About the book
"I don't want your best. I want your everything."
Everyone expects Lady Helena to marry her way up the social ladder.
Once scandal takes control, she’s forced to go against those wishes. After the accident that left her blind, she made a promise to herself; never marry for anything less than love. But she never expected the Duke of Hartwick to show up and steal her innocence…
David Barrington, the Duke of Hartwick, lives in the shadows of his past. Tainted by criminal ways, his present is miserable and his future looks bleak. When a single slip-up gets him involved with Helena, the one woman he never wanted to see again, he’s forced to confront his old ways in the boldest way possible.
Refusing to even so much as touch each other, they soon find out that perhaps love and passion are more wicked than they thought. But fast they need to be because David’s criminal past is back. And this time, vengeance wants to sink its bloody teeth in the one thing that taught him to live again...
“This way, My Lady! Quickly!”
Helena stumbled after the voice, the heat of the fire searing her flesh and the cracking of the wooden beams making her jump and scream in terror.
“Whe—” she doubled over, wracked with coughs, unable to go any further.
“This way!” the voice called again, though it was muffled, as though he spoke through a rag or a handkerchief.
Helena had no idea who he was. She couldn’t see him—she couldn’t see anything. She stopped and put a hand to the wall, thinking to use it as a guide, but the voice called out again, panicked and fearful.
“No! Don’t touch anything. There’s fire everywhere.”
“I can’t see,” she cried back at him, bent almost double and screaming at him with all her might.
Within seconds, she felt a hand on her arm, firm and rough and dragging her forward.
They staggered on, Helena’s whole world reduced to that moment—the darkness, the smoke, the overwhelming heat, the stranger’s hand pulling her through it all. She blinked rapidly, tears streaming from her unseeing eyes, but her vision didn’t clear.
And then, just as suddenly, they came through the other end, lurching out into the cool, fresh air. Helena tried to gulp it in, desperate to clear her lungs, but all it served to do was choke her further.
She fell to her knees, gasping for breath and retching.
“Take her,” the man said. “I’m going back inside. There are others.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
Then another hand was on her, pulling her back up to her feet and then farther away from the house. A woman’s hand, this time, soft and feminine.
“Everything’s black, I can’t see. Why can’t I see? Why?”
“I don’t know, My Lady,” the woman said. She sat Helena down on a bench, and as she finally snatched a breath from the air, it was stolen once more by her sobbing.
Behind her, the fire raged on. There were people—maybe twenty or so, Helena couldn’t tell—who ran around the burning building, screaming and shouting orders at one another. Buckets of water were passed along rows of hands, then thrown onto the fire to douse it, but the water was lost to the conflagration before it had a chance to make a difference.
They were some distance from the house, perhaps thirty or forty feet—close enough to hear what was happening, but far enough away to be out of danger.
Helena ran her hand over the rough stone of the bench. She knew this bench, she recognized the touch of it, the curve from years of use. Both its familiarity and the scratch of it against her sensitive skin helped ground her, force her to calm.
Don’t panic. Think.
Her heart throbbed and every part of her stung. Her breath came in ragged, weak gasps, and the hem of her nightgown had been singed. It was her eyes that hurt the most, though. It felt as though the fire was right there, within her eyes, burning them away to nothing.
And she couldn’t see.
She wanted to scream, to cry out, to beg and weep, but she knew she couldn’t. There was far worse going on behind her, and she had to remain calm. She heard the trickle of water next to her, a rag being rung into a bucket, and then she felt the cool fabric pressed lightly to her forehead. She whimpered. The touch was both too tender and too harsh.
“It’s all right, My Lady,” the woman said, her voice soft and gentle as a song, and she continued to dab at Helena’s face. “You’re out now.”
“Who…” A sob escaped, uncontrollable and unwanted, before she tried to speak again. “Who are you?”
“It’s me, My Lady. It’s Jenny. It’s just me; I’m here with you.”
The name of her lady’s maid came out as a sob, and she felt her face crease into tears. She hadn’t recognized her voice, but it was no wonder. Her mind and her soul were in turmoil, and the noise behind them crushed the nuances of her tone.
