About the book
There is no telling where a scandal might lead...
A spinster and a bluestocking, Miss Emma Bradford does not regret sacrificing her happiness to raise her siblings. She does regret sending a very scandalous letter to her pen pal though.
Sick and tired of being chased for his title and wealth, Donovan Connor, the Duke of Lowe, deems it best to hide his true identity from the only woman who dares address him as an equal.
With Emma being forced to marry against her will and her brother Benjamin disappearing, the only way for Donovan to stay close to her is by pretending to be an investigator. What he never expected though was that he would end up being the main suspect of the crime.
“We really should make arrangements to meet sometime. Though I have the company of my kind and considerate sisters, I often find myself wanting of the company of a gentleman,” Emma read aloud, her voice increasing in both pitch and volume.
It was only years of proper upbringing that kept her from rising into a shriek as she read the letter in her hands aloud. Her horror wasn’t specifically at the letter’s content, though the boldness of it was enough to turn her crimson, but rather the fact that it was signed with her name.
“You sent this letter to Donovan on my behalf? This one?” Emma said while slapping the letter down on the nearby writing desk. “Please, Martha, please tell me this is all a jest in terrible taste. That I may someday forgive,” she practically begged of her sister.
Emma was bookish, but one would make an error if they assumed that meant she wasn’t beautiful. Her figure was slender and curved nicely. Her blonde hair complimented her fair complexion. Her spectacles framed her vibrant blue eyes, so that they sparkled if they ever dared to meet a watcher head-on. She was a beautiful woman but had resigned herself to spinsterhood.
Her sister Martha, whose appearance more closely resembled their father, was grinning quite childishly considering her status as a Countess.
“I sent it because it needed to be sent, Emma. Be grateful that I took the time to copy it, so that you may know how it read. I could have kept silent on the matter, but you being blindsided by the existence of the letter would have undermined the point of me sending it. This was not meant to be a joke,” Martha said, despite her grin. “It was meant to push you along the path you are taking your dear sweet time on. You clearly like this man. I’m just making sure your interest is known to him.”
“I am not trying to enter into a romantic relationship with him,” Emma said with exasperation. “We are friends. We correspond because we have a shared interest.”
“Ah, yes, I forgot the reason you found him so intriguing. Rocks,” Martha said coyly.
“Not just rocks but minerals and geology. It’s all very fascinating, so we write to each other about it.”
“So, you like talking to him?” Martha asked.
“What I like about him is irrelevant!” Emma cried hotly. “I have no interests in romance. I have no interests in marriage or…” Emma looked down at the letter and became more upset, “…or in becoming someone’s mistress.”
Martha balked and laughed, “Mistress? Oh, Emma, do not be so dramatic. What I said was perfectly in the realm of acceptable since neither of you is married.” Her sister waved a dismissive hand, “Besides, with the way you write your letters, he wouldn’t have known you were interested.”
“I’m. Not. Interested,” Emma emphasized each word clearly for her sister. She let out a long sigh and cast herself into a stuffed chair. “Martha,” she said with patience that older siblings often reserved for younger ones, “I appreciate your investment in helping, but I know my life’s direction. I live for the family that I have now, not for trying to make myself a new one. Father might be away in the colonies, but he will return soon, and how would he be expected to get on without me? Even Benjamin still needs my help from time to time.”
Martha paced the small room of her sister’s home. Emma’s home, the one she shared with her aunt, was humble compared to those of the married ladies, but she still kept the chair near the desk since she spent much of her time either reading or writing. Between the large desk, the chair, and the clutter of books, it gave Martha very little room to pace.
“You resign yourself to spinsterhood?” Martha asked, and Emma sighed. This was far from the first time they had this conversation.
“Life and its circumstance left me little room for love and marriage. I am past the point of their relevance,” Emma explained tiredly. “Is it such an awful thing? Aunt Barbara seems more than content with her life. Would it not be a good thing to view her as someone to strive to be like?”
Martha ignored the baited question. “Was it not long ago that you were trying to talk me out of that mindset?” Martha challenged.
