A MYSTERIOUS LADY FOR THE BROKEN DUKE
“Penny,” Diana Winters said, looking at her reflection in her mirror, “you truly are a worker of miracles.”
Her lady’s maid blushed and gave a humble wave of her hand.
“Milady, you do me too much honor,” she said. “I could only do as well as what I am given to work with. And you are already quite beautiful.”
Diana smiled sweetly at Penny.
“Only because you know precisely how to help me look my best,” she said, taking the maid’s hand. “Especially on such a special occasion.”
Penny Smith shrugged, still blushing humbly.
“Come, Lady Diana,” she said, gently pulling on her mistress’s hand. “You do not want to be late for your own debut ball, do you?”
Diana grinned, quickly embracing her maid. Then, she let the woman lead her down the stairs.
The ball was everything that Diana had hoped for. She had been looking forward to her debut ball since her seventeenth birthday when she and her mother began discussing it. Now that the night had arrived, it far exceeded her expectations. Nothing, however, could have prepared her for meeting one special gentleman.
“Lady Diana, you look positively ravishing,” said a tall, handsome man. “Would you do me the honor of having the next dance?”
Diana looked up at him, biting her lip as she curtseyed.
“I am afraid that you have me at a disadvantage,” she said. “You know my name, but I do not know yours.”
The gentleman chuckled softly and bowed.
“Do forgive me, my lady,” he said, taking her hand and kissing it as he straightened. “I am Jasper Moore, Marquess of Winsby.”
Diana giggled, covering her mouth with her hand.
“Well, my lord,” she said, her cheeks bright pink. “I would be thrilled to dance with you.”
The dance the couple shared was magical. Diana had never known a man who could dance with such grace. Nor had she ever encountered one who was so handsome and charming. She danced with him three times that evening, and they parted at the end of the evening with his promise to call on her the very next day. And he kept his promise.
From that evening forward, Diana and Jasper were inseparable. He called on her almost every day, and they went for walks, picnics, and horseback riding. Jasper was even content to go on trips to town with Diana when she was shopping for upcoming balls and dinners.
Their courtship was the most perfect that anyone could ever imagine, and Diana knew in her heart that she never had been, nor would she ever be, happier than she was with Jasper. That was why, when he coaxed her to share a bed with him, she had no reservations about doing so. If she could have foreseen the outcome, she would have made a different decision. But she loved and trusted Jasper, and she felt sure that she would spend the rest of her life with him.
Then, one day, Diana fell inexplicably ill. She stayed in bed for several days, hoping it was merely a megrim, and that it would pass. But, as she tried to wait it out, it only got worse. So, at last, she summoned one of the maids and went into town to the physician. Still convinced that it was a temporary malady, she did not discuss it with her mother, and she entered the doctor’s clinic with confidence. When she left, however, she did so in tears. Upon her return home, she wrote a hasty letter to Jasper.
It is of the utmost urgency that I speak with you. Please, call on me at your earliest convenience.
All my love,
As she had anticipated, her letter brought Jasper to her home within hours. She gave him a nervous smile.
“I went to see the physician,” she said, biting her lip.
Jasper’s brow furrowed with concern.
“What is the matter?” he asked, taking her hands in his. “Are you well?”
Diana nodded, her heart pounding in her chest.
“I am fine, darling,” she said. “However, I do have some news to share with you.”
Jasper nodded slowly, giving Diana a small smile.
“You can tell me anything,” he said.
Diana nodded and took a deep breath. She trusted Jasper, and his reassuring gaze gave her strength. She squeezed his hands and returned his smile.
“I am with child,” she said, her smile widening as she spoke.
Jasper’s mouth fell open. He stared at her silently for several moments, and Diana held her breath, waiting for him to take in what she had said. He was quiet for so long that Diana began to wonder if he had heard her. She opened her mouth to ask him, but just then he shook his head slowly, squeezing her hands tightly.
“What?” he asked.
Diana felt her cheeks flush and, once more, she bit her lip. She started to nod enthusiastically and kiss his hands. However, at that moment, she saw that his face had drained of color, and he was staring at her with wide, frightened eyes—not warm, loving ones.
“It is all right,” she said, patting his hand. “I shall tell no one else but you. And, if we marry within a fortnight, it will seem as though we conceived our child on our wedding night.”
Jasper stared blankly at her for several moments, saying nothing. Diana’s heart was pounding, and for the first time since leaving the physician’s clinic, she began to doubt her decision to tell him so suddenly.
At last, Jasper smiled weakly at her. He squeezed her hand, but the gesture felt almost mechanical.
