He really hoped he wouldn’t have to kidnap her.
Simon Hastings, twelfth Duke of Romsey, rode his horse along Curzon Street until he found the house in which Miss Diana Kingman resided. Spotting it, he rode past—he had no intention of calling—and formulated a plan. With many, many contingencies, one of which would be kidnaping, but he dearly prayed it wouldn’t come to that. He didn’t know Miss Kingman well, but from what he did know, she possessed a sound mind and more reason than most women her age.
Her lips were also incredibly soft.
He ought not know that, of course, but as a result of some silly games they’d played at a house party several weeks before, he was well acquainted with her mouth and the way she smelled—like honeysuckle buzzing with bees eager to taste its sweetness.
Was he a bee?
Simon shook his head. He couldn’t be a bee to Miss Kingman’s flower. Or anyone else with a “miss” in front of her name. Hell, he’d be lucky to find a woman who could bear to look at him without flinching. And if he did, he might just have to marry her on the spot.
He nearly laughed at the thought. It was more than likely he wouldn’t marry again, not after the tragedy of his first union.
Shaking the maudlin thoughts away, as he did every day, he focused on his plan as it came together in his mind. He made his way back to his town house in Berkeley Square and scratched off a missive, which was immediately delivered to Miss Kingman. Then he went back out and walked to Green Park to wait.
The day was gray and cold, and Simon was quite chilled by the time Miss Kingman strolled into the park nearly an hour later, a maid trailing her by several paces. She paused, scanning the area and moving right past him. She continued onto the path, her head moving as she looked for Nick—that is, the Duke of Kilve and Simon’s closest friend. And also Miss Kingman’s fiancé. Or former fiancé.
Simon stood from the bench on which he’d been lounging and made his way toward her. As he neared, recognition flickered across her face, and she stopped.
She offered a curtsey. “Your Grace.”
“Good afternoon, Miss Kingman. How lovely to see you here. Might we ask your maid to sit on the bench while we take a turn?” He didn’t want the retainer overhearing anything he said.
Miss Kingman was a lovely young woman, with an emphasis on the word young. She couldn’t be much past twenty. Petite of stature, she possessed dark, nearly black hair and vivid blue eyes. “I’m supposed to meet His Grace, the Duke of Kilve.”
His note had invited her to meet Nick. “I know. He asked me to come in his stead.”
Her eyes widened. “Is he all right?”
Damn. She cared for him. This was going to be painful. “He’s, ah, fine. Shall we walk?”
She turned and walked to her maid. After speaking with her for a moment, the retainer went to the bench, where she perched on the edge. Miss Kingman returned to Simon’s side.
He offered her his arm, and she stared at it a moment before taking it. “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“I wasn’t reluctant to take your arm,” she said coolly. “I’m merely trying to puzzle why you’re here and not Kilve. Furthermore, I’m trying to determine why Kilve wanted to meet me here.”
“It’s a rather delicate matter.” Simon walked with her along the path and tried to choose his words carefully. “You recall Lady Pendleton? From the house party.”
That was where Simon had met Miss Kingman. And Lady Pendleton.
“Of course. Is something amiss with her?”
“There was—she had an accident—but she’s all right now, I believe. That isn’t the issue, however.” He grimaced. “There just isn’t a good way to say this, I’m afraid. Nick and Violet—Lady Pendleton—were acquainted in the past. Well acquainted.” He gave Miss Kingman a pointed look. “They were in love.”
Miss Kingman slowed but didn’t stop. “I see.”
“They are still in love. It’s quite a romantic tale. Er, except for the part where Nick can’t marry you.”
She was quiet a moment, but Simon felt the tension in her as her hand briefly tightened around his arm. “If he’s in love with her, why did he agree to marry me?”
“That is, ah, where things grow complicated. We men sometimes behave poorly when love is involved. I know it makes no sense, but because he was overwhelmed with love for Violet, he felt as though he had to leave her. He was afraid. And foolish.”
“And I’m going to pay the price for that, apparently,” she said with considerable aversion. “He sent you to tell me this?”
“No. I offered to take care of the matter. Because of Lady Pendleton’s accident, it’s vital that he travel to Bath at the earliest possibility. I suspect he’s already on his way out of London.” Simon hoped so, anyway.
