A Vixen for the Devilish Duke Preview

 

About the book


He met his fate on the road he took to avoid it...

When the orphanage she works at closes permanently, Adelia Raby is left despondent. But then fate offers her a new lifeline: work in the household of the striking Duke of Rosemond.

Ready to finally settle down, Harry Abberton, Duke of Rosemond, is positive he has found the right match in the face of Lady Dorothea. Until a chance meeting with an enchanting commoner, one Ms. Adelia Raby, shakes his conviction to the core.

Completely bewitched by her and resolving to break his impending engagement, Harry unwittingly brings an old family secret back from the grave...along with the ruse employed to cover it.

Determined to solve the mystery, Harry will come face to face with the clue he’s been looking for: a birthmark on the hip of Adelia, shared by the one person he never expected...

Chapter One


​Serf


Adelia Raby’s hands were red from all the scrubbing she’d been doing in the cold. She was used to it and didn’t let that, or the little cut on her thumb, stop her from completing her task. She still had a whole bunch of children’s clothes to wash and the winter sun would be setting soon.

She drew her worn woolen cloak closer around her as she straightened up to rest her back.

“Golly gee,” she said as she stretched, feeling her back snap with the strain of being bent over for so long.

“Are you doing all right there, Addy?” Sister Mary Catherine called as she carried a basket of grapes from the storeroom to the refinery.

“Yes, Sister. I am fine.” Adelia bent quickly back to her work, not wanting to seem idle for too long. The sisters were fair employers, but very strict. She could see the children of the orphanage in the school room, heads bent over their work, and sighed.

She had just received the news from one of the novices—the orphanage was shutting down. The sisters could no longer support it from the money they earned from the fees paid by surrounding families for their children to attend classes at the orphanage, and the church had other priorities. Adelia did not know what she would do when they let her go. She had no references and very few employers valued a referral from the Catholic sisters. She could not go home to her parents—they would simply advise her to get married. She could not really blame them as the farm had been struggling for years. They barely made enough to keep them in winter clothes and soup.

No.

She would have to find another way.

She scrubbed the thin cotton tunic that served as the common uniform for both boys and girls at the orphanage. She was worried about what would happen to the children. Terese had hinted that perhaps they would be broken apart and scattered to whichever other orphanages would agree to take them in. Adelia knew that there were at least five sibling groupings: a pair of fraternal twins, two sisters and a little brother, four brothers, two sisters and three brothers, and two brothers. They might not all be accepted by the same orphanage.

It broke Adelia’s heart to think of families torn apart in such a way.

She prayed that the church might change its mind and find a way to fund the orphanage and then she would not lose her job as well as her residence.

I need to come up with a plan.

She frowned. She had less than a month to be otherwise situated. The convent was already receiving offers for the land. Many members of the gentry fancied themselves as wine makers. It was a sufficiently genteel undertaking that one could have a winery without any vulgar insinuations about commerce.

Perhaps I can stay on here and work for the next owner.

She straightened up, carrying the bucket to go and hang the clothes. Her long tawny locks blew into her face, obscuring her vision. Sister Mary Catherine was always on her to cut it a little. She always said it was unbecoming for a ‘servant of Christ’ to have such a mane of hair. Adelia did not know how she had managed to come up with sufficient excuses as to why she had not cut it yet. It was the only up side to this mess, that Sister Mary Catherine would stop bothering her about her hair.

Adelia liked her waist-length tresses. They kept her warm in the winter cold, and the children loved to play with it, plaiting it into various twists and patterns for their entertainment. There wasn’t much entertainment to be had at the orphanage.

“Adelia!” Sister Mary Catherine called, “Are you almost done? I need to send you to the market.”

Adelia was not almost done. She still had several mud-spattered tunics to get through. If she did not do them now, then Sister Francine would make her finish before she could have any supper. The temperature was already dropping as the sun went down. She had no intention of having her hands still in the freezing water in the cold of night.

“I’ll just finish these tunics, shall I?” she called back.

Sister Francine humphed in annoyance but stomped off and left her to it. She hoped for a moment that the sister might find someone else to go to the market but didn’t hold her breath waiting for it. No doubt she would have to wake up very early to do it. Most of the maids of all work had been dismissed. Only Adelia and two other girls remained—both were former orphans and had nowhere to go or sufficient references to get other work.

Julia and Katherine were shy, scared, sixteen-year-olds and at nineteen, Adelia felt like their big sister. She said another prayer, just in case God had not been listening before, that a solution would be found that would not have families separated and the three of them out on the street with nowhere to go.

