Nicci Mayne

Regency Romance Author

Extracts for your pleasure!
 


Click on a blue button for a sneak peak 
Fractured
Release date December 2016
Stafford crossed the threshold to stand before Gracie and looked into her beautiful eyes. She looked terrified. Stafford took her cold hand in his and quickly led her to her father’s study. Her hand quivered in his like a captured butterfly. He prayed her quiver was not born from the morning chill or fear, but anticipation and excitement. Love was too much to hope for, but excitement would do, for now. Stafford left Gracie in the centre of the room to close the door and paused before turning around. He braced himself by taking a few deep and centring breaths. He wanted to court her, get to know her without need and frustration hampering rationality. Focus, focus, he instructed himself.
Gracie had never felt so vulnerable, anxious and hopeful. Insecure Gracie shouted that she deserved to face the music for her brazen behaviour and for embarrassing Stafford, but her heart sounded a triumphant call. He was in a room with her, alone. He was also as devastatingly handsome as she remembered. His eyes had never been more serious. They seemed more black than grey. Silence hummed between them until Gracie could not bear the tension any longer. The tremor that had started in her hands swept over her entire body until she shook like a leaf. Her legs felt as if they would buckle beneath the weight of her desperate body and she struggled to keep her balance.  “I am so sorry… for everything,” she exhaled and cast her eyes to the floor. Her black lashes rested upon deathly pale skin.
It was the lifeline Stafford needed- a sign of her continued attachment to him and her willingness to be with him. He did not know why she was apologising, but she clearly needed his forgiveness and a shoulder to cry on. She was also hauntingly beautiful. Reason abandoned him. He truly was a lost cause. He closed the distance between them in two large strides and enclosed his Grace in a solid embrace. A hint of jasmine and essence of Grace invaded his senses. Her frame moulded to his hard body and her dark head rested on his chest. He ran his hand down her back, caressing and soothing until her body calmed in his arms. What started as a comforting touch turned primal as his hand found the delicious curve of her back and the gentle rise of her bottom. Stafford could not suppress a moan when his muscles coiled tight and urged him to take her. He moved his hands to her shoulders, intending to edge her away to create a safe distance between them, but Gracie clung to his coat and the blanket dropped to the floor to create a soft bed at her feet. She raised her head to reveal desperate pools of hope and affection. Her devoted, pleading look broke him. He swept down to claim her quivering lips and was welcomed by a breathless cry of pleasure. His tongue teased and coaxed whilst his hands found the rise of her bottom once again and he held her close. His desire pulsed against her soft stomach and he groaned again, sending a baritone thrum through Gracie’s body. She moved against him to relieve the building pressure between her thighs and Stafford’s heart soared because she was in his arms, moving to the rhythm they were creating. Stafford trailed kisses from her mouth to the soft silkiness of her neck and gently took her delicate skin in his teeth. It was too much for Gracie and her legs gave way.
Cardinal Sins- Gabriel's Retribution
Release date 2017

For Angie L-C
Because we both share a love for…

Chapter 1
Leviticus – Abomination, they name is Percy

“Stop this, Percy, please,” begged Georgina, “We agreed that we would move forward and not wallow in the murky depths of society's fickle values.”
“It is only that I know you are not happy,” replied Percy, gripping the arms of the chair so hard that his knuckles turned white. He took deep, pained breaths as if the air had been sucked from the room.
Georgina rose from the dining table like a graceful swan to crouch beside her husband’s chair and gazed into his gentle eyes. Percy was titled, had wealth and angelic looks and he was blessed with a sweet temperament. To the unknowing eyes, it would appear that Percy had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but Georgina knew the truth of the matter. His shoulders bowed under the strain of self-loathing, guilt and fear. He certainly did not need the added pressure of her emotional wellbeing.
“Percy, I love you and I want this for you. I would never have agreed to marry you if I was not convinced it was moral and right to do so.”
“Georgie, our situation is neither moral nor legal. I should never have allowed you to sacrifice yourself for me. Now, we have both been consigned to hell.”
Georgina stood to place a kiss on Percy’s cheek. “I welcome purgatory in the next life if it means that you have experienced the wonder of true love in this one. You have the blessing of being loved by two people. Besides, so many of our peers marry for duty and where has it gotten them? A loveless marriage is purgatory and we will never have to know that pain.  I live with my best friend and I have come to love your lover, as if he were my brother. These are gifts from God.”
“Sh, Georgie, someone may hear you,” hushed Percy, his face stricken with panic. He had long since ordered the servants out of the room, but like so many noble homes, the walls had ears. Percy ran his hands through his hair and shook his head before responding to her romantic, but misguided view of their situation. “No, Georgie, the feelings we have for each other are not gifts. They are punishments- Leviticus, Georgie, Leviticus! Moreover, Horace and I, we are a constant reminder of the life you should have had.”
‘You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female, it is an abomination’- Georgie knew that verse by heart. Percy kept a Bible hidden in the otherwise empty set of draws next to his bed, permanently opened to one page with one powerful bleeding ink line circling the condemning passage. Ten and seven fading words swung over Percy’s head. Threatening. 18:12 Threatening. Georgie imagined Percy reading that verse at night, alone in his room, his finger pulling over each word, as if to obliterate them from existence. However, it was too late. The condemnation was branded to his soul, tainting the purity of the love he felt for Horace and condemning their relationship to lurk in the shadows of society. It was a small sacrifice on her part to be his wife by law, if not in body. At least she could shield him from certain death. The turn of the century had seen many men prosecuted for sodomy and too many executed. Every one of those men was probably as sweet and sensitive as her dear Percy. Georgina’s dreams were haunted by the prospect of a swaying body, turning slowly to reveal the pained and twisted face of her best friend, his hands pulling desperately at the rope at his neck and his colourful breeches soiled by terror. This was not a deserved or dignified farewell for any person whose only sin was to love another person.
“A lot of fuss and nonsense has polluted your head, my love. You know I do not believe that God will punish us in this life or when we beg entry at the Pearly Gates. He will see at once that our hearts are pure. No, my prayers are not for forgiveness but that God sees to protect you and the very special relationship you have with Horace. What kind of God would our Saviour be if he did not have room in his heart for love, of any kind? There is enough hate and unhappiness in this world without condemning the truly beautiful. Besides, it would not surprise me if parts of the bible were written by priggish old men with dusty grey wigs.”
Percy rose from the table to gaze into his beautiful wife’s eyes. “Be careful, Georgie, those wigs are some of the most powerful men in England.”
Georgie sniffed and raised her nose. She did not believe that the aristocracy had a right to be appointed to the upper court judiciary on the basis of their birth rite. It was also entirely possible that she had way too much time on her hands and should spend more time with dress makers and less time in the legal repository of her brother’s library.
“Alright, let us consider this from another angle, what about you, Georgie?”
“What about me? I told you only minutes before that I am perfectly happy with the decision I took near on eight years ago.”
Percy shook his head, his golden locks falling over his forehead and his blue eyes filled with tears. “Stop this, Georgie! I see what is happening to you and I cannot bear it anymore. You bury yourself in dusty books to avoid anything that reminds you of the life you should have had. Marrying you was selfish and…”
“Percy, there is no other way that you and Horace can be together without risking your necks. Did you know that only last month the Marquis of Custine was beaten and left for dead after propositioning a soldier at Saint-Denis? Besides, by the time you realised that danger was knocking at the door, it was too late to find another way.”
Percy placed his hands either side of Georgie’s face. “You were the most beautiful woman to grace the halls of Almacks for two years and you would be now if only you chose to return to the routs. Once, you had the power to enslave men and, if my memory serves me correctly, you caused quite a few to behave in the most outrageous way to gain your affection, but instead of flowers and poetry, kisses and romance- you were forced into a life of servitude.”
“You know I do not see our marriage like that!” Georgie snapped, trying to turn her face to hide the threatening tears.
“There is no other way to see it. By marrying me you rescued me from a life of cruel disdain and probably saved my life, but what did you get in return, Georgie?”
“I want for nothing more than what I have, Percy. Your friendship means the world to me. I was very young when those men were arrested from the White Swan for sodomy, but I remember your face when you recounted the story to Oliver. You were terrified. You were there that night, at the Swan, were you not?” Percy nodded. He had been in the White Swan, cosseted away in the farthest, darkest corner with Horace when the Bow Street Runners stormed the pub, wooden truncheons in hand. The deafening chaos had given Percy enough time to dive under the table and pull Horace alongside him. They had cowered on the dirt strewn floor like swine for most of the night, too afraid to raise their faces in fear of detection.
“You were listening that night I sought your brother’s help? You were very young. I am sorry you heard that story,” Georgie nodded and rested her head on her husband’s chest.
 “I was so scared that the Runners going to take you away that I would have married you right there and then if Oliver had asked me to.” A tear slipped down Georgie’s pink cheek and her lip trembled. “You are very good to me and you love me, I am most blessed, so please, can we not discuss this again.”
“I do not love you like a man should love a wife and we will never have children. These are not blessings, Georgie.”
“I know you have tried. It is not your fault that…”
“Stop defending me, it is my fault. I should have taken responsibility and publically owned what I am, instead of allowing you to bear the yoke. You have set me free and in return, I have sentenced you to a life devoid of the very blessings that are at a core of being a woman.”
“Percy, please, it is not as if you did not try and I do understand. I too would not want to lay with a person I am not attracted to.”
“Georgie!” exclaimed Percy in frustration. He sat back down and ran his long, elegant fingers through his tumble of blonde curls again. “You deserve to be loved, passionately. You need romance in your life. You should have children to cosset. I want you to have those experiences.”
“Oh, Percy, you are upsetting me by rehashing this so often. I chose you, we love each other and that is all there is to be said about this matter,” cried Georgina, seating herself in the window seat looking out over Eaton Square and dabbing at her eyes. She refused to dwell on what she could not have rather than celebrate the opulence of her life- Percy’s generosity knew no bounds, although she suspected her unrestricted spending allowance sprung from guilt rather than his sizable income; her eight homes were obscenely large and well decorated; her title brought her respect and her beauty envy. Moreover, she and Percy were the best of friends and she loved him dearly. No matter what he said, all of these things were blessings. Still, she knew he would not relent. Percy wanted more for her and she could see his dramatic flair would persist until such time as she found herself a playmate or worse, a lover. Right on que, Percy drove his point home, determined to force her into a life of promiscuity. Although, she doubted she could be labelled licentious when she had never been bedded before. Perhaps there was another word for taking a lover to your virginal bed?
“Georgina, are you even listening to me? I was trying to make the point that you did not have a choice when it came to marrying me. I was desperate for rescue and if I recall correctly, your brother was most insistent that it was your duty to protect me. You were but ten and seven years of age and hardly in a position to reject the force of your brother’s argument or to understand the consequences of marrying me. I tell you what we will do, I will stop scratching at this wound if you will just try. What do you say, my love? Will you try?”
“Firstly, I am no longer ten and seventeen. At twenty and five, I am well able to make independent decisions.  Secondly, It is not in my nature to proposition men,” she asserted, turning her devoted green eyes to consider her husband. The poor man was fairy-tale-prince beautiful and even though he was married, he drew the attention of both married and supposedly chaste woman. She could only imagine this sort of female attention to be a sore trial to a man who was almost wholly preoccupied by thoughts of one very special man.
“Presumably, by virtue of my choice, having an affair is well within my nature!” defended Percy, wounded by the implication of Georgina’s words.
“For goodness sake, Percy, falling in love with Horace was not a choice and had very little to do with your nature, unless you are referring to your turn for the dramatic. Horace is a miracle and I am thrilled to have both of you in my life.”
Percy tapped the prongs of the fork against the china plate and stared blindly across the large, polished mahogany table laden with the finest of everything. Even the pretty free flowing Rococo-style sauceboat no longer brought him joy. His possessions and wealth had become a splinter in his side, causing him pain at every turn- a man who has everything but cannot bring his wife the happiness she deserves, is not a man.
“Georgie, I cannot live like this anymore,” stated Percy, deflating before Georgie’s eyes. What kind of man would he be if he lived life to the full at his wife’s bequest whilst she languished before his very eyes?
“What do you mean?”
“We are living a lie,” Percy started, leaving his position at the head of the table to sit next to her at the window. He took Georgie’s hand in his and caressed the soft skin beneath her wrist. She was such a dear and he did not really know what he had done to deserve her company and friendship. He did know that the world deserved to experience the sweet and beautiful Georgina Harper-Crewe, Countess of Harrington and in turn she needed the world to rekindle the fire that had once caused her eyes to burn bright and her cheeks to glow. “Is it not obvious to you that I cannot be happy unless you are happy? I cannot even enjoy Horace’s company because I know you spend the nights alone in one of my echoing, pointless homes or in your brother’s sombre library as if it holds the judicial key to our freedom.”
“Percy…”
“No! It is about time you found your miracle.”

