About the book
“I was his exception, and as much as I had tried to fight my feelings, he was mine.”
Evalyn, the daughter of the Duke of Hobton, behaves nothing like a lady of the Ton should. Teased for her unladylike behavior all her life, she has finally decided to fight back against her brother and his cruel friends.
Duncan Flemming, the Marquess of Galeran, enjoys nothing more than getting under the skin of the explosive Evalyn. But ever since it is announced that they are to spend the summer together, their fights only seem to be getting worse.
As Duncan starts to realise that the feelings raging in his heart might be more than hate, another suitor shows up to claim Evalyn’s heart. And when Duncan falls inexplicably ill, Evalyn faces the reality of losing him forever. What both of them don’t know, however, is that someone awfully familiar has set a trap for them, and they’re walking right into it.
Dinner parties at Avenshire House in London were always a splendid affair.
There were always at least twenty courses served in the dining room for their inimitable guests. Additional candles added bright lighting and the most glorious aromas wafted through the air.
All twelve guests were dressed in their finest clothes for the evening’s festivities. At the head of the table sat the host, Carolyn McKinnon, the Duchess of Hobton, who resided here every summer with her family. Beside her was her husband, Emmanuel, talking fastidiously with their son.
It was all fine and well, but Evalyn McKinnon––their only daughter and the second child––was utterly bored.
How many dinner parties do we really need to host, let alone attend, in one Season? I swear each year, we tack a few more on. How I wish Mother hadn’t insisted I come out so young. I’m only nineteen, and these occasions already make me feel like an old maid.
They were on the twelfth course and already she had eaten far too much. Evalyn found herself taking only two small bites no matter how delicious the food might be.
And I’ve already accidentally dipped my hair in two of the soups.
She tugged at her long, dark blonde hair in frustration. Just as she was considering coming up with an excuse to free her from this dull affair, her brother stood and tapped his glass. For whatever reason, Christopher had decided it was time to give a toast.
“Good evening,” he announced cheerfully. He was considered handsome by almost everyone in London. Evalyn had endured three Seasons of hearing the other young women gush over his dark curly hair and sparkling hazel eyes. He was tall and thin and was well-known for his fencing abilities.
If only he wasn’t so annoying.
Evalyn picked up her glass and took a small sip of the sherry. Her parents said that she would get used to the taste, but she wasn’t sure that she wanted to.
“I may not be the host, so please accept my apologies for speaking without permission,” Christopher jested.
There was some light laughter around the table, mainly from Janette Roland. Miss Roland was the daughter of the famed Earl de Rubenser, said to be nearly as rich as the royal family. The money and her looks made up for the lower title. Her hair was a light brown, almost blonde, and curled perfectly in the latest style. She had pale green eyes with a slight build and delicate hands.
“But I would like to make an announcement. This is very dear to my heart as I am surrounded by my loved ones,” Christopher continued. “Friends and family, I thank you for your attendance here this evening. You’ve made it the perfect occasion to share my good news.”
Is he ever actually going to share it?
Evalyn fumbled with her glass upon realizing she hardly had a sip left. Glancing over her shoulder, she looked to a servant to refill it.
“Bravo,” called a teasing voice from across the table. “We would love to share it with you if you can expound upon it with us sometime this evening.”
This encompassed laughter around the table, even from Christopher.
But Evalyn looked over with a glare, hardly able to believe someone would be so rude as to interrupt a toast.
Seated across from her was Janette’s cousin, the bane of Evalyn’s existence, Duncan Flemming. His mother had passed away when he was young, so he had spent much of his childhood with Janette’s family, who owned an estate near Evalyn’s family’s country home.
The four of them had grown up meeting on countless occasions through their childhood and now into the London Seasons. Even after Duncan’s father moved him away once he remarried, Duncan showed up everywhere.
It would make sense if he were friends with Janette, but they seem more like strangers these days. They are six years apart, similar to my five from Christopher. But no, everyone gathers around for my charming brother’s attention.
Evalyn wished Christopher wasn’t there. Then her life would be so much easier.
He noticed her looking and turned to her with a wink.
It only infuriated her more. Duncan Flemming, the future Marquess of Galeran, had to be one of the most annoying people she had ever known.
