Faced with an impossible choice, could you devastate someone you love?
Caution:This book contains a philandering hero with a heart of gold, a fearless heroine adamant she’ll decide her own destiny, a passel of roguish dukes and the daring damsels determined not to be seduced by them, and unforeseen twists that will keep you turning page after page.
Marriage—an unpleasant obligation
A troublesome addendum to his father’s will requires Victor, Duke of Sutcliffe to marry before his twenty-seventh birthday. That doesn’t mean he intends to alter his pleasure-seeking lifestyle. Mere weeks before he must wed, he ventures home, intent on finding the most biddable, forgettable miss in all of Essex. Except the first woman he encounters stirs far more than his interest, and Theadosia Brentwood is anything but unremarkable or dowdy.
Marriage—an impossible choice
Against her better judgement, and despite her father promising her hand to a man she detests, Theadosia clandestinely meets with Victor. Though she’s far beneath his station and aware he must marry soon, she can’t deny her growing fascination. When Victor unexpectedly proposes, Thea must make an unbearable decision—refuse to marry her father’s pick and elope with Victor, who wouldn’t wed at all except to save his fortune. If she does, her betrothed will reveal a scandalous secret, sending her father to prison and rendering her sister and mother homeless.
Buy this page-turning book for an emotional, entertaining, and romantic Regency England adventure you won’t want to put down.
Though this book is part of a series, it can easily be read as a stand-alone novel.
This was a delightful novella, that is well written and perfectly paced. The characters are likable, there are twists and turns, secrets, friendship, passion and a seemingly impossible HEA. The steam level is low, but the love scenes are perfect for the story. ~Goodreads Reviewer
Read an Excerpt:
Colchester, Essex England
Late June 1809
Twilight’s gloom lengthened the shadows in the old cemetery as Theadosia—humming Robin Adair, a Scottish love song certain to vex her father—wended her way through the grave markers and the occasional gangly rose bush or shrubbery in need of pruning.
Having lived at the rectory her entire life, she found the graveyard neither frightening nor eerie. Those lying in eternal rest included a brother who’d died in infancy, several townspeople she’d known, and even a few gentry and nobles for whom Father had performed funerals. As children, she and her sisters and brother had frolicked amongst the stones and statuary, playing hide and seek and other games.
Situated on the east side of All Saints Church to catch the rising sun each morning, the churchyard provided a convenient, often-used shortcut to the parsonage’s back entrance.
A deep, anguished whisper drifted across the expanse.
Though she didn’t believe in ghosts and despite her velvet spencer, an icy prickle zipped down her spine, causing the hairs on her arms to stand at attention.
Lifting her robin’s egg blue chintz gown with one hand, she paused and glanced around but saw nothing out of the ordinary. A plump, greyish-brown rabbit, enjoying a snack before finding its way home for the evening, watched her with wary, black-button eyes. After another moment of studying the familiar landscape, Theadosia continued on her way.
She must’ve imagined the voice.
The wind had whipped up in the last few minutes. Sometimes, the two ancient oaks acting as sentinels at the cemetery entrance groaned in such a way that the swaying branches sounded as if they were moaning in protest.
Perhaps Jessica’s chickens had made an odd noise, Theadosia reassured herself as the wind lashed her skirts around her ankles. Situated on the other side of the parish where the vegetable and flower gardens were, the chickens often made odd sounding cackles and clucks.
The empty basket that had held the chicken soup and bread she’d delivered to the sick Ulrich family this afternoon banged against her thigh as she resumed her humming, even daring to sing a line from the song since she’d inspected the area and her parents weren’t present to chastise her.
“Yet him I lov'd so well—”
“Why’d you do it?”
The same tormented baritone rasped through the burial ground once more.
That, by Jehoshaphat, she had not imagined.
She stopped again and turned in a slow circle, trying to peer around the greeneries and headstones. Many were large and ornate, and she couldn’t see past the nearby stone markers.
“I jus’ want to know why.”
The rabbit froze for a second before darting into the hedgerow.
A shiver tiptoed across Theadosia’s shoulders, and she swallowed against a flicker of fear.
Come now, Theadosia Josephine Clarice Brentwood. You are made of sterner stuff.
Besides, ghosts didn’t slur their words. At least, she didn’t think so.
Gathering her resolve, she pulled herself to her full five-feet-nine inches and called, “Who’s there?”
She squinted into the dusk. The voice had come from the graveyard’s far side. The side reserved for aristocrats and nobles.
