Brading Manor, Hertfordshire
The morning had begun quite beautifully. A marvellous night’s sleep, a few jokes shared between Caroline and her lady’s maid, Anna, and even a leisurely stroll through the garden before retreating to the breakfast parlour for breakfast. It had all the makings of the start of a wonderful day.
It was alarming to see how quickly things could go south.
Caroline slowly lowered her napkin and folded her hands in her lap. She took a few discreet, deep breaths to calm herself, but there was no stopping the frightening surge of anger and astonishment that coursed throughout her body. She turned her gaze to her father, watching him as he continued indulging in his meal as if the last thing he’d said hadn’t threatened to turn her life upside down.
“What do you mean?” Caroline asked softly, hardly above a whisper.
Lord Edward Richardson, the Marquess of Brading, glanced up at her before returning his attention back to the plate of eggs and sausage he gorged on. He picked up the folded copy of today’s Times as if it were more important than the current conversation.
“Why do you insist on making me repeat myself, Caroline?” he asked, taking a hearty sip of his coffee. “I said that I have arranged a marriage between you and the Duke of Amesbury.”
She was at a loss for words for a moment. She could only stare at him, at the man whom she’d lived with all her life yet felt like a stranger in this moment. Over the years, his dark brown hair had turned gray, his handsome and chiselled face lined with stress. The man of her childhood, with laughing eyes and a ready smile, had been replaced by a shell of his former self, leaving nothing but a constant frown and curt words in its place. Caroline had felt distance settling between them for some time now but she’d never felt so disconnected from him than this moment.
“That is what I do not understand, Father,” Caroline said, barely holding back the urge to scream. “How could you arrange a marriage with a man I have never met? Without consulting me?”
“Consulting you?” Edward scoffed. “Don’t make me laugh, Caroline. I cannot very well leave such an important decision up to you.”
Her rage deepened. She gripped her skirt, trying not to grind her teeth. If she wasn’t careful, she would respond with irritation and her father’s wrath was far more fearsome than her own.
But an arranged marriage? How in heaven’s name could he do such a thing?
“Father, you know I do not wish to be married in such a manner,” Caroline tried to argue. “I know the Season is coming to an end but I have a number of suitors who have expressed their interest in me—”
“None of them are dukes,” Edward interrupted. “So they are not worth your time.”
“Father, how could you be so—”
“Enough, Caroline. I don’t want to hear your complaints any longer.”
“I would hardly complain as much if what you’re saying made any sense, Father.” His eyes lifted sharply to hers but she didn’t back down, even though she could almost taste the eventual consequences of her actions. “Who is the Duke of Amesbury? Should I know him?”
Edward narrowed his eyes, but instead of snapping back at her, he said, “He is the son of the Dowager Duchess of Amesbury, who was once a schoolmate of your mother’s during their days at a seminary in Essex.”
Caroline’s heart skipped a beat at the mention of her mother. But the warm feeling that was usually associated with her memory did not come this time. “Then have I met the dowager duchess? Or the duke himself, for that matter?”
“I cannot recall that you have. Though perhaps the dowager duchess knew you when you were a young child.”
“Father, that hardly counts,” Caroline complained and was awarded with another look of complete annoyance from her father. She bit her lip, trying to figure out how best to approach this. She couldn’t just sit back and allow him to take control of her future like that. An arranged marriage to a stranger was no better than a death sentence!
“Eat,” Edward ordered, pointing to Caroline’s untouched plate, and she did so only because she did not want to upset him further. “Now I do not want to hear any more complaining about the decision. It has already been made and the duke and dowager duchess will be expecting us in London in three days’ time.”
“I will not go.”
“I cannot go, Father! How can I when you are forcing this upon me, knowing that I wish for nothing more than to be married for love!”
“Love?” Edward threw the newspaper down so hard that it made Caroline flinch. “You’re insisting on defying me for something as absurd as love?”
