His Secret Duchess Preview

A Historical Regency Romance Novel

About the book


He’s looking for a suitable lady; she’s anything but a lady… 

Ambrose is desperately looking for a bride, for if he doesn’t marry within a year, he will lose his estates and fortune. Lady Elda MacDougal seems like the perfect candidate: eager, well-bred and extraordinarily beautiful. 

Only, in reality, her last name isn’t MacDougal, and she isn’t anything close to a lady. Taken in as an orphan by a con artist, Elda was trained to scam noblemen out of their money. And now, she has no other choice but to fulfill her mission: get close to the Duke, or risk her own brother’s safety. 

They both learn that playing pretend is a dangerous game, when genuine feelings start to bloom between them. But as they are both caught in their own separate agendas, they fail to see the bigger picture: a trap has been set out for them all along..


Chapter One


Elda knew this was a bad idea, but she didn’t particularly see any way out of the situation she had gotten herself tangled into at this point in her life.

The music around them softened into a waltz. She counted the beats to be certain of the noise. That was all it seemed to be for her even after the three lessons she had hastily received.

Such noise. Three lessons of dancing and a haphazard afternoon trial in etiquette. How was that meant to be enough for such an occasion as this?

Musicians and dancers and food and people dressed in the most splendid fabrics and colors were everywhere. She hardly knew where to look. The ball was overwhelming. Although she knew she had come with a purpose, Elda couldn’t help growing distracted with all the new scents and sights.

“You can drink it if you like.”

Her gaze flitted up to see Leopold by her side. The man glanced down to the glass she carried in hand. She realized then how tightly she was gripping the crystal; if she wasn’t careful, she might break it.

“We could just take this and go,” she murmured instead of sipping the champagne like he had suggested. “I would bet we could get a pretty penny for this, don’t you?”

The chandelier overhead cast a shine on his head, ensuring she couldn’t miss the eager glint in his dark broody gaze. He was a tall young man with shoulders too wide and a suit nearly bursting at the seams if anyone looked closely. His hair was brushed for the first time in days, however, and even she couldn’t miss how handsome he looked.

Four. There have been four women now who have passed by wearing jewels around their throats, eyeing him hungrily. Has he noticed them, I wonder?

Leopold drained his glass swiftly. It was just in time to trade the empty one for another when a servant passed. He drank half of the second glass immediately.

Ignoring her stern look, he shrugged. “Tempting, yes. But we’re looking for the big prize tonight. Let’s focus on that one first, shall we?”

That was precisely what she had been hoping to avoid.

She turned away to study the room once more. Forcing herself to focus, Elda shifted in her fine blue dress to seek out the right person she was looking for.

Everything in her life had a purpose. It felt like she was on an endless set of stairs, forcing herself to take one step and then another. She didn’t know what was at the top though she hoped it was good. This was how she told herself to keep moving and to keep hoping. Eventually, she surely had to wind up with something good in her life.

With any luck, tonight would lead her in that direction.

Elda considered the young ladies, debutants, and experienced women of the London season. They all knew so much more than her. Could they tell she had never had her own season, had never even attended a ball before?

But she wasn’t here for them.

Her gaze moved further around the crowded ballroom. Most of her life was spent blending into the scenery. Here, it was a little trickier. There were enough people to fill the room, but she had to be certain she didn’t stand out in her ignorance or by the fact that she was an utter and complete imposter.

Focus, Elda. Otherwise, you will be here all night and you’ll be forced to drag drunken Leopold home. In a dress and corset. Focus on the job.

Taking a measured breath, she managed to relax her shoulders. She knew what she needed to do. It didn’t matter if she wanted to or what her feelings on the matter might be. Other lives depended on what she would do at this very ball.

“Should we dance again?”

“No,” she told him sternly. “We are siblings. To dance twice with someone you are not engaged to is an obvious hint of something more. To dance with family twice is worthy of gossip. And that is not what we are here to accomplish.”

Leopold fidgeted beside her, ever impatient. She understood just how he felt though she was better at hiding her discomfort.

He glanced around the room and then leaned in. “The accent,” he reminded her.

Biting her tongue so she wouldn’t curse, Elda offered a curt nod before pursing her lips. No one wanted to hear a cockney accent, especially not in a ballroom in the middle of London.

The name she had given at the door with Leopold was MacDougal, a fairly common name in Scotland. Rich men and merchants and politicians owned that name, so now she and her good friend were borrowing it for their own devices.

