Book 1 in the >Heart of a Scandal Series
Be swept away by the first book in Christi Caldwell’s ‘Heart of a Scandal’ series!
There once was a gypsy’s pendant said to bring its wearer the heart of a duke. Some found love and others–heart ache. In this passionate series, clever, once-wounded, twice-wary women will find their chance at happily ever after…and maybe even, the heart of a duke!
A lady betrayed:
Finishing school instructor, Mrs. Rowena Bryant is hated by her students, revered by the headmistress, and absolutely determined to maintain her financial security. Deceived years ago by the only man she’d ever given her heart to, Rowena relies on no one but herself—that is the best way to keep her most scandalous secret.
A soldier turned duke:
When Graham Linford returned from war on the cusp of death, he discovered he’d been betrayed by the woman he loved. From that moment, Graham shaped himself into an unfeeling nobleman, refusing to ever suffer the agony of betrayal again. Now a duke, Graham is determined no one will ever discover the touch of madness that has haunted him since battle.
When Graham finds himself named guardian to a young lady, the woman sent as a companion to his ward is none other than Rowena Bryant. With every moment spent together, their passion reignites, and the walls they’ve built to keep one another out begin to crumble. But when their dark past tests them again will true love be enough to repair their damaged hearts?
Graham Linford, the Duke of Hampstead, lived a lie, and but for one loyal friend, not a single person knew it.
Society once saw him as a rogue who lived for excess, and now as the reformed duke, driven by rank and power. A man who honored societal customs and traditions. For that and his title alone, he found himself sought after by every last-matchmaking mama in England.
Ultimately, the world was content to see what it wished: a powerful, austere duke, and not much more. That façade allowed him to keep secret the nightmares that had haunted him since the battlefields of Bussaco. The truth of his insanity he intended to take to his grave, once he drew a final and, at last, peaceful breath.
Until now. Now, he very nearly thought of drawing forth that truth and revealing his greatest shame. Before a stranger, no less. Because no lord, lady, or anyone with a jot of sense would entrust a young lady to a madman’s care.
Seated before the same mahogany desk his own father had occupied, and his father’s father before him, Graham peered at Mr. Dappleton, the solicitor. A man who’d invaded his office with the intentions of foisting a ward on him.
“I beg your pardon?” he stretched those five steely syllables out.
“Guardian, Your Grace.” Not taking his gaze from the task before him, Mr. Dappleton shuffled through a leather folio and drew out page after page. “You were named guardian by Lieutenant Hickenbottom.” Then, staking a claim on Graham’s desk, the man of middling years laid the documents out like a commander on the eve of battle, pouring over his plans. Surveying the documents, the graying solicitor tapped his fingertip in a sharp, staccato rhythm. TapTapTap
Sweat beaded his brow. Mr. Dappleton had requested this meeting for more than a fortnight; a meeting which Graham had neatly sidestepped until now. All memory and mention of the past had the power to yank him under, and Hickenbottom’s name alone drew him back to that dark day. Do not give in to the damning weakness. His stomach churned. TapTapTap
The blare of cannon fire thundered inside his head. Agonized screams. Men dying around him.
Linford, I’ve got you, man!
Pulled back from the brink of his waking nightmare, Graham counted slowly to five. In a bid to maintain a façade of calm, he drew forth his watchfob and consulted the timepiece. “You were saying?” he asked in smooth, emotionless tones long perfected.
“I trust you do recall Lieutenant Hickenbottom?”
“Indeed,” he said in austere, faintly mocking tones. Even after all these years, his thigh occasionally throbbed from the dull pain of a bayonet, and then being unceremoniously carried upon the back of the very man, in death, who asked a favor of him now. Did he remember him? He peeled his lip back in a cool grin. Yes, one tended to remember the man who’d saved one from certain death, even taking a bullet in the shoulder for his efforts.
“According to Lieutenant Hickenbottom, you would recall the favor he sought of you, in the event of his death.” A drunken discourse between two equally inebriated rogues who’d toasted the hell of those days in Belgium, slipped forward. Only, it hadn’t been the sole reason for Graham’s descent into a drunken state. Rowena Endicott’s clear bell-like laugh echoed around the chambers of his mind. The muscles of his stomach seized. Dappleton slid another page across the desk.
