About the book
He is cold, pained and cruel…
As the second Duke, Neville Bennet has only time for duty and command. After losing his wife twenty years ago, images of her torment his mind, leaving him a former shell of himself. But now, he cares about one thing and one thing only: his daughter and her future. Until a woman—no, an enchantress, steals his heart…
She is kind, understanding and hurt…
Julia Smith, an older but still just as beautiful woman, does everything in her power to protect her son from the world’s cruelties. Focused on giving him the childhood she never had—hers was ridden with abuse, after all—her days are spent spoiling him beyond belief. Until the day, a mysterious man shakes her world and awakens the passion she wants—no, needs, to keep hidden.
Only together can they heal…
Julia and Neville make an unlikely agreement: they will connect their Houses by wedding their children.
Until the unforeseen happens: they unexpectedly and shamelessly fall in love with each other.
So why, oh why, are they so keen on denying it, despite their secret meetings? And how, oh how, will Julia manage to break Neville’s stone walls?
Edinbran Castle, London, 1814
Neville Bennet, the Earl of Edinbran, strode through the halls of Edinbran Castle. He was a proud man, a man of tradition and tact. His hair may have been greying, and there were a few wrinkles on his face, especially around the eyes, but he still had his looks, and for a man of fifty-two, his body looked twenty years younger.
That could have been because of all the sport he had played as a younger man or the fencing that he still enjoyed, or perhaps nature was just kind to him. But Neville did not care about all of that. His looks were irrelevant when it came to what was truly important, and that was his daughter, his only child, Sophia.
“Beautiful,” whispered Neville as he caught sight of Sophia. The doors at the end of the long hallway were sitting open, and women buzzed around his daughter like bees to a flower. The dress had been ordered months ago, crafted from the finest silk from overseas, and there were some minor alterations to be made now that it had been fitted.
Sophia turned as her father walked toward the room, and she smiled at him. Her mother was in that smile. She had inherited much from her, and it was a smile that reminded him most of his late wife. It was a smile that could light up a room and one that brought joy to those around.
“Father, what do you think?” asked Sophia as Neville entered the room. The dressmaker was knelt by the hem of the dress, adding some pins to hold the fabric so that she could add the finishing touches once the dress was off.
“Exquisite,” stated Neville. “I do not think that England has seen such beauty before and nor will it again.”
“Your Grace,” said the dressmaker, standing and curtsying to Neville. “The dress shall be ready for the ball.”
Neville nodded and took in his daughter. The way she resembled Georgia was uncanny, and he had to take a moment before he spoke again. “Did I ever tell you about the first time I met your mother?” he asked.
“You have, but please tell it again,” Sophia said, twisting to the side so that the dressmaker could carry on her work. The dressmaker’s assistant stood patiently waiting for instruction, and Sophia’s lady’s maid stood close to the door should she be needed. The butler stood close too; a tray of sandwiches and tea sat on the small table by the wall. The maid and butler stood still as stone, neutral expressions on their faces.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Neville. “She wore a dress much like this, though the fabric was not silk. I would not be able to tell you what the fabric was, but my daughter deserves the very best.”
“Father, the material of the dress does not matter, I am sure. Please skip to the part where you fell in love with Mother.”
“I had heard people talk about love at first sight,” continued Neville, “but I never believed it. How can you tell that you love someone before you marry them? That all changed with your mother. When she walked into the room, there was no other woman in the world who could measure up. I knew from that moment that I would marry her.”
“And you did,” said Sophia.
The dressmaker picked up a needle and thread and stitched the bottom of the hem, holding it temporarily.
“Yes, I did.” Neville looked toward the window and out into the grounds—the plants were flowering, and the apple trees were about bursting with fruit.
“Look at you, Sophia.” Neville looked up and down the elegant dress, shaking his head slightly when he caught her eye again. “There is no man in this country or beyond who will be able to resist such stunning beauty. And”—Neville raised a finger—“that is where I come in.”
“Father,” said Sophia with a roll of her eyes.
“No man will be able to resist, but that does not mean that just any man shall be able to claim my daughter.”
“I know that you mean well,” said Sophia.
“Now, let us talk of it no more and focus on getting you ready for the ball. There will be many men there for you to choose from. The Duke of Parvey will be there with his two sons.”