FULL CIRCLE - A DUKE LOST 
CHAPTER 1-3

July, 2015

 
Chapter One
 
“You are not seriously contemplating seeing this through, are you Bram?” asked Michael, staring incredulously at his friend. The two men had a robust friendship that had stood the test of time, trials and tribulations, but never, not in his wildest imaginings had Michael expected Julian to commit himself to an invalid. Not just an invalid, but a poor child as poor as a church mouse and as countrified as a pumpkin. Shaking his head in disbelief, Michael was unable to hit on an argument that would change the course of destiny Julian had set himself on.  He considered his friend– devilishly handsome, dangerously wealthy and a solid Peer of the Realm, Julian Charles Wilde seventh Duke of Bramford was not a man to be toyed with. He commanded both respect and envy and had a fair amount of mystery about him. Another peer in his shoes would have taken full advantage of the authority and wealth that came with the title, but not Julian. One could never accuse him of being haughty or negligent in his duties as the man was sublimely conscientious and unwaveringly in control. Whilst many fantasised about having a close friendship with the Duke, an honour which would set them up as bang up to the mark in the highest accolades of the upper crust, most knew that a bond with Julian was not something to be trifled with. Michael knew through experience what many only sensed: Julian could be dangerous. Calculated risks were the name of his game. More often than not, he faced danger head on and in doing so harnessed the element of surprise and stole the advantage. Still, the ton sensed not to mess with him, and as such, maintaining a polite, cordial distance was recommended by all who knew of him. One word from the Duke would ruin a person’s social standing and one condescending look from him was enough to wither that person’s confidence beyond regeneration. Michael was one of a few aristocrats who had the tenacity and intensity to handle such a relationship and so felt entitled to challenge the foundation on which Julian’s decision was resting.
 
Julian also had a wicked sense of humour and so always took things in his stride or on this particular occasion, with his large muscular frame sprawled across the chaise longue and his legs casually crossed at the ankles, seemingly not a care in the world.
 
Michael knew this to be far from the truth. Despite his relaxed, devil may care attitude, Julian would settle for nothing less than control. He had returned from the Napoleonic Wars to take on the duties of his heritage not only in relation to his vast estate and many tenants, but also his continued commitment to the Crown. He spent as much time in London in private chambers discussing the safety of the Realm as he did taming the wilds of Leicestershire and losing himself in the lush Vale of Belvoir or mulling over the estate accounts. The man carried the world on his broad shoulders and never bulked from responsibility and indeed, did not seem to fear it. For all of these reasons, Michael just could not fathom Julian’s seemingly casual stance in relation to this particular cause, because that is exactly what marriage to the chit would be. No matter how chaste and obedient she was espoused to be, marriage to her was a matter of charity, a cause of the highest and the most extreme nature. Damned if Michael was not certain marriage to her would be a sacrifice of note.
 
Julian allowed his head to loll to the side, a satisfied state of exhaustion seeping deeply into his aching muscles. He had toiled relentlessly alongside the estate labourers to mend the winter-beaten fences. The entire estate had suffered much weather damage during the cold winter season, which had seen the large snow drifts that Julian could recall, only to be followed by heavy, relentless flash floods through spring. Julian did not begrudge the hard labour that this onslaught had brought. He would not have it any other way. It left him feeling sated. What’s more the return of sun-dappled days left him feeling hopeful. If spring left him feeling this euphoric, he could not wait for the rare warm summer days Leicestershire offered. He held fond memories of frolicking about in his youth, chasing nothing more than elusive rainbows. His childhood had been idyllic and mischievous, filled with rampant games curbed only by the setting sun. And Michael James Sharpe, Earl of Milford had been keeping pace at his side for most of his childhood and all of his adulthood.
 
He considered his faithful friend now, a bundle of hyped up nerves all for his benefit. Julian could only stifle a lazy snigger at Michael’s expense who in turn responded to the superior taunt by jumping from his seat and gesticulating wildly. He was clearly preparing to launch himself at the irrational brute in order to beat some sense into him.
 
“Look, there is no need to sacrifice your good person in this way. There are a number of ways to make this go away. Before you go into a pride and duty homily, let me remind you that in this particular case, pride can be damned! For God’s sake Bram, you can do what hundreds have done before you and bury this with a nominal sum. The girl has been living on your charity for years now and what have you gotten in return? I’ll tell you what, more responsibility and certain travesty. You can command any match in the Kingdom and you settle for some half-baked, impoverished country bumpkin. Darn it, I know you, you have never taken an unmitigated risk in your life. What’s your game plan?”
 
Once again Julian had to stifle a laugh. Seeing Michael in such a temper was certainly a rare occurrence. His usual character could only be described as straight-laced. Michael was usually in such a constant state of being that it caused Julian to wonder what it must be like living day in and day out in such a humdrum way. Whilst Michael’s rigidity transferred to his work ethics and friendships making for an earnest and loyal companion, Julian still pitied the wench who eventually became the centre of Michael’s world. Undoubtedly that poor soul would become Michael’s obsession and root cause for living. Any person whom he allowed to get close to him knew what true loyalty and love really was. Despite his angelic face, Michael’s blood ran hot when it came to the people he valued and loved. Hence his prejudiced dislike of Julian’s fiancée had to this point in time, only warmed Julian’s heart rather than irk.
 
Julian knew that his friend’s passionate protestations stemmed from pure intentions, bred from the highest motivation to protect the man with whom he shared a familial-like attachment.  He couldn’t blame Michael for his outburst as they shared a bond sealed by years of mutual suffering and support. They had both repeatedly sold their souls to the devil in order to protect Crown and County through years of unrepentant warfare. The mere recollection of the horrific human suffering they had witnessed during those bloody times caused Julian to wince and his muscles to tense habitually in response to the state of battle preparedness that he and Michael had had to endure for a big chunk of their lives.
 
To the straight and narrow Michael, Julian’s intended actions in relation to this ‘chit’ must seem unfathomable and must be eating at his intrinsic protective core.  For these reasons, Julian could not blame Michael for feeling such abhorrence to Julian’s matrimonial plans.
 
“Sit down mad Mike, I have no intention of sacrificing my future happiness,” he offered loosely, with a discerning smile offered in reassurance.
 
“Are you mocking me?” pushed Michael, his shaking hands balled at his sides and his six foot frame towering over the still reclined Duke. Michael considered his friend for a moment, taking in his relaxed demeanour and assimilating the brief reassurance. Michael knew he was highly strung and so could see that Julian would have no difficulty in needling him whenever his evil humour got the better of him. It certainly would not be beneath the Duke to intentionally wind him up by pretending to persist with the foolhardy plan to marry below his station. With the realisation that Julian was messing with him, relief flooded his body.
 
“That’s just cruel Bram. You could have let me in on your ploy some time ago. So what’s your game?” he huffed, throwing himself into the leather bound chair, causing it to moan under the assault of his weight.
 
“No game. I have every intention of marrying the girl,” Julian drawled, playing absently with the frill of the plush cushion at his side. At the age of thirty and two years Julian had succeeded in all areas of his life, but one, he had no heir. He considered the rolling green and golden hills of the Vale and longed to work alongside a son, sharing his love for the land, his commitment to Heathcote Hall and his passion for the surrounding people. He sighed, a vision of his future burning with longing inside him.
 
Michael gaped at his friend, disbelief written on his features once again. The most eligible bachelor north of London was sacrificing himself for what precisely? He stood once more, now rigid before his friend.
 
“Right, unless you stop taunting me, I am walking out of that door and won’t return until you finish with this farce. I know for a fact that Tilley Whitehouse and Josephine Longley would fall at your feet should you deign to show interest. Both girls are of noble standing, they are sweet tempered and by the way, are this year’s unrivalled beauties. So come clean, man! I have taken years of your verbal teasing and this time you take things too far!”
 
Julian pushed himself up from a reposed state and rose to his full six foot two height, standing almost eye to eye with his lean and proud friend. He placed his large golden hands on Michael’s shoulders to offer further reassurance and then took him into a warm embrace.
 
“What did I do to deserve such loyalty and care?” he whispered a peace offering of no mean size. “I have every intention of honouring my promise because that is what a man of honour should do,” he explained before releasing his pained protector. “But rest assured my friend, I go forth not only for her honour, but out of duty, a duty to fulfil a dream. My dream. I am convinced she will make me happy.”
 
Michael looked Julian in the eye, man to man, and realised there was not a hint of humour behind those proud, deep blue eyes.
 
“Don’t do it man. Every eligible beauty between here and London is ready to be set before you to be savoured and selected, each and every one resplendent in this season’s finery and primed to please. The one you are hell bent on has baggage, a heaping pile of baggage the size of Matterhorn. Let it go, I beg you. A union under these circumstances can only be a mockery of the sanctity of marriage,” he sighed, worry pulling at his gut.
 
