Smitten with a Scarred Duke
Roger St. John’s eyes flew open, only to be greeted with a thick haze of what appeared to be fog. For a moment, nothing made any sense. He could feel his bed beneath him, and he could see the corner of his bedside table when he turned his head. He started to close his eyes again, thinking that, perhaps, he had left the window cracked, despite the cold of winter, and some of London’s notorious fog had drifted in while he slept. But a moment later, he realized it was too warm in the room for there to be a window open. Far too warm, in fact. He took a deep breath to sigh, and instantly began coughing. As his lungs fought to expel the choking breath, he realized with horror it was not fog at all filling his room—it was smoke.
As he leapt from his bed and the sleep still clouding his mind, which quickly evaporated, he heard the loud roaring and crackling of a fire. Panicked, he looked around, searching for flames inside his bedchambers, but he saw none. He began coughing again, smoke filling his lungs with his every breath.
He thought quickly, grabbing his shirt from the day before from where it hung at the end of his bed and wrapping it around his face, tying the sleeves around the back of his head to keep it in place. Then, he rushed to the door and grabbed the handle, groaning as the fire-heated metal seared his hand. He wrapped the hem of his night shirt around his hand and tried again, barely managing to open the door before the molten metal singed his clothes.
The smoke was much thicker out in the hallway than in his bedchambers, and, for a moment, Roger was disoriented. He closed his eyes in a vain effort to keep out the stinging smoke, as he tried to regain his bearings. He had begun groping his way to the stairs when a horrifying thought occurred to him. Had his father made it out? Or was he still in his bedchambers?
Turning abruptly in the ever-thickening smoke, Roger changed directions, moving away from the staircase, and going further down the hallway, toward his father’s chambers. The walk was the slowest of his life, not only because he could not see through the smoke and the watering of his eyes, but because time itself seemed to have slowed down remarkably. Roger stumbled about the second floor of Norfield Manor, feeling the heat from the blazing fire growing more intense as he drew closer to his parents’ rooms. Long before he reached the door to his father’s bedchambers, he made another horrific realization. Whatever the cause or source, the fire seemed to have started near, or in, his parent’s wing of the mansion.
Struggling against the panic rising in his heart, as well as against the smoke and heat, Roger plunged ahead and reached his father’s door. He once more wrapped his shirt around his hand and put his hand on the door, relieved and surprised when it swung open. His father must have fallen asleep the previous night without closing his door completely, which he did often, especially if the countess was gone, as she was that night. She was visiting her cousin in France, and Roger felt another rush of relief as he realized his mother’s life was not in jeopardy.
The relief was short-lived, however. Roger heard a loud cracking sound, and then an even louder thud from inside his father’s bedchambers. Without hesitating further, Roger burst into the room, looking around frantically for any sign of his father. The smoke seemed to be the thickest in his father’s room, confirming his fear that the fire had started at the duke’s wing of the manor. His shirt was no longer serving its purpose, and the smoke nearly overwhelmed him then, sending him into a body-racking fit of coughing. He could not see a thing, and the smoke was stinging his eyes so badly, his vision was as useless to him as the shirt over his face. So, he closed his eyes and used only his sense of touch to feel his way around his father’s bedchambers. He knew the room well, having spoken to his father privately in there many times throughout his life, but he had to move slowly because of debris that was slowly beginning to pile up. He knew, as the fire continued to burn, that further sections of the manor would soon begin to collapse, and at a faster rate, and that he was racing against time to help his father. He continued moving carefully, beginning to call out to his father in the hopes of hearing a response and being able to follow the sound to the duke.
But if his father did call back to him, he could not hear it over the roar of the flames. However, a long moment later, Roger could feel one of the wooden corner posts of the bed, now burning hot and groaning in protest at the heat. With more confidence, Roger reached out until he could feel the mattress and began patting it, fighting to keep his breathing shallow, so he did not begin coughing once again. He could feel nothing other than the sheets which, though they were warm, did not feel as though they were burning. Nor did they seem to contain his father. Relief washed over Roger once more, and he started to turn back toward the door. However, his foot got tangled in some of the debris that had fallen beside the bed, and he collapsed on to it. Unfortunately, he fell on more than just the mattress.
The duke was lying, unmoving, in the middle of the bed. Roger shouted vainly over the sound of the fire, which was growing louder by the second. He shook the duke, hoping to rouse him enough to get him out of the bed, so he could help him out of the room and out of the inferno. But the only movement from the elder man was a hand sliding from his chest and brushing Roger’s hands as it fell limply onto the bed beside him. No, Roger thought, his mind beginning to race. Please, God, no…!
