Duchesses in Disguise

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Three young, wealthy titled women decide to spend the social Season admiring the bucolic splendor of the Yorkshire Dales rather than dodging fortune hunters and scandalmongers in London. A fine plan–until the ladies’ traveling coach lands in a muddy ditch, and foul weather strands them at the estate of Colonel Nathanial Stratton. As luck (or Cupid?) would have it, Nathaniel and his two friends, Kit Stirling and Greyville Trent, also have no patience with matchmaking and romance… or so they insist.

Read an excerpt of “Duchess in the Wild” by Grace Burrowes

Read an excerpt of  “To Tempt A Duchess” by Emily Greenwood

Read an excerpt of “The Love of His Life” by Susanna Ives

The Love of His Life – Excerpt

Chapter One

Hyde Parkone month before the notorious carriage mishap

“How delicious,” Colonel Nathaniel Stratton’s sister, Lady Deirdre, remarked. “I understand Sir Harry has had yet another of his embarrassing marriage proposals rejected.”

Her throaty laughter brimmed with malice. The sound rankled her brother’s frayed nerves. He scanned the manicured grounds of Hyde Park, while taking several deep breaths to keep an impolite set-down from escaping his lips.

Lady Deirdre prattled on, “I think it should be noted in Creighton’s London Guide that young ladies possessing some degree of wealth should expect a proposal from Sir Harry when traveling to the metropolis.”

Her gaggle of townish friends howled with laughter as they strolled lazily along the crowded footpath. Lady Deirdre’s lips trembled as she tried not to chuckle at her own witticism. She was famous for her waspish, but amusing, tongue. Her utterances delighted the exclusive circle of Society that buzzed about her, drinking in her droll vitriol.

She had begged Stratton to join their old friends for fashionable hour at the park, claiming he wasn’t himself anymore. She had been saying as much since he’d returned from the war. She refused to believe that her once-dashing, roguish brother had turned into a reticent man who preferred attending a dry lecture on the freezing points of various liquids to going to a gaming hell and would rather finance an inventor than a scandalous mistress. He spurned London Society’s adoration, choosing to spend his time in the country with his daughter  and dull scientist guests.

“You’re becoming a regular bumpkin,” Lady Deirdre had complained not two hours after he arrived in London. “Do indulge in one delicious scandal with a married woman while you are here, for old time’s sake—and my amusement.”

Amusement.

Stratton had once ambled about London thinking its inhabitants existed for his amusement—beautiful women to pleasure his body and everyone else to envy him and desire to bask in his bright, youthful light. Witnessing five thousand dead men on a field in Spain had destroyed that haughty arrogance, as well as most of his faith.

Not getting the rise from her brother that she desired, Lady Deirdre returned to mocking Sir Harry. “The on dit is that Sir Harry actually wept when the homely miss rejected his proposal. I’m sure his display of sentiment had less to do with a broken heart and more to do with the knowledge that he has run out of young ladies to propose to. Now he must wait another Season for a new crop of unsuspecting ladies to arrive from the country.”

Her clever cruelty elicited more laughter.

Weeping Sir Harry must be this Season’s object of ridicule. Every Season, Deirdre had  different prey. This was not a conscious selection on her part, but someone who made himself or herself a ready object of ridicule—a foppish effeminate gentleman, a country-mannered boorish baron, a garish matron, or a chubby chit with too many freckles. Stratton had played happily along in the vicious game until the Season his heart got tangled up in it.

“We really must tell Sir Harry that no one wants his awkward, loose-lipped courting,” his sister continued, puffed up on the attention she garnered. “It’s the kindest thing to do, is it not, Nathaniel ?” She was throwing Stratton a line, like an actor in a play. She waited for his response, her eyes glittering, hoping the sardonic Stratton of old would make an appearance.

“The kindest thing you could do is give the poor man respect and dignity,” Stratton answered flatly, refusing the bait.

Deirdre laughed. “Listen to you! You might as well be a Methodist. Your newfound respectability ill fits your roguish frame. It pulls at the seams and hangs poorly across your broad shoulders. I know your cynical heart still beats beneath the surface. A tiger can’t change his stripes.”

