For the first time since the death of his wife, the Duke of Stanbrook is considering remarrying and finally embracing happiness for himself. With that thought comes the treasured image of a woman he met briefly a year ago and never saw again.
Dora Debbins relinquished all hope to marry when a family scandal left her in charge of her younger sister. Earning a modest living as a music teacher, she’s left with only an unfulfilled dream. Then one afternoon, an unexpected visitor makes it come true.
For both George and Dora that brief first encounter was as fleeting as it was unforgettable. Now is the time for a second chance. And while even true love comes with a risk, who are two dreamers to argue with destiny?
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George Crabbe, Duke of Stanbrook, stood at the foot of the steps outside his London home on Grosvenor Square, his right hand still raised in farewell
Margaret and Audrey were sisters and his second cousins to be precise. They had come to London for the wedding of Imogen Hayes, Lady Barclay, to Percy,
A little over eight years ago George had made the decision to open Penderris Hall, his country seat in Cornwall, as a hospital and recovery center for
A deep bond had developed among the seven of them, an attachment too strong to be severed even after they left Penderris and returned to their separate
He lowered his hand, feeling suddenly foolish to be waving farewell to empty air, and turned back to the house. A footman hovered at the door, no doubt
He nodded to the young man and sent him to the kitchen to fetch coffee to the library.
The morning post had not arrived yet, he could see when he entered the room. The surface of the large oak desk before the window was bare except for a
It was a pleasant feeling to know that he might do whatever he wished with his time, even nothing at all if he so chose. The weeks leading up to
Imogen herself was the closest of friends but could have caused some upheaval due to her impending nuptials. She had not. She was not a fussy bride in
The wedding breakfast had been held at Stanbrook House. He had insisted upon it, though both Ralph and Flavian, their fellow Survivors, had offered to
George had enjoyed every moment.
But now the festivities were all over, and after the wedding Imogen had left with Percy for a honeymoon in Paris. Now Audrey and Margaret were gone
There was a strong sense of finality about this morning. There had been a flurry of weddings in the last two years, including those of all the
He was glad to see that the fire in the library had been lit. He had got chilled standing outside. He took the chair to one side of the fireplace and
“Thank you.” George added milk and a little sugar to the dark brew and remembered for no apparent reason how it had always irritated his wife that he
It seemed almost incredible that all six of his fellow Survivors had married within the past two years. It was as if they had needed the three years
It was all thoroughly heartwarming to the man who had opened his home and his heart to men—and one woman—who had been broken by war and might have
George looked speculatively at the biscuits but did not take one. He picked up his coffee cup, however, and warmed his hands about it, ignoring the
Was it downright contrary of him to be feeling ever so slightly depressed this morning? Imogen’s wedding had been a splendidly festive and happy
Perhaps that was the trouble, though. For he was not their father, was he? Or anyone else’s for that matter. He frowned into his coffee, considered
He was, George thought as he gazed sightlessly into his cup, very much alone—though no more so now than he had been before Imogen’s wedding and all the
They had moved on with their lives, those six, and left him behind. And what a blasted pathetic, self-pitying thought that was.
George drained his cup, set it down none too gently on the saucer, put both on the tray, and got restlessly to his feet. He moved behind the desk and
He was lonely, damn it. To the marrow of his bones and the depths of his soul.
He almost always had been.
His adult life had begun brutally early. He had taken up a military commission with great excitement at the age of seventeen, having convinced his
It seemed to George, looking back, that all his adult life he had never been anything but lonely, with the exception of that brilliant flaring of
He clasped his hands behind his back and remembered too late that he had told Ralph and Ben yesterday that he would join them for a ride in Hyde Park
There was no reason for George to feel lonely and there would be none even after the other four had left London and returned home. There were other
But he was lonely, damn it. And the thing was that he had only recently admitted it to himself—only during the past week, in fact, amid all
During the last few days he had toyed with the idea of hiring a mistress again. He had done so occasionally down the years. A few times he had even
He did not want a mistress.
Last night he had lain awake, staring up at the shadowed canopy above his bed, unable to coax his mind to relax and his body to sleep. It had been one
What had occurred to his mind last night was that marriage might bring him companionship, possibly a real friendship. Perhaps even someone in the
He had been celibate a little too long for comfort.
