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Prologue

Eli Black, The Duke of Blackwood

Eli Saint-Clair Black, Duke of Blackwood, casually observed the marketplace as he strode past on the way to his meeting. His chestnut colored hair was wavy but well-groomed, and it framed his square features and brown eyes quite pleasingly. Although he walked with a cane and a slight limp, he was far from old at just two and thirty. His sensible suit and fashionable cravat bestowed upon him the air of dignity worthy of a man of his stature.

On the corner, he saw a grubby woman with a baby selling flowers while two mud-caked children played at her feet. She did not lift her wrinkled face to make eye contact but bid him good day as he passed, nonetheless. Although he was not in a particularly cheery mood, he dignified her respectful greeting with a dutiful response.

He rounded the corner and quickly reached his destination, the home of Lord Jeffrey Beauchamp, Baron of Harrow. He was here to see him about a new investment opportunity in Ireland.

Beauchamp, an outgoing and quite fashionable young man, had blonde hair and always wore a rakish grin. He was a couple of years younger than Blackwood and had the knack of always being popular anywhere he went. Blackwood, meanwhile, felt like the most unpopular man in any given room. Perhaps it was even true. He was not generally well-liked in London’s high society, but this didn’t bother him. He cared not a whit for their company anyway.

Beauchamp, the man who over the years had become his best friend, had a plan to purchase a steam engine manufacturing shop in Ireland, and he wanted Blackwood’s opinion on the deal. It also happened that he wanted his friend’s partnership as a co-investor, a proposition which the Duke agreed to consider.

After completing his business with Beauchamp, Blackwood again entered the busy marketplace. His purpose having been fulfilled, he felt more at ease to attend to his surroundings and the pleasant weather that befitted the scene. He took more notice of the people, seeing that good folks of all ages, classes, and incomes were milling together and negotiating over the price of various goods.

To him it was something of a novelty, since, as a duke, he’d never entered the marketplace nor had any business to conduct with the likes of a baker. Neither had he ever haggled over the price of peas with a greengrocer or the value of a pound of cheese. He nevertheless found these activities a curious delight to observe from his position of rather aloof interest.

Suddenly, a young, fair-haired lady caught his eye. Perhaps it was the bright light of the sun reflecting off of her blonde hair that captivated him. Or it might have been the daintiness of her figure against the backdrop of what he had observed as a rather coarse locale. Without even realizing, he stopped and stared at the young woman in an uncharacteristically gawkish manner. She was rubbing a coin in her hand and staring longingly into a milliner’s shop window at an array of stylish new hats.

“A lovely rose for a lovely lady,” cried the grimy old flower woman.

With a start, Blackwood realized that the old lady, who had apparently noticed him watching the young woman, had called out to him. Flustered, he started on his way again down the sidewalk, ignoring the flower lady and trying not to notice the fair-haired girl.

The young lady frustrated his efforts, however, when she suddenly turned around and placed her well-loved coin into the old woman’s hand. The woman glanced at it and cried out, “Oh, bless you, Miss!” She handed her a rose, which the lady accepted with a curtsy before turning and walking away. All of this was observed by Blackwood, who pretended not to have noticed.

A pang of memory caught up with him, and he stepped up his shuffling pace as if to outrun it. His fiancée – nay, former fiancée – had been just as beautiful and just as beneficent as the young lady was. Her hair had likewise been just as fair and golden as this young woman’s. Charity had been lost in a terrible accident that nobody could have prevented, although Blackwood felt he should have. In fact, many people thought him responsible, God knows why. Much to the contrary, however, he still carried the scars of that day with him some four years on, and he probably always would.

Such encounters with painful memories being brought up by the mere sight of lovely young ladies made a good reason for staying at home more often, he thought. He trekked farther on, knowing he would soon arrive at Number Four Mansford Street and could stay shut in his London home for the remainder of the day if he so wished.

And so he did.

