Book 11 in the >Heart of a Duke Series
He’s spent years scandalizing society.
Now, this rake must change his ways.
Society’s most infamous scoundrel, Daniel Winterbourne, the Earl of Montfort, has been promised a small fortune if he can relinquish his wayward, carousing lifestyle. And behaving means he must also help find a respectable companion for his youngest sister–someone who will guide her and whom she can emulate. However, Daniel knows no such woman. But when he encounters a childhood friend, Daniel believes she may just be the answer to all of his problems.
Having been secretly humiliated by an unscrupulous blackguard years earlier, Miss Daphne Smith dreams of finding work at Ladies of Hope, an institution that provides an education for disabled women. With her sordid past and a disfigured leg, few opportunities arise for a woman such as she. Knowing Daniel’s history, she wishes to avoid him, but working for his sister is exactly the stepping stone she needs.
Their attraction intensifies as Daniel and Daphne grow closer, preparing his sister for the London Season. But Daniel must resist his desire for a woman tarnished by scandal while Daphne is reminded of the boy she once knew. Can society’s most notorious rake redeem his reputation and become the man Daphne deserves?
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Miss Daphne Smith wanted to sit. Desperately. From the corner of her eye, she covetously eyed the seat in front of the immaculate rose-inlaid desk.
Mrs. Belden, the headmistress at Mrs. Belden’s Finishing School, transferred her gaze from the sheet in her hands and peered down the length of her nose. “In three months, nothing has changed, Miss Smith.” In a dismissive manner that sent panic spiraling in Daphne’s breast, the woman set aside the list of references and slid them across the desk.
With the assistance of her cane, Daphne limped forward. “My references are honorable ones,” she said resolutely. “I ask you to please reconsider.” Again. She despised the faint shake that hinted at her desperation. Then, when you were a crippled spinster of eight and twenty years, without a living relation to depend on, and even less funds to survive through the years, that is really what one became—desperate. How she despised a world where there were so few options for women.
The headmistress took in the drag of her left leg and her frown deepened. Yes, for in a world where Society valued utmost perfection, particularly of the physical sort, Daphne would never, ever be anything but broken. The tap of her cane served as an ever-present damnable reminder. Her skirts, at least, hid the mangled, ugly truth everyone knew. “Miss Smith,” the woman began, carefully removing her spectacles. She folded the pair and rested them on her desk. “How many times have you come to speak with me?”
“Five.” That was if one did not include the time she’d approached the headmistress in the village for an “accidental” meeting.
“Six,” the greying woman corrected. “One of those times I was in the village on a matter of business.”
Daphne curled her hand over the head of her cane. Yes, well, a woman who was tasked with the care and deportment of the most revered ladies in the land would have a head for such precise details. How had she been reduced to hoping for employment in this stifling place? Shoving aside that useless self-pitying, she attended the headmistress.
“Since that time, what experience have you had in working with the nobility?”
She flattened her lips as a damning silence stretched on.
“And why has no one hired you?” Mrs. Belden continued, relentless. The woman could have taught Genghis Khan a lesson on ruthlessness.
However, when one was ridiculed and mocked through life for being a cripple, the harsh words of an old headmistress, though frustrating, otherwise rolled off a long-stiffened spine. “There are concerns as to my ability to move freely with children,” she said evenly. But not all people were of Mrs. Belden’s ill-opinion. Some had confidence in the capabilities of women with disabilities.
The much-read page inside the clever pocket sewn in her dress burned hot. It was that scrap that had brought her before this miserable woman.
“Tell me, Miss Smith,” the woman asked while folding her hands. She leaned over those gnarled interlocked digits. “If you were to serve a lady eager to be rid of a chaperone or companion, how would you expect to keep up, hmm?” In truth, Daphne’s interests in employment moved far beyond those flawless ladies Mrs. Belden now spoke of. Rather, it extended to women, flawed and imperfect, striving to make their place in this world, the same way she now did.
The muscles of her lower leg tightened. With the aid of her cane, she shifted her weight. “I expect if they are your esteemed students, Mrs. Belden, then there would be no worries of those young ladies daring to defy propriety and decorum,” she delivered evenly.
Mrs. Belden froze. “Are you being insolent, Miss Smith?” she sputtered.
Oh, blast and blazes. The last way she’d secure employment was by insulting the headmistress. “Not at all, Mrs. Belden.” Daphne spoke in the smooth, modulated tones her mother had once believed her incapable of. Once again, desperation allowed a woman to draw on otherwise absent skills. “You have a revered reputation and work with noble students. As such, I do not doubt their unfailing devotion to the lessons learned here.” Dull, miserable lessons on how to sit, stand, and how not to speak.
