About the book
What does it take to survive a game fueled by lies?
Lady Hannah Bagley is not ready to meet the man who could ruin her life forever: her father’s cousin and heir to his title.
The astoundingly beautiful older daughter of the Duke of Gresham cares very little about titles, wealth or marriage. Until the day her parents bring her before the harsh reality: in the absence of a male heir, they stand to lose the Dukedom.
Born and raised in Australia, the successful sheep rancher Rowland Albertson isn’t prepared for what appears to be his inescapable destiny. Not only is he presented with an unexpected claim to the title of Duke, but also with a pair of stunning mismatched eyes.
Sudden and overwhelming, their eagerness to be together, to experience such ecstasy with each other, threatens to consume their every sense.
But the past has a way of returning, and Rowland’s comes back with a vengeance. A woman with a single letter, able to set Rowland and Hannah’s future on fire and watch it burn…
The paper between his fingers crumpled slightly, Rowland’s mind drifting to places it hadn’t been in a long while. The words blurred on the pages, the very same words he had read over and over again for the past few minutes. He didn’t know how long it had been since he had sat down in his study—an hour, merely a few minutes? Lost in the recesses of his mind, time held little meaning.
Which was an odd thought, seeing that time was one of the things most prominent on his mind. How long had it been since he’d last thought of the Duke of Gresham? Was it ten years now? His brows rose on their own accord as the memory drifted into the forefront of his mind. It had been ten years now.
Ever since the Duke of Gresham fell ill from poison, Rowland had found himself in the very same position he was in now—wondering if he would have to step up as the heir to the Dukedom. Back then, the Duke hadn’t brought forth an heir for himself, and as the Duke’s cousin, Rowland was the closest to inheriting the title. The notion had been objectionable then as it was now but had ended well—with the Duke’s attempted murderer hanged and the co-conspiring Duchess taking her own life, there was no longer a threat to the Duke’s life.
And ten years had gone by since then. More than enough time for the Duke to produce his own heir.
So, what the blazes is this?
Rowland looked down at the paper once again, reading it quickly though the words had already been committed to his memory. The words hadn’t changed. It was the Duke again, urging him to come to Gresham Manor to grow into his role as heir, and one day as Duke.
With a sigh, Rowland put the letter aside. Becoming a Duke was the last thing he wanted. He rose, taking the glass of brandy he had poured before reading the letter. He wandered over to the window that looked out onto the vast land in his possession. Just staring at the lush green grass filled him with pride, sheep dotted across the expanse. A simple sight but one that filled him with riches, one that put many people under his employment, people he was responsible for; one that had been borne from hard work. Life in Australia was life he was used to, one that was nothing like the one he heard about in England. It was a life that knew the meaning of reaping what he sowed. He studied, he learned first-hand, he worked.
It mattered not that he was the son of colonists, his last name known amongst the richest of them. Rowland Albertson was known to follow that generation, but his ranch had also given him his identity.
Now, he would have to toss it all aside to become the Duke of Gresham.
Rowland didn’t know much about England. Though he had been born there, he came to Australia when he was still but a babe. He hadn’t grown up in that society, but through books, he had learned quite a lot. English society was quite unlike the one he had grown up in. There was a reliance on titles and nobility, where one earned their riches through the passing of those titles. Hard work rarely paid off under such circumstances.
Will I survive?
The knock on his door brought him out of his thoughts for a few seconds. “Enter,” he said, then his mind drifted again.
The door made no sound and he heard no footsteps, but he could sense whoever it was drawing closer. He didn’t bother to turn around. Rowland continued to stare out the window, at the land he could see. There were more acres stretched ahead, just beyond the horizon. “You have another letter, Sire.”
Rowland looked over at his steward, Linton. He stood just a few feet behind him, his hands clasped at his back. As usual, with his shoulders pulled backwards and his nose held stiffly in the air, he was the picture of propriety. He had come with his family to Australia and had stubbornly held on to not only his English accent but his English manners as well.
“Rowland,” Rowland grumbled unnecessarily. Ever since Linton came under his wing as a steward, he had been trying to get him to refer to him the same way his friends did. After all, he did consider Linton a friend. But the man was adamant in his ways. “Who is it from?”
