About the book
Would you sacrifice the love of your life for the salvation of your family?
Adelaide has it all. Youth, a loving family, an unconventional personality and a serious misconception about true love that makes her betroth a very dangerous man, the Duke of Bradford. However, shortly after her betrothal, she discovers she is in love with her friend since childhood, Jasper Fitzwilliam.
Jasper, the handsome Viscount Gillet, tries to warn Adelaide about the Duke but his efforts are fruitless: it’s too late now to call off the engagement. The evil Duke knows a well-kept secret — the financial ruination of Adelaide's family — and threatens to destroy everyone she loves if they don't comply with his sadistic wishes.
In this quest for salvation, where the stakes are high and time is his enemy, Jasper is the only one who can save her family...by offering his own sacrifice.
Lady Adelaide Colborne lounged on a chaise, flicking absently through a book. A fire roared in the grate, keeping out the bitter chill of October. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed eleven o’clock at night. Outside, carriage wheels clattered past the window.
She glanced across at the others in the drawing room and wondered when she might be permitted to make her excuses and leave the Gilletts’ house. There were far more exciting exploits out there to enjoy. London was her oyster and yet, she was being kept in domestic drudgery. If she had wanted that, she would have stayed at her family’s Yorkshire estate.
“Planning your escape, Lady Adelaide?” a voice murmured. She turned to see Jasper Fitzwilliams, Viscount Gillett, the only son of the Earl of Richmond, watching her closely.
“And what if I am, Jasper?” She mimicked his tone, flashing a mischievous smile. “As you see, my father is in deep discussion with yours, Miss Green is attempting to gain my mother’s favor, and your mother has already retired for the evening. Undoubtedly, out of utter tedium for the company and conversation herein.”
Adelaide looked towards her dear father, Ephraim Colborne, the Earl of Leeds. He drank animatedly from a brandy snifter, whilst Jasper’s father, Milton Fitzwilliam, the Earl of Richmond, nodded uncertainly at everything being said.
Adelaide smiled at the scene. No doubt, her father was discussing some new business endeavor. The Earl of Leeds had a passion for commerce, though his success did not always hit the mark. And most of the time, no one had any clue what he was talking about. Lord Richmond seemed to be enduring such a bout of confusion, at that very moment.
Adelaide’s mother, the Countess of Leeds, on the other hand, seemed to be fielding the excitable chatter of Miss Leah Green. Adelaide liked the girl well enough, but a distance remained between them that had yet to be traversed. All her life, Adelaide had hoped to find a genuine confidante. Thus far, Jasper was the only one she felt she could speak freely with on most subjects. But, being short on close female friends, she kept Leah around, just in case true closeness blossomed.
The problem was that a competitive streak existed between the two young ladies. Adelaide had power and wealth, and a way of wrapping anyone around her little finger. Leah had enthusiasm and a lack of responsibility. She did not have a title to lose if she put a foot wrong. In truth, Adelaide envied her somewhat for that. Not that she would ever admit such a thing to Leah herself.
“You are so severe on your talent for conversation?” Jasper quipped.
Adelaide flashed him a look, “You know very well that your mother finds me an absolute delight. Were she here, she would seek me out as the only worthy conversant in the room.”
“Ah yes, I had forgotten how highly you place yourself above others.”
“That is most untrue and deeply unfair of you to say, Jasper.” She gave him a hard stare, feeling stung. “As you see, I have been forced to retreat into the pages of a novel. Everyone seems perfectly occupied without me. I would not intrude where I am not needed, nor speak for the sake of speaking.”
“Perhaps you might find the evening more interesting if you were to involve yourself, instead of slinking to the shadows like a petulant feline.”
“And seek to interrupt your stolen words with dear Miss Green? I would never do such a thing,” Adelaide teased. She had noticed the way Jasper looked at Leah. It would take a blind man not to see how fond he was of the enthusiastic young lady.
“I have not stolen any words with Miss Green,” he remarked stiffly. “She is here as your guest. She is no acquaintance of mine. Why should I have reason to steal conversation with her? There is no current affection between her and myself. Indeed, I hardly know her.”
“Methinks the admirer doth protest too much,” Adelaide chuckled. “Indeed, methinks the admirer would very much like to get to know Miss Green better. Is that why you have come over to me, Jasper? Do you seek to make the poor girl green with envy?”
He flushed furiously—a sight that amused and pleased Adelaide in equal measure. She knew there had long been a distant flirtation between Jasper and Leah. They were not closely acquainted, but their paths often crossed. Each season, they dabbled a little more. As Adelaide’s London home neighbored with that of Jasper and his family, whenever Leah was invited to visit, they invariably ended up bumping into one another. Adelaide had often teased Jasper that he likely watched from his window like a desperate sentinel.
“I know you seek only to tease me, Lady Adelaide. I shall not rise to your taunts,” Jasper said coolly. “I might ask why you are so eager to make your exit, however? Is there a secret admirer lingering in the dark halls of the Assembly Rooms, awaiting your clandestine arrival?” His tone mocked her, but she did not care. He could mock all he liked.
“Whom I choose to acquaint myself with is none of your concern. Though, if you must know, I seek only to find more stimulating entertainment. Why must I read and sit on the periphery of stuffy conversation when I might be dancing and conversing with the other shining young creatures of London?”
“The delights of London society calling to you, are they?” he mused. “You know, they are naught but mere façade and performance. None of it is real—it is all a fantasy, created to amuse the young ladies and gentleman of our day.”
