Book 4 in the >Heart of a Duke Series
For ten years, Lady Daisy Meadows has been in love with Auric, the Duke of Crawford. Ever since his gallant rescue years earlier, Daisy knew she was destined to be his Duchess. Unfortunately, Auric sees her as his best friend’s sister and nothing more. But perhaps, if she can manage to find the fabled heart of a duke pendant, she will win over the heart of her duke.Auric, the Duke of Crawford enjoys Daisy’s company. The last thing he is interested in however, is pursuing a romance with a woman he’s known since she was in leading strings. This season, Daisy is turning up in the oddest places and he cannot help but notice that she is no longer a girl. But Auric wouldn’t do something as foolhardy as to fall in love with Daisy. He couldn’t. Not with the guilt he carries over his past sins… Not when he has no right to her heart…But perhaps, just perhaps, she can forgive the past and trust that he’d forever cherish her heart—but will she let him?
21 April 1816
Lady Daisy Meadows was invisible.
Oh, she hadn’t always been a shiftless, shapeless figure overlooked by all. In fact, she’d been quite the bane of her poor mother and father’s existence, and prone to all manner of mischief, since a young girl had about as little hope of being made Queen of England as accomplishing the whole invisibility feat. And yet, she’d managed it with a remarkable finesse, through no help of her own. She could point to the precise moment in time when she ceased to be.
She plucked the copy of The Times from the rose-inlaid, mahogany table and scanned the words on the front page; so familiar she’d already committed them to memory.
Duke of C in the market for his duchess, thrown over by the Lady AA, etc., etc.,
Offended by the blasted page, Daisy stuck her tongue out at the mocking words and threw the paper onto the table. Thwack! “Market for a duchess,” she muttered under her breath. “As though he’s hunting for a prime piece of horseflesh.”
The Duke of C. None other than the illustrious, sought after, Duke of Crawford. Sought after by all… She glanced down at the page once more. Well, not all. After all, the then Lady Anne Adamson had rejected his suit in favor of the roguish Earl of Stanhope. The fool.
A fool Daisy was indebted to. But a fool nonetheless.
With a growl of annoyance she grabbed for the embroidery frame. She picked up the needle and jammed it through the screen with such zeal she jabbed the sharp tip into the soft flesh of her index finger. “Blast.” She popped the wounded digit into her mouth and sucked the drop of blood. When she’d become invisible, she’d also taken to embroidering. She had been doing so for nearly seven years. She was as rubbish at it as she was at winning the heart of a certain duke.
With needle in hand, and greater care on her part, she pulled it through the outline of the heart…she wrinkled her brow…or, it was intended to be a heart. Now it bore the hint of a sad circle with a slight dip in the middle. She tugged the needle through once more with entirely too much zeal and stuck her finger again. “Double blast.”
Giving up on the hope of distraction, she tossed the frame aside where it landed upon the damning page with a quiet thwack. She hopped to her feet then made her way over to the hearth. A small fire cast soothing warmth into the chilled room. She rubbed her palms together and contemplated the flickering flames.
It shouldn’t matter what the scandal sheets reported about a certain duke in the market for a wife. She’d known it was an inevitability he would wed and had long ago accustomed herself to that sad, sorry truth that it would not be her but instead a flawless English beauty such as the Lady Anne. There had been whispers of a fabled heart pendant given by a gypsy and worn by the lady to win the heart of a duke. Nothing more than whispers from romantic ladies who believed in such silly talismans. It wouldn’t have mattered if Lady Anne had been in possession of an armoire full of magic pendants. With her golden blonde curls and a remarkably curved figure, she could have had any duke, marquess, or in the lady’s case—earl, she wanted. Unlike plump, unfortunately curved Daisy. To Auric, the 8th Duke of Crawford she was just as invisible to him as she was to everyone.
She picked her gaze up and stared at her reflection in the enormous, gold mirror. A wry grin formed on her too large lips. Odd, how a lady cursed with dark brown hair and a shocking amount of freckles, and of such a plump form should ever achieve the whole invisibility feat, and yet she had. “Now, I,” she said to the creature with enormous, brown eyes. “I require some enchanted object.” Nothing short of a gypsy’s charm would help her win Auric’s stubborn, blind heart.
