Daniel Hayle, Duke of Carlisle, returned from Waterloo a hero, and he has the wounds to prove it. But he dreads the coming London season as he never did the battlefield, where his lack of social skills is certain to make it difficult to find a wife. What he needs is someone to help him practice socializing with the ton. Someone who isn’t frightened away by his scars . . .
Margery Kitteridge is still mourning the loss of her husband. So when she receives a blackmail letter accusing him of desertion, she’s desperate to protect his reputation. The answer to her troubles appears in the form of a damaged, reclusive—and much-too-desirable—duke in need of a wife. She proposes an alliance: she’ll help him find a bride, in return for the money to pay off the blackmailer. But working so closely together awakens passions they never imagined possible, and reveals secrets that might tear them apart.
Release date: August 24, 2021
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 400
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A Duke Worth Fighting For
Daniel Hayle, Duke of Carlisle, ran a hand over his weary eyes and stared morosely at his reflection. He’d been a fool to think this would work. It had seemed an ideal plan back at Brackley Court. He could accompany his mother to the Isle and see two things accomplished: making sure she began to heal from his brother Nathaniel’s untimely passing three years ago, and to prepare himself for the necessary search for a wife, something he had put off for as long as possible but could ignore no longer. Unfortunately, his long-standing social ineptitude had increased exponentially since his injuries, and so a bit of practice at a less populous locale before tackling London for the first time had seemed ideal.
Blessedly a knock sounded at the door, stopping whatever self-flagellating thoughts had been about to fill his head. Wilkins, his valet, answered it, stepping aside as Daniel’s mother was revealed. She greeted the valet warmly before making her way across the room to Daniel’s side.
“Oh, don’t you look splendid, darling. But I’m about to head down early with the viscountess. She’s told me to inform you she’ll send a maid up to show you the way to the drawing room. You will be fine, won’t you?”
Damnation, she looked exhausted. These past years had been hard on her, first with losing her husband, then with Daniel’s near-death at Waterloo and the months of painful recovery, and finally—and most devastatingly—with Nathaniel’s death a mere year after Daniel’s return home. Surely this trip would be just what she needed.
Yet the pale cast to her skin, the dark shadows beneath her eyes, the way her clothing—still the black of mourning—fairly hung off her small frame from the weight she’d lost made him fear that the road to recovery would be a long one, if even feasible. It was quite possible that, given the devastation she’d endured, she might not ever come back from the dark place her mind had sunk to.
But he would not consider that now. He forced a smile as she reached him, trying not to flinch when she kissed his cheek—his good cheek. She knew better than to get near his ruined cheek.
“Of course, I’ll be fine,” he replied, before frowning. “Though are you certain you’re up for a dinner party on your first night here? Mayhap it would be best to take dinner in your room, to rest—”
“You dear thing,” she said with a fond smile. “To worry so for me. But it’s hardly a dinner party. Only the same people we met this morning, each and every one of them Olivia’s relations. But Olivia is waiting on me. I’ll see you downstairs.” Patting his arm, she made her way from the room, closing the door quietly behind her.
Daniel pressed his lips tight as he watched her go. If she had thought to reassure him with the fact that only Lady Tesh’s family would be present, she was sorely mistaken. Especially as he was not thrilled about seeing again one particular member of that woman’s family.
He exhaled sharply, the image of Mrs. Kitteridge’s stricken face when she’d first laid eyes on him searing through his brain. That moment, standing before such a lovely woman and seeing just how he affected her, had been torture.
And it had not been only her. Though everyone present in that blasted sitting room had been incredibly polite and welcoming, no matter his awkward blunders, they had nevertheless betrayed their unease with him in small ways, either by openly staring at him or pointedly not looking his way. The very idea of how much worse London would be had him breaking into a cold sweat.
Which was laughable, really. He was a hardened soldier who had never balked at battle. And yet the thought of walking into a London ballroom had him wanting to turn tail and flee. Perhaps if he had been more socially gifted before his injuries he might have been able to pass himself off as dashing in his battle scars, or might have been able to deflect attention from his appearance with a happy, open spirit. But no, he had never been that. And never would be.
