To Trust a Rogue (The Heart of a Duke Book 8)(10)

By: Christi Caldwell

Drawing in a steadying breath, she slipped her hand into Marcia’s and gripped those fingers hard, drawing strength from the only person left in her life who truly mattered.

“Mama?” the little girl’s whisper was nearly swallowed by the busy street sounds of passing carriage wheels rattling by.

Eleanor dropped to a knee beside her daughter and settled her hands upon the girl’s shoulders. “What is it, love?” she brushed an errant golden curl that tumbled low over Marcia’s eye.

“It is so very beautiful.” Awe coated the little girl’s words.

Raising her head, Eleanor looked up at the front of the townhouse seeing it now through a woman’s eyes. There had been a time when she’d been so very captivated by the mere impressive sight of the pink stucco finish townhouse; far grander than the modest cottage she’d lived in with her father. She’d brimmed with excitement.

“Ouch,” Marcia flinched. “You are squishing me again, Mama.”

She dropped a kiss atop Marcia’s brow, and shoved to her feet. “Sorry, poppet. Come along.” Stealing another peek at Aunt Dorothea’s home, Eleanor drew in a steadying breath. The wildly animated woman with her two beloved dogs that Eleanor remembered was kind. “Shall we go see your aunt?” But would that still be the case after Eleanor had stolen from her home, without a goodbye, and a subsequent hasty marriage in the country?

“Oh, yes.” With an excited giggle, Marcia slipped her small hand, warm, slight, and yet strongly reassuring, into Eleanor’s. Her daughter tugged Eleanor toward the handful of stairs leading up to their new home—a home where they’d be poor relations, taken in and saved by Aunt Dorothea. All it would require was Eleanor to set aside the horrors of her past, remain hidden from the present, and accept the uncertainty of her future. She raised her hand and rapped once. How very difficult could all those feats be?

Her skin pricked with the sensation of being studied and she stiffened, but remained with her gaze trained on the door. It had been eight years since she’d made her hasty flight from London. No one would recall anything of the eccentric Duchess of Devonshire’s niece who’d come to London, a girl of eighteen, and left but two months later.

Marcia shifted back and forth on her feet. “Why isn’t the door opening? Did Aunt Dorothea change her mind? Do we have the wrong townhouse?”

Choosing the safest question to respond to, Eleanor said, “No, we do not have the wrong townhouse.” She’d forever recall the extravagant home in the most respectable part of Mayfair. This was the very street where they’d met—

Emotion lodged in her throat and she rapped the door once more. Why wasn’t the servant opening the door? Why was she here, on display for bored lords and ladies passing, while she wondered after him? In the earlier days, when her world had crumpled beneath her, she’d read the scandal pages, by then weeks old when they’d made their way to the quiet removed countryside of her home. She knew the day he’d become viscount. Knew when he’d become a rogue, gossiped about for his scandalous escapades with unhappy widows.

It had been the day she’d balled the papers up, put them under her bed and accepted that they’d both changed. She drew in a slow, calming breath and raised her hand to knock once more—when the door was blessedly thrown open. Her shoulders sagged with the weight of her relief as a different butler from the older man she remembered stood there. He eyed her a moment, this young man of indeterminate years, with a bewigged head and powdered face. He stepped back and then allowed her entry. To the man’s credit, he gave no outward reaction to the coarse cloak worn by the duchess’ poor relation.

Eleanor shrugged out of the garment and it was passed off to a waiting footman, leaving her horribly exposed in her old, brown skirts.

“Ohhhhhhhh,” her daughter’s irreverent whisper carried through the high-ceilinged marble foyer.

Pinpricks of regret stuck her heart once again, as she was confronted with a world her daughter would never, nay, could never, belong to. There would be no lavish life or soaring ceilings. A young maid rushed over with a wide smile on her plump cheeks. “May I escort you to your rooms, Mrs. Collins?”

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