“This is surprising news, indeed,” he said. His eyes were unreadable, but his smile widened marginally. “Forgive me, my dear. This is just not at all what I expected to hear today.”
Diana laughed and nodded.
“I must say that I agree with you,” she said. “Who could have guessed that I would be delivering such news today?”
Jasper chuckled, but it sounded hollow and forced. Diana bit her lip again and looked at her betrothed.
“All is well,” she said. “This is happy news. And, though it is a little earlier than we anticipated, this will be a wonderful start to our family.”
Jasper nodded again but fell silent. Diana held her breath, unsure of what she should say or do. She knew that Jasper would be happy once the shock gave way to the joy she was beginning to feel. But something different from the sickness she had been feeling the past few days began to settle in her stomach. He would be happy with the news, wouldn’t he?
At last, Jasper shook his head, and he smiled brightly. Though he seemed to be in better spirits, something about his expression intensified the unpleasant sensation Diana felt in her stomach. Jasper rose from his seat quickly and pulled Diana gently from hers. He embraced her and gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek.
“This is great news, indeed,” he said. “I should be going so that you can begin making the necessary preparations at once.”
Diana nodded, smiling.
“I knew you would be just as happy as I am,” she said.
Jasper smiled again, but he averted his gaze.
“Indeed, dear,” he said softly.
After another quick embrace and promises to call on her again the next day, Jasper departed. Diana felt as though her life was perfect. She had her fiancé, and now she was carrying their first child. Soon, they would be a family, and Diana felt that she was the most fortunate woman in the world. That is until Jasper did not call on her the following day, or on any of the days that followed.
In fact, she did not hear from Jasper again until nearly a week after she told him of her pregnancy. That morning, she was greeted not by his arrival, but by a letter from him. She hurriedly opened and read it.
I regret to inform you that we shall not be getting married. You and I have never had relations, so the child that you are carrying cannot be mine. I am sorry for whatever predicament you find yourself in, but I cannot take responsibility for it. Please, make no effort to contact me further. It would pain me to be forced to tell anyone about your delicate condition.
Diana had to read the letter five times to understand the meaning of the words. As soon as they made sense, she began to cry. How could Jasper be denying the paternity of the child she was carrying? He had bedded her, and he must have known that the consequences of such actions could very well be the situation in which she now found herself.
Could he truly be so cold as to abandon her after helping her into her current “delicate condition”? And what did he expect her to tell her father about their wedding being called off?
For three days, Diana kept to herself, refusing to allow anyone into her bedchambers. She never even left her bed, turning away the servants who brought her meals. She even refused to see her brother, Edward, when he returned from one of his lengthier business trips. She did not see how she could ever face any of her family ever again. Yet, she also did not know what she would do in her current state.
Very early on the third day of her isolation, her mother came knocking frantically on her door. With great reluctance, and with eyes so swollen from crying that she could barely see, Diana pulled herself from her bed and opened the door.
To her surprise, her mother instantly pulled her into a tight embrace, nearly suffocating her as she pulled her to her breast, as she used to do when Diana was a child. She quickly nudged her daughter back inside her room and closed the door behind her. Then, she hugged her again.
“Darling, I am so sorry,” the Countess said, her own tears spilling down her cheeks as she stroked Diana’s face.
“What?” Diana asked, her depression replaced by confusion and apprehension.
“Sweetheart, you mustn’t let Jasper’s decisions ruin the rest of your life,” her mother continued, her voice thick with emotion.
Diana’s heart stopped. How could her mother know about her conversation with Jasper, or the subsequent letter?
“I know that Jasper broke off your engagement,” the Countess continued. “And that was most cruel of him, especially to announce the end of your relationship publicly and allow your name to be dragged through the scandal sheets.”
A sudden wave of dizziness overcame Diana, and she collapsed into a nearby chair.
“Scandal sheets?” she whispered. Had Jasper told her secret, after all?
The Countess knelt in front of her daughter and took her hands. She smiled at Diana through her tears and shook her head.
“Forget about him, darling,” she said. “If he does not wish to marry you, then we will help you find a good, proper gentleman who does.”
Diana stared at her mother, trying to figure out what was happening. With sudden clarity, she understood: Her mother did not know.
Overwhelmed with emotion, and by the topic of conversation, Diana collapsed with her face in her hands. She told her mother everything, from her seduction by Jasper to the fact that she was carrying his child. Finally, she showed her mother the letter that Jasper had written to her.
After several, unbearable moments of silence, the Countess looked at her daughter. Her face was slack, and her eyes were unreadable, although tears still streamed from them.
“Oh, Diana,” she said, shaking her head.
