Lord Hugh Blackmore stood on wobbly feet in a public park close to his townhouse in London as he did his best to pay attention to what Portlock was trying to explain to him. Between watching Portlock prepare the pistol and trying to keep his balance after a night out at the gaming hell, Hugh was having a difficult time preparing for the untimely duel. Dawn was quickly approaching, so Hugh knew that he had little time left. And therefore, was doing his utmost best at concentrating on the demonstration given by his trusty butler.
“Now, Your Grace, you’ll want to keep your eye on the target,” Portlock explained as he pointed to a white handkerchief he’d placed in the bushes about ten metres away. “Just pick a place on the person’s body and don’t hesitate to pull the trigger.”
“I knew I could count on you, Portlock,” Hugh said in a low voice. He was a little worse for wear after enjoying the gaming hell and all its pleasures. Hugh always loved a good brandy and could never turn down an invitation to play cards. But when he won a handsome sum from an earl, he’d been immediately challenged by Lord Smithers to a duel at dawn. Thus, Hugh had nominated his butler as his second in the duel and was hoping to learn how to use a pistol before his untimely demise.
“Your Grace, please pay attention,” Portlock said with a sigh. Hugh pulled himself away from his thoughts as he focused his eyes on the butler once more. “Now, when you get ready to fire, make sure you squeeze the trigger. The last thing you want is a misfire.” Hugh nodded his head, seeming to understand when he’d never held a pistol before. He watched as Portlock took aim and fired, the sound of the bang ringing through the early morning hour and piercing the silence. The sound immediately gave Hugh a headache as he wished he could simply hurry home to bed.
As Hugh turned his head and looked at the handkerchief, he was surprised to see that Portlock had shot the centre of it perfectly. He whistled as he slapped the butler playfully on the back.
“My goodness, Portlock. I never knew you were such a crack shot,” Hugh exclaimed. Portlock chuckled as he began to reset the pistol for the Duke.
“For as quiet as I normally am, Your Grace, you’d be surprised at how much I do know,” Portlock commented.
“Seems that is a conversation for another time,” Hugh said as he ran his fingers through his dark hair. He was a bit nervous about using a pistol and hoped that Lord Smithers was as drunk as he was. He only planned to injure the man and no more simply so he could prove a point that he never backed down from a challenge. He loved the thrills of life, and his reputation in Town certainly reflected that.
The sound of someone hiccupping pulled their attention to a gentleman rounding the bend near the bush that held the handkerchief with the hole in it. From the distance, Hugh could see that it was Lord Smithers himself and watched as the earl looked closely at the handkerchief. Hugh smirked, surprised that the earl had even shown up for the dual.
“You’re quite a shot there, Blackmore,” Lord Smithers said as he walked over to the pair, his movements slow as he did his best not to trip. Hugh could tell that the man was as drunk as he was. He planned to use it to his advantage.
“I’ve been practicing all my life, Smithers,” Hugh said. “My father was an avid hunter, and I learned a lot from him.” Though it was a complete lie, Hugh wasn’t afraid of bending words to his advantage. Hugh saw the whites in Lord Smithers’ eyes as he looked at him with surprise.
“Please forgive me, Your Grace,” Lord Smithers said as he bent down on one knee before him. “It was so foolish of me to ever call for a duel with you. I was simply put off and spoke rashly. Please, consider calling off the duel.” Hugh hadn’t been expecting this, and as he exchanged looks with Portlock, who was smirking, Hugh figured it was a good idea.
“Very well, Lord Smithers,” Hugh said as he slowly bent down and helped the earl to his feet. “Let us speak no more about this matter and go on our way.” Lord Smithers’ face lit up with glee as he shook Hugh’s hand with enthusiasm.
“Oh, thank you, Your Grace,” Lord Smithers said with a smile of relief. “No matter what anyone says about you, I’ll always tell people that Lord Blackmore is a kind and merciful man.”
“You’re too kind, Lord Smithers. Now, be gone with you,” Hugh said as he reclaimed his hand and made a shooing gesture. Lord Smithers didn’t hesitate in turning around and leaving the way he came. He waited till the man was out of earshot before a wave of laughter came over him. He laughed till his sides hurt while Portlock simply looked at him, seeming to be unamused once again by one of the Duke’s many antics.
“This calls for a celebration,” Hugh declared once his mirth had subsided.
“Do you really think that is necessary, Your Grace?” Portlock asked as he began to pull the cotton from the firing pin. He then blew out the coal and started to knock the ball and gunfire from the barrel as he followed after the Duke. Hugh walked the best he could from the park, intent on returning to the townhouse to celebrate his victory. But it took Portlock pulling him in the right direction for him to find his way home.
“Life is always worth celebrating,” Hugh said. “My goodness, Portlock. What a great shot. It seems you’ve saved my life once again.”
“A pleasure as always, Your Grace,” Portlock said with a smirk on his face.
“I mean, can you believe that Lord Smithers even wanted a duel?” Hugh continued to ramble as Portlock guided him by the elbow down the street. “Nowadays, anyone would be mad to challenge someone to a duel.”
“Your Grace, when have you ever been known to turn down a challenge?” Portlock pointed out.
“You’re a good man, Portlock. You know me so well. And though I do like the thrill of a duel, I think the idea is completely mad,” Hugh explained, the grogginess of being out all night and having drank too much brandy starting to kick in. “All I can say is that I’m glad it never came to pass.”
