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The Forgotten Duke
Book 5 in the
Diamonds In The Rough Regency Series
Her life was as it should be, as it had been designed to be, and she had no illusions about the duty that would one day be required of her. As a female, she would have to make the best possible match. Love would not factor into this eventuality since her marriage would without doubt be one of convenience.
Her parents had spent the last eighteen years preparing her for this. And yet her father, Charles Berkly, Earl of Hedgewick, still managed to surprise her when he interrupted tea one afternoon to inform her that she and the Marquess of Stokes were to be married.
The very next day.
By special license.
Apprehensive and slightly dazed, Regina told herself that all would be well. Her father had made a magnificent match – one that would elevate not only her but her entire family. She trusted him to have her best interests at heart, so she did not think to protest the hasty union or to remind her father that she and Stokes had never met. Instead, she breathed a sigh of relief when he described the marquess as a handsome youth with a fondness for poetry and music. She imagined herself enjoying his company, of entertaining him in the evenings with music and song, and of giving him children as duty required. She convinced herself that in time, love would blossom between them and that they would be happy together.
But when Stokes arrived that same evening for an introductory dinner, and was shown into the parlor by Plath, the butler, Regina realized that everything she’d imagined was but an illusion. Instead, she was expected to walk into hell and live there.
The resolve required to maintain her composure as Stokes approached her, to drop into an elegant curtsey and not run screaming from the room, was extraordinarily difficult. Like sitting still while a swarm of bees tried to sting you. But she now understood why she’d never met the marquess before and why she had to marry him faster than she could blink. Most likely, her father hoped to complete the task before she realized she was marrying a child.
Even though it was rather difficult not to notice such a thing, considering Stokes’s appearance. He had the typical rounded features of a young adolescent with a lanky body to match. Regina supposed he could be fifteen, if she were lucky, but rather feared he might be much younger than that. His face was regrettably covered in pimples of varying sizes, though this was the least problematic aspect since he would likely be rid of those within a few years. Of greater concern was his difficult gait, which suited an aging old man much better. And when he extended his hand to Regina, the stiff rigidity forcing his fingers to curl at odd angles was more than she could bear.
With a gasp, she looked up, only to be met by pain in his eyes. The heartbeats thumping fast inside her slowed, easing a path toward sympathetic understanding. He did not want this marriage any more than she did.
So Regina smiled. Not because she was pleased on either of their behalves, but because it was what Stokes deserved. However difficult this situation was for her, surely it must be worse for him, not only because he was so much younger but because he probably thought she would spurn him.
“It is a pleasure to finally meet you, my lord,” she said as she placed her hand in his.
Behind him, his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Windham, looked on with a mixture of hopefulness and concern.
“The pleasure is entirely mine,” Stokes told her politely. He gave her hand a gentle pull and she let him create the appearance of helping her rise. “Perhaps the two of us can take a turn about the room together before we’re called in for dinner?”
“I’d like that,” Regina said. She deliberately avoided looking over at her brother Marcus, whose glower she could feel as acutely as the heat emanating from the fireplace. He would undoubtedly have some choice words with their parents later, but for now, Regina believed the best policy would be to make the most of an already difficult situation.
So she placed her hand lightly on the arm Stokes offered and forced her steps to match his as they moved toward the far end of the room.
They reached the bay window looking out on the dusky garden and drew to a halt. Giving her a sideways glance, Stokes spoke in a low whisper. “I am sorry about all of this. When my parents told me of their intention to see me wed, I did my best to dissuade them. But Papa is determined to secure the lineage of his title and with the undeniable progression of my illness, he sees Hedgewick’s offer as the only hope of doing so.”
His comment caused numerous issues to poke and prod at Regina’s mind, like how her father had apparently started all of this by approaching Windham. And the idea that she would have to lie with him tomorrow after the wedding.
Forcing all her aversions to this aside, she chose to get to know this boy whose life must be unbearably difficult, and asked, “Do the physicians know what it is that ails you?”
He inhaled deeply, as if this subject required additional strength. “They say it is primary asthenic gout.” He looked at her directly. “Incurable, by all accounts.”
“I am sorry.” It was all she could think to say even though she knew it was not enough.
“Apparently, it is rare in children, which makes me special according to some physicians.” He gave a low snort. “I must say I’ve never felt so myself.”
Regina winced. The physicians were idiots if they believed that Stokes would find comfort in such a notion. “How long have you suffered like this?”
“The symptoms began five years ago and have been progressing since.”
Hoping he wouldn’t detect the pity she felt for him, she casually asked, “And how old are you now, if you do not mind my asking.”
“Fourteen.” The edge of his mouth lifted and for a second she caught a glimpse of the fun-loving boy he might have been if he’d been granted good health. “It is the age of consent for a boy, provided his parents approve.”
Regina nodded. The duke and duchess were hoping to marry him off as expediently as possible before he got worse and lost his chance completely.
Determined to put a positive spin on the situation, Regina said, “You’re probably the most eligible bachelor I’ve ever met. A pity you’re going to be squandered on an old woman like me.”
He grinned with what appeared to be genuine amusement. “I doubt there’s a woman in all of England as beautiful as you.”
She nudged him slightly while giving him a sly smile. “Top points for charm and for not inquiring about my age.”
Affecting a debonair look, he said, “No proper gentleman would ever think to do so.”
“I am eighteen,” Regina confessed with a chuckle.
“And entirely wasted on me.”
Regret flickered in his eyes and Regina’s heart squeezed painfully in response. “Don’t say that. You and I—”
“Have no hope of happiness.” His blunt statement, as obviously simple as it was, jarred Regina’s soul.
“Don’t say that,” she whispered.
“Why not?” He gave her a quizzical look. “It is the truth, when you think of it.” When she said nothing in response to this, he added, “My illness will not kill me for at least a couple of decades.”
With a gulp, she met his gaze head on. “I should hope not.”
“You say that now, but as I deteriorate with time, you will regret being my wife, just as much as I will regret ruining your life.”
Regina stared at him and as she did so, it occurred to her that she had to find a way to save them both. Perhaps they could have the marriage annulled immediately after? It was an option, though not a very good one when she considered the vicar who would be conducting the ceremony. He ought not be able to do so unless she and Stokes gave their consent. And yet, it was becoming increasingly clear that they would be pronounced husband and wife no matter what they said or did. Their parents were powerful people. What chance did she and a child stand against their determined wills?
Fear started to drip through Regina like freezing rain. “I’ll find a way out of this,” she assured him.
He raised an eyebrow. “How?”
“I don’t know.” Short of running away…
Her nerves tightened in response to that thought. It went against the obligation instilled in her since childhood. It felt wrong and disobedient and…wonderfully freeing, all things considered.
Swallowing, she glanced sideways. Assembled on the sofa and in the armchairs were their family members, all watching with syrupy smiles painted on their faces.
Except for Marcus, who looked rather grim. His eyebrows were drawn together, one partially obscured by a dark blonde lock of hair. Jaw tight, he appeared to be holding a great deal of anger in check. If she were to flee, she would miss him the most, which was something she contemplated a great deal as the evening wore on.
When the time eventually came for Stokes and his parents to depart, he stepped close enough to Regina so he could whisper next to her ear, “Time is running out.” He leaned back and gave her the sort of sad smile that quickened her pulse with the knowledge that only she had the power to act.