Stratton couldn’t hold back the tide of his anger. “I don’t—”

A child’s terrified shriek pierced the air, arresting Stratton mid-sentence. The frightening sound cut straight into his heart. He knew it wasn’t his daughter’s wail—she remained in the country—but he instinctually broke into a sprint in the direction of the child’s cries. He had recently learned that he was a parent and had taken his illegitimate daughter into his home. He hadn’t expected the dramatic change a small girl would make to every aspect of his life. Now every hurt child’s cry alarmed him like the cracking sound of a firing rifle had in the war.

He rounded the trees and shrubs bordering the water. A girl in a white frock and with brilliant red hair darted toward the water, her arms waving wildly in the air. Her ribbons streamed loose from her braids. Mary Alice, the Duchess of Pymworth, and her liveried footman raced after the errant child. The duchess was a curvaceous woman, possessing a heavy bosom and voluptuous hips, but she moved with athletic agility.

“Anna, no!” Her Grace cried as the girl splashed into the river.

The child began to flail, even though the shallow water rose just above her chest. Her screams grew sharper and more frantic. Her Grace, clad in a lavender gown of half mourning, didn’t hesitate to wade into the dirty waters.

She reached out to the girl, but stopped just short of touching her. “Anna, shhh. It’s Mama.”

The screaming child only pushed into deeper waters, her mind in such a wild state as not to perceive danger.

Stratton and several nearby gentlemen had sprinted to the river’s edge and were ready to dive in.

“Your Grace,” one called.

Keeping her eye on her daughter, the duchess held her palm to the men. “Please stop,” she said in a controlled, calm voice. “She’ll only come to me.”

Stratton, frustrated liked the other would-be saviors, could do nothing but clench and unclench his hands.

Her Grace edged closer to the girl. “Anna, hush. It’s just Mama. See? Mama.”

Anna paused in her tantrum. She gazed at her mother, her shiny, unfocused eyes seeming not to recognize her. In that small second, the duchess zoomed across the water and seized the girl.

Anna shrieked and beat the air with her small fists, knocking away her mother’s bonnet. The duchess’s long auburn curls fell loose and gleamed a rich amber color in the sunlight. Her Grace hugged her hysterical daughter close to her chest, issuing soothing sounds. Her expression remained composed, not registering the blows and kicks she suffered as she hauled the dripping child from the water.

More gentlemen now lined the bank, eager to be heroes. Stratton remembered when the would-be duchess hadn’t a friend in Society. When her desperate overtures had been met with taunts and ridicule. Now, most of Society—especially ambitious bachelors—waited at her beck and call. Stratton stepped back, concealing himself behind the others, so that the duchess wouldn’t see him. Now that he was no longer needed to save a child from drowning, his presence would only make the traumatic situation worse for Her Grace.

With an attentive footman in her wake, the duchess carried the wailing child to the willow tree where her two other children waited, each holding a nurse’s hand. They stared at their out-of-control sibling with solemn, worried eyes. The eldest was a girl of about eight or nine years—Stratton’s daughter’s age. The boy appeared to be a year or so younger. Their slim build, sharp features, and black hair resembled that of their late father’s, the Duke of Pymworth.

The duchess sat by the trunk, clutching her hysterical daughter, who squirmed and screamed as if her skin were on fire. Though Her Grace kept her face calm and composed, tears slipped down her cheeks. Stratton sensed there was something was very different about this child. She acted like an inhabitant at Bedlam.

More people began to crowd the bank, feigning concern to hide their voyeuristic curiosity. The duchess scooted herself and her child closer to the trunk, trying to hide under the protection of the tree’s drooping branches.

Lady Deirdre and her friends caught up with Stratton.

“What is Her Grace doing?” his sister demanded, her voice oozing with disgust. “Why is her nurse just standing about uselessly? I would relieve my nurse on the spot, with no letter of recommendation, if my child embarrassed me in public. Oh Lord, Her Grace is sitting in the dirt and grass in her gown.”

