About the book
He is her final wish. She is his new beginning.
After her sister’s untimely passing, Deborah Wilds is ready to marry the Duke of Tarsington in her place. Despite the circumstances, she can't help the flare of excitement in her belly at the thought of marrying the man she's been secretly in love with for years.
Though plagued by his intended's sudden death, Leonard Fletcher, Duke of Tarsington, resolves to do his duty and honor his parents' agreement by marrying Edith's younger sister. He never imagined that the younger Miss Wilds would be so easy to fall in love with.
Deborah's world shifts on its axis when she discovers her sister’s diary. But there's only one problem: important pages with events leading up to her death appear to have been violently torn and taken…
Determined to discover what really happened to Edith, Leonard and Deborah unwittingly put themselves in grave danger. First, come the letters, then comes the handkerchief. And then Deborah walks in an old house, never to walk out again...
Miss Deborah Wilds founds herself pacing up and down the parlor in her father’s manor. She felt edgy with anticipation. Each time she passed the window, she peeked through the glass, hoping to catch sight of a carriage.
No sign of him yet.
All she could see was the long, neatly manicured path at the front of her father’s mansion. Trees shedding orange and red leaves lined the path and stretched their limbs toward the gate, obstructing her view of the road beyond.
Deborah smoothed the skirts of her sky-blue gown for what felt like the thousandth time and ensured her long blonde hair was still neatly pinned at her neck. She knotted her fingers together as she paced, her heart knocking steadily against her ribs.
These nerves were not entirely unpleasant. In fact, they were quite the furthest from unpleasant that she could imagine.
Deborah had been drawn to Leonard Fletcher, the Duke of Tarsington, from the moment she had first caught sight of him three years ago. Back then, she had been a shy young lady of sixteen. The few times she had been in the Duke’s company, she had found herself awestruck and tongue-tied, flustered by her attraction. In those days, the Duke had seemed a distant, untouchable figure. A handsome young gentleman to be admired only from afar.
And yet, now, three years later, they were to be married.
Deborah could hardly believe it. Each time she rolled the word through her head, it made her heart beat little bit faster.
She peeked out the window again.
Still no sign of the Duke.
Deborah kept pacing.
She wished she could let the joy of becoming the Duke’s wife fill her completely. If she could have chosen any gentleman to be her husband, it would have been the Duke. A part of her recognized just how lucky she was to find herself in such a situation.
But the Duke was never supposed to have been her husband. It was her sister, Edith, to whom the Duke had first been betrothed. Her sister Edith who ought to be meeting the Duke of Tarsingon at the altar and returning to his mansion as his Duchess.
But Edith was gone. She had been lying in her grave for more than two and a half years. And still the sting of it felt raw. Everything Deborah did was done in the shadow of her grief. Everything was done with Edith at the back of her mind.
As time had passed, the once-striking pain had become a dull ache, but it was an ache Deborah feared would never leave her. And now here she was, about to married to the gentleman intended for her sister. Beneath her attraction to the Duke, Deborah felt a sizeable amount of guilt. It felt as though she were benefitting from her beloved sister’s death.
Deborah tried to push the thought away.
Edith would want me to be happy. I know she would.
And a life as the Duke’s wife, Deborah knew, had the potential to make her happy. Very happy, indeed.
The clatter of hooves outside the house made her start. She hurried to the window and caught sight of the large black and gold carriage rattling through the front gates. Inside it, she could just determine the broad-shouldered outline of the Duke.
The sight of him made Deborah momentarily push aside her thoughts of Edith. She hurried to the mirror above the hearth and re-checked her hair, re-smoothed her skirts. She couldn’t remember ever being so fixated on her appearance.
The knock at the door made her heart speed. She clenched her hand into a fist and forced herself to breathe deeply. Today, she would hold herself together. She would not behave like the foolish, tongue-tied child she had been in her previous, fleeting encounters with the Duke. She had been introduced to him as Edith’s younger sister and had responded to his warm greeting with a garble of unintelligible words. She had raced upstairs to her bedchamber and buried her head beneath her pillow, too embarrassed to face him.