Frantic, Roger took firm hold of the arm, which now lay slackly on the mattress, with one hand, then his father’s leg with the other. He quickly prayed he would not injure his father, as he held his breath and pulled firmly on his father’s lax body. He felt a small sense of relief as he realized the duke could be moved with relative ease. That meant he was likely still alive, just merely unconscious. However, Roger was uncertain of whether he could carry his father if the older man could not at least stand on his own.
Another large chunk of debris falling from the ceiling on the other side of the bed gave Roger no time to ponder the question. With a sudden rush of adrenaline, Roger pulled his father across the bed and to him. He leaned down, feeling the heat suddenly intensify as the bed itself at last caught fire. He wrapped his arms around his father’s back, and, after a momentary struggle, pulled the duke off the bed and slung him over his shoulder. He did not bother trying to feel or listen for a pulse. There would be time for that later. Now, he needed to get his father out of the burning manor.
By the time he had wrestled his father out into the hallway, the smoke was so thick, Roger could not see a thing. He tried to shout for any of the servants, but he could not hear his own voice over the roaring flames. That meant, if any of the staff remained in the manor, they would not be able to hear him, either. His stomach sank at the thought of his family’s faithful servants being trapped by the fire, and he said another silent prayer for them to reach safety in time. He promised himself he would go and look for any others who might still be trapped inside as soon as he had gotten his father safely outside.
On the lower floor of the manor, he found to his relief there was considerably less smoke than on the upper floor, and Roger had less trouble finding his way to the front door than when navigating his way around the upstairs hallway. He still had to move with caution, however, as he did not know how much, if any, of the lower parts of the house had begun to catch fire. As such, he could not predict whether he might encounter more falling, burning pieces of his family’s country home. The threat of debris had been bad enough before. Now, with his father in tow, it could very well be deadly.
Not until he stepped outside and felt the sharp, cold bite of the winter wind did he feel the pain. Hot and searing, it flooded his hands and arms, so suddenly and so excruciatingly, he nearly dropped the duke haphazardly on the ground. He just managed to gently lower his father to the snow-covered ground before the pain in his hands caused him to lose his grip. The sheer agony temporarily replaced all other feelings, and Roger looked down at his arms to see the sleeves of his shirt, or what was left of them, were singed almost completely black. As he continued examining himself, he saw parts of his flesh were also blackened, and quickly forming large blisters.
With horror, he realized the vast majority of his arms and hands had been exposed to the fire. Vaguely, he recalled the intense heat near his father’s bed, realizing it had not been merely the hotness of the flames radiating toward him. At the time, he had been too concerned for his father to realize it, but he had stuck his arms directly into those flames, into the fire itself. His hands began to tremble as the pain worsened, and he clenched his teeth as he growled in agony. Tears filled his eyes, and he prayed for death to end the searing torture his body was experiencing.
A terrible rattling sound at his feet brought Roger back from the brink of pain-induced madness. His unconscious father writhed at his feet, and Roger fell to his knees beside him. It sounded as if the duke was trying to cough, but the only sound he was producing was a grating, hissing wheeze. Roger firmly patted his father’s chest, hoping to facilitate a semblance of normal breathing. And, for a moment, it seemed he got his wish. The duke’s eyes flew open and his body lurched upward, his hands clutching onto one of his son’s freshly burned arms tightly. Roger screamed in pain, but he quickly composed himself, using his free arm to cradle the duke’s back once more. Almost instantly, the elder man fell back against the arm holding him, and Roger once more placed him gently on the ground. Roger looked around wildly, at last seeing what appeared to be all the household servants outside, all in their nightclothes, some frozen in shock, and others running frantically about and shouting things he could not hear over the crackle of the flames and the roaring blood in his ears.
Roger looked down at his father once more. He patted his chest again, harder this time, and tried to smile.
“Hold on, Father,” he said, beginning to rise. “I shall get help immediately.”
The duke’s grip did not lessen on his son’s arm, however. That is, at least, not until he had taken three final, harsh breaths, each rattling more horribly in his throat than the one before. As he took the third breath, his grip became impossibly tight on Roger’s arm, causing his son to cry out again in pain. The duke held on for several long seconds, his eyes seeming ready to bulge out of their sockets. Then, at last, he fell back into the impression his body had made in the snow, his hand dropping limply to the ground, before finally releasing Roger’s arm from its grip. It took Roger a mere moment to understand what was happening and, cradling his arm, which felt as if it was still ablaze, he began to scream. The last thing he remembered before everything went black was a crowd of faces rushing toward him, shouting things that were still inaudible.
“You were very fortunate, my lord,” the physician said, completing his hour-long examination of Roger.