“Maybe she cares more about her child than her bloody clothes,” Stratton barked. He had had enough with being polite. He couldn’t take another minute with his vicious sister and his old set.

Anna finally quieted. She curled into a stiff ball in her mother’s tight embrace. The duchess ungainly tried to rise to her feet, still holding her rigid child. Stratton stepped forward, instinctively wanting to assist. However, her footman was closer and rushed to take her elbow. Her Grace’s face possessed that hollowed, haunted quality Stratton had seen on his soldiers’ faces in Spain and Portugal.

She motioned to the nurse that they were leaving. The young duke ran to his mother’s side.

“Stop staring,” he spat at the crowd as his mother and siblings progressed toward the park gates.

The young lad’s fierce protection of his mother reminded Stratton of Her Grace’s late husband. The duke had despised Stratton for how he, his sister, and their vicious circle of friends had maliciously treated his bride. Though Stratton didn’t possess a title, he and his sister were not to be trifled with in Society. Their father heralded from an ancient line of powerful, wealthy brewers, and their mother was an earl’s daughter. However, this had meant little to the serious-minded duke, who didn’t suffer fools. Not fearing Society’s disapproval, the duke had cut Stratton cold and wouldn’t allow him within a few feet of his beloved wife.

The new young duke would have made his father proud.

As Her Grace passed, Stratton sank deeper into the crowd to avoid detection. The duchess kept her head high and gazed straight ahead.

Up close, Stratton realized the child she clutched must have been five or six—too old for such a tantrum. He could see that the duchess visibly strained under the child’s weight, but kept her gripped tight, refusing to relinquish Anna to the footman and nurse following closely in her wake.

“I wouldn’t allow my child in public if she behaved so rude and unruly,” Deirdre said in an overly loud voice.

Dammit!

“You are only encouraging her atrocious behavior,” Deirdre told the duchess in a smugly knowing manner. Such rich advice from a woman who spent as little time with her “darlings” as possible.

“Quiet!” Stratton hissed.

“I’m just being honest,” Deirdre protested, as if her so-called honesty justified her cruelty.

The duchess stopped. She slowly turned and raised one finely shaped brow. Her large, amber-colored eyes zeroed in on Stratton and his sister. He cursed under his breath as she approached with a menacing swing to her hips. When he had first met her, she was a round, freckled ball of a girl, fresh out of the schoolroom for her first Season. Over time, her body had taken on more womanly dimensions—heavy breasts, flared hips, and a tapered waist. Her child whimpered in her protective arms. Water dripped from the hem of the duchess’s now-filthy gown. Yet she held her head high, her long curls sparkling in fiery shades of amber and sienna in the sunlight. Her wide, generous mouth and high cheekbones lent her a majestic air. Other ladies her age were beginning to lose their fresh bud of beauty, but Her Grace was just beginning to grow into her splendor. She possessed a mature beauty, perfected from a loveliness of body, heart, and mind.

“Your Grace.” He bowed. An electrical storm crackled in his insides at her proximity. “I’m sorry if—”

“Good day, Mr. Stratton and Lady Deirdre.” The duchess’s voice possessed a low, dusky quality as she addressed his sister. “If you believe my child should stay at home because she is rude and unruly, then I would suggest the same to you and your brother. For no one’s behavior is more atrocious than yours. I know that I speak for more than myself when I say your petty meanness is transparent. No one finds you nearly as clever as you think yourselves.”

The duchess turned and walked to her servants and other daughter. Her son took her arm and glanced over his shoulder at Stratton, casting him a nasty look.

Dull, heavy pain weighed in Stratton’s chest as he watched her retreat. He deserved her harsh cut.

The Season before Stratton had left for the war, when the duchess was just a young merchant’s daughter named Miss Mary Alice Ward, she had been the object of his and his sister’s ridicule. Her numerous sins had been heinous, indeed. Aside from a round face peppered with freckles, a fleshy body, and a fervent desire to be accepted into Society, she had displayed a painfully obvious tendre for Stratton. Whenever they were in the same company, her enormous, cow-like eyes had tracked his every movement. It had become a game among his friends to whisper, “Moo,” whenever she was about.

