Nobody’s Duke – Scarlett Scott

TO SOCİETY, SHE was the Duchess of Burghly. To her husband, murdered by a Fenian’s blade, she had been Araminta, formal and proper and beloved by him in his way. She had loved him equally in her way. Sweet Freddie, with the heart of an angel and the desire to change a world that would never understand or accept him. She was all too familiar with the way the world treated hopeful, unsullied hearts. “Ara.” She had been hopeful and unsullied once. When she had known the man standing before her in the drawing room of Burghly House. When she had loved him. When she had been… “Ara.” There it was again, spoken with such dark vehemence that it almost vibrated in the air, sending unwanted tendrils of heat licking through her even after all the years that had passed. That name, that bitter reminder of who she had been, spoken in the voice that had once sent a thrill straight to her heart…it was her undoing. Ara had not realized she had clambered to her feet until her body swayed like a tree caught in an aggressive wind. Faintness overcame her. Her vision darkened.

The palms clenching her silken skirts were damp, hands trembling. He was taller than she remembered. Broader and stronger. He had always been a mountain of a man, but he had grown into his bones and skin, and the result took her breath despite her fierce need to remain as unaffected by him as possible. His eyes, cold and flat, burned into her. His jaw was rigid, his expression blank. A vicious-looking scar cut down his cheek. She wondered for a moment how he could have received such a mark. And then she reminded herself that she did not care. That he had ceased to be someone she worried after some eight years ago, on the day she had waited for him with nothing more than a valise and her foolish heart.

He had never come. The agony of that day returned to her a hundredfold as she stood in the gilt splendor of her drawing room, stabbing at her with the precision of a blade. Hours had passed, day bleeding into evening, and she had waited and waited. The only carriage to arrive had been her father’s, and it had taken her, broken and dejected, back to the place from which she had fled. “Your Grace, are you well?” The voice of the Duke of Carlisle, edged with concern, pierced her consciousness, reminding her she had an audience, lest she allow her dignity to so diminish that she allowed him to see the visceral effect he had upon her. She swallowed, tamped down the bile threatening to curdle her throat, and turned her attention to Carlisle. “I am as well as can be expected, given the events of the last three months, Duke. I thank you for your concern.” He inclined his head. “I am deeply sorry for the loss of your husband, madam.

He was a bright star in the Liberal party.” “Yes,” she agreed, a tremor in her voice that she could not suppress. Speaking of Freddie inevitably festered a resurgence of horror and sadness. He had been a good man, an estimable husband to her and father to Edward, and he had not deserved to die choking on his own blood in a Dublin park. “He was.” Carlisle’s lips compressed into a pained frown. “I cannot begin to fathom your grief, and I apologize for our unwanted presence here today. If there were any way to keep you free of this burden, I wholeheartedly would.” “The grief is immense,” she whispered, all she could manage past the knot in her throat. How she hated that it wasn’t just her sorrow for Freddie that paralyzed her now and stole her voice.

She felt his stare upon her like a brand. He had not moved. Had not spoken another word save her name, and yet he seemed to have stolen all the air from the room. “As I was saying prior to Mr. Ludlow’s arrival,” Carlisle continued with a formal tone, “it is with great regret that I find myself tasked with informing you that there has been a threat made against you by the same faction of Fenians that murdered your husband. To that end, the Home Office has assigned an agent to ensure your protection.” Carlisle’s words sank into her mind as though spoken from a great distance. …a threat made against you… …same Fenians that murdered… …an agent to ensure your protection. Her breathing was shallow. Her fingers fisted in her skirts with so much force that her knuckles ached.

Still, the weight of his burning gaze upon her would not lift. Her entire body felt achy and hot and itchy and chaotic all at once. “Would you care to elaborate on the nature of the threat?” She kept her eyes carefully trained upon the Duke of Carlisle, but it was impossible to keep him from her peripheral vision. He filled the chamber as much with his presence as with his massive size. The Duke of Carlisle, despite his reputation as a depraved reprobate, was the unexpected liaison between herself and the department of the government responsible for informing her about Freddie’s murder and the investigation into finding his assassins. Their previous meetings had been equally stilted, revolving around his sympathy for her loss and any new information regarding the Fenians who had plotted Freddie’s death. In the murky days following her husband’s murder, she and Edward had been removed from Dublin with an armed escort, but she had imagined that they had left all danger behind them in Ireland. “Assassination, Your Grace.” Carlisle’s tone was quiet but deadly serious. Those three words, so succinct and cold, struck her heart.

Edward could not lose both his parents in the span of three months. Her heart squeezed at the thought of her son alone in the world. Her beautiful, kindhearted boy. She would do anything to protect him. Her mouth went dry. “I see.” She paused, attempted to collect herself, an odd mixture of discomfit at his continued presence and fear swirling through her. “My son, Your Grace? Has he been included in the threats as well, or do they only pertain to myself?” “Your son was not referenced in the threats, Your Grace,” Carlisle said. “You have a son?” She flinched, the angry lash of his voice striking her. Still, she would not look at him.