Roger chuckled bitterly; the sound akin to two pieces of corroded metal being rubbed together. The smoke and his screaming had left his throat sore and being unconscious for nearly a week after the fire had weakened his vocal cords. He had come to only once, just long enough to ask someone, though he could no longer recall who, about his father. Upon learning his father had, indeed, succumbed to smoke inhalation, he had once more fallen unconscious, and had thus remained until earlier that morning. When the servants discovered he had awakened, they immediately sent for the doctor, who rushed to the manor to begin his exam.
“Fortunate?” Roger rasped, holding up his freshly bandaged arms. “Could it be that a physician does not quite know the meaning of the word?”
The doctor shrugged nonchalantly and began putting away his equipment.
“You could have met the same fate as your father,” he said, rather coldly. “And the flames did not even graze your face. So, yes, I dare say you were very lucky indeed.”
Roger chuckled again, a fierce cough disrupting the bitter laugh.
“Indeed,” he mumbled.
He settled back against the pillow and closed his eyes, feigning sleep until the physician, very noisily, at last exited his room. Then, he gingerly pried one of the looser bandages up and off his skin to peek underneath. The blisters under the fine gauze had burst, leaving in their wake a large patch of bright red, stinging flesh. Roger sighed, clenching his teeth together to fight back tears of both pain and anger. He called for one of the servants to see to it that someone wrote to his mother and informed her of what had happened, and of his father’s death. Then, he ordered the woman to lock the door to the guest room where he was resting, which was located in the wing left relatively undamaged by the fire. He wanted to ensure no one would disturb him until he came out of the room of his own accord. And he did not exit that room for three more days, after which he announced he would be returning to Norfield Manor. The country home would need a great deal of repair; the entire wing that had housed his parent’s rooms would need extensive repairs. But more than that, Roger felt he would better cope with his grief in their London home, rather than in the house where the fire that had claimed his father’s life had occurred. He believed being amongst friendly faces and in a home free of the pervasive smells of charred wood, molten metal, and lingering smoke would allow him to come to terms with what had happened and make such a difficult time in his life easier. He had no way of knowing just how wrong he was.
I see you watching me, Mother, Amelia Worthington thought bitterly, as the countryside scenery flew past the bumping carriage’s window. But I have nothing to say to you. With no guilt whatsoever, Amelia continued ignoring the countess, despite her blatant attempts to catch her daughter’s eye. If you really wish for my attention, Mother, why do you not speak to me?
Amelia knew the answer to her unspoken question, of course. Her mother did not directly address her because she knew well how upset her daughter was at being forced from their family’s country home and back into their townhouse in London. Amelia had not spoken to either the earl or the countess in the two days leading up to their departure from the countryside, and she had no intention of doing so as they traveled, however long the trip might take. The earl was, as he had been in the days before they left for London, blissfully unaware of the tension between Amelia and her mother, and of his daughter’s unhappiness.
He had drifted off almost as soon as the carriage had pulled away from their country house early that morning, and despite the rough bouncing of the coach, he seemed to be sleeping very soundly. That almost made Amelia angrier than if he, too, had been trying to get her attention. It meant he was pleased with himself for the decision to force her back into London society, and could sleep soundly, despite his only daughter’s anguish. Amelia could not help sighing as she continued staring out of the window, not really seeing any of the beautiful scenery she was forced to leave behind. What she was seeing was the reason why she did not want to return to London. She was seeing Eric’s face.
She had been betrothed to the Marquess of Alwood two years prior. She was sure they had been happier than any pair of young lovers in all of London had any right to be, and joy at the prospect of their upcoming wedding and spending the rest of her life with her one true love filled her heart. She and her mother had spent days going for dress fittings, selecting flowers and decorations, and writing out wedding invitations, and Amelia had never been more excited. Even the countess seemed fuller of life than her daughter could ever remember having seen her when growing up. Amelia would never have imagined she would not be allowed to enjoy the beautiful wedding and perfect life that was in the palm of her hand. But life can be cruel that way sometimes, can it not?
Exactly one week before her wedding to Eric, the happy betrothed couple were traveling together in his carriage. It had been a beautiful day, and they had been laughing and talking of their future and the children they would have. Suddenly, the coach jerked to an abrupt, frightening halt. Eric had told her to stay inside the carriage while he went to investigate, and within moments, Amelia heard shouting. She immediately started to disobey Eric’s orders and exit the carriage, but another short minute later, that was no longer necessary. Nor was it possible.
