STOLEN ENCOUNTERS WITH THE DUCHESS
· Harlequin Historicals
She would rather burn in his presence than pine in his absence
Faith Wellingford Evers, Duchess of Ashedon, is tired of society’s endless gossiping about her failings and her late husband’s infidelities. Seeking escape one night, she’s attached by ruffians, but is saved by an unlikely figure from her past.
Having risen from penniless orphan to Member of Parliament, David Tanner Smith is no longer the quiet boy Faith once knew. With the first spine-tingling kiss, their old friendship is transformed. And in its place is an explosive mix of illicit encounters and forbidden desire…
“A sweet love story focusing on a rekindled childhood love, lovingly crafted by Justiss.”—Romantic Times Magazine
Setting off at a pace brisk enough to clear the wine fumes from his head, David Tanner Smith, Member of Parliament for Hazelwick, headed from the Mayfair townhouse where he’d dined with some Whig colleagues toward his rooms at Albany.
The friends had urged him to stay for a few more rounds, but after a day of enduring the mostly irrelevant objections the opponents of the Reform bill kept raising to delay bringing it to a vote, he was weary of political talk. He was also, he had to admit, somewhat out of spirits.
His footsteps would echo loudly, once he reached the solitary rooms of his chambers. Though he rejoiced that his best friend Giles Hadley had found happiness with Lady Margaret, he’d discovered that losing the companion with whom he’d shared rooms since their student days at Oxford had left him lonelier than he’d anticipated.
Since the only woman he’d ever loved was far beyond the touch of a lowly farmer’s orphan, he didn’t expect he’d ever find wedded bliss himself. Being common-born, but sponsored by a baronet and a marquess, put him in an odd social limbo, not of the gentry, never acceptable to the haut ton, but as a rising politician in the Whigs, not a nonentity either.
Rather a conundrum, which spared him attentions from marriage-minded Mamas who couldn’t quite decide whether he would be a good match for their daughters or not, he thought with a wry grin.
The smile faded as he recalled the stillness of Giles’s empty room back in Piccadilly. Who might he marry, if he were ever lonely enough? The daughter of a Cit who valued his political aspirations? A politically-minded aristocrat who would overlook the lack of birth in exchange for elbow room at the tables of power?
He was rounding the dark corner into North Audley Street, about to head toward Oxford Street, when the sounds of an altercation reached him. Slowing, he peered through the dimness ahead, where he could just make out the figures of two men and what appeared to be a young woman draped in an evening cloak.
“You will release me at once, or I will call the watch,” she declared.
“Will ye, now?” one of them mocked with a coarse laugh. The other, grasping the woman’s shoulder, said, “The only thing you’ll be doing is handing your necklace over to us—and the bracelet and ear-bobs, too, if you don’t want that pretty face marred. “
“Aye, so pretty you are that maybe we’ll take you to a fancy-house after,” the other man added. “They’d pay a lot for a tender morsel like you, I reckon.”
“Take your hands off me!” the girl shrieked, kicking out and twisting in the first man’s grip, as the second pulled on the ties to her cape.
Having heard enough, Davie tightened his grip on his walking stick and raced toward them. “Let the woman go!” he shouted, raising the stick menacingly. “Now—before I call the watch.”
For an instant, seeing his imposing size, the men froze. Then, city blokes obviously having no idea of the damage a strong yeoman could do with a stout stave, they ignored him and resumed trying to subdue the struggling female.
He’d warned them, Davie thought. After having to restrain himself around buffoons all day, the prospect of being able to deliver a few good whacks raised his spirits immensely.
With a roar, he rushed them, catching the first man under his ear with the end of the stick and knocking him away. Rapidly reversing it, he delivered an uppercut to the chin of the second. The sharp crack of fracturing bone sounded before the second man, howling, released his hold. Wrenching free, the lass lifted her skirts and took to her heels.
Davie halted a moment, panting. Much as he’d like to round the two up and deliver them to the nearest constable, he probably ought to follow the girl. Any female alone on the street at this time of night was likely to attract more trouble—at the very least, some other footpad looking for an easy mark, if not far worse.
Decision made, he turned away from the attackers and ran after her. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you!” he called out. “It’s not safe, walking alone in London at night. Let me escort you home.”
The girl gave a quick glance over her shoulder, but apparently unconvinced, fled on. Hampered by her skirts, she wouldn’t be able to outrun him for long, but before he could catch up to her, she tripped on something and stumbled. With a cry, she fell to her knees.
Reaching her in a few strides, Davie halted at her side and offered a hand to help her to her feet. The girl took it, but then suddenly jerked away with such violence that, when Davie hung on instead of releasing her, the force of the ricochet slammed back her into Davie, chest to chest.
