If The Duke Dares | Darcy Burke | Author Darcy Burke
Darcy Burke

Excerpt: If the Duke Dares

Book 1: Rogue Rules

The Rogue Rules

Never be alone with a rogue.

Never flirt with a rogue.

Never give a rogue a chance.

Never doubt a rogue’s reputation.

Never believe a rogue’s pledge of love or devotion.

Never trust a rogue to change.

Never allow a rogue to see your heart.

Ruin the rogue before he can ruin you.

 

Chapter One

Weston, England, August, 1814

The windows of the small sitting room of the Weston Hotel provided a sweeping view of the beach below. Persephone Barclay and her sister, along with their four friends, spent most of their afternoons there, having commandeered it for the month of August for three years running now. They sipped tea, read from books and newspapers, and shared everything.

This afternoon, they were missing one of their number, Persephone’s younger sister, Pandora, as she had consented to walk with the Earl of Banemore. Bane, as he was known, possessed a rakish reputation, but he’d proclaimed himself enamored of Pandora, and she was wholly in love with him—or so she’d confided to Persephone.

Persephone knew from experience that infatuation was not love, and only time would tell which of those Pandora was truly experiencing. She’d counseled Pandora to be cautious with the earl, but her sister was so wonderfully giddy that Persephone had also supported her desire to spend time with him.

Their walk would be chaperoned by Persephone’s and Pandora’s mother, the Baroness Radstock. A stiff and demanding woman, the baroness was positively ecstatic that the heir to a dukedom was courting her daughter.

The door burst open, and Pandora hurried inside. Her pretty, heart-shaped face was red, as were her eyes. She looked like she’d been crying.

Persephone leapt up from the settee she was sharing with Min—Lady Minerva Halifax, daughter of the Duke of Henlow. “Pandora, what’s happened?”

“Utter disaster.” Pandora buried her face in her hands and cried.

As Persephone put her arm around her sister and guided her toward the settee, Min jumped up and closed the door. Helping Pandora to sit, Persephone kept her arm about her, hating the way her sister’s shoulders were shaking. Whatever had happened must be truly awful for her to be reacting so poorly.

Min sat down on Pandora’s other side, putting her hand on Pandora’s back and murmuring words of comfort. With sable hair, delicately arched brows, patrician features, and pale gray eyes, Min was the embodiment of a proper Society miss, though she hadn’t yet had a London Season. Her gaze met Persephone’s with sympathy and concern.

The entire room had fallen into a worried silence except for Pandora’s sobbing. After a few moments, Pandora drew a ragged breath and wiped her hands over her eyes. “Forgive me, I’m completely overwrought.”

“Please tell me this isn’t Bane’s fault,” Persephone whispered, though she feared it was. The man, for all his declarations of admiration for Pandora, possessed the reputation of a cad. He flirted with anything in a gown and supposedly frequented a specific brothel in London called the Rogue’s Den. It was, apparently, where Society’s most elite gentlemen went for their bedsport.

Pandora sucked in a breath and nodded. “I don’t understand. He said he loved me.”

“What happened?” Min demanded. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to make sure he’s out of the Grove by nightfall.” The Grove was her father’s house situated just outside of town. Min, along with her companion, Ellis Dangerfield, spent every August there. Min’s older brother, the heir and Earl of Shefford, came and went during the month with various friends, including Bane. This year, they were joined by the Viscount Somerton, cousin to another of their friends, Tamsin Penrose, and Lord Droxford, a surly gentleman who seemed oddly aligned with the more jovial trio.

“He may be packing to leave even now. Or his valet is, probably.” Pandora sniffed. “Everything was going so well. Then Mrs. Lawler saw us…together.”

Persephone’s gut clenched. “Together how?” she asked in a low tone.

Pandora flicked her an apologetic glance. “Embracing. I suppose it was a…compromising position. That’s what Mrs. Lawler said anyway.”

“What did Mother do?” Persephone was afraid of the answer and surprised she’d allowed Pandora to come here.

“She wasn’t there,” Pandora murmured, her eyes full of regret. “I didn’t tell her about my excursion with Bane.”

Persephone stared at her sister. She’d lied when she’d said the baroness knew and would chaperone. It had never occurred to Persephone to confirm anything. She trusted Pandora to do the sensible thing. She had not, however, done that. But Persephone couldn’t blame her because she knew what it was like to be swept away by emotion and arousal. However, when it had happened to Persephone, she hadn’t been caught.

Min met Persephone’s gaze over Pandora’s head, silently conveying that this was not good. Persephone knew that, but she would hope it wouldn’t be a disaster, as Pandora had said.

“I wish my mother was at the Grove,” Min said. “I would ask her to speak with Mrs. Lawler.”

“Would she?” Pandora said hopefully. But then her face fell. “It doesn’t matter since your mother isn’t there.”

“A compromise isn’t the end of the world,” Tamsin said from the other side of the room. At one and twenty, she was just a year younger than Persephone. However, her youthful appearance—wide blue-green eyes and soft, round cheeks—and her relative isolation in Cornwall made her seem even younger. She spent August in Weston with her grandmother, who lived in a charming cottage near the beach. “My great-aunt was compromised. They simply got married, which had been their intent anyway.”

Persephone feared what Pandora would say next.

Pandora’s mouth tightened, and anger stole into her expression, lighting her eyes. “Bane will not marry me. After Mrs. Lawler saw us and gasped, she admonished him for compromising me, then congratulated me for ensnaring a future duke.” Pandora twitched and wiped away a tear before continuing. “Bane responded that he was, regrettably, already betrothed to someone else. He apologized to me—profusely, not that it mattered—and I ran away.”

Rage ripped through Persephone. She’d never wanted to do harm to another person, but in that moment, she would have gleefully watched Bane suffer any number of tortures. “If I were a man, I would call him out. If I could shoot, I would call him out.”

Min slapped her hand on the arm of the settee. “The scoundrel! He must be forced to marry you. I’m going to speak with my brother at once.” She stood, as did Ellis, who was seated in a chair angled near the settee.

Ellis, who at four and twenty was the oldest of their unofficial club, looked to Pandora with sympathy. “I’m so sorry for what’s happened. Men can be absolutely awful.”

“And yet we are all destined to marry one, whether we want to or not,” Tamsin said, also rising. “Why should a reprobate like Bane be allowed to ruin a sweet person like Pandora?”

“Because he’s an earl and heir to a dukedom. He can do whatever he wishes and likely suffer no consequences.” Gwendolyn Price, the newest member of their club, got to her feet as she shook her head. Her brown eyes glittered with outrage as her dark curls brushed her cheeks. “It isn’t remotely fair.”

“But what can we do?” Pandora asked forlornly.

Persephone clasped her sister’s hand and looked into her eyes. “We can vow to not let them get away with their behavior. We can band together and say enough. We won’t tolerate being treated this way, and we won’t play by their rules.”

“We’ll make our own rules,” Min said.

“Starting with, ‘never walk alone with a rogue,’” Pandora said bitterly. “And never flirt with one either.”

Gwen held up her hand. “Forgive me, but what is a rogue exactly? Are all men rogues?”

“Yes,” Pandora said emphatically.

Min sent Pandora a sympathetic look. “Not all men, but a great many who swan about with their privilege, their poor reputations for whatever transgressions they’ve committed, and their arrogance.”

“I would say rogues pay little attention to Society’s rules—or any rules, really,” Ellis said.

“That would be their privilege,” Persephone added with a nod. “They think they can get away with whatever they want without a care for anyone else. Utterly reckless.”

Min shrugged. “Some aren’t even that bad. In my experience, rogues can simply flirt too much. They think they’re irresistible.” She rolled her eyes. “They also tend to gamble and drink to excess. And, of course, anyone who spends time at the Rogue’s Den is, by definition, a rogue.”

“What’s the Rogue’s Den?” Gwen asked.

“A place in London where rogues go for their bedsport, and true rogues are not discreet about it,” Min said with a sniff. “One must be a member, and it’s rather elite.”

Gwen opened her mouth to perhaps ask how Min would know, but Min went on. “My brother is a member, and he is most definitely a rogue.”

“Your brother’s entire set are rogues,” Persephone said. “Except perhaps Droxford. I can’t say he’s exhibited roguish tendencies.”

“Not that we’ve seen, but one must wonder given his company,” Min said warily.

Gwen nodded firmly. “I think I understand. I daresay my brother may be a rogue. He is a terrible flirt. He also likes to do risky things—the more dangerous, the better, such as racing in a high-perch phaeton.”

“That is absolutely rogue behavior—more recklessness,” Min said.

“My mother despises when he does such things, especially since he always promises her that he will stop.” Gwen exhaled. “Rogues are likely not entirely truthful.”

Pandora scoffed. “Not at all. Bane vowed his eternal adoration just moments before he informed me that he was betrothed.”

Ellis curled her lip. “That’s another rule: never believe their pledges of love and devotion.”

“And when you hear of a rogue’s reputation, never doubt it,” Pandora added fiercely. “They are not to be trusted to change.”

“Indeed, once a rogue, forever a rogue,” Persephone said, squeezing her sister’s hand.

Pandora nodded vigorously in agreement. “Never, ever allow a rogue to see your heart. I wish I hadn’t.”

Persephone ached for her sister. “Never even give a rogue a chance. I wish I’d given you that advice.” She’d hoped Bane was not as bad as his reputation had purported him to be.

Min’s eyes glittered with intent. “Most importantly, if given the opportunity, ruin the rogue before he can ruin you.”

“Amen!”

“Huzzah!”

Cheers went around the room, and Persephone nearly sobbed at the sight of her sister smiling faintly. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

“I shall record these so we may never forget the rules,” Ellis said, whipping a small book and pencil from her reticule. She sat back down and went to work writing.

“Thank you all so much,” Pandora said as a few more tears leaked from her eyes. “I fear I am ruined, but I hope you will all remain my friends.”

“Nothing could stop me,” Min promised. “And I’ll do everything I can to minimize the scandal.”

Persephone had never loved her friend more and knew that Min would use whatever power she had in Society to help Pandora. Even so, Persephone feared there would be nothing for it, that their family would simply have to remove to Radstock Hall and keep to themselves for the next year. There were worse things that could happen.

Such as the monumental lecture the baroness would most certainly deliver to Pandora—and Persephone. That was going to be painful. How Persephone wished she could take all this away from her sister. Why couldn’t it have been her? No one would care if she was ruined, except for how it might affect Pandora.

All the friends took turns hugging Pandora and offering their love and support. Thankfully, they still had another week together before they went their separate ways.

“Finished,” Ellis declared. “I’ll make copies for each of you and bring them tomorrow.”

The door opened again, and this time, it was the Baroness Radstock standing at the threshold. Her vivid blue gaze went directly to Pandora. “Mrs. Lawler has just come to see me,” she said softly, but Persephone heard the underlying fury.

Pandora stood shakily, and Persephone helped, rising with her.

“Come, girls, we must pack,” their mother said crisply as she pivoted in the doorway.

As it happened, they did not have one more week in Weston. They didn’t even have the rest of the day. Within the hour, they were on their way home, and the future, once bright with the promise of Pandora making a brilliant match, had never looked more uncertain.

 

Chapter Two

 

Radstock Hall, Somerset, England

They’d been home from Weston for four days, and Pandora hadn’t left the second floor where their former nursery and current retreat was located except to sleep in her bedchamber on the first floor. Persephone had shared her bed, insistent that Pandora not be alone. Doing so had reminded them both of their childhood when they’d shared a room. It was much easier for them to look back instead of forward. Pandora was certain her life was over.

Because their mother had said so repeatedly.

Now, Persephone had been summoned to the drawing room by her parents. They had, unsurprisingly, found a way to blame her for what had happened between Pandora and Bane. Persephone braced herself for another lecture on how she’d failed her sister and, in so doing, had ruined her family.

She stood outside the drawing room and looked at herself in the mirror hanging nearby. Her face was pale, expectant. She’d pulled her dark blonde hair into a tight chignon, which her mother found too severe, but what did it matter when they were at home? Mama always found something faulty about Persephone’s appearance, whether it was the bump in her nose or the lack of pink in her cheeks.

Taking a deep breath, she jerked her gaze from the mirror and stepped into the drawing room. “Close the door,” her mother, who’d become increasingly tense and cold in recent years, said without looking at Persephone. “Sit.”

Though she would have preferred to stand in defiance, Persephone did not want to invite even more displeasure. So, she sat. As far away from her mother’s chair and the hearth where her father stood as possible.

The baron glanced toward his wife—he typically checked in with her before he launched into any speech. They were a united front in everything.

“Your sister’s ruin demands your immediate marriage,” he declared. He smoothed his hand down the expensive superfine of his coat, his mouth pursing slightly, which pulled at his cheekbones. The expression drew one’s attention to the long, thick sideburns he’d grown about three years ago when the hair on his head had become noticeably thinner.