Diana held her breath, certain that her mother was about to order her from the family home. Time seemed to stretch on for an eternity. The only sound was the pounding of Diana’s overworking heart.
At last, the Countess rose, once more taking her daughter’s face in her hands.
“Give me a little time,” she said. “We will figure out what to do.” Her face grew solemn and serious. “But you must not speak a word of this to your father. He will disown you at once. Do you understand?”
Diana sobbed with relief. She nestled her face in her mother’s hands and nodded.
The Countess gave one final nod of her head, kissing her daughter atop her head. Then, she wordlessly exited the room, softly closing the door behind her.
Diana kept to her word, even though she did not see much of her mother in the following days. However, there was one thing that had occurred to her about Jasper’s sudden cruel behavior, and it was something that only her father could answer. So, one morning, after having Penny help her dress and look presentable, she squared her shoulders and marched downstairs.
She found her father in his study, the door cracked open, concentrating intently on a piece of paper that lay stretched across the width of his desk. As she stood there, Diana said a silent prayer that her mother had so far been the only one in the house to read the scandal sheets and that no one else had had the chance to question her father about the canceled wedding. Before she could change her mind, she pushed open the study door and entered the room.
“Father?” Diana asked timidly, trying to hide her red-rimmed eyes from the Earl. “May I ask you something?”
The Earl looked up and studied his daughter’s face. His brow creased with concern, but he merely nodded.
“Of course, darling,” he said, his voice kind and soft. “Ask anything you wish.”
Diana nodded, biting her lip nervously, and wondering if she had made a mistake in coming. She knew she needed the answer to the question she was about to ask, but she knew not if she truly wanted to hear it.
“What did Lord Winsby say to you on the day he asked you for my hand in marriage?” she asked quickly.
The Earl blinked in confusion.
“I do not understand what you mean,” he said. “Lord Winsby has never spoken to me about making an offer for your hand. In fact, he and I have never spoken privately at all, to my recollection.”
Diana gripped onto the chair in front of her, struggling to combat the sudden swooning spell that threatened to engulf her. It was the answer she had expected, but she had hoped against hope that she was wrong.
Jasper had never had any intention of marrying her. He had seduced her, and, like a fool, she had allowed him to. Now, she was left alone to cope with the damage he had caused.
The Earl jumped up from his seat, no doubt seeing what little color had been in his daughter’s cheeks abruptly drain away. He put his arm gently around her and tried to ease her down into the chair.
“Darling,” he said, his voice trembling. “What is it?”
Diana shook her head, pulling away from her father.
“Thank you, Father,” she said, turning to flee from the study. “I apologize for disturbing you.”
Before the Earl could question her further, she ran out of the room and back up the stairs.
The following day, the Countess entered Diana’s room once more, this time with the news that she would be traveling to Bath. There was a distant cousin on her mother’s side of the family, who had agreed to take in Diana.
The woman was nearing sixty years of age, and she had once found herself in the same predicament as poor Diana. Her pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage shortly after she learned she was with child, so she had narrowly been spared the same fate that Diana was facing. However, she was still very sympathetic and had given the Countess her word that Diana’s situation would be kept a secret, and that she would take the greatest care of her.
The Countess had told the Earl that Diana was going to the seminary school in Bath to help her get through the grief of Jasper’s decision to end the courtship, a lie which he believed wholeheartedly. They made the necessary travel preparations and had Diana’s things packed, and, when the day came for her to depart, the whole family, including Edward, gathered to see her off with warm love and well wishes.
As the carriage pulled away from her home, Diana’s heart was full of fear. What would she do now? Would she ever be able to return home or would she be forced to live forever in exile in Bath?
Four years later…
Diana sighed heavily as she aimlessly wandered the halls of the Bramshire townhouse. The place felt cold and strange to her, despite her having spent her entire childhood in her family home.
She had hoped, when her mother first told her that her father expected them to return to the townhouse for Christmastide, that its familiarity and the comfort it had once offered her would help her quickly feel as she should; as though she was at home.
However, even after being back for several days, she still felt uncomfortable and on edge, as though she was an unwelcome guest in someone else’s home. Perhaps it was because that was exactly what she would be, if her father knew the truth about her stay in Bath.
Her mother had been more than gracious with her since their return. The Countess had allowed Diana to stay in her bedchambers as much as she liked without disturbing her, and she even went into town most days so that Diana would have the house to herself.
She tried to show her mother appreciation for her kindness and leniency, but her heart remained heavy. She dreaded the upcoming holiday season, especially all the Christmastide events and celebrations she would, no doubt, be expected to attend. She knew well what the rest of London’s high society thought of her, and she knew that four years would hardly change it. Especially once they saw her out in public again.