At first, all she saw was a blur of white, black, and blue, which was made all the more disorienting by the loud shouting going on. Then, there was a loud thud against the side of the carriage, and she saw the blur was now blocking the carriage door. Part of the blur, that was. With a gasp of horror, she realized the black and blue parts of the blurry haze had been shirts, and wearing those shirts were men wearing masks. The white had been Eric, his jacket having been discarded, or torn off, and his white shirt beneath exposed. Only now it was no longer merely white. Amelia could see it was splattered with blood and, in the places where the shirt was ripped, she could see long lacerations along Eric’s torso. She could also see Eric was pressed firmly against the door of the carriage, and one of the masked men was trying to pull him away, presumably to open the door and drag out Amelia. Fortunately, the man who wasn’t trying to pull Eric away from the door was patting Eric down, likely searching to see if he had any valuables on his person. Or, perhaps, looking for any weapons. In any case, it was working against the man who was trying to get inside the carriage, preventing Eric from being moved. The tug-of-war caused the two bandits to begin arguing, and, for a moment, neither of them were paying any attention to Eric or Amelia.
Seizing her opportunity, Amelia crouched down onto the floor of the coach and crawled quietly over to the door. She tested the handle and found the door could now be opened. She did not want to alert the men to her actions, but she hoped she could get Eric’s attention. As quietly as she could, she repeatedly nudged him with the door, praying he would catch on to what she was trying to accomplish. Gradually, she noticed she could open the door marginally wider each time, and she realized at once that Eric had caught on. She opened the door slowly one final time and saw Eric’s hand slip around the door. Without a single word between them, he had understood what she was trying to do. Holding her breath, she gave the door a final shove and waited for Eric to jump inside the carriage.
The events of the next moments seemed impossibly slow, even in her memory. She saw Eric’s face peer into the door as he prepared to jump, hunched over, into the coach. Then, she saw surprise on his face as he was suddenly pulled away from the open door. The door slammed shut again, and Amelia leapt for it, finding it once more pinned shut. She leapt up from the floor just in time to see a flash of something shiny and metallic. Before her mind could register what she was seeing, there was a loud bang, like a small explosion, which caused an intense ringing in her ears. She covered her ears vainly, as the sound did not cease, but her hands only remained at the sides of her head briefly, before making their way to her cheeks. Where she had just been leaning on the carriage door, there was now a hole, and through that hole dripped a steady stream of blood. Even over the ringing in her ears, Amelia could hear herself begin screaming.
The men outside heard her screams, too. The man in black began pounding on the carriage window, shouting furiously. The man wearing blue lifted what she now knew was a pistol and aimed it right at her face. With nowhere to go, she was trapped, and all three of them knew it. Unable to move, Amelia merely stood there, closed her eyes, and continued to scream, waiting to hear another bang, and then to never see or hear anything ever again.
Whether it was because the marauders ran out of bullets, or because their weapon jammed, Amelia would never know. Whatever the case, the second bang never came. With her heart racing, she slowly opened her eyes, just in time to see the two men running, as quickly as they could, away from the carriage. She vaguely noted she had stopped screaming as she exited the carriage and knelt beside Eric. She was also only vaguely aware that the footman who had been driving the carriage lay in a heap not far from where Eric sat slouched, leaning aslant away from the carriage door, lying near him. She shuddered, the memories every bit as vivid as if she were reliving that awful day again…
A sudden jolt yanked her back to the present. With a start, she looked out of the carriage window, where she was greeted with the sight of Ereswell Manor. Their journey was at its end, and Amelia did not know whether to be relieved, or even more disappointed and full of loathing. Despite her turmoil, however, she could not help smiling as she saw the servants begin to file out of the front door, which was being held open by the butler, ready to greet the family as they disembarked from the carriage.
Amongst the waiting staff members was one face that made Amelia almost glad to be back at Ereswell Manor. She opened the coach’s door just as it began to roll to a stop, not bothering to wait until it was no longer moving, and raced toward the center of the group of servants. She rushed straight into the arms of Kitty, her lady’s maid, who was laughing with delight before Amelia had even reached her.
“It is so good to have you home again, milady,” Kitty said, embracing Amelia tightly.
Amelia shook her head, pressing her face into the maid’s shoulder.
“I cannot say the same, Kitty,” she said. “But it is certainly wonderful to see you again.”
Her lady’s maid released her, beckoning to two footmen and ordering them to begin retrieving Amelia’s belongings from the carriage. Then, she escorted her mistress up the stairs and into her bedchambers. Amelia was relieved to at last be away from her parents, and she told Kitty as much once they had reached her room. As she and the maid waited for her things to be brought up, the two women talked, catching up on each other’s news after so many months of being apart. Amelia told Kitty about how peaceful it had been in the country, and how she had been so loath to come back into London, and Kitty told her all the latest gossip involving the servants, including what seemed to be a budding romance between a maid and a stable hand. At last, Amelia began to relax. Though she felt she would never be happy at Ereswell Manor, having Kitty by her side again offered some comfort.
