An incurable romantic, Holly Middleton spent her entire youth daydreaming about love, princes, and pirates. She never doubted one day she would meet the man who would sweep her off her feet. And what better man to do the sweeping than a charming, irresistible duke?
But what is a woman to do when her dashing duke turns out to be not so dashing after all?
• Run away from her wedding, that’s what.
• Hope she doesn’t get caught.
• Certainly not by a handsome marquis.
• And if caught by a handsome marquis . . .
• Under no circumstance fall in love with him.
The day started out like any other ordinary day. No, wait, that was not entirely true, or else this wouldn’t have been a day in Holly Middleton’s life, because no day in her life ever turned out as one would expect. In fact, most days often led to trouble—or at least to getting one of her siblings out of trouble—but needless to say, it ultimately meant her life was never dull. It was also why it came as no surprise that even this day would not turn out as expected.
This day was her wedding day.READ MORE
A wedding was meant to be a day of joyous celebration, one where two souls vowed to share their lives together, usually after having fallen deeply in love. If not a love match, then it could be an arranged marriage or a required one. And yet, Holly’s marriage belonged to none of the above categories. Now, if there had been an option for “accepting wedding proposals out of pure madness,” she ought to have fit perfectly into that group.
She drew out a long-suffering sigh. Angling her head to the side, Holly studied herself in the mirror. She ought to have been thrilled, swathed in a short-sleeved gown of soft pink silk with lace trimmings and matching slippers, beautifully designed to enhance every aspect of her lean frame.
What an utter nightmare.
She didn’t mean the dress, which was the height of fashion—in perhaps a too extravagant way—but her impending wedding, the wedding of doom.
Now that was a nightmare.
She was minutes away from walking down the aisle, and all Holly wished to do was run in the opposite direction.
How had she gotten herself into this mess?
With too much enthusiasm, that’s how. But then, she needn’t ask such questions, for she knew exactly how: her romantic ideals.
Honestly, how could she not get drawn into the notion of a fairy-tale wedding, however sudden, when a gentleman—no, a duke—proposed? It was inescapable. Even if Holly had known the duke for only a day before he asked for her hand in marriage.
What hadn’t occurred to her at the time was that a fairy-tale wedding did not make for a fairy-tale marriage.
It occurred to her now.
And much to her chagrin, her sisters had warned her from the start. But had she listened?
“One does not fall in love the moment a man shows interest, Holly. One must think about his motives.”
“You’ve only known him a day, how can you be in love? How can he propose?”
All fair questions.
What a pity Holly had always been an incurable romantic. She had merely refused to listen to reason.
She thought back to that day when the duke had dropped to his knee in her cousin’s drawing room and had declared, quite earnestly, that he’d known from the moment he’d caught sight of her in Hyde Park that she was perfect for him. His words had been low and urgent, so much so that her heart had melted like soft butter on a warm day.
But she had no reason to believe his words insincere or his intentions suspect, what with her being the third daughter of the second son of an earl. A duke, especially one as handsome as this one, could have his pick of the litter, and he had chosen her, Holly Middleton.
He must be in love!
What ulterior motive could the man possibly possess? He had nothing to gain from their marriage but her heart. At least, that was what Holly had told herself up until two days ago. On that day the hinges that held her world together gave a decided pop when a thought entered her mind and refused to leave.
I cannot do this.
Four unshakable little words.
But, once again, like countless times before, she ignored her inner voice. Because when the eighth Duke of St. Ives, stately, wealthy and utterly devil-may-care, had asked her to marry him, Holly had, quite exuberantly, exclaimed yes, when she might have benefited more from saying no.
It was not an exclamation a lady could take back with the drop of a hat.
And as for his mother . . . Holly had never met a more self-absorbed harridan in her life. The Dragon Duchess, as she had come to call her in private, had all but commandeered her wedding. No thought was given to the bride or her wishes. The Dragon Duchess had taken care of everything from the flowers, cake, and guest list down to the wedding gown, in the astonishing span of seven days.
All this left Holly with no choice but to go through with the wedding. One did not call off one’s nuptials days beforehand, especially when said union involved a duke. And one did not run away on the day of the wedding.
It would be the worst sort of social ruin.
That was why Holly had not called it off when she discovered the true nature of her future husband two days ago.
A sense of despair churned in her belly. She recalled how she’d wanted nothing more than to stomp on the duke’s well-polished boot and dash off in anger, but what then? St. Ives was not a man that would let her out of their betrothal.
“This is not the mood I envisioned for my wedding day,” she muttered, turning away from the mirror.
The duke had misled her. Duped her.