She finished up with the tunics and then hurried to her little bedchamber, a small eight by ten stone room with no windows, so she could change out of her wet gown into something drier and warmer. She then hurried to the kitchen where a huge fire was roaring and the steam from boiling water and tureens of soap warmed the air. She shivered as she entered, looking around at her companions and smiling.

There was the cook, Mrs. Daniels, whose husband had died and left her destitute. Carlos, the footman and general handyman, who had also grown up in the orphanage. Katherine and Julia sat hunched on the bench, peeling a mountain of potatoes for tomorrow’s luncheon.

“Good even,” she greeted, before making a beeline to the tureen of soup, bowl in hand.

“Oh, did you finish with the clothes a’wready?” Mrs. Daniels asked.

“Yes, I did. Thank heavens the mud was fairly fresh.”

Mrs. Daniels shook her head. “I’ll newer unnerstan’ the need to go rolling aroun’ in the mud. Woulda took a switch to them if it were me.”

Adelia just smiled. She couldn’t really blame the children. They didn’t get much time to play and when Adelia had offered to take them on a picnic the day before—since the sisters wanted to take some prospective buyers around the property without children underfoot—they had taken full advantage. When Sister Mary Catherine had seen the state of them, her usually stoic face had looked truly horrified.

“Since you thought it a good idea to let them roll around in the mud, you shall wash their tunics,” she had declared.

“Yes’m,” Adelia had replied quietly.

***

“Mama, I need a new gown. I haven’t had one in ages.” Dorothea pouted prettily. Her mother laughed. “But did we not just go shopping this week?”

“That was not for the ball. You know how flamboyant Spaniards are. I cannot appear at this ball at anything but my finest. I owe it to England!”

A booming laugh from behind her had Dorothea turning her head to see her father standing in the doorway, smiling indulgently at her. “My daughter is such a patriot, eh?” his eyes twinkled as he teased her.

“Father, I am being serious. I need a gown that is suitable to welcome the new Spanish ambassador and his family to England. You do not want them to think I am beneath their touch do you, Papa?”

“Oh, absolutely not, my dearest. We shall have Miss Walters stop by to design you a gown worthy of your beauty.”

“And may we go to Rundell and Bridge and pick out some jewelry?”

The Earl of Cornhill’s smile widened. “Anything you want, my sweet.”

Dorothea smiled prettily. “Thank you, Father.”

“You’re welcome, Dorothea.”

The Earl and his wife exchanged indulgent glances as they watched Dorothea tuck into her breakfast oatmeal. They felt so lucky to have her, having lost her twin sister at childbirth. She was a fair child with her wheat-colored hair and golden eyes. People said she resembled a wild cat.

Lord Cornhill had been to Africa and hunted big game. The painting he’d had done of himself, with a live lion, it’s mane fanning out, framing its face, honey gold eyes staring impassively at the artist, had been likened to their Dorothea many times.

She sprung to her feet as soon as she was done eating.

“I’ll go and get changed and then we can go to the milliner’s. I need a new hat before we call on the Miltons. So sad about their mother.”

“Yes, indeed, I need a hat as well, so we’d best go. I promised poor Lady Cassandra that I would be there before nuncheon.”

***

Lady Cornhill and Dorothea linked hands, as their lady’s maids fetched hats and cloaks and the footman had the coachman bring their carriage around. They had a busy day of social calls and shopping ahead of them.

“Do you think the Duke of Rosemond will be at the ambassador’s ball?” Dorothea asked as they rode. “You know that he almost asked me to dance at the cotillion?”

“He did?” her mother raised a surprised eyebrow. She had heard through the grapevine that the Duke was in the market for a wife and so all the mothers were out in force, wherever he was, trying to get him to look at their daughters. Lady Cornhill was not one to push her daughter forward—Dorothea did that quite well by herself. She had not known that her daughter held any interest in this particular Duke, however.

“Yes, indeed. However, his dance card was already full when Lord Cunningham introduced us. It was quite the disappointment.”

“Well…you should make sure to seek him out early. I am sure he shall be at the ambassador’s ball. As a gesture of goodwill, if nothing else.”

Dorothea nodded. “I think so, too. He is quite a handsome fellow, don’t you think?”

Lady Cornhill smiled. “Yes. He’s quite handsome and kind. He will make you a good husband.”

Dorothea smiled. “I expect he shall be very flattered by my attention.”

“I expect he shall.”

Dorothea preened, looking out the window. The carriage came to a stop and she sat impatiently, waiting for the footman to open the door. He went first to her mother’s side and helped her out before opening Dorothea’s door. When she was on the ground, she reached out and snatched the coachman’s whip, slashing it across the footman’s face. “Next time, move faster,” she hissed in annoyance.

The footman held his face, his eyes wide in shock and pain. “Y-yes, My Lady,” he said and turned away even as the welt began to swell. Dorothea humphed in annoyance and threw the whip back at the coachman.

