In Search of a Duke Preview

A Historical Regency Romance Novel

About the book

There is no law upon the heart, it follows no rules..

Lady Elizabeth wants nothing more than to make a love match. But her overprotective brother seems to be driving every single suitor away! She has to find a plan, and fast, or else this season will prove to be nothing short of a disaster…

Owen is a very practical man. Like his parents before him, he must make an advantageous match and produce an heir. Nothing less, and nothing more. Until he meets Elizabeth, and everything changes..

As Owen keeps getting caught up in all the trouble Elizabeth and her big family always seem to attract, he slowly realizes there might be more to life than duty. But with sabotage lurking around every corner, this unlikely couple’s happiness is hanging by a thread..

Chapter One

Elizabeth Crampton could never be accused of the crime of not loving her family. She could be accused, though, of being occasionally irritated by them, being utterly mortified in public because of them, or the worst accusation of them all, thinking that despite their well-meaning actions, they might hinder her chances of finding a good husband.

Those were the thoughts that swarmed inside the mind of Elizabeth Crampton, who had a rather important question in mind, a crucial question to be exact, but she did not know how to pose it in a manner that would assure a positive outcome for her.

Elizabeth had already dressed and had her hair done. Her gown had been carefully selected weeks prior to this evening, and her lady’s maid Theresa had done a marvelous job with her chignon making it simple yet elegant, Elizabeth’s signature look. She had always been one of those ladies who caught everyone’s attention with their appearance, but she never allowed it to get to her head.

The thought of attending this evening’s ball delighted her. However, the thought of attending the ball with her family made her exactly the opposite of delighted. Hence, the question on her mind.

“Mother?” Elizabeth addressed Joanna Crampton, the Marchioness of Hanton, who stood as a stark antithesis to her husband. She was a petite bean, a word her husband often addressed her by, while the man himself stood over six and half feet tall. It seemed that all they had in common was their love, and that was enough.

“Yes, my dear?” her mother replied, turning around. The Marchioness of Hanton did not possess all the traits that most revered ladies of the ton possessed, but that was secretly why her husband loved her so. Sometimes, she just did not know when to stop talking. This evening, however, was not one of them.

“I wished to ask you something,” Elizabeth said, in a mousey voice, already lacking the courage to speak her mind, for fear of offending anyone.

“I do see you have some design in your mind,” the marchioness smiled.

Upon hearing the word design, a newspaper that was a moment ago raised to the eye level of one Cornelius Crampton, the Marquess of Hanton, now dropped into his generous lap, the same lap that had spent years imitating a horsy, all for the effect of making his children giggle with joy. That had been the sound favorite to both him and his wife. 

“What is this design I am hearing of?” he wondered curiously, his voice coarse and husky, completely in alliance with his broad stature. Elizabeth once overheard a friend of her father’s comparing him to a boulder that had somehow gotten detached from a mountain. She had been only a girl of ten when she heard that, and the simile always made her chuckle, even as a young lady of one and twenty. However, now was not the time for chuckling. There was a goal to be reached, and that would determine whether or not she would actually have fun at the ball this evening.

“I am not certain yet,” the marchioness spoke. “I am waiting for Lizzie to tell us.”

“Do tell us, Lizzie,” the marquess urged inquisitively.

Shortly, Charles and Mary would be coming down, ready to head to the ball. If Elizabeth was to ask her question, then no moment was better that the present. The addition of her brother and sister into the equation of this question would only make it more difficult for her to get what she had been hoping to achieve.

“I wished to ask you, uhm…” she paused, endeavoring to muster her courage. How clearly the question was formed in her mind, and how vaguely her lips professed it. Then, she finally found the right words. “I wanted to ask you whether it would be all right for me to attend the ball with Rebecca. Her family has so graciously invited me with them, and I do think it is–”

“The Wycliffs?” The marchioness’ eyes widened in surprise at hearing this request, as if Elizabeth had just told her that the Thames had run dry. How preposterous. “But they are not your family. We are.”

Elizabeth swallowed heavily, as if she needed a reminder of that.

“Of course, you are my family,” Elizabeth repeated the obvious. “I merely wished to… spend some time with Rebecca. I haven’t seen her much lately.”

“In that case, invite her over for tea tomorrow.” The marchioness waved her hand dismissively. “You do not go to balls to talk to friends you can see on any other day of the week. You go to balls to meet a prospective suitor, which hopefully there will be plenty of this evening.”