One evening he had spied her ogling him in a loose-lipped, spoony way across the ballroom. “I don’t know if my ardent bovine admirer desires to flirt or serve me up,” he had said loud enough to be heard by his friends and other people milling nearby. “Perhaps both.” The infamous insult had blazed through Society. Soon, people desperate to be included in Stratton’s fashionable circles began quietly mooing when she was around and referring to her as “the bovine admirer.”

Stratton had committed many sins in his life, and he shouldered numerous regrets. But the two that weighed most heavily on his conscience were how he had hurt his daughter and the Duchess of Pymworth.

The duchess disappeared around a hedge. The bystanders switched their curiosity from Her Grace to Stratton and his sister. Another woman might feel the slightest sting of embarrassment or censure. Not Deirdre. Whenever crossed, she slapped back, swift and hard.

“What would the Duchess of Pymworth know about cleverness?” Deirdre mused to her followers. “Does she think her newfound station hides the stench of shop that still lingers about her?”

“I will not listen to another word spoken against Her Grace,” Stratton barked in his military voice.

Deirdre blinked, nonplussed. Then she narrowed her eyes as an amused smile snaked over her mouth. “I believe you possess a softness for our bovine duchess,” she purred. “How very delicious! I am thrilled, because you were beginning to bore me. You know how I detest boredom. You are redeemed, Brother.”

Stratton considered denying his feelings for Her Grace. But hadn’t his cowardice and immaturity caused enough pain in the lives of the females he cared about?

“Of course I have a softness for Her Grace,” he replied. “She is the kindest and cleverest lady in Society.”

Deirdre broke into derisive laughter. Her friends joined in, like a chorus coming behind the soloist.

What was he doing here? Why was he wasting his time with shallow, malicious people who sought to alleviate the tedium of their privileged lives by making a game of casually tormenting others?

“I’m leaving directly for the country,” he muttered, turning on his heel “I’ve been away from my daughter for too long.”

He stalked across the grass. No doubt, Deirdre had another witticism on the subject of his admiration for the duchess, but he wouldn’t be around to hear it. He broke into a jog. He had to get the hell away from London, which was packed with memories of the horrible man he used to be.

 

***

 

Don’t think about Lady Deirdre, Stratton, or the park, Mary Alice scolded herself as she sat in the nursery, still in her wet clothes and quaking with residual anger. Be thankful that Anna is calm and well. That’s all that matters. Stratton is nothing. Just a horrid, vile, and arrogant blackguard.

She had never hit anyone in her life—well, perhaps her sister when Mary Alice was four and didn’t know better—but when Lady Deirdre had spat her honeyed venom as Stratton smirked, Mary Alice almost smacked their self-satisfied faces.

Lady Deirdre, Stratton, and their cruel circle had been Mary Alice’s antagonists since her first Season. She had learned to swallow their clever little barbs, both veiled and otherwise, and pretend not to care, while inside she cringed with hurt. But today they’d turned their maliciousness on her child—her special, defenseless Anna. Mary Alice felt no cringing hurt, only white-hot, violent rage. But she congratulated herself on remaining calm and delivering a sharp set-down with aplomb. Her husband would have been proud. He had been the cool and measured one in their marriage, contrasting with Mary Alice’s more excitable nature.

Now, Anna calmly sketched on a piece of stationery, as though the afternoon’s episode hadn’t happened. Usually, she loved the park. If left undisturbed, she could stare for hours and hours at bugs and leaves. But Mary Alice had made a mistake taking her to the park too close to fashionable hour. The loud, bustling crowds had chafed Anna’s nerves like flint on steel, setting the girl alight. Anna had two states: calm and hysterical. Once hysterical, only Mary Alice could successfully calm her. Anyone else only drove her hysterics higher.

