County Durham, England
Felicity was back.
Calder strode from the drawing room at his estate, Hartwood, via the same doorway his younger sisters had just used to depart. But he didn’t follow them. He went in search of a footman and sent him to the stables to see that a groom saddled his horse. After sending another footman to fetch his greatcoat, hat, and gloves, Calder made his way outside. A short while later, he raced toward the village of Hartwell.
Founded in the Middle Ages, Hartwell was built around a center market square. The spire of St. Cuthbert’s, the twelfth-century church, stood sentinel over the quaint gathering of shops and cottages.
With the holiday season upon them, doors and windows were decorated with festive greenery. There was, all around, an aura of good cheer. It did not, however, permeate Calder’s carefully constructed exterior. Words such as “quaint” and “festive” and “joy” had no place in his heart.
The mere thought of that organ made his squeeze. Or, more likely, it was the knowledge that Felicity Templeton—no, she was Felicity Garland now—was near.
Calder knew her mother had returned to Hartwell last year, but he’d gone out of his way to avoid her. Even so, he was aware of precisely where she lived. How else could he be certain to steer clear of her?
Turning his horse down Kingston Street, he eyed Mrs. Templeton’s cottage farther down the road. Like its neighbors, the home was festooned with pine boughs. Smoke wafted from the chimney, rising above the thatched roof.
He realized he didn’t know what he meant to do. Speak to her? He shuddered inwardly at the thought. Felicity had run off over a decade ago, breaking his heart.
Yet, he had plenty he wanted to say to her. His mind raged with questions and anger. Why had she left without a word?
Except he knew why. His father had paid her family, securing their future so that marriage to the heir to a dukedom wasn’t necessary. It appeared that had been her only motivation in attaching herself to him in courtship. Not love or attraction or affection of any kind—she’d been driven purely by avarice.
Calder took a deep breath. Cold winter air filled his lungs, freezing his insides the way everyone presumed they were. He had a heart of ice and a hollow soul. So they said.
And they weren’t wrong.
A figure stepped out of the cottage, followed by another. Calder moved his horse to a side lane, positioning himself behind a tree.
The two women passed through the gate into the street and linked arms. Even from this distance, Felicity was precisely as he remembered. Tall and graced with curves that could make a man weep with want, her features were so finely honed, surely every artist in the kingdom should want to paint her. Blonde curls peeked from beneath the rim of her bonnet. She laughed at something her mother said, the lilting song of her voice somehow easing the ache inside him.
Only for a moment. As she moved along the street on the other side, he saw her face more clearly—the delicate arch of her brows, the gentle sweep of her nose, the sculpted beauty of her cheekbones and jawline. But his gaze settled on her mouth, with its lush pink lips that could kiss and seduce him like no one else.
Not that she’d actually seduced him, not completely. He’d anticipated taking her to bed when they wed. That dream had died. Or, perhaps more accurately, had been stolen.
Still, he feasted on her, his gaze moving hungrily over her to memorize every new detail—the crinkles around her eyes when she smiled, the air of confidence and perhaps wisdom, the smart way she surveyed her surroundings.
Bloody hell. She was looking this way.
Calder turned his horse and cantered down the lane toward Shield Street, the main thoroughfare that cut through the village. His heart beat quickly, and, if he were honest, he would realize it wasn’t due to the ride. But he refused to allow it to be because of Felicity. He’d seen her, and that was enough.
Except, knowing she was near was likely to be a fracture in his mind.
“Good afternoon, Your Grace.”
Calder had slowed his mount as he’d turned onto Shield Street. Blinking, he pulled himself from the dark pit of his thoughts and focused on the man addressing him. Alfie Tucket, the cabinetmaker, stood outside his shop. He bowed, bending his tall form before straightening once more.
“Good afternoon,” Calder said. He might be a blackguard, but he was also polite. Sometimes.
“On your way to Shield’s End?” Tucket asked, blinking as he looked up at Calder on his horse.
Calder realized he’d been riding in that direction—the old house stood at the end of Shield Street, hence its name. Rather, it had stood. The structure had burned over a week ago.