 

 

Chapter 1

Miss Alexandra Montgomery

“What wretched news!” Sophia was in full sympathy with Alexandra, despite her own news being of a generally more happy sort. For her part, Sophia had recently been engaged to Lord Williams, an amiable and kind gentleman who was liked by all the young ladies he met.

“Married! You’re going to be married?”

Sophia nodded her head in response with a silly grin plastered across her face in apparent joy. She was positively glowing and did not need to say a word to convey her fullest feelings on the matter.

“But that’s wonderful news! We must celebrate.”

“We can’t celebrate. It wouldn’t be right with all you’re going through.”

“Nonsense! You mustn’t think of me and my troubles at a time such as this.”

“Oh, but your mother owned that cottage. I’ve heard you talk about it so many times that I feel like I’ve been there myself.”

“And now you shall never get to see it!” It was all Alexandra could do to hold back her emotions on that subject. It had been several years since she and her father had seen the cottage themselves. Her father’s business had been declining for some time, forcing them to remain in London throughout the year. His meager salary from the university where he taught history was the only thing keeping them afloat.

Alexandra had been missing her friends in the country and longed for that moment when she would see them again. She had always hoped that Sophia would come with her, at least for a few weeks to visit. But now the cottage was being sold, and there seemed to be nothing she could do about it.

“But what did your father say?”

“Only that it was necessary. The deal was done, and papers were signed, and there was nothing at all he could do about it now.”

“Oh, how dreadful! I can’t imagine what you must be going through. What are you going to do?”

“Well, I’m not going to go home and cry my eyes out about it. I have a plan, and if that one fails, I shall come up with another. I am not going to cede victory without a fight!”

Sophia raised an eyebrow, but Alexandra’s jaw was set. She had been acquainted with Alexandra long enough to know better than to second-guess her best friend when she had such a look on her face.

A determined Alexandra quickly changed the subject.

“Now enough about all that, I say! We must celebrate your engagement to Lord Williams. For soon you’ll be a baroness and won’t have any time for professors’ daughters like me.”

“Don’t be silly, Alexandra! I’ll always have time for my very best friend. After all, you and I have never been all that interested in the ways of London society. Who else would I find to share a good laugh with me?”

Sophia opened the cabinet and took out two crystal goblets, filling each no more than halfway with cherry wine. She handed one to Alexandra and raised one in the air as though she were about to make a toast.

“Come now…” Alexandra spoke flatly, without a hint of either haughty airs or lamentation. “We both know that I shall soon be considered a spinster, and one of low rank at that.”

Sophia lowered her glass.

“Your visits to me will be nothing more than charity, and I have no qualms admitting it. In fact, I am quite resolved that teaching or perhaps becoming a governess will be my fate.”

“You know, for such a sensible girl you are making absolutely no sense right now. I predict you will not be a spinster, let alone a teacher or governess! You still have one, maybe two whole seasons before you even need to think such thoughts! Besides, how do you think your father would manage without you?”

“Oh, I’m sure the professor has no real need for me. He keeps me around for comfort, but he spends all his time with his books.”

“But then who shall comfort him when you are off being a teacher or a governess somewhere?”

“Well, I guess I haven’t given that much thought. The truth is, he doesn’t need much really. He’s still teaching at the university, and that seems to make him happy.”

Sophia again raised her glass, prompting Alexandra to do the same. “I only hope Lord Williams and I will be so happy when we are his age.”

Each young lady took a respectable sip from her glass and then set it down on the table.

A pale grey cloud washed over Alexander’s face as she appeared to be lost in thought.

“My dear, what is it?”

“I’m sorry. It’s nothing. Really.”

“It’s her, isn’t it? Your mother.”

Alexandra took another sip of her cherry wine to buy herself a moment before she spoke. Then, smiling at her friend, she said, “How do you know me so well? No one else would ever guess but my very best friend.” Her attempt at a smile was faint at best.

