Witty, passionate and fast-paced, this sparkling debut Regency romance is a must-read for any fan of Georgette Heyer.
She’s running from her past; he’s hiding from his.
Miss Ellen Burney doesn’t have a penny to her name. Determined to escape scandal, she flees to London and becomes Miss Smith: spinster and lady’s companion. London offers security in anonymity. So long as Ellen can rein in her overactive imagination and become the perfect picture of propriety.
Calum Callaghan spent ten years in the Royal Navy fighting Napoleon and has the scars to prove it. Now he’s a duke, but all of London thinks he murdered his brother. Heartbroken and battle weary, he’s locked himself away for four long years, a prisoner in his own townhouse.
That is, until Cal’s grandmother comes to stay with him for the London Season, her new lady’s companion in tow. A lady’s companion with a passion for life and love that can hardly be contained by even the most spinsterish of lace caps. She’s fooling nobody, especially not this grumpy duke.
Early spring, 1817
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.
The Unworthy Duke by Charlotte Anne will be available from the 4th of February 2021