“You had resigned because your heart had been hurt. I could not stand for that. I am not heartbroken nor dejected at the idea of not becoming married. In fact,” Emma looked at her sister with certainty in her eyes, “I think I am much happier having accepted the circumstances as they are. Pretending and fretting would have only caused me to worry. Now instead, I can focus on the matters that occupy my time pleasantly.” Her tone verged on smug.
“Well, that should be easy to explain to Lord Lowe in regard to the letter he will be receiving then. I am sure he will understand your rejection of romance,” Martha replied and stroked the coals of Emma’s anger all over again.
Before Emma could continue and berate her sister more, their argument was interrupted by a firm knock at the door.
“Were you expecting someone?” Emma asked her sister uncertainly and was unsurprised when she shook her head in response. It was unlike either of them to forget to mention the prospect of company.
After another firm knock, Emma no longer could risk offending the guest and crossed to open the door.
“Benjamin,” Emma said, ushering her brother inside. “Come in; come in. Is everything well? It’s unlike you to come unannounced.” Unless you have bad news to bring, Emma didn’t add on to the end. From the look on her sister Martha’s face, she didn’t need to speak it to know it was on both their minds. “Will you sit down, and I’ll fetch you some tea. Perhaps something to eat? If you came all the way from London, you must be peckish.”
“I didn’t come from London, and I am afraid I don’t have time to sit. Neither of us does, in fact. You needn’t worry about packing anything. Aunt Barbara is making the necessary preparations, but we do need to leave very quickly.” Benjamin’s voice was firm but rushed as if to usher his eldest sister along. Ironically, it was a voice he had learned from her.
“Hurry? Preparations?” Emma had become flustered at her brother’s insistence combined with a lack of explanation. “What are you talking about?”
“A ball this evening in Aylesbury, a short trip. We can make it in time, but we must leave quickly and travel with determination.”
“Why would we ever go to a ball so far away?” Emma balked as her brother all but walked her out the door to his carriage. Her brother did well enough as a solicitor but probably could barely afford his own coach; however, his distance from his family had turned the luxury into a necessity.
Benjamin stopped and collected himself. “This would be much easier to explain in detail on the ride, considering the timing of it all, but Aunt Barbara has found you a suitor, and she has arranged for you to marry!”
The astonished look on Emma’s face was mirrored in Martha’s, both of them staring at her brother until he bade Emma to hurry and to dress herself in appropriate attire, for they had little time to spare for travel.
“I’m afraid, Lady Wanster, that I cannot wait here to meet your daughter,” Donovan Connor, Duke of Lowe, said in faux lament, “for I already told Lady Beverdeen that I would go and meet hers. Be certain that I will make the utmost effort to locate you as soon as I have a free moment.”
This was only a partial lie, just like the one he had fed to Lady Beverdeen by saying he was looking to talk to Lady Motten. Lady Motten was not in attendance at the ball, but Donovan knew that, by the time this was sorted out, it would be assumed that he had made a mistake.
Still, evading these sorts of introductions was exhausting. He would be more inclined to entertain them, even if he was interested in the young ladies themselves, if the ton wasn’t so set on monopolizing his time as an unmarried Duke.
It wasn’t that Donovan was uninterested in marriage, per se, but he was mistrustful of the motivation of the ladies and their mothers. He didn’t consider himself unattractive. He was tall and athletic with a well-cut face and a mop of curly brown hair, but ladies only saw one thing when they looked at him. He was a Duke, and that was all they saw him as. A bargaining chip, a playing piece to be utilized to secure them and their family a place of long-term comfort.
Donovan intended to slip into the ornate library of the manse where the ball was being held. He had noticed it upon his entrance into the home as the doors were opened, and the room was on display at first to demonstrate the grandeur of the home as a whole. The doors had been closed upon the commencement of the ball to limit the possible wandering of guests as much as possible. He had marked it in his mind as a good place to disappear if he needed to, and now he needed to.
Before he could disappear completely, he felt a hand, surprisingly strong for its size, gripping his shoulder firmly and holding him in place before turning him and bracing him against the wall. Before him stood the last lady he had wanted to see at this ball, the Viscountess of Lortimar.
