About the book
Because running from the past is a race you can't win...
Dutiful governess Miss Caroline Robins could easily recognize the handwriting on the mysterious note. Her past is catching up and it’s returned to finish what was started ten years ago.
Trapped in a loveless marriage, Moses Hayward, Duke of Barley, trudges the misty ground between propriety and his ever-growing attraction for his children’s governess.
But not everything is as it seems, and Caroline is hiding a dark secret that threatens to leave them in shambles. She's been lying to them all.
When Moses’ daughter is kidnapped, he is given an ultimatum: in order for Josephine not to die in a few hours’ time, Caroline must die in her stead.
The Barley Mansion
Six minutes—that was what it took to almost shatter the maid, Pauline Hart, who had just popped into the mansion to get a shawl for Lady Josephine Hayward as the evening was getting nippy.
Never had she imagined that she would go back to find the little girl gone. But she was, inexplicably, undeniably, gone and in her place was a note secured under a smooth river rock. She snatched it up, took one look at the first words, and ran full tilt back into the house with her heart drumming in her ears.
“She's gone!” She screamed while darting inside. “She’s been taken!”
It did not take long for the lord of the manor, Moses Hayward, to rush out with alarm on his face, “Wha—?”
“Your Grace,” the woman trembled and gasped in terror, “Lady Josephine is gone!” The words she had just uttered rocked her and she nearly fell over at the horrible image of the sweet child being held in a dark, cold room, all alone and scared out of her mind. “And the only way you can get her back is to exchange her for Miss Robins.”
The Duke’s face paled just as the Duchess’ voice came from the stairwell. “Moses, why did that ungodly scream disturb my rest? And what is this about Josephine? Tell me!” Her tone was almost hysterical. “What is happening?”
“Josephine has been kidnapped, Lavinia.” The Duke winced tightly, as her scream cut through the air, so shrill and laced with desolation it tore his heart in two.
The Duchess nearly fell from her precarious perch on the staircase. “How could that be?! How could someone just snatch her from the garden? We have eyes all over the place! How did no one see her?”
Moses grimaced. There has to be another agent here, but who?
The Duke took the crumpled note from the maid’s lax hand and read. “We have the child...and you can only get her back if you hand over the governess to us in the next twenty-four hours.”
“But—Miss Robins?” the Duchess stuttered. “She’s gone. You sent our governess away, Moses. She is halfway across the county! How can you get her back in twenty-four hours? It took you three days to get her away! What will they do to my little girl if we can’t get her back?”
The Duke crumpled the noted with steely determination. “I’ll get her back, Lavinia. I swear on my life, I will get them both back. Tell Oliver to saddle my horse! Hinds, shut the whole estate down, send for the constables, and search for the kidnapper’s accomplice. Do it now!”
“Yes, Your Grace!”
The Barley Mansion
Two Years Ago
“Take care, Lady Josephine.” Miss Caroline Robins, the new governess of the Duke of Barley’s children, was anxiously worrying over her charge, five-year-old Lady Josephine Hayward. The little girl was dangerously close to ruining her lovely blue cotton dress on the oozing fruit of a black mulberry tree.
It was the height of summer in southeast England and for the past few days, the sun had been at its fiercest. Caroline had to cease from bringing her charges on their daily walks for fear of them being harmed by the violent rays. This day, however—a peaceful Wednesday—had arrived with a benign spirit and carried with it calm blue skies, warm sunlight, and a soft breeze.
The morning hours had passed by with the governess fearfully watching the sky with doubt running through her mind about the walk. However, by the big and pleading blue-green eyes of five-year-old Josephine, Caroline had relented.
She was now seated on a warm stone bench amid the secondary garden of Barley Manor, with her hands folded over her simple black skirt. Her dark blue eyes glanced up at the window of a parlor room and saw Lord Nicholas Hayward, Josephine’s older brother, standing there and gazing out silently. There was a worry inside the governess for the boy, as he was too pensive and surly for such a tender age.
Mayhap he misses his mother.
Days after she had taken residence at the house, she had wondered why there was no introduction to the lady of the Manor but had not questioned it openly. It was only after a week she had started to ask subtle questions and had received answers even more subtle—the Duchess of Barley was ill and from the reports, she had been that way for years.
“Miss Robins!” Josephine called excitedly as she rushed over to her with her hands clasped tightly. The child was in such a hurry that she tripped over the edges of her petticoat.