Persephone’s brain latched on to “immediate marriage” with the tenacity of a child gripping a biscuit.

“You are going to save the family,” her mother said with deceptive charm.

“With an immediate marriage?” Persephone swallowed a nervous, absurd laugh. She’d had not so much as a whiff of a marriage proposal in three years. According to her mother, she didn’t possess the necessary allure or beauty to attract a husband and was likely destined for spinsterhood.

Her mother nodded smoothly. “Yes, to the Duke of Wellesbourne. You remember his mother, the duchess?”

Certainly. She was a prominent member of Bath Society despite living separately from her husband. He was rumored to keep a mistress in London, and that all seemed perfectly normal to everyone. Persephone found it sad. Persephone also remembered that her son ran in the same crowd of reprobates as Bane and possessed an equally abysmal reputation as a rake who was completely unserious about marriage. They were the rogues to whom the rules she and her friends had crafted pertained.

Persephone’s stomach sank past the floorboards. They couldn’t expect her to wed a man such as he. She wouldn’t. She couldn’t. In fact, she could hardly believe he would actually consent to it, but then he was a duke and probably felt it was his responsibility to finally take a wife. Persephone had no desire to be the fulfillment of his duty.

“I can’t imagine a hasty marriage is necessary.” Especially since Persephone wasn’t the one who’d been ruined. She inwardly cringed to think of her sister being identified that way. “We don’t know if there will be a scandal.”

The baroness glowered at her. “News of Pandora’s compromise appeared in the Bath Chronicle this morning, without names, of course, but everyone knows the rumor concerns her and Banemore, and it will surely find its way to London.” Full lips pursed and blue eyes narrowed, she looked pointedly at Persephone. “You will wed. Wellesbourne is an excellent match, particularly for you.”

Persephone refused to be bullied into a marriage she didn’t want. “Wouldn’t we all be better served if Papa forced Bane to wed Pandora?”

“That is not an option,” the baron clipped out. He pressed his fingers to the bridge of his long nose, pinching it as if he smelled something awful. “I wrote to the Duke of Wolverton and confirmed what, Bane—Banemore—said, that he is already betrothed and will not break that contract because of a foolish encounter with your sister.”

Wolverton was Bane’s father, and apparently, he would dictate what happened, which was maddening. Dukes and their heirs shouldn’t be immune to consequences. But this was what rogues did.

The baroness smoothed her pale hands over her skirts. “I wrote to the dowager Duchess of Wellesbourne immediately as her most recent letter said that her son is in need of a wife, and he dislikes the Marriage Mart. I explained that my lovely eldest daughter also prefers to avoid the Marriage Mart.” She leveled her gaze on Persephone. “She has invited us to come to their home, Loxley Court near Stratford-upon-Avon, to see if you and he will suit.”

Persephone hadn’t minded the Marriage Mart, just the unrealistic expectations that went along with it. She’d never fit into them, either talking about topics that were deemed uninteresting to gentlemen or saying nothing at all. “You expect me to marry a man I’ve never met?”

“You will meet him,” the baroness said. “And then you will wed.” She sounded confident, which was laughable given her insistence that Persephone was incapable of snaring a husband. Now she was suddenly going to catch a duke?

Not bothering to disguise her sarcasm, Persephone said, “It seems to me you’re placing a great deal of confidence in a situation in which you have until now deemed my attributes inadequate.”

Her mother lifted a shoulder. “While it’s true you aren’t the beauty that Pandora is, you at least possess more sense.”

How Persephone hated the comparisons their parents—especially their mother—made between her and her sister. Although, they weren’t wrong about Pandora being far prettier on her worst day than Persephone could ever hope to be on her best. Her lips were fuller, her hair thicker and shinier, her eyes more sparkling. Even her laugh was superior. She always sounded as though she were making music, and she looked lovely doing it. Persephone, on the other hand, was prone to snorting. Or even outright guffawing. Because of that, she tried very hard not to laugh. Except when she was with her sister or their friends.

The baroness went on, “I don’t expect you’ll be caught in a scandalous embrace with Wellesbourne. Not unless it becomes necessary to secure the match.”

Did her mother expect Persephone to do precisely what Pandora had done in order to ensure a marriage? “Given that Pandora is not currently betrothed, I would say your logic is lacking, Mother.”

“This is not the same situation,” the baroness said crossly. “The dowager is my friend, and if her son compromises you, there will be a wedding.”

Persephone barely kept her jaw from dropping. How awful that her mother was counting on the benefits of her friendship with this woman while also considering trickery to obtain what she wanted. For the first time, Persephone felt an overwhelming dislike for the woman sitting across from her, and it was a horrible sensation. She’d felt inklings of it for years, but she’d always tried to find the good in her, the ways in which her mother truly seemed to want the best for her. But this time, the baroness had gone too far, and Persephone wasn’t sure she could think of her mother as anything but an adversary ever again.

“Don’t look so horrified, Persephone,” her mother admonished. “This is a boon for you. To think that you will marry a duke is astonishing.”

Persephone wondered how else this might benefit her parents, beyond soothing the scandal Pandora had caused. They’d long commented on how Pandora would undoubtedly secure a match that would ensure they never worried about finances again. “I imagine his fortune is also attractive.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” her father asked defensively.

Persephone didn’t want to point out the paintings, decorative pieces, or furniture that had gone missing the last few years, or the fact that the constant stream of stylish clothing—primarily for her parents and certainly not for Persephone—had slowed this year particularly. It didn’t take a scholar to understand that her father was in debt. He and the baroness had argued for years about finances. Persephone had concluded that her father was not adept at managing Radstock Hall.

Answering her father’s question, Persephone dared to say, “It means I suspect you want this marriage for more than just social redemption.”

“Advancing the family’s prospects is a young lady’s responsibility,” her mother snapped. “Since Pandora can no longer provide that, you will need to do so.” The baroness fixed her with a dark, direct stare. “Whatever it takes.”

“I won’t trick him,” Persephone said in a low voice, her brain scrambling to come up with a plan to avoid this scheme.

Her father made a sound in his throat. “You won’t need to, my dear. Your mother is right. You are more sensible than your sister, and I imagine a duke who dislikes the Marriage Mart will prefer someone older and more sedate.” He pinned his gaze on Persephone and smiled faintly. “Like you.”

Older and more sedate. A prize catch indeed.

Persephone’s mother nodded. “That’s precisely why Wellesbourne will endorse this match.”

The idea of marrying one of Bane’s sordid friends was completely odious. “There has to be someone else who will meet your requirements for this immediate marriage,” Persephone said, though she could see her mother was set on this plan.

“Why look elsewhere when you can have a duke?” Her mother sounded exasperated. “Really, Persephone, I thought you would be more excited about this. Who could have thought you would have this opportunity?”

Who indeed.

Persephone felt as though the walls were closing in around her. She tried to recall what Wellesbourne looked like. He had auburn hair and an easy smile, and she supposed he was objectively handsome. “Just because he’s a duke doesn’t mean he’ll make an excellent husband. He has a reputation as a rake and is a friend of Bane’s. Think of Pandora. I would rather not consider him.”

“He could be whatever he wants and friends with whomever he chooses, and you will manage to accept him. You will be a duchess.” Her mother’s enthusiasm wasn’t surprising. She’d married above her station when she’d become a baroness. However, Persephone’s father’s title wasn’t prestigious, and his fortune was lacking. And now that Pandora wasn’t able to carry them up the social ladder, that duty had fallen to Persephone, the spinster-in-waiting.

“Only if he accepts me, which I find hard to believe.” A duke would want someone loftier than Persephone, even if she was staggeringly beautiful and possessed an excess of charm.

The baroness made an inelegant sound. “We are out of options, Persephone. Your sister’s ruin could be the ruin of us all. Is that what you want? I expect you to do whatever it takes to ensure this match is successful. If you can’t do that, then perhaps you shouldn’t be a member of this household. It’s not as if we hadn’t already planned to send you somewhere after Pandora was settled.” Her mother sniffed. “But all those plans are ruined now. This is a magnificent opportunity for you. I know you’ll come to see it that way.”

Persephone swallowed the emotion rising in her throat. She wouldn’t cry. It was already bad enough that her cheeks felt hot. They were likely ablaze with color. The message from her mother was painfully clear: she either married this abhorrent duke or she would be sent into spinsterhood. Which had apparently been the plan all along.

Her mother stood. “We’re leaving for Loxley Court tomorrow morning. There is much to organize. We’ll need to send Pandora to Aunt Lucinda’s in Bath, if Lucinda will agree to it. She won’t want to jeopardize her standing in Society, and it may be that Pandora’s presence would do that.” The baroness bustled from the room.

Persephone needed more time to plan. She wasn’t ready to be led to the slaughter, which was precisely how this felt.

“Chin up, my girl,” her father said, ambling toward her. He placed a hand gently on her shoulder and gave her another lackluster smile. His blue eyes were dull. Bored, even, as if he could hardly be bothered to conduct this conversation. “You’ll save this family yet. Won’t that be satisfying?”

Then he was gone too, leaving Persephone to wonder how she’d ended up in this impossible position. It wasn’t that she didn’t wish to wed. After years of hearing that she likely wouldn’t, she just hadn’t allowed herself to indulge the fantasy.

And now to hear that she must marry a blackguard to save her family’s reputation and fortune—for that was what seemed to be at stake—was beyond the pale. She wasn’t sure what was worse—that demand or the discovery that her parents had planned to send her somewhere after Pandora was married. Where was that, a nunnery?

If they wanted her gone, perhaps she should disappear entirely.

With leaden feet, she trudged upstairs to the second floor where their former nursery was located and which she and Pandora now used as a retreat. Pandora would listen to these new developments with sympathy and would share in Persephone’s outrage.

Contrary to what their parents thought, Pandora was quite clever. She’d simply misjudged Bane and had listened to her heart instead of her head. It could happen to anyone.

As expected, Pandora was snuggled into the window seat, a book in her lap. She was, however, not reading. Her gaze was trained outside as Persephone entered.

Not bothering with preamble, Persephone closed the door and stated, “They want me to wed. Immediately.”

Pandora turned her head. Unfortunately, the sparkle in her eyes that Persephone had thought of earlier was still absent. It had disappeared after Bane had compromised, then rejected her.

“Oh, Persey, I am so sorry.” Pandora grimaced, and Persephone began to worry that the stress and sorrow Bane had caused would permanently damage her beauty—not on the exterior, but inside. Pandora had always been vivacious, and her joy was contagious. It was difficult to be in her company and not feel good. But all that had changed.

“This is my fault,” Pandora continued.

“It absolutely is not,” Persephone said. “I encouraged you to determine your feelings for him, and I too believed what he told you.” She couldn’t bring herself to repeat what they now knew were lies—that he admired her greatly and couldn’t imagine life without her. What nauseating drivel.

Pandora shook her head as she swung her legs to the floor from the window seat and set the book on the cushion at her side. “I will not allow you to accept any responsibility. I was foolish, and I knew better. Bane’s reputation well preceded him. I stupidly trusted him when he begged me not to believe everything I’d heard.”

The bitterness in her tone renewed Persephone’s desire to seek vengeance. “How I wish there was a way to punish him for what he’s done to you.”

“How I wish we’d come up with the Rogue Rules before I met him.” The barest hint of a smile curved her lips. “I do think I’m going to embroider them and hang it on the wall in here.”

Two written copies of the rules had arrived yesterday along with a letter from Min and Ellis. Min had said that her brother and his friends had left the Grove before they’d returned from the hotel. Then she’d called them cowards.

Pandora straightened her shoulders and fixed her gaze on Persephone. “Tell me what Mama and Papa said.”

“I’m to accompany them to visit one of Mama’s friends—the dowager Duchess of Wellesbourne. Her son, the duke, is in need of a wife, and Mama insists that will be me.”

Pandora wrinkled her nose. “Wellesbourne? He’s one of Bane’s friends. Bane mentioned him several times. He said he’s a good sort, amusing, charming, but I’m sure those are lies too. Bane wished he was in Weston to meet one of my friends.”

One of her friends. Not Persephone. She focused her irritation on the man who deserved it—the scoundrel who’d broken her sister’s heart. “I shall take any recommendation from Bane as a black mark against a person.”

“That is probably for the best,” Pandora agreed. “I suppose you tried to tell Mama that you did not want to be forced into marriage.”

“Of course. That went as well as you could expect. Worse, actually. She said if I couldn’t ensure a betrothal, going so far as to suggest that I entrap him in a compromise, I may as well leave.”

Pandora gasped. “She didn’t say that!”

Persephone nodded, keeping the hurt and anger at bay. “She did.” Persephone didn’t want to add that the plan had always been for her to be sent somewhere. Pandora didn’t need to hear that on top of everything else she was suffering through. Persephone could carry the pain of that revelation and of what felt like an awful betrayal by their parents on her own—at least for now. “Mayhap that’s what I should do. Leave, I mean, not force a compromise.” That her mother would even want to risk another scandal after what had happened to Pandora was appalling.

