Dubious about the Duke (Second Sons of London Book 5)
- Book info
- Author updates
An affable army colonel who abruptly becomes a duke. A shy beauty who missed her come-out. And two mischievous boys who bring this pair together . . .
A confident Colonel Winston Cutler finds himself a sudden duke when the brother he loathed perishes in a fire. Win returns to London, only to find he has two by-blow nephews to care for—and their specialty is running off their latest governess.
Reserved Seraphina Nicholls returns to England after being stuck in Canada due to war with the Americans. Sera is slated to attend a house party, where she hopes to make a match with a man who is quiet and loyal. Instead, she finds herself volunteering to act as a governess to a neighboring duke’s rowdy nephews.
Sera wins over the boys and is dismayed when she loses her heart to the roguish duke. Win finds Sera appealing but due to her retiring nature, he believes she would make for a terrible duchess. But Sera isn’t shy with him—especially when they are kissing. Win decides no one but this erstwhile governess will make him happy.
Can the outgoing Win persuade a bashful Sera that opposites can attract—and thrive—in a passion-filled marriage?
Find the answer in USA Today Bestselling author Alexa Aston’s Dubious about the Duke, the fifth book in Second Sons of London.
Each book in Second Sons of London is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Second Sons of London
Educated by the Earl
Debating with the Duke
Empowered by the Earl
Made for the Marquess
Dubious about the Duke
Valued by the Viscount
Meant for the Marquess
Release date: August 18, 2022
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Dubious about the Duke (Second Sons of London Book 5)
Ontario, Upper Canada—September 1812
Seraphina Nicholls brushed her long, auburn hair as she gazed into the mirror. Tonight was another assembly and she would get to see Captain Edward Marsh. The thought of the handsome English officer caused her to smile.
For the first time, someone was interested in her more than her twin.
Sera loved Minta more than anyone on this earth. Her sister, however, was far more outgoing than Sera. Because of that, even though they favored one another, people always noticed Minta first and were drawn to her vivacity. Sera sometimes felt she observed life from the shadow of her twin, who had been born seven minutes before Sera had made her arrival in the world.
Captain Marsh had proven different from everyone in that he had greeted Minta that first time and then immediately turned his attentions to Sera. She had a hard time with people she did not know and found it difficult to open up to strangers. Sometimes, in a large group, she found her throat paralyzed, nothing coming out. Minta always looked after her on these occasions, fiercely protective of her barely younger sister.
Captain Marsh seemed to see something in Sera that she didn’t even see in herself. She had discovered he also was shy with others and that they had a love of animals and nature. He hailed from the north of England and had been in His Majesty’s army for seven years. England had been at war with Bonaparte since Sera was a young girl and now war had also come to North America, thanks to the Americans hoping to capitalize on England’s attention being on the Little Corporal in Europe. She dreaded the day when Captain Marsh would have to leave Ontario.
Minta burst into the room, a whirlwind as usual, and smiled brightly. “Oh, good. You chose the yellow. I think it is prettier on you. Let me fasten you up and then you can help me to dress.”
Sera helped her twin don a blue gown, which brought out the blue in Minta’s eyes. They shared a wardrobe since both were the identical size, curvy and a few inches over five feet. Where Sera had auburn hair, Minta’s was more copper in color. They also served as one another’s lady’s maid since they only had a handful of servants. Their father, Sir Radford Nicholls, had been appointed by the British government as the chief assistant to the Administrator of Upper Canada. Though the position was prestigious, a government salary did not stretch far and she and Minta had decorated their home in Ontario on a tight budget. They did have a cook and one maid, as well as a washerwoman who came in twice a week to do their household’s laundry, but Sera and Minta handled many of the household responsibilities in place of their mother.
As she buttoned Minta’s gown, Sera swallowed her sadness. She missed Mama terribly. When her father had been named to this new post in Canada, he had taken his girls with him, leaving his wife behind in England. Their maternal grandfather was quite ill and the doctor had said he only had a couple of weeks to live. Papa had urged Mama to stay with him in his final days and then she could sail to Ontario after the funeral.