Instantly, Caroline launched from her seat and caught the child just in time. Josephine’s hands parted and her treasure—a golden butterfly—flew from its corporal cage and flittered away. The governess was happier to see the child safe than the insect and frantically checked her over to make sure she wasn’t bruised.
She wasn’t physically hurt, but the sniffles Caroline heard told her the child was instantly miserable. Sighing, the governess gently lifted Josephine up, placed her on her lap and tucked her head, crowned with angelic golden strands, into the crook of her neck.
“Hush, Lady Josephine,” Caroline consoled while rocking her softly, “Hush, hush, now, and wipe your eyes. You will find another one soon, I promise. They are all around us.”
The sobs kept coming and Caroline felt her anxiety growing. What if the child was so distraught that she didn’t stop crying? How could she present her to her father with a red face and swollen eyes? Three full months had not passed since she had taken up the position with the Duke and Duchess of Barley and during that time, she had walked on eggshells.
Everything she did was planned out—her lessons, her daily activities, the rare moments where she allowed herself free time, her trips to the town nearby, and never, at any time, did she take any risks. Her position was too fragile for her to be daring fate.
Caroline swallowed her anxiety and tried to soothe the child even more when a deep baritone broke the uneasy air. Instantly upon hearing it, her breath stopped in her chest.
“Josephine,” Moses Hayward, the Duke of Barley came towards them, his stride assured and strong. “What is the matter, little duck?”
The Duke, dressed in a dark riding habit, coat and waistcoat of the darkest blue trimmed and embroidered with black, was coming towards them. Caroline lowered her eyes as he came closer.
To compound his power and air of command, the Duke was strikingly handsome and had a magnetic persona that never failed to draw eyes to him. Broad shoulders crowned a compact torso, that led to long, powerful legs. His face, square and sculpted, held a defined jaw, patrician nose, and deep—so very deep—verdant eyes under hooded brows.
Caroline’s throat was suddenly dry, and her heart was beating a steady and increasing thrum in her chest. Whenever the Duke was near, she always found herself out of sorts. Her body didn’t follow its normal rhythm, she felt flushed, even as anxiety sent cold shivers through her, and her mind never ceased to stop spinning.
After the first three times they met, Caroline deduced that her reaction to him was of fear—and rightly so. Anyone who knew their position on the social ladder—especially a governess like herself, a veritable servant—would be fearful to their core. The Duke had such integral power and authority that she felt insignificant near him.
“How do you do, Miss Robins?” His smooth, velvety but monotone voice flowed over her and her head jerked up in sudden reaction. Her body nearly followed but the weight on her lap prevented her from rising.
She managed a tiny smile even though her stomach was turning and tying itself in knots.
“Good afternoon, Your Grace. I am well, thank you. Forgive me for not standing, but how do you do on this fair day?”
“I am about to relieve you of your burden, Miss Robins. Please hand her to me,” the Duke said, as he reached out with both hands to take his quietly sobbing child.
Caroline made sure to shift in a way that he could take Josephine without any contact, but his fingers still brushed against the sleeves of her dark green dress. The touch was light, but Caroline still felt the fleeting touch run through her clothes into her skin.
When Josephine was in the Duke’s arms, Caroline stood and curtseyed, “Thank you, Your Grace.”
Her words did not grant her a reply as, instead of speaking to her, the Duke softly murmured to Josephine. The picture she saw calmed the turmoil in her chest. The Duke held the little girl with such serenity that Caroline could not help but smile.
For a young aristocrat of five-and-thirty, the Duke spent hours upon hours governing his Dukedom, taking care of tenants, and making sure he balanced his home duties and governmental ones. However, she knew that no matter how tired he was from his daily activities, or how busy he was with matters that dragged well into the night, he still made time to see his children—in lieu of his wife.
Caroline had seen the Duchess one or twice, at most, in the past three months and even then, the beautiful lady looked like a phantasm. Her hair was more golden and luminescent than her youngest child’s, her face elfin and gorgeous, but the reason Caroline classed her as an apparition was the deadness in her blue eyes.
“Miss Robins,” the Duke said over his shoulder, “Please notify the cook to make some warm milk and some buttered toast and take them to the drawing room on the second floor. I will carry her inside.”
Caroline faltered for a moment as she was imprinting the image of the Duke and his child on the shelf of her mind before she nodded and dipped into another curtsey. “Yes, Your Grace.”
