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  • Taming the Thorn of Blackwell

Chapter 1

Joshua stretched his back as he climbed out of the coach. The cushioned seat had seemed so comfortable when he first sat on it, hours previously, but now it felt hard like stone and he was relieved to be on his feet.

Behind him, the horses whinnied and snorted, steam rising from their flanks as they were untethered and walked cool by the footman. And in front of him, there was the warmth and comfort he had been craving, the windows lit orange from firelight and candles, the glass misted with condensation.

“At last,” he muttered to himself, as he pushed open the heavy oak door.

The noise in the tavern hit him first, followed quickly by the blast of heat from the fire roaring in the grate. Someone played piano in the far corner, although Joshua couldn’t see them through the crowd, and the melody was accompanied by the laughter of many.

Joshua stood by the door for a moment, breathing in the atmosphere and the earthy scent of wood smoke, sweat, and alcohol. This was where he wanted to be, amongst men of good cheer where he could rest happily awhile. With a satisfied smile, he strode to the bar.

“A pint of your finest ale, please,” he said with a booming smile.

“Coming right up, m’lord,” the innkeeper said as he flipped a glass from the shelf and slid it under the tap with practiced ease.

“Busy tonight,” Joshua said.

“Aye.” The innkeeper pulled on the heavy handle, slugs of ale foaming and filling the glass. “Always like this at night-time. The men want a little merriment after a hard day’s work. Don’t think I’ve seen you around here afore.”

“Traveling through,” Joshua replied with a smile. “Although not much further to go, thank the Lord. I’ve been on the road for far too long thanks to business, and I shall be glad to return to my own bed.”

The innkeeper put the drink on the bar, a trickle of ale running down the side of the glass, and Joshua licked his lips in anticipation. Admittedly, it was not the fine wine or brandy he was used to, but he had a thirst that had followed him for the last twenty miles, and besides, ale fit the circumstance.

“Enjoy, m’lord.”

Joshua nodded his thanks, turned to lean against the bar, and took a long, satisfying gulp. There was a pleasant mix of people, from noblemen to servants, and it was this that made Joshua like the place so much. It felt welcoming, diverse.

“What’s wrong with him?” Joshua asked the innkeeper over his shoulder, nodding to a young nobleman in the corner.

His face had turned the color of alabaster and his movements were as stiff as stone, too. He was staring at the floor, eyes wide, and his chin juddering as though he had seen a ghost.

“Young William?” The innkeeper chuckled. He rested one arm over the beer taps and leant closer to Joshua’s ear. “He’s just had a run-in with the Thorn of Blackwell. Right tongue-lashing, he had.”

“Harsher than a real-life whip, that’s for sure,” the gentleman standing next to Joshua said. “Comes to us all, in the end.”

“What does?” Joshua turned to the man in question, curious at his words.

“A lashing from the green-eyed witch, of course. Don’t tell me you’ve escaped it thus far?”

“Not from these parts, then, are you?” a third man asked, twisting in his seat to look at Joshua.

Joshua couldn’t stop himself from chortling. “She can’t be that bad, can she?”

“You don’t know the half of it,” the innkeeper said. “Go on, Fudge, tell ‘im what happened to you.”

The man beside Joshua—Fudge, apparently—put his glass down on the bar with aplomb and rubbed his hands together, reveling in his chance to tell his tale.

“She gave me such a lashing that she might as well put stripes across my back,” he said—with glee, now that the embarrassment had long faded. “All I did was brush past her. We were at a ball, and there were a lot of people. There wasn’t enough room to pass with space. My arm touched hers and, well, let me tell you, she left me quivering in my boots.”

Joshua snorted with laughter. “You sure you weren’t just being a coward?”

“No way,” Fudge said, shaking his head firmly. “The things she said to me would have any man cowering like a good ‘un.”

“Who exactly is she?” Joshua asked, intrigued now.

“Duchess of Blackwell,” said Reginald—which, it appeared, was the name of the man in the seat in front of them.

“Oh.” Joshua furrowed his brow as he tried to remember where he had heard that name before. He knew it, he was sure of it. “I believe… I may have attended her wedding—on some business pretext of course. We didn’t talk, really, but she certainly didn’t seem like some shrew.”

“Aye,” the innkeeper said, raising his eyebrows. “That was before.”

“Before?”

“Before she was widowed. Lovely lass before then, but now… Well, I’d stay well clear if I were you.”

“Husband died from a lashing, no doubt,” Fudge said, and the three broke into cackling laughter.

“Seriously, though,” Reginald continued. “She’s got a young son—five or six or some such age—and she’s holding the fort until he comes of age.”

“You mean, she’s…”

“Yes,” Fudge said, nodding. “That’s exactly what he means. Running the Duchy like a man. Wonders will never cease.”

Joshua was shocked, but undeniably impressed. He had no doubt that she would experience difficulties, doing what she was trying to do. No wonder she had developed such a sharp tongue.

“A friend of mine—handsome chap—he tried to court her, once,” Reginald said. “Not long after the Duke died.”

“Bet she loved that,” the innkeeper said, sniggering as he did so.

“He was always such a confident lad,” Reg said, his wistful tone matching the manner in which he gazed at the ceiling. “So much potential, so much hope.”

“What happened?” Joshua asked.

“She left him a quivering wreck,” Reg said, turning to look Joshua dead in the eyes. “Hasn’t dared court a woman since. She all but stripped him bare and spanked him in front of a room full of people. Was the talk of the town for weeks afterwards.”

“And young William, over there,” Joshua said, once again nodding in the lad’s direction. “What did he do to end up in such a state?”