“Perhaps fantasy is what I desire,” Adelaide shot back, arching an eyebrow. She chuckled at the sudden flush of his cheeks. She had a way of inducing men to heated discomfort. It was not a trait in herself that she always enjoyed, but she and Jasper had long been friends. She knew she could never induce him towards romantic thought. He was immune where other gentlemen were not. Indeed, a humorous understanding existed between them, perpetuating their mutual jest of one another.
“If you do not enjoy these evenings with my family, why do you insist on partaking of them?”
“I should never wish to appear rude,” she offered with a shy smile.
He sighed in evident frustration, “Then, maybe you ought to make your excuses and leave?”
“You see, now you agree—that is the only solution,” she said, chuckling softly. “Although I believe you have an ulterior motive. You wish me to leave so you might have the pleasure of Miss Green’s company, a little more intimately. My mother shall retire when I do. If I were to remove myself in such a manner, by the merest law of averages you would have to garner the courage to speak with Miss Green. Otherwise, she would be left quite alone. And then, who would appear to be the uncouth one?”
“That is not why I am suggesting such a thing,” Jasper remarked sharply. “I would not see you in discomfort or boredom, that is all.”
“Of course.” Playful amusement rippled from Adelaide’s words, “Ever the selfless knight, charging in on his white steed.”
Jasper narrowed his sea-green eyes at her. “If you will not be serious, Lady Adelaide…”
“Then what?” she interjected.
“Then… perhaps, as we have both said, it would be best if you pursued your alternative endeavors.”
“And I must have your permission, must I?”
“Why must we do this, every time we meet? What is this constant dispute between us?” Jasper sighed wearily. “As children, you and I were dear friends. Our families have spent summers and winters in one another’s company. Where did this perpetual defensiveness come from?”
Adelaide shrugged, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. “I do not know what you speak of. As far as I am concerned, you and I remain the best of friends.”
“You behave this way with all of your acquaintances?”
“You have seen the way I interact with Miss Green. It is no different to the way I behave with you,” she paused. “Anyway, I thought you enjoyed our witty repartee? You once told me it brightened your days. Is it not what we have based the foundation of our acquaintance upon?”
He made a small, strangled noise. “I had forgotten those words to you. Indeed, do not misunderstand, I do enjoy our jests when it is appropriate. It is the constancy that I struggle with. May we not sometimes be plain and pleasant with one another, as lifelong acquaintances ought to be?”
It was Adelaide’s turn to blush, “I suppose we may.” She did not often feel embarrassed, but he had touched on a particularly sore subject. People often thought of her as aloof, mistaking shyness for loftiness. Jasper had never been one of those people. He had always known what lay beneath the sometimes-frosty surface. Truthfully, she had not realized her behavior irked him so. As her sole true friend, she did not wish him to find her obnoxious. Wounded pride lodged in her throat, preventing her from apologizing.
“With regards to Miss Green, she fears your sincerity on occasion,” Jasper continued, oblivious to Adelaide’s distress. “I am well-versed in your irreverent ways, where she does not quite comprehend your manner of teasing. She does not always know that your words are never cruelly intended.”
“Ah, so she has been telling tales now, has she?” Adelaide replied defensively. It was her favored means of self-preservation, oft used when she felt backed into a corner.
“Nothing of the sort.” Jasper leapt to Leah’s defense, “I mention it only so you may remedy any issue before it blossoms into something unpleasant. I should hate to see the two of you break up your friendship.”
Adelaide smiled, “Why? In case she no longer visited and you no longer had reason to peer longingly from your window for her arrival?”
“You see, this is what I speak of. This coldness. I do not understand it.”
“You claim to understand my manner of jest, dear Jasper. Alas, it would appear you do not. I do not mean to seem cold in any way. Indeed, perhaps I ought to remedy the situation if she claims to feel troubled by me.” Another twist of remorse gripped her suddenly, prompting her to rise. As strange as their friendship was, Adelaide did not wish anyone to think her cruel. Least of all a well-meaning girl like Leah. She smoothed down the front of her ruby-red bombazine gown. The matching choker at her throat began to itch.
“What are you—?”
She cleared her throat, cutting him off, “Mama, I was wondering if I might retire for the evening? Lady Francesca and her mother have invited me to the Assembly Rooms tomorrow evening and I should hate to seem fatigued.”
The room felt oddly claustrophobic. Jasper’s curious gaze did little to alleviate her discomfort. Her gaze drifted across to Leah for a moment.
How may I prevent her from finding me cold and aloof? she wondered. In truth, she did not know. Making lasting friendships had never come easy to her.
Margaret, Adelaide’s beloved mother, raised her head. A handsome lady of forty, the years had been kind to the Countess of Leeds. Her figure was still shapely, her features barely lined by age, her raven hair hardly touched by strands of gray. Meanwhile, her eye for fashion remained second-to-none. She could not walk into a room without gentlemen admiring her from afar but Adelaide’s father was not one of those gentlemen. Married as two strangers in a fortuitous match, theirs had been a cautious romance. Over time, any passion that might have stirred within their relationship had developed into something far less fiery. A friendship and a partnership, no less admirable for its longevity and fidelity.
“The Countess of Gaumont has invited you to the Assembly Rooms?” A tremor of excitement bristled in Lady Leeds voice.
“She has, Mama. Well, her daughter has, but she is rather eager to meet with me,” Adelaide replied. In truth, there was an ulterior motive to the invitation. It was not something she wished to discuss with so many ears listening in.