Michael knew, beyond a doubt, that the introduction of this particular bird into their circle would change his friend and their friendship. Any woman worth her salt would endeavour to do just that, set the world to rights by ensuring it ran to her particular rhythm and clock. Both he and Julian had to eventually face the music and bed down to their respective duties and embrace just such a woman to order their world. The very nature of their titles also demanded they select appropriate wives to share the responsibility of securing their bloodlines. And if they were lucky, that alliance would bring a degree of harmony and respect. Perhaps even love. He could release his friend into a journey if its end destination stood a chance of being that fruitful, but he felt deep in his bones that this girl would turn their world upside down.
 
A kind smile pulled at the corner of Julian’s mouth. He raised his hand to cup his friend’s cheek as a brother would do to bolster a brother. “My friend, you worry too much. Sometimes the path we are given is not the easiest or the most scenic, but that does not mean the hidden garden at its end will not bear the brightest flowers or the sweetest fruit.”
 
Michael leaned forward to place his head on Julian’s shoulder, breathing in the calm emanating from his being. He allowed the Duke’s warm peace to wash over him. The man was after all positively impossible.
 
Chapter Two
 
Michael arrived at Heathcote ten minutes prior to the allotted time to break the mornings fast with Julian before they set off for the Scottish Highlands. A damnable long hard ride, made harder still because of Michael’s reluctance to accompany Julian on what he still felt was an atrocity. Michael knew that the crux of his dislike for Julian’s fiancée lay in his own beliefs. He believed in the power of commitment and hard work- a combination of virtues that would endure the harshest of life’s storms and provide a shield of such magnitude that its very existence was a privilege for those under his protection. He hoped he would find a depth of affection or even love along the way, the added power of such an alliance being the definitive attainment. For Michael such an experience was the ultimate life goal. He had always set marriage on a sanctimonious pedestal. He was essentially an idealist and he wished desperately his beloved friend would open himself up to the possibility of such a marriage. He just could not see success tied to a marriage in which one was doomed to give, but receive little in return. Michael was convinced that Julian would continue much as he had done for the past ten years of paying for the girl’s care. Julian would continue to provide a roof over the girl’s head, bestow on her more than a comfortable lifestyle, she would want for nothing and gain a title second to only two. Simply put, in reducing the transaction to wanting only an heir in exchange, Michael saw only disappointment for his friend. He believed that in time Julian would need more from his wife. All men, especially those bestowed with the kind of responsibility which rested on Julian’s shoulders, needed more in time.
 
The golden morning rays cast a dazzling light into the breakfast room and beat warmly on Julian’s shoulders. The smoky aroma of bacon filled the room and mingled with a hint of rose essence, that drifted in from the garden displayed proudly just beyond the French doors. The garden had been one of Lady Bramford’s favourite pastimes in the months running up to her passing. The simple beauty and strength of the rosebush had been a kind of comfort to her weakening mind. The myriad colours and fragrances reminded Julian of the unrelenting love his mother had shared with the love of her life and the many joyous moments she had spent in that garden in the comfort of her husband’s arms. Julian’s heart beat only to create warm memories of his own. He wanted the privilege of being able to observe his own wife at peace with herself, surrounded by the brilliance of what she would create in that garden. If he could not find such a woman, he would be content with memories of his children playing happily amongst the trees of Heathcote.
 
“Remind me how long it has been since you last had the good fortune of meeting Miss Goodwin?” Michael asked, dabbing at the corners of his mouth. He was well aware that continued prodding could push Julian too far and that the subject of Miss Goodwin was fast becoming dangerous territory. Since his arrival, Michael’s solemn pondering had not been lost on Julian who eyed his vociferous friend with only a raised eyebrow as a warning. Julian’s otherwise calm exterior jabbed at Michael’s already wounded interior. He was a true friend and wanted only that Julian make the journey with some reserve.
 
Julian continued to eye Michael with skepticism. He knew a truthful answer to Michael’s question would serve only to increase his apprehension, but he saw no way to avoid the gauntlet. Tiring of his friend’s seemingly relentless pursuit to guard him, Julian decided on the approach that had been tried, tested and won many a battle for him before. He would exert his authority.
 
“I was ten and six years of age at the time which squares the circle at ten and six years since the last visit with my betrothed, the future Duchess of Bramford.” Julian intentionally used the word ‘betrothed’ to send a not so subtle reminder of the certainty with which he was travelling this path and emphasised the authority his soon-to-be wife would hold. He trusted the significance of either message would not be lost on Michael. He was after all a bright man.
 
Michael’s laden fork stopped half way to its natural destination. His appetite took a sharp dive. He swallowed heavily, placed his utensil on the plate with some finality and suspiciously asked the ultimate question. “Which would have made Miss Goodwin how old at the time?”
 
“Two,” Julian delivered a short, terse reply, issuing a warning note to his friend to leave well enough alone. Julian could tell by the twitching nerve in Michael’s brow that he was perilously close to losing control again.
 
“Hell and damnation!” was the protest that burst forth from Michael, causing the servants to scurry hurriedly out of the room. Although their experience of Michael’s outbursts was few and far between, those they had witnessed had left them in no doubt of the ramifications for themselves if they braved out the storm.
 
“And you are telling me that a sensible girl, one of honour, would hold you to such a promise? Despite her limitations, I am certain she could release you from this… this injustice.”
 
Michael stood, pushing his chair back with such force that it fell over.
 
“Of course, many men far worthier than you or I have married a woman promised from the cradle, but not a woman so obviously flawed. Think of your life with this woman. What companionship could she possibly offer? When you need solace, how can she possibly respond? This, this…”
 
Julian’s mood changed swiftly and dramatically with Michael’s tirade of insensitivity. He had hoped his friend would curb his malicious tongue, a side effect of Michael’s passionate persona that Julian had hoped he would rarely see. He had clearly been too optimistic and should have known that because of the strength of their bond Michael would be at his most vulnerable and most vicious. Julian rose from the table, holding firmly onto the reins of anger snorting and beating to be let loose. Even though they were almost the same height, Julian had the advantage of broad shoulders and a muscular frame. At full height he dominated a room in such a manner that weaker men had been known to cower from him. He knew he had no such advantage over the impassioned Michael and so tried reason and reassurance once again.
 
“My friend, my brother, I accept that your motives are pure. I do not doubt that your passion stems from the love we share, but you cannot justify your prejudices against my future wife. You have never met her. True, I knew her only briefly when she was but a babe and again, only briefly before the unfortunate accident, but I can assure you she was not born with this affliction. She was once lively and curious and born of strong, good people. She did not deserve that which could have destroyed her life and it is a testament to her inner strength that she has adjusted and survived in a society that abhors those who are different. I shall not abandon her at this final hour. Her aunt is her guardian and has dutifully kept me informed of her niece’s progress. By all accounts, Miss Goodwin sounds positively sweet and undemanding, quaint and compassionate and above all dutiful to her aunt. She has shown kindness and unwavering patience even in her aunt’s dotage, which must be a sore trial to someone so young. All that was and is good in her shall pass to our children and that is all I ask her to commit to. She shall enjoy every privilege and freedom a life under my protection has to offer. Of you, I ask only that you accept her as my wife and perhaps in time offer the loyalty and friendship we share.”
 
Michael knew he had pushed too hard and had crossed the line when showing his displeasure before the house staff and then slating their future mistress so openly. He cringed inwardly at his lack of finesse and apologised for his behaviour, but not for having the balls for tackling what surely was to be the mother of all mistakes. Reclaiming his seated position at the table, a sign of subservience, he apologised again for his lack of manners. Julian accepted the apology with the easy grace he was renowned for and left the room to prepare for his journey. In all fairness, if he were in Michael’s shoes, he would have the same apprehensions for his friend. After all, Miss Goodwin was an unknown quantity and was likely to offer little in the way of intellectual companionship or friendship. In relation to her temperament, Julian only had the fond reference of her dithery aunt to rely on.  As for her beauty, he had even less information and having clapped eyes on her only twice as a young child, had the vaguest of memories of her person. Whilst he had no recollection of her having any objectionable physical features, there had also been nothing remarkable about her person to cause him to pay her particular attention. He does not believe she was considered ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’ or even ‘entertaining’ as a toddler and he could not recall that she had any notable attainments as a schoolroom miss.
 
Julian stood in the gallery examining the life size portrait of his parents. They displayed a confidence and certainty that in all honesty Julian did not entirely feel. Surely there was a crack in their marriage, times when their relationship had been rocky? For the life of him, he could only recall the intensity of their love for each other and of course, the companionship they offered one another. It was the latter that flawed Julian’s poise. Despite his honourable intentions, he had once dreamed of a marriage that offered so much more than his betrothed would be able to give. He had accepted his fate and truth be told at the time of the promise to Miss Goodwin’s family, when he was leaving his childhood behind and Miss Goodwin was only entering into it, it had not occurred to him to rebel against his parents’ wishes. He had seen no reason to. Her parents were good, honest people who were loved by many, including his own parents. Miss Goodwin speedily gained a reputation for her kind nature and sensible presence, both fine qualities for a future duchess. In his mother’s final moments it had been a comfort for her to know her son would be in the hands of a capable, strong minded and loving woman, but this was before the tragic accident which left Miss Goodwin damaged. In truth the warring years had been hard on Julian and he had not been in the right place in his life to challenge his destiny. Not that he would have taken steps to end the engagement if the political demands on him had been different. It was his ethical code that placed him firmly at the service of those more vulnerable than he, and it was not in his make-up to abandon the downtrodden. He could not abandon Miss Goodwin when she would be at her most vulnerable. If she did not have his name when presented to society, the ton’s opinion of her would be cutting and final. Anna Goodwin was his responsibility and in the absence of a strong pull towards another, he saw no reason why he should not embrace it.


Chapter Three
 
Untamed Scotland had been her home for a decade. Anna had survived ten years, one month and thirteen days as an orphan whilst she had only had the blessing of a family for eight years of her life prior to the accident. Despite the passing of time, she could not make sense of her parents’ death and the pain bit more deeply because of the enduring silence of her prison. Not that her life since her parents’ passing had been a physical hardship. Anna’s childhood engagement to one of the wealthiest Peers of the Realm had left her sitting pretty. At least this is how it must have seemed to any person observing her situation from the outside. But on the inside she felt abandoned. There was not one day of the three thousand six hundred and thirty nine days of her life since that tragic accident that she did not feel alone and lonely. Whilst her aunt had unfailingly ensured that their ‘lifeline’ was kept updated on his ward’s welfare, Anna had not laid eyes on him since she was a foot off the ground and that magnanimous occasion was not of her recollection, but her aunt’s. As all but the last communication from the Duke had also been between her aunt and the man in question, Anna figured she knew sweet Fanny Adams about her future husband. Well, she knew he was a Duke and that he was apparently as rich as Croesus.
 
