Lady Bridget had no need of a lady’s companion for the afternoon. I escaped to the library. I should have gone to my room or joined Jeanette, Lady Caroline’s companion, in the sitting room, but I was twenty-five. Talk could do me little harm. I was destined for a life unwed; a life as a companion to those with more promising futures; at worst, a life living off the charity of my sister’s husband.
Reading was the only joy that remained for me, and I would not have access to such a grand library as the Duke’s for a long time.
Despite the forced gaiety of the weekend house party, the house still had a gloomy feel. It was poorly situated; the windows did not let in much light, nor did the cloudy, foggy days of March give light where light was allowed.
It was midday and already the halls were lit with candles and lamps; the fireplaces were all crackling and burning. Ellsworth was an old estate: impressive and wealthy. It was said the Duke of Durhamshire had an income of 30,000 pounds a year. His library held more books in a single room that I had ever seen in my lifetime.
Since his father and mother had been killed in a carriage accident two years ago, he was the youngest and wealthiest eligible man this season. He’d danced more than a few times with Lady Bridget; she was of great beauty, if not of great dowry.
The library was thankfully abandoned. Thunder rumbled in the distance, so I curled up on the window seat with my diary, keeping an eye out for the men to come in from the hunt early. If they all returned, I would likely be needed for the afternoon.
But only the Duke of Durhamshire returned.
He rode up to the stable, so proud and tall and commanding. For just a moment, I allowed myself the fantasy of catching his attention. Not even in my fantasies would I presume to imagine myself a Duchess; I only imagined the riding crop swinging at his side to be swinging against my backside.
I had been haunted by such fantasies since childhood. Abnormal daydreams, to be certain, but there was no escaping them. No enjoying them, either. They were longings to endure, longings that tortured: I would likely never feel a man’s touch at all.
So what harm, to fantasize? How else to pass the time as Lady Bridget sought to snare a husband and navigate the rocky waters of social standing and popularity? There was a time I envied her wardrobe of dresses; now I was almost glad my station allowed me to wear one a day. Lady Bridget changed three times before noon, twice more before dinner, and once more for the evening’s entertainment.
I searched for a scenario in which his Grace would punish me. I could not even find a reason he would speak to me, so I just imagined the punishment. I scribbled it all in my diary: my dress lifting, his words of admonishment and the feeling of his crop on my bottom.
It almost made me wish myself nothing more than a servant—his servant.
At that thought, I grew disgusted with myself. I stood up and went to the bookcases, dropping my diary on to the nearest end table.
The fact that I wished, even fleetingly, to be only a servant so that I could be punished, convinced me I must rid myself of my musings, or I would certainly grow mad. I trailed my fingers along the books, searching for something practical. A book on flora, maybe biology. Economics seemed safe.
“Miss Veronica Bridges, is it not?”
I jumped and turned. The Duke himself stood in the library, riding crop still in his hand. He had not yet changed, and I could hear the Ladies coming down the hallway. He stood next to my diary, but he did not see it. I was afraid to retrieve it for fear that, by heading toward it, I would call his attention to it.
I tried to make my voice cold and scolding, but it sounded breathy and deep to me. “We have not been introduced, Your Grace.”
“We are not likely to be.”
His tone was so mild that I did not know what to make of his statement. He just stared at me curiously. Lady Bridget was coming, as well as the Lady Caroline. Why would they all come to the library now? It was unusual.
Lady Caroline walked in first. No, she swept into the room first. She always made an entrance so that everyone was compelled to look.
Lady Bridget entered with a glare sent my way. She took in both the Duke and my presence in the corner. It was as if she knew he’d spoken to me. After she cast me a sharp glance, her face melted into demure sweetness.
“Your Grace,” she said.
Lady Caroline did not play the game that way. She managed to flop beautifully in a chair. “It is cold outside and hot inside. We had to escape the fireplaces. My dear Duke, you are a poor host if you cannot make the sun come out.”