“Goodness, then we must ensure you get your beauty sleep.”
“We must, Mama.”
“Husband, shall you join us?” Lady Leeds asked.
The Earl of Leeds shook his head, “I shall remain a while longer. Lord Richmond and I were just discussing the intricacies of the East India Trading Company and I should like to hear more of his views.”
Adelaide noticed a flash of disappointment cross Lord Richmond’s face. Evidently, he had hoped that her departure might entice Lord Leeds to leave, too. Alas, he would have to endure another hour or so of in-depth conversation on the subject of commerce.
“Very well, then we must bid you all a goodnight,” Lady Leeds insisted, before turning to Leah. “Miss Green, might you follow us outside where we may ensure your safe departure in the family carriage?”
The young lady gazed at Jasper. “I thought I might remain here whilst the carriage came.”
“Nonsense, I will not hear of it. You shall accompany us and I will see to it that you are safely taken home.”
“As you wish, My Lady.” Leah stood reluctantly and rearranged the skirt of her lavender muslin gown. Adelaide thought she looked rather pretty in the firelight—a bittersweet notion. For Adelaide was dark-haired, slim and somewhat taller than most young ladies, with a striking appearance. The overall image she presented was not always found instantly desirable. Meanwhile, Leah was petite and slender, with a typical flaxen beauty that could not be ignored. There was nothing remarkable about her but Adelaide knew that gentlemen did not always seek that in a wife.
She did not envy the affections that Leah had garnered from Jasper, or from other gentlemen. Far from it. It was more that she felt covetous of a simpler appearance, a beauty that was easier to comprehend, and more effortlessly appreciated by others.
Jasper glanced back at Leah, his eyes mournful. “Farewell, Miss Green,” he said, rising to bow. “And to you—Countess, Lady Adelaide.”
“Good evening to you, Lord Gillet, Lord Richmond,” Adelaide and her mother chorused, whilst Leah savored her goodbye for Jasper.
“It has been the greatest pleasure to spend the evening in your company, Jasper…Lord Richmond,” she added hastily. “You must give my fondest wishes to your mother, Lady Richmond.”
“Of course,” Jasper replied. “She shall be delighted to hear it.”
Adelaide struggled not to roll her eyes. He was more naturally charming than his puppy-like behavior suggested. Truly, she would not have wished herself to be on the receiving end of his saccharine actions. Weary of the lengthening goodbyes, she gave a small curtsey and swept out of the room. Her mother followed close behind, whilst Leah brought up the rear. Adelaide stared straight ahead as they made the short journey to the next-door townhouse.
Stepping into the entrance hall, Adelaide drank in the familiar sights and smells. The scent of freshly baked cakes drifted up from the kitchens, which were tucked away in the basement. They would undoubtedly appear at luncheon tomorrow. She smiled at the thought.
The Belgravia townhouse was far smaller than the family estate in Yorkshire, but Adelaide preferred the intimacy of it. It felt more comfortable, somehow. The sprawling manor always seemed to echo with loneliness, but this house never did. With its three floors of stylishly decorated hallways and chambers, and a neat garden stretching out at the back, it never felt like too much. She did not believe a person could need anything more.
“Well, goodnight, my darling,” Lady Leeds said, dipping in to kiss her daughter on the cheek. “See to it that Miss Green finds her way home, won’t you?”
“Of course, Mama,” Adelaide replied, inhaling the scent of her mother’s perfume. Her family meant the world to her. Indeed, they were just about the only people she was certain she liked. They did not judge her as others did, nor did she worry about her behavior in their company.
With that, Lady Leeds swept up the curved staircase, passing the first floor and heading even further up to the second-floor, where she disappeared from sight. Adelaide crossed the cavernous entrance hall, speckled light from the crystal chandelier dancing against her skin. She reached for the silver tray by the door, where the letters from the evening post had been piled up for delivery over breakfast. There was one for her. The handwriting was unmistakable.
“Who is that from?” Leah asked impertinently, watching over Adelaide’s shoulder.
“It is nothing,” she replied, pressing the letter to her chest.
“A secret admirer?”
Leah arched a suspicious eyebrow. “A friend? As far as I am aware, you only count myself and Jasper amongst your acquaintances.”
“That is untrue. Lady Francesca is also a dear friend,” she insisted, wishing her cheeks wouldn’t give away her mortification. “And there are others whom you know nothing of—they do not reside in London, nor do they stay the season here.”
Leah shrugged, “I suppose that is believable.” She pushed a few of the other letters across the tray. “I must say, I have always found your friendship with Jasper rather strange. Is it not unseemly for a young gentleman and a young lady to be so acquainted?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Why, take this very evening for example. You did not have to monopolize Jasper’s attentions in such a manner.”
Adelaide gaped at Leah. “He is a dear friend, Leah. There is nothing untoward about our association—you must not worry yourself.”
“Make no mistake, I am not envious of the friendship between you, but does our own friendship not matter? Surely, it would have been kinder of you to step aside, so he and I might have conversed more deeply?” A cold look glinted in her blue eyes. “You might have provided the perfect chaperone and yet you chose to steal his attentions for yourself.”
Adelaide groaned. “I did no such thing.”
“I watched you.”
“He spoke with me. I cannot help it if he chooses to talk to me, Leah. As you say, we are friends.”
