About the book
Everyone told her to stay away from the Beast of Pineton..
After being abandoned at the altar by her betrothed, Rachel is certain she will live her life as a spinster. Her idea of love crumbled that day, and even more now, when it’s announced that she is to wed a man she has only heard horrible whispers about.
After the war, Oliver has turned into a cold and scarred man. Ever since his brother's death, he has lived in self-exile, refusing to show his face to the ton. But when he decides to rebuild his brother's business, he quickly realizes he needs a wealthy bride. And Rachel just might do.
Oliver thinks he doesn’t deserve happiness. But his new bride is here to show him that love is real. And just when they fall for each other, Oliver’s dark past catches up to them…
St. Andrew’s was more beautiful on the worst Sunday of Rachel’s life than it had been on any other Sabbath before.
Sunlight wafted in rosy tones through the stained-glass windows. Rachel had never seen the colored rays catch on the arch’s golden trim so appealingly. She peeked up as the organ sang dolefully, following daylight’s rich caress along St. Andrew’s white walls. Someone had hung fresh flowers along the windows. Lilies that ought to have been pure white blushed at the pink touch of glass-colored sun’s rays.
Parts of those beams escaped through the opposite window, probably lighting the garden beyond. Rachel yearned to join them. Every inch of her body quivered with a desire to run, open the window, and escape across the grass.
The reverend spoke, quieting the organ, and freezing the blood in Rachel’s veins.
“I, Reverend Edgar Lockwood of St. Andrew’s Chapel, do hereby publish the banns of marriage between His Grace, Oliver Nicholson of Pineton—”
Whispers swept the church so loudly that Father Lockwood was obliged to pause and glare over his fogged spectacles.
“The Duke of Pineton?” whispered one bosomy lady a few pews behind Rachel. “That Duke of Pineton?”
“May the good Laird ‘ave mercy on t’ bride,” growled a crotchety fellow beside her.
Rachel winced. She’d escape through the window, she was sure now. If it was locked, she’d shatter through the glass.
“Between his Grace, Oliver Nicholson of Pineton,” Father Lockwood began again, clearing his throat aggressively, “and the Lady Rachel Jones of Leafton.”
Whispers swelled to murmuring. Rachel felt the burn of a congregation’s worth of curious stares heat her neck. None dared whisper her name. One particularly mischievous boy, however, uttered a giggle and said, “Will she actually get married all the way this time?”
“Hush now!” his mortified mother whispered.
Rachel clasped her hands to keep them from trembling. The first reading. Papa had said she only needed to attend church for the first reading. If she could only endure a little longer…
“My children!” Father Lockwood had reached the end of his limited patience. Blustering about his podium, he withdrew a handkerchief and dabbed his glistening brow. “I beseech your silence and your respect. There is a time and a place in the reading for you to speak, but it is not now. Pray desist, or may the Lord intervene on account of this holy moment being marred so by—by disreputable gossip!”
Most members of the small church fell silent at this. Rachel still suffered under their barely repressed stares. How she yearned to be in her library!
“I shall continue,” Father Lockwood continued stiffly. “Any who would further disrupt my reading may go about their business beyond the chapel doors. Now then.” He licked his thumb and forefinger, applying them delicately to the small book in his hand. “I do hereby publish the banns of marriage between these two most respectable parties. If any of you know any cause of just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony, ye are to declare it.”
The reverend paused, looking about the chapel. He was conducting his good duty, Rachel knew, to ensure whether there was anybody who would speak out against the marriage.
Congregation members shuffled uncomfortably in their seats. Each certainly considered standing, Rachel imagined. But their reasons would not be enough by law to put halt to her union. The groom is a misanthrope, or, the bride never makes it to the altar, were fair reasons for gossip but poor reasons for declaring an impediment.
“This is the first time of asking,” Father Lockwood concluded, seemingly satisfied that he had done his part. He closed the small book and wiped his spectacles of the vapors his indignation had excited. “The second reading will be held at his Grace’s local chapel in Pineton, should any of you wish to attend.”
The reverend’s gaze traveled briefly to the loft. Several members’ heads followed his look, and a whispered exclamation sounded from the bosomy lady behind Rachel.
“The Duke’s here!”
Rachel stiffened. She peered up, fiercely quelling the rumors surrounding her new fiancé. The whispers about the Duke couldn’t be true, and Rachel was silly for even giving them credence.
A figure cloaked nearly fully in shadow leaned languidly against the loft’s parapet. Rachel caught glimpse of a handsome, Greek profile with a strong, proud jawline. She craned her neck until it ached, and then the light caught on her future husband’s face.
Rumors did the Duke of Pineton’s visage little justice. His scars were even ghastlier than Rachel had heard tell. She looked away, barely subduing a gasp as her heart raced in shock and fear.
It hadn’t been the vicious damage done to his otherwise likeable features that turned Rachel’s attention so quickly and frightfully away. No, it was the Duke’s eyes. Beautiful and darker blue than the storm-tossed sea, but just as cold and furious, they’d met Rachel’s as though summoned by her gaze. How he had scowled at her in those few breathless seconds!
Rachel stared at the wood of the pew in front of her, fighting back tears and the silly urge to faint. He couldn’t be the man she was going to marry in three weeks. His Grace Oliver Nicholson, the Duke of Pineton was the recent inheritor of his dead brother’s full estate. Rumor had it, the man was a beast in walking form. Scarred in battle and turned savage by bloodshed, he lived as a recluse to keep others from his misery.