She leaned close and kissed the air above her child’s head, because Anna didn’t like being touched. “I love you, Anna,” she whispered. Anna glanced up and gave her mother a rare gift—a smile. Mary Alice thought she would break down in tears again. She turned away, discreetly wiped her eyes, and then embraced her other children—Caroline, her eldest, and Little Jonas, named for his father.

“Mama loves you all so very, very much,” Mary Alice said.

“Tell us more about the evil bog lord,” Little Jonas begged. “You promised, remember?” The children adored Mary Alice’s fantastical stories and would keep her for hours in the nursery, imploring her to tell just a little more, and then a little more, of her tales. Currently, they were deep into the ongoing epic of the evil bog lord and his vast army of ogres and trolls in Bogland that threatened to take over the civilized land from King Foradora.

Mary Alice desired only to change out of her wet clothes, put on a clean shift, and curl up under the covers. There she could drift into her own made-up, adult story in which her shining knight—her husband—was still alive, and they dwelled happily together in a magical kingdom that resembled their London home, while the cruel people of the world, like Stratton and his sister, sank into the muddy, boggy Thames.

But Jonas and Caroline deserved her special attention for behaving so bravely in the park. Mary Alice was very proud of her eldest children, who seemed much older than their young years. No doubt, the death of their father hastened their maturity. And Mary Alice felt guilty for those few months when the fresh death of her husband had paralyzed her with sorrow, and she couldn’t be a proper mother. It had been hard for Jonas and Caroline to watch her grieve. She remembered Caroline asking, “Mama, how can I make your tears stop?” Those words, delivered by a confused, upset child, had broken Mary Alice’s heart all over again.

“Perhaps Her Grace can tell the story another time,” their perceptive nurse suggested.

“Please, please, please,” Caroline and Little Jonas pleaded, their hands clenched at their chests as they bounced on their tiptoes. “We’ll do geography without complaining,” Little Jonas said, sweetening the deal.

“Well, maybe just a little more,” Mary Alice conceded. “Where did we leave off last night?”

“Caro was captured with Fiery Boy by the bog lord,” Caroline supplied. She opened thehatbox that imprisoned her doll Caro, Mary Alice’s doll Marcela Misslemay, and Little Jonas’s wooden dragon, Fiery Boy, which had bandages wound around its wings.

“And the bog lord hurt my dragon’s wings,” Little Jonas reminded her. “So he can’t fly.”

Anna set down her pencil and turned to listen.

“Ah yes,” Mary Alice said, diving into the story.

 

***

 

An hour later, Mary Alice released a long sigh and combed her fingers through her hair as she left the nursery. Her tresses had all but escaped their pins, and her skirt had dried into stiff, muddy wrinkles.

The butler found her in the corridor to inform her of visitors. She sucked in her breath. As much as she loved callers, she didn’t think herself capable of polite conversation rather than an outpouring of insults directed at Stratton and his followers. And on top of it all, she appeared as though she had been dragged through a filthy ditch.

The butler bowed. “The Duchess of San Mercato has called.”

Mary Alice spirits immediately lifted.

“Perfect!” Mary Alice exclaimed. Her dear friend wouldn’t blink an eye at a vitriol-laced rant against Stratton and his sister. “Please direct her to my dressing chamber.”

Francesca, the Duchess of San Mercato, ambled into the chamber as the lady’s maid unpinned Mary Alice’s gown.

“I know wet gowns are à la mode,” Francesca remarked and kissed Mary Alice’s cheeks in the continental manner. “But this is rather extreme. Do tell me that you intended to fluster some wildly eligible gentleman out of his wits.”

Mary Alice blushed. She wasn’t comfortable with the idea of flirting with another man or thinking of one in intimate terms. She had told her husband on his deathbed that she would never marry again. She couldn’t imagine loving another man as she had Jonas. Though he had been a wealthy duke from an ancient line, theirs had been a true-love match. She would never betray that sacred love.

“Anna and I enjoyed a refreshing little plunge in Hyde Park,” Mary Alice said, putting the conversation on its correct course as her maid changed her shift.

