"...Force has crafted a masterpiece with the perfect amount of romance." —Starred Review from Publisher's Weekly
In New York Times bestselling author Marie Force’s dazzling historical romance debut, the clock is ticking for a wealthy Duke who must marry by his thirtieth birthday—or lose his title...
Derek Eagan, the dashing Duke of Westwood, is well aware of his looming deadline. But weary of tiresome debutantes, he seeks a respite at his country home in Essex—and encounters a man digging on his property. Except he’s not a man. He’s a very lovely woman. Who suddenly faints at his feet.
Catherine McCabe’s disdain for the aristocracy has already led her to flee an arranged marriage with a boorish Viscount. The last thing she wants is to be waylaid in a Duke’s home. Yet, she is compelled to stay by the handsome, thoughtful man who introduces himself as the Duke’s estate manager.
Derek realizes two things immediately: he is captivated by her delicate beauty, and to figure out what she was up to, Catherine must not know he is the Duke. But as they fall passionately in love, Derek’s lie spins out of control. Will their bond survive his deception, not to mention the scorned Viscount’s pursuit? Most important, can Catherine fall in love all over again—this time with the Duke?
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London, May 5, 1902
“I cannot bear another minute of this charade,” Derek Eagan, the seventh Duke of Westwood, declared to his cohorts as they watched a simpering group of debutantes work the gilded ballroom. He tugged impatiently at his starched attachable collar and wished he could remove it and the tie that choked him without sending yet another tedious scandal rippling through the ton.
“What charade?” asked Lord Justin Enderly, his smile dripping with the charm that had endeared him to many a mother. “Watching nubile young things flit about with love and marriage on their minds?” As the second son of an earl, Enderly was much less desirable to the simpering debs than Derek, once again considered the Season’s top prize—and Enderly knew it, of course.
“All of it.” Derek gestured to the glittering scene before them in the Earl of Chadwick’s enormous ballroom. Surely half the aristocracy was in attendance at one of the Season’s most anticipated balls. Women in frothy gowns made of the finest silks and satins, dripping in exquisite gems. Men in their most dashing evening wear. “The balls, the gowns, the dance cards, the ludicrous conversations, the desperate mothers. I’ve grown so weary of it, I could spit.”
Aubrey Nelson, the American-born industrialist who’d humored his English-born mother with a second Season, nodded in agreement. “The pomp, the ceremony, the rules.” He shook his head. “I’ll be back in New York—or banished from polite society—long before I master them all.”
Unlike Nelson, Derek had been raised for the charade, but many of the rules escaped him, as well. “Utter drivel,” Derek murmured. “I’ve half a mind to compromise a willing young maiden and be done with the whole nightmare.”
“What’s stopping you?” Enderly asked, crooking a wicked eyebrow.
“I’d have to attempt to converse with her for the rest of my days,” Derek grumbled. His friends and the hangers-on surrounding them howled with laughter. “I’ve talked to every one of them and haven’t found one who interests me enough to pursue anything further.”
“Same as last year,” Enderly said.
“And the year before, and the year before that,” Derek said, the despair creeping in once again. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to find a wife. He would love nothing more than to have one person in the world who belonged only to him and vice versa. Not to mention he needed a wife, albeit for altogether different reasons. Yet he wasn’t willing to settle.
Each year he approached the Season with a new sense of hope, and each year, as the young women got younger and he got older, the disappointment afterward became more intense and longer lasting. This year, however, the bloody deadline loomed large, coloring his view of the Season’s limited options.
“This year’s group seems particularly young,” Enderly noted.
“Or perhaps we’re just getting particularly old,” Derek said morosely.
“No doubt,” Enderly said. As a second son he was under much less pressure to marry than Derek and enjoyed his bachelor life far too much to give it up before he absolutely had to. For that matter, everyone was under less pressure to marry than Derek, thanks to the damned deadline.
“Is there one among them who cares about something other than her hair or her gown or her slippers?” Derek asked. Was there one among them, he wanted to ask, who looked at him and saw anything other than his title, his rank, his wealth or the looming deadline that had filled the betting books all over town?
“They all care about their dance cards,” Nelson said dryly.
“Too true,” Derek concurred. “Speaking only for myself, I’ve had enough. I’m returning to Westwood Hall in the morning.”
“But the Season still has weeks left to go,” Enderly said in obvious distress. “You can’t go yet, Your Grace. What of your deadline? What will Lord Anthony say?”
“He would hardly care. He’s practically salivating, hoping I fail to marry in time.”
