About the book
A dressmaker in love, a Duke trapped in a loveless marriage, and the contract to stay away...
When her dress shop is robbed and ransacked, Miss Magdalen Meighan is left penniless. Unable to pay for the damages, she does the only thing that comes to mind: ask the Duchess of Arpton for a job. There was only one stipulation in the contract: don't get close to the Duke.
When Ezra Drogace, the Duke of Arpton, entered a marriage of convenience, he did not bat an eyelid, convinced that love is impossible for people of his status. Until his wife's new dressmaker arrives to challenge everything he has ever believed in.
Forbidden but too intense to control, their feelings for each other promise to be their doom. But Magdalene knows the truth someone is trying very meticulously to hide. It's dark and dangerous, and Magdalene is terrified she'll never manage to save Ezra in time...
Dunstable, August 1813
The tallow candle flickered as it clung to life, but just as Magdalen Meighan flicked the page to read Mr. Darcy’s proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, the light went out, and her chamber was swallowed by darkness.
For a long moment, Magdalen lay still as her eyes adjusted to the dark. She’d saved the small candle-end of a tallow candle in the drawer, but that one was for in the morning. If she used it now just to indulge in her reading, she’d pay the price once the time to rise was upon her. Getting up before dawn in the dark was not something she wanted to do.
I wish I could afford more candles. Or even wood for the fireplace. I love reading—it’s the only thing that truly makes me happy and carries me away into these other worlds. Alas, I shall have to wait. Perhaps if the Duchess comes tomorrow and places a large order…
Magdalen placed the novel Pride and Prejudice under the bed, careful not the bend any of the pages as she had to return it to the circulating library soon. She rolled on her side and drew her legs up to her chest. The blanket was too short to cover her otherwise. There was another one in the chamber next door, the one her mother occupied before her death of consumption. Was it already two years since she buried her mother in the small community cemetery on the edge of the village?
Magdalen dismissed the idea of fetching the blanket even though it would take no more than three steps to get it. So small was her home, located above her shop, A Stitch in Time.
“Small, but comfortable and full of love,” her mother used to say. Magdalen smiled to herself how she missed her mother and her sister, Lavinia, who’d died the year before her mother. Theirs was once a happy home. Even though they weren’t rich in material things, they were rich in what truly mattered—love, affection, and companionship. Together, the three ran the dressmaking shop, and while it was a simple life, it was a happy one.
She swallowed and chased away these thoughts that never led to anything but melancholy and a dreadful bout of nostalgia—both of which made it hard to get up in the mornings.
It wasn’t as though Magdalen was alone in the world. She had her cousin, Wilhelmina, as well as her aunt and uncle. One day she would have a husband and children. A family of her own to replace the one she’d lost. She’d come close to it, marriage, but then…. Another of those thoughts she had to push away.
Until the happy life she craved found her, she’d make do with what she had—her little shop, her tiny quarters located above it, and her dreams.
Magdalen closed her eyes and was about to drift away, imagining just where Jane Austen’s characters would take her next when something shattered downstairs. She sat up straight as an arrow.
“Morty?” She shook her head, exasperated at her cat. He had a terrible habit of throwing things on the ground but—
“I didn’t leave him downstairs. No, I know I locked him out for the night because of what he did to the pelisse I was working on for Mrs. Morgen. But…” Another noise drifted up the narrow staircase. This one unmistakable. It was the sound of footsteps marching across the floor. The source of the noise wasn’t her little black cat. It was something much more sinister.
Magdalen held her breath as she placed her bare feet on the old wooden floor. She knew which floorboards creaked and which didn’t and carefully made her way toward the door. Someone was rummaging around her shop and kitchen, she could tell by the way drawers opened and closed repeatedly. What did they want? She didn’t have anything worth stealing. The downstairs shop only held what she needed for work. Her textiles, buttons, needles and thread…unfinished gowns and…
“Goodness, no…” She suddenly remembered the payment she’d taken from Mrs. Gerber earlier that day. The fee for her daughter’s coming-out gown. The money was supposed to pay for more materials and her food for the month—and it was downstairs in the patch box where she always kept her money.
How foolish of her to keep it unlocked, she scolded herself. She had to get it. Her livelihood depended upon it.
Magdalen swallowed hard and stepped into the hall when a voice sounded out.
