If Nash, Duke of Malvern, had envisioned at all the scenario in which his life was to be irrevocably changed—which he had not, by the way—he would most certainly have thought he would have been wearing trousers. He was not. He was not, in fact, wearing anything at all. Excellent attire if one were planning on posing for a statue of some ancient Greek god or taking a refreshing dip on a hot summer day in the privacy of one’s personal estate. But not for life-changing events. Unconventional though he was, Nash would have imagined trousers in that scenario. And yet here he was. “Get up.” Nash reluctantly opened one eye, wondering who could possibly have the effrontery to disturb him so early in the morning. He definitely did not recognize the voice, and it was definitely not friendly. Even if he didn’t know the person, weren’t they aware of his reputation of hitting first and asking questions later? “Get. Up.” This time, the irascible words were accompanied with a poke to his lower limbs, making him snarl in response. “Your Grace, this is the dowager duchess of Malvern.” That voice he recognized as belonging to Finan, but he’d never heard his valet sound so apprehensive.
Nash rolled over onto his back, opening the other eye. He stared up at the ceiling, blinking in an attempt to clear his head. “Disgraceful.” The dowager duchess’s words were no less harsh than words Nash had spoken to himself, but he did not appreciate someone else pointing out his faults. Besides Finan, that is. He sat up abruptly, the covers falling to his waist as he saw the lady, who immediately made some sort of yelping sound and turned to scurry out of his bedroom, her cane thumping on the floor. “Told you you should wear a nightshirt,” Finan grumbled. “If going to bed naked means I frighten elderly aristocrats from my bedroom then why would I ever bother with a nightshirt?” Finan just shook his head. Nash shrugged. It was a reasonable question.
“I will wait for you in the blue salon,” the dowager duchess’s voice came from down the hallway. “Come as soon as you are properly dressed.” Finan marched to the wardrobe and flung it open, yanking clothing out and dumping it at the end of Nash’s bed. “You heard her. Get up.” Nash glared at Finan, who glared back. One of the reasons he was able to tolerate the man’s company as well as he did—Finan never kowtowed to him, nor did he let Nash get away with anything both of them knew was privileged nonsense. “Just how terrifying is she?” Finan folded his arms over his chest. “Somewhere between a loaded cannon and a barrel full of live eels.” Nash winced.
“That bad.” He threw the covers aside and walked to the washbasin, dipping his hands into the water and flinging it onto his face. The water was cold, and he shuddered at the shock of it on his skin. But he’d need to be as alert as possible to confront his grandmother—a woman he barely remembered. “What do you think she wants?” Finan snorted. “I have no idea. I wouldn’t dare to ask her either.” Nash felt an unsettling feeling of dread in his stomach. Not something he was accustomed to feeling; he was Nash, Duke of Malvern, naked sleeper determined to do what he wanted when he wanted. Always.
That he was also determined to do right by his responsibilities, no matter how much he chafed at them, was likely why he had that dread. It was clear the dowager duchess was here on a matter of some importance, since he hadn’t seen her in at least ten years. His father had cut off visits from all respectable members of his family, effectively isolating Nash from anyone who might not be a complete reprobate. Had she heard about his work assisting his father’s bastards? It was the least he could do, given how many lives his father had ruined. Hopefully she didn’t know his butler was also his half brother. Actually, he didn’t care if she knew. It was the right thing to do, along with only inflicting his temper on bullies. Why else would she be here, though? He couldn’t imagine anything that would bring any of his family members into willing contact with him—his father had burned all the family bridges, and Nash saw no need to rebuild them. If they wanted to know him, they would have to take him as he was. Well, he wouldn’t find out the answers to any of his questions by staying here.