But things were different now. She was to be his wife. With luck, the Duke had forgotten how much of a fool she had been on the day she had first met him.
She heard the butler’s murmured words, and then the Duke’s voice, deep and gentle. And here was her father, the Viscount of Chilson, strutting into the entrance hall to greet his future son-in-law.
Deborah couldn’t make out their words, but she could imagine the smile on her father’s face. Could imagine him puffing his chest out and pushing his shoulders back as he invited the Duke into their home.
“Do come in, Your Grace, you are most welcome here.”
Deborah knew it meant a lot to her father that his daughter might be married so well. She couldn’t begin to imagine what her father had done to attract the Duke of Tarsington into their family. After all, she was nothing but a viscount’s daughter. And an awkward, tongue-tied one at that.
The parlor door clicked open. Deborah froze, standing rigid like a soldier at attention.
“Miss Wilds,” said her father warmly, “you remember His Grace, The Duke of Tarsington, I’m sure.”
Deborah swallowed heavily, her mouth suddenly dry. The Duke was even more handsome than she remembered. His dark hair was trimmed neatly at his collar, his angular jaw smoothly shaven. He wore a cream-colored shirt and dark blue coat, a silver cravat tied neatly at his throat. He seemed taller than she remembered.
Is such a thing possible?
Perhaps it was just his lofty position that made him look so delightfully imposing.
“Of course, Your Grace,” Deborah managed, bobbing her head and falling into something half way between a curtsey and a stumble. She straightened hurriedly, cursing herself for her foolishness.
So much for holding myself together.
She could feel color rising in her cheeks.
But His Grace smiled broadly at the sight of her, striding across the parlor with deliberate footsteps. He was clearly feeling far more confident about this meeting than Deborah.
“Miss Wilds.” He took her outstretched hand and brought it to his lips. Deborah felt a sudden shudder of excitement go through her.
She heard her father’s footsteps disappear from the parlor. Heard the door click closed. The Duke stood in front of her with a warm smile and expectant eyes. The sight of it half filled her with excitement, and half filled her with dread.
“Wonderful to see you again, Your Grace,” she managed, her voice coming out softer than she had intended.
And at her words, she saw the Duke’s confident gaze flicker a little. Saw something else in his eyes. Is he also nervous at the thought of this meeting? Perhaps, but there was something more. Something deeper. Did he too carry guilt over the fact that they had found themselves here? Was he thinking of poor Edith, lying in the earth? Was he thinking about the lady who ought to have been his wife?
Deborah cleared her throat. “Please, Your Grace. Do sit down.” She gestured an armchair. The Duke sat, Deborah perching on the edge of the chair beside his.
She knotted her fingers together, glancing nervously around the room. Her lady’s maid, Sarah, was sitting in the corner of the parlor with her hands folded neatly in her lap. Deborah looked hurriedly back at the Duke. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She had spent the morning rehearsing potential topics of conversation—tell me about your lands, are you a hunter? Did you have a pleasant summer?—but as his dark eyes found hers, all logical thought slipped from her mind.
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting with you again,” he said, his comment doing little to steady Deborah’s nerves.
“You have?” she garbled.
“Yes. Very much. I’m rather looking forward to getting to know you better.”
“Oh,” she said. “I…”
He is looking forward to getting to know me better? After this pitiful display? How can such a thing be possible?
Her cheeks felt impossibly hot. She churned through her mind for a suitable response. Came up with nothing.
She was saved by the click of the parlor door. The butler appeared with a tea tray and set it carefully down on the side table, then vanished from the room almost as quickly as he had appeared.
Deborah drew in a steadying breath. “Tea, Your Grace?”
The Duke smiled. “Thank you.”
Carefully, Deborah filled two cups, her knuckles whitening around the handle of the teapot in an attempt to stop her hand from shaking. She lifted the first cup and saucer and handed it to the Duke. As she did, her hand knocked against his wrist, sending tea slopping down the front of his coat.