Grateful for the diversion, Graham automatically picked it up. He scanned the official-looking document. The document that would see his life invaded and his carefully crafted façade threatened. Setting it down, he pushed it back, and reclined in his seat. “Hickenbottom must have named another guardian.” For, drunken pledges aside, even from a dissolute rake, the man would have had the sense to know Graham would make a rotted guardian for any child.
“Lord Tannery. Also dead,” the solicitor issued that blunt deliverance with nary a crack in his careful demeanor.
How easily Graham had come to be one of those dissolute lords, consumed by the blaze of his own wickedness. In the earliest days of his return from Belgium, in the darkest corners of his mind where the demons dwelled, he’d clung to the dream of death. In the even further recesses, he’d entertained bringing himself into the only place oblivion would truly be found. Instead, he’d attempted to lay siege to his monsters with the same wickedness that had killed Hickenbottom.
Where he had ultimately shifted course, and sought sanity along the path of respectability, Hickenbottom had been consumed by his own recklessness.
“Given the death of Lord Tannery and the absence of any familial relative, care for Miss Hickenbottom has fallen to you.” The solicitor slid another page across Graham’s previously immaculate desk. Picking it up, Graham skimmed the sheet.
Modest dowry. Seventeen years old. His gaze lingered on one detail of the girl Hickenbottom would leave to him:
Unwanted, the face of another girl from long, long ago slipped forward, a smiling face, with rosy cheeks and emerald eyes. Assaulted by memories better reserved for a crypt, his hand shook. Graham swiftly released the sheet and shoved it across the desk. “This is no place for a child.” Nor any man or woman.
Mr. Dappleton nodded once. “I understand, Your Grace.”
Ignoring the latter part of the gentleman’s statement, Graham steepled his fingers under his chin and leveled the solicitor with a stare. “And what is it you think you understand?” he asked, with a deliberately condescending smile. After two episodes of madness at the then-wicked clubs he’d attended years earlier, he had kept it all at bay. His friend, Jack Turner, had helped cover up that humiliation. From that moment on, he crafted the aloof image that allowed him the veneer of sanity. As such, with the exception of Jack, the world only knew the details Graham carefully fed them.
Demonstrating a remarkable composure, Mr. Dappleton lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “She is a bastard.” As though Graham were a consummate idiot who couldn’t read, the solicitor jabbed his finger in the middle of the page.
Not deigning to look at the man’s gesture, Graham’s cold tone turned glacial. “I’m well-aware of her birthright. That is not why I’m rejecting the role of guardian.”
Mr. Dappleton’s gray eyebrows shot up over the frame of his wire-rimmed spectacles.
Of course, this man, and all of Society would rightfully assume that the severe Duke of Hampstead wouldn’t want a dead rake’s by-blow underfoot. They could not know, at one time he’d given his heart and ultimately would have offered his name to a woman of that same ignoble fate. A pang stuck in his chest. He rubbed at that dulled-by time ache. An ache determined to linger, no matter how much he’d buried thoughts of Miss Rowena Endicott from his memories. Damn you, Rowena Endicott, and goddamn the resurrection of old ghosts from every corner. Battling the restive fury her name always roused, he stacked the papers requiring his signature and held them out.
“Your Grace?” the man puzzled aloud.
When he made no move to collect his paperwork, Graham let it go. The papers hit the surface of the desk with a soft thwack. “Let me explain it to you in terms you might understand.” Terms that had nothing to do with belittling a girl’s worth because of her parentage. “I’ve no duchess.” Not yet. It was a task Jack had been wisely pushing him toward, with the duchy and future of the estates in mind. The Hampstead line, once revered and held of more importance than even his own children’s happiness by the late duke, meant rot to Graham. Rather, it was the men and women dependent upon him to whom his allegiance came. “As such, a bachelor residence is not for a young girl.” He peeled his lip back. “Surely, even you see that?” The miserable twaddle who’d besmirch Hickenbottom’s child.
“But there will one day be a duchess.” Redirecting his bespectacled focus to the sheet before him, Dappleton prattled on with his late employer’s requests.
And with the man’s tenacity, Graham didn’t know whether to haul Dappleton by his jacket and heft him from the room, or hire him.