Then, it said something to the state of her own sorry existence that she’d so crave a post at a school where young ladies’ souls went to die. Alas, experience with young ladies being required for future employment and the families in the area unwilling to hire a woman with a disfigurement, Daphne would trade her soul for proper references. References that would ultimately mark her as qualified for the work she truly wished.
The headmistress pursed her lips, bringing Daphne back to the moment. “Miss Smith, I am not cruel. I do appreciate the impossibility of going through life as a cripple.”
Fury stirred and Daphne bit the inside of her cheek hard. Do not say anything. Do not say anything. Not everyone felt that way. Most did. But there was one woman who believed the contrary…
“However, the young women I hire are of respectable origins.”
As the daughter of a late, impoverished member of the gentry, Daphne had been born into respectability. But respectability was not nobility. And when there were no funds involved, her value was even less to the world. “My origins are respectable,” she interjected when the woman took a moment to breathe in her perfunctory enumeration. “My father was a member of the gentry.” Sadness stuck in her chest at the never-distant thought of her late papa.
“An impoverished one,” Mrs. Belden added, drumming her fingertips on the surface of her desk in a grating rhythm.
“But respected nonetheless.” The challenging words slipped out before she could call them back.
The older woman winged a frosty eyebrow upward. “But not respected enough for another respected family in the county to offer you employment.”
Despite the agony eating away at her leg from standing motionless for so long, Daphne remained still. She’d rather be slayed where she stood than allow the headmistress to know the mark she’d landed.
In a surprisingly magnanimous show, Mrs. Belden released a long sigh. “This audience you’ve been granted is far more than I would allow most women, Miss Smith.” How very fortunate for her. Daphne tamped down the bitter smile. “It is due to your birthright and circumstances that I have been as patient as I have.”
“However, I will insist, once more,” she thumped her fist once on the desk. “Unless there is a remarkable change in your employment history, one that includes direct employment in a noble household and glowing references, there is no place for you here as an instructor.”
A humbling entreaty hung on her lips and then died there. Even with the panicky fear that kept Daphne awake well into the early morning hours, she would never do something so pathetic as to beg.
A knock sounded at the door.
“Enter,” Mrs. Belden called out, looking past Daphne’s shoulder.
The creak of the opening door filled the room. How singularly odd that such a flawless establishment should have hinges that needed oiling. “Mrs. Belden, Lady Alice…” At that familiar name, Daphne whipped her head around. The young woman’s gaze slid to her. “The young lady’s belongings are nearly packed, however,” again, she looked to Daphne. “His Lordship has yet to arrive.” The young woman’s voice contained the smooth, emotionless tones demonstrated by all the ladies fortunate enough to find employment.
The headmistress nodded. “That will be all, Mrs. Ludecke,” she said brusquely.
A moment later, the door closed, once more creaking on its hinges. Mrs. Belden wasted no time in launching into her diatribe. “Please let me make myself clear, Miss Smith, lest you waste your time.” Again. “Unless you have clients of noble birth and references speaking to your diligent effort on those ladies’ behalf, there is no place for you in this school. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” Mrs. Belden said, impatience in that polite, empty request. “I have a matter to attend to.” Then in a dismissive gesture, the woman picked up her spectacles, perched them on her nose, and returned her attention to the notes in front of her.
The headmistress’ students. Those cherished young ladies with their still-living mamas and papas, and laughter. They had no worries over what happened when a woman officially ran through her meager funds left. And worse, the distant male relative who’d brought her displacement.
A lump formed in her throat. A hungering for her own loving parents. The only people who’d seen beyond her disfigurement.
“Miss Smith,” Mrs. Belden snapped, jerking her into motion.
Daphne limped over to the desk. With her spare hand, she grabbed the handful of respected names—friends of her departed parents who could serve as a character reference, but wouldn’t do more than that; like hire her for their cherished daughters. “Mrs. Belden,” she said flatly. Useless page in hand, she lurched across the room. Her neck burned with the woman’s stare.
Yes, one who’d committed herself to instructing ladies on the effortless way with which to glide over marble ballrooms would never look with anything but revulsion on a woman who moved like a lame pup just learning to walk.
When she exited the room, closing the door behind her, Daphne did not break her stride. Instead, she marched ahead at a brisk pace that strained every last muscle and ligament from her ankle up through her knee, and higher up to her thigh. Sweat beaded her brow and she dusted the back of her forearm over it.
If her limp appalled Mrs. Belden, she would, no doubt, find a lady perspiring as a punishable offense. Not all were as ruthless as Mrs. Belden, however. For the men and women of all stations who viewed Daphne and the other imperfect girls and women as useless to Society, there were those that believed in their capabilities.
With her spare hand, she dug out the single, neat scrap she’d snipped from an old copy of the Herald Gazette and scanned the page. Even though she’d read it enough times that she’d burned the words on her mind.