“You got the patch box?” The voice was muffled, as if the owner spoke from behind a scarf, or mask. There was a slight cockney accent to it. She squinted, attempting to place it but couldn’t think of anyone it might belong to.
“Got it. The jewelry, too. There’s got to be more money somewhere, though, right? This can’t be all. She’s a seamstress to all the rich ladies in town. Can’t be quite so in the suds.”
Despite her terror, these comments vexed Magdalen. She was poor, yes. But not in the suds. Not yet. Her mother and sister’s funerals cost most of what she’d saved up and running a shop by herself, when it was meant to be run by three, further damaged her income. With Uncle Ezekiel’s help, she held her head above the water so far.
“Come, let’s look upstairs. She’s got money upstairs. I know it.”
Magdalen’s eyes grew wide. She did keep money upstairs. Her dire emergency funds. She dashed across the hall and into her mother’s chamber, where she kept a little reticule hidden under the mattress. She tucked it under her nightdress and scanned the room as the heavy footsteps came up the stairs.
They’re coming. They’re really coming. Do they know I’m here?
Frantically, she looked around as the footsteps came closer. Whoever it was wanted more than what she had to offer. What they’d do if they found her, she didn’t want even to imagine. Her eyes settled on her mother’s armoire. She’d fit under it.
“Wait a minute!” The man’s voice boomed outside. “I thought she was supposed to stay with her aunt and uncle?”
Magdalen’s heart dropped. This was true. She planned to stay with her aunt and uncle for a couple of days to celebrate her uncle’s birthday but decided at the last minute to go the following day instead. How did they know her plans?
“Yeah, that’s what she said. Why?” The other voice came closer as he followed his companion up the stairs. In a panic, Magdalen dropped to the floor and crawled under the armoire. In the dark, they would not see her. Even if they had their candles—evidently, they did—they wouldn’t spot her under the armoire.
“Well, either she didn’t stay with her family, or she’s a rather messy lady. Her bed is unmade and… Do you smell that?”
Someone sniffed their nose as Magdalen’s heart raced. Her candle. They could smell the lingering unpleasant odor of the tallow candle in the air. She crawled further under the piece of furniture and pressed her body against the wall. Silently she prayed for protection.
“Probably from next door,” the second voice said calmly, and Magdalen exhaled. The footsteps approached her mother’s chamber, stopped, and then the door opened. However, to her relief, they did not enter.
“This one is the old woman’s chamber. Nothing to find in here, I’m sure.”
Again, she wondered who these men were. They knew her, they knew her plans, they even knew which chamber was her mother’s. Yet, their voices didn’t ring familiar in the least.
One of the men stepped inside the room and the flicker of a candle lit it up. She lay still and held her breath, only exhaling when he passed her. She stayed where she was as the men returned downstairs.
The sound of things shattering and breaking, items tossed back and forth, and drawers yanked out of their cabinets filled the air as tears sprang into her eyes. Who were these men? What did they want from her? It made no sense for anyone to target her.
Magdalen waited until the voices subsided, until the front door banged and the night returned to its silent, peaceful state. She crawled out from under the armoire and returned to her chamber. Her eyes were used to the dark now and she located her spare candle-end as well as her tinder box to light it.
When she made her way down the stairs and shone the candle around her workspace, she gaped. It was ruined. Textiles littered the floor, crumpled and trampled upon. Every drawer was yanked out of the cabinets, buttons—some of them precious and rare—supplied by her clients for their custom-ordered gowns—scattered the floor.
“Faith, no!” Magdalen cried out, one hand clasped in front of her mouth. If this was the extent of the damage visible by light of a candle, she didn’t want to see just how terrible it would be in the light of day. This was her business, her livelihood—it was all in ruins. What was she to do?
Outside, the sound of voices startled her further. These men, she realized, could return at any moment. They didn’t know she was hiding under the armoire, after all. If there was anything else they wanted, they’d be back. She couldn’t remain here. It was much too dangerous.
With a heavy heart, Magdalen rushed for her redingote, threw it over her shoulders and raced out of the house on bare feet and through the village toward the home of her neighbor.
“Oh, Mina,” Magdalen cried the following morning as she stood in the ruins of A Stitch in Time. In the cold light of day, the damage was so much worse than she ever imagined. The men, evidently upset at the meager findings, not only threw her materials on the ground, they’d ripped many of them. She squatted and picked up a piece of fine muslin, purchased with the funds provided to her by the Duchess of Arpton for a gown she intended to wear to Almack’s.