“As am I, Your Grace,” Portlock admitted as he steered the Duke up the stairs to the townhouse and promptly opened the door for his master. But the moment Hugh stepped through the threshold, exhaustion caught up to him, and he immediately fainted on the polished marble floor.
Miss Katherine Worthington was in her carriage much earlier than she’d preferred. But the moment her lady-in-waiting had told Kitty the circulating rumours of the Duke of Ormondene being challenged to a duel by the earl, Lord Smithers, Kitty couldn’t help herself. She’d asked her lady-in-waiting to help her prepare as quickly as possible, and after eating only a bit of toast, Kitty had hopped in her carriage and was making her way to her dear friend’s home in the hopes of seeing if he was still alive.
Kitty wrung her gloved hands together as she did her best to keep her worry and fear at bay. Of all the things Lord Blackmore had done over the years to earn him a tarnished reputation of being a womaniser, gambler, and often a drunk in public, this had to be the cherry on top. She couldn’t believe that he’d accepted to participate in a duel and figured that her childhood friend had finally lost his mind. It was only a matter of time, Kitty realised, but a part of her heart still felt for her dear friend.
“Oh, Hugh. What have you done this time?” Kitty mumbled to herself as the carriage was drawn towards his townhouse a few neighbourhoods over. Kitty liked to think she lived in the more up and coming part of Town, while Hugh resided in his family’s home in the older, more prestigious part of Town. It was enough distance to where she could pay her friend a visit anytime she was in Town, but far enough that she didn’t have to be constantly reminded of their younger years together.
As the carriage made its way through the early morning congestion on the streets, Kitty thought about how Hugh often let his mouth run wild. She’d witnessed how his words could often get him into trouble as he often spoke before he clearly thought out his words. She’d heard plenty of rumours of how his mouth had landed him in dangerous and loathsome troubles more often than not. But when it came to the name of Lord Blackmore, there was plenty of stipulation and gossip that surrounded him. Anymore, no one could tell what was truth or false rumours.
The moment the carriage came to a halt, Kitty flung open the carriage door herself, not even waiting for the footman to come down from the driver’s bench to assist her. Lifting the hem of her gown with one hand, she used the other to guide herself down to the street and quickly up the walkway to the Duke’s townhouse. Kitty didn’t even bother with pulling the service cord. She pushed open the front door and was soon greeted by the familiar butler, Portlock Gravis.
“Miss Worthington,” Portlock said with a pleased smile. “What a pleasure to see you again.”
“Tell me that the fool is at least still alive,” Kitty said as Portlock shut the front door.
“Yes, he’s alive,” Portlock explained as he motioned towards the sitting room. Kitty didn’t wait to be led away as she left the foyer and travelled down the hallway. The sitting room doors had been left open, and as she stepped into the fashionable room, she saw that Hugh was lying down on a large settee with a physician beside him. Seeing the physician made Kitty’s heart beat fast in her chest, her worst fears coming to life.
“Is he going to live?” Kitty asked as she came close. Her eyes searched Hugh’s muscular body for any sign of a gunshot wound. She’d expected to see the settee soaked with blood, but as the physician moved smelling salts underneath Hugh’s nose, the Duke quickly woke up, coughing as he clutched the side of the settee.
“His Grace is simply intoxicated with a sore bump on the back of his head,” the physician said with a smirk. “A little bit of rest, and I’m sure he’ll live for many years more.” The physician bowed to them both before leaving the room.
The worry that Kitty had been feeling for Hugh quickly disappeared as she watched him pull himself up into a sitting position. His dark hair was dishevelled when it was normally well kept, and his dining jacket and vest had been removed, leaving only his muslin shirt that showed hints of his bare chest. Kitty blushed, knowing she shouldn’t be looking at him in this state.
“Good morning, Kitty,” Hugh said as he looked up at her. He squinted at her as he shielded his eyes from the morning sun. Kitty almost had the nerve to throw open the curtains and really make him pay for worrying her. “Where is Aunt Matilda?”
“My aunt is currently at home, probably enjoying a leisurely breakfast by now,” Kitty said as she placed her hands on her hips and peered down at Hugh.
“Then why are you here?” Hugh asked as he stretched his arms over his head and yawned.
“Because, Your Grace, I heard that you’d accepted a duel. I simply assumed you were dead by now,” Kitty said, her anger only rising. Hugh wrinkled his nose at her. She knew how much he hated it when she used formal titles around him. They’d known each other for so long that he’d insisted that they didn’t speak that way with one another.
“So, come to collect all my valuables before I was cold in the ground?” Hugh asked with a chuckle. “This is very unlike you, Kitty.”
“Yes, it was rather unthoughtful of me to come right away,” Kitty said with a huff. “Next time I shall wait for the news of your death to ever come visiting the Blackmore home again.” And with that, Kitty picked up the hem of her gown and turned on her heels before storming out of the sitting room.
Kitty felt rather foolish as she walked down the hallway, her walking shoes clacking on the marble floors. Portlock only dipped his head as he opened the front door, and Kitty was grateful that the faithful butler didn’t stop her to make idle chat. As Kitty made her way to the carriage, her footman was ready for her this time. He quickly opened the carriage door and helped her up into it before shutting the door and returning to his post next to the driver’s seat.
