Falling for the Duke in the Margins Preview

A Historical Regency Romance Novel

About the book

“If only it had been you! I wanted it so desperately to be you…”

Mary Ann has always found solace in her books. Other than her twin sister, Eliza, they were her only friends. Now, with Eliza so close to abandoning her for the joys of marriage, alone against Aaron Bannerman’s relentless pursuits, she turns to them once again. But in the borrowed book’s margins, she will find a new friend, one she never expected…

Hugh Bannerman, the Duke of Keats, never wanted to be a duke in the first place. He would have been content as a scholar, lost in his library, but his mother and three brothers rely on him to lead the household. At least Owen has found the love of his life. If only her sister wasn’t making everything so difficult…

But even as everyone is waiting with bated breath, a proposal doesn’t come. In anticipation of well and truly losing her sister, Mary Ann opens up to the mysterious commenter on the margins. But who could it be? And how can she fall in love with a man she doesn’t even know?

Chapter One

London 1816…

Lady Mary Ann Huntington stood in front of the long mirror in her family’s drawing-room – the only one in the house – and examined her attire. She ran her gloved hand along the plain white satin dress to smooth it to eliminate a wrinkle that somehow appeared in the material. It seemed that whatever gown she wore always ended up wrinkled in no time. She was not in the mood for censure from her mother, which would surely occur if she saw the imperfection.

Aside from this minor flaw, the dress was lovely, if unspectacular. A pale lemony shorter overdress was draped over the white and stood in pleasing contrast. The short, puffed sleeves were embroidered with tiny flowers and allowed a little of her skin to show between the gap of her elbow-length white gloves and the start of the sleeves.

She noted the demi train when she turned, which gave the dress a little something special. Her auburn hair was upswept, with a few artfully placed ringlets falling around her face and tickling the back of her neck. A thin gauzy bandeau with blue and yellow flowers wove among her tresses, complementing the pale sapphire necklace she was wearing. Mary Ann smiled. She did not look half bad, at least in her opinion. Her maid, Clara, had outdone herself, that was certain.

“Mary Ann?” Her sister Eliza’s strident voice called out, and she turned in anticipation of her arrival. Eliza’s voice had always been more assertive and louder than Mary Ann’s. Their mother used to say that while Mary Ann’s intonation made her think of honey dripping on bread, Eliza’s was more like good lemon curd – strong yet sweet. Much like their personalities. Even though they were twins, they were not alike in most things – least of all in the way they looked.

This was never more obvious than tonight. When Eliza entered the drawing-room, any positive thought Mary Ann had about her appearance melted away like a snowball in July. While her dress remained lovely, she no longer saw herself in a positive light. Instead, she felt dumpy; however, given that the term ‘diamond of the first water’ might as well have been invented for her sister, this was no great surprise.

“Mary Ann! Look at you. What a lovely gown. Have you brought your fan? I venture to say; we shall be fighting off the gentlemen left and right this night,” she said and withdrew a broad black fan with lovely roses painted upon it and waved it through the air.

“Eliza, we are going to Almack’s, not to fight the French at Waterloo,” Mary Ann laughed, and Eliza threw one arm around her.

“I promise you; it will be much the same for the sheer number of gentlemen wishing to dance with us. Of course, I cannot dance with anyone until Owen decides which dances he wants.”

Mary Ann let out a small sigh at the mention of Lord Owen Bannerman. Eliza had long been moon-eyed over the Duke of Keats’s younger brother. The third son of the late Duke of Keats and her sister had stolen secret glances and exchanged improper love notes for years, and it was only a matter of time before an offer of marriage was made. Tension crept into Mary Ann’s stomach as she thought of this, for the idea of her sister marrying him did not sit right with her. When he had finally mustered the courage to ask their father, the Earl of Connolly, for permission to formally court Eliza, Mary Ann had been awake all night, fretting over the matter.

“Mary?” Eliza whined. “Stop woolgathering. I need assistance with my earring.” Her sister’s voice drew her from her thoughts, and Mary Ann blinked as she looked at her. Eliza was fiddling with a pearl earring, which had gotten caught on the material of the headpiece.

Mary Ann sucked in air through clenched teeth and worked to undo the mess her sister found herself in. “Why did you wear a turban with your pearl earrings? This always happens when you do. And I always get stuck freeing them all night long.”

Eliza clicked her tongue. “Mary, it is not really a turban. This is a helmet; can’t you see that it has much more structure than a turban?”