Linton didn’t bother to look at the letter when he said, “Miss Peggy Flynn, Sire.”
Rowland tried not to react, at least not outwardly. But nothing ever escaped Linton’s eyes. He watched Rowland steadily as he turned away from him and faced the window again. “All right,” he said after a long moment. “Leave it on the desk.”
Again, Linton’s footsteps were silent. It had taken Rowland a while to get used to his cat-like grace, expecting to see him appear out of thin air most of the time. For now, he simply placed the letter on the table and faced him again. “Is there anything you may need, Sire?”
“Not right now,” Rowland answered. He wasn’t in the mood for company right now. Usually, he would attempt to cajole Linton into sharing a drink with him, a feat he rarely ever pulled off. At most, he would get his stiff steward to at least take a seat and pass the time in idle chatter for a short while before Linton claimed he had to return to his duties. But, Rowland was too deep in thought to entertain anyone else at the moment.
Linton seemed to have noticed that because he lingered. “The letter you received from the Duke of Gresham,” he began. “What did it say?”
How like you, Linton.
How easily he spurted forward questions when it pleased him, then threw up walls between them when it didn’t. Rowland sighed silently. As much as the other man infuriated him, he was his oldest friend. “He wants me to visit his manor in England. He has no heirs.”
That was enough explanation for Linton. “Ah, I see. We haven’t given them much thought since the Duke’s poisoning.”
Rowland knew his tone was bitter when he muttered, “Can you blame me?”
Linton continued to point out what Rowland already knew. Rowland was well aware that Linton had family in Gresham—a sister—and that he liked being kept aware of the state of things despite traveling to New South Wales with Rowland’s father. Rowland couldn’t have chosen a better person to talk to about such a matter. “You two don’t know each other. It would be a good opportunity to learn more about your cousin.”
“I’m quite aware of that as well.”
“He has three daughters,” he went on. “The eldest came out during London’s recent Season.”
“Lady Hannah,” Rowland said. At her name, he pictured what he thought many of the ladies of England looked like—fair skin, fair eyes, fair hair. “How unlucky for me that she was not born a gentleman instead.”
“Aye,” Linton agreed absently. Rowland nearly smiled at that. He knew his steward was simply saying that because it was easier to agree than to argue when it came to Rowland. “So, what will you do about the ranches, Sire?”
“What do you think I should do?”
Linton’s response was quick, as if he didn’t have to think about it. “I can take over in your absence and keep everything running accordingly while you explore your duties as heir to the Dukedom. There’s no need to worry about your estate here.”
“Worrying is the last thing on my mind, Linton.”
“Then what ails you, Sire?”
Rowland thought about it for a moment. Having to put it into words…it was more difficult than he thought it would be. “I am comfortable with my life here. It suits me. But will I be able to do my duties as a Duke well?”
A thought occurred to him.
And what of Miss Flynn?
Rowland’s heart constricted at the thought of being away from her for too long, and he once again resisted the urge to glance at the letter sitting on his desk.
Linton thought about it for a moment. Or, at least, that was what Rowland thought he was doing. It was hard to tell with this man sometimes. “The Duke is not yet dead,” he finally said. “My sister works as kitchen help in the Duke’s manor and she tells me that he isn’t even unwell. He lives happily with his wife and his daughters, his subjects adore him, and they have been plenty blessed for the past years. For all we know, Sire, you may not have to think about inheriting the title for years to come.”
Then why does he call me now?
A tingle of worry rushed through him at the thought of leaving his ranches. He’d been the driving force behind their growth since he first started them. It concerned him to just leave.
Linton answered his unspoken question, never moving an inch. “But, the Duke is smart to put things in order. The future, as bright as it may seem, is not certain. In preparation for that, I think it is wise of him to ensure that the person who will be taking over is well versed with what to do. And it is wise of you to go, Sire.”
Rowland knew that. He knew that before Linton had to say it. He finished the rest of his drink.
There was little use lamenting over it, not when he already knew what his response would be. Linton was right; his steward was more than capable of running the ranches in his absence. He could be gone for a year or two and could come back, everything being just as he left it, perhaps even better.