He frowned and absently rubbed his thigh, wincing as his fingers found a particularly tender spot in the twisted flesh. The ache in the once-shredded muscles and shattered bone was much worse tonight after the three days’ travel from Brackley Court. And a constant reminder that navigating society and finding a wife who was not put off by his awkwardness, much less disgusted by his appearance, would be no easy feat.
He was luckier than so many others, of course. A quick flash of that young man who’d stepped in front of Daniel’s gun, inadvertently taking a bullet not meant for him and losing his life in the process. He let out a harsh breath, pain flaring in his chest at the memory, the echo of that boy’s death rattle, his cries for his sweetheart, as clear as it had been four short years ago. No, Daniel could not possibly complain about the minor inconvenience of having to find a wife.
“Do you not like any of the pins, Your Grace?”
Wilkins, his valet, peered up at him anxiously, a tray of stickpins held aloft for Daniel’s perusal. Having been valet to Daniel’s older brother, Wilkins had been passed on to Daniel along with the rest of the Carlisle holdings upon Nathaniel’s death.
Daniel would give every bit of it up if he could have his brother back.
He cleared his throat against a sudden thickness. His brother should be here now, looking over the selection of brilliant stones, preparing to descend below and charm everyone with his sparkling humor and devilish good looks. Instead it was Daniel forced to do these things, his too-large form poured into stylish clothes that he abhorred, steeling himself for an evening of stress and strain as he attempted to hide the glaring fact that he had no wish to be here.
He cleared his throat and forced his attention to the tray in the valet’s hands.
“The sapphire will do, I think,” he murmured. “Thank you, Wilkins.”
As the man nodded, turning away to place the tray down, Daniel took the chance to move out of view of his image in the glass. Further perusal of himself would only hinder his ability to calm his nerves. Yet his leg didn’t appreciate the sudden movement; it gave another protesting twinge of pain. Quite without meaning to, Daniel grunted.
Wilkins, having turned back to Daniel with pin in hand in precisely that moment, caught sight of his employer’s unguarded reaction. He paused, holding the jewel to his narrow chest, emotions at war in his angular face. And then, the words bursting from him in a jumble, he said, “Are you certain you don’t wish me to massage the muscle, Your Grace? It may help—”
“No.” Mortification boiled up, making the word come out more sharply than he’d intended. Silently cursing himself as Wilkins drew back, Daniel gentled his tone. “That is, it isn’t that bad, truly. I merely stepped on it wrong.”
“If you’re certain.”
“I am,” Daniel replied with a firm smile, hoping the man didn’t hear the lie in the words.
The valet, however, didn’t look as if he believed Daniel one bit. If anything, it seemed that hurt was now mixed liberally with the nervous worry that strained Wilkins’s features. But he merely nodded and quickly went back to work.
Daniel, for his part, wanted to feel relief that their relationship, beginning to tilt dangerously into a more personal one, had been quickly righted. But only a regretful ache rose up in him. He knew Nathaniel and Wilkins had shared a close bond, and Daniel had seen signs the man would be only too happy to be a friend to Daniel. But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. Letting someone in was just too damn hard.
Just as Wilkins was putting the finishing touches to Daniel’s ensemble there was a quiet knock on the door. The valet once more answered it with alacrity. A young maid stood in the hallway.
“I’ve been sent to guide His Grace to the drawing room,” she said, scanning the room with an air of anticipation. Her gaze widened when she saw Daniel, her jaw dropping open as she took stock of him, from carefully brushed hair to highly polished shoes.
Gritting his teeth, Daniel accepted his cane from Wilkins. Still refusing to look at his reflection—the young maid was gaping at his scars enough for the both of them—he set his shoulders and made for the door. “I thank you for your escort,” he murmured.
Face flaming, no doubt at being caught staring, she dipped into a deep curtsy and spun about. Instead of walking at a normal pace, however, she moved almost comically slow, like some demented bride, shuffling one foot forward, then bringing the other up to meet it before moving that one on. Daniel tortured himself for a moment, wondering what stories the servants had passed among them to prompt such a reaction. Had they talked of him in pitying tones, the lamed duke who so ill fit his new position? The Ugly Dukeling.