“Yes, of course! I know that I will not be happy if I am forced to marry someone I do not feel affection for. What if I despise him, Father? What if he is a horrid man who—”
“You have been reading too many of those infernal novels of late, haven’t you?” Edward scoffed in disgust. “I do not want to hear any more. You will marry the Duke of Amesbury. You will serve your purpose as my only daughter, to strengthen the influence of this family.”
Caroline felt her face twist with disgust despite her best attempts to keep her expression neutral. “So is that all I am to you? A pawn to build your status?”
“Isn’t that your only purpose, Caroline?” he asked coldly. Edward pushed his plate away as if he could no longer stomach eating. Caroline was tempted to do the same, his words slicing through her. “In two days’ we will be travelling to our house in London and, the following evening, we will be meeting with the duke and his mother. It will be your first meeting with your future husband so ensure that you are presentable and proper. Do not embarrass me.”
With that, he stood, picked up his newspaper, and stalked out of the breakfast parlour, leaving Caroline staring after him. Her heart was pounding so hard that she was almost certain it echoed around the room. She picked up her fork, only so that she had something to grip tightly as her body grew flushed with anger. Her father’s words kept playing over and over in her head and the more she thought about it, the more upset she became.
An arranged marriage. This day simply could not get any worse.
Had he been waiting until the end of the Season to spring this information on her? If she’d known that he was planning this, she would have put more effort into courting. Every gentleman that came to their estate to call on her would leave with a pat on the shoulder and a polite rejection for their desire to court her. Caroline didn’t want to entertain anyone she did not feel an instantaneous attraction toward and was certain that, in time, that person would find his way to her. But how could that happen now that she was shackled to a man she hardly knew?
With a grunt of exasperation, Caroline shot out of her chair, marching out of the room. She didn’t bother to head up the grand staircase back to her bedchamber to fetch her gloves and her parasol. She simply charged out of the manor, ignoring the looks of surprises from the footmen out in the driveway. Her anger was what spurred her on, hurried and heavy steps taking her to the estate adjacent to hers.
The butler greeted her at the front door but made no attempt to escort her to whomever she was there to see. Considering the fact that this place was akin to a second home to her, there was no need to.
Caroline saw nothing but red as she charged all the way to the drawing room and burst inside. Lydia was already seated in the armchair near the window, working on her embroidery. She gave Caroline a look of surprise as Caroline made her way over to her and sank heavily into the couch by her side.
“Good day to you too, Caroline,” Lydia drawled, resuming her task. “Don’t you think it’s a little early to be visiting?”
Miss Lydia Passmore, daughter of the Baron of Middleton, was nothing if not calm in any situation. Perhaps that was why she and Caroline had become such quick friends. Where Caroline was stubborn and hotheaded, Lydia was always composed and gentle, with a personality that was very amenable to others. Caroline adored her for it and had once wished she could be as demure as her best friend. But right now, her burning rage brought her solace, the only familiar thing now that her world was tilting on its axis.
Caroline rested her head on the back of the couch, staring unseeingly up at the gilded ceiling. “Father has arranged a marriage for me.”
“What?” She heard Lydia shift in her chair to face her. “To whom?”
“The Duke of Amesbury. Have you heard of him?”
“I have not, but I’m certain that my mother has. She knows about everyone in the ton.” Lydia touched her gently on the arm. “That explains why you’ve come marching in here like a mad woman. I assume he does not wish to listen to your protests?”
Remembering the argument only deepened Caroline’s frustration. She put her hands on her face, sighing heavily. “Oh, Lydia, what am I going to do? He does not want to listen to me at all! I fear he has already grown so fond of the idea that no matter what I say, or how I feel about the situation, he will force for this marriage to happen.”
“I do not know what you can do,” Lydia said dismally. “If there is anyone more stubborn than you, Caroline, it’s the marquess. Especially after…”
She didn’t need to finish that thought. Everyone in Herfordshire knew why the Marquess of Brading had become such a cold and unyielding man. The death of a favoured son and heir was bound to do that to a father, Caroline supposed. And being the only child left behind meant that the pressure she’d never felt before was now squarely placed on her shoulders.
