A Historical Regency Romance Novel

About the book

“You feel more like home to me than any place I've ever been.”

When Lady Bridget Stewart discovers that her life’s work, the Repington Academy for children in need, is about to close due to her father’s reckless financial behavior, she is devastated. The only way to save the school: get married before the Season ends.

Patrick Arnold, the Duke of Lockhart, is under immense pressure from his family to get married and produce an heir soon. As the days pass, a marriage of convenience seems more and more like a viable option. So when he meets a Lady in desperate need of a husband, a plan forms in his head. 

Before long, genuine feelings start to bloom between them, but it all comes crashing down when Bridget’s family is threatened. Heavy is the price one must pay for love, and Bridget must reach a decision soon: sacrifice her own happiness, or risk her family’s?

Chapter One

Bridget Stewart looked around at the schoolroom and smiled to herself. All around her, seated on cast-off chairs, empty wooden crates or overturned pails, children were bent over their tiles, practicing their letters or sums. Their clothes were threadbare, and there wasn’t a shoe to be found among them, but they were diligently filling their heads with knowledge.

Christina Fitzroy, the teacher, and Bridget’s best friend, looked up from where she was helping one of the younger pupils. She spoke one last word of encouragement as the girl struggled to properly hold the lumpy piece of chalk. Bridget felt a wave of sadness at the sight of the child trying to scratch the letters of her name against the jagged, misshapen piece of broken roofing tile that served as her slate.

“Come to see their progress?” Christina asked proudly as she came up to Bridget.

“Yes. It never ceases to amaze me how hard they are willing to work when they have so little,” Bridget said, shaking her head. “I would have thrown these pitiful tools and fragile, old volumes across the room and stormed out by now.”

“Don’t feel too poorly. They have so much more than they would have had, all because of you,” Christina reminded her, causing Bridget to duck her head at the praise. “You know, if it’s not too rude of me to say, you do so much more than many of your class. Your father is but an earl and not astonishingly wealthy, from what you’ve mentioned. There are dukes with more money than the Crown who do not share so generously of what they have.”

“It is only my dear mother’s example that has led me to champion this school, wealth or not,” she replied modestly. “Without all the years of learning at her knee how to be generous and caring—and my father being unable to refuse her anything, even the use of this drafty old factory of his—that seed of charity would never have been planted in my heart.”

“Your mother was truly an astounding person,” Christina answered, patting Bridget’s shoulder. “At times, I cannot believe she’s been gone for five years now. In all the years that you and I have been friends, she never treated me as anything other than one of her own daughters.”

“And I can assure you, she thought of you every bit as one of her own.” Bridget spoke softly, as though remembering some long-forgotten story. “She always did wish to have an enormous family, a house filled with children. But she simply was not strong enough.”

“I’m certain that you and your sister were plenty of family for her,” Christina argued sweetly. “Speaking of which, where is Harriet?”

“She should be here very soon, she’s finishing her last round of calls today to request donations for the children,” Bridget confirmed. “I will see if she’s returned, and if she needs help bringing in any of the items she sought.”

Bridget left her friend to her work and walked away from the enormous classroom. She passed through a long and dismal hallway of work rooms that had been converted into a dining room for the children to take their meals, an infirmary where a nurse tended to illnesses and injuries, and two storerooms, one that held food staples and another that kept clothes, shoes, and sundry needs. Both of the storerooms were nearly empty, hence Harriet’s mission.

“Ah, Harriet! There you are,” Bridget said brightly as she stepped outside. Her face fell almost at once. “What’s all this?”

“It’s the best I could do,” Harriet said defensively. “I went to everyone I knew in the ton with my hand out like a filthy beggar, pleading for things for these children. But no one offered much help.”

Bridget eyed the small pile of gowns and trousers in the back of the wagon as Harriet climbed down from where she sat beside their father. She looked around disdainfully as she tried to find a path to the door that wasn’t swallowed by mud.

“Now, girls. Do not fret,” the Earl of Repington said as he lowered himself down as well. “I have a few friends we can also ask, surely they won’t refuse such an important cause.”

Harriet huffed, rolling her eyes. “Do you know how humiliating it is to have to ask one’s friends for their last Season’s gowns or old books?”

“Harriet, you’re not asking for your own sake, it’s not as though you are penniless and needing their things,” Bridget reminded her. “It should not be humiliating at all, as it is to help the less fortunate.”

“Still, I feel as though people hide their silver when they see me coming,” the younger sister groused. “They know I’m only calling so that I might bleed them dry for these… paupers.”