“I think you should,” Pandora said firmly. “In fact, you should go to Aunt Lucinda’s. Then she can talk some sense into Mama. Or Papa at least.”

Moving to join her sister on the window seat, Persephone perched on the edge. She gave her sister a sympathetic smile. “Mama hopes to send you to Aunt Lucinda’s.” Persephone didn’t want to mention the possibility that their aunt would say no. Pandora was dealing with enough after having her heart trampled upon by that rogue.

Pandora slowly nodded. “That is understandable. I couldn’t possibly go along with all of you to meet Wellesbourne.” She looked down at her lap. “In my state, I can’t accompany you anywhere. Perhaps Aunt Lucinda won’t even want me.”

“Nonsense!” Persephone grabbed Pandora’s hand, and her sister met her gaze. “Aunt Lucinda will go out of her way to eviscerate Bane as soon as she hears what’s happened. She will be your staunchest ally.”

“Yes. Probably,” Pandora murmured.

“She will,” Persephone said firmly, giving her sister’s hand a squeeze before releasing it. “In any case, I can’t go to Aunt Lucinda. You need her more than I do, and it’s the first place Mama and Papa would look for me. It’s probably best if I just go with them.” And do her best to ensure the duke wanted nothing to do with her. She’d been unmarriageable for three years without even trying, surely she could avoid the parson’s trap if she put in some effort.

“It’s unconscionable that they expect you to marry Wellesbourne.” Her brow furrowed. “I’m so sorry to have caused this, Persey. I hope you won’t hate me.”

Persephone gave her sister a warm, love-filled smiled, desperate to ease her sister’s guilt. “I could never do that.”

“You won’t have to marry him,” Pandora insisted. “They can’t force you.”

No, but they could make her miserable. She saw no way to avoid accompanying them to Loxley Court. The only way to circumvent their plans was to make sure the duke wouldn’t want her as his wife.

Her mother’s words repeated in Persephone’s head. The baroness had never explicitly said Persephone was nearly worthless when compared to Pandora but threatening to throw her out of the household told Persephone exactly what she needed to know—that her parents didn’t value her as a daughter or even as a person. Persephone had never felt so horrid. Or so alone. She was simply a means to an end: saving the family.

Spinsterhood away from them couldn’t possibly be worse.

“I need to think about it,” Persephone said, trying not to let her sister see the turmoil inside her. “I’m sure the answer will present itself.” She could only hope.

 

Chapter Three

 

Acton Loxley, Duke of Wellesbourne, stepped into the common room of the New Inn in Gloucester after washing the day’s travel from himself and taking a respite. Tomorrow, he would arrive home at Loxley Court, where his mother was expecting him.

So that he could meet a potential bride.

This was a monumental shift in his behavior. He’d spent the last several years avoiding even the discussion of marriage, preferring to enjoy his youth, which his father had always encouraged. Then, a couple of years ago, he’d begun to suggest it was time for Acton to do his duty and take a wife. His father’s death had prompted Acton to accept that it was time to wed.

Acton did wonder if there was something else prompting him to seek a wife now. He’d cut his annual visit to Weston, which he made with his closest group of friends, short in favor of traveling to Wales to spend time with another friend who was more serious minded. Did that mean Acton was growing more serious?

He wasn’t sure, but he probably ought to if he was going to be a husband and a father. Hopefully, that would come when he met the right person, and mayhap that would be the young lady he would meet tomorrow.

The table nearest him was occupied by a young couple who were staring deeply into each other’s eyes. They appeared to be in love. Perhaps they were newlywed. Would Acton and his bride behave in such a way? He’d yet to make the acquaintance of a woman who inspired him to such fancy, but that was likely because he wasn’t made for such emotions. His father had always explained that men such as they had too many responsibilities to harbor sentiment. They needed to be focused and strong—and leave love and romance to poets and artists.

“Good evening, Your Grace,” the innkeeper said, interrupting Acton’s thoughts, which Acton appreciated. “The private dining room is just this way.”

As Acton followed the man, he cast a lingering glance around the warm, inviting common room. Perhaps he’d spent too much time in taverns or gaming hells with his friends, but this environment was far more enticing than a dim room with no one in it.

Except there was someone in it. A solitary woman with dark gold hair swept into a simple, almost severe, style sat at one end of the rectangular table.

“I apologize that I do not have a separate table for you, sir,” the innkeeper said with a faint grimace. “We are over capacity tonight, and this was the best I could arrange.”

“It’s quite all right. Indeed, I would prefer not to dine by myself in here.” Acton stood near the table but didn’t sit. His place had been set at the opposite end from the woman, and he much preferred to move it to sit across from her.

The innkeeper nodded. “I’ll fetch our finest Madeira for you, as well as your dinner.”

“The bottle, if you don’t mind,” Acton said with a smile. Perhaps he could tempt the lady to share it with him.

“Very good, sir.” The innkeeper bustled from the room, closing the door behind him.

Acton eyed the young woman, curious as to why she was alone. “Seems silly for us to dine at opposite ends of the table,” he said, picking up his utensils and moving them to the place across from her.

She lifted her head, and Acton took a few steps toward her so he could see her more closely. The moment her gaze met his, a ripple of awareness swept over him. Her eyes were a lush, vivid blue that reminded him of the sky in early autumn when the air was crisper and the colors more vibrant. An intriguing bump marred the line of her nose, and dark gold brows arched over her stunning eyes. Her pink lips parted—barely. Acton held his breath in anticipation that she would speak.

“Does it?” she asked, sounding uninterested.

“To me, yes. But then I rather dislike dining alone. Do you mind if I sit here?”

She took just longer than a moment to respond. “What if I said yes?”

Was she joking? Flirting? Or did she really not want him to sit there?

Bah, of course she wouldn’t mind him sitting there. She had to be flirting.

Acton slid into the chair.

She eyed him warily. “I’ll be finished soon.”

He sent her his most provocative gaze. “When you finish, perhaps I’ll persuade you to keep me company. Unless you need to dash upstairs for some reason?” Such as a husband or children. Perhaps she was only alone here in this room.

“I do not. Though, I am tired from traveling. Aren’t you?” she asked before picking up her wineglass.

“I’m quite refreshed after a hot bath. The innkeeper has taken very good care of me. You are traveling alone, then?”

She snorted, then wrinkled her nose before she lifted her hand to briefly cover her mouth. “That is a presumptuous question.”

“That you found amusing, I think. Or perhaps that was a sound of offense. If so, I offer my deepest apologies. I confess I am embarrassingly curious about you.”

Once again, her stunning eyes met his. “Why?”

He shrugged. “A beautiful woman traveling alone is curious.”

Her eyes had widened the slightest degree when he’d called her beautiful. Did she not like to be complimented? He’d met a woman like that once. She’d found flattery empty and preferred when a man showed what he thought of her instead of telling her. Acton had worked hard thereafter to demonstrate his soaring opinion of her attributes.

“It oughtn’t be. I’m a widow on my way to visit family. Since you’re being unabashedly inquisitive, I’ll do the same. Where are you going?’”

“Home, actually.”

“And where is that?”

He narrowed one eye at her. “Are you equally curious about me, or just giving as good as you get?”

“Probably the latter.” Her mouth tried to smile, but she wouldn’t let it. Why not? Perhaps she was newly widowed and didn’t think she ought to show amusement. That would explain the laugh that had come out as a snort. She’d tried to stop it. “You’re avoiding answering my question.”

“Not on purpose. Home is near Stratford-upon-Avon.”

A serving maid brought Acton’s dinner and the bottle of wine. She poured Madeira into his glass and deposited the bottle on the table before dipping a brief curtsey on her way out.

“A curtsey for you?” Acton’s companion asked. “And the innkeeper called you ‘sir.’ Are you nobility?”

“Er, yes.” He usually proudly proclaimed his title, as his father had taught him to do, but in this private dining room alone with this beautiful woman, he wanted to be just a man. He picked up his wineglass. “To making new friends.”

She gave him a dubious look as she plucked up her glass and gently tapped it to his. “Friends? It’s a trifle early to make such pronouncements, isn’t it? Perhaps we won’t get on at all.”

Acton laughed before sipping his Madeira. “I’m confident we shall.” He gave her one of his most dazzling smiles. “So confident, in fact, that I’d make a wager on it.”

She arched a brow. “How would that work?”

“I’ll wager a pound that by the end of the evening, we’ll be laughing and jesting so much that our cheeks hurt. That will mean we are friends.”

“A pound?” she looked at him as if he were daft.

Acton realized that was excessive. “A shilling?”

She shook her head. “No wagers.”

Was that because she didn’t like to gamble, or because she couldn’t afford it? Acton took in her simple costume, a dark brown traveling dress buttoned to her throat, and her lack of adornment. She wore no jewelry, not even a comb in her hair. No wedding ring either. Didn’t widows typically wear those?

“Who awaits you at home?” she asked. “Your wife?” There was an edge to the question, as if she expected an affirmative answer and had therefore judged him a cheat.

Acton swallowed a bite of roast beef and took a drink of wine to wash it down. “She might be, actually. Not that she’s my wife. Yet. I’m to meet someone to see if we will suit.”

He thought of the woman who would be waiting when he arrived at Loxley Court. She was the daughter of a baron, and the baroness was a friend of his mother’s. Because Acton had rarely seen his mother during the past twenty-three years, he didn’t know these people at all. That the dowager had taken an interest in helping him find a bride was both surprising and, if he were honest, unsettling. She’d never bothered with him before. Not until his father had died.

Acton missed him. In the year his father had been gone, Acton had realized all the things he hadn’t learned, things he’d taken for granted thinking his father had decades before him. But an attack of his heart had stolen him swiftly, and Acton had spent the intervening days and months trying to be the duke his father expected.

He was fairly certain he fell short. Marrying and providing an heir would go a long way to fulfilling his duty—and making his father proud.

Noting that she was watching him intently, Acton realized he’d been woolgathering. He stuffed a bite of parsnip into his mouth.

“You’re on your way to meet a potential bride?” she asked, sounding far more interested than she had yet.

“Yes.” He didn’t really want to discuss it with her. He was enjoying their conversation and preferred to leave his potential duchess where she resided—in the future. “Where are you headed?”

“Pardon me if I don’t say. I find it’s better for a woman on her own to guard her secrets.”

Secrets. That single word provoked Acton’s curiosity like none other.

“I can understand that, but I promise you are safe with me,” he vowed intently.

She gave him a look that said she didn’t believe that in the slightest, but said nothing. Had he done something to offend her? Was it the mention of a potential bride? Had she felt an instant connection with him that made her feel…jealous? That seemed absurd. And yet, Acton couldn’t deny that something about her intrigued him. He’d called her beautiful, but that wasn’t exactly right. She was singular—it was those eyes. Yes, those eyes held a wealth of secrets, and he wanted to learn every single one of them.

She tapped her finger on the base of her wineglass once. Twice. “What will you do if you meet this woman and she’s not to your liking? I mean, if you determine you won’t suit.”

“Then we’ll go our separate ways with nothing lost.” Acton took another bite of the beef. After swallowing, he asked, “Have you been widowed long?”

“About a year.” She set her utensils down. Oh no, was she done eating? He didn’t want to lose her company.

“I’m sorry for your loss. No children?”

She shook her head. “We weren’t married long.”

“I wouldn’t have thought so. You seem young. I’d wager not even five and twenty.”

“You do like to wager,” she said, perhaps with a hint of reproach.

That was how he and his friends talked to one another, and there was a stupid amount of wagering between them. Not all of it was for money. They wagered silly antics or to obtain things they wanted. Once, he lost a bet with his friend Bane and had to attend Almack’s with him. And he’d had to ask three wallflowers to dance. It was bloody awful.

“Bad habit with friends, I suppose.” He wished he’d wagered with her after all. If he’d won—and they did seem at least friendly—his prize could have been her staying with him until he was at least finished eating.

She set her napkin on the table, another signal that she was finished with her meal. And her wineglass was almost empty.

“I hope you aren’t going to leave,” he said. “I’d be honored if you’d remain here, at least until I’m finished.”

“Do you really dislike being alone?”

“Somewhat. But it’s more than that. I like you. I feel as if we are on our way to being friends. I should like to deepen our acquaintance.” Acton was torn between wanting to be done with his dinner so he could focus entirely on her and prolonging the meal to ensure she stayed.

Her brow arched in that saucy fashion once more. He liked it. “Deepen it how?”

Was she using a seductive tone? Or was he just hoping she had?

“However we like,” he said casually, despite the increased speed of his heartbeat.

