An Arranged Betrothalwith a Blind Duke
Adrian Westfield, the Duke of Thornwood, sat astride his majestic horse, surveying the verdant field before him. His heart echoed the rhythmic beat of the eager gentlemen’s horses’ hooves, the adrenaline of the impending hunt awakening his senses.
The morning air was crisp, invigorating; it carried the unmistakable aroma of dew-kissed earth, the sweetness of the summer blooms, and the smell of horseflesh, mingling with the faint traces of tobacco and brandy from the gallant gentlemen who surrounded him. The symphony of prancing hooves, rustling leaves, and the good-humored banter of his companions formed the soundtrack to the beautiful tapestry of the day.
Adrian had always felt a sense of connection with nature, a link that transcended the usual comprehension of his class. It was in these moments, perched high on his stallion amidst the thrill of the chase, that he felt most alive. He loved the freedom, the vitality, the wild, untamed spirit that hunting encapsulated. Yet, as he glanced at the pack of hunting dogs and the path that lay before them, he couldn’t quell the nagging sense of unease that lurked within him.
His steed, Valor, was a striking beast; a powerful stallion with a glossy black coat that shone like obsidian under the sun’s touch. The horse was as sure-footed as they came, and the bond between Adrian and Valor was one of profound trust and mutual respect.
“Look out, Adrian,” one of Adrian’s fellow hunters shouted.
“Dobs, go help him,” another yelled amongst the fresh clatter of thunderous horse hooves.
But it was too late. The shouts became urgent barks as Adrian sat atop his stallion in horror. In an unexpected, heart-stopping moment, Valor whinnied – a high, alarmed sound that broke through the rhythm of chatter and laughter. The horse reared, his powerful body tense as his eyes rolled with evident fear, spooked by something unseen.
The world seemed to tilt on its axis. Unprepared for the sudden upheaval, Adrian felt his grip loosen on the reins, the once secure saddle seeming to slip away from beneath him. Time itself seemed to slow down as he was catapulted through the air, his heart hammering a frantic rhythm in his chest.
Images swirled in his mind as he descended; the startled faces of his companions, the sky’s serene blue marred by the ominous circling of a hawk, the ground rushing up to meet him in a devastating embrace. Panic gripped him, a fear that was as foreign as it was terrifying. This couldn’t be his end, not like this, not here.
And then, just as abruptly as it had started, it was over. The ground met his back with an unyielding harshness that forced the air out of his lungs in a painful gasp. He was distantly aware of the alarmed shouts, the frantic thudding of hooves, the world spinning before his eyes. But it all seemed muffled, surreal, as if he were under water.
His breathlessness was all he could feel for several agonizing seconds. But when he was able to draw breath, pain lit up his body like a wildfire in dry brush. It was only then that he noticed a searing pain in the back of his head. Through his steadily blurring vision, he saw that he had landed on the ground at the base of a tree.
His back was flat on the ground, but his head had connected with a gnarled surface root, beside which his head had slowly slid. A warm, tricking sensation made itself known through the pain, and he realized with numbness that he must be bleeding. He was terribly injured, and the world was fading around him.
His last coherent thought before darkness wrapped him in her cold, unforgiving embrace was of the life he’d led, the regrets he had yet to amend. A mental plea for a second chance rushed through him as the specter of unconsciousness closed in, obscuring the bright morning into a void of nothingness. His world turned black, the sounds of concern and chaos echoing distantly in his ears before he succumbed to the unyielding tide of oblivion.
Adrian Westfield, awoke in his bed with a gasping intake of breath, his heart pounding in his chest like a war drum. He blinked, expecting to see the familiar ornate ceiling of his bedchambers at Thornwood Manor, but was greeted instead by an unyielding, encompassing darkness.
He blinked again, attempting to banish the darkness. However, his eyes refused to cooperate. Panic, hot and sudden, welled within him. His breath hitched, his fingers curling into the sheets beneath him. His mind was a whirlpool of confusion and denial. This couldn’t be right. He was the Duke of Thornwood, powerful, respected, feared. He couldn’t be blind.
He reached out, trying to make sense of his surroundings through touch. His fingers grazed the cool silk sheets of his bed, and then the hard, familiar contours of his walnut nightstand, finally resting on the leather-bound book he had been reading before the hunt. His book. His room. He was in his bedchambers.
The air was heavy with the sterile scent of liniments, a bitter smell that scratched at the back of his throat and pricked at his watering eyes. A soft murmur of voices carried to his ears, the lower cadence unmistakably belonging to Dr. Bentley, the family physician.
The other voice was softer, nurturing. His Aunt Marjorie. The realization hit him like a bucket of ice-cold water. She only fretted over him when he was truly in danger. A wave of melancholy washed over him. It was her comforting presence that now felt like a death sentence.