She felt her sister’s exasperated stare more than saw it, but she already knew that Eliza always despaired at Mary Ann’s habit of ignoring fashion trends. To her, the item on her sister’s oval head was a turban, regardless of what her sister called it. It was made of blush-colored frosted crape that complemented Eliza’s Circassian robe, created of the same material. The satin slip underneath the robe also featured a peasant’s velvet bodice. The Spanish slashed sleeves were embellished with white crape folding and finished with bands of gold.

Mary Ann recalled the sketch of this gown – a sketch her sister had made herself, gifted as she was when it came to fashion and drawing. When she freed the errand earing, she stepped back.

“The dressmaker brought your idea to life beautifully,” she said, meaning every word. Eliza’s eyes – a deeper shade of brown than Mary Ann’s own – lit up with delight.

“That is what I just said to Mama. Isn’t it splendid?” She stepped in front of the mirror and moved from side to side; the robe swayed gently, accentuating all her best attributes. Mary Ann adored her sister, she always had, but she could not deny that she was always a little envious of Eliza’s more classical beauty. Nature had gifted her with porcelain-colored skin that was always blemish-free, round eyes framed by long lashes, and a mouth that was pretty and heart-shaped with a perfect cupid’s bow.

In comparison, Mary Ann had skin that insisted on turning tan in the sunshine but was also prone to freckles that her mother insisted be covered with copious amounts of crushed pearl powder. Fortunately, even though it was May already, it had been unseasonably cold all year. So much so, the newspapers had declared 1816 the year without a summer – a little premature in Mary Ann’s opinion, but suffice to say, the sun was not of terrible concern at the moment.

However, the lack of freckles did not make up for Mary Ann’s lashes being short or that her nose was slightly tipped, unlike Eliza’s, who had a perfect button nose, or that her lips were much fuller than her sister’s, changing the proportions of her face. Not that anyone had ever said any of these things to her. Their mother insisted they were as beautiful as each other, only in different ways, and it was not as though lacked suitors. Her dance card was usually three-quarters full whenever they went out, and she received her fair share of compliments. Still, she supposed when one had a sister as stunning as Eliza, one could not help but feel inadequate. Intended or not.

“Faith, what a vision the both of you are,” Nicholas Huntington, the Earl of Connolly, said as he hurried down the long staircase, dressed in his best evening attire. Their mother was behind him, wearing a plainer version of Eliza’s gown. Circassian-style gowns were all the rage that Season, it seemed.

“Indeed, the both of you. Now, do be certain to bring your reticules with you; you may need to apply a touch more lip color as the night wears on,” Ruth Huntington, the Countess of Connolly, chirped as she stepped between her daughters and turned them all to the mirror. It could not be denied. Eliza had taken after their mother, and when their father joined them, as though they were all sitting for a family portrait, Mary Ann saw herself in her father’s features.

This was a blessing for their elder brother, Benjamin, who was on his Grand Tour of Europe. Benjamin, the heir to the earldom, looked so much like the current title holder they could never be confused for anything but father and son. The same was true for Mary Ann, although she would have liked a little more of her mother’s graceful features.

“Shall we?” Their father asked and offered his arms to his daughters. Mary Ann was about to take the proffered arm when her mother placed her hand on her husband’s arm.

“Nicholas, why don’t you take Eliza to the carriage? I shall join you with Mary Ann in a moment,” she said quietly, a sweet smile on her lips. The sisters looked at one another and then back at their parents, who exchanged a long, loving gaze. Eliza rolled her eyes, and both the girls chuckled, breaking their parents’ tender moment.

Mary Ann knew they ought to be happy their parents were so cheerful with one another, for a great many parents were miserable. They were more like a young couple about to get married than a pair with grown children. And she was happy – but she and her sister also enjoyed teasing them about their unfashionable affection for one another.

As expected, their father’s cheeks turned a little red, but he winked at his wife and then escorted Eliza to the carriage. Her sister turned as they exited through the arched doorway and cringed on Mary Ann’s behalf. Mary Ann glanced down at her gown. The wrinkle was hardly visible anymore, not enough to raise her mother’s bristles, so why had she been asked to stay behind?

The answer came instantly. Her mother placed her hands on her shoulders and smiled.

“Dear, we must talk about your Season. It has not gone well,” she pursed her lips and shook her head. Mary Ann shrugged.

“But there is another month left, Mama. And it is only my second. Many ladies require more than two Seasons to find a match.” She bit her bottom lip and looked past her mother, who gently tapped at Mary Ann’s chin to make her look at her.

“Listen to me, first of all, do not bite your lip; you’ll only smudge the balm. And second, I mention this because I recall your behavior from last Season. You acted much the same, you dance, but you do not converse more than is necessary with anyone. You take a turn around the room with your sister but let her make all the conversations.”

