About the book
Touched by your sin, I've never felt anything akin...
Still haunted by the loss of her mother, Lady Alicia Balfour has resigned herself to spinsterhood.
Finding solace only in the company of her friend, Lady Clarissa, she wears a mask to conceal her pain. Until the night of a Masquerade ball, where her mask completely shatters under the heated gaze of a Duke.
Conor Carter, Duke of Quisenbury, wears the mantle of the rake to keep people from getting too close. Solely focused on running his father’s business, marriage is the last thing on his mind. When a ball finds him kissing an alluring masked lady in the gardens, he vows to find her and claim her whole.
The announcement of Alicia's impending nuptials to someone else tests the limits of their desire to be together. Eyes seem to follow their every move; friendly eyes that promise damnation. A gunshot shatters the silence of the night, and Alicia wails when she sees exactly who's standing over Conor's body...
“Now, see? That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Lady Alicia looked over at her mother, the beautiful Duchess of Riverdene, and rolled her eyes. The Duchess was too busy smiling proudly to notice.
“I am just happy we’ve finally gotten it over with,” Lady Alicia couldn’t help grumbling. She looked out the window of the carriage, at sights passing by as they went back to their London Manor.
“We would have been finished with this a long time ago if it wasn’t for the fact that you have been thwarting me at every turn,” said the Duchess.
Her chipper and happy tone had Alicia looking over at her. At only two-and-forty years old, the Duchess was a vision. Alicia shared her mother’s wispy brown hair, though she was sad to admit her tresses could never measure up the silky locks that framed her mother’s beautiful face. The Duchess was a classic beauty, and though Alicia shared most of her features, from her amber eyes to her lily-white skin, she couldn’t measure up to her mother’s looks.
Alicia shook her head. “Mother, you know how much I loathe going to dress fittings.”
“Which I can never understand,” her mother said. “Which London lady doesn’t love the thrill of having a new dress fitted for her? It’s most certainly one of my more enjoyable hobbies.”
“A hobby that we do not share.”
“Oh, Heavens.” The Duchess waved her hand dismissively. Alicia always admired her care-free attitude, as if nothing ever really bothered her, but right now, she could do without it. “This dress fitting was needed. And you should have gotten used to it for when it was time for you to debut—”
Alicia only sighed. Like any other lady she knew—which admittedly, did not come to a great number—she was excited for the Season. It was the preparations beforehand she didn’t really fancy.
But before she could say those words, beginning a conversation they’d had many times already, she was thrown into the door. Her mother’s body came crashing into her, knocking what wind was left out of her lungs.
Neither of them had the time to scream. It happened so quickly. One moment, her mother’s body was pressed against hers and then the next, they were both falling from their seats, their heads colliding onto the ceiling. Alicia shut her eyes, gritting her teeth as she tried and failed to protect herself against the tumbling carriage.
I should wrap my arms around myself. Protect myself!
Within seconds, they came to a halt. Prying her eyes open was more difficult than she thought; a pounding in her head threatened to send her into the darkness. But she fought against the wave of unconsciousness long enough to notice that the carriage had been turned upside down and she had landed quite badly on what was the ceiling.
Alicia groaned, trying to lift her head. A wave of dizziness overcame her, her head growing heavy. She curled her hand into a fist, trying to gather her strength to see what had happened. It was obvious now that the carriage had been in some sort of accident, but how bad an accident it was, she was yet to determine.
Alicia squinted at the opening of the window before her, trying to discern the voices. One sounded like their coachman. Did that mean he was unharmed? Alicia hoped so. It would do no good for everyone to be terribly injured. But what were they saying?
And what of Mother? Is she all right?
She reached out one feeble arm to pull herself forward. It took more energy than she expected, but she continued to push herself, continued to fight the blackness until she managed to crawl her way out of the carriage.
Getting to her feet was another obstacle, but she was spurred on by the sound of the voices getting louder. As soon as she came to a stand, she felt something run down the side of her neck. Alicia touched it with trembling fingers.
Blood. That isn’t good.
She curled her fingers into her fist, as if hiding the stain of her blood would make her forget about her own injuries. Right now, she focused on the voice, which she deduced must be on the other side of the carriage.
She hadn’t taken two steps before someone came rushing toward her. “Here she is!” he shouted.
His face swam in her vision, but she didn’t think she knew him. Even so, he grasped her by the elbow, supporting her. Alicia collapsed into him without thinking.