Her silence was longer this time, but Simon didn’t feel any tension. He peered down at her, a bit alarmed at her reaction. But what had he expected? A dramatic outburst? A fainting spell? He hadn’t brought any hartshorn.
“How could he do this?” she whispered. She turned her head, and her gaze pitched down.
Oh dear. Was her heart broken? He’d had the impression from Nick that this was to be a marriage of convenience. But maybe she’d just told him that to get him to agree.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, feeling rather inadequate. “Nick is an ass. He never should have contracted to marry you.”
“No, he shouldn’t have.” She still didn’t look at him.
Simon sought to soothe her, if he could. “Miss Kingman, this needn’t be the end of the world.”
Now, her gaze snapped to his. “Of course not, but it’s quite a disaster. My family will be a laughingstock. My father will be furious.”
Simon couldn’t argue with either of those things. “You’re likely right. But, if you cry off, it will be much better, don’t you agree?”
She was silent a moment, her blue gaze boring into his. “Better than being abandoned? I suppose so, but isn’t that rather like comparing breaking one’s arm to breaking one’s leg? They’re both highly undesirable.”
Damn, this was worse than hysterics. How could he combat logic?
With logic, he supposed.
He edged closer to her, keeping his voice soft. “Nick is incontrovertibly in love with Violet, and she is with him. There can be no marriage between you and him.”
She looked away again, her lips clamping together. She stared toward the reservoir for a long moment before saying, “I wouldn’t want to come between two people who love each other. However, my father will not agree with this sentiment. The banns have been read. He will cause a problem for their wedding.” She turned her head toward Simon. “I assume they plan to wed.”
“I’m sure they do.” Simon and Nick hadn’t discussed that, but since he and Violet had been pining for each other for nigh on a decade, Simon couldn’t imagine another outcome. He only hoped he’d be there to witness it. “This is why I invited you here today—not Nick, me. I insisted he leave to care for Violet and promised to help you mitigate a potential social disaster. The best I can see is you need to cry off. That’s the only way to keep the scandalmongers somewhat at bay and to satisfy your father.”
She finally stopped and turned toward him, withdrawing her arm. Her eyes were wide beneath the brim of her exceedingly fashionable hat, and she stared at him a moment before a laugh exploded from her soft, pink lips. “If you think that will satisfy my father, you’re mad.”
While Simon hadn’t known what to expect, this hadn’t been anywhere in his imagination. “Tell him you’ve changed your mind, that you no longer wish to marry Nick. Surely he’ll understand.”
“You don’t understand. My wishes don’t signify. They never have. Unless you’re prepared to cart me off against my will, my father will ensure this marriage happens as planned.”
Hell and damnation.
“Carting you off is certainly an option,” he said drily. “Or I could escort you somewhere while your father calms down and comes to terms with things.”
“Unlikely,” she muttered darkly, averting her gaze once more.
“Do you have any other ideas? I will fully support anything you want to do.”
She gave him an arch look. “What does that mean exactly?”
“It means I am at your disposal. I will take you anywhere you wish, and I will cover any expense.”
This seemed to have an impact. Her eyes widened briefly, and her lips parted. She really was a beautiful young woman, despite the tiny lines of stress that marred the space between her eyes most of the time. Right now, however, they were gone, and he glimpsed what she might look like if she didn’t have the weight of expectation on her.
For that was what it was, Simon decided. It was clear her father expected her to marry well, which she’d been on the verge of accomplishing. Simon would do whatever necessary to ensure she didn’t bear the brunt of her father’s rage. “Perhaps we should tell your father that Nick has broken the engagement, and then the public story can be that you cried off. Would that satisfy him?”
“I told you—nothing will satisfy him that doesn’t involve me becoming a duchess.”
“You could marry me, I suppose. I’m a duke.” As if she didn’t know.
“My father doesn’t want me to marry you. Believe me, my mother suggested you at the house party—you were far more affable than Kilve. He really is the Duke of Ice.”
“Try not to judge him too harshly,” Simon said. “He’s suffered a great many losses to become that giant block of ice. Violet is thawing him, however.” And Simon couldn’t be happier. As much as he hated how this situation affected Miss Kingman, he would do whatever necessary to ensure Nick found happiness. They’d been friends far too long, had suffered together through far too much. And dammit, one of them ought to be happy.
“Wonderful. While he gets his heart’s desire, I get to decide how to survive a scandal—privately or publicly.”