He frowned. Such musings weren’t doing him a bit of good and would make the coming evening, not to mention the impending months of torture as he attempted to secure a duchess, much worse than they had to be. Heaving an imperceptible sigh, Daniel attempted to focus on the positive aspect of the situation; the girl was giving him extra time to traverse the long halls, after all, and he should be grateful he didn’t have to push his leg. But frustration had already laid claim to him, made even worse when he considered just who would eventually take over the dukedom should he fail to find a wife and produce an heir.
His cousin’s face flashed through his thoughts, souring his stomach. Gregory had always been a wastrel and a bounder. Taken in by Daniel’s parents when his own had created a scandal so horrendous it had resulted in the death of one and a flight to the Continent of the other, he had grown up alongside Daniel and Nathaniel, raised as if he were the duke’s own son.
But that had not stopped Gregory’s bitterness at his lot in life from poisoning his heart with anger, no matter that he was loved by his extended family. As he’d grown, that anger had manifested itself in cruelty toward Daniel, fights with the duke and duchess, and a bitter rivalry with Nathaniel that had lasted well into adulthood, resulting in Gregory returning to Brackley Court only when he needed something of the dukedom. Like a vulture looking for scraps. If their father had not forced a promise from them to watch out for Gregory, Daniel rather thought he and Nathaniel would have been all too happy to never have to deal with their cousin again.
Since Nathaniel’s death, however, Gregory had begun to tighten his circle on Daniel, visiting their country seat in Cheshire County much more often, eroding what little remaining confidence Daniel had with well-placed comments aimed to do the maximum amount of damage. It was a painful reiteration of the abuse he’d heaped on Daniel when they were children, before Daniel had finally escaped by going off to war. Ironically, the effects of that decision were what now fueled his cousin’s increased, though much more slyly executed, maltreatment.
Gregory’s last visit, however, had completely undermined Daniel’s brittle self-worth, and in the worst possible way.
“I saw Erica recently. She’s fairly glowing these days. But then, that’s no surprise, seeing as she’s expecting Thrushton’s heir.”
Daniel had frozen, pain slamming into him, nearly as potent as the bullet that had ripped into his leg. Erica was expecting?
It shouldn’t have hurt as much as it had. But he had still been able to recall the time not so very long past when he’d dreamt of Erica expecting a child—his child.
“Oh! But do forgive me,” Gregory had said with a horrified look that did nothing to hide the slyness behind it. “Of course you wouldn’t know of it. I hope I haven’t given you too much grief. I know how difficult it was when she broke things off with you upon your return from the Continent.”
It had been glaringly obvious what his cousin had been about, of course. But that did not ease the sting of it, nor quiet the voices in Daniel’s head that said if a woman who had claimed to love him could not stand the sight of him, then surely no one would.
But no, she had never loved him, he reminded himself brutally. She’d made certain he was aware of that fact upon his return home, that her father had forced her into pursuing him. And that she could no longer pretend even for his sake now that Daniel had returned as less of a man.
But he would not think of her now. For, quite the opposite of what his cousin had no doubt intended, his gleeful flaunting of Erica’s impending motherhood had only fueled Daniel’s determination to finally cede to his mother’s increasingly anxious entreaties that he find a wife. He could not see a man such as Gregory, someone who so clearly reveled in the pain and discomfort of others, become duke.
He and the maid had just reached the bottom of the grand staircase—at this pace they would be lucky to reach the drawing room by Christmas—when he spied a woman heading toward them at a swift pace. And not just any woman, but Mrs. Kitteridge. He fought back a groan. Of all the people in this house, he was looking forward to dealing with her the least. An inconvenience, for certain, as Lady Tesh—and his mother, too, as he’d learned from the quiet conversation he’d had with her on the way to their rooms—had decreed they were to spend a good portion of their time together.
Instead of her wide-eyed gaping upon meeting him, however, she wore a bright, if slightly strained, smile now.
“Lillian, thank you so much for guiding His Grace down. I’m afraid, though, that Mrs. Hortenson needs you quite urgently in the kitchen. I shall show His Grace to the drawing room.”
The girl dipped into a deep curtsy, with a long look at him no doubt meant to catalogue every awkward inch to regale the servants below stairs with, before she scampered off.