Kitty was fuming with anger as the carriage took off once more. She should have never jumped to conclusions and should have sent an errand boy to gather the information she wanted. Even though a part of her wanted to see for herself if Hugh was still alive or not, she chastised herself for being so foolish once again. She knew that now was the time to start caring about her childhood friend. He’d made a terrible reputation for himself, and that type of connection was not one that Kitty needed in her life.
As Kitty rode silently back, she knew that her aunt would question her about her whereabouts the moment she returned home. Though Lady Winthrop was very familiar with Hugh, often allowing him to call her Aunt Matilda, too, it was no excuse for Kitty to dash away from home unescorted to check on him.
Right there and then, Kitty silently vowed never to fall for the petulant and boyish actions of the Duke ever again. She needed to focus all her attention on good society and one day find herself a real gentleman to marry. Her aunt and only guardian had been reminding her more and more about the importance of marrying. Kitty had been out in society for three years and thoroughly enjoyed attending social gatherings. She could dance all night at a ball or spend the evening enjoying a good opera. And a part of her didn’t want to give up her freedom of doing as she chose. Since her brother was abroad, she was left with her aunt who needed more care than she could give. Therefore, Kitty had been able to make a lot of her own choices. It was a freedom that Kitty wouldn’t give up so easily when marrying.
It was the late afternoon by the time Hugh felt like himself again. After watching Kitty storm out of his house, he’d made his way up the stairs to his bedchamber. And after getting a few hours of rest and consuming several cups of strong Earl Grey tea, he felt like he was finally ready to pay Kitty a visit and apologise for his earlier behaviour. He shouldn’t have dismissed her concern for him so easily or assume that she’d only pay him a visit if he’d died. After all, she’d come rushing over that morning without the escort of her aunt which showed him how much Kitty still thought of him.
Most of the time, Hugh rarely saw any sign of his childhood friend. Though her brother was an earl and gave Kitty all the rank and status that she deserved, Hugh had a completely different reputation. Where Kitty was the most eligible debutant of society, he was titled a womaniser, scoundrel, and all-around unlikeable person. Though Hugh sometimes enjoyed being a dandy and really showing off his wealth, he’d never been with a woman who didn’t want the same things as he did. In fact, despite his reputation, there was something about him that women just loved. It was probably his dark nature that enticed women, but he’d never been with a young lady who hadn’t already lost her virginity.
For as brief as it had been, it had been nice to see Kitty again. She resembled everything that was pure and light in the world. Anymore, Hugh rarely saw anything like that in his life. He smirked as his valet assisted him in dressing for the ball that evening. Hugh knew that he’d only been invited because he was a duke, but he’d hoped that by dressing early, he could pay Kitty a visit and perhaps right the morning wrong.
“Thank you, Vincent,” Hugh said as he viewed his reflection in the tall looking glass. “Your sense of fashion always keeps me looking my best.”
“You’re most welcome, Your Grace,” Vincent replied as he bowed and then left the bedchamber. Hugh always enjoyed wearing fitting clothing to show off his good form and broad shoulders. The huge part of Hugh’s pride resided in the fact that he knew that he looked handsome. It was only his reputation that kept eligible young ladies and their parents far away from him. Hugh didn’t think he was ready for any sort of commitment and therefore continued to enjoy the finer things in life while he was still young enough to enjoy them.
“The carriage is ready for you, Your Grace,” came Portlock’s voice as the butler came into the room.
“Very good, Portlock,” Hugh said as he turned from the looking glass. “I shall return something this evening.” Portlock only nodded his head as he followed the Duke out of the room. But as they neared the front door, the butler finally spoke up.
“Your Grace, please remember to be friendly this evening,” Portlock advised. “The Blackmore line can’t continue if you never marry and sire an heir.” Hugh chuckled as he turned to the butler.
“I’d say you’re more interested in tending to children and simply want to see them in the house once more,” Hugh teased.
“Your Grace, I already feel like I tend to a child in this house,” Portlock deadpanned. “It would be nice to see you happy, is all.” Hugh didn’t respond as he observed his butler. He wanted to argue that he was happy, but with time not on his side, he knew that he should get going.
“I’ll return later tonight,” Hugh said in parting. As Portlock opened the door for him, Hugh walked down the stairs and across the walkway to the waiting carriage and four. Once he was settled, he knocked on the side of the carriage, signalling that they should be off. And as the carriage travelled across town, to the more popular neighbourhood, Hugh couldn’t help thinking about Portlock’s words.
It seemed that more regularly Portlock kept bringing up the topic of him marrying and producing an heir. The butler had been with his family for three generations, having seen the death of his grandfather and father. Unfortunately, his parents had both died from tuberculosis almost six years ago now, leaving him with a large wealth at such a young age. If it wasn’t for Portlock’s earlier guidance, he wouldn’t be where he was today. But once Hugh had become used to managing his dukedom, he’d let his wild side show more and more.
Perhaps Hugh was simply lonely now that he had no more family members left, or that he was mostly bored and loved being the centre of attention. But deep down inside, Hugh knew that marrying would be his best bet, if only he could convince a decent young lady to accept his offer.