Rachel’s fingers curled into white-knuckled fists as she considered her lot. What had driven such a man, who shunned all decent society and friendship, to suddenly desire a wife?
Father Lockwood’s nasal drone settled like fog in the rustling, whispering chapel. He’d begun his missives, settling the restless congregation into its usual Sunday drowse.
“Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord,” Father Lockwood announced, “but He doth delight in those who are trustworthy.”
Rachel twisted her frock in her fingers, peering back up at the Duke. Thankfully, he’d withdrawn further into the shadow cast by the organ,but he was there, watchful and brooding as any gargoyle. Lying lips had assailed Rachel more and more these past fraught days. Most injurious were the lies of her father.
“Rachel, darling,” Papa had said, twisting his bristled mustache with chagrin. “You mustn’t cry. Really, have you considered at all what will become of you in your later years? Once I’m beneath the earth, who would care for you but a husband?”
“Percy and Louisa might!” Rachel had retorted. “And I’m not crying!”
But Blossom had pushed her wet nose into Rachel’s palm and licked the salty wetnessRachel had dashed from her eyes. It wasn’t sadness that drew Rachel’s tears but anger. Papa had promised, after all; he’d promised they would never have this conversation again.
“Percy and Louisa might be your source of bread, but they shouldn’t have to indulge such wants if it can be avoided,” Papa had said sternly. “The man’s a Duke, Rachel; he’ll keep you from wanting anything in the world, and I shall rest easy knowing my youngest is supported.”
“He can’t give me what I truly want,” Rachel had muttered, but Papa would hear no more on the matter. Rachel’s fate had been sealed, that warm sunny day: she was to marry a Duke, but he was a Duke in name only. His manners and his looks were said to be more that of a beast.
Rachel blinked back more furious tears as the reverend blustered on in his missives. She only ever wept when she was angry, and the hateful instinct of shedding tears always blunted her rage in the eyes of others. Papa had smiled fondly and patted her hand to comfort her, but Rachel had yearned to spit and hiss like a scruffed cat.
“And what does the Lord wish, but that ye should be honest and pure?” Father Lockwood asked his dozing flock.
“And what do I wish, but that a man should keep his promises?” Rachel jotted fitfully in her journal. Papa would watch from a few seats down, approving in the mistaken notion that his darling Rachel was taking notes.
Rachel only wanted her life, free of empty marriage vows and the burden of another man’s name. She’d tried to take both before, and the act had left her in a storm of rumors and shame. It wasn’t her nature to be fooled twice; this Duke would not snare Rachel’s heart, even if he bought her hand in matrimony.
Rachel wished to be free, to be far across the spring-greened moorlands enjoying the dewy grass and a good book. She wished to be with her two real loves, Blossom and Dart!
Not daring to betray her distress by wiping at her face, Rachel stared unblinking toward the Duke’s broad-shouldered figure. She imagined Dart, his tongue lolling after a run across the garden, and Blossom, far behind due to her pot-bellied gait. The image settled her, dried the tears before they had any chance to fall.
Forgetting the real subject of her stare, Rachel settled dreamily into the vision of her two dogs. Blossom’s puppies were duein the summer, and the spanielhad taken to nestling on Rachel’s knees more and more as her speckled belly grew. Before Papa announced the Duke’s proposal, Rachel had already begun picking names for the pups.
Now, she would be gone before they were even born. Would a Duchess be permitted to take her pets to so grand an estate?
Shaking her head, Rachel peered at the shadowy Duke. She would imagine her beloved pets, not the future that might separate her from them. Rachel began to consider anew her names for the expected babes. Her list began with C for Charles, her papa’s name.
“C, Ceasar,” Rachel mouthed, trying the first puppy’s name on her lips. “D, for Daphne. E…” The list would go on, although Blossom could not possibly hold so many puppies. Let the congregation think her mad. They already thought she would be married to a mad Duke. Rachel would survive the insufferable the only way she knew: thinking about her beloved dogs and imagining she was with them in her perfect library.
“Amen,” Father Lockwood intoned.
“Amen!” the members around Rachel repeated. She could only whisper the word. The service was over. After only two more of its like, Rachel would be torn from her dreams and her simple but adequate life. She would be forced to face an altar again with a man who’d met her eye and hidden from her in the shadows.
How had it come to this?
Oliver threw open the doors to his study in such a fury, one bronze handle recoiled and struck his knuckles. Wringing his bruised digit with a curse, Oliver strode in to the darkened room without pausing to light a candle. He knew his way well enough; this wing was the only place he spent time in, and this study doubled as a bed chamber on days his scars ached.
Lately, Oliver had been sleeping in his study every night.
Thunder growled over the unkempt grounds of his estate. Oliver snarled back, this time deigning to light a candle and peer out at the gathering storm. To the devil with all weather! The skin of his jaw, neck, and shoulder had already begun to crawl with pain. Grumbling to himself, Oliver fumbled for his mask; he found it where he’d left it atop his favorite armchair and quickly put it on.
Only after tying to satin ribbon around the back of his head could Oliver relax slightly. No one could stare fully at him now.
“Your Grace?” called the tentative voice of Oliver’s only remaining kitchen maid, Lucy. “Are you returned from the kirk so early? I’ve not readied your tea quite yet.”