That had not occurred, thanks to the Americans declaring war upon England. All passenger traffic between England and Canada had stopped, with only warships sailing the Atlantic recently. Mama was stuck in London and separated from her family though a letter had gotten through, revealing she was living with her sister, Lady Westlake, and her husband in town.
Sera loved Aunt Phyllis and Uncle West, who had never been blessed with children. They spent a majority of their year in London and so Sera and Minta had seen the pair frequently since they, too, lived in town year-round with Papa’s post in the government. It comforted her some, knowing Mama was with them, but it did nothing to fill the emptiness inside Sera’s heart. Of the twins, she was much closer to Mama than Minta was. Minta and Papa were peas in a pod and cut from the same cloth, both lively and outgoing, drawing others to them. Mama and Sera were much more reserved and understood one another when no one else did, no words necessary. Although Sera knew her twin had missed their mother, it was Sera who suffered more from Mama’s absence in their lives.
She finished dressing Minta and said, “Let me do your hair now.”
Her twin sat at their shared dressing table as Sera brushed the long locks, braiding them and pinning them up. They traded places and Minta styled Sera’s hair, placing it in a low chignon as Sera requested. Captain Marsh had complimented the style on her only last week and she wanted to wear it in the same fashion to please him.
“Are you looking forward to tonight’s assembly?” Minta asked, smiling. “Especially since a certain army captain is to be in attendance?”
Heat filled her cheeks and she nodded. “I hope Captain Marsh will ask me to dance tonight.”
Minta chuckled. “He always asks you to dance, Sera. He is most taken with you.” She wrapped her arms about Sera and hugged her tightly. “I hope he will have the good sense to offer for you.”
Sera had the same hopes. Though she and Minta had been promised a Season in London, courtesy of their uncle and aunt, she had never had the desire to attend all the social affairs. Unlike Minta, who talked about the Season all the time, Sera had dreaded the thought of attending events with dozens—up to hundreds—of people, strangers she did not know. She had no desire to marry a title, which is what most girls making their come-outs wished for. Captain Marsh would do quite nicely.
If he offered marriage, that is.
She thought to how her parents had been a love match. Mama and Aunt Phyllis had made their come-outs together, with Aunt Phyllis wedding an earl at the end of their Season. Mama, on the other hand, had sorely disappointed her parents when she married a man they considered far below her socially. Though they may have lacked in some material possession, Sera saw her parents were deeply in love and that love was the food that fed their family.
“Do you love Captain Marsh?” Minta asked out of the blue.
Startled, Sera struggled to reply. Finally, she said, “I don’t know. I like him. I enjoy being in his company. As for love, I don’t know if it will blossom between us or not before he must go to the front.”
Minta gazed upon her with sympathy. “That will be soon, I’m afraid.”
Tears stung her eyes. “I know. I will merely live in the moment tonight and enjoy what time I can spend with him.”
They went downstairs, where Papa awaited them, complimenting how they both looked. The assembly hall was a mere four blocks away. Linking arms with their father in the center, the three made their way there.
Once they arrived, Sera immediately searched the room, seeing several officers already present. These Canadian assemblies were fairly informal and no dance cards were ever issued to the ladies in attendance. Instead, a gentleman would ask for the upcoming dance.
A thrill shot through her as she saw Captain Marsh making his way toward them. She smiled widely, not bothering to disguise her growing feelings for the handsome young officer.
He reached them and bowed, saying, “Miss Nicholls. Miss Nicholls. It is good to see the both of you this evening.”
His gaze remained upon Sera as two other officers joined them, obviously wishing to speak with Minta. Her sister winked at her and led the men away in order for Sera to have private time with the captain.
“Are you engaged for this first dance, Miss Nicholls?” he asked.
“I am if you ask me,” she replied saucily, which was very out of character for her.
He looked taken aback for a moment and then smiled sunnily. “Then I am doing the asking, Miss Nicholls.”
“And I am accepting, Captain Marsh.”
