Frantically, the young gentleman pushed his way through the crowd. She must be here somewhere – she had told him that she would meet him. But, where was she?
He stopped abruptly, scanning the crowd, his eyes wild. A sedate ball at a country estate, the same as any other. The same as the dozens he had attended this season already. Ladies and gentlemen mingling, laughing together, clutching tall flutes of champagne in their hands, or else dancing the eternal quadrille, lined up like lemmings. It was all so very familiar and humdrum. The only thing different about this ball was the thought that he would see her.
But where was she?
He felt beads of sweat dampening his forehead. He didn’t care anymore. He didn’t give a whit what anyone thought, or what they would say. He was in torment. He simply had to see her again – had to lead her to a private place and hold her in his arms. Run his hands along the silky softness of her skin. Touch those ruby red soft lips to his own…
He clutched the arm of a gentleman who was passing him.
He bowed curtly. “Lord Farthington.”
The older gentleman bowed. “Lord Poldern.” His eyes swept over the younger man, almost concerned. “You seem agitated. Can I be of assistance?”
“Yes,” he gulped. “Have you seen Lady Beaufort, perchance?”
The gentleman frowned slightly. “Lady Beaufort?” His voice was icy with disapproval. “I cannot believe you are seeking out that particular lady, Your Grace. Perhaps you mean to ask me where Miss Lambton is? The young lady you have been courting.”
He stared at the older man. He should have known better than to have asked him. Lord Farthington was a conservative gentleman in his fifties, an old friend of his father’s. The two esteemed gentlemen sat by side by side at church at Sunday service and probably in parliament, as well. And birds of a feather always stuck together.
He should thank him and move away. But a small spark of fury ignited in his chest, at hearing the disdain in the gentleman’s voice. Why shouldn’t he be asking about Lady Beaufort? She was a titled lady, after all. It wasn’t as if he was asking where the scullery maid was.
“No, I do not mean to ask about Miss Lambton,” he said curtly. “That lady is nothing to me.”
Lord Farthington raised his bushy grey eyebrows, shaking his head in displeasure. There was a collective shocked intake of breath around him. Dazed, he looked around. His conversation with Lord Farthington had drawn attention. There were at least five people all staring at him in somewhat shocked horror.
“Never mind,” he said abruptly, moving away from the circle. “I shall keep looking without assistance.”
Face burning, he pushed off into the crowd again, feeling the eyes of the people who had heard the conversation boring into his back. What did he care about their good opinion? It meant nothing to him. The only one he cared about was her.
He was just about to stop another acquaintance, to ask her whereabouts, when a strong hand suddenly fell upon his left arm, spinning him around. Shocked, his mouth opened and closed like a fish. He was staring into the face of his very good friend, Captain George Beedle. And he did not look happy.
“Come with me,” his friend hissed, dragging him by the arm. “I need to speak to you. Now.”
Glowering, he complied, vaguely aware that people were watching them. Ladies were tittering behind their fans and gentlemen were eying him disapprovingly over their champagne.
Captain Beedle did not stop for a second. He kept dragging him, out of the main room. The hum of conversation started to die down, but still he did not stop, not until he had pushed him into a room at the end of a long hallway. He closed the door firmly behind them.
Appalled, he gazed at his friend. George was dressed impeccably in his military uniform, as always, from the crimson red of his jacket to the shine of his black boots. His curling brown moustache, immaculately shaped and trimmed, wobbled slightly as he turned eyes black with fury upon him.
“What do you think you are doing, Henry?” he hissed.
He took a deep breath. “It is none of your concern what I am doing, Beedle. And to haul me like a sack of potatoes into this room is rather too much…!”
George sighed heavily, running a hand through his close-cropped brown hair.
“You are embarrassing yourself, Lord Poldern,” he said, his lip curling into a sneer. “Seeking out that lady so publicly. Why, you are acting like a tomcat sniffing after a queen who has just come on heat.”
Henry reeled back, as if his friend had struck him. “I am not embarrassing myself, nor am I quite as pathetic as you have just described, old friend.” He took a deep, ragged breath. “Who I seek out is none of your concern. Now, get out of my way…”
But George stood his ground, not budging an inch. Henry stared at him in astonishment.