“Perhaps, it would be prudent for you to set your unusual friendship aside for a while, so that—”
“I will do no such thing, Leah.” She dropped her gaze, wishing she had not cut her friend off so curtly. “As you have stated so candidly, I am not exactly blessed with a multitude of amities. I cannot stand to lose a single one. Now, I believe it is time you went home. The carriage is ready to depart whenever you are.”
Leah pouted sourly, “You are forcing me away?”
“Not at all. I am weary and I wish to retire to bed.”
“Very well, but do not think you have heard the end of this.”
“I pray that I may have. There is nothing to fear from me, and I am sorry if—”
“You are a jealous creature, Lady Adelaide. You have always been so.”
Adelaide recoiled from the slur. She had been about to apologize for her previous behavior, but the words died on her lips. Her heart no longer felt redemptive. Pushing away any indication of visible hurt, she ushered Leah towards the front door. She did not stop until Leah was safely on her way down the cobbled road, the carriage wheels jolting away from sight. Only then did she breathe a sigh of relief. Friendship appeared to be nothing but hard work.
Gazing up at the blanket of stars that glittered in the clear autumn night, Adelaide drew in a deep lungful of cold air. A gentle, frosted breeze nipped at her cheeks. Wrapping her arms around herself, her eyes moved across the still landscape. A rolling fog drifted across the grass of the park beyond. Shadows shifted and darted, playing tricks on her.
Suddenly, the fog cleared. A solitary shadow remained on the park path. Tall and broad-shouldered, a long coat masked his shape. With his head dipped, the edge of his top-hat shrouded his face from sight. She could not make out a single familiar feature. A tremor of fear and confusion rippled up Adelaide’s spine. Whoever this man was, he did not move. She stood frozen to the spot, equally unable to move.
She was about to call out for assistance when the figure vanished. As quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared from sight, melting into the fog and the darkness. Adelaide was alone once more. Still holding the letter in her trembling hand, she stayed on the top step a moment longer and opened it out slowly.
Thinking of you, was all it said.
The following day, Reuben Fletcher, the Duke of Bradford, stalked the young lady with the stealth of a skilled predator. In the bright light of the crisp autumn afternoon, he had followed her all the way from town, wanting to watch her from afar. There was something about the voyeuristic nature of observing that thrilled him to the core.
Not a moment ago, she had parted ways with an acquaintance and their escort and turned down a wide alleyway. He had not recognized the young lady and older woman that she had been walking with. They had tried to convince her to allow them to walk with her to her front door, but she had refused.
“The journey is so short. I do not require an escort to walk barely forty paces,” she had told them, assuring both women that she would be fine by herself. Now that she had parted from them, it appeared she wished to take a shortcut on her way home. Reuben had hoped she might. She was a strong-willed creature; he thought it one of her finest attributes.
He waited a split-second before hurrying after her, though he was careful not to attract her attention.
She paused at the end of the alley to search for something. He smiled. He could not have planned it better himself. Carefully, he crept up behind her and breathed softly against her ear. She whirled around in fright. With her mouth opening in a scream, his hand snapped towards her. Clamping his palm down, he silenced her.
“It is only me, my sweet,” he said.
Her body relaxed.
“Do you promise you will not scream?”
“You ought to be more watchful of your step. London can be a dangerous place, even here in Belgravia,” he chided playfully, releasing her. His skin felt hot where she had breathed against it in a panic. The lingering sensation made him wonder what it might be like to kiss her plump lips and feel her breath that much closer. He would not dare to do so, but it did not stop him thinking about it.
“And you ought to be more careful about trailing young ladies throughout the town,” she remarked curtly. Her breath heaved from her lungs. Despite the danger being diffused, Reuben could see she was still scared. “This is most unseemly, Your Grace.”
“Reuben, please…when it is only you and I, I implore you to call me by my name.”
“We should not be alone together,” she insisted in a panic. “If someone were to discover us, they would—”
“They would what, my dear? You and I are engaged. People may gossip as they please.”
At five-and-thirty, Reuben had thought it about time he ended his bachelor ways. He had sown his wild oats and played the role of eligible Lothario to the end of its enjoyment. Some six months previously, he had begun to think seriously about taking a wife. Alone at night, he had wondered how pleasant it might be to have a charming young lady at his side. Lady Adelaide had come along at just the right time. Plus, his mother and her parents had thought the match most fortuitous, indeed.
“If you insist on keeping our engagement secret, then there is much for me to worry about,” Adelaide countered. She looked wounded. “When may my mother and father make the news official? They are eager to do so, as am I. Your own mother has written several times to assure me that your affections have not altered.”
“My mother speaks the truth. They have not.” He smiled mischievously, “I desire you to be my wife, that is all there is to it.”
“So why must we continue in secret? Your mother knows and my parents have agreed. Why do you delay?”
He shrugged, “I do not see the need to herald it about town. What business is it of anyone else? You see, my love, I am not keeping it a secret. I am merely informing only those who need to know.”
“Well, I wish you would tell more people, so that I do not fear you jilting me.”
“I would never do such a thing,” he replied, taking her hand and pressing it to his lips. “You are the one I am going to wed, I assure you. I just do not appreciate playing into the hands of society’s chattering elite and obeying their every whim and custom. May we not have this simply for us? I should very much like to shock them with the news when we marry.”
“Mother wants everyone in attendance at the wedding.”
“Your mother may have to be disappointed.”
Adelaide laughed, her expression softening. “I would give my mother anything she desired, but I agree with you about the gossipers of London. Perhaps, you have won me over to your way of thinking. A quiet affair might be a marvelous thing.”
