The Blind Duchess and her Wicked Duke – Scarlett Osborne

This way, My Lady! Quickly!” Helena stumbled after the voice, the heat of the fire searing her flesh and the cracking of the wooden beams making her jump and scream in terror. “Whe—” she doubled over, wracked with coughs, unable to go any further. “This way!” the voice called again, though it was muffled, as though he spoke through a rag or a handkerchief. Helena had no idea who he was. She couldn’t see him—she couldn’t see anything. She stopped and put a hand to the wall, thinking to use it as a guide, but the voice called out again, panicked and fearful. “No! Don’t touch anything. There’s fire everywhere.” “I can’t see,” she cried back at him, bent almost double and screaming at him with all her might. Within seconds, she felt a hand on her arm, firm and rough and dragging her forward. They staggered on, Helena’s whole world reduced to that moment—the darkness, the smoke, the overwhelming heat, the stranger’s hand pulling her through it all. She blinked rapidly, tears streaming from her unseeing eyes, but her vision didn’t clear. And then, just as suddenly, they came through the other end, lurching out into the cool, fresh air. Helena tried to gulp it in, desperate to clear her lungs, but all it served to do was choke her further. She fell to her knees, gasping for breath and retching.

“Take her,” the man said. “I’m going back inside. There are others.” “Yes, My Lord.” Then another hand was on her, pulling her back up to her feet and then farther away from the house. A woman’s hand, this time, soft and feminine. “Everything’s black, I can’t see. Why can’t I see? Why?” “I don’t know, My Lady,” the woman said. She sat Helena down on a bench, and as she finally snatched a breath from the air, it was stolen once more by her sobbing. Behind her, the fire raged on.

There were people—maybe twenty or so, Helena couldn’t tell—who ran around the burning building, screaming and shouting orders at one another. Buckets of water were passed along rows of hands, then thrown onto the fire to douse it, but the water was lost to the conflagration before it had a chance to make a difference. They were some distance from the house, perhaps thirty or forty feet—close enough to hear what was happening, but far enough away to be out of danger. Helena ran her hand over the rough stone of the bench. She knew this bench, she recognized the touch of it, the curve from years of use. Both its familiarity and the scratch of it against her sensitive skin helped ground her, force her to calm. Don’t panic. Think. Her heart throbbed and every part of her stung. Her breath came in ragged, weak gasps, and the hem of her nightgown had been singed.

It was her eyes that hurt the most, though. It felt as though the fire was right there, within her eyes, burning them away to nothing. And she couldn’t see. She wanted to scream, to cry out, to beg and weep, but she knew she couldn’t. There was far worse going on behind her, and she had to remain calm. She heard the trickle of water next to her, a rag being rung into a bucket, and then she felt the cool fabric pressed lightly to her forehead. She whimpered. The touch was both too tender and too harsh. “It’s all right, My Lady,” the woman said, her voice soft and gentle as a song, and she continued to dab at Helena’s face. “You’re out now.

” “Who…” A sob escaped, uncontrollable and unwanted, before she tried to speak again. “Who are you?” “It’s me, My Lady. It’s Jenny. It’s just me; I’m here with you.” “Jenny!” The name of her lady’s maid came out as a sob, and she felt her face crease into tears. She hadn’t recognized her voice, but it was no wonder. Her mind and her soul were in turmoil, and the noise behind them crushed the nuances of her tone. “What’s happening?” “There’s been a fire, My Lady. The estate, it’s—” Helena could sense Jenny looking up at the burning house, trying to find the words. She turned her own face toward it and, although she could feel the heat of the fire on her cheeks, she could not even see the brightness, let alone the shape.

“It’s falling down,” Helena said. “I can hear it.” “Yes, My Lady.” Jenny resumed cleaning her face, humming a light tune as she did so, a maternal gesture that filled Helena’s heart. “But Jenny, I can’t see anything. I—” She inhaled, her breath juddery and catching, a soreness ripping through her throat, the taste of smoke infused. She coughed, feeling the slimy mucus in her hand. Jenny wiped that away, too. “It’s probably nothing, My Lady,” Jenny said. “I’m sure you’ll be right as rain by the morning.

