, between the reformed rake and the unattainable beauty, a plan designed to perfection. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones with plans, but theirs is surely the least sinister…

Prologue

“Giles! You’re finally here!” Joseph called out excitedly, abandoning his young friends and the piles of sweets and cakes that were scattered on tables around the terrace.

“At last!” Giles called back, throwing his arm around his friend’s shoulders. “I had to plead with my governess and promise to do extra lessons later, but she agreed to bring me.”

The young boy with the black curls and bright blue eyes looked up at his governess, who nodded primly.

“Yes, and I’m afraid we can only stay for a little while. Your father will be very cross if he discovers we’ve left the house without his permission. Run along and play, but we must leave as soon as I say so.”

“Yes, Miss Graves,” Giles said dutifully, grateful for the chance to spend even a little while at a real birthday party. Turning to the host, he said, “So tell me all about your birthday.”

“Why don’t you tell me? It’s your birthday too, remember?” Joseph said, laughing as he prodded Giles’ shoulder playfully. “Come this way, Mother asked Cook to make a cake just for you.”

“A cake? For me? I’ve never had my own cake before! But what would you have done with it if I hadn’t been able to come?” Giles questioned, standing on his toes to try to see this marvelous confection.

Joseph shrugged. “I’m sure Mother would have found some excuse to bring it over and sneak it to you. It’s not so far to your house, after all.”

Giles nodded, feeling somewhat ashamed. At only eight years old, he was already starting to understand that other families—even important ones like Joseph’s—were somehow different from his own. Giles’ father seemed like an important tyrant, always stomping through the house and shouting as the servants scattered in every direction. But the few times that Giles had managed to get away and visit a friend or relative, he’d noticed that other fathers didn’t act that way.

Other mothers, either, for that matter. His own mother had an uncanny ability to stare right through him as though he wasn’t even in the room. She seemed almost deaf, but only to the sound of his voice. He’d still been in leading strings when he’d first realized that he was not to disturb her, or else he risked being sent sprawling with a stinging slap.

“Come on, Giles. Come see everyone!” Joseph called out. Giles hurried after him, running to join the other children as they played some game on the stone terrace.

He must have been there for nearly an hour, though it felt like mere seconds. The children played games and sang some song Giles had never heard before. True to his word, Joseph grinned when his mother presented Giles with a plate covered over by an enormous confection that was drowning in delicate folds of creamy sugar.

“Happy birthday, Giles,” she whispered before kissing the top of his head. “I’m so glad you and my son are such good friends.”

Giles looked up at her and beamed, wondering what it would be like to have such a kind person for a mother. The stolen moment of happiness was ripped away cruelly when an unseen hand knocked the plate to the ground, scattering its contents. Giles looked up and immediately cowered.

“What do you think you’re doing here?” an enormous beast of a man bellowed, the stench of liquor on his breath forming a nauseating cloud around Giles as he shouted.

“Father, I’m… I was…” Giles stammered, but he didn’t get the chance to explain before his father’s hand struck him on the side of the head, throwing him down.

“Your Grace!” Joseph’s mother cried out before stopping, presumably aware that everyone was staring.

Giles opened his eyes and saw the toes of his governess’ slippers hurrying towards him.

“You weren’t supposed to leave the house, boy!” his father drawled before kicking him sharply in the leg.

“Your Grace, please. It’s my fault, I brought him here. Let me take him home,” Miss Graves pleaded desperately, bending down to take Giles in her arms.

“You’re done with,” the duke shouted, gesturing for her to move away. “If I can’t trust my own servants to follow my orders, then they will no longer be employed! Be gone!”

Giles looked up at his governess in fear, silently begging her to save him. She looked down at him tearfully before shaking her head and backing away.

“Get up!” the duke roared, leaning down to shout at Giles and nearly losing his balance. When Giles hesitated, his father grasped him by a handful of hair and yanked him to his feet, causing the boy to cry out. The duke, still holding him by the hair, peered into Giles’ frightened face. “Get home at once.”