“No,” he answered, even as he considered going to see it. Beyond his curiosity, he should care about the destruction since the property belonged to his brother-in-law. The man he’d forbidden his sister to marry.
And whom she’d wed last week.
Tucket shifted his weight, looking slightly uncomfortable. His father was the caretaker at Shield’s End. It was possible, if not likely, that Tucket knew that Calder hadn’t visited the damaged house and that he hadn’t attended his sister’s wedding.
There it was again. That sharp, brief twinge in his chest. Though he didn’t react, Calder never failed to register the sensation.
Calder turned his horse once more and rode in the opposite direction from Shield’s End, toward Hartwood, which stood atop a hill that overlooked the village. The dukes of Hartwell had lived there for centuries. Would they still?
Only if Calder married, and though he was now thirty, he couldn’t be moved to take a wife. Not when Felicity still lived in the recesses of his mind.
Time to evict her, his mind chided.
He thought he had, but now that she was here… He shook his head. Perhaps he could find a way to make her leave again. Or, if he were lucky, her stay would only be temporary.
Arriving at the Hartwood stable, Calder turned the care of his horse, something he typically saw to himself, over to a groom. A ripple of unease ran through him. He needed to walk. Curling his tongue, he whistled. A moment later, his dark red-brown greyhound bounded to his side.
Calder stroked the dog’s head, scratching her behind the ears. As Calder set off from the stable yard, Isis fell in beside him. They walked past the gardens to where the hill began to slope. Nestled at the base was the family crypt, a place Calder never went.
There lay tragedy and pain—a parent he missed with every fiber of his being and another he loathed with equal vehemence.
The question that had come to his mind earlier returned: would there be any more dukes of Hartwell? He ought to ensure there weren’t, at least not from his line. There had to be a cousin somewhere who would inherit. It would serve Calder’s father right to have the title pass to some distant relative. Or to pass to no one at all.
The chill in Calder’s heart hardened to stone as he thought of the man who’d raised him. The man everyone else remembered fondly, particularly his sisters. They hadn’t been subjected to his high expectations, his ruthless demands for perfection at all costs. He hadn’t paid the men they’d fallen in love with to leave and then crowed about how right he’d been about them all along.
The twinge pinched his chest again. Perhaps he should have supported his sister’s marriage. He barely knew her husband, the Earl of Buckleigh, but from what he’d seen, the man was a volatile fighter, a pugilist regarded for his efficient brutality in the ring. And yet, he couldn’t see his sweet, fierce youngest sister, Bianca, marrying someone like that.
Calder ran his gloved fingers over Isis’s head. “It doesn’t matter, does it, girl?” he asked softly. “He wanted me to be a beast, and so I am.”
Isis nudged his hand in response then sat down beside him, content just to be next to him. She might be the actual beast, but she was far kinder and more loving than he.
“I don’t really deserve you,” he murmured.
He looked down into her large brown eyes that gazed at him so adoringly. Squatting, he stroked her neck and sides with both hands. Then he looked back toward the crypt and spoke to the man he despised.
“I am alone, and I shall probably remain that way. I hope that taunts you for an eternity.”
Calder rose and turned, striding back toward the house with Isis trotting alongside him.
Yes, his father had raised him to be ruthless and unyielding. And since Calder strove to excel in everything, that meant he was as cold and unforgiving as one could be.
“You look lovely, dear.”
Felicity donned her cloak just before opening the door for her mother. “Thank you, as do you, Mama.” She picked up the small bag, which held her dancing slippers—Mama wouldn’t be dancing since she was still somewhat recovering from her illness—and followed her mother out into the cold, dark evening.
“I’m so looking forward to the assembly,” Mama said as Felicity linked arms with her. “How many years has it been?”
“Ten.” Felicity recalled the last assembly she’d attended in Hartwell. She’d been eighteen and so eager to see her love when he came home from Oxford for the holiday. They’d spent the prior summer together, enjoying every moment possible in each other’s company, dreaming of the future in the warmth from the sun and from the passion of their stolen kisses.
Only, he hadn’t come. His father had explained that he wouldn’t be returning for the holidays, and he’d given her a letter. Brief and cold, the words written by her love had stated in plain terms that they had no future together.