“Yes, but what good does that do me when Charlies won’t allow me to speak to any of them?” Elizabeth pouted.

“Now, now, Lizzie,” her father said, getting up from the armchair that somehow managed to squeeze in and hold his expansive derriere. “You know your brother loves you immensely. It is solely for that reason that he is protective of you.”

“Protective?” Elizabeth frowned. “I do believe he would just lock me up and throw away the key, if he could.”

“Well, that is just harsh, now, isn’t it?” The marchioness shook her head. She then proceeded to approach her daughter, and cupped the young lady’s chin, lifting Elizabeth’s gaze to meet her own. “You are merely eager to meet someone. There is nothing wrong with that. Absolutely nothing. Why, I remember the night when I met your father…”

Elizabeth inhaled deeply, knowing that a whole story would now take place. That same story was told more for her mother’s sake than the listeners, as these stories always brought her much pleasure. Whether or not a deductive moment was extracted out of that story was irrelevant.

Despite, or perhaps exactly because of all this, Elizabeth loved her mother. That was the reason why she did not wish to tell her that she had heard this story at least five times before, on five different occasions. She listened to it once again, just like before, nodding occasionally, until that sparkle in her mother’s eyes appeared again and her husband approached her for the big finale, which was the same to every single story. One loving kiss.

“I am certain that you will meet someone as well,” the marchioness told her daughter. “You just need to be patient. And allow your family to help you open your eyes to the men who might not be good marriage material.”

According to that manner of thinking, then almost no man in London was good marriage material. She thought she liked Lord Blithdale. Her brother told her in confidence that the man had a large debt which would take at least ten years to be paid off. Then there was the Earl of Wittley. He had a balding spot already in his late twenties, but Elizabeth did not particularly mind it. He was charming and witty, and even willing to joke at his own expense. Elizabeth loved that about a man. But her brother would not have it. What if your children start going bald or have thinning hair? She also remembered Lord Charmant. With strong French roots and a chateau on the outskirts of Paris, Elizabeth already imagined herself spending lazy summers in the city of love. That was, until her brother burst the bubble of that dream, pointing out that had a stutter when he was nervous. And he seemed very nervous while talking to Elizabeth, mostly because Charles would glare at him like a rabid dog.

It all seemed hopeless. The sooner Elizabeth accepted it, the better it would be. Yet, she still hadn’t given up hope that perhaps there would be one man in all of London who would pass the scrutinous fence of her family’s opinion and find his way to her heart.

“All right, Mother,” Elizabeth finally said what she was expected to say, as always. Ways in the Crampton household did not have much tendency of changing.

“Of course, it is all right, darling.” The marchioness pinched her daughter’s cheek playfully. Then, pinched the other one. “There. Now, they are even. And might I add you look lovely, sweet apple of my eye.”

Elizabeth turned to her father. He looked rather suave in his royal blue pants, white shirt and a cravat that matched the color of his pants. For those who did not know him, he was a frightful man. Yet, for his family, there could not have been a more tender, kind and loving father than this mountain of a man. He too was one of the reasons why suitors shunned her. The very appearance of this man signaled trouble. It signaled that someone watched over Elizabeth, and she would not be given away easily. But she knew that her father could not change who he was, just like he would never be able to hide his frightful physique.

“Where on earth are those two?” The marchioness glanced at the door, referring to her two other children, who were supposed to have been down by now. “Mary always takes too long getting ready.”

At those words, her husband’s hands slid around her waist, and he landed a soft kiss right on her ear, from which a sparkling, diamond earring hung. The marchioness jumped with surprise.

“Cornelius, you devil!” she scolded him playfully. “What on earth has gotten into you?” Her chuckle was loud, throaty. It filled the entire drawing room with sounds of pleasure.

That was usually what their house was like. It was a house of love. A house of understanding, sympathy and kindness. It was a house of protection. Sometimes, a little too much protection.

Ah, never mind. Elizabeth would need to employ Rebecca’s help this evening, if she was to ever speak with another gentleman, even if were solely to discuss the weather and nothing else. That would be enough.

A few moments later, the door burst open, and Mary entered first, with Charles right after her. They seemed to have been involved in a discussion of sorts.

“… her cheeks looked like macaroons!” Mary giggled, while Charles did not seem as amused as his younger sister, who saw nothing bad in occasionally coming up with a joke at somebody’s expense. Elizabeth wondered whose turn it was now.