Turning on her heel, Caroline took the cobblestone path to one of the numerous back doors and just before she entered, stopped and touched her arm. Her fingers fluttered over the spot and felt the touch again—only this time it felt stronger.
While comforting Josephine, Moses felt the weight of the governess’ eyes in the middle of his back but did not turn to meet her gaze. The majority of his attention was trained on the child resting in his arms. He had come a tad too late to know why his daughter was crying but that didn’t matter. She was upset and, as her father, he needed to take care of her.
But that did not downplay the presence of Miss Robins. The governess had arrived at his home three months ago. The moment he had seen her in his foyer, his first thought was, how is she a governess? She is stunning…
Her eyes were so deep a blue they looked black, rimmed with long, dark lashes, and the burnished glint of her dark auburn hair framed a delicate oval face.
For a moment, he had wondered if perhaps his coachman had carried the wrong person to his home—a debutante instead of a governess. However, she had ended that idea after the cordial introduction.
“Good afternoon, Your Grace,” she had spoken in a soft, gentle voice, “I am Miss Caroline Robins, the governess.”
Her soft demeanor, calm words, and kind gestures had made an impression on him and he felt drawn to her. Though she was a governess, she looked so delicate and so gentle that Moses had felt a strange protectiveness towards her.
There were days after when Moses saw her and noticed a cloak of loneliness around her. He was forced to admit that he felt a kindred spirit in her as he, too, was somewhat isolated.
At other moments when he found her alone, there was a calm peace around her that contradicted the loneliness, which intrigued him even more.
However, his thoughts should not be upon the governess, as his child was in his arms—she was his priority.
“Dry your eyes, little duck,” Moses whispered in her ear. “You are too beautiful for tears.”
Hushing Josephine softly, Moses plucked a flower from a bush and tucked it behind his child's ear. Kissing her forehead, he carried her back to the house and to the intimate drawing room instead of the formal dining room.
He entered just as Miss Robins was settling a tray on a small table. A lock of her hair had escaped her bun and was curving a delicate arc over her cheek to her chin, which Moses found enchanting.
She looked up and their eyes met for a moment before a soft flush trailed over her face as she curtseyed. “Good afternoon, Your Grace.”
Moses found himself speechless as she walked away and shifted on his heel to see her leave. What was it about Miss Robins?
Why do her eyes seem to enter into my soul so much deeper than anyone else? Even my wife…
But most importantly, what am I going to do about it?
With her hands clasped behind her, wearing a modest dark dress appropriate for a governess, Caroline Robins, the young educator of the Duke’s two children—Josephine and Nicholas, now seven and eleven respectfully—looked silently out the massive window of the schoolroom.
The second storey schoolroom had the perfect view of the stables and the wide pasture beyond. There, in the middle of the large span of land, was the children’s’ father, Moses Hayward, the Duke of Barley.
Caroline did not have to look at the massive grandfather clock in the corner of the room to know it was half an hour after one o’clock in the afternoon. Whenever he was home, the Duke always took his powerful thoroughbred for exercise at exactly that time.
The mount was so massive—his hide as black as the darkest night and his eyes deeper than the abyss—that Caroline privately feared for her master whenever he so much as approached it. Her fears were repudiated, however, each time he mounted with ease.
Her eyes were trained on the Duke as he expertly maneuvered the black beast over a series of jumps, each one higher than the one before it. The golden rays from above transformed the dark brown of his hair into a mass of dusky russet and played over his dark riding habit. She felt the warm glow of affection lighten her spirit.
Oh, how much of a ninny I am, Caroline softly scolded herself, while a smile curved her lips. I know he will fly over all of them, but I still worry.
The governess knew that she should have gone for her midday meal, but she wanted to wait for one special moment—the moment the Duke would give a rare smile.
It wasn’t much, merely a soft tilt of his lips that negated the somber expression he usually wore, but it was everything to the young woman. Warmth curled her stomach and she grasped the window sill and looked out further.
He becomes a different person when he smiles.
“Miss Robins?” came the sweet sound of seven-year-old Josephine from behind her.
Turning, Caroline smiled at the little girl, who had a smooth fall of golden hair over her shoulder and bright blue-green eyes, shades lighter than her father’s dark moss-green. “Yes, Lady Josephine?”
“Nicholas is teasing me again,” the sweet child said, her eyes brimming with tears. “Why is he so mean to me, Miss Robins?”
