The Duke's Stolen BrideSophie Jordan
For Erin, my warrior friend.
About the Author
By Sophie Jordan
About the Publisher
Marian Langley was not given to undignified displays. She’d been employed as a governess for too many years, guiding young ladies into the highest echelons of Society with grace and dignity. She knew dignity. It was her stock-in-trade.
Or rather it had been.
She was no longer employed as a governess. Those days were gone.
So very many things were gone now. Whimsical water-colored wisps of memory. Papa was gone and she had left her comfortable post and returned home to care for her family. She grimaced and assessed her current situation: huddled under a table at Colley’s Tavern. Presently, it didn’t feel as though she were taking care of her family.
It felt ridiculous.
She felt ridiculous and completely lacking in dignity. So far had she fallen.
She was insolvent and, as she was coming to discover, insolvency did not support dignity.
In fact, it did everything to destroy it.
For no other reason did she find herself with her knees tucked close to her chest and her hands gripping fistfuls of her less than pristine skirts in the fervent, desperate hope that this moment pass, and pass quickly.
Her breath fell in hard, rapid little bursts from her lips, partly due to her overwrought nerves and partly from her mad dash through the village and into Colley’s Tavern, home of the best shepherd’s pie in the shire.
Despite her anxiety, her stomach rumbled at the mere idea of Colley’s delicious shepherd’s pie. She could even smell it on the air. Directly above her, in fact. The savory, rich aroma drifted from the table above her head.
Her stomach growled, reminding her that she had not eaten in a good while.
She held her breath and adjusted her well-worn boots on the plank flooring. They were her younger brother’s boots. She’d claimed them from his room whilst he was away at school. She doubted they would fit him upon his return. Lads his age grew like weeds.
She wrinkled her nose and tried to ignore the dirt and bits of rotted food surrounding her. The proprietor should have a word with his staff regarding their failure to clean beneath the tables.
She might be able to ignore the scraps of food, but the pair of legs crowding her was more difficult to overlook. They were substantial, the Hessians snug on a pair of long calves. She glared at them as though they might somehow disappear.
Yes, the table was presently occupied, but that had not stopped her from taking refuge under it. Marian had glimpsed a person at the table before diving beneath it. She had no choice, however. It was the nearest table and the coal peddler was fast on her heels.
She had a vague recollection of the man’s dark shape at the table. Dark eyes, too. Dark boots, of course. Dark like everything else in the shadowy interior of the tavern. Hopefully dark enough to obscure her from the man pursuing her.
The area beneath the table was far from spacious. She feared it barely concealed both her body and the gentleman’s considerable legs.
The boots shifted, one solid toe making contact with her hip—purposefully, she suspected.
“Ow.” Scowling, she rubbed at the afflicted area.
“What the devil are you doing?”
The voice came, deep and biting, much closer than she expected—a heated huff of breath near her ear.
She turned her face toward the sound of his voice only to find herself pinned by a pair of dark eyes.
For a moment, all speech left her. He was young and handsome. Two things she had not observed in her mad dash beneath the table.
He peered at her, their faces so close their noses almost bumped. “Are you hard of hearing, chit?”
She shook herself and recovered her voice. “Is it not obvious what I’m doing here?”
He did not so much as blink, merely continued to stare at her, waiting, evidently not satisfied with her reply.
She fidgeted anxiously, worried Clite Oliver would enter the room and catch this man looking under the table.
“I’m in a bit of a situation,” she confessed.
“What manner of situation is that?” he asked in a deep, cultured voice, decidedly unamused.
“It’s rather a long story. Please. Pretend I’m not here. I promise I will leave you alone soon—”
He nodded as though he understood, but the words that came out of his mouth were far from understanding. “You can leave me alone now.”
She glanced over her shoulder and was awarded with a view of the less than clean floor. No coal-stained boots yet. She had no doubt, however, they would materialize in her line of vision at any moment.
“I implore you. Stop talking to me!” she hissed, looking back at him with a desperate shake of her head. “I will make it up to you.”
Not that she had a penny to her name to offer him. That was what landed her into the mess . . . into running from the coal peddler in the first place.
He was unmoved by her plea and her empty promise. His dark eyes stared coldly down at her.
Hopelessness welled up inside her. She’d been battling that demon emotion lately. Often. All the time, really. She refused to give up. If she gave up hope that meant she gave up hope for all of them—Charlotte, Eleanor and Phillip. Giving up meant they were all lost.
Marian could not do that. She could not let that happen. She had to keep their family together.
“Please,” she whispered again, reduced to begging. As quietly as she uttered the word, it burned on her lips, stinging her pride.
She couldn’t let the peddler find her. He would give no quarter. He was unfeeling. Of all the people they owed money to—and there were several—he was the most persistent. The most ruthless. The one whose eyes promised retribution . . . and pain. He didn’t care who their father had been or what Papa had done for the community of Brambledon. They owed the man money. He’d have it or his pound of flesh.