Fire can do funny things to folk.” But Helena could hear the concern in Jenny’s voice, and that made her heart pound even harder. She could feel her pulse in her throat, in her temples, the thudding of it rushing through her ears. “Help!” Helena jumped at the scream that cut through all the other sounds. It was the same man, the one who had helped her out, she was sure of it. “Help!” he screamed again. “What is it? What’s happening? Jenny?” “I—” Jenny stood up slowly, mouth agape as she listened what was unfolding. “I don’t think she’s breathing!” the man called, and many others shouted back, too many for Helena to pick out individual voices, too much of a cacophony to be able to understand. “Who isn’t breathing, Jenny? Who is it?” Helena’s own breathing shallowed even further, and with each rasp she mewled. Her body began to shake violently, and she let out a loud sob.

“Jenny? Who is it?” “It’s… it’s your Mother, My Lady. Your Mother is not breathing.” C H A P T E R 1 L TEN YEARS LATER ady Helena Bryton, the daughter of Earl Sherriden, lounged across the chaise longue, her pastel-pink gown spread over her legs, her petite feet poking out from the bottom. At seven-and-twenty, Helena had grown into a beautiful young woman and she knew it, even though she couldn’t see it. Her hair, chocolate brown and smooth as silk, hung in waves around her pale face, her skin as white as alabaster. Freckles danced across her button nose, and though she was blind, the milky color of her long-damaged eyes did not disguise the stubbornness that shone out through them. “And he woke up to find all the world’s people vanished, leaving him quite alone,” Jenny said, closing the book with a thump. “What?” Helena turned to her, her brow furrowed, but Jenny laughed. “He lived out his days as the only man left in the whole world.” “What?” Helena repeated.

“That doesn’t—” “I suspect you haven’t been listening for the last ten pages or so,” Jenny said. “So… he didn’t wake up to find all the world’s people vanished?” “No, Silly! That would be a terrible end to the story, and we’re not even halfway through the book yet. Is everything all right? Normally you get so engrossed in the tale, but today —” Helena laid her head back on chaise longue and sighed deeply. Her lady’s maid was always so astute when it came to her moods. Around the same age, they had grown up together, but they had not really become close until after the fire. Before that night, their relationship had been perfunctory, dutiful. Now, though, they were the best of friends as well as lady and maid. Helena really didn’t know what she would do without Jenny. “I’m sorry. It must be awful having to read to someone who isn’t paying much attention,” Helena said.

“I read to you every day, Helena, and I cannot remember the last time you weren’t listening.” Jenny paused, then added with a chuckle, “You fall asleep occasionally, but only when the book is dull, and I’m never far behind you!” Jenny Smith, now eight-and-twenty, had become Helena’s maid at the tender age of fourand-ten, when she herself was barely more than a girl in need of care. She had matured at an early age, though, and she was particularly suited to Helena’s care. Some might even say it was fate that they came together in the first place, for Jenny’s mother, Ruthie, was also blind. Jenny knew how difficult a life like that could be. “Something is clearly bothering you, Helena. Would you like to talk about it?” “Nothing is bothering me, as such,” Helena said, although even she could hear the discordance in her tone. “Or rather, everything is bothering me. No, that’s not quite right, either.” Helena furrowed her brow, not sure how to explain the discontent she felt that day.

It was not unhappiness, but there was no happiness, either. There was nothing wrong, but there also seemed to be nothing quite right. Perhaps it was exhaustion, or a boredom with life. Whatever it was, it made her huff loudly. “It seems as though every day is exactly the same, wouldn’t you agree?” she asked, turning in Jenny’s direction. “That’s because every day is the same,” Jenny scoffed. “But that is no bad thing. It seems to me that those who experience uncertainty from day to day are usually in some sort of peril. That our days are always the same shows just how lucky we are.” “I suppose you’re right,” Helena muttered.

Of course she was right, but that didn’t mean Helena had to like it. She stuck her bottom lip out in a childish sulk, and Jenny laughed. “It really could be worse, you know.” “I know.” Helena sighed. “But it feels as though I am always confined to this blasted house, while I hear tales of adventure and romance.” “I shall try to avoid those sorts of books for a while,” Jenny said, laughing again. “It’s not funny,” Helena snapped. “Do I really have to accept that I shall always have a non-existent social life and that I will never find love?” “Oh, Helena,” Jenny said, her laughter gone, only to be replaced by a voice full of pity and love. She rose from her chair and joined Helena on the chaise longue, resting a hand on top of hers.

The warm physical contact made Helena smile, touch being so vital to her since she lost her sight. “I’m being morose again, aren’t I?” Helena asked, unable to stop her own chuckle from bubbling up.

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