“Whatever could your ancestor have been thinking, with such an utterly daft provision?” Nelson asked. “Enter into a ‘suitable state of matrimony’— whatever that is—by thirty or abdicate your title? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
Of course, he hadn’t, Derek mused. The colonists had left such barbaric practices behind in England. “I suppose he was out to ensure the bloodline. Instead, he placed a matrimonial pox upon each succeeding generation.”
“Is it even legal?” Justin asked.
“Probably not, but the previous dukes married young so it was never an issue for them, and I chose not to contest it with Anthony waiting in the wings drooling all over the duchy.”
“What happens if you don’t marry in time?” Nelson asked.
“The title and all accompanying holdings transfer to my uncle and then later to Simon, who, as the heir, would also be required to marry post haste. That would truly be a travesty.” If anyone was less suited to a life of marriage, responsibility and duty, it was Derek’s happy-go-lucky first cousin and dear friend.
“Have any of your ancestors missed the deadline?” Nelson asked, seeming genuinely intrigued by the drama of it all whereas Derek was just weary—from thinking about it, dreading it and from imagining being married to a nameless, faceless woman just to preserve his title. He shuddered at the thought of shackles and chains.
“Not so far, and I have no desire to be the first. However, I refuse to pick just anyone in order to keep my title.” His ancestor’s efforts to ensure the dukedom had put Derek in a serious quandary. His thirtieth birthday was now mere days away without a female prospect in sight who sparked anything in him other than utter apathy, not to mention despair at the idea of having to actually talk to her for the rest of his life.
Naturally, the entire haute ton was captivated by Derek’s plight, but not a one of them gave a fig about his happiness or well-being. He would almost prefer to surrender the title than be shackled for life to a “suitable” woman who did nothing else for him but ensure his place in the aristocracy.
With his deadline the talk of the Season, every available young maiden had been marched before him—more than once. Judging his prospects by what he’d seen of the Season’s available crop, he was in no danger of imminent betrothal. “What’s the point of hanging around when I already know that none of them suit me?”
“They don’t have to suit you, your Grace,” Enderly reminded him. “You only need one with the proper equipment to provide an heir—and a spare if you’re feeling particularly randy.”
“And you need her to say, ‘I do,’ by the sixteenth of May,” Nelson added with a wry grin.
“Don’t remind me,” Derek grumbled. Was it just him, or was it exceedingly warm tonight? Or was it the reminder of his coming birthday that had him sweating? Perhaps it was the rampant wagering that had him on edge. He’d lost track of whom among his so-called peers and “friends” was betting for or against the likelihood of his securing a suitable marriage before his birthday.
Derek never would’ve chosen the title he’d inherited at the tender age of six when his parents were killed in a carriage accident. Over the years since his majority, however, he’d grown into his role as one of the most powerful and influential men in England. He didn’t relish the idea of turning over his title and holdings to an arrogant, greedy, overly ambitious uncle who would care far more about how he was judged in polite society than he ever would about ensuring that their tenants had adequate roofs over their heads. Nor did Derek wish to see his cousin constrained by a life he had no interest in. Too many people depended on the dukedom to see it end up in the hands of someone who couldn’t care less about it.
A vexing debate for sure, especially since Derek often dreamed of shedding his responsibilities and taking off to see the world as he’d always wanted to do. But then he thought, as he often did, of his late parents. Since their deaths, he’d aimed to live his life in a manner and fashion that would’ve made them proud. Losing his title, especially to an uncle his father had despised, would not make them proud, so Derek would do what was expected of him because that was what he’d always done—no matter what it might’ve cost him.
“What of all your meetings?” Enderly asked.
“I had the last of them today with the Newcastle upon Tyne Electric Supply Company to pump some capital into their Neptune Bank Power Station. They’re doing some intriguing work with three-phase electrical power distribution.” The blank looks on the faces of his friends tampered his enthusiasm. Where he would absorb such information with obsessive attention to detail, he’d come to realize that others were less interested in the how of electrical lighting and other innovations. They were far more than content to fully luxuriate in modern conveniences without bothering themselves with the details. Electricity was making its way into wealthy homes and public buildings in town, but it would be a while yet before it made its way to the country.
“Wasn’t there another one?” Justin asked. “Something with brothers?”
Derek nodded. “I’ll be providing emergency financing to the brothers from America who believe they’ve found the secret to manned flight.”
“You can’t be serious,” Nelson said. “The Wright brothers?”
Derek nodded, used to his peers finding his investment decisions questionable at best. They couldn’t, however, argue with his results.
“Has everyone in America finally said no to them?” Nelson asked.
“I didn’t ask that. I simply wish to be a part of what they’re doing. I believe they will attain success, perhaps before the end of the decade.”
