Once Upon a Duke – Erica Ridley

Wnter enveloped the frost-tipped forest in its deathly grip as a lone black carriage made its determined way up the side of the frozen mountain. Benjamin Ward, the fifth Duke of Silkridge, glowered at the snowflakes obstructing the view from the window. Instead of being ensconced in the dry warmth of his familiar study in London, he was four hundred miles north, heading back to the one place he had vowed never to return. Cressmouth, England. The nearer his coach drew to the tiny village nestled high in the mountains, the worse the weather became. The cold breeze had turned into a punishing wind, and the endless gray skies above had begun to clot with heavy clouds. Already, blobs too icy to be rain and too wet to be snow spit down upon him. Bad weather was a good sign. It meant he was getting closer to his goal. Closer to the end. The sooner he fetched the heirloom that had been stolen from him, the sooner he could return to London. Back to where he belonged. Benjamin clenched his jaw and tore his gaze from the countryside. He hated to leave his home. This was the first time he’d been called away in years.

The first time he’d allowed a deviation from his rigid schedule. Whether Parliament was in session or not, there was too much work to be done back home. Benjamin was personally responsible for half a dozen key committees shaping the country’s future. He had no time for distracting quests. But here he was. His horses clomped past a large, festive sign held sturdy in the frozen ground by thick wooden posts. Despite the darkening sky and the falling sleet, its boldly lettered words were still legible. Welcome to Christmas! “It’s Cressmouth, not Christmas,” he muttered beneath his breath with a roll of his eyes. But it was no use. The quaint northern village was even worse than he remembered.

Brightly colored cottages dotted amongst the white of the snow and the frosted tips of a thousand evergreens. Everywhere he looked there were sparkling candelabra in windowpanes, curling smoke rising merrily from red brick chimneys, children in colorful woolen mittens pelting each other with soft balls of snow. “Humbug,” he muttered beneath his breath. He would not take part. But it was too late. The Silkridge ducal crest gracing the sides of his stately coach had caught the attention of those he passed. “Ho, there,” called out a ruddy-cheeked gentleman shoveling snow from his walk. “Happy Christmas!” “It’s January,” Benjamin muttered to his valet. “Didn’t you see the sign?” Doyle answered with a grin. “’Tis always Christmastide here.

” “Humbug,” the duke said and motioned the driver onward. The only explanation for the townsfolk’s Christmas fever was their sad and desperate attempt to try to create some sort of advantage to living in the coldest corner of all of England. Benjamin glared at the snow-dusted pines dipping and curving through the mountains. Cressmouth was in the middle of nowhere. The closest town was Cornhill-on-Tweed. Any further north, and this village would be in Scotland. A bright red ball sailed from between a pair of cottages and out into the street. The horses reared in alarm. The driver struggled to keep control of the reins. From the corner of Benjamin’s eye, he caught a flash of movement.

A lad scarcely six years of age intended to dart out before the horses in order to retrieve his ball. “Stay,” the duke barked, not to his horses and driver, but to the child at the edge of the street. He leapt from the coach and hurled the ball far over the child’s head so that he would be forced to run away from the lane to fetch it. “So kind of you,” called a woman from an open doorway. “You saved Nigel’s life.” “His ball was in my path,” the duke snarled as he jumped back into the carriage. His shoulders tightened. He was tired of the cold, tired of traveling, tired of waiting this long to regain something he had lost. Not Christmas. He had given that up on purpose.

Benjamin was after something far more precious. At tomorrow morning’s reading of the will, his mother’s heirloom would return where it belonged. To Benjamin’s hands. Finally. The dizzying white castle seemed to mock him from the peak of the mountain. That had been his maternal grandfather’s home. H i s estranged grandfather. The same grandfather responsible for converting what had once been a ghost town into a vibrant Christmas village. A madman. There was no other explanation.