MacDougal from Glasgow. Lady Elda MacDougal. Mother was a baron’s daughter who married a Scotsman in his Earldom. It is small, so one wouldn’t have heard of it. Besides, we haven’t been there in years as we just returned from India. I won’t pronounce it for them. Leopold is my older brother and obvious chaperone since a lady would never go unattended. We are traveling to London for the season since my brother has business in town. I have a sizeable dowry, so I have heard, and I have come in the hopes of marrying someone just like all those little debutants.

At least she was acting her own age of nineteen years. Besides that, she had Leopold.

Her eyes caught sight of yet another woman eyeing him curiously. His blonde hair and fine jawline had the makings of a gentleman, she supposed, though he had missed two spots shaving and had a scar by his ear. Neither factor seemed to dissuade the stares.

“Is something wrong?” He asked when he caught her looking up at him.

I suppose we aren’t children anymore.

Swallowing hard, Elda shook her head. She wasn’t typically this anxious. She usually enjoyed such excitement. But this was beyond anything she had done in her life before, making her question everything.

“I’m well. I’m just looking around. There are options, certainly, but I want to be careful. We may only have one chance to make this happen,” she added. This time, she remembered to soften her accent to something smoother with a hint of a Scottish brogue.

He heard it and grinned that wolfish smile of his.

Leopold always helped set her at ease. If she had come with anyone else, she doubted she could pretend at all.

They had been friends together for as long as she could remember. Both had been raised in the Foundlings Church School where they had struggled to survive in the overcrowded orphanage. He had already been there when she arrived at the tender age of nine with her baby brother in her arms. With Leopold, she had been able to pick herself up, be apprenticed to a dress shop for a few years, and then finally make her own way.

Of sorts, at least.

He was her very best friend and she was his. They trusted one another indefinitely, which was why they were working together on this particular endeavor at the behest of their employer.

“Did you find anyone yet?” he asked.

Tutting, she relaxed one shoulder in his direction and swirled her glass around gently. If she was going to try and attract attention, she needed to be trying harder. A sly smile made its way onto her face before she spoke.

“Gray waistcoat and black suit. Balding and sweating, he just came from the dance floor,” she murmured.

“The Viscount Bartlesby.” Leopold’s brilliant memory always came in handy. “He was in the gossip last week regarding his clumsiness. Ruined a woman’s dress at the opera. Offered to marry her, but the woman was married. A baroness.”

She nodded slowly. “Rich?”

With the slightest shake of his head, he drank the rest of his champagne. “Quite the opposite. Find someone else.”

Elda tried not to be annoyed as she found three potential men. She knew she wasn’t trying very hard but she didn’t quite see why it mattered.  A mark, at the end of the day, was merely a mark.

One of the men was married. Another was expected to propose any day now. And the other one was known for his horrible behavior toward women.

“But if he’s rich,” she started.

Leopold gave a sharp jerk of his head. “Not a worthy risk. Try again. And Elda? Really try.”

“Then let’s walk. My feet hurt.” She slipped her arm in his before it was even offered. Taking the tiniest sip, she allowed Leopold to guide her through the ballroom. They had already considered options during supper, so this was their last chance for the evening.

And she couldn’t miss out.

All I need is a gentleman. A rich gentleman. One who won’t abuse a woman, such as myself. A polite, rich, gentleman who would not only dance with me, but court me.

While Elda tried not to think about it, she knew that she was receiving stares herself. Her looks might not have been the prettiest compared to some debutants, but she had striking features and was quickly learning how to use them.

The red hair always caught a person’s eye first. Then she knew they would note her slim build with the long legs and graceful stride. And when she looked at them with her daring green eyes, she knew all she had to do was smile toward a few men to draw them in.

She had tested this three times in the last month. It worked.

That meant their plan had to work. All she needed to do was find a gullible man with all her aforementioned attributes so they could court and she might steal his money.

Simple enough, isn’t it?

“The list seems too thin,” Elda murmured. “I thought all the eligible bachelors were on the list for tonight. What about…”

She trailed off. Leopold easily followed her gaze, casual with an uncaring look on his face so no one could possibly guess at what they were doing. This gave her a chance to spot a man from the top three names that had proven to be a suitable target. They hadn’t been certain he would show, but now he had.

“Who?” Her pretend brother asked, prompting her to finish her question.