“This is ruined. I shall have to pay Her Grace back. And my other clients. Oh, and how am I to buy more materials? They took my patch box. Everything—everything. I’m ruined.” Magdalen broke into sobs as she sat amidst the wreckage of what remained of her business.
“No, Maggie, you’re not ruined. We will fix this,” Mina whispered as she stroked Magdalen’s long black hair. She hadn’t bothered pinning it up this morning, there was no use to it. No use to anything. She sat in a blue round gown, borrowed from her cousin, and an apron that belonged to her Aunt Anna.
“I can certainly fix the broken drawers,” her uncle Ezekiel announced as he returned from surveying the damage. “But Maggie, that is all I can do for you.” He shook his head as Magdalen rose, Mina’s arm around her. “We don’t have the funds to help you replace anything.”
He sighed deeply and clasped his hat against his chest. As he stood, looking too sad and helpless, she couldn’t help but recognize her mother’s visage in his. They were ten years apart in age, and Ezekiel had always taken care of Magdalen’s mother. Her death hit him hard.
“I understand.” The sense of sorrow threatened to swallow her whole.
“But you have some savings, don’t you?” Her cousin said with a hint of desperation in her voice. “You’ve been working from six in the morning until late at night, surely you have some funds for emergencies?”
Magdalen shook her head. She thought of the reticule she’d saved from under her mother’s mattress. “I have a little, but it will only help pay for my bare necessities. I used a large chunk of what I put away to buy materials for the two gowns I designed.”
She sighed deeply. Several months ago, Magdalen decided to design a few of her gowns, using leftover materials. When they turned out beautifully and she sold them to a visiting Countess, she’d used most of her savings to invest in more, better materials. It was always Magdalen’s secret dream to be a dressmaker in her own right. Now she regretted it. The funds spent on the material could have saved her.
I made a cake of myself. Thinking that I could ever be more than just a simple seamstress. My dream of being a dressmaker is smashed into bits before me, and now I don’t even know how to replace the materials I lost for the clients I already have.
Her clients always paid her upfront to buy the beautiful lace, adornments, and buttons for their orders. She’d have to repay them somehow.
“Perhaps some of the ladies will be understanding,” her uncle offered.
Magdalen shook her head. “The high society ladies do not care about the plight of the commoner; you know this as well as I. If they did, they would not level such high taxes upon us. And the few local women who give me their orders do not have the flexibility to show any charity. Nor would I expect them to.”
In their village, most lived from day to day. She’d been fortunate to have any savings at all.
“I am ruined. I have nothing. I cannot replace what I lost. I cannot even replace the windows that they broke.” The robbers appeared determined to ruined Magdalen, for in addition to destroying her workroom, they’d also smashed every single window.
Her uncle buried his hands in the pockets of his breeches.
“I can speak to the glass-smith about a discount. Maybe we can take out a small loan. I can help you with that at least.”
Magdalen shook her head. “I am still paying back the loan I took out to bury mother. And you already took on the burden of repaying the previous loan, for my sister’s burial.”
Uncle Ezekiel looked away, wounded. He was a good, kind man who loved his sister and her children dearly. After the death of Magdalen’s father, he’d become their father figure. His inability to help her more struck him, she knew this and would not have demanded nor asked anything of him. He had nothing to give.
The family stood quietly in the ruins of Magdalen’s business when suddenly her cousin cleared her throat.
“I have an idea. Come with me to Arpton Manor. Let us speak to the Duchess. Perhaps she will be able to give you some work.”
Magdalen frowned at this. The Duke and Duchess of Arpton were the largest employers in the area. At least a quarter of the population of Dunstable somehow worked for the noble family, her cousin and aunt included. Mina was a maid to Her Grace, the Duchess of Arpton, while her Aunt Anna once worked in the kitchen. Arpton Estate encompassed almost all of the area surrounding Dunstable and every farmer she knew rented land from the Duke.
“What could I, a seamstress, offer Her Grace? I already make her gowns.”
Her cousin groaned. “You should see the amount of mending Her Grace has her maids do. And they do not do half as good a job as you would. Besides, I know that she needs a new maid. Mrs. Veasley is leaving, as her husband took a position as a Steward with some baron down in Devon.”