“I’ve seen that look too many times before to have misunderstood it.”

“I’m so sorry to have ruined the mood.”

“No, Alexandra. Please don’t… What is it that you were thinking about her?”

“Well, it’s just that since she… since she died, we have barely even visited her cottage. We certainly haven’t stayed for the entire summer. But back then… back when she was alive, we used to summer there every year. That was before I knew you, of course.”

Sophia gave a grave look and put her hand on Alexandra’s knee as Alexandra continued.

“I only wish you could have met her. She was such a wonderful woman and a beautiful lady.”

“I have no doubt. After all, look how you’ve turned out.”

“I beg you not to flatter me, Sophia.”

“It isn’t flattery when it’s true.”

“We both know I’m headstrong and lack the refined manners of a well-bred young lady.”

“Nonsense! You’re merely a bit livelier than most. Not to mention smarter!  I find you to be more than adequate company, and I certainly prefer you to most of the so-called well-bred young ladies I’ve ever met!”

The girls laughed together cheerfully for a moment.

“But I’m dying to know,” Sophia murmured. “What’s your brilliant plan for getting your mother’s cottage back?”

“I think my father let slip enough information that I can figure out who the purchaser is… Perhaps if no appeals can be made to the professor, then the buyer can be persuaded to reconsider.”

 

 

Chapter 2

Eli Black, The Duke of Blackwood

Lord Blackwood furrowed his brow as he examined the pencil sketch of his newest property. The cottage would make for a much lovelier retreat for himself and his ward, Liliana, than that vast, empty, stone castle in the Cotswolds. Besides, Liliana had practically begged him not to take her there this summer, and perhaps the only soft spot that remained in his heart was reserved for her.

She had been the ward of his lovely fiancée before her tragic death, and he had taken on her care following the accident. Perhaps it was out of a sense of guilt, for he felt he should have somehow avoided the rock jutting up from the road. There is no doubt that a fair argument could be made that he’d been driving his new phaeton at far too great a speed for their safety on an unknown road. Perhaps he was in too great a hurry to show it off to Charity, but it was foolish and selfish of him to go so fast.

His knowing that now, however, did not have the effect of bringing her back. His only solace was providing the best possible care and tutelage for Liliana.

If my money is good for anything, it ought to be good for that, at least.

He spared no expense in service of her care.

He saw Charity’s influence in the child’s character, as well. For any child so excessively granted all of the good things in life ought to, by rights, become a spoiled little thing. But not so Liliana. She had remained just as pleasant and lovely at twelve as she had been at eight years old, when he’d taken over her care and keeping.

Charity had herself taken the child under her own roof after her brother, Lord Beauchamp, had seen fit to reduce the household staff by half, following the death of their parents. Expenses being so high and the household’s needs being so greatly reduced by their untimely passing, he terminated the employ of both of Lilian’s parents.

“I am sorry it has come to this. I know you both served our family well, but seniority is the deciding factor here. I assure you it is not personal.” Lord Beauchamp did his best to soften the blow, but it wasn’t enough. They were going to be penniless.

“Of course, we will give you a good reference.” Charity said she wished there was more she could do.

“M’lady, perhaps there is.”

“You have both been so loyal and trustworthy. If it is within my power, I shall do whatever I can.”

Liliana’s parents begged her to take young Liliana into her care.

“She’s a bright one, she is. She could go so far, make her mother proud.” But they could never provide the kind of life for her that they’d have been able to do if they’d remained in the employ of the Beauchamp family.

“It’s the least I can do. Of course I will, if it will make you happy.”

“Oh, my dear lady. You’re an angel, you are!”

“Straight from heaven!” Liliana’s parents accepted the bittersweet arrangement as the best outcome they could have hoped for, under the circumstances.

