About the book
She must never break her promise…
Lady Aadya will do everything to find her mother–even if it means traveling from India, all the way to England. But there is one rule she has set for herself: she must stay away from men, and she must never, under any circumstances, fall in love.
Until she does…
But when she kisses the Duke, she knows she has broken her promise. Until someone threatens her and her reputation is in tatters; until the Duke offers to marry her…
Lady Aadya could feel the carriage begin to slow and with it, her nerves and the tendency to double-guess herself began to rise once more. She glanced upward from the drawing that she had been studying for the past few moments and met the stare of the woman who sat just across from her. Her name was Lady Bethany Beltrie, Aadya’s aunt, and her sapphire-colored eyes flashed their delight when she noticed Aadya’s movement.
“We’re almost there,” Lady Bethany answered the silent question. She then offered a gay smile, even leaning across and giving Aadya’s knee a comforting squeeze. “No need to be nervous.”
"I’m not nervous,” Lady Aadya said a little too quickly... and defensively. She then sucked through her teeth and attempted to clarify. “I mean... I’m more excited than I am nervous.”
“No doubt,” Lady Bethany said, giving Aadya’s knee another squeeze. “If I were you, I’d be sitting as if a bee had found its way under my dress. You must be a ball of nervous energy.”
“Somewhat,” Aadya admitted. She then tried for a smile. “Mostly, however, I’m just tired. Worn out, is perhaps the better way of saying it?”
Lady Bethany pushed her lips together now as if in concern. “Yes, I worried that might be the case. You know, if you like, I can send word and have the meeting set for tomorrow? That way, you can get some sleep. No sense going through with this if you can hardly stand. What sort of impression would that make!”
“No, it’s fine,” Aadya said. She glanced at the drawing still on her lap again, stared at it a moment more, and nodded her head as if in resolve. “I’m fine. This is... a long time coming.”
“It is, it is.” Another squeezing of Aadya’s knee in support. “Truthfully, I’m just glad I was able to help. When you wrote to me earlier this year, I could not believe what it was that I read. And right here, in London of all places? What are the chances?” She looked to Aadya for a response, those eyes of hers seeming to shine as if from excitement.
All Aadya was able to offer her in return was a polite smile. She’d managed to keep a tight hold of her nerves all morning, and indeed the past month she had done what she could to not get her hopes up too much, just in case they were to fall flat as they had done so many times in the past. But today felt different, almost serendipitous in how perfectly everything was unfolding. After a whole month of wondering and hoping, a further eight years spent traveling across country and continent both, finally, her search was over.
Although Lady Bethany was indeed Aadya’s aunt on her father’s side, this was their first time ever meeting. But even still, the uniquely colorful Lady had taken to Aadya from the moment they laid eyes on one another. This entire carriage ride had been her, regaling Aadya with tales of London and the people in it, of all the balls and events and outings she was sure to be partaking in whilst she was here visiting. It all sounded wonderous truly and, were it any other time, then Aadya might have even been excited for it.
But this wasn’t any other time. Not only was Aadya tired beyond compare, but she was also nervous, anxious, curious, and scared. A veritable storm was building inside of her, and it was all she could do to sit still.
Still feeling the Lady Bethany’s excitable eyes on her, feeling herself begin to shake from the built anticipation, Aadya shuffled across the small confines of the carriage and reached out for the closed silk curtains. She could sense the carriage slowly winding its way up the main avenue now and as such, she threw the curtains back and was treated to her very first viewing of both Beltrie Manor and a true English estate.
Not being from here, Aadya had taken pains to remind herself time and time again not to do anything that might bring attention to herself. That meant no gawking or staring. No silly questions. And absolutely no actions that might be misinterpreted as foreign or ‘different,’ and thus incorrect. She had read books. She had spoken to the appropriate people. She had even hired an English-born servant many months ago to help train her so that she wouldn’t stand out like the sore thumb that she knew herself to be. And yet, upon her first sighting of Beltrie Manor, Aadya couldn’t help but stare like a child waking up on Christmas morning only to find their stocking bursting with gifts.
“It’s quite the sight, isn’t it?” Lady Bethany said; those sapphire eyes bulging with excitement to match Aadya’s own. She had one of those faces, the Lady Bethany did. It was all exaggerated expressions and wild movements of mouth and brow. “I’m sure there’s nothing quite like it where you’re from.”
