Book 5 in the >Heart of a Duke Series
All she wants is security:
The last place finishing school instructor Mrs. Jane Munroe belongs, is in polite Society. Vowing to never wed, she’s been scuttled around from post to post. Now she finds herself in the Marquess of Waverly’s household. She’s never met a nobleman she liked, and when she meets the pompous, arrogant marquess, she remembers why. But soon, she discovers Gabriel is unlike any gentleman she’s ever known.
All he wants is a companion for his sister:
What Gabriel finds himself with instead, is a fiery spirited, bespectacled woman who entices him at every corner and challenges his age-old vow to never trust his heart to a woman. But…there is something suspicious about his sister’s companion. And he is determined to find out just what it is.
All they need is each other:
As Gabriel and Jane confront the truth of their feelings, the lies and secrets between them begin to unravel. And Jane is left to decide whether or not it is ever truly safe to love a lord.
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That terse one word utterance filled the otherwise quiet of Gabriel Edgerton, the Marquess of Waverly’s office.
His sister was handling this a good deal better than he imagined she would. Gabriel sat back in his seat. “Chloe,” he began, but wisely closed his mouth at the furious stare trained on him. He shifted with the slightest trace of guilt.
Chloe settled her palms on the edge of his desk. “I said nothing when you turned over the responsibility of chaperoning me to Alex.”
“He is your favorite brother,” he reminded her.
Her eyes narrowed. “That is neither here nor there.”
His lips twitched with involuntary amusement. He hardly blamed Chloe for favoring their brother, the once roguish, now wedded Lord Alex Edgerton. He’d long been the entertaining, charming brother. Not at all like Gabriel’s stodgy self, committed to his responsibilities. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “You need a companion.”
“No, I need a chaperone.” She gave him a pointed look until he shifted at the recrimination there.
“I have chaperoned you.”
She leaned forward. “You chaperoned Philippa.” His other, thankfully wedded, less difficult sibling. Or rather the only undifficult of all three of the Edgerton siblings. “Me, you eventually foisted off on Alex.”
“Of which you appreciated,” he felt inclined to point out.
Fire flashed in her eyes. “Not. One. Of. Mrs. Belden’s. Dragons.”
And this was what he had been anticipating. Gabriel scrubbed a hand over his eyes. He was glad Philippa was expecting her second child, he really was. Only after complications with her first pregnancy, Philippa wanted their mother at her side, which now left Gabriel to deal with his still unwed sister, Chloe. He made one last desperate bid at reasoning with her. “The woman will not be a chaperone. She will serve as a companion.” Who would also serve as a chaperone. The knowing glint in his sister’s eyes indicated she knew as much, too. He laid his hands down. “It is but for two months.”
“Two months?” Her brow shot up. “And then, pray tell, what happens at the end of the two months?”
Well, for one the Season would be over. But not nearly soon enough. He waved a hand about. “You’ll wed.”
Ah, so now the repeating back what he said business. This usually preceded the cool effrontery. He interlocked his fingers. “I expect you’ll be wed by the end of the Season.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You expect I’ll be wed by the end of the Season?” Her tone remained remarkably even.
Gabriel tugged at his cravat and eyed the sideboard littered with crystal decanters. His mouth went dry with a sudden need for a drink, craving the liquid fortitude. He’d long known the reservations carried by all his siblings about the bonds of matrimony. Knew because he shared them, too. Having grown up the secretly abused children of the powerful former Marquess of Waverly, they’d all learned the perils of trusting oneself to another. He squared his jaw. As the eldest of the Edgerton siblings, he’d had an obligation to protect, and yet had failed—abysmally. Himself included. That failure drove all his efforts to see his siblings happy.
Clearing his throat, he then shoved back his chair and stood. “I pledge to help guide you as I did Philippa,” he said walking over to the Chippendale sideboard. “You are now on your fourth Season and, as you are getting on in years, time is of the essence.” He reached for a decanter and snifter. “But rest assured, the gentleman I select will be a kind, caring, and honorable man.” Gabriel splashed several fingerfuls into the glass then downed a healthy swallow. He stared into the amber brew while swirling it in a slow circle.
Then, the absolute silence registered.
He turned around and nearly collided with his sister. A curse escaped him as he backed into the sideboard. “Bloody hell, you startled me.” The remaining contents of his glass spilled over the rim. God, she’d always possessed a remarkable talent of sneaking up on a person. Then, years of hiding from their brute of a father had ingrained certain unwanted, but certainly warranted, lessons into each of them.