Mary Ann wanted to protest but had no cause, as everything her mother said was quite true. While Eliza was a bit of a gabster and naturally gifted when it came to discourse, Mary Ann preferred her books and quiet time. She liked dancing, but there were not a great many gentlemen she enjoyed dancing with. The topics of conversation tended to bore her, and even when she found something interesting, she did not often find her voice.

“You must speak up. You must be seen.”

“It is hard to be seen when one stands next to Eliza,” Mary Ann complained. Her mother took in a sharp breath through her nose and turned Mary Ann around to the mirror.

“You are a lovely young lady. Moreover, I know you are witty, smart, and accomplished. Many gentlemen are interested in you, but you must overcome your reticence, or it will come to naught. Please, starting tonight. I know you are only twenty, but Lord Owen will make an offer soon, and your sister will be married if all goes well. You cannot be far behind.”

Mary Ann’s stomach clenched at the mention of Owen once again. “I wish she would take more time. Surely he will not make an offer so soon.”

Her mother scoffed. “Soon? He has courted her all Season. I hope he does propose soon. We could host the wedding at the start of next Season. Faith, I rather adore a winter wedding. I dare say, I ought to speak to Deborah tonight, see if she knows where her son stands.” The idea of her mother asking the Dowager Duchess of Keats about the matter horrified Mary Ann even more.

“No, Mama, please. Eliza would be mortified if she knew you did that. She will think Owen did not have the idea by himself.”

Her mother considered this, head slightly tipped to the side, and then nodded. “I suppose you are right. If anything, it should be your Father speaking to Hugh. As the Duke and Owen’s brother, he ought to know. Maybe when they go hunting next.” She gave a slight shrug and turned Mary Ann around again. “We must go. One can be fashionably late, but the Patronesses will lock us out if we are too tardy, and we don’t want that sort of attention.”

She joined her mother as they walked outside into the chilly evening air. She’d carried her shawl over her elbows and quickly slipped it on as she joined her sister and father in the carriage. As the carriage door closed, she took a deep breath, settled beside her sister, and waited for the carriage to set into motion.

***

“Faith, would you look at this!” Eliza exclaimed when they came to a stop half an hour later outside Almack’s. Mary Ann peered out of the carriage and groaned slightly. Music drifted out of the establishment’s open doors, and a short line of elaborately dressed lords and ladies stood at the entrance, their vouchers in hand. The Patronesses – the grand dames in charge of admission – stood at the door and made their inspection of the eager guests. She glanced up and saw a familiar figure standing at the second-floor window.

“There’s Aaron,” she said, and her mother leaned forward. A whiff of the rose perfume her mother so adored came to her nose as she looked up toward the young man.

“Ah, yes. I wonder why he is in the refreshment room. Everyone knows the food here is truly dreadful,” their mother said as they waited for the coachman to open the door. There was always a line of carriages outside Almack’s, and one had to wait until it was one’s turn to exit.

“Perhaps he followed a lady. You know how he is, always charming, always a young lady on his arm,” Mary Ann said. She looked up, but Aaron had departed.

Her mother shook her head. “I know Deborah wishes Hugh was a little more like Aaron, outgoing, eager to make a match. It is more important for him anyhow, given his station.”

Mary Ann blinked at the mention of Hugh Bannerman, the current Duke of Keats. He was the eldest of the four Bannerman brothers and the one who’d inherited their father’s title when he passed away almost ten years ago. To become the Duke at only six-and-ten had been difficult; she knew this. Hugh had a quiet character; he and she were much alike in that. However, Hugh had a mannerism about him that always troubled her – and his habit of teasing her and challenging her at every turn made her hope he was not here this night.

Not that she was terribly close to any of the Bannermans. She knew them all well, due to their parents’ close friendship, but she found Hugh annoying, Aaron petulant, and Owen – well, she used to like Owen, until…

A sudden gust of icy air filled the carriage, and the blast made her shiver as she looked up. The coachman stood at the door, and her father leaped out. He handed her mother out, then Eliza, and then it was Mary Ann’s turn. She took a deep breath, slid across the seats to the door, and got up.

Her father winked at her as a sign of encouragement and proffered his hand. She took it and was about to gather up her little train to exit when a deep voice from the right called her name. She looked up, momentarily distracted when –

“Mary Ann!” Her father called in a panic. Mary Ann had no time to react as she realized what was happening. Her demi train had become tangled as she took a step, and before she could grab her father’s hand, she lost her footing, slipped, and flew backward. Her behind hit the steps with such force that a blinding pain shot up her back, and then she crashed to the ground.