Aadya didn’t retreat her head into the carriage to answer Lady Bethany. Her eyes were stuck on what she was seeing, and all she was able to manage in response was a whispered, “No... it really isn’t.” And even that felt like an understatement.
Beltrie Manor was beyond description. The sheer size and breadth of the estate were what first caught Aadya’s attention; flat expanses of land girt by verdant lawns, boisterous flowerbeds, and small forests that acted as a border around the property. She knew of entire villages that weren’t nearly as sizable. And that was just the grounds! The manor too was unlike anything that Aadya could have imagined. She’d been told before of how lavish and ornate true English Manors were, and she’d seen drawings of them also. But despite this preparation, she still stared in abject shock. Only this time, she didn’t mind looking like a rube as she did.
The Manor was two stories high and was spread as wide as a cathedral. The walls were all pure white, strong and sturdy like a fortress, yet somehow also elegant and ornate like something out of a fairytale. She eyed the great pillars that buffeted the front of the home, she wondered at the pointed roofs that resembled the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and she gawked as she looked upon the dozens of workers peppering the front lawns and flowerbeds, moving through the manor, leading horses and carriages and trolleys about as if it were a shipping yard. Again, Aadya thought to the many villages that she had been to and how none had seemed nearly as busy.
Lady Aadya Arlington was not from England. In fact, she was so far removed from England that despite it being her technical home, she’d never actually set foot on its rich soil. British India was where Aadya had been born and raised, and British India was the only country that she had ever known until about an hour ago.
It was a personal quest of sorts that had brought Aadya to England, one which had occupied eight years of her life so far, and one that she hoped to have put to bed before this day was through. And although she was indeed wealthy in her own right and knew that she belonged in this world like any other, she was also very much starting to realize just how out of her own comfort zone she truly was.
Although to be fair, that may have been the least of Aadya’s problems at the present.
“I assure you, it’s not as nice as it looks,” Lady Bethany spoke from beside Aadya, pulling her attention back into the carriage. “That’s the reason for all the people about -- it's a veritable madhouse, I am telling you.” She wore her dark-brown hair up in a large weave and she patted at the plaits as if to try and tame them.
“It looks rather lovely to me,” Aadya said politely.
“Well, it’s not,” Lady Bethany sighed. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s cozier than a stable... even if there was a stable hand there to help keep me warm at night.” Lady Bethany giggled wildly, and Aadya frowned at the joke. “But there was a storm last month that wreaked havoc with the roofing. The entire east wing was flooded beyond anything you could possibly imagine!”
“Oh, somehow, I doubt that...” Aadya said, although it was more to herself than Lady Bethany. Although Aadya had grown up wealthy, she had also grown up in a very, very poor country, one that would make even the darkest, smelliest holes in England seem regal by comparison.
Lady Bethany’s eyes flashed their understanding. “Oh, of course! Silly me.” She shook her head and chuckled. “I keep forgetting where you are from. Honestly, sometimes I need to just remind myself to keep my mouth shut. Save us all the trouble.” She laughed again.
Aadya took note of the comment, but chose not to say anything. She knew her aunt to not mean anything by it. Furthermore, she knew the stereotype that all of British India was dirty and poor and not to the same standards as here in London. But that simply wasn’t true... although she doubted anyone from London would want to hear it.
The carriage soon came to a slow and steady stop just outside the entrance to the Manor. Aadya moved to open the carriage door, only for Lady Bethany to stop her. “I have a man for that,” she said with a smirk. A moment later and the door swung open, revealing their driver who stood with his arm extended so as to help the two ladies from the carriage and outside. Lady Bethany went first, using the driver’s arm liberally as she fell from the carriage. And then Aadya, preferring to do most of the work herself, as she had done for all of her life.
“Now, Lady Hasbrown will be here any moment,” Lady Bethany started once they were both free of the carriage. She stuck an arm out for Aadya to take, and once she did, the two started up the steps and toward the open front doors. “I assume you’ll be needing a bath first?”
“How long until they arrive?”
“Oh, should be in the next ten minutes or so.”
“I’ll skip the bath for now,” Aadya said. They reached the open door and stepped inside, and again Aadya had to work to not appear so overwhelmed. Although again, it was hard to do.
It was all high ceilings and wide-open rooms. Although most of the walls were brown and mahogany, the natural light streaming through the dozens of windows set the interior alight as if they were outdoors. Tapestries and paintings adorned the walls, rugs and throws lined the floor, and every piece of furniture and décor that Aadya could see looked more expensive than her entire wardrobe... which itself was a rather expansive collection.