“I do not understand the reason for your…associate’s presence, Your Grace. Indeed, I would far prefer to conduct this dialogue with you in private, as befitting the sensitive nature of the circumstances.” Ara refused to say his name. Refused to even think it. Would not speak aloud the true nature of what and who he was. A bastard. The half brother of the Duke of Carlisle. The man she had lost her heart and her innocence to. Her son’s father. No.

Freddie had been Edward’s father, the only one he had ever known. And it must—would— remain that way until she went to her grave. The Duke of Carlisle appeared unperturbed by her uncharacteristic outburst. “Pray forgive me again, Duchess, but Mr. Ludlow’s presence here today is necessary as he is the agent who has been assigned to your protection.” “No!” The word left her in a cry, torn from her, vehement. But what surprised her the most was that it was echoed by another voice, dark and deep and haunting in its velvety timbre. His. Her gaze flitted back to him, and the stark rage she read reflected in the depths of his brown eyes shook her. Beneath the surface, he was seething.

“I will not guard her under any circumstances, Leo. Find someone else,” he sneered. “Anyone else.” And then he turned on his heel and stalked from her drawing room, slamming the door at his back. CLAY’S FEET COULD not carry him far enough or fast enough away. Damn it all to hell. Damn Leo to hell. But most of all, damn her. Time and distance were not panaceas, but they had been his sole comfort, and now even that would be stolen from him if he allowed it. He could not allow that.

She had broken him once. Never again. The urge to strike something or someone—to smite and thrash with a violent savagery borne of all the fury flashing inside him—had never been stronger. Eight years and she had not changed. If anything, she had grown more ethereal. She had always been lovely, with her pale skin and coppery curls, the blue-violet eyes framed by long, dark lashes that stared at a man as if they could see into the dark pit of his soul. Ara, his Ara. No. Not my Ara. Not any longer.

Nothing had made that clearer than the day she had confessed to her father that the Duke of Carlisle’s bastard son had taken her innocence. He could feel the blade of the knife slashing his cheek as if it were yesterday. Could still smell the fetid breath of the man who had marked him for life. His scar ached and burned, a permanent, visceral reminder of why he could not even breathe the same air as the woman he had just turned his back upon. “Clay.” The commanding sound of his half brother’s voice halted him, but his cessation of movement was an act of duty and nothing less. If he had his way, he would be halfway across London by now, putting as much distance as possible between himself and the woman he had once loved. Fists clenched, he spun around. As tall and dark as Clay though not as broad, Leo had nabbed the fortune of being born on the right side of the blanket, which upon their sire’s death several years prior had made him the rightful duke. Though he was three months Clay’s junior, he was also his superior in the clandestine ranks that had been created by the Home Office known simply as the Special League.

Those twin facts would always rankle. He waited for Leo to approach him, trying to temper his rage. “Where the hell do you think you are going?” Leo demanded without preamble, irritation twisting his countenance and rendering it even grimmer than it ordinarily was. Calm yourself, Clay. She can likely hear everything from where she waits in her gilded little drawing room. Do not give her the pleasure of knowing how much the sight of her af ects you after all these years. You can never again allow her to see your weakness. “I respectfully request to be assigned elsewhere,” he clipped. Leo did not miss a beat. “No.

” He resisted the urge to roar or slam his fist into his brother’s face. “Allow me to rephrase. I am not requesting. I am demanding.” Leo flashed him a small, severe smile. “Once again, no.” “I cannot guard her.” The low confession was torn from him. He did not want to admit it. Not aloud and especially not to his brother, who traded in the weaknesses of others.

Blood they may share, but Leo did not yield for anyone. He had inherited his mother’s icy temperament and sternness, where Clay had his own mother’s soft, giving heart. Or at least he had, once. “You can and you must,” Leo insisted. “You are aware of what happened to the duchess’s husband.” The Duke of Burghly, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, had been stabbed to death in a Dublin park in the midst of a spring afternoon, along with his undersecretary. They had been beset by men wielding surgical knives, all the better to inflict deathblows. Whilst the men responsible for the outrage had escaped, evidence pointed in one direction only: the Fenians. “Of course I am bloody well aware, Leo,” he said, fists and jaw still equally clenched. “But that has no bearing upon my presence here in her home.

I cannot—will not remain here. The League is rife with other agents. Choose another one.” “No one else is you, Clay. You can and will accept this post and guard her, because you must.” Leo paused, lowering his voice. “I know the two of you share a past, but I had not realized you still have feelings for her.” “I don’t,” he denied with force. Too much force. He had feelings for her, in truth.