Her father certainly did not care that she still grieved as well.
“When will you meet with him?” Lydia asked.
At last, Caroline turned her head to look at her. Lydia looked as lovely as always, with her strawberry blond hair twisted into a chignon at the nape of her neck. Her green eyes sparkled with compassion for Caroline. “In three days’ time. We will be leaving for London in two days.”
“That hardly gives you any time to come to terms with the idea.”
“No amount of time will be enough for that!” Caroline protested. She couldn’t stay still any longer. She leapt out of the couch and began pacing back and forth, running her fingers through her long, auburn hair that she always left free while in the countryside. “I cannot marry him, Lydia. I simply cannot! Oh, the fact that this duke even agreed to such a thing makes me furious. He does not even know me. How does he know I will not make his life completely miserable if we do marry?”
“Perhaps he was forced into this just as much as you were,” Lydia suggested.
“Oh, please,” Caroline scoffed. “He is a duke. Goodness, I haven’t even considered the fact that he might be twice my age! I am only ten-and-nine, Lydia. How could father even consider marrying me off to a forty-year-old man?”
Lydia gave her a patient look. “Caroline, please, there’s no need to come to baseless assumptions.”
“Assumptions about what?”
They both looked to the door as Lydia’s mother, the Baroness of Middleton, entered the drawing room. She looked curiously between the two of them before bustling over to the chaise lounge near where her daughter sat.
Lydia turned to face her. “Mother, do you happen to know the Duke of Amesbury?”
“The Duke of Amesbury?” Lady Middleton echoed, sounding surprised. “Why do you want to know about him?”
“Because my father has decided that we will make a marvellous match,” Caroline stated bitterly.
“A match?” the baroness gasped. “To the duke? Oh, you poor thing.”
Caroline halted her pacing, looking at the baroness in alarm. “Why do you say that?”
“Oh, haven’t you heard? The Duke of Amesbury was quite handsome and popular in the past, but then he joined the army. And when he returned as a colonel and war hero, his reputation with the ladies could not have fallen further.”
The baroness paused, certainly for dramatic effect, and it took all of Caroline’s strength not to urge her to continue.
“He was terribly scarred during his time away, you see,” she went on. “So much so that one can hardly look him in the face! Now, he just hides away from the ton, destined to be a bachelor for the rest of his life.”
“Surely, he does not look so bad,” Lydia said but Lady Middleton shook her head determinedly.
“Believe me when I say that now he has a face that even a mother could not look at. It is quite a pity too. He was well-sought after before his assignment in America. Every mother wanted him as their son-in-law and every lady as their husband. Now, it does not surprise me that he has opted for an arranged marriage, since I’m certain no one else would want him willingly.”
“Mother!” Lydia gasped. “That is far too harsh. Even if that is the case, there is no need to say it so bluntly.”
Lady Middleton blinked bemusedly at her daughter. “Why? It is not like he is actually here to hear us.”
“Yes, but Caroline has no choice but to marry him and you—Caroline…?”
Caroline hardly heard her. She stood as still as a statue, staring at the baroness as her last words echoed in her mind.
“Mother, I think you’ve sent her into a state of shock,” Lydia sighed, going to Caroline’s side. She touched her gently on her arm. “Caroline, I’m sure it is not that bad. Please do not let Mother frighten you.”
“It is the truth!” the baroness exclaimed from behind.
Caroline slowly turned wide eyes to Lydia. “I cannot marry him, Lydia. I simply cannot.”
“Oh, fine, perhaps the idea is not so horrid to be pitiful,” Lady Middleton said before Lydia had a chance to respond. “On the bright side, you are marrying a duke.”
“Which means you will become a duchess,” Lydia added. “Surely that is a good thing.”
Caroline could only shake her head, returning to her spot on the couch. Lady Middleton continued to talk about how the duke had become a recluse from society since returning to England, but Caroline could hardly listen. It didn’t matter anyway.