“Your Grace, please won’t you stay and have some refreshment? My husband will be home any moment and I’m certain he would like the chance to speak with you—” Joseph’s mother began, but a glassy-eyed glare from the duke silenced her.

With a forceful shove to Giles’ back, the duke stormed off, glancing back as if to make sure his young son followed. Giles trembled, both from fear and the effort of trying not to cry, but when he saw Joseph’s face, his eyes pooled with tears.

“You’ll be all right,” Joseph whispered, trying to sound encouraging as he nodded quickly. His hopeful words were betrayed as he began to cry, leaning into his mother’s protective embrace.

Giles dropped his head and followed after his father, all too aware of what awaited him at home.


Chapter One

Fifteen years later…

“I can’t believe you talked me into walking through the park when the rain will begin soon,” Arabella said, laughing as she pretended to be put out. She sniffled dramatically and said, “If we catch a cold, it will be the death of us both.”

“Oh, stop it,” her younger sister Agnes replied, smiling. “It’s not so bad as you say, though I’ll admit I could do without this biting wind. If there was only a bit more sunshine, it would be rather pleasant for this time of year.”

Arabella linked her arm through Agnes’ and stepped closer to her side for warmth. It was true that the late March day was not as dreary as some they’d endured recently, but she was still envisioning returning to the house and tucking her feet beneath her as she read by the fire.

“This had better not be some ruse so you can happen to encounter Lord Sempill,” Arabella said, glaring darkly at Agnes for a second before smiling at two matrons who hurried past them.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Agnes answered, trying to sound aloof despite the faint blush that now colored her cheeks. “After all, I have no need of a ruse since he comes to call practically every morning.”

“That’s true enough, I suppose, so forgive me for accusing you so unjustly. But that does make me wonder… why is it that Lord Sempill always seems to be underfoot but has not yet spoken to Uncle Reginald about a marriage contract?”

Agnes bristled slightly. “I don’t know, dear sister. Perhaps he is waiting to ask for my hand until my older sister is wed. After all, it would be unseemly for me to marry first.”

It was Arabella’s turn to grit her teeth, though she knew Agnes was right. As the older sister, she should be married and out of the house before Agnes had her turn. It hadn’t occurred to her that she was standing in the way of the younger girl’s happiness, though.

“I simply haven’t had the opportunity to meet anyone,” Arabella began sheepishly. “Father died less than a year ago, I couldn’t very well go about my business this Season as though we were not all in mourning.”

“Bella, that’s not entirely true,” Agnes said, her words kinder now as she leaned her head closer and spoke softly. “You have had ample opportunity even before then and you know it, but you never accepted anyone’s affections. Is it possible that Father’s death is the excuse you need to avoid thinking about marriage for a while?”

“Aggie, you cannot possibly be wiser than I am when you are but eighteen,” Arabella said, laughing lightly and waving off her sister’s words as though she could cover up her emotions. “Besides, I am only twenty. What need have I of a suitor yet, other than to move out of your way and permit you to find happiness? Have you considered that I might wish to remain a spinster and take up residence with you so that we can remain dearest friends forever?”

“Do not say such things! You will most certainly find the perfect husband and have an adoring family. Mother would be beside herself if she knew you were thinking such things.”

Arabella did not answer. Their mother was an entirely different story, of course, one that Agnes did not know in its entirety. It was only because Arabella had found a tiny portrait once that she even knew the truth of their mother’s long-broken heart. The story had simply poured forth one rainy day of the man who’d stolen the duchess’ heart and her dowry—and perhaps even her innocence, though Arabella had not dared to ask such a callous thing—before proving to be such an insufferable rake that the wedding had been called off. To ease her grief and improve her reputation, the heartbroken young lady had been married to Arabella’s father only two months later, a man nearly twenty years her senior. The duke had been a thoughtful husband despite there being nothing more than kindness and respect between him and his young wife.