“Duke Lowe, I thought I asked you specifically to send me a letter if you planned to be in attendance tonight.” She smiled sweetly. “I would have worn something a little less conservative.” She was whispering; her words would have been incredibly improper in the best of circumstances, but they currently were far from the best.
“Lady Lortimar, I am unsure if you could wear anything that would make you look any more appealing,” Donovan said with a guarded tongue. He had a powerful distrust for this lady. She did little to hide her lust for power as well as her lust for other things, and the sheer lack of regard she had for anyone put him off a great deal. Unfortunately for him, she had long ago set her sights on “claiming him” to use her own words.
“You are too cute for your own good,” she said, tapping the end of his nose with the tip of her finger. “I saw you trying to escape the ballroom. Where were you sneaking off to? Did you know I was here? Did you want to find us somewhere private before you made your move?”
“My Lady, have I expressed to you recently that you are far too forward for polite company, let alone for a married lady? What would the Viscount think if he could hear you right now?” Donovan tried desperately to deescalate the situation before she could get his claws into him.
“My husband is mostly deaf, darling. Old age will do that to you. Besides, don’t talk about infidelity as if it isn’t something everyone is doing. The thrill is half the fun,” she purred, leaning even closer to him.
Donovan turned his head and widened his eyes. “My Lord?!” he said with surprise, causing Lady Lortimar to pull away and turn in surprise to see who had caught them. By the time she had realized that the hallway was empty and turned back, Donovan was gone.
Donovan let out a sigh of relief as he slipped into one of the servant’s entrances to the library, having only just managed to avoid Lady Lortimar’s eye and found the privacy he sought at last.
Once he had got comfortable, he reached into the inside of his jacket to find the letters he had stowed there. A few years ago, he had written a paper arguing against the merit of the Smith geological map. A few weeks later, he had received a letter from Emma Bradford informing him that he was quite incorrect about several assertions. He took the time to reply and correct where he felt she was mistaken. Although it may have begun a bit contentiously, their letters quickly warmed up and became amicable and then friendly.
Donovan’s feelings about Emma had always been a bit complicated, but recently he could not get her out of his head. Her most recent letter had been different though. The tone was always pleasant and friendly, regardless of the topic, but this time she was open, forward. She had asked of him something, something she had never done before, and said she wanted to meet him.
The prospect of meeting her, of meeting the one woman Donovan believed made any real effort to understand him, excited him. He was rereading the letter for the third time that day. He was also deeply interested in some of her phrasing. She said she “was wanting of the company of a gentleman”. What could she want a gentleman for? His mind swam with possibilities.
He was so engrossed that he flinched slightly in surprise when he heard the door to the library open. He looked up to see with a mixture of relief and frustration that it was his brother Alistair.
“Thought I saw you sneaking off in here,” Alistair said with a haughty laugh, “What? Need to recover from all the fawning? Isn’t that the worst.” He clucked his tongue and tossed a nut into the air, catching it in his mouth. He had smuggled some of them from the ballroom away with him, typical Alistair. Instead of leaving, like Donovan would have much preferred, he leaned against a table by the door. “Reading that letter from Lady Cheek, again?”
“I told you not to call her that,” Donovan said, frowning. Over the years he had grown accustomed to his younger brother’s attitude and was tolerant of more than he perhaps should be, but he would not abide his brother insulting a woman, any woman, in his presence.
“My apologies, brother. Please, when you get around to responding to that letter, make sure and give dear Emma your brother’s regards,” Alistair informed him. This immediately soured Donovan’s mood all the more. Alistair had chosen to remind him of the fact that he had managed to read a portion of his letter collection, something that needled Donovan quite a bit.
“Why are you here? Did the food and dance lose its allure to you? Is harassing me the only way you can make life taste sweet on your lips again?” Donovan asked, letting a bit of the bitterness towards his brother slip out.
Alistair sneered, “Believe it or not I’m here to help you.”
“Help me?” Donovan asked with confusion.
“You are in here swooning over a woman who you only know from a handful of letters while there are a dozen proper ladies who would be beating down the door to meet you if they knew you were in here.” He pointed in the direction of the door. “That’s where you need to be, not in here fantasizing.”