Nelson rolled his eyes. “It’s your money to throw away.”
“What’s next?” Enderly asked, his tone tinged with sarcasm. “Motorcars?”
“As a matter of fact, due to my involvement in Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company, I was asked to back a venture with Lord Austin and his brother that will bring production of motorcars to England in the foreseeable future.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Enderly asked with a smile.
One of the most annoying of that year’s debutantes, Lady Charlotte something or other, flashed Derek a suggestive smile full of invitation. As he’d learned early in his first Season, he didn’t make eye contact unless he wished to encourage attention, which he most assuredly did not.
“All you’d have to do is snap your fingers, and Lady Charlotte would say ‘I do,’” Enderly said.
Derek could have been mistaken, but it seemed as if his friend was enjoying baiting him. “If I’m going to shackle myself to a woman for life, she’s got to have more than the proper plumbing.” Derek tugged again on the collar that poked at his neck and the strangling tie. His valet Gregory had been rather rigid in his knot tying that night, as if he too were out to constrain Derek to his husbandly fate.
“What is it exactly that you seek, Your Grace?” Nelson asked with a kind smile.
“Damned if I know. I just hope I’ll recognize it when I see it, and I hope I’ll see it soon.” She was out there somewhere. He had no doubt of that. If only he knew where to look.
“You’re holding out for a love match then?” Enderly asked.
“I don’t necessarily yearn for the mess that accompanies a love match, but is it too much to hope for some intelligent conversation with my after-dinner port?” The utter despair of his situation came crashing down as he viewed the gay scene before him. “What in the world would I talk about to any of them?”
Apparently, neither of his friends could supply a satisfactory answer.
Enderly shifted with discomfort from one foot to the other. “What are your plans, Westy?” he asked softly, reverting to Derek’s nickname from their years together at Eton.
“I need to spend some time riding Hercules and thinking. I can’t think here. Just a few days, and then I’ll come back and bite the proverbial bullet.” He’d have no other option but to choose one of the young women flitting before him unless he wanted everything he had to slip through his fingers to an uncle who didn’t deserve it. But the thought of being stuck with a wife who didn’t suit him made him ill.
“You’ll be the talk of the ton,” Enderly declared, scandalized.
“Let them talk. I won’t hear it in Essex.”
“But it won’t be any fun without you, Your Grace,” Nelson said mournfully.
Enderly nodded in agreement. “Nor will the ladies flock about us with quite the same . . . ”
“Desperation?” Derek asked with a grin. His friends laughed. As usual, they had kept this dreadful experience from being a total loss.
“Lady Patience will wish to visit,” Enderly said with an evil grin. “She’s apt to follow you to the country.”
“She won’t gain an audience with me even if she does give chase,” Derek said of the Duke of Devonshire’s daughter, who had pursued him with relentless determination. “She holds even less appeal than the others.”
“Why is that?” Nelson asked.
“She brays like a donkey when she laughs.”
“Ouch,” Enderly said, chuckling.
“I quite fear that no woman will meet the discriminating requirements of our dear, distinguished friend,” Nelson said to Enderly.
“That’s just fine with me,” Derek said, happier than he’d been in weeks now that a decision had been made. “I’d rather be a lonely commoner than be shackled for life to a ‘suitable’ braying donkey.”
Lord Anthony Eagan, son of a duke, brother of a duke and uncle to the current duke, reclined on a red velvet chaise and took a sip from his glass of port. Always on the outside looking in, just barely on the fringes of tremendous wealth and power. Thankfully, all three dukes had provided handsomely for him, allowing him the freedom to pursue his own interests.
But what interested Anthony, what seduced him more than anything else ever could, was the power of the title. When the Duke of Westwood entered a room, people noticed. Society noticed. No one paid much heed, on the other hand, to the duke’s second son, his brother, or his uncle. In the fifteen years he’d served as his nephew’s guardian, he had sampled a generous helping of power. Having to cede it to a boy just barely out of leading strings had been demoralizing, to say the least. The subsequent years had reduced Anthony once again to the fringes. He didn’t much care for the fringes, and he never had.
While Derek had stepped nobly and with infuriating independence into the position he’d been born to, Anthony had been relegated to watching and seething and planning. Now, on the eve of Derek’s thirtieth birthday, came opportunity. If Derek failed to marry by the sixteenth of May, the title would revert to Anthony, and he would finally be the Duke of Westwood. The way it always should have been.