When her father had suggested they move to York where her older brother would be practicing law, she’d leapt at the chance to leave Hartwell—and her broken heart—behind. She hadn’t been back since.
“You came last year, didn’t you?” Felicity glanced over at her mother, whose white-blonde hair was swept into a fashionable style, though it was partially obscured by the hood of her cloak, which she’d pulled up as they’d left the house. It was important she keep warm after having been ill. Her ailment had been the only thing that could draw Felicity back, and so here she was. She had to admit she’d missed the village and its people, especially at this time of year. Christmas in York couldn’t come close to the charm and tradition of Hartwell.
“I did, but it wasn’t the same without your father.” She summoned a smile as she looked at Felicity. “And you.” Mama reached over and patted Felicity’s hand.
Papa had died last fall—it was hard to believe it had been over a year already. Awash in grief, Mama had wanted to escape from the house she’d shared with her husband for the past decade, where he’d fallen ill and died. Coming back to Hartwell, where she still had friends and a cousin, had made sense despite Felicity trying to dissuade her.
But that had been selfishness on Felicity’s part. Hartwell, for all the good memories it held, would always be the place where she’d lost her innocence, where she’d been a fool to give her heart so completely.
“I’m so glad you’re with me this year,” Mama said, smiling. “And I do hope you’re here to stay.”
That was an ongoing debate. Felicity had a home and friends back in York. Yet, it was hard to deny her mother’s request. Felicity had begun to hope she could talk her into returning to York and living with Felicity.
“Or you’re going to come back to York with me. I know you miss your friends.” Felicity flashed her a smile, and her mother laughed.
“Don’t try to sway me with your father’s charm. I am immune.”
She wasn’t either, but Felicity only chuckled in response.
Mama slid her a probing look. “Are you looking forward to seeing anyone in particular? You’ve kept to yourself for the most part since returning.”
It had only been a handful of weeks, really. “I’ve been busy helping you.”
“Yes, and I’m delighted to have you here with me. I know you are the reason for my recovery.”
“Not entirely.” Felicity knew her presence had helped. “Dr. Fisk had a great deal to do with it.”
“You’re right, of course. In fact, I wonder if he might have been able to help your father.” Her voice turned sad. “We should have returned to Hartwell when he became sick.”
Felicity squeezed her mother’s arm gently. “You mustn’t think like that. You told Dr. Fisk about Papa’s illness, and he said there was likely nothing he could do, that you’d done your best to care for him.”
“It’s hard not to feel regret,” Mama said softly. “But then you seem to be unaffected by that emotion.”
Hardly. Felicity regretted more than she admitted, all of it to do with Calder Stafford. She’d almost thought of him as “Chill,” the nickname from his youth when he’d been the Earl of Chilton. Now, however, he was the Duke of Hartwood. She’d never liked calling him Chill—the cool moniker hadn’t made sense to her, not when she thought of him as so warm and caring.
How wrong she’d been.
They reached the assembly hall, where a line of carriages dropped off elegantly clad attendees. Light and conversation poured from the building, lending a festive air. A tremor of anxiousness rippled across Felicity’s shoulders. She wasn’t sure she was ready to face Calder.
She chided herself internally. She refused to be intimidated by him or the prospect of seeing him again. She was ten years older, widowed, and she’d lived on her own the past two years. The young girl he’d so callously hurt was long gone.
Holding her head high, she escorted her mother into the hall. In the vestibule, a footman took their outer garments, and Felicity swapped her boots for her dancing slippers.
They strolled into the ballroom, which was already quite full. Young ladies giggled in the corner, while a group of young bucks tried to appear composed as they surveyed the room, their gazes continually returning to the young ladies.
Felicity smiled to herself. She remembered what it felt like to be youthful and excited, anticipation for the future—the unknown—coursing through her.
They walked to an area on the other side of the ballroom that had been arranged with seating that provided an excellent view of the dance floor.
Eyeing a chair, Felicity inclined her head. “Come, Mama. You must sit. Otherwise, I will rethink my decision to allow you to come. You are still recovering.”
“Oh, pooh. I’m fine, dear. But yes, a chair would not come amiss.”