The murmur of their conversation became clearer, the words slicing through the silence like a sharp dagger.
“I’m afraid… most of his sight… irreparable damage…” he heard Dr. Bently say. “Any sight that returns will be muddled and milky, at best. But I do not look for any improvements at all.”
His aunt gasped, saying something that was muffled, from the sound of it by her hands being cupped over her hands. What she said next should have brought Adrian comfort. But it only made him feel more helpless and lost than he did moments before.
“I will do everything it takes to help and accommodate him,” she said. “Oh, my poor, sweet nephew…” she trailed off as she began sobbing softly.
Adrian shuddered as a new realization settled on him. Not only would he be unable to fulfill his duties for the dukedom, but he would likely need constant care and assistance. And from the sound of it, it would be for the rest of his life. Worst of all, it would be his aunt’s burden. He felt the world reel around him. The words fell like stones around him, echoing ominously within his silent chamber. He had lost his sight. He was blind.
He envisioned himself at the next social gathering, the whispered jibes, the hidden smirks, the pitying looks. He would be the laughingstock of the ton. He, Adrian Westfield, a duke, reduced to a pitiful spectacle. He would not only be a pariah himself, but he would also bring down his aunt’s good name.
She had treated him like her own son his entire life, helping his father raise him after his mother died giving birth to him. Then, when he lost his father ten years prior to a terrible illness, his aunt had stood beside him, offering him comfort and advice as he entered his rein as duke. And now, he was repaying her love and kindness by tainting her reputation by being associated with a disabled nephew.
In that moment, he wished the accident had claimed his life, rather than permanently blinding him. At least then, his aunt would be spared the ridicule that was sure to come. His heart pounded louder, faster, each beat echoing the gravity of his new reality. Fear, anger, despair – they all crashed onto him, leaving him breathless. I cannot manage through life as a blind man, he thought, tears brimming in his unseeing eyes. I cannot do this to Aunt Marjorie…
In the weeks following the accident, Thornwood Manor, once a sanctuary of warmth, laughter, and life, felt different. It had morphed into a labyrinth of shadows, each corner whispering haunting echoes of the life he had once led. Each familiar scent, every distinct texture, the echoes of laughter that had once resonated within these walls – they all now served as a bitter reminder of what he had lost.
The vibrant colors that used to dance within his vision, the sharp details of the world that he had taken for granted, were now reduced to hazy outlines and faint hues. The once lively morning sun was now a vague lightness that graced his senses, the lush green of Thornwood’s sprawling gardens, a mere whisper of a memory.
Adrian’s hand trailed over the rough stone walls as he navigated through the manor’s dimly lit corridors, each stone a cold reminder of the fortress he was now trapped within. His other senses heightened, he smelled the musty scent of age and heard the low echo of his footsteps bouncing off the grand archways. Each step was an affirmation of the labyrinth he now lived in. His heaven had turned into his prison.
However, despite the challenging circumstances, he was not one to languish in self-pity. Adrian was a man of action, and this predicament, while it had altered his world, had not stolen his resolve. And Lady Marjorie Westfield, the spinster sister of Adrian’s father, had been a miracle to Adrian.
His aunt had been a true godsend, seeing to his every need, even going to him in the earliest hours of the morning if he needed something or dared to venture out of his chambers and found himself unable to get back to his bed. He felt terrible for being a burden to her. Thus prompted the event that would be the beginning of the end of his stay in Thornwood.
Six weeks after the accident, he joined his aunt for lunch for the first time since the fall that changed his life. He couldn’t see her face, but he heard the chair fall to the ground and her skirts rustling as she rushed up to greet him.
“Darling, you’ve come to join me?” she asked tentatively.
Adrian nodded, embracing her gently as she wrapped her arms around him.
“I am,” he said. “If that’s all right.”
His aunt laughed, putting her arm around his waist.
“It’s wonderful, darling,” she said.
He pushed aside the self-pity that had been eating away at him. He gave her a broad smile and nodded, allowing her to lead him to the table. He was just learning to use a cane, and he was growing accustomed to it quickly. Still, he was grateful for his aunt’s help.
Once he was seated beside her, his aunt went back to her chair. She put poached eggs, toasted bread, and a piece of steak on his plate, then put the fork in his hand. The food smelled wonderful, and it felt good to do something that felt natural to him. He tried not to think about how he couldn’t see the spread before them, or his aunt’s kind, caring face.
After a moment of silent eating, Adrian turned toward his aunt.
“I was thinking that I would like to attend a social event with you,” he said, getting directly to the point.
His aunt gasped, grabbing onto his arm gently.