Swearing under his breath, Davie held fast to the lass, who immediately began struggling again. “Stop it!” he said sharply. “I told you, I don’t mean to hurt you.” Lowering his voice, he continued, “We’ll sort this out, miss, but not on a public street. Let me take you somewhere safer, and you can tell me how to get you home to your family.”
With a deep sigh, the girl ceased trying to pull away from him. “Please, Davie,” she said softly, “Won’t you just let me go?”
The dearly-familiar voice shocked him like the sharp edge of a razor slicing skin. “Faith?” he said incredulously.
To his astonishment, as he turned the woman’s face up into the lamplight, Davie recognized that it was, in fact, Faith Wellingford Evers, Duchess of Ashedon, he had trapped against him.
Before he could get his stunned tongue to utter another word, the lady straightened and pulled away. “Yes, it’s Faith,” she admitted. “I was on my way to find a hackney to take me home. Couldn’t you pretend you hadn’t seen me, and let me go?”
As the reality of her identity sank in, a second wave of shock, sharpened by horror over what might have happened to her, held him speechless for another moment. Then, swallowing a curse, Davie clamped a hand around her wrist and began walking her forward. “No, Duchess, I can’t let you—“
“--’Faith,’ Davie. Please, let it be ‘Faith.’ Can’t I escape, at least for awhile, being the Duchess?”
It shouldn’t have, but it warmed his heart that she would allow such familiarity to someone who’d not been a close friend for years. “Regardless, I can’t let you wander on your own, chasing down a carriage to get you back to Berkeley Square. The streets in Mayfair are better, but nowhere in London is truly safe after dark, for anyone alone. To say nothing of a woman!”
“You were alone,” she pointed out.
“Yes, but I was also armed and able to defend myself,” he retorted. “I was going to take the young lass I’d rescued to a tavern and discover how to help her, but I can’t do that with you. Not anywhere around here, where we are both known. You’d better let me summon the hackney and escort you safely home.”
She slowed, resisting his forward motion. “You’re sure you can’t just let me go?” After his sharp look of a reply, she said softly, “I didn’t set out to be foolish or irresponsible. I am sorry to have inadvertently gotten you involved.”
She swallowed hard, and the tears he saw sparkling at the edge of her lashes hit him like a blow to the chest. How it still distressed him to see her upset!
“Well, I’m not. Can you imagine the uproar, if you had summoned the watch, and they discovered your identity? Far better it for it to be me, whose discretion you can depend upon. If you don’t want to find out what Society would say about a Duchess wandering around alone on a Mayfair street, we better return you to Ashedon House as soon as possible, before someone in a passing carriage recognizes you.”
When she still resisted, a most unpalatable thought occurred. “You…you do trust me not to harm you, don’t you, Faith?”
She uttered a long, slow sigh that further tore at his heart. “Of course, I trust you, Davie. Very well, find us a hackney. And you don’t have to hang onto me. I won’t bolt again.”
Without another word, she resumed walking beside him. The energy that had fueled her flight seemed to have drained out of her; head lowered, shoulders slumping, she looked…beaten, and weary.
Good thing he had to be mindful that some ton notable might at any minute drive by, else he might not have been able to resist the strong impulse to pick her up and carry her. After a few more minutes of brisk walking, they arrived at a hackney stand where, fortunately, a vehicle waited. Still not entirely believing he was accompanying his Faith—no, the widowed Duchess of Ashedon, he corrected himself, never his—he helped her in, guiding her back onto the seat.
After rapping on the panel to signal the driver to start, Davie looked back at the Duchess. “Are you all right? They didn’t hurt you? What about your knees? You took quite a fall.” If they had harmed her, he’d track them down and take them apart limb from limb.
“No,” she said in a small voice. “I was frightened, and furious; my arm got twisted, but I’ve nothing more than bruises. I think I landed a few good kicks, too.”
“Thank heaven for that! Before we get back to Berkeley Square, can you tell me how you ended up alone on the street at this time of night?”
“Can’t you just let me return, and spare the exposition?”
He studied the outline of her profile in the light of the carriage lamps. “I don’t mean to pry. But finding you alone, practically in the middle of the night—well, it’s disturbing. Something isn’t right. I’d like to help fix it, if I can.”
To his further distress, the remark brought tears back to her eyes. “Ah, Davie. You’ve always wanted to make things better, haven’t you? Compelled to fix everything—government, Parliament, Society. But this can’t be fixed.”
She looked so worn and miserable, Davie ached to pull her into his arms. Nothing new about that; he’d ached to hold her since he’d first seen her, more than ten years ago. Sister-in-law of a marquess, she’d been almost as unattainable then as she was now, as the widow of a duke.
