It’s Always the Duke – Lisa Campell

Caroline Wentworth’s brows furrowed in a frown as she beheld her reflection in the mirror. She raised her chin and turned her face from side to side to make certain she wasn’t mistaken. A sigh slipped past her lips as she lowered her head. She wasn’t mistaken. There was something not quite right. Yes, her golden hair was tamed in a chignon above her head. Some tresses had been allowed to roam free though, and they framed her oval-shaped face beautifully. The blue of her dress matched that of her eyes, causing the crystal orbs to shine even more. Her nose was as pert as it’d always been, perfect for her small frame. She considered it her best feature. Her lips remained the coral color of roses, thin and supple. Her chin was as sharp as ever. Everything seemed to be the same. Yet, something gnawed at her. She wasn’t the kind to be overly concerned about her looks, but the evening’s occasion called for it.

Dinner with the Daltons wasn’t something to be taken lightly. More than anything, she needed to impress them. To do so, she had to look her best. Nothing else would do. “My face is too pale,” she said aloud, finally realizing what the matter was. Her father had often said her skin made him think of silk and milk in a fine blend. It didn’t seem that way that night. There was silence as she turned from side to side again, raising her chin still. She soon broke the spell. “Perhaps we should add more color to my cheeks? Don’t you think, Amelia?” Her lady’s maid stepped back to look at her.

She took her time with her appraisal, pressing her lips together when she finished. Caroline’s eyes narrowed at the gesture. “You don’t agree.” It was more of a statement than a question. Amelia shook her head. “I’m afraid not, miss. Any more would be too conspicuous. Perhaps we should brush off some powder and rub on the lip salve?” Caroline turned to the mirror again. It appeared Amelia could be right. The powder might be responsible for making her face seem so pale.

After one long look, she decided. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try.” Her response evidently pleased Amelia. She gave in to a smile of her own as she saw her maid’s lips perk up in approval. It was no secret that Caroline considered Amelia as more than a lady’s maid. Amelia was a dear friend, a black-haired beauty with stormy gray eyes and such a petite frame that it made Caroline feel protective of her. Though Amelia was a summer older, she stood shorter than Caroline’s five-foot-five inches, at five-foot-two. She was such a gentle spirit, always with a smile to spare, and a heart so beautiful that Caroline could not help being endeared. They had known each other since they were children. Amelia was the cook’s daughter, and when she clocked four-and-ten summers, their parents had agreed that she would serve well as Caroline’s lady’s maid.

Ever since then, they’d been almost inseparable. “Alright, my lady. Here we go,” Amelia said, holding up a brush. Caroline raised her head and let her eyes flutter closed so that Amelia could work her wonders. She remained that way for a short while and soon Amelia announced, “All done, my lady, you may take a look now.” Caroline’s eyes opened, and this time when she looked at herself in the mirror, she smiled. “Ah, Amelia. As always, you’ve outdone yourself. It’s perfect.” It was.

The irked feeling she had had a while ago had suddenly disappeared, leaving only pleasure behind. She was pleased, utterly so. “I’m glad it is to your liking,” Amelia muttered softly. “It is. You were right about the lip salve. It’s simply fitting, gorgeous even. I do believe the Daltons will be stunned by my beauty tonight. All thanks to you.” Amelia would have said something then but the door to Caroline’s chambers opened and her aunt entered. “They need to be stunned by more than your beauty, Caroline.

Your manners are just as important.” Caroline gave in to the urge to roll her eyes as her aunt’s words filled her ears. “I haven’t forgotten them, Aunt Trudy.” “Good,” her aunt responded. “You’d do well not to.” Her aunt came to a stop a few feet away from her but even from the distance, Caroline could see the twinkle in her eyes and pride in her smile. Her heart warmed. Aunt Trudy might try to seem daunting, but she was the softest and dearest of all. “Our guests have arrived and your father sent me to bring you. You know it is rude to keep them waiting.