His sister stood not even a foot away with her hands planted akimbo, her eyebrows knitted into a single, dangerous line. “Getting on in years?” she repeated back, drawing out each of those four words in a “you-are-in-deuced-trouble-tone” that would have made her the envy of any stern mama.
“Yes, but you’re rather focusing on the least important aspect of what I—”
“You think to wed me off to a—”
“Kind and honorable gentleman,” he cut in. And that was the essential part. He set what remained of his brandy down hard on the sideboard. Droplets splashed his coat.
This again. And this is why he required someone of the female persuasion, because where Chloe was concerned, she’d never done anything if it had come at his bequest.
Once more he lamented she was not just a little bit like Philippa. Not all of her, for that would fundamentally alter who she was. Just the difficult parts. About wedding that was.
So when presented with the prospect of either debating the merits and necessity of her wedding, one of those honorable, caring, gentle sorts or avoiding conflict altogether, he chose the latter. “Very well.” He’d allow Mrs. Belden’s esteemed instructors to handle the matter of this topic.
Alas, his sister was of an altogether different mind frame. “I’ve no intentions of wedding.”
His gut tightened. By the life they’d lived, the horrors she’d been subjected to, was it a wonder that she’d avow the marital state? “Surely you recognize you have to eventually wed.”
“No.” She shook her head. “No, I don’t. I’ll be quite content as the spinsterish aunt who bounces my nieces and nephews upon my knee.” Chloe folded her arms across her chest. “Perhaps we’d both be better served by focusing our attentions on finding you a match.”
He blinked. “Me?”
She gave a vigorous nod. “You.”
Within the confines of his gloves, his palms grew moist and he dusted them along the sides of his breeches. “I don’t care to discuss my marital state,” he muttered and grabbed his snifter, particularly because there was no marital state for him, nor would there ever be. He took another swallow of the remaining contents and then set down the empty glass.
An inelegant snort escaped his sister. “Of course you don’t.” She paused. “Any more than I do. But,” she held a finger up and wagged it under his nose. “You are in far greater need of a spouse than I am.”
“Am I?” he drawled, feigning nonchalance.
Alas, by the triumphant glint in her gaze, his astute sister had already gathered his disquiet and pressed her advantage. God, she was ruthless. All of Boney’s forces would have been hopeless under her dogged tenacity. She waved her gloved fingertip once more. “Oh, yes. There is the matter of you producing an heir.”
He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. “I will not discuss the matter of an heir with you.” Or anyone. Wisely his sister fell silent.
Alas, Chloe had never been one to stay quiet for long.
“I am merely pointing out that it is far more important that you wed.” A twinkle lit her eyes. “Particularly with your advancing years.”
For a long time he’d warred within himself about that obligation expected of him. To wed and produce an heir, he’d preserve a line once held by a monster. What an ultimate victory over that bastard who’d sired them, who’d loved the line more than anything and everything—to let it die and go to some distant, removed cousin. “There is Alex,” Gabriel pointed out. For with his brother wed, the line wouldn’t die with him.
She opened her mouth to continue her debate, but with glass in hand, he strode past her. “My marital state is neither here nor there,” he said in clipped tones, as he reclaimed his familiar seat behind his desk. He cradled his glass in his hands. “I am worried over your being alone since Imogen and Alex married.” Chloe had always been a rather lonely girl until she’d met Lady Imogen. Now since the wedding between her best friend and brother, Chloe had become that same solitary person. “Mother has written and is concerned about you and your Season.” Perhaps he had more of his bastard father in him than he’d ever suspected for he pounced on his sister’s weakness. “She will leave Philippa’s side if it means you require her presence.” It was a bold, blatant lie.
“No.” The denial sprung from his sister. Some of the fight drained from her shoulders. She stomped over to the desk and then sat in the leather winged back chair. A golden curl fell over her brow. “I would not dare take her from Philippa’s side.”
Guilt needled his conscience. He’d known that her unflinching sisterly devotion would quell all arguments on her behalf. He took solace in knowing he merely sought to do what he’d failed to do as a youth—protect her. “I expect one of Mrs. Belden’s instructors to arrive within a fortnight.”
Chloe groaned and sprawled in the chair. “Does it have to be one of Mrs. Belden’s instructors?” She flung an exaggerated hand over her brow. “I understand Imogen and Alex are otherwise pulled away from Society events,” she pointed her eyes to the ceiling to indicate just what she thought of her favorite brother and best friend’s subsequent abandonment. “But surely there is someone, anyone, other than one of those dour, frowning, miserable beings?”