The warm summer breeze tugged at her deep red hair, the wild claret coloured tendrils dancing on the feisty current. Her blazing curls escaped their bondage, sweeping forward to an unheard rhythm. A bee danced only a small distance beyond the carefree curls, quivering as if caught in a moment of silent rapture.  Anna felt a part of nature, like most people felt connected to family. She believed nature accepted her in a way people could not. She felt as if nature understood her, and she it. She could use her eyes, her sense of smell and her own rhythm like the thrumming of her heart, to understand this world. She could not hear, but he could feel, oh could she feel. Nature was a harmony that Anna felt attuned to, music akin to her soul and a simple joy she had no way of sharing with the world.
 
What had seemed like a punishment to her when she was young, she had embraced in adulthood. Surrounded by God’s smallest creatures she did not feel judged, like an unmitigated nuisance or unwanted. Sadly, those were human behaviours.
 
As if acknowledging the very essence of her being, the sun broke through from behind a solitary cloud to caress her skin and entice her. Anna sighed contentedly. She was in her personal heaven, but had to return to her commitments. She rose to greet what heralded a life-changing day for her. Only two weeks ago she had received the long awaited letter setting out that her fiancé would be travelling to make formal introductions and make preparations for her return to his, and once her own, home county. Anna’s heart twisted at the very words, ‘her home county’. Anna did not feel as if she had a home, despite her aunt’s efforts. She knew this disconnect was caused by her parents’ death and not the loss of her hearing. Home is where the heart is and whilst she cared deeply for her aunt, they had never truly been friends or family in the true sense of the word. Anna had been too young and her aunt too old to truly bond. Anna carried her burdens inside and her aunt did not attempt to understand her niece. Perhaps because of the natural barrier between the hearing and silent world which each inhabited, her aunt did not realise there was so much more to Anna than an obedient, tending child. It was likely that the Duke would make the same assumptions and in reality he probably already had. To him, she had only one purpose. He had reduced her to a species of bovine, setting out that his only expectation of her was to breed. Anna the cow! The very thought made her giggle nervously. Oh, well, there were worse lots in life than to be married to a handsome Lord of untold fortune.
It did not surprise Anna that she knew so little of the Duke, and he of her. The man had been supporting her more than comfortable lifestyle for most of her life and up until this point in time had demanded not an iota of her. For years she had waited, doubting that he would see his commitment through. Why would a powerful, wealthy and by all accounts a handsome man feel he should marry a penniless, broken nobody? It had always been her understanding, as told by her aunt, that neither her own nor his parents were so archaic in belief as to force marriage on either her or the future Duke. As such, it had been their parents’ decision that there would be a promise from the late Duke to the engagement rather than a firm commitment. They also agreed that the final decision to progress would rest with the Duke’s son when Anna turned eighteen years of age. As far as Anna could tell he chose to honour the promise despite her infirmity and even after her own and his parents had passed. His decision left her completely baffled. Anna hoped this spoke reams about the depth of his character and hoped he was a truly good person rather than a mindless stallion following his animal instinct to reproduce. 
 
She hurried over the rocky ground guarded dutifully by Ben Nevis. She had sat in silent rapture for far too long, leaving far too little time to return to her aunt’s home and change her toilet before the grand unveiling, so to speak. The very thought sent shivers of anticipation through her body. Although not a tall woman, because of the many long walks over the rough terrain of loose scree and rocks, her five foot three frame was sturdy and strong. She used her athletic ability to scramble quickly over the rocks and hoped her familiarity with the area would help her make up time. The land surrounding the mountain was sparsely populated which meant Anna did not have to worry about being discovered unescorted in the hinterland. If she had to try ‘explaining’ that she did not need help or an escort, she would lose valuable time.
Rounding the north face of Ben Nevis took her breath away. The sheltered playful breeze of the south face was immediately replaced by a chilled gusty bully that tested her stamina and pulled at her body and tangled her hair. It took her longer than she expected to return to her steady steed, who grazed freely in the field at the base of the mountain, and then longer still to get herself to the modest estate of her aunt who had lived in Scotland all of her married life. She felt the burn of the exertion stretch across the apples of her cheeks as she entered the cobbled courtyard of her aunt’s home.
 
After seeing Katie handed safely into the capable hands of the groom, she hustled over the uneven cobblestones, trying valiantly to tame her windswept hair into a satin ribbon. It was the least she could do given she did not have enough time to change and would have to meet the Duke in her riding habit. If Anna had had her head raised in the direction of travel she would have noted the mountain of a man standing directly in front of her and could have acted swiftly to avoid the collision. She had not and so she did not. Anna collided fully with the wall of muscle before her, causing her to lose her footing and fall in the most unladylike fashion on her bottom. A whoosh of breath escaped her lungs, serving as the only indication of possible injury.
 
Julian felt the moment of impact before it even happened, with a rush of adrenaline from his heart to his hands, but he did not have the time to turn before he felt the pressure of a person colliding with his frame. Whilst the impact was certainly jarring for Anna, it hardly registered on Julian’s robust figure. On turning to consider the interruption, he looked down onto what can only be described as a mass of Medusa-like flaming red hair in a heap at his feet. He had never seen anything so alive and untamed. If he were less of a balanced man, he would have sworn the curling tendrils were writhing. It was the most glorious and natural sight he had ever beheld, the very sight of which made him want to reach down and explore the mass of locks. The phenomenon was causing tension to pass through his body, a kind of heat he had not experienced in a very long time.
 
He gave himself a mental shake and realigned his senses to re-evaluate the situation. Sitting before him was not the mystical evil monster Gorgon, but a young girl dressed in richly woven plaid cloth. The earthy colour of the time-honoured arisaidh was cut with a deep blue stripe which set a perfect contrast for that glorious hair. Her habit was quite traditional and well cut and led him to think she was probably a wealthy local given the quality of her clothing. Whilst he had not yet seen her face and though her frame seemed curvaceous, he thought her no more than sixteen years of age.
 
Anna’s rear end pulsed with the pain of the fall. Had she been a less proud person she would have let a tear loose, but even her pride could not bear the bruising burn that stretched from her fleshy cheeks of her bottom to the tops of her thighs. Despite being brutally aware of the presence before her, she needed some relief and could not help but roll to her left to alleviate the bruising pressure and rub the aggrieved skin of her bottom with her brown kid gloved hand.
 
In all his life Julian had never seen such unabashed public self-soothing from one who appeared to be a genteel lady and while he remained inclined to rush to the aid of the needy, he had to laugh at the contradiction of terms sat in a bundle before him. He lowered himself to a crouch before her, still laughing, a deep baritone sound emanating from his chest area.
 
It had been Anna’s intention to find her feet as soon as her injured rear and pride allowed her to do so, but before she could, she felt as only she could, the deep resonance of a truly male voice thrum through her. His voice had a depth of which she had never experienced before. Her skin came to life, causing her already warm cheeks to flame and every follicle to reach for the source of the deep vibrations. The hand which soothed her injured parts, stilled. She turned her head to the source of the vibration and was captivated, not by the truly brilliant blue and laughing eyes before her, but by the movement of the man’s Adam’s apple as he laughed. She had heard the sound of a man’s laughter years before, in her true home, when her life had been simple and nurturing. Her parents had been happy people and laughter had been commonplace in her life. She recalled asking her mother about the funny protrusion that extended from her father’s neck. Anna had been truly concerned by her mother’s fabled account of Adam, as in Adam of Adam and Eve, eating of forbidden fruit. Her mother told that the piece of forbidden fruit lodged in his throat to create a permanent reminder for future generation of broken trust. Never since her parents’ death and since the loss of her hearing, had Anna felt the deep baritone resonance of a man’s laughter and never, ever before had any person or thing caused a riot of sensation to wash over her. She turned her head, just ever so slightly to the left, to get a better view of the source of her pleasure, a harmony that called to her skin and pulled at her heart.
 
The moment she turned her attention from what must be a smarting injury, up towards his face, Julian was struck by the girl’s beauty. Her skin was a milky white with almost no trace of colour which in turn caused her emerald green eyes to stand out like low burning embers. Her pouted lips, the colour of cherries, called to him like no other had ever done before. Julian was so taken by her that it took him a while to realise that she had not cast her gaze to his face, but seemed fully absorbed by his chest area. His humour was first replaced by unguarded admiration and then puzzlement, but Anna did not notice the myriad of emotions sweeping across his features. She was wholly enthralled by the source of the deep vibrations. She kept her eyes fixed below his jaw line.
 
Julian’s mind was already in turmoil, the irony of the situation not lost on him. After years of searching and never truly being satisfied with the bounty of girls laid at his feet, Julian had accepted that he might never find his true companion and that at the very least a kind person would be a good mother to his children. As such he had accepted the long-standing engagement. And now after having made this commitment, he unexpectedly ran into a young beauty who immediately appealed to his blood and maybe even soul? Julian knew there was something beautiful and solemn about the moment they were sharing. He swallowed hard, resisting the temptation to reach out to lift her off the hard cobblestones and take her into his arms. The heaviness in his stomach was not the same weight, which usually accompanied the throb of attraction that arose in his loins. This heaviness was one of impending doom, a fear that he had indeed acted too hastily in deciding to marry Miss Goodwin.
 
Anna moved unexpectedly, startling Julian. He remained fixed to the spot, determined not to move in fear of ending what seemed to be a magical moment. As if time had slowed, he watched as the girl moved her hand from its bracing position to remove one of her gloves.  She brought long pale fingers up to his throat to caress the taut, rough skin covering his Adam’s apple. Her touch was gentle, but explorative and it sent shivers of anticipation into Julian’s stomach and pulled dangerously at his groin. It was the most erotic experience of Julian’s life. He knew he should remove his person to protect her reputation. Their intimacy would otherwise draw unwelcome attention, but for the life of him he could not move. He wanted more of her touch.  He closed his eyes to savour the moment. His dark lashes resting like crescents on his cheeks and he involuntarily let out a deep moan. In response he felt Anna’s hand quiver and heard a sharp intake of breath.
 
It dawned on Anna that she was touching a complete stranger, one dressed in a fine driving coat, who must clearly think her mad or brazen. She pulled her hand away and turned her shocked gaze up to his face.
 
Julian kept his eyes turned low, fixed on her beauty. The fluttering of her dark eyelashes and the pink hue of her cheeks warned him that she had broken out of her apparent reverie and was well aware of the social impropriety of their closeness. The moment she lifted her round shocked eyes to meet his, he smiled kindly and greeted her with a simple Hallo.
 