And while he had come to grudgingly respect his nephew’s acumen with finance and his bearing among the haute ton, he disdained the boy’s inner softness. That softness, Anthony mused, would be his downfall, just as it had been his father’s. Perhaps it was because Derek had lost his parents at such a tender age or maybe it was the guilt that came from being the twin who’d survived the journey into this world. Regardless of the cause, Derek lacked the inner fortitude that Anthony possessed in spades.
Anthony wasn’t afraid to use that fortitude to gain what should’ve been his all along. Derek was supposed to have been in that carriage the night his parents had been killed. They had planned to dine as a family at a neighboring estate. No one had bothered to tell Anthony that the boy had been left behind in the nursery when he showed signs of fever.
No one had told him until it was far too late, until he’d been saddled with an orphaned young nephew and vast holdings to “oversee” until that nephew gained his majority.
The holdings were supposed to have been his. Instead, he became the steward rather than the duke. Instead, it was left to him to nurse his grief-stricken nephew through those dreadful months after “the accident.” Since another “accident” so soon after the first would’ve raised suspicions, he had nursed when he’d wanted to strangle. He’d mentored when he wanted to stab. If only the boy had been where he was supposed to be, Anthony would’ve had what was rightfully his for all this time.
Soon, Anthony mused. That softness within Derek wouldn’t permit him to marry for the sake of his title. Like the fool he was, Derek wanted more. The softness would be his downfall. Anthony was betting on it and breathing a bit easier after realizing that none of the Season’s debutantes had caught his discerning nephew’s eye.
Lucy Dexter, one of London’s most accomplished courtesans, crawled from the foot of the chaise to envelop him in soft curves and sweet scent. Silky dark hair cascaded invitingly over his chest.
“What troubles you tonight, my lord?”
“Nothing of any consequence.”
“You ponder the fate of your nephew and the duchy you covet.”
Anthony raised an imperious brow. “It is rather impertinent for you to speak so boldly of things that are none of your concern.”
Lucy’s husky laugh caught the attention of his recently satisfied libido. “How can you say such things are none of my concern when you’ve made them my concern by unburdening yourself to me quite regularly?”
The double entendre wasn’t lost on Anthony. Through the silk dressing gown he had given her, he cupped a bountiful breast and pinched the nipple roughly between his fingers, drawing a surprised gasp from her bow-shaped mouth. “If you speak of my concerns with anyone else, madam, you will quickly discover my less-than-amiable side, which I usually prefer to keep hidden from the fairer sex.”
Her blue eyes hardened with displeasure. “I believe I have proven my allegiance time and again over these many years, my lord. There is no need for threats nor less-than- subtle attempts at intimidation.”
She could quite ruin him. She knew it. He knew it. Power. He had given her far too much, he realized, and that was something he might, at some point, need to contend with. But certainly not right now, not when she was pushing his dressing gown aside to drop soft, open-mouthed kisses on his chest.
Anthony sighed with satisfaction, placed the empty glass on a table and buried his fingers in silky tresses. When she took his cock into the velvety warmth of her mouth, he closed his eyes and let his head fall back in surrender.
Power—the only commodity that truly counted. As she sucked and licked him to explosive fulfillment, it hardly mattered that he had ceded some of his to her for the time being. Before long, he’d have more than he knew what to do with. It was only a matter of time.
The next morning, Derek rode his black stallion Hercules out of London, heading for his country estate in Essex. He’d left without a word to the London household staff. They’d discover soon enough that he’d taken his leave and would send word to Anthony before the day was out. After taking their orders from Anthony during Derek’s adolescence, some of them were more loyal to his uncle than they were to him.
Following weeks of being cooped up in the city, Hercules seemed as anxious as Derek to return home, so Derek gave the big horse his head, and they made good time. They stopped only once for food and water, and Derek was grateful not to be recognized at the roadside inn. Otherwise, he might’ve been detained while the innkeeper tried to impress him. That was why he’d worn simple leather breaches, a white linen shirt and riding boots. After weeks on parade before the beau monde, it was a welcome relief to blend in with the unwashed masses.
Within a few hours, Derek and Hercules reached the southeastern corner of Derek’s vast estate and headed north. During the long journey, Derek had tried to put aside his disappointment over another failed Season and focus on the many tasks that awaited him at home. Here he knew who he was and what was expected of him. In polite society, all the lines became fuzzy, and he was forced to become someone he barely recognized.
If the pattern of years past was repeated, he could expect a dark mood to set in soon after he arrived home and settled back into the monotony of daily life, alone as always. That he had to go back, choose one of the simpering debs, apply for a special license and speak his vows sometime in the next ten days made him shudder. The thoughts were enough to get the dark mood started early.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like women. Oh no, he loved women. He loved their soft skin, their endlessly alluring scents, their long hair and lush curves. Other than his horses, he loved nothing more than losing himself in a willing woman. Sadly, in his corner of the country, suitable women were few and far between.