Shuffling footsteps sounded in the hall, calling her attention. Her mother stood framed in the doorway gazing with an empty stare at the parlor, as though she’d entered a foreign world and didn’t know how to escape it. It was the same blank look and wan expression she’d worn since they’d learned of Lionel.
Her brother. Her protector. Defender. And champion. Smiling and tweaking her nose one day. The next, lost in the most brutal manner imaginable. With his senseless death, he’d taken her parents’ only happiness with them, and with his aching absence, left her invisible.
“Mother.” There was a pain that would never go away in knowing, as the living child, Daisy could never restore happiness to her mother’s world.
The marchioness blinked several times. “Daisy?”
“Yes.” As in the woman’s daughter and only surviving child.
“I…” Mother touched her fingertips to her temple as though she had a vicious megrim. “I have a bit of a headache.” She glanced about the room. “Is Aur—?”
“He is not here,” she interrupted. Following her husband’s death two years earlier, the Duke of Crawford had become the only person her mother left the privacy of her darkened chambers for. In his presence, she somehow found traces of the mother, hostess, and person she’d been before her, nay their, world had been torn asunder.
“He is not,” her mother repeated, furrowing her brow. With his visits, it was as though the cloak of misery she’d donned these years would lift, and the woman would show traces of the proper hostess she’d been once upon a lifetime ago. But with his departure, she’d settle into the fog of despair once again.
“No, Mama,” she said gentling her tone as though speaking to a fractious mare. Auric hadn’t been ’round in nearly a month. Three weeks and six days to be precise. But who was counting? “Surely you do not expect he’ll visit forever?” There was no reason for him to do so. “He’ll take a duchess soon.” She hated the way her heart tugged painfully at that truth.
A flash of lucidity lit the marchioness’ gray-blue eyes. “Do not be rude, Daisy.”
“I’m not being rude.” She was being truthful. Even as she longed to be the reason for his coming ’round, she’d long ago accepted that his visits were out of a ducal obligation to the dear friends of his late parents. And through it all, Daisy remained invisible. “His visits are merely an obligatory social call, Mother.”
“I can’t think when you speak like that.” Her mother clenched her eyes tight and rubbed her temples, pressing her fingers into the skin. “I…”
Remorse flooded her and she swept across the room. “Shh.” She took her mother by the shoulders and gave her a gentle squeeze. “You should rest.”
The older woman nodded. “Yes. Yes. That is a very good idea. I should rest.” She turned away woodenly and left in a sea of black, bombazine skirts. The only time she replaced her mourning attire was when she was forced out into Society with her still unwed daughter.
With a sigh, Daisy wandered back to the hearth and stared down into the orange-red flames. The fire snapped and hissed noisily in the quiet of the room. When she’d been a small girl, she’d loved to hop. She would jump on two feet, until she’d discovered the thrill of that unsteady one-footed hop. Then her mother had discovered her hopping and put a subsequent end to any such behavior.
At least when there was a hint of a possibility of Mother being near. Now, with her father gone, dead in his sleep not even two years ago, and a mother who’d ceased to note her existence, Daisy would quite gladly trade her current state for that overbearing, oft-scolding mother.
She gently tugged up the hem of her gown and jumped on her two slippered feet. A smile pulled at her lips as the familiar thrill of the forbidden filled her. Even if it was only the forbidden that existed in her mind, from a time long ago. Did she even remember how to hop? She’d not done so in…she searched her mind. Seven years? Surely not. Entirely too long for any person to not do something as enjoyable as jump or hop.
Daisy held her arms out at her side and experimented with a tentative hop. She chewed her lips. Boots had been ever so much more conducive to this manner of enjoyable business. “How utterly silly,” she mumbled to herself. It was silly. Quite juvenile, really. And yet, despite knowing that and all the lessons of propriety ingrained into her, giddiness filled her chest. With a widening smile she hopped higher, catching her reflection in the mirror, a kind of testament to the fact that she was, in truth, visible. Still real. Still alive when the loved, cherished brother no longer was. “I am here,” she said softly into the quiet of the ivory parlor. Daisy lifted her skirts higher and hopped up and down on one foot. Her loose chignon released several brown curls. They tumbled over her eye and she blew them back.