Folding her skirts under her, Caroline knelt and gave the child a warm smile, “He’s a boy, My Lady, and a brother. I am sure he loves you but finds it hard to show it. When you grow up, I am sure he’ll become so protective of you that you’ll wonder if he was mean to you at all.”
The little girl did not know it, but her brother was standing at the door and while speaking to Josephine, Caroline spotted a red streak of shame cross the eleven-year-old boy’s ruddy face as he looked down and scuffed his boot.
“Do you believe me, My Lady?” Caroline asked softly, and smiled when the child nodded and flung herself into her arms. Hugging her, Caroline smelt the rose-water scent on the child’s clean hair before squeezing her with an assuring touch.
Two years as their governess and Caroline still wondered how these children had grown so attached to her, to the point that she gained hugs sometimes. “Wonderful. Now please sit. We have to get back to your arithmetic, Lady Josephine and your Latin, Lord Hayward.”
“Yes, Miss Robins,” both children chorused as they sat.
The evening had come faster than Caroline had imagined and after releasing the children to their nurse, she had gone back to her modest servants’ quarters at the very back of the west wing.
After unbinding her hair from the relentless bun it was captured into, Caroline raked her hand through the long auburn tresses that stretched to her mid-back and sighed in relief. Soft hunger pains from her missed meal were harassing her stomach and she knew it was time to find some sustenance.
The light from the candle was getting dim but she managed to use it to wash her face and don a nightgown and robe. Slipping her slippers on, Caroline left the room in search of food. The servant's wing—the West Wing—was separated from the main one that housed the Duke, the Duchess and their two children, Josephine and Nicholas, with much fewer amenities. Both wings, however, shared the centrally located kitchen.
Caroline entered the warm room and found a covered glass of milk and a tray of rolls and cold butter sitting beside a slice of apple pie. Tender appreciation evoked a small smile on her face as she knew that it was the butler, Hinds, and Mrs. Willow, the head cook, who had left the food out for her.
Sitting and smiling, Caroline quietly ate her supper. While coddling her milk, she sat there, pondering, when a shuffle altered her to someone coming in—it was the head cook, Mrs. Willow.
“Oh, Miss Robins,” the cook acknowledged, as she hastily took out some pans. “I never saw you at supper, so, Mr. Hinds and I made sure to leave your meal out. I’m glad you ate. You’re too young to be skipping meals, luv. You need some meat on your bones.”
Laughing under her breath, Caroline shook her head, “Thank you for your consideration, but why are you up at this time of night?”
Mrs. Willow sighed audibly, “Her Grace’s lady’s maid woke me. I was told her stomach is giving her a warm time, and she requested some tea and some biscuits.”
Pressing her lips together to stop a soft exhalation, Caroline asked, “How is Her Grace doing?”
With both hands braced on her hips after she had placed the full pot on the grill of the woodburning stove, Mrs. Willow shook her head. It was mostly dark, but the flickering flame gave Caroline enough light to see that the cook was unsettled. “I cannot tell you, Miss Robins, she’s barely been out of bed these past three days.”
Looking back, Caroline couldn’t remember seeing the Duchess in the past month, much less the past few days, and grimaced.
“And how…” Caroline hesitated to speak in case her words would be misconstrued, “How is His Grace? I’d imagine not well—if I had to see the one I loved in such pain, day after day, I’d be just as disconsolate.”
“Well…” Mrs. Willow said, while carefully pouring the boiled water on the tea leaves and spooning in a touch of honey, “His Grace is a strong man. He had to be, to survive the military at a young age. Her Grace has gone through spells like this and I can bet he’s hoping that, just like the one before it, she will come through.”
Standing up and by habit brushing her skirts off, Caroline smiled. “I hope so, too. Good night, Mrs. Willow.”
“Good night, dear,” the older woman said, while carefully arranging a plate of biscuits on the tray beside the tea.
Leaving the kitchen, Caroline went back to her modest quarters and prepared for bed. Unbidden, her mind flitted over to the Duke and she mulled over what she knew about him.
It had been slow, as there were not many occasions when the two would mingle, but over time the pieces had come together. The image was not complete but the parts she had were lovely.
She knew that the Duke had spent some time in the military, that he was educated in the fields of business and law. She also knew that he copiously read historic books, adored his children, and had a strange penchant for spices from the subcontinent. The Duchess, on the other hand, preferred candies from France, read salacious gothic novels when she was strong enough, and barely paid any mind to anyone, least of all her children.