He had not been overcome with affection or feelings of grandeur when they’d met that day in the park. He was not the gentleman he had pretended to be when he had proposed. And he certainly hadn’t fallen madly in love with her.
Holly paced the length of the vestry as she waited for the ceremony to commence. By now everyone would have taken their seats, and her father would soon arrive to relinquish his rights over her to the stuffy Duke of St. Ives.
What was she going to do?
Marry the duke, that’s what.
Anything but that.
You’ll be a duchess, her inner self pointed out.
Oh, do be quiet. Yes, Holly would become a duchess, but what did that matter when she’d also be a slave?
The door cracked open and Willow slipped into the room.
Oh, Lord, was it time?
Holly held her breath. She had asked for a few moments to herself, mostly to calm the rising panic threatening to overcome all other senses but also to convince herself of the practical benefits of becoming a duchess.
Which she had yet to do.
Her time had run out.
“They will be ready in . . .” Her sister started, pausing when their eyes locked.
Holly knew what Willow saw; she had just seen it in the mirror. Her eyes were wide and her complexion pale, much paler than usual. Also, pearls of moisture had formed on her brow. In fact, Holly wouldn’t be surprised if an invisible fairy had painted the word petrified in bright red across her face since she’d turned from the mirror to pace.
“Heavens, Holly! You look as though you’ve encountered a ghost. What’s wrong?”
She parted her lips to reply, but to her horror, all that escaped was a light croak.
“Good lord!” Willow exclaimed, rushing forward. “Are you all right?”
Holly lifted her eyes to meet her sister’s worried gaze. Her sense of panic only grew. “What have I done?” she managed in a half whisper, half cry.
“Nothing that cannot be put to rights. You don’t have to go through with the wedding if you don’t wish it.” Willow’s face was a mask of determination.
“I’d be jilting a duke.”
“You’d be escaping a man with ulterior motives,” Willow countered. “Everyone will understand.”
Holly raised a thin blond brow. No one would understand. And while Willow’s concern was touching, Holly would be ruined, and the taint of that scandal would leave a stain on her sisters as well. And even if that hadn’t been enough to give Holly pause, there remained no doubt in her mind that the duke’s wrath would follow her to the ends of the earth.
She shook her head, her lips touched with a sad smile. “If I humiliate St. Ives before his peers, I’d be a social outcast, which would mostly be fine, but I’ll not be the cause of you and Poppy’s reputations being muddied as well. There is nothing for it, Willow. I made a terrible mistake, and now I must live with the consequence. I’d die before I ruin your chances to marry fine gentlemen.”
Willow’s shoulders squared. “I would rather you be happy than miserable for your entire life. We can overcome the scandal, even if society will not forgive.”
“We will be exiled to the country for the rest of our lives.”
“We already live in the country, Holly, and besides, Middletons have never shied away from a bit of scandal.”
“It’s not as simple as that. What of father? Our cousins? They will also be affected by the explosion of scandal I’d cause if I jilt St. Ives.”
Willow bit her lip.
So this was it, Holly thought. There were some mistakes where the only way out was through. This was one of those times. But it was hard to accept that the entire sum of her life had brought her to this moment.
“Let me do it.”
Holly looked up, horrified. “Are you mad?”
“Completely. A Middleton trait, as you are well aware. However, the duke ought to be taught a lesson, and who better to teach him than me?”
“And this requires you to marry him?”
“It would certainly solve the problem.”
“No,” Holly said, asserting her answer with a sharp shake of her head. “This is my mistake, Willow, not yours. I cannot in good sense allow you to take my place in misery.”
Oh, but how easy it would be to flee the scene of her wedding!
Her sister stepped forward, gripping her by the shoulders, her eyes solemn. “It’s not your fault, Holly. St. Ives took advantage of your trusting nature. I am certain of it. Let me do this for you.”
Holly shook her head.
No. Absolutely not.
Still, her sister pressed, “I’m not as easily taken in by romance as you, and I do not believe love is a prerequisite for marriage. While it would be nice—do not get me wrong—it’s not needed to make a good match. And to marry a duke, to become a duchess . . . that is as good as it gets.”
“This is absurd, Willow. I cannot let you take my place. You do not know the duke. He is dreadfully domineering and has all these ridiculous rules his duchess must obey.”
“I can handle one duke.”
Holly’s heart pinched. “But he’s not your burden to bear. And even if we could find a way to fool the duke, how am I to live with myself knowing you took my place in a life that will bring you nothing but misery?”
“We don’t need to fool the duke…much. We only require the vows to be said. After my veil is lifted and the duke discovers our ruse, it will be too late.”