She batted her lashes. “I see.” Now she sounded demure. But perhaps she really was flirting with him. God, he hoped so. He had a sudden image of whiling away what could have been a perfectly boring evening with this thoroughly tempting widow.

“You should finish eating,” she murmured, jolting him from his lurid waking dream.

Acton took a large bite of the beef while glancing at the door to ensure it was closed. Too bad he couldn’t lock it.

He watched as she finished her wine. “Would you care for Madeira?”

“I would, thank you. Why don’t you tell me what qualities you hope your potential bride will possess?”

Filling her glass, he refilled his own while he had the bottle. “My father always said the perfect duchess would be clever, well-spoken, dutiful, and, above all, beautiful.”

She put her hand around the wineglass, her fingers stroking the stem. It was most distracting. In a thoroughly erotic way. Was she doing that on purpose? “What an interesting list. Which of those are most important to you?”

“Er—” His mind was arresting on the movement of her fingers. He nearly said, “Sexual prowess,” but that was not something he’d mentioned. It was also not something he ought to say to someone he’d just met who wasn’t an employee of the Rogue’s Den. “I don’t think I would enjoy being married to someone who wasn’t clever.”

She licked her lips, and now he had to think she was arousing him on purpose. She’d been a widow for a year. It was not unrealistic for him to think she might be interested in the same thing he was—a night to remember.

“You’re not eating,” she said. “Are you finished?”

“I might be. But please don’t leave.”

“How can I when you’ve just refilled my glass?” She held up her wine and took a sip, her lips curving into the barest of smiles.

She did seem interested. Acton’s pulse picked up more speed as a heady desire rushed through him.

Setting her glass on the table, she looked over at him, her dark lashes framing her sultry gaze. Acton was fast becoming enchanted.

“I think I’m finished with my dinner,” he said. His throat had gone dry as his body hummed with anticipation. “I’d like to see what dessert will be.”

Her lips parted. “What do you desire?”

He leaned toward her, breathless with want, “You. Draped across this table like a feast. Or upstairs in my bed, your limbs tangled with mine.” Apparently, he’d thrown caution completely away. More accurately, it had been demolished by his raging lust for this enticing woman.

Her nostrils flared as she inhaled quickly. “What lurid suggestions.”

Damn, had he gone too far? He typically said such things to his lovers, and they liked it. And she was a widow, not some green girl. Like the woman he would consider marrying.

Do not think of her right now.

“I hope I didn’t offend you. I find myself utterly captivated.” He found himself pushing his dishes aside and leaning over the table toward her. “I should like to kiss you.”

“I’m sure you would. However, I am not so easily seduced.” She moved quickly, plucking up her wineglass once more. Before he could ascertain what she was about, his face and chest were dripping with Madeira. Blinking, he saw that she’d tossed the contents of her glass on him.

He sputtered. “What the devil?”

“The devil indeed,” she spat, rising. “You think you can smile at me and charm your way under my skirts? And because you’re a duke, you think you can get away with it. Not with me, you can’t. In fact, you shouldn’t try it with anyone. Preying on a solitary widow… Have you no shame? Men like you are a menace to women everywhere.”

With a final snarl, her tempting lips twisting, she strode to the door and departed the dining room.

Acton stared after her, wondering what in the hell had happened. He’d clearly misread that entire situation.

But she’d stroked the stem of the wineglass and licked her lips! She’d looked at him provocatively and asked him what he desired. She’d done everything but invite him upstairs.

Or so it seemed.

He frowned, irritated with himself and hating that he’d offended her so deeply without even realizing it. She’d been glorious in her anger, though. It was a shame he’d never see her again, for he was somehow still as entranced as he’d been before she’d doused him with wine.

As he used his napkin to wipe his face, he conjured the things she’d said, thinking they’d be forever emblazoned on his brain. Then he froze.

How had she known he was a duke?

 

Chapter Four

Persephone carried her small valise downstairs early the following morning. As with the day before, she was leaving before dawn even broke over the horizon.

Yesterday, however, she’d been fleeing from her parents. She’d traveled with them to Cirencester, where they’d stayed the night. Over dinner, she’d had to listen to the baroness instruct her on how she might entrap the duke into marriage—should that become necessary. Even if the duke hadn’t been an utter rogue, her mother’s machinations disgusted Persephone. She would do anything to ensure Persephone married this man, regardless of Persephone’s wishes. Distraught, Persephone had determined she couldn’t continue with them to Loxley Court.

She’d gone upstairs before them and quietly packed a few things into her valise. Then, she’d used her letter-writing supplies to scratch out a short note informing them that she was returning home. After barely sleeping, she’d roused herself from her narrow bed in the corner of their chamber, removed her bedclothes, which she might need, and stolen away.

The first mail coach had been going west to Gloucester, and while that wasn’t the direction Persephone wanted to go, she’d taken it with plans to depart at Gloucester, where she would take a coach south to Bristol.

It was too late to go to Weston. All her friends would have gone by now as it was the first of September. Min and Ellis were on their way to Bedfordshire, and Tamsin would be journeying to Cornwall. Gwen, however, lived in Bristol. That was Persephone’s destination by default. Persephone only hoped the Prices would give her shelter, at least for a few days.

Persephone wondered what her parents had done when they’d found the note she’d written. Her mother was likely outraged and would make sure her father felt the same. They’d probably arrived at Radstock Hall yesterday afternoon only to find that Persephone wasn’t there. That would have made the baroness practically apoplectic. Persephone didn’t feel even a little badly.

But here she was in Gloucester, having had to spend the night and take the coach to Bristol in the morning. Which was how she found herself once again departing an inn at dawn.

It was good that she’d had plans to leave early. That way, she would avoid seeing Wellesbourne. She was sure the man she’d met last night was him. When he’d confessed to being nobility, then told her he was traveling home to meet a potential bride and that home was near Stratford-upon-Avon, she’d deduced that he had to be the duke she was supposed to meet. Then he’d behaved like an arse, and she’d been absolutely convinced.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have baited him, but she wanted to know if he was the rake that she’d heard him to be. He was that and more. To try to seduce a widow when he was on his way to meet his potential duchess was abominable.

She’d broken two of the Rogue Rules by being alone with him and flirting with him, though the flirting had been fake. The moment she began to suspect his identity, she focused on the most important rule: ruin him before he can ruin you. She’d decided dousing him with Madeira was as close to ruin as she could bring him given the circumstances. She was sure as hell not going to allow him to ruin her.

Recalling his surprised features drenched in Madeira brought a smile to her face. She oughtn’t take pleasure in his discomfort, but after what his friend had done to Pandora, she concluded there was no harm in it. Men like the two of them deserved a splash of wine in the face now and then.

Persephone made her way through the common room and departed the inn. The sun was now up, casting a milky light over the yard. Glancing about, she nearly stumbled as she caught sight of the duke walking out of the stables. She did not want him to see her!

Heart pounding, she hastened across the yard away from his path. She didn’t dare look back as she rushed toward the mail stop to catch the coach to Bristol. The last thing she needed was to have to speak with him after last night. Hopefully, she would never encounter him again.

She barely made the coach in time. Indeed, it was loud and confusing, and there were multiple coaches. She was just glad to have made it and that she was able to sit inside the coach, since it was chilly. Her valise had been strapped to the back.

The sun was now visible above the horizon as the coach started forward. Persephone closed her eyes and tried not to think of how tightly the woman beside her was pressed into her side. At least it was a woman and not some man with wandering hands.

Persephone imagined Wellesbourne sitting beside her. He’d try to engage her in conversation, then he might attempt to lean closer or even touch her. He’d certainly proposition her with more lewd language.

Well, perhaps not after she’d tossed her wine at him.

If Persephone were honest, and she didn’t really want to be, she would admit that his attention to her had been initially flattering—before she’d known who he was. He’d seemed to find her genuinely attractive. For the first time in years, and only the second time ever, she’d felt desirable. Now that she knew his identity, she rather hated that he’d been the one to make her feel that way.

He probably hadn’t even found her that alluring. Men like him said and did whatever was necessary to achieve their goal. And his goal had, without question, been to seduce her into spending the night with him.

There was no point in wasting any more time thinking of him. She was never going to see him again.

Unless her parents continued to insist that she marry him. She could only hope that if they ever met, he’d recall she’d thrown wine on him and immediately declare they did not suit.

Persephone wondered what her parents were doing now. Were they looking for Persephone upon discovering she hadn’t actually returned home? Not because they cared for her, but because she was apparently intrinsic to their desperate plan to save the family.

More than anything, Persephone wanted to believe that. However, she couldn’t, not after the demands they’d placed on her along with the revelation that she was to be cast aside as soon as Pandora married and elevated the family. She realized her panicked flight was about more than avoiding marriage to a scoundrel. She didn’t want to just be her parents’ pawn; she wanted to be their daughter. Whom they loved.

Heart aching, Persephone turned her thoughts to someone who did love her: Pandora. Hopefully, she was feeling better being with Aunt Lucinda. After staying in Bristol with Gwen for a few days, Persephone determined she ought to join them. In Bath, at Aunt Lucinda’s, she could come up with a plan for her future. More and more, she expected it would not be at Radstock Hall.

Feeling sad and tired, Persephone allowed the movement of the coach to lull her to sleep.

The sun was much higher in the sky when she jolted awake. And the coach was half-empty.

The older man across from her was leaning toward her. “Is this your stop?”

Persephone blinked several times. “Are we in Bristol?”

He stared at her as if she were daft. “This is Worcester.”

Worcester! She’d gone completely in the wrong direction! In all the fuss that morning, she must have boarded the wrong coach.

Clambering down, Persephone stumbled as she hit the dirt. The coach wouldn’t stop for long, so she hastened to the back to fetch her valise. There were several trunks and other pieces of luggage, but her small gray valise wasn’t where she’d seen it stowed. It wasn’t there at all.

Panicking, she rushed to the front of the coach, where the coachman was just settling onto the box. “Pardon me,” she said. “My valise isn’t on the back of the coach. It’s gray and about this size.” She held her hands up to approximate the valise.

“Haven’t seen it,” he said. “Need to be on my way now, though.”

“You can’t leave!” She couldn’t be this far from her destination and without her things!

He gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m afraid I must. And you said your valise isn’t on the coach, so there’s no point in staying. Best of luck to you.”

Persephone had to back away quickly as the coach started forward. She gaped as it moved away from her. But the man was right—what difference did it make since her valise wasn’t on the coach? And staying on the coach made no sense as she would only continue in the wrong direction.

How had she made such a horrid mistake? And what had happened to her valise? She’d seen it on the coach—the wrong coach, apparently—before they’d departed Gloucester. Someone had to have stolen it. Someone who’d been in or on the coach. Turning in a circle, Persephone looked about for anyone familiar, but she didn’t recognize anyone.

What was she going to do without her belongings? Thank goodness her money was sewn into her undergarments. But it was already a fast-dwindling sum, and now she would have even less as she booked passage to Bristol. Tears stung her eyes. She didn’t even have an extra handkerchief.

She would not capitulate to misfortune. Things could be far worse. She could be betrothed to that jackanapes Wellesbourne.

Straightening her spine and lifting her chin, she moved forward. She would book passage on a coach, hopefully leaving today and if not, she would find an inn that was both affordable and acceptable. Nothing too fancy and nothing too…rough.

Things would improve. They had to.

#

It was still late morning when Acton arrived home at Loxley Court after departing Gloucester. The butler informed him that their guests had arrived the day before. Knowing he would be expected to have an audience with them, he washed away the dust of the road and met his mother in the drawing room.

Even after spending time with her over the past year, she seemed like a stranger to him. Her dark red hair had only a few strands of white even though she would be fifty the year after next. She was thin with a warm, welcoming smile and a collection of freckles that were somehow endearing. They made her…approachable. She wasn’t at all what he’d expected. His father had rarely spoken of her, but what he had said made it sound as if she were cold and unfeeling. On the contrary, she went out of her way to be attentive to Acton and tell him—almost daily—that she was glad to be with him.

He found it awkward. And he could hear his father saying it was the excess of emotion that bothered him.

“Wellesbourne, how do you look so handsome after riding all the way from Gloucester?” she asked with a light laugh.

“I’m always this handsome, Mother,” he said, smiling. “I understand our guests are here?”

She clasped her hands before her. “Yes, but not everyone we expected. Lord and Lady Radstock are here; however, Miss Barclay is not. She has taken ill.”

“I rode home for nothing?” Acton could have stayed at his friend’s house in Wales. They’d been having a brilliant time making plans for the next Parliamentary session. He was an MP, and together, they worked to effect change in their respective branches.

“Lord and Lady Radstock believe she will recover quickly. They didn’t want to forgo the appointment with you, so they’ve come to meet you.”

What a waste of time. Acton had agreed to meet a potential bride, not her parents. “I hope you told them they needn’t have bothered.”