That is not the sort of marriage I will have! Arabella had thought miserably the day she’d learned the truth. I will have love or nothing, regardless of what pain the solitude brings me.

Ever since the day her mother had confessed this long-held sadness, Arabella had been wary of overly-attentive men and their intentions. Every shameless utterance of flattery, every confident smile as she was asked to dance riled her suspicions, making her wonder what sort of scheme was really afoot. It had reached such heights that she had begun to turn down invitations altogether, citing her father’s passing as her excuse. In truth, though she had been devastated by his death and the arrival of an insufferable uncle to take his place, Arabella had little interest in social events anymore.

“Oh, look!” Agnes said so only Arabella could hear. “At the risk of you thinking that I had some selfish motive, there is Lord Sempill now.”

“You’ve got to be joking. I didn’t mean what I said.”

“I know. And he told me just this morning that he had important business to see to today. He must have met his associate and finished conducting business just now.”

Agnes lifted her hand to wave at the viscount, but Arabella took hold of her wrist and stopped her.

“No, silly, he is not alone. You mustn’t wave him over,” Arabella admonished in warning.

“Why not? That’s something of a handsome-looking fellow walking with him. Perhaps Joseph will introduce the pair of you,” Agnes argued with a wicked smile.

“Agnes, no. You mustn’t,” Arabella hissed softly, ignoring her sister’s familiar use of the man’s first name for now. “I’ve seen that man before, and I know he is not someone to be trusted.”

“Really? What do you mean?”

Arabella sighed. “Don’t be alarmed, I don’t mean anything truly abhorrent. But he has quite an unsavory reputation about him, so we should not be calling attention to ourselves when he is near. It would not look right if anyone of the ton saw us conversing.”

 “I’ve never heard of anything so ridiculous! It is the middle of the day in an open park with dozens of people about. What could possibly cause such a scandal that we shouldn’t be witnessed speaking to someone?”

Arabella merely shook her head. She couldn’t possibly explain it to Agnes—dear Agnes with her wide-eyed view of the world—without upsetting her, and Arabella would never do such a thing on purpose.

“Come on. Let’s go out this way and take the long way around. There’s no risk of your gentleman seeing you that way and wondering why you did not speak.”

Arabella pulled Agnes down a different path and out the east gate of the park. She glanced back once out of habit and thought she saw Lord Sempill’s companion look up and meet her eye. She quickly turned away so that her face was hidden from view by the brim of her bonnet, then hurried Agnes out of the park.

***

As smoke from countless cigars and pipes hovered overhead like a storm cloud, more than a dozen men sat in stone-faced silence, watching a lone player stare at his cards. The clock had struck midnight hours ago, but the game had been too intense—and too lucrative—for anyone to leave. The remaining players themselves had amassed and lost entire fortunes during the course of the evening, and now the men who watched on the fringes had placed small wagers amongst themselves as to the final outcome.

“Show us what you’ve got then, Blackwood,” one of the older men at the table grumbled, his whiskers seeming to tremble as he spoke.

The man holding the cards looked at them from beneath his brow, giving him a menacing appearance.

“He’s enjoying this,” one man in the crowd whispered to his companion. “I say he’s bluffing, just hoping we’ll all raise our stakes before he shows his hand.”

“I don’t think so. Blackwood is the best there is. He never loses,” the friend whispered back, causing the man to smile almost imperceptibly.

The crowd waited silently for a few moments longer, at least until the man took a deep breath and seemed to heave a weary sigh. He fanned his cards out on the table and leaned forward on his elbows to look his remaining opponent in the eye.

“I win,” he said quietly.

The room erupted in shouts and cheers as the spectators encircling the cardplayers passed around their own winnings. Those who were parting with their money groused as they reluctantly handed it over.

“I don’t know how you do it, Blackwood, but I’m certainly glad you do!” one proud old man called out, clapping Giles on the shoulder before turning to count his winnings.