With another sigh, Diana returned to her bedchambers. She was just preparing to try to take her mind off things with a book when there was a knock at the door. She looked up to see her mother enter the room, a small smile on her face.
“Good day, darling,” she said, walking over to her daughter and gently caressing her cheek. “How are you?”
Diana gave her mother her best, bravest smile.
“I am well, Mother,” she said. “How was your trip into town?”
The Countess’s smile widened, but her eyes showed a spark of apprehension.
“I postponed the trip,” she said. “I thought that you and I could go together today instead.”
Diana frowned. She had known she would not be able to hide away in the townhouse forever, but she had hoped to do so for a few more days.
“Mother,” Diana began, but the Countess kissed her daughter’s forehead and gently put a finger to her lips.
“I know that you are nervous about returning to normal life here,” she said. “But I really believe that a little shopping trip would do you some good.”
Diana looked at her mother sadly. Once upon a time, she would have been filled with joy at the prospect of spending the day shopping and milling about London’s many wonderful shops. Now, however, the very thought filled her with a sickening dread.
But she did not wish to let her mother down. The Countess was the one person on whom she could always rely, even during her darkest times, when most mothers would have disowned their daughters. She had promised her mother that she would try to make the best of things, and she knew that was exactly what she should do.
Giving her mother another false smile of bravery, she nodded.
“That sounds lovely,” she said, not surprised to hear her voice sounding as uncertain as she truly felt.
The Countess nodded, seeming to understand. She kissed Diana’s forehead again and patted her shoulder.
“I shall be at your side always, my darling,” she said. “Everything will be all right. You will see.”
Diana nodded, still smiling her empty smile.
“I know, Mother,” she said.
The Countess was full of excited chatter on the carriage ride into town, and Diana was content to let her and Penny talk animatedly to one another, contributing very little to the conversation. She was trying to keep herself calm and convince herself that her mother was right and that everything would be all right. She struggled to make herself believe it, however.
By the time they reached Bond Street, Diana felt that she had to put all her concentration on keeping her heart from pounding straight out of her chest. Nevertheless, when the carriage came to a stop in front of a row of high-class shops, she gave her mother a bright smile. She could at least ensure that she did not ruin the day for her mother, no matter how uncomfortable she felt.
She allowed her mother to lead her into a modiste’s shop. The Countess was immediately impressed with the wide variety of fabrics, ribbons, and trimmings. Diana smiled sadly, recalling a time, just a few years prior, when she would have been every bit as thrilled about browsing the beautiful selections as her mother was, and desperately wishing that she could regain that innocent, carefree attitude.
She knew that could never be, however, no matter how much she wished it. Still, she kept a smile on her face and murmured about how lovely each item that her mother showed her was, to show her mother that she would keep her word and try to make a good day out of the trip.
Just after noon, the Countess suggested that they visit one of the cafés that were scattered throughout the best shopping districts of London. Although Diana was still too tense to be hungry, she smiled and nodded to her mother in agreement.
She and her mother used to love spending the day shopping and then treating themselves to a nice lunch or dinner. Diana had no doubt that this was another attempt by her mother to help her relax and enjoy the day, and she did not want to hurt her mother’s feelings by rejecting the idea. Still, she silently wished they could return home and have a picnic in the townhouse garden instead.
As they stepped out of the modiste’s shop and back onto Bond Street, the delicious aroma of fresh mince pies caught Diana’s attention. She stopped and took a deep breath, smiling her first genuine smile all day. Her mother noticed, stopping before they reached the carriage.
“The bakery is just down from here,” the Countess said, winking at her daughter. “Would you like to go there instead?”
Diana looked at her mother and smiled.
“Could we?” she asked.
The Countess patted her daughter’s arm and nodded.
“Of course, we can, darling,” she said.
Diana smiled, walking beside her mother as they headed for the bakeshop. As they drew closer, the smell intensified, and Diana felt her stomach leap at the prospect of a delicious pie.
As they entered the shop, the smell enveloped the women. Diana felt a stirring of emotions, just as she always did as a child when entering a bakery. For that moment, all her troubles were replaced with fond memories and pleasant aromas, and the delightful promise of a delectable treat.
She was so enthralled by the smell of the pies that she did not see the woman exiting the shop. It was not until she felt her shoulder collide with the other lady’s that she realized she was there at all.
Blushing, Diana turned to face the woman, a profuse apology ready on her lips. When her eyes reached the woman’s face, however, the words died before she could open her mouth.
