Book 16 in the >Heart of a Duke Series
Return to the breathtaking world of the HEART OF A DUKE…the USA Today bestselling series that is sure to leave you breathless and longing for more!
Lady Gillian Farendale is in trouble. Her titled father has dragged her through one London Season after another, until the sheer monotony of the marriage mart and the last vestige of Gillian’s once-independent spirit conspire to lead her into a single night of folly. When her adventure goes so very wrong, she has only one old friend to whom she can turn for help.
Colin Lockhart’s youthful friendship with Lady Gillian cost him everything, and a duke’s by-blow had little enough to start with. He’s survived years on London’s roughest streets to become a highly successful Bow Street Runner, and his dream of his own inquiry agency is almost within his grasp.
Then Gillian begs him to once again risk angering her powerful father. The ruthless logic of the street tells Colin that he dare not help Gillian, while his tender heart tempts him to once again risk everything for the only woman he’ll ever love.
Twelve years earlier
“I hate boys.”
That made two of them.
Boys were miserable little buggers. And the more powerful they were, the meaner they were, too. They delighted in making a person feel bad about oneself. That inexorable truth was the reason that Colin Lockhart now found himself hiding in a copse.
“Are you listening, Colin?” The beleaguered voice came from over by the brook, where Lady Gillian Farendale gathered stones and dropped them into her basket.
He peeked about before speaking. “Yes, I heard you.” The problem was, anyone looking for Colin was likely to hear her, too.
He should have known better than to not answer her. She hated silence with the same burning intensity the sun hated the English sky.
“You didn’t say anything,” Gillian chided. “You know, you are very distant today. It is not at all like you.”
Actually, it was very much like him… with everyone except the chattering girl he called a friend.
Gillian paused in her rock collecting to throw the back of a hand to her forehead in her not-unfamiliar dramatic manner. “I’m never going to get married.”
“Of course you are,” he said under his breath as he once more ducked his head out from behind the enormous tree trunk. Colin searched about for his latest nemeses. “Ouch,” he grunted as his leg crumpled beneath him. He turned a sharp glare over his shoulder at the one responsible for the well-aimed rock to the backside of his knee. “What in the devil was that for?”
“Because you don’t get to say whether or not I’m going to get married.” With a little toss of her blonde curls, Gillian bent and collected another rock from the brook. She held it aloft and eyed it for several moments before adding it to her basket.
“What is with your sudden interest in rocks?” he asked, unable to help the question.
“It’s not so very sudden.” She shrugged. “They’re pretty and useful, and one never knows when one will require a good rock.”
He snorted. “A good rock?” Rocks weren’t going to put food on a table, and they certainly weren’t going to warm a cottage.
“Do you have a problem with my collection?”
That arch tone had him instantly schooling his features. When presented with either an impending battle with Layton Langley or a match against Gillian, Colin would choose the former every day of the week. “Of course not.”
“Well, that is good, because I’m still cross with you for trying to marry me off to any old gentleman.” She plunked another rock into her rapidly increasing collection.
Given he was risking a beating if discovered in his current hiding spot, it really wasn’t prudent to engage in his customary discussions and debates about… anything with Gillian. Not this time. People were looking for him, and Colin wasn’t one to lose at anything, including a confrontation with Cheshire’s biggest bullies. Even with all that, he’d never been able to let it go with her. “I didn’t say ‘any old gentleman.’ He could be a young one.”
She glared at him. “Are you making light?”
“Gillian, you are the daughter of a marquess.” This time as he delivered those words, he was wise enough to keep watch on Gillian, her basket… and his leg.
Her eyes formed tiny little slits. “And?” she prodded, planting her hands on her hips. The basket hung awkwardly at her side.
“And? You aren’t dim, Gillian.” In fact, she was the cleverest person he knew. “Noblemen’s daughters marry other noblemen’s sons. That’s… just the way. Now, if you’d just go?” They were going to find him. With all this noise and all this chattering, discovery was inevitable. There was also the matter of her father, who’d spoken to Colin’s mother about not wanting her bastard son being friendly with his proper daughter. “We can play later.”