“I say there must be some slight of hand going on, something that the rest of us can’t see,” another man mumbled.

The room went silent. Giles sat up straighter and slowly turned his head to look at him. “Are you calling me out as a cheat?”

“What? Oh, good heavens, no. I only meant to say your ability is uncanny, of course,” the man stammered as he realized his mistake. He looked around as though anyone might support him, but no one spoke up.

The group slowly took up the conversation again, just whispered chattering at first, followed by a humming of voices until loud statements were spoken. The hapless accuser slipped out of the crowd to get away, Giles watching him leave for a moment.

Brushing it off, Giles turned his attention to the table before him and raked his winnings towards him with both hands. It had been a long evening, to be sure, but profitable. His opponent sat back in his chair with a dumbfounded look on his face as a sizeable piece of his fortune slipped away.

Giles gestured for an attendant to come forward before calling out, “Let’s have a round of drinks for everyone, at my cost.”

A grateful roar thundered from the ceiling overhead as everyone celebrated this news. When the drinks were finally brought around, however, Giles shook his head to decline.

“Not bad for an evening’s fun, eh Giles?” Joseph asked quietly as he sat down beside his old friend, using his first name on purpose as he knew how the family name still stung.

“Not bad at all, Sempill,” Giles replied, folding the bills into his coat pocket. “I can think of far worse ways to earn an income than to pluck it out of the hands of my opponents with their blessing.”

“And that is why I shall never play cards with you,” Joseph said, laughing. “You see it as your livelihood, your occupation. These men merely see it as the chance to prove themselves to their peers.”

“I’d hate to think what it is they’re proving,” Giles said smugly.

He accepted the congratulations of a few of the men as they said their goodbyes, nodding proudly as he did. With only a handful of stragglers left to finish their drinks, the conversation died down some.

“It still astounds me how you can be so lucky at cards… and pretty much everything else, Blackwood,” another man said as he sat down nearby. “You have some sort of magic touch, so much that everything you even look at turns to gold.”

“I don’t know about that. I’m only extremely lucky, I suppose,” Giles retorted, though he looked rather confident.

“I’ll say! Luck in nearly every aspect of your life.”

“Nearly? You wound me! Surely you mean every aspect,” Giles joked.

“Says the man who is still as of yet unmarried,” another man quipped, laughing and pretending to lift his glass in a toast.

“I’d say that makes him luckier than us all,” a third man said, causing the others to break out in fits of laughter. “A wife is nothing more than a trophy in business and a road to bankruptcy.”

This brought even more roars of laughter, though Giles was less amused when he glimpsed Joseph’s face. The man, rumored to be in love with a beautiful young lady, turned an unhealthy shade of pale.

“Go ahead and laugh, as if every last one of you didn’t set your sights on Lady Arabella Carter last Season,” Joseph called out, sitting back in his seat and crossing his arms triumphantly at the awkward quiet that followed.

Giles looked confused for a moment, and Joseph appeared to notice. He narrowed his eyes as he cocked his head to one side.

“Surely you know who I mean,” he began. Giles shook his head. “Lady Agnes’ older sister?”

“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her.”

“Don’t bother putting any effort towards it, either,” one of the men answered. “She has nothing but disdain for every man on the ton. Even one so lucky as you doesn’t stand a chance with her.”

“That sounds like a challenge to me. I’m sure you know I have a certain reputation to maintain, and cards is not the only thing I’m lucky at,” Giles said with a mischievous grin, causing the others to howl in amusement.

Joseph shook his head and spoke in a low voice. “No, Giles. This isn’t proper. This is Lady Arabella we’re talking about.”

Giles shrugged indifferently, but one of the young men shouted out, “Who’s got a wager to place on Blackwood’s success with this young lady?”

Shouts of encouragement went up, and Giles couldn’t help but notice that Joseph stood and left the room. It smarted to know that he had apparently disappointed his friend, but what did he care? It’s not as though Giles had any sort of genuine interest in this person. Being saddled with a young lady’s attentions for any length of time was not something he cared for.