“I will not move until I have said my piece,” said the Captain, his eyes snapping. “Lord knows, someone has to knock some sense into that head of yours.” He paused. “Lady Beaufort is playing you for a fool, Poldern. She is not in love with you and never has been.”
Henry swallowed painfully. “I do not believe you. You know nothing about it.”
“But I do,” continued the Captain slowly. “I know more about that particular lady than you, my friend. And it is high time that I set you straight. I have been watching you pursuing her like a madman for weeks now and it truly must stop.”
Henry glared at his friend. “You are just jealous. Because she is so impossibly beautiful and desirable, and you cannot have her yourself…”
The Captain snorted derisively. “Half of the county have had her, Poldern. And believe me I have no desire to walk that well-trodden path.” He gazed at him sternly. “For God’s sake, man, pull yourself together. Not only is the lady already married, but she has a string of young lovers behind her.”
Henry shook his head wildly. “No, you are just making this up! You do not wish to see me truly happy with a wonderful woman who I am deliriously in love with, that is all.” He tried to step around the Captain, but his friend blocked him again, taking him by the shoulders.
“Listen to me,” he barked. “You are young, Henry. Only twenty years old. I am five years your senior and I have seen much more of the world than you have. I know women and I know that lady is stringing you along like a dog on a leash. Her reputation is well known to most gentlemen. Why do you think Lord Farthington was so disapproving, when you asked him if you had seen her?”
Henry gulped, trying to get much needed air into his lungs. He wouldn’t listen to this. He just wouldn’t.
“She is playing you, my friend,” repeated the Captain, frowning deeply. “She enjoys conquering all the young gentlemen, stealing them away from their debutante paramours. In this case, with you, it is Miss Jane Lambton. She chews young gentlemen up and then spits them out again…usually ruining their prospects with their paramours in the process.”
Henry swore underneath his breath. Why was George doing this to him?
“I do not love Miss Lambton, as much as everyone wishes me to,” he declared stubbornly. “It is Kitty who I love. It is Kitty who makes my blood boil with passion, George. Why cannot you see that my affection for her is true?”
“Ah, Henry,” said the Captain, squeezing his shoulders sympathetically. “I know what it is like to experience true passion for the first time. It is as if a fever takes hold and all rational thought suspended. But this particular lady is not deserving of it, my friend.” He paused. “Even if she truly loved you back, it could go nowhere. The lady is married.”
“I do not care,” Henry declared stoutly. “We can run away together. I will take her some place where we can start over. The Americas, perhaps. Anywhere.”
The Captain looked at him sadly, shaking his head. “You are a stubborn man, Poldern.” He took a deep breath. “Come with me. There is something I wish to show you.”
They walked out of the room. Puzzled, Henry gazed at his friend. But the Captain was tight lipped, merely indicating that he should follow him. Henry hesitated for a moment, then did so. His friend seemed to be leading him out into the grounds of the estate.
It was a cool late autumn evening, and he shivered at the wind that hit him in the face as soon as they exited the grand house. Winter would soon be arriving; he could feel it in the air.
“Where are we going?” The wind seemed to snatch his voice, carrying it across the garden.
The Captain looked back at him grimly. “Not far.”
They kept walking. Henry tightened his jacket around him, wishing his friend would just leave him alone, once and for all. Didn’t George understand that it was impossible? He couldn’t forsake Lady Katherine Beaufort if he tried. She was in his blood, almost part of his own flesh now.
A vivid memory assailed him. The very first time he had taken her. Kitty was older than him and very experienced – she had initiated him into the pleasures of the flesh. He had never known such exquisite joy in his life. In his heart, he had thrown himself at her feet, then and there.
There could be no other woman for him.
He briefly thought of Miss Jane Lambton, the lady he had been chastely courting for the past few months. She was lovely, but in a prim and proper way, like all the young ladies on the marriage market. She did not make his loins tighten or his heart soar like Kitty did. He could never marry her and settle for a loveless union. Not when he had his one true love in his grasp.