Deborah gasped in horror. “Oh, I’m so dreadfully sorry. Please forgive me. I…” She lowered her glance, unable to look him in the eye. Her stomach rolled over.
What is he thinking? Is he comparing me to Edith?
Deborah’s sister had always been so composed, so full of grace. She was certain Edith had never done anything so clumsy as spilling tea all over her future husband.
But the Duke just smiled, taking the teacup from her hand. “It’s quite all right, Miss Wilds,” he said mildly. “It’s no matter.”
“I’ll fetch a cloth at once,” Deborah spluttered.
“It’s not necessary, I assure you. It’s just a drop.” She could feel him trying to catch her eye. “Please don’t fret.” The warmth in his voice made the muscles in her neck begin to relax a little. She felt the edginess inside her begin to dissipate.
The Duke brought it to his lips. After a moment, he set the cup and saucer back on the side table. “I’ve made you nervous,” he said. “I’m sorry. I hope you know that was not my intention.”
Deborah managed a faint smile, despite the heat she could feel lingering in her cheeks. She hated the way her fair skin colored so easily. At the slightest hint of discomfort, her cheeks would flame, announcing her embarrassment, her nerves, her desire. Sometimes it felt as though her every thought was on display for the entire world to see.
“I am rather nervous,” she admitted, peering into her teacup. “This is a rather momentous occasion.”
And I’ve been dreaming about you since I first met you…
The Duke nodded. “Yes. I must admit, I was a little nervous this morning, as well.” He shifted in his chair to look at her more squarely. “Perhaps today we might put aside these overwhelming thoughts of the future? Perhaps we might focus on simply getting to know each other a little better?” There was a hint of hesitance, of shyness in his voice, and it made Deborah smile.
“I would like that, Your Grace,” she said, meeting his eyes. “I would like that very much.”
Leonard peered out the window of the carriage and watched the neat rows of houses roll by. Bath was beautiful at this time of year; the trees fiery in the autumn, the river high and glistening. A thick bank of clouds had begun to roll across the sun, reminding him that winter was not far away.
He leaned back against the carriage wall and let out a long breath, feeling a little of the tension drain from his shoulders.
“I was a little nervous myself this morning,” he had told Miss Wilds. The truth was, he had been far more than a little nervous.
There had been something unsettling about returning to the Chilson manor. The last time he had been there, he had been dressed in black, mourning the sudden death of Lord Chilson’s oldest daughter.
The lady to whom Leonard had been betrothed.
Miss Edith Wilds’ death had been a tragedy that had shaken her family to the core. It had shaken Leonard, too. More than he had admitted at the time. He had never expected to set foot inside the Chilson manor again.
He had been surprised when his uncle had approached him a month earlier and told him of the letter he had received from the Viscount of Chilson. Leonard’s mother, it seemed, had also received such a missive. A letter outlining the Viscount’s wishes to unite their families in marriage, as they had planned to do when Edith had been alive.
Miss Deborah Wilds. The younger of the Viscount’s two daughters. Yes, Leonard remembered her. Remembered her well. She had been just sixteen when he had been courting her older sister. With her lively personality and sparkling blue-green eyes, she had been impossible not to notice.
And so, when they had begun to discuss the plans to renew the union between the Chilsons and the Tarsingtons, Leonard had found himself more than a little intrigued. Intrigued enough to venture back to the Chilson manor, despite the bad memories associated with the place.
The coach rattled through the front gates of the sprawling Tarsington mansion. Leonard climbed out, nodding his thanks to the coachman.
At the sound of the front door, his mother, the Dowager Duchess, swept down the staircase into the entrance hall, her woolen skirts sighing over the floor.
“Well?” she pushed. “How was your meeting? How was Miss Wilds? Did she seem happy to see you?” For a fleeting second, Leonard was yanked back in time. He was certain his mother had behaved this very same way, asked these same questions, the day he had arrived home after first meeting Edith Wilds.
What had my response been then?
He was quite sure he had not felt such a jittery energy inside him after meeting his first betrothed. Their meeting had felt businesslike and formal. But with Miss Deborah Wilds, things had been different.