Two horses were clopping along the other side of the square, he could see, led by a groom on horseback. Both horses bore sidesaddles. The door of the
Youth could be delightful to behold, but he felt no yearning to be a part of it.
The idea that had come to him last night had not been purely hypothetical. It had come complete with the image of a particular woman, though why her he
He had dozed off eventually and woken early to take breakfast with his cousins before seeing them on their way. Only now had he remembered those
But now the same thoughts were back. Why the devil had he not gone riding? Or to White’s Club? He could have had his coffee there and occupied himself
Would she have him if he asked? Was it conceited of him to believe that she would indeed? Why, after all, would she refuse him unless perhaps she was
Would he merely be making an idiot of himself, though, if he married again now when he was well into middle age? But why? Men his age and older were
It was absurd to think that he was too old. Or that she was. Surely everyone was entitled to some companionship, some contentment in life even when
A tap on the library door preceded the appearance in the room of a youngish man carrying a bundle of letters.
“Ethan?” George nodded to his secretary. “Anything of burning interest or vast moment?”
“No more than the usual, Your Grace,” Ethan Briggs said as he divided the pile in two and set each down on the desk. “Business and social.” He
“Bills?” George jutted his chin in the direction of the business pile.
“One from Hoby’s for a pair of riding boots,” his secretary said, “and various wedding expenses.”
“And they need my inspection?” George looked pained. “Pay them, Ethan.”
His secretary scooped up the first pile.
“Take the others away too,” George said, “and send polite refusals.”
“To all of them, Your Grace?” Briggs raised his eyebrows. “The Marchioness of—”
“All,” George said. “And everything that comes for the next several days until you receive further instructions from me. I am leaving town.”
“Leaving?” Again the raised eyebrows.
Briggs was an efficient, thoroughly reliable secretary. He had been with the Duke of Stanbrook for almost six years. But no one is perfect, George
“But there is your speech in the House of Lords the day after tomorrow, Your Grace,” he said.
“It will keep.” George waved a dismissive hand. “I will be leaving tomorrow.”
“For Cornwall, Your Grace?” Briggs asked. “Do you wish me to write to inform the housekeeper—”
“Not for Penderris Hall,” George said. “I will be back . . . well, when I return. In the meantime, pay my bills and refuse my invitations and do
His secretary picked up the remaining pile from the desk, acknowledged his employer with a respectful bow, and left the room.
So he was going, was he? George asked himself. To propose marriage to a lady he scarcely knew and had not even seen in a longish while?
How did one propose marriage? The last time he had been seventeen years old and it had been a mere formality, both their fathers having agreed upon the
Was he really going to do this?
What the devil would she think?
What would she say?
One might almost be lulled into believing that spring was turning to summer even though it was still only May. The sky was a clear deep blue, the sun was
Home was a modest cottage in the village of Inglebrook in Gloucestershire, where she had lived for the past nine years. She had been born in Lancashire,
Then one day by happy chance she had seen a notice in her father’s morning paper, inviting a respectable gentleman or lady to come and teach music to a
Dora had written to the agent named in the notice, had received a swift and favorable reply, and had moved, sight unseen, to her new home. She had lived
She went directly upstairs to her room to remove her shawl and bonnet, to fluff up her flattened hair before the mirror, to wash her hands at the basin in
Oh, she thought with a sudden pang, how she still missed Agnes. Her sister had lived with her here for a year after losing her husband. She had
Dora was fond of Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, Agnes’s second husband. Very fond, actually, though initially she had had doubts about him, for he was
Dora turned away from the window when she realized that she was no longer really seeing the garden. They lived in faraway Sussex, Agnes and Flavian. But it
“Forever and a day,” Flavian had added.
Dora did not so choose. Living alone by its very definition was a solitary business, but solitude was infinitely preferable to any alternative she had ever
She could hear the clatter of china downstairs and knew that Mrs. Henry was deliberately hinting to her, without actually calling upstairs, that the tea
She went down.