Charity gave the girl a new home and arranged for her to have a governess to look after her and tutors to give her the best possible education. Lord Blackwood thought fondly of his former fiancée’s altruism and her decision to help wherever she could in such uncertain and grief-stricken times. He had not known her or her brother back then. If he had, he would have advised Jeffery not to terminate the employment of both parents. Eli was certain that Lord Beauchamp would have done everything he could to keep the family together if it was within his power.

The demands of young men of means seemed to be sometimes quite burdensome, as Lord Blackwood himself was only too well aware. His concern these days was on the future for Liliana. For it would not be long before she’d finish her education and then come out into society. Already the child spoke longingly of balls and courtship, though she could hardly know of what she spoke. To be sure, she was at a disadvantage amongst her peers for not having a mother – nor, indeed, a mother figure – to show her how to be a grown-up lady in society.

It was a problem he had previously given some thought, but it had recently become more and more worrisome and now pressed on him like a heavy cloud. He could see no way out of the predicament, and that bothered him greatly. For he was a man who could solve nearly any problem he set his mind to.

This problem of Liliana’s lack of maternal care, however, was a complicated issue. For Eli, being a man who enjoyed his solitude, had no plan to marry. Indeed, he was a confirmed bachelor – not the kind who rakishly sought out married women and widows for the sake of illicit affairs, but a bachelor nonetheless.

Liliana’s governess, despite how useful she had been in providing everyday care for the child these past several years, was hardly the kind of example he would have set for his young ward. For Liliana ought to grow up to be a fine lady, not a coarse old maid. It simply was not a desirable outcome for a gentleman’s ward.

Besides, in addition to her sizable dowry, Liliana would be the beneficiary of a large enough income of her own so that she could marry well, based on her own choice. That much he had seen to straight away when she had entered his house.

He stared, once again, at the pencil sketch he held in one hand, noting the gardens and the stables. Not to mention the fairly large cottage that sat next to a flat, farmable stretch of property of a respectable size. The housekeeper had been notified of his purchase of the place, and the old professor who’d sold him the cottage was supposed to have his belongings removed within a fortnight. That would give the Duke barely enough time to have the house prepared for himself and Liliana to summer there this year.

“Please can we go somewhere else this summer?” Liliana had long been opposed to staying at Lord Blackwood’s historical family dwelling. “Wellston Hall is so dreary and… and deserted!” His inherited property was a stately bit of land in the Cotswolds, but cozy it was not. Indeed, it was more formal and cold than even the London house, which was a brutally dark and empty place even on a sunny day.

Liliana herself was such a warm and lively girl, so intelligent and likeable. Lord Blackwood’s main hope for her debut was merely that she not inherit society’s distaste for himself. For he had long been isolated and presumed guilty of… well, if not outright murder then something close to it.

Nor did he wish for Liliana to take on his reclusive ways. What would be fine enough for the Duke would simply not do for the girl. No, he thought, she must be pleasant and at ease amongst her peers as well as her betters, or she might never be forgiven.

Some people, such as Lord Beauchamp, were always granted second chances due to their seemingly unlimited charm and good graces. Lacking these, the Duke himself was not afforded such luxuries by the prevailing winds of high society. He could not wish the same for Liliana.

Then there was the sharp tone and lax diction of her governess, which, due to Liliana’s lack of sufficiently better company, was destined to be picked up by the child. Heaven help her should she herself develop such a dialect. Of course there were tutors, who were far more learned than the governess, but it was the latter who tucked the child in at night and dined with her at every meal. The influence of the ever-present accent was sure to have its effect in a matter of time. Such a development could not be born, but how to stop it?

 

 

Chapter 3

Miss Alexandra Montgomery

Determined not to lose her mother’s cottage, Alexandra set out for the home of one Lord Blackwood while her father was teaching at the university. It wasn’t far and she decided to walk, but she had not anticipated the cloudburst she encountered, despite their being fairly common this time of year. By the time she arrived at Number Four Mansford Street, her wicker bonnet was covered in a layer of rain and her hair was plastered to her cheeks underneath. She only hoped her plan would still work to get her in the door.