Injury or not, recluse or no, her father had made up his mind. Which meant that, in the end, she would have to marry the duke. Even though she wanted nothing more than to marry for love alone.
A megrim was coming on and, if he wasn’t careful, it was going to leave him useless for the rest of the day. Still, Russell skipped through the ledger in his hands, feeling the stress of what he read weigh down on him with every passing second.
He’d known when he returned to London that the household funds had dwindled. But he hadn’t been aware of the extent until now. And the deeper he looked, the more desperate the situation became.
With a sigh, he sat back, running his hand over his face. The pounding ache building behind his eyes subsided a bit now that he was looking away. It was coming on to evening now, so perhaps he should simply give up for today and resume the task tomorrow. Save the megrim for another time.
The thought brought a rueful smile to his face, which fell just as quickly when a knock sounded at the door of his study. “Come,” he called.
His butler, Harold, slipped into the room and gave him a deep bow. “Please pardon the intrusion, Your Grace.”
“What is the matter, Harold?”
“Yet another part of the ceiling has collapsed in the upstairs chambers due to the leaking roof.”
And just like that, the megrim arrived with full force.
Russell pinched the bridge of his nose, drawing in a slow breath. It had only been a few months since his return to England and already three parts of the roof had caved in. It was as if the old castle had been waiting for him to come back before falling to pieces. Water damage to the roof, a chimney that needed replacing, and floorboards that threatened to give out from underneath him when he walked, was what had awaited him in his family home in Portland Square. And his father had done such a shoddy job of managing their finances that they hardly had any funds to do the repairs.
Russell had considered just selling the mansion and purchasing a small home in Mayfair but his mother had insisted that they do the repairs instead, wanting it to remain in the family. Russell had wanted the same but was it really worth the stress of worrying about limited funds while the mansion was falling apart around their heads?
“Thank you for informing me, Harold,” Russell said after a long moment.
“Will you be looking at the damage yourself, Your Grace?”
“Soon.” If he dared to do so now, Russell was afraid the stress might end him, just as it had his father.
“As you wish, Your Grace.” Harold bowed once more before leaving the room.
Russell’s thoughts grew louder than ever now that he was gone. His mother’s suggestion to fixing their money troubles came rushing back to him, filling him with reluctance and despair. He had to marry.
He couldn’t deny that the suggestion made sense. The quickest way to finding the funds they needed to fix the mansion was to marry a lady with a large dowry. Not to mention the fact that he would finally be fulfilling his duties of finding a wife to produce heirs to carry on the dukedom. It was certainly the best case scenario for a normal lord.
But he was not a normal gentleman. Nothing about him was normal anymore.
His mood darkening at the thought of his situation, Russell rose, fetching his coat as he left the study. He called for a carriage, waiting impatiently on the mansion’s porch until it was ready. He climbed in and ordered that he be taken to his favourite tavern, before he settled in and prepared for the short journey.
Usually, he felt at peace making his way to this tavern. But right now, Russell felt nothing but turmoil, his mind and his heart at war. Deep down, he knew his mother was right. He had to marry, had to carry on his duties. He had to do what was best for the dukedom and his family home. But how could she go ahead and arrange a marriage with the daughter of the Marquess of Brading without so much as a word to him? And now he was expected to meet with his future wife and family in three days?
He did not want to marry. As a matter of fact, nothing would be more upsetting than coming face to face with a lady who wanted nothing more to do with him than he wanted to do with her. He could already picture the abhorrence and disgust on her face when she finally met him. He closed his eyes to the picturesque view of the cloudy evening sky and suppressed a shudder.
The carriage pulled in close to the tavern already teeming with its regulars. Russell pulled the hood of his cloak over his head, careful to conceal his face whenever he was going out in public. He didn’t make much of a habit leaving his home, not since the last time he’d left for a ball and returned a public disgrace.
Banishing the memory, he entered the raucous tavern, scanning the crowded space. Just as he’d expected, a lanky figure sat in the furthest corner of the tavern, already nursing a tankard.