They danced the first set and then Sera danced the second with a friend of Captain Marsh. No one asked to partner with her during the third set but she found Captain Marsh at her elbow.
“Would you care for some punch, Miss Nicholls? Then perhaps we might stroll outside.”
Her pulse quickened and she said, “That would be agreeable, Captain.”
He led her to the punchbowl and handed her a cup before offering his arm. They took a turn about the room, watching the dancers and sipping their punch. Once she had finished it, he took their cups and set them on a nearby table and walked her through the doors to the outside.
There were gardens behind the assembly hall and several benches scattered about. He led her to one and seated himself close to her, so close that their hips and thighs brushed. Then he slipped his hand around hers and squeezed it gently, causing her heart to skip a beat.
“I have two things to say to you tonight, Miss Nicholls. One is how much I have enjoyed your company since I met you.”
“The feeling is mutual, Captain Marsh. I find that it is easier to talk with you than just about anyone else of my acquaintance.”
He squeezed her fingers again and smiled. Then his smile faded and he said, “We will be shipping out in two days’ time.”
Though Sera had known this day was coming, it was like a punch to her gut. She sat wordlessly, not knowing how to reply.
“I do not wish to ask you to make any type of commitment to me. It would be unfair to you in case you met someone else during my absence. I do want you to know, however, that I hold you in great esteem and when this war with the Americans ends, I would like to come back and be allowed to court you if you are still free.”
Sera knew what he was saying. The possibility he might be killed in battle hung over them and he did not wish for them to be officially linked by a betrothal.
“I will wait for you, Captain Marsh,” she said softly. “I do not need a formal declaration or understanding between us. I will write to you as I hope you will to me when you can and when this war is done, we can see what the future holds for us.”
He continued to hold her hand but his free one cradled her cheek, his thumb stroking it, bringing a delightful chill that ran along her spine. “I care for you, Sera,” he said, using her Christian name for the first time. “I will do my bloody best not to be killed in this conflict and come back to you.”
Then he bent, his lips brushing her softly for the briefest of moments.
When he raised his head, she saw love for her in his eyes. While she cared for him a great deal, she really couldn’t say she was in love with him. It relieved her that he did not bring up the word and they sat for another quarter-hour, holding hands, a comfortable silence between them.
“We should return inside,” he suggested. “I would like the opportunity to dance with you a final time.”
She gazed at him, a lone tear cascading down her cheek. “I would like that very much, Edward.”
They returned to the assembly room and as they danced, Sera tried to emblazon this moment in her memory. The sound of the music. The scent of his shaving soap. The feel of his hand in hers.
When the assembly ended, he bowed formally to her. “Until we meet again, Miss Nicholls.”
Sera watched him walk away, carrying a piece of her heart with him.
Win Cutler, the Duke of Woodmont, looked on as his cousin spoke his wedding vows. Percy had always been not only his cousin but his closest friend. The pair had gone to school together, followed by university, and then as second sons were destined to do, they entered the military together.
He glanced about, seeing his other fellow Second Sons, the small society he had formed with his dearest friends, a group he had been a part of for many years. He looked at Ev, who was now the Duke of Camden. Ev had grown up next door to Owen, now the Earl of Danbury. Their third friend, Spence, was the Earl of Middlefield. When he and Percy had met this trio at Cambridge and the five had bonded together, they had even referred to themselves as the Second Sons of London, since all planned to go into military service after their university days.
They had spent most of their twenties together on the battlefield since England was at war with Bonaparte. Through a unique set of circumstances, however, one by one, the Second Sons sold their commissions and returned from the Continent to take up titles which they had not been raised to assume. Some, like Owen, had claimed a title from a brother he loved dearly. Others, such as Win, took the mantle from a sibling he couldn’t stand and had never been close to.