During the second of his many Seasons, Derek had befriended a courtesan named Kitty who saw to his more basic needs during his semi-regular visits to the city. While he liked and admired her, it wasn’t lost on him that were it not for the easy familiarity he shared with Kitty, he might’ve settled into a marriage long before now.
He’d never expected to reach the age of nine and twenty still unattached with no prospects on the horizon, not to mention any hope of producing an heir he could shape and mold into the future Duke of Westwood. The idea of constraining his own son to the life of a duke pained him, but Derek planned to live to a ripe old age, giving his son the chance Derek never had to experience life before being shackled with endless responsibilities and obligations. Perhaps he’d even take drastic steps to change the barbaric marriage rule in the family tenet, so his son would never feel the pressure that now threatened to suffocate Derek.
He chuckled softly. Getting a bit ahead of yourself, old sod. You can’t even find a wife, and you’re already making plans for the son you’ll never have at this rate.
He thought about how thrilled his Uncle Anthony would be to push Derek aside and take on the title he’d coveted all his life, even while pretending to have Derek’s best interests at heart. With these thoughts weighing heavily on his mind he almost missed it. A man was digging feverishly in a glade set back from the road. Derek reined in Hercules. “Whoa, boy.”
The horse snorted in protest.
“Easy.” Derek patted the horse’s neck while he watched for a minute before urging Hercules toward the digger. As he approached, he noticed the man wasn’t very tall. His ill-fitting clothes were caked with dirt, his boots scuffed and his breathing labored as he went about his work with single-minded determination, oblivious to the fact that he was being watched.
“You there!” Derek called out.
Startled by Derek’s sudden appearance, the man dropped the shovel and fell back on his rear.
Suppressing the urge to laugh at the shocked expression on the man’s dirty face, Derek dismounted and approached, offering a hand to help him up. From what Derek could see under the brim of the cap the man wore, his features were delicate, almost effeminate, and his filthy hands seemed too small to wield such a heavy shovel.
Ignoring Derek’s offered hand, the young man scrambled to his feet, rubbing his hands on his pants in a nervous gesture.
“Don’t even think about running,” Derek said. Dark eyes filled with fear stared back at him. “What do you think you’re doing digging here? This is private property. Anything you uncover belongs to the Duke of Westwood.”
The young man’s face twisted with scorn, but still he didn’t speak.
Derek noticed the other man’s hands were trembling. “I won’t harm you. I just want to know what you’re doing.” When that got him nowhere, he bent to retrieve the shovel. “If you won’t answer my questions, I’ll have to confiscate this.”
Uttering an animalistic growl, the man lunged for the shovel. As he and Derek crashed together, his threadbare cap flew off his head, and long, curly blond hair spilled down his—or rather her—back.
Deep navy-blue eyes stared up at him as she quaked in terror.
Shocked to realize his trespasser was a woman who was deathly afraid of him, Derek reached out to steady her. “Easy now. I won’t hurt you.”
She released a gasp as her legs seemed to collapse beneath her.
Derek caught her just before she hit the ground in a dead faint. By holding her over his shoulder, Derek managed to struggle the featherweight woman and her small valise onto Hercules. Once astride, he arranged her so she rested against him. Right away Derek could feel the heat of her fever through his shirt. Her hair was matted with grime, and she smelled, well, less than fresh. Derek wondered how long she’d been battling the elements on her own and when she’d last eaten.
Tightening his hold on his passenger, Derek urged Hercules into a canter. They arrived at Westwood Hall less than an hour later. Derek’s cousin Simon, butler Rutledge and several footmen met them.
“Your Grace!” Rutledge cried. “We had no idea you’d be home so soon!” He curled up his regal nose at the sight of the ruffian with Derek. “And who have you brought?”
“I encountered her out on the south quarter. She’s burning up with fever.” Derek signaled one of the footmen, who approached to relieve him of his passenger. “Take her to the blue guest room.” Derek dismounted and handed the reins to a second footman. “And send for the doctor right away.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Rutledge said, gesturing to the second footman as he, Derek and Simon followed the man carrying the sick woman into the house.
“Who is she?” Simon asked.
“I have no idea. She was digging in the glade when I came across her.”
“Digging for what?”
“She passed out before I could ask her,” Derek said as he rushed inside with Simon on his heels.
Mrs. Langingham, the housekeeper, met them in the foyer, taking over for the flustered butler. “Oh, Your Grace, you’re home so early!”