Russell expertly weaved his way through the already drunken patrons and sank into the chair opposite him. “Don’t tell me you’re already in your cups,” Russell drawled. “I need a listening ear and you’re only half a man when you’re inebriated.”
Captain Lucas King raised humor-filled eyes to Russell, cocking his head to the side. His blond hair had grown out since the last time Russell had seen him, which was while he was still stationed in America. Now, Russell was retired from the army as a colonel but Lucas still served, though he was currently on leave from his duties. They were childhood friends who had always dreamed of serving in the King’s army together, a dream that Russell was already beginning to regret.
“I came here to get away from you and your troubles,” Lucas said, leaning back to study him. Russell ignored him, signaling to the tavern owner that he also wanted a tankard of ale. It wasn’t as smooth as the whiskey and brandy Russell had at home, but he’d developed a taste for it.
“That’s too bad. Because, right now, I have more than enough to go around.”
Lucas chuckled. Russell only grimaced as his tankard came down before him. He took a large swig, letting out a sigh.
“To what do I owe the pleasure then?” Lucas asked.
“Mother has arranged a marriage between the daughter of the Marquess of Brading and I.”
“That doesn’t sound like troubles to me. As a matter of fact, it sounds like you will finally have a lovely woman to warm your bed.”
“You’re well aware that marriage is the last thing I want.” Russell couldn’t help sighing again. “She wishes for me to use the lady’s large dowry to repair our house, since it is currently falling apart around us.”
“Did the last duke neglect it that much?”
“I was not aware of the extent until I returned home. And our current funds will not allow for anything more than a shoddy fix.”
“Well, then that’s a win-win situation, isn’t it? A wife and enough funds to fix your family home? What is the problem?”
“This is.” Russell pulled his cloak back, revealing the part of himself he hated the most. Lucas only skimmed his gaze over the severe powder burns decorating the left side of Russell’s face before he shrugged, his lips lifting up into a grin.
“Look on the bright side, Russell,” Lucas laughed. “With a face like yours, you should be lucky to get the chance of a wife at all.”
“You aren’t half as funny as you think you are,” Russell grumbled but Lucas was already doubling over in laughter. Russell only drained his ale and asked for another.
“All right, all right, I’ll stop with the jests,” Lucas promised, though he was still chuckling to himself. “I think you’re thinking too pessimistically. For all you know, the lady could be quite nice. And if she doesn’t run at the sight of you, then you will get her dowry to please your mother and restore the castle. And what is more, you may even provide an heir if she is nice enough.”
Russell raised a dubious brow. “Are you telling me that I have nothing to complain about right now?”
Lucas lifted both hands in surrender. “The only thing I’m saying is that perhaps all is not as terrible as you might think it is.”
Russell didn’t bother to respond to that. Lucas wouldn’t understand how he felt. He hadn’t had to endure countless scathing whispers and gossip that defamed his character to nothing but an ugly beast that did not deserve love. In the face of all that, it only made sense that he was on edge about meeting a lady who would soon become his wife. If she could even stomach the sight of him in the first place, that was, which was already saying too much.
Despite Lucas’ optimistic outlook, Russell couldn’t pull himself out of his depressive thoughts. All he could think about was his arranged betrothed screaming and running the first time she took note of his scars. She wouldn’t care that he’d sustained them in battle, when he’d narrowly dodged the blast of a shotgun pointed directly at him. She wouldn’t care that he was now regaled by his peers for the time he’d served, which had allowed him to retire at the young age of six-and-twenty. All that would matter to his future wife was the fact that he was so scarred that he was a terror to look at. She wouldn’t want to be near him, let alone bear his children.
But perhaps Lucas was right. She could turn out to be wonderful, the sort of lady who cared about one’s heart rather than their appearance. Perhaps he was truly lucky enough to find someone who would not be repulsed by him. He could at least try to do his best to make the dinner go smoothly. For his mother’s sake, at least.
And he could only hope that Lady Caroline Richardson didn’t ruin the sliver of confidence he had left.