“Are you sure?” Lady Bethany asked with puzzlement. Once in the foyer, she released Aadya from her grip and turned on her. “They won’t mind waiting for you. And I’ve always found that when I’m first meeting someone, it pays to be at my absolute best --”
“No,” Aadya cut her off. It was a tad aggressive -- brought on by a month’s long boat ride and perhaps an hour of sleep the night before -- so Aadya forced a smile and softened her tone. “I mean... I’m just excited to begin, is all. There will be time for baths later.”
“Alright...” Lady Bethany narrowed her eyes as if she meant to argue. “Well... at least freshen up. How about this? I’ll set you in my main chambers. That way you can give yourself a once over, possibly touch up your hair and make-up and by the time that is done with, they should be here for you to greet and then meet?”
“That sounds perfect,” Aadya smiled. She reached out and gave Lady Bethany’s arm a squeeze. “Thank you so much.”
“Oh, you know me. Anything to help -- oh, it’s exciting that you are here!” She grabbed Aadya by both her hands and gave them a squeeze, her eyes widening like dinner plates. “After all this time!”
True to her word, Lady Bethany led Aadya up the winding staircase and toward her own private chambers. Once inside, she showed Aadya toward the mirror and the dresser, assured her that anything and everything was there for her disposal, and then left her to her own devices. “I’ll be back up in a moment, once they arrive,” she finished before closing the door behind her.
Alone now, finally after what had been well over a month, Aadya took a moment to herself. She was nervous. She was anxious. But she was also excited, and that sensation was by far the most prevalent. Again, she had traveled a long way to be here today, and that didn’t count the eight years spent before that traveling and searching and hoping and wishing. For it to finally have arrived, for it to nearly be over, she could scarcely believe it.
In a bid to calm herself, Aadya moved for the full-length mirror and decided to take her aunt’s advice and ensure that she at least looked presentable... or more presentable than she felt. It sat by the room’s main window, which allowed for the sun outside to naturally warm the reflection. Aadya placed herself in it and then got to her assessment.
She looked better than she had thought. Her dark-black hair was plaited on top and tied at the back into a ponytail before falling over her left shoulder. Her rich, sepia-colored skin glistened with a light sweat, but she used a cloth to dry herself and then gently powdered her face. Her dress too, a canary yellow frock that was more appropriate for casual daywear than anything that might be considered formal, but it felt right, as she didn’t want to give off the wrong impression. Yes, despite the knots slowly forming in her stomach, and despite the way her legs and arms both shook like jelly, Aadya knew that she was ready. Finally.
Lady Bethany must have been able to sense it also as no sooner had Aadya come to this conclusion did the door pop back open. Aadya spun about, smiling as she was sure that it was time for her to make her way downstairs and finally meet with her destiny. One look at Lady Bethany’s face, however, and she knew that something was wrong.
“I am so sorry, dear,” Lady Bethany said. “I just got word. She isn’t coming.”
It was her mother whom Aadya had come to England in search of. It was her mother whom she had been expecting to meet. And it was her mother whom she had just been told would not be coming to see her today. Needless to say, when Aadya heard the news, she was devastated.
“What?” Aadya blinked in surprise. “What do you mean that she isn’t coming?”
“Just that, I’m afraid.” Lady Bethany swept into the room and went for Aadya. She reached her and put an arm around her shoulder in a showing of comfort. “I have just spoken with Lady Hasbrown and it seems that she has fled the property.”
More confusion now as Aadya registered what this meant. What it could possibly mean. “Fled? What on earth does that --”
“Exactly what it sounds like. The arrangements had been made, and from all accounts, everything was ready for this afternoon. But when Lady Hasbrown went outside to collect your mother, it seemed that she had left.”
“She has no idea. The other servers were as shocked as she, and even those whom she was reported to be close with couldn’t fathom where she might have gone. It is as if she has disappeared into thin air.”
“That’s not... that isn’t...” Aadya felt a sickening feeling begin to take hold inside of her; like a hand wrapped around her intestines, trying to yank them free. She sniffed and did what she could to not collapse into a ball of tears, but it was hard to do. “How could she do that? Did she give a reason?”
Lady Bethany sighed and gave Aadya another hug. “Do not take it personally, my dear. You know as well as anyone how... excitable she is. No doubt she was as nervous as you but chose running over confrontation. A real shame, to be sure. A real shame.”