Hugh put that all out of his mind as the carriage came to a halt in front of Kitty’s townhouse. With her brother, the Earl of Valcourt, travelling abroad, it had only been her and Aunt Matilde, the ageing widow, left in the townhouse. Hugh smirked as he got out of the carriage and approached the house. After her debut into society, Kitty had really made an impression on society. She had a voice that was very captivating, and often requested, and her beauty was far superior to most young ladies. But what made Hugh smirk about all of it was that he remembered when Miss Worthington was just Kitty, the tomboy from down the lane that was always willing to do whatever Hugh was doing that day.
Hugh took the steps up to the townhouse quickly, wanting to surprise Kitty with an invitation to join him at the ball. He already knew that she’d been asked to sing a few numbers tonight, and he thought it would be a good sign of friendship if they went together. He was nervous that she’d reject him because of his reputation, but he had a counterattack if she did bring that up.
Hugh pulled the cord at the front door, the house chimes sounding to announce his arrival. When the butler opened the door, a middle-aged man with grey at his temples, the man looked surprised to see him.
“Good afternoon, Your Grace,” the butler said as he bowed. “How may I help you?”
“I’ve come to ask an audience with Lady Winthrop and Miss Worthington,” Hugh explained. He didn’t like the look on the butler’s face as he looked down at his boots nervously.
“I’m so sorry, Your Grace. But the ladies of the house have just departed for the Marquess’ ball,” the butler explained.
“Well, that is no trouble. I shall simply meet them there,” Hugh said as he took a step away from the house. He was displeased that he’d missed them already and was curious to know why they’d left early.
“They left with Lord Harding,” the butler quickly added, their eyes meeting then. Hugh clenched his firsts, the very name of that man causing his blood to boil.
“I appreciate that information,” Hugh said as he fished a few coins from his pocket and gave it to the butler. The man smiled and dipped his head as he took the money and then closed the front door. Hugh sighed heavily as he made his way back to the waiting carriage. If Kitty had left with Lord Harding, then that meant the earl was interested in her. And as Hugh thought about the man, he figured that most saw him as a charming gentleman with all the means available to him. But Hugh really knew what type of man Lord Harding was.
As Hugh got back into the waiting carriage, he gave quick orders to the driver, and the moment Hugh knocked on the side of the carriage, it was off at a great speed. Hugh was now anxious to get to the ball to intervene between Kitty and Lord Harding. Out of all the people in Town that she could attract, the last person he wanted to see his dear friend with was a complete scoundrel. After this morning’s incident, he knew that Kitty wouldn’t be pleased to see him again, let alone be willing to talk to him. But as he made his way towards the dance hall, he was determined to seek an audience with her and hopefully secure a dance with no doubt the belle of the ball.
Kitty was enjoying all the attention after her performance at the ball. She’d been practicing a new song she’d learned from an Italian songwriter and had enjoyed performing that evening. Her voice had filled the hall with the Italian words and melody, and by the time she’d finished, applause rang throughout. Now, Kitty stood amongst all the young ladies that wanted to give her their praise, as well as a few gentlemen. Even as Lord Harding stood to the right of her, many dared speak to her simply to give her their compliments. To her left sat Aunt Matilda in a plush chair. The woman couldn’t stand for long hours anymore, and Kitty was always ever concerned about her even when she was speaking with the crowd.
Very few things gave Kitty more pleasure than being able to sing for others. She was grateful to have been blessed with a beautiful singing voice, and when she’d been young, her mother had insisted on singing lessons. At first, she hated the idea of them. But now, she was thankful for the earlier lessons. With both her parents deceased, she was glad to be able to remember them every time she sang.
And because of her beautiful singing voice, Kitty was often invited to every major social function in Town. With this ball kicking off the Season, she knew that there would be many more like it in the coming weeks. Yet for tonight, she simply enjoyed the praise from her many admirers and looked forward to the dancing portion of the ball. Already her dance card had been almost filled, and Kitty was excited about enjoying her evening.
“Who would have thought you’d receive so much attention,” Lord Harding said softly next to her. Kitty turned her eyes towards the Earl, his bright blue eyes looking down at hers. His light hair had been combed to the side in the latest fashion, and his clothes tailored to enhance his already tall stature. To every woman in the room, he was the most eligible and handsome gentleman. She was pleased to have received an invitation to join him for the evening and wondered if this man would one day be her husband.
“It can be quite overwhelming when you experience it for the first time,” Kitty replied. “But it’s a feeling that I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of.”
“Seems to me like you enjoy being the centre of attention,” Lord Harding said with a chuckle.
“We all have our vices,” Kitty said in an innocent voice. “I enjoy social outings and singing. I think compared to some things, my vices are quite harmless.”
“Unless you start attracting the wrong attention,” Lord Harding said as he pointed to the gentleman that had just entered the dance hall. On the outskirts of the crowd, Kitty could easily spot Hugh. His black hair and dark green eyes always gave him a striking appearance. He was very muscular with broad shoulders, and Kitty could see that Hugh used his features to his advantage. His clothing was made from top quality fabrics that his black dinner coat almost shimmered in the candlelight.
“I am not concerned with Lord Blackmore,” Kitty said as she turned her attention to the young ladies around her. She smiled at them as they all complimented Kitty on her song. They were dying to hear where she’d ever learned such a pleasant-sounding song, and Kitty was eager to share with them her secret.