Magdalen surveyed what remained of her home and realized she didn’t have a choice. She would have to throw herself at the mercy of the Duchess, a woman she knew little about. She’d met her only once, when Her Grace came into A Stitch in Time to examine some of Magdalen’s work.
Since then, she would send Mrs. Veasley or one of her other maids to place the order whenever she needed a gown made. Her Grace did not even come for fittings. She’d send a maid matching her measurements instead—a circumstance Magdalen always found troublesome. Alas, one did not argue with the nobility.
“Very well. I suppose that is what I must do. Perhaps I will be able to work at the manor long enough to replenish my savings and start over with my own little business.”
“Of course,” Mina replied with such enthusiasm Magdalen knew that she didn’t mean it. And then she glanced at her uncle whose gaze was cast outside the front door, unable to meet her eyes, and she understood.
Once she took her position with the Duchess, her dreams of becoming a dressmaker would be gone.
She followed her cousin upstairs with a heavy heart to put on her most elegant gown and her best bonnet. She would have to do what needed to be done. Even if it meant giving up her dreams and a future she’d worked towards.
Ezra Drogace, Duke of Arpton, rode along the path that led from the forest to his manor house, along the lake he loved. It gave him such a sense of peace to sit by the lake and watch as the birds and squirrels that lived in the trees all around the property went about their lives.
Theirs is such a simple existence. All they care about is how to fill their stomachs and to take care of their family. They don’t have to worry about a household full of servants, an estate with farms, mines, and all manner of other things. Let alone the darn House of Lords.
Yes, he couldn’t deny it. Ezra envied the woodland creatures their freedom and independence.
“I see your swans are back,” Thomas Hove, the Earl of Stanmore, said beside him. He turned to face his friend with a smile. Thomas and Ezra had been friends since their boyhood days at Eton, and remained so to this day. Lacking a brother, Ezra found in Thomas the support and wise counsel he so often craved.
“They are. I suppose the hunter that intruded upon my property last week scared them away. I’ve watched for them every day, and just this past weekend, they returned.” He smiled, as he loved the two majestic white swans above all other animals on his estate.
“I bet Ruth wishes you looked at her with as much love and affection as you do those swans,” Thomas said. Ezra knew he spoke in jest, but his words were like a dagger to his heart anyhow.
“I used to look at her with more love and affection than I ever showed anyone,” he replied with a sullen tone. “She did not appreciate it nor care for it, and thus I have stopped.” Once again, he shrugged, wishing he could have found a match based on love rather than convenience. He chewed his lips before turning to Thomas again. A strand of Ezra’s curly blond hair blew into his face, and he wiped it back with the back of his hand.
“Thomas, are you quite sure about this offer you’re about to make to Lady Clarissa?”
His friend smirked. “Am I sure that I want to make an offer of marriage to one of the most eligible young ladies on the marriage mart? The daughter of a Duke even richer and more influential than you? The man who has Prinny’s ear? A young woman as beautiful as a sunrise in May, a voice as clear as a nightingale, and a mind so sharp she could have defeated Napoleon? Yes, Ezra. I am quite sure.”
Ezra raised one hand as if to appease his friend. “Very well. You certainly sound like a man in love.”
“That I am. And with a woman who loves me just as much.” A shadow crossed his friend’s handsome face. “I am sorry if my happiness causes you pain.”
Ezra forced a smile on his lips. “Not at all. I know not everyone can be so fortunate. And I’ve no reason to complain. I see how fortunate I am to be of high birth, respected, blessed with a beautiful home and good friends.” He shrugged but didn’t look at his friend. He didn’t want Thomas to see the truth in his eyes.
Ezra was miserable. And how ridiculous a notion this was, he thought. To be so privileged compared to the vast majority of the country. People lived in poverty with nothing to eat but vile pottage and rotten bread, and here he was feasting on pheasant and hare every night, drinking cognac and port by the bottle. Yet, it was true. Ezra wasn’t a happy man, not unless he rode out with Thomas or sat at the lake with a book. And why? Because love eluded him. It was a sad circumstance, but it was true.
Thomas knew him well enough to read him like an open book and cleared his throat.
“You need not hide the truth from me, Ezra. We are much too close for such a silly attempt. I can see how unhappy you are.” He paused as they rode on in silence, leaving the lake and its tranquility behind.
When Thomas spoke again, it was with a gentle tone. “Is there any sign of an heir?”