Aadya had no idea what to say. What could she say?! She had traveled all the way here from British India for this specific purpose, to finally meet a person whom she had spent eight years of her young life in search of. And now, seconds away from finally closing out this chapter of her life, and it had been taken from her like a babe in the night.
“I’m sorry,” Lady Bethany said again as she sensed Aadya breaking. She continued at the hug, seeming unwilling to let go. “But your mother is a strong-willed woman, and by the sounds of it, you managed to inherit that same trait from her in spades. Keep at it and soon, I just know that you’ll see her again.”
Aadya sighed, unable to even summon the energy to cry. All that built-up excitement and anxiety fled her body in one fell swoop and now it was left to her aunt’s hug to keep her on her feet. “Yes,” she managed somehow. “I suppose I will.”
“Look at it this way,” Lady Bethany continued. “She is still likely in London. A little more searching, a few more stones overturned, and she is sure to turn up again. And when she does, we won’t give her the same warning as this time.” A light chuckle as if to ease the tension.
“Yes...” Aadya nodded her head. “That is... that is all I can do.” It was a lame response, but it suited Aadya perfectly as she was feeling rather lame herself.
There was little more to say after that. Lady Bethany, seeing a chance to mother and dote upon someone new, announced that a bath was in order, and then a large supper paired with many drinks. She ordered Aadya to remain in her chambers and rest up until the bath was ready, and then she hurried from the room as if it were on fire.
Alone again, Aadya wandered to the four-poster bed in the room’s center and collapsed on its end. Again, she could feel the energy in her body rushing from her until she was little more than a corpse. She cursed herself silently, hating that she had allowed herself to get her hopes up, that she had actually believed today was the day that her life might change forever. She should have known better. She should have been prepared, ready for disappointment. It was a feeling that she was all but used to by now anyway.
Born and raised in British India, the only family that Aadya had ever known was that of her father. A wealthy English landowner, he had apparently fallen for Aadya’s mother the moment that he had laid eyes on her; a most forbidden romance, formed between a common worker and an aristocrat. But it was true love, which apparently remained until Aadya was three. Then, for reasons she still did not know, her mother was forced to leave her and her father behind without word of where she was going. This had almost killed her father, and the depression that followed had left him a broken man.
Aadya’s father died when she was fifteen, a little over eight years ago now. When he died, he left behind his wealth and name which had provided for Aadya the means to track her mother down finally and meet the woman she had never known. And she did just that, spending eight years traveling through India in search. This search turned up few results, but Aadya wasn’t one to give up easily. She expanded her search west, writing letters to anyone and everyone that she could think of until one eventually hit its mark.
It was her father’s younger sister, Lady Bethany Beltrie who reached out, claiming that a friend of hers had recently hired a new hand who fit the description that Aadya had sent. A few more months of letter writing, and it was all but confirmed that this was indeed Aadya’s long-lost mother. Without thinking, Aadya packed her bags and hired a ship to take her to England and then London where it was arranged that the two would finally meet after all this time.
At least that had been the plan.
Now, standing in Lady Bethany’s chambers, having just heard the news that her mother wasn’t coming, and Aadya was struck by that same sense of disappointment and longing that she had felt so many times before.
No. Not disappointment. Loneliness. Aadya had spent a lifetime feeling as if she didn’t belong, hoping to meet that someone who might be able to fill the hole that had existed inside of her for a lifetime. She had hoped that her mother might be the one to fill this hole. Clearly, this wasn’t to be the case.
A glutton for self-punishment -- for what else could it be -- she chose this moment of heartache to reach into her dress and produce the drawing she had been staring at so intently earlier in the carriage ride over. She sat herself up, looked down at the drawing, and sighed.
The drawing was of her mother. It was but a simple sketch, the kind one might do as an afterthought meant to be tossed away upon completion. Although there was little chance of Aadya throwing this one away. Even in its simplicity, Aadya couldn’t believe how real it was, and how much it looked just like her. There were the same round eyes full of wonder, the same round face with high cheekbones, those same puffy lips and slightly-too-large teeth. It was the only drawing that Aadya had of her mother, and thus she kept it close.