“The worst of them all,” Fudge said, widening his eyes.

“Poor thing. Was an accident, really,” the innkeeper continued. “But it was enough for her to set the snakes upon him.”

“She was walking by,” Reg explained. “And William was telling this anecdote to his friend—don’t know what it was about, but it was very animated. And just as she passed him, he knocked his glass.”

“Went flying, it did,” the innkeeper said.

“All over her gown,” Fudge added.

“Everything stopped,” Reg said. “And I mean everything. We all went silent, and poor William looked horrified. Think he was close to passing out.”

“She can’t possibly be that bad,” Joshua repeated, unable to quash his laughter. “You’ve all built her up to be this dragon, but I’m sure she’s quite soft underneath and this is just your imaginations running wild. She’s a lady, after all, isn’t she?”

Fudge visibly shivered. “Not sure lady is the right word to describe her. Witch, maybe.”

“Harpy,” the innkeeper offered.

“Harridan,” Reg said.

“Well, well,” Joshua said, a half-smile growing up one side of his face. He cradled his now almost depleted pint against his chest and looked into the distance. “I shall look forward to meeting her.”

And he did. As much as he didn’t want a lashing, this lady intrigued him. The thought of drawing her out of herself… well, it set his stomach aflutter with curiosity and perhaps a touch of excitement.

“Don’t look forward to it,” Reginal said. “Really, believe me; don’t.”

“You may as well wish to be six feet under,” Fudge added.

“Or worse,” the innkeeper said, nodding over to William.

“I don’t know,” Joshua said with a shrug. “I kind of like a challenge.”

Chapter 2

Selina could hear the bickering before she even reached the room, and she groaned. She did not have the energy to field another argument between her mother and her mother-in-law.

“No,” Beatrice Griffiths, the Dowager Duchess of Blackwell said firmly, stamping her foot like a child despite her fifty years. “He is far too young to be riding. What if he hurts himself?”

“All the more reason he should be practicing,” Laura Travers, the Dowager Countess of Woodley cried. “The earlier they start, the better they will become! All my children were riding by the age of five, and—”

“Well, why does that not surprise me?” Beatrice scoffed. “Your family is just the best at everything, is it not?”

The two dowagers stood in front of the big bay window of Winston’s playroom, the sun streaming in behind them. They both wore black, their gowns not quite fitting with the current fashion, and overly detailed with lace and frills and ruffles galore.

Beatrice stood a head taller than Selina’s mother, Laura, and her bosom was significantly more ample. And while Beatrice’s hair was dark as night, Laura’s was a pale ginger.

They bickered often, although always with an underlying blanket of love and respect that neither was willing to show. And while they couldn’t have been more different from one another, they were more alike than either would admit.

“And what exactly is wrong with thinking my family is the best at everything?” Laura asked, outraged by Beatrice’s suggestion.

“Because—”

“All right,” Selina said with a sigh as she walked into the room. She rubbed her fingers across her eyes, not looking at either of them. “Can we stop this now? I’m sure Winston can decide for himself what he wants to do.”

“Mama!”

The boy ran up to Selina and leapt into her arms. She held him tight, spinning him around and burying her nose in his hair. Her beautiful son, so perfect in every way—and the only thing she had left of her beloved husband.

“How are you today, my darling?” she muttered into his neck.

“Bored!”

Selina laughed and set the boy back on his feet.

“Well, we’ll have to do something about that, then, won’t we?”

At twenty-five, Selina Griffiths, Duchess of Blackwell, had been widowed for two years—and still, it played heavy on her heart. She was a slight woman, slim and petite, but what she lacked in physical stature, she made up for with hair as red as fire and eyes that sparkled like emeralds.

She knew that her reputation preceded her, and that it didn’t paint her in the most pleasant of pictures. She knew, too, that it helped her—both in business, and in keeping people at a distance, just where she wanted them.

Her tongue was, as everyone said, sharp and hard, and she ensured that all those who crossed her were whipped with it. But her wit was as quick as her words were harsh, and she had a mind for business that made her significantly more successful than her peers.

“Now,” Selina said, marching across to the older women. “What is this all about? Do you think I do not have enough to do without playing referee to the two of you?”

“Winston is bored,” Laura said. “And I suggested that he take one of the horses out.”

Selina turned to her mother, eyebrow raised.

“And I,” Beatrice said, hand on her chest and her voice full of pride, “think he is far too young.”

“And you, my darling boy,” Selina said, cupping Winston’s chin in her hand and smiling down at him. “What would you like to do today?”

Winston looked up at her with a pout and a shrug. “I don’t mind, Mama. But can I spend the day with you?”

Selina felt a bolt through her heart—of love, of pain, of a need to protect this small child she had brought into the world. She would do anything for him. Anything.

“Of course, my darling,” she said and looked up at the older women. “You are both right. Beatrice, it is never too early to start. But Mother, really! He is far too young to go on his own. I shall take him riding, and in the meantime, perhaps you two can learn to get along.”

She raised her chin, took the boy’s hand and together, they marched from the house.

Selina preferred to keep the gardens simple. The lawns were wide and long, trimmed by hand and rolled flat every other day. Weaving through them were gravel pathways lined with small spherical topiary bushes, all immaculately kept.

In the far distance, the grounds of the Blackwell Estate were lined with trees, and near the gated entrance to the long driveway, the gatekeeper’s cottage was hidden beneath a bed of ivy.

“Bet you can’t catch me,” Selina teased as she trotted quickly down the stone steps outside the front entrance to the house.