“Truly?” she asked, her excitement clear in her voice.
Adrian nodded, smiling at how happy she sounded.
“Indeed,” he said. “I think I would like to start with a dinner party. A ball, I believe, would be too much just now. But maybe, if the party goes well, I will attend a ball before the end of his Season.”
Beside him, Marjorie shifted in her chair. He could feel the joy radiating off her, and he smiled again.
“Splendid,” she said. “There is a dinner party this week. Would you like for me to let Lord and Lady Procton know that we will both be in attendance?”
Adrian nodded. He wasn’t sure if he was ready for a dinner party that soon. But it had been his idea. And what better time to start reintegrating with society than immediately?
“That would be lovely,” he said.
That weekend, Adrian had Blake dress him in a fine crimson suit with a cravat that was so deep red it was almost black, boots that matched the cravat, and a crimson top hat. His cane was black, so it complimented his outfit. And his light blond hair was combed back and tucked neatly beneath the hat. He couldn’t see himself, but Blake assured him that he looked sharper and more refined than he ever had.
The trip to Lord and Lady Procton’s estate was nerve racking for Adrian. He was happy to let his aunt prattle on excitedly about how thrilled she was that he was attending the party with her. He let himself believe that, as she told him, that it would be a wonderful evening. He even allowed himself to think that the ton wouldn’t be as critical as he had first feared after his accident.
However, from the moment he and Marjorie Westfield entered the manor, he could feel scrutinizing, judgmental eyes on him. He heard the whispers as he and his aunt passed, and the conversations that quieted when the guests laid eyes on him. His self-consciousness was overwhelming. And yet, for the sake of his aunt, he put on a tense smile and pretended to not notice that everyone was behaving as though he was a monster.
When dinner was finally served, disaster struck. The layout of the mansion was unfamiliar to him, and he was clinging to his aunt for guidance. But as they turned a corner, his cane got ahead of him. He tripped a gentleman just ahead of them, right around the corner. The man fell, creating a scene around them as others tried to help him off the ground.
When the gentleman was upright again, he got right in Adrian’s face.
“You really must watch what you are doing,” he said with a sneer in his voice. “I don’t know why someone like you would dare try to mingle in with normal society again.”
Adrian, feeling utterly humiliated, had tried to mumble an apology and an explanation of his situation. But the man stormed off, the cluster of people who had stopped to help or watch the spectacle uttering whispers of things like ‘disgraceful’ and ‘ghastly.’ Beside him, his aunt defended him. But no one responded to her. For the rest of the evening, he and Marjorie were virtually invisible.
When they returned home that night, Adrian hugged his aunt tightly.
“I’m so sorry, Aunt Marjorie,” he said. “I feel horrible for embarrassing you.”
His aunt held him as he choked back tears of frustration and humiliation.
“No, darling,” she said, rubbing his back in a motherly fashion. “You did not embarrass me. What embarrasses me is being a part of a society that behaves as those snobby cads did tonight. I am ashamed to be associated with any of them. And I will never ask you to go someplace where people will treat you that way ever again.”
Adrian nodded. His aunt’s words were comforting. But deep down, he believed that her association with him would eventually rob her of her friends, of her social life, of everything that a lady of her stature deserved within society. He let his aunt lead him to his chambers and to his bed. But that night, he decided that he needed to do something to spare his aunt any further humiliation.
One evening, almost three months after he lost his sight, he made the hard decision. He needed to distance himself from the memories that Thornwood held, to be away from the prying eyes of society, the stifling air of pity, the gossip that he was sure ran rife within the ton, especially after the fiasco at the dinner party. He sat down with his aunt at dinner, though he had had virtually no appetite since the party.
“Aunt Marjorie,” he said. “I have decided to rent a property in Bath. I will no longer be staying here at Thornwood.”
Marjorie was silent for a moment. Then, she spoke, a sad smile in her voice.
“I know things have been difficult for you here,” she said. “Are you sure this is what you want?”
Adrian nodded firmly.
“I am,” he said. “You can continue to live here if you like. I will ensure that you are cared for, that you have everything you need. You are free to do as you like…”
“No, my dear,” she said, with just as much determination as Adrian. “I will not allow you to be on your own. I love you, darling. And where you go, I go.”
Adrian looked toward his aunt, tears stinging his eyes.
“Won’t you miss the balls and the dinner parties, and your friends?” he asked.
His aunt chortled.
“I lost many friends when they decided to be cruel to you,” she said. “My true friends will come visit me. And as far as the social events, I care nothing for mingling with people who behave like animals.”
Despite the heavy resignation he felt, Adrian laughed.
“Very well,” he said. “I shall have our things packed up tonight. We will leave first thing tomorrow.”