He turned away from the window, looking at Linton. He raised his empty glass. “Care to share a drink or will I have to waste time trying to convince you once again?”
Linton shook his head. Not a single strand of gray hair fell out of place, the rest of his body hardly moving. “There are matters I need to take care of.”
“Right, right. Always busy, you are. Well, don’t let me keep you.”
Falling back into his role, he did a stiff bow. Rowland had long since tried to break him out of that habit, but Linton was not an easy man to break. “Sire,” he said and then made his way out the study, as silent as a cat.
Rowland watched him go, then shook his head to himself. His steward’s stiffness, as infuriating as it could be, amused him at times. This time in particular, it lifted his spirits—until he remembered why Linton had come to his study in the first place.
He looked at his desk, the letter Linton had brought placed right in the center. From this distance, he could see Peggy’s name written with a flourish and the sight of it only made him want to get another drink.
Another time, he told himself. He couldn’t think about her, nor what that letter entailed, right now. For the first time since he read the Duke’s letter, he preferred to focus on his impending inheritance instead.
Rowland didn’t look at the letter until the next day. He had decided to leave it on the desk, in the very same place Linton had put it, and forgot about it. Or at least, he tried to. But since the moment he woke up, his mind had been lingering on the letter, desperate to know what it said.
At the same time, he was much too scared to read it.
He hated the feeling of being scared. He’d never fancied himself an easily cowed man. In fact, Linton would often tell him that he was much too bold sometimes and that it wouldn’t hurt to refrain from being overly courageous in his actions. Yet when it came to a certain young lady, he was simply defenseless. He could do nothing about the way he felt and he suffered because of it.
That suffering carried him throughout the day. Rowland went about his business as usual. He visited a few of the ranches, chatting with the workers to ensure that everything was in good shape. The sheep were in good health, growing nicely, and his employees were even better. They smiled when he came around, and a few offered invitations to dinner. He politely declined them all, thinking that there was a letter waiting for him that would either fill him like a meal would or ruin his appetite entirely.
The thought followed him, though he put on a normal face. As he continued through the ranches, not all but only those closest to him, Linton’s words struck even truer. He would have nothing to worry about if he were to leave right now. No doubt visiting Gresham would be a lengthy affair, perhaps a year or a year and a half, but the ranches would be in good hands. And Linton would be there to oversee everything. He trusted the man with his life.
It should make leaving easier, but he was still torn. On the one hand, he knew that he was going, that he should. But on the other, he longed for a reason not to.
Will Miss Flynn’s letter produce that reason?
Rowland didn’t know but the thought haunted him, even more so when he finally found himself back in his study, with another glass of brandy in his hand. He stood on the other side of his desk, staring at the untouched letter. His eyes roved over the swirls of her name and his stomach cramped.
He remembered the moment he first met Miss Peggy Flynn. It was at a small ball put on by one of his father’s friends. She had been surrounded by her friends back then, twittering to each while efficiently ignoring all the gentlemen around her. Rowland hadn’t been the only one who had been captured by her beauty back then—her apricot hair pinned up around her head, leaving a few tendrils trailing down her neck, those beautiful green eyes the color of turquoise. He had been the only one, however, she gave her attention to, the only one she had smiled at and offered her hand to for a dance.
Rowland had thought himself special. A beautiful lady who only seemed to have eyes for him was a dream come true, and as time went by, he knew he was falling for her. He fell for the way she would throw her hand over her mouth when she laughed, the splash of freckles across her nose that darkened during the summer, the slight arch of her eyebrow when she spoke.
Only a short time ago, he had asked for her hand in marriage in the central park they liked to frequent from time to time. He thought it the most romantic way of asking, showing her what a gentleman he could be by expressing his love in public. But she had rejected him immediately.
Even so, Rowland couldn’t find it within him to give up and had continued to court her until he thought it appropriate to ask her again, only six weeks later, through a letter. Now that her response was here, Rowland hardly had the courage to look at it.
Rowland set the glass down and snatched the letter up, ripping into it before he could give it a second thought. The memory of the last letter he had sent her flashed through his mind just as he began to read.
It took a few seconds for him to read it. Then he read it again, letting it settle over him. Then he read it a final time before he rested the letter aside like he had done the letter from the Duke of Gresham.