But she felt a fool at the same time. Whenever Aadya looked at this drawing of her mother, she didn’t see a woman who had left her when she was three years of age, who had done everything she could to avoid being found, to duck and weave from her responsibilities like a boxer might another pugilist. Rather, she saw her mother, a woman whom she loved unconditionally, even though they had never really met. She saw a woman whom she believed would want a chance to meet her when the time came, who might perhaps have tried before but been unable. She had allowed herself a chance to actually believe that she was doing the right thing in tracking her down, that it might actually change her life for the better.
This time, however, as she sat on the edge of that bed in that strange room in that stranger house in that even stranger country, she no longer saw the same woman staring back at her. This woman now was a stranger also, alien to her and seemingly disinterested in meeting. Lady Bethany might have thought there was still a chance to track her down but now Aadya was forced to ask if she even wanted to.
She looked out the window, noting the green rolling fields of the estate and the gray skies of England above. She was a foreigner in her own country and felt more alone than she ever had before. Which was quite the achievement, as Aadya had lived a lifetime full of loneliness.
“I really do hope you’re happy with yourself,” Lord Viscount Matthew of Collingwood muttered bitterly as he straightened the lapels on his jacket and did what he could to catch his breath.
“Oh, I think you know I am,” Lord Duke Philip of Leedsworth grinned incessantly as he eyed his chubby friend trying to salvage some sense of dignity.
“Well, I’m glad that you’re having a good time at least.” Collingwood looked down the alley and then back toward the main road, his lip curling with distaste. Then, he bent over and scooped back up his cane. “I dare say that you’re the only person in this sordid part of town who is -- now come on. Let’s get out of here.”
“What? No, we’re not going anywhere.”
“What do you mean? You managed to scare the pants off me. Well done to you. But I don’t much feel like having them stolen also. Now, come on.” He moved to grab at Philip who danced away.
“I didn’t invite you here just to scare you, old boy.” Philip crossed his arms and cocked an eyebrow at Collingwood.
Collingwood’s face paled as he realized what Philip was suggesting. “Philip... no. No... you can’t be serious --”
“Ha, deadly he says? Dead is what we will be if we go in there. Of that, I can assure you.”
“An adventure then!” Philip cried.
“That is one word for it,” Collingwood sighed. “I prefer to think of it as early retirement.”
Philip grinned, reached out, and slapped his friend on the back. And as he did, he slowly turned him about and started leading him from the alley. “Don’t worry, Collingwood. If things get a little dicey, I’ll protect you.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
The two men were currently standing in an alleyway just outside what sounded to be a rather busy tavern. It was getting nearer to midnight now too, which meant that as the streets slowly emptied of pedestrians and loiterers, the bars and taverns quickly filled with the same. Even now, Philip could already hear the drunken ravings of the tavern behind him; filled with people singing and shouting, feet stamping, mugs clinking, and what he assumed to be a few brawls.
The aim, of course, was to spend the evening inside with his best friend the Viscount of Collingwood. Unfortunately, Philip had arrived at the alleyway a little sooner than Collingwood had, and had thus chosen to play a small prank on the man...
He just couldn’t help himself! The moment that Philip had spotted him wandering down the street and toward where Philip stood waiting, he knew he had to do something. And that Collingwood wouldn’t be very happy about it.
It was just the way the man looked! He was wider of frame, and waddled so slowly it was as if a step taken too quickly might see him tumble over and fall on his face -- that was probably why he used his cane so liberally. On top of that, and despite the warning that Philip had given him, Collingwood had decided to dress in his finest which, in this part of town, had him sticking out like a sore thumb. They were in the South of London after all, near the docks which was one of the poorer areas in the city. An area where the average gent most certainly didn’t require a cane to walk.
Philip had watched him coming with a grin. Unlike his friend, Philip had chosen to dress down tonight, wearing just a pair of beige-colored pants and a simple shirt and jacket that was still a little too rich for this area, but by no means obnoxiously so. As Collingwood approached the alley, Philip retreated deeper into it, making sure that the darkness covered him in full.
Collingwood had reached the edges of the alley and come to a stop. A large man, mostly in girth rather than height, he’d puffed and panted as he leaned against the wall, glancing back toward the street as if trying to decide whether or not it was worth sticking around. Philip had been able to see the fear on his friend’s face and that grin of his only increased as he slowly snuck forward, stayed close to the walls and the shadows, and then pounced out of the alley as if he were a cat chasing a mouse.
“Hands up!” Philip had roared as he came at his best friend. He held his hand in front of him as if he had a knife.
