Published by St. Martin's Press on October 31st 2017
Purchase: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo
He would do anything to protect her. Even marry her…
The son of a cold-hearted duke, Nicholas St. Mauer isn’t one to involve himself in society…or open his own heart to anyone. But driven by honor, the reclusive Earl of Somerton feels obliged to keep a watchful eye on Lady Emma Cavensham. She possesses a penchant for passions unbecoming a woman that finds Nick in constant peril of losing his well-structured solitude. She even dared kiss Nick once―an utterly unladylike, and delightful, lapse…
Emma can’t deny the appeal of the earl’s attention, and occasional affection, but she has no need for a man. There are worse fates than spinsterhood, as Emma knows too well. She still mourns the loss of her dear friend Lena, and is determined to prove Lena’s husband responsible for her death before he lures another innocent woman into a brutal marriage. But as Emma pursues her prey, a compromising moment upends all her plans. Now, with gossip swirling and her reputation in tatters, Nick may be the only man brave enough to join in Emma’s cause. . .and fight for her heart.
October, 1797 Berkshire
For most, the opportunity to see one’s father visiting the esteemed halls of Eton College would be far more preferable than cleaning chamber pots.
Unless your father was Drake St. Mauer, the Duke of Renton.
Alone in his room, Nicholas St. Mauer, the Earl of Somerton, tried to ignore the tremble of his hand, a sign of weakness, as he held the muslin drape aside. His sticky palms were another matter. Another swipe down the side of his breeches did little to stem his nervous energy. He wasn’t a coward. No matter how downcast, he’d meet his father.
Refusing to blink in case he missed the duke, he locked his gaze below on the black-lacquered ducal carriage emblazoned with a coat of arms as familiar as his name. Two lions holding shields that bore the family heralds reared on hind legs, back-to-back, ready to attack any foe. As a small boy, he’d developed a strong sense of familial pride and awe whenever he saw the crest. Today, it brought an immediate sense of censure.
His father had arrived on the grounds over an hour ago. The expected summons from the provost hadn’t yet materialized. Nick relaxed his vigilance and pressed his eyes shut for a moment to relieve the dryness. An undeniable foreboding continued its relentless march through his thoughts. He cleared his throat in a poor attempt to lessen the panic that squeezed his chest.
He was currently missing a Latin exam. Normally he’d have been eager to prove his adeptness. Now, he could not have cared less since it mattered little. His father was here.
The fact his father deigned to grace the hallowed halls of Eton should have been marked in the annuals of the school’s history books—an event rarer than a total solar eclipse and just as ominous. His father never came to see him.
In the ten years he’d attended school, Nick had never had a visitor—until today. No one cared. During the school break for the holidays, he was always the last to leave. As if an afterthought, one of the ducal carriages would lumber into the school’s driveway and bring him home.
At fifteen, school was the only constant in his life. Gifted with figures, he’d been shuffled from one elite boarding school to another. After he’d mastered a school’s offered mathematics curriculum, which inevitably occurred, the headmaster would politely suggest another institution might be more of a challenge to his analytical prowess. The routine of changing schools had repeated ad nauseam until Nick had learned it was far easier to become a recluse. There was no pain if you didn’t leave behind any friendships. It made life less complicated.
That had changed once he attended Eton. His instructors had taken a special interest in him and his talents. For the first time in his life, he belonged somewhere.
It wasn’t a secret that his father despised him. Never allowed to call him “Father” or “Papa,” Nick had learned at an early age to address his sire as “Your Grace.” Even the servants at Renton Hall cleared a wide berth around him, the heir and the one and only child of the duke. No doubt, they feared his loss of favored status could be contagious.
The familiar tightness around his throat grew stronger. The first time he’d experienced it, the ducal carriage had deposited him at a school close to the Scottish border. No one said a word or offered comfort as the carriage pulled away. He didn’t leave his watch until the vehicle disappeared from sight.
Bloody hell, he had only been five years old.
Over the years, he’d trained himself not to feel or ac- knowledge the pain. He exhaled, and the suffocating shackles of disquiet loosened.
Muffled voices broke the quiet in the courtyard. The provost, Mr. Davies, was practically running after the duke and speaking in a raised voice. Nick rested his fore- head against the cool glass of the window, desperate to hear every word. Waiting to assist, a Renton footman had opened the carriage door at the first sight of the duke.
Fate was in his own hands, so Nick flew to the door and flung it open. He ran to the dormitory steps and collided with two philosophy students several years his senior.