Gillian wasn’t deterred. “It doesn’t have to be the way you describe. I don’t have to marry a nobleman.”
Yes, yes, she did. He opted this time, however, to let the matter go.
“Furthermore,” She flung another exaggerated hand over her brow. “No one is going to want to marry me.”
He scrutinized her with a new and even deeper degree of wariness. This was dangerous territory. Colin knew next to nothing about little girls, but he knew this had all the makings of a trap. “You…” Oh, blast. What was he supposed to say here? Colin spoke on a rush. “You don’t know that.” There! He’d—
By the angry little sparkle in her eyes, those had not been the words she’d been in search of.
He fiddled with the frayed collar of his ancient jacket and tried again. “And… why wouldn’t they want to marry you? You’re—”
Gillian arched forward on the balls of her feet. “Yesss?” She stared expectantly at him.
For a moment, he thought she might have been fishing for compliments, because surely she knew why she was the only girl he preferred in the whole damned countryside.
“And you’re clever. You spit farther than anyone I know. You can deliver a nasty blow to a person a stone bigger than you.” And if those weren’t reasons enough that a boy shouldn’t want to marry a girl? Well, then, he didn’t know what else to say.
Gillian sank back on her heels. “My father said I was flighty.”
“Your father doesn’t have a brain between his ears.” That hateful nob, who, when he wasn’t inviting illustrious guests only to raise his prestige, was sending his servants with orders for Colin to stay away from Gillian.
Gillian’s eyes lit, bright and clear, and so something that he squirmed, unnerved by that show of emotion. That was certainly not the kind of relationship he had with Gillian.
“That is what my sister Genevieve is forever saying.”
“Well, she’s right,” he said distractedly, stealing another peek out from behind his hiding space. They weren’t going to quit until they found him. And with Gillian’s usual chattering, it would be only a moment before they discovered them… or, more specifically, Colin. “Gillian, I’ve got company I’m expecting.”
He might as well have stolen her bait for the wounded look she gave him. “You… have new friends?”
No. She was the only one. The only one he’d ever had, in fact. Admitting as much, admitting that he was facing another beating, however, proved one admission he couldn’t make to even his best friend. “Would you mind?” he asked impatiently.
Gillian folded her hands primly. “Not at all.”
Except, she made no move to leave.
“What are you doing?” he blurted.
“You were asking me to greet your new friends, were you not?”
New friends. He silently scoffed. That was one way to describe Langley, MacArthur, and Meadows. “No,” he said bluntly. “I was certainly not.”
Her face crumpled. “Oh.”
And damned if he didn’t feel like he’d just kicked a cat for the wounded glimmer in those eyes that revealed too much. Even so, he needed her gone.
Gillian sighed. “Very well. I shall leave you to your friends.” She took two steps, swinging her basket as she went, and then wheeled back to face him. “Is it that they’re boys and you are tired of hanging out with a girl after all these years?”
He swallowed a groan. Good hell. This was not the time for this. “Of course not.”
Those three words, however, didn’t suffice. “Because I am not like a girl girl.” No, she wasn’t. “I ride astride, and we hunt, even though I don’t like hunting.” Her eyes widened. “Is that what it is?”
“Gillian?” he said impatiently.
By the crestfallen look that stamped her features, she’d been expecting more. “Hmph.” With that little grunt, she adjusted the small basket of stones. “Very well, I’ll leave you to them.” With a toss of her blond curls, she left.
Finally. Now he could—
“There he is.”
Colin cursed. His heart pounded hard and loud in his ears, and he took a step to flee.
“Got you, you miserable bastard.”
The two boys behind the leader of the trio dissolved into laughter, as if the cleverest insult had been dealt, rather than a mere statement of fact about Colin’s birthright.
His feet twitched. Colin longed to run, and yet… He was many things. Illegitimate. Sometimes surly. But he wasn’t one who’d back down when confronted by his bullies. Still, when Colin stepped out from his hiding spot, his stomach sank.