“There’s been a fire, My Lady. The estate, it’s—”
Helena could sense Jenny looking up at the burning house, trying to find the words. She turned her own face toward it and, although she could feel the heat of the fire on her cheeks, she could not even see the brightness, let alone the shape.
“It’s falling down,” Helena said. “I can hear it.”
“Yes, My Lady.”
Jenny resumed cleaning her face, humming a light tune as she did so, a maternal gesture that filled Helena’s heart.
“But Jenny, I can’t see anything. I—”
She inhaled, her breath juddery and catching, a soreness ripping through her throat, the taste of smoke infused. She coughed, feeling the slimy mucus in her hand. Jenny wiped that away, too.
“It’s probably nothing, My Lady,” Jenny said. “I’m sure you’ll be right as rain by the morning. Fire can do funny things to folk.”
But Helena could hear the concern in Jenny’s voice, and that made her heart pound even harder. She could feel her pulse in her throat, in her temples, the thudding of it rushing through her ears.
Helena jumped at the scream that cut through all the other sounds. It was the same man, the one who had helped her out, she was sure of it.
“Help!” he screamed again.
“What is it? What’s happening? Jenny?”
“I—” Jenny stood up slowly, mouth agape as she listened what was unfolding.
“I don’t think she’s breathing!” the man called, and many others shouted back, too many for Helena to pick out individual voices, too much of a cacophony to be able to understand.
“Who isn’t breathing, Jenny? Who is it?” Helena’s own breathing shallowed even further, and with each rasp she mewled. Her body began to shake violently, and she let out a loud sob. “Jenny? Who is it?”
“It’s… it’s your Mother, My Lady. Your Mother is not breathing.”
Ten Years Later
Lady Helena Bryton, the daughter of Earl Sherriden, lounged across the chaise longue, her pastel-pink gown spread over her legs, her petite feet poking out from the bottom. At seven-and-twenty, Helena had grown into a beautiful young woman and she knew it, even though she couldn’t see it.
Her hair, chocolate brown and smooth as silk, hung in waves around her pale face, her skin as white as alabaster. Freckles danced across her button nose, and though she was blind, the milky color of her long-damaged eyes did not disguise the stubbornness that shone out through them.
“And he woke up to find all the world’s people vanished, leaving him quite alone,” Jenny said, closing the book with a thump.
“What?” Helena turned to her, her brow furrowed, but Jenny laughed.
“He lived out his days as the only man left in the whole world.”
“What?” Helena repeated. “That doesn’t—”
“I suspect you haven’t been listening for the last ten pages or so,” Jenny said.
“So… he didn’t wake up to find all the world’s people vanished?”
“No, Silly! That would be a terrible end to the story, and we’re not even halfway through the book yet. Is everything all right? Normally you get so engrossed in the tale, but today—”
Helena laid her head back on chaise longue and sighed deeply. Her lady’s maid was always so astute when it came to her moods. Around the same age, they had grown up together, but they had not really become close until after the fire. Before that night, their relationship had been perfunctory, dutiful. Now, though, they were the best of friends as well as lady and maid. Helena really didn’t know what she would do without Jenny.
“I’m sorry. It must be awful having to read to someone who isn’t paying much attention,” Helena said.
“I read to you every day, Helena, and I cannot remember the last time you weren’t listening.” Jenny paused, then added with a chuckle, “You fall asleep occasionally, but only when the book is dull, and I’m never far behind you!”
Jenny Smith, now eight-and-twenty, had become Helena’s maid at the tender age of four-and-ten, when she herself was barely more than a girl in need of care. She had matured at an early age, though, and she was particularly suited to Helena’s care. Some might even say it was fate that they came together in the first place, for Jenny’s mother, Ruthie, was also blind. Jenny knew how difficult a life like that could be.
“Something is clearly bothering you, Helena. Would you like to talk about it?”
“Nothing is bothering me, as such,” Helena said, although even she could hear the discordance in her tone. “Or rather, everything is bothering me. No, that’s not quite right, either.”
Helena furrowed her brow, not sure how to explain the discontent she felt that day. It was not unhappiness, but there was no happiness, either. There was nothing wrong, but there also seemed to be nothing quite right. Perhaps it was exhaustion, or a boredom with life. Whatever it was, it made her huff loudly.
