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Authors: Sharon Cullen

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BOOK: The Reluctant Duchess
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Chapter 27

“I want to help the homeless women and children,” Sara announced.

She and Ross and Elizabeth were eating breakfast. It was the day after Grace's dinner party. Sara had spent most of the night awake, alternately thinking of her new passion—helping the women and children—and reliving her other passion—Ross and the wildly inappropriate kisses they'd shared in Grace's music room. She should be embarrassed that most of the people at the dinner party were well aware that she and Ross had been missing together. She tried to be, but thoughts of their kiss interrupted her embarrassment.

It wasn't like she was planning on marrying. Not that she didn't have a reputation to uphold, but really, if she didn't marry, then couldn't she at least kiss a man once in her life?

Very well, kissing him at her friend's house in the middle of a dinner party was bad form. She would admit that.

Ross looked up from the newspaper he was reading. Elizabeth said absently, “That's nice, dear.” Ross folded his paper, placed it beside his plate, and gave her his full attention. “How do you plan to help them?”

She loved that about him. That he always took what she said so seriously. That he was always willing to put aside whatever he was doing to listen to her.

“I have no idea,” she said truthfully. “It was an idea that came to me a few days ago, and I haven't thought it through completely.”

By Ross's slight smile, she knew he understood that the idea had come to her after their second visit to the rookery.

“There are various charitable organizations already in place,” Ross said. “Maybe you can volunteer with one of them.”

“I could,” she said.

“But that's not what you had in mind,” he said.

“I'm certain those organizations do a tremendous amount of good, but you're correct. I have something else in mind.”

“Like what?”

“Like a school.” She hadn't meant to say that. It had popped into her mind and right out of her mouth. But now that she'd said it, she realized that she meant it, and she warmed to her idea.

“A school for what?”

“I'm unsure, but I am certain that if they had some sort of training that would give them a trade, then they would not have to live on the streets.”

Ross seemed to think about that. “I like it. It will take funds.” He said it hesitantly, but if there was one thing Sara had, it was funds.

“I can provide the funds.”

His eyes narrowed. Elizabeth had been flipping through the invitations they'd received that morning, not paying the conversation the least bit of attention.

“My dowry,” Sara said.

“Ah.” He didn't seem pleased with that statement. “Don't you think you should save your dowry for your future husband?”

“I have no intention of marrying.”

“Of course you do,” Elizabeth said, not even glancing up from the invitations.

Sara rolled her eyes at Ross's mother. Ross pressed his lips together, but his eyes danced in the smile that he would not show.

“It will take quite a lot of work,” Ross said.

“I have quite a lot of time.” That thought was somewhat depressing. Once she left London, she would have all the time in the world. Without Ross. She looked at him sadly, unable to school her face into concealing her emotions. Ross was watching her, his expression sad as well.

“Sara…” He glanced at his mother and cleared his throat. “If you need help, I am at your service.”

“I appreciate that,” she said softly. It could be a way for them to keep in contact. But did she want to be constantly in touch with the one man she could never have? How torturous would that be? And yet to break all ties would be even more torturous.

She stood, causing Ross to scoot back his chair and stand as well. “I think I will go to my room and begin to make plans,” she said. Her thoughts were too heavy. The thought of leaving Ross—which she would have to do soon, because honestly, how much longer could she stay in his home and not cause people to talk?—hurt her heart too much.


“You should marry the girl,” Ross's mother said as soon as Sara left the room and Ross sat down.

Ross almost dropped the teacup he had been sipping from. “Pardon me?”

Elizabeth pushed the letters to the side and looked at him. “You heard me.”

“I thought I was not good enough for her.”

“I never said that.”

“Excuse me, but you did.”

Elizabeth sighed. “Very well, maybe I thought that for a short time, but I was obviously wrong.”

Ross could only stare at this woman who looked like his mother and sounded like his mother but wasn't acting like his mother.

“Stop looking at me like that,” she snapped.

“I can't help it. I'm trying to determine what you did with my mother.”

“Very funny. You inherited that sharp humor from your father.” That was said with love, because Elizabeth Ferguson loved her husband with a passion that extended well past his death. She was a beautiful woman pursued by many a man after Matthew Ferguson's death, but she had never once looked in their direction.

“Why should I marry her?” Not that he didn't want to marry her; he wanted to hear what his mother had to say.

“Oh, come now, Gabriel. I've seen the way you look at each other. You're obviously smitten.”

So people did still use that word.

“And I saw…” Her face turned an almost alarming shade of red. “Well. What happened in the study.”

“Mother. Please.” Now his face felt as if it were on fire.

“And last night
was aware that the two of you were missing for quite some time. Bad form, son.”

“Yes, well…” His face refused to cool down.

“Lord Newport was beside himself. I think he has set his sights on our Sara.”

