Duke of Charm (Dukes of Distinction Book 2)
Lady Samantha Wallace has been in love since childhood with her brother's best friend, the Duke of Colebourne, but George only sees her as a little sister. She weds a viscount who is George's opposite, only to find herself trapped in a miserable marriage. When she becomes a widow, she is held against her will and finally escapes, vowing to live life her own way and never be controlled again.
George is jilted at the altar and becomes one of London's most scandalous rakes, bedding women left and right. After years of being the Duke of Charm, though, George is tired of his meaningless existence and decides he is ready for a change—which includes finding Sam, who is now a widow, and asking her to be his duchess.
Fate brings George and Samantha together at a house party, where their desire for one another ignites in a torrid encounter. Yet Samantha refuses to wed George. Determined to learn Sam's secrets and make her his, George will do whatever it takes to fight for the woman he's always loved in secret.
Will Samantha be able to escape the past that still haunts her and find happiness with the Duke of Charm?
Find the answer in The Duke of Charm, Book 2 in the Dukes of Distinction.
Each book in Dukes of Distinction is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order and can be read for free in Kindle Unlimited.
Dukes of Distinction
Duke of Renown
Duke of Charm
Duke of Disrepute
Duke of Arrogance
Duke of Honor
Release date: March 11, 2021
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 220
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Duke of Charm (Dukes of Distinction Book 2)
If George didn’t notice her in this dress, then she would never win his heart.
Lady Samantha Wallace stepped back and gazed into the mirror. Her raven hair was piled high atop her head, adding some to her average height. Her aquamarine eyes sparkled. She’d rubbed a tiny bit of rouge onto her lips, giving them a trace of color. Smoothing the skirts of her blush-colored gown, she looked critically at the neckline. It exposed more of her bosom than usual but she needed something to attract George’s attention.
She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been in love with George, the Duke of Colebourne. He’d been her brother’s best friend from the cradle, just as their fathers had been best friends all their lives. George was a constant visitor at Treadwell Manor, just as Weston spent many hours at Colebourne Hall. Samantha had toddled after the pair as soon as she could walk and continued to follow them all their years growing up.
It was George who had taught her to ride. To shoot. To skim rocks across a pond. Anytime Weston complained about his sister wanting to be with them, George would stick up for her. He teased her unmercifully and declared her a pest but he was never cruel to her, only kind.
George had ignored her during her come-out, only dancing with her a handful of times that Season while he flirted outrageously with every other debutante. Then tragedy struck. Both the Duke of Colebourne, George’s father, and their own father, the Duke of Treadwell, had passed away from a fever going around, making George and Weston the new dukes. It had occurred just before last Season started, so Samantha had gone into mourning. It hadn’t mattered. She’d spent all of this Season hoping George would notice she’d grown up.
While she missed her second Season, both her brother and George returned to their country estates, learning as much as they could about running their various properties. The two men had met frequently and exchanged numerous letters, asking each other’s opinions and advice on a plethora of matters that befell becoming a duke. It touched Samantha that George had taken time and written to her twice, asking how she fared after her father’s death. Her life hadn’t changed much. She’d served as a hostess for her father and ran Treadwell Manor since her mother had died many years ago and her father had never remarried. She continued in her duties regarding the household, waiting to return to London—and have the man she adored finally see her in a new light.
Her hope had been to gain George’s notice this Season but it was already halfway over and she seemed no closer than before to having him realize she was an eligible, attractive young woman, one perfectly suited to be his wife. She knew he and Weston were thinking of marriage because she had accidentally overheard them discussing it two nights ago—thus, the dress that showed off more of her ample bosom than usual. She hoped George would ask her to dance tonight and see that the gangly tomboy she’d been had finally turned into a woman.
Samantha collected her reticule and went downstairs. Weston awaited her, handsome in his dark evening clothes.
“There you are. The carriage is waiting. I don’t want to be late to George’s ball.” He took her arm. “My, don’t you look pretty tonight, Sam?”
He handed her into the carriage and climbed in after her. “You’ll certainly attract your fair share of eligible bachelors this evening.” He sighed. “It just means the house will be overrun tomorrow with men calling and bouquets being delivered. I won’t have a moment’s peace.”
“You really like it?” Samantha asked. “It’s not . . . too much?”
“I do like it,” he assured her. “Maybe you’ll land a fiancé tonight.” Weston studied her a moment. “Has anyone special attracted your attention yet?”
“Yes, someone has.”
“And?” Her brother’s eyes twinkled. “What is the name of the man I’ll be negotiating marriage settlements with?”
“I don’t think I’m ready to share that with you yet,” she said mysteriously, wondering how Weston would react if she and George did become engaged.
“Well, I have something to share with you. George and I have been talking it over. We know we’re young, only twenty-three, but being dukes now makes us feel the need to become more responsible. We’ve both decided to take brides so we can start a family.”
