The Duke Buys a BrideSophie Jordan
For the Joneses, Michael and Tammy:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer must be in want of a good builder . . .
Thank you for helping us build our Pemberley.
May your own happily ever after continue joyfully into forever.
The Rogue Files
About the Author
By Sophie Jordan
About the Publisher
In which the hungry wolf wakes . . .
Marcus, the fifth Duke of Autenberry, woke with a startled jolt, face-down in horse shit.
At least he assumed the reeking matter was the product of a horse. Several of the beasts could be heard neighing around him and he had spent a good amount of his life in the stables around horses. He knew the stink of horse excrement.
Pain splintered his skull as he pushed himself up. Bloody hell. What happened to him?
Wiping his face with the cuff of his jacket, he sat up fully and looked around, finding himself the subject of scrutiny. Several pairs of eyes stared at him through the slats of the stall. Children, he surmised. The eyes did not appear to be over five feet in height and they talked in high-pitched voices. Of course, that could be his overly sensitive ears.
“When do ye think ’e’s going tae wake?”
“Och, ’e’s been in that ’orse muck fer ’ours now!”
“No’ until the morrow. Whenever my pa drinks ’e sleeps fer days.”
“’E’s big, isn’t ’e?”
“Good morning,” he greeted drolly, trying not to breathe too deeply of the surrounding stench.
The eyes blinked at him.
“Och, ’e talks funny!” one small voice exclaimed.
“I don’t suppose you could tell me where I am?” he inquired, glancing down at himself and wincing. There was a good amount of dung on his once pristine jacket.
Several giggles and titters met his question.
“Ye dinna know where ye are?” one child demanded rather boorishly. “What kind of dolt are ye?”
“A spectacular one,” he grumbled, rising to his feet and ignoring the knifing pain in his skull.
He staggered a step toward the stall door. The children on the other side of the door shrieked and ran. Their footsteps pounded a swift retreat that matched the hammer in his skull. He attempted to lift the latch. No luck. It was barred from the outside.
“Of course,” he muttered, leaning against the stall wall and appreciating the support. He burrowed through his inside pocket to locate a handkerchief. He mopped off bits of hay and muck from his face, wondering how he had fallen so low. Had his life really come to this?
He could not recall having ever slept in so undignified a situation. He’d woken in all manner of locations, but always on a bed or a chaise. Once, at school, he’d fallen asleep on his desk when he stayed up late studying.
This was an ignoble first.
Heavy, dragging footsteps approached. No child, he presumed. A jingle of keys preceded a scratching at the door and then the stall door swung wide.
A face peered inside at him, the eyes small, dark beads in a broad, flat face. “Yer awake,” the fellow announced inanely.
“I am,” he returned mildly, scratching his jaw through an itchy growth of hair as he stared down at his boots. Their high-shine buff had long since faded. His valet back in London would be horrified, but their lack of luster felt appropriate. He felt like his boots. Dull and dusty.
“Thought a night locked up might take the wind out of yer sails.”
Ah. So he had been incarcerated. For what infraction, he could not recall.
He glanced around again, seeing the stall for what it was—a gaol. He recalled stopping at an inn (yesterday?) in some remote village.
He could not remember the name of the village. They’d all begun to blur. He’d passed through many of them on his journey north.
He lifted his head and stared at his jailer. “Might I inquire of my crime?”
“Ye ’ave nay memory then?” The man swiped at his red bulbous nose. “Ye practically destroyed ol’ Alvin’s taproom when John Smithy objected tae yer handling of Rovena.”
“Rovena?” The name rang familiar. He fluttered his fingers near his head as if that might help conjure forth the details. “Was she a black-haired lass?”
“Aye.” The man nodded.
Rovena was aptly named. The serving wench had roving hands. When she’d served him his dinner, she’d plopped down beside him, her greedy paws making short work of freeing him from inside his breeches and seizing on to his cock right there beneath the table.
A nearby fellow had objected to Rovena’s enthusiastic attentions. Perhaps that had been John Smithy.
Marcus remembered little after that.
“If I recall it was more Rovena’s handling of me.”
The portly man guffawed. “Call it what you will. The bailiff sent me to free ye. He’s already taken the cost for the damages out of yer purse. Lucky ye had enough or ye’d be forced to labor until ye paid it off.”
At that, the bailiff’s lackey tossed Marcus’s pocketbook at him. He grabbed it before it hit the ground and landed in muck. “I’m tae instruct ye tae get on yer horse and leave town. ’Tis market day. A busy time and we don’t need the likes of ye loitering about causing any more mischief.”
The likes of him?
It was almost comical if it wasn’t so offensive. He was a bloody duke and they were treating him like some vagabond. True, they did not know his rank, and he might not be dressed in the cleanest garments nor his finest—traveling alone, he knew better than to flaunt his wealth—but they had to realize he was Quality. It was all very unsettling.