Ladies did not hop. Invisible ones, however, were permitted certain freedoms.
Her smile widened at the triviality of her actions. For many years, she’d been besieged with guilt for daring to smile or laugh when Lionel should never again do either. Eventually, she had. And along with guilt there was also some joy for the reminder that she was in fact—
“Ahem, the Duke of Crawford.”
Daisy came down hard on her ankle and, with a curse, crumpled before the hearth. Her heartbeat sped up as she caught a glimpse of Auric’s towering form, over the ivory satin sofa, at the entranceway. He wore his familiar ducal frown. However, the usually stoic, unflappable peer hovered blinking at her in her pile of sea foam green skirts.
She mustered a smile. “Hullo.” She made to shove herself to her feet.
He was across the room in three long strides. “What are you doing?” Not: how are you? Not: Are you all right? And certainly not: My love, please don’t be injured.
She winged an eyebrow upward. “Oh, you know, I’m merely sitting here admiring the lovely fire.” His frown deepened.
Then in one effortless movement, he scooped her up and set her on her feet. A thrill of warmth charged through her at his strong hands upon her person. “Are you hurt?”
Well, there, a bit belated, but she supposed, better late than never. “I’m fine,” she assured him. Her maid appeared in the doorway. “Agnes, will you see to refreshments?”
The young woman, who’d been with her for almost six years, turned on her heel and hurried to see to her mistress’ bidding. Agnes had come to know, just like every other servant, peer, and person, that there was no danger to Daisy’s reputation where the Duke of Crawford was concerned.
She took a tentative step, testing for injury.
“You’d indicated you were unhurt,” he spoke in a disapproving tone, as though perturbed at the idea of her being hurt.
Goodness, she’d not want to go and bother him by being injured. “I am all right,” she replied automatically. Then, “What are you doing here?” Mortified heat burned her cheeks at the boldness of her own question.
He gave her an indecipherable look.
“Not that you’re not welcome to visit.” Shut up this instant, Daisy Laurel. “You are of course, welcome.” He continued to study her in that inscrutable way of his. Sometime between charming young boy of sixteen and now, he’d perfected ducal haughtiness. Annoyed by his complete mastery of his emotions, she slipped by him and claimed a seat on the ivory sofa. “What I intended to say is,” I, “my mother missed your visits.”
There was a slight tightening at the corners of his lips. Beyond that, however, he gave no indication that he either cared, remembered, or worried about the Marchioness of Roxbury.
She sat back in her seat. “Would you care to sit?” Or would you rather stand there glowering in that menacing manner of yours?
He sat. And still glowered in that menacing manner of his. “What were you doing?”
Daisy blinked at this crack in his previously cool mask. “What was I doing?”
“Prior to your fall.” Auric jerked his chin toward the hearth. “It appeared as though you were,” he peered down the length of his aquiline nose. “Hopping.” The grinning Auric of his youth would have challenged her to a jumping competition. This hard person he’d become spoke to the man who found inane amusements, well…inane.
She trilled a forced laugh. “Oh, hopping.” Daisy gave a wave of her hand that she hoped conveyed “what-a-silly-idea-whyever-would-I-do-anything-as-childlike-as-hop?” To give her fingers something to do, she grabbed for her embroidery frame and cautiously eyed the offending needle.
Auric shifted in the King Louis XIV chair taking in the frame in her hands. “You don’t embroider.”
No, by the weak rendering upon the frame, he’d be correct in that regard. For as deplorable as she was, she really quite enjoyed it. Her stitchery was something she did for herself. It was a secret enjoyment that belonged to her and no other. A secret Auric now shared. “I like embroidering.” In the immediacy of Lionel’s death, when the nightmares had kept her awake, she would fix her energy on the attention it took her to complete a living scene upon the screen. Some of her more horrid pieces had kept her from the gasping, crying mess she so often was in those earlier days.
