To Trust a Rogue (The Heart of a Duke Book 8)(9)

By: Christi Caldwell

He’d been her dream. He’d been the joy and the excitement. And in one shattered evening, nothing more of him remained…but the memory. Unease churned in her belly. By the very nature of his family’s connection to her aunt and his residence alone, the risk of meeting was great. As such, the reality of that brought thoughts of him back with a shocking frequency…and when the first missive had come from her aunt, Eleanor had allowed herself an infinitesimal moment of hope—the hope of seeing him.

Her gaze trained unseeingly upon the carriage bench opposite her, she let open the gates she’d constructed to keep him out. Since their parting, she’d become a woman who confronted life with frankness. So it was the honesty she insisted upon that she acknowledged the truth—she missed him. And she always would. Nor was it just the memory of innocence she’d known in their time together. She missed what could have been. His smile. His laugh. Who they’d been when in each other’s company.

Marcia tugged at her fingers and she glanced down distractedly. “What is it, dear?”

“Are you thinking of Grandfather?” Wide brown eyes stared back at Eleanor.

Sadness stuck her hard for altogether different reasons. “I always think of Grandfather,” she murmured noncommittally, and it was true. Gone just six months now, there was no better father, nor could there ever have been a better man than he was while living.

“Someday you’ll meet again,” Marcia said with entirely too much maturity for a child of seven. “He promised we would and he would never, ever lie, Mama. So don’t be sad.” She laid her head against Eleanor’s arm. “And remember what he said. ‘Goodbyes are not forever.’”

They are just temporary partings.

Marcus’ visage flashed behind her eyes. Once more. Perhaps it was her return to London, a land they’d lived in together, back when she’d been innocent and smiling and he’d needed laughter, but she could not extricate the thoughts of him from her now. Nor had that goodbye been temporary. The day she’d boarded her aunt’s carriage and made her return to Kent, unchaperoned, alone, and broken, she’d known with an absolute certainty, for all her father’s beliefs on goodbyes, the final one between her and Marcus had, indeed, been a forever goodbye.

And she wagered for the love she carried of him still in her heart, he would feel no such fondness for the woman who’d broken his heart.

“We’re here.”

“Hmm?” She blinked and then glanced about before her daughter’s words truly registered. Her heart dipped somewhere to her toes and she plastered a smile onto her face, fearing the forced grin would shatter and reveal her a charlatan once more.

Married war widow. Grand lie.

Smiling, oft-happy mother. Sometimes a lie.

Thrilled to return to London. Absolute lie.

Seeming unaware of the tumult raging through Eleanor, Marcia bounced up and down on her seat, clapping her hands together excitedly. “Oh, Mama, it is to be the grandest of adventures.”

Regret pulled at her heart. For Marcia, it should be a magical experience. Yet, the sad truth was mother and daughter’s presence here was no mere familial visit. Though Eleanor had exchanged nothing more than letters with Aunt Dorothea over the years, the woman had proven herself the same benevolent relative who’d taken Eleanor in for a London Season. Now, however, Eleanor would come to her as a poor relation, in desperate need of salvation.

The carriage door opened and one of the woman’s liveried servants held a hand inside. He helped Marcia down; all the while a budding panic filled Eleanor, tightening her throat, and threatened to choke her. She could not stay here. Even with Father’s passing and her aging aunt’s need of her, this place was not for Eleanor. The secret scandal left in Eleanor’s wake had confirmed with the absoluteness of death itself that there could never be anything for her here in London.

“Mrs. Collins?”

She started and stared blankly at the white-gloved fingertips. For anything and everything that could or would ever be said about her, no one could dare utter the word coward of her. Eleanor slipped her hand into the footman’s and allowed him to hand her down. The spring breeze pulled at her modest brown cloak and she tilted her head back staring at the front, pink stucco façade of a home she’d never thought to see again—a home she’d never wanted to see again.