Win had been the last of the Second Sons to inherit a peerage. His older brother, Terrance, had died in a den of iniquity, lost in a ghastly fire at a gaming hell which also catered to the darker side of men’s desires. The fire and Terrance’s subsequent death had allowed Win to join his fellow Second Sons in England. Since he had been ignored by his father in favor of the heir apparent and knew absolutely nothing of ducal responsibilities, three of the Second Sons had stepped up before the Season began, each one of them coming to Essex and guiding him through what he needed to learn in order to help Woodbridge, his country estate, to thrive. Win also had four other estates scattered about England and would be visiting them over the next year.
He turned his attention back to the ceremony as Percy and Minta spoke their vows to one another. He had worried for a long time about Percy, whom he had shared a tent with at war, and the nightmares which had plagued his cousin. Win hoped by leaving the army that Percy had put all of that behind him. It was exciting to see his shy, retiring cousin with such a huge grin upon his face as he gazed at his lovely, copper-haired bride. The Season was only two weeks old and already here was Percy joining the ranks of the other Second Sons with a wife.
Win knew one of his responsibilities would be to provide an heir for the dukedom. Ev’s wife, Adalyn, had a reputation as a bit of a matchmaker and wanted to help Win in this endeavor. He had skipped this current Season in favor of learning more about his estates and working on them but he had promised Owen’s wife, Louisa, that he would attend a house party she was giving at the end of the Season in late August. Whether he found a bride there or not remained to be seen. Win enjoyed a good romp in bed with a pretty woman but he doubted the cold fish of the ton would enjoy sex as much as he did. He supposed he would have a marriage much like his parents did, one where they barely could stand the sight of one another, but still did their duty and provided an heir and a spare to the dukedom.
His parents were long gone now. Terrance, who had been a good eight years older than his younger brother and pushing forty, hadn’t acquired a wife. It would now fall to Win to see that the dukedom remained intact with an heir.
He studied his fellow Second Sons, all who had made love matches, despite that being rare among Polite Society. Spence held Tessa’s hand in his. Ev had his arm wrapped about Adalyn’s shoulders. Owen whispered something into Louisa’s ear and she bestowed a radiant smile upon him as he took her hand and kissed her fingers. Win was unused to any public display of affection and was pleased for his friends—and Percy—who seemed happy in his choice of a marchioness.
Win decided love had already struck four times among the Second Sons and doubted it could happen a fifth time. He would trust in Adalyn and agree to offer for the woman she chose for him. But he would keep his feelings intact. Marriage, in his opinion, should be conducted as a business, while a mistress would be for his pleasure.
The ceremony concluded and Percy kissed his bride for much longer than was suitable, causing all the Second Sons to chuckle. Percy broke the kiss and looked out sheepishly at those gathered, which included Minta’s aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Westlake.
The clergyman announced the couple by their titles and Adalyn, as hostess, invited everyone to leave the drawing room and move to where the wedding breakfast would be held. Win found himself seated with Owen and Louisa, who caught him up on the particulars of Percy’s and Minta’s romance.
He finished eating and sat back, satisfied to be in the company of his closest friends, men he trusted with his life, both on the battlefield and even now as civilians. The first three wives, who were cousins and affectionately known as the Three Cousins, had taken Minta under their wings. He believed he would grow close to all these wives and, one day, consider them as sisters.
Percy and Minta began circulating in order to speak to their guests. He found himself with Minta.
“I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Your Grace,” she said.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “There will be none of that Your Grace-ing. I know in this close circle that we are as family and so you should call me Win. It is short for Winston, a name I loathe, though Win will do nicely.”
The red-headed beauty gave him a sweet smile. “Then Win it shall be,” she proclaimed.
He asked her a few questions about her background and learned she had a twin who would be arriving sometime in June from Canada.
“Once your sister arrives, please send word to Woodbridge. I would be happy to come to town for a couple of days and meet her. Will she come to Kingwood once you and Percy leave town or will she live with your aunt and uncle until your parents arrive from Ontario?”
“Although Aunt Phyllis and Uncle West have assumed that Sera will stay with them, I am hoping she will make an extended visit to the country. My aunt and uncle choose to remain in London a good portion of the year. Sera loves nature and animals. I believe she would be happier at Kingwood with me.”