The dowager moved toward him, her expression concerned. “Come now, you can be pleasant and still meet them, can’t you?”

Acton gritted his teeth. “I’m always pleasant. You would know that if you knew me well, which you do not.” He immediately regretted his words, especially when he noted the flash of hurt in her gaze.

“I realize I can’t replace the years I wasn’t with you,” she said softly. “But I try every day to be the mother I wasn’t.”

“I know, and I appreciate that.” He’d allowed her to move into the dowager house because he’d been delighted—surprised but delighted—to learn she wanted to be his mother. Still, he couldn’t forget the fact that she’d abandoned him at a very young age. He’d barely known he had a mother.

Her gaze moved beyond Acton, and he realized they were no longer alone. He turned to see the Baron and Baroness Radstock standing at the doorway. She was attractive, with blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. His dark hair was thinning, yet he sported impressive sideburns. What was most notable about them was their clothing. They were dressed in the height of fashion, and their garments were made of rich materials. London Society would welcome them on appearance alone. However, he thought his mother had mentioned that Miss Barclay’s dowry was rather small. The baron and baroness didn’t look as if their daughter would have a limited settlement.

And here they were without her. Which was just as well. Acton was feeling somewhat moody since the widow had doused him with Madeira. What he’d thought had been a wonderful encounter had gone completely and horribly wrong.

His discontent wasn’t entirely because of her actions. He was questioning himself as he’d completely misread the situation. He’d thought she was flirting, that she reciprocated his interest. And he’d been utterly mistaken.

The dowager pivoted so that she could see both their guests and Acton. “Lord and Lady Radstock, allow me to present my son, His Grace, the Duke of Wellesbourne.”

The baron and baroness moved into the drawing room. He executed a bow while she dipped into an impressive curtsey. Acton would wager they’d been presented at court.

But of course they had. The man was a baron.

Thoughts of wagering brought the widow to mind. And not his friends with whom he wagered. How odd.

“It is our great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Duke,” the baroness said smoothly. Given that she spoke first and the baron was eyeing her expectantly, Acton deduced that she exerted a great deal of influence in the marriage.

“I was hoping to meet your daughter,” Acton said. “Though I’m pleased to meet you too.”

Pleased was perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. He was disappointed to have wasted his time in coming if the potential bride wasn’t even going to be here.

The baroness frowned slightly. “We deeply apologize for our daughter’s absence. I’m afraid she took ill with a cold just before we departed. We thought it best if she rested for a day or two. She will join us soon, however.”

She would? Acton supposed he could wait.

He forced himself to take a breath. This was his future duchess—or could be, anyway. He should not be thinking of meeting her as an inconvenience. Damn, but the episode with the widow had upset him. He felt as if he’d been knocked off his horse after a consistent record of winning races.

The dowager gestured toward the nearest seating area. “Let us sit. While we are sorry Miss Barclay was unable to join you, it’s good that you’ve come.” She took a chair and the baron and baroness sat together on a settee.

Acton couldn’t bring himself to join them. He moved to stand next to a vacant chair.

“I’m glad you think so,” the baroness said with a smile that wasn’t nearly as pleasant as his mother’s. “We thought it important to visit as planned and at least tell you”—she flicked a glance toward Acton—“about Persephone.”

Persephone. Queen of Hell. Acton wondered how well the name suited her. Perhaps she was a hellion, and that was why she’d been left at home.

“I would like to meet Miss Barclay,” he said.

The baron nodded. “Of course. In the meantime, we could negotiate the marriage settlement?” He said the last part slowly, as if it were difficult to get out. Acton hoped so since it was an incredibly presumptuous suggestion given that he hadn’t even made the acquaintance of the proposed bride.

Acton forced himself to smile faintly. “I don’t think that’s necessary. Not until we decide if we will suit.” He slid a look toward his mother to ascertain her reaction to the baron’s proposition.

“I’m confident you will suit,” the baroness said before looking to her husband. “Show him the miniature.”

A miniature would answer the question of whether they would be compatible? Acton wouldn’t choose a bride on looks alone. Could he even trust that this painting accurately depicted Miss Barclay?

The baron pulled a framed oval miniature from his pocket and handed it to Acton. “See how pretty she is? She’ll make you an excellent duchess. She’s clever and accomplished with a needle as well as at the pianoforte.”

Clever. One of the words his father had used and the one he’d told the widow was his primary requirement in a duchess. Was it a coincidence that Miss Barclay’s father described her in the same way?

“And she’ll be a marvelous hostess,” the baroness put in. “She’s been very helpful to me with planning dinners and the like.”

Acton took the miniature, and as soon as he lowered his gaze, he sucked in a breath. Staring back at him was the widow he’d met in Gloucester.

What the devil was going on here?

“I knew you’d find her attractive,” the baroness said, sounding pleased but also relieved, which Acton found peculiar. He’d already deduced that the Radstocks were slightly disagreeable and now he wondered if they might be genuinely unlikeable. They might even be the sort of parents who raised a daughter who flirted with a duke and then threw wine in his face.

This was a bloody mystery. Still, he bit his tongue before he acknowledged that he’d already met their daughter.

Miss Barclay. Who wasn’t a widow at all. What was she about? She wasn’t sick, and she wasn’t at home. Did her parents even know where she was?

Acton frowned slightly. “I find it odd that you would come here without Miss Barclay if, in fact, she only has a cold. Why not wait until she recovered? That would surely have been the better course of action.”

He looked down again at the miniature. Miss Barclay wasn’t smiling, but there was a vivacity to the way she held her head—a slight tilt that seemed to convey her energy. Or perhaps it was her gaze that had so captured him in person. In the painting, her lids dipped the barest amount, making her look as though she were hiding something, such as a delicious secret. Hadn’t he thought that about her last night? That she possessed a secret? And he supposed she did. She was gallivanting about western England pretending to be a widow when she was purported to be sick at home.

It was entirely likely that he was seeing things in the miniature that simply weren’t there, that he was attributing the charming and seductive characteristics of the widow he’d met to the image in his hand. Charming and seductive…right up until she’d reprimanded him and soaked him in Madeira.

In hindsight, mayhap he’d deserved it. He’d propositioned a young, unmarried woman. Yes, he’d thought she was a widow, but did that give him leave to say the things he’d said?

Perhaps he’d spent too much time in London with courtesans.

Acton looked from the baron to the baroness, wondering if either would answer his question about why they hadn’t waited for their daughter to recover.

Finally, the baron spoke. “We, ah, didn’t want to miss this opportunity.”

It sounded as if they were afraid that he would have moved on to another candidate. Acton settled his attention on the baroness. “You are a friend of my mother’s. I would have waited to meet Miss Barclay.” Though, he recognized that his initial reaction was irritation at having to wait. But now that he knew the identity of Miss Barclay, he wanted to get to the bottom of this conundrum—if he could. “Is there perchance any reason she may not have wanted to come?”

Enough color drained from the baroness’s face that Acton had his answer. Miss Barclay hadn’t wanted to come. So much so that she’d likely run off. What a reckless chit. What could she hope to achieve?

Acton meant to find out. “As it happens, I need to leave to attend to some business. Perhaps when I return, Miss Barclay may have recovered and will be here to meet me.” He knew that wouldn’t happen. “There will be no marriage settlement until we both agree that we will suit.” He looked toward his mother. She appeared stiff, her back straight as an arrow.

“That seems reasonable,” the dowager said, though her gaze was clouded, and her brows pitched down slightly.

With a final nod, Acton departed without saying anything more. He was nearly to the top of the stairs when his mother caught up with him.

“Wellesbourne, are you angry?” she asked from behind him.

Pausing, Acton turned. He glanced toward the drawing room and kept his voice low. “I’m not angry, but I am confused. It seems odd that they would come here without their daughter.” And lie about what was happening with her, but Acton kept that to himself for now. The baron and baroness had to know their daughter was gone. They’d lied about her whereabouts.

Though he was tempted to go back and ask them for the truth, he much preferred to hear it from Miss Barclay first. He’d return to Gloucester and speak to her—if she was still there. Hell, she could be anywhere. He’d start in Gloucester and not rest until he found her.

Once he determined what the devil was going on, he’d alert her parents. Probably. He couldn’t shake the distasteful sensation he’d had in their presence.

“It is strange that they came without her,” the dowager allowed.

“And that they wanted to agree on the marriage settlement without my having met her. You can’t have thought I would consent to that.”

His mother’s features tightened into a faint grimace. “I did not know that was their intent.”

“It doesn’t recommend them.”

“You are angry,” she said, her hands fidgeting together.

“No. Well, perhaps a little. I just find it obnoxious. Is there some reason they didn’t bring Miss Barclay and then wanted to rush into a marriage agreement? I find it suspect.”

Except he knew Miss Barclay was not at home. Why was she in Gloucester by herself?

Acton shook his head. “Mother, I need to go.”

“But you only just arrived. What business could you have when you knew you would be spending time with Miss Barclay?”

“Business I put off because of this meeting and can now attend to,” he said.

“I understand. I’d hoped to see you for longer. Will you return in a few days to meet Miss Barclay?” She spoke tentatively, which she often did. She said it was because she didn’t know him and didn’t wish to overstep. While he appreciated that, since their relationship was new to him, at some point, he hoped she would just relax and say what she wished without worrying about his reaction. Did she think him a beast?

“If she even comes. I confess I’m skeptical.”

She went on, “Shall I invite the baron and baroness to stay or recommend they go home to their daughter?”

It wasn’t at all up to Acton what the Radstocks decided to do, but he was torn by the question. If they went home, it would not be to their daughter. “There isn’t a point in them staying if they don’t absolutely expect their daughter to arrive, and their comments on that matter seemed vague. Please do as you see fit.”

“You didn’t like them, did you?” she asked.

He was surprised by her direct question. “I confess I found them…I don’t know, almost annoying?” He gave his head a light shake. “My apologies. I know she is a good friend of yours.”

“She was very supportive of me in Bath,” the dowager said softly. She’d resided in Bath with his younger sisters after leaving when Acton was five years old. His father had rarely spoken of her, saying only that it was best if they lived in separate households. Until Acton went off to school, he saw her for a fortnight every year when she came to London to oversee the annual ball they held at Wellesbourne House. Even then, he didn’t really see her. He spent most of his time with his governess.

“It’s all right,” the dowager added. “You don’t need to like my friends.”

Allowing his exasperation to get the better of him, Acton exhaled. “You don’t have to be fine with that. You don’t have to like everything I do.”

Her brown eyes rounded for the barest moment. “I don’t, actually, but I don’t think it’s my place to share that.”

“You’re my mother. At least, I’m told you are.” It was a snide comment, and he immediately regretted it. “You are my mother.” Just one who hadn’t wanted him for a very long time and now suddenly did. Acton assumed she felt guilty after his father had died so unexpectedly.

“I am, but I deserve your wariness and your disdain. I am trying to make up for the time we lost. Sometimes, I fear it’s too late.” She gave him an earnest stare, and there was so much emotion shining in her eyes that it almost made him uncomfortable. “You’ve only to ask me to leave, and I will. I never wish to cause you upset.”

Then why did you abandon me?

The question hovered on his tongue, but he didn’t let it out. What would be the point? That was all in the past. She was here now, and she was trying.

“I don’t want you to leave,” he said. Besides, she resided in the dowager house. It wasn’t as if she were underfoot or meddling in his business. Except for this marriage nonsense—which he’d agreed to in order to avoid suffering the Marriage Mart. “Please apologize to them for me. Say I am tired from my journey and preoccupied with the business to which I must attend.” Neither of those things were a lie. Acton was a trifle fatigued after rising so early and now he would leave again. And he was also fixated on finding Miss Barclay.

“There is no need to apologize. Perhaps this wasn’t the best idea.” She gave him a sheepish smile. “I just wanted to help you.”

“Which I appreciate. Perhaps the match with Miss Barclay will work out yet.” He nearly laughed. The woman who’d tried to drown him in Madeira would surely not become his duchess.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try and help her. Because whatever the reason, she shouldn’t be traipsing about by herself pretending to be a widow. She might very well encounter someone who wouldn’t be put off by the contents of a glass of wine to the face.

He would help her, whether she wanted it or not.

 

Chapter Five

The spartan room at the Black Ivy Inn in Gloucester began to close in on Persephone. She’d kept to her room with the exception of fetching her dinner the previous night and breakfast that morning, then walking to catch the mail coach to Bristol. Only to find out it had been canceled for some unknown reason.

So now she was stuck for one more night in her pitiful room with its incredibly lumpy mattress and ill-fitting lock on the door.

Groaning, she stood up from the chair and went to the window. It was in desperate need of cleaning.

How had she come to be here?

Because she’d encountered a string of bad luck after deciding to flee from her parents and their awful marriage scheme. Perhaps that was fate telling her she’d made a mistake.

No, she didn’t believe that. This was still better than marrying a reprobate, even if he was a duke.