“My Lady,” the man said, his voice sounding so far away. “We’re going to get you some help. You’ll be all right.”
“What…what about Mother?” Alicia’s eyes fluttered and she forced them to stay open.
“My Lady, don’t speak. We’re getting you in another carriage.”
“What happened?” she whispered weakly. They were walking, she noticed dully. Now, she could see one more person—the coachman. He wasn’t as uninjured as she hoped he was.
“There seemed to have been a terrible rut in the road that broke one of the wheels and caused the accident,” the man explained. “I saw what happened. There is another carriage coming right now to take you away.”
He said nothing. Alicia struggled to form a frown and, gathering all her strength, she pulled away from his arms. The sudden movement had her falling to the ground.
Alicia froze. Her breathing grew shallower. Lying before her was her mother’s still body, partially out the window. The pool of blood beneath her body had Alicia’s heart sinking.
“Mother?” She reached out a hand, but she couldn’t make it all the way. She didn’t have the strength. Vaguely, she heard the coachman, heard his tearful apologies.
Alicia didn’t listen to it. She stared at her mother, at her beautiful hair that was now soaked with blood. At her torn dress. At her still, outstretched hand. It was a good thing her back was turned to her. Alicia didn’t think she could bear to see her face in death.
“My Lady, you must come along,” said the man again, bringing her back to her feet. She didn’t resist him, but she didn’t take her eyes off the Duchess. “If you stay here any longer, your wounds might worsen.”
She couldn’t respond. And she couldn’t resist when he turned her away and began leading her to a carriage waiting nearby. The coachman was being helped as well, but Alicia hardly paid him any mind.
She knew her mother would be taken care of. The Duchess of Riverdene would be given the respect she deserved. There were already more people gathering and soon, her father would know of what happened. But it pained her that she had to leave. It pained her that she couldn’t be by her mother even if she had taken her last breath.
The tears came. Alicia was loaded into the carriage. The moment her back touched the seat, she let the darkness claim her, grateful for the reprieve she would have, if only for a short while.
Three Years Later
The smell of saltwater assaulted Alicia’s nostrils and she took a deep breath without realizing. She let the fresh scent of the sea wash over her, hoping it would help distract her from the nagging things at the back of her mind. She let her eyes wander upwards, catching what little of the sky she could see through the window and the warm blue hue made her feel safe.
“All right, Alicia, I admit it. Coming to the seaside today was a wonderful idea.” Her friend, Lady Clarissa Pembrooke, smoothed down her skirt and shot Alicia a bright smile. “It’s as if the weather is trying to tell us that as well. Don’t you feel that sudden heat?”
“I do,” Alicia said, forcing a smile onto her face. She had been the one to suggest coming for a swim, so she knew she should at least look excited about it.
Lady Clarissa nodded. “Yes, I think this was a splendid idea indeed. It is a pity that Mother decided not to come along with us. I’m sure she would have loved it.”
Alicia winced. Her fingers curled against her dress and the images she had been trying so desperately to push aside came to the forefront of her mind. The late Duchess of Riverdene would have loved this outing. In fact, Alicia knew her mother wouldn’t have stopped talking about it the entire way there.
“Alicia? Are you all right?”
Alicia plastered another fake smile onto her face and nodded her head. “I’m just thinking, that’s all. I’m fine.”
Lady Clarissa frowned. Her beautiful blue eyes clouded with confusion but then she was quick to look back out the window, her shoulder-length blond hair flashing when she did. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “We’re here.”
Does she remember what day it is? Alicia doubted it, and she couldn't blame her if she didn’t. Alicia herself didn’t like to think about it, even though she could do nothing but focus on the past.
Three years ago today, they’d been in an accident. Her mother had died. And Alicia’s life had never been the same.
Nearly a year after her mother’s death, Alicia had been a ghost of her former self, so depressed that her father had thought it best to send her away from London. She and her father had come to stay at Evandale Manor in Bath and Alicia had struck up a friendship with the daughter of her father’s friend, Lady Clarissa. The time she’d spent at the Evandale Manor had been a welcoming distraction but when this day rolled around, Alicia could hardly forget her sadness anymore.
But it wasn’t just sadness. It was incredible guilt that felt like it would eat her alive.
She’d proposed going for a swim to take her mind off it, but she didn’t think it was working very well.
Lady Clarissa eagerly got out the carriage as soon as it came to a halt, Alicia slowly following suit. The brisk air hit her harder now that she was out the carriage and she absently looked down at her brown dress, wondering if the smell would cling to the fabric.