Ezra scoffed, there was no other reaction he could think of. “No. And I doubt there ever will be. I am resigned to the fact that my estate will return to the crown. Well, I suppose there is my distant cousin, Wilford Murdock, who can lay claim if he wishes. He is next in line.”
“Isn’t he on death’s doorstep?” Thomas asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I suppose. Last I heard, consumption had its grip on him.” He shrugged. “Prinny will have another estate to dole out to his friends then. If he’s still Regent when I die.”
“I should think not, for I do not foresee you passing anytime soon, old chum. You are but two-and-thirty. And as for an heir, one might still materialize.”
Ezra said nothing. As close and he and Thomas were, he didn’t wish to divulge intimate details of his life to him. Or rather, the lack of private information. For his wife, Ruth, hardly ever allowed him anywhere near, and if he was candid, he’d lost the taste for her. He used to desire her just as much as Thomas did his betrothed.
To think I once considered myself fortunate. Those foolish notions about a happy future with Ruth consumed my every moment, and on our wedding day, I was the happiest man in all of the Realm. How quickly things change. It has been only three years, and already I regret my marriage. If I am to die without an heir, I might as well have done so without having to tie myself to a woman who cannot stand me.
“One might. But I presume you will have one before I do.”
Thomas grinned. “I am sure. Just as long as it’s not before I am married.”
“Thomas, you rake. You have not already sullied your bride?”
He roared with laughter at Ezra’s shocked visage. “My goodness, Ezra. How little do you think of me? No, I have not. But I do enjoy scandalizing you, Mr. Prim and Proper. I’ve never met a man as driven by duty and propriety as you. Never, I declare. Perhaps that is why you and I are such good friends. My recklessness calls out to your propriety, and we balance one another.”
Ezra grinned. “I suppose so. Although I do wish you would refrain from shocking me in such a manner, lest I die from apoplexy. Then there really will never be an heir.”
The two men rode on, each smiling.
It was a blessing, Ezra thought to himself, to have a friend like Thomas. He understood him even though they were so very different in character. Outgoing, charming, and consistently kicking up a lark, Thomas was the opposite of Ezra, who was reserved and driven by the duty to his title.
“All jesting aside,” Thomas said, “I cannot wait to step before the vicar and utter my vows to Clarissa. To make her my wife from now until all eternity. I wake in the morning thinking of it, and I go to sleep at night thinking of it still.”
Ezra smiled. He remembered very well when he felt that way about Ruth. He thought about nothing but her. And when they stepped before the vicar, he considered himself the happiest man alive. Oh, how quickly things could change. But then again, he should have seen it all coming. It was not as though the signs weren’t there from the very start.
He shook his head as he remembered her attitude. Upon the first meeting, arranged by a matchmaker at his mother’s insistence, she’d been distant but amenable. He hadn’t thought anything of it, after all, a lady was supposed to be respectable and demure. She wasn’t supposed to throw herself at a prospective husband. It would be considered highly inappropriate to do so. With time, he was sure she would warm up to him.
At first, he thought if he wooed her throughout their courtship, she’d warm up to him. Alas, she never had. No matter how hard he tried. Flowers, sweetmeats, even handwritten poems—nothing seemed to penetrate Ruth’s walls.
And yet, Ezra remained determined to prevail. He considered himself in love with her. In hindsight, he knew that what he perceived to be love was nothing more than a desire to marry, mixed with a healthy dash of lust. Ruth was a beautiful woman. Breathtaking, in fact. The moment he laid his eyes on her, he was lost in her blue eyes and heart-shaped lips.
Whenever he wanted to give up, he’d remind himself of that feeling of joy upon meeting her. It was enough to convince him that he should carry on with his attempts to win her over. Maybe once they were married, he would succeed. Once she understood that he was sincere in his affections for her.
But things only got worse after their marriage.
He had to admit to himself that his wife did not love him and had married him for the same reasons so many gentlewomen married. For the convenience and for the fortune of the match. She, the daughter of a wealthy Marquess, and he, one of the most influential Dukes in the country—the world regarded them a dream match, what every member of the bon ton strived for.
Everywhere they went, people looked at them with respect. Women could not curtsy deep enough, and men could not bow quickly enough whenever they entered the room.
They were the most desired dance partners, and at every event, there was a line of people wishing to speak to them. Their stars hung high and shone brightly on the firmament of high society’s exclusive world.