“I do not know what macaroons you are discussing, but we must be off right now, if we wish to make it on time,” the marchioness urged her family, as she got up from her seat, her long, flowing gown spilling onto the ground around her feet. Being much shorter than the average sized lady in London, her gowns always needed to be resized, lest she wanted them to float around her like waves in the ocean.

Elizabeth never saw the need to fix anything. In her eyes, her mother was beautiful. Their father certainly seemed to think so. And that was all that mattered, after all. That was also what she hoped to find in life for herself. A man who would love her for who she was. But she wondered if she would even get the chance to meet someone, let alone get married.

She relinquished all control into her mother’s capable hands, as they were all being ushered out of the drawing room and down the stairs, as if they were already late. They were aiming for fashionably late, not late-late, her mother would sometimes say. Whatever that meant.

Late was late, in Elizabeth’s opinion. And having a loving family was hard sometimes. So very hard.

Chapter Two

Owen Hoskins, the Duke of Primpton was anything if not practical. He was a gentleman in every single aspect of his life. From an early age, he had been taught to converse with easy, flowing manners. It also did not hurt that his was a rather pleasant countenance, extremely easy on the eyes with his handsome features and tall stature, with charcoal black hair and a strikingly intelligent set of steel blue eyes. The admiration he provoked when he appeared did little for his ego.

Even though he already should have headed to Shawcross Manor, where this evening’s ball was held, by the revered Lord and Lady Atwood, whom he had met on numerous occasions, he was still home. Their opinions and likes changed with the tide of popularity, something he not only did not understand, but considered highly impractical as well. However, it was a ball, and there was only one thing eligible bachelors did at balls: try to find a suitable bride. The thought didn’t bring him much pleasure, so he tried to look at it from a different point of view. It was an obligation that he needed to take upon himself. Find the right lady, marry her, have heirs and live the rest of his life knowing that he did what was required of him.

An unexpected knock on the door interrupted his thoughts.

“Yes?” he called out.

The door opened, welcoming in his mother. Sophia Hoskins, the Dowager Duchess of Primpton, was a highly esteemed lady, who in the eyes of many, lacked those warm, amiable qualities that made a woman delightful. As a mother, she was reserved but present in her child’s life, refusing to force any burdens upon him, and choosing instead to instill in him the same values that had been instilled in her. Owen always felt that she had cordial feelings for him. She loved him, most certainly. But there had never been any lively, playful disposition about her. As a child, he felt that his mother had never been delighted by anything in life, focusing instead on the calm serenity of her role as a duchess.

“Mother,” he smiled at her.

Her own smile appeared instantly in return. “Won’t you be late for the ball?” she wondered, eyeing him from top to bottom.

He sighed. “To be quite honest, I am not in a particularly jolly mood to be attending balls. Several of my investments had fallen through. It is not a substantial loss, fortunately, but it is enough to make me rethink further dealings in the business.”

“Do not tell me you have forgotten your duties,” she reminded him.

“No, Mother,” he shook his head remorsefully. “I did not say I was not going. I am merely not inclined to, but of course… I shall attend.” He stood up, signaling that the conversation could very well end there.

“And do give Lord and Lady Atwood my sincerest apologies,” she added. “I still feel a bit under the weather and would rather just stay home with a nice cup of tea and then go to sleep.”

That sounded like a much more pleasant evening than being elbowed by other gentlemen, both known and unknown, on their way to ask eligible young ladies to dance. It was all just a charade. No one attended those balls to have fun. What a horrible misconception that was. It was merely means to an end, and the end was marriage.

Yes. The end. His life so far had been one of few responsibilities. However, following the sad death of his father, Owen knew that there would be much he would need to take on.

His father’s advice still rang in his mind. Marry for love. That way, marriage won’t be the end of a life, but rather its beginning. At the time, Owen was too crushed to say anything to that, as he held his dying father’s hand, watching life slowly leave his body. He treasured those last few moments, replaying them in his mind every time he needed to be soothed. But now, he had a different question. He knew that his father married for love. That much was obvious. He adored his wife with every fiber of his being. It was evident in the way he spoke to her, even when he spoke about her, without her presence. Every word about her was filled to the brim with love. However, the question was thus: had his wife married for love as well?

Owen could still not tell. He had known his mother all his life, and yet, there were moments when he felt that she was just a stranger. She always smiled back at him. He knew that she loved him. He could sense it. But she was not a person who showed her emotions, preferring to bury them deep inside, almost fearing that someone might abuse them. If she did not offer them on a platter, then she would be safe from heartbreak.