Our Sara. That was how he thought of her as well.

“So I am now good enough for her?”

Her eyes softened and she placed her hand over his. “Oh, Gabriel. You always were. I just failed to see it because I still thought of you as that man who gallivanted all over town with his rowdy group of friends, raising all kinds of hell.”

“Mother.” He'd never heard her use the word “hell” before. It was a day of revelations.

“I should have seen you've changed.”

“I haven't done any of that since Meredith died, and truth be told, I wasn't all that happy with myself when I did. I felt like I was letting my father down.”

Tears filled her eyes and she blinked them away. “He would be very proud of you today.” She pulled her hand away and busied herself by making certain her invitations were stacked neatly. “So will you ask her to marry you?”

“I've been thinking about it.”

Her smile was wide. “What's holding you back?”

“Sara. She doesn't think she should leave her father.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “That odious man.”

Ross bit back a laugh.

“He is so selfish, keeping her in Hadley Falls like that.”


Her brows furrowed. “Pardon?”

“It's Hadley Springs.”

“It's the middle of nowhere, and Sara does not need to wither away and die there.”

“It's good enough for Lord and Lady Blackbourne.” Why in the hell was he playing devil's advocate when he wholly agreed with her?

“But they have each other. Sara has no one but a crusty old man who doesn't recognize anything but the stars in the sky.”

Well put.

She pushed her chair back and rose, waving him to his seat when he rose as well. “You simply must convince her that she is the next Duchess of Rossmoyne.”

“I'll try,” he said to an empty room. But he wasn't certain he would succeed.

Chapter 28

Ross found Sara all alone in the drawing room—which was a miracle in itself. Since Sara had arrived, the drawing room had been filled almost constantly with people calling, and when that happened he tried to avoid the room.

She was sitting at a small writing desk, a pile of papers next to her, a pen in hand. She was deep in thought, her lower lip caught between her teeth, her eyes focused on something in the distance.

“What are you so deep in thought about?” he asked as he closed the door behind him. At this point he wasn't worried about propriety; he was just damned frustrated that in the two days since his talk with his mother, he'd not had a moment alone with Sara. There were things he wanted to discuss with her, and dammit, he was tired of waiting to get her alone.

“Ross!” She looked up at him with the widest smile. It warmed his heart more than he was able to put into words. She put down her pen and folded her hands on the table.

“I've missed you,” he said softly, stopping in front of her.

Something in her eyes flickered. Something he wasn't able to read clearly. He felt like an untried youth with his first love—nervous and anxious and afraid he would do or say something wrong. He was far from an untried youth, and Sara was not the first woman he'd been alone with, but she was the only woman who mattered.

“What are you writing?” he asked, glancing down at the papers. It looked like lists. Lists and lists and more lists.

“I'm jotting down ideas for the school I want to open.”

“Ah. The school.”

Her eyes darkened in disappointment. “You don't think this is a good idea,” she said flatly.

He touched her chin with the pad of his thumb. “Did I say that?”

“No, but—”

“I think it's a marvelous idea. Very ambitious.” He pulled his hand away because it only made him want to touch her more.

“Yes. I'm beginning to realize that.” She glanced down at her papers. “But I'm convinced that I was meant to do this, and I have nothing but time on my hands.” She pressed her lips together. “There's no news on the letter writer?”

“I'm afraid not. Our friend hasn't returned to Mrs. Kettles, and no more letters have been sent.”

“Very strange. It's as if he's fallen off the earth. Or maybe moved on?” She sounded too hopeful.

“I doubt that. He went to a lot of effort to write all those letters and to follow you to London.” He didn't want to frighten her, but he also didn't want her thinking that all was well enough to let her guard down. He had a feeling that was exactly what this person was waiting for, and that was when they needed to be most diligent.

Her shoulders drooped and she rubbed her brows. “I just want this over with. I'm tired of being a prisoner, and I'm sure you and your mother would like your privacy back.”

“Don't even think that.”

She looked up at him in surprise, and he realized he'd spoken too harshly, but the thought of Sara not being here when he came home left his heart heavy.

“Forgive me,” she said hesitantly. “I didn't mean to anger you.”

“Ah, Sara.” He ran a hand through his hair. “You don't anger me. I just don't want you to leave.”

“I have to at some point, Ross. I can't live here forever.”

A long silence passed while he contemplated what to say. He wanted to do this right, but he didn't know what right was. When he'd proposed to Meredith, he'd worked it all out with her father first, but he didn't want to do that with Sara. He wanted it to be their decision, and yet he hesitated because he didn't know her feelings toward him. Oh, he knew she liked him well enough and that when they kissed she was overcome with passion for him, but was that enough to last a lifetime?

“Why not?” he finally said, settling on the bold truth, which he knew she would appreciate.

Her eyes widened. “Why not what?”