“I suppose you heard all about the big wedding in London when you went up to Middlebury, did you?” Mrs. Henry asked, hovering hopefully in the doorway
“From Lady Darleigh?” She smiled. “Yes, she told me it was a very grand and a very joyous occasion. They married at St. George’s on Hanover Square, and the
How lovely it must be . . .
She took a bite of her scone. Sophia, Lady Darleigh, who had arrived back at Middlebury Park from London with her husband the day before yesterday, had
“I will no doubt have a long letter from Agnes about it in the next day or two,” she said when she saw Mrs. Henry’s look of disappointment. “I will share
Her housekeeper nodded and shut the door.
Dora took another bite from her scone, and found herself suddenly lost in memories of last year and a few of the happiest days of her life just before the
How pathetic that she relived those days so often. Viscount and Viscountess Darleigh, who lived at Middlebury Park just beyond the village, had had
All the guests had been incredibly kind. And flattering. Dora had played the harp, and they had not wanted her to stop. And then she had played the
She had been made to feel like a celebrity. Like a star. And for those few days she had felt wondrously alive. How sad—no, pathetic—that in all her life
They called themselves a club, the male guests who had stayed at Middlebury Park for three weeks—the Survivors’ Club. They had survived both the wars
Dora wondered if they would ever again gather at Middlebury Park for one of their annual reunions. If they did, then perhaps she would be invited to join
She picked up her cup and sipped her tea. But it had grown tepid and she pulled a face. It was entirely her own fault, of course. But she hated tea that
And then a knock sounded on the outer door. Dora sighed. She was just too weary to deal with any chance caller. Her last pupil for the day had been
Perhaps Mrs. Henry would deal with whoever was standing on her doorstep. Her housekeeper knew how tired she always was after a full day of giving lessons
“It is for you, Miss Debbins,” she said before stepping to one side.
And, as though her memories of last year had summoned him right to her sitting room, in walked the Duke of Stanbrook.
He stopped just inside the door while Mrs. Henry closed it behind him.
“Miss Debbins.” He bowed to her. “I trust I have not called at an inconvenient time?”
Any memory Dora had had of how kindly and approachable and really quite human the duke was fled without a trace, and she was every bit as smitten by awe as
She realized suddenly that she was still sitting and staring at him all agape, like a thunderstruck idiot. He had spoken to her in the form of a question
“Your Grace,” she said. “No, not at all. I have given my last music lesson for the day and have been having my tea. The tea will be cold in the pot by now.
But he had held up one elegant staying hand.
“Pray do not concern yourself,” he said. “I have just finished taking refreshments with Vincent and Sophia.”
With Viscount and Lady Darleigh.
“I was at Middlebury Park earlier today,” she said, “giving Lady Darleigh a pianoforte lesson since she missed her regular one while she was in London for
“I arrived an hour ago,” he told her, “unexpected but not quite uninvited. Every time I see Vincent and his lady, they urge me to visit anytime I wish.
Dora’s cheeks grew hotter. For how long had she been keeping him standing there by the door? Whatever would he think of her rustic manners?
“But will you not have a seat, Your Grace?” She indicated the chair across the hearth from her own. “Did you walk from Middlebury? It is a lovely day for
He had arrived from London an hour ago? He had taken tea with Viscount and Lady Darleigh and had stepped out immediately after to come . . . here? Perhaps he brought a message from Agnes?
“I will not sit,” he said. “This is not really a social call.”
“Agnes—?” Her hand crept to her throat. His stiff, formal manner was suddenly explained. There was something wrong with Agnes. She had miscarried.
“Your sister appeared to be glowing with good health when I saw her a few days ago,” he said. “I am sorry if my sudden appearance has alarmed you. I have
Dora clasped both hands at her waist and waited for him to continue. A day or two after the dinner at Middlebury last year he had come to the cottage with
But that was not what happened.
“I wondered, Miss Debbins,” he said, “if you might do me the great honor of marrying me.”
Sometimes words were spoken and one heard them quite clearly, but as a series of separate, unconnected sounds rather than as phrases and sentences that
Dora heard his words, but for a few moments she did not comprehend their meaning. She merely stared and gripped her hands and thought, with a strange,
Only to marry her.