Turning her head slightly, Felicity saw a pair of familiar faces—Calder’s sisters. Her heart paused as she glanced around in search of him. Not seeing him, she exhaled with relief as his sisters, along with a gentleman, came toward her. Felicity dipped into a curtsey. “Good evening Lady Darlington and Lady…Buckleigh, is it?”
“Yes,” Bianca, Calder’s youngest sister who had very recently wed the Earl of Buckleigh, answered. “Allow me to present my husband, the Earl of Buckleigh. Ash, this is Mrs. Felicity Garland.” Her blue eyes glowed with warmth.
Ash inclined his head. “Of course I remember you, Mrs. Garland.”
Surprise leapt through Felicity as she rose from her curtsey. “Ash, as in little Ashton Rutledge? I would not have recognized you.”
“None of us did,” Bianca said with a laugh, a dark curl grazing her temple.
“How marvelous to see you all.” Felicity allowed her gaze to briefly scan the ballroom once more. “Where is your brother? I’ve yet to encounter him since I returned to Hartwell.” She wasn’t asking because she wanted to see him, but because if he were here, she wanted to know. To be on guard.
Poppy, the older of the two and the Marchioness of Darlington, and Bianca exchanged a wary look. “I doubt he’ll be here this evening,” Poppy answered. “He’s not very social these days. The dukedom keeps him quite busy.”
Felicity was shocked to feel a spark of disappointment. “That’s too bad. I’d looked forward to seeing him. I suppose I’ll just have to pay a call.” The words came out because Felicity always endeavored to be polite. She had no intention of calling on him.
It appeared his sisters didn’t think visiting was a good idea. Bianca snapped a look toward Poppy and opened her mouth to speak. However, Poppy cut her off, saying to Felicity, “Perhaps send him a note asking when he receives visitors.” Her lips curved into a serene smile, likely meant to smooth any upset Felicity might have detected. Clearly, she wasn’t imagining their discomfort.
The sound of the Earl of Buckleigh inhaling sharply drew Felicity’s attention. But the earl was fixated on the entrance. “He’s here.” His tone was flat and yet the two simple words sliced through Felicity with the quick, terrifying efficiency of a long sword from days of old.
Felicity felt her mother pat her arm, but her gaze was trained on Calder. Tall, with broad shoulders that had once made her swoon, he filled the doorway. His crystalline eyes swept over the assembly, his expression impassive.
Had the ballroom gone quiet? Not entirely, for there was a faint buzzing in Felicity’s ears as she beheld her former love for the first time in over a decade.
Then she felt the full force of his attention as his gaze settled wholly and purposely on her. Heat danced along her skin. Her pulse sped.
He started toward them, and she felt utterly torn. Part of her wanted to flee. Another part of her wanted to rush to meet him. The largest part of her wanted to stand firmly and call him out for his reprehensible behavior ten years ago.
She opted for the latter. Rather, part of the latter. Or maybe it was really that she couldn’t seem to move beneath the weight of his stare. Blast, she hoped it wasn’t that, and yet feared that was precisely the case.
He came to a stop next to Poppy. “Good evening.” His voice, so deep and silky, like rich, plush velvet, glided over her, eliciting an almost physical response. She felt as though she might sway toward him, her body reacting to his familiarity. But no, he wasn’t familiar. This man was a stranger.
She noted the changes in his appearance. His shoulders seemed even broader, if that were possible. His face was more stark as evidenced by the lines around his mouth and the stern set of his jaw. He looked like a man who rarely smiled. The black of his evening clothes gleamed with importance and wealth beneath the flickering chandeliers. He looked every bit a duke and nothing like the young man who’d chased her across a meadow, his dark hair falling across his forehead as he laughed when he caught her.
Poppy turned toward him. “Good evening.”
Felicity dropped into another, deeper, curtsey and then assisted her mother in doing the same. “Your Grace, I was just telling your sisters how I looked forward to seeing you.” Again, politeness seemed to have taken over her tongue.
“Did you? How surprising after all this time.” Calder sounded every bit as cold as she’d imagined him to be given the way he’d rejected her, not at all the young man she’d actually known.