Despite himself, his lips twitched with amusement. “I’m afraid not.” Seated thusly, she resembled more the dramatic girl who’d slipped from the nursery and sought sanctuary in hidden corners of this very home to craft magical kingdoms in which to escape. His smile withered. At what point had she ceased to believe in hope and magic? After all, a person dwelling in hell always knew that one particular moment to so shatter your illusions of hope and happiness.
A curl tumbled over her eye and she blew it back on a huff of annoyance. “All those dratted instructors speak on are matters of marriage and proper husbands and proper decorum and…” She waved her hand. “Everything proper.”
In short, the woman who’d be assigned to his sister for the next two months was bloody perfect and, God willing, would be able to rationalize with his sister when he’d never been able to. “It is temporary,” he assured her.
“I’ve agreed to your foisting me off on a companion so you can be free of me, I do not, however, want a Belden dragon.”
Guilt tugged once more. “Is that what you believe?” His siblings all possessed such a low opinion of him. Then how could they not when he’d so failed to care for them as he had?
She arched an eyebrow. “Isn’t it true?”
He glanced over her shoulder at the wood door panel. Yes, he certainly saw how, on the surface, it appeared that way. After all, hadn’t his own father gleefully pointed out that Gabriel possessed the same vices as his sire? He’d proudly noted Gabriel’s ability to put his own comforts before all others. “It isn’t,” he said quietly. Instead, he’d spent his life fighting those addictive personalities he’d learned at his father’s knee and secretly striving to put his siblings first. “I very much enjoy your company, Chloe.” His lips pulled in a grimace.
A burst of laughter escaped his sister. “That is hardly convincing,” she said between gasping breaths. “You don’t enjoy anyone’s company, Gabriel.”
He’d built a fortress about his heart when his father had taken him under his wing, a boy of ten. It had been a mechanism to protect himself from hurt. To show emotion had wrought more pain at his father’s hands. Yet, in so many years he’d spent proving he didn’t feel, he’d done a damned convincing job of making his siblings believe that lie. In truth, he wanted her safely wed and at which point all those he loved would be properly cared for. Their security and happiness represented an absolution of sorts. Perhaps then, with Chloe wed, there would be a sense of having proved his father wrong. “That isn’t true,” he said defensively. “There is you and Alex and…” He slashed the air with his hand. “I’ll not continue this discussion.”
Chloe hopped to her feet. “Of course you won’t.” She leaned over the desk and patted his hand. “Because I daresay, but for your equally stodgy Lord Waterson, there isn’t a single soul you’d add.” Lord Waterson—a man who’d known Gabriel since he’d been a sniveling, afraid-of-everything coward at Eton. Any person who could set himself up as a devoted supporter of the miserable, cowering, weak fool he’d been was deserving of an eternal friendship.
Not wanting to traverse the path of his rotted youth, he cleared his throat. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve matters of business to attend.”
His sister pointed her gaze to the ceiling. “My, how you do enjoy my company.” A chuckle escaped her as she started for the door. She paused at the threshold. “Oh, and Gabriel?”
He inclined his head.
“If you’ve brought one of Mrs. Belden’s Beasts to transform me into a marriage-minded miss, I warn you, their efforts proved futile at finishing school and they will be just so here.” With a jaunty wave, she slipped from the room, and then pulled the door closed behind her.
Silence remained in her wake, punctuated by the tick-tocking of the long-case clock. His sister’s charges from their exchange rattled around his mind. He studied the lingering droplets that still clung to the edge of his glass.
Gabriel enjoyed people’s company. He just enjoyed his own more. Solitariness represented safety. The less people one was responsible for, the less a person could hurt. He’d little interest in expanding the number of individuals dependent on him—by doing something as foolhardy as adding a wife, as his sister suggested. With a wife came that heir and a spare she’d spoken of, which merely compounded the people reliant upon him. A family merely represented more opportunity for failure and disappointment. He’d had enough of such sentiments to last the course of his life and into the hereafter.
Once Chloe was wedded, nay happily wedded, then his obligations would be fulfilled.
Yes, the line would pass to Alex and his heirs, and Gabriel?
An ugly laugh rumbled up from his chest and split the quiet. His lips twisted in a bitterly triumphant smile. And he would have the ultimate revenge against his dead father who, even now, burned in hell.