Book 10 in the >Heart of a Duke Series
They see a brokenhearted widow.
She’s far from shattered.
Lady Philippa Winston is never marrying again. After her late husband’s cruelty that she kept so well hidden, she has no desire to search for love.
Years ago, Miles Brookfield, the Marquess of Guilford, made a frivolous vow he never thought would come to fruition–he promised to marry his mother’s goddaughter if he was unwed by the age of thirty. Now, to his dismay, he’s faced with honoring that pledge. But when he encounters the beautiful and intriguing Lady Philippa, Miles knows his true path in life. It’s up to him to break down every belief Philippa carries about gentlemen, proving that not only is love real, but that he is the man deserving of her sheltered heart.
Will Philippa let down her guard and allow Miles to woo a widow in desperate need of his love?
To Woo a Widow is an approximately 40,000 word short novel.
Late Spring 1818
“Everyone knows fairytales include a charming prince, an always smiling, hopeful princess, and a joyous happily ever after. This story is very much the same…”
A soft sigh interrupted Philippa, Lady Winston’s reading. Seated in the nursery, with one daughter balanced on her lap and the other at her feet, Philippa glanced up from the small leather book.
On the lips of her five-year-old daughter, Faith, hovered a dreamy smile. “What happens next?” The girl, stretched out on her belly, kicked her legs up behind her.
Knowing the tale inside out, Philippa closed the book and spoke in soft tones, careful to position her lips so that her daughter could see them. “This princess, however, was unlike any of the other princesses…”
Her daughter rounded her eyes. “Can she not hear out of one ear like me, Mama?” Philippa’s heart pulled. “Or is she a widow like you?”
Philippa jerked and the book tumbled to the floor where it landed with a soft thump. Where she had always been guarded in her thoughts and emotions, there was an unrestrained honesty to Faith that, as a mother, she found both pride and awe in. On some occasions, many of them to be precise, Philippa found herself disconcerted by her daughter’s stream of questionings.
Faith quickly retrieved the volume and waved it about. “Can a widow be a princess in a book?” she continued on a rush. “Because Grandmother was whispering to Lady Martindale and Lady Martindale said that widows were old, gray, plump, and never married.” She brightened a bit. “I know because I read their lips. They said you might marry because you weren’t those things.”
Faith’s words held Philippa motionless. The unspoken, but clear dream that Philippa would again one day marry. To speak the truth was unthinkable. It would shatter her daughter’s innocence and, having had her own dreams destroyed by life early on, she would never be that person.
Her other daughter, one-year-old Violet, babbled happily while Philippa desperately fought through years of pain and bitterness to give her daughters every fanciful, hopeful word young girls were deserving of.
“Mama?” The hushed worry in that inquiry snapped Philippa to the moment.
“Mama. Mama. Mama.” Violet bounced up and down, clapping her hands.
And Philippa did what any protective mama would do. “I expect any woman, regardless of age, can be a princess,” she lied. Time had proven that the very tales she read to her daughters, the same ones she herself had devoured as a child, were as real as magical mirrors and talking animals.
“Do widows marry again?”
Philippa snuggled Violet. “Some do.” The foolish ones. The desperate ones. And after marriage to Calvin, she was no longer a naïve fool. With the funds he’d left her, she certainly was not desperate.
“And what of you?” Faith surged upright and layered her palms atop Philippa’s knees. “Will you have a happily ever after?”
Coward that she’d always been, Philippa looked to the nursemaid, who took her unspoken cue. Rushing over, the pretty young woman held her arms out for Violet. Philippa kissed the baby’s plump cheek and handed her youngest daughter to Miss Cynthia. “I already have my happily ever after,” Philippa said softly, ruffling the top of Faith’s dark curls. “I have you and Violet and I will never need anyone more.”
Instead of her child’s comfort in that assurance, Faith frowned. “But you must have a prince. All princesses need princes. Unless it is because you are a widow?” She scrunched up her mouth. “Except you are not one of those old ones like Grandmother said. So surely you might marry.”
Philippa had been married. She’d rather dance through the fiery flames of hell than make another wedding march. Forcing a smile for Faith’s benefit, Philippa dropped another kiss atop her head. “It’s time to see to your lessons.”