And what makes it worse is that he has always been in my life.
Evalyn stared him down, and he eagerly took the challenge. A smirk spread across his face as he relaxed his shoulders to stare right back at her. Neither of them blinked.
“Thank you, Duncan,” Christopher said with a chuckle. “I appreciate your candor as always. He does make a good point, so I will just come out and say it. This morning, I asked the beautiful Miss Janette to make the rest of my days happy. She accepted. And so, we are to be married!”
Wait, what did he just say?
Jerking in surprise, Evalyn turned to her brother. Everyone had started to clap and cheer at the good news.
In the excitement, no one paid much mind to Duncan slapping the table and pointing at Evalyn. “Ha!”
She waved him off with an irritable scowl before standing with everyone else.
“Wonderful news!” cried the Rolands. “Wonderful!”
How is Mother already in tears?
Her heart thudded in her chest as she looked around the table to see everyone clapping. Mixed emotions felt jumbled inside her stomach, making her uneasy. Her brother was getting married.
She grudgingly joined in with the clapping and even forced a smile on her face. Weddings and marriage were something she had been trying so hard to keep off her mind while in London. And now, it seemed it would be impossible moving forward.
“This is perfect!” her mother cried out jovially before putting a hand on her husband. The short, curvy woman, wearing earrings much too big for her face, beamed. “We must have the wedding at our manor. It will make the perfect autumn!”
That was when Evalyn stopped clapping.
She slumped back into her seat while trying to comprehend what would happen next. The one place she thought was safe, Hobton Estate Manor in Wintersel, was about to be overrun with people and festivities. Usually, the off-season was safe for her to enjoy time by herself with no one bothering her.
What sort of mess are we all getting ourselves into?
Looking out her tall window, Evalyn found herself relieved to finally be leaving London.
It was a beautiful city. However, it was too crowded and too smelly and too boring for her tastes. She heard of so many exciting opportunities around town and yet none of them were meant for her.
This Season especially had been beyond disappointing.
Why don’t they have a fencing club for women? It makes little sense why it should only be for men. Christopher’s teacher back in Wintersel would teach me.
If only Geoffrey hadn’t retired five years ago. I’m sure he could have convinced someone here in town to be my teacher.
She quickly turned from the window with a guilty look before sighing in relief upon finding her lady’s maid there.
Betsy Tanner was a young woman in her mid-twenties with rather plain looks but a kindly spirit. She took her role very seriously which tended to bore Evalyn, but the maid was loyal and kept her secrets which she was grateful for. Gossiping servants only ever wanted to talk and talk. But Betsy was intelligent, quiet, and incredibly helpful.
“Betsy—” Evalyn sighed in relief— “I thought you were Mother. She’s not coming this way, is she?”
“No, my lady,” her maid assured her.
Both of them glanced around the room. It was very messy. There were clothes strewn all over the place along, with hats and other garments.
Since Betsy’s family lived in London, Evalyn always tried to give her maid extra time off to be with those she loved. She wanted to make sure that Betsy had a chance to say farewell to her family before they left this afternoon for her family’s estate in Wintersel.
They had argued that morning about how all of her things should be packed, and Evalyn had promised to help and do it herself.
“Betsy,” Evalyn said as she felt her face pale. “I am sorry! I meant to… I was going to do it, I swear. I can do it now. All I did was make a mess, didn’t I? Oh dear. Let me see what I can do.”
She hurriedly ran around her room, collecting the hats her mother insisted that she wear. It was usually to detract from Evalyn’s hair that refused to stay in place. Only for the fanciest of events did they put handfuls of gel in her hair to keep it stiff.
Picking up the last hat, Betsy shook her head with a chuckle. “Don’t worry, my lady. I’ve already talked to Caroline and Rachel in the kitchen to see if they could spare a few minutes of their time to help me up here. I had a feeling this might happen.”
Evalyn straightened up and sighed. She offered a sheepish smile as her maid took the hats from her. “You know me too well. Thank you, my dear.”
“Anything for you,” Betsy assured her. “Your mother asked about the packing situation upon my arrival, and I swore the kitchen to secrecy, of course. She thinks we’re nearly finished. And she won’t come up here because she’s trying to get a footman to run into town to get her some herbs for the ride.”