“We shall not be long. Wait right here,” Lady Cornhill informed the coachman.

“Yes’m.” He bowed his head quickly, while keeping control of the horses.

Lady Cornhill beamed at Dorothea, holding out her arm for her daughter to take and they walked into the haberdashery.

***

“The Duke of Rosemond.”

The butler announced him as he stepped in the room and he bowed to their Highnesses, before giving the new Spanish ambassador a bow.

“Welcome to England, Your Excellency.”

The ambassador nodded and smiled. Harry had met him in Madrid the previous summer when he called upon the Spanish court to thank the King for his benevolence in allowing the Duke’s ships to dock briefly in Spain. “Gracias, Your Grace.”

He smiled back and then walked into the ball, his eye sweeping the room. His mother was ill, possibly dying, and he had promised her that he would find a wife before she died. Of course, he had every intention of doing everything in his power to make sure that did not happen soon, but if this was her dying wish…then he would endeavor to give it to her.

He had refrained from making an announcement about his intentions because he did not want to be deluged with overeager debutantes throwing their handkerchiefs his way.

No, he would rather do his own discreet investigations and find someone suitable that way. His eyes fell on Lady Dorothea, her magnificent mane of hair piled on her head, while her honey-gold eyes peered about in satisfaction. She was in the arms of the Viscount Ashness and he was sweeping her about the room, ensuring her red silk gown was shown off to perfection. She really did look a picture.

On closer inspection however, the honey-gold eyes were hard and cold, and her fingers dug into the Viscount’s coat like claws. Perhaps she was merely a wild child, looking to be tamed…Harry would have to see. His eyes swept her figure, up and down, and he licked his lips. It would truly be a pity if she was as spoiled a brat as advertised because she was one of the loveliest ladies he’d ever seen.

The music came to a stop and she stepped back from Viscount Ashness and to Harry’s surprise, caught his eye. She smiled, a come-hither look if he’d ever seen one, and his legs were moving before he could even think about it.

“Lady Dorothea,” he bowed over her hand, depositing a kiss just above her gloved knuckles.

“Your Grace,” she murmured, her voice low and sweet like honey, “It is wonderful to see you again.”

Harry shivered, feeling the effect of her tone on his flesh. He would truly be disappointed if she turned out to be as much of an ogre as his valet tried to make out. Michel was a Frenchman and therefore fussy about women. Harry truly believed he might have been married already if his own valet were not so choosy on his behalf.

It made him laugh sometimes how Michel would dismiss a potential mate for something as flimsy as the hem of her gown not quite hanging correctly. That’s why he was sure that if he wanted to find a bride, he needed to do it away from his residence, in less critical company.

“Is your dance card full?” he asked the beautiful Lady Dorothea.

She smiled wide, pleased, and he knew that even if it was full, she would bump someone off in his favor. “I believe the next dance is free,” she said.

Harry smiled, disappointed that he hadn’t made a bet with himself. He took her hand and led her to the dance floor where they got in formation. He kept his eyes on her the entire time they danced, a slight smile on his face. She was a graceful dancer, and not at all shy, keeping her gaze fixed on his.

The dance came to an end and he escorted her back to her mother.

“Thank you very much for the dance, Lady Dorothea.”

“You’re welcome, Your Grace.” She curtsied prettily and Harry nodded and went to seek some other potential bride to interview.


Chapter Two


Acquisition


Adelia was not wrong. Sr. Mary Catherine woke her before the crack of dawn, as the sisters were going for vigils, so she could go to the market. Adelia did not mind too much. She liked to walk in the bracing early morning air when London was just waking up. She felt that it was the most honest time of day, before everyone put their masks on and became whoever they wanted you to think they were.

She nodded good morning to Mrs. Shelby who had a fruit stand at Convent Garden. She put some apples in a bag and handed them to Adelia. “For the children,” she said, waving away the pennies Adelia was trying to pay her with. She nodded, smiled and moved on to the butcher’s shop. Sometimes he saved his bones for them if no one had purchased them for their dogs. Mrs. Daniels made a very nice soup with the bones and it stretched the meals much further than they would otherwise go.

Mr. Schilling, the butcher, had apparently put a bag aside for her and she favored him with a grateful smile. He blushed red and looked away when she thanked him. “S’no bother,” he mumbled.

She walked between the carriages on the narrow pathway, in search of spices to make the bland soups more palatable. A few vendors nodded to her in greeting, others waved.

She smiled at them all and went about her business. She made sure not to linger at any particular stall. Sister Mary Catherine would not like that. She was always warning Adelia not to make a cake of herself by being overly familiar with the vendors. It was difficult to know how much friendliness was too much, so Adelia took care not to spend too much time with any one vendor.