Samantha’s stomach tightened. “Oh?”
She wanted to ask what woman George was considering but knew it would be better to ask about her own brother first.
“Might I ask the name of the woman you’re interested in wedding? You’ve danced with every eligible girl this Season.”
“I know. I’ve made up my mind, though. I find myself hopelessly intrigued by Lady Juniper Radwell.”
Her brother couldn’t have made a worse choice. Juniper Radwell was Samantha’s age. She was beautiful beyond measure and turned down every man who proposed, which only made them flock to her more. She was the kind of female who was all smiles when a man was around. When one wasn’t, she became vindictive and hateful. Samantha wanted to tell Weston he was thinking with his cock instead of his head—or heart—but she didn’t think her words would be well received.
“Lady Juniper is very pretty,” she admitted cautiously.
“Pretty?” Weston scoffed. “She’s downright beautiful. I was taken with her looks from the start. She was the measuring stick I’ve used as I’ve gotten to know other women on the Marriage Mart. Lady Juniper outshines them all in every way.” He took her hand. “I hope that you two will become fast friends. Even as close as sisters.”
The last thing that either Samantha or Juniper Radwell would want is to have to pretend to like one another. It would be as if two cats had been tossed into a bag. She thought her brother would be miserable with his choice once a little time had passed but she was going to keep her mouth closed. Wallaces were notoriously stubborn. If she said she disliked Lady Juniper intensely, it would only draw her brother closer to the girl.
“Remember, I won’t be living at home forever,” she reminded him. “I also would like to wed and move to my own household and have children. Just be sure that Lady Juniper will make you happy, Weston. You deserve that.”
“She will,” he said with determination. “I’ll admit it. I’m smitten with her. Of course, I haven’t spoken to her of my intentions but she’ll have to say yes when I offer for her.” He grinned. “After all, I am a duke. I’m considered quite the catch.”
“What about George?” she inquired blandly.
“What about him?
“You said you both were considering taking a wife. Who will George saddle himself with?”
Weston shrugged. “He hasn’t said. He did tell me he was making up his mind and would announce his decision at the ball he’s hosting tonight.”
Butterflies exploded within Samantha. What if he was thinking about her? He knew her better than any woman in society. They got on so well. Oh, please, please, please, let her be George’s choice.
They arrived and went through the receiving line. George was his usual charming self and complimented her on her dress. It gave her a small bit of hope. She joined some of her friends as they waited for the programmes du bal to be given out so that gentlemen could start vying for dances. As they spoke, it surprised her when Lady Juniper joined them.
“How are you this evening, Lady Samantha?” the newcomer asked.
“I’m quite well, thank you. And you?” she asked politely, eyeing this woman with more interest, knowing her brother would be offering for her soon.
They chatted about the weather and a new milliner on Bond Street as a footman distributed the dance cards. The group started tittering. Samantha glanced up and saw Weston and George heading their way. Weston immediately went to Lady Juniper and led her away, while George spoke to the rest of the women. Finally, he made his way to her.
“Your ballroom looks delightful, George. The decorations are divine.”
“Thank you. Andrew’s aunt Helen helped in that regard since I have no females to guide me in domestic matters. I wanted everything right for the first event I hosted as the Duke of Colebourne.”
“Your mama and papa would be proud. Not just of how the ballroom looks but the man you have become,” Samantha said.
“Why, thank you, Pest.”
“Don’t call me that,” she said, frowning.
“Why not? I have for years. Pest. Poppet. I have several nicknames for you.”
“Please, George,” she said forcefully. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m not a child anymore.”
He looked at her thoughtfully. “No. You’re not.” After a moment, he asked, “Would you care to open the ball tonight with me, Sam?”
Her anger vanished. Giddiness swept through her. “Yes. I’d enjoy that.”
He signed her card and told her he’d be back to claim her shortly. She glowed as others made their way to her and claimed spots on her programme. It didn’t matter who else she danced with. George wanted her to help open his ball. Every eye would be on them. Perhaps he had noticed she’d matured.
Oh, she wanted to be his wife more than anything.
He returned and offered his arm, leading her to the center of the ballroom. She was so proud to be the first to dance with him. He looked splendid in his black evening wear, his tawny mane of hair making him look like the king of the jungle. With a nod to the musicians, they began playing.
Samantha noticed him glancing at her bosom and felt a blush tinge her cheeks. She decided to help nudge the conversation along.
“Weston tells me that you and he have decided it’s time to become responsible members of Polite Society and marry.”
“Yes, we have. Though we’re young, family means a great deal to the two of us. I always hated that I was an only child.” He smiled fondly. “At least I had you and Weston as my pretend brother and sister.”
No. She did not want him thinking of her in that light. Not at all.