And yet, inside, he was miserable. And he suspected Ruth felt much the same.
As he looked at his friend, who smiled at the mere thought of becoming a husband, Ezra could not help but admit just how unhappy he was. But there was nothing he could do. He was married and would remain so until the very end of his life. That was the way society worked. No matter how miserable they made one another, a couple had to stay married.
As he reached the front of Arpton Manor, Ezra looked up at his friend.
“I thought perhaps we could play a round of billiards. You still owe me a game.”
Thomas grimaced and shook his head. “Unfortunately, I cannot. I am to meet with Lady Clarissa’s father. He has invited me to go fox hunting. But I shall return tomorrow and gladly relieve you of a healthy portion of your wealth by way of a game.”
“You are rather confident in your abilities, eh wot? Especially considering that I have beaten you in the last five games.”
“Oh yes, you did. But that was before I decided to offer marriage to the most beautiful woman in all of England. I dare say that based on the strength of my happiness, I will beat you quite handily. For fortune, my friend, has smiled down upon me.” He winked at Ezra and then dug his heels into his horse’s flank and galloped away
As his friend rode out the main gate, Ezra turned to the left toward the stable. He passed the dairy, where an assortment of milkmaids rushed back and forth with fresh jugs of milk, and an older woman, one who appeared much too old for this kind of physical labor, at least in Ezra’s opinion, was busy churning butter in a large barrel.
Sometimes it strikes me as rather peculiar that all of these people should work for me. That I should be in charge of this many lives. It is on my shoulders that responsibility for their lives rests. That is something my father instilled in me so long ago. A Duke’s responsibility is to his people. At least in his opinion. I know that my fellow peers in the House of Lords would disagree with me. To them, a Duke, or any lord’s responsibility, is to themselves and the Realm.
He shook his head as he pondered that. It was difficult to believe that he had already been Duke for eight long years. If only his father had lived longer, then perhaps—
A piercing scream ripped through the afternoon air. His head spun back as he looked towards where the sound had come from but saw nothing unusual.
He turned Hermine, his trusted mare, and galloped the short distance between his present position and the washhouse just beyond. As he neared, wind whipping through his long hair, another scream followed.
“Help! Help us! They’ll kill her!”
Ezra’s heart pumped. When he turned the corner, he spotted one of their maids, Mina, standing at the back of the washhouse, a basket with laundry on the ground before her. She was pale as the wall and terror was written all across her face.
“Your Grace, please help! The dogs, they…”
She didn’t need to say anything else, for he saw it for himself. Up ahead, two Great Danes chased a young maid who ran, quite literally, for her life
“Help!” She called without stopping as the dogs charged her.
“They just went for her, Your Grace, I have no idea why.”
He gave her a nod, dug his heel into Hermine and sprinted after her. Ezra’s blood pumped.
These darn dogs. I knew they’d be nothing but trouble when Ruth’s father gave them to us last year. I’ve wanted to get rid of them ever since but Ruth insisted we keep them lest her father take offense. Now look...
Ezra jumped off his horse and raced toward the woman.
One of the large hounds charged and toppled her. Ezra froze as before him, the woman screamed, and the hound’s sharp teeth shimmered in the sunlight and dove toward the woman’s long, pale neck, and he realized—
He was too late.
I am going to die. I know it. This beast will tear me limb from limb. Faith, what have I done to deserve such a terrible fate? Have I not lost enough? My sister, my mother, my home—am I to lose my life as well?
Magdalen spun on the ground and curled into a ball as her father once taught her. His advice was to protect against an attack from wild boars, but she assumed it would work just as well with crazed Great Danes. As she crouched on the ground, the dog snarled, hot saliva ran from its mouth and dripped onto her forearm. The stench was horrific but the least of her problems. How could she get away? She was lost now.
She’d run as fast as she could, but it didn’t save her. These dogs were ten times as fast as her. They were fox-hunting hounds after all and thus supposed to hunt.
She closed her eyes and was reminded of the evening two years ago when she’d cowered much like this under her mother’s armoire, as her home was ransacked by two vile men whose identity she never uncovered.