She closed her eyes as the pain subsided and mortification took its place. Her father squatted down, one hand on her back as she blinked away tears. Her mother and sister were already at the building's entrance. As they turned to look at her, someone stepped in front of them, and a shadow fell over her.

“Lady Mary Ann?” It was the same deep voice that had distracted her and caused her to fall. “May I?” The man said, and then a strong hand appeared before her. When she raised her eyes, her stomach dropped to her knees. Standing before her was the last man she had wanted to see at this humiliating moment: Hugh Bannerman, the Duke of Keats.


Chapter Two

Hugh felt awful as he looked down at Lady Mary Ann.  She sat dazedly, her lovely gown bunched around her, exposing her trim ankles. He’d only meant to amuse her by calling for her the moment she stepped out of the carriage; he hadn’t meant to distract her and make her fall.

Curse these delicate robes that came with impractical trains. No wonder a lady fell so easily….

He stood, his hand extended, but she did not take it to his dismay. The gold flecks in her brown eyes flashed with irritation, and she instead used her father’s proffered hand to stand up. She brushed her gown down rather furiously and then rose to her full height as she shook her head as if to shake away the embarrassment.

“I apologize,” he muttered. “I only wished to say hello.”

“And it could not have waited until I had exited? I dare say, Hugh, you like nothing better than to tease me at every turn. Now I shall be laughed at all night after such a spectacle.”

He wanted to protest and tell her nobody had noticed the mishap, but that would have been an immense lie. The truth was, they were already being looked at, and some people snickered. Indeed, to their left, a gaggle of ladies stood with their fans in front of their faces and even pointed rudely. He had a mind to correct the woman’s actions with a stern rebuke but feared that would draw more attention.

“Mary Ann, I am certain His Grace did not mean any harm. And you appear unscathed,” her mother said rapidly, but she frowned. “Well, the robe has a smudge now, but…” she leaned down and fiddled with Mary Ann’s gown, and Hugh noted the pink that stained Mary Ann’s cheeks. He pressed his lips together because the urge to grin was overwhelming.

Mary Ann had a habit of blushing which amused and enchanted him in equal measure. She was a rather adorable young woman, and in no small part, this was due to her clumsy nature. Although he had to admit, he did not think she was entirely unladylike. She always carried herself with grace, especially when out of her sister’s shadow.

Not that Lady Eliza's elegance was intended to outshine her sister. Lady Eliza was a kind young lady – otherwise, Hugh would not have been in favor of his brother courting her. It seemed to just happen naturally.

Lady Eliza was much like Hugh’s brother Aaron, outgoing, social, and easy to like. Lady Mary Ann was more like Hugh – quiet and reserved and …

“Your Grace?” The Countess of Connolly addressed him, and he looked up.

“Hmm?” He replied, lost in thought.

“I asked if the Dowager Duchess is in attendance tonight.”

He shook his head. “I am afraid not. Lawrence has taken ill, and she stayed home to look after him.”

“What a shame. I trust it is not serious?” Lady Connolly’s voice carried genuine concern for his brother, which he appreciated.

The mere fact that his parents had been blessed with four sons was the cause of envy among the aristocracy. Having a son was paramount to carrying on a line, and the more sons a woman had, the more respected she was. Having four sons, who all lived to adulthood, bordered on a miracle. While his father had always been congratulated on his having so many potential heirs, his mother sometimes received evil stares from women who had not been as fortunate. He always thought it was ridiculous that a woman’s value was based on how many sons she had, but such was their society.

“It is but a trifling cold, but you know how my mother is.”

Lady Connolly smiled. “I do. She is rather a tigress when it comes to her children. Well, I shall call on her tomorrow if it suits her.”

“I am sure it will.” Hugh was aware of Lady Mary Ann’s glare and shuddered as he turned to her again. “Would you allow me to escort you inside? Perhaps being with me will allow you to forgo having to show your voucher.”

He winked as he knew Mary Ann found producing one’s voucher each Wednesday as tedious as he did. However, she shook her head.

“I am perfectly capable of walking myself to the door, Your Grace. And showing my voucher. There is nothing wrong with my hands.”

She threw her head back and marched past him while her mother hurried after her, muttering a stern word of warning. Lady Eliza, meanwhile, stood at the door and waited, her voucher already in hand. He noted that she tapped her foot like she was eager to get inside. To see his brother, no doubt.

“I shall accompany you, Your Grace,” the Earl of Connolly said as they fell into step. He was a jovial kind of man. Sometimes being around the man invoked painful memories of his childhood, when his father and the earl had gone hunting together. On one such hunt, an arrow fired by a member of another hunting party had accidentally pierced his father’s belly, leading to his premature death.