Again, the thunder pealed, thesound paired with explosive lightning. Oliver froze with a hiss of pain as his old injury burned afresh.
“Your Grace?” queried Lucy, a few paces closer to his door.
“Deuce take your tea!” Oliver uttered. “Bring me whiskey and a light then leave me be.”
A poignant, hesitant silence followed this request. Then, Lucy said timidly, “But Your Grace, you’ve told me to ne’er serve you any such drink—”
“Do as I tell you now!” Oliver barked. He massaged his forehead. True, he hadn’t tasted any spirits since before his brother died. But after such a day as he’d suffered in the church, a taste of whisky was the only comfort. “To deuces with abstinence! Do you hear? Bring me whisky.”
He heard her catch her breath, stifling a sob. “I will shortly, Your Grace,” came the tearful whisper.
Oliver groaned and sat in his armchair, more than a little sorry. Lucy was a good girl; she had to be near a saint to remain under such a master after so many others had fled the estate. Oliver hadn’t meant to bark at her like the wounded dog he was.
But his scars pained him terribly, and storms were too much like canon fire to permit Oliver the few shreds of peace he still kept in his heart.
A soft shuffle and a keening whine came from the dark floor near Oliver’s feet.
“Mopsy,” he murmured, braving the twinge of his shoulder to lift the terrier to his knee. Mopsy’s warm, soft head nuzzled happily against Oliver’s palm. He licked Oliver’s fingers and wagged his tail, a motion that shook his entire little body.
“Which frightened you worse,” Oliver asked his dog, “the storm or my own thundering?”
Mopsy only circled three times on his master’s lap—a habit that took some time, given the dog’s missing leg—and nestled down with a sigh.
Rain beat down in earnest. Oliver barely heard the timid knock on his door beyond the rushing downpour.
“Enter,” he called.
Lucy appeared, her usual round, rosy features ghoulishlylit by a thick candle.
“I’ve brought you tea,” she stated, rather boldly. “Tea, a small cake, and a fresh candle for your study.” Eying the drawn drapes critically, she added, “Although you might find greater light for your leisure time if you’d open these curtains.”
Oliver noted the offered tray with distaste. “I asked for whiskey, Lucy.”
Lucy set down the tray and folded her hands before her as if to steel herself. “I thought it no’ right for you to drink on the Lord’s Day, My Lord. If the tea’s no’ strong enough, I’ll bring some coffee. But you’ll drink somethin’ warm, and you’ll read by a good light. It’ll be a blessin’ already if you dinna lose your eyesight by thirty-five at this rate.”
After her soliloquy had finished, the maid seemed braced for Oliver’s wrath. He gritted his teeth, having already set himself to speak softer to the lass.
Tea and coffee were all very good, but only whiskey numbed the pain of Oliver’s war injuries. For almost a year, he’d endured the throbbing of his scars without tasting any liquor to ease his discomfort. But with the thunder without that sounded too much like cannon fire and the emotional tumult within his own breast, Oliver had weakened.
He sipped the tea and looked up at the pale but steadfast maid by his chair. The warm drink eased his nerves somewhat, and Oliver began to begrudgingly feel some gratitude. Lucy had done him more service by refusing him than a host of serving hands might by obeying. Had Oliver not sworn at his brother’s grave to never touch such a drink again? Lucy had been there, that dark and awful day. Unlike most servants in Pineton, she had remained loyal.
“Thank you, Lucy,” Oliver said quietly, stroking Mopsy’s head absently. “You may light a few more candles about the room if you fret so over my eyesight.”
Lucy’s eyes widened at the rare utterance. “I will at once, Your Grace!” she exclaimed and began to busy herself around the study. Then, as carefully as a weathered jockey might approach an unbroken colt, she added softly, “And how did the service go, Your Grace?”
Oliver struck his teacup down upon its saucer. The paroxysm cost him burnt fingers and a mess. “You’d do best not to ask, Lucy. Now, go fetch me some coffee. The tea isn’t strong enough, after all.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” she replied softly and fled the study.
The storm howled beyond Oliver’s drawn curtains. He imagined his soul echoing the tormented chorus. Bad enough he’d had to enter society for the first time in months. Even worse was the fact that his presence had been subjected upon a church; the ton might whisper and recoil from a visage like Oliver’s, but the congregation had uttered prayers against him, he was sure.
No, the hellish nature of the service had been its purpose. The social obligation that had drawn Oliver from his solitude was this: he was to attend the first reading of his banns and meet the lady to whom he’d been recently betrothed.
And what a lady she had been! Oliver would not soon forget Lady Rachel’s soft brown curls, how they’d been tied and tucked just primly enough to reveal her slim, white neck. She’d been small in stature and almost slimmer than Oliver liked. But that petite frame had granted her an almost faerie-like appearance, one that would have beguiled him in his past life. As things stood, Lady Rachel Jones’ loveliness had only added to Oliver’s torment. The poor thing would be forced into marriage with him, after all…and he was hideous.
All fond feelings had fled Oliver’s heart swiftly enough, though. Lady Rachel had spotted him. Then, she had gazed at him. Despite Oliver’s best efforts to conceal himself in the shadow of a parapet, the inquisitive little woman had evolved her gaze into a blatant stare.
