Book 15 in the >Heart of a Duke Series
Never trust a gentleman…
Once before, Lady Alice Winterbourne trusted her heart to an honorable, respectable man… only to be jilted in the scandal of the Season. Longing for an escape from all the whispers and humiliation, Alice eagerly accepts an invitation to her friend’s house party. In the country, she hopes to find some peace from the embarrassment left in London… Unfortunately, she finds her former betrothed and his new bride in attendance.
Never love a lady…
Lord Rhys Brookfield has no interest in marriage. Ever. He’s worked quite hard at building both his fortune and his reputation as a rogue—and intends to enjoy all that they can offer him. That is if his match-making mother will stop pairing him with prospective brides. When Rhys and Alice meet, sparks flare. But with every new encounter, their first impressions of one another are challenged and an unlikely friendship is forged.
Desperate, Rhys proposes a pretend courtship, one meant to spite Alice’s former betrothed and prevent any matchmaking attempts toward Rhys. What neither expects is that a pretense can become so much more. Or that a burning passion can heal… and hurt.
When the great love of her nine and ten years broke their betrothal to wed his employer’s daughter, Lady Alice Winterbourne had been rather certain life could not be any worse.
Particularly after one was jilted in a note, and then stormed the dastard’s offices—pleadingly, no less.
Just as Alice had been wrong about her betrothed, the bookish barrister Henry Pratt’s affections. So too had she been wrong about the state of her currently, and perpetually very sad affairs. The passing months after The Scandal, as Society had taken to referring to it, had proved how very wrong she’d been.
It was peculiar just how many different meanings could be infused into that phrase; “Oh, Alice” and by so very many different people.
In this particular moment, in that particular place, it was none other than her sister-in-law, Lady Daphne Winterbourne, the Countess of Montfort, whose “Oh, Alice” was infused with sadness.
Which was only marginally better than the self-blaming of Alice’s brother.
Grin through it.
Grinning was easier.
Plastering on a smile that threatened to shatter her cheekbones, Alice glanced up from the small stack of books she’d been piling atop her mahogany tester bed. “Oh, come, Daphne! None of that! It will be good fun.”
Tremendous fun. Heaps of it. Bountiful supplies—
At the answering silence, she turned her lips up another smidgen, which strained every muscle of her face.
Who knew there were so very many muscles in a person’s face? Grinning so, only highlighted that peculiar fact.
Alice neatly deposited her stack inside the valises on the floor.
Ice pinged against the windowpanes, while the fire crackled in the hearth, punctuating the silence of the room’s occupants: Alice, Daphne…and the bustling maid hurrying about packing Alice’s belongings.
Not quickly enough.
The quiet thunk of Daphne’s cane striking the floor, and the shifting boards, indicated her sister-in-law had moved. Closer. She was coming closer. And the nearness of any person—particularly one as astute as Daphne—would reveal the strain at the corners of Alice’s lips. The tightness about her eyes. The wretched dark circles that gave her the look of one of those deuced raccoons she’d read of in a book plucked from the Circulating Library.
Devoting all her energies to the mounds of books resting about, she put her hands on her hips and made a show of contemplating them. All the while, seeing not a single title or author’s name… or topic.
But then, such had been the way since Henry Pratt and The Note and Alice’s subsequent flight to his offices…and then worse still, to St. George’s.
And then, of course, had come her blasted arrival at St. George’s, the day of his wedding.
What a bloody, pathetic fool. Her throat worked painfully. For that pitiable display, she was deserving of Society’s scorn.
Blasted Winterbourne passion. It was a curse inherent in their line. The wild displays of emotion: rage, love, desire coursed in their blood. They wore their emotions for all the world to see and Alice had once celebrated their unwillingness to dissemble.
She cringed. And how very poorly she’d worn it that fateful day in London when The Scandal had become THE SCANDAL, in all the papers. And in all the ballrooms and drawing rooms… and really anywhere and everywhere people were or had been.
After all, it was not every day a young woman interrupted the wedding services of her former betrothed.