“Forgive me, my lady, but it is quite difficult applying the rouge when you are scowling like that.”
Caroline let out a breath of frustration, trying to relax her features. She hadn’t realized that she’d been scowling, though she wasn’t surprised at all. All day she’d been thinking about the dreaded dinner and now that it was about to happen, Caroline wished she could simply run away.
That would be nice, she thought. To just get up and leave these accursed responsibilities behind. Perhaps then she could find her one true love rather than be a pawn for her father’s ambitions.
“Oh, you look lovely.” Anna fussed over her, gentle fingers pushing Caroline’s head up as she painted her cheeks the faintest shade of pink. Caroline hated enhancing her features with this cosmetic preparation and never thought it was necessary even though she had always had a naturally pale complexion. But her father had said to look her best tonight, so she supposed she had no choice but to put in more effort than she usually did.
Caroline grimaced at what she glimpsed in the mirror of her vanity table. Anna had styled her long auburn hair on the top of her head in perfect ringlets that tumbled down the side of her face. Smaller curls framed her temple and the nape of her neck. The lace trimmings on the bodice of her gown were a deep purple that greatly accentuated her light grey eyes while the rest of her slim frame was draped by the lavender-coloured dinner gown. She puckered her full lips for Anna to brush the faintest bit of rouge on top and couldn’t help but admire how much it brightened her face. Which only upset her further. That dreaded duke wasn’t worth all this effort!
“Now I’m all finished!” Anna stepped back with a proud smile, observing her work. “You look absolutely beautiful, milady.”
“Thank you, Anna. I wished I felt as good on the inside. It feels as if I have a ball of dread sitting in the pit of my stomach.”
Anna’s thin brown eyebrows knitted together in a frown. “I simply cannot understand you, Lady Caroline. Ever since we left Hertfordshire you have been complaining about this dinner as if you are on your way to the gallows. Is it truly that horrific?”
“For me it is!” Caroline leapt out of her chair, unable to keep still. She paced from one end of her bedchamber to the other. It was far smaller than the one she had at Brading Manor. She’d always felt comfortable here, despite the far smaller size of the place, but now it felt as if she’d been trapped in a holding cell, awaiting her final sentencing.
“But why, milady?” Anna pressed. She tucked a stray lock of mousy brown hair under her cap. “You will be marrying a duke! Isn’t that every lady’s dream?”
“Not any lady I know,” Caroline denied with a vehement shake of her head. “Perhaps it is comforting to know that being married to a duke secures one’s future, but I do not care about such things. I want to marry for love. I want to know what it is like to gaze upon my husband and feel warmth and affection spreading throughout my body.”
“And you will not receive that through this marriage?”
“I hardly think so.” Caroline sighed, crossing her arms in a huff. “You must consider me a pampered child, Anna.”
Anna kept her silence, a sure indication that what Caroline said was right. Even though Caroline considered them friends, since Anna had been her lady’s maid since her coming out two years ago, she knew Anna wouldn’t dare to overstep her boundaries by admitting that the mistress she served could be a little…over-indulged. But she wasn’t going to lie to Caroline either.
Caroline wasn’t bothered by her lack of response. She was quite self-aware. She spent most of her life doing whatever she wanted, having anything she asked for handed to her in a heartbeat. Not for a second did she consider that her freedom and her future would be handed over like this without even so much as a word to her.
“You just don’t understand, Anna,” Caroline sighed. “It doesn’t matter that he is a duke or that he is scarred. I did not choose him for myself. He was chosen for me.”
“The Duke of Amesbury bears scars?” Anna questioned, eyes growing wide.
“That is what Lady Middleton says, but that hardly matters to me. All that matters is that I am meant to meet the gentleman who will become my future husband for the first time today. Have you ever heard anything so outrageous, Anna?”
“Many times, milady,” Anna stated bluntly. “A duke is a duke. I think it would be rather wonderful working for a duchess.”
Caroline only shook her head. She looked sadly at the clock above her fireplace mantle. “No one seems to understand me.”