An inelegant, and wholly un-dukelike, snort escaped Auric, and just like that, he was the man she remembered and not the stern figure he presented to the ton.
“What?” she asked defensively, even as she warmed with the restored ease between them. “I do.” To prove as much she pulled the needle through the fabric, releasing a relieved sigh as it sailed through the fabric and, this time, sparing her poor, wounded flesh.
“Since when do you embroider?” Auric looped his ankle over his knee.
Out the corner of her eyes, she stole a peek at him. “For some years now.” Seven, to be precise. Not giving in to dark thoughts, she paused to arch an eyebrow. “I expect a lofty duke such as you would approve of a lady embroidering.” And doing all manner of things dull.
Except, he refused to take the gentle bait she’d set out for him and so, with a little sigh, she returned her attention to the frame. Auric had always been such great fun to tease. He would tease back. They would smile. Now, he was always serious and somber and so very dukish.
The awkward silence stretched out between them, endless, until her skin burned from the impenetrable gaze he trained on her. She paused to steal another sideways glance and found him trying to make out the image on her frame, wholly uninterested in Daisy herself.
“What was that?” his low baritone cut into her thoughts.
A little shriek escaped her as she jammed the needle into her fingertip. “What was what?” She winced and popped the wounded digit into her mouth.
“You said something.”
Daisy gave her head a firm shake and drew her finger out to assess the angry, red mark. “No, I didn’t.” Not intentionally, anyway. She’d developed the bothersome habit of talking to herself and creating horrible embroideries. “I daresay with you having not been to visit in some time,” three weeks and six days, but really who was counting? “you’ve come ’round for a reason?” Her question, borderline rude, brought his eyebrows together. Then, powerful dukes such as he were likely unaccustomed to tart replies and annoyed young ladies.
“I always visit on Wednesdays.”
“No,” she corrected. Before he’d inherited the title of duke, a year after the death of Lionel, with a carriage accident that had claimed both his father and mother, he’d been a very different man. “No, you don’t.” He always had visited. This Season he’d devoted his attentions to duchess hunting—which is where his attention should be. Her lips pulled in a grimace. Well, not necessarily on finding a wife, but rather on himself and his own happiness. She’d never wanted to be a burden to him, never wanted to be an obligation.
It wasn’t always that way…
Auric drummed his fingertips on the edge of his thigh and she followed the subtle movement. Her mouth went dry as she took in the thick, corded muscles encased in buff skin breeches. He really possessed quite splendid thighs. Not the legs one might expect of a duke. But rather—“You’re displeased, Daisy.”
His words jerked her from her improper musings. “What would I have to be displeased with?” Displeased would never be the right word. Regretful. Disappointed. For the years she’d spent waiting for him to see more where she was concerned, he continued to see nothing at all. To give her fingers something to do, Daisy drew the needle through the frame, working on her piece, all the while her skin pricked with the feel of being studied.
“What is it?”
She jerked her head up so swiftly, she wrenched the muscles of her neck. Daisy winced, resisting the urge to knead the tight flesh. “What is what?” She glanced about.
Auric nodded to her frame.
“This?” Oh, drat. Why must he be so blasted astute? She alternated her attention between his pointed stare and her embroidery frame then pulled it protectively to her chest.
His firm lips tugged with a nearly imperceptible hint of amusement. “Yes, what are you embroidering?”
Then knowing it would be futile to casually ignore his bold question, she turned the frame around. Even as she revealed her work, her cheeks warmed with embarrassment over her meager efforts.
“What is that?” His sharp bark of laughter caught her momentarily unawares. The sound emerged rusty, as if from ill use, but rich and full, nonetheless. She missed his laughter. She’d still rather it not be directed her way.
“Oh, hush.” She jerked the frame back onto her lap. Then she glanced down eyeing the scrap. It really wasn’t that bad. Or perhaps it was. After all, she’d spent several years trying to perfect this blasted image and could, herself, barely decipher the poor attempt. “What do you think it is?” She really was quite curious.
“I daresay I’d require another glance.”
Daisy turned it back around and held it up for his inspection. Silence stretched on. Surely, he had some manner of guess? “Well?” she prodded.