“What is it about Emma that you find so unacceptable?” Donovan questioned, piercing through his brother’s double talk with familiar ease.
“Where do you think I came up with the title I bestowed upon her? Lady Cheek?” Alistair said flatly. “Imagine the gall of a woman who writes a man to argue with him. She has a lot of opinions, and she only voices more as the letters go on. Do you think that’s any sort of woman you should be associating with? She’s going to make you look bad, mark my words, Donovan.”
Donovan sighed and stood. “As much as I hate to admit it, you are right. I am wasting my time hiding in this library.”
Alistair’s eyes widened. He wasn’t expecting this sort of concession from his brother. “Well then, I am glad you are starting to come to your senses. Now let’s go out and see if there is a lady who can catch your fancy. And if I am lucky, she will have a friend that she’ll introduce me to.”
Donovan shook his head. “No, I was wasting time hiding in here from those women because there are some solicitors that I knew would be at this party that I wanted to speak to about mother and father. It does their memory an injustice if I prioritized my social comfort over helping set their deaths right.”
Alistair’s groan of frustration became a grunt of dismay. “Dear heavens, Donovan. Must you turn every social outing into a disaster to nurse your ego? Can you not let this be just once?”
“Is the solving of our parent’s murder a disaster in your mind, brother?” Donovan asked with derision.
“Donovan, our parents weren’t…” He let out another sigh of exasperation. “Fine. Do as you will but please; once you are done playing investigator, will you try and enjoy yourself?” his brother snapped as he followed him from the library and back into the relative chaos of the ball.
Emma was more thankful that exact moment that she was antisocial than she had ever been before. It was this exact reflexive habit that helped her avoid Mr. Joseph Dole for the majority of the ball.
Her brother, Benjamin, had explained more during the long carriage ride. Though Mr. Dole was one of Benjamin’s colleagues, a fellow solicitor of some repute, the betrothal had been arranged by their Aunt Barbara.
Despite the uncomfortable swirl of emotions that sat in Emma’s stomach for the entirety of the carriage ride, she did not try to dispute the arrangement. She knew that, with her age, her Aunt had done a great kindness in finding a man of good repute who would be willing to marry a woman like her.
Aunt Barbara had left a note with her brother detailing that she had already left to meet Mr. Dole, and that she had left a dress on Emma’s bed for her to change into.
Emma didn’t even have time to assess if she liked the dress before she put it on with Benjamin insisting that he would wait down in the carriage for the sake of brevity. This made Emma feel much more pressure to hurry which frustrated her all the more.
Her aunt, being a woman of limited means, didn’t have a full-length mirror for Emma to use, but she could tell from the vanity that this dress was not something she would have chosen for herself. The bright vibrant blue was far too bold of a color and drew too much attention to her for her own liking. Though, and she was reluctant to admit it, it did make her eyes stand out quite beautifully.
Emma did not know the hosts of the ball, a Lord and Lady Whinnen, so the introductions took up a good amount of time. This was partially a relief and partially more dreadful since it only delayed the inevitable. It didn’t help that from where she stood, she could see her aunt with a man standing next to her, though the man stood at an angle that made him difficult to see, further adding to Emma’s distress.
“Emma, darling, you are finally here,” her aunt said with a surprising amount of warmth. Usually, her aunt was a little more standoffish, but Emma assumed she was trying to create an appealing atmosphere for the introduction she needed to make. As if to prove her point, her aunt immediately followed up with, “There is someone here I’d like you to meet.”
Joseph Dole was an older man, closer to the age of Barbara or Emma’s father. He may have been a strong, barrel-chested man in his youth, but the decades of deskwork as a solicitor had worn on him. Emma could still see a touch of that strength though, as well as something a little... slipperier, wilder… Something that she wasn’t able to yet name.
She greeted him quietly, and he returned her humble curtsey with a smile and a bow. “It is delightful getting to see you. Unfortunately, I find the present atmosphere suboptimal for getting to know one’s betrothed. Soon, we will have to have a more personal engagement, no?” He stated this with surprising certainty. A statement, not a question.