“As clumsy as you are without decorum, I see,” the Duchess of Lambridge said, scowling at her.
Diana opened and closed her mouth, fumbling now out of fear as much as embarrassment.
“I—I apologize…” she began.
“You really should be more careful, Diana,” the Duchess said. Then, without another word, she pushed past Diana in a huff and headed toward the door of the shop.
As Diana watched Jasper’s mother exit the bakery, she felt tears sting her eyes. There had been a time, whenever she and Jasper were courting, that Lady Lambridge had treated her with fond kindness. She had even told her, on one occasion, that she was glad her son had met her, and how she saw her as her own daughter. She felt foolish for ever having believed such a thing, even though she was quite sure that Jasper’s mother could not have known what her son had been up to.
Just then, her own mother rejoined her, having likely overheard the Duchesses’ unpleasant remarks.
“Are you quite all right, darling?” the Countess asked, touching her daughter’s arm.
Diana jumped, still tense from the encounter. She instinctively donned another false smile and nodded, blinking away her tears.
“Yes, Mother,” she said. “I am well. Shall we get our pies?”
Though her heart was no longer in the task, Diana smiled politely at the baker and placed her order alongside her mother’s. She maintained her smile, as the man handed the women their treats, and the Countess paid him. She helped her mother carry the pies back to the waiting carriage, still smiling, hoping that her mother would not notice anything amiss.
The carriage ride back home was a silent one. Diana could not be sure whether her mother had actually noticed her encounter with the Duchess, but she had no intention of mentioning it. The sooner she could put the incident behind her, the sooner she could concentrate on worrying about her father’s return, and about the upcoming holiday events that she would be expected to attend when he was home.
As soon as the carriage pulled up in front of their townhouse, Diana politely excused herself, completely abandoning her pie, and ran up to her bedchambers. She fell into the chair that sat in front of her bedroom window and sighed, once more desperately wishing that she were back at her family’s country home.
As she had so many times in the past four years, she wished that she had never met Jasper Moore, let alone fallen for his evil charms and that her life would not remain so joyless for the rest of her days. Yet, as she always did when she caught herself thinking such things, she told herself there was no way of turning back time, and that she must simply learn to deal with things as they presently stand. No amount of wishing, or even praying, would change anything.
She was not at all surprised when the Countess tried to slip into her room. She had, after all, forgotten to lock the door when she had rushed in earlier. She simply turned to her mother and put on her best faux smile.
“Good evening, Mother,” she said, trying to keep her tone light.
The Countess shook her head, putting a finger to her lips.
“Darling,” she said. “You do not have to pretend with me, remember? I know that your encounter with Lady Lambridge upset you, and I cannot blame you.”
Diana rose from her seat, feeling an undeserved resentment toward her mother. She was sure that the Countess meant well, but the last thing she wanted was to talk about Jasper, or his mother, or any of it. The point of her returning to London had been so she could put the past behind her, forget all about it, not to relive it. Yet, she found all she had done so far was a recall, suffer, and relive the nightmare. She shook her head in exasperation.
“Well, of course, it did,” Diana said. “She could not have been ruder if she had tried, of that I am certain.”
The Countess nodded and stood, walking over to her daughter.
“She was unnecessarily cruel, to be sure,” she said. “But would her coldness have bothered you, if some part of you had not been dwelling in the past, and on your relationship with her son?”
Diana opened her mouth and then closed it again. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, her mother was right. Had she been able to let go of her past with Jasper, the encounter with his mother, though still insulting and rude, would have been far less emotionally draining.
“Darling,” the Countess continued, putting her hands on her daughter’s shoulders. “It has been four years. You must put the past where it belongs. Do not let it be a terrible ghost that haunts your future.”
Diana opened her mouth to speak once more but stopped as she saw the urgency in her mother’s face. She knew the Countess did not understand things as Diana did. And her mother had been so loving and good to her when she had needed her most. Starting a feud with her would only put distance between her and the only person who was willing to stand beside her, despite her terrible, life-wrecking mistake.
After another moment of silence, Diana stepped toward her mother and embraced her.
“I know, Mama,” she said, something she had not called her mother since she was young. “I will try. I promise.”
The Countess pulled away from her daughter, the relief evident on her face. She kissed Diana on the forehead and patted her gently on the cheek.
“There’s my girl,” the Countess said. “Oh, and do not forget your father’s arrival early tomorrow morning. I am certain that he will be very much looking forward to seeing his daughter again.”
Diana nodded and smiled at her mother, secretly dreading her father’s return. She slept little that night, and when the sun began peeking over the horizon, she shivered, not from cold, but from knowing the sunrise brought with it another day of trying to pretend that her past did not exist, and that she was happy with her life.