“I’m still trying to make it out,” he murmured as if to himself. Lines of consternation creased his brow. “A circle with a dip in the center?”
“Precisely.” Precisely what she’d taken it as, anyway. Daisy tossed the frame atop the table, inadvertently rustling the gossip sheet and drawing Auric’s attention from one embarrassment—to the next.
As bold as though he sat in his own parlor, he reached for the paper. With alacrity, Daisy swiped it off the table just as his fingers brushed the corner of the sheets. “You don’t read gossip.” She dropped it over her shoulder where it sailed to the floor in a noisy rustle. “Dukes don’t read scandal sheets.”
“And you have a good deal of experience with dukes, do you?” Amusement underscored his question.
She didn’t have a good deal of experience with any gentlemen. “You’re my only duke,” she confided. Couldn’t very well go mentioning her remarkable lack of insight with gentlemen.
His lips twitched again.
A servant rushed into the room bearing a silver tray of biscuits and tea, cutting into whatever he intended to say. The young woman set her burden on the table before them and dipped a curtsy, then backed out of the room. Daisy’s maid, Agnes reentered and took a seat in the corner, with her own embroidery. The servant was far more impressive with a needle than Daisy could ever hope to be.
“How is your mother?”
Ah, of course. The reason for his visit. Auric, the Duke of Crawford, was the ever respectful, unfailingly polite gentleman.
“She is indisposed,” she said with a deliberate vagueness. Only Auric truly understood the depth of her mother’s misery and, even so, not the full extent of the woman’s sorrow. Daisy would not draw him into her sad, sorry, little world. She reached for the porcelain teapot and steeped a delicate cup full, adding milk and three sugars. She ventured he had enough of his own sad, sorry, little world.
Auric accepted the fragile, porcelain cup. “Thank you,” he murmured, taking a sip.
“Well, out with it.” Daisy poured another, also with milk and three sugars. “After your absence, there must be a reason for your visit.”
“Am I not permitted to call?”
She snorted. “You’re a duke. I venture, you’re permitted to do anything you want.” Just so the new stodgier version of his younger self knew she jested, Daisy followed her words with a wink.
Daisy stared expectantly back at him.
Auric considered her question. Why do I visit? Repeatedly. Again and again. Week after week. Year after year.
The truth was guilt brought him back. It was a powerful sentiment that had held him in an unrelenting grip for seven years and he suspected always would. Selfishly, there were times he wished Daisy was invisible. But she wasn’t. Nor would she ever be. No matter how much he willed it. “Come, Daisy,” Auric took a sip and then provided the safe, polite answer. “I enjoy your company. Surely you know that.”
She choked on her tea. “Why, that was a bit belated.”
He frowned, not particularly caring to have the veracity of his words called into question—even if it was by a slip of a lady he’d known since she’d been a blubbering, babbling babe.
“I referred to your response,” she clarified, unnecessarily. Then, like a governess praising her charge, Daisy leaned over and patted him on the knee. “It was still, however, very proper and polite.”
“Are you questioning my sincerity?” Having known her since she’d been in the nursery, and he a boy of eight, there was nothing the least subservient or simpering about Daisy Meadows.
“Just a bit,” she whispered and winked once more. Then a seriousness replaced the twinkle of mirth in her eyes. “I gather you’ve not come by because you’re still nursing a broken heart over your Lady Anne.” Lady Anne Adamson—or rather the former Lady Anne Adamson. Recently married to the roguish Earl of Stanhope, she’d now be referred to as the Countess of Stanhope in polite Society. The young lady also happened to be the woman he’d set his sights upon as his future duchess.
“A broken heart?” he scoffed. “I don’t have a broken heart.” He’d held the young lady in high regard. He found her to be a forthright woman who’d have him for more than his title, but there had been no love there. Daisy gave him a pointed look. “Regardless, what do you know of Lady Anne?”
“Come, Auric,” she scoffed. “Just because I made my Come Out years ago and disappeared from your life doesn’t mean I’ve not always worried after your happiness.” At her directness, a twinge of guilt struck him. She’d always been a far better friend to him than he’d deserved. Daisy’s initial entry into Society had been cut short by the untimely death of her father. She and her mother had retreated into mourning and had only reemerged this year.