She finished her shopping and began the long walk back to the orphanage. The streets were just beginning the early morning bustle and Adelia watched as the flower girls shouted their wares and the other flower girls, who worked in the night, made their slow, stealthy way home.

Her heart sunk as she thought that in a few weeks, she might have to be one of them if she hoped to survive. She still had no idea what she was going to do once the orphanage was sold.

Suddenly a strong hand closed about her arm and somebody pulled her around to face him. By his dress and his demeanor, she knew he was a lord.

“What are you doing?” he asked, or rather demanded.

Adelia cast about frantically for some transgression she might have committed as she walked but could not think of anything. “Uh…” she said.

“What game is this you’re playing? Do your parents know where you are?” the gentleman demanded. He had the deepest green eyes she’d ever seen, like an algae-covered pond. His eyes distracted her from the pain he was causing. His grip on her was rather firm.

“Excuse me, sir, I think you have me mistaken for someone else,” she said timidly.

He stared at her as if he thought she might be kicking up a lark at his expense. “Lady Dorothea, this is quite enough. I cannot imagine what you are doing on the street alone this early in the morning but it is time you went home.”

“My name is Adelia Raby. I know not this Lady Dorothea of whom you speak!”

His eyes narrowed. “I do not appreciate you pitching the gammon like this, Lady Dorothea.”

Adelia jerked her arm away from him and took a step away. “Listen, sir, I do not know who you think I am, but I assure you that I am not.”

The gentleman stared at her. “You are not lying to me.”

“No. I am not.” Her shoulders slumped in relief that he finally believed her. For a moment, she thought he might get her thrown in Newgate or some such.

He cleared his throat as if embarrassed, “Well…then will you allow me to escort you to your destination?”

She was shaking her head before he finished speaking. “No. Sr. Mary Catherine is very specific about not allowing men to escort me anywhere.”

His lips quirked as if he wanted to smile. “And what does Sr. Mary Catherine say about that?”

“She says not to do it.” Adelia replied at once, wondering if this counted as speaking to someone for too long.

“You seem too old for an orphanage. Surely you’re not a novice?” he asked peering closely at her gown as if it might tell him something.

“I work in an orphanage.”

“I see. Well…have a good day, won’t you.”

“Thank you, er…sir.” She scurried away before he could come up with another reason to detain her.

***

Harry lifted his hand and signaled to his coachman, Richard, to draw up. “I want you to follow that young lady,” he told Richard. “And report to me where she goes.”

Lady Dorothea had seemed to think she was telling him the absolute truth when she said she was not Lady Dorothea. It was a puzzle that Harry needed to solve. Was the girl perhaps dicked in the nob and no one in the ton had heard of it? Or was it some elaborate sham she was cutting?

He was a little ashamed to admit it but Lady Dorothea Harrington had just become exponentially more interesting.

He walked slowly back to his house. He enjoyed his morning walks to Hyde Park before all the hoi polloi were up and about. It was quiet and peaceful and gave him time to think. And now it had landed this mystery in his lap.

He stepped in the townhouse, catching sight of the tray of mail on the sideboard. He scooped it up and walked with it to the dining room, looking through the day’s letters. He was invited to one Venetian breakfast, and a weekend house party in Brighton. He had a letter from his solicitor, and an invitation from the Earl of Cornhill to dinner. He stopped short, staring at it.

“Hmm…”

Normally he would not have paid too much attention to it. He received quite a few invitations from hopeful parents wanting to show off their marriageable daughters. Usually he sent his regrets. But now he wanted another look at Lady Dorothea Harrington. Wanted to see if she would carry the knowledge in her eyes that he knew her secret. Whatever she was up to, pretending to be some sort of maid at an orphanage, he would get to the bottom of it.

***

“You must have really made an impression on the Duke of Rosemond. He accepted your father’s invitation to dinner,” Lady Cornhill announced, with a wide smile at her daughter.

Dorothea preened. “I knew he liked me. He danced with me at the ambassador’s ball, you remember? And we stared at each other all evening. I’m sure he’s preparing to propose.” She lit up, a huge smile on her face.

“Indeed, he just may. But a lady does not make assumptions.”

“Of course, Mama. I shall wait dutifully for him to make an offer.”

Her mother reached out and patted her hand.

“Sarah!” Dorothea shouted, and her lady’s maid came hurrying into the room. “You have to wash my hair and have it expertly coiffed tonight. We have an important visitor.”

“Yes’m.”

Dorothea narrowed her eyes at Sarah, who hurried out of the room as if she was trying to avoid being chastised.

“Mama, we have to go shopping and buy a new gown.”