I will ask her to run away with me this evening, he thought desperately. She will agree. She does not love her husband. We must be together, and we cannot do it in this sleepy corner of England with the whole of the ton breathing down our necks…
Captain Beedle had stopped. Without a word, he gestured to a gazebo just ahead of them.
Henry looked. And his heart hit the floor with a crash, shattering into a thousand jagged pieces.
Kitty was there with her arms entwined around a young gentleman. He saw the bright glint of her luscious auburn hair in the darkness. They were embracing passionately, twisting together, their lips locked. They were both utterly oblivious to anything around them.
“It is the Viscount Tolton,” said the Captain slowly. “Her latest conquest, it seems. She has already tired of you, my friend.”
Henry turned away, walking quickly back down the path towards the house. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t do anything. His blood was boiling with a fury that he had simply never felt before in his life. He wanted to smash the windows of the house with his bare fists until they were bloodied. The Captain called his name, in a worried voice, but he ignored him.
She had betrayed him. George was right – she was utterly faithless. She had never cared for him. He was only one in a long line of lovers she had amused herself with.
He stopped suddenly, gazing up at the house, as the last piece of his heart fell to the ground.
Fist’s clenching, he vowed to himself that he would never know this pain again. He would never love a woman again. Not ever. And as God was his witness, he would never marry, now that he could not have the only woman he could ever love.
Ten years later
Aylesley Manor, Buckinghamshire.
“By Jove’s beard, Henry, wake up!”
Henry Poldern, almost the Duke of Tutlidge, opened one baleful eye in utter confusion. Was it his lady mother standing over him like an accursed virago, shaking him awake? What on earth was she doing in his bedchamber at this hour?
Swearing to himself, he shook her hand away, crawling out of the bed. Lady Margaret Poldern, the Dowager Duchess of Tutlidge, straightened, gazing at him with distaste. Her eyes travelled from his head to his feet, and everything in between.
“Really, Henry,” she grimaced, shuddering delicately. “Could you not even manage to pull a nightshirt on last night before retiring? Must you stand there as bare as the day you were born?”
Henry cursed again, grabbing a blanket off the dishevelled bed, and wrapping it hastily around himself. “I was not expecting this intrusion, madam, or else I would have made sure I was more suitably attired.”
“Lazy,” declared his mother, her face a rictus of disapproval. “And indolent. Spending all your days and nights carousing in houses of ill repute and gambling dens, I should not wonder. Where exactly did you end up last evening? It was most embarrassing when you did not show at Lord Farthington’s dinner party. I was left making excuses once again, which is simply not to be tolerated.”
Henry clung to the blanket, yawning loudly. “Lord Farthington’s? That old windbag? I am glad that I managed to forget that particular engagement.”
“Henry,” warned his mother, through gritted teeth. “You are forgetting yourself, my dear child. You are almost the Duke of Tutlidge, now. A position which requires you to assume responsibility and respectability.” She paused. “Look at you. Thirty years of age and still carrying about around town as if you are a youth barely out of his leading straps. It is utterly disgraceful.”
Henry yawned again. He was so used to his mother’s lectures they just slid off him like water now. Still, Mama usually waited until he dressed to start her endless tirades. This intrusion into the sanctuary of his bedchamber was unusual, to say the least.
“Can you just get to the point, Mother,” he snapped, losing his patience. “I take it there is a point to you being here, hauling me from my slumber, other than Lord Farthington’s dull little dinner party.”
The Dowager Duchess glowered.
“While you ponder that, I shall call for Burke, if you do not mind,” he said, walking to the door. “Standing here in nothing but a blanket will give me a chill.”
He summoned his manservant, and commenced dressing, waiting for his mother to slink out of the room. But though she turned her back, she did not leave. Instead, she talked over her shoulder to him, slinging her words like carefully aimed arrows.
“It is time,” she rapped, her voice staccato. “I have utterly lost patience with you and taken matters into my own hands.” She took a deep breath. “It is almost a year since your dear father departed this earth, Henry. One month off a year. And he stipulated in his will, quite plainly, what you must do to finally inherit the title and become the next Duke of Tutlidge.”