“Rest easy. I’m quite happy to leave your little backwater.” Straightening, he tugged his jacket into place. “Extend my gratitude to your bailiff for his warm and gracious hospitality.”
The man scratched his shiny, bald pate as though confounded.
Marcus didn’t bother to assess the status of his pocketbook, although it did feel much lighter. He’d hidden money both in the heel of his boot as well as the lining of his cloak. He wasn’t foolish enough to travel alone into the north country without a healthy dose of respect for the robbers plaguing the countryside.
Marcus passed out of the stall and was quickly directed to his waiting horse. His gelding looked hale and as impatient as he to leave.
A wide-eyed youth handed him the reins. Marcus nodded a curt thanks to the lad and mounted without the aid of a block.
Without a backward glance for the stables that had caged him for the night, he nudged his horse forward into the bustling village, vowing to bypass it on his return journey home. As far as he was concerned, this wretched little place was cursed and he should avoid it and its inhabitants in the future.
Alyse circled the small loft, eyeing her narrow cot pressed against the single gable window. She’d slept in that bed
for seven years without fail, staring out the window into the night sky, counting stars and spying on the moon as she waited for the day her life would be her own.
Tonight it would begin. Tonight she would sleep somewhere else.
She’d made the bed today as she did every morning. The gray wool blanket was tucked neatly around the mattress; the thin pillow positioned precisely where her head had rested for seven years. The pillow was worn flat, a permanent indentation at the center of it.
Perhaps where she was going she would have a full, plump, down-stuffed pillow. It didn’t matter. She’d accept a blanket on the hard ground as long as it meant she was away from here. As long as she was free of this place.
She approached the window and peered down into the yard. Mr. Beard waited in the carriage for her, bundled in his coat against the cold. His thick, work-roughened hands anxiously worried the reins. He, too, was eager to be on his way and she was fairly certain that it had everything to do with the Widow McPherson. Mr. Beard and the widow had grown close since Mr. McPherson passed away. The only thing stopping them from growing closer was Alyse.
Turning, Alyse studied the small, slope-ceiling room a final time. She had shared this chamber with the Beard children for a long time. When she first came to live here at the tender age of ten and five still raw with the grief from losing Papa, there had been six boisterous children all clamoring for her attention and care. She had been responsible for them whilst Mr. Beard worked his farm.
Only three of the children still lived here and they were scarcely children anymore. The boys worked the farm with their father. They could tend to themselves now. The rest had married and left.
She’d served her purpose. She was no longer needed here. Her purpose would be her own from here on.
Alyse exhaled, feeling much lighter than she had in years. This was it then. She was almost free. Only one more thing left to do.
She lifted her small valise, which held all her belongings in the world. A nightgown. Two spare dresses. A mother-of-pearl comb, brush and mirror set that had once belonged to her mother. Her late father’s pocket watch. Her parents’ wedding bands. A few hair ribbons. And her family’s Bible that held a record of her family history. It was all that was left to mark the Bell family tree—the only thing that proved any of them had even existed. Well, and Alyse.
Turning away from the small gabled window, she left the room and descended the narrow, uneven steps.
Nellie waited below, bouncing a baby on her hip and armed with the same question she’d pelted at Alyse all week. “Are ye certain about this?”
“Yes,” she insisted. “This was always the agreement between me and your father.”
Nellie scowled. “That doesn’t make it right.”
Doing this thing today, as awful as it seemed . . . was the only way she was going to make everything right in her life.
She’d worked toward this moment. When life had been its most challenging—and caring for six boisterous children all day definitely qualified—she’d endured. She’d donned a smile. She persisted. Because she knew this day would come. Freedom would be hers.
She covered Nellie’s hand with her own and gave it a squeeze. Nellie’s young daughter leaned in and swiped at Alyse’s hair, mussing her hard-won coiffure.
When she’d first joined the Beard household, Nellie had despised Alyse and resented her presence. The late Mrs. Beard had passed away a few months before and the last thing Nellie had wanted was someone taking her mother’s place. Reprisals had been swift. A frog in Alyse’s boot. Her hair whacked off while she slept. Her good Sunday dress ruined. She’d quickly hidden her few valuables for fear that Nellie would destroy them.
It warmed Alyse’s heart to think how time had changed all of that. Nellie was like a little sister to her now even though she had married and lived on the other side of the village with her growing family.
“Yardley will be there,” she told Nellie with assurance.
Nellie snorted and rubbed at her swollen stomach. “Yardley.” She rolled her eyes. “Wot do ye know of him truly, Alyse?”
“We were very good friends as children.” They grew up together and had been inseparable, running about Collie-Ben and the surrounding countryside. Papa was not yet ill when Yardley left and joined the navy. As children, they had exchanged promises. He would return for her.
They wrote to each other. He told her of his travels. She told him of the marriage Papa arranged for her with Mr. Beard. It did not deter him. He still promised to come for her and he had.