With her daughter’s groans of protest trailing behind her, Philippa hurriedly took her leave of the nursery. Once outside and free of the quizzing, her shoulders sagged. Each time she read those fanciful tales of love and dreams coming true, the questions came all the more.
More than half-fearing Faith would follow her into the hall and put countless more inquiries to her about her marital state, Philippa quickly sought out her chambers. Closing the door behind her, she made her way over to the vanity and studied herself. The words Faith had overheard Mother and Lady Martindale speaking echoed around Philippa’s mind.
Yes, the world held varying views on who and how a widow should be.
At a mere five years past twenty, Philippa was decidedly not old, nor gray, and most definitely not plump. Nay, she hardly fit with Lady Martindale’s societal expectations of a widow. Her gaze snagged on the black widow’s weeds she still wore that hung on her too-slender frame. The midnight taffeta was assuredly the most visible indication that she was, in fact, a widow.
The door opened and she spun around, her skirts snapping at her ankles. Her younger sister, Chloe, hovered at the entrance, gripping the edge of the oak panel. “Hello,” Chloe’s hesitant greeting carried over to her. “Hello.” Yes, because when a young lady found herself widowed, with two young children no less, and moved back into her former residence, no one knew what to do, or how to be, or what to say. Not even her usually loquacious and spirited sister—the very same sister who now stood half-concealed behind the door.
Long ago, Philippa had learned to be suspicious of her sister’s unexpected appearances. A schemer and meddler, Chloe’s motives always portended more. Secretly, Philippa, as the daughter who’d only ever been proper, enjoyed trying to determine just what Chloe was up to. She motioned Chloe in.
With that invitation, Chloe rushed inside and closed the door behind her. “I would like to take you shopping,” she said without preamble.
That is why she was here? How very peculiarly un-Chloe-like…and more than a bit disappointing for it. “I do not require anything.” And she didn’t. While Calvin had provided nothing in the way of a loving union, his expert handling of his estates and finances had seen her well cared for in his death. Plus, her dowry had reverted back to her. No, there was hardly a shortage of wealth. And most importantly, with his death, Calvin had given Philippa her freedom. Never again would she worry after being nothing more than a nobleman’s property to get his precious heir upon. Now, she could allow her daughters a life free from their late father’s constant recriminations. She could now offer her daughters the opportunity to find happiness in the world around them.
“It is not my intent to tell you how long to grieve,” Chloe continued. Philippa sighed. So this is what brought Chloe ’round. “But it is time to step outdoors again.”
Of course, it was inevitable. The expectation that Philippa would rejoin the living—or rather living, as they saw it. Not how she might view things, in this new reality. Annoyance needled in her belly. “I do go outdoors.” To give her fingers something to do, Philippa grabbed her embroidery frame and sailed over to her bed. Feeling her sister’s gaze on her, she sank onto the edge of the mattress and looked up.
Chloe’s eyes were rounded saucers in her face. Was it a surprise that ever-obedient Philippa would ever dare to do something as outrageous as challenge another’s opinions? “This is not about going into Jane’s gardens. It is about finding your smile.”
Philippa wrinkled her nose. Chloe spoke as though there was something wrong in choosing to spend the better part of her days in the gardens with her daughters for company. “I smile,” she said softly. Every day her daughters, Violet and Faith, brought her more joy than she knew a heart was capable of.
Chloe gave her a meaningful look. “Surely you do not wish to remain closeted away?”
Actually, she did. Very much so. Knowing that admission would only result in further probing, Philippa did as she so often did—she remained silent. It was far easier than letting Chloe, or anyone, into the world she kept hidden—the world where she had suffered through the misery of a cruel marriage. What would revealing the truth about her marriage bring other than pain to the family she loved, a family who’d already known too much pain at the abusive, late marquess’ hands? “I am quite content with my situation. Furthermore,” she said, stiffening her spine. “It is perfectly reasonable for a widow to be out of Society for a year.”
“Oh, Philippa,” her sister murmured once more. Oh, Philippa. A wholly useless expression that conveyed nothing and everything at the same time.
“I do not want your pity,” she said tightly.
“You misunderstand, Philippa. I am sorry for your pain.”