Bit by bit, Amelia’s belongings made their way to her bedchambers, and Kitty began unpacking them and putting them away. She continued talking to Amelia as she worked, and Amelia listened with rapt attention for several minutes. However, gradually, the long journey caught up with her, and she leaned her head back against the chair where she was sitting and closed her eyes. She thought about the heavy silence filling the coach during their trip. She thought about all the things in the countryside she already missed dearly. But most of all, she thought about Eric.
Her eyes flew open at the sound of knocking at the door of her bedchambers. She looked around, squinting to see in the dim light, and noticed all her things had been unpacked and neatly stowed away, with Kitty now nowhere in sight.
“Come in,” she said, glancing sleepily at the clock. She realized she and her family had been home for hours. I must have fallen asleep, she thought.
As if to confirm her thoughts, Kitty entered the room wearing a sweet smile.
“Did you nap well, milady?” she asked.
Amelia smiled sheepishly and nodded.
“Forgive me for falling asleep on you like that,” she said. “The trip must have taken more out of me than I realized.”
Kitty shook her head, still smiling.
“There is no need to apologize,” she said. “There is, however, a need for you to prepare for dinner. The meal shall be served shortly. Would you like me to help you dress?”
Amelia opened her mouth to confirm she would, then closed it again. She glanced down at her dress, which was slightly wrinkled from her nap in the chair. However, she did not see any reason to change. It was only herself and her parents, after all, and she was still in no mood to try to impress them.
“No, thank you, Kitty,” Amelia said defiantly. “This dress will do perfectly.”
Kitty smiled knowingly and nodded.
“Very well, milady,” she said, walking to the door and opening it with a grand flourish that made Amelia giggle. “I shall walk down with you, if you like.”
When Amelia reached the door to the main dining hall, she could see both her parents already seated. Her mother was talking excitedly, something about dresses, and the earl was nodding dutifully as his wife spoke. Amelia entered the room, avoiding meeting the eyes of both parents and pointedly ignoring the countess when she rose from her seat to approach Amelia and greet her as she, too, took her seat.
The countess, unperturbed by her daughter’s cold silence, clasped her hands together and held them up to her chest, her excitement almost tangible.
“Oh, Amelia, darling,” she gushed. “I so look forward to our buying dresses for this year’s season. We shall have all the latest, most fashionable patterns to choose from.”
This caught Amelia’s attention. She whipped her head up and looked at her mother with wide eyes. She felt there was no possible way she could suffer shopping at present, especially not for new season dresses. She could hardly look at a store front without thinking of all the shopping she and her mother had done for the wedding that never came to pass. And she would not even consider attending any of the balls. Yet, she knew she could not say as much to her parents. They would not listen any more than they had about her reluctance to return to London. Instead, she gave her mother an indulgent smile.
“I have no desire to go shopping, Mother,” she said. “Not when I have so many lovely dresses already. I hardly need any new ones.”
The countess’s face fell, and Amelia thought that would be the end of the discussion. However, the earl cleared his throat loudly and looked at his daughter with a fierce gaze.
“It is high time you moved on with your life, Amelia,” he said firmly. “Two years is far too long for you to still be grieving so. You will go shopping with your mother, and that is final.”
Amelia stared at her father with a mix of anger and disbelief. He had never spoken to her so harshly, and certainly not since Eric had died. She bit her lip, barely restraining herself from telling her father yet again how unhappy she was about returning to London. A sideways glance at her mother softened her heart, though. The countess sat watching her husband and daughter, particularly the latter, her earlier joy rapidly melting from her expression, to be replaced with dejection and worry. As angry with her parents as she was, Amelia could not help remembering how supportive her parents had been regarding her desire to move to the countryside in the first place. They, too, had felt it would help her while she grieved for her loss, and they had made the move while showing her nothing but love and kindness. Though she would never be happy about returning to London, she supposed she should try to be less disagreeable about the situation.
“Very well,” she said softly. “I shall accompany Mother into town.”
The following morning, Kitty tried to engage Amelia in conversation as she helped her dress and styled her hair, in an obvious effort to brighten her mistress’s mood before her trip with her mother into the city. However, Amelia could not be cajoled out of her brooding thoughts. She wanted to run away from the memories of London and first meeting Eric, and the way he had captured her heart, not toward them. She felt near panic as she thought of all the things in town that were sure to remind her of how madly in love she and Eric had been, and how unfairly and abruptly he had been taken from her.
“Milady?” Kitty said softly, squeezing her shoulder and bringing her back to the reality of the moment. “You are ready to depart for town.”