“It seems as though every day is exactly the same, wouldn’t you agree?” she asked, turning in Jenny’s direction.
“That’s because every day is the same,” Jenny scoffed. “But that is no bad thing. It seems to me that those who experience uncertainty from day to day are usually in some sort of peril. That our days are always the same shows just how lucky we are.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Helena muttered.
Of course she was right, but that didn’t mean Helena had to like it. She stuck her bottom lip out in a childish sulk, and Jenny laughed.
“It really could be worse, you know.”
“I know.” Helena sighed. “But it feels as though I am always confined to this blasted house, while I hear tales of adventure and romance.”
“I shall try to avoid those sorts of books for a while,” Jenny said, laughing again.
“It’s not funny,” Helena snapped. “Do I really have to accept that I shall always have a non-existent social life and that I will never find love?”
“Oh, Helena,” Jenny said, her laughter gone, only to be replaced by a voice full of pity and love.
She rose from her chair and joined Helena on the chaise longue, resting a hand on top of hers. The warm physical contact made Helena smile, touch being so vital to her since she lost her sight.
“I’m being morose again, aren’t I?” Helena asked, unable to stop her own chuckle from bubbling up.
“A little, yes. And don’t forget, a lot of it is your own doing. Every season, you have enough invitations to line the walls, but you choose not to accept them.”
Helena looked down at her lap—a habit she had never got out of. “You know how cruel people can be,” she said softly.
“But not all people,” Jenny said. “You have to give them a chance and ignore those who are cruel.”
“No, not everyone. Not you.”
“Come now,” Jenny said brightly, as she returned to her chair. “Enough of the doldrums. Shall I read some more?”
“No,” Helena said firmly. “I can’t focus on the words. Talk to me about something instead. Where did you go this morning?”
“Actually, the funniest thing happened to me this morning at the market.”
“Really?” Helena sat up straighter, a smile on her face now that her interest was piqued. She avoided the outside world for fear of what it would do to her, but she loved to hear about it. “What happened?”
“I was browsing a stall with the most fascinating tortoiseshell hair combs,” Jenny began. “They would have looked simply dazzling on you. But then a man interrupted me…or a gentleman, to be more exact. At least, I think he was. He looked like one, anyhow, although he didn’t introduce himself.”
“What did he say?”
“He was a little awkward—you could even say bashful—but then he told me how I was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and he just had to get my name!”
Jenny was indeed beautiful. She had raven-black hair and skin a few shades darker than Helena’s, with piercing green eyes that spoke of an old and intelligent soul. What she lacked was the decorum and patience of a lady. Her hair was more often than not shoved roughly into a bonnet, and her skirts were habitually askew.
“You didn’t tell him, did you?” Helena asked, entirely enraptured by the conversation now. “He could be anyone—a raging madman, even!”
“Goodness no,” Jenny gasped. “Even I am not so careless. I did wonder whether he mistook me for something more than a maid, though. A gentleman like him, they don’t normally have eyes for us commoners.”
“But he’s not wrong. You are beautiful—both inside and out.”
“Don’t you start,” Jenny said with a chuckle. “Regardless, he became far too friendly. He followed me around half the market before I managed to lose him.”
“Oh! That sounds a little ominous. He didn’t try to hurt you, did he?”
“On the contrary. All he did was tell me how magnificent I am, and how desperate he was to get to know me. He insisted that fate had caused our meeting and blathered on about love’s true sight. I don’t mind admitting that it rather gave me the shivers.”
Helena snorted with laughter. “He sounds a pudding-headed fellow, certainly, but can you really be put off a man simply because he complimented you?”
“You can when it makes you feel uncomfortable. One compliment would have been sweet, but several was too much.”
“Maybe he just liked you,” Helena said, her matter-of-fact tone belying the true excitement she felt beneath. She dreamed of having such fun interactions with other people, and yet she couldn’t bring herself to even talk to anyone but Jenny or her father.
“It was all too peculiar to be true,” Jenny said firmly. “A true gentleman surely understands the best way to approach someone—and a self-made introduction in the middle of the marketplace is hardly correct!”