“They are both very handsome,” said Sophia.
“And Baron Anderton is bringing his nephew.”
“Another fine man, from what I hear.”
“You already know of Mr. Barley.”
“He has a silver tongue, but there is kindness in his eyes.”
“For goodness sake, Sophia. This is exactly why you need me to help choose a man for you. I do believe that if it was left up to you, you would not be able to choose.”
“I do not care who I marry, as long as they are a good man and treat me well.”
“It is very important who you marry, Sophia. We are talking about a lifelong commitment. When you marry someone, that person needs to be chosen carefully. A man needs to do more than only treat a woman well. He must be able to provide for her, be upstanding, help his community, and better this world.”
“I am sure that there are many men who can do that,” said Sophia.
“Lady Sophia, I am done with the alterations for now,” said the dressmaker, standing back up.
“I do not believe that is true,” said Neville. “There is a man in this world who is perfect for you, and you need to find that man. I knew it when I saw your mother, and I will know it when I see the man for you. This is not a decision to be taken lightly. There are no second chances.”
“What would Mother say if she were still here today? Would she want you to skulk around these halls with no one in your life?” asked Sophia, stepping down from the small platform that she was on. “Would she not want you to be happy?”
“I am happy,” said Neville with no emotion. “And I have you.”
“That is not what I mean, and you know it.”
“I will not betray your mother like that,” said Neville.
“It is not betraying her. She passed nearly twenty years ago, and she would want you to move on. It is…oh, forget it, Father. I have to change out of this dress before my tears stain it.”
“You will understand when you meet the right person,” said Neville. He turned away from his daughter and left the room as she walked with her lady’s maid to go to the other room and get out of the dress. Normally, he would have walked in the gardens on an afternoon like this, but he did not feel like doing that today. Instead, he ascended the stairs and went to his study.
There were some papers on the desk, some land transfers that he was to sign, but he could not focus on them. He sat down on the cushioned teak chair and pushed the papers to the side of the desk. He fished some blank paper from the drawer, dipped his pen in ink. He had put off for far too long replying to the letter his uncle had sent from Scotland, and he was curious to hear how life was up North and why the man had not yet returned to the majesty of England. But, no matter how hard he tried, no words came to him.
Neville put the pen back in the holder and sighed. The conversation with his daughter played again and again in his mind. If his wife were still here, she would know what to do. Opening the drawer, he found the old envelope and placed it on the desk. Inside was a small portrait, the colors slightly faded, but not as much as they would have been had they been subjected to light for the past twenty years.
The lady in the painting was young, and Neville ran his fingers over the textured paint. She was smiling forever in the portrait, as she did in life. Even in death, she seemed so full of life, and Neville found a slight upturn at the corner of his lips. He brought the picture up and kissed it delicately. She was taken from him far too soon.
Neville carefully placed the portrait back in the envelope. It was painted not long after they were married, and it captured her youthful exuberance. He loved her still, even after all these years, and he knew that no woman could ever replace her. He closed the drawer and went back to the papers in front of him.
It was too late for an old man like him, but Sophia was in her prime. He would make sure that she married well if it was the last thing that he did.
Lockheart Manor, London
“His Grace, the Duke of Edinbran, and his daughter, Lady Sophia!”
The shout rang out across the ballroom, and everyone turned to greet Neville and Sophia as they entered. Sophia gripped tightly to Neville’s arm as he guided her through the people, introducing her to many of them. There were many young ladies scattered around the room, and that meant numerous fine dresses. Neville was glad that he had imported the finest silk from France to create something more spectacular for his daughter.
First impressions were everything, and he was not going to let anyone stand in the way of finding the perfect man for his daughter. Even though they had been to numerous balls over the past year, he was sure that they were going to find the perfect man tonight. Sophia had protested on the way to the manor, telling him that she was growing bored of all the courtship and ritual, but Neville knew how important this was.
He had found true love with Georgia, and he wanted that for Sophia. She would understand when she was married, and she would thank him, he was sure.
“Your Grace,” said Duke Parvey, approaching with his two sons. He was a stout man with a thick mustache, two things that his boys had not inherited from him. “Please allow me to introduce my sons, Edward and Chester.”