His question had been forgotten. Elda had no more doubts, no more worries, had no thoughts in mind at all as she looked at the man.

“Him,” she breathed.

There he was. Ambrose Hislop, the Duke of Langhorne. He had just come into his title eight months ago. His father’s death brought him not just the title, but vast estates. Five, she thought, or six.

Her grip tightened on his arm as she guided him around the room. Not only did she need to see what this man was up to, but she needed to find a way to attract his attention.

She followed him with her eyes as he excused himself from speaking with two ladies from the Gramercy family. She didn’t know their names even though this was their home. But the duke knew them. That was a good start in knowing something about him, Elda thought.

Now all I need to do is attract his attention.

It turned out that doing such a thing would not be difficult. She had considered various ideas from fainting into his arms, pretending to be slighted from someone else, or accidentally spilling a drink on him.

None of that was necessary, however, because he looked up in that moment. Their eyes met.

“Elda?”

She shushed Leopold without moving her lips. Her eyes were focused on a handsome figure that was moving in their direction. Heart beating in disbelief, she couldn’t hold back a smile as the Duke of Langhorne boldly crossed the room with his eyes on her.

And so, the game begins.


Chapter Two

 

Not only did Ambrose Hislop know that this was a bad idea, but he also understood how he didn’t have an option.

He sent a curt gaze around the room to note some of the well-known faces from either the gossip rags or from prior events. More than one lady, of any age, noted his look and smiled hopefully.

But he kept moving forward.

The ball was hosted by the Earl of Reardon, Lord Edward Gramercy and his wife Helga. The couple had seven children and welcomed practically anyone to their soirees since Reardon had inherited one of the largest houses in London. They had the size, the wealth, and the uninhibited desire to be as popular as they were odd.

At least they’ll let someone in without an invitation. It would have been easy to charm my way in, but I truthfully only have so much patience for this… challenge.

What else was he to call this?

Blackmail, perhaps. Or a game. Or a dead man’s attempt at salvaging what little honor remained in the family name.

The very thought made Ambrose almost snort before he sobered up. Losing his father eight months ago had been one of the hardest days of his life. While they had not always gotten along, the two of them only had one another for most of his life. He missed the old man dearly.

And yet he couldn’t help but be annoyed.

“Ah, Your Grace. What a pleasure it is to have you here with us this evening. Truly a blessing,” said Lady Reardon as she arrived at his side with a broad smile. “May I introduce my daughter, Lady Sophia?”

Behind her, hanging back in her mother’s shadow, was a wisp of a girl. She had stringy blonde hair and her father’s height even while hunched behind her short mother. If Ambrose recalled correctly, the young lady had just had her coming out ball the other week.

The girl looked nearly eighteen and could not meet his gaze. Such a factor brought him no pleasure, for there could be little enjoyment when someone clearly didn’t want to be around him.

Not that he particularly blamed her. She was young and he had a reputation.

Still, that is one girl off my list.

“Lady Reardon, thank you for your warm welcome. Lady Sophia,” he forced himself to be polite with a slight bow of acknowledgement, “it is an utter delight to make your acquaintance. An evening at your estate is always a brilliant occasion. In fact, I was just going to admire the Ionic pillars by the hall. Please do excuse me.”

He had been polite enough and even offered a deeper bow than expected of a duke, so surely they couldn’t feel too slighted. But he didn’t stay to find out.

Once more his mind was spinning. He made his way deeper into the ballroom, standing close enough to the pillars so he didn’t appear to be a complete wastrel of a liar should anyone have wanted to confirm his story to the Gramercy clan.

Being alone gave him time to think and to stew.

“If I don’t do something tonight, then when?” he asked himself bitterly.

Standing close enough to the exit, Ambrose could hear laughter in the next room. He knew already they were playing cards. It was tempting to turn around and leave, just to play a few rounds.

But that wasn’t why he had come.

Most social functions bored him. He ignored invitations and attended what he wanted when he wanted. This was his life, after all, and he desired to make the most of it.

It helped that being a duke had allowed him certain freedoms and finances to live as he wished. For the first twenty-six years of his life, he had enjoyed everything.

Now, he was at risk of losing everything.

What was that dodgy man thinking on his deathbed? Surely, an updated will within a week of a death should be ignored. I don’t know what came to my father’s mind to inspire such a ridiculous clause. Of course I would marry eventually. But limiting it to a year was a rash move, especially for my father.