“Willow,” Holly murmured, attempting to talk some sense into her sister. “Do you not understand? The duke’s a tyrant. He compiled a list of rules for me to abide by. Rules! It is unheard of! Better it be me than you.”
Willow’s eyes narrowed and her lips pulled into a thin line. “What sort of barbarian is he?”
“The kind that insists I am to be in bed promptly at eleven when we are not attending assemblies and one hour after we’ve returned home on nights that we do.”
“That’s just preposterous!” Willow exclaimed.
“I’m also allowed only one slice of toast for breakfast.” That was, perhaps, the cruelest rule of all.
“Barbaric! You shall not marry that lout,” Willow declared, her back straightening.
“But what of the scandal?”
Willow’s expression turned fierce. “We will ride out the storm together, and may this act of rebellion serve as a lesson to the infernal Duke of St. Ives.”
Holly remained unconvinced.
A knock on the door sounded, causing both women to jump, followed by the low rumble of a male voice. “Miss Middleton? Are you present?”
Holly’s eyes flew to her sister, who prompted her to answer.
“Of course, your grace, where else would I be?”
Willow shot her a warning look.
What? Holly mouthed.
Silence followed from behind the door. Then a grunt. “The ceremony will commence in promptly four minutes.”
“I shall be there.”
This time, Willow flitted her eyes heavenward.
However, there was not a single remark from the duke before the thudding of his footsteps pronounced his retreat.
“I simply cannot marry that man!” Holly burst out, the words erupting from deep within like lava from a long-slumbering volcano.
“And you won’t,” her sister agreed. “We shall leave a note with the wedding dress he purchased for you.”
“The Dragon Duchess purchased it,” Holly muttered.
“From his pockets, no doubt,” Willow said, wasting no time to assist Holly out of the gown.
Any minute now, a knock on the door would signal her father’s arrival. She quickly undressed and hung the gown up against the wall, leaving her clad in nothing but a provocative corset-like chemise, a gift from her cousin Belle. Holly was quite confident that had the Dragon Duchess discovered the creation, it would have ended up in the Thames.
“Go!” Willow exclaimed.
“What of you?”
“I shall pen the note and receive father, but you cannot be here, or it shall all be for naught.”
“There might be guests milling about!”
“The duchess has ordered everyone to their seats.”
Of course she had. Still . . .
“I cannot leave the church looking like Satan’s prostitute!”
At once Willow removed her shawl and handed it to Holly. “Here, cover your face with this. So long as no one recognizes you as the bride, you ought to be fine.”
Holly nodded and wrapped the shawl around her head, sprinting from the room in haste. How fortunate that the wrap was royal blue instead of damning red, which Holly was sure resembled the fires of hell.
Once clear of the vestry, she plastered herself against the wall, taking stock of her surroundings. To her left lay the way to matrimony. Hundreds of people from all over the country—friends, family, and strangers—sat gathered there, waiting for her.
Lord, forgive me.
To her right lay the way to freedom. Ah, the sweet, crisp taste of bliss that would lift the weight crushing her shoulders. Holly inched closer in that direction.
There was no way of knowing whether some of the wedding guests had ducked outside for a spot of fresh air, but other people would be milling about: merchants, servants, ladies, gentlemen . . . all about to witness her grand escape.
The sudden low-pitched notes of oncoming voices, perhaps three, signaled men heading her way.
Holly’s head throbbed at the temples. She could not be discovered like this. She must do something. Anything.
Dashing across the hall to the nearest door, she turned the latch, and groaned. It was locked.
Her panic welling, Holly plastered herself once more against the wall, her mind racing for a possible retreat, when the wooden panel at her back suddenly gave way. With a cry of alarm, she tumbled into a hidden passage, her backside hitting the ground with a clear oomph.
“Did you hear that?” A low, unfamiliar male voice asked.
Holly scrambled to her feet to shut the panel before anyone noticed a hole in the wall and, heaven forbid, caught her mid-escape.
How utterly remarkable her luck!
Feeling her spirits rise once more, she glanced around the hidden room. The space was narrow, but it appeared to be of considerable length, almost like a secret hallway. In fact, as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Holly noted it might run half the span of the church.
Candles, robes, and books were stacked against the inner wall, giving the room a musky smell. And if it hadn’t been for the tiny holes of light pouring through the thin outer layer, the space would be shrouded in darkness.
What was this place?
Out of curiosity, Holly trailed the length of the passageway, noting all the scrolls and wooden chests, until muffled voices drew her attention away. Following the sound of chatter, she soon came up to the end of the hidden hallway.
Her eyes darted around the barren space. There was nothing there, except what looked to be a vent for air and, beside it . . . peeping holes?
What was the meaning of this?
A thought struck her.