Edward was the older of the two, and he stepped forward first. Along with being older by a year, he was an inch taller than his brother with wide shoulders and a rugged face. “Your Grace,” he said, shaking Neville’s hand but only looking at Sophia.
Already, he had gotten off on the wrong foot by not showing respect in the greeting. Still, Neville introduced his daughter, and she was all smiles during the introduction. Chester was introduced next, slightly shorter and less muscular than his brother but with a more defined jawline and a flawless complexion. When he shook hands with Neville, his palm was sweaty, and the Duke of Edinbran found himself discreetly wiping his hand on his handkerchief when no one was looking.
Sophia, however, was enamored by both men, and they filled her dance card for the two dances of the evening. When they left to find refreshments, leaving him alone with Sophia, Neville wanted to tell his daughter that they were not the right men for her, but this was not the place, and she had already agreed to dance with them.
Neville spotted them from across the room, and the two brothers were engaged in whispered conversation while often glancing at Sophia with smiles on their faces. He did not trust them, and they certainly did not act like gentlemen, in his opinion. Perhaps he would talk later to Duke Parvey in private.
Soon after, Neville watched as Edward approached to lead his daughter to the dance floor. Neville watched them walk off, and he turned to walk around the dance floor to the other side of the room, where there were some gentlemen to talk with. There was fighting in the colonies, and he wanted to know more. Neville took a final glance behind him to locate his daughter, and when he turned around, he collided with a woman, knocking over her glass of punch.
“Excuse me, madam,” said Neville in slight shock. He recovered quickly and was happy to see that the drink had not spilled on the woman’s dress. He had not met the lady before and was sure that she was not one of the elites, but she looked well to do and took obvious care in her appearance.
“That is quite all right,” she responded. She placed her glass down on the table and took a napkin to try to dab at the spot on the floor.
“Please, allow me to accompany you to refill your glass. I can have someone take care of that.” Neville looked across the room, and he could see a butler already on his way. He nodded to the man and took the older woman by the arm, guiding her toward the refreshments. The woman wiped her hands with the napkin and allowed herself to be led.
“I must apologize again,” said Neville when they got to the punch. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Neville Bennet.”
“Bennet,” said the older woman. “That name is familiar. My gosh, you are the Duke of Edinbran.”
“The very same.”
“Thank you for taking care of me, Your Grace. I know you by reputation. Please, do not let me stop you from getting to where you were going.”
“It was a foolish errand. I only wanted to know about the war in the colonies, but the news is always the same. The fighting continues on and on with no sign of both sides finding peace.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” said the woman. “My husband…my late husband, fought in the war. I…sorry, you do not need to hear my life story.” She looked around for something, and Neville quickly took out his handkerchief and handed it to her so that she could dab her eyes. He had a feeling that he knew exactly how she felt.
“Please, allow me to stay with you a little longer.” Neville knew the pain of the loss, and he had genuine sympathy for the woman. “I do not even know your name.”
“Pardon me again,” she said. “Straight into my past before even introducing myself. I am Julia Smith.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Julia.” Neville held out his hand, and Julia took it briefly.
“And a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace,” said Julia, dabbing at her eyes one more time before handing back the handkerchief.
Neville wanted to ask more about her late husband. He was fascinated by war, but he knew better than to stir old feelings. He wanted to tell her that his wife had also passed but, instead, he asked, “Are you here alone?”
“My goodness, no,” said Julia. “My son is here with me. I fear that I will never find him a wife.”
Neville smiled a wry smile. “I know exactly what you mean. I have the same fear for my daughter. Sophia would likely marry the first man who proposed if I were not there to step in. I will only settle for the very best for my daughter.”
“Maximilian is quite the opposite,” said Julia. “I fear that he does not want to marry at all. I had to convince him to ask a lady to dance this evening, and even then, he only managed to fill one slot on a card. What do I do if my son never takes a wife.” Julia looked down at the ground quickly. “I must apologize again. I was in your way, and now I am laying all of my problems on you. You must ignore what I am saying.”
“Do not apologize for that,” said Neville. “Besides, it was I who ran into you. As a father, I know what you are going through. We only want the best for our children. I can see that you are a fine mother who cares about your son.”