Sometimes, he wished he had received more hugs from her, more kisses, more soothing words, more nights when she read to him until he fell asleep. A nanny took over early on, then a governess. There had been occasional kisses and hugs, and Owen treasured each and every one of them in his child’s mind.

“Don’t worry, Mother.” He walked over to her and pressed his lips to her forehead. She felt cold to the touch. When they stood facing each other in this manner, he felt as if she were shrinking with the passage of time. That brought forth another dreadful realization. She might leave him, just like his father did. And then, he would be alone.

“You are a sweet boy, Owen,” she said, smiling. Her voice had taken on exactly the motherly tone Owen loved the most. It was like a key to his heart, that just like hers, learned to close itself off and not allow any tumultuous emotions inside. “Also, if you see that sweet Georgina Finch, do send my regards. Perhaps you could even invite her and her parents over for tea next week.”

Owen’s nose curled up in displeasure. The daughter of the Earl of Dowding had been the beauty everyone had been speaking of this season. Her manners were impeccable, and so was her physique. No one could find any fault with her ashy blonde hair and her deep blue eyes, settled on a porcelain pale face. Indeed, that was how everyone had imagined perfection to look like in real life.

Owen could not disagree for the simple reason that he would be lying. She was indeed a stunning young lady, who would make any duke the perfect duchess. He felt pressured by his mother to focus on her, but he managed to fight for his chance to perhaps find some other young lady, equally or maybe even more suited to the role of a duchess than Georgina Finch. She was far too much like… like his own mother. And that just did not sit well with him.

“I shall give her your regards,” he confirmed. “As for the tea, I’m afraid that I have business in town every afternoon.” If he did not have any business, he would certainly find some.

“I honestly do not understand why you simply do not start courting that young lady,” she expressed her surprise with a heavy dose of disappointment. “Mark my words, if you do not act fast, I fear that some other gentleman might notice what has been in front of your eyes all along. And he might steal her away from you.”

“She is not mine to be stolen from me,” He reminded her, frowning.

“She is not yours solely because you refuse to make the effort of making her your future wife,” she would simply not let go. This conversation had turned sour much faster than usual.

“Well,” he said, popping his lips together just so he would make some sound that would signal the end of this conversation. “London is full of lovely young ladies. One should not bend down and pick the first flower one finds in a beautiful garden.”

“Yes, but–”

Before she could say anything else, he placed another kiss on his mother’s forehead. That was always how he made up for the lack of attention. As a little boy, he learned that she would never refuse a kiss he wished to give her. So, every time he felt he needed her, he would come up to her with his arms outstretched, and she would allow a kiss. Rarely would she offer one back, but he did not mind. Now, as an adult, he used that strategy not when he needed her. Grown men did not need their mothers. They tolerated them. But he still wished to kiss her, because in a way, that meant that he had won that conversation. She would end it there, and consider it over, at least for the time being. Usually, that was enough.

“Good night, Mother,” he said, waving on his way out.

Whether she was still thinking of Georgina Finch or not wasn’t important any longer. As for his own thoughts, he was not burdened by the loss of those investments he had just told her about. In fact, those did not bother him at all. He merely used them as an excuse as to why she had caught him late to the ball, in such a pensive mood.

Accepting one’s place in the world was nothing new to Owen. He had this conversation with his dear, late father more times than he could count. The first time ever his father mentioned that Owen would eventually become the duke, Owen remembered being happy about it. Then, the sad truth that surrounded those circumstances revealed itself to his child’s mind. In order for that to happen, Father would be dead. Owen the boy did not want his father to die… ever. That marked the end of the world.

In a way, his father’s death was exactly that. It was the end of the world as he knew it. Everything needed to change, including him. But Owen had always been pragmatic. Never prone to such silly things as emotional burdens. His wife could expect only one thing from him: respect. That would not include love, but it would include many other things, such as affection, regard, perhaps even admiration. That all depended on the actual person. But not love. Never love. Despite his father’s advice, a good marriage was not based on love. It was based on a good match of two people who were alike, not two people who were different, and wished for the other person to make them complete.

Owen was a complete person. He did not need someone else, a lady least of all, to make him complete in some way. He wondered if his father needed his wife to make him complete. That would have been sad if he did, because Owen could not see his mother as someone loving and caring and attentive. And that was all right. It was simply who she was. Just like it was who he was, too.