Collingwood had spun about, spied Philip charging him, and shrieked. “Please!” He dropped his cane and shot his hands in the air. “I have nothing of worth, I... Leedsworth?”
Philip had then thrown his head back and roared with laughter. He’d grabbed at his sides, he’d shaken his head, he’d slapped an angry Collingwood on the back and cackled. “Your face!” Philip had laughed. “You should have seen it! Please! Please!” Philip mocked some more.
Needless to say, once the theatrics were all done with, Philip had a slightly difficult time convincing his friend to join him in the bar. Maybe pranking him so thoroughly hadn’t been such a good idea? Not that Philip was known for his good ideas.
But where Collingwood might have liked to pretend to complain, Philip knew him as well as he did any man, and he knew that it would take just a little bit of pressure to convince his friend to join him tonight. He had come all this way after all, and few liked a drink as much as Collingwood. And sure enough, no sooner were they out of the alley and was Philip directing Collingwood toward the tavern, was his frightened friend allowing himself to be led through the front door.
The inside of the tavern was exactly what Philip had been expecting, been hoping for in actual fact. Having grown up in aristocratic London, Philip had only ever known a certain type of drinking establishment. These were known as ‘gentleman’s clubs,’ and they were as boring as they were sterile. The music was always minimal, the drunken antics even more so, and one couldn’t even enter unless they were dressed in their best, owned a certain amount of land and wealth, and looked as if they walked with a stick shoved up their rear end. Really, it was the perfect place for those like Collingwood to spend an evening without fear of being mugged.
Tonight’s tavern of choice was the aptly titled “The Wasted Sailor,” and as Philip and Collingwood moved through the front door and found themselves a table in the back corner, Philip couldn’t help but wonder if the name was somewhat underselling just how wasted the patrons here were.
The floor was made from cheap wood, and with several planks missing and even more sunken in from added weight, it looked like it might collapse at any second. The air was filled with cigar smoke, and the smell of body odor and grime was of such a pungency that even Philip was forced to breathe through his nose. The patrons were sailors mostly -- dirty, grubby, sweaty and so drunk that they couldn’t stand straight -- and the music came from a band set up in the back who played their instruments so violently it sounded as if they were trying to murder them on stage. It was unlike any place that Philip had been before, and he loved it.
“This is charming,” Collingwood drawled as they moved through the bar and slid into their seats. They were small stools and Collingwood groaned and complained as his rotund body settled. “It has a certain... homely quality about it, doesn’t it?”
“It’s a dive,” Philip chuckled as he spun about and observed the bar. Across the way, he eyed three sailors playing cards, a game which soon devolved into a fist fight for reasons that Philip could only guess at. “But don’t act like you don’t love it.”
“I don’t need to act,” Collingwood sighed. That same lip remained curled as he looked about the place in disgust. “I still don’t see why you wanted me to meet you here? Honestly, man, I swear that you are losing it in your old age. You need a holiday... or a physician.”
“No reason,” Philip shrugged. “Just wanted to try somewhere new.”
“Yes, well my wife keeps insisting that we have dinner with her father and mother. She uses the ‘somewhere new’ excuse on me too. But you don’t see me champing at the bit to appease her now, do you?”
Philip rolled his eyes just in time for a barmaid to appear by their side and take their drink orders. Collingwood tried to order a brandy, until he was eventually talked down to the house wine. Philip asked for the same, gave the maid a generous tip, and then got about looking through the tavern again, preferring that to the whining of his best friend.
Despite how comfortable Philip was choosing to act at the moment, the truth was that, like Collingwood, Philip was about as out of place in this tavern as a chicken in a horse race. The only real difference being that he knew how to hide it.
As mentioned, his clothes were more appropriate to the scene than the suit that Collingwood had chosen to wear. And where Collingwood’s blonde hair was cut short and his face clean-shaven -- with the exception of his mustache -- Philip's raven-colored hair was worn long and unkempt as if he hadn’t had a haircut in years... which he hadn’t. He was also sporting a messy beard at the moment and he’d even gone the day without bathing. But strangely enough, none of that was in preparation for tonight. That was just how Philip was.
There was good reason for it too. Where Philip was indeed a Duke, and where Philip was born and raised in the elite circles of London with infinite wealth and a chip on his shoulder as all gentlemen of the ton had, he’d lately found himself straying from those circles. Partly straying, partly being slowly ousted because of the way he chose to hold himself.
