The Other Wife – Chasity Bowlin

“His grace, Lord Gavin Barreten, Duke of Westerhaven.” A hush fell over the assembled crowd, the room beccoming so quiet that a pin drop would have sounded like cannon fire. Everyone in society had been curious to get a look at him, this new duke who had spent the better part of his life in the wilds of America. “Well, he hardly looks like he’s half bear,” Lady Deerfield murmured to the cadre of ladies assembled about her. Aurora didn’t smile or smirk as the others did. She knew what it was to be the object of gossip, and she didn’t care for it. “He’s very well turned out,” Lady Habersham remarked. “Though he does look a bit… rough.” Curious, in spite of herself, Aurora glanced toward the doors of the Trumbles’ ballroom and found herself taking her own measure of him. Tall and broad in his shoulder, the evening clothes—well tailored though they were—did not suit him. He looked uncomfortable in them, as if he felt very much out of place. Of course, it would be difficult to feel at ease when the whole of society was waiting on bated breath for one to drink from the wrong cup or to use the wrong fork. “He is quite handsome,” Aurora pronounced. Lady Habersham guffawed. “Do you find him so? Really? I rather think he looks like someone who ought to be unloading my trunks or tending to the horses.

” “You do not ride,” Aurora pointed out, “nor do you travel far enough from London these days to require any trunks.” Lady Habersham’s smile cooled. “Tell me, Lady Sheffield, how is Mr. Dunne these days? And his sister? Quite a coup for her… managing to ensnare Lord Holland despite her status.” Lady Deerfield’s eyes widened. “You should be cautious, Lady Habersham. I wouldn’t bring up her prior disgrace too loudly. If you were to be overheard there could be consequences. Apparently Viscount Holland is both quick and eager to defend his wife from such slights… especially when those slights are uttered by the one he holds responsible for his wife’s disgrace.” “As he should be,” Aurora stated.

“After all, if one cannot depend upon the gallantry of one’s husband, there isn’t much point in having one is there?” Lady Deerfield laughed. “Indeed, Lady Sheffield. Are you considering that it might be time to acquire another husband for yourself? It has been six years since your first husband passed, after all.” Never, never, never. She would never marry again. She would never subjugate herself to anyone under the yoke of marriage. She would never again make herself so vulnerable to a man that he might control every aspect of her life and treat her as cruelly as he desired. But Aurora didn’t say that. If she did, her past shame and humiliation would be nothing more than fodder for the gossip mill. Instead, she smiled coyly.

“One never knows, Lady Deerfield. One never knows.” “One could certainly do worse than a duke, even one who is a bit rough around the edges,” Lady Deerfield pointed out, and the group once more turned their heads in unison to stare at the Duke of Westerhaven. Aurora only smiled. Denial would only be taken up as a challenge by a woman who prided herself on being a matchmaker extraordinaire. That was the last thing she needed, for Lady Deerfield to decide that she needed a husband and that the Duke of Westerhaven needed her for a wife. GAVIN IGNORED the urge to tug at his cravat, just as he ignored the fact that the bloody breeches he wore were in danger of emasculating him and that his waistcoat felt rather like the restraints he’d seen used on a lunatic once. It wasn’t the clothing, not really. It was the oppressiveness of their current environment. At his side, his young companion and distant cousin, Stephan St.

James, was clearly in his element. “Oh this is a smash,” Stephan said. “It’ll be in all the papers tomorrow. Every scandal sheet in London will be talking about who was here and what they were doing. And what they were wearing!” “I’m beginning to think you are less your father’s favorite son than your mother’s favorite daughter,” Gavin retorted. “Who gives a damn what anyone is wearing? It’s ridiculous.” “Do you or do you not want to make a match this season?” Stephan demanded. No, he didn’t want to make a match. He had his own reasons for avoiding the marriage mart without appearing to avoid the marriage mart. There were issues that needed sorting out, but he’d been warned.

As a duke, the mamas and all their daughters would be coming for him. The less available he made himself, the harder they would hunt him. By giving the impression he was looking for a bride, they would be appeased and allow him to navigate society without doing ridiculous things like sneaking into his bed after planting witnesses at the door. To that end, he’d perhaps exaggerated the roughness around the edges that he’d acquired in America as a means of dissuading some of those society matrons regarding his suitability, but he could hardly tell Stephan that. Not when his young cousin was so determined to see him successfully navigate high society. It hadn’t escaped his notice that Stephan was determined to see him in society, whether he liked it or not, because of Stephan’s own desire to have opportunities to see the paragon of virtue and grace he fancied himself in love with, Miss Helen Linden. Gavin would form his own opinions about the young woman soon enough a she was to be in attendance that night. A glance at Stephan showed him to be scanning the crowd for any sight of her. Gavin shook his head sadly. The poor boy was utterly besotted.