As the night continued, and Kitty enjoyed dancing with Lord Harding and a few other gentlemen, she returned to her aunt’s side to make sure she was enjoying herself as well when she came upon Hugh already tending to her dear aunt. From a short distance, she watched as Aunt Matilda laughed at something Hugh had just said, and Kitty couldn’t help smiling. She always appreciated when Hugh could make her ageing aunt still laugh.
“Oh Hugh, you’ve always been such a rascal,” Aunt Matilda said. “I remember the time when you let all the pigs out of their pen over on Smith’s farm. All the men in the land had to help Smith put them back, and you’d covered them in cooking oil.” The two laughed together at the memory, and as Kitty came near, she couldn’t help joining them.
“I’d never seen your father so upset,” Kitty said to Hugh. His eyes turned on hers, and she could have sworn that they were twinkling with mirth.
“He was. He soundly punished me in front of Smith, but we had a good laugh together behind closed doors,” Hugh admitted.
“Oh, Lord Blackmore was such a dotting father,” Aunt Matilde stated. “I do miss the days when the three of them used to be together.” Kitty knew that her aunt was referring to her husband, Kitty’s father, and Hugh’s father. All three men had been rather close, and their passing one by one had really dampened the hearts of the others.
“As do I,” Hugh said in such a melancholy voice that it made Kitty wonder if that sadness was the root of all his evil doings.
“Now Kitty,” Aunt Matilda spoke up then. “This fine gentleman has requested a dance with you. I told him he’d have to ask you personally since I don’t have your dance card.”
“My goodness, Aunt Matilda. What ever convinced you to call this man a gentleman, lest a good one,” Kitty said with a giggle. Hugh scoffed at her, but she could tell that he didn’t mean it.
“Kitty, I’ve known this man since he was a babe,” Aunt Matilda said in a stern voice, though there was a smile on her face. “Though he doesn’t have the best reputation in town.” She paused and gave Hugh a particular look that only made him chuckle. “I do think he’s still worth dancing with.”
Kitty sighed, knowing she would never want to do anything to displease her aunt. Though, she wasn’t thrilled with the idea of dancing with the fool after the scare he’d given her earlier that day.
“Very well, Hugh,” Kitty relented. “I’m sure one dance won’t completely ruin me.” Hugh smiled at her, such a look that often caused her skin to feel warmer than it should.
“It would be my pleasure,” he replied as he held out his hand towards her. Kitty was thankful that her hands were gloved as he took his. He placed her hand on his arm and then led her back to where the next set was being prepared. They parted as they took up their positions in the line and waited patiently for the music to begin.
As the dance commenced, Kitty was reminded of how good a dancer Hugh was. Like most things, Hugh excelled at whatever he placed his mind to. She’d seen him do this with his studies, and other troublesome adventures whenever a new idea came to mind. When they had been little, Kitty had even joined Hugh on some of his adventures. It wasn’t until her mother started to press Kitty to be more ladylike that Kitty stopped following Hugh into the forest or onto the lake to enjoy the rowboat his father had commissioned for him for his tenth birthday. As she moved through the dance with him, she couldn’t help remembering much of their past only to compare it with the present.
It was hard to believe that the scoundrel she was dancing with now used to be the happy and fun-loving Hugh of her past. It was hard to see him now as a womaniser and gambler. Though he’d never acted quite so around her, she couldn’t deny the rumours and articles in the papers when there were so many of them.
“You’re a wonderful dance partner,” Hugh spoke up. His words pulled her from her thoughts, and she smiled at him.
“As are you,” Kitty complimented. “A part of me wonders if adequate dancing is the only suitable quality you have.” Hugh laughed at her comment as he led her through the line, his hand resting on hers and the other on the small of her back. His touch seemed to send a fire through her.
“You know I have other amiable qualities, Kitty,” Hugh said in a soft tone.
“I like to think that you do, Hugh,” Kitty replied in the same tone. “Sometimes I like to think that you would be the perfect match for me.” She could tell that her words surprised Hugh by the look on his face. He’d gone stiff for a moment, and it was evident in his next steps in the dance. But he seemed to recover well enough as the dance continued.
“Are you considering marrying?” Hugh asked, his voice uncertain.
“Shouldn’t I?” Kitty responded with. “I won’t be young forever, and I think my increased popularity in society would give me an advantage.” Hugh seemed to be thinking about her words as they followed the line away from each other before coming back again as the dancers looped around.
“And what qualities do I have that would make me almost the perfect match for you, as you say?” Hugh asked once they were close to one another again.
“Well, for starters, you are wealthy, have a title higher than my own, and certainly would be able to provide a decent home for me,” Kitty explained. “I always did enjoy visiting your family’s countryseat.” Hugh smirked as he nodded his head.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been there,” Hugh said.
“Probably since your parents’ deaths,” Kitty pointed out. Hugh only nodded again as he seemed to sober at the thought.
“Well then, if I have amiable qualities, what’s keeping you from considering me your perfect match completely?” Hugh asked, teasing her.
“Your reputation befalls you, Hugh. You’d have to change your wicked ways if I was ever to consider you as a suitor,” Kitty said with a shake of her head, knowing that Hugh would never change.
Kitty saw the blush in his cheeks as he said, “I would be willing to do such a thing if only you’d ask me, Kitty.” She was surprised to hear him say this, wondering why she had anything to do with the way he acted. She had to look away from him for a moment as she thought about what she should say next.