“You see, that is why you are the sweetheart for me,” he said softly. “Your mind does not quite work the same way as these other girls, with their foolish ideas and silly manners. You are far more challenging than they could ever be.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Challenging?”
“Oh, my dear, that is an eminently positive attribute. In previous flirtations, I have grown bored so easily,” he explained. “With you, I shall never be bored.”
Adelaide smiled, and he felt a small tug of affection for the young lady. She stood taller than most other females of her age. He could understand how it might dissuade weaker men, but at six-foot-three, he did not mind her height. He still dwarfed her. Besides, with her being closer to his watchful eyes, he could observe her better. She was a rare beauty, but not in a traditional sense. There was something otherworldly about her pale skin and raven-black hair, and the deep brown eyes that looked up into his with a flickering warmth. She would do very nicely.
In truth, her dowry was the most enticing thing about her. He thought her charming enough and there was a subtly irreverent streak that bubbled beneath the surface. Still, all of that paled in comparison to the fortune that she would bring to him. It was enough to persuade any man to become a husband. Plus, his mother had insisted he make a good match. Gazing at Adelaide, he felt he’d done a decent job of securing one of the most eligible women in London.
“I am glad to hear it, Reuben,” she said, her cheeks flushing pink.
“Although, I must say, you are slow to appreciate some of my games,” he purred. “Truly, I am most disappointed you did not offer a gesture or a kind word last night. You did not acknowledge me at all, and now I fear you are no longer serious in your affections. I went to the trouble of waiting for you, and all for naught.”
Adelaide gasped, “That was you in the park? What were you doing out there? You might have caught your death of cold. And what if someone had seen you, or called for the Bow Street Runners?” She shook her head. “That might have ended very badly, indeed.”
“I was careful to ensure that they did not.” He smiled, “Did my letter please you?”
“Good, then I shall send more until the day we are wed.”
Her eyes smoldered. “I pray that you do. Indeed, I would have written a reply, but I thought our paths were due to cross tonight at the Assembly Rooms. That seemed soon enough to me, though your presence here, now, would suggest otherwise.” She paused uncertainly. “Did Lady Francesca not send word to you?”
“She did, but I could not wait so long. I had to see you before tonight, somewhere without the crowds buzzing around us like flies.” He smiled, “Are you not pleased to see me?”
“I am, Your Grace.”
“Reuben,” he insisted.
“I am, Reuben, it is merely the location of our meeting that concerns me.”
He ignored her nerves. “Might I kiss your hand, Lady Adelaide?” he asked, his voice thick with emotion. He reached out for her.
She stumbled backwards. The action amused him.
“You do not wish to allow your soon-to-be husband to kiss your hand?”
“I… I do not know if I ought to. Not here, where you and I should not be conversing. If someone were to come around the corner, there would be a scandal.” Her gaze darted over her shoulder. She looked like a frightened little mouse. Reuben could not deny it intrigued him to see her so panicked. It almost brought out the protective streak within him. Almost.
“You want to be like everyone else, always toeing the line? You care so much about the opinions of others?”
She frowned at him. “I must care, Your Grace. Until you and I are wed, I must allow myself to be led by the judgements of my peers. It is the only way I may keep myself safe. Surely, you must understand that?”
“Perhaps.” She grew more and more intriguing with every interaction they shared. There was an aura about her that drew him in, despite himself. Every word seemed to flow like honey from her lips. Every spark of her dark eyes made him wonder what secrets lay within. She had him enraptured. A truth Reuben did not care to admit to anyone, least of all himself.
“Besides, I must gauge the honesty in your affections, as well as fend off the gossip of others,” she replied. He could tell she was toying with him.
Emboldened, Reuben took a step towards her. “And if I were to steal a kiss of your hand? If I were to take one without permission?”
He was about to reach out to take her hand, when a shadow darkened the entrance to the alleyway. A cry went up, the shout shivering through the still autumn air. Both Adelaide and Reuben whirled around to see the startled face of Jasper, Lord Gillett.
“Lady Adelaide, are you well? Should I rouse the alarm?” he bellowed, his body half-twisted to leave.
She broke away from Reuben and hurried towards him. “You must not, Jasper. You must be quiet,” she urged, lifting her finger to her lips. “This is not as it seems.”
Jasper glowered in the direction of Reuben. “It would appear that some rogue has attempted to apprehend you.”
“As the lady says, the situation is not as it seems,” Reuben replied coolly. He had encountered Jasper a few times during his discreet courtship of Adelaide. Every time his carriage arrived outside the townhouse belonging to Adelaide and her family, he found Jasper lingering somewhere nearby. Truth be told, he did not care for the young man. Adelaide had often assured him that Jasper was no more than a childhood friend, but Reuben did not appreciate competition of any kind. Not from other suitors, at any rate.
“You must go,” Adelaide urged.
Jasper shook his head. “I will not.”
“This gentleman is no threat to me.”
“How can I be certain?” He eyed Reuben intently.
“Listen to the young lady,” Reuben replied frostily. “You are beginning to grow tiresome.”
Adelaide sighed and turned her attention to Jasper. “This is the Duke of Bradford—the two of you have met in passing on several occasions, I am certain,” she explained slowly. “You see… I am engaged to the Duke.”
Jasper’s eyes flew wide. “You are… what? How can that be?”
“It has been arranged, Jasper.”