Lord Langley and two of the sons of some landed gentry stood shoulder to shoulder. All in equal states of flawless dress. From their wool tailcoats on down to their gleaming, buckled boots, they were the model of privilege and power and… everything Colin was not.
“I don’t have any problems with you,” Colin called, proud of how even his voice was when inside he was shaking. It wasn’t that each boy was particularly strong, but when they combined forces? He suppressed a shudder.
Bulky Lord Langley looped his thumbs into his strained waistband and ambled over. He stopped three feet away from Colin. “Yes, that might be true, but you see, we have problems with you.”
Three feet. The distance was close enough to pounce and close enough that Colin couldn’t escape without the other boy landing at least one blow. But it was always more than one. Particularly as he had his lackeys with him.
Colin brought his arms up, folding them close at his chest, so he was in position to counter any strike. “Oh? Am I supposed to guess what offense I’ve supposedly committed this time?”
“We saw you talking to Lady Gillian Farendale again,” Benny MacArthur interjected as he leaned around Langley.
Langley glared at the small, slender boy.
MacArthur instantly fell back.
When Langley faced Colin, his dark look was reserved once more for Colin. “We saw you and the youngest Farendale girl,” Langley confirmed, as if he required the pleasure of that reveal. “You’ve no place speaking to a lady.”
No, Colin didn’t. But he’d be damned if he let these village bullies to the decision. “There’s no crime in speaking to a lady.” And he was familiar with crime and law. Studying those books Gillian sneaked from her father’s library was how he spent his nights.
“It should be.” Langley flashed a slightly yellowed, gap-toothed smile. “After all, your mother is a whore.”
Hatred snapped through Colin, and it was all he could do to maintain his restraint to keep from pouncing on and pounding the other boy. There was one certainty, however: There’d be no getting out of it this day, then. “My father is a duke,” Colin pointed out. “And you’re only just a baron’s son, so?” He lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “And not even by blood.”
“It is by blood,” Langley shouted. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The fact that he and his family had come to their title by a chance twist of fate was Langley’s weakness. Rumors said the boy’s family had never even met the ancient baron from whom they’d received the title.
If Colin were a better person, he’d stop baiting Langley. But Colin wasn’t a better person. A fight was certain, and if he was going to have it, Colin would also have the other boy unsettled. Colin tapped his chin in feigned contemplation. “Was there blood between you and the last baron, though? A third cousin twice removed died?” He looked to the other boys, who scratched at deeply puzzled brows.
Langley caught the confusion from his pair and thumped his fist against MacArthur’s arm. “Stop it. There’s a blood connection.”
“Of course,” MacArthur and Meadows said in obedient unison, compliant, loyal friends once more.
Langley approached; his hulking frame bent and poised for battle. “I’m going to end you, Lockhart.”
Letting out a roar, Colin charged. His own frame, however, was slighter compared to the other boy’s bulk, and Langley cuffed him in the face, knocking Colin to the ground.
Colin landed hard and all the air in his lungs left him on a whoosh. Giving his head a clearing shake, he braced as Langley came for him once more. He waited, timing his kick so that it was just right. Until Langley stood over him, and smiled coldly back.
Colin braced; preparing to kick the bigger boy between the legs.
“Owww,” Langley cried out, and spun around.
What in hell? Colin scrambled to stand.
A small rock hit Langley squarely between the eyes.
The village bully squealed like a stuck pig. Tears immediately sprang to the boy’s eyes as he rubbed at the red and rapidly swelling mark.
Colin’s eyebrows went flying up as he looked from the first, sizable stone that had hit the boy, to the one responsible for that blow.
Gillian stood there, her hands on her little hips and anger blazing from her eyes. Even as diminutive as she was at just a handful of inches past four feet, Colin found himself as unnerved by her ferocious presence as the trio cowering off to the side. “Who do you think you are, Layton Langley?” she shouted.
“Don’t go, ‘I’m-a-baron’s-son-and-one-day-a-baron’ing,’ me, Layton Langley,” she cut in. “You’re nothing but a bully and a coward.”
The boy’s cheeks went all the redder, and he swiped the back of his sleeve over his nose, which was dripping with snot.