Amelia nodded silently. She was grateful Kitty seemed to be perfectly understanding of her sullen mood, but she could not muster the words to say as much. Instead, she merely followed her lady’s maid down the stairs and to where her mother waited. Just as silently, and just as sullenly, Amelia suffered the carriage ride into town, during which her mother talked endlessly of all the colors and kinds of materials she had heard were in style that season, and about how lovely she thought both of them would look in each one.
The visit to the modiste’s shop was worse still. Amelia had struggled not to faint from the overwhelming sadness that filled her heart the moment she set foot inside the store. The flashbacks of having come to that very shop for the fittings for her wedding dress were instantaneous and suffocating. The only thing preventing her tears from falling was the firm grip her teeth had on the inside of her cheek, as her mother raved to the modiste about the kinds of fabrics and styles they were shopping for. Unwillingly, Amelia allowed the seamstress to help her into a pale-blue dress. She was forced to look at her reflection, as her mother gushed over how beautifully the color became her.
“Oh, darling,” she said, smiling proudly, “that dress was practically made for you. And it is absolutely perfect for the dinner party we will be having.”
Amelia heard her mother’s declaration and nodded numbly, ignoring the odd look the modiste cast her way. She could not be bothered to be surprised to find her mother was planning to host a dinner party. Nor could she be bothered to be angry about it, or to tell her mother that, if she did care about dresses, she would have preferred a deep purple, or rich red, or green one. Instead, she continued to put all her energy into not crying. For toward the back of the shop, just within her eyeline, she spied a dress almost identical, save for the ribbon around the waist, to the one in which she had expected to marry Eric. Oh, how I miss you, my love, she thought with despair.
“Good morning, darling,” Lillian St. John said, as Roger entered the dining hall, skimming the copy of the London Times.
Roger started, whipping his head in the direction of his mother’s voice so fast, he felt a pull in his neck. The dowager duchess had been back home for an entire week, but he had seen so little of her that he kept forgetting she was there.
Wincing, he made his way to his seat at the head of the table, folding the paper neatly and placing it beside his place setting as he sat. He gingerly rubbed his neck and smiled tentatively at his mother.
“Good morning, Mother,” he said.
The dowager duchess laughed.
“Did I frighten you, dear?” she asked.
Roger smiled sheepishly.
“I am merely accustomed to you not being here, that’s all,” he said.
The duchess nodded. Roger noticed she took painstaking care when spreading out her napkin in her lap, and that, when she looked up again, she had a strange expression on her face. Before Roger could question her about it, however, the servants entered with their meals.
Once they had been served, Roger put his own napkin on his knee. Then, he looked up at his mother and smiled.
“How was France?” he asked.
The duchess’s face lit up, and Roger was sure he must have imagined the odd look she had worn earlier.
“Oh, darling, it is beautiful this time of year,” she said. “You simply must go for a visit, if the opportunity should ever arise.”
Roger laughed. She mentioned this to him often, but he had yet to make the journey himself. He simply had not had the time, especially since his father’s death,
“It certainly must have been spectacular,” he said, his voice filled with light humor. “You stayed half a year.”
The duchess blushed and shrugged.
“It is always such a welcome change from dreary London, to be sure,” she said.
Roger nodded in agreement but said nothing. Truthfully, he himself would prefer to be anywhere but London. And part of him envied his mother’s ability to travel and remain overseas for six months. But he also knew she deserved such trips. Things had been difficult for her, as well, since his father had died, and he wanted her to be happy. They had both loved London once, as it was their home. But now, all it held for them was sadness. The duchess had not been wrong to use the word dreary. Between the abrupt need to take up the duties of the dukedom and the horrible memories of his father’s death, Roger thought the word dreary might, in fact, be an understatement.
“I imagine that an uninhabitable island in the middle of the ocean would be a welcome change from London,” he said, winking at his mother.
The dowager duchess giggled, but it sounded somewhat nervous. The odd expression had returned to her face, and Roger felt his stomach twist. His mother’s behavior was strange, to say the least, and he could not imagine what could be causing it. Something inside him wondered if he even wished to know.
They ate in silence for a few moments. Roger kept stealing glances at his mother, who seemed to be oddly distracted by something. She was not upset, Roger could see that much, but she seemed to be thinking very hard about something. The longer the silence stretched out, the more suspicious Roger grew, and, as he ate his mulled eggs, he considered asking his mother what was on her mind.
He did not have to, however. After another few moments, the dowager duchess cleared her throat and gently laid her fork across her plate.
“There is a dinner party at Ereswell Manor three days from now,” she said. “And I have responded to the invitation. For both of us.”