All he had was four months left.

Ambrose was twenty-seven years old. If he didn’t marry by the end of the season, then his entire inheritance that wasn’t entailed would go to a distant cousin.  The majority of the wealth and most of the estates. He ground his jaw in annoyance, wishing his father was still alive so he could cajole him into seeing reason.

“Why can’t you be the man I know you are capable of becoming?” his father had asked him in one of their last conversations together. “All this petty behavior is beneath you.”

“There isn’t anything bad about it. Just because they call me a rogue means nothing,” Ambrose had said with a laugh. “Weren’t you like this at my age? I can do as I wish. It’s not like I’m breaking the law. I’m simply having a good time.”

After a few weeks of grieving his father’s death, Ambrose had turned to the will and discussed it with the solicitor. They had considered all the options, but his father had been a wise man who knew how Ambrose often avoided trouble through loopholes. His father had made certain there were no loopholes to be found in his will.

Months had passed. Ambrose was torn between believing his troubled situation and trying to ignore it.

Four months left. That’s it. I must have a wife.

What was this madness about? He was still a young man who enjoyed his roguish ways. His friends were the truly wild ones, getting into scrapes with both sides of the street. They were enjoying their bachelor years. All except for him, now being forced to marry a respectable lady.

Ambrose didn’t want to admit to being desperate. However, that seemed to be the closest word to describe the way he felt now.

He tugged at his cravat, telling himself that he wasn’t nervous and that he would sort this out. He was the Duke of Langhorne, was he not? Everyone in London knew him. Any young lady would be lucky to wed him.

I just have to find someone I’m willing to put up with occasionally. If necessary, I can wed her and then ship her off to the countryside.

“Found anyone yet?”

It wasn’t necessary for him to turn and see who was speaking to him on his left. He had arrived with Hudson Thompkins, the impoverished Viscount of Winterhaven, nearly an hour ago.

The man had dusty blond hair and a pointed nose. He had sloping shoulders with thin lips that tended to be twisted in a sneer more than a smile lately. Hudson was one of his oldest friends since childhood and was one of the few that knew about his father’s particular will.

“Lost at cards?” Ambrose asked. “Again?”

His friend shifted uncomfortably, saying enough in the silence. The love of gambling ran through his family and had ruined them all. He had turned to business before his father passed, however, so he was making his own living. For the most part. If he would simply stay away from the cards, then he would be fine.

“You haven’t got forever.” Hudson chose to ignore Ambrose’s attempt to change the topic. “Just find someone and marry her. You could even get yourself a special license to marry someone in the morning.”

Shaking his head, Ambrose held back a sigh. “Not possible. I’m required a true marriage. That’s what Father called it. The banns must be read in advance to ensure the marriage is legitimate.”

“Every marriage is legitimate,” his friend huffed.

I concur. But unfortunately, my father isn’t here for us to argue with him.

“So,” Hudson said after clearing his throat, “any new beauties? I think you’ve already danced with every lady of the season.”

“More, most likely,” Ambrose corrected when he glanced at the married Lady Penelope. She was a fine dancer with rich blonde hair and a husband who didn’t care. Forcing himself to look away, he shook his head to focus. “There must be someone…”

That was when he saw her.

The woman had freckles. Women never had freckles, not the type he typically knew within genteel society. Yet even across the dance floor it was clear to see she had freckles powdering a button nose.

Blinking, he found he couldn’t look away. Those bright eyes of hers were staring right back at him. He found his breath tangled up in his chest. Every time he thought he was done admiring her, he found something else to admire. Those freckles. Those eyes. That long red hair that hung down her shoulders in waves.

Any decent young lady would certainly look away. Staring is rude. Is she a fool or simply daring? Or something more?

The questions poured in even when he realized he had no answers. He worked his jaw as he tried to recall if he had ever seen her before. But that would be impossible; he would have remembered someone like her. She was young, bold, and terribly striking.

“Ah. You see her too, then. Everyone’s had a look at the redhaired beauty,” Hudson murmured in a low voice at his side. “She hasn’t danced with anyone all night. They’re all talking about the mysterious woman. I say it may be worth a try.”

His interest sparked.

Typically, a woman could only tell a man no to dancing if she was certain she would not be dancing for the rest of the night. Turning one down and accepting another was always cause for gossip.

And I do enjoy supporting the local gossip rags.

“Well?” Hudson urged.

