Daring and the Duke Page 1

Chapter One

Burghsey House

Seat of the Dukedom of Marwick

The Past

There was nothing in the wide world like his laugh.

It didn’t matter that she was unqualified to speak of the wide world. She’d never strayed far from this enormous manor house, tucked into the quiet Essex countryside two days’ walk northeast of London, where rolling green hills turned to wheat as autumn crept across the land.

It didn’t matter that she didn’t know the sounds of the city or the smell of the ocean. Or that she’d never heard a language other than English, or seen a play, or listened to an orchestra.

It didn’t matter that her world had been limited to the three thousand acres of fertile land boasting fluffy white sheep and massive hay bales and a community of people with whom she was not allowed to speak—to whom she was virtually invisible—because she was a secret that was to be kept at all costs.

A girl, baptized the heir to the Dukedom of Marwick. Swaddled in the rich lace reserved for a long line of dukes, anointed with oils reserved for the most privileged of Burghsey House residents. Given a boy’s name and title before God even as the man who was not her father paid servants and priests for silence and falsified documents and laid plans to replace her mother’s bastard daughter with one of his own bastard sons, born on the same day as she—to women who were not his duchess—offering him a single path to a ducal legacy . . . theft.

Offering that useless girl, the mewling babe in nurse’s arms, nothing more than a half life, full of the aching loneliness that came from a world so large and so small, all at once.

And then he’d arrived, one year earlier. Twelve years old and full of fire and strength and the world beyond. Tall and lean and already so clever and cunning and the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, blond hair too long over bright amber eyes that held a thousand secrets, and a quiet, barely ever heard laugh—so rare that when it came, it felt like a gift.

No, there was nothing in the wide world like his laugh. She knew it, even if the wide world was so far beyond her reach she couldn’t even imagine where it began.

He could.

He loved to tell her about it. Which was what he did that afternoon, one of their precious, stolen moments between the duke’s machinations and manipulations—a thieved day before a night when the man who held their future might return to revel in tormenting his three sons. But today, in that quiet afternoon, while the duke was away in London, doing whatever it was that dukes did, the quartet took happiness where they could find it—out on the wild, meandering land that made up the estate.

Her favorite place was on the western edge of the land, far enough away from the manor house that it might be forgotten before it could be remembered. A magnificent copse of trees soaring into the sky, lined on one side with a small, bubbling stream, less stream than brook, if a body were honest, but one that had given her hours, days, weeks of chattering company when she’d been younger and conversation with the water had been all she could hope for.

But here, now, she was not lonely. She was inside the trees, where dappled sunshine flooded the ground where she lay on her back—collapsed after racing across the land, taking great breaths of air heavy with the scent of wild thyme.

He sat next to her, his hip to hers, his own chest rising and falling with heavy breath as he stared down into her face, his ever-lengthening legs stretched past her head. “Why do we always come here?”

“I like it here,” she said simply, turning her face up to the sunlight, the tattoo of her heartbeat calming as she stared through the canopy to the sky playing hide-and-seek beyond. “And so would you if you weren’t so serious all the time.”

The air in the quiet place shifted, thickening with the truth—that they were not ordinary children, thirteen and without care. Care was how they survived. Seriousness was how they survived.

She didn’t want that now. Not while the last of the summer butterflies danced in rays of light above, filling the whole place with magic that kept the worst at bay. So she changed the subject.

“Tell me about it.”

He didn’t ask her to clarify. He didn’t need to. “Again?”


He swiveled around, and she moved her skirts so he could lie next to her, as he had dozens of times before. Hundreds of them. Once he was settled on his back, his hands stacked behind his head, he spoke to the canopy. “It’s never quiet there.”

“Because of the carts on the cobblestones.”

He nodded. “The wooden wheels make a racket, but it’s more than that. It’s the shouts from the taverns and the hawkers in the market square. The dogs barking in the warehouses. The brawls in the streets. I used to stand on the roof of the place I lived and bet on the brawls.”

“That’s why you’re so good at fighting.”

He lifted a shoulder in a tiny shrug. “I always thought it would be the best way to help my ma. Until . . .”

He trailed off, but she heard the rest. Until she’d taken ill, and the duke had dangled a title and a fortune in front of a son who would have done anything to help. She turned to look at him, his face drawn tight, resolutely staring up at the sky, jaw set.

“Tell me about the cursing,” she prodded.

He let out a little surprised laugh. “A riot of foul language. You like that bit.”

“I didn’t even know cursing existed before you three.” Boys who came into her life like a riot themselves, rough and tumble and foul-mouthed and wonderful.

“Before Devil, you mean.”

Devil, christened Devon—one of his two half brothers—raised in a boys’ orphanage and with the mouth to prove it. “He’s proved very useful.”

“Yes. The cursing. Especially on the docks. No one swears like a sailor.”

“Tell me the best one you’ve ever heard.”

He cut her a sly look. “No.”

She’d ask Devil later. “Tell me about the rain.”

“It’s London. It rains all the time.”

She nudged him with her shoulder. “Tell me the good bit.”

He smiled, and she matched it, loving the way he humored her. “The rain turns the stones on the street slick and shiny.”

“And at night, it turns them gold, because of the lights from the taverns,” she filled in.

“Not just the taverns. The theaters on Drury Lane. The lamps that hang outside the bawdy houses.” Bawdy houses where his mother had landed after the duke had refused to keep her when she’d chosen to have his son. Where that son had been born.

“To keep the dark at bay,” she said softly.

“The dark ain’t so bad,” he said. “It’s just that the people in it haven’t a choice but to fight for what they need.”

“And do they get it? What they need?”

“No. They don’t get what they need, and not what they deserve, neither.” He paused, then whispered to the canopy, like it really was magic. “But we’re going to change all that.”

She didn’t miss the we. Not just him. All of them. A foursome that had made a pact when the boys had been brought here for this mad competition—whoever won would keep them all safe. And then they’d escape this place that had imprisoned them all in a battle of wits and weapons that would give his father what the older man wanted: an heir worthy of a dukedom.

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