She can answer my questions before I have even asked them. If Mother came up here right now, I’d be in so much trouble.
“You are the best maid a girl could ask for,” Evalyn told her. She went over to her vanity and grabbed her favorite hairbrush. Made simply with a red oak handle, but it massaged her scalp instead of feeling like fingernails clawing at her.
“You treat me well for it,” Betsy said.
Hearing a knock at the door, both women turned around. Evalyn watched her maid go over and open the door just a crack before opening it all the way. Caroline and Rachel, maids they hired for their London home every year, stepped through quietly.
Rachel was at least twice the age of the rest of them but moved spritely as she started piling up boxes in a uniform manner. Caroline had something in her hands, a small platter, that she brought over to Evalyn.
“You have a letter, my lady,” the young maid said. She was Rachel’s granddaughter, and though she only moved at half the speed of Rachel, her work was still good enough.
“A letter?” Evalyn asked dumbly.
Her eyes flitted from Betsy down to the folded piece of paper on the small platter. Frowning, she picked it up and eyed her name on the page warily.
Who would be writing to me in London? I’m practically out the door. Surely everyone knows our family is leaving the ton for the Season. All invitations typically go through Mother… so, what is this?
“Betsy?” Evalyn asked. She eyed the script thoughtfully. It was fancy and done in dark blue ink instead of the typical black. But she couldn’t decide if she had ever seen the script before, only confusing her further.
Her maid was already starting over.
Betsy licked her lips before picking up the letter from Evalyn. Caroline turned back to start helping her grandmother with the clothes and trunks. This gave Evalyn and her maid a little privacy near the window.
“It is to you and you only?” Betsy raised an eyebrow. “And no return address. Could this be an admirer, my lady?”
“Definitely not,” Evalyn said.
She was only nineteen years old, wasn’t she? There were still years for her to start considering men and babies. Evalyn shuddered at the thought. For the last three years, her brother and his friends had incessantly teased her about this, which only made her hate the idea more.
I suppose I should have more friends than Elizabeth Thorn. She’s still traipsing about Europe with her new husband, and none of that makes sense to me.
That reminds me, I owe her a letter.
“All right, read it,” Evalyn said with a sigh. “Let’s get it over with.”
Betsy nodded, opening the letter carefully, scanned it, and then raised her eyebrows. Such a reaction made Evalyn nervous. She pulled on her fingertips, a silly habit from childhood, waiting for something to happen.
“Well?” she asked.
“It is short and polite. Let’s see. ‘To Miss Evalyn McKinnon, I must beg your apology if you find my letter too forward. Knowing that you will be leaving London today, I could not let you go without sending my regards. It was a pleasure to dance with you at Miss Blaisington’s ball last month. Perhaps the next time you return to town, we can dance once more. I wish you the best, Elmore Stoker.’ Well, that is quite nice.”
Elmore Stoker was the Earl of Robarton. The name was familiar though his face was less so.
All Evalyn really remembered about the Blaisington ball was stepping on a few toes and feeding the peacocks outdoors. But she had danced with a few gentlemen, including Lord Robarton.
If she remembered correctly, she had danced with him on a few other occasions as well.
Perhaps I should have listened to Mother more about paying closer attention. The only problem is that there are too many rules to follow.
Evalyn hesitated. “Is it? It seems innocent enough, I think. That was a kind note and surely means nothing more.” But she saw the maid pause and knew she had to be missing something. “What? Tell me, Betsy.”
Her maid glanced over the letter one more time before offering it to Evalyn to review for herself. “It is a nice letter, Evalyn. I do believe he is hinting that he wishes to meet with you again. He might even be expecting a response from you.”
That’s practically a courtship, then, isn’t it?
“What?” Evalyn snatched up the letter and squinted at the words. “No, he never said that. Oh bother. Mother is always telling me about these clues that men give, and yet I can never remember. I’m not sure that I… No. Here, put it away, Betsy.”
“Anywhere you like.” She took a step back. “I would rather focus on our travels now rather than on a letter I’m not prepared to respond to. Speaking of, can you remind me when we arrive at our estate to prepare a letter to Elizabeth?”