An older gentleman of perhaps sixty answered. He was balding on top but had white tufts of hair sticking out above his ears that matched his bushy white eyebrows. He straightened himself up when he saw her, almost as if it would bestow greater dignity on Alexandra herself, and looked down the long crook of his nose at her.

“And how may I be of assistance, Miss…?”

“Miss Alexandra Montgomery. I’ve come to see His Grace, Eli Blackwood,” she said as if it were obvious, putting on her best aristocratic accent in hopes of breezing past the butler.

“On what business, may I inquire?”

“That’s personal.” It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t getting her anywhere.

The balding man cleared his throat.

“I’m sure it is, Miss Montgomery, but I shall have to have more information than that to disturb His Grace in regards to your visit.”

“Here, take my card. I’m sure he’ll see me.”

The older man accepted the card and asked her to wait in the foyer.

Once inside, she took off her bonnet, pouring a thin stream of rainwater down her back, causing her to gasp at the cold shock. Embarrassed, she hushed up and silently chided herself for the inadvertent outburst in the presence of such a regal domicile. Not but a few feet away, she saw a tall, slender man with a cane conferring with the butler. To her surprise, he was eyeing her with something akin to recognition, but she couldn’t imagine why.

The tall man whispered something in the butler’s ear and then limped away, leaning heavily on his cane with each step. Alexandra thought wistfully that his limping gait only seemed to make His Grace, as she rightly presumed he was, appear more noble somehow. Perhaps because it slowed his progress and therefore made him seem more reserved than most.

But the Duke was turning to leave, after apparently sending her away, and she could not stand to remain silent in such a moment as this.

“Oh, but Black… Your Grace!” She would insist that he hear her out.

“Madam, please control yourself!” The butler had a way of shutting her up despite herself. He crossed stiffly to the foyer and frowned at her. However, Miss Alexandra Montgomery did notice that he no longer held her card in his hand and seemed to be waiting for something. What it was she did not know. After a moment he spoke again. “His Grace will see you now. Please follow me.”

She was sure her mouth dropped open at hearing this, but she resumed her ladylike posture as quickly as she could and duly followed as she was bid.

The man led her from the foyer into an even larger entrance hall that was more magnificent than any home she had ever been in. Indeed, she thought, it must be more exquisite than even St. James’s Palace.

There were rugs covering nearly every square inch of polished hardwood flooring. A broad, twisting double staircase arose from either side of the entry hall and seemed to get narrower near the top. The two staircases then met by way of a second floor balcony, which overlooked the room. All of the stairs were fitted with rugs that covered the center portion only, leaving the beautifully tiled edges exposed. The walls were hung with tapestries and the ceilings with chandeliers, and there was more intricate woodwork along the edges of every door than Alexandra had a chance to take in.

She was being led down the hallway to the left and had already passed three doors when she had the good sense to look back at her guide, who was at least ten paces ahead. He stopped, turned, and admonished her not to gape but to try and keep up. Chagrined, Alexandra stepped up her pace and tried to refocus on her reason for the visit.

“Miss Alexandra Montgomery, your grace.”

“Thank you, Hitchins.”

“Will that be all, your grace?”

“No. I think our guest may be in need of eh…” He eyed Alexandra curiously. “Refreshment. Do bring the tea cart and anything else Miss Montgomery requires.”

“Very good, my lord.” Then, turning to Alexandra, he asked, “And how may I serve you, Miss Montgomery?”

“Just the tea. Thank you.”

A shiver ran through her unbidden, causing Lord Blackwood to add, “Please see if Mrs. Cartwright can spare a blanket or a shawl for Miss Montgomery. I’d hate to have her catch cold right here in the sitting room.”

“Thank you, Your Grace, but I’m sure it won’t be necessary.”

“Nonsense!” Turning to the butler, he added, “Thank you, Hitchins. That’ll be all.”