Lady Clarissa came to stand by her side. “Do you know what I heard?” she whispered, giving Alicia that wicked grin that served to make her absurdly more beautiful.
“I hear gentlemen like to come here to swim naked sometimes.”
Alicia blushed deeply, looking wide eyed at her friend as she giggled. “Lady Clarissa, surely that isn’t true?” she gasped.
“Oh, who knows? But isn't it interesting to think about? We might come across a few naked gentlemen ourselves while we’re here.”
Lady Clarissa winked at her and Alicia was sure she’d turned as red as a tomato.
“Don’t think about it too much, Alicia,” Lady Clarissa said with a soft sigh. “I doubt we’ll be that lucky.”
Though they’d been around each other nearly every day now, and Lady Clarissa was her closest friend, Alicia didn’t think she would ever get used to her boldness. Nevertheless, it brought a real smile to her face.
They started off toward the bathing machines by the sea, Lady Clarissa leading the way, as usual. She was the slightest bit taller than Alicia and Alicia used that to explain why it felt like she was always looking up at her. When it was regarding looks, Lady Clarissa outshone her, making her plain features seem almost ugly. When it came to personality, Lady Clarissa once again took the lead, capturing the attention of everyone around her. Most times, like right now, Alicia didn’t mind being in her friend’s shadow.
If we were to see naked gentlemen, I doubt they would even look my way.
There was no bitterness to the thought, just acceptance. Alicia had already resigned herself to life as a spinster.
They were helped into the bathing machine by a dipper and then they proceeded to discard their clothing until they were only in their linen shifts. Lady Clarissa moved speedily, clearly more excited about getting into the water than Alicia. The bathing machine began to be carted into the water and soon enough, it was time for them to enter.
Lady Clarissa flashed her a grin. “Here’s to hoping a handsome gentleman crosses our path.” She began to descend the steps into the water without waiting for Alicia’s response.
Alicia sighed silently and followed behind her.
It had been three months since Conor had arrived in London and he feared he would never grow comfortable with it. It bothered him to no end, because Quisenbury Manor was the place he’d grown up in all his life, yet now that he was back from the military, it felt foreign to him.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Father is no longer here?
The late Duke of Quisenbury had died months ago, yet Conor didn’t think he would ever get used to that fact. When he’d come back to the Manor, he’d half expected to see him sitting in his study, even though he’d received word from his mother about the late Duke’s death quite some time ago. In all that time, he’d grown accustomed to the idea, but it still felt odd.
He heard, rather than saw, his mother come into the room. She always had a loud way of moving around, as if she’d much rather announce her presence without using words. Considering how quiet a lady she was, he wouldn’t be surprised if she did it on purpose.
“Is everything all right, Conor?” she asked him when he didn’t turn to greet her. He was standing by the window of his father’s old office, in the same spot he’d seen his father stand at countless times. As the new Duke of Quisenbury, it was now Conor’s spot.
“Yes, Mother, everything is fine.” What else could he say? That he was still coming to terms with his father’s death? That he felt a little overwhelmed with all the responsibilities his father left behind?
She’ll think I’m still mourning and proceed to baby me.
The late Duke had been far from fatherly. Conor had loved him, but in a way that a son was supposed to love his father. Throughout his entire life, he’d been subjected to the late Duke’s criticism, judging everything Conor ever did. Conor had spent his life trying to impress his father. It had grown worse when the late Duke had put him in charge of their shipping company.
What Conor had thought was his father’s way of finally putting his trust in his judgment, was just a way for the late Duke to impose even more of his disapproval. It came to the point where Conor could no longer handle it and he had gone off to serve in the military.
Now it feels like there is something missing from the Manor.
The Dowager Duchess said nothing for a while, long enough for him to finally face her. Though Conor knew his mother loved him dearly, she was never the best at expressing her emotions. Comforting others was the most difficult thing for her to do and she’d much rather stand in silence as a way of showing Conor that she was here for him.
“I’m fine, Mother,” he reiterated, giving her a smile. The Dowager Duchess tilted her head to the side, lifting her dark brows in an unconvinced manner. “I’m only thinking about some business, that’s all.”
“You sound just like your Father,” she said.
“Yes, well, I look just like him. It would only make sense to sound like him too.”