Philippa stiffened. I am sorry. Or my deepest regrets. Those were the other familiar words given since her husband’s passing. Wanting to protect her family from the truth of the pain she’d lived with, Philippa had not let anyone into her world. Not Mother. Not Alex. Not Chloe. Certainly not her brother, Gabriel, the Marquess of Waverly, who’d introduced Philippa to her husband. On most days, she was torn between hating her brother for coordinating that union and herself for allowing him to. After all, it was ultimately she who’d agreed to the match with Calvin.
Just like her family, she, too, had been content to see what was on the surface; a staid, polite, respectable man. She, weak, pathetic Philippa, had been so fixed on how reserved he was. So very different from her explosive, now dead, sire that she’d failed to notice the falsity in Calvin’s smile. As such, she had never predicted that Calvin’s kindness would be blotted out by his ruthless need for an heir.
What would they say if they knew the real truth? At the protracted silence, she cleared her throat and pulled the needle through.
Chloe moved over in a soft whir of skirts and sank to a knee alongside Philippa. “I do hate seeing you like this.”
“I’m sorry,” Philippa replied automatically. Often, those words came, rote, born of a child who’d been constantly making apologies to their monster of a father.
Chloe covered Philippa’s fingers with her own in a reassuring caress. “You do not need to be sorry for missing your husband,” she said gently.
In this moment, with her sister’s aching hurt for her a tangible force, Philippa was sorry. It was hardly fair to accept sympathies for a loss she did not feel.
“It has been a year,” Chloe said gently…needlessly.
Philippa managed a nod. Three hundred and sixty-five days of black widow’s weeds. She could wear whatever Society dictated, but she could not mourn the moment a husband such as Calvin Gage went on to the hereafter. Cold. Unfeeling. Despising of his daughter with her partial deafness. Singularly driven in his quest for a male heir, there had been little redeeming in him as a husband. “I will reenter Society at my own time. When I am ready.” She underscored those latter words with an unwavering resolve.
“Well, whether you’re ready or not, you don’t have much choice in the matter. Mother is expecting you to reenter Society.” Just like that, Chloe yanked the earth out from under Philippa’s feet.
“Yes,” Chloe said softly.
Had she spoken aloud? Chloe gave a wry smile, so much more in character with who she commonly was, that had their mother’s intentions for them not been breathed to life, then Philippa would have found solace. But Chloe had said it. And now, as her sister proceeded in a very Chloe-like, practical argument on all the reasons Philippa should enter ton life, her mind whirred, spinning out of control. She drew her arms close and hugged the embroidery frame to her chest. She’d been married. For six years. At five and twenty years she was no fresh debutante expected to make a match, and yet, is that what her mother hoped, nay, expected of her? Panic licked at the edge of her senses. Or mayhap Jane and Gabriel didn’t wish her underfoot. Her breath came hard and fast. Of course she could retire to the country alone with her daughters—
“Nor do I think it is a bad idea for you to leave this townhouse,” her sister was saying, yanking Philippa back from the brink.
She blinked rapidly. “I…” Can’t, “…will think on it.”
Her sister’s lips turned down ever so slightly. “Promise me you’ll at least go shopping.”
How desperate Chloe was to send her out. Philippa would rather sit through a lecture on propriety from their always-proper mother than visit Bond Street. No one knew that. Not her younger sister. Not her mother. And certainly not her two elder brothers. They’d always seen a proper lady who enjoyed ladylike ventures: embroidering, shopping, sketching colorful blooms, but never anything more interesting. Then, no one truly knew all the secrets she carried. Or the hopes. Or rather, the hopes she’d once carried, to laugh with abandon and speak her mind. Another pang struck her heart.
“Then Hyde Park,” Chloe persisted with an unwavering resolve that would have impressed any military general. Then, Chloe gave her a long look. “Mother wishes us to join her for tea later this morn.”
Tea? Philippa furrowed her brow and tried to follow that abrupt shift in discourse. “What—?”
Chloe cleared her throat in a purposeful way. “She’ll be joined by Lady Audley.” She paused. “Lord Matthew’s mother.”
That name should mean something and yet it didn’t. Philippa had been so removed in the country with her husband for six years and then a six-month bereavement after his death, there had been little need or want to know any names. Particularly of gentlemen.