“Well, we aren’t truly related.”
“No, but you will always hold a special place in my heart, Pest. Sorry. Sam.”
His words created doubt in her mind. Would he be calling the woman he was about to ask to marry him Pest?
She pressed him, dreading what he would say. “Weston tells me he’s going to offer for Lady Juniper Radwell. Have you made your selection?”
“Yes, but you must keep it a secret. You’re the only one I would tell.” He paused. “Lady Frederica Martin.”
Samantha felt as if he’d punched her in the gut as something more than disappointment filled her. She’d made her come-out with Lady Frederica. Her father had passed away close to the time of Samantha’s own, causing Frederica to also miss last Season. This year, she’d taken the ton by storm and had caught the eye of every bachelor in London. The year away from Polite Society had brought a maturity to her but Samantha hated the fact that the woman was a vicious gossip. She also was close friends with Juniper Radwell.
“She is very pretty but have you really spoken with her, George? She doesn’t have much conversation.” Unless she’s tearing down other women.
He looked puzzled. “Why would I want to converse with her? That’s what friends such as you and Weston are for. I’m looking for a wife, for goodness’ sake, not a companion, Sam.”
Now, she was confused. “But . . . don’t you think your wife will be your companion?”
George shook his head. “Not really. I am looking for a woman of good breeding and family. A beautiful one, for certain. But I expect her to lead her own life. Yes, she’ll bear my children and be my hostess, but I doubt I’ll have much to do with her beyond that.”
His words angered her. “Well, I’m glad you’re not considering me for your wife then. When I wed, I want to be friends with my husband. I want us to confide in one another. Share our dreams and make them a reality. I want us to have children and raise them together in a loving environment. I want a man who will laugh with me. Challenge me.” Samantha shook her head. “You are not who I thought you were, George.”
Worry creased his brow. “But . . . you’ll still be my friend, won’t you, Sam? I look upon you as my sister. We’ve always been so close.”
The music ended and she said sadly, “I am not your sister, George. I never was.”
He escorted her back to her friends without a word and bowed. “Lady Samantha,” he said brusquely.
As she watched him walk away, hurt filled her heart. She had idolized George from the first time she’d seen him yet he’d only seen her in the role of a younger sister. It didn’t matter what she did. She could have paraded naked in front of him and he would never realize she had grown up. The fact he wanted to keep his wife at a distance shouldn’t surprise her. His parents had a loveless marriage and his mother had died when George was only ten. He hadn’t had a good example of how marriage could be a fulfilling partnership.
The ache continued filling her as the evening wore on. She danced with numerous men and noticed as George was busy every dance. Even though he had disappointed her, she didn’t want him to have the power to hurt her any longer. Samantha had waited her entire life for George Moore and she wasn’t about to waste the rest of it pining away for him. She’d had a bevy of suitors all Season long and was actually fond of several of them. Two viscounts. An earl. A marquess. Surely, one of them would make for a decent husband. She hadn’t really given any of them a fair chance because she’d been so wrapped up in a man who was blind to who she truly was.
In that moment, she decided she would wed one of them. The man who lived the greatest distance away from Colebourne Hall. If she never saw the Duke of Colebourne again, it would be a good thing. She would encourage one of the gentlemen who interested her and treated her with kindness. She would build a new life away from George. The one thing which ruled her life was optimism. She would drink fully from its cup now and move on. She had to. It was that or be miserable the rest of her life. At twenty, she was not willing to accept such a terrible existence. It was time to move on and discover her full potential.
Samantha looked at her current partner, Viscount Haskett, the future Earl of Rockaway. She’d danced with him several times this Season. He’d called upon her four times and taken her driving in Hyde Park once and riding in Rotten Row twice. He was quite handsome if a little bland. A bit bookish and with a tendency to be shy. He had a good heart, though.
Most importantly, he lived in Durham, which was almost to Scotland.
When the song ended, George invited everyone into supper and Haskett escorted her there. They joined friends of his at a table opposite one where George sat with Lady Frederica, Weston, and Lady Juniper. Samantha deliberately kept her focus on the viscount and made an effort to draw him out. She found him a bit boring but very nice. With a little work and encouragement, she thought he would make for a good husband.
Suddenly, George called for the group’s attention and the room fell silent, anticipating his announcement. They weren’t disappointed, minus Samantha.
“I have wonderful news to share with my guests this evening,” George said, his rich voice carrying throughout the room. “I am honored that Lady Frederica Martin had agreed to become my duchess.”
Applause broke out across the room. She politely clapped, her heart breaking, but she smiled bravely as the entire room toasted to their health and engagement.
“And my closest friend, the Duke of Treadwell, also would like to share something.” George nodded to Weston, who rose.