There was a sparkle to Deborah that her sister had not possessed. Once her nerves had begun to settle, Leonard had seen a sharp-witted and clever young lady, whom he longed to know more about.
They had spent the afternoon telling each other of their hobbies, their passions, their pasts. She had gifted him with warm smiles that had made his heart swell. Her cheeks had been so endearingly flushed he had found his mind drifting forwards to their wedding night. What a joy it would be to see those cheeks flush beneath his touch. Three hours had slipped by without him having any thought of it. Leonard couldn’t deny there was a feeling of anticipation inside him that had not been there the day he had met Miss Edith Wilds.
“Miss Wilds is well,” he told his mother evenly. “Our meeting was most pleasant. I enjoyed it very much.”
His mother clasped both of her hands around one of his. “I’m so glad to hear that, Leonard. So very glad.”
He hesitated. “It’s just…”
His mother frowned. “It’s just what?”
Leonard slid off his greatcoat and scarf and handed them to their butler. “I think very highly of Miss Wilds, Mother,” he said carefully, “but I can’t help feeling a little uncomfortable at the whole situation.”
He let out a small sigh. “I was to be married to Edith Wilds. And now Deborah Wilds is to take her place. You don’t think it a little odd?”
“Odd?” his mother replied. “Certainly not. You’re a fine young gentleman, Leonard. Kind and honorable and loving. Not to mention, a Duke. Lord Chilson is no doubt honored to have you as part of his family.”
Leonard winced. “But Edith… She—”
“Edith’s death was a tragedy,” his mother cut in. “But life goes on. And what better way for Viscount Chilson and his family to move past their grief than by celebrating the marriage of their youngest daughter?”
Leonard nodded acceptingly, knowing he’d get no more from his mother. But as he climbed upstairs to his office, the thought weighed heavily on his mind. Miss Edith Wilds’ death was far more than a tragedy, he knew well. No sudden illness, or dreadful accident.
Miss Edith Wilds had taken her own life. And Leonard had no choice but to ask himself why.
Deborah found herself walking across the grounds of her father’s manor, a chaos of conflicting thoughts charging through her mind. The grounds were deserted, the gardener having finished his work hours ago, the cold wind ensuring the rest of the household was safely tucked away inside.
The trees at the edge of the property were blazing reds and oranges, a stark contrast to the gray blanket of sky. A squirrel darted across the grass in front of her before scampering up the nearest tree.
Deborah pulled her cloak tighter around her as the wind whipped across the garden. She lifted her face to the clouds, letting the stiff breeze disrupt her carefully styled hair.
Despite the cold, there was a warmth deep inside her. A warmth left by the Duke. The moment the Duke had left the manor, both her parents had come barreling into the parlor, eager to hear all that had transpired.
“She looks happy,” her mother had said.
“Indeed.” Her father reached out and squeezed his daughter’s wrist, which Deborah knew was his way of showing how much he cared for her. “You enjoyed your meeting with the Duke then, my dear?” He looked at her expectantly, his cheeks pink. Her father was always impeccably neat, but he seemed to have made a particular effort for the Duke. He wore his finest blue and silver waistcoat and matching cravat, and she was certain his gray hair had been trimmed for the occasion.
Deborah knew there was color in her cheeks and light in her eyes. Knew the attraction she felt for the Duke was splashed all over her face. His Grace had left her heart thudding, her cheeks hot. Had filled her with an unplaceable ache she could neither explain nor define. She only knew she needed to see him again. And soon.
“Yes, Father,” she had said, as evenly as possible. “I enjoyed our meeting very much.”
These feelings felt like something of a betrayal. Though Edith had been gone for near on three years, she still felt close. Though her rational mind knew it was foolish, Deborah couldn’t help but feel that she was letting herself fall for her sister’s betrothed.
She rubbed her eyes, trying to force the thoughts from her head. She knew how lucky she was to be marrying a gentleman to whom she felt such an attraction. Already, so many of her friends had been wed to husbands they cared little for. They’d become third wives to aging barons, playthings for philandering earls.