He looked suddenly apologetic, and thereby resembled more the man she remembered from last year. “I have not made a marriage proposal since I was
“You want me to marry you?” She indicated herself with a hand over her heart, as though the room was full of single ladies and she was unsure that he meant
He clasped his hands behind his back and sighed aloud. “You know about the wedding in London less than a week ago, of course,” he said. “You doubtless
Dora felt half robbed of breath. One did not expect a nobleman with his . . . presence either to experience such a lack in his life or to admit to
“And it struck me,” he continued when she did not fill the short silence that succeeded his words, “that I really do not want to be lonely. Yet I cannot
“But—” She pressed her hand harder to her bosom. “But why me?”
“I thought that perhaps you are a little lonely too, Miss Debbins,” he said, half smiling.
She wished suddenly that she were sitting. Was this the impression she gave the world—that she was a lonely, pathetic spinster, still holding out the faint
“I live a solitary life, Your Grace,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “By choice. Solitude and loneliness are not necessarily
“I have offended you, Miss Debbins,” he said. “I do apologize. I am being unusually gauche. May I accept your offer of a seat after all? I need to explain
“It would be too absurd to believe that you need choose thus anyway,” she said, indicating the chair opposite hers again and sinking gratefully back into
“It occurred to me after I had given the matter some thought,” he said as he seated himself, “that what I most need and want is a companion and friend,
Dora was looking at her hands. Her cheeks were hot again—well, of course they were. But she lifted her eyes to his now, and the reality of what was
“But why me?” she asked again. Her voice sounded shockingly normal.
“When I thought all these things,” he said, “they came with the image of you. I cannot explain why. I do not believe I know why. But it was of you I
He was looking directly into her face, and now she saw not just an austere aristocrat. She saw a man. It was a stupid thought, one she would not have been
And someone to share my bed.
“I am thirty-nine years old, Your Grace,” she told him.
“Ah,” he said and half smiled again. “I have the effrontery, then, to be asking you to marry an older man. I am nine years your senior.”
“I would be unable to bear you children,” she said. “At least—” She had not gone through the change of life yet, but it must surely happen soon.
“I have a nephew,” he said, “a worthy young man of whom I am dearly fond. He is married and already father to a daughter. Sons will no doubt follow. I am
She remembered that he had had a son who had been killed in Portugal or Spain during the wars. The duke must have been very young when that son was born.
“It is a companion I want,” he repeated. “A friend. A woman friend. A wife, in fact. I do not have grand romance or romantic passion to offer, I
Dora gazed at him, startled. She had been pretty once upon a time, but youth and she had parted company long ago. The best she saw in her glass now was
She bit her lower lip and gazed back at him. How could they possibly be friends?
“I would not have any idea how to be a duchess,” she said.
She watched his eyes smile, and she smiled ruefully back at him and then actually laughed. So, incredibly, did he. And she was glad yet again that she was
“I grant,” he said, “that if you were my wife you would also be my duchess. But—I hesitate to disappoint you—it does not mean wearing a tiara and an
“I am rather fond of Miss Debbins,” she said. “She has been with me for almost forty years.”
His smile faded and he looked austere again.
“Are you happy, Miss Debbins?” he asked. “I recognize that you may well be. You have a cozy home here and productive, independent employment doing
His eyes held hers. And all her defenses fell away, as did all the assurances she had given herself over the years that she was happy with the course her
She did have a cozy home, a busy, productive life, neighbors and friends, an independent, adequate income, family members not too far away. But she had
She had never allowed herself to dwell upon how different her life might have been if her mother had not run away from home so abruptly and unexpectedly
She was thirty-nine years old.
But she was not dead.
She would not marry, though, just out of desperation. A poor marriage could—and would—be far worse than what she already had. But a marriage to the Duke of
But only to dream.
Sometimes—oh, just sometimes—dreams could come true. Not the love and romance part, of course, but he had companionship and friendship to offer. And
She could know what it was like . . .
With him? Oh, goodness, with him. She could know . . .
And someone to share my bed.
She became aware that a longish silence had succeeded his proposal. Her eyes were still locked upon his.
“Thank you,” she said. “Yes. I will.”
Excerpted from "Only Beloved"
Copyright © 2016 Mary Balogh.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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