Julia looked down at the ground with a small smile on her face. No one spoke until the first dance stopped, and the men and women looked for their next partners.
“You must meet my son,” said Julia, looking back up again. Neville looked toward the young man approaching, and he could see some resemblance between the two, especially around the eyes. They shared freckles around the nose too, enough that with a careful glance, they could be seen as mother and son.
“Maximilian, may I introduce the Duke of Edinbran,” said Julia when the young man arrived at her side.
“Your Grace,” said Maximilian, offering his hand. Neville noticed that the man shook his hand firmly and with confidence. “It is a pleasure to meet you,” continued Maximilian.
“Thank you,” said Neville. “What is it you do, Maximilian?”
“My mother would have me be a scholar if she had her way,” said Maximilian with a smile. She would like me to go into medicine, which is a fine profession, I have to admit, but I would like to follow in my father’s footsteps. He perished in the French Revolutionary War, and he died defending what he believed in. I can think of nothing finer. Of course, I would like to come home from defending my country.”
Maximilian smiled, and Neville almost chuckled and may have if he did not see Julia put a hand on her son’s arm. When her eyes met his, he saw the sadness there. This poor woman only had her son left in the world, and that put an idea into his head.
“With your father gone, it must be hard to look after your mother, especially with your studies. You are not yet signed up for the army, so what is it that you do for money?”
“An astute question,” said Maximilian with a smile. “Before my father passed, he acquired land in England. He was able to loan out some of the land to farmers, and the rest is being mined. With what profit that turned, I was able to invest in gold mining overseas. We now own a gold mine, and while we have not yet struck a rich vein of gold, the mine does produce a modest profit year on year. As soon as we have saved enough, I have a friend who needs investment in his shipping company, shipping goods back and forth to the colonies.”
“You sound like a young man who has a good head on his shoulders,” said Neville, sizing the young man up. He looked to be around twenty-four or twenty-five, and he had already made good business decisions. His daughter was currently dancing with two brothers who lived off their father’s money, and he was not sure that they had worked a day in their life.
“I would like you to meet my daughter,” said Neville.
Maximilian looked at his mother quickly before turning his attention back to Neville.
“Do not worry,” said Neville. “Your mother is not conspiring to find you a wife. I merely bumped into her by accident, and I met you because of that. I think you are a fine young man, and I would like you to meet my daughter. The dance is almost over, and she will be returning soon.”
“Maximilian, I do not think it polite to refuse the Duke,” said Julia.
“Of course not,” said Maximilian. “I was not about to suggest such a thing. I would be more than happy to meet your daughter, Your Grace.”
“Very well,” said Neville. He had a genuine smile on his face for the first time in as long as he could remember. When his daughter approached moments later, she had a puzzled look on her face at her father’s smile, and then a look of realization when her eyes turned to the young man beside him.
Neville watched Maximilian closely and could see the man’s eyes light up when Sophia approached. His daughter was a vision, and she looked especially resplendent in the flicker of the candles and lanterns dotted around the room.
“My dear,” said Neville. “May I introduce Maximilian Smith and his mother, Lady Julia. My daughter, Lady Sophia.”
“It is a pleasure,” said Sophia, her eyes lingering on Maximilian.
Neville had hoped to find someone for his daughter this evening, and fate had dabbled once again. By not looking where he was going, it had been orchestrated for his daughter to meet the most refined man at the ball. And, with how little Maximilian was chasing his own marriage, there would be little competition. Maximilian had everything that Neville was looking for in a future son-in-law. He was sure of it. He had finally found a husband for his daughter.
Edinbran Castle, London
“Father, you have never invited a gentleman over for dinner before,” said Sophia.
“This young man is not like any I have met before,” said Neville. I have kept correspondence with his mother, and I believe that this will be a favorable match for you.
“I must admit that Maximilian is very handsome, and I did enjoy talking to him at the ball. I hope that you are right, Father. I am done with all of these social occasions. I feel as if I have to put on an act, and I cannot be myself.”
“You should always be yourself,” said Neville.
“That is not always true,” said Sophia. “Was Mother the same after you married her as she was before?”
“She was more amazing than I thought,” said Neville.