Yesterday, after arriving in Worcester, she’d discovered she’d missed the mail coach to Bristol. Weighing whether she ought to spend money on an inn or on a private coach, she’d decided on the latter. However, the only thing she could afford was someone who was already going to Gloucester and would take her that far.

She determined it was better to get there and spend the night than have so far to travel tomorrow. Except, she hadn’t calculated her funds correctly and once she arrived in Gloucester, she could not afford to stay at the New Inn where she’d lodged the previous night.

She’d been forced to move away from the High Street and managed to find an acceptable, albeit shabby, inn, the Black Ivy, with a monosyllabic innkeeper and a pair of pretty maids whose costumes revealed more than Persephone would have thought necessary for the employees of an inn.

“Blast it all,” Persephone muttered. She turned from the window and grabbed her hat and gloves before leaving the chamber.

After setting her hat atop her head, she pulled on her gloves as she walked down the stairs. The two maids were cleaning the common room, which it desperately needed. Persephone had come down to dinner last night only to take her plate right back up to her room upon finding the inn too crowded and the boisterous men too many. That morning, she’d warily descended for breakfast only to see that the common room was in dire need of repair after last night’s activities. She’d once again plucked up her meal and retreated to her room.

Becky, with pale blonde hair and the younger of the two women, was wiping down the tables while Moll, who was older than Persephone by a few years and sported wispy brown hair, swept.

Pausing in her task, Becky called over to the other maid. “Moll, did I tell ye the cathedral is looking fer a cleaning woman? I thought I might try fer the job.”

“They’ll frown on yer evening work,” Moll said with a laugh. She glanced toward Persephone. “Do ye need something, Mrs. Birdwhistle?”

Persephone had adopted the surname of her governess, whom she still missed. The woman had guided her and Pandora with a firm but kind hand. When Persephone thought of a mother’s love, Mrs. Birdwhistle came to mind.

“I don’t, thank you. I thought I might go for a walk.”

“It is a nice day,” Becky said. “I’m going to try to get out meself for a bit.”

“To the cathedral?” Moll asked with a teasing smile.

Becky shrugged. “Why not? It might be better than working here.”

“But not as fun, I’d bet.” Moll swept the detritus she’d amassed into a neat pile.

Departing the inn, Persephone made her way toward the High Street, where the nicer inns were located. She’d inquired at two of them before realizing she needed to look elsewhere for lodging within her budget.

As she turned a corner, she saw a woman sweeping a stoop and noted the sign above the door, “West Gloucester Day School for Girls.”

The woman was young, perhaps in her early thirties with neatly pinned hair and a faint smile lifting her mouth. Moving closer, Persephone heard she was humming. But she looked up as Persephone approached.

“Good afternoon,” the woman said.

“Good afternoon.” Persephone glanced toward the sign. “You work here?”

Nodding, she said, “I’m the headmistress.”

Did that mean she owned the school? The day school Persephone and Pandora had attended was owned and overseen by a married couple.

While in her room at the inn, Persephone had pondered her future. She had to think her parents were furious and that they might not want to welcome her back. In that event, she would need to find employment. She’d thought of becoming a governess, but a teacher at a school would also be tolerable.

“I hope you won’t find me impertinent,” Persephone began. “I wonder how one becomes a teacher.”

“It can be difficult for a woman, and we’re only allowed to teach girls, of course.” She leaned toward Persephone and spoke in a low tone as if she were imparting a secret. “Between you and me, we’re better off. Teaching boys is much more difficult.”

Persephone laughed. “I can imagine.” Particularly since a great many of them grew into terrible men.

The headmistress straightened and held the broom handle. “If you’re looking for a position as a teacher, I’m afraid I don’t have any openings, but if you’d like to leave your name and direction, I could write to you if that changes.”

Her direction. How could she communicate that when she wasn’t even sure where she’d be tomorrow? Persephone felt a flash of fear, but she still couldn’t bring herself to regret fleeing her parents and their asinine scheme.

“I don’t know that I’m quite ready for employment, but I may be. Er, my parents are hoping I will wed, but I’m not interested in their choice.”

The headmistress’s green eyes narrowed slightly as she nodded. “I certainly know what that is like. When I turned five and twenty and was still unwed, my father gave me my modest dowry and encouraged me to find a position as a governess. And that was what I did for five years. I lived quite frugally and used my meager earnings and my dowry to buy this school from the gentleman who retired. That was four years ago.”

Four and thirty and living independently! “And you never married?”

“I didn’t have to,” she said with a broad smile. “Do you live here in Gloucester?”

Persephone shook her head. “I’m just passing through.”

“If you’re by yourself, please be careful.”

“I’ll do that, thank you.”

“And write to me when you’re ready for a teaching position.” The headmistress extended her right hand. “I’m Rachel Posthwaite. We’ll see if I can take you on.”

Persephone took the woman’s hand and shook it gently. It was the first time she’d ever shaken someone’s hand. “You don’t even know my qualifications.”

Miss Posthwaite sized her up, her gaze moving over Persephone with studious care. “I daresay you come from a landed family, perhaps even nobility. Your speech and diction are excellent and your carriage that of a lady who has been taught to walk with elegance.”

Persephone blinked at her. “You gathered all that?”

Miss Posthwaite laughed. “You remind me of myself. Take very good care, miss? Lady?”

“Miss Barclay.” Persephone realized she’d forgotten to use her alias, but supposed it was all right with this obviously kind woman. “Thank you for your generosity.”

They exchanged nods, and Persephone went on her way. Her step felt lighter, and her shoulders stood straighter. Smiling, she glanced back toward the school and saw that Miss Posthwaite was no longer outside.

Because she hadn’t been paying attention and had arrived at the corner of the High Street, she smacked directly into someone else.

“Careful there.” Hands gently clasped her upper arms to hold her steady.

That voice…

Persephone snapped her head up and gasped. It couldn’t be. Why was he here?

His dark brown eyes fixed on her, and the edge of his mouth ticked up. “I know you,” he said, smiling more widely.

And she knew him—the bloody Duke of Wellesbourne.

“You do not,” she said sharply, pulling away from his grasp.

“But I do, Miss Barclay.”

Persephone gasped even louder, then slapped her hand to her gaping mouth. How on earth did he know who she was? And why wasn’t he at Loxley Court meeting her parents?

“We’ve much to discuss,” he said, one of his dark brows arching with…was that amusement? Of course he would find her situation a matter of humor.

“We’ve nothing to discuss. Please excuse me.” Heart thundering, Persephone tried to move past him.

The duke gripped her forearm—not painfully, but firmly.

Swinging around to face him, Persephone glared at his hand and then at his face with its superior I am a duke, and you will do as I say expression.

His eyes narrowed, and he didn’t let go, despite her trying to pull her arm away. “You’ve a great many things to explain, Miss Barclay. And I am not letting you leave until you do.”

#

Acton could not believe his fortune in finding her. He’d traveled to Gloucester and questioned the innkeeper at the New Inn, who’d told him she’d taken a mail coach somewhere. He’d tried to determine where, but no one had recalled seeing an attractive woman in a drab brown dress.

With no notion of where to go in search of her, Acton had stayed at the New Inn last night, hoping today would offer some revelation. He’d slept late and now found himself strolling along the High Street, where he’d run straight into his quarry.

Who was not nearly as pleased to see him as he was to see her.

He should not have found her attractive while she was so obviously furious. But she was glorious in her outrage, her blue eyes spitting contempt and her upper lip curling with distaste.

“Unhand me,” she demanded.

“Only if you promise not to run off. I will only follow you and catch you, and we can go through this entire endeavor again.”

She gave him a defiant stare. “I will scream and call for help. I’ll say you’re accosting me.”

“And I will say you are my betrothed and behaving badly. When I mention I’m the Duke of Wellesbourne, no one will intercede.” He didn’t enjoy threatening her in this manner, but he wasn’t going to let her run off, not after miraculously finding her just now.

She snarled at him, and he still found her absolutely stunning. “You’re a beast.”

“I’m concerned for your welfare. If that makes me beastly, then I’m an absolute monster.” In response to her snarl, he growled then bared his teeth, as if he truly were an animal. Her reaction—eyes widening and lips parting—nearly made him smile.

“I don’t want your concern.”

He looked her over. She wore the same dull brown gown as when he’d met her, and the garment looked as though it needed some care. There were dark circles under her eyes, and her hair wasn’t as glossy as he recalled. “I’d say you need my concern and my help. It’s good that I’ve come for you.”

“Come for me? I am not your betrothed, nor am I your responsibility in any way.”

“That may be true, but you have my concern even if you don’t want it. I’m going to release you now, and you are not going to run. Agreed?”

She pursed her lips, and he wasn’t sure she would stay.

“Please?” he asked. He thought of her obnoxious parents and the lie that she was home sick while she was really running around western England. She was in flight and needed to believe that she didn’t need to keep running. “I only want to know what you are about. I am not going to make you do anything you don’t wish to do.” He released her arm and held up his hands in surrender before dropping them to his sides.

She eyed him warily as she rubbed her forearm. “Good, because I refuse to marry you.”

“That is fortunate since I’ve no wish to marry you either.” He’d honestly not given it much thought, but decided that was the thing she most needed to hear.

“How do you know who I am?” she asked, folding her arms over her chest as if that would keep him at bay.

Acton was just glad she wasn’t running off. He allowed himself to relax, though not entirely, for he needed to be ready to snatch her again if she bolted. “Your parents showed me a miniature, and I recognized you immediately.”

“They didn’t.” She groaned softly as she rolled her magnificent eyes.

“I do believe your father thought I would decide to wed you on the spot.”

“Did he say that?” she asked, appearing horrified.

“No, but he seemed most eager for that outcome. They told me you were ill and had stayed home. Do they even know where you are?” he asked, wondering what sort of scheme this family had concocted to entrap him.

She pressed her lips together. “None of this is your business.”

“It is when our parents are trying to bind us in matrimony. As your potential betrothed, I am meddling. It seems someone must. You should not be gallivanting about by yourself. There are many bad things that could—”

Miss Barclay sliced her hand through the air in front of him. “Stop. Please. I don’t need to be lectured by you, a peddler of bad things.”

Acton gaped at her. “A what? I don’t sell bad things.”

“You offer them willingly enough. I am quite aware of your reputation, Duke.”

“I’m not a bad person,” he said defensively.

A couple that looked to be in their sixties stopped near them. They were both smiling broadly. “You sound like us,” the man said with a laugh.

“But the best arguments always lead to the best reconciliations,” the woman added. She gave them a suggestive look. “Especially in the bedchamber.”

The man giggled along with her as he patted her arm, which was linked through his. “Saucy minx.” He looked to Acton and Miss Barclay. “May your marriage be as long and happy as ours has been.” Touching his hat, the man led his wife away.

Miss Barclay turned her head to stare after them. “They thought we were married?”

Acton tried not to laugh. “The look on your face when she mentioned the bedchamber was the best thing I’ve seen in ages.”

She returned her attention to him. “You cannot say such things and claim you are not a beast. Nice gentlemen don’t laugh at young ladies who are in distress.”

“Are you in distress?” he asked, sobering.

Her color was high, and her lips were parted. Indeed, he could imagine her looking like that in his bedchamber, but for wholly different reasons, of course. “Because of me or what that woman said?” he clarified.

“All of it! I am trying to mind my own business and avoid the parson’s trap.” She definitely did not want the marriage, then. If there was a scheme to unite them, she was not a willing participant.

He exhaled with exasperation. “There is no trap.”

“I’m confident my parents would disagree.”

That made sense to Acton. Her father had been eager to conduct the business of marriage, even without Acton having met the bride. “Why are they so insistent you marry me?”

Her eyes rounded, and she looked at him as if he were incapable of logical thought. “Why wouldn’t they be? You’re a duke.” She said the last word as if it were an epithet. “For most people, that is more than enough. Your personality, sentiment, or reputation matter not.”

“But those things matter to you,” he said softly.

“I’ve no wish to marry a rake.” She turned from him and started down the side street from whence she’d come.

He hastened to walk alongside her. “I met your parents, and while our acquaintance was short—I left as soon as I realized who you were and that you are not, in fact, at home, sick in bed—I sense they may be…difficult.”

She sent him a skeptical look. “You deduced that from a brief interview?”

“Your father was keen to discuss the marriage settlement. I found that distasteful since you and I hadn’t even met. Well, we had, but they don’t know that.”

Pausing, she turned toward him. “Please tell me they still don’t know that.”

“They do not.”

Her eyes narrowed. They were such a spectacular blue and so full of life. He doubted he could ever be bored by her, even if he just sat and watched her. “Why didn’t you tell them we’d met and where?”