“As usual, London failed to keep me entertained. Would you please have one of the maids draw a bath for the young miss? She’s dirty and ill.”
“Of course.” Mrs. Langingham signaled to a maid, who scurried off.
“I’ll see you later,” Derek said to his cousin as he followed the footman carrying the woman up the stairs. At the doorway to the room he’d assigned her, he hesitated. It wouldn’t be proper for him to be in her bedchamber. Even though he had no idea who she was or where she’d come from, he worried about her reputation, nonetheless.
The footman set her on the bed and came to the door.
“Thank you,” Derek said, his eyes on the woman. He stood watch over her until the maids had her bath ready in the bathing room he’d recently installed.
Mrs. Langingham bustled into the room after them, barking out orders and taking command. “Now off with you, Your Grace. We’ll take good care of her.”
“If she comes to,” Derek said, acting on instinct, “don’t tell her where she is or who found her.”
“As you wish.”
“I’ll check on her later.”
“We’ll take good care of her,” Mrs. Langingham said again as she ushered him out the door. “Don’t worry yourself.”
Derek left the room, but he didn’t want to. For some odd reason, he wanted to stay and care for her himself. To peel the filthy clothing from her petite body and bathe what looked to be weeks of grime off her, to wash her long hair and towel it dry by the fire. He wanted to crawl into bed next to her and hold her until the fever broke and she could tell him why she’d been digging on his land. So far all she’d done was growl at him, but the desperation he’d heard in that growl had touched him deeply.
He could go back, clear the room and take over. But Mrs. Langingham had helped to raise him, and he’d never shock her that way. Walking toward his own bedchamber at the other end of the long hallway, Derek decided he’d go back as soon as they had her settled in bed. Hopefully by then the doctor would have arrived.
An hour later, Derek returned to check on his new ward and stopped dead in his tracks at the bedchamber doorway. The woman was propped against a small mountain of pillows, her damp golden curls forming a halo around her freshly scrubbed face. A porcelain complexion, pretty pink lips and a button nose completed a rather captivating picture. He’d been oddly drawn to her when she was dirty and smelly. But now he needed her to awaken so he could find out everything there was to know about her.
While he stared at her, she began to thrash in the bed as if in the midst of a frightening dream.
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked, riveted by the fear he saw on her face.
“She’s been terribly agitated, Your Grace,” Mrs. Langingham said, wringing her hands.
“Can’t you do something?” he asked the doctor. Reeking of whiskey, the old man had clearly been dragged from the village pub. Derek moved to the foot of the bed for a closer look.
“She’s quite ill, Your—”
“Don’t call me that,” Derek snapped. “Until I find out more about what she’s after, I don’t want her to know who I am or where she is.”
“I doubt she’s paying much attention to what we are saying, sir.”
“Regardless, can’t you do something to make her more comfortable?”
The doctor shook his head. “If she doesn’t wake in the next day or two, we can bleed her.”
“But Your, I mean, sir, there may be no other choice.”
Derek had yet to hear of anyone who’d been better off after bleeding than they had been before. “No talk of bleeding. For God’s sake, no one does that anymore.”
“It can still be highly effective,” the old man huffed.
Derek decided then and there it was time for a new doctor in the village. He’d begin the search as soon as possible.
“I can’t help but notice,” Mrs. Langingham said to Derek, “that she seems to calm somewhat when she hears your voice.”
He moved to the side of the bed, took the young woman’s work-roughened hand and held it between both of his. “There now, you’re safe here. Try to rest.” Before his astounded eyes, she relaxed into the pillows, but her fever-reddened cheeks worried him. Turning to the doctor, Derek said, “Will she recover?”
The doctor picked up his bag of useless tools. “She’s young, and though she’s somewhat malnourished, she’s strong. There’s no reason to believe she won’t recover. Try to get some tea or broth into her.”
Mrs. Langingham, who’d been hovering at Derek’s shoulder, nodded vociferously. “I’ll see to it personally.”
“I’ll do it,” Derek said.
“But, sir,” Mrs. Langingham protested, “it’s not proper!”
“You said yourself that my presence calms her. And besides, who will know?”
She wilted under the intensity of his gaze. “As you wish. I’ll have the tea sent up.” She bustled from the room.
As the doctor prepared to leave, Derek stopped him. “Not a word of this in the village. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll check on her tomorrow.”
After closing the door behind the doctor, Derek went to stand by the bed. Hands in pockets, he studied his guest so intently that he never heard Mrs. Langingham’s return. She set the tray of tea and broth on the bedside table.
“I’ll take it from here,” Derek said.