“Bet I can,” Winston said, giggling as he chased her onto the path and grabbed hold of the back of her gown—also black, for she wasn’t quite ready to allow color back into her life.

“Oh, you win! Aren’t you a quick little sausage?”

“I’m not a sausage, Mama, I’m a boy.”

Selina laughed and ruffled his rust-red hair. His eyes were the color of chestnuts and they sparkled with a youth and energy that Selina could only dream of, after all she had been through.

At five years old, Winston Griffiths understood what it meant to be polite—and he was, for the most part. But he was feisty, too, making trouble when it suited him and speaking his mind more often than a child probably should.

He was a precocious child, with intelligence and wisdom far beyond his years, and every day Selina marveled at how strong and resilient he was. To have lost his father at such a tender age, to be Duke already, to have his mother working hard to run the Duchy—and with a reputation he had surely heard of. It was difficult, perhaps, but it made Winston the tough, clever boy Selina knew him to be.

“A boy!” she gasped. “Are you quite sure? Because you look awfully like a sausage to me. Come, let’s get to the stables.”

The two skipped around the house. The stables were at the back, though not so far down the garden that they reached the stream that cut their estate off from the neighboring one.

“Good morning, Jacob,” Selina called from double doors that were left open through the day and only ever locked up at night.

“Your Grace,” the groomsman said. “How nice to see you. And little Winston, too.”

He smiled broadly at her as he climbed over the piles of hay and bits of tackle that were scattered over the floor. He ruffled Winston’s hair, much as Selina had, and the boy laughed, squirming out from under the hand.

“We’re hoping to take Grover out for a ride. Can you prepare him for me?”

“Of course, Your Grace. Won’t be two minutes.”

Before they knew it, Winston sat on the horse as Selina jumped up behind him. She wrapped her arms around him, taking hold of the reins and inhaling the sweet scent of him.

“Are you ready?” she whispered into his ear.

He jiggled with excitement, causing the horse to snort and stamp its foot. “I’m ready!”

“All right. Hold still. I don’t think Grover likes it when you move like that. You must always remember to be kind to the animals. They are kind enough to us by letting us ride them.”

“I’m sorry, Grover,” Winston said, leaning forward and stroking the horse’s neck.

“All right then, let’s go,” Selina said.

Selina walked the horse down to the stream and across the way a little, to where the lawn was not so tended, and it would not matter if the horse scuffed the grass.

“Now. You take the reins, Winston. But carefully, gently. Don’t startle Grover.”

The boy slowly took the reins from his mother, his tongue stuck out of the side of his mouth as he concentrated.

“Like this, Mama?”

“That’s it,” she whispered. “You’re doing great.”

Her hands hovered just behind his, ready to take the reins if necessary, but the boy was a natural and before long, they had sped up to a trot.

“Good boy, that’s it.”

He glanced briefly over his shoulder, and his grin was so wide that Selina mirrored it, happy to see her son so overjoyed.

“I love you, Mama,” he said as he turned back.

“I love you, too,” she said.

But then he seemed to shift position, squirming almost, and Selina knew instantly that something was wrong. She took the reins gently from his hands.

“What is it, Winston? What’s the matter?”

“It’s just…” He gulped in a deep breath. “I just wish Father was here to teach me to ride.”

Those words hit her like a punch in the gut, and her heart sank with a grief so strong it almost bowled her over. She would do anything to have her beloved Gabriel back. The accident that took him had affected both her and Winston greatly.

“I know you do, darling,” she replied, her voice barely above a whisper, since that was all she could muster. “I know.”

Winston placed his hands over his mother’s on the reins, and they rode like that in silence for many minutes. They went through the long grass and down beside the stream, the sun beating down on them until they wandered between the trees of the wooded area at the far reaches of the land.

It was cool in there, beneath the canopy of leaves, and Selina allowed herself to breathe again. Whenever she heard Gabriel’s name—or even the slightest reference to him—her breath caught in her throat, threatening to stop altogether.

He had been, and still was, the love of her life. She mourned him every day as if it was her first without him. She had no doubt that this grief was part of what caused her to lash out at those who wronged her—or simply irritated her frankly—but she couldn’t help it and wouldn’t make any effort to stop it.

If only she could gaze into his smokey gray eyes one more time, if only she could hear him quip again—his quick wit was a useful tool against their bickering mothers. If only she could feel him cup her cheek one more time, feel the softness of his lips upon hers.

If only.

“Mama?”

“Yes, darling boy?”

She forced a brightness into her voice that she didn’t truly feel, as she always did when Winston was involved. She knew that whatever pain she was feeling, he was feeling it worse, and he couldn’t lose his mother to sadness as he had lost his father to death.

“Grandma Travers says that she and Grandma Griffiths are constant companions, whether they like it or not.”

“All right,” she said slowly, wary of where this conversation was going. She knew they bickered a lot, but it would be a much bigger problem if it was beginning to affect Winston, too.

“Well, I was wondering, was Father your constant companion?”

Selina let out a laugh as true as her grief was only moments before.

“It’s a little different,” she said with a smile. “But yes, he was—and still is, in spirit. You know he’s always with us, don’t you?”

“I know, Mama.”

“They love each other really, you know. Grandma Travers and Grandma Griffiths. I think bickering gives them something to do, but deep down, they are inseparable.”

“I know that, too, Mama.”

“That’s because you’re such a clever boy.”

“Yes, I am,” he said without a hint of modesty or pride—it was a fact to him, and nothing more. “Not at all like a sausage.”