And Daniel and Mrs. Kitteridge were left quite thoroughly alone. Or as alone as any two people could be in a house with so many servants about.
He cleared his throat, turning to face the woman, half-prepared for the same shock in her eyes as before. But though there was a decided strain in her round face, her eyes were somber with regret. “I must apologize, Your Grace, for the way I treated you upon our initial meeting.”
Whatever he had expected from her, it certainly hadn’t been that. “Please,” he said, wanting nothing more than to reach the drawing room and escape this woman’s unnerving presence, “think nothing of it.” He made to start off again in his painfully awkward way. But the woman, it seemed, wasn’t done with him, for she remained firmly planted in his path.
“You are most kind. I, however, acted unpardonably. Please, I do hope you’ll forgive and forget, and we may begin anew.” She held out her hand.
He stared down at it, noticing the faintest tremor in her fingers. And then, knowing he could do little else, he reached out and gripped her fingers in his own.
Heat, and energy, and a jolt of something inexplicable and undeniable swirled deep in his belly at that innocent touch. It was a much more potent attraction than what he’d experienced upon his initial sight of her in her grandmother’s sitting room. Her open shock had quickly eclipsed the temptation of her. Now, however, it all came roaring back, and he recalled with stunning clarity what he had seen in her when he’d first entered that room, in the split second before reality had come crashing back down again: large brown eyes with dark, curling lashes; rosy cheeks that framed a sweet, round face; softly curling brown hair that surrounded her head in a veritable halo; a full figure that fairly made his mouth water despite the chaste cut of her violet gown.
She sucked in a sharp breath, her fingers tightening on his. His face heated and he hastily dropped her hand, clearing his throat several times to unstick the words that needed to be said. “There is nothing to forgive.”
“But there is,” she said. Her hands came together before her, her fingers working at the gold band on her fourth finger. “I know what you must be thinking of me.”
He let loose a surprised bark of laughter. “I doubt it,” he muttered. And thank goodness for it.
She gave him an arch look. “You think my reaction was owing to your scars, did you not?”
Well, he certainly hadn’t expected such forthrightness. Most people pointedly refused to acknowledge his appearance at all. Which, of course, only brought it more sharply into focus, their determined dancing about and fumbling making him feel as if he were the maypole in some bizarre dance, getting more tangled by the minute in ribbons of social politeness.
This, however, was something completely new. Though perhaps it should not have been such a surprise, seeing who her grandmother was. He had immediately liked the old woman; she was a blunt one, and he got on best with people like her. Despite the unease her forthrightness had brought about, he would much rather deal with a person who spoke their mind than one who danced about trying to pretend things were well when they so clearly weren’t.
“I assure you,” Mrs. Kitteridge continued with a raised chin when he only stared at her, “your wounds were the last thing I noticed about you.”
He laughed again, but it was bitter this time. Speaking of people dancing about ignoring the obvious. He might have accepted what she said to save further uncomfortableness as he typically did. But suddenly the weariness and strain and pain of the past three days came to a head and he found himself saying, “You needn’t lie to me, madam.”
“But I’m not lying.”
Her expression was so earnest, so sincere, he almost believed her. A dangerous thing, surely. He did not trust easily. In truth, he did not trust at all. Too many people he had respected and revered had betrayed his once-staunch sense of right and wrong. War, he had soon learned after purchasing his commission, did not allow one to follow one’s conscience. There had been too many gray areas, too many lines crossed for king and country.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, shaking his head and offering her a smile though his demons would insist on breathing down his neck. “I assure you, my looking glass doesn’t lie. Nor does this leg of mine. But I have had four years to learn to live with it. With luck I shall have many more ahead of me. I’m luckier than many men I served with—” He closed his mouth with a snap of teeth a moment too late, mortification filling him. And here was proof of just how hopeless he was in dealing with other people.
“I am so sorry,” he rasped as Mrs. Kitteridge’s face leached of color.
“No need for apologies,” she managed. “What did you speak but the truth?” The trembling smile she attempted died before it could find purchase. She heaved a sigh. “War is not fair, is it, Your Grace?”
An understatement if there ever was one. But he saw from the muted grief in her eyes that she knew as much as anyone just how unfair war could be. “You have the right of it,” he murmured.
