How to Capture a Duke(5)

By: Bianca Blythe

“Well I am sure that now all the soldiers are being returned home, you will have no more need for discretion.” Madeline smoothed the folds of her dress. A ruby ring sparkled from her finger against the green fabric. “One week. Grandmother will desire the meeting as well. You wouldn’t want her to suspect you invented the man!”

Madeline laughed, and Grandmother joined her after a trace of hesitation that Fiona despised.

Fiona wanted Grandmother to believe what happened three years before hadn’t mattered. She couldn’t stand the thought of Grandmother continuing to worry about her, all the while being visited by doctors with increasing frequency and expense. “He’ll be there!”

“Wonderful.” Her cousin rose.

“I only hope he’ll be able to make his journey over to Yorkshire safely. Perhaps he’ll be delayed—”

“The man’s survived the worst war mankind has ever seen,” Madeline said. “He’ll be fine.”

“I’m so happy for you.” Grandmother’s eyes took on a blissful, dreamy expression, one Fiona knew well, but which she had seen too little of ever since the doctors’ sober news. It was that expression that kept Fiona from admitting that she’d lied last year in a foolish attempt to keep Grandmother from worrying about her future.

Fiona rubbed a hand against her hair, and another curl dropped from her chignon.

“Unless there’s a problem.” Madeline smirked. “Sometimes when men don’t see their betrothed for long periods of time, they find they do not anticipate the meeting with the requisite eagerness. Perhaps—”

Fiona’s lips settled into a firm line. “The captain is devoted and true. He is kind and brave and dashing. He is everything a man should be.”

Madeline offered her a wobbly smile. “Marvelous.”

Fiona raised her chin and struggled to maintain a composed face. She had no desire to suffer humiliation from the ton, but there was no way in which she would allow the truth of her behavior to reach her grandmother. Even if concocting a fiancé might not be specifically warned against in etiquette books, the consequences of being found out would be no doubt distressing.

“Then I will leave.” Madeline’s emerald green skirts swept against the furniture, and she exited the room with as much determination as she had entered it. She paused to glance at the ceiling.

Fiona followed her cousin’s gaze. Shapely goddesses with white wigs and scant attire stared at her. No doubt they would think Fiona repugnant as they perched from their fluffy ivory clouds, their pale, unfreckled skin raised toward the sun. None of them would invent fiancés.

“Really, you should have this restored. There are many treasures here. Aunt Lavinia says when—” Her cousin halted and her cheeks pinkened. “Never mind. I am happy for you.”

“Thank you,” Fiona squeaked.

Anyway. It would be easy.

All she had to do was find a fiancé.

In four days. In the middle of nowhere.

When no man had ever expressed an interest in her before.

How hard would it be to find a man by Monday? She didn’t need to marry the fellow. In fact, he needn’t even attend the ball. He just needed to prove his existence, a feat that would suffice in impressing the others. If she only succeeded in introducing somebody to Grandmother, all would be fine.

Or mostly fine.

Chapter Two

Madeline’s coach lurched forward and jostled over the cobblestones. Her cousin might be flinging herself into a glamorous new life, a continuation of her glamorous former life, but Fiona had more serious things to concern herself with.

She sped through the vacant corridors of Cloudbridge Castle. No flowers were in season to fill the elaborate Chinese vases, and the empty porcelain and jade sat alone on carved sideboards. Fiona pushed open the door to her room.

Painted portraits of her ancestors peered at her from gilded frames hung over long faded wallpaper. Sturdy medieval chests squatted beside slender-legged French chairs, a haphazard assortment of furniture unified only in that the pieces were unclaimed from more important relatives.

Uncle Seymour had taken the longcase clock that had once merrily ticked across from her bed, citing a sentimental connection to her grandfather that Fiona could not share, since she had never known him, and a need to determine the time that Fiona could not grasp, since nothing she did was of any importance anyway.

Fiona strode past her bed, draped with a stiff canopy, toward the view. A stack of Loretta Van Lochen books, a recent indulgence, sat on a table beside her bed. She wished she might lose herself in a story filled with handsome highwaymen and seductive spies now.

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