“No.” Selina chuckled. “I’ve never seen a sausage as tasty as you!”

“Do you think I’ll ever have a new father?” Winston asked, his voice almost wistful.

“What makes you ask such a question? Do you want a new father?”

“I overheard the grandmas talking,” he admitted. “Grandma Travers is always saying how you need to find a new husband, but Grandma Griffiths tells her she is wrong. Would you like a new husband, Mama?”

Selina thought about it for a long moment, her lips pushed to one side. Eventually, she spoke softly.

“I wish I could find someone like your late father, Winston, as having someone like that in your life is such a good thing. But I promise you this—they will never replace your father’s memory, and if I do find someone, I will never ever settle for any man who is anything less than the absolute best for both of us.”

Winston was silent for a moment, musing on his mother’s words, and then he finally spoke.

“May I help you choose?” he asked.

Selina chuckled. “Yes, my darling, you may. Come on, shall we go inside now?”

“Yes, I think I’ve had enough of horse riding for one day.”

By the time they arrived back at the playroom, the two of them were almost falling over with giggles and laughter and mischief. The two older ladies were there, sat in rocking chairs on either side of the fireplace. Despite being encouraged to use the rest of the house—the parlor, the drawing room, even their own rooms—they insisted they preferred the playroom.

“There you are, grandmas!” Winston sang as he skipped into the room.

“Winston!” Laura grinned at him as she gently rocked herself in her chair. “Did you have a wonderful time?”

“I did,” Winston said with an exaggerated nod. “Mama is the best rider in the whole of the county!”

“And soon, that will be you,” Beatrice said. “Would you like to do a puzzle with your old Grandma Griffiths?”

Winston nodded again and Beatrice leapt up from her chair with the energy of a young woman. Selina watched with a smile as she led him away, the two chattering like the best of friends.

“Selina, darling,” Laura said, holding her hand out to her daughter. “A letter has come for you.”

“A letter?” Selina took her mother’s hand, the flesh so soft and supple after years of applying lotions and creams.

“I think it might be from a potential suitor,” Laura said. She wiggled her eyebrows as if to encourage her daughter.

“Mother,” Selina said with a sigh. “You know I have no desire to remarry.”

“But you cannot spend the rest of your life alone,” Laura said. She let go of Selina’s hand and shifted so that she perched on the edge of her seat.

“Why not? That’s what you are planning, and Father died a whole year before Gabriel.”

“Yes, but I am forty-five, Selina—an old lady! You still have your whole life ahead of you.”

Selina sighed heavily. “But, Mother—”

“At least read the letter, won’t you? I had Gibbs put it in the study.”

“All right, I’ll read the letter.”

And she did. She went straight to the study and picked the letter up from the desk, sliding her finger beneath the wax seal before she even took a seat. When Gabriel had courted her, it had been an exciting, happy time—and she thought it would be the last time she would ever be courted again. Even the thought of going through all that again—and with someone she had no love for—made her want to hide away from the world forever.

She rolled her eyes as soon as she started reading. Although the words were gushing and romantic, they were empty and impersonal, as though this man had copied key phrases from a book of love poems.

“Utter nonsense,” she muttered, screwing the paper up in her hand.

She clutched it as tightly as she clenched her jaw. She was not ready for this, and she did not want it—no matter how wonderful her mother thought it would be.

With a grunt of disapproval, she thrust the letter into the fire and turned her back on it.

I will not entertain this idea.

Chapter 3

“Do my eyes deceive me? Is that my little brother with his nose in a book?”

Joshua Beechworth, the Earl of Norfolk, strode into the room unannounced, making his brother jump.

“Joshua!”

Brandon stood up so quickly that his book fell to the floor and he flustered to put his glass of brandy on the side table. He had a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles perched on the end of his nose. Joshua watched his reaction from the doorway, amused.

“I wasn’t expecting you back until tomorrow.”

“I managed to cut my journey a day short,” Joshua said, entering the room with his arms held out wide. “Poor horses are exhausted. Come here and give your old brother a hug.”

“Of course,” Brandon said with a grin. “I’ve missed having you around the place.”

At twenty-eight years old, Joshua had a muscular frame, his chest broad and his arms powerful. His hair, thick and rich and with a wave that often flopped over his forehead, was the color of chocolate—and almost identical to that of his eyes.

He was a well-traveled, adventurous man, always on the lookout for his next venture or voyage. He liked to take a risk and was partial to a wager, but he was a kindly soul who laughed off his losses with good humor and was gregarious with his winnings.

When he wasn’t indulging in one of his quests, his favorite thing to do was to improve his intelligence instead. He read ferociously, unlike his brother, and he absorbed knowledge wherever he could.

There was, though, one thing lacking in his life, something he often put out of thought and mind but that lingered, always, in the background. While he was close to his brother, Joshua found himself often craving other company—feminine company.

It was not, of course, that he particularly wished to marry, per se, but that he found the company of women both intriguing and enjoyable. It was something he missed since their dear old mother had died, and it was something he was eager to find again.

“Why didn’t you send word ahead of your early arrival?” Brandon asked as he pulled back from their embrace.

He took his spectacles off and placed them on the table, then turned and bent to pick up the book, all the while keeping an eye on Joshua, as though he might somehow escape again.

“Now where would the fun in that be? You know how much I love a surprise. Pour me a brandy, will you? I’m parched.”

“Ah yes,” Brandon said, having begun pouring the brandy before Joshua had even finished asking. “You always have been a scamp for jumping out at people when they least expect it. How was your trip?”