“He is recently widowed.” Warning bells went off. Surely not. Surely after having already done her Societal duty of properly wedding she’d not be expected to… With an exasperated sigh, Chloe threw up her hands. “Lady Audley is coming,” Chloe continued.
Oh, Saints on Sunday. This is why Chloe was here. Not because she was attempting to thrust her into Polite Society or matchmake her with another gentleman. Her stomach muscles clenched reflexively. Now it made sense.
Philippa’s sister leaned close and dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I recommend you visit the park, and…” She gestured to her elder sister’s black taffeta skirts. “If you wish to silence Mother on another matter, I’d at least don gray.” With a wink, Chloe hopped to her feet and rang for Philippa’s maid.
Philippa had never been so grateful for her younger sister’s loyalty. How much braver and stronger Chloe had always been. She’d long been a master at sidestepping their mother’s plans for her. Where I’ve long stayed indoors, afraid to embrace life. “Thank you,” she said softly and set down her embroidery frame.
A moment later, the door opened and Philippa’s maid, Ella, stepped inside.
Chloe gave a wave of her hand. “Do not give it another thought.” She swept to the front of the room and then with her hand on the door handle, paused. “What you must give another thought to, are Mother’s intentions for you.”
Philippa balled her hands into the fabric of her skirt. As a girl, she’d never been a match for her mother and Gabriel’s goals for her. They saw in her a young debutante who could make an advantageous match with a respectable, honorable gentleman. She bit her lip hard. That is all he’d ever been to her family—respectable, honorable Calvin. And secretly, in a shameful way that would have shocked all, she’d resented that not a single member of her family had seen Calvin for the monster he’d been. Yes, the Edgerton patriarch had been a merciless devil who’d beat his children. But there were other forms of cruelty…and not a single one of her siblings had looked enough to see that.
Hands settled on her shoulders and she jumped as Chloe, of like height, met her gaze squarely. “They expect you to eventually wed,” she said quietly. “Because that is always the expectation, isn’t it? But you’ve been married, Philippa.” Yes, she had. For six years. Unable to meet her sister’s eyes, she slid her gaze beyond Chloe’s shoulder. “Do you know,” her sister murmured more to herself. “For so many years, I believed yours was nothing but a formal arrangement made with Gabriel’s influence. A passionless man he attended school with whom Gabriel respected for being just as staid as he was.” Philippa went still. Chloe lightly squeezed her shoulders. “I have seen you this year, and your mourning, and realize how wrong I’ve been. You loved him.” The words were spoken more statement than anything else and Philippa’s throat worked. “And regardless of what Mother wishes, I’d not see you wed any man, as you’ve already known love.” She paused. “Unless you wish to, that is.”
Philippa bit the inside of her cheek. Chloe expected something. An affirmation? A “thank you”? What was it? For a brief moment, Philippa could not see past the always-present bitterness that threatened to consume her. “There will never be another,” her voice shook with the force of that truth.
“You are certain,” Chloe pressed. With her determination she’d make a better matchmaker than their mother and Gabriel combined.
Alas, there would have to be others Chloe maneuvered into marriage. “My husband is dead,” Philippa said with a solemnity that dimmed the mischievous sparkle in her sister’s eye. She managed a smile, grateful as her maid approached with a silver satin dress. Desperate to be free of her sister’s probing stare and words, she set her a task. “Will you see the nursemaid has the girls readied?”
“Of course,” Chloe said. She opened her mouth. Please do not say anything else on my husband. And perhaps, their thoughts had moved in some kind of harmony, for Chloe left.
As soon as the door closed, Philippa’s shoulders sagged. Where she was concerned, her sister saw precisely what Philippa had allowed her to see. Broken-hearted, widowed-too-soon wife. And as her maid helped her change out of her long-worn widow’s weeds, guilt stabbed at her for perpetuating a lie.
Just as Lady Martindale did, the world had expectations of a widow. And Philippa had played her part. Just as she’d done since Calvin drew his last breath. Yes, she’d convinced even her family that she was a woman desperately grieving the loss of her husband. But the truth was, ever since Calvin’s death, she’d never felt more alive. And she certainly wasn’t sad.
Not even a little bit.