“…Therefore, if any man can show any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak or else hereafter forever hold his peace…”
Daphne settled a hand on Alice’s shoulder, interrupting those cursed memories.
Please do not offer an apology… do not…
“I hate that you’ll be gone so long. Please consider returning at least for Christmas,” Daphne said quietly, sadly.
Sad. They had all been so very sad… because of Alice. The servants; old loyal ones… and new, recently hired ones, her brother, his wife: the young, blissfully in love, recently themselves wedded couple should not have to hide their laughter or conceal their smiles.
But they did.
“I will, of course, miss you,” Alice piped in, delivering the rote reply. It was not untrue. She desperately loved her family. “But it will be such good fun.” Smile.
Alice flashed another overstretched grin.
Sadness deepened within her sister-in-law’s always expressive gaze. “But this is a time of year to be with one’s family.” How was it possible for there to be such varying depths and degrees of sadness in a person’s eyes? And yet, there it was in Daphne’s. Her sister-in-law gave her a probing look, bringing her back from her meandering thoughts.
Dropping the books in her hand, she turned and hugged her arms about Daphne’s shoulders. “Come. It is but for a fortnight.” A blessed, welcome fourteen days… away from the pitying glances and sad-eyed stares from her well-meaning brother. “You will have Daniel and Alex.” The couple’s young babe.
I wanted a tiny babe, too. I imagined being a bucolic family and—
Her heart wrenched all over again.
“You belong with us.”
They meant well. All of them. Alice’s only recently devoted brother and Daphne, her former companion turned sister-in-law. But there was something so very humbling in going from cherished sister and friend… to pathetic aunt.
Alice’s future flashed behind her mind’s eye: she a spinster aunt, reading from her books while her nephews and nieces pondered over their unwed aunt and—
“I have to go,” she finally managed. “I want to go,” she swiftly corrected. And she did. For what was the alternative? To remain with her family and be constantly reminded of the mistakes she’d made?
Invited by Lady Lettice Brookfield, to join her family at their Somerset estate for a winter house party, she’d rather face the company of a friend who hadn’t yet once uttered “Oh, Alice” and instead chatted and plotted with Alice the way she might any young lady—and not one like Alice who’d scandalized the ton.
Alas, her sister-in-law was too clever, and snagged on Alice’s former words.
“But you do not have to go. You have to be with your family, the people who love—”
“Alice,” Daphne said, an apology heavy in those two syllables.
“It is fine.” It hadn’t been fine in so very long. “I know you love me,” she acknowledged, taking Daphne’s spare hand, her other gripping her cane, drained of blood from the hold she had upon it. “I know you and Daniel and Alex… all of you. I never doubted nor ever will…” Alice held her gaze, imploring Daphne with her eyes to understand. “But I need to go.” It was all she offered. She could not share this aching need to escape the greatest mistake she’d ever made and the perpetual state of sadness in which she’d left her own family.
Daphne sighed. “There is nothing I can say?”
“Daniel?” she ventured.
The hint of a smile hovered on the other woman’s lips. “He insisted I was not to leave your chambers unless I’d secured your pledge to remain with us for the holiday.”
Alice’s maid rushed over and scooped up the remaining gowns. The neatly folded garments held with the reverence one might show the queen’s jewels; Lucy laid them in the trunk and then closed it. That faint click resounded with an air of finality and decisiveness.
Daphne caught the maid’s stare.
Lucy promptly stopped arranging the trunks and dipped a curtsy. She hurried from the room, closing the door behind her. Shifting her weight over her cane, Daphne urged Alice to sit.
Oh, blast. She didn’t want another lecture about family being with family during the approaching holiday season.
Alice just wanted to be away… from their stares, from the reminder of her folly… from all of it.
“Please,” Daphne said quietly.
And it was that slight imploring when Daphne had only been like another sister that brought Alice reluctantly down onto the edge of her mattress.
Daphne lowered herself to the spot beside her. She fiddled with the ivory handle of her cane. “When I entered your brother’s employ,” she began slowly. “Your brother was so very adamant that…” Say it. Just say his name because not saying it did not make any of this less real. “Mr. Pratt was undeserving of you.”