Benjamin directed his driver toward the winding path up to the castle’s imposing front gate. They would sleep here tonight. There were no other inns. Besides, this had once been his winter home. Although his paternal grandfather had passed down the ducal title, his eccentric maternal grandfather had given Cressmouth a reason to thrive. From Benjamin, he had only taken things away. It was past time to take his birthright back. He was here for his mother’s locket. The one meant for him. The one bearing a miniature family portrait inside, painted mere weeks after Benjamin was born.

It was the only portrait he shared with his mother. She had died shortly after his birth. That had been Benjamin’s first Christmastide. The holiday had not improved since. After all this time, it finally seemed possible to retrieve the stolen necklace. Benjamin had begged for its safe return a thousand times. But his grandfather was as immovable as his castle. The old man always said he’d give the golden locket back to Benjamin over his dead body, and the blackguard clearly meant it. He was dead now. Time for the heirloom to come home.

Benjamin shook off the ghost of his grandfather’s memory as he alighted outside the castle’s doors. A stream of dapper footmen flowed out to greet him. Murmurs immediately erupted from a growing crowd of onlookers. “Why, it’s the Duke of Silkridge!” “Happy Christmas, Your Grace!” “It’s January,” Benjamin growled. He entrusted his carriage and horses to his driver and the footmen, and made his way inside to see if there was room for him in the castle’s crumbling interior. As he crossed the threshold, Benjamin stared about in disbelief. The interior was the opposite of crumbling. By all appearances, the abandoned medieval castle had been restored to its former glory and beyond. In the reception hall, crackling fires roared behind their grates, their orange light dancing over a spotless lake of white marble. Strips of bright blue carpet guided visitors from the door to any number of destinations.

An adjoining salon filled with voices and laughter. A great spiral stair led from one sprawling floor to the next. At a large buffet, footmen cheerfully handed out plates of biscuits and generous ladles of steaming mulled wine. The butler pointed him in that direction after accepting his greatcoat and top hat. Benjamin didn’t want warm, sugary biscuits. He wanted a room for the night, he wanted his mother’s locket, and he wanted to be gone. Before he could have any of these things however, he caught sight of golden blond hair and laughing brown eyes. Just like that, his world tilted on its axis. Noelle was here. Right here.

His heart beat uncomfortably fast. She looked both the same and yet somehow even better than before. Soft curves and gold-rimmed spectacles. Happy and smiling and beautiful. Surrounded by a group of equally cheerful friends. He’d thought she would be gone. He’d hoped she would be gone. So many years had passed since he’d last seen her. For the longest time, he had expected her to have a Season in the capitol, to take London by storm. Perhaps she had done so, and he had missed it.

After all, he spent his days in the House of Lords and his nights in his study. Perhaps she was now “Lady” or “Mrs.” and no longer the Miss Noelle Pratchett he remembered. He didn’t want details, he reminded himself. Learning she’d found someone else would serve no purpose, and discovering she was still unwed would not signify. And yet he couldn’t help but gaze at her hungrily as she broke from her friends and made her way to the refreshment table, right in his direction. The moment she caught sight of him, she pulled up short. All traces of laughter disappeared from her eyes. “Silkridge.” “Miss Pratchett,” he replied, bracing himself for the inevitable correction.

It did not come. “Five years,” she said instead. “You look lovely,” he blurted out, and could have kicked himself. She did look lovely. He had not meant to notice, much less give any compliments. She ignored it. Her lips pursed. “I thought I would never see you again.” “So did I,” he admitted. He had missed her so much, those first few months.

After that, he had done his best to push her from his mind. One should not dwell upon things one could not have. Such as a rekindled romance. Or forgiveness. She crossed her arms beneath her bosom. “No doubt you’re here for the will.” Ten o’clock on the morrow. He wouldn’t be a single moment late. “I shall be gone before you know it,” he promised. “No doubt.

” Her smile didn’t reach her eyes. “You were last time, too.”


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