“Colebourne and I have done everything together since we were boys who toddled about. I couldn’t let him get married without doing the same.” Weston smiled down at the woman on his left. “I am proud to announce that Lady Juniper Radwell has agreed to become the Duchess of Treadwell.”
More enthusiastic applause broke out. Samantha forced herself to maintain the smile on her face, knowing others would be looking at her for her reaction. Weston blew her a kiss and she pretend to catch it.
“Did you know this was coming?” Haskett asked.
“Yes. Weston and I discussed it in the carriage tonight and Colebourne and I talked over his decision while we danced tonight.”
Haskett looked at her wistfully. “I saw you dancing with His Grace earlier. I thought . . . that is, I believed . . .” His voice trailed off in embarrassment as his face reddened.
Boldly, Samantha placed a hand over his. “Colebourne is like a brother to me, my lord. I’ve known him all my life. In fact, he rarely calls me by my name. I usually hear him refer to me as Pest.”
The viscount looked aghast.
“Oh, don’t worry. It’s said with affection. His Grace has teased me as much as my own brother for all my twenty years.”
“So . . . you are not . . . what I mean is . . .”
“I am very happy for Colebourne and Lady Frederica,” she said, the last of her heart tearing in two. She pushed it aside, ready to move on.
Haskett looked hopeful. “Then you wouldn’t mind if I called upon you tomorrow?”
Samantha was at a crossroads. She could crawl under a rock and lick her wounds and refuse to come out—or she could forge ahead and make a life—with this good man. He happened to think quite a bit of her. The viscount was kind and would treat her well. And it helped that he did live far, far from the Duke of Colebourne.
She smiled at him. It was genuine. She might not love him but she doubted she would ever love anyone other than George. She could, however, build a life with him. Respect him. Learn to care for him.
“I was hoping you would say that, Lord Haskett. I look favorably upon your calls.”
“You do?” he asked, his eyes widening.
“I do. I enjoy your company.” Deciding to speed things along, she added, “I hoped when you said you’d like to call tomorrow that you meant you would be speaking with my brother.”
Understanding dawned in Haskett’s eyes. “You would look kindly upon my suit, Lady Samantha?”
“I would,” she assured him.
His smile spread across his face, lighting his blue eyes, making him even more handsome. He placed a hand atop hers, the one that already rested on his.
“You have made me very happy, my lady.”
She decided to tease him a bit. “Why, Lord Haskett?”
“Because you’ve agreed . . . oh, blast, I haven’t asked you, have I?”
Samantha smiled. “No, you haven’t.”
“Then let’s do this properly.” He rose and placed her hand into the crook of his arm and led her through a set of French doors and out onto the balcony. It was close to midnight now and the June evening had turned cool.
Haskett took her hands in his. “Lady Samantha, I think you are the most beautiful woman in the world. You’re intelligent and friendly and kind to everyone you meet. I have formed a great affection for you. Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Samantha hoped she wasn’t making a mistake as she replied, “I’d be happy to wed you, Haskett.”
St. George’s Chapel, London—September 1808
“Where the bloody hell is he?” roared the Duke of Colebourne as he paced restlessly in the small vestibule just off the chapel.
His friend, the Duke of Blackmore, shrugged. “You know Weston. He’s always marched to his own time. He’ll be here. Soon, I hope.”
Doubt flooded George, despite Jon’s reassurance that Weston would show up. Where was his friend? They’d done everything together their entire lives, including their decision to wed together in a double ceremony this morning. The entire ton awaited them in the chapel.
Could West have changed his mind? No. It wasn’t possible. He’d told George how utterly in love he was with Lady Juniper Radwell. They could barely keep their hands off one another in public—and George was certain in private they did as they pleased.
It was different with him and his fiancée. Lady Frederica Martin had only allowed him to kiss her twice, once before he proposed and once when he offered for her almost three months ago. Both kisses had been blissful, causing George to anticipate their couplings in the near future. Frederica was a beautiful young woman, a bit shy, but one who would make for a wonderful duchess. He’d followed his father’s advice regarding seeking his duchess. The duke had told his son to always keep affairs of the heart separate from having a wife. George was to choose a woman of good family, one whose dowry would add to the family coffers, as well as add prestige to the Colebourne name. Frederica did both, bringing a princely sum of a dowry. Her father, Lord Mowbray, was the fifteenth earl of that name and had an impeccable reputation in Polite Society.
Still, he couldn’t help but remember Samantha cautioning him when he revealed to her his choice of wife. West’s sister was like a sister to George, as well. Her vehemence regarding the way he looked upon life with his future spouse had surprised him. The Pest had talked of sharing dreams and laughter with her husband, something he couldn’t imagine his own parents—or many of society’s couples—doing. Yet her passionate speech to him had given him pause over the last few months. What if Sam was right? Should he try to make friends with Frederica? She seemed as much of an enigma to him now as when he began pursuing her, a beautiful, unopened package that would forever remain a mystery.
