Book 4 in the >Heart of a Scandal Series
It was never meant to be…
That’s what Elizabeth Terry has told herself while trying to forget the man she married–her once best friend. Passing herself off as a widow, Elizabeth has since built a life for herself as an instructor at a finishing school, far away from that greatest of mistakes. But the past has a way of finding you, and now that her husband has found her, Elizabeth must face the man she’s tried to forget.
It was time to right a wrong…
Crispin Ferguson, the Duke of Huntington, has spent the past years living with regret. The young woman he married left without a by-your-leave, and his hasty elopement had devastating repercussions. Despite everything, Crispin never stopped thinking about Elizabeth. Now that he’s found her, he has one request—be his duchess, publicly, just for a day.
Can spending time together as husband and wife rekindle the bond they once shared? Or will a shocking discovery tear them apart…this time, forever?
To all those in Wallingford, Mrs. Elizabeth Terry was just any other miserable dragon at Mrs. Belden’s Finishing School. Her days consisted of instructing equally miserable students on ladylike deportment and skills to catch a husband. And then beginning those same lessons in the following days for other young women unfortunate enough to find themselves students in this dreary place.
The irony was never lost on any that the leading ladies of Society who were in this establishment received lessons from women who had a false “Mrs.” attached to their names to create an air of respectability. When the truth was, they were all nothing more than spinsters or poor women required to work to survive.
Well, not all of them.
“Why should we possibly take lessons on husband hunting from her?”
Standing at the front of the parlor that served as a classroom, Elizabeth’s cheeks burned hot under that less-than-discreet whisper.
At six and twenty, however, and on her own for more years than any person ought, she was made of far sterner stuff. “What was that?” she challenged, the remarkable cool of her tone hopelessly ruined as her wire-rimmed spectacles slipped down her nose.
The other young ladies seated beside the habitual insulter, Lady Claire Moore, all fell silent, diverting their stares to their laps.
A duke’s daughter and goddaughter to the queen, Lady Claire had an icy demeanor that all the instructors at Mrs. Belden’s and the harpy headmistress herself couldn’t muster. “Marriage,” the ten-and-seven-year-old student drawled out in slow, enunciated syllables.
The girl at her side giggled and then swiftly concealed that expression of her mirth.
Lady Claire scraped a condescending stare over Elizabeth, lingering her focus on the gray skirts. Gray skirts that hung large on Elizabeth’s small, shapeless frame. “I asked how you could possibly instruct us on how to find a husband.”
She couldn’t. Elizabeth wasn’t so foolish to believe that she knew a thing about flirting or enticing… anyone.
“Hush. Don’t be unkind,” Lady Nora snapped in a shocking defense. After all, there was some manner of code, either spoken or unspoken, that no one defended the dragons.
“You’d defend her? A dragon?” Lady Claire quipped. “But then, with your parents gone now and your brother off chasing skirts, you’ll likely be the next drag—”
Exploding to her feet, Lady Nora came out of her seat and launched herself at the other woman.
Elizabeth surged forward and swiftly placed herself between the pair. “That is enough,” she said in perfectly modulated tones.
She’d learned early on that yelling had little effect on recalcitrant students. The same for drawn-out lectures. If one truly wished to penetrate a tense situation, one was best to meet it with calm.
Lady Nora instantly fell back, but hovered alongside the other woman.
An ashen, trembling Lady Claire burrowed in her seat.
Elizabeth looked to the recently volatile young woman, feeling a kindred connection to this woman who’d recently lost her parents. “If you’ll please sit?” she murmured. Angry, scared, and lost, Elizabeth knew precisely what Lady Nora was feeling. Only, where the young woman had a rogue of a brother, Elizabeth had… no one. Of course, a rogue of a brother who didn’t see his own sister might be the same as having no brother at all.
With stiff, reluctant movements, Lady Nora returned to her seat.
“Now, as I was saying…” She puzzled her brow. Blast and damn. What had she been saying?
“The gentlemen who we should set our caps on?” Miss Peppa March piped in helpfully. Heavily rounded, with large cheeks and limp brown hair, the six-and-ten-year-old girl, a recent student, looked up from the little journal and pencil she clutched in her fingers.
“No advice Mrs. Terry or anyone gives is going to help you secure a husband,” Lady Claire muttered.
Lady Nora shot a foot out, catching the young woman in the ankle.
A cry burst from the other lady’s lips. “How dare you?”
“Oh, I’d do it again, dare or not,” Nora answered with a mocking smile.
An argument immediately broke out with each girl firing insults and hateful words at each other.
Bloody hell. Elizabeth slapped her palms over her face. She’d forever been rot at this. It was the miracle of this century that the intolerable Mrs. Belden hadn’t figured out the sham Elizabeth had perpetuated—she was a dreadful instructor.
“Enough,” she said through her palms. When the bickering pair continued on through that command, Elizabeth raised her voice. “I said, enough.”
Her voice echoed around the parlor, bringing the room to a screeching silence. She’d also learned that raising one’s voice did have some effectiveness if rarely used. This was one of those instances.
A sea of startled eyes stared back.
Elizabeth stretched that moment on. Steepling her fingers before her, she passed a hard stare around, touching it upon each girl.
Ultimately, she settled her focus on the one young lady clinging to that pad and pencil. One who still had hopes that Elizabeth might have some wisdom about how a young woman might catch a husband. She didn’t. Nothing, that was, that she knew from any real experience, but rather, what she’d gathered from the dull texts Mrs. Belden insisted the instructors use in their tutelage.