Those were the thoughts that swarmed inside his mind as he headed for the ball, wondering what this evening would bring.

Chapter Three

“How about Lord Clarence Danvers?” Elizabeth inquired pointing an invisible finger, as she and her brother stood side by side, going over every single eligible bachelor present and accounted for.

Elizabeth could not remember how many lords and earls and dukes she had pointed at, asking for her brother’s approval, which never came. She lost count somewhere around number seventeen, which she believed was Lord Kenneth Lupton. His crime was having a preference for intellectual pursuits, which meant that he was not really that much interested in having a family as much as having his last scientific findings published and recognized. Elizabeth could see nothing wrong with an ambitious man. However, all she could do was simply move onto the next prospective candidate.

“Danvers?” Charles exclaimed through clenched teeth. The animosity was tangible, and Elizabeth could already tell that Lord Danvers would be chucked into the pile alongside other lords who had no luck of being useful as husbands. “Why, that man is a terrible rake. His reputation is darker than tar. Absolutely not, Lizzie.”

Elizabeth almost chuckled out loudly to this. It had become quite an endeavor, coming up with so many different reasons as to why someone would not be considered good marriage material. And Elizabeth had heard them all. Once, she believed that her brother’s highly imaginative well of negative character traits would dry up, but so far, no such luck. In fact, it seemed to be exactly the opposite. The more gentlemen she showed him, the more whimsical his reasons had become. It would have been all so funny if it were not sad.

Elizabeth sighed heavily, looking about the room. She could see her parents across the dancing area, and Mary with them. The safe distance that separated them now could just as quickly be diminished. The moment they saw her unaccompanied and on her own, one of them would appear as if out of thin air, immediately forming a protective curtain around her, which prevented her from coming into contact with anyone, especially a gentleman.

So, she knew she had to act fast. She raised her hand and waved at Rebecca Wycliff. Rebecca was a hearty girl who was unapologetically, always on Elizabeth’s side. This had always been so, ever since they met a long time ago, as little girls on the banks of the Serpentine, and Rebecca’s little poodle jumped into the water, then was unable to climb out. Seeing that the little pooch needed help, Elizabeth grabbed a branch, which the dog bit and she helped get it back on dry land. That was how the acquaintanceship of the two families was deepened into a friendship bond, which seemed to blossom between the two girls more and more with each passing year.

Tonight’s ball was special. Mostly because Elizabeth and Rebecca had forged a pact the last time Elizabeth went to visit her, a pact that could only be forged between two giggling best friends who would do anything for each other. The plan was simple. All Rebecca needed to do was keep Charles occupied, while Elizabeth herself would be finally free to roam the ballroom on her own, unhindered by the potentiality of her brother appearing out of nowhere and ruining any chances she might have had with someone she liked.

Elizabeth loved her brother. She truly loved him to bits, but she could not believe that every single gentleman in London was marred by some kind of serious and devastating character flaw that rendered him useless as a husband. That was simply unheard of. There had to be a man, at least one man, who his brother would not force away from her. And Elizabeth was determined to find him no matter what.

At that moment, Rebecca joined them, followed by brief but cordial greetings.

“You look absolutely lovely, dear Rebecca,” Charles noticed, as always, his usual charming self. He would smile as he gazed at her, kissing her hand, as customs dictated.

Neither of the two ladies took this too seriously. Throughout the years, Rebecca had become not only a friend, but almost another Crampton sister, and Charles treated her thusly, offering the occasional compliment as well as a joke at her own expense, which the ever amused Rebecca always accepted with humor. She had become a part of the family, and everyone treated her so.

“Why, thank you, Charles,” Rebecca smiled back at him, then she turned around glancing at the crowd. “There are so many people present. I don’t think I know even half of these people here.”

“Well, it’s best you don’t,” Charles noted with a look of displeasure that bordered on revulsion, as if he had just found a fly in his soup.  “Because none of these men is worthy of even looking at either my sister or you, let alone dancing with you two.”

There was no point in waiting any longer. Things would not change on their own. Elizabeth would have to change them herself. She shot a meaningful glance at Rebecca, nodding barely perceptibly. It was the sign her friend had been waiting for.

Rebecca turned to Charles, clearing her throat. Her smile was broad and inviting. She obviously knew exactly what to ask him, for the speech was already rehearsed, according to plan.