Once again the deep baritone of his voice thrummed through Anna’s body. She wanted nothing more than to place her fingers on his bottom lip to feel the music of his soul, but she held back the impulse and in doing so held together the few remaining fragments of her dignity.
 
The girl’s look of shock turned to dismay and she seemed ready to bolt. She suddenly pulled her bare hand from his neck and held it balled against her chest. She had not responded to his greeting and a hint of a frown played between her delicate dark red, almost black, eyebrows. Julian held out his hand, a gesture universally known as an offering of assistance, but it caused her to look even more stricken. The expression accentuated the definition of her bone structure, the pure lines of her cheeks and jaw line. She had the bearing of a woman, not a child. Her breathing was somewhat laboured and with the swell of her chest he could see the rise and fall of her full, round breasts. This girl before him was closer to ten and eight than ten and six years of age.
 
As if frozen in time, neither moved, but a slow realisation pulled from the recesses of Julian’s mind causing his heart to lurch with an even greater need. This girl, this woman, had the same fiery hair and otherworldly skin of the near babe he had been introduced to a veritable lifetime ago. The penny dropped and Julian felt immensely relieved and excited at the prospect before him. The fiery beauty was indeed his very own Anna and she had been captivated not by the sound, but the feel of his voice. He was certain of that. The desolate creature before him was his very own, to love and protect. And at that moment in time he wanted nothing more in the world than to soothe away her frown and take her into his arms. Julian was certain he could fall in love with this otherworldly creature.
 
Anna remained frozen in his gaze. She too had realised the enormity of the moment and felt utterly humiliated that this had been her introduction to her future husband. She closed her eyes, wishing that the scene only just played out were instead a ghastly nightmare brought on by the natural anxiety of meeting ones future husband for the first time. But no, she had not fallen asleep on the warm rock face of Ben Nevis and she could not go back in time. She dared to open her eyes to find Lord Bramford still crouched before her, his gloved hand still patiently extended. Inwardly she groaned. He must think her a complete idiot as did more than half of the nearby village who tried to communicate by shouting at the poor dim-witted girl.
 
Julian had never felt so helpless. He had no idea how to communicate with Anna. Their frozen stance was becoming downright uncomfortable and whilst his patience was not likely to run low, he was not enjoying the uncertainty unfurling and winding its way through his thoughts. If she could not comprehend the simple gesture of an outstretched hand, how on earth was she going to manage the responsibility that came with ruling over a duchy and the demands he was going to place on her as his wife?
 
Julian sighed and to his amazement, Anna’s response was immediate. She gave a little start and he realised she had heard him, or felt him. He understood from his communications with her aunt that she had full hearing loss and had not spoken since the night of the fire. So it was probable that she relied on her other senses, like touch and feeling. Quick to put this together, his resolve returned. He removed the glove and moved his hand further forward, offering more than a crumb, an intimate gesture. She glared at his naked hand and returned her shocked gaze to his face.
 
“You must be Anna?” he inquired calmly.
 
Anna saw kindness in his deep blue eyes. He was neither laughing nor disgusted with her. She desperately needed him to see that she was not an imbecile and did not want to lose this chance. She slipped her bare hand into his much larger warm hand and allowed him to raise her to a standing position. The warmth of his touch sent spasms of longing through her body and a desperate need to know him, really know this man who had never baulked from his duty to her. She had been isolated and lonely for so long that this simple gesture and his steady kindness could easily overwhelm her. Anna stood with as much grace as she could muster. The top of her head barely reached his shoulders. Scottish men were large, burly fellows, but she had never stood alongside a man of such immense stature. His very presence made her feel small and needy. She prayed she was not sending out signs of desperation.
 
Julian did feel her need, like waves of energy reach out to him. He had never felt the burden of responsibility more heavily and he couldn’t wait to embrace it, if she would allow him into her world.
 


HEDGEROWS & THE IMPERIOUS DUKE

Feb, 2016

 
Chapter One ~ The Duke of Stanthorpe and the Earl of Malverne
 
Shael Nathan Averay, 11th Duke of Stanthorpe sat rigidly in his neighbour’s study, his sole objective to set a date for formal introductions between his brothers and the offensive man’s daughters, and return to the comfortable and predictable routine of his own life as quickly as possible. Shael did not enjoy the company of others, never did and never would, and wished only to be rid of the ignoramus sitting wedged in his desk chair like a distended toad. The Earl of Malverne may have been a catch in his day, but it certainly appeared that the bloated nobleman had let himself run to seed Shael was not a snob and tried not to judge others given the intensity with which he had been criticised through his life, but Malverne had made no attempt to put his best foot forward for this meeting. The Earl couldn’t be more than fifty five years of age and yet he looked as if he had one foot in the grave. His dishevelled appearance spoke of low self worth. Whilst the outcome of the meeting was undoubtedly a fait accompli in that Malverne would unload one or two of his daughters for the tidy sum already paid to him over the years, Shael thought the man would at least have had the sense to stay on the right side of his children’s benefactor. Not that he, the 11th Duke of Stanthorpe, had a particularly good side. Shael had a vague childhood recollection of the notorious rake that was rumoured to be Malverne some twenty years ago. He was infamous for his adventures, hot footing it across the English countryside to cause devastation in one town or the next, leaving behind a bevy of broken hearts and distraught mamas and raging fathers. That was until he met the beautiful Miss Marcia de Lacey in her brilliant finery and aplomb. And this twisted piece of fate was of course Malverne’s downfall, or so Shael had heard his own father tell. Soon after meeting Miss de Lacey she was made the 10th Lady of Malverne, to be fawned over, coddled and her every desire seen to. And with her lavish lifestyle Malverne’s ruin dawned like a lazy sun on a summer’s morning. His fate was undeniable and inevitable. So, it came to be that he was left with insurmountable debt and five mouths to feed whilst Lady Luck traversed Europe under the protection of the wealthiest European noblemen. The union had always been a travesty in the making as from the beginning Malverne had not been in the financial position to maintain his beautiful but shallow butterfly’s extravagant lifestyle, and apparently after the birth of their fifth daughter, she just upped and took flight with six grey geldings, the family jewellery and the clothing Malverne had gifted her over the years. Every material possession of worth that could be carried was carried out of the marital home and transported on that profoundly sad, soggy English day whilst her four older children watched their father beg for her mercy and continued patience.  Whilst Shael understood how the pathetic lump of a man before him had come to be, Shael felt only disgust for the downtrodden sod who had allowed his person to be disrespected and degraded by a woman. To a man of Shael’s rank and upbringing, such an outcome was just not fathomable.
 
Lord Malverne shifted in his seat under the Duke’s scathing scrutiny. His chair began to groan under his considerable weight and his vest stretched skew over his bulging stomach so that the flesh of his gut oozed out of the gaps between the straining buttons. If it had not been for the Malverne girls’ faultless reputation, Shael would never have bothered with the loathsome man. That and of course the fact that the former and current Stanthorpe had invested thousands in the girls to ensure they were educated to the highest standard in all disciplines expected of a gentle-born young lady and more.

Shael’s mother had been a thoroughly accomplished woman who had rallied to his father’s side to make the Stanthorpe estate into more than just a heritage - a veritable empire. The 10th Duke had stumbled across his wife, Helene Hirschfield a Hebrew heiress, working humbly amongst her father’s Petticoat Lane cloth factory workers as if labour normally reserved for men was second nature to her. Despite the deafening mishmash of French, German, Polish and Hebrew banter, Helene’s confident and authoritative Yiddish accent rose clear across the babble of the factory workers to enslave 10th Duke of Stanthorpe’s senses and posses his heart. His love for her was instantaneous and his respect for her abilities to command a workforce, unparalleled. She was intelligent, confident, hard working and strikingly beautiful. Her destiny was always of her own making and she cared not a groat for the sneers of the upper class as she, a working class nobody, joined the highest ranks of society.  Shael’s devotion to her was based on the very fibre of her integrity and because her love was unconditional and unwavering. She had never given up on Shael even when he was at his most difficult and wearing. Any mother of noble birth and made of less stern material would have rejected him from the outset. Not Helene Hirschfield Averay. She doted on her eldest son despite the crippling magnitude of his flaws. It was to her character that the 10th Duke had compared all female counterparts and failed to find a suitable match for his son. It was after many years of failed searching that the 10th Duke concocted the plan to mould the future Duchess of Stanthorpe in his late wife’s image. Tutelage in music, art, deportment and obedience had been stipulated as essential in the binding agreement between Stanthorpe and Malverne. Shael’s father had insisted that Malverne’s girls have a sound understanding of these subjects and an average understanding of politics, economics and mathematics- enough to ensure unparalleled ability to support their husbands in the stately Stanthorpe business. These women would not exist unless fashioned from a strict regime and understanding of their destiny. Malverne’s stricken circumstance left him no room to negotiate on his daughters’ behalf. He accepted the terms and with that their lives became rich with substance but regimented by education.
 
After said 10th Duke’s demise, his successor continued the quest for the women who would have the necessary qualities to stand by the Averay men in their continued dominance and success. Shael had reason to believe that Malverne executed to the letter the conditions the 10th Duke had insisted on in exchange for an annual income of two thousand pounds. Following his father’s death, Shael kept a close eye on the investment and kept the still declining Malverne to his promise. Two generations of Stanthorpe dukes had invested in the ideology of growing their future brides. As these rare female beings were not only born of noble stock, but strictly taught to act like thoroughbreds, Shael believed one of Malverne’s girls had to be worthy of the privilege of marriage into the Stanthorpe dynasty. Malverne’s offspring would secure the thriving prospect of Stanthorpe with as little a fuss as possible. Shael hated fuss.
 
Malverne cleared his throat. The sagging skin below his chin wobbled with the effort before he continued in a defeated tone. “I have done everything your esteemed father set out in the agreement, down to every detail and the net effect is that my daughters are not the run of the mill ladies of society. Although it saddens me to see them so very different to other young ladies in their position, I know you will be satisfied with the result of their tuition. They are quite intelligent, but not bookish, and decidedly disinterested in the baubles which interest others of their age. All four of my children are graceful and beautiful. Whilst their destiny is not what I would have chosen for them, they do accept there is a debt to pay and an obligation to you and your brothers. They will not act wilfully.”
 