The butler turned and left the two alone, taking care to shut the door behind him. That’s when Alexandra realized she had never been alone with a man before. Other than her father, of course. But she had come alone – unchaperoned, which may have been a foolish thing to do. It certainly was rash. But she would not be able to rest until she had done everything in her power to get her mother’s cottage back.

“Now, how can I help you, Miss Montgomery?”

“Well…” she began tentatively. She was accustomed to genteel talk amongst other young ladies but was certainly not used to direct inquiries. However, she decided, she must be as direct as she possibly could in response. “I’ve come to discuss a bit of real estate.”

“Oh, you have a business proposition for me, do you?”

“Well, no, I…” She noted the man’s dark, wavy hair and brown eyes that seemed to have no other interest in the world at the moment than to address her. If she didn’t know better, she’d have guessed the man was fascinated or under some kind of spell, the way he looked at her. It was downright unnerving. “No, it’s about a property you’ve recently acquired, or recently agreed to purchase, at least.”

“Is that right?”

Was there a hint of laughter in his eyes?

“Which property is that?”

“Well, it’s a cottage near Eisensham along with the surrounding farmland and stables, I believe.”

“Oh yes.”

She noted a sudden frown settle over his face.

“What is it about the cottage you wish to discuss?”

His tone had turned rather icy, which was even more unsettling than his earlier show of interest.

“Well, you see…”

Hitchins reappeared with the tea cart and a shawl, interrupting their conversation briefly.

“Please, continue.”

He was nothing if not gentlemanly.

“Yes, well, as I was about to say, my father, who put the cottage on offer…”

“The professor?”

“Yes, he’s my father. He put the cottage on offer without informing me, and… well, you see, the property holds a certain sentimental value for me, as it was my mother’s until she…” Alexandra found herself unable to continue for fear her voice might crack.

“Oh, I see.”

A brief moment passed in which Alexandra was sure he would cancel whatever deal he had made with her father and tear up the agreement. However, the moment passed, and Lord Blackwood’s voice turned thin and very cool indeed.

“Well, I am afraid that deal is done. The deed is mine, and the sale has been legally notarized. What’s done cannot be undone, you see.”

Alexandra looked up at him only to find him avoiding eye contact now just as intently as he had been staring into her eyes before. Perhaps he’d been expecting something quite different and would now rather be rid of her. Well, that just wouldn’t do. She would have to convince him.

“Your Grace,” she began, hoping to regain his eye contact at least. “I spent every summer of my youth in that cottage and made a number of beautiful memories there, memories which I wish to–”

“I understand that, as it was your childhood home, you would have made some happy memories. However, the matter is resolved, you see. The sale is final.”

Well, at least he was making eye contact again.

“My mother’s death is the only reason I – that is to say, we – haven’t been back to the cottage in several years, and I am not prepared to let the property slip through my fingers into the hands of – of a stranger.”

His eyes narrowed. “Let me see if I understand this correctly.”

Her hope was renewed. Perhaps he could be convinced, though he seemed at times to be cold as ice. Other times he seemed the warm and friendly sort. She found him very difficult to read.

“Your mother owned the cottage up until her death.”

“That’s right.”

“And upon her death, the property became yours?”

“No, my lord. The property belongs to my father.”

“Ah, it did belong to your father – until he sold it to me. And your fingers have never had anything to do with it, have they?”

Alexandra sat stunned, unable to even sip her tea.

“So you see, you have nothing to worry about. The property slipped through your father’s fingers, not yours.”

Alexandra told herself to close her mouth, as she became aware that she was gaping at him. His precision lacked any sense of decorum or tact. She had never conversed with anyone so… so rude! And he was a Duke! She could not make those two facts meet up in her mind well enough to formulate a response.

“You were, apparently, unable to convince him not to sell.”

It wasn’t a question.

“I – I did not know of his intention until it was too late.”

