The Unworthy Duke – Charlotte Anne

Miss Ellen Burney glanced towards the bedroom door even as she tossed the last of her meagre belongings into her portmanteau. Her heart pounded against her chest so hard and fast she thought it might break free. Beyond the window, threatening storm clouds were gathering, dampening the last of the sunlight. But Ellen didn’t dare light a candle. If her brother returned to a dark house, he would think she was asleep and not notice her disappearance until morning. It was the best she could hope for. Her bedroom door flew open emitting a gust of cool air. Ellen spun around, but it was only Maggie. ‘Everything’s organised,’ her mother’s childhood friend said in her no-nonsense fashion. ‘The hired coach is around the back. It will take you as far as the neighbouring village, and from there you’ll have to catch the mail coach to London. I’ve already paid the driver.’ ‘And Gwen?’ As Ellen asked after her, she saw Gwen’s face as it had been the day Geoffery had hit her—her wide eyes full of unshed tears, her lips pressed tightly closed against a cry of pain and one side of her face stamped bright red with his handprint. ‘Safe. Verity is taking her to my sister-in-law’s house, and I’ll meet them there as soon as you’re on your way, just as we planned.

’ Maggie smiled, but it looked forced. Ellen ran a hand over her face, trying to push away her panic. She needed to keep a clear head. ‘Have you packed everything you need?’ Maggie asked. ‘Do you have the marchioness’s letter?’ ‘Yes.’ Ellen raised her right hand, indicating the small reticule looped around her wrist. The letter was safe inside. The movement caused the long sleeve of her washed-out gown to slip. Maggie winced at the sight of the bruises colouring Ellen’s wrists. ‘We should leave.

The sooner, the better.’ Maggie clicked the portmanteau shut, lifting one end. Ellen tucked her bandbox under her arm and followed suit. Together they manoeuvred the portmanteau through the doorway and down the stairs. It was heavier than expected; all she had inside were clothes. Her brother had pawned everything of value Ellen had owned as fuel for his gambling addiction, even their mother’s crockery, which had been worth far more to her than the few pounds he’d sold it for. Yet, like a fool, Ellen had believed Geoffrey when he’d apologised, when he’d said he was sorry. Again and again she’d forgiven him for breaking her heart—and had taken much of the blame for his actions onto her own shoulders. But not any longer. The moment he’d turned his anger towards Gwen was the moment Ellen had vowed never to let a man control their lives again.

Gwen was only a child for heaven’s sake, and he’d hit her. Just the once, but once was one time too many. Maggie exhaled in short, determined pants. Her straw bonnet had slipped to one side revealing the frill edge of her mob cap and a strand of prematurely grey hair, while the worn heels of her ankle boots seemed to hit every creaky floorboard. Despite Maggie’s fear of Geoffrey, she’d stayed by Ellen’s side through all the hardships, and now she would be caring for Gwen when Ellen could not. ‘I don’t know how I can ever possibly thank you.’ ‘Nonsense,’ Maggie rebuked. ‘You and Guinevere safe and sound is all the thanks I need.’ As they came into sight of the back door, Ellen let out a deep breath, a breath it seemed she’d been holding onto for two long years. ‘In that case, let’s get out of here.

’ *** 7 Roseworthy Street, Mayfair, London Two days later Cal stared out the window. It was going to rain. He could smell it in the air. Clouds hung thick and heavy over London, reminding him of the quiet moments before a battle. He hated rain! Always had. Always would. He poured himself another generous glass of good ol’ Scottish whisky, glancing suspiciously at the almost empty bottle. Hadn’t he just opened it a couple of days ago? Ignoring the glass, he took a swig straight from the bottle, tipping his head back to drain the last mouthful. He tossed the empty bottle carelessly onto the settee, relishing the fire as it burned its way down his throat. It hit the velvet armrest and bounced onto the floor, rolling out of sight.

Lightning flashed, illuminating the armorial window and chequering the room in heraldic yellow and blue. For a fraction of a second, a great bear, raised high on its hindquarters, marked the far wall, and the family motto stamped itself across Cal’s chest. On we fight. He yanked the curtains closed, throwing the room into darkness. He’d given up fighting a long time ago. Thunder cracked, shaking the house until the crystal chandeliers rattled. Cal’s heart started racing. Ye gods. Why did thunder have to sound so much like canon fire? He fisted his hands to resist the almost overwhelming urge to drop to the ground and cover his head in preparedness for an attack that wasn’t coming. You’re safe, ye fool.

A bit of rain couldn’t hurt him. He forced his legs into action, the familiar ache of his wounded knee slowing his progress. There had to be another bottle around here somewhere. That was one of the few perks of having inherited, amongst other things, his father’s distillery. An inheritance he’d never expected nor wanted. *** ‘Are you sure I canna drop you off somewhere else, miss?’ The driver raised bushy eyebrows as he reined in the lanky horse drawing his gig. When he’d first collected her off the mail coach, he’d been a little suspicious of a well-spoken woman travelling alone but, thankfully, hadn’t refused to carry her. Now, he was apparently having second thoughts about leaving her at the requested address with nothing more than an old portmanteau and a battered bandbox. He cast a glance towards the house, and Ellen followed his gaze. Set apart from its neighbours by a great wall, the townhouse sat back from the street front.

There was not a single light in any of the blind windows, and a wooden sign hung from the front gates. Someone had crossed out ‘Yew Tree House’ and scrawled ‘Keep Out!’ in white paint. Ellen’s stomach churned, whether from apprehension or travel sickness courtesy of the hired hackney, she couldn’t tell. Either way, there was a heaviness about the house which its neighbours didn’t share. It was almost as if the looming storm clouds shadowed the rusty trellis with intent. She nodded her thanks to the driver. ‘I’m sure, thank you though.’ She couldn’t delay the inevitable any longer. What was Maggie always saying? Something undoubtedly pragmatic… Nothing ventured, nothing gained. ‘All right then, miss.