Ambrose held back a smirk. The anxiousness he had felt moments ago began to fade away. He decided to set aside his worries about his future––rich and titled or not––to see about this young lady.

His hands tugged down gently at his waistcoat as he straightened up and walked away from Hudson without answering. His actions would do the talking, after all.

The young woman was still looking at him. She had glanced away only twice since their eyes met. He wasn’t interested in letting her go again. A shiver of delight ran down his spine as he watched the redhead watch for him even when he had to pass through the crowd.

It was only the two of them. No one else existed in the ballroom.

Ambrose didn’t know why he was drawn to her. He had never seen her before. But everything about this woman drew him in.

She was a mystery he needed to unravel. And he couldn’t wait a minute more to solve her.


Chapter Three


Elda could hardly believe it.

The man was walking right towards her. She had removed her drink in hand and nudged Leopold with her foot beneath her skirts.

Her dear friend had sidled out of the way upon noting the man’s incoming presence. While Leopold stayed close at hand, he fell quiet.

Good man. Always knows what to do. Let’s just pray that I can do the same.

This particular mission of hers was unlike anything she had ever done before. The random occasions where she had dressed up often included a laundress or even a man, but rarely a lady. And especially not a titled lady. She knew so little about everything, hardly understanding the names of all the garments she was wearing at the moment.

And now she was going to talk with a duke.

He really shouldn’t. We haven’t been introduced. I remember that much. ‘One does not merely introduce themselves within Society. It is unseemly. Introductions must be made by a third party who knows everyone and their titles.’

There was no time to wonder what he might do because the man arrived before them.

“Good evening.” The tall dark-haired duke offered a short bow, mostly using his head. He wore the slightest smirk with one corner of his lips raised.

Mixed feelings soared through Elda. She could hardly believe she was doing any of this. It had to be madness. That, and terribly dangerous. Yet the fear was intermingled with a thrill of excitement that ran down her spine as she gave him a curtsey that she had spent too many hours practicing the day before. Never in all her dreams would she imagine she was dressed this fine at a ball and speaking with such a man.

“Good evening, Your Grace,” Elda murmured.

He raised an eyebrow and spoke before she could continue. “Ah, you know of me then?”

“I know when a lord is before me and I find that is often enough,” she said in reply, smoothing out the lie in a calm tone. Elda paused before she went on. “But I must confess that I do not know many so bold as to greet another without proper introductions.”

Beside her, Leopold gave her a look. She didn’t see it, but she could sense it. If the duke was bold, then what did it make her? She had stared back and now she was calling him out on his manners. Heart thumping in her chest, Elda found she didn’t know why she had done such a thing.

Perhaps merely because I can.

Yet this didn’t bother the man. He hardly seemed fazed. Straightening his shoulders, he tucked his hands behind his back to give her another look.

“Allow me to offer my own introductions because I hardly see the need to waste time searching for someone to do what I can do myself. I am Ambrose Hislop, the ninth Duke of Langhorne, at your service.”

Another bow. This time, her heart skipped a beat.

It was those dark eyes. That’s what Elda told herself. She had never seen eyes so dark and deep, filled with something that she didn’t understand. A mystery that she wished to solve.

“Leopold MacDougal.” Her friend stepped up with a glance at her before going on. “Earl of Stormont, Your Grace. This is my sister, Lady Elda. We are honored by the introduction.”

Oh bother, the accent.

Biting her tongue, Elda thought quickly. She had remembered the refined mannerisms but not the added accent. What a fool she was. Seeing surprise flicker in the duke’s eyes, she knew she had to make some reassurances.

She spoke again. This time, she slipped in the lightest accent on just a few words. It would appear to him that she had worked hard to pretend to have no such accent at all instead of one that had never existed.

“Truly. My brother and I have just arrived in town for the season. I fear you would be pressed to search the ball to find another who could have offered this connection. Though we had plans to arrive in time for the season, alas, the weather disagreed.”

“You came from Scotland, then?” he asked curiously.

Leopold shook his head. “India, Your Grace. Business takes me abroad and I find that my sister is less likely to cause trouble when she is at my side.”

That was complete nonsense, Elda knew, since she couldn’t count the number of times she had gotten in trouble back at the orphanage. She had a feeling she got into more trouble with him around. It had been Leopold who typically got her out of it, however. She looked at him with a look that she hoped looked innocent.