So sad. Caroline sighed. They are such wonderful children.
After two years of observation of the distance between the Duke and his wife, Caroline had come to a silent conclusion. Although it was not confirmed by any of the servants around her, it was evident—the marriage of the Duke and Duchess was one of convenience. It was not a strange concept, as many of the peerages entered into such engagements, but she wished the Duke could have found someone who truly loved him.
The distance between them was more evident on the carriage ride back from the hamlet’s church that Sunday. Though the couple was sitting together, the Duchess of Barley, clad in angelic white, had her eyes trained out the window while the Duke stared silently at the padded red upholstery in front of him.
Caroline and the two children were sitting behind them, with Nicholas mirroring his father’s attitude of solemnity, while Josephine continuously switched from sweetly chattering to humming under her breath. Caroline saw the Duchess’ jaw clench whenever Josephine’s chatter got too loud.
“Lady Josephine,” Caroline admonished softly, “Be quiet now, please. I promise to answer your questions when we arrive home.”
The child pouted but nodded, “Yes, Miss Robins.”
Out of her peripheral vision, Caroline noticed the Duke’s eyes close tightly for a moment, with lines of pain at the corners but they vanished in the next moment. Arriving at the ducal manor was a blessing and after the party alighted from the vehicle, the Duchess curtly spoke.
“I am wearied, Moses.” Her voice was stiff as she discarded her shawl and went to the stairwell, “And I will be resting. Please do not disturb me.”
Caroline balked at the lady’s indifference as she had not even turned to look at the man she was speaking to.
In reaction, Caroline stopped Josephine from going after her mother and softly shook her head. “Follow me, My Lady, let me take you and Lord Hayward to your rooms, so you can take off your church clothes. Then, you can have repast in the—”
“Thank you, Miss Robins.” The Duke cut in. “I appreciate your help, but I would rather not bother you on your Sunday afternoon. Please, let me take care of them.”
An expression of melancholy was in his eyes, but it was a look Caroline had seen many a time over the years, and every time she saw it, her heart pained her.
“Understood, Your Grace,” Caroline said as she curtseyed and left to her quarters. Doing so, she passed a large portrait above the fireplace—it was a beautiful depiction of the Duke, the Duchess, three-year-old Nicholas, and baby Josephine resting on the Duchess’s lap, all smiling serenely.
On the surface, it depicted a happy family but privately, Caroline thought the painter had taken some artistic liberties with the expressions. The creation was starkly contradictory from the reality she woke up to every day.
While approaching a corner she looked over to see the Duke lifting his daughter into his arms while resting his hand on his son’s head. He was speaking to the children, but his words were so quiet that she could not hear what he was saying. Silently, she went her way.
Her quarters were very humble, holding only a bed, a wash closet, an armoire, a table, and a chair. The floor underneath was bare wood and her slippers or stockings were sometimes the only things saving her feet from freezing during wintertime. However, it was summertime and the boards were warm enough.
Sunday evenings were her main respite from her weekly duties. She was allowed to do anything she desired; she could go to the nearest hamlet or wander the garden or stay in her quarters if she wished.
Unbinding her hair, Caroline changed into a soft blue dress and took up a book on philosophy that she had begun reading three days ago. The words, though enlightening, sounded monotonous in her mind, and soon enough she discarded the book for sketching.
There were two sketchbooks that she owned, one that had held beautiful representations of men, women, children, and curious objects but the second one was something of a shame for her.
The second book was a dark leather-bound book with intricate hand-tooled stitches. It was her most precious possession for two reasons; it was a parting gift from the nuns at the convent and secondly, and it held drawings of the Duke. When he was still mysterious to her, she had started drawing him one night on a whim, but her fascination with him had grown and every page thereafter had some depiction of him in one form or another.
She knew it was not right or proper for her to have such a predilection but Caroline fancied it a history of the Duke in an art form. She turned the pages to skim over her drawings, of the Duke one morning when she had seen him with his horse, to a bust of him in rare moments of anger. Smiling, she took out her box of graphite pencils and settled down with the wane of the day’s sun as her source of light.
Without thinking, her fingers started sketching the Duke’s face and then tracing the outline of his hair. His eyes were shaped but instead of filling them in, she went to shade the dark hood of his eyebrows.