The maid fumbled with the paper as she nodded. “Yes, my lady. Whatever you like. I’ll tuck it away in case you want to read it again. But mind you, if this lord is writing to you, there is a fair chance that he may also be writing to your parents.”
He wouldn’t. Would he?
Most courtships she heard of started a little differently than through polite letters. And it wasn’t like she had even agreed to one yet. Vaguely recalling Elmore Stoker, Evalyn knew he wasn’t hideous but had appeared slightly dull.
Evalyn made a weird face before looking back out of her window. That was the only aspect of being in town that she enjoyed.
It was a little adventure being able to watch so many people walk along nearby Bond Street. They often had ridiculous clothes. Many would ride their horses, but few could do that well. Watching people like this could often give her a good laugh.
This made her wonder if she was about to start missing London. That had never happened before.
She had been coming with her family for the Season ever since she was ten years old. The last day here was always the best. They were returning to Wintersel, where they had more land and horses with less stress and responsibilities.
Not that she had a lot of those.
She was the second child of a duke and a daughter, nonetheless. No one typically minded much of what she did. It was only in the last couple of years that her mother realized that she wasn’t fit for society, and that had been a heyday for all.
But they were leaving, which meant Evalyn could be herself again. She felt the hope flutter in her chest.
Her thoughts wandered as she considered her two homes and what would happen when she made it back to the place she loved so dearly. All she wanted to do was be back at home where she could be herself with no pressure from her parents to be anyone else.
She was in the middle of plotting a future picnic by the lake when she remembered that she would not be alone.
Well, dash it all to pieces. How do I keep forgetting? My brother is getting married. Thus what little peace I had hoped to enjoy at our manor will be ruined.
Not only would Christopher be back with the family, since he had not spent time at Wintersel in years, but he would be bringing a parade of people with them. The town would be overrun with their guests.
Evalyn nearly gagged at the thought. This would not be the cheerful return home that she had been looking forward to.
Though she hardly recalled Elmore Stoker, Evalyn couldn’t help but think that anyone would be better than Duncan Flemming.
A tight feeling settled in her stomach. Something was going to happen this summer, and she wasn’t quite sure what it would be. She was only determined to detest every minute with Duncan.
Arriving home, Duncan climbed the stairs two at a time before reaching his room.
He fidgeted with his jacket before his valet, Timothy Richardson, reached him to help him undress. His clothes were damp from his exercise that day at the club.
Once again, he was the reigning champion of fencing. Christopher had wanted a third game in an attempt to win before they left London. But alas, his friend had yet to beat him.
“You can keep trying”— Duncan had promised his friend with a chuckle— “But until you fix that stance of yours, I don’t think you’re going to get anywhere.”
Now, they were out of time for fencing. He considered if there might be a way for them to continue their exercises in Wintersel. That had been where Christopher had learned his skill, was it not? They could bring their own sabers and even practice outside under the nice weather.
I’m sure we could come up with some remedy for this. Christopher has assured me there is plenty of room for my morning rides. But I cannot be seen growing oafish and slow.
“Thank you, Timothy,” Duncan said to his valet as he pulled a new shirt over his head. “Now, how is the packing coming along? I don’t see my hat boxes.”
Timothy was a good ten years older with thick spectacles, bright red hair, and always wore a sober expression.
“They have been packed, my lord, just as you requested this morning. Additional padding and lavender.”
Grinning, Duncan nodded. He waved off his valet to finish buttoning his cuffs on his own. That way, he could walk around the room to inspect the current stage of progress.
“It’s coming along well, Timothy. This is perfect,” he said to his valet. “For my handkerchiefs, make sure you’re double bagging them in silk, will you?”
He had learned both the need and the passion for dressing well over the last couple of years, especially during his stint in Oxford. The memories made him grin. There had been good friends and good times practically every day. Without them, he would only look half as handsome as possible.
And what a shame that would be.
Duncan took his time inspecting the half-filled trunks. His stepmother and father had suggested that he only bring half of his wardrobe. But that was out of the question. That would be like deciding not to wear shoes to a ball; it was a nonsensical idea.