“I think he must have been overcome by you,” Helena said wistfully, her fingers running over her pink-pearl necklace. “Was there nothing you liked about him?”
Helena could hear the hesitation in Jenny’s voice. “Well?”
“Well, he was rather handsome. Very much so, in fact!”
The two young women ruptured into giggles.
“Perhaps he was the one you were meant to marry,” Helena said wistfully. “And now you have lost your chance. He could have been quite correct about it being fate.”
Jenny tutted loudly, in lieu of rolling her eyes. “You know I don’t give much credence to fate. And you’re sounding far too like my Mother, now. She is already haranguing me to find a husband and give her grandchildren.”
“Speaking of your Mother, how is Ruthie?”
“She’s doing well,” Jenny enthused. “I got a letter from her this morning, actually. I’m sure she has my poor brother on a leash, so that he can complete her correspondences whenever she desires.”
“And rightly so,” Helena said with a chuckle. “As well you know, I understand the misery of blindness. If she needs the assistance, it’s only right that your Brother help.”
Jenny’s mother had been born blind, so perhaps she didn’t know what it was that she had lost—unlike Helena. But she had made sure it didn’t affect her life. She had become a cook in one of the great houses, with a full kitchen staff under her and a reputation for producing the most wonderful of feasts.
She’d had a husband, too, although he died of consumption at far too young an age, after giving her three wonderful children—Jenny the oldest, then two younger sons. Ever since the fire, Ruthie had adopted Helena in many ways, the two developing a close relationship despite the disparity in their statuses.
Jenny and Ruthie had taught Helena how to live with her affliction, offering simple tips and tricks to help her in her everyday life. And as much as Jenny cared for her, it was Ruthie to whom Helena went to for advice and true understanding.
“She asked after you,” Jenny said, “and asked me to pass on her good wishes.”
Helena smiled warmly. “That’s sweet. She is such a lovely woman, your mother. What else did she say?”
“The usual—the gossip from her household, of course, and how much she misses me. And there was no way she could write without mentioning the fact that I am yet to find a husband!”
“You should tell her about the man in the market,” Helena said. “She might track him down for you.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Jenny said, but then she picked her cushion up from behind her and threw it at Helena.
“What?” Helena protested, unable to stop herself from laughing. “You did say he was handsome!”
“I did,” Jenny conceded. “But I also said he was awkward! Besides, I think she’d be just as happy to see you married as she would me.”
Helena stiffened, her thoughts returning to her earlier gloom.
“I hardly think that is going to happen.” Her hand found her necklace again, the cool pearls beneath her fingertips smooth and comforting.
“And whyever not?” Jenny asked. “Apart from the fact that you refuse to go out into society, of course.”
It was a regular admonishment, but Helena knew it came from a place of love. As always, she let Jenny’s words wash over her.
“No one is going to want a blind girl,” she muttered.
“Goodness me, Helena. You really are melancholy today, aren’t you? What can I do to help?”
“I don’t even know if there is anything you can do.” Helena pursed her lips, lost in thought. “If Mother were here, she would know.”
“She would,” Jenny said softly. “She was a good mother.”
“I miss her terribly, you know?” Helena looked up at Jenny and smiled sadly. “I wish she was still with us. That blasted fire… it took far too much from me.”
“I know. But you mustn’t think like that. Think of what you have, not what you have lost. And I know you have some wonderful memories of your Mother. She would be incredibly proud of you.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Of course! You’re such a brave and fearless young lady, and both your humor and your wit would impress her. I just know she is still watching you and willing you to enjoy life for what it is.”
“Thank you,” Helena said, her voice barely more than a whisper.
She pulled another pearl through her fingers absent-mindedly. It was a habit she had formed, whenever she was sad or uncertain, the necklace slowly turning around her neck. She never took it off, not even to sleep, for it was the only thing she had left of her mother. It was one of the few things they had managed to salvage from the fire.
Helena leaned her head back and closed her eyes, letting her emotions wash over her. Even after so much time, she could still clearly hear that man calling out that her mother was not breathing. His words played on her mind over and over, a ghostly echo that followed her through her dreams and nightmares. It was the background melody to everything she did.