He smiled. “It must have been hard to have been separated from her,” he noted.
The new marchioness nodded solemnly. “Yes, we had never spent a night apart from one another but Sera wanted to spend more time with our mother, who had only recently arrived in Canada. She had been stuck in London during the war with the Americans.”
A shadow crossed Minta’s face. “Sera also had a sweetheart, an English army captain, who perished during the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, one of the fiercest of the war. I think she needed a little time to grieve over his death.”
“Were they betrothed?” he asked, sympathy for Minta’s twin filling him.
“No, there was no formal understanding between them but he had made his intentions clear that he wished to court her upon his return. Though Sera is arriving in the middle of the Season, she does not wish to jump into any events. She will, however, attend the house party which Louisa and Owen are giving. I hope that you will also be in attendance, Win. I would like the opportunity to get to know you better as I have the other Second Sons. I have come to look upon the Three Cousins as my sisters and the Second Sons as the brothers I never had.”
“I do plan to be at the house party,” he informed her. “Adalyn said she will be working on my behalf to find me a wife now that Percy is taken care of.”
He smiled. “Who knows? Perhaps your sister and I will be matched together,” and he chuckled.
Percy joined them and Minta excused herself.
“What do you think of my bride?” his cousin asked.
“I think Minta will make an admirable marchioness and that you will be just as much in love as the other Second Sons are.”
Percy winced and Win found that interesting.
“Do you love Minta?” he pressed.
“Unfortunately, I do. But I don’t feel I deserve her.”
Win frowned. “I had the impression that you were a love match as the other Second Sons and their wives are.”
Percy shook his head vehemently. “No words of love have been spoken and none will ever be spoken on my part.”
Win’s eyebrows rose and he said. “So, you intend to have a typical ton marriage?”
His cousin looked uncomfortable but nodded. Win didn’t think it would last long. His cousin already loved his new wife and from what he could tell, Minta returned those feelings. Perhaps she had been wise to keep those words to herself, knowing how withdrawn her new husband could be. Still, Win thought by the next time he saw them, come June when Sera Nicholls arrived in London, that it would be a different story.
He introduced himself to Lord and Lady Westlake and had a pleasant conversation with the pair. Then it was time to wish the happy couple goodbye. He walked out with them and returned inside just as the Westlakes were also taking their leave.
Win had something on his mind and he told Ev he needed to speak to the Second Sons for advice.
Ev grinned. “You think a conversation will go on in which our wives are left out? Think again, old friend.”
Ev’s words startled Win. He was used to women being ornamental, left in the background. His mother had an almost nonexistent role in her two sons’ lives and he’d had no sisters. He had spent his entire adult life in the army, sampling the wares of the traveling whores and, every now and then, coupling with a pretty widow in a village the army passed.
“I am not certain they wish to be included in this conversation, Ev.”
Ev laughed aloud. “Then you don’t know my Addie, much less Tessa or Louisa. They are a part of us, Win. The three of us—and now Percy—have married strong, independent, intelligent women. None of us would ever shut them out from an important conversation.”
Ev’s words were clear and so Win nodded in acquiescence. “Then let us join them and I will tell you about my dilemma.”
They went to the drawing room and Ev told the others that Win had something he wished to share with them.
“I am seeking your advice on whether to pursue a matter and if I do choose to do so, how to go about it.”
He glanced about the circle. “I assume everyone present knows how my brother died. Violently, in a fire.” He watched them nod and continued. “Terrance was a horrible man and I have heard rumors that Terrance has a few bastards which he did nothing for. I think the right thing to do is to find them and provide for them,” he stated.
“I think that is admirable, Win,” Tessa said. “You are displaying honor and concern, which speaks highly of your character. You will bring luster back to the Woodmont name.”
“I agree,” Louisa added. “Who knows where these poor children are living and how they are being provided for, if at all. You taking responsible for your brother’s issue is admirable.”
“I suggest that you hire a Bow Street Runner,” Adalyn said. “They have connections everywhere and have a good success rate in matters such as these.”