” “I won’t,” Caroline said, rising to her feet. “I’m already. See?” she asked as she stepped away from her chair to stand in front of her aunt. Her aunt’s eyes roamed over her from head to toe. When she finished her appraisal, she nodded in approval. “It appears you are.” “How do I look?” “Absolutely stunning. The Daltons are going to fall even more in love with you, for certain.” “More in love?” Caroline asked as she put on her gloves. “Yes,” Aunt Trudy answered.

“It’s common knowledge that they’ve always been smitten by you. I do not know why you fret so.” Caroline had a ready answer. “Because they were smitten by the child that I was. I’m no longer a girl, Aunty. If I hope to receive their blessings, I must endear them to the lady that I now am.” It was the way she saw it. Her family and the Daltons were close because they were neighbors. For this reason, they had watched her grow. Caroline was afraid that they would never see her as more than the child that used to run in the meadows and ride horses against her father’s wishes.

She could not afford that. Not if she hoped to get what she wanted. And she did. Aunt Trudy sighed as she shook her head. “All these trouble for someone you haven’t seen in years. I only hope you don’t end up getting hurt.” Caroline did not think that was likely. “Never,” she said sweetly. “I do not think that could ever be the case.” She was so certain.

He would never hurt her. “For your sake, I hope you are correct. Come now. We mustn’t tarry any longer.” At Aunt Trudy’s words, the two of them left her chamber and began their descent to the dining hall. They were the last to arrive. Everyone else was already seated: her father, Viscount Wymore, and the Daltons, the Earl and Countess of Sawbrook. As Caroline and her aunt neared the table, the men rose to their feet to welcome them. Caroline’s heart hummed in her chest. It had been almost a summer since she last saw them.

They had been in London for the better part of the year, attending to business. Eager to impress, she recalled every lesson she had ever received. Her head reached high, her shoulders squared, and her spine straightened as she walked, aware that every eye was on her. Finally, she came to a halt as she reached the table and sank into a deep curtsy. She commended herself when she managed to execute it flawlessly. “My lord, my lady, it has been some time,” she said. It was the earl who first responded. “That it has. Rise, dear child.” She rose as flawlessly as she had sunk, and when she straightened, she brandished an adorable smile.

The earl’s eyes softened upon beholding her face. “Goodness! Has it only been a year? You have become even more beautiful, Miss Caroline. Now I understand why your father keeps you hidden in the country all the time. Wentworth, you should bring her to London with you soon. It is not fair to hide this beauty from the rest of the world.” “I agree!” the countess gushed as her husband finished speaking. “Heavens, you certainly do make a stunning woman. How old are you now?” she asked. “Eight-and-ten summers, my lady,” Caroline replied sweetly. She was thrilled by the earl and countess’s words.

It was all she had hoped for and more. She would rest easy, knowing that she didn’t have to worry about their thoughts of her anymore. “Eight-and-ten summers… Ah. It is just as well. Soon you shall make a young man very lucky by becoming his wife.” Everyone broke into soft laughter. It wasn’t until they’d recovered that her father finally spoke. “I would have had her married two Seasons ago but she insisted on waiting. Hopefully, this year, she will grant my wishes and make me a father-in-law.” Caroline took her seat then beside Aunt Trudy, who was already seated.

They shared a meaningful look and Caroline’s lips gave into a helpless grin. Oblivious to what was going on, the earl continued. “Many of the Ton’s sons will be returning home from the war this Season. Perhaps our dear Miss Caroline will find a man of her choosing amongst the brave soldiers. That is, if she finally agrees to debut this Season.” Her cheeks flamed as those words washed over her ears. How could he have guessed so rightly? Caroline had refused to attend the last two Seasons for one simple reason—she didn’t want her hand to be forced in marriage because her heart was already set on someone else. Knowing that it wouldn’t be long before he returned home had been keeping her up of late. She could scarcely catch any sleep, counting the days until she would see him again. As though her father could read her thoughts, he asked in that moment, “Speaking of soldiers, how is Darkwood? I believe he’s been sending word home?” It was the countess who responded.

Her amber eyes lit up as her cheeks flushed with happiness.

.

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