“You’d want this to be public?”
She speared him with a stark stare. “Honestly, I don’t care. I’d be quite happy leaving London altogether. I’d be delighted to teach at a school for young ladies. Or work at an orphanage to help abandoned children. Hell, I-I’d even move to the country to tend sheep.”
Her casual use of a curse surprised and amused him. There seemed to be much more to Miss Kingman than met the eye.
“Then why don’t we make one of those things happen? I said I would take you anywhere you wish.” An outlandish idea struck him. “I know—we’ll change your name and set you up somewhere else in whatever capacity you like. You could be a widow in a cottage outside Bath.” He winced, recalling that Violet lived in Bath and that was where Nick was currently headed. “No, not Bath. How about York? Or you could go to Wales or even Scotland.”
“You’re going to pay for my cottage? That wouldn’t cause a scandal.” She rolled her eyes.
Simon grinned, glad that she was finding a bit of humor. “No one would know. My name wouldn’t be involved.”
She cocked her head to the side and studied him. “Why do you want to help me?”
He opened his mouth, then promptly closed it again. Why did he want to help her? Because he was helping Nick. Only it was more than that. He was offering her his protection—in as non-scandalous a way as possible—as well as his support. And he did want to ensure she wasn’t ruined. He nearly laughed aloud. The Duke of Ruin sought to protect a young woman from ruin. This had to be the single most ironic moment of his existence.
“I always try to help people,” he said. “They seldom allow me to do so, but I always try.”
“Because of…” She didn’t say it, but they both knew the words she’d left unspoken.
Because he’d killed his wife. Generally, he was anathema. And that didn’t leave much room for altruism. Was she going to shun him like most other people did? She’d been pleasant at the house party, but then all the younger set had, particularly that afternoon when they’d joined together in the ballroom to play games. When he’d kissed her. Did she think of that as often as he did?
Probably not. It entered his mind far too frequently, but he supposed that was bound to happen given how long it had been since he’d kissed someone. In fact, if he thought about it too much, he grew uncomfortable. He hadn’t ever planned on kissing anyone else, let alone enjoying it.
“Will you let me help you?”
She looked up at him. “I don’t think I have any other choice.”
It wasn’t a ringing endorsement, but this wasn’t about him. He was just relieved that she would let him. “Good. Where are we going?”
She turned from him and started to walk. Quickly. He hurried to catch up. “I need to think,” she said without slowing.
Simon kept up with her, and they strode along the path in silence. He glanced back at her maid, whose head was turned watching them.
“We should probably turn back,” he said. “Will your maid tell anyone whom you met?”
Miss Kingman stopped abruptly and spun to face him. “B-blast it all!” She continued turning and started back along the path, her already rapid pace increasing.
“Tell her I’m a friend’s brother.”
He shrugged. “Any friend.”
She made a soft sound of disgust. “You didn’t think this through very well.”
“Pardon me for not planning every detail. Rest assured that your escape will be expertly plotted. I just need to know where you want to go.”
“I’m still thinking.”
“We need to leave tonight, Miss Kingman. Nick is already gone. It’s only a matter of time—and not much of it—before the betrothal must be broken.”
She stopped again and faced him. “Forgive me for not being able to decide my entire future in the span of a few minutes.” The fire in her eyes diminished a bit. “I’m not sure what to do. The temptation to leave is great, but it means an end to the life I currently lead.”
“Or you tell your father you don’t want to marry Nick. There will be a small scandal, but you’ll weather it.”
“I don’t care about the scandal.”
He saw the flicker of fear in her eyes, and since it wasn’t due to a potential scandal, it had to be her father. “You should go. Anywhere. I’ll be waiting for you at midnight at the intersection of Curzon Street and Bolton Street.” He touched her hand. “I’ll wait all night long.”
She jerked back, her gaze flicking to the maid, who was still watching them. “I have to go.”
He took a step back. “I hope to see you later.”
She turned and hurried to her maid, said a few words, and then they left the park.
Simon exhaled, realizing he’d held his breath while he’d watched her depart. What if she didn’t meet him? Would he simply return home in the morning and go about his business?
He couldn’t. Not knowing what she would be going through if she decided to stay and tell her father that she didn’t want to marry Nick.