Bridget stood taller and glared at her sister. “How dare you…”

“Now girls, let’s not grumble,” the earl said, putting an arm around each daughter’s shoulder. “This school was very dear to your mother, and I am proud of you both for taking up the yoke now that she is—forgive me,” he said, clearing his throat. “Now that she is gone.”

Where her heart had been hardened only a moment ago, Bridget felt her anger at Harriet dissolve at once. Her poor father! How long would he endure such grief for the love that he lost?

“Yes, Father, you’re right. I’m sorry, Harriet, I know you did your best and I am glad of your help. The children will be very grateful to have these things,” Bridget said, trying to sound sincere.

Harriet still looked wounded as she turned to her father for more sympathy. The earl kissed each daughter on the forehead and smiled. “There now, everyone is happy again. I must go. Harriet, are you coming back to the house now?”

The younger sister eyed the wagon skeptically. “Would you send the carriage when you get home? The wagon is so… uncomfortable.”

“Of course, my dear girl,” the earl said, returning to the wagon and driving away.

“Unfashionable, you mean,” Bridget accused under her breath after her father was out of earshot.

“Precisely,” Harriet replied, not the least bit chastised by her sister’s remark. “You may think it acceptable to cavort about London in a worker’s wagon, but I cannot risk anyone from the ton—certainly not any suitors—seeing me in such a way.”

“I really am surprised at you, Harriet,” Bridget said accusingly, turning to face her sister and looking her up and down, noting her pristine gown and fancy slippers. “There was a time when you were just as likely to be here helping these children as I was. What happened to you?”

“Bridget, my feelings about the children and what they need or deserved have not changed a bit,” she answered, sounding defensive. “But has it occurred to you that one of us must put her mind to marrying well and marrying wealthy if you hope for this little school to remain open? Father has no sons! What is to become of both of us—and this project of yours—once he is gone and our horrid cousin inherits everything? Do you honestly believe that snotty little brat Albert and his disgusting mother will give you an annual sum to even support yourself, let alone this school?”

“Father’s will is clear, Albert is required to give us a sum for as long as we have need of it,” Bridget reminded her, though her heart did soften at the wisdom of her sister’s explanation.

“That may be enough for you, but it is not enough for me. I have intentions to marry someone who is kind and mannered, someone who will provide for me and for our children. And once I do, I will be more than happy to become that patroness of your little charity. But I cannot do that if I am not a prize who must be won.”

Bridget did not speak for a moment, pondering her younger sister’s scheme. She wished for more for Harriet, more for herself as well. Shackling herself to a man simply because he had money and a title was not enough for her. A life of service to others was far more important—but Harriet was right.

“Sister, I am sorry I spoke crossly to you,” Bridget conceded with a smile, affording Harriet some of the charity she so readily gave to others. “I would be proud to have you—the next Duchess of Whatever—to be the patron of this school.”

Harriet sniffed as though gravely wounded by her sister’s ill-treatment of her. “Then you shall have to earn that patronage. I need you to style my hair for Agatha’s ball tonight. You aren’t planning to attend, are you?”

“I wasn’t,” Bridget said, sounding insulted, “but now that you ask me that question in such a hurtful way, I think I might!”

“You mustn’t! How am I to catch the eye of an eligible suitor with my older but unmarried sister in attendance?” Harriet cried, clinging to Bridget’s sleeve in fear.

“Oh, calm yourself, I was only teasing,” Bridget replied, pushing Harriet’s hand away. “But mind how you speak to me. I had just apologized to you for my own behavior when you first demanded my assistance and then insisted that I remain at home while you attend a ball! But Harriet, dear… you know that I must attend the ball.”

“Why must you?” she moaned sadly.

“Agatha has so graciously agreed to host this ball to help our school, remember? Her parents thought it would be a good way to show her off while also making others see her as kind and caring. I cannot very well ask her to throw a ball to raise funds for the children and then not have the decency to attend.”

Harriet groaned in an entirely unladylike manner. “All right. I’m sorry, you’re right. But will you please help me with my hair? It must be perfect; I have seen the list of guests Agatha has invited and she has already informed three of the men that they must dance with me.”

“Of course, I shall. But I do it as your loving sister, not in order to wave you about to the marriage market as though you were a fattened goose,” Bridget joked, putting her sister’s hand through her elbow and leading her inside. “Come, let us see all the fine things you’ve gathered for the children. I know they are very excited about having new things.”

“These are not new things, they are items that others wished to discard,” Harriet corrected haughtily.

“They are new to the children, and that’s all that matters. Anything the children cannot wear, we shall send home for their parents.”

***

“Good heavens, Patrick, what is that you’re wearing?” Lady Claire demanded from her chair near the window.