Francesca’s laughter died. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

Mary Alice hadn’t meant to douse her friend’s lively mood and quickly moved to restore it. “Why? I’m thinking of making a new fashion. Why journey all the way to Bath and clamber into one of those dreadful machines, when I’m sure the Serpentine is equally curative.”

Mary Alice kindly dismissed her servant. She picked up her silk dressing robe and slid her arms through the sleeves. “The worst part was that the little episode was witnessed by Lady Deirdre and her brother Mr. Stratton—or is it Colonel Stratton? Well, whatever he calls himself now. I prefer to be Russian about it and give him the title of ‘terrible.’ Stratton the Terrible.”

“Oh dear. What happened?”

Mary Alice shook her head, further loosening her hair, and began plucking out her remaining hairpins. “You know I try to be a compassionate person.”

“You are the kindest person I know, when you’re not vexed, that is. All your charity work makes me exhausted just thinking of it. See, now that I’m thinking about it, I shall have to lie upon your settee.” Francesca rested up on the cushions, her hands cradling the back of her head, her legs crossed at the ankles.

“Well, Stratton undoes all my best intentions by his mere presence. Just looking at his handsome face fills me with loathing. He has a poisonous beauty.” Mary Alice sat in front of her vanity table, facing away from the mirror. She picked up her hairbrush and violently detangled her curls as she relayed the details of her encounter with Stratton, including Anna’s episode and his sister’s syrupy viciousness.

“Why is it that Stratton seems to loom about in the worst moments of my life?” Mary Alice pondered when she had finished. “Well, not the worst moment, which was when my dearest died.”

“They say he is much changed since the war.” Her friend’s voice grew somber at the mention of war. “Quieter, reserved. I understand he has become quite the generous patron of the arts and sciences. And, of course, fatherhood may have further hastened his reformation, for is there nothing more revolting than a lascivious rake who possesses a young, impressionable daughter?”

“Stratton? The father of a daughter?”

Francesca leaned forward, eyes shining with dark knowledge. “Did you not know?”

“Not when it’s gossip involving Stratton. I hear his name and cease to further listen for fear of picking up objects and hurling them.”

“Well, it seems Colonel Stratton had a liaison with Lady Radley shortly before leaving for the war.”

“Oh yes, I recall that time well. It was when he compared me to a cow and wondered if I planned to eat him.”

“Lady Radley became enceinte shortly thereafter, and it was rumored that the child was Stratton’s. Once born, no one saw the child. Most people assumed it died shortly after birth.”

“How sad.” Nothing made Mary Alice more heartsick than learning of an ill, seriously hurt, or dying child whom she couldn’t help. Most of her charity work was directed at vulnerable children and poor mothers.

“Ah, but upon Lady Radley’s death last year, her late husband publicly washed his hands of his, quote, wife’s little bastard. It would seem Colonel Stratton hadn’t known of the child’s existence. He located the little girl and brought her to his estates, by all accounts immediately accepting her as his own and showering her with gifts.”

Mary Alice gazed at her friend askew. “No, no, I… I can’t conceive of this. Stratton can’t spare a thought for anyone but himself.”

However, she knew from her own experience that parenthood changed a person. She hadn’t spoken to him since he’d returned from the war. Nor had she heard of any insults emitting from his mouth concerning her. And if she really thought upon the matter at the park, she realized that all the hateful words had spewed forth from his sister. Had she been unfair to him? She liked to think she was mature and capable of forgiveness, but Stratton still summoned black rage in her heart after all these years.

“Well, if that is true,” Mary Alice said, “then I’m glad he has turned over a new leaf. For the girl’s sake. Now if he would just go about his new life without bumping into my old one, we should rub along quite well.”

“As you say.” Francesca sat up and withdrew a letter from her valise. “Now the reason for my visit. My man of business has secured the perfect holiday home for us. It’s located in an excessively rural town in the north of England. And to make certain of our anonymity and peace, I’ve concocted a darling little game. You will adore it. We shall go in disguise and under assumed names.” The duchess’s eyes glittered, she was so pleased with herself.  “With no titles or wealth, what would anyone want from us?”