Yes, the insolent servant was indeed right. There would one day be a duchess. Soon. Very soon, to be precise. The papers had already begun to speculate as to which lady it would be. With even more speculations that the young woman was, in fact, Lady Serena Grace. A lady Jack had put forth as a suitable prospect. Daughter to the Duke of Wilkshire. Flawlessly perfect from her manners down to her golden curls. The nineteen-year-old lady had been ruthlessly honest in her desires for him from the moment they’d been introduced.
It is expected that I’ll be your duchess, Your Grace…
How very different her avowal from the false ones given him by another. His fingers curled reflexively so hard, he left crescent marks on his palms. He eased his grip.
It was Lady Serena’s ruthlessness he appreciated. Society anticipated a power-match between two ducal families, and Wilkshire’s daughter had been honest in that very same prospect. After having learned for himself the perils of love, Graham no longer had a heart to offer. Lady Serena would live her life as revered hostess, and he could retreat to the countryside and continue to live his lie. As such, they were a perfect match. Most would consider him heartless for the coldhearted arrangement he sought. As he saw it, he had no other choice.
What he did have were people dependent upon him. Tenants. Servants. And having failed too many at Bussaco, he’d sooner sell what remained of his soul than allow his wastrel cousin to inherit. Mr. Abelard Marlowe, rumored to bugger children and beat servants, would never touch a Linford farthing. “We are done here,” he said, unfurling to his full-height.
The solicitor peeked up from his documents, and in a remarkable show of courage remained sitting. “I am afraid we are not, Your Grace.” Other than that slightly emphasized word, there wasn’t a single apologetic air about the man. Hickenbottom’s solicitor may have a condescending view of the girl’s parentage, but he was fearless, and that Graham respected. Dappleton tapped his finger on the desk, like he sought to drum his point into the surface. “Lieutenant Hickenbottom’s family has adamantly stated they’ve no intention, desire, or willingness to take her in.” By that rote deliverance, these were familiar words, uttered many times to the man. The solicitor paused. “The young lady has nowhere else to go.” Had there been more than that blunt reality, it would have been easier to send Dappleton on his way with his official documents.
“He has a sister,” he ground out.
“Lady Casterlon,” The graying man shook his head. “will not take her.”
“His brother, the earl—”
“Stated you are the living guardian, and he’d not take her in, even if you won’t.”
By Christ in hell.
Tension and terror mingled to set his heart pounding. With the episodes he suffered when the horrors of war unexpectedly crept in, he’d fought for evenness in every aspect of his life. He’d not give over to the mind-numbing panic that came in: one, conceding that Dappleton was indeed correct, and two, facing the intrusion of an innocent young miss underfoot. Struggling for calm, Graham smoothed his features and returned to his seat.
Dappleton pushed the documents requiring his signatures his way once again.
A thick silence descended as Graham grasped the pen from his inkwell. There would be not one but two people with whom he’d now share the sanctuary that had become his home. For this bastard ward was far worse than a wife he could leave to her own amusements. This was a charge and her companion, who’d require oversight. Suddenly, the urgency in marrying reared its ugly head in a whole new, necessary way. Once he was married, the chit and her presentation to Society would fall to the duchess. “See that she and her companion are readied by nightfall.” The scratch of his pen, inordinately loud. “I will send a carriage to collect them.” He added his last signature. His palms grew moist, and setting his pen down, he laid his hands on his buckskin-clad thighs, brushing the moisture from his skin.
“As you wish, Your Grace.”
If it were as he wished, Graham would even now be free of the responsibility of looking after the bastard daughter orphaned by his reckless friend. He bit back the acerbic reply. It was hardly Dappleton’s fault that Hickenbottom had gotten himself killed, along with the other guardian. Or that Hickenbottom’s surviving relatives were the same propriety-driven, ruthless bastards Graham’s own father had been. When Dappleton remained seated, he snapped, “What is it now, man?”
“There is one more issue, Your Grace.”
He gnashed his teeth. “Issue?” What else could there possibly be this day?
“There is no governess.”
Mayhap Graham was cracked in the head in addition to being mad. “You said the girl was sixteen.”
“Just seventeen,” the other man amended.
A lady in need of a blasted London Season. Fighting once more for calm, Graham reined in his annoyance. “A companion, then?”
“There is no one.”
“No one but the girl, that is.” With an infuriating nonchalance, the solicitor opened the small tin of powder, and proceeded to sprinkle it on the documents. “Lieutenant Hickenbottom never bothered with one for the girl.”