Lord Connolly had brought the family the news, an act Hugh never forgot. He could have sent a servant to do the deed, the steward perhaps. But no, he’d done it himself. He’d ushered Hugh, his mother, and Aaron, who had been four-and-ten at the time, into the parlor and relayed the news.

Hugh sighed as he thought of that day. The one that had signaled the end of his childhood and the start of a new life he wasn't suited for. Well, he’d been born to be a duke; there was no denying that. Yet, he’d known from an early age that he didn’t have the temperament for it, nor the will. He did not enjoy nights such as this one, spent in the company of the ton while dancing and engaging with others. He’d much rather have stayed at home, either their London home in Mayfair or their estate near Portsmouth. Either would have been preferable to the hustle and bustle of the Season.

Alas, it was the Season, and he had to attend parliament, if only for appearance’s sake.

“The Lord Chancellor’s speech was rather riveting, wasn’t it,” Lord Connolly said with an impish grin. Hugh rolled his eyes. He would never do so before any of the other lords, but with the earl, he knew he could be a little more relaxed.

“So riveting Lord Pembroke beside me fell asleep.”

“No,” Lord Connolly chuckled. “You jest.”

“I do not. He was in the land of Nod halfway through and remained that way until I nudged him awake at the end.”

“I dare say you have made an ally for life,” his companion said with a laugh.

“I should think not. He glared at me as though I had robbed him of his favorite horse.” They stopped at the steps and got in line. Up ahead, he saw Mary Ann slip into the building. He caught her just at the right time to see her peer into her reticule to return her voucher into it. She’d stopped beside one of the sconces, and she looked quite lovely indeed in the soft light cast upon her.

He knew she thought little of herself because of her sister’s oft-praised beauty, but he always thought she was quite the beauty herself. And he was not the only one. His brother Aaron liked to comment on her lovely smile and pleasing curves. Then again, Aaron had an eye for the ladies in general.

He sighed and turned to his companion.

“Pray, when you have a chance, might you speak to my brother?”

Lord Connolly narrowed his eyes. “I shall if you tell me which one.” He winked, and Hugh tipped his head to the side. Connolly snapped his fingers. “Your visage tells me it is Aaron.”

“Indeed,” Hugh nodded at Lady Castlereagh, who looked him up and down as they reached the front door.

“Your Grace, have you not already shown your voucher?” Something rather stern in her voice made him think of his former governess, who never tired of correcting him or reminding him of what was proper. It was all rather tiring.

“I have,” he replied with a bright smile. “But I had to fetch my good friend here,” he placed a hand on the earl’s shoulder, and the man winked at Lady Castlereagh. Thoroughly unimpressed, she extended one gloved hand to him.

“Voucher?”

“Is that necessary?” Lord Connolly teased. “I come here every week. Or shall I say I am dragged here weekly by my lovely wife? Surely you know me by now?”

Lady Castlereagh did not see the humor in his statement, although Hugh couldn’t suppress another chuckle. Even though Lord Connolly had brought him the worst news of his entire life, he still loved him like a second father. If not for him, he would have been entirely lost after his father’s sudden passing.

Aaron had taken the death the hardest as he’d been forced to watch his oldest brother ascent do a dukedom he hadn’t wanted, while for him, nothing had changed. Being the spare was a difficult position to be in. One did not inherit a title, but one was also unable to truly do whatever one wanted in case he had to step in should the heir die.

It was much easier for Owen. As the third son, he knew the likelihood of becoming duke was remote. Thus, he had more freedom to do as he pleased. Which, in his case, was to read the law. He wished to be a barrister and worked diligently toward that goal. It would be even easier for their youngest brother Lawrence, still a student at Eton; he could do whatever he pleased with his life.

Hugh envied his brothers’ options, but he knew there was no point in lamenting his fate. He was a duke and always would be.

“My lord,” the patroness said and handed back the voucher.

“Until next week, Lady Castlereagh,” Lord Connolly said as they stepped inside. They moved into the rather splashy ballroom. It had golden columns, pilasters, medallions, and oversized mirrors. Scones aided the two chandeliers in bringing garish illumination to the space.

Upon the balcony, the orchestra was seated, and the melodies of a quadrille could be heard. The scents of various oils and perfumes mingled in the air, and the chalk design on the dancefloor was already smudged beneath dozens upon dozens of dancing slippers.

To the right, a small room held the meager – and mediocre – refreshments. It was into this little-used room the earl now walked, and Hugh followed. He couldn’t deny that his eyes roved over the chamber searching for Lady Mary Ann but to no avail.