He shrugged. “Since they were lying about where you were—and why—I determined something was afoot. It occurred to me that you may be running away from them. And that they didn’t seem overly concerned.” He frowned. That bothered him, and while he knew what it was like to have a parent who didn’t seem to care for him, he’d had one, his father, who had.

“I traveled with them to Cirencester. I’d intended to accompany them to Loxley Court, however, I realized I just couldn’t be forced into marriage, so I left. The earliest coach leaving Cirencester came here to Gloucester.”

“But you hadn’t even yet determined if we would suit.”

She looked at him as if he were a slug sliming its way across her beloved garden. “I know enough about you to be quite certain we will not. In any case, I left them a note that I was returning home.”

“But you did not.”

“No,” she said hesitantly. “I had some…mishaps.”

“I see.” He didn’t, but decided pressing her about those now would be a mishap of its own.

What he did see was that her parents had continued on to Loxley Court after she’d departed their company. They likely expected her to do what she’d said and return home. Even so, they ought to have followed her there. One just didn’t let an unaccompanied young woman travel about alone. Which was why Acton had come looking for her.

She abruptly pivoted and started walking once more. “I don’t know why I’m telling you any of this. It’s none of your affair.”

“I maintain it is my concern since my mother asked me to consider taking you as my duchess.”

She snorted. “I am not considering you as anything other than an unpleasant memory.”

“I gathered that after you doused me with Madeira,” he said wryly. He looked about as they walked. “Where are we going?”

“Also none of your business.”

“I’ll just accompany you, so I’ll find out eventually.” He watched her jaw clench.

“You’re a tyrant.” She turned the corner onto a street with several older, run-down buildings.

“I’m not demanding you marry anyone,” he said affably.

“No, only that I suffer your company.” She stopped again and gave him a weary look. “Can you please leave me alone?”

Without waiting for him to answer, she looked up and down the street, then crossed. Acton hurried to join her on the other side. “No, I cannot. You may not believe that bad things can happen to you, but what if they did?”

She cast him a hooded glance. “Bad things such as a rogue trying to seduce me at an inn?”

“Worse. A degenerate assaulting you and not taking no for an answer.”

She walked a few more feet, then stopped in front of a dilapidated inn. A sign with black ivy hung crookedly over the door.

He wrinkled his nose. “Is this where you’re staying?”

“Not all of us are wealthy dukes.”

“The New Inn on the High Street where we met is very nice. You were able to afford it before.”

She bristled. “Well, I can’t now.”

Now he was more curious than ever about her “mishaps.” “I’ll pay for your room there—your own room.” He was fairly certain she would have accused him of trying to compromise her. Wasn’t that what rakes did?

Not Acton. At least he hadn’t yet. Hell, perhaps he really did need to stop being so forward with women. Most of his interactions were harmless—stolen kisses or touches and nothing more. That didn’t include his escapades at the Rogue’s Den. Which weren’t the best-kept secret.

Could his reputation prevent him from obtaining a bride? Perhaps he should reconsider his behavior.

He recalled the first time he’d heard someone mention his rakish reputation. He’d been in London for the Season when he was twenty-two. When he’d asked his father if he should try to curb his behavior, the duke had laughed and said, “You’re the heir to a dukedom. No one can dictate your behavior except me, and I see no problem with your activities, provided you are discreet.” The message had been clear: do what you like, just don’t let anyone catch you doing anything untoward.

Acton suspected his father would tell him to stop worrying about Miss Barclay, that she wasn’t his responsibility. While that might be true, he couldn’t just turn his back on her. Perhaps that was because he understood what it was like to have a parent who didn’t seem to care.

While he’d been woolgathering, Miss Barclay had set a hand on her hip and was staring at him in disbelief.

“You don’t approve of my offer?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t accept anything from you even if I’d spent my last tuppence. Men like you always expect something in return.”

I don’t,” he said firmly, disliking that her opinion of him was so low.

“Will you please just go home and leave me in peace?” She flung her arm in a vague easterly direction.

“If I go home, I will likely encounter your parents again.” He didn’t know if that was true. Perhaps they’d departed after he’d turned around and left Loxley Court after meeting them. There was one way to find out—he would dispatch a letter to his mother asking. He’d do that shortly, but first, he went on, “And if I see your parents, I’m afraid this time, I’ll have to tell them where I saw you. It’s just not prudent for you to be here alone.” He glanced toward the derelict inn. “Especially here.”

“I will only be here for the night,” she said.

“Then where will you go?”

“That is none of your concern,” she snapped. “Stop acting as if you have some responsibility or right to manage me.”

Acton wiped his hand over his face. “We can continue like this, or you can accept that you need help. You can’t have a great deal of funds if you’re staying here instead of the New Inn. The place looks as though it may fall down or is teeming with rats. And, frankly, you look as though you could use some…care.” Still, he found her absurdly captivating—acerbic tongue, bedraggled gown, and all.

Her jaw dropped. “You can’t think to criticize my appearance? Truly, your ability to cause offense knows no bounds.” Turning on her heel, she stalked into the inn.

Acton followed her inside and watched as she strode across the common room and started up the stairs, disappearing as she reached the landing and went around the corner.

“May I help you, sir?” a feminine voice asked from Acton’s right.

He looked in that direction and saw a pretty barmaid, at least he assumed that was her position. Her pale blonde hair was pinned atop her head and her eyes were pitched in a seductive gaze. Her costume was neither demure nor overly revealing, but it certainly accentuated her curves.

“I’d like to take a room, if one is available,” he said.

She perused him with surprise and unabashed interest. “Here?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll fetch the innkeeper, but I do believe our largest room is available.” She batted her lashes at him before turning.

“Wait, before you go, I have a question.”

She faced him once more and moved closer to him. “Yes?”

“The woman who just came in—she’s staying here.”

“Mrs. Birdwhistle?”

Mrs. Birdwhistle. Was she playing the widow again? And where had she come up with that ridiculous name?

“Yes, Mrs. Birdwhistle. How long has she been here?”

“Just since yesterday.”

Acton wanted more information than that. He took a step toward the maid and summoned his most flirtatious smile. “And what can you tell me about her?”

The maid put a hand on her hip, drawing his attention to the indent of her waist. “She keeps to herself mostly, takes her meals up to her chamber. Arrived without a thing, not even a small bag, which I found odd. Moll and I think she’s running from a nasty husband. Poor thing.”

“That is unfortunate.” And also untrue, but he didn’t disabuse the maid of her suspicion.

“Moll is the other maid,” she said brightly, apparently moving right past whatever darkness she thought might be affecting “Mrs. Birdwhistle.” “And I’m Becky. Let me know—personally—if ye need anything.” Her expression bordered on a leer, making it absolutely clear what she would be willing to help with.

While Acton wasn’t interested in her physical favors, he always appreciated help. “Thank you, Becky,” he drawled softly. “I’ll be sure to seek you out when I require assistance.”

She giggled before taking herself off.

Acton surveyed the common room. With its low ceiling and blackened hearth, the space felt rather close. It was tidy, however, which filled him with relief. He could only hope his chamber would be the same. At least he traveled with his own bedcoverings, even if he had left his valet at home, as he did from time to time. He’d need to fetch his horse and valise from the New Inn. Pity, for it really was much nicer. In fact, he would leave his horse stabled there.

When he returned, he’d ask Becky or Moll to make up his bed. Damn, he wished he had spare bedding for Miss Barclay.

Mrs. Birdwhistle. Who traveled with no luggage. What was that about?

He had so many questions and so far, very few answers. Miss Barclay was not enthusiastic about his presence. He would need to work harder to gain her trust. She couldn’t keep on with whatever she was doing.

A thought occurred to him, and he couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it before. Perhaps she wasn’t running away from her parents or from him. What if she was running to someone?

It wasn’t outrageous to think she might wish to marry someone else. Someone of whom her parents didn’t approve.

But if that were true, where was this gentleman? Had he been caught up somewhere, and she was now alone, fending for herself? If so, he didn’t seem good enough for her. If Miss Barclay had consented to meet Acton for an assignation or any other reason, he would bloody well show up.

He needed to get to the bottom of her situation. Hopefully, without irritating her further. An idea came to him, one that he thought could improve her disposition.

But would she accept anything? Only if she didn’t know it had come from him.

 

Chapter Six

After leaving the duke in the common room, Persephone had shut herself in her bedchamber and seethed. She didn’t know what was worse, that her parents had gone and attempted to settle the marriage without her or that the would-be groom had come after her.

At least he hadn’t told her parents that he’d seen her. It was…odd. Especially given his ongoing prattle about her safety and how she needed his help. If he were that concerned, shouldn’t he just have informed her parents that he’d encountered her in Gloucester?

Still, she was glad he had not. She wasn’t eager to face her parents after running away from them.

She was still mulling the duke’s arrival and the news he’d shared when the innkeeper’s son arrived with a tub.

“I didn’t ask for a bath.” Persephone couldn’t afford that. But oh, how wonderful it sounded!

“I was told to bring it up,” he said, pushing into the room and depositing the metal tub in front of the fire. “I’ll be right back with the water.”

“But I can’t pay for this,” she called after him as he stepped over the threshold.

“Already paid for,” he called back before disappearing down the stairs.

Persephone frowned even as her insides cartwheeled with joy at the prospect of washing all the travel and frustration away. The tub wasn’t large, but it would do nicely.

A short while later, as she lounged in the cooling water after scrubbing herself clean—soap had also been provided, which she also couldn’t pay for. It occurred to her that Wellesbourne had to be behind this. Apparently, he couldn’t stomach her bedraggled appearance.

It grated to accept this gift, but she reminded herself that she didn’t need to see him again. Presumably, he’d arranged for her bath then returned to his nicer lodgings at the New Inn.

A knock on the door made her sink deeper into the tub. “I’m busy!” she called.

“It’s Moll,” came the feminine voice in response. “I’ve packages for ye. I know ye’re in the bath. I won’t peek. I’ll just drop them on the bed and be on my way.”

Packages?

“All right,” Persephone responded.

Moll slipped into the chamber and, true to her word, didn’t look in Persephone’s direction as she deposited two paper-wrapped packages on the bed. Persephone stayed submerged, which meant folding herself up, until the maid left.

Curiosity drove Persephone from the tub earlier than she would have left it. Grabbing the toweling that the innkeeper’s son had brought, she ignored the frayed edges and rough texture. She dried herself enough to keep from dripping, then wrapped the towel around herself before making her way to the bed—it wasn’t far since the room was so small.

She untied the string on the first package and folded back the paper. It looked to be bedclothes. Made from a soft, smooth cotton, they were covers for a pillow and the mattress. There was also a blanket of fine gray wool. Persephone finished drying and dropped the toweling to the floor in favor of bundling herself in the blanket.

Sighing as the soft wool caressed her freshly cleaned skin, she turned her attention to the other package. Inside was a traveling gown made of light wool dyed a vibrant blue. It reminded Persephone of the miniature iris that bloomed at Radstock Hall in the spring.

There were also undergarments, which should have shocked her. Or offended her. The man was a known rake, and she ought not accept gifts from him. The bath had been far too much. But the thought of dressing in her travel-worn clothing after the refreshing bath made her want to weep.

Her gaze lingered on the bedclothes. Surely, she could keep those? Just for the night, then she could return them to him at the New Inn.

Exhaling, she turned to the hook near the door and froze when she saw it was empty. What had happened to her gown? Persephone had hung it there before slipping into the bathtub. Had Moll taken it when she’d come in? Persephone hadn’t noticed, but with the door ajar, the maid could have grabbed it on her way out without Persephone seeing.

Now she would have to wear the new gown. Since her undergarments were still on the bed, she decided she would don those. That way she wasn’t accepting everything Wellesbourne had offered. If it was indeed the duke who had arranged the bath and purchased these items.

By the time her hair was dry and she’d dressed, noise from the common room was already filtering upstairs. It sounded as though it would be another busy, boisterous evening. The innkeeper’s son had come to empty the tub and remove it, and he’d said they were expecting as much.

As with last night, she would go down only long enough to request her dinner on a tray so she could dine here in her chamber. Alone with her pair of candles.

Using the cracked mirror on the wall, Persephone pinned her hair up and admired what she could see of the pretty new gown. She would hate to return the garment, for it fit rather well despite being slightly short. Alas, she could not keep it. Unless, she learned it hadn’t come from the duke.

But who else would have given it to her? Persephone doubted she would like the answer to that.

She covered the bed and pillow with the new sheeting and had to credit Wellesbourne’s consideration. It was one thing to want her to look nicer—she could see him desiring that for himself if not for her—but to ensure her comfort when she went to sleep? That was not something she would expect from a rake such as he.

Perhaps he truly did want to help her without expecting anything in return. Or, more likely, he’d purchased the bedding because he hoped to continue his seduction and wanted to be sure the bed was clean and comfortable.

That would certainly align with him not telling her parents that he’d met her. That puzzling fact lingered in her mind. Why keep that from them? Unless he’d planned to seduce her. She just didn’t understand his motivation.