“I don’t want to die. Please. I don’t want to die,” she whimpered, and then she felt it. The dog’s sharp teeth grazed her skin through her gown. In a moment, he’d maul her and she’d—
“Get!” A male voice shouted, the word trembling with rage. “I said get!” The dog’s stinking mouth disappeared, and she could once again feel the warmth of the day on her body. She pushed herself up, and when she did, the second dog came at her. This time, she would not take it. She jumped up and grabbed the basket she’d foolishly hung on to for the entire time. She swung it with all of her might and smacked the wild animal in the side just enough so she could spring away.
“Return to the washhouse!” The male voice called out. At last, she realized who it was. His Grace, the Duke of Arpton, himself. She swallowed and did as he commanded while she saw two men running across the grass in the distance. Charles, His Grace’s valet, was one and the other Mr. Burns, the steward of Arpton Manor, who had volunteered himself as the caretaker of Her Grace’s beasts.
“Burns, get these dogs under control!” His Grace shouted, and when Magdalen looked over her shoulder, she spotted the Duke, wrangling the larger of the two dogs, the one who’d almost killed her. For a horrifying moment, she thought the hound had His Grace by the arm, but then she realized it was a large stick the Duke was using to defend himself. The dog had bitten onto it and wasn’t letting go.
“Maggie, quickly!” Her cousin shouted from the washhouse. Magdalen picked up her pace and raced just as Mr. Burns passed her to grab the smaller of the two dogs by the collar.
Mina grabbed her hand and yanked her inside the washhouse, where two terrified maids stood at the window and peeked out.
“Are you all right?” Mina asked, her eyes wide with fear. Magdalen nodded, although she wasn’t sure.
“I think so, I... I don’t think he bit me.”
Mina wasn’t convinced.
She tossed the basket Magdalen still held on to over to one side and gently took her arms.
“Faith! Look at this!” she exclaimed and spun around. “Daisy, quickly bring me something to clean this wound.”
Magdalen frowned and looked down. The moment she did, her entire body jerked back. Her right arm dripped with blood, a lot of blood. When Daisy, the older, stout maid in charge of the washhouse returned with a clean cloth, Mina pressed it against her skin and waited.
“What happened?” Daisy asked.
“Maggie was walking along the path when suddenly those dogs came loose. I think perhaps they smelled Morty on her. She went to see him this morning at my parent’s house as she so often does. Oh, how I despise those beasts,” Mina moaned before examining the wound again. “It looks like he nipped you. It is not deep, but he tore the skin. By Jove, your legs are also bleeding.”
The sense of terror still pumped through Magdalen, and thus, she felt no pain, but when she looked down there was no denying it, her knees were scraped, and blood seeped through her simple off-white gown.
Daisy fetched another clean cloth and while Mina tended to her injuries, Maggie glanced out of the window. Outside, Charles had a hold of one of the dogs while Mr. Burns wrangled the other. They pulled on the dogs’ collars, taking them back toward the large pen that was their home.
Those dogs were vicious, and the entire household feared them, including Her Grace, the rightful owner.
Magdalen knew this well enough, for Her Grace told her often that she was terrified of the animals. Alas, they were a gift from her father, and the man liked to visit the dogs whenever he called on his daughter.
Therefore, they could not be given away. Instead, they were housed in a large pen with an iron gate located in an empty building next to the stable yard. This was meant to keep them from causing harm—a system rife with faults, as she’d found out today. She no longer saw His Grace outside.
“Where did His Grace come from?” she asked Mina, who tended to her wounds. “I was rather occupied running for my life and didn’t see him approaching.”
Daisy chuckled. “He appeared like a bolt of lightning, right from around the corner, and charged at those dogs like he was the Duke of Wellington taking on that nasty Frenchman, Napoleon.”
Mina chuckled. “It was almost as exciting as all that. He came around the corner and dashed after you. He grabbed that big dog, Baccus, and dragged him off of you. At the last moment, too. A second later, and you might have been beyond saving.”
Magdalen shuddered as she remembered the dog’s vile breath.
“What I want to know,” Daisy chimed in, “is how the beasts got loose in the first place. How are any of us supposed to feel safe when we can be charged at any moment by those dogs?”
“I assure you, Daisy, it will not happen again,” a deep male voice said from the shadows of the doorway. Every pair of eyes swerved toward the voice, and upon recognizing the unexpected visitor, Daisy, Mina, and the other maids in the washhouse dropped into deep curtsies. Magdalen struggled to get up but before she could even grasp onto the back of the chair to balance, he was beside her.