She complained with that fashionable air that made everyone agree, for fear of appearing unfashionable. The Duke made some witty reply, but I was staring with quite a bit of terror at Lady Caroline’s hand, which was practically touching my diary.
I sat with a book in the corner as Jeanette joined me. I greeted her quietly, still fixated on Lady Caroline’s hand.
“What is this?” she asked.
I started forward, then stopped myself when she opened it. My name was not in my diary, of that I was certain. She would not read it, would she?
Oh, she would. I knew she would. She would relish it.
My face burned. I was in the shadows, as plainly dressed as any lady’s companion. For once I was grateful for my nearly invisible status. I kept my head bent over my book, praying the oncoming storm would not hit.
“It is scandalous!” Lady Caroline cried. Her face was the perfect picture of horror, but there was no hiding the delight in her eyes.
And then, as she read further, she blushed. “Why, Your Grace, I believe you have been given a hero’s role in an erotic tale!”
“Have I?” he asked mildly, and I felt his gaze rest on me.
“You are punishing a naughty servant,” she said, “and then you—” She cut herself off with a gasp and held the book out to the Duke. “I cannot read on!”
Lady Bridget dared not look at me. She knew it was my diary: she’d seen me with it often. My disgrace would reflect on her, if only a little. I wondered if Jeanette would recognize it. I glanced her way, but when our gazes met, her expression did not accuse; she was as delighted by the new gossip as Lady Caroline.
His Grace pocketed the diary and smoothly changed the subject. The next hour was one of the longest of my life. Even when everyone left to change, my hands still trembled.
I breathed a sigh of relief when all had abandoned the library. Alone. Safe for the moment.
Then I heard boots on the floor.
“Miss Veronica Bridges?”
I was shocked he’d returned, knowing I was alone in the library. A deep breath steadied me. The repercussions of my carelessness would likely haunt me the rest of my life, but I could at least keep my dignity intact. I held my chin up and looked him right in the eye.
I curtsied. “Yes, Your Grace?”
I expected his eyes to be mocking, but they were merely curious. No compassion, no cruelty. Just curiosity.
“I believe this is yours.” He held the book to me, and I found I could neither take it nor deny his claim. I could not look above his chest. I could not even tear my gaze from the offered diary.
Was he being polite? Kind? Or was he setting me up? Searching for proof of my indiscretion so he could advertise it?
I mumbled the appropriate words of leave-taking, then ran to my room.
* * *
I sat in my room, waiting for Lady Bridget to dismiss me. She would, almost certainly. I wondered if perhaps I should write her a note, or if I should wait for her to address the issue.
I packed my things and wondered where I would go. To my sister in Devonshire, I supposed. Her husband was clergy in a small parish; I would be a burden and a strain, at least until I could arrange for a new position. Perhaps Lady Bridget would stay silent on the reasons for my dismissal.
The knock came, brisk and harsh.
I took a deep breath and steadied myself before opening the door. Instead of Lady Bridget, the Duke stood there. He’d changed outfits, and he held my diary instead of his riding crop.
I curtsied. “Your Grace.”
The Duke walked right in. My eyes widened so hard I thought they would pop. I stared, astonished. I was torn between shutting the door to prevent anyone from seeing and keeping the door open so I was not alone with a man.
“Shut the door, Miss Veronica Bridges.”
“You would make matters worse for me!” I cried. I started to run from the room, but he pushed the door shut.
“Your Grace!” I whispered.
“Relax. You have no more reputation to lose.”
He dropped my diary on my bed. “Is this yours?”
I didn’t answer, for surely he already knew the answer. Hands shaking, I picked it up and packed it inside my bag. I felt so awkward, like my bottom was really big. Had he read of my fantasies? Was he even now studying my bottom, thinking of the punishment I had written about?
“Do you have somewhere to go?”
“I have a sister in the country.” Married to a poor clergyman, but I didn’t say that out loud.
He nodded curtly. He walked to the window and stared out over his grounds. He gave a sudden bark of laughter and turned to me.
“Marry me, then.”