Fifteen minutes later, Nash was dressed nearly appropriately, though he’d refused to put on a cravat, despite Finan’s pleading looks. “Your Grace,” he said as he walked into the blue salon. He rarely used this room, much preferring his library, which had a sofa made especially for his long frame. The sofa here was more of a love seat, which would be fine for two people of average height to sit on, but not for someone of Nash’s size. The dowager duchess was seated primly on the love seat, her equally prim maid standing behind her. The poking cane leaned against the leg of the sofa, inches away from the dowager duchess’s hand. Both ladies managed to look down their noses at him, despite their height differential. Remarkable feat. He hadn’t gotten a good look at her when she’d been in his bedroom, what with her running away at the sight of his naked chest and all. But now he could see the resemblance to his father; both of them had strong cheekbones, dark brown eyes, and a general look of hauteur.
A resemblance he knew he shared, unfortunately. Unlike his father, however, his grandmother was slight, with gray hair pulled away from her face and fastened on the top of her head with an enormous bow. Her eyes looked keenly intelligent, and held a cordial warmth he had certainly never seen from his father. He found himself regretting, for just a moment, not wrapping a hellcloth around his neck. “Your Grace,” the dowager duchess said, inclining her head a fraction. “I have been remiss in not coming to see you—” “Perhaps because I haven’t extended an invitation?” Nash cut in. It was best to let her know who he was as soon as possible. That way she wouldn’t be disappointed later on. She sniffed. Apparently made of strong stuff, his grandmother.
A tiny part of him had to respect that. “But I am here now, and I have some urgent business to discuss.” Well, he knew that already. Else why would she have come? He crossed his arms over his chest and waited. Bracing himself for her disapproval. “Sit down.” She spoke as though there was no possibility of his not doing as she commanded. So he sat, holding his breath as he lowered himself onto the chair that matched the love seat. It only creaked a little, and he gripped the armrests in a futile attempt at controlling whether or not it collapsed. Perhaps he should redecorate.
He had taken possession of the town house after his father died three years ago, but hadn’t bothered to change anything, even though he disliked most of it. It felt like another ducal duty, which he loathed. Of course he discharged his responsibilities—he wasn’t like his father, ignoring everything except that which brought him pleasure—but he didn’t do the superficial things, like attend parties or be seen in the most fashionable parts of town engaging in frivolous activities. Could that be why she was here? And if that was so, why hadn’t she come when her son had died? Why was he just seeing her now? His last memory of her must’ve been from when he was about ten years old, not long after his mother left. He’d been too confused, too distraught, and too terrified of his father to pay attention to visitors. “Well?” he said impatiently. She looked unsettled, and he wondered just what the hell kind of business she had to discuss. “Is this about an allowance? I don’t know anything about those things. I let my man of affairs handle that.” His man of affairs who was another half brother.
“No. My allowance is adequate, thank you.” “Good.” The silence stretched, and Nash began to shift in his chair, the creaking noise audible in the room. His grandmother arched a patrician eyebrow. “I did not like your father. My son,” she said. That would explain why he hadn’t seen her in all these years. “We have that in common, then.” “I regret his behavior toward your mother.
When I realized what was happening, I did as much as I could, which wasn’t very much, unfortunately.” She spoke in a tight tone. The familiar tension—the anger that simmered within at all times—rose up in his chest, and he clamped down so he wouldn’t reveal his emotions. So he wouldn’t lash out. As he always did. Or at least tried to—hence his reputation. “I gave her money to escape. Your father found out, and forbade me to come in contact with you. I should have come earlier. That is my fault.
” He couldn’t speak. “Escape. Do you know where she is?” She shook her head. “I do not. I just hope she is safe.” Letters had come sporadically, smuggled to him from sympathetic servants, so he knew she was alive, and that she cared deeply about him and worried about him. It had been a relief to know she was doing well, even if she was helpless to save him. His father’s death had been the only thing that could rescue him. “So you’re not here about my mother, then.” His grandmother’s expression grew somber.
“No. But I need to interfere where I wasn’t able to before.” She took a deep breath. “It seems that your heir, Mr. John Davies, has some of your father’s more . unpleasant habits.” She paused. “You hadn’t heard?” Nash shook his head no as he bit back a snarl, his grip on the armrests tightening. “I don’t speak to many members of the family.” At least not the legitimate ones.