“Of course, Dorothea. I’ve already sent for the modiste to visit us here with several gowns. She can adjust them to fit you right away. I told her to come by as soon as possible so that we can still keep our appointment for tea at the Carringtons.”

“That sounds like an excellent idea. I can let them all know that I am about to be off the market.”

“Dorothea…” her mother said quellingly.

“I know, Mother. I need to be discreet.” Dorothea pouted, not at all happy at being thwarted. There was nothing she loved more than lording it over the other girls and showing just how much better she was than them.

***

“Adelia! You’re late,” Sister Mary Catherine snapped.

Adelia opened her mouth to tell the Mother Superior all about her encounter with the strange gentleman but then closed it with a snap instead. Sister Mary Catherine would likely chastise her for inviting the gentleman’s attentions even though she had no idea why he stopped her.

“I’m sorry. The market was quite crowded today. It slowed me down.”

It wasn’t exactly a lie. Adelia could live with it.

“Then take the groceries to the kitchen. They are waiting on you.”

“Yes, Mother.”

Adelia hurried away, quite relieved to escape without too many questions being asked of her. She put her pack down on the kitchen table and began to unload it.

“What’s got you so agitated this morning?” Mrs. Daniels asked.

Adelia shook her head, maybe a little too fast. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

Mrs. Daniels actually put down her spatula. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, thank you. I’m fine.”

Mrs. Daniels gave her a look but then refrained from commenting further. Adelia put down her bag of food so as to take off her cloak. She hung it on the rack by the door. Picking up the bag, she carried it to the pantry and emptied it of food. She shivered in the cold, which reminded her that it was time to light the fires.

“Adelia! Adelia!” she turned around to see the twins, Freya and Fin, running toward her. They were just eight years old and had cottoned onto her as an honorary big sister.

She got to her feet, wiping her hands on a rag as she smiled at them. “Good morning. Have you escaped from your morning ablutions?”

Fin shivered. “The water’s cold,” he complained.

She rubbed his shoulder affectionately. “I know Fin, but Sister Anastasia will have your hides if you don’t bathe.”

“She didn’t see us running away. You won’t tell, will you?” Freya leaned in to stare at her with wide puppy-like eyes.

Adelia sighed, “Of course I won’t. But you know she’ll do a head count.”

Fin shrugged. “We’ll just say we bathed quickly and left.”

Adelia shook her head, “You know lying is a sin, don’t you?”

“It’s just a small lie,” Freya hedged.

“Yes, it’s not hurting anyone,” Fin added.

Adelia could well sympathize with their desire to stay as far away from cold water as possible. The orphanage did not have enough wood or charcoal to boil water to bathe. Not for all the children and so they were all forced to use cold water. Adelia had wracked her brains for a way to warm enough water for them but so far she had no ideas.

“Come on then, help me light the fire in the dining hall. At least we can be warm at breakfast,” she told them.

“Yay!” Always happy to help, they skipped at her side as she led the way to the dining hall. She said a quick prayer for them, that they would stay together after the orphanage was sold. Even more than her worry for herself, she fretted over what would happen to the children. This was the only home they had ever known, and now it was about to be taken away from them.

It was sad.

She swallowed the lump in her throat as she got on her hands and knees and began to lay the fire. Freya and Fin occupied themselves by bringing wood from outside and laying it close by so she did not have to move. Pretty soon, they had all the fires laid and Adelia snuck them into the kitchen for some hot oatmeal porridge before sending the twins back to their mates.

“Those children all dote on you,” Mrs. Daniels said.

“Oh yes, I suppose they do,” Adelia agreed even as she blushed with embarrassment. She knew she was too soft with the children but she reasoned that they had enough people in their lives who were strict and strait-laced. It didn’t hurt to be the one to indulge them a little.

Her own parents were as indulgent with her as they could be with their limited means. She just wanted these orphans to experience a little bit of that as well. It harmed no one and it made the children happy.

“Sister Mary Catherine was saying the other day that your coddling would do them more harm than good because it gave them unrealistic expectations,” Mrs. Daniels continued.

Adelia frowned. “Did she now?”

“Oh yes. She was quite pleased that they would be rid of you by months’ end. Said something about you being a ‘temptation’.”

Adelia was quite disconcerted by this report. Whatever could Sr. Mary Catherine have meant? She didn’t understand at all. It was hurtful that the Mother Superior was so eager to be rid of her. She tried her best to work hard and do as she was told and she did not understand why the sister did not like her.

“It’s because you’re such a pretty one,” Mrs. Daniels said as if she could read Adelia’s mind.

“Well, that’s hardly my fault, is it?”