Kitty thought of the suitor she once had in the past. She thought she was in love, but found out the day before he proposed that he’d been sleeping around with other women and had gambled most of his wealth away. Kitty had vowed never to let her heart go to anyone that didn’t have a decent reputation and could prove to her that he was the perfect gentleman.
“Perhaps then I can put you to the challenge, Hugh,” Kitty eventually spoke up as the dance came to an end.
“And what sort of challenge would that be?” Hugh asked with a raised eyebrow and a smirk on his face. He still held her hand in his, and for the moment, Kitty didn’t mind. Even as the dance stopped and all the other dancers moved away, she still remained with him because she knew that Hugh never backed down from a challenge.
“I challenge you to become one of the most respectful gentlemen in society,” Kitty said. “I am convinced I shall never find a proper man for a husband and therefore challenge you to prove me wrong.” Hugh began to rub his thumb over her knuckles, the feeling seeming to send waves of pleasure through her. He leaned his head towards her, and for a moment she thought he was going to kiss her, but instead he spoke in a soft voice.
“I’ll accept this challenge only if you’re willing to play with me,” Hugh said in a teasing voice.
“And what do you propose?” Kitty asked.
“I propose that we put this to a test. In seven days, I will do all that I can to win your affections,” Hugh explained, surprising Kitty. “And if I succeed at becoming a more respectful gentleman in your eyes, and in the eye of society, then you shall marry me the following Sunday.”
Kitty removed her hand from his and created space between them as his words washed over her. She’d never considered Hugh to be a possible suitor for her, but there was something about him that always drew her to him. And knowing that Hugh had such a bad reputation, she didn’t feel like he could honestly succeed at such an accomplishment in such a short time.
“You have a deal, Hugh,” Kitty said with a smile, curious to see what Hugh would attempt to do in just a week’s time. “I will postpone any current or future proposals until the end of next week. And if you can prove to me … no, show me that you can become a new man, then I shall consent to marry you.” Hugh smiled down at Kitty in such a way that her heart thumped against her chest. She could tell that he was eager to fulfil this challenge, and a part of her wanted him to win. But as rumours about Hugh started to flood her mind, she had little hope.
“I never turn down a challenge,” Hugh said as he dipped his head.
“But let’s see if you can actually win,” Kitty said in parting. She then made her way through the crowd to return to her aunt. Kitty felt foolish for ever agreeing to do such a thing. But if it meant that Hugh would change his ways, if only for a short time, then she could say that at least she tried in the end.
This was the first time that Hugh was actually nervous about a challenge. Any time before when he’d been given any sort of dare, he’d always dive into it with confidence and eagerness to succeed. There was something about proving himself that always got Hugh ready to take action. But as he watched Kitty walk away from him, her words ringing in his ears, he knew that he couldn’t risk losing to this challenge.
Never before had a challenge meant so much to him. This time, he wasn’t just playing for money and bragging rights. He was playing with his dearest friend’s heart. As he watched her from afar, her pale gown hugging her body in all the right ways, he was certain that he wasn’t the only gentleman in the room that had his eyes set on her. And as he thought about what she said, how she’d postpone all proposals for him, it made him wonder just how many suitors she currently had.
Hugh could easily see why Kitty was so charming. She always looked out for everyone she cared about. The fact that she kept a watchful eye on her beloved aunt showed that Kitty had a large heart. Not many young ladies could compare to her in beauty, and everyone in Town already knew that she had an outstanding voice that opera singers would surely kill for. Hugh knew that the challenge she placed before him would be difficult, and one that held the highest stakes yet.
As Hugh circled the room, gathering his thoughts and planning his next move to win over Kitty’s affections, he spotted Lord Harding near a table on the far side that held several beautiful centrepieces with exotic fruit. There, Hugh could see him talking with another young lady. Just seeing him made Hugh seethe with anger. He didn’t like the idea that the gentleman that had accompanied Kitty to the ball would speak with any young lady but her. And as Hugh watched the young lady laugh at whatever Lord Harding had just said, Hugh was compelled to take some sort of action.
Hugh closed the distance between them, and once the young lady spotted the Duke, she bid Lord Harding farewell and quickly left. Lord Harding turned to see who had spooked the young lady away, and his eyes narrowed at Hugh as the Duke came close to him.
“Can I assist you with something, Your Grace?” Lord Harding asked in a frustrated tone as he dipped his head to the Duke.
“Miss Worthington is without her companion for the night, so I thought I’d drop in on you and the intimate looking conversation you were having with another young lady,” Hugh said point blank. He wasn’t one for mincing his words, and it often contributed to his poor reputation. He mentally chastised himself, knowing he’d have to break a few old habits if he was going to impress Kitty.
“Surely you mistake me, Your Grace,” Lord Harding said with a smirk on his lips. A large part of Hugh wanted to slap that smirk off his face but knew that violence wasn’t the answer. He’d have to use his wit to outsmart Lord Harding while showing Kitty he was the finer gentleman.
“No, I don’t believe I’m ever wrong,” Hugh said with a chuckle. “That is why I approached you. Surely you wouldn’t want Miss Worthington to see you with another woman.”
“Again, Your Grace, you’ve mistaken me for doing something unforgiven,” Lord Harding said. “After all, I’m not like you.” Hugh narrowed his eyes at the man.
“And what exactly is that supposed to mean?” Hugh asked, no longer wanting to beat around the bush.