She was most uncomfortable with the idea of marrying a man she had just met as well as him having the mentality to assert the absolute certainty of it. And thus, the idea of being trapped at a ball with him, locked within the social confines of Mr. Dole, her aunt, and the ball itself, was utterly torturous. Thankfully, Emma had an old standby to fall back on, and that was to retreat to the cool night air of the gardens.
Emma learned long ago that men would rarely follow women out onto the garden; the risk of social misperception was too great. Men, in turn, would also very rarely venture out to the garden on their own because they tended not to flee social interaction in Emma’s experience. Which was why she was so surprised to find a man already standing out on the garden terrace.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Emma said quietly and turned to leave, trying to think of where else she could hide. Perhaps the library?
“You don’t need to go,” the man said flatly. “I’m just out here admiring the view.” He gestured to the fading light of dusk setting in behind the house.
“Ah yes, I do suppose the view of the gardens is nice,” she said non-committedly as she settled into her own section of the terrace. She was hoping he would not try to continue to engage her.
“Actually, I was admiring the view in the distance. It doesn’t happen often, but those hills contain large deposits of mica, and if the sun is just right, the lighting is spectacular.” He turned with a slight sigh, “Unfortunately, I was not so lucky tonight.”
This subject piqued Emma’s interest, and she was the one to continue the conversation despite her better judgment. “Do you think those hills are big enough to catch the sun correctly? I wouldn’t think the angle is severe enough,” she observed with curiosity.
“Certainly, they are no Scafell Pike, but I had heard from some reliable source that it could be seen in such a way on a clear evening,” the man assured her.
“And what source would that be?” she asked.
“Thaddius Torton’s published journal from his 1817 expedition. He said the hills in this area were lovely,” the man said, clearly unperturbed that this woman had come from nowhere, accepted his invitation, then proceeded to interrogate him.
Emma knew she was being rude, but she could not help but let slip a judgmental exhale from her nose. “Torton is a blowhard who wouldn’t know how to manage a compass let alone chart a valley correctly,” Emma said with a passion that she rarely spoke with for other matters.
“That’s funny,” the man remarked. “A friend of mine said something very similar about his capabilities.”
“That man once had the poor skill to chart the mountain of Skiddaw as less than a league from my home, and I only wish I were so lucky,” Emma emphasized the statement with a huff.
The anger Emma was feeling towards the foolish academic dissipated suddenly when the man gave her a curious look before saying, “Emma?”
“I’m sorry,” she said hesitantly, adjusting the position between the man and herself in her discomfort. “Do I know you?”
The man laughed lightly, “Unfortunately we have yet to have the honor of meeting in person.” He stepped back to give them more room and bowed deeply. “Mr. Donovan Connor, at your service.”
Emma’s eyes lit up, and she had to stop herself from exclaiming in a most improper fashion. Still, her excitement was quite noticeable when she stood straight up. “Donovan? It’s you! Oh my, I wish I had been prepared for this. I feel like I have come close to embarrassing myself already,” she admitted.
“I was only able to realize it was you because you talk in the exact way I imagined from your letters,” he laughed. “Though I assure you that is a good thing.”
“I wasn’t doubtful until you made a point of reassuring me,” she laughed a bit nervously and cursed herself on the inside.
“I must admit a slight embarrassment, Miss Bradford. Take the pen from my hand, and I will certainly embarrass myself without any sort of filter,” he admitted, coming off a tad nervous himself but still comfortable enough. “Though I must admit, I was surprised at the openness of your last letter, considering that we have discussed little with one another outside of our academic interests. Though, I guess if we are meeting now as planned, then that must just be serendipity,” he said with a bit of a chuckle, trying to read her reaction.
“Ah, yes, the last letter. Well…” She thought for a moment and searched for an answer. She was so caught up in the excitement of meeting Donovan for the first time that she had completely forgotten about the letter that her sister had sent in her name. How could she admit to what happened? To his face? That might be just embarrassing enough to kill her outright. But was that less embarrassing than pretending that she had written those things to him?
“I suppose we do know relatively little about each other,” Emma said, hoping to change course. “Perhaps, I was a bit forward.”
“Forward? I don’t know if I would say that,” he offered delicately.
“No, no, I don’t even know what you do for a living,” she inserted. “What is it? You do, that is,” she amended.