This trip to the Hobton Estate Manor would be a memorable adventure with Christopher’s wedding taking place in a few of short months. Apparently, it was an old tradition of Janette’s family to make it a festive occasion.
While he thought it was a waste of time, he hadn’t exactly had any other pressing matters.
If I am going to be in the middle of nowhere again, I am doing it while looking my best.
A wedding would be a grand affair. Christopher and Janette had insisted that he accompany them to the estate during wedding preparations; Duncan supposed they might have a fine time of the occasion. They could enjoy the countryside for a while before bringing the spirit of the city into the home.
Though his father and stepmother owned their own out-of-town home near Cornwall, Duncan hadn’t been there since starting at university. All of his school breaks had led him to either travel about or straight here to London.
Where else was a young man meant to go?
His father wanted him to come home to learn how to tend to their property and prepare to become the marquess in his own right. But Duncan didn’t want that, at least not yet.
There’s so much more that I could be doing right now with my life. Why would I want to settle down while I’m in my prime?
Leaning forward to reach into the trunks, Duncan paused to straighten out the wrinkles that were threatening to form on his favorite violet vest.
That could not happen - they were difficult to brush out, and he didn’t like having to wait for Timothy to help him.
“Timothy?” he asked as he straightened up.
His valet came over to his side and looked into the trunk. “Ah. I see, my lord. Would you like me to iron these once more before I lock it shut?”
I suppose that is an option. But if I have him iron the clothing in this trunk, I might as well have him iron everything else. And we haven’t the time for that.
“No, I suppose it will have to wait,” Duncan responded reluctantly. “That can be done upon our arrival as per usual. However, once we return to town, we’re purchasing new trunks to avoid this problem. I’m tired of seeing wrinkles in my clothing.”
“Of course,” Timothy said with a nod. “First thing upon our return. Is there anything else that I can do to be of service, my lord, as I pack?”
Shaking his head, Duncan knew that if he stayed any longer that he would spot more irregularities. The very thought made his skin itch. He shrugged and then sighed.
“You know what to do. I wouldn’t trust anyone else to tend to my clothing, Timothy. Clear out the wrinkles the best you can and make sure everything remains color coordinated. I trust you for the most part,” he added. “And hurry. I have supper, and then we must be on the road.”
Leaving the room, Duncan tried to think about anything other than seeing even a handkerchief out of place. He told himself that it wouldn’t happen. Everything would be proper for his journey out to the Hobton Estate Manor.
A grin came to his face as he thought of the fun they would have. Christopher was always good company. Janette whined, but she was decent. As for Evalyn, well, he was certain there would be countless opportunities to make fun of her.
Like that yellow dress she wore to that ball just a few months ago. Who thought to put her in yellow? What made it worse was how dirty it got on one of her walks around the garden.
She claimed it was some sort of bird. I had joked for days about that.
It had been a while since he had been to her family’s manor. He wasn’t thrilled about celebrating a marriage he hardly cared about, but he would be comfortable enough. There would be enough festivities and enough property to enjoy outside of crowded London.
At the top of the stairs, however, Duncan frowned as he remembered one particular summer spent at the Hobton Estate Manor.
“See? I told you I could climb the tree,” Evalyn cried out as she jumped from the shortest branch onto the ground. Throwing her arms up in the air, she smirked over at them.
Duncan exchanged a look with Christopher. They had dared her to climb the tree in the hopes of making her disappear for a short while. They were twelve years old now, practically men. And there she was, a scrawny seven-year-old who wouldn’t leave them alone.
“Yeah, but that was because it was a baby tree,” Duncan told her.
He eyed the sticks in her hair and wondered how much trouble she might get in with her governess for that. If they were lucky, it would be a lot.
“It was a big tree!” Evalyn stomped her foot. “You couldn’t do it!’
Christopher laughed and shook his head. “Yes, I could! We both could, you goose. I climbed that tree last week, remember? I climbed all the trees near the house.”
Still pouting since they wouldn’t give her a victory, Evalyn glanced between them before settling her gaze on Duncan. When she smiled, he jutted out his chin stubbornly so she would know he couldn’t get to him.
“But Duncan didn’t,” she cried out. “Duncan can’t climb trees!”