She sketched the skewed cravat with a smile at his unintentional unkemptness and filled in his shoulders. She barely drew in his torso but went back to his face. Defining the line of his nose and the shape of his lips, she still left his eyes out for last. After shading in his hair and adding a line or two, she then rotated the page and though the image was wonderful and accurate—a virtual mirror of the Duke—she couldn’t find it in herself to smile.
The pencil was poised over the blank space of his eyes and the image in her mind flowed down her pencil and filled them in. She drew in the emotion in his eyes and when she saw the pain she had brought to life, she nearly ripped the page out.
Caroline pressed her lips tightly while her hand rested on the desk beside it. Why does his pain affect me so much?
After a moment of thought, she softly closed the book and went to wrap herself in a shawl.
He is hurting, and I know what it is like to hurt in silence.
It pained her, it truly did, to see a man as handsome, successful, and accomplished suffer in a loveless marriage but there was nothing much she could do about it.
Was he ever happy? Is there anything I can do to afford a little joy in his life…and would he accept it if I tried?
The potion of Socrates’ Poisoned Cup, an ancient elixir of sacrifice, was what the Duke believed he was sipping with every day that he woke up to bleakness and a loveless marriage. He had reasoned out years ago, that the price of sacrificing his happiness to care and provide for his family and the people in his dukedom, was a fitting bargain.
However, with every passing routine and monotonous day, he constantly questioned himself if his marriage to Lavinia Hayward had been the smartest decision of his life.
Their courtship had passed very quickly and they had married relatively young—her one-and-twenty, to his four-and-twenty—and the first weeks of that marriage had passed with them associating themselves with each other. Lavinia did not speak much in those days and Moses had taken her silence as her trying to acclimatize herself to her new home and station.
However, when her lugubriousness stretched on, Moses had begun to wonder. Her displacement had grown deeper after she had birthed Nicholas. Many older ladies—even his mother before she had passed—had told him that the Duchess’ drawing away was normal for some women and Moses had believed them.
As the doting husband, he had deliberately ignored her downheartedness and done all in his power to give her some joy—buying her rich clothes, delicate confections, glamorous jewelry, and anything that caught her eye.
Nothing had worked.
Between balancing his duties to his people and the Crown, the Duke had found it hard to care for his family, and with a still mostly absent Duchess, he had resorted to employing nurses for Nicholas. When the boy was a little over three years, Lavinia had conceived again and delivered Josephine—his little angel.
“I wonder if…” Moses sighed, not having the strength to speak the words running through his mind. If anything had worked.
Moses dropped the quill into the inkpot, sealed the last letter to the Regent, placed it onto a stack of other letters, and then stood. The crack in his bones told him he had been stationary for far too long and he felt that some exercise was required.
It was nearing dusk, so taking his thoroughbred out was not reasonable and dinner was a way off, so he decided that the best and easiest way was to take a walk in the garden.
The flowers of the main garden had been the prize of his mother, Victoria, the late Duchess of Barley. She had declared that the garden be ordered in a like-by-like system instead of a chaotic mix of colors. The delicate petals were grouped by hues, not by type. Precious pink carnations, dog-rose, and foxglove lit up a section of the park, while cuckoo flowers, cornflower, and chicory were blue sensations in another section.
Long cobblestone walks meandered through the foliage and small stone fountains were encircled by velvety green grass. The garden lamps were not yet lit but the sunset provided enough light to guide his way. The garden was the place his mother had come to for peace, and Moses wondered why he had not yet utilized the powers of tranquility it gave in the months before.
He then heard a soft humming, and frowning, followed the sound to its source. To his delight, he spotted Miss Robins bending over to examine a blue flower.
Instantly he regretted his words as she startled so strongly, that she nearly fell over into the bush. Before he could reach her, she luckily regained her footing and stumbled back.
Her chest was visibly palpitating, and her face was flushed as she spun to meet him, “Your Grace, good evening. You startled me.”
“I apologize, Miss Robins,” Moses offered peacefully. He looked around and noticed the soft sway of the trees to the dying summer wind. He looked back at his newest companion who, though standing quietly, was clearly nervous. “Now that you have regained your balance, would you care to walk with me, Miss Robins?”
By the slight widening of her eyes, he could see her astonishment but stood still waiting for her reply.
“I am honored, Your Grace,” she spoke gently and grasped her skirts.
His eyes darted down to catch the motion and admired her slender and graceful fingers as they grasped the dark cloth.
His gaze went back to hers as he spoke, “I assume you know that we have the issue of sending Nicholas off to school looming before us. How academically ready is he, Miss Robins?”