The next morning, Adrian summoned his steward to his chambers after Blake had gone to oversee the loading of his aunt’s and his luggage.
“I am entrusting you with Thornwood, Higgins,” Adrian informed his loyal steward, his voice steady despite the turmoil that lurked beneath the surface. Higgins had served his family for decades, his loyalty and dedication to the estate unmatched.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Higgins responded, his voice filled with an emotion Adrian could only imagine was a mix of surprise and concern. “Are you certain about this, Your Grace?”
Adrian nodded, thinking of how his aunt had asked him the very same question the evening before.
“I’ve never been more certain, Higgins. I need some time away,” Adrian replied.
Thus, the Duke of Thornwood found himself bidding farewell to his beloved manor, setting off towards Bath, a city known for its healing waters. Bath offered the solitude he desired, a refuge from the suffocating atmosphere of London, a place to come to terms with his new reality.
As the carriage pulled away, Adrian let his fingers trail along the leather upholstery, his mind filled with a kaleidoscope of emotions. Thornwood was his home, his sanctuary. Leaving it behind felt like leaving a part of himself. But it was a necessary sacrifice, one that he hoped would bring him peace, acceptance, and perhaps, in time, a new beginning.
Three years had passed since the unfortunate hunting accident, the one that had changed Adrian’s life forever. The duke of Thornwood was now a shadow of his former self, his sharp hunter’s gaze replaced by vacant eyes that held the darkness of his world.
Haunted by the tragedy that had stolen his sight, Adrian sought solace in the sanctuary of his ancestral home. His heart pulsed with a rhythm of regret and relief, a melody of melancholy and fortitude that echoed in his chest. He had come home to Thornwood, a place that once sparkled with the vibrant hues of life and was now a canvas of shadows and hazy outlines.
The expansive Thornwood estate nestled in the heart of the English countryside was an orchestra of nature’s melodies. Even without sight, Adrian could see its beauty through the lens of his memories. He remembered the vivid green of the rolling fields, the way the trees rustled under the delicate caress of the wind, the blossoming flowers that added splashes of color to the grounds. The fragrance of dew-kissed earth and fresh blooms filled his senses, painting a vivid picture of Thornwood’s verdant beauty, offering him a semblance of sight.
The echo of his cane against the polished wood floors guided him through the familiar halls, each tap a breadcrumb leading him back to the life he once knew. He found himself in the drawing room, a room that bore the weight of countless family gatherings and joyous memories.
By the scent of her lavender perfume and the muddled outline of her delicate figure, he deduced that his aunt was already there. Her presence filled the room like the soft glow of a hearth on a winter’s night, radiating a warmth that made the shadows seem less daunting. She was the constant rock in his tumultuous sea of darkness, her voice a lighthouse guiding him through the gloom.
“Adrian, my dear,” she cooed, her voice resonating with tenderness. “I am so glad that you decided to return here. I have missed this place dearly.”
His lips curled into a smile.
“It’s wonderful to be home,” he said. “Thank you for putting up with me these past years. And for me uprooting you from here in the first place. I don’t know what I would have done throughout all this without you. Though I do feel terrible about the weight that my constant need for assistance must be putting on you.”
Her endearing chuckle washed over him, making his heart swell with a comforting warmth.
“Darling, I adore you as though you were my very own child,” she said. “And you did not uproot me from Thornwood. I made the choice to follow you to Bath happily. You do not know what joy it brings me to be able to offer you such aid. It is hardly a weight, my dear. It is my greatest honor to be here for you through this.”
Adrian gave his aunt a warm smile. He was sure she meant the words she spoke. But he was just as sure that she must be exhausted much of the time. She hardly attended social events anymore, even on her own, and she would come to him if summoned at all hours of the night. Still, her words offered a balm to his worries, and he sighed with a mix of contentment and weariness.
Even in his world of perpetual blurriness, he could ‘see’ her in his mind’s eye – her soft gray curls, her warm, loving blue eyes, the wrinkles etched delicately on her face from years of laughter and sorrow. The warmth of her presence was a reassurance that he wasn’t alone.
His fingers traced the edge of the armchair he now occupied, the fabric under his touch a reminder of countless evenings spent engrossed in delightful banter and family tales. He took a deep breath, the scent of polished wood and old books filling his nostrils, a scent that screamed of home.
The echoes of his past reverberated in the tranquility of Thornwood, his memories crafting vivid images in his mind’s eye. Despite the loss of his sight, he found solace in these echoes, a testament that even the darkest of tragedies could not rob him of his past, of his home. His world was shrouded in shadows, yet he found light in his memories, his loved ones, and the timeless beauty of Thornwood. For now, that was enough.