Mary Alice inwardly groaned. The holiday had seemed like such a good idea a month ago, but now the situation with Anna left her nervous. Aside from the episode in the park, last week Anna had simply walked out of the house and wandered about Mayfair, pretty as you please. Had a servant returning from Covent Garden market not spotted her, who knows what might have happened?

“Perhaps, I shouldn’t,” Mary Alice began, as she mentally composed a polite decline.

Francesca shot to her feet and wagged her finger at her friend. “Don’t you dare back out of our lovely holiday! You require one. I say this as your true friend.”

“But—”

“I’m going to pretend that I didn’t hear you utter a ‘but.’ You have an army of servants, your children’s uncle is currently residing next door, your parents live a mile away, and your sisters and brothers are so very, very far away in the remote regions of Hampstead Heath. I think you can slip away for a few weeks of rest and serenity, and the world will not come crushing down. Everyone will remain safe and happy, including you.”

“You’re not going to let me wiggle out of this holiday, are you?”

“I’m prepared to abduct you, should it be required.” She embraced Mary Alice and whispered, “Come away, my dear, all will be well. Stop worrying. You’ve worn yourself ragged with anxious thoughts.”

“Mama.”

Mary Alice turned. Anna stood at the door, clutching a piece of paper at her chest, her features composed in their usual blank expression.

Mary Alice adopted the musical voice she used for talking to children. “Anna, my love, you remember my dear friend the Duchess of San Mercato.” Anna didn’t curtsey or even flick her eyes in Francesca’s direction, even after she commented on how much Anna had grown.

“I know how to escape the bog lord,” Anna said, and turned the paper around to show her a stunning map.

“My goodness,” Francesca exclaimed. “That’s… that’s simply brilliant.”

Anna’s brow creased. She didn’t understand compliments. They made no sense to her.

Mary Alice reached out, letting her hand hover just over her daughter’s shoulder. Then she slowly lowered it, letting it sit lightly on the girl. For once, Anna didn’t flinch and try to escape.

Mary Alice pleaded with her friend silently with her eyes.

“I’ll just run along,” Francesca whispered, and hurried out, leaving the mother and daughter alone.

Still touching her daughter, Mary Alice asked her to explain the picture and listened to Anna’s explanation, amazed at the detail and creativity. She was grateful to be allowed into her daughter’s wondrous imagination. It had taken years for Mary Alice to coax Anna to talk. Now the girl was opening her elusive world to her mother, just when Mary Alice had agreed to go on a ridiculous holiday.

What if Anna became hysterical while Mary Alice was away and no one could calm her? What if she wandered away and no one could find her? Mary Alice shivered to think of her odd, fragile daughter lost on the dangerous streets of London. No one knew her as well or loved her as fiercely as Mary Alice did. No one else would keep a vigilant guard on her.

“My dear, would you mind if Mama went away?”

“Will you come back?” Anna said with no inflection.

“Of course, I just promised my dear friends that I would go away with them for a few weeks. I don’t want to, but I feel I should.”

Anna shook her head. “Why?”

“Because it’s important to my friends. And my friends are important to me.”

Anna only stared, unable to comprehend her mother’s meaning. She didn’t have the faintest clue about friendship or interactions between people. In fact, she rarely noticed others. She wasn’t cruel. She simply didn’t react to other people. They might as well be an inanimate painting on the wall.

“I’m going to miss you,” Mary Alice said. “May I hug you? A small hug.”

Anna stepped stiffly forward, allowing her mother to embrace her. Even though her daughter kept her arms straight at her sides, her head up, and her eyes open, Mary Alice savored the rare experience. How fiercely she loved this special child. And how fiercely she feared for her too.

“Oh, Anna,” she whispered. “I would rather stay safely here with you and Caroline and Little Jonas. I’m going to miss you all terribly.” Mary Alice couldn’t conceive how leaving everyone she loved could be construed as a holiday.

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Read an excerpt of “Duchess in the Wild” by Grace Burrowes

Read an excerpt of  “To Tempt A Duchess” by Emily Greenwood

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