Another wind gust whistled through the dogwoods and flowering cherry trees bordering the cemetery’s north side and tugged at the brim of her new straw bonnet. She held it tightly to keep it in place.
Once more, a mumbled phrase—or perhaps a sob this time—followed on the tails of the crisp breeze.
What distraught soul had ventured into the graveyard at this hour?
Visitors usually came ’round in the morning or afternoon. On occasion, they even picnicked amongst those who’d gone before them. Superstitions and unwarranted fears usually kept mourners away as darkness descended, however.
Whoever the person was, they were in distress for certain, and Theadosia’s compassionate nature demanded she offer to help. Slipping the basket over her forearm, she strode in the direction she thought she’d heard the voice coming from. As she rounded a weeping angel tombstone, so old and discolored the writing could scarce be read anymore, she skidded to a halt.
A man—a very startlingly attractive man—lay amongst the dead.
Rather, surrounded by a low, pointed iron fence, he lounged atop what must be his greatcoat, his back against a six-foot marble marker. Even in death, the dukes and duchesses of Sutcliffe, as well as their immediate kin, kept themselves separated from the commoners—those they deemed beneath their illustrious blue-blooded touch.
That was what the locals claimed, in any event.
She’d never found the Sutcliffes uppity or unfriendly. A mite stuffy and formal, for certain, as nobility often were, but never unkind. Not that she’d spent a great deal of time in any of their company.
Preposterously long legs crossed at the ankles and his raven hair disheveled as if he been running his fingers through it, the gentleman took a lengthy swig from a green bottle.
Father would kick up a fierce dust if he found out.
The tanned column of the man’s throat, a startling contrast to the snowfall of a neckcloth beneath his chin, worked as he swallowed again.
Something had him overwrought.
As he lowered his arm, she widened her eyes.
Theadosia’s heartbeat stuttered a trifle as she raked her gaze over Victor, the Duke of Sutcliffe. Though she hadn’t seen him in three and one-half years, she easily recognized his grace.
A wave of sympathy swept her.
She also knew what tormented him.
His father’s suicide.
’Twas his father’s grave he sat upon.
Eyes closed, his sable lashes fans against his sculpted cheekbones, the duke lifted the bottle once more.
“You didn’t even leave a note telling us why.”
Theadosia wasn’t supposed to know the reason the seventh duke had hanged himself. Such things were never discussed except behind closed doors. Her Father, the rector of All Saint’s Church, frowned upon gossip or tattle of any sort.
What she thought surely must be a tear leaked from the corner of his grace’s eye. His obvious grief tore at her soft heart.
Her parents wouldn’t approve. In fact, Father absolutely forbade it.
Biting her lower lip, Theadosia closed her eyes for an instant.
She really, really should not.
But she would.
She couldn’t bear to see the duke’s suffering.
Reservations resolutely, if somewhat unwisely, tamped down, she passed through the gaping gate.
“Your father had stomach cancer. I overheard Papa telling Mama one day after your father . . . That is, after he died. Papa felt guilty for not telling you and your mother, but the duke swore him to secrecy, and of course he had no idea your father would . . .” Why people choose to keep such serious matters from their families boggled the mind.
Eyelids flying open, his grace jerked upright.
His hypnotic gaze snared hers, and yes, moisture glinted there.
Her heart gave a queer leap.
She remembered his vibrant eyes, the shade somewhere between silver and pewter with the merest hint of ocean blue around the irises. Not cold eyes, despite their cool colors. No, his eyes brimmed with intelligence and usually kindness, and they crinkled at the corners when he laughed. He’d laughed often as a young man; her brother James had been one of his constant companions whenever his grace was in residence at Ridgewood Court.
“Cancer?” His eyelids drifted shut again, and he nodded. “Ahhh.”
That single word revealed he understood.
Mayhap he’d find a degree of peace now.
“Thank you for telling me,” he said.
“I’ve always thought you should know.”
He should have been told years ago.
Bracing himself on his father’s headstone, the duke maneuvered to his feet. With the whisky bottle dangling from one hand, he squinted as if trying to focus his bleary-eyed gaze.
“Theadosia?” Uncertainty raised his deep voice higher on the last syllable as he looked her up and down, an appreciative gleam in his eye.
“Thea, is that truly you?”
Only her siblings and dearest friends called her Thea.
His surprise was warranted. Mama said Theadosia had been a late bloomer. She’d almost despaired of developing proper womanly curves.
She bobbed a half curtsy and grinned.
“It is indeed, Your Grace. I’m all grown up now.” At sixteen—embarrassingly infatuated with him and possessing a figure a broomstick might envy—she’d believed herself a woman full grown. Time had taught her otherwise.
