Daring and the Duke Page 2

“Once you’re duke,” she said, softly.

He turned to look at her. “Once one of us is duke.”

She shook her head, meeting his glittering amber gaze, so like his brothers’. So like his father’s. “You’re going to win.”

He watched her for a long moment and said, “How do you know?”

She pressed her lips together. “I just know.” The old duke’s machinations grew more challenging by the day. Devil was like his name, too much fire and fury. And Whit—he was too small. Too kind.

“And if I don’t want it?”

A preposterous idea. “Of course you want it.”

“It should be yours.”

She couldn’t help the little, wild laugh. “Girls don’t get to be dukes.”

“And here you are, an heir, nonetheless.”

But she wasn’t. Not really. She was the product of her mother’s extramarital affair, a gamble designed to deliver a bastard heir to a monstrous husband, forever tainting his precious familial line—the only thing he’d ever cared for. But instead of a boy, the duchess had produced a girl, and so she was not heir. She was a placeholder. A bookmark in an ancient copy of Burke’s Peerage. And they all knew it.

She ignored the words and said, “It doesn’t matter.”

And it didn’t. Ewan would win. He would become duke. And it would change everything.

He watched her for a long moment. “When I am duke, then.” The words were a whisper, as though if he spoke them in truth, he’d curse them all. “When I am duke, I shall keep us all safe. Us and all of the Garden. I shall take his money. His power. His name. And I shall walk away and never look back.” The words circled around them, reverberating off the trees for a long moment before he corrected himself. “Not his name,” he whispered. “Yours.”

Robert Matthew Carrick, Earl Sumner, heir to the Dukedom of Marwick.

She ignored the thread of emotion winding through her and lightened her tone. “You might as well have the name. It’s proper new. I’ve never used it.” She might have been baptized the heir, but she didn’t have access to the name.

Over the years, when she’d been anything at all, she’d been girl, the girl, or young lady. Once, for a heartbeat when she was eight, there was a housemaid who called her luv, and she’d rather enjoyed that. But the maid had left after a few months, and the girl had been back to being nobody.

Until they’d arrived—a trio of boys who saw her—and this one, who seemed not only to see her, but also to understand her. And they called her a hundred things, Run for the way she tore across the fields, and Red for the flame in her hair, and Riot for the way she fumed at their father. And she answered to all of them, knowing that none was her name, but not caring so much once they’d arrived. Because maybe they were enough.

Because to them, she was not nobody.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. He meant it.

To him, she was somebody.

They stayed that way for a heartbeat, gazes locked, truth like a blanket around them, until he cleared his throat and looked away, breaking the connection and rolling onto his back, returning his attention to the trees above, and saying, “Anyway, my mum used to say she loved the rain, because it was the only time she ever saw jewels in Covent Garden.”

“Promise to take me when you leave,” she whispered into the quiet.

His lips set into a firm line, his promise written in the lines of his face, older than it should be. Younger than it would have to become. He nodded once. Firm. Certain. “And I’ll make sure you have jewels.”

She rolled onto her own back, her skirts haphazard in the grass. “See that you do,” she jested. “And gold thread for all my gowns.”

“I shall keep you in spools of it.”

“Yes, please,” she said. “And a lady’s maid with a particular skill for hair.”

“You’re very demanding for a country girl,” he teased.

She turned a grin on him. “I’ve had a lifetime to prepare my requirements.”

“Do you think you’re ready for London, country girl?”

The smile faded into a mock scowl. “I think I shall do just fine, city boy.”

He laughed, and the rare sound filled the space around them, warming her. And in that moment, something happened. Something strange and unsettling and wonderful and weird. That sound, like nothing in the wide world, unlocked her.

Suddenly, she could feel him. Not simply the warmth of him along her side, where they touched from shoulder to hip. Not only the place where his elbow rested beside her ear. Not just the feel of his touch in her curls as he extracted a leaf from them. All of him. The even rise and fall of his breath. His sure stillness. And that laugh . . . his laugh.

“Whatever happens, promise you won’t forget me,” she said quietly.

“I shan’t be able to. We’ll be together.”

She shook her head. “People leave.”

His brow furrowed and she could hear the force in his words. “I don’t. I won’t.”

She nodded. But still, “Sometimes you don’t choose it. Sometimes people just . . .”

His gaze softened with understanding and he heard the reference to her mother in the trail of her words. He rolled toward her, and they were facing each other now, cheeks on their bent arms, close enough for secrets. “She would have stayed if she could,” he said, firmly.

“You don’t know that,” she whispered, hating the sting of the words behind the bridge of her nose. “I was born and she died, and she left me with a man who was not my father, who gave me a name that is not my own, and I’ll never know what would have happened if she’d lived. I’ll never know if . . .”

He waited. Ever patient, as though he would wait for her for a lifetime.

“I’ll never know if she would have loved me.”

“She would have loved you.” The answer was instant.

She shook her head, closing her eyes. Wanting to believe him. “She didn’t even name me.”

“She would have. She would have named you, and it would have been something beautiful.”

The certainty in his words had her meeting his gaze, sure and unyielding. “Not Robert, then?”

He didn’t smile. Didn’t laugh. “She would have named you for what you were. For what you deserved. She would have given you the title.”

Understanding dawned.

And then he whispered, “Just as I would do.”

Everything stopped. The rustle of leaves in the canopy, the shouts of his brothers in the stream beyond, the slow creep of the afternoon, and she knew, in that moment, that he was about to give her a gift that she’d never imagined she’d receive.

She smiled at him, her heart pounding in her chest. “Tell me.”

She wanted it on his lips, in his voice, in her ears. She wanted it from him, knowing it would make it impossible for her to ever forget him, even after he left her behind.

He gave it to her.


Chapter Two



Autumn 1837


“To Dahlia!”

A raucous cheer rose in reply to the shout, the crush of people in the central room of 72 Shelton Street—a high-end club and the best kept secret of London’s smartest, savviest, most scandalous women—turning in unison to toast its proprietress.

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