They would be together. Share a life. Live in London. He would apprentice for his father’s cousin, a poulter, in Seven Dials. She would find work as a seamstress or even a maid. They’d have a life together and be free. That was the most important thing.
They’d planned for this day and it was finally here. Mr. Beard had agreed.
“Aye.” Nellie looked unimpressed. “A lifetime ago. He was a boy then. He’s been at sea for a long time. People change.”
“We have an agreement,” Alyse insisted.
“’E’s only been ’ome a few weeks. Ye don’t know the man ’e is now and yer willing tae tie yourself tae ’im.” She shook her head. “I wouldn’t do it were I ye.”
Alyse resisted pointing out that her choices were limited. Yardley was her best option. Her only choice.
Choices were everything. Up until now, her life had been without any. Choosing Yardley equaled freedom. She was taking matters into her own hands. She would have a choice in this. Her fate would not be left to others.
Yardley would take her away from here. She’d finally see the world and live outside this little hamlet.
“Don’t fret for me. All will be well, Nellie. You will see.”
Nellie’s scowl only deepened. “I ’ope yer right. Ye deserve good things.”
Alyse hugged the girl then. Woman, she amended, as she felt Nellie’s stomach between them. The girl she had a hand in raising was about to become a mother for the second time.
Alyse was definitely overdue to live her own life. Fortunately, Mr. Beard agreed and wouldn’t stand in her way.
As though Nellie could read her thoughts, she spoke near Alyse’s ear, “Careful ye are no’ exchanging one prison fer another . . .”
She pulled back. “Will you come to the market and see me off?”
Nellie shook her head. “Nay. I cannot watch it.” She sniffed and blinked eyes that suddenly gleamed with moisture. “Unless ye want me tae. If ye insist, I’ll go fer ye—”
“Nay. Go home.”
“Ye’ll be sure tae write?” Nellie asked, her wide eyes a little desperate. “I canna bear not knowing—”
“I will. I will regale you with all my adventures away from here.”
Nellie smiled uncertainly. “Aye.” She nodded. “I ’ope so. Now off wi’ ye.”
Alyse nodded back. “Yes. I don’t want to keep Yardley waiting.”
Opening the door, she stepped outside and lifted her face to the cold morning sunshine. Yardley had waited long enough.
They both had.
In which the dove prepares for freedom . . .
The village bustled at full capacity. Market day always brought people in from surrounding areas. Carriages clogged the lane. Alyse could probably stretch out an arm and touch the carriage seat of a very agitated-looking man driving a cart of potatoes next to them. Vendors hawked their wares. Children ran and screeched as they wove between bodies and between horses. Women gossiped over bolts of fabric. Men discussed the future harvest over barrels of ale and mulled wine.
As they crawled forward, Alyse risked a glance beside her. Mr. Beard stared stoically forward. Nothing too unusual about that. In seven years, they’d had few conversations. Discussions only ever had to do with chores or the children.
She scanned the faces they passed, searching for Yardley.
Of course, she didn’t see him. She gave herself a mental shake and wiped her sudde
nly sweating palms on the knees of her dress. Naturally, he would be waiting in the square. Waiting for her as he promised.
Mr. Beard took them as far as he could—until the lane ended. He pulled to a stop. His knees creaked as he climbed down, tied off the horses and rounded the back of the cart. Reaching her side, he held out a hand for her to descend.
Accepting his work-roughened paw, she climbed down, wincing at the sight of her well-worn boots. The toes were practically worn through. The bite of cold penetrated her wool-covered toes, sinking deep, directly into bone.
At least she and Yardley would be traveling south. It shouldn’t be so cold. Perhaps the boots could last her a bit longer. Until she and Yardley were both settled and working and able to buy her new boots.
Mr. Beard lifted her valise and took her by the elbow, leading her through the press of bodies.
The village only seemed more crowded now, her view impeded by so many people. Even though she was not especially short, she could not see over the sea of heads.
She could, however, hear the auctioneer, Mr. Hines, calling out, extolling the assets of a mare up for sale. Ready for breeding! Sturdy as they come! She can bear the weight of even you, John, and we know how you love your kippers!
The crowd guffawed at the jest made at the expense of the village’s corpulent smithy.
She cringed and refused to consider that he might apply some of that same terminology to her. She was not ignorant to how this was done. She knew how it worked. The auctioneer would talk about her like she was property. Because, in this instance, she was. A difficult notion to bear, but true nonetheless.
She inhaled a sobering breath. The end result would make it all worthwhile.
Roasting meat reached her nose and her stomach grumbled, reminding her that she had scarcely touched her breakfast of toast and cheese this morning. Not surprising. It had been well enough for her to finish her tea. Her nerves were stretched taut, and had been ever since Mr. Beard agreed with her that it was time to dissolve their marriage.
More accurately, they had all three agreed.
Mr. Beard had actually looked relieved when Yardley and Alyse approached him and suggested the time had arrived to end the arrangement her father had negotiated on her behalf.