I should have known.
He really should have. Though he had tried his best to prepare himself for this outcome, it still cut deeper and rocked him harder than he expected it to. She rejected him.
It wasn’t a simple rejection. A rejection of his invitation to go on a simple horse ride together, or for him to visit her, he could handle. But this was a rejection of him, of his name. He had asked her to marry him and she declined.
Rowland preferred to read intellectual books rather than fictitious ones, but he was no stranger to renditions of affairs of the heart. He knew of heartbreak, even had a few friends who claimed they experienced it themselves. They all had different assertions of it—that the pain was as physical as it was emotional, that it was merely numbing, that it was hardening.
Rowland didn’t feel any of that, not at first. He simply felt...defeated. Not something he was used to.
He picked his drink back up and downed it all in a gulp. The burn of it didn’t help to chase away the pain he felt creeping in. In fact, it seemed to have bolstered it and though he knew it was a bad idea, he went about making another one.
Once he was on his third glass, and that blissful haze was settling over him, he called for Linton. His lithe steward appeared only a few moments after, watching him from the doorway. “Sire?”
“I need you to write a letter for me. In my state, I don’t think I’ll be able to make the words properly. Or perhaps I’ll even say something I shouldn’t.”
Linton approached the desk and sat. Rowland remained standing, then after a moment, prowled around the room.
“What would you like me to say, Sire?” Linton asked once he was ready.
“It’s for the Duke of Gresham. Tell him I will be joining him as soon as I am able. You can add a few more flourishes if you’d like. Perhaps even tell him that I’m looking forward to it.”
Linton seemed to ignore the slight slur to his words and went about writing. Rowland continued to pace the room. To an outsider, he looked idle. To Linton, he knew exactly how he looked. Like someone trying to act normal.
“I’ll ride into town tomorrow to find the soonest passage to England.”
“I’ll have your things prepared, Sire.”
“Don’t miss me too much when I’m gone, Linton.”
Linton’s response was simple and quick. “That’s impossible, Sire.”
Joanna Albertson, née Bagley, the Duchess of Gresham, was a beauty who only seemed to grow more beautiful with time. As she stood in the foyer of Gresham Manor, her beautiful face split by her equally beautiful smile, Hannah couldn’t help picturing her only a few years ago. She had stood in this very spot, welcoming Hannah into the manor after the Duke had taken her out for her first horse ride. Hannah had thought she smelled terribly of horses that day, but her mother had folded her into her arms as if she didn’t.
They didn’t embrace this time. They simply held hands. “It’s great to be back at the manor, isn’t it?” Her Grace asked her, tipping her head as she drank in the sight of the familiar manor.
Hannah nodded in agreement. They had entered the manor together, holding hands, basking in the joy of being home once more. “I didn’t think I would be so happy to see these dusty paintings on the wall as much as I am,” she said with a chuckle.
Her mother laughed with her. “They aren’t dusty,” she chided lightly.
“Forgive me, Mother. I meant, boring.”
“That’s a little more believable.”
They erupted into a fit of giggles as if they were both young ladies with nary a care in the world. In truth, Her Grace was eight-and-thirty years while Hannah was only nineteen and though they looked very much alike, the difference in age was still clear as day.
“Can you believe the Duke is not here to welcome us?” Her Grace said. “And after months of being apart, too.”
“He may be busy, Mother,” Hannah said with a smile. She knew what she was doing, stoking the fire that was her mother’s hidden fury. Everyone in Gresham knew the Duchess was not a lady to be trifled with. She smiled easily enough, but she could snarl just as quickly, too.
She sounded only mildly miffed, though, nothing noteworthy. “Oh, busy nothing. I am his wife and you are his beloved daughter. There should be a ball to welcome us back home.”
“Forgive me, but I hope this will please you instead?”
Hannah turned toward the voice. The butler seemed to have melted into the wall the moment the Duke of Gresham appeared with a broad grin. No doubt to give the family their privacy. “Welcome home, My Dear,” the Duke said, taking Her Grace’s other hand.