The Marchioness of Guilford, founder of Ladies of Hope, a distinguished institution for girls and women with disabilities, seeks the most experienced educators and doctors as candidates for work with those living within the institution. Only those with a belief in the ideology and principle of the establishment, as well as experience and glowing references will be considered for employment. It promises to be unlike any other respectable institution for ladies, etc, etc…
Daphne gripped the edges of that sheet so hard, her fingers turned white. The same hope that had filled her since she’d first read of Lady Guilford’s held her motionless. There was a place. A place that existed for women of all walks and ages where they were valued. A place where only the best, most qualified were hired for the people who called that institution their home. Alas, her hopeful query to that distinguished proprietress had been met with a gracious, if perfunctory, declination on the merits of Daphne’s lack of experience. She rested her cane against the wall and, through her gown, kneaded the muscles of her thigh.
Society was a riddle wrapped in a conundrum. To obtain honorable work, she required experience and references. And yet those gifts that would grant her security could not be earned without experience or references.
Marriage was not an option for a woman such as her.
With fiery red hair and too many freckles, she’d never be considered a great beauty but even as such, had she the use of her limb and a modest dowry, she could have married a respectable gentleman. Not that she dreamed of marriage. Not any longer. She’d long ago come to appreciate the perils in giving her affections to a gentleman.
Now, a woman of nearly eight and twenty years, she yearned for a control of her own future. She dropped her gaze to the page once more, with a sigh, and stuffed it inside her pocket. Opportunities, however, were limited and far and few between for cripples.
Shoving aside useless self-pitying, Daphne grabbed her cane. She took one step, when a hushed conversation from the closed door across the hall reached her and halted her forward momentum.
“…Lady Alice is certainly not the first lady who… Lady Clarisse Falcot—”
An inelegant snort cut off whatever words that employee now said of Lady Clarisse. “This is entirely different. This is not Christmas.” Not wishing to listen any further on the instructors’ gossip about the students who attended these hallowed halls, Daphne resumed walking, when the next whispered words halted her mid-step. “She is being thrown out.”
Thrown out? Of Mrs. Belden’s? Lady Alice, the Earl of Montfort’s sister—Daniel Winterbourne’s sister—would be… Her mind raced—sixteen. Mayhap seventeen years of age. What offense found a lady dismissed from finishing school? She furrowed her brow. Though once best friends with the girl’s older brother, Daphne had only a few interactions with his much younger sibling.
“Nor is Lady Alice Winterbourne Lady Clarisse Falcot. But each lady’s brother is rumored to be something of a rake.”
At that, Daphne frowned. Yes, years ago Daniel had gone to London and made quite a splash on the scandal pages through the years for the reputation he’d garnered as rake.
“…What manner of brother forgets his sister?”
She covered her mouth to stifle a gasp. He’d forgotten Alice?
“…One who is deep in dun territory,” the other woman replied.
Most of the ladies who attended Mrs. Belden’s were lofty nobles who’d either little interest in having a daughter or sister underfoot or a lack of funds to hire the proper governess. Her frown deepened. In Lord Montfort’s case, it appeared to be a mix of the two.
Annoyance with the boy she’d once called friend stirred. Then, they’d not been friends for many, many years. Not since his mother had died. What use did noble sons, set to inherit an earldom, have need of a crippled lady without noble connections? Especially a noble son of whom she’d once, as a young girl, thought to marry and live happily with forever and ever. What a bird wit she’d been.
“…They say he’s returned from a wicked party he hosts in London…”
Daphne gave a disgusted shake of her head. The village had been set on its ear four years earlier when carriages of courtesans, widows, and whispered-about rakes and rogues had arrived for a hunting party at the young earl’s estate to do more than hunt at his now severely crumbling estate. Scandalous gossip of the particular feasts enjoyed by the gentleman in attendance had spread throughout the village that still set Daphne’s ears to burn.
It would seem, by the young instructors’ gossip, that those parties hadn’t ceased, but rather their locale moved.
“…I also heard…” The door suddenly opened and Daphne stumbled back as the two young women’s gazes landed on her. Shifting her cane, Daphne forced a smile, and resumed her trek down the hall.
As she made her way by, her skin pricked with the always familiar, open stares. Looks she’d grown accustomed to through the years. After all, crippled ladies were an oddity in a world that valued flawlessness in every way for women. Even with that, even knowing people ogled and pitied and talked, her insides twisted. No person wished to be the object of pity.
Daphne reached the front foyer and a servant came forward with her cloak. Balancing her cane against the front of her skirts, with some difficulty she struggled into the worn wool garment. The same servant spared a glance at the aged fabric and then rushed to draw the door open.
The cleansing spring air filled her lungs. She paused on the front step, focusing on the familiar comfort of the country air. Fixing on that prevented her from thinking of returning to her small cottage that would soon be turned over to a distant relative whom she’d never even met.