Gillian, however, wasn’t done with them. She whipped about to face his partners in crime. “And what do you think your mother would say to you, Benny MacArthur?” She spun to the smallest of the trio, cowering at MacArthur’s side. “Or you, Terry Meadows? Do you think she’ll be proud to find out that you’re being nothing but a big bully?”
Both boys, properly chastised, dropped their gazes to the ground.
“Now”—she stomped over—“get going.” When they didn’t immediately leave, Gillian clapped her hands once.
That sprang two of the boys into movement. In their haste to flee, both tripped and stumbled into each other before taking off in opposite directions. Then only Langley remained.
“As for you, Langley, I’ve little doubt that your own bully of a father won’t care much what trouble you find yourself up to. You’re just like him.” She peered down the length of her pert little nose at him in a spectacular display of disdain better suited to Gillian’s powerful mother, Lady Ellsworth.
Langley’s bulging Adam’s apple moved wildly, and then he found his footing. “I am just like my father, but you, Gillian Farendale? You are nothing like your proper, respectable mother and father. You’re trash.” Langley’s voice climbed. “Trash, just like he is. And someday, you are going to find yourself in trouble because of the company you—”
Gillian let fly another stone.
The missile connected solidly with the boy’s nose.
The appendage immediately fountained forth a crimson cascade.
Covering his entire face with his hands, Langley blubbered and sobbed. “You broooooke it,” he wailed. And then, with blood pouring through his fingers, the stocky boy went racing off. All the while screaming for his mother.
Until… there was quiet once more.
Gillian dusted her palms together. “I never thought he’d leave,” she muttered. As if she’d already forgotten the horrible words hurled at her by the gathering of boys, she turned a beaming smile upon Colin. “And here you said there was no such thing as a ‘good’ rock.”
“I didn’t need you to save me, Gillian.”
Lifting the hem of her white skirts, she picked her way daintily along an uneven path of large rocks, playing like the young girl she was and not the heroic defender who’d just sent the ugliest brutes in the village running. “I didn’t save you,” she said conversationally, tossing her arms out to balance herself when she almost tipped off her perch. “If I had saved you, you wouldn’t be sporting that enormous bruise.”
Colin’s fingers flew to that forgotten injury. He winced. His mother would see and ask questions, and he’d have to again lie and insist it had nothing to do with her, when it had everything to do with her.
Hiking her skirts higher, Gillian hopped onto dry ground and skipped over. “Let me see.”
“It is fine,” he insisted, but she already had him by the hand and was dragging him toward the small stream.
She pointed to a nearby boulder. “Sit.”
The power of her birthright brought him swiftly onto his buttocks, rushing to comply. She probed and prodded the swelling lump.
“Those terrible, terrible boys.” Her eyes glinted with anger. “Hurting you as they did.”
His lips twitched in his first smile of the morn. “You are in need of better insults.”
“Langley’s a gibface blunderbuss.” Gillian tore the hem of her skirts. “A regular old bull calf.”
“That is better.” He eyed her movements as she soaked that delicate lace. Her mother was going to have her head for that affront to her dress.
Only, she wasn’t done verbally tearing down Langley. “He’s a corny-faced flapdoodle.”
He strangled on his swallow. “A fl-flap—”
“You know,” she cut him off. “A flapdoodle.” She lifted up her smallest finger. “His naughty bits.”
“I know what a flapdoodle is,” Colin said on a rush. His cheeks fired hot. The question was how did she? He, however, had no intention of wandering down that path of discussion with her.
“And that is why I’m never going to marry. That is how all noblemen are.”
“It’s not how they all are,” he said automatically.
She paused in her probing and gave him a look. “Aren’t they, Colin? Aren’t they?” She placed a slight emphasis on those two words the second time she spoke.
He scrunched up his brow. It was certainly how his father, the randy Duke of Ravenscourt, was. And it was also how her ruthless, miserable father was. And Langley and his father. Yes, mayhap she was correct, after all. “I… I don’t know, Gillian. There has to be a good one among the bunch.”
“I shan’t marry them, Colin,” she said, her voice shaking. “I shan’t do it.”