A young lady on the cusp of womanhood who’d never had the benefit of instruction on gentilesse? Graham covetously eyed the sideboard filled with spirits. Years ago, when he’d donned the persona of carefree rogue, he’d have already had a bottle in hand. He grew frustrated: with Hickenbottom for leaving him in these straits and himself, for being a bloody monster unwilling and unable to do right by his now-gone friend. “What am I going to do with a girl without a companion?” he snapped.
“Hire one, Your Grace? Send her on to finishing school? She is your responsibility now.”
No wonder the insolent blighter had withheld that particular, important piece of information. A bastard, without the benefit of an estimable chaperone.
As the solicitor put together his belongings, Graham entertained the childish thought of shredding those pages and grinding them under the heel of his boot.
At one and thirty years, however, he’d adopted a polished demeanor; he’d not break any more than he already had for this man.
“There is but one more thing, Your Grace,” Dappleton said, as he came to his feet.
What now? “I thought you’d said there was…”
The solicitor fished a note out of his jacket and handed over the folded scrap.
Graham accepted it, freezing at the familiar inked writing. A few moments later, Dappleton, folios in his arms, took a bow and left.
As soon as Graham found himself alone, he unfolded the note. His chest tightened.
If you’re reading this, I’m dead. No doubt, through some outrageously wicked act for which I’m solely to blame.
“Indeed,” Graham muttered, and continued reading.
You are no doubt also cursing me for leaving you in this sorry state. After all, the last thing a gent needs is a young chit underfoot. This girl, however, is different. I’m fairly certain, she’s the only person I’ve ever liked. And I’m not saying that because she’s my daughter. Society will be unkind to her because of her parentage. Keep her under your wing. Teach her the ways of our miserable Society, so that she can find a good bloke, and not someone like her da. I’ve certainly not done anything in the way of preparing her.
Respectfully yours, even in death,
The immediate intention to scuttle the girl off to some finishing school until Graham wed quashed by two paragraphs left by a man he’d called friend. He’d of course known he would marry. Now, the urgency of that boiled to the surface. With a curse, he tossed the page on his desk, and it sailed to a noiseless heap. Ultimately, he proved lacking in self-control. Hungering for a drink, he stalked to his sideboard and poured himself a glass.
A knock sounded.
“Enter,” he called out.
The door opened. “Mr….”
“I met with Hickenbottom’s solicitor,” Graham’s blunt interruption cut across Wesley’s announcement. Graham set down the decanter and, glass in hand, strode back to the desk.
“Have you?” Jack murmured when Wesley left, closing the door behind him.
Mayhap if the other man had been present, he’d have had some inclination as to what Graham could do with a sixteen—or was it seventeen?—year-old bastard ward. Without a governess. Or companion. He took a long swallow.
All affability faded from Jack’s demeanor. “What did he want?” Since Graham’s return from war and his ascension to the role of duke, his friend had stepped in as his man-of-affairs. He’d overseen his business ventures with a military-like precision that had seen an immense rise in his already plentiful coffers. That was not, however, the sole reason he was Graham’s only confidante. That loyalty went back to a friendship more than two decades old, strengthened in part by his loyalty through Graham’s descent into madness.
Cradling his glass between his hands, Graham relayed the details surrounding Dappleton’s visit. When he’d finished, Jack took a seat. “A child,” he parroted.
Graham gave a terse nod and tossed back his drink. He grimaced as the liquid seared his throat and set the glass down. At the other man’s silence, he looked up.
“The nightmares.” Jack’s quiet reminder, wholly unnecessary.
The nightmares, as they’d taken to calling them. An image that conjured ghosts and monsters that lurked in the back of a child’s deepest fears. And not the reality that was life: of hell and dying and gruesome battles that, thankfully, no child’s mind could conjure. “I’m well aware of them.” He stretched his legs out before him in an artificial nonchalance, and then laid his clasped fingers on his flat belly. “I require a companion and a wife.” Not necessarily in that order.
Jack’s frown deepened. “Lady Serena won’t welcome having a bastard underfoot.”
No, most members of the peerage would want nothing to do with a girl of questionable birthright.