Brandon turned and handed the crystal glass to Joshua, his joy at having his brother back evident across his face.

“Tiring,” Joshua said, taking the glass and lowering himself into one of the soft green leather chairs of the drawing room—his favorite ever since he was a boy. “But good. I achieved everything I set out to achieve, and I got to see a bit of the world in the process.”

“Sounds wonderful.”

“I’m telling you, Brandon, you really ought to try it sometime. There are some truly magnificent sights to see, and I met some of the most interesting people. That I am able to travel for business is a true luxury that not many get to experience.”

“Better you than me,” Brandon said, finally returning to his seat—although only perching on the edge, excited to hear his brother’s tales. “I like the comforts of home far too much to be partaking in all that nonsense.”

“Oh,” Joshua sighed. “You are missing out, truly. Europe is quite spectacular. The food in Italy is quite divine. I really must get Mrs. Winters to try some of it.”

Brandon laughed. “I am quite sure you are right, but I shall leave this family’s traveling duties up to you. I am all right as I am here, thank you very much.”

“All right,” Joshua said with a nonchalant shrug. “Speaking of here, how has it been? You seem settled. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you read a book before.”

“Oh, come on,” Brandon tutted. “I was never that bad. Although, admittedly, I have been reading a lot more lately. Not surprising, really, since I haven’t had a brother to keep me entertained.”

Brandon Beechworth was two years younger than his brother and two inches taller—a fact that he had enjoyed bringing up throughout their adolescence. Despite their brotherly teasing, Brandon loved Joshua dearly, and he remained always dutiful and loyal.

He was a hard worker, taking over Joshua’s responsibilities in the business and the estate while he traveled. There was a part of him that dreamed of freedom, or of being able to disappear into his own life, but he and Joshua remained—and always would remain—the closest of allies and confidantes.

“How has business been?”

Joshua took a sip of his brandy, sucking in the air as he swallowed. The fire that ran through his throat spurred him with energy.

“Good and bad—you know, the usual,” Brandon said, finally settling back into his seat. “Mr. Proctor was late with the rent—again. Tried arguing that because we let Mr. Smith off with a few months’ worth of payments, he should be granted the same accord.”

“The greed of that man is unbelievable,” Joshua said.

“Exactly. I told him that when he doesn’t have a bean left to his name, as poor Mr. Smith does not, then he shall be treated the same. But until then, he is expected to pay his rent on time or vacate the property for someone who will.”

“Quite right.” Joshua nodded. “And it will be a case of when rather than if, the way that man drinks and gambles. Poor Mrs. Proctor. Mrs. Smith has a better deal, even with her husband’s misfortunes.”

“Indeed.” Brandon cleared his throat and nodded, his eyes lost somewhere in the Turkish carpet.

“Well handled, brother.”

“In other news, we made a rather tidy profit on the sale of the land in Essex.”

“That useless scrap of land father insisted on buying? Somebody actually wanted it?”

“Developers, apparently.” Brandon got up to refill his glass, then waved the decanter at Joshua.

“Please,” he said, holding out his glass. “I suppose there is always someone who will find a use for everything. I take it you invested the money?”

“Of course. In a little teashop just outside Hyde Park.” He paused, then snorted with laughter. “I thought, if nothing else, mother would have appreciated it.”

“Ah yes, I have yet to meet another person who drinks tea quite as precociously as mother did. I must say, Brandon, you’ve done a wonderful job. I shall have to leave you alone more often.”

“No, please don’t.” Brandon widened his eyes in a silent urging, and Joshua couldn’t stop himself from chuckling.

“All right, I won’t. But seriously, little brother, you’ve handled everything very efficiently, and I am grateful for your assistance.”

Brandon frowned and squirmed in his seat, his lips pursed to one side. Joshua said nothing but watched him curiously, knowing he would admit to whatever was bothering him as soon as he was ready.

“Actually,” he said hesitantly. “There is one other thing.”

“Oh yes?” Joshua asked, feigning surprise. He crossed one leg over the other, his hand curled around his glass of brandy, and he smiled at his brother.

“The Duchess of Blackwell has a business proposal.”

“The Duchess of Blackwell!”

Joshua thought back to what he had heard of this fierce woman at the inn, and his desire to meet her awoke again. Now, she had captured even his brother’s attention, and Joshua was even more intrigued.

“She has some land with one of those new factories on it. Apparently, the tenant who was going to take it on died suddenly, and his successor decided to fold the business.”

“And what does this have to do with us?” Joshua asked.

“According to her letter, the Duchess has heard about our little textile enterprise and that we’re looking for potential venues. She suggested it might be suitable for us. Now, I accept that it is probably a little larger than the workshop we were anticipating at first, but it sounds like a great opportunity.”

“Where is this factory?”

“Birmingham. Steam powered, too, and quite modern, so I hear. Worth a look, I’d say.”

“It’s in the heart of industry, at least. That’s worth something.”

“And far enough away from us to not be a constant headache.” Brandon chuckled. “With a manager in place, we can leave it to run itself.”

“I’m curious,” Joshua said. “You’ve done such a good job here on your own. Why didn’t you just go ahead with it rather than waiting for me to return?”

“Well, I… um…” Brandon cleared his throat and squirmed in his seat, avoiding Joshua’s gaze as he answered. “I just thought that… you know… I’d leave the heavy-duty stuff to you.”

“Is that why your cheeks have turned red?” Joshua asked, his lips tight as he tried to stop himself bursting into fits of laughter.

He had seen Brandon’s expression before—on young William in the tavern, and the other men who claimed to have had a run-in with the Duchess. Brandon cleared his throat again.