“Yes, it’s been many years. I do hope we’ll find time to visit.” Felicity allowed a bit of sauce into her tone. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to see my mother to a chair.”
Calder looked at her mother, and for a brief moment, Felicity thought he meant to say something to her—something obnoxious. Before she could think of how to respond if he did, Buckleigh moved toward them, presenting his arm to Felicity’s mother. “Allow me to help.”
“Thank you, Lord Buckleigh,” Mama said, taking his arm.
“I’ll be right there, Mama.” Felicity watched as they walked away, then looked back to Calder.
“Why are you here?” he asked her sharply, his voice low, but she feared at least Poppy and Bianca could hear.
How dare he question her like that in public? Felicity stiffened. “Everyone comes to the assembly.”
“Not here at the assembly, here in Hartwell.” The outer edge of his lip curled slightly.
“My mother returned to Hartwell last year, and several weeks ago, she became ill. I came to take care of her.” Why did she feel so defensive? She didn’t have to explain herself to him. On the contrary, if anyone was owed an explanation, it was her.
“So your visit is temporary.” There was a hopeful edge to his tone.
It seemed he would like her to say yes. So she said, “I haven’t yet decided.” She sent a smile toward his sisters, making it clear the expression was for them and not him. “I’m especially glad to be here for the holidays. No one celebrates better than the people of Hartwell.” Schooling her features into a mask of concern, she shifted her gaze back to Calder. “I am looking forward to St. Stephen’s Day, but I was sad to hear Hartwood would not be hosting the event. I’d feared you were ill.” She couldn’t think of why else he wouldn’t be hosting it. The dukes of Hartwell had done so for generations.
“I am not, as you can see.”
Since he’d decided to speak plainly, so would she. “You don’t appear to be, and yet you aren’t quite the man I remember.” Felicity shook her head. She supposed she’d hoped there was a good reason for his rejection ten years ago. A part of her hoped he’d gone on to be happy. She had—as well as she could. She’d loved her husband, but it hadn’t ever been the same as what she’d felt for Calder. In fact, she often wondered if their time together had been a dream, that her recollections were somehow a delusion. “But then it’s been over a decade.”
“Yes, people change over time. And some people change overnight.” Calder’s eyes burned with a cavalier intensity. “I’m not sure the woman I remember ever existed.”
Felicity stared at him, her insides stalling as if she were turning to stone. What was he going on about? That was what she would have said about him.
Poppy reached for her brother’s arm. “Calder, perhaps we should—”
He snapped his gaze toward her. “Don’t touch me. I will say what I like.”
“Not to my wife, you won’t.” Poppy’s husband, the Marquess of Darlington—at least that was who Felicity believed him to be given that he’d referred to Poppy as his wife—stepped between brother and sister.
Poppy seemed surprised to see the marquess but quickly recovered. She glanced about, whispering, “Calder, you’re causing a scene.”
Calder’s gaze darkened, and the marquess took an infinitesimal step toward him. “Careful, Chill, don’t let this scene escalate into something else.”
What would happen? More importantly, what had become of Calder? For the first time, Felicity felt something she never imagined feeling toward him—concern and maybe a flash of pity.
Calder glared at all of them before settling a particularly horrid stare on Felicity. “I’ve come to see what I needed to. And now I am free.”
He turned abruptly and stalked from the assembly. Felicity snapped her jaw closed before she could gape after him, her mind and body coursing with agitation. What had just occurred?
Darlington turned to Poppy. “I didn’t mean to drive him away.”
“It was for the best,” she murmured.
He offered her his arm. “Shall we take a turn?”
Felicity barely acknowledged that they’d left as she worked to understand why Calder had behaved in such a fashion. He’d said the woman he knew had never existed. She tried to recall the letter he’d written her, words she’d once committed to memory but had since wiped from her mind.
He’d said he wouldn’t be courting her or proposing marriage as they’d discussed. He’d said his duty required him to find a more suitable wife. As the daughter of a farmer, she’d feared they had no future, but he’d assured her endlessly that he intended to make her his wife.
Until he’d written the letter and failed to come home for Christmas.
That was when she’d realized it had all been a lie.Return to Joy to the Duke