The gentleman peering at her beneath the table said nothing. He blinked those dark eyes. He was impassive. And then he was gone.
There was a rustling of his clothing as he lifted his head back above the table. Footsteps pounded on the old wood planks and she hugged her knees closer to her chest as though she could make herself somehow smaller. The dreaded coal-stained boots appeared.
She sucked in a sharp breath and prayed that the table’s occupant wouldn’t give her away.
The boots rotated as he scanned the room, searching. She didn’t need to see his face to know it was Mr. Oliver and he was hunting for her.
Her eyes widened as those well-worn boots started toward the table—toward her. Heavens save her! Was the man at the table signaling him over?
“Beggin’ your pardon, sire. Did you see a lass run in here?”
She pressed shaking fingers to
her lips, straining for a sound from the man whose feet nudged her backside.
It was foolishness perhaps. She couldn’t hide from Mr. Oliver forever, but when he’d bellowed her name in the village lane, instinct had taken over. She’d taken one look at his merciless eyes, lifted her skirts and ran.
Cutlery scraped against a plate on the table above her, and she looked upward as though she could see through the wood.
Finally, the gentleman spoke, his voice rife with impatience as it floated on the air. “Do you see a lass here?”
Her gaze dropped to his boots again, to those well-formed legs encased in a pair of costly-looking Hessians. Hope fluttered like a bird in her chest. Unbelievably, it seemed he would not reveal her location under the table.
A long stretch of silence met this question, and she could almost imagine the peddler’s boxlike face scanning the room again. “Nay, I don’t see her, but I know she came in here. I saw her, I did!”
He stepped away from the table, his boots stomping in a circle again, apparently searching for her.
“Perhaps you should look elsewhere, and permit me to finish my meal in peace.” The words were perfectly polite, but there was an unmistakable edge to them.
Mr. Colley noticed the coal hawker at that moment. His voice rang out as his legs charged toward Mr. Oliver. “What are you doing harassing His Grace? Take yourself off from here at once, man.”
“I’m looking for the Langley chit. I saw her duck in here, I did!”
“As you can see, she is not here. Now leave and don’t return unless you’re a paying customer.”
She could well imagine Mr. Oliver’s obstinate face glaring at Mr. Colley. The man couldn’t be put off forever. She knew that. She would have to come up with something to appease him. She’d been using what little money came their way for food, but things had reached a desperate level. The coal peddler had to be paid.
“I know she is here somewhere,” Mr. Oliver grumbled. His boots moved away from the table, scuffing over the floor.
“She is not in here,” Mr. Colley snapped. “Now get out before I have Jasper from the kitchen throw you out on your ear.”
Everyone knew Mr. Colley’s nephew, Jasper. He was as big as a barge. Not particularly bright, either. He loved to wrestle with the lads, whether they were willing or not. He was often dragging someone into a brawl. He’d been doing this since childhood and seemed unconcerned that he was no longer a child.
She watched Mr. Oliver retreat and exhaled, lowering her forehead to her knees in relief.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Your Grace. I apologize for the intrusion. Can I fetch you anything else? More food? Fresh wine?”
“Simple privacy. Please, Colley.” The please sounded more like an afterthought. A grudging add-on.
“Of course, Your Grace.” Mr. Colley shuffled backward.
She lifted her head and stared at the underbelly of the table as though she could see through it to his face.
He was one of them. Oh. Dear. She covered her mouth with her fingers again. A refined snobbish nobleman.
She’d worked for aristocratic families. She’d rubbed elbows with them for years. Granted, that had never been in this village, but confronting one of his class should not intimidate her so much. Even if she was sitting at his feet like a lowly beggar.
His deep voice wrapped around her. “You can come out now, lass.”
His words vibrated through Marian, pulling at her like an invisible thread, urging her limbs to action. She fought the impulse and stayed put, hugging her knees tighter, which was ridiculous. She couldn’t hide under this table forever no matter how acute her embarrassment.
“Come now, lass. You’re not shy. That much was apparent when you barged in here and commanded me to stop talking to you.”
She winced and bit her lip. True. She had been bossy. As comfortable as she had been with her previous employer, she had never spoken in such a way or used such a tone.
“I know you’re there. You’re sitting on my boots.”
When she was a girl—very young, before Charlotte or Nora were even toddling about, before her brother was even born—Papa and Mama had gifted her with a carved wooden marionette for her birthday. This marionette was no doll with an eerie, exaggerated smile. It was a white elephant with a meticulously painted red-and-gold saddle. The gorgeous thing had jointed legs and flapping ears. She’d learned how to manipulate it. She would play with it in her bed at night, making it dance for her, commanding it by pulling its nearly invisible strings.