“Mother, leave him be,” the older duchess said, smiling at her son. “All the men are dressing in the latest fashions, and Patrick is no exception.”

“I don’t have to, you know,” Patrick said hopefully. “There is absolutely no need for me to attend a ball this evening. I could go and change, Grandmother.”

“Nonsense. We’re all attending this tacky display of beggary,” the duchess replied. “If we must attend—and Lord Kerrington was one of your father’s closest business associates, so we must—at the very least we can hope you will meet some young lady who attracts your attention.”

“A suitable one, this time,” Lady Claire added pointedly. “No more young ladies whose fathers have run through their fortunes and left them without dowries, if they ever had one to begin with.”

Patrick seethed. He had only been a duke for a short time, not even a year, and already his mother and grandmother were on the verge of arranging a match for him. Fortunately, he had no requirement to obey, though the constant discussion of his future wife and heirs was very tiresome.

“Father has not even been dead for a year,” he reminded them, attempting to keep his frustration under control. “It is not even seemly for me to be at a ball, let alone courting someone, when we are still supposed to be in mourning.”

“Nonsense,” the duchess replied primly, folding her hands in her lap. “Those sorts of ‘rules’ are all well and good when there is no crisis at hand. But you are unmarried and have no heir. Apart from the ever-increasing damage to your reputation that grows more likely with each passing day, think of your grandmother and me, think of your younger sisters. There is no one to care for us if you do not hurry up and marry.”

“What do you mean, damage to my reputation? You’re the one attempting to make me look uncaring, almost as though I might have killed my father to get my hands on his title,” Patrick argued.

“No one would think such a horrible thing,” Lady Claire said with a polite sniff of derision. “You are much too kind to do such a thing. But if you do not marry well and marry soon, there will be those who think you must be a rake.”

Patrick’s cheeks flamed the color of late-season strawberries at such a statement from his grandmother. He looked to his mother as though she might put an end to such an inappropriate conversation, but she only nodded in agreement.

“This is beyond belief,” Patrick said, throwing up his hands in exasperation. “No one is even thinking these things, I assure you, much less speaking to them about me. And if they are, that is their own fault for engaging in idle gossip.”

“Oh? You think so?” the duchess asked, arching an eyebrow. She reached for the table beside her chair and retrieved a long, narrow page. “The scandal sheets might tell otherwise.”

Patrick took the page his mother held out and scanned its contents, his brows furrowing in anger as he made his way down the sheet. He fumed at the nearly slanderous tidbits, his humiliation growing as he thought of others reading these salacious words.

“This is reason enough not to show my face at Kerrington’s ball this evening. If you need me, I will be in my study,” Patrick said, handing back the offensive page and turning to leave.

“Patrick? No. You will be attending the ball,” his mother said coldly. “We depart at nine.”

Chapter Two

 

“Harriet, you look lovely,” Bridget said as her sister came down the stairs. “That gown fits you very well.”

“I suppose it does,” Harriet said, looking somewhat put out. “I cannot believe we couldn’t have new gowns for a ball that is being held for our family’s charity.”

“That’s precisely why we shouldn’t be parading about in new gowns,” Bridget reminded her. “We are hoping for the generosity of the guests to help our school. We cannot be wearing overly fine or expensive things while standing about with our hands out.”

Harriet stuck her tongue out at Bridget, but she ignored the younger girl’s disappointment as the earl emerged from the drawing-room.

“Are you ready, Father?” Bridget asked cautiously, looking at the sour expression on her father’s face.

“I suppose I am,” the earl answered, though he made no move to go to the door. He sighed mightily, then looked down. “Girls, I must bring you some very bad news.”

“What is it, Father?” Harriet asked, putting her gloved hand on his arm.

“I had hoped to keep this from you for as long as I could, but I cannot hide the truth any longer,” he said, darting his eyes up to look at them for only a moment before looking down once more, the shame clear in his voice. “Our fortunes have taken a turn, and I regret to say that the situation is rather dire.”

“What do you mean?” Bridget asked fearfully. “Just how dire is it?”

“We are virtually penniless,” he confessed slowly. “All of my solvency was held up in my latest shipments from Virginia, but the cargo proved to be worth far less than I anticipated. The price of timber did not reach as high as I was told to expect. That, and coupled with some of my debts coming due, we have been left with nearly nothing.”

Bridget and Harriet exchanged a frightened look, struck speechless by this revelation.

“What will this mean?” Bridget asked quietly. “What of the servants?”

“I have sufficient funds to see to their salaries for the next few months, but after that, they will need to seek other positions,” the earl confessed. “The house is fully owned, but the taxes to the Crown will mean having to sell it.”