“Yes, Jasper, it has been arranged,” Reuben smiled triumphantly. He was not a petty sort of man, but he didn’t like the way Jasper was looking at his future wife. The young man clearly felt some kind of possessiveness towards Adelaide. Reuben was only too happy to knock that feeling on its side.
“Do your mother and father know?” Jasper asked, ignoring Reuben entirely.
Adelaide nodded. “Of course, they do.”
“How can it be that you are engaged but there has been no announcement?”
“There will be one very soon,” Reuben interjected. “I shall see to it myself.”
Adelaide looked at Reuben curiously. He smiled back, hoping to reassure her of his sincerity. The arrival of Jasper had caused a slight hiccup in his plans. He had hoped to wed Adelaide without much fuss, so that he might continue a leisurely sort of lifestyle once they were married. A mistress or two, perhaps. After all, other gentlemen enjoyed similarly discreet situations. Now, he would have to announce the engagement publicly. As soon as it was common knowledge, he would have greater trouble indulging in secret flirtations in the future.
At least I will have her dowry to console myself with, he thought. That shall have to be enough to comfort me.
“You will announce it?” she asked.
“How does tomorrow suit you, my darling?”
A broad grin spread across her face. “I should like that very much.”
“Then, tomorrow it shall be.”
“Lady Adelaide, I really think you ought to reconsider this,” Jasper murmured, evidently attempting to do so out of Reuben’s earshot. “A man who would seek to corner you in an alleyway is no gentleman, surely?”
Reuben cleared his throat. “Anything you wish to say to her, you may say to me.”
“All is well, Jasper, I assure you,” Adelaide insisted.
“You go on ahead, my sweet,” Reuben gestured towards the end of the alleyway. “I shall have a word or two with your friend here, to ensure he understands that I mean you no harm. It was a childish game, gone slightly awry, that is all.”
Adelaide paused. “I do not know if that is a good idea.”
“I promise, I need only a moment to explain myself.”
“Very well, but do not be long,” Adelaide relented. “If you are to make an official announcement, my parents will be most delighted to hear so from you.”
Casting a glance back at the two men, Adelaide turned on her heel and walked out of the alley. Reuben watched her retreat. Ordinarily, he would have admired the shape and movement of her, but he could feel no pleasure in her departure. Instead, he felt anger boil within his veins. All of his carefully-laid plans had been ruined, and there was only one person to blame.
As soon as Adelaide had disappeared around the corner, Reuben lunged for Jasper. With strong arms, he pinned the younger man against the wall of the alleyway. Jasper tried to struggle free, but it was no good. Reuben was a fiercely powerful man, in all things.
“I shall say this only once, so be sure to hear me,” he hissed. “Lady Adelaide is going to be my wife. I do not know what history you have shared with one another as acquaintances, but I would advise you to forget any affection you feel. She is not for you.”
“I do not feel—”
Reuben tightened his grip. “Do not interrupt me, boy. Just listen.” He stood nose-to-nose with Jasper. “Lady Adelaide is not for you. She is not your friend. She is not your thing to protect. If you so much as look at her or me in a way I do not like, you shall feel the full wrath of my displeasure. I am a patient man. I do not rise to temper easily. But, if you do not obey, I will make an exception. Do you understand my meaning?”
“I have no feelings for her beyond friendship,” Jasper murmured.
“Regardless, do not think to harbor even those kinds of affections.”
“We are neighbors. I cannot stop our paths from crossing.”
Reuben shoved Jasper hard against the brickwork. “I do not like your insolence, boy. Avoid her wherever you can or endure the consequences. That is all there is to it.”
“I understand, Duke,” Jasper said, after a brief pause.
Leaving Jasper slumped against the wall, Reuben stalked out of the alleyway. Walking fast, he almost ran straight into Lady Adelaide. She was barely past the entrance. Her dark eyes observed him with a scrutiny he’d never seen before. Had she seen what he had done? Had she heard the words he had spoken to Jasper? Perhaps, it was a blessing in disguise if she had. For now she would know what he was capable of, too.
Jasper paced the grounds of the park opposite his home, hoping for a glimpse of Adelaide emerging next-door. After his altercation with Reuben, he desperately wanted to speak with her, if only to attempt to dissuade her from the match. He did not know how much she truly knew about the Duke of Bradford. Jasper had heard many unsavory things about the gentleman, lewd and chilling facts that he did not like one bit. If it was true that they were set to announce the engagement, then time was running out to change her mind.
In truth, he did not know the Duke on a personal level at all. Everything he knew of Reuben was hearsay. However, nose-to-nose, a memory had flickered into being. Stories being told of a dark and dangerous man with particular appetites. A man who took pleasure in hurting women. Jasper didn’t know how legitimate the rumors were, but he could not risk Adelaide being the one to find out.
Unless she is in love with him? he thought as he swiped his cane at a patch of skeletal shrubs. The autumn chill had already stolen the blooms away. No. Surely, she cannot be in love with such a man. I have barely seen her in his company.
Jasper tried to think back to any occasions he might have missed where they had been together. As a rule, he was not fond of society gatherings and loathed the Assembly Rooms. Dancing was not his forte, prompting him to avoid it where possible. However, he often attended, regardless. Usually, at the behest of Adelaide and her family. Racking his memories for any moment that Adelaide might have spent in Reuben’s company, he found himself coming up empty.