Unfortunately, that hadn’t kept him from falling in love with her, or loving her all the years since.
“What happened?” he asked quietly. “What upset you so much, you had to escape into the night?”
She remained silent, her expression not just weary, but almost…despairing. While he hesitated, torn between respecting her privacy and the compulsion to right whatever was wrong in her universe, at last, she shrugged. “I might as well tell you, I suppose. It wasn’t some sort of stupid wager, though, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t. You may have been high-spirited and carefree as a girl, but you were never a brainless ninny, or a daredevil.”
“Was I high-spirited and carefree? Maybe I was, once. It’s been so long.”
Her dull voice and lifeless eyes ratcheted his concern up even further. Granted, these two unlikely friends had grown apart in the years since the idyllic summer they’d met, he twenty and serving his first stint as secretary to Sir Edward Greaves, she a golden-haired, sixteen-year-old sprite paying a long visit to her cousin, Sir Edward’s wife. But even on the occasions he’d seen her since her marriage, her eyes had still held that warmth and joy for life that had so captured his heart the first time he set eyes on her.
“You were carefree,” he affirmed. “Which makes the fact that I found you alone on the street, seeking transport home, even more troubling. What drove you to it?“
“Ever since Ashedon’s death—by the way, thank for your kind note of condolence—his mother, the Dowager Duchess, has been making noises about how she must support ‘the poor young Duchess and her darling boys’ and see that the ‘tragic young Duke’ receives the guidance necessary for his elevated status in life. A month ago, she made good on her threat and moved herself back into Ashedon Place. She’s been wanting to do so for years, but though his mother doted on him, Ashedon knew how interfering she is and wouldn’t allow it. It’s enough that I must tolerate the sweetly-contemptuous comments of other Society matrons at all those boring, insipid evenings I’ve come to hate! Now, I have to live with the Dowager’s carping and criticism as well, every day. Then, tonight, when I accompanied her to the party she insisted we attend—after earlier decreeing that two women in mourning shouldn’t attend the dinner I would have preferred—I discovered her younger son, my brother-in-law Lord Randall, was there. When he caught me alone in the hallway on my way to the ladies’ retiring room and tried to force a kiss on me, I’d had enough. I knew the Dowager wasn’t ready to leave, and would never believe anything derogatory about her precious son, so there was no hope of persuading her to summon the carriage. But remaining was so intolerable, I decided to walk toward Oxford Street and look for a hackney.”
She gave a little sigh, the sadness of it piercing his heart. “Ashedon and his doxies were bad enough, and now this. Sometimes I don’t think I can bear it any longer.”
His heart ached for the gentle spirit whose girlish dreams of being loved and cherished had been slowly crushed under the heel of her husband’s indifference, leaving her trapped, a lonely and neglected wife. As Davie was trapped in his place, unable to help her.
Except, always, to be a friend.
To his dismay, the tears he’d seen on her lashes earlier began to silently slip down her cheeks. Putting up a hand to try to mask them, she turned away.
And then, somehow, she was in his arms, cradled against his chest. She clung to him and he clutched her tightly, almost ready to bless the ruffians he’d rescued her from, for without that incident, the marvel of holding her would never have been his. It was a dream come true; oh, far better than any dream, to feel the softness of her pressed against him, her lavender scent filling his nostrils, her silky blonde curls under his chin. He could die right now, and be content, for he would never get any closer to heaven.
And if his body burned to possess her fully, he rebuked it. He’d never expected to have even this much bliss; he’d not ask for more.
Inevitably and all too soon, she got herself back under control, and pulled away.
Letting her go, when all he wanted was to hold her forever, was the hardest thing he’d ever done.
“Sorry,” she said gruffly. “Usually I’m not so poor-spirited.”
“Don’t be sorry. I’m only glad I was here, to stand your friend.”
“My friend. I have few enough of those. I did try to be careful tonight, I assure you! I guess…I guess I was just too tired and preoccupied, because I never noticed the two men who must have followed me. They seemed to appear out of nowhere.”
Davie shook his head with a shudder. “I’m only glad I happened along. What they might have done to you, I don’t even want to contemplate.”
She nodded. “They threatened to take me to a brothel. Could they drag a woman there against her will, or were they just trying to frighten me?”
“I’m afraid it’s quite possible. A little laudanum, and you might have awakened to find yourself locked in a room in some den of vice somewhere,” he answered grimly.
“Except for not seeing my sons again, I’m not sure I’d have cared. I thought of leaving Ashedon, oh, so many times! But I couldn’t haven taken my boys with me—legally, they belonged to him, of course, and Jeffrey is the heir. He needs to grow up at Ashedon Court, learning how to care for his heritage. I saw little enough of them; the Duke didn’t think children should be spoiled by having their mother dote on them. Now that he’s gone, I’ve tried to alter that, though I must continually fight against the Dowager and their tutor to do it. As long as I get to be with my boys, one way or another, I will endure it—for now, anyway.”