“Father, where will we live?” Harriet asked, clutching at his sleeve.

“There is still the house at Repington,” the earl said sadly, causing Harriet to sway slightly as she neared fainting. “But if that house must also be forfeited, then we will have to live at the barony your mother’s great-uncle left in our possession.”

“I would rather die!” Harriet cried indignantly. “To leave London and become a poor farm girl? I will never find a husband!”

“Well, it’s odd that you mention that,” the earl began, though he stopped short of finishing his thought.

Bridget stared, already knowing in her heart what he might say. Her blood ran cold as she pushed down the sickly feeling that began to take hold of her.

“Don’t say it,” Bridget whispered, but the earl only looked at her sadly and shook his head.

“I’m sorry, dear girl. The only way to guarantee your futures is to find an eligible match straight away. If you do not, this Season will be your last, I’m afraid.”

Harriet looked to Bridget, whose eyes were starting to fill with tears. She took a deep breath and steeled herself, summoning the strength to ease her father’s shame and hurt.

“We understand, Father,” Bridget said, her voice shaking slightly though she fought to keep her composure. “We will do our best and as always, we will make you proud.”

“Dear girl, I am so sorry about all of this. I am just… lost,” her father replied, his own eyes moist. “Your mother was always the one who helped me know what to do, how to invest and how to avoid business dealings that were not trustworthy. I’m afraid that without her, I’ve had to go into business blind, never knowing what to do. I’ve not only let the both of you down, but I’ve also let her down as well.”

“Father, do not chide yourself this way,” Bridget said. “Mother was certainly a rare gem, and you cannot berate yourself for not replicating her wise counsel. Let us go and see how this evening unfolds.”

Harriet wiped at her eyes and nodded, opening the door herself and slipping out into the night. Bridget turned to go after her, but the earl pulled her back.

“Bridget, I’m afraid that I have not told you the worst of it,” the earl said, looking crestfallen again. “It is bad enough that you now face this pressure to marry, and that I will undoubtedly have to make matches for you that you may not be pleased with. Lord Haskins, a man I have known in business for quite a few years now, has made mention of seeking a wife, by the by.”

“We will make do, Father,” Bridget said curtly, not wishing to hurt him further but unable to feel happy about it. “And so long as you promise to take into account our opinions on this man or that, I know we will all turn out all right.”

“No, I understand perfectly. That is bad enough, I suppose. But dear girl, there is one more piece of bad news I must share with you—your school must close its doors. I must sell the building to pay off the rest of my debts, so the children will have to leave at once.”

***

Patrick stood wedged between his mother and his grandmother, watching the guests mill about and feeling terribly uncomfortable. The fact that this was a pointless ball was bad enough, but then knowing that everyone in the room had most likely read the brutal speculation about his immoral activities with a number of women made the event downright painful.

“Patrick, you must go and speak to your friends. You look ridiculous standing here with us this whole time,” his mother chided near his ear.

“What friends, Mother? The very people who would believe such rubbish if I am not married?” Patrick demanded bitterly. “And those same people who believe that marriage would somehow stop such depraved behavior? Are they addled in the head?”

“Well, you cannot stand here with the ladies. It is unseemly, and you will never meet a wife if you do not go and ask someone to dance. Just make sure it is someone suitable,” the duchess replied. “Come, Lady Claire, we will take a turn about the room and make Patrick available for conversing.”

His mother and grandmother gone, Patrick stood awkwardly and watched the other guests. There were quite a number of beautiful young ladies present, but they all had one feature in common—they watched him with an appraising eye, practically licking their lips like wolves about to devour a lamb. They could smell unmarried, titled blood it seemed, at least to him.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” a familiar, friendly voice said as a small glass of sherry was thrust into Patrick’s hand.

“Thank goodness you’re here,” Patrick said, taking a long sip of the drink. “I was afraid I wouldn’t know anyone… or would know too many people, that is.”

“That’s understandable,” Edward replied, clapping him on the shoulder jovially. “I wouldn’t be here except for my sister’s need for a chaperone. If she would hurry up and marry her betrothed, I could avoid these things altogether.”

“What is causing the delay?” Patrick asked, merely maintaining the conversation and not due to any real interest in the details involving his friend’s sister.

Edward shrugged. “She simply wishes to enjoy her last Season before being exiled to the man’s properties in the north, I suppose. All of my other sisters are already married, thank heavens. I’m glad my father lived long enough to handle that nasty business for me.”

“We make an odd pair, do we not? Titled young men who had no cares in the world not too long ago, only to find ourselves now burdened like Atlas after our fathers were taken too soon.”