A barrister who’d earned a living when most men were indolent lords, content to wager away their fortunes. He had helplessly captivated Alice.
Fool. You bloody twit.
Daphne cleared her throat. When she spoke, emotion clogged her tone, making her voice husky. “I insisted he was. I insisted that, despite Mr. Pratt’s lack of funds and his commitment to his work, he cared for you and…” She grimaced, and gave her head a slight shake.
“Mm. Mm,” Alice said adamantly, facing the other woman. “I’ll not have you do that. I’ll not have you take ownership of my folly in trusting my heart to… to Henry.”
In the immediate aftermath of his treachery, even the mention of his name had gutted her. With time, it had faded, lessened. Now, there was nothing more than the sharp tug of resentment of him… and herself for that great mistake.
A proud smile curved Daphne’s lips upward. “You are an amazing young woman, Alice.”
Alice didn’t want to be admired. She was undeserving of those sentiments. For inside, she was still the angry, hurt young woman who’d been jilted, and then gone on to humiliate herself. As such, she met that statement with silence.
Daphne’s smile faded. “We have been worried about you since…”
“The Scandal?” Alice ventured. “Or… THE SCANDAL.”
Daphne wrinkled her nose. “Both,” she confided, and Alice loved her sister-in-law all the more for her honesty. This, she appreciated.
Not the tiptoeing about, or the averted sad-eyed stares, or hurriedly altered discussions. But this. Not talking about it and not acknowledging what had happened with Henry Pratt did not make that betrayal go away. It just highlighted it in a viciously stark way that deepened the pain of her naiveté.
“Your brother insists you remain here, with us, but I believe it will do you good to join your friend, Lady Lettice, and be away from this place. Sometimes, the change of place, or people is good for one’s heart.”
Good for one’s heart.
Was such a thing possible when one’s heart had been smashed by a man who, as her sister-in-law had so rightly claimed, had been undeserving of that organ?
Alice forced another one of those painful smiles. “Thank you, Daphne,” she said gently, in a bid to mark the end of the discourse.
Her sister-in-law shoved herself upright. The minute she’d presented her back to Alice, she let her grin die. With slow, careful steps, Daphne limped to the door. She paused at the entranceway and glanced back.
Restoring her false grin, Alice stared expectantly back.
“I’ve wanted to say something to you…” Daphne said somberly. “I’ve searched for the perfect time or way but have not found it. Until now.” Her sister-in-law brought her shoulders back to a determined little set. “I want you to know… that your heart is breaking,” Nay, broken. It had already been smashed under the hands of Henry Pratt’s ink-stained fingers. “And it will not matter what anyone says; about Mr. Pratt’s worthlessness or your own strength… because those are just words. But in time, you yourself will come to find that there can, despite his treachery, be true love and…” Mayhap that it hadn’t been that emotion with Henry after all.
That supposition hung silent, as loud as if it had been spoken, and insulting for what it implied about Alice’s knowing of her own mind and heart.
Color suffused Daphne’s cheeks. “I am merely speaking as a woman who once gave my… heart to a dastard, only to have him shatter it.” And now she’d found love with Alice’s brother.
“Thank you, Daphne,” she repeated.
As soon as she’d gone, Alice stared at the closed door, waiting, waiting.
She hurled herself backwards, crashing down on the down mattress. Shooting a hand out, she dragged the pillow over her face.
She was not so destroyed by her pain and humiliation that she didn’t see that true love did exist. Daphne and Daniel were proof enough of that.
What she did recognize, however, was that happening to find the precise gentleman deserving of one’s love, and being the recipient of his devotion in return was as rare as catching a shooting star amidst a winter’s storm. It was unlikely. And nigh impossible.
And given her rotted luck with Henry Pratt, the last things Alice believed in were shooting stars and the wishes they’d bring.
But mayhap her sister-in-law had been correct in another regard—it would do Alice good to be away from this place and the lingering presence of H