A subtle commotion alerted Adrian to the arrival of the servants. He heard the clinking sound of porcelain cups against silver saucers and the muffled rustle of cakes being placed on the trays. It was a symphony of familiarity that stirred within him a longing to see the spectacle in clear focus again. The clatter was his eyes now, a stark contrast to the colorful tableau of tea and cakes he once enjoyed.
His vision had not been entirely lost; it was a cruel jest of fate that he was left in a limbo between darkness and sight. As Dr. Bentley had forewarned, his sight might improve to an extent, but most likely, it would not. It had returned, but it was nothing more than a nebulous sea of milky images and blurred shadows, like an unfinished painting forever out of focus.
Adrian steeled himself against the fresh surge of self-pity that threatened to engulf him, despite his aunt’s previous comforting words. He was a Westfield, the Duke of Thornwood, and he had sworn to himself he wouldn’t wallow in despair. Yet, he couldn’t help the wistful thought that teased his mind, his bitter yearning for the day he’d never gone hunting.
His musings were interrupted by the gentle sound of liquid pouring into a cup. He turned his head toward the sound, instinctively knowing it was his Aunt Marjorie pouring the tea. There was a brief silence before her soothing voice echoed through the room.
“Adrian, dear,” she began, her words delicately laced with a comforting warmth that seemed to seep into his very being, mending the fissures in his confidence, stitching together his broken heart. “Do not let your loss of sight define you. You are so much more.”
He wanted to believe her words. He longed for them to be his guiding star, his beacon of hope in the disorienting darkness.
“Thornwood needs its duke, Adrian,” she continued, her voice imbued with an insistent strength. “And Thornwood is patient. It has been waiting for your return. It doesn’t care about your sight. It cares about your heart, your spirit. We did the right thing coming home. Trust me.”
A lump formed in Adrian’s throat. He swallowed hard, fighting the overwhelming wave of emotion that surged within him. He was the duke of Thornwood, he was more than his blindness. His identity, his worth, was not defined by his ability to see but by his ability to lead, to love, and to endure.
He took a deep breath, allowing Aunt Marjorie’s words to wash over him, soothing his anxieties. He nodded, a gesture more for himself than for her. He still wasn’t sure if he believed what his aunt was saying. But she believed in him. That was enough for him to make an effort to be the duke she believed he could be.
“Thank you, Aunt Marjorie,” he whispered, his voice carrying a newfound determination. “I shall endeavor to be the duke Thornwood needs, sight or no sight.” I just hope that I do not regret returning here, he thought.
With breakfast behind him, Adrian felt an irresistible pull toward the outdoors, the allure of the summer morning too inviting to resist. Guided by the constant presence of his loyal canine companion, Patches, he ventured beyond the stone walls of Thornwood Manor.
The moment he crossed the threshold, the day seemed to wrap around him like a comforting blanket. The air was heavy with the perfume of blossoming flowers, a fragrant melody that whispered of warm sunshine and rebirth. The surrounding orchestra of chirping birds performed a delightful symphony, their song a sonnet of morning joy that brushed against his ears.
Adrian inhaled deeply, savoring the taste of the summer air on his tongue. His bare fingers brushed against the leaves of a nearby bush, the texture rough yet familiar. Each element of the morning— the warm sun on his face, the velvet breeze against his skin, the rich earthy scent in the air— was a vivid reminder of the world beyond his blindness.
Despite the haze that shrouded his vision, he found solace in the tactile beauty beneath his feet. The coolness of the dew-kissed grass, the roughened texture of the gravel pathway, the reassuring solidity of the earth— all painted an image of Thornwood more vivid than any sight could provide.
A sigh of contentment slipped from him. The larger part of him was grateful for the familiar sanctuary that Thornwood offered, its silent understanding offering him the solitude he craved. His heart seemed to settle, finding its rhythm once more in the tranquil pulse of his ancestral home.
Yet, a smaller part of him, a vulnerable corner of his soul, harbored a lingering dread of what was to come. The inevitable whispers of society, their reactions to his condition, lingered at the edges of his thoughts. He pushed it away, silencing the gnawing worry with a firm resolve. There was a time and place for such concerns, and it was not now, not when the sun was shining, and the birds were singing.
For the moment, he chose to let the peace of Thornwood wash over him, lapping against his consciousness like a soothing tide. He was home, he was safe, and with Patches by his side, he had a steadfast friend. The fear of the future would not steal the comfort of the present.
His hand found its way to Patches’ head, his fingers sinking into the soft fur.
“It’s just you and me out here, Patches,” he murmured, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Just us and the vast grounds of Thornwood.”
And for that moment, standing beneath the embracing sky, with the fragrance of summer wrapping him in its gentle hold, it was enough.