“Your Grace,” she whispered, her expression scandalized.
“That’ll be all, Mrs. Langingham.” He sent her a warm smile. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“You’ll need to put a towel under her chin.”
“I can handle it. I’ll see you in the morning.” Derek waited until the housekeeper left the room before pouring the tea and waiting for it to cool. Once it had become somewhat tepid, he sat on the bed and arranged his patient so she reclined against his chest. Remembering the towel Mrs. Langingham had recommended, Derek tucked it under the woman’s chin and over her shoulders and then reached for the tea.
The heat from her feverish body seeped through their clothing to warm him. “Come now,” he said softly. “Let’s have a little sip.”
She strained against his tight hold and turned her head away from the cup he held to her lips. Her mouth opened, and he was able to get her to drink a small bit without her choking. It took more than half an hour, but he managed to get most of the cup into her. He wiped her face with the towel and started to settle her back in bed.
But she turned into him, her head on his chest, and began to murmur in her sleep.
Now this, Derek thought, was definitely improper. Regardless, he couldn’t seem to bring himself to leave her, even though her fever was making him overly warm.
“No,” she muttered. “Don’t. Please don’t.” She stiffened, as if in pain, and let out a low moan.
“It’s all right,” Derek said, combing his fingers through her glorious mane. “I’ve got you. You’re safe here.”
“Don’t hurt me. Please don’t.”
Derek tightened his hold on her. “You’re safe. No one will hurt you.” He realized his shirt was damp and looked down to see tears on her fever-brightened cheeks. Brushing them away, he ached to know who she was, who had hurt her, and what had brought her to his corner of Essex.
He spoke softly to her until she once again relaxed into a deep sleep. The long, eventful day finally caught up to him, and his eyes drifted closed. His next conscious thought was one of struggle. Someone was fighting him with everything they had. He startled awake to find his patient battling her way out of his embrace.
“Wait,” he said. “I won’t hurt you.”
“Release me this instant!” Her voice was low and cultured, and the sound stirred him profoundly.
Derek did as she asked, and she sprang from the bed.
Arms folded across the front of the thin night rail Mrs. Langingham had found for her, she glared at him as she wobbled on unsteady legs. “Where am I? Where is my clothing? Who undressed me?”
“You’re at Westwood Hall. The housekeeper bathed and dressed you.”
Her face flaming with embarrassment, she grabbed a blanket from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around herself. “And who resides here?”
“The Duke of Westwood.”
She made a face of supreme distaste.
Derek bit back the urge to laugh.
“I have no desire to be the guest of a duke. If you’ll find my clothes, I’ll be on my way.”
“I believe they were burned.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“They weren’t fit to be rags.”
“They’re all I have!” Her pale face lost what color it had left as she swooned.
Derek bolted from the bed to catch her and settled her back in bed. “You’re ill. You can’t go anywhere until your fever breaks and you regain your strength.”
Dark blue eyes filled with tears. “I can’t stay here.”
“What has the duke ever done to you?”
“Not a thing.”
“Then why are you so opposed to being his guest?”
“I’d feel the same about any peer of the realm,” she said with a haughty lift of her delicate chin.
“And why is that?”
“I have my reasons. Who are you anyway?”
Derek’s brain froze.
“Have I asked a difficult question?”
“Of course not,” Derek said, recovering. “I’m Jack Bancroft, the duke’s estate manager.”
“You’re not a peer?”
“No, ma’am.” Derek wasn’t sure why he lied, except that he wanted to know more about her and already understood that he’d get nowhere with her as the Duke of Westwood. That, alone, made her different from every other woman he’d ever met.
“Good,” she said, visibly relieved.
“Now that I’ve given you my name, will you return the favor?”
She rolled her plump bottom lip between her teeth. “Catherine.”
Derek lowered himself into the chair next to the bed. “Pleasure to meet you, Catherine.”
“How did I get here?”
“I brought you. Do you remember our encounter in the woods? You were digging.”
“And you took my shovel.”
“The duke tends to frown upon strangers digging on his land without his knowledge or permission.”
Her eyes flashed with anger. “Oh, what does he care? He has thousands of acres. What’s one small hole to him?”
“It’s still his land, and thus his hole. Why don’t you tell me why you were digging?”
Her eyes widened. “My bag! Where’s my bag?” Clawing at the blankets, she tried to get up.
“Stay there. It’s right here.” He crossed the room to get the threadbare valise and brought it to her.
She did a quick inspection and then clutched it to her chest, eying him warily. “Did you look inside?”
“I did not.” Dropping back into the chair, he propped his feet on the foot of the bed. “You haven’t answered my question. Why were you digging?”