“Your father, perhaps,” Edward conceded. “I was my father’s fifth child—at least the fifth one who survived—and his only son after a string of daughters. He was already advanced in years when he married my mother, so I have never known him except that he was gray-haired and walked with a cane. It is sad, and I miss him terribly, but I cannot honestly say it was unexpected.”

“True enough,” Patrick admitted. “But now I find myself in the unenviable position of being thrown before the wolves myself. My mother and my grandmother have made it rather clear that there is already scandal attached to my name, all because of my bachelorhood. It is a dreadful condition that I am to be cured of in the very near future.”

“I do not envy you that,” Edward said, laughing openly at his best friend’s situation. “It is rare that I am glad to be a lowly marquess, but this is certainly one of those times. When I marry it shall be at a time of my choosing and to a young lady of my choosing. Anyone who thinks otherwise will be told to have off.”

“I admire your confidence,” Patrick said. “Would you care to speak on my behalf to my own relations?”

“Not even for a moment. Those two women frighten me,” Edward said, laughing. “Come, let’s speak to James over there. He always has something amusing to say.”

As they made their way through the ballroom, Patrick was keenly aware of whispers every time he passed someone. Clusters of ladies seemed to speak of him behind their fans, watching him with wide eyes. Men he did not know watched him warily, offering only the barest of nods in greeting. The whole thing made him wish to turn around and flee for the front door, not stopping until he was back at home.

“Well then, do you see anyone who catches your eye?” Edward asked helpfully.

“I failed to look as I was otherwise occupied with everyone whispering about me,” Patrick admitted sheepishly.

“Why would you think they’re whispering about you? Because of that ridiculous scandal sheet from yesterday?”

“Of course. I know they’ve all seen it, Mother said as much.” Patrick shook his head angrily at the memory of their conversation.

“And you think those ludicrous remarks have set the ton’s tongues to wagging?” Edward asked, laughing lightly. “Lockhart, you must remember something. No one at all thinks there’s a shred of truth to those pages.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, the slightest stirring of hope lifting his spirits.

“They are mere entertainment, something for the ton to grab onto and discuss,” Edward explained. “Now, to be sure, should a young lady have been ruined and the news of it works its way into the circulation of local rumors, that would certainly be a problem… at least for her. But one of the many injustices heaped upon the fairer sex is that they must suffer should their every indiscretion be made public, while we gentlemen become all the more alluring for having been mentioned. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if your own mother was the one to inform the writer of your alleged behaviors.”

“What? My mother would never do such a thing, she lives in abject fear of a scandal causing us harm,” Patrick argued, shaking his head. “It’s simply not possible.”

“My dear naïve fried, it’s not only possible, but it’s also entirely likely she paid a few coins to have something printed about you. Why else would everyone suddenly know your name and be discussing you?” Edward asked, gesturing to a handful of guests who were looking in their direction. “Tell me, has that ever happened at an event before?”

“Well, no. Now that you bring my attention to it, I don’t recall ever being so openly gawked at like an animal in a cage,” he said, still looking around uncomfortably.

“And yet, your name is on everyone’s lips this evening. How unusual…” Edward said knowingly, his voice trailing off as he made his point.

Patrick was both relieved and repulsed by the notion that being spoken of in such a poor way could possibly be a good thing. Still, it did nothing to alleviate his discomfort at standing in a ballroom filled with people, some of whom might admire him and others who may loathe him.

All feeling seemed to leave him at once when Patrick chanced to see the hosts of the ball enter and begin greeting their guests. He had known Lord Kerrington for some time, along with Lady Kerrington and their daughter, Agatha. They were nice enough people, though he did not know them beyond being acquaintances. It was the young ladies who trailed after them who caught his eye, two unknown ladies who smiled and received introductions as they went along the far wall.

“Who is that? I’ve never noticed her before,” Patrick asked his friend, never taking his eyes off the tall young lady with the chestnut hair that fluttered with hints of red as the candles flickered in their sconces above her.

“I don’t know,” Edward replied, sounding somewhat disinterested. “You should probably go and find out, lest your mother accuses you of not even trying to be civil.”

“I think I shall,” Patrick said, only to find his feet firmly frozen to the floor when the worst sort of scoundrel he knew stepped forward and took the young lady’s hand, beckoning her to dance.

 

Chapter Three

 

Chapter Three

“Lady Bridget,” the older man said, an odd sort of look in his eye.

It took her only a moment for Bridget to realize he had been drinking for quite some time, and most certainly something stronger than sherry. She had seen it far too many times in the faces of the students’ parents, that same bleary-eyed stare in which their gaze kept wandering, trying to find something to focus on.