“You know me too well,” he admitted, still not raising his eyes. “It is more that I didn’t really fancy approaching the Thorn. At least not with her reputation.”

Joshua let out the laugh that had been building within him, raucous and loud and ringing through the room. Brandon raised his head and glared at him, though with good humor. He knew he was being a coward.

“What is so funny? She is an absolute dragon—and by all accounts!”

“I do not believe that for one minute,” Joshua said, still chuckling. “I believe this rumor of her has run away with itself.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Brandon said. “And I certainly am not willing to risk it.”

“I crossed paths with her briefly, you know. Quite a number of years back now, admittedly, but she seemed such a sweet and intelligent young woman—quite a prize for her husband.”

Brandon shook his head, his cheeks paling, and Joshua watched in fascination. His brother had never even met the woman and he was terrified of her—what a reputation!

“I can tell you this, brother. Whoever you remember does not exist anymore. The Widow Blackwell is a terrifying harpy, make no mistake.”

“In that case,” Joshua said with a mock sigh, “I guess I’ll have to take Charlie with me for protection.”

At that, Brandon’s cheeks cracked into a smile. “Yes,” he said, nodding and chuckling at the same time. “Yes, I think that would be for the best.”

“Where is he, anyway?”

Brandon got up from his seat and scampered to the door in the corner of the room, from behind which came gentle mewling and whimpering. He barely had the door open before the dog came bounding out and directly to Joshua.

“Charlie boy!” Joshua cried, a wide grin across his face. He had missed his faithful friend almost as much as he missed his brother. The three of them were family.

Charlie was a long-legged dog, with short gray hair, and he was rather gangly as he scampered. He had boundless energy and was a playful, loving dog, although his size sometimes made him intimidating to those who did not know him.

Joshua put his brandy on the small side table and leant forward, one hand on either side of Charlie’s head, ruffling his ears and cooing at him.

“You’re such a good boy, yes you are. My favorite boy, did you know that? Such a beautiful boy.”

Charlie gazed lovingly up at his master, a big pink tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth, and Joshua could see in his expression the answer to his words. Charlie knew he was a good boy, and he loved Joshua for saying it.

Joshua’s smile slipped and he looked up at Brandon in perfect sincerity, his hands still on the dog’s face. “Yes, indeed,” he said with a mock sigh. “Charlie will protect me from any scary woman.”

Chapter 4

Two days later, Selina sat in her study, scribbling away at the parchment as she completed the ledger for that week. She had a meeting that afternoon with some lord or other—she always struggled to keep on top of their names and ranks—and then she would be able to relax for the rest of the evening.

“Your Grace?”

Selina’s quill stilled and she looked up from beneath her brows.

“Gibbs. What is it?”

She was firm in her speech, business-like and determined. Sometimes, it felt to Selina as if she had a completely different personality when she was working.

“Joshua Beechworth, the Earl of Norfolk is here to see you, Your Grace.”

“Already! Goodness, time really has run away with me this morning. All right, show him in.”

Gibbs nodded and left the room, as Selina quickly put the quill back on its stand and blew across the pages of her ledger to dry the ink. She had barely closed it and slid it back on its shelf before Gibbs had returned and let the Earl into the room.

“Lord Norfolk,” Selina said with a smile. “Please, do take a seat.”

She flicked the bolt of red hair from her eyes—the curl that seemed always in her face, no matter how many pins she put in it.

“Your Grace,” he said with a bow.

With a hand across his stomach and the other on the arm of the chair, he sat down. Selina watched curiously. His movements were well-considered but graceful, his muscled arms solid beneath the sleeves of his tail coat.

She eyed him carefully as she took her own seat—the twinkle in his eye, the slight smile that pulled at his lips. He was a handsome man, she realized—to her surprise. She remembered meeting him briefly before, but she had not noticed how attractive he was then.

She let her eyes rove over his face, her own smile growing almost coyly. But then she frowned and shook her head.

Stop it!

Thinking such things was surely a betrayal of her late husband and her love for him. Lord Norfolk was there for business, nothing more, and that is how she would keep it.

“As you know,” she began, “I have asked you here to discuss the matter of some property I own. I believe it may be of some use to you.”

“Yes.” Joshua smiled, looking briefly down at his lap and then up at Selina. “Before we begin, though, may I just say how beautiful you are. It was really quite unexpected.”

Selina clenched her jaw and glared at him. How dare he! She was not an ornament to be admired, but rather a duchess and a successful business woman to boot. She blinked as she schooled her face into a more polite expression—this was not the first time she had been judged for being female, and she knew it would not be the last.

“Unexpected?” she asked, her eyebrows raised but her tone light—a chance for him to retract his statement, or perhaps a lure before she lunged at him with her words.

“Absolutely. As I’m sure you are aware, you have quite the reputation, Your Grace. But I do find myself wondering why they call you a thorn when, to me, it is quite clear you are more like a rose.”

“A rose.”

It was not a question this time, and the lightness in her tone was replaced with a harshness she had become accustomed to since Gabriel’s death.

“Tell me, Lord Norfolk,” she said through gritted teeth, her eyes narrowed at him. “Do you greet all your business associates in such a manner?”

“No,” Joshua said with a snort of laughter. “The business associates I usually deal with have far too much hair on their faces and far too large hands to be considered beautiful by anyone but their own mothers.”

“So, pray tell, why do you think it is appropriate to talk to me in such a manner? Do you think that my sex—an accident of birth, I might add—should mean I am to be treated any differently?”