“Now,” she finally said, smoothing her palms along her skirts. “The art of finding a husband is the finest of the arts.” A little giggle met that silly pronouncement, also insisted upon by the headmistress. And were she seated on that powder-blue sofa and the roles reversed, Elizabeth would have had a like reaction. But she wasn’t. She was a woman dependent upon her role here.
As such, she leveled a look on the girl, who immediately went silent.
“But before one employs any effort on finding one’s husband, a lady must identify the manner of man she wishes to spend the remainder of her days with.”
Until death do part you…
And with that deviation from Mrs. Belden’s usual script for the husband-hunting course, every student went silent and sat on the edge of her chair—which was saying a good deal indeed, given Lady Claire and Lady Nora hadn’t managed that feat in all the years she’d served as their instructor.
Reveling in that newfound attention from her students, Elizabeth wound her way around the room, drawing out the silence, increasing the anticipation.
“Who does a lady wish to marry? A gentleman who is titled?”
“Of course,” Lady Claire put in.
“One who is wealthy?” Elizabeth continued over her.
“A wealthy husband is essential,” another girl interjected.
“Yes, money is essential and a title desired.” Elizabeth paused alongside the arm of Lady Claire’s sofa. “But what about the man himself? Should one marry a fool for a fortune? A faithless philanderer for a title?”
Each pair of eyes in the room rounded in like manner.
“Or should one choose a devoted gentleman? One who is clever enough to discuss text and matters of import and challenge you to use your mind in return?”
“Is she saying we should become… bluestockings?” That scandalized whisper came from somewhere in the corner of the room, penetrating Elizabeth’s senses.
Bloody hell. I’ll find myself sacked.
Clearing her throat, Elizabeth rushed to the front of the room and gathered the journal in which she’d written the lectures six years earlier. She flipped through the pages, seeking, seeking, and then finding.
“What you require in a husband,” she forced herself to read.
For, God help her for being selfish, even as she would rather school the young ladies present on using their own minds, to do so would see her cast out. She’d faced the peril of having nothing and no one years earlier. It was a life she’d no wish to go back to.
And so, she read, “A titled gentleman is the ideal one. The greater the title, the greater your security and status in Society.” Oh, God, what a lot of rubbish. A ducal husband didn’t mean rot. “A husband with noble lineage is noble because…” She grimaced, struggling to make her tongue move to get those words out. “Because of his pedigree.”
“Like a dog,” Lady Nora grumbled.
Yes, most of them were. Noble dogs, but a dog was a dog.
Elizabeth cleared her throat. “It behooves a lady to find one with close connections to one’s own family.” More rubbish. “But that does not mean…” Footsteps sounded in the hall, a pair of them, one heavy and one light. “You should fail and consider other valuable attributes such as”—Elizabeth paused in her rote reading to flip the page—“a gentleman’s willingness to support your aspirations to become a leading societal hostess.” She choked a bit. Hell, I am going to hell for propagating this information. “Furthermore…” Elizabeth glanced up from her reading and froze. Her gaze collided with that of the hated headmistress who controlled the fates and futures of too many women and girls, Elizabeth included. Swallowing hard, she spared a brief glance at the less relevant, less threatening figure at the harpy’s side—
The book fell from Elizabeth’s fingers, landing with an indignant thump upon its spine.
She tried to swallow, tried to breathe, but remained incapable of either or both. For she’d been wrong. For the first time, the harpy headmistress was not the most dangerous figure present.
A pair of more than slightly mocking, twinkling blue eyes met hers. They’d always been twinkling. When he was a boy of twelve bent on making his parents’ lives a misery through his mischief making and as the man who’d chucked pebbles at her window to urge her out to study the stars.
Nine years later, several stone heavier, the gentleman before her was broader, more muscular, more powerful… more everything than he’d been when last she’d seen him.
He sent a black eyebrow slashing up.
The velocity of that movement brought her head whipping back with such force her glasses tumbled from her nose. The wire-rimmed frames landed on the detestable book at her feet and then clattered noisily on the hardwood floor.
“Ladies, please rise for our distinguished company,” Mrs. Belden called, thumping her cane in that decisive manner that marked her words not to be debated. All the young women sprang to their feet.
As if anyone would challenge the dragon.
Except now… now… Elizabeth’s heart knocked wildly as she contemplated making for the window in the opposite corner of the parlor. She squinted, the faces before her blurred and the room a kaleidoscope of shadowy images as she searched for her spectacles. Nay, she’d merely imagined him. Of course, she’d not given any thought to him since the last scandal sheet had been passed around by the other dragons in desperate need of something to read other than dull books on propriety.
Dropping to her knees, she fished about, because surely she’d not seen correctly. Surely she’d imagined him. Surely…
Oh, bloody hell… surely she could find her dratted glasses.
The floorboards groaned, slightly depressed by the tread of approaching footfalls.
Not Mrs. Belden’s mincing, practiced ones. But rather, sure, steady, determined, and very masculine ones.
On her hands and knees, Elizabeth froze in midsearch. Through the murkiness of her horrid vision, a pair of black boots drew into a blurry focus.
Her stomach lurched.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she made herself go as still as possible. Willing him gone. Willing the entire room away. Willing the floor to open up and swallow her, sparing her from this long overdue exchange that she’d managed to convince herself would never come.
“I believe these are what you are looking for?” There could be no mistaking that voice, a slightly husky, melodious murmur. Familiar, and yet foreign for the amount of time that had passed since she’d last heard it. The gentleman placed her spectacles in their proper place.
Crispin Ferguson, the Duke of Huntington, smiled back. “Hello, Duchess.” A hard glint iced once-warm eyes. “We meet again.”