A remark like this could be perceived in many ways. Plenty of men would turn their heel at such a remark and avoid me at once. I can only hope now that the duke will see this as a jest or a lie.

The duke spoke before she had a chance to say anything of the matter.

“What a curious thing to say. The question then begs to be answered, my lady, what sort of trouble will you get into if you are at my side?”

Her mouth nearly dropped open in surprise. The flirting she had been told about using and experiencing with the genteel was mostly along the lines of useless compliments. Nothing this bold or daring.

Maybe this could be fun after all.

“I fear,” Elda said slowly, “the answer may only be learned through time.”

“Then I insist we begin the clock. The next set is about to begin, Lady Elda. Would you do me the honors?”

His eyes glittered in the bright lights of the ballroom. It had to be the shine and the three sips of her drink she had recently enjoyed that caused her to suddenly feel giddy. Already her body was instinctively responding to the situation as Leopold moved out of her way so she could take the duke’s arm.

The man was tall and firm with those broad shoulders of his. When she looked up and saw the grin playing at his lips, she couldn’t help but copy.

A game is always more exciting with an experienced player.

Now that Elda was standing at his side, she found she could smell him. He smelled like rich brandy and tangy lemon. The brandy she had expected since most men smelled like some sort of drink. But the citrus surprised her.

A pleasant surprise. Things are much easier when I’m not trying to plug my nose when I’m walking in the gutters or hiding in the trash.

None of that was happening now. While Elda sorely doubted her days in the dark streets were completely over, she knew she had best relish this evening with all the fantastical things happening. Yes, this was a job. But she could have some fun with it.

Especially with the Duke.

Preparing for this evening had been no small feat. Practicing her accent and fixing her hair required over four hours of her time. It had been terribly annoying albeit necessary for the occasion. She had to look better than her best––she had to look better than everyone else who had already lived a lifetime like this.

Upon her arrival, Elda had felt like such a fool. There was no way she could possibly remember all of the mannerisms and details that a typical lady kept track of on a regular basis. Someone was bound to find out and call her out on her lies.

However, no one had.

She felt her confidence grow when the Duke glanced at her before bringing her around the other dancers. There was something about him that made her feel as though she could do anything. That she could be anything.

And she was ready to prove this.

They began the quadrille. A lively enough dance with footwork that she had spent days practicing with Leopold. Somehow, she had been born with grace that he couldn’t find if he tried. It had been a mess for the most part. Except Elda forgot it all as the duke led her forward with expert hands and footwork.

She was breathless within seconds, exhilarated by the opportunity to dance with someone who knew exactly what they were doing.

I didn’t know it could feel like magic.

“You dance well for a Scottish lady.”

Her eyes flitted up to meet his. The remark nearly sounded like an insult. Seeing the corner of his lips, however, showed her he was teasing her.

Responding in like, she chose to be daring. Lying was always easier when she could be herself. “And you dance well for an English man.”

“Duke,” he corrected her playfully.

“Oh, I would never forget that,” she said mildly.

The grin on his face widened. His eyes met hers; somehow, they were dancing without even paying attention to the world around them.

Rather, Elda found, the world had disappeared. It was just her with Ambrose Hislop. There were no pretenses as she danced at his side and playfully returned witty remark for another. The duke was clever, just like herself. It was exciting to have such a receptive partner in a game of wits.

And as they talked, they danced.

She wasn’t certain about the rest of the footwork. But there was no time for her to worry. The duke knew what he was doing and moved confidently without giving room for error from either of them. They moved through the dance floor among the other couples, parting ways only to come together again.

Every time their hands touched, Elda could have sworn he was made of fire.

Their hands were gloved as society dictated. A relief since he would otherwise see the callouses on her fingers. Such fabric should have eradicated any chance for touch or sensation between them. Yet the satin felt like nothing when he pressed his hands to hers. The Duke was warm and strong at her side, not letting her think of anything but the music in the room and his voice in her head.

“How long will you grace our presence here in London? For the rest of the season?”

For a second, she could have sworn she saw a glimmer of hope in his eyes. Did the man care? She knew she was supposed to pray that he did if she was going to convince him to court her.

She offered a slight nod, fluttering her eyelashes so the movement would keep his eyes on her face.

“That is our plan. My brother would return home in an instant, but I have always adored London. It’s exciting and there’s so much to do. While Leopold may not know it, I plan on making us stay here for as long as possible.”