He only prayed that this young woman was equally so. The one benefit to Stephan’s position—a younger son with little fortune—was that any attachment Miss Linden had for him would be legitimate and not based upon his prospects. Unlike himself. If he ever resolved his earlier mistakes and was free to marry, he’d never know if the woman wished to wed him for himself or for his title. It left a pall over the entire sordid mess to be sure. It wasn’t that he had no desire to marry. Eventually he would need a wife. He couldn’t run both his household and his estates. It would be one thing if he’d been raised up in society, but he hadn’t been. He’d been living in the backwoods territories of America with his stepfather for the better part of his life and it showed in his manners, in his speech, in the way he carried himself and in his attitude.

Servants were far less likely to obey a master who, for all intents and purposes, sounded as if he were of a lower class than they were. Snobbery was alive and well and very much a two way street. But until he could provide documentation that he was free to wed, all while avoiding any scandalous mention of the fact that he might be encumbered, none of that mattered. “Do you honestly think any of these girls would stoop to be courted by me?” Gavin asked. “They’re all looking at me as if I mean to gobble them up.” Stephan laughed. “We’re not here to find you a bride, Your Grace. We’re here to find you a tutor… and I have just the person in mind. But we cannot speak to her just yet. I am waiting for another guest to arrive first.

” “Who would that be?” Stephan sighed. “Only the sweetest and most beautiful girl in the world… my very aptly named Helen. We will need her to make the introductions.” “I should have stayed in America,” Gavin groused. “There, I could just tell someone my name.” “Only in hovels where you were trading whiskey and furs,” Stephan replied with a laugh. “High society is high society, whether there or here. It might be a bit less formal and a bit less grandiose in the colonies, but the snobbery is the same.” On that point, Gavin would not argue. “Well, until your Helen arrives, I plan to find a room where there are cards… because where there are cards, there are spirits.

And I need a drink for this.” CHAPTER ONE Aurora smiled as she saw Helen waving at her. Her niece was lovely, irrepressible and simply a joy to be near. While Helen was (much to the consternation of her father) still unwed, she was vastly popular in society and very much sought after. The girl was charming and vivacious. In truth, Aurora saw herself in the girl—or, rather, she saw shadows of the young woman she had once been. “Auntie Aurora! I’m so happy you are here!” Helen gushed as she approached. “I was only allowed to come because I told Papa you would be.” “Your father is terribly overprotective,” Aurora said, leaning in to kiss the girl’s cheek. Truthfully, it wasn’t her he wished to protect so much as the potential prestige and wealth she might bring to the family through marriage.

“Though I daresay one cannot blame him. You look lovely, my dear.” “There is someone I desperately want you to meet,” Helen said, her voice pitched into a whisper that was not at all discreet. For all the subtlety she had managed, the girl might well have shouted it. “A young man?” Aurora asked, her lips quirking upward. “The young man. The only young man,” Helen said. “Oh, Auntie, he’s so lovely. Handsome and charming and gallant. He’s wonderful.

But Papa is… Well, he’s Papa, isn’t he?” Aurora’s smile cooled considerably. She and her brother, fifteen years her senior, had made peace over his betrayals of her. After all, it had been he who had brokered her marriage to one of his peers—and as she’d later discovered, he’d been well aware of the cruelty her husband had been capable of. “Is it wise then to further your acquaintance with this young man when you know that your Papa would not approve?” “No,” Helen admitted. “But I mean to do it anyway.” Aurora didn’t have it in her to dash the girl’s hopes. Her father would find a way to keep them apart without her having to stoop to laying such a cruel blow. “Very well. Take me to this paragon of masculine perfection.” Arm in arm with her niece, Aurora and Helen crossed the expanse of the ballroom to a young man who was eyeing them most eagerly.

Indeed, his rapt expression as he stared at Helen was all the proof Aurora needed that he was as smitten as her niece was. “Auntie Aurora, may I present the Honorable Mr. Stephan St. James of Berwyck. Stephan, my aunt, Aurora Sefton, Lady Sheffield.” “Berwyck?” Aurora asked. “Are you any relation to Howard and Maria St. James?” “They are my parents, Lady Sheffield. My mother speaks very highly of you and I am most pleased to make your acquaintance,” the young man said, sketching a bow. “You are quite charming, Mr.

St. James. Are your parents here? I did not think they were much for town,” Aurora remarked. She liked the St. Jameses. They were lovely people but quite devoted to their country life. It was rather strange to see their son bearing such a noticeable town polish. “Thank you, ma’am, and no my parents are not in town. They are not for city life. I am here with the Duke of Westerhaven.