“Do not get up, Maggie. You are hurt. I do not expect a curtsy from a woman who was almost eaten by my wife’s pets.”
“Thanks to you, I was not eaten, fortunately. And I assure you, I am well enough to stand.”
He tilted his head to one side and pursed his lips. Magdalen couldn’t help but notice how full and soft they were. Suddenly, it occurred to her that she hadn’t been this close to the Duke before. In the two years she’d worked for his wife, the Duchess, she’d seen him in passing and exchanged a polite word here or there, but she didn’t spend much time in his company.
It was rather fortunate, she had to admit, for he was a handsome man. In addition to the lovely lips, he had eyes of so intense a blue that it was like looking directly into the sky. She blinked, forcing those thoughts out of her mind. It was ridiculous to think in such a way of the man who was, in essence, her employer. While she worked directly for the Duchess of Arpton, he, the Duke, ensured she had a roof over her head and a weekly wage.
“Those bite marks on your arm concern me. I’d like you to accompany me to my physician.”
He stared at her, and she realized he meant right in that moment. She nodded.
“Of course, Your Grace if you think it is wise.”
“I do,” he replied with a sternness in his voice that didn’t allow for any backtalk or argument. Not that one could argue with a Duke, certainly not if one wanted to keep one’s position within the household.
She turned to her cousin, “I shall return. I will join you to finish the washing when I return from the physician.”
“I should think not. With injuries such as these you will be well advised to rest for at least a day, if not more. Daisy, have someone else assist Mina with the laundry.”
Daisy curtsied at once and Magdalen swallowed. There was something rather magnetic about this man. He struck her as someone very much in control.
“Can you walk?” he asked her with a tinge of concern in his voice. She smiled at him and rose.
“Of course, Your Grace. I can.”
However, the very moment Magdalen set forth to prove just how unaffected she was by her injuries, she stumbled forward. If it hadn’t been for the Duke’s quick response she would’ve undoubtedly ended up on the washhouse floor.
She found herself enveloped by a pair of strong arms, much more robust than she had anticipated, for while His Grace was tall and broad-shouldered, he was of a slender build. However, the arms that caught her were muscular. She could tell by the way his muscles flexed as he lifted her to her feet.
“I venture to say that you may have slightly overstated your confidence in your ability to walk.”
She was shocked when he smiled at her with a wink.
Suddenly a searing pain shot up her arm where the dog bit her, and she winced. “Oh…”
She clutched it and squeezed, but the pain didn’t ebb away as expected, it grew worse.
“It is the shock from the attack wearing off. When the dogs attacked you, you must have been in such a state of terror you couldn’t feel the pain, and now it is leaving, thus the pain.”
He pressed his lips together for a moment, and a frown line appeared on his forehead.
“Mina, find Her Grace and tell her what has happened. Tell her I am taking her maid to the physician. No, do not tell her. Fetch her. I shall tell her what happened myself. I know you will be eager to join us to check on your cousin. Just fetch her and bring her with you. I believe I saw her walking at the lake earlier.” He turned his attention to Daisy. “There is no need to fret, Daisy. Something like this will never happen again. I will make sure of it.”
He cast his gaze on Magdalen again and rubbed his hands together.
“Right. Let us go.”
Before she knew it was happening, he bent forward, placed one arm around her back and the other underneath her knees, and lifted her. The entire washhouse full of maids gasped at this unexpected turn of events, and Magdalen’s mouth dropped open.
Ordinarily, she would have protested. She was not the kind of woman who enjoyed being handled in such a manner. However, he was right. Now that she had some time to recover, the extent of her injuries became evident.
Her knees ached, her arm throbbed, and she did not think she could stand, much less walk under her own steam. To think that just minutes ago, she raced across the grass to get away from the hounds—yet she could not even walk from her chair to the door.
She glanced back at her cousin, who looked at her with some amazement. Magdalen already knew just what everyone would be talking about in the servants’ hall that evening.
They stepped out of the washhouse and into the late morning sunshine. Magdalen considered just how fortunate she was to have been rescued when suddenly, from the direction of the pen where the hounds were kept, a most horrific scream sounded out.
The Duke’s eyes widened. The muscles in his arms twitched as he hastened toward the direction of the sound with her in his arms.
She did not want to think of it, but as another scream sounded out, Magdalen was sure that the fate that almost took her life might have claimed someone else’s.
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