It was clear that Malverne had missed the point of the gruelling education the girls had endured. The very crux of the plan was to produce woman equivalent to Shael’s mother’s character. Women with the confidence to stand their own ground to deliver excellence and do it independently and wilfully if required. He had no intention of saddling the family with needy, bothersome brats of an aristocrat who have nothing more going for them than a pair of sparkling eyes, a glossy mane and superficial intelligence. The 11th Duke of Stanthorpe had made his position crystal clear following his father’s death. He would not have shallow hearted temptresses to distract his brothers. Still, his brothers would marry the most suitable two of the Malverne girls to secure the bloodline with as little botheration as possible. Shael however, would never marry. He disliked company of any sort, including that of his brothers, although this did not stop him from exerting a will of iron over the heir presumptive and their younger brother, not that his irrefutable authority seemed to affect the sibling bond. The two younger Averays were fiercely protective of their powerful brother despite of or perhaps because of his unsociable demeanour. Shael’s temper made it generally difficult for people outside the family to get to know him well enough to understand him and appreciate his brilliance. Shael had no intention of explaining his motivation for not marrying or his current intent to the shell of a man before him. He had also caught Malverne’s reference to four girls rather than the quintet Shael knew he sponsored. Never one to be diddled he decided to allow the oversight to pass for now, only to be stored for future challenge should the fifth investment not be produced on the assigned date and the presented four be found wanting.
 
Ever to the point and bored with the Earl’s blathering, Shael interjected, “So it is agreed. Tuesday week we shall gather here to take this forward and hopefully with some finality. Be assured my brothers are more amiable than I. They are certain to put your daughters at ease and make the selection as painless as possible. At the very minimum I can assure you the chosen two will never suffer harm under an Averay’s protection and they will not want for anything. My continued sponsorship of the remainder of your offspring is assured until such time as they marry.” And with that, he stood, his six foot four frame looming over the hefty Earl. Shael bowed his dark head and took his leave.

 
Chapter Two ~ Malverne’s Girls

Melissa Kinsey
Janice Kinsey
Mallory Kinsey
Catherine Kinsey
 
The daughters of the Earl of Malverne stood in their father’s dull study groomed, primed and ready for the arrival of their rich as sin, handsome and as such dauntingly impressive prospective husbands.  Melissa and Janice as the oldest of the four girls accepted that it was their fate to marry first, although it was possible that the Averay brothers may prefer the younger girls. Arranged marriages were not uncommon and the agreement between the two families had certainly enabled the girls to be raised in a style second to none. Every sort of privilege had been afforded them and their futures seemed generally rosy. Whilst in most ways the younger Averay brothers seemed quite humble and unassuming, they certainly sported the best horseflesh and most stylish carriages. It was taken for granted that their wives would want for nothing. Of course, most girls dreamed of the privilege of wealth and a love match, but the Kinsey girls felt nothing less than gratitude to the sullen Duke who had continued to sponsor them after his father’s death.
 
All four girls had chosen their dresses carefully, avoiding bold colours and fussy finishing that may offend the Averay men - all three of whom were known for their stylish but simple taste in attire. The brothers rarely donned colours other than dark blues, olive green or black and never wore flashy adornments so popular amongst those claiming to be at the height of fashion. In fact, the Averay men were very different to any other men the girls had met before. Melissa being the oldest had spent four seasons in London, Janice three and so forth. The present Stanthorpe had insisted that they enjoy seasons in London so that the experience form part of their social education and to ensure none felt resentment when assuming their responsibilities to the dukedom. Despite his surly demeanour, they thought he was either wholly sensitive to their needs or a sensible person. And what an education it had been. The girls learned to hone their skills amongst the polished London societal beaus and cattish female ton, but more importantly came to understand that the quiet, serious Averays were quite exceptional in their understated elegance and unquestioned authority. There was just no comparison between these three men and the lofty, over fluffed beaus of London society. It also opened the girls’ eyes as to the very sacrifice they were making in marrying into the Averay line. Once married to these men, there would be little pomp and ceremony. These men worked tirelessly to ensure the continued success of the Stanthorpe Empire. All three were respected for their business acumen and because of their immense wealth and stern, single minded determination they were both revered and feared. Together they had the power to bring many families to ruin if the Averay good will or custom were to be withheld. Their predilection for seclusion was more apparent in the elder Averay but clearly a preference for all three men who rarely left the sanctuary of their country estate and only ventured further a field when absolutely necessary for business reasons. The girls’ broader education meant they understood full well that they were not marrying men, but demigods and when married into this family, their lives would not be their own but a sacrifice for the greater good of Stanthorpe.
 
Following their father’s stern reminder of what the family stood to lose should the Averays be prematurely disappointed in their investment, the girls obediently gathered in the study some fifteen minutes prior to the designated meeting hour as not to demonstrate tardy behaviour and offend. The sound of hooves crunching of the drive heralded the arrival of the prized three and allowed the girls only seconds to adjust each other’s sombre and pristine apparel. Only young Catherine demonstrated a show of trifling defiance with her décolletage running dangerously low and exposing the subtle but still tantalising rise of her youthful milky white breasts. Melissa had scolded her terribly for her choice of attire but the set down had only caused Catherine to raise her chin in rebellion and tug at her neckline as to cause her breasts to be further exposed. The girls had no reason to believe either of the younger men would be disappointed with their appearance. As such Catherine’s agitation was not stemming from a lack of faith in her physical appearance. No, her insecurity stemmed from the fear that they collectively would fail to demonstrate the desired intellectual prowess or the grace required of the future duchess and as such be inadequate partners for these near perfect creations of God. It was not that the girls had never laid eyes on these men before. After all, James and Charles had on occasion deigned society with their presence by attending small social gatherings and as devout Christians they attended church regularly. But always their company was presided over by the dark, solemn presence of the Duke of Stanthorpe. The very thought of their stern benefactor sent shivers down Catherine’s spine. She had secretly hoped he would succumb to an illness which would see him prostrate in bed and unable to attend this gathering. The girls’ greatest fear stemmed from the possibility or rather the probability that the Duke would find them wanting and deny his brothers the chance to become familiar with the girls’ many talents. Each girl was regal and strikingly beautiful in her own right, but it was only human for self-doubt to corrode at their confidence. After all, their mother had been a renowned beauty who had reeked shame on the household and blackened their future prospects. Any respectable man considered not only what they could bring to an alliance, but to their family’s history. Catherine wanted the Averays to know she was not going to bear the humiliation of her mother’s actions by wholly denying what made her most female.
 
James and Charles Averay were the first to enter the study. They were a handsome pair with equally broad shoulders pushing against the fine cut of their midnight blue coats. They were endowed with well-formed muscular legs set to best advantage in fawn coloured trousers. Both had wavy shoulder length ash blonde hair tucked neatly behind their ears, which in turn accentuated the strength of their jaw line and aristocratic noses. Neither seemed overtly stern and on introduction to the Kinsey girls seemed gracious and warm. They offered genuine smiles which seemed to stem from being gentle in nature. And both had the most incredible liquid sky blue eyes. All four ladies visibly relaxed following introduction and Catherine, only ten and eight years of age and still easily overwhelmed, discreetly exhaled a shaky breath.
 
Shael stepped quietly into the room a few minutes after his unruffled brothers and paused at the threshold to consider the scene before him. James and Charles stood to his left, the four girls in a receiving line to his right. The Averay girls were as beautiful as Shael remembered and he was pleased to observe the natural elegance with which each held their frames. Their shoulders were squared and chins slightly, but not haughtily raised. It appeared that his brothers had already worked their magic, as all four girls seemed relaxed in their company. A row of chairs had been set out behind each of the parties so that when seated the Averay brothers would be facing the Kinsey girls. Malverne’s desk presided between the two rows at the head of the room. To Shael, the moment felt alien, suspended outside his person as if he was an unwanted factor in the equation or worse, an unsolicited onlooker. His whole life felt unfamiliar and distant, as if he had never quite got a handle on… well any tangible part of being. He took a deep breath to shore himself up for the inevitable backlash to his existence, and more pointedly, his presence on this day, and took a step into the study.
 
Shael took a further step into the study. Just as he had come to expect over the years, the company had an immediate adverse reaction to his presence. The temperature of the room seemed to plummet the moment the severe Duke entered, enforcing the requisite respect and obedience. The change in atmosphere stemmed more from the threat of his unnatural dominance than his lofty title. He eyed each girl cynically before turning his scrutiny to their piteous father. Each girl’s polite mask faltered momentarily to be replaced by a mask of schooled tolerance. Still, a cold mist pulled over their usually lovely almond shaped eyes. Their feelings towards him were such that it could not be easily disguised. It was clear none liked or trusted him. The latter, he understood perfectly. He was in a position to laud his wealth and power over the family. But he could not understand why people’s reaction to his person was so adverse when all he really wanted was to be alone, to pontificate in the peaceful solitude of the only person’s company he understood. Shael sighed inwardly. This was after all his lot in life and had been such since his first recollection of childhood. He stepped forward to greet his distended host with a perfunctory nod of his head and then without acknowledging the girls sat at the head of the designated chairs to his left. He expected his brothers to follow his lead without further instruction, which of course they did. Within seconds and with only very little swishing of muslin, the two parties sat facing each other and an awkward silence hung between them.
 
Burdened with the responsibility of two young, virile men and five innocent girls with naught but a washed up father to protect them was more than a little daunting. Even for a man of Shael’s iron-cast making, the burden was indeed profound and more so given his natural inability to heed others’ feelings. It was so far removed from being his forte, it was close to non-existent. Intellectually he knew the responsibility to secure their respective futures existed. He told himself that this meant he merely had to secure their livelihood and ensure a worthy lineage to what defined Stanthorpe as great. Still, the nagging hollowness in the pit of his stomach demanded there was ‘more’ to their existence. He had experienced that ‘more’ in his mother, in her patient tendering and protection of his person. His mother had explained to him that her continued devotion, when others had given up, stemmed from the purest form of love. Yet, he could not transfer this experience to needing that same ‘more’ for his brother because Shael did not believe he had the ability to feel love or interpret the emotion. He had clearly received it, but had never reciprocated the feeling. Not even for his mother. He respected her, but could not say he understood what love was. He understood feeling in general. He felt anger, frustration, and loathing on a daily basis. But never love. He could not even say he was willing to love or give of himself to understand another’s position. Over the years his tutors had made him acutely aware of his deficient humanity. They said he lacked empathy. Shael had long ago accepted he was damnably poor at picking up on social cues and shamefully worse at heeding other people’s feelings even when he recognised them. To make matters worse, he was decidedly single minded and whilst this trait was more than likely the cause of the family’s continued economic success, it made him even more conspicuous in a crowd. His often distant and territorial behaviour had a profoundly negative effect on most people and by the time he had obtained his majority, solitude was not only a preferred state of being but a protective necessity. He knew people detested his company and it was quite simply easier to be alone rather than be exposed to the ignoramuses of apparent good societal standing. It was no wonder that with these deficits compounded by years of living as a recluse, he did not detect the girls’ increasing discomfort and did not have the skill to take steps to reduce their state of anxiety. Making light hearted banter was not in his limited repertoire of social skills and he had no personal aching need or desire to ease the moment, as one would normally do in a social situation. For Shael it was simple. The meeting had been arranged for one reason only and to this purpose he would lead the meeting to ensure his brothers selected the most suitable women to enter into their elite circle. Shael stood to assert his authority and bring the morning to a swift predictable end.