“Pardon me.” His voice cracked in a high pitch that closely resembled a pig’s squeal. The two young men fell against the wall and uttered curses his way. By then, he was halfway down the steps. His ungainly legs and feet tangled in a hopeless knot causing him to miss the last three steps. Pain screamed through his legs as his knees took the brunt of the fall. The skinned palms of his hands burned as if on fire. He paid little heed as his only concern was reaching his father and showing him the man he’d become.
Throughout the course of his years, he’d watched and learned the rituals and intricacies of being a gentleman. Perchance, his father would see the results of his work and find some pride in his actions.
Nick threw open the door, causing it to bounce against the stone wall. The crash reverberated in the courtyard. He stopped, willing his father to turn in his direction— waiting for an acknowledgment.
The duke half-glanced in his direction and lifted a foot to step into the carriage.
If he didn’t do something, the carriage would leave. “Your Grace.”
The provost stepped aside as Nick reached his father. “Your Grace?” Nick lifted a hand, but a stern footman stepped between them to keep Nick away. He’d quickly squelched the faint hope his father would invite him home for a visit. Nevertheless, he expected the duke would speak to him, at least for a moment or two. “Please,
Your Grace,” Nick begged.
His father turned. In his early forties, strength and vitality emanated from his body. Simply put, the duke was a force to be reckoned with. The yellow hair and patrician features were similar to his own, but the duke’s hardened expression was one Nick would never grow accustomed to.
“What is it?” the duke snapped.
Nick swallowed the searing pain clogging his throat. He hadn’t cried since he’d left Renton House at the age of five and would be damned if he gave the old man the pleasure of seeing his weakness, the desire to be wanted or simply accepted. “Sir, did you need to see me? I hope we could perhaps . . . I could have a few minutes of your company.”
God, Nick hated the desperation that leaked from his throat. His father didn’t give a damn about him or his accomplishments. He shouldn’t have bothered. The duke didn’t waste time on his only son or the letter he’d painstakingly written seeking two hundred pounds. He’d retched after posting the missive seeking such a large sum, but he had no other choice.
His only friend, Lord Paul Bartstowe, was also a duke’s son. Full of bravado that others envied, Lord Paul had entered a card game at the local tavern with some unsavory men and lost. Thrilled to have been invited by the powerful Duke of Southart’s second son, Nick had foolishly accompanied him.
Holding the game-winning hand, a giant of a man had threatened Lord Paul’s life if he didn’t pay. The look of desperation in his friend’s eyes triggered something within Nick. Stepping in as any gentleman would, he signed the notes to keep Lord Paul from harm. It was what any friend would do for another. They left the tavern together, safe from the ruffians with the understanding Lord Paul would have the funds within a week.
Repeatedly, Lord Paul had assured Nick he’d pay his debt, but the monies never materialized. Two weeks ago, the man who’d won the game ventured to the dormitory and paid Nick a visit. He demanded payment with a convincing fist to Nick’s stomach and explained the dire consequences for both Nick and Lord Paul if the money wasn’t forthcoming. The threats had been quite graphic with gruesome descriptions of rearranged facial parts and broken appendages. Nick had no recourse but to ask his father for the funds.
“You’re asking if I need to see you?” The duke’s voice sounded so familiar to Nick’s ears, but yet so foreign. “Why would I ever ask for you, a debauched wastrel with gambling debts? You bring shame—” The duke’s mouth thinned into a line. He tugged his beaver hat securely onto his head while his steely gaze burrowed into Nick’s own.
Several windows creaked opened in succession, and a few of the students leaned out the casements to watch the scene unfold. Nick glanced around the courtyard in a futile effort to gain his composure. With a sniff, he quickly swiped his left eye. The duke stared at the telltale wetness against Nick’s hand. They both knew his words had wounded.
The duke shook his head. “You’re weak and unfit to be my heir. You’re not even worthy to be called the Earl of Somerton. The courtesy title would be better bestowed on a stable boy.”
An unleashed defiance that came from years of living on his own broke free, and Nick took a step closer. He’d not suffer another insult. Even though his father had at least a five-stone advantage, Nick was almost tall enough to stare straight into the duke’s eyes.
“I don’t like you much.” The duke lowered his voice. “You’re like one of those vain, ostentatious race horses that can’t win a race, all looks but worth nothing.”