“I… well, no, I just…”

Joshua’s mouth worked as he tried desperately to get himself out of this situation, but Selina did not care for his discomfort, nor, in truth, for the words he would use to excuse himself.

“Well then, why do you treat me differently? Because as far as I can see, Lord Norfolk, this meeting should be about business, and business alone.”

“Yes,” he said. He smiled weakly, suitably chastised, and looked down at his hands. “You are quite right, and I apologize for my actions.”

He looked back up at her and she stared at him, her lips still pressed together and her breath coming quickly. He had enraged her, and that was never a good state from which to do business. Yet he had also admitted his faults—something men so rarely did—and so she could feel herself softening.

“Well,” she said, her lips twitching as she relaxed quite against her will. “All right then. But from now on, we talk business only. Understood?”

“Perfectly.”

She nodded but refused to smile—even if a tiny part of her desperately wanted to. This man had complimented her! It had been so long since she had received kind words from anyone other than Winston or the grandmas. She felt the thrill of it in her chest, even as she tried her damnedest to tamper the flames.

She cleared her throat, forcing her mind back to the task at hand.

“As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, I have some property that I believe you may be interested in. It is in Birmingham, and upon the land is a newly-built factory.”

“So I hear. I may indeed have some use for it, as you suspected. Our textile enterprise is taking off a lot quicker than anticipated, and although initially we thought to take on a workshop of sorts, this opportunity seems one worth investigating.”

“I see,” she said, wondering at why he felt the need to embellish his statement.

Did he think she cared about why he wanted the factory? She did not; she wanted only to find a tenant for a building that was otherwise going to waste. In the world of business, Selina considered it important to be straight and to the point, and so that is just how she handled her dealings.

“The rent is 1,500 pounds per year,” she said as plainly as she could.

She looked at the wall behind him, not wanting to make eye contact for fear her thoughts would wander once again. It didn’t matter how attractive he was, nor how much he flattered her. She was not in the market for love, even while she accepted her need for a husband.

“1,500 pounds… I… goodness, that’s a lot.”

“It’s worth it, though,” she said. “It’s a revolutionary building. Modern, sophisticated, and fitted with everything a textiles factory could possibly need.”

“Yes, but…”

“In the center of Birmingham, too. Really, it’s a good deal.”

“It’s rather more than I had intended to pay,” Joshua replied.

“If you do not want it, Lord Norfolk, there are plenty of other—”

“I did not say I didn’t want it,” Joshua said, and Selina sat back in surprise at his eagerness. “But perhaps the rent is open to negotiation?”

Selina leant back in her seat, her lips pursed, and she watched him. He remained confident, even under her gaze, sure of himself as he looked back at her.

“What sort of negotiation?” she asked eventually.

“1,000 pounds a year. Not a penny more. And that is, of course, on the proviso that we can view the venue before signing any papers.”

Selina took a deep breath and considered Joshua’s offer. Her price was high, she knew, but she thought it fair, and even if it wasn’t, she was certain she could get that price amongst the men who were afraid to properly bargain with her.

Still, this man sitting in front of her intrigued her, and she couldn’t deny she was enjoying the conversation. Despite the hiccup at the start, he now treated her as his equal in business, and that excited her in ways she could not explain.

“I’ll meet you halfway,” she said. “1,250 pounds.”

“No.” He shook his head, his meaning clear and simple. “I will not budge from 1,00o.”

She laughed despite herself, and then smiled at him. When he smiled back, she felt a warmth spreading through her.

“I’ll make you a deal,” she said. “Take it for 1,000 for one year. Then, assuming you are happy with it—which I am sure you will be—we will increase it to 1,500 pounds per year from then on.”

He watched her for a long moment, and she held his gaze, not wavering for a second.

“I’ll have to send a man down to verify the suitability of the property first, of course.”

“Of course,” she said, bowing her head in agreement.

Joshua then let out a laugh, shaking his head in disbelief. “You drive a hard bargain, Your Grace.”

“I do what is necessary to keep the Duchy and my family’s affairs profitable and efficiently run. Am I to assume we have a deal?”

“Yes,” he conceded. “We have a deal. I must say, you do business as good as any man—better, in fact, than some I’ve had the misfortune to work with.”

Selina could feel her smile growing, in accordance with the warm satisfaction that spread through her heart. It was not often that men—especially those of nobility—appreciated her business prowess, and it made a pleasant change to be complimented for it rather than shunned or mocked or feared.

“Thank you,” she said, the words heartfelt and true. “Not many appreciate a woman in this position. In fact, my late husband is the only other man I have met who was willing to admit women can do business just as well as men. So, your words mean a lot to me.”

“There is no need to thank me, Your Grace. I do not say it to be kind, but merely as an observation.”

He caught her gaze and, as they looked into one another’s eyes, the room around them seemed to fall silent and still. Selina opened her mouth to speak, but she found she couldn’t; she was too wrapped up in whatever this new feeling was.

This Lord Norfolk was more than she ever remembered him being, and there was something inside her driving her to get to know him. Her breath caught, creating a lump of uncertain desire in her throat. She hadn’t experienced this sensation since… since…

Since Gabriel.

She let out a gasp and tore her eyes away from Joshua’s. This meeting had been quite different from how she had imagined it to be, but no matter how he complimented her or made her feel, she would not—could not—allow it to become anything other than professional.

“Well, yes,” she said, looking away. “I’m glad we could come to some sort of arrangement. I feel this will be an excellent business relationship for us—”

She stopped abruptly and turned as the door creaked open, and Winston’s round little face peeked around.