And I am to marry a gentleman who makes my heart speed with longing. I cannot live my life carrying guilt at my feelings toward him.
Deborah quickened her pace across the grounds, her boots sinking into the muddy grass. She stopped walking when she reached the family cemetery that lay in one corner of the property.
The graveyard was carefully maintained, with the grass trimmed neatly between the evenly spaced headstones. Some of the graves were ancient, marking the resting places of ancestors Deborah knew only by name. Then there were extended family members who had passed within her lifetime; uncles and aunts and grandparents. And among them all was Edith.
Deborah wove slowly through the graves to find her sister’s. Her headstone was the newest, the cleanest, the one festooned with the most flowers. The pink petals were bright against the dreary late afternoon.
Deborah knelt beside the grave. How desperately she missed her sister. With just two years between them, she and Edith had always been close. As children, they had shared everything. Had taken turns sleeping in each other’s beds, whispering to each other about their dreams and loves and fears, until they fell into exhausted sleep. They had always been the best of friends.
But after her eighteenth birthday, Edith’s personality had begun to change. In the months before her death, she had become secretive and closed off. Had built an impenetrable wall around herself that not even Deborah could penetrate.
Deborah had tried to convince herself it was little more than a passing phase. Something was bothering Edith, of course she could see that, but she had felt sure that it would pass. Felt sure that her sunny, loving sister would one day be returned to her.
But then came that dreadful day that had changed Deborah’s life forever.
A scream from the garden. The maid running into the house. And then her mother’s anguished cries echoing up the staircase.
Deborah had stood in her bedroom, her stomach turning, too afraid to venture out into the house. Too afraid to discover what had made her mother so wild with grief.
Her father had come to her bedroom, his face ashen. “Your sister is dead.”
Deborah had heard the words but had been unable to register their meaning. Edith, dead? Such a thing did not seem possible. How could Edith be gone? How could Deborah live in a world without her sister in it?
Edith had taken the pistol from her father’s desk drawer and pulled the trigger on herself beneath the apple tree in the manor’s orchard. She had left no note, no explanation. Had left nothing but endless questions.
Overcome with grief, Deborah had found herself raking through the possibilities. She and her sister had the most luxurious, privileged of upbringings. They had wanted for nothing. What could possibly have happened to make her sister feel she had no option but to end her life?
Edith’s suicide had come less than a fortnight after her betrothal to the Duke. Surely it was not the prospect of becoming his wife that had led her to do as she had?
At the time, Deborah had considered the possibility only fleetingly. The Duke was a kind, wonderful young gentleman. Even if Edith had not loved him, surely her impending marriage to him would not have driven Edith to suicide.
No. Deborah had been certain of it then and was even more certain of it now. Her sister’s strained behavior had begun weeks before their father had announced her betrothal. The Duke, she knew instinctively, was not to blame.
Deborah hugged her knees, feeling the damp earth soak through her skirts.
“Why?” she remembered asking her father tearfully, over and over. “Why, Father? Why would she do such a thing?”
Melancholy, her father had said. Inexplicable sadness.
But of course, the Viscount had not known Edith’s reasons any more than anyone else. No doubt he had needed to cobble together an explanation to stem his own tide of grief. Needed a reason to give some meaning to what felt like a senseless act.
The Viscount’s explanation had never sat right with Deborah. Edith had never had a melancholic disposition. At least not until those few months before her death. No, there was more to her sister’s death than a mere melancholic episode, Deborah was sure.
She had been wrestling with this question for the past three years. Over the past year, she had begun to resign herself to the fact that she might never know the truth. But then her father had announced that she herself was to become the Duchess of Tarsington. She was to take the place that ought to have been her sister’s.
The announcement had re-sparked Deborah’s need for answers. And so had today’s meeting with the Duke. Her afternoon with the Duke had made Deborah happier than she had been in three years. At least, until the guilt had taken over.
She brought her knees to her chest and stared at her sister’s headstone. “Edith,” she said aloud, “I need answers. What happened to you? Why did you do this?”