The duke’s extended absence had caused a great deal of conjecture and speculation, and many, including her, wondered if he’d ever return to Colchester.
She so yearned to ask why he’d come back after all this time, but etiquette prohibited any such thing.
He hitched his mouth into a sideways smile as his gaze roved over her.
“I’ll say you are. And you’ve blossomed into quite a beauty too. Always knew you would.”
He’d noticed the thin, gawky girl with the blotchy complexion? She’d barely been able to cobble two words together in his presence.
A delicious sensation, sweet and warm, similar to fresh pulled taffy, budded behind her breastbone. She shouldn’t be flattered at his drunken ravings. In fact, she ought to reproach him for his brazen compliment. After all, he was a known rapscallion, a man about town, “a philandering rake,” Papa avowed. Nevertheless, it wasn’t every day a devilishly handsome duke called her beautiful.
Actually, rarely did anyone remark on her features.
Her father frowned on the praise of outward appearances, which explained why the gentlemen he’d encouraged her to turn her attention to couldn’t be said to be pleasing to the eye.
The Lord tells us not to consider appearance or height, but to look at a man’s heart, he admonished Thea and her sister regularly.
Easier to do if the man didn’t boast buck teeth, a hooked nose to rival a parrot’s beak, or a propensity to sweat like a race horse: the last three curates, respectively.
His grace, on the other hand, was most pleasing to the eye. Oh, indeed he most assuredly was.
Deliciously tall—perfect for a woman of her height—and classically handsome, his face all aristocratic planes and angles. Even the severe blade of his nose and the lashing of his black brows spoke of generations of refined breeding.
Papa, a plain featured, thick man himself, had married a Scottish beauty. It truly wasn’t fair he demanded otherwise of his offspring.
Why couldn’t he find a good-hearted and somewhat attractive man to woo his middle daughter?
Was that too much to ask?
But she knew why.
Because a handsome face had turned his eldest daughter Althea’s head, and she’d run off with a performer from the Summer Faire. For the past two and a half years, Papa had forbidden anyone to utter her name.
Theadosia’s heart ached anew. How she longed for word from her beloved sister, but if Althea had ever sent a letter, Papa hadn’t mentioned it. His blasted pride wouldn’t permit it.
Even Mama, more tolerant and good-natured than Papa, didn’t dare remind him what the Good Book said about pride and forgiveness.
Sighing, Theadosia ran her gaze over the duke again.
James would be delighted when he came up from London next.
“A pleasure to see you again, Miss Thea.”
A charming smile flashed across his grace’s noble countenance as he bent into a wobbly gallant’s bow—dropping the whisky bottle and nearly falling onto his face for his efforts. He chuckled at his own clumsiness.
She dropped the basket and rushed forward to brace him with one hand on his broad—very broad—shoulder and the other on his solid chest. Being a prudent miss, she dismissed the electric jolt sluicing up both arms. This was not the time for missish shyness or false pretenses of demureness.
Imagine the scandal if his grace were found insensate, reeking of whisky, atop his father’s grave? This was not the homecoming she’d imagined for him over the years.
“Do have a care, sir, or you will crack your skull.” Supporting his great weight, for his form wasn’t that of simpering dandy, but a man accustomed to physical exertion, she slanted him a sideways glance. “I believe you’ve over-indulged.”
A great deal, truth to tell.
“How ever will you manage your way home to Ridgewood Court?”
“The same way I came to be here in this dreary place.” Giving her a boyish sideways grin, he waggled his fingers in the general direction of the lane. “I shall walk, fair maiden.”
“I think not. ’Tis a good mile, and you’re in no condition to make the hike.”
“Do you fret for me, Thea?” His rich voice had gone all low and raspy.
He lowered his head and pressed his nose into her neck as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her flush with his body.
Shouldn’t she be offended or afraid?
Yet she wasn’t either.
“Mmm, you smell good. Like sunshine and honeysuckle.”
He smelled of strong spirits, horse, and sandalwood. And something else she couldn’t quite identify. She couldn’t very well lean in and sniff to determine what the scent was, as he’d boldly ventured to do.
His grace inhaled a deep breath, another unnerving sound she couldn’t identify reverberating in his throat. “Intoxicating,” he rumbled against her neck, his lips tickling the sensitive flesh.
Trying—unsuccessfully—to ignore the heady pleasure of being near him, Theadosia tilted her head away whilst bracing her hands against the wall that was his chest.
“You are the one who’s intoxicated and don’t know what you’re saying.”
