Elise Danvers loved Gray Worthingham from childhood but he broke her heart when she spied him with another woman. Now, after the death of the man she married instead, Elise discovers the Earl of Somerset has been designated her son’s legal guardian to control the estate until her son turns twenty-one.
Gray Worthingham , Earl of Somerset, promised his uncle that when the time came, the infant Lord Aiden would assume his rightful position as the Lord of Man. The young eighth Duke of Argylle will hold the exalted position passed down in his family…no matter what Gray has to do to achieve this, even marriage.
No sooner are the marriage vows declared than disaster strikes. Young Lord Aiden falls ill, and Gray is accused of murdering the boy’s father. Amidst the turmoil, Gray and Elise discover the gift of “happily ever after” that she was certain would elude her forever.
Placing his gloved hand beneath her chin, he lifted her face. “You’re following the same path as Father; an arranged marriage, devoid of love. It can only lead to disaster.”
She covered his hand with her own. “No. I will not make Papa’s mistakes. I am stronger. I must be. Mother needs this alliance with Argylle. Papa’s”—her voice broke—“death and betrayal destroyed her safe, secure world. She can’t leave this house for the scandal he created.”
Her grip tightened. “Gracious, Jeff, he died in another woman’s home—one that he provided for her. As a Christian, I don’t judge him. After all, I don’t know what was in his heart at the moment of his death. And as a daughter, I make allowances for him. I loved and respected him. I always will.”
Though her words were powerful, her voice was flat, as if she were bloodless, dispassionate. So unlike the girl she had once been. She could see worry reflected in Jeff’s eyes. But this was her way of coping with the pain…the loss…the future.
“As a woman, I understand Mother’s position. She has to get away from here, but it can’t look like she’s running away.”
“Surely things are not bad enough to send the two of you fleeing across the sea.”
“You have to know what Mother’s been through to understand. Her dearest friends pity her. You know Mama’s pride. She can’t bear the shame. She’s hurt and she’s scared and she’s desperate.”
Unconsciously, she straightened, trying to appear more substantial than she felt. “She wasn’t reared to withstand a scandal like this, and she certainly wasn’t reared to live in a world where Yankees might burn the house down over our heads at any moment.”
Pain darkened her gaze. “And tomorrow, after Bradley joins you in this insane war, strangers will run Crimson Hills; strangers, Jeff. Mama can’t bear to see that. If I marry His Grace and Mama accompanies me to England, she can come home one day, after the war, when it’s safe…after the scandal dies down. When you boys are home to take care of her and Crimson Hills, she can return in triumph, as the mother of a duchess.”
Jeff pulled her to her feet. He held her by the shoulders, looked deep into her eyes, trying to see into her very soul. “What about you, kitten? Marriage is forever. Are you willing to sacrifice yourself?”
“I will do as I must.” When he made to argue again, she pressed her fingertips against his lips. “Please Jeff, I’ve accepted my fate.” Her voice broke slightly. “Don’t make this any harder for me than it already is.”
Nodding, he kissed the tips of her fingers then brought her hand to his heart. “You are a remarkable woman, Elise Stayton.”
“I pray to our God Almighty that you are right.”
“I’m always right.”
She smiled as he intended. “I love you, Jeff.”
“And I love you, Lisi Kat.” His gaze suddenly turned mischievous. “You haven’t asked when your prospective bridegroom will arrive.”
“I don’t understand.”
“He sent someone to stand proxy in the ceremony.” He paused for emphasis. “An old friend of yours.”
Elise felt a sense of foreboding.
“Argylle was occupied with affairs of state and unable to leave the Isle. So he asked Gray…”
Elise no longer heard her brother for the roar in her ears. It was the far side of too much. The same afternoon Gray had stolen her heart, her sixteenth birthday, he had made her promise to marry for love. Now he would make that impossible. A fist of betrayal squeezed her heart. Her last girlhood dream slipped through her fingers.
But she twitched not so much as an eyelash.