“Yes? Have we met?” Bridget asked a little too loudly, hoping to garner Agatha’s attention.

“Oh, Lady Bridget, how clumsy of me,” Agatha replied, turning from where she’d been speaking to her parents. “Lord Haskins, may I introduce Lady Bridget Stewart, daughter of the Earl of Repington? Lady Bridget, this is Victor Skinner, the Earl of Haskins.”

“Pleased to meet you, my lord,” Bridget said, curtseying politely.

“I see you are not dancing,” Lord Skinner replied. “We must fix that at once.”

Bridget looked to Agatha and Harriet, unsure of what to make of such an unusual invitation to dance. But her father’s words rang in her ear—she simply had to marry by the end of this Season. And this very man had made mention of seeking a wife, a man of business, according to her father. Gritting her teeth but smiling politely, she nodded briefly.

“Certainly, my lord. I should like nothing better,” she answered, placing her hand on his outstretched arm.

The first notes of the next tune began and around her, couples were already standing in their places. Bridget stood before this man and tried to avoid the intensity of his stare.

“Why have I never seen you at an event before?” he asked gruffly as they began to move about the floor.

“I… that is to say, I don’t know. I’ve been to a number of events lately, most recently the concert at Lady Falson’s and the opera with Lady Melville,” Bridget explained, trying to sound polite and attentive.

“I would surely have noticed someone as beautiful and beguiling as you wandering about the halls,” Lord Haskins said. “I would have made every effort to follow after you and speak to you.”

“Oh. You flatter me,” Bridget replied, not sure how to respond to such a statement.

“It is no flattery. I know when I see the most prized specimen in the room,” he argued, stumbling momentarily but keeping his feet about him.

“Specimen?” Bridget asked, cringing slightly as her anger threatened to get the better of her. “I assure you, I am no specimen, at least not one to be compared to all of the ladies in attendance. They are far more prized than I, I assure you.”

“Nonsense. I know what I like, and I have not seen it until now,” the earl said, pulling Bridget slightly closer to him until she felt the need to lean backwards in order to avoid being so close to him.

Mercifully, the song ended in due course. Bridget curtseyed again and looked over the earl’s shoulder for Harriet or Agatha.

“Thank you for the dance, my lord. I must find my sister now,” Bridget began, but Lord Haskins caught her hand and pulled her back.

“Now, now, you mustn’t run off, not when I’ve only just gotten to know you,” he said, but he was prevented from saying anything else by another man’s intrusion.

“Why, Lady Bridget, I had no idea you would be here this evening,” the newcomer said, causing Bridget’s nerves to alight once more. “Please tell me I’m not too late, and that I might have the next dance.”

Bridget looked between the drunken earl and this strange man who seemed to know her, feeling oddly discomforted. Still, sobriety was a characteristic she was particularly attached to, so the choice was simple.

“Certainly, you may. If you will excuse us, Lord Haskins,” Bridget said, putting her hand atop the stranger’s gently closed fist and allowing him to lead her away.

They stood apart, facing one another as the next tune began to play. Bridget looked up at the tall man, his dark curls almost falling over his forehead enough to cast a shadow that reached his intensely green eyes. She frowned slightly, trying to discern how they knew one another, but she was unsuccessful.

“Don’t trouble yourself with trying to recall my name, we have never met. I hope you’ll forgive me for being overly familiar,” the man said as they began to dance. “I asked your friend for your name when I saw how uncomfortable you seemed.”

Bridget smiled with relief. “That was very clever of you. Here I thought I was a terrible person for not remembering you.”

The man laughed. “We have not yet been introduced, and it pains me that my rather forward display was how we were to meet. But I am familiar with Lord Haskins and his fondness for drink. I could not leave you to your own defenses.”

“You are a true hero, rest assured,” Bridget replied, relief flooding through her. “But I am at a loss as you know my name, though I still have not learned yours.”

“Patrick,” the man said simply.

“Patrick? That’s all?” Bridget teased, smiling at how unassuming this man seemed to be.

“Oh, my apologies. I’m sure I’m supposed to inform you that I am Patrick Arnold, eleventh Duke of Lockhart, or some such thing,” he answered, smiling politely though he rolled his eyes at the formality.

“Well, Your Grace, you certainly saved me and for that, I am very grateful to you,” Bridget replied sincerely. “Though I have heard of you, my father has spoken of you before. You are both members at White’s, I believe.”

“Ah, I remember now. So, while inquiring about your name, I learned that you are here as a special guest of the hosts. Is that so?” the duke pressed, as though hurrying to speak while they had the brief chance.