“Well, if it was too late then, it would certainly be too late now, seeing that it is later now than it was then.”

He means to tease me!

“I think it is time for you to leave, Miss Montgomery, our business here being quite concluded.’’

Lord Blackwood stood, prompting Alexandra to put down her tea and rise from her seat.

“Oh, but you mustn’t ask me to leave! I would do anything to keep that cottage – anything at all!”

Lord Blackwood rang a bell and looked irritated while still trying to humor her. No doubt he was simply awaiting the arrival of his butler to command her to leave, which she absolutely could not do.

“Surely there is something I can offer you, your grace. I – I can teach!”

“I’ve no need of a teacher.”

“A – a governess, then.”

“Miss Montgomery, you embarrass yourself.”

He rang the bell again for his butler, who no doubt was too old and feeble to make haste.

“Your Grace, please do not send me away. I must keep my mother’s cottage! Please! Don’t you need – well, perhaps you are in need of a wife!”

The Duke suddenly became quiet and looked at her in earnest, as if he were actually considering it.

 

 

Chapter 4

Eli Black, The Duke of Blackwood

“What makes you think I need a wife?”

Alexandra appeared stumped for a moment. Then she spoke.

“Don’t all men need wives, your Grace?”

“No. Not all men.”

He surveyed the woman whom he had only agreed to meet because he’d seen her on the street before. As soon as he saw her in the marketplace, she’d reminded him of his former fiancée. She did a poor woman such a graceful kindness that he remembered her fondly and recognized her at his front doorstep. Of course he hadn’t told her that, but it was true.

What he saw when he looked at this young lady was a well-bred but not snobbish young woman. Not a girl in her teens, to be sure. In fact, some might mistake her for a spinster. But it was hard to believe she might be unattached, given her beautiful features and elegant manners. Was it possible that Miss Montgomery was interested in filling his household with womanly grace? It was uncanny that she thought to offer herself as a wife, but on the whole, he could hardly do better.

She was smart. That was evident enough. And, aside from the scene that they found themselves in at the moment, she seemed a respectable sort of woman. Her father was certainly a respectable man, after all, and she had behaved herself in such a comely manner when he’d seen her in the marketplace. Would she be capable of being a role model for Liliana? Certainly, he thought.

Although Eli was not a superficial man, he found her beauty hard to ignore. Her resemblance to Charity, his former fiancée, did not harm the matter. But her fine features were pleasing to look at, and made the prospect of her presence seem that much more agreeable. Her skin was pale and clear, her blue eyes bright with a kind of earnest and eager attentiveness that he had come to associate with intelligence and good will. She had a dainty, pointed nose and a small mouth with full, pink lips. Her fair hair was silky and well kept, so much so that he wished he could reach out and touch it.

The young lady seemed to blush under his intense gaze. So he broke off looking, though it was not easy to do. For some reason, he felt a strange attachment to the girl.

“I must beg your pardon, Your Grace. I had thought it obvious.”

“Some men never marry.”

“Those men are… foolish, if I may say so.”

“You may. If you can tell me why you think so.”

“Well, your grace, the only men I’ve ever heard of who didn’t marry are those so-called confirmed bachelors, whose only goal in life, it seems to me, is to wreck other people’s marriages.”

Eli let out a hearty laugh. He had not expected such quick wittedness in a woman, but the young miss had a point.

“Is that what you think of me?”

“Your Grace, I don’t know you.”

Her voice was quite calming and velvety. Not at all like the shrill voice used by so many young ladies of his acquaintance. He could imagine her in a wide variety of scenes in and around his home that, in all honesty, would be improved by her presence.

“Then why offer yourself in marriage?”

“Why? Are you considering it?”

“What if I were to say I am?”

“Then I would be very grateful if you would tell me that I could keep my mother’s cottage by marrying you.”

“Is that all you want?”

She was quiet for a moment, as if considering what more she might ask for. Perhaps Eli had shown his hand too early. A smart young lady such as she was liable to steal his fortune out from under him if he wasn’t careful.