He hoped at least Sam was happy in her own marriage. She’d wed the Viscount of Haskett two weeks ago and had delayed returning to his estate up north so she could attend the nuptials of her brother and George today.
Again, where was his closest friend?
The door opened and Reverend Chatterley entered the small room, concern on his face.
“Are we ready to start, Your Grace?” the clergyman asked.
“No. Do you see the Duke of Treadwell here?” he asked angrily. “We will start when he arrives.”
“Are you certain His Grace is coming?” Chatterley asked meekly.
“Go,” commanded George and the good reverend fled the room.
He regretted his rude behavior to the man but didn’t wish to run after the clergyman and apologize. Not in his current state, which now had him alarmed and discombobulated.
Jon regarded him warily. He was to stand up with George and Weston at today’s ceremony. George only wished their other good friends, Andrew and Sebastian, could be here. Both men had purchased commissions when the five of them graduated from Cambridge and they now fought against Bonaparte on the Continent. It almost seemed wrong, marrying with his friends missing out on the ceremony.
The door opened again. This time, it was the Duke of Treadwell, though West looked more bedraggled than George had ever seen him. He wore the same clothes as he had last night when they’d parted outside Viscount Kingsbury’s home. The viscount, Lady Juniper’s brother, had hosted a dinner for the two bachelors, along with several of their friends. They stayed up late, drinking and swapping tales of their younger days.
West looked as if he’d continue drinking the rest of the night. His hair was askew. His eyes bloodshot. His beard thick. He also smelled like a distillery. Besides the rumpled clothes, West wore a look of hopelessness, as if he were haunted by some great tragedy that he could never heal from.
“Good God, West! What happened to you?” George asked.
Since he looked on the verge of collapse, Jon took their friend’s arm and guided him to a chair. West fell into it. He slumped, his hand going to his stubbled jaw, rubbing it, a sure sign of his distress. George took the seat next to him.
“Tell us,” he urged softly.
“I can’t,” West ground out. “It’s . . . so awful.” He looked at George, pain filling his eyes, misery on his face. “I won’t ruin your wedding day, George. You need to go out there and make your vows to your bride. I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I cannot stay. Not with the whole of Polite Society out there.”
“I can make a brief announcement,” Jon volunteered.
West nodded wearily, stroking his jaw again. “Yes. That will do. Just say . . . say there will be only one wedding today. News of my broken engagement will get out soon enough.”
George lay his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Is there anything I can do?”
“No. You’ve been my best friend all my life. Keep being my friend is all that I ask, despite whatever you hear.”
“Will you tell me someday?”
“I’ll have to. Else I might go mad,” West admitted. “For now, go wed Lady Frederica and take her on the honeymoon. Once you return to Colebourne Hall, send word to me. I will be at Treadwell Manor.” He stood and placed his hands on George’s shoulders. “I wish you the best of everything, old friend. A happy marriage. A happy life.”
With that, the Duke of Treadwell left.
Jon looked to him. “Are you all right, George? Do you need a few moments to collect yourself?”
He did—but he’d already kept his bride waiting far too long.
“No, let’s go.”
Reverend Chatterley lingered in the hall. It was obvious he’d seen West come and go and merely fell into step with George and Jon as they entered St. George’s Chapel. A murmur swept through the crowd. He knew they were almost half an hour late starting the ceremony. He and the clergyman went to stand before the altar.
Jon stepped to the center of the aisle and announced to those in attendance, “Please accept our apologies at the delay. Only one wedding will take place today.” He turned and returned to George’s side as the crowd tittered.
George scanned the crowd and found Samantha, sitting with her new husband. Their gazes met, hers confused at not seeing her brother and learning West would not be speaking his vows today. He wished he could go and comfort her but it wouldn’t do to draw further attention. Whatever had caused West to decide not to stand in front of the ton today and wed Lady Juniper would be scandalous enough. At least The Pest was already safely wed. If not, whatever scandal that broke might have affected her chances at making a good match.
The guests calmed down and the organist began playing. The doors at the rear of the chapel opened and he caught sight of his lovely bride. Frederica came down the aisle on her father’s arm, her pale pink dress trimmed in rosettes, flowers artfully wound through her hair. She looked extremely nervous and he regretted making her wait so long. He hadn’t thought to send word to her as he’d waited for West. That fact spoke volumes to him. He would need to be more respectful of his wife in the future. Put her before his friends. Though he would never love her, she should be afforded the courtesy a duchess should receive.
They reached him and her father kissed her cheek and stepped away. George moved to take her hands and found them ice cold, even through her gloves. Her lips trembled. In fact, her whole body did. He’d never seen someone so jumpy and anxious.
“It’s all right,” he whispered, trying to assure her.