“Charles? There is this butterfly I’ve seen in my garden a few days ago, and for the life of me, I could not find it in my botanical book of flowers and insects.”

Charles’ attention was caught immediately. He had always been an avid lepidopterist, while Rebecca loved butterflies as well, only she preferred to keep them in their natural surroundings. However, that topic meant that the two would be engaged in at least a half hour long talk, where Charles would be allowed, even urged, to offer explanation after explanation, which hopefully would not bore Rebecca to death. But even if it would, Elizabeth was certain that Rebecca would gladly do it to help.

“What kind was it?” Charles turned to Rebecca. Elizabeth could immediately see that he had no eyes for anyone else in the room, apart from the person who right now exhibited an interest in his most favorite topic in the world. “You see, if it was blue and yellow, then it had to have been a–”

Elizabeth patted him on the shoulder, interrupting him. “Charles, I shall go to Mary, if that’s all right.”

“Of course, of course,” Charles waved his hand dismissively, then continued, his attention once again focused on Rebecca. “Where was I? Oh, yes. Blue and yellow is…” His voice trailed off as Elizabeth rejoiced in leaving him behind.

It felt like venturing into a whole new world, different than anything she had experienced so far. She smiled at gentlemen that smiled at her, as well as the ladies. She welcomed their attention, looking left and right, wondering if the right man for her was hiding somewhere in the crowd. Her heart leaped at the prospect, and she felt as if it were beating in the very soles of her feet, urging her to keep going, not to stop, because this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and who knew if she would ever be granted another one.

She turned around, just to check whether her brother was still standing in the same spot. Lo and behold, he was. Elizabeth almost chuckled to herself, as she watched Rebecca listen to her brother talk incessantly about butterflies. Strangely yet, Rebecca did not seem as if she was bored at all. Quite the contrary, she listened with curiosity, nodding every once in a while, as if she knew exactly what he had been referring to.

Well done, Lizzie, she complimented herself silently. That was a good plan. A really good plan. She wondered how come she did not think of it sooner. Perhaps she had hoped that her brother’s protective fencing would diminish with the passage of time, but instead, it only seemed to get worse. She absolutely had to put an end to it.

She turned her attention back to the ballroom before her, and the dancing couples, who swirled to the rhythm of the music. She adored the waltz. She could only hope that she would have the chance to actually dance it with someone this time. Perhaps if Rebecca would think herself of asking him to dance… then again, perhaps that was asking too much even of a best friend like Rebecca.

Elizabeth pointed her glance next where her parents stood a moment ago. They too seemed focused on a conversation with another couple, while Mary seemed dreadfully bored. She would have to remind herself to go over and bring Mary back with her. It must be dreadfully tedious to be constantly under the watchful gaze of their mother. Elizabeth knew exactly how that was, although her mother’s gaze at Elizabeth had loosened with Mary’s appearance on the London ballroom scene. It was difficult keeping a constant eye on two daughters, and Elizabeth always thought that her parents and her brother had a secret pact that the girls knew nothing about. If the parents were next to Mary, then Charles’ hawk-like gaze was aimed straight for Lizzie. If their parents watched over Lizzie, then Mary was subject to Charles’ comments regarding gentlemen who were not decent enough to be made into anyone’s husbands.

At least, for the time being, everyone seemed to be in their place, away from Elizabeth herself. She had a feeling that this would be a most excellent ball, that the gentleman who was meant to meet her would first admire her from afar, and only then would he approach her to ask for a dance. He would think her quite beautiful. Not only that, but he would ask her to dance twice. Twice! She would be the only lady he would be interested in, and no other lady would manage to capture his attention.

Not even noticing it, Elizabeth had gotten completely lost in her reverie, and just as she was about to turn to the right, she felt an obstacle on the way, which she only recognized as a man’s upright body when she blinked heavily several times. She bumped heavily against him, her entire body bouncing away from him, like a ball thrown against a wall.

“I am dreadfully sorry,” the man said, although she was certain that it was she who bumped into him and not the other way around. But she fancied this version better, of him apologizing. Was that not how the sweetest romances started in books? “Are you all right?” he asked.

When she gazed into his eyes, she could see the reflection of her own. The most profound hues of aquamarine, the depths of the very ocean. That was what she could see staring back at her. She could not escape the sensation of falling deeper and deeper, and at that very moment, reality came crashing down around her, bathed in the last voice on earth she wanted to hear right now.  

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