She couldn’t remember much about the fire, and her father was reluctant to talk about it. He would always bat away her questions, repeating often that they should ‘Look to happier times’. How she wished it was that simple. She had long ago given up asking him for information. It hurt him to even think of it, she could sense it.
“Mother had an answer for everything,” Helena said with a gentle, nostalgic chuckle. Her fingers still toyed with her pearls. “Do you remember?”
“Yes! When I first arrived at the house, I was convinced she could read my mind. So very perceptive.”
“She would know what to do, if she were still here,” Helena repeated.
“Perhaps,” Jenny said simply. “But she certainly wouldn’t let you wallow in self-pity!”
“Self-pity!” Helena positively screeched the words, outraged by them.
“Yes. She would insist you stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with your life.” Jenny went to perch next to Helena again, then softened her tone. “I know you are feeling a little dejected, but you will always have me as a friend, and you will find romance, in time.”
Helena reached forward and clasped her maid’s hand in hers. “Thank you, my Dear Friend.”
“So what do you plan to do?” Jenny asked in a matronly tone.
“I… well—” Helena’s mouth worked up and down as she tried to think of a response.
What was there to do? She couldn’t very well pluck romance from the air, and she had absolutely no intention of suddenly becoming some sort of social butterfly—not with all the mean-spirited people in the world. Jenny touched her hand again, stopping her mind from whirling with thoughts and questions.
“How about you ask your Father for advice?” she said. “I know you’re seeing him on your birthday next week. I am sure he knows many eligible young gentlemen.”
“That is not romance,” Helena said, outraged by the thought. “That is duty, and not what I want. My own parents were a love match, as you know. Mother ran away from home to be with Father. That’s what I want—not some arrangement of convenience and profit.”
“Perhaps not, but—”
“But nothing,” Helena said with a shrug. “Besides, there is simply no way that Father would do that to me.”
“Good afternoon, Gentlemen,” David said as he marched through the main room of the gentleman’s club.
“Afternoon, Hartwick. And how are you on this fine day?”
“Always better for seeing you, William,” he quipped, hurrying past the young man.
He had a sheaf of papers tucked beneath his arm and his brown hair peeked out from beneath his hat. He walked through the club with purpose, stopping occasionally to make brief conversation with some of the club’s members. This was how it always happened when he visited the club, and he was there almost every day.
“Here, Hartwick! Any chance of getting some finer brandy in? This stuff tastes like urine.”
“You know I have nothing to do with that, William. You’ll have to bring it up at one of the meetings.”
“How do you know what urine tastes like?” Barton called from another table.
“I don’t, but if I had to guess, it would be like your wife’s kisses,” William said. “And this brandy.”
“You could always drink something else,” David said with a shrug. “The whisky is good, of that I am certain. I drank enough of it last night!”
David Barrington, the Duke of Hartwick, was three-and-thirty years, and a gentleman of humor and good breeding. He was a tall man, and his broad shoulders spoke of a muscular frame hidden away beneath his fine clothes. His eyes were coppery brown, flecked with rich earthy tones, while his perfectly groomed hair was almost chestnut in color.
“But you’re one of the top nobs, aren’t you?” William called, his voice straining as David had already passed him.
David swung around to answer him, a cocksure grin across his face, and as he spoke he continued to take small backwards steps in the direction of his table.
“I’m not any kind of nob, William. And you know full well I can’t make that sort of decision without the approval of the Committee. Try harassing them, instead.”
As well as his duties in the Dukedom, David helped out with the day-to-day leadership at the club. It was Committee run but with a strict hierarchy and, thanks to years of service, David was now near the top.
He did it more for a want to keep himself occupied than anything else. Without filling his days, David’s mind wandered into territory he did not wish to visit, and so he did whatever he could to stay busy. The past, he knew, was a wretched place.
Still, he was a proud man, with a kind and brave heart that he guarded closely. He felt lost more than he felt present, and he kept himself isolated whenever he could. The walls he had built around himself were all but impenetrable, and though he enjoyed the light-hearted, shallow banter of the gentlemen at the club, he rarely engaged in deeper conversation—and certainly never about himself.
“Any news on your hunt, Jeffrey?” he asked as he passed one particular table.
