The Duke and the lass by Jessie Clever
The Unwanted Dukes Book 5
She was not surprised when the gentleman appeared in her bedchamber in the middle of the night. She was, however, surprised by what he said.
“I’m not here to seduce you. You have nothing to fear from me.” He held up his hands as if this were supposed to reassure her.
She stuffed a length of shortbread in her mouth and chewed vigorously as she took him in.
Her recollection of the previous hours was blurred with exhaustion from her sudden voyage to Kettleholm, and now that she was safely in her rooms, she was attempting to reconstruct them. That was, until the gentleman arrived.
If she remembered correctly, he was a duke. An English duke. As her grandmother always said, Della’s father shed friends like a dog shed hair, so it wasn’t worth the effort it might take to recall their names, and so she hadn’t done so with his. Once a gentleman discovered her father’s duplicitous nature, he often became scarce when social invitations were extended. Things must have reached desperate levels if her father was inviting the English to his castle now.
She had arrived at MacKenzie Keep earlier that evening with a stomach twisted in knots, one thought racing back and forth until peace was nothing more than a figment of her imagination.
She’d reached her majority, and her father would now seek an advantageous match for his only offspring. That could be the only possible reason he had sent for her so abruptly after years of neglect.
It had been her mother’s dying request that he not marry her off too young, and for some odd reason, the MacKenzie had honored the request. Della thought it more likely he had simply forgotten about her until the time had come when he needed critical connections in either land dealings, business, or Parliament.
Since receiving her father’s letter, she had eaten nearly an entire tin of shortbread in the time it had taken to pack her trunk, and with each bite, she had contemplated whom her father may have selected for her future husband. She knew he would need to be someone of power and influence, and the very thought sent her back to her shortbread tin.
After all, she had no experience in society, had no idea how a lady was expected to behave. Grandmother had not thought her worth a season, and so Della had never been introduced. Not that there was much to be introduced to in Cumbria.
These thoughts had plagued her for the length of her journey so much so even the latest Melanie Merkett novel couldn’t distract her. She’d arrived well into the dark and had mounted the stone stairs to the hulking front doors of MacKenzie Keep with stalwart resolve, knowing she would find her future husband on the other side of those doors.
Except that wasn’t what had happened.
She’d been shown into the great hall where a raucous drunken spectacle was already unfolding. It had all the characteristics of a stalking party, the bawdy ones she’d remembered from the few times she had been at the keep to see her father, but that was before her mother had died and years had passed since then.
Maids dodged the exploring fingers of slimy old men while they tried to refill tankards and replace platters of roasted meat. Two men had their arms slung across each other’s shoulders as they danced and sang in front of the roaring hearth. The stone monstrosity was like an angry mouth behind them, yawning as if at any moment it would swipe them inside.
Della’s nervous stomach had threatened to empty itself at the sight of it, for the first time truly feeling the lack of her mother’s protection.
There was one man who hadn’t been drunk, however. This man. The Englishman who had found his way to her rooms.
She selected another finger of shortbread as she studied him.
“Why exactly should I believe you?”
His features suggested kindness, his eyes soft and reassuring. Of all her father’s guests, this Englishman seemed the least harmful, but he was still a man, and they were very much alone.
“Because if I did anything to harm you, my sisters would have my head.”
She raised an eyebrow at this. “Sisters?”
As an only child—no, more than that—as an unwanted, only child, she had had fantasies of having siblings, and she’d developed a rather unusual obsession about them. What was it like to share a history with someone from the beginning of one’s life? What was it like to share stories and memories?
Della didn’t have anyone with whom to share memories. Not even when her mother was alive.
“Four of them,” he said with a grave nod. “And I can attest to their fierceness when it comes to such matters.”
“Such matters as what?”
His expression turned quizzical. “Those that involve protecting a lady’s honor.”
She laughed until she realized he was serious. She pressed a hand to her chest. “Do you mean my honor?”
The fact that anyone should see to protecting her honor was rather ridiculous. Her mother had tried, but even now Della found herself in the devil’s den as it were.
He gave a nod. “Yes, I do.”
She made to laugh again but stopped at the serious expression on his face. “Oh, you actually mean that.”