Looking at her, he noticed her defined profile, and his mind hearkened back to the thought he had had when seeing her first.
She truly is a beauty.
Miss Robin’s delicate oval face, high cheekbones, and smooth column of neck gave her a profile that he thought should be immortalized.
“His speaking of French is on par for his age, and his reading and writing of the language are very well. He is doing well in Greek and Latin, but his arithmetic does need some work and he has shown an interest in history and learning German.”
“Hm,” Moses considered, as they rounded a large rose bush. “And how are his manners?”
She hesitated before replying, “May I speak freely, Your Grace?”
Moses stopped mid-step, “Of course, you may. You’re free to speak, Miss Robins. There is no castigation here."
“He is too grave for my peace of mind, Your Grace,” Miss Robins replied with a concerned look lining her face. “He is far too pensive and I…” here she looked quickly at him to ascertain his emotion, “…am led to believe that Her Grace’s condition is affecting him. Please forgive me if I was too bold.”
Moses heard the quick fearful addition to her words but felt compelled to soothe her anxiety. “To be honest, Miss Robins, his morose disposition has been a concern of mine, also. However, I do not believe my wife’s affliction is his infirmity. He is a young boy. Miss Robins, I am assured his behavior is because he has no peers to correlate to. The school, with boys his age, will probably change his disposition.”
Her sigh of relief was audible, “I sincerely hope so, Your Grace. Thank you for alleviating my fears.”
The air between them changed and Moses was not sure what to attribute it to. Perhaps the pale sky had suddenly changed to a quick mélange of dark reds and indigo by the riveting sunset, or perhaps the wind had picked up and caused Miss Robins to twist her head away and by doing so, cause her lashes to flutter.
She was so close he could smell the genteel perfume wafting from her skin and soft sparks of magnetism drew him. There was no contest that she was beautiful and despite her station, he admired her…and felt drawn to her smile.
But did admiration transform into…attraction?
There was no physical way to smother the small sparks that were running over her skin. There was no touching between her and the Duke, but Caroline felt something intimate was happening. It was more meaningful—more of a meeting of the mind rather than one of the skin.
She felt his dark green eyes trace over her, and the soft sparks that they sent over her skin were frightening but also magnetizing. The Duke cleared his throat and the spell was broken.
Caroline tensed hard as her mind had tripped into flurries.
“…if you can be as candid with me as possible, as often as possible, I would appreciate it. Your honesty is like a breath of fresh air to me.”
Caroline nearly swallowed her tongue at the almost inconceivable request that the Duke had lobbed to her like a ball. “I’m sorry, Your Grace, you want me to be…candid—truthful—with you?”
“Yes,” The Duke’s tone was dry.
She still didn’t believe it, “Completely honest?”
“Yes, Miss Robins.”
She blinked, “Even to the point where the truth might be…brutal?”
“Brutality is needed sometimes,” the Duke added, with a smile that Caroline had never seen before. It was a combination of amused, knowing, and teasing. “Miss Robins, there are many things and many people that I deal with every day, but there is one rarity. I cannot calculate the number of people that have the bravery to be candid with me. However, you, Miss Robins, must be in that fraction.”
Something funny was happening in her stomach, all the muscles were pulling in and tightening as the two walked back to the house.
“Good evening, Miss Robins,” he smiled at her silence as they parted at the foyer.
“Same to you, Your Grace,” Caroline replied as she curtseyed, then walked off. Halfway to the corridor, she turned to look at his retreating figure and eagerly drank in the sight of his dignified profile.
Hurrying to her room, she closed the door quietly and then sank onto the edge of her bed. She felt flushed and pressed a hand to her cheek. From there she slipped her fingers to her neck and felt the throbbing of her pulse.
Finally coming to a conclusion—one that she did not like as it was the definition of insanity—Caroline dropped her head into her hands and covered her eyes. There was no basis for her sudden attachment to him—none whatsoever. However, even with no solid ground, she felt the emotion soar.
What have I gotten myself into? I cannot do this. I cannot fancy him. His kindness is not an indication of anything more than his generosity. I cannot fancy him.
Her strident mantra grew fainter and fainter every time she tried to remind herself until it had no strength at all. Her words were powerless.
She went to bed with a single thought looming through her mind.
I do fancy him and by doing so I have doomed myself. How can I look him in the eyes without betraying myself? What will I do now?
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