The Marquess She Loved
The Atwood Sisters Book 2
On Sale June 16, 2022
Adaline Atwood knew the difference between beauty and money.
The difference being that beauty was a luxury and money was a necessity. It was unfortunate that of the two she had been gifted the luxury.
This imbalance was the reason she stood with the wallflowers by the refreshment tables at every ball. She didn’t mind really. The thing about wallflowers was they didn’t miss a moment of what happened in any ballroom.
After her first awkward year of standing on the periphery, she had grown accustomed to it and almost looked forward to her chats with the spinsters, matrons, and wallflowers that littered the edges of society.
Only sometimes she wished her years of seeing and never being seen hadn’t cultivated quite such a skill in detection.
Because for four years she had watched the man she loved fawn over a woman who gave him no more thought than she did the dust on her slippers.
And it hurt.
It hurt Adaline to see it because while she stood and watched the man she loved be humiliated, she harbored in her a wealth of adoration and respect that she would happily shower upon him if only he turned in her direction.
But he never did. At least, not in the way she had always hoped.
And so she hurt even more for the obvious disdain the woman showed him, disdain he seemed destined to remain oblivious to.
Some nights she made an attempt to ignore him. She would turn to her companions, keeping her back to the ballroom so as to avoid any accidental sighting of him. It hurt less that way.
But tonight she deliberately sought him out at the Fairfield ball. She must because Ashfield Riggs, the newly minted Marquess of Aylesford, had recently traveled to Kent. He had told her that he would need to return to London by this week, and she had searched every ball for the past three days for him for surely he must return soon.
She knew such intimate detail of his travel plans because not only was she madly in love with the man, but she had, as previously mentioned, the absolute worst luck imaginable.
Ashfield Riggs was also her best friend.
That was why she stood on tiptoe to peer over the heads of the gentlemen who had congregated in front of her. She had to know if Ash was there. It was quite possible he had seen her sister in his travels to Kent, and she must know what he had thought of her.
Amelia sent letters, of course, but they were not enough. The written word could so easily hide the true state of one’s life, and Adaline had feared the worst for her little sister since she had left their home two months earlier to marry the Ghoul of Greyfair.
She closed her eyes, inwardly chastising herself for thinking of her new brother-in-law in those terms. Amelia had said time and again in her letters that the duke was no ghoul, and yet Adaline couldn’t bring herself to believe such.
Because Adaline was drowning in guilt, and as anyone who had the occasion to feel guilty would know, it was terribly difficult to extricate oneself from the mire.
Adaline’s guilt had come on like a wind across the moor, sharp and cutting and unexpected. Unexpected quite simply because she had been blind to what was happening around her. It wasn’t until her mother was dead and her father had left that she realized what had happened to Amelia. What had happened to her dear little sister right under her nose.
And then Amelia had been sacrificed to the ghoul.
Er, the duke.
The homelife of the Atwood sisters had not been the rosiest. It had not been gloomy either though. Ruth Atwood was an exacting woman, however, and she paid particular attention to her daughters. Namely in how they continued to fail her.
Adaline had learned early on to avoid the woman, and she believed, this was the reason for her fast and lasting friendship with Ash. She avoided her home at all costs, preferring to visit with friends, and Ash had been among them. But it was Ash’s own struggles at home that had bonded the pair.
It was only later when Ash returned from Eton late one spring, coming to see her first before returning home, that she realized her mistake.
While her childhood friend had left for school, a man had returned in his place. A man with broad shoulders and a deep voice and warm eyes and a quick smile.
She’d fallen in love with him as he’d dismounted in front of her house. She could remember the day clearly. She’d run to the front door at the first sound of hooves on the cobblestones on the square, and so she’d been standing on the stoop when he’d arrived.
She’d clutched at the wrought iron railing, dazed by what she had seen, confused by what was happening. Her childhood friend was gone, and suddenly she felt a surge of feelings so foreign to her they were frightening.