This gave Donovan pause. He didn’t want to lie to Emma, but he realized he wasn’t comfortable revealing his title to her. He had always signed his published papers and letters without it, wanting his words to speak on their own merit. Admittedly, he didn’t think she was the type of woman to take advantage of him, but what if he lost the only person he could talk to who didn’t see him as a Duke? He couldn’t stand the thought of that.
“I’m an investigator by trade,” he told her, not sure what else he could suggest.
“An investigator. My, what an interesting and intriguing profession to end up in,” she said, meaning it genuinely.
“Well, I suppose so. My brother is the Duke of Lowe, and since I didn’t inherit the title but had the chance at an education, I was able to go into what I thought I would be skilled in.” Why was he adding to this lie? He certainly wasn’t trying to impress her. What did he have to gain?
“Oh?” she said thoughtfully. “That’s so interesting. I mostly had to care for my family from a young age, circumstances as they were, so I never had time to consider marriage, honestly.”
Something we have in common, Donovan thought to himself. “And you found yourself studying the field of geology in your free time?” he asked, wishing to satiate his own curiosity about his dear friend.
She nodded. “As my siblings grew older, I found I had more and more time to myself. I enjoyed reading so much, I am afraid I ended up becoming more than a bit of a bluestocking,” she laughed with a touch of lingering embarrassment.
“That was another thing that surprised me about your letter. You mentioned you were unmarried. I presumed a woman your age and interests would be either married or a widow. Instead, the letter you sent definitely suggests your interests lay elsewhere.”
“Well, that is a rather complicated subject,” she admitted, uncertain about what to say next.
“Isn’t it always,” he admitted. “Do you want to know something, Emma? I rather liked it, the letter,” he admitted, his voice softer, and he stepped closer, so she could hear him speak.
“You did?” she asked, unable to mask the disbelief. After all the hours of rhetoric they had exchanged, she rarely imagined her friend as a flesh and blood man. If anything, it was a thought she avoided. If Donovan was man, there were underlying implications she had consider. Men were complicated creatures that confused her, so she had thought of Donovan more removed from his person, a friend she spoke with and nothing more. Physicality was messy.
“I did. It was very interesting. Planted some rather surprising ideas, if you were curious,” he said slipping even closer. He leaned in as if he was about to whisper in her ear. The idea of him so close thrilled and terrified Emma. He didn’t whisper though. Instead, he planted his lips on hers in a delicate kiss.
The kiss was gentle, but passionate, his hand tracing along her cheek and jaw to embrace her. Emma had never been touched like this in her life, and it made her burn with a need she didn’t know was there until it ignited.
Emma folded, surprised at how much she wanted to embrace that moment. She wanted to keep kissing him more than anything, but she felt herself breaking away.
“I-I-I- I can’t,” she said weakly. Very weakly. She didn’t want to stop. More than anything she wanted more.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have presumed. I must have misread the intentions of the letter,” he was quick to apologize.
“Yes! Wait, no! It is… very complicated. The letter... that isn’t why I can’t,” Emma found herself hesitating to reveal the truth, but not out of embarrassment. She didn’t want him to think she didn’t write the letter now. Why? She was so confused. The kiss mixed up everything.
“We can’t because I am engaged,” Emma confessed, turning away from Donovan, not wanting to see the anger that statement would bring. “It’s improper. It would make both of us look quite bad if anyone were to find out. Even if you didn’t know better,” she said, trying to soften the blow.
But there was no anger on Donovan’s face, only confusion. “Engaged? But... but your letter…?”
“That letter was written before my engagement came to be. My aunt arranged it, and it is something that I must honor. I’m sorry if this was... disappointing to you,” she said before taking a few steps away. “I wish our first meeting had been a bit more pleasant, Donovan. I’m sorry that wasn’t the case,” she said quietly before slipping back to the party, leaving Donovan standing along in the quiet dark evening.
What both of them failed to notice, since they were so caught up in the exuberance and disappointed of their unexpected and ill-fated meeting, was the person standing in the shadows on the balcony above them, who had seen and heard much more than Emma and Donovan would ever have wanted.
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