A table in the corner held the infamously weak lemonade, crumbling biscuits, thinly sliced, day old bread, and a dry cake.

The earl poked his finger at the cake and shuddered. “Dreadful as always. Now, pray, what did you wish me to talk to your brother about?”

Hugh looked up and let out a sigh. “His prospects. He drifts about London without any aim. Owen has been reading the law for three years and will soon be a barrister in his own right, while Aaron has not yet elected a path in life. He spends his inheritance so freely he will soon not have a farthing left.”

His mentor pursed his lips and nodded. “This is not the first time you have voiced these concerns to me.”

It was not. Hugh had this conversation with his mother as well as Lord Connolly often. Both had spoken to Aaron, but he appeared unconcerned. He was reasonably happy being the second son, who sauntered around the ballrooms of the high society unbothered by expectations.

The truth was, he and Aaron were not close anymore, not since he’d become the Duke, and he doubted they ever would be again. It was difficult to admit, but there was no point in lying to himself. He’d asked others to intercede on his behalf rather than speak to his brother himself.

“Faith, I am famished,” a voice came, and he looked to the door to see who had entered, interrupting his conversation.

When he locked eyes with the lady, he was surprised to see it was Lady Eliza – with Lady Mary Ann behind her. Hugh was about to flash them his brightest smile when thunderous footsteps came down the hall, and a hand appeared on the door frame. Aaron flew into the room a second later, his face like thunder. He halted in front of the two young ladies with his hands on his hips.

“Stop!” He hollered in so loud a tone Hugh’s heart sank. “Not another step. I won’t let you get away with this.”

“Aaron,” Hugh called out, but his brother only raised his hand to silence him.

“This is between them and me,” he growled and looked back at the two young women who stood frozen to the spot. “Isn’t it?”


Chapter Three

Mary Ann looked up at Aaron, her eyes wide. What in the world had set his dander up? He never spoke to them in such a way.

“Aaron?” she whispered, and beside her, Eliza shifted.

The two girls each stared at the young man whose glossy black hair hung into over his forehead as he stared at them, his stance aggressive. He was usually a carefree, even flirtatious fellow, so to see him so disheveled and in such a foul mood confused Mary Ann. Judging by Hugh’s expression, Aaron’s older brother had no more idea than they did of what infraction they had committed.

However, as quickly as Aaron stormed into the room and glowered at them, he also seemed to change his attitude. For, the scowl disappeared as if by magic, and his brown eyes took on an impish glint.

“Ladies, you did not think you could sneak into Almack’s without so much as a good evening, did you?” He wagged his index finger and chuckled. “Such unladylike manners, I am rather shocked.”

Mary Ann’s shoulders dropped with relief. She ought to have known that he was jesting. Aaron's outrageous personality had always amused Eliza, though not Mary Ann. Eliza had always had a more mischievous sense of humor, while Mary Ann was more often serious.

“Forgive us,” Eliza said in a mock haughty manner and curtsied deeply before the man who might soon be her brother-in-law. On the other hand, Mary Ann shook her head and let out a disapproving sigh.

“You have a rather uncouth sense of humor,” she chided him. “I thought something terrible had happened.”

Aaron opened his mouth, the twinkle still in his eyes, and was about to reply when Hugh stepped forward.

“I must agree with the lady. Your behavior is unbecoming of a duke’s son.” His voice reminded her of a black bear's roar with its deep baritone resonance. She looked at him, pleased she was not the only one who thought so.

Aaron, however, did not take his brother’s decision to intervene kindly. Instead, the sparkle in his eye faded, and the dimples he’d shown when smiling smoothed out.

“It would be just like you to admonish me for having some fun. Besides, I am not a duke’s second son. My Father is dead. I am merely a duke’s brother, which we all know means nothing.” He crossed his arms over his navy-blue waistcoat, which he wore under a lovely black tailcoat. A golden pocket watch dangled from a watch fob and matched the golden cufflinks peeking from his sleeves.

Aaron had always been the more stylish one, the dandy of sorts, while Hugh struck Mary Ann as more prone to fashion faux pas. Today, for instance, he was clad in a pair of pantaloons. This would have been acceptable if he had drenched them in water overnight to assure a good leg, but he hadn’t. They hung around his long legs in a way that was displeasing to the eye and spoke of someone far below his station.

He wasn’t the sort to wear expensive cufflinks or watches either, preferring plain ones instead. But, again, it was not as though this bothered Mary Ann as she had not set her cap on either of the young men, but she did note just how different they were.

“You may have all the fun you like in the privacy of our home. This is Almack’s. All of the ton is here,” Hugh continued, and Aaron’s face took on an angry cast she could not help but find alarming.