“Yes. You see, I run an academy for children of poor laborers. This ball is an invitation to anyone in the ton who wishes to lend their support to our cause. We have need of a great many things, but most of all, funds to maintain our school.” Bridget stopped herself before she could confess that the very existence of the school was now in peril.

“I see. That is not a common endeavor you’ve undertaken,” Patrick replied.

“No, sadly, it is not. If it were more common, there would be so much less need,” Bridget explained, aware that she was sounding defensive of her school. “But we are so much more than simply a school. We strive to provide food and clothing as well as a rudimentary education. It is… not an inexpensive undertaking.”

“Surely the fine people in attendance this evening will see the merit in such a cause and help you,” Patrick replied. “I, for one, will be glad to make a modest donation.”

“Thank you, Your Grace. That will be most welcome. And if you feel so inclined, it would be a great help to the school if you could speak to any of your peers about also supporting us. But only if you feel comfortable doing so, that is,” Bridget added quickly.

“I don’t know that I have so many acquaintances here, but I will do all I can to talk it up. How about that?” he asked, smiling slightly.

Before Bridget could answer, the musicians stopped. The dancing ceased, and the duke looked down at her.

“Thank you for the lovely dance, Lady Bridget,” he said. “I wish you the very best for your school, and I know that you will continue to do a marvelous job with it.”

Bridget looked up at his eager face, and her heart was filled with the sort of turmoil that comes from trying to be strong for too long. He had been so kind as to rescue her from a loathsome dancing partner, and then even spoke so kindly about the school. It was overwhelming to have the chance to speak to someone who seemed to be such a caring person.

The truth spilled out before Bridget could stop herself.

“I’m afraid that unless our campaign is successful, the school will be closing,” she confessed, a single tear spilling down her cheek. “I have learned only this evening that it must close if we do not achieve our aim. Forgive me,” she blurted out, then hurried out of the ballroom.

***

Bridget made it outside to the solitude of the terrace before the full shame of humiliation struck. What had she been thinking? She had just revealed her sad plight to a complete stranger, one who had just spoken such wonderful things about the school!

“How stupid can I be?” Bridget muttered, looking up at the stars overhead and attempting to hold back the tears that continued to fall. “I just ruined any chance the children had of keeping their school!”

Bridget rested her cheek against the cool marble of the balustrade for a moment, letting the soothing stone calm her. She would have to go back inside and continue speaking to the guests about the merits of the school and the good work that they were doing, all while trying to politely ignore the comments from those who thought poor children should simply be put to work somewhere.

“Lady Bridget? Are you all right?” a now-familiar voice asked from behind her.

Bridget whirled around in surprise to find the duke standing nearby. She dabbed at her eyes and smoothed the front of her gown before self-consciously reaching up to pat her hair, ensuring it was not a mess from her sprint earlier.

“I’m fine, thank you. I’m sorry, I just became so overwhelmed with emotion at finally telling another soul the awful news,” Bridget explained, her embarrassment mercifully concealed by the darkness outdoors.

“There is no need to apologize, I assure you. I would react the same way if I had received such terrible news, especially about something I was so clearly passionate about as a school for needy children,” Patrick said softly, his voice filled with understanding.

It made Bridget want to cry all over again.

“You are very kind to inquire after me, but I promise, I am all right. I only need a moment to stop feeling so helpless,” Bridget said. “Who am I to cry and complain while standing on Lord Kerrington’s terrace, wearing a gown that cost more than the children’s families could ever hope to afford?”

“That is an uncommon sentiment among this crowd, I fear,” Patrick said, laughing though he sounded sympathetic.

“I cannot help but imagine their little faces as they slink off to their beds, their bellies empty once again but for the meager food we can give them each day,” Bridget continued. “And to know that even that small bit is now threatened with being taken away, it is too painful to grasp.”

“What will you do without securing the funds?” Patrick asked, sounding concerned.

“The school building itself will be up for sale, and the children will have to remain at home. Instead of learning and finding encouragement and nourishment, they will likely be put to work to keep them from being idle.”

“Is there no other school for them?” the duke asked, genuinely unaware of how these sorts of matters came about.

Bridget shook her head. “No. As I explained before, this school is far too unique in our society.” She paused and looked away. “While I am baring the troubles of my heart, I might as well say this—my family has supported this school for all the years that it has existed, with very little help from others. But my father… he has fallen on unfortunate financial hardships, and that is the reason the school is to close. We simply cannot afford to continue to fund it.”

“That is terrible,” Patrick said, standing closer and lowering his voice at discussing such a personal topic. “But surely once your father’s finances are secure once again, the school can open.”