“Here’s the wager,” he finally called out, causing the room to go still. “One month. She shall be mine within the month, or I’ll return every coin I took from all of you this evening.”

“And what must we pay if you win?” one of the rowdier men challenged.

“I should think winning is its own reward,” Giles said suggestively, which only led to further celebration and laughter.

When Giles finally managed to tear himself away from the club, he was startled to find Joseph still waiting for him in the alcove beside the door. Something about his expression made Giles recoil, leaving him feeling uneasy.

“Sempill. I’d have thought you’d be on your way home by now,” Giles said, covering his surprise with a haughty smile.

“Not when I had to speak with you,” Joseph replied somewhat coldly. “What were you thinking back there? You essentially took a bet that you could defile the sister of someone I care about deeply, someone I’m certain I even love. You must know that I have no choice but to warn her of your intentions.”

“There’s no need for that,” Giles said, waving him off. “I assure you, I have no intention of stalking this hapless young lady like an animal. I will make a good show of pretending to show interest, then I will fail miserably and repay these gentlemen their money. Does that satisfy you?”

“Not really, if you want the honest truth. I’m rather surprised that you engaged in such low-class behavior. It’s not like you.”

I’m surprised myself, Giles thought, but he didn’t admit it.

“I promise you that Lady Arabella will not come to any actual harm, either to her person or to her reputation. In fact, this might actually help her.” Giles was taken aback when Joseph looked skeptical. “If someone as notoriously ‘lucky’ as the Duke of Blackwood cannot have his way with her, then none of the other dullards of the ton stand a chance either. When they see how she rebukes me and I am forced to admit defeat, they will set their sights elsewhere.”

“For your sake, you’d best hope that’s how this turns out,” Joseph said ominously, his usual easygoing demeanor suddenly cold. “I intend to marry Lady Agnes when the time is right, and I should hate to have to call you out for a duel when I love you like my own brother.”

He turned his back on Giles and headed for the door but stopped when an attendant opened it for him. He looked back at Giles and added, “But do not think that just because I hate the thought of it, that it means I won’t do it.”


Chapter Two

Arabella sat at the dining room table, her mind wandering to far-off places while her uncle droned on in his clipped, nasally whine. He usually spared no time for these family stragglers in his perfectly bland world, his nieces and sister-in-law who were a constant presence. He most certainly did not spare more than a few moments for his son, and only then it was to criticize and cajole. But for some reason, he was enjoying something of a tirade this evening while everyone else sat in morose silence.

“And furthermore, I’ve received the bills from the shops and the spending as of late has gotten out of hand,” Uncle Reginald continued, glaring at the ladies. “I’ve ordered all of the accounts closed, and from now on, you shall come to me with a request should you need any funds.”

“Yes, Uncle,” Arabella and Agnes mumbled, looking down.

“As for the expenses coming up, I know that another blasted Season is nearly upon us and we shall have some obligations to see to. But you must all remember yourselves, keeping in mind that you are guests in this house. I will see to my responsibilities where my brother’s family is concerned, but that is not an excuse to drive us all into the poorhouse.”

Arabella had briefly hoped that his sermon had ended, but she was dismayed to discover that he was only fortifying himself with a long sip of wine in order to continue. This time, he turned his attention to her.

“One of my first responsibilities is to see to it that you girls are married soon,” he continued.

Arabella winced, though beside her, Agnes sat up straighter and smiled.

“Agnes, I have heard reports that there is a man who’s shown interest in you,” Reginald said. Agnes smiled and opened her mouth to reply, but he interrupted. “A man of good fortune, though no title, has spoken to me.”

“I beg your pardon?” Agnes asked innocently, looking to their mother for support. “A man you know? Because I had thought—”

“Certainly, a man I know. What kind of person would I be if I sought a husband for you who was unknown to me?” their uncle snapped angrily.

