The Duke She Married
The Atwood Sisters Book 1
By Jessie Clever
She knew what she was supposed to fear.
But as she huddled inside the carriage, rocked by the ferocious storm that had set upon them some miles back, she knew she didn’t fear what everyone might assume.
She didn’t fear the rumors about her soon-to-be husband, the ones that called him the Ghoul of Greyfair.
It was marriage itself she feared because the neglect and criticism she had faced in her childhood had taught her that relationships of any kind were not safe, and she was about to enter into the most perilous one of all.
She had left her family’s home in Mayfair three days previously, knowing she must journey to the outermost reaches of Kent, but never suspecting the weather would turn so foul so near her journey’s end as if sensing her fear and attempting to compound it.
Now as the carriage rattled with achingly slow progress over the uneven roads, rutted now as everything turned to mud in the deluge, she tried to recall the feel of each of her sisters’ hugs. Their sturdy arms wrapped around her, their familiar scents. The feel of Alice’s spectacles pressed against her cheek. The crackle of Adaline’s braid along her ear.
She kept her eyes shut, recalling the moment with painful clarity so she could never forget why she was doing this. She had to save her sisters and poor Uncle Herman.
Her eyes popped open at the thought of her uncle, the poor man upon whom so much had fallen in the past several days. When their father had been lost at sea in his final attempt to acquire funds to save the family and free Amelia from the marriage contract that was their only hope, Uncle Herman had unexpectedly become the fifth Earl of Biggleswade and the Atwood sisters’ new guardian.
The bumbling, forgetful bear of a man had taken to his duty with stunning fierceness, and closing her eyes once more, Amelia could feel the bristle of his whiskers against her forehead as he bent to kiss her goodbye.
She swallowed and threw out her hands to catch herself as the carriage rocked ominously. Fear and apprehension roared up inside of her, but she only tightened her grip on the bench beneath her and stared purposefully out the window.
But even as she was consumed by fear, she felt the lick of something else, something secret and forbidden deep inside of her. It happened every time something changed in her life. This little spark of something that scared her even more than anything else ever had. The hope that things might change. Even now, knowing the grim rumors that surrounded her future husband, knowing the danger such an attachment involved, she felt it. The hope that perhaps finally she would be enough.
She couldn’t help but think of the rumors then, sorting through the stories for the facts on which they were based. They were rumors after all. At the heart of it was a man who had suffered great tragedy. The Greyfair title’s country seat, Lagameer Hall, had burned to ashes, and the duke’s wife had perished in the fire. The rumors, however, suggested it was the Duke of Greyfair himself who had set fire to his estate in a jealous rage, killing his wife. Only in his wrath, he’d been unable to escape, and the fire had left him horribly disfigured.
Somehow the idea that she might be marrying a wife-killer was less terrifying than the idea of marrying at all.
It was at that moment that the carriage came to a spectacular, crashing halt, tossing Amelia against the opposite bench as though she were weightless. The storm pounded against the carriage, and for a moment, her ears rang with it, drowning out the sound of her own heartbeat. She struggled to right herself, but the carriage had tipped to an extreme angle, and it was all she could do to wedge herself in one corner, giving herself time to regain her senses.
Her hands went to the door automatically, scrambling to get the thing open, but her efforts were useless. The handle wouldn’t turn. She threw herself against the door, but the way the carriage listed to that side, her efforts were futile. Again, the door did nothing more than rattle at her impact.
In the near blackness, she tried to make out the shape of the opposite door, but it floated somewhere above her, far too high for her to even hope of reaching it.
She was trapped.
She swallowed down her panic. This was not the time to let her imagination wander. There had simply been some trouble. Surely the coachman would come to her aid.
Unless he had been injured in the wreck.
The panic was real now, gripping her lungs as if to keep her from breathing. Her chest heaved, and she closed her eyes.
What would Adaline do?
She would tell Amelia to remain calm and wait for help.
It was then she noticed the wetness that grew along her back. Fumbling in the dark, her fingers encountered a thick, gritty substance spread over the length of her already sodden cloak. She pulled her fingers away and studied them in the darkness, but all she could see was a viscous substance dripping from her fingers. Cautiously she held her hand up to her nose, inhaling the unmistakable odor of wet earth with a salty tang she thought might be the ocean.
She jerked away from the corner, trying to pivot to see behind her. A flash of lightning lit the small space as if knowing her intention, and there it was.
The carriage had tipped entirely on its side, and mud seeped through the spaces around the door. Another flash of light. There was nothing visible through the window except the shifting earth below them and water.
Water everywhere, pouring through the cracks of the door and around the windowpane.
Dear God, the whole cabin would fill and drown her.
Panic turned to resolution.
She fumbled in the darkness, her hands searching the tufted ceiling. She found the leather strap used to help ladies gain the carriage. She slipped onto her backside, raising her leg. It took all her effort to lift it, dredging it from the folds of her ruined cloak, her wet skirts. Finally she managed to slip her foot inside of it. She tested it with her weight, feeling a spike of hope when it held.
She reached above her, her fingers finding purchase in the seam of the bench. She worked her fingers into the cushions until they collided with the wooden framework beneath. She was glad for her gloves, no matter how soaked they had become, because the wood below the bench was rough, and splinters tore at the cotton.
She started to move.
Inch by painful inch, she climbed the wooden framework of the bench like a ladder, but the slim frame only allowed her fingertips to gain a hold, and soon her hands throbbed with the effort.
She was nearly to the top when her foot slipped in the harness. She made a valiant leap, reaching blindly for the strap on the ceiling on the opposite side of the carriage. If only she could catch it, she could haul herself up to the other door.
Her fingers only met air. She was suspended for but an instant, her body hanging, her fingers outstretched for one last hope. Her breath caught and with it the knowledge that she would soon fall, trapped in the bottom of the overturned carriage.
And then someone grabbed her arm.