Goddammit, Nick had made an utter disaster of things. Simon wanted to punch him, and yet he wanted to hug him at the same time. He understood the depths of the despair that had propelled him to agree to marry Miss Kingman. Simon knew what it felt like to suffer unimaginable loss. But for him, it was even worse because, for all he knew, he’d caused that loss.
Miriam’s face, framed by her thick, honey-blonde hair, rose in his mind. He saw her lips curve into a smile and heard the musical lilt of her laugh. The hole within him was still deep, but at least it had stopped expanding. He could think of her without doubling over, without an overwhelming rush of grief. He’d reclaimed his life, such as it was.
The guilt, however, was still there. And it always would be. She’d been carrying his child when she’d fallen down the stairs to her death, and Simon was certainly to blame.
However did one recover from that?
* * *
The butler helped remove Diana’s cloak after she entered the house. She was grateful to be rid of the heavy woolen garment. Though the day was cold, she was quite heated from her walk. And from agitation. Her meeting with the Duke of Romsey had been thoroughly vexing.
Diana told her maid that she’d been talking to her friend Abigail’s brother Theodore because he was worried about Abigail, who’d developed a tendre for an inappropriate gentleman. Diana said she’d promised to dissuade Abigail from pursuing a courtship.
Relatively confident the maid had accepted her story, Diana felt slightly better. But only slightly. Her entire life was in a shambles. Because of love.
What a useless, irritating emotion. It supposedly brought people joy, but Diana didn’t see it. In her experience, misery was far more likely. Even with the case of her fiancé—former fiancé—he and Violet had apparently suffered years apart.
Though she’d no desire to pursue love for herself, Diana wouldn’t begrudge others if they wanted to expose themselves to such vulnerability. She hoped they would be happy together. They’d better be after all this trouble.
Crossing the entry hall, Diana pulled her gloves off and reached for the ribbon of her bonnet. Her mother came in from the drawing room. “How was your walk, dear? Come and sit with me so we can discuss the wedding.”
Even when the wedding was going to happen, Diana hadn’t been enthusiastic about it. She’d asked him to marry her so that she could get out from under her father’s roof. The Duke of Kilve had seemed as though he was looking for a solution to something too, so she’d proposed that they wed. Now it appeared he’d been running away from Violet. But why? That was a question she’d likely never have answered. His business was none of hers any longer.
Diana forced a smile. “Can we talk later? The cold air gave me a touch of a headache, and I’d like to lie down.”
“Pathetic.” The dark, bitter word darted around the entry hall like a weapon, which, of course, it was. Everything her father said was intended to hurt or manipulate or destroy. “When your mother asks you to do something, particularly to do with this wedding, you’ll do it.” He came from behind Diana, likely from his office, which was in that corner of the town house. He could overhear just about anything that occurred in the hall.
“It’s all right,” her mother said feebly. “We can talk later.”
Diana knew her father wouldn’t accept that, but before she could acquiesce and save both herself and her mother grief, he said, “She’ll do it now. The demands of a duchess will be constant. She needs to learn that her own needs don’t come first.”
Diana bit back a hollow laugh. She’d never been allowed her own needs.
“If she can’t be bothered to plan her own wedding—or be enthusiastic about it—perhaps she has no business being a duchess.” He glowered down at her from his nearly six feet, his dark brown eyes raging.
She turned her head away from him. “Then maybe I shouldn’t be a duchess,” she muttered, especially since she wasn’t going to be.
He grabbed her arm, his fingers pressing ruthlessly into her flesh through the sleeve of her gown. “What did you say, chit? Perhaps a visit to a nice dark closet would help your headache improve.”
“N—” She bit her tongue until it bled. “No. Thank you. I find I’m eager to discuss the wedding plans.” She turned to her mother. “In fact, I had a few thoughts about the flowers.”
Her father released her arm and straightened his coat. “Excellent. I’ll leave you two to manage things.” The fire was gone from his gaze, and it was moments like these that made Diana wonder if she were mad, if the man who’d threatened her actually existed. Especially given what he did next. He smiled at her, warmth lighting his eyes. “You will be an excellent duchess. We’ve worked so hard. You’ll make us all proud.”
After he returned to his office, Diana heard her mother’s exhalation. “That was unwise, Diana,” she whispered.
Diana knew it, but sometimes the words just tumbled from her mouth. Weariness pulled at her frame. “What did you wish to discuss, Mother?”