Do you believe I’d ever judge you for your birthright, Rowena Endicott? Our hearts were joined the day you entered this village, and nothing will change that…
A fool. He’d been a bloody fool. “Lady Serena will welcome anything for the privilege of becoming my duchess,” he said, pointedly ignoring the question in his friend’s tone. Marriage to a woman coined the Ice Princess would not only mark his responsibilities to those dependent upon him nearly complete, it would also mark a finality to the chapter in his life that had ever included Rowena Endicott.
Jack snorted but did not refute that claim, either. “As your man-of-affairs and friend, I’d recommend you wed the chit off as soon as possible.”
Yes. It was for the best—for him and his ward. Graham, so he could maintain his mundane life. She, so she wasn’t exposed to his madness. There could be no doubt that Jack’s suggestion held a vast appeal. Graham’s gaze trailed involuntarily over to the note, Hickenbottom’s appeal in death. He sighed. “I’ll not rush the girl into marriage to appease Lady Serena—”
“It is the Duke of Wilkshire you should worry after.”
“Or anyone,” Graham finished over the other man’s interruption. “Wilkshire included.” The Duke of Wilkshire, in possession of one of the oldest duchies, had been abundantly clear that he craved a match between his only daughter and Graham. That he’d not settle for anyone less than a duke… nor would Lady Serena. In fact, Graham suspected that should the duke know the truth about Graham, he would gladly sell her off for the title of Hampstead duchess, anyway.
Jack’s mouth tensed and Graham braced for an additional battle. “As you wish.”
Since he had stated his intentions to wed, and identified Lady Serena as his likely match, his friend had been stalwartly committed to seeing an arrangement formalized. And he would. It was time for him to see to those responsibilities. Soon. After his obligations toward Hickenbottom’s daughter were fulfilled.
Jack gathered his belongings, and shoved to his feet. “I will put out enquiries and secure a respectable companion for the lady.” That offer dangled temptingly before him. As his friend made his goodbye and started for the door, Graham stared at his retreating frame. How easy it would be to let Jack do this.
Allow him to take this on. He oversees all my business, and that is ultimately what this girl is.
The distant report of a pistol and an agonized cry pealed in the room with a vividness that sent his body recoiling. “Send me the names of the most respected institutions,” he called out sharply. “I’ll conduct my own interviews with any potential companion.”
Jack wheeled around, surprise stamped in his sharp features. “You’ll conduct the interviews?”
“Yes, me.” The other man was entitled to his shock. Since the episode eight years earlier had nearly revealed him for the madman he was to the whole of Society, Graham had retreated, and Jack had helped him uphold the façade that was his existence. Going about finding and securing members of his staff had not been a task Graham had seen to. “It is my responsibility. Hickenbottom saved my life in that carriage. This is the very least I can do.”
Outside of mundane ton events, he had gone out of his way to avoid breaks in his well-ordered routine. Placidity had brought some relief from his demons, and there was a value greater than any coin in that peace. It was one thing for Graham to entrust his business affairs to Jack. Until now. The role of guardian had been expressly handed over to him, and he had an obligation to the man who’d saved his life to carry out his last wishes at least.
The other man made a sound of protest. “It is enough that you’ll have a ward of dubious origins underfoot. Wilkshire will be a good deal less inclined to formalize any agreement while you’re off for the Season conducting affairs you’ve deemed more important than his daughter.”
Yes, he would. Wilkshire was cut out of the same pompous cloth as Graham’s late father. As such the duke would hardly take kindly to him abandoning London at the height of the Season. Particularly as his absence would signal a lack of true intent for a match with the Lady Serena. Nonetheless…
“I’ll have you coordinate an intimate dinner party with the Montgomery’s so they might have the privilege of being the first to meet my ward.” That would send a message as loud as a second dance on the connection between their families. “Inform him that matters involving my ward, however, are otherwise calling me away.”
“You are certain I cannot find the companion for you?” Jack’s persistence could only come from a man who’d born witness to the demons that haunted Graham.
His friend hesitated. “As you wish.” Jack opened his mouth and then closed it. With a slight bow, he left.
As he wished. It was the second time that day those words had been uttered, and there was so much he wished for. Sanity. Peace. Freedom from pain.
In the absence of those elusive gifts, he’d settle for something within his control: finding the most qualified and esteemed companion possible to shape a hoyden into a lady.
Only then would Graham’s debt at last be paid.