As she entered the breakfast room the following morning, she saw that, indeed, both of her parents were there. When the Earl saw her enter, he stopped the conversation he was having with his wife and smiled broadly. She smiled back at her father, her heart beating wildly. She loved him, and she had missed him during the six months he had been away living in the Far East. But she was as nervous as she was excited about seeing her father, especially with the upcoming holiday social events.
She knew that her return to London would rekindle the old rumors that had spread throughout the ton after Jasper ended their courtship, and she feared that her father might begin to suspect that there was more to her relationship and dissolved courtship with Jasper than he was previously led to believe.
“Good morning, darling,” the Earl said, rising and hurrying over to his daughter. “How I have missed you, my dear.”
Diana kissed her father’s cheeks, embracing him.
“And I have missed you, Father,” she said, glancing at her mother over the Earl’s shoulder. The Countess gave her an encouraging smile and nod, and Diana took a deep, slow breath. “How was your trip?”
The Earl reclaimed his seat, still smiling at Diana, and began telling her and her mother of all his adventures and business acquisitions that occurred while he was overseas.
Diana listened intently, more than happy for something to take her mind off the past few days by hearing all about what her father had been doing while absent. Though the table was missing her brother, who now lived with his wife, the atmosphere was almost exactly as it had been throughout Diana’s childhood.
Soon, however, the Earl excused himself to go to his study, saying that he had a great deal of paperwork to attend to following the deals he had made while out East. The Countess, too, excused herself, having previously arranged to go into town. Fortunately, she did not ask Diana to accompany her, for which Diana was exceedingly grateful. She decided that she would spend the day in the drawing room, making Christmas decorations. She knew that there was some red and green paper from which she could create some lovely peonies that would make lovely decorations for the mantle and the dining hall. It was an activity she had always loved as a child, and she felt sure that it would soothe her aching and ragged nerves.
With a smile, and a kiss for both of her parents as they departed, she retreated to the drawing room. A day of immersing herself in simple crafts would do her a world of good. She felt sure of it.
“Goodness,” Luke murmured to himself as he sifted through the stack of paperwork on his desk. “Will I ever be finished?”
As he spoke the words, he let out a soft chuckle. In his eighteen months as duke, he had learned well that he would never be finished. Just as he was finished with one set of paperwork for one specific bit of business or financial issue, he would always end up with another two or three. Such was the life of a duke. Still, he often wondered if he would ever learn his station well enough to feel as though he was on top of everything, rather than everything being on top of him.
Would that Mother was here, he thought to himself.
Truthfully, he doubted that she would have much of an idea about the business his father had left behind, along with his title. And he knew that his mother’s focal point was the four-year-old little girl that she had adopted. But, sometimes, he felt that having a familiar presence around him, even if it were merely to distract him from his work from time to time, would be of great benefit to him. Still, he knew that his new role of duke was one he must conquer himself, as his own father had.
Luke paused in his paperwork, remembering the letter his mother had sent him a few days earlier. Thinking of missing his mother’s company reminded him that she had told him that she and little Charlotte would be coming to spend the holiday season at Norbury Manor.
He bit his lip, rummaging through the papers more urgently, trying to find the letter. Fortunately, he found it sticking out of the stack he had before him. He reread the letter quickly, noting she said they would be arriving the following day. Muttering a curse under his breath, he abandoned the papers on his desk and rose from his seat.
As quickly as he could manage, he issued orders for his house staff to make the necessary preparations for his mother’s and Charlotte’s arrival the next day. He then set about instructing the kitchen servants to begin making plans for meals that would include two extra people. He cursed himself again silently, hoping that his negligence had not made such preparations on such short notice exceedingly difficult. Before evening, however, his servants informed him that everything was ready and awaiting the new arrivals.
With a sigh of relief, Luke decided to go into town for a few hours. Though he was looking forward to seeing his mother and little Charlotte, he also knew that evening would be the last he got to himself until quite some time after the holiday season ended.
He thought he would make the best of it and decided to visit a couple of the gentleman’s clubs he loved to frequent. The first one, Gerald’s, had little happening that evening. His personal favorite, however, Hamshire’s, had a comfortable number of other gentlemen in attendance, many of whom were actively involved in various card games. With a small smile, Luke began to make his way to the back of the club.
“Egerton,” a familiar voice called.
Luke stopped, looking around to find the person to whom the voice belonged. As soon as he met the eyes of the man who had spoken, his smile widened considerably.