“I was looking for something that belongs to me,” she said, her gaze darting to his feet on the bed and then back to his face. Her expression told him that if it were up to her, he and his feet would be expelled from the room immediately.
Confused, Derek said, “So, you’ve been here before?” He was quite certain he’d remember her.
“No. My grandmother has.”
“And she left something behind?”
“I don’t wish to discuss it any further.”
“I can’t help you if I don’t know what brought you here or why you were willing to risk your health and well-being in pursuit of it.”
“Why would you want to help me?”
With every passing minute Derek grew more fascinated by her. He forced himself to project a sense of calm when he was anything but. “The duke has gone abroad to America for the summer.” Even though he surprised himself with the easy lie, his face remained neutral. “I’ve nothing much to do in his absence. If you’re looking for something, I might be able to help.”
“I don’t require your assistance. If I could just borrow some clothing, I’ll be on my way.”
“I’m afraid I can’t allow that.”
“You can’t, or you won’t?”
“As the duke’s estate manager, I oversee everything involving the land. I can’t permit a stranger to dig unsupervised.” He sent her his most charming smile. “You wouldn’t want to cause me trouble with my employer, now would you?”
“I don’t see why you can’t just let me go and forget you ever met me.”
Derek gave her his most charming smile. “My lady, you are quite unforgettable.”
“And it is quite unseemly for us to be alone together in a bedchamber.”
“No member of this household will speak of it.” He would see to that. “You were sick. I thought you’d be more comfortable waking up to someone you recognized, even though our association was brief.”
“And how precisely did you end up in bed with me?”
“I fed you some tea and then you fell asleep. I didn’t want to disturb you. And you seemed . . . ”
“Frightened. Has someone hurt you?”
Catherine gasped. “Of course not. Why would you say such a thing?”
“You were speaking in your sleep.”
She put a hand over her mouth. “I wasn’t.”
Derek leaned forward and rested his elbows on the bed. “Who hurt you, Catherine?”
Shrinking back from him, she sank deeper into the pillows. “No one,” she said in barely more than a whisper.
“Let me help you.”
“I can’t stay here. I won’t accept charity from the aristocracy.”
“The way I see it, you don’t have much choice. You’re sick, weak, most likely far from home, alone, unprotected. Need I go on?” When she only glowered at him, he continued. “I can help you, but only if you’re honest with me.”
“And what will you tell the duke?”
“He is to be away for some months and trusts me to manage his affairs in his absence.”
“I can’t stay in his home. I just can’t.”
“We may be able to make other arrangements, so you wouldn’t have to stay under his roof, per se.”
She stared at him, mouth agape. “Why would you do such a thing for someone you barely know?”
“I told you. It’s all too quiet around here when the duke is away. Helping you will give me something interesting to do.”
She gave him an arch look, which, along with her fever-reddened cheeks, only added to her overwhelming appeal. “And what, pray, will you expect in return?”
He feigned shock. “My dear lady, I may not be a peer, but I am a gentleman.”
“A gentleman who somehow found his way into my bed the day we met.”
Derek couldn’t help but smile at her witty retort. “For that I would offer my most heartfelt apologies if I hadn’t so enjoyed holding you while you slept.”
“You’re outrageous,” she huffed.
He shrugged. “I speak only the truth. I have a proposition for you.” Was it his imagination or did she shrink further into the mountain of pillows?
“What kind of proposition?”
“You’re looking for something that’s clearly important to you. I can provide access to the area in which you wish to look as well as food and shelter for as long as you’re a guest on the estate.”
“In exchange for?”
“The truth. Tell me who you are, what you’re looking for, how you managed to get so sick and dirty, who you’re running from and anything else I should know in order to justify my actions to the duke.”
She rolled that plump lip between her teeth once more, sending a sharp bolt of lust straight to Derek’s cock. Had he ever envied another’s teeth before? Not that he could recall. He watched an array of emotions cross her expressive face—fear, trepidation, longing, desperation, distrust and despair. That last one made him feel small for forcing himself on her when she clearly wanted nothing more to do with him.
Even though he’d been less than truthful with her, he hadn’t lied about wishing for something interesting to occupy his time. Since he was supposed to be in London for another few weeks, his schedule was open, and his regular duties delegated to others.
He extended his hand. “Do we have a deal?”
She glanced at his hand and then at his face. “Do I have any other choice?”
“Not if you wish to continue digging on the duke’s property.”
Scowling, she held out her hand. “Fine.”
As Derek enclosed her soft hand between both of his, a charge traveled through his limbs to settle in his groin, and he wondered just who was fooling who.
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