“I understand you just fine, Lady Caroline,” Anna assured her.
“If Colin were here he would never had allowed such a thing to happen,” Caroline stated. Her simmering anger forced away the usual pinches of sadness she would feel at the memory of her brother. “If he were here, Father never would have done such a thing in the first place.”
“Perhaps,” Anna said, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
But Caroline spurred on, happy to have someone who would hear her protests without instantly shutting her down. “And Mother as well! I’m sure that she never would have let Father consider the idea. I just know it.”
“I have heard that Lord and Lady Brading were quite in love before her death.”
Caroline reached up, wrapping her fingers around the locket that always laid there. She’d had the locket with her for as long as she could remember and, in moments like these, it gave her strength. She wished her mother was still alive so that she could confide in her about how terrible she thought this decision was. Even though Caroline could not remember her very well, deep down she knew that the late Marchioness of Brading would have been by her side.
“But there is nothing to be done about it now,” Anna continued saying, drawing Caroline out of her dour thoughts. She came to her side, but only to usher Caroline towards the door. “For now, perhaps it may be best if you listened to what your father said. I’d hate for you to incur the marquess’ wrath.”
Caroline would hate that just as much, though defying him was rather tempting in this moment. But she knew better than to upset him any further. He was already at his wit’s end with her. For the past three days she had been trying to convince him to let go of this silly marriage and let her live her life how she wanted to. Which meant she’d only been adding fuel to a fire that was bound to explode on her if she was not careful.
Caroline suppressed another sigh, letting Anna guide her out the door and into the hallway. As they made their way down to the first floor, Caroline fell quiet, studying the paintings that adorned the walls. Once upon a time, nearly all the residences owned by Marquess Brading had been full of paintings of his family—of the late Marchioness, of the now deceased heir, of Caroline. Now, they had all been removed one by one as if he wanted no reminder that they had once lived. Replaced by simple paintings of landscape, what little warmth that had been left in this townhouse had been sapped. This place was far colder than it once was.
They came to the landing and Caroline’s steps grew heavier. She stopped, glancing at the front door where, soon enough, the duke and his mother would be arriving.
“Won’t you make your way to the parlour to wait, milady?” Anna asked from behind. Her question fell flat, as if she already knew the answer.
Caroline whirled to face her. “Quick, Anna. Fetch me my parasol and a cloak. I should still have a bit of savings from the last allowance Father gave me. Surely that should be enough.”
Anna widened her eyes at her. “Enough for what?”
“To run away to Scotland, of course.”
Anna blinked once. Slowly, she said, “Surely you cannot be serious, Lady Caroline.”
“I am serious as a judge. But I cannot do it without you.” Determination surging in her limbs, Caroline grabbed the skirt of her dress and began making her way back to the stairs. “Very well, I will pack my things while you ready a horse for me. If we are quick enough, we can—”
“The duke has arrived, milady. I can hear their carriage.”
Caroline halted in her tracks, heart sinking. She turned her attention back to the door with a look of horror. “Don’t tell me we’re too late,” she whispered.
“We were too late from the moment we arrived in London, Lady Caroline,” Anna said, the slightest bit of exasperation seeping into her voice. “And it never would have worked anyhow. Lord Brading would have caught up to you before you could even cross the border.”
Caroline knew that much. She supposed it was a bit mad entertaining the thought of running away to Scotland because she did not get her way. But now that the duke was here, there was no turning back.
Caroline approached the door, peering out the windows to the side of it. Sure enough, a tasteful carriage was coming to a stop on the other side of the gate leading onto the property, bearing a crest on the side of it. The coachman hopped down from in front and hurried around to open the door. Caroline turned away before she could see who emerged, drawing in a deep breath.
Anna raised her brows expectantly. “Are you ready?”
She met Anna’s eyes, pulling her shoulders back with a bravado that she did not feel. “I fear I will never be, Anna. But let us get this over with.”
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel – “The Brooding Duke”. It will be live soon!