“Then I have a lot to live up to. I do not believe that everyone can have what you and Mother had. I can only dream that I will find love too.”
“You shall,” said Neville. “I am sure of it.”
The two walked through the gardens of Edinbran Castle, the scent of tart apples in the air. The season was fast approaching when they would be harvested—some to be turned into cider, others into pies and jellies. It was a fine time of year to be living in the Castle.
“We should go back. They will be arriving soon, and I want to make sure that the staff has everything ready,” said Neville.
“You sound nervous,” said Sophia with a smile.
“I am no such thing,” stammered Neville. “This is very important for me. For you, Sophia. A good first impression is key.”
“I know, Father,” said Sophia. “I will do the best that I can.”
“And your best is wonderful,” said Neville. “I can already tell that Maximilian has taken a liking to you. That will soon grow into love, and you will marry and have a happy life.”
“I do hope so,” said Sophia.
The two walked back to the house, and when they got there, Sophia went off to get ready for dinner. Neville checked in on the staff in the dining room and kitchens, even though he did not really know what he was looking for. He liked to be seen around the Castle, and if people looked busy, then that was enough for him. He talked to both the steward and the housekeeper before retiring to his bedroom with his valet to ready himself.
Neville was shaved before he took a bath. When he was clean from head to toe, his valet helped him put on his formal breeches, shirt, waistcoat, tailcoat, and boots. Neville preferred to put on his own cravat. He checked the time and still had thirty minutes before they arrived. That was just enough time for some cognac, and he found the butler downstairs to help him with his refreshment needs.
When the carriage arrived on the grounds, Sophia had graced the foyer with her presence, wearing a flowing light blue dress, tight around the waist and with ruffles on the shoulders.
The butler had the door open as the guests ascended the stone steps to the castle entrance, and they were ushered in, and greetings were made. Neville was pleased to see that Maximilian was dressed as formally as he was, and he had taken obvious care to curate his appearance for the dinner. Julia was a picture too and wore a green dress that showed off her figure. She was not a tall woman, but she was one with curves and had retained a shapely figure even though she was almost fifty.
The guests were led through to the dining room, where they were sat and offered refreshments.
“I wish to thank you for your kind invitation,” said Maximilian, raising his glass of wine into the air. “I do not believe that I have ever dined in a castle before. This is truly a spectacular building.”
“Thank you, Maximilian,” said Neville, extremely proud of the building himself. “It was obtained by my great, great grandfather and now belongs to me. I do not have a son of my own, but I would like to pass the Castle on to whoever my daughter may marry.”
“Father,” said Julia. “It sounds as if you are trying to bribe the dear young man.”
“I am doing no such thing. I am merely stating the facts,” said Neville.
“Your words hold a lot of sway,” said Maximilian with a smile. He looked around the large dining room, taking in the artwork that was hung on the walls before settling on Sophia. “It is beautiful.”
Neville watched as his daughter blushed, and he felt joy in his heart. He was worried that he would have to orchestrate bringing the two of them together, but they were off to a great start. He turned his attention to Julia, not wanting to leave her out of the conversation. “My daughter is not the only beautiful lady here tonight,” he said, raising his glass.
“Thank you,” said Julia. She smiled at Neville and also looked between Maximilian and Sophia. It was evident that she also liked the match between the two.
Soup arrived as the starter, a hearty broth with parsnips and carrots, and there was silence for a while as the soup was delicately eaten without being slurped.
“My mother tells me that you are interested in what is going on in the colonies,” said Maximilian.
Neville perked up at the mention of the colonies. “I hear that we are at war over there. What do you know of the situation?”
“My friend with the shipping company makes frequent trips back and forth or, at least, his people do. I do not think that the war will last very long. Although, if it gets more serious, I have half a mind to enlist and go over there myself.”
“Take matters into your own hands. I like a man who knows what he wants,” said Neville. He suddenly noticed that Julia had gone quiet beside him, and it came back that her husband had died in the war. “Though it is good to hear that the war may end soon. In most cases, war is never the answer.”
“I cannot believe that you would go over there,” said Sophia. “You might end up getting yourself killed.”
“If that is how I go, then so be it.”
“Do not tempt fate. Dying in war is not always a noble way to die,” said Sophia, putting down her spoon.