He found it interesting that all comments and advice were coming from the women and not his friends. He glanced about and saw the three men nodding their approval.
“I am not familiar with what a Bow Street Runner does, I’m afraid. I thought they were some type of police force here in town. Would you explain it to me and tell me how I might go about hiring one?”
“It is true in the past that Bow Street and their magistrates worked more to round up criminals,” Owen said. “They still have a Day Patrol, which does not wear a uniform. These men walk the streets in various jurisdictions and the Foot Patrol takes over for them during the evenings until midnight. These men who walk the streets make certain connections with those citizens as they are out and about.”
“There is also a Horse Patrol,” Ev noted. “Although they might not be as helpful in this instance.”
“Where Bow Street used to focus on crime, they now investigate other matters,” Spence said. “From national security to social disorder.”
“Yet they still take on cases for members of the ton,” Adalyn emphasized. “Finding the by-blows the previous Woodmont sired would be something they would be likely to investigate. Their offices are on Bow Street, Win. You should speak to the chief magistrate and see if he believes this is an issue the runners might pursue.”
He nodded slowly. “Yes, I believe a private investigator is what is called for in these circumstances. I have spoken to several of the servants, both here and at Woodbridge. From the little they know, it seems they believe there are two children out there with Terrance’s blood running through their veins. I think it is the right thing to find them and see to their needs. Their mothers, as well.”
“The runners will use the information you have and take to the streets. They have sources in every walk of life and at every level of society,” Owen confirmed. “They most likely will look into foundling homes since the children might have been placed there.” He paused. “There is the possibility that they did not survive their births, though. Life is harsh for unmarried women.”
Determination filled him. “I think I will go to Bow Street now and talk to this chief magistrate.” He stood. “Thank you for listening to my quandary. Your advice will help me take the next step in finding these children.”
“If you do find them, Win, remember they are not merely children. They are your nephews and nieces,” Louisa reminded.
He hadn’t given the matter that much thought beyond wanting to right whatever wrongs Terrance had perpetrated and seeing that his bastards had roofs over their heads and clothes on their backs, as well as food on their tables.
“Do you think I should bring them to Woodbridge?” he asked, shocked by the idea.
Tessa, who sat nearby, placed a hand on Win’s sleeve. “You will know the best thing to do when the time comes.” She squeezed his arm reassuringly.
Win hoped she was right.
Excitement rippled through Sera as the ship moved closer to the dock. She scanned the crowd below and found Minta. They began waving wildly at one another. Her twin then turned to two men standing behind her, gesturing and pointing.
Who could they be?
She supposed they might be suitors of Minta’s, gentlemen her sister had met during this current Season, and wondered if Minta had brought them to the docks so that Sera might meet them and pass judgment. She glanced at the one on the left. He was tall, with dark blond hair and an athletic frame and quite pleasing to the eye. The other was slightly taller, his shoulders broad and his frame more muscular.
He was also devastatingly handsome.
She swallowed, her gaze connecting with his for a moment even from a distance. He nodded to her and she did the same. She supposed this was the one Minta would prefer because of his looks and size. Sera would be intimidated by a man so large.
She glanced back to the other one and then noticed her aunt and uncle now stood next to him. Her smile widened and she waved again. Aunt Phyllis began blowing her kisses and Uncle West beamed at her. Oh, how she had missed the two of them!
It took several minutes for the ship to dock. During that time, Sera made her way to the gangplank. She wanted to be the first off the ship.
Finally, a crew member removed the barrier and nodded at her. She went flying down the gangplank and saw Minta charging up it. The twins met halfway and fell into one another’s arms, laughing and crying at the same time.
“I have missed you so much,” Minta said, pulling back and looking Sera in the eyes. “We can never be separated like this again.” Her twin embraced her once more, hugging her tightly.
“Can we get by?” a voice called.
Turning, Sera saw they were blocking the way of other passengers who wished to disembark. Slipping her arm through Minta’s, they moved quickly down the rest of the gangplank and moved toward their aunt and uncle.