“Uncle, I think Agnes is trying to say she has already caught someone’s attention,” Arabella answered for her, forcing her words to remain polite though she wished to scream. “As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Lord Sempill comes to call nearly every day. He has already inherited and wields a sizeable sum, as well as being the Viscount of Sempill.”

Uncle Reginald sat back in his chair and appeared to be considering her words. He alternated between staring at both Agnes and Arabella, an unreadable expression on his face. Arabella could tell that Agnes was worried, fidgeting as she did with her napkin.

“A viscount. Hmm. That is a better match, I must say. I will give this some thought,” he finally said, and only then did Agnes let out the breath she’d been holding.

“Thank you,” she whispered to Arabella as she reached for her hand beneath the table and squeezed it.

“But of course, there has been no offer of marriage yet, and he has not spoken to me,” Uncle Reginald continued ominously, “which is to be expected as Arabella is not married. This Lord Sempill cannot proceed while the older sister is in the way and underfoot.”

Arabella winced but didn’t argue.

“Therefore, I am setting a date for a marriage contract, Arabella. I have been entertaining offers from different worthy men, and I will come to a decision very soon.”

“Reginald,” their mother said kindly from her seat at the other end of the table, “no one marries so close to the beginning of the Season. The entire purpose of the marriage market is to meet eligible men and win the most favorable match. Marrying before the Season begins would certainly lead to an inferior arrangement.”

“All the more reason to marry now when there are already parties planned. It will spare some of the ridiculous expense of celebrating an otherwise commonplace event.”

The duchess continued. “It has also not even been a year since the girls’ father, the duke, passed away. It isn’t proper for Arabella to marry before the first year has passed at the very earliest.”

Uncle Reginald pressed his thin lips together until they turned white. Arabella knew her mother had chosen her words carefully—just enough acid to make her point while still appearing to be a dutifully grateful sister-in-law.

“So be it. You will have a marriage contract by then and a wedding before the end of September,” the older man said, nodding curtly. “Agnes will marry as soon as it can be arranged following that.”

Arabella stole a glance at her sister, who was trying very hard to suppress her own happy smile for Arabella’s sake. Across from her, their cousin Noah looked sympathetic, though there was nothing he could do to intervene. The rest of the meal continued in silence but for the occasional rattle of a knife against a plate.

When they were safely away from the dining room and tucked together in Arabella’s room upstairs, only then could she rail against her uncle’s ridiculous demands. Agnes could only look on sadly as she tried to commiserate.

“Can that man be any more horrible?” she cried as she stormed about the room, unable to sit still. “To declare that I will be betrothed within a matter of weeks? It’s absurd!”

“Well, the start of the Season is well over a month away,” Agnes said, sounding hopeful. “And there are all the parties for springtime. I’m sure if you tried you could find someone to your liking.”

“It’s not about being to my liking, Agnes. You of all people should understand that I want love or nothing. I will not be treated the way Mother—”

Arabella stopped herself, remembering that Agnes did not know of their mother’s heartbreak. Her sister looked at her, wide-eyed and expectant. Arabella sighed as she bit the inside of her cheek, thinking about how much to divulge. She finally came to sit beside Agnes at the foot of the bed.

“I am sure you’ve heard the term ‘rake’ before,” Arabella began, but Agnes only shook her head. “A rake is… well, he’s an unsavory character who ill uses innocent ladies for his own selfish amusement. He gets to flaunt himself about the ton while whispers circulate, though the rumors about him only make him more interesting, more admirable in the eyes of other men even.”

“And what of these ladies?” Agnes asked, looking horrified.

“They are cast out and left as rubbish. Even if the rumors about the ladies’ dalliances with these awful men are not true, even being associated with one of them can destroy a lady’s reputation. Dancing with one such rake at a ball, sitting too close to him at dinner, daring to walk in the garden even under others’ watchful eyes can all lead to her being considered worthless.”

“That’s not fair! So, this terrible man can do as he pleases and others admire him, but a lady is even accused of doing the same thing, and others will despise her?” Agnes looked indignant.