“I can, too!” He crossed his arms and stared her down in frustration, unable to believe that anyone would think he was such a child. He could do anything he wanted to. As the future marquess, it was his right to climb a tree if he so desired.
“No, you can’t!”
He growled, stepping over to her. “I can, too!”
“Cannot,” she said and then stuck out her tongue.
Behind him, Christopher started laughing. It was hard to tell just what he was laughing at, but it annoyed Duncan. Both of them were irritating him, and he knew how, to prove that he was right.
“I can, too,” he announced to Evalyn. “Now I’m going to show you!”
He took a step toward the tree, but she was there to shake her head. “Nu-uh, Duncan. You said this was a baby tree, and you keep bragging that you’re not a baby. So you need a tree that isn’t a baby. Climb that tree!”
Following her pointed finger, Duncan spotted the nearby apple tree. He had jumped up to collect apples just the other day. There was one branch just low enough for him to grab onto. It was bigger than the tree Evalyn had climbed by at least a few feet.
Which meant he would have bragging rights and could make her be quiet.
Fine, I will!” he announced proudly before hurrying over.
That entire event had not gone well. There had been poison ivy near the base of Evalyn’s tree, putting her in bed for two weeks after this.
As for himself, Duncan vaguely recalled missing a branch. He could no longer tell if it had been on his way up or on his way down. The important thing was that he had ended up breaking his arm.
His summer after that had been a blur before going to his father’s estate with his tutor’s return.
On the bright side, he had clearly won the tree-climbing competition, and that was all that mattered.
“Duncan? There you are, boy.” His father stood at the base of the stairs. The older man stood tall and thin with graying hair. “Join us for supper, and then we’ll be on our way.”
His father, David Flemming, had never been overly kind or in any way fatherly while Duncan was growing up. The man had practically disappeared from Duncan’s life when he was only three years old because his mother passed away.
When they saw each other again, his father was bringing home a new bride. It had been a polite but not a close relationship since then.
“Good evening,” Duncan said cordially as he sat across from his stepmother.
“Duncan, how good to see you,” cooed Margaret. Not yet forty years of age, the redhead came straight from Scottish royalty. She still had a slight twang of that highland accent, and she had staring eyes that usually focused on finding something new to gossip over. “I’m so glad you could join us. Will you be sad to leave London? I know you love it so.”
He shrugged as their first dish was brought out. “I do, but it shall be here when I return. I think I will look into spending the holidays back here.”
His father frowned, glancing up. “I thought you said that you would come back with us to Wilcheshire this year?”
“No, I said that I would think about it,” Duncan corrected him. “And I did. I decided I would rather be here.”
Glancing between them, Margaret furrowed her brow in concern. She was always trying to smooth out the tension between them as though that would help. If anything, she typically made it worse.
“Let him stay,” she told his father. “Who knows? Perhaps he is staying here for a young lady. I know a few families are remaining behind as well.”
Duncan snorted into his soup. “Not any worth my time.”
“That discounts the young Duchess of Minehart,” he heard his father murmur to his stepmother.
The woman nodded thoughtfully. “Then what about Miss Evalyn? I always thought that would be a perfect match. You two know the family so well. Surely, she is being considered?”
Duncan couldn’t help but laugh at such an absurd notion.
Evalyn and I? She’s nothing but trouble, that girl.
Not only is she childish and petty, but she’s always making veiled threats and remarks at me when no one is looking. I have no choice but to defend myself, of course. She never misses a chance to get under my skin. I think we would strangle each other on our wedding night if such a tragedy ever took place!
“That’s preposterous,” Duncan told his parents confidently. “There are matches made in heaven, and those that are not. And Evalyn, I can assure you, is far from an angel.”
His father paused from looking at the second course with lamb and parsley. “What? Duncan, that’s not very nice to say.”
“Only because you don’t know her as I do,” Duncan reminded the man. Lifting his fork and knife, he dug right into the savory meal. It was tender and juicy, reminding him that he would have the chance to go hunting while out in the country.
He was a good mark and would love a chance to catch himself a deer. Just the idea made him grin.
Not only would he have a chance to go hunting, but he could also find plenty of opportunities to mock Evalyn McKinnon. This trip could be fun after all. Already he could hardly wait to get started.
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