she's finally free to do whatever she likes
The Dowager Duchess of Clayton, Clarice Sinclair, has spent her entire life doing exactly what she is supposed to. But as a young widow, she finds her options have widened dramatically. Now that she’s finally free to do whatever she likes, she decides it’s time to reconnect with the scoundrel she’d once loved.
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Given the number of mourners who had been filing in and out to pay their respects all afternoon, it certainly seemed as though the whole world cried at the loss of such a great man.
She hadn’t been allowed to go to the cemetery, thank God. Though there had been no love lost between her and her elderly husband, she didn’t think she could have borne to see him lowered into the ground.
The Duke of Clayton had been more than thirty years her senior, but he’d been a force to be reckoned with right up until his heart had stopped two—or was it three?—days ago. It had been a shock to find him dead in his bed. She’d honestly begun to fear he’d live forever.
Now here she was, just twenty-nine years old, a childless widow who would soon find herself evicted from her home. She might even be penniless if her husband had been petty enough to punish her for her inability to conceive a child by leaving her nothing. She bit her lip to keep from bursting into tears, though she guiltily realized her tears were far more for herself than her deceased husband.
A raucous laugh drew her attention across the room. Her husband’s nephew, Nigel, held court near the fireplace. The duke’s fondest wish had been that Nigel, who was a wastrel and a reprobate, did not inherit, which was why he’d married a woman less than half his age to provide him with an heir.
Her hand unconsciously went to her stomach. Though Nigel would not inherit officially until her monthlies arrived, there was no doubt they would. Her six-year marriage had grown colder and colder with every month that had passed without her conceiving a child. The duke had hated her in the end, and he’d made no effort to hide it. For the past year, since a doctor had pronounced her barren, he hadn’t come to her bed at all. He blamed her for not giving him a son, and he’d been furious that his old, distinguished title would go to Nigel, instead of a child of his own blood.
“How are you holding up?” asked her stepdaughter, Natalia, the only child of his first marriage, coming to stand supportively by her side. She’d been at Clarice’s side ever since the duke had died. Today she’d been a true blessing, greeting the mourners and making them feel at home while Clarice stood off to the side, quiet and remote, her true expression hidden by the mourning veil she wore.
Only five years separated them, and she’d always thought of Natalia as more of a younger sister than a daughter. Since her own parents were dead, and she had no siblings, Natalia was the only family she had left.
Her guilt escalated as Natalia tried to comfort her when she was the one who must certainly be missing the duke most of all. Though a bit gruff and unable to show his emotions, he’d loved his daughter as much as he had the ability to love anyone.
“I just wish everyone would leave,” Clarice murmured, not wanting anyone else to hear. “Especially Nigel. I don’t like the way he’s obviously calculating the worth of everything he sees. He’d have me out of the house tonight if he could.”
Natalia sighed. “I’ll talk with him later, make certain he takes care of you. I think he’ll listen. He’s not all bad. And Lord knows he’ll have the means.”
A new wash of tears stung Clarice’s eyes, and she blinked them rapidly away. She didn’t want to be beholden to Nigel Sinclair. She didn’t want to be beholden to anybody. She’d wrongly imagined that once the duke died, she’d be free. But freedom didn’t exist for women of her class. They just went from one man’s rule to another.
“Thank you,” she managed, unable to meet Natalia’s sympathetic gaze.
“No matter what happens, you’ll always have a place with Dylan and me,” Natalia consoled her. “We’d love it if you came and stayed with us in Scotland.”
Natalia had been happily married to her handsome husband, Dylan Montgomery, for nearly two years now and had an adorable little son. The thought of living with the only family she had in the world was tempting, but Clarice knew she’d go mad stuck in the wilds of Scotland for months on end. She liked the excitement and entertainment of the city.
“That means the world to me,” she assured Natalia, even while hoping that her husband had left her enough money to continue living in London. Surely he wouldn’t leave her destitute. She had to believe he’d felt some sort of responsibility for her.
Her butler stepped into the room, followed by a new arrival. “Roman St. James, the Earl of Chatham,” the old man intoned.
Clarice’s heart leaped in her chest, all the chaotic emotions she’d felt today replaced by a rush of longing. Surely, her ears must be deceiving her. But as her gaze lifted to the man the butler had announced, every nerve-ending in her body sang.
She’d loved him once, loved him passionately and truly. But he’d been the second son of a second son when she’d made her debut, no one her father would consent to wed his precious daughter and her even more precious dowry. Even though she’d been forced to marry the duke and had never wanted it, Roman had blamed her for not defying her father and running away with him.
But he’d had no prospects, and although she’d loved him, she’d been too much of a coward to leave her aristocratic life for one of poverty.
In the seven years since, she’d only seen him a handful of times, always across a crowded ballroom or theater. He’d never said a word to her, nor even given the faintest hint that he remembered her. But he haunted her dreams almost nightly.
“Do you know him?” Natalia asked as Clarice continued to stare, wondering why on earth he was there.
“Yes,” she managed. “We were friends once. A long time ago.”
Roman lifted his stunning blue gaze to hers, and heat flashed through her. He’s here. He’s really here.
Before she could stop herself, she moved forward, crossing the room toward him, remembering too late that this was not the time nor the place to show her excitement. Her husband had just died! If she didn’t marshal her emotions, she’d never outlive the scandal.
Still, her feet kept moving toward him as if they had a mind of their own.
“Lord Chatham,” she said breathlessly, forcing herself to keep from reaching for him, glad once again for the veil that hid her features. “So good of you to come.”
He looked her lazily up and down, his fine mouth drawn in a tight line. The years had been good to him. If anything, he was even more handsome than she remembered. Thick dark hair, brilliant blue eyes, and the face of a warrior angel. His broad shoulders were encased in somber black, and he towered above her own diminutive frame.
“Your Grace,” he replied, his voice deep and commanding. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“As I am for yours,” she murmured, guilt assailing her that she hadn’t made some attempt to contact him when a series of illnesses and accidents had befallen first his uncle, then older brother, then father, leading to his miraculous inheritance of his uncle’s title.
He held her gaze for a long moment, and in his eyes, she wasn’t certain if she saw love or hate. Whatever it was, it still burned bright. As it did for her, even after all these years. What was he telling her by coming here today? Had he come here in support, because he still cared about her, or because he hated her and wanted to see her at her weakest?
She wished she could talk to him further, find out how he’d been doing since they’d last spoken, but he had the reputation of a scoundrel, a wastrel, someone who was not quite accepted in polite society, despite his lofty title. She hadn’t greeted anyone else this way, and if she didn’t walk away now, she feared what it might cost her. Her reputation was truly the only thing she had left.
“Thank you so much for coming,” she said remotely, calling on all the lessons she’d learned as the duke’s wife. She knew how to be cutting and remote. She knew how to hide her emotions.
Still, the act of turning away cost her dearly. For just a moment, a kernel of heat had thawed some of the coldness within her, and as she faced down the year of deep mourning she’d be expected to observe, she became quite certain that what was left of her heart would freeze completely.
A young widow, she finds her options have widened dramatically