Silence, of course. Nothing but the wind sighing through the grass. Deborah closed her eyes.
“I need answers,” she said again, pressing a hand to the cold stone and closing her eyes so she might picture Edith’s face. “I need to understand.”
That night, Deborah waited until the house was quiet. She lay on her bed staring up at the ceiling, listening to the creaks and groans as the household shifted and settled with the night. Finally, when silence fell over the old building, she lit the candle on her nightstand and slipped out of bed.
She pushed open the door of her bedroom and stepped out into the passage. The orange glow of her candle sent shadows bouncing across the walls. The scent of melted wax lingered in the hall. Deborah stepped slowly down the passage, soundless on her bare feet.
After Edith’s death, the Viscountess had left her daughter’s room untouched. She forbade everyone from entering, even the housekeepers. Even her husband. As far as Deborah knew, it was the only thing her mother had ever asked of the Viscount. She knew her mother would be furious if she caught Deborah inside Edith’s room. But she had no choice. She needed answers. Perhaps her mother had already searched Edith’s room, looking for answers. Deborah knew it likely.
But where else am I to begin looking?
As she approached the room at the end of the hall, Deborah’s heart began to thunder. Part fear of being caught, yes, but there was more. How would she react when she stepped inside her sister’s room for the first time since her death? Would the weight of that grief she had only recently begun to crawl out from crush her again?
Perhaps. But I need to do this.
She held her breath as she pushed open the door. Candlelight flickered over the room Deborah had once known so well. The large canopied bed stood in the middle of the room, its curtains tied back with silky blue ribbon. A dressing table stood against one wall, a padded window seat against another.
Deborah lifted the candle, shining the light around the room. She felt an ache in her chest. How many hours had she spent in here, playing dolls and tenpins and knucklebones with her sister? Sudden tears escaped down her cheeks and she pushed them away hurriedly.
Drawing in a breath to steady herself, Deborah sat the candle on the small table beside Edith’s bed. Long shadows lay across the room. For a moment, Deborah was a child again, huddled in the canopied bed with Edith, listening to her sister tell ghost stories by flickering candlelight.
She turned in a slow circle, taking in the enormous wardrobe, the drawers beneath the dressing table, the floor-to-ceiling shelves.
What am I even looking for?
She had not thought of it, but the act of beginning this search for answers, Deborah realized, had begun to still that guilt that had taken root within her the moment the Duke had stepped through the parlor door.
With no idea of where to begin, Deborah pulled open the wardrobe, lifting the candle to light the yawning darkness within. Inside, Edith’s gowns were hung neatly, along with her favourite blue cloak and embroidered pink shawl. Deborah had borrowed the shawl on many occasions. But she had not dared wear it since her sister’s death. It felt wrong somehow. Disrespectful.
The sight of the neatly hung clothing made her heart lurch. She rifled through the rack, pushing the gowns aside, searching. Searching for what? She didn’t know. She could only assume that when she found something of importance, she would know it.
Finding nothing of interest hanging in the wardrobe, she knelt to examine the shoes lined up neatly in pairs. It occurred to Deborah that she did not expect to find anything of value here among Edith’s shoes and gowns. She just wanted to feel close to her sister.
She went to the nightstand and pulled open the drawer. Inside was a hairbrush, and a novel with the bookmark still in place. Deborah lifted it out of the drawer and opened it. The words swam in front of her tired eyes.
Had Edith been reading this in the days before she had died?
Had she tried to lose herself in a world of story so she might forget the whatever horrors were haunting her reality?
She closed the book, running a finger over its soft leather cover.
“Why?” she said under her breath. It was a question she had asked herself so many times. “Why, Edith?”
Deborah sighed heavily. Her eyes were stinging with exhaustion and her legs were aching. She needed to sleep. Her emotions were getting the better of her. If she stayed searching any longer, she would likely disturb something and someone would catch her in here. Whatever secrets Edith had would remain hidden tonight. Deborah took the candle and tiptoed back toward the hallway, careful to leave the room just as she had found it.
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