“I’m afraid it is not so simple as that. He must sell the school, you see. His situation is quite serious, and my sister and I must do all we can to ease his burden.”

“You don’t mean…” Patrick asked, though he stopped as though he knew the topic was not meant for two strangers to discuss. Finally, he said, “You mean you must marry, don’t you?”

“I’m afraid so,” Bridget replied, trying to sound confident. “It is through no fault of my father’s, and therefore it is my duty as his daughter to do all I can. I’m sure he will find a suitable match before the Season is over, and then he will not have to worry about caring for either of his daughters.”

Patrick was silent, and for a few moments, Bridget thought she might have spoken too plainly, said too much. These topics were not meant to be discussed so casually among strangers, nor even among friends, for that matter. But it felt good to let someone else shoulder that burden with her, even if it was someone she’d only just met and would likely not see again.

“Then marry me,” Patrick said, turning to face Bridget.

Her eyes went wide. “I beg your pardon? What did you say?”

“Please hear me,” he explained cautiously. “I must marry. Apparently, my mother and grandmother will both die of something horrendous if I fail to do so… or at least that is how they have been acting. And I have been having a terrible time of simply trying to enjoy my days as a solitary person. You need to marry and maintain your school, and I need a wife to avoid the appearance of being a monstrous rake, or something like that. This is ideal for both of us.”

“You cannot be serious,” Bridget said, confirming that she’d heard him correctly. “Dukes do not simply meet a young lady at a ball and offer marriage right that very moment.”

“Why not?” he asked with a shrug. “It’s not as if either of us has been seeking a love match, correct? Then what is the harm in a business arrangement that will benefit both of us? Of course, we can still enjoy a brief yet respectable courtship so that everyone knows it is a most sincere arrangement.”

“I… I don’t know. But I’m certain there is more to it than that,” Bridget said, protectively crossing her arms in front of herself.

“The way I see it, it’s all rather simple,” Patrick said plainly. “The ton is filled with men like Lord Haskins. Would you prefer to continue attending events in hopes of meeting a man who is slightly less repulsive?”

“Absolutely not. You have certainly discovered my Achille’s heel,” Bridget acknowledged.

“Then a marriage arrangement built on mutual benefit—both financial and to our reputations—is the better choice, is it not?” he asked patiently, as though waiting for Bridget to embrace the notion.

“But am I even permitted to accept such an invitation? I truly do not know these things, my mother has not been here to guide me through these matters,” Bridget admitted. “I think you are supposed to speak to my father about this, rather than me.”

“Oh. I think you’re right,” Patrick said, his eyes going wide as he looked around nervously. Yet still, he smiled. “I’ll be right back then.”

“Wait, I don’t mean like that!” Bridget said, laughing as she caught his arm and pulled him back. “I feel as though I should ask about you, about your reputation. What if you are some rake who is intent on ruining my good name?”

The duke stiffened at her remark, and Bridget feared she had either offended him greatly… or worse, that she had hit too close to the mark.

“I assure you, despite what others may think they know, I am an honorable and honest man,” he answered, sounding slightly wounded.

Bridget softened, her heart going out to him. “I think it’s permitted for me to accept, but only on the condition that you come to call tomorrow and speak to my father. Does that sound right?”

“It does to me,” Patrick answered. “You know, for the first time in a matter of weeks, I feel as though I might float off the ground, so unbothered am I.”

“I think I feel the same way,” Bridget said, laughing softly. “It’s as though you saved me not only from a boorish dance partner, but also… you’ve saved my entire life.”

“And I hope that I live up to such a lofty view you have of me, Lady Bridget,” Patrick answered, bowing to her. “Now, I’m certain we should go back inside before anyone sees us out here alone. And as I have asked you to be my wife, I do believe we are permitted one more dance this evening. Shall we go?”

“That would be lovely, Your Grace,” Bridget said, accepting his arm and walking with the duke back into the house.

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  • A good start to a familiar idea. The hero and heroine have been introduced well so I already have some knowledge of their characters. You have written two likeable people. I hope as I read the rest it will not be filled with too many americanisms …spellings and wrong words used e.g. fall for autumn . As the story is set in 19 th century England such things really annoy me. I look forward to reading the rest of your story.

    • Thank you so much my dear, I’m glad you liked it 😀 Also, thank you for the feedback, I’ll be sure to take it into consideration <3

  • First, thank you for allowing me to read this.. it’s wonderful and I can’t wait to see how they fall in love with one another. I can’t wait to see how the Duke’s Mother & Grandmother are going to take this news of meeting a Lady for the first time and offering her marriage in one evening.

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