She didn’t seem to hear him, the distant look in her eyes proof that her thoughts were elsewhere. Suddenly she shook her head sharply, as if to dislodge whatever held her in thrall. “But there is one more thing I must address before we join the others. My grandmother, I’m afraid, is quite outspoken. I’m so sorry if she pained you by bringing up the war. And I must apologize in advance for anything more she might say to upset you. Which,” she said with a grimace, “I’m afraid will be much more often than you might like.”
“You mustn’t apologize for her, truly. For then I will apologize for something, and then you shall add on, and we’ll never pull ourselves out of the quicksand of our politeness.”
That, finally, alleviated the morose look that strained her features. She smiled fully at him, the sparkle of humor in her warm brown eyes, her cheeks taking on the lovely bloom of summer roses.
Once, when Daniel was a boy, he’d gotten too close to the back end of a particularly ill-tempered horse. The beast had kicked out, catching Daniel in the chest. The force of it had thrown Daniel back. He’d landed on the ground, the wind knocked out of him, not knowing who or where he was for some seconds.
Mrs. Kitteridge’s smile, an expression that turned her from a mildly pretty woman to a stunning creature, had nearly the same effect on him as those horse hooves. He could only stare down at her mutely, unable to form a coherent thought.
“You’re right, of course,” she said in her sweet voice. “And, as we have already determined to begin anew, remaining in the past is not doing either of us any good. That, and we’ll be in close company the next several weeks; it will no doubt grow tiresome if we don’t nip it in the bud now.” She let loose a light laugh that reverberated through his chest in a pleasant way.
But her words reminded him just how neatly her grandmother had trapped him into being an unwelcome burden to Mrs. Kitteridge over the coming month. “I’ve no need of assistance in Synne society,” he lied.
She frowned. “I assure you, Your Grace, it will be my pleasure.”
“Truly, you’ve no need to.”
Her cheeks colored. “If I gave the impression that it was in any way distasteful—”
“Not at all. I just have…other plans is all.”
Again that little dip between her brows, this time one of confusion. “Other plans? You have someone else you’re meeting with?”
“What? Oh, no. That’s not it.”
“What then—Oh.” She bit her lip, guilt flaring in her cinnamon-brown eyes. “I assure you, I’m not normally so rude as I’ve made myself out to be.”
“No!” Ah, God, why could he never get through an interaction without mucking things up? “It has nothing at all to do with you, and everything to do with me.”
“I see,” she said, though from the hurt tone of her voice and the shuttered look in her eyes it was obvious she didn’t.
“It’s just,” he stammered, desperate to climb out of whatever ditch he’d dug himself into, “I wouldn’t want to put an unnecessary burden on you.”
“You’ve no need to explain, Your Grace.” Her voice was stiff, her smile stiffer, holding not an ounce of the warmth it had just minutes ago.
“Mrs. Kitteridge, you misunderstand. Ah, God, this is embarrassing.” He groaned, running a hand over his face. “As you can see, I’m not the most articulate fellow. I more often than not botch even the most casual interactions. Which,” he murmured wryly, “this one right here proves.”
She worried at her wedding ring once more. “I’m sorry, Your Grace. I shouldn’t have reacted as I did.”
He chuckled. “Are we to start another round of apologies, Mrs. Kitteridge?”
Her relieved laugh was like bells. “Goodness, I hope not.”
But the moment of lightness was short-lived. Silence descended between them, fraught with uncertainty. And no wonder; she must be unsure of how to deal with someone so lacking in social graces. She motioned down the hall, no doubt in the direction of the drawing room, and as one they began their slow way there.
“You mentioned you’re headed to London after your trip to Synne,” she said quietly. At his tight nod, she continued. “Forgive me for being blunt, but is your purpose in town purely parliamentary, or is it also…matrimonial?”
His cheeks flared with heat. “Are you applying for the position, Mrs. Kitteridge?” he blurted, hoping to alleviate the tense moment with a bit of humor.
The second the words were out of his mouth, however, he knew it had been the wrong thing to say. She stumbled, thankfully quickly righting herself. What the hell was wrong with h. . .
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