“I have it on good authority that you are not at all like my son.” He could hear the pain and regret in her voice. She took a deep breath and gave him an intent, purposeful look. “The dukes of Malvern stretch back to Henry VIII’s reign, and it is an honorable title.” “Honorable until my father.” Memories flooded his brain, memories he usually expunged by getting into a brawl, or drowning with brandy. His mother, pleading with his father not to hit her. A young Nash grabbing his father’s arm so he wouldn’t strike again. A young Nash splayed out on the floor, his nose broken. She spoke again.
“I have heard rumors that you intend never to marry.” Because he would not subject any woman to the possibility of his father’s behavior. He’d lost count of how many times his father had reminded him that they were alike—that it was inevitable that Nash would eventually unleash his temper on an innocent. She continued in an urgent tone of voice. “But you must. The sooner your cousin has no possibility of inheriting, the better. He has heard the same rumors about you, and is borrowing heavily against his future, and his behavior is growing bolder. It is therefore imperative that you marry and produce an heir. Immediately.” Nash’s throat closed over.
“I will stay here to assist you in your search for a bride,” she announced. “It must be a lady of the highest birth, one who will do her duty as your duchess and provide children.” “What? No!” Nash said, leaping to his feet. He didn’t know if he was saying no to her staying with him or a bride. He just knew he didn’t want any of it. He eased himself back into his chair, forcing himself to breathe evenly. “Stand up.” He rose before he’d realized he’d obeyed her orders. “You are quite handsome.” It didn’t necessarily sound like a compliment.
“Excellent height, and your shoulders are quite broad. More suitable for a blacksmith than a duke, wouldn’t you say?” she said, turning to look at her lady’s maid. She turned back around without waiting for a reply. “We’ll have to ensure you are dressed properly, and that your hair is neat, although I understand some ladies like that disheveled look.” Her tone was disapproving. “I’ve never had complaints before,” Nash said, folding his arms over his chest. His grandmother made another one of those disdainful sniffs. He did like her, in spite of what she was asking him to do. What she was asking him to do—he’d almost forgotten. He sat down abruptly, the chair moaning its displeasure.
“I will not get married.” She narrowed her gaze at him. “Do you want another duke like your father? Do you want to allow someone like that to oversee the tenants and the household staff?” She raised her chin. “I have heard of your kindness toward Richard’s . mistakes,” she said. As though a child was a mistake. “Do you want your cousin to have power over them?” “Fuck.” Her horrified expression told him he’d said the word aloud. “My carriage is arriving soon with my luggage. If you will ring for your butler I will retire to my chambers.
” She rose as she spoke, and Nash saw her wobble for a moment before her maid clasped her arm to steady her. Nash gritted his teeth. “Yes, Your Grace.” Because what else was he to say? The lady was determined to stay, and he couldn’t very well throw her out, even though she had woken him up to demand he marry, the one thing he did not want to do. Ever. Not to mention she poked him with a cane. But she was his family, and she had already admitted she loathed his father. And he did already like her, despite himself. And despite that blasted cane. “Meanwhile,” she said as she made her way slowly to the door, “please review your invitations so we can discuss what social events you should be attending.
I will see you at dinner. Five o’clock, I presume.” Nash’s mouth opened in protest, but no words emerged. As soon as the door shut behind her, he did the only thing that he could—he picked up the chair he’d been sitting on and smashed it against the bookshelf, the pieces scattering over the plush carpet. But because of the damned carpet, the pieces didn’t make a satisfying cacophony, but instead thumped softly on the ground. He stared down at the now broken chair, that previous dread turning to panic as he realized what he’d just done—reacted in a violent way to unpleasant news. You take after me. In every way. He had to take control. He couldn’t allow himself to lash out without cause.