“Nae. But I think she’d prefer you with a shorn head and bent over shoulders. Maybe some wrinkles…” she put her hands out to her chest as if measuring her breasts, “A smaller bosom—”

“I understand, thank you, Mrs. Daniels,” Adelia interrupted, face flaming. Mrs. Daniels just laughed.

Adelia made some toast for herself. Thankfully, they made their own bread and so did not have to go without. Pouring herself a cup of tea, she retreated to the corner where she could eat in peace.

Her mind went back to the gentleman who had stopped her. Now that she had some time to think, she realized that he’d been overly familiar, as if they knew each other. Adelia could not fathom why a gentleman would think that.

She ran his words through her mind but they made even less sense now than they had then. It was clear that the gentleman must be off his nob, which was a pity seeing as he was quite handsome.

His eyes were such a bottomless opaque green that it made one want to delve deeper and find out what lurked behind them. His blond hair had been tied in a neat queue at his back. He had the sort of curls that were not entirely tamable however tightly he tied them. His hair glinted golden even in the early winter sunlight, golden, luxuriant and wavy. It was truly wasted on a gentleman.

His broad shoulders had completely obscured her vision of anything behind him. He looked tough and capable, certainly his grip on her hand amply illustrated his strength. She honestly could not understand what a gentleman like that was thinking of to speak to her.


Chapter Three


Dinner and Investigation


Dorothea peered in the looking glass, smoothing her coiffure, making sure that the wisps fell just so against her cheeks. She blinked smugly at her reflection. “He won’t be able to resist me.”

“Yes’m,” Sarah said, and Dorothea turned, eyes narrowed.

“I was not speaking to you,” she snapped.

“Sorry’m,” Sarah bowed, taking a step back, out of whipping range.

Dorothea sighed with annoyance and then went back to admiring herself in the glass. There was a knock at the door.

“M’lady? Your guest has arrived.”

Dorothea gasped. “Sarah! Bring my slippers!”

Sarah hurried into the room, diving to her knees and holding out the gold slippers for Dorothea to fit her feet in. She slipped on her shoes and then gestured impatiently at the door. Sarah got to her feet quickly and opened the door so that Dorothea could sashay through it.

She pulled her chin up, took a deep breath and prepared to go and greet her future husband.

***

Harry spent the entire dinner shooting puzzled glances at Dorothea. She had seemed so different when he met her in the street. It was as if she was a different person. Harry could not find the sense in it.

“Do you enjoy walking, Lady Cornhill?” he asked, studying her intently.

“Well…it depends on the company,” she preened at him, blushing becomingly. He could see how contrived it all was.

“Would you care to walk with me in the morning?” he persisted.

Her eyes showed surprise, delight, but nothing else. “I would love that.”

He nodded jerkily. “I look forward to it.” He had to be sure. He did not even know why he was so concerned about her bizarre behavior. It was nothing to do with him if she liked to pretend to be a maid at an orphanage. If asked what his greatest weakness was, Harry would readily admit that it was his curiosity.

Once he became interested in a question, he was like a dog with a bone, just gnawing at it until he got to the marrow. It was his nature. Once he had the answer to this riddle, he could let it go. For now, he could see the happiness in Dorothea’s face, and that of her mother. He knew what they were thinking. That he had asked for the walk in order to make an offer.

Who wouldn’t think that?

It was the logical thing to think. But even knowing that, he could not let it go.

After dinner, there was brandy and cigars in the library with the Earl while Dorothea and her mother retired to the music room. He and the Earl smoked in silence for a while.

“Are you sure about this?” Cornhill asked.

Harry lifted an eyebrow. “What is it I’m supposed to be sure of?”

“Walking out with my daughter.”

Harry shook his head. “I merely wish to get to know your daughter better…to see if we are truly a good match. I have made no decisions to be sure of.”

Cornhill blew smoke into the air. “I see.” He did not sound pleased.

“I can withdraw my suit if—” Harry offered.

“No, no. My daughter is interested in you. She wants this, and so I want it for her.”

“Duly noted,” Harry said as noncommittally as he could.

The Earl simply looked at him, as if waiting for something; a confirmation that Harry would make an offer for his child. All Harry could do was look at him.

“I can withdraw my invitation for that walk if it does not suit you,” Harry said. There were other ways he could find out the truth, after all.

“No. By all means…feel free to court her.”

Harry nodded. “Thank you, My Lord.”

“Well…” The Earl got to his feet, “Shall we join the ladies?”

Harry stood up as well. “Yes. Let us do that.”

They walked in silence to the music room where the ladies welcomed them with warm smiles and hot toddies.

“Won’t you play for us, Dorothea?” Lady Cornhill asked.

“Of course.” Lady Dorothea smoothed down her gown as she got to her feet and then sashayed to the piano, casting occasional glances at Harry to be sure he was watching her. Harry bit back a smile.