She felt like that beloved marionette now. Even if she wanted to stay hidden under that table, she was tugged out, pulled, compelled by that voice.
Emerging from beneath the table, she straightened and smoothed a hand down the front of her hopelessly mussed skirts. Once upon a time this dress had been fashionable and as crisp as a fresh morning. She’d been neat as a pin—first as a nanny and then as a companion to the Duke of Autenberry’s sister.
Now she was this. A mess.
An unmitigated disaster forced to stand before this man who was handsome and well-appointed in his dark jacket and brocade waistcoat.
He reached for his glass of wine with long tapering fingers. His signet ring glinted in the lantern light. However fashionable his garments and refined his speech and manner, his face had not seen a razor in at least a week. His hair also needed a good trim. Nobleman or not, the ballrooms of London would look askance at him for his rakish mien.
She brushed an errant strand from her face. It rebelled, falling back before her eyes.
In this moment it was difficult to remember that a year ago she had dined with people of his station as a normal course of events. Clara and her family had never treated her like a governess. She’d dressed the part of a lady and was treated with courtesy.
Now she felt like a storybook peasant standing before the lord of the manor. Her gaze flickered to the bountiful fare before him. The crockery holding the shepherd’s pie was large enough to feed her entire family. Even if her brother was in residence, it would be enough, and he ate like a ravenous beast.
She looked away from his dinner lest he see the hungry longing in her eyes.
Her gaze dropped to his hand. He loosely gripped his glass, leisurely rotating it on the table. She inhaled thinly through her nostrils and tried not to let his very existence irk her—even if it did.
Why should some people have everything and others so little through mere circumstance of birth? Why should he have such a privileged life whilst she didn’t know how she was going to continue caring for her siblings?
She exhaled, forcing the unwelcome emotions out. No sense crying about things beyond her control. This was her lot in life and she had to make the best of it.
He studied her and his expression could only be characterized as bored.
She searched for an explanation for her behavior that would not seem quite so wild and desperate. Even if that accurately described her.
She’d been given a reprieve. She’d avoided the coal peddler for another day. That was all that mattered. Any bit of indignity was worth it. She was simply surviving the best she could these days.
“Er, thank you.” She owed him her thanks, of course. He’d permitted her to remain beneath his table undetected.
He merely stared that endlessly dark stare. It unnerved her.
The moments crawled by. She shifted on her feet. Her muddied boots creaked upon the wood floorboards, striking her as incongruously loud in the silence.
She folded her hands neatly in front of her as she waited for him to say something. Anything. His gaze followed the movement of her hands.
She was no longer hunkered beneath a dark table, lost in deep shadow. She was in full view of him now and he scanned her from head to toe, assessing, missing nothing.
He gave his ear a casual rub and looked decidedly . . . uninterested.
Everyone in this village couldn’t seem to cease staring at her, gawking and watching her with avidity as though she might suddenly break into song or dance or sprout a second head. She was a veritable Vauxhall performance to everyone. They watched with bated breath to see her next stumble.
He finally answered. “You’re thanking me? I did not think you presented me with a choice in the matter.”
“Of course, you could have exposed me.” She inclined her head. “You did not. Thank you.”
He leaned back, stretching a long arm along the back of the seat bench. She was very much aware of the gulf separating them in that moment. He, this powerful man with his demon-dark eyes. He could crush her in every way on a whim and face no consequences for it.
Resentment stirred in her chest.
For a period of time she had supped with men of his ilk only to lose it all. The fine roof over her head. The elegant bedchamber with its private fireplace. The lovely dresses supplied to her. The most current books to be read at leisure. Luscious iced cakes—more than she could ever eat in one sitting. They were there every day at tea. She winced at all the times she didn’t clean her plate and sent back half-eaten cakes to the kitchen.
How precarious life was, especially for her gender, to go from that to this in a heartbeat.
“You’re the depraved duke.” Mr. Colley had addressed him as His Grace. He could be no one else. There was not an abundance of dukes in these parts, after all, and there could only be one duke in all the realm with such a moniker. “That’s what everyone around here calls you.” Her voice rang faintly with accusation, and perhaps something else. Perhaps acrimony.
She lifted her chin. If she was to utter such a thing, it seemed like it should be delivered with a fair amount of bravado. That was all she had left, after all. Bravado. And, apparently, the ability to hide beneath tables.
He’d recently moved into Haverston Hall. The late Mr. Haverston had left it to the Duke of Warrington. Apparently there was some loose family connection between them. Not that the duke had ever seen fit to occupy the place before now.
The manor sat high on the hill outside of town. The sprawling country house had been vacant most of her girlhood. She and other children from the village had frolicked and played in the vast overgrown gardens, running through the courtyard and peering into the grimy windows.