Henry stilled. A feeling of deep uneasiness started swirling to life in the pit of his belly.
“You must marry, Henry,” she continued sharply. “Your father desired it above everything else. He despaired of you and knew you would drift along in his way if you were not given an ultimatum.” She paused. “Either you find yourself a bride within the month or the title shall go to your cousin Edmund.”
Henry was silent. The uneasiness was overtaking him. He had managed to avoid thinking about that strange proviso in his father’s will until now. He had not wanted to think about it at all and it had just seemed easier to pretend it did not even exist.
“So, to that end, I have taken matters into my own hands,” said his mother, raising her chin. “You must inherit the title, Henry. You are the direct heir and it would be a truly shocking thing for you to lose it through your own irresponsibility.” She paused. “I have arranged a marriage market ball for you, where you shall have your pick of all the eligible young ladies. You have only to make a choice and be done with it.”
Henry waved away the manservant, who was tying a white silk cravat around his neck. He simply could not believe what had just come out of his mother’s mouth.
“A marriage market ball?” he spluttered. “Why, that is preposterous! I shall not tolerate it, Mama. Not at all.”
“You must,” insisted his mother grimly. “It is already arranged. I have sent out the invitations. You shall pick a young lady to be your wife and so inherit the title as is your due. There simply is no other way, Henry. I have waited patiently for you to settle down and find a bride of your own, but it is obvious to me now that if you are left to your own devices you never will.”
Henry swore under his breath. So that was why his mother had awoken him like this. It was a well-planned ambush. She thought she could get her way by taking him by surprise when his head was still befuddled by sleep. He smiled grudgingly. He almost admired her tactics.
“No,” he said crisply, his eyes like flint. “There shall be no ball with the young ladies lined up before me to be picked off the vine like fruit. It is barbaric. Have you quite taken leave of your senses?”
“On the contrary,” said his mother, turning around to face him fully. “I am perfectly sane. You are the one who is acting like a madman, my boy. Carousing around the district, gaining a reputation as a cad. It is scandalous and it is tarnishing the revered title. You must marry and inherit the title once and for all, and hopefully a good wife can knock some sense into that mind of yours at long last – as well as provide you with an heir.”
Henry’s lips tightened. Swiftly, he walked to the window, gazing out at the rolling hills beyond Aylesley Manor. His fists clenched. It was not to be tolerated. How dare his mother think she could just railroad him into marriage like this?
He had made a vow to himself, a long time ago. It was ten years now. He had vowed that he would never marry, and it had not been so very difficult to keep that promise he had made to himself. The mere thought of marriage made him shudder with distaste.
He blinked back angry tears. It had been very different once upon a time, when he had a woman who he desired to marry with all his heart. But she had betrayed him, leaving him to dust, and he truly could not stomach the thought of wooing a lady again. Of going through the motions of pretending affection which he could never feel.
He had not suffered from a lack of female companionship in the years that had followed that betrayal at the hands of Lady Kitty Beaufort. It just wasn’t with any lady of good society. Henry never wanted to be put in a position where a lady might expect a marriage proposal from him again. He had already gone through that one with poor Miss Jane Lambton all those years ago, and heartily desired to never have to go through it again.
And now, his mother was giving him an ultimatum – he must choose a lady to marry or else lose the dukedom entirely.
He ran a hand over his face. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t his mother who had done this to him at all. It was his late father, by putting the proviso in his will. He should not have been surprised when he had done it, of course. Charles Poldern, the late Duke of Tutlidge, just wanted to protect the duchy. He wanted to make sure that his son would become a duke worthy of the title and produce an heir so that the title and estate stayed within the direct family. It had been everything to him.
And he did only have exactly one month to find a wife before the title and estate went to his insufferable cousin, Edmund.
Slowly, he turned back to his mother. Lady Poldern was still standing there, watching him like a hawk.
“I hope that Miss Jane Lambton will be attending the ball,” she said entreatingly, smiling at him. “I have sent an invitation to her old address at any rate. I have not seen the Lambton’s in years but assume they are still at their address. You were quite fond of her once upon a time, were you not? I remember you courting her briefly, many years ago.”