Tears welled in her eyes. “No. It’s not.” She looked at Chatterley. “Give us a moment.”
The clergyman looked startled. “I see.” He took several steps back, allowing them some privacy. The entire chapel was silent, ears straining to hear what the bride had to say to her groom.
Facing him, Frederica whispered, “I cannot marry you today, Colebourne.”
“Are you upset that Lady Juniper did not show up?” he asked gently. “I know you are close friends. If you wish to put off the ceremony, we can wed another day. It can be private. A quiet gathering, with just family and a few friends.”
She shook her head. “No. You don’t understand.” She shuddered and his hands tightened about hers.
“I felt I owed it to you to tell you in person.” She bit her lip.
His stomach roiled violently. “Tell me what, my lady?”
“I cannot marry you. Ever.”
Her words stunned him.
“I am in love with Viscount Richmond. He’s waiting for me.” Frederica turned and looked to the back of the chapel.
George did the same and saw the viscount standing at the doors, a look of determination on his face. All the wedding guests in attendance also glanced back when the bride and groom did and now a thousand pairs of eyes returned their gaze to the couple.
His bride faced him again. “I could not marry you in good faith, George. Not when my heart belongs to another. I’ve come to say goodbye. Richmond and I are leaving for Gretna Green now.”
Her words bewildered him. His fiancée was jilting him at the altar, in front of the entire ton. He’d always led a charmed life, everything going his way. Now, he was being publicly humiliated.
He would be a man, though. A gentleman. He bent and kissed Frederica’s cheek.
“I wish you and Richmond much happiness, my lady.”
A single tear cascaded down her cheek. “Oh, thank you,” she said gratefully.
She squeezed his hands and then pulled hers away. With her head held high, Lady Frederica Martin marched back up the aisle. Not as the new Duchess of Colebourne but as a woman who went to the man she loved. The chapel’s guests watched, collectively holding their breath.
Richmond’s smile lit his face when she reached him. Together, they left the church.
All eyes whipped back to George.
“I see there will be no weddings at St. George’s today,” he quipped.
With that, the Duke of Colebourne moved down the same aisle, past all the invited guests, forcing himself to stroll at a steady pace and not run screaming from the building. Jon followed him and the two men reached the outside doors and pushed through them in time to see Richmond hand Lady Frederica into a carriage.
His friend accompanied him to the second waiting carriage, the one that was to have taken him and his new duchess to their wedding breakfast.
“Do you wish to be alone, George?” Jon asked.
He nodded and called out to the astonished driver, “Take me to Colebourne Hall.”
“Send for me if you need me,” Jon said, offering his hand, and the two men shook.
With that, George climbed into the grand carriage bearing the ducal seal and collapsed against the velvet cushions.
Rockwell—Durham County—September 1811
Samantha wondered how a wife could tempt her husband back into her bed.
It had been far too long since Haskett had come to her. She understood from the doctor that time had to pass after her miscarriage before she could resume marital relations. She’d lost the baby five months ago, though. Those months had been lonely ones. Samantha had hoped to receive comfort from her husband of three years.
Comfort didn’t seem to be a word in Haskett’s vocabulary.
She had known the viscount was shy when they’d wed. She’d actually liked that about him. Too many men of the ton were brash and acted entitled. Charles Johnson, Viscount Haskett, had seemed different. He’d been taken with her but very unassuming. He’d expressed surprise when she’d chosen him from all her many suitors.
Her reasons for selecting Haskett as a husband had seemed good at the time. Samantha had wanted to wed George, whom she’d been infatuated with. When she’d finally realized that dream would never come true, she’d turned to a man George’s total opposite. Where George was outgoing and oozed charm, Haskett was introverted and a bit awkward in social situations. George ignored her. Haskett hung on her every word. George had been on his own most of his life and didn’t understand the importance of family, while Haskett vocally valued it.
Haskett would one day be the Earl of Rockaway. His country seat was in the far northeast of England. Other than during the Season, Samantha wouldn’t have to socialize with her brother’s best friend since the Duke of Colebourne’s main country residence was located in Devon, two miles from where she’d grown up at Treadwell Manor. She doubted she would ever return to Devon in her lifetime.
Unfortunately, Haskett had turned out to be a most unsuitable husband. He wasn’t the companion she’d sought. Though they’d had plenty of wonderful conversations in London after they’d become engaged, that changed once they returned to Rockwell. She soon realized her husband was under the thumb of his domineering mother and didn’t speak or act without her permission. The man who’d begun to blossom during his time with Samantha in London had returned to the man his mother wanted, one who was docile and did everything she told him to do. His father, the Earl of Rockaway, was apparently cut from the same cloth, having been wed for thirty years and utterly trained to do his wife’s bidding without question. Lady Rockaway ruled the roost and acted as if she were the earl and not a countess.