“Precisely,” Arabella confirmed, shaking her head. “It’s not fair, but it is the way of things.”

“So, all these men you’ve refused have turned out to be rakes?”

“Oh no, not at all,” Arabella said quickly. “But with Father being ill and unable to attend these events with us for the past few years, I’ve had to be extremely careful to avoid any appearance of wrongdoing. Even attending without a father or brother to watch over us can mean people will talk.”

“But Mother and I have accompanied you. Surely no one would think poorly of you for attending a party with your family.”

“You can never be too careful,” Arabella cautioned, her eyes wide as she sought to help Agnes understand. “It takes only one wrong word to destroy a reputation forever. Once the gossip has made the rounds, there is no way to take it back and shut it in a box once more.”

Agnes nodded, and Arabella hoped she had made her point. Alas, Agnes was not through with her questions.

“But so long as you have us to accompany you, and our cousin Noah as well, there should be no problem,” Agnes said, beaming. “Mother has already accepted an invitation to Lord McClaren’s ball for St. George’s Day and Lady Montmouth’s May Day gala for the opera. Both of those should be ideal times to begin seeking out a good match.”

“Why are you so intent on this, Aggie? I am content as I am.”

“Are you, though? Will you truly be so content when you find yourself standing before the priest, about to be sold to whichever associate Uncle Reginald has dragged to the church that day?”

Arabella faltered. She wanted to argue with Agnes’ logic, but she knew too well that her dire prediction was true. Uncle Reginald had certainly made such a threat at dinner. But would he follow through?

***

“Has there been any word from Her Grace this evening, Blake?” Giles asked, stopping in the foyer to inspect his reflection in the glass.

“No, Your Grace. The duchess has not come down, nor have I had word that she might,” the butler answered.

“Very well. I will assume she has chosen to remain at home this evening… again. Odd, as she’ll be returning to the country tomorrow,” Giles said. “Should she change her mind and opt to attend the ball, please send for a carriage for her, won’t you?”

“Certainly, Your Grace.”

Giles took his hat and let the butler help him into his coat, then wound his scarf around his neck. He nodded firmly to Mr. Blake as he opened the door, then stepped outside and into the carriage that waited in the street. His mother was under no obligation to attend these sorts of events, and if he was being honest with himself, Giles had to admit that he would have a far more enjoyable evening without her sour expression and dark mood.

“You’re looking rather unhappy this evening,” his half-brother, Isaac, said from where he was already seated inside.

“It’s Mother. I cannot figure out what she wants from me. She keeps to her rooms as always, only coming down if she’s leaving for one of the estates,” Giles said, shaking his head before turning to stare out the window.

“She’s always been… difficult,” Isaac admitted. “I thought perhaps she would wish to reside with me, but clearly that isn’t the case.”

“Has it occurred to you that she simply doesn’t like either of us?”

“I don’t think it’s as specific as that,” Isaac answered, shrugging as though he couldn’t be bothered to spare another thought on the matter. “I don’t really think she likes anyone.”

“She should care for her own children,” Giles argued. “It’s not as though we’re a bother to her now. We’re both grown and require nothing of her. On the contrary, we’re the ones supporting her. You’d think a wave hello or a smile over breakfast from time to time wouldn’t be too much to ask.”

“Perhaps it is too much to ask of her. If you’ve been as unhappy as she’s been all these years, you’d forget how to be pleasant and sociable, too.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Giles grumbled.

Knowing that his half-brother also shared the bite of their mother’s indifference didn’t really make up for the hurt she managed to cause, but it was a small relief that he wasn’t the only one she held in such low regard. As much as he hated himself for thinking it, Giles wouldn’t have been the least bit saddened to learn their mother had decided to take up residence somewhere else… permanently.

“Do try to remember that we have very specific obligations this evening,” Isaac said as the carriage reached the brightly lit house.

“Such as?”