Chapter Three ~ Nelle 

A terrible commotion beyond the thick walnut study door intruded on Shael’s ordered and singular thoughts. First, there was the sound of a scuffle followed by a low growling which could easily have been mistaken for the fighting resonance of a captured animal. Had the source of the hullabaloo, not been dragged into the study by the sturdy nonplussed butler, her upper arm held firmly in his grasp, Shael would have thought the noise was just that- the frantic wailing of a cornered wild cat. Myers continued his death grip lest the little imp get away. Her spirit was clearly not thwarted by her precarious position. The wild being continued to squirm in his hold and lunged to kick his shin. A tangled mass of strawberry blonde hair covered her face and fell en masse down her back. Her brown skirt was ripped so that an unsheathed mud streaked shapely leg was defiantly exposed and her jacket was decidedly worse for wear with three of the buttons hanging on for dear life. With a forceful tug, Nelle Kinsey, youngest daughter of the Earl of Malverne and the missing fifth protégée, freed herself from her captor and pushed her matted hair off her face to reveal indignant hazel eyes burning like coals in a mud stained face. Nelle plodded over to the empty chair next to her sisters who were clearly mortified by her behaviour and with some dignity, tried to arrange her skirt to hide her bare appendage. Looking Shael straight in the eye and waving her arms in a ‘get on with it ‘gesture, the authority within the room had clearly shifted onto her small shoulders. Her audacious presence near took Shael’s breath away. Clearly exasperated by Shael’s towering silence, she shook out the skirt of her dress and rose only to offer a tongue in cheek curtsey in his direction. “You may continue, my Lord,” she taunted whilst meeting his glare with a scorching gaze. 
 
The morning droned on in the most frustrating fashion. Nelle had absolutely no interest in the hum of futile negotiation about her sisters’ dreary futures and it took the last remnants of patience to keep her rooted to the inhospitable chair which felt as if it had had the stuffing knocked out of it years ago. If anything, Nelle wanted out of the gloomy study to venture forth into the adventure that was the dazzling and warm summer’s day. With this sad reflection on what she was missing contrasted against the abysmally dark contours of her father’s study and its dull occupants, Nelle let out an involuntary ‘humph’. The tactless expression brought Shael’s droning speech to a stunned halt. He was certain that an Averay, let alone a titled Averay, had never before been so rudely interrupted. He glared at the dirty urchin before him and found that he was completely at a loss for words. Never in his life had he encountered an adversary so unwittingly guileless. She appeared to have no regard for… well anything.
 
It was Malverne, who broke the intense silence.  The unfortunate stretched and wrinkled skin beneath his chin once again wobbling with the strain of speech. “Beg your pardon, your grace. Allow me to introduce my youngest daughter, Nelle Anne Kinsley. She had not had the fortune of her sister’s education, despite your edict and generosity. She was also sadly lacks the exposure and influence of higher society which I am certain will have the effect of smoothing her rough edges. She is very much in the dark as to what is expected of her. I’m afraid she has run quite wild in the country since, well, since she was able to walk.”
 
Malverne turned beetroot red from the effort of such a protracted and eloquent speech and his discolouration served as a red flag to Nelle’s senses. His unfeeling epitaph chaffed against her dignity like an unrelenting unwanted visitor banging at the door, demanding to be let in. Nelle jumped from the brutal chair. Turning to her father, she exploded forth. “Do not speak of me as if I am not in the room. I am not one of his puppets,” she accused and jabbed the air in Shael’s direction. Her chest heaved against the constraints of her tattered jacket and her dirty cheeks flushed pink with emotion. Catherine pulled lightly on her younger sister’s muddy skirt and pleaded discreetly for her to be seated. Despite her own reservations about marriage to the Averays, Catherine did have the breeding to be embarrassed by her sister’s lack of decorum and she certainly was judicious enough not to bite the well manicured hand that kept them all more than well fed and decently dressed. Apparently, Nelle lacked sense as well as manners.
 
Shael was still in shock and rifling through his ill stocked toolbox of social skills, found that he did not have the confidence or skill to deal with the attack currently being levelled at him. After all, the little minx was right. He did expect everyone in this room to behave befitting their situation - he the duke and they his minions. Was that not as it should be? Had he not paid a king’s ransom to this family, year after year, to enjoy the privilege? Shael was at a loss to understand the root of the youngest Miss Kinsey’s passionate outburst given the clear propriety to which she should be behaving. She should be grateful for his benevolence and show appropriate respect for the hierarchy within the room. It was what society expected of her and his right to be treated with the deference his position demanded. Shael could not make sense of her behaviour and felt adrift much like he had felt as a young boy when in fraught social situations. The need to count took hold of him, pulling at and overwhelming his thoughts. The symmetrical pattern of the Persian rug was immensely appealing and charming - one, two, three, four, five, six. Breathe. One, two, three-
 
“Shael!” whispered James in his ear. “Shael look at me,” he instructed, increasingly concerned by his eldest brother’s entirely too familiar distant and glazed look. “Shael,” James called again, pulling at the sleeve of Shael’s coat. As if under water, Shael heard the muffled call of a familiar voice and turned in the direction of the muted tone to register the panicked sound of his protective younger brother.  Shael blinked six times and then brought his head round to make eye contact with James. It took a few seconds for Shael to find his bearings and with only a moment’s further pause, he took control of the floor once again.
 
“I believe that is quite enough excitement for one day,” he drawled with apparent disgust at being interrupted, but inwardly he was rattled as if he were a youth who had just received a good telling off and thrashing. He rose to make a swift but hopefully dignified exit from the room.
 
After the Averay men left, Melissa gave Nelle a good scolding and a weighty clip to the ear. With stinging humiliation and a blazing red earlobe, Nelle spent the rest of the afternoon smarting in her bedroom and glaring longingly out of her window. Her oldest sister and in all respects except one, her mother, had given her strict instructions not to leave the house. Given the likelihood that Nelle would not find her way out of nature in time to prepare for the evening’s guests and dinner, this instruction was applauded by all bar one. Melissa hammered home the importance of using the dinner as an opportunity to make amends for her insubordinate and unruly behaviour, proving to their benefactor that the Kinsley’s were not  direct descendants of apes. Nelle was taken back by her sister’s analogy of her behaviour that morning- as if she, Nelle Kinsley had not yet crossed the divide of the transitional evolutionary stage between apes and humans. Nelle was not so unschooled that she had not made the connection between her sister’s reference and evolutionary theories. The subject was, after all, the only decreed subject besides natural science, that Nelle had enjoyed and excelled in. Despite her affinity for the subject matter, she was certain her behaviour that morning had been warranted. The audacity of the horrid man to think he held the power to command everyone at will. She was further along the evolutionary scale than a well trained performing primate, but thought their benefactor only slightly more advanced than a silver back gorilla with his aura of supremacy and dominance. Nelle Kinsey was determined to show him and her family that she was not an ape!
 
 As dusk heralded her maid’s arrival, Nelle felt emotionally spent and willingly gave into Alice’s administrations. Whilst indignation was still the predominant raging emotion, self-doubt had crept in and tugged at her confidence, leaving her a little ashamed of her behaviour that day. She realised she could have levelled a smarter and quieter attack and it occurred to Nelle that she must have appeared simple, untamed and primal in her behaviour. Compared to her simpering father, obedient sisters and the dashingly handsome and civilised Averays, the word Neanderthal came to Nelle’s mind when recollecting her outburst. Nelle entered the dinning hall only ten minutes after dinner had been announced and as it was the norm for Nelle to be tardy, she was not surprised to find the party seated. She placidly took her place, her father at the head of the table to her left and Melissa to her right. Nelle was certain she had been strategically placed between the two to ensure her compliance. Disgrace settled like a heavy shroud over her mood, so that her usual lively demeanour was quite thwarted. Melissa had made quite sure she understood the shame she had brought on the family and the precarious position she had placed them in. Without the Duke’s generosity, they would have lost everything years ago and certainly would not have enjoyed the extravagance that two thousand a year brought. The very food on her plate was paid for by the duke.
 
Nelle peered out from wet, dark eyelashes to consider the proud sponsor seated opposite her. If she tilted her head to the right she could just peek past the ostentatious lemon and orange fruit pyramid centrepiece to see the deep furrow between the Duke’s dark arched brows as he stared down at the lavish plate before him. The dinner had been served à la Russe. The cook had gone to great lengths to impress the haughty Duke with her unparalleled culinary skills and Nelle thought the dish was one of dear loyal Mavis’s most daring and accomplished. Turbot in lobster sauce was one of Nelle’s favourite dishes, yet the Duke merely stared disapprovingly at the gourmet dish so carefully prepared by the cook. Or perhaps his expression was one of disgust.
 
Nelle considered the rest of the party, quite engrossed in conversation and all seemingly unaware of her presence or the Duke’s discomfort. Whilst her sisters seemed quite happy to engage James and Charles in conversation, no-one, not even her father, made an effort to talk to the Duke. It appeared she and the man sitting opposite her had something in common after all. Nelle was just unaware of what that something was that set them both apart. Nelle found it all a bit bizarre given that afternoon’s lecture about being polite and engaging to the imperious duke. Yet, her family’s unusual lack of etiquette was also strangely comforting as, at that moment in time, it meant she was not the only person being ignored or conveniently excluded from conversation. The rejected course was removed to be replaced by canards à la rouennaise followed by compote of raspberries with a fancy swirl of cream nestled to the side. The Duke did not even make an effort to feign interest or toy with either dish. His hand rested on the table next to the dessert and his index finger counted out tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap, followed by a small swipe of his hand before the sequence was repeated over and over again. Truth be told, he looked as if he was in pain. The furrows between his eyebrows had deepened as the night progressed until his entire brow was a bunched up mess. Nelle wondered if the strain of disapproval or disgust or both was not giving him a migraine.
 
The evening drew to a close just after midnight, leaving Nelle’s sisters on a merry high. Their prospective husbands had proven to be amiable, amenably keen on conversation and they had engaged in light entertainment including dancing and cards with the ease of long standing friends. Of course it did not hurt that both men were devastatingly handsome and as rich as Croesus. Nelle listened to their excited chatter long after one in the morning. She stayed with them to tire herself out, but her mind remained restless and continually drawn to the image of the Duke in pained isolation for the entirety of the night. During the course of the entertainment he had sat solemnly to one side in a lonely wing back chair placed deep in the recesses of the room where the straining light of the candles could not reach the shadows of his sad expression. He did not move a muscle for well on two hours and certainly did not deign to notice Nelle’s close observation of his being.
 