Hannah’s father, Christopher Albertson, the Duke of Gresham, was quite unlike his wife. His handsomeness was more composed, as if made from his grace and nobility. It was clear just by looking at him that he had been born into nobility, and happened to be blessed with dazzling hazel eyes and mahogany hair that made the ladies swoon when he was younger. Or so Hannah was told. She was well accustomed to her father’s good looks, so his tales were not impressive to her.
Her mother, on the other hand, had a spirit within her that couldn’t be tamed. She played her role as Duchess well and the people loved her. But she was not like Hannah’s father. Her upbringing hadn’t been encased with propriety and duty like the Duke’s. She had been untethered and had she not fallen for the Duke, Hannah liked to think she would have continued her life as a Traveller. That untamed spirit seemed to manifest itself in her looks, through Joanna’s long, black hair that required a lot for submission, through her unnatural eyes—one brown and the other green.
Hannah looked a lot like her mother, the biggest similarities being their different colored eyes. She shared her father’s tall and slender stature, though she was still dwarfed by him, and had thick, cascading hair like her mother’s, though it was auburn. But her inherited eyes were unmistakable. One glittered green, the other glowed golden.
Hannah slipped her hand out of Her Grace’s as her father drew closer. She prepared herself for the display of affection she was about to witness. “Ah, is this the Duke of Gresham coming to see who’s making a ruckus in his foyer?” her mother said drolly.
Her father shook his head, a smile playing on his lips. “Forgive me,” he said again. “I had been awaiting the arrival of you two, but I happened to get a little carried away with some business.”
“Understandable.” Her Mother’s easy response was suspicious. Hannah watched on, amused. “A Duke is a busy man.”
The Duke was not so convinced by her words. He leaned down and planted a soft kiss on her cheek. Then he looked at Hannah, eyes twinkling. “She’s upset with me.”
“As she should be,” Hannah said, raising her chin.
“Ah, and you’re upset with me, too. What did I go and get myself into?”
“It’s nothing, Christopher,” her Mother said, her tone light. “Your daughter and your wife returning from the London Season after months being apart from you should not distract you from the work you have to do. Surely not.” Hannah nodded to herself. At the start of the Season, her father had been tasked with hosting a diplomat from Prussia, which left Her Grace and Hannah on their own for the London Season. Neither parties were complaining, but Hannah would have liked to hear that her father missed them during the months apart.
The Duke wasn’t scared of his wife in the slightest. He chuckled and took her other hand in his before he gave her another kiss. Hannah smiled a little to herself when her mother leaned into it without thought. “I missed you,” His Grace murmured to her.
Her Grace looked at him, her brown and green eyes meeting his hazel ones. “I missed you, too.”
They gazed at each other for a while before His Grace seemed to remember that Hannah was standing there. He let go of his wife and held his hands out to his daughter. “My lovely eldest,” he said with a broad grin. “I’ve missed you as well.”
“I wondered when you two would remember you have an audience,” Hannah said as she stepped into his arms. It was the same as it was months ago, the same as the hug in farewell. Though it was foolish, it was comforting to know that nothing changed here. She relaxed into him. “How have you been, Father?”
“You two are well aware that nothing is the same when you aren’t here,” he said.
She stepped away from him. “What of Rosamund and Violet?”
“Your sisters are with their governess. They are deep in their lessons right now so I didn’t think it wise to disturb them with your arrival.”
“That’s fine,” Her Grace said. “We can all be together while we dine later.”
“You must be tired from your long trip from London, are you not?” he asked them both. His eyes strayed from Her Grace to Hannah and back.
Hannah did feel tired. Riding in a coach for long periods was always draining, though her mother was better company than most. But she shook her head. “I’m not tired but I am a bit famished. I think I will visit Karla once I get settled.”
Karla would be happy to see her. Hannah could picture her making one of her special pies in honor of her return. Ever since Hannah was little, she would pass through the kitchens on the way from the stables and Karla would sit her on one of the stools, hand her a treat, and talk about little things in her life that didn’t matter to a girl Hannah’s age. As they grew older, Hannah began adding her own little tales.
“She will be happy to see you,” her Father said. “I reckon she’s lonely not having you sneak around stealing her treats.”