Adrian’s peaceful solitude was soon interrupted by an unanticipated sound. A gentle humming reached his ears, a melody that seemed to twirl and pirouette on the strands of the summer breeze. The sweet tune was foreign, yet it elicited a thrilling sense of intrigue, a pulsating curiosity that caused his heart to quicken its rhythm.
His brow furrowed, and he squinted, trying to focus his milky vision. The vague outline of a figure, distinctly feminine, flitted in and out of focus in the distance. Her silhouette was a mystery he yearned to unveil, a song he longed to hear in its entirety.
Compelled by the magnetic pull of the enchanting melody and the allure of the elusive silhouette, Adrian, guided by Patches, moved closer. His cane tapped rhythmically against the gravel path, its sound punctuating the harmony of the morning chorus.
His heartbeat seemed to keep time with his advancing steps, a pulsating tempo of anticipation echoing in his ears. The humming grew louder, its notes swirling around him, filling the air with a symphony that stirred an inexplicable yearning in his heart.
As they neared the silhouette, Patches’ tail wagged with greater excitement, its steady rhythm conveying a sense of trust. Adrian took in a deep breath, the scent of blooming roses and the lingering traces of the woman’s perfume intermingling in a dance that quickened his pulse further.
With every step, he felt his world expanding, the unfamiliar contours of the unexpected moment promising a new narrative in the canvas of his existence. His senses heightened, heart thudding, he reached out toward the source of the beguiling melody. Thornwood, it seemed, had more mysteries to offer than he had anticipated.
Basking in the balmy warmth of the early afternoon, Annabelle Ludlow, wearing a gown of azure silk, gracefully wandered through the sun-dappled meadow. The notes of a beloved tune, one her late mother had often hummed, floated from her lips in a gentle, melodic whisper. The memories imbued in the melody wrapped her heart in a warm embrace, creating a moment of serenity that seemed as delicate as spun glass.
Lost in the enchanting reverie, her heart echoed the familiar tune, her pulse beating in harmony with the song that danced on the edge of her lips. The sounds of nature wove themselves seamlessly into her music, birds chiming in with their own verses and the wind whispering the rhythm.
However, the tranquility that had begun to encase her in its soothing balm shattered like a dropped crystal goblet. The stillness of the meadow was abruptly broken by a sound that was distinctly human. The soft, rhythmic crunching of boots on grass; the undeniable indication of an approaching presence.
Alarm coiled in her stomach like a hissing snake, tightening as she turned towards the source of the disturbance. As her gaze moved from the sea of wildflowers to the forest’s edge, her breath hitched. There he stood, a tall silhouette against the verdant backdrop, the duke of Thornwood.
His austere countenance bore a mark of isolation, like a hermit returning from his self-imposed solitude. The piercing sapphire gaze that met hers held an intensity that brought forth memories of whispered rumors – his hunting accident, the terrible incident that had disabled him years ago, and the subsequent retreat from the world. She had never met him in person. But living so close to his countryside retreat, she was aware that he lived nearby. But what were the odds that she would happen upon him, taking a stroll at the same time that she was?
The duke’s story, which was often narrated in hushed voices in the parlors and ballrooms of society, suddenly took on a tangible form. The wave of apprehension that swept over her was as palpable as the wildflowers brushing against her silk-clad legs, sending her heartbeat into a quickened pace.
But Annabelle was no simpering debutante. The strength that lay beneath her ladylike exterior surfaced, silencing the flutter of nerves. With all the courage she could muster, she met his stare, her eyes filled with determination.
“Miss Ludlow,” the duke greeted, his voice low and gruff, as though it hadn’t been used in conversation for a long time.
“Your Grace,” Annabelle replied, her voice steadier than she had expected. As she dipped into a delicate curtsy, her mother’s lessons on grace and decorum echoed in her mind. Even though the duke couldn’t see her, she knew it was proper to greet him formally. She straightened and looked at him, her heart beating a tattoo of intrigue and anxiety against her ribcage. “Forgive my boldness, but how is it that you know my name?”
What she really wanted to ask was how he could see enough of her to even know that she was a woman. She supposed that her soap and perfume might carry a feminine scent on the light breeze. But even then, how could he see her face to know who she was?
The duke chortled softly, and she prayed she hadn’t offended him.
“With the perfume, I guessed that you were a woman,” he said, confirming part of her assumption. “And my aunt knows everyone who lives in this part of Bath. If not personally, then by way of gossip. I assume the same is true if you knew to address me as ‘your grace.’”
Anabelle nodded, even though the duke couldn’t see.
“That’s right,” she said. “My uncle is much the same way.” Although I would imagine that your aunt’s gossip is far different from my uncle’s bitter complaining, she added silently.