Dorothea’s singing voice was quite good and Harry sat back to listen, putting an attentive expression on his face as he studied her features. The luxuriant mop of tawny hair was piled elegantly upon her head, with wispy tendrils framing her face.

She played with minimal skill but maximum flair. Harry was bored out of his mind. Whatever energy she exuded, it was very different from the girl he had met on the street in London.

Could there be two of them?

The thought was intriguing if only because it implied a secret in the past that might do with exposing. He also very much wanted to meet the other Lady Dorothea, just for comparison purposes. He felt as if he was elevating her memory in his mind—in comparison with this other iteration of her.

He made sure to leave as quickly as he could. He had a lot to think about.

As soon as he stepped back in his townhouse, retiring to his chambers at once, Michel was there to take his coat. “Did you have a nice dinner, Your Grace?” he asked, as he relieved him of his hat and cane as well.

“It was…satisfactory.”

“Indeed, Your Grace.” He followed Harry as the Duke made his way to his bedchamber.

“Michel? May I ask you something?” Harry asked as Michel laid out his bedclothes.

“Of course.”

“Well…the thing is that I…met a young lady.”

“Indeed, Your Grace?”

“Yes. She was the spitting image of Lady Dorothea Harrington except that she claimed to be a maid in an orphanage in London.”

Michel actually stopped what he was doing in surprise. “I beg your pardon?”

Harry huffed a laugh. “Yes, I know, it sounds bizarre. However, with the evidence I have, it is the only conclusion I can come to.”

Michel dropped the Duke’s bedclothes and came up to him with wide eyes. “Tell me everything.”

Harry indulged him, telling him everything that had happened since he’d met Lady Dorothea Harrington and her doppelgänger.

“Did you find out from your coachman if she did indeed go to this orphanage? Did they know her there?”

Harry lifted his head, eyes brightening. “You have a point. I did not ask Richard that.”

Michel went to the door, opened it and spoke to the footman waiting outside. He closed the door behind him and returned to Harry’s side. “I have summoned him.”

Harry nodded and they waited in silence as Michel brought a steaming pitcher of water and a washbasin so that he could wash up. They were just finishing when the coachman arrived.

“Richard. I have some questions for you regarding the little assignment I had you undertake the other day.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“I want to know exactly what happened when you followed the girl. Where did she go and how did she enter, did she speak to anyone? I want every detail you can remember.”

“Yes, Your Grace.” The coachman launched into an account of every detail of his surveillance. According to him, the people at the Daughters of St. Francis orphanage were familiar with the girl and treated her very much like one of them.

“So it is unlikely she’s the daughter of an Earl masquerading as a maid?” Harry asked.

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“Thank you, Richard, you may leave.”

They watched the coachman walk out of the chamber and then Michel turned to the Duke. “Did you not put in an offer for a winery that was part of an orphanage recently?”

Harry nodded slowly.

“What a coincidence.”

“Indeed.”

***

“The Mother Superior has called for a meetin’,” Mrs. Daniels announced to the kitchens at large.

There was a short silence.

“What is happening?” Clifton, the messenger boy asked.

“If’n we knew, I expect there would be no need for a meetin’, now would there?” Mrs. Daniels snorted derisively.

There was an outbreak of murmuring before the kitchen slowly started emptying as everybody made their way to the meeting hall. Mother Superior was standing on the dais, waiting for the room to quiet down.

“Thank you all for coming today. I have some news.”

The murmuring in the hall grew.

“We have finally found a buyer for the orphanage. They will be taking over by month’s end. So I suggest you all get packing your belongings.”

A hand shot into the air and Adelia was not surprised that it was Mary Sue’s. She was one of the older orphans and always full of questions. “Where shall we be going, ma’am?” she asked.

Mother Superior’s chin rose and her nostrils flared as she drew in a deep breath. “You shall be distributed among orphanages in the country that have agreed to take you in.”

Mary Sue’s hand was back in the air even before the Mother Superior had finished speaking. “You shall be separating us?” the horror she felt was apparent.

“Yes, unfortunately we have no choice but to do that.” For just a moment she looked regretful but then she straightened her shoulders and looked out at her audience. “This will be a difficult time of readjustment for many of us, I know. We must just do the best we can and trust in the Lord.”

There was a general murmur of “Yes’m” but the hall was full of discontented faces. Adelia turned away, tears pricking her eyes. Even more than herself, she felt bad for the children whose fate was completely out of their own hands. They had to go where they were sent. Sure, Adelia might be out on the street but she still had some control over what came next. The children didn’t.