Roger choked on his eggs, quickly spitting out a mouthful that suddenly felt far too large into his napkin. He took a sip of water to wash the rest of the food down his throat before clearing it.
“Mother,” he said sternly, not wholly surprised by his mother’s audacity but angry all the same. “I will be attending no such event, and I do not think I need to tell you why.”
The dowager duchess looked at him evenly, seeming to have expected her son’s objection.
“Your attendance is a priority,” she said in a tone which almost seemed to indicate she considered the subject closed. Almost.
Roger shook his head, pushing back his chair with the intention of leaving the table. He rose, tossing aside his egg-filled napkin and looking at his mother with an intent gaze.
“I am a grown man, Mother,” he said. “I am no longer a child. And if you think your continued insistence is going to change my decision, then you are gravely mistaken. You will not force me to do anything I do not wish to do.”
Roger started to step around the table, anticipating further argument from his mother as he exited the room. However, rather than continue to bicker with him, her expression saddened, freezing him in place. After a moment, she heaved a heavy sigh.
“Darling,” she said, “I am afraid you have no choice in the matter. And nor do I, though I would much rather tell you otherwise.”
Roger blinked in confusion. He did not immediately return to his seat, but he halted in his tracks. He tilted his head as he stared at his mother.
“What do you mean?” he asked. “How could you possibly not have any choice in anything?”
The dowager duchess gestured for her son to reclaim his seat, shaking her head in exasperation. After a moment, Roger did so, though he remained on the edge of his chair and did not pull it back to the table.
“I have allowed you as much time to grieve for your father as I possibly can,” she said. “It is well past time for you to continue with your life and carry on his legacy.”
Roger snorted. He itched to point out the contradiction in his mother’s words, but he felt certain the effort would be futile. He also strongly suspected, judging by the way she was ignoring his reaction, that she had something more to say. Something he felt sure he was going to like even less than what she had already told him.
“What is it, Mother?” he asked with a sigh.
The duchess nodded slowly, understanding Roger did not wish her to mince words any longer.
“Your father’s solicitor will be here in about an hour,” she said. “And he will be expecting you to be prepared to fulfil your duties to the duchy.”
“Who is he to expect anything from me?” Roger snapped. He was, indeed, angry at his mother pushing him so – it was far too soon. But he was also afraid. His father had died before he could teach Roger all he needed to know about running the duchy, about becoming the duke. It was not merely that Roger was still grieving for his father, though he very much was. It was also that he feared he would forever lack the skills and ability to be the kind of duke his father had been.
A touch on his shoulder startled him out of his thoughts. Roger looked up to see his mother had left her seat and was standing beside him. Her stern, tired expression was gone, now replaced with a combination of sympathy and confidence.
“I know your father’s death has left you feeling unprepared,” she said, echoing his thoughts. “But no one understands all the important things about your duties as duke as well as the solicitor.”
Roger snorted again, but with less conviction, and more reflexively than intentionally.
“He was father’s solicitor,” Roger said, hating how childish and sulky his voice sounded.
“He is our family’s solicitor,” his mother said, gently enough to surprise Roger. “And he can be your mentor, if you will only allow him.”
Roger sighed but nodded.
“You said it yourself, Mother,” he said. “I don’t exactly have a choice.”
Just over an hour later, Roger sat with his mother in the study. Neither of them spoke, and, for the first time, Roger began to suspect his mother might be feeling just as nervous as he was about this meeting. He tried his best to remain still in his seat, but he found himself fidgeting with the papers on his father’s desk. Time seemed to be moving impossibly slowly. Yet when the butler suddenly appeared in the open door of the study, he was caught by surprise, despite having been on tenterhooks the entire time.
“Mr. Dean, milord,” the butler said.
Roger rose quickly to cover his startled reaction. The duchess stood as well, giving the solicitor a curtsey as he entered the room. Roger bowed and gestured for the man to take the seat beside the dowager duchess.
The man wasted no time in getting to business. After a cursory murmured greeting to Roger and his mother, he promptly took up his important looking briefcase and began rifling through it.
“I am very sorry for your loss,” the man said, not looking very sorry at all, in Roger’s opinion. He supposed the solicitor dealt with a great deal of similar situations every single day and could therefore not offer much in the way of genuine condolences. However, Roger could not help feeling perturbed at the man’s nonchalance regarding his beloved late father.
“Did you know my father well?” he asked, his own voice even but sharp and cool.
The man must have noticed. He briefly paused his search for the papers he sought and looked at Roger with a curious gaze.
“I was in his employ for many years,” he said. “Though I cannot profess to have been the closest of the late duke’s friends, I dare say I knew him rather well, and our relations were always very amicable and pleasant. As was he.”