Jeffrey sat there with his nose in a book, his brandy glass balanced precariously on the arm of his chair. He looked up as David approached, and he sniffed.
“Not yet,” he said. “The private investigator I hired is absolutely useless. But I’ll find the brute who killed my Mother, you mark my words.”
“I have every faith,” David said with a nod. “You know I’m always here if you need anything.”
“Thank you, David. Your support means a lot to me.”
“Joseph!” David nodded toward the next table. “How are the wedding plans coming along?”
“How would I know?” Joseph said with a chuckle. “Her Mother has all but taken over. Not that I mind, really.”
“That’s what mothers-in-law are for,” Jeffrey said, turning his head to face them. “Taking over and generally being irritating. The sooner you learn that, Young Man, the more success you will have in your marriage.”
“Don’t get along with yours, then, Jeffrey?” David asked, his lips curling up into a grin.
“As if you’ve never heard him complain about her before,” Joseph quipped, his eyes bright with humor.
“She is the offspring of all that is evil,” Jeffrey said, peering over the top of his spectacles at them both. “I just pray they are wrong when they say a lady will ultimately become her mother.”
David opened his arms and offered them a mock bow. “And that, Gentlemen, is why celibacy reigns supreme.”
“And miss out on all that marriage has to offer?” Joseph said. “I think I’ll take the risk!”
David laughed, then turned and continued through the room, past the group of card players, around those who sat reading newspapers, until he found his habitual table in the corner.
It was his preferred spot in the club, for two main reasons. First, it was the only table from which one could view the entire room without needing to swivel in his seat. Second, it was hidden in a corner, allowing David a little privacy and removing the need for him to communicate with anyone, unless he chose to do so.
He put his papers down, then flicked the tails of his coat back as he took a seat with a deep sigh. As much as he enjoyed the chatter of the men, he recognized it for what it was—shallow, unfulfilling associations rather than real, genuine connections.
David had no true friends, not really, and he hadn’t had any since he was a young man of three-and-twenty, when he fell in with the wrong crowd. He wouldn’t allow himself friends any longer, not after what had happened all those years ago.
“Would you like anything, Your Grace?”
The footman appeared beside David as though by magic, so stealthily he had arrived.
“I’ll take a bowl of urine, please,” David said.
The footman paled and blinked. “I… I beg your pardon, Your Grace?”
David laughed, but then immediately felt guilty for teasing the man. “Brandy, please,” he said, his word disguised by the chuckle. “Lord William is under the impression it tastes like urine. I’m sorry if I—”
He shook his head, realizing he was not making much sense, and he was blithering at the poor man. He couldn’t even talk to a footman without making a fool of himself!
“I see,” the footman said, his cheeks coloring now. “Right away, Your Grace.”
David picked up the first of his papers and began to read.
David bit back his sigh of frustration as Arthur pulled out the chair opposite him and unceremoniously threw himself down. He looked up slowly from beneath his brow.
“Membership proposals, nothing more.”
He looked back down at his papers, hoping that would be the end of the conversation. It was not that he didn’t like Arthur—in fact, the opposite was true. Arthur was as close to a friend as David had and they talked often. But Arthur had a knack of getting David to open up and talk about his own life in a way he normally avoided. Today, he was not in the mood for it.
“Ah, yes, it’s almost that time of year again, isn’t it? When we’ll have an influx of new whippersnappers to bite at our heels. We oldies will be out on ears before we know it, if we keep allowing them in.”
“Oldies? Speak for yourself! I’m still in the prime of my life—you’re the only geriatric here.”
In truth, there was only two years’ difference between them, Arthur being five-and-thirty, but those two years were not ones David would forget lightly, and they jested about it often.
“That sounds exactly the sort of thing an old person would say.”
Arthur Bexley, Duke of Huntingdon, was classically handsome. He had hair dark as night, and eyes as blue as the summer’s sky. When he smiled, the whole room lit up with the pleasure of seeing it, and everyone he spoke to left the conversation feeling wonderful.
He pulled a pipe from his pocket and stuffed the tobacco into the bowl, all the while talking to David.
“Have you had a chance to visit the new docks on the Thames yet?” he asked. “They’re quite impressive, I must say. That architect is something of an engineering genius, I’d say.”