She covered her face with her hands, and let the angry tears fall. It would be easier if she had a target for her grief, somebody to blame. But it was nobody’s fault that the money was insufficient to keep them. That’s just how it turned out.

The other members of staff were filing out of the meeting hall and she followed them disconsolately.

“Mayhap the new owner will require a cook and a footman,” Mrs. Daniels said to Clifton. “There might still be work for us here yet.”

Adelia thought about that. Maybe if the new owner wanted to work the winery, she could ask for a job. After all, she knew quite well how to crush grapes and mix up the juice properly.

I’m going to stay until they come and ask.

Having some sort of plan made the knot in her stomach loosen slightly. Perhaps she could get the addresses for the orphanages the children went to. She could write to them and make sure they were all right. Adelia was so glad that the sisters made sure that not only every child but also every adult in the convent could read and write. She could keep in touch with the children, especially Freya and Fin. It was what she could do to mitigate the effects of this nightmare.

“Oh, don’t cry, Adelia. I’m sure you’ll find something.” She was shocked out of her musings by Mrs. Daniels putting an arm around her shoulders and petting her. It was then that she realized her cheeks were wet and her breath was hitching.

“I-I-I’m no-not cr-crying,” she protested.

“Of course you’re not,” Mrs. Daniels continued petting her absently, steering her toward the kitchen. “Come and have some soup. It’ll make you feel better.”

Adelia did not want to feel better, but she recognized Mrs. Daniel’s words for the kindness they were and followed her meekly.

***

Harry alighted from his carriage and straightened his pristine white breeches as he looked around at the orphanage he was purchasing. He knew that the occupants were vacating the premises that day and something had told him to arrive for that. He had dealt solely with the diocesan priest when negotiating the transaction who had been understandably reticent about the fate of the orphans he was evicting.

He could see the children arranged in neat queues, according to height, climbing into a line of carriages awaiting them. One of the sisters caught sight of him and walked over, back straight, chin held high. Harry could only conclude that she was the Mother Superior.

“Good morning, er, Lord…?”

Harry bowed. “Apologies, allow me to introduce myself. I am Harry Abberton, The Duke of Rosemond and new proprietor of this property.”

The Mother Superior raised an eyebrow, undoubtedly in surprise. She curtsied, bowing her head briefly, “Sr. Mary Catherine, Mother Superior, at your service.”

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Sr. Mary Catherine. I am here to ensure that your move to your new residence goes smoothly and that you are experiencing no trouble?”

The Mother Superior glanced at him. “It is going well, Your Grace. The provision of the carriages was a generous gesture.”

“Yes. I assumed that with so many children it would be easier than using a stage coach. May I ask where you shall all be going?”

She floundered for a minute, a slight pink staining her cheeks. “We do not have one particular place to go, Your Grace. We merely have letters from various orphanages informing us of the number of children they are able to accommodate.”

Harry frowned. “Well…that won’t do.”

“I beg your pardon, Your Grace?”

“I cannot have you scattering these children about the countryside like chickens.”

Sr. Mary Catherine lifted an incredulous eyebrow, “What would you suggest as an alternative?”

Harry opened his mouth and then closed it. He had no alternatives to suggest. He could not even offer them accommodation at this residence as they did not have sufficient funds to run it. Harry knew well that any monies he had paid for the property went directly to the church’s coffers.

Then he remembered his Brighton property.

“How many children do you have and how many of them are able to work?”

Sr. Mary Catherine blanched. “Work? I suppose all of those above the age of eight can do some form of labor. I have with me, five-and-twenty orphans.”

“I have a property in Brighton left to me by a great uncle. I have been at a loss for what to do with it. The children can collect shells for the shops for payment, while the older ones can act as groomsmen for the horses that are stabled there. You may keep any profits you make to feed and clothe and educate your children.”

Sr. Mary Catherine simply stared at him in stupefaction. “Are you in earnest, Your Grace?”

Harry swallowed his embarrassment—he had not meant to make such a gesture. “Of course I am. I never say things I don’t mean.”

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Tags

duchess, duke, earl, governess, historical romance, lady, manor, marquess, mysterious, mystery, regency romance, rogue, seduced, temptation, victorian romance


  • Absolutely loved it!! Cannot wait to see the rest of the story and how it develops! Another potential great story. Thx so much for letting me read the preview.

  • So far it’s very interesting. I hope I can afford to buy it. I would love to read it to the end. Quite curious as to how the twins were separated at birth.

  • Intriguing, mysterious and captivating. I am drawn to the characters and their unique personalities. I can’t wait to read the next chapters.

  • Leave it to O.B to write such captivating two chapters, and leave you wanting more.
    I cant wait to see how he figures out the secret, and how it all happened.
    And I want to read about his next encounter with Adelia.

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