While his name had often been the subject of society’s gossip, Annabelle could not deny the man standing before her was shrouded in an air of mystery and allure. His sudden appearance, both alarming and intriguing, stirred within her a renewed sense of curiosity. And it was with this curiosity and a hint of apprehension that she stepped into the whirlwind that was the Duke of Thornwood.
In the wake of their exchanged greetings, an unsettling silence hung heavy in the air between Annabelle and the Duke of Thornwood, punctuated only by the chorus of summer birds flitting in the nearby branches, and the gentle rustle of leaves stirred by a soft breeze. The unease of their encounter seemed to solidify the air, its weight pressing down upon Annabelle’s slender shoulders. It was a contrast so stark to the harmony that the meadow had serenaded her with only moments before.
Just as the silence threatened to consume her entirely, a plaintive whimper broke the tense stillness. Annabelle’s eyes darted towards the source of the sound, and a warm smile spread across her face. Emerging from the tall grasses was the duke’s faithful hound, tail wagging with an exuberant rhythm. The dog carried itself with a pride befitting the pet of a nobleman. Annabelle instantly loved the animal.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” she asked, bending over with an outstretched hand to allow the animal to get her scent.
The duke chuckled, seemingly pleasantly distracted by the interaction.
“His name is Patches,” he said, sounding as proud as the dog stood.
Annabelle smiled brightly at the duke, forgetting for a moment that he couldn’t see it. And yet, he returned her smile, as though he could feel it.
“Patches,” she cooed, her voice light and tender. “May I pet him?”
The duke chuckled again, the sound surprisingly light and innocent, despite his ghastly reputation.
“If he doesn’t mind, then I don’t,” he said, gesturing toward the dog. The aim of his hand was just a bit off from where the dog actually stood. Annabelle’s heart clenched as she tried to imagine what it must be like t be blind. But her sadness was short lived as Patches nuzzled her hand with his cold, wet nose.
She gracefully sank onto her knees, extending a delicate hand towards the dog. Patches trotted forward, nuzzling against Annabelle’s palm with an affectionate warmth that soothed her jangled nerves. A sigh escaped her lips, her smile deepening at the simple joy of the dog’s company.
She loved animals, as well. But her uncle would never hear of her having a pet of her own. She had taken in a starving, wounded young kitten that had been abandoned by its mother the previous year. Her uncle found out and got especially stern with her. A day after, the kitten was missing, and she never saw it again. But with as uncharacteristically nice as her uncle was to her afterward, she knew he had done away with it.
She looked up at the duke, her brown eyes gleaming with genuine happiness. It was as if the looming presence of the duke had receded, replaced by the friendly wag of a dog’s tail and the wet press of a nose against her hand. As if sensing her delight at his friendliness, Patches hitched up on his back legs, brushing a strand of her chestnut hair that had fallen from her bonnet away from her eyes. She giggled as the cold wetness grazed her cheek, and Patches wagged his tail even more furiously still.
The duke watched the scene, surprise etching its way into his sharp features.
“My word,” he said, sounding stunned. “Patches is usually rather discerning with new people. At least until she’s seen them a few times.”
Annabelle nodded, not looking up at the duke.
“I can see that,” she said with another giggle. “Is he named Patches because of her patchwork of black and brown fur?”
Annabelle regretted the question as soon as she asked it. Of course, the blind duke likely had no idea what his own pet looked like. But he didn’t miss a beat. He grinned, nodding as he smiled fondly at the dog.
“He is,” he said, once more sounding proud. “My aunt helped me pick out the name. I encountered him whilst out and about in Bath. He was weak and sickly, so I brought him back home. He has been a loyal companion ever since.”
Annabelle nodded, laughing as Patches flopped dramatically onto the ground and exposed his belly for scratches. She obliged, looking up at the duke.
“He certainly is a very sweet dog,” she said, thinking again wistfully of her lost kitten.
The duke took a tentative step forward, kneeling as well to pat his dog’s exposed belly.
“Miss Ludlow,” he started, his voice a blend of curiosity and mild astonishment. “It would appear Patches has taken quite a liking to you. He absolutely never shows new people his belly upon the first meeting. This is a rare feat, indeed.”
A soft blush dusted Annabelle’s cheeks.
“Is that so, your Grace?” she asked. “He’s a lovely creature. Animals have a way of understanding us better than we understand ourselves, don’t you think?”
Lord Thornwood looked thoughtfully at her, another slow smile creeping onto his face.
“I must say that I agree,” he said.