How she had stared at him! The mortification stirred by her intent peering crept up Oliver’s neck like fire even now. Could she not have at least tried to disguise her attention? Oliver knew well enough what a ghoulish figure he cut. If marriage to Lady Rachel meant a lifetime of such gawking, Oliver felt almost obliged to end the engagement while he still could.
“I’ve brought your coffee, My Lord,” came Lucy’s demure announcement, cutting through Oliver’s thoughts. He stirred in the armchair, turning his face away from the maid out of habit.
“Leave it by the fire,” Oliver muttered.
“The embers and ash, do you mean, My Lord? I’ll just stir them, then.”
“No!” Oliver barked. “I shall tend the fireplace. You can go, Miss Evans.”
Lucy scurried away without another word. So much for treating her more gently, Oliver reflected with a pang of self-loathing. Must he be so horrid to all who dared broach his presence? The sharp tone of Oliver’s response had merely been an instinctive defense against another soul raising light to his scarred features. He’d wanted to spare the maid the fright of seeing him clearly in good, strong firelight and not frighten her off in the process.
“To deuces with the fire,” Oliver muttered.
Mopsy whimpered reproachfully and tucked herself deeper into the folds of Oliver’s cloak.
Realizing he’d best not deprive the dog of warmth, Oliver forced himself from the armchair and half-heartedly prodded the dying embers of his fire. Light sprang eagerly up to oppress him, but the warmth and Mospy’s contented sigh that followed, made the effort well enough worth his while.
Thunder continued to shatter Oliver’s nerves beyond the windows, and lightning dared to flicker beyond the curtains’ folds. Shutting his eyes and pressing a palm against each ear, Oliver sank deeper into his chair and waited for the storm to pass. How pathetic it was, for a duke and a grown man to quiver at a bit of wind and tempest! But it wasn’t the weather Oliver feared; the light and the sound were simply too similar to other, more dreadful things he’d experienced in recent memory.
A touch on Oliver’s shoulder startled him. He sprang to his feet with a curse, letting Mopsy tumble disgracefully to the floor.
“Such language, for a Sabbath day!” reproved a familiar voice. “Whatever would your mother say?”
“She’d utter fouler phrases yet,” Oliver replied with a grin, “if you were the caller on her doorstep, Huntbridge.”
Huntbridge clapped Oliver on the arm, his red hair flickering like fire in his lantern’s ample light. “Well, I suppose I’d curse like a pirate as well if someone interrupted my beauty sleep.”
“This isn’t beauty sleep,” Oliver scoffed. “I’d need at least a hundred more years to even begin such an effort. But come now, Huntbridge; you can’t have come all this way in a squall just to scare me out of my wits. What news?”
“I’ve come no way at all. This accursed weather has trapped me in your rather dismal hall longer than I’d hoped.” Huntbridge crossed the room, lighting two more candles in his wake. Oliver flinched at the growing light, but Huntbridge was used enough to his injuries to avoid staring.
“There are documents for you to sign,” Huntbridge announced, reaching Oliver’s desk as it stood half-buried in correspondence. “Good God, Pineton! Get yourself a secretary or a page at least. Here we are!”
This last was said in a cry of exultation as Huntbridge closed on the pen he’d been seeking. He withdrew both quill and ink, motioning for Oliver to come closer.
“Lord Leafton and his solicitor will be arranging the marriage settlement shortly; you’re to review it with him in the presence of both his solicitor and yours by Monday latest.”
“Legality,” Oliver groaned, approaching the desk. “A necessary evil, I suppose. And what’s this that you wish me to sign?”
Huntbridge smirked. “Simply a letter informing him that you’ll be there. I took the liberty of writing for you.”
“Deuce take it all, Huntbridge. I’m scarred, not illiterate!”
“But you’re not very cultured, either,” Huntbridge sighed. “You barely say a single sentence these days without vulgarity. Honestly, you should be thanking me. Now, sign here and be done with it.”
Muttering beneath his breath, Oliver did so. Huntbridge watched him in the meager lanternlight.
“How did the service go?” he asked Oliver.
Oliver’s thunderous scowl must have been answer enough, for Huntbridge sighed.
“Matrimony is as necessary an evil as legality,” he stated. “This is especially true if you wish to reclaim your father’s business in its entirety.”
“I wish you could have gone to the chapel in my stead,” Oliver growled.
“A single church service has clearly not killed you,” came the reply. “You know there are things even I can’t do in your place, Pineton.”
Oliver grimaced. “I suppose marrying Lady Rachel Jones is one of those things?”
Huntbridge guffawed, rubbing his sideburns. “My dearest Lady Huntbridge would take issue, I believe. You know better, Pineton.”
Of course, Oliver knew better. He signed the fated letter with a heavy hand and returned to his chair with a heavier step.
“She couldn’t have been that bad,” Huntbridge noted slyly. “Just uttering the lady’s name has added a becoming pinkness to your neck and cheek.”
Oliver spun on his heel and delivered a volley of admirable phrases that might have made the devil blush.
“She won’t be fond of your temper, that’s one thing for sure,” Huntbridge said sadly. “You really must constrain your language, old friend. But really, what was she like?”
As if to answer Huntbridge’s curiosity directly, a sharp rap sounded on the study doors. Oliver’s butler entered, looking flustered.