Hannah knew the words should have made her blush in embarrassment, but she only laughed. “Oh, lovely, I think I should surprise her by swiping a tart or two when I can.”
The Duke chuckled. “Why don’t you go on and see her?” he said to Hannah. His grip on Her Grace’s hand tightened.
Hannah nodded before turning away. She left her parents behind and, as quiet as a mouse, her lady’s maid slipped in behind her. Servants rarely lingered when her parents were together. They were openly in love and the servants preferred to give them their privacy whenever they could.
“Karla will be happy to see you, M’Lady,” her lady’s maid, Lily, murmured. She was soft-spoken, one who preferred to keep her head down and out of sight. She had been even more reserved during their time in London.
Hannah smiled at her. “Are you happy to be back, Lily?”
“Yes, M’Lady. Everything seems the same.” Lily was always one step behind her, close enough for Hannah to hear her soft words.
“Well, I can’t argue with that. I hope I don’t have to leave again for now.”
Lily waited until they were within the confines of Hannah’s bedchamber to speak again. “But what if His Grace makes you attend the next Season?”
“Well, Lily,” Hannah said, sitting on her bed with a loud sigh. “That would be utterly dreadful.”
“How lovely this is,” Hannah said absently, her fingers making quick work of the needlework in her hands. “To have us all together again.”
Though she didn’t look up, her mother nodded in agreement. She declined to join her in needlework. Instead, she sat opposite Hannah with a book in her hands. Under the light through the exposed windows, she was simply radiant. “It is,” she said. “It tears me up to see you three all together again.”
“Mother…” To the left of her, Rosamund looked up. Her own needlework fell in her lap, her nose wrinkling. “Please don’t cry.”
Hannah smiled softly. She knew Rosamund wasn’t saying that because she dreaded to see her mother sad, she simply hated seeing tears. It made her uncomfortable.
Violet, ever eager to follow in Rosamund’s footsteps, chimed in. “Yes, Mother. Tears are unbecoming of a lady.”
In the corner of the room, Rosamund’s and Violet’s governess, Miss Jolley, raised her hand in protest. Her Grace shot Miss Jolley a look of deep humor. “Unbecoming of a lady?”
“Yes,” Violet said determinedly. She wasn’t as good at needlework as Rosamund but she continued on with it. “Miss Jolley told us that there are things a lady shouldn’t do because it is unbecoming.”
“And did she say a lady is not allowed to cry?”
“No, but…” Violet looked helplessly at Rosamund. Rosamund didn’t spare her a glance.
“I’m sure Miss Jolley had other things in mind when she told you that, Violet,” Hannah said gently.
Violet fell into silence, not knowing how to advance her argument. She was two years younger than Rosamund, only seven, with the same eyes as their father and the same hair as their mother. Rosamund, on the other hand, had bright green eyes that seemed to pick up on everything, and her hair was the same shade as the Duke’s. Currently, they both wore the same hairstyle, Violet copying her older sister as usual.
Hannah glanced at her mother, who was silently smiling to herself. While Violet liked to follow Rosamund, Rosamund positively shadowed Hannah’s every move, which was why the two were both sitting still, working on their embroidery. Miss Jolley had a much more difficult time trying to get them to focus on such a task.
“Hannah,” Rosamund spoke up suddenly. “Did you not find a husband while you were away?”
Hannah was unsurprised to hear such a bold question from her bold sister. She decided to play around with her a little. “Did you want me to come back with a marriage proposal, Rosamund?”
“Doesn’t every lady wish for that when they come out during the London Season?”
Smart girl, you know too much.
“Not every girl,” Hannah said. “Not me.”
“Why not?” asked Violet.
How can I best explain it to children?
Hannah thought about it for a moment. Her Grace remained quiet, eyes on her book. Finally, Hannah settled on the simplest response. “I did not fall in love with any of the gentlemen I met.”
Both her sisters looked at her in confusion. “Love?” The word was still foreign to them.
Such young minds.
“Yes, my dears. I had hoped to find someone I could love, but alas, it did not happen.”
“I do not understand,” Violet said.
“Your sister,” Her Grace spoke up, “is enraptured with the thought of marrying someone she truly loves. A rather daring thing to want in a society like ours.”