“It’s all I’m asking for, Your Grace.”

This was a surprise. He had already been calculating what kind of annual income she might require as a duchess. He also expected to hear she would insist on a promise that he would not seek to enforce his marital rights. Of course, such a contract could not be upheld, but he was a man of his word and would have thought she’d assume…

“Will you be… uh, requiring your marital… that is to say…” She seemed unable to complete the sentence, but he understood what she meant.

There it was. A belated request, but a respectable one. “No. I will not enforce my rights in any way.”

Eli considered her beauty, her grace, the way she moved and spoke, and he knew right away how hard it would be to keep that promise. But he would not – ever – force himself on any woman, no matter if she were his wife. It was simply unimaginable. “Unless, of course, you are willing.” His voice was barely above a whisper.

“Yes, your Grace.”

Is she blushing?

Hitchins appeared at long last. Eli shooed him away nearly as urgently as he had earlier rung for his presence.

“You will have your own quarters, and you may come and go as you like. That is, if you agree to the marriage.”

Her eyes widened. She was probably more surprised than he was that this topic of conversation had some real merit.

“You will assume the title of Duchess of Blackwood and will be responsible for all the attendant duties of that position.” If she thought being a duchess was all parties and festive balls, she’d soon learn otherwise. “And I will settle upon you a fair income that will allow you to keep up the proper appearances–”

She opened her mouth as if to say something, but Eli only continued.

“I assure you, it is necessary, Miss Montgomery. So please, do not attempt to interject on this matter. I know quite well of what I speak.”

A sudden quiet descended upon the sitting room. They were really discussing this. In all seriousness!

“And as a wedding gift, I will transfer ownership of that cottage you are so fond of–” A cottage he had been ready to fall in love with himself, a cottage he was going to summer in with Liliana. Well… that, at least, could perhaps still come to pass.

“Oh, thank you, Your Grace! I cannot thank you enough!”

“One thank you will do nicely, Miss Montgomery.”

“But – but how is it that you are so willing to take me as a bride?”

His face fell as he leveled a harsh gaze upon her.

“I mean, I’m only a professor’s daughter and have but a small dowry – about which you did not see fit to inquire.”

“It is irrelevant.”

“But you don’t know me.”

“I know your father…” He wasn’t sure why, but it didn’t seem right to tell her about having seen her in the marketplace with the flower woman.

“Correction, you’ve met my father – what, twice?”

“Is that a problem?”

“No, your grace. But I know what’s in it for me. I want that cottage as much as anything I have ever wanted in life. I simply cannot let it go – the memory of…”

He looked at her kindly. Having himself known what it’s like to lose someone he loved very dearly, he recognized the look on her face. She could not speak her mother’s name.

“Yes, I understand.” His voice was soft, earnest, and kind. “You cannot lose your mother’s cottage, and you shall have it. And I shall have a wife. You may think it a simple thing for a man of means and title to find a suitable wife, but it is not so. For I am not a society figure and do not often meet new people. I find that I am gaining in years without improving my prospects and that I would enjoy the presence of a woman about the house.”

There. That was a simple enough explanation. Hopefully that would make her stop asking questions. He was not prepared to tell her about Liliana and then deal with all of her questions about how she came to be in his care. No, for that, she would have to wait. Seeing how difficult it was for Miss Montgomery to discuss the loss of her mother reminded him only that he was even less prepared to discuss the loss of his fiancée.

“Now, if you have no further questions, I think it is time for you to go. I will call upon your father tomorrow to make it official.”

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Prologue Eli Black, The Duke of Blackwood Eli Saint-Clair Black, Duke of Blackwood, casually observed the marketplace as

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A Scandalous Love for the Dutchess

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A Scandalous Love for the Duchess  Consumed by the flame of his passion, ravished by the power of

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A Scandalous Love for the Duchess

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