Samantha had lost her mother when she was young and had dreamed that her mother-in-law would become like a mother to her. Lady Rockaway had proven to be unmaternal and openly jealous of Samantha. She’d come to the realization they would never have a close relationship—or any relationship at all.
The longer she had been at Rockwell, the more Haskett withdrew. He rarely spent time with her and only infrequently came to her rooms at night. It was almost a shock when she found herself with child because they’d had relations so seldom. She had longed for a child from the moment they’d wed, though. Losing the baby at four months along had been the worst day of her life. Though the doctor assured her she’d done nothing wrong, guilt still filled her.
She’d hoped the tragedy would bring her closer to Haskett. That they’d comfort one another. Instead, he’d retreated so far into himself, he probably had spoken to her no more than a handful of times since the miscarriage. It hurt her beyond measure, losing her baby—and then her husband.
Samantha had no one to turn to during this dark time. She’d quickly discovered not only did she have no support from the family she’d married into, but the servants and locals also looked at her with suspicion, merely because she wasn’t born in the north. She was used to the warm ways of the West Country, where’s she’d grown up. These aloof northerners would never accept her. Only Lucy, the maid she’d brought with her, had been a friendly face.
Once upon a time, she would have confided in Weston. Her brother had always been her closest friend. No longer. Not only had the distance come between them, but whatever had occurred to end his engagement to Juniper Radwell had changed Weston for the worst. The first Season she and Haskett had returned to London after their marriage, Weston—and George—had run wild. They were known as the Bad Dukes. Weston had received the nickname the Duke of Disrepute by Polite Society and did everything he could to live up to the sobriquet. Samantha had been shocked by both his and George’s behavior as London’s most notorious womanizers. It was so unlike who they’d been before each had experienced a broken engagement. Last Season, they had behaved even more outrageously, so much that she’d had nothing to do with either of them.
She had no idea how this Season had gone since she’d remained at home because of her increasing. When she’d lost the baby, she’d written to Weston. He had sent a terse reply. No more letters had followed. She supposed he was too busy hopping from one woman’s bed to the next to bother writing to his brokenhearted sister.
Lucy came in and smiled. “Good morning, my lady. How are you today?”
“Fine, thank you,” she told the maid perfunctorily.
Even Lucy had no idea of the depths of Samantha’s despondency. There were days when she wished she could run away. Weston had given her some money before her marriage, telling her even though Haskett would provide her with pin money, a women needed a little extra to spend however she liked. Samantha hadn’t spent a farthing of it, keeping the money hidden in case she ever did need it. She fantasized about buying a naughty night rail that might tempt Haskett back into her bed but had no idea where to go for something of that nature. She couldn’t ask the seamstress in the nearby village. Durham was the nearest large town but they rarely went there.
Lucy helped Samantha dress for the day. At home and in London, she’d always enjoyed breakfast in her room, sipping chocolate in bed as she read the latest gossip columns in the newspapers as she ate buttered toast points. That practice had been declared lazy by Lady Rockaway. Samantha was expected to dress and be downstairs for the morning meal with the rest of the family.
She made her way to the small dining room where the meal would be served. Lord Rockaway didn’t bother to look up from his newspapers, which Samantha never had access to since her mother-in-law deemed them coarse and unsuitable for a lady. Lady Rockaway nodded brusquely. Missing from the table were her husband and Cousin Percy. Percy Johnson was considerably younger than Haskett and had come to live with the family when he was an infant after his parents were killed in an accident. Haskett acted as a dutiful older brother to Percy and had accompanied the young man to Cambridge last week, where Percy would be starting university soon. Haskett wanted to see his cousin settled in properly.
Samantha didn’t like Percy in the least. Though he rarely addressed her, she caught him looking at her furtively, a lascivious look always on his face. His behavior bothered her enough that she tried never to be alone in a room with him.
A footman placed a plate in front of her. She ate the same approved breakfast every morning. Samantha despised that even her meal selection was controlled by her mother-in-law. Another footman brought her a cup of tea. Though she enjoyed two lumps of sugar in it, Lady Rockaway deemed that wasteful and only allowed one. Before her marriage, she drank chocolate for breakfast. Again, Lady Rockaway deemed that too decadent and refused to have it served in her household. Her mother-in-law had constantly lectured Samantha on the need for frugality, something that was cherished by northerners.
“What will you do today with my darling boy gone?” asked the countess.
Samantha curbed her tongue and refrained from saying she was composing a list of ways to seduce her husband into her bed.
“I thought I’d go for a ride this morning,” she said. “Haskett will want a report regarding the tenants when he returns and I’d like to be the one to give it to him when he does.”
A distasteful look crossed the countess’ face. She had as little as possible to do with both their tenants and most of the household servants, feeling herself far above others in their station.
“After that,” she continued, “I have a committee meeting at the church. The altar guild.”