“North,” he said, quickly making his way to the man, his hand extended before he even reached the table where he was sitting. “It has been an age.”
Owen North rose and greeted his old friend, accepting Luke’s hand and giving it a hearty shake. Then, he gestured for Luke to join him, which Luke did gladly.
“Indeed, it has, my friend,” Owen said, beckoning to the waiter. “What are you drinking?”
“Whiskey, please,” Luke said without hesitation as the waiter reached the table. The man nodded and bowed, then left to prepare the Duke’s drink. Luke turned to his friend.
“How are you, old man?” he asked with a wicked grin. The Marquess of Calthorpe was only a year older than Luke, but they often teased each other as though it was a twenty-year age difference.
Owen groaned and shook his head.
“I will thank you kindly to not remind me of my advancing age, child,” he said, his eyes twinkling.
“Oh, come now,” he said. “Thirty is not so old.”
Owen’s eyes widened, then narrowed to tiny slits.
“You bite your tongue, young man,” he said, his mouth twitching as he suppressed a smile. “I am not yet thirty. Not until tomorrow, that is.”
Luke pretended to rub his chin thoughtfully.
“Of course,” he said. “Forgive my error. I suppose it was the creases at the corners of your eyes that misled me.”
Owen raised an eyebrow and smirked at Luke.
“You speak boldly for someone who will soon see his own creases,” he said.
Luke sighed and nodded.
“At this rate, I shall age ten years before my thirtieth birthday,” he said with a chuckle.
Owen nodded knowingly.
“I understand that you recently inherited your father’s dukedom,” he said. “How is that going for you?”
Luke shook his head.
“I believe I will have it mastered somewhere near the turn of next century,” he said.
Both men laughed.
Luke’s drink arrived then, and Owen raised his glass to his friend. Luke touched his glass to Owen’s and smiled.
“To your thirtieth birthday,” he said, taking a sip of the whiskey.
Owen nodded, drinking from his own tumbler.
“I am glad to have found you here,” he said. “It saves me a trip to your home.”
“Oh?” Luke asked, raising his eyebrows.
“I planned to pay you a visit to invite you to my birthday ball tomorrow evening,” he said.
Luke nodded, opening his mouth to heartily accept the invitation. Then, he paused, remembering his mother’s arrival the following day.
“I am expecting Mother and Charlotte tomorrow afternoon,” he said regretfully.
Owen shrugged and smiled.
“The invitation extends to your mother, as well,” he said. “It would be lovely to see her again, too.”
“I am certain that she would love to see you,” he said. “And I am sure that she would love to attend a ball soon. She has been so busy with little Charlotte.”
Owen nodded and smiled fondly.
“How is young Lady Charlotte?” he asked. He had only met Luke’s adopted sister a few times, but, as she had a tendency of doing, she had won his heart instantly.
Luke smiled his own doting smile.
“She is growing so quickly,” he said, thinking of the last time he had seen the little girl a few months prior. “She is already four years old, and she is very intelligent.”
Owen nodded, raising his eyebrow at Luke.
“Well, at least your mother has one clever child,” he said, his eyes sparkling with mirth.
Luke narrowed his eyes at his friend, his mouth twitching with a grin he fought to suppress.
“And I suppose you are a genius,” he said, swirling his drink in his glass. “After all, only one with incredible intellect would poke a hornet’s nest until it crashed to the ground and barely escape a terrible mass of stings.”
Owen laughed, nearly choking on the sip of his own drink that he had just taken.
“As I recall, it was you who told me I should do it,” he said.
Luke shook his head.
“And you believed me,” he said, chuckling heartily. “So, I repeat my previous statement.”
Owen laughed, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye.
“Young man, I believe that makes us mad, not necessarily stupid,” he said.
“Mother certainly disagreed,” Luke recalled, beginning to laugh again, as he recalled how his mother had lectured him after that incident. “I thought she was going to lock me in the attic after that.”
The two men laughed.
“And I suppose you have forgotten the time you shoved that giant boulder and it crashed into Parson Manor’s stables,” Owen said suddenly, his face lighting up at having recalled something with which to tease his friend in return.
Luke blushed and shook his head.
“Perhaps, we should not tease each other about things we did when we were young,” he said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair.
Owen laughed heartily.
“That was just four years ago,” he said, howling with laughter. “Just after your mother adopted little Charlotte, in fact.”
Luke rolled his eyes, his own laughter bubbling to the surface. Lord and Lady Parson had been away at their country home at the time that incident had occurred, and neither Luke nor Owen ever spoke a word to anyone about what had happened. When the couple had returned, they assumed that terrible weather or some wild animal had been responsible, and they had quickly made repairs.