Loathing. Anger. Rage. Betrayal. Those were the sorts of emotions she had left behind along with the scar. And just like the mark upon his flesh, they would disfigure him for his lifetime. “Then there is no reason why you cannot accept the position.” Leo’s tone smacked of finality. Yes, damn it. There was every reason.

“I cannot be in proximity to her, Leo.” There, he admitted it. Just seeing her had shaken him. If he had known she had become the Duchess of Burghly, he never would have even deigned to come to Burghly House at all. She was like a broken rib, hurting him with each breath, a danger to his lungs. “You deliberately misled me in bringing me here.” “I did not mislead you,” his brother argued, keeping his voice quiet so it would not carry back to the drawing room. “I acted in the best interest of the Home Office, the Special League, and the duchess. You must consider the matter rationally, Clay, and not with your heart.” “I am being as bloody rational as I can be when it pertains to that woman,” he growled.

“My heart has naught to do with it, of that I can assure you. My patience, however, my anger, my sanity…those things cannot withstand being in her presence for longer than I have already endured.” Leo remained unmoved. “We cannot afford to allow the Fenians to claim another victim. The assassination of a duchess here on English soil, coupled with the bombings we have endured and foiled, would spark fear and pandemonium.” An assassination. Ara’s assassination. Her murder. The sobering thoughts chased the heat of his rage, replacing it with a numbing chill. As much as he loathed not just the sight of her but everything she had done to him—her betrayal and her willingness to toss him away like an outmoded gown—the notion of her meeting her end in the same gory fashion as the duke made bile churn in his gut.

The threats made against her were not just real; they were possible. The Fenians wanted Irish home rule, and they were not above terrorizing, bombing, and killing anyone they imagined stood in the way of their cause in an effort to gain it. An ingenious part of their evil strategy was to bring war to England without ever sending an army. Small groups of plotters had already invaded towns and ports. A bomb last year in Salford had killed a young boy when it exploded. Other bombs had exploded in Liverpool, and various plots had been uncovered and stopped throughout London. Now they had begun a different prong of attack, targeting government officials like the Duke of Burghly. And like his widowed duchess. Ara was being threatened by the most ruthless, fearless, and dangerous sort of men: those who perceived they had nothing left to lose. But even so, she was not his responsibility.

She had ceased being his anything the day she had chosen to destroy him. He would not save her. The burden was too great for him to bear. He shook his head. “I am sorry, Leo, but any other League member is as suited as I am for the role, if not more so. I cannot pretend I would be able to maintain indifference and guard her as will be necessary. Forcing me to do this is both unwise and dangerous to the lady, who is deserving of the basic right of safety, no better or worse than any other person.” “No one is as suited as you, Clay.” His brother’s dark gaze was unrelenting. “You have thwarted dozens of assassination attempts.

Your work protecting the Duchess of Leeds was commendable, and you had no problems settling yourself into a more domestic setting than you have been previously accustomed.” The Duchess of Leeds had been the victim of a murderous plot, and he had served her well. In so doing, she had become his friend. She possessed the heart of an angel, with a willingness to take in all the stray beasts of London, but she had been different. She had not been Ara. He had never loved her. And it did not matter how much time had passed. He had not forgotten a moment of the time he had spent with Ara. Kissing her, holding her, the wildness of her burnished curls tangling around them. The soft giggles he could coax from her lips with his wandering mouth and hands.

He shook himself free of the memories, cloying like ivy, threatening to choke and overrun him. “My history with her renders it an impossibility. What of Strathmore? He would be an excellent man for the job.” “He is otherwise occupied,” Leo said curtly. “I grow weary of your objections, brother, as they are all immaterial at worst and flimsy at best. You are the man I have chosen, the man the Home Office has chosen, to protect her.” “I don’t give a damn,” he thundered as the last, fine filament of his control broke. “I will not do it.” “Sodding hell, Clay.” His brother fixed a dispassionate frown upon him.

“I did not wish to do this, but you have left me without a choice. If you do not take on this task, you will be suspended from service. The Home Office requires you to perform this duty, and they will not accept anyone else. Do you not think I already tried to substitute another, knowing of your past?” His heart thrummed faster, his chest rising and falling, each breath harsher than the next. He had never supposed Leo would attempt to protect him in such a fashion. Though they had come of age side by side, Leo possessed not a modicum of maudlin sentiment, or so Clay had always supposed. “Suspended from service,” he bit out, as though the words tasted bitter and ugly in his mouth. For they did. His work in the Special League was what had given him purpose these last eight years. Because of her, it was all he had.

And now because of her, he also stood to lose it. How bloody fitting. “I am sorry, brother.” Leo’s somber tone said more than his apology could convey. He swallowed the bile that had begun in his stomach and worked its way into his throat. “I do not have a choice, do I?” Leo’s lips compressed. “I am afraid not.”

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