He shifted in his seat, not at all comfortable discussing topics of his interest in another woman with Daisy. She was…was…well, Daisy. “I thought you didn’t read the gossip columns?” he asked in attempt to steer the conversation away from matters of the heart.
“Ah, I said you didn’t read the scandal sheets.” She held up a finger and waved it about. “You’re a duke, after all. I’m merely an unwed wallflower for which such pursuits are perfectly acceptable.”
“Yes, I am,” she said simply, as though no more concerned with her marital state than she was with her rapidly cooling tea. “I’m very much a wallflower and quite content.” She took a sip.
“Must you do that?” he groused, even as it was not at all dukelike to do something as common as grouse. She’d always had an uncanny ability to finish his thoughts, as he had hers. Still, it was quite unnerving when that skill was turned upon a person.
“Yes, there simply is no helping it. I’m afraid I’ll have Season after Season until—”
“I referred to finishing my sentences.”
Daisy set her teacup on the table in front of them and leaned forward, her palms pressed to her knees. “I know, Auric,” she whispered as though imparting a great secret. “I was merely teasing. Though, I expect you’re unaccustomed to people going about teasing you.”
He took another sip and thought once more about the only lady who’d managed to capture his attention. The Lady Anne Adamson, now Countess of Stanhope. There had been nothing fawning about the lady, which had been some of the appeal to the now wedded woman.
Daisy patted his hand. “You are better served in her belonging to the earl. You’d not wed a woman who is in love with another.”
A dull flush heated his neck at the intimate direction she’d steered their discourse once more. Words of love and affection and hearts had no place between him and Daisy. Theirs was a comfortable friendship borne of their families’ connection and strengthened by a loss they shared. A friendship that would likely not be if she learned the role he’d played in her brother’s death. She’d certainly not be smiling and teasing him as she now did. Pain knifed at his chest. With a forcible effort, he thrust back his dark, regretful thoughts. “I’ve quite accepted Lady Anne’s decision.” There, that was a vague enough response. He felt inclined to add, “Nor was my heart fully engaged.”
Daisy let out a beleaguered sigh. “If that was the romance you reserved for the lady, it is no wonder she chose another.”
Instead of rising to her baiting, he asked, “Are you a romantic now, Daisy Meadows? Dreaming of love matches?”
“What should I dream of?” She sent a dark eyebrow sweeping upward. “A cold, emotionless union to a gentleman who’d wed me for my dowry?”
Auric stilled and looked at the girl, Daisy, and conceded, in this moment with talks of hearts and love matches and unions, that she was no longer a girl, rather a woman. “You’ve always been something of a romantic.” A woman who, if one sorted through her entrance, and disappearance, and then reemergence into Society, was on her third Season, no less. She professed herself to be a wallflower. He eyed her a moment. He took in the dark, curled hair piled atop her head, the shock of freckles on her cheeks and nose, her too full mouth. Uniquely different than the Incomparables, she’d never be considered a great beauty by Society’s rigid standards, and yet certainly interesting enough to make a match with a proper gentleman. “You desire love then, do you?” he asked, hating that it was not Lionel here having this discussion with her—for so very many reasons.
Auric expected her to debate the charge. Instead, she again sighed and picked up her embroidery frame. “You always were entirely too practical.” She paused. “And clever. You are indeed, correct. I’m a romantic.” Daisy looked down a long moment at her embroidery frame and then turned the ambiguous needlepoint toward him. “You really cannot tell what it is?”
“No idea,” he said succinctly. On the heel of that was a sudden, unexpected, and unwelcome possibility. “Has some gentleman captured your affections?” Whoever the blighter was, he was unworthy of her.
She paused, for the span of a heartbeat. “Don’t be silly.”
His shoulders sagged with relief. He didn’t care to think of Daisy setting her affections on some gentleman because it would require Auric to take a role in determining that man’s suitability as her match and he did not welcome that responsibility. Not yet. Oh, as she’d pointed out, with her out a second time, it was likely she’d need to make a match soon. However, it was not a prospect he relished. There was too much responsibility that went with seeing to her future. Auric finished his tea and set aside his cup. He tugged out his watch fob and consulted the timepiece attached.