She recalled what he’d said about her parents. He seemed to find her father’s discussion of a marriage settlement premature and annoying. That had to recommend him, didn’t it?

Or, mayhap he wasn’t remotely interested in a possible marriage and had only agreed to the meeting to appease his mother. That was something a rogue like him would do.

The reasons for his behavior mattered not. She was done with the Duke of Wellesbourne. For good.

She left the chamber for the common room. The scent of dinner, specifically of whatever seasonings were being employed, wafted from downstairs, and her stomach growled in response. Last night’s meal of lamb stew had been surprisingly tasty.

Rounding the corner on the landing of the stairs, she surveyed the room. It wasn’t as crowded as last night, but that could very well change. She caught sight of a pair of gleaming Hessians jutting out from under a table. Lifting her gaze, she inhaled sharply.

Wellesbourne had returned.

He lounged near the hearth, gripping the handle of a tankard sitting atop the table. His lips were spread in a wide, engaging smile as both Becky and Moll stood nearby. They stood in such a way, slightly leaning toward him, as to encourage him to view their bodices, which were cut lower than anything Persephone had ever worn. But then, Persephone’s wardrobe was universally demure. In fact, now that she thought about it, the gowns that Pandora wore were more enticing than Persephone’s. She’d always attributed it to Pandora just being more appealing but perhaps their mother had purposely dressed them differently.

And why wouldn’t she?

Persephone shook away thoughts of the baroness and watched as the duke flirted with both maids. Didn’t they have work to do? Persephone wanted her dinner, but didn’t wish to interrupt them. She hoped to avoid speaking to the duke at all.

Except, she ought to thank him.

Or should she? There was nothing to indicate he was behind the bath, the gown, or the bedding. He was just the most logical answer.

If he wasn’t going to be open about what he’d done, why should she bother showing her gratitude? They could pretend none of it had happened. Yes, she preferred that.

The maids finally took their leave of him, and Persephone continued down the stairs. Naturally, another woman, very attractive, with red hair and dark, sultry eyes, sidled up to the duke as soon as they left. The man was a magnet for women. But not for Persephone.

Staying on the opposite side of the room, she made her way to where Becky was currently speaking to a table with a trio of men. One of them slid a glance toward Persephone and gave her a suggestive smile.

Persephone pivoted so she could see Becky from the corner of her eye, but not the men at the table. When Becky was finished with them, Persephone intercepted her and asked for her dinner.

“I’ll fetch it for ye in a bit, dearie. We’re very busy tonight, as ye can see. Why don’t ye find a place to sit, and I can bring ye an ale or a glass of wine?” She bustled off before Persephone could say she had no intention of sitting anywhere. If she did that, she had to expect the duke would consider it an invitation to join her.

Or, he’d just approach her as he was doing now.

Persephone stiffened as he came near. He was almost unbearably attractive, with a heartrending smile that made her want to giggle like a green girl. His features were superbly chiseled, as if he’d been created from the work of some ancient master sculptor—strong jawline, enchanting dimples, a provocative set to his mouth. He looked as though he was always on the verge of smiling, as if his good humor simply could not be contained. Was he never sad or bored or angry?

She knew he could appear surprised. He’d displayed that quite wonderfully both when she’d tossed wine at his face and when she’d run into him on the street.

He looked slightly surprised now, in fact. “Good evening, Miss Barclay. I wasn’t sure if I’d see you. Moll said you prefer to dine in your chamber.”

“Please call me Mrs. Birdwhistle.”

“Oh yes, I’d heard that was your alias.” He leaned closer, and she caught his scent of sandalwood and amber. “Where on earth did you come up with that name?”

“Mrs. Birdwhistle was my governess. I hold her in the highest esteem.”

“Then it is a grand name, indeed.”

Persephone didn’t want to have pleasant chitchat with him. “Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be at your nicer inn?”

“So droll of you, but no. I’m lodging here now.”

She was surprised he would exchange his certainly well-appointed suite at the New Inn for whatever they’d given him here. “Are you spying on me?”

“I’m watching over you. There’s a difference.” He sounded smug.

“I’d rather you didn’t. Why don’t you watch over the maids instead? You seem to have become quite friendly with them.”

He lifted a shoulder. “I’m friendly with everyone. It is my amiable nature.”

She thought of the red-haired woman who’d taken the maids’ place. “One might even call it flirtatious.”

Aha! He could look discomfited! He shifted his gaze from her briefly, and the end of his mouth ticked barely down. “Er, yes. I’ve been called that a time or twenty.”

She arched a brow at him, murmuring, “Only twenty?”

His gaze moved over her. “You look lovely this evening.”

“There you go flirting again.” She couldn’t help thinking of one of the Rogue Rules: never flirt with a rogue. They made it difficult by constantly flirting themselves, but Persephone would not bend.

“Can’t I offer you a simple compliment?”

Was he hoping she would acknowledge his gifts? If he wasn’t going to make it clear they’d come from him, she wasn’t going to bring them up. “Thank you.”

“The color makes your eyes shine even more vividly.”

Was he just saying that to be flirtatious, or had he chosen the gown to complement her eyes? Given his thoughtfulness with the bedding, she had to wonder if he had indeed given the task more consideration than she would have expected from a scoundrel. Or perhaps matching gowns to eye color was exactly what scoundrels did. She had no idea.

He went on, “I was hoping I could persuade you to dine here in the common room with me.”

“It’s…too noisy.” She’d been about to say too risky, but didn’t want to invite another offer from him to pay for her to lodge elsewhere.

“It is rather riotous. I could join you upstairs?”

She cocked her head to the side, recalling the rule to never be alone with a rogue. “That’s forward of you. Anyway, I only have one chair.” And the table was barely large enough for her dishes, let alone his too.

“I have two chairs at the table in my chamber. We could dine there,” he said with a great deal of charm and far too much assumption.

“No, thank you.” She was not breaking that rogue rule either. Again. She’d already spent enough time alone or mostly alone with him.

He moved closer to her and fixed her with a provocative stare. Then he pursed his lips into a faint pout. Good Lord, did this work with other women?

“Please reconsider,” he asked, somehow managing not to sound as though he were pleading. He seemed quite earnest, actually. Perhaps the pout wasn’t an act.

Of course it was! She could not afford to be swept away by his undeniable allure. “You can stop that,” she said more coldly than she’d intended. “Your flirtation won’t work with me.”

His pout pitched into a frown. “Not at all? People, women in particular, generally find me engaging. I thought you did too—when we first met in Gloucester. I felt an immediate connection to you, and I would have sworn you did too.”

“Not at all. I only pretended to be interested in you.”

“Is that true?” He shook his head. “I completely misread that—and you. I confess that troubles me. I pride myself on discerning people.”

She felt a little sorry for him, for he seemed genuinely surprised and mayhap even a little wounded. “I can’t believe I’m the first person who is impervious to your efforts.”

“You might be, actually.” He appeared to be considering that. Persephone worked to not roll her eyes. Blinking, he refocused on her. “Why did you dump wine on me?”

“I should think it was obvious. I didn’t want to marry you, and that was the best way I could think to deter you.”

He laughed. “That doesn’t make sense. I didn’t even know who you were. In fact, we hadn’t introduced ourselves at all. Honestly, I found the mystery provocative.” He paused, studying her intently. “How did you know who I was?”

“You said your home was near Stratford-upon-Avon, and when you said you were going there to meet a potential bride, I deduced that you had to be the man I was supposed to meet. I also knew the Duke of Wellesbourne to be an overconfident, swaggering rake, and you certainly fit that description.”

He put his hand to his chest. “You strike a dagger directly into my heart.”

Persephone did not stop herself from rolling her eyes this time. “On second thought, I will dine with you. I shall request a bottle of Madeira so that I may pour the entire contents over you.”

The corner of his mouth ticked up, and she wanted to laugh with him. This was an entirely ridiculous conversation. Except she didn’t laugh. And in this situation particularly, she couldn’t encourage him. It was why she continued to treat him so poorly. She needed him to leave her alone.

“Then I shall also ask for a bottle,” he said. “We can circle each other and try to land our respective drenchings on our targets.”

The image provoked a small snort to leap from Persephone’s nose. She immediately brought her hand to her face and looked away.

“I like it when you snort,” he whispered. “It’s endearing.”

She shot him a look of surprise. Was he serious? She couldn’t tell. “Now I know you’re being insincere and merely trying to charm me. Or seduce me. I can’t think of another reason you would come looking for me without telling my parents we met.” And yet, she still couldn’t reconcile him wanting to do that—she was not the sort of woman a man like him seduced. She attracted overeager curates or second sons with nothing better to do on their school holiday than dally with a naive bluestocking. Those being the first and second men she’d kissed.

“I promise, I did not seek you out for seduction.” His tone was completely sincere, and she was actually disappointed by that. It might have been nice if he’d wanted to, even if she had no intention of surrendering to his advances.

“I want to be sure I understand,” he continued. “As soon as you determined my identity, you feigned interest—you quite provoked my interest—then soaked me with Madeira. And this was because you knew of my reputation and had already decided we would not suit because of it. Is that why you didn’t accompany your parents to Loxley Court?”

“Yes, that is a fair summation.”

“And here I wondered if you were perhaps meeting a gentleman for an assignation. I should have realized that didn’t make sense. A woman who dislikes rakish behavior would certainly never participate in a scandalous situation.” He noted the slightest flare of her nostrils and wondered at the cause of it.

“I am not meeting anyone. I am trying to avoid marriage to you.”

He straightened. “You should not believe everything you hear about people. I am not the rake I’m purported to be. It is unfortunate that you didn’t care to at least meet me, for I believe we may actually have suited. You possess an admirable spirit.”

She batted her lashes, copying the way the maids had gazed at him. “To think you might have chosen me! I may swoon.” She pressed her hand to her forehead.

“Go right ahead. I will catch you,” he said with considerable cheer, as if he hoped she would faint into his arms.

With relief, Persephone noted Becky coming toward her bearing a tray. “Dinner for Mrs. Birdwhistle,” she said, handing it to Persephone before winking at Wellesbourne.

Persephone expected her to stay and bat her eyes some more, but she carried on, bustling to a table with three men who roared with approval when she arrived. Clutching the tray, Persephone inclined her head toward the duke. “I’ll bid you good evening, then.”

He exhaled in a distinctly disappointed fashion. “I suppose I shall have to dine alone.”

“I doubt that. I’m confident Becky or Moll or that pretty red-haired woman would love to keep you company.”

“I’ll dine alone. Near the stairs, so I can make sure you aren’t bothered.”

Persephone hadn’t considered that. “You won’t have to look after me much longer. I’ll be on my way in the morning.”

His brows rose. “Oh? Where are you going?”

“Home.”

“That’s just east of Bath, isn’t it?”

She saw no point in keeping it from him. He likely already knew where she lived. “Radstock Hall. Er, thank you for caring enough to ensure I was safe.” It was more than her parents had done. That realization made her stomach sink and threatened her appetite.

“It has been my pleasure. I must tell you that I dispatched a letter to my mother earlier asking whether your parents had returned home or planned to remain at Loxley Court until you arrived after recovering from your illness. While I was there, they indicated you would be joining them upon your swift recovery.”

He’d written to his mother? “You didn’t tell her you’d found me?”

“I did not.”

She might never like him, but she certainly appreciated his handling of this situation. “Thank you.”

“I wondered if you might care to wait until we receive a response from my mother before departing?” he asked.

Perhaps it would be better to know what her parents were doing. Did it really matter? They were going to be furious with her regardless of what she did next. The only way they would likely welcome her home was if she walked in on Wellesbourne’s arm and introduced him as her betrothed.

They would be ecstatic. Not because she’d secured an excellent match for herself or that she may even have fallen in love. They would be relieved that the family would be saved—both socially and financially. There were so many debts to be settled, all of them to do with the baron and baroness presenting themselves as though they were members of the wealthy elite. Persephone was surprised she had any dowry left at all.

“Have you come to a decision?” Wellesbourne asked. “I assume you are pondering my proposal that you stay one more day.”

In truth, Persephone wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about facing whatever came next, whether that be returning to Radstock Hall or forging an independent life of spinsterhood.

She could endure one more day. Particularly since she had clean bedclothes.

“All right. I’ll stay. One more day.”

“Excellent. Enjoy your dinner!” he said amiably.

Persephone murmured, “Good night,” then turned and climbed the stairs. At the landing, she looked down to see he was still watching her. She wondered if he would indeed sit at the base of the stairs.

As she went to her chamber, she reluctantly acknowledged that it was comforting to have someone watching out for her. Too bad it wasn’t going to last.

***

 

(Excerpted material is from the ARC (advanced reader copy version) of If the Duke Dares. This is not a final version of the book and may contain typos or other issues such as formatting.)

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