I miss him. I dream of him. Every day and every night.
-From the diary of Lady Augustine Jane Ascott
May 25, 1802
The Wentworth garden
Lady Augustine Jane Ascott quietly seated herself on a stone bench hidden beneath a large oak in the beautifully tended and flowered garden, away from the fuss of the afternoon picnic festivities and the eyes of countless men and women she didn’t care to know.
Smoothing her azure and ivory gown against her thighs, she dug into her reticule slung around her gloved wrist and slid out all that remained of her brother, Lord Nathaniel James Atwood. It was a painted miniature of him with a small brass plate bearing his name that had been commissioned barely a few months before his disappearance. She had confiscated it from a servant after her father had ordered everything of Nathaniel’s, right down to his small boots, to be stripped from the house in an effort for the family to move on. But in the end, it had only created a greater divide. Her parents no longer talked. And neither did she. She should have never left Nathaniel alone that night.
Augustine stared at that mischievous pale face framed by waving coal-black hair. He had probably grown at least a few inches in the past two years. In three more years, he’d be fifteen and shaving. If he was alive, that is.
She pressed her lips together and fought the tears stinging her eyes. In all but six days, she would be secretly pawning off the last of her jewelry and returning to New York City from whence her brother disappeared to find him. Though she was about to abandon her mother and all that was left of her good name, her life was meaningless without Nathaniel. There was no sense pretending otherwise.
Tracing a finger across those bright, glass-blue eyes she missed so much, she smiled brokenly.
“Might I join you, Lady Ascott?” a low male voice casually inquired, rounding the bench.
Augustine jumped, almost dropping the gilded portrait onto her lap, and shoved the small frame deep into her reticule. She yanked and tugged the cord back into place to ensure it didn’t fall out and glanced up, blinking rapidly. Bringing her gloved hands together, she primly tried to erase all emotion and focus on whoever had appeared before her. “Pardon?”
A tall, dark-haired gentleman with handsome brown eyes that softened upon meeting her gaze stepped toward her and lingered. “I saw you sitting alone, away from everyone and out of sight. Are the festivities not to your liking?”
Augustine’s eyes widened, realizing it was none other than the host himself, the ever dashing duke of Wentworth. Her breath hitched. If there was any man capable of capturing what little remained of her dreams, this man personified it and more.
His muscled frame towered inquiringly before her, that solid stance strong but not fierce or domineering.
He really was too debonair to be real.
Dressed in a fine morning coat and cravat, with simple tan trousers and black riding boots, and bearing no tonic in his hair or any rings on his fingers, he appeared refreshingly casual compared to the rest of the pompous male crowd with their canes and their jewels and prim, white knee stockings and slippers. It was so odd that this man should keep his appearance so simple. After all, he was the duke of Wentworth. A man who had single-handedly inherited an entire dukedom worth an astounding seventy-five thousand a year. All at the age of seven.
According to gossip, he had been raised by overly protective aunts until he’d come of age and had emerged not only duke, but the greatest and most honorable of titled gents in London. Something she herself had yet to meet.
Though he had been married in his younger years to his childhood sweetheart, his wife had died due to illness, never once bearing him a child during their six years of marriage. Rumor had it she was barren. Rumor also had it he was so deeply in love with her that after her death, he had abandoned socializing with women altogether. Which was as sad a story as any, even though it was also achingly sweet and romantic. Something she never thought a man capable of being given the behavior of her own father.
Of course…rumors were just that. Rumors. They couldn’t always be trusted. And neither could men.
“Lady Ascott?” he prodded.
Her stomach dropped, noting the way he stared in unnamed concern. “The festivities are lovely, thank you,” she managed.
The duke set a gloved hand against his waistcoat and inclined his head. “I am pleased to hear it.” He lowered his hand and smiled. “Might I join you for a small while? I have been meaning to talk to you.”
She set her chin, not wanting to encourage conversation. In her opinion, she had already allowed for too much interaction with him throughout the Season given that they had danced together at every single event and he always spoke with her mother for at least an hour in tote at such events. She often wondered if the man felt sorry for her. Everyone did given her family’s tragedy. But it wasn’t she or her family that needed pity but Nathaniel himself who had been lost to an unspeakable fate.
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