“Just the breakfast menu. It won’t take but a moment.” She turned and went into the drawing room and didn’t stop until she’d reached the desk in the corner, where she picked up a sheaf of paper, then retraced her steps.
Diana pulled her bonnet from her head and met her mother in the middle of the room.
“I’m not sure if we should have duck or pheasant. What do you think?”
That none of this matters.
She nearly told her mother the truth right then. But fear of her father’s wrath—so quickly after one of his outbursts—held her tongue. “Duck. What else?”
Her mother looked at her a moment, her gaze softening. “You really shouldn’t provoke him. You know better than to do that.”
Yes, she did. But sometimes, particularly after a long period of calm, which they’d enjoyed since she’d become engaged, she forgot herself. Or, more accurately, she forgot him.
“And why would you joke about such a thing?” Her mother scoffed and then ended up laughing. “Don’t you want to be away from here as soon as possible?”
They rarely spoke of his anger or the ways in which he tortured them both, which, despite the way he’d just grabbed her, was almost entirely nonphysical. He’d pushed her mother a few times, but once in a while, Diana wondered if it had ever gone further between them. She’d always been too afraid to ask.
She looked into her mother’s soft blue eyes. “Don’t you?”
Her mother flinched. “Of course not. I’m quite content. In spite of things.” She summoned a smile that Diana didn’t completely believe. “You mustn’t worry about me. I love your father, and he loves me—never doubt that.”
Strangely, Diana didn’t. But it forgave nothing.
The headache Diana had professed to have earlier bloomed behind her left ear. “What else do you need me to look over?”
“That’s it for now. Go and rest. I can tell you don’t feel quite right.”
“Thank you, Mother.” Diana leaned over and kissed her cheek, then departed the drawing room.
Upstairs, her maid attended her immediately, helping her to undress so she could lie down before dinner. “Are my parents staying in tonight?” Diana asked. She’d won a reprieve from social events this week because her fiancé had asked for one. Whereas her father would’ve dragged her out anyway, now that she was engaged—or supposedly so—he’d decided to allow her the freedom of remaining home.
“I believe they are attending a ball. Do you wish to join them?”
Diana shook her head. “No. It will be nice to be alone. In fact, please have my dinner brought here. Then I shall retire early.” That would give her plenty of time to pack.
Wait, had she decided to leave? Where would she go?
The maid finished up and left.
Diana sat on the edge of her bed and stared at her armoire. Inside was a wardrobe any young miss would crave. But she’d walk away from it all if it meant true freedom. Not just one night in which she didn’t have to parade around the town with her parents, but a lifetime of deciding what she wore, whom she talked to, and whom she married. If she married.
A bead of excitement bubbled inside her.
But, again, where would she go? And what would she do?
The only way she could avoid her father would be to marry someone. The Duke of Romsey had offered.
He was the Duke of Ruin—or so everyone called him. He’d been a terrible rake before marrying, and then his wife had died under very mysterious circumstances. It was widely accepted that he pushed her down the stairs in a drunken rage. Apparently, he never disputed that, which only lent credence to the rumor.
She couldn’t spend her life with someone prone to rages. Never mind that he’d never demonstrated such behavior. It wasn’t just that she’d never seen it—their acquaintance had been rather brief after all. She’d asked and been told that he was always affable and kind. He was also witty and charming.
And he kissed divinely. Not that she had anything at all to compare him to.
She abruptly stood and paced around her bed, clasping and unclasping her hands.
If she stayed, her father would be furious, and there was no telling how he might punish her, especially if her reputation suffered. He might even try to enforce the marriage with the Duke of Kilve, but Diana suspected that wouldn’t end well.
She could absolutely rely on him arranging a marriage with someone else as soon as possible, and this time, she doubted he’d take her preferences into account. He’d suggested a few other men whom she’d judged too old or too unpleasant—they’d all made her uncomfortable, and she was too afraid to see what a marriage to them would mean. It was better to stay with the devil she knew than one she didn’t.
It certainly looked as if she had to go. But really, it would only postpone the inevitable doom.
Unless she was able to disappear entirely. She sat on the bed and lay back against the pillows, indulging her fantasy. She’d live at the edge of a charming village where she’d run a small home for orphaned girls. She’d teach them and help them find their way—independently—in the world.
She dozed off, but not before she decided what she had to do.Return to The Duke of Ruin