Long after the excited household had retired, sleep still did not come for Nelle. Left with nothing to do in the early hours of the morning, but fret over the cheerless Duke, she concluded there was only one humane course of action to be taken. Of course, there were inherent risks. For one, if discovered she was likely to be horsewhipped by one of her sisters, but the urge was too great to resist. She just had to know what drove the Duke into such pained solitude when all those around him were playing at being merry.
 
The moon reigned supreme in an almost breathless sky. Fortuitous really, given that scampering through the gnarled wood in the dead of the night would have been perilous without the gift of the moon’s rays to light her way. Climbing the trellis on the east wing of Stanthorpe Manor would have been near impossible and most treacherous without the orb’s aid. It didn’t take long for Nelle to figure out which windows were likely to be those of the ducal chamber. After all, if she were a duke, she would have chosen the rooms, overseeing the rolling emerald pasture lands beyond the boundary of the sculptured garden. It was also fortunate that the night was warm as the windows were open to allow the faint breeze to pull through and allow for a rather surreptitious entry into the Duke’s bedroom.
 
As Nelle was lithe and accustomed to exertion, she had no trouble entering the room as stealthily as a mountain cat. She approached the obscenely large bed slowly, balanced on the toes and balls of her feet. She did not want to give the slumbering Duke reason to be caught off guard and launch himself at her in defence. Although the image tickled Nelle pink and she had to pause to stifle a fit of untimely giggles. The Duke was, after all, quite a large man and would do her some physical harm if he knocked her off her feet. Nelle had to pause again to stifle a laugh as she thought of what Melissa’s reaction would be if she heard Nelle’s use of colloquial slang and secondly, discovered out she had snuck into their supreme sponsor’s private chambers. Kneeling at his bedside, she could only just make out the shadows of the Duke’s chiselled face. His forehead was smooth and untroubled. He seemed surreal, like an alabaster bust of an illustrious war hero- familiar, but wholly implausible. His chest rose and fell evenly with each breath and his toned arms lay relaxed at his sides. He seemed so very different to the strained Duke of her father’s study or the pained Duke of the dining table.
 
“Your Grace,” Nelle whispered, a slight nervous tremor shaking her voice.
 
Shael heard the quiet intrusion and pushed the voice away. After all, the sound could not be real. What would the little imp be doing in his bedroom? The dishevelled unruly schoolgirl had caused him enough discomfort with her insolent behaviour that morning and unrelenting stares during dinner. From the moment she had been dragged into the study her chaotic nature and wild hair had disturbed him to his very core. He had fought his entire life to avoid the disorganised spirit she displayed. Her character rubbed him up the wrong way, like metal grating on metal. He rolled onto his side and allowed sleep to carry him off once more. He had no intention of allowing the she-devil to conquer his dreams too.
 
Nelle exhaled a ‘humph’ and called to him again. Shael moaned as the little devil’s characteristic demonstration of dissatisfaction infiltrated his dreams. The same harrumphing sound which had caused insecurity to course through his body and corrode his confidence that morning, a state of mind that had not plagued him since his mid twenties. That ‘humph’ was enough to dissolve what little sanity he still possessed.
 
Nelle placed a cool hand on a warm solid muscular shoulder and gave him a hard shove. “Your Grace!” she called rather loudly.
 
With the speed of a military man Shael’s hand shot out to capture Nelle’s small one. In one smooth motion, he sat upright in his bed and twisted her arm so that her body pivoted, leaving her back pressed against his chest.
 
“What do you want?” he growled, incredulous that she was in a man’s room in the dark of night, “And how the hell do you come to be in my chambers?”
 
“You are hurting me!” she asserted, squirming in his arms and stamping her feet.
 
“Keep quiet, you monster! You will wake the entire household and if you keep pulling against me, I will break your arm,” he instructed and warned, pushing her from his hold so that she fell to the floor with a thud.
 
“Ow, you have the manners of a cave man! And to think Melissa compared my behaviour to that of a primate,” she snorted whilst rubbing her hand to stimulate circulation. “I am sorry I let worry bring me here to you, you heathen!” Nelle shuffled backwards on her bottom to place as much distance between her and the surly Duke as possible. Her wrist throbbed with pain and she regretted feeling anything humane for the terrible Duke.
 
Throughout his life Shael had experienced many reactions to his particular brand of humanity to which name-calling had been commonplace. He had certainly been classed as a most inconvenient person saved only from the boiling pot of lunatic asylums by his mother’s unrelenting protection and patience and his father’s misplaced faith in her judgement. Outside her care and his brothers’ protection, concern had never been one of the responses he inspired from society. Truth be told, the general public’s reaction to his odd manners and dark, brooding looks was so severe that he dared not venture into the dank nights of London. At its worse when the impenetrable fog rose off the Thames to combine with the sooty smoke of the coal fires, the worst of humanity scuttled across the streets and caused even the most desperate of humanity to doubt their street professions in fear of their lives. With the slaughter of five prostitutes from the East End and the killer’s identity still a mystery, on such nights it was conceivable that 11th Duke of Stanthorpe be easily mistaken for the cold hearted murderer striking terror into the nation’s beloved capital. His looks and demeanour generally inspired dislike and even fear, but never compassion.
 
So it came to be that twice in the same day little, wild Nelle left him bereft of speech. She was undisputedly the most confident and naturally challenging person of his acquaintance. She showed no degree of revulsion for his character or fear for his dark looks and demonstrated what appeared to be genuine concern for his person.
 
Despite the clawing dark of the room, Nelle noticed the change in his expression on hearing the reason for her late night visit. He looked completely lost, unsure of himself and years younger. Realisation pulled at her heart and she wanted to reach out to him again. She had been right to come here. He was in pain. Her anger at being manhandled quickly dissipated and was replaced by compassion and intrigue. Much like approaching an injured animal, Nelle edged forward slowly until she sat on her haunches before him. The Duke had not once lifted his gaze to look at her, not even when he had tossed her across the room. And despite having a young woman alone in his chambers and kneeling before him, he kept his eyes averted. The lack of eye contact struck Nelle as strange and yet she could tell he was not disconnected from the moment. Shael sat bare feet planted firmly on the wooden floor, the sheet hanging loosely over his bare legs. He continued to stare fixedly at a point beyond her and seemed to be waiting. Nelle wondered how long he had been waiting for a little kindness. She reached out to place her hand on his knee.
 
“Your Grace,” she urged, “Why did you not touch the food tonight? Was it not to your liking?” Nelle felt a tremor run through the Duke’s large frame and with that she stroked his knee with a rhythm she thought would be a comfort - stroke-stroke-stroke, stroke-stroke-stoke. Pause.
 
The rhythm of her touch immediately harmonised with Shael’s heartbeat and his faculties returned. He took a deep breath of air and keeping his frozen stare across the room, he countered, “Why were you not accounted for on my arrival this morning?”
 
Nelle’s hand paused as the answer came to her. “Oh, I see,” she breathed.
 
“How could you see?” he asked, dropping angered eyes to meet her steady, kind gaze. “I’ve barely made sense of the day’s events. How could you ‘see’ anything of importance? You are but a child. Your arrogance is inexcusable.”
 
“Tut-tut now, you can come off your high horse, Your Worthiness. Of course I am a child. I am but fifteen years of age, but that is of no significance. I see! I see the world as it is and not through blinkered or tainted eyes of the jaded. I’ve lived with my father for long enough to know what cynical and world-weary looks like. And for your information, I was not in the study awaiting your supreme arrival because I did not want to be and chose to be elsewhere engaging in an activity of my liking. So, you see, I do understand your position: You did not eat because you chose not to. You chose not to because you did not want to. Though I still do not know why you did not want to eat?” she cooed triumphantly, allowing her hand to fall away from the Duke’s knee in an irritated response to his haughty attack on her age. She was offering understanding and friendship, both of which had no claim on age!
 
Shael felt oddly uncomfortable about the loss of her touch and her shockingly, close to the mark insight. “Where did you want to be?” He could not help but ask to understand her motivation. A curious need to understand the strange girl grew inside him like ivy on a red brick wall. It belonged but did not belong. It was both beautiful and bothersome at the same time. It occurred to him that to know her would help him unravel the mystery that was his life.
 
“In the hedgerow, watching the birds. I like the insects too,” she said shamelessly before continuing. “Do you know 1 Samuel 12:16? - Now therefore stand still and see the great thing that the Lord will do before your eyes. That is what I like to do. Stand still and let the world claim me. And you?”
 
“Me what? I am not your concern,” he continued with a haughty façade as he tried to process what Nelle had just said. He was certain she had answered ‘in the hedgerow’. Not by the hedgerow and her interpretation of the scriptures was insanely innocent. Shael was fast reaching the conclusion that the girl was decidedly worse off in the head than he. His father would have described her as a bit of a Peagoose. What's more, by virtue of her sex, her naiveté heightened her vulnerability to dangerous proportions.
 
Nelle sighed and harrumphed. She would not be defeated by his lordship’s superior ways and decided to ignore the Duke’s jab about not being of her concern, “Where did you want to be instead of at Trenton House?”
 
The first cool breeze of the night broke the spell holding them in conversation and brought Shael to his senses. For the first time in his life he felt connected to a person and enjoyed being in her company. But it was more than that. Nelle’s genuine interest in him and disregard for his title made him feel worthy. In an instant he knew exactly where he wanted to be and the delicate turn of Nelle’s ankle despite the heavy stockings and unladylike boots was doing nothing to ease the discomfort growing between his legs. “I know with fair certainty that you shouldn’t be here, alone in a grown man’s chamber. Have you no sense?” he scolded in a voice as cold as thawing ice.
 
“But this is where I want to be right now,” she mewled. The sound grated on Shael’s nerves and spurred him into action. Nelle’s dress was barely halfway down her thighs and her walking boots were laced up to above her ankles over thick white stockings. She was dressed like a child, not even out of schoolroom clothing, because she was a child. He felt her innocence acutely and the vulnerable situation her presence placed him in left him cold. If discovered, he would be forced to marry her and he had long ago vowed never to take a bride and never to inflict his illness on another person.
 
“You should not enter into a man’s chamber, ever. Do you understand,” he scolded again, rising from his bed, but holding the sheets close as to protect her innocence. He reached for his trousers and shirt and managed with only a minor struggle to pull these on without exposing himself. The darned thing was Nelle did not seem at all interested in his form. She just continued to scold him in return and darn if he still did not find her intriguing and somewhat attractive.
 
 “You think you are such a nabob, but I can see through to your soul and that is why I get under your skin and that is why you are walking away from me, am I not right?”
 
Shael’s response was immediate and irrefutable. “I am not walking away from you; I am walking towards you and stop talking like a commoner. It’s beneath you,” he said as he took her firmly by the arm. Before Nelle knew what had happened, Shael had escorted her down the stairs and pushed her out of the front door with a final command, “Go home!”