Fortunately, there had been no horses in the stables, and the damage had been limited to the exterior of the structure. Still, Luke had been mortified and, even though it had been an accident that occurred while he and Owen had been out riding their own horses, he had never worked up the courage to tell Lord and Lady Parson what had happened. Now, with the incident long forgotten by everyone, except himself and Owen, he found himself laughing just as hard as his friend.
The two men spent the rest of the evening reminiscing. It felt wonderful to Luke to talk about times past, when the world seemed more exciting and less full of worries and duties. By the end of the evening, Luke felt full of warmth and nostalgia, and only in part because of the whiskey. He and Owen parted with warm embraces and farewells, and with Luke promising that he and his mother would attend his friend’s ball the following evening.
Luke slept well that night, and awoke before the sun began to rise, invigorated and ready for the day ahead. He had a quick breakfast and then spent the morning ensuring that everything was prepared for his mother and adopted sister, even going through the details twice. He even ensured that the kitchen staff had prepared a large batch of the little girl’s favorite strawberry punch. By noon, he was pacing in the entryway, anxiously awaiting the arrival of little Charlotte and the Dowager Duchess.
The pair arrived just after three o’clock that afternoon. The butler announced their arrival, though it was unnecessary since Luke was pacing up and down the hallway. He rushed to the door, immediately scooping up a bouncing Charlotte into his arms and giving her a big kiss on the cheek.
“She has talked of nothing but seeing you for the past fortnight,” said the breathless Duchess as she followed the excited toddler inside the manor.
Luke laughed, making smacking noises against the little girl’s cheek and neck, causing her to erupt into a fit of giggles.
“That tickles, Luke,” she said between gasps for breath.
“Oh, does it?” Luke asked, pulling his face away from the child and pulling his free hand back, aiming it at her stomach slyly. “Well, what about this?”
He laughed loudly as his fingertips met with her ribs and she nearly fell out of his arms in hysterics. He quickly removed his hand and reached up to catch the little girl just as she bucked backward and nearly sent the two of them toppling to the floor.
The Dowager Duchess stood back watching them; a broad but exhausted smile on her face.
Luke gave little Charlotte one final kiss on her cheek before placing her gently on the floor. Then, he reached for his mother, kissing her gently on the cheek.
“Well, I have certainly been looking forward to seeing both of you,” he said, smiling warmly at his mother.
The nursemaid, Julia, entered just behind them carrying two small suitcases that Luke presumed could only belong to Charlotte.
“Good day, milord,” she said, sounding almost as breathless as the duchess.
“Good day, Julia,” Luke said with a smile. “It is wonderful to see you again as well.”
He motioned for the butler, who motioned for a footman, to take the suitcases from her at once and take them upstairs to their chambers. The nursemaid smiled gratefully at Luke, who bowed politely to her and gestured for everyone to follow him into the drawing room, where the tea, champagne, cakes, and Charlotte’s strawberry punch waited.
Charlotte spent half an hour telling Luke all about the new toys and dresses the Dowager Duchess had bought her recently, as well as the new friend she had made during their outings to the parks. Luke was happy to listen to the child prattle on, giving his mother a chance to relax and sip a little champagne.
Once Charlotte began to slow down, Julia took her up to her room to put her down for a short nap before dinner. With the two of them gone, it was just the Duchess and Luke remaining. Luke decided to join his mother in a flute of champagne, raising the slender glass to her in a toasting gesture.
“I am so glad that the two of you are here,” Luke said honestly, lifting the flute to his lips.
The Duchess sighed, clearly exhausted, but also just as thrilled to be there with her son.
“We are very much looking forward to spending Christmastide with you, my darling,” she said.
“You are doing a wonderful job with little Charlotte,” Luke said, gazing fondly toward the door, even though the child was long gone.
The Dowager Duchess nodded, also looking at the doorway with deep affection.
“She is a sweet child,” she said, sipping her own champagne. “She is full of such love.”
Luke nodded, feeling a tear of pride and love prickling his eye.
“She is a wonderful little girl,” he said.
They spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the upcoming holiday events. Luke told his mother of Owen’s birthday celebration invitation, which the Duchess accepted heartily. They also spoke of Christmastide seasons past, and of the times when Luke’s father was still alive.
By the time they had both retired that evening, Luke felt his heart was so full of love and nostalgia that he thought it might burst. As he had the previous night, he fell quickly into a deep sleep, his last thoughts being of his sweet little adopted sister, and how thrilled he was that he would be able to spend the holiday season with her sweet, cherubic face before him.
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