“You have no right to….”

“Gentlemen,” Mary Ann’s father said and stepped between them as he had often been forced to do. “Surely, there is no need to make a spectacle of ourselves here.”

“Lord Connolly, there is no need for you to play peacemaker. It will do no good anyhow. My brother has thought himself above everyone else since ascending to the title,” Aaron growled. Mary Ann noted the slight tightening of Hugh’s face, matching that of his brother.

“I hardly became a duke by choice,” he fired back. Mary Ann’s father raised both of his arms and nodded.

“None of us are here quite by choice but rather by fate. Now, I hear the quadrille is over. The Patroness's aversion to change means that the Cotillion is next. Surely you fine gentlemen would not rob my daughters of the joy of dancing with you both as the Cotillion is their particular favorite?”

“I already promised this dance to Owen,” Eliza exclaimed and looked away, not wishing to be a part of this brotherly squabble. Instead, she squeezed Mary Ann’s arm as she exited the room. Leaving Mary Ann the only available lady between two warring brothers.

She saw how both looked at her and knew she’d have to decide.

I would rather not dance with either. I’d like to disappear into the quiet of my chamber to read… Not be the pawn in whatever is between them.

She saw the two brothers looking at one another while a lump formed in her throat. She sent a silent prayer to the heavens, hoping that neither would wish to dance, but as the Master of Ceremonies banged his staff on the floor, they both stepped forward.

“Lady Mary Ann, would….”

“I’d rather enjoy it if you….”

The brothers spoke at once, and Mary Ann’s face burned. She looked at her father, seeking his interference, but he did not say anything. Finally, however, he raised an eyebrow and nodded toward Hugh.

Of course. She had to accept Hugh's offer as he was the Duke of Keats and outranked his brother. No matter what she wanted, she’d have to dance with the Duke.

Frankly, given a choice between them, Hugh was the better dancer. Aaron tended to talk so much during a dance that he was prone to stepping on his partner’s toes, and Mary Ann’s toes had fallen victim to his feet more than once. On the other hand, Hugh could be so stoic that a dance appeared to last for hours rather than minutes – and he had a habit of challenging her.

There was something about Hugh that had always grated at her. Not necessarily in a bad way, but he had a skill for setting her hackles up more than anyone else she’d ever met. He was not as easy to talk to and get along with as his younger brothers, but she assumed this was due to his responsibilities and…

“Mary Ann,” her father cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows. She realized the brothers had been standing there with their eyes focused on her for some time.

“Your Grace,” she curtsied. “I gladly accept your offer of a dance.”

She looked up at Aaron, but before she could say anything, he scoffed, threw his head back, and marched out of the room just as a gaggle of young ladies entered.

The sound of tepid lemonade splashing into crystal cups came, and plates scratched and rattled as they looked for refreshments.

“Shall we?” Hugh said and extended his arm. “Unless you need to gather your strength with some…” he glanced at the table. “Rock hard cake from yesterday and a tepid drink?”

She chuckled. Sometimes he could be amusing – sometimes.

“I dare say I am quite fine without them.” She blinked and leaned toward him. “Ought we warn them about the food? Their accents indicate they are Irish; perhaps they are unaware.” She nodded her chin toward the table where the ladies were loading their plates, but Hugh shook his head.

“Someone needs to eat it lest it go to waste. Now, speaking of things going to waste. Shall we go before the set ends?”

She nodded once and took his arm, and then they made their way to the dancefloor together and joined the other dancers. As they stood and waited for the melody to carry them away, she looked up and noted the slight smile on his lips. Despite the unfortunate exchange with his brother, he seemed in a good enough mood.

His burgundy waistcoat complemented his dark hair. His hairstyle, cut just below the ears, was more orderly than his brother's and brought attention to his square jaw.

He placed his hands on hers; the sensation was familiar, as they’d danced many times over the years. She and her sister had learned to dance with the Bannerman brothers as their partners. Their mothers had thought it a rather genius idea to tutor them together, and she had to admit, it had been a good idea as it helped them all be more confident.

Although, given that most nights, both she and Eliza still ended up dancing with one of the Bannermans, it could be argued that their familiarity might scare away other gentlemen.

“They look rather lovely together, do you not think?” Hugh’s words penetrated her thoughts, and she looked up, aware she’d been lost in her own mind again. She followed his gaze and saw her sister in the arms of Owen Bannerman.

An icy chill ran through her when she saw the way her sister looked at him with adoring eyes. Whenever Eliza gazed at Owen, it was as though she were looking at the brightest star in the sky. No, the only star in the sky. It was as though there were nothing else in the world but Owen and his hazel-colored eyes that looked at her from behind a fringe of dark-brown tresses.