“You have business?” she asked with a dryness to her tone that hinted at her having identified his eagerness to take his leave.
“Indeed,” he murmured as he stood. “Will you give my regards to your mother and send her my apologies for not visiting in—?”
“Three weeks?” Daisy rose in a flurry of sea foam skirts, that silly embroidery in her hands. “I shall.” With her chocolate brown gaze, she searched his face. For a moment she opened her mouth, as though she wished to say more but then closed it.
He sketched a bow and started for the door.
Her quietly spoken question brought him to a stop and he froze at the threshold. He cast a questioning glance back over his shoulder.
Daisy folded her hands, one gloved, the other devoid of that proper garment. He eyed her fingers a moment; long, exposed, graceful. How had he failed to note what magnificent hands she possessed? With a hard shake of his head, he concentrated on the lady’s words. “You needn’t feel an obligation to us. You’ve responsibilities. My mother and I, we know that.” A pressure tightened his chest. She held his gaze. “Lionel would have known that, too,” she assured him, unknowingly squeezing the vise all the more, making breathing difficult.
The polite and, at the very least, gentlemanly thing to do was assure Daisy that his visit was more than an obligatory call. But that would be a lie. His debt to this family was great. He managed a jerky nod and swept from the room, feeling the familiar relief at each departure from the Marchioness of Roxbury’s home awash in memories.
Auric strode down the long, carpeted corridors, past the oil canvas paintings of landscapes and bucolic, country scenes.
Except with the relief at having paid his requisite visit, there was guilt. A new niggling of guilt that didn’t have to do with his failures the night Lionel had been killed, and everything do with the sudden, staggering truth that Daisy Meadows was on her third Season, unwed, and…he shuddered, romantic.
Bloody hell. The girl had grown up and he wanted as little do with Daisy dreaming of a love match as he did with a scheming matchmaking mama with designs upon his title. The pressure was too great to not err where she was concerned.
He reached the foyer. The late Marquess of Roxbury’s devoted, white-haired butler stood in wait, Auric’s black cloak in his hands. “Your carriage awaits, Your Grace.” There was much to be said for a man who’d leave the employ of the man who inherited the title and remain on the more modest staff of the marchioness and her daughter.
“Thank you, Frederick,” he murmured to the servant he’d known since his boyhood.
The man inclined his head as Auric shrugged into his cloak and then Auric hesitated. As a duke he enlisted the help of very few. He didn’t go about making inquiries to servants, particularly other peoples’ servants, and yet, this was the butler who’d demonstrated discretion with his and Lionel’s every scheme through the years. A man who’d rejected the post of butler to the new Marquess of Roxbury following the other man’s death and remained loyal to Daisy and her mother. “Tell me, Frederick, is there…” He flicked an imaginary piece of lint from his sleeve. “Has a certain gentleman captured Lady Daisy’s attentions?”
“Beg pardon, Your Grace?”
“A gentleman.” He made a show of adjusting his cloak. “More particularly an unworthy gentleman you,” I, “would worry of where the lady is concerned?” A gentleman with dishonorable intentions, perhaps, or one of those bounders after her dowry, who’d take advantage of her whimsical hopes of love. He fisted his hands wanting to end the faceless, nameless, and still, as of now, fictional fiend.
Frederick lowered his voice. “Not an unworthy gentleman, Your Grace. No.”
Auric released a breath as the old servant rushed to pull open the door. Except as he strode down the handful of steps toward his waiting carriage, he glanced back at the closed door, a frown on his lips as the butler’s words registered through his earlier relief.
Not an unworthy gentleman… Not. No. Not. There is no gentleman who’s captured the lady’s affection.
That suggested there was, in fact, a gentleman. And Daisy, with her silly romantic sentiments required more of a careful eye. “Bloody hell,” he muttered as he climbed inside his carriage. He had an obligation to Lionel, and to Daisy, his friend’s sister.
Whether he wished it or not.