Yet her mother supported her wholeheartedly. Her Grace was not born into the gentry. She had led a simple life with a band of Travellers when she met Hannah’s father. They married out of love, a story Hannah always held dear in her heart.
Against all odds, against pressures of society and people who conspired to keep them apart, they had found each other in the end. Her Grace had given birth to Hannah before she found the Duke again and though she had no place in the Duke’s life—what with him already being married to the previous Duchess—the Duke of Gresham had still taken them into his manor, putting back together the pieces of their fractured love. Hannah still wondered what would have happened if the late Duchess, and her father, hadn’t been found guilty of the Duke’s poisoning.
Violet and Rosamund, though they were well aware of their parent’s affection for each other, did not truly understand just how deeply it ran.
Hannah did, however, and she had sworn to herself that she would follow in their footsteps. She would be foolish to witness such devotion and marry someone who didn’t love her with as much fervor. Her father had done so once before. She would not make the same mistake.
But, alas, the Season had been a failure. None of the gentlemen drew her. They were all the same, stuffy gentlemen with flowery words who all blended together in her mind. They had been drawn to her, yes. With Hannah’s odd beauty, they flocked to her side, most attempting to court, others bold enough to go straight to a marriage proposal. Hannah had turned them all down, disinterested.
Any other Duchess might have been upset at her daughter being so picky. They might have even forced her to choose. But not Her Grace. She simply went along with Hannah’s wishes, enjoying herself at each ball while she did so.
“What is all this talk of love I hear?” The Duke swept into the drawing room, his voice booming.
Her Grace looked up at him, her eyes lightening. They always did that. “Hannah was simply explaining to Rosamund and Violet why this Season was a failure.”
“I wouldn’t quite call it that, Mother,” Hannah noted. “I did learn what I expressly did not want in a husband.”
“Keep that up, Hannah, and you may never marry,” her father said.
Hannah only shrugged. Her father was not opposed to her ideas, either. He knew more than anyone what it felt like to be in a loveless marriage.
“Now, then.” The Duke sat in his favorite chair. “I have something to tell you all.” Everyone looked at him with interest. “My cousin will be visiting us from New South Wales. He happens to own many sheep ranches in the colony.”
“How long will he be staying?” Hannah asked. She continued her needlework, not very interested in the topic. They entertained people at the manor all the time. Some stayed for a few weeks, others a matter of months.
The Duke was not very forthcoming on that account. “A long while,” he said. “Until he has properly learned the business of running the manor and its subjects.”
Hannah perked up at that, frowning slightly. Her sisters continued struggling with their needlework, listening but not aware of the conversation’s weight as were Her Grace and Hannah. “Your cousin,” Her Grace said. “Ah, your heir.”
“Yes,” the Duke confirmed with a nod. “I thought it was high time he learned more of his inheritance. And high time you two met, Hannah.”
Hannah noted the hidden meaning behind his words. If she failed to find a suitable partner during the Season, perhaps the heir might suit her tastes? After all, Hannah had always made it clear that, in addition to love, she did not want someone who was drifting through life with no goal or indication as to what he wanted to do with the time he was given.
A gentleman coming all the way to Gresham Manor simply to learn how to be a proper Duke made her skin tingle with interest.
How ambitious. How does a sheep farmer, as successful as he might be, be a Duke? As my husband?
She kept her thoughts to herself, not wanting to give her parents the impression that she was actually considering it. The thought merely intrigued her. And, besides, her father had good intentions and he was a reasonable man. Hannah could not be forced to do something she didn’t want to. She wasn’t worried.
“He has lived in the colony for all his life,” the Duke continued. “So I fear he knows nothing of the English society. It may be long before he is well acquainted with his duties once I have passed.”
“We shall be proper hosts,” Hannah said. “Am I right, sisters?”
“Yes, Hannah,” her sisters said in unison. Hannah smiled.
“Good.” With a clap of his hands, the Duke rose. “He will be arriving within a month’s time.”
Hannah nodded. She could feel his eyes on her, weighing her response, so she gave him nothing. Finally, he decided to leave. Her Grace spoke up after, “I hear he is a handsome man,” she said.
“How would you know, Mother? You’ve never met him.”
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