“Oh, Lord Blackmore, everyone here knows who you are and what you represent,” Lord Harding said as he gestured to the room. “You’re the black sheep of the herd and make us lords look bad, like some kind of animal that spends his money faster than he can make it.” Now Hugh wished that Lord Harding had been the man with whom he would have duelled that morning. He’d have been happy to take him out. But now, he had to play his cards right in order to recover from such a comment.
Hugh smiled at Lord Harding, making the man obviously uneasy. “Sometimes I like people to think I’m someone that I’m not so that one day I can really surprise them,” Hugh said in a dark voice. It was clear to him that he’d responded in a different way than he’d expected. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Kitty approaching them. This was his time to really show her what kind of gentleman he could be.
“Well, you have a very odd way of doing so,” Lord Harding replied. When Hugh bowed to him, it further surprised Lord Harding. The man returned the gesture, and Hugh was certain that the earl was trying his best to figure out his moves.
Then, Hugh made his leave. He wanted Kitty to see that he’d been friendly with Lord Harding, even if the man then complained to Kitty later. She would have seen for herself how he’d acted and would hopefully discredit Lord Harding and think him a liar. But as Hugh went to walk away, Lord Harding moved just at the right moment, causing Hugh to trip over the man’s boots and go tumbling to the floor. However, as Hugh twisted his body at the last minute, he dragged Lord Harding down with him as they both went crashing into the table. It shattered under their combined weight, a loud crash sounding as everything on the table went falling all around them.
After the loud crash came the sound of silence. The crowd closed in on the two as they staggered to their feet, completely covered in cake and broken china. Whispers started circulating through the air that both gentlemen could easily hear. For Hugh, this was not looking like a good start to his challenge.
“Oh goodness. What a mess,” came the worried voice of the Marquess of Grindleton, Lord Miller. The short man came walking near the mess. Hugh was wiping cake and icing off of his clothes and face, and could see the paleness in Lord Miller’s face. “No, not my prized pineapples.” Hugh looked down at the floor to see the exotic fruit had been smashed to pieces in the fall.
“You clumsy fool,” came Lord Harding’s bellowing voice. Hugh simply sighed, not knowing what to do or say as he did his best to clean himself. Several servants came forth to assist, but it seemed that it would do no good.
“Forgive me, Lord Miller. It was a terrible accident,” Hugh eventually said as he neared the marquess. “What can I do to make this up to you?”
“I believe it is time that you retired for the night, Your Grace,” Lord Miller said as his eyes turned upon the Duke. His face was quickly turning a dark shade of red, and Hugh could tell that he’d angered the older man.
“As you wish, Lord Miller,” Hugh said as he humbly bowed before the man. He turned and made his way towards the front entrance. Before he could get out of the ballroom, Kitty interrupted him by stepping into his path. She had a grin on her face, and as he neared her, he could hear her laughing.
“Oh goodness, Hugh. What a mess,” she said as she giggled, gesturing to his clothes that were now clearly ruined.
“Indeed,” Hugh said as he looked down at himself. “I tried so hard to refrain from arguing with Lord Harding that it seemed that I couldn’t avoid confrontation no matter what I did.”
“And why on Earth would you have been arguing with Lord Harding?” Kitty asked, her mirth subsiding.
“We had a difference of opinion is all and wanting to be the better man you think I can’t be, I tried to simply walk away,” Hugh explained. “And even though I might be able to dance well, it seems that simple walking is beyond me.”
“It’s not that I don’t think you can be a better man, Hugh,” Kitty admitted. “It’s simply that you haven’t proven yourself capable in the past.” Hugh only nodded his head. He was embarrassed for what had happened, and wanting to make it up to the Marquess, he hoped to send him a letter in the morning. At that time, Lord Harding came walking past him, his face beet red as he fumed with anger. He didn’t even bother glancing at Kitty as he left the dance hall, no doubt eager to get cleaned up as well.
“Well, it seems my date for the night has departed,” Kitty said with a sigh.
“Do you need my carriage?” Hugh asked, more concerned about the elder Lady Winthrop.
“No, we came in our own carriage, thank you,” Kitty said as she focused her attention on Hugh once more. As he looked down into her beautiful blue eyes, her blonde hair seeming to shine around her, he wondered why he hadn’t tried to impress her before.
“Well then, do excuse me,” Hugh said as he bowed to Kitty. “Do have a more enjoyable evening with me gone.” Kitty giggled as he left then. Hugh sighed with relief once he was in the foyer. He couldn’t believe how the night had ended and wondered if he’d be able to improve his reputation after a night like tonight. But as he left the dance hall, the fresh night air coming to greet him, he felt more determined than ever to impress Kitty.
Kitty could hardly believe how the night had transpired. She’d originally looked forward to the ball as a way to forget her anger at Hugh for his foolishness and her unneeded worry over him. Her performance had gone splendidly, and she’d received all the praise she could handle. But the one thing that Kitty had not expected was Hugh showing up to the ball and asking her to dance. Furthermore, he’d surprised her when he’d accepted her challenge.
As Kitty returned to her aunt’s side, she wondered if Hugh would ever be able to convince her that he’d be the perfect husband for her. Though he was wealthy and charming, as well as her oldest friend, she could hardly believe that Hugh would be anything more than his reputation. Though he was rather handsome and always had a certain effect on her, Kitty wanted more in a husband than all of those things.