“The Lady Rachel Jones is here, Your Grace,” he said. “She wishes to invite you to tea at Leafton, once the weather’s cleared.”
Oliver heard Huntbridge offer a soft whistle of anticipation.
“Dawkins, you may politely decline the invitation for me,” Oliver said.
“But Your Grace—”
“Have you not conveyed my apologies a thousand times over, man?” Oliver demanded. “Go on and tell the young lady whatever elegant excuse you can conjure. I shall not be attending her tea nor any other person’s for that matter. My social schedule won’t change simply because I gave up the bachelor’s life.”
Dawkins bowed apologetically and fled the study.
“Pineton,” Huntbridge sighed, but Oliver ignored him. He bent over the paperwork avalanche that had cascaded upon his desk.
He would certainly not subject himself to his fiancée’s incessant staring for a second time that day. Lady Rachel could visit and write until her horses grew long in the tooth and her fingers bloodied; Oliver would not accept any invitation to leave his estate.
Here was the only place he could hide from society, after all. If she was so desperate to enjoy his society, Lady Rachel would have to come to Oliver.
As soon as Oliver had reached such a conclusion of grimlysatisfied misanthropy, the doors of his study flew open without a knock or warning call.
Lady Rachel Jones of Leafton stormed in, her delicate hands planted on her hips and her bonny curls released from their prim Sunday bonnet. In the dying dregs of lightning’s flash, she looked like the storm incarnate…only far more alluring and far less likely to pass with a simple northern wind.
“Your Grace!” Lady Rachel stated upon catching her breath. “I believe you owe me an explanation.”
It had taken every ounce of Rachel’s faculties and courage to approach Pineton after church.
The weather had been abysmal, a sudden squall having been stirred up by the warm bonny air as it met old winter’s chill. Rachel had nearly been drenched before Percy had convinced a second coach that was more fortified against the weather to aide their attempts.
Percy had grimaced and sighed against the chill of rain-sodden clothes.
“His Grace had better be a worthwhile companion for tea,” he’d muttered. “And you shall owe me twice over for escorting you, Rachel.”
“I shall pay you thrice,” Rachel had promised her brother-in-law earnestly. “Louisa shall not even consider your absence suspicious for the next three Sundays.”
If Rachel’s brother-in-law, Percy Barrington, had one weakness of character, it was his love of hunting. Louisa, Rachel’s sister, despised the sport and feared for her “dear Percy” every time he ventured forth with the other men. Rachel, however, had become adept at covering for Percy’s absence. Her quick imagination and ease at distracting Louisa with happier thoughts had become Percy’s choice defense against his wife’s antipathy toward his favorite sport.
“Three whole Sundays!” he’d exclaimed exultantly and had uttered nary a sigh or mutter of discontent since.
Now, the two of them sat in the Duke’s parlor. A maid had fetched them towels and brought candles, for the storm still lent a sense of gloom to the room.
“Dismal weather, this,” Percy commented, glancing around. “One would almost think this grand estate a bit haunted with the way this lighting makes the room appear.”
Rachel tried not to peer too intently into the ravenous nooks and the shadows cast by antique furniture. Percy had no eye for décor, so it was doubtless easy enough for him to mark the environment’s gloom up to the storm’s effect.
But Rachel knew better. The lack of any decoration upon the stone-gray tapestries around her, the fact that half the furniture in this room was covered with cloth to prevent dust when out of use…these were the signs of a lonely and abandoned parlor. Rachel’s imagination, already wounded enough by recent events to anticipate the worst, whispered to her that the rest of the manor might appear as this parlor did.
Rachel prayed fervently that this wasn’t the case. How could she live in such a dreary, uninviting household?
“My master is in his study at present,” announced a portly but well-groomed butler, approaching from the eastern door. “He is finishing up some business, I deem; would you like some tea or perhaps a sandwich?” He eyed his guest’s damp attire and chattering teeth. “It seems you’ve been through quite the ordeal to arrive at Pineton. I apologize that the fire isn’t better tended.”
Rachel stood gladly and offered the man her calling card. “I am Lady Rachel Jones of Leafton.”
Thankfully, the butler seemed well-enough familiar with her name and what it would mean to his station in the coming weeks. He bowed and took her card with flourish.
“My Lady, what an unexpected but welcome thing this is! Please, come at least to the kitchen; it’s humble, but I daresay better lit and warmed much more thoroughly than this place.”
“I’m not here to visit, I fear,” Rachel said, feeling much put at ease by the butler’s manners. “I have come…to invite your master, the Duke, to tea this evening.”
The words came in a tumble, for Rachel herself hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that she intended to meet the cold-eyed Duke a second time in one day. But she feared if she didn’t meet the Duke of Pineton again soon, her first impression of his character would stick in her heart like a pin in a cushion: cold, sharp, and possibly painful.
Bowing again, the butler nodded eagerly. “I shall relay your invitation immediately, My Lady. At the very least, please allow the kitchen to brew you both some tea.” He turned smartly on his heel and went to the door from whence he’d come. “I shall return shortly with His Grace’s reply.”
Before the butler could disappear, Rachel noted with delight a dusting of stiff, white hairs around his knees and upper legs.
“Does the Duke have a dog?” she asked hopefully.
By Rachel’s side, Percy stiffened.
The butler turned with more of a grimace than a proper smile. “Ah. Yes, but Master is far too hungry to be safe around such decent company.”