“Are you mad with fever?” I asked in curious seriousness. He stood, eyes blazing with something, one arm hanging at his side. His eyes narrowed at my question.
“You would not turn me down.”
“Then why ask me at all?” I did not consider he would be serious in the matter, so I busied my hands by pretending to rearrange my packing.
He frowned. “Miss Veronica Bridges.”
“You would only ask me to marry you in jest. Or some prank. Have I not provided enough amusement for your guests?”
He seemed amused at my answer. “I assure you, Miss Bridges, I am entirely in earnest.”
“Perhaps you have seduced me.”
“If I had seduced you, you would make a mistress of me, not marry me.” I realized, at that moment, that being a mistress of a gentleman would be a better life than what I could expect. To be true, I would rather be a servant than become an idle, poor relation to be a burden on my sister’s husband.
“How old are you?” he asked.
I blushed. “Twenty-five.”
“I will contact the Bishop for a license. No banns need be read. In three weeks, a month at most, we can be married.”
“You are not amusing,” I said.
“There is no impediment, and none of my family would dare object to my wishes.”
“Why would you wish it? You are foolish,” I said. “You will choose either Lady Caroline or Lady Bridget. Everyone knows it.”
“Do they?” he asked.
“Lady Caroline would be a good match in every way, but no one would fault you for choosing Lady Bridget. She has a far smaller inheritance, but you are not wanting for money and she is known as a sweet beauty.”
He laughed. “’Known as?’ As in not ‘is?’”
“Lady Caroline also comes with a shrewish tongue, and Lady Bridget is not as sweet as she would pretend.” His expression was hidden in the shadows of the room. “I have chosen you.”
He stepped in front of me so we were toe to toe, but due to his greater height, he towered over me. I could stare at the white fabric buttons on his shirt or I could tilt my head back and meet his gaze. I chose the latter, and the instant I did, he bent his head down and tested my lips with a kiss.
The first contact of his lips on mine startled me. It was a sensation I had imagined, but not accurately. He brushed his lips over mine. He waited for a moment, waited for me to object or perhaps to push him away. His lips hovered just a hair’s breadth from mine. My eyes closed, and he pressed his mouth to mine.
A knock made me jump back. I glanced around the room, hoping for somewhere to hide, somewhere to escape.
His eyes danced in amusement. “Shall I hide in my own manor?” To my astonishment, he did just that. He knelt behind the bed, hidden from view of the doorway.
I opened the door to Lady Bridget.
She frowned at me, her face regretful. She just stood there, and I knew she was trying to find the words necessary.
“I expect you will not need me any longer,” I tried.
“I regret not,” she answered.
We stood silently. I was thinking of the last two years, of the confidences we had shared. I was only a companion, but still we had shared many intimate conversations. We’d spent every day together for two years.
“Will you tell?” I asked softly.
“I will try not to,” she said. “But Lady Caroline knows it is you. It is only our friendship which keeps her silent.”
I heard the laughter of Lady Caroline coming down the hallway, and Lady Bridget gave me a nod, then left.
I closed the door gently behind her.
When I closed the door, the Duke stood.
“I will return in the morning for your agreement. You can visit with my younger sister while we wait. I would not want your respectability to fall under suspicion.”
I laughed. “Respectability? A Duke marrying a lady’s companion? There is no respectability for me to have.”
“None to lose, either.”
“And you? Do you think you are untouchable?”
He was not the richest Duke in the peerage, but he was of great means. He was the youngest Duke, for certain. I allowed myself the fantasy of being a Duchess for a small moment.
“My dear Veronica, I am very nearly untouchable. But I will not be ostracized for marrying the orphaned daughter of a Baronet. He may not have been of the aristocracy, but I am hardly marrying a peasant.”
“You delude yourself if you think it will not be a scandal.”
He grinned, but there was a glint to his eye. “No, your diary is a scandal. My choice of wife will merely be gossip.”