So, how can it be that they are to be wed? How has this come to pass? Has she allowed herself to be entrapped by such a man—is that how this has occurred? I thought her altogether more sensible than that. A tremor of guilt bristled through him. Or perhaps, she merely wishes to secure her future with a fortuitous match. She would not be the first young lady to do so. And, given the circumstances of the Colborne family, maybe her actions are more prudent than she may even know.
In all honesty, he was uncertain how much Adelaide was aware of, especially when it came to her father’s finances. Ephraim was a shrewd man in many ways, but investments were a dangerous game to play. Even the shrewdest, most careful of men could find themselves on the losing side. Indeed, several of the Earl’s speculations had gone awry in recent years. And now, he was paying the price.
Surely, Adelaide cannot know the truth? It seemed impossible to Jasper that her father would have said a word about it. He was a proud man. He would not want his family to worry.
Truly, Jasper wasn’t even sure he had all the details. No, perhaps it is simply fortunate timing. A well-made engagement that has come at the ideal moment. He just wished she might have chosen a different gentleman—one whose name did not strike discord into the heart of a great many people.
“We are delighted that you have decided on tomorrow to formally announce the engagement,” the Countess of Leeds’ sweet voice drifted across the street. Jasper’s head snapped up as he darted behind a trimmed conifer. The last thing he wanted to do was draw the attention of Reuben.
“It is my deepest pleasure, Lady Leeds,” Reuben purred in reply. He took her hand and kissed it gently. “It is an honor to be welcomed into your family, and I trust that we may enjoy a long and happy acquaintance.”
The Countess smiled from ear to ear. “Tell your mother that she must come for tea this week, so we may discuss wedding plans. There is no time to waste, Duke, as I am sure you will agree.”
“Indeed not. I shall have her write as soon as I return home.”
Placing his top hat on his head, Reuben dipped into a casual bow before swaggering down the steps to a waiting carriage. Jasper watched the scene intently, though Adelaide was nowhere to be seen. Puzzled, he skirted closer. It was unlike Adelaide to shy away from a farewell.
“You and I must arrange a meeting this week, also, to discuss the matter of my daughter’s dowry,” Ephraim urged in a low voice, as he approached the carriage window. Jasper could just make out the words.
“There is no need for haste, Leeds,” Reuben replied. “We shall speak of it whenever you are ready.”
Ephraim cleared his throat anxiously. “I shall send word after the announcement has been made tomorrow.”
“Very well. I look forward to it.”
“Yes… as do I.”
With that, Reuben instructed the driver to move off. Ephraim stepped back onto the pavement as the carriage rattled away. For a man who had just received good news, he did not look too pleased. A worried frown corrugated his forehead.
Jasper had a feeling he knew why, though he did not feel it was his place to interfere. Where Lord Leeds was concerned, Jasper did as he was told. A favor here and there for a family friend. No more, no less.
As soon as the carriage had disappeared around the corner, Jasper hurried across the road and leapt up the front steps to the Colborne residence. He caught Ephraim before the door closed.
“Jasper?” Ephraim looked even more puzzled. “Did we have a meeting arranged?”
“No, nothing of the sort, My Lord. I thought I might call upon Lady Adelaide if she is home?” He stumbled over his attempt at nonchalance. “Only, I had the good fortune to hear about her excellent news, and I wish to congratulate her. One friend to another.”
Ephraim’s features softened. “Oh… then you will find her in the gardens.”
“Thank you, My Lord.” He made to move past the Earl and head in the direction of the townhouse gardens, when the Earl reached out suddenly. He snatched for Jasper’s wrist, pulling him back.
“Speaking of our meetings, might you find yourself available tomorrow afternoon? Around three o’clock, if it is of no trouble to you? There are several things that I wish to discuss. Things that will likely require your discreet assistance.”
Jasper offered a comforting smile. “Of course, My Lord. I shall avail myself to you whenever you require. Three o’clock should be just fine.”
“Thank you, Jasper. You cannot understand how grateful I am for your continued assistance.”
“You are as family to me. You may always rely on my aid.”
“Thank you again…” Ephraim trailed off, a sad note to his voice. Jasper did not envy the position that the Earl of Leeds had found himself in, but he was determined to do all he could to help. After all, they had always been generous with his family. Be it money or material means, the Colbornes had always offered help when asked. He was simply returning the favor.
Wishing he had something more comforting to say, Jasper turned and headed for the gardens. His heart felt far heavier than it had a moment ago.
Letting himself out through the French doors at the back of the main drawing room, Jasper paused on the steps leading down to the immaculate lawn. The length and breadth of the grounds was identical to his own, neighboring home. However, the Colbornes had done far more with their gardens than the Fitzwilliams ever planned to. His mother thought it a waste of time, considering they only spent a few months of the year there. Still, he enjoyed the delicate blooms of winter flora that sprouted in the flower beds, and the hanging fronds of the willow tree at the farthest end.
It was here, beneath the shade of the willow, that he knew he’d find Lady Adelaide. It had always been her favorite spot. In her younger years, after particularly tempestuous arguments, she’d hide away beneath the fronds. He didn’t see the appeal, personally, but he knew he’d discover her there. Pulling his collar higher to keep out the frosty breeze, he made his way across the grass. The blades crunched beneath his boots, each one dusted with a thin layer of ice.
“I was wondering when you might appear,” Adelaide remarked tartly, as Jasper parted the curtain of foliage and stepped into the secret world within.
“Then you must know why I have come,” he replied. She sat on a wrought-iron bench by the gnarled tree trunk. It looked as though she’d been crying.