“Master?” Rachel echoed, balking at the name. Her shred of hope that the duke owned a small, agreeable puppy vanished under the implication of such a title for the household pet. The vision of a massive, snarling beast just as cold and antisocial as his master rose to Rachel’s imagination.
The butler nodded ruefully. “Perhaps next time, when he’s fed and not so…aggressive, you shall enjoy his company.”
He exited the parlor.
“Rachel,” Percy muttered, “you know how I get around dogs—achoo!”
The sneeze came as a warning. Percy was violently allergic to most animals which always meant Rachel’s own two pups had to remain out of doors when her brother-in-law visited. Percy wouldn’t last long in this parlor; it had clearly been a stalking ground for “Master” as the creature was dubbed.
How much hair the dog must have! Rachel’s curiosity about its breed was overpowered by her fear of how the Duke’s own temperament must have been bestowed upon his animals. Horses he rode likely bucked and threw any stranger; dogs most likely snarled and nipped savagely.
Rachel shivered. She had no desire to meet Master, the dog. She had less and less of a want to interact with his owner.
As if to grant her wish, the butler returned with a sigh.
“My master cannot see you at present,” he informed Rachel and Percy. “He is most busy with his legal affairs.”
Rachel resisted the urge to relax with a sigh. It would hardly be proper.
“And the tea?” she inquired, knowing that having Papa around would make a meeting with the Duke far easier.
Again, the butler sighed.
“He has not the time, I fear. He sends his regrets…”
“His regrets?” Rachel echoed. Oh, this was too much. If anyone had regrets, it was Rachel. The least her new fiancé could do was alleviate those concerns by sparing an hour to spend in her society. “What sort of legal affairs might His Grace be engaged with that he cannot spare a few hours with his future bride?”
“Rachel,” Percy warned, but this was soon lost in a gale of poorly hidden sneezes.
The butler shuffled his silver platter from one hand to the other, looking aghast. “His, er, His Grace is currently managing the marriage settlement and some correspondence with—”
“—with my father, no doubt,” Rachel cut in, struggling to maintain her propriety. “The very man I have invited His Grace to have tea with. Please, sir, spare me your master’s excuses. If he does not wish to see me, he ought to say so. Indeed, he shall! But he shall say it to me directly and not through some unfortunate proxy. Come, Percy!”
Ignoring both her brother-in-law’s paroxysm ofsneezes and the weak protest of the butler, Rachel swept from the dismal parlor. The hallway she found herself was equally dim; indeed, finding the duke would be made easy as all other rooms Rachel passed were in equal states of neglect.
A warm thread of candlelight flickering beneath double doors attracted Rachel’s attention. Heart beating against her chest in agitation and nerves, she strode forward with purpose. Really, what sort of a person made petty excuses and forced his poor manservant to relay them? A child, perhaps, or a slattern, but certainly not a duke! Rachel would not stand to be treated so; she could not!
Rachel seized both doors by their handles and pushed vigorously. Oaken and grand, they took some strength to open. It was with a gasp that she practically tumbled into the warmlylit study.
Drawn velveteen curtains forbade any sort of natural light and lent to the chamber a dramatic yet morose air. Bookshelves stacked with tomes dominated most of the walls not occupied by furniture, and Rachel was nearly distracted by the sight of so many unknown volumes begging her to read them.
But her purpose could not be forgotten; in the center of the room near a modest fire stood a wide desk practically buried in correspondence.
A man stood at the desk’s corner, frozen in the act of bending over a large map. He had wild, curly hair the color of chestnuts and a genteel set of features. He stood in stark contrast to the Duke of Pineton, who sat glowering in the desk’s grand chair. Rachel saw her fiancé in full light for the first time.
He wore a mask that covered nearly three-quarters of his face. Only the bottom left side of his cheek, mouth, and jaw were visible beneath the mask’s gray, satin veneer.
Rachel froze. Only creatures or dark anti-heroes of fairy tales ought to wear such an apparatus! Rachel’s vivid imagination, over-indulged by her appetite for darker tales of the Celtic nature, created a fearsome envisioning of what this Duke of Pineton might truly be like in his own abode. Had he been only scarred by battle, as Rachel had guessed when she caught her first glimpses of the duke at church, all would have been well. Disfigurement, especially in the aftermath of violence, was a real and tragic thing. But it could be borne and ought to be; the man would have done great service to his country, and his scars could be worn as a badge of that honor.
But this man hid behind a mask. In the presence of mystery and the unknown, Rachel was forced to imagine worse things than battle wounds or an unattractive face. Visions of leering goblins and villainous fey wove themselves into her mind, and she stepped back unconsciously.
No! She would not run. Rachel put her hands on her hips to steady herself and drew a deep, shaken breath.
“Your Grace!” The words came out in a near-gasp, and Rachel berated herself for being a ninny. She caught her breath and tried again. “I believe you owe me an explanation.”
The red-haired gentleman gazed at Rachel with more than a little curiosity; he seemed to remember himself, however, for he quickly straightened and bowed.
“My, my! What a surprise!” he exclaimed. “There has not been a lady in this study since it was owned by a different duke…may he rest in peace.” He took a candle and approached Rachel.
The Duke of Pineton said nothing. He didn’t even stand to greet his visitor. Rachel was keenly aware of his eyes, vividly blue and cooler than ice. They regarded her with a sense of scorn, as if she had been the one who made up petty excuses to avoid society and locked herself up in a room with some costume.