The corners of her lips curved upward at the comment. She finally sat, folding her hands in her lap. She was dressed quite beautifully, in a yellow day dress that looked lovely against the brown curls piled atop her head. Conor wondered if she was having friends over this afternoon.
But before he had the chance to ask the question, she said, “I think it’s time you find a wife, Conor. You are now the Duke of Quisenbury. It’s only fitting.”
He nodded. “I have been thinking about attending the upcoming Season as well.”
“Wonderful. I’m happy I don’t have to convince you.”
This time, it was Conor who lifted his brows at her. “You were expecting to?”
“I know it can be a struggle getting bachelors such as yourself to settle down,” she said with a simple shrug.
“I know my duties, Mother. But don’t mistake that into thinking that I want to get married. I’d much rather not.” He sighed again. “But I know it is what Father would have expected from me.”
The Dowager Duchess took a moment to respond. “You miss him dearly, don’t you?”
Conor hesitated in responding. After the things he’d said to his father before leaving, he couldn’t very well miss his presence…could he? Simply trying to sort through his feelings gave him a migraine. “The Manor feels empty without him.”
“It is all right to simply say yes,” she said, her voice tinged with humor.
Conor allowed himself to laugh. “Says the lady who hardly lets herself cry around others.”
“Now, why would I do something as embarrassingly vulnerable as that?” When his mother shuddered in disgust, he laughed again. “I’d rather do so in my bedchambers, alone, thank you very much.”
Even if she was a quiet woman, she had perfected the art of conversation. Conor didn’t know how she’d managed to turn both their sadness over the late Duke’s death into something they could laugh about. It was no secret that the Dowager Duchess and the late Duke had grown to love each other over the years, even if they didn’t show it often in public. Conor could only hope that the same would happen with whichever lady he chose to marry.
He’d already decided to attend the upcoming Season long before today. He was a Duke now, after all. It was expected of him.
He’d even told a few friends of his through letters that he was attending when he was updating them on his return to London. It would be nice to see them again, at least.
“Well, I will leave you to it,” said the Dowager, coming to a rise. “Don’t overwork yourself, Conor.”
“Understood, Mother.” He gave her a salute and she laughed, turning to leave.
Conor waited until his mother was out the room before he got to his feet and made his way back to the window.
The refreshing dip in the sea did manage to cure Alicia of her ailing thoughts somewhat. After submerging herself in the water, Lady Clarissa had asked her once more if everything was all right, and Alicia hadn’t cared to hold it any longer. She’d unloaded everything onto her friend and when she was done talking about it, she felt a lot better.
But now, as she made her way down to the dining room for dinner, she could feel the ghost of the late Duchess hanging over her shoulder once more.
Everyone, which included the Earl of Dalwater and his family, was already gathered around the table at Evandale Manor, except for her brother. Alicia smiled at the Earl and Countess of Dalwater and went to sit in her usual seat by Lady Clarissa.
“I heard you two had a wonderful time swimming today, Lady Alicia,” the Countess said. She gave Alicia a warm, motherly smile that made Alicia’s heart wrench. The Countess, Lady Edith Pembroke, was a sociable lady, quite like her daughter, who had been very kind to Alicia during her stay here.
“It was an enjoyable time,” Alicia said with a nod. “Although, it did tire me out greatly. I don’t doubt that after dinner, I will be heading straight to bed.”
“Me too, Mother,” Lady Clarissa spoke up. She’d done her hair all over again when she’d returned home, but Alicia hadn’t cared to put in as much effort. “I was thinking about heading into town for some shopping tomorrow so I think it would be smart to turn in early.”
“Oh!” Lady Dalwater’s eyes grew wide with surprise. “I didn’t know you two would be going out tomorrow again.”
Neither did Alicia. She gave Lady Clarissa a confused look, who only shook her head in return. Alicia had no idea what that meant.
Before she had the chance to ask, her brother walked in. Francis Balfour, the Marquess of Somertown, was as handsome as his mother was beautiful and the bright smile he gave everyone as he strolled in served to light up the room. Even Lord Dalwater sat up at his arrival.
“Lord Somertown,” the Earl greeted. “I had heard you returned from India this afternoon.”
“But we saw neither hide nor hair of you all day,” the Duke of Riverdene cut in.
“Forgive me,” Alicia’s brother responded. He leaned down and pecked her on the cheek before claiming the seat next to her. “I was dreadfully tired. I had to rest before coming down to dinner.”
“You must tell me how your trip went,” the Earl said amicably.