’ He helped her down and she paid him with the last of her money—the last pin money her father had ever given her before his death two years before. She’d managed to keep it hidden from her brother by sewing it into the hem of her petticoat. Depositing her belongings before the front gates, the driver tipped his hat and urged his horse to trot on. A moment later, the clip-clop of hooves had faded into nothingness, leaving Ellen utterly alone. She let out a shuddering breath. Thankfully, the gates weren’t actually locked, and she pushed them open as far as she could, the hinges creaking in protest. She managed to balance her bandbox on top of her portmanteau and drag them both through the gate, leaving behind two deep scores in the unkempt garden path. If it could even be called a garden. There were more weeds than flowers, more fallen leaves than grass, more dead plants than living. Her green thumb began to itch.

She hated to see a garden in such disrepair. It would be so very satisfying to tame the wayward myrtle hedge, the rambling rose and the prickly holly. Ellen’s trunk hindered her progress, as did the low-hanging branches of an old yew tree, presumably the one after which the house was originally named. But in no time at all the house loomed ahead. It was three storeys high, four including the attic, with rows of symmetrical sash windows and a blanket of overgrown ivy. There was a rather picturesque balcony leading off the first storey but it was in disrepair. In fact, the whole house, like its garden, had seen better days. Even in the half-light of dusk, she could see that the window shutters hung crooked and a few slate tiles had slipped from the roof. To think this was the house of marchioness! She glanced down at her reticule. Inside was her letter of employment from none other than Lady Faye.

When Verity, one of her mother’s two closest childhood friends, had first told Ellen of the dowager marchioness who was seeking a companion for the London Season, Ellen had found out everything she could about her. Without coin for a newspaper to peruse the society pages, Ellen had taken advantage of the circulating library’s outdated copy of Debrett’s. Accordingly, she knew Lady Faye’s husband had been dead these last ten years. Their only child, Grace, had married the Duke of Woodhal, but the duke had died four years ago, about the same time as their only son and heir had also died. Neither the widowed duchess nor Lady Faye had any other close family living in England. Ellen was no stranger to death herself. At the back of her mind, she had the grand idea that she’d bring a spark of happiness to the elderly dowager’s life. They’d bond over their shared losses, and then Lady Faye would adopt Ellen as a daughter, and Ellen would tell Lady Faye all about her baby sister, and Gwen would come to live with them in London and— Ellen Burney, that’s not how the real world works. She needed to keep tight control of her imagination. Working for the dowager was her new start, and she couldn’t say or do or think anything that wasn’t completely right and proper for a lady’s companion.

As far as Lady Faye was concerned, Ellen Smith was the only child of a gentleman who’d died leaving her with little money. It would be better if the dowager knew nothing of Geoffrey, and it would be better if Geoffrey knew nothing of Ellen’s whereabouts. And Gwen… Well, Gwen had to stay hidden in the country with Maggie. A lady’s companion couldn’t bring her baby sister to London with her. And coming to London was the only way Ellen could make enough money to start a fresh life for Gwen and herself away from Geoffrey. Mounting the front steps, she gave the bell chain a tug. The door was not as expected. It was actually two doors, side by side, and they both opened from the right. She could see where some of the bricks had been removed either side to make room for the double doors. The last echo of the bell died, but nobody came, so she rang again.

Still nobody came. She looked up at the house, searching for signs of life. Nothing. Her heart started racing. She’d been careful to follow the instructions in the dowager’s letter—she knew this was the right house and the right evening. But it was quickly growing darker. Soon the last of the light would disappear. Panic bubbled in her stomach—this was definitely worse than feeling a little travel sickness. She had nowhere else to go and no more money. A large raindrop hit her cheek and rolled down her chin.

She glanced skywards. The storm that had chased her from Evendale to London had finally broken. There was a flash of lightning, a rumble of thunder and a great torrent began cascading from the sky. Within a handful of heartbeats, she was drenched through to her chemise. She tried pressing herself against the front door under the shelter of the narrow eaves. White paint peeling from the doorframe glued itself to her wet gloves. This time she banged on the door with the rusty lion-head knocker. The sound reverberated through the belly of the house, low and deep like the thunder overhead. No answering flicker of light responded. Even if the dowager was out for the evening, where were all her servants? Abed already? It was extraordinarily improbable.

She couldn’t possibly stay outside in this torrent. She’d likely catch her death—or worse, the neighbours might see her and start gossiping. She couldn’t risk anything jeopardising her employment. Lady Faye was her last, and only, hope. *** Cal sat up, grunting in pain as all the blood in his head seemed to rush to the back of his eyes. Hell! He lay back down, trying to stretch out his legs, but his feet hit the curved arm of the settee. He cursed again. When was he going to learn drinking himself to sleep was only a good idea when he actually made it to bed? The storm had finally hit. Rain lashed at the windows. He rolled onto his side, presenting his back to the storm, startling the dog.

Tzar growled his annoyance at being woken, so Cal draped his arm over the edge of the settee, ruffling the wiry fur. A light breeze tickled his forehead, and he stilled. He hadn’t left the window open—had he? Crash! Someone had toppled onto the floor by the window and was struggling to their feet in a tangle of curtain. All Cal could see was a slender silhouette. He crossed the room as quickly as he could manage with his knee seizing. His head thumped with each step. A thief wouldn’t be chicken-brained enough to try to steal from him. A bairn then, whose devilish friends had dared them to break into the house of the crippled recluse. Either way, they hadn’t heard him, too focused on detangling themselves from the curtain to notice his silent approach. He caught their elbow in one hand and shook.

‘Who the bloody hell are ye?

.

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