And indeed, Collingwood might have asked why they were here as if he had no idea, but both he and Philip knew the true reason. Not that either of them spoke of it anymore. Philip wouldn’t allow it.
“So, come on then,” Philip then said as he spun back toward his friend. “Gossip. What is it? I know you have some for me?”
“Oh, gossip is what you want is it?” Collingwood chuffed. “I thought you’d brought me here to demonstrate your similarities to the common man?”
“Well, that too,” Philip grinned. “But while I’m doing that, you may as well regale me with a little bit of news. Come on then? What’s happening in the world?”
Collingwood sighed. “Not much, I’m afraid. There’s that ball next week -- Lord Clifford is hosting it, but I can’t imagine you plan on attending?” He cocked an eyebrow and Philip scrunched his face and shook his head. He hated balls. So boring. So proper. Not for him at all. “I also heard word that a new Lady arrived on scene today. From British India, if you believe that!”
“India?” Philip perked up. “That’s interesting.”
“Probably,” Collingwood conceded. “That’s all I know though. She’s staying with the Lady Bethany Beltrie of the current, so I assume they’re related. But that’s all I’ve been told -- say, where are our drinks?” he perked up and looked back across the bar.
Philip eyed his friend for a moment more, wondering at the so-called gossip about this new Lady arriving on scene. But he didn’t wonder for too long. He’d met many a Lady of the ton in his life. In fact, they were all he ever met. And, as always happened, they turned out to be exactly the same as every other Lady he had ever met. There was never any difference in them, never anything exciting. No adventure whatsoever. And, as this tavern might suggest, that’s exactly what Philip wanted in life right now.
He noted Collingwood’s eyes widening with excitement, spun back, and spotted the barmaid heading toward them with their drinks. But then Philip set his gaze a little wider and took note of a far more engaging development occurring just two tables over. Philip eyed it for a second more, grinned to himself, and then turned back to his friend.
“I might need to borrow that cane a moment,” he said and leaned across the table to grab at Collingwood’s cane.
“What? Why?” Collingwood snatched the cane back. “You’re aware that this was my father’s?”
“Yes, I know.”
“Then what do you want it for?”
“I can’t really explain.”
“Well, isn’t that convenient -- ah, there you are.” Collingwood smiled for the barmaid like she was his oldest friend. “I was about to send out a search party.”
“Sorry about that,” the barmaid apologized as she served up their two drinks. “Busy night in here. Like a cat in a doghouse.”
“Quite.” Collingwood reached for his wine as he continued to speak with Philip. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to come to the Clifford Ball?”
“Quite sure,” Philip smiled as he reached for his own drink.
“Truly?” Collingwood sighed. He moved the wine to his lips, but then paused. “What if I was to promise a bevy of eligible young debutants there for your amusement? All impressionable and too new to the ton to know of your reputation.”
“You know that’s not an option,” Philip sighed.
“Not to fall in love with,” Collingwood groaned. “I know, I know, you don’t even want to consider! But just to talk with? Who knows, as shocking as it may seem, you might actually – urgh!” Collingwood hacked as he took his first sip of wine. “That is... that is... that is horrendous.”
“What’s the matter?” a random voice spoke from just behind Philip. “You don’t like what we got here, or somethin’?”
There were three men, each looking exactly like one might expect in a tavern such as this. They were dressed in dirty sailor's gear. Their skin was stained dark from grime and covered in greasy sweat. Their hair too, clumped together, tangled and falling down about their shoulders. But it was their arms and bodies that Philip took note of, strangely and lithe, while somehow also strong and powerful. They were men who had spent a lifetime working laborious, physical jobs. Men who didn’t mind getting physical themselves.
“Excuse me?” Collingwood blinked in confusion when he saw the three men saddling up by the table.
“You heard me.” The leader of the three men stood taller than Philip and wider than Collingwood. His nose looked to have been broken, the few teeth he had left were yellow and stained, and there was a scar running down his right cheek that made him even more terrifying to look at than his two friends. He leaned on the table and shoved his face right into Collingwood’s. “What we serve here isn’t good enough for ya?”
“Ah...” Collingwood’s face paled as he leaned back in his chair. And indeed, sweat began to bead on his forehead. “Philip?” he looked to Philip, fear in his eyes.
And as to Philip? He scooped up his own mug of wine, leaned back in his chair, and took a deep sip. The night had gotten off to a good start and, by the looks of things, was only going to improve from here.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
The Duke's Seductive Virgin is now live on Amazon!