He is a distant cousin on my mother’s side and has been good enough to bring me about with him.” “Westerhaven?” Aurora asked, her curiosity getting the better of her. “I see. Well, that coat was not fitted to you in Berwyck, to be certain. That is Bond Street tailoring. Knowing your parents situation as I do, I must say that it seems your duke is quite a generous benefactor.” “Oh, yes indeed. I am almost finished with my studies at the university, and he has offered me the position of steward at one of his estates. It comes with a fine cottage, and he is very generous, to be sure. It is a good living to be had for a younger son,” he offered.

“Indeed, it is,” she agreed. But not a good enough living for her brother. That was likely the source of his objection to Helen’s attachment to Mr. St. James. Matches should only be made for profit and position. “Might I introduce you to him? He is new to town… new to England, in all honesty,” Mr. St. James said. “I’m certain he would be very glad to meet you.

” Aurora considered her reply carefully. There was nothing suspect in the words that were uttered. In fact, Mr. St. James’ manners were impeccable. But there was something in the rather expectant way that Helen and Stephan St. James looked at one another. The two of them were plotting and that could not possibly be good. “What have the two of you cooked up together?” Aurora demanded, no longer caring that they were in the middle of a crowded ballroom. “Auntie Aurora,” Helen said, “we’ve done nothing of the sort! I protest our innocence most vehemently.

In fact, Mr. St. James, if you’d like to prove the virtuous nature of your character, you may call at my aunt’s home tomorrow. I shall be staying with her for an extended visit.” The girl had the good grace to look sheepish as she glanced back at Aurora. “My bags were delivered there this evening, likely just after you’d left for the ball.” Aurora’s eyebrows rose slightly. She was unaware that any such plans had been made. No invitation had been issued, though in truth, for Helen, she did not require one. Still, her brother would be most displeased.

“Certainly, sir, you are most welcome.” At that point, Mr. St. James looked up and smiled. “Ah, here he is. The man whose name is on the lips of everyone in town.” Aurora glanced in the direction of Mr. St. James’ gaze and found the Duke of Westerhaven striding toward them. She’d been aware, of course, that he was a large man, with the broad and heavy shoulders of someone who had worked far harder than any aristocrat, and that he towered above almost everyone.

In such proximity, only a few yards away, the scale of that became truly apparent—as did the glower on what would have otherwise been a handsome face. “How long must we stay at this blasted event, Stephan?” the duke demanded as he neared them. There was no greeting, nor acknowledgement of ladies present. He was just rude and abrupt. Mr. St. James blushed and stammered an apology. “Forgive my companion, Lady Sheffield, Miss Linden. I’m afraid the duke has not been much in company. May I offer an introduction? Lady Sheffield, Miss Helen Linden, I am pleased to acquaint you with his grace, Gavin Barreten, the Duke of Westerhaven.

Your Grace, Aurora Sefton, Lady Sheffield and her niece, Miss Helen Linden.” The duke glanced at them, his gaze roaming over Helen dismissively, and then settling more firmly on Aurora, though not in a manner of appreciation. He rather looked at her as if he found her distasteful. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” The words sounded foreign to him, as if such niceties were unfamiliar. Aurora dipped her head in greeting, uncertain of how the next few moments would go. Still, she would make a go of being civil for she couldn’t imagine why he held her in such dislike. “Likewise, Your Grace. How are you finding our fair city of London?” “Dark, dirty and inhospitable,” he replied sharply. Then, almost in challenge, he added, “And you, madame? How are you finding London these days?” He really was a most unpleasant gentleman, Aurora thought.

What a pity. “At the moment?” Aurora said, her tone icy and her brows arched imperiously. “Much the same.” The duke’s stare was just as glacial. “Well, then perhaps we should both seek more comfortable climates, Lady Sheffield. Good evening to you.” And with that, he walked away. Aurora glanced about them. It hadn’t precisely been the cut direct, but then again, would the cut direct from someone who was barely respectable even be of note? Of course it would. In a city where on-dits and rumor were currency, any hint of scandal, be it romantic or acrimonious, was gobbled up like the most decadent of desserts.

And many of those in attendance that very night were the worst gossips in all of the ton. Helen tittered nervously. “Oh, well, one must make allowances for those who have not been much in society! Don’t you think, Auntie Aurora?” Aurora smiled. “One must make allowances for ignorance, Helen, but no allowances can be made for poor character.” “Miss Linden, perhaps, if you are free, you might grace me with your next dance,” Mr. St. James suggested, clearly uncomfortable with the situation. “Yes, Helen,” Aurora agreed. “The two of you should go and dance. I think I shall return home for the evening.

I feel a bit of a headache coming on. Lady Deerfield will see you home. I shall inform her to do so.” “Thank you, Auntie Aurora. I hope you feel better,” Helen offered with a gentle smile that highlighted just how young and tender-hearted the girl was. “I’m certain I will. I’m just not fit for company tonight. Pity more people don’t recognize that about themselves. Good evening to you, Mr. St.

James.”

.

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