“You look beautiful,” Sera told her sister as they walked. “You are glowing.”
Minta paused and faced her. “It is because I am in love,” she declared.
Sera wondered if that were the case, why had Minta brought two suitors to meet her? Then she swallowed, worried that her twin meant one of the gentlemen for her. Panic filled her. She wasn’t ready to meet strangers, much less be paired off with a gentleman.
“I feel the tension pouring through you,” her twin observed and stopped their movement. “What’s wrong? Are you upset that I have found my soulmate?”
“Of course not,” she protested weakly.
Being separated from Minta had been bad enough—but marriage would separate them for good. Minta would wed and her new husband would want his wife all to himself, not wanting a sister to be hanging about.
“You will adore Percy,” Minta said. “I do believe he is at least as shy as—if not more so—than you.”
Minta nodded. “It is one of the things that drew me to him, oddly enough. You know how outgoing I am. Yet Percy called out to me in a way I cannot explain.” She paused. “We are already wed, Sera. I am now the Marchioness of Kingston.”
Shock rippled through her. “You . . . are already wed? But . . . the Season has yet to end.”
It worried her that Minta had wed so quickly. Her twin had a tendency to be impulsive. Oh, why hadn’t she waited to hear what Sera thought of this marquess?
But Minta had said she was in love. Her headstrong sister’s emotions ran strong. If Minta truly loved this man, then nothing would have stopped her.
“He deliberately compromised me at a garden party,” Minta revealed, mischief lighting her eyes.
“He . . . ruined you? And yet you love him?” Confusion filled Sera. “But you said he was reserved. This makes no sense at all, Minta.”
Her sister hugged her. “Oh, I have so much to tell you, Sera. Just know that Percy loved me and wanted me so much that he acted totally out of character. He was afraid some other gentleman would dazzle me. And then there was that wicked Lady Vickers who tried to tarnish my name and blackmail Percy.”
Minta laughed. “You’ll hear it all. I am sorry I am speaking in riddles. Come meet Percy. He’s here with Aunt Phyllis and Uncle West. Percy’s cousin, the Duke of Woodmont, also came to welcome you back to England.”
So, it was a duke who was the other man beside Minta’s handsome new husband. Well, Sera wasn’t in any mood to meet new people. All she wanted was to be with her family. Besides, a duke would be intimidating. That was the last person Sera wished to be around. Of course, he was the marquess’ cousin and had been gracious enough to be a party to those greeting her. She would do her best to look him in the eyes and be polite. Then she hoped he would be gone.
Minta took her arm again and they started toward those who had come to meet her ship. When they reached her aunt and uncle, Sera broke away and fell into Aunt Phyllis’ arms.
“Oh, my dear,” her aunt cooed. “My wonderful Sera. How you have been missed.”
Tears sprang to her eyes as she hugged Aunt Phyllis. Her aunt and uncle were childless and had been like a second set of parents to Minta and her. In fact, it was Uncle West who had paid for Minta’s new wardrobe for this Season and he was to do the same next spring for Sera when she made her come-out into Polite Society.
“I love you,” she told her aunt.
“Come here,” Uncle West said gruffly, pulling her into a bear hug. “That’s my girl.”
She felt as if she had come home, being with her twin and these family members. Not that she wouldn’t miss her parents, but Sera knew they would be traveling back to England next spring. It had been several years since she had seen Aunt Phyllis and Uncle West. She supposed she would live with them since Minta was now a married woman.
Her sister pulled on her arm. “Let her go, Uncle West. I must introduce her to Percy.”
Her uncle relaxed his hold on her and kissed her cheek. “It is good to have you in our fold again, Sera.”
“I feel the same,” she said, misty-eyed.
Turning, she faced the two gentlemen and swallowed hard, trying not to be bashful. After all, one was her brother-in-law and she would be seeing him frequently in the decades to come. The other was his cousin and that gentleman might come to feel like family in the future.
Much to her surprise, Minta slipped her arm through the arm of the man Sera had assumed to be the cousin.