Roger nodded, humbled by the man’s reaction. He knew that not everyone could have loved his father as he did, and it was foolish to expect them to pretend they had.
“I apologize,” Roger said. “My father spoke very highly of you, as well, Mr. Dean. I suppose I am merely anxious to get this matter concluded.”
The solicitor nodded, his expression warming, as he continued his search for the relevant papers, which he finally drew from the depths of his briefcase.
“I understand perfectly well, my lord,” he said, placing a small stack of pages on the desk in front of Roger. “I assure you, I shall try to keep the business as brief as possible.”
Roger nodded and picked up the papers. He began skimming the paragraphs, admittedly not actually reading the information contained within and, at any rate, unable to follow the dense legal language. He picked up on keywords, such as dukedom, duchy, title, fortune, and, of course, both his father’s and his own names. He flipped through the first two pages rather too quickly, expecting the solicitor to understand he already had a good idea what the pages contained.
However, to Roger’s surprise, the solicitor rose and placed a hand atop the papers. He gave Roger a small smile.
“I believe you will wish to read the following pages with a little more care, my lord,” he said ominously.
Roger lowered the pages and shrugged.
“Why?” he asked with a laugh. “Shall I learn of some other secret heir?”
Mr. Dean gave Roger a wry smile and shook his head.
“No,” he said. “But you will be interested to know that your father has included a … special … stipulation, nonetheless.”
Roger’s eyes widened.
“What stipulation?” he asked.
Beside the solicitor, the duchess shifted in her seat, drawing Roger’s attention. He glanced over at his mother, who was looking down at her hands.
“What is he talking about, Mother?” Roger asked, his eyebrow rising with his suspicion.
The solicitor cleared his throat.
“Your father was in the process of making a special arrangement before he died,” Mr. Dean said, answering for the duchess.
Roger, knowing his mother was watching him through her lowered lashes, shot her a look that said he would be speaking with her privately later. Then, he turned back to the solicitor.
“What sort of arrangement?” he asked.
The man reached over and flipped the page for Roger, which irritated him greatly. However, he said nothing, merely following the man’s finger as he moved it down the page and pointed to one specific paragraph.
“It states here that your father wished you to be married to Lady Amelia Worthington, the daughter of the Earl of Ereswell. He was finalizing those arrangements with the earl shortly before his death, in fact, and he had come to me to have it written into his will.”
Roger’s mouth fell open; He stared at the solicitor, ignoring his mother’s attempts to get his attention.
“He was arranging a marriage for me,” he said flatly.
It was a statement, not a question, but the solicitor nodded in response as if it were.
“Indeed, my lord,” he said, gesturing to the following paragraph. “And the stipulation states that you must follow through with his wishes if you are to remain entitled to your father’s legacy. He wanted to ensure you would produce an heir to the duchy.”
Roger opened his mouth, but he found no words. Nor did he find the ability to close his lips. He sat there, looking at the solicitor with the dumb expression of a stunned ox, his mind reeling. At last, he looked helplessly at his mother, who was at last meeting his gaze, albeit rather sheepishly.
“You knew about this,” he said, once more stating rather than questioning.
The duchess nodded slowly, opening her mouth to speak.
“No,” Roger said, finding both his strong, firm voice and his feet at the same time. He shook his head as he rose and looked back at Mr. Dean. “No.”
With that, he stormed from the room. His mind was spinning, and he could feel his blood beginning to boil.
“Roger, come back,” his mother said from rather too close behind him.
He did not comply. He continued through the doorway and strode toward the front door, where the butler was standing. The duchess was not deterred, however. She moved quickly past and in front of him, blocking his path. Roger met her gaze with his own fixed one, but she put her hands on her hips.
“You are behaving like a child,” she said. “Come back at once. There are other important matters still to be discussed.”
Roger laughed loudly and bitterly.
“Surely, you jest,” he said angrily, rolling up his sleeves and holding out his arms. “What woman in her right mind would ever consider looking at me, let alone producing an heir with me?”
The duchess laughed, too light-heartedly for Roger’s liking. She took his hands in hers and shook her head.
“Your scars do not matter, Roger,” she said.
Roger yanked his hands away from his mother and pushed past her.
“I think you know very well by now that is not true,” he growled, not looking back. He asked the butler to call for the stables to have his horse saddled immediately. Then, with his mother still protesting behind him, he stormed outside to wait. As soon as his horse was led to the front of the manor, he leapt upon it and sped off toward town.
I’m glad that you finished reading the preview. “Smitten with a Scarred Duke” will be live on Amazon very soon!
Until then, if you haven’t read my previous bestseller “A Beauty for the Earl’s Duty”, you can find it here.