“What ever happened to Lord Harding?” Aunt Matilda asked upon her return.
“You won’t believe this, but Lord Harding and Hugh had quite a tumble and completely destroyed a table and the finest pieces that the Marquess had, to include several pineapples,” Kitty explained. She watched as her aunt thought about what she had said, and once it had dawned on her, she began to laugh quite loudly. Kitty couldn’t help giggling with her, the event both quite surprising and hard to believe.
“How ironic, my dear,” Aunt Matilda said once she was able to contain her laughter. “Your two most promising suitors ended up tumbling down together.”
“You think they are promising?” Kitty asked, quite surprised by her aunt’s words.
“Oh yes,” Aunt Matilda assured. “Hugh has always been a close friend, and Lord Harding is the most promising eligible gentleman of the season.”
“I wouldn’t marry Hugh just because we’re childhood friends,” Kitty said as she turned her attention back on the ball. Everyone seemed to be whispering about what had transpired, and she was worried how much more the Duke’s reputation had been tarnished.
“Well, he’s also wealthy and quite handsome,” Aunt Matilda said with a chuckle.
“Aunty, you are more than welcome to marry him then. But Hugh has such a poor reputation,” Kitty said.
“Kitty, darling, there is more to a man than just what people say about him,” Aunt Matilda said as she straightened her posture. “You’ve known Hugh since you two were young, so no one should know him better than you.” Kitty was silent as she thought about her aunt’s words. She figured that she should know him better, but these past few years she felt as if she didn’t know him at all.
“Good evening, Miss Worthington,” came the sweet voice of Miss Beatrice Talbot. Miss Talbot was known within the same social circles as Kitty, but Miss Talbot had debuted several years before her. Kitty looked to see a small group of ladies coming her way as they followed Miss Talbot. She figured they had come to talk to her about her performance, but she was quickly mistaken. “What a spectacle did the Duke and Lord Harding make.” Kitty smiled, even though she didn’t like where this conversation was leading.
“It was quite unfortunate that the accident did occur,” Kitty said as she smiled at the group of ladies.
“Do you really think it was an accident?” Miss Talbot asked. She glanced at her friends who all giggled at the question.
“I like to think that it was an accident,” Kitty replied. “I’d hate to think that anyone would want to be covered in cake on purpose.”
“It must be so trying to have so many suitors that they’ve started to literally fight over you,” Miss Talbot said as she laughed, covering her mouth with the back of her hand as she did so. Miss Talbot was always very proper and was a beauty in her own way, but from what Kitty had heard about the older lady, she wasn’t very charming to be around for long periods.
“I have high regards for Lord Harding, and even Lord Blackmore. I would never think ill of either gentleman,” Kitty said with her chin held up high. Miss Talbot stood still then and seemed to be put off by her comment as she narrowed her eyes at Kitty.
“Ah yes, Lord Blackmore. I thought I spotted you speaking to the Duke after the incident,” Miss Talbot said next. “You do keep such strange company.”
“A wise woman once told me that a man’s reputation often does not represent the man at all,” Kitty said then, smiling down at her aunt as she sat proudly next to her.
“I think the Duke is rather handsome, if I do say myself,” one of the other young ladies spoke up, coming closer to Kitty. “Would you please tell us more about him?”
“Oh, I’d be pleased to,” Kitty said as she smiled brightly, glancing at Miss Talbot who seemed displeased to see that her friends were now paying more attention to her.
For the next few minutes, Kitty talked about Hugh in his younger years and a few of his funnier antics. She said how honourable his parents had been and how doting his father had been in his education. Kitty talked about how kind Hugh could be and that it sometimes took a while to get to know him because he could also be a very private person. All the while Kitty spoke highly of Hugh she began to realise that she did have a good opinion of the Duke. And after she finished speaking, she wondered if it would be her that could change his reputation. Pushing the thought out of her head, she focused on the group of young ladies around her, enjoying the much better conversation than what Miss Talbot had originally introduced.
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Lord Hugh Blackmore, Duke of Ormondene, is a serial womanizer, hard gambler and mighty risk taker. If he wasn’t part of the aristocracy, he would be a laughable dandy or maybe even a highwayman, just for the sake of adding some meaning to his life. His longest friend, Miss Katherine Worthington, is also his childhood companion and secret crush. She just happens to be the hottest talk of the town, and the most eligible lady in waiting. Does Hugh have any chance to seduce her and steal her heart?
Miss Katherine Worthington, “Kitty” to her friends, has grown into the perfect specimen of womanhood, with more than her fair share of ideal suitors. A tomboy as a girl, she finds high society awkward, but her ravishing beauty and perfect voice see her in high demand as both guest and entertainment at the highest level in London. When Lord Blackmore expresses his interests, Kitty is flattered, but reminds him of his terrible shortcomings as a gentleman. Will she manage to stay true to her word and resist the temptation?
He is so willing to marry Kitty that he vows to change, and makes a promise. If he can make her change her mind in just seven days, they will be married next Sunday. A week proves to be enough for the pair, with the hand of fate seeing both experience paradigm shifts. Hugh reforms himself, and Kitty feels she had overlooked the most promising man in the world. Has her other half been in front of her the whole time? Can a childhood friendship turn into a love that they have never dreamt of?
“Romancing an Alluring Lady” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.