“Well, you can’t marry all of them. Just one.”
That weak bid at humor fell flat.
She glared at him. “Are you making light again?”
“As it is, you have many, many years before you have to worry about it, Gillian. I’m certain some good nobleman will come along in that time.”
“That is highly doubtful,” she muttered.
And he was forced to agree with her… albeit silently.
“There is only one choice that makes sense.”
“Oh?” He eyed her warily. After all, nothing really made sense where Gillian Farendale was concerned.
“If I do not find a good, honorable man to marry by the time I’m twenty-three, then we shall marry.”
Him? Marry… her? Or, for that matter, marry anyone? “You’re assuming I won’t be married by twenty-three,” he pointed out, hedging.
Gillian pointed her eyes at the tree overhead. “Of course you won’t. You don’t like girls.”
Yes, well, she had him there. Or that had been the case. Recently, he’d begun noticing… things about girls that he didn’t like himself for noticing. Details about their bosoms and other wicked thoughts that reminded him that he was like the dishonorable duke who’d sired him.
He shifted uncomfortably. “Geez, I don’t know, Gillian. There has to be a good one among the bunch.”
“And if there isn’t?” she whispered. “What then?”
What then? She’d still find herself comfortable and secure, which was a good deal more than Colin’s own mother knew.
“I was thinking we might also have a Mariage Grand Cirque.”
That brought Colin back to the moment. “A…what?”
“It is French for,” she said punctuating the air with her two index fingers, as if that would somehow help him translate that foreign language. “A Grand Marriage Circus. Animals don’t have to be there, if you don’t want.” Her eyes lit. “But perhaps they shall? And there’ll be games and archery and—”
“I don’t want a grand-wedding-anything, Gillian,” he said, impatiently cutting her off. “And…And…even if I did…” He wouldn’t. “We don’t have any other real friends to invite.” There was no disputing that.
Gillian appeared stricken, and just as he began feeling badly for hurting her, she brightened. “But perhaps someday we’ll have a very many friends, and—”
“No.” To all of it: to the false idea that there’d be more than he already knew or had for family and friends. To the wedding circus. To the damned wedding.
She sighed. “Oh, very well.”
A cry went up. “Gilliaaaan!”
Oh, bloody hell. Someone was searching for her.
Nay… Colin strained his ears. Not just… anyone.
Gillian’s always brightly colored cheeks faded white. “Oh, dear.”
It was a dire day indeed if the lazy, portly, and highly inactive marquess went out searching the countryside for Gillian. Even Colin knew that. Only… it would also be a good deal worse for Colin. Springing into movement, Colin gripped her by the shoulders, ringing a gasp from her.
“Colin!” she whispered.
“You have to go,” he said frantically. For her. But especially for him. If he was discovered with the marquess’s daughter… Sweat popped out on his brow.
“But our arrangement, Colin.”
Colin tossed his hands up. “We don’t have an arrangement, Gillian.”
“Giillllian, where are you?” The marquess’s calls grew increasingly closer.
“That is my point,” she said calmly. “I cannot leave until it is settled.” Gillian spit into her palm and extended that saliva offering to him.
He blanched. “What in blazes—?”
There came the crack and crunch of brush and twigs breaking under the noisy approach of the marquess. And because he would have offered her anything to get her gone and save himself from discovery and her father’s ire, Colin spit into his own hand and placed it in hers. “I’ll marry you if you don’t find a good fellow by—” He released her quickly.
“Twenty-three,” she said, entirely too loud.
“Fine. Fine.” It was a lifetime away, and even when she reached those years, she’d be married. “Twenty-three.” Again taking her by the shoulders, this time more firmly, he pushed her in the direction of her father’s approaching voice.
“Do you promise?” she asked, seeming wholly unworried about the prospect of discovery.
But then, Colin was the one facing hell and trouble if they were caught together. “Didn’t I just shake your hand?” Please, go!
She smiled. “Splendid. I’ll draw something up and bring it for you to sign—”
With their deal struck, she thankfully took herself off, saving him from discovery by her father.