“I am Lady Rachel Jones of Leafton,” Rachel addressed the other man with a curtsey. “I am dreadfully sorry for my lack of conduct. I had some business with His Grace, and…” Words failed her. Why had she burst so uncouthly into a man’s study? This house was not hers yet. Heat rose to Rachel’s cheeks as anger subsided and left shame in its wake.
The red-headed man, for his part, seemed more intrigued than bothered. “The Lady Rachel Jones! Why, we were just discussing you. How approprié.I’m Morgan Hardy, Earl of Huntbridge.”
Rachel curtsied again. “My Lord,” she intoned.
“Bah, enough of the formalities. Pineton is like a brother to me, which means you and I shall be near as kin in a few weeks or so.”
Rachel shivered despite herself. She’d not come for a reminder of her upcoming nuptials.
The response was lost upon Lord Huntbridge, who seemed more and more excited at the prospect of Rachel’s presence. “Had I known you were coming, My Lady, I’d have forced these stubborn curtains open and lit some proper lamps. Pineton, will you greet your lady, or will you glare at her?”
This last was directed at the duke. Rachel flinched, preparing for a snarl or some other sound of the netherworlds to issue from the half-masked mouth.
Instead, the duke stood, bowed with more grace than even Rachel’s father could muster, and approached her from behind his desk.
“It is good to meet you, Lady Rachel,” the duke said. His voice, deeper and darker than the velveteen shadows cast by the study’s curtains, soothed Rachel’s strung nerves while setting them aquiver all over again.
“What!” exclaimed Lord Huntbridge. “But have you not recently met at the chapel?”
It was at this moment that Percy made his own entrance in the study, just as breathless and distraught as Rachel’s had been.
“What—the deuces—were you thinking?” Percy gasped, then sneezed once more.
The duke cast an almost pitying glance upon Rachel’s brother-in-law. “You appear to have caught the storm’s chill, My Lord. Pray, take a seat by the fire. I suppose there’s no helping things now,” he added in a mutter. “Company will find me, whether I wish that company or not. Curse it all.”
Striding to the fire, he began brushing a large armchair down. Rachel saw to her horror that a cloud of white fur issued from the duke’s efforts.
Percy began coughing in earnest.
“Your Grace!” Rachel cut in, putting pause to the duke’s attempts. “I ask your pardon for my unsolicited intrusion, but you must hear me out.”
The Duke of Pineton paused then seemed to take great pains in turning only as much of his face toward Rachel as was required to see her. He’d angled himself, so she saw the unmasked portion of his features. His lips, or what she could see of them, had pressed into a thin line of reluctance and impatience.
“As your good friend, Lord Huntbridge made note of,” Rachel continued, clasping her hands to steady them, “we have yet to become fully acquainted with each other. And yet, I am to marry you after only two more Sundays!” Saying the words aloud nearly choked Rachel. It hurt to iterate the dashing of her own dreams in front of strangers.
“As this is the case, I must implore you to make some effort to share my society,” Rachel finished softly. “If you will not come to a private tea, at which only I and my immediate family shall be present…then I cannot imagine any other scenario you would be willing to make an appearance at!”
“Very well.” The duke’s words came, brief and rumbling like the flash storm that had since passed. He turned toward the fire and sat himself in the chair he’d been readying for Percy.
Lord Huntbridge sighed, an expression that sounded one of both relief and exasperation.
“Thank you,” Rachel managed. She turned to leave the haven in which she’d so obviously been an intrusive presence.“My father and I eagerly await your arrival, Your Grace. You may bring your dog if you like,” she added, hopefully. “Percy shan’t be as bothered by the fur out-of-doors.”
Percy rubbed his nose and attempted a wan smile.
“Master’s not fit for company,” the duke muttered. “Neither am I; you need only bear with one of us.”
Again, the vision of a lean, shaggy wolf-like creature that snarled as its owner did, rose unbidden to Rachel’s imagination. Dropping a brief curtsy, she turned and fled the room.
“Well,” Percy commented, once they’d put enough distance between themselves and the manor to ease his allergies. “You certainly made an impression on your future husband, Rachel.”
“Thank you,” Rachel replied.
“I didn’t say it was a good impression.” Percy dabbed at his red, swollen nose with his kerchief. “But it was an impression of some sort and one he’s unlikely to forget.”
Or forgive, Rachel thought gloomily. She laid her head against the carriage window and looked up into the lofty sky. Storm clouds retreated, as if aware that the surly, moorland winds would beat them back no matter how much thunder they created.
Rachel felt the same way. She could storm and lash out, but the Duke of Pineton was stronger. Maybe Rachel had won a small battle by forcing her reluctant fiancé to attend a simple teatime…but in what manner would the brooding, masked duke blow her silly tempest away?
Sunlight shone benevolently across the glistening fields of the Leafton Estate. Oliver marked the notable difference between the Marquess of Leafton’s prim, well-groomed gardens and the half-wild, bristling foliage of Pineton.
If only the Lady of Leafton resembled her lands. Oliver recalled with a scowl the wild and unasked for intrusion upon his personal study. What a strangely ferocious figure Lady Rachel Jones had cut with her pink cheeks and flashing eyes! Yes, she’d fit in well at Pineton. If only she didn’t have to marry Oliver in order to do so.