“Why can't you live here forever?”

“Because it's not done. People will talk and gossip.”

“Not if we make it legal.”

Her lips parted and she stared at him for the longest time. “I don't…What do you mean?”

Suddenly, the Duke of Rossmoyne lost all of his confidence. He'd never felt so unsure of anything in his life. He was certain of his feelings for her and what he wanted with her. His insecurities lay with Sara. He wasn't sure what he would do if he laid it all on the line and she rejected him.

He swept his hand toward her papers. “This project of yours would be much easier if you had the power of the dukedom behind you.”

Her eyes flickered to the papers, then back to him. “You already said you would help me, and I appreciate any help you can give me.”

“But if you were to become the Duchess of Rossmoyne, many more doors would be open to you.” He held his breath as he watched so many emotions cross her face. He fastened his hope upon the joy that came first and tried to ignore the panic that chased it away.


Sara jerked her gaze to the woman who swept through the drawing room doors. She stood suddenly, her chair nearly tipping over. “Mother?”

Ross groaned and closed his eyes. Why now? Why would her mother arrive
when his very life hung in the balance?

Sara looked at him in alarm as her mother hurried across the room to envelop Sara in a hug. “Oh, Sara, I have missed you so.”

Sara looked at him over her mother's shoulder and shook her head slightly. He wasn't certain what she was trying to tell him, but he nodded anyway.

She extricated herself from her mother's grasp and stepped back. “Mother, what are you doing here?”

“I heard you were in town, and I knew I had to come see you. Oh…” Lady Carolina Grandview finally noticed Ross standing there. She executed a quick curtsy. “Good afternoon, Your Grace.”

“Lady Grandview. It is good to see you again.” He didn't miss her hesitation, nor the grief that flashed across her face. Once again his guilt dug its ugly claws into him. Would he ever be finished with this? Will he ever feel as if he had not let this family down?

“Mother.” Sara took her mother's hand. “I'm surprised that you're here. You rarely come to London.”

“Don't be silly, I come to London occasionally.”

“You do? I didn't know,” Sara murmured, and Ross could tell she was not pleased to learn this.

“Because you are always in the country. If you came to town more, you would know,” Lady Grandview said in censure.

Sara pressed her lips together. “Someone has to stay with Father.”

Ross had to smile when Lady Grandview's expression mirrored what Meredith's might have been. Lady Grandview resembled her daughter to an almost alarming degree. She was an older, watered-down version, but there was definitely Meredith in her.

“Your father is more than capable of taking care of himself,” Lady Grandview said.

Sara quickly looked at Ross, and he knew that if he had not been standing there, she would have said more. He wanted to tell her not to mind him and to carry on, but he refrained, even though he desperately wanted to know what she would have said.

“Nevertheless,” Sara said instead. “It's good to see you again. It's been far too long.”

“You are more than welcome to stay with me in Bath,” Lady Grandview said as she settled into a chair and fluffed out her skirts. There was disapproval in her tone, and Ross wondered where the breach in their relationship lay. Sara had made it seem like her mother had abandoned her family, but apparently, Sara was not blameless.

Sara's jaw worked and her eyes flashed, but her mother wasn't paying attention and didn't see the telltale warning.

“So,” Lady Grandview said after her skirts were to her liking, “what are you doing in London, and why are you staying with the duke and his mother?”

Sara swallowed as she sank into a chair and folded her hands into her lap. Ross made his way to the fireplace and leaned against it, interested in hearing her answer. He would take his cue from her.

“Just visiting,” she said weakly and not at all convincingly, flickering a glance at Ross in a clear plea for help.

“When I heard she was in town, I invited her to stay here,” he said. “No use opening up your townhouse for the little time she said she would be here. Besides, we were practically family at one time, and I still consider you and Lord Grandview family.” He would like to consider them family for other reasons but wisely kept his mouth shut on that.

Lady Grandview looked at him steadily, as if not quite ready to believe him. “That's very kind of you,” she said. “But now that I am in town and have opened the house, Sara will stay with me.” She leveled him a challenging look.

While he wanted to argue with her, he merely tipped his head in quiet acceptance, though he was far from accepting. He looked at Sara in warning. There was no way he was letting her leave his protection, but he would not reveal the real purpose of why she was residing here. By the desperate looks she was tossing him, he gathered she didn't want her mother to know about the letters.

He narrowed his eyes at Sara.
Tell her.

Sara quickly shook her head and turned to her mother with a smile.

Angry and fearful because he knew her mother would win in this and take Sara away from him, Ross pushed away from the wall. “I will inform my mother that you are here, Lady Grandview. And I will have someone bring some refreshments.”

Sara's nervous gaze followed him as he left the drawing room. It took him a few moments to calm himself before he went in search of his mother.

BOOK: The Reluctant Duchess
7.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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