Laughter trilled around the immaculate grounds and she looked wistfully to the young ladies with baskets on their arms as they snipped and gathered gold and orange chrysanthemums. She paused and appreciated the beautiful simplicity of that act. One she’d performed so very many times as a girl alongside her mother.
When had she snipped a bud for the pleasure of it? Since her father’s passing eighteen months earlier, her life had moved on, driven by survival and necessity.
“Miss Smith, is that you?”
Daphne whipped her head toward that excited call. The abrupt movement caused her leg to buckle and she steadied herself with her cane.
Several ladies giggled, earning a quiet rebuke from the instructor attending them. Basket in hand, Alice sprinted over with an ease and agility Daphne would have traded a sliver of her soul for. “Oh, Miss Smith, it is so wonderful to see you.”
Daphne smiled and attempted a curtsy, her body screaming in protest. “My lady—”
The young lady with flawless cream skin and golden ringlets made a sound of protest. “Oh, surely after all these years you might still call me Alice.” She followed her insistence with a beatific smile that dimpled her right cheek. “Though I am hardly the child you so graciously held in your arms when my Father passed.”
Sadness filled her breast. “No, you are not.” How deeply and how very quickly the Winterbournes had been shattered. With the death of Alistair, the eldest brother and heir, the family had slowly and methodically crumbled until they were mere shadows of the family they’d once been. Then, having lost her own parents, Daphne appreciated the finite quality of death and all the pain it wrought. “I should allow you to return to the other ladies,” she said with another smile.
A smattering of giggles filled the gardens. Alice’s cheeks turned red and her effervescent smile dipped. “Are they staring at me?” she whispered.
Daphne furrowed her brow.
“The nasty creatures in pale blue skirts.”
She slid her gaze over to the girls now staring in their general direction. Another round of laughter followed. And more chiding from the instructor. It was invariably Daphne who was the gawked at one. In this, however, the three students in blue stared baldly at Alice. Had the news that the young lady had been forgotten already leaked out? Having been the recipient of unkind glances and whispers, Daphne’s heart pulled. She’d wish that ugly on no one. And especially not a girl of Lady Alice’s kind spirit. “I’ve no doubt it is me who’s earned their unkindness this day,” she reassured.
“Lady Alice,” the instructor called, the stern underlying edge hinting at disapproval.
“That is lovely of you to say,” the girl said softly, ignoring the young woman in hideous brown skirts. “But it is me. I’m being turned out and Daniel forgot me.”
Daphne opened and closed her mouth several times. Over the course of her life, she’d cursed Daniel Winterbourne, the Earl of Montfort, numerous times. As a girl, when she should have never uttered those scandalous words. Then years later, after he’d disappeared from her life. And then after that, when she’d read and seen the manner of man he’d become. Never had she cursed him more than she did in this instance. “I am certain he did not forget you.” The lie slid forth easily.
“That is kind of you to say,” Alice murmured, fiddling with her basket. “But the instructors have been less than discreet.”
Daphne’s fingers curled reflexively on the head of her cane. No, for all Society’s dictates on politeness and proper discourse, most people were not careful with their words. They belonged to a Society that was a backward mirror image of itself.
“Lady Alice,” the instructor called again.
Blatantly ignoring that sharp command, the young lady waggled her eyebrows. “Though, one of the benefits of being tossed from finishing school is you really don’t have much of a care as to what your former instructors have to say.” They shared a smile and then the troubled glimmer returned to Alice’s pretty brown eyes. “If you’ll excuse me. I should return, at least until they determine what to do with me.”
“It was lovely seeing you again, Alice,” she said softly.
The young lady nodded and then with slow, reluctant movements, rejoined the small group of assembled ladies.
The spring wind tugged at Daphne’s cloak as she started down the stone walkway. With each faltering step that carried her away from Mrs. Belden’s and toward her temporary home, her frustration and fury grew, blending together in a potent mixture that fueled her awkward, lurching movements.
And not for the first time since she’d broken her leg and discovered the truth of the ugly in the world, resentment consumed her. Anger at a world where women were subject to the whim and whimsy of distant relations. Negligent brothers. Unkind ladies. Even unkinder headmistresses and temperamental peers.
Ultimately, she would be tossed out of her cottage. Her prospects limited. Her funds even more so. Terror licked at the corner of her consciousness, threatening to consume her, and she forcibly thrust it aside. There would come a time to lament her circumstances and panic over her future later.
Daphne shifted direction and began the long, slow march away from Mrs. Belden’s and away from her cottage to the largest, sprawling, if now crumbling country estate in Surrey. No, she might not be able to help herself this day, but there was something she could do for Alice. In helping the young girl, Daphne would have some control. If she could not save herself in this moment, she could at last protect another.
Firming her mouth, she continued the trek to the Earl of Montfort’s.