“Sera, this is Percy, the Marquess of Kingston,” her sister said, pride in her voice and her obvious love for the marquess evident on her face. “Percy, this is my better half.” She chuckled. “At least the better behaved half of the Nicholls’ girls.”
The marquess gave her a shy smile and they looked at one another for a moment. In that brief space of time, Sera believed she had found a kindred spirit.
She curtseyed. “It is lovely to meet you, Lord Kingston. Minta would not easily have been swayed into marriage so I know that you are someone who is very special.”
He grinned unabashedly. “The sun rises and sets on Minta as far as I am concerned. Fortunately, she took a liking to me.” He glanced down at his wife. “And I love her with all my heart.”
The marquess then lightly kissed Minta, shocking Sera. People simply didn’t go about kissing one another in public, especially members of the ton.
Her twin laughed and, in that laughter, Sera saw how happy her sister was. To think a shy marquess had won Minta over spoke a great deal on Lord Kingston’s behalf.
“You must call me Percy,” he told her. “I insist. I wasn’t supposed to be a marquess. My brother, Rupert, held the title. Unfortunately, I lost him far too soon.” He looked wistful. “I will admit I am still getting used to being a peer of the realm. But I know how close you and Minta are and I refuse to stand upon any formality. You are my sister. I am your brother.”
Turning, the marquess indicated the duke. “And this is my dearest friend in the world and also my cousin, the Duke of Woodmont.”
Sera forced her eyes up in order to meet the duke’s. She swallowed hard. This man was like a god come to life, more handsome than any she had ever seen. His size dwarfed her and she thought he must be almost a foot taller than she was. His dark brown hair had highlights of gold in it and warm, brown eyes gazed at her intently.
Quickly dropping her gaze to her feet, she curtseyed again. “Your Grace,” she managed to squeak out.
Suddenly, he captured her hand in his and started away with it. She glanced up and saw he raised it to his sensual lips. Heat filled her cheeks as he kissed it.
And kept holding it.
Sera looked down. Then back up. Then down again, her heart racing violently.
“It is a great pleasure to meet you, Miss Nicholls,” he said, his voice as deep and smooth as velvet.
She forced herself to meet his gaze. And couldn’t think of a thing to say.
The duke released her hand. “Your sister will find complete happiness now that you have returned to England.”
She bit her lip, her throat constricted. She hated this about herself. Although this man was a stranger, he seemed kind. Why couldn’t she ever relax around others?
Minta, sensing Sera’s distress, came and slipped her arm through Sera’s. “We need to go home and have tea. Can a footman see to Sera’s luggage?”
“I already sent two on that errand, my love,” Percy said.
Sera could sense her sister soften at the endearment, which was so unlike her. Minta had always been practical. Even though their parents were still in love after many years of marriage, Minta had shared with Sera that she wasn’t interested in seeking love for herself. That she only wanted a man of good character who would provide well for her and give her children.
Things had certainly changed in the time the twins had been apart.
“Then we should return to the carriage,” Minta declared, taking charge of the situation as Sera was used to seeing occur. “Are you coming to tea with us?” she asked her aunt.
“I am afraid we can’t,” Aunt Phyllis said. “We committed to an event this afternoon. In fact, we should head to it now, else we will be late.”
“Then dinner?” Sera suggested.
“Yes, we can do that,” Uncle West said.
She said goodbye to her aunt and uncle and they parted. Minta pulled Sera along, chattering away. They arrived at a carriage so grand, she stopped in her tracks.
“This is yours?” she asked.
“I didn’t plan on wedding a marquess.” Her sister grinned. “But it does have its advantages.”
A footman placed stairs down and Percy immediately stepped up, taking his wife’s hand and helping her into the carriage. He did the same for Sera.
Inside, Minta said, “Sit there. I know how you dislike riding backward.”
She sat, her heart beginning to thump wildly again. If Minta sat across from her, that meant Percy would sit next to his wife.
And that would leave her sitting beside the Duke of Woodmont.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...