“To taunt me, perhaps?”
He shook his head. “I have come only in the pursuit of your happiness, Adelaide. You see, I cannot believe that a man like the Duke of Bradford is the sort you ought to be marrying.” He dispensed with formality, as they often did when alone.
“He is a Duke, is he not? He is of good standing and good name. He owns many excellent properties and he has a considerable annual income. Why should he not be as suitable as any other man, if not more so?”
“I believe you already know why,” Jasper said softly, sitting beside her. “He is a rogue. He can bring you nothing but fear and misery. I am certain that you know it to be true, deep in your heart.”
“I do not know what you mean,” she replied defiantly. “I find him intriguing. He does not scare me. What others might see as roguish behavior, I see as an exciting prospect. He is not like other gentlemen, as I am not like other ladies.”
“Adelaide, there is a stark difference between you two. You might be mischievous and peculiar, and often troublesome, but he is… well, he is cruel and lecherous.” Jasper sighed, not knowing how much he ought to say. “There are tales of him, my dear friend. I would not see you associated with such a man.”
“Tales?” A tremor shivered through Adelaide’s voice.
“Tales too dark and terrible for me to utter aloud.”
“Perhaps, his ways have changed.”
“Maybe, but his tastes will not.”
“You think he may be disloyal?” she scoffed. “Disloyalty is a small price to pay for security.”
Jasper sighed in exasperation. “I think it is unlikely he knows how to be anything other than disloyal. He is the sort of gentleman who lives life by the beat of his own drum. He will never be brought to heel, and he will never submit to true fidelity.”
She smiled unexpectedly. “You think I am unaware of this?”
“You are not?”
“I am no fool, Jasper, but I am a lady in this world,” she explained. “I wish to live within the means that I am accustomed to and secure a good life for myself and my family. Is that not a daughter’s duty?”
Jasper grimaced in exasperation. “I suppose it must be, dear Adelaide, but I hate to see you place so little regard on loyalty. Surely, there must be another gentleman. Any other gentleman might be better than the Duke. You often use your feminine wiles to taunt me—why not use those wiles to entice a kinder man? A sweeter one, who will not show you cruelty. Perhaps, you may even discover love if you thought to try a little harder.”
Adelaide snorted coldly. “Now who is the one seeking a fantasy?”
“Love is no fantasy, Adelaide.”
“You are a gentleman, Jasper. Your choices are less limited than my own. You may seek love, where I am duty bound to make an excellent match—with or without the luxury of true affection.”
“Then find a good match with a better man, as I have said.”
“It may have escaped your notice, Jasper, but I am often overlooked. Those peculiarities that you spoke of are the very attributes that see gentlemen turn away in derision. They are polite to my face, of course, but I know what they say when my back is turned.”
“That cannot be true.”
“Do not play coy with me, Jasper. You know it to be true. You have undoubtedly spoken such words yourself, once you thought my back was turned.” Adelaide sighed and turned her face away. “I have endured a lifetime of it.”
Jasper caught the faint glint of a tear as it rolled down her cheek. A twist of remorse turned in his stomach. “I did not mean to offend by calling you peculiar and troublesome. Is that not the nature of our friendship, to tease one another?”
“I know I am not a repulsive creature, but neither am I fending off compliments,” she went on, ignoring his attempt at an apology. “My beauty is complex. It lacks simplicity. The Duke of Bradford is the kind of gentleman who admires complexity, and so he admires me.”
“That is no reason to—”
“I told you I longed for the thrill of London society—I believe the Duke holds the key to that world. At his side, we shall both endure the whispers of those around us and feel their sting halved,” she interjected. “I believe we are both cut of the same cloth, he and I. And besides, the decision is made. You cannot change it.”
“Adelaide…” He did not know what else to say.
“Not unless you can provide an alternative? Do you have a charming Duke hidden away who might be suitable? A prince, perhaps?” A nervous laugh rippled from her throat. He could see she was fighting to regain her composure. Truthfully, he hated to see her like this. In all their years of friendship, he had seen her cry a handful of times. Each occurrence had rendered him helpless and bemused.
“Then, we have nothing more to say on the matter.” Her dark eyes turned to meet his, her expression solemn. “I know what kind of beast he is, Jasper. I have seen glimmers of what lurks beneath the suave exterior.”
“I do not understand.”
“I saw what he did to you,” she replied quietly. “I heard the warning he gave you, though I am pleased to see you did not heed it.”
“Then… why risk so much?”
“For the same reason that anyone risks anything, Jasper—because there is much to gain.”
Jasper felt his throat constrict. Her words twisted in a vise of guilt, with his thoughts turning to Adelaide’s father. Ephraim had risked so much and gained nothing. Success was never guaranteed. And yet, he could not use it as a cautionary tale. Not without giving away her father’s awful secret.
“And much to lose,” was all he said in reply.
“Perhaps, but I am learning of his whims and intrigues. Soon, I believe I may be in a position to rein in his more outlandish qualities. He finds me compelling, you see. Besides, my parents do not know of his less palatable history, and they seem to like him well enough. He is of good name and fortune, and he cares for me.” She flashed a shy smile. “And just remember, all beasts may be tamed.”
Oh Adelaide, I pray the attempt does not cost you dearly. He could not say the words out loud, but he felt them keenly for his friend. Reuben Fletcher was nothing but trouble. Adelaide appeared to think herself the lion-tamer, but she was walking straight into his slavering jaws.
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