Lord Almighty! Peeping holes were used to spy, were they not? But why would the church have any need for them?
Curiosity burned inside her.
She ought to leave. But how often did one find oneself in a secret passageway shrouded in mystery?
Holly couldn’t leave if she tried.
Spying a small footstool in the corner, she placed it just beneath the holes. Still, she had to lift onto her toes to peek through them.
The holes gave her a complete view of the altar and . . . the wedding ceremony.
Her heart sank.
Even from where she spied, Holly observed the poor unsuspecting devil positioned beside the priest glance at his pocket watch with a darkening scowl.
Oh! The last thing she wanted to do was bear witness to her own folly. Now, because her gaze refused to be drawn away from the impending catastrophe, she would have a first account of the moment her husband-not-to-be grasped he’d been abandoned at the altar.
In fact, any moment now, realization would strike.
Her heart in her throat, she spotted Poppy glancing worriedly down the aisle. Her cousin Belle sat beside her husband and brothers, all waiting in anticipation for the bride to make her dazzling entrance.
It was hard to imagine which was worse: going through with the wedding or not going through with it at all. Either way, it was too late to debate the merits now.
Holly’s thoughts were interrupted when the church organ struck up the melody of the wedding march. Unable to take the suspense, to watch the mutiny she was responsible for, she shut her eyes. Tight. The whispers would start any moment, the thumping of boots as the duke marched down the aisle in furious pursuit of his runaway bride soon to follow.
But no running boots signaled a furious duke.
No whispers of shocked onlookers reached her ears.
Only the rustling of people rising.
Holly opened one eye.
There, adorned in her wedding dress of soft pink silk, a figure sauntered down the aisle, an elegantly crafted veil of matching color hiding her features.
Her other eye shot open.
Several guests were wide-eyed and stared at the bride in shock. Or were they staring at her feet—Holly couldn’t be sure.
Had she fallen and hit her head?
But sure enough, even after Holly pinched her arm and bit the inside of her cheek, the figure still moved down the aisle.
Her gaze flicked to the duke, who stood ramrod straight and indifferent, his eyes only fleetingly sweeping the bride from head to toe, and Poppy…oh, Poppy! Her older sister was frowning, not in suspicion but rather in confusion. She must be wondering what had happened to Willow, Holly thought.
With a gasp, Holly inspected every small detail of the bride. Could it be? The dress fit adequately enough, but Holly knew Willow was slightly taller than she was.
Her gaze dropped to the bride’s feet. The gown stopped just above the ankles, displaying a remarkable amount of skin—and shockingly blue slippers.
Oh, dear Lord!
They were the same color as the shawl Willow had given her.
Studying the figure, Holly noted the soft blond hair, just like her sister’s, more strawberry colored than her own. Poppy noticed it about the same time as she did, for Holly noted from the corner of her eye that her sister’s jaw dropped. God bless her, she recovered before anyone could take note. Lucky for them, all eyes were on the bride. Or rather, her ankles.
Frozen with the knowledge and dread of what Willow was entering, Holly willed her sister to turn and run. This had to be some terrible trick. Why else would Willow take her place after Holly had warned her?
Fear crept up her spine. She should never have left without her sister.
The duke waited, entirely unsuspecting, for his bride to reach his side. He stood, proud and unshakable, with nothing but a small stretch of his lips, watching her sister stroll down the aisle.
For the first time Holly noted the sheer number of guests in attendance. Since she hadn’t been privy to the arrangements, courtesy of the Dragon Duchess, she had not considered the wedding to be such a big event.
Curses! The entire town would know within the hour that the Duke of St. Ives had married the wrong sister. Served the handsome devil right to be duped, but not at the expense of Willow. If only she had heeded Willow and Poppy’s advice, she would not be peeping—
“What on God’s green earth are you doing?” A voice boomed from behind her, and Holly whirled, her feet slipping from the footstool.
Time suspended as she fell to the floor.
Long, strong arms shot out and caught her by the waist, and Holly was hauled against a broad chest. Her astonished gaze locked with the stark white of a cravat, while the rich scent of sandalwood teased her nostrils.
Lord, the man smelled good.
Just as fast, she was set back on her feet, where she found herself gazing up, and up, and up into the surly eyes of an imposing figure.
Holly stood frozen, held immobile by the thunderous twin icebergs as she heard a hush fall over the church. Even the church organ had missed a dramatic note as the deep male voice reverberated through the thin wall that separated them from the congregation.
In hindsight, Holly ought to have known her efforts to escape would have the same result as a dog barking at a knot. And if she knew anything about the man who had just caught her, it was that the devil had a wicked sense of humor indeed.COLLAPSE