Patches, having accepted Annabelle’s affections with a contented wag of her tail, settled by her side. Her constant presence seemed to create a barrier between Annabelle and the world, grounding her in a comforting reality. Yet, even the pleasant weight of the dog’s head on her knee couldn’t muffle the frantic rhythm of Annabelle’s heartbeat or the creeping awareness of her situation.
Her heart pounded a frantic tempo against her ribs as the realization dawned with undeniable force: she was alone with the Duke, not a chaperone in sight. A vivid image of the scandalous whispers that would echo through society’s parlors if they were discovered sent a shudder of fear through her. The vibrant greens and blues of the meadow seemed to pale, turning monochrome under the weight of her sudden apprehension.
The conventions of their time were explicit in their dictation of decorum and propriety, especially in situations involving an unmarried woman and a man of the duke’s reputation. Panic crept into the edges of her mind like tendrils of morning fog, clouding her thoughts and quickening her breaths. She could not allow herself to become the subject of society’s ruthless gossip.
Swiftly, as though the action could diminish the rising tide of her worries, Annabelle rose to her feet. Patches whined, a look of confusion in her canine eyes as she was disturbed from her comfortable spot. Ignoring the soft whimper, Annabelle dusted off her skirt, the movements of her hands betraying the turmoil she felt inside.
“Your Grace,” Annabelle began, her voice shaking ever so slightly under the strain of her panic. She steadied herself, drawing a deep breath and plastering a polite smile onto her face. “I must apologize, but I find that I have stayed longer than I should. I must return home.”
He nodded, the sharp gaze of his sapphire eyes softening, though whether from understanding or disappointment, Annabelle could not tell. She didn’t dare to linger, couldn’t afford the luxury of deciphering the emotions behind his gaze.
With a final, respectful curtsy and a soft pat on Patches’ head, Annabelle turned, leaving the duke and his dog behind. As she retraced her steps back through the meadow, the weight of the encounter and the societal constraints pressed down on her like an ill-fitting garment, reminding her that the path to her heart’s desire would never be as straightforward as a stroll through a summer meadow.
Having navigated her way through the meadow with haste, Annabelle arrived at the Ludlow estate, her heart still beating its frantic tune. She allowed herself a moment to collect her thoughts, a futile attempt to brush off the lingering effect of her meeting with the Duke. But as she crossed the threshold, all thoughts of her peaceful morning, and her nerve-racking encounter with the Duke, were replaced with a far more imminent concern.
Her uncle, Oswald Ludlow, sat in his imposing armchair, his stern gaze meeting hers as she entered. There was a stern, unyielding quality to his eyes that reminded Annabelle of the oppressive guardianship he had wielded since her parents’ tragic demise in a carriage accident five years ago. The familiar setting of her home seemed to shift under the weight of his scrutiny, every item of furniture seeming to bear witness to her reprimand.
“Annabelle,” Oswald began, the deep timbre of his voice reverberating in the quiet room. “You should not be gallivanting alone in the meadows. It is time for you to put aside such childish escapades.”
His sharp words carried a biting edge, stirring a deep-rooted resentment within Annabelle. But it was his next words that truly took her breath away, sending a chill prickling down her spine.
“I have been considering your situation, and it is high time you were married.”
The word ‘married’ echoed ominously in the room, its implications chilling her to the bone. Oswald was a man of many acquaintances, but few could be described as savory company. The prospect of the wretched match he might have in mind for her struck fear into her heart.
“Marriage?” Annabelle repeated, her voice barely more than a whisper. She tried to keep her expression neutral, but her mind was a whirlwind of apprehension. The thought of being tethered to a man of her uncle’s choosing was a nightmare she had long feared. Now, it appeared, her nightmare was on the brink of becoming her reality. “To whom?”
Her uncle scoffed, shrugging.
“I have not yet decided,” he said. “I shall let you know when I find a suitable match.”
There were two things in her uncle’s voice: decisiveness and deceit. He likely did already have a suitor in mind. And he would not be moved.
Still, she couldn’t stop herself from pleading her case. She was a woman who enjoyed reading. Very few gentlemen would be content with that.
“Uncle, I would like to decide when and if I will marry,” she said.
But before she could continue, her uncle held up his hand.
“We will talk about it again once I have found a suitor,” he said again. “Until then, I want you to prepare yourself.”
Annabelle stared at her uncle, aghast. She had faced many trials since the loss of her parents, her world shrinking to the rigid confines set by her uncle. But this… This was a boundary she could not allow to be drawn around her.
“Uncle, please,” she began. But once more, Oswald shut her down.
“You will do as I say, Annabelle,” he said. “And that is the end of the matter.”
Let me know your thoughts!
I’m glad that you finished reading the preview of “An Arranged Betrothal with a Blind Duke”. It will be on Amazon very soon!