Her mother-in-law visibly shuddered. “I don’t see why you go to those things.”
“I believe it is important to become part of the community. To get to know the people. I am still new here and want to feel as if I belong.”
In truth, the women at church hadn’t accepted her in the least. She’d heard snippy remarks about how the earl barely tithed. How his family should be responsible for putting a new roof on the church. The only one of them who had extended the slightest bit of friendship was Mrs. Kith, the clergyman’s wife. Samantha supposed the woman had to be charitable to all of the flock, even outsiders.
“See that you don’t tarry long at this meeting,” her mother-in-law ordered.
She couldn’t understand why this woman felt the need to manage every aspect of her family’s lives. What did it matter if Samantha was at the meeting one hour or two? At least it gave her something to do and an excuse to get out of this gloomy house. She had never visited, much less lived in, such a dark, dismal place and found it quite depressing.
When breakfast ended, she returned to her room and had Lucy help her change into her riding habit. Riding had become an escape for her. Though she had planned to ride daily with Haskett, he rarely accompanied her. She had no idea what her husband did with his time. He didn’t seem interested in their tenants or managing the estate, despite what she’d just said. He was intelligent. She’d learned that from their conversations in London. Every now and then, she came across him with his nose in a book but when asked about what he was reading, he told her she wouldn’t be interested. Finally, she’d stopped asking. She worried if he didn’t get her with child soon that they would become total strangers.
A groom saddled her horse and helped her to mount. Samantha rode away from the house, relief filling her. Then she spied something coming up the lane toward the house and decided to ride in that direction, curious about any visitor. As she drew close, she saw it was a wagon. A rider rode next to it and broke away, headed toward her at a gallop. She pulled up, recognizing Percy.
Why on earth was he back at Rockwell?
He approached, slowing his horse as he reached her.
“Good morning, Samantha.”
She didn’t like him using her Christian name. He’d never done so before. Percy must be feeling brave outside the presence of his tyrannical aunt.
“Did you change your mind about university?” she asked, thinking him thickheaded but knowing he couldn’t already have failed to meet expectations in such a short amount of time. “And where is Haskett?”
“We must talk about that.” Percy frowned. “You must prepare yourself.”
“About you not going to Cambridge?” she asked, puzzled by his appearance back at Rockwell.
“Perhaps you should dismount,” he suggested.
The thought of his hands secure against her waist brought distaste.
“No, tell me what you wish to before I go visit our tenants.”
He remained silent a long moment and finally said, “It’s about Charles.”
“What about him?” she asked, now on guard. “I have already asked where he is and you’ve failed to tell me.”
By now, the wagon had reached them. Samantha glanced at it and froze.
A pine box lay in its bed.
“No,” she whispered. Her eyes whipped to Percy. “No,” she repeated.
He shook his head sadly. “We were coming out of a public house. We’d stayed quite late because Charles was leaving the next morning to return to Rockwell. We both had overindulged in strong drink but that shouldn’t have mattered.”
He paused, sympathy in his eyes. She felt her throat tighten.
“We were accosted by three men a few blocks away.” Anguish filled Percy’s eyes. “We were almost back to my rooms when they appeared at the mouth of an alley, brandishing knives. They wanted our money. I handed over what I had immediately. Charles . . . he fumbled with his pockets. He was too inebriated. One of them got angry. Accused him of stalling. But he wasn’t, Samantha. Charles was trying.”
Percy swallowed, shaking his head sadly. “It didn’t matter. The thief moved in and punched Charles. He fell to the ground. The man went through his pockets. Charles started protesting. Then . . . oh, God, it was awful. He . . . he stabbed Charles. Right there in front of me. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He was confused. In pain. The man yanked out the knife and thrust it into him again.”
Samantha’s fingers squeezed the reins tightly. Percy’s words didn’t seem real. Yet she saw how upset he was.
“They ran. I feel to my knees. I tried to cover his wounds. There was blood everywhere.” He choked. “I’m so sorry, Samantha. I couldn’t save him.”
Without a word, she wheeled her horse and galloped away. The countryside went by at a dizzying speed as tears welled in her eyes. She rode for a few miles and finally brought the horse to a halt. She slid from its back and buried her face against its mane, sobs finally erupting.
Her husband had been murdered. Poor, decent Haskett, who never raised his voice or had a cruel thing to say about anyone. To be waylaid by strangers and then die so violently was unimaginable. She drew away from her horse and vomited, sickened by the idea. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve and wandered for a few minutes. She regretted not making more of an effort to help her husband open up. To make him realize he had great potential—if he quit letting his mother do all of his thinking for him.
Samantha returned to her horse, taking deep, even breaths. She hurt for the man who could have been so much more than he was and would mourn that they hadn’t been closer. Yet at the same time, a small part of her knew she was finally free.
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