He never used violence unless it was justified—that was how he justified using his fists to exorcise his demons. There were plenty of reprehensible people he could pick fights with to assuage his constant anger, if only for a short time. And it was all for a greater good. But the broken chair had done nothing to him. A ridiculous thought, of course, but what if he erupted around a person who had done nothing to him? Could he trust himself? Goddamn it, but he knew the answer to that question. “Achoo!” Ana Maria blinked to clear her damp eyes. “My lady?” Jane, her lady’s maid, held out a handkerchief. “Stop calling me that,” Ana Maria said in a grouchy tone, taking the handkerchief and wiping her nose. Ana Maria and Jane were seated in the main salon of the Duke of Hasford’s house, which was where Ana Maria also resided, newly redecorated by Ana Maria in colors that made her spirits soar, nothing like the room’s previously staid blues and browns. Bright reds and purples and pinks created a fantastical setting that made Ana Maria grin every time she walked in, only now the room was also filled with flowers that were just as bright, but they made Ana Maria sneeze as well as smile.
She had to figure out which one was the culprit and forbid them entrance to the house. She hoped it wasn’t the tulips. She loved tulips. Though she loved all flowers, so a tiny part of her hoped it was just dust. She did not like dust. “You’ve been my lady for as long as I’ve known you,” Jane replied tartly. “It’s just the dragon wouldn’t let us call you that.” “The late duchess,” Ana Maria corrected. “The dragon duchess,” Jane said, accompanying her words with a rolling of her eyes. It had been six months since the carriage accident that had claimed the lives of Ana Maria’s father —the duke—and his wife, Ana Maria’s stepmother.
Six months since Ana Maria had been released from her life of servitude, treated as an unwanted, unpaid servant by the duchess. She still lived in the London town house she’d always lived in, except now her room wasn’t the tiniest one in the attic, but the most sumptuous room on the upstairs floor. “But can’t we just be Ana Maria and Jane here, as we used to?” Ana Maria couldn’t help her plaintive tone. The words weren’t even out of her mouth before Jane had folded her arms over her chest and was shaking her head. “You have to accept it, my lady. You’re a lady, daughter of a duke, cousin to another duke. Like it or not, you are entitled to being treated as though you are a special person.” Her voice softened. “And you are special, it is just that the dragon—that is, the late duchess,” she said, at Ana Maria’s stern look, “was determined to keep you in a particular place. And now she’s gone, you should take your rightful place among all those other ladies.
” My rightful place. What place was that? Ana Maria wondered. For more than twenty years, she’d been the late duchess’s unpaid and unappreciated drudge, doing anything that required doing, if the duchess ordered her to. And now? Now she was supposed to become a lady overnight, a person who didn’t know how to polish silver, who would order a bath without considering just how long it would take to boil water, and who treated the help as though they were just that—help, not people or even friends. Who did not have an opinion about dust, because she wasn’t aware it existed. But even if her status was suddenly elevated, she was not. If only her half brother, Sebastian, had remained as the duke she would have been far more comfortable. But Sebastian was not the rightful duke, not since it was discovered that the late duchess —in this particular case, the dastardly duchess—had lied about her relationship to Ana Maria’s mother. When it was revealed that the two duchesses were sisters, not cousins, it had invalidated the second marriage because English law forbade marrying the sister of one’s dead wife, making Sebastian a bastard, so the title went instead to their cousin Thaddeus. Thaddeus was kind, in his way, but he wasn’t Sebastian.
Ana Maria had only wanted to become a lady because Sebastian had seemed to want it for her so desperately. And now that he was established in his new life with his new lovely wife, it all seemed so pointless. But it wasn’t as though she could toss off her elegant clothing and grab an apron and pretend things hadn’t changed. They had. This room, redecorated to her taste and overflowing in flowers from potential suitors, proved it. She liked the flowers—even if some of them made her sneeze—but she did not appreciate the attention. The gentlemen who sent them would never have noticed her when she’d been wearing her apron, and she knew full well why they were noticing her now. Thaddeus, continuing what Sebastian had promised, had bestowed a generous dowry on her, one that was drawing all of Society’s eligible bachelors like—like ants to sugar.