“I haven’t, no, but I’ve heard all about them,” David said, putting his papers down and resigning himself to the conversation. “Many of the gentlemen are complaining about how much busier it has made London.”
Arthur snorted. “London didn’t need any help in getting busier, let’s be honest. But yes, Wapping is now teeming with people. I’m not surprised, really. The vessels are bringing in some wonderful products from all round the world. This very tobacco, for instance, is to die for.”
“You know I’m not a fan of smoking.”
“Indeed. You always were an oddity. But whether you like it or not, it’s great for commerce and ultimately, great for our coffers.”
David tilted his head to the side in agreement. “And making money is definitely something I am a fan of.”
“Exactly. So you can store it all away until you take a wife.”
David and Arthur had this same conversation more often than David cared to remember, so he knew how it was to go. He leaned back in his chair and settled in to repeat his own parts of the script.
“Yes, it’s about time, My Friend. I believe a wife will do you a world of good.”
“And what about you?” David asked. He picked up his brandy and swirled it around in the glass before taking a sip.
“We’re not talking about me.”
“I have yet to meet anyone worthy of my love,” David said with an exaggerated sigh. He put a hand to his forehead, pretending at being distraught, but Arthur only tutted.
“I am not talking about love, David. I’m talking about marriage. Don’t you think it’s time you found someone to look after and provide you with an heir?”
“Don’t you?” David retorted. “You’re not getting any younger yourself. Besides, I don’t need anyone to look after me. I’m perfectly fine on my own.”
“And why be merely fine when you could have it all?” Arthur urged, leaning forward in his seat. “I’m telling you, David, you need a wife. At the very least, she’d take the edge of the loneliness.”
“I am not lonely,” David snapped back, but even as he spoke the words, he squirmed in his seat. He prayed his true feelings were not as obvious as Arthur made them out to be.
“If you say so.” Arthur shrugged.
“Besides, you nag me quite enough. I do not need a wife as well!”
They lapsed into a companionable silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Arthur was probably right, a wife would do David good, but he couldn’t allow himself to get close to anyone. He had committed far too many wrongs in his life to be worthy of any kind of love.
But Arthur had not taken a wife either, and he hadn’t thought much of it at all. While for David, remaining alone was the only way he could hide his guilt and his scars, for Arthur being a bachelor—and a brazen one at that—was all he had ever wanted from life. That’s why his next words came as such a surprise to David.
“I think I’m in love.”
“What!” David’s head jerked up in surprise. That was a sentence he never expected to come from Arthur’s mouth.
“I said, I think I’m love.”
“You’re mocking me, aren’t you?” David narrowed his eyes at Arthur, but to his even further shock, he seemed genuine.
“Not at all. I met her yesterday.”
“You know her well, then?” David chuckled. “Who is she?”
“I don’t know.” Arthur shook his head. “Our conversation was brief, at best, and she wasn’t particularly forthcoming.”
David roared with laughter, throwing his head back and slapping his thigh.
“I’m being serious!” Arthur cried, although with laughter behind his words, too. “She truly was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen, and since I met her, I cannot get her out of my head. She has invaded my peace of mind.”
“Where did you meet her?” David asked, catching his breath, though his eyes still sparkled with the residue of laughter.
“At the marketplace.”
David, unable to contain himself, laughed again. “The market! Quite the usual haunt for finding love,” he mocked. “Did you manage to talk to her at all?”
“A little,” Arthur replied, his cheeks coloring with embarrassment. “She’s a commoner, a maid, I think.”
“You’ve got to understand, David.” Arthur leaned forward in his seat again, urging his friend. “I am desperate to find her again. She was like an angel, and my soul is crying out for her.”
“Really, Arthur,” David tutted. “If you’ve a penchant for maids, there are much simpler ways of going about it.”
“It’s not maids in the plural I like, but this particular one. I am telling you, I will find her, and I will make her my wife!”
“Because that doesn’t sound at all sinister,” David laughed. “How can you be so sure she will agree?”
“Because it’s fate, David. It’s fate. And once we are married, we can do our level best to pair you off with someone, and we shall all live happily ever after.”
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