Why must she sound breathless?
The exertion of holding him upright. That must be it.
“Your Grace.” She gave that unyielding wall a shove. “You must release me before someone sees us.”
Not much chance of that with evening’s mantle descending, but it was foolish to tempt Providence.
“I’m not so foxed that I don’t know what to do with a beautiful woman in my arms.”
There was the rogue Papa had warned her and Jessica about.
The sharp retort meant to remind him of his place was replaced by a sigh as his lips brushed hers.
And again, with more urgency.
Did she resist as a proper, moral cleric’s daughter ought to? Summon outrage or indignation? Even the merest bit?
Lord help her, no.
Was she as wanton as Althea?
Did such wickedness run in families?
She stood there, ensconced in his arms, and let him kiss her. She may have even kissed him back, but her mind was such a muddle of delicious sensations, akin to floating on a fluffy cloud, she couldn’t be certain.
His soft yet firm lips tasted of whisky and something more.
“And here, Mr. Leadford, are the church burial grounds.”
“We have graves dating over two hundred years ago, prior to the erection of All Saint Church’s current buildings.”
Her father’s voice, drifting to her from several rows away, succeeded in yanking Theodosia back to earth and apparently sobered his grace as well. At once she disengaged herself from his embrace.
She risked much if she were caught. Everything, in fact. Papa had expressly prohibited his remaining daughters to be unchaperoned in the company of males over the age of twelve.
“I’m confident you’ll feel as blessed as I do as you assist in the shepherding of my flock.” Pride resonated in Papa’s deep voice, quite useful for his booming Sunday morning sermons. “I confess, I’ve been a trifle lax in my paperwork the past few months. The last curate was a Godsend when it came to organization, record keeping, and correspondences. Such matters are not amongst my strengths.”
“Fret not, for those are my fortes as well, Mr. Brentwood,” a pleasant but unfamiliar voice replied.”
“I’m well please to hear it,” her father replied.
Another new curate?
That made four in as many years. A quartet of unattached males seeking a modest woman of respectable birth to take to wife. Thus far, she and her younger sister, Jessica, had been spared.
Fortunately, each of the former curates had selected a docile—ambitious—parishioner from the congregation to wed before moving on to their own parish.
Unfortunately, All Saint’s Church had few unassuming, unattached misses of marriageable age left.
“Thea . . .?”
The duke reached for her again.
She pressed her gloved fingers against his lips, and he promptly gripped her hand and pressed a kiss to her wrist.
“Stop that,” she whispered, tugging her hand away whilst silently ordering the fluttering in her tummy to cease.
“My father’s near. I cannot be found in a compromising position with you. He’ll be livid. Please. Let go, sir.”
She’d be disowned on the spot. Cast out and shunned. Her name never uttered by her family again. She’d never see them again either. Ever.
Imagining Papa’s infuriated reaction sent a tremor down her spine.
Even in his stupor, the duke must’ve sensed her fright and urgency, for he released her at once and put a respectable distance between them.
“I’d prefer you call me Sutcliffe or Victor.”
What did she owe that honor to?
Sutcliffe she might consider, but she could not use his given name, except in her mind. Only the closest of relatives and friends might address him by anything other than his title.
As Theadosia stepped even farther away and righted her bonnet, her foot struck the whisky bottle. Her gaze fell on the forgotten basket outside the fence. Bother and rot. She could only pray her father’s tour didn’t include this portion of the grounds.
An exclamation, followed by a flurry of whispers, made her whirl toward the lane paralleling the churchyard.
The elderly Nabity sisters, bony arms entwined and heads bent near, stood on the pathway.
What had they seen?
Theadosia closed her eyes.
Pray God, only her conversing with the duke, a respectable distance between them, and nothing more.
His grace turned to where she peered so intently. Wearing a silly, boyish grin, he bowed once more, this time with more control, though he swayed on his feet in imitation of a sapling battered by a winter tempest.
“Good afternoon, dear ladies. I do hope I’ll have the pleasure of speaking with you after services Sunday. I’ve missed your keen wit and your delicious seed cake these many years.”
In unison, their sagging chins dropped nearly to their flat-as-a-washboard chests, before they bobbed their heads in affirmation and, tittering in the irksome manner of green schoolgirls, toddled off. Probably to make their famed confection.
“I think you said that just so they’d make you seed cake.” The rascal.
“You’ve found me out.”
An unabashed grin quirked his mouth, and she pressed her lips together, remembering the heady sensation of his mouth on hers.
“Theadosia? What the devil goes on here?”