Henry smiled sadly. Miss Jane Lambton had fallen by the wayside a long time ago. She had been a perfectly lovely and accomplished young lady, but he had never been enamored with her. He had only courted her because they ran in the same circles and because it had been expected of him. No more.
A wave of pure sorrow overcome him. He knew he had to do this, just like his mother said. Time was ticking and he must find a wife. But the thought of courting a society lady like Miss Lambton filled him with melancholy weariness. He just didn’t have it in him anymore.
“Henry,” prompted his mother, gazing at him expectantly.
He sighed heavily. “Very well, Mama,” he said, in a strangled voice. “You have convinced me. A marriage market ball it is, then.”
She clapped her hands together in delight, then ran to him with the sprightliness of a woman half her age. She reached up, taking his face in her hands tenderly. Her blue eyes were filled with joy.
“You shall not regret this, my boy,” she whispered, her eyes fierce now. “We shall find a lady worthy of being your duchess! And you can put these dissolute days behind you, once and for all, and finally fulfil your destiny, Henry!”
Henry nodded slowly, letting her kiss him on the forehead.
“And now I should finish getting dressed, Mama,” he said pointedly.
“Of course, dear.” She gazed up at him with satisfaction. “I shall leave you to your ablutions and see you in the dining room when you break your fast.” She paused. “I shall have a word with Cook about adding some extra sausages and bacon, perhaps? I know you are always fond of a good fry up.”
Henry forced a smile onto his face. “Sounds lovely, Mama.”
She drifted out of the room, closing the door firmly behind her.
Henry turned back to his manservant. “Better get this show on the road, Burke.”
The manservant nodded, proceeding to tie his cravat again, in a sharp knot.
Henry studied himself in the full-length mirror. A tall, muscular man with tousled ash blonde hair and amber brown eyes stared back at him. A man who was no longer gangly with youth but not quite stooping with middle age yet. A man in his prime, really.
Thirty years old and with a duchy beckoning. He had the world at his feet. He should be the most contented fellow in the world.
His face darkened as he kept staring at his reflection. He was resolved to do it, but he still didn’t want a wife. What was the use of being the luckiest man in the world if he was not free to live his life exactly as he pleased? He might as well be living in a gilded cage.
“Captivated by a Rakish Duke” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Miss Mary Brook, being a young fiery girl, is determined to find her match out of true unconditional love. Ever since her father left them with a precarious debt, her mother has been pushing her to secure a good marriage. Yet, when her close cousin invites her to the Duke of Tutlidge’s marriage market ball, the first look between Mary and the Duke is enough to stimulate the spark of desire. Even though the sinful rumours of the rakish Duke overwhelm her, when she finds herself accidentally isolated with this dangerous, seductive man, a scandal is about to begin… Will Mary accept a forced marriage with a man she cannot trust, in order to save her reputation?
Henry Poldern, the wild Duke of Tutlidge, is a vigorous man, who once had his naive young heart shattered to a million pieces by a cruel woman that deceived him. Ever since, he has become a stone-hearted rake determined to repel any eligible Lady of high society. However, even though he promised himself never to get married, an unfortunate event between him and Miss Brooke will force him to do the one thing he kept avoiding all these years. Yet, surprisingly, he will soon find himself longing for her touch, as her vulnerability below her cold facade makes him want her even more… Will Mary be the one to conquer his heart and make him leave his sinful past behind?
An incidental encounter of fate intertwined Mary and Henry’s lives leading them to unexpected consequences. Suddenly, both are forced into an engagement neither of them wanted and the last thing they expected was to end up in a flaming affair. Being under the same roof makes it impossible for them to tame their feelings… Yet soon, resisting their passion will not be their only struggle, as the sudden arrival of a notorious lady from Henry’s past will turn their lives upside down. Will this cunning woman manage to tear their growing love apart, forever? In the end, will Mary and Henry conquer the demons of the past and surrender to their tempting lust?
“Captivated by a Rakish Duke” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.