Isaac glared at Giles’ feigned naïve expression. “There are some very lucrative business deals to be negotiated in the coming days, and how you carry yourself this evening may make all the difference.”

Giles rolled his eyes. “I am well aware, brother. Don’t worry, I won’t embarrass you and cost you your little fortune.”

“I wish I had half the confidence in you that you seem to have in yourself. If you’ll recall, Father left us nearly penniless, drinking us nearly into destitution. I’m trying to do my part to restore our fortune, the least you could do is to play your own part.”

“I know, and I’m grateful to you for it. But you seem to think that my part is merely to shake hands and smile for every buffoon with two coins to jingle in his pocket. That’s not the sort of thing I am good at,” Giles protested.

“And what are you good at exactly? Hmm? Gambling and luring young ladies into disrepute?”

“It’s a way to pass the time, at least,” Giles answered, ducking when Isaac leaned forward to swat at him.

“No jests this evening, Giles. This is too important. If we fail to secure this contract from Lord Molton for his trading business to the Far East, it will be another year before we can hope to secure such an offer. That will mean another year of scraping out an income by ferrying goods between here and the Continent.”

“I know it’s important, though for the hundredth time, I fail to see why you don’t simply let me help you more. Still, I will do my best, Isaac.”

“And no dalliances this evening, if you please,” his brother said, ignoring his offer as usual. “Surely even you can control yourself for one event.”

Giles looked away. He didn’t need lectures, not this evening or any other time. Isaac had had the benefit of being sent off to school from the moment his mother had married the duke, but as the heir, Giles had had no such luck. He’d spent years living in that house of horrors before he was finally permitted to finish his remaining years abroad. Who did Isaac think he was to come back now and attempt to play the concerned older brother, instructing him on how to deport himself?

“I’ll do my best, Isaac,” Giles said, trying not to sound bitter.

Inside, the ball was precisely like every other he’d attended. Ladies stood in clusters looking very much like flocks of delicate birds, their feathers on full display to catch someone’s eye. Despite his reputation, Giles could still feel eyes on him as he moved through the rooms.

No dalliances, no gambling, just as Isaac said, Giles reminded himself as he accepted a glass of wine from a footman with a tray. He took a long sip, watching the room over the rim of the goblet.

This was going to be a long, dull evening. The dancing began, but Giles had little interest tonight in the games that ladies played when they were trying to pretend to overlook his rakish ways in order to snare a duke. Groups of men stood around like so many peacocks, puffing out their chests and looking important, but he had no desire to mingle among them, either.

Why am I even here? he wondered, looking around with a sinking feeling in his middle.

“There you are, Blackwood. I’ve been meaning to speak with you concerning one of my ventures,” a man announced near his shoulder.

Giles sighed deeply, but then turned and put on a mask of great interest.

“Certainly, Lord Greene. I look forward to hearing about it.”

For nearly half an hour, the earl droned on about this so-called opportunity—which sounded very much like Giles fronting a great deal of money and hoping to gain a share of the profits in the end—leaving him to wonder if this was truly what Isaac had meant about the importance of the evening. Still, Giles nodded and looked intrigued the entire time the man was speaking, which was probably why he was so taken aback when he felt a slight shove from behind.

Giles turned at once, instantly on his guard and ready to defend himself, his glass of wine tumbling from his hand when he instinctively threw out his hands and caught a young lady before she could hit the ground. He remained bent over her, staring into the most beautiful face he had ever seen.


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Tags

duchess, duke, historical romance, lady, manor, mischief, mystery, regency romance, victorian romance

  • Oh the tangled web we weaver when we practice to deceive.
    A great preview.
    Lady Elizabeth and the Duke each have problems.
    But they will all be sorted out by the end of the book.
    Great cover!

  • Loved the preview of this story, Giles having the brunt of his father’s moods I feel sympathy for him also for Arabella &Agnes with their horrid uncle it makes for a very interesting story can’t wait to read rest of the book.

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