Her nostrils flared when she watched them. If it had not been for Hugh swinging her around so that her concentration was diverted to their dance, she would have continued to stare in their direction.

“What in the world has my brother done to vex you?” He asked. Mystification tinged his words.

“Lord Owen?” she asked in a rather silly way. Of course, he spoke of Owen.

Why must I always make a cake of myself in front of Hugh? Why can’t I just be as witty and charming as I am with his other brothers? It must be his stern nature that makes it so….

“No, Lawrence,” he replied earnestly. “I know my youngest brother’s absence annoyed you so much it has ruined your night..”

She narrowed her eyes and glared at him.

“Do not tease me, Hugh,” she said, and he winked at her.

“Then do not ask me a question you already know the answer to, Mary Ann.”

The corners of her lips twitched as she could tell from his tone that he was not entirely serious. However, she suppressed her desire to smile back at him and shrugged instead.

“I am not in favor of their union, that is all.” She avoided looking him in the eyes. This was not as difficult a task as it might have been with another partner. With Aaron, for example, one had to pay attention at all times as he was a decidedly distracted dancer. On the other hand, Hugh was the sort of dance partner who could lead a blindfolded lady without causing her to trip over her dancing slippers.

As she focused on the dozens of candles affixed to the chandelier above, she took a deep breath and prepared for what she knew would be a staunch defense of his younger brother.

“How can you not be in favor of it? They have adored one another for years. It is only a matter of time before he makes it official.”

She swallowed and looked up at him, horrified.

“Not anytime soon, I am certain.”

Hugh drew his eyebrows together. “And why not? Pray, what is your aversion to him? He is kind, witty, tender-hearted, intelligent – he will be an excellent barrister and will provide well for your sister.”

Tension crept into her jaw as she glared at him and gritted her teeth.

“I do not need to justify my aversion to the union to you. I must only state it to my Father, and he will consider it.” She attempted to sound confident, but the truth was, she had no idea if her father would take her recommendation seriously. Likely, he would not.

While her father did not favor one daughter over the other, he wanted them to be happy – and if Owen made Eliza happy, he’d allow the marriage. But, on the other hand, if he knew how miserable Mary Ann would be if it came to pass, the outcome of the matter might be murkier than anyone thought.

“Mary Ann, I wish you would tell me so I could put your mind at ease. Has something happened?”

“Happened?” she replied.

“Between you and Owen. For I cannot think of another reason you should be opposed to a match.” Suddenly, he leaned forward, and she caught a whiff of cedar from his skin. It was an intoxicating scent that temporarily made her dizzy. “Are you fond of my brother? Is that it? Do you wish to have him for yourself?”

She detected a note of humor in his voice and drew her eyebrows together.

“I wish you would stop teasing me.”

“Am I teasing?” he replied quickly. “Or am I speaking an uncomfortable truth?” He tipped his head to one side, and Mary Ann could not bear it anymore. She looked up at him. His lips were pressed together while he smirked at her.

“I see I have made a mistake.”

The smirk faded, and his lips parted as he looked at her in question.

“I chose the wrong brother to dance with, for obviously, you have no manners and do not know how to treat a lady.”

“Mary Ann…” he said quickly, but she looked away, her eyes focused on the orchestra. “I did not….”

She stopped as the music slowed and let go of him sooner than was strictly proper. “I apologize, but I must go. I feel rather unwell.” She hissed the words rather than spoke them and spun on her heel. Alas, as she did, she didn’t look where she was going and collided with a gentleman who’d just walked past the dancefloor.

“Goodness, her gown!” A voice called, and she looked down.

“Faith!” Mary Ann clasped her hand in front of her mouth. The gentleman, an older fellow with white hair, had been carrying a flute with wine – the wine that now stained her gown’s pale material with a crimson hue. Mary Ann’s mouth dropped open as the man retrieved his handkerchief and handed it to her, his eyes red.

“Lady Mary Ann,” Hugh called, using her title again as their private moment was over. He hurried to her, and his eyes reflected the mortification she felt.

This was terrible. She was a disgrace. Mary Ann closed her eyes, spun around, and darted through the crowd. She hurried away from Hugh, away from the ball, away from the most mortifying evening of her life thus far.

The higher we are placed, the more humbly we should walk

~ Cicero 


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Tags

duchess, duke, earl, fated, historical romance, mistake, regency romance, scarred, victorian romance

  • I very much enjoyed the Preview excited to know what is Mary Ann’s problem.Can’t wait to read the rest of the book.

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