“Have you talked with your family, your sisters? Do they know how unhappy you are?”
She smiled wryly. “I…I’m not that close to them any more. The Duke actively discouraged me from seeing my family at the beginning of our marriage. Silly me, I thought it was because he wanted me all to himself. Which he did, in a way. He didn’t want anyone around who might interfere with his authority. So over the years, we…drifted further and further apart. Like you and I did.”
He nodded. “I’m sure they regret that as much as I do. Could you not try to reestablish ties?”
“I suppose. But there isn’t anything they can do to help me, either. Most of the time I manage better.” She tried to summon a smile for him. “It’s only rarely that I feel as if I’ll…burst out of my skin if I don’t get away from all of it.”
“Like you did tonight.”
“Like I did tonight.”
He looked at her, frowning. “At the moment, I don’t have any clever ideas on how to make things better. But will you promise me something?”
“What?” she asked, tilting her head at him with an inquiring look–and instantly, he was catapulted back into the memories.
How many times that summer had she gazed up at him just like that, her eager mind probing further into whatever they were discussing—poetry, politics, agriculture? As if the whole world excited and enthralled her, and she could not learn enough about it.
Fury fired in him again to realize how much of that joy had been squeezed out of her.
Suppressing the anger, he replied, “The next time you feel you cannot stand it a minute longer, please, don’t go wandering around the streets by yourself! Send me a note; I’ll meet you somewhere, anywhere, and we can talk. You’re not alone, Faith. You’ll never be alone, while I still draw breath. Promise me?”
She studied him for a moment. “You mean that?”
“Of course. I never say anything I don’t mean.”
She nodded, the faintest of smiles on her lips. “Yes, I remember that about you. And how you were always a loyal friend. Very well, I promise.”
“Good,” he said, troubled still, but feeling a bit better about her situation. “We should be at Berkeley Square shortly, which is fortunate—especially if your mother-in-law noticed you were gone, and rushed home to find you.”
She shrugged. “She’d probably rejoice to have me gone. Except, she’d no longer have so ready a target for her venom.”
“You’re just weary. Everything will look better in the morning, when you’re rested.”
“Will it?” She smiled. “Maybe for a man who’s set out to change the world. I do hear some of what you’re accomplishing, by the way, even in the wilderness of the ton. Not that anyone talks about it to me directly, of course—politics being too intellectually challenging for a woman. No, we are left to discuss trimming bonnets, managing servants, and perhaps, if we’ve very bold, speculating about who might make the best lover, or which dancer in the Green Room has become the latest mistress of which nobleman.”
He grimaced. “There could be so much more than that! As you doubtless know, my friend Giles Hadley, Viscount Lyndlington, recently married Lady Margaret Roberts. She has played political hostess to her father, Lord Witlow, for years; not only does she understand politics, she and her father frequently bring together the best minds in government, science and art to debate all manner of topics at their ‘discussion evenings.’”
“That sounds wonderful—and so much more stimulating that anything I get to experience. Unless…” Her dull eyes brightened. “Did you really mean what you said, about meeting me? “
“Didn’t I already answer that?”
“Then…would you meet me tomorrow afternoon? I usually drive with the Dowager during the Promenade Hour in Hyde Park, but after tonight, I would rather not endure the hour-long lecture she will surely subject me to about my improper behavior in leaving that wretched party. Would you meet me instead—at Gunter’s, perhaps? No one we know should be there at that hour, so we won’t be disturbed. I would love to hear more about what you are doing in Parliament. Perhaps I will even understand it.”
He ought to be in committee meetings, but when she looked at him with that appeal in her eyes, he’d have agreed to miss the final vote on the bill. “Yes, I’ll meet you there.”
The carriage slowed, indicating they were about to reach their destination. Davie felt a stab of disappointment; he could have ridden about London, talking with Faith, all night.
Bowing to the inevitable, he hopped out as the vehicle stopped and reached up to hand her down. “I’ll wait until you’re safely inside,” he said as she descended.
“Very well.” She took a step toward the front door, then stopped, as if she couldn’t quite bring herself to reenter the Duchess’s realm. Turning back to him, she went up on tiptoe and gave him a quick kiss on his jaw.
While his heart stuttered, then raced in his chest, she said, “Thank you, Davie. For your rescue, and much more. For the first time in a long time, I have a ‘tomorrow’ I can look forward to.”
As did he, he thought as she ran up the steps. The privilege of escorting her about probably wouldn’t last long. He intended to relish every second.
Copyright © Julia Justiss
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