Francis chuckled deeply. “Perhaps after dinner we can retire to the parlor with a drink to talk about it. I fear we may only bore the ladies if we deign to do it here.”
Lord Dalwater chuckled deeply. “I believe you may be right about that, My Lord.”
Francis laughed again, and then he leaned in closer to Alicia. “Good day, Sister,” he greeted with a smile.
Alicia shot him a glance, unable to keep her own lips from curving upward. “Good evening, Francis. I see you’re in as happy a mood as ever.”
“I get to see my Sister again. Of course that would make me happy.”
Her smile widened. Francis had always been able to put her in good spirits, no matter what. After their mother died, he’d grown even more protective and loving, and came to visit Evandale Manor quite often. Alicia didn’t know what she would do without him and his constant grin.
Although, it felt as if his smiles were a little more forced today. Alicia studied him out of the corner of her eye. She was sure he knew what day it was today and she wondered if it was taking as much of a toll on him as it was on her. He’d never shown those types of emotions around her.
“Clarissa,” the Countess said suddenly, dragging Alicia out of her head. “Are you sure you have enough gowns for the upcoming Season. You don’t think we should have a few more made for you?”’
Lady Clarissa looked up at her mother with eyes glittering with excitement. “I don’t think I can ever have enough ball gowns.”
Lady Dalwater matched her daughter's enthusiasm easily. “Of course, there is no limit! It is your first Season after all. We have to make sure that you are the most beautiful, most fashionable lady in London. It’s settled. I’m coming with you into town tomorrow to have a few more dresses made for you.”
“And hats, Mother,” Lady Clarissa said eagerly. “I have a feeling I’ll be going on many walks through Hyde Park with many suitors. Don’t you think so, Lady Alicia?”
“You are quite beautiful, Lady Clarissa,” Alicia said with a tight smile. “I don’t have any doubts about that.”
Lady Clarissa only nodded, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Any talk of the upcoming Season made her stomach clench with apprehension. On a day like this, talk of the Season was the last thing she wanted to hear. She consoled herself with the thought that at least she would never have to subject herself to that ever again.
“Speaking of the Season,” her brother spoke up. “I got word from a friend of mine that he planned on attending. This year’s Season is bound to be quite festive, I believe.”
“Oh?” The Countess leaned closer with intrigue shining in her eyes. “Which friend are you referring to?”
“Only the Duke of Quisenbury, of course.”
Alicia’s heartbeat spiked. What?
“Ah, yes,” the Earl said with a knowing nod. “The new Duke of Quisenbury. I had heard that the late Duke passed away. I suppose his son has come to take his place?”
“He is back from the military,” Francis went on; seemingly unaware of the fact that Alicia had stopped eating. Everyone was looking at Francis while he spoke, interested in hearing about the new Duke—except Alicia. His words only played over and over in her head. The Duke of Quisenbury is back.
“I only just received the letter when I returned from India,” Francis continued. “But it says he has been in London for a few months now. He has invited me to London for the Season as well.”
“The Duke of Quisenbury.” Alicia’s eyes shot up to Lady Clarissa when she heard her friend’s thoughtful tone. Her heart clenched when she saw the light of intrigue in her eyes. “Is he handsome?”
“Clarissa,” Lord Dalwater hissed.
Lady Clarissa giggled, waving her father off. “Oh, Father, I’m only joking. You know that.” Then she returned her attention to Francis. “I would love to meet him, though. If he’s a friend of yours, then I’m sure he’s very interesting. You’re not one to surround yourself with boorish people.”
“You thought correctly, My Lady,” Francis said with a wink and Lady Clarissa giggled again.
Alicia slowly resumed eating. She was used to having the conversation at the dinner table go on without her, and especially today, she didn’t particularly mind at all. And at the discussion of the Duke, she was even more determined to keep quiet, lest she showed everyone in the room how much the mere mention of him made her flustered.
She knew the Duke personally. Not well, but well enough to inspire fantasies about one day being courted by him. It had been years since she’d last seen him but she had no doubt that he was as handsome as she remembered him to be. Her stomach erupted with butterflies at the thought of seeing him again.
But that isn’t likely to happen. She wouldn't be going to London for the Season and it was unlikely that the Duke would not find a wife during that time. Impossible, really. Like all those years ago, when she’d grown to realize how bland looking she was compared to the other ladies of the ton, Alicia told herself that since it was not meant to be, she was better off not thinking about it.
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