The duke nodded, falling quiet only for a moment when they let the couple to their left pass them. Then he took her hand again to lead her on.

“I fear you have arrived in London to take your place as our new sun. We cannot possibly allow our light to leave when all the fun is meant to begin,” he said with a charming grin. Something in his face told her that he knew how handsome he looked. He was confident about himself and now about her. Such bold expression from him made her hope she wasn’t blushing. “We may need to concoct a plan to ensure you are able to have the excitement you so richly deserve.”

“What a thought,” she responded, holding his hand a second longer than she was meant to. A deliberate move that caught his attention, making him look down for just a second. Then she called him back with her voice. “I don’t suppose you have any such ideas? I would hate to stay here and suddenly become bored.”

“Ah. That is not something you will need to worry about while I am here. I assure you,” he added when the music ended, speaking in a low voice, “Stay by my side and you will never be bored again.”

Why do I feel that he is telling the truth?

Elda tried to respond but found she couldn’t. That tongue of hers wasn’t working. Her chest heaved with exertion. Glancing around, she realized the set was over and so it was time for them to move off the dance floor. She also discovered she was quite breathless even though the dance had not been that complicated.

Her gaze met his, wondering if he could be the reason.

The man offered his biggest smile of the night as he tucked her arm in the crook of his arm. “Have I made you speechless at last, my lady? Come, let us catch some air. May I fetch you a drink?”

“When a gentleman offers…” she trailed off, not able to say anything more.

He chuckled, a low throaty sound that made her stomach flutter in an unnatural way. She invariably tightened her grip on him. Bringing his other hand over, he gave her a pat before showing her to Leopold who had remained where they left him.

“My lord.”

“Your Grace.”

“My lady,” the duke added with a nod. She let go and he stepped back. “I shall return soon with drinks.”

Leopold cleared his throat and raised two glasses. “Thank you for the offer, but you will find we have this well in hand. Here, dear sister. Perhaps we should retire to the sitting room for some fresh air?”

Hesitating, Elda glanced from him to the duke. She didn’t understand what Leopold was doing by trying to pull her away from the duke. If she wanted him to court her, then surely, she needed to keep trying. His offer to keep her company during the season was not exactly a promise.

“I will make my exit, then.” The duke eyed Leopold warily before turning his full attention to her. He reached over to take her hand, gently pressing his lips to her knuckles while keeping eye contact with her. “Until next time, my lady.”

All Elda could muster up was a short nod before he faded into the crowd.

“That went well.”

Pulling herself together at the sound of her friend’s voice, Elda elbowed him. She glanced around before leaning in so that she could scold Leopold for pushing their mark away.

“What were you thinking? You made him leave!” she hissed under her breath.

“Certainly. I made you look invaluable. And now, he won’t stop thinking about you for the rest of the night,” Leopold said pointedly. “Trust me. Courtship is a game. If you put all your cards out at once, then he’ll get bored.”

Elda opened her mouth to object before catching herself. She struggled to rein in her emotions. It was her mind that needed to be the stronger voice compared to her heart.

“Fine. You’re right,” she allowed. Eyeing the glasses in his hand, she took the nearest one and downed the punch at once. It was so sweet that it burned her throat.

Leopold watched her. “How was he?”

“He is… nice.”

“Nice? What does that mean? Nice enough?”

Elda shifted the weight on her feet for a moment while trying to decide how she wanted to explain what it was like to dance with the duke. Yet words hardly seemed to do it justice.

Splendid. Incredible. I felt like I was floating. And he was my anchor, keeping me there for as long as I wished. It was wonderful. He was wonderful.

“Yes,” she replied at last.

The short reply made Leopold grunt in annoyance. “Well, then. If he is nice enough and rich enough…”

“Then we have begun our game at last. Cat and mouse. The trick,” she reminded him, “is to let him think he is the cat. Now, let’s get more punch and then leave. Our mission tonight is complete.”

The evening was over, but not the mission. Elda’s heart pounded loudly in her chest as they turned to slip through the crowd. This had gone much better than she had expected.

She was determined to succeed. And now that they had started the game, Elda had a feeling she was going to enjoy everything that came next.

She could hardly wait to begin.

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

~ Cicero 


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  • I will look forward to reading the rest of your intriguing story. It really catches one’s interest right at the start.

  • An interesting start to the story of Elda and Ambrose, I’m sure it will continue to intrigue and entertain us as it goes on.

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