Involuntarily, Nick took a step back. A few of his classmates had gathered at the edge of the courtyard. Like vultures ready to feast on carrion, they drew his attention away from his father. Some of the well-known bullies mocked and snickered at the duke’s retort. Others simply stared in horror. One young man, the Marquess of Pembrooke, stepped forward but must have thought better of it and retreated. Something akin to pity crossed his face. Lord St. John Howell, the biggest tormentor of all, stood front and center. He stood a half-foot taller than Nick, but his most remarkable feature was his chest. Thick and muscled, it resembled a barrel.
Nick sneered at them all to hide the blistering shame he suffered at his father’s cruel words. “At least I had one loving parent,” he whispered.
“Well, that’s debatable as your mother never made mention to me,” the duke scoffed. He tapped his finger against one check as if contemplating a mathematical theorem. “Come to think of it, how could she? You killed her when she gave birth to you.”
A fiery heat bludgeoned Nick’s face. At that precise moment, he couldn’t have cared less whether any of his classmates witnessed the tears that coursed down his checks. Irate, his fists clenched, he focused on the man in front of him.
“Don’t even consider lifting a hand against me,” the duke growled.
“Go ahead, old man, hit me first,” Nick challenged. It wasn’t hatred that spewed from the blue-green depths of his father’s eyes, but something else. It resembled bitter- ness or maybe resentment.
The duke was the first to break away. He spat on the ground as if to rid himself of a foul taste. “We’re done. Perhaps it’s best if you not cross the threshold of Renton Hall again in the near future and don’t ask for anything. I’m finished.”
“Finished with what?” Nick was incredulous at the statement. The duke was the only family he had.
“You. Find your own way. If you’re man enough to take on someone else’s foolish debts, you can take care of yourself.” The duke turned on his heel and entered the carriage. He tapped the roof once, and the team of four perfectly matched bays jerked the carriage into motion.
Numb, Nick stood rooted in place, grasping to comprehend what had happened as the carriage lumbered off the grounds. His ears rang, and in that moment, all he could do was concentrate on the tinny sound.
“Well, that didn’t go well, did it?” Lord Paul slapped him across the shoulder. “What a bloody bugger. I’ll ask for the funds today. I apologize.”
“You haven’t asked for the money? It’s been weeks.” The words echoed in his brain as if he were speaking into a well. He shook his head to clear the haze that threatened to drown him.
“I’m waiting on my monthly allowance. It’d be easier—”
“For whom?” Nick swallowed the nausea that threatened to overtake his last ounce of control. “You selfish bastard.”
“This is not the time or the place for a discussion.” Alex Hallworth, the Marquess of Pembrooke, had recently inherited his father’s title. Somehow, he’d joined their conversation.
With a shrug of his shoulders, Lord Paul returned to the dormitory.
Nick dismissed the interruption by turning his back on Pembrooke. The pain refused to leave him.
“Even your own family doesn’t waste time in your company,” Howell jeered. “Seems the duke has finally dropped the leading strings.”
Others laughed at the taunt, but their unease hung in the air like a thick London fog. Howell was known for his cruelty, and no one wanted to be his next target.
“Enough.” Pembrooke’s menacing tone scattered most of the students, including Howell, back into the dormitory.
Pembrooke was nothing more than an acquaintance, someone Nick nodded to when they passed in the hall, yet the marquess sidled next to Nick as if an ally. Pembrooke stared in the direction the duke’s carriage had taken. “If there’s anything—”
“Leave.” Nick managed to ground out the single word.
Pembrooke didn’t answer. After a moment, he pivoted on his heel and left Nick’s side.
The bitter sting of humiliation seeped into his conscience, little by little. He tried to ignore it, but it grew stronger and threatened to take him to his knees. He spared a quick glance, enough time to see the re- maining students leave the courtyard and the provost’s quiet exodus while shaking his head.
This was his reward for trying to be a man his father would be proud to claim as his son.
The duke had exiled him.
Fat cold drops of rain had started to fall. He let it soak through his clothing until his skin was wet and chilled. If heaven was crying for him, it was a wasted effort. He’d already decided what to do.
Every ugly moment of this day would be locked into a safe and reliable cage, one that would insulate his heart. Strong and unbreakable, it could be opened only by him.
He’d abide by his father’s decree. He’d never again step foot on any Renton property. Nor would the duke be allowed anywhere near him. As important, Nick vowed never to acknowledge any student who had laughed and mocked him while his father cast him aside.
They could all rot in hell.
Nick made one more promise. Whatever he had to sur- render, whatever he had to endure, whatever sacrifice, he’d amass a fortune greater than his father’s wealth.
Moreover, he’d do it on his own. He needed no one.
Copyright © 2017 by Janna MacGregor and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.
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How many years had Nick been in school without ever having one visitor?
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