She knew in an instant feelings so scary could only be love.
And only too quickly did she realize he didn’t return those feelings.
It was obvious because the first words he’d said in greeting to her that day were to ask if she was acquainted with Lady Valerie Lattimer and could she arrange an introduction for him.
Lady Valerie Lattimer.
Of course Adaline knew her. Everyone of their age knew her. Lady Valerie Lattimer had beauty and money and charisma and connections. It was a combination any debutante would envy. And at the time, Lady Valerie hadn’t even been out.
It didn’t matter. Any lady nearing the marriage market knew there was no defeating Lady Valerie Lattimer, and every girl had lowered her expectations for a match. For surely all the good ones would gravitate toward Lady Valerie like a hound to a fox.
Adaline only wished Ash would eventually see the truth.
Lady Valerie Lattimer was the worst person Adaline had ever met.
The woman was petty and selfish, cruel and unkind. But her ability to convince a man he was the center of the universe kept the male of the species in the dark.
Adaline had thought now that she was four and twenty and firmly on the shelf, she would forget about her love for Ash. She could tuck it away like an old, beloved heirloom that one took out from time to time to admire and remember when things were simple.
Because nothing was simple anymore.
Her mother was dead, her father lost at sea, and her sister sacrificed to a ghoul. Sorry, a duke. And it was all Adaline’s fault.
She should have been there to protect Amelia from their mother’s scorn. She should have seen what was happening instead of assuming her sisters knew to keep out of their mother’s line of sight.
But Adaline knew Amelia hadn’t. She was quite certain Alice, the youngest Atwood sister, had survived their mother without too many scars because Alice was largely oblivious to the world around her, her books and her experiments occupying her attention. But not Amelia. Poor quiet Amelia, lost somewhere in the middle of her sisters, had taken the brunt of their mother’s scorn.
That was why she had so readily sacrificed herself to the Ghoul of Greyfair.
Uh, Duke of Greyfair.
Where was Ash?
She craned her neck around the side of the matrons who had now approached the gentleman to discuss the quality of the champagne being served.
She wasn’t paying attention to how she was leaning until her elbow struck the cut crystal of the punch bowl on the table beside her. She watched, unable to move, as the bowl rocked ominously before a hand shot out, stopping her humiliation in a single motion.
“I’m gone no more than a fortnight, and you start assaulting punch bowls.”
“Ash.” She hated how his name came out like an oath, but she couldn’t help it. “You’ve returned.”
“Of course, I returned. You didn’t think I was going to stay in Kent forever.”
He was handsome tonight. He was always handsome with his almost boyish features, his quick smile, and warm eyes. When she looked at him, she couldn’t help the feeling of happiness that bubbled up inside of her.
“I’ve heard Kent is quite lovely.”
He laughed. “I would say it’s rather empty.” He paused as if thinking. “And there are an extraordinary number of cows. I felt rather outnumbered.”
“By cows?” She couldn’t stop the disbelief from entering her tone.
His expression folded until she almost believed she’d actually wounded him.
“Have you ever seen a cow? Menacing creatures. I shouldn’t like to be left alone with one.”
She smiled, and it was only then that she realized that was his intent.
She wasn’t sure how many exchanges they had had like this. Standing at the edge of society functions. Attuned to only each other and how they didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the ton.
Only now Ash did fit in. He was a marquess. She took an involuntary step back. It was another change, one she hadn’t realized until it stood directly in front of her. Her chest squeezed uncomfortably, and she turned away from him on the pretense of adjusting her dance card along the folds of her elbow-length gloves.
“I trust your travels went well.”
“It was terribly dull.”
She looked sharply at him. “You’ve always enjoyed a good jaunt. What was so different this time?” His gaze scanned the crowds, a gesture painfully familiar, and loss radiated through her. He had been standing next to her for mere seconds and already he was looking for someone else.