“Is there really no other way to secure a trust for our business?” Oliver asked Huntbridge.
His partner, who was busy picking lint from between the carriage’s cushions, uttered a world-weary groan.
“The answer will not change simply because you ask once a day,” Huntbridge replied. “Marriage will secure the financial assets we need. More importantly, it shall secure the future of your name…that’s the name investors will see when we work with them, and it’s a name many have avoided putting trust in due to the short line Pineton has to offer.”
“God,” Oliver muttered. “The question was pure rhetoric, Huntbridge.”
But it was too late. Like a cleric taken to his favorite podium, Huntbridge had latched to the topic of heritage.
“With a wife, you shall be able to have an heir. And with an heir, you’ll have the assurance that your business and your name will remain alive long after you’re beneath the dirt.” Huntbridge tilted his head, grinning slyly. “Consider that, my dear Pineton. Consider also that you’ll need to charm Lady Rachel Jones.”
The carriage pulled to a halt so abruptly that Oliver bit his tongue. “I do not charm,” he spat, tasting blood.
“More’s the pity,” Huntbridge sighed. “Charm is essential to producing heirs…but more importantly, it secures the trust of your lady, and trust is as vital to matrimony as it is to business.”
Huntbridge stepped from the carriage, uttering a blissful sound as he surveyed the elegant grounds.
Oliver checked his mask, ensuring that it was fastened securely. He’d gone with the white this time; Lady Rachel had visibly recoiled when she’d seen Oliver’s gray mask.
The family were already about the grounds. At least, so claimed a rosy-cheeked lass who bustled about the parlor to fetch mallets for a game of lawn billiards.
“Lord Leafton ‘as already placed Your Grace on Lady Rachel’s roster,” the maid continued. She offered a mallet to Oliver; he noted with some gratitude that she spared no glances to his mask.
“Lord Huntbridge, you’ll be in the Marquess’group,” the maid continued, crossing to Huntbridge and delivering his mallet. “I’ll lead ye to th’ field.”
“We are to be enemies, then,” Huntbridge announced, following their guide with an eager step. “Splendid!”
As was his way, Huntbridge easily filled all space Oliver left empty in terms of conversation. This, among many other reasons, made Oliver’s old friend and partner an invaluable bit of company.
But on an opposing team in a competitive sport, Huntbridge wouldn’t be able to come to Oliver’s aid against the audacious Lady Rachel.
“Welcome, Your Grace!”
Lord Leafton’s voice, hearty and booming, rolled across the emerald-green lawn. Oliver could see the small party putting a pause to their game. Lord Leafton stood on one side of the field, flanked by the earl who’d sneezed more than he had talked at Oliver’s estate. A lad held the balls and mallets while these two players sipped tea and brandy.
“Lord Leafton,” Oliver intoned, bowing. “Lady Rachel Jones,” he added, praying his voice didn’t falter.
Lady Rachel, standing with her mallet in hand, looked even more some feisty fey warrior than she had in the study. Although her chestnut curls were properly collected and arranged beneath her hat, her posture held more confidence in the field of play. She seemed to stand tall, despite her small stature. One slim, gloved hand rested on the mallet with such familiarity, Oliver was briefly glad he was in her group and not against it.
Then, he realized that his position in Lady Rachel’s team meant he would have to converse with her.
“Your Grace!” Lady Rachel exclaimed. “I did not expect you to come so promptly. Tessa will have your tea shortly; until then, shall we play?”
So saying, she reached down and tossed Oliver a billiard ball. The movement was unexpected, but Oliver had his years of military service to thank for quick reflexive wit. He caught the heavy sphere with ease.
“Rachel!” chided the other woman in a whisper. “Your decorum is sorely lacking. Will you assault the duke or introduce me to him?”
“My sister,” Lady Rachel said, dismissively. Oliver started, realizing too late that her response had not been toward the other woman but the requested introduction to him. “Lady Louisa Barrington, the Viscountess of Westfield.”
“Madam,” Oliver managed, tipping his hat and bowing.
“Your Grace,” breathed Lady Westfield. “Allow me to beg your pardon, on my sister’s behalf, for her rude intrusion into your estate earlier this day.” So saying, she dropped a deep, apologetic curtsy. “We are honored by your presence here today. Thank you for coming,My Lord.”
Lady Westfield had her sister’s brown hair, but its texture was not so much set in ringlets as in soft, heavy waves. She had serious, gray eyes and lineaments that were pleasant enough.
However, as with most folk Oliver had the displeasure of coming into contact with, Lady Westfield had the habit of averting her gaze from his mask and his person. It couldn’t be helped, Oliver knew; when one interacted with the unpleasant and bizarre, the only two options were to stare until that object was maddened or to turn away and ignore its presence.
“Let us play!” Lady Rachel announced. “Louisa, take your turn. I shall first show the duke around the field. My Lord, take my arm.”
Here again she was, commanding Oliver without qualm or quivering! It was amazing how one person could be simultaneously frustrating and intriguing.
Oliver took Lady Rachel’s arm. As soon as she’d led him beyond earshot of the others and gestured to a few iron arches placed for the game, Oliver’s fiancée inclined her head ever-so-slightly toward his ear.
“Finally, we are somewhat alone,” she whispered. “I have something I urgently wish to discuss with you.”
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