“Winston,” she said firmly. “You know you are not allowed in here when I am doing business. Now what’s the matter?”

“I’m sorry, Mama,” he muttered, looking down at the floor.

“Don’t reprimand him on my account,” Joshua said, twisting to get a better view of the boy. “I’ve always loved the energy a child can bring to any situation.”

As if this was the permission he needed, Winston came fully into the room. He stood in front of Joshua, gazing up at him with fascination, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Good afternoon, young man. And what is your name?” Joshua asked.

Selina shifted her weight, uncomfortable with this clash of her business life and her family life. She tried so hard to keep them separate—to keep everyone at arm’s length.

“My name is Winston Griffiths, and I am the Duke of Blackwell,” he said, his tone formal.

Selina chuckled. “Or at least, you will be when you are grown. For the time being, it is nothing more than a title.”

Winston turned to his mother with wide eyes, and he mouthed to her. We want to impress him! Then, with a wide and toothy grin, he turned back to Joshua.

“Are you going to be my new father?”

Selina spluttered in horror as Joshua roared with laughter and Winston continued watching him, perfectly sincere and innocent.

“Winston! What a question to ask. Lord Norfolk, please, ignore my impertinent son.”

“It’s quite all right,” Joshua said, still chuckling.

“So are you?” Winston asked.

“Go, Winston!”

Selina held her arm out, a finger pointing to the door. Winston pouted at her, but he did as she asked without another word, closing the door quietly behind him.

“I’m terribly sorry about that,” Selina said with a coy shrug of her shoulders. “I suppose there are some disadvantages to being a mother in business.”

She was embarrassed, her cheeks warm with it, but she couldn’t deny that the idea sent a thrill through her.

No, it didn’t. She quickly pushed the thought away.

“I’m sure it happens to plenty of fathers, too,” Joshua said. “Besides, it’s no bother. The boy is sweet, and it seems you have raised a polite young man.”

Kind to children, too!

“I am lucky to have such a good child.”

“And one on the lookout for a new father, too!”

Selina felt her cheeks color and bit her lip in embarrassment. She looked down at her hands and twisted the wedding band around her finger.

“That is his grandmother’s doing, I’m afraid. She has got it into the boy’s head that I am looking for a husband.”

“And are you?”

Selina’s head shot up in surprise. “I’m sorry. Am I what?”

“Looking for a husband, of course.”

Joshua asked it so plainly, as though asking her if she liked reading or horse riding, that the question rather took her aback and she said nothing for so long that he backtracked.

“I’m sorry, that was terribly forward of me. Please, don’t answer if you’d rather not.”

“No, it’s all right,” she said quickly. “I just… I guess I wasn’t expecting it, that’s all.”

“No, well, I imagine it’s not a question that often arises in business meetings. But then, neither is it common to be propositioned about becoming a father.”

Selina giggled and looked up at him through her lashes. He had a confidence that she liked, and a mischievous way about him that had her wanting to tease and laugh and forget all the seriousness and sadness in her life.

“You’re right, of course.” She took a deep breath. “I am not looking for love, if that is what you are asking. But it is becoming more and more apparent that getting married again is somewhat expected of me. I would like Winston to have a father figure—although no one will ever replace my late husband, of course—and it certainly wouldn’t do my reputation any harm to have a man about the place. And then there is the fact that my mother would be finally satisfied.”

“Oh, I doubt that very much,” Joshua said, shaking his head sadly. “It is my belief that mothers are never satisfied. Always looking for the next way to improve you.”

“Yes, I think you might be right,” Selina giggled.

“Well now.” Joshua cleared his throat. “I am also unmarried and while I am not looking for love, a little companionship would not go amiss. And a marriage could bring about all sorts of benefits in terms of business, should the right match occur. Do you understand what I am saying?”

Selina narrowed her eyes at him. “What exactly is the right match?”

“The Blackwell and the Norfolk estates complement each other very well. They do similar business but never cross over one another. I believe a union between the two families could bring great profit to us both. Don’t you think?”

Joshua sat back in his chair and remained quiet, allowing Selina time to think through his proposition. For that, she was grateful, but actually, she didn’t believe she needed much time to think. His proposal was perfect.

He was quite right in saying their union would be financially beneficial to them both, and he seemed willing enough to see this as a business dealing rather than as any sort of romance.

If they were to marry, Selina could continue to love Gabriel while giving Winston what he needed and satisfying her mother’s insistence that she took another husband. And Joshua seemed the type she could get along with well enough.

“All right,” she said, finally looking up at him. “I accept your offer.”

“Excellent!” Joshua clapped his hands together, and then rose from his seat. “What a profitable meeting this has been.”

“Indeed.” Selina smiled and stood, too, walking towards the door to show him out.

Before she opened it, she held her hand out to shake his. He looked down at it in surprise for the briefest moment, then grinned and shook it as he would with any of his other business associates.

“To the future, then,” he said, still holding her hand and gazing into her eyes.

“The future,” she agreed with a nod, but before she could pull away from him, he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it.

Her eyes widened and she gasped. Yet, despite herself, she felt a warm tingle in her stomach, her heart beginning to flutter. His lips were warm and soft, and the feel of her hand in his reminded her of the comfort of touching another person.

She pulled her hand quickly away, shaking away the thoughts. She put her hand on the doorknob, but before she opened it, she turned to him and spoke again.

“Remember, though. I am doing this for the Duchy and for my son. This is a business arrangement, nothing more.”

He raised a single eyebrow at her, his smile lopsided. “We’ll just have to wait and see about that.”

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