* * *
I hid in my room for the rest of the afternoon and evening. I did not want to face Jeanette: surely she would know. Surely everyone would know, by now. And surely the Duke had been jesting.
But if he were going to humiliate me, he could have done so in the library.
As midnight came and the house grew quiet, I decided to leave. I was still dressed, still sitting with my bags packed to go. The Duke and I had never even been introduced; an engagement was impossible.
I knew if I cut through the woods to the road on the other side of the estate, the stagecoach would come along early in the morning.
It seemed safer. And leaving before any could see my shame was most desirable.
I softly stole into the hallway, my bags in hand. I was all the way down the hallway when I heard a door open behind me.
I froze. I didn’t dare look.
“Drop the bags.”
I didn’t turn. “Your Grace,” I pleaded, but I obeyed.
Without another word, he picked up my bags and carried them back to my room. I stood in the shadows, fearful of waking another guest and being discovered. The Duke seemed to fear nothing.
When he returned, I whispered, “Let me go, please.”
“No.” He grabbed my arm and dragged me down the stairs and out the door.
“For someone who fantasizes about obedience, you are the disobedient one.”He paused to think. “Or is it the punishment you long for?”
I was glad it was dark. My blush was certainly hidden, but even that knowledge did not lessen my embarrassment.
“You are a bore, Your Grace. I find you repulsive and I wish to go.”
“A bore? Repulsive?” He laughed. “You did not write such a fantasy in your diary about someone who repulsed you.”
I stood in the moonlight, shivering at the moisture in the air.
“It is that you do not trust me,” he said.
“How can I?”
He took my hand, and I was surprised at his gentleness. He turned it over, then kissed the center of my palm. “It is every girl’s dream, no? You have caught a Duke with means.”
“I do not need to be rescued. You could force me to stay with much less than a promise of marriage. Why propose?”
“Because I am honorable man.”
I laughed, a bark of skeptical laughter, and he laughed with me.
“I am a selfish man. I see what I want, and I acquire it.”
“I am not a thing to be acquired.”
“I promise you will enjoy being mine.”
The moonlight caught a glimmer in his eye. I took a step back instinctively, and he seemed to like that. He captured my fingers in his hand, bending them back so my palm was flattened and exposed. I guessed his intentions and tried to pull away, but I did not succeed. He raised the crop and snapped it across my palm.
“Try to run away again, Miss Veronica Bridges, and I will punish you just as you fantasized in your diary.”
So he had read it.
With the sting in my hand burning, I regretted my fantasies. I knew the one he referred to: me, bare-bottomed and barelegged; him, welting my skin with his crop. I had called him crazy and mad, but now I was certain I was the mad one. How could I fantasize of such things?
The sting was still buzzing when he snapped the crop across my palm a second time. I pulled my hand away from him and cradled it close to my chest.
The sting grew almost unbearable. Tears pooled in my eyes, and I stared at my wounded hand. But I did not rub the sting away. It was the first time, despite all my fantasies, that I had every been struck. The moonlight was clear enough that I could see two welted lines across my palm.
The pain did not fade.
The Duke’s curious eyes watched my reaction. There was something about his presence that made me wish he would strike my hand again. The pain buzzed more intense in my hand.
Suddenly, my skin swallowed the pain.
I stared down at my hand. The tingles were still there, and yet I could not call it unpleasant. It was as if my hand had absorbed and dissipated the pain. I was not even sure it hurt. I could feel a warmness, but even that was fading quickly in the cold night air.
Then I felt such wretched disappointment that all my embarrassment disappeared. Loneliness surged into me. I was overcome with a dizzy, lost feeling.
When I looked up at the Duke, he smiled at me wickedly, as if he knew my every thought. “Stay,” he commanded. He used a finger to wipe the tear that had overflowed onto my cheek. I hadn’t even known I was crying.
Softly, he added, “I am lonely, Veronica.”
In that moment, I cared not what he would do with me. I did not care if I would become his wife, his mistress or even his servant. I did not even care if he would make a fool of me.
I offered him my unstruck hand, palm up.