“My father died fighting,” said Maximilian, holding Sophia’s gaze.
“Oh,” said Sophia, looking down. “I did not mean—”
“It is fine. I know what you mean to say, and I agree with you. I should not have snapped, but it is a matter that is close to my heart. I know that you did not mean anything by it.”
“No, I did not,” said Sophia quietly.
Neville found himself placing a hand on Julia’s arm as she stifled a sob. She did not look at him and continued eating her soup, and he quickly drew his hand away lest he offended her.
“What is mined on your land?” asked Neville, quickly changing the subject.
“Coal mainly,” said Maximilian.
Everyone went back to the soup, and the mention of Julia’s late husband was soon forgotten. By the time the main course had been served, Sophia was suffering from uncontrollable laughter as Maximilian told a story about when he had inspected a coal mine and almost fallen down a mine shaft, thankfully only suffering from a grime-covered face, but so dirty that his mother did not recognize him. Julia laughed at the story too, and her eyes lit up when she did. It heartened Neville to hear her laugh, and he was glad that both she and her son were enjoying the evening.
The desserts came, and they were served with port. Outside, the sun was setting, and there was a slight breeze in the air, a welcome one. Plates were scraped clean, and Maximilian spoke first.
“Your Grace, would it be acceptable if I took a stroll in your magnificent gardens with your daughter. I witnessed them on the way in, but I would like to take a closer look.”
“That would be agreeable,” said Neville. “And I am sure that Sophia would like that.”
“I would,” said Sophia.
There were footmen there to pull out the chairs so that Maximilian and Sophia could rise, and Maximilian held out his arm when he stood. Neville watched the two of them leave, arm in arm, and he could not help the smile on his face.
“Perhaps some more port, Lady Julia?” he asked, turning back to her.
“No, thank you, Your Grace. I fear it will be too much for me.”
Neville motioned for his glass to be filled. “I believe that went rather well,” he said. “Those two will make a fine match.”
“I think that you are right,” said Julia.
“You have raised a fine boy.” Neville took another sip of the port. “You can tell a lot about a person by how their children act. You have done well by the boy, and your husband would be proud of you.”
“Thank you,” said Julia. She looked away.
“Please tell me if I am overstepping the mark in any way.”
Julia turned back to face him. “You are acting like a perfect gentleman, and I am glad that I am sat here with you. My husband passed a long time ago, and I have made my peace with it, but it is still hard.”
“I understand,” said Neville. He wanted to talk about his wife, his beautiful Gloria, but he held back again. He held Julia’s gaze again, and she looked away. There was a spark in her eyes that he was sure he did not have. She had lost her love, but she seemed happy, almost jubilant at times. Neville did not feel like that. It had been close to twenty years, and he was still saddened by his wife’s passing, unable to find happiness in even the smallest things.
All except his daughter’s happiness. If he could find happiness for her, perhaps he would find it himself too.
“Do you ever think about remarrying?” asked Neville.
“The question seemed to shock Julia. “I do not know. I mean, I have thought about it, but I do not think that I ever will. I loved William, and I am not sure that I will find that again.”
“There is still time,” said Neville, quoting the words that his daughter had told him time and time again. “I did mean it when I said that you were a beautiful woman.
Julia smiled and blushed, but she had nothing to say.
As Neville took her in, he really did mean it. Her dress displayed her curvaceous figure, and he found his eyes moving over it. She had a beguiling face with freckles that gave a down-to-earth look. The eyes were as rich and vibrant as his wife’s, but blue instead of green, and her thin lips were curved into an almost permanent smile. She was a beautiful woman; there was no doubt about that.
As Neville sat there, he felt guilty. His wife was not here, so he should not feel as if he was betraying her, but he felt just that. He was supposed to be finding a suitor for his daughter, but he found he wanted something for himself. The feeling took hold for a brief moment before he shook it from his mind. Perhaps it was the influence of the port.
Neville straightened his thoughts. When his daughter was happy, he was happy, and that was all that mattered. He did not have time to be lusting over this woman, no matter how alluring he found her. The scent of